Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tor in the Times

There was a good piece in yesterday's New York Times about Tor, the software that makes Internet communications nearly impossible to trace; in fact, it's the software at the heart of the WikiLeaks document-submission process.

The piece focused on an interview with a Tor "evangelist," a Tor developer who travels the globe trying to inform people—mostly non-technical people—about what Tor is and why it's important. The interview was conducted by Virginia Heffernan, who admits to have difficulty understanding how Tor works, even after being provided with a series of analogies and metaphors. But I think that she does a fairly competent job of explicating the concept of Tor, at a high level, for a general audience. There is, however, definitely a kind of irony at the center of this piece: it illustrates a person whose job it is to communicate technical concepts to laymen having extreme difficulty in crafting an analogy comprehensible to the interviewer.

Irony aside, I think it's worth reading if you're at all interested in Internet anonymity.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Expanding the Definition of SLAPP Suits

The pernicious effects of SLAPP suits are further exacerbated when catalyzed by the Internet. The New York Times recently reported on the story of Justin Kurtz, a college student from Michigan, who wrote critical remarks about a towing company, T&J Towing, that wrongfully towed his car. Kurtz went on to form a Facebook page titled “Kalamazoo Residents Against T&J Towing,” in an effort to make others aware of what he saw as unethical actions on the part of T&J. Unbeknownst to Kurtz when he created the group, it would soon gather attention at a viral pace. After the group acquired 800 followers, many of whom had similar stories of T&J wrongfully removing their vehicles, the towing company filed a $750,000 lawsuit against Kurtz for defamation (Frosch, 2010).

The parallel to traditional SLAPP suits becomes immediately apparent: just like our hypothetical example of the cell company suing us at the zoning board meeting for opposing their interests, T&J files this suit against Kurtz in the hopes of silencing him and dissuading others from speaking out against them. But it also illustrates an important distinction between modern interpretations of SLAPPs and traditional SLAPP suits: while Pring & Canan’s original definition of SLAPP suits was narrowly focused on matters pertaining to the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, citizens’ right to petition government for redress of grievances, the modern definition engages with a broader type of free speech – citizens’ right to speak freely on a matter of public concern, a right granted by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.

Pring & Canan state that one of the reasons that they limited the scope of their study to cases relating to the Petition Clause was to “provide a neutral, manageable, easily applied definition whereby even opponents can agree on whether a case is a SLAPP or not” (9). So it stands to reason that there exist cases that are outside of the scope of Pring & Canan’s definition, yet still carry out the deleterious effects discovered in the original study. These broader interpretations of the definition of a SLAPP suit were first addressed in the drafting of California’s anti-SLAPP legislation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Winners Are Losers Too: The Paradox of the “Successful” SLAPP Defense

In discussing my research with colleagues and students, the first the first question I’m often asked is whether the filer can actually win in such a flagrant misuse of the legal system. After all, if the target is exercising a constitutionally protected right, how is there even a case to be made? The answer, unbeknownst to the asker expecting a simple “yes” or “no,” is complicated and hinges upon the definition of the word “win.”

Indeed, as we’ve seen in the section about the transformations that occur in a SLAPP suit, the target or his attorney must recognize the case as a SLAPP suit and file a motion to dismiss. Doing so is the closest one can get to “winning” a SLAPP case – not counting states that have “SLAPP-back” legislation, where the target can actually recover “reasonable attorney’s fees” and the filer can be fined.

Should the target not file a motion to dismiss the case on the basis of it being a violation of the First Amendment, however, the case can proceed to court and be fought on the technicalities of the injury claim. The longer the case drags on, the more damage – financial and emotional – is done to the target. Most filers, in fact, do not expect to win in the end (Pring & Canan, 1996); they hope to win a war of attrition where the target will cease her protests and be silenced before the case even comes to a conclusion. In fact, it’s been shown that 83% of targets win in cases where the dispute is seen through to a ruling (Schwarz, 2007, p. 72). But, regardless of success in court, targets have noted that financial and emotional stresses of being exposed to a protracted legal proceeding have been contributing factors to divorces and bankruptcies. Thus, even if the case is seen through to the end and the court finds in favor in the target, can we actually say that she has won?

And while harm to the target is certainly the most obvious malady attributable to a SLAPP suit, it’s possible that the most insidious harm is not done to those directly involved with the case, but to those who witness the case from a distance and are intimidated into political silence for the rest of their lives. In the case of a Denver real estate developer filing a SLAPP suit against residents who protested a city council’s decision to zone 92 acres of land for new homes, the target, Betty Johnson certainly did feel the deleterious effects of being “SLAPPed” firsthand, but the comments of other members of the community are sobering of the wide radius of the SLAPP’s shockwave. One resident confessed, after the case, “I won’t circulate another petition, and my husband wants me to get out of [community issues]” (Pring & Canan, 1996). Another resident noted that, while he might participate anonymously in policy issues, he would be loath to ever put “his name on anything” again after witnessing Johnson’s struggles (Id.). One might argue that this blow to democracy cost more than any strife felt by the target herself.

The picture gets darker if we consider the societal inequities highlighted by these suits that are predicated on the filer having more funds available (by several orders of magnitude) than the average target. It’s one thing for a person of means to be SLAPPed, but it’s another when we consider the “unequal distribution of legal services between the upper and lower classes” (Schwarz, 2007). This concept, in general, was highlighted by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 when he said that “90% of lawyers serve 10% of the people. We are over-lawyered and under-represented” (Schwarz). If these cases can bankrupt an upper-middle-class person, what hope do those of lower socioeconomic classes hope of gaining fair access to legal defense against SLAPP suits?

