Julian Assange: Champion of Freedom of Expression or Criminal? – by “Nick M”

Censorship vs. Freedom of Expression

In the United States, freedom of speech is the very first protected right listed in the Bill of Rights. As the First Amendment reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The Supreme Court has had many interpretations of this amendment over what “freedom of speech” in the First Amendment actually implies. Although one might think of freedom of speech as closely associated with our identity and heritage as Americans and thus a ubiquitously accepted right, there have been several controversial rulings on this issue, especially in cases where one individuals’ freedom of speech might be perceived to infringe on others’ preserved rights (ie: if my freedom of speech to shout fire in a movie theater infringes on your freedom to not be trampled).

Indeed, practically speaking, it is apparent that simply not all types of speech can be tolerated for a society to function. Some forms of speech are accordingly plainly and thoroughly outlawed by US law, such as fraudulent advertising, child pornography, fighting words, words used in a criminal transaction, unlicensed broadcasts, copyright infringement (hello DMCA), libel, slander, and threats, among others. Most of these forms of speech are restricted because they have a compelling government interest: the US government may regulate, or censor speech if it has a compelling interest, is a public concern, or threatens national safety.


All the cool kids are doing it

For example, it is even considered legal to express certain forms of hate speech as long as one does not actually do the activities or encourage others to do them. However, once these groups overstep their boundaries and their actions can be interpreted as violating a compelling government interest, they can (and have) been regulated. For example, the Ku Klux Klan has been denied certain marching permits (a real tragedy) and the Westboro Baptist Church (which became famous recently for protesting military funerals) was sued for its activities (however the ruling was later controversially overturned on appeal in the US Supreme Court). These examples illustrate that while legal history has defined certain finite limitations on the freedom of speech, courts have ultimately historically held that in order for freedom of speech to exist, it must necessarily be protected to allow the unpopular, offensive, and distasteful.

Background on Wikileaks

The “Wikileaks controversy” is a great example of the tension between this freedom of expression and censorship. Wikileaks (NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH WIKIPEDIA) is the name of an international non-profit organization run by founder, editor-in-chief, and director Julian Assange, that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers. Since it went online, the site has published an extensive catalogue of secret material, ranging from materials on procedures at Guantánamo Bay, to the contents of Sarah Palin’s private email account. Look at Trigg!!!!

What Assange and his Wikileaks team are doing is technically not illegal under international law nor under various countries’ laws (more to come on this later); nonetheless, several nations (notably Assange’s home country of Australia, China, Germany, Iceland, Thailand, and the United States) have limited access, or in some cases blacklisted and completely blocked all traffic to the site. The United States has blocked access to the site in various government agencies in addition to issuing several other 1984-reminiscient demands. I’m insulted they didn’t threaten Yale. (Although this claim was later refuted by government officials…).

Larry Flynt Reincarnate- Another Champion for Freedom of Expression?

Julian Assange






... and Larry Flynt, separated at birth?



Assange himself believes that Wikileak’s role (and his on Earth apparently) is to expose injustice, not to provide an even-handed record of events. In an invitation to potential collaborators in 2006, he wrote, “Our primary targets are those highly oppressive regimes in China, Russia and Central Eurasia, but we also expect to be of assistance to those in the West who wish to reveal illegal or immoral behavior in their own governments and corporations.” He has argued that a “social movement” to expose secrets could “bring down many administrations that rely on concealing reality—including the US administration.”

Many agree that Assange’s work is beneficial and even noble, believing that by increasing transparency of government operations, Assange will ultimately force governments to act in more accountable manners. Calling Assange a “champion of freedom of speech,” proponents of his work believe that Assange provides information that the public has a right to know, and that both international and US efforts to suppress his efforts constitute a significant threat to freedom of expression world-wide. Proponents of his cause believe that the right to freedom of information outweighs the potentially dangerous effects of revealing US military strategy, pointing to the fact that none of the published cables were kept at the highest levels of secrecy, inferring from this that nothing truly sensitive has been revealed. Organizations such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the “blocking, cyber-attacks and political pressure” directed at the cables’ website from all over the world, and expressed concern at comments made by American authorities “concerning Wikileaks and its founder Julian Assange.” “This is the first time we have seen an attempt at the international community level to censor a website dedicated to the principle of transparency,” RSF said.

Indeed, Assange’s work has been received to some international acclaim, as the Wikileaks foundeer has received a number of awards and nominations, including the 2009 Amnesty International Media Award for publishing material about extrajudicial killings in Kenya and Readers’ Choice for TIME magazine’s 2010 Person of the Year.

Or a Criminal?

However, despite the seemingly good intentions of Assange’s work, his work has had serious repercussions. Some of the information that his organization has published includes confidential military documents that reveal great deals of US strategy and policy. As Wikileaks makes this information publically-accessible, Assange’s work has potentially compromised US national security, essentially placing in danger not only the lives of soldiers who rely on the secrecy of these documents, but also the lives of citizens at home who are now more vulnerable to attack.

Claiming that his information compromises national security, the US Justice Department has attempted to prosecute Assange under the Espionage Act, which makes it broadly illegal to compromise national security by interfering with the US military. In 2011, an unknown person in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had received a subpoena regarding the Espionage Act’s “conspiracy” clause 18 U.S.C. § 793(g), as well as the federal embezzlement law 18 U.S.C. § 641, a statute used in some other Espionage Act-related cases. A grand jury has begun meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, to hear evidence and decide whether an indictment should be brought.

However, critics of the legal approach of charging Assange under the Espionage Act argue that the broad language of the Act could make news organizations and anyone who reported, printed, or disseminated information from Wikileaks subject to prosecution as well. This slippery-slope argument might ultimately undermine this attempt to prosecute Assange, as further spinoffs from this type of reasoning might be interpreted as uancceptably limiting freedom of expression (if a magazine publishes an article from a magazine that publishes an article from a magazine that publishes an article from Wikileaks – WHERE DOES IT END!!?!?!).

Despite his steel-clad safe haven behind these concerns, Assange has faced a growing number of other problems, including rape charges in Sweden (Update: Good news for Assange! The rape charges have been dropped….but replaced with….?) and having his assets frozen by a number of banks. He does not operate out of an office, but rather remains on the move for extended periods of time in order to avoid extradition to countries that would be eager to repay him for his “noble work.”

My Take

Has the US acted correctly in its response to Assange and Wikileaks? Should our censorship laws be altered to prevent this type of unwanted freedom of expression? Does their inability to prosecute (as of yet) mean that Assange is without blame?

Yes, no, and probably not. The fact remains that our First Amendment technically protects his right to freedom of expression, and, just like protecting the right to protest military funerals, if we want to stay true to our traditions of maintaing a society of freedom of speech, Assange shoudl not be prosecuted for his Wikileaks-related work. Our censorship laws in this regard, should not be fundamentally changed in order to close a loophole that Assange is seemingly exploiting. Thus, the fact that the US (at best) is proceeding cautiously with charging Assange is the correct response if we wish to maintain true to our traditions.

This does not, however, mean that I believe Assange to be a noble champion of our First Amendment rights. I believe his actions to be wrong, plain and simple. The fact remains that in order for a government to function properly, not all information can or should be transparent. As a citizen, I willingly abdicate my right to know this information, trusting my government to make certain determinations for me. Voting with my feet, I can choose what country to live in, and what  government to trust (granted, this is not possible for everyone, but the concept is clear).  Thus, Assange’s actions don’t increase the global levels of democracy through transparency of government operations, in my opinion, but rather make the world a more dangerous place for me to live in, as a result of the increased knowledge of the US military’s vulnerabilities.

Defame Monster – by “Jake E”


Situation: someone, anonymously, begins posting things about you on the Internet. Bad things, things that make you look like a scumbag. None of it is true, of course, but when a potential employer Googles you or grandma learns how to use Spokeo (tagline: “Not your grandma’s white pages.”) or one of the other dozens of data aggregators, you could be in very real, very big trouble, for something you didn’t do.

What can you do? Well, obviously, your first concern is getting the website to take down the material. So you should just talk to the website, right? Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.

It’s true that many websites have mechanisms built in for reporting defamation. YouTube allows users to “flag” things like videos containing hate speech and user harassment. Facebook has similar flagging capabilities for hate speech and bullying. But what actually happens when you use these mechanisms to report your defamation?

Before we dive into this, let’s look at the legal basis for all of this.

The Law

What is defamation? The Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 559 defines defamatory communication like so: “A communication is defamatory if it tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the stimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” Simple enough.

But how is liability for defamation determined? § 558 of this Restatement states:

To create liability for defamation there must be:

  1. a false and defamatory statement concerning another;
  2. an unprivileged publication to a third party;
  3. fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher [with respect to the act of publication]; and
  4. either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm or the existence of special harm caused by the publication

Okay, well that seems fair. I can haz lawsuit now?

Not so fast. The Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 adds a twist, with § 230 (c), which says: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” What does that mean?

