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Freedom of Speech, Abuse and Social Media

August 9, 2013 5 comments

Over the last year or so, social media sites have been attacked for allowing users to post abuse about other people onto their sites. These include examples of cyber-bullying on ask.fm or tweets on twitter calling for other users to be raped. The ask.fm posts have been implicated in a number of suicides while in one notable case, Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the UK Parliament, was found guilty of libel for a tweet she posted implying somebody else was a paedophile.

Abuse via social media seems new. In fact this sort of abuse is old. The difference is not the abuse itself, but the level of publicity it receives. In the middle of the 19th century an anonymous individual sent letters to various people in the rural English town of Tetbury threatening to burn their property. Agatha Christie‘s 1942/43 detective novel “The Moving Finger” tells a story of letters sent to people in the quiet town of Lymstock that resulted in the recipients committing suicide. Not so different from the ask.fm cyber-bulling (except that as a Mrs Marple story, things were not so simple and in fact the letters were used as a cover for murder).

Hate letters – often called poison pen letters – go along with anonymous or silent phone calls as one way warped minds try and subvert the minds of opponents or people they dislike. (“The Moving Finger” includes the following: “The letters are sent indiscriminately and serve the purpose of working off some frustration in the writer’s mind. As I say, it’s definitely pathological. And the craze grows….“)

Hate letters are the ancestors of today’s abusive tweets and social media comments. There is, however, a difference. Whereas hate mail isn’t public, abusive tweets threatening rape or calling the victim an “ugly cow” are. This has a larger impact as the hatred is seen by many more people and so is much more distressing.

Social media platforms must take such abuse seriously. It can, and does, lead to suicides – especially if the victims already have low self-esteem. It can escalate and lead to false rumours, as happened with Lord McAlpine – libelled by Sally Bercow. Even worse, it could lead to action against the victim.

This is not a case of freedom of speech being blocked. It’s a case of free speech that is liable to cause harm to others being punished. Anybody who tries to justify abuse using arguments that they support freedom of speech is confusing “freedom of speech” with “free speech”. Freedom of Speech is the right to communicate opinions and ideas – and censoring these is one of the first signs of a restrictive society that can, and does, lead to totalitarianism. It is not, however, a right to “free speech” where you can call for the rape of women, or abuse others through words or images. Freedom of Speech also implies responsibilities that justify that freedom.

There are people who would happily ban or restrict social media and even much of the Internet completely.  In the latter case, this includes David Cameron, the UK’s prime minister, who has called on search engines to create blocks for searches for abusive pornography or be forced to do so by law. Such calls will increase, unless the relevant sites (social media, search engines, etc.) show that they accept the responsibilities of their public position, and actively look at ways of fighting, blocking or reporting abuse themselves.    

Dyson sues after discovering German ‘spy’ on its staff – Telegraph

October 24, 2012 5 comments

Dyson has discovered a spy for its German rival Bosch working in its high-security inventing department in Malmesbury.

One of the basic principles of business strategy is that competitive advantage comes from differentating yourself from competitors. This comes from either improving processes or improving products – cost leadership or product/service differentiation.

Competitive Advantage cannot come from a follower-strategy. It comes from proving to customers that you are different and offer something that competitors don’t have.

Copying competitors does not do this – it shows a lack of ideas and a lack of creative, innovative strategy. For a company like Bosch, known for engineering excellence, resorting to corporate espionage – and being suspected of wanting to use another ocmpany’s ideas says that Bosch is in deep trouble.

There is a big difference between competitive intelligence and corporate espionage. Competiive Intelligence aims to understand everything about the competitive environment – and why customers choose one company in preference to another. It can also try and understand what a competitor aims to do next – so that clear lines can be drawn between companies. Espionage does something different. It says “we want to do the same as you and want to know your secrets”. That’s a straegy failure – and wrong!

See on www.telegraph.co.uk

How to spot web-site plagiarism and copyright theft with CopyScape

March 11, 2012 14 comments

AWARE has had a web-site since 1995 and our current domain (www.marketing-intelligence.co.uk) has been active since 1997. When we started there were less than 100,000 companies on the web. Google’s founders had not yet met each other, and even venerable search engines such as AltaVista had not yet started.

Over the years, we’ve made an effort to ensure that our web content was not copied and used on other sites without our permission.

