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Does the Pebble Cause a Ripple In Apple’s Waters?

By - April 27, 2012

Ever since the Pebble watch became an cause célèbre in tech circles for its kickass Kickstarter moves (it’s raised almost $7mm dollars and counting), something’s been nagging me about the company and its product.

It’s now Valley legend that the company had to turn to Kickstarter to get its working capital – more than 46,000 folks have backed Pebble, and will soon be proudly sporting their spiffy new iPhone-powered watches as a result. Clearly Pebble has won – both financially, as well as in the court of public opinion. I spoke to one early investor (through Y-Combinator) who had nothing but good things to say about the company and its founders.

But why, I wondered, were mainstream VCs not backing Pebble once it became clear the company was on a path to success?

The reasons I read in press coverage – that VCs tend to not like untested hardware/platform plays, that retail products have low margins, etc., all sounded reasonable, but not enough. In this environment, there had to be more going on.

Now, I don’t know enough to claim this as anything more than a theory, but it’s a Friday, so allow me to speculate: Perhaps one reason VCs don’t want to invest in Pebble is because they fear Apple.

Here’s why. If you watch the video explaining Pebble, it become pretty clear that the watch is, in essence, a new form factor for the iPhone. It’s smaller, it’s more use-case defined, but that’s what it is: A smaller mirror of your iPhone, strapped to you wrist. Pebble uses bluetooth connectivity to access the iPhone’s native capabilities, and then displays data, apps, and services on its high-resolution e-paper screen. It even has its own “app store” and (upcoming) SDK/API  so people can write native apps to the device.

In short, Pebble is an iPhone for your wrist. And Apple doesn’t own it.

If we’ve learned anything about Apple over the years, it’s that Apple is driven by its hardware business. It makes its profits by selling hardware – and it’s built a beautiful closed software ecosystem to insure those hardware sales. Pebble forces an interesting question: Does Apple care about new form factors for hardware? Or is it content to build out just the “core” hardware platform, and allow anyone to innovate in new hardware instances? Would Apple be cool with someone building, say, a larger form factor of the iPhone, perhaps tablet-sized, driven by your iPhone?

I don’t know the answer to that question (and doubt Apple would answer my call asking such a question), so I’ll toss it out to you. What do you all think? Is Pebble playing with fire here? Would Apple ever change its developer terms of services to cut the new company off?

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A Coachella “Fail-ble”: Do We Hold Spectrum in Common?

By - April 18, 2012

Neon Indian at Coachella last weekend.

 

Last weekend I had the distinct pleasure of taking two days off the grid and heading to a music festival called Coachella. Now, when I say “off the grid,” I mean time away from my normal work life (yes, I tend to work a bit on the weekends), and my normal family life (I usually reserve the balance of weekends for family, this was the first couple of days “alone” I’ve had in more than a year.)

What I most certainly did not want to be was off the information grid – the data lifeline that all of us so presumptively leverage through our digital devices. But for the entire time I was at the festival, unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened – to me, and to most of the 85,000 or so other people trying to use their smartphones while at the show.

I’m not writing this post to blame AT&T (my carrier), or Verizon, or the producers of Coachella, though each have some part to play in the failure that occurred last weekend (and most likely will occur again this weekend, when Coachella produces its second of two festival weekends). Rather, I’m deeply interested in how this story came about, why it matters, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

First, let’s set some assumptions. When tens of thousands of young people (the average age of a Coachella fan is in the mid to low 20s) gather in any one place in the United States, it’s a safe bet these things are true:

– Nearly everyone has a smartphone in their possession.

– Nearly everyone plans on using that smartphone to connect with friends at the show, as well as to record, share, and amplify the experience they are having while at the event.

– Nearly everyone knows that service at large events is awful, yet they hope their phone will work, at least some of the time. Perhaps a cash-rich sponsor will pay to bring in extra bandwidth, or maybe the promoter will spring for it out of the profit from ticket sales. Regardless, they expect some service delays, and plan on using low-bandwidth texting services more than they’d like to.

– Nearly everyone leaves a show like Coachella unhappy with their service provider, and unable to truly express themselves in ways they wished they could. Those ways might include, in no particular order: Communicating with friends so as to meet up (“See you at the Outdoor stage, right side middle, for Grace Potter!”), tweeting or Facebooking a message to followers (“Neon Indian is killing it right now!”), checking in on Foursquare or any other location service so as to gain value in a social game (or in my case, to create digital breadcrumbs to remind me who I was once in hit dotage), uploading photos to any number of social photo services like Instagram, or using new, music-specific apps like TastemakerX on a whim (“I’d like to buy 100 shares of Yuck, those guys just blew me away!”). Oh, and it’d be nice to make a phone call home if you need to.

