Category: Google & Search Engines

The Material Foundations of Corporate Culture: Goldman’s Lessons for Silicon Valley

Two resignation letters rocked Wall Street and Silicon Valley this week. Greg Smith elegized a once-great Goldman Sachs, now reduced to “ripping eyeballs out” of clients. (The industry sure has changed since the 90s, when the goal was to rip off the whole face of the client. I guess Dodd-Frank is working.)

On the West Coast, James Whittaker explains “Why I Left Google.” His complaints are more measured than Smith’s: “The old Google made a fortune on ads because they had good content. It was like TV used to be: make the best show and you get the most ad revenue from commercials. The new Google seems more focused on the commercials themselves.” Whittaker laments that the company has become obsessed, Ahab-like, with the social web’s whale, Facebook.

On one level, it’s not fair to compare the companies: the engineers at Google have contributed far more to society than finance’s “money-massagers.” Goldman represents the terminal phase of a liquidationist capitalism unmoored from social value. But its culture did not rot overnight. Rather, legal and material factors accelerated decay. Silicon Valley’s managers and regulators should take notice: the same process could happen there.
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5

Cary Sherman and the Lost Generation

The RIAA’s Cary Sherman had a screed about the Stop Online Piracy and PROTECT IP Acts in the New York Times recently. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick brilliantly gutted it, and I’m not going to pile on – a tour de force requires no augmentation. What I want to suggest is that the recording industry – or, at least, its trade group – is dangerously out of touch.

Contrast this with at least part of the movie industry, as represented by Paramount Pictures. I received a letter from Al Perry, Paramount’s Vice President Worldwide Content Protection & Outreach. He proposed coming here to Brooklyn Law School to

exchange ideas about content theft, its challenges and possible ways to address it. We think about these issues on a daily basis. But, as these last few weeks [the SOPA and PROTECT IP debates] made painfully clear, we still have much to learn. We would love to come to campus and do exactly that.

Jason Mazzone, Jonathan Askin, and I are eagerly working to have Perry come to campus, both to present Paramount’s perspective and to discuss it with him. We’ll have input from students, faculty, and staff, and I expect there to be some pointed debate. We’re not naive – the goal here is to try to win support for Paramount’s position on dealing with IP infringement – but I’m impressed that Perry is willing to listen, and to enter the lion’s den (of a sort).

And that’s the key difference: Perry, and Paramount, recognize that Hollywood has lost a generation. For the last decade or so, students have grown up in a world where content is readily available via the Internet, through both licit and illicit means; where the content industries are the people who sue your friends and force you to watch anti-piracy warnings at the start of the movies you paid for; and where one aspires to be Larry Lessig, not Harvey Weinstein. Those of us who teach IP or Internet law have seen it up close. In another ten years, these young lawyers are going to be key Congressional staffers, think tank analysts, entrepreneurs, and law firm partners. And they think Hollywood is the enemy. I don’t share that view – I think the content industries are amoral profit maximizers, just like any other corporation – but I understand it.

And that’s where Sherman is wrong and Perry is right. The old moves no longer work. Buying Congresspeople to pass legislation drafted behind closed doors doesn’t really work (although maybe we’ll find out when we debate the Copyright Term Extension Act of 2018). Calling it “theft” when someone downloads a song they’d never otherwise pay for doesn’t work (even Perry is still on about this one).

One more thing about Sherman: his op-ed reminded me of Detective John Munch in Homicide, who breaks down and shouts at a suspect, “Don’t you ever lie to me like I’m Montel Williams. I am not Montel Williams.” Sherman lies to our faces and expects us not to notice. He writes, “the Protect Intellectual Property Act (or PIPA) was carefully devised, with nearly unanimous bipartisan support in the Senate, and its House counterpart, the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA), was based on existing statutes and Supreme Court precedents.” Yes, it was carefully devised – by content industries. SOPA was introduced at the end of October, and the single hearing that was held on it was stacked with proponents of the bill. “Carefully devised?” Key proponents didn’t even know how its DNS filtering provisions worked. He argues, “Since when is it censorship to shut down an operation that an American court, upon a thorough review of evidence, has determined to be illegal?” Because censorship is when the government blocks you from accessing speech before a trial. “A thorough review of evidence” is a flat lie: SOPA enabled an injunction filtering a site based on an ex parte application by the government, in contravention of a hundred years of First Amendment precedent. And finally, he notes the massive opposition to SOPA and PROTECT IP, but then asks, “many of those e-mails were from the same people who attacked the Web sites of the Department of Justice, the Motion Picture Association of America, my organization and others as retribution for the seizure of Megaupload, an international digital piracy operation?” This is a McCarthyite tactic: associating the remarkable democratic opposition to the bills – in stark contrast to the smoke-filled rooms in which Sherman worked to push this legislation – with Anonymous and other miscreants.

