Andy Murray Auto Awesome

When Guardian US editor Janine Gibson and my CUNY colleague John Smock talked in front of me about using animated GIFs in the service of news, I recoiled in horror and begged them not to.

I was wrong.

Playing with Google+ Auto Awesomeness — which takes contiguous photos and turns them into a dancing GIFs – while shooting at the US Open this week made me realize what new could be conveyed with a moving picture, à la Harry Potter’s blatt, the Daily Prophet, rather than a mere, print still picture.

Take, for example, this shot (these shots?) of Murray as he won against Leonardo Mayer. Imagine it better framed. Still, there’s something wonderful about the action around him at the moment of victory and the reveal that is Murray’s victory growl.

And there’s this image(s) of his serve earlier in the match. Better shot, it could be instructive: imagine showing a golf swing this way or a great catch in baseball or a play in a football game.

Now I know you may ask: Why not just include a video snippet? Well, that requires a player and the act of playing. And video brings with it so much baggage: sound and production orthodoxy. Video, of course has its place. But so do moving images like these.

Imagine, too, moving pictures showing the disaster of the Japanese tsunami rolling in. Imagine iconic images the past. I know some will accuse me of heresy, but I wonder what it would add to see John-John Kennedy’s hand raise in salute or the soldiers at Iwo Jima raising their flag with a moment’s animation. Imagine how these images as time-lapse could show progression: the growth of a crowd, the shrinking of an ice cap, the aging of a President.

And see what fun it can be just with a neon sign.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

I wrote this for the Guardian, where the discussion is quite lively, approaching 1,500 comments. I’m posting it here a few days later for the purposes of my own archive.

What are you thinking, Mr. President?

Is this really the legacy you want for yourself: the chief executive who trampled rights, destroyed privacy, heightened secrecy, ruined trust, and worst of all did not defend but instead detoured around so many of the fundamental principles on which this country is founded?

And I voted for you. I’ll confess you were a second choice. I supported Hillary Clinton first. I said at the time that your rhetoric about change was empty and that I feared you would be another Jimmy Carter: aggressively ineffectual.

Never did I imagine that you would instead become another Richard Nixon: imperial, secretive, vindictive, untrustworthy, inexplicable.

I do care about security. I survived the attack on the World Trade Center and I believe 9/11 was allowed to occur through a failure of intelligence. I thank TSA agents for searching me: applause for security theater. I defend government’s necessary secrets. By the way, I also defend Obamacare. I should be an easy ally. But your exercise of power appalls me. When I wrote about your credibility deficit in the Guardian, I was shocked that among the commenters at that great international voice of liberalism, next to no one defended you. Even on our side of the political divide, I am far from alone in urgently wondering what you are doing.

As a journalist, I am frightened by your vengeful attacks on whistleblowers — Manning, Assange, Snowden, and the rest — and the impact in turn on journalism and its tasks of keeping a watchful eye on you and helping to assure an informed citizenry.

As a citizen, I am disgusted by the systematic evasion of oversight you have supported through the FISA courts; by the use of ports as lawless zones where your agents can harass anyone; by your failure on your promise to close Guantanamo, and this list could go on.

As an American often abroad, I am embarrassed by the damage you have caused to our reputation and to others’ trust in us. I find myself apologizing for what you are doing to citizens of other nations, dismissing the idea that they have rights to privacy because they are “foreign.”

As an internet user, I am most fearful of the impact of your wanton destruction of privacy and the resulting collapse of trust in the net and what that will do to the freedom we have enjoyed in it as well as the business and jobs that are being built atop it.

And as a Democrat, I worry that you are losing us the next election, handing an issue to the Republicans that should have been ours: protecting the rights of citizens against the overreach of the security state.

Surely you can see this. But you keep doubling down, becoming only more dogged in your defense of secrecy and your guardians of it. I don’t understand.

The only way I could possibly grant you the benefit of doubt is to think that there is some ominous fact about our security that only you and your circle know and can’t breath or the jig will be up. But I don’t believe that anymore than I believe a James Bond movie or an Oliver Stone conspiracy theory. You can’t argue that Armageddon is on the way and that al Qaeda is on the run at the same time.