Traditionally, publishers are held liable for content they publish—they have a responsibility to make sure nothing in it is defamatory, among other things. Distributors, on the other hand, are held to a much lesser standard of liability because they’re merely “passive conduits” as Jonathan Zittrain calls them, though some liability is still maintained. CDA § 230 (c) thereby says that no service provider (here: website) can be treated as either the publisher or original writer of content that someone else posted on that site. This is to encourage websites to screen themselves for content without suddenly jumping from weak distributor liability to strong publisher liability—thus, websites can filter their own user-submitted content without fearing if they miss something they’ll have a lawsuit on their hands. This in turn encourages free speech on the Internet, because if instead sites had to filter all potentially objectionable content, everything would be heavily censored. (The reason filtering of any sort is encouraged by Congress is the fear that a lack of filtering will lead to children stumbling upon pornography.)

So a website can’t be held to publisher liability standards for things its users post. But it still must adhere to weak distributor liability standards, right? Well, no. In Zeran v. America Online, Inc. it was found that the failure to mention distributors in § 230 (c) was a Congressional oversight and, in fact, such a website can’t be held liable even as a distributor. Something posted is entirely the poster’s fault.

So if you’ve been defamed, you can at least go after the person who’s been spreading lies about you on message boards, right? Well, maybe not. Barrett v. Rosenthal expanded on the Zeran decision, noting in addition that because the CDA makes no distinction between an “active” and a “passive” user, anyone posting anything online isn’t liable for it so long as they’re not the original poster. (The court here notes that at some point a line will have to be more clearly defined for when reposting hits the level where it constitutes its own original act of content generation, but because of the case, “we need not consider when that line is crossed.” To date, it still has not been defined.)

So the person spreading lies about you isn’t liable as long as someone else said it first, and the websites on which all of these people are posting the lies can’t be held liable either. You can only sue the original poster for defamation, and that’s that.

But surely websites are cooperative if you’ve got a real claim that someone is defaming you? Well, perhaps. Before we answer this, let’s look at the other reason a user-generated-content website would have its content filtered or removed: copyright.


The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998 paved the way for copyright holders, in particular music and movie distribution companies, to strongly protect their copyright claims, even in an age when the spreading of such files on the Internet has become commonplace. If YaleLawTech Records holds the copyright for “Don’t Mess with that CSS,” a popular song that they’ve found has been illegally used as a catchy background to a YouTube video, YLT Records simply has to send a takedown notice, specified in the DMCA, to YouTube. YouTube even has a standard webform to fill out if you don’t want to go to the effort to hire a lawyer.

When it receives such a takedown notice, it is in the best interests of YouTube (and similar sites) to simply remove the allegedly copyrighting content, without any examination into the validity of the copyright claim. By removing the video, YouTube becomes immune to all copyright infringement liability according to the DMCA, without which it would be facing thousands of copyright infringement suits. If on the other hand YouTube chooses not to remove the content immediately, even if such inaction is justified, YouTube would be inviting lawsuits and thus legal fees that it could live without.

In short, if a website receives a DMCA takedown notice, it’ll take down the questionable material immediately, no questions asked, without worrying whether or not the material was actually infringing upon a copyright and the takedown notice was actually valid.

Comparing Copyright to Defamation

So a website will take down allegedly copyrighted materials immediately because of the safe harbor the DMCA grants it for doing so. Shouldn’t it do the same for defamation? Unfortunately, because of the clear protections of the CDA, most websites have very little incentive to do so. If an item defames you, the website hosting it is immune from all defamation liability and as long as it’s not actually harming business to keep the material up (like hate speech might). So what do different websites actually do?


Copyright Infringement

On filing DMCA takedown notices, Facebook says: “We will make every effort to review your report as quickly as we can. So long as everything appears to be in order, we will promptly remove or disable access to the content. We will also notify the user and, if requested, provide your report to the user. We will terminate repeat infringers when appropriate.”

Facebook has an automated DMCA form for filing DMCA takedown notices, and additionally lists the mailing address of its DMCA Designated Agent and has other info on its copyright help page.


Facebook’s Terms of Use state: “You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user.” How closely this ties to defamation is unclear. Further, if the person being defamed is not him/herself a Facebook user, the only part of the Terms that relates is: “You will not use Facebook to do anything unlawful, misleading, malicious, or discriminatory,” which is weak and indirect in this case.

To report “abuse” (violations of the Terms of Use), Facebook has a “Report _____” link below every image, message, video, event, etc. Nowhere does Facebook mention how long they will take to respond to reported content, and many times they state that “reporting … content doesn’t guarantee that they or it will be removed.”


Copyright Infringement

YouTube is famous for its quick responses to DMCA takedown notices. It has, as mentioned above, a copyright complaint webform which can be filled out in less than a minute. For mass claims, YouTube created a Content Verification Program, whereby copyright holders (read: record labels) can submit an application verifying that they are a copyright holder (which implicitly acknowledges that the standard copyright complaint webform doesn’t really check for one’s identity) and then use YouTube’s “industry-leading Content Identification and Verification Tools.” These tools essentially let copyright holders have YouTube automatically scan videos for copyrighted content and then automatically either implements predetermined actions to monetize, record tracking data on, or block those videos infringing your copyrights. With this, copyright holders no longer even need to find or alert YouTube to copyrighted content, they can simply sit back and have search spiders make them money.


YouTube’s Community Guidelines (themselves a section of the Terms of Service) says: “Things like … harassment … are taken very seriously. Anyone caught doing these things may be permanently banned from YouTube.” No timeframe, no standards, nothing.

YouTube, like Facebook, has a system of having users “flag” content as “inappropriate” and says only that its staff reviews flagged videos (no mention of comments, etc.) “24 hours a day, seven days a week.” Great.


Copyright Infringement

MySpace seems to be behind the times in not having any automated webform for submitting DMCA takedown notices (their fastest method is by writing your own notice and emailing it to them). For further evidence that MySpace is behind the times, note that its second method of communication is “facsimile.” MySpace does not include a timeframe for how quickly they will respond to such notices.


Harassment and cyberbullying are against MySpace’s Terms of Use, and such activities can be reported by using MySpace’s built-in all-purpose “Contact MySpace” form and including the offending user’s “friend ID” and a screenshot of the offending behavior. Just today, MySpace uploaded a new document in its help center on harassment, directing users to either block the harassing user or, if in danger, to call 911—no longer mentioning reporting this behavior to MySpace. MySpace says, “We promise to check it out and do our best to get back to you within 48 hours,” which is the closest thing to a timeframe any of these sites have stated.


Copyright Infringement

Twitter also has an automated DMCA takedown notice webform. It also lists an email address that can be used for such complaints in the event the webform does not work. They don’t mention a timeframe for responses.


Twitter only responds to serious, violent threats and violations of personal privacy, period. Everything else, you should just block. No mention of timeframes for Twitter responses.


Copyright Infringement

Flickr has, surprisingly, no clear DMCA takedown notice procedures. Instead, it has a link to a page on filing DMCA notices with Yahoo!, which lists an mailing address, phone number, fax number, and email address (in that order) to contact. No mention of a timeframe for a response.


Flickr uses Yahoo!’s Terms of Service, which only says users agree not to “‘stalk’ or otherwise harass another” as the closest thing to defamation. Flickr has a “report abuse” button to use for reporting this behavior, with no clear timeframe for a response.


Copyright Infringement

Having no real procedure for this (as it’s not really an issue yet), it seems DMCA notices must be sent directly to another Google address. Copyright isn’t mentioned anywhere in its User Content and Conduct Policy. Based on anecdotal evidence Google has removed offending content in six days, after at least something of a conversation with the complainant (no auto-removal systems in place).


Google+ has “Report Abuse” links for what its User Content and Conduct Policy calls “violent or bullying behavior.” Libel, per se, isn’t mentioned. No idea of a timeframe for responses


As shown in the disparities between services’ treatment of DMCA takedown notices and claims of libel/defamation, websites are much more interested in protecting copyright claims, especially those of big companies, than in protecting the average person from libel. But we can’t blame these websites; their actions are a direct reaction to the differences in liability granted by the DMCA and the CDA. If we want to see change, this needs to be reflected in our laws. Should websites more strictly police alleged libel, or does that run the risk of encouraging censorship of free speech? Should websites put more effort into discerning the validity of copyright infringement claims, or does that disincentivize progress? However we stand, if we don’t agree with the system now we must reevaluate our legal policies because the implementations reflect the laws, and the laws are clear: copyright is protected at all costs from infringement, but not the reputation of the individual from defamation.

Facebook Patents Big Brother – by “Charlie C”

FB Like Button

Ahhh, a symbol of progress: The Facebook Like Button. Residing on almost every legitimate page on the internet these days, it enables socially hyperactive users to let the world know that they “Like” the page they are currently visiting. The button above, for instance, could enable you to like YaleBluebook, a new course information system my suitemate and I designed for students at Yale. But that’s not all this nifty little button can do, it also let’s Facebook know that you are currently viewing a blog post on the Yale Law & Technology class blog.

