Discounts for Going Solo Leeds & Web 2.0: Practical Applications for Business Benefit

I’m sure you’ll all be very excited to hear that I have special discounts available for both Going Solo Leeds and Web 2.0: Practical Applications for Business Benefit. You lucky, lucky people!

Going Solo Leeds
I have one free pass to give to the first person to email me, and five 20% discounts. To use the latter, just go to the registration page, create an account, and then use the code “iknowsuw” (without the “). The code will stop working after five uses, so use it quickly! UPDATE: The free pass has now gone!

Web 2.0: Practical Applications for Business Benefit
If you mention my name when you book, you’ll also get a 20% discount! (There’s a comment field on the registration page you can use if you are going to book online.)

Both really fab events, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they fill up quickly, so book now if you’re interested!

Become a better citizen, journalist

Andy Dickinson has posted this thought-provoking illustration on his blog. To sum up the illustration: The community feels used. The audience feels ignored, but the journalist? “I got what I needed.” Andy promises more thoughts soon, but the post alone is a great beginning for a conversation.

Maybe the problem isn’t about creating citizen journalists but re-awakening the citizen in journalists? Steve Yelvington has often mused that possibly one the unintended consequences of the professionalisation of journalism is that we’ve become isolated from the communities that we serve. Put succinctly, he said:

Arrogance is the cancer of professional journalism, and we need to stop it.

A few years ago, colleagues asked me why bloggers responded to my interview requests when they had trouble getting a response. The problem was, they were often sending out form e-mail interview requests and treating bloggers, usually ordinary people, as if they were members of government or industry spokespeople. I usually started my search for a blogger through a blog search engine like Technorati. When I found a relevant post, I would quote the post and ask them if they wanted to join a discussion about the topic they had blogged about.

I also use Creative Commons licenced pictures in Guardian blog posts (Attribution licence that allows for commercial use). Unless, I’m really pressed for time, I send the Flickr user a short note and a link. They always thank me for being a good member of the community, and the sometimes even blog about the post. I’ve acted in good faith, and they have reciprocated by flagging up their photo on a Guardian post. We can be good members of both virtual and real world communities, and I think it’s one of the things that can rebuild journalists’ relationship with the people formerly known as the audience. Becoming better citizen journalists might just save professional journalism.

Autumn events

My diary for the autumn is chock full of conferences, many of which I would highly recommend to anyone interested. Here’s where I’m going to be:

Fruitful Seminars – The Email Problem and How to Solve it
Wed 3 Sept, London
Email is becoming a problem, with people sending and receiving hundreds each day. ‘No Email Days’ don’t help, nor do inbox size limits. So just how do you reduce email and improve people’s relationship with their inbox?

There are still places available for this seminar, so if you’re interested please sign up now!

Fri 5 Sept, Brighton
Going as a punter and very excited to be seeing Steven Johnson.

Fruitful Seminars – Making Social Tools Ubiquitous
Wed 10 Sept, London
Social tools help improve business communications, increase collaboration and nurture innovation, but what do you do if people won’t use them? And how do you grow from a pilot to company-wide use?

There are still places available for this seminar, so if you’re interested please sign up now!

Going Solo Leeds
Fri 12 Sept, Leeds
I shall be reprising the talk I gave at Going Solo Lausanne, When Passion Becomes Profession (Balancing Work and Life).

Enterprise 2.0 Forum
Thurs 18 Sept, Cologne
A conference mainly in German, but I shall be keynoting in English:

Keynote: Potentiale und Herausforderung bei der Einführung von Social Software für die interne Kommunikation und Kollaboration, or Potentials and challenges of the introduction of social software in corporations for internal communications and collaboration enhancements.

Unicom, Web 2.0: Practical Applications for Business Benefit
Wed 1 – Thurs 2 Oct, London
Conference hosted by Dave Gurteen about the business benefits of blogs, podcasts, wikis, online video and other collaborative technologies. I’ll be presenting:

The Email Problem and How To Solve it

* Occupational spam, cc/CYA email and fractured conversations are causing email overload
* Constant interruption reduces people’s ability to focus and attain a state of flow
* Attempts to reduce email usage via “No Email Days” are ineffective
* The email problem is psychological, not technical
* Social media can help reduce email by providing alternative ways to work, collaborate and communicate

Fri 10 Oct, London
An unconference bringing Web 2.0 tools and ideas to the built environment community. I will probably present on the psychology of email.