So, can a person “win” a SLAPP suit that goes to court? Well his case will be successful about 83% of the time. That is, he will be successful in avoiding the average injury claim of $9-million dollars (Id.). But the great paradox here is that, even in these cases, the target – or anyone who witnesses the case – is also the loser. The equation changes, however, when we consider the fact that states can enact anti-SLAPP or SLAPP-back legislation to dissuade companies from filing SLAPP suits. In the coming section, we’ll look at this legislation and how it has helped to broaden and redefine SLAPP suits from Pring & Canan’s original classification.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Metamorphoses: The Mechanics of Traditional SLAPP Suits

Given that the motivation of many SLAPP suits is to stem reputational damage resulting from public speech, it makes sense for the “filer” – the title Pring and Canan bestow upon the plaintiffs in SLAPP suits – to try to take the discussion with the “target” – the defendant – out of the public sphere, where it can be subjected to reason and scrutiny. Thus, the mechanics of the SLAPP suit serve to create this transformation: moving a case from a public, political discussion to a private, judicial dispute over technicalities (Pring & Canan, 1996, p. 10).

Traditional SLAPP suits, those that seek to curtail citizens’ rights to petition government, by definition, start out being public and political. A citizen will request governmental consideration on an issue of public interest and, in the process, come into opposition with another party’s interests (ibid). Let’s consider our cell tower example. At the zoning board meeting, you publicly asked your municipality to deny the wireless provider the permit to build its cell phone tower. Your desire – for the tower not to be built – is in direct opposition with the provider’s – for the tower to be constructed. It’s the township’s role to come to a decision. To this point, the system is functioning properly.

But when the wireless provider decided that it would be more efficacious and efficient to file the defamation suit against you, thereby attempting to interfere with your right to petition government, initiating the SLAPP suit, it also caused a number of metamorphoses to the nature of the dispute (ibid):

1) dispute transformation - the dispute changed from being political to being legal. This is achieved by “characterizing the targets’ conduct as some technical, legalistic injury (such as libel, business interference, or conspiracy)” (ibid).

2) forum transformation – moved the dispute from the public view, where it can be seen through to resolution, to a “private judicial one (where only technicalities can be addressed)” (ibid).

3) issue transformation – changed the basis of the case from potential injuries to the target (e.g. whether or not the cell tower is constructed) to harms done to filer (defamation, business interference, etc.) (ibid).

All of these changes are purely advantageous to the filer because, in addition to the intimidation caused by the SLAPP suit, the discussion as to what should be done vis-à-vis the matter in contention is put aside in favor of analyzing how the target may have harmed the filer.

The final stage of the SLAPP lifecycle is the most crucial. Should the target’s attorney recognize the case as an attempt to stifle constitutionally protected speech, the case will typically be dismissed (ibid). In these cases the target’s attorney has successfully retransformed the case from its private, judicial state back to its public, political existence. If the target, however, does not recognize that he is embroiled in a case meant to unconstitutionally curtail his free speech, and proceeds to engage on “the merits” of the case, he will likely “lose” – we’ll cover the definitions of “win” and “lose” vis-à-vis SLAPP suits later. In these cases, the target, by not being sensitive to the fact that a SLAPP was occurring, failed to retransform the case, and will likely pay dearly for it.

As we can see, one’s success in fending off SLAPP suits is contingent upon her recognized that she is, in fact being SLAPPed. If that doesn’t happen, the case can and will go to court, where the parties will engage on the particulars of the defamation claim. In discussing my research with friends and colleagues, the most common question about SLAPP suits is whether the filer can “win,” or if they’re ever “successful.” In the coming section, we’ll consider how the answer to this question is complicated, how a win can actually be a loss, at both the case level and at the macro level.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

SLAPP Suits: Origin of the Term

Here's the first chunk of reasoning for my paper. If you have any comments, please do feel free to send!

Even though SLAPP suits, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, in the American judicial system can be traced back as far as 1802 (Harris v. Huntington), just after the American Revolution, these cases were not formally identified as discrete entities until 1983, when lawyer George Pring and sociologist Penelope Canan began a groundbreaking study that culminated in their work, SLAPPs: Getting Sued for Speaking Out (1996).

While the definition of SLAPP suits has been broadened by subsequent legislation, the types of suits of that Pring and Canan identified in their original study have a very narrow scope. They noticed a particularly insidious subset of suits within a larger set of “intimidation suits” and tactical lawsuits. These cases, often filed by businesses against individuals or groups, attempted to use the intimidating qualities of lawsuits – cost, emotional distress, time commitment – to dissuade citizens from exercising their right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances,” a liberty guaranteed by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment. Further defining the scope of their study, Pring and Canan (1996) trace the evolution of a suit they would deem to be a SLAPP: “[These suits] (1) involve communications made to influence a government action or outcome, (2) which result in civil lawsuits (complaints, counterclaims, or cross-claims) (3) filed against non-governmental individuals or groups (4) on a substantive issue of some public interest or social significance” (209).

Pring and Canan provide a wide array of examples of their conception of SLAPP suits, but I might offer a more modern example. Consider being invited to a meeting of your township’s zoning board to discuss variances to zoning policies requested by individuals and businesses in the area. One case on the docket is that of a cellular phone service provider seeking to install a prominently visible cell tower near your residence. The members of the board open the meeting up to concerns by those attending, and you vehemently exercise your right to protest the construction of the tower. Shortly after the meeting, you are served with a lawsuit, initiated by the cellular provider, accusing you of “libel” and “business interference” – the suit seeks damages of $500,000. While you’ve merely exercised your right to petition government on a matter of public interest, you will now have to shoulder the cost and inconvenience to defend that right. And while this case may sound largely hypothetical, thousands like it have occurred since the resurgence of SLAPP suits in the 1970s (Pring & Canan, 1996, xi).

Even if you were to “win” this suit, most SLAPP suits amount to “Pyrrhic victories” (Gordon v. Marrone, 1992) that result in people “who have witnessed such suits…choos[ing] in the future to stay silent” (ibid). J. Nicholas Colabella, a New York judge, has perhaps the most cogent quote on the matter of SLAPP suits: “Short of a gun to the head, a greater threat to First Amendment expression can hardly be imagined” (ibid).