On a large scale, the question we have to ask ourselves is: Do we have the right to privacy on the internet? The current cultural movement seems to answer with a resounding “yes.” All major browsers have recently implemented a private browsing mode which allows people to view sites without having any of their activity stored locally. This is the “Incognito” or private browsing window you probably use while perusing porn. However, this only protects your local computer. The servers hosting these websites still store information about your visit, with potentially personally identifiable information (IP Address). A recent movement by the Mozilla foundation has tried to standardize the use of the “Do-Not-Track” signal, which is a message that could be sent by your browser to websites, asking the websites not to record any information about your visit. However, there’s no way to enforce such an option, and no incentive for the website to do so.

The issues of privacy and anonymity seem to have become more intertwined recently. The only way of ensuring that my personal information isn’t being mis-used is to make sure that they don’t have any of personal information. Yet there are many positive reasons for websites to track IP addresses, so it seems the only logical course is to focus on privacy and when recording personal information on our net activity goes too far.

So why would Facebook care about this little blog though? Good question! Turns out behind the scenes Facebook has been working to create Google AdSense a nifty social advertising program. Unfortunately, the Pacific Ocean sized amount of data they have on you right now isn’t enough to compete with Google. So they figured, why not collect data on you about every site you visit? This recent patent is the key to unraveling Facebooks creepily invasive monetization scheme. In this post I plan to look at a few key points of the new patent.

I'll just stop paying for my Facebook subscription then...oh...wait...


What it Does

In case you still haven’t opened up the actual patent, here is the abstract:

In one embodiment, a method is described for tracking information about the activities of users of a social networking system while on another domain…The method additionally includes receiving one or more communications from a third-party website having a different domain than the social network system, each message communicating an action taken by a user of the social networking system on the third-party website. The method additionally includes logging the actions taken on the third-party website in the social networking system, each logged action including information about the action. The method further includes correlating the logged actions with one or more advertisements presented to the one or more users on the third-party website as well as correlating the logged actions with a user of the social networking system.

There’s three main components this patent describes, they are, in order of ascending bothersome-ness:

  1. The ability to transmit information back to Facebook from a website that is not facebook
  2. The ability to log actions you take on that non-facebook site and send those actions back to facebook
  3. The ability to use that data to display ads to you and your friends, on facebook and on third party sites.

Putting those three components together, we come up with some exciting scenarios:

Vibrator Storefront with friends who have bought this
The not so distant future...


Now you might think to yourself, “I’ve seen things like that already” (the friend recommendations I mean), but this ain’t your standard friend recommendation system, there are a few key passages in the patent I want to highlight.

In particular embodiments, the social network system receives messages from these third-party websites that communicate the actions taken by users while in the third-party websites.

Ever wonder why your Facebook ads always tend towards singles dating sites, ben and jerry’s, and Notebook Blu-Ray ads? (Or is that just me…?) Turns out that Facebook plans on mixing various data sources to decide which ads to show you. Right now, this is restricted to data facebook has access to such as your relationship status, favorite movies, political interests, etc. But in the near future, partner websites will be able to send data back to facebook with information about which ads were shown to you and which you clicked on, in addition they might send information about which products you bought from the partner site. This serves the two-fold purpose of telling Facebook how effective their advertising was (did you buy the yoga pants after you were shown the yoga ad yesterday?) and also telling facebook your interests (I see you could use a Yoga ball to go with those pants).

And for the majority of the patent, Facebook talks about wanting to know what ads you’ve seen, clicked on, and actually purchased the product from. However, if you wade through the million times they say “In particular embodiments”, you come across:

Another example illustrating real-world actions that may be tracked involves what program material the user is accessing on a television system. A television and/or set-top receiver may…transmit a message indicating that a user is viewing (or recording) a particular program on a particular channel at a particular time.

Wait, I’ve totally seen this somewhere before…

Big Brother is Watching
Oh, I guess that was more of content generation...

That’s right. There is apparently no limit to the amount of data facebook is willing to know about you. They want to know what events you attend, what credit card purchases you make, what stores you enter, classes you take…everything. Facebook wants to know every detail of your digital life.

So the real question is, what do they plan to do with all this data? Well currently it looks like they plan to use it to inform advertising not only on their site, but on other sites. I’ve already shown an example of how it might be used on other sites (OhMiBod). In addition, they might show more traditional Google AdSense ads (profit sharing with publishers). The secret sauce is in how the ads are selected and displayed. It seems they will use some combination of your profile, friends profiles, your browsing history and your friends browsing histories. Ads will be inherently social, letting you know that n of your friends recently purchased a product, or are attending a promoted event, or simply liked an emerging brand. The transition to this new system will actually be transparent to users:

McDonalds Social Advertising

Coincidence? I think not. For instance, Facebook can correlate the fact that you were recently on the McDonald’s homepage with the fact that 6 of your friends like McDonalds, AND the fact that Johnny Rocket likes him some BigMacs (ironic isn’t it?), throw it all into a magic algorithm and come up with the brillant idea to show you some McDonalds ads. While this might normally appear on your newsfeed, it just so happens that McDonalds has paid to have this “news article” appear more readily (the barrier number of friends before it’s shown might be lower). From the patent:

One benefit of mixing the newsfeed stories and the social ads in a single list presented to a user is that there may be little or no differentiation between advertising and general information that a user would want to know. Users visit social network systems to keep up to date on what their friends are doing, and the social ad can be as useful to the user as any other newsfeed story. Because the social ads and newsfeed stories may all be taken from the action log  it may be impossible for a user to determine whether an entry in the user’s newsfeed is a newsfeed story or a social ad. In fact, the content of a social ad could actually show up as an organic, unpaid newsfeed story in other contexts.

And therein lies the beauty of this whole thing. You’ll never even know. They will take your browsing history, your friends information, and your relationship status and a whole lot of advertisers money, but to you it’ll just look like another average news feed story.



What it doesn’t do (or rather doesn’t claim to):

There was recently an uproar that this patent would allow Facebook to track all users, not just logged in Facebook users. This came to a climax when it was discovered that the Facebook user id was being stored on users’ computers even after logout. Last week though Facebook patched this “bug” and defended its position that the patent is not designed to track logged out users.

I have two fundamental points to make on this issue.

1. As an experiment, go to this page. Did it ask you to login? Chances are that if you’re reading a blog post such as this one, you were already logged into facebook. So it doesn’t really matter that it only tracks logged in users, since who actually logs out?

Facebook Splash Page
Unless your page looks like this, they got you. Well they probably did anyways...

2. Although this patent doesn’t specifically mention tracking logged out users, it never explicitly denies that possibility. In fact, in the very paragraph Facebook refers to when defending its position, the text states:

By using this technique, the third party website and the social network system can communicate about the user without sharing any of the user’s personal information and without requiring the user to log into the social network system.

To me, this text reads quite the opposite way. It seems that although Facebook isn’t sending data about a specific user…it could still send data about the users events. From a technological standpoint, this information could be saved in a cookie on the users computer which could then be transmitted when a user logged into Facebook. Put differently, even though you’re logged out of Facebook, if they can make a reasonable inference about which Facebook user was using the computer when it was logged out, they might just queue that data and associate it with you when you log back in.


The Good News

I realize this post sounds somewhat alarmist, but the fact of the matter is if they patented it, they probably intend to use it. This is actually a brilliant idea which will undoubtedly immediately bring them into contention with Google AdSense. Right now, they claim to not be using this technology and they have stated that if it does become used it will of course be subject to their industry difficult opt-out program. I can’t help but wonder where it will end. Once this infrastructure is in place, it’s just a small side-step for them to track everyone.

We should be aware of our rights as internet users. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to change the internet culture to the point where Facebook doesn’t track our actions on its site, but I certainly think we should have the expectation of privacy (from Facebook and really anyone else) on third-party sites. When we view websites, that should be a privileged relationship between the viewer and the site. That site should be able to track our movements for it’s own reporting purposes, and maybe even to provide aggregated data to other parties, but it should not be able to sell tracking data alongside personal data (I.E. cannot say IP Address visited A, B, and C). It should be made much clearer what companies are doing with the data they collect on us, and we need to ability to opt out. I don’t think the way the internet works currently supports this, but hopefully through cultural, technological, or regulatory changes we can work towards a more data-safe internet in the future.

The FCC needs to step up it’s game and require more clear communication when user data is being collected and sold to third-parties. Facebook is starting to move into shady territory. It seems that neither the person publishing the like button, nor the consumer clicking on it understand exactly what is going on behind the scenes. No more legalese, implicit privacy agreements. I want a big fat popup, with clear instructions on how to keep myself hidden.

It's more of an opt-in box when you think about it

For now, hope for the best and be aware of your facebook privacy panel. Make sure you opt out of as much as possible! And please be sure to start an uproar if this Apple patent ever becomes used. Remember, just because it’s patented doesn’t mean it’s legal.

