Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt

Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt
Off-Topic: The Story of an Internet Revolt by G.R. Reader

Creative Commons License

Last year, HTTP error code 451 was proposed for Internet Censorship. In memoriam Ray Bradbury.

Censorship on the internet, making it into walled gardens, striking down free speech, as the internet spaces becomes silos of data and creative work, all property of corporations.

This book is the live document of what happened in the Goodreads community.

This book was removed a while ago from the GoodReads site itself. Some said it wasn’t “a real book”. That is was a story that was never told.

But the story wanted to be told. People stood up against removal of their words, arbitrary enforcements that remove your speech from sight, against the transformation of a site for booklovers in a site for marketing, against so called rules that enable unwanted thoughts to be struck down and no longer heard.

These are their words, the words of the reviewers and readers, including mine, as part of that community.

The story wanted to be told, and we listened. We put your words together, tied the pages, and made this collection of your words a document of the September/October 2013 protests of Goodreaders to censorship.

I’ve seen people and media ignoring the real extent of the deletions. This book will give you numbers and examples.
I’ve seen misunderstandings of why people object. This book will give you answers.

We have been told long ago, that the internet will become private yards, walled gardens from where only approved speech will be heard. Sooner or later, the private owner “curates” their space from unwanted speech.

When censorship came to GoodReads, this is what happened.

Creative Commons License
This work by Alfaniel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Note: The book is available for free or for download fees, licensed Creative Commons in its entirety, so you can get yourself a copy.

Note #2: In his collection of community reviews, it looks like Mr. G.R. Reader has found around here and has included my review of The Art of War: Corporate Takeover of User Rights.

View all my reviews

The Art of War

The Art of War
The Art of War by Sun Tzu

I have posted this text as review of The Art of War on my GoodReads account.

The Art of War against corporate takeover of user rights

“If you don’t pay for the product, then you’re not the customer, you’re the product”, media analysts have told us plainly a long time ago.

Be that as it may, the GoodReads experience has both common and unique features. The past years have seen MySpace raise and fall, Facebook shamelessly mocking users privacy and still going on, Twitter changing their API according to the phase of the moon and keeping personal data hidden from users, Google purging G+ of “fake names” (that’s pen names for us, booknerds!) and so on so on.

These corporations have taken over the internet. You, the user, receive a service for free, to relate with your friends, to keep your personal photos, to share your thoughts on the books you’ve read. You’re targeted by advertising, your personal data is being stored on the company’s servers, and, sooner than you think, you’re dependent on these companies because of social networking, because you made yourself at home into a sub-community with your friends and preferred groups or reviewers. While you can get away (easier or harder), you leave behind content, topics, friends, functionality you got used to.

Your Content and Social Interaction Is Belongs to Them.

These corporate services keep control over users in three ways.

1. Proprietary service
The software is on the company’s servers, and nowhere else. It’s not available to users, no one knows how it works and what and how is data processed for storage, for reading (private data), for security and logging, for auditing, for removals.
2. Over-reaching ToS
Under the excuse of needing it to function or to defend their business, the company takes more rights for itself over user content than actually necessary. GR ToU is particularly misleading because it claims all sub-rights of copyright, while telling users that they keep copyright (it’s true, but they took all rights to do anything with the content, anything at all). The ToS is also contradictory and impossible to abide by. Really. Since users usually don’t read the fine print, they assume common sense. Which is not that common after all.
3. Reduced inter-operatibility for data exchange
These sites are silos of content under a company’s control. There are more or less features to retrieve your data, and more or less APIs to build alternative clients. On the first, GR stands well, comparing to others. You can send your review to a blog on two sites when you post it, you can export the cvs with your reviews. (only reviews, no topics, no comments, but other sites have nothing). On the second, the API seems relatively poor, compared to what it could provide.

The Art of War against users rights: proprietary service, misleading on copyright, lack of enough inter-operability with other sites or applications.

Aside from common traits shared by any proprietary service, there are essential differences, here on GoodReads.

