Posts about technopanic

Technoeuropanic

Europe is at it again. Or still. I’m told that a consortium of European publishers will run an ad in European papers this weekend attacking Google and the EU’s antitrust deal with the company. It’s the same old stuff: publishers whining and stomping their feet that it’s just not fair that Google is doing better than they are and government should step in to do something about this, this damned, uh … competitor.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.17.21 PMIn the ad, the publishers’ argument is that Google’s search is not “impartial.” First, who said it has to be? Second, Google does point to its competitors; see this search for “maps” to the left. Third, who requires the publishers to promote their competitors? Here, the so-called Open Internet Project — a front started by German publisher Axel Springer — demands “equal search” (what the hell would that be?) for, say, shoe listings, complaining that Google makes money pointing to its shoe advertisers. Hmmm. And here is Bild, Springer’s gigantic newspaper, selling shoes itself. I don’t see them linking to Google’s shoe ads. Shouldn’t a news publication be — what’s the word? — impartial?

But, of course, this isn’t the point. It’s a game. I’ve seen German publishers chuckling about it that way. They think they can use government and political pressure to cut some flesh out of Google. But they should beware the unintended consequences. They are helping Europe — and particularly Germany — get a reputation for being hostile or at least inhospitable to technology. Here is the Economist writing about “Germany’s Googlephobia.”

It so happens that I’m going to Berlin next week to speak at the IFA technology show about just this topic: Europe (specifically Germany) and technology specifically American technology companies). I worry about Europe.

Germany just banned Uber (despite the advice of EC VP Neelie Kroes). A European court instituted the ludicrous and dangerous Right to be Forgotten (what about the right to remember?). German government officials harassed Google over Street View so much that Google gave up photographing its streets (so much for Blurmany). German publishers got government to pass an ancillary copyright to go after Google quoting and linking to their content (but then lost a round in court). The German book industry gave technosceptic Jaron Lanier its big-deal peace prize and Dave Eggers’ dystopian novel is roaring up the charts. A German pol is threatening to break up Google (how?). Spain is looking to tax the link. The head of powerful German publisher Axel Springer raises the spectre of Google starting its own nation without laws. A German government agency is talking about declaring Google a utility and regulating it as such; I’d call that quasi-nationalization. “It is the core task of liberalism and social democracy to tame and restrain data capitalism gone wild,” declared Social Democratic Chairman Sigmar Gabriel in a German paper. “Either we defend our freedom and change our policies, or we become digitally hypnotised subjects of a digital rulership.” I could go on….

Would you invest in technology in Europe and specifically in Germany? I sure wouldn’t.

Some of this is about disrupted companies and institutions rallying to try to hobble their disruptor. Some of this is cultural technopanic. In either case, the damage to Europe and particularly Germany could be great.

At IFA, I plan to tell the technology executives there that they need to step up and defend progress or they might find themselves left behind.

Screenshot 2014-09-04 at 8.05.22 PM

First, the good news

First, listen to this superb and profoundly disturbing segment by On the Media producer Sarah Abdurrahman about how she and her husband and other guests at a Canadian wedding were detained and mistreated at the U.S. border crossings in spite of their citizenship — American — and because of their religion — Islam.

Welcome back. I told you it well done, didn’t I? I’d be screaming bloody murder at such treatment but Abdurrahman kept her journalistic cool and curiosity, trying to get the facts and understand our rights, asking questions, in spite of never getting answers. People have been saying lately that Verizon picked on the wrong person in me. Well, U.S. Customs and Border Protection could not have picked a worse person to detain: a smart, accomplished journalist with an audience.

I would hope that CBP is humiliated by this and will change, but our government isn’t humiliated by spying on the entire damned world and won’t change that, so I’ll give up my hope. Nonetheless, this story is the perfect bookend to the Guardian’s reporting on the NSA, showing a government that is out of control — because its citizens can no longer control it. Well done, OtM. Thank you, Sarah.

