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Do You Think The US Government Is Monitoring Social Media?

By - February 03, 2012

I had the news on in the background while performing morning ablutions. It was tuned to CBS This Morning – Charlie Rose has recently joined the lineup and my wife, a former news producer, favors both Rose and the Tiffany Network. But the piece that was running as I washed the sleep from my eyes was simply unbelievable.

It was about the two unfortunate british tourists detained by Homeland Security over jokes on Twitter about “destroying America” (a colloquialism for partying – think “tear up the town”) and “digging up Marilyn Monroe” whilst in Hollywood. DHS cuffed the poor kids and tossed them in a detention center with “inner city criminals,” according to reports, then sent them back home. Access denied.(I tweeted the story when it happened, then forgot about it.)

Silly stuff, but also serious – I mean, if DHS can’t tell a 140-character colloquialism from a real threat….(Slap Forehead Now). CBS had managed to get an interview with the unfortunate couple, who were back in the UK and most likely never able to travel here again.

The interview wasn’t what woke me up this morning, it was what CBS’s “Terrorism Expert” had to say afterwards. Apparently Homeland Security claims it is NOT monitoring Twitter and other social media, instead, it got a “tip” about the tweets, and that’s why the couple was detained. The on-air “expert,” who used to run counter-terror for the LAPD and was an official at DHS as well, was asked point blank if the US Government was “monitoring social media.” He flatly denied it. (His comments, oddly, were cut out of the piece that’s now on the web and embedded above).

I do not believe him. Do you? And if they really are not – why not? Shouldn’t they be? I was curious to your thoughts, so here’s a poll:

And then, here’s the next one. Regardless of whether you think it actually IS monitoring….

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On The Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA

By - January 19, 2012

(image) Earlier this week I ventured down to the Silicon Valley from my lair on the side of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin. Those of you who have visited Marin might understand why for me, after more than 25 years of working across the bridge in San Francisco and on planes around the world, I find it rather pleasant to just stay in my office and Think Big Thoughts whenever possible. But duty called, Jonathan Zittrain (who I’ve interviewed here) had asked me to participate in a conference he was hosting called “Ideas For A Better Internet,” and it was an honor to be asked.

Not to mention, I needed to get down to the Valley to see a few folks at Facebook (more on that in another post).

Given the conference convened on the eve of yesterday’s historic SOPA protest, the room was laden with potential energy. Groups of students presented their ideas for improving the Internet, and various luminaries pronounced on the issues of the day.

Toward the end of the evening, we had a panel with various notables (and me, for some reason). SOPA threaded in and out of that discussion, and I’m sure I had any number of things to say about it which were perfectly forgettable. But I do recall one thing that I said has stuck with me: We can’t afford to not engage with Washington anymore.

Now, plenty of folks have said this, and a few have even made it their life’s work in the past several years. Silicon Valley is waking up to the fact that we have to be part of the process in Washington – for too long we’ve treated “Government” as damage, and we’ve routed around it.

The battle over SOPA and PIPA is a signal event in the history of our industry. The bills were breezing their way through the final days of Congress’s pre-holiday session, and just about everyone thought they’d pass. But thanks to Reddit, Boing Boing, and countless other independent voices, the issue caught fire across the Internet, and we all realized we had an existential threat on our hands. Protests were organized, large companies like Google and Amazon joined the movement, and within two weeks, the Obama administration had come out against key provisions of the legislation (doing it on a Saturday, perhaps hoping no one would notice, but at least they did it).

But the fight isn’t over. In fact, it’s only starting. And the folks who basically wrote SOPA/PIPA are pissed, and they plan on using the same tactics they always have when they don’t get what they want: They’re throwing around their money. Or, put another way, they’re withdrawing it. Go read this article to see what I mean:

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood Moguls Stopping Obama Donations Because Of President’s Piracy Stand: “Not Give A Dime Anymore”

Does this matter? Damn straight it does. In politics, money not only talks, it seduces, it cajoles, it forces, and it commands. And this is one of the boldest declarations of what’s wrong with our political system I’ve seen in quite some time. Major Obama donors in Hollywood assumed they were buying their way into legislative protection of their threatened business models, and when the President didn’t do their bidding, they “leaked” their displeasure to Finke’s widely read blog. But to call it displeasure is a disservice. It’s more like the tantrum of gods who have come to realize that no one believes their myths anymore.

Check this quote: “God knows how much money we’ve given to Obama and the Democrats and yet they’re not supporting our interests.” 

