Today scores of big companies are taking symbolic action to defend the essential principles of an open Internet, and I support them. That’s why, on your first visit here today, you’ll see the “spinning ball of death” up on the right. For more information about the Internet Slowdown, head here.
So it’s come to this.
We’re all familiar with disputes between cable providers and their content partners – it happens all the time. One party claims the other party is demanding too much in a carriage negotiation, and in retaliation, the offended party pulls the programming in dispute. It might be the programmer who refuses to allow its content to run, or the cable company who refuses to put it on the air. The last big one I recall was between Time Warner and CBS back in the Fall, when many major markets looked to be losing football coverage just as the season was starting.
To be honest I pay little attention to these disputes, just more big old media titans arguing over profits and old business models. Doesn’t affect the Internet, nothing to see here, move along.
Until I read this story, about another dispute between cable companies and content providers, this time Viacom (which owns CBS) and Cable One, a provider of cable television, phone, and Internet service in 19 US states. The impetus for this particular tussle was the same as all the others – Viacom wanted more money to run its shows on Cable One, Cable One balked, and Cable One (or Viacom, hard to say which) pulled Viacom programming. But this dispute is unique: Viacom retaliated by denying all Cable One Internet subscribers access to shows openly available on Viacom websites.
Let me repeat that: Viacom retaliated by blocking paying subscribers of Cable One’s Internet services from using Viacom websites. As far as I can tell, Viacom is identifying Cable One subscribers by their IP addresses, and then blocking those IPs from streaming any Viacom content on the web – despite Viacom’s willingness to stream those same shows to anyone else in the US with Internet access.
Let that sink in for a minute. A US corporation is blocking open Internet calls to the open web because the company providing that access is not paying Viacom enough money for Viacom’s television shows. The old world model of command and control in cable is seeping into the Internet. Ick.
What the fork**?
In one short and deeply insightful post this March, Fred Wilson explained the stultifying effects on innovation caused by the erosion of open access to the web by imagining a pitch between entrepreneurs and VCs in an era where net neutrality is rewritten by incumbents in the media and distribution world. Here’s one example:
Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a service that curates the funniest videos from all across the internet and packages them up in a 30 minute daily video show that people will watch on their phones as they are commuting to work on the subway. It’s called SubHumor.
VC: Well since YouTube, Hulu, and Netflix have paid all the telcos so that their services are free via a sponsored data plan, I am worried that it will hard to get users to watch any videos on their phones that aren’t being served by YouTube, Hulu, or Netflix. We like you and your idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.
If what Viacom and Cable One are doing becomes standard practice, I can imagine such conversations getting even worse. We are all reaping the rewards, value creation, growth, and innovation of an open Internet. Let’s not let these practices stand.
**Maybe it’s time to teach Cable One’s subscribers about Firefox’s Modify Headers plug in….
(image) This past week saw a significant increase in society’s willingness to have a deeper conversation about what it means to Become Data. The Supreme Court heard arguments in a case that may well supplant the Betamax case in import. And the FCC stepped in it, big time, while pals at O’Reilly opinined for a world where the Internet of Things remains open and transparent. Not to mention, my own ramblings on what it means to truly disappear, and why Google does what it does. To the links….
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The FCC sure as hell stepped in it last week. Let’s see if they clean off their shoe, or just keep smelling like shit.
Meanwhile, we’re quite uneasy with whether our Supremes can grok the complexities of….Barry Diller’s business moves.
Come on, if you told me five years ago the cutting edge of competition was … drones….well. Anyway. It is.
Yes, we make a lot of data. And yes, it’s time we started to see that fact as more than an oppressive unknown. It may well become a springboard to surprise and delight.
This might scare you. Or you might realize that it’s pretty damn normal in the rest of the industrial world, and will be here as well.
Please, let’s not make this next phase of our industry suck. Please?
A bit overstated, but…there’s a point there. Given the right circumstance, we have always trusted each other, it’s just now we have a stronger and more dependable network that allows us to make those bonds of trust quickly and productively.