Although doing manual checks by searching for key phrases is one way of checking for plagiarism and copyright theft, there are a number of dedicated plagiarism checking sites. One example is Plagium. Plagium’s drawback, shared with several similar services, is that you have to paste in the text you want to test rather than just enter the URL. Such services are generally aimed at helping teachers and college professors detect student cheating.

Although some services (such as Plagium) are free, most are not and may involve downloading dedicated software. Others only check a limited number of known “essay” type sites where students can download essays written by others. (We’ve found some of our content on such sites – evidently students who use them don’t care where they steal their content from. Once used successfully they then try to reuse it by uploading their A+ essay to the site).

CopyScape

Of all plagiarism detection websites probably the easiest and best is CopyScape. Copyscape’s aim is not only to help academics detect student cheating. It also allows webmasters to search for copied content in general. It doesn’t require users to paste in the suspect text. Instead web-site owners simply need to enter their URLs and get a report on other sites that use similar or identical wording. It’s sufficiently powerful that there is even a flippant web-page on ContentBoss’s website giving advice on how to bypass CopyScape and copy with impunity. (ContentBoss promises to provide unique content at a low monthly fee. Their bypass CopyScape tool uses a technique that will convert content into HTML guaranteed not to be picked up by plagiarism detectors. The catch is, as pointed out by ContentBoss, that using such content is also a guarantee that the site will be banned by search engines for spam content).

We’ve used CopyScape periodically over the years and miscreants included a competitor site that copied multiple pages from our site. We asked the site owner to change his pages and were ignored. We then took stronger action and within a couple of days the site was taken down. Another example involved an article published in a professional journal that took, almost verbatim, the content of our brief guide to competitive intelligence. We notified the publisher who ensured that the payment made to the “author” was recovered, and an apology published. The author said that he thought that material published on the web was copyright free. He was shown to be wrong.

Our most recent trawl for examples of copyright theft from AWARE’s pages turned up further examples where wording we’ve used has been stolen. The following images should show how effective the tool is – while at the same time naming and shaming the companies that are too weak, lazy or incompetent to produce their own copy and have to steal from others. (I’ve named them – but won’t give them the satisfaction of a link as this could help their search engine optimisation efforts – if they have any!)

The first example shows how text that appears on the footer of most of our pages is plagiarised.

This is the orignal text.

CopyScape found several sites had copied this text almost verbatim – for example Green Oasis Associates based in Nigeria:

or ICM Research from Italy and Pearlex from Virginia in the USA.

The ICM Research example is in fact the worst of these three, as their site has taken content from several other AWARE web-site pages.

The problem is that a company that is willing to steal content from other businesses is unethical – breaking the rule against misrepresenting who you are. If they are willing to steal content from others, they may also take short-cuts in the services provided and as a result should not be trusted to provide a competent service.

The page that is most often plagiarised is the Brief Guide to Competitive Intelligence Page, mentioned above. Clicking on a link found by CopyScape highlights the copied portions as seen in the following examples from AGResearch, Emisol and Wordsfinder.

Generally sites do not copy whole pages (although this does happen) but integrate chunks of stolen text into their pages – as seen in the AGResearch example, below – where 12% of the page is copied, and Wordsfinder where 13% has been copied.

The Emisol example below stole less – although copied key parts of the guide page:

Conclusion

Copyright theft is a compliment to the author of the original web-page, as it shows that the plagiarizing site views their competitor as top quality. However the purpose of writing good copy is to stand out and show one’s own capabilities. Sites that steal other site’s work remove this advantage as they make the claims seem anodyne and commonplace. They devalue both the copier – who cannot come up with their own material (and so are unlikely to be able to provide a competent service anyway) and the originator, as most people won’t be able to tell who came first. Fortunately search engines can, and when they detect duplication, they are likely to downplay the duplicated material meaning that such sites are less likely to appear high-up in search engine rankings. The danger is that both the originator of the material and the plagiarizer may get penalised by search engines – which is another reason to ensure that copyright thieves are caught and stopped. CopyScape is one tool that really works in protecting authors from such plagiarism.

Competitive Intelligence & Culture

February 21, 2011 7 comments

My last few posts have gone off my topic – and the main raison d’être of this blog – competitive intelligence and finding business information. I’m tempted to write about the turmoil currently going on in the Middle East – but echo the reply that Zhou Enlai of China is reputed to have told President Nixon when asked for his views on the 1789 French Revolution: “It’s too soon to tell”.