But for the most part, I and all my friends were unable to do any of these things at Coachella last weekend, at least not in real time. I felt as if I was drinking from a very thin, very clogged cocktail straw. Data service was simply non existent onsite. Texts came in, but more often than not they were timeshifted: I’d get ten texts delivered some 20 minutes after they were sent. And phone service was about as good as it is on Sand Hill Road – spotty, prone to drops, and often just not available. I did manage to get some data service while at the show, but that was because I found a press tent and logged onto the local wifi network there, or I “tricked” my phone into thinking it was logging onto the network for the first time (by turning “airplane mode” off and on over and over again).

This all left me wondering – what if? What if there was an open pipe, both up and down, that could handle all that traffic? What if everyone who came to the show knew that pipe would be open, and work? What kind of value would have been created had that been the case? How much more data would have populated the world, how much richer would literally millions of people’s lives been for seeing the joyful expressions of their friends as they engaged in a wonderful experience? How much more learning might have countless startups gathered, had they been able to truly capture the real time intentions of their customers at such an event?

In short, how much have we lost as a society because we’ve failed to solve our own bandwidth problems?

I know, it’s just a rock festival, and jeez Battelle, shut off your phone and just dance, right? OK, I get that, I trust me, I did dance, a lot. But I also like to take a minute here or there to connect to the people I love, or who follow me, and share with them my passions and my excitement. We are becoming a digital society, to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. And with very few exceptions, it was just not possible to intermingle the digital and the physical at Coachella. (I did hear reports that folks with Verizon were having better luck, but that probably because there were fewer Verizon iPhones than those with AT&T. And think about that language – “luck”?!).

Way back in 2008, when the iPhone was new and Instagram was a gleam in Kevin Systrom’s eye, I was involved in creating a service called CrowdFire. It was a way for fans at a festival (the first was Outside Lands) to share photos, tweets, and texts in a location and event specific way. I’ve always rued our decision to not spin CrowdFire out as a separate company, but regardless, my main memory of the service was how crippled it was due to bandwidth failure. It was actually better than Coachella, but not by much. So in four years, we’ve managed to go backwards when it comes to this problem.

Of course, the amount of data we’re using has exploded, so credit to the carriers for doing their best to keep up. But can they get to the promised land? I wonder, at least under the current system of economic incentives we’ve adopted in the United States. Sure, there will always be traffic jams, but have we really thought through the best approach to how we execute “the Internet in the sky?”

Put another way, do we not hold the ability to share who we are, our very digital reflections, as a commons to which all of us should have equal access?

As I was driving to the festival last Saturday, I engaged in a conversation with one of my fellow passengers about this subject. What do we, as a society, hold in commons, and where do digital services fit in, if at all?

Well, we were driving to Coachella on city roads, held in commons through municipalities, for one. And we then got on Interstate 10 for a few miles, which is held in commons by federal agencies in conjunction with local governments. So it’s pretty clear we have, as a society, made the decision that the infrastructure for the transport of atoms – whether they be cars and the humans in them, or trucks and the commercial goods within them – is held in a public commons.Sure, we hit some traffic, but it wasn’t that bad, and there were ways to route around it.

What else do we hold in a commons? We ticked off the list of stuff upon we depend – the transportation of water and power to our homes and our businesses, for example. Those certainly are (mostly) held in the public commons as well.

So it’s pretty clear that over the course of time, we’ve decided that when it comes to moving ourselves around, and making sure we have power and water, we’re OK with the government managing the infrastructure. But what of bits? What of “ourselves” as expressed digitally?

For the “hardwired” Internet – the place that gave us the Web, Google, Facebook, et al, we built upon what was arguably a publicly common infrastructure. Thanks to government and social normative regulation, the hard-wired Internet was architected to be open to all, with a commercial imperative that insured bandwidth issues were addressed in a reasonable fashion (Cisco, Comcast, etc.).

