FRBR and W3C Media Annotations

Just spotted this review of FRBR (Functional Requirements for Bibliographic Records) in the group’s wiki. Also some interesting notes on modelling. It seems the Media Annotation work is starting out well, both in terms of the analysis they’re performing, the relationships they’re seeing (FRBR is from the Library world and often passed over by industry metadata efforts). But things also look healthy in that they’re working on a public list, with notes kept in a public wiki. This is a much healthier W3C than the one I first encountered in ’97, when everything was somewhat hidden away. Unfortunately, attitudes linger – it is still common to see W3C critiqued for being a closed, secretive body, when the truth is that many WGs operate in a very public, collaborative manner.

Nokiana: the one about the CIA, Syria, and the N95

Matt Kane resurfaced on Bristol‘s underscore mailing list  with this intriguing snippet, after some travels around the middle-east: ” … discovered N95s (not mine) cannot be taken into Syria”.

I asked for the backstory, which goes like this:

Quite a palaver. Got the train from Istanbul to Syria (amazing trip!). At the border they didn’t search the bags of “westerners” but asked us all to show our phones and cameras. They glanced at them all quickly, checking the brand (“Nikon, ok. SonyEricsson, ok”). One guy had an N95 and they led him off the train. His sister informed us that they’d said it wasn’t allowed in Syria, and that if she knew her brother he’d not give it up without a fight. Despite being on contract, he argued with them for an hour and a half, even calling the embassies in Damascus and Ankara. In the end he gave it up, with a promise that they’d send it on to the airport from where he was leaving. A few days later we’re chatting with a barman and spot his phone – an N95, and yes, he got it in Syria! A few days after that we found out the full story from our hotel owner in Damascus. Apparently the CIA gave a load of bugged N95s to high-ranking Kurdish officials in Iraq, many of which were then smuggled into Syria and given as gifts to various shady characters. After the Hezbollah guy was assassinated in Damascus a few months ago, the Syrians set about trying to root out spies, which led to this ban on bringing N95s into the country. Apparently.

This is the first I’ve heard of it, but searching throws up a few references to rigged N95s as “spy phones”.

Somewhat-unrelated aside: I don’t believe the relevant functionality is exposed in the N95’s widget APIs yet. I had trouble making it vibrate, let alone self-destruct after this message. But at least widget/gadget/app security is getting some attention lately. It can’t be too long before “spy widgets” on your phone become a real concern, particularly since the exposure of phone APIs to 3rd party apps is such a creative combination. I should be clear that AFAIK, Nokia’s N95 widget platform is free of such vulnerabilities currently, and any “spy phone” mischief so far has been achieved through other kinds of interference. But it does make me glad to see a Widgets 1.0: Digital Signature spec moving along at W3C…

Google Social Graph API, privacy and the public record

I’m digesting some of the reactions to Google’s recently announced Social Graph API. ReadWriteWeb ask whether this is a creeping privacy violation, and danah boyd has a thoughtful post raising concerns about whether the privileged tech elite have any right to experiment in this way with the online lives of those who are lack status, knowledge of these obscure technologies, and who may be amongst the more vulnerable users of the social Web.

While I tend to agree with Tim O’Reilly that privacy by obscurity is dead, I’m not of the “privacy is dead, get over it” school of thought. Tim argues,

The counter-argument is that all this data is available anyway, and that by making it more visible, we raise people’s awareness and ultimately their behavior. I’m in the latter camp. It’s a lot like the evolutionary value of pain. Search creates feedback loops that allow us to learn from and modify our behavior. A false sense of security helps bad actors more than tools that make information more visible.

There’s a danger here of technologists seeming to blame those we’re causing pain for. As danah says, “Think about whistle blowers, women or queer folk in repressive societies, journalists, etc.”. Not everyone knows their DTD from their TCP, or understand anything of how search engines, HTML or hyperlinks work. And many folk have more urgent things to focus on than learning such obscurities, let alone understanding the practical privacy, safety and reputation-related implications of their technology-mediated deeds.

Web technologists have responsibilities to the users of the Web, and while media education and literacy are important, those who are shaping and re-shaping the Web ought to be spending serious time on a daily basis struggling to come up with better ways of allowing humans to act and interact online without other parties snooping. The end of privacy by obscurity should not mean the death of privacy.

