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May 03 2012

11:42

Consumer Reports’ moral panic

I’m very disappointed in Consumer Reports for falling into the moral panic about privacy and social services. Today it issues a survey and a Reefer Madness report that covers no new ground, only stirs it up, over privacy and Facebook. Let me address instead the survey. In its press release, Consumer Reports says — as if we should be shocked at these numbers — that:

* 39.3 million identified a family member in a profile. Do we really live in a world where it should be frightening to talk about our family?

* 20.4 million included their birth date and year in their profile. And so? People can wish you a happy birthday. I think that’s nice. I don’t see the harm.

* 7.7 million “liked” a Facebook page pertaining to a religious affiliation. Oh, ferchrissakes. This is a country where people wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves and T-shirts and bumpers and shout about it in their political arguments. This is a country that is founded on freedom of religion. Why the hell wouldn’t we talk about it?

* 4.6 million discussed their love life on their wall. What CR doesn’t say is how often that discussion is restricted to friends and how often it is public. And if it is public, so what. I’ll tell you I love my wife.

* 2.6 million discussed their recreational use of alcohol on their wall. IT’S LEGAL.

* 2.3 million “liked” a page regarding sexual orientation. And thank God for the progress against bigotry that indicates.

* The survey also said that 4.7 million people liked a Facebook page about a health condition. Well, I say that is a wonderful thing, finally taking illness out of the Dark Ages social stigma of secrecy and shame. It’s about time. This week, Facebook allowed us all to donate our organs — publicly or privately; our choice. In the first day, 100,000 new people signed up to do so. You know that I found benefit writing about my prostate and penis there. Who is Consumer Reports to imply that this publicness is a bad thing.

My fear is that such fear-mongering will lead to more regulation and a less open and free net.

Last night, a good friend of mine complained on Twitter that Google had knocked his 10-year-old son off when he revealed his age. My friend got mad at Google. Oh, no, I said, get mad at the FTC and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and its unintended consequences. It makes children lie about their ages and puts us in a position to teach them to lie. It had mnade children the worst-served sector of society online. The intentions are good. The consequences may not be.

That is the case with regulation of the net being proposed under the guises of privacy, piracy, pedophilia, decency, security, and civility. That is why we must defend an open net and its ability to foster a more open society. That is why I find the kind of mindless fear-mongering engaged in by Consumer Reports dangerous.

Consumer Reports is not fulfilling its mission to protect us with this campaign. It will hurt us.

February 28 2012

18:09

Gutenberg the Geek: A Kindle Single

I’ve just published Gutenberg the Geek, arguing that the inventor of printing was our first geek, the original technology entrepreneur. I find wonderful parallels in the challenges and opportunities he faced and those that face Silicon Valley (or entrepreneurial journalism) startups today. So I retell his story from an entrepreneurial perspective, examining how he overcame technology hurdles, how he operated with the secrecy of a Steve Jobs but then shifted to openness, how he raised capital and mitigated risk, and how, in the end, his cash flow and equity structure did him in. This is also the inspiring story of a great disruptor. That is why I say Gutenberg is the patron saint of entrepreneurs.

The Kindle Single came out of my obsession with Gutenberg that developed while I researched Public Parts. I also wanted to learn how Kindle Singles work (more on that later) -… and prove that I have nothing against charging for content! But I’m not charging much, only 99 cents (free in the Amazon lending library).

Tomorrow, I’ll link to an excerpt from the piece. I’d be honored if you bought the piece and said what you think here or at the Amazon page.

February 08 2012

21:28

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:

* * *

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.

January 23 2012

22:34

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:

* * *

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.

January 22 2012

13:00

#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.

January 21 2012

16:08

Where Gutenberg worked

I took a detour on a trip to Europe so I could visit Mainz and the Gutenberg Museum, having become obsessed with the great man and his magnificent disruption as both an inventor and an entrepreneur.

It was awe-inspiring to stand before the first known page of his printing (a snippet from the Sibylline prophesy, found in the binding of another book). It’s not beautiful; betas rarely are. But next to it is the culmination of Gutenberg’s art in three of his his Bibles, his masterpieces.

Another case captured my imagination. In it were the indulgences the Catholic Church could make and sell at scale, thanks to printing. Next to them were three of Martin Luther’s pamphlets, which he could also print at scale and it is that scale that enabled him to so disrupt the Church.

Also in that case were political broadsides printed by Gutenberg’s successors–his funder, Johann Fust, who called the startup’s debt and took over the business–in a battle between two bishops in Mainz. I write in Public Parts:

The press quickly made an impact on the political structure of society. According to Albert Kapr’s definitive biography, Johann Gutenberg: The Man and his Invention, among the earliest nonreligious publications produced in the great man’s shop by his successors—Johann Fust and his son-in-law Peter Schöffer—were political pamphlets. A series of broadsides from each side of a church fight to control the city of Mainz were published on the same presses in 1461, demonstrating from the start that this tool of publicness, like most to follow, was neutral and agnostic. “All these pamphlets were aimed at gaining public support for the respective protagonists and defaming their opponents,” Kapr writes. “To the matériel of warfare—halberds, rapiers, swords, harquebuses and cannon—psychological weapons had been added, which could be delivered by means of the printing press.” Here we see publishing’s nascent role in the birth of media, propaganda and the public sphere they would influence.