Cyberbullies: Bullying Then and Now – by “Will P”

Kids are mean


Children are cruel creatures.  This is not new nor should we be surprised.  What’s different now is that there is a record of it.  Before what happened on the playground stayed on the playground.  But when insults can be exchanged online, there is a persistent record of the taunts.  This persistence can be more stressful for the “cyber-victim”, because unlike a simple verbal jab, it isn’t ephemeral, and presents the opportunity for many to jump on the dog pile.

The other – in my opinion, probably unfortunate – difference between “traditional” and “cyber” bullying is that now adults can read the insults against their children or students word for word.  Imagine if someone provided your parents with every insult you said as a child along with every insult you received.  Yes, there would be a clusterstorm.

Let’s stop kids from being mean

Let’s convert the Pope to Judaism too!

I’ve found the “adult” reaction to cyberbullying to be like an episode of South Park: the children are really mean to each other and the adults overreact in a comically irrational way.  This past summer, ABC Family released a film Cyberbully to inform folks about the dangers of cyberbullying (and probably also to capitalize on the brouhaha).  You can probably guess the plot, but I’ll summarize it pictorially (please pardon the misuse of memes):

Plot of Cyberbullies

I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t think cyberbullying isn’t an important issue, but I’m always cautious when someone’s reaction to a situation is to try to pass a law without examining any alternative options first.

What about the laws in those states?

Can we send the evil bully to prison?

Actually, in the Great State of Missouri, cyber-harassment is a Class D felony – punishable by up to four years imprisonment – along with a third DUI conviction and fraud.

Personally I fail to see what is reasonable about dealing with problems between children through legal means.  If the anti-cyberbullying activists claim cyberbullying is so dangerous because digital harassment is persistent, how does sending another kid to court lessen the time the original harassment is an issue?

Legal action should be a last resort (this is a normative claim!).  There are much better options for everyone’s sake available.  In ABC Family’s movie Cyberbully, the bullying stopped when the protagonist simply stood up for herself and when her mother confronted the parents of the offending children.  We don’t always need to make new laws, when a new technology emerges; we just need to figure out how to solve the same problems that we’ve dealt with for generations… but online.   In Cyberbully, despite its portrayal, the internet is not to blame for bullying, people are.

I think part of the reason for the severity of these cyberbullying statutes is that we actually dehumanize the bullies.  Just as the cyberbullies are willing to make more obscene statements because they aren’t in front of their victims in real life, we are willing to deal with these cyberbullies because our image of these cyberbullies is some internet Beelzebub rather than another child.

Law vs. Code

Could this discussion be applied to this topic?

That ABC Family movie told the story of how harassment on a site, which is a thinly-veiled stand in for Facebook, could get out of hand.  The movie emphasized that profiles could be fake, information could exist forever, and that there is no “delete button.”  The family resorts to lobbying for a law, but if we look at these particular grievances, Facebook is actually quite good about having code mechanisms for dealing with this set of issues.

  1. There actually is a delete button
  2. Facebook in my cases requires email verification to join a particular network, so the risk of someone faking a profile that would be reasonably believably is slight
  3. You can report fake profiles:

//It would have been really easy for friends, who were too afraid to say anything, to anonymously report and end the entire situation

Solving a problem

What Constitution?

I quick Google search for cyberbullying turns up www.stopcyberbullying.org the website of an organization dedicated to stopping the scourge of cyberbullying.  The site has information for children, parents, politicians, and law enforcement.  It didn’t take much browsing to come across this gem:

One of their categories of cyberbullies is the called “Revenge of Nerds.”  Its description includes this quote: “Because of this and their tech skills, they can be the most dangerous of all cyberbullies.”  Ah yes, nerds are indeed the laser-armed sharks of the internet.

This “charming” website has advice to offer schools: you too can enact “regulations” to stop cyberbullying no matter how much this would infringe on the Constitutional rights of students.  The site says:

“If schools are creative, they can sometimes avoid the claim that their actions exceeded their legal authority for off-campus cyberbullying actions. We recommend that a provision is added to the school’s acceptable use policy reserving the right to discipline the student for actions taken off-campus if they are intended to have an effect on a student or they adversely affect the safety and well-being of student while in school. This makes it a contractual, not a constitutional, issue.”

I’m always impressed by a website when they provide persons of authority ways of circumventing Constitutional protections against overzealous school administrators.

Some problems don’t have solutions

X2 = -1, yes, a solution exists but it’s imaginary

Bullying has been around since at and before the dawn of man.  Unfortunately there’s no way to end it.  It isn’t as simple as passing a law – people break laws, and they do so frequently.  When faced with the inevitability of bullying, rather than trying to eradicate it, we should focus more on teaching children (and adults) how to cope with it.  Alas, that would be too reasonable.

The Freedom to be Fantastic (or F***d Up). – by “Colby B”

Ah, the First Amendment. Our high regard of the right to free speech borderlines worship- to suggest that one should ‘watch their words’ could bring forth either livid accusations(Stop Infringin’ mah rights!) or proud exclamations (“It’s a free country!”). We treasure our capacity to say what we want when we want to, no matter how thoughtless, careless, or offensive it may be.  Now, before we get all high and mighty with our ‘Merican rights we may want to remember that there are a few slight, small, teeny-weeny exceptions to First Amendment. Here goes: The Court has decided that the First Amendment does not fully protect commercial speech, defamation, speech that may be harmful to children, speech publicly broadcast, and public employees’ speech. The Court provides NO protection to obscenity, child pornography, or speech that constitutes “advocacy of the use of force or of law violation.” Lastly, speech may be restricted to serve a “compelling interest” of the government.” Whew…got that? No, you didn’t. Why? Because this is Yale; we wouldn’t be learning about it if it were straightforward.

"You, too, will understand one day, when you graduate..."

Ok, well most of those restrictions make sense if pursued for the right purposes. The problem comes when prohibited uses of free speech such as ‘defamation’, ‘speech harmful to children’, and ‘advocacy of law violation’ are introduced to a massive public forum, where recklessness enabled by anonymity runs wild. Changes in technology and society yield parallel changes or adjustments to our laws as well. And this is, of course, a good thing. Who knows what television, radio, or phone service would look like if we didn’t have the government involved?

"We could have had it all, you and I."

But now that we have the Internet, it’s a completely different ballgame. The instantaneity and pervasiveness of the Internet explodes the potential for individual free expression. But, as it turns out, it also becomes infinitely easier to piss off lots of people too. Whether it be accusing your employer of being a Nazi Heiress, uploading smut, luring an unsuspecting victim to the sweet dulcet tones of Rick Astley, or just generally being offensive and/or a dick, the Internet allows you to do all of these things and from behind the safety of a computer screen. While this may raise some concerns regarding the limits of individual expression on the net, the eyes of the law view such expression as mostly acceptable or necessary evil. The Court has time and time again chosen to favor the larger picture, embracing wide expression and thought even if offensive. If the court were to attempt to curtail anything that might be deemed  ‘offensive’, it would also undermine the extent and breadth of the First Amendment in the long run. As of now it is only possible to make generic and broad restrictions against content; content would be eliminated in clumps rather than carefully selected and valuable forms of expression would be lost in the process.

Content relating to the Hilary Clinton campaign was blocked on some web filters.

The CDA (Communications Decency Act), for example, attempted to regulate both indecency and obscenity on the Internet. (The difference? I’m still not sure.) However, the Supreme Court determined that the vagueness of the terminology of the bill, specifically the scope of indecency(nobody really knows what indecency actually is or means) ultimately would lead to excessive self-censorship and thus consequently would place a bottleneck on free and productive expression. (Reno vs. ACLU) I can admit that if it weren’t for the free form of the internet I probably wouldn’t post half the things I do on the Internet. The amount of things I search would be cut down to about 10%…my love for absurdity leads me to strange places.

I admit, there’s a lot of porn on the Internet. A completely unscientific study conducted by me and c-c-c-combobreaker.com, a random google image generator, indicates that upwards of 60% of all online images are pornographic. (The actual percentage of pornographic websites is contested; I’ve found numbers ranging from 1% to 12%, which is pretty small compared to the wild claims you here on T.V.) While the general ease of access to pornographic material to kids these days is troubling, it is not worth restructuring the essential form of the internet itself. Neither filters nor regulation to ‘protect our youth’ were ever viable, much less effective, solutions. If you find out your 7 year old has been watching porn, and you can’t either a) talk to your kids about it or b) prevent it from happening in the future, you have problems much bigger than the breasts your child might have seen. I feel that the issue at its core is very simple, yet the American cultural attitude toward sexuality is deeply flawed. Our tendency to repress prevent exposure to sexuality contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. An Internet filter that prevents your kids from seeing naked people isn’t going to change that anytime soon.

