Posts tagged ‘Google’

Too Little Too Late

By , 19 November, 2010, No Comment

Regulators in the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany, Canada and the European Commission are finally getting serious about privacy. First, there’s the bevy of cases and crackdowns recently introduced against Google’s Street View. Secondly, there’s the EC’s new privacy proposal, mandating that in the future companies ask such consent for all the data they take, and (more radically) make it possible for users to have it deleted at any time. They’re calling this the ‘right to be forgotten.’ [A direct response to Eben Moglen, perhaps?]

This is comforting news for those of us who have been talking about data and digital rights for some time, to be sure. But I am wondering it’s ultimately too little too late.

See, most of the major holders of user data online are–or are close to becoming–monopolies within their niche: Google in search and advertising, Facebook in social, etc. And it seems to me that the history of monopolies is that once they get in place, it’s very difficult, legally, to break them up and almost impossible to muster the political will for radically restricting their business practices when a massive majority of the populace are their customers. [Can you see I've been reading Tim Wu?] That’s one reason that I’ve been arguing for two years that the way to best Google on privacy was to take it to task on antitrust issues early on, before it became unbeatable.

But given we haven’t done that, it now seems to me that the best possible scenario is [and I can't believe I'm saying this] NOT to sue Google’s more offensive services out of existence, or to try and take it apart, but to essentially acknowledge it as a legitimate monopoly, and then slap it with a huge list of monopolist’s burdens: forbid it from further M&A activity, say, forbid them from collecting things like payload data, and mandate that all data-collecting services become voluntary, not at the individual level, because that’s now untenable, but at the municipal level. If the majority of a town’s population votes to be mapped, Google can photograph in the town. I think the municipal level is basically the smallest level that is still feasible, and the largest level that is still democratic. Is this a crazy idea?

As for the right to be forgotten, I regard it as pretty sound when I think of individuals and companies like Google or Facebook, but I am less convinced about how it might extend to other types of websites. Jeff Jarvis has correctly pointed out that a very broad reading of such a clause could lead to the idea that people can demand takedowns of news stories about them. Which is something that doesn’t make any sense to me, not least because news coverage is NOT something you consent to have written about you. It is not data YOU give away (and therefore own) but data which we as a society have decided can be collected involuntarily so long as you have the right to correct the record, and to extract a pound of flesh when the journalist is wrong. I’m inclined to say that the right to be forgotten should apply to everything except IRS and other federally mandated disclosures, and stories about you in the press. But I must admit that my sense of surety about these issues has declined the more I learn about them, so, please, sound off.

Why BlackBerry Got Banned

By , 10 September, 2010, 2 Comments

A few weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with a journo friend about the moves by several governments–first the UAE, then Saudi Arabia, then India–to ban BlackBerry because its maker (Canadian company Research in Motion) would not grant these states unencrypted access to users’ correspondence. Citing the locations of BlackBerry servers (in Canada and the UK) they alleged that Western powers could use the technology to spy on the East. Both privacy hawks and businesspeople cried foul, even more so when RIM agreed to open one server center Saudi Arabia and prepared to negotiate a deal with India to keep its business alive.

My friend wanted to know what the story was really ‘about.’ Was it–as the bans’ promoters insisted–about how much data our governments in the West already have? Was it about the fact that BlackBerry IS encrypted in the first place when so much other data is not (something many consumers seemed not to know)? Was it about the fact that democratic India was following the pattern set by more draconian regimes? Or, he was asking me, was it about something else entirely? Here’s what I told him:

“To my mind, these bans represent a kind of clash between the technology community’s perception of itself as being essentially above governments and the reality that all international business is subject to and inextricable from international politics. What is especially remarkable about this is the degree to which tech firms–which are still heavily consolidated in the U.S.–gladly do business with the U.S. government, while maintaining the idea of being essentially above regulation. In particular, there is a cozy symbiosis between the Valley and the defense establishment, and it leads some in the developing world to think of all tech firms as proxies for the U.S. government. Given that, it is also a story about developing country governments demonstrating the regulatory muscle not to be talked down to by the West, about showing–mostly to their own public–that globalization does not mean colonization. It’s also important to keep in mind that while BlackBerry messaging IS encrypted, it’s not that governments elsewhere in the world are necessarily more comfortable with that than the countries issuing these bans. Rather is is that here in the West, governments can often subpoena for access to specific correspondence if it is necessary for a court case. In countries where that kind of subpoena power doesn’t exist, governments might try to hack systems extrajudicially, and then if that fails, proceed to shut down what they cannot penetrate.”