On another floor was an exhibit about newspapers and their predecessors, including small publications called posts. Pardon my blog-centric view of that, but I quite like that on blogs, we also have posts. I was struck by the continuum of media on display there and the reminder that neither print nor newspapers were forever; they were each invented. Each may be replaced. Soon, I’ll post a piece I’ve been working on about Gutenberg as probably the first technology entrepreneur. In it, I note that printing by impressing ink on paper may be seeing its twilight, replaced by ink-jet technologies just as photography on paper has been replaced by digital.

Mind you, books and printing will not disappear. After my visit to the museum, I had the great privilege of having lunch with Bertram Schmidt-Friderichs, thanks to a connection made via Twitter by his wife and partner, Karin Schmidt-Friderichs. They run a wonderful small press, Verlag Hermann Schmidt Mainz, publishing and printing beautiful small books about art and typography. Where better in the world to do that? Bertram said that books will continue but as special, premium products. I agree. In that, they recapture Gutenberg’s original vision of print as beauty.

At the museum, I was lucky to be around as a TV crew was filming a demonstration of the technologies in Gutenberg’s pressroom. The press already existed for olives, grapes, and paper; Gutenberg had to adapt it for printing. Ink already existed, of course, but Gutenberg had to adapt that, too, to his needs. But his critical and unsung invention was the hand-held mold that enabled Gutenberg to make fonts–thousands of letters needed for the Bible–quickly and consistently. It required ingenious design and no small expertise in metallurgy and I was delighted to finally see one in action, below.

IMG_1220

January 19 2012

13:00

We are the lobbyists

The internet has helped untold publics to form. Yesterday, the internet became a public.

Or rather, millions of people who care about internet freedom used the net to organize and defend it against efforts to control and harm it.

The SOPA-PIPA blackout got attention in media that previously all but ignored the issue, whether out of conflict of interest or negligence. More important, it got political action as legislators — especially Republicans — tripped over themselves to back away from the Hollywood bailout.

In the discussion about the movement yesterday, I heard someone in Washington quoted, saying that these geeks should hire lobbyists like everyone else.

No, we’re all lobbyists now, and that’s just as it should be. This movement didn’t need influence peddlers. It didn’t need political commercials. It didn’t need media. It needed only citizens who give a shit. Democracy.

I’m delighted that the discussion rose to the level of principles, a discussion I’ve argued has to take place if we, the internet public, are to protect our tool of publicness.

There’s much more going on under this battle: the disruption of media business models, a fundamental change in our view of the value of content, the undercutting of institutions’ power, the lowering of national boundaries. But for now, nevermind that and concentrate on what was born yesterday: a political movement, a movement whose cause is freedom.

What else can this movement do? Can it elect candidates? Should it? Or should it continue to hold politicians’ feet to the fire? I don’t think I want to see the formation of an internet party. I don’t want this movement to mimic the way power used to be traded. I don’t want it to become an institution. I also don’t think it’s possible. I prefer to see it continuing to mimic #OccupyWallStreet, organizing without organizations (pace Shirky), discerning through interaction its principles and goals.

After yesterday, the powerful are on warning that a public can rise up out of nowhere to protest and pressure, to fight and win. Dell Hell taught companies to behave, to respect and listen to their customers, and better yet to collaborate with them. The SOPA blackout taught politicians to hear citizens directly, without mediators. Now we’ll see whether they can learn to collaborate as well.

January 14 2012

22:12

January 12 2012

01:57

Jon Stewart & SOPA (please)

Got to see The Daily Show taping tonight (more on that in a minute) and in the pre-show conversation with Jon Stewart, an audience member said he was sent by The Internet to ask about SOPA. Stewart professed (not feigned, I think) ignorance, asking whether that was net neutrality, and excusing himself, what with their “heads being up their asses” in the election and all. But he said he’d do his homework and he looked at writer Steve Bodow when he said that. Let’s hope he comes out loud.

Confidential to Mr. Stewart: The problem here is that [cough] your industry, entertainment, is trying to give power the power to blacklist and turn off sites if they’re so much as accused of “pirating” (their word, not ours) content. This changes the fundamental architecture of the net, giving *government* the power and means to kill sites for this and then other reasons. That threatens to destroy this, our greatest tool of publicness (book plug). So please, sir we need your force of virtue to beat down this, another evil. On behalf of The Internet, thank you.

December 30 2011

22:23

Very public health

Watching the remarkable Xeni Jardin tweet her mammogram and cancer diagnosis, then blog eloquently about it, then crowdsource opening up her own MRI data makes me ask: Why are we so secretive about sickness and health? And what do we lose because we are?

