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Google v. China? No, It's Bigger Than That

By - March 24, 2010

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Yesterday a crew ambled into my FM offices from ABC News, setting up quite an array of lights and equipment to shoot an interview. The topic was Google and China. Now, I’m a veteran of these situations, as is my staff, and fortunately the commotion was limited to my office, and the 45 minutes or so of set up happened while many of us were in a meeting.  

When they were ready, I sat down for the conversation and enjoyed my talk with the producer, who was piped in via mobile phone. We talked about many of the nuanced issues involved in this particular story. The crew in the room with me also seemed keen to have an informed dialog. I sensed the piece would be pretty intelligent.

But….instead of nuance, we get a story framed as “a battle of titans” – Google v. China, the death match! “Game on!” is how Diane Sawyer opened the piece. “Who will fire the next shot?!” the reporter asks in conclusion. I’m quoted somewhere in the middle, saying that China employs a large number of Internet police, a well-known fact that I mentioned more as a set up to another point. It all begs the question of why they bothered sending the crew in the first place, but …. at least the major networks are paying attention to the story.

And in a way, that’s really the story here. A private company has pushed a very public and political issue into the minds of several significant constituencies. First and foremost, Google’s move has forced China’s hand, and given those inside the country who may disagree with China’s own policies a clear example of their own leadership’s shortcomings. As the NYT points out today:

China also does not acknowledge to its own people that it censors the Internet to exclude a wide range of political and social topics that its leaders believe could lead to instability. It does not release information on the number of censors it employs or the technology it uses for the world’s most sophisticated Internet firewall. Its 350 million Internet users, many with fast broadband connections, are assured they have the same effectively limitless access to information and communications that the rest of the world enjoys.

Google publicly challenged that stance in January, and reinforced its ideological opposition to China’s policies by finally pulling the plug on its mainland search engine after a failed round of talks with Chinese officials. That forced Chinese leaders to defend their control of the Web…

Thanks to Google’s move, thousands, if not millions, of Chinese now understand the extend to which their own government has been duping them. And those who already knew have a new ally, and perhaps additional courage to continue change from within.

A second significant constituency is the US public. To my mind the US has been lured into complacency about China, forgiving China’s violation of core human rights as a cultural matter best swept under the rug. The main reason? Business! Profit! Huge markets! (Oh, and the massive number of US dollars now controlled by our pals in Beijing). It’s a classic conflict of American values: We are society built on freedom of speech and religion, both of which are brutally controlled by the Chinese government. But we are also a society built on capitalism and the profit motive. It’s clear which one had won in the court of US public opinion – until Google made a decision which forced all of us to think about it in a new light.

A third constituency, related to the first two, are the governments of both the US and China, as well as the executives who run major corporations based in the US. As public awareness and opinion unfolds in both countries, I can imagine shifts in both policy as well as practice in both public and private spheres. We now have an administration whose reflexive approach to China’s moral conflict with American values isn’t to sweep it under the rug, for one.

And if you are running a company that competes with Google in the US, chances are you find yourself in a pretty uncomfortable place this morning – answering to employees, shareholders, and consumers this question: Why can Google practice a values-based approach to business, but you cannot?

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Come to think of it, that’s a question that the US government should be asked as well. And inside the government, you can bet it’s already come up.

Meanwhile, news breaks today that Google’s main site was hacked, with its management bio page turned into Chinese characters (see image at left). Hmmm. Petty retaliation? I doubt it. But yet another strange twist to an ongoing tale.

The broadcast is here, you can watch the piece starting at around 9.15. I tried to use Hulu’s vaunted sharing features to embed just a clip, but the company seems to have caved to the TV overlords and disabled it. That’ll be a subject of another rant.

The Signal – Instrumenting Our Social Lives

By - March 16, 2010

From my FM column: Tuesday Signal: Get Ready for a Real Conversation About Privacy, Publicy, and Social Media