At the same time, any attempt to understand what is happening has to take into account the cultures involved. Too many pundits ignore culture as an influencing factor and expectations that the Middle East will suddenly adopt Western democratic ideals strike me as unlikely. That is not to say that some form of democratic rule won’t appear – it just won’t be the same as found in the US, UK, France, Australia and other countries dominated by Western Christian traditions.

Understanding culture is also important for competitive intelligence professionals – yet is often ignored. Several years ago I was speaking to a US based consultant – and asked how he went about doing cross-border research. His response was that all research was done in-house. I then asked how he coped with different languages and time-zones. He replied that he used people fluent in the relevant languages working in shifts. At no point did he accept that different countries expect differing approaches – and that his approach may not always give the best results and so be value for money (or even safe) for his clients.

A few months ago, I led a workshop on competitive intelligence in Indonesia. On the second day I was asked a question that I’d never been asked previously. I was asked when I was going to teach the attendees “unethical” ways for gathering competitor intelligence. The reason given was that they knew that their competitors did not follow ethical approaches to gathering competitive intelligence and they also wanted to learn such techniques. They felt that if they only used the standard ethical approaches used in America and the UK then they would be at a disadvantage. Unfortunately they were probably correct.

Of course the ideal situation is to be ethical in all that you do – but if your competitors don’t follow US/UK ethical guidelines it can cause a problem for you, if you do. Especially if ethical norms are different in the country concerned. I handled the query by spending some time talking about counter-intelligence and what to watch out for – mentioning the sorts of things that could be done against them, and how to detect them. This way, hopefully, my questionner will realise that they can stop their competitors gathering material unethically – and that they can do things the right way themselves. (Of course they could turn what I told them round – and use the same approaches back. That is their decision and at least they’ll know the risk to their reputation if caught).

The point about the question however was that it illustrated a cultural difference. The standard SCIP code of ethics is essentially an American construct and relates to US business. I personally believe it is correct – but that may be because my cultural background as a Brit is not too dissimilar to American business norms.

As another example, I have had to spell out to a non-European client of mine that I am not willing to recruit “a company insider” to provide a constant flow of information. He kept asking me to try and locate an employee who I can periodically pay for the latest information on his employer. My client found it very difficult to understand why this is unethical – as he views it as normal that employees will want to supplement their income by sharing information. When I pointed out that this was industrial espionage he disagreed – as I was not hacking, or using bugs but just speaking to somebody who is willing to provide information on a regular basis, and rewarding this person for their time and effort.

Then there was the client who failed to understand why I preferred to interview UK contacts via the telephone rather than arrange meetings. In his culture, unlike in the UK,  face-to-face contact is crucial for any form of business relationship or transaction. The telephone is used to set up meetings – and the idea that you could ever do business over the telephone instead of in person seemed strange.

Japanese vs. European greetingsThese are just some of the ways that cultural differences can impact competitive intelligence practice. There are more. Imagine that you want to find out whether a particular product is about to launch. Within the UK, you may call up a contact and simply ask whether the product will launch within 3 months. You will get a yes or no answer. However doing the same research in Japan needs a different approach, as the standard response in Japan will be yes even if the answer is no. Saying no would be bad form – and result in a loss of face. A better approach would be to provide an alternative e.g. “when will the new product launch – less than 3 months or more than 3 months”. This way, you have to get an answer – it is not a yes/no type question.

These are extremes. However even within Europe there are differences – traditionally in Germany you would not use a first name to speak to a contact, while within the UK that is generally acceptable. Behaving in the wrong way can put a distance between you and your interviewee – so it is important to know the cultural impact of your approach.

Unfortunately not much appears to have been written on the impact of culture on competitive intelligence practice – and this is a topic ripe for research.

Google versus Bing – a competitive intelligence case study

February 2, 2011 7 comments

Search experts regularly emphasise that to get the best search results it is important to use more than one search engine. The main reason for this is that each search engine uses a different relevancy ranking leading to different search results pages. Using Google will give a results page with the sites that Google thinks are the most relevant for the search query, while using Bing is supposed to give a results page where the top hits are based on a different relevancy ranking. This alternative may give better results for some searches and so a comprehensive search needs to use multiple search engines.

