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China To Bloggers: Stop Talking Now. K Thanks Bye.

By - March 31, 2012

(image) Yesterday I finished reading Larry Lessig’s updated 1999 classic, Code v2. I’m five years late to the game, as the book was updated in 2006 by Lessig and a group of fans and readers (I tried to read the original in 1999, but I found myself unable to finish it. Something to do with my hair being on fire for four years running…). In any event, no sooner had I read the final page yesterday when this story breaks:

Sina, Tencent Shut Down Commenting on Microblogs (WSJ)

In an odd coincidence, late last night I happened to share a glass of wine with a correspondent for the Economist who is soon to be reporting from Shanghai. Of course this story came up, and an interesting discussion ensued about the balance one must strike to cover business in a country like China. Essentially, it’s the same balance any Internet company must strike as it attempts to do business there: Try to enable conversation, while at the same time regulating that conversation to comply with the wishes of a mercurial regime.

Those of us who “grew up” in Internet version 1.0 have a core belief in the free and open exchange of ideas, one unencumbered by regulation. We also tend to think that the Internet will find a way to “route around” bad law – and that what happens in places like China or Iran will never happen here.

But as Lessig points out quite forcefully in Code v2, the Internet is, in fact, one of the most “regulable” technologies ever invented, and it’s folly to believe that only regimes like China will be drawn toward leveraging the control it allows. In addition, it need not be governments that create these regulations, it could well be the platforms and services we’ve come to depend on instead. And while those services and platforms might never be as aggressive as China or Iran, they are already laying down the foundation for a slow erosion of values many of us take for granted. If we don’t pay attention, we may find ourselves waking up one morning and asking…Well, How Did I Get Here?

More on all of this soon, as I’m in the midst of an interview (via email) with Lessig on these subjects. Once I’ll post the dialog here once we’re done.

 

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Will Transparency Trump Secrecy In The Digital Age?

By - March 22, 2012

Next week I travel to Washington DC.  While I am meeting with a wide swath of policymakers, thinkers, and lobbyists, I don’t have a well-defined goal – I’m not trying to convince anyone of my opinion on any particular issue (though certainly I’m sure I’ll have some robust debates), nor am I trying to pull pungent quotes from political figures for my book. Rather I am hoping to steep in the culture of the place, make a number of new connections, and perhaps discover a bit more about how this unique institution called “the Federal Government” really works.

To prepare, I’ve been reading a fair number of books, including Larry Lessig’s Republic Lost, which I reviewed last month, and The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain, which I reviewed last year.

Wikileaks And the Age of Transparency by Micah Sifry is the latest policy-related book to light up my Kindle. I finished it four weeks ago, but travel and conferences have gotten in the way of my writing it up here. But given I’ve already moved on to Lessig’s updated Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace, Version 2.0 (highly recommended), and am about to dive into McKinnon’s new book Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, I figured I better get something up, and quick. I’m way behind on my writing about my reading, so to speak.

Sifry’s book turns on this question, raised early in the work: “Is Wikileaks a symptom of decades of governmental and institutional opacity, or is it a disease that needs to be stopped at all costs?”

Put another way, if we kill Wikileaks (as many on both the left and right wish we would), what do we lose in the process?

Sifry argues that for all its flaws (including that of its founder and mercurial leader Julian Assange, who Sifry has met), Wikileaks – or at least what Wikileaks represents, is proving a crucial test of democracy in an age where our most powerful institutions are  increasingly unaccountable.

Sifry argues that the rise (and potential fall) of Wikileaks heralds an “age of transparency,” one that can’t come fast enough, given the digital tools of control increasingly in the hands of our largest social institutions, both governmental and corporate (not to mention religious). And while it’s easy to fall into conspiratorial whispers given the subject, Sifry wisely does not – at least, not too much. He clearly has a point of view, and if you don’t agree with it, I doubt his book will change your mind. But it’s certainly worth reading, if your mind is open.

Sifry’s core argument: We can’t trust institutions if that trust doesn’t come with accountability. To wit:

“We should be demanding that the default setting for institutional power be “open,” and when needed those same powers should be forced to argue when things need to remain closed. Right now, the default setting is “closed.”

Sifry gives an overview of the Wikileaks case, and points out the US government’s own position of hypocrisy:

“If we promote the use of the Internet to overturn repressive regimes around the world, then we have to either accept the fact that these same methods may be used against our own regime—or make sure our own policies are beyond reproach.”

