Censorship and the Hollywood Sign

I read with interest some months ago a Gizmodo article entitled “Why People Keep Trying to Erase the Hollywood Sign From Google Maps”. My interest came first as a freedom and digital rights advocate, and second as a frequent contributor to OpenStreetMap. The latter of these is particularly important as you will see shortly. (Yes, the article is a bit old, but the larger issues are just as important today, and will become no less important as time goes on.)

The Gizmodo article was written by Alissa Walker, who is perhaps best known for her blog awalkerinla.com and specifically this post from 2011 June entitled “The best way to see the Hollywood sign”. In the Gizmodo article, something very disturbing is noted: with the advent of GPS technology, area residents are resorting to putting pressure on the likes of Google, Apple, and Microsoft (Bing Maps) to divert those asking for directions to the Hollywood Sign to either Griffith Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center.

Such is the problem with relying on corporations for one’s mapping data: corporations are controlled, in the end, by stockholders, who decide it’s in the corporation’s best interest to do such things to avoid a lawsuit. The article goes on to share Alissa’s own experience getting legal threats from a homeowner in the area of Lake Hollywood Park. The threat as quoted from the article:

Please immediately cease and desist from using 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland [Hwy] or any other residence as the address for the Hollywood Sign and change the address to one of the two official viewing spots sanctioned by the Hollywood Sign Trust as shown in their map. The locations are: Griffith Park Observatory and the Hollywood and Highland Center…

Please be advised that up to this point your actions may have simply been due to an oversight of the local situation. However, should the address not be changed going forward, you may named in a lawsuit and be held liable for damages in an accident or due to your knowing and/or negligent continuing direction of visitors to the viewing spot at 3204 Canyon Lake Drive and 6161 Mulholland Hwy.

As mentioned later in the article, Alissa got some photos emailed to her as well from the same homeowner showing illegal parking attributed to her directions. The way I see it, the tourists driving in the area are the ones responsible for parking lawfully according to the laws of the state of California and the city laws of the appropriate city (whether Hollywood or otherwise). To pin vicarious liability on Alissa for the actions of others is absurd. Information, such as that Alissa gives out, carries with it the responsibility to use it wisely and obey the applicable laws. It is the same as if someone posted the location of a good fishing spot; the use of the information regarding the location of the spot would not be an excuse to violate daily catch limits or other boating regulations (unless the person posting the location were to do something stupid like include “warden never patrols this area” or “don’t worry about the limit”).

Alissa wrote another article for Gizmodo entitled “There Is No Such Thing As An Unbiased Map” a short time later. This one focuses more directly on OpenStreetMap, but also contains a couple of other gems. Such as this one:

“If I recall correctly, back in the days of MSN maps, searching for Infinite Loop in Cupertino [where Apple is headquartered] showed a blank spot on the MSN map, as if there wasn’t anything there,” said [former Code for America fellow Lyzi] Diamond. “There is no such thing as an accurate map. It’s all up to cartographers.”

Indeed, it’s a pretty low blow to blank out the campus of a competitor company on one’s own mapping service (though I would think trusting Microsoft to get you to an interview at Apple or Google is not exactly the brightest move either). But this is where OpenStreetMap (hereinafter OSM) really comes into play, as like Wikipedia, it maintains an audit trail of what was added, modified, or deleted, and by whom (at least a screen name, though I would assume the IP addresses are recorded as well somewhere). And yes, you can get accurate directions to the Hollywood sign using OSM data. The community behind OSM considers shenanigans like redirecting visitors to Griffith Park Observatory or Hollywood & Highland Center as vandalism, and rightfully so.

Would our angry homeowner really sue the OpenStreetMap Foundation, or any other non-profits that financially sustain OSM? It’s certainly possible, but I would like to think most people consider suing a non-profit to be off-limits. The mere existence of OSM, however, serves as a rather powerful check on the near-monopolies enjoyed by the likes of Google, Microsoft (Bing Maps), AOL (Mapquest), Apple, and others who, until OSM became a viable alternative, enjoyed an effective oligarchy on map data. Not only do I personally edit OSM, but I wish I could use OSM every time I needed to map something. As it is I still wind up using some other service (usually Google Maps) maybe 20% of the time as of this post.

