Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: October 2010 (page 2 of 9)

Is Circumvention Really So Important?

Yesterday, the Berkman Center released a paper that attempts to estimate circumvention tool usage globally.  As one of the lead authors, Ethan Zuckerman, explained on his blog yesterday:

We were specifically interested in trying to compare usage of different types of tools – sophisticated blocking-resistant tools like Tor and Ultrasurf, ad-supported web proxies like Proxeasy or HideMyAss, and VPN-based systems like Hotspot Shield and Relakks. Unlike in our previous study of some of these tools, we weren’t trying to compare the functionality of these very different tools, or evaluate their performance – we just wanted to answer the question, “How many people use this tool?”

More broadly, and like Ethan, I’m interested in this question: “How many people are using circumvention technology at all?”  The answer we came up with, which you can certainly argue with, is about 3% of all Internet users.

Three percent of all Internet users.  Not very many.  What we don’t have the answer to is “why?” – Why so few users?  Is it that the vast majority are unaware of circumvention tools, or is it that they simply don’t matter that much to the majority of users?  We hear so much about Internet filtering, but could it be that the vast majority of users can find what they need without circumventing it?

As Ethan points out, that may be the case.  There are definitely people who require unfettered access (something that the Cuban government recognizes, incidentally), such as academics and activists, but how important is it for the average person to get to Facebook?

I’ve got another hypothesis that I’m hoping our upcoming survey of attitudes and perceptions toward Internet filtering and circumvention tech will help confirm: Most circumvention tools simply don’t work the way users wish they would.  I remember being in Morocco in 2005, at the beginning of my blogging career.  I was still using LiveJournal, and was surprised at my first login attempt to learn that it was blocked in the country (it still is).  So I googled “proxy” and picked the first one off the list.  I could get to LiveJournal.com just fine, but any attempts to login simply failed.  Most free proxies, at the time anyway, aren’t set up to keep users logged in to dynamic sites.

There are a host of other options of course, but short of paying for a VPN (something out of reach financially for many of the world’s netizens), they all have their flaws.  Tor’s too slow, some tools block videos because they take up too much bandwidth, still others block certain categories of site.

Of course, this doesn’t account for the vast majority of non-usage, but it’s yet another thing to think about.

I’m excited about this research – with all of the frenzy over filtering and circumvention, it’s all too easy to forget the human side of things.  And this is very much a human issue.  We’re talking not about tools and sites but about people and what they want or need to access online.

A Few Positive Baby Steps for Facebook

Since releasing my paper, Policing Content in the Quasi-Public Sphere, a few weeks ago, I’ve begun noticing small changes to the Facebook platform.  No, I’m not talking about the new Groups (which I’ve duly ignored).  I’m talking about small but pointed changes pertaining directly to items I’ve complained about in the past.  I wish I could take credit, but no matter – if these changes lead to a better Facebook for all of its users (and not just the white Americans Zuck seems to wish were its demographic), I’ll be thrilled.  After all, Facebook is here to stay.

So what are the changes?  First is to the Terms of Service.  In my paper, I noted that, “though Facebook is available in over one hundred languages, the TOS are available only in English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.”  At Google’s Internet Liberty at 2010 in Budapest, I spoke to Lord Richard Allan, who acknowledged my complaint but explained that the help and privacy centers were both available in 20+ languages, and that, while the legal implications of translating the TOS made translation complex, they were working on it.

Late last week, I noticed some progress.  First off, they’ve added this bit at the bottom of the page:

New language on Facebook's TOS (click to enlarge)

They’ve added Japanese and Turkish to the list of translated languages – a great start, if you ask me.  Also, the new framework certainly makes it easier to add more languages quickly.

Next thing I noticed was the “report” mechanisms.  Now, I still find it problematic that Facebook employs an automated system of some kind post-reporting (the details of which I’m unaware, but which undoubtedly relies upon keywords).  Nevertheless, this detailed system of reporting allows for fewer false reports.  Here are a couple of screenshots of the reporting mechanism that shows up when reporting a group or page for a TOS violation:

Facebook's mechanism for reporting hate speech

Facebook's mechanism for reporting violent content

I’m particularly pleased to see that they’ve added a specific mechanism for self-harm.  They’ve also made some changes to their mechanisms for reporting complaints of individuals or individual profiles.  This new reporting mechanism for individual profiles adds a few levels of detail:

