Posts about google

Guardian column: Google is our ambassador

Here’s my Guardian column this week on Google and China. See also this post proposing a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace.

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This year at Davos, Google CEO Eric Schmidt told a room of journalists that his company is not a country, does not set laws, and does not have a police force. Yet in its showdown with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet. Well, somebody has to.

Next to no one has been willing to stand up to China’s suppression of speech online. Other companies—Yahoo—have handed over information that led to the imprisonment of dissidents. More companies—Cisco—have helped China build its Great Firewall. Many more—from News Corp to the New York Times Company—have coveted the Chinese market and overlooked the regime’s tyranny to do business there. Governments have hardly been better, doing little to nothing to pressure China over human and digital rights.

But Google did. Now it has turned off the filter it never should have created if it wanted to stay true to its don’t-be-evil dictum. It has dared the Chinese government to block search and speech and expose its censorship to its people. By its action, Google also dares other companies and governments to follow.

The fight against apartheid in South Africa had its Sullivan Principles; the fight for free speech and a free, secure internet now has its Google Principles. I don’t mean to equate the virtual repression in the Chinese internet with the racial, physical, and economic repression that occurred in South Africa under apartheid. But in both instances, there came a time when companies had to ask—or be asked—whether they could justify supporting tyrannical regimes. Pulling out of China is a moral decision.

Today, moral decisions are also business decisions. London economist Umair Haque argues that when we can all talk about companies online, the price of doing evil has increased. Google is repairing its social standing.

Cynics say Google left China because it was beaten by Baidu; few Western companies are competing well against Chinese counterparts (even Rupert Murdoch has been foiled). But I say Google is instead defending its entire business—because it is defending the internet itself against censorship, government control, espionage, and attack.

Google’s business strategy is dead simple: The more we use the internet, the more Google makes. If governments are allowed and enabled to restrict freedom on the internet to a lowest common denominator (as the U.K.’s libel tourism does for publishing), and if we worry that our data in the cloud is not secure, and if citizens of totalitarian states fear the internet will be used to jail them, then we will trust and use it less. Google loses. We all lose.

But even Google cannot fight this alone. “No single company and no single industry can tackle Internet censorship on its own,” Google’s director of public policy, Alan Davidson, told a Congressional panel last week. He urged Congress to consider withholding development aid for countries that restrict online speech and including a pledge for free speech online in trade agreements. Davidson said 40 nations censor the internet today and 25 governments have blocked Google.

I wait to see what governments in the U.S., the U.K., and Europe will do to support the freedom and security of the Chinese people and of the internet (so far, it seems, the White House is applauding Google’s actions with one hand). I wait to see other companies matching Google’s guts.

Or perhaps what I should wish instead for popular support for free speech in the internet—a movement from us, the society of users. That is how companies and governments were pressured to divest their interests in South Africa. So where is our outcry for freedom and security? The internet is ours to lose.

In 1996, Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow wrote a rousing Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace ( “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one….”

Perhaps we now need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace to claim and secure our freedom to connect, speak, assemble, and act online; to each control our own identities and data; to speak our languages; to protect both what is public and private; and to assure openness. (Please come and suggest and discuss its articles at

With that, our diplomatic mission to the old world—Google—can fight for what’s right. After all, someone must.

A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

In my Media Guardian column this Monday, I will suggest that we need a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace as a set of amendments to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. Note that I do not suggest the establishment a Constitution of the Internet; I think that would violate the tenets Barlow so eloquently if grandiosely sets forth. We don’t need government in cyberspace; we need freedom.

This Bill of Rights attempts to establish the fundamental freedoms of our internet that must be protected against abridgment by governments, companies, institutions, criminals, subverters, or mobs. I suggest in my column that in its confrontation with China, Google is acting as the ambassador for the internet to the old world under its own (rediscovered) principles. So we would be wise to establish our principles. I ask the column’s readers to come to this post to suggest and discuss articles. Also discuss at the Guardian’s Comment is Free.

Here are mine:

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A Bill of Rights in Cyberspace

I. We have the right to connect.

This is a preamble and precondition to the American First Amendment: before we can speak, we must be able to connect. Hillary Clinton defines the freedom to connect as “the idea that governments should not prevent people from connecting to the internet, to websites, or to each other.” It is this principle that also informs discussion of net neutrality.

II. We have the right to speak.

No one may abridge our freedom of speech. We acknowledge the limitations on freedom of speech but they must defined as narrowly as possible, lest we find ourselves operating under a lowest common denominator of offense. Freedom is our default.