But the risk for Sherman – and Paramount, and Sony, and other content industries – is not that we’ll be angry, or they’ll be opposed. It’s that they’ll be irrelevant. And if Hollywood takes the Sherman approach, rather than the Perry one, deservedly so.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

0

Censorship on the March

Today, you can’t get to The Oatmeal, or Dinosaur Comics, or XKCD, or (less importantly) Wikipedia. The sites have gone dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act, America’s attempt to censor the Internet to reduce copyright infringement. This is part of a remarkable, distributed, coordinated protest effort, both online and in realspace (I saw my colleague and friend Jonathan Askin headed to protest outside the offices of Senators Charles Schumer and Kirstin Gillibrand). Many of the protesters argue that America is headed in the direction of authoritarian states such as China, Iran, and Bahrain in censoring the Net. The problem, though, is that America is not alone: most Western democracies are censoring the Internet. Britain does it for child pornography. France: hate speech. The EU is debating a proposal to allow “flagging” of objectionable content for ISPs to ban. Australia’s ISPs are engaging in pre-emptive censorship to prevent even worse legislation from passing. India wants Facebook, Google, and other online platforms to remove any content the government finds problematic.

Censorship is on the march, in democracies as well as dictatorships. With this movement we see, finally, the death of the American myth of free speech exceptionalism. We have viewed ourselves as qualitatively different – as defenders of unfettered expression. We are not. Even without SOPA and PROTECT IP, we are seizing domain names, filtering municipal wi-fi, and using funding to leverage colleges and universities to filter P2P. The reasons for American Internet censorship differ from those of France, South Korea, or China. The mechanism of restriction does not. It is time for us to be honest: America, too, censors. I think we can, and should, defend the legitimacy of our restrictions – the fight on-line and in Congress and in the media shows how we differ from China – but we need to stop pretending there is an easy line to be drawn between blocking human rights sites and blocking Rojadirecta or Dajaz1.

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

1

The Fight For Internet Censorship

Thanks to Danielle and the CoOp crew for having me! I’m excited.

Speaking of exciting developments, it appears that the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) is dead, at least for now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has said that the bill will not move forward until there is a consensus position on it, which is to say, never. Media sources credit the Obama administration’s opposition to some of the more noxious parts of SOPA, such as its DNSSEC-killing filtering provisions, and also the tech community’s efforts to raise awareness. (Techdirt’s Mike Masnick has been working overtime in reporting on SOPA; Wikipedia and Reddit are adopting a blackout to draw attention; even the New York City techies are holding a demonstration in front of the offices of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Charles Schumer. Schumer has been bailing water on the SOPA front after one of his staffers told a local entrepreneur that the senator supports Internet censorship. Props for candor.) I think the Obama administration’s lack of enthusiasm for the bill is important, but I suspect that a crowded legislative calendar is also playing a significant role.

Of course, the PROTECT IP Act is still floating around the Senate. It’s less worse than SOPA, in the same way that Transformers 2 is less worse than Transformers 3. (You still might want to see what else Netflix has available.) And sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy has suggested that the DNS filtering provisions of the bill be studied – after the legislation is passed. It’s much more efficient, legislatively, to regulate first and then see if it will be effective. A more cynical view is that Senator Leahy’s move is a public relations tactic designed to undercut the opposition, but no one wants to say so to his face.

I am not opposed to Internet censorship in all situations, which means I am often lonely at tech-related events. But these bills have significant flaws. They threaten to badly weaken cybersecurity, an area that is purportedly a national priority (and has been for 15 years). They claim to address a major threat to IP rightsholders despite the complete lack of data that the threat is anything other than chimerical. They provide scant procedural protections for accused infringers, and confer extraordinary power on private rightsholders – power that will, inevitably, be abused. And they reflect a significant public choice imbalance in how IP and Internet policy is made in the United States.

Surprisingly, the Obama administration has it about right: we shouldn’t reject Internet censorship as a regulatory mechanism out of hand, but we should be wary of it. This isn’t the last stage of this debate – like Wesley in The Princess Bride, SOPA-like legislation is only mostly dead. (And, if you don’t like the Obama administration’s position today, just wait a day or two.)

Cross-posted at Info/Law.

