“Terry Chay what did you do!!!!” —friend on Facebook
Before I clicked on the link, I thought I was being teased for taking down WordPress.com yesterday. (While I didn’t cause the one Jason Kincaid blogged about, I have taken down 11 million blogs before and I felt awful.)
But no, my friend has forgotten that I no longer work at Tagged.
And now that I no longer work there, let me explain what is going on. Simply put, The New York Attorney General intends to sue Tagged for harboring child pornographers and sexual predators.
What I did
“I worked at Tagged, and before that Plaxo. The reason I joined Automattic is I’m tired of working on the side of Evil and I thought I’d give Good a shot.” —Me, introducing myself to my fellow Automatticians
The reality is, I’m sort of a prude—while I am not the most moral person, I am the most stubborn one when it comes to sticking to them. Even though I was the architect at Tagged, I was never involved in the e-mail system (the key component in a viral chain). I had enough of virality from Plaxo and there were other problems that needed fixing that had nothing to do with getting more users to sign up to your site—you know, like the small fact that the site was always crashing, or none of those users weren’t actually using the site.
Almost all the increase in user registrations that occurred there, occurred my first few months there when I worked on partitioning the database for scalability. Almost all the increase in active usage in the site occurred between the time I wrote the Meet Me application and when I re-architected the backend objects and profile pages (my last thing I did there).
Because I’m such a prude, it was amusing to tease me about the other crap that went on there.
Now that I’m gone, it’s just stupid.
Do I believe Tagged “looks the other way” regarding child pornography?
Simply put, any pornography is bad business for any business not based on vice.
I’ve often said that pornography is soul destroying. Not because I’m a prude, but because society has labeled a vice. Basically, as a business you can choose to make money off a vice, or not. It’s not that you can’t make money with the former choice, The Internet is for Porn, after all—and many do. It’s that as soon as you make the choice for being permissive for porn, you cannot undo it. And, if you do so choose, market forces (competition) push you to line until you cross it and no longer enjoy any societal acceptance or legal protections whatsoever.
A long time ago, Tagged made the choice not to permit pornography, let alone child pornography. It also, underneath, is actually a separated social network. Because it’s roots as a teenage social network, the actual network you get depends on the age you declare on registration and privacy controls reflect that. I don’t know any other social network that does this,
So why is there pornography on Tagged?
“Tim Bray said. ‘I look at PHP code and my soul dies a little inside,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, that’s not even close. If you want soul destroying, try working in pr0n.’” —one of my PHP keynote speeches.
I don’t know since I don’t work at Tagged anymore. Here is my guess:
First, policies and enforcement are always relative. When Ning doesn’t do anything about pornography, and MySpace does hardly anything at all, Tagged’s strict controls were enough to get predators to be using another social network. In more recent years, Ning is out of the open social networking game entirely and MySpace has been hit with so much bad PR that they’ve been forced to implement a more aggressive anti-pornography policy. While their competitors have changed, Tagged’s policy (to my knowledge) hadn’t. Tagged is the 3rd largest social network in the United States, it makes a much better target. Probably to the point where the existing customer support has recently become overwhelmed and extremely backlogged. What matters is not what your policy is, but what your policy is relative to sites bigger and smaller than you.
Second, porn is a statistical thing. There is porn on every social network of any reasonable size on the internet. The Internet is for Porn and no matter how much you police, some will get through. Add to that the only way of policing pornographic images is through individual review. It is easy to use a statistical trap to find and cancel thousands of spam accounts a day (which Tagged would do while I was there), but no such trap exists for child predators.
Third, a social network like Facebook has a couple of advantages here. 1) they have a policy of erring on the side of canceling accounts and very easy to reinstate one; and 2) they have college graduates from the top Ivy leagues doing almost all their customer support. In Tagged’s case, to my knowledge, 1) the policy makes it hard to cancel an account and very hard to reinstate it, and 2) the people making the decision on images and the like has been outsourced to India—only if the ticket is escalated (which can take many complaints and a long time), will an employee actually make the decision. Now these support people in India have supposedly been trained in the Terms of Service, but even when I was there, Customer Support would regale with me of stories of strange false positives (stuff that was innocuous that was marked as porn) and much more egregious false negatives (really atrocious stuff that was okays as not). You know where I get my saying that pornography is soul-destroying? It was from my first day at Tagged, I was being introduced to the other employees and happened to see a support window monitoring images on the site flagged for pornography—you couldn’t pay me enough to take that job!
Fourth, there are a couple weird edge cases that mix in with the above. For instance, Tagged does not have slideshows, so one can upload a slideshow from another service to ones profile. If the slideshow ends up with porn (or started out that way), there is no adequate way of knowing that this is an ex-post-facto corruption of the account on that service or not. Those sort things are usually discounted if they seem outliers with the rest of the profile. You see similar strange edge cases, like the innocuous sounding group “Younger Women/Older Men” whose title is deliberately chose not to obviously be engaging in child molestation. (Groups launched after I was at Tagged.)
