Friday, April 15, 2011

Florian Müller and Groklaw

As a kind of valedictory salute to Groklaw, I want to examine the authoritarian aspects of its life. And I'm no stranger to Groklaw: I have fond memories of sifting Unix and BSD headers and making a summary of system calls for Pamela to show how baseless were the claims of SCO. At the time I wondered how many thousands of similar contributions were deluging her inbox, and I enormously respect anyone who takes on that kind of workload. This is not a defense of Groklaw or PJ because she doesn't need my defense. I am interested however by the larger implications her blog and others have had on the ways authoritarians attempt to refute them or at least drown them out. There is a great book to be written here someday.

In the wake of the announcement of the end of the active phase of Groklaw's existence, a classic internet drama was played out on in the comments to the announcement. A well-known commentator and developer, Florian Müller, had a lot to say about Groklaw's founder Pamela Jones: specifically her anonymity and the role he says that played in Groklaw's evolution and execution. Now, disregarding the flamewar that erupted and various accusations of his being a paid shill, Microsoft-admirer and, in a fascinating aside, sockpuppet, I'd like to address some of his charges because they bear on the way authoritarians are waging an information war using the biggest media on the planet, the internet.

Let's set the scene: Pamela Jones is a relatively anonymous person with legal training who decides to blog about the SCO trials. In the process she discovers how the FOSS style of crowdsourcing (the current buzzword) can be leveraged to amass incredibly detailed and wide-ranging information about the issues, the participants and the legal system in which the battle is being waged. Along the way she also learns how to manage an online community, which she does in her own style, preferring to lay out her expectations and holding community members to it. She also learns how to deal with the price of visibility and success. Finally, the battle all but won, she realizes that Groklaw has fulfilled its purpose and should be merely maintained, not looking for new battles.

Those who disagree with the facts of that outline tend to either belittle Groklaw's achievements or, when that doesn't work, directly attack PJ. The keyword here is competition. Authoritarians see other authorities as competitive threats, real or imagined. Groklaw is being paid the compliment of such envy. Although authoritarians tend to be slightly oblique in their envy as you will see.

Florian Müller part 1:

The word “her” needs citation. There was an avatar named 'PJ', who claimed that 'PJ' meant “Pamela Jones”, but there was never any verifiable track record, such as past and current employers, and “PJ” never presented “herself” in public. I just explained in another comment here that this lack of transparency wasn't reasonable.

But assuming that “PJ” is a person, I don't know what you mean by “talent”. “PJ” claimed to be a paralegal, admitted not to have programming knowlege, and very apparently failed to understand the world of business. In other words, we talk about a person who apparently would have liked to become a lawyers but failed to get there, and who missed some other important perspectives that “she” would have needed to provide holistic analysis of the issues “she” covered.

Müller begins by doubting the reality of a Pamela Jones, a Pamela Jones who, should she exist, isn't a lawyer, doesn't understand programming, and has no idea of business or “holistic” perspective. He excludes PJ from realms he later claims authority in, and infers her anonymity as a character fault, particularly the lack of an employment record to which he returns repeatedly.

Florian Müller part 2:

How can PJ be a “reputable person” without ever having disclosed one past or present employer?

It's not about a “disdain for all things PJ”. The problem is that Groklaw has constantly tried to capitalize on many people's desire for simple fairy-tale-like black-and-white views. Groklaw has, partly in its articles and partly in discussions, engaged in character assassination. The net effect of that big brainwashing effort is that some of the more credulous and less informed people now distrust a very smart analyst like Rob Enderle, very smart journalists like Maureen O'Gara and Dan Lyons, or a very smart author like Ed Bott, only because they comment on certain issues with greater sanity than Groklaw.

Müller repeats the employment record charge, and obliquely insults Groklaw's audience. Then he characterizes Groklaw as a disinformation source, brainwashing readers and assassinating the character of some fine journalists Müller knows, who incidentally are better than Groklaw at the very things Groklaw does. Coincidentally, all those fine journalists are pro-SCO, and O'Gara explicitly attempted to “out” PJ with less than stellar results. Müller evidently feels he is on a similar public level to these journalists whose claim to authority appears to be that they get paid for it.

Florian Müller part 3:

I'm still not 100% sure that Groklaw will really shut down soon. Groklaw's announcement could be a last-gasp effort to provoke an outpouring of support (in various ways, shapes and forms) from companies and community members.

But if it actually does, which is of course very likely, the primary reason will have been that Groklaw clearly lost relevance. It was largely a “one-hit wonder” in connection with SCO, but over the last several years I think it has just become a small echo chamber – almost like a sectarian group that unconditionally follows a mystery-shrouded leader. Seriously, who else in the whole open source context did never reveal his or her identity to the slightest extent? There was something that the person or team hiding behind the 'PJ' avatar had to hide.