Thanks to Pring and Canan these suits have been identified and can be dealt with accordingly, as unconstitutional attempts to curtail free speech, rather than as merited defamation suits. As we’ll come to see, the definition of these suits seems to have been broadened since their initial discovery and identification.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Research Intention

First, a statement of research intention: I became interested in SLAPP suits tangentially, while studying cases where corporations initiated litigation against Internet posters who wrote negative reviews of their businesses. The companies claimed injuries such as libel, and sought exorbitant damages from the cases' "targets." The goal was clearly to limit the business's reputational damage, and to deter others from writing similar reviews in the future. In the course of the research, I learned that similar tactical lawsuits have been around for a long time, significantly predating the Internet.

So, for this paper, I've decided to trace the history of the SLAPP suit, to learn how it evolved from its pre-Internet state to its current manifestation on the Web, and to try to understand how its uses may change over time as the use of technology increases. I'll also look at some suggested remedies for SLAPP suits in the "physical" world and consider whether they might work when applied to Internet-based cases.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Blogging my research

So I have a bad habit of abandoning my blog for semi-long periods of time randomly - sorry for this! But, as I've claimed many times in the past, only to disappoint you time and time again: I've changed. I'm a new blogger. I will not walk out on you again, if you'll consider taking me back.

Great! Now that we're back together, I'd like to tell you about something I'm working on. I'm working on some research about SLAPP suits - you maybe remember that I've written about them before. But this time I'm working on a scholarly piece.

As I do my research, I'm going to try to blog everyday about what I'm reading and what I'm learning. Indeed, I'm going to try to write my paper in chunks, in blog posts that I can later cohere into something, hopefully, usable.

I would love it if you would comment on the posts: any questions you may have, any blatant logical fallacies I've indulged in, or anything you think I got wrong. This would be immensely helpful to me, and I would welcome the discussion!

Thanks for working through this paper with me, and I hope to hear from you!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A super sappy story on my love of writing

I just got off the phone with my aunt, my mother's older sister, who is the embodiment of quiet, unconditional love. A strong presence throughout my life that, while not always in direct sight (she still lives in NY, and I moved to Philadelphia), has always been felt. Our phone conversation made me recall one of the earliest gifts I can remember receiving (yes, even before my NES!): a mechanical typewriter that she bought for me. I hypothesize that this gift was one of the pivotal points in my life, perhaps the precise moment I considered my love of writing.

We reminisced on the phone, and I told her a story that I don't think I had ever told her. I recounted memories of writing short stories on loose-leaf paper in my room as a young child. Some were plays, some were Homeric epics, others were Pynchon-esque, Gravity's Rainbow-length (scaled to a 4-year-old, so like 1.75-page) works. But I always wrote them in pencil first; after all, who creates an immutable first draft? After carefully considering the burgeoning masterpiece on the parchment, I would write my second draft in pen. This lent more of a sense of permanence to the draft. It was in pen, so it had to be pretty good -- it was indelible.

BUT...but...when the work had fully taken shape, gone from a tremulous glob of clay on a potter's wheel to a beautiful vase (pronounced "vaaaaaaas"), it had to be published; this meant typing it out on pristine 8 1/2 x 11 paper on the mechanical typewriter. Percussive notes of metal on metal, barbaric, gutteral screams when horrid typos occurred, crumpling of paper from a neophyte's paper-loading job, and there it was -- a limited-edition, privately published, hand-bound, collectible Mustazza.

Were I making a feelgood family film, I might draw the camera back to a split-screen of the house, my father alone downstairs at the kitchen table working on his scholarly research for his own publications and me alone in my room crafting the fantastic. I guess I was more of an MFA-type.

Thanks, Aunt Nella. Your gift had a bigger impact than you know.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

FourSquare Stalking?

While having a stranger stalk you online, call the maitre d’ of the restaurant where you’re dining with friends, and request to speak with you to ask you out on a date may sound like another vapid plot of a Hollywood popcorn-chomper, apparently it actually happened to a Foursquare user.

For those unfamiliar, Foursquare is a service that allows you to publish your current location (“Chris is at Starbucks @ 34th & Walnut”) to the Web. One can accrue various titles of nobility (“mayor”) for locations he visits frequently or accumulate digital objets d’art (“badges”) for accomplishing tasks, such as going to multiple bars in a single night . The basic idea is that you can affiliate yourself with the establishments you frequent, and locate friends who happen to be at the same place at the same time. I’ve used it before, and it’s really nothing remarkable. For one, who needs another location-aware, Twitter progeny? And, at the risk of sounding like an another privacy alarmist, the app is really nothing more than a shallow diversion while your personal information is being harvested and used for ad research – Farmville, anyone? (“throw this sheep at someone while we access your profile.”).

That said, if we were going to argue the privacy concerns of Foursquare, I would call Staw Man given the story above as evidence for FS' dangers to privacy. I would be way more worried about location information being subpoenaed without proper authorization than I would about being stalked by Alicia Silverstone a la The Crush (OK, showing my age there).

But that’s not to say that the story isn’t horrifying. In fact, the reason I’m posting it is because of the emotion reading the piece elicited. Ms. Sylvia does an excellent job of drawing the reader into her place – especially with details like her looking around the restaurant to see if anyone is holding a cell phone as she stammers on the phone with her stalker. The fact this it’s a true story and no suspension of disbelief is necessary to appreciate it, makes it all the more fascinating. While I'm sorry that this happened to her, the piece is definitely worth a read for literary value.

Perhaps I’ll use this piece in my class in the fall. I’ll be interested to see if the students would call this account a reason to avoid location-aware technologies.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

SMTP Filtering on ISPs

I've fielded a number of questions about this over the past couple of weeks, so I thought it would be worth writing about. While I generally prefer to write about policy issues these days, I'm not above a good nerd piece.

If you experienced an abrupt disruption in your ability to send email from home, it's likely that you're the victim of SMTP filtering by your home ISP. Verizon, Comcast, and other ISPs implement SMTP filtering to stop spammers from taking over computers on their networks and using them to send SPAM. If you find that you can no longer send mail from home because of this, there are a couple of solutions.

