Tangled Webs

    The Freedom to Rant
Issue 4.12
Sep 9, 1999

Unclear of Concept

If we credit America for nothing else, she deserves accolades for fostering the idea that the Freedom of Speech is an inalienable right. Those of us raised in free societies have been made to repeat the phrase so many times it seems a truism. However, once the slogans and flag waving are put aside, the Freedom of Speech is a profoundly unnatural and counter-intuitive concept.

For the most part, everyone agrees that they should have the right to speak their mind. Historically, however, the idea that everyone else should have the same privilege has proven to be a much harder sell.

At any given moment, ample evidence of this can be found on the floor of the US Senate; among those who have taken solemn oaths to protect the Constitution. Most recently, Dianne Feinstein, Orrin Hatch and about a dozen other Senators have introduced a bill that would make discussion of the use of illegal drugs or even links to pages containing such discussions a federal felony punishable by a fine and up to 10 years in prison.

Unfortunately, the US Congress's disregard for the right to free speech has become far too commonplace to be news, so today I will be discussing another group of people who are rather unclear of the concept of the right to free speech.

Just Say No

The controversy centers on software called Third Voice (http://www.thirdvoice.com) that "snaps onto" a web browser and lets users annotate web sites by sticking virtual Post-it notes on them. These notes can be seen and commented upon by others who have the software installed, but are invisible to those who do not.

Initial reaction to the May 17 release of Third Voice was positive, and the ability to link one's views on politics, news and consumer products directly to the source was considered a step forward for populist free-speech. There was speculation that some might be uncomfortable with everyone being able to publicly comment on their web content.

That turned out to be an understatement.

Within a month, opposition to Third Voice was mobilizing. Today "Say No to TV" claims to have 400 Web hosts working to try to force Third Voice to stop distributing their software or to alter it so that users would be required to get permission from site owners before commenting on their content.

Say No to TV (http://saynotothirdvoice.com/) maintains that posting such notes constitutes a violation of copyright law and an invasion of privacy which may result in future legal action against the company. Say No to TV has also embarked on a letter-writing campaign targeting both government officials from Janet Reno to state legislators and the operators of the sites most targeted by Third Voice users such as Lycos, Microsoft, AOL and GeoCites.

Their activities have been generating attention, but their statements strike me as less then honest. The group works hard to give the impression that Third Voice software somehow alters the information of the websites themselves, but in fact, TV does not alter the site contents or the code used to create them in any way, and it has absolutely no effect on machines that do not have Third Voice software installed.

Enough Rope to Hang Themselves

Lawsuits may eventually be filed, but things move fast on the Internet, and it has recently become clear that web-annotation is not only here to stay, but is actually becoming a product category. In the last few months Odigo, Utok and Gooey have all debuted offering the same annotation functionality as Third Voice. The technology has momentum, and these sticky-notes are appearing in more and more places.

This technology enables animal rights activists to protest at the site of cosmetics companies. It could permit dissenting political views to be heard in places where they would normally be silenced. It allows erroneous information and propaganda to be pointed out at the source, and it permits all this to be done in a way that does not affect the operations of the sites in question in any way.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, this is not how it is being used. For the most part, the free-speech we see on these virtual sticky-notes is the same sort of free speech found scrawled on restroom walls. At the moment, the few thoughtful, significant voices are drowned out by thousands of juvenile and profane ones.

In the end, the success of these products will hinge not on the activities of lawyers or lawmakers, but on how the software itself is used. Unless a critical mass of intelligent commentary is achieved, most users will lose interest and turn off Third Voice. If that happens, those with something worth hearing will realize that no one is listening, and a great opportunity to advance free speech will have been lost.

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© Copyright 1999, Tim Romero, t3@vgkk.co.jp
This article fist appeared in the Sep 8, 1999 edition of The Japan Times.
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