III. We have the right to speak in our languages.

The English language’s domination of the internet has faded as more languages and alphabets have joined the net, which is to be celebrated. But Ethan Zuckerman also cautions that in our polyglot internet, we will want to build bridges across languages. We will want to speak in our own languages but also speak with others’.

IV. We have the right to assemble.

In the American Bill of Rights, the right to assemble is listed separately from the right to speak. The internet enables us to organize without organizations and collaborate and that now threatens repressive regimes as much as speech.

V. We have the right to act.

These first articles are a thread: We connect to speak and speak to assemble and assemble to act and that is how we can and will change the world, not just putting forth grievances but creating the means to fix them. That is what threatens the institutions that would stop us.

VI. We have the right to control our data.

You should have access to data about you. And what’s yours is yours. We want the internet to operate on a principle of portability, so your information and creations cannot be held prisoner by a service or government and so you retain control. But keep in mind that when control is given to one, it is taken from another; in those details lurk devils. This principle thus speaks to copyright and its laws, which set the definitions and limits of control or creation. This principle also raises questions about whether the wisdom of the crowd belongs to the crowd.

VII. We have the right to our own identity.

This is not as simple as a name. Our identity online is made up of our names, addresses, speech, creations, actions, connections. Note also that in repressive regimes, maintaining anonymity — hiding one’s identity — is a necessity; thus anonymity, with all its faults and baggage and trolls, must also be protected online to protect the dissenter and the whistleblower. Note finally that these two articles — controlling our data and our identities — make up the right to privacy, which is really a matter of control.

VIII. What is public is a public good.

The internet is public; indeed, it is a public place (rather than a medium). In the rush to protect privacy, we must beware the dangers of restricting the definition of public. What’s public is owned by the public. Making the public private or secret serves the corrupt and tyrannical.

IX. The internet shall be built and operated openly.

The internet must continue to be built and operated to open standards. It must not be taken over or controlled by any company or government. It must not be taxed. It is the internet’s openness that gives it its freedom. It is this freedom that defines the internet.

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* Bruce Sterling quoting Timothy Garton Ash on the state of freedom of information.
* Ethan Zuckerman: We can’t circumvent our way around censorship.
* Ethan Zuckerman on internet freedom.
* Rebecca MacKinnon’s Congressional testimony on internet freedom and Chinese censorship.
* Kevin Marks compares China’s policies and the U.K.’s Digital Britain bill.
* Clay Shirky: “What forces Google to have a foreign policy is that what they’re exporting isn’t a product or a service, it’s a freedom.”

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Thanks to Benoit Raphael here is a French version of the Bill of Rights and here is a German version at Zeit Online. Now thanks to Itai Alter, here it is as a Google Doc in Hebrew.

And now, most appropriately, in Chinese. Note, however, the disclaimer at the bottom of that page (via Google Translate): “?This translation is only the purpose of language learning and reading, the original author and the translator and the translation of personal opinion has nothing to do made by Network].”

Also in Norwegian thanks to Arne Halvorsen. I hope that Arabic and Persian are coming.

And then (in German) there is an alternative version.

Another German translation here.

TEDxNYed: This is bullshit

Here are my notes for my talk to the TEDxNYed gathering this past weekend. I used the opportunity of a TED event to question the TED format, especially in relation to education, where — as in media — we must move past the one-way lecture to collaboration. I feared I’d get tomatoes — organic — thrown at me at the first line, but I got laugh and so everything we OK from there. The video won’t be up for a week or two so I’ll share my notes. It’s not word-for-word what I delivered, but it’s close….

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This is bullshit.

Why should you be sitting there listening to me? To paraphrase Dan Gillmor, you know more than I do. Will Richardson should be up here instead of me. And to paraphrase Jay Rosen, you should be the people formerly known as the audience.

But right now, you’re the audience and I’m lecturing.

That’s bullshit.

What does this remind of us of? The classroom, of course, and the entire structure of an educational system built for the industrial age, turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lecturn. If they veer from it they’re wrong; they fail.

What else does this remind us of? Media, old media: one-way, one-size-fits-all. The public doesn’t decide what’s news and what’s right. The journalist-as-speaker does.

But we must question this very form. We must enable students to question the form.

I, too, like lots of TED talks. But having said that….

During the latest meeting of Mothership TED, I tweeted that I didn’t think I had ever seen any TEDster tweet anything negative about a talk given there, so enthralled are they all for being there, I suppose. I asked whether they were given soma in their shwag bags.

But then, blessed irony, a disparaging tweet came from none other than TED’s curator, dean, editor, boss, Chris Anderson. Sarah Silverman had said something that caused such a kerfuffle Anderson apologized and then apologized for the apology, so flummoxed was he by someone coming into the ivory tower of TED to shake things up with words.

