Blockheaded blocking, GitHub style

From comes this surprising development about the block functionality on GitHub. From the article:

Users who are blocked will no longer be able to open or comment on issues or pull requests, nor will they will not be able to add or edit any of the project’s wiki pages.

…both of these sound reasonable so far, but then there’s this:

Blocked users are also prevented from forking any of the organization’s repositories.

It is this last one, however, that I have a huge issue with. While rare, forking is generally considered the best way to resolve differences of opinion on a project. There are also other valid reasons for forking such as wanting to recode substantial parts of a project for different hardware (anything from a completely different architecture to a newer or older generation of CPU), to satisfy different jurisdictions’ legal requirements (example: a GPLed arcade game software needs recoding for Texas’s somewhat oddball redemption game limits), or even rewriting the original code in a new language or new variant of that language (Inkscape in C++ versus Sodipodi in C).

This problem is compounded by Github’s terms of service A.7 which disallows one person or legal entity from having multiple free accounts. Otherwise, the easiest workaround would be to make a one-off account just for forking a project one has been blocked from, and transfer it to the “real” account. Someone who wished to fork a project after being blocked would either need to form a new legal entity such as an LLC (!) or have someone fork the project on their behalf. I’m not even sure if that would provide full functionality.

I am, however, pretty sure that the vast majority of ghost accounts on online services, GitHub or otherwise, go undetected for years. Outside of legal action, there’s no real way to stop them. (Example: I could get a cheap voice/text only “burner” phone plus $10 worth of airtime, pay for it in cash, go down to an Internet-connected cafe such as a Starbucks like the one I am in now, and set up a new Gmail account within minutes. If there are more than 5 people in that Starbucks at the time the account was created, and/or there’s no reason to suspect monkey business until after the video surveillance system at Starbucks erases/overwrites the video from that time, it’s going to be damn hard to figure out who really made that account. Personally, I’ve never done this, but I’m sure some people have. Bonus points for using Tails/Tor Browser on top of all this.)

Too many people who use platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no idea what blocking actually does. Too many use it as an “easy way out” with regard to avoiding differences resolvable with minimal effort. (As an aside, in the case of Twitter specifically, it has changed over the years. At one time one could still easily read public tweets of a user that blocked them. Now, there’s just a screen that says “You have been blocked from following @skquinn and reading @skquinn’s Tweets. Learn more”. One huge problem I have with this setup is that it is taking the user’s authentication information and using it against them; it’s possible to see the same timeline as a not-logged-in user. Twitter does not even restrict me from making a second account just for the purpose of evading certain aspects of blocking, though things like a prohibition against harassment and stalking are still in play.)

Also, blocking is an all-or-nothing proposition in most cases. There’s no way to line-item block certain posts from certain people that are no longer friends. The closest one can come is, on Facebook, to make a custom filter that amounts to “all friends except Joe Dummy” or similar. Indeed, GitHub’s block function appears to allow no easy way to allow just forking, and was made with the assumption someone would want to prohibit a diverse and far-reaching set of actions with one button most of the time.

So again we have a service which has made the block function far more powerful than it really should be. As unfortunate as it is, there is still time for GitHub to fix this unfortunate mistake, and I am hoping that they do.

The IOC vs. social media

A recent article on Mashable about the 2012 Olympics in London again shows just how crazy the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has gotten when it comes to regulating its event.

It’s being billed as “the first social media Olympic Games” but with the IOC’s rather anti-social policies it’s questionable just how social they will be.

Athletes will not be allowed to tweet photos of themselves with
products that aren’t official Olympics sponsors or share photos or videos from inside the athletes’ village.

Fans, too, could be barred from sharing on Facebook and YouTube photos and videos of themselves enjoying the action.

Business owners will have restrictions as well. They won’t be able to lure customers by advertising with official Olympics nomenclature such as “2012 Games.” Regulators will scour Olympic venues to potentially obfuscate non-sponsor logos on objects as trivial as toilets.

The restrictions on business owners are somewhat understandable. But obfuscating logos on everything at venues down to the toilets? I think that’s taking it a bit too far.

From later in the story, the restrictions on athletes appear to be tied to the IOC’s desire to control the message. Quoting Alex Huot, the IOC’s head of social media:

We encourage athletes to share their Games experience. The Olympic
Athletes’ Hub has been in part built for this. We have created a place for them to join and connect with our millions of fans around the world and to share not just during the Olympics but long after the Olympics are gone.

Unfortunately the athletes themselves have personal brands to build as well. This works out well for the IOC, at the expense of the athletes, and certainly looks like the first step down an extremely slippery slope.

