Category: Google and Search Engines

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SOPA, PIPA and some truth about activism

As folks start to claim they saved the Internet and rally for alleged ways to keep the Internet open for all, I want to call out something Rep. Issa said at Stanford in April. Step one, and to me the but-for moment, in stopping SOPA and PIPA was the security and CS community speaking (which was rare) about just how dangerous (“A potpourri of dumb things” – Issa at around 8:15) the bills were. Without that the activism probably could never have gotten in place. Furthermore, as I noted elsewhere, science can shift. Science is, by definition, amoral. If you build it, it will work. So expect the copyright industry to demand new things. Expect them to hire and fund studies about how to get what they want without going using “A potpourri of dumb things.” And note that Google’s recent shift in approach regarding links and alleged pirate sites shows that things change.

This is not an apolitical moment. It is deeply political, but pretends that it is not about a power shift. When Internet and tech companies swear they are there for you, be skeptical. In some senses they are. Many folks I know at Google really are interested in serving users. Many are also scientists who will pursue, as they should, the truth of what is possible. The current bus-stop tour by Reddit’s co-founder, Alexis Ohanian is political. Per the Washington Post, for him, “[T]he key issue is getting Internet openness on the minds and into the talking points of politicians in this election.”

What does openness mean? What are the politics of openness? Why do Facebook, Google, Reddit want openness? South by Southwest looks like it may have panel on disrupting DC. The description reads like an evangelic rally (a good tip that thought is replaced by faith). But to its big credit (except for saying the questions will be answered), the panel looks at some decent issues:

1. The Industrial Revolution brought about a political realignment that created the existing party system. Can the Internet do the same?
2. Beyond “openness,” what are the essential characteristics that define the Internet’s political identity? Market oriented or socially conscious? Libertarian or progressive? (Or all of the above?)
3. Politically, does the Internet most resemble an interest group (like big business or labor unions), a movement, or something we haven’t seen before?
4. Is Internet culture weakening partisanship — or making it worse?
5. Technology drives growth, but some say it also kills jobs. How do we make sure that the benefits of the Internet are widespread? Is there a consistent political viewpoint here among Internet activists, or does this break down along typical political lines?

I doubt one panel can tackle all these questions. Much will depend on the panelists and whether the panel is really open in that it has voices other than those who all agree. Nonetheless, one thing that is missing is a deeper look at the power structures and history that inform the issue. For example, the idea of realigning parties still relies on parties. And, there is an essentialism to Internet identity that is ironic at best and willfully blind and lacking irony at worst.

Have I abandoned my Google brothers and sisters? Oh perhaps, but I don’t think so. These questions were ones I raised while there. Some disliked them. Some took them seriously. The people I respected and loved the most pushed me to dig into these points. Like society, Google has many people with many views and agendas. That’s the point. With all companies and all people asserting truth, administer several grains of salt, reflect, (maybe add some lime and tequila first). For those wishing a good book on the problems with saying we know where we are going, check Professor Wendy Brown’s work, especially Politics Out of History.

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Google Says “No, No” to Mr. or Ms. Pirate; What About Hate Speech?

Fred von Lohmann posted that Google has changed its algorithm. Now “it’ll start generally downranking sites that receive a high volume of copyright infringement notices from copyright holders.” The Verge reports that:

because its existing copyright infringement reporting system generates a massive amount of data about which sites are most frequently reported — the company received and processed over 4.3 million URL removal requests in the past 30 days alone, more than all of 2009 combined. Importantly, Google says the search tweaks will not remove sites from search results entirely, just rank them lower in listings. Removal of a listing will still require a formal request under the existing copyright infringement reporting system — and Google is quick to point out that those unfairly targeted can still file counter-notices to get their content reinstated into search listings.

The data-driven basis makes sense to me. So what other areas could be monitored and adjusted? I disagree with the idea that search engines should take on policing roles for certain speech that Danielle Citron and others have urged. But this shift may open the door to more arguments for Google to be a gatekeeper and policer of content. Assuming enough data is available, Google or any data-driven service, could make decisions to include or exclude entries (or shift ranking). Those moves already happen. But the difficult question will now be why or why not act on some issues but not others. James Grimmelman has a work in progress on search and speech that gets into this question. I believe the algorithm issues still control. Nonetheless, by nodding to the copyright industry, Google may be opening the door to further calls to be the Internet’s gatekeeper. Of course, if it does that, others will attack Google for doing just that from competition and other angles.

