Posts about publicness

Privacy and speech

Two notable decisions in Europe reflect the tension between privacy and free speech.

The European Court of Human Rights came down on the side of press freedom — thus speech — when it ruled in favor of media reporting on public figures. And a Dutch German court ruled that journalists had a right to interview a Nazi murderer with hidden cameras.

This tension is addressed but only glancingly in the EU’s proposed rules on privacy, which create vague carve-outs for journalism, history, and scientific research.

What none of this acknowledges at a more fundamental level the right we have to talk about someone else (with carve-outs for libel and slander already in the law) — not just the press and not just public figures. If you tell me I must forget you and erase what I have said about you, then you affect my speech. If you reveal something to me and I interact with that information and then you claim the right to pull back your information, then we must debate about who has rights to the results of our interaction (whether that is a conversation or a transaction).

Privacy isn’t as simple as some of its advocates would lead us to believe. It is interweaved with other rights and interactions.

I’ve been studying the full proposed EU privacy regulations and now I’m going through ancillary documents. I’ll be writing more about this soon.

Economist debate on sharing

The Economist has just launched a debate between me and Andrew Keen — and you — on the proposition that society benefits when we share information online.” Here is my opening statement; follow the link for Andrew’s and the discussion:

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We are sharing for good reason—not because we are insane, exhibitionistic, or drunk. We are sharing because, at last, we can, and we find benefit in it. Sharing is a social and generous act: it connects us, it establishes and improves relationships, it builds trust, it disarms strangers and stigmas, it fosters the wisdom of the crowd, it enables collaboration, and it empowers us to find, form and act as publics of our own making.

For individuals, sharing is a choice; that is the essence of privacy. Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, told me that before the net, we had “privacy through obscurity”. We had little chance to be public because we had little access to the tools of publicness: the press, the stage, the broadcast tower (their proprietors were last century’s 1%). Today, we have the opportunity to create, share and connect, and 845m people choose to do so on Facebook alone. Mr Zuckerberg says he is not changing their nature; he is enabling it.

I shared my prostate cancer—and, thus, my malfunctioning penis—online. Nothing bad came of this, only good: information, support from friends (who could not have known had I not been public) and the opportunity to inspire other men to be tested. Let me emphasise: that was my choice; no one should be forced to publicise their life.

But imagine if we did feel free to share our health data. Think of the correlations and possibly causes and cures we could find. Why don’t we? We fear losing insurance (though insurers already demand our data) or jobs (that is a matter of discrimination to handle legislatively).

Most of all, we fear stigma—though in this day and age why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? In the tension between secrecy and openness, these are the kinds of benefits we should be considering, balancing them with the risks as we adapt society’s norms to new realities and new opportunities.

Our institutions should share for different reasons. The wise company is opening up to build direct relationships with customers, to inoculate itself against the dreaded viral meme, and even to collaborate on the creation of products (see Local Motors’ cars, designed with customers).

Government must learn to share its work and knowledge with its citizens. It must become open by default and secret by necessity (and there are necessary secrets in relation to security, diplomacy, criminal investigations and citizens’ privacy). Today, government is instead secret by default and open by force (that of the journalist or the leaker).

If WikiLeaks has taught us nothing else, it is that no secret is safe and that too much government information has been classified as secret (consider the role of leaks in the Tunisian uprising and the subsequent Arab spring).

Openness is proving to be profoundly disruptive. When we share what we pay for goods, we ruin price opacity and retailers’ margins. When we share our frustration with government, we can start revolutions. This is why institutions—news, media, corporate, government, academic—often resist the draw of openness and fear its impact. And that is why we are seeing a sudden rise in efforts to regulate our greatest tool of publicness, the net, under the guises of piracy, privacy, security and decency.

Too much of the conversation about sharing today revolves around risks—risks to privacy (which does need protection, and it has many new protectors) and risks to intellectual property (though media companies need to learn that controlling scarcity will become an increasingly difficult business model to execute). We also need to have a discussion about the benefits of sharing and the tools that enable it, so we can protect their potential.

Facebook goes public: Zuckerberg in Public Parts & WWGD?

Relevant to the expected Facebook IPO announcement, here are excerpts from my interview with Mark Zuckerberg for Public Parts.

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“I’m in the first generation of people who really grew up with the internet,” Zuckerberg tells me. “Google came out when I was in middle school. Then there was Amazon and Wikipedia and iTunes and Napster. Each year, there were new ways to access information. Now you can look up anything you want. Now you can get cool reference material. Now you can download any song you want. Now you can get directions to anything. The world kept on getting better and better.”