No, I think it is this: Secrecy corrupts. Absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely. You have been seduced by the idea that your authority rests in your secrets and your power to hold them. Every attack on that power, every questioning of it only makes you draw in tighter, receding into your vault with the key you think your office grants you. You are descending into a dark hole of your own digging.

But you know better, don’t you? In a democracy, secrecy is not the foundation of authority; that is the basis of dictatorships. Principles and their defense is what underpins your office.

First among those principles is the defense of our freedom. Security is only a subset of that, for if we are not secure we are not free. Freedom demands the confidence that we are not under attack, yes, but also that we are not being surveilled without our knowledge and consent. The balance, which we are supposedly debating, must go to freedom.

Transparency is another principle you promised to uphold but have trammeled instead. The only way to assure trust in your actions is if they are overseen by open courts, by informed legislators, by an uninhibited press, and most importantly by an informed citizenry.

As political and media attention turn away from you, you have an opportunity to rise again to the level of principles, to prove that your rhetoric about change was not empty after all, to rebuild your already ill-fated legacy, to do what is expected of you and your office.

You could decide to operate on the principle that our privacy is protected in any medium — not just in our first-class letters but in our emails and chats and calls — unless under specific and due warrant.

You could decide to end what will be known as the Obama Collect it All doctrine and make the art of intelligence focus rather than reach.

You could decide to respect the efforts of whistleblowers as courageous practitioners of civil disobedience who are sacrificing much in their efforts to protect lives and democracy. If they are the Martin Luther Kings of our age, then call off Bull Connor‘s digital dogs and fire hoses, will you?

You could decide to impress us with the transparency you still can bring to government, so that the institution you run becomes open by default rather than by force, as it is now, under you.

You could decide to support a free press and stop efforts — here and, using your influence, with our friends in the UK — to restrain their work.

You could decide that whether they are visiting our land or talking with our citizens by email or phone, foreigners are not to be distrusted by default.

You could try to reverse the damage you have done to the internet and its potential by upholding its principles of openness and freedom.

You could. Will you?

The NSA, Germany, and journalism

SDZ front page

spiegel front page

Look at the home pages of two major German news sites today, August 20. The Süddeutsche Zeitung talks about the government forcing the Guardian to destroy computers holding leaked NSA data in “a scene out of a spy novel.” Spiegel Online talks about the UK as “the land of black helicopters.”

Now compare them with leading American and British news sites, pictured below. The Washington Post, The New York Times, the Telegraph, The Times of London — nada, each essentially silent on their web front pages regarding this amazing Guardian tale of the destroyed computers or the prior detention of David Miranda, Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald’s husband, at Heathrow airport under a terrorism statute.

Therein lie two tales, one about Germany and privacy, one about journalism and news judgment; they are linked and mysterious.

First, Germany. In my book Public Parts, I used Germany as a case study in the fight over privacy (and publicness) and technology. Germans, I said, care deeply about privacy not just because of their recent political history — the Stasi and the Nazis — but also because culturally, they are lead quite private lives, rarely even talking about their voting preferences with friends and relatives (I know; I married into a German family).

In the NSA story, we are seeing both traits but, of course, we are mostly seeing the political side in open anger about American and British government attacks on their privacy. Germans held protests in almost 40 cities — dwarfing the turnout in a few American cities (I attended the one in New York and was saddened by the sparseness of it). German media — led strongly by Der Spiegel — are holding politicians’ feet to the fire over any allegations of cooperation with American and British spies. They have already made the NSA a big issue in the upcoming national election. It is a major story there.

But that’s not so much so in the two countries where the story originates, the US and UK (present company of the Guardian excepted, of course). Why not? I’d start by arguing that the German editors are displaying appropriate news judgment. This story affects every user of the internet; it affects the internet and technology industries (that link is to another German publication, Zeit Online, saying — in German — that the NSA scandal is bad for business); if affects international relations; it affects the fate of journalism.

