The Laboratorium
August 2008

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Bad Headline Department

The cover of the NYT Travel section promises “A New Haven for Artists in Mexico City.” And as the article explains, “Visitors are still discouraged from roaming alone at night … .” Yep, that sounds like New Haven, all right.

Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy

I’ve put online my latest draft, Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy. It’s a comprehensive look at the shabby state of privacy on Facebook, and it’s been my main project this summer. My take is that it’s unfair to blame Facebook’s privacy woes entirely on Facebook; some of the privacy trouble is inherent in the very nature of social networking. The kinds of socializing that take place on Facebook—creating identities, relationships, and communities—intrinsically require people to reveal sensitive information about themselves.

Thus, I argue, law can help people understand some the risks, and it can protect them from truly unfair surprises, but it can’t make social network sites completely safe from a privacy perspective, and it shouldn’t try. The only way to make Facebook perfectly private would be to unplug its servers and drop them in the Mariana Trench. People want to socialize, and legal policy doesn’t recognize that fact will merely divert them into socializing in even riskier ways.

Here’s the abstract:

This Article provides the first comprehensive analysis of the law and policy of privacy on social network sites, using Facebook as its principal example. It explains how Facebook users socialize on the site, why they misunderstand the risks involved, and how their privacy suffers as a result. Facebook offers a socially compelling platform that also facilitates peer-to-peer privacy violations: users harming each others’ privacy interests. These two facts are inextricably linked; people use Facebook with the goal of sharing some information about themselves. Policymakers cannot make Facebook completely safe, but they can help people use it safely.

The Article makes this case by presenting a rich, factually grounded description of the social dynamics of privacy on Facebook. It then uses that description to evaluate a dozen possible policy interventions. Unhelpful interventions—such as mandatory data portability and bans on underage use—fail because they also fail to engage with key aspects of how and why people use social network sites. The potentially helpful interventions, on the other hand—such as a strengthened public-disclosure tort and a right to opt out completely—succeed because they do engage with these social dynamics.

Sarah Palin Is the New Clarence Thomas

The political logic behind George Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his Vice-Presidential candidate are the same. Thomas was the second African-American Supreme Court Justice, but the first Republican. Sarah Palin is the third female candidate for national office who might well become President.

In each case, the Democrats did it first, with someone unquestionably outstanding: Thurgood Marshall and Hillary Clinton (plus a little of Geraldine Ferraro, two decades before her time). The Republican response was to pick a hard-line conservative from the right demographic group, someone smart, ambitious, and who pales badly in comparison with the person who broke the glass ceiling for them. Their selection was driven by a crass and demeaning (but so far correct) calculation that being black or female would give them a substantial free pass from criticism on their records.

But at least—and here we should all be grateful—it makes the principle bipartisan. Minorities can serve on the Supreme Court; women can be president. It took the Republicans far too long, but they’ve now embraced these ideas with their deeds, as well as their words. Sarah Palin is not the woman who should be our first female President, but her selection—like Hillary’s much greater accomplishment before it—makes that road an easier one for the woman who should and will be.

Some Quick Thoughts on Sarah Palin

As Brad DeLong puts it, “Will No One Rid Me of This Meddlesome State Trooper?”

Those bangs and that grin have a strong Jeanine Pirro vibe.

Dan Quayle or James Stockdale?

An Alaskan Republican politican who hasn’t yet been indicted? I didn’t know there were any.

The Census estimates that there are 305 million Americans, which means there are 304,999,999 people more qualified to be President than Sarah Palin.

All of a sudden, I’m optimistic.

What’s Exceptionalism?

Eric Goldman points to a very interesting SEC policy document on linking liability. I’m going to respectfully disagree with his take on what the SEC is doing, but with gratitude that he flagged such an interesting issue.

Here’s the context. Under “Section 10(b),” the SEC has a mandate from Congress to beat up on companies that say false things—I believe “make material misstatements” is the term the kids these days are using—that affect their stock prices. Its recent policy document confirms its position that a company could run afoul of the SEC by linking to a third-party web site with false information on it. As the SEC explains, the key issue will often be whether the company “explicitly or implicitly endorsed or approved the information.” The document then gives several pages of guidance on when the SEC will consider a link to be an endorsement. The test is pretty much what you’d expect: is it a “reasonable inference” that the company is creating the link in order to signal approval of the contents of the site being linked to.

Eric claims this guidance is “exceptionalist,” by which he means it treats online media differently than offline. I disagree. In the first place, a hyperlink doesn’t correspond precisely to anything in the offline world, so of course the rule for hyperlinks can’t perfectly track the rule for offline media. Is it like a corporate officer handing a third-party document to a reporter? Like an officer telling members of the public to go look at a particular document?

