Saturday, 28 January 2012

Google and Gzowski

I can remember when Peter Gzowski first started using the internet a few years before he died. He was like a kid in a candy store. The idea that he could sit in a comfortable chair with a cigarette and coffee and have access to so much information was astounding to the journalist in him. I don't know what he'd think about what's going on now.

Gzowski was a rather grumpy man in person, but magic on the radio. He was one of the best interviewers I've ever heard.  He was curious and knowledgeable about a lot of stuff, but I think he did two things that interviewers now could learn from.  He didn't want a list of questions from his producers but instead would continually ask "Why are we talking to this person?" It was only when he was satisfied with the answer that he felt ready. And the second flowed from that, he would listen, listen, listen. Nothing is more important to doing a good interview.

I've no doubt if he were still with us, he'd be doing interviews on how naive we've been  looking at the internet as a treasure drove of objective information. He'd recognize that the desire to make money would eventually throw us out of  the information "Garden of Eden".   (I'd bring the "apple of knowledge" into this, but I'm in enough allegorical trouble already).

This week the web's potential for good and evil was brought into sharp focus. In the U.S., lawmakers withdrew two controversial laws designed to update copywrite protections for the producers of creative material. Late this week issues around privacy, and the ability of google to collect huge amounts of information about our web preferences, dominated the news. Four interesting articles (imo)  to share that touch on all of these issues. (you won't see Terence Corcoran featured here very often, but in the spirit of reading outside of your comfort zone, and confusing Google, here's one). This first one I think is particularly important.

How Google is Making the Climate War Worse

I am a huge fan of Google. And the company has done far more than any other company to help solve the problems of climate change by investing in game-changing renewable innovation, and even providing an education on climate change, directly. However, it’s core mission – finding stuff for you – is turning out to hamper progress in a weird way.
Google tries very hard to please you by finding you more stuff just like the other stuff you clicked on last time. That is the essence of google’s great cleverness. But that very brilliance is becoming more and more damaging to the shared view out to an objective fact-based world.
Who hasn’t gotten exasperated with someone else’s ignorance about climate change? Haven’t you finally said: “look, you can just google it!”
But there turns out to be one big problem with just “googling” it. It depends on who you are.
So if last time you looked up climate change and chose to open something by, say, Marc Morano, then Senator Inhofe, and then the Drudge Report, which would all poo-poo climate change, google thinks, “oh, this moron likes denier news about climate change,” and next time, more of its top suggestions for your search will be skewed even further to the right.
As you keep heading further into la-la land, Google is there, holding your hand, assuring you that indeed, this is the objective, google-able truth. Two people with different search histories get two entirely different sets of google “facts” for the identical search terms.
The problem is that science-based types, who click on the fact-laden science-based pdfs from the EPA and reports from the WRI and studies from NOAA – and then get more of these kinds of results; assume that’s what everyone sees when they just “google” it, but there is no one objective science-based google.
Google has become like a good but unobtrusive butler, that always obsequiously aims to please, by always giving you more and more of what you liked last time. Ultimately, as a result, we are now all living in what we believe to be the objective, self-evidently google-able truth. And we are not.
Climate scientists keep turning out more and better climate science, and scratch their heads at the apparent lack of effect on “rational” hearts and minds, but it is simply not being found by the other side, because googling it turns up the opposition. While scientists wring their hands over the problem that they are not communicating well enough, there is nothing they can do differently.
Together with the outright (deliberate) propaganda by the 1% against the 99%, Google’s (accidental) amplification of that propaganda, a mere accident of our technological history, is fueling part of the rage of this internet age. The civil war on science it amplifies – even by accident –  is a danger to our survival, as it saps our commitment to change before it’s too late.

The Internet’s collectivist blarney
Jan. 27, 2012

Terence Corcoran  Jan 27, 2012

The copyright war is a corporate battle, not a fight for freedom

The collapse of two U.S. online anti-piracy bills continues to generate triumphalism within the Internet Liberation Party. It is now entrenched mythology that the voice of the people, expressed through the Internet, last week gunned down million-dollar Hollywood lobby campaigns and saved the Internet for freedom, democracy and the right to endless zero-cost downloads of Avatar and The Dark Knight.