Facebook's mechanism for reporting inappropriate profile info

Facebook's mechanism for reporting an inappropriate profile photo

The level of detail is helpful, certainly, particularly, I would imagine, for Facebook’s content regulators, who undoubtedly see thousands of complaints each day.  I have no idea how Facebook’s internal systems work on such things, but I would imagine that this makes it easier to sort complaints to specific staff members, or to automate complaints of nudity using flesh detection imaging software.  Here’s the final screenshot:

I see this last bit as a small improvement as well, with a caveat (read on).  I take strong issue with Facebook’s “real name” policy, for a number of reasons that I’ll elaborate on in another post.  Nevertheless, policy is policy, and enforcing that policy can be a bit…let’s say, uneven.  I’ve seen people with real names like ‘Najat Kessler’ asked for their identification to prove their profile is theirs, while hundreds of profiles for ‘Santa Claus’ remain online.  And frustratingly, the Najat Kesslers of the world are undoubtedly reported by other users who seek a way to push them off Facebook (yes, people target people in this manner; I’ve seen campaigns on Twitter for it).

What this new mechanism offers is three distinct complaint choices.  The first is a no-brainer; though Facebook allows for parody profiles (unless they’re of Moroccan royalty, that is), impersonating a celebrity is another story.  The third is interesting in the way it’s worded: “this profile does not represent a real person.”  Thus, a profile for ‘Santa Claus’ is undoubtedly in violation, but is a profile for ‘Amanda Q.’ when Amanda Q is a real person?  It would seem that using a partial version of one’s real name is not actually in violation of the Terms.  The Terms are clear that users must use their real names, but this reporting mechanism does not necessarily allow for reporting use of a pseudonym by a human being.  I digress.

In any case, kudos for Facebook for baby steps in the right direction.  I’m looking forward to many more.

On Good Customer Service

It’s rare that I blog about a product.  I occasionally tweet (such as the time Zappos refunded me $6 after I pointed out Shoes.com was selling a pair of shoes I’d just bought for $6 less, or the time JetBlue called me after I tweeted about how long I’d been on hold), but I’m almost never moved to actually blog.

And yet, one of the things I love most is travel.  And as a person of limited time, I take travel timesavers rather seriously.  Enter Kayak Buzz.  Introduced to me by my friend Rebekah Heacock, who used it to pluck Guatemala off the grid as her destination of choice last year, the site was singlehandedly responsible for my decision to take a trip to California this winter.  It’s great: you simply enter your generic choice of destination, hit go, and are quickly presented with a number of options, ranked from least to most expensive, in your region of preference.  It’s the ideal tool for picking a destination out of a hat, on a budget, something I am wont to do.

Enter frustration: I’m playing around with Kayak Buzz a couple of weeks ago and notice there’s no “Middle East” option.  “Oh well,” I figure, “they must include the region with Asia.  Fair enough.”  So I search Asia…and am presented with 25 or so options, all east of Riyadh.  “Hmm,” I think, “that’s not cool.”  Knowing that a trip to Beirut is significantly cheaper than one to Seoul, I decide to complain.  I first submit a complaint through Kayak’s contact form, and receive a brief but polite response.  I then Tweet @kayaksupport – at first, no answer, but then I get a response telling me that “We show the cheapest flights found by other people on kayak.com on buzz, so it includes whatever data falls into that category”.  Well, that doesn’t make much sense, does it?  In order for a destination to ever show up in Buzz, it must have been available in the first place.  I press on, telling them there must be something wrong with their algorithm, and if they can’t provide a satisfactory response, I’ll just start using Bing’s travel functions instead.

Enter Kayak CTO and co-founder Paul English: Now this is a surprise.  I can’t think of the last time I was contacted by a CEO type (okay, I can, but it wasn’t pleasant).  Paul (if I may call him that ) e-mails to ask how he can help.  I explain, in minute detail, exactly what the issue is.  Within two days, I get a response: I’ve found a bug!  Less than a week later, he pings me to let me know it’s fixed, and sure enough, a Boston to “Asia” search on Buzz brings back Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Tel Aviv!  (Frankly, I’m still a little peeved about Beirut, but my guess is the tickets simply aren’t as cheap as they used to be).

Pretty awesome stuff.  Let that be a lesson to you CEO types…the more you listen to your customers, the more link love you’ll get!

*Disclaimer: I think it goes without saying that I’m not getting anything monetary out of blogging this.  Kayak Buzz is a free service, and all I received from this interaction was the ability to use Kayak Buzz for my intended destination, which in turn makes me very happy.

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