Are. You. Kidding Me? What exactly *are* Hollywood’s interests? As far as I can tell, they don’t want their movies and music pirated. I can get behind that concept, no problem, and so can most reasonable people (the President said as much on Saturday). And we already have laws that make piracy illegal. If they’re not enough (I honestly don’t know one way or the other), let’s be serious about how best to strengthen those laws, that shall we? Gutting the Internet as we know it so as to protect an industry that is already immensely successful is, well, beyond silly.

There are deeply naunced arguments to be had about this issue, and I’m not going to get into all of them here. What I do want to talk about is this issue of money in politics.

Bear with me as I tell you another story. A few weeks ago I ran into a fellow who I won’t call out publicly, because I like him too much and haven’t asked for his permission to use his name. He’s a very successful businessman who has worked tirelessly on behalf of President Obama’s various political campaigns, mainly in the area of fundraising. And to make a long story short, he essentially offered me an opportunity to brainstorm with the President and various members of his staff on the subject of tech and Internet policy.

The catch? It’d cost me about as much as a year’s tuition at any one of our nation’s finer private educational institutions. Which is….a lot of fucking money.

Why am I telling you this story? Because I was tempted to pay that fee so as to get in front of the President. But upon reflection, I realized I would be doing exactly what Hollywood has done, playing the same game, and expecting the same results. Were Obama to sign legislation I disagreed with, I’d feel cheated  - “Hey, that’s not what I paid for!

Not to mention, it struck me that if the President and his staff truly valued my input, they’d ask for it without requiring a check at the same time. I’ve been paid an awful lot to opine on any number of topics over the course of my career. I’m not looking to BE paid – in fact, I’d be proud to offer what advice I can simply to be part of the process. But to ask to PAY, well, it just feels wrong. Here’s how I put it in an email to that businessman friend of mine:

Fact is, Obama or his team should be sitting down with people like me to get smarter on tech policy (and in my case, on media and marketing regulation). They should be seeking out people like me in all fields. Instead, they cannot afford to do it unless a steep price tag is paid – it fucks up the social relationship totally and changes the dynamics of how the world actually works in normal information sharing scenarios between smart people. 

My friend the fund-raising businessman agreed with my point, but he’s a realist: This is how the world works, he told me. We have to pay to play.

I think that’s a tragedy. I’ve pointed out on Twitter that at the moment, Hollywood has given seven times more money to the various backers of SOPA than our industry has. Many in our industry believe the way to tip the balance back our way is to simply play the same game, and out-donate the bastards. (Lord knows we have the money…)

But that sure as hell doesn’t sound very Internet-y to me. We have a problem on our hands, folks. In our own businesses, when faced with a problem, we find innovative solutions. We don’t just throw money at it. That’s the beauty of our industry.

There’s got to be a better way. And as I said at the Stanford conference, I for one am committing myself to helping figure this out. My first step will be to read this new book from Larry Lessig, an intellectual warrior who many (including myself) lament as bailing on our core issue of IP law to tilt at the supposed windmill of political corruption.

But I think, upon deeper reflection, that Larry is simply playing chess a few moves ahead of us all. It’s time to catch up, and move forward together.

Update: Larry spoke the same night as I did, at the Long Now Foundation. I would have been there had it not been for my commitment to Zittrain, who is Larry’s replacement at Harvard, in a funny twist. Anyway, here’s the link to Kevin Kelly’s very cogent summary. Totally worth checking out. 

Google Responds: No,That’s Not How Facebook Deal Went Down (Oh, And I Say: The Search Paradigm Is Broken)

By - January 13, 2012

(image) I’ve just been sent an official response from Google to the updated version of my story posted yesterday (Compete To Death, or Cooperate to Compete?). In that story, I reported about 2009 negotiations over incorporation of Facebook data into Google search. I quoted a source familiar with the negotiations on the Facebook side, who told me  “Senior executives at Google insisted that for technical reasons all information would need to be public and available to all,” and “The only reason Facebook has a Bing integration and not a Google integration is that Bing agreed to terms for protecting user privacy that Google would not.”

I’ve now had conversations with a source familiar with Google’s side of the story, and to say the company disagrees with how Facebook characterized the negotiations is to put it mildly. I’ve also spoken to my Facebook source, who has clarified some nuance as well. To get started, here’s the official, on the record statement, from Rachel Whetstone, SVP Global Communications and Public Affairs:

“We want to set the record straight. In 2009, we were negotiating with Facebook over access to its data, as has been reported.  To claim that the we couldn’t reach an agreement because Google wanted to make private data publicly available is simply untrue.”

