Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Censored in a country near you

Censorship, social media, tailored search content and privacy policies shakier that an oppositions family planning policy.

It seems like a large bubble is moving across the land again, and this it's the issue of local law enforcement controlling social media content. Last time it was the Occupy Wall Street movement.

For me, this bubble started growing sometime last year (or was it the year before) with Stephen Conroy and the great Australian firewall. A proposed change to Australian ISPs, requiring that they block a specific black list of URLs, with very little transparency of what that black list actually was.

Then it morphed a little into an unwillingness by some Australian state governor generals to recognise a R18+ rating for games. You'd think Australians would be able to call a spade, a spade. But not if it's a spade of particular quality. Manufacturers have to remove a little of the shine, then push it to an MA15+ market, all the while, uneducated, gormless parents are buying these for little Johnny, who can't be much more than 13. Oh dear, I think I've blurred my analogy. Anyway, I think you get the idea. A game that would otherwise be classed as R18+ has a few graphics touched up, and ends up in the hands of a 13 year old, put there by the parents who should know better. I think it would be a different result if the game was actually recognised and labelled as R18+. But I digress.

More recently, we've had SOPA/PIPA. While they're not about censorship, they are about going the wrong way to control information on the internet. Some of the ideas put forward about blocking which sites should and should not be available for the American viewing public smell a lot like some of the ideas that Conroy had for the great Australia firewall. And if either one of those reasons resulted in an implementation of blocking URLs or whole sites with little review or recourse for action, you can be sure there will be a justification for the other reason soon enough.

Then we have Twitter, once free of censorship, now adjusting policy to cater for local law, and telling us that some censorship is better than no censorship. Well, except for the people actually getting censored, or the intended audience not being reached because of censorship by local law enforcement in that country. The small blessing is that, for those that care, there's an independent site listing the requested take down notices. The details of that escape me, somewhat. But I'm not overly put out by the Twitter stuff. While I have an account, I go through phases of usage, and in more recent times, that usage is way less that Facebook. And Facebook gets a 5 minute look in, perhaps once every two weeks.

I couldn't tell you what's going on with Facebook. Since their more recent UI change, doing what's hot, what's popular and apparently, what's relevant, I get the feeling I'm not seeing all that I should be seeing, and no longer trust Facebook to deliver posts from friends. I know there's a similar thing going on with Google and their searches, in general, but since most of my searching is for programming syntax and documentation, I welcome relevant hits into StackOverflow, any day of the week.

The, the latest act is Google, and in particular, Blogspot and the usage of it's TLDs. Once upon a time (say, last week), this blog was only found through Now, the TLD will change depending on what country you are viewing from. You can read a bit more on it here. So Americans and their aliens will still see .com, Australians will see, and other people viewing from other nations will see whatever TLD Blogspot has managed to secure for that country.

So why did that do that? So local law enforcement can block content without impacting what content gets seen from other countries. Pretty similar to what Twitter are doing.

There are a couple of interesting side effects.

The first is a loss of page rank for any engine that just looks at the URL. Any Tweet counts, Facebook Likes and Alex rankings just got wiped for any country outside the US. I'm tempted to put Google's +1 in that basket as well, but Blogspot supplies the canonical relationship in the header of all the pages, which points back to the .com version. I wonder if a +1 gets applied to the viewed URL or to the canonical URL. Usage of canonical leads me to the second point.

The second side effect is the usage of the canonical relationship in the header that points back to the .com version. This means, for most search engines that honor the canonical reference, only the .com version of the website will get indexed. And if local law enforcement in the US decides your content isn't fit for viewing there, then you're pretty much fucked for having it viewed anywhere else. I guess this was always the case in the old system, but it's probably the one inconsistency with the TLD change policy. Your content is good for indexing, until you piss off the US.

So, my original thought that sparked this entry was "how long until distributed peer to peer technologies are used to disseminate blog content into the ether?". Maybe your audience reaches a critical mass, and instead of have a hosted blog, you just publish an atom to a few, well known locations and assorted technologies (RSS, Usenet, Github, Wordpress, Craigs List, Gumtree, IRC logs, free CDNs and a whole bunch of torrent trackers that peddle plain text and a handful of supporting images). Consider what happened when attempts were made to shut down WikiLeaks.

It's not a small world, after all. There are just more assholes cramping your style.

Update: Google will look at the canonical link, if you don't specify a href. Even then, you might read this post about how that's not quite good enough, but it seems Google have updated processing so that even if you +1 an explicit URL, if it contains a canonical link, that will increment counters for other +1 buttons with different URLs, but the same canonical link. TL:DR. The Blogspot TLD change won't bork your +1's.