Posts about wsj

Debate on privacy: the fuller text

The Wall Street Journal today publishes excerpts from a debate among me, danah boyd, Stewart Baker, and Christopher Soghoian about privacy (and publicness). They had us write to specific lengths, so I was surprised that they didn’t publish the entire conversation, even online. So if you can bear more, here are my complete bits; I’ll let me fellow debaters post their own.

Later: Here are danah boyd’s complete answers.

Part I:

Privacy is important. It deserves protection. And it is receiving protection from no end of self-appointed watchdogs, legislators, regulators, consultants, companies, and chief privacy officers: an entire regulatory/industrial complex. Privacy is in good hands.

It’s publicness I worry about: our corresponding right and newfound ability to use this Gutenberg press we all now own—the internet—to speak, assemble, act, connect, and collaborate in a more open society. I fear that that if we over-regulate privacy, managing only to the worst-case, we could lose sight of the benefits of publicness, the value of sharing.

Our new sharing industry—led by Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube, Foursquare, blogs, and new services launched every day—is premised on an innate human desire to connect. Eight hundred million people can’t be wrong. That’s how many people use Facebook alone to post more than a billion artifacts of their lives every day. These aren’t privacy services. They are social services.

But the private/public discussion to date has focused almost exclusively on privacy and worry. New technologies that cause disruption have often led to collective concern about privacy. After the invention of the press, the earliest published authors fretted about having their thoughts associated with their names, set down permanently and distributed widely. The first serious discussion of a legal right to privacy in the United States did not come until 1890, spurred by the invention of the portable Kodak camera and the rise of the penny press. For a time, President Teddy Roosevelt banned “kodakers” from Washington parks.

Now we are at the dawn of the greatest technological disruption since the press and it brings corresponding concern. It is well to worry about what could go wrong so we may guard against it, to assure that companies and especially government do not surveil us to our detriment.

But I ask us to also recognize and guard the publicness our new tools empower. I hope we engage in another discussion about the principles of an open society: the right to connect, speak, assemble and act; privacy as an ethic; the call for our institutions to become transparent by default and secret by necessity (now it is reversed); the value of maintaining the public square; and the need to safeguard the people’s net from tyrants, censors, private control, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning but premature regulation.

Privacy has its protectors. What of publicness?

Part II:

Privacy legislation and regulation are awash with unintended consequences.

Germany’s head of consumer protection, Ilse Aigner, surely believes she is guarding citizens’ privacy when she urges them to exercise their Verpixelungsrecht, their so-called right to have photos of buildings taken from public streets pixilated in Google Street View. But she sets a precedent that could affect the free-speech rights of journalists and citizens. She diminishes the public square at the public’s cost.

The U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act says sites may not use information specific to a child under 13 without written (that is, faxed, scanned, or videoconferenced) parental consent. The result: Children learn to lie about their age. And young people are likely the worst-served sector of society online. That is a tragedy of lost opportunity.

The Do Not Track legislation making its way through Congress threatens ad tracking and cookies. This newspaper demonizes them as “intrusive” and “intensive surveillance.” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz denounces media that use them as “cyberazzi.” Though most of this data is anonymous. Taken too far, Do Not Track could devalue online media, resulting in less content, more pay walls, and a less-informed populace. The road to ignorance may be paved with good intentions.

Part III:

Stipulated: Anonymity, pseudonymity, and even nicknames need to be protected for the vulnerable, dissidents in danger, whistleblowers, and even game players, for the sake of their speech.

That said, real people and real relationships have proven to add value, accountability, and civility to online discourse.

Stipulated: The advertising, media, and sharing industries have done a dreadful job being open about what they track, why, and what benefits accrue to their users. The mess they’re in is much of their own making.

Even so, online tracking is being demonized in shrill fear-mongering (Chris’ is but one example), which doesn’t acknowledge that most of this data—unlike the consumer data bases of preinternet marketing—do not contain names and addresses. There is little discussion of harm or benefit, only vague fear.

Stipulated: We need to come together as one society to perform certain functions, such as voting and taxation.

But we are not a mass. The myth of the grand shared experience of media—all of us hanging on Uncle Walter’s every pause—was an unfortunate, half-century-long aberration. Democracy should be a cacophony of ideas and perspectives. Thanks to our new tools of publicness, we are regaining the power to create and find our own publics.