In his words, we hear the inherent optimism that fuels the likes of him: that with the right tools and power in the right hands, the world will keep getting better. “On balance, making the world more open is good,” Zuckerberg says. “Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” The optimist has to believe in his fellow man, in empowering him more than protecting against him. Zuckerberg believes he is helping us share, which will make the world more public and lead to greater transparency and trust, accountability and integrity. That, he says, is why he started Facebook—not, as The Social Network would have us believe, to get a girlfriend (he already had one, the same woman he still dates, Priscilla Chan) and not, as others say, because he is trying to force us into the public. He contends he is creating the tools that help people do what they naturally want to do but couldn’t do before. In his view, he’s not changing human nature. He’s enabling it.

“In the world before the internet and things like Facebook,” he says, “there was a huge amount of privacy through obscurity.” We didn’t have the choice and power we have now: “We had this culture where you were either a producer or a consumer.?.?.?.??It was a very bifurcated society—kind of unnatural.” That is, the tools of publicness, including the media, had been in the hands of the few; now they are in the hands of all. “So now the question isn’t, ‘Are you completely private?’ It’s, ‘Which things do you want to share and which things do you not?’?”

Zuckerberg says he wants to give his users control over what’s public and private. If that’s true, why does he keep getting in trouble regarding privacy? A few reasons: Some people complain that there aren’t enough privacy controls on Facebook. So the company adds controls. But then the complaint becomes that the controls are too complicated. When they are so complicated, users tend not to bother to adjust them and instead rely on Facebook’s default settings. Facebook has surprised its users with changes to those defaults, making them ever-more public—thus making its users more public, often whether they know it or not. And Facebook hasn’t been good at communicating with its users. When I tell Zuckerberg my thesis for this book about the benefits of sharing, he admits, “I hope you have better luck than we’ve had making that argument. I think we’re good at building products that hit the desire people have, not necessarily at expressing in English what the desire is.” Some would call that understatement. . . . .

In their efforts to motivate us to share, Facebook, Google, and other net services have a common, technohuman goal: to intuit our intent. They want to gather signals about us so they can tailor their content, services, and advertising to us. These services compete to find more ways to get us to generate signals—our locations, needs, tastes, relationships, ­histories—so they can recommend, say, the perfect restaurant for each of us, knowing where we are right now and what we like and who our friends are and what they like (and making money by giving us a well-targeted coupon for the establishment). These services come into conflict with privacy advocates because capturing and analyzing our signals to predict our desires can look to some like spying or mind reading. “How did you know I was going to France?” the skittish user wonders of Google. Likely because you searched for Paris, sir.

Zuckerberg believes that by giving you back information about your own life—your friends and what you and they like and do—you’ll get “a much clearer sense of what’s going on around you, allowing you to learn things you couldn’t otherwise—and just be better at being human.” The hubris is impressive: making better humans. Google merely wants to organize our information. Zuckerberg sees Facebook as a next step in the net’s evolutionary scale toward humanity. “They crawl the web,” he says. “But there’s nothing you can crawl to get information about people. It’s all in our minds. So in order to have that service, you need to build the tools that let people share.” He identifies what he contends is another difference between Facebook and its predecessors: “All the information that’s about you on Facebook, you chose to put there. The last wave of sites before that do not work that way.” Ad networks collect information about you from your behavior—in most cases anonymously—so they can target ads, but the process is opaque. “On Facebook, you get an ad about Green Day because you said you like Green Day.?.?.?.??I think these models where people have more control over stuff are going to be so much more powerful and expressive.” As he talks, I come to think of Google as the third-person web; it’s about others—them. Facebook endeavors to be the first-person web; it’s about me and us.

Zuckerberg has created an asset worth billions of dollars. Wall Street laughed—but the Valley didn’t—when Microsoft invested in Facebook in 2007 at a reported $15 billion valuation. By 2011, pundits pegged the value at $20 billion, $50 billion, even $100 billion. I believe he’s building something even bigger, with data as a new currency: We trade information about ourselves for information about what we want. Our reward is relevance. Zuckerberg disagrees with me, saying my thinking is not “the right frame.?.?.?.??I really think it’s more interaction-for-interaction than data-for-data.” Keeping users’ motives in mind is critical. Early location services—Google Latitude and Loopt—asked you to broadcast your location to the world without much reason to do so (and with some good reasons not to). Later services such as Foursquare and Facebook Places let you alert friends where you are so you can meet up. You interact with Facebook, telling it what you are up to, and in return you interact with friends. Interactions-for-interactions.