The story line goes like this: All the “old media” spending by industry in support of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) proved useless in the face of the new era. “A new and profoundly different political force has emerged in the last few months, a constituency that identifies itself not by local interests but as citizens of the Internet,” wrote Larry Downes in Forbes.

Scores of similar comments are all over cyberspace. The SOPA-killers are millions of Americans caught up in a “newfound civic energy,” said Lorelie Kelly, director the New Strategic Security Inititive, writing in Huffington Post Friday. The ability to shape legislation through the push of a button on their computer represents “rewiring the Town Square to enable continual, sustained participation in our own self-governance.”

Before this revolutionary fervour goes too far — and the Internet is nothing if not a institution that wants to go too far —there are a couple of problems, practical and ideological, with the mythology. First, despite the claims to novelty and precedent, the anti-SOPA activists proved nothing more than that it is still possible to mobilize a mob with collectivist blarney. A second related issue is the degree to which the mobilization of the mob was carefully orchestrated by a cabal of tech corporations led by Google with a vested interest in keeping the Internet free of the constraints of copyright for their own benefit and at the expense of trade, commerce, creativity and the rights of others.

All of this and more can be found in a new book by Robert Levine, provocatively titled Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back. (See excerpt here.) Free Ride should be must reading for all creators of cultural property, including newspaper owners, and for all the scoffers who write letters to the editor ridiculing the idea that we are in the midst of a total war on copyright. It’s the Occupy movement plundering the Internet.

War brings destruction, which is what Mr. Levine — a former executive editor of Billboard magazine — documents in his book. From filmmakers to the music industry to journalism providers and beyond, the official and unofficial  rejection of copyright as a legitimate claim to ownership threatens to turn markets and commerce, the backbone of cultural economic activity, into chaos.

As Mr. Levine outlines in detail in Free Ride, the ideological cover for the anti-copyright movement is created and funded by the tech industries with household names that are at the heart of the Internet, especially Google.

Google’s backing can be found behind a host of celebrity Net activists and high-sounding institutions. In a chapter titled “Geeks Bearing Gifts: Google’s War on Copyright,” Mr. Levine follows the money and Google to Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons and scores of foundations and think-tanks, not to mention the candidacy of Barack Obama’s 2008 run for the presidency.

Throughout Free Ride, Mr. Levine homes in on what he refers to as “Silicon Valley libertarianism that rejects any form of Internet regulation — except, in most cases, when it happens to help the technology business itself.” But the net-neutrality libertarianism here is not the brand that puts much stock in markets and individual rights. “In the world of net neutrality, everyone works for the benefit of all, and individual rights mostly just get in the way. This fits with the trend toward deconstruction, which has made academics ever more skeptical of the Romantic ideal of individual genius. All artists build on the work of others, just as programmers combine existing bits of code.”

Put another way, the overriding idea behind the open Internet is that “if we all create culture, why should any one person own it?” Mr. Mr. Levine is no corporate shill. In an interview, he described himself as a “centrist Democrat” who is “actually pretty progressive.” In fact, he sees copyright “as a progressive notion.” So when venture-capital firms and high-tech giants line up against copyright, he sees a corporate assault on a progressive structure that protects the rights of creators and enhances the operation of a market for culture products.

For the moment, the anti-copyright ideologues have the mob in their pockets. Mr. Levine says one way to change the debate is to reframe the issue. This is not Hollywood culture industries against the public interest, nor is it the tech industries against the public good. “This is the entertainment business versus the technology business,” both of which are in the business of maximizing value for their shareholders. “When people look at Google they see a benevolent force and when they look at Universal they see a malevolent force.”  To change the public debate, said Mr. Levine, we need to see that reality. “That’s why I wrote Free Ride.”