The IOC seems to be forgetting without the athletes, the Olympic Games would cease to exist. As a fan, I should be allowed to follow my favorite athlete through his/her regular social media feeds–whether or not they are at the Olympic Games. To expect me as a fan to “switch channels” to the Olympic Athletes’ Hub is ludicrous, and to prohibit the athletes from building their own personal brands during the Games is something I find nearly unconscionable.

I honestly wonder how long it will be until an alternative quadrennial/biennial athletic competition to replace the over-commercialized Olympic Games becomes a reality. I don’t think it will be too much longer before someone decides “enough is enough” and gives the IOC a swift kick in the pocketbook.

I acknowledge every sport requires rules. But do we really need to have such fascist rules about what amateur athletes tweet and blog while in competition? Until and unless it compromises the integrity of the competition itself, the IOC should keep its hands off.

The case of the disappearing Facebook accounts

The DigitalBeat column on VentureBeat recently reported on a case where three critics of Facebook had their accounts mysteriously deactivated.

Juan Faerman, an author in Argentina who wrote a book called Faceboom, the cover of which has the title rendered in a font which easily could be mistaken for Facebook’s official logo, had his profile deactivating shortly after releasing the book, along with two others involved in the book and its marketing.

More troubling than that is Facebook shut down a group for fans of the book, which the trio claims had 30,000 fans at the time of shutdown. This smacks of censorship. It is one thing to claim trademark infringement due to similarities between the book’s cover and the official Facebook logo, but I feel Facebook crossed way over the line here.

Most troubling is that it took VentureBeat’s inquiry as well as an uproar in Latin American media in order for Juan to get his account back. This is unacceptable. Shame on you, Facebook.

At one time I wrote, but did not publish, a no-nonsense parody of one of Facebook’s help files. Which one, you ask? Okay, I’ll come clean. I parodied the one about the block function after someone blocked me. I was hesitant to publish it, if for no other reason because I’m not sure where it should go. It’s too good, and unfortunately, also a bit too no-nonsense and too profane to put in a blog post.

I’d like to think Facebook wouldn’t deactivate my account over it, though. The case for a distributed social network that cannot be arbitrarily censored by any one party is a lot closer to being made if Facebook were to do so, however.

The case of the clueless insurance adjuster

A blog entry details the plight of Nathalie Blanchard, a 29-year-old IBM employee from Quebec.

As the story goes, Nathalie took a long-term sick leave from her job due to depression. Following the advice of her doctor, she took a vacation to get away from her problems. Then one day, her monthly sick-leave benefits quit coming in. Nathalie’s call to Manulife, the insurance company which handles her benefits, had the most surprising of answers: based upon pictures posted to Facebook, the company had reached a conclusion that she was once again fit to work.

Well, not surprisingly, Manulife’s version, filtered through their PR department, is different:

According to CBC news, the insurer has confirmed that they do indeed use Facebook to investigate their clients, but the company claims that it wouldn’t “deny or terminate a valid claim solely based on information published on websites such as Facebook”.

It is obvious to me that whoever made this decision is at best uneducated about depression. I have had friends who suffer from depression and the appearance of happiness in one moment is far from any indication that one is “cured” of depression. It’s not that simple. Notwithstanding the fact that the photographs document that Nathalie followed the doctors orders, I have to wonder what the heck the people at Manulife could have been thinking here.

Indeed, it makes no more sense to make this judgment than it does to take a picture of an insomniac appearing to be sleeping and present that as evidence the person is “cured,” as alluded to later in the article. Whoever said “common sense isn’t so common anymore” was definitely on to something.

Twitter and Facebook banned at some college sporting events

I can’t believe I’m reading this, much less blogging about it.

The St. Petersburg Times recently reported on the Southeast Conference (SEC) issuing an edict to its twelve member schools, further limiting the amount of audio, video, and real-time blogging allowed at practices, games, and news conferences.

The truly disturbing part, is that according to this same edict, fans are now barred from updating social networking sites from the stands. This includes updating Twitter or Facebook, posting pictures to Flickr, or uploading videos to YouTube, and (I would assume) live blogging during a game.

This policy is not just galactically stupid, it’s an enforcement nightmare and has untold masses of sports fans in an uproar.

This quote is about as direct and to-the-point as one can get:

“I would guess,” said Mike Masnick, the editor of the respected blog techdirt, “that they’re realizing that anyone can be a reporter or a broadcaster these days.

A.J. Liebling’s famous quote, which I’ve used here before, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” is about to become about as quaint as the printing presses of his era.

Information wants to be free. Technology has advanced to the point where video cameras can be combined with a device that’s nominally a telephone. This policy, even if nominally a success, will still reflect very badly on the SEC as an inept attempt at censorship, doomed to failure in the long term.

(Note: I now also see the quote attributed to H.L. Mencken. I’m not sure which attribution is actually correct. If anyone knows for sure drop me a line using the comment form.)