So I don’t understand why editors at the august publications pictured below are not giving the story the prominence the Germans are. Of course, the Washington Post was in on the story early (but it also editorialized that Edward Snowden should stop leaking) and The New York Times has reported on the story with varying degrees of oomph. But the Telegraph and the Times and other British publications have not given it much coverage or prominence and I’d say the same of the BBC and American TV news networks.

Why? Is it jealousy of the Guardian: not-scooped-here syndrome? Is it the too-close relationship of the institutions of media and government (witness NBC’s David Gregory saying he’d almost arrest the Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald or CNN’s and The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin practically flacking for the US Justice Department). Is it bad news judgment?

Or are the Germans and I wrong, and as a journalist I am expecting too much attention to be paid to this story because it is about in news? (Full disclosure: I consult and write for the Guardian.) You could argue that. But I’d argue back.

When I presented Public Parts at the re:publica conference in Berlin — before I wrote it — I spoke about the German paradox regarding privacy (they can be militantly private about Google Street View or Facebook but when it comes to the sauna, they are more public than an American would ever dare to be). A member of the audience asked me in turn about the American paradox. What’s that? I asked. Well, he said, you Americans are suspicious of government though you’ve had a far better government over the years than we Europeans have and we trust government more than you do. Right, and Europeans — Germans especially — are suspicious of companies even though theirs are highly regulated.

But the NSA story isn’t moving according to that script. The Germans are exhibiting deep distrust of government — theirs and our’s — but our media and our citizens, apparently, not so much. If no media in the world cared a bit about the NSA story, then perhaps you could chalk it up to the Guardian being too proud of its scoop. But German media by their enthusiasm dismantle that theory.

I am left without a good explanation why this story is getting less attention in the English-speaking world, only with a hope that our media will soon wake up.

LATER: Spiegel Online just posted a translation of its black helicopters commentary, arguing that Britons are just too comfortable with surveillance, too cozy with government and its spies.

The United Kingdom is not an authoritarian surveillance state like China. But it is a country in which surveillance has become part of everyday life. The cold eyes of the security apparatus keep watch over everything that moves — in underground stations and hospitals, at intersections and on buses. The British Security Industry Authority (BSIA) recently estimated that there could be up to 5.9 million surveillance cameras in the country — or one camera for every 11 Britons. Most were not installed by the government, but by companies and private citizens. One wonders who even has the time to look at these images.

While there is the occasional burst of resistance on the island, most just accept surveillance as the price of freedom. And in contrast to Germany, many journalists are wont to defend their government, particularly when it comes to the global interest of the United Kingdom and its so-called national security. Dan Hodges, a blogger with ties to the Labour Party, echoed the sentiments of many in the Westminster political world following the detention of David Miranda, the partner of Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald, who has been instrumental in exposing the breadth of GCHQ and NSA surveillance activities. Hodges wrote: “What do we honestly expect the UK authorities to do? Give him a sly wink and say ‘off you go son, you have a nice trip’?”

It’s astonishing to see how many Britons blindly and uncritically trust the work of their intelligence service. Some still see the GCHQ as a club of amiable gentlemen in shabby tweed jackets who cracked the Nazis’ Enigma coding machine in World War II.

So there’s a theory: The Germans are reacting to the NSA saying, “No us, not again.” The Brits may be saying, “We miss Le Carré.” And the Americans? Maybe we think this doesn’t matter to us because the NSA is spying on all those foreigners, or maybe we’re embarrassed, or maybe we don’t know what to do in media until somebody goes on trial.

Screenshot 2013-08-20 at 3.52.09 PM

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Screenshot 2013-08-20 at 3.53.10 PM

NSA by the numbers

Fear not, says the NSA, we “touch” only 1.6% of daily internet traffic. If, as they say, the net carries 1,826 petabytes of information per day, then the NSA “touches” about 29 petabytes a day. They don’t say what “touch” means. Ingest? Store? Analyze? Inquiring minds want to know.

ATTNSA

For context, Google in 2010 said it had indexed only 0.004% of the data on the net. So by inference from the percentages, does that mean that the NSA is equal to 400 Googles? Better math minds than mine will correct me if I’m wrong.