You may have noticed that I highlighted the word supposed when mentioning Bing. This is because it appears that Bing is cheating, and is using some of Google’s results in their search lists. Plagiarising Google’s results may be Bing’s way of saying that Google is better. However it leaves a bad taste as it means that one of the main reasons for using Microsoft’s search engine can be questioned, i.e. that the results are different and that all are generated independently, using different relevancy rankings.

Bing is Microsoft’s third attempt at a market-leading, Google bashing, search engine – replacing Live.com which in turn had replaced MSN Search. Bing has been successful and is truly a good alternative to Google. It is the default search engine on Facebook (i.e. when doing a search on Facebook, you get Bing results) and is also used to supply results to other search utilities – most notably Yahoo! From a marketing perspective, however, it appears that the adage “differentiate or die” hasn’t been fully understood by Bing. Companies that fail to fully differentiate their product offerings from competitors are likely to fail.

The story that Bing was copying Google’s results dates back to Summer 2010, when Google noticed an odd similarity to a highly specialist search on the two search engines. This, in itself wouldn’t be a problem. You’d expect similar results for very targeted search terms – the main difference will be the sort order. However in this case, the same top results were being generated when spelling mistakes were used as the search term. Google started to look more closely – and found that this wasn’t just a one-off. However to prove that Bing was stealing Google’s results needed more than just observation. To test the hypothesis, Google set up 100 dummy and nonsense queries that led to web-sites that had no relationship at all to the query. They then gave their testers laptops with a new Windows install – running Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 and with the Bing Toolbar installed. The install process included the “Suggested Sites” feature of Internet Explorer and the toolbar’s default options.

Within a few weeks, Bing started returning the fake results for the same Google searches. For example, a search for hiybbprqag gave the seating plan for a Los Angeles theatre, while delhipublicschool40 chdjob returned a Ohio Credit Union as the top result. This proved that the source for the results was not Bing’s own search algorithm but that the result had been taken from Google.

What was happening was that the searches and search results on Google were being passed back to Microsoft – via some feature of Internet Explorer 8, Windows or the Bing Toolbar.

As Google states in their Blog article on the discovery (which is illustrated with screenshots of the findings):

At Google we strongly believe in innovation and are proud of our search quality. We’ve invested thousands of person-years into developing our search algorithms because we want our users to get the right answer every time they search, and that’s not easy. We look forward to competing with genuinely new search algorithms out there—algorithms built on core innovation, and not on recycled search results from a competitor. So to all the users out there looking for the most authentic, relevant search results, we encourage you to come directly to Google. And to those who have asked what we want out of all this, the answer is simple: we’d like for this practice to stop.

Interestingly, Bing doesn’t even try to deny the claim – perhaps because they realise that they were caught red-handed. Instead they have tried to justify using the data on customer computers as a way of improving search experiences – even when the searching was being done via a competitor.  In fact, Harry Shum, a Bing VP, believes that this is actually good practice, stating in Bing’s response to a blog post by Danny Sullivan that exposed the practice:

“We have been very clear. We use the customer data to help improve the search experience…. We all learn from our collective customers, and we all should.”

It is well known that companies collect data on customer usage of their own web-sites – that is one purpose of cookies generated when visiting a site. It is less well known that some companies also collect data on what users do on other sites (which is why Yauba boasts about its privacy credentials). I’m sure that the majority of users of the Bing toolbar and other Internet Explorer and Windows features that seem to pass back data to Microsoft would be less happy if they knew how much data was collected and where from. Microsoft has been collecting such data for several years, but ethically the practice is highly questionable, even though Microsoft users may have originally agreed to the company collecting data to “help improve the online experience“.

What the story also shows is how much care and pride Google take in their results – and how they have an effective competitive intelligence (and counter-intelligence) programme, actively comparing their results with competitors. Microsoft even recognised this by falsely accusing Google of spying via their sting operation that exposed Microsoft’s practices – with Shum commenting (my italics):

What we saw in today’s story was a spy-novelesque stunt to generate extreme outliers in tail query ranking. It was a creative tactic by a competitor, and we’ll take it as a back-handed compliment. But it doesn’t accurately portray how we use opt-in customer data as one of many inputs to help improve our user experience.

