Posts tagged ‘Google’

The End of Forgetting

By , 29 January, 2009, 3 Comments

I’m back at school at Columbia, and one of my electives this spring is a seminar on “Computers, Privacy and the Constitution” with noted intellectual property lawyer and free software, copyleft advocate Eben Moglen. I have my qualms about the politics of the open source crowd but I will admit that Moglen is sharp as nails and I’m psyched to be studying with him. This course actually focuses on the aspect of the open web question that brings me closest to Prof. Moglen: the issue of privacy. Free access to information may sound like a plus when its free mp3s we’re debating, but not such a plus when it’s unrestricted government access to your phone lines.

Eben Moglen is the first person in the free software movement I’ve heard admit and take ownership for the link between the two, and for this he gets major points. To paraphrase his introductory lecture for the course [I was taking notes, not tape-recording], “We who promoted these technologies to trick capitalism into undermining itself and to empower those at the bottom who could not afford to pay for knowledge enabled the surveillance society we live in today.” And of course, it’s big corporations who are teamed up with big government to operate that surveillance. Whether you’re a hippie anti-capitalist or a libertarian wingnut, you have much to fear from that collaboration.

At the worst extreme, there’s the Moglen paranoia scenario in which the Internet brings us free culture fascism. As Moglen sees it, (and there’s some logic to this), the fundamental ideological front in America’s war on 20th century totalitarianism was not the question of its violence, nor of state control of private sector institutions [though we spoke a lot about those]. Our problem, our fear, was the state’s control of individual minds, the ability to police dreams and ambitions. Data-mining our internet searches and Facebook walls does just that.

Now, Moglen continues, what eventually brings down any regime is “the destruction of its instruction sets.” [He’s really a poet in lawyer’s clothing] Totalitarianism, to extend the example, failed because its machinery started to creak under its own weight. Moglen’s fear about any contemporary state is not that it is evil but that if it turns out to be, it will be impossible to challenge because the government has purchased all our data and that data can never be destroyed or changed. Everything that is uttered or sent in what we perceive as a transitory medium–the phone, the web–is actually recorded and made permanent. This is what Moglen calls “The End of Forgetting.” It’s a tragically beautiful concept, but it’s one I somewhat differ with: sometimes, the ability to Always Remember can be good. But by and large, I’ll admit Moglen is right to be alarmed about our privacy.

If nothing else, his concerns are topical. A few relevant stories from this week alone:

–the British government is going to release a new plan to help internet service providers police privacy. How? By the creation of a new agency which “will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon.” In an Orwellian twist, the agency [to be funded by the telecom firms] is called the Rights Agency. How big brotherly.

–to Moglen’s point about the overlap of free culture with surveillance culture, the British government is also announcing an expansion of its open government policies, shortening the statute of limitations after which journalists can get access to classified documents

–Swiss cops used Google Earth to find a marijuana farm. These kinds of collaborations bring into question any government attempts to regulate these companies. Sometimes, I think the government doesn’t realize how much it is dependent on these firms–last week, the Obama administration signed its staffers up for Gmail when the White House email system crashed, calling the arrangement temporary. Do they not realize they’ve just given a bunch of engineers in California PERMANENT access to what, in the analog age, would have been highly classified correspondence? Do they not know that Google datamines email? Can’t be, because they often buy such data. Do they honestly think Google deletes any info the government doesn’t use? Ha.

–As Moglen concedes, free software has at least thus far failed to undermine capitalism. But capitalism might be the last weapon in the battle to undermine digital surveillance: it’s other companies’ fear of Google’s power that will motivate them to join with civil libertarians in defending privacy. That’s the gist of this article in WIRED, and the case made by the author in the video interview below.

Jeff Jarvis has a crush on Google

By , 18 November, 2008, 2 Comments

I wish Bruce Greenwald, my Corporate Strategy professor, would call Jeff Jarvis and tell him to stick to his competitive advantages. The man is pretty solid as a commentator on media, on why some newspapers are screwed and how serious web news outlets ought to develop their businesses to become serious competitors.