“Code is Law”

Network Neutrality has been a rallying cause for Internet users for close to 10 years. Net neutrality is, simply stated, the prevention of the centralization of the Internet by ISPs and maintenance of free and open access to online content for everyone. I never saw the deep two-fold connection between net neutrality and free speech until I read Balkin’s article on Web access.

Balkin states that section 230 of the Telecommunication act is the cornerstone of our ability to freely communicate on the net. Section 230 states that providers of services (e.g. phone service or internet service) are not liable for the actions of their users, thus giving service providers little or no incentive to limit access to their subscribers. I think its pretty apparent that without this essential clause we would not have what we love and hate about the Internet today: Lol-cats, hate websites, Facebook, chat forums, or any user-generated content for that matter. The brilliance or crud you see on the net can all be attributed to the freedom of its users. Just imagine receiving letters from your ISP because of a comment you posted instead of that copy of  “Along Came Polly” you downloaded. However, unlike that movie download, which you’ll probably do again but in a smarter way (you just can’t get enough of Ben Stiller’s bipolar hilarity), you’ll be much less likely to add to online discussion in a frank and honest way ever again.  Its because of the structure of the Internet that users can, to an extent, pioneer their own environments.


Techno-Scholars, like Wendy Chun , have written extensively on the distinctions between cyberspace and the Internet. In this school of thought, cyberspace, the space we inhabit online, is really more an illusion of agency and freedom than control as such. Web’sites’,  electronic ‘mail addresses’…all of this is essentially a cover for a physical infrastructure that is subject to the control of programmers, technological limitations,  corporations, and the law that governs how these all will operate and co-exist. The freedom and innovation we enjoy today is precarious and unstable. Cyberspace is ephemeral, transient, dynamic and constantly changing. Should one ISP decide to set a precedent of throttling or setting up barriers to access and happen to make a ton of money doing it, they’ve set a new precedent for the rest of the industry and the innovation we see in startups and major companies alike would come to a screeching halt.  Here, I’m preaching to the choir (virtually everyone enrolled in this class is well aware of how the Internet works and the issues surrounding its use,) but the same cannot be said for the most of America.

"I've been looking for these files for hours..."

The issue of free speech that  interweaves through every topic we’ve discussed thus far (copyright, fair-use, cyber-bullying, re-mix…I could just go through the syllabus) comes full circle. Free speech is simultaneously contingent upon itself, because it encourages innovation (companies are free to create services that prosper precisely because they can take advantage of the unfiltered-ness of the net) and new products that in turn enable creativity and open expression by the every-man; both of which are contingent upon the business models of those who create the Internet. Unfortunately, a business model is something that can change radically with time, and is often detrimental to consumers. Is a vocal minority of active web users enough to prevent the re-creation or restructuring of the Internet? I hope so. In any event, plenty has been said about network neutrality, so I won’t keep blabbering on about something most of you have probably already read tons of literature about. I am of course obliged to include a ‘call to action’!

Rise up, Webizens!


Take it easy there, tiger.

But seriously…

Learn about Net Neutrality

Do Something about it –


Final Words

I’d like to share some super cool content or application on the topic with you that’ll make you think I’m also a super cool, hip, and happenin’ fella , but I’m going to be honest; while I consider myself  to be above average on the scale of computer know-how, truthfully I’m of the “Top 40” variety when it comes to computers. Whenever I talk to a friend about an awesome new application or web-service I’ve found, or I think that I’ve stumbled upon the next huge trend in computing before anyone else, my excitement is met with a condescending smirk. “Dude, that’s been around for years.” or  “I can’t believe you haven’t seen that before.” are not all too uncommon for me to hear. Maybe my friends are uncommonly tech-savvy, or maybe I’m just the  Dancing Baby of Memes. Anyway, to get to the point, I wouldn’t find any of the things I enjoy online or the utilities that allow my life to run smoothly (on an occasional basis) if the Internet’s architecture wasn’t crafted the way it is. Because of Facebook, Google +, Twitter, 4chan and virtually any method of open communication, we are able to share, discover, and dig deeper into our own unique or newfound interests. Not only that, but they are integrated real-time into our everyday lives! Truly awesome.

The Internet is not shrink wrapped, nor is it sterile. It is raw, refreshing, revealing, revolting, and revolutionary.  Sure, I’ll occasionally get a pornographic banner ad on an otherwise innocuous website during the middle of class every now and again, but to me thats all part of the Internet’s charm. The Court has fought attempts to clean up the Internet in favor of free speech on the net, and I wish that was enough to keep free speech alive. But I’m a little bit afraid that commercialization is going to change things, and not for the better. A quick 3 stumbles on the application ‘StumbleUpon’ brought me returns of “Newark State of Mind” (Parody of Jay-Z’s New York Anthem), “This is Why You Don’t Brag About Sexual Encounters on Facebook”, and 6 Reasons We’re In Another ‘Book-Burning’ Period in History (From Cracked, a favorite of mine). Each page is but a spark of the collective flame of creativity of the Internet. But without open channels to fan the flame, this creativity is almost certain to die or  be buried beneath massively promoted, publicized, and better funded material.

Memes and Online Communities – BFF! – by “Nikola C”

Memes do not create themselves. They do not “evolve.” Communities create and mutate memes, and communities provide the natural selection that perpetuates or puts them to an end.

Meme History 101 – Memes and Online Communities go back a long way

In the beginning (1985), there was the Internet: The Internet. The Meme-Rex. The word was first used to describe “The linked computer network of the U.S. Defense Department.” It is the shorthand for Inter-network.

And on the 1982’nd year AD, William Gibson created Cyberspace…

According to popular consensus, the most successful internet-meme of all times (other than the Internet itself) is the word “Cyberspace.” The word was first used by the person who has perhaps the most significant cultural impact on, well, cyberspace – the sci-fi author William Gibson. He coined the phrase in his famous short story “Burning Chrome” in 1982. The Cyberspace meme was later immortalized by Gibson’s 1984 novel “Neuromancer”. This novel is the first one to ever win the science-fiction “triple crown” – the Hugo Award, the Philip K. Dick Award and the Nebula Award, which is greater than or equal to infinite epicness.

A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding.


I think it is fair to say that the “Neuromancer” novel is itself another early, immortal meme, but it is not as popular in the Internet mainstream as LOLcats for example. Anyhow, the whole universe created by Gibson inspired many of the members of early online communities. Somehow, he successfully turned a monochrome terminal with a blinking cursor into a portal to a romantic world full of adventure.

The Internet Coke Machine:

The “cultural soup” of the early Internet apparently had a peculiar flavor, because another popular meme of the early times was the Internet Coke Machine in CMU. Basically, a bunch of caffeine-hungry computer programmers hacked the Computer Science Department’s Coke Machine, so that they could see if there is any cold “happiness in a bottle” in it without having to go out of their offices. It could also tell them which bottles of coke were best cooled. And all this could be done through this early meme-line-of-code:

> finger coke@cmu_


Bytes’ got temper (-:

                According to Internet Lore, the first emoticon was used in a message sent by Scott Fahlman on 19th September 1982. There was a large discussion of whether emoticons are really necessary – after all neither Shakespeare nor Milton needed to use them. It is 2011 now, however, and we still use smiley faces everywhere. So, as the poet has said, when Natural Selection speaks, debate champions should remain silent. Here is the message (the smiley faces are composed entirely of ASCII, but WordPress converts them to images 😦 ):

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use

Now, our only source of this information is Scott Fahlman himself, but nobody has felt the urge to refute his claim so far, so… let it be. Ideas happen when their time has come anyway, right?

Usenet:  Usenet is one of the first remarkably strong online communities, and it gave birth to many memes still in use today. Did you know that the first recorded use of the term LOL, as in “Laugh out Loud,” was in a Usenet message from the early 1980’s? Yeah, LOL was cool way before we, current students, were born.  Some other abbreviations the Usenet community is to be held accountable for are AFK, BRB and ROTF.

According to Wikipedia, the act of trolling can also be traced back to Usenet, but back in the day it was considered to be a good thing:

“… a veteran of the group might make a post on the common misconception that glass flows over time. Long-time readers would both recognize the poster’s name and know that the topic had been discussed a lot, but new subscribers to the group would not realize, and would thus respond. These types of trolls served as a practice to identify group insiders.”

Yeah. Right. As the community evolved, trolling became tightly associated with the initiation of flame wars, and all those other things that would make people on the internet hate you.

Other popular Usenet memes were BIFF (also B1FF) – a nickname given to Usenet newbies, and it had a meaning similar to the modern “noob” – it was rather unwelcoming.

Godwin’s law – Mike Godwin observed that “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Godwin’s Law’s achieved its meme status when people started citing “Godwin’s Law” in the beginning of almost every Usenet thread they started as a “Reducto ad Hitlerum” measure – they did not want the Nazi comparisons in their discussion.

The “Something Awful” forums: “SA” was started in 1999 as the personal website of Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, but the community that formed around its forum gradually turned into the primary foundry of internet culture. If you have heard of the legendary phrase “All your base are belong to us” it is probably because of this website.

