August 22, 2015

Why "Godwin's Law" Doesn't Apply to Donald Trump

Let's get this straight once and for all: Comparisons between Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump do not invoke Godwin's Law.

Godwin's Law applies to discussions where Nazi analogies make no sense. Comparing a strict physical education teacher with Hitler, for example, is an obvious invocation of Godwin's Law.

However, Godwin's Law explicitly does not apply when actual Nazi parallels are in play.

In the case of Donald Trump, we have a grandiose buffoon spouting outright lies and hate speech, triggering racial violence, demanding the deportation of eleven million plus people including American citizens, retroactive stripping of citizenship, and attracting crowds who shout "white power" and hand out literature lauding that "Trump will do to the dirty Hispanics what Hitler did to the dirty Jews."

The parallels are obvious and on-point.

Godwin is not in scope.

Nazism and 1930s Germany very much are.



Posted by Lauren at 09:36 AM | Permalink

August 20, 2015

EU Demands Google Forget "The Right To Be Forgotten"

Brussels, Belgium (ZAP) - The European Union today issued a preliminary order requiring that Google and all other Search Engines and similar services remove all search results related to the EU "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF).

"We've been deliberating on this issue for a very long time," noted Winston Charrington, Minister of the European Union World Censorship Directorate. "We've come to the conclusion that only by mandating the complete and total global elimination of all references to RTBF can we avoid unnecessary consternation and controversies regarding those aspects of published history -- that RTBF requires be deleted from search indexes around the planet. In other words, if you don't even realize that censorship is occurring, how could you ever be upset about it? Doubleplusgood!"

Leaders and politicians from around the world were quick to praise the EU's action. Russian president Vladimir Putin issued a statement noting the EU was acting in the best historical traditions of Mother Russia. Chinese leaders offered to provide the EU with "Great Firewall" censorship technology at no charge, "in the furtherance of helping our brothers and sisters in Europe join our information control people's paradise."

GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump immediately called FOX News to say that the EU's actions are a crude start but adding that, "When I'm president you're going to have a really wonderful censorship system here in the USA. It's going to make those Russian and European systems look like stupid, ugly women. You're going to forget there ever were mass arrests and deportations here. I know how to do censorship. You're going to love the Trump censorship system!"

An EU spokesperson noted that upon finalization of this global RTBF censorship order, all search and other references to articles, stories, or other materials describing this order, including this posting, would be retroactively deleted.

Google was unavailable for comment.

- - -

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at 05:22 PM | Permalink

August 14, 2015

Why the "Right To Be Forgotten" is the Worst Kind of Censorship

Let's start from a foundational premise on which we hopefully can all agree.

Our abilities to interpret and understand the world around us are predicated on the availability of information.

In the far past, that information was usually entirely based on what we could sense directly or were told by others. Later, written and the printed materials vastly expanded our information reach, both in terms of space and distance, in terms of time and history.

Today it's inarguable that the Internet is the key to our information knowledge, and in the absence of a global catastrophe, it seems slated to expand rapidly in that role.

I define censorship as attempts by governments to control the dissemination of information by third parties, usually backed up with civil and/or criminal sanctions.

Censorship (and attempts at censorship) have likely existed back to the dawn of civilization, and it's been a preferred tool of control by rulers and governments ever since.

In the early days of broad Internet expansion, there was a popular -- though I would assert rather naive -- view that the coming of the Net would sweep away national governments and bring about a utopia of open communications.

Of course that's not exactly what happened.

While domestic governments were generally slow on the uptake to understand the power of the Internet, once it really showed up on their radars many moved rapidly to muzzle that power into traditional censorship realms, with China and Russia leading the way.

It is often said -- I've said it myself -- that's it's nearly impossible to completely censor information on the Net, that the ease of mirroring and the variety of bypass mechanisms available make total blockades enormously difficult.

This is true. But there are provisos to that truth that aren't stated as frequently.

One of these is that even if you can't completely censor particular information, governments can often make it such a hassle -- or so personally dangerous -- to pursue accessing that information as to effectively terrify all but the bravest (or in some cases perhaps the most foolhardy) of their population into submission.

So perhaps you can use a VPN to get at the webpage the government doesn't want you to see. But if you're caught at it, are you willing to risk having your entire family arrested, perhaps beaten, and then spending the next 20 years shackled in a dungeon cell?

The traditional techniques of government oppression have definitely maintained much of their power, even in the Internet age.

But at least in most of these cases you know that the forbidden information exists. You are aware of what the government is trying to block from you.

Which brings us to the second proviso from the truth about censorship.

In true Orwellian fashion, even better than blocking people from information is preventing them from ever realizing that the forbidden information exists in the first place.

And this is where the so-called "Right To Be Forgotten" (RTBF) comes into play.