One thing this story is NOT about, however, as the above should indicate, is privacy: we lost that a long time ago.

Apocalypse 36: Status Report

By , 4 September, 2010, 2 Comments

For over two years, I have been writing a series of posts on the media industry called the Apocalypse. I am often asked whether that’s overly pessimistic. My answer: ‘apocalypse’ is a term we use for the end of the world, sure, but it’s also, to those who take the term seriously, supposed to herald the revelation of something new and extraordinary. That is what I believe is coming to media, whenever the chaotic collapse of the model we know is over.

Occasionally, the Apocalypse Series has attempted to read the tea leaves and make predictions about the new model. I don’t believe–as other media prophets seem to–that there will be no more Big Media. Human history suggests that power tends to consolidate, break down and then consolidate again. I believe that the new consolidators of power will be organizations who can mix and match. It will be the people who can take the nichification that the web brings and use it to deepen rather than to flatten what we know.

Apocalypse 32: Keeping News Alive?

By , 17 December, 2009, No Comment

I’ve been exploring the Google-NYTimes–WaPo venture Living Stories, a site that aggregates coverage of particular events in real-time. As one reader put it, this seems like something news organizations should have done long ago.
As a consumer of news, I consider this a potential tool, but it needs to have a much wider array of news sources to be truly useful: my challenge as a reader today isn’t keeping up with the New York Times’ coverage of Pakistan; it’s keeping up simultaneously with the Times and the Post and the Journal and the BBC and the Guardian and about as many local outfits.

There are already ways to aggregate news from all those places, and to sort news from each organization by subject, and even to sort news by topic once aggregated. All we need is a way for news organizations to monetize this process. A better idea might be for the news industry to adopt a uniform standard for tagging their stories that would be compatible with all RSS readers and reading devices. If they simultaneously adopted my suggestion on embeddable ads, they’d be able to own monetization of their content wherever it went, without reference to third-parties like Google.

Because even though ad revenue from Living Stories is to go to the news organizations, Google is still powering the site and organizing the ads—they still have access to all the user data involved and that benefits them elsewhere. The more that all news organizations’ content merges on sites like these, the more centralized and more powerful Google’s data cache can become.

Moreover, Living Stories, or indeed any subject-based aggregation strategy, doesn’t solve the critical problem facing journalism today: if given a choice to consume content by subject, it’s likely that readers will choose to keep up with regular developments in national politics, hyperlocal affairs, sports and culture. Foreign affairs, state-level politics, and economics are less likely to receive sustained attention—everyone is interested when there’s a major intelligence breakthrough, a corrupt governor or a case of corporate fraud, but no one wants to the read the months of daily stories that lead to big scoops in these areas. And there’s no way to know, in advance, which companies or which states or which countries will produce that scoop—you have to pay, blindly, for daily reporting on all of it. Who is going to do that now?

I don’t think Living Stories does much to help us there. Like many Google products—Gmail, Reader—I like this one, but it’s unclear to me if its good or bad for the news organizations involved.

Couldn’t have said it better myself

By , 20 November, 2009, No Comment

Great chat between Cato’s Julian Sanchez and American Scene’s Conor Friedersdorf about the future of media, what constitutes journalism and how politicians try to work the media narrative. The chat covers two subjects I’ve touched on before: the federal shield law and Google’s impact on media production. It’s solid stuff, the whole way through. Worth taking an hour this weekend for.

You Win Some, You Lose Some

By , 16 September, 2009, No Comment

Mixed results today of my recent bets on the future of media.

1. BusinessWeek’s potential buyers have turned in their bids, and BW’s own media writer Jon Fine is on the story. It looks like vanity buyers (aka Wasserstein) have pulled out, and real media companies (aka Bloomberg) are back in the lead, but the LBO firms are hanging on. When I blogged about this earlier in the summer, I said I was rooting for Bloomberg over the LBO folks, so, so far, I’m winning.

BW staffers appear to be grieving for Wasserstein because they believe a vanity buyer would be a more patient investor than even a media firm; I disagree–the example of Sam Zell suggests that vanity buyers behave more like LBO firms in trying to squeeze fast profits, not because they need the money, but because the vanity buyer psychology works something like “Oooh I want a shiny media gem to wear in my crown. If I buy a rusted media gem I must make it shiny.” Wasserstein figured out BW wouldn’t be shiny (ie a gold mine) anytime soon, and walked away.