But with wireless, we’ve taken what is a public asset – radio spectrum – and we’ve licensed it to private companies under a thicket of regulatory oversight. And without laying blame – there’s probably plenty of it to go around – we’ve proceeded to make a mess of it. What we have here, it seems to me, is a failure. Is it a market failure – which usual preceeds government action? I’m not sure that’s the case. But it’s a fail, nevertheless. I’d like to get smarter on this issue, even though the prospect of it makes my head hurt.

As I wrote yesterday, I recently spent some time in Washington DC, and sat down with the Obama administration’s point person on that question, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski. As I expected, the issue of spectrum allocation is extraordinarily complicated, and it’s unlikely we’ll find a way out of the “Coachella Fail-ble” anytime soon. But there is hope. Technological disruption is one way – watch the “white spaces,” for instance. And in a world where marketing claims to be “the fastest” spur customer switching, our carriers are madly scrambling to upgrade their networks. Yet in the US, wireless speeds are far below those of countries in Europe and Asia.

I plan on finding out more as I report, but I may as well ask you, my smarter readers: Why is this the case? And does it have anything to do with what those other countries consider to be held in “digital commons”?

I’ll readily admit I’m simply a journeyman asking questions here, not a firebrand looking to lay blame. I understand this is a complicated topic, but it’s one for which I’d love your input and guidance.

What Doesn’t the Valley Understand About Washington?

By - April 17, 2012

A few weeks ago I ventured to our nation’s capital to steep in its culture a bit, and get some first hand reporting done for the book. I met with about a dozen or so folks, including several scholars, the heads of the FCC and FTC, and senior folks in the Departments of Commerce and State. I also spoke to a lobbyist from the Internet industry, as well as people from various “think tanks” that populate the city. It was my first such trip, but it certainly won’t be my last.

Each of the conversations was specific to the person I was interviewing, but I did employ one device to tie them together – I asked each person the same set of questions toward the end of the conversation. And as I was on the plane home, I wrote myself a little reminder to post about the most interesting set of answers I got, which was to this simple question: What doesn’t the Valley understand about Washington?

It’s not a secret that the Valley, as a whole, has an ambivalent attitude toward DC. Until recently, the prevailing philosophy has trended libertarian – just stay out of the way, please, and let us do what we do best. Just about every startup CEO I’ve ever known – including myself – ignores Washington in the early years of a company’s lifecycle. Government is treated like plumbing – it’s dirty, it costs too much, it’s preferably someone else’s job, and it’s ignored until it stops working the way we want it to.

SOPA and PIPA is the classic example of the plumbing going out – and the Internet’s response to it was the topic of much of my conversations last month. Sure, “we” managed to stop some stupid legislation from passing, but the fact is, we almost missed it, and Lord knows what else we’re missing due to our refusal to truly engage with the instrument of our shared governance.

To be fair, in the past few years a number of major Internet companies have gotten very serious about joining the conversation in DC – Google is perhaps the most serious of them all (I’m not counting Micrsoft, which got pretty serious back in 1997 when it lost an antitrust suit). Now, one can argue that like Microsoft before it, Google’s seriousness is due to how interested Washington has become in Google, but regardless, it was interesting to hear from source after source how they respected Google for at least fully staffing a presence in DC.

Other large Internet companies also have offices in Washington, but from what I hear, they are not that effective beyond very narrow areas of interest. Two of the largest e-commerce companies in the world have a sum total of eight people in DC, I was told by a well-placed source. Eight people can’t get much done when you’re dealing with regulatory frameworks around fraud, intellectual property, international trade, infrastructure and spectrum policy, and countless other areas of regulation that matter to the Internet.

In short, and perhaps predictably, nearly everyone I spoke to in Washington told me that the Valley’s number one issue was its lack of engagement with the government. But the answers were far more varied and interesting than that simple statement. Here they are, without attribution, as most of my conversations were on background pending clearance of actual quotes for the book:

– The Valley doesn’t understand the threat that comes from Washington. Put another way, our industry figures it out too late. The Valley doesn’t understand how much skin it already has in the game. “When things are bent in the right direction here, it can be a really good thing,” one highly placed government source told me. Washington is “dismissed, and when it’s dismissed you neither realize the upside nor mitigate the downside.”