Web 2.0 Expo
Tues 21 – Thurs 23 Oct, Berlin
TBC – keep your eyes peeled.

Electronic Laboratory Notebooks
Wed 28 – Thurs 29 Jan, London
Examining electronic data gathering, storage and sharing using electronic lab notebooks. I’ll be giving a presentation:
Collaboration and communication using social tools

* How to use social software to both organise your own information and to share it with others,
* Collaborate with team members and across teams/departments
* How to improve communication and reduce reliance on email

links for 2008-08-05 []

Trust: Journalists, audiences and countries

For some editors, it’s a dream story. It includes a British computer hacker who took down US military computer networks, taunted the American military, threatened to “continue to disrupt at the highest levels” and alleged that the security “stand-down” before 11 September was no mistake. As if that wasn’t enough, the hacker admitted to breaking into the systems, but only because he was looking for evidence of alien technology.

It’s the kind of story that sounds too good to be true. Unfortunately, most of the coverage in the British media has played fast with the truth and have left many claims by the hacker, Gary McKinnon, and his legal team unchallenged.

McKinnon has spent years fighting extradition. He and his legal team claim that he will be sent to Guantanamo and that American officials have said that they want him to ‘fry’. They said that US officials threatened him if he didn’t plead guilty and accept a plea deal, a claim that US officials denied in affidavits. In actual fact, some claims of threats of harsh treatment were based on an unrelated case in Canada in which a prosecutor said on Canadian television when asked to describe ‘stringent conditions’ a person might face if they didn’t agree to a plea bargain responded: “You are going to be the boyfriend of a very bad man if you wait out your extradition”. McKinnon’s legal team never claimed that such threats were made to McKinnon, but the insinuation successfully upped the ante.

The story also feeds into popular upset in Britain over what is widely seen as an unfair extradition treaty with the United States. This is despite the extradition request being made in 2002 under a previous treaty and not the contentious Extradition Act of 2003. CORRECTION: While the proceeding began before the treaty came into force, the filing came under the Extradition Act of 2003. Some have argued that the US government purposefully waited although the accusation is not supported by any reporting. Under the 2003 treaty, to approve extradition, the judge must be satisfied that the request contains admissible evidence of the offence sufficient to establish a prima facie case against the person. This requirement does not apply in respect of extradition requests from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (emphasis added)

Public upset over the treaty reached a fever pitch in 2006 when the US succeeded in extraditing three bankers who were charged with fraud relating to the collapse of Enron. After initial hostile coverage towards the bankers, their legal and PR team crafted a strategy to focus on the treaty. Ex-Guardian journalist Nick Davies explained the PR stragegy:

Fleet Street must stop talking about the alleged guilt and extravagance of these three men and must focus instead on one single aspect of their case, the new Extradition Act under whose terms the three men now faced trial in Texas. The act had been rushed through Parliament in 2003 as an aide to the extradition of terrorist suspects and yet here it was being used against businessmen.

The PR firm pushed the angle that the three bankers would never receive a fair trial in Texas, and the coverage traded on stereotypes about American ‘rough justice’.

After the case, it came to light that the British Financial Services Authority provided American authorities with the evidence to charge the bankers. The uproar over the treaty in Britian led officials to press for approval of the treaty by the US Senate. The US Senate ratified the treaty unanimously on 30 September 2006. (Some British journalists might want to update their reporting on the subject.)

Gary McKinnon’s legal team have followed much the same route, now claiming that his civil rights would be violated by serving time in terrible American jails. After losing his appeal before the Law Lords, he told The Independent:

All the time you hear about the rapes and beatings. Just the other month I read an Amnesty International report about how prison guards were using their stuns guns too much. As someone accused of supposedly attacking their country, I can’t imagine I’d be too welcome, either.

There is a popular view that Gary McKinnon should be tried in British courts as a British citizen. It’s a similar argument made by conservatives in the US against extradition and international criminal bodies like the International Criminal Court. It is an argument that claims that extradition infringes on the sovereignty of a nation and imposes the law of one nation on another’s citizens. McKinnon stated a not uncommon view of US-UK relations in The Independent interview:

“I’m very angry,” he says. “I genuinely believe that we are the 51st State. You see it everywhere you go, not just our foreign policy, but in our schools, our hospitals and now our courts. The British Government simply bends over backwards for America.”

I think a more compelling question raised by the case is whether a person accused of computer crimes should be charged where he or she was when the crime was committed or where the ‘victim’ of the crime was. That’s a fair question in this virtual age in which a person can commit a crime half-way around the world with the click of a mouse.