I’ve long said that I’m a fan of social networks and media, of course, but I’ve also pointed out that most of it is artless and ingenuous in comparison with the sophistication each of us has when it comes to “being social.” So far, our technologies lack the instrumentation each of us employs when interacting in the simplest social situation. We have the benefit of hundreds of thousands of years of social evolution – not to mention millions of years of biological evolution. Yet as social creatures we flock to technologies that allow us to express that fundamental need, even if it fails to truly reflect our nature.
What’s heartening is how our culture has begun to ask interesting questions about what this all means – for our businesses, as marketers, as citizens, and as individuals. As Danah Boyd states in her opening keynote at SXSW: “ChatRoulette may be a fad, but the idea that publicity and privacy will get mashed up in new ways will not be.”
Tens of millions have flocked to ChatRoulette – and while it may well be a fad, the impulse which sent so many to “only connect” is not. Understanding who we are as private and public beings will be a fundamental component of what it means to be literate in a modern society. And marketers who make a practice of understanding this will succeed over those who do not.
I predict a punctuation mark in this conversation over the coming months, in the form of Facebook’s public data firehose. Expected at their F8 developer conference this June, the Facebook firehose will allow developers to create all sorts of unexpected applications and services which leverage Facebook status updates, wall posts, and more. Twitter should get the credit for pushing this open architecture, but Facebook’s implementation of it will be revelatory – and not necessarily in ways that might be positive. I predict one of the first applications created will be a site publishing Really Stupid Pictures You Probably Should Not Have Posted To Facebook, for example. Cue media frenzy and….well you get the picture.

Video Chat on the Plane? Illegal? OK? Legal Gray Area?

By - March 10, 2010

201003101937.jpgI’m writing this at around 36,000 feet, on a United Airlines flight between New York and San Francisco. That’s not so unusual – anymore – Wifi had been on planes for over a year now, and I’ve grown accustomed to the service.

Why? Well, because my family also has Wifi, and my kids can now gather around any one of our home computers, fire up iChat, and BAM! they can see me even as I zip across the Nebraska sky at some 400+ mph.

Except tonight, as I was chatting with my lovely wife and two lovely daughters (much to the amusement of my seat mates, using Bose headphones and my MacBook’s built in microphone), the very nice steward – who I must note brought me extra nuts even though he didn’t have to – told me I had to quit my video chat.

“Security. Cameras not allowed!” was the response. There was clearly no argument.

Screen shot 2010-03-10 at 7.17.08 PM.pngI protested, but not too loudly. I don’t want to end up stripped searched in a cold basement cell below SFO, after all. I told my family I had to quit the video chat. My girls were not pleased – today my oldest got a new bed and REALLY wanted to show it off (and let me tuck her into it from an airplane. I mean, how cool is that?! Isn’t that what Cisco makes the commercials about? Or AT&T back in 1994?! You Will? Until someone tells you that you won’t!). My wife spent three hours putting it together, and she wanted me to see it too. (Well really, she wanted me to see the look on our daughter’s face when I saw it, anyone who’s a parent will understand…)

So what’s a curious guy to do? To the Internet! Which is exactly what I did. Responses starting pouring in. Including one from a pal at the State Department, who echoed my basic goal: To use video chat to tuck my kids into bed isn’t a crime. Or at least, shouldn’t be.

Anyway, this is clearly a wonderful charlie horse. The flight attendant just showed me the United policy manual which prohibits “two way devices” from communicating with the ground. However, the PLANE HAS WIFI. To combat this, not unlike China, United and other airlines have blocked Skype and other known video chat offenders. Apparently, they missed Apple iChat. Oops.

DOH! It’s a conundrum! More on this as it develops. My pal at State is working on it….

At least I can still write a post from 36,000 feet. Kids, you’ll have to wait for the tuck-in…for now. (Despite my son and wife’s attempt at busting me by repeatedly inviting me to new video chats…)
(image credit )
Update: My pal at State says she can’t find any government rule against video chat on a plane. She did point me to this FAA fact memo, which says the reason Skype et al are blocked are to stop chatty folks like me from bumming out their seatmates. Not exactly the same logic used by my otherwise stellar United flight attendants…

Google's Microsoft Moment? European Antitrust Review Looms

By - February 23, 2010

In past writings I’ve intoned that Google was following the path of Microsoft in many ways, and suggested that at some point it may face the same kind of scrutiny – and potential enervation – as Gates&Co did back in the late 1990s with the DOJ. Now comes news from the WSJ that the European Union has decided to open an investigation into the company, though the allegations seem less serious than those which ultimately forced Microsoft to permanently alter its practices. Not surprisingly, one of the complainants is a subsidiary of Microsoft in Europe.

