Posts about google

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.”

Google’s TV


Google just demoted your television set into a second screen, a slave to your phone or tablet or laptop. With the $35 Chromecast you can with one click move anything you find on your internet-connected device — YouTube video, Netflix, a web page as well as music and pictures and soon, I’d imagine, games — onto your big TV screen, bypassing your cable box and all its ridiculous and expensive limitations.

Unlike Apple TV and Airplay, this does not stream from your laptop to the TV; this streams directly to your TV — it’s plugged into an HDMI port — over wi-fi via the cloud … er, via Google, that is. Oh, and it works with Apple iOS devices, too.

I’m just beginning to get a grasp on all the implications. Here are some I see.

* Simply put, I’ll end up watching more internet content because it’s so easy now. According to today’s demonstration, as soon as I tell Chrome to move something to my TV, the Chromecast device will sense the command and take over the TV. Nevermind smart TVs and cable boxes; the net is now in charge. There’s no more awkward searching using the world’s slowest typing via my cable box or a web-connected TV. There’s no more switching manually from one box to another. If it’s as advertised, I’ll just click on my browser and up it comes on my TV. Voila.

* Because Google issued an API, every company with web video — my beloved TWiT, for example — is motivated to add a Chromecast button to its content.

* Thus Google knows more about what you’re watching, which will allow it to make recommendations to you. Google becomes a more effective search engine for entertainment: TV Guide reborn at last.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell higher-priced video advertising on its content, which is will surely promote.

* Google gets more opportunities to sell you shows and movies from its Play Store, competing with both Apple and Amazon.

* YouTube gets a big boost in creating channels and building a new revenue stream: subscriptions. This is a paywall that will work simply because entertainment is a unique product, unlike news, which is — sorry to break the news to you — a commodity. I also wonder whether Google is getting a reward for all the Netflix subscriptions it will sell.

* TV is no longer device-dependant but viewer-dependant. I can start watching a show in one room then watch it another and then take it with me and watch on my tablet from where I left off.

* I can throw out the device with the worst user interface on earth: the cable remote. Now I can control video via my phone and probably do much more with it (again, I’m imagining new game interfaces).

* I can take a Chromecast with me on the road and use it in hotel rooms or in conference rooms to give presentations.

Those are implications for me as a user or viewer or whatever the hell I am now. That’s why I quickly bought three Chromecasts: one for the family room, one for my office, one for the briefcase and the road. What the hell, they’re cheap.

Harder to fully catalog are the implications for the industry — make that industries — affected. Too often, TV and the oligopolies that control it have been declared dead yet they keep going. One of these days, one of the bullets shot at them will hit the heart. Is this it?

* Cable is hearing a loud, growing snipping sound on the horizon. This makes it yet easier for us all to cut the cord. This unravels their bundling of channels. I’ll never count these sharks out. But it looks like it could be Sharknado for them. I also anticipate them trying to screw up our internet bandwidth every way they can: limiting speeds and downloading or charging us through the nose for decent service if we use Chromecast — from their greedy perspective — “too much.”

* Networks should also start feeling sweaty, for there is even less need for their bundling when we can find the shows and stars we want without them. The broadcast networks will descend even deeper into the slough of crappy reality TV. Cable networks will find their subsidies via cable operators’ bundles threatened. TV — like music and news — may finally come unbundled. But then again, TV networks are the first to run for the lifeboats and steal the oars. I remember well the day when ABC decided to stream Desperate Housewives on the net the morning after it aired on broadcast, screwing its broadcast affiliates. They’d love to do the same to cable MSOs. Will this give them their excuse?

* Content creators have yet another huge opportunity to cut out two layers of middlemen and have direct relationships with fans, selling them their content or serving them more targeted and valuable ads. Creators can be discovered directly. But we know how difficult it is to be discovered. Who can help? Oh, yeah, Google.

* Apple? I’ll quote a tweet:

Yes, Apple could throw out its Apple TV and shift to this model. But it’s disadvantaged against Google because it doesn’t offer the same gateway to the entire wonderful world of web video; it offers things it makes deals for, things it wants to sell us.

* Amazon? Hmmm. On the one hand, if I can more easily shift things I buy at Amazon onto my TV screen — just as I read Kindle books on my Google Nexus 7 table, not on an Amazon Kindle. But Amazon is as much a control freak as Apple and I can’t imagine Jeff Bezos is laughing that laugh of his right now.