Seven petabytes of photos are added to Facebook each month. That’s .23 petabytes per day. So that means the NSA is 126 Facebooks.

Keep in mind that most of the data passing on the net is not email or web pages. It’s media. According to Sandvine data for the U.S. fixed net from 2013, real-time entertainment accounted for 62% of net traffic, P2P file-sharing for 10.5%. The NSA needn’t watch all those episodes of Homeland (or maybe they should) or listen to all that Cold Play — though I’m sure the RIAA and MPAA are dying to know what the NSA knows about who’s “stealing” what since that “stealing” allegedly accounts for 23.8% of net traffic.

HTTP — the web — accounts for only 11.8% of aggregated up- and download traffic in the U.S., Sandvine says. Communications — the part of the net the NSA really cares about — accounts for 2.9% in the U.S.

So by very rough, beer-soaked-napkin numbers, the NSA’s 1.6% of net traffic would be half of the communication on the net. That’s a fuckuvalota “touching.”

And keep in mind that by one estimate 68.8% of email is spam.

Screenshot 2013-08-10 at 8.02.09 PM

sandvine-top-traffic-apps

And, of course, metadata doesn’t add up to much data at all; it’s just a few bits per file — who sent what to whom — and that’s where the NSA finds much of its incriminating information. So these numbers are meaningless when it comes to looking at how much the NSA knows about who’s talking to whom. A few weeks ago on Twitter, I showed that with the NSA’s clearance to go three hops out from a suspect, it doesn’t take very long at all before this law of large numbers encompasses us all and our cats.

If you have better data (and better math) than I have, please do share it.

* “Reach out and touch someone” art inspired by Josh Stearns

Prof

cunyjschool
I was just notified that I’m now a full professor at CUNY. I’m well aware that one could substitute faux for full as I’m not an academic; I’m a professional. So I’m all the more humbled by the title. I’m grateful to my deans — Steve Shepard and Judy Watson — and my fellow faculty and the trustees for it. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through the process but I enjoyed it. Writing statements about my teaching, research, and service required me to think again about what I want to accomplish. Here is my personal statement.

I am grateful to our school for many things but mostly for this: freedom. CUNY has given me the freedom to explore ideas about journalism, the freedom to take on a new career in the classroom, and most of all the freedom to speak. Some may say I say too much, but it is thanks to this freedom that I am able to research, experiment, theorize, practice, and provoke and take part in debates about the future of journalism. And, yes, I most certainly believe there is a future (or else why would I be here?).

In his memoir, Deadlines and Disruption, our dean, Steve Shepard, tells the story of my first day on the job and the rather accidental path that led to my primary concentration at CUNY: entrepreneurial journalism. When Steve and I started discussing his plans for the school, I thought my main role here would be to teach and proselytize new forms and tools for news: new media, online news, digital media, interactive journalism; I’m still not sure what to call it.

I also had an idea for a class that would teach students the business of journalism because I believe our professional disdain for the commercial side of the industry as inherently corrupting helped make us irresponsible stewards of our trade. When I launched Entertainment Weekly, I found that I didn’t have the knowledge and experience necessary to protect my magazine from bad business decisions — only some of them mine — and I vowed I wouldn’t allow myself such ignorance again. Cleaning out our attic recently, I came across a 1993 job evaluation by my editor at TV Guide. It said, “Jeff’s enthusiasm for the business side overwhelms him and he wants to get involved in an area that is not compatible with his editorial role.” I ignored that advice. At that rapidly shrinking magazine, at the bankrupt Daily News, and then at Advance.net, where I spent 12 years before coming to CUNY, I schooled myself on every angle of our business that I could.

At CUNY, I wanted to teach students about the economics of news companies and the dynamics affecting our industry, helping them to find opportunity rather than dread in the profound disruption news was undergoing and to become the leaders who would build journalism’s future. I had the idea of teaching that worldview through exercises in inventing new products — a pedagogical device, really; I don’t think I imagined then that students would be so intent on starting their own businesses. The prelaunch curriculum committee shelved that course in favor of teaching more tools. But Steve and Judy Watson resurrected it and promised I could teach it. That was the first of innumerable times when our deans acted to encourage my work and thus challenge me to explore unfamiliar frontiers.

