Opinion

Jack Shafer

The dangers of deputizing Google to bust child pornographers

Jack Shafer
Aug 5, 2014 23:03 UTC

Illustration file picture shows a man typing on a computer keyboard in Warsaw

“Don’t be evil” — the first sentence of Google’s “Code of Conduct” — has served as the technology company’s corporate motto since its earliest days. But given Google’s role in the arrest late last month of a Houston man on child pornography charges, perhaps we’ve been misreading it. Perhaps the motto is aimed at its customers, as in, “Don’t you be evil or we’ll have you busted.”

Google, obviously, isn’t the first Internet company to alert investigators of a user who might be transmitting or be in possession of child pornography images. Since the late 1990s, the law has required service providers to report apparent violations of child pornography laws. In 2004, for example, AOL provided a tip that resulted in a child pornography conviction. In 2007, Yahoo took similar action that helped earn a child pornography defendant a 16-year sentence. So far, the courts have rejected Fourth Amendment challenges to these prosecutions, and are likely to continue to do so. No credible sources have appeared to denounce the prosecutions as overkill, and I doubt if any will.

The Houston bust, in which John Henry Skillern allegedly sent explicit images of a young girl to a friend via email, comes a year after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond renewed his company’s commitment, which he dated to 2006, to expunge child pornography from the Web and identify its traffickers. As the company’s email policies state, “Google has a zero-tolerance policy against child sexual abuse imagery. If we become aware of such content, we will report it to the appropriate authorities. …”

In its efforts, Google has funded groups that search for the images and, with other companies, has built a shared database of digital fingerprints (via “hashing“) of the images. These fingerprints allow Google and other companies, such as Microsoft and Facebook, to “trawl” accounts for apparent violations of the child pornography laws. The hashing technology, it should be noted, is only as reliable as the database. If you were to create new child pornography this afternoon and load it on to the Web, Google’s algorithms would not automatically detect it as child pornography until somebody identified it, fingerprinted it, and fed it to the database.

Google assuages users who worry it might be scouring their Gmail accounts for evidence of other potential crimes. It told Business Insider this week it does not do that — even though its updated-in-April terms of service leave it plenty of latitude to glean whatever it likes from your account. “Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails),” the terms of service state. “This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

If Katie Couric is the answer, what’s the question?

Jack Shafer
Nov 27, 2013 00:08 UTC

Web publishing — never a diffident business — has been calling attention to itself all week long. Yahoo chief executive officer Marissa Mayer, whose forte as boss has been the shimmering acquisition (Summly, Tumblr, Xobni, Rockmelt, et al.) and the high-profile media hire (David Pogue, Megan Liberman, Matt Bai), signed Katie Couric as the site’s “global anchor,” and promised additional Yahoo News signings, enabling Couric to “lead a growing team of correspondents.” Business Insider auteur Henry Blodget, whose enthusiasm for himself approaches the onanistic, responded to Michael Wolff’s suggestion that the Insider has peaked and that he should sell with a column saying he wasn’t ready to bail. Further down the food chain, Politico, which recently dumped its broadcast TV stations, purchased Capital New York, and PandoDaily (backed by Peter Thiel, Marc Andreessen, Tony Hsieh, and others) bought NSFWCORP to, as its Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lacy put it, “double down on investigative reporting.”

All this recent activity could be interpreted as the Internet’s usual background noise — prestige hires, quietly dumped in the next business downturn, and the usual activity by sites testing their worth in the marketplace or actually selling out. Or, alongside the global expansion of BuzzFeed, the phenomenal growth of Gawker, and Cheezburger-Circa’s blitzkrieg, do these nuggets serve as new markers of the Web ascendency to a place of media dominance?

As someone with a vested interest in the Web’s success, I’m prepared to interpret the setting of the sun as an indicator that the Internet was causing all the other media forms to go dark. But it’s not just me: The speed with which Google transitioned from a university research project to a media colossus impels the belief that the complete eclipse of traditional media is unstoppable. In about a dozen years, Google has reordered the media cosmos: It will take in 33 percent of all global digital ad revenue — approximately $38.6 billion — this year, six times that of the first runner-up, Facebook, according to eMarketer. It will also collect more than 50 percent of all mobile advertising. Its annual ad revenues now surpass those of the entire newspaper industry (as well as the entire magazine industry), as Business Insider recently informed us. “The growth of internet advertising revenue has outpaced other media every year since 2005,” Marketing Land reported earlier this year, with the Internet vying with domestic broadcast TV for ad revenue primacy.

Is this story less than the Summly of its parts?

Jack Shafer
Mar 26, 2013 22:58 UTC

Like children at bedtime, news consumers love nothing more than to be told the same story again and again. Oh sure, they need the names of the principals to change, the location to vary, and the supporting cast of characters to shift. But the closer the popular press can come to retelling a vital and engaging Ur-tale as opposed to building a new one from scratch, the happier readers tend to be.

If today’s coverage of Yahoo’s $30 million acquisition of Summly — maker of a  news-condensing app developed by  London schoolboy Nick D’Aloisio — fit the tech-acquisition news template any more snuggly, it would be the first layer of news epidermis. The company’s founder  is all of 17 years old, a fact that earns prominent mention in the opening sentences of the accounts in the New York Times (Page One), the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, and practically everywhere else.

The story of the child prodigy excelling in any field is sucker-bait for readers. No matter how many times they’ve been told the story, they still thrill to the exploits of an extraordinarily gifted young person writing brilliant poetry, solving complex mathematical theorems, destroying chess grandmasters, composing symphonies … and writing successful software. D’Aloisio is so young, the Times marvels, that he “wasn’t even born when Yahoo was founded in 1994.” He was building apps at 12, Bloomberg reports.

Why the Yahoos at Yahoo were wrong to fire David Chalian

Jack Shafer
Aug 30, 2012 16:33 UTC

If you’re a journalist and you’ve ever said anything “inappropriate,” as David Chalian got caught doing yesterday — and you know you have — please step forward to be fired now.

Chalian, the Washington bureau chief for Yahoo News, ridiculed Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, during a Monday webcast from the Republican National Convention. It’s not uncommon for bureau chiefs, beat reporters or copy editors to verbally eviscerate politicians, corporate leaders, slumping sluggers or any other notable not in the room at the time, but they usually have the good sense to first check to see if a microphone is on. Chalian did not.

His topic was Hurricane Isaac, which was then bound for New Orleans, and he coached an unidentified guest on how to typify the Romneys:

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