You have no chance to survive make your time.

One of the signature weekly activities of the SA community was “Photoshop Phriday”, during which forum members, or “goons”, as they call themselves, would mash together several images for the sake of parody. Follow the link below to see last Phriday’s phinest:


The SA forums are also has another famous hobby – “The Blue Ball Machine,” which involved the creation of small, looping animations of random devices that maneuvered blue balls. The only requirement was that in every animation, the ball had to enter at one place and exit from another. When tiled next to each other, these animations create the illusion of a gigantic mechanism, and they feel as if they are synchronized to the “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” theme.  Check it out:

The Blue Balls Machine

Max Goldberg, the creator of the “You’re the Man Now, Dog” website – a portal responsible for the popularization of many of the memes of the early 2000’s said in an interview for Wired that “[The Blue Ball Machine] is our most viewed title ever.”,

The SA community created many of the most epic memes of the early 2000’s. In late 2003, one of the goons – moot, would take the online community scene to a whole new level.

4chan.org – 4chan was launched in October 2003 by Christopher ‘moot’ Poole. The website was designed to be an anonymous image exchange forum, with Anime and Manga as its main topics. It gradually turned into one of the most successful meme-factories and online-activism hubs on the internet

So, how did the 4chan community change the world, besides voiding thousands of people of respectable amounts of their mental innocence through /b (also known as the “Random” thread – the community’s most active and controversial board)? Well, some of the most famous memes today originated on 4chan. “Rickrolling”, “LOLcats”, “Caturday”, Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain”, “Pedobear”,” IMMA CHARGIN MAH LAZER” are a few of the popular ones.

I iz in ur class. Eatin ur cupcakez.

There are some other memes that are specific to the 4chan community, but I will not mention them here, for /b reasons.

Many factors that contribute to 4chan’s title as the world’s leading meme factory. While it is not exactly clear what these factors are, I think it would not be too wrong to point out the large number of people in the community and the specific mechanics of the board.

4chan is an image exchange forum, and each thread contains images on a certain topic – Anime, Cars, Weapons and so on. However, not all images that are posted are retained. Once you visit a thread, you can move up to 15 pages back in its history. This, combined with the large number of users posting to threads like /b (Random), makes it rather hard for a certain image to stay within the 15 page range for too long. Online communities create their memes, but they also play the role of Natural Selection for their ideas. Natural Selection in 4chan is pretty ruthless – it is easy for an idea to be sent to the junkyard. Memes survive only if they grab the attention of a large enough part of the community, and the ones that do, like the “LOLcats” one, are often destined to be successful even in different environments than the ones that created them.

YouTube: The third most visited website on the Internet is the home of the majority of the video-memes out there.  “Charlie bit my finger”, “Nyan Cat”, “This is Sparta!”, “Numa Numa”, and ”Obama Girl” are just a few examples.

Nyan Cat

What is interesting about YouTube is that often, unlike other online communities who develop their memes, many memes on YouTube were not developed specifically for the YouTube community. Rather, they become memes only after they are posted to the site – like the “Star Wars Kid” and “Badger Badger Badger.”

Honorable Mentions:

Gaming communities: MMORGP’s, StarCraft2, FPS-communities and so on also produce and perpetuate their own memes. Some examples:

StarCraft2: “Idra: GG”

World Of Warcraft: dancing characters

Counter-Strike: “Headshot!”

Unreal Tournament: “Double Kill… Multi Kill… Mega Kill… Ultra Kill…”

Also, warez servers – Where do you think video-memes were stored before YouTube? The local warez was the only place to find the 3D Dancing Baby video. Also, the terms “leecher” and “seeder” started there.

The end:

This list is not exhaustive at all. I wrote it just to illustrate how different communities and memes evolved over time.

All the examples cited show that Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes as “survival machines” seems to be able to hold its ground. The three factors needed by a survival machine – reproductive potential, ability to mutate, and longevity have all been demonstrated to a certain degree by the memes above. For example: Smiley Face – Viral: Very; Mutable: Very; Longevity: High – still a meme? – Yes. Internet Coke-Machine: Viral: Very; Mutable: Not too much; Longevity: The coke machine was probably scrapped already; still a meme?

I think the answer to the last question is a little tricky. Is the Internet Coke Machine meme dead forever now? And what exactly should we mean by longevity, when applied to memes? Dawkins suggests that “is probably relatively unimportant,” but I think it could have some practical applications if interpreted correctly. While I was writing this blog post, I told several engineering-inclined people about it, and they were very amused and liked the idea a lot. Maybe we can employ longevity to be the distinction between and the factors that cause memes to be active or inactive. After all, many interesting ideas of the past are still interesting today – we do not need to look for Polaris to find where north is, and the knowledge of how to wield a sword is not quite essential for our survival nowadays, but in the right communities, these memes are still active.

When, and do memes actually die? Perhaps it is fair to say that memes materialize within and disappear with their communities. Until they find a new home.

There are many questions that need to be answered about memes, but at least we get more and more examples on which to test our theories.

Hitler vs. Dunham 220 – by “Jerome L”

The Downfall meme began in 2006, just a couple years after the movie was first released. In the most commonly parodied scene, Hitler is informed by his generals that Felix Steiner’s counterassault on the Soviets never occurred; he then orders all but four generals out of the room and proceeds to rage about the situation.

YouTube user DReaperF4 created the first spoof of the video, with subtitles about Hitler’s resentment toward the lack of new features in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X Demo. Since then, over a thousand similar subtitle spoofs have been created, focusing on such banal tragedies as not being accepted to Hogwarts, finding out the iPod touch does not have a camera, getting banned from Xbox Live, or one of my personal favorites, finding out that Santa isn’t real.

In 2009 and 2010, Constantin Film, the producers of the movie, began using YouTube’s Content ID filter to remove the Hitler finds out… videos from teh interwebs (including the original by DReaperF4). This did not sit well with many Fair Use advocates, leading to the creation of several meta parodies about Hitler reacting to the takedowns.

As Alex Leavitt points out, the bunker scene follows a fairly straightforward narrative:

– actor sets up situation, which superior seems to understand
– superior confirms that he understands
– actor(s) introduce problem that contradicts superior’s understanding
– superior suggests his frustration in extended silence
– superior explodes in confused anger
– superior realizes he cannot overcome problem
– superior accepts problem (Source)

And so the stage is set for my own Downfall parody, “Hitler finds out he is in Dunham 220”.

Basically all the background information you need to know is as follows: Brad Rosen brings cupcakes to class. Brad Rosen does not like Dunham 220 because it is hot, the administration won’t give him fans to cool it down, and there are very few outlets so he has to bring his own power strips to class. Brad Rosen finds church bells ringing during class awfully annoying. Brad Rosen has an odd penchant for whoopie pies.

The Customer Is Always Right – by “Vishal M”

404market: a market for markets
Xzibit on 404market, a market for markets

Just about 48 hours ago, two Thiel Fellows — a Yale undergrad on leave-of-absence and a recent ASU grad — launched a site that they hope will change the way startups listen to the market. The site, called 404market, aims to eliminate (or at least seriously diminish) the risk of startups developing products people won’t use, by allowing its users to express monetary demand for products and services that are wanted but don’t exist.

The model works like this: if somebody has an idea for something they really want , they post a “404” expressing that wish, and they also make an “offer” expressing how much they would pay for that thing. Once the 404 is posted, other 404market users can view the 404 and make their own bids on the product or service to express demand to potential suppliers. Once enough demand ($$$) has been aggregated, somebody with the ability to provide that product or service will agree to supply it. After customers have committed money to buy the product or service immediately upon its completion, 404market will monitor the transaction to ensure that the product is satisfactorily made according to the criteria specified by the customers-to-be, and by the end of the transaction, supply has arisen to meet the demand, the suppliers have made some money, and everyone is happy. The types of products and services on the site vary immensely — some people are looking for mobile apps or custom-made software for PC/Mac, while Paul Gu, the Yalie co-founder, is already in the negotiation process with Ivy Noodle to have them add Steamed Juicy Pork Buns to their menu, given sufficient demand.

The Price of an Idea, the Price of a Market

What is the market price of an idea? If you were to try to sell an idea, and nothing else, how much money would you be able to put in your pocket at the end of the day? Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator and all-around startup guru, makes a convincing argument that oftentimes an idea for a startup alone, if not worthless, is not far from it.

A lot of would-be startup founders think the key to the whole process is the initial idea, and from that point all you have to do is execute. Venture capitalists know better. If you go to VC firms with a brilliant idea that you’ll tell them about if they sign a nondisclosure agreement, most will tell you to get lost. That shows how much a mere idea is worth. The market price is less than the inconvenience of signing an NDA. (source)

But what about the price of a market? If you could give somebody not only an idea, but also a market ready to adopt the product that comes from that idea — a market that will pay money for the product the moment it is created, with a predetermined and pre-disclosed bottom line for sales volume and price — how much would that be worth? Certainly not zero, but it’s hard to say much beyond that. That’s why I’m very curious to see how 404market turns out. There are, of course, other companies that operate under a related model, where a critical mass of customers is needed to tip a deal — two obvious examples that come to mind are Groupon and Kickstarter — but these still operate in specific domains (in this case, group discounts and group project-funding), and are not, in their simplest form, markets for pure demand.