The End of Privacy
by Kevin Drum

A few days ago Google announced a new privacy policy: If you're signed into any Google service, the information that Google collects from you can be combined with information from every other Google service to build a gigantic profile of your activities and preferences. On Tuesday I wrote that I was pretty unhappy about this, and a lot of people wanted to know why. After all, Google says this new policy will mean a better computing experience for everyone:

    Our recently launched personal search feature is a good example of the cool things Google can do when we combine information across products. Our search box now gives you great answers not just from the web, but your personal stuff too…But there's so much more that Google can do to help you by sharing more of your information with…well, you. We can make search better—figuring out what you really mean when you type in Apple, Jaguar or Pink. We can provide more relevant ads too. For example, it's January, but maybe you're not a gym person, so fitness ads aren't that useful to you. We can provide reminders that you're going to be late for a meeting based on your location, your calendar and an understanding of what the traffic is like that day.

So what's my problem? Easy. In that mass of good news, the real reason for Google's announcement was stuffed quietly into the middle: "We can provide more relevant ads too."

This is so obvious that no one even paid attention to it. Of course Google wants to target its ads better. That's where most of its revenue comes from. Yawn.

So again: What's my problem? Why do I care if Google serves up ads that are a little more suited to my tastes? The truth is that I don't. What I do care about, though, is the obvious corollary: Google's main purpose in life, as you'd expect from any big, public company, is making money. And the way they make money is by helping third parties sell you stuff. Here, then, is the nut of the thing, from the same blog post announcing the new privacy policy:

    Finally, what we're not changing. We remain committed to data liberation, so if you want to take your information elsewhere you can. We don't sell your personal information, nor do we share it externally without your permission…

Do you find that reassuring? I decidedly don't. If Google can change its privacy policy today, it can change it tomorrow. And it will. No company is an unstoppable juggernaut forever, and Google is already showing signs of becoming an ordinary corporation that has to scrap for profits just like everyone else. This is what's motivating their policy change this week, and someday it's likely to motivate them to sell my personal information after all.

It won't be mandatory, of course. If I want to close my Google accounts, they'll let me. But if I use an Android smartphone—and this is plainly one of the primary targets of Google's new policy—that will be pretty hard. And after years of using Google products like Gmail and YouTube, it's not as easy as it sounds to simply export all your data and move to a new platform. In reality, very few people will do this. Google is counting on the fact that they'll grumble a bit, like I'm doing, and then get on with their lives.

And maybe I should too. That's certainly the primary advice I got after writing Tuesday's post. Perhaps, as David Brin has been telling us for years, traditional notions of privacy are going away whether we like it or not, so we might as well like it. Complaining about it won't do us any more good than complaining about the end of transatlantic ocean liners or old-time radio shows.

And yet…I'm just not there yet. It's bad enough that Google can build up a massive and—if we're honest, slightly scary—profile of my activities, but it will be a lot worse when Google and Facebook and Procter & Gamble all get together to merge these profiles into a single uber-database and then sell it off for a fee to anyone with a product to hawk. Or any government agency that thinks this kind of information might be pretty handy.

So that's why I'm unhappy. I don't believe for a second that Google's policy against selling personal information will last forever. Maybe I should just relax and accept that this is the direction the world is going, but for now I think I'll continue to fight it.

David Pogue
Put Down the Pitchforks on SOPA

By now, you’ve probably heard of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect I.P. Act (PIPA). These are anti-piracy bills that had been making their way through the House and Senate, respectively. (and have now been withdrawn-I.P.)

You might have been made aware of these proposed bills Wednesday, when Wikipedia and other Web sites “went dark” in protest. (Google covered up its logo with a big black rectangle, as though censored.)

I’ve been watching these doings with fascination. One reason: it’s the first time so many big Web sites have banded together for a political action.

But I’ve also been a little alarmed. Of the millions joining in outraged protests, I’ll bet that only a few have actually read the proposed bills. Everyone else is, no doubt, swept away by the Web sites’ shock language. These bills, say the opponents, will allow Hollywood to censor free speech, kill innovation, and “fatally damage the free and open Internet,” as Wikipedia put it. Light the torches! Grab the pitchforks!

In a perverse stroke of curiosity, I thought maybe I’d actually study these bills.