The answers to the first questions are fairly obvious. First, we keep our sicknesses secret, we say, because we fear we could lose insurance. Except insurance companies force us to reveal our medical histories anyway. And let’s hope that Obamacare — may it survive the Supreme Court — succeeds in outlawing the denial of health coverage due to preexisting conditions. Next, we fear that we could lose jobs. Except in cases where a condition would affect job safety, shouldn’t employers be told that they cannot discriminate on the basis of health? Whether or not society chooses to address these issues through legislation, my point is that it’s possible to do so.

The other reason we keep sickness secret — the bigger reason — is stigma. We don’t want people to know we’re ill. But in this day and age, why should anyone be ashamed of being sick? To be clear, I am not saying that anyone should ever be forced to reveal health information. But why should our norms, stigmas, and economic considerations force us not to reveal it?

Imagine if we didn’t feel compelled to hide our illnesses. Imagine if we could be open about our health. What good could come of that?

We could learn more about correlations, which could yield information about causation and even cures. Given large data sets, we could find out that people who get a disease share common behaviors or characteristics. We might gain the opportunity to discover an environmental cause to a local outbreak of, say, breast cancer, enabling a community to fix the condition and prevent more cases.

Of course, I want to emphasize the conditional: correlation *could* help. One data point is never meaningful: That I’ve contracted one heart condition and two cancers since being at the World Trade Center on 9/11 is meaningless — unless there are many others in the same boat, and even then, one mustn’t jump to conclusions about causation. Still, more data is always better than less.

With openness about health, we could do a better job connecting people who share conditions to get information and support and each other. I am on the board of Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, and at our last meeting, I was struck by the barriers that stigmas put in the way of young people getting the organization’s help. I heard how getting our software on iPods has helped more kids use the service because they no longer have to carry around a special device that marks them as different — stigma. I heard a mother say that school officials warned her that her child would be labeled — stigma — if she got him appropriate services, but she said she’d eagerly embrace the label if it got her son the help he needed.

On my blog, I’ve been in a debate about the recommendation by a government panel that men shouldn’t be given the blood test for prostate cancer anymore because, statistically, it hasn’t been shown to save lives. That’s because medical science can’t yet distinguish between fast- and slow-growing prostate cancer. I say men should get the test. I say we should be talking openly about our prostates as women have fought to talk about breast cancer. More information and communication is always better than less.

The real question is what men choose to do when they find out — through a biopsy following the blood test — that they have cancer. Perhaps more men should choose what the doctors call watchful waiting over surgery. But, you see, the problem is that we don’t have *enough* data to make a good decision. I want to know, based on the largest possible population, how long it took prostate cancer to spread after it was found. Then I could decide how long to watch and wait. But I don’t have that information. So I chose to get the cancer out of me. I could make that choice only because I had the test. I had my own data. If I had the data of millions more men, I could make wiser decisions.

How could get get more data?

Step one is to encourage men to talk about their prostates — and, yes, sorry, their penises — so we disarm the stigma about it and get more men to be aware and get tested and share their experience.

Step two is to create the means to open up and share as much health information as possible so researchers, doctors, and hackers can dig into it and find correlations and patterns and questions worth pursuing, perhaps leading to answers.

When I talk about the principles of an open society in Public Parts, this is what I mean. Rather than reflexively declaring that sharing information about ourselves — our bodies as well as our thoughts and actions — is dangerous, we must stand back and ask what benefit could come from such data, now that we have better technological means to open it up, gather it, and analyze it.

Only then can we balance the benefits and risks and decide, as a society, how open we want to be, how open we should and need to be — and why. That is the kind of discussion about privacy and our changing norms I’d like to hear. Let’s not just talk about what can go wrong now but also what could go right.

December 19 2011

15:15

FTC Fines Santa Claus Over COPPA Violations

WASHINGTON–Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz today announced a record fine against Santa Claus for violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

“Mr. Claus has flagrantly violated children’s privacy, collecting their consumer preferences for toys and also tracking their behavior so as to judge and maintain a data base of naughtiness and niceness,” Leibowitz said. “Worse, he has tied this data to personally identifiable information, including any child’s name, address, and age. He has solicited this information online, in some cases passing data to third parties so they may fulfill children’s wishes. According to unconfirmed reports, he has gone so far as to invade children’s homes in the dead of night. He has done this on a broad scale, unchallenged by government authorities for too long.”

Claus was fined $2 million and ordered to end any contact with children. Prior COPPA fines include $1 million against now-virtually-unknown social site Xanga, $400,000 against UMG Recordings, and $35,000 against notorious toymaker Etch-a-Sketch.

The FTC action follows similar complaints against Claus brought by European privacy authorities. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding has complained about Claus holding data on children outside of EU data-protection standards in North Pole server farms. German head of consumer protection Ilse Aigner has called for an investigation of Claus’ use of Google Street View in navigating his Christmas Eve visits. German Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information Peter Schaar has demanded that Claus give children, naughty or nice, the right to be forgotten in his data base. And Thilo Weichert, head of the privacy protection office in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein, demanded that German web sites take down any Facebook “Like” button referring to Claus.