Zuckerberg contends that Facebook is not just a technology company but also a sociology company. I find that revealing. He’s not so much an engineer—he majored in both computer science and psychology—as he is a social engineer, building systems for humans, helping us do what we want to do?.?.?.??and what he wants us to do. Take Facebook friend lists. No one wants to sit down and make a list of friends. People say they want to—in Zuckerberg’s words—“subgroup their friends.” But in practice, who wants to bother? I have tried to subgroup contacts in my address book—fellow geeks here, journalism colleagues there, family here—but it’s tedious and I quickly give up. When you friend someone on Facebook and they friend you back, you end up with a list of your friends as a by?product. The reason you do it, Zuckerberg says, is because “it’s like a cool handshake. And then it’s the sum of 10 billion of those.” Once unlocked from their privacy, these small acts of publicness add up. “Some people just assume that being private is good,” Zuckerberg says, “whereas we’ve always come out saying no, no, people want to share some things and keep some things private and that’ll always be true. And as time goes on and more people find that it’s valuable to share things, they might share more things.” That is how he designs his systems, to make it fun and beneficial to share more and more.

Zuckerberg has his own, social version of Moore’s law—I call it Zuck’s law, though he doesn’t. It decrees: This year, people will share twice as much information as they did last year, and next year, they will share twice as much again. Facebook will expand to more users—from 750 million today to a billion soon?—and users will expand their sharing. Meanwhile, one Facebook investor, Yuri Milner, tells me that advances in artificial intelligence will get better and better at understanding and making use of all the service’s data. It has only just begun. “The default in society today still is, OK, I should not share it. The by?far default today is that everything’s anonymous,” Zuckerberg laments. “In the future, things should be tied to your identity, and they’ll be more valuable that way.” There is the master plan.

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And here is a snippet from What Would Google Do? about Zuckerberg:

I sat, dumbfounded, in an audience of executives at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum International Media Council in Davos, Switzerland, as the head of a powerful news organization begged young Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, for his secret. Please, the publisher beseeched him, how can my publication start a community like yours? We should own a community, shouldn’t we? Tell us how.
Zuckerberg, 22 at the time, is a geek of few words. Some assume his laconicism is a sign of arrogance—that and his habit of wearing sandals at big business conferences. But it’s not. He’s shy. He’s direct. He’s a geek, and this is how geeks are. Better get used to it. When the geeks take over the world—and they will—a few blunt words and then a silent stare will become a societal norm. But Zuckerberg is brilliant and accomplished, and so his few words are worth waiting for.

After this publishing titan pleaded for advice about how to build his own community, Zuckerberg’s reply was, in full: “You can’t.”

Full stop. Hard stare.

He later offered more advice. He told the assembled media moguls that they were asking the wrong question. You don’t start communities, he said. Communities already exist. They’re already doing what they want to do. The question you should ask is how you can help them do that better.

His prescription: Bring them “elegant organization.”

Let that sip of rhetorical cabernet roll around on the palate for a minute. Elegant organization. When you think about it, that is precisely what Zuckerberg brought to Harvard—then other universities, then the rest of the world—with his social platform. Harvard’s community had been doing what it wanted to do for more than three centuries before Zuckerberg came along. He just helped them do it better. Facebook enabled people to organize their social networks—the social graph, he calls it: who they are, what they do, who they know, and, not unimportantly, what they look like. It was an instant hit because it met a need. It organized social life at Harvard.

Public Parts on Reding’s four pillars

Since European Commission VP Viviane Reding’s proposal for internet regulation — under her four pillars — are the topic of discussion this week at DLD in Munich and in Europe, here is what I wrote about them in Public Parts:

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I fear the unintended consequences that may come from regulation. Take, for example, European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding’s four pillars of data protection, which she proposed in 2011. I have no argument with one of them: transparency. Companies that collect data should be open about when that is done and how information will be used.

Another pillar sounds attractive: “the right to be forgotten.” But how far does that go? If I post something about you on my blog or write about you in a news story—a quote I heard, the fact that I saw you somewhere, the fact that you did something in the open—can I be forced to erase—to forget—that? What then of my freedom of speech?

Another pillar is rhetorically appealing: “privacy by default.” But is that how we wish society to operate—closing in by reflex when we have so many new ways to open up? Flickr became a success, as I said earlier, because it was set to public by default. On a service designed for ­sharing—Facebook—what does complete privacy mean? Isn’t completely closed communication just email?

Reding’s last pillar would require EU-level protection no matter where a service operates or where data are held. That sets a dangerous precedent. It could mean that we would all be ruled by the most stringent controls in place anywhere in the world—the high-water mark of control. Can we bear China claiming the same right as the EU? We see a related problem today with so-called libel tourism in the U.K. Because its libel laws are unfriendly to defendants, targets of published criticism go there to file suit against writers and publishers. In a global internet, the EU’s effort to become privacy’s sanctum could affect us all.

