October 2, 2015

Not encyclopedic

There seems to have been a spate of articles lately pointing out various things wrong with Wikipedia: Wikipedia-logo-en.pngthe culture is sexist; other encyclopedias are better; it has a pronounced Western bias; it's being subverted by paid PR people; it's sexist some more.

A few weeks ago, a more serious accusation surfaced, when UC Berkeley biologist and open science proponent Michael Eisen tweeted the news that the journal publisher Elsevier had announced it would donate 45 free accounts to Wikipedia, so that editors could access - and therefore reference - its expensively paywalled science papers. Chagrined at the ensuing fuss, which included coverage at Gizmodo and ars technica - a week later Eisen clarified: a) he loves Wikipedia; b) he wasn't attacking Wikipedia for making *any* deals with *any publishers*, but criticizing the quality of this particular deal. Part of his argument was that making it easier to cite paywalled journal articles will prolong the life of the paywalled business model, which he would like to see die off in favor of "truly open scientific literature". He also thought the deal gave Elsevier great PR but didn't give Wikipedia enough return.

Wikipedia has a pretty clear statement of what it intends to be, written as the "five pillars": a neutrally written encyclopedia that is free for anyone to use, edit, and distribute, with guidelines rather than rules, and a culture in which editors treat each other civilly. If you want your science coverage to be the best it can be, you want access to the best-quality research, as Pete Forsyth argues at WikiStrategies. Although it seems logical for Wikipedia to support open access, that's not really its mission.

What didn't come out in those discussions is something I remember seeing discussed some 20 years ago, that the Western world's "best-quality" is already biased: the requirements that make a journal reputable enough to cite may be out of reach in some cases. I recall that one example was a requirement for a minimum period of regular publication - difficult to meet in a country in turmoil. But leaving that aside, it became known bernice-dahn.jpgduring the ebola outbreak that began in 2014 that better access to journal articles would have saved lives, as the chief medical officer of Liberia's Ministry of Health, Bernice Dahn, wrote in the New York Times. While they were trying to formulate a response to the rapidly spreading but as-yet undiagnosed illness, ebola was believed not to exist in Liberia. The journal article that corrected this mistaken impression was written in 1982; but no Liberian scientists participated in the research, and the results were published in a European journal. In Liberian terms, downloading that single article would have cost a physician half a week's salary. Wikipedia already has a strong Western bias; but this deal could save lives if it can provide leads to published work that no one knows about.

A recent run-in of my own with Wikipedia - trying to add accessibility detail to the pages for London tube stations - taught me that, like a large city, what to outsiders appears to be a single community is in fact thousands of smaller ones, each with its own community norms and understanding. This is what makes Wikipedia so hard for aspiring editors to navigate. Just adding stuff may lead to abrupt reversion - not because they think the information is bad (although they may) but because it's the quickest solution to a perceived deviation from the norm. I thought someone would see my addition, note its usefulness, and move it to the right place, providing a guideline I could follow. Instead: revert. I asked an inside acquaintance: what do I do now? He provided pointers to the relevant talk pages, where I was finally told accessibility information was "not encyclopedic".

Sources were always going to be an issue: Wikipedia's firm policy is published sources only, and personally counting the numbers of steps clearly fails. But the information seemed so obviously valuable that I was baffled. Why is the history of a station's platforms encyclopedic but accessibility information is not? Is it because the pages are written by trainspotters or because there's some neutral definition of "encyclopedic" that I don't understand?

In a lecture this week called The Ugly Truth (the Guardian has a summary), Sense About Science director Tracey Brown argued that scientists must learn to be more honest about uncertainty and more open with their data. She offered the following principles: seek accountability and change; clarify the evidence; admit failings; do not keep things hidden.

These are good principles for all curators of knowledge. The point is not to create certainty. As Brown said, certainty is a characteristic of believers, not scientists (or skeptics). By embracing uncertainty, scientists can answer the more important question: do we know enough? Science - except for mathematics, where a proof is final - is never finished. Failures that are visible can be remedied. And that's the point about Wikipedia; everything can be audited. That its failings are known is its biggest strength.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

September 25, 2015

Cheat mode

I had a lot I wanted to say about the news that Volkswagen gamed its cars' software to give both their customers and environmental protection agencies what they want - better performance in the first case, less pollution in the second. However, James Grimmelmann, writing in (among others) Mother Jones beat me to what I wanted to say about the dangers coming our way in a future full of hidden software that can change the physical world, and then Zeynep Tufecki covered my other point, asking whether we still think electronic voting is a pretty neat idea.