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Stanford Law Review Online: Don’t Break the Internet

Stanford Law Review

The Stanford Law Review Online has just published a piece by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post on the PROTECT IP Act and the Stop Online Piracy Act. In Don’t Break the Internet, they argue that the two bills — intended to counter online copyright and trademark infringement — “share an underlying approach and an enforcement philosophy that pose grave constitutional problems and that could have potentially disastrous consequences for the stability and security of the Internet’s addressing system, for the principle of interconnectivity that has helped drive the Internet’s extraordinary growth, and for free expression.”

They write:

These bills, and the enforcement philosophy that underlies them, represent a dramatic retreat from this country’s tradition of leadership in supporting the free exchange of information and ideas on the Internet. At a time when many foreign governments have dramatically stepped up their efforts to censor Internet communications, these bills would incorporate into U.S. law a principle more closely associated with those repressive regimes: a right to insist on the removal of content from the global Internet, regardless of where it may have originated or be located, in service of the exigencies of domestic law.

Read the full article, Don’t Break the Internet by Mark Lemley, David S. Levine, and David G. Post, at the Stanford Law Review Online.

Note: Corrected typo in first paragraph.

1

The Pluses of Google+

I love shiny new toys. Sometimes, its a crisp new book (Pauline Maier, for one… thanks Gerard!); other times, it’s something plush and adorable, like the yellow Angry Birds doll my 5-year-old nephew “bought” for me last month. Last week, it was Google+.

Google+ is social networking done the Google way. The soft launch is part of Google’s long-running master plan to enter the social networking market and try to do it better than the basically moribund MySpace and the supposedly plateauing Facebook. We are told that Google+’s chief asset is its ability to simulate real relationships, and our different interactions with different types of friends, on the Internet.

Google+ introduces us to circles, where you can take the 800 or so “friends” you would have on Facebook and break them down on your own terms. You have friends, acquaintances, co-workers, well-wishers, frenemies, those-guys-you-met-at-that-terrible-bar, whatever. And, you can use these classifications to tailor your interactions, thus avoiding the problem of your mother, sister or child accessing a picture meant for your pals.

There are also sparks, which are news and video aggregators. It is easy enough to tell a spark what you enjoy doing when you’re not working on important affairs of state, thus allowing you to spend “more time wasting time without wasting your time looking how to waste time.”

And, hangouts are Google+’s attempts to recreate chance encounters. I’m not sure these are completely functioning yet, though. Remember when you used to visit the mall or walked through the West Village and ran into someone you hadn’t seen in years? Hangouts attempt to turn an online social networking into a place where anything social can happen, only with Google+, you “bump” into someone through a video message.

Let’s assume for the moment that all this works as well as we hope and that Google+ allows us to recreate real life in the virtual realm. Facebook is not really trying to recreate real life and simulate precisely how we interact with one another in the physical world. It is trying to supplement it, foster new interactions in new ways. At times, we don’t like that. Facebook’s forced socialization and privacy issues give many social networkers pause. There are many other digital technologies that seek to supplement our physical social world. Grindr, a geolocating social networking service for gay men, is one such example. Grindr allows its members to be out and about, smartphone in hand and find other gay men in the vicinity. Its purpose is to eschew traditional social networking that keeps you saddled to your computer and to let you physically meet people you have something in common with who may be living across the street or down the block. It is interactive, mobile and a multi-purpose tool.

So, Google+ is trying to forge a different path, i.e., using the Internet as an extension of our physical social circles and to keep those circles the way they are now. Of course, that is not to say that Google+ will not bring us closer to new friends — we can still interact with friends of friends, let people we barely know into our network and share content with whomever we please. But, Google+’s chief draw appears to be its greater fidelity to real life. If that is true in the long run, as Google works out the kinks and listens to its users, is that what we want in our online social networks?

The benefits are clear — we can avoid the grandmother seeing you at the bar problem. But there are also disadvantages — we lose the liberating potential of reaching new people. What do you think?

Beyond Innovation and Competition, Health IT Edition

Last year I published a piece called “Beyond Innovation and Competition,” questioning the dominance of those values. Economists celebrate innovation and competition as the main source of future growth. Innovation has become the central focus of Internet law and policy. While leading commentators sharply divide on the best way to promote innovation, they routinely elevate its importance. Business writers have celebrated search engines, social networks, and tech startups as model corporations, bringing creative destruction and “disruptive innovation” in their wake. Maximum innovation is the goal, and competition is billed as the best way of achieving it. Players in the vast and dynamic tech marketplace are supposed to constantly strive to innovate in order to attract consumers away from rivals.