Automated Arrangement of Information: Speech, Conduct, and Power

Tim Wu’s opinion piece on speech and computers has attracted a lot of attention. Wu’s position is a useful counterpoint to Eugene Volokh’s sweeping claims about 1st Amendment protection for automated arrangements of information. However, neither Wu nor Volokh can cut the Gordian knot of digital freedom of expression with maxims like “search is speech” or “computers can’t have free speech rights.” Any court that respects extant doctrine, and the normative complexity of the new speech environment, will need to take nuanced positions on a case-by-case basis.

Digital Opinions

Wu states that “The argument that machines speak was first made in the context of Internet search,” pointing to cases like Langdon v. Google, Kinderstart, and SearchKing. In each scenario, Google successfully argued to a federal district court that it could not be liable in tort for faulty or misleading results 1) because it “spoke” the offending arrangement of information and 2) the arrangement was Google’s “opinion,” and could not be proven factually wrong (a sine qua non for liability).
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Amazon’s Pawns

I sometimes speculate at the end of my copyright class that, years hence, we’ll stop using a statutory supplement and just refer to the Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, etc. service agreements to find sources of legal authority. The cultural power of Google & Facebook gets a lot of media attention, and now Amazon is under renewed scrutiny. Wired highlights the business acumen of Jeff Bezos; Mac McClelland has told the story of the sweat it’s based on. Now The Nation is featuring an intriguing series on the company, with pieces by Robert Darnton, Michael Naumann, and Steve Wasserman (along with the slide show on 10 reasons to avoid Amazon). A few reflections on the series below:

1) Wasserman compiles an array of stats: according to the revised 2012 edition of Merchants of Culture, “in 2011 e-book sales for most publishers were “between 18 and 22 percent.” “Two decades ago, there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the United States; only about 1,900 remain.” Publishers stand to be disintermediated, since too many have been “complacent, allergic to new ideas, even incompetent.” Amazon stands triumphant:

[By 2011], it had $48 billion in revenue, more than all six of the major American publishing conglomerates combined, with a cash reserve of $5 billion. The company is valued at nearly $100 billion and employs more than 65,000 workers (all nonunion); Bezos, according to Forbes, is the thirtieth wealthiest man in America

The aggregator has triumphed over the aggregated, and its own workers. As exposes revealed, “in one of Amazon’s main fulfillment warehouses in Allentown, Pennsylvania . . . employees risked stroke and heat exhaustion while running themselves ragged [and] [a]mbulances were routinely stationed in the facility’s giant parking lot to rush stricken workers to nearby hospitals.”
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Social Search; It’s Might Be Around for a Bit

Hey! Bing is innovating! It has added social to search based on its relationship with Facebook. Oh wait, Google did that with Google+. So is this innovation or keeping up with the Joneses, err Pages and Brins? I thought this move by MS would happen faster given that FB and MS have been in bed together for some time. So did Google innovate while Microsoft and Facebook imitated? Maybe. Google certainly plays catch-up too. The real questions may turn on who executes and/or can execute better. That seems to be part of the innovation game too.

Facebook is top dog in social; Google in search. The thing they both (with MS lurking in the wings to make a big comeback (an odd thing given how well MS does as it is)) are doing is to take recommendations to a new level (with ads thrown in of course). I have tried logged in search. I must say I was surprised. To be clear, I find there is mainly rot in social network data just as there is in search. Whether I would have used Google+ had I not been at Google is unclear. Probably not. But I did. Then I searched for some law review articles and some basic technology information. WOW. The personal results at the top had links to blog posts by people whom I followed on Google + AND THEY WERE…RELEVANT. Blew my mind. My search time went down and I found credible sources faster. Will that last? Who knows? Someone may find ways to game the system, but the small experiences make me hopeful. Now to Facebook and Bing.

If Google can do well with a much smaller set of users for Google +, Facebook and Bing might do really well. After all, Facebook has the social piece and MS has some search computer science types. Whoever wins here may offer the next thing in search. I like conducting logged out searches and logged in. When logged in, I like the potential for seeing things from friends and people I trust. For example, if I start to be interested in cameras and search gives me posts by friends I’d ask anyway, that is a pretty cool result. I can read the post and call the friend for deeper advice or just use what they posted.

All in this space will, of course, cope with privacy concerns etc. But I think that this new level of relevance has the chance to co-exist with those concerns and users may flock to one of these services to have results well-beyond the current ones in search without social. In other words, let the games continue.