Community librarians
GoodReads’ mission has been to create a public database of all books ever published. GR has provided the software online, but it is community librarians who have added and maintain this database, their work for free, of tens of thousands of records edits, over the years. GR site has reached its market value through the work of its community.
And it’s this work they sold out to Amazon earlier this year.

A site for readers
GoodReads has been known and advertised as “a site for readers”, to interact and share their opinions in book reviews and group conversations. The site has thousands of well-written, intellectually pleasing reviews, free essays prompted by the book, and opinionated pieces of booklovers all over the world.
Nowadays, the success or failure of a book in the digitized and self-published world is no longer in the traditional, professional outlets alone, it’s in the popularity and free dissemination of information of readers who shared their thoughts on this site.

The value of this site has always been MORE the work of the users, than other services enumerated above. The GR community is not randomly composed of users signing up only for personal interest and personal friends (or marketing), as other social networks. It has been created by working together on the books library, by their reviews, by their blogs.

TODAY…
Some of these reviews are now removed. Bookshelves that remind of the authors behavior are now removed (and others remain). Reviews that inform readers about a children’s book author being convicted of pedophilia (!), have been removed from the site. Reviews that use the book for an essay on GR/Amazon or on the faith of startups, or illogical terms in corporate ToS, have been removed. Reviews re-posting content of the removed reviews have been removed at their turn.
Some of top 25 reviewers on this site are threatened by GR/Amazon with removal of their account. Paul Bryant’s reviews, Manny’s reviews, have been deemed “potentially off-topic” and have been deleted.

…I can see how the issue of exercising corporate control over users content is truly enraging here, on a site significantly made by these contributors. It’s unavoidable we come to this, in my opinion (corporations always do), and GR/Amazon has all keys to the kingdom, but I can see why it’s so disappointing and enraging. Your content is theirs to do as they please, their software works as they want, your choices are take it or leave it.
The internet is no longer for sharing (nor for porn!), it’s for corporations to exercise their control over users.

The Community Power
GoodReaders have started protests all over the place. Many reviews have been posted, in protest, arguing their points against GR/Amazon actions. Many of them have been removed.
Irony and sarcasm abound, in reviews posted the last week, in topics in GoodReads Feedback group, and on remote sites. Many of the reviews have been removed, some of the topics have been closed.
Rounds of ironic flagging have been made; flags claiming to abide by the ToS language in its inept and auto-contradictory “rules” have been sent to GR staff, in the hope they’ll come to their senses. They seem to have missed the irony.

The “war” is going on. Many users have left GoodReads, for BookLikes or other sites. I don’t know how it will end in this event. But I know it won’t last, as long as the internet is corporations playground.

The only solution long term, to corporate control, is to create competitive services based on principles of freedom of users. In all three aspects: Open Source software, same license for content for the service as for other users (or minimal for it to function), and inter-operability of networked services.

View all my reviews

Self-censoring and book burning

Over at GoodReads, Manny self-censores his reviews for violating the corporate terms of use.

I have removed this review, which violates Article 2 of the Terms of Use:

You agree not to post User Content that: (i) may create a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement, or physical or mental illness to you, to any other person, or to any animal.

Looking at the comment thread, it is abundantly clear that the review not only may, but indeed has caused emotional distress to several Potter fans. I would like to offer my apologies to these unfortunate people, who had every right to expect better service from Goodreads.

In the unlikely event that anyone wants to read my tasteless and dangerous piece of writing, they will be able to find it in last year’s published collection, What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations

All is well, Manny. Yes, the Terms of Use of GoodReads/Amazon can burn down your reviews.
Your book, chapter by chapter.

Luckily we live in times when the download of an ebook and continue sharing by electronic copies are cost-efficient.

Unluckily we live in times when publishers/sites take control of distribution, by copyright law. They retain the ability to burn down your book. Authors cannot stop them, once they sold their rights.

Luckily we live in times when Creative Commons has spread awareness of sharing and free culture. No one can forbid sharing a book anymore, once authors grant a license allowing sharing.

Unluckily there are not yet business models that allow the author to make a living other than by restricting sharing, by copyright law.

We live in interesting times.