– When the Valley does engage, it’s too lightly, and too predictably. Larger Valley companies get an office on K Street (where the lobbyists live) and hire an ex-Congressperson to lobby on that company’s core issues. But “that’s not where the magic is,” one source told me. The real magic is for companies to use their own platforms to engage with their customers in authentic conversations that get the attention of lawmakers. This happened – albeit very late – with SOPA/PIPA, and it got everyone’s attention in Washington. Imagine if this was an ongoing conversation, and not a one-off “Chicken Little” scenario?  Counter to what many believe about Washington, where money and lobbying connections are presumed to always win the day, “Fact-based arguments matter, a lot,” one senior policymaker told me. “Fact-based debates occur here, every day. If you take yourself out of that conversation, it’s like going into litigation without a lawyer.” Internet companies are uniquely positioned to change the approach to how lawmakers “hear” their constituents, but have done very little to actually leverage that fact.

– The Valley is too obsessed with the issue of privacy, one scholar told me. Instead, it should look to regulations around whether or not harm is being done to consumers. This was an interesting insight – and perhaps a way to think about protecting our data and our identities. There are already a thicket of regulations and law around keeping consumers safe from the harmful effects of business practices. Perhaps we are paying attention to the wrong thing, this scholar suggested.

– The Valley assumes that bad legislation will be rooted out and defeated in the same way that SOPA and PIPA were. But that’s a faulty assumption. “The Valley is techno-deterministic, and presumes ‘we can engineer around it,'” one scholar told me. “They don’t realize they’ve already been blinkered – a subset of possible new technological possibilities has already been removed that they are not even aware of.” One example of this is the recent “white spaces” spectrum allocation, which while promising avenues of new market opportunity, was severely retarded by forces in Washington far more powerful than the Internet industry (more on this in another post).

– The framework of “us vs. them” is unproductive and produces poor results. The prevailing mentality in the valley, one well-connected scholar told me, is the “heroic techie versus the wicked regulator…Rather than just having libertarian abstractions about regulations versus freedom,” this source continued,  “it’s important to realize that in every single debate there are… regulations that strike better or worse balances between competing values. You just have to engage enough to defend the good ones.”

Put another way, as another senior government official told me, “The Valley doesn’t understand there are good and decent people here who really want to get things done.”

If I were to sum up the message from all my conversations in Washington, it’d be this: We’re here because as a society, we decided we needed people to help manage values we hold in common. Increasingly, the Internet is how we express those values. So stop ignoring us and hoping we’ll go away, and start engaging with us more. Decidedly better results will occur if you do.

I don’t pretend that one trip to DC makes me an expert on the subject (it surely does not), but I left DC energized and wanting to engage more than I have in the past. I hope you’ll feel the same.

(image: traveldk.com)

If-Then and Antiquities of the Future

By - April 03, 2012

Over the past few months I’ve been developing a framework for the book I’ve been working on, and while I’ve been pretty quiet about the work, it’s time to lay it out and get some responses from you, the folks I most trust with keeping me on track.

I’ll admit the idea of putting all this out here makes me nervous – I’ve only discussed this with a few dozen folks, and now I’m going public with what I’ll admit is an unbaked cake. Anyone can criticize it now, (or, I suppose, steal it), but then again, I did the very same thing with the core idea in my last book (The Database of Intentions, back in 2003), and that worked out just fine.

So here we go. The original promise of my next book is pretty simple: I’m trying to paint a picture of the kind of digital world we’ll likely live in one generation from now, based on a survey of where we are presently as a digital society. In a way, it’s a continuation and expansion of The Search – the database of intentions has expanded from search to nearly every corner of our world – we now live our lives leveraged over digital platforms and data. So what might that look like thirty years hence?

As the announcement last year stated:

WHAT WE HATH WROUGHT will give us a forecast of the interconnected world in 2040, then work backwards to explain how the personal, economic, political, and technological strands of this human narrative have evolved from the pivotal moment in which we find ourselves now.

That’s a pretty tall order. At first, I spent a lot of time trying to boil any number of oceans – figuring out who to talk to in politics, energy, healthcare, technology, and, well, just about every major field. It quickly became quite evident that I’d end up with a book a thousand miles wide and one inch deep – unless I got very lucky and stumbled upon a perfect narrative actor that tied it all up into one neat story. Last time Google provided me that actor, but given I’m writing a book about how the world might look in 30 years, I’m not holding my breath waiting for another perfect protagonist to step out a time machine somewhere.

But what if those protagonists are already here? Allow me to explain…

For the past few months I’ve been stewing on how the hell to actually write this book I’ve promised everyone I would deliver. The manuscript is not actually due till early next year, but still, books take a lot of time. And every day that goes by without a clear framework is a day partially lost.