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If Infrastructure, then Commons: an analytical framework, not a rule

It is probably worth making it clear that, as I state multiple times in the book, my argument is not “if infrastructure, then commons.” Rather, I argue that if a resource is infrastructure—defined according to functional economic criteria I set forth in the book, then there are a series of considerations one must evaluate in deciding whether or not to manage the resource as a commons. Chapter four provides a detailed analysis of what resources are infrastructure, and chapter five provides a detailed analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of commons management from the perspective of private infrastructure owner (private strategy) and from the perspective of the public (public strategy). Chapters six, seven and eight examine significant complicating factors/costs and arguments against commons management.

After reviewing the excellent posts, it occurred to me that blog readers might come away with the mistaken impression that in the book I argue that the demand side always trumps the supply side or that classifying a resource as infrastructure automatically leads to commons management. That is certainly not the case. I do argue that the demand-side analysis of infrastructure identifies and helps us to better appreciate and understand a significant weight on one side of the scale, and frankly, a weight that is often completely ignored.  Ultimately, the magnitude of the weight and relevant counterweights will vary with the infrastructure under analysis and the context.

In chapter thirteen, I argue that the case for network neutrality regulation—commons management as a public strategy applied in the context of Internet infrastructure—would remain strong even if markets were competitive. In his post, Tim disagreed with this position.  In Tim’s view, competition should be enough to sustain an open Internet, for a few reasons, but mainly because consumers will appreciate (some of) the spillovers that are produced online and will be willing to pay for (and switch to) an open infrastructure, provided that competition supplies options. I replied to his post with some reasons why I disagree. In essence, I pointed out that consumers would not appreciate all of the relevant spillovers because many spillovers spill off-network and thus private demand would still fall short of social demand, and I also noted that I was less confident about his predictions about what consumers would want and how they would react. (My disagreement with Tim about the relevance of competition in the network neutrality context should not be read to mean that competition is unimportant. The point is that the demand-side market failures are not cured by competition, just as the market failures associated with environmental pollution are not cured by competition.)

In my view, the demand side case for an open, nondiscriminatory Internet infrastructure as a matter of public strategy/regulation is strong, and would remain strong even if infrastructure markets were competitive. But as I say at the end of chapter thirteen, it is not dispositive. Here is how I conclude that chapter:

 My objective in this chapter has not been to make a dispositive case for network neutrality regulation. My objective has been to demonstrate how the infrastructure analysis, with its focus on demand-side issues and the function of commons management, reframes the debate, weights the scale in favor of sustaining end-to-end architecture and an open infrastructure, points toward a particular rule, and encourages a comparative analysis of various solutions to congestion and supply-side problems. I acknowledge that there are competing considerations and interests to balance, and I acknowledge that quantifying the weight on the scale is difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, I maintain that the weight is substantial. The social value attributable to a mixed Internet infrastructure is immense even if immeasurable. The basic capabilities the infrastructure provides, the public and social goods produced by users, and the transformations occurring on and off the meta-network are all indicative of such value.

 

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Pakistan Scrubs the Net

Pakistan, which has long censored the Internet, has decided to upgrade its cybersieves. And, like all good bureaucracies, the government has put the initiative out for bid. According to the New York Times, Pakistan wants to spend $10 million on a system that can block up to 50 million URLs concurrently, with minimal effect on network speed. (That’s a lot of Web pages.) Internet censorship is on the march worldwide (and the U.S. is no exception). There are at least three interesting things about Pakistan’s move:

First, the country’s openness about its censorial goals is admirable. Pakistan is informing its citizens, along with the rest of us, that it wants to bowdlerize the Net. And, it is attempting to do so in a way that is more uniform than under its current system, where filtering varies by ISP. I don’t necessarily agree with Pakistan’s choice, but I do like that the country is straightforward with its citizens, who have begun to respond.

Second, the California-based filtering company Websense announced that it will not bid on the contract. That’s fascinating – a tech firm has decided that the public relations damage from helping Pakistan censor the Net is greater than the $10M in revenue it could gain. (Websense argues, of course, that its decision is a principled one. If you believe that, you are probably a member of the Ryan Braun Clean Competition fan club.)

Finally, the state is somewhat vague about what it will censor: it points to pornography, blasphemy, and material that affects national security. The last part is particularly worrisome: the national security trump card is a potent force after 9/11 and its concomitant fallout in Pakistan’s neighborhood, and censorship based on it tends to be secret. There is also real risk that national security interests = interests of the current government. America has an unpleasant history of censoring political dissent based on security worries, and Pakistan is no different.