To me, this sounds like sour-grapes. How can copying a competitor’s results improve the user experience? If it doesn’t accurately portray how customer data IS used, maybe now would be the time for Microsoft to reassure customers regarding their data privacy. And rather than view the comment that Google’s exposure of Bing’s practices was a back-handed compliment, I’d see it as slap in the face with the front of the hand. However what else could Microsoft & Bing say, other than Mea Culpa.

Update – Wednesday 2 February 2011:

The war of words between Google and Bing continues. Bing has now denied copying Google’s results, and moreover accused Google of click-fraud:

Google engaged in a “honeypot” attack to trick Bing. In simple terms, Google’s “experiment” was rigged to manipulate Bing search results through a type of attack also known as “click fraud.” That’s right, the same type of attack employed by spammers on the web to trick consumers and produce bogus search results.  What does all this cloak and dagger click fraud prove? Nothing anyone in the industry doesn’t already know. As we have said before and again in this post, we use click stream optionally provided by consumers in an anonymous fashion as one of 1,000 signals to try and determine whether a site might make sense to be in our index.

Bing seems to have ignored the fact that Google’s experiment resulted from their observation that certain genuine searches seemed to be copied by Bing – including misspellings, and also some mistakes in their algorithm that resulted in odd results. The accusation of click fraud is bizarre as the searches Google used to test for click fraud were completely artificial. There is no way that a normal searcher would have made such searches, and so the fact that the results bore no resemblance to the actual search terms is completely different to the spam practice where a dummy site appears for certain searches.

Bing can accuse Google of cloak and dagger behaviour. However sometimes, counter-intelligence requires such behaviour to catch miscreants red-handed. It’s a practice carried out by law enforcement globally where a crime is suspected but where there is insufficient evidence to catch the culprit. As an Internet example, one technique used to catch paedophiles is for a police officer to pretend to be a vulnerable child on an Internet chat-room. Is this fraud – when the paedophile subsequently arranges to meet up – and is caught? In some senses it is. However saying such practices are wrong gives carte-blanche to criminals to continue their illegal practices. Bing appears to be putting themselves in the same camp – by saying that using “honeypot” attacks is wrong.

They also have not recognised the points I’ve stressed about the ethical use of data. There is a big difference between using anonymous data tracking user  behaviour on your own search engine and tracking that of a competitor. Using your competitor’s data to improve your own product, when the intelligence was gained by technology that effectively hacks into usage made by your competitor’s customers is espionage. The company guilty of spying is Bing – not Google. Google just used competitive intelligence to identify the problem, and a creative approach to counter-intelligence to prove it.

The pursuit of justice and social media.

January 2, 2011 8 comments

You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Deut. 16:19-20)

The world in 2011 is still split between the haves and the have-nots, the rich versus the less rich and the poor. Despite a global recession, many have profited – while millions look for work and struggle daily to survive. There has been reason for optimism in the last year – at the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from unjust detention by the Burmese generals. However, this is the exception – and when it comes to justice it is difficult to be optimistic for many countries.

I think that it is worthwhile looking at a few news stories of the last month of 2010 and what they say about different views on justice, the rights of the individual, and also the potential impact of social media on calls for justice.

The first news story concerns the President of Iran’s bete-noire, Israel. Moshe Katsav was born in Iran, and moved to Israel in 1951, aged 5, as a refugee. He spent the next 4 years of his life, living in tents and a transit camp which eventually was built up to become the Israeli town of Kriyat Malakhi. At the age of 24, he was elected mayor of this town – the start of a life in the political limelight. He was elected to the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) in 1977 and served as Minister of Housing & Construction; Labour & Welfare; Transportation; Tourism; and was Deputy Prime Minister between 1996-1999. In 2000 he stood for, and was elected President. In 2006 however, he was accused of sexual molestation and rape, and forced to resign in 2007. He was subsequently indicted and tried for rape. On 30 December 2010, Katsav was found guilty by a three judge panel and will shortly be sentenced, He can expect a mandatory jail term.

Although this is a highly unflattering story it is important as it shows how justice should work. It doesn’t matter how influential or senior somebody is, he or she should not be above the law. If they commit crimes then they should be tried and sentenced. The fact that a former President was accused, tried and found guilty shows that in Israel, nobody is above the law. Katsav is not alone – there are other public figures within Israel who have been or are being investigated for various crimes, and this is how it should be. As the Bible says “You shall not pervert judgement…” and have two levels of justice – one for those in positions of authority or with ability to pay, and one for everybody else.