My source familiar with Google’s side of the story goes further, and gave me more detail on why the deal went south, at least from Google’s point of view. According to this source, as part of the deal terms Facebook insisted that Google agree to not use publicly available Facebook information to build out a “social service.” The two sides had already agreed that Google would not use Facebook’s firehose (or private) data to build such a service, my source says.

So what does “publicly available” mean? Well, that’d be Facebook pages that any search engine can crawl – information on Facebook that people *want* search engines to know about. This is compared to the firehose data that was the core asset being discussed between the parties. This firehose data is what Google would need in order to surface personal Facebook pages relevant to you in the context of a search query. (So, for example, if you were my friend on Facebook, and you searched for “Battelle soccer” on Google, then with the proposed deal, you’d see pictures of my kids’ soccer games that I had posted to Facebook).

Apparently, Google believed that Facebook’s demand around public information could be interpreted  as applying to how Google’s own search service was delivered, not to mention how it (or other products) might evolve. Interpretation is always where the devil is in these deals. Who’s to say, after all, that Google’s “social search” is not a “social service”? And Google Pages, Maps, etc. – those are arguably social in nature, or will be in the future.

Google balked at this language, and the deal fell apart. My Google source also disputes the claim that Google balked at being able to technically separate public from private data. Conversely, my Facebook source counters that the real issue of public vs. private had to do with Google’s refusal to honor changes in privacy settings over time – for example, if I deleted those soccer pictures, they should also be deleted from Google’s index. There’s a point where this all devolves to she said/he said, because the deal never happened, and to be honest, there are larger points to make.

So let’s start with this: If Facebook indeed demanded that Google not use publicly available Facebook data, it’s certainly understandable why Google wouldn’t agree to the deal. It may not seem obvious, but there is an awful lot of publicly available Facebook pages and data out there. Starbucks, for example, is more than happy to let anyone see its Facebook page, no matter if you’re logged in or not. And then there’s all that Facebook open graph data out on the public web – tons of sites show Facebook status updates, like counts and so on in a public fashion. In short, asking Google to not leverage that data in anything that might constitute a “social service” is anathema to a company who claims its mission to crawl all publicly available information, organize it, and make it available.

It’s one thing to ask that Google not use Facebook’s own social graph and private data to build new social services – after all, the social graph is Facebook’s crown jewels. But it’s quite another thing to ask Google to ignore other public information completely.

From Google’s point of view, Facebook was crippling future products and services that Google might create, which was tantamount to an insurance policy of sorts that Google wouldn’t become a strong competitor, at least not one that  leverages public information from Facebook. Google balked. If Facebook’s demand could have been interpreted as also applying to Google’s search results, well, that’s a stone cold deal killer.

I certainly understand why Facebook might ask for what they did, it’s not crazy. Google might well have responded by narrowing the deal, saying “Fine, you don’t build a search engine, and we won’t build a social network. But we should have the right to create other kinds of social services.” As far as I know, Google didn’t chose to say that. (Microsoft apparently did). And I think I know why: The two companies realized they were dancing on the head of a pin. Search = social, social = search. They couldn’t figure out a way to tease the two apart. Microsoft has cast its lot with Facebook, Google, not so much.

When high stakes deals fall apart, both sides usually claim the other is at fault, and that certainly seems to be the case here. It’s also the case with the Twitter deal, which I’ve gotten a fair amount of new information about as well. I hope to dig into that in another post. For now, I want to pull back a second and comment on what I think is really going on here, at least from the perspective of a longer view.

Our Cherished Search Paradigm Is Broken (But We Will Fix It….Eventually)

I think what we have here is a clear indication that the search paradigm we’ve operated under for a decade or so is broken. That paradigm stems from Google’s original letter to shareholders in 2004. Remember this line?Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating.

In many cases, it’s simply naive to claim Google is unbiased or objective. Google often favors its own properties over others, as Danny points out in Real-Life Examples Of How Google’s “Search Plus” Pushes Google+ Over Relevancy and others have also detailed. But there is a reason: if you’re going to show results from all other possible contenders, replete with their associated UI and functional bells and whistles (as Google does with its own Maps, Pages, Plus etc.), well, it’s nearly impossible now to determine which service is the right answer to a particular person’s query. Not to mention, you need to put a deal in place to get all the functionality of the service. Instead, Google has opted, in many cases, to go with their own stuff.

