Why Nick Denton is good and/or evil

Without going into too much detail, I’ve taken some lumps for supporting Gizmodo during the whole CES affair (see past posts too numerous to mention), and I admit that my defence of their prank with the TV-B-Gone remotes was somewhat less enthusiastic than it could have been — if only because the sophomoric nature of the situation didn’t really jibe with the great post on a free press and unfettered inquiry that Brian Lam of Gizmodo wrote after the fuss died down.

That kind of sums up a lot of my thoughts about Gawker and its overlord Nick Denton: sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s really not. Two recent items written by Denton — and described by Peter Kafka at Silicon Alley Insider — summarize this dilemma, since they come from pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum. One has gotten him in hot water with Scientology, and the other in hot water with Facebook.

The first item was a post about Tom Cruise, and included a video clip in which the actor talks about Scientology and how it is the only solution to the world’s problems, how he deals with SPs (i.e., “suppressive persons” — cult jargon for those who are negative on the church) and other topics, using that really determined voice and piercing gaze that I associate with his crazy motivational speaker character in Magnolia.

The clip was removed, but Denton found another copy and posted that, and says he will continue to do so despite any attempts by Scientology to force the site to take it down. Denton is also posting copies of the correspondence between Gawker and the church, in which the site claims it is justified in using the footage because it is reporting on a news event. In this one I am 100 per cent behind Denton, even if he is doing it primarily for the traffic. So in this particular case, Denton = good.

And the second item — the other end of the Gawker spectrum? A post about Emily Brill, the daughter of media mogul Steve Brill. The item seemed primarily designed to make fun of the girl for going on a vacation with her friends and for losing some weight, and used screenshots from her profile on Facebook. That breaches the site’s terms of use, of course — but that’s not the part I really care about. It just seems like an invasion of someone’s privacy for no real purpose. So she went to Cabo or whatever with her rich friends — so what. Denton = evil. See my problem?

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So the Facebook Beacon privacy train continues to careen down the tracks, braking hard in the turns and doing its best not to come flying off the rails altogether. Already, some of the passengers — including Coca-Cola, a large maker of carbonated sugar-water that you may have heard of — have jumped off the train, saying they aren’t sure that Facebook can salvage the idea and actually produce anything of value for them.

One of the issues for both New York Times writer Louise Story and for Coca-Cola, apparently, is whether Beacon was originally supposed to be — or is now — an “opt in” service. According to her post on the Bits blog, Ms. Story thought Mark Zuckerberg promised it would be opt in, and apparently Coca-Cola got that impression too. To further confuse the issue, Ms. Story now believes that Facebook has changed it to be opt in, but Henry Blodget of Silicon Alley Insider says that isn’t the case.

As I understand it now, Facebook captures your information through a tracking cookie, and will show you what it has captured when you log in to the site, and then ask you whether you want that data to be sent out to your friends through your news feed. That sounds pretty much like an opt-in service to me — but not to everyone. Some say it’s only opt-in if there’s a global “yes I want you to track my info” button somewhere. Mark Zuckerberg seems to feel that by signing up for Facebook, you have effectively opted-in to that idea.

So was Beacon supposed to be opt-in to begin with? According to Ms. Story, her understanding was that Facebook would give users the ability to opt in before releasing their data — but as far as we can tell from the comments made by him and by a Facebook spokesman, they actually meant the opposite: that users would get the ability to opt out, by saying they didn’t want to broadcast the information. If they didn’t opt out, in other words, they had effectively opted in. Confused yet?

About all we know at this point is that Facebook is tangled in a rat’s nest of who said what, and who meant what, and the chorus of criticism is growing louder. As Hank mentions, Moveon’s petition is one thing, but when a major customer like Coca-Cola thinks you’re playing fast and loose with what you promised to do, then you have problems.