Nobody’s disputing that these bills have been put together by the entertainment industries — movies, TV, music. The bills are intended to address their chronic frustration: that most of the piracy sites, which make movies, TV, music and book files available free, are overseas. Even though they get more visits than Google or Wikipedia, American laws can’t touch them.

The SOPA and PIPA bills would try to shut down these overseas piracy sites by exerting leverage on companies here in the United States, where they do have jurisdiction.

For example, they’d force American service providers to block the domain names (for example, “”) of overseas piracy sites. They’d allow the government to sue American sites like Google and Facebook, and even blogs, to remove links to the piracy sites. And they’d give the government the right to cut off the piracy sites’ funding; they could force forcing American payment companies (like PayPal) and advertisers to cut off the foreign accounts.

The outrage reminds me of the controversy over global warming. Yes, there are climate-change deniers. But nobody seems to notice that they’re in two totally different camps, making totally different arguments. Some people deny that there’s been any climate change at all. Others acknowledge the climate change, but deny that people have anything to do with it. These two categories of people actually aren’t on the same side at all.

In SOPA’s case, too, there are two groups. Some people are O.K. with the goals of the bills, acknowledging that software piracy is out of control; they object only to the bills’ approaches. If the entertainment industry’s legal arm gets out of control, they say, they could deem almost anything to be a piracy site. YouTube could be one, because lots of videos include bits of TV shows and copyrighted music. Facebook could be one, because people often link to copyrighted videos and songs. Google and Bing would be responsible for removing every link to a questionable Web site. Just a gigantic headache.

But there’s another group of people with a different agenda: They don’t even agree with the bills’ purpose. They don’t want their free movies taken away. A good number of them believe that free music and movies are their natural-born rights. They don’t want the big evil government taking away their free fun.

For the record, I think the movie companies have approached the digital age with almost slack-jawed idiocy. The rules for watching online movies from authorized sites are absurd (24 hours to finish the movie? Have they never heard of bedtime?). And there are plenty of movies, even big ones, that you can’t rent or stream online at all. (The original “Star Wars” trilogy, the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, and hundreds of others.)

It should occur to these movie studios that if you don’t give people a legal way to buy what they want, they’ll find another way to get it.

At the same time, what the piracy sites are doing doesn’t seem quite fair, either. Yes, it’s a quirk of the Internet that you can duplicate something infinitely and distribute it at no cost. But that doesn’t make it O.K. to shoplift, especially when the stolen goods are for sale at a reasonable price from legitimate sources. Yes, even if the company you’re robbing is huge, profitable and led by idiots.

In this case, the solution is to work on the language of the bills to rule out the sorts of abuses that the big Web sites fear. (And to fix the other minor point, which is that the bills won’t work. For example, they’d make American Internet companies block your access to domain names like “,” but you’d still be able to get to them by typing their underlying numerical Internet addresses, like In other words, anybody with any modicum of technical skills would easily sidestep the barriers.)

As it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening. Dozens of members of Congress, and the White House itself, have dropped support of the bills; their sponsors are considering big changes to the proposals. (They might look, for starters, at the suggestions in Wednesday’s Times editorial: “The legislation could be further amended to narrow the definition of criminality and clarify that it is only aimed at foreign sites. And it could tighten guarantees of due process. Private parties must first get a court order to block business with a Web site they deem infringing on their copyrights.”)

In other words, the protests were effective. There’s no chance that the bills will become law in their current forms.

But it was a sloppy success; the scare language used by some of the Web sites was just as flawed as the Congressional language that they opposed. (I actually have sympathy — just a tiny bit — for the music business’s frustration. It was put nicely by Cary Sherman, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America: “It’s very difficult to counter the misinformation when the disseminators also own the platform.”)

Finally, not enough people have acknowledged that the opposition was arguing two totally different different points — the “you’re going about it the wrong way” group and the “we want our illegal movies!” group.

In the new world of Internet versus government, the system worked; the people spoke, government listened, and that’s good. But let’s do it responsibly, people. Both sides have an obligation to do the right thing.

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