Sifry is referring to Wikileaks much covered release of State department cables, which has been condemned by pretty much the entire power structure of the US government (Assange and others face serious legal consequences, which are also detailed in the book). Even more chilling was the reaction by corporate America, which quickly closed ranks and cut off Wikileaks’ funding sources (Visa, Mastercard, Paypal) and server access (Amazon).

In short, Wikileaks stands accused, but not proven guilty. But from the point of view of large corporations eager to stay in the good graces of government, Wikileaks is guilty till proven innocent. And that’s a scary precedent. As Sifry puts it:

“If WikiLeaks can be prosecuted and convicted for its acts of journalism, then the foundations of freedom of the press in America are in serious trouble.”

and, quoting scholar Rebecca McKinnon:

“Given that citizens are increasingly dependent on privately owned spaces for our politics and public discourse … the fight over how speech should be governed in a democracy is focused increasingly on questions of how private companies should or shouldn’t control speech conducted on and across their networks and platforms.”

But not all is lost. Sifry also chronicles a number of examples of how institutional misconduct has been uncovered and rectified by organizations similar to Wikileaks. Sifry believes that the Wikileaks genie is out of the bottle, and that transparency will ultimately win over secrecy.

But the book is a statement of belief, rather than a proof. Sifry argues that the open culture of the Internet must trump the closed, control-oriented culture of power-wielding institutions. And while I certainly agree with him, I also share his clear anxiety about whether such a world will actually come to be.

 

Other works I’ve reviewed:

Republic Lost by Larry Lessig (review)

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Who Controls Our Data? A Puzzle.

By - March 11, 2012

(image) Facebook claims the data we create inside Facebook is ours – that we own it. In fact, I confirmed this last week in an interview with Facebook VP David Fischer on stage at FM’s Signal P&G conference in Cincinnati. In the conversation, I asked Fischer if we owned our own data. He said yes.

Perhaps unfairly  (I’m pretty sure Fischer is not in charge of data policy), I followed up my question with another: If we own our own data, can we therefore take it out of Facebook and give it to, say, Google, so Google can use it to personalize our search results?

Fischer pondered that question, realized its implications, and backtracked. He wasn’t sure about that, and it turns out, it’s more complicated to answer that question – as recent stories about European data requests have revealed.*

I wasn’t planning on asking Fischer that question, but I think it came up because I’ve been pondering the implications of “you as the platform” quite a bit lately. If it’s *our* data in Facebook, why can’t we take it and use it on our terms to inform other services?

Because, it turns out, regardless of any company’s claim around who owns the data, the truth is, even if we could take our data and give it to another company, it’s not clear the receiving company could do anything with it. Things just aren’t set up that way. But what if they were?

The way things stand right now, our data is an asset held by companies, who then cut deals with each other to leverage that data (and, in some cases, to bundle it up as a service to us as consumers). Microsoft has a deal to use our Facebook data on Bing, for example. And of course, the inability of Facebook and Google to cut a data sharing deal back in 2009 is one of the major reasons Google built Google+. The two sides simply could not come to terms, and that failure has driven an escalating battle between major Internet companies to lock all of us into their data silos. With the cloud, it’s only getting worse (more on that in another post).

And it’s not fair to just pick on Facebook. The question should be asked of all services, I think. At least, of all services which claim that the data we give that service is, in fact, ours (many services share ownership, which is fine with me, as long as I don’t lose my rights.)

I have a ton of pictures up on Instagram now, for example (you own your own content there, according to the service’s terms). Why can’t I “share” that data with Google or Bing, so those pictures show up in my searches? Or with Picasa, where I store most of my personal photographs?

I have a ton of data inside an app called “AllSport GPS,” which tracks my runs, rides, and hikes. Why can’t I share that with Google, or Facebook, or some yet-to-be-developed app that monitors my health and well being?

Put another way, why do I have to wait for all these companies to cut data sharing deals through their corporate development offices? Sure, I could cut and paste all my data from one to the other, but really, who wants to do that?!

In the future, I hope we’ll be our own corp dev offices. An office of one, negotiating data deals on the fly, and on our own terms. It’ll take a new architecture and a new approach to sharing, but I think it’d open up all sorts of new vectors of value creation on the web.