If cities become high-density surveillance sites, then we’ll need cities where we can escape it all.
I’ve always loved his work, which is one beat away from losing it entirely. But his take on tech is worth listening to: “phones are taking away the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that forever-empty thing…that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone…. The thing is, because we don’t want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off…. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, just kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die.”
I know, two pieces in one week? But this needed to be said.
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(image) My daily reading took me to two places today – to Compton, California, well-known for its crime to anyone who grew up in LA (as I did), and to this NYT piece, which muses that the city, once the place we went to disappear, is likely to be the first place where anonymity is no longer guaranteed. (Not coincidentally, Pell found both pieces as well in his excellent NextDraft).
The Compton story informs us that for one month in 2012, the LA police department – not exactly a bastion of trustworthy behavior – surveilled the troubled district of Compton from the air, creating a 24-7 record of everything that was “publicly” viewable from the air. This piece chills me on a number of fronts: average citizens do not presume they are being watched from above, first of all. Secondly, do we want a society where such surveillance is presumed (read a bit of science fiction if your answer is yes)? And thirdly, this “wide net” of proactively collected data creates a record of actions that can be “rewound” and used as evidence after the fact – opening a raft of unsettling questions. It reminds me of one of Eric Schmidt’s creepier utterances (also known as the “nothing to hide” argument): “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
The debate around privacy is nuanced and complex, I don’t intend to litigate it here. But as I read the Compton piece, it struck me that this particular genie is fast escaping the bottle. The Compton experiment was conducted using an airplane, but if you think police departments in major cities aren’t adopting far less expensive drone-based programs, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you…
Anyway, the NYT piece picks up where Compton left off, musing that cities offer the economies of data scale that make all public actions knowable well beyond their initial realm of physical expression. You may run that red light thinking no one is looking, but increasingly, the state is in fact looking, and will issue a ticket regardless of whether or not you were trying to rush a sick child to the hospital. Not to mention the density of well-intentioned information-seeking marketers eager to connect your public presence to location-based offers (and that same data is, of course, available to law enforcement).
Which got me thinking. If big cities, once the refuge of anyone looking for namelessness, anonymity, or a new beginning, if those same cities become instead places where you can’t escape surveillance, it strikes me that our culture will respond by creating cities that promise exactly the opposite of that experience. Vegas has famously adopted “What happens in Vegas, Stays In Vegas” as its motto. But I find Vegas one-dimensional and depressing (save what Tony is up to). Instead I see Amsterdam as a model. I imagine vacationers of the future will want a far broader promise – they’ll be drawn to cities that have adopted a “no surveillance” policy – and in this way, the new Amsterdams of the world will be cities where visitors and residents are guaranteed there are no drones circling the skies, and no electronic, connected surveillance on the streets as well, beyond the time honored cop walking his or her beat.
Now that sounds interesting. I know I’d visit such a place on a regular basis, especially if the art (and the beer) was good…
The past week spun with controversy and breaking news around many of our society’s most interesting conversations: The elusive founder of bitcoin was identified, or perhaps not, Edward Snowden popped up at SXSW (by video, of course) and submitted testimony to the EU, the Aereo case is on its way to the Supreme Court (and launched in Austin at SXSW, of course), and in the end, we all long for something more. To the links….
Google’s Game Of Moneyball In The Age Of Artificial Intelligence – ReadWrite If the future of everything is tied to how we manipuate information through algorithms, then it makes sense to get as many of the brightest minds on your team. Also from ReadWrite: Google At SXSW: The Internet Is Accelerating Social Change On A Global Scale In which Chair Eric Schmidt and Ideas Director Jared Cohen opine on the role of technology in autocracies (uncertain it’s a positive force, this is a shift from early techno optimism, I’d warrant).
Snowden Gives Testimony To European Parliament Inquiry Into Mass Surveillance, Asks For EU Asylum – TechDirt A nice overview of Snowden’s recent written testimony to the EU Parliament. Most interesting was his documentation of how the NSA plays one European country off the other to gain access to a plurality of data in each.