Identity can aid connections. Tracking can produce relevance. Personalization can reduce noise. These are benefits of the net.

Wrong battlefield

It’s kinda touching that Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants are trying to entertain the boss by starting an old-fashioned newspaper war (old-fashioned modifies newspaper). But it’s also ever-more revealing of their worldview.

And of course, the best way to declare a war is to declare it over and claim victory. “Nationally, there’s no contest now,” Robert Thomson, editor of the Wall Street Journal, said, according to the AP, “We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.” The AP goes on to tell us that the “Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times’ 900,000.”

OK, but that’s half the story. It’s more like 10 percent of the story. For now shift to the future, the web, and comScore tells us that in July, The Times reached 43.6 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16.1 million. By the time you add in pass-around readers for the paper and de-dupe the same readers for print and online, those numbers might change, but the moral to the story doesn’t.

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

Murdoch has been willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on his New York Post for one reason: he wants a “bully pulpit” (his words.) He has certainly turned FoxNews into just that. So its kind of sad, if you’re feeling empathetic, that his Journal is losing so to The Times. That’s why Thomson doth protest too much.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Now I argue these days that brands are no longer magnets; they become labels when you find content through search, algorithms, and peers’ links. Murdoch cut off the algorithms when he pulled his Times of London out of Google News just as he put it behind the wall. That was not a business decision but an emotional but. But I’m even willing to stipulate that his pay wall could work — work in the sense that he gets satisfactory revenue (whatever the definition of that is) from readers rather than from advertisers.

But the real price is growth. It won’t grow. I see that not as victory in the war for the biggest bully pulpit — for the bragging rights to talking to more people. I see that as surrender.

Cookie Madness!

I just don’t understand Julia Angwin’s scare story about cookies and ad targeting in the Wall Street Journal. That is, I don’t understand how the Journal could be so breathlessly naive, unsophisticated, and anachronistic about the basics of the modern media business. It is the Reefer Madness of the digital age: Oh my God, Mabel, they’re watching us!

If I were a conspiracy theorist — and I’m not, because I’ve found the world is rarely organized enough to conspire (and I found this to be especially true of News Corp. when I worked there, at TV Guide) — I’d imagine that the Journal ginned up this alleged exposé as a way to attack everyone else’s advertising business just as its parent company skulks behind its pay wall and surrenders its own ad business. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist. That’s why I’m confused.

The story uses the ominous passive voice of newspaper scare stories: “…a Wall Street Journal investigation has found…” As if this knowledge were hiding. Cookies have been around as long as the commercial browser, since October 1994. Or was that 1984?

The piece uses lots of scare words: “surveillance technology” … “tracking technology” … “intrusive” … “no warning” … “surreptitiously re-spawn” … “rich databases” … “so powerful and ubiquitous” … and my favorite: “targeted ads can get personal” (well, yeah, that’s the damned point).

The Journal acts as if it has discovered a conspiracy of its own: “Marketers are spying on Internet users — observing and remembering people’s clicks, and building and selling detailed dossiers of their activities and interests.” Gasp! Mabel, hide the kids, the Romans Huns Krauts Commies Marketers are coming!

There is absolutely nothing new — thus nothing newsworthy — in what the Journal promises threatens to be a series.

The Journal does measure its own cookies, finding its site moderate (I count 34 Journal cookies on my new Mac and I don’t use the site often) in what it ominously calls an “exposure index.” Mabel: Bring the Geiger counter!

Well, except the Journal is unique because unlike the other sites the story writes about, the Journal has my personally identifiable information! It has my friggin’ credit card number and name and address and phone number as well as my web behavior and it allows me to be tracked by third parties. The Journal has more information about me than ANY of the sites it warns about. And the Journal is owned by a company some people don’t trust. Hmmm.

It’s a fine thing that the Journal also tells readers how to “avoid prying eyes.” And if enough people do that, then the value of the advertising-supported web falls. Without cookies, the effectiveness and price of advertising would plummet as ads everywhere turn into remnant junk (smack the money), reducing revenue for media sites and reducing their content to junk. Hmmmm….

A story like this might also affect policy as the FTC is looking at regulating online advertising and marketing; its chairman, Jon Leibowitz testified before Congress on the topic this very week. Hmmm.

