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February 13 2011

17:13

Gutenberg of Arabia

At the critical climax of the Egyptian revolution, one of its sparks, Google’s Wael Ghonim, told his followers on Twitter that he would not speak to them through media but instead through the Facebook page he created, the page he’d used to gather momentum for the protest, the page that had gotten him arrested, the page that was one of the reasons that Hosni Mubarak hit the kill switch on the entire internet in Egypt (here’s another reason). After Mubarak left, Ghonim said on CNN that he wanted to meet Mark Zuckerberg to thank him for Facebook and the ability to make that page.

After the Reformation in Europe, Martin Luther thanked Johannes Gutenberg. Printing, he said, was “God’s highest and extremest act of grace.” Good revolutionaries thank their tools and toolmakers.

There’s a silly debate, well-documented by Jay Rosen, over the credit social tools should receive in the revolutions, successful. abortive, and emerging, in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. Jay compiles fine examples of the genre, which specializes in shooting down an argument no one we know has made: that Twitter carries out revolutions. (I would add the Evgeny Morozov variation, which incessantly wants to remind us—not that anyone I know has forgotten—that these tools can also be used by bad actors, badly.) No one I know—no one—says that these revolutions weren’t fought by people. As a blogger said on Al Jazeera English, Twitter didn’t fight Egypt’s police, Egyptians did. Who doesn’t agree with that?

This same alleged debate—curmudgeons shooting at phantom technological determinists and triumphalists—goes on to this day over Gutenberg, too. Adrian Johns, author of The Nature of the Book, accuses premier Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein, author of The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, of giving too much credit to the printing press. He does not buy her contention that print itself was revolutionary and “created a fundamental division in human history.”

Like Jay, I’m a befuddled over the roots of the curmudgeons’ one-sided debate. Why do they so object to tools being given credit? Are they really objecting, instead, to technology as an agent of change, shifting power from incumbents to insurgents? Why should I care about their complaints? I am confident that these tools have been used by the revolutionaries and have a role. What’s more interesting is to ask what that role is, what that impact is.

I was honored to have been able to call Eisenstein to interview her for my book, Public Parts. Her perspective on the change wrought through Gutenberg was incredibly helpful to my effort to analyze the change that our modern tools of publicness are enabling. When I asked her about the internet, she demurred, arguing that she’s not even on Facebook. (Though I do love that when she’s researching, her first stop is Wikipedia.)

At the end of our conversation, Eisenberg raised the Middle East, observing that “they sort of missed Gutenberg. They jumped from the oral phase to this phase.” She was quick to add that it’s facile and wrong to say that the Middle East is still in the Middle Ages; she’s not saying that, merely observing that “they skipped Gutenberg, for better or worse.” She said this before the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions and I was not sure what she meant.

Today, it occurs to me that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube may be the Gutenberg press of the Middle East, tools like his that enable people to speak, share, and gather. Without those tools, could revolutions occur? Of course, curmudgeons, they could. Without people and their passion, could revolutions occur? Of course not, curmudgeons. But why are these revolutions occurring now? No, curmudgeons, we’ll never be able to answer that question.

But it does matter that the revolutionaries of the Middle East use—indeed, depend upon—these social tools and the net. That is the reason why we must protect them, for by doing so we protect the public and its freedoms. If you follow Gladwell, et al, and believe that the social tools are merely toys and trifles, then what does it matter if they are shut down? That is why the curmudgeons’ debate with themselves matters: because it could do harm; it could result in dismissing the tools of publicness just when we most need to safeguard them.

In the privileged West, we have been talking about net neutrality as a question of whether we can watch movies well. In the Middle East, net neutrality has a much more profund meaning: as a human right to connect. When Mubarak shut down the internet, when China shuts down Facebook, when Turkey shuts down YouTube, when America concocts its own kill switch, they violate the human rights of their citizens as much as if they burned the products of Gutenberg’s press.

In the midst of the Egyptian revolution, I realized that many of us in the West—and I include myself squarely in this—act under the assumption that progress in digital democracy would come here first, because our technology and our democracies are more advanced. Then it became clear to me that such advances would come instead where they are most needed: in the Middle East.

This is why I keep calling for a discussion about an independent set of principles for cyberspace so we can hold them over the heads of governments and corporations that would restrict and control our tools of publicness. I keep revising my list of principles, from this, to this, to this, to this:

I. We have a right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak.
III. We have the right to assemble & act
IV. Privacy is a responsibility of knowing.
V. Publicness is a responsibility of sharing.
VI. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
VII. What is public is a public good.
VIII. All bits are created equal.
IX. The internet shall be operated openly.
X. The internet shall be distributed.

This, to me, is a far more fruitful discussion than whether Facebook and Twitter deserves credit for Egypt and Tunisia. The revolutionaries deserve credit. They also deserve the freedom to use the tools of their revolutions.

January 27 2011

11:16

The disruptors arrive at Davos

Last year at Davos, I said I was among the disrupted when I preferred to be among the disruptors.

The disruptor arrived last night. Daniel Domscheit-Berg, former spokesman for Wikileaks and founder of the competitive OpenSecrets, came to a dinner about transparency at which I was a panelist, alongside the Guardian’s Timothy Garton-Ash, Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth, and Harvard’s David Kennedy, led by the NY Times’ Arthur Sulzberger.

Sad irony: the session on transparency was off-the-record. I asked for it to be open; Sulzberger asked in turn; no go. Fill in your punchline here.

But Dan Perry of the AP was there and interviewed the hyphenates, Domscheit-Berg and Garton-Ash, on the record. Under Chatham House Rule, we can summarize the talk without attributing it.

In truth, there was little disagreement — until we switched from transparent government to transparent business.

About government, the speakers put forward the expected enthusiasm about forcing more transparency upon government with the expected hesitation about potential harm resulting from incomplete redaction and about making government more secret rather than less. No surprises. One person in the room — a journalist I’ve heard here before who inevitably supports power structures — actually opposed transparent government (preferring mere accountability … though how one gets to the latter without the former, I have no idea).

About business, we did disagree. The question was posed: is secrecy a competitive advantage? Most of the panelists and the room said it was. I disagreed as did one other person you might expect to disagree. I argued that transparency is not about just malfeasance but also about a new and necessary way to operate in collaboration with one’s customers and public. Old, institutional companies will miss another boat as new, transparent companies take advantage of the age of openness to do business in a new way.

What I see is that when corporations are subjected to leaks, the reaction will be different. They’ll have more defenders from the power structure. They’ll too rarely see the opportunity in operating as open companies. But it won’t stop the leaks and the march of transparency.

Tomorrow, I’m going to an awards ceremony held by PublicEye.CH, naming the worst corporation in the world (you can still vote) and there, Domscheit-Berg will present OpenSecrets. This is the counterweight to the congregation of the Davos Man.

* Note also that one of my entrepreneurial journalism students at CUNY, Matt Terenzio, just launched Localeaks, which will enable any newspaper in the U.S. to receive leaks from whistleblowers. Very cool. More about it here.

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20:51

January 11 2011

20:30

The progression of the public

I’m editing the manuscript for Public Parts now and so I’ll be throwing out some thoughts from the book to get your thoughts in return. Here, from my introduction, are what I see as the four stages in our conception of “public”:

1. From ancient times to the Renaissance, “public” was synonymous with the state and the state was synonymous not with its people (that’s our modern notion) but with its rulers. Leaders were not merely public figures; they embodied the public. The people had little political standing. They had little independent identity. “Man was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, or corporation—only through some general category,” writes historian Jacob Burkhardt in Civilization of the Renaissance (via Elizabeth Eisenstein’s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change).