1) Use an alternate port, if your server supports it -- the default port for SMTP (sending mail) is 25. ISPs block messages by filtering out any traffic bound for port 25. Many mail servers also support ports 587 and 465 for sending mail. Try going into your SMTP settings and changing your port to 587; see if that fixes it. If not, try 465.

2) Use your ISP's SMTP server. Most ISPs will provide you with an email account (which you may or may not use), which is useful in bypassing this issue, as ISPs will not filter their own servers. Properly configured, you'll be able to send mail using their servers and have your mail appear to come from your usual email address.

Also see my previous post on port 587 -- the most popular post on the site, according to Google Analytics.

Hope this helps!


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Ohio Facilitating SLAPP Suits

On the heels of my recent praise of many states for attempting to contain SLAPP suits, I came across this beauty of a story on PogoWasRight, one of my favorite blogs. To summarize, the state of Ohio is trying to make it such that "people no longer have safe haven to smear Ohio businesses online from other states." In other words, it is trying to remove jurisdictional boundaries to aid Ohio businesses in suing out-of-state citizens who "defame" them.

Aside from the rhetoric in the article being pretty biased -- the author seems to espouse the beliefs of the Ohio Supreme Court from the quote above and his presentation of the article's supporting anecdote -- it is one-sided. I was under the impression that good journalism told both sides of the story. What about the damage this ruling has on free speech? How about the fact that making it easier to sue outside of jurisdictional boundaries could lead to more tactical suits to silence valid claims?

Anyway, article aside, I don't think the legislative system should be looking for more ways to chill free speech on the Internet. Justice Hugo Black is probably rolling over in his grave about this ruling.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Shakespeare App

I just want to take a moment to promote one of my favorite iPad applications, the Shakespeare app. It's a product of a required app for anyone who loves language, poetry, or literature. The app contains the collected works -- all of his poems, plays, and sonnets -- beautifully formatted.

Nice formatting is not always a given with ebooks. If you're familiar with other free public-domain ebooks, you know what I'm talking about. For example, when I downloaded the free Kindle copy of Alexander Pope's translation of The Odyssey, it was a trainwreck; Pope's translation is done in rhyming couplets, and the line breaks didn't line up! So, staring at a dense block of seeming prose, I had to keep track of the meter in my head. This is not the case with the Shakespeare app -- characters are clearly labeled, the text is spaced well, etc.

While the Pro verion of the app is a little pricey at $20, I intend to purchase it just to support this wonderful project. Definitely worth checking out. Now, if only someone would build me a Christopher Marlowe app...


One of the coolest things that has ever happened to me was when I was invited to be part of the Yelp Elite Squad, an invitation-only group of restaurant reviewers on the restaurant-review site Yelp. To date, I have written reviews of about 100 restaurants (nothing compared to some of my peers). I've doled out high praise to establishments worthy of the praise, in addition to stinging critiques of subpar gastronomical experiences. My experiences, the feelings manifested by visiting the restaurants, belong to me; I am free to document them; I am free to exercise my First Amendment rights. But what if one or more of these restaurants attempted to use the legal system to silence me -- to squelch my right to speak my mind? Unfortunately, some businesses are starting to walk this path. I recently came across a great article in the NY Times about SLAPP suits, tactical lawsuits designed to silence critics through intimidation or insurmountable legal fees.

Tactical lawsuits are nothing new -- businesses and individuals have filed suits against each other without any intention of winning since dinosaurs roamed the Earth (see Stegosaurus v. Australopithecus); likewise, SLAPP suits predate the Internet. The confluence of factors at the root of this particular problem, however, stems from the melding of the egalitarian ethos of the Internet (that anyone has the ability to comment on anything) and the permanence of this information (while spoken comments are but locally-concentrated ephemera). As such, we can understand why some businesses, especially small businesses, might want to quash someone's ability to permanently etch damaging information into the annals of the Internet.

Of course, these suits are gross misuses of the legal system. They're just one of the many ways that well-intentioned legal devices (in this case defamation torts) are being misapplied in order to stop people from speaking their minds. The article mentions another such instance where doctors ask their patients to sign release forms when they become patients at a practice; these forms prevent patients from reviewing their doctors online by having the patient sign over copyright for their opinions about the doctors. That's right: they use the DMCA, designed to protect artists' royalties from copyright infringement (at least ostensibly) to silence their patients.

Free speech is the greatest of our rights, and we're living in an era when it's at its strongest, yet under perpetual attack. Luckily, some states are putting laws in place to prevent SLAPP suits. We can only hope they they move quickly and that all states follow suit (no pun intended).

Friday, June 4, 2010

iPad App List

Here is a list of the apps that I'm currently running on my iPad. I have no doubt this list will be somewhat volatile, so I will try to update this page with any changes until I get bored doing so.

1. IM+ Lite -- great IM aggregator app. I'm using it for AIM and Gtalk, but I think it can do Facebook chat, Yahoo, and others. Provision for push notifications so you can get IMs when you're in other programs. Free.

2. Facebook -- iPhone app, so renders small on the screen, but works well enough. free.

3. NPR -- can listen to most stories and read all. free.

4. Kindle -- of course. free.

5. -- everyone should have a dictionary handy all the time. This app is a fantastic implementation that works offline. With an Internet connection, you can play phonetic pronunciations of the words -- great for people like me, who grow vocabulary by reading rather than hearing the words spoken. free.

6. Penultimate -- the only app I have paid for. Notebook app that allows for drawing with fingers. Great for meetings and diagraming ideas. Can email images. $2.99

7. AccuWeather -- beautiful app that provides weather quickly and unobtrusively. free.

8. NY Times Editors' Choice -- nice summary of the times in a paper-like layout. free.

9. Netflix -- killer. I can watch any of the "Watch Instantly" content on the device. Looks great. free.

10. OpenTable -- make restaurant reservations on the go. iPhone app. feee.

11. Shakespeare -- collected works, beautifully formatted, unlike some public-domain Kindle works. free or $20 pro version. I may buy the latter just to support the project.