In contrast, a recent news story from Bangkok shows how power and privilege can corrupt calls for justice as well as the potential influence of social media to ensure that justice does take place.

A few days before the Katsav judgement – 27 December 2010 – a road accident took place resulting in the deaths of 9 people (although the first news stories reported only 8). Initial media reports blamed a van driver for the deaths, but subsequently a different story emerged that was suppressed by Thai news outlets. This was rapidly circulated via a Facebook site calling for justice. Within 24 hours, the page had generated over 180,000 likes.  Currently over 270,000 people have said that they like the page, and there are numerous comments.

Driver on Blackberry after road accidentThe story that was suppressed, apparently backed up by CCTV and witness accounts, told of an impetuous 16-year old girl without a driving licence who got impatient with a slow moving van and tried to push it out of the way with her Honda Civic. The van crashed, resulting in the loss of life of a number of students at Thammasat University – one of the best in Thailand – plus an assistant to the dean at the university’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning, and researchers including a promising scientist from a very poor family who had won a national scholarship. The girl that caused the accident, in contrast, came from a well known family. Her father had been a general and her great great grandfather was King Rama V (1853 – 1910) – the king whose policies ensured that Thailand stayed independent (and not colonised like neighbouring countries) and who is viewed as having put the country on the road to modernization. Following the accident, the girl was photographed calmly using her Blackberry – apparently posting to a social networking site (although subsequently claiming to be calling her father).

Although some of the latest reports suggest that the girl will be prosecuted, the fact that she is described as a “minor” may give a get-out clause. (“ persons of that age were not entitled to a driver’s licence, nor could they be fully subject to criminal and civil liability for deaths and damage.“)

Although the comments from Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, that “nobody is above the law” suggest that Thailand, like Israel, will treat miscreants equally, that does not seem to be the belief of those who set up the Facebook page, especially taking account the initial reports blaming the van driver.

In 1991, Alvin Toffler published PowerShift (US). The book is a “study of power in the 1990s and beyond” and traced “the shifting global power structures and describes how the very definition of power has changed in modern times”. PowerShift was written before the Internet had become mainstream, and well before today’s social media tools. The book suggested that the balance of power was changing from the traditional sources to those who controlled information. Although such ideas have circulated for some years, social media – such as Facebook and Twitter – are allowing for injustices to be quickly publicised, and as such, it becomes easier to call for justice. They are an example of the democratisation of information and allow for genuine expressions of “people power”, the “power of the crowd” as well as the “power of the many over the few”. Such calls are challenges to the existing elites of the world – who are likely to do what they can to suppress them. One approach is that taken by China, who, as the year 2010 closed,  was reported to have  banned sites like Skype, Facebook and Twitter. Other ways are to attack challengers to the existing order and some rumours suggest that the Thai Facebook page supporters may even be punished.

Nevertheless, I believe that a genie has been let out of a bottle. Although most of the time, social media is used to communicate with friends and colleagues, it has a power of its own – to change the world. With over 500 million people connected to Facebook – around 10% of all people in the world – it becomes very difficult to suppress injustices and much easier to spread the concepts of freedom, justice and the truth – however much dictatorial and corrupt regimes may try and stop it. However with power comes responsibility. The responsibility is to ensure that what is spread is the truth. There is a real danger that such tools can also be used to spread false propaganda, lies and untruths – allowing for injustice to spread. There is the danger of mob-rule, where a suspect is condemned, without being given a chance to defend themselves – the 21st century equivalent of a lynch mob.

Social media can help ensure that privileged people don’t escape justice. In this, it will serve a positive purpose. It can also act to reinforce prejudice, irrational hatred and bigotry – as can be seen in groups that try to delegitimise and condemn Israel, despite ample evidence to the contrary, as in the example of Katsav’s trial.

You must not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you are called to testify in a dispute, do not be swayed by the crowd to twist justice.(Exodus, 23:2)

Note: After I wrote this Blog post, I came across a link to a fascinating article by the Internet Guru, Clay Shirky, on the Political Power of Social Media – where he discusses issues relating to the power of social media to change governments, etc. He also considers the potential for change, and also the potential for achieving nothing positive. (Article is free but registration required. The article was summarised in the Economist – with comments. Evidently it was written prior to the Wikileaks affair – as some of the comments put the USA in the “control” corner rather than the “freedom” corner!)