When I tweeted about this, trying to find out what Silverman had said, and daring to question the adoration TEDsters have for TED, one of its acolytes complained about my questioning the wonders of TED. She explained that TED gave her “validation.”


Good God, that’s the last thing we should want. We should want questions, challenges, discussion, debate, collaboration, quests for understanding and solutions. Has the internet taught us any less?

But that is what education and media do: they validate.

They also repeat. In news, I have argued that we can no longer afford to repeat the commodified news the public already knows because we want to tell the story under our byline, exuding our ego; we must, instead, add unique value.

The same can be said of the academic lecture. Does it still make sense for countless teachers to rewrite the same essential lecture about, say, capillary action? Used to be, they had to. But not now, not since open curricula and YouTube. Just as journalists must become more curator than creator, so must educators.

A few years ago, I had this conversation with Bob Kerrey at the New School. He asked what he could do to compete with brilliant lectures now online at MIT. I said don’t complete, complement. I imagined a virtual Oxford based on a system of lecturers and tutors. Maybe the New School should curate the best lectures on capillary action from MIT and Stanford or a brilliant teacher who explains it well even if not from a big-school brand; that could be anyone in YouTube U. And then the New School adds value by tutoring: explaining, answering, probing, enabling.

The lecture does have its place to impart knowledge and get us to a shared starting point. But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of education – or journalism. Now the shared lecture is a way to find efficiency in ending repetition, to make the best use of the precious teaching resource we have, to highlight and support the best. I’ll give the same advice to the academy that I give to news media: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

I still haven’t moved past the lecture and teacher as starting point. I also think we must make the students the starting point.

At a Carnegie event at the Paley Center a few weeks ago, I moderated a panel on teaching entrepreneurial journalism and it was only at the end of the session that I realized what I should have done: start with the room, not the stage. I asked the students in the room what they wished their schools were teaching them. It was a great list: practical yet visionary.

I tell media that they must become collaborative, because the public knows much, because people want to create, not just consume, because collaboration is a way to expand news, because it is a way to save expenses. I argue that news is a process, not a product. Indeed, I say that communities can now share information freely – the marginal cost of their news is zero. We in journalism should ask where we can add value. But note that that in this new ecosystem, the news doesn’t start with us. It starts with the community.

I’ve been telling companies that they need to move customers up the design chain. On a plane this week, I sat next to a manufacturer of briefcases last week and asked whether, say, TechCrunch could get road warriors to design the ultimate laptop bag for them, would he build it? Of course, he would.

So we need to move students up the education chain. They don’t always know what they need to know, but why don’t we start by finding out? Instead of giving tests to find out what they’ve learned, we should test to find out what they don’t know. Their wrong answers aren’t failures, they are needs and opportunities.

But the problem is that we start at the end, at what we think students should learn, prescribing and preordaining the outcome: We have the list of right answers. We tell them our answers before they’ve asked the questions. We drill them and test them and tell them they’ve failed if they don’t regurgitate back our lectures as lessons learned. That is a system built for the industrial age, for the assembly line, stamping out everything the same: students as widgets, all the same.

But we are no longer in the industrial age. We are in the Google age. Hear Jonathan Rosenberg, Google’s head of product management, who advised students in a blog post. Google, he said, is looking for “non-routine problem-solving skills.” The routine way to solve the problem of misspelling is, of course, the dictionary. The non-routine way is to listen to all the mistake and corrections we make and feed that back to us in the miraculous, “Did you mean?”

“In the real world,” he said, “the tests are all open book, and your success is inexorably determined by the lessons you glean from the free market.”

One more from him: “It’s easy to educate for the routine, and hard to educate for the novel.” Google sprung from seeing the novel. Is our educational system preparing students to work for or create Googles? Googles don’t come from lectures.

So if not the lecture hall, what’s the model? I mentioned one: the distributed Oxford: lectures here, teaching there.

Once you’re distributed, then one has to ask, why have a university? Why have a school? Why have a newspaper? Why have a place or a thing? Perhaps, like a new news organization, the tasks shift from creating and controlling content and managing scarcity to curating people and content and enabling an abundance of students and teachers and of knowledge: a world whether anyone can teach and everyone will learn. We must stop selling scarce chairs in lecture halls and thinking that is our value.

We must stop our culture of standardized testing and standardized teaching. Fuck the SATs.* In the Google age, what is the point of teaching memorization?

We must stop looking at education as a product – in which we turn out every student giving the same answer – to a process, in which every student looks for new answers. Life is a beta.