BW staffers also appear weary of Bloomberg in particular because they think he will be unfriendly to BW’s newer ventures into social media, basically creating networks for managers to discuss their industry and trends. While I think this a cool feature, I think the best thing BW has to offer isn’t that; it’s their investigative unit and wide angle coverage; Bloomberg is a luxury outfit that has shown willingness to spend a lot of money on reporting. That can only be to BW’s benefit. Moreover, BW’s focus on news managers can use will serve as a complement, not a competitor, to Bloomberg’s focus on use investors can use.

Fingers crossed that this works out.

2. Mark Zuckerberg blogs that Facebook now has positive free cash flow. That means it’s taking in more cash than it’s paying out, but it doesn’t mean the company is profitable yet, since there are lots of non-cash expenses like debt that FCF won’t reflect. That doesn’t quite erase my suspicions about their Ponzi-ness (Ponzi schemes, by definition, have lots of positive FCF when they are growing), but it does give me pause about writing off their potential to develop a real business. I’ll think this one over again and be back.

3. Google announces FastFlip, a platform that basically lets you read media pages in their designed form. That makes it easier for publications to give you the user experience of reading an old fashioned glossy mag, and yes, the feature looks pretty damn cool, but it also means that Google can sell ads not only against content on its pages, or on the pages of its partners, but over, above and outside whole websites that may have their own ads. It’s meta-advertising, and supports my long-standing conviction that Google’s macromarket strategy precludes any publishers’ attempts to figure out an ad strategy for content sites.

Google-opoly: A New Twist

By , 8 September, 2009, No Comment

I spent the weekend engaged in an interesting snark-fest with Jeff Jarvis in the comments section of his blog. Jarvis was complaining about the many requests he gets from journalists working on ‘anti-Google’ stories looking for a quote. It’s not surprising that he gets the requests, since he’s written a book advocating Google’s business model as a blueprint for all companies. Indeed, I reached out to Jarvis for my own Google story a few weeks ago, but he was understandably busy.

Jarvis’ accusation was that journos are fabricating news stories out of scant fact in order to exorcise our own curmudgeonly demons when it comes to living in a digital world. I’d admit that bias plays a role in the tone of coverage of Google, but since most of the queries he referenced are about ANTITRUST stories, I’m not sure bias actually drives the decision TO cover Google in the first place or that the facts behind those stories are as thin as Jarvis suggests. Those stories only arise AFTER the government somewhere decides to investigate Google; then we report on the investigation. And as far as I know, no journalist has reported on a non-existent lawsuit yet. So I’m really not sure what Jarvis was ‘kvetching about, despite trying to get some clarity from him multiple times.

To the contrary, I’m even more convinced that the regulators have a real case to make against Google than I was when I first got into my tussle with Jarvis a few days ago.

Conspiracy Theory Monday

By , 24 August, 2009, No Comment

While others were beaching it up, I spent my weekend poring over the responses from Apple, Google and AT&T; to the FCC over the iPhone-GoogleVoice snafu. AT&T; essentially repeated its earlier statement, with more umph—it takes no responsibility for what happened and says Apple was acting alone.

Apple tried to hedge it, first claiming that the GoogleVoice application hasn’t been rejected but is ‘still under review’ then listing reasons why it might deserve to be rejected. A host of tech commenters, led by Michael Arrington, called the first claim a bald-faced lie, and I’m inclined to agree. The FCC wouldn’t be investigating this if the application-rejection hadn’t provided the smoking gun. The FCC would not launch an investigation if Google’s complaint was simply that the process was just taking too long.

On the second point, however, I’m inclined to think Apple has a point. Not a legal case, to be sure (on legal grounds, I fully support them getting an FCC walloping), but a business one.

Notes from the Googleplex

By , 21 August, 2009, No Comment

I’ll admit, I feel a wee bit smug today. After musing about Google for many many months on this blog, I’ve managed to report out some of my ideas about data-as-a-commodity in a cover story for the UK’s New Statesman. If you’re going to read it, I suggest you also read WIRED’s take on the subject. I was less than floored by the WIRED piece, but I am curious as to how you think they compare.