On the one hand, I argue against regulation. On the other hand, I argue that the government should enforce net neutrality, and that is a form of regulation. Am I hypocritical? At South by Southwest in 2011, Senator Al Franken delivered a ringing endorsement of net neutrality. He argued that proponents of net neutrality are not trying to change the internet but to keep corporations from changing it, from making the net less free than it has been since its birth. “This is a First Amendment issue,” he said. “The internet is small-d democratic. Everyone has the same say.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, too, delivered a rousing defense of internet freedom in two speeches in 2010 and 2011. “In the last year, we’ve seen a spike in threats to the free flow of information. China, Tunisia, and Uzbekistan have stepped up their censorship of the internet,” she said in Washington just as the Tunisian revolt was brewing. “On their own, new technologies do not take sides in the struggle for freedom and progress, but the United States does. We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas…. The internet is a network that magnifies the power and potential of all others. And that’s why we believe it’s critical that its users are assured certain basic freedoms. Freedom of expression is first among them.”

The following year, in 2011, she delivered another speech extolling transparency and attacking censorship. But in the same speech, she also condemned WikiLeaks for its release of cables from her agency. “Let’s be clear,” she said, “this disclosure is not just an attack on America—it’s an attack on the international community.” The leaks “tear at the fabric” of government, she argued. Indeed, they soon tore at the fabric of Tunisia’s corrupt government.

#DLD12: Viviane Reding on privacy

I’m at the DLD conference in Munich. Haven’t live-blogged in ages. But the European Commission vice-president Viviane Reding is speaking and I disagreed with her rather a lot in Public Parts, arguing that her four pillars for internet governance — privacy by default, demanding European standards for storage of data, the right to be forgotten, and transparency — bring unintended consequences.

Reding says that in “Europe, we have too many rules, too many conflicting rules.” So she wants to take over the rules for all Europe. Look at SOPA, too: There is a competition among governments to regulate the internet, to consolidate power.

“Persosnal data is the currency of today’s digital market. And like any currency, it needs stability and trust,” Reding says. Yes, but is government — which can most abuse our data — its best protector?

“Can we be sure that the rules we make today will fit tomorrow?” she asks. She says one cannot build rules that are too rigid; they need to be “futureproof.” But then, they also become very broad and that, too, has consequences.

She argues that following 27 separate sets of regulations costs 2.3 billion euros a year. Again, she justifies taking over local authority. But that is the EU.

She also calls for a smoother exchange of data among police authorities in the EU members to fight terrorism. Well, that sounds like the greatest threat to privacy I can imagine: all governments pooling what they know about you.

Reding says companies will be required to appoint data protection (privacy) officers. Thus the regulatory-industrial complex of the new privacy industry grows.

She says data-protection authorities need to be “independent” of politics. Does that mean they are above government by the people and representation?

Now to her “right to be forgotten.” It is a right, she says, to “withdraw permission” for data held by companies. I fear the implications for free speech. And on a practical level, how can one as a principle to tell people to no longer know what they know?

She says it is not an absolute right. “There are no absolute rights,” she says. She says it’s not a right to erase history or impact media. So this shows the problem with this notion, when one starts making exceptions for a principles.

Now she speaks about the debate about the freedom of the internet. She says the freedom of information and expression is a basic right and “this is directly linked to the freedom of internet, which has thus to be preserved. But those are not the only freedoms…. Sometimes one must balance freedom.” She claims the right of the creator (read: copyright) is “equally important.” Really? Higher than speech? But she says that Europe will never pass blocking legislation (read: SOPA).

No opportunity to question Reding. Shame.

Now a Microsoft guy is giving a talk and I cannot figure out what he’s trying to say. Otherwise, I’d blog it.

Next up, Andrew Keen. Polemic time. He reads a quote from Sheryl Sandberg about deeper portraits online. “I’m here as someone who is raising my voice in defense of lost privacy,” he says. But he doubts that Reding and government are the protectors.

He calls me a spokesman for “the cult of the social.” AKA society, I’d say.

He says we need to learn to live alone. Funny, but the internet was last accused of making us antisocial and now it’s accused of making us too social. It makes us neither. We make it.

Now Nick Bilton leads a panel asking the premise of his book: is privacy dead. Garg.

Odd how the topic of privacy has turned an internet conference into an anti-internet conference.

Nick asks 4Chan’s Chris Poole whether we “should allow anonymity on the net.” That’s how the net is built, Nick. It already is allowed. It is part and parcel of free speech.

I have no tongue left. I bit it off.