Insomnia (insomnia) wrote,
Insomnia
insomnia

My thoughts on the sale -- again -- of LiveJournal.

As people have asked for my opinion, I wanted to put this out there... 

Nope, I don't like the idea that LiveJournal has now been sold to SUP, a Russian company with fairly close ties to the Kremlin former-KGB leaders and the plutocrats.

To me, SixApart ended their tenure of owning LJ with a final act of betrayal, because they *knew* that thousands of Russian LiveJournal users didn't want their accounts hosted on SUPs servers. Now, of course, all LJs servers are SUP servers, which is problematic.

I also find the idea of a review board to be questionable, in that:

1> I don't entirely trust Brad to have a permanent seat on the board, in that he's ultimately the reason why LiveJournal has been sold twice. He chose to sell to SixApart, whch has routinely violated their promises to LiveJournal's users. He also played a key role in the initial SUP deal to buy out the Russian users, so he may feel undue pressure not to sour the deal, or simply be willing to give their leadership the benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately, I don't think that Brad's heart is in the wrong place, in that he still does care about the site. Rather, it's that he has a track record for placing undue trust in corporate entities and in avoiding conflict with the same entities, while placing far too little trust in the actual users of the site. I think in some key ways he feels betrayed by the users of LJ, who, let's face it, have a tendency to complain. I know firsthand from my days with LJ that dealing with criticism is a lot of work. However, a culture of empowered users that have the ability to freely, openly criticize and organize against bad practices on the part of LJ is absolutely healthy.
 
2> SUP has indicated that the community will be represented by only two individuals, with additional advisory board members to be named by the company.  How many? We don't know... but it seems to me that the members of LiveJournal will only make up a minority of the board. The rest of the members could very well have business, personal, or professional ties to key members of SUP, and advisory boards made up of business leaders have a habit of looking out for or deferring to each other.

3> In that the members of LJ appointed to the board could be a small minority of the total board, there is a significant risk that any LJers appointed to the board will be little more than window dressing, designed to give the appearance of accountability without actual accountability.

4> The board itself may lack the power and access to relevant information inside the company to make informed decisions regarding what's really going on vis-a-vis potential misuses of SUPs authority. Sure, they might be able to vote on some matters, but would they know if someone at SUP in Russia accessed the network and deleted accounts, did an IP / email address lookup on who a particular LJer was, or redesigned the network in such a manner as to allow for unmonitored access?

5> The committee in question only issues non-binding recommendations to management, and may potentially lack the ability to issue recommendations on some subjects.

This is not to say that I am opposed to such a committee, as some oversight is better than none at all. It's just that I see strong potential for misuse. I also think a similar committee is needed to decide what code goes into the site and becomes a part of the open source codebase, in that LiveJournal users badly need features like seamless migration, authentication, and syndication between the various LJ code sites, so that if they don't feel "locked in". Unfortunately, those features have simply not been approved, greenlighted, or supported by anyone in LJ's past management -- with the possible exception of me -- to date.   
 
Here's a secret that few people have talked about within LiveJournal.  Code was put into the site back when I was working for it that allowed administrators to track a user's IP address and notify administrators when they're online. It was added for the best of reasons because of a very serious criminal investigation in the US, but it could be misused by request of the Russian government if that authority and those privileges are unmonitored and that power is put into the wrong hands.

To be fair, given the large number of Russian ZhivoiZhurnal users, there could potentially be situations in the future where it might be the right thing to do to allow Russian law enforcement agencies access to personal user information to assist with criminal investigations... and, infact, it could've already happened for all I know. But given the Russian government itself, what assurances would LiveJournal have that any such investigation request wouldn't be politically motivated? There are already moves in the works to tighten Kremlin control of the internet

I would hope that SUPs acquisition of LiveJournal has no role whatsoever in any such changes within the Kremlin, and that SUP's management will not only allow a review board, but also grant them the kind of access they might need to fully address all the concerns of Russian LiveJournal users. 

Russian LiveJournal users don't just need to know that they technically have some kind of representation on a non-binding review board. They need responsibly monitored systems in place so that those user-appointed board members can be absolutely sure that SUP is not, cannot, and has no ability to violate their privacy and their trust without someone finding out. 

ZhivoiZhurnal plays a vital role in Russia's political and journalistic discourse. Many Russian members of LiveJournal are journalists, and, the last time I heard, Russia was one of the five most dangerous countries worldwide to be a journalists. For this reason, the assurances that Russian members of LiveJournal are given must be absolute, verifiable, and concrete. There must be no "chilling effect". Qute the opposite -- SUP should actively encourage an unprecidented, unrestricted environment for free thought and free speech.

I am rather familiar with some of the excesses of what it's like running a business in Russia... and it's not pretty. Most any successful businessman in Russia has, unfortunately, been forced to be a bit criminal in order for their business to survive. Violence, intimidation, extortion, bribery... you name it. If you're unwilling to run your shop in an "unorthodox" manner at times un such an environment, you're toast. Presumably, things are getting a bit better, but still...    

