Posts about guardian

The newest New York Times

Screenshot 2014-01-10 at 8.49.59 AMThe Guardian asked me to turn a series of tweets about the new New York Times site design into a review:

A web-site redesign is often an expensive, time-consuming, over-hyped exercise in media navel-gazing: an expression of institutional ego over user need. So I will confess a preemptive shrug at news of the newest New York Times online.

But I retract my shrug. As I explored the new site and tweeted my reaction, I quickly warmed to this new haircut on an old friend. It’s neither revolutionary nor terribly disruptive and leaves me feeling as if the paper online has tried to pay tribute to the paper as paper (why did they feel the need to resurrect the mix of italic and roman headlines that was de rigueur a half-century ago?). Still, The Times does much right.

The redesign kills the irritating news-site habit of cutting stories into multiple parts. In print, we newspaper folk called that “jumping” from, say, the front page to one inside, and every reader survey ever performed told editors that their customers hated that. Newspapers continued to do it online not because scarce space forced us to but instead because we wanted to pump up our pageviews: The more pages you viewed, the more ads you saw, the more money we made — or so went the myth of old mass media carried over to online. That is also the economic genesis of sites’ slideshow disease.

The Times now lets us scroll through a story without clicking. But there could be an economic rationale for that, too. Web analytics company Chartbeat found that readers tend to let their eyes skip right past the banners atop pages — usually sold as the most valuable ads — and end up spending more time exposed to the ads embedded down within longer tomes. Time engaged can build greater value than pages clicked.

In an effort to increase said engagement, The Times has tried to make it as easy as licking your finger and turning the page to move to the next story … and the next. There’s an arrow on the right of every story that moves the reader to the following story displayed in a horizontal menu above. Once I figured the system out — I’ll confess it took me a few clicks to associate the arrow with the preview in the bar — I found it, well, engaging. But I also found this feature, like the ability to read today’s paper — that is, the stories as packaged in the physical artifact — a bit too nostalgic for the idea of editorial presentation and control.

Nonetheless, I salute The Times for putting less effort into its home page (which on The Times attracts more than half of its readers in a day but on many news sites draws as few as 10 percent) than into creating a satisfying experience around the meat of the matter: the article.

I’m also relieved that The Times did not follow the example of its much-ballyhooed — and so-often-aped“snowfall” format, injecting animations and videos and sound and every manner of media into a simple text tale. There’s no digital Rococo in sight.

The new Times uses what geeks call the “hamburger button” (three parallel lines — two sandwiching the third) to get rid of the time-worn left-hand navigation bar. Speaking from experience running news sites, the nav bar became the basis of political turf wars, with editorial and commercial departments battling for more signage. With all that obvious information tucked away, there’s more room for what should be in a news site: news.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 9.01.29 AMI’ll quibble that once one does mouse-over the hamburger (oh, what has become of our language?) the resulting menu is three layers wide (e.g., arts to books to best sellers) and can require the manual dexterity of a pianist to play it. But as I confessed, I quibble.

One other important change in this redesign is The Times’ ability to accommodate the next supposed media messiah after the pay wall: native advertising, which is code for fooling readers into thinking that marketing messages are actual content. We used to call these things advertorials — you know, those things you skipped past. Now media mythology has it that every brand should be media and all media need content. But the real question is: Do you find value in reading an opus from Dell about “Reaching Across the Office from Marketing to IT“? I don’t. I go to Dell to buy hardware, not words. As I recently warned a roomful of PR people itching to advertise natively: Content is a shitty business. Stay away! I predict that the fad will soon lose its luster.

Screenshot 2014-01-08 at 8.59.09 AM
But in the meantime, let’s at least give credit to The Times for doing native advertising right — that is, for being scrupulous about labeling it for what it is. “Paid for and posted by Dell,” says the warning atop every piece. “Written by Dell,” it says at the byline. “More paid posts from Dell,” it says to the right. Short of using the A-word — advertising — it can’t get much clearer than that. Now the question is: Will readers click and care? Will a 13-paragraph essay asking, “Can the Government Become Entrepreneurial?” sell more computers than a well-targeted coupon?

As former Times wunderkind Brian Stelter writes at CNN.com, much of the import of The Times redesign occurs behind the scenes in a new content management system that the paper says will make it easier to iterate with new technologies, obsoleting not the present site but instead the concept of the redesign. I argue that CMSes — like redesigns — are another expression of editorial ego. I’ll be egotistical enough to quote what I blogged on the topic:

It’s all about us, about our content, about how we want to make it, how we want to present it to you, how we organize it, how we make money on it, how we protect it. What we should be doing instead is turning our attention outward, from the content we make (surely after 600 years, we know how to do that) to our relationship with the public we serve and the ecosystems in which we operate.

