Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
-- RobertGlunt - 06 May 2008


A Web 2.0 Lament

In college I was fairly heavily involved in parliamentary debate. It did wonderful things to my thinking, terrible things to my grades, and introduced me to some of the most intelligent and articulate people that I have ever met.

Parliamentary debate is an extemporaneous two-on-two event very loosely modeled after British Parliament. In each round, one team, chosen randomly, plays the part of the “Government” and proposes a topic and a position on that topic. This position could be something that an actual government would discuss, but need not be; acceptable topics range from policy issues like “The US should sign the ICC” to abstract contentions like “Utilitarianism is the best moral philosophy” to absurd hypotheticals like “The Japanese Government should not raise an army of demons.” The other team, taking the role of the Loyal Opposition argues against whatever the Government team proposes. It is important to note that Opposition has no foreknowledge and no preparation time. They find out their topic when Government gives its first speech, and give their first speech immediately after Government sits down.

Unlike other forms of debate, Parli is not evidence driven (since one side couldn’t possibly have any). Rounds are judged on persuasiveness of argument and are meant to be independent of any foreknowledge of the facts. Because of this, the people who are good at parliamentary debate can be good in any of the million ways in which people can be persuasive. Some are brilliant and insightful, some are rhetorical and passionate and some are just plain funny. Because the tone of a round is often dictated by its topic, the best debaters end up as very versatile and dynamic speakers. Otherwise it is difficult to defend “Execute Eichman” in one round and “You are Luigi... backstab Mario” in the next.

People get better at debate through a combination of participating in a large number of rounds and watching others who are already very good. Since this second component is so crucial, for many years people have been talking about the prospect of video recording good rounds so that others might learn from them. As of five or six years ago, nobody took the project seriously. Free video codecs might compress a 48 minute round into a 300 MB video file, but the hosting fees and bandwidth costs of streaming the files were economically unfeasible, particularly for cash-strapped college students.

As it happens, I was one of the first people to start digitizing rounds. While I should like to say that this was out of a sense of altruism, in reality it was about self-improvement. The only way to really understand how quickly you speak or how distracting your hand gestures are is to see them for yourself. Everyone that I know who has watched themselves on video has had their presentation skills improve dramatically.

About three years ago, technological advances finally made the “web video archive” possible. Cheap camcorders, cheap web hosting, effective video compression and iMovie colluded to make a previously impossible task trivial. A few students launched, a website that indexed debate rounds for broad distribution. To save on costs, the videos were hosted on YouTube? or Google Video. In the debate community it was a big hit. People like me who had private caches of old rounds donated them to the site and new debates were recorded almost every weekend.

It didn’t take long for problems to arise. In October of 2006, a student at Cardozo was videotaped in a debate round about teaching masturbation to young children. Stuck defending the Joycelyn Elders side, he did the best that he could to come up with justifications for the practice. The round was not particularly good and would have quickly faded from all knowledge except that student happened to be running for City Assembly. As a Republican, his chances were not fantastic from the get-go, but when an intrepid googler at the New York Daily News found the video on the web, what little support that he had quickly evaporated.

After the incident people became much less willing to allow videos of themselves to be hosted on While most college students are thankfully disengaged from politics, the specter of an out of context comment tripping red flags on a future human resources sweep weighed heavily on people’s minds. Even those who were certain that they had never personally made an objectionable comment were frightened that they might be somehow tarnished by association with a website in which no topic was off limits and any position might be defended. The fear was that even a single round about German Holocaust Denial laws might be taken out of context to brand everyone whose name appeared on the website as an anti-Semite.

This growing unease was apparent at the 2008 National Championships. Even before videos were available online, previous Championships had seen large numbers of rounds recorded for posterity. But this year several of the best teams categorically objected to being recorded. They claimed, not unreasonably, that it was impossible to estimate the future risk that those recordings might pose. And some in attendance suggested that the prospect of surreptitious audio recordings had dimmed the appetite for arguments capable of giving offense.

Possible solutions have been discussed. People have suggested eliminating names from the website, or using robots.txt to discourage web spiders. But most doubt that there is any effective technological solution. In the long term any linking between a name and a video that a person can accomplish today will probably be automatable tomorrow, if not in five years then in ten or twenty.

It's possible that someone will come up with a clever fix for the problem. And even if they don’t, the rise and fall of is a small thing, far outside the public consciousness. But it looms large in my mind because leaves me with the lingering thought that the many advances of Web 2.0 may prove poisonous to our culture.


Webs Webs

r2 - 23 Jan 2009 - 16:04:39 - IanSullivan
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