Tagged web brings whole new form of keyword spam

I just noticed a trackback on a recent post which led me to a site called news.blogcarnival.com. The trackback comment itself was kind of nonsensical:

Don’t take it from me

Excuse me, but how do you get this again:”…

and so, it turns out, was the site – just dozens of quotes from other blogs in syndicated blog format, each beginning with a very generic intro line like “Check this out before you go to sleep:” or “Yeah:”. There was a Google Adwords section at the very top, and an Amazon ad on the side, and a selection of topics which closely matched what can only be described as the Google Zeitgeist, with a political slant. Soon it dawned on me what was happening – the blogcarnival blog software was scanning one or more of the popular tagged web sites, such as Technorati, for all new posts tagged with the keyword president, first_lady, election, pope_john_paul, politics, etc., fetching the first few paragraphs of those articles and adding them as a post. I guess when they called it blog-carnival they meant one of those spooky, “haunted” carnivals where the rides start up by themselves.

Not only that – a visit to penis.blogcarnival.com reveals much the same thing, but with one important difference: the introductory sentences are tailored to the content rather than generic. Clearly the blogcarnival proprietor has more interest in some topics than others. There are also blogs on their domain for holiday gifts, fast cars, skin care, music etc.

In tangling itself so deeply in the web of tagged blogs, the site is piggybacking on the stream of human traffic that flows throughout it. A smart move, and one that I would imagine is generating plenty of ad revenue. It could be argued that blogcarnival is performing a service by aggregating these links together. So the question is: Is this a problem?

Hell Yes, and for one simple reason: It reduces the signal-to-noise ratio of the web. Unless this marketing tactic is tackled somehow, its continued profitability will damage peoples’ ability to find unique, authored content. We’d end up with a few lone original voices and a cacophony of echoes, all repeating each other until the blogosphere drowns in useless automated content.

I doubt very much that the latter scenario will be allowed happen, but the question remains: who will stop it, and how?

P.S. A horrible irony of this situation is that this kind of “intelligent” spam is only technically feasible because of the low signal-to-noise ratio of tagged blogs. They are normally a safe-haven from the fragility of automated search engine ranking systems. I guess nature abhors a vacuum.

Update: The blogcarnival website is run by two guys called Brad Rubenstein and Steve Damron (read their respective announcements here and here).

You know, they seem like nice enough guys. They both did serious time at Sun Microsystems. Brad has a PhD in Computer Science and sings Opera pretty well. Steve is also musical, playing the violin, and is active in the gay pride movement. But from my point of view it’s people like them who are screwing up the web for everyone else, by chasing that destructive, manipulative “American Dream”: Have one good idea, and then sit back and watch the money roll in. It’s a sociopathic “passive income” mindset, and it sucks that two creative, intelligent people are resorting to this kind of lazy snake-oil merchantry when there is so much amazing, interesting, useful stuff still to be done on the web.

Update 2: Brad has mentioned me on his site (see trackback below). Sorry Brad, I haven’t heard you sing, but feel free to quote me in publicity. I once dated a beautiful up-and-coming opera singer called Elena Xanthoudakis (damn, how did I let her get away – oh, that’s right, I never appreciate people’s worth until they’re on the other side of the world…), and my mother is a choral singer, so perhaps that gives my comments some weight. I just wish some of their talent had rubbed off on my own primitive voicebox.

Don’t take it from me

Take it from hundreds of historians (link via the great blog DemiOrator blog): George W. Bush’s presidency is the worst ever. Just one choice quote from the so-heated-my-laptop-burst-into-flames-maybe-I-should-have-sent-back-the-battery-when-Apple-recalled-it article:

“He is blatantly a puppet for corporate interests, who care only about their own greed and have no sense of civic responsibility or community service. He lies, constantly and often, seemingly without control, and he lied about his invasion into a sovereign country, again for corporate interests; many people have died and been maimed, and that has been lied about too. He grandstands and mugs in a shameful manner, befitting a snake oil salesman, not a statesman. He does not think, process, or speak well, and is emotionally immature due to, among other things, his lack of recovery from substance abuse. The term is “dry drunk”. He is an abject embarrassment/pariah overseas; the rest of the world hates him . . . . . He is, by far, the most irresponsible, unethical, inexcusable occupant of our formerly highest office in the land that there has ever been.

