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About the Guardian piece about the wars in RSS

Posted by Dave Winer, 6/1/04 at 9:59:42 AM.

On March 18, 2004, The Guardian ran a story by Ben Hammersley about a proposal I made to merge the RSS and Atom syndication formats. He characterizes it as a peace proposal, but I carefully avoided that characterization, not wanting to glorify the bitter email exchanges and weblog posts as a "war."

My main issue with story is that Hammersley is party to the dispute he's writing about, but doesn't disclose that. I understand this is counter to the policy of The Guardian, and certainly is counter to any principle of fairness. Readers have a right to know they're reading advocacy, but The Guardian didn't tell them.

I asked Rogers Cadenhead and Lance Knobel to look into this. Rogers is an expert on the technology, and Lance is a UK journalist, and is familiar with the standards of The Guardian. Both have concluded that they ran the story without proper disclosure. Yet, in several email exchanges with Guardian editors, they maintain that they did nothing wrong. I've decided to review it myself, carefully, and ask for their response.

1. I am a co-author of RSS 0.91. This has been adequately documented, and is acknowledged in the Netscape spec, which I'm sure Hammersley has read. Yet he says that I "picked up" RSS, as if it were laying on the ground, abandoned. It wasn't. My company was actively developing and it, and working with publishers, supporting the format. It's true that Netscape collapsed, a circumstance that was exploited by others, but at UserLand, we were doing fine.

2. He characterized the RSS 1.0 effort as "grassroots," but it was actually created in private. I wasn't informed of its existence until it was finished. I was never given a chance to accept or reject it, yet Hammersley says I rejected it. He says there are nine different RSS specification. That's like saying there are twenty-seven US Constitutions because it has been revised that many times. Great care has been taken to move forward compatibly. Yes, we've made mistakes, a fact that Hammersley and his colleagues take advantage of in their spin, but they never acknowledge that they've made mistakes too.

3. In fact, there are two incompatible versions of RSS, one of which was created by the RSS 1.0 working group. Hammersley is an official voted-in member of this group. That's at the center of his conflict of interest, and what disqualifies him from writing a news piece about anything related to RSS. It seems fairly open and shut. He's a frequent participant in the debates that he writes about, not as a reporter, but as a partisan. This also was not disclosed. A breathtaking and bold breach of journalistic ethics.

4. Hammersley says that RSS is controlled by a steering committee, but it's not. The spec I wrote has always been offered under a license that allowed anyone to use it, modify or republish it, as long as they acknowledge the source. It specifically disclaims any ownership in the format. This is the same license used by the IETF standards organization. When the Creative Commons came into existence, I transferred ownership in the spec to Harvard Law School and we republished it under a CC license. We have disclaimed control in every way possible. All this to no avail, Hammersley and his colleagues continue to insist that we control it, as he has said in the Guardian piece.

5. I don't feel content syndication has been "harmed by the adoption of Atom," the quote he uses to support that claim says that we're harmed by the arguments. We've been over this so many times, now the arguments has moved to the pages of The Guardian.

6. I offered to put our differences behind us, swallowed my pride, and made a public offer. I don't think that is adequately reflected in the story. If there's some way I need to relinquish more power, I will. I don't want this fight, emphatically, yet your article makes it seem as if I do.


There's no question that this was an op-ed piece that should have been labeled as such, and that opposing views should have been adequately presented.

Apparently The Guardian ran the piece without investigating Hammersley's conflicts, or it's common practice at The Guardian to run conflicted stories labeled as news or features.

The really sad part of this is that a careful and independent review by The Guardian could have helped syndication to get out of the mess it's been mired in. Instead, they've just taken the same old misery to a new venue, and taken a side, without saying so.

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