This is why I’m bullish on Singly and the Locker Project. They’re trying to solve a very big problem, and worse, one that most folks don’t even realize they have. Not an easy task, but an important one.

—–

*Thanks to European law, Facebook is making copies of users’ data available to them – but it makes exemptions that protect its intellectual property, trade secrets, and it won’t give data that “cannot be extracted from our platform in the absence of is proportionate effort.” What defines Facebook’s “trade secrets” and “intellectual property”? Well, there’s the catch. Just as with Google’s search algorithms, disclosure of the data Facebook is holding back would, in essence, destroy Facebook’s competitive edge, or so the company argues. Catch 22. I predict we’re going to see all this tested by services like Singly in the near future. 

 

Why Hath Google Forsaken Us? A Meditation.

By - March 06, 2012

(image) Here’s a short overview of Google’s past few months: It’s angered policymakers and pundits with a sweeping change to its privacy settings. It’s taken a beating for favoring its own properties in its core search results. It’s been caught with its hands in Apple’s cookie jar, and despite the fact Facebook and others previously condoned the practice, it was savaged for doing so. It’s continuing to fight an expensive and uncertain patent war. And its blinkered focus on beating Facebook - a company which, at its core, couldn’t be more different philosophically – has caused many to wonder….What on earth has happened to the Google we once knew?

Has it abandoned its principles of supporting the open web, data liberation, and doing no evil? Is Google turning into … another walled garden?

Well, those are questions I’ve been pondering for a while now, and I think I have an answer, or at least, some reasonable speculation as to an answer.

Here’s the short version of the answer: Google is playing for the long term, but it feels it has no choice but to make these moves now. It’s in a “rip off the band aid” phase of the game.

The longer version goes something like this: Google had identified a central and existential threat to its future, and that threat is….us. Or rather, the fact that Google doesn’t have a direct relationship with us, in the way Apple or Facebook does.

Think about it. When you use Facebook, you’re always logged in, and your identity and relationships – to others, to content, to apps and services – are assets Facebook can use to customize your experience (oh, and your ads). You then take that identity and those relationships, and you promiscuously spread them around the web, logging into any number of services through Facebook’s Open Graph, giving Facebook an even deeper sense of who you are, what you consume, and what you “like.” You happily give Facebook terabytes of structured data about yourself, content with the implicit tradeoff that Facebook is going to give you a social service that makes your life better.

And anytime Facebook wants to change how it might use all that data about you, in any way, across any service it has within the Facebook ecosystem, all it has to do is change one privacy policy, tell you about it, and that’s that.

Oh, and did you know that Facebook changes the code underlying its services on a daily, if not hourly basis? Have you ever asked Facebook to get your approval for those changes, or for details on how they might effect you, or whether you can go back to using an earlier version of Facebook? Of course not. And when was the last time you read Facebook’s privacy policy? OK, if you read Searchblog, you probably have read it, at least once. Most folks? Nah. We trust Facebook to not do stupid things, if it does, we’ll just leave. Right?

Now think about Apple. For those of us who use its iPhone, iPad, iPod, and/or iTunes and other products, Apple has a complete picture of both our identity, and our relationship to Apple services (like iTunes, iCloud, iPhoto, MobileMe, etc.) as well as to the huge universe of apps on its devices. It also has a few hundred million of our credit card numbers, something Facebook can only dream of having (don’t worry, Facebook is working on that).

Oh, and when Apple wants to push a new version of iOS, its operating system, it simply does it. You might take the time to read the documentation as to what changed since the last operating system, but I doubt it. Like most of us, you just accept the update, because you don’t want your phone to stop working. Right?

Ditto for Apple’s terms of service and privacy policies. Have you ever read them? Really? Then you’re in a very small minority. Most of us don’t bother, because we trust Apple – like with Facebook, we figure if they do something that really pisses us off, we’ll drop them for an alternative. Right?

Finally, let’s think about our relationship with Google, circa mid 2011, before Google+ was introduced. For most of us, Google meant search, and the majority of us used search anonymously – we weren’t logged in. Google has been working on getting us to “personalize” search by logging in for years, but that only solved part of its problem. Hundreds of millions of us also used other Google products – Picasa for photos, YouTube for culture fixes, Gmail for communication, Blogger for expression, Maps, Docs, and lord knows what else for productivity. Not to mention, hundreds of millions more of us started using Chrome and Android.