Houston’s nominal equivalent of the Hollywood sign, the We Love Houston sign on the south side of I-10 near downtown, was among my additions to OpenStreetMap. And so far, there have not been similar issues regarding the We Love Houston sign; then again, it’s still relatively new, and while I admire and respect the work of David Adickes, I wouldn’t realistically expect it to be the same type of tourist draw in its infancy.

A huge step backwards for technology and free speech?

I’m going to start this post with some affirmations of what I believe, and more importantly what I believe to be sane beliefs regarding technology.

First, computers (which include not only desktop and laptop PCs, but most electronic technology which contains either a microprocessor or its equivalent) are powerful because they do exactly what they are told to do, and don’t do things they aren’t told to do, by their owners. The questions of whether or not it is a good idea, lawful, ethical, etc. are not made by the computer (device) but its operator.

Second, free speech, including documentation of government actions, is fundamental to government accountability for its actions. The ability for a government agency to arbitrarily prevent such documentation is prima facie evidence of a police state.

If these sound reasonable to you, then a recent story by RT News should be extremely troubling. In a nutshell, Apple now has a patent which, if implemented and used, would allow the police or other officials to arbitrarily disable your phone, including the camera.

This is at odds with legal rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution and similar rights under Article 12, 17, and 19 in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Imagine a world where incidents like those that happened to Rodney King are commonplace–and no video or even still pictures of egregious police brutality ever surface because as soon as the cops want to beat someone up, they shut off all cameras and phones in the area.

It’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it?

And don’t just say “I obey the law, therefore I have nothing to worry about.” With this kind of power, you can be completely innocent, yet the cops can say anything they want. And there’s no video to prove them wrong. Guilty until proven innocent–and there’s little hope of being proven innocent. Already, the badge serves as a “get out of jail free” card for most garden variety perjury charges. This would turn the badge into carte blanche to silence anyone and everyone for any reason.

Those who work at Apple that made this patent a reality should be ashamed of themselves. This is a good reason to document abusive behavior by law enforcement like there’s no tomorrow. Because when it comes to accountability, there may not be a tomorrow.

Another case of un-Houstonian dishonesty

I try not to use terminology like “un-Texan” and “un-Houstonian” without just cause. But I think in this case it definitely applies.

The Houston Chronicle’s Celebrity Buzz blog recently reported on the lawsuit filed by Junie Hoang against the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Ms. Hoang was claiming invasion of privacy and breach of contract after IMDb published her true birthday instead of the fake one she provided.

The crux of the story from the article:

Creating her profile page on IMDb, Hoang submitted an incorrect birthdate in violation of the website’s terms of service, IMDb attorney Harry Schneider Jr. told the court. IMDb staff reviewing Hoang’s submission found the inaccuracy and corrected it against her wishes.

Hoang used another person’s account in 2004 to adjust her IMDb profile and make herself appear seven years younger, said Schneider, an attorney with Perkins Coie. That fake age persisted on her profile for three years until Hoang asked that it be removed entirely.

“In September 2007, as the 36-year-old Hoang approached her phony ‘birthday’ when she no longer would be a woman in her ‘twenties,’ Hoang decided that she no longer wanted the false (birthdate) on her profile,” Schneider told the court.

The story goes on to say that Ms. Hoang went as far as to fake a passport and Texas identification card to hide her age, both of which are criminal acts in violation of (at least) Section 37.10 of the Texas Penal Code.

In essence, Ms. Hoang was fighting for the right to publish a lie and keep the truth hidden under the guise of privacy. IMDb was fighting for the right to publish the truth. It is rare that I champion the cause of large corporations (IMDb is now owned by Amazon), but as a free speech advocate and champion of ethics, it’s reassuring to see that IMDb won this lawsuit and that Ms. Hoang’s true age is now known to the world, and her attempts to lie have been thoroughly repudiated once and for all.

Ms. Hoang should really count her blessings she was not criminally prosecuted in her attempts to keep the lie about her age going. Besides being illegal, that kind of conduct crosses all sorts of ethical and moral lines, and is a prime example of the kind of conduct I call un-Texan and un-Houstonian.