The key premise of RTBF is that if you can prevent your population from realizing that particular data exists on the Web -- even if they could easily access it given such knowledge -- you've achieved censorship Valhalla.

This is why RTBF focuses its death ray on search engines. Governments realize the typical impracticality of excising all copies of information from all possible Internet sources. So they instead order the burning of the search results "index cards" in a deeply disingenuous attempt to fool their populations into not realizing the associated materials exist at all.

Supporters of RTBF concepts bizarrely attempt to claim that RTBF is not actually censorship, since usually the materials at issue still exist somewhere out on the Web.

But this is deeply cynical and, yes, evil. It's like saying that a child has been locked into a safe, and all you need to save them is to guess the combination.

RTBF proponents also prefer to frame their arguments in terms of early European Union RTBF efforts involving "ordinary" individuals.

But already we're seeing the steepness of the slippery slope of their RTBF.

The EU has already made it clear that not only do they want to censor the Net within their own borders, they want to be global censorship czars. They've said that search engine results they've banned should be removed from global indexes, not just from the localized versions that the vast majority of their population uses.

In a particularly outlandish twist, there have even been EU suggestions that search engines be required by law to specifically identify EU citizens as they travel, so that EU censorship edicts can be applied to them no matter where on the globe they may access the Net.

This isn't simply theoretical. France has already demanded that Google apply French RTBF takedowns around the planet, giving France the ability to control what users everywhere else in the world can see. Google is quite appropriately resisting this horrific edict.

And that's just in Europe.

Elsewhere, democratic and totalitarian governments alike are lining up to try impose their own RTBF censorship on the entire Earth. Putin's Russia has already passed such legislation, even broader and more dangerous than the awful EU variety.

Putin as a global censor? Chinese leaders as global censors?

It's bad enough when Western democracies fall into this trap, but the rush to a lowest common denominator of "acceptable" information that would be triggered by totalitarian leaders exerting such power would be nightmarishly breathtaking to behold.

There is no practical way to proverbially "dip your toe" into RTBF censorship, without ending up quickly and totally submerged and drowning. It's like being "a little bit" pregnant, or setting a match to a piece of flash paper.

Making it crystal clear to our legislatures and political leaders that we will not accept these censorship regimes is absolutely crucial to our civil liberties -- in fact, even to our knowledge going forward of what civil liberties actually are!

This will be an enormously difficult battle, because censorship is very much the natural ally of governments and of politicians.

But if we lose this battle, this war on our basic freedoms, it's very possible that someday -- perhaps not in the very distant future at all -- even these very words you're reading right now may be impossible to ever find again.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at 01:19 PM | Permalink

August 09, 2015

It's Time to Go Nuclear Against DMCA Abuse

OK boys and girls. That's the last straw. The straw that broke the camel's back. The jumping of the shark.

It's the end of the line for playing nice regarding entertainment company abuse of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The DMCA is like the weather. Everyone talks about it, but nobody seems to do anything very effective about it.

Of course that's not really completely true. There are entities out there trying to change it -- and most of them want to replace it with something even worse -- a draconian mandate for search engines to act as "censorship agents on demand" for the entertainment behemoths.

Granted, the DMCA is a double-edged sword. In key respects, it's aspects of the DMCA that have permitted services like YouTube to exist in the first place, by creating a regime that is significantly enabled by a range of imperfect but ever evolving dispute resolution processes.

But overall the DMCA still remains massively skewed to favor the giant entertainment conglomerates, with its "guilty until proven innocent" model that is a recipe for enormous corporate abuse at the often literal expense of the little guys.

And we now have a new example of this corporate DMCA abuse that is so pure and clear in its stupidity as to once and for all demonstrate that the DMCA imbalance needs to be corrected -- right now.

Adam Sandler's new film "Pixels" has been a horrendous flop. But it may have done some good after all, by demonstrating the lack of regard for accuracy that has become the status quo in DMCA takedown orders -- which, we must remember, are required by the DMCA to be accepted as factual until proven otherwise.

As we learn from:

a massive takedown campaign attacked Vimeo demanding the removal of essentially every video that contained the word "pixels" in its title!

You can imagine the results.

All manner of videos were (as required by law) blocked by Vimeo on the basis of those takedown orders, including totally and utterly unrelated materials that had committed the "crime" of ever using the word "pixels" in their titles -- and (ironically) even the trailer for Sandler's movie itself.

Thank goodness the producers of the various films named "She" over the years didn't try this stunt. Or how about a move titled "The" for real chuckles?

The impact of such takedown abuse is indeed the Internet equivalent of saturation bombing -- with no consideration given to the innocent parties who will be affected, and in the case of the DMCA, then have to find the time and money to fight back against this abuse -- simply to get their videos back on the Net.

