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Chris Wenham- by Chris Wenham
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Chris Wenham is the Editor-In-Chief of OS/2 e-Zine! -- a promotion from Senior Editor which means he now takes all the blame.

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Thou Shalt Not Pull The Wool Over Mine Eyes

Summary: Technology changes ethics, and soon it's going to have an enormous impact on ethics in journalism and the media. Chris explains how.

In my December 1st editorial it became rather clear that I wasn't being exactly truthful about the last 10 years of PC history. That I hoped would be more than obvious once the piece was read the whole way through. To my satisfaction, the feedback I received over the column showed that only about two people didn't realize this, and actually thought I was being serious. Possibly what let everyone figure it out, if the clues I dropped were too subtle, was the fact that there was a reader feedback forum attached to the bottom of the article. Anything that anyone wanted to say could and was posted there, with subsequent visitors figuring out in two heartbeats that a convincingly written stream of BS was, in fact, just that - and very deliberately BS too.

The fact is that while most publications are perfectly honest and ethical in their reporting, there do exist hundreds of thousands of cases of favoritism, bribery, and the heavy-handed abuse of media to swing public opinion for a political goal. It happens in small hometown newspapers, radio shows, television shows, right up to the national level. Sometimes it becomes painfully public, such as the case when General Motors wanted to be informed ahead of time of potentially controversial articles being published in the magazines they advertised in, or when Intel wanted web sites to pack themselves with "multimedia enhanced" content to push the adoption of their MMX enabled chips, or when Microsoft's "astroturf" (fake grassroots) campaign had the lid blown off it.

Because cases like this make national news does not mean that it's easy to sniff out biased reporting; in fact, many went to show just how it happens all the time. As we learned from indignant advertising executives quotes during the Microsoft controversey, phony grassroots campaigns are an everyday part of the PR arsenal. It's not unusual for a company to pay for and get away with Letter-to-the-Editor writing campaigns, spontaneous testimony from "concerned experts" and other fluff pieces that reek of payola. What has let these companies get away with this is the fact that the media institutions still control the ink on the paper. Many times, the companies involved own the ink and own the paper.

Intel is an investor in C|Net; Microsoft is an investor in MSNBC; Softbank is the owner of Ziff Davis; Falcon Networking is the owner of OS/2 e-Zine! It's often too much to expect that every publication can be absolutely independent because it still costs a lot of money to publish to a wide audience. So for the past couple of centuries objective reporting has hinged entirely on the integrity of the owners, the editors and the journalists. In my December 1st article I illustrated, just a little, how this is changing because of the Internet.

Forums such as the interactive one you'll find linked to at the bottom of every one of our opinion pieces is only one manifestation of a trend. We still control those forums and I can delete messages a couple minutes or hours after they are posted. But I can't control other forums such as the newsgroups where, in fact, our integrity was called into question as part of a larger debate over the effect of paid advertising in publications. Already then I could sense that we couldn't get away with that kind of scam even if we wanted to, where in an earlier era we could. It's because many of our readers showed up and expressed a voice there and in other forums - places we couldn't control, and places easily and effortlessly accessible by everyone. We, and now every other publication in the world, is subject to the same force that Linux benefits from: under the glare of a thousand eyeballs, every flaw is obvious.

With Linux it's possible for anybody to correct a flaw because the source code is right there. Publications, even online ones, don't usually allow the unfettered modification of their content by just anyone, but it's becoming harder and harder to prohibit the free annotation of anything that is written. Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the web, visualized from the very beginning a publication space where annotation of any page was a common and accepted fact. And as it turns out, we're not very far away from that end. While thousands of publications like us are adding feedback forums to every opinion piece already (Ziff Davis being the ones we shamelessly stole the idea from) experiments are also being conducted in third party additions of forums and feedback mechanisms that are beyond the control of the original publisher.