2. In the so-called early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries (also known as the Renaissance), Gutenberg’s printing press as well as the theater, music, art, maps, and markets enabled some people to create their own publics, as the Making Publics project at McGill University argues (I’ll explore their ideas further in a later chapter). These were voluntary publics formed among strangers sharing similar interests—which could mean simply that they read the same book and then contemplated and discussed the same ideas. Now it was possible for private individuals to take on and share a public identity independent of the state.

3. In the 18th century, German philosopher Jürgen Habermas argues, the public sphere—and public opinion—first appeared as a political force and a counterweight to the state. Finally, the public began to mean the people. Habermas believes that a brief, golden age of rational, critical debate in society, carried out in the coffee houses of England and salons of Europe, was soon corrupted by mass media. I’ll argue differently, suggesting that the real corruption of the ideal of the public was to throw us all into a single public sphere, a mass—the lumpenpublic. To this day, the assumption that we are one public—which is the basis of mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing, and mass media—has enabled government, companies, and media to avoid dealing with us as distinct individuals and groups and instead to see us as faceless poll numbers and anonymous demographics.

4. Today, with the internet, we are just beginning to create a new notion of what public and the public mean. Like our early-modern ancestors, we—but all of us now—have the tools (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube…) to create and join publics, establishing our own identities and societies. I see that as a purer form of the public, built not around the interests of the powerful but instead around our own interests, desires, and needs. Rather than being forced into a public not of our own making, we now define ourselves and our publics. The new vision of the public may look chaotic, but then change always does. The critical difference today—the next step in the evolution of the idea—is that a public is no longer a one-way entity, flowing from the powerful—king, politician, publisher, or performer—to an audience. Now through our conversation and collaboration, ignoring old boundaries, we define our publics.

In this progression, we are continuing—but accelerating—a timeless dance of balancing the individual and society: our rights, privileges, powers, responsibilities, concerns, and prospects; our privacy and publicness. That describes nothing so much as the process of modernization. In ancient times, Richard Sennett says in The Fall of Public Man, “public experience was connected to the formation of social order”—that is, the end of anarchy; while in recent centuries publicness “came to be connected with the formation of personality”—that is, individuality and freedom. Ancient and authoritarian regimes told people what they must think and do; modern societies enable and ennoble citizens to do what they want to do, together.

So today are atomizing because we have the freedom to be independent. Then we can reform into new molecules because we are social; we need each other and can accomplish more together than apart. We find the publics we wish to join based not merely on gross labels, generalizations, and borders drawn about us—red v. blue, black v. white, nation v. nation—but instead on our ideas, interests, and needs: cancer survivors, libertarians, Deadheads, vegetarians, single moms, geeks, even privacy advocates. We finally tear down the elite of the public few and each become public people in our own right. . . .

December 11 2010

02:04

Bill of Rights in Cyberspace, amended

I’m still refining my thoughts on a Bill of Rights in Cyberspace — the latest version in preparation for tomorrow’s PDF symposium on WIkileaks and transparency. The idea is to have principles we can point to when dealing with such events as Wikileaks, Google/Verizon, Google/China, and so on. Try this on for size:

I. We have the right to connect.
II. We have the right to speak freely.
III. We have the right to assemble and act.
IV. Information should be public by default, secret by necessity.
V. What is public is a public good.
VI. All bits are created equal.
VII. The internet shall be operated openly.

Earlier versions are here and here. I’ve taken out the simplistic notions of controlling our data and identity, after realizing that we can’t control either. We should, instead, have access to information whenever possible, by default; I think that better covers both our needs to get to our information and our needs to get to information in our government and in business.

At the PDF event, I want to talk about the need to discuss principles we can point to when we see violations of these rights. If we do not set these standards, then we cannot hold governments and companies to them.

I will also talk about the idea that we are passing from a world organized around power-to-power transactions to one based on peer-to-peer engagement. I’ll argue that we in the press, especially, must defend Wikileaks’ right to free speech as it speaks truth to power. I’ll say that we must make transparency government’s default; we are far from that and risk moving away from that target rather than toward it.

Thoughts?

December 10 2010

11:30

Me & media on Wikileaks

Here are some appearances I’ve been making regarding Wikileaks, transparency, and press freedom.

On CNN with John King Thursday night talking about the hacking of MasterCard et al, quoting this Guardian editorial arguing that the attacks are a form of civil (cyber) disobedience in defense of a free internet:

Here’s a link to BBC audio, on the same subject, discussing the shift from power-to-power to peer-to-peer architecture.

The Berliner Zeitung asked for a brief op-ed. Here’s the English text:

Should Wikileaks be stopped? The question is somewhat irrelevant. The movement it exemplifies – transparency – cannot be stopped.

I’m not saying that secrecy is dead. We still need secrets – about security, crime, privacy, diplomacy. But we have far too many secrets in government. One thing that Wikileaks reveals is the abuse of government secrecy.

But now governments will have to learn how to operate under the assumption that anything they do can be seen on the front page of this newspaper. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I say that government must become transparent by default, secret by necessity.

Transparency breeds trust. Whether for government or journalism or business, operating in the open enables the opportunity to collaborate with constituents.

We in journalism must recognize that Wikileaks is an element of a new ecosystem of news. It is a new form of the press. So we must defend its rights as media. If we do not, we could find our own rights curtailed. Asking whether Wikileaks should be stopped is exactly like asking whether this newspaper should be stopped when it reveals what
government does not want the public to know. We have been there before; let us never return.

December 04 2010

19:40

Wikileaks: Power shifts from secrecy to transparency

Welt am Sontag in Germany asked me for an op-ed on Wikileaks. Here it is, auf Englisch. Hier, auf Deutsch.

Government should be transparent by default, secret by necessity. Of course, it is not. Too much of government is secret. Why? Because those who hold secrets hold power.

Now Wikileaks has punctured that power. Whether or not it ever reveals another document—and we can be certain that it will—Wikileaks has made us all aware that no secret is safe. If something is known by one person, it can be known by the world.

But that has always been the case. The internet did not kill secrecy. It only makes copying and spreading information easier and faster. It weakens secrecy. Or as a friend of mine says, the internet democratizes leaking. It used to be, only the powerful could hold and uncover knowledge. Now many can.

Of course, we need secrets in society. In issues of security and criminal investigation as well as the privacy of citizens and some matters of operating the state—such as diplomacy—sunlight can damage. If government limited secrecy to that standard—necessity—there would be nothing for Wikileaks to leak.

But as we can see from what has been leaked, there is much we should know—actions taken in our name—that government holds from us. We also know that the revelation of these secrets has not been devastating. America’s and Germany’s relationship has not collapsed because one undiplomatic diplomat called Angela Merkel uncreative. Wikileaks head Julian Assange told the Guardian that in four years, “there has been no credible allegation, even by organizations like the Pentagon, that even a single person has come to harm as a result of our activities.”

So perhaps the lesson of Wikileaks should be that the open air is less fearsome than we’d thought. That should lead to less secrecy. After all, the only sure defense against leaks is transparency.

But that is not what’s happening. In the U.S., the White House announced a new security initiative to clamp down on information. The White House even warned government workers not to look at Wikileaks documents online because they were still officially secret, which betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of secret as something people do not know. I fear that one legacy of Wikileaks’ work will be that officials will communicate less in writing and more by phone, diminishing the written record for journalism and history.

I have become an advocate of openness in government, business, and even our personal lives and relationships. The internet has taught me the benefits of sharing and connecting information.

This is why I have urged caution in not going overboard with the privacy mania sweeping much of modern society and especially Germany. Beware the precedents we set, defaulting to closed and secret, whether in pixelating public views in Google Street View, or in disabling the advertising targeting that makes online marketing more valuable and will pay for much of the web’s free content.