The one thing missing from The Times redesign is me — or to put that less egotistically, you. I wish a news site would move away from its mass-production roots and devote just some proportion of its presentation to personal relevance, reducing noise and increasing engagement not through user interfaces but through delivering value. I’d like The Times to learn that I never read sports and often read about movies and devour media news and live in New Jersey and thus give me more relevance. Netflix knows what I like but my newspaper does not. Google knows where I live and work but my newspaper does not. Shouldn’t it?

This shift won’t require a redesign of pages and pixels or systems. It will require a rethinking of newsroom culture and commercial business models to emphasize service over content, outcomes over presentation, relationships over mass.

Oh, be warned: The Guardian is working on its own new systems and redesign.

The technologists’ Hippocratic oath

The Guardian asked me for commentary on the letter to the White House and Congress from eight tech giants about NSA spying:

Whose side are you on?

That is the question MP Keith Vaz asked Alan Rusbridger last week when he challenged the Guardian editor’s patriotism over publishing Edward Snowden’s NSA and GCHQ leaks.

And that is the question answered today by eight tech giants in their letter to the White House and Congress, seeking reform of government surveillance practices worldwide. The companies came down at last on the side of citizens over spies.

Of course, they are also acting in their own economic (albeit enlightened) self-interest, for mass spying via the internet is degrading the publics’, clients’, and other nations’ trust in the cloud and its frequently American proprietors. Spying is bad for the internet; what’s bad for the internet is bad for Silicon Valley; and — to reverse the old General Motors saw — what’s bad for Silicon Valley is bad for America.

But in their letter, the companies stand first and firmly on principle. They propose that government limit its own authority, ending bulk collection of our communication. They urge transparency and oversight of surveillance, which has obviously failed thus far. And they argue against the balkanization of the net and the notion that countries may insist that data respect national borders.

Bravo to all that. I have been waiting for Silicon Valley to establish whether it collectively is a victim or a collaborator in the NSA’s web. I have wondered whether government had commandeered these companies to its ends. I have hoped they would use their power to lobby for our rights. And now I hope government — from Silicon Valley’s senator, NSA fan Dianne Feinstein, to President Obama — will listen.

This is a critical step in sparking real debate over surveillance and civil rights. It was nice that technology companies banded together once before to battle against the overreaching copyright regime known as SOPA and for our ability to watch Batman online. Now they must fight for our fundamental — in America, our Constitutional — rights of speech and assembly and against unreasonable search and seizure. ’Tis a pity it takes eight companies with silly names to do that.

Please note who is missing off this list of signators: Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Aol, Apple, LinkedIn. I see no telecom company there — Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic. Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies — eBay, Visa, American Express — that also know much about what we do?

Where is the letter to David Cameron, who has threatened prior restraint of the Guardian’s revelations, and to the members of the Parliament committee who last week grilled Rusbridger, some of them painting acts of journalism — informing citizens of their governments’ acts against them — as criminal or disloyal? Since they urge worldwide reform, I wish the tech companies would address the world’s governments, starting with GCHQ’s overseers in London.

And where are technologists as a tribe? I long for them to begin serious discussion about the principles they stand for and the limits of their considerable power. Upon learning that government had tapped into communications lines between their own servers, two Google engineers responded with a hearty “fuck these guys.” But anger is insufficient. It is not a pillar to build on.

Computer and data scientists are the nuclear scientists of our age, proprietors of technology that can be used for good or ill. They must write their own set of principles, governing not the actions of government’s spies but their own use of power when they are asked by those spies and governments — as well as their own employers — to violate our privacy or use our own information against our best interests or hamper and chill our speech. They must decide what goes too far. They must answer that question above — whose side are you on? I suggest a technologists’ Hippocratic oath: First, harm no users.

Oversight by conscience

Here’s a post I wrote for the Guardian this week….

Official means of oversight of American and British spying have failed. So we are left with the protection of last resort: the conscience of the individual who will resist abuse of power or expose it once it is done.

At the Guardian Activate conference in New York last Wednesday, I moderated a heated panel discussion about the NSA affair with former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the 9/11 Commission; Prof. Yochai Benkler, codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard; and journalist Rebecca MacKinnon, a New America fellow.

Screenshot 2013-11-24 at 8.01.05 AM

“We do not have appropriate mechanisms to hold abuse accountable,” MacKinnon said, and to more or lesser degrees, the panelists agreed that oversight is at least too weak. Said Benkler: “The existing systems of oversight and accountability failed repeatedly and predictably in ways that were comprehensible to people inside the system but against which they found themselves unable to resist because of the concerns about terrorism and national security.” Kerrey: “I don’t think we’re even close to having unaccountable surveillance [but] I don’t think it’s good oversight.” I’ll count that as consensus. We then checked off the means of oversight.