Grimmelmann's - and EFF's - concern is that current copyright law, specifically the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, makes it harder to catch such issues by restricting research. Well, sure: the law was created to serve the entertainment industries, primarily music, not a future of software inside everything of public import, from printer cartridges and cars to streetlights and medical devices. The EU's equivalent 2001 EU Copyright Directive has similar but not identical clauses that have been invoked to block the presentation of research from the University of Birmingham into cracking keyless car entry systems (the paper has since been published with some redactions (PDF).

VW's is the kind of scandal that gives corporate malfeasance a bad name for generations to come. And it has company: this week's news that Exxon's own research confirmed global warming in 1982, the tobacco companies' long suppression of Simon Davies.jpgpermitted to create their own impenetrable encrypted communications system, despite their history. It all goes to prove Simon Davies' contention, stated in an interview for a 1999 Scientific American article (TXT), "Companies are pathologically unable to punish themselves."

This is a roundabout lead-up to this week's notable but overshadowed story that the Advocate-General of the European Court of Justice, Yves Bot, has issued an opinion that the "safe harbor" agreement that allows personal data to be transferred from the EU to the US is invalid. Assuming the court follows Bot's advice, which I'm told it does approximately four-fifths of the time - we might be on the verge of the trade war Davies predicted in 1999. Companies like Google and Apple, which are more focused on individuals, may not be too severely affected, but how does a social media platform like Facebook manage users' international social graphs under a system that requires it to sequester EU citizens' personal data?

The CJEU case was brought by the Austrian lawyer and activist Max Schrems. Following the 2013 Snowden revelations, which made plain that EU citizens could not escape spying by the US authorities, Schrems decided to test whether the EU's data protection laws are in fact enforceable in practice. In 2014, he took his complaint to Ireland's data protection commissioner (where Facebook is based) and asked him to force the company to conform to EU law. He found found widespread support; unlike the UK but like the US, Austria allows class action suits. From there, the case found its way to the CJEU.

Even in 1999, when safe harbor was agreed, privacy advocates were arguing that it was inadequate. Basically, it's a kludge. EU data protection law prohibits the transfer of personal data to countries that lack a similar level of privacy protection. The US doesn't. Safe harbor allows everyone to pretend it does by allowing companies to self-certify their compliance. The BBC counts more than 4,000 companies that use safe harbor and quotes Schrems calling this is an unfair advantage over companies that are more tightly bound by privacy law. It would be good to see this claim stood up by research (of the kind few companies will permit). Instinctively, it seems reasonable: it's an imbalance comparable to allowing US companies to sell into the EU without collecting VAT, given them a substantial price advantage over EU-based companies, a loophole that's been closed.

At least one American commentator - Lauren Weinstein - has called the ruling hypocritical, on the basis that EU is perfectly happy to spy on its own citizens. He's missing the point. An Austrian citizen who believes their privacy has been invaded by their own government has means of recourse: filing a court case or freedom of information requests, spearheading civil protests, campaigning, voting. There are no such means of recourse for a foreign national in the US. Plus, this isn't a case the government brought: Schrems has noted that the Irish data protection commissioner's office did their best to avoid bringing the case, answering Schrems' 22 complaints with a best-practice audit rather than a prosecution.

Thumbnail image for toxic_sludge_is_good_for_you.jpg"[Americans] fail to understand that what has happened in Europe is a legal, constitutional thing, and they can no more cut a deal with the Europeans than the Europeans can cut a deal with your First Amendment," Davies said in 1999. That was before they started secretly negotiating treaties intended to bypass domestic, democratically enacted law. Alongside the provisions in nascent treaties such as the Transpacific Partnership are equally contentious, business-backed attempts to bypass data protection law by prohibiting requirements for local storage (PDF). For our benefit, I'm sure. Like breathing particulates.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.