Won't Somebody Think of the Pings?

These little scribbles of data are the lines that connect the dots in the world of blog-style publishing. Named after an old-school command in UNIX that allows one computer to ask another whether it's alive, pings on the modern Web are a quick way for bloggers to alert the world when they've updated their sites.

Say I post something excellent to my blog, but I don't want to wait for Google to index it or for random geeks to stumble across it. I send a ping alert -- a tiny document in a special format -- to something called a ping server, which is like a centralized bulletin board that lists every new blog post it's been pinged about.

There are several popular ping servers, which people read the same way they would the New York Times or Harper's Readings, browsing through a list of the latest pings in search of an interesting headline. If they find one, they follow a link back to the blog it came from. However, with ping servers like Weblogs.com and Technorati.com getting millions of pings daily, it can be a frustrating way to get your daily news. That's why ping servers like Moreover.com allow people to label their pings with a tag -- like "Linux" or "heavy metal music" -- explaining what's inside, so readers can search for pings by subject as well as headline.

As blogs and bloggish publishing systems proliferate online, pings have become crucial to the spread of ideas and data. It's not enough just to build a blog and hope people will come. You've got to send out the pings and let the world know you're there. Over the past year, it's become obvious that the creature who controls the ping controls Middle-earth.

If you know what I mean.

Until recently, ping servers have mostly been free speech amplification engines run by small, progressive companies and nonprofits. Those that have fallen into the hands of censorship-prone corporations like Yahoo! (which owns ping server Blo.gs) have been in the minority. But in October all that changed. VeriSign, an Internet infrastructure company that (among other things) owns the .com/.net top-level domain and sells network surveillance services to law enforcement, purchased two of the most popular ping servers on the Web: Weblogs.com and Moreover.com.

Reps from VeriSign say they plan to keep their ping services free and open: Michael Graves, an official VeriSign blogger, has written several posts assuring the public that the change in ownership just means the servers will be able to handle several million more pings than they could before. And there's no doubt that VeriSign has a formidable technical capacity -- they run .com/.net, ferchrissake, so they'd better. But somehow I'm not reassured.

For one thing, Graves says VeriSign wants to start filtering pings to weed out crap from "sblogs," blogs that are built out of spam messages and send out pings to lure unwary ping hounds to irritating repositories of pharmaceutical ads. It's not clear how VeriSign will distinguish spam from legitimate pings, but you can be sure there's no foolproof way to do it. Some good pings, and with them some good free speech, will be lost in the wash. There's also the very real possibility that VeriSign might decide to balkanize the world of pings, turning away pings that come from competitors' servers or from countries like China that turn out a lot of spam.

Another possibility is that VeriSign's ping empire will be just another step along the road to an Internet broadcasting world that looks exactly like the off-line one. VeriSign's Weblogs service could favor corporate-sponsored pings over independent ones the same way many radio stations favor RIAA music over indie. Companies already do this in the ISP world -- advertisers make special deals with major e-mail providers like AOL to be sure their mail doesn't get filtered out as spam. If this happened with pings, Weblogs might faithfully list every stinky ping it got from Fox News but file the pings from Alternet.org under "potential spam," meaning they might never make it onto the server's rosters. When your pings get turned away, it's like broadcasting a signal that nobody receives. Maybe some ham radio crackpot can tune it in, but most of the country will never hear you.

It's possible that in 50 years we'll have some kind of federal regulation -- if we still have a federal government -- that prevents one company from controlling all the pings. But for now, the future of what bloggers call "citizen journalism" could be trapped in the giant monkey paws of VeriSign.


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