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.

Der Spiegel & the fate of newspapers

Spiegel Online asked me to join a conversation about the fate of newspapers, prompted by Axel Springer’s sale of its local publications. The German translation is here. And here is the English text:

dertagGutenberg’s magnificent machine industrialized information and communication. That has lasted almost 600 years. Now the internet forces us to question every industrial-age assumption about every business, including news.

Journalists have been gatekeepers and lecturers who synthesized information into narratives that they controlled, their work subsidized by bundling news into publications that also delivered nonnews — entertainment, sport, lifestyle — which drew audience and advertising. It was a lovely oligopoly while it lasted. But it is over. The Onion has written print’s obituary.

Now who says that news must come on paper, in articles, once a day, the same for all, and from a newsroom, let alone from a journalist? Are we in the content business, producing and protecting a scarce commodity? Or shouldn’t we come to see news as a service whose outcome is not products on paper or pages on screens but instead informed people and communities?

The internet gives journalists unprecedented opportunities to reimagine our relationships with the public we serve; the forms that news can take; and the business models that can support it.

Relationships: Using the net and its services — Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram — as platforms, the public can now share what they know and what they witness on their own, without mediators — that is, without media. But there is still a need for journalists, perhaps greater than ever. Journalists must add value to that flow of information, confirming facts, debunking rumors, finding sources, adding context and explanation, and, most importantly, asking the questions and getting the answers that are not in the flow — that is: reporting.

News organizations can also act as platforms for communities to share information. Take, for example, Waze, the app Google is trying to buy that enables countless commuters to automatically and inexpensively share traffic anywhere, serving individuals better than mass media — radio reports — ever could. Waze also learns where we live and work. Does your newspaper know that about you?

Forms: Just as news publications are being unbundled, so are news articles. The single narrative is being broken up into separate assets: what’s new may come from Twitter; background from Wikipedia; details from a database; quotes from YouTube; explanation from a graphic. This allows each of us to traverse a news event in our own way. Are journalists still storytellers? Only when that’s the best way to impart information.

Our business models: Ah, here’s the hard one. We cannot preserve old models in a new reality. Just because we used to sell access to content and had pricing power over advertising, there is nothing to say that is our right to continue.

In our new balance sheet, the net brings greater efficiency and considerable cost savings, eliminating manufacturing and distribution costs and enabling specialization and collaboration: Do what you do best and link to the rest, I always say.

Our value, I believe, will come from building relationships with people as individuals, no longer as a mass. That is the core of Google’s business model: delivering relevance and recognizing value because it knows what each of us is looking for, where we are, and what we want. Those are signals Google is equipped to gather, analyze, and act upon. Media’s content generates signals about interests and needs. So we in media must learn to use that as the basis of building new relationships and extracting greater value from them.

It is my fondest hope that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos will bring his expertise in building relationships and relevance to his purchase of The Washington Post, turning it from a content factory into a platform and information service for a wiser Washington.

I loved newspapers. My basement is filled with clips from them, so proud am I still of my bylines in print. I loved magazines. I started one and every week bought them by the pound. Whenever I’ve foretold the death of print, someone will say, “But people like paper.” Yes, I respond, and people used to like horses. But horses were economically (and environmentally) unsustainable and we moved on.

So move on. What matters isn’t newspapers. What matters is news and journalism and how they can help communities organize their knowledge to better organize themselves. That is my definition of journalism.

Jeff’s Post problem

One issue I’m surprised I haven’t seen discussed regarding Jeff Bezos’ acquisition of The Washington Post is what his tenure will mean to local advertisers.

They don’t like him. He’s helping putting them out of business.

Haven’t you seen: retail is in the tank. Stores have become showrooms for Amazon’s sales. Looking at the golf club? Go to the pro shop and try it out and learn about it and get advice about it, then go to Amazon and buy it for a better price.

Amazon is going into local markets with experiments in same-day delivery. He will do that in competition with local merchants.

eBay, on the other hand, says it will serve local merchants and help them with same-day delivery and online sales. Google is looking to test same-day local delivery and I would imagine it, too, would work with local businesses, who are its advertisers as well.