I fear that a pixel fog may overcome us, blurring what should be becoming clearer. I had hoped instead that we would pull back the curtain on society, letting the sunlight in. That is our choice.

In researching my book on the benefits of publicnness (to be published as Public Parts in the U.S. and Das Deutsche Paraoxon in Germany), I have found that new technology often leads to fears about exposure of privacy. The invention of the Gutenberg press, the camera, the mass press, the miniature microphone, and now the internet have all sparked such worry.

Now, in Wikileaks, we see a new concern: that secrecy dies. It does not; secrecy lives. But it is wounded. And it should be. Let us use this episode to examine as citizens just how secret and how transparent our governments should be. For today, in the internet age, power shifts from those who hold secrets to those to create openness. That is our emerging reality.

Business, be warned: You are next.

: More: This Economist post thinks likewise.

With or without WikiLeaks, the technology exists to allow whistleblowers to leak data and documents while maintaining anonymity. With or without WikiLeaks, the personel, technical know-how, and ideological will exists to enable anonymous leaking and to make this information available to the public. Jailing Thomas Edison in 1890 would not have darkened the night.

: Jay Rosen is concerned that Julian Assange ducked the question of how diplomacy can operate without assurances of secure communication.

November 28 2010

15:10

What should Google do?

Twitter was abuzz last night with links to the David Segal’s amazing NYTimes yarn of a bad internet actor who says he uses — and eggs on — customer complaints to get more links and mentions online, thus more Googlejuice, thus more business.

The Times didn’t go the next step to ask what Google should do about this. And Google didn’t help itself by dispatching only an unnamed spokesperson who then, Segal complains, didn’t send a followup email. Google would have been much wiser to have hooked Segal up with Matt Cutts, the company’s wizard in the game of bad-guy whack-a-mole, to discuss the options and implications.

It’s not as simple as it seems, for Google and its algorithms are now a set of laws of the web and if you intervene in one way, you may trigger the law of unintended consequences in another.

What if Google sensed the positive or negative sentiment in links and used that to guide its placement in search, as some suggested? Makes sense in the case of bad-guy Borker and his virtual eyeglass store. But as someone pointed out on Twitter last night, if Google did let sentiment affect rank, then what would it do with the negative links regarding Barack Obama or Sarah Palin, to Islam or GM? How would you write that law, remembering that the code is the law?

What if instead Google intervened in a case such as this and, seeing all the complaints, manually downgraded the guy in search? The first problem with that is scale: how do you find and investigate all the bad guys? The bigger problem is whether we want Google to be the cop of the world. Google has been sued by companies it decreed were link-bating spammer sites, downgrading them in search, while the sites said they were legitimate directories. This is the one case in which Google holds the power of God in a market and it’s a dangerous position to be in.

I have suggested before that Google should set up a jury of peers to adjudicate such cases. I didn’t use the verb “crowdsource,” for crowds can be gamed, as Mr. Borker amply demonstrates. But a trusted (cue Craig Newmark) jury could give Google distance from the decision. I say peers — fellow business people — because in cases such as this, their interests and those of Google and us, the users, are aligned: We don’t want bad guys to game search. Google, especially, wants to — in Cutts’ words — find more signals of quality and originality so its results are of higher quality and relevance.

What I’m really saying is that as Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other private players come to be the law of the land on the internet, they need to start acting like public players with Constitutions and Bills of Rights and the means of enforcement and adjudication with due process. I’ll be exploring this notion in Public Parts.

In the end, Segal’s story looks like a failure of search, Google, and the internet. The internet made it possible for a bad guy to win. Well, so does Wall Street.

But I don’t think this was Google’s failure (cue fan-boy accusations). The moral of the story should be that if you search Google for the name of Borker’s company, you see plenty of loud complaints in the results. The internet doesn’t nullify the First Law of Commerce: caveat emptor. When I had my now-legendary problems with Dell, I kicked myself for not doing a search of “dell sucks” before buying my computer. That’s my responsibility as a shopper. And, as I pointed out at the time, Google would have given me the information I needed. Ditto for the lady in Segal’s story. If I think of buying from a new vendor, I’ve learned my lesson: I search Google first because fellow customers, using Google, will help protect me.

That is the lesson The Times should have given its readers: Use Google to guard against those who would use Google.

P.S. In fairness to Dell, I should add that we made up and it became a leader in social media. I figure everybody who comes here knows how that story ended, but in case not….

November 21 2010

16:25

Who says our way is the right way?

As I sit on the board of Reading for the Blind & Dyslexic, I have been thinking about the different ways people learn. RFB&D gives students the tools to learn by listening. We call that a disability. I think it may soon be seen as an advantage.

A group of Danish academic say we are passing through the other side of what they wonderfully call the Gutenberg Parenthesis, leaving the structured, serial, permanent, authored, controlled era of text and returning, perhaps, to what came before the press: a time when communication and content cross, when process dominates product, when knowledge is distributed by people passing it around, when we remix it along the way, when we are more oral and aural.

That’s what makes me think that RFB&D’s clients may end up with a leg up. They understand better than the textually oriented among us how to learn through hearing. Rather than being seen as the people who need extra help, perhaps they will be in the position to give the rest of us help.

And I thought that as I read Matt Richtel’s piece in the New York Times today: Growing up digital, wired for distraction. It starts off lamenting that a student got only 43 pages through Cat’s Cradle. But as @HowardOwens responded on Twitter: “Gee, a 17-year-old only gets 43 pages into his summer reading assignment. Like, that’s never happened before.”

Richtel and the experts he calls blame technology, of course, for shortening our attention spans, just as Nick Carr and Andrew Keen do, lamenting the change. But the assumption they all make is that the way we used to do it is the right way. What if, as I said in Short Attention Span Theater (aka Twitter), we’re evolving:

“Maybe the issue isn’t that we’re too distracted to read but that reading can finally catch up with how our brains really work.”

Richtel, to his credit, focuses at the end of his piece on a distracted student who can, indeed, focus — not on the books he’s assigned but on the video he’s making. Maybe that’s because he’s creating. Maybe it’s because he’s working with tools that give him feedback. Maybe it’s because he is communicating with an audience.

I spend time on this in my book (when I can concentrate on writing it — that is, when I’m not blogging and tweeting as I am right now): Technology brings change; change brings fear and retrenchment. Gutenberg scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein reminds us that for 50 years after the invention of the press, we continued to put old wine in this new cask, replicating scribal fonts, content, and models. That’s what’s happening now: We are trying to fit our old world into the new one that is emerging. We’re assuming the old way is the right way.

Mind you, one of the joys of writing this book is that I’ve had cause to start reading books again. I’ll confess I’d fallen off the shelf.

Now I’m enjoying reading books as part of the process of creating, sharing, communicating. I’m learning not just by reading and absorbing but by rethinking and remixing. And I’m thinking the result of my next project may not be a book but something else, or that a book may be a byproduct rather than the goal.

So is this new generation distracted or advanced? How can they best learn? How can they teach? What tools can we use today besides books? What new opportunities do all their tools present? That’s what educators should be asking. That’s the discussion I’d like to see The Times start.

: @SivaVaid(hyanathan) just said on Twitter: “There are no wires in the human mind. So it can’t be ‘rewired’ Get a grip.” Right. What can be rewired are media and education and that’s what we’re seeing happen — or what we should be seeing happen.

November 13 2010

20:05

The kids are all right

Yesterday, I held a session on privacy and publicness as part of a news literacy event held at Baruch’s journalism school, intending to exploit these young people by interviewing them — rather than lecturing them — for my book on publicness and privacy. I came away greatly heartened about the wisdom and savvy of the NYC teens I heard from there.