The deeper problem with the exceptionalism argument here is that the SEC is actually trying to hew as closely as possible to its guidance for offline sources. It’s telling companies, don’t “approve” or “endorse” statements you’re not willing to stand behind, whether those statements are online or off. Since “approval” and “endorsement” are to be considered from the perspective of a reasonable observer, the hyperlink-specific parts of the guidance simply incorporate what the reasonable observer generally knows about hyperlinks. They point at things the creator thinks will be of interest; they can sometimes convey implicit messages; they don’t always do; context matters a lot; sometimes what you don’t link is as significant as what you do.

These aren’t “exceptionalist” analyses; indeed, it would be more exceptionalist if we ignored the social facts that reasonable observers know about hyperlinks. We don’t ignore the social facts that reasonable observers know about offline media (like magazine interviews, corporate reports, press releases, and conference calls

Thus, I’d be interested in hearing Eric’s take on what a “nonexceptionalist” analysis of Section 10(b) hyperlink liability would look like. I doubt there can be any such animal.

On October 1, Comcast Will Break the Internet

Starting on October 1, Comcast will put monthly limits on Internet use by its broadband customers. Download more than 250 gigabytes in a month, and you’ll get a call from Comcast, telling you to cut it out. Do it enough times and they’ll cut you off. Others have appropriately excoriated this imbecilic move. I’ll just add that as a Comcast customer, I would be utterly thrilled to get enough consistent throughput to be capable of getting anywhere near 250GB in a month.

The other thing I’m curious about—and this isn’t Comcast-mockery, this is genuine curiosity—is why they don’t put a line on everyone’s bill saying what their usage was in the last month. People well under 250GB wouldn’t have to live in fear of that phone call from the Network Police. People using more would have some warning; they could actually, you know, moderate their usage in advance. How about it, Comcast?

Best Two Sentences I’ve Read Today

The larger question is how one justifies spending money on security. I often liken it to life insurance: all of the money I paid for it last year was wasted, since I didn’t die even once.

—Steven Bellovin, on Dave Farber’s Interesting People list

John Darnielle, Idiomatic Genius

But we’ll cross that bridge when we drive the frightened horses across it. With their covered wagons behind them on fire. And the devil, scrawny and crazed, riding behind them on an Italian greyhound.

And oh, yeah, new EP soon, available for free download on the Radiohead model.

Grey Markets in Everything

Even thieves need supply chain management:

In this way, Rogers and his investigation team learned that the stolen goods were entering a highly organized distribution chain that often began with the hundreds of flea markets that had sprung up among the suburban sprawl of cities across the country. Crooked flea-maret venders would buy stolen goods from boosters, then put a few samples out on their tables—“as a marketing ploy,” Rogers says. “Because the next-level-up buyer, a ‘middle buyer’—often ex-cons who had discovered this great opportunity—made a habit of going to flea markets looking for product. When he saw Tylenol on a vender’s tabletop, he’d say, ‘Can you get me more Tylenol in fifty-count gelcaps?’” The vender, if he did not have the item in stock, would tell his boosters what to go and steal. “We’d catch boosters with lists of stuff to steal all the time,” Rogers says.

And note the choice of firm boundaries:

Typically, the middle buyers would sell the products to a “cleaning house”—in most cases, a three-to-five-thousand-square-foot warehouse staffed with undocumented workers who job was to remove price stickers, E.A.S. tags, and identifying store labels. … The cleaned products were shrink-wrapped and put in master cartons to look as if they had been bought from the manufacturer, then sold to corrupt wholesalers who would commingle the stolen goods with legitimately purchased products and sell them back to retailers—often to the same store from which they had been stolen.

The source Jon Colapinto’s “Stop, Thief!”, in the September 1, 2008 issue of the New Yorker. Did you know that Target has a crime lab? (Aislinn: “You’ll know that CSI has completely run out of ideas when they add CSI:Target.”) Or that some shoplifters now carry Tasers? Sadly, I can’t give the article an unqualified endorsement. It begins promisingly—“On a recent morning, a dapper man in his fifties with a narrow mustache, dressed in a black Armani suit, strolled past the cosmetics counter on the main floor of a midtown Manhattan department store.”—only to reveal that this dapper fellow is in fact the store cop. The shoplifters are more fun.

Interesting Trajectory

On my way to work today, I saw a construction worker wearing a Harvard Model UN t-shirt.

Hyperbole of the Week

“This is an insult to the Olympic vision, an insult to the spirit of taekwondo and, in my opinion, an insult to mankind,” Yang said.

What was the insult? Answer here.

Braid I give it 4 stars

Braid is a jewel of a game: small, polished, complete in itself. Or maybe it’s a fishhook: I finished it two days ago and it’s still stuck in my head. I haven’t been able to stop thinking through the ambiguities of its plot or reliving the cleverer puzzles. My dreams have been inflected by its time-turning mechanic.

The basics are simple. It plays like a simple platform game—run, jump—with one single twist: You can rewind time. Hold down X and time reverses itself. The first few levels introduce you to the forgiving freedom of being able to undo any mistaken button press. Then there are puzzles that depend on that freedom. Throw yourself into a pit; it’s okay, you can rewind yourself out if you land on the spikes you can’t yet see.