So what is the problem?
Well the fundamental error being exploited here seems to be that accounts at Tagged are hard to cancel. Other social networks have recently opted for minimizing false negatives, by aggressively canceling accounts on the slightest report. This has a side-effect of creating a lot of false positives—canceled accounts where the user did nothing.
Tagged has this policy because any request for an already cancelled account to be reinstated is an escalated support ticket (seen by an employee at Tagged in the United States, as opposed to someone in India), and also because Tagged actually purges deleted content from the system, so some changes are really permanent. By the way, that social network you just left? Sorry your data is still all there—it’s just not visible.
Tagged should change the policy to be in line with others making it both easy to delete and reinstate accounts. This isn’t exactly a solution because you can devise a strategy that would allow the New York Attorney General to sue MySpace (again). Simply, just go through the same thing with Tagged and wait a while, many of those accounts will get reinstated. They’re just exploiting Type II error.
So why are they suing?
This gets to the real reason this is going on.
The Attorney General of New York is Andrew Cuomo, son of Mario Cuomo. And, despite his protestation that he prioritizes, “protecting children from online exploitation” the reality is he doesn’t give a shit.
The only thing he cares about is being Governor of New York, and the avenue he plans to use is follow Eliot Spitzer’s path with a bunch of high profile lawsuits. Now, unlike Eliot Spitzer, Cuomo doesn’t give a shit about the AG’s office either, it’s just his political springboard, so the actual content of the lawsuits doesn’t mean much—in fact, he’s suing someone new every week, much faster than his office can actually prosecute anything. And even if the case is of marginal interest, he can push things to the national level through the use of his brother at ABC.
If he actually gave a shit, he’d have said, “You know how we sued you last time, and in the settlement I claimed we had a nice relationship with you. Well we have had reports of that a lot of child pornographers are on your system and you’re not canceling their accounts fast enough. You should change your policy and respond quicker to requests. After all, we sued Facebook over that.” How much you want to bet that this “undercover investigation” (probably done in conjunction with ABC’s 20/20) did not have any mention to anyone at Tagged before the lawsuit dropped?
When I was about to leave Tagged, he sued the company about spamming—the company actually found out the lawsuit through a report on ABC’s Good Morning America before the notice was actually delivered to the company. Later, the legal brains at the company (and those lawyers hired by the company) opted to settle the lawsuit instead of fight it. I personally felt this was tactically sound, but strategically stupid, but I was only an engineer, they were lawyers.
Here was my thinking:
First, there is the obvious fact that while Tagged was egregiously stupid, they didn’t do anything illegal and showed clear intent to correct the issue as soon as was possible. I’m not certain that Cuomo could win this lawsuit if he actually chose to litigate, which he really can’t because he’s only suing for the lulz, and not to actually win. He already got what he wanted—press for himself when Tagged was the most e-mailed article on TIME.com.
Second, Cuomo doesn’t actually have time to litigate. He’s running for office. I’m no lawyer, but it seems to me he’d be governor before this thing actually goes to court.
Third, any sort of settlement with one state leaves you open for lawsuits from other states. Last I checked, almost all the states have budget crisis and sending a notice with intent to sue is cheap (actual litigation is expensive). Each one would engender an easy payout for the states, at nearly no cost.
Fourth, the (spam) lawsuit was political triangulation. The correct way to respond to triangulation is the way the Republican Party has—basically you misdirect, posture and wait for them to back down. Enforcement and policies are relative and there are a lot of lawsuit targets: MySpace (also sued by Cuomo), Facebook (also sued by Cuomo), Zynga (yep, sued by Cuomo), etc. You only have to be harder to litigate than them. By the way, the only one commonality among them—besides the fact that they were all sued by Cuomo that is—is he never had two lawsuits in the air twice to the same company. It seems to me, if you want to pick a battle, you’d rather fight the “you unintentionally spammed people” one over the “you harbor child pornography” one. But maybe that’s just me.
What I did?
Nothing. I don’t work at Tagged anymore, I don’t live in New York, and it’s going to take a major surgery excising the crazy from the Republican Party before I ever support one of them again.
As far as I’m concerned, you make choices. Whether that is a choice allowing porn or not; unintentionally spamming your users, or not; minimizing false positives or false negatives in user complaints; litigating a lawsuit or settling…those are choices. You make choices, you live with the consequences.
I guess there is such a thing as karma. Tagged never had good karma, and always assumed there were no consequences for it.
As for Andrew Cuomo, he’s a douche. But then again, that’s part-and-parcel with becoming a politician today. His bad karma will be rewarded by an ineffectual governorship of the state of New York, and living his rest of his life with people saying how he’s a pathetic shadow of his father.