Myths in the Media

I’m a bit surprised and disappointed that after falling for the PR campaign by the NatWest Three, that the British media would fall for the same approach by McKinnon, aka the Crouch End One.

Let’s take this point by point.

Myth 1: McKinnon is going to be declared an enemy combatant and disappear into George W Bush’s extra-judicial black hole, Guantanamo.

The Indy says: “Even worse, because Mr McKinnon’s hacking adventures targeted military computers, America could chose to prosecute him as an ‘enemy combatant’ – the same status given to those left in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay”. ITV is even more sure of his fate: “But he could be sent to Guantanamo Bay as a terror suspect if the US succeeds in extradition proceedings.”

Facts: He has been indicted in US federal court with seven counts of computer fraud and related activity. This is a civilian court. says that former FBI legal attaché Ed Gibson wrote a letter in April 2003 saying that the US retained the right to try McKinnon under US military law. UPDATE: A source close to the case has disputed claims by the defence team that the letter reserved the right of the United States to try McKinnon under military law. The issue of military trials would only have come up, the source says, in the context of clarifying that McKinnon would not be tried under military jurisdiction.

However, at the extradition hearing in 2006, US officials gave the judge assurances that this case would remain in civilian jurisdiction. The BBC reported:

Receiving this guarantee meant, (District) Judge (Nicholas) Evans said, that “any real – as opposed to fanciful – risk” of Mr McKinnon being sent to Guantanamo had receded.

Furthermore, the US Supreme Court has been chipping away at the legal framework that allows Guantanamo. As the judge said, the idea that Gary McKinnon might end up in Guantanamo is ‘fanciful’. Yet, that angle still appears routinely in reporting here. British commentators keep repeating that he’s no terrorist, but the US hasn’t accused him of being one. They’ve only accused him of breaking into US military networks and causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of damage. (For the curious, the damage estimates are calculated by multiplying the hourly rate of military staff by the number of hours it took them to repair the alleged damage.)

Myth 2: The US is angered at his resistance to extradition. The US military is embarrassed by the intrusion and ‘want to make an example of him’. They will give him the maximum sentence, a ‘life’ sentence, condemning him to die in a US prison.

Facts: Gary McKinnon was offered a plea deal, standard practice in the American justice system. While British audiences might find such deals unseemly, they are common in the US. By offering a guilty plea, criminals also are often seen as taking the first step towards taking responsibility for their crime. They also save the costs of a trial, and as the Lord Brown noted:

No less importantly, it is accepted practice in this country for the parties to hold off-the-record discussions whereby the prosecutor will accept pleas of guilty to lesser charges (or on a lesser factual basis) in return for a defendant’s timely guilty plea.

Also from Lord Brown’s ruling, we have the facts of the plea offer:

On this basis it was likely that a sentence of 3-4 years (more precisely 37-46 months), probably at the shorter end of that bracket, would be passed and that after serving 6-12 months in the US, the appellant would be repatriated to complete his sentence in the UK. In this event his release date would be determined by reference to the UK’s remission rules namely, in the case of a sentence not exceeding four years, release at the discretion of the parole board after serving half the nominal sentence, release as of right at the two-thirds point. On that basis, he might serve a total of only some eighteen months to two years.

McKinnon told the BBC this week that the Americans would not put the plea deal in writing. He said that he initially agreed to the deal, but that US officials wouldn’t guarantee it. In his words: “They said: ‘No we can’t put it in writing.’ Only a fool would have gone across.'” (Listen to the 5Live interview.) He told Jon Ronson in the Guardian:

“They said, ‘If you incur the cost of the whole extradition process, be a good boy, come over here, we’ll give you three or four years, rather than the whole sentence.’ I said, ‘OK, give me that in writing.’ They said, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that.’ So they were offering a secret trial, no right of appeal on the outcome, no comment to the newspapers, and nothing in writing.

That’s not true. The Lords said the deal was in a ‘lengthy document’.

Supporters, including his mother, have said that in the UK he would face a lesser sanction, possibly nothing more than community service. This also isn’t true. In the ruling denying his extradition appeal, Lord Brown said:

As the Divisional Court itself pointed out, the gravity of the offences alleged against the appellant should not be understated: The equivalent domestic offences include an offence under section 12 of the Aviation and Maritime Security Act 1990 for which the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.

Why hasn’t he been charged in the UK? At least one reporter said the British Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges because McKinnon didn’t illegally access any British computers.