From the piece:

Google Inc. is set to announce later Tuesday that European antitrust authorities have opened a preliminary probe into complaints made against it by three European Internet companies, according to people familiar with the matter. The inquiry into allegations of anticompetitive behavior is at an early, fact-finding stage and may not result in any action. But it appeared to be the first time that European antitrust authorities have examined Google’s conduct outside of a merger review. It also comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of Google in Europe, where the company has an even more dominant position in search advertising than it does in the U.S.

The China Story

By - January 14, 2010

It’s my sincere hope that this blows up, not over. With reports coming in that the Chinese government was most certainly behind the attack on Google and 20 other companies (and has done this before), and that the White House is now supporting Google’s position, it’s about time that we call a spade a spade here. What China is doing is wrong, regardless of how much debt of ours they hold. Looking the other way in the name of pure profit is a practice whose time should end.

Update: Cato has an interesting take on how the Chinese hackers got in: by leveraging infrastructure Google put in place to help the US Government do wiretaps. Thanks to reader Brandon Byers for this.

Another update: Xian Qiang, who I taught with at Berkeley and launched China Digital Times earlier this decade, has a take here.

Google's Tortured History With China

By - January 13, 2010

china-flag-wave.jpgGoogle yesterday surprised Wall St. and its partners with the announcement that it may pull out of China (most expect it will, given the politics of making such a statement, the move is most likely assured). Google said that “hackers” had leveraged its infrastructure to target Chinese dissidents. To my mind, that means Google has discovered that China’s government is using Google’s networks and data, and Google realized that can’t stand, for any number of reasons. (Including that US and European based activists were targeted – via phishing and other similar types of scams).  

Google further noted that at least 20 other companies were also being targeted, and it has been in contact with those companies as well.  

What’s interesting and consistent to me is that Google has been here before – at the same time that Google was entering China (Jan. of 2006), the US Dept. of Justice demanded data from Google as part of a child porn fishing excercise, and Google refused to comply, and then went public, in essence becoming a leader in data rights by forcing the government’s hand.

In this case, Google is again taking a leadership role, and the company is forcing China’s hand. While it’s a stretch to say the two things are directly connected, the seeming fact that China’s government was behind the intrusions has led Google to decide to stop censoring its results in China. This is politics at its finest, and it’s a very clear statement to China: We’re done playing the game your way.

From the blog post:

We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down, and potentially our offices in China.

As I wrote in the book and here, Google was never entirely comfortable with getting into China, and used a fair amount of tortured logic to get to the point of committing resources back five years ago. From one of my posts:

There’s still time to pull out, guys. I’ve read your rationalizations, and Uncle Bill’s as well. I don’t buy them. I don’t buy that this is what, in your heart, you believe is right. Sure, I understand the logic. But, well….in your heart, is this what you wanted to do? No? Then why did you do it?

….I was having dinner with some dear friends tonight. They asked me why did Google do this? My answer: I think they convinced themselves it was the right thing to do. They thought themselves into it. And deep down, they aren’t sure they did the right thing. At least, that’s what I want to believe. Sure, Microsoft is going to go in. Yahoo and IBM are going to go in. But Google? We thought…well, we thought you were different.

Apparently, Google is.

Privacy: Is Zuckerberg Misreading? Or Is This a Story at All?

By - January 10, 2010

Reading coverage of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s recent commentary on his company’s newly changed privacy policies, I was struck with the urge to ask all of you a question: Do you think this is a big deal? Or is this simply the evolution of our society’s ongoing contract with the individual, an evolution that Facebook is reflecting?

In short, as Marshall submits in his article on RWW, is Facebook trailing public sentiment on privacy, or is he forging it? I’d love your thoughts in comments.

The Brewing Privacy Storm

By - December 14, 2009

We’re pushing it as an industry, I think. Google making all search personal and its leadership claiming privacy is for those with something to hide. Facebook pushing all data out into the world (and ticking off Danny, of all people). The advertising ecosystem leveraging more and more data, but not thinking hard enough about how that data is controlled. All of this is drawing the attention of major media and the folks who read it – IE, Congress.

We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

And we need to stop and take a breath before something happens we’ll all regret.

I’m heartened by all the privacy dashboards that Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others are creating and making available. But I think it’s time for us as an industry to really stop and think about this issue and address it. Because we can’t afford a conservative (and I mean that in the catholic sense of the word) backlash on this issue.

Just leaving a note here on this, as much to remind myself to spend time on this issue in the new year as anything…