Google’s Gatekeepers

Sobering piece by Jay Jeffrey Rosen exploring the critical role that Google’s corporate gatekeepers play in deciding what can and cannot be shown to audiences.

“Right now, we’re trusting Google because it’s good, but of course, we run the risk that the day will come when Google goes bad,” [Timothy] Wu told me. In his view, that day might come when Google allowed its automated Web crawlers, or search bots, to be used for law-enforcement and national-security purposes. “Under pressure to fight terrorism or to pacify repressive governments, Google could track everything we’ve searched for, everything we’re writing on gmail, everything we’re writing on Google docs, to figure out who we are and what we do,” he said. “It would make the Internet a much scarier place for free expression.” The question of free speech online isn’t just about what a company like Google lets us read or see; it’s also about what it does with what we write, search and view.


Ed Felten adds this:

Rosen worries that too much power to decide what can be seen is being concentrated in the hands of one company. He acknowledges that Google has behaved reasonably so far, but he worries about what might happen in the future.

I understand his point, but it’s hard to see an alternative that would be better in practice. If Google, as the owner of YouTube, is not going to have this power, then the power will have to be given to somebody else. Any nominations? I don’t have any.

What we’re left with, then, is Google making the decisions. But this doesn’t mean all of us are out in the cold, without influence. As consumers of Google’s services, we have a certain amount of leverage. And this is not just hypothetical — Google’s “don’t be evil” reputation contributes greatly to the value of its brand. The moment people think Google is misbehaving is the moment they’ll consider taking their business elsewhere.

Randy Pausch RIP

From Good Morning Silicon Valley

Randy Pausch, the popular computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon whose appetite for life was only sharpened by a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer in September 2006, has died.

Pausch’s inspirational “Last Lecture” a year later, titled “Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” was posted to YouTube and became an unexpected sensation, viewed millions of times. It evolved into a best-selling book, and Pausch used his sudden celebrity to be an advocate for both cancer research and savoring life. Randy Pausch died this morning at his home. He was 47. In the “Last Lecture,” he said, “I mean I don’t know how to not have fun. I’m dying and I’m having fun. And I’m going to keep having fun every day I have left. Because there’s no other way to play it. You just have to decide if you’re a Tigger or an Eeyore. I think I’m clear where I stand on the great Tigger/Eeyore debate. Never lose the childlike wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us.”

The word on the street

In his Manitoba lecture, Mike Wesch mentioned a survey which suggested that 88% of the material on YouTube was original, not the copyrighted stuff the mainstream media (and Viacom) obsesses about. Here’s a great example of creative use of the platform. It’s the second of a series of four short movies about the creepier implications of Google Street View.

Thanks to Tony Hirst for spotting it.

Viacom ‘backs off’?

Well, maybe

Viacom has “backed off” from demands to divulge the viewing habits of every user who has ever watched a video on YouTube, the website has claimed.

Google had been ordered to provide personal details of millions of YouTube users to help Viacom prepare its case on alleged copyright infringement…

En passant, I think I heard Mike Wesch say in his Manitoba lecture that a suvery he and his students did found that 88% of the stuff on YouTube is original material — i.e. not copyright-infringing.

More on Viacom’s data-heist

Rory Cellan-Jones has an uneasy feeling.

The YouTube case seems to show that, despite those promises, we have no real control over our data once it is lodged on a corporate server. Every detail of my viewing activities over the years – the times I’ve watched videos in the office, the clips of colleagues making idiots of themselves, the unauthorised clip of goals from a Premier League game – is contained in those YouTube logs.

All to be handed over to Viacom’s lawyers on a few “over-the-shelf four-terabyte hard drives”, according to the New York judge who made the ruling. I may protest that I am a British citizen and that the judge has no business giving some foreign company a window on my world. No use – my data is in California, and it belongs to Google, not me.

The other troubling aspect about this case was that it was only the blogs that seemed to understand the significance of the ruling when it emerged on Wednesday night. Much of the mainstream media ignored it at first, seeming to regard it as a victory for Google, because the judge said the search firm didn’t have to reveal its source code.

“I’ve never worried too much about the threat to my privacy”, Rory continues.

I’m relaxed about appearing on CCTV, happy enough for my data to be used for marketing purposes, as long as I’ve ticked a box, and have never really cared that Google knows about every search I’ve done for the last 18 months. But suddenly I’m feeling a little less confident. How about you?

YouTube: why no porn?

One of the most intriguing things about YouTube is that it isn’t over-run by porn. I’ve often wondered why — after all, every other unmoderated publishing opportunity on the Net seems to have succumbed. This thoughtful piece in the NYT explains that YouTube’s founders shrewdly anticipated the danger and installed sophisticated filtering software that spots and refuses porn — with interesting effects.

By keeping obscenity in check, YouTube teems with video of near infinite variety, stuff that thrives when pornography, which is hard to contain once it takes root, has been banished. YouTube risked losing millions of viewers when it made rules against pornography. But it has gained radical variety, the kind that defines the most robust ecosystems. YouTube’s dizzying diversity, in fact, now makes online porn sites that purport to cater to a broad range of tastes look only obsessive and redundant…

Now Viacom knows where you are

This is truly — as Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center put it — one of those “I told you so” moments.

For every video on YouTube, the judge required Google to turn over to Viacom the login name of every user who had watched it, and the address of their computer, known as an I.P. or Internet protocol address.

Both companies have argued that I.P. addresses alone cannot be used to unmask the identities of individuals with certainty. But in many cases, technology experts and others have been able to link I.P. addresses to individuals using other records of their online activities.

The amount of data covered by the order is staggering, as it includes every video watched on YouTube since its founding in 2005. In April alone, 82 million people in the United States watched 4.1 billion clips there, according to comScore. Some experts say virtually every Internet user has visited YouTube.

Of course Viacom swears blind that the only people who will have access to this information are its lawyers (who are working on its $1 billion copyright infringement suit against Google). But it brings one up sharply against the implications of cloud computing.