Now the bad news. Next came a story that did have me shouting at the radio as geographer Jim Thatcher condemned major tech companies with broad brush — without specifics, without evidence or proof, only with innuendo — for the possibility they could be redlining the world and diverting users away from certain areas. “It’s hidden what they’re doing,” he said. If it’s hidden, then how does he know they’re doing it? Not said. Microsoft had a patent that could do things like this but Thatcher acknowledged that “Microsoft may or may not” every use it. They could.

Brooke Gladstone laments Google’s purchase of Waze for $1.3 million because “we are being sold for our data, it’s an old story.” No, I was using Waze at the very moment I heard that because (1) I get data of great value back, helping me avoid not opium dens but traffic jams and (2) I generously want to share my data with others who have generously shared theirs with me. This is an example of a platform that does precisely what news organizations should do: help the public share its information with each other, without gatekeepers.

Next, Thatcher says with emphasis that “theoretically” Google could charge coffee shops for directing us to one over another. Then Thatcher acknowledges that it’s not happening. It could. And he dollops on a cherry of fear about technology and “for-profit” corporations.

Don’t you smell the irony in the oven, OtM? You properly and brilliantly condemn the CBP for detaining Americans because they are Muslims and because Muslims could do terrorism even when they don’t. Then, in the very next segment, you turn around and needlessly condemn technology companies because they could do things some guy imagines even though he admits they don’t.

Those are two sides of the same phenomenon: moral panic, the unsubstantiated suspicion that some apparently alien entity — Muslims or (OMG!) for-profit technology companies — could upset the social order, a fear often fanned by media.

Put down the fan, OtM, and learn the lesson from Abdurrahman’s superb story that your role — you of all media outlets — is to throw cold water on such unwarranted fright-mongering.

Mind you, these two segments were surrounded by two more very good reports: one that gives us a guide for what to ignore in breaking news (so as not to fan flames) and another about how — surprise, surprise, surprise — technology can lead to good ends. I remain a fan and loyal listener of OtM. And that is why I humbly offer you a map to guide you away from a dodgy neighborhood called technopanic.

Technopanic: The Movie

Disconnect thinks it is a film about technology’s impact on our lives. But it is really just a mawkish melodrama about a random bunch of creeps, jerks, assholes, and loners. It is not a warning about our future. In the future, it will be seen as the cyber Reefer Madness: in short, a laughingstock.

Disconnect begins by throwing us every uh-oh signal it can: online porn; people listening to their headphones instead of the world around them; people paying attention to their phones (and the people on the other end) instead of the boring world in front of them; skateboards; people ruining office productivity watching silly videos; kids wearing Hooters T-shirts; sad people chatting with strangers online; people gambling online; people getting phished into bankruptcy; and worst of all, kids using Facebook. Oh, no!

A series of parallel stories unfold: the loner kid who’ll be drawn to humiliate himself and attempt suicide by asshole teens, one of them the son of a cybercop (irony.com!); the young couple — let’s kill their kid to up the sympathy — who chat with strangers and gamble with machines and find their identities thieved (where’s the product placement for Identity Guard and Reputation.com!); the vulture reporter who exploits — and rather hankers for the loins of (and smokes reefers with) — the teen online hustler exploited by the cyberFagin.

Along the way, the movie delivers quite retrograde messages not only about technology but also about sexuality: It’s the men who are found to be at fault for not protecting their nests. Thus: technology castrates!

I hate to deliver any spoilers but it pretty much ends with everybody fucked up and miserable because they got anywhere near the internet.

Disconnect is merely an extension of a trend (we call it a meme these days) in challenging the value of technology against those of us — and I include myself in the “us” — who try to identify the opportunities technology provides. Instead, why don’t we look for everything that could go wrong and crawl back into our caves?