Again, it's the fundamental imbalances of the DMCA that allow this, because there is essentially no cost involved in filing massively overbroad and sloppy DMCA orders. All the power is on the side of the traditional entertainment conglomerates, and they generally don't care how many ordinary folks get hurt in the process.

The righteousness of an appropriate "nuclear option" to provide some balance is obvious. And the basic structure of that "weapon" seems relatively straightforward to visualize.

We must make it expensive with a capital "E" to voluntarily file mass DMCA takedowns that are sloppy, haphazard, and likely to negatively impact significant numbers of innocent parties.

It has to cost. It has to cost big time.

Such abuse has to be made so expensive that even the entertainment industry moguls with the gold-plated toilet seats will start to feel the pain.

We can argue about the order of magnitude for these fines and how they should be assigned, but in the final analysis the totals must be so large that nobody in their right mind would willingly issue an indiscriminate large-scale DMCA takedown ever again.

I'd suggest that these determinations would best be made by some independent body, to make decisions regarding accidental error vis-a-vis purposeful culpability, and to assign the fines to be paid.

There are also other ways we could ultimately reach the same necessary DMCA balance, but inaction is no longer a viable alternative.

Legitimate rights holders should be able to appropriately protect those rights -- but not by muzzling -- and steamrolling over -- an array of innocent parties.

It's time to fight back. Enough is enough.


Posted by Lauren at 04:41 PM | Permalink

August 01, 2015

Sadly, How Windows 10 Reveals Microsoft's Ethics Armageddon

Over the last few days, I've been discussing various problematic issues involving Microsoft's new Windows 10 operating system, most recently in:

Windows 10's New Feature Steals Your Internet Bandwidth:

But today I'm not getting into technical details, but rather pulling back our camera a bit for a wider view of what Microsoft seems to be doing -- and unfortunately it's a very sad commentary indeed.

I'm not being facetious. There have been and still are many great people at Microsoft. Bill Gates and the company he founded contributed mightily to the development of the personal computer industry and much that subsequently evolved.

It's clear though that MS is at a crossroads, at a point of existential importance to the entire firm.

The market for consumer-level operating systems as items to be purchased has rapidly dried up. Microsoft's foray into hardware has -- we can charitably say -- been less than impressively successful.

So it's not a surprise that MS has explicitly and publicly been remaking itself as an Internet services company -- a logical decision given the cards MS now has available to play.

Yet much as Microsoft was a bit late to realize the Internet's importance many years ago, they're again late to the game, and the pressures they feel are obvious to any perceptive observer.

All of this can help us to understand -- but not to excuse -- the ethical collapse that Windows 10 appears to represent for a once great company.

And yes, this is very much a matter of ethics, in much the same vein as bait-and-switch artists and underhanded used-car salesmen of popular lore.

These various players -- including Microsoft in their handling of Windows 10 -- share a common defining characteristic, a shared ethical flaw.

They avoid being up-front and honest with consumers.

The irony is that these ethical lapses are so easily avoided.

If the bait-and-switch artist was honest about what they actually wanted to sell, they're in the ethical green zone.

If the used car salesman was direct about flaws in the vehicle on display, there's no ethical complaint to be lodged.

The same would apply to Microsoft.

By burying significant new data collection practices in the Windows 10 privacy policy that most people never read, by rigging update procedures to push users into switching browsers by default, by not bothering to ask users ahead of time if they were willing to share their Internet bandwidth for Microsoft's commercial use -- in these ways Microsoft failed the obvious ethics tests in a dramatic fashion.

MS seems to be failing at ethics even in some of the more minor areas -- with word that the popular old Solitaire game from Windows 7 and earlier has been replaced on Windows 10 with a version that forces you to sit through video advertisements unless you're willing to pay Microsoft $10 per year to shut them off.

To be sure, we can guess that somewhere up at MS headquarters in Redmond, a meeting took place where something like this was said:

"Hell, we're giving most of these people free versions of a new operating system, we've gotta get something in exchange, and they don't have any right to complain!"

That would be so very, very wrong.

Because while large numbers of users might well consider such trade-offs to be equitable and reasonable, the ethical requirement in the main when dealing with significant issues is simple: You ask permission first.

And asking permission in this context doesn't mean assuming permission, or burying disclosures, or operating on the assumption that simply providing a way to turn something off later is the same as asking permission to turn it on in the first place.

Let's take Microsoft's default commercial use of users' bandwidth to send updates to other MS users in Windows 10, for example.

Imagine if one day you noticed that your home water pressure seemed low. You search around and discover a truck parked outside that is filling its big water tank from your water system, via a hidden hose.

When confronted, the truck owners state that they didn't think they were taking all that much, and if it bothers you they'll stop.