I am indebted to them both for their leadership, support, guidance, and mentoring. But this is a bittersweet moment as our leader, Dean Shepard, announces his well-deserved if nonetheless lamentable (for us) retirement. CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein charged Steve with building one of the top journalism schools in the country and if we do say so ourselves, he succeeded. Now begins a search for new leadership. As much as I trumpet the virtues of change and the opportunities presented by disruption for our industry, I will confess that personally, uncertainty unsettles me. Yet I hope this moment of change will prove good for us, as we continue to constantly question what we do and how we do it even as we validate — in our new strategy statement — the vision the dean laid out when he founded the school. I have faith that we will come through this transition because this is a school built for transition. From the moment we eliminated required media tracks, our faculty has demonstrated the courage to face and cause change. As our strategy document says, our school was born of disruption.

In my statements in this document, I will try to focus more on the future than the past, on the challenges I face and the opportunities we will see together. But in this personal statement I suppose it is appropriate to reflect for a moment on my past and my career, on how I got here.

I was planning to go to law school but in my freshman year at Claremont, I thought better of my ability to say “yes, your honor” and mean it. Searching for a new path, I realized that I enjoyed reporting and editing for my high school and college papers and thought that could make a fine career. So I transferred to Northwestern and then the Medill School of Journalism.

On the way there, in 1973, I started my first newspaper job for a suburban Chicago weekly, the Addison Herald-Register, and continued working full-time in the business until the day I quit to come teach. I was lucky to get my dream jobs early in life and lucky at each of them to have a mentor. I wish to credit them: Howard Spanogle (my high-school journalism teacher), Christie Bradford, Jennie Buckner, Milton Hansen, Jim Willse (at three companies), Jim Houck, Pat Ryan, Anthea Disney, Steve Newhouse, Judy Watson, Steve Shepard.

I worked at The Hawk Eye in Burlington, Iowa, as part of Medill’s Teaching Newspaper program — a great experience and the reason I was enthusiastic about our internship program from the start. I next interned on the Detroit Free Press in what was still called the women’s section. As I finished my last courses at Northwestern, I got an internship and then a job as a rewriteman — we still called the post that — and energy reporter for Chicago Today, covering the ’73 oil embargo, a great story. Today died a year to the day after I’d arrived. It was “the paper that has no tomorrow,” a heartless flack said to me as we worked on our last edition, even while our heartless owner, Tribune Company, was prying the nails out of our city desk. I caught the lifeboat to the big paper on the midnight shift. While waiting for shootings and fires to cover, I started playing with these new-fangled VDTs that dotted the newsroom. I was the kid who wasn’t afraid of this strange new technology and ended up training much of the newsroom on it. Little could I know how much technology could come to guide my career.

I became an assistant city editor at age 21 — dayside was the fringe benefit. Then I left for the San Francisco Examiner, where I edited the Examiner’s half of a combined Examiner-Chronicle Sunday paper and was plucked out to write a six-day-a-week column (the publisher liked a caption I’d written — such was my luck). After that same publisher and I came to disagree, New York beckoned and I went to People as a writer and then TV critic, which inspired me to write a memo proposing Entertainment Weekly six years before it eventually launched in 1990. In the vast entertainment choices brought to us by our new cable remotes and VCRs, there was confusion, and in that change I saw a need and an opportunity. I was inexperienced as a magazine editor and was able to bring EW to the market only with the help of amazing partners, including Joan Feeney and Peter Hauck (I’ve had the privilege of working with each of them again and both have been friends of our program at CUNY). EW went through a rough and notorious launch, but that’s a long story better told over beer.