McKinnon also said that he would gladly serve in a few years in a British jail but not ’60 in an American prison’. He has consistently played on the idea that he would face ‘disproportionate’ punishment in the US, saying that he would spend the rest of his life in a maximum security prison where he might face reprisals from patriotic prisoners. Even if he was successfully extradited and convicted, the Associated Press (UPDATE: see bottom of story, the link to the original AP story on Google had expired), quoted one of the prosecutors who filed the original charges as saying:

A 60-year sentence is “extraordinarily unlikely,” according to Scott Christie, who was the lead prosecutor in the case in New Jersey before going into private practice. …

“His general exposure would be in the range of between three and five years,” he said.

I have yet to see a British report includes that quote from the Associated Press. In US coverage, reporters often include the top figure for sentencing, but always put it in terms of a more realistic sentence considering the particulars of the case.

Myth 3: Unnamed American officials have said that they want McKinnon to ‘fry’.

Facts: This is irrelevant. Even if an American official said this, he’s not charged with a capital offence. He is in no risk of being executed, and again, it plays into popular upset about capital punishment in the US. This allegation is meaningless in this case.

Why am I so exercised by this?

I started with a general unease about the coverage of this case, but after a few days of digging, this unease has given way to upset. I’ve worked for British journalism organisations for 10 years. I’ve been cheered by the more critical coverage they have given of the US, coverage that comes from a distance that would be difficult for an American journalist covering his or her own country. But occasionally, I’m also disappointed when they get basic facts wrong because they are dealing with a different government or justice system that they don’t always understand.

Living in London for three years, I am familiar with some of the tensions between the United States and Britain. There is legitimate upset over Guantanamo, especially the fact that British citizens have been locked up there. There is disgust in some circles about the continued practice of capital punishment. There was and still is legitimate upset about the Extradition Act of 2003. It was seen as forced through Parliament in the wake of the 11 September attacks and a capitulation to George Bush’s War on Terror. I can understand all of this.

As is often said, journalists are entitled to their opinions, but not their own facts. The general coverage of this story has been appalling. It has been fed by legitimate issues that some Brits have with the United States, but it’s now being used to feed anti-American sentiment. I’m more than happy to take my country to task for its failings, including when it abuses the ‘special relationship’ with Britain. I can understand British journalists who are sceptical of the American government, but the coverage of this story is factually inaccurate and antagonistic.

If only the shortcomings in coverage of the US were isolated to this. I become frustrated when journalism with an agenda relies on stereotypes and prejudice instead of solid reporting. I was shocked by domestic reporting in the US in the lead up to the war in Iraq that poked fun at European countries who would not support the war. I thought it was a particular failing of the American media. Unfortunately, I was saddened to discover that such sensationalist and derisory coverage is all too common in the British media in coverage of the US. It makes me feel decidedly unwelcome in my adopted home.

Is the problem ‘social’?

So here’s the thing. Some businesses are getting quite into social media, having realised that these tools are really rather useful. But I think it’s fair to say that social tools aren’t a runaway success – I’m certainly not seeing any evidence of massive adoption from my vantage point. I’m not fighting off clients with a big stick, for example, and the people I do talk to have little budget and are frustrated because they’re not getting the buy-in they would like.

I wonder why. There are all sorts of reason why, once the tools have been installed in a business, they fail to proliferate, and I’ve spoken about many of these before. But could there be a reason why businesses are slow to even evaluate social tools?

The week before Kevin and I got married, we rescued a lovely ginger cat who was lost on the main road outside our flat. We managed to reunite him with his owner a few days later and then went off to be married.

A couple of weeks ago, Orlando’s owner, Monica, invited us round to dinner, and we had a lovely evening talking to her about her time programming Ferranti Pegasus valve computers at UCL. When she asked me what I do, I said I was a social media consultant and I explained what that was.

Monica thanked me for the explanation, saying that she was glad I had elaborated as she had thought, and I hope she forgives me for paraphrasing, that ‘social software was something awful, like social workers’. That really made me think, and I haven’t quite got to the end of where that throwaway comment has led me.

Is ‘social’ the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, ‘social’ has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people’s weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can’t be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.

Whether or not you agree with all of those descriptions – and for the record, I don’t – you have to admit that the word ‘social’ does have a bit of a bad rap. I wonder how much that influences people – in business and elsewhere – to dismiss ‘social media’, ‘social networks’ and ‘social tools’ before they have even found out what they are and what they’re good for.