Sunday, April 26, 2009


I know that have talked about this a few times now, but given an ethics discussion had in my last Digi Comm class, I thought I needed to revisit the topic again, this time through a slightly different lens.

The recent "Craigslist Killer" case that makes headlines every day has given birth to legal issues for the site and renewed calls for Craigslist to remove its erotic services section. Craig Newmark, founder and CEO of Craigslist, however, has said that he will not remove this section. His argument is that the point of Craigslist, and indeed much of Web 2.0, is that it is what its users make it. And while it sets policies and removes illegal postings, he does not believe he should take it down, in the interest of the democratic nature of user-generated content. Many people agree, including Ken van Wyk, principal consultant at KRvW Associates LLC in Alexandria, VA. He claims that Craigslist and other sites like it are good for commerce and the open marketplace, and so long as it does not violate the law, it should be allowed to maintain its erotic services section. After all, stripping and massage are legal ventures.

Those on the other side claim that Craigslist's erotic section amounts to little more than an electronic pimp, and is the biggest prostitution ring in the country, which is definitely illegal. While it may seem very new-world in its nature, the arguments and debates raging around this are in fact quite old. It is the ageless debate of commerce vs. safely...where does one draw the line?

But I am more interested in the ethical debate that I see with respect to Craig Newmark. Should he feel ethically compelled to remove this section of Craigslist because he knows that it could be used for human sex trade, human trafficking and illegal prostitution, or is the need for an open, democratic online marketplace more important?

I am not so sure I would know what to do were I in his shoes. Adults are free to choose what they wish to do, and as the article quotes Mr. Newmark as saying, there are policies and safety tips in place to help ward off incidents like the one in Boston, which is the extreme case of wrongdoing in connection with this online service.

On the other hand, knowingly being a part of something that is illegal and has the potential to have serious collateral consequences (such as human trafficking) might be enough to push me to remove the services. It is difficult to boil down to an easy answer.

Perhaps one way Craigslist could help to cut down on the incidence of illegal activity, and keep the site and services sold there legitimate, is to mandate a registration process that is more thorough than what is currently required. Maybe for this particular section you would have to provide more information in order to ensure that the way you conduct yourself is above board. It seems to me that this would help to prevent human traffickers from using the site, and would almost certainly prevent against creeps like Mr. Markoff. Sure, this raises a more burdensome barrier to free trade for the users of this section of Craigslist, but clearly Mr. Newmark needs to do something. if not for a potentially pressing legal reason, than just for conscience sake.

Friday, April 24, 2009


So I am a bit behind on the story (from Monday), but I did want to cover this because it seems to me it is a big step in engaging this new technology to move us forward. Well, at least move Iraq forward.

This past week Hillary Clinton, our esteemed Secretary of State (yes, I am a fan) invited new media tech gurus to Iraq to advise on how these new tools could help the fledgling nation move towards a transparent and engaging reality.

These new steps towards using technology to help society with real needs is exactly the type of engagement this blog set out to find. If it works in Iraq, we may very well see it being used here. what's good for the goose, afterall. In fact, Hillary already employs some of this by writing on the State Department's blog, which I just checked out myself. Pretty cool stuff.

In any case, it is nice to see Twitter applied to something as large as foreign policy and transparent government. It gives me new faith that the technology that is developing and changing the way we live has some potential significant and positive consequences. It'll take some time to see how it really works, by it is certainly a step in the right direction.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


It is not the first time, and I would venture to guess it will not be the last, but I spoke too soon. A couple days ago I posted a story on Craigslist, and how it can help those looking find a mate, for a night or for a lifetime. Well, over the past few days we have all come to see the darker side of this use of technology too (and I am not talking about finding someone looking much differently than you anticipated).

The story of Philip Markoff, who allegedly lured young women to hotels via their ads for massage services on Craigslist, has hit national headlines and reminds us all that as great as the Internet and services like Craigslist may be, we don't really know who we are talking to. The shocking thing about this story is that if the women Mr. Markoff supposedly attacked had known who he was, they probably wouldn't have flinched. A handsome, affluent medical student looking for a "massage." Hell, I know plenty of men that probably would have taken that job too.

A story like this one just makes me a bit hesitant to totally sing the praises of services like Craigslist, although I have to believe that this is a case of one bad apple ruining the bunch. But still, would this have happened with the technology of the past?

