Tuesday, August 29, 2006

An Ominous Trend?

Now here's a wrinkle I hadn't counted on in the internets: targeted news. It seems that news web sites are capable of denying a reader a particular story based on where they live. The NY Times admits it has done so, and has even indicated how they did it.

The article that was selectively denied to web-based readers can be found here, but only if your server doesn't sit in Great Britain. It's a rather long article having to do with the investigation into the terrorist plot to blow up airplanes traveling from Great Britain to the US.

On Aug. 9, in a small second-floor apartment in East London, two young Muslim men recorded a video justifying what the police say was their suicide plot to blow up trans-Atlantic planes: revenge against the United States and its “accomplices,” Britain and the Jews.

...The ominous language of seven recovered martyrdom videotapes is among new details that emerged from interviews with high-ranking British, European and American officials last week, demonstrating that the suspects had made considerable progress toward planning a terrorist attack. Those details include fresh evidence from Britain’s most wide-ranging terror investigation: receipts for cash transfers from abroad, a handwritten diary that appears to sketch out elements of a plot, and, on martyrdom tapes, several suspects’ statements of their motives.

This brief excerpt from the early part of the article gives a general idea of the contents. Why deny this information to people in the UK? Well, it seems that the NY Times feared publishing it would violate a British law against publishing materials which would be prejudicial to defendants, as noted in a related article published by the NY Times in today's edition.

If Web readers in Britain were intrigued by the headline “Details Emerge in British Terror Case,” which sat on top of The New York Times’s home page much of yesterday, they would have been disappointed with a click.

“On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain,” is the message they would have seen. “This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

In adapting technology intended for targeted advertising to keep the article out of Britain, The Times addressed one of the concerns of news organizations publishing online: how to avoid running afoul of local publishing laws.

...Jonathan Zittrain, a professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, said restricting information fit with trends across the Internet. “There’s a been a sense that technology can create a form of geographic zoning on the Internet for many years now — that they might not be 100 percent effective, but effective enough,” Mr. Zittrain said. “And there’s even a sense that international courts might be willing to take into account these efforts.

...Richard J. Meislin, the paper’s associate managing editor for Internet publishing, said the technological hurdle was surmounted by using some of The Times’s Web advertising technology. The paper could already discern the Internet address of users connecting to the site to deliver targeted marketing, and could therefore deliver targeted editorial content as well. That took several hours of programming.
[Emphasis added]

Now, I have to admit that the NY Times has a pretty good excuse for not providing the information to UK residents, at least in this case. Certainly the defendants in the terrorist case are entitled to a fair trial, and certainly the American and British public are entitled to have a those who would engage in terrorism caught, tried, and punished, especially if they can be caught before they actually carry out the action.

But now the NY Times has demonstrated that they can deny information to targeted audiences. And if the NY Times can do it, so can every other news source on the world-wide web. Will I, a California resident, be denied access to a story on a local candidate which might determine how I will vote? Will US citizens be denied a story on how a contractor is abusing local workers in a federally funded project in Iraq?

I suppose this story is old news to people in China and in other nations where internet access is strictly controlled. I guess I just didn't expect to see it happening here.


Blogger spocko said...

Very interesting. I wonder about this especially when it comes to news. I know advertisers want to have MORE targeted information not less. But news providers should want to reach a lot more people. So if the advertisers push for "we want to know where people are coming from for ad sales purposes fine, but think about how easily that data can be abused. First it will be use in simple correct ways, but the ability for abuse is there.

And as news becomes just another profit center for large corporations, there will be no one to say, "Wait we an an obligation to the community to tell everyone."

They can get around this with lots of weasle arguements, but it is something that we should stay aware of.

oh, and my verification word was

Should I take that personally?

6:38 PM  

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