Meanwhile, Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has attempted to bring together an international coalition of privacy officers opposed to Claus’ practices. In California, Claus has been threatened with severe penalties for nonpayment of the state sales tax. And the UK has vowed that Claus will be detained and could face extradition should he set foot in any English chimneys on Christmas Eve.

Reaction to the FTC decision was mixed in Washington. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry vowed to kill the Federal Trade Commission, relieved that he had finally recalled the final agency he had marked for death. Rival Newt Gingrich suggested that Claus apply for U.S. citizenship, “having contributed much to U.S. industry by stimulating greed at all ages; we need more Clauses and more spending to fix this Democrat-ruined economy.” Ron Paul suggested that Claus set up a Liberatarian nation at the North Pole and offered to run for office there. Herman Cain, whose candidacy remains on hold after allegations of sexual improprieties, said that he “always wondered why the old coot didn’t get in hot water for plopping kiddies on his lap; seemed a lot creepier than anything I ever did.” President Barack Obama refused comment.

From his North Pole headquarters, Claus said through a spokesman that he endeavored only to fulfill children’s dreams. “I regret that the world has come to this: treating any adult who wants to make a child happy as a dangerous stranger,” he said. “The problem with our modern world is not technology but fear, suspicion, and cynicism.” He vowed to continue his Christmas mission of joy. “What’s the worst they can do to me?” he asked, “cookie me?”

Contact: Elfelman Public Relations
Photo via Dreadcentral

October 07 2011

14:49

My cancer is not random, it’s mine

There are three things profoundly wrong with a U.S. government panel’s recommendation to end blood tests for prostate cancer.

First, what does stopping the test do for a man? It makes him ignorant of what is happening in his own body. It makes him incapable of making a decision about his own health and fate. Since when and how is a lack of information better than information?

Second, prostate and testicular cancer are curable when caught early. Why the hell would we not continue to try to detect these men’s diseases?

Third, the panel treats men as a statistical pool, not as individuals. It says that overall, the test does not reduce deaths. Whether or not that’s so is of no concern to me. I’m not member of a pool or a data point in it. I’m not random. I’m one man with one prostate. It was cancerous.

The problem here is that medicine cannot yet detect the difference between fast-spreading — and often fatal — prostate cancer and slow-spreading tumors that take so long to grow that oftentimes something else kills their hosts first. So, yes, some tumors are taken out that would not have killed a man. But there is no way to know that.

So who wants to take that gamble? Not me. I had prostate cancer. I was told I could react with “watchful waiting.” But I chose not to. Of course, I did. Informed I had cancer in my body, I had to get it out. I have a responsibility to my family to stay alive so I can provide for them (among other things, I hope). I also have a responsibility as a member of an insurance pool to get a disease treated earlier and for less, if possible. If I let the disease progress, it could involve extremely expensive treatment — radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, hospitalization — for a cancer that spreads from the prostate to the bones to the rest of the body. I know. That’s how my grandfather died.

Does the surgery have side-effects? Oh, let me tell you, it does. I’ve made no secret of them — quite to the contrary, my publicness about them inspired me to write Public Parts.

It has been two years since my surgery and I owe you an update. I am still impotent. I have tried Viagra and Cialis to no effect other than indigestion. I went through the ordeal of shopping for and buying a penis pump (once again being nice to my insurance pool by not buying the one that’s overpriced for those bringing prescriptions; I bought the exact same thing for much less with my own money). It did nothing but mangle and misform my already abused penis and cause pain. I am getting ready to get trained in the art of sticking a needle in my dick to make it engorge, if it still can.

Oh, yes, there are side-effects. The government wants to protect me from them while not protecting me from cancer, a cancer that could or could not kill me, no one knows.

That is my choice. It is a choice I can make only with information, information about my body the government now wants to keep from me.

Wrong. Profoundly, fatally wrong.

May 21 2011

16:55

News is a subset of the conversation

Here’s a tale that reveals how journalists tend to think of their role in the conversation that makes up news and society.

I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).

That’s why I went theatrically batshit on Twitter against the BBC for holding the first day of a meeting this week about *social media* under Chatham House Rule, which decrees: “participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

That’s a fancy, British way to say “not for attribution.” Or as I said in another tweet, “Chatham House Rule turns everyone into an anonymous source. Precisely the wrong thing for a journo org to do!” That is especially an issue for a public journalistic institution, which should be setting an example for other journalists and their sources.

But it’s most shocking that the BBC would impose this rule on a meeting that is not only about *social media* — I thought all Brits bragged about having a sense of irony Americans lack; apparently not — but worse, one that carried the haughty ambition to formulate “a universally accepted set of verification guidelines for social media material” and “an accepted ethical framework for using sensitive material from social networks.” Don’t they see that one can can longer set true standards for the rest of the world in closed rooms with invite-only guests who are gagged or anonymous and prevented from interacting with that world? Then the outcome becomes a standard only for that small subset of people, which negates its authority as a standard. At best, it’s another club rule.