Privacy is not dead, and we will not get over it.

But it does need to be understood in the context of the public record. The reason I am enthusiastic about the Google work is that it shines a big bright light on the things people are currently putting into the public record. And it does so in a way that should allow people to build better online environments for those who do want their public actions visible, while providing immediate – and sometimes painful – feedback to those who have over-exposed themselves in the Web, and wish to backpedal.

I hope Google can put a user support mechanism on this. I know from our experience in the FOAF community, even with small scale and obscure aggregators, people will find themselves and demand to be “taken down”. While any particular aggregator can remove or hide such data, unless the data is tracked back to its source, it’ll crop up elsewhere in the Web.

I think the argument that FOAF and XFN are particularly special here is a big mistake. Web technologies used correctly (posh – “plain old semantic html” in microformats-speak) already facilitate such techniques. And Google is far from the only search engine in existence. Short of obfuscating all text inside images, personal data from these sites is readily harvestable.

ReadWriteWeb comment:

None the less, apparently the absence of XFN/FOAF data in your social network is no assurance that it won’t be pulled into the new Google API, either. The Google API page says “we currently index the public Web for XHTML Friends Network (XFN), Friend of a Friend (FOAF) markup and other publicly declared connections.” In other words, it’s not opt-in by even publishers – they aren’t required to make their information available in marked-up code.

The Web itself is built from marked-up code, and this is a thing of huge benefit to humanity. Both microformats and the Semantic Web community share the perspective that the Web’s core technologies (HTML, XHTML, XML, URIs) are properly consumed both by machines and by humans, and that any efforts to create documents that are usable only by (certain fortunate) humans is anti-social and discriminatory.

The Web Accessibility movement have worked incredibly hard over many years to encourage Web designers to create well marked up pages, where the meaning of the content is as mechanically evident as possible. The more evident the meaning of a document, the easier it is to repurpose it or present it through alternate means. This goal of device-independent, well marked up Web content is one that unites the accessibility, Mobile Web, Web 2.0, microformat and Semantic Web efforts. Perhaps the most obvious case is for blind and partially sighted users, but good markup can also benefit those with the inability to use a mouse or keyboard. Beyond accessibility, many millions of Web users (many poor, and in poor countries) will have access to the Web only via mobile phones. My former employer W3C has just published a draft document, “Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices”. Last month in Bangalore, W3C held a Workshop on the Mobile Web in Developing Countries (see executive summary).

I read both Tim’s post, and danah’s post, and I agree with large parts of what they’re both saying. But not quite with either of them, so all I can think to do is spell out some of my perhaps previously unarticulated assumptions.

  • There is no huge difference in principle between “normal” HTML Web pages and XFN or FOAF. Textual markup is what the Web is built from.
  • FOAF and XFN take some of the guesswork out of interpreting markup. But other technologies (javascript, perl, XSLT/GRDDL) can also transform vague markup into more machine-friendly markup. FOAF/XFN simply make this process easier and less heuristic, less error prone.
  • Google was not the first search engine, it is not the only search engine, and it will not be the last search engine. To obsess on Google’s behaviour here is to mistake Google for the Web.
  • Deeds that are on the public record in the Web may come to light months or years later; Google’s opening up of the (already public, but fragmented) Usenet historical record is a good example here.
  • Arguing against good markup practice on the Web (accessible, device independent markup) is something that may hurt underprivileged users (with disabilities, or limited access via mobile, high bandwidth costs etc).
  • Good markup allows content to be automatically summarised and re-presented to suit a variety of means of interaction and navigation (eg. voice browsers, screen readers, small screens, non-mouse navigation etc).
  • Good markup also makes it possible for search engines, crawlers and aggregators to offer richer services.

The difference between Google crawling FOAF/XFN from LiveJournal, versus extracting similar information via custom scripts from MySpace, is interesting and important solely to geeks. Mainstream users have no idea of such distinctions. When LiveJournal originally launched their FOAF files in 2004, the rule they followed was a pretty sensible one: if the information was there in the HTML pages, they’d also expose it in FOAF.