And then, well, there are a succession of additional mechanisms—objects that can’t be reversed, shadow selves, a ring that slows down time locally. Each is simple and follows predictable rules. The result is some of the cleanest, most satisfying puzzles I’ve ever seen. Most can’t be solved with any amount of noodling. Instead, if you state your goal precisely and reason rigorously about the constraints you face, you will (almost always) come up with the answer. It’s always a logical, sensible consequence of the rules of the system. Nor are there tedious repeats; each insight is a single ticket, good for this puzzle only.

The plot? It’s ambiguous and unsettling. By the time I reached world 6, I’d lost my bearings on what I was “supposed” to be thinking and feeling. The disorientation of hearing the music constantly playing backwards or slowed down or both didn’t help. And then came world 1 (this is a game about time), which is also ambiguous and unsettling, but definitively, brilliantly, satisfyingly so. I won’t spoil the ending here; this is a game to be played, experienced, and savored very much on its own terms.

This is not a five-star review. A few of the puzzles break the careful logic of the game-world’s rules. A few of them turn on precise gamer-reflex work of the sort the rest so studiously avoid. A few of the design elements just don’t quite fit with the rest. The music consists of two earworms and a few tunes that started to grate. But these are small matters; I’ve overlooked worse. Instead, let me just say that I think Braid successfully creates an aesthetic gaming experience wholly its own, and that from within that frame of reference, a flawed, imperfect, human four stars is a higher and more honest form of praise.

A Version of This Article Appeared

When did this happen? The New York Times’s online site now includes captions noting when and where each article appeared in the printed edition. For example, this article on the Army’s new surgery textbook includes the caption:

A version of this article appeared in print on August 5, 2008, on page F1 of the New York edition.

Speaking purely as a legal academic here, this now means I can produce proper Bluebook citations from the Time’s web site, rather than needing to pull the article up in Nexis to check the page number. More generally, I’ve always been surprised that more online newspapers don’t link their articles to the printed edition. If they’re going to make a big deal out of being print-based papers, it seems an awful waste for the online edition not to take such an obvious, basic step to remind readers of the print edition.

Well done, Grey Lady!

The Margarets I give it 3 stars

Sheri S. Tepper’s middle novels—the half-dozen from After Long Silence (1987) to Sideshow (1992), give or take one at each end—were so good that I vowed to read anything she published. She was able to summon up a sense that there’s something out there in the dark, something large and deeply malevolent. Thematically, she filled her novels with a hard-headed feminism, a seamless marriage between epic environmentalism and individual decency, and surefooted pacing. She also had an uncanny ability to heighten suspense by turning the camera around at just the right moment: to show the reader some crucial (often dangerous) facts the protagnoists didn’t know, or vice-versa. Her finest novels (Grass (1989) and Raising the Stones (1990), at least) are, for me, among the very best science-fiction novels out there.

My patience has been sorely tested, however; the nine novels that followed form a nearly linear trend. They came out roughly once a year, each slightly but predictably worse than the last. Plague of Angels (1993) was a great near-miss; The Companions (2003) was silly. Still, a vow is a vow, and I still scan the science-fiction section, for new novels between Tarr and Tolkien.

It’s been four years since the last one (plus a year before I noticed, since no one seems to have stocked the hardcover version), but The Margarets rewarded both my patience and hers. It’s s solid novel, with a likable protagonist(s), and a clever trio of linked main plot devices. True, it’s a little clumsy in places, a little convoluted, and a little less menacing than it could have been. But it was still satisfying on the whole, and the eco-feminism is as bracing and urgent as ever. I hope this is a good sign of things to come.

Journalistic Ethics in Action

Amy Chozick fatuously asked in the Wall Street Journal whether Barack Obama is too physically fit. By way of support, she quoted an anonymous Yahoo! message-board poster:

“I won’t vote for any beanpole guy,” another Clinton supporter wrote last week on a Yahoo politics message board.

Only it turns out that the poster wrote this message in response to a question that Chozick herself posted. And not just any question, no, it was a leading question:

Does anyone out there think Barack Obama is too thin to be president? Anyone having a hard time relating to him and his “no excess body fat”? Please let me know. Thanks!

Despite the obvious nudging, only one fish bit, and that one might have been a troll. The full quote:

Yes I think He is to skinny to be President.Hillary has a potbelly and chuckybutt I’d of Voted for Her.I won’t vote for any beanpole guy.

The poster, “onlinebeerbellygirl,” created her account the same day she replied to Chozick’s message, and has never posted any other messages to Yahoo!. Need I add that there are no hits for “onlinebeerbellygirl” in any other context on the web? Or that no one else took the bait (there were only two other replies at all before Chozick’s piece in the WSJ was published)?

It’s simple. This is a firing offense. If journalists want to claim they have something professional to offer that bloggers don’t, they need to act like it.