This is not a new idea, by the way. Yahoo’s been doing it this way from the beginning. The contentious issue is that biasing some results toward Google’s own products runs counter to Google’s founding philosophy.

I have a theory as to why all this is happening, and I don’t entirely blame Google. Back when search wasn’t personalized, Google could defensibly say that one service was better than another because it got more traffic, was linked to more (better PageRank), and so on. Back when everyone got the same results and the web was one homogenous glob of HTML, well, you could claim “this is the best result for the general population.” But personalized search has broken that framework – I lamented this back in 2008 with this post: Search Was Our Social Glue. But That Is Dissolving (more here).

With the rise of Facebook and the app economy, the problem of search has become terribly complicated. If you want to have results from Facebook in your search, well, that search service has to do a deal with Facebook. But what if you want results from your running app (I have hundreds of rides and runs logged on AllSportGPS, for example)? Or Instagram? Or Path, for that matter? Do they all have to do deals with Google and Bing? There are so many unconnected pieces of the Internet now (millions of apps, most of our own Facebook experiences, etc. etc.) that what’s a good personal result for one person is not necessarily good for another. If Google is to stay true to its original mission, it needs a new framework and a massive number of new signals – new glue – to put the pieces back together.

There are several ways to resolve this, and in another post, I hope to explore them (one of them, of course, is simply that everyone should just go through Facebook. That’s the vision of Open Graph). But for now, I’m just going to say this: The issues raised by this kerfuffle are far larger than Google vs. Facebook, or Google vs. Twitter. We are in the midst of a major search paradigm shift, and there will be far more tears before it gets resolved. But resolve it must, and resolve it will.

Twitter Statement on Google+ Integration with Google Search

By - January 10, 2012

The integration of Google+ into Google’s native search results has been at the top of Techmeme all day long. And right after I wrote my post on the subject (about four hours ago), Twitter’s general counsel picked up on it, resulting, I believe, in the most RT’s of a Searchblog post in the history of the site.

Just now I received an official statement from Twitter on the subject. I didn’t ask for it – I think it must have been sent out to a large list of press and bloggers. Here it is in full:

For years, people have relied on Google to deliver the most relevant results anytime they wanted to find something on the Internet.

Often, they want to know more about world events and breaking news. Twitter has emerged as a vital source of this real-time information, with more than 100 million users sending 250 million Tweets every day on virtually every topic. As we’ve seen time and time again, news breaks first on Twitter; as a result, Twitter accounts and Tweets are often the most relevant results.

We’re concerned that as a result of Google’s changes, finding this information will be much harder for everyone. We think that’s bad for people, publishers, news organizations and Twitter users.

Meanwhile, my aside at the bottom of the post wondering about anti-trust has been echoed by any number of well known commentators. I wonder if Facebook is about to make a statement?

For what it’s worth, I wrote about all this, after a fashion, in this post in 2009:

Google v. Facebook? What We Learn from Twitter.

Search, Plus Your World, As Long As It’s Our World

By -

Perusing my feeds today, I saw this post from Google’s blog:

Search, plus Your World

In the post, Google extols the virtues of incorporating results such as “your personal content or things shared with you by people you care about. These wonderful people and this rich personal content is currently missing from your search experience. Search is still limited to a universe of webpages created publicly, mostly by people you’ve never met. Today, we’re changing that by bringing your world, rich with people and information, into search.”

OH MY GOD! thinks I. GOOGLE IS FINALLY WORKING WITH FACEBOOK!

Nah, just kidding. What’s really going on is that Google is fully incorporating Google+ into its index. It’s as if Facebook doesn’t exist.

Now, I’ve been on this one before, and I’m sure others will point it out, or simply roll their eyes and call it a dead issue. Dead because we all know that Google hasn’t made peace with Facebook, and therefore is not crawling Facebook data, nor integrating Facebook results into its core search product in any other way than what’s absolutely necessary (ie those lame public Facebook profile pages). Facebook, in turn, has not made most of what happens inside Facebook available to search engines. It’s a standoff, because neither company really knows how to value the other company’s partnership.

