Posts about google

Taxes are an obligation, not a moral choice

In its tax fight with Google, Starbucks, and Amazon, the UK has in essence been demanding that they tax themselves: that they pay more tax than they are legally obligated to because lawmakers, in their hectoring, say that would be the “moral” thing to do.

Now see this discussion by Reuters’ brilliant Chrystia Freeland about the notion of plutocrats self-taxing. She says, quite rightly, that the concept of self-taxation is a challenge to the authority of governments: rich people are saying they can better spend their money to benefit society than society’s representatives in government can.

The irony, then: The UK’s lawmakers are undermining their own authority when they demand that Google et al meet different — perhaps higher — demands than their own laws’. They are abdicating their responsibility to write good tax laws and to negotiate tax treaties with other nations, which are attracting business and thus tax revenue from these multinational companies by offering them better deals than other countries (it’s called competition).

And therein lies another challenge to the authority of national governments: that multinational corporations can indeed play states against each other to get the best deal in minimizing taxes and thus maximizing profits (which, let’s remember, is their fiduciary raison d’etre: maximizing shareholder value). This is especially true in the digital economy, when companies can operate anywhere, even apparently nowhere (across distributed, virtual networks), and also find customers anywhere (that’s the subject of a Guardian story today lamenting the VAT taxes it loses to multinationals selling products directly to consumers, offering lower tax rates and thus better prices … which usually is seen as a good thing for consumers).

Taxation is not a moral question. It is a legal obligation. It is the role of government to write and enforce equitable tax laws for the benefit of society. In the current fight over taxes in the U.S. — which, of course, is what the fiscal cliff is all about — we see various sectors predictably acting in their own self-interest: the middle class wanting to tax the rich, the rich hoping to at least minimize that change. In the end, after much needless pain and struggle, Congress will have to pass a tax law and we will pay our taxes as is our legal duty. I would agree that is a moral duty: to serve and protect the rest of society, to give us services and to help those in need.

But if government makes taxation a matter of moral choice, then what of the law? Where is the certainty that both companies and individuals require to plan their lives if we are held to some unwritten standard? Where is the certainty of government revenue to do its work if taxes are a matter of taxpayers’ judgment?

In an age when borders are increasingly meaningless, when citizens can organize themselves, and when new and stateless armies of hackers bear new but damaging weapons, the authority of governments is being challenged on many fronts. Here governments challenge even their own authority.

Defend our net (from Germany, this time)

At long last, Google is standing up to fight the ridiculous ancillary copyright (Leistungschutzrecht) bill heading to law in Germany, a law that would require Google and others — you? — to pay publishers to quote them, to link to them (to benefit them).

On a site called “Defend Your Net,” this video shows a wealth of searches and answers and at the end says (my translation):
“For more than 10 years, anytime you want, you can find what moves you. A planned law will now change that. Do you want that? Take action. Defend your net. Continue to find what you seek.”

Sign the petition to defend our net here.

More information about the bill (in German) says it will hurt the German economy, threaten diversity of information, cause legal uncertainty (for bloggers, too), and cause a setback for innovative media. The paradox, Google says, is that publishers can pull their content off Google search — and lose the many clicks it sends their way — whenever they want.

This is a horrid collusion of two institutions — media and government — threatened by the disruption of technology.
I’ve been shouting about this travesty. I’m glad Google is finally — if tardily — making its voice heard.

Advice to media & Muslims: Don’t feed the trolls

The jerk who made that video, the one that supposedly incited rioting and murder in Egypt and Libya, is the very definition of a troll: He made it to elicit the reaction he was sure he’d cause. That is what trolls do.

Those who reacted are trolls, too, but of course worse: murderers. They exploited just any excuse — an obviously cheesy, fake movie seen by no one — to stir up their band of fanatics into visible outrage and violence.

The media who cover these trolls — the trolls who make the bait and the trolls who look for bait — are dupes themselves, just continuing a cycle that will only rev faster and faster until someone says: Stop. Stop feeding the trolls.

We’ve learned that online, haven’t we all? Oh, I sometimes have to relearn the lesson when one of my trolls dangles some shiny object in front of me and I snap. I just pulled the food bowl away from one troll: no reaction for you. I was just delighted to see another troll get his comeuppance and said so. But as a rule, a good rule, one should never, never feed the trolls. They only spit it up on you. Starving them of the attention they crave and the upset they hunger for and feed on is the only answer.

But still, there’s no controlling the trolls. Some still think the trolls can be stopped. An Australian newspaper just started a #stopthetrolls campaign to bring the ride miscreants to justice and silence. Good luck with that. In a sense, the rioters and murderers in Libya and Egypt and now elsewhere are demanding that someone stop the trolls they are choosing to get heated up about.

But, of course, there is no stopping them. Neither do I want to stop them. I believe in protecting free speech, which must include protecting even bad, even noxious speech.

Zeynep Tufecki, a brilliant observer of matters media, digital, and social, cautioned on Twitter that we must understand a key difference in attitudes toward speech here and elsewhere in the world: “Forget Middle East, in most of Europe you could not convince most people that *all* speech should be protected. That is uniquely American,” she tweeted yesterday. “In most places, including Europe, ‘hate-speech’ –however defined — is regulated, prosecuted. Hence, folks assume not prosecuted=promoted…. US free speech absolutism already hard to comprehend for many. Add citizen media to mix, it gets messy. Then, killers exploit this vagueness.” Excellent points and important perspective for the current situation.