I think the Journal should have told exactly how it places and uses every one of its cookies and beacons and ominous tracking surveillance spying technology. It doesn’t. The story doesn’t even link to the paper’s privacy policy, which says that cookies and beacons and all that scary surveillance/tracking/spying technologies are used at WSJ.com and its affiliates and also by third parties over which the Journal has no control. Opportunity lost.

If I were an advertising-supported site, I’d be aggressively transparent. I’d tell you exactly what we track and what impact that has on what we serve in advertising and content. I’d create an app to read the cookies placed just for you and explain them. I’d give you the chance to correct information. I’d give you the chance to select your own advertising (now that would be valuable). I’d treat this with radical openness.

Otherwise the scare mongers like those regulation-loving, anticapitalist commies at News Corp. will win the day.

: Oh, and I neglected to point out that it was the very same Journal that had the wingnutty story about privacy and RFID tags on our pants, quoting as an expert a woman who thinks that RFIDs are — and I exaggerate not — the work of the devil. What the hell is happening there? Are they going out for drinks too often with their new neighbors at the Post?

: Oh and here’s more scaremongering from the commie Telegraph in London, which equates Wikileaks’ Julian Assange with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Man, we are in silly season.

: MONDAY: The Journal campaign against digital advertising continues today with a shocking exposé revealing that Microsoft is a business-friendly business that chose not to release its browser with a default that would have killed ad tracking and targeting. Horrors!

Now if the Journal were really a business newspaper still, there’d be no news there. The news would be if Microsoft did not do what was good for revenue.

Here’s a too-metered Microsoft response to the weekend’s follies from the browser team.

A can-do attitude?

Right after Rupert Murdoch said he was planning to go free at the Wall Street Journal, one of its executives — a revenue officer probably quaking over his job — told Editor & Publisher:

“It is jumping the gun, people are jumping to conclusions here very quickly. We haven’t even closed the deal yet,” said Michael Rooney, senior vice president and chief revenue officer for the company’s consumer media group. “Mr. Murdoch would like to have the largest, most robust site in business. Free is a way to look at that. But there is a lot of detail behind that. You have to work that out. You don’t just flip the switch.”

Doesn’t sound like a can-do attitude to me. And when Murdoch takes over, that’s what he’ll expect, Mr. Rooney. It’s a seat-of-the-pants, quick-decision, make-it-happen company in my experience.

Let me tell you a story about my time at News Corp. When I arrived there, I brought the idea of starting a Parents’ Guide to Children’s Entertainment to my then-boss and now friend, the editor of TV Guide at the time, Anthea Disney.

The first time I mentioned it in a larger meeting, Les Hinton, now Murdoch’s head guy in London and then his head guy in American magazines, said: ‘Interesting… but no.’

The second time it came up, he paused a bit longer but said, ‘No.’

The third time it came up, he said, ‘That magazine of yours… Do it.’

I said, ‘OK, I’ll get you a business plan.’

‘No,’ Les said, ‘do it.’

‘Oh,’ I said, figuring I’d just skipped about 15 steps, 10 reports, 200 meetings, and six years in the process I had endured launching Entertainment Weekly at task-force-ruled Time Inc. ‘You want me to get a prototype done.’

‘No,’ Les said, now impatient, ‘just launch it.’

You could always count on quick decisions at News Corp. When he said ‘do it,’ he meant do it! That was the good side of Australian-rules management. The bad side was that an American executive, long since gone, also tried to make quick decisions and he insisted on a rate base (circulation) for the first issue of 1 million with no marketing whatsoever — a practical impossibility. To make up for that, they printed it TV-Guide-size and put it at checkouts in some TV Guide racks. Except after two weeks, TV Guide’s circ department feared my magazine hurting their sales — a not unreasonable idea — and they pulled my magazine. It had sold, as I recall, more than a half million copies — which for any magazine sold under such circumstances would have been a hit. They did put out a second issue of the magazine (large-size this time) but it was killed finally when the then ad director complained about her TV Guide sales force wasting their time on my $8k pages when they should be selling her $80k pages — also not unreasonable, but I couldn’t get a separate sales force and so the magazine died. (Though it is still a pretty damned good idea, I’d say).