It seems that the immediacy of Craigslist changes things since you can hook up with the person you are seeking (or stalking) so quickly that it allows people to find immediate gratification. If whoever did this had to answer an ad in the classified section of a print publication, would it have happened, or would the urge have passed? If whoever did this had to go out and find his prey, would the victim have sensed something beforehand and not gone, as opposed to finding out in the hotel room when it was too late and the gun is already pointed at him/her? Who knows? It is just unfortunate because for all of the utility Craigslist and similar services provide us, stories like this really make a bad impression.

But there is a bright side to this story. Granted, there is the possibility that the crime may not have happened, may not have happened repeatedly or may have been more difficult to follow through with without Craigslist and the Internet. However, given that it did happen, the technology was the red herring that led to the arrest of the suspect. Police had descriptions of the perpetrator, along with other details that could help find him, but it was not until they traced the IP address for the e-mail that solicited the massage services to Mr. Markoff's apartment that they were able to connect him with the crime well enough to follow through with an indictment. And aside from crimes that have a direct connection to the Internet, this technology has given law enforcement a whole new range of tools to help track down people who are up to no good.

So in conclusion, I am still sticking with my "Craiglist-is-Good" evaluation from the last post. Just like our mother told us not to talk to strangers, and our instincts tell us when someone is bad news, we have to remember to listen to that little voice inside when it tells us that it is risky to go out and meet someone we barely know, particularly if one is to be alone with said person. Like much of the issues surrounding technology, good old fashioned sensibility and responsibility still prevail.

Sunday, April 19, 2009


In a move hailed by most as a wise choice, President Obama announced his choice of Aneesh Chopra as Federal Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Certainly an interesting sign of the times as well as a logical follow up to what Obama started on his campaign with regards to leveraging technology.

Apparently Chopra will be working with the CIO, and the official description of the work that lies ahead of him is to
"promote technological innovation to help achieve our most urgent priorities - from creating jobs and reducing health care costs to keeping our nation secure."

I personally think this is a fantastic idea - bravo Mr. President. It seems that looking at Mr. Chopra's record, and some of his accomplishments, that he will help to pull our analog government a little closer to the digital. In his post as CTO for the State of Virginia, for example, he made some quite significant strides in putting new technology to work for citizens. SOme of these accomplishments include:
All of these examples seem to be not only good ideas, but critical if the administration is serious in its promises to fundamentally transform our government. In addition, the secondary effects, like bringing every day citizens up to speed on this technology so they too can use it to their benefit, will force the education of millions, which in turn will better prepare our workforce and students for future challenges.

In all I am usually not this rosy about something, but I love the idea of a leaner, more accountable and more efficient government (who doesn't?) and I think that technology, and more over making technology a priority, is the only way we are going to get there.

For more information, this post is a good read, and you can hear from the man himself right here:

Saturday, April 18, 2009


Today's NY Times Technology section had an interesting piece on Craigslist, specifically about its "casual encounters" section. Because our class on Wednesday seemed to foray into the risque, I thought I would discuss.

Just to state up front, yours truly is not a sociopath or into risk-taking, for the most part, two of the character traits Tom Brady, chief medical officer at the CRC Health Group, an addiction treatment center, in Cupertino, CA says is among those of frequent Craigslist sex users. Maybe this is the reason I have never taken part in this behavior. But I would be lying if I said I did not have multiple friends who had.

The people I know who have used it, and those the article seems to identify as those who frequently use the feature, are pretty normal. None of them are sexual deviants (as far as I know) or into risky behavior...they just don't want the hassle of going out and having to buy drinks for people or "play the game." One friend of min who does not frequent the site himself has another friend who uses it exclusively for meeting people, even though he still goes out. He believes that it is somehow safer. I am still trying to figure that one out.

But as for the relevance of this topic to the subject of this blog, I am having a hard time deciding which side I think it falls on - engaged or (dis)engaged? I can see it both ways personally.

On the one hand, you have people being able to find sex on the web without having to talk to the other person beforehand. As efficient as it might be, this is not exactly "engaging" other, but more just cutting to the chase. I guess this is good if you know what you are looking for. But on the other hand, it seems like there is a value in forcing people to go out to a bar, or a club, or wherever. At least this keeps them in touch with the greater community, which as you all know I think is critically important. But hey, maybe they are not comfortable with this scene and prefer to stay stuck behind their computers.

There is also the side that these encounters can lead to long-term, regular relationships. One user in the article talks about how he met someone under the pretense of quick and easy sex, but ended up going on several dates with the woman without so much as a kiss. Of course there are the horror stories when someone uses a picture that is NOT their likeness, or one woman whose kids were home. But even one of the Real Housewives of New York City, Alex, met her husband this way. And if it is on that show, it must be normal (?).