I started the day, though, depressed as GMA weekend anchor Ron Claiborne delivered a propagandistic defense of all things professional, closed, and corporate in journalism and an attack on this internet thing. “When was the last time you saw a correction on a blog?” he demanded. I muttered, “fuck me,” and then had to remind myself of the company I was in. So I muttered on Twitter that I’ve seen countless corrections on blogs since I last saw one on network news. Claiborne was telling the internet to get off these kids’ lawns. I got grumpy. My mood didn’t improve when nobody showed up for my first of two sessions. “Well,” I joked with fellow faculty, “they say kids today don’t care about privacy today. I guess this is the proof.”

But in my second session, the room filled with three or four dozen young people (and a few teachers) and I began interviewing them. Boy, was I impressed. Random notes….

No one in the room uses MySpace. They scrunch their collective noses at the name. Not so very long ago, MySpace was said to be the service for young people, particularly urban young people. Well, no more. Rupert’s Folly has fallen off a cliff. It’s clear this is why he’s giving it two quarters to climb back up or he’s setting it adrift.

Almost none of them uses Twitter. They say it lacks context; it is too fast and fleeting; and they don’t care about much of what they read there (which makes sense when your friends aren’t there). When I tweeted that, the NYTimes’ @zimbalist asked why. I think it’s because they’re not publishers (yet). They’re connecting. Whether this is a matter of the the age or their age, I have no way to know; we’ll have to wait to see the impact on Twitter when they grow older.

But I’ve seen this elsewhere. This summer, as my son and I drove up to Facebook’s headquarters to interview Mark Zuckerberg for the book, Jake said he thought Facebook had invented something entirely new in the Wall. Its inventor disagreed; Mark said people always have, in his word, signalled. But I side with Jake. On his Wall (when I’m permitted in) I see him and his friends holding conversations there, in the open, as if in the hall at school. They use the Wall as a place to communicate. I see the Wall — as I think others my age do — as a place to publish or broadcast; we instinctively see it as media. So Twitter fits our reflex; Facebook theirs. But I think the young people are making use of the internet that is truer to its nature: It is not a medium but is a connector.

All the students post photos to Facebook; many post videos there; a few had posted videos to YouTube — interesting that so few do, because some of them come from a school for the performing arts. One young woman says she was going to take down her account because her videos are dumb and pointless, in her view: just her talking. One young man had just put up some impressions and he enjoys the idea of having a public there. Will we see more of that; is it their ambition to make media and audiences? Again, time will tell. I’ll bet we will as they find their public voices.

Every student in the room uses Facebook. They confess to being on it for hours at a time — three or more a day. My son’s was in the first class able to use Facebook in high school four-plus years ago. I thought it might seep down to middle school. So far, not so much. These students say they started using it in high school. I’ll confess relief. I found it fascinating that a few of the students with younger siblings were quite protective of them and did not approve of a 9-year-old using Twitter.

To a young man and woman, the people in this room confirm what I’ve learned from danah boyd: that young people do care about their privacy; that they do protect it; but also that they have to learn this. As danah says — countering Murdoch, btw — young people are not “digital natives” who are born with TOS in their DNA.

These students are very aware that what they tell a few friends on Facebook could end up anywhere, seen also by people they do not know. They post with that fully in mind. Backing up what danah says, many of them seemed to have been burned once and taught the lesson. The biggest challenge to privacy, then, is not so much Facebook or the internet but blabby, gossipy friends. Ever thus.

They are also aware that their are parents and other adults watching. Even if your parents aren’t your “friends” someone else’s may see what you write on their Wall. So they’re careful. Nonetheless they decry classmates doing stupid things (though they also know that folks often exaggerate on Facebook). Like what? Like showing themselves drinking. What could come of this? They could get caught.

Or there’s the college admissions problem. For these kids — bright, active, and mostly college-bound — that’s an issue. I ask whether they think that college admissions officers — and later, employers — should not be allowed to look at their Facebook presences. Surprisingly, none of them seem to object as a matter of principle and right. To them, it seems to make sense to check someone out online.

Almost all these students have changed their privacy settings, restricting their Walls, photos, birthdays, or contact information — even though, again, they know that anything could be repeated. They seem very much in control and like that control. They have other means of control as well: I ask whether they speak in code that they understand and parents don’t; they all laughed and nodded.

Is there, as media would lead us to believe, a sudden explosion of bullying? No, they tell me, there’ve always been bullies; it’s probably just easier to see them now. A teacher complained that fights get bigger crowds because students tweet the location and a mob gathers. “It doesn’t go down like that,” one of her students tells her. “There’s no texting.” Crowds gather the way they always have.

These students are not slavish fans of Facebook. One student argues that Facebook dilutes friendship; he says he doesn’t use it to communicate with his close (real) friends. Another says she unfriends people with some regularity because in reality friendships do change. A few others say they did discover new friends through Facebook. They all expect to use Facebook to stay in touch after they graduate. The point, says one: “Different people have different reasons to be on Facebook.” Some use it to connect with others; some use it just for fun. Which are you? I ask him. A bit of both, he says.

November 02 2010

12:23

Germany, what have you done?

Street View is online in Germany and it includes — or rather, excludes — 244,000 addresses that Germans have demanded be pixelated. They have, in their word, demanded their Verpixelungsrecht.

It is more offensive than I had imagined, a desecration of the public demanded and abetted by German politicians and media on a supposed privacy frenzy.

See this building on Hugo-von-Königsegg-Straße in Oberstaufen, Germany.

Screen shot 2010-11-02 at 8.03.01 AM

Ugly, isn’t it? As someone in the audience said when I spoke on the topic at a meeting of the Green party in Berlin a few weeks ago, it is as if they are digitally bombing the German landscape.

Now you can drive to Oberstaufen and stand across the street — between the Edele bookstore and Dr. Fassnacht’s building — and look at the building all you want because you would be exercising your right to be in public. But not online, not in the land of Deutschnet, you can’t. Germany has now diminished the public. It has stolen from the public.

This is not a matter of privacy. And don’t tell me it has a damned thing to do with the Nazis and Stasi; that’s patently absurd. If anything, the Stasi would have exercised their Verpixelungsrecht to obscure their buildings from public view, taking advantage of the cloak of secrecy the idea provides. That’s the danger of this.

This is an issue of publicness. These are public visions now obscured. This is why I am writing a book about protecting the public, from assaults such as this. I can’t write it fast enough.

MORE: Here’s Der Spiegel (in German) under the headline: So Google pixelates the Republic. Don’t blame Google, folks, blame yourselves. It notes that the mayor of Oberstaufen, however, welcomed Street View. With a cake.

October 31 2010

01:15

To rally, perchance to dream

I had many reactions to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity — all good. These thoughts were stored up like nuts in a squirrel’s cheeks during the rally as AT&T couldn’t cope with so much sanity, and so I tweeted them in a flurry afterwards and will expand on them here.

Rally for sanity

Stewart’s close was pitch-perfect, presenting optimism, perspective, honesty, and humor in exact proportion.

He brilliantly separated himself from media, politics, and government, setting him closer to us, the people. In other circumstances, that might sound like a populist’s positioning: Stewart as Evita (don’t laugh for me, New Jersey). But that’s why the apolitical nature of the event matters: He wasn’t selling an agenda or buying power. He was leading and inspiring. He was recognizing and supporting the best in us.

Stewart was raising a standard for how our alleged leaders should respect us so we could respect them in return. “Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false,” he said. Stewart was doing nothing less than resetting the relationship of the powerful to the public. He was re-empowering us. His speech and his event were profoundly democratic. Not Democratic or Democrat—democratic.

Media took most of his barbs and for good reason. I must confess that I came away feeling a bit ashamed to be a member of the media and journalism tribe (even as I played hooky from the Online News Association’s annual and newly exuberant confab uptown). Stewart and Colbert rightfully castigated us. Oh, yes, they aimed mostly at cable news. “The country’s 24-hour political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems but its existence makes solving them that much harder,” Stewart said.