I left over true creative differences and was hired by Jim Willse at the Daily News as Sunday editor, just as an ugly strike was about to begin. “Man,” said city desk wag Hap Hairston, “you jumped from the frying pan into the microwave.” After the News went bankrupt, I left for TV Guide as critic, also working on development projects. Then — after a very brief detour at News Corp’s fledgling internet acquisition, Delphi — I followed Willse again to Advance, just as this thing called a browser was released commercially. There I oversaw the content, technology, strategy, and launch of Advance’s 10 newspaper-affiliated sites (including NJ.com. NOLA.com, and OregonLive.com) and helped on the launches of its magazine-affiliated sites at CondéNet (including Epicurious, Style.com, Concierge, and others no longer with us). I also worked on projects at Random House, before Advance sold it, and Brighthouse Cable.

At Advance, I had the privilege of working for Steve Newhouse, who is unsung in our industry as an innovator and true believer in interactivity. It was Steve who taught me the value of opening up to conversation with the public. Steve schooled me in understanding the fundamentals of our business. He later tolerated my blogging and outspokenness. He also made it my job to seek out, learn from, and negotiate with entrepreneurs and technologists. One of them was Nick Denton. We invested in his company, Moreover, where I served on the board, and Nick also got us to invest in and save a mortally challenged startup with the silly name Blogger.

I clearly remember the day Nick demonstrated blogging to me. I confess I didn’t comprehend the big deal. But that changed after September 11, 2001. I was on the last PATH train into the World Trade Center as the first jet hit the north tower. To my wife’s continuing ire, I stayed downtown because, after all, I am a journalist. I was about a block from the south tower when it collapsed, thrown into utter darkness in the cloud of destruction. After taking shelter in a Chase tower, I walked to Times Square and wrote my story for online and print. Days later, I had more to share and so I started a blog, honestly believing I’d do it for a few weeks. Then two bloggers in Los Angeles read what I’d written, wrote about it in turn, and linked back to my blog. I wrote in response and linked to them. And that was my career-altering *ding* moment: Thanks to the link, we were having a conversation but in different places at different times. I began to see in rough form a new shape for media. I will admit that I thought this notion of news-as-conversation was fresh, until I had the privilege of meeting Columbia’s Jim Carey, who told me he’d built his career and scholarship around this idea.

To this day, I marvel at the power of the link to disrupt what we do, changing our relationship with the public we serve (who are now, to name one role, our true collaborators); the form of news (for example, isn’t a link often better service to the reader than a background paragraph — and once we start unraveling the article in such a way, where does that lead?); and the business models that sustain our important work (is it time to serve people as individuals rather than as masses and doesn’t that, too, require that we reset our relationship with the public?). Those are the themes I am pursuing in my work now: new relationships, forms, and models for news.

There is the education of a would-be educator. The threads that make me who I am are obvious in hindsight: finding opportunities in technology and disruption, questioning orthodoxies, benefitting from mentors’ guidance and collaborators’ help, facing business challenges, and embracing every opportunity to join a startup — like our school.

Tech companies: Whose side are you on?

I wrote this for the Guardian. I’m crossposting it here for my archive. The post is all the more relevant a day later as Google, Apple, AT&T, and Public Knowledge attend a secret White House meeting about secrecy. I’d have a lot more respect for them if they refused, given the condition.

Technology companies: Now is the moment when you must answer for us, your users, whether you are collaborators in the U.S. government’s efforts to collect it all — our every move on the internet — or whether you, too, are victims of its overreach.

Every company named in Edward Snowden’s revelations has said that it must comply with government demands, including requirements to keep secret court orders secret. True enough. But there’s only so long they can hide behind that cloak before making it clear whether they are resisting government’s demands or aiding in them. And now the time has come to go farther: to use both technology and political capital to actively protect the public’s privacy. Who will do that?

We now know, thanks to Snowden, of at least three tiers of technology companies enmeshed in the NSA’s hoovering of our net activity (we don’t yet know whether the NSA has co-opted companies from the financial, retail, data services, and other industries):

(1) Internet platforms that provide services directly to consumers, allowing government to demand access to signals about us: Google with search, mail, calendars, maps; Facebook with connections; Skype with conversations, and so on.