What’s even more unfortunate is that Ms. Hoang has never made more than $9,000 annually from acting in a decade in the field. This severely limited the amount of damages she could have hoped to recover. That, and age isn’t even necessarily a barrier to finding work as an actor or actress. Just ask Betty White or Gene Hackman (among others).

An attempt to squelch

So, I would hope by now most of you saw my exposé on WordCamp Houston which wound up focusing specifically on the scholarship money (what wound up being $2,790.30, finally awarded in late January). If not, it’s still there, waiting to be read. Anyway, if you have read it, you might have thought I was done talking about that, the still-effectively-dead Meetup group, and certain people involved with same. Yes? Seriously?

Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not. I thought I was, but I’m not. And in a larger sense, I won’t be for quite some time. There’s more to be said. People want me to shut up, but that’s not happening. I will not be squelched.

First, I want to lay out some facts that some of you may not know and put them in context, mostly how they relate to this blog. My first posts to this blog were made on 2008 December 15, some four years and change ago. Over the next few months I rapidly settled into a groove of talking about current events and things that I found interesting, felt were outrageous, or maybe just pissed me off for one reason or another. Time went on, and I started taking on more and more politically-oriented topics. It could be said this is now a political blog which occasionally goes off on a technology or sports tangent now and again.

When someone becomes a public figure (whether all-purpose public figure or limited public figure), the threshold for legally actionable defamation against that person changes. To win a defamation suit, a private figure only needs to prove negligence. However, a public figure also needs to prove actual malice, which is one of two things: knowingly publishing a lie, or acting with a reckless disregard for the truth. I believe anyone in politics, not only as candidate, but also working in campaigns as a social media consultant, event planner, treasurer, campaign manager, or any combination of the above, would fall into the latter category of public figure. I believe anyone who has organized an event like a WordCamp would at least qualify as a limited purpose public figure.

If you read that and you’re thinking “holy cow, he just described Monica Danna” then you see where I’m going already. If not, then yeah, I just gave it away. That’s exactly where I was going. For those that are unaware, Ms. Danna was involved with Bill White’s campaign for governor in 2010, as well as her father’s campaign for Harris County Precinct 1 Constable in 2012.

If I was talking about any other campaign treasurer or campaign manager, whether it be in Harris County, some other county in Texas, some other state in the US, or even some other country on this great big rock we call planet Earth, there wouldn’t even be an issue.

“But wait a minute, Shawn, those campaigns are over, so why don’t you stuff a sock in it already?” I hear you asking. Not so fast. It seems reasonable to me, at least, to infer from the past that Ms. Danna will, at some point in the near future, be a part of a political campaign again in some form.

So now maybe you’re saying: “Okay, Shawn, so how about you stuff a sock in it until she’s actually involved with a campaign again?” Well, I would, but there’s more to it than that. By her involvement with WordCamp Houston 2010 as organizer, Ms. Danna also made herself a limited public figure for the purposes of the Houston WordPress community. The WordCamp Houston 2010 keynote as recorded on UStream (P2P magnet link if you want to download a copy, or if the Ustream copy disappears for whatever reason) is ample evidence of that, by itself (notwithstanding at least two breakout sessions where she spoke at the event, which we don’t have video of for whatever reasons). It also happens that the poor handling of the scholarship money, lack of communication, and dishonesty would be at least somewhat relevant to judging the trustworthiness of a political campaign treasurer, and by extension the candidate’s judgment.

It doesn’t end with WordCamp Houston 2010. Ms. Danna was also caught writing a review on Yelp of one of her clients, Azur Salon. I wish I had reported it sooner than I actually did, but yes, I’m the person who reported the review, which has since been taken down for “violating [Yelp’s] Content Guidelines or Terms of Services.” Posting a review with an obvious conflict of interest is arguably the biggest no-no possible on Yelp, and is a textbook example of unethical practice of public relations.