12. Popplet Lite -- good for memory maps and diagraming thoughts. free.

13. Shazam -- IDs songs that are currently playing using the built-in mic. free.

14. Wikipanion -- Nice Wikipedia app. free.

15. Blackboard Mobile -- so I can access my course site on the go. free.

And, of course, I use the built-in apps: Mail, Safari, iPod, Notes (I like this a lot), etc.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

iPad: Initial Reactions

iPad: What's Need Got To Do with It?

You know, it's pretty easy to fall into making conjectural evaluations of technologies that you don't own. When the blogosphere goes ablaze with legions of tech pundits bandying about whether or not you "need" something, it's tempting to jump in on the conversation by providing an intuitively-reasoned/anecdotal analysis: "The iPad looks cool, but why should I buy one if I will still need to own a laptop?," "It seems like just another device to carry around," etc. Well, while all of these arguments, vis-a-vis the iPad, make sense on paper, I refute them with this: it's freaking awesome, and it's place in your tech arsenal will become apparent once you own one.

As with many new technologies, I was skeptical of the iPad at first -- I can sometimes be a Luddite stuck in a technologist's body. "Yeah, but do you really need this thing? I mean, we have laptops; we have smart phones; what's the point?" Well, the opportunity to acquire one arose, and I pushed "need" aside. The result: awesomeness. After 2 weeks owing the device, I have to admit that I am now one of the multitude of educators teeming at the intersection of pedagogy and technology, salivating to use the device to enhance my course.

Things I like:
- multitouch interface and gestures -- not owning an iPhone, I wasn't previously familiar with the OS. It's extremely intuitive, though, and I love the swipes to turn pages and the pinch ins/outs to zoom.
- screen resolution -- high-res screen makes reading lengthy texts easier than traditional monitors
- app selection - of course (though there are still a few apps that are only available in iPhone format)

Things I don't like:
- looking like a fanboy with my Macbook Pro AND iPad (I don't have the iPhone)
- the screen gets really smudged with fingerprints
- not great for multitasking (OS doesn't yet lend itself to this)
- little bit heavier than the Kindle
- iPhone apps, by default, only fill an iPhone-sized portion of the screen -- it's possible to zoom to 2x, but then they get a little grainy

Uses I've found:
- I bring my iPad to meetings instead of my laptop -- it's great for taking notes and very portable. Lacking of multitasking ability helps to preserve focus, too. :)

- reading -- I read a lot, a whole lot, and having the Kindle app installed has been awesome. I also downloaded an app that contains the collected works for Shakespeare (plays, poems, sonnets).

- writing lengthier emails than I can on my Blackberry on the go

- keeping up to date on news

- catching up on the readings for my class so that I can prepare for course discussions

- getting walking directions with Google Maps/Streetview when I get lost

So, do you NEED the iPad? Well, who am I to determine need, but you should get one!

Thursday, May 27, 2010


There are as many Facebook groups lamenting the death/loss/explosion of a phone as there are words in Cryptonomicon. If you have a Facebook account, you're no doubt familiar with someone noting that their phone was destroyed by Telsa's ray gun, or perhaps by a more quotidian incident (e.g. dropped in toilet). Said victim is desperately in need of his friends' phone numbers, and fate has smitten his sole copy of his address book. So he does what any reasonable person would do: he sends a group request to all of his 1,000 Facebook friends requesting that they join a group (titled something grammatically immaculate, with judicious use of exclamation points) and post their phone numbers to the group. Except when Jove robbed him of his phone, he also rendered his common sense inert, so he makes the group public. "Public" in the Facebook vernacular means visible to anyone on the Internet, regardless of whether they have a FB account.

Enter Evil.

Evil is a proof-of-concept site -- it does something shocking to prove to how easy it is for someone with truly malicious intent to perform the same action. In this case, the software searches for public groups that serve the purpose described above and harvests the names, pictures, and phone numbers of everyone in the groups. In English: it shows how easy it is to collect people's private phone numbers from Facebook groups. Given that this site is just meant to teach, it redacts the last digits of the phone numbers, but if you'd like to get a clearer picture of what we're talking about, check this out. Scary, huh?

I shudder to think of what will happen when marketers figure this out -- text-message SPAM, anyone?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Follow-up on sending messages through Google searches

So remember when I said that my students had a lot of fun sending the message "Chris Mustazza is a jerk" to me via my Google Analytics logs? Well, I checked my Analytics account today and saw this query logged:

"chris mustazza is certainly not a jerk and is an awesome professor...who ga[v]e me an a"

Well played, sir or madam!

Evolution of Facebook Default Privacy Settings

One of the topics we discuss in my class is the degree of ethical responsibility Facebook has to provide sufficient default privacy settings. That is, when you create a new Facebook account, should FB provide you with tight defaults that you can loosen as you see fit, or should the default to be an open environment where users can revoke access until they are confortable. This argument basically comes down to personal responsibility vs. a provider's obligation to consider the well-being of its users. Should a person be responsible to fully understand the information dissemination architecture of a system to which he entrusts personal information? Or is it unreasonable to assume that the average user will take the time to understand the system, thereby creating a responsibility on the part of the system to protect him? Normally, I side with personal responsibility -- I oppose taxing soda or banning salt in NY restaurants -- because I believe people should do what is in their own best interests. This, however, is a case where I side with imposed protections.

Check out this graphical representation of evolution of Facebook's default privacy settings:

While the scale of the image seems to shift to provide a more dramatic effect, I think it still does provide a pretty accurate description of the direction Facebook is moving in. I remember when I had to provide my Penn email address to sign up for Facebook because it was restricted to the Ivies. Such a setup implicitly granted a degree of privacy. With the gradual opening of the system to the world -- including the advent of public profile pages, visible to those who don't even have Facebook accounts (!) -- Facebook has a responsibility to provide an intuitive, simple set of privacy controls for its users -- and to restrict access by default!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sending Messages Via Google Searches

If you're one of the 14 ardent followers of this blog: a) thanks!, and b) you may recall a post I wrote alluding to the privacy implications of Google Analytics. To summarize, Analytics compiles stats on visitors to a website, including information that can be aggregated to be personally identifiable in certain cases, and presents the data in a graphical way to the website's operator(s). It allows the site owners to see everything from each visitor's city to his ISP to his screen resolution. But one of the most fascinating stats provided is the listing of keywords searched to get to the site.