NY Times technobias

nytimesp1From the headline to the lede to the chosen sources to the writing to the page-one placement, today’s New York Times coverage of Google’s $7 million settlement for the drive-by capture of wifi data is one-sided, shallow, and technopanicky.

First, let’s remind ourselves of the facts. Google’s Street View cars captured wifi addresses as they drove by as a way to provide better geolocation on our phones (this is why your phone suggests you turn on wi-fi when using maps — so you can take advantage of the directory of wifi addresses and physical addresses that Google and other companies keep). Stupidly and for no good reason, the cars also recorded other data passing on *open* wifi networks. But that data was incredibly limited: just what was transmitted in the random few seconds in which the Google car happened to pass once by an address. There is no possible commercial use, no rationally imagined nefarious motive, no goldmine of Big Data to be had. Nonetheless, privacy’s industrial-regulator complex jumped into action to try to exploit the incident. But even Germany — the rabid dog of privacy protectors — dropped the case. And the U.S. case got pocket lint from Google.

But that didn’t stop The Times from overplaying the story. Neither did it stop a CNN producer from calling me to try to whip up another technopanic story about privacy; I refused. I won’t pay into the panic.

Let’s dissect the Times story from the headline down:

* The Times calls what Google did “prying.” That implies an “improper curiosity” and an intentionality, as if Google were trying to open our drawers and find something there. It’s a loaded word.

* The lede by David Streitfeld says Google “casually scooped up passwords, e-mail and other personal information from unsuspecting computer users.” Later in the story, he says: “For several years, the company also secretly collected personal information — e-mail, medical and financial records, passwords — as it cruised by. It was data-scooping from millions of unencrypted wireless networks.”

The cars recorded whatever data was passing on these — again — *open* and *public* networks, which can be easily closed. Google was obviously not trying to vacuum up passwords. To say “unsuspecting computer users” is again loaded, as if these were victims. And to list particularly medical and financial records and not mention bits employed in playing Farmville is loaded as well.

* Here’s the worst of it: Streitfeld says unnamed “privacy advocates and Google critics characterized the overall agreement as a breakthrough for a company they say has become a serial violator of privacy.” A “serial violate or privacy”? Really? Where’s the link to this long and damning rap sheet? Facebook, maybe. But I doubt even Google’s vocal and reasonable critics would characterize the company this way. If Streitfeld found someone who said that, it should be in quotes and attributed to someone, or else he and the paper are the ones issuing this judgment.

* If anyone would say such a thing, it would certainly be the people Streitfeld did quote in the story, for he sought out only the worst of the company’s critics, including Scott Cleland, “a consultant for Google’s competitors” [cough] and Marc Rotenberg, self-styled protector of privacy at the so-called Electronic Privacy Information Center. Streitfeld also went to the attorneys general and a former FTC bureaucrat who went after Google. Nowhere in this story is there any sense of another side, let alone of context and perspective. That’s just not good reporting.

I have made it clear that I’m generally a fan of Google; I wrote a book about that. Nonetheless, I have frequently called Google’s recording of this data as its cars passed by — and this is my technical term — a fuckup. It was stupid. It was damaging to Google’s reputation. It played into the hands of the critics. That’s what I can’t stand.

I’m tired of media’s and governments’ attempts to raise undue panic about technology. Look at the silly, preemptive, and panicky coverage of Google Glass before the product is even out. A Seattle dive bar said it would ban Glass and media picked it up all over (8,000+ references at last check on Google News) — though the bar admitted, as any fool could see, that it was just a publicity stunt.

There are plenty of serious issues to discuss about protecting privacy and there is certainly a need to educate people about how to protect their privacy. But this simplistic, biased, anti-technology, panicked coverage does neither. I might expect this other outlets. But I’m sad to see The Times join in.

Note that as part of its settlement, Google will educate people to close their open wifi networks. The Times found someone to ridicule even that when its ink would have been better put to telling people how to close their networks.

: See also Phillip Dampier on the topic.