The arguments back to me on Twitter were mostly that employees needed the comfort of anonymity to speak freely about their employers. My response: The meeting wasn’t streamed. Anyone could request the courtesy not to be quoted or that what he or she says isn’t to be attributed. But the BBC made secrecy the default. Tone deaf. Shameful.

The next morning, at the open and streamed second day of the conference, Peter Horrocks, head of news for the BBC, attacked critics for attacking the BBC for limiting comments on its site to 400 characters (2.85 tweets), calling them extremists and zealots. Horrocks is bidding to control the conversation about controlling the conversation. Oh, my.

But that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.

Later in the afternoon, by coincidence, I heard from the BBC’s flagship show, Newsnight, asking me to come on to talk about privacy and the superinjunction row in the UK. I told the producer what I had to say about how futile and noxious to my idea of free speech it was for the courts of London to think they could control the conversation and do so in secrecy.

Later, I heard from the producer that “we have booked someone here in London who can make it into the studio, which always works better, and it would imbalance the discussion to have a third person.” Imbalancing a discussion sounds just up my ally. Pity I couldn’t. But that’s fine, it’s their prerogative as it’s their time on their air. But this moment illustrates the point: What journalists have done for a living is manage a conversation.

That is the presumption they now bring to online and the world’s comments.

The problem with comments, I’ve argued lately, is that the form and timing of them is essentially insulting to the public: It says we journalists don’t want to hear from you, the public, until after we are done with our work making content for you to consume. Then the public speaks and journalists don’t listen (because they think their stories are done) and the commenters are insulted and so they insult the journalists and the journalists say that’s the proof that the comments and the commenters aren’t worth the attention. A very vicious cycle. The conversation catches cooties.

The reason the BBC cut its comments down to 400 characters is cost. In a discussion on Twitter with the BBC’s Nick Reynolds, the social media executive who oversees moderation of all BBC social media, that became clear. Comments require moderation and that’s a cost. True enough. But I tried to argue with Reynolds in Twitter that the conversation writ large could also save costs. I couldn’t get it through to him. He kept defining the conversation as comments and “UGC.” I kept defining the conversation as collaboration.

Collaboration is not allowing people to comment. Collaboration is not giving them opinion polls. (Carey, by the way, argued that polling is “an attempt to stimulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming,” but that’s another topic.) Collaboration is not enabling them to send in the pictures of the snow on their back porches, something I hate when TV news does it as it condescends — it says the public can’t provide real news or quality images; we’re merely humoring them. “UGC” is bullshit.

No, collaboration is about sharing the work of journalism. Collaboration brings value and can even save costs. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian (he closed the BBC’s conference but, unfortunately, video of it is not online), often talks about the mutualization of news and how opening up its work can enable a journalistic organization to produce journalism it otherwise could not do or afford to do.

At the BBC conference, Esra Dogramaci of Al Jazeera gave an impressive presentation of the networks’ use of social media to collaborate. Then the BBC moderator quizzed her about whether social media would “drive the agenda” of the news. And a BBC staffer fretted that by providing cameras and training to protestors in the Arab Spring, “aren’t you now intertwining yourselves with the protestors?” The moderator asked whether Al Jazeera’s mission of “giving voice to the voiceless” encourages the revolution. Another BBC staffer suggested that by providing the means for the people to talk, Al Jazeera may be subversive. Dogramaci replied, most articulately, that Al Jazeera is on the side of the people and if that is subversive, then so be it.

In what Al Jazeera does, we see the seed of a new definition of journalism and its role in the conversation: as a service to it.

There is yet a further extension of the model in what Andy Carvin has been doing on Twitter covering the Arab Spring (he also spoke at the BBC event). What strikes me there is that Andy does not start or enable or even necessarily serve the conversation, as the conversation is going on with or without him. The witnesses to news are telling the world what they are seeing. Andy observes it and plucks out the good and reliable witnesses and he passes what they observe on, adding value along the way: vetting, questioning, debunking, context, explanation, assigning….

News, then, begins to take on the architecture of the internet itself: end-to-end. At one end are the witnesses sharing, at the other the readers reading and interacting, asking their own questions, having their own say, passing on and recommending what interests them. No need for a gatekeeper. No need for a distributor. No need for a central hub. No tolerance for controllers. The conversation is occurring on its own.

Journalism is sometimes a subset of that conversation. It can add value. It can serve. But it should not think of itself as the creator of the conversation, the setter of the agenda, though that is what I see in so much of the BBC’s worldview as demonstrated at events this week. They might have learned that better if instead of a meeting, they held a conversation.

The conversation is news.

March 08 2011

14:51

One identity or more?