I guess in the end I would have to vote engaged here. It seems that this is just a new tool that has streamlined the hook up process, helping people with an age-old need. Of course there is a dangerous side to this practice as we all witnessed in recent murders traced back to the site. But in the end, I am all for people getting some when they otherwise couldn't. After all, everyone needs their pipes cleaned from time to time.

Monday, April 13, 2009


The last post I wrote was about how Google might be the big bad wolf, and today I stumbled across another article by Rob Enderle on this very thing. I am sure these are not the only two articles to bring this to the fore, but since they were less than a week apart, I thought I could revisit the question.

This new discussion goes so far as to call Google evil, which seems quite extreme. It is also difficult to know exactly who and what the author's examples are using, which inhibits the reader's ability to make a complete decision.

I do have to say, however, that there are several good points that are made, and it has me thinking twice. It aptly makes use of the quote, "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely." And it is true - it is hard to think of any company that might be as well-poised to cause massive harm than Google. After all, they are amassing more information in one place than any other company I can think of, and the fact that there have been scores of citizens outraged by google's actions in the past, that maybe we have good reason to take pause. But this alone is not enough to condemn them to being evil.

The article uses a few examples, that of Google's refusal to address the concerns of citizens with privacy concerns, and even a reference to an article in The New York Times on how Google raised the cost of infant care from 37K a year to 55K. This seemed shocking to me given all of the fanfare about what a great company Google is to work for, but alas the company did not reverse its decision, instead rolling back the price increase (which is substantially over market price) only moderately. And that was that. Enderle makes a good point - that money is eclipsing the widely-held belief and notion that Google cares a great deal about something bigger than money. But this seems to fly in the face of that image.

There is also the case of Google censoring information in China, and refusing to take down materials from its archives that is admittedly false and destructive towards individuals. Who knows what the real intentions of the company are? I am more likely to give people the benefit of the doubt rather than assume they are evil given some isolated incidents, and after all, Google is run by people.

But the fact that the government is supposedly going to gmail, which in itself can be a terrifying thought, and a seemingly increased incidence of this behavior, maybe we do have something to worry about. The benefit that Google has bestowed upon society is certainly vast and important, and they deserve credit for that. But we should not lose sight of the fact that the tech industry is still run by people, and as much as I believe in the good of people, these execs are subject to the same temptations and pitfalls as you or I. We should remember that being innovative and smart does not change this fact.

Sunday, April 5, 2009


Henry Porter of the UK's Guardian wrote a piece today about Google as a worldwide menace to civil society, hell bent on taking over the world and bringing us all to our knees. Really?

I admit that I have shuddered at the thought of an all-powerful storehouse of all knowledge, and the algorithm that allows us to find said knowledge. Sure, it is not hard to let our imaginations run wild and envision a future where we are all ruled by those six little rainbow-colored letters. But it is the way Porter attacks Google that puts me off.

To me our esteemed author seems to take more issue with capitalism than with Google, only finding it convenient to paint Google as a profiteering pirate because it changed the way the game was played, and more importantly I believe, the way the author's own game is played. The bulk of his complaint lies in the way that Google is destroying the newspaper model. He seems to think it is somehow wrong that Google makes advertising revenue off of search; apparently only newspapers have the right to make that money. He even goes so far as to say Google has created nothing. I for one constantly use what it has created, and by engaging this technology my life has made all the easier. Doesn't dear Henry know that he too can be Googled?

Monopolies can be scary. It is terrifying to think that one company can control so much. But I would challenge Mr. Porter to think about the sum total.

He writes about music producers who demanded more money from Google for videos streamed on YouTube, prompting Google's refusal to pay and the removal of the content. Well, what's better: not getting more money but giving people greater access to this content, which in the end arguably leads to more revenue, or not being accessible at all?

In the end the article really reads like a newspaper man bitter about how two college students (by virtue of their own creative abilities, by the way) created a better way to deliver information much to the delight of most of the public. He claims this is an amoral menace that will destroy us. Isn't discouraging innovation and progress an equally, if not infinitely worse, proposition? He reminds me of the antagonists in Ayn Rand's We the Living.

My favorite part of the piece actually has nothing to do with the content itself, and one commenter brilliantly points it out. I absolutely loved seeing the "Ads by Google" box directly following his article.