We need to be careful of taking a ruthless “you can’t make an omelete without breaking eggs” line here. Whatever we do, people will suffer. If the Web is made inaccessible, with information hidden inside image files or otherwise obfuscated, we exclude a huge constituency of users. If we shine a light on the public record, as Google have done, we’ll embarass, expose and even potentially risk harm to the people described by these interlinked documents. And if we stick our head in the sand and pretend that these folk aren’t exposed, I predict this will come back to bite us in the butt in a few months or years, since all that data is out there, being crawled, indexed and analysed by parties other than Google. Parties with less to lose, and more to gain.

So what to do? I think several activities need to happen in parallel:

  • Best practice codes for those who expose, and those who aggregate, social Web data
  • Improved media literacy education for those who are unwittingly exposing too much of themselves online
  • Technology development around decentralised, non-public record communication and community tools (eg. via Jabber/XMPP)

Any search engine at all, today, is capable of supporting the following bit of mischief:

Take some starting point a collection of user profiles on a public site. Extract all the usernames. Find the ones that appear in the Web less than say 10,000 times, and on other sites. Assume these are unique userIDs and crawl the pages they appear in, do some heuristic name matching, … and you’ll have a pile of smushed identities, perhaps linking professional and dating sites, or drunken college photos to respectable-new-life. No FOAF needed.

The answer I think isn’t to beat up on the aggregators, it’s to improve the Web experience such that people can have real privacy when they need it, rather than the misleading illusion of privacy. This isn’t going to be easy, but I don’t see a credible alternative.

British Board of Film Classification RSS feeds and Movie metadata

The BBFC have several RSS feeds on their site, carrying information about their judgements on various cinematic works for a UK audience. Recent film decisions, recent adult (sex) videos and films, etc. Each entry in the feed points to a descriptive page and summarises a BBFC judgement in a simple textual description, eg. “The BFC gave the English language video LES PERVERSIONS 5 a rating of R18 on Thu, 10 Feb. Consumer advice is not supplied for R18 titles. the video is directed by Sineplex.“.

While their adult feed is interesting in the context of the debates around Web filtering etc., the mainstream feed is also interesting. It has textual information about sex, violence, drugs etc., which could easily be exposed in machine-processable form if they’d used RSS 1.0 + IRCA/RDF labels. Both make the semantic web point about data-reuse – since they can be used for finding things as much as for not finding things.

The BBFC gave the English language film TABLOID a rating of 18 on Fri, 28 Jan. This film contains STRONG SEX, VIOLENCE, LANGUAGE AND DRUG USE. The film is directed by David Blair. The cast includes Matthew Rhys, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, David Soul, John Hurt, Stephen Tompkinson, Art Malik, Dani Behr, Keith Chegwin, Ainsley Harriott, Gail Porter, Beverley Callard, Les Dennis, Danny Dyer, James Hewitt, Freddie Jones, Vicky Holloway, Vikki Thomas and Anna Kumble.

I’ve been thinking about how FOAF could better support recommendation systems, eg. around MusicBrainz for music, or systems like MindSwap’s FilmTrust for movies. For movies, one core issue is quite simple: providing unique identifiers for films (direct or indirect, eg. via a page that has some film as it’s primary topic). BBFC or IMDB pages, or movie homepages, could serve such a purpose. Unfortunately, the world of movies doesn’t yet have a good open-content licensed database, unlike music, where we have MusicBrainz. Until we agree on some tricks for identifying things like movies (and actors, …), we won’t get the data integration needed to have a really rich Web-wide movie review system.

We will eventually, I am sure, see a framework in which various sites aggregate and syndicate such opinions, either numerical ratings or (more likely I think) textual reviews. Often I’m quite interested to see how a movie was perceived by people I disagree with, or have never met. The CapAlert site is often entertaining, for example. All these sources (as well as smaller community datasets) will be mixed together in a metadata marketplace. Information that some people use for filtering, blocking and avoiding will be used by others for searching, browsing and discovery. It’s just a matter of time before we’ll be using W3C’s new SPARQL technology to query BBFC judgement feeds, FOAF+review data from sites like like Filmtrust and other weblog-based data sources… Anyhow, definitely check out the Filmtrust site if you’re interested in movie metadata and ratings.