Given the discussion about Facebook enabling other sites to use its comment infrastructure — and what that means for identity and anonymity in discussion — I thought I’d share some of what I’m saying about the question of multiple identities in my book, .

* * *

One tactic to cope with the fear of exposure and overexposure is anonymity. Anonymity has its place. It protects the speech of Chinese dissidents, Iranian protestors, and corporate whistleblowers. It allows Wikileaks to expose secrets. It helps people share, for example, medical data and benefit others without having to reveal themselves. It lets people play with new identities. When the game company Blizzard Entertainment tried to bring real identity into the forums around its massive, multi-player games, including World of WarCraft, players revolted, and no wonder: Who wants everyone to know that in your other life, you see yourself as a level 80 back-stabbing night elf rogue who ganks lowbies at the Crossroads? Taking on identities—pseudonymity—is the fun of it.

But anonymity is often the cloak of cowards. Anonymous trolls—of the human race, not the WarCraft type—attack people online, lobbing snark at Julia Allison, spreading rumors and lies about public figures, sabotaging a politician’s Wikipedia page, or saying stupid stuff in the comments on my blog. I tell commenters there that I will respect what they have to say more if they have the guts to stand behind their own words with their own names, as I do.

Real identity has improved the tone and tenor of interaction online. That was Facebook’s key insight. Twitter’s, too. Tweeters want credit for their cleverness; they are rewarded with followers and retweets, their nanoseconds of microfame. Facebook is built on real relationships with real people in real life. “The whole thing was based on this foundation of reality,” Mark Zuckerberg says in an interview. “That doesn’t mean that every single thing is true. But on balance, I think it’s a lot more real than other things on the internet. In that way, I think, yes, it does create authenticity.”

Zuckerberg believes we have one authentic identity and says it is becoming “less and less true” that people will maintain separate identities. Emily Gould, admitted oversharer, agrees. Julia Allison, on the other hand, sides with those who say we should maintain many identities—one for work, another for school, another for home, another for friends. Those folks say we get in trouble online when these identities mix and blur, when our boss sees our picture from the college beer party (as if bosses never had beer). In a New York Times Magazine piece arguing that “the internet records everything and forgets nothing,” Jeffrey Rosen tells the story of a 25-year-old student-teacher who was deprived of her diploma after posting a MySpace photo of herself drinking over the caption, “Drunken Pirate.” On his blog, Scott Rosenberg counters that “the photo is harmless; the trouble lies with the people who have turned it into a problem.”

What needs to change is not so much our behavior, our rules, or our technology but, again, our norms: how we operate as a society and interact with each other. When presented with someone’s public face, which may differ from our own, is our response to disapprove, condemn, ridicule, and snipe, or is it to try to understand differences, offer empathy, overlook foolishness, offer freedom, and share in kind? When we do the former—and we all have—we are guilty of intolerance, sometimes bigotry. When we do the latter we become open-minded. I suggested in my last book that because we are all more public, we will soon operate under the doctrine of mutually assured humiliation: I’ll spare you making fun of your embarrassing pictures if you’ll do the same for me. “An age of transparency,” says author David Weinberger, “must be an age of forgiveness.”

There are two forces at work here: identity and reputation. Our identities are the first-person expressions of ourselves. Our reputations are others’ third-person views of us. Thanks to our increasing publicness, the two are coming closer and sometimes into conflict. As I was discussing these topics on my blog, Weinberger left a sage comment wondering about what he called the private-public axis:

Marilyn Monroe was a public figure but most of us are private citizens. That used to be pretty easy to compute and, because of the nature of the broadcast medium, it used to tend toward one extreme or another: He’s Chevy Chase and you’re not. But there’s another private-public axis: who we really are and how we look to others. We have tended to believe, at least in the West, that our true self is the inner self. The outer, public self may or may not reflect our inner, private self, and we have an entire moral/normative vocabulary to talk about the relation of the two: sincerity, authenticity, integrity, honesty….

Those are the two identities we are trying to manage—not our work selves and our home selves, not our party selves and our serious selves, but our inner, real selves and our outer, show selves. When our inner and outer selves get into conflict and confusion, we look inauthentic and hypocritical. In all our spoken fears about privacy and publicness, I think this is the great unspoken fear: that we’re not who people think we are, and we’ll be found out.

These are new skills for everyone, celebrity and commoner alike. Marilyn Monroe never had to deal with blogs and Twitter, let alone 24-hour TV news. She had press agents to create and manage her identity and big, frightening security people to keep the scary strangers away. Today, stars and pols have to deal with being constantly exposed. When they are caught in a contradiction of words or deeds—not exactly a challenge—they suffer the gotcha. Then again, stars like Ashton Kutcher, Lady Gaga, and Howard Stern are grabbing the opportunity on Twitter to interact directly with their publics without scripts or PR people in-between. Reputation.com, which makes a business out of helping people whose online reputation is being harmed by others, suggests that the solution is not to hide but to publish more about yourself so that will rise in Google’s search about you. The way to improve your reputation is to share more of your identity.

