I received an e-mail from Abu Dhabi today. The title screamed “URGENT INFORMATION REQUIRED” and it came from a Faiz Ali.
Spam probability checklist
Unnecessary caps – check
Asking for information – check
Dubious location – check
Unheard-of name – check
Opportunity to enlarge your penis – no check, but still…
I had already clicked the e-mail, ready to send it into digital oblivion, when I noticed something odd: it was addressed to my name. That’s not standard scammer procedure. I decided to give it a chance and opened the e-mail, my antivirus programs at the ready.
It turned out to be a perfectly innocuous e-mail from an office worker who wanted to do an online degree. Worried that the online university he chose may be a degree mill, he turned to……me?
Apparently my newspaper article in 2007 on fake degrees had been quite well-received on the interwebs, and had been reproduced across various websites, forums, and databases. He had come across one of those reproductions, and e-mailed me looking for advice.
Flattered that I’ve become some kind of pseudo-expert on fake degrees, I helped Faiz do some preliminary research on the university he had in mind. It turned out to be a sham. It was such a sham they even had their own sham accreditation agency to say that it wasn’t a sham (which is actually a pretty common tactic employed by degree mills).
Thanks to the so-called “piracy” of news, I was able to save someone from wasting thousands of dollars on some worthless pieces of paper. (In some cases, they even provide you with car stickers so you can proudly advertise to the world that you are a degree fraud.)
Looking from a broader perspective, this episode served to remind me of one stakeholder in the online news piracy debate that has gone largely ignored: the journalists themselves. The debate so far has mostly focused on the Rupert Murdochs demanding that news should be paid for and the Chris Andersens saying that information wants to be free, but what about the people who are actually writing and reporting the news themselves?
Implications to salary aside, I think it is safe to assume that most of us want our articles to be seen by as many eyeballs as possible -- we want our words to have impact and influence. And the main determinant of accessibility for online news is, by far, price. Just charging a cent in a sea of free articles causes the number of readers you reach out to to plummet dramatically. I wonder how the Times’ journalists must feel about their readership falling 87 percent after the powers that be erected an online paywall? My guess is, probably like performers at a once-full theater that has suddenly emptied by nine-tenths.
Referring back to my own experience: if the various dubious-looking databases and forums hadn’t illegally copied my article and kept it on the interwebs, my painstaking work would have disappeared after my newspaper had taken it down from their website. I wouldn’t have been able to warn people out there about these frauds, and somewhere in Abu Dhabi a man would be driving a car with the drivers behind him snickering at his car sticker.
So while I wish the Murdochs out there the best of luck in their search for a sustainable business model, I find it pertinent to remind them that, unlike them, news writers aren’t in it simply to make money. They are there to make a difference, to change the world, to wrest the truth from those who seek to conceal it. And even if all the news companies were to disappear one day, the news wouldn’t. There will still be the truth seekers, influence peddlers, change agents, gossipers -- and they will all be producing news, one way or another.