Privacy, sunshine and the electronic frontier: That slippery slope in North Carolina

Electronic Frontier logo

N.C. legislators have introduced a bill that would allow local governments across the state to opt out of providing copies of email lists they maintain.

Several other local bills specifically allow the governments of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Greenville to opt out of providing the copies. The contents of the list would still be open to public inspection.

The statewide bill says this, in part:

“AN ACT to make effective statewide a local act providing that a list of the email addresses of persons subscribing to local government email lists is open to public inspection but is not required to be provided, and to provide that the local government may use that list only for the purpose that it was subscribed to.”

Under North Carolina’s open records law, governments must provide copies of the records they maintain. But in the Charlotte area, some people have expressed concerns about how copies of email addresses can be used for marketing.

Specifically, the Charlotte Observer came under fire after an open-records request for email lists maintained by the city of Charlotte, Cornelius, Huntersville and Davidson. Editor Rick Thames wrote a column responding to the criticisms.

It’s no wonder email lists and marketing nowadays make people nervous. The most recent visible case happened when hackers obtained names and emails from the marketing company Epsilon. Thousands of consumers had their email addresses stolen. Organizations affected included the College Board and Target.

But that’s just the most recent case. Consumer concern about the privacy of their data has been growing for years. They’ve joined email lists for one purpose and watched their addresses be used for a different purpose. And as political battles heat up for 2012, partisan groups are collecting email addresses as fast as they can, without clear direction on how those emails will be used in the future.

Still, the proposed N.C. bills and any move to greater secrecy should cause concern among citizens. Exceptions to open records have a tendency to grow, with open records statutes adding clauses for government agencies that feel they need to do their work in the dark.

Open government data gives everyone a chance to watch how government is spending money and time. And sometimes, that data also can serve to grow new, independent businesses, like the crime mapping company already used by the town of Cornelius. Access to that kind of data needs to be available to everyone on an equal footing, not only to specific firms that cut deals with local governments.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has wrestled with the balancing of privacy and sunshine for years. Formed in 1990, the foundation’s mission is to defend free speech, privacy, innovation and consumer rights.

In 2004, the foundation issued a white paper about email. The title: “Noncommercial Email Lists: Collateral Damage in the Fight Against Spam.”

Much of the paper deals with the technical issues some email list owners face with spam filters, but it also includes strong recommendations for best practices for those owners.

It also highlights an important principle:

“Individual recipients should have ultimate control over whether they receive the messages they wish to receive. They can be assisted by software or anti-spam services, but knowledge of and control over receipt of email should remain with recipients and end users.”

The most relevant best-practice recommendation in this case: Allow the consumers a chance to opt in to email lists. That’s a basic principle of good marketing firms that work to protect the reputation of the companies they represent.

The specific words:

Senders must ensure that recipients have taken positive action indicating that they wish to be signed up for a mailing list.

More from the paper:

“While this problem is less of an issue with noncommercial lists, recipients do report that they have been added to noncommercial mailing lists without their consent. Sometimes this happens after they participated in a single call-to-action or responded to an issue online. Other times, organizers use or purchase a mailing list set up for one purpose as a ‘starter list’ for another, with the incorrect assumption that the people on the first list are likely to be interested in the second.”

The paper from EFF is worth reading for anyone owning and using email lists and anyone who signs up for a list. But the best practices aren’t law, and they won’t stop marketers, politicians or community organizers from using open records laws to obtain email lists when they can.

So should North Carolina limit access to copies of email lists compiled by local governments?

If so, N.C. legislators should proceed cautiously and choose the law’s words narrowly to avoid shutting off access to information that doesn’t threaten personal privacy. The proposed laws do take a step in the right direction by limiting government’s use of email lists for purposes different than initially intended.

But the contents of emails sent to subscribers of government lists should remain public and should be able to be copied electronically for data analysis.

Also, the number of subscribers to the government email lists should be easily available and easily duplicated. Any other data about the data that the government collects and that does not threaten privacy should be available electronically. As technology evolves, the value of that data about the data can grow in ways that are unclear now.

Any law to protect privacy that affects sunshine should be written narrowly to allow the value of information in the future to grow. Legislators should also proceed cautiously with granting exceptions to the N.C. open records law. Exceptions have a tendency to grow as well.