Beyond the satisfaction of getting this analysis out there, I found this project fascinating, not least because I learned that Google’s PR officer reads this blog and follows tech reporters on Twitter. That’s PR101, of course, but it’s notable that Google, for all its exceptionalist rhetoric, works just like any other firm of its size.

Finally, because my colleagues were in London, I was in New York and Google was in California, this piece was reported, written and edited at odd hours of day and night, with snippets of text sent between us over a veritable menagerie of technologies. We each took raw notes in Word, then posted them to a shared Google Document (for the uninitiated, this is a service that allows you to host a document on the web so multiple authors can see it). We outlined and drafted the piece on Adobe’s BuzzWord (a similar service that also allows to share comments on the document), and sometimes used GChat (Google’s instant messaging service) to tweak individual sentences or paragraphs before updating the central file. Then we fine tuned it with our editors in old fashioned Word attachments.

In the process, I learned what each of these software programs is best for: GoogleDocs is great for sharing big chunks of raw text, but useless for organization. Adobe is the best for comments and in that sense, the best collaborative tool, but it’s Flash-based and unsuited to older computers.  Word is the easiest place to get a holistic picture of whatever you’re working on without getting sucked into the minute-by-minute changes.

None of these programs offers you everything you need. For most of the last ten days, I had Word, Google Mail/Chat, Google Docs, and BuzzWord open at once. Usually, I was on the phone too. The frenzy was a reminder that there are limits on the world-flattening capacity of computers. In the end, the best writing happened when we were on the phone with one another, writing each sentence together instead of dividing the work, and with one of us taking centralized control for typing. In other words, we wrote best when we slowed down instead of using technology to speed us up. A sobering thought for tech-evangelists.

Updated: Memes travel fast. The BBC ‘s Maggie Shiels makes similar points about BookSearch.

Good News that Makes Me a Little Bit Mad

By , 2 August, 2009, 5 Comments

The FCC is investigating Apple’s decision to disable third-party iPhone apps that let users access Google Voice from their phones, and to reject Google’s own application providing the same service. At first, most tech commenters were eager to exonerate Apple by blaming it all on Big Bad AT&T;, who, as a telecom provider, obviously have a competitive reason to block any VOIP technology.

But as the FCC letter to AT&T; points out, AT&T; has no problem letting users access Google Voice over AT&T;’s network when they do it on a BlackBerry. As the FCC’s decision to send a letter to Google too highlights, there are legit fears of Google from Apple’s side as well: Google has its own phone, where it gets to engage in its own application cherry-picking.

Now Apple, who obviously don’t have anything approaching a monopoly on handsets, can’t be accused of monopolization (using market power to eliminate competitors) as Microsoft was a decade ago. AT&T;, if it turns out they were involved, could be accused of using market power over networks/connectivity that way. What Apple would be on the hook for is colluding with AT&T; in a way that bars competition. Even though it’s clear that banning Google Voice bars competition–ie VOIP competing with AT&T;’s network–it’s unclear to me whether that competition threatens Apple directly. Google, broadly, poses a threat to Apple, but this specific feature might not if it improves the appeal of the iPhone. I don’t know enough about the part of antitrust law that covers collusion (as opposed to the section covering monopolization) to know if the colluding company must be enhancing ITS OWN market power/eliminating ITS OWN competition to be guilty. Commenters, please help out?

On the whole, however, I’m glad the FCC is looking into it–that’s what antitrust regulators are for. What upsets me is that the regulators seem disproportionately inclined to take on cases of companies that upset consumers, where it’s clear how the man-on-the-street is negatively affected by the practice at hand. So because most consumers like Google, hate AT&T; and could care less about Apple, this case makes sense to the Feds.

Meanwhile, the Feds do not bite as often at companies who might be violating anti-trust law in a way that restricts the market at either a more abstract, or simply a less consumer-facing way. Consumers love Google and resent/mistrust the big names in paid content, so the Feds have, until this administration, overlooked the fact that behind the screens Google is establishing a sealed monopoly of online data that prices out whole sectors of content creation, whether that means new web-based news organizations or music, or book or film distribution channels, and impairs the monetization capacity of other sectors that might one day move online.

If the laws bar restrictions on competition (which they do), those laws need to be applied indiscriminately to all companies not only because that’s what rule of law means but also because the unchecked power of companies we like now may prevent the creation of companies we would like tomorrow.