But the rest of us in the news business are not blameless. We, too, monetize fright. We are evil coaches on grade school playgrounds, making sides and then pitting them against each other. When we in the press included TV and cable news people in our journalistic club and rejected bloggers and citizens, we legitimized them. When we don’t repudiate their ways, we excuse them. Shame on all of us.

The coverage of the rally I’ve seen so far tends toward the dismissive, as does its play on the home pages of The New York Times and Washington Post. “Nonpartisan bits, musical entertainment and gentle ribbing of the purported enemies of incivility,” is the Post’s view of it. Cute. Unimportant. A trifle. Pay no heed to its criticism of us; it’s just a joke, after all. Ex-Postie Howie Kurtz was surprised at the size of the event. He underestimated. I didn’t. He called it “shtick” and “weak” at that. His was an entertainment review. That’s how The Times saw it, as “part circus, part satire, part holiday parade.” You know how those kids love a parade with clowns, yet.

Well, judged as entertainment, Kurtz isn’t entirely wrong. Except it wasn’t entertainment. The event used entertainment to be something else, to make a different point. At least The Times’ wunderkind, Brian Stelter, got a blogging chance to call it was it was: media criticism. But sadly, the media don’t even realize they were being criticized, not really.

There was so much about the day that was so encouraging.

It was indeed wonderful and hopeful to hear Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe sing Peace Train. On Twitter, @msbellows said its humor advanced the cause of Muslim moderation 20 years.

It was equally wonderful to hear Stewart thank the un-tolled masses for massing. “Sanity,” he said, “will always be and has always been in the eye of the beholder. To see you here today and the kind of people that you are has restored mine. Thank you.” On Twitter, I observed that these people came not for a show but for (a) reason. (Stelter, by the way, agreed.)

I was most heartened — overjoyed, really — by the fact that I shared this day with so many people my own age and just as many my son’s age. I was lucky that he happened to have taken the weekend away from college and could come with me, along with a high-school friend of his. I was crammed in in front of them. To my left were more young people. To my right and ahead were people my age who understood what a big deal it was for Cat Stevens/Yusef/Joseph/Joe to return to a musical stage — and share it was Ozzy friggin’ Osborne (which made it worth the frustration of hearing Peace Train interrupted after all these years).

My son’s friend, Ben, said he’d never been to a rally before. Emily Bell tweeted that she used the opportunity to introduce her newly arrived sons to the idea of rallies and had some trouble explaining to her 6-year-old the reason for them.

No, this wasn’t their Woodstock 2.0. It was just a rally. In my youth, in our fabled ’60s, we had them all the time because we had cause and because we believed we could — must — change government and society. That was change we could believe in. Now Stewart has given us reason again to come together, to set new standards, to expect real change, to celebrate democracy (not government), to communicate (around media) — in short, and in every sense of the word, to rally.

Rally for Sanity

: Oh, and I almost forgot: I was also delighted to see NPR and other haughty temples of journalism get shit from Stephen Colbert for forbidding their employees unless assigned from attending the rally. As son Jake said afterwards, it was an insult to the people at that rally. What, do we have cooties on us? Damn it, every one of the journalists on those staffs could have learned a great deal today. But they weren’t allowed to. Because that’s not officially journalistic. Well, once again, Jon Stewart proved to be closer to the public than the journalists charged with serving them. That’s why we trust him and not you, media people. He’s not afraid to get a little of us on him.

October 23 2010

16:23

Big Brother’s Big Brother

Here are paragraphs about Wikileaks I just inserted into the chapter of Public Parts that I happen to be writing right now about government. Very much beta. Take a look:

* * *

Wikileaks has pushed the definition and question of transparency to its limit and beyond, releasing hundreds of thousands of leaked documents about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through media organizations including the Guardian, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, Le Monde, and OWNI, a French site devoted to digital journalism that built a crowdsourcing tool so readers could cull through the docs to find important bits. The U.S. government screeched indignantly about the leaks, calling them illegal and dangerous. But then, the leaks revealed government actions that are or should be illegal. Who holds the higher ground?

The media organizations Wikileaks worked through said they redacted names and published only documents that would not endanger individuals. So they decided, in the end, what would be secret. Whom do we trust more to make that declaration: government, the leaker, Wikileaks, or the press? And does it much matter now that any whistleblower has the power to leak information anonymously via computers that run in countries beyond the arm of the law from other countries? Wikileaks’ Twitter profile lists its location as “everywhere.” Now nothing, not even war, can be carried out in assured secrecy.

The only solution to leaks is then not more secrecy but more transparency. If we trusted government to determine what needed to be secret—if its default were public and it had nothing else to hide but things that would be harmful if public—then leaks would be a clear violation of our norms and of the common good.

One way or another—by force of through sanity—we are at the dawn of the transparent age. But it’s not going to be a pretty or easy transition. For the first facts to be dragged into the sunlight will be the ugly ones that somebody thinks need to be exposed. Only when and if government realizes that its best defense is openness will we see transparency as a good in itself and not just a weapon to expose the bad. Only when governments realize that their citizens can now watch them—better than they can watch their citizens, we hope—will we see transparency bring deterrence to bad actors and bad acts. Then we become Big Brother’s Big Brother. Or we can hope.

12:35

A taxonomy of transparency

I’m writing the section of Public Parts on truly public government — transparency leading to collaboration. I am trying to come up with a simple taxonomy of transparency, a list of what should be open by default. Help me with my definition and list of buckets:

* * *

The first step to public government is transparency. My definition: opening up the information and the actions of government at every level by default in a way that enables any citizen to take, analyze, and use that data, extracting or adding value to it and overseeing the actions of those who act in our name, with our money. That data should include:
• Our laws and regulations—as they are being considered and after they are enacted, showing who did what to each along the way.
• Government budgets and spending, including information on who is paid.
• Government’s actions. I want to see crimes, complaints, actions, conferences and other events, even useful correspondence.
• Government information of every sort. The New Republic says making weather data public “produces more than $800 million in economic value.” Global positioning data enabled the creation of now-indispensible smart phones and navigation systems. Agricultural data saves and makes money on farms. If the government knows it, we should know it.
In What Would Google Do? I joked—well, half-joked—that the Freedom of Information Act should be repealed and turned inside out so that we no longer have to ask government to open up our information; government must ask our permission to keep it from us—especially now that technology gives us the tools to make use of it. There are a legitimate reasons not to release data: because it reveals personally identifiable information about citizens (e.g., your tax bill—though, again, that’s published in Scandinavia) or it compromises security or criminal investigations. Other than that, our information is ours and so we need access to it. In our developing information economy, this data has real and growing value. So cough it up.

* * *

Of course, the discussion is all the more timely thanks to Wikileaks’ latest deluge of once-secret data. The further question is how anything can be held in secret and what the appropriate line is for secrets. In the midst of the last Wikileaks disclosure, I suggested that the only cure for leaks is transparency: when the public trusts that a secret is secret for good reason, then revealing it is more clearly a violation of norms and the common good. But when most government actions and information are held from us, then exposing them is more just but will bring the collateral damage of also exposing things that should properly be held in secret. Whom do we trust with that judgment? The government? Wikileaks? The Guardian and Times? That’s what is being wrestled down right now.

In any case, I’d appreciate any help with the organization of thinking around what’s properly public and not. Thanks.

October 16 2010

22:52

Books as makers of publics

Here’s my talk to the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference in Frankfurt before the Book Fair there, in which I argue that books are tools for making publics and now that we all have presses publishers must ask how they can play a role in helping us make publics — and how they can protect our tools of publicness.

