September 30, 2010

Warning: Google Chrome Apparently *Removing* Key Privacy Feature

Greetings. Last March, in Why I'm Switching to the Google Chrome Browser (New Privacy Enhancements), I enthusiastically endorsed Google's Chrome browser, and explained why I have switched to it from Mozilla Firefox.

I hope I'm not forced to reverse that decision. But I am quite concerned about a new development.

Google announced today that their URL shortening system "goo.gl" had gone public for general use. (I discussed an issue related to this in an NNSquad posting earlier today.)

In the process of experimenting with goo.gl, I ran into some login problems that appear to have related partly to my use of the "block third party cookies" option in Chrome -- this sort of setting is widely recommended by various parties regardless of your browser choice.

But looking deeper, and after seeing different behavior in Firefox testing, I discovered what appears to be a much more serious Chrome cookie-related problem.

It seems that the new Chrome beta (7.0.517.24) -- being automatically pushed out now -- has (with no warning whatsoever) removed what I consider to be a key functionality, the cookie control setting that allows you to be queried for a decision whenever new cookies are being offered, and permits you to determine how cookies from related sites will be handled in the future.

Suddenly I realized why I've been getting e-mails today from people complaining about Chrome cookie problems that they didn't understand.

It was the original appearance of this extremely useful setting in Chrome (it has long been available in Firefox) that allowed me to personally move to Chrome as my browser of choice, and to also recommend Chrome to individuals and enterprises who are concerned about privacy and security issues.

Without such a setting, or an alternative means to access equivalent functionality (e.g. through a browser plugin/extension), I will likely be forced to move back to Firefox, and recommend the same course for most other individuals and firms.

It's no doubt true that many Chrome users have never accessed this feature, and choose rather simply to accept all cookies on a willy-nilly basis. But this simply is not an acceptable modus operandi for vast numbers of users and organizations who need convenient site-by-site cookie control. Nor is manually entering cookie exceptions into tables a practical solution on a routine basis.

I believe I originally noticed that this option had been removed from the Canary (bleeding edge development) build of Chrome sometime back. But I saw no reason to be alarmed -- not all aspects of the dev versions will necessarily find their way into stable versions.

But the beta path leads in a much straighter line to the stable releases, and sudden disappearance of this crucial cookie control feature for stable version users would likely cause a great deal of confusion and consternation in many quarters.

To be very clear about this, the current stable chrome release apparently still has this feature present. If you are a Chrome stable version user (check the About Google Chrome function to query your current version) you do not have an immediate concern, but note that updates can occur at any time automatically.

The new beta version (and I assume the "standard" dev version, though I don't have that here to check immediately) appear to now be missing the site-by-site query cookie functionality.

Right now I'm temporarily running with all cookies enabled just to get this blog posting out, but this is not a viable solution for long. I am now looking at either downgrading to Chrome stable -- for however long that continues to include the key functionality of concern -- or moving back entirely to Firefox.

Frankly, there is no good excuse for removing this feature without replacing it in an equivalent way (and at this time I know of no Chrome extension or other form of Chrome plugin that can do this -- I'd be very happy if someone could inform me otherwise).

Even given that most people probably haven't used this function, and even if using it wrong causes some users confusion -- it could have simply been moved to a somewhat "deeper" settings level (this is how Firefox has been handling this function as of late).

Site-by-site query cookie control is an extremely important capability for the users and enterprises who need to carefully control cookie use. Not having this ability can absolutely be a deal killer.

I am attempting to learn Google's intentions regarding this issue. I'll report back when I know more.

Take care, all.

--Lauren--

Update (October 1, 2010): More details regarding my concerns about this change in cookie handling (from Hacker News)

Posted by Lauren at 04:46 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 27, 2010

I'm Briefly Discussing President Obama's Reported Internet Wiretapping Proposal Tonight on "Coast to Coast AM" Radio

Greetings. Crucial Internet issues seem to be crawling out of the woodwork over the last few weeks, and the latest is today's New York Times report that the Obama administration will be seeking sweeping new Internet wiretapping regulations, apparently including a requirement for all encrypted communications to be capable of being decrypted on demand by the government.

