Google’s world supreme court of free speech

 

Can the web remain as free as speaker's corner (From Flickrstorm - credits at end)
Can the web remain as free as speaker's corner?

 

For the timebeing, Google acts as a supreme court in a world of “sovereign users” clashing with ever increasing frequency with nation states that would prefer to have the last word on free speech. 

Google acts like a benign dictator of the world’s data, which makes it important that we keep an eye on how it behaves and who is in charge of the decisions about what can and can’t be accessed via the company’s search engine and YouTube services. 

An article in the New York Times (free registration may be needed – can never work out the NYT’s crazy system) takes a close look at the Google legal team and some of the legal struggles they have been involved in around the world. These cases and how The Goog handles itself give us a sense of how it is operating within the various codes of behaviour, mainly informal, that have emerged. 

As the piece’s author, Jeffrey Rosen, a law profesor at George Washington University says: 

Voluntary self-regulation means that, for the foreseeable future, Wong and her colleagues will continue to exercise extraordinary power over global speech online. Which raises a perennial but increasingly urgent question: Can we trust a corporation to be good — even a corporation whose informal motto is “Don’t be evil”?

Governments of various repressive shades are testing Google all the time. While we’re all aware of the restrictions in China, and of the Thai and Turkish governements effectively ransom the company’s access to their citizens (and vice versa) in return for Google blocking access to certain materials, most often YouTube videos. And other attempts to clamp down on content and conversations are surprisingly common: 

Over the past couple of years, Google and its various applications have been blocked, to different degrees, by 24 countries. Blogger is blocked in Pakistan, for example, and Orkut in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, governments are increasingly pressuring telecom companies likeComcast and Verizon to block controversial speech at the network level. Europe and the U.S. recently agreed to require Internet service providers to identify and block child pornography, and in Europe there are growing demands for network-wide blocking of terrorist-incitement videos. As a result, Wong and her colleagues said they worried that Google’s ability to make case-by-case decisions about what links and videos are accessible through Google’s sites may be slowly circumvented, as countries are requiring the companies that give us access to the Internet to build top-down censorship into the network pipes.

A speaker's corner speaker
Defend his right to speak online (Image: Tom T)

 

Google operates a “decider model” for what plays and doesn’t on YouTube, for instance. Basically decisions get escalated depending on their complexity. A further concern for us all, Rosenberg points out, is that this system isn’t very scalable at a time in the development of the web where video and indeed all forms of content are, well, scaling pretty rapidly…  

I trust Google – for now. But it’s important that we keep watching. Last word to Rosen and Lawrence Lessig: 

“During the heyday of Microsoft, people feared that the owners of the operating systems could leverage their monopolies to protect their own products against competitors,” says the Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School. “That dynamic is tiny compared to what people fear about Google. They have enormous control over a platform of all the world’s data, and everything they do is designed to improve their control of the underlying data. If your whole game is to increase market share, it’s hard to do good, and to gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.”

I note that Rosen is also the author of a book about the US supreme court. For the timebeing, Google acts as a supreme court in a world of “sovereign users” clashing with ever increasing frequency with nation states that would prefer to have the last word on free speech. 

Photo montage credit: Wallulah Junction, Snappy Bex, Wittekind, Quinnum, Tom T, C’est moi!.

London to Brighton in four minutes

For all my friends and colleagues who do the Brighton to London yo-yo (a.k.a. the pain train, a.k.a the money train) here’s a treat from the BBC archives – spotted last night on iPlayer… 

Especially choice viewing for the shots of the passengers and the stations at the start and end of the journey. 

If only it were this fast. When I moved back to Brighton almost a decade ago there was a rumour pushed by estate agents that there would soon be a 30 minute express service.

But I quite like it as it is…

Un-filtered news: Twitter, the BBC and Mumbai

Media Guardian carries a timely analysis of some of the discussion of Twitter informing, in some cases becoming part of, the coverage of the terrorist attrocities in Mumbai. 

It picks up on a blog post by Steve Herman, editor of the BBC News website: 

 

As for the Twitter messages we were monitoring, most did not add a great amount of detail to what we knew of events, but among other things they did give a strong sense of what people connected in some way with the story were thinking and seeing. “Appalled at the foolishness of the curious onlookers who are disrupting the NSG operations,” wrote one. “Our soldiers are brave but I feel we could have done better,” said another. There was assessment, reaction and comment there and in blogs. One blogger’s stream of photos on photosharing site Flickr was widely linked to, including by us.