But the internet is built to American specifications of speech: anyone can speak and it is difficult unto impossible to stop them as bits and the messages they carry are designed to go around blocks and detours. The internet *is* the First Amendment. We can argue about whether that is the right architecture — as an American free-speech absolutist, I think it is — but that wouldn’t change the fact that we are going to hear more and more speech, including brilliance and including bile. There’s no stopping it. Indeed, I want to protect it.

So we’d best understand how to adapt society to that new reality. We’ve done it before. This from Public Parts about the introduction of the printing press:

“This cultural outlook of openness in printing’s early days could just as easily have gone the other way. The explosion of the printed word — and the lack of control over it — disturbed the elite, including Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus. ‘To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?’ he complained. ‘[T]he very multitude of them is hurtful to scholarship, because it creates a glut and even in good things satiety is most harmful.’ He feared, according to [Elizabeth] Eisenstein, that the minds of men ‘flighty and curious of anything new’ would be distracted from ‘the study of old authors.’ After the English Civil War, Richard Atkyns, an early writer on printing, longed for the days of royal control over presses. Printers, he lamented, had ‘filled the Kingdom with so many Books, and the Brains of the People with so many contrary Opinions, that these Paper-pellets become as dangerous as Bullets.’ In the early modern period a few ‘humanists called for a system of censorship, never implemented, to guarantee that only high-quality editions be printed,’ Ann Blair writes in Agent of Change. Often today I hear publishers, editors, and academics long for a way to ensure standards of quality on the internet, as if it were a medium like theirs rather than a public space for open conversation.”

There is a desire to *control* conversation, to *civilize* it, to *cleanse* it. God help us, I don’t want anyone cleaning my mouth out. I don’t want anyone telling me what I cannot say. I don’t want a society that silences anything that could offend anyone.

I understand why Google decided to take down That Video from YouTube in Libya and Egypt, given how it is being used, while also arguing that it meets YouTube’s standards and will stay up elsewhere. But YouTube thus gives itself a dangerous precedent as some will expect it to cleanse other bad speech from its platform. YouTube is in a better position in Afghanistan, where the government blocked all of YouTube but then it’s the government that is acting as the censor and it’s the government that must be answerable to its people.

But in any case, blocking this video is no more the answer than rioting and murdering over it. All this will only egg on the trolls to make more bad speech and in turn egg on trolls on the other side to exploit it.

The only answer is to learn how to deal with speech and to value it sufficiently to acknowledge that good speech will come with bad. What we have to learn is how to ignore the bad. We have to learn that every sane and civilized human knows that bad speech is bad. We don’t need nannies to tell us that. We don’t need censors to protect it from us. We certainly don’t need fanatics to fight us for it. We need the respect of our fellow man to believe that we as civilized men and women know the difference. We need to grow up.

Mobile’s not the next big thing, just a path to it

The Knight Foundation’s News Challenge just announced its next theme: mobile. And that’s a good thing because news organizations have been all-too pokey in figuring out how to serve people in this venue.

When Arthur Sulzberger announced his hiring of a new CEO, the BBC’s Mark Thompson, he said, “Our future is on to video, to social, to mobile.”

With respect, I’m not so sure. Saying that mobile is what comes next means, I fear, that we’re going to take what we do in media — making content, selling audiences — and figure out how to keep doing it on video, in social, and in mobile.

But that’s not what we really do.

Is Google just doing mobile next? Google has a mobile operating system. It has a Google-branded phone and tablet. It bought a phone manufacturer. It made apps for all its services for mobile. Even so, I don’t think Google is becoming a mobile company. For Google, mobile is a tool, a path to improve its real business.

What is its real business? The same as media’s business should be: Relationships — knowing people and serving them better because of what it knows about them.

With newspaper companies, I’ve been arguing that they should abandon page views as a metric because it has been a corrupting influence that carried on the old-media myth that the more “audience” you have the more you can charge advertisers and the more money you’ll make. The pursuit of page views has led news organizations to draw traffic — people — they cannot monetize (because they come from outside the market or come just once from search or Drudge). And the insistence that they remain in the content business has led news organizations to believe they must still sell that content; thus, pay walls.

Google views content — our content — as a tool that generates signals about their users, building relationships, data, and value. Google views mobile as a tool that also generates signals and provides opportunities to target content and services to the individual, where she is, and what she’s doing now (thus Android’s Google Now).

We in news and media should bring those strands together to knit a mobile strategy around learning about people and serving them better as a result — not just serving content on smaller screens. Mobile=local=me now. We should build a strategy on people over content, on relationships.

That’s what mobile means to me: a path to get us to the real value in our business. For you folks cooking up ideas for the Knight News Challenge (and for you, my new neighbor, Mr. Thompson) I suggest starting there.

P.S. When I tweeted a link to this post, I said the lesson is, “Mobile is a path not a destination.” Felix Salmon thought a fake me — or Deepak Chopra — had taken over my account. No, I just want that on a bumpersticker. I’ll license rights to T-shirts and hats.

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?