With an objective rational approach it was easy to understand that 'PJ' did not strike an acceptable balance between privacy and publicity. Someone who participates in highly public debates, claims to provide more transparency about suspected connections and comes up with conspiracy theories concerning people like me (although my background is well-documented and verifiable) must also present themself at some point at a public event and explain their professional background. But a lot of people thought that their “savior” should not be called into question and not be subject to the same scrutiny “she” wanted to subject others to. I always found that absurd.

When the avatar named 'PJ' received an EFF award (which “she” never personally accepted in order to continue to shroud “herself” in mystery), the number of people congratulating “her” in the related discussion thread was fairly limited. When I read discussions on other topics, I also had the impression that the number of distinct participants was small.

On the occasion of the announcement of Groklaw's shutdown (which for now is just an announcement), many people appear to think only about the good that Groklaw presumably did and tend to forget its dark side: its devious censorship (“sandboxing”) of user comments designed to suppress dissent and fabricate consensus in its community in the eyes of third parties (my italics)

I have quoted at length but discontinued at points where he makes allegations about a specific article concerning IBM, and comments where he disparages Groklaw's relevance in favour of his own, specifically his visibility and own blog. These issues are not unimportant, but they're irrelevant to the topic and repeats the points he already made.

Straightaway we are exhorted to ignore the very purpose of Groklaw and focus on what Müller thinks can be charged: censorship, control, disinformation, and by inference the character of the censor, the controller, the disinformer. “PJ” is not a person, or at least a person who can be trusted, or even a person with a “holistic” grasp of the “issues”. Groklaw must be reduced to the status of a cult with a shadowy leader. He quotes himself in reference to censorship (via a third-party link), but more importantly, is concerned with the authority Groklaw might appear to have to others. Generally this kind of thing is ad hominem reducto absurdum. It's nothing new to attack bloggers: ask Greg Jericho, who rather upset mainstream Australian journalism by doing a better job of reporting an election campaign than they. The retaliatory “outing” was a clearcut competitive authoritarian attack. Similarly Müller's comments are an attempt to redirect attention from Groklaw to himself, apparently as an opportunity to bury a rival.

Many responses, including PJ herself, focussed on various weaknesses in his arguments, but what is striking is the attempt to re-characterize the competing authority, coupled with a frustration that the authority's success cannot be overturned. As with Jericho, attackers believe that intimidating PJ by shouting “we know who you are” will magically diminish authority; all-important to someone like Müller who has worked hard to maintain visibility. That someone should succeed doing almost precisely the opposite is anathema. Indeed, the bitterness of the claim that Groklaw is an irrelevant echo chamber reflects the realization that when a competing authority stops at the limits of relevancy, its hard to attack that authority for being irrelevant. One might even detect some desperation that the whole SCO era has been disposed of, bar the shouting.

Without recapping that era, it's critical to recall that the only authority Groklaw had versus SCO was the authority of accurate, contradictory evidence with legal implications. A blog versus a corporation. SCO did not expect anyone to, for example, examine their website and ftp site for evidence contradicting their own press releases, nor for a searching examination of Unix versions back to the 1970's which discredited their claims of stolen sourcecode, which they were still distributing on said ftp site. The results were such that the lawyers on both sides of the case were reading Groklaw, one side using the evidence, the other side removing it. PJ may have been the focus, it was her blog after all and her rules, but it was abundantly clear early on that this would be a group effort. Müller's efforts to separate PJ from Groklaw itself is revealing in this context, characterizing it as a sad little cult of nobodies chanting praises to an anonymous control freak. Such an organization couldn't possibly have had the effect it had, could it? This also ties into his odd defense of discredited pro-SCO, anti-Groklaw (and often pro-Microsoft) journalists, explained only by his preference for their authority as public figures (or as public as you get on the internet). There is a sense of projection about the whole thing which is typical of appeals to authority where participants attempt to reduce issues to flag-waving or “my army is better than yours”.

There have been charges that Groklaw is an authoritarian forum almost as long as it has existed. There have even been anti-Groklaw forums filled with the rejected and ejected that couldn't get along with PJ's comments policy. One reason I hope a definitive story gets written is to be able to get the full picture of what it was like on the other side of that. Aside from simply having the right to decide what goes on or off her own blog, PJ was also aware of more serious attempts to derail the forum. I've written before that astroturfing and sockpuppetry are stock tools for the authoritarian internet army, and Groklaw was no exception. Angry defensive corporations with millions at stake do not just let bloggers show them up without retaliation. Did she get it wrong on occasion? Undoubtedly, noone is perfect. Does that essentially change the nature of a collaborative effort on this scale? Not a bit. Similar claims are made from time to time of Linus Torvalds or any number of other leaders/moderators/Benign Dictators For Life of other collaborative efforts, and they are equally ludicrous. But such claims will continue to be made because the open source model of collaborative research and contribution is a competing authority to corporations, think-tanks, and even governments merely because those are themselves competing authorities.

Just because Florian Müller is well-known is no justification for his tawdry and belated accusations. But it does show he's ready to defend an authority. I wonder who that authority is, and who it will point him at next? Thank you PJ and Groklaw, it's been a terrific learning experience and a service to many who do not yet realize what that service is.

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