A couple of months ago, worried that I’d never figure this thing out (but knowing there had to be a way), I invited one of  my favorite authors (and new Marin resident) Steven Johnson over to my house for a brainstorming session. I outlined where I was in my thinking, and posed to him my essential problem: I was trying to do too much, and needed to focus my work on a narrative that paid off the promise, but didn’t read like a textbook, or worse yet, like a piece of futurism. As I said to Steven, “If I write a book that has a scene where an alarm clock wakes you up on a ‘typical morning in 2045,’ please shoot me.”

It’s not that I don’t appreciate futurism – it’s just that I truly believe, as William Gibson famously put it, that the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading. Of course, it was this approach we took in the early years of Wired magazine. Our job, as my colleague Kevin Kelly put it, was to send writers off in search of where the future was erupting, with instructions to report back.

To find that future, we asked our writers (and editors) to look hard at the present, and find people, places or things that augured what might come next. Hence, issue one of Wired had articles about the future of war, education, entertainment, and sex, based on reporting done in the here and now. While we didn’t call it such, over the years we developed an “If-Then” approach to many of the stories we’d assign. We’d think out loud: “If every school had access to the Internet, then what might change about education?” Or, “If the government had the ability to track everything we do both offline and on, then what might our society look like?” The conditional “If” question followed with a realistic “Then” answer provided a good way to wrap our heads around a sometimes challenging subject  (and for you programmers out there, we’d also consider the “ands” as well as the “elses.”)

Next, we’d ask a reporter to go find out all he or she could about that scenario – to go in search of artifacts from the future which told a story of where things might be going. (Wired, in fact, later created the popular “Found: Artifacts from the Future” series in the pages of the magazine.)

As an early reader and contributor to Wired, Steven knew all this, and reminded me of it as we spoke that day at my house. What if, he asked me, the book was framed as a series of stories about “future antiquities” or “future relics” (I think he first dubbed them “Magic Coins”)? Could we find examples of things currently extant, which, if widely adopted over the next generation, would presage significant changes in the world we’ll be inhabiting? Why, indeed, yes we could. Immediately I thought of five or six, and since that day, many more have come to mind.

Now, I think it bears unpacking this concept of what I mean by “widely adopted.” To me, it means clearing a pretty high hurdle – by 2045 or so, it’d mean that more than a billion people would be regularly interacting with whatever the future antiquity might be.  When you get a very large chunk of the population engaged in a particular behavior, that behavior has the ability to effect real change on our political, social, and cultural norms. Those are the kind of artifacts I’m looking to find.

As a thought experiment, imagine I had given myself this assignment back in the early 1980s, when I was just starting my love affair with this story as a technology reporter (yes, there’s a symmetry here – that’s 30 years ago – one generation past). Had I gone off in search of digital artifacts that presaged the future, ones that I believed might be adopted by a billion or more people, I certainly would have started with the personal computer, which at that point was counted in the high hundreds of thousands in the US. And I also would have picked the Internet, which was being used, at that point, by only thousands of people. I’d have described the power of these two artifacts in the present day, imagined how technological and social change might develop as more and more people used them, and spoken to the early adopters, entrepreneurs, and thinkers of the day about what would happen if a billion or more people were using them on a regular basis.

An antiquity from the 1980s, with its future descendant (image from machinelake.com)

Pushing the hypothetical a bit further, I imagine I’d find the Dan Bricklins, Vint Cerfs, Ray Ozzies, and Bill Gates of the day, and noticed that they hung out in universities, for the most part. I’d have noticed that they used their computers and online networks to communicate with each other, to share information, to search and discover things, and to create communities of interest. It was in those universities where the future was erupting 30 years ago, and had I been paying close attention, it’s plausible I might have declared email, search, and social networks – or at least “communities on the Internet” – as artifacts of our digital future. And of course, I’d have noticed the new gadget just released called the mobile phone, and probably declared that important as well. If more than a billion people had a mobile phone by 2012, I’d have wondered, then what might our world look like?

I’m pretty sure I’d have gotten a lot wrong, but the essential framework – a way to think about finding and declaring the erupting future – seems a worthy endeavor. So I’ve decided to focus my work on doing just that. It helps that it combines two of my favorite approaches to thinking – anthropology and journalism. In essence, I’m going on a dig for future antiquities.