In its first Prism reporting, the Washington Post apparently unfairly fingered nine of these companies, accusing the NSA and FBI of “tapping directly into the central servers” that hold our “chats, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs.” Quickly, the companies repudiated that claim and sought the right to report at least how many secret demands are made. But there’s more they can and should do.

(2) Communications brands with consumer relationships that hand over metadata and/or open taps on internet traffic for collection by the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ, creating vast databases that can then be searched via XKeyscore. Verizon leads that list, and we now know from the Süddeutsche Zeitung that it also includes BT and Vodafone.

(3) Bandwidth providers that enable the NSA and its international partners to snoop on the net, wholesale. The Süddeutsche lists the three telco brands above in addition to Level 3, Global Crossing, Viatel, and Interroute. Eric King, head of research for Privacy International, asked in the Guardian, “Were the companies strong-armed, or are they voluntary intercept partners?”

The bulk data carriers have no consumer brands or relationships and thus are probably the least likely to feel commercial pressure to protect the rights of the users at the edge. The telephone companies should care more but they operate as oligopolies with monopoly attitudes and rarely exhibit consumer empathy (which is a nice way of saying their business models are built on customer imprisonment).

A hodgepodge alliance of U.S. legislators is finally waking up to the need and opportunity to stand up for citizens’ rights, but they will be slow and, don’t we know, ineffective and often uninformed. The courts will be slower and jealous of their power. Diplomacy’s the slowest route to reform yet, dealing in meaningless symbolism.

So our strongest expectations must turn to the first tier above, the consumer internet platforms. They have the most to lose — in trust and thus value — in taking government’s side against us.

At the Guardian Activate conference in London last month, I asked Vint Cerf, an architect of the net and evangelist for Google, about encrypting our communication as a defense against NSA spying. He suggested that communication should be encrypted into and out of internet companies’ servers (thwarting, or so we’d hope, the eavesdropping on the net’s every bit over telcos’ fibre) but should be decrypted inside the companies’ servers so they could bring us added value based on the content: a boarding pass on our phone, a reminder from our calendar, an alert about a story we’re following (not to mention a targeted ad).

Now there are reports that Google is looking at encrypting at least documents stored in Google Drive. That is wise in any case, as often these can contain users’ sensitive company and personal information. I now think Google et al need to go farther and make encryption an option on any information. I don’t want encryption to be the default because, in truth, most of my digital life is banal and I’d like to keep getting those handy calendar reminders. But technology companies need to put the option and power of data security directly into users’ hands.

That also means that the technology companies have to reach out and work with each other to enable encryption and other protections across their services. I learned the hard way how difficult it is to get simple answers to questions about how to encrypt email. The industry should work hard to make that an option on every popular service.

But let’s be clear that encryption is not the solution, probably only a speed bump to the NSA’s omnivorous ingesting. At the Activate conference, Cerf was asked whether the solution in the end will be technical or institutional. No doubt, institutional, he answered. That means that companies and government agencies must operate under stated principles and clear laws with open oversight.

Before Snowden’s leaks, technology CEOs would have had to balance cooperation and resistance just as the nation supposedly balances security and privacy. But now the tide of public opinion has clearly shifted — at least for now — and so this is the moment to grab control of issue.

If they do not assert that clear control, these technology companies risk losing business not only from skittish consumers but also from corporate and foreign-government clients. The Cloud Security Alliance polled companies and found that 10% had canceled U.S. cloud business and 56% were less likely to do business with U.S. providers. “If businesses or governments think they might be spied on,” said European Commission Vice President Neelie Kroes, “they will have less reason to trust the cloud, and it will be cloud providers who ultimately miss out.”

Besides taking action to secure technology and oversight within their companies and the industry, right-thinking technology companies also need to band together to use their political capital to lobby governments across the world to protect the rights of users and the freedom and sanctity of privacy and speech on the net. They must take bold and open stands.