Sources:
Statewide bill: House Bill 544, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson, Tricia Cotham, Frank Iler and Joe Tolson.
Local bills:
Charlotte: House Bill 543, sponsored by N.C. Reps Ruth Samuelson and Tricia Cotham.
Huntersville: Senate Bill 270, sponsored by Sen. Malcolm Graham.
Cornelius: House Bill 441, sponsored by Rep. Tim Moore.
Greenville: Senate Bill 182, sponsored by Sen. Clark Jenkins, Louis Pate and Richard Stevens.

Disclosure: I work at the Charlotte Observer as a community editor covering an area that includes Davidson, Cornelius, Huntersville and parts of the city of Charlotte. Opinions here are my own and were written on my own time.

How to increase the number of news sources

Dave Cohn of Spot.Us asks this question as part of the blogging Carnival of Journalism for this month:

Considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?

For me, the first small steps will be more links, to primary and secondary sources, in fact boxes with stories for community sections in The Charlotte Observer.

One specific example:
Cabarrus News is following the story of a charter school. Some parents are concerned about oversight, a concern reflected in debate about a N.C. General Assembly bill that would raise the state’s cap on the number of charter schools.

Finding background ain’t easy. Quality curation ain’t easy. For some stories, it can add 15 minutes to half an hour to the reporting or editing process.

But for the full news ecosystem, it’s important to create and curate quality pointers that let readers choose to go deeper, on government sites, community sites, legacy media sites or blogs. It’s the old-school layering concept from design. It’s the academic concept of citing sources. It’s a technique I admired when used by David Boraks, spouse of a professor, on some of his early stories at DavidsonNews.net.

It’s not new, but it has become exceeding rare, especially when details about things like state legislative bills get buried in sites seeking traffic with sexier stories. Google’s cluttered search results, influenced by SEO, make it tougher as well.

It’s one small step. But each step counts.

Using Storify to gather information

Here’s a quick test of Storify, using a quick Twitter meme that popped up in Charlotte on Saturday.

A group of local folks launched a meme about advice for the Democratic National Convention, being held in Charlotte in September 2012.

Storify is getting lots of attention because of some people’s use of it to gather information from social media out of Egypt.

Another similar tool, Intersect, out of the Seattle area, is out there as well. Both tools look promising; I hope both tools keep in mind the importance of visuals as well as words.

For searches out of Storify for specific images in Flickr, I was a little frustrated. I could find specific, Creative Commons images from a Flickr contact within Flickr, but couldn’t find the same image quickly in Storify’s search. Still too early to tell what was going on there: my unfamiliarity with the Storify tool, or perhaps an incomplete database of available Flickr images.

One more note: Storify gives an embed script. A quick trial in WordPress.com shows the script getting stripped out. Perhaps it works in WordPress.org.

2010 by the numbers, at two sites

Wordle for Underoak

From @mybxb: “What was your site focus in 2010 & what are you hoping to build up in 2011? #mybxb

It was just one simple Twitter question, likely from Michele McLellan, an expert on small local news sites. The Twitter account asked the same question of quite a few people on New Year’s Eve eve.

It led to a little excavation for me.

I won’t be able to answer the second part of this question immediately. But here’s a start on the first part of the question, after a quick look at the numbers.

I focused on two sites in 2010, neither of which were commercial endeavors and both of which were solo experiments. I stuck Google ads onto one of the sites late in the year as an experiment, but the cost to appearance likely means those ads won’t last. Finding my focus, for me, means looking at the numbers to see what I produced, not just what I intended.

Underoak (Merry Oaks neighborhood information):
39 posts, the least since 2006, when it was 22
An average of 885.25 page views per month
Best return per post by month: October, averaging 372 page views per post, with four posts during the month
Topics: Local stories involving animals, art, nature and “green” stories, advances and coverage of local events and traditions, civic events and issues, development and business.
Quick conclusions: An audience exists for local civic information in Charlotte. Archives of event coverage help make later coverage easier. You don’t have to file three times a day, every day, to generate decent traffic. You do have to focus on headlines and what keywords people are seeking. A niche of 2,000 people or so is likely too small to reach the kind of numbers that would generate decent online ad revenue. The minimum audience size is likely closer to 20,000 potential readers, or about the size of typical zoned print sections of legacy media.