So what might some of today’s artifacts from the future be? I don’t pretend to have an exhaustive list, but I do have a good start. And while the “If-Then” framework could work for all sorts of artifacts, I’m looking for those that “ladder up” to significant societal change. To that end, I’ve begun exploring innovations in energy, finance, health, transportation, communications, commerce – not surprisingly, all subjects to which we have devoted impressive stone buildings in our capital city. (Hence my trip to DC last week.)

Here’s one example that might bring the concept home: The Fitbit. At present, there are about half a million of them in the world, as far as I can tell (I’m meeting with the company soon). But Fitbit-like devices are on the rise – Nike launched its FuelBand earlier this year, for example. And while the first generation of these devices may only appeal to early adopters, with trends in miniaturization, processing power, and data platforms, it’s not hard to imagine a time when billions of us are quantifying our movement, caloric intake and output, sleep patterns, and more, then sharing that data across wide cohorts so as to draw upon the benefits of pattern-recognizing algorithms to help us make better choices about our behavior.

If that were to happen, what then might be the impact on our healthcare systems? Our agricultural practices and policies? Our insurance industries? Our life expectancies? I’m not entirely sure, but it’d sure be fun to try to answer such questions.

I won’t tip my hand as to my entire current list of Future Antiquities, but I certainly would welcome your ideas and input as to what they might be. I’d also like your input on the actual title of the book. “What We Hath Wrought” is a cool title, but perhaps it’s a bit….too heady. Some might even call it overwrought. What if I called the book “If-Then”? I’m thinking about doing just that. Let me know in comments, and as always, thanks for reading.

Architectures of Control: Harvard, Facebook, and the Chicago School

By - April 02, 2012

Early in Lessig’s “Code v2,” which at some point this week I hope to review in full, Lessig compares the early campus networks of two famous educational institutions. Lessig knew them well – in the mid 1990s, he taught at both Harvard and the University of Chicago. Like most universities, Harvard and Chicago provided Internet access to their students. But they took quite different approaches to doing so. True to its philosophy of free and anonymous speech, Chicago simply offered an open connection to its students – plug in anywhere on campus, and start using the net.

Harvard’s approach was the polar opposite, as Lessig explains:

At Harvard, the rules are different….You cannot plug your machine to the Net at Harvard unless the machine is registered – licensed, approved, verified. Only members of the university community can register their machines. Once registered, all interactions with the network are monitored and identified to a particular machine. To join the network, users have to “sign” a user agreement. The agreement acknowledges this pervasive practice of monitoring. Anonymous speech on this network is not permitted – it is against the rules. Acceess can be controlled based on who you are, and interactions can be traced based on what you did.

In the preceding paragraph, change “Harvard” and “university” to “Facebook” and – there you have it. Facebook was the product of a Harvard mindset – and probably could never have come from a place like Chicago or Berkeley (where I taught).

I called up Harvard’s IT department to see if the policy had changed since Lessig’s experiences in the 1990s, or Mark Zuckerbeg’s six or so years ago. The answer was no – machines still must be registered, and all actions across Harvard’s network are trackable.

There are many benefits associated with a “real names” identity policy, including personalized services and a far greater likelihood of civil discourse. But the reverse is also true: without the right to speak anonymously (or pseudonymously), dissent and exploration are often muted. And of course, there’s that tracking/monitoring/data issue as well…

In Code, Lessig goes on to predict that while the original Internet began with a very Chicago-like approach to the world, architectures of regulation and control will ultimately end up winning if we don’t pay close attention.

He wrote the original Code in 1999, and updated it in 2006. The word Facebook is not in either version of the text. Just thought that a curious anecdote worth sharing.

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.

 

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. 

 

A Funny Thing Happened As I Was “Tracked”

By - February 27, 2012

I’m still in recovery mode after the wave of Apple-defenders inundated me with privacy-related comments over this past weekend, and I promise to continue the dialog – and admit where I may be wrong – once I feel I’ve properly grokked the story. The issue of privacy as it relates to the Intenet is rather a long piece of yarn, and I’m only a small part of the way toward unraveling this particular sweater. (And yes, I know there are plenty of privacy absolutists rolling their eyes at me right now, but if you don’t want to hear my views after some real reporting and thinking on the subject, just move along….). lf you want to peruse some of the recent stories on the subject I’ve been reading, you can start with the Signal post I just finished.