The New Republic wondered whether Bezos wants The Washington Post’s delivery trucks. I doubt that. Though as I remember, the Post was one of the first papers in the country to shift from large-scale delivery to small-scale (trucks to station wagons), the system is still not set up to do what a UPS truck does.

So how will Bezos finesse this? He’s not big on finesse, Jeff. He could come and find ways to reassure local advertisers. He could involve them in his local delivery scheme, just as he handed over his sales and technology platforms to more merchants. He could shrug and not worry about retail advertising since he’s killing retail anyway.

As with all speculation about the Bezos era in journalism, we’ll just have to wait and wonder.

Hot off the presses

Screenshot 2013-08-05 at 6.25.08 PM

Some quick thoughts on Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post:

A reporter asked me whether this was “an act of philanthropy.” Probably yes, but I hope it is much more than that. I am glad Bezos is using his wealth to save a great and necessary American institution. But I hope and pray the real value he brings is his entrepreneurship, his innovation, his experience, and his fresh perspective, enabling him to reimagine news as an enterprise.

I’m ready for folks to cry for joy that Bezos knows how to sell content. He’ll know how to build pay walls, damnit! But I don’t think that’s his key value here. He knows how to sell and deliver unique not commodity content: entertainment mostly.

No, Bezos’ key competence is in building relationships. This is wishful thinking on my part, as I have been arguing that we in journalism need to stop thinking of ourselves as manufacturers of a mass commodity called content and start understanding that we are in a service business whose real outcome is informed individuals and communities. Thus we must be in the relationship business.

I have been arguing with newspapers lately that they must gather small data about their individual users — where they live, where they work, what their key interests are — so they can serve people with greater relevance and value. I hope that skill — building profiles and using them to improve relevance — is the first that Bezos brings to the Post.

I have one fear of Bezos: his secrecy. A news organization must be open (there I’m a disciple of the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger). I also want to see innovation and experimentation at the Post done in the open so the rest of the industry can benefit from it. Then perhaps Bezos can save more than one newspaper.

I do trust the Bezos understands the value of the Post and the necessity of — using my CUNY dean’s phrase — journalism’s eternal verities. I also trust that Don Graham would not have sold his family’s jewel to anyone who did not understand that.

Now mind you, Bezos also invested in Henry Blodget’s Business Insider. I’m a fan of Henry and what he has done there, but he is controversial in the halls of journalism schools. Bezos praises the Post for waiting to get things right. Henry is rather quicker on the trigger. I’m glad Bezos has an interest in both models; I think each can learn from the other.

Bottom line: I’m hopeful.

I am left with tremendous admiration for Don Graham, whose family not only built the Washington Post into its glory and protected it from political pressure to serve the people. Today, Don Graham made no doubt the toughest and bravest decision of his life: He admitted that he did not have the strategy to save his newspaper so he found someone he believes will. That takes courage.

Media, left out of the relationship

Note who’s missing in Tanzina Vega’s New York Times story today about the monster merger of ad agencies Publicis and Omnicom.

Media — TV, radio, magazines, newspapers, online — are nowhere to be seen. This merger, they all say, is about the ad agencies joining together to defend at the 11th hours against the real behemoth in the business, Google, as well as Facebook and Twitter. And the battleground is Big Data (when did that become a proper noun?) — that is, knowing about people, or having a relationship with them.

I’ve been arguing that media should stop thinking they’re in the content business and start believing they are in — or should be in — the relationship business. But we don’t know jack about people. We see people as a mass. We lived for a glorious century by the myth of mass media: that all readers see all ads so we can charge all advertisers for all readers. Thus we simply wanted *more* readers (or unique users, whatever you prefer to call us). Media companies are proud when they learn our email addresses but, of course, that is nothing but an excuse to spam us. My email address says *nothing* about me.

Media companies could know a great deal about us as individuals. Our content interests are a good signal — Google understands that and so does the NSA (says prior whistleblower Thomas Drake, “content is gold for determining intent”). But we in media have no good means to gather, analyze, act on, and exploit that signal beyond simple behavioral targeting.