Whether you paid for that water by the gallon or got it all flat rate, I'd wager that most people would react the same way, demanding to know: "Why the blazes didn't you ask permission first?"

To which the likely response would be: "We didn't tell you about it -- we didn't ask -- because we thought you might say no."

This is certainly not to imply that every minor user interface or operations decision must be opt-in only -- but at the very least, issues of significant magnitude must be clearly and openly spelled out in advance, not relegated to "if we're lucky most users won't notice what we did" status.

The latter course is the path to ethics hell, and no amount of free giveaways or slick talk alone can prevent a complete descent into that pit once a firm steps off the ethics precipice.

Can Microsoft still save itself from this fate? Of course, given the will. Much of what they'd need to do immediately could in theory be pushed out to Windows 10 users in a matter of days -- better explanations, asking permission, ethical defaults.

But my gut feeling says that MS is not prepared to make such a major ethical course correction at this time, and that's truly unfortunate.

Hope springs eternal. Perhaps Microsoft will prove my gut feelings on this to be incorrect. Perhaps MS will indeed alter direction and proceed toward the ethical light.

That would be delightful. But don't hold your breath.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at 03:26 PM | Permalink

July 31, 2015

Windows 10's New Feature Steals Your Internet Bandwidth

A couple of days ago I discussed a number of privacy and other concerns with Microsoft's new Windows 10, made available as a free upgrade for many existing MS users:

Windows 10: A Potential Privacy Mess, and Worse:

The situation has only been getting worse since then. For example, it's been noted that the Win10 setup sequence is rigged to try fool users into switching to an MS browser, irrespective of their browser settings before they started the upgrade:

Mozilla isnít happy with Microsoft for changing how users change the default web browser in Windows 10:

Pretty bad. But we have even lower to go, as we've seen that by default, Windows 10 actually steals bandwidth from your ISP connection so that Microsoft can use your computer, and your connection, to send MS updates to their other customers.

Huh? Say what?

Yep. It's a devious little feature called Windows Update Delivery Optimization. It's enabled by default. For Enterprise and Education users, it operates over the local LAN. For ordinary Home type users, Microsoft can send their data update goodies to potentially any PC on the global Internet -- from your PC, over your Internet connection. On your dime.

We could get into the pros and cons of local updates being staged between local machines on a LAN as opposed to the outside Internet.

But as soon as MS decided that it's A-OK for them to use my Internet connection to cut down on their bandwidth costs serving their other customers -- without asking me for my specific permission first -- the situation blows into the red zone immediately.

Microsoft makes the predictable excuses about this high-tech thievery.

There's a way you can turn it off. Yeah, buried down deep in the settings, assuming you even know about it in the first place. MS claims they only use your connection when it's "idle" by their definitions. Thanks a bunch.

Oh yes, and (how generous of them!) Microsoft notes that they won't steal bandwidth this way from "metered" connections.

But here's the catch -- in many common configurations you have to manually indicate that a connection shouldn't be used for MS' update delivery scheme, otherwise Microsoft would have no way to know if (for example) you're paying by the gigabyte or have a low bandwidth cap.

Above all, the sheer arrogance of Microsoft to enable this bandwidth theft by default is stunning.

I don't care if they want to move 1K or 1gig to their other happy users, I want to damn well be asked permission first!

Obviously, this general category of peer-to-peer data transfer is used on the Net in other contexts, such as torrents for example -- but that's something you do voluntarily, of your own volition. Comcast uses the bandwidth of many Comcast users to turn modems in people's homes into public Wi-Fi access points. This has been highly controversial, but at least Comcast is typically doing it over modems they supplied, and has claimed that they over-provision the connection speeds to take this into account -- and don't apply that public usage against home users' bandwidth caps.

But Microsoft didn't even bother with such rationalizations. They simply said in essence: "Hey, you've got bandwidth, so we're gonna use it however we please unless you tell us differently. Suckers!"

If you're running Windows 10, you may want to terminate this travesty.

The settings you need are buried down in:

START->Settings->Update & Security->Windows Update->Advanced options, under: Choose how updates are delivered.

It's worth noting at this point that if Google had tried a stupid stunt like this, there would likely already be EU commissioners running through the streets of Brussels hoisting pitchforks and flaming torches, all yelling for Google's blood.

For a while there, it was starting to look like there indeed was a new kind of Microsoft coming into view, one that had evolved beyond the hubris that had so long been Microsoft's single most defining characteristic.

As we can see, any such hopes are now ... Gone with the Win10.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at 02:27 PM | Permalink

July 29, 2015

Windows 10: A Potential Privacy Mess, and Worse

Blog Update (31 July 2015): Windows 10's New Feature Steals Your Internet Bandwidth

I had originally been considering accepting Microsoft's offer of a free upgrade from Windows 7 to Windows 10. After all, reports have suggested that it's a much more usable system than Windows 8/8.1 -- but of course in keeping with the "every other MS release of Windows is a dog" history, that's a pretty low bar.