In the piece, I explain how both competition and innovation can destroy value, and undermine values. There are many social values (including privacy, transparency, predictability, and stability), and companies can compete for profits in ways that erode those values. In an era of inequality and hall-of-mirrors stock market valuations, innovations of marginal or negative impact on society at large can be vastly overvalued by a stampede of fickle investors.

The shortcomings of the innovation and competition story also play out in health information technology. Stimulus legislation in 2009 provided many carrots and sticks for doctors to digitize their recordkeeping systems, ranging from bonuses now to reimbursement haircuts later this decade if they fail to implement the technology. Congress structured the incentives to encourage a competitive and innovative marketplace in health information technology. But many doctors are shying away from implementation, in part because they fear that the fast and loose ethics of the market can’t mesh with a medical culture of constant commitment to quality care.

Case Studies in Physician Caution

Susan Jaffe’s article for the Center for Public Integrity examines doctors’ fears about adopting any given software suite. According to Jaffe, “570 different electronic health systems certified by private organizations for non-hospital settings may be used to qualify for the” stimulus funds. The long-term consequences of the choice make the jam-shopping examples in Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice seem quaint:
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Scoring Ourselves to Economic Death

In The New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom asks readers to “imagine a world in which we are assigned a number that indicates how influential we are.”  That number would help determine our success at getting a job, hotel-room upgrade, break on a service, or free samples at the store.  As Rosenbloom tells us, imagine no more, companies, such as Klout, PeerIndex, and Twitter Grader, are mining our social media activities and assigning us influence scores.  Social scoring is based on our online social network activity, including the number of followers, friends, and the extent to which our online activity gets people moving.  If if you recommend a salon to your social network friends and they follow suit, your good word has two functions.  You’re doing a good thing for your friends and the salon (let’s hope), and now you’re doing good for you.  Because you have inspired people to take action, your influence score may rise.  In the present, people with high scores get preferential treatment by retailers.  More than 2,500 marketers are now using Klout’s data.  Audi will begin offering Facebook users promotions based on their Klout score.  The Las Vegas Palms Hotel and Casino is using Klout data to give highly rated guests an upgrade or tickets to a show.  In the future, those scores could be used by prospective employers, friends, and dates.

On the one hand, this market trend has something important to commend — its visibility.  Consumers can find out their influence scores and work to raise them.  By contrast, the impact of behavioral advertising is often hidden.  We are tracked and scored in databases and have no idea how it shakes out.  Joe Turow’s excellent book Niche Envy explains that consumers know very little about how their data personalizes market transactions.  Some individuals may end up as haves and others as have-nots, but neither group knows the extent of it.  As Turow explains, “our simple corner store is turning into a Marrakech bazaar–except that the merchant has been analyzing our diaries while we negotiate blindfolded, behind a curtain, through a translator.”  On the other hand, the information isn’t perfect and the algorithms secret so people may waste time doing things that they believe will raise their scores but don’t.  But that isn’t really troubling, unless every job or blog post had the effect we hoped it might.  What’s troubling is the trend’s implications for society and culture.  It seems old school to say that people blog, make friends, and engage in online chats to play, experiment, and create culture.  Now, they may feel pressured to do all of these things as a matter of economic necessity.  We may forgo experimentation for product endorsements, and idle chatter for better job prospects.  This makes our children’s choice to engage with social media seem like less of choice than a carefully cultivated necessity.  It also spells far more trouble for people who are already victimized, those who cyber mobs target with lies, threats, technical attacks, and privacy invasions.  They go offline or write under pseudonyms to protect themselves.  We now know that those choices (if we can call it that) cost more economically than they already do aside from the many other costs that my work discusses.  I imagine there’s more to this influence score story but I thought I’d share my initial take.

5

Bullet, So Not Dodged

The question that I had been dreading came at last: “Mom, can I have a Facebook page?”  My daughter provided a strong defense: she’s 13, so she meets Facebook’s Terms of Service age requirement; she’s nearly an adult in her religion’s eyes (her bat mitzvah is in a week); past practices proves she’s responsible; and well, she feels ready.  (And I just discovered, she’s done her homework: see this Yahoo Answers! “My mom won’t let me get a Facebook page, how do I convince her?” thread that I found on my computer).