Global Vue (About journalism and technology):
About 45 posts
An average of 408 page views per month
Best return per post by month: July, averaging 60 page views per post, with 17 posts during the month (heavy posting was an experiment as part of a Peer 2 Peer University class).
Topics: Journalism of all sorts, from ethics to business models, with one peach thrown in for good measure.
Quick conclusions: We need more demos and fewer memos, but it’s nice to have a place to think out loud, even if it means sharing with a tiny group. It also is nice to have a linkable, updated online biography, beyond Facebook, LinkedIn and similar services.

Click locally and originally: Linkjacking, fair use, RSS, autofeeds and ethical linking

chains from Andy Ciordia

The shop local campaigns are everywhere. Let’s apply it to the link economy.

I link a lot, on Twitter, a private company that yes, is using my volunteer labor to help curate online information.

But Twitter is incredibly useful as a way of using humans to filter the onslaught of online information. Long ago, it replaced my daily practice of sitting down with a daily newspaper. I count on links, keywords and well-written headlines to help filter information (sometimes even on Facebook). I love the art of a well-written headline and tweet in all forms.


But I’m fed up with linkjacking and algorithm-using automatic feeds that clutter and slow my search for information.
I’m especially fed up with faux local companies that aggregate the work of others and do no reporting or human curating themselves. They’re stealing traffic and sometimes advertising revenue from the original, local sources who add value by real work. Some are also trying to take the money of local people through dubious franchise agreements. Most follow the letter of the law, but they push boundaries, and if we all embrace the idea of shopping ethically and locally and supporting local businesses, I’d like to ask people to click ethically and locally to support real journalism and information.

Don’t get me wrong: I respect the value of a quality aggregator that uses human filtering to add news judgment to feeds. I’ve been a fan of outside.in for years. I suspect that sooner or later, a business model and more jobs will emerge for such organizations. Such a function existed in the past: Wire editors and news designers and copy editors helped people navigate through the onslaught of information, which has always been overwhelming but was curated and focused for readers. Those traditional jobs are fewer these days, but the need for the function remains.

I also greatly appreciate those who retweet and point to the originators of content and I try to reward those who find and curate the best stuff, no matter how deeply buried it might be on originators’ website. @acmunn, or Andy Munn, has done a great job of sending focused links to local development news in the Charlotte area, no matter the source. And he was rewarded eventually with a new job, at Ingersoll Rand.

But certain practices that add only clutter should end. Consumers of links and news online can help by choosing carefully and being mindful. Ethical consumption and linking means clicking and pointing to the people who are creating value and not those who are merely repackaging in machine-generated blobs.

Ethical, mindful consumption and creation of links can help, over time, by rewarding those who are producing valuable information. The more of us who are mindful of how we consume information, the faster we’ll evolve new models. The more of us who put our money on those who do real journalism or who produce unique, trusted information, the better our information will become.

And a caution to those who want to become the media: Some national and international companies are offering franchises to local people, selling the idea that they can create local services to generate traffic and ad revenue, with little to no time spent on reporting or curating. Caveat emptor. Journalism, whether it be reporting or curating, takes time and skill. You can learn and do it yourself, but don’t assume it will be easy without work of your own.

Three case studies:

The @charlottelocal Twitter account: This account aggregates headlines from Fwix for Charlotte, spitting out tweets and links about every 20 minutes, using other people’s headlines. Links send you to the Charlotte Fwix site, which excerpts headlines and tops of stories, which then link to the original sources. That’s a good thing for generating traffic for originators, but the volume and lack of human value in trimming the firehose or in refocusing headlines is a drawback. Lag time appears also to be as much as three hours between the time original content is posted at the source and the time the headline is sent out. The account now has 1,679 followers on Twitter. Experience from some legacy news organizations has shown that firehose Twitter accounts attract fewer followers than accounts with more curation and personality: See @ColonelTribune, @ajc and @theobserver for examples. @theobserver account has 8,875 followers; its firehose counterpart, @charobs, currently has 1,167 and appears to have stopped on Nov. 8.