He is not, however, an all-around economic pundit and should not try to become one. Yet that seems to be exactly what he’s trying to do on his blog and in his new book “What Would Google Do?” trying to use the company as a model for everything. In this post, he tries to give us the Google model for the financial sector, but he winds up spending many words undercutting (hedging?) himself as he takes melodramatic (highly leveraged) positions. Some gems:

“Google’s first advantage is being digital. Who wants to be in the business of stuff any more – building cars, printing newspapers, selling CDs, growing food… Now the best retreat is to the value of knowledge.” You cannot engineer food…the characters in Brave New World tried that, and it didn’t work out so well.

“In Google’s economy, small is the new big. Of course, big is still big — Google itself is gargantuan.” Point being?

“Indeed, Google does not want to own the assets — content to commerce — upon which its empire is built.” This is different from banks that re-packaged and sold off their bad loans like hot potatoes how?

“Another hallmark of Google’s economy is transparency. Even as Google remains opaque about details of how it does business — its ad commission, for example — it demands transparency of the rest of us. For without openness, we get no search-engine optimization, no precious Googlejuice.” Hypocrisy much?

So much for the argument that being in the blogosphere forces reporters to keep it real.

Comcast in Portland: A Cautionary Tale

By , 18 August, 2008, No Comment

My friend Steve just moved to Portland, OR. Being a 22-year old man with clear priorities, he immediately set about acquiring food, a TV and a couch. In that order. Food is easy to come by in Portland, apparently: there are free ice-cream cone giveaways on the streets, and $1 hot dogs at minor league baseball games. Setting up cable, however, proved a challenge.

In a city that hosts chipmaker Intel, it’s only fitting that Steve would turn to the web to set up his new Comcast account. But instead of filling out an online form to request a visit from the cable guy (which is fairly standard across the country), Steve found himself handing over credit card information via an instant message.

The process was a lot faster than calling one of those corporate 800 numbers and dealing with an automated menu (“press 1 to pay us, press 2 to pay us more”), but Steve wasn’t pleased. This is “f***ing retarded,” he said. “Horrendous.”

First off, there’s the uncertainty of putting your credit card info into an IM that you have no confirmation page for. Halfway through the transaction, the IM client crashed when Steve tried to open a new tab on his browser.

Secondly, there’s the increased chance of fraud: the credit card Steve used actually belonged to his girlfriend Dana.

Thirdly, an IM conversation is an ideal place to make typos and grammatical gaffes. The Comcast rep asked to “ruin a credit card,” and after setting up a time for an installation told Steve, “Please make sure that there should be someone 18 years old and above, who is English speaking must be present for the duration of the appointment. Please be inform that the technician will call you 15 minutes before the installation.”

I don’t buy the whole Google-makes-you-stupid theory about internet users, and I don’t think the Comcast rep speaks this way in real life. Rather, I believe the same individuals can be less articulate over fast-paced communication technologies like IM or SMS than they are in print or even over e-mail, where there’s time to spell-check and proofread. And while error-prone IM is fine for personal conversations, Steve says that’s not okay when $100 a month is at stake. I agree.

And Steve is a tech-savvy guy. Like most 20-somethings, he uses the web to listen to music or surf YouTube!; plus, he has a subscription to a service that allows him to watch live coverage of professional sports that don’t make prime time on ESPN. That he still expects a certain formality and decorum from commercial relationships is a telling sign: just because the internet allows us to abandon all the old playbooks, doesn’t mean the Google generation wants that. That’s an important lesson for any companies trying to navigate the digital age.

Nice Try, Google

By , 1 July, 2008, 2 Comments

Google thinks they’ve struck gold with a new scheme to monetize online video. They’ve hired Family Guy’s Seth McFarlane to produce some short (1-2 minute) webisodes of a new series to run on their AdSense network. Advertisers can run their schtick in the intro to each episode.