And it sucks for the web. The unwillingness of Facebook and Google to share a public commons when it comes to the intersection of search and social is corrosive to the connective tissue of our shared culture. But as with all things Internet, we’ll just identify the damage and route around it. It’s just too bad we have to do that, and in the long run, it’s bad for Facebook, bad for Google, and bad for all of us. (BTW, Google also doesn’t show Twitter or Flickr results either, or any other “social” service. Just its own, Google+ and Picasa.)

Google addresses this issue in a SEL piece today:  “Facebook and Twitter and other services, basically, their terms of service don’t allow us to crawl them deeply and store things. Google+ is the only [network] that provides such a persistent service,” (said Google exec Amit) Singhal. “Of course, going forward, if others were willing to change, we’d look at designing things to see how it would work.”

Er, something tells me hell will freeze over first. Google’s already failed to get a data deal done with both Twitter and Facebook. I doubt they’ll take another run at it soon, though I wish they would.

Instead, we have the deepening trend of each of the Internet Big Five trying to be All Things to All People, creating a World That If Only You’d Use Exclusively, You’d Never Have To Leave.

Ick. Remember when Google used to be a neutral player that crawled the Whole Dern Web? So sad to see that era pass. It’s not Google’s fault, entirely, but it’s sad nonetheless.

NB: I should add that I am fully aware that the integration of G+, and *only* G+, into Google’s search service is a major win for Google’s fledgling social service. I’d expect a big bump in usage due to this, if the integration is done well (ie, doesn’t irritate users). It’s clearly “tying” in the sense of what Microsoft got slapped for in its DOJ antitrust case in the late 90s, but the context is different – Google doesn’t have a clear monopoly in search, just a pretty darn big one. If Microsoft really wanted to mess with Google, it could shut down Bing. Then Google might have some problems on its hands. Stranger things….

Predictions 2012 #6: “The Corporation” Becomes A Central Societal Question Mark

By - January 09, 2012

Amidst all the chaos, tragedy, and tumult that was 2011, I noticed one very clear theme: Most of us are struggling with the role corporations play in our society. The 14th Amendment (yes, the one that banished slavery) established corporations, in the US, as “persons” in the legal sense. In 2010, Citizens v. United sanctified corporations as equivalent to you and I in terms of political speech; in 2011, we began to see the impact of that decision on our political process here in the US (in short, follow the money).  The freedom to “associate in corporate form,” as it is termed in portions of the Citizens decision, is one I sense all of us are not entirely certain about. Corporations are utterly undemocratic organizations, and being a part of one is often not a choice, but a necessity. Does joining a corporation mean that you must defend that corporations’ point of view and now Constitutionally-protected right to speech?

Usually, at least in practice, the answer is yes. That corporation is paying your salary, and keeping food on your family’s table. Speaking out against it would be folly. This creates a tension in society that is clearly starting to surface. We overthrew the feudal system in the 1600s, and the theocracy in the 1700s. But currently, corporations play similar roles in many of our lives, either directly or indirectly.

Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement is one expression of this tension, but I’m not certain it will be the only one. Corporations are arguably the most powerful institutions in human history, more powerful than all but the largest governments. If that sounds silly, remember that the cash and cash equivalent hoard of the Internet Big Five – $180 billion and counting – is larger than the GDP of all but 50 countries. And that doesn’t account for leverage. The top 1000 corporations in the US are holding nearly a trillion dollars in pure cash.

From a balance sheet prospective, corporations are in far, far better shape than just about every country in the world. Even as our personal incomes shrink on a per capita basis, and the world dips in an out of what feels like an eternal recession, corporate profits are up and up again.

This feels a bit out of whack. And while #OWS is one reaction to that dissonance, I’m not sure it’ll be the only one. I think 2012 is the year we all start to question the role corporations can and should play in our society, and doing so won’t (or shouldn’t) be seen as an indication of some leftist or political agenda, but rather as a reasonable outgrowth of how a thinking person sorts through the solution of some of our most pressing problems. Because at the end of the day, we can’t really solve those problems without organizing ourselves into commercial entities. The question, however, is simply this: Can we organize ourselves into corporations without ending up doing things that, if one were to judge corporations as people, would be considered amoral, evil, or psychopathic?

So far, the results are mixed at best. But I have a strong sense that we can and will do better when it comes to how we manage our corporations. And it starts with the industry we’re all part of. While it can be disputed endlessly as to its specific merits, Google’s informal corporate mantra of “Don’t Be Evil” was a watershed moment in the history of corporations. And as “The Information” becomes the most important currency in our culture, and the ability to code (and create great information-driven products) becomes its most prized skill, we’re seeing the rise of a new kind of corporate leader. Perhaps we’re shifting from corporate skillsets that value profit over all other metrics (psychopathic qualities which arguably led us to the financial crisis) to ones that value, well, doing well by doing good.