However, it appears that MS has significantly botched their deployment of Windows 10. I suppose we shouldn't be surprised, even though hope springs eternal.

Since there are so many issues involved, and MS is very aggressively pushing this upgrade, I'm going to run through key points here quickly, and reference other sites' pages that can give you more information right now.

But here's my executive summary: You may want to think twice, or three times, or many more times, about whether or not you wish to accept the Windows 10 free upgrade on your existing Windows 7 or 8/8.1 system.

Microsoft is thrusting out this update via a little white Windows icon that you will probably see soon (if you haven't already) on your task bar. There are some users in some situations who will not receive this notification, but most of us will. This icon leads to MS' colorful spiel for why you want to install the free Win10 upgrade.

First things first. It's obvious from my email today that this icon and MS pitch alone are confusing many users. They've never seen anything like this appear before and many think it's a virus or that their system has been otherwise compromised.

In fact, this notification is triggered by a Windows Update that MS slipped into their update stream some time ago, which the vast majority of users probably accepted without realizing what it was.

If you decide you do not wish to upgrade to Win10 now, you may want to get rid of that notification. MS doesn't tell you how (surprise!) and the procedure can range from relatively simple to "a real mess" depending on your situation, but a good discussion of the procedures and provisos is at:

Many users -- especially on somewhat under-powered systems -- may find Win10 to be a painfully slow experience compared with Win7, irrespective of MS' claims.

Worse, some functionalities important to many users are missing. If you use Windows Media Center -- that's gone from Win10. DVD playback is currently problematic.

And here's a biggy. If you don't want Microsoft installing updates automatically -- if you're a user who has chosen to take control of this process up to now -- you probably will hate Win10.

Users with Home versions of Win10 will be required to accept automatic updates, including drivers.

In some environments, this is unacceptable from a support and security standpoint, and reports are already coming in regarding driver related issues.

It's fair to say that in the general case, automatic updates are usually a win from a security and reliability standpoint. But Windows is significantly unique. Because Windows runs on such an enormously wide range of hardware and configurations (compared for example to Chrome OS on Chromebooks) the ways for automatic updates to cause problems for Windows users are dramatically numerous as well. Definitely an important issue to consider.

You may have heard concerns about the sharing of Wi-Fi passwords by Win10. This is largely not a problem in practice, given the details of the implementation.

But Win10 still looks like it could be a privacy quagmire.

The details are buried down in the new Win10 privacy policy/user agreement, but the bottom line is that by default Win10 will be sending a lot of your data from your computer to Microsoft that they never had access to before.

You can read an analysis of this here:

As is the case with automatic updates, there is nothing inherently wrong with cloud data syncing, and it can bring significant service and reliability enhancements to users (keeping in mind how infrequently most people properly backup their systems).

But if you're going to avail yourself of such cloud data services, you really need to trust the firm you're dealing with, across the scope of possible data-related aspects.

And to be completely honest about this, I personally simply do not trust Microsoft to the degree that would seem necessary to use the default data sharing settings that Microsoft really, really, really wants you to use -- and of course that the vast majority of users will blithely accept. To put it another way, in this context I trust Microsoft about as far as I could throw a heavy old steel-cased 1980s PC.

Being careful with your data isn't just a Microsoft thing. My views of Microsoft and Google are pretty much diametrically opposed -- I have enormous faith in Google and Googlers doing the right thing with respect to protecting the data I share with them, but even in the case of Google -- with whom I share a great deal of data -- I'm selective about what I do share.

That's just common sense no matter whom you're dealing with, whether individuals, corporations, or other organizations.

The upshot of all this is that while we can all agree that "free" is often good, there's a lot to think about before accepting Microsoft's heavily promoted upgrade to Windows 10, and we all need to approach this decision with our eyes very wide open, indeed.

Be seeing you.

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Blog Update (31 July 2015): Windows 10's New Feature Steals Your Internet Bandwidth

Posted by Lauren at 01:59 PM | Permalink

July 27, 2015

What Google's New Changes to Google+ and YouTube REALLY Mean

In a pair of blog posts today, Google announced major changes in the operations of their Google+ (G+) and YouTube services:

There are a number of changes noted, but my executive summary would be that Google is ending the enforced connection of Google+ user profiles to other Google services, notably YouTube.

The popular clickbait analysis appearing on many sites today is that this is the death knell of Google+, proof that it cannot compete with Facebook.

This is incorrect.