Now, before Google+, every single one of those services had its own set of policies, its own approach to identity management, and its own vast data silos. It was one big hot holy mess, from Google’s point of view. As customers, we saw Google as one brand, but the truth is, we used its various services as if each came from a different company.

And that meant Google couldn’t compete with Apple or Facebook when it came to any number of crucial factors. It had no single point of reference for communicating with its customers. It had no way to link its services and provide  consistent updates, policy changes, or shared uses (would you like to integrate your Picasa photos into your Google search results? Sorry bud, I don’t know who you are, you’re out of luck!).

And this created one Very Big Problem for Larry Page & Co: Google couldn’t be elegant, or design driven, or easy to use. And we consumers have proven that we really, really want those things in our web services. That’s why Apple is winning. It’s why Facebook is winning. And it’s why Google was desperately afraid that it was about to lose.

So Google held its nose, built Google+ as its connective tissue, and plunged into a world of pain. It’s not over yet, but the game is afoot. Google is in the process of becoming Apple- and Facebook-like in its relationship to us.

Does that mean that Google will become Apple and Facebook? Time will tell, but my suspicion is no. And as much as I’d like to say the reason is high-minded, I think it’s more about competitive positioning. The people I know at Google really believe in the open web. They believe in data portability. And they believe in supporting an ecosystem that isn’t entirely under Google’s control. It’s that open-web ecosystem that created Google (and Facebook, and Apple, for that matter). And I think Google sees an end game – once it has direct, meaningful relationships with its customers, it believes it will be seen as the most open and accommodative player amongst the Internet Big Five. It will compete on policy and data use, and it believes it will win on those points. It will provide alternatives to Facebook and Apple, and it believes those alternatives will prove more consumer friendly over time.

At least, I hope that’s what Google believes….for now, there’s much work to be done. The integration of its privacy policy is step one. The next step is to provide a better privacy dashboard than Facebook currently does (Facebook, to its credit, has come a long, long way here. Apple? Not so much. I can’t find a dashboard for privacy settings anywhere). Then, Google must take another plunge, and allow us to use our data any way we want, both inside and outside of Google’s services. The more open Google proves to be over time, the more customers it will win in the long term. Oh, and then it has to figure out how to link Android to all of this (good luck with that one…).

Apple and Facebook have already shown themselves to have a philosophy of domain-specificity: everything works great, as long as you’re within their controlled domains. Building an open web alternative to that approach is messy, it’s painful, and it sometimes appears to contradict Google’s core principles. But I believe, in the end, it’s what Google is trying to do.

I shudder to think of an opposite outcome – where Google begins to act just like its main competitors. It could happen – and many of you have given up on the company doing anything but just that. But I think the world needs an alternative, and there are precious few companies with the heft and motivation to create one. In fact, there’s really just one…at least, for now.

Obama’s Framework for “Consumer Data Privacy” And My “Data Bill of Rights”

By - February 26, 2012

It sort of feels like “wayback week” for me here at Searchblog, as I get caught up on the week’s news after my vacation. Late last week the Obama administration announced “Consumer Data Privacy In A Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.”

The document runs nearly 50 pages, but turns on a “Privacy Bill of Rights” – and when I read that phrase, it reminded me of a post I did four years ago: The Data Bill of Rights.

I thought I’d compare what I wrote with what the Obama administration is proposing.

First, the Administrations’ key points:

Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data is inaccurate.

Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

And now my “Data Bill of Rights” from 2007:

- Data Portability. We can take copies of that data out of the company’s coffers and offer it to others or just keep copies for ourselves.

- Data Editing. We can request deletions, editing, clarifications of our data for accuracy and privacy.

- Data Anonymity. We can request that our data not be used, cognizant of the fact that that may mean services are unavailable to us.

- Data Use. We have rights to know how our data is being used inside a company.

- Data Value. The right to sell our data to the highest bidder.

- Data Permissions. The right to set permissions as to who might use/benefit from/have access to our data.

Comparing the two, it seems the Administration has not addressed the issue of what I call portability, at all, which I think is a bummer. Nor does it consider the idea of Value, which I think the market is going to address over time. It does address what I call editing, anonymity (what I should have called “opt out”), use, and permissions.

