Opinion

The Great Debate

from Jack Shafer:

The truth is, you’ve never had the ‘right to be forgotten’

An illustration picture shows a Google logo with two one Euro coins

A recent ruling by Europe's top court has given its people a "right to be forgotten." Google and other search engines must now delete "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant, or excessive" information from search queries when a European individual requests it, even when the info is true. This isn't a classic case of censorship: the "offending" pages produced by newspapers and other websites will go untouched. Google and the other search engines just won't be allowed to link to them.

The court has largely left to the search engines how best to handle requests to decouple the names of petitioners from search results served, which has already produced major confusion, as well as a comically passive-aggressive response from Google, which has received more than 70,000 requests in the opening round, with 1,000 said to be arriving daily. (See this Washington Post editorial for a few examples of people who have succeeded in persuading Google to "delist" certain search results.)

How did a right to be forgotten become enshrined, even in a place as retrograde as Europe? If you've lived in a village or even a small town, you probably learned the hard way that privacy has never existed in the original state of nature. Everybody in a small town knows that you drink, how much you drink, and what brand, thanks to that rumor-mongering liquor-store clerk. They know where you sleep at night, who you sleep with, and whether your nights are restful or rambunctious because the local pharmacy tech gossips about your Ambien and Viagra prescriptions. The librarian knows what books you've checked out of the local library, the local merchants recall having rejected your overextended credit card, and they all swap this information like chattering birds on a wire.

That big, fat, distributed dossier can't be suppressed. Traditionally, the best way to escape small-town nosiness was to light out for the nearest city, where personal information couldn't be collected so cheaply and couldn't be shared as efficiently. It also helped, of course, that the city's million other inhabitants care not at all about you, and your neighbors barely know you exist. When you did get caught doing something embarrassing, the newspapers and court records might trap it in ink. Those who possess good memories might remember your indiscretion and blab about it. But retrieving all that information and maintaining it was too damned expensive. The only American institution that justified the cost of keeping close tabs on the personal lives of the human hordes was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, whose agents and hired clipping services followed thousands.

But the bliss of being an unknown cog in a big city turned out to be temporary glitch, remedied by technology. In the early 1970s, LexisNexis arrived to digitize news and court cases, driving down the cost of information retrieval and encouraging newspapers and other information sources to add their troves to the pile, which it resold at high prices. Not long after, credit bureaus commenced swallowing financial data about the public by the terabyte and regurgitating it for clients. The commercial Web, which arrived in the mid-1990s, drove the cost-curve of information retrieval down and also democratized it to the point that you can download human backstories by the millions -- many of them revealing -- after keystroking a few search terms into Google.

from Breakingviews:

Rob Cox: ITT’s ghost hangs over Silicon Valley

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

The number of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley familiar with the work of Harold Geneen would hardly fill a 140-character tweet. After all, Geneen wasn’t a technologist, the inventor of a new computing language or the founder of a seminal startup. He was the original M&A machine – the man whose deal-making 50 years ago turned ITT into a multibillion-dollar conglomerate.

As tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alibaba, Rakuten and Google mature and canvass the globe for businesses they can buy that are a few steps removed from their core activities, Geneen’s story is becoming more relevant. These titans of the internet age are embarking on diversification strategies not entirely dissimilar from those of Geneen’s ITT and its many followers, including LTV, Transamerica and Gulf+Western.

Theodore Roosevelt on net neutrality

tr & crowd

“Above all else,” President Theodore Roosevelt admonished Congress in 1905, “we must strive to keep the highways of commerce open to all on equal terms.”

Roosevelt could not have imagined digital computers and fiber-optic cables. He was talking about railroads, the highways of commerce in his day.

But though the technology has changed, the principle TR expressed remains as essential as it was a century ago. We ignore it at our peril.

from Breakingviews:

Rob Cox: GE should put itself up for sale

By Rob Cox
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

General Electric should sell itself. If that sounds like an April Fools’ Day joke, think again. It’s a real proposal on the ballot at the industrial group’s annual meeting. Setting aside the absence of any obvious buyer for the $260 billion company, the proposition illustrates the kind of shareholder democracy gone wild that many boards, and even some regulators, would like to squelch. They have half a point.

The proposal is one of about six that investors put forward and will be up for a vote at GE’s April 23 annual meeting in Chicago. Not all are quite so extreme. One calls for senior executives to hold options for life. Another would end stock awards and bonuses. Naturally, management is opposed to each of them.

from Jack Shafer:

Who’s afraid of Comcast?

Set aside for a moment everything you've read about the $45 billion bid Comcast made for Time Warner Cable last week. Blank from your mind Paul Krugman's prediction that the deal will result in a Comcast monopoly. Pretend you didn't read the New York Times piece about the acquisition presaging further consolidation in the cable market, with Charter Communications picking off Cox Communications. Thump yourself with a neuralyzer, if you can, and remove from your memory the protest against the transaction by Michael Copps, former Federal Communications Commission commissioner.

Finally, purge from your bile ducts the seething hatred you hold for Comcast and Time Warner Cable, those hurtful memories of rising bills, rotten service, and phone-tree purgatory and allow me to persuade you that we're having the wrong telecom argument when we quarrel about mergers and acquisitions. Instead of blocking mergers or beating concessions out of the telecom giants, let's give them the treatment they really fear: Policies that encourage the entry of competitors, which are the bane of every monopolist.

If you hate your cable television company -- to simplify a half-century of history -- blame it on the government. In the founding days of the industry, local municipalities mistakenly insisted that cable TV was a "natural monopoly" that must be regulated like telephone service. In nearly every case, the selection of a cable operator was a political one, with the most flattering supplicant winning the right from city councils to string wire on utility poles and cross right-of-ways to sell cable service. The municipalities collected franchise fees from the cable companies, shook them down for sweeteners like municipal channels and public access studios, regulated their rates, and required the operators to wire all if not most of their jurisdiction.

