Graffiti on Web sites making you see red? Take a fighting stand
Shawn P. McCarthy
Most government webmasters are taking heavy-duty precautions these days to close security holes and protect themselves against the hacker graffiti that plague the highest-profile sites.
But what can they do about the new, legal graffiti popping up on Web sites everywhere?
By legal, I mean the pesky Post-it note-like comment tags that visitors can leave on your site when they use Third Voice from Third Voice Inc. of Redwood City, Calif., at www.thirdvoice.com
; Gooey from Hypernix Technologies Ltd., an Israeli company, at www.hypernix.com
; uTOK from uTOK Inc., also in Israel, at www.utok.com
; or Odigo from NovaWiz Inc. of New York, at www.odigo.com.
I initially admired the free-speech concept of letting anyone comment or dissent about a Web page. But the tags are being misused by spammers who want to advertise something on the front page of popular sites and by extremists who want to push their causes in inappropriate places and ways.
Put to the test
In testing some of the services, I mostly saw notes with nasty comments, ads and embedded code that I wouldn't trust any further than I could throw a bulldozer. Unfortunately, we're likely to see comment tags proliferate because people are having fun with them and because they are a new outlet for ever-resourceful advertisers.
Luckily, there are ways to fight them. Third Voice, launched in May, acts through a utility called a browser companion. It splits the browser window in two with a narrower, left-side control panel for reviewing group, public and private comments. You must have Third Voice installed and running to see embedded comments on Web sites.
When a Third Voice user enters a Web site, the utility searches the Third Voice central service for annotations for that page and layers them over the page view. There is a legitimate copyright concern, because Third Voice essentially takes a copy of the Web page, embeds the tags, and presents the visitor with the augmented copy instead of the original. The page also is changed slightly by the embedded tags, which might push text or images askew.
It's a spammer's delight. Install it, and you will see notes pasted over the front pages of leading government Web sites and Internet search engines.
That's a shame. I can think of much better uses, for example, in group mode where multiple authors make comments as a document takes shape.
In some ways, this is like the framing debate of a few years ago, when some people piggybacked on other sites' work by framing specific pages. That got worked out in the courts.
Unlike framing, comment tags have supporters who argue that the notes are just another Internet chat group, only with links spread around the pages under discussion instead of collected at a single location.
UTOK, which stands for users' tree of knowledge, offers service similar to Third Voice's, but it floats in its own small window. The notes aren't physically attached to the Web page, so the look is not affected.
Odigo, Gooey and Zadu all take slightly different approaches to the same thing: embedding external opinions on other people's Web sites.
Third Voice has promised that it will receive complaints about spam, nasty speech or illegal postings and make a decision about whether to remove them.
Which way is up?
Government sites are particularly vulnerable to comment tags because they are so heavily trafficked.
If government sites want protection from nasty comments, they must learn how to do it themselves, without appearing to censor the muddled masses looking to spam freely. Here's a site with details about how to block ThirdVoice and similar services: www.cse.msu.edu/~bowersj2/#WhatDoYouWantToDo.
To fight via legal channels, check out saynotothirdvoice.com/, a coordinated effort to resist Third Voice and message areas.
Third-party comment tags may wind up like push technology'in the spotlight for a time but fading out from user frustration.
Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at email@example.com.