I never cease being curious about the search terms that drive users to my blog. For the record, the most popular search term is "port 587," which goes to post I wrote about this alternate SMTP port (I know, quite the nerdy digression). Of course, being a semi-vain jerk, my favorite is when I find people who have searched for me by name; nothing brightens my day more than seeing a "Chris Mustazza" query in the list. Anyway, vanity aside, here is what's interesting: I've discovered that one doesn't actually need to visit the site to have the search term and his information logged!

Here's what I mean: I Googled (ack, I hate using derivatives of "Google" as verbs!) for "Chris Mustazza is a jerk," and my blog came up as the first link (I assume for this to work the site has to come up high in the search rank); I didn't actually click the link to go to my site, but the search query was logged in my Analytics report. Why? I don't know; it's bizarre. I showed the students in my class this "feature" that I had discovered, only to find 16 more queries for "Mustazza is a jerk" logged in my Analytics (you win this round, students).

So what can we deduce from this? That it's possible to send messages via Google searches, provided that the recipient actively (read: obsessively) checks his Analytics records. For example, you could Google (ugh, did it again) for "Chris Mustazza, you're awesome," and I would get it.

Perhaps this is the digital Tristero. So, Thomas Pynchon, if you are one of the 14 subscribers to this blog, you now have the basis for The Crying of Lot 50.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Off topic: Interpretations of Siddhartha

On the recommendation of my good friend Warren, I read Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse this weekend. Whenever I read something I find fascinating, I attempt to write about the lessons learned from that work. Below is quick, informal interpretation of Hesse's Siddhartha. Warning: contains spoilers. :) Apologies for the off-topic post.

Outside of the metaphysical themes of the continuity and singularity of organic elements, Siddhartha’s central theme warns of the perils of allowing ambition, the pursuit of a desire, to supersede the present. Such a universally-applicable idea could be applied to any period of humanity, but it’s especially relevant to modernity, where fast-paced professional and academic pursuits cause us to perpetually ponder the next step, x+1, for fear that we will fall behind or not attain some tangible – or abstract – desire. All the while, the tenacity of the pursuit can cause unrelated instances of beauty go unnoticed. Perhaps a man zealously pursues a promotion, logging countless hours in the office, all while failing to notice his wife’s beauty and value her companionship. Or perhaps a scholar of literature accelerates through the literary canon so as to impress her peers with the breadth of her knowledge – at the expense of savoring every word as she consumes it. The eponymous Siddhartha learns this lesson, albeit as it applied circa 500BC.

Siddhartha, an especially gifted member of the Brahmin caste, seeks enlightenment, to understand his environment and its meaning at the deepest levels, to attain Nirvana. Throughout the majority of the work, this desire consumes him to the extent where he undervalues those who care for him – his father, his best friend, his teachers (even Buddha himself), the mother of his child. Throughout each stage of his life he seeks a great teacher, the one who can give him the knowledge he needs to attain his goal. When he feels that a teacher has poured into him all of the knowledge he has, yet Siddhartha’s “cup is not full,” he seeks a greater teacher. Such ambition caused him to leave home to join a nomadic, ascetic group of monks when had he learned all that he could from his father; the same ambition was the catalyst for his leaving the monks when he proved he was equal in prowess to one of their elders. Finally, he forgoes the opportunity to learn from Buddha himself, forsaking any teachers, skeptical that anything other than an intense period of self-discovery can help him run down his elusive goal. In the end, he does accept an unlikely teacher – a lowly ferryman, who proves that looking to the highest levels of education for our teachers is not always the most effective strategy, that a simple, lowly man can be the wisest. The ferryman, through limited use of dialog and by example, does, in fact, help Siddhartha accomplish his goal; he does so by teaching him to appreciate the present rather than having an eye toward the future. It’s only unfortunate that Siddhartha is an old man by the time he learns this lesson.

A subtle subtheme of self-imposed alienation also runs though Siddhartha. At most stages of his life, Siddhartha works diligently to avoid being a part of any larger group. The most tangible illustration of this is when he rejects his future as a Brahmin to become a Semana, forest-dwelling, nomadic ascetics, the epitome of societal abandonment. To this point he also prides himself in his abilities of “waiting, fasting, and thinking,” essentially, a life of austerity and abstemiousness. He decides that it’s necessary to attempt to integrate with the base, “childlike” masses to understand how humanity works, to leave his ivory tower. During this period he takes a courtesan as a lover, learns to participate in trade, and becomes a materialistic, wealthy man, an ethos contrary to everything we know about him.

But, this sojourn into materialism serves to humanize him, rather than to completely abase him. Siddhartha uses the word “childlike” throughout the work to describe the masses of humanity. The meaning of the term, however, evolves alongside Siddhartha’s integration with humanity. Early on, it takes on a pejorative context, meaning juvenile or sophomoric; he sees most emotional constructs, love included, to be the folly of the masses. After his enlightenment by the ferryman, he uses the same term to mean carefree or alive. As he moves from a state of “unable to love” through deep, intense appreciation for even the most seemingly-insignificant facets of nature (e.g. a rock), so too does the term evolve.

At the end of Siddhartha’s evolution, whereupon he achieves his goal of enlightenment, he notes several of findings. While using Sansara, the city where he succumbed to lascivious temptations, gambling, intoxication, and materialism, as a metaphor for humanity, and Nirvana as a placeholder for the enlightened and the divine, he notes that all human teachers draw a false dichotomy between the two. He finds that nothing is solely human or purely divine – all life is a mixture of the two and should be celebrated. He also concludes that searching is the worst state to be in, relating back to his previous ambitions that caused him to pass through life oblivious to its beauty; he laments searching as a perpetual state of insatiability, as it implies some unmet desire. Finally, he realizes that the erudite are not superior to the masses. This lesson comes from the ferryman being the wisest man he has ever encountered.