France says ‘Non’ to the digital age

France has kicked off 2014 with an array of skirmishes against Amazon, Google and other U.S. Internet companies, in what is shaping up as a classic battle between comfortable Gallic tradition and disruptive modernity.

On Thursday, Jan. 9, the French Senate unanimously approved a bill that would ban Amazon from offering free shipping on books in France. Strongly endorsed by the Ministry of Culture, the legislation is supposed to safeguard the existence of the country’s 3,500 bookstores, about 800 of which are independent.

A few hours earlier, France’s national agency for data protection, known by its acronym CNIL, announced that its sanctions committee had found Google to be in breach of national privacy laws, based on the company’s March 2012 decision to merge different privacy policies for each of its services — including YouTube, Gmail, Google Maps and Google Docs — into one policy. CNIL, along with data protection agencies in five other EU nations, argued that Google doesn’t sufficiently inform its users about how or why their data is processed. It ordered the Internet giant to pay a fine of 150,000 euros (about $200,000) and to publish a communiqué on its French home page informing users of the sanction.

Inside the Apple and Google smartphone war

This is an excerpt from DOGFIGHT: How Apple and Google Went to War and Started a Revolution by Fred Vogelstein, published in October 2013 by Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

By 2010 Apple and Google were attacking each other on every possible front: in the courts, in the media, and in the marketplace. Android’s surge in popularity was astonishing, and Andy Rubin, Eric Schmidt, and the rest of Google made no secret of their glee. It seemed that every chance they got during 2010 they would expound on how many monthly activations Android had racked up and how mobile devices were going to change the future of Google and the world. In an April 2010 interview with the New York Times, Rubin even predicted that Android was going to rule the entire mobile universe.

The year before he had been worried that Google would abandon Android and that he and his team would need to job hunt. Now he confidently proclaimed, “It [Android] is a numbers game. When you have multiple OEM’s [phone manufacturers] building multiple products in multiple product categories, it’s just a matter of time” before Android overtakes other smartphone platforms such as iPhone and BlackBerry.

Social media life: What privacy?

It was almost quaint: Google’s recent apology for privacy violations. Granted, it came in the face of a lawsuit where the company got its hand slapped for “data-scooping,” a wonderful phrase that could be the slogan of our current lives. Google was found to have crossed the line with its Street View Project, where in addition to photographing houses and buildings along the world’s streets and avenues, the Googilians scooped up all manner of personal information from zillions of unencrypted wireless networks.

Really? I’m shocked. Not. Who doesn’t data scoop is my question?

I look at a bathing suit on line. For the next few weeks, whenever I open my laptop it pops right up. It’s like I am being stalked by a bathing suit. I vow to never ever succumb again to online shopping, a resolve that crumbles faster than my New Year’s resolutions.

Every day I am online giving away — not just bits of information but bytes of my soul, or at least that’s the way it feels. Obviously the social media sites, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare, et al, are the most glaring examples. We can complain about Google and about the predatory identity thieves out there who hack into our so-called private information. But the truth is we are the saboteurs of our own privacy.

from MediaFile:

Instagram’s Facebook filter

The startup had millions of users, but, from the beginning, just one customer.

The predominant way of interpreting Facebook’s billion-dollar purchase of Instagram, in light of the social-networking giant's forthcoming IPO, is that Mark Zuckerberg had to pick up the photo-sharing app to boost his company’s mobile engagement. That would allow him to guard the mobile flank against incursions from Google, Twitter, and whatever other social-media tools might next arise.

That may be true – and it may even be the way Zuck thought about the deal when he swallowed hard and ponied up the purchase price. But that way of analyzing Facebook’s pickup, and the pickup of dozens of other startups, not just by Facebook but by Google, Twitter, LinkedIn and others, is probably not telling the whole story. Here’s a different theory, one that better describes the tech world that we, the users of the Internet, now inhabit: Instagram may have had millions of us as its users, but it was really built for just one customer: Facebook.

Silicon Valley, for too long, has confused the issue of what it means to be a user of a website, service or app, and what it means to be a customer of the app. Intuitively, you’d think they would be one and the same: The person using the app is the person consuming the app. But increasingly, apps are being made to grab the attention of the hegemonic companies in tech. Whatever it takes to get bought.

from Paul Smalera:

The piracy of online privacy

Online privacy doesn’t exist. It was lost years ago. And not only was it taken, we’ve all already gotten used to it. Loss of privacy is a fundamental tradeoff at the very core of social networking. Our privacy has been taken in service of the social tools we so crave and suddenly cannot live without. If not for the piracy of privacy, Facebook wouldn’t exist. Nor would Twitter. Nor even would Gmail, Foursquare, Groupon, Zynga, etc.

And yet people keep fretting about losing what’s already gone. This week, like most others of the past decade, has brought fresh new outrages for privacy advocates. Google, which a few weeks ago changed its privacy policy to allow the company to share your personal data across as many as 60 of its products, was again castigated this week for the changes. Except this time, the shouts came in the form of a lawsuit. The Electronic Privacy Information Center sued the FTC to compel it to block Google’s changes, saying they violated a privacy agreement Google signed less than a year ago.

Elsewhere, social photography app Path was caught storing users’ entire iPhone address books on their servers and have issued a red-faced apology. (The lesser-known app Hipster committed the same sin and also offered a mea culpa.) And Facebook’s IPO has brought fresh concerns that Mark Zuckerberg will find creative new ways to leverage user data into ever more desirable revenue-generating products.

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