The Aereo Case Isn’t About Aereo, But About The Future Of Cloud Computing And Innovation - Techdirt An interesting argument about the nature of property and media rights – much more is at stake than simply whether Aereo is in fact legal.
Strictly algorithm: how news finds people in the Facebook and Twitter age – theguardian.com How do ideas find the public in the age of inscrutable algorithms? I find myself wishing for better tools to find good news stories – I’ve been using Circa lately and met with its CEO at SXSW. It’s a promising start.
A vast hidden surveillance network runs across America, powered by the repo industry | BetaBoston If there’s a profitable way to tag something of value, it’ll get tagged. That’s the lesson behind this story on the automobile repossession industry, which most has tagged your car at some point in the past year or so.
The question big data can’t answer: why? – FierceBigData Lots of data helps us understand how and what, but people are best at figuring out why.
The Internet is ready for a new cultural shift. Discuss. - gapingvoid - Hugh senses a wave forming in the Internet seas, one that will value signal over noise. I’m all in favor, but this initial essay feels more like a plea than a formed idea; still and all, I agree.
Earlier this year I wrote a post titled It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem. The overwhelming response to that riposte led to a lunch at this year’s IAB annual meeting, which then led to the formation of the Traffic of Good Intent task force (TOGI), an IAB-sanctioned working group composed of leaders from nearly every major player in the media and adtech industry. We’ve made a lot of progress since our first informal luncheon meeting nine months ago – I think the issue of fraud is now a top priority in our industry, and we continue work on best practices, solutions, and education. Today marks a milestone for our industry, the release of two white papers. Both are clearly written and intended to catalyze our progress to date.
Understanding Online Traffic Fraud gives a broad overview of the problem, laying out definitions of non-human traffic, and lays out half a dozen reasons you should give a sh*t. For me, the money quote is this: “Failing to root out traffic fraud funds criminal activity and supports organized crime.” Because as an advocate for publishers, that’s what fraud is: it’s stealing. It’s taking money and value out of the pockets of publishers, and putting it into the pockets of criminals. Along the way, any number of intermediaries also make money, and in the short term, they may be incented to continue to do so. We have to change that.
The second document, Traffic Fraud: Best Practices for Reducing Risks to Exposure, details actions all player in this ecosystem – brands, agencies, trading desks, technology providers, exchanges, publishers and more – can do to clean up this pervasive problem.
If you buy, sell, or traffic in online advertising, please read these documents, and help us move the needle even further. Fraud is not a problem that can be solved by pointing fingers or blaming one side or the other. We have to work together – and these documents are living proof that we can.
For the past four years I’ve been honored to help moderate portions of Google’s annual Zeitgeist conference, which assembles a powerful lineup of speakers each year in the Arizona desert. I hosted the last segment of the day, and sat down with astronaut Mark Kelly, who is known for his career as a fighter pilot and Space Shuttle commander, and of course, as the husband of former Rep. Gabby Giffords. Since Giffords was shot two years ago, and after the terrible Newtown attack, Kelly and Gifford launched Americans for Responsible Solutions, a SuperPAC that is trying to take on the NRA using NRA lobbying tactics. Gabby comes on toward the end and left no one in their seats. Inspirational stuff – one of many such talks at the conference.
Sometimes when you aren’t sure what you have to say about something, you should just start talking about it. That’s how I feel about the evolving PRISM story – it’s so damn big, I don’t feel like I’ve quite gotten my head around it. Then again, I realize I’ve been thinking about this stuff for more than two decades – I assigned and edited a story about massive government data overreach in the first issue of Wired, for God’s sake, and we’re having our 20th anniversary party this Saturday. Shit howdy, back then I felt like I was pissing into the wind – was I just a 27-year-old conspiracy theorist?