Next came the conversation.  We talked about how increasingly social media activity is part of one’s life’s biography.  Anything said and done in social network spaces becomes part of who you are in our Information Age.  Colleges may ask for your Facebook password.  Over 70% of employers look at social media data for interviewing and hiring (and sad to say, the outcomes are grim for applicants who over 60% of the time don’t get the interview or job due to social network profiles).  It’s not just what you post that speaks volumes — your social network (friends and their friends) tells some of your story for you.  There goes any control that you thought you had.  FB users often wrestle with whether they should de-friend those whose online personas don’t match their sensibilities (or the way in which they want others to perceive them).  This means that users need to keep a careful eye on their friends’ profiles (as well as ever-changing privacy settings).

That’s a lot of responsibility.  Or, as Bill Keller of the New York Times put it when he allowed his 13-year old daughter to join Facebook, he felt “a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.”  Beyond the potential privacy and reputational concerns that accompany social media use, an online life has other potential perils, like overuse (and thus inattention to studies, face-to-face family time, etc.) that cyber-pessimists underscore (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).  And bullying, serious harassment, bigotry increasingly appear in mainstream social media in ways that kids can’t necessarily avoid (my work explores those problems, see here, here, and here, as well as terrific work by guest bloggers Ari Waldman and Mary Anne Franks).  Of course, there’s also lots of positive stuff emerging from these networked spaces.  Social media outlets like Facebook allow us to enact our personalities.  They let us express ourselves in ever-changing and expanding ways.  FB and other outlets host civic engagement as Helen Norton and I have emphasized.

I wonder, too, if my kid has a meaningful choice.  Can digital natives really stay away from social media if all of their friends socialize there?  And will employers and colleges expect that applicants partake in these activities because everyone else does?  Someday, will resisting having a Facebook profile express something negative about you?  Will it signal that you’re not socially adjusted or successful?  As Scott Peppet underscores in his work, we may be forced to give up our privacy to show that we are indeed healthy, social, smart, and the like.  That’s a lot to process, right?  I’m going to chew on this a while.  Your thoughts are most welcome!

5

Cyberharassment’s Waterloo

I begin my Co-Op blogging stint with deep appreciation for Danielle Citron’s invitation and for the entire Co-Op community’s indulgence. I am honored to be a small part of a wonderful online community that brings out the best in us and, for that matter, Web 2.0. My name is Ari, I am a Legal Scholar Teaching Fellow (just like a VAP) at California Western School of Law and I am a student of the interplay among the First Amendment, the Internet and other modern technologies and their effects on minority populations, like gays and lesbians. I go on the professor job market this Fall. I have a weekly blog (every Wednesday) over at the country’s most popular gay news site, Towleroad, for those interested in perspectives on LGBT legal issues for a mass audience. I also have a healthy relationship with physical fitness and an unhealthy relationship with the store Jack Spade. If there’s counseling for the latter, I’d appreciate a reference. Kidding…

For my month of blogging, I hope to engage with you in a few conversations, mostly about cyberharassment and the First Amendment, and hopefully with a healthy dose of humor.

My current project is the third in a series of projects about cyberharassment. The previous articles, available here, address the effects of cyberharassment on LGBT youth, argue for the use of affirmative “soft power” rather than after-the-fact criminalization to solve the problem and create a new analytical framework for adjudicating student free speech defenses to a school’s authority to punish cyberaggressors. Now I am considering the effect that cyberharassment, particularly harassment of a minority group, has on civic participation and the realization of democratic values. I argue that Internet intermediaries self-regulation of their sites and services to filter out hate, sexual harassment and other aggression conforms with long-standing First Amendment values.

Like President Obama likes to say, let me be clear. I do not mean to suggest that the First Amendment applies as a limit on the activities of private actors like Facebook or MySpace or Google; rather, I think that contrary to libertarian First Amendment scholars, we can expect these online intermediaries to regulate content and say that doing so reflects the democratic interests that underly the First Amendment.

Here’s the draft argument in brief that I am currently working out: The view of the Internet as an unencumbered and unfettered town square deserving the same Rawlsian liberal approach to free speech is wrong. Every online interaction is governed by intermediaries of varying kinds, all of which are the filters through which our online speech makes it through to our online communities. Traditional intermediaries have the power to regulate content consistent with the First Amendment, especially when not doing so would interfere with their and their users’ ability to participate in civil society. We see this more Aristotelian/communitarian approach to First Amendment values in intermediary jurisprudence — from publishers to book stores, and from schools to workplaces. And, like schools and workplaces, which can regulate their members’ speech in order to fulfill the institutions’ purposes, so too can online intermediaries like Facebook.

This project is in the early stages, and I always welcome comments/suggestions/evisceration of the argument. More to come…

I look forward to continuing this and other discussions with this splendid community.