It could happen. But I’m not arguing it will in 2012. What I am predicting is that this debate will become central to our political and cultural conversation in 2012. It feels like it’s time to have it, without screaming at each other in the process.

And by the way, this is where corporate marketing comes in, in a critical way, but more on that in another post.

 

Related:

Predictions 2012: #1 – On Twitter and Media

Predictions 2012: #2 – Twitter As Free Radical, Swiss Bank, Arms Merchant…And Google Five Years Ago

Predictions 2012 #3: The Facebook Ad Network

Predictions 2012 #4: Google’s Challenging Year

Predictions 2012 #5: A Big Year for M&A

Predictions 2011

2011: How I Did

Predictions 2010

2010: How I Did

2009 Predictions

2009 How I Did

2008 Predictions

2008 How I Did

2007 Predictions

2007 How I Did

2006 Predictions

2006 How I Did

2005 Predictions

2005 How I Did

2004 Predictions

2004 How I Did

“We need some angry nerds”

By - November 30, 2011

Jonathan Zittrain has an important op ed up on Harvard’s site, and I hope all of you will go read it. It sums up many of the points that I hit as I write here at Searchblog, and that will enliven my next book What We Hath Wrought. Key points:

Rising numbers of mobile, lightweight, cloud-centric devices don’t merely represent a change in form factor. Rather, we’re seeing an unprecedented shift of power from end users and software developers on the one hand, to operating system vendors on the other—and even those who keep their PCs are being swept along. This is a little for the better, and much for the worse…..

…in 2008, Apple announced a software development kit for the iPhone. Third-party developers would be welcome to write software for the phone, in just the way they’d done for years with Windows and Mac OS. With one epic exception: users could install software on a phone only if it was offered through Apple’s iPhone App Store. Developers were to be accredited by Apple, and then each individual app was to be vetted, at first under standards that could be inferred only through what made it through and what didn’t. For example, apps that emulated or even improved on Apple’s own apps weren’t allowed.

The original sin behind the Microsoft case was made much worse. The issue wasn’t whether it would be possible to buy an iPhone without Apple’s Safari browser. It was that no other browser would be permitted…

….Developers can’t duplicate functionality already on offer in the Store. They can’t license their work as Free Software, because those license terms conflict with Apple’s.

The content restrictions are unexplored territory. At the height of Windows’s market dominance, Microsoft had no role in determining what software would and wouldn’t run on its machines, much less whether the content inside that software was to be allowed to see the light of screen…

…tech companies are in the business of approving, one by one, the text, images, and sounds that we are permitted to find and experience on our most common portals to the networked world. Why would we possibly want this to be how the world of ideas works, and why would we think that merely having competing tech companies—each of which is empowered to censor—solves the problem?

This is especially troubling as governments have come to realize that this framework makes their own censorship vastly easier…

…A flowering of innovation and communication was ignited by the rise of the PC and the Web and their generative characteristics. Software was installed one machine at a time, a relationship among myriad software makers and users. Sites could appear anywhere on the Web, a relationship among myriad webmasters and surfers. Now activity is clumping around a handful of portals: two or three OS makers that are in a position to manage all apps (and content within them) in an ongoing way….

….If we allow ourselves to be lulled into satisfaction with walled gardens, we’ll miss out on innovations to which the gardeners object, and we’ll set ourselves up for censorship of code and content that was previously impossible. We need some angry nerds.

I’m not a nerd, quite, but I’m sure angry.

Facebook and the FTC Announce A Deal, For Now

By - November 29, 2011

The Federal Trade Commission and Facebook have come to terms on consumer privacy, an issue the FTC formally raised in an eight-count complaint earlier this year. Both sides have announced the pact in their own particular way.

On Facebook’s blog, CEO Mark Zuckerberg strikes a diplomatic tone with a dash of mea culpa.

“Overall, I think we have a good history of providing transparency and control over who can see your information,” he writes. “That said, I’m the first to admit that we’ve made a bunch of mistakes. In particular, I think that a small number of high profile mistakes…have often overshadowed much of the good work we’ve done.”