What the administration added that I did not have is “security” – the right to know your data is secure (I think I took that for granted), and “Focused Collection” and “Respect For Context,” which I agree with – don’t collect data for data’s sake, and we should have the right that data collected about us is being used in proper context.

Given how much this issue is in the news lately, as well as the overwhelming response to my post last Friday about Google and Apple, I’m getting as smart as I can on these issues.

Further coverage of the Administration’s move at RWW: Obama Administration Sides with Consumers in Online Privacy Debate and Paid Content Big Tech, Obama And The Politics Of Privacy as well as Ad Age, which is skeptical: Did The White House Just Thread The Needle On Privacy?

The Ecstasy of Telegraphy

By - February 14, 2012

My research manager turned up this gem in the course of answering a question I had about the popular response to the introduction of the telegraph in the US (a moment that informs the working title of my next book). What I find fascinating is how the invention incited an innate religious response (this editorial from a local Albany, NY newspaper is in no way unique). The logic goes something like this: Mankind has invented something that pushes the boundaries of our comprehension – we are now doing something that once was understood to be the provenance only of God. Therefore, we must remind ourselves that this invention, while seeming to contradict the supreme powers of God, in fact only reinforces His position in our world. 

The logic may feel a bit tortured, but it’s consistent with a point I make every time I explain one of the core ideas of the book – that in the 200 years between the introduction of the telegraph (early 1840s) and when my children have kids of their own (roughly 30 years from now, or  early 2040s), mankind will have completed something of a pivot when it comes to our shared understanding of the relationship between technology and God. When Morse couldn’t decide what the first telegraph message should be, he settled on a Biblical quote quite consistent with the Albany Atlas and Argus’ editorial: What Hath God Wrought? The telegraph was such a massive shift in the possible, it was best to ascribe its power to God. Humans can’t handle this power.*

But in the intervening centuries, we’ve come to realize that God isn’t going to provide an operating manual for the power we’ve unlocked, and if we’re going to get our arms around it, it’s on us to do so. We can’t throw up our hands and hope for the best. We have to shoulder the responsibility of entering these new realms of power. That’s why I change Morse’s famous quote for my working title: What We Hath Wrought. Two centuries after that first electronic message pierced time and space, what will we have built?

That’s the question my book will explore, using the tools of anthropology and journalism, and a bit of luck along the way.

*Indeed, the story of Morse’s precursor Claude Chappe, the inventor of the “optical telegraph,” offers additional pathos to the narrative. Raised “in church service,” Chappe chose an entrepreneurial path, developing a series of signal towers across France in the late 1790s. His first test message declared a far more earthly intention: “If you succeed, you will bask in glory.” But Chappe died ingloriously: He threw himself down a well in despair at accusations his invention was stolen from the military. 

China Hacking: Here We Go

By - February 13, 2012

(image) Waaaay back in January of this year, in my annual predictions, I offered a conjecture that seemed pretty orthogonal to my usual focus:

“China will be caught spying on US corporations, especially tech and commodity companies. Somewhat oddly, no one will (seem to) care.”

Well, I just got this WSJ news alert, which reports:

Using seven passwords stolen from top Nortel executives, including the chief executive, the hackers—who appeared to be working in China—penetrated Nortel’s computers at least as far back as 2000 and over the years downloaded technical papers, research-and-development reports, business plans, employee emails and other documents.

The hackers also hid spying software so deeply within some employees’ computers that it took investigators years to realize the pervasiveness of the problem.

Now, before I trumpet my prognosticative abilities too loudly, let’s see if … anybody cares. At all. And if you’re wondering why I even bothered to make such a prediction, well, it’s because I think it’s going to prove important….eventually.

Nearly 90% of the World Uses Mobile Phones

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In the normal course of research for the book, I wondered how quickly mobile phone use got to the 1 billion mark. I figured we’re well past that number now, but I had no idea how far past it we’ve blown.Like, six times past it. We hit 1 billion in the year 2000, and never looked back.

According to the ITU, nearly 90% of people in the world use mobile phones. Holy. Cow. By comparison, just 35% of us are using the Internet. That is going to change, and fast. Everyone needs a new phone after some period of time. And the next one they get is going to be connected. Just some Monday afternoon Powerpoint fodder for you all. Now back to work.

 

Is Our Republic Lost?