I argue that media companies should be able to get people to build the trust to reveal themselves because media companies can give them value in return. Provide me traffic help and you’ll learn where I live and work and then you can target your content and advertising to my locale, delivering greater relevance and value. Right?

No. Google, Facebook, and Twitter listen to our signals. Omnicom and Publicis realize the value of those signals. They all understand the worth of relationships. And what do we do in media? We put up paywalls and scream about copyright. Garg.

LATER: Here’s Om Malik’s take on the merger. I agree that the net deflates.

Since 1920, US advertising industry revenues have hovered between 1 percent to 3 percent of the US gross domestic product. This pie is now shared between television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cable with Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo and thousands of other digital outlets. Of course, Internet often brings measurability, targeting and interactivity — which leads to a sort of deflationary pressure on industries that have traditionally benefited from ambiguity. Stock brokerages and travel industry were the first two industry to be baffled by this new reality.

All hail Justin Smith

When people ask me for someone smart who’s doing innovative and successful things in magazines, I scan the known world and always end up at the same place: Justin Smith, who just announced that he is leaving Atlantic Media to become CEO of Bloomberg’s media group.

I’ve known Justin since he launched The Week in the U.S. and I’ve admired his work nonstop. He is rather unsung so it’s worth recounting some of his successes thus far:

* At The Week, he launched a *weekly* magazine with a *total* staff of 24 — which is fewer than the old butler staff at Time. The concept for The Week came from the U.K. It was the original news curator, taking advantage of the oversupply of news we still have. That wasn’t his. But his method for launching the magazine was new: He created an ad scarcity with limited pages to sell. He refused to waste a fortune on fees and returned copies on newsstands, selling it only in some bookstores. He launched essentially a subscription-only magazine and he let that grow organically, by demand, rather than bribing people to subscribe with costly sneakerphones. He thus didn’t spend a fortune on marketing.

* At Atlantic, Justin took a dying brand and rather than milking it and devaluing it with cheap stunts as others are, he increased its value by turning it into an online brand that happened to have a magazine (how cool). He understood that what appeared under the brand online would have little to do with the magazine and so he invested in new content. That included investing in writers as brands, for he recognized the attention and audience they could bring — thus Andrew Sullivan’s sojourn there on his Paul Theroux-like train tour of the internet.

* He had the guts to create new brands, starting with Quartz, relying on his experience starting a blog company outside of his job. He had the vision to invest in smart editorial talent and the patience to let them build.

* Like a few other publishers — Condé Nast included — he saw that he had to take on the role of an advertising agency, no longer just selling space on a page, print or digital, but offering creative and marketing services to advertisers. Yes, there was that stumble with Scientology, an important object lesson and warning for everyone dancing with the devil in mixing selling and informing under one brand. But all in all, his real lesson to the industry is to change the relationship of media to marketer. You can see him talking about this in a discussion he, John Paton, and I had at CUNY sometime ago — the video is below.

* LATER: Oh, yeah, I forgot: He also made a strategy at both companies at using events wisely as a way to brand the publications as a convener of important conversations and as a way to bring in sponsorship revenue — a model other media properties are just beginning to mimic.

* AND ONE MORE THING: He made Atlantic Media profitable.

Bloomberg can use him. It is a powerhouse, the one journalistic organization that is hiring — often our CUNY students, I’m happy to report — like no one else. It has a pay wall that really works with its truly valuable terminals (that don’t offer commodity information; they sell speed). It rescued BusinessWeek to own a consumer brand. It started an opinion site. It dabbles in TV.

What Justin can bring, I think, is much more consumer attention to the company. There are lots of very smart opinion makers writing for Bloomberg but I don’t see them in the conversation. There’s a considerable investment in video but I don’t see it embedded or talked about enough. There is much good journalism but to reach consumers it could stand to have a voice. And with a stronger brand and much technological muscle, I’m confident that Justin can bring a torrent of new advertising attention and revenue to the company.

It is a brilliant hire. I’m glad to see him be able to show off his stuff on a more visible stage.

Digital First and the Future of News from CUNY Grad School of Journalism on Vimeo.

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