Um, no. We were just a bit ahead of ourselves at Wired back in the day. Now, it feels like we’re in the middle of a hurricane. Just today I spoke to a senior executive at a Very Large Internet Company who complained about spending way too much time dealing with PRISM. Microsoft just posted a missive which said, in essence, “We think this sucks and we sure wish the US government would get its shit together.” I can only imagine the war rooms at Facebook, Amazon, Google, Twitter, and other major Internet companies – PRISM is putting them directly at odds with the very currency of their business: Consumer trust.
And I’m fucking thrilled about this all. Because finally, the core issue of data rights is coming to the fore of societal conversation. Here’s what I wrote about the issue back in 2005, in The Search:
The fact is, massive storehouses of personally identifiable information now exist. But our culture has yet to truly grasp the implications of all that information, much less protect itself from potential misuse….
Do you trust the companies you interact with to never read your mail, or never to examine your clickstream without your permission? More to the point, do you trust them to never turn that information over to someone else who might want it—for example, the government? If your answer is yes (and certainly, given the trade-offs of not using the service at all, it’s a reasonable answer), you owe it to yourself to at least read up on the USA PATRIOT Act, a federal law enacted in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy.
I then go into the details of PATRIOT, which has only strengthened since 2005, and conclude:
One might argue that while the PATRIOT Act is scary, in times of war citizens must always be willing to balance civil liberties with national security. Most of us might be willing to agree to such a framework in a presearch world, but the implications of such broad government authority are chilling given the world in which we now live—a world where our every digital track, once lost in the blowing dust of a presearch world, can now be tagged, recorded, and held in the amber of a perpetual index.
So here we are, having the conversation at long last. I plan to start posting about it more, in particular now that my co-author Sara M. Watson is about to graduate from Oxford and join the Berkman Center at Harvard (damn, I keep good company.).
I’ve got so many posts brewing in me about all of this. But I wanted to end this one with another longish excerpt from my last book, one I think encapsulates the issues major Internet platforms are facing now that programs like PRISM have become the focal point of a contentious global conversation.
In early 2005, I sat down with Sergey Brin and asked what he thinks of the PATRIOT Act, and whether Google has a stance on its implications. His response: “I have not read the PATRIOT Act.” I explain the various issues at hand, and Brin listens carefully. “I think some of these concerns are overstated,” he begins. “There has never been an incident that I am aware of where any search company, or Google for that matter, has somehow divulged information about a searcher.” I remind him that had there been such a case, he would be legally required to answer in just this way. That stops him for a moment, as he realizes that his very answer, which I believe was in earnest, could be taken as evasive. If Google had indeed been required to give information over to the government, certainly he would not be able to tell either the suspect or an inquiring journalist. He then continues. “At the very least, [the government] ought to give you a sense of the nature of the request,” he said. “But I don’t view this as a realistic issue, personally. If it became a problem, we could change our policy on it.”
It’s Officially Now A Problem, Sergey. But it turns out, it’s not so easy to just change policy.
I can’t wait to watch this unfold. It’s about time we leaned in, so to speak.
Last week I was fortunate to be in New York City over the weekend, accompanied by most of my family. I had meetings with senior marketing executives at companies like Coke, Citi, and many others, and they stretched from the previous Weds. all the way into Monday of last week. I hate being away on weekends, and my wife is from New York, so she brought my daughters to visit their grandmother, who lives right in the middle of Manhattan.
Now, a weekend in New York with your family is special anytime, but last weekend was particularly notable because of the annual Pride Parade. This celebration of LGBT rights is one of the largest in the world, and this year’s was historic – just the week before, the Supreme Court had voted down the Defense of Marriage Act, a major civil rights victory for the gay community and, by extension, for citizens across the country. Last Sunday, our family joined tens of thousands of others who cheered the parade down Broadway, marveling at the exuberance and yes, sometimes at the show of skin as well.
But what stuck out with us was the pure joy of the day. Both my daughters, one fifteen, the other nine, joined in the celebrations, waving flags, cheering, and slapping high fives with passersby. Everyone was so happy, and the party snaked down Broadway for hours. What really struck me was the diversity on parade – gay fireman and policemen (that can’t be an easy world to live in) marched in uniform, followed by politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Charles Schumer. There were community centers on floats blasting dance music, and a long assortment of “firsts” – the first gay married couple in New York, the oldest married couple in New York, etc.