Wikileaks and Whistleblowing!

December 5, 2010 3 comments

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger….” (Genesis Ch. 42 v7).

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens….a time to be silent and a time to speak….” (Ecclesiastes Ch 4 v1, v7)

I wasn’t planning to write about the Wikileaks affair – as in essence, I agree with Wikileaks that excessive secrecy is wrong. At the same time, as the preacher (identified with King Solomon) in the book of Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to speak out, and a time to remain silent.

I believe that many of the items leaked deserved to be leaked. It is wrong to keep details of torture, rape, summary executions, and various other war-crimes secret, irrespective of whether such crimes were committed by the USA, the Iraqis or whoever. War-crimes should always be exposed, and prevented. If a government tries to keep such crimes hidden, then it is the duty of responsible people to expose them. Keeping such information secret just allows for a culture that views the enemy as non-human and dispensable – and ultimately, this makes all who allow this to happen complicit in the crime.

At the same time, there is good reason to keep diplomatic negotiations hidden, however duplicitous they may appear to be – so long as there is a procedure to ensure that such records are not kept secret permanently, but are released when they are no longer politically and diplomatically sensitive. Similarly, information that could put lives at risk – through the identification of people who oppose an oppressive government or who collaborate with others to end oppression – is totally wrong.

Essentially, a leak to prevent wrong-doing is, in my view, correct, whereas a leak for some warped belief that everything should always be out in the open and public is wrong.  Whistle-blowing to prevent corruption and criminal activity is right – whether it impacts commercial or government business. There is a time to speak out, and a time to keep silent, as in the biblical story of Joseph. Had Joseph identified himself when his brothers first visited him, he would have been unable to test their sincerity and repentance. It was important that he kept his status secret – in the same way that it is important that diplomatic cables shouldn’t be revealed as a general rule.

Sarah Palin & Mike Huckabee enter – stage right.

Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

One reason I’d avoided discussion of Wikileaks was that Sarah Palin had just commented on the site. Having just written a blog post on her, I didn’t want to reprise some of my comments. Her view that Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, should be hunted down “with the same urgency we pursue al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders” is yet another emotive, and ill-reasoned Palinesque comment showing a lack of understanding of what al-Qaeda stand for and what the Taliban represent. Assange may have caused damage to USA interests but in no way can he be seen as an overt enemy who would like to destroy everything that the USA stands for, and to impose a totalitarian belief system on the world.

However along comes Mike Huckabee who, apparently, does not wish to be outmanoeuvered by the outspoken Mrs Palin in his dreams of entering the White House. Huckabee has called for the execution of the person accused of leaking the material to Wikileaks. 

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

I agree that the man accused of leaking the material, Private Bradley Manning should be tried and if found guilty, punished (assuming that the trial is fair, which now with so much negative press is doubtful). I do not agree that he deserves the death penalty. He did not release the files to an enemy government and nor did he do it for cash rewards. According to reports he did it after seeing attempts to cover up possible war-crimes committed by the US – for instance an air-strike that killed a dozen people in Baghdad and where the air crew laughed at the dead, and another in Afghanistan, that killed dozens of children. This makes him a whistle-blower and not a spy or traitor, and as such, this needs to be taken into account in any penalty. An overly severe or unwarranted sentence will just serve to further deter whistle-blowing and allow corrupt officials, politicians or business managers to continue in their actions.

I also question whether it is Manning alone who should be blamed. The US government must share some blame in not protecting material they viewed as confidential. Apparently the material leaked was available to many thousands of people. Following the September 2001 terrorist outrages an attempt to stop the silo mentality that had prevented different bits of information being linked together, correctly allowed for improved sharing of intelligence. Evidently such sharing did not consider the security implications of making so much information available to so many – with minimal protection. If Manning had not leaked the material, I’m sure that somebody else with a moral conscience, seeing the Iraq video, would have.

Additionally, it was not Manning (if the leak came from him) who posted the material but Wikileaks. Wikileaks would like to be seen as a channel whereby whistle-blowers can alert the world of crimes (commercial or governmental) that are being kept hidden, and I believe there is a need for such a service. Had they fulfilled this role, they would have edited out any material that did not serve a public service in being released.