So, Mr. Rooney, I’d be prepared for an atmosphere of decision making. If you don’t make a decision, you can bet someone else will beat you to it. Rather than saying, ‘You don’t just flip the switch, you know,’ I’d suggest offering ideas about how you could flip it. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

Content is free(er)

So Rupert Murdoch finally said it: The Wall Street Journal Online is going free. Here’s the link — and soon you won’t need to curse when you click on it and hit that brick pay wall. (Here‘s the AP version on the Times.)

On WSJ.com, Mr. Murdoch said, “We are studying it and we expect to make [the site] free and, instead of having one million [subscribers], having at least 10 million-15 million in every corner of the earth.” He said he believes that a free model, with its increased readership, will attract “large numbers” of big-spending advertisers.

I’ve argued in favor of dropping the wall. Lest I be accused (again) of wanting content to be free, I’m not saying that. I’m saying it already is. That horse has left the barn and has been running free for a decade. The reality of a networked media ecosystem is that free competition is always a click away. And as classified managers have learned trying to deal with Craigslist, free is damned hard to compete with. It just is.

But I think Murdoch’s move is about more than a business model and ad revenue. It is a shot across the bow of the New York Times. Watch out, neighbors, there’s a shootout in town. And it’s going to be damned fun to watch.

Prepare to be boarded

MediaGuardian’s Stephen Brook reports that, as rumored, Times of London editor Robert Thompson is bound for the U.S. to become publisher of the Wall Street Journal once his boss Rupert Murdoch closes the sale. Thompson is smart and respected. I think the Times under his leadership is good and on this trip, reading it more regularly, I think it’s improving. And don’t forget that when he was with teh Financial Times in New York, Thompson exploded its circulation. Add to this Murdoch’s noises about expanding coverage and taking on the New York Times.

And we have a newspaper war. Let’s hope we do. For it would only improve both papers. As always, when I’m in London, I’m struck by the benefit that accrues to all papers from their competitive and innovative fervor. I understand the arguments that Murdoch would be better to stick to business but selfishly, I hope he does give the Times a run. The old, gray lady needs to clear out her arteries.

Breakfast in the big time

I had a wonderful breakfast the other day with the Wall Street Journal’s Kara Swisher, talking about lots of things from Yahoo’s doom to entrepreneurial journalism. Her video over the omelet here.

Her colleague Walt Mossberg was having breakfast at the next table and as he wandered by he spotted my Treo on the table. Walt shoot his head. “You can do better than that,” he said.

I explained that I’m not allowed to have an iPhone yet. My son bought one with the proceeds of his Facebook app writing for a VC. And my wife said that if he teaches me to write apps, maybe I can get an iPhone, too.

‘Free the Journal’ drumbeat from inside

I’ve heard both arguments from inside Dow Jones about keeping the Journal behind a pay wall or freeing it to the world, but now comes no less a WSJ luminary than Kara Swisher voting for free from her (free) blog:

While I hate to differ with Crovitz, who helped us immeasurably in getting this site up and running as a free one, I think an open and ad-supported model is the only way to go now, especially under a larger and more powerful (and, most important, global) company like News Corp. that can really vault the site to higher prominence and higher traffic.

And given that the Journal’s online site garners estimated revenues of about $65 million from its paid efforts, which is admirable, it is chump change for News Corp. to try turbocharging the site as a free one, an experiment that will surely pay back the short-term cost. . . .

Most importantly, while a good product, the paid version simply creates a situation in which the Journal is not as relevant as it could and should be.

Scott Moore — a competitor, it should be noted — from Yahoo chimes in in the comments:

‘m not so sure “go free” is the right move for wsj.com at this point. I always felt they made a strategic mistake in launching the site with a subscription for many of the reasons Kara states about influence, size of audience, etc. At this point, however, its not at all clear that making the site free would automatically get it to the top of the Financial sites ratings without a big distribution partner (oh wait, there’s MySpace). And NewsCorp will have to weigh the potential damage to newspaper subscriptions and DJ wire service business if wsj.com goes free as is. Will be v interesting for sure, but its not a simple decision.

Heh. You can bet that Moore doesn’t want WSJ to go free; it would be a body slam to Yahoo News, which mostly merely aggregates while the Journal reports. Nice try, Scott.