Monday, February 20, 2012

I am not my website: Warning! Something's not right here.

The server hosting the MediaEval website was compromised 16 February and infected with malware in the form of lines added into the .html code of several of the pages.

Google Safe Browsing Diagnostics caught the problem and MediaEval community members saw the warning in their browsers and started writing me immediately.

I fixed it quite quickly. However, at the moment, Chrome (above), Firefox and Safari and probably also other browsers are presenting this error screen. The malware is gone, but people are still being for-all-practical-purposes prevented from visiting the MediaEval site.

The warning links to a safe browsing diagnostics page that states, "Of the 3 pages we tested on the site over the past 90 days, 2 page(s) resulted in malicious software being downloaded without user consent." But that's pretty deep to have to dig to understand that the danger has been taken care of. The implication is that it's going to take us 90 days of a clean record to get back in the good graces of Google Safe Browsing Diagnostics.

At the bottom, the diagnostics page tells me that as the website owner I can request a review of the site using Google Webmaster Tools. It's nice to find a helping hand extended in a tough situation.

However,what happened next echoed the text of the warning: Something's really not right here. I have been quite concerned about Google's new privacy policy and my interaction with the Webmaster Tools further deepened that concern today.

Google Webmaster Tools wanted me to verify that I was the owner of the website, and, of course, it does this using my Google login. Now, that site is linked at the hip to this blog.

I suppose that was obvious anyway, for anyone reading the content. And people ask me why I care about some association that is deep in a Google server somewhere. It's a slippery slope, yeah sure. Let me articulate why I am not comfortable with this latest slide downwards.

I put a lot of thought into the fact that MediaEval is a community-driven initiative for which I act as the "glue person". Glue person means doing the infrastructure (which amounts to keeping a bunch of plates all spinning at the same time like they do in the circus) and co-ordinating the process by which we make tough decisions (in cases in which such are necessary). My MediaEval activities need to be understood clearly by everyone who cares to scrutinize them as being separate from what is written in this blog---which is my own personal view and does not claim to be anything like a community wide consensus.

The separation of my personal and my public role in MediaEval was previously naturally represented by the fact that on the Internet the default existence for websites are separate entities. These entities were perhaps associated with a webmaster, but that were not linked with a single author/owner person who has a personal history and a private life (as represented by my Google account). Now, I suppose I could set up a separate account to be MediaEval---but these means signing in and out if I want to go from one to the other and that is simply not practical given the amount of work I need to do.

The way that co-operative initiatives like MediaEval grow is that they can be set free from a single person or personality and can take on a life of their own. It's idealistic, I realize, but we do strive for a sort of grassroots democratic process in the benchmark. In order to come anywhere close to this ideal, we need technology whose default mode of operation allows leading members of the community to draw themselves away from the spotlight to stand at the sidelines and give the community room to speak for itself.

Today, I made a quick decision under the pressure of protecting the channel of communication with the MediaEval community. I tied my personal self yet more closely to the site of the benchmarking initiative, when another part of my brain is telling me that for growth and sustainability of the community the trend must go in the other direction.

When I am tired and desperately need a solution, I am in no place to insist on the principle that I am not my website.

I tell myself, that maybe the close technical connection will now remind me to be even more careful in making the conceptual distinction between the two hats I wear: research and community coordinator.

In the meantime, I sit back and take my mind off the issue by enjoying some YouTube---recently a category "Middle Ages" has appeared on my recommendation page. Hey, Google, it's not that kind of mediaeval that I care about! Watches those videos is a welcome form of distraction: especially because it underlines that point that putting all that data in one place isn't really necessarily going to get anyone closer to where they want to be. Let's just hope that the consequences remain innocuous and merely amusing.