To do that, they must first decide on the principles they should protect. In my book Public Parts, I proposed some principles to discuss, among them:
* the idea that if any bit on the net is stopped or detoured — or spied upon — then no bit and the net itself cannot be presumed to be free;
* that the net must remain open and distributed, commandeered and corrupted by no government;
* that citizens have a right to speak, assemble, and act online and thus have a right to connect without fear;
* that privacy is an ethic of knowing someone else’s information and coming by it openly;
* and that government must become transparent by default and secret by necessity (there are necessary secrets). Edward Snowden has shown us all too clearly that the opposite is now true.

I also believe that we must see a discussion of principles and ethics from the technologists inside these companies. One reason I have given Google the benefit of the doubt — besides being an admirer — is that I believe the engineers I know inside Google would not stay if they saw it violating their ethics even if under government order.

Yonathan Zunger, the chief architect of Google+, said this after the Guardian’s and Glenn Greenwald’s first revelations were published:

I can tell you that it is a point of pride, both for the company and for many of us, personally, that we stand up to governments that demand people’s information…. I can categorically state that nothing resembling the mass surveillance of individuals by governments within our systems has ever crossed my plate. If it had, even if I couldn’t talk about it, in all likelihood I would no longer be working at Google.

In the end, it’s neither technologies nor institutions that will secure us from the inexorable overreach of government curiosity in the face of technical capability. Responsibility for oversight and correction begins with individuals, whether whistleblowers or renegade politicians or employees of conscience who finally remind those in power: “Don’t be evil.”

Give up on the net?

Die Zeit asked a handful of people to answer their question, in essence: Have big companies and the NSA ruined the internet? Or to quote the email to me: “Have all the hopes concerning the internet been destroyed?” Here’s my answer in English; the German translation is here.

The battle for control — and the soul — of the internet has only just begun.

I doubt the net’s creators realized how subversive it was to connect anyone to anyone, bypassing the institutions that mediated those connections: from media to government, universities to retailers. These institutions are now circling wagons to protect their prerogatives: copyright for media, secrecy for government.

But as much as they want to take charge of it, the internet is less about institutions than individuals. Now anyone who’s connected can speak to, find, join, and act with a public. Anyone can find information, learn, sell, and create.

Yes, large new institutions are born to serve these needs and opportunities: Google to connect us with information, Facebook with each other, Twitter with everyone. They and we are negotiating norms and ethics regarding privacy, transparency, and control, a process that’s progressing.

Then enter government. It may portray itself as the protector of privacy but it is instead the greatest threat to privacy, for it can gather information and use it against us as no one else can. It abuses the net.

The problem Edward Snowden uncovered in the NSA is not technology. The issue is transparency. The NSA demonstrates that secrecy corrupts and absolute secrecy corrupts absolutely.

We must engage in the discussion Snowden finally sparked about the principles of a free and open society, which we must protect in the face of the new opportunities technology presents to, in the words of NSA chief Keith Alexander, “collect it all.”

Those principles, which I proposed in my book Public Parts, include:
* An ethic of privacy, compelling governments and companies not to steal our data without our knowledge.
* The ideal that government must be open by default and secret by necessity; today, it is the opposite.
* The right to connect, speak, assemble and act online as off.
* The understanding that if any bit on the net is stopped, detoured, or spied upon by any institution then no bit — or the net itself — can be presumed to be free.
* And agreement that the net must remain open and distributed, controlled or corrupted by no government.

Patches

Tim Armstrong says he will close, sell, or find partners for 300 local Patch sites to reach profitability.

I have a fourth option, Tim: Invest. Set up independent entrepreneurs — your employees, my entrepreneurial graduates, unemployed newspaper folks — to take over the sites. Offer them the benefit of continued network ad sales — that’s enlightened self-interest for Patch and Aol. Offer them training. Offer them technology. And even offer them some startup capital.

You could end up better off than you ever were by being a member of an ecosystem instead of trying to own it. It can grow faster — just look at how Glam became gigantic: by supporting a network.

I still believe in hyperlocal. You’ve always believed in hyperlocal. I don’t want to see retrenchment of Patch give the naysayers as chance to nya-nya us.

So please consider another path: shrink the company but grow the network.