Opinion

Paul Smalera

The piracy of online privacy

Feb 10, 2012 18:28 UTC

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.

This is the way we’re private now. It’s ludicrous for anyone who loves the Internet to expect otherwise. How else are these services supposed to exist — let alone make any money? Theft or misuse of private user data is a crime, certainly. But no social web app — not one — can work without intense analytics performed on the huge data sets that users provide to them voluntarily (you did read the terms of service agreement…right?).

And the issue compounds when people connect one site to another. By linking their Twitter to their Facebook to their Google+ to their Foursquare to their Zynga to their Instagram to their iOS, users are consolidating their lives, and in the process making them more attractive to marketers. While Facebook, Twitter and other services have made attempts to warn users about hitting the “connect” button, many of us hit that button with reckless abandon, without a thought of who’s slavering on the other side.

Facebook.coop

Feb 2, 2012 22:06 UTC

Facebook shouldn’t pay its users. Its users should pay to own Facebook.

“Facebook was not originally created to be a company,” founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in his letter to investors announcing the IPO of his already hugely successful and profitable company. “It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected.”

Facebook has succeeded wildly, despite internal admonitions that its “journey” is only 1 percent finished. Journalists have latched onto Zuckerberg’s statement that Facebook wants to “rewire” the way the world works. In a world of thousands of self-anointed “social media experts,” only Zuckerberg can claim to have basically invented what the world thinks of as social media. He has etched himself into the timeline of human innovation.

Pity then, that Zuckerberg hasn’t turned his talents or attention toward Facebook’s financial underpinnings. After all, an IPO? How ho-hum can he get? If Mark really wants to accomplish his social mission with Facebook, he should share the company’s ownership with the people who helped him create it. Not just his Harvard contemporaries. Not just the programmers. Not even just the venture capitalists.

Twitter’s censorship is a gray box of shame, but not for Twitter

Jan 29, 2012 01:09 UTC

Twitter’s announcement this week that it was going to enable country-specific censorship of posts is arousing fury around the Internet. Commentators, activists, protesters and netizens have said it’s “very bad news” and claim to be “#outraged”. Bianca Jagger, for one, asked how to go about boycotting Twitter, on Twitter, according to the New York Times. (Step one might be… well, never mind.) The critics have settled on #TwitterBlackout: all day on Saturday the 28th, they promised to not tweet, as a show of protest and solidarity with those who might be censored.

Here’s the thing: Like Twitter itself, it’s time for the Internet, and its chirping classes, to grow up. Twitter’s policy and its transparency pledge with the censorship watchdog Chilling Effects is the most thoughtful, honest and realistic policy to come out of a technology company in a long time. Even an unsympathetic reading of the new censorship policy bears that out.

To understand why, let’s unpack the policy a bit: First, Twitter has strongly implied it will not remove content under this policy. If that doesn’t sound like a crucial distinction from outright censorship, it is. Taking the new policy with existing ones, the only time Twitter says it will ever remove a tweet altogether is in response to a DMCA request. The DMCA may have its own flaws, but it is a form of censorship that lives separately from the process Twitter has outlined in this recent announcement. Where the DMCA process demands a deletion of copyright-infringing content, Twitter’s censorship policy promises no such takedown: it promises instead only to withhold censored content from the country where the content has been censored. Nothing else.

How Obama wins the election: the economy, stupid, and everything else

Dec 9, 2011 16:43 UTC
By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and the entire Republican presidential field before them, have enjoyed painting Barack Obama as a European-style socialist, an apologizer, an appeaser, a president who is ceding America’s place in the world. Their stump speeches and debate soundbites seem to always end with some variety of the phrase, “when I’m your president, I’ll make America great again.” It would seem the nation is hungry for that kind of leadership; after all, polls now say that Obama’s job approval ratings are worse than Carter’s at the same point in his term. The game clock would seem to be running down on his re-election hopes. But what if it turns out we’ve been reading the scoreboard wrong, and Team Obama already has the lead? What if, by the time Americans get to vote, less than a year from now, America is already great again?

Coming off the heels of a nasty recession and horrible intertwined crises in banking, housing and economic confidence, every decision President Obama and his team made on the country’s way forward has come under intense scrutiny. Inevitably, the left has called some decisions, like the smaller-than-hoped-for size of his stimulus bill, weak sauce. The right has decried everything this administration did, as with health care reform, as lurching us towards socialism. Even Rockefeller Republicans have changed their spots in order to make libertarian arguments, as when Mitt Romney argued in the New York Times that the auto-industry bailout was wrong and Detroit should have been allowed to go broke.

One shouldn’t feel bad for Obama — this kind of scrutiny comes with the job, after all. But the criticism his administration has endured from all sides has seemed particularly craven, perhaps because the stakes have been so very high these past few years. And yet, the political capital invested in his centrist, negotiated policies are now paying dividends. Perhaps Bill Clinton was a smoother operator, but it’s beginning to look a lot like Obama’s triangulation of policy, politics and the press is working, and that may deliver him to a political comeback and a 1996-style election victory.

from Ian Bremmer:

New world, new rules

Oct 26, 2011 20:27 UTC

By Paul Smalera

Welcome to the new world of volatility, globalization and a host of emerging markets. Merrill Lynch Chief Investment Officer Lisa Shalett and Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tell me, Reuters' Deputy Opinion editor Paul Smalera, their views on how best to navigate today's economy. To learn more about the report, including Bremmer's analysis of debtor nations and creditor nations, and the tremendous GDP growth among developing world nations in recent years, watch the video below. To read the entire report, check out ML.com.

from Ian Bremmer:

Obama’s secret for new jobs

Reuters Staff
Sep 7, 2011 14:20 UTC

Ian Bremmer sat down with Reuters' Paul Smalera to discuss President Obama's plans to boost the American economy. Watch here:

from Felix Salmon:

Paul Smalera on spinning off Slate: the video IMterview

Felix Salmon
Sep 2, 2011 19:30 UTC

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Felix Salmon Paul Smalera, you're the king of all media!