Over at the FTC website, FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz and his press team are a bit more, well, strident. In reviewing the original complaint, the FTC nearly crows:

“The social networking service Facebook has agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it deceived consumers by telling them they could keep their information on Facebook private, and then repeatedly allowing it to be shared and made public.”

The release goes on to categorize the issues at hand in a pretty prosecutorial fashion:

“The FTC complaint lists a number of instances in which Facebook allegedly made promises that it did not keep:

  • In December 2009, Facebook changed its website so certain information that users may have designated as private – such as their Friends List – was made public. They didn’t warn users that this change was coming, or get their approval in advance.
  • Facebook represented that third-party apps that users’ installed would have access only to user information that they needed to operate. In fact, the apps could access nearly all of users’ personal data – data the apps didn’t need.
  • Facebook told users they could restrict sharing of data to limited audiences – for example with “Friends Only.” In fact, selecting “Friends Only” did not prevent their information from being shared with third-party applications their friends used.
  • Facebook had a “Verified Apps” program & claimed it certified the security of participating apps. It didn’t.
  • Facebook promised users that it would not share their personal information with advertisers. It did.
  • Facebook claimed that when users deactivated or deleted their accounts, their photos and videos would be inaccessible. But Facebook allowed access to the content, even after users had deactivated or deleted their accounts.
  • Facebook claimed that it complied with the U.S.- EU Safe Harbor Framework that governs data transfer between the U.S. and the European Union. It didn’t.

The proposed settlement bars Facebook from making any further deceptive privacy claims, requires that the company get consumers’ approval before it changes the way it shares their data, and requires that it obtain periodic assessments of its privacy practices by independent, third-party auditors for the next 20 years.”

Zuckerberg makes the point that Facebook hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands when it comes to these issues.

“For Facebook, this means we’re making a clear and formal long-term commitment to do the things we’ve always tried to do and planned to keep doing — giving you tools to control who can see your information and then making sure only those people you intend can see it….In the last 18 months alone, we’ve announced more than 20 new tools and resources designed to give you more control over your Facebook experience….

…privacy is so deeply embedded in all of the development we do that every day tens of thousands of servers worth of computational resources are consumed checking to make sure that on any webpage we serve, that you have access to see each of the sometimes hundreds or even thousands of individual pieces of information that come together to form a Facebook page. This includes everything from every post on a page to every tag in those posts to every mutual friend shown when you hover over a person’s name. We do privacy access checks literally tens of billions of times each day to ensure we’re enforcing that only the people you want see your content. These privacy principles are written very deeply into our code.”

I think this kind of back and forth between the institutions we entrust with our data – like Facebook – and those we entrust to oversee the common good – our government – is healthy and good for society. The bigger question, to my mind, is what kind of culture we are becoming as we decide to share all this information, regardless of whether we truly understand or even consider the implications of doing so.

The settlement will enter a period of public comment for the next month, then, presumably, it will be finalized.

A copy of the settlement can be found here.

 

Facebook and Commenting Systems: Still Some Open Questions

By - November 22, 2011

I’ve always been quite interested in commenting systems for the Independent Web, and when it came time to redesign this site, I chose to use Disqus, an independent company that is a leader in the space. Disqus has its detractors, but it has many more fans. The company has nearly 1 million sites using the services and is rolling out new features very quickly.

I did make a conscious choice to *not* use Facebook’s Commenting system. And while I could have justified the decision on pure features (I think Disqus still wins there), it’s more based on my belief in the Independent Web. I prefer to not have this valuable portion of my own domain controlled by a major identity platform with which I have some basic philosophical differences. (In short, I do not agree with the company’s stance on identity, among a few other things).

However, I was curious if others felt the same way. Apparently, the answer is no, if the numbers are any indication. Last night I asked this question on Quora: How many websites use facebook commenting? I’m curious if the service is growing, slowing, or flat?  I also emailed people I know at Facebook, and tweeted it. By this morning, Facebook gave me the answer (oddly, it did not show up on Google search, but that may because the two companies are retarded when it comes to sharing access to each other’s platforms. That’s a whole ‘nother story).

In short, Disqus was at around 750,000 sites as of May of this year. Four months later, in August, Facebook reported that it was at 400,000 sites. That’s darn good given the service is not yet one year old.

Now my question is this: What is the makeup of sites that use Facebook Comments versus Disqus, WordPress, or others like LiveFyre? I’d wager the sites using Facebook tend to be larger publishers, as well as very small publishers who are mainly hobbyists. I’d be very interested in the answer to that question. Any takers?