July was the month Eng-Siong Tan boarded the Internet roller coaster. On July 5 Fortune magazine included his software company, Third Voice, in its list of “Cool Companies.” Cool. Four days later WiredNews reported the discovery of potentially devastating security glitches in Third Voice’s architecture. Uncool. By July 19 Fortune had run a follow-up story on Tan’s detractors—a
consortium of Web page designers called Say No to Third Voice—headlined “Cool? Says Who?”
The controversy befits a company with that most lofty, and popular, of fin de millennium goals: creating a new paradigm for online communication. “Everyone’s been looking at the Web as a library,” says Tan. “But so far all the information has been flowing from authors to readers. We wanted to change that, to finally make the Web realize its potential and make everyone an author.”
To the chagrin of many webmasters, this is just what Third Voice is accomplishing. Once downloaded from their site (www.thirdvoice.com), the free browser utility appears as a sidebar to a browser. Users can then highlight any text in a Web page, click a button on the Third Voice control bar, and wax eloquent or idiotic on whatever topic piques their muse. The comments appear as a sticky note, the presence of which is signified by a small red arrow on the Web page. Whenever another Third Voice user clicks the arrow, the sticky pops up. Third Voice launched on May 17, and currently only runs on Microsoft Explorer, but the most highly trafficked Web sites already play unwilling host to a smattering of little red arrows. Tan calls this “forming a community by practice”—in other words, the development of de facto newsgroups through the serendipity inherent in surfing.
Tan’s critics call it graffiti, and have been vigorously clamoring for Third Voice to cease and desist, or at least modify their software. Webmasters have no control over the content, or indeed, the insertion of Third Voice posts on their sites. Formed shortly after Third Voice’s release, Say No to Third Voice (www.saynotothirdvoice.com) has catalogued examples of users abusing Third Voice software. The White House site, natch, serves as a repository of profane Lewinsky jokes, and one “bobrobert” used MSN’s home page to inform interested parties that, for the record, “Tae-Bo is gay.” Say No even created a pie chart based on a random sampling of Third Voice postings. According to their survey, 28 percent of them were advertisements, 32 percent were unrelated to the page’s content, 4 percent contained links to porn sites, and 10 percent were demanding the removal of other Third Voice postings. Only 26 percent, they indignantly point out, were apropos of the site in question. Welcome to America’s collective consciousness.
“The Web has its share of not-so-great content,” Tan politely notes when asked about these figures. “And e-mail’s great, but look at the problems we have with spam.” In other words, a medium is only as interesting as its users, as any denizen of chat rooms can attest. The intent of Third Voice, Tan says, is to facilitate this range of expression. “The Web should be a platform for free, open discussion.” And perpetual misapprehension of the First Amendment notwithstanding, speech doesn’t lose its constitutional protection simply because it’s unsavory. In an ideal world, netizens would use Third Voice to challenge the Web’s glut of misinformation. Consumer reviews could appear on the same pages that retail the products; erroneous news stories could be corrected, or at least contested, within hours after being uploaded. Third Voice constitutes an agency of democracy, and fosters all the messy, disagreeable by-products that go along with that. A recent tour of popular Web sites reveals that Third Voice hasn’t entirely overshot its goals: While a smattering of smut and spam were apparent, most postings were devoted to subjects ranging from American foreign policy to the incipient debate over the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI).
If nothing else, Third Voice has catalyzed a fascinating, and much needed, online constitutional convention. No one’s filed a suit yet, but Say No members contend that Third Voice is guilty of copyright violation. There is also some question as to whether Third Voice could be sued for providing a vehicle for libelous or defamatory remarks. Like any mass medium, Third Voice is a potent tool of communication, and in the wrong hands a harmful one. “If some parent has uploaded Third Voice, It would be very easy for some pedophile to use Third Voice to engage a child in a dialogue,” points out Stephanie Baker-Thomas, a Say No member and clinical psychologist who works with abused children as well as sex offenders. Because users can post directly onto a Web site, Third Voice provides an unprecedented degree of connectivity. To the extent an elementary school’s home page constitutes a virtual school, Third Voice allows would-be molesters right into the classroom—so long, of course, as the students also have Third Voice installed.
Also problematic are the gaps in security first discovered by a 20-year-old programmer at Michigan State University a few weeks ago. Within an hour of downloading Third Voice, Jeremy Bowers discovered that he could post code as well as text onto Web pages. The code could then perform all manner of illicit functions, such as retrieving credit card numbers or passwords. Third Voice, with Bowers’s assistance, quickly plugged the hole, and after WiredNews ran a story divulging Third Voice’s security problem, the company rushed to assure its users that their worries were unfounded. Bowers scoffs at what he calls the company’s “great height of arrogance.” He says no one can guarantee security. “As soon as you run an application that allows someone to modify someone else’s Web page, you open the door for any number of security issues.”
All this considered, Third Voice would do well to expect more trouble down the pipeline. Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, says he would be surprised if some of these issues were not addressed in a court of law. But, he says, “it’s not a slam dunk in either direction.” There’s still very little case law concerning the application of constitutional and property doctrines to the Internet, and a suit against Third Voice would chart new territory. “This wonderfully integrates a lot of themes: intellectual property, free speech, property rights,” Zittrain says. For his part, he thinks Third Voice is in the clear. Because a user must have Third Voice running to even see the postings, he doesn’t think they are guilty of creating a “derivative work,” an area of copyright law already rife with nuance. The postings themselves are stored on Third Voice’s server; they are a separate and discrete layer of information. He uses the analogy of painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa through a transparency. Zittrain is already preparing a mock case concerning Third Voice to present to his students at Harvard Law. His arguments have been persuasive enough that Third Voice asked him to sit on their advisory board, an offer he decided to accept in the days following our interview.
Whatever the future holds for Third Voice, the issues raised by the software are here to stay. A similar freeware utility called Gooey launched in June. Users find themselves members of what Gooey call a “Dynamic Roving Community.” It’s essentially a mobile chat board, in which any current visitor to a Web site can talk to other Gooey users visiting that site. Like Third Voice, Gooey is still in beta phase, and the reality is far less “dynamic” than the theory, but the implications are dizzying. Even Michigan State’s Bowers admits software like Gooey and Third Voice represents an evolutionary step for the Web.
“These applications add another level
of dimensionality to the Web,” says Tara Lemmey, president and executive director of the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San
Francisco–based electronic civil liberties group. “There’s a serious need for public space online as well as in the real world, and these utilities are a step in that direction.” She adds the caveat that because Third Voice and Gooey are both private companies, the forums for dissent they provide are not really public. “This all raises the question, ‘Should government provide such a public space on the Internet?”‘
Walter Benjamin once had a dream—that mediums of mass communication could become two-way modes of discourse, whereby the people spoke directly to the people. So far the Web has based itself on media models—
broadcast, print—that forsook that vision. The Web may yet get its own Speaker’s Corner. The noise that issues forth will be sure to annoy and offend. It’s an ugly thing, but, to subvert a line from Stanley Fish, it’s a good thing, too.