The most questionable part of SUP is Alexander Mamut, who according to this 1999 New York Times article "has gone from being a little-known financier to being labeled as the Kremlin's latest all-purpose power-broker, whom the Russian media has linked to a corporation charged with operating an illegal money transfer business through the Bank of New York."

Let's be clear... the guy with the money in this deal ultimately has the ability to call the shots, should he choose to exercise such power. 

Still , I would like to believe that SUP could be a trustworthy owner to the site, and I would like to hope that they'll be a more honest, more trustworthy owner than SixApart was. I would like to believe the best about them. But if they want me to believe the best of them, their management must recognize the need for an unprecedented level of transparency, disclosure, and accountability.

Trust, but verify. 

Lastly, I have been asked by several members of LiveJournal whether I would run for one of the user-elected seats. I think that if I did that, it would only be asking for trouble, and for the reopening of old wounds. I feel as though Brad Fitzpatrick betrayed my trust, betrayed his creation, and was simply too trusting of the dotcommers. Perhaps he was a bit fascinated by the whole dotcom "cult of personality" show, the parties, etc. Perhaps he always wanted to be one himself. Not sure. 

Most LiveJournal users simply don't know or have forgotten that Brad sold freevote.com to a "punch the monkey" banner ad dotcom company, long before he sold livejournal.com. Given that we've now found LiveJournal in this situation -- betrayals, crappy management, lousy public relations from 6A, followed by a sale to a Russian startup with business links to the Kremlin, the whole "Cult of Brad" phenomenon simply isn't warranted and really, really should die a foul death. Ultimately, Brad didn't trust the people of LiveJournal to run the site, so why should the people of LiveJournal trust him? As good of a programmer as he is, it should be abundantly clear by now that Brad isn't very good at business, or at finding trustworthy businesses to run LiveJournal. I would like to hope that he could perhaps redeem himself one day, but I can't see how he will so long as he keeps giving his blessing to people to do whatever they want to do to the site, placing his trust in businesses who, in turn, have systematically betrayed us.   

Although I would not say no if one of the SUP-appointed seats was offered to me or if there was a lack of qualified candidates and a considerable call for me to throw my hat in the ring, I have no plans of running for a seat. I've been an advocate to LJ's users before, working freely on their behalf, overseeing LJ's volunteers, and, frankly, what I did largely went unappreciated. 

I've even had to deal with ignorant jackholes for changing "the tone of the LJ community from friendly anarchism to top down authoritarianism". Nevermind the fact that I oversaw the site from 2000 - 2002, during the period of time that they consider to be the golden age of LiveJournal, and that the site started going downhill after I left. I oversaw and directly trained a small team of abuse volunteers, handled the PR and marketing side of things myself so that we had a consistant, professional message to the public, and generally left the Support Manager to his own devices, in a very independent manner. Heaven forbid that volunteers collaborate together, working in groups! Even friendly anarchists need training and some kind of meritocracy in place in order to effectively get things done. 

Really, the authoritarianism came from Brad, who systematically took power away from LiveJournal's volunteers, gave it to his friends and several members of his family, betrayed many of LJ's open source developers and support volunteers, and turned LJ into a dotcom with offices in Portland. Why? Because he hated coding alone, felt overwhelmed dealing with volunteers, and wanted to work with his friends more than anything else, I suspect. 

Understandable, yet ultimately selfish and destructive reasons. Just like the reason he sold LJ. Because he felt overwhelmed. Some of us didn't have the luxury of being so selfish. We were too busy trying to make the site a successful volunteer-run, open source web project. For those who knew me during those days and saw the kind of hours I put in, you know that there was time for very little else in my life.  
 
Things really came to a head when there was considerable criticism about Brad buying a house, big car, etc. with revenue from LJ. I was effectively demoted after getting into an argument with his mother Sandy, because I requested that LiveJournal start revealing financial information to the people who were helping fund the site, so they knew where there money was going. My argument was that if Brad was getting paid back for money he himself put out for bandwidth, etc. for a long time, people would understand, and the accusations of financial irresponsibility would go away.

As she said, "they're just customers". Brad took her side. After that, it was all downhill. 

So no, I don't think it would be best for *ME* personally to get reinvolved with LiveJournal, even though it might be a good thing for the site as a whole. It sounds like another opportunity for me to get paid nothing in order to help build and legitimize someone else's dotcom, frankly.  

I do, however, have some very firm ideas on who would make a good boardmember. I think it's very important that we not just appoint some sort of fashionplate popular LJer or two, because they simply would lack the tools to potentially combat the problems that we could all face. 

What I think would be best is if we were to form a unified ticket composed of one person from Russia and one from the West, both of who have exhibited a strong history of internet rights advocacy, who are aware of the issues involved, who know the right questions to ask, the right information to ask for, and who can act in a united, decisive way to represent our interests. I have identified several people who fit this criteria, and I'm going to do my best to encourage those I consider worthy of running to step forward.

I would hope that all of you would do a similar level of research, and also recommend to whatever candidates you feel would do the best job that they run. Frankly, we would be lucky if they did, because oftentimes, those who are most qualified to run are paradoxically the most reticent to do so, usually for very understandable reasons.   

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