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The Obama Valley Dinner: POTUS Got the Seating Chart Wrong

By - March 18, 2011

This one has bugged me for some time, but I’ve not had the time to write it. Now that I’m on a plane for the next four hours, and it has Wifi, I can finally get around to bitching out loud about the photo below:

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Now this photo was widely discussed when it was released by the White House, a few weeks ago. Folks speculated on who the people were that we couldn’t see (the woman with her back to us? The guy next to Zuckerberg?!), and while I may know who those folks are, that’s not my point.

Although my point *is* about the seating chart.

Because if you don’t think a team of protocol and political experts didn’t plan out who sat where in relation to POTUS, well, you’re just not very familiar with how Washington DC does dinner parties. Who sits where, and why, is more than discussed. It’s debated, it’s determined, and it sends a clear message to all concerned. And when a photo like this is released by the White House, it declares to the public a definitive and particular pecking order.

So, with that in mind, is it any surprise that the two leaders who received the privilege of sitting next to President Obama were Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg?

After all, they do rank very high in the Valley – probably in the top three, if not top two, though Eric Schmidt might take issue with that (and Lord knows Larry Ellison will too, but come on).

But what matters here is not who the Valley thinks are the most important folks in the realm. What matters is what Washington, and in particular the White House, believes, and in particular what message, if any, it wants to send through a photo like this.

And I am, quite frankly, disappointed with the seating chart.

Why? Well, because this administration is supposedly all about openness. It’s got the Open Government Initiative, after all, with a conference focusing on samesaid this very week. At the top of its Valley policy agenda is privacy, again with a focus on transparency. Not to mention how the adminsitration has stood up time and again for the open Internet in foreign policy matters.

So why are the CEOs of the two companies with the most closed and controlling data ecosystems – Facebook and Apple – sitting right next to the President?

I’d argue the White House missed an opportunity to send a subtle message – one favoring open platforms, open data exchange, and transparency about data use. Had those been factored into the seating chart, I’d wager that Schmidt and Costolo would have been sitting next to Obama, and Zuckerberg and Jobs would have languished a bit nearer toward the ends of the table. Sure, neither Twitter nor Google are innocent when it comes to how they disclose use of data, but both are clear champions of openness in computing ecosystems, as well as active agents of change in foreign policy issues. I mean, check out this tweet from Dick, and this post from Google, just for starters. And that’s just China….

Just thinking out loud here. End of rant.

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Do We Trust The Government With The Internet?

By - February 18, 2011

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As you all know each day I summarize links I find worth reading, toss in a few lines of offhand commentary, and send it out as “Signal.” So far a few thousand folks have subscribed to it, and while it’s not exactly Pulitzer material, it’s fun to do and it is a nice way of forcing myself to not just read the news, but think about it as well.

Last night, quite late it turns out (I had a dinner), I once again sat down to do Signal. The first piece I came across (from the WSJ) sparked something of a rant in me. I’m going to re-post it here, for this audience, to see if it sparks any kind of response.

The backstory is simple: The Journal article, which covered a Congressional hearing on the FCC’s approach to regulating the Internet, opened with this: “In a contentious hearing, House Republicans attacked new regulations for broadband Internet lines and criticized the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for adopting them.”

I read on – I’ve been interested in this issue for years, as many readers know. This particular hearing centered on the concept of net neutrality, which I support, though your mileage on the definition of that term may vary. (More on that here).

In any case, the third paragraph of the article opens with a quote from Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was this quote that sparked my Signal mini-rant. Here is is, in full, with a bit more formatting added:

”Why would you put the government in charge of the Internet?” asks the Republican leader.

Well that certainly begs a pretty big-picture question, don’t it?! Perhaps because we trust in both the Internet and our government? Because that government is supposedly under the “rule of the people” in a “democratic system”? I mean, why the hell have a government if we don’t actually believe in what it embodies?

Do we not believe that the Internet is a resource fundamental to freedom, innovation, and our shared humanity (Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran…)? I think we can all agree to that. So in what system should we entrust the Internet? I’d argue it should be within our best expression of shared and collective will – so far, that’s what we call democracy, no? Sure, it’s messy, but I guess the question then becomes, can we trust our government, messy as it is? Or is it the enemy?

Is unfettered capitalism a better approach? I’d certainly prefer the Internet be governed by a system in which we can vote the bastards out should they mess it up. If they regulate to the point where innovation and freedom suffer, then vote them out. If they leave it unregulated to the point where choice is stifled and we pay more each year for less, vote them out. If instead we opt for a total free-market approach, OK cool, I hope it works out. But if companies have the ability to lock in access, content, services, and innovation, well, history teaches us that a few of them will certainly work hard to do just that.

And if they win? Well, by that time, it might be hard to vote ‘em out. A good debate to have, no doubt.

What do you guys think?

Apple Shows Its Colors?