A few years ago, you might have noticed a few sites adding links to an IBM run service called Aqui ("a key"), a basic annotation service that let you add what you considered to be relevant links to any page on the web. Webmasters interested in oiling the gears could put a link on their pages to the Aqui database, but the lack of such a link wouldn't stop anyone from annotating your page anyway by directly pasting the URL into Aqui's homepage. It just made it a bit harder for anyone to see what related links had been suggested by other visitors whenever they came to a page.

All it really takes is a database that searches by URL and extracts visitor annotations keyed to those URLs. It won't matter if the page is on a forgotten university account of a student who graduated years ago, or a private club, or a major international publication, the URL is still unique and the third party database is running on a different server - one that's accepting hundreds of thousands of new inputs from anyone. The only barrier is how easy it is to see those annotations - you have to know that the annotation service exists. But even then, that obstruction is not far from being broken apart too.

Imagine if in the standard toolbar of every web browser is a button labeled "Read Comments" that is linked to such a third party annotation database. It's an easily codeable affair once such a database exists - just feed the current URL into a query and display what comes back. It could even be automatic, with a window pane just below each page re-loading every time a new page is loaded to show what annotations the database is aware of. All outside the control of the original publisher, all with a little button labeled "Add your comments" that allows any sharp-eyed watchdog to blow the whistle. Might it be a while for the media infested browser companies to add such a button or pane that may or may not be in their best interests? Too late for them, the source code to the browser is now open. The power of visitor annotation to web sites will be realized by the power of visitor annotation to the browser's functionality itself.

And yet is it limited to cyberspace alone? Probably not. While the URL of a page is its own unique identifier that allows a database to look up annotations on it, every printed magazine that you buy at a newsstand or supermarket today has a bar code on it - a unique identifier that's just as good. Bar code readers are cheap to make, with only an infra-red LED needed for contact scanning and lasers as a speedier non-contact method. Bar code scanners now come in some VCR remote controls! But stick one on the corner of a Palm Pilot like device and suddenly you have the mechanisms in place to call up the free reader commentary of any issue of any printed publication in the world - all with the flick of a wrist. If that kind of technology becomes pervasive you can kiss good-bye to the good old "Letters to the editor" department.

What may come rapidly on the heels of ad-hoc feedback forums such as these are the next logical step: ad-hoc annotation of the body text. To get an idea of this in crude manual form, read the Halloween documents. These internal Microsoft memos were leaked to the press and when posted to the public, had rebuttals and commentary inserted into the body text itself - set in a different text color so it was easy to tell which was the original article and which was the annotation. The technology to do this on the fly has been around ever since the first word processor with team-revision support hit the market. This could be built into the browser, and probably wouldn't be too hard with the advancement of Javascript and the new layout engine of Mozilla.

As the science fiction writer Larry Niven put it: Technology changes ethics. With suntan lotion preventing sunburn, the taboos on revealing beachwear clothing for women and men slowly lifted until you have the string bikinis of today. Technology made it ethical to cut a dead person up into his component organs, because they could now be transplanted to save the living. And technology changed the finance world when fast electronic transactions and check clearing removed the income that banks used to collect on "floats" - or the interest earned on customers' accounts while checks waited to clear - at the same time it changed the ethics of bad check writing too.

Technology is now changing the ethics of publishing. Publishers won't be able to get away with glaring omissions anymore because those will be filled by their own readers within hours - much to the publisher's embarrassment. Same goes for exaggeration, misdirection and whatever else.

Go ahead, annotate me. You can do it in our interactive forum. Watch out though, because we still control the horizontal.

* * *

A good thing too - but beware political reactionaries - Basil Fernie
Microsoft is Already TWO STEPS AHEAD! - Tom Nadeau
-> take names - Dennis J Tuchler
Ethics changes technology - Dwight M Keller
Gobbledygook is Gobbledygook - dlancas@ibm.net
-> ...and echoes with the sounds of salesmen - Chris Wenham

Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
December 16, 1998