I’ll be fascinated to see which companies take up Pakistan’s offer to propose…

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

Symposium on Configuring the Networked Self: Cohen’s Methodological Contributions

Julie Cohen’s extraordinarily illuminating book Configuring the Networked Self makes fundamental contributions to the field of law and technology. In this post, I’d like to focus on methodology and theory (a central concern of Chapters 1 to 4). In another post, I hope to turn to the question of realizing Cohen’s vision of human flourishing (a topic Chapters 9 and 10 address most directly).

Discussions of rights and utility dominate the intellectual property and privacy literatures.* Cohen argues that their appeal can be more rhetorical than substantive. As she has stated:

[T]he purported advantage of rights theories and economic theories is neither precisely that they are normative nor precisely that they are scientific, but that they do normative work in a scientific way. Their normative heft derives from a small number of formal principles and purports to concern questions that are a step or two removed from the particular question of policy to be decided. . . . These theories manifest a quasi-scientific neutrality as to copyright law that consists precisely in the high degree of abstraction with which they facilitate thinking about processes of cultural transmission.

Cohen notes “copyright scholars’ aversion to the complexities of cultural theory, which persistently violates those principles.” But she feels they should embrace it, given that it offers “account[s] of the nature and development of knowledge that [are] both far more robust and far more nuanced than anything that liberal political philosophy has to offer. . . . [particularly in understanding] how existing knowledge systems have evolved, and how they are encoded and enforced.”

A term like “knowledge system” may itself seem very abstract and formal. But Cohen’s work insists on a capacious view of network-enabled forms of knowing. Rather than naturalizing and accepting as given the limits of copyright and privacy law on the dissemination of knowledge, she can subsume them into a much broader framework of understanding where “knowing” is going. That framework includes cultural practices, norms, economics, and bureaucratic processes, as well as law.
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Santorum: Please Don’t Google

If you Google “Santorum,” you’ll find that two of the top three search results take an unusual angle on the Republican candidate, thanks to sex columnist Dan Savage. (I very nearly used “Santorum” as a Google example in class last semester, and only just thought better of it.) Santorum’s supporters want Google to push the, er, less conventional site further down the rankings, and allege that Google’s failure to do so is political biased. That claim is obviously a load of Santorum, but the situation has drawn more thoughtful responses. Danny Sullivan argues that Google should implement a disclaimer, because kids may search on “Santorum” and be disturbed by what they find, or because they may think Google has a political agenda. (The site has one for “jew,” for example. For a long time, the first result for that search term was to the odious and anti-Semitic JewWatch site.)

This suggestion is well-intentioned but flatly wrong. I’m not an absolutist: I like how Google handled the problem of having a bunch of skinheads show up as a top result for “jew.” But I don’t want Google as the Web police, though many disagree. Should the site implement a disclaimer if you search for “Tommy Lee Pamela Anderson”? (Warning: sex tape.) If you search for “flat earth theory,” should Google tell you that you are potentially a moron? I don’t think so. Disclaimers should be the nuclear option for Google – partly so they continue to attract attention, and partly because they move Google from a primarily passive role as filter to a more active one as commentator. I generally like my Web results without knowing what Google thinks about them.

Evgeny Morozov has made a similar suggestion, though along different lines: he wants Google to put up a banner or signal when someone searches for links between vaccines and autism, or proof that the Pentagon / Israelis / Santa Claus was behind the 9/11 attacks. I’m more sympathetic to Evgeny’s idea, but I would limit banners or disclaimers to situations that meet two criteria. First, the facts of the issue must be clear-cut: pi is not equal to three (and no one really thinks so), and the planet is indisputably getting warmer. And second, the issue must be one that is both currently relevant and with significant consequences. The flat earthers don’t count; the anti-vaccine nuts do. (People who fail to immunize their children not only put them at risk; they put their classmates and friends at risk, too.) Lastly, I think there’s importance to having both a sense of humor and a respect for discordant, even false speech. The Santorum thing is darn funny. And, in the political realm, we have a laudable history of tolerating false or inflammatory speech, because we know the perils of censorship. So, keeping spreading Santorum!

Danielle, Frank, and the other CoOp folks have kindly let me hang around their blog like a slovenly houseguest, and I’d like to thank them for it. See you soon!

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Ubiquitous Infringement

Lifehacker‘s Adam Dachis has a great article on how users can deal with a world in which they infringe copyright constantly, both deliberately and inadvertently. (Disclaimer alert: I talked with Adam about the piece.) It’s a practical guide to a strict liability regime – no intent / knowledge requirement for direct infringement – that operates not as a coherent body of law, but as a series of reified bargains among stakeholders. And props to Adam for the Downfall reference! I couldn’t get by without the mockery of the iPhone or SOPA that it makes possible…

Cross-posted to Info/Law.