Taking the longer view -- and my experience with networked social media reaches back to the dawn of the ARPANET and the earliest email lists -- my own analysis is that the changes are great both for YouTube AND for Google+.

In fact, I believe that these changes indicate Google is actually ahead of the curve regarding the future of social networking, and has already learned lessons that other social media sites -- notably Facebook -- have yet to fully understand, likely to their own long-term peril.

The linkage of G+ profiles to other Google services came during a time when a particular theory -- taken to extremes by Facebook -- was in ascendancy.

Simply put, this premise -- part of a general anti-anonymity concept at the time -- was that forcing users to only post under their ostensibly true identities would result in higher quality posts, with less trolling or other posting abuses.

Experience quickly demonstrated that this was far too simplistic an idea, tangled with immense potential for collateral damage.

Many abusive posters and commenters by and large seem happy to spew their venom under their actual names -- a twisted badge of honor, perhaps.

At the same time, real-name linkage requirements caused all manner of problems for many innocent parties.

There are all sorts of reasons why posting with your own name can be immensely problematic in various cases -- in some situations even dangerous. This is especially true when discussing controversial issues, medical conditions, and all manner of other issues that reflect one way or another on your personal life.

The underlying reasons for this dilemma relate in large part to life contexts.

For example, when you're posting or commenting about highly controversial political matters, you're operating in a very different context than when you're trying to give advice about a problem someone is having with their child.

Similarly, there are no logical reasons why your discussions regarding technical matters must be intertwined with your posts regarding alternative lifestyles or other personal concerns -- unless you voluntarily choose to connect them in this way.

Contextual issues play a major role in the YouTube/Google+ arena as well.

YouTube-side commenters tend to gather around particular YouTube videos and YouTube uploaders/channels of interest. Google+ users who happen to share specific YouTube videos are much more often speaking to an audience that has no continuing interest in those particular videos, but rather are following the varied postings of an individual or other profile on G+ over time.

As someone with nearly 400K G+ followers, I can tell you from experience that the conflation of YouTube and G+ comments wasn't only confusing to many users, but could trigger some nasty situations as well, when YouTube uploaders viewed a G+ share as an "intrusion" into the comments on their channel. I quickly learned to avoid sharing YouTube videos relating to any controversial topics on G+ (especially with my own preamble text that might be critical of a particular video). Otherwise, I could end up spending hours afterwards cleaning up the mass of troll comments -- and on some occasions even threats -- that spewed in from the YouTube side.

But YouTube users' complaints about this were not entirely without merit, since the commenting contexts were intrinsically entirely different. in a perfect world we might hope that this would be a recipe for expanded points of view and teachable moments, but in reality it tended to trigger trolling and conflicts -- and as I noted above, confusion as well.

Confusion is indeed another key point. I love Google+, but it became increasingly difficult for me to convince existing Google users -- or new potential Google users -- to create G+ profiles. Often they were convinced -- based on inaccurate stories they'd heard -- that activating G+ would cause their Gmail accounts to suddenly be exposed, searchable, and tied to their real names. This was never true, but the perception was widespread, likely helped along by various of Google's adversaries.

I'm not a fan of Facebook for a whole bunch of reasons. One of these is that Facebook so often seems to be a place where users feel obligated to be because their friends and families are there -- rather than somewhere they really want to be.

On the other hand, I love Google+. I'm constantly meeting new people from all walks of life around the planet, and am able to engage in a range of discussions with them across a wide scope of topics. Are there some trolls mixed in there as well? Sure. But overall the scope of intelligent and fascinating G+ users utterly swamps the relatively small number of trolls who are comparatively easily dealt with on G+.

I'm convinced that the changes Google announced today will not only make YouTube users happy, but will be great for the organic growth of G+ and other Google services. These changes reduce confusion and bring clarity to these offerings, and that's good for users and good for Google.

Kudos to the Google teams involved!

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so.
All opinions expressed here are mine alone.

Posted by Lauren at 06:36 PM | Permalink

July 16, 2015

Meeting Donald Trump

I suddenly realized why I feel like I've met Donald Trump. Turns out that I once knew someone almost exactly like him in every important detail.

I'd forgotten about him until recently. He was very wealthy and constantly bragging about it. He didn't care at all for anyone else's feelings. He constantly made inane assertions without backing them up or explaining them in any way. He had a consistent "my way or the highway" attitude.

He was massively bigoted and seemed not to even realize it. He made up fake facts to fit the moment, changed them with abandon, and endlessly declared that everyone else was stupid.

He was in fact the most obnoxious ten-year-old that my ten-year-old self had ever met.


Posted by Lauren at 09:13 AM | Permalink

July 06, 2015

UI Fail: How Our User Interfaces Help to Ruin Lives

A couple of months ago, in Seeking Anecdotes Regarding "Older" Persons' Use of Web Services, I asked for stories and comments regarding experiences that older users have had with modern Web systems, with an emphasis on possible problems and frustrations.