And then there were the brands. Yes, the brands – sponsoring the parade, and marching as part of it. I was prepared to be disappointed, and even cringed when I saw the first banner announcing a brand – I think it was Vitamin Water, a Coke brand. But instead, I was inspired. I had just met with many of the brands that were represented, and it made me proud to know the folks who had the courage to stand out and stand up for what was right.
As I watched the parade I was struck at how deeply and how honestly these brands were part of the celebration. Sure, Vitamin Water gave out free drinks, but the real story were the legions of employees – from Citi, L’Oreal, Wells Fargo, Coke, Delta and many more who marched, proudly wearing their company’s logo, proud of their individuality, proud of their voice, and proud that their businesses have stood behind them on their journey to this historic day. It felt very real – these companies clearly had backed their people on the long road to full civil rights, and their employees were proud to celebrate their brand connection – they very much believed that in their lives, the brand on their t-shirt had made an important difference. It was a very honest moment, and that’s not always the case when it comes to sponsorships and marketing. It should inspire all of us in the media business to follow the path of true human connection in our work. It certainly inspired me.
(image) Back in 2005 I whipped off a post with a title that has recently become relevant again – “Traffic of Good Intent.” That post keyed off a major issue in the burgeoning search industry – click fraud. In the early days of search, click fraud was a huge problem (that link is from 2002!). Pundits (like me) claimed that because everyone was getting paid from fraud, it was “something of a whistling-past-the-graveyard issue for the entire (industry).” Cnet ran a story in 2004 identifying bad actors who created fake content, then ran robots over AdSense links on those pages. It blamed the open nature of the Web as fueling the fraudsters, and it noted that Google could not comment, because it was in its quiet period before an IPO.
But once public, Google did respond, suing bad actors and posting extensive explanations of its anti-fraud practices. Conversely, a major fraud-based class action lawsuit was filed against all of the major search engines. Subsequent research suggested that as much as 30% of commercial clicks were fraudulent - remember, this was after Google had gone public, and after the issue had been well-documented and endlessly discussed in the business and industry press. The major players in search finally banded together to fight the problem – understanding full well that without a united front and open communication, trust would never be established.
Think about that little history lesson – a massive, emerging new industry, one that was upending the entire marketing ecosystem, was operating under a constant cloud of “fraud” which may have been poisoning nearly a third of the revenues in the space. Yet billions in revenue and hundreds of billions in market value was still created. And after several years of lawsuits, negative press, and lord-knows-how-much-fraud, the clickfraud story has pretty much been forgotten.
It should. Because the same movie is once again playing, but this time the problem has migrated to the open ecosystem of programmatic display. As anyone who’s studied the LUMAscape knows, we now have a VC-fueled industry worth billions, with many players primed to go public in the coming year or so. And the original search players – Google in particular, but also Microsoft and Yahoo! – are also major actors in this new industry.
My post from January of this year - It’s Time To Call Out Fraud In The Adtech Ecosystem - summarized the new breed of fraud in our industry, and recently, many publications have intensified their coverage of the topic. In late February, I invited a handful of adtech CEOs to a lunch where we discussed the issue, and everyone at the table – from AppNexus to Google, OpenX to MediaOcean – agreed that it was time to address the problem head on.
And that’s how we got to the news this past week that the IAB is standing up a task force on “Traffic of Good Intent.” I’m proud to be a co-chair of the group (and yes, the name does come from that 2005 post in these pages). This time around, there are many more players, a much larger industry, and a far more complicated ecosystem. But it’s worth remembering that bad actors always take advantage of open systems. It’s up to us to unite and drive them back. We should all be trading in traffic of good intent – real human beings, engaged with real content and services across the Internet. Our customers, partners, investors, and our good company names depend on it.
I look forward to the work.