The free-rights-for-all crowd enter – stage left.

Facebook Group Logo for Boycotting Amazon over Wikileaks

Wikileaks, trying to remain online, used Amazon’s hosting service for the site. Of course, Amazon was then criticised for ostensibly supporting the service, and came under pressure to boot the service. Had they not done so, I’m sure that they would have faced a large and damaging right-wing campaign against them – especially as the peak holiday buying season approaches.  Their action however has, instead, led to a call for a boycott from those who believe in total freedom of speech regardless of the content, including a dedicated FaceBook fan page.

Had Amazon not hosted Wikileaks in the first place, neither side would have complained. Instead, Amazon has been criticised from both sides for doing what it felt was the right thing – both commercially and morally. They hosted the site – I’m sure because they believe in the moral principle of Freedom of Speech. It was not just a commercial decision – as I don’t believe that you will find any Nazi or Ku Klux Klan sites on Amazon servers. They host sites that they believe are not objectionable to their ethos. When, in the case of Wikileaks, this then threatened to be commercially damaging, they pulled the site – and get blasted by the “Freedom-of-Speech-at-all-costs” crowd who I’m sure would quickly campaign against the company if Amazon took this literally and started hosting racist, Nazi or kiddie-porn sites.

Julian Assange and Wikileaks

Wikileaks is not the first whistle-blowing web-site. My favourite – www.fuckedcompany.com – has unfortunately shut down, along with its sister site www.internalmemos.com. These two sites were important in warning investors of commercial shenanigans and companies that were having problems. Unfortunately I know of no other good sites offering such services. Wikileaks could, and should, have taken on this role. However with Assange as their editor-in-chief, they seem to be looking for headlines and controversy rather than fulfilling a role in preventing corruption and crimes being committed by both government and commerce.

Julian Assange

Julian Assange. (Is it just me who thinks that Assange has a strong resemblance to Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films? He just needs to grow his hair a bit longer and they could be twins!)

Assange, according to Wikipedia, has led a peripatetic life. He claims to be constantly on the move – starting from his childhood, where his mother, in conflict with his father, hid Assange and his half-brother for five years. Obviously very bright, Assange became a leading computer hacker at the age of 16, and claims to have studied at university level, physics, mathematics, philosophy and neuroscience.

In 2006 he founded Wikileaks with an overtly political aim of encouraging leaks to change organisations that he felt were unjust or secretive:

…the more secretive or unjust an organisation is, the more leaks induce fear and paranoia in its leadership and planning coterie…

Prior to the current 2010 leaks, WikiLeaks has published material relating to extra-judicial killings in Kenya, information on toxic waste dumping off Africa, Church of Scientology manuals, a report on share price manipulation (that led to criminal charges and a jail sentence for the culprits) by the Icelandic Kaupthing Bank and many more reports and items.

What next?

The latest leaks have caused severe embarrassment for the USA and many of its allies. Worringly, the response by some of the opponents to Wikileaks show how freedom in the USA is at risk. Rather than accept that their security was lax and that the leaks show signs that illegal practices are being covered up, blame is being pinned on the message and the messengers (Manning and Assange). That is not to say that either are totally innocent. Manning, if he was responsible for leaking all the documents was naive to say the least. Assange strikes me as a petulant, spoilt and amoral man who loves the publicity he is getting, and doesn’t really care who gets hurt in the process.

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

Meanwhile, I wonder whether the accusations of rape that have been made against Assange in Sweden are just an attempt by his enemies to put him behind bars. It would not be the first time that the Swedish authorities were accused of falsifying evidence to imprison an undesirable element linked to computer hacking, violence against women, espionage and the security services.  Stieg Larsson‘s Millenium Trilogy are works of fiction, detailing how corrupt elements within the Swedish secret services conspire to frame the heroine Lisbeth Salander, and keep her locked up, so as to save their own skins. Salander, like Assange, is a computer hacker who takes on and challenges authority. It would be ironic if the Swedish accusations against Assange also turned out to be false – and were an attempt by his enemies to put him away. However such things only happen in fiction…. don’t they?

Scene from the film "The Girl who Kicked the Hornet's Nest" - the third book of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy.

 

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