I purposely did not define "older" -- with the result that responses arrived from users (or regarding users) self-identifying as ages ranging from their 30s to well into their 90s (suggesting that "older" is largely a point of view rather than an absolute).

Response rates were much higher than I had anticipated, driven significantly by the gracious endorsement of my survey by Leo Notenboom of ASK LEO!, who went out on a limb and assured his large readership that I was not some loony out to steal their personal information.

Before I began the survey I had some preconceived notions of how the results would appear. Some of these were proven correct, but overall the responses also contained many surprises, often both depressing and tragic in scope.

I had not anticipated the amount of details -- and in particular of highly personal details -- that would arrive in these surveys.

It was immediately obvious that many of these respondents were long frustrated by these issues, and viewed the survey as finally an opportunity to get these concerns off their chests. Much of what they described was heartbreaking.

What was perhaps most surprising was that a deep data dive was not necessary to see the common themes -- they stuck out like a sore thumb from the very first responses onward.

And many of the problems cited are solely our faults, our responsibilities, our shame.

Responses poured in both as first-person reports and as testimonials by family, friends, caregivers, and other persons acting as "tech support" (often remote tech support) for older users.

Any stereotypes about "older" users were quickly quashed.

While some of the users had indeed never had much computer experience, a vast number of responses involved highly skilled, technologically-savvy individuals -- often engineers themselves -- who had helped build the information age but now felt themselves being left behind by Web designers who simply don't seem to care about them at all.

While issues of privacy and security were frequently mentioned in responses, as were matters relating to fundamental service capabilities, issues and problems relating to user interfaces themselves were by far the dominant theme.

Some of these were obvious.

There is enormous, widespread frustration with the trend toward low-contrast interfaces and fonts, gray fonts on gray backgrounds and all the rest. Pretty, but unreadable to many with aging eyes (and keep in mind, visual acuity usually begins to drop by the time we've started our 20s).

Many respondents noted that screen magnifiers can't help in such situations -- they just end up with a big low-contrast blob rather than a small low-contrast blob.

But then we really get into the deeper nitty-gritty of UI concerns. It's a long and painful list.

Hidden menus. Obscure interface elements (e.g., tiny upside-down arrows). Interface and menu elements that only appear if you've moused over a particular location on the display. Interface elements that are so small or ephemeral that they can be a challenge to click even if you still have the motor skills of youth. The list goes on and on.

And beyond this, there is even more frustration with what's viewed as undocumented and unnecessary changes in interfaces.

For a user with fading memory (another attribute that begins to surface relatively early in life) the sudden change of an icon from a wrench to a gear, or a change in a commonly used icon's position, can trigger such frustration that users who could most benefit from these systems -- especially for basic communications -- become embarrassed and, not wanting to ask for help, give up and withdraw back into deadly isolation.

These were by far the most repeated themes in responses -- concerns regarding the rapid and seemingly arbitrary changes of hard to find, see, and click UI elements and associated menu/command functionalities.

The frustration of caregivers in these contexts was palpable.

They'd teach an older user how to use a key service like Web-based mail to communicate with their loved ones, only to discover that a sudden UI change caused them to give up in frustration and not want to try again. When the caregiver isn't local the situation is even worse. While remote access software has proven a great boon in such situations, they're often too complex for the user to set up or fix by themselves when something goes wrong, remaining cut off until the caregiver is back in their physical presence.

I could go on, but you get the idea. With subtle variations in details, I was seeing the same sad stories over and over again as I poured through the survey responses.

We have failed a user population that not only needs our services but for whom our communication services -- including social media -- can make sometimes critical improvements in their lives, especially in helping them not withdraw into isolated oblivion.

We could argue about the motivations, history, and policies that brought us to this current state of affairs, but I'm much more interested in solutions.

So I have a modest suggestion.

I would like to see major Web services commit themselves to the proposition of providing optional and easily enabled "basic interfaces" to their main services, alongside the existing "primary" interfaces.

We're not talking "dumbed-down" interfaces here. We're talking about UIs that feature clear menus, obvious and easy to click icons, and most importantly, that would be supported for important functionalities for significantly longer periods of time than the rapidly evolving primary interfaces themselves.

This is most assuredly not a question of halting innovation, but rather of respecting the differing needs of different users at various stages of their lives.

And frankly, I suspect that "basic" interfaces as described would be widely welcomed by significant numbers of users irrespective of their ages.

I have some detailed thoughts on how such basic interfaces might be structured and deployed vis-a-vis primary interfaces, but I won't bore you with that here.