Unfortunately, it would seem that it’s easier in modernity than in Siddhartha’s time to fall prey to the pitfalls Hesse warns us about. Pursing materialistic pleasures; binary categorizations of bad or good, human or divine; social or cultural elitism; self-alienation through any and all of the aforementioned vices: these are the distractions that prevent us from appreciating the aesthetic of the present. And, we will only suffer more from these fallacies as the concentration of wealth in our economy drives us closer to a true dichotomy between haves and have-nots. As this rift further widens, it’s only human to use talent and ambition to attempt to ensure that we’re on the desirable side of the divide. Doing so, and advising our children to so, however, only pushes our consciousness farther into the future, to x+n, as n approaches infinity – all at the expense of the beauty of the present.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Zuppler - Like CampusFood Minus the Campus

Nothing is more primitive and frustrating than having to use the phone to order food. I mean, c'mon - really. As such, one of the technologies on the changed-my-life list is, a site that allows you to order food online from restaurants in close proximity to your college campus. For me, that is all well and good during the day, but what about when I go home, and am no longer on campus? Should I be relegated to using my larynx to order food? Not anymore. Now, thanks to, I can order food from restaurants in my neighborhood - in the suburbs! - online. Take that, human contact!

There are a couple of things that I found attractive about 1) that it includes restaurants throughout the suburbs of Philadelphia (i.e. you don't have to be in Center City to use it), and 2) the site design was very professional - dare I say, better than campusfood. Each restaurant has its menu loaded into Zuppler, and you can easily add items to your cart by clicking on them and selected toppings/options where applicable. The entire ordering process took like 3 minutes (not counting my own indecisiveness).

The thing that I found a little scary, using the site for the first time, was whether my order would actually arrive. I pictured local restaurants without much IT infrastructure trying to handle a new order vector. I believe that William Congreve once wrote, "Hell hath no fury like a hungry Italian," or something like that - and I was worried I would be put in this position. Not that case. Someone from the site called me nearly immediately to let me know that my order was in (I know, human contact, but that's ok). My food arrived shortly after. And, I since I had added in the the tip online, they just handed me the food (didn't need to sign or anything).

Overall, it was a great experience, and I plan to use the site frequently. You should definitely check it out if you live in the Philadelphia or New York area.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Suburbs of Philadelphia, 1995:

After completing a fresh install of Windows 95 from 27 floppy disks, my friend and I are ready to boot his brand new, assembled-by-some-random-guy PC clone. Turbo button engaged - and we're off (at arguably the same speed as if the turbo button were not engaged). What's the first piece of software we install once we're looking at a pristine desktop? Prince of Persia? Nope. Leisure Suit Larry? Wrong. We reach into what would become a stack of the ubiquitous AOL free trial disks, the scourge of mailboxes everywhere, and select disk that offers the most free minutes - this was before the amount of free minutes in the first month exceeded the amount of minutes in a month. 5000 free minutes - sounds good. A little while later, and with the help of a parent and her credit card, we are logged into our first chat room, the inane (and sometimes crass) musings of spectral users ascending the y-axis. It was amazing; it was horrible; it was enthralling. It was the precursor to

Suburbs of Philadelphia, 2010:

I throw my Macbook Pro down on the bed and flip it upon with a fluid, subconscious gesture, a move I can and have done in my sleep. It wakes instantly and I proceed to read tech news in the same jaded, unimpressed manner that comes part and parcel with immersion in a perpetual stream of amazing technological advances. One technology, posted by a student of mine, catches my eye: Apparently, this is a web site that allows visitors to video chat with a stranger selected at random. Strangely enough, this prospect feels terrifying - the concept of exposing myself, however anonymously, to a virtual Pandora's box of video streams. It seems so terrifying that I have to do it.

I navigate to the site and, against my better judgment, click "allow" to permit my web browser to enable my Mac's webcam. The preview window opens, and there I am. I briefly admire my digital reflection (I'm a vain jerk; whatever) and click "Play." The 10 seconds that the site spends looking for my random chat partner feels like an hour. All of a sudden, in the video window thoughtfully labeled "Stranger" (doesn't "stranger" conjure thoughts of abduction, like "don't talk to strangers?"), the granulated, pixelized image of what can only be described as a scarecrow appears. I see what appears to be a torso shot of a human shape, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. The head is not visible. It is not moving. I don't think it's breathing; I don't think it's real. Silence. In the adjacent chat window, the message "that's 3 for 3" appears. I don't know what this means - and I exited before I could find out.

OK, let's try this one more time. I click "next," the button designated for respinning the metaphorical roulette wheel, and I get connected to someone else. He or she cancels the chat before the "stranger" cam even has a chance to render a single frame. Whatever. It occurs to me that literally anyone or any part of anyone could appear on my screen when my next random chat partner is chosen. So, after clicking "next" for a new partner, I position my mouse over the "x" to close my browser tab, just in case I have to make a hasty retreat to prevent any vile images from being inscribed on my retinas. My partner is chosen; the image renders; it's three college-aged guys sitting on a couch. They attempt to convince me (somewhat successfully [you win this round, strangers!]) that they are the creators of chatroulette. After a semi-pointless discussion, they admit to not being the creators, we end our conversation on a friendly note -- and my life is essentially unaltered from having talked to them.

After I closed the chat, I stared blankly at the screen for a while considering what had just happened. The realization hit me: this was the same visceral thrill that came from our first foray into the now-primitive AOL chat room, the thrill of not knowing what experiences you will encounter. These thrills are at a premium these days, as I have seen many new technologies and get further desensitized by the day. As such, I'm glad that I tried chatroulette. As with Russian Roulette, probability dictates that, eventually, given enough attempts, you will lose (though, in this case, loss encompasses being subjected to grotesque images). Knowing this, I will probably not press my luck again...