Meanwhile, I want to tell you a little story about advertising and tracking, which is at the heart of much of the current tempest.

While skiing last week at my home mountain of Mammoth (the only place in California with a decent snowpack), my family and I stayed at a Westin property. It’s a relatively new place, and pretty nice for Mammoth – which is more of  a “throw the kids in the station wagon and drive up” kind of resort. It’s not exactly Vail or Aspen – save for the skiing, which I dare say rivals any mountain in the US.

Anyway, I stayed at the Westin, as as such, I visited the Westin site many a time during my stay for various reasons (I also visited before I came, of course, to research stuff like whether it had a gym, restaurant menus, and the like).

Now, besides visiting the Westin site while at Mammoth, I also visited Amazon.com, because I was looking to buy a particular adapter for my SIM card. I’m eager to try out the new Nexus Galaxy, but the SIM in my iPhone is a different size, and to use it in the Nexus, I need an adapter.

I didn’t end up buying the adapter, because I got distracted, but I did visit Amazon’s page for the device.

Now, why am I telling you all this? Because after visiting those two sites (Westin and Amazon), I noticed the ads I was seeing as I cruised the web changed. A lot. In particular, on my own site, which is powered by the company I chair, FM:

The ad at the top is from Amazon, with a picture of the very thing I almost bought. Now, is that creepy, or is that useful?

The ad on the side is from Westin, offering me a free night or $500 credit if I book another Westin vacation. Again, creepy, or …potentially a benefit?

This is “tracking” at work, and while some of us find it creepy, I find it rather benign. Both those ads are very pertinent to *me*, and one (the Westin) might even save me a lot of money – I love the idea of getting a free night at a place I’ve already stayed at and enjoyed (and I am a Starwood member, and stay at a lot of other Westins, so heck, I might just use that offer sometime soon).

Regardless of those specifics, it’s hard to argue that these ads are *worse* than the undifferentiated slop that once filled up ad space across the web. And that’s pretty much the point of cookie-driven advertising – that it use our data to offer up marketing messages that are, in the end, better than if the advertisers didn’t have the data in the first place.

After all, Facebook and Google offer up exactly the same kind of ads on their owned and operated domains – ads that are relevant to you – based on data you provided to them (the search term, or your Facebook profile). Somehow that’s OK, but when it’s done across the open web – well, then it’s “creepy.”

The problem, I think, is that we generally don’t trust these third-party advertising networks – we think they are doing nefarious things with our data, somehow screwing us, tracking us like hunted animals, creating vast profiles that could fall into the wrong hands. And the ad industry needs to address this issue of trust.

If you look at both those ads, it turns out the industry is doing just that. Each of the ads have an “ad choices” logo you can click to find out what’s going on behind the ad. Here’s what I saw when I clicked on Amazon’s “privacy” link:

This page clearly explains why I’m seeing the ad, and offers me an explicit choice to opt out of seeing ads like this in the future. Seems fair to me.

Here’s what I see when I clicked on the “ad choices” logo for the Westin ad:

That’s a popover, telling me that my browsing activity (I assume my multiple visits to Westin.com) has informed the offer. It tells me that an ad network owned by Akamai is behind the tracking and trafficking of the ad. And it offers me more links, should I want to learn more. I clicked on the “More information & opt out options” link, and saw this from Evidon,which Akamai uses to power its opt out and other programs:

This page offers a prominent opt out for the companies who served me the ad. it even offers a link to Ghostery, a service which I’ve used in the past to track who’s dropping cookies and such on my browser.

Now, I’m not arguing that this system is perfect, but it’s certainly quite a step forward from where we were a year ago.

And no, I didn’t opt out of anything. Not because I founded an Independent web advertising and content company (FM), but because frankly, I think the ads I’m getting are better as a result of this ecosystem. And I’m getting benefits I wouldn’t have had before (a free night at the Westin, a reminder to go get that SIM adapter I hadn’t yet bought). And, frankly, because this is all happening on the Independent web, insuring that small sites like mine get a chance to benefit from the same kind of value that Facebook and Google already have as “first party” websites – the value of my data. (More on this point in later posts, I am sure).

Now, if these companies end up doing evil, wrongheaded, or plain stupid things with my data, I’m going to be the first to opt out. And there’s plenty more we have to do to get this ecosystem right. But I thought it instructive to lay out how it’s working so far. And so far, I don’t find it anything but benign, if not actually useful. What do you think?

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?