Why shouldn’t every university – every school – copy Google’s 20% rule, encouraging and enabling creation and experimentation, every student expected to make a book or an opera or an algorithm or a company. Rather than showing our diplomas, shouldn’t we show our portfolios of work as a far better expression of our thinking and capability? The school becomes not a factory but an incubator.

There’s another model for an alternative to the lecture and it’s Dave Winer’s view of the unconference. At the first Bloggercon, Dave had me running a panel on politics and when I said something about “my panel,” he jumped down my throat, as only Dave can. “There is no panel,” he decreed. “The room is the panel.” Ding. It was in the moment that I learned to moderate events, including those in my classroom, by drawing out the conversation and knowledge of the wise crowd in the room.

So you might ask why I didn’t do that here today. I could blame the form; didn’t want to break the form. But we all know there’s another reason:


* That was an ad-lib

Italy endangers the web

Italy is endangering the web. It convicted three Google executives for privacy violations for a video that was posted on YouTube Google Video that Google took down when it received a complaint. By holding Google liable for the actions of a user, the Italian court is in essence requiring Google and every other web site to review and vet everything anyone puts online. The practical implication of that, of course, is that no one will let anyone put anything online because the risk is too great. I wouldn’t let you post anything here. My ISP wouldn’t let me post anything on its servers. Google wouldn’t let me post anything on it’s services. And that kills the internet.

In America, we have a First Amendment for the web called Section 230, which every nation needs. Section 230 say, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” It gives a provider safe haven to take down content that violates laws without finding the provider liable. The American Congress and courts knew — with impressive foresight — that such protection was necessary to protect discussion and free speech online. Of course, the interpretation of the law is an evolving beast, but the principle is vital.

Google says of the Italian decision:

It attacks the very principles of freedom on which the Internet is built. Common sense dictates that only the person who films and uploads a video to a hosting platform could take the steps necessary to protect the privacy and obtain the consent of the people they are filming. European Union law was drafted specifically to give hosting providers a safe harbor from liability so long as they remove illegal content once they are notified of its existence. The belief, rightly in our opinion, was that a notice and take down regime of this kind would help creativity flourish and support free speech while protecting personal privacy. If that principle is swept aside and sites like Blogger, YouTube and indeed every social network and any community bulletin board, are held responsible for vetting every single piece of content that is uploaded to them — every piece of text, every photo, every file, every video — then the Web as we know it will cease to exist, and many of the economic, social, political and technological benefits it brings could disappear.

In the global, interconnected web, we live in constant danger of the lowest common denominator, of one court, legislature, or regime opening up liability that affects risk and behavior everywhere — like the U.K’s libel tourism, which enables miscreants to sue publishers if only one person saw the publication in the U.K.

This is why we need a set of principles protecting our freedom of speech on the web: not a law, not a treaty, nothing from government — see John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence for cyberspace. In the Google/China situation — in which Google acted as a quasi-state to protect rights (albeit belatedly) according to its principles — Rebecca MacKinnon argues for a constitution for cyberspace but I worry that it would become overloaded with clauses and conditions. In American historical terms, I say we already have a Declaration of Independence and I’d skip over the Constitution to get a Bill of RIghts that begins with its First Amendment: governments shall make no law no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. Start there.

Helping news be news

Google News has just open-sourced its code to create what it calls Living Stories. What this really is, I think, is Google’s attempt to take editors to school on content presentation in our new world.

The article, I’ve argued, is outmoded as the building block of news. The new atomic unit(s) of journalism needs to reflect the transition of news from a product to a process. It needs to gather updates and corrections on a story. It needs to put that story in context and history. It needs to link to other versions of the story from other sources. Going past what Google’s Living Stories format does, it needs to open the door to collaboration. It can do so much more: showing the provenance of the news and linking to original sources, gathering comment and perspective, soliciting questions….

Daylife (where, disclosure, I’m a partner) its own vision of the future of the story, called Smart Stories, that will do more neat things; I’ll let them tell you about it. Daylife also sees that news needn’t exist in isolated, short-lived, repetitive units of presentation invented for the age of print. News should reside in a nest of relevance, which not only improves the presentation, it gives you more options on how you want to delve into the story and follow it and eventually contribute to it. It makes news more personal.

Both companies are doing something important for the benefit of journalists: making them look at what they create in a new way. This is just one possibility, just one step. We also need to think about making news embeddable and distributed. We need to insinuate news into your stream (“if the news is that important, it will find me“) and make it collaborative and enable you to triangulate from different viewpoints and footnote our work and….

The way for Google to serve the interests of news is not to make deals to mollify the mewling Associated Press or cater to pipe dreams of charging. The way that Google and other technology visionaries can help is by reshaping the form of news to show the people who do it how they can do it now. The open-sourcing of Living Stories is a welcome start.