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Over the weekend I finished Larry Lessig’s most recent (and ambitious) book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress–and a Plan to Stop It. Amongst those of us who considered Lessig our foremost voice on issues of Internet policy, his abrupt pivot to focus on government corruption was both disorienting and disheartening: here was our best Internet thinker, now tilting at government windmills. I mean, fix government? Take the money out of politics? Better to treat all that as damage, and route around it, right? Isn’t that what the Internet is supposed to be all about?

Well, maybe. But after the wake up call that was PIPA/SOPA, it’s become clear why Lessig decided to stop focusing on battles he felt he couldn’t win (reforming copyright law, for example), and instead aim his intellect at the root causes of why those battles were fruitless. As he writes in his preface:

I was driven to this shift when I became convinced that the questions I was addressing in the fields of copyright and Internet policy depended upon resolving the policy questions – the corruption – that I address (in Republic Lost).

Lessig, ever the lawyer at heart, presents his book as an argument, as well as a call to arms (more on that at the end). Early on he declares our country ruined, “poisoned” by an ineffective government, self-serving corporations, and an indifferent public. To be honest, it was hard to get through the first couple of chapters of Republic Lost without feeling like I was being lectured to on a subject I already acknowledged: Yes, we have a corrupt system, yes, lobbyists are in league with politicians to bend the law toward their client’s bottom lines, and yes, we should really do something about it.

But Lessig does make a promise, and in the book he keeps it: To identify and detail the “root” of the problem, and offer a prescription (or four) to address it. And yes, that root is corruption, in particular the corruption of money, but Lessig takes pains to define a particular kind of corruption. Contrary to popular sentiment, Lessig argues, special interest money is not directly buying votes (after all, that is illegal). Instead, an intricate “gift economy” has developed in Washington, one that is carefully cultivated by all involved, and driven by the incessant need of politicians to raise money so as to insure re-election.

Lessig calls this “dependency corruption” – politicians are dependent on major donors not only to be elected, but to live a lifestyle attendant with being a US Congressperson.  Lessig also points out how more than half of our representatives end up as lobbyists after serving – at salaries two to ten times those of a typical Congressperson (he also points out that we grossly underpay our representatives, compared to how they’d be remunerated for their talents in the private sector).

Lessig likens this dependency corruption to alcoholism – it “develops over time; it sets a patter of interaction that builds upon itself; it develops a resistance to breaking that pattern; it feeds a need that some find easier to resist than others; satisfying that need creates its own reward; that reward makes giving up the dependency difficult; for some, it makes it impossible.”

In short, Lessig says Washington DC is full of addicts, and if we’re to fix anything – health care, energy policy, education, social security, financial markets – we first have to address our politicians’ addiction to money, and our economic system’s enablement of that addiction. Because, as Lessig demonstrates in several chapters devoted to broken food and energy markets, broken schools, and broken financial systems, the problem isn’t that we can’t fix the problem. The problem, Lessig argues, is that we’re paying attention to the wrong problem.

Lessig’s argument essentially concludes that we’ve created a system of government that rewards policy failure – the bigger the issue, the stronger the lobbyists on one or even both sides, forcing Congress into a position of moral hazard – it can insure the most donations if it threatens regulation one way or the other, this way collecting from both sides. Lessig salts his argument with example after example of how the system fails at real reform due to the “money dance” each congressperson must perform.

It’s pretty depressing stuff. And yet – there are no truly evil characters here. In fact, Lessig makes quite the point of this: we face a corruption of “decent souls,” of “good people working in a corrupted system.”

Despite Lessig’s avowed liberal views (combined with his conservative, Reagan-era past), I could imagine that  Republic Lost could as easily be embraced by Tea Party fanatics as by Occupy Wall Street organizers. He focuses chapters on how “so damn much money” defeats the ends of both the left and the right, for example. And at times the book reads like an indictment of the Obama administration – Lessig, like many of us, believed that Obama was truly going to change Washington, then watched aghast as the new administration executed the same political playbook as every other career politician.

In the final section of his book, Lessig offers several plans to force fundamental campaign finance reform – the kind of reform that the majority of us seem to want, but that never seems to actually happen. Lessig acknowledges how unlikely it is that Congress would vote itself out of a system to which it is addicted, and offers some political gymnastics that have almost no chance of working (running a candidate for President who vetoes everything until campaign finance reform is passed, then promises to quit, for example).