I’m having trouble setting the width of the player, so go to the “more” link and you can watch the videos.

September 28 2010

16:30

The antisocial movie

There’s no “why” there. That’s the problem with The Social Network. It neither explains nor even ascribes motives to Mark Zuckerberg—no vision, no strategy, no goals.

The movie quickly admits that money doesn’t matter to Zuckerberg. So why did he build Facebook? The Social Network offers no answer, except perhaps that an outsider wanted in, but that doesn’t begin to explain what he has accomplished and why; that’s nothing but simplistic prime-time plotting. The script says nothing about him wanting to connect the world or bring communities elegant organization. It doesn’t care. For this is a movie about tactics, not strategy, about people doing hard things to each other. Elsewhere, that’s just called business.

The movie violates privacy, smears reputations, makes shit up—just what the internet is accused of doing, right? Oh, it’s entertaining, in a dark way, as much as watching the pillorying of witches used to be, I suppose. For The Social Network, geeks and entrepreneurs are as mysterious and frightening as witches. Its writer, Aaron Sorkin, admits as much in New York Magazine. “He says unapologetically that he knows almost nothing about the 2010 iteration of Facebook, adding that his interest in computer-aided communication goes only as far as emailing his friends.” Sorkin himself says, “I don’t want my fidelity to be to the truth; I want it to be to storytelling.” Making shit up.

New York’s Mark Harris knows, in an aside at least, what this movie is really about. “The Social Network can be seen as a well-aimed spitball thrown at new media by old media.” Except it’s not really old media that’s spitting but neonew media. Sorkin is a member of the Young Curmudgeons’ Guild, joining Gladwell, Carr, Anderson, Rowan, Morozov, and Lanier. Old media resists change. These guys want to deny the internet credit for it.

The Social Network understands obnoxious old-money (the cartoon-colored, Zuckerberg-suing Winklevoss twins), obnoxious new-money (Sean Parker, though David Kirkpatrick says in Vanity Fair that he is “both more complex and more interesting”), and the pretentious intellectual (a fantasy of Harvard’s then-President, Larry Summers). And it thinks it understands victims (Facebook cofounder and former Zuckerberg friend Eduardo Saverin). I met Saverin once, in a panel put on by an ad network, which Saverin patronized on Facebook’s behalf and which served just the kinds of tacky ads Zuckerberg didn’t want for his company because he knew the value of cool and he had a much bigger vision than Saverin had. That’s likely why Saverin had to go; whether The Social Network knows it or not, it makes that clear. It’s just business. And as for the Winklevii, they didn’t invent crap. Ideas, especially obvious ones, are worthless; every entrepreneur and geek knows that execution is everything. Zuckerberg’s fellow Harvard drop-out Bill Gates didn’t invent crap, either, but he did execute. That’s business.

The Social Network doesn’t understand entrepreneurs and geeks, or at least not the one here. So it turns him into an other. It makes him weird. It portrays Zuckerberg as—let’s be blunt—Aspergery: blinkless, humorless, heartless, incapable of being *cough* social or of having *cough* friends. I’ve met Zuckerberg four or five times, most lately interviewing him for Public Parts. I don’t know him. Maybe nobody does. But I can testify at least that he has charm. He does smile. He tells jokes. And he has a vision.

Zuckerberg understands the structure and motives of friendship even though The Social Network calls him friendless. In a flash during the deposition scenes that make up its narrative spine (perhaps because only lawyering could make coding look exciting), the movie gives us an anecdote—based on a true story, as it turns out—about the Harvard art class Zuckerberg didn’t attend in his sophomore year as he was inventing Facebook. Here is Zuckerberg telling the story in 2007: He posted to a web page the images of the art he should have studied, sent an email to his classmates offering a “study guide,” and watched as they distilled the essence of each piece. The punchline: Not only did Zuckerberg ace the final but the prof said the class as a whole did better than usual. I saw that as a perfect tale of social collaboration, a lesson in wikithink. The Social Network called it cheating. And right there lies the movie’s disconnect—not between Zuckerberg and friendship but between the movie and the new world it can’t comprehend but pretends to portray.

The Social Network is the anti-social movie. It distrusts and makes no effort to understand the phenomenon right in front of its nose. It disapproves—as media people, old and neonew, do—of rabblerous (or drunk or drugged-up or oversexed) masses doing what they do. Ah, but its fans will say, it’s really just a drama about a man. But that’s where it fails most. It can’t begin to explain this man because it doesn’t grok what he made—what he’s still making (“We don’t even know what it is yet,” Zuckerberg says in the movie, “It’s never finished”).

The Social Network is the anti-geek movie. It is the story that those who resist the change society is undergoing want to see. It says the internet is not a revolution but only the creation of a few odd, machine-men, the boys we didn’t like in college. The Social Network is the revenge on the revenge of the nerds.

I know my risk here. I’m putting myself again in the position of defending the internet, just as David Kirkpatrick is making himself Facebook’s apologist. Maybe we’re both hypnotized by the Zuckerberg charisma Sorkin cannot see. Maybe we’ve been hanging out with business people so long we cannot see the Greek tragedy in it. Maybe. Though if all you want is a tale of hard-nosed business leading to human drama among geeks, you could film the story of Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, or—coming soon to a theater near you—Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

In Zuckerberg and Facebook—and the internet—I see a far bigger and better story than the one Sorkin delivers. As research for Public Parts, I happen to be reading the wonderful book, The Gutenberg Revolution, by John Man, which digs through scant records to try to understand what drove the man who used technology to disrupt an old world and enable people to create a new one. Gutenberg was a technologist, secretive and controlling. He was a businessman (one of the early capitalists who created one of the early industries, really). He drove tough bargains. He was competitive. He was accused by the Dutch of stealing someone else’s idea. Oh, and he apparently broke up badly with at least one woman, Man says. In the hand of a Sorkin scribe of the day, I imagine Gutenberg would only be a weirdo: We don’t trust what he’s doing to our world, we don’t understand it, so we don’t like him.

You’re going to see The Social Network. You should. It’s well-crafted. But as you watch, I urge you to look at what it says not just about Mark Zuckerberg but about us, us geeks. I look forward to the discussion.

September 26 2010

15:48

The benefits of publicness

I’m reworking an early but foundational section of my book, Public Parts, arguing the benefits of publicness, a list I presented at the PII conference in Seattle a few weeks ago. I’d like to bounce my thoughts off you and ask for your views of the value you get from being public, the value that also accrues to groups, companies, government, and society as a whole. I won’t go into great detail in this list because I’m eager to hear your thoughts. Here’s my opening bid:

* Publicness makes and improves relationships. To make connections with people, you need to be open and share. When you decide not to be public, you risk losing that connection.

* Publicness enables collaboration. That’s the beta lesson: When you open up your process, you invite people to help you improve what you’re doing. It is also, of course, the lesson of open-source.

* Publicness builds trust. Secrecy doesn’t.

* Publicness kills the myth of perfection. That is, when we open our process, we are showing our faults and are no longer held at every moment to the myth of perfection that has come to rule our industrial-age processes.

* Publicness disarms taboos. Publicness was the daring weapon gays and lesbians used to tear down their closets. I’m not saying that people should be forced out of their closets; that is their choice. But I am saying that when they do, it faces down the bigots who made homosexuality a taboo; it disarms them.

* Publicness grants immortality. (Note to Andrew Keen: That’s a joke.) Publicness at least grants credit and provides provenance for ideas and creation.

* Publicness enables the wisdom of the crowd. If we all keep our information, knowledge, ideas, and lessons to ourselves, we lose collectively.

* Publicness organizes us. Cue Clay Shirky. Speaking and assembling go hand-in-hand as rights. When we stand up and say who we are, we can find others like us and do things together.