The best solution is to be yourself. If that makes you uneasy, talk with your shrink. Better yet, blog about it.

February 25 2011

13:03

Public Parts subtitle help

Friends, I need help choosing a subtitle for Public Parts, my book. You all were helpful with What Would Google Do? (which I initially wanted to call WWGD?, but the publisher fought me and you convinced me the publisher was right). Many of you have already been helpful with great suggestions via Twitter (some inspired some of these candidates).

The book is about the value of publicness. It’s about technology, change, privacy, fear, and protection as well. But I try hard not to pit private against public. Instead, I argue that when we make choices about what to make public or private and how we build the tools and laws that enable or regulate t hat, we need to include in the equation in the benefits of publicness. We also need to protect our new tools of publicness. I interview Mark Zuckerberg, danah boyd, Ev Willliams, Dennis Crowley, Philip Kaplan, Josh Harris, Eric Schmidt, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and more. I explore the history of privacy (and its definitions) and the development of our notions of the public.I also explore the progression of the tools of publicness. It’s a book about choices and optimism. I also talk about lessons from my public life. And saunas. (My editor, @bloehnen, will write much better jacket copy than that, but it gives you an idea.)

Here’s the shortlist of subtitles (not listed in any order so as not to prejudice you with the preferences of me and my editor and publisher). The main title, Public Parts, I already like (and, yes, it’s a bit of an homage to Howard Stern). Please weigh in with a discussion in the comments. If you have a new suggestion, what the hell, by all means add that. And if you have a great idea for imagery, that’s next.

PUBLIC PARTS
An Exposé

[Hat tip to @chrisgordon77]

PUBLIC PARTS
What Happens When Companies, Governments, and People Let It All Hang Out

(Variations: Should “people” be “all of us” or “individuals” or “you”?)
[Hat tip to @txhoudini for inspiration]

PUBLIC PARTS
If We’re So Worried About Privacy, Why Do We Share a Billion Times a Day?

(Variation: take off the first clause)

PUBLIC PARTS
Privacy and Fear, Openness and Opportunity

PUBLIC PARTS
The Private Self, The Public Sphere, and Principles for a New Society

PUBLIC PARTS
Exposing Ourselves for Fun, Profit, and a Brighter Future
[Hat tip to @zekeweeks]

Thank you!

February 24 2011

12:56

The distraction trope

In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland is the latest curmudgeon to recycle Nick Carr’s distraction trope, microwave it, and serve it with gravy. The argument is that Twitter—though possibly a wonderful thing for Egyptian revolutionaries (we can argue that trope another day)—is distracting us Westerners from our important work of deep reading and deep thinking and something simply must be done. We have a crisis of concentration brought on by a crisis of distraction, he tells us. Some I respect react and call this matter urgent.

Bollocks, as my Guardian friends would say.

I want you to think back with me now—I’m hypnotizing you, which should alleviate the stress of distraction, at least momentarily—to the moment in 1994 or soon thereafter when you discovered the World Wide Web and a new activity: browsing. Didn’t we all, every one of us, waste hours—days, even—aimlessly, purposelessly clicking links from one site to the next, not knowing where we would go and then not knowing where our hours went? Oh my God, we would never get anything done again, we fretted. We are all too distracted. We were hypnotized.

I know from market research I did that back then that it was not long before browsing diminished and died as our main behavior online. We became directed in our searches. We came to web looking for something, got it, and moved on. That’s partly because the tools improved: Yahoo gave us a directory; brands took on the role of serving expected content; Google gave us search. But this change in behavior came mainly because we got over the newness of browsing and had other, more important things to do and we learned how to prioritize our time again.

It is ever thus. Think back to the early days of TV and cable: My God, with so much to watch, will be ever get anything done? The exact same argument can be made—indeed, one wishes it were made—about books: With so many of them unread, how can we possibly ever do anything else? But, of course, we do.

Twitter addiction shall pass. Have faith—faith in your fellow man and woman. I was busy doing other things yesterday, important things, and so I pretty much did not tweet. I survived without it. So, I’m depressed to say, did all of you without me. I just wrote in my book that Twitter indeed created a distraction to writing the book, as I was tempted by the siren call of the conversation that never ends. But it also helped with my writing that I always had ready researchers and editors, friends willing to help when I got stuck or needed inspiration.

Twitter is a tool to manage and we learn how to do that, once the new-car smell wears off. That’s exactly what has happened with blogging. And here is the moment the curmudgeons triumphally declare the triumphalists wrong and blogging—which, remember, was also going to destroy us—dead or dying. What killed blogging? Twitter. Ah, the circle of life, the great mandala.