The plan that has gotten the most attention is the “Grant and Franklin Project” – a plan to finance all candidacies for Congressional office through public funds. He suggests that the first fifty dollars of any Federal tax revenue (per person per year) be retained to fund political campaigns, then allocated by each of us as a voucher of sorts. In addition, we’d all be able to commit another $100 of our own money to any candidate we choose. Uncommitted funds go to our parties (if we do not actively wish to use our voucher). Any candidate can tap these resources, but only if that candidate agrees to take only vouchers and $100 contributions (bye bye, corporate and PAC money).  Lessig calculates the revenues of this plan would be well above the billions spent to elect politicians in our current system, and argues that the savings in terms of government pork would pay forward the investment many times over.

Lessig ends his book with a call to action – asking us to become “rootstrikers,” to get involved in bringing about the Grant and Franklin Project, or something like it (he goes into detail on a Constitutional convention as a means to the end, for example). And it’s here where I begin to lose the thread. On the one hand, I’m deeply frustrated by the problem Lessig outlines (I wrote about it here On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA), but I’m also suspicious of any new “group” that I need to join – I find “activist” organizations tend to tilt toward unsustainable rhetoric. I’m not an activist by nature, but then again, perhaps it’s not activism Lessig is asking for. Perhaps it’s simply active citizenship.

I could see myself getting behind that. How about you?

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Other works I’ve reviewed:

Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson (my review)

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (my review)

The Corporation (film – my review).

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review)

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

Larry Page’s “Tidal Wave Moment”?

By - February 07, 2012

Who remembers the moment, back in 1995, when Bill Gates wrote his famous Internet Tidal Wave Memo? In it he rallied his entire organization to the cause of the Internet, calling the new platform an existential threat/opportunity for Microsoft’s entire business. In the memo Gates wrote:

“I assign the Internet the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on the Internet is crucial to every part of our business. The Internet is the most important single development to come along since the IBM PC was introduced in 1981.”

The memo runs more than 5300 words and includes highly detailed product plans across all of Microsoft. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a genius move to be so transparent – the memo became public during the US Dept. of Justice action against Microsoft in the late 1990s.

It strikes me that Larry Page at Google could have written such a memo to all Googlers last year. Of course, Page and his advisors must have learned from Microsoft’s mistakes, and certainly don’t want a declarative memo floating around the vast clouds of Internet eternity. Bad things can happen from direct mandates such as those made by Gates – in the memo he mentions that Microsoft must “match and beat” Netscape, for example, words that came back to haunt him during the DOJ action.

Here’s what Page might have written to his staff in 2011, with just a few words shifted:

” I assign social networking the highest level of importance. In this memo I want to make clear that our focus on social networking is crucial to every part of our business. Social networking is the most important single development to come along since Google was introduced in 1998.”

I very much doubt Page wrote anywhere that Google must “match and beat” Facebook. And unlike Gates, he probably did not pen detailed memos about integrating Google+ into all of Google’s products (as Gates did – for pages – declaring that Microsoft must integrate the Internet into all of its core products.)

But it’s certainly not lost on any Googler how important “social” is to the company: all of their bonuses were tied to social last year.

So why am I bringing this up now? Well, I’ve got no news hook. I’m just doing research for the book, and came across the memo, and its tone and urgency struck a familiar note. The furor around Search Plus Your World has died down, but it left a bad taste in a lot of folks’ mouths. But put in the context of “existential threat,” it’s easier to understand why Google did what it did.

Unlike the Internet, which was a freely accessible resource that any company could incorporate into its products and services, to date “social” has been dominated by one company, a company that Google has been unable to work with. Imagine if, when Gates wrote his Tidal Wave memo, the “Internet” he spoke of was controlled entirely by, say, MCI, and that Microsoft was unable to secure a deal to get all that Internet goodness into its future products.

That seems to be where Google finds itself, at least by its own reckoning. To continue being a great search engine, it needs the identity and relationship data found, for the most part, behind Facebook’s walls.

I’ve written elsewhere about the breakdown of the open web, the move toward more “walled gardens of data,” and what that does to Google’s ability to execute its core business of search. And it’s not just social – readers have sent me tons of information that predict how mobile, in particular, will escape the traditional reaches of Google’s spidering business model. I hope to pore through that information and post more here, but for now, it’s worth reading a bit of history to put Google’s moves into broader context.