By - February 01, 2011

Today news comes (from the NYT) that Apple has shifted its approach to content sales, no longer allowing content owners to directly sell access to their own content via apps on iTunes.

This is ridiculous, and if it proves out, spells the end of the media’s love affair with Apple and its platform. Mark my words. Apple’s crossed a line here, and in a short time, it will retreat back. If it does not, it will only power competition where purveyors of fine content can exist without Apple’s universal platform tax. The folks at Google/Android must be doing cartwheels this morning.

Then again, it could be that there’s nothing to this, and it was a random act. The Times piece is sourced to Sony, who may have simply misinterpreted Apple’s current rules – that’s Venturebeat’s speculation. We’ll see.

Google Instant Isn't Opinion, Apparently?

By - December 13, 2010

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I was just reading this piece from Fast Company: Top Google Engineer: Google Instant Has No Brand Bias, and this quote struck me:

“What we do at Google and what we’ve done for years is to not inject any subjectivity into these algorithms,” says Amit Singhal, Google Fellow and head of the company’s search quality, ranking, and algorithm team. “We didn’t want to introduce any bias into the mathematical modeling–our modeling is predicting, given a letter, what’s the probability of completion.

Singhal is speaking about Google Instant, which has apparently accused of bias in its suggested search algorithm. I believe he’s speaking the truth – that when it comes to whatever is suggested, it’s pretty much all math, save a few human-coded exceptions around porn, etc.

But the problem Google has is that when it says one thing about one algorithm, it resonates around all others. This is the curse of PageRank – one ring to rule them all, at least in the minds of most consumers. And in that sense, it directly contradicts Google’s take on the “objectivity” of algorithms, as I discussed here. In short, it’s in Google’s interest to say algorithms are protected speech (opinions), and therefore protected by the First Amendment.

Apparently, that doesn’t apply to Google Instant. Hmmm.

Google, China, Wikileaks: The Actual Cable

By - December 08, 2010

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When the Wikileaks story broke, I wrote a short piece chastising folks for blogging the assertion that one of the cables proves the Chinese government was behind the Google hacking which preceded Google’s pulling out of the country. The cable is based on single sources, who are anonymous and second-hand, and that doesn’t pass the journalistic sniff test.

My colleague Matt McAlister at the Guardian has sent me the link to the entire cable, and while I stand by my original take on the story, it sure is intriguing to read. In fact, the details I find most interesting are the interactions alleged between Baidu and the Chinese goverment.

From the cable:

….

Another contact claimed a top PRC leader was actively working with Google competitor Baidu against Google.

….

Google’s recent move presented a major dilemma (maodun) for the Chinese government, not because of the cyber-security aspect but because of Google’s direct challenge to China’s legal restrictions on Internet content. The immediate strategy, XXXXXXXXXXXX said, seemed to be to appeal to Chinese nationalism by accusing Google and the U.S. government of working together to force China to accept “Western values” and undermine China’s rule of law. The problem the censors were facing, however, was that Google’s demand to deliver uncensored search results was very difficult to spin as an attack on China, and the entire episode had made Google more interesting and attractive to Chinese Internet users. All of a sudden, XXXXXXXXXXXX continued, Baidu looked like a boring state-owned enterprise while Google “seems very attractive, like the forbidden fruit.”

….

XXXXXXXXXXXX noted the pronounced disconnect between views of U.S. parent companies and local subsidiaries. PRC-based company officials often downplayed the extent of PRC government interference in their operations for fear of consequences for their local markets. Our contact emphasized that Google and other U.S. companies in China were struggling with the stated Chinese goal of technology transfer for the purpose of excluding foreign competition. This consultant noted the Chinese were exploiting the global economic downturn to enact increasingly draconian product certification and government procurement regulations to force foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) to transfer intellectual property and to carve away the market share of foreign companies.

Why Wouldn't Google Mirror Wikileaks?

By - December 07, 2010

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(image) Consider: Your mission is to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible.” You thumbed your nose at Wall Street, and you proved them wrong. You’ve stood up to the entire media industry by purchasing YouTube and defending fair use in the face of extraordinary pressure. You’ve done the same with the political and economic giant that is China*. And you’re hanging the entirety of your defense against European monopoly charges on the premise of free speech.

So why not take a bold step, and stand with Wikileaks? The world’s largest Internet company taking a clear stand would be huge news, and it’d call the bloviating bluff of all the politicians acting out of fear of embarrassment, or worse. The Wikileaks story may well be, as pointed out by many, the most important and defining story of the Internet age.

It just might prove to be the smartest PR move Google ever made. (And it could, of course, prove to be the exact opposite). And it looks, so far, like rival Facebook is leaning toward supporting Wikileaks.