Customer Development and Business Model Generation

One methodology espoused by many entrepreneurs today, which is very much in line with the idea of listening to the market and identifying demand before creating supply, is adherence to the model of customer development. Customer development, a term coined by author and retired serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, is seen as the cure for the ailment that he believes most startups die from: they build a product that nobody wants to buy. He’s written a full book on the topic, called The Four Steps to the Epiphany, so if you want to learn about customer development in real depth you should read it, but for now I’ll give you a brief run-down.

1) The product development model is broken

The emphasis in this model is on the first ship. Marketing and sales money is spent early on, and the product is perfected and branded before it’s released. This opens up the possibility of a huge problem: if customers aren’t into the product, by the time it’s shipped, it’s too late. Money is burned, and future iterations of the product are costly.

2) Customer development is the solution

Instead of focusing on product development as the main driving force of the startup, focus on building a customer base. Using these four steps (customer discovery, customer validation, customer creation, and finally company building), company is able to iterate quickly and cheaply, adapt to proven demand from potential customers, offset sales and marketing costs until later in the game, and, perhaps most importantly, if the startup is going to fail, it will fail quickly.

[video] [slides]

This past summer, I had the opportunity to sit in on a talk that was co-led by Steve Blank and Alexander Osterwalder. Alexander offers a complementary methodology to Steve’s customer development: Business Model Generation. Again, there is a full book on the topic, but the key takeaway is the chart seen again and again throughout the book, which helps entrepreneurs break down their business model piece by piece. You can see how answering the questions implicit in this chart would be made immensely easier using Steve Blank’s approach of customer development; without listening to the market, the information in this chart would be little more than guesswork:

Alexander Osterwalder's Business Model Canvas

Take special note of the fields “Value Proposition”, “Customer Segments”, “Revenue Streams”, and “Customer Relationships”. It’s hard to imagine how these could be completed accurately without a very deep understanding of the potential customer base, their needs, and, most importantly, their willingness to pay for your product. If the answers don’t lead to encouraging revenue projections, perhaps it’s time to try building a different product.

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, without customers, there is no business. No matter how much venture capital you can raise, no matter how smart your team is, no matter how brilliant your product’s design, the startup will fail without customers willing to pay money for its product. That’s why it’s best to test the waters early on, by listening to customers and finding proven demand for a product or service. Maybe this could be done through surveys and focus groups, or showing wireframes sketched in a notebook to random people in a cafe; maybe it could be done through 404market. But one thing is certain: the customer is always right.


How Important Is Freedom, Really? – by “Dan”

Protector of the Free Software. Image by Victor Powell

Richard Stallman, the leader of the Free Software movement, has sacrificed his life to fighting for open-source code and our right to modify existing software. But should we sacrifice as well?



Since he left his position at MIT in 1983,  Richard Stallman has devoted his life to the rights of individual creators and programmers. He singlehandedly created the Free Software Foundation, and went on to write a number of high quality system utilities for Unix and Unix-like operating systems. Most importantly, he created a movement that changed the face of software copyright and distribution. Today, that movement is thriving, with a plethora of codebases for many different problem domains publicly available, free for any use under the GPL.


This past summer, I experienced firsthand the possibilities of an open-source world. I worked on an Apache Foundation software project, Hadoop, licensed under the Apache License, which the FSF views as compatible with their own GPL. Because of this license, and the spirit of free software prevalent in the marketplace, I was able to view the source code of the project that forms the backbone of products and services offered by such software giants as Yahoo!, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, eBay, HP, IBM, LinkedIn, Netflix, The New York Times, and Twitter. Perhaps more importantly, the code that I implemented may someday become part of the software that these companies, and any other interested parties, use. It is easy to imagine an alternate situation where each of these companies maintain similar, proprietary solutions to the same problem (scalable, distributed computing in this case). It is because of the philosophy and work of the Free Software Foundation that these companies are able to collaborate so freely, and that I could in turn study and modify their combined efforts. In many situations, the work of the FSF results in software products that are more accessible and just easier to use. But in my experience, this is not always the case.


The GNU site hosts many essays on the philosophical musings and practical recommendations of Stallman and the others at the Free Software Foundation. Looking recently through the list, my attention was directed to an article titled “Is Microsoft the Great Satan?” Despite the exciting title, the essay was not very incendiary. One line stands out, however.

 “…you need to reject all proprietary software, regardless of who developed it or who distributes it.”

This sounds like a great idea, but as I thought about the implications of this clause, I realized just what I would be missing out on if I rejected all proprietary software. I wouldn’t be able to listen to MP3s.

Audacity is one of the most popular digital audio editors available today, with a download rate of over 1 million copies per month. It is written and maintained by The Audacity Team, and is released as free, open-source software. The program allows users to record and import audio files as tracks, and then cut, mix and otherwise modify the tracks to create a single audio file as output. It is designed to be easy to use, yet powerful enough to handle the needs of audio engineering amateurs and prosumers working on a wide variety of projects. Under the terms that Audacity is distributed, that of the GPL, all source code must be freely distributable, without restriction on its subsequent use. According to Section 12 of the GPL, if the conditions on any part of the distributed software contradict the GPL, then the software cannot be distributed at all. It is for this reason that Audacity does not support the MP3 file format.


The MP3 file format, used ubiquitously for sharing and storing songs and other audio tracks, is protected under patent law. The format is the intellectual property of the Fraunhofer Society, the German applied science research organization which invented the standard. In the USA, Canada, the EU, and Japan, among other countries, the patents are enforceable, and through the administration of Thomson Consumer Electronics, the Fraunhofer Society has received royalties and licensing fees for use of the MP3 standard in software and hardware equipment since 1994. In 2005 alone, they received 100 million euros in such fees. When an individual acquires a consumer music product, whether hardware or software, whether free or paid, the producer of the content pays a fee to the original creator of the MP3 standard. Developers who distribute their code as open-source cannot be expected to pay licensing fees for the users of their contributions, and so the GPL expressly prohibits that kind of arrangement. In effect, there cannot be a truly useful music player or editor program released under the GPL, where usefulness is (reasonably) defined to include the handling of MP3 files.

Although Audacity does not come with support for MP3s out of the box, it is designed to work with third-party extensions that provide exactly this functionality. There is even a link to LAME, a popular free MP3 encoder, on the dialog box that informs the user that MP3 output is not supported. But use of this workaround violates the Free Software Foundation’s call to “reject all proprietary software”, as LAME or any other encoder used will be protected by a proprietary license. By clicking the link, you propagate the control of software by restrictive contracts and submit to the authority of an outside owner who retains complete control over the software and any modification of it.

Downloading LAME may violate the spirit of the FSF, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing to do. Rejecting all proprietary software can only stifle innovation and put limits on our creative output. While it is conceivable that all individuals would be better off in a world where all software was released under the GPL, in our world today, I am content to use free software when it is convenient and useful, and unafraid to use proprietary software otherwise. For most users, a computer is merely a means to an end, and in this regard, the philosophy of the Free Software Foundation may be alienating and ridiculous to many who hear of it. It is important to separate the ideology and rhetoric from the reality of the situation. Fight for a free tomorrow, but work flexibly within the intellectual property framework in place today.

Creative Commons, Lolcats, and the New Copyleft – by “MNQ”

Say you did a Wikipedia search for the history of electropop dance music, out of curiosity for its origins and sudden rise to prominence in the early late 2000s, and, finding no intuitive visual timeline describing key events, you decide to make your own. When you’ve finished, you find it so useful that you think it belongs on that Wikipedia page – maybe this way, some unknown day in the not too far off future, when somebody similarly curious happens upon the history of electropop, they find your awesome timeline and are better off for it. Your contribution has added some amount of knowledge to the human digital commons, or something like that. So, you, our intrepid Wikipedia contributor, prepare to upload your work. Upon doing so, however, you’re confronted with a choice, and not a trivial one – a choice upon which the entire utility and visibility of your timeline hinges. You must select a license.

From http://icanhascheezburger.com/2010/05/01/funny-pictures-stoopid-cop/

In 2009, Wikipedia chose to move to the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA) license as the default license for all user uploaded media on Wikipedia and other Wikimedia-operated websites. You can check the permissions & license of any media file uploaded to Wikipedia. As more and more of traditional media made the move from analog to digital, it became clear that there were no sufficient licenses to protect legitimate sharing and, so to speak, “standing on the shoulders of giants,” perhaps the linchpin of human knowledge and progress and liberty and all that good stuff. The GPL and BSD licenses were all well and good for software, but computers were not just for programs, programmers, and users anymore. Creative works expanded to include media, articles, documents – you name it. There needed to be a non-software creative works equivalent of software licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL), and various schemes stepped up to the plate, including the GNU Free Document License (GFDL) and the Creative Commons license suite.