* Executive-branch oversight is by all appearances nonexistent.

* Congressional oversight didn’t exist before Watergate, Kerrey said, and when it was established it was made intentionally weak. It should be conducted, he said, “under a constant, militant sense of skepticism.” The clearest evidence that the authority that exists is not being used, he said, is that in the Snowden affair, not a single subpoena has been issued from either the House or Senate select committees.

* The secret FISA courts have proven to be rubber stamps using invisible ink — their justices sometimes concerned or reluctant, Benkler said. But they have been largely ineffectual in any case.

* Journalistic oversight is the next resort. But as MacKinnon stressed, the work of the journalist investigating spying is threatened by the spies themselves as they collect metadata on any call and message and reconstitute raw internet traffic so that no reporters and no sources can be certain they are not being watched unless they find woods to walk in.

So we are left with the whistleblower. “What the whistleblower does is bring an individual conscience to break through all of these systems,” Benkler argued. “It can’t be relied upon as a systematic, everyday thing. It has very narrow and even random insights into the system. But it can be relied upon occasionally to break through these layers of helplessness within the system.”

But this oversight, too, is jeopardized by the severe penalties suffered by Chelsea Manning and the label of traitor pasted on Edward Snowden.

“There’s no question Snowden violated U.S. law,” Kerrey declared in our panel, “and there has to be consequences to that.”

Benkler disagreed, arguing the case for amnesty. “There is a law but the law is always affected by politics and judgment,” he said. “Clearly when someone opens up to the public a matter that is of such enormous public concern that it leads to such broad acceptance of the need for change and for reform, that person ought not come under the thumb of criminal prosecution.”

There we tried to find the line that enables acts of conscience and civil disobedience to keep watch on the powerful. Benkler imagined “a core principle that when a whistleblower discloses facts that actually lead to significant public debate and change in policy — that is to say a public rejection whether through judicial action or legislative action; a reversal — that is the core or heart of what needs to be protected in whistleblowing.”

Kerrey again disagreed, drawing a parallel between Edward Snowden and Klaus Fuchs, who handed secrets on the atomic bomb to the Soviets, Kerrey contended, also out of conscience. Benkler in turn drew a line between revealing information to the public, serving democracy, and revealing secrets to an enemy. Kerrey responded that Fuchs, like Snowden, caused public debate. Benkler thought the rule could be written; Kerrey did not. You can see that we failed to find the line.

But I want to take this discussion beyond whistleblowing — beyond the past tense — the the present tense of objecting to the work one is required to do before it is done. “At what point does conscience require a person to refuse to act in a certain way that they consider completely acceptable in the system they’re in but they find completely unacceptable to their conscience?” Benkler asked.

Kerrey countered: “I don’t think every time you get a team of people working on the danger [to national security], one person can say, ‘Oh, I don’t like what we’re doing,’ and as an act of conscience blow everything we’re doing and say we’re not going to be prosecuted.”

But we must find the room for conscience to act as the check on power without facing 35 years in prison or life in exile or irreversible jeopardy to our security. We must be able to expect the honest technologist working in the bowels of Google or telecom provider Level 3 or the NSA or GCHQ to define a line and refuse to cross it. Can we expect that?

In recent testimony before Congress, Gen. Keith Alexander said the NSA is the nation’s largest employer of mathematicians — or to be exact, 1,103 mathematicians, 966 PhDs, and 4,374 computer scientists.

Where is the code of ethics that governs their work in breaking into our communication or breaking the encryption we use to protect it? Where is the line they will not cross? Doctors have their codes. Even we journalists have ours (and though some apparently never imagined a clause relating to phone hacking, others found it for them).

We have heard two Google engineers tell the NSA to fuck off for — according to Snowden’s documents — infiltrating internal traffic between servers at Google and Yahoo.

Does this challenge to the NSA give us confidence that others at Google will tell the NSA “no”? But who said “yes” to Project MUSCULAR, in what company? Was that company commandeered by the the NSA and employees with security clearance or was the work done willingly? Why didn’t the technologists who spliced that line say “fuck you”, too? Will they be more willing to do that now that this work is known? And what will happen to those who do stop at the line?

On July 17, 1945, 155 scientists working on the Manhattan Project signed a petition to President Harry Truman urging him not to use the bomb on Japan. “Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future,” they said.

They were too late.

Here is video of the panel discussion:

The Future of the Internet from The Guardian on FORA.tv

This is what prior restraint looks like

rusbridger drive

Last night, while being interviewed by Charlie Rose with Janine Gibson and former NSAer Stewart Baker in New York, Guardian Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger pulled out of his jacket pocket a symbol of press freedom and attempts to muzzle it: a piece of the Mac that the UK’s spies from GCHQ destroyed in the paper’s basement. The rest is destined for a museum in London and the Newseum in Washington.