Paul Smalera Well yes, I suppose I am.

Felix Salmon First you post a piece about how Slate should spin itself off to some VCs

And now we've gone and done a video too!

So, I threw lots of very sensible objections at you

Paul Smalera Indeed you did.

Felix Salmon And at the end of the whole thing, I assume that you inwardly conceded that I was right

You're really just trolling, right? You're not actually serious.

Paul Smalera Ha! You assume incorrectly!

This is no Swiftian Modest Proposal, Felix.

I really do think Slate needs to tap into the cash, talent and ambitions of the tech economy in order to have a shot at making it another 15 years.

How to reboot Slate

Aug 29, 2011 20:01 UTC

By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own.

There’s really no schadenfreude to be had for Slate, which laid off four staffers and a few freelancers last week. After all, this is the online magazine that gave birth to a Twitter meme, #Slatepitches, that was instantly understandable by almost anyone who has ever read an article on the site, ever. The publication’s formula of taking an already counter-intuitive conceit for a story and adding an extra inversion might be easy to poke fun at, but it’s also become, like so many other of its early innovations, a signature of writing online.

The writer of that “Slate pitches” recap, Juliet Lapidos, was sadly one of the staffers reported to be laid off, along with veterans Timothy Noah, Jack Shafer and June Thomas. Despite having contributed regularly to The Big Money, Slate’s erstwhile business website, I have only met Lapidos once or twice (though she did write about my favorite government document ever, which dealt with effectively communicating the dangers of nuclear waste dumps to humans 10,000 years in the future) and I don’t know Shafer, Noah or Thomas. But I’ve been reading Shafer and Noah online for over a decade — maybe not since I bought my first modem, but definitely by the time I bought my third — because they are so good at what they do and also because there simply was no one else to read online that was as smart as them and wrote for and understood the web.

Slate’s history, until recently, felt like that of the New York Times of the 1970’s after the shakeout of New York City press strike of 1962-63 led it to a brief period of outsize influence and dominance in media. The Times in the 1970’s through the early 1990’s became the locus of criticism, praise, conspiracy theories and honest-to-goodness news because there was nowhere else for New York and America to turn. (I guess it’s not surprising Jack Shafer already dissected the impact of that strike.)

Downgrading democracy

Aug 8, 2011 20:46 UTC

By Paul Smalera
All views expressed are his own.

The Washington debt ceiling debate over these past months was the throwing open of the doors to the democratic slaughterhouse — let’s please not ever complain again about not being able to watch the sausage get made. Though our media window onto the killing floor surely contributed to the S&P’s downgrade of U.S. debt, that’s not an entirely bad thing, as I’ll explain in a moment.

The preemptive downgrade of U.S. debt breaks a disturbing ratings agency pattern: Too-late downgrades from S&P and the other ratings agencies in the cases of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG, Greece and Ireland among many others. In the econoblogosphere, reliably hind-sighted ratings-agency downgrades, whether of sovereign debt or a teetering company’s bonds, have come to be something of a dark joke. It’s overdue that S&P got itself back into predictive rather than reactive mode. Yet the company’s sovereign debt committee surely chose the wrong target in U.S. Treasuries and broke the late-downgrade pattern for all the wrong reasons.

The ratings agency’s decision reads like nothing other than a fit of pique towards the government institutions and American people that had come to blame it as a prime enabler of the global financial crisis. The agencies, as my colleague Christopher Whalen just wrote, “prostituted themselves and their special position of trust with respect to mortgage-backed securities and exotic derivatives.” To get a little more anatomical, executives at the ratings agencies churned out AAA ratings on CDOs and other risky debt — debt that their analysis should have shown to be junk-bond quality at best — because they risked losing business if they were too critical. (Call it the, “every John is the best lover ever” theory of credit rating.)

Krugman says Thoma’s right, except when he’s wrong

Jul 26, 2011 20:09 UTC

By Paul Smalera
The opinions expressed are his own.

Reuters invited leading economists to reply to Mark Thoma’s Op-Ed on the “great divide” in economics and will be publishing the responses. Below is a recap of Paul Krugman’s reply in the New York Times.   Here are responses from Roger MartinAshwin Parameswaran, James HamiltonDean Baker and Lawrence Summers.

Paul Krugman, leading economic light of the New York Times Op-Ed page, agrees with today’s Reuters Op-Ed by Mark Thoma, where Thoma suggests that economists need to behave more like doctors and less like scientists. That is, economists should make themselves relevant by applying their knowledge to “work on the patient” — the patient being the economy. He fears that too often, economists act like scientists, who do valuable research but stay above the fray when it comes time to get their hands dirty. This remove from reality is perhaps a minor contributing factor to the collapse of the housing bubble that sparked the global financial crisis.

Thoma’s argument reminds me of a Planet Money podcast about the economists who saved the Brazil from hyperinflation, among them Edmar Bacha. “Terrified,” is how Bacha described himself when Brazil’s president and finance minister asked him to use a currency scheme he had concocted — over beers with economist friends — to stabilize the national economy. (To his credit, Bacha, to borrow Thoma’s analogy,  put down his microscope and picked up his scalpel, and his plan worked.)

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