Creative Commons shares a methodology with other free software and document licenses – namely, fitting a system for protecting certain uses of a [mostly] copyrighted work within the existing digital copyright framework. No licensing system, or rather, no successful licensing system, purports to replace or circumvent existing copyright law (as far as I know). This seems to beg a question, however – what makes a licensing system successful? We could look at this in several ways. A license could be legally successful, in that it has been upheld in a court of law; and/or a license could be socially successful, in that it has been adopted by and is supported by content creators; and/or a license could be ideologically successful, in that it tends to augment and bolster arguments in favor of some ideology, in this case, free media & documents.


The CC License Spectrum


But then that raises another issue – is Creative Commons a license? In short, no. Creative Commons is an organization, and a family of 6 related, but distinct, licenses. When evaluating a Creative Commons license, for legal, social, and ideological success, we must do so for each license, since each has its own strengths and weaknesses, supports and critiques. I won’t get too into each license, since Creative Commons itself actually puts a lot of work into translating its licenses from legalese to normal English.

From http://icanhascheezburger.com/2009/01/23/funny-pictures-press-2-for-lolspeak/

What I really want to measure here is the relative success of each license, insofar as there’s some evidence available. With that in mind, here’s a quick rundown of each Creative Commons license:

1. Attribution – CC BY

What does it do?:
“This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, even commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation. This is the most accommodating of licenses offered. Recommended for maximum dissemination and use of licensed materials.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US. Someone did sue over improper use of a photo under CC BY, but the case was thrown out for lack of jurisdiction, so it hardly counts as a test of the license itself.

Socially successful?: If nothing else, it does help promote what we might call a “citation culture” outside of academia. In other words, it encourages people to give credit to others where it’s due, no matter how many wild arbitrary changes they make to the original work. (Granted, the authors might not even want to be associated with the derivations…)

Ideologically successful?: Sort of. One test we can apply here is the “What would Richard Stallman say?” test (this test will use his testimonial from the given link to evaluate the ideological success of a license). In this case, he would probably say that the fact that it doesn’t require derivative works to use the same license makes it essentially worthless for the cause of free media. But hey, you get your name on stuff!

2. Attribution-ShareAlike – CC BY-SA

What does it do?:
“This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work even for commercial purposes, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms. This license is often compared to “copyleft” free and open source software licenses. All new works based on yours will carry the same license, so any derivatives will also allow commercial use. This is the license used by Wikipedia, and is recommended for materials that would benefit from incorporating content from Wikipedia and similarly licensed projects.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US. Wikipedia has been sued for other reasons, but their use of CC BY-SA was never challenged.

Socially successful?: Well, it is the license used by Wikipedia, and closely reflects free software licenses. Additionally, any work that makes use of Wikpedia articles must use the CC BY-SA license, which is pretty key.

Ideologically successful?: Yes! This license most closely resembles the GPL[link], in that it tries to ensure that derivative works remain as free as the works they’re based on.

3. Attribution NoDerivs – CC BY-ND

What does it do?:
“This license allows for redistribution, commercial and non-commercial, as long as it is passed along unchanged and in whole, with credit to you.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US.

Socially successful?: With the ease of manipulation of digital works, it is unlikely that this is actually adhered to at all.

Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: No, because it doesn’t allow any changes to the original work, stifling free creativity. True that.

4. Attribution-NonCommercial – CC BY-NC

What does it do?: “
This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, and although their new works must also acknowledge you and be non-commercial, they don’t have to license their derivative works on the same terms.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US.

Socially successful?: For example, this is a very common license for works released by academic institutions that want to freely share knowledge without others profiting from it, so yes.

Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: Somewhat, but it doesn’t allow anyone to profit from the distribution of derivative works (which makes it more restrictive than the GPL), and it also doesn’t guarantee that derivative works will be similarly free.

5. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike – CC-BY-NC-SA

What does it do?:
“This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon your work non-commercially, as long as they credit you and license their new creations under the identical terms.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US.

Socially successful?: Unclear if it’s as socially successful as #4, since ShareAlike adds an extra burden on the author of the derivative work.

Ideologically successful?: Richard Stallman would probably say: Somewhat, but it doesn’t allow anyone to profit from the distribution of derivative works (which makes it more restrictive than the GPL), but at least it requires that derivative works use the same license, which makes it a bit more ideologically successful than #4.

6. Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs – CC-BY-NC-ND

What does it do?:
“This license is the most restrictive of our six main licenses, only allowing others to download your works and share them with others as long as they credit you, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.”

Legally successful?: Not in the US.

Socially successful?: This license is often used and abused by companies looking to prevent commercial derivatives of commercial works. So, in that sense, yes.

Ideologically successful?: Freedom to distribute, but no freedom to make changes or improvements, not even for personal use. Imagine buying a book and not being able to write notes in it – this is quite restrictive. In this sense, it defeats the purpose of free media.

Ultimately, it’s hard to judge Creative Commons’ legal success in the US, because it just hasn’t been tested enough in US courts, if at all. Notice too that, at their root, all of the licenses share a bare minimum of Attribution in common. So, it could be said that the licenses form a sort of spectrum from not terribly restrictive to very restrictive, or, from Attribution to “Credited Verbatim Distribution” (that is, sharing is cool as long as the author is credited and no changes are made and the work is never used for commercial purposes). If any broad critique of Creative Commons were to be made, it would necessarily have to find conflict with Attribution. And actually, Attribution does pose several challenges: 1) How do you prove authorship of a work? 2) Once proving authorship, how significant must a change be for it to count as derivative? 3) How are authors to be credited in derivative works? Especially for question 3, take this for example: someone remixes a book, keeping the title and general themes, but changing the entire plot so that the ending is completely different from the original. Should the original author be credited by saying “Inspired by so and so,” or would that imply some sort of approval on the part of the author?

What about the lolcats?


You know, speaking of Lolcats, where might they fall on the Creative Commons license spectrum? Lolcats are perhaps most obviously a great example of fair use, but I wonder where they might fit into a supplemental license scheme, just, perhaps, for the lols, so let’s take a look. Icanhazcheezburger’s legal policies only specify that users can’t upload others’ copyrighted work (except for where it counts as fair use), but that’s all it says really. So we have some room here to speculate about current lolcat use and, based on that, what feasible licensing options Icanhazcheeseburger would have with Creative Commons.

Lolcats can’t possibly fall into any of the licenses requiring No Derivatives or No Commercial Use, since building new lolcat captions off of others’ lolcats is a feature built-into the site, and since commercial derivative works are readily available for purchase on Amazon. So that knocks 3-6 off the list, leaving CC BY and CC BY-SA. I think, quite clearly, lolcats would necessarily fall into CC BY-SA – creators  of lolcats, upon submission, must consent to the eternal remixing of their work, since it is a feature of the Icanhazcheezburger community, and derivations cannot be made without crediting the original author. That said, Icanhazcheezburger does allow uploads derived from “unknown” sources – something that users could potentially exploit (ie. knowingly making derivatives of works under a license preventing derivatives by not crediting the original). This is all, of course, within the Icanhazcheezburger network, but I’m just speculating based off usage and norms in the lolcat community, not necessarily how they’re used on the internet outside of that.

Creative Commons – A Success Story?


Is Creative Commons successful? Well, you decide; but, I think clearly the answer is both yes and no – successful socially, debatably successful ideologically, and as of yet untreated legally. But really, if not a licensing system like Creative Commons, what else? Sometimes the most powerful legal tool is the convenient one that is seen to have some social weight. And really, it’s better to have a license than no license if you value your workmanship even a little, since the absence of copyright is public domain cut and dry, and anyone can do anything with whatever you make as they please. Creative Commons seems to underline an important tendency we have as humans – we like getting credit for things. And, getting credit for things encourages us to be creative, especially if we know that we’ll get credited for our creativity. Maybe a vicious cycle, maybe a bit self-centered, but would art exist without it? What about science? A slippery slope indeed. That said, licenses like this establish Attribution over property – meaning that getting credit for something takes precedence over owning that something. That could set a very interesting philosophical precedence for future content creators – under licenses like these, you would know that you are giving up your digital “property rights” for attribution rights, for the sake of the common good of collaboration. Not a bad common good, I think.

From http://icanhascheezburger.com/2007/12/20/cute-kittens-pictures-teamwork/


P.S. If this kind of thing interests you, there are two excellent posts on this blog, one exploring a Wikipedia without borders, and the other treating different notions of copyright in a “free world”. This is all, of course, only a starting point.

P.P.S. Not coincidentally, all the images used in this post are protected under either fair use or a Creative Commons license. So is this blog post.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.