Personally, I like the guy. No, really.

Police unit links copyright violations to terrorists

In a farcical display of opportunistic politicking, a the Senate Homeland Security Committee has heard from a police lieutenant that DVD piracy may be used to fund individuals that are alleged to sympathise with a terrorist group who have never attacked America, but could. ArsTechnica has a great tongue-in-cheek writeup in which they point out the obvious logical fallacy in this: supporters of Hezbollah work in a range of industries, from gas stations to supermarkets. Are the petroleum and consumer goods industries supporting terrorism? We must stamp them out, whatever it takes!

The fact that the LAPD even has an “Entertainment and Trademark Unit” is astounding in itself. In a city as rife with violence and social problems as LA, they have a unit dedicated to hunting down those who would violate copyrights? It’s like having a crack “fake watch” unit.

MPAA enhances movie “magic” by crippling consumer hardware

The MPAA continues to swim upstream through a raging torrent of common sense headed the other way. In an article on news.com.com, Dan Glickman (head of the MPAA) holds forth his reasoning as to why the “broadcast flag” (a flag which prevents shows from being recorded which his organisation wants to make a mandatory part of digital broadcasting) is such a good idea.

He raises a number of good points about preventing piracy, and I agree – the author of a particular piece of digital content has a right to choose how it is distributed.

Where I draw the line, however, is when an industry lobby group drafts its own legislation that will alter the design of every consumer video device in the US of A and submits it to congress for approval. Remember when I spoke recently about the US blurring the line between corporations and government? (*cough* fascists *cough*) Well, this is just another example of democracy circling the toilet bowl in the greatest country on Earth.

The point I wanted to get to is that it’s all well and good for a copyright owner to choose how their content is distributed – if you don’t like digital transmission, don’t use it. But don’t cripple the medium for the rest of us, driving up prices while burdening us with ham-handed copy protection schemes just because 7 studios in the MPAA (and no-one else on EARTH) wants this particular piece of technology mandated on all hardware manufacturers.

And of course, as we all know, someone just has to crack the broadcast flag on one end-user unit, ever, and suddenly the whole system breaks down. A single copy in the clear can be transmitted in minutes, for almost no cost, to the rest of the world.

So, to the MPAA: please, please just concentrate on what you do best – making movies – and develop a mutually respectful relationship with your consumers. All this tut-tutting and making a farce of democracy doesn’t do you any favours.

You can read about this issue in much more detail at the EFF’s site.

Information wants to be heavily commercialised

In recent weeks, I have come to slowly to the obvious realisation that not every human endeavour should be sold and wrung out for the highest profits – something exemplified in a quote from Slashdot in this post.

Now I hear (via ArsTechnica) that the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) has kicked up a fuss about Google scanning in works from some famous book collections and making the contents searchable (but not always browseable) online. Google has been fairly thorough in working with copyright holders to ensure that they keep the amount of text offered to the user within comfortable limits. Nevertheless, the AAUP is being ultra-conservative on this front, presumably seeing the thin end of the wedge flying towards its face at Mach 2.

Now, people will quibble about fair use and copyright law and so on, but what really riles me about this is that the AAUP, and other media gatekeepers such as the RIAA and MPAA, are completely sucking the joy out of human creativity. By being such all-or-nothing pricks about making money out of dead people’s art, they are failing to miss the incredible opportunity that the Internet presents: to place digital renderings of the entirety of human endeavour at the fingertips of a rapidly increasing number of the world’s citizens.

I’m getting really tired of seeing that in every situation where money and happiness are at loggerheads, money wins.

On a related note, I decided the other day to find out what Fascism is:

… fascism evolved into a new political and economic system that combined corporatism, totalitarianism, nationalism, and anti-Communism in a state designed to bind all classes together under a capitalist system. This was a new capitalist system, however, one in which the state seized control of the organization of vital industries. Under the banners of nationalism and state power, Fascism seemed to synthesize the glorious Roman past with a futuristic utopia.