Tapping the Family Guy viewers is a good call, and going for short videos, rather than TV-show length episodes, makes sense for the web audience, used to two paragraph blog posts and 140 word tweets. But as an ad project, this will fail. Within weeks, I predict, viewers will be downloading the webisodes, stripping out the ad portion and uploading them to YouTube!, just like they do with ordinary TV shows today. In fact, the best web-video ad-ventures involve putting adverts onto YouTube! as content, a la Dove Evolution.

Not sure if every brand can opt for that approach, but I’ve yet to see another feasible pathway.

Capitalism 2.0: If you really want to beat them, join them

By , 4 May, 2008, 2 Comments

I’m pretty skeptical of free culture political theory. The Free Culture radicals (people like Larry Lessig, McKenzie Wark and Richard Stallman) argue that the collaborative/non-proprietary ethos of online software production, and the YouTube!-Wikipedia-Napster world it’s unleashed, necessarily contribute to a communitarian model of society: that Web 2.0 technologies represent a shift away from classical economics.

Even after taking a media studies class in college where the professor, Mark Tribe, was something of an open source evangelist, I have my doubts about this technological determinism. But I can sometimes see where the radical theory comes from.

A recent move by Google is a case-in-point. Among the keys to the company’s success is their model for online advertising–using search technologies and consumer behavior online to target ads, and selling that capability to others. One of the very Web 2.0-esque features of that model is the fact that a small-time company has a decent chance to compete with the big shots, since it’s popularity with users (not corporate ad dollars paid in advance) that sends an advert to the top of Google’s lists. That’s one point for the radicals.

This week, Google decided to extend this model to television with Adwords TV. Anybody can make a video spot online (Google has tools to help you do it yourself), and use their crowd-sourcing model to pick a target audience/time slot to air it. You make all the decisions online, pay by credit card and Google does the leg work of getting your ad on TV. The DIY approach fits the collaborative utopia Lessig and Stallman envisage.

Today’s entrepreneurs sometimes argue that Web 2.0 technologies are “additive” not “competitive,” meaning that one new tech feature isn’t out to replace another. You can have a profile on MySpace AND Facebook. Where video may have killed the radio star, Google’ s new ad scheme suggests that Web 2.0 can coexist with the old-school small screen.

Warm and fuzzy as that sounds, however, it seems to me that Google’s philosophy is as old-school as TV itself. Recognizing that people still prefer watching the the Super Bowl on the couch with snacks to YouTube-ing by themselves, they’ve found a way to make online dollars from offline behavior. Google’s “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach sounds to me like a high tech version of age old game theory.

The Internet Police

By , 29 April, 2008, No Comment

Throughout the Web revolution of the past decade, pundits and journalists have angsted endlessly about the implications of new technologies on privacy and the capacity for unwanted “Big Brother” surveillance or dangerous identity theft. Counter-arguments from tech-geeks have mainly centered on the entertainment potential of Google Earth or Facebook-stalking. Breaking the impasse means proving that the new technologies are more than a toy, but a useful and socially constructive tool.

The proof has arrived. Facebook and Google are putting their surveillance and information capacities to work fighting crime. A new Facebook list of suspected war criminals encourages users around the world to post information about sightings. A new Google Earth map marks crime scenes and likely locations.

How effective this will be, however, is still an open question. After all, criminals have computers too and it can’t help to tell them where we think they are. Not to mention that the Facebook lists wanted felons rather than simply suspects: due process dictates the individuals are innocent until proven guilty. Hopefully, the officials in charge will follow the law books over the Facebook.

On the other hand, there are interesting principles behind this technology: crowdsourcing, global technologies as a form of international law/world governance, linking virtual networks back to the physical world. As imperfect as this particular project is, these are the general contours of the coming era. It’s fitting, perhaps, that Facebook and Google would be the first to sign up.