Friday, February 12, 2010

Introspection on Competing Assumptions

Disclaimer*: the purpose of this piece is to clarify my thoughts on the issue of the possible conflict between the underlying assumptions of libertarian ideals and those of privacy advocacy. As such, it may - and probably will - end up being an equivocating and undeveloped ramble.

Libertarianism, while favoring limited government oversight, is not synonymous with anarchism. Humans can certainly exhibit behavior that should be suppressed by societal controls. However, these controls need not always be legal; social norms and the development of the highest level of conscience, not partaking in a transgression because one feels that it is morally/ethically wrong, can serve as well, if not better, than law.

I often apply this theorem to the debate over how to stop the sharing of copyrighted material --movies, music, etc. In my opinion, this is stealing, but I disagree with the current methods of enforcement. I suggest that the best way to encourage people not to steal music is to get them to internalize that this is wrong - the same reason that we do not steal from brick-and-mortar stores.

When I present this idea (usually in relation to other libertarian ideals) to someone of an opposing view, a person of a more authoritarian stance, our debate usually funnels philosophically to our underlying assumptions: optimism that humans are inherently good and will make the right decision given enough time (mine) vs. humans are avaricious creatures that require a high degree of oversight (authoritarian view). Obviously, this is an oversimplification of a complex, multifaceted argument into a one-dimensional spectrum, but I think that the dichotomy here is fairly accurate.

In stark contrast, while I generally preach my less-government ethos, I feel that privacy laws are an important way that government protects us from our own worst instincts. Bodies of law such as HIPAA (protection of medical data) and FERPA (protection of academic records) serve an important purpose. I feel that new, similar protections should be enacted and enforced to stop the sale and aggregation of personal data, without a customer's explicit consent, for advertisement purposes. (I will expound on this sometime if anyone is interested or if the mood strikes, whichever comes first.) The underlying assumption here is that business and government will be irresponsible with their use of personal information, and that they need to be regulated.

So, then, do we have two underlying assumptions in seeming conflict: optimism of the strength of the human conscience vs. pessimism of our ability to do the right thing without oversight. How can one be both a libertarian and a privacy advocate? Is this a false dichotomy or just the inherent conflict in non-partisan thinking -- i.e. being a moderate?

*I may have been influenced to write a moderately self-deprecating intro to this after reading Borges' introduction(s) to his A Universal History of Iniquity.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Bentham's Panopticon - The Threat of Surveillance

In attempting to categorize threats to privacy, one of the more salient categories is certainly surveillance. Of course, some surveillance (warranted searches, cameras in banks, etc.) may not offend our sensibilities, while others (unwarranted wiretapping, use of the PATRIOT Act) may. But, regardless of whether we consider any given instance of surveillance to be just, one fact is inherent to all: surveillance or the threat of surveillance alters human behavior.

For example, when we have reason to believe that the police monitor a certain stretch of road for speeders, we may alter our speeds while traversing that area - regardless of whether there is, in fact, a police officer hiding around the bend. We don't know if we are being watched, but we could be. Of course, this is an innocuous example. One doesn't have to think too hard to come across examples of the threat of surveillance stifling human creativity or attempting to normalize social eccentricities (McCarthy-ist America, Soviet Russia, etc.).

One of the great metaphors used for the threat of surveillance is Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon. The Panopticon is Bentham's design for a prison. What's interesting about this prison is that it uses the threat of surveillance to keep prisoners in check. The Panopticon is a round structure with glass-walled cells lining the circumference of the circle - all facing toward the circle's center. In the center of the circle is the guard tower, an all-seeing monolith (think Barad Dur) that could be filled with guards that could be looking at any particular cell. The prisoners cannot see inside the guard tower, and so they have no way to know whether they are being watched. As such, the most logical thing to do is to behave, just as we slow down when we pass by the potential speed trap. Bentham argues that this device of using the threat of surveillance to keep order reduces operating costs for the prison, as it would not need to retain a full staff of guards.

While this is certainly not an original thought on my behalf (Foucault and others have written about the Panopticon as a metaphor for surveillance in society), I think it's a very useful way of weighing situations where surveillance should be allowed. We should always question whether the x that we are attempting to protect against (in cases where security conflicts with privacy) with surveillance is worth the cost.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Defining Privacy

Since last semester ended (a semester where I had a phenomenal class of students, I should say), I have been considering how to start this semester's class, how to explain more clearly than last semester what, exactly, privacy means. In some ways, even for the most erudite scholars, the definition of a privacy violation is similar to Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography - "I know it when I see it." In fact, I have heard others go so far as to call privacy a glittering generality the likes of "freedom" and "democracy." In my quest to better explain to my peers, my students, and even myself what, exactly, privacy means, I began reading Dan Solove's Understanding Privacy. Solove is to privacy law what Lessig is to free culture - in fact, I use his book, The Future of Reputation, as the primary text for my class. I knew I could count on Dan.

Solove accurately points out that privacy is an umbrella that covers a wide breadth of related but disparate rights, including freedom of thought, solitude in one's home, freedom from surveillance, control over one's body, control over personal information, protection of reputation, and protection from searches and interrogations. The problem, he posits, is when we attempt to define privacy by abstracting commonalities from these entities to locate a common inheritance (sorry, that is the object-oriented programmer geek in me). Solove notes that it's not possible to abstract a commonality that is sufficiently abstract to cover all cases and with enough specificity to be of value practically in drafting policy.

Thus, Solove embraces Ludwig Wittgenstein's concept of "familial resemblance." He notes that these areas where we desire privacy draw from a pool of common traits the way children's physical features can resemble those of their parents - that is there is no single definition for what should be protected as private. As such, privacy should be considered a set of related values that share some familial resemblance. And, adopting a Pragmatist approach, privacy issues should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, as conflicts with other values (free speech, security, transparency, etc.) arise.

While all of this sounds very abstract, I believe that it has helped me to get a better handle on why it is so difficult to define what privacy is. I'm pretty sure that I will be drawing on the information in Understanding Privacy frequently in class this semester. I'm looking forward to the start of classes next week and to meeting the students in my class. Hope everyone enjoyed the holidays, and happy new year!