Despite the themes of social and economic reform in the initial Fascist manifesto of June 1919, the movement came to be supported by sections of the middle class fearful of socialism and communism. Industrialists and landowners supported the movement as a defence against labour militancy. Under threat of a fascist March on Rome, in October 1922, Mussolini assumed the premiership of a right-wing coalition Cabinet initially including members of the pro-church Partito Popolare (People’s Party).

Hmm… State-supervised Capitalism; blurring of church, state and corporations (cf. Halliburton); a fearful middle-class; supression of unionism and blanket corporatisation as a means of oppressing the lower classes; Nationalism and Imperialism as a means of capturing the will of the people. All this evolved, under the same name, from the original Fascist philosophies of democracy, separation of church and state, and support for the working class.

So – are you really living in a democracy, or something altogether different with the same name?

Or, to be more blunt, is the United States of America a Fascist state?

BitTorrent search debuts

In a move sure to disturb more than one media industry lawyer, Bram Cohen has released the official BitTorrent search engine. It’s a very slick, Google-like experience, and it’s also extremely fast. Unfortunately, five minutes after I started using it, it crashed. No doubt they will have some tuning to do to handle the expected load.

One very cool feature that they have is the ability to rate each torrent file.

One thing that it’s missing that I would really like is some kind of browseable directory, like the OPML podcast directory, which is maintained in a distributed fashion. This would help eliminate (or marginalise) those who are using the system to violate copyrights, while highlighting the legitimate benefits of this extraordinarily efficient media distribution system.

The potential uses of this system are extraordinary – IndyMedia should jump on this right away, as should the podcasting folks and anyone who’s in a band or makes short films. Imagine the rich community that could spring up around an essentially free global communications medium that puts more broadcasting power in the hands of a single individual than the largest television transmitter on Earth!

Microsoft innovates in reverse, again

Over the last couple years, Microsoft has burnt boatloads of cash to become “Google with a different colour scheme”, by following Google’s lead and releasing copycat products a few months after the Google versions (simplified search engine, desktop search). Now they’re about to do it again with MSN Virtual Earth, a mapping service with many conspicuous Google-Maps-esque features such as overlaying popups on the map and dynamic zooming.

Online mapping services are not a new idea, but Google was the first to make a compelling map browsing engine that runs in any modern browser with no plugins required.

In related news, Keyhole is to be renamed “Google Earth”. Let the conspiracy theories begin!

MPAA blames photocopier and postal service, forgets about criminal

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has published a press release (.doc file) which singles out BitTorrent as the primary enabler of the piracy (a few hours in advance of its release) of the latest Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith. The title of the press-release is “BitTorrent Facilitating Illegal File Swapping of Star Wars On Day of Opening”, which is akin to the police releasing a statement titled “Shoes Facilitate Mugger’s Get-Away”, or “Car Facilitates Kidnapping”.

As Slyck.com points out, this completely ignores the fact that BitTorrent has many legitimate uses, including distributing the Linux operating system. The press release also avoids mention of the fact that, unlike other P2P systems, BitTorrent requires the publisher to offer their file as a specific download on an open website, severely limiting its appeal as a mechanism to aid in copyright violations (essentially, it’s a huge red arrow pointing right at your house).

The deeper motivation for singling out BitTorrent would appear to be its role as the most viable enabler for the next generation of user-generated content distribution, a force which threatens to undermine the current Big Media business model. Already utilitized by PodCasters around the world to ease the load on their servers, BitTorrent changes the economics of digital content distribution so that having a popular show doesn’t put the broadcaster out of business with bandwidth costs.

In the same way that Open Source software has forever changed the computing landscape, BitTorrent and other protocols like it will change media distribution – unless the MPAA and others manage to legislate it out of existence. This press-release would appear to be a push in that direction.

And as a final thought, why don’t they mention how the movie was acquired in advance of its release? Surely the greater issue here is how someone gained access to a physical, celluloid copy of the file to digitise, than how they then chose to distribute the digital copy.