Third Voice

Posted on NewsTrolls 02 June 1999

It was a quiet little launch, for Internet Explorer 4.0 users only, demonstrated at the Red Hering's Venture 99 conference a couple of weeks ago at Lake Tahoe.

TechWeb ran a couple of articles right away, Ted Holmes of the Canadian Email Business Network picked up on it, the San Jose Mercury News ran an article, and Pasty Drone published a link on NewsTrolls.

The tenor of the articles is all the same: this is the application which could change the web. As Slaughterhouse says, "Strap on your helmet, because it's about to get messy."

The application is called Third Voice and it is the online equivelent of posting notes on other people's websites for all to view.

Don't like Microsoft? Go to their site and post a nasty rumour. Mad at your former employer? Go the the site and post snide remarks on every page. Think a product is a lemon? Post a note on the manufacturer's home page saying so.

What makes Third Chice effective - and legal - is that the notes are not posted on the original site, but rather, are stored in a database and displayed to the reader whenever the site is displayed.

Web designers - to judge by a recent posting on A List Apart - are already up in arms. At the very least, it looks like the defacing of other people's websites. At worst, it is a mechanism for subverting carefully crafted messages.

Third Choice has anticipated these objections and has the arguments lined up and the lawyers ready. Their White Paper notes:

Third Voice's executives have indicated that the company will act as a platform for third-party content, protected under Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act of 1996. Thus, the creator of the note, not Third Voice, will be responsible for the annotation.
And as Tricks and Trinkets says, "The CEO is on record as expecting to be subpoenaed when the system is used to badmouth or slander a company."

So now we know where all the fuss will be. But the buzz (however limited) has missed the most significant feature (and most potent controversy) of Third Voice:

Users submit personal information to Third Voice. In addition, the plug-in automatically collects and reports on the user's IP (and therefore, geographic location) and browser software.

Moreover, Third Voice collects the URLs of every web site visited by a Third Voice user, whether they post a comment on the site or not. This information is distributed to Third Voice's "partners". See their privacy statement.

Their "partners" are likely to be companies such as Popular Demand, a company which " sells 'aggregate member demand' to merchants" - and which includes as an "outside board member" Third Voice co-founder and interim president Marco DeMiroz.

Third Voice is a *major* data-collection effort, yet this aspect of the software is not even mentioned in any of the press coverage. Against this, the potential for misuse and the complaints from website developers (both misleadingly highlighted as potential problems in the The Third Voice White Paper) pale to insignificance.

Additionally, such a system is dangerous because it is centralized. While on the one hand complaining about the readers' lack of control over website discussion boards and forums, Third Voice has already indicated that it will reserve the right to remove posts it finds 'commercial' or 'offensive'.

It would be easy for Third Choice to automatically filter any message that contained the words "bomb", "subversion" or "anarchy" (or "Pepsi","Linux" or "Microsquash").

The idea of commenting on websites is good and should be commended. But what we need is a *distributed* system for commenting. One where users keep and store their own messages. A small app - a lot like ICQ - would send the message for a given URL upon request.

Commentators could choose to register their comment on a central index, or one of many independent indexes hosted by services providers around the world, or privately on their own machine. Users could select from any of these indexes. When a reader accesses a web site, URL accesses are *not* logged. One where viewers make the choice - 'look at messages' - and only *then* report the URL to the central or other indexing site.

Mind you, such a scheme does not have the potential to be such a revenue gold mine as Third Voice. But the Third Voice method is a strong revenue-generator just because it employs such instrusive and sweeping data-gathering capabilities.

Such a scheme was developed in 1997 under the name CritSuite, an open-source set of applications which lets people comment directly on websites. But the software is awkward and hard to use, and does not feature the glossy front-end of Post-It stickynotes.

So - for now - the jury is out. Which will web browsers prefer: anonymous web page access, or the capacity to comment on the pages they view? Or will they even recognize that this is the choice they are making?


Resources: Third Voice. Home Page.

Tricks and Trinkets. Review of Third Voice.

Popular Demand. Home Page.

Post-It Digitally. Stephen Buel. San Jose Mercury News, May 27, 1999.

Third Voice Could Change Web, Analysts Say. Malcolm Maclachlan, TechWeb, May 18, 1999.

Third Voice Aims For More Interactive Web Malcolm Maclachlan, TechWeb, May 17, 1999.

Red Herring Events - Venture 99. List of Demonstration Projects. May 16-19, 1999.

Slaughterhouse Pick of the day May 20.

Ted Holmes - Canadian Email Business Network! - Archives. May 1999.


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