What's important right now is that we commit ourselves to the proposition that we need to better serve all users, and that our current largely one-size-fits-all user interface methodologies are actively working against this crucial concept.

Thankfully, accomplishing this doesn't require any artificial intelligence breakthroughs or rocket science. It requires only that we agree that these users are important and that we allocate reasonable resources toward these solutions.

As an industry, we seem to be great at coming up with high-end services to better serve the young and elite.

It's time that we put the same efforts into better serving everyone else as well.


Posted by Lauren at 11:23 AM | Permalink

June 30, 2015

Terrorism, the Internet, and Google

For those of us involved in the early days of the Internet's creation and growth, it would at the time have seemed inconceivable that decades later the topic of this post would need to be typed. I think it's fair to say that none of us -- certainly not yours truly -- ever imagined that the fruits of our labors would one day become a crucial tool for terrorists.

That day has nonetheless arrived, and it thrusts us directly into what arguably is the single most critical issue facing the Internet and Web today -- what to do about the commandeering of social media by the likes of ISIL (aka ISIS, or IS, or Daesh) and other terrorist groups.

As we've discussed in the past, governments around the world are already using the highly visible Internet presence of these criminal terrorist organizations as excuses to call for broad Internet censorship powers, and for "backdoors" into encryption systems that would be devastating for both privacy and security worldwide.

Yet it's the horrific terrorist "recruitment" videos that have quite understandably received the bulk of public attention, and they create a complex dilemma for advocates of free speech such as myself.

We know that free speech is not without limits -- the "yelling fire in a crowded theater" case being the canonical example.

How and where should we draw the lines on the Web?

Let's begin with a fundamental fact that is all too often ignored or misrepresented. When a firm like Google -- or any other organization outside of government -- decides it does not want to host or encourage any given type of material, this is not censorship.

Just as book publishers are not obligated to distribute every manuscript offered to them, and TV networks need not buy every series pilot that comes their way, nongovernmental organizations and firms are free to determine their own editorial standards and Terms of Service.

They need not participate in the dissemination of sexually-oriented videos, kitten abuse compilations ... or beheading videos produced by medieval, religious fanatic monsters.

Firms are free to determine for themselves the limits of what their content and services will be.

Governments -- on the other hand -- can censor. That is, they determine what private parties, firms, and other organizations are (at least in theory) permitted to produce, disseminate, or hear and view. And governments can back up these censorship orders with both criminal and civil penalties. They can throw you in shackles into a dark cell for violating their orders. Last time I checked, Google and other Internet firms didn't have such capabilities.

So when Google's chief legal officer David Drummond, and policy director Victoria Grand recently spoke of the need to fight back against ISIL and other terrorist groups' propaganda and recruiting use of YouTube in particular, and urged other firms to take similar social media stances, I was very proud of their positions and those of Google's broader policy team.

Even for a vocal free speech advocate such as myself, I cannot ethically condone the use of powerful platforms like YouTube as genocide-promoting social media channels by technologically skilled savages.

This is not to suggest that drawing the lines in such cases is anything but vastly complicated.

I have some significant insight into this thanks to my recent consulting to Google, and I can state unequivocally that the amount of emotionally draining, Solomonic soul-searching judgments that go into decisions regarding abusive content removals at Google is absolutely awe-inspiring. The motivated and dedicated individuals and teams involved deserve our unending respect.

Even seemingly obvious cases -- like those involving ISIL -- turn out to be decidedly difficult when you dig into the details.

Some governments would love to try cleanse the entire Net of all references to these terror groups via broad censorship orders.

That would be doomed to failure of course, and in fact attempts to utterly banish information about the utter brutality of these beasts would not at all serve in making sure the world clearly understands the depth of horror with which we're dealing.

Yet there is vanishingly little true probative value -- and there is vast salacious propagandistic recruitment power -- in the display of actual beheadings conducted by these groups, and Google is correct to ban these as they have.

A particularly disquieting corollary to this situation is the manner in which some of my colleagues seem unwilling or unable to appreciate the complexities and nuances inherent in these situations.

Many of them have expressed anger at Google for drawing these content lines, arguing that YouTube users should be permitted to post whatever they want whenever they want, no matter the content -- even if the videos serve purposely and directly as vile terrorist recruiting instruments.

Such arguments essentially attempt to equate all content and all speech as equal -- an appealing academic concept perhaps, but a devastatingly dangerous construct in the real world of today given the power and reach of modern social media.

To be crystal clear about this, I'll emphasize again that decisions about content availability and removal in these contexts are complex, difficult, and not to be approached cavalierly.

But I'm convinced that Google is doing this right, and the Web at large would do well to look toward Google as an example of best ethical practices in managing this nightmarish situation in the best interests of the global community at large.


Posted by Lauren at 02:50 PM | Permalink

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