After all, tens of millions of Stieg Larsson readers can’t be wrong…and I’m guessing they all see the charges against Assange as driven by more than trumped up sex scandal or politically motivated condemnation. Honestly, Larsson himself could not have written a better potboiler than what’s unfolding before us.

Just thinking out loud. What do you think?

*(And hey, it turns out Wikileaks may have already done Google a solid when it comes to China…)

Google's "Opinion" Sparks Interesting Dialog On Tying of Services to Search

By - December 02, 2010

the search cover.pngYesterday’s post on Google having an algorithmic “opinion” about which reviews were negative or positive sparked a thoughtful response from Matt Cutts, Google’s point person on search quality, and for me raised a larger question about Google’s past, present, and future.

In his initial comment (which is *his* opinion, not Google’s, I am sure), Cutts remarked:

“…the “opinion” in that sentence refers to the fact our web search results are protected speech in the First Amendment sense. Court cases in the U.S. (search for SearchKing or Kinderstart) have ruled that Google’s search results are opinion. This particular situation serves to demonstrate that fact: Google decided to write an algorithm to tackle the issue reported in the New York Times. We chose which signals to incorporate and how to blend them. Ultimately, although the results that emerge from that process are algorithmic, I would absolutely defend that they’re also our opinion as well, not some mathematically objective truth.”

While Matt is simply conversing on a blog post, the point he makes is not just a legal nit, it’s a core defense of Google’s entire business model. In two key court cases, Google has prevailed with a first amendment defense. Matt reviews these in his second comment:

“SearchKing sued Google and the resulting court case ruled that Google’s actions were protected under the first amendment. Later, KinderStart sued Google. You would think that the SearchKing case would cover the issue, but part of KinderStart’s argument was that Google talked about the mathematical aspects of PageRank in our website documentation. KinderStart not only lost that lawsuit, but KinderStart’s lawyer was sanctioned for making claims he couldn’t back up… After the KinderStart lawsuit, we went through our website documentation. Even though Google won the case, we tried to clarify where possible that although we employ algorithms in our rankings, ultimately we consider our search results to be our opinion.”

The key point, however, is made a bit later, and it’s worth highlighting:

“(the) courts have agreed … that there’s no universally agreed-upon way to rank search results in response to a query. Therefore, web rankings (even if generated by an algorithm) are are an expression of that search engine’s particular philosophy.”

Matt reminded us that he’s made this point before, on Searchblog four years ago:

“When savvy people think about Google, they think about algorithms, and algorithms are an important part of Google. But algorithms aren’t magic; they don’t leap fully-formed from computers like Athena bursting from the head of Zeus. Algorithms are written by people. People have to decide the starting points and inputs to algorithms. And quite often, those inputs are based on human contributions in some way.”

Back then, Matt also took pains to point out that his words were his opinion, not Google’s.

So let me pivot from Matt’s opinion to mine. All of this is fraught, to my mind, with implications of the looming European investigation. The point of the European action, it seems to me, is to find a smoking gun that proves Google is using a “natural monopoly” in search to favor its own products over those of competitors.

Danny has pointed out the absurdity of such an investigation if the point is to prove Google favors its search results over the search results of competitors like Bing or others. But I think the case will turn on different products, or perhaps, a different definition of what constititues “search results.” The question isn’t whether Google should show compeitors standard search results, it’s whether Google favors its owned and operated services, such as those in local (Google Places instead of Foursquare, Facebook etc), commerce (Checkout instead of Paypal), video (YouTube instead of Hulu etc.), content (Google Finance instead of Yahoo Finance or others, Blogger instead of WordPress, its bookstore over others, etc.), applications (Google Apps instead of MS Office), and on and on.

That is a very tricky question. After all, aren’t those “search results” also? As I wrote eons ago in my book, this most certainly is a philosophical question. Back in 2005, I compared Yahoo’s approach to search with Google’s:

Yahoo makes no pretense of objectivity – it is clearly steering searchers toward its own editorial services, which it believes can satisfy the intent of the search. … Apparent in that sentiment lies a key distinction between Google and Yahoo. Yahoo is far more willing to have overt editorial and commercial agendas, and to let humans intervene in search results so as to create media that supports those agendas. Google, on the other hand, is repelled by the idea of becoming a content- or editorially-driven company. While both companies can ostensibly lay claim to the mission of “organizing the world’s information and making it accessible” (though only Google actually claims that line as its mission), they approach the task with vastly different stances. Google sees the problem as one that can be solved mainly through technology – clever algorithms and sheer computational horsepower will prevail. Humans enter the search picture only when algorithms fail – and only then grudgingly. But Yahoo has always viewed the problem as one where human beings, with all their biases and brilliance, are integral to the solution.

I then predicted some conflict in the future:

But expect some tension over the next few years, in particular with regard to content. In late 2004, for example, Google announced they would be incorporating millions of library texts into its index, but made no announcements about the role the company might play in selling those texts. A month later, Google launched a video search service, but again, stayed mum on if and how it might participate in the sale of television shows and movies over the Internet.