* Publicness protects. This will be controversial but the knowledge that one’s actions could be public have an impact. That’s why I’m not against cameras on Times Square to thwart the next bomber.

* Publicness is value. This is an argument I’ll make that what’s public is owned by the public — whether that’s governments’ actions or images taken in public space — and whenever that is diminished, it robs from us, the public.

Mind you, this is not the chapter about privacy. I am addressing the value — and, a greater challenge, the definition — of privacy elsewhere.

Here I’m interested in hearing why you are public when you are and what you get out of it. I’d like to hear what else you would like people, companies, and governments to make public and how that would bring benefit.

Thanks.

September 22 2010

13:07

Wrong battlefield

It’s kinda touching that Rupert Murdoch’s loyal lieutenants are trying to entertain the boss by starting an old-fashioned newspaper war (old-fashioned modifies newspaper). But it’s also ever-more revealing of their worldview.

And of course, the best way to declare a war is to declare it over and claim victory. “Nationally, there’s no contest now,” Robert Thompson, editor of the Wall Street Journal, said, according to the AP, “We’re more than twice as big as The New York Times. They’re not a serious competitor.” The AP goes on to tell us that the “Journal sold an average of about 2 million copies nationwide on weekends compared with the Times’ 900,000.”

OK, but that’s half the story. It’s more like 10 percent of the story. For now shift to the future, the web, and comScore tells us that in July, The Times reached 43.6 million people online vs. the Journal’s 16.1 million. By the time you add in pass-around readers for the paper and de-dupe the same readers for print and online, those numbers might change, but the moral to the story doesn’t.

The New York Times has roughly two and a half times more readers than the Journal. That translates to two and a half times more influence, two and a half times more relationships, a two-and-a-half-time bigger brand.

Murdoch has been willing to lose tens of millions of dollars on his New York Post for one reason: he wants a “bully pulpit” (his words.) He has certainly turned FoxNews into just that. So its kind of sad, if you’re feeling empathetic, that his Journal is losing so to The Times. That’s why Thompson doth protest too much.

That is the price of the pay wall. It may be a price worth paying. The New York Times is, of course, piling up bricks for its wall now. But off in the open field, no bricks in sight, stands Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger with 37 million readers online wondering whether he could soon run the largest newspaper site in the world.

Now I argue these days that brands are no longer magnets; they become labels when you find content through search, algorithms, and peers’ links. Murdoch cut off the algorithms when he pulled his Times of London out of Google News just as he put it behind the wall. That was not a business decision but an emotional but. But I’m even willing to stipulate that his pay wall could work — work in the sense that he gets satisfactory revenue (whatever the definition of that is) from readers rather than from advertisers.

But the real price is growth. It won’t grow. I see that not as victory in the war for the biggest bully pulpit — for the bragging rights to talking to more people. I see that as surrender.

September 16 2010

01:59

The real Facebook burglaries story

I did a little reporting to get the real story behind the reports of a Facebook burglary spree that supposedly used the service — right after its launch of Places — to find victims who were away on vacation. I emailed Nashua, NH detective Dan Archambault, who told me that only two of the cases involved Facebook and in each case, “one or two of the suspects were Facebook friends with the respective homeowners. They basically had access to the walls and could read that the families were away on vacation. The information was only available to friends and the Facebook Places feature was NOT a part of this. And finally my advice to Facebook users is carefully pick your friends and watch what you post.”

And my advice is don’t believe everything you read. So this was not a case of a criminal using Facebook to find any old random victim. The implication of the coverage is that we were all — all 500 million of us — at risk for being so foolish to make ourselves public on Facebook and make ourselves vulnerable to every criminal out there. No, it’s foolish to make the wrong friends. Always has been. Still is.

I also contacted Facebook, and a PR person there sent back suggestions for how to wisely use the service: “I would recommend creating friend lists to separate people you really trust from others. Then, use the publisher privacy control to
send status updates to appropriate groups (and only them). I actually think it may make sense to tell people you really trust that you are gone through Facebook just as you would in person. Then, they can watch your place for you, feed your cat, etc… As for everyone else, if you wouldn’t tell them in person you were leaving town, you probably shouldn’t use Facebook to tell them. As always, we also recommend people only accept friend requests from others they actually know.”

All sensible.

If only things were so simple for Google, where, according to Gawker, an engineer used his high-level access to the company’s data bases to stalk teenagers. Google fired him. But the damage is done. We spoke about the case on today’s This Week in Google and as Leo Laporte and Gina Trapani said, to keep systems running, someone will always have access to data. Of course, that someone should be trusted. But as this case reveals, you never know whom to trust. So the company must come up with systems to assure trust. Should there be teams that must operate together in failsafe mode to get access to data? You tell me what would work.

The bottom line for both companies is that trust is essential and cases such as these can ruin trust and eventually ruin companies if we cannot depend on them. In the first case, media blew up a story for effect. In the second case, a dangerous vulnerability is revealed.

September 15 2010

14:08

Germany’s N word

Various German commenters in my prior post about my talk in Berlin are taking me to task because I dared hark back to World War II in a discussion of government-required identity cards and how that enables the state to monitor the people — and a discussion of the value of publicness and how that enables the people to monitor the state.

“I really don’t think it it necessary to pull the ‘Nazi-card,’” said one. “Please don’t even in an article about Google make strange references to the Nazi history…” said another. “Can we please let the nazis peacefully burn in hell? K thx,” asks one more. “It’s always the krauts, blitzkrieg and all that,” complains the last.

So apparently Germans are allowed to say Nazi. I’m not.

Let’s examine that. In Friday’s discussion in Berlin, it was the German politicians who alluded to World War II and East German oppression. Thilo Weichert, the privacy commissioner, raised the allusion in his opening remarks: “Of course, we have a Nazi history in Germany and we have the DDR history, which makes clear to us how information can bring oppression.” A reporter in the crowd asked whether in decades we’d believe that “pixelated buildings were taken away from historians and the public, so Germany would look worse than after the war.” Renate Künast, the Green leader in the Budestag, huffed in reply that “the reconstruction of the pixelated buildings is much easier than what the Trümmerfrau [women who cleaned up rubble] did after the war.”

As I said in my post, every time I talk about privacy in Germany, I am reminded by Germans that I must consider the context of the Nazi and Stasi past. It is in this very context that I raise the spectre of police stopping citizens on the street to demand identification for reasons that cannot always be predicted and protected against. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the idea that what’s public is a public good that can nonetheless be destroyed by government’s actions. It has happened before. It is in this context that I raise the warning that the people should not give anyone, especially government, the right to hide in public by forbidding us to picture what happens there. It has happened before. And it is in this context that I pointed to what I confessed was the too-obvious — but very, ahem, concrete — metaphor of a bunker just at the corner as a warning of a society that closes inward in defensiveness. It has happened before. But apparently, I’m not allowed to say that. Only Germans are.

(And note well that in my book, I will also spend considerable time talking about another part of German history, Gutenberg’s, and the transition from one way of cognating and expressing the world. Because it has happened before.)

More context: I’m a friend of Germany. I love the place. I married into a German family. I am fascinated by the people. I go there as often as I can find an excuse. I am grateful that my career and the internet have enabled me to make friends and have colleagues there. I hold the nation and its accomplishments in high esteem while I learn lessons from its past. I have studied the nation’s history with shelves of book at home on the subject. I have studied the language but to little avail and I apologize for that every time I am in Germany.

