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Friday, January 22, 2010

Internet Consolidation Can Be Good for Privacy

There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Google's recent acquisitions of Teracent (ad-personalization) and AdMob (mobile ads), as well as Apple's response, buying AdMob's rival Quattro Wireless. Jeff Chester, true To form, quickly fired off an angry letter to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, ranting about how the Google/AdMob deal would harm consumer privacy with the same vague fulminations as ever:

Google amasses a goldmine of data by tracking consumers' behavior as they use its search engine and other online services. Combining this information with information collected by AdMob would give Google a massive amount of consumer data to exploit for its benefit.

Yup, that's right, it's all part of Google's grand conspiracy to exploit (and eventually enslave) us all--and Apple is just a latecomer to this dastardly game. It's not as if that data about users' likely interests might, oh, I don't know... actually help make advertising more relevant--and thus increase advertising revenues for the mobile applications/websites that depend on advertising revenues to make their business models work. No, of course not! Greedy capitalist scum like Google and Apple don't care about anyone but themselves, and just want to extract every last drop of "surplus value" (as Marx taught us) from The Worker. (Never mind that in 4Q2009 Google generated $1.47 billion for website owners who use Google AdSense to sell ads on their sites--up 17% over 4Q2008--or that Apple has a strong incentive to maximize revenues for its iPhone app developers.) Internet users of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but all those "free" content and services thrown at your feet!

Continue reading Internet Consolidation Can Be Good for Privacy . . .

posted by Berin Szoka @ 10:19 AM | Advertising & Marketing, Appleplectics, Googlephobia, Privacy

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zittrain's Pessimistic Predictions and Problematic Prescriptions for the Net

Well, here we go again. Harvard's Jonathan Zittrain has penned another gloomy essay about how "freedom is at risk in the cloud" and the future of the Internet is in peril because nefarious digital schemers like Apple, Facebook, and Google are supposedly out to lock you into their services and take away your digital rights. And so, as I have done here many times before, I will offer a response arguing that Jonathan's cyber-Chicken Little-ism is largely unwarranted.

Zittrain's latest piece is entitled "Lost in the Cloud" and it appears in today's New York Times. It closely tracks the arguments he has set forth in his book The Future of the Internet-And How to Stop It, which I named the most important technology policy book of 2008, but not because I agreed with its central thesis. Zittrain's book and his new NYT essay are the ultimate exposition of Lessigite technological pessimism. I don't know what they put in the water up at the Berkman Center to make these guys so remarkably cranky and despondent about the future of of the Internet, but starting with Lawrence Lessig's Code in 1999 and running through to Zittrain's Future of the Internet we have been forced to endure endless Tales of the Coming Techno-Apocalypse from these guys. Back in the late 90s, Prof. Lessig warned us that AOL and some other companies would soon take over the new digital frontier since "Left to itself, cyberspace will become a perfect tool of control." Ah yes, how was it that we threw off the chains of our techno-oppressors and freed ourselves from that wicked walled garden hell? Oh yeah, we clicked our mouses and left! And that was pretty much the end of AOL's "perfect control" fantasies. [See my recent debate with Prof. Lessig over at Cato Unbound for more about this "illusion of perfect control," as I have labeled it.]

But Zittrain is the equivalent of the St. Peter upon which the Church of Lessigism has been built and, like any good disciple, he's still vociferously preaching to the unconverted and using fire and brimstone sermons to warn of our impending digital damnation. In fact, he's taken it to all new extremes. In Future of the Internet, Jonathan argues that we run the risk of seeing the glorious days of the generative, open Net and digital devices give way to more "sterile, tethered devices" and closed networks. The future that he hopes to "stop" is one in which Apple, TiVo, Facebook, and Google -- the central villains in his drama -- are supposedly ceded too much authority over our daily lives because of a combination of (a) their wicked ways and (b) our ignorant ones.