Besides the obvious – I bet Google wishes it had gotten into content sales back in 2004, given the subsequent rise of iTunes – there’s still a massive tension here, between search services that the world believes to be “objective” and Google’s desire to compete given how the market it is in is evolving.

Not to belabor this, but here’s more from my book on this issue, which feels pertinent given the issues Google now faces, both in Europe and in the US with major content providers:

… for Google to put itself into the position of media middle man is a perilous gambit – in particular given that its corporate DNA eschews the almighty dollar as an arbiter of which content might rise to the top of the heap for a particular search. Playing middle man means that in the context of someone looking for a movie, Google will determine the most relevant result for terms like “slapstick comedy” or “romantic musical” or “jackie chan film.” For music, it means Google will determine what comes first for “usher,” but it also means it will have to determine what should come first when someone is looking for “hip hop.”

Who gets to be first in such a system? Who gets the traffic, the business, the profits? How do you determine, of all the possibilities, who wins and who loses? In the physical world, the answer is clear: whoever pays the most gets the positioning, whether it’s on the supermarket shelf or the bin-end of a record store. ….But Google, more likely than not, will attempt to come up with a clever technological solution that attempts to determine the most “objective” answer for any given term, be it “romantic comedy” or “hip hop.” Perhaps the ranking will be based on some mix of PageRank, download statistics, and Lord knows what else, but one thing will be certain: Google will never tell anyone how they came to the results they serve up. Which creates something of a Catch-22 when it comes to monetization. Will Hollywood really be willing to trust Google to distribute and sell their content absent the commercial world’s true ranking methodology: cold, hard cash?

…Search drives commerce, and commerce drives search. The two ends are meeting, inexolerably, in the middle, and every major Internet player, from eBay to Microsoft, wants in. Google may be tops in search for now, but in time, being tops in search will certainly not be enough.

Clearly, as a new decade unfolds, search alone is not enough anymore, and my prediction that Google will protect itself with the shield of “objectivity” has been upended. But the question of how Google ties its massive lead in search to its new businesses in local, content, applications, and other major markets remains tricky, and at this point, quite unresolved.

In Google's Opinion….

By - December 01, 2010

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Wow, I’ve never seen this before. Check out Google’s post, responding to the New York Times story about a bad actor who had figured out a way to make a living leveraging what he saw as holes in Google’s approach to ranking.

How Google ranks is the subject of increasing scrutiny, including and particularly in Europe.

From Google’s blog:

Even though our initial analysis pointed to this being an edge case and not a widespread problem in our search results, we immediately convened a team that looked carefully at the issue. That team developed an initial algorithmic solution, implemented it, and the solution is already live.

What I find fascinating is the way Google handled this. Read this carefully:

Instead, in the last few days we developed an algorithmic solution which detects the merchant from the Times article along with hundreds of other merchants that, in our opinion, provide an extremely poor user experience. The algorithm we incorporated into our search rankings represents an initial solution to this issue, and Google users are now getting a better experience as a result.

What word stands out? Yep, “opinion.”

Think on that for a second. If ever there was an argument that algorithms are subjective, there it is.

(Oh, and by the way, the last paragraph in the blog post clearly is directed at the regulators in Europe, if you think about it….)

Not Proof, but Another Lead: WikiLeaks' Latest Includes Google/China Tip

By - November 28, 2010

Screen shot 2010-03-24 at 9.33.21 AM.pngAccording the the NYT’s coverage of today’s WikiLeaks trove (only a small percentage have been released publicly, the rest have been reviewed by the Times):

China’s Politburo directed the intrusion into Google’s computer systems in that country, a Chinese contact told the American Embassy in Beijing in January, one cable reported. The Google hacking was part of a coordinated campaign of computer sabotage carried out by government operatives, private security experts and Internet outlaws recruited by the Chinese government. They have broken into American government computers and those of Western allies, the Dalai Lama and American businesses since 2002, cables said.

However, there is nothing in this reporting that justifies how TechCrunch headlined its coverage:

WikiLeaked Diplomatic Cables Confirm China’s Politburo Was Behind Google Hacking Incident

No, guys, it does not confirm it. Re-read that paragraph. It says one source told another that it was the government. That does not qualify as a “confirmation” in any journalistic sense.

I searched for the original cable, but it has not been released yet. All we have is the summary above.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski: This Is Getting Very Real

By - November 19, 2010

If I could sum up the overarching theme of our conference this year, it’s that “this sh*t is getting real.” Plucky startups with funny names have consolidated power, and are disrupting the entire global economy. This, of course, means things are “getting real” from the point of view of government and policy as well. Here’s a candid conversation with one of the key policy chiefs, FCC Chair Julius Genachowski.