Internet Rights and Third Voice
or, "this site suckz dickz! whooo I rule!!!!"
Never before has there been so much stink around a silly little browser plug-in.
In case you've not yet heard of Third Voice, here's what you are missing:
Third Voice is a browser plug-in (currently designed to work only with Internet Explorer 4.x on Windows95/98/NT machines) that allows fully subscribed users to post a sort of cyber "sticky-note" on any website on the internet. That note can be private (viewable only by the author), group-oriented (viewable only by a specified group of people) or public (viewable by anyone with the software, even those who cannot post "stickies"). The result: if you are running Third Voice along with your browser, when you load a new web page you can view any comments left by other TV users.
At first glance, this sounds intriguing. A site about preservation of wetlands might suddenly become host to a heated "sticky-note" discussion about lack of government environmental protection, or about money spent on EPA vs. money spent on human homeless. An online business might have stickies from several customers attesting to the high quality of products. Conversely, an online scam website might be populated with stickies warning people of possible shady business dealings. All of this sounds very cool, and is certainly the original intention of this very revolutionary technology.
Unfortunately, there are two major problems with this software and the technology that drives it:
PROBLEM #1 -- Internet Real-Estate
Most folks who offer public access websites pay for their web space in some way (I know I do). Some will get free space from web hosting providers such as Geocities, but still pay in the form of giving up advertising space, and Geocities ultimately pays for the servers and the upkeep. The URL webmasters pay for belongs to them, why should they be forced to allow other people to post comments to it? If that URL truly belongs to the buyer (or renter), then Third Voice's stickies are squatting on someone else's property. What is more, a webmaster has no real way to remove comments from his website. Once they are posted, only the Third Voice company itself can remove the stickies (which they say they will consider only in cases of extreme slander, etc.)
Third Voice gets around this by saying that, since the HTML code of the webmaster's page is not actually altered in any way (the TV stickies are stored on TV's server and linked to the URL), they are not doing anything wrong -- in fact, (according to them) they are simply promoting free speech. This implies that a webmaster has rights only to his HTML code, not to the URL he has bought or is renting. It brings up an interesting question of ownership of virtual objects (a URL) vs. ownership only of tangibles (the original HTML code). Again, if a webmaster does own that URL (and, if he doesn't, why do addresses like "www.theforceiswithyou.com" command such a high price on internet auction sites?), TV has got to be violating someone's rights of ownership by attaching stickies -- even stickies viewable only by TV users -- to that URL.
PROBLEM #2 -- Slander, Libel and Other Abuses
While TV's intentions for this software may be the free sharing of information and open debate of issues anywhere on the internet (noble intentions, I might add), ultimately human nature will corrupt those intentions, and reduce "sharing of information" and "debate" to such quaint phrases as "this site sucks" and "Brenda has big titties" -- the cyberspace equivalent of graffiti. Further, TV actually supplies the ability to advertise on someone else's website -- when viewing say, an online bookstore website, the cyber-graffiti might read, "for a good time visit www.sluttywhores.com," or "for better prices on books, visit www.mybookstore.com." The last might be a service to the viewer, but, again, if a webmaster is paying big $$ for his website, should a competitor be allowed to advertise on it for free? Keep in mind, there is no real way for the webmaster to remove this graffiti.
Most frightening about this software is the potential for personal/economical damage. Say I, David, run a website that sells original artwork (and I do). Since TV does not regulate its stickies in any way, a TV user can post a stickie connected to my URL (which I pay for) that reads, "Don't buy artwork from David because he is a child molester." Now, I am not a child molester, but if a potential customer of mine is using TV and he sees this post and believes it, I've lost a customer AND there is now another person out there who believes I may be a child molester and will pass it onto his buddies. When I finally find out what is going on and why my sales have fallen off (which may be a while since I do not use TV), I can't even remove the offending stickie. This may be a case where TV would consider removing the stickie, but by the time my petition went through, potentially thousands of people would have learned from my own site that I am supposed child molester, and I would have lost a large body of potential customers, and we won't even speak to the psychological damage done to me by having thousands of people think I touch little kids. (Again, I must reiterate that I am NOT a child molester -- this is simply a hypothetical situation used to illustrate a point.) You can see how dangerous and potentially destructive this tool could become.
Of course, none of the theorizing above can predict how Third Voice will actually be used by internet surfers. Fortunately (since it is not yet available for MacOS), I use an WinNT box at work, so I figured I'd perform a experiment to see what TV users were actually doing with this new, exciting, and potentially inflammatory technology.
My experiment was simple -- install TV on my PC at work and, one by one, go through my 100 or so Internet Explorer (TV is currently available only for IE 4.x) "favorites" and see what kinds of things TV users were posting on them. My bookmarks are a mix of less traveled sites (aquarium supplies, LA casting calls) and some of the busiest sites on the internet (Yahoo!, ebay and Apple). Obviously (since the technology is very new and in few hands relative to the internet community as a whole), the smaller "niche" sites had few or no stickies, and even sites like Yahoo! had fewer posts than I expected.
Generally what I found in my very unscientific 2 day study is that about 50% of the stickies were harmless graffiti. I saw a lot of "x was here" and "what're you lookin' at?" and "apple rulz!" Simple discussions (the kind you find in the average chat room) took up about 5% of what I saw -- most often the discussions were not about the site on which the stickie appeared, many were quite flirtatious and a couple downright pornographic. Speaking of which, about 5% were advertisements for pornography sites -- "www.cheerleaderz.com" (among others) got quite a few plugs on several of the higher-traffic sites. Another 25% was taken up by negative graffiti and competitor adverts: "Yahoo sucks" or "I've got better deals on my site, here it is." The final 15% or so was actual constructive commenting and discussions about the site featured, and a few discussions of TV's impact on the site in question (ebay is a good example of these kinds of posts). Some of these discussions were negative to the "hosting" site, but were at least constructive: "I do not like this site and here is why..." This last 15% is the type of post I believe the creators intended.
Ultimately, I feel that the time is not right for widespread use of Third Voice. There is too much grey area surrounding internet property rights and, frankly, (though my evidence is purely anecdotal) I think I've shown that the power given to surfers by this software will be abused more often than not. Prime among my concerns about this software are the idea of virtual property -- who owns what on the internet -- and the fact that TV stickies are not removable by anyone except TV themselves. As I see it, attaching any sort of comment, advertisement, whatever to a webmaster's URL without consent is an infringement of that webmaster's rights -- that webmaster should have total control over what is associated with the URL he/she paid for (unless his contract with his provider states otherwise), regardless of the fact the HTML code is not affected. The Third Voice plugin takes that control away from the webmaster and puts it in the hands of and random surfer who passes by and, in my mind, that is wrong.