* Advertisers will see the opportunity to directly subsidize content and learn more about consumers through direct relationships, no longer mediated by both channels and cable companies. (That presumes that advertisers and their agencies are smart enough to build audiences rather than just buying mass; so far, too many of them haven’t been.) Though there will be more entertainment behind pay walls, I think, there’ll still be plenty of free entertainment to piggyback on.

* Kids in garages with cameras will find path to the big screen is now direct if anybody wants to watch their stuff.

What other implications do you see?

Lessons from Waze for media

Screenshot 2013-06-11 at 4.30.34 PMNow that I’ve written my commuter’s paean to Waze, allow me to get a bit journowonky now and examine some of the lessons newspapers should learn from the success of the service:

1. Waze built a platform that lets the public share what it knows without the need for gatekeepers or mediators — that is, media. That’s how it keeps content costs at a minimum and scales around the world.

2. Waze does that first by automatically using the technology in our pockets to — gasp! — track us live so it can tell how fast we are going and thus where the traffic jams are. And we happily allow that because of the return we get — freedom from traffic jams and faster routes to where we’re going.

3. Waze does that next by easily enabling commuters to share alerts — traffic, stalled car, traffic-light camera, police, hazard, etc — ahead. It also lets commuters edit each others’ alerts (“that stalled car is gone now”).

4. Waze rewards users who contribute more information to the community — note I said to the community, not to Waze — by giving them recognition and greater access to Waze staff, which only improves Waze’s service more quickly.

5. Waze lets users record their own frequent destinations — work, home, school, and so on — so they can easily navigate there.

6. This means that Google as Waze’s new owner will now reliably know where we live, work, and go to school, shop, and so on. We will happily tell Waze/Google this so we get all of Waze’s and Google’s services. Google will be able to give us more relevant content and advertising. We will in turn get less noise. Everybody happy now?

How could, say, a local newspaper company learn from this?

1. Use platforms that enable your communities to share what they know with each other and without you getting in the way.

2. Add value to that with functionality, help, effort (but not articles).

3. If you knew where users lived and worked and went to school — small data, not big data — you could start by giving them more relevant content from what you already have.

4. You could give them more relevant advertising — “going to the store again? here are some deals for you!” — increasing their value as a customer by leaps and dollars.

5. You could learn where you should spend your resources — “gee, we didn’t know we had a lot of people who worked up there, so perhaps we should start covering that town or even that company.”

When I say that news should be a service and that the news industry should be a relationship business and that we should act as platforms for our users and that small data about people can lead to more relevance and greater value … this is what I mean.

So now go ask Waze how to get there. Oops. Too late. Google got there first. Again.

I trust Waze

waze screenshotI’ve had to learn to trust Waze in a few traffic jams. Now every time Waze tells me to turn, I turn. I’ve missed horrendous traffic jams that way. I’ve learned new routes to work and home I’d never imagined. I’ve seen parts of the countryside that are new to me. Waze is wonderful. Here’s hoping that Google keeps and nurtures every bit of wonderfulness.

More than a dozen years ago, I wrote a business plan for a Waze-like social traffic service. Our local traffic services sucked; still do. A long-ago colleague of mine said his rule was to go wherever the radio traffic reports said there was a jam because (a) by the time they found out about it, the jam was gone and (b) every other idiot was listening to the radio and avoiding that spot themselves. He was right.

I envisioned a service in which commuters would program our routes in and then report on how long it took them and also alerted the system to jams — all via cell phone calls (mind you, this was before smart phones). The more data you contributed, the more points you earned to get alerts back for free. If you freeloaded, you paid (see, I wasn’t against pay walls). It wouldn’t have worked then. No $1 billion for me.

Waze built that social notion and more, outdoing Google in finding the means to listen to and learn from the public to both feed in automatic data on traffic speed — your phone knows how fast you’re going — and alert the service to jams and other problems as well as errors in maps. It’s brilliant: a platform for shared knowledge.

One concern I have with Google buying it is that if *everyone* ends up using the service, then does *everyone* take the same alternate routes and then they get crowded and my old colleague’s rule comes into force again? Nah. Google and Waze are a helluva lot smarter than anybody on radio.

Congratulations, Waze. May you grow and prosper and get me home sooner.

Living the Google life

I was about to sit down and write an aria of praise to living the Google life, now that I have transitioned fully from my iPhone, iPad, and Mac and functioned fully for a few months with Android, Chrome, and services from Gmail to Google Calendar to Google Now to Google Reader on my Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Chromebook and now Chromebook Pixel.