I do not apologize for my affection for Germany. But I must tell you, my German friends, that many Americans expect me to. I get funny looks when it comes out that I took German in school and I am asked why I would do that. People ask about my politics as a result. I know Americans, still, who won’t buy products made in Germany. I defend Germany to them. And part of that defense is to tell them how much the Germans talk about their past and consider it. Tucked all over Berlin are memorials to the victims of that past. At the Topography of Terror exhibit in the remains of the basement of the Gestapo headquarters, the list of those memorials — a plaque of plaques — is amazingly and tragically long.

But in the discussion here, it is as if my critics are saying, “We talk about our past and that is enough. So you shouldn’t.” Or worse, they are saying we should not talk about the past. It is as if they are saying that for me, Nazi is the N word.

But as someone from a nation of oppressors myself, I think we need to examine the etymology and ownership of words of oppression. Here, the American N word was a tool of oppression whose ownership was taken over by its oppressed. As a white American, I may not use it and that is as it should be.

But in Germany, I am hearing that Nazi is a word Germans may use but not others. Sorry, but the word no longer belongs to Germany; in Germany’s hands, it was a tool of oppression. So now it belongs to its victims, to the rest of the world.

If that word is used only as an insult — see: Godwin’s Law — then it is being misused. But that was not the case in the present discussion. Here, all of us — the German government officials and I — were trying to find context in history for changes in our world brought on by digital identity and its impact on privacy and the tools of publicness and their impact on our power in society. That is a perfectly legitimate discussion. It should not be shut down, my German friends, because you don’t like hearing someone else use what you think is your N word.

My points about the past are serious indeed. Beware government using your identity as its tool against you. Beware the precedent of telling Google it may not picture what’s public as that enables those in power to stop the rest of us — the public — from picturing what is public. And beware bewaring too much, talking just about what could go wrong and missing the opportunities change brings because we keep looking back instead of forward.

September 14 2010

14:59

Oh, those Germans

I was gobsmacked sitting on a stage in Berlin when the privacy commissioner for a German state erupted in an attack on Google—which, by the way, has the highest market penetration in Germany of anywhere in the world (97.4% there vs. 65.4% in the U.S.).

“As long as Germans are stupid enough to use this search engine,” he spat, “they don’t deserve any better.”

This from Thilo Weichert, privacy maven for Schleswig-Holstein, brought to the stage, with me, by the Green Party for a discussion about privacy last week, where we were joined by Renate Künast, head of the party’s delegation in parliament, and Konstantin von Notz, their MP overseeing matters digital.

Before I went to Berlin I asked why the Germans are so bonkers about Google and privacy. But now I wonder whether it’s the Germans or their media and politicians.

Witness that moment: Here a public official charged with representing and protecting the public so cavalierly—no, so hostilely—dismisses and insults his own constituents and thinks he should tell them what to do. I ask him what harm Google has done him. He has no answer. He complains that “Google uses information to manipulate me.” Any more than any marketer … or politician?

Weichert also stood on stage supporting the German government’s move to require digital ID cards with embedded RFID. The Greens don’t agree; they are worried about the card. But Weichert goes farther: He says the ID cards should be used to verify identity on the internet. Now he’s spooking *me* about privacy.

As I listen in German, I hear the card called an “Ausweis” and I shiver just a bit that no one seems to recognize the ghost in the word. In America watching war movies, there was never a more frightening phrase than “Ausweis, bitte” — “papers, please” (see this from Arizona). When I talk about going too far with privacy, Germans remind me about their Stasi and Nazi past. Yet here is the government instituting electronic ID with technology that makes some American go nutty if it’s attached anonymously to pants!

This is the other German paradox — or as someone said at the Re:publica conference in Berlin after my talk about publicness, this is the American paradox: Americans mistrust government more than Europeans even though we have arguably had better governments than they have. And we trust companies more than Europeans even though we have arguably had worse companies.

I heard much mistrust of companies — well, especially one company: Google — in Berlin. “Google is the worst example of openness and transparency and the willingness to serve the democratic needs of society,” Weichert said on stage. He had what seems to be a legitimate complaint, saying that Google refused to meet with him an other privacy commissioners. But then again, a friend in the audience this night was twittering with a Google public affairs person in Germany who was watching the event on the web and was wondering why he hadn’t been invited to respond. Nonetheless, it’s unquestionably the case that Google has a PR problem in Germany.

You’d think Google would be better at PR given that Weichert insisted the company’s decision to end its censorship in China was “nothing but a PR trick.” He went farther, equating Google as an unsurveilled surveiller with China and Iran! “Google’s only interest is to earn money,” he said, as if shocked. That was a theme of the night: Google dares to make money. A Green journalist in the audience complained that Google uses data “to sell me.” I asked what newspaper doesn’t do that. Google, he said, “misuses my data to become too big.” Show me the line marked “too big,” I asked.

So is Google’s problem hostility to business or to America? Weichert denied both. But he complained that “no secret service is more secretive than the Americans’.” (I suspect the CIA would take that as a compliment.) He said the U.S. is focused too much on freedom of information and openness and not enough on privacy.

There may be nascent anti-Americanism but I don’t think that’s the root of this. Is it a misunderstanding of the
ways of the new digital world? Perhaps. Künast, whom I found to be a reasonable politician, launched into an odd discourse on taking pictures of the Bundestag and whether, if those pictures are sold in a souvenir shop online, a share of the profits ought to go to the German people and government since they own the building. Eh?

Maybe the problem is the concept of the public and the idea of control over the public. Künast is talking about controlling ownership and use of what is public. Weichert’s talking about limiting what’s public in public; he gets mad at me mocking the German movement toward a “Verpixelungsrecht” — a right to be pixelated, even for buildings! Weichert says we should all default to private and I ask whether we should default to public. I think that publicness is defined by openness and a lack of restriction. When you diminish what’s public you take from us, the public. For we own what’s public.

There’s additional historical irony having this conversation in Germany, where Jürgen Habermas is credited with defining the concept of the public sphere, though in my book I’ll argue that Habermas corrupted an earlier concept of making publics — plural. The internet returns us to the idea of making public gives us all the power to do so — and I don’t want to see that taken for granted or taken away.

So I argue that we need to protect our tool of publicness. That’s what we should be talking about. There, at last, there is some agreement: to the need to have a discussion about a charter of rights online. I propose mine, knowing it’s inadequate. Künast says government should begin by legislating essential rights.

Well, OK, but I said on stage that, with all due respect, I didn’t want either government or business claiming dominion over the public’s tool of publicness, our internet. I called on John Perry Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace. I don’t want Google and Verizon carving up the internet like the Sudetenland without us, its citizens, at that table. I sure as hell don’t want Herr Weichert telling me how I should use his internet. I implore the crowd to take charge of this charter themselves.

If they don’t, if the internet gets locked down and cemented up, I fear it will look like this bunker that — oh, photographic irony — stands just outside the Heinrich Böll Foundation where we are speaking:

That’s a World War II bunker now owned by a millionnaire who built a penthouse on top and put an art gallery into the floors below behind doors that are opened for guided tours by appointment. The metaphor is too obvious even for an American.

What gives me some hope is that folks in the audience — digital folks — are fighting the good fight and they’re doing it with humor. Jens Best started a movement to shoot photos of all the pixelated buildings in Google Street View and link them to those addresses. And here’s a video (watch to the end) about the pixelated man:

At the start of the evening, Künast says that “freedom can comprise anonymity.” Yes, but freedom also comprises publicness. Publicness may be our highest right of freedom — to stand up and say what we think and be who we are and join together and act without fear of oppression. Surely, that should resonate here. That is just the sort of balancing discussion we must have so people know they have a choice and protect that choice. We need to protect their right to be private. But we also must protect the rights of the public.

I challenge Künast — who, rumor has it, may next become the mayor of Berlin (she says nothing) — to make the city a model of openness, a monument to the public and I suggest that her party should call a conference to begin discussion of our rights. Just make it our discussion.

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