PaidContent and those who rip off its tweets and keywords: PaidContent covers the business of digital content. Its Twitter account is focused, targeted and adds value by its dependability, sending out a link to a news summary every morning, with the same headline, “The Morning Lowdown.” Readers get a fast, focused summary with one click over their morning coffee. But others have seen that value and have begun to rip off the key phrase “The Morning Lowdown” on Twitter, generating their own links to their own sites, which then click through to PaidContent. And guess what? Those links seems to generate few to no clicks, and certainly little to no value, only cluttering the stream. There’s little that PaidContent can do when the linkjackers are pointing back to Paid Content after routing it through their own sites. But readers can do something by refraining from clicking on links that do not point directly to PaidContent. Advertisers can avoid those sites that linkjack. Other copycats for other content generators are likely out there; click carefully and give your traffic to the originators.

Those who count on RSS feeds from curators or originators to make their own money at their own sites, without linking back, and then whine when the originators’ RSS disappears: I’ll be a bit vague on this one, because I don’t want to call someone out without all the details. But I’ve heard that some creators of content espouse taking down their own RSS (real simple syndication) because it makes it too easy for others to repurpose content for their own gain without some kind of return to the creator. That’s sad, because many consumers count on the RSS to make their reading and photo viewing more efficient. It’s difficult to blame content creators and curators for ditching RSS when they see their work reused at other sites with ads and with appeals for donations. One site currently is hiding behind a fair use statement for content gleaned from other sources, all the while taking Groupon ads and donations, and then whining about a broken RSS feed from a real curator who actually pays the sources of its content. I’m getting out my tiny violin.

To close, and repeat: Aggregators with human involvement add value. But we’re in a link economy, and copycats proliferate. Consumers can exercise their power by clicking and linking responsibly and rewarding quality creators and curators. Be mindful about who your clicks and links are rewarding.

Photo credit: Andy Ciordia, through Flickr, using Creative Commons

Strengthening North Carolina’s media ecosystem, from the ground up

weeds

Fiona Morgan and Ryan Thornburg issued a call to arms for citizens to become the media in today’s Raleigh News and Observer. Thornburg expanded the idea with a list of steps that communities can take to fill the gaps in news as legacy institutions operate with smaller staffs.

The call to action is remarkable in these respects: It comes from two people in academia, without financial interest in seeing more citizen participation in the media, and it calls for journalistic thinking from ordinary people. It also focuses on North Carolina and local civic news.

When news organizations, local governments or new marketing websites ask for participation from ordinary people these days, many folks react with cynicism:

“Oh, they just want free content.”

And for coders who can help parse data, the cynicism is even greater. These folks get paid to code, and we’re asking them to work for free?

But the call to action from people outside the media shows the civic pain at a time when distrust of institutions runs high. Morgan and Thornburg also bring theory down to specifics.

Their ideas echo projects proposed through the Knight News Challenge as well as the mission of the newly named Knight School of Communication at Queens University in Charlotte.

What I don’t want to see from their call to action: Yet another conference. We have plenty, even in North Carolina, planned for 2011.

What I would like to see: Specific projects or small meetups, with cross-discipline teams, aimed at small slices of the news ecosystem that are uncovered now.

Demos, not memos. Or even blog posts.

At the same time, we have to find ways to pay ourselves for the work. Foundations and nonprofits can jump-start projects, but finding business models is part of the challenge.

Background:
Fiona Morgan’s study of the news ecosystem in the Triangle. The report is long, but worth at least skimming for an understanding that news comes from a complex system rather than one place.

Making it from Scratch: A Knight News Challenge proposal

scratch logo

Scratch, my proposal this year for the Knight News Challenge, is submitted. This link is to a backup version, as the news challenge website can get overloaded. Version 1.0 is there too if you dig deep. Thanks to Lisa Williams, Leslie Wilkinson and Paul Jones for early feedback.

And by the way, someone should hire Leslie, soon to have an MBA in May 2010 or so. She sliced and diced the first proposal, and she ought to be a VC.

Later thoughts will come if time from this proposal, not the least of which is an examination of the early vision from leaders of CCI. They were willing and even happy to sell their knowledge and build a cadre of superusers outside their company. Long term, that strategy seems doubtful. Shorter term, it caused almost a revolution in how newspapers are produced. At the time, the vision was meant for good. Longer term, results remain to be seen.

Anybody want to be a CTO? From Charlotte?