Lest this be dismissed as an isolated incident, some time after the Yelp review was pulled, Ms. Danna chose yet again to break common-sense PR rules against conflict of interest, this time on Google+ with a review of Primer Grey (evidence available on request), which her former company Colab shared office space with up until its demise about a year ago. As critical as I have been of Google at times in the past, this is one case where they have earned praise, as my report of this TOS violation was acted on within two business days. A true PR professional would know this was a conflict of interest and unethical to post, even if not codified as against the terms of service, content guidelines, etc of the service in question. (Unfortunately, my situation at the time precluded keeping a close enough eye on the non-compliant Yelp review to get an accurate time of action relative to my report, so I can’t make a fair comparison.)

I have acted with a careful regard for the truth, I have never intentionally published a lie, and I have always been willing to correct errors in fact. You can look as hard as you want for negligence, you won’t find it here. You certainly won’t find actual malice, but you’re welcome to look. I honestly feel like I would have been sued by now were there grounds for a lawsuit.

Make no mistake about it, I have the right to say what I did about Monica Danna. In a more general sense, I have the right to talk about anyone of a similarly high profile. I believe the public has a right to know that someone who has held themselves out as a professional event planner fell far short of that, at least based on my experience. Also, the public has a right to know that this same person felt completely comfortable taking a political campaign treasurer position while still sitting on event proceeds earmarked for award as a college scholarship, with a pattern of conduct that (at least to me) appeared highly suspicious and indicative of a plan to “take the money and run” at some point (no offense intended to Steve Miller Band fans).

Further, I have the same right to talk about Chris Valdez, who has worked with Ms. Danna regularly in the past. Mr. Valdez’s day job at Primer Grey revolves around the trust of clients to keep their websites secure and available (i.e. online and serving only the content they are supposed to be, not malware). The public has the right to know that the security of the wordcamphouston.com website was neglected while business related to the event was outstanding, and that for at least five months the website showed a malware warning screen in Firefox. While I am willing to concede that Mr. Valdez keeps a somewhat lower profile outside of the Houston WordPress community, I believe within it his profile is high enough to be considered at the least a limited purpose public figure.

I have the same right to talk about Christopher Smith. My reasoning for asserting my right to talk about Mr. Smith, however, is a bit different and comes in direct rebuttal to fraudulent assertions he has made as the nominal “organizer” of the Houston WordPress Meetup. On one hand Mr. Smith said “this is your Meetup group too.” That was in 2011. Fast forward about a year and Mr. Smith thinks nothing of going AWOL for most of a year and not leaving a competent and willing co-organizer in charge who is willing to actually announce legitimate, confirmed meetups to the rest of the group. Yes, my name was on them as the person who first entered them on the Meetup.com website. But that’s completely irrelevant for whether or not they should have been announced. Mr. Smith’s profile is also high enough to be considered a limited purpose public figure.

Honestly, it says a lot about the character of Mr. Smith that he is willing to just all of a sudden come back to a meetup group he abandoned for nearly a year, and worse, return like it’s only been a week or two. If the group truly belongs to the community, Mr. Smith would have resigned as organizer by now. Paying $19 per month to Meetup.com does not make one a leader. In fact, in this case (like many others that happen on Meetup.com), just paying the organizer dues and remaining absent was one of the worst things Mr. Smith (or anyone else in the organizer position) could have done to the Houston WordPress community. A responsible organizer would have stepped aside within the first six months, and let someone else take over. (This is, coincidentally, just what Jenia Lazslo did when she could no longer run the group.)

What really makes my blood boil, however, is that this is a guy that wanted to run WordCamp Houston in 2012! Worse yet, WordCamp Central almost let him! Get real! (I’m glad nobody gave him a venue. Personally, I think we are better off as a community not having had a WordCamp in 2012, than having had one under Mr. Smith’s “leadership.”)

If Christopher Smith, Chris Valdez, Monica Danna, or for that matter anyone else out there, feels their safety is threatened by my revelation of uncomfortable truths, such as lies told to and unethical actions towards the community, the logical thing to do in response is to stop lying and/or start acting in a more ethical fashion. If the meetup group truly belonged to the community, and was not just an extension of the personal ego of Christopher Smith, I’d still be in it. It’s so obvious that my removal from the meetup group online was retaliation for speaking out and letting the truth be known about unethical, unprofessional, and unbecoming conduct by Mr. Valdez and Ms. Danna.