All this helped to build up a rapidly evolving picture of a confusing situation. 

 

Where Twitter added to the understanding of what was happening for a reader of news, was the emotional immediacy. There were voices of people like me, on Twitter, shouting out loud about the horror happening around them. 

It brought Mumbai closer. That’s a good thing, because the whole world needs to feel closer to events like these, the more likely for people to act in small choices and large to fight against religious fundamentalism and zealotry.

 

Image of a peace march by Mumbai blogger Vinu (http://vinu.wordpress.com)
Image of a peace march by Mumbai blogger Vinu (http://vinu.wordpress.com)

 

But in the newsroom at the BBC it also led to a rumour being reported as fact (that the Indian government had asked people to stop using Twitter), which Steve feels was a mistake that should not be repeated: 

 

Should we have checked this before reporting it? Made it clearer that we hadn’t? We certainly would have done if we’d wanted to include it in our news stories (we didn’t) or to carry it without attribution. In one sense, the very fact that this report was circulating online was one small detail of the story that day. But should we have tried to check it and then reported back later, if only to say that we hadn’t found any confirmation? I think in this case we should have, and we’ve learned a lesson. The truth is, we’re still finding out how best to process and relay such information in a fast-moving account like this.

 

More rumour, more noise, more information, more pitfalls: that’s what the continued onward march of social media means for news organisations. 

It’s not a new challenge for the Beeb, as a news organisation that puts accuracy and fact above rumour. Twitter just adds a host of potential sources to the mix during a breaking news story. 

I wrote about this a few years ago in post called Rumour or Raw Data, during the pre-Twitter age if you can remember that, when the then Metropolitan Poolic Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, said he instinctively turned on Sky News when the first news of the London tube bombings reached him.  

In the heat of the moment, our instinct says I would rather have the unfiltered news, with the risks of inaccuracies and misinformation, than be late to hear. But – and it’s a significant but – you always want the option of a flight to fact: and that fact is usually found on the BBC, 

The BBC is right to resist falling the Sky News of the line. That’s its role: to tell us what the truth is, when it is as sure as it can be what the truth is.

Techmeme turns up the human in its news aggregator mix

Aggregators were my first love, when it comes to news and social media – I’ve always been infatuated with the idea of Digg, lover of Techmeme and I basically see most of the world through my personal aggregator, the ever flexible and accesible Google Reader. 

So it’s nice to see some fervent discussion among bloggers about the best combination. Some love Twitter for the links it brings their way (so do I, sometimes), others eschew the RSS reader for a combo of automated aggregators like Techmeme and Hacker News

What’s sparked the discussion is Techmeme (which has sister aggregator sites Memeorandum (web / tech news), Ballbug (baseball news) and the auto-scurrilacious We Smirch (celeb gossip)) announcing that it will be introducing moe human editorial interventions to keep its list fresh. 

In part this is a response to people trying to game the Techmeme algorithm to give their posts prominence (shame on you). But, as Gabe Riviera, creator of Techmeme explains, it’s also because in lots of other ways “Guess what? Automated news doesn’t quite work“. 

Humans have always edited Techmeme of course, just implicitly. For instance, when a blogger links to a story, the headline might move higher on Techmeme. What’s different now is that an additional human editor will carry out changes explicitly to directly improve the mix of headlines on Techmeme.

I really like the explicit / implicit way of explaining this. Even the great technical marvel that is the Google search engine algorithm is implicitly affected by humans – it is trying to read the clues (links, traffic, words, reputation) that people leave as to which are the best websites on any given keyword.

As Riviera points out – by way of a link to VentureBeat – even Google News has problems in adapting to the mercurial and unpredictable shapes of breaking news. 

Alan Patrick at Broadstuff has an interesting slant on this topic too. Taking a historical analogy, he says that it is early days still for news aggregation:

Long term we suspect bit by bit the human bits of curation will be replaced by better and more intelligent automation. We are in the spinning jenny phase of automated aggregation…. just starting to pick up the threads, as it were :-D 

: : Just read this post by Adam Tinworth, who heads up blogs for Reed Business Information – his take on Techmeme is about the significance for news sites:

“This is a high traffic tech news site – run by one editorial person.”