Continue reading Zittrain's Pessimistic Predictions and Problematic Prescriptions for the Net . . .

posted by Adam Thierer @ 8:52 AM | Advertising & Marketing, Books & Book Reviews, Capitalism, Googlephobia, Googlephobia, Innovation, Internet, Interoperability, Mass Media, Net Neutrality, Philosophy / Cyber-Libertarianism, Privacy, Search

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Friday, June 5, 2009

First Amendment Protection of Search Algorithms as Editorial Discretion

Cory Doctorow has called for a Wikipedia-style effort to build an open source, non-profit search engine. From his column in The Guardian:

What's more, the way that search engines determine the ranking and relevance of any given website has become more critical than the editorial berth at the New York Times combined with the chief spots at the major TV networks. Good search engine placement is make-or-break advertising. It's ideological mindshare. It's relevance...

It's a terrible idea to vest this much power with one company, even one as fun, user-centered and technologically excellent as Google. It's too much power for a handful of companies to wield.

The question of what we can and can't see when we go hunting for answers demands a transparent, participatory solution. There's no dictator benevolent enough to entrust with the power to determine our political, commercial, social and ideological agenda. This is one for The People.

Put that way, it's obvious: if search engines set the public agenda, they should be public.

He goes on to claim that "Google's algorithms are editorial decisions." For Doctorow, this is an outrage: "so much editorial power is better vested in big, transparent, public entities than a few giant private concerns."

I wish Doctorow well in his effort to crowdsource a Google-killer, but I'm more than a little skeptical that anyone would actually want to use his search engine of The People. My guess is that, like most things produced in the name of "The People" (Soviet toilet paper comes to mind), it will probably won't be much fun to use, and will likely chafe noticeably. (For the record, I love and regularly use Wikipedia; I just don't think that model is unlikely to produce a particularly useful search engine. As Doctorow himself has noted of Google, "they make incredibly awesome search tools.")

But I'm glad to see that Doctorow has conceded an important point of constitutional law: The First Amendment protects the editorial discretion of search engines, like all private companies, to decide what to content to communicate. For a newspaper, that means deciding which articles or editorials to run. For a library or bookstore, it means which books to carry. For search engines, it means how to write their search algorithims.

Continue reading First Amendment Protection of Search Algorithms as Editorial Discretion . . .

posted by Berin Szoka @ 8:23 AM | Advertising & Marketing, Free Speech, Googlephobia, Internet, Search

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Pepsi Challenge 2.0, Reputational Incentives & Genericide as a Check on Google's Brand Power

It seems (WSJ) Microsoft is facing much the same problem Pepsi faced in the 70s, when it created the famous Pepsi challenge (a blind taste test between Coke and Pepsi):

A stark sign of the challenge Yusuf Mehdi faces as a point man for Microsoft in the company's battle with Google comes from the company's own research into the habits of consumers online.

During regular "blind taste tests," in which Microsoft asks randomly-selected consumers to score the quality of results from various Internet search engines, the quality of Microsoft's search results have so improved that people can't tell the difference between Microsoft and Google search results, says Mr. Mehdi, senior vice president of Microsoft's online audience business group. But when Microsoft slaps the Google brand name on the results from Microsoft's own search engine during another portion of its tests, users invariably score them highest.

"Just by putting the name up, people think it's more relevant," he says.

... Microsoft still faces the problem of the strong association in consumers' minds between Google and Internet search. In theory, it's far easier for a consumer to switch Internet search engines than it is for them to switch other forms of software. But Mr. Mehdi-a veteran of the Web browser wars of the late 90s in which Microsoft managed to overtake the pioneer in the category, Netscape Communications-says in reality it's very hard to convince consumers to change their search behavior.

So, Microsoft faces an uphill battle. Happily for the Internet marketplace, it seems they're embracing the challenge cheerily by attempting to kill two birds with one stone: launching an innovative new semantic search engine capable of answering users' questions more directly while also creating a fresh new brand for what Microsoft acknowledges is a "confusing jumble of brand names for its search efforts." I, for one am looking forward to Microsoft's forthcoming search engine, dubbed "Kumo."

But I think there's a bigger lesson here: Google's most valuable asset is its brand.

Continue reading The Pepsi Challenge 2.0, Reputational Incentives & Genericide as a Check on Google's Brand Power . . .

posted by Berin Szoka @ 9:59 AM | Advertising & Marketing, Googlephobia, Privacy, Trademark

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