Thursday, September 11, 2014

When categorization goes awry (or, your reputation precedes you)

I have previously discussed my preference for following topics rather than following people. There are times when a person may discuss one thing that matches your interests, but you may not be interested in the other things that the person says. Just as an example, let's say that you don't care for the technological discussions that Robert Scoble launches, and therefore decide that you are not going to follow him. If you make that decision, you will miss on his discussions of non-tech topics, such as autism. (When Scoble wrote that post in 2007, he presumably had no idea that it would affect him personally.)

But this issue isn't only limited to choosing which people to follow or not follow.

If you work for a big company, your corporate access to the Internet is probably managed. And the management system may well use the data provided by Microsoft Reputation Services. The purpose of MRS is to categorize websites into one or more categories, which can therefore provide system administrators with the tools required to allow or deny access to these websites. Note that Microsoft Reputation Services itself does not make these decisions; they are made by the company's system administrator. Why? Let's look at one of the categories:

Religion/Ideology : Religion/Ideology Web sites are site which promote, offer, sell, supply, encourage or otherwise advocate religion or ideology.

Now some public corporations may choose to block access to web sites in this category, believing that religious discussion has no place at work.

But what if you work at the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? Or the Council on American-Islamic Relations? Those organizations clearly wouldn't want to block religious websites; they wouldn't be able to get any work done.

However, this idea of allowing or denying access to an entire site can have its drawbacks, similar to the decision to follow or not follow a person. I'll give you an example. Obviously the employees at my employer have an interest in biometrics, including vein recognition. One day, one of our employees was notified that an article discussing vein recognition was available on the web. The employee went to read the article...but was prevented from doing so.

Why? Because the article happened to be posted at a site called And that site has a particular categorization.

Provocative Attire : Provocative attire Web sites are sites which sell, review, or describe alluring attire but do not involve nudity.

Never mind that the specific article in question had nothing alluring - unless you are a vampire, I guess. Because all of has received the "Provocative Attire" categorization, the non-alluring article also received that designation. As far as MRS is concerned, all of these stories are identical:

As I said in 2009,

For enterprises and enterprise workers to truly mine the information that is out there, we need better ways to do it.

I don't think we're much closer to that goal in 2014.

P.S. Yes, I realize that this is September 11, and that I have broken the Bloggers Code by failing to write something about September 11, 2001 or terrorism or stuff like that. I'm not worried; I've broken the Bloggers Code before.
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