But this turns into a cautionary tale as well with the news last night that Google is killing Reader. Godogle giveth, Godogle taketh away. This is the problem of handing over one’s digital life to one company, which can fail or unilaterally kill a service users depend on. Google has the right to kill a shrinking service. But it also has a responsibility to those who depended on it and in this case to the principle of RSS and how it has opened up the web and media. I agree with Tim O’Reilly that at the minimum, Google should open-source Reader.

The killing of Reader sends an unfortunate signal about whether we can count on Google to continue other services we come to need. Note well that what drove me to Google hardware was Google’s services — and now I depend on them even more. I have relied on Gmail and especially its Priority Inbox for ages. Once I finally shifted to Google Calendar et al, I found them awkward on the iPhone and so I moved to Android to try it out; there, I stayed. When the $249 Samsung Chromebook came out, I realized that I was doing most of my work only on the web, and so I decided to try to move entirely to Google Drive and Chrome. I found both transitions surprisingly easy, including working in Drive and Gmail offline. With one small and one large exception, I haven’t touched a Microsoft application for months.

The large exception is Skype, which Microsoft happens to own now. There is no Chrome app for it. I still need Skype to be on This Week in Google. So when I last went to Europe, I had to lug both my Chromebook and my Macbook with me.

But that problem was solved last night. Thanks to a helpful Google+ user, Michael Westbay, and through Kevin Tofel and Liliputing I managed to install Ubuntu Linux on the Google Chromebook so with one button I can switch from one to the other. Insert Tarzan yell here. Skype never looked better on TWiG. See for yourself:

Now to the details. Let’s start with the Chromebook Pixel. I have a review unit from Google. I so fell in love with it that after 24 hours I ordered my own — the high-end with LTE built in, for there’s nothing better than being away from wifi and suddenly finding oneself connected to the world. The screen is magnificent, which is soothing wonder to my old and hobbled eyes. The keyboard is pure butter; I only wish I could write as smoothly as I can type now. It’s fast. The machine is solid — physically and in its operation. The battery life could be better but I’m finding it does last the full five hours.

I had been managing fine on the Samsung Chromebook. But it was tinny. The screen wasn’t gorgeous. There was too little memory, which caused web pages to refresh too often. Still, for $249, I had little basis for complaint. This is a wonderful machine for students and travelers; I’d recommend it. I took it on trips as my only machine and did fine. As long as I remembered to open and refresh Drive and offline Gmail app while I was still connected, before getting on the plane, I could work when offline. The experience certainly showed me how I could live in the browser. But I wanted a slightly better machine. Then came the Pixel; it is a vastly better machine. For me, the Samsung was the gateway drug to the Pixel.

Both machines give me more Drive storage than I could possibly use. Except for one hiccup this week, Drive works well. The only other time I’ve had to use a Microsoft product was when I had to format a work document in Word. I am not sure about writing something book-length in Drive; it’s not easy to move around a large manuscript. But those things aside, it works for most anything I need to do, even presentations.

The Pixel also runs Netflix beautifully. I need to play with more Chrome apps to edit photos and video. But I tell you truthfully that I’m now not even taking my office Mac out of the drawer. I’m living in Chrome.

I’m similarly satisfied with Android, though I wish the two would integrate more and now that both are under the same leader, I hope that will happen. That Google Now will reportedly be available in both Android and Chrome is the first substantial bridge between the two. Gmail, Calendar, Maps, Voice, Google+, and Currents all operate wonderfully on my Nexus 4 and Nexus 7.

I kept playing with the idea of trying a Note II to replace both Nexus devices. I bought an unlocked AT&T model on eBay but still haven’t actually used it, as I will probably resell it. I like the size of the Nexus 4 for everyday use. I also like reading the paper and watching Breaking Bad on the Nexus 7 when I’m riding trains and airplanes.

Getting a new machine is pretty wonderful. When I turn on a new Chromebook and sign in, all my apps, bookmarks, and preferences are loaded in a minute or two. When I switch phones, I can transfer any app (though I wish I could just replicate my last phone). I am living in an ecosystem that makes sense.

So with the not inconsiderable caveat above, I’m living in Googland and happy there. Yes, at $1,500 the Pixel is expensive, but keep in mind — justification coming — that I don’t need to buy software for it. My Nexus 7 is cheaper than an iPad. My Nexus is only $300 and it’s unlocked. So I figure I also save money. I have fewer computer hassles. I can get to my data from anywhere. Come on in. The water’s fine.

Meanwhile, I bid a fond farewell to my iLife. Like an ex-girlfriend, I loved these machines in their time. I still admire them. But I don’t miss them.