Before I wind up this post, I’m going to address something brought up by some friends recently. One of the comments on a prior related post was read to imply by its wording that volunteers should be given a “free pass” to do a poor job. I can’t confirm that’s what the original poster meant at the moment.

Let’s consider a similar, hypothetical situation: A professional truck driver with a CDL (commerical driver’s license) is driving his/her personal vehicle (say, a mid-size sedan) as a volunteer for a non-profit. During his volunteer duties, this driver gets a traffic ticket. In Texas at least, the driver would be stuck paying the fine as CDL drivers aren’t allowed to take the driver safety course. In some others states the driver may even be looking at immediately losing his/her job for a while due to a license suspension. Is it unreasonable to hold the driver to the same higher standards of any other CDL driver even though he/she is a volunteer in a non-commercial vehicle at the time of the accident?

Another similar situation: While driving home from work, an off-duty professional EMT happens upon the scene of a traffic accident before the (paid) EMTs arrive. He/she is of course protected by the same “Good Samaritan” laws that you or I would be. Is it unreasonable to hold the EMT to a higher standard than you or I would be held? (Certainly, a “screw it, I’m not on the clock” mentality is unacceptable at least this case.)

How about a CPA who also serves as a volunteer treasurer for a non-profit? Is it acceptable for the books to be off by a few more bucks because the treasurer is a volunteer? Is it not unreasonable to expect better from someone whose day job is attention to financial details?

You get the idea. I don’t think it should be all that different for event planners and public relations counsel working in their field as volunteers.

In closing:

I restate and renew my previous objections to Christopher Smith, Chris Valdez, and Monica Danna holding themselves out as Houston WordPress community leaders, and I ask should cease doing so immediately.

I believe it is not appropriate for Christopher Smith, Chris Valdez, or Monica Danna to be organizing, sponsoring, presenting at, or volunteering at WordCamp Houston 2013, or for that matter, any other WordCamp anywhere else for at least the immediate future.

My attendance at Houston WordPress community events of which the aforementioned trio are nominal organizers should not be construed as endorsement of their past, present, or future involvement. My absence from those same events, on the other hand, is likely due to retaliation for spreading the uncomfortable truth (especially when I have announced my intentions to attend). As a notable exception to this rule, tonight I was unable to attend due to an entirely unrelated reason. It was my intent yesterday morning (Wednesday, 2013 May 8) to be there yesterday evening.

The truth is that I care a lot more about the Houston WordPress community. My involvement with the Houston WordPress community goes back to at least 2009 November 30 — weeks before Ms. Danna even thought of organizing WordCamp Houston 2010, weeks Mr. Valdez joined the organizing team, and months before the meetups began. To the best of my knowledge, I am the only remaining community leader who can claim involvement going back that far; everyone else has left Houston, left the local WordPress community, or both.

Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable. One reasonable response, when one finds the truth about oneself to be uncomfortable, is to change the truth going forward. It is certainly not a reasonable response to try to squelch the truth.

I will not be squelched.

An “out of this world” response to censorship

First, a quick sidenote: I’m glad to see this year finally come to a close, for various reasons. However, I’d still like to end it on a high note at least as this blog is concerned.

And so with that I bring forth this BBC News article, regarding an ambitious anti-censorship plan that’s truly out of this world: the use of satellite communications to circumvent the primarily land- and sea-based Internet we’ve come to know.

It is unfortunate on one hand that this is necessary. But it goes to illustrate the nearly boundless ingenuity of the hacker culture. We’ve seen anonymous remailers (the original cypherpunk Type I, then the Mixmaster or Type II), Freenet, Tor, GNUNet, and myriad other end-runs around overzealous censors, whether they be government-based or corporate-based. This is a logical next step, though satellites are not without their limits: a geostationary satellite introduces a huge latency, while lower orbits result in communication links only available in short bursts. With enough funding, though, I think this strategy has potential to be a winner.

And with that, my posts for 2011 are done. See you on the flip side.