But I can guarantee that the distraction trope will be pulled out of the refrigerator and reheated again and again as the curmudgeons raise alarms about the destructive power of the next shiny thing. I’m loving reading a long-awaited new book by the esteemed Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein. In Divine Art, Infernal Madness, she takes us back to exact same arguments over the printing press among the “triumphalists” and the “catastrophists.” That is perhaps better title for our curmudgeons. She quotes Erasmus arguing that

the benefits of printing were almost eclipsed by complaints about increased output: swarms of new books were glutting the market and once venerated authors were being neglected. “To what corner of the world do they not fly, these swarms of new books?… the very multitude of them is hurting scholarship, because it creates a glut, and even in good things satiety is most harmful.” The minds of men “flighty and curious of anything new” are lured “away from the study of old authors.”

And isn’t really their fear, the old authors, that they are being replaced? Control in culture is shifting.

What are our catastrophists really saying when they argue that Twitter is ruining us and Western (at least) civilization? They are branding us all sheeple. Ah, but you might say: Jarvis, aren’t you and your triumphalists making similarly overbroad statements when you say that these tools unlock new wonders in us? Perhaps. But there is a fundamental difference in our claims.

We triumphalists—I don’t think I am one but, what the hell, I’ll don the uniform—argue that these tools unlock some potential in us, help us do what we want to do and better. The catastrophists are saying that we can be easily led astray to do stupid things and become stupid. One is an argument of enablement. One is an argument of enslavement. Which reveals more respect for humanity? That is the real dividing line. I start with faith in my fellow man and woman. The catastrophists start with little or none.

Ah, but some will say, these tools are neutral. They can be used by bad actors as well. That’s certainly true. but bad actors are usually already bad. The tools don’t make them bad.

Take the Great Distractor of the age: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. The real debate over him in The Social Network and among privacy regulators and between catastrophists and triumphalists is about his motives. I write in Public Parts:

If, as the movie paints him, he acts out of his own cynical goals—getting attention, getting laid, getting rich—then manipulating us to reveal ourselves smells of exploitation. But if instead he has a higher aim—to help us share and connect and to make the world more open—then it’s easier to respect him, as Jake [my son] and I do. . . .

There is 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. . . .

He believes he is creating the tools that help people to 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.

I talked with Ev Williams at Twitter and he says similar things. He’s not trying to distract us to death. (That would be Evil Ev.) He’s trying to help us connect with each other and information, instantly, relevantly. (That is Good Ev.) It’s up to us how we use the tool well—indeed, we the community of users are the ones who helped invent the power of @ and # and $ and RT to refine the gift Ev et al gave us. I heard a similar mission from Dennis Crowley at Foursquare: helping us make serendipitous connections we otherwise wouldn’t.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the one who started this whole mess in the beginning (damn you, Sir!) is trying to push all the toolmakers to the next level, to better understand the science of what they are doing and to unlock the data layer of our world. Wonderful possibilities await—if you believe that the person next to you isn’t a distractable dolt but instead someone with unmet potential. There’s the real argument, my friends. And you are my friends, for remember that I’m the one who respects you.

February 15 2011

20:00

Clinton and the freedom to connect

In her second major speech on internet freedom, I’m delighted that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stood for the freedom to connect and recognizes the internet as a public space (as I will argue it is in Public Parts). The right to connect is first on my list of principles for our net society. I’m also delighted that she is calling for a discussion about those principles. But I will say that discussion should not come from her or from any government. The internet is not theirs. It is ours. The discussion must come from us, the citizens of the net.

She said:

To maintain an Internet that delivers the greatest possible benefits to the world, we need to have a serious conversation about the principles that guide us. What rules exist‚ and should not exist‚ and why; what behaviors should be encouraged and discouraged, and how.

The goal is not to tell people how to use the Internet, any more than we ought to tell people how to use any public space, whether it is Tahrir Square or Times Square. The value of these spaces derives from the variety of activities people can pursue in them, from holding a rally to selling their wares to having a private conversation. These spaces provide an open platform‚ and so does the internet. It does not serve any particular agenda, and it never should. But if people around the world are going to come together every day online and have a safe and productive experience, we need a shared vision to guide us.

One year ago, I offered a starting point for that vision, by calling for a global commitment to Internet freedom to protect human rights online as we do offline. The rights of individuals to express their views freely, petition their leaders, worship according to their beliefs‚ these rights are universal, whether they are exercised in a public square or on an individual blog.

The freedoms to assemble and associate also apply in cyberspace; in our time, people are as likely to come together to pursue common interests online as in a church or union hall. Together, the freedoms of expression, assembly, and association online comprise what I have called the freedom to connect. The United States supports this freedom for people everywhere, and we have called on other nations to do the same.

Because we want people to have the chance to exercise this freedom, we also support expanding the number of people who have access to the Internet.

Amen to all that. I’m disappointed that she used this speech to once more attack Wikileaks (even as she praised other nations’ citizens’ efforts to use the net to bring transparency to their governments) and that the Administration has not taken the opportunity of Wikileaks to examine its own level of classification and opacity. They could still disapprove of Wikileaks while also learning a lesson about being more open. By not doing that, some of the high-minded words in a speech such as this come off as at least inconsistent if not hypocritical.

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