Everyone an Author

Third Voice's backers say the software is the last best hope for a people's Web. Critics call it cybergraffiti.

Eng-Siong Tan boarded the Internet roller coaster on July 5. That was the day Fortune included his Silicon Valley 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--under the headline "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 utility appears as a sidebar to a browser. Users can 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 they have been vigorously clamoring for Third Voice to cease and desist, or at least modify the software. Formed shortly after the utility's release, Say No to Third Voice (www.saynotothirdvoice.com) has cataloged examples of what it calls Third Voice abuses. 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 has even created a pie chart based on a random sampling of Third Voice postings. According to their survey, 28 percent of the comments were advertisements, 32 percent were unrelated to the content of the page in question, 4 percent contained links to porn sites, and 10 percent demanded the removal of other Third Voice postings. 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." In an ideal world, netizens might 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.

If nothing else, Third Voice has catalyzed a fascinating, and much needed, online constitutional convention. No one has 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 the software firm 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 potentially 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.

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 on 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 users that their worries were unfounded. But Bowers scoffs at what he calls the company's "great height of arrogance"; he notes that "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 might do well to expect more trouble down the line. Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School (and, as of a few weeks ago, a member of Third Voice's advisory board), says he would be surprised if some of these issues did not find their way into 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 users must have the utility running to even see the postings--which are stored on Third Voice's server--he says, they cannot be considered guilty of creating a "derivative work." Zittrain eschews the graffiti analogy; using the software, he argues, is more like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa through a transparency.

Whatever the future holds for Third Voice, the issues it raises are here to stay. A similar freeware utility called Gooey launched in June, promising to make users members of 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 the beta phase, and the reality is far less "dynamic" than the theory, but the implications are dizzying.

"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 they provide are not really public. "This all raises the question 'Should government provide such a public space on the Internet?'"

The philosopher 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. If and when it gets 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.

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