While we haven't seen any details yet, on its face this appears to be a dramatic, and (I believe it's reasonable for me to assert) radical expansion of surveillance capabilities, previously associated with countries such as Saudi Arabia (e.g. their recent demands for RIM BlackBerry communications access).

Such sweeping surveillance requirements by the U.S. would enormously increase security risks by fundamentally weakening the critical underpinnings of end-to-end encryption structures and systems.

I'll obviously have much more to say on this topic as details emerge.

I've been booked back onto Coast to Coast AM tonight to very briefly discuss the reported proposal, during the news segment that starts around 10 PM PDT. [Station List] [Coast to Coast AM "Backgrounder" (Wired)]

This will likely be an extremely brief segment -- just a few minutes -- but hopefully enough for now to at least raise some awareness about such an extremely important issue.

Be seeing you.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 11:34 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 24, 2010

T-Mobile Tells Existing Customers to Take a Hike

Greetings. T-Mobile -- way back in the number four position among U.S. cellular carriers -- has been bleeding customers and revenue. There's always rumors of various potential mergers involving the firm, mostly generally problematic given technology differences with potential suitors.

So one would think that T-Mobile puts a very high priority on retaining existing customers.

That assumption would be seriously mistaken.

In fact, it almost seems that T-Mobile is making a concerted effort to push their most loyal customers into the waiting arms of their larger competitors -- an attitude that can only increase the probability of T-M's ultimate demise, and a further reduction in effective cellular competition in this country.

I've been with T-M for the last two years, having left AT&T after transitioning with the latter through a series of incarnations (L.A. Cellular, AT&T Wireless, Cingular, and finally AT&T again).

At the time, my main reason for the switch was to get early access to the first Android phone (the G1) for development purposes. And (as you might guess) I had been increasingly dissatisfied with AT&T's service for a variety of other reasons -- making that jump an even easier decision.

Over these 24 months since the switch, I've been comparatively satisfied with T-M. Coverage isn't great in my home location at the very edge of L.A. -- the phone tends to bobble there between 3G and EDGE. But it's overall been quite acceptable and improving -- and in most areas around town the coverage is just fine.

So I thought that timing was particularly fortuitous when several events all came together. My two-year T-M contract is about to expire. T-M has apparently deployed their very high speed HSDPA+ network here in L.A. And (starting today) T-M is taking orders for their new G2 phone -- apparently a branded HTC "Vision" -- and the first of their phones to support HSDPA+ speeds (also including a physical keyboard, which I consider imperative given my e-mail volumes).

The G2 has some other attractive features as well, including the fact that it's reportedly a straightforward Android Froyo, Google Experience device, without any of the funky layered-on carrier-provided interfaces that are appearing on so many new Android phones these days. And even though my intention would be to quickly root the phone and install CyanogenMod (as I've done with my G1), a clean starting point has much to recommend it.

My old G1 has been getting very long in the tooth and increasingly flaky from a functional standpoint. A decent cell-phone is not a luxury for me -- there's just no other way for me to keep up and at least maintain the potential for finding new work -- a high priority.

Time to talk to T-Mobile.

The front line customer care folks were friendly and assured me that a wonderful deal could be made given my "valued customer" status -- but that the T-M retention group would have to authorize anything specific. Nice conversation.

The T-Mobile retention group was like meeting customer care's evil twin. The connection was low and muddy and sounded like a very poor VoIP connection. Without meaning any offense, I'll note that the retention rep's accent was so strong that I had a great deal of difficulty understanding him, and I had to repeat myself several times for him to understand me.

Not a great beginning.

It got worse. The retention rep claimed that he wasn't actually authorized to do much of anything that front line reps couldn't do. Perhaps he could avoid my being charged the extra $5/month that my existing data plan had been increased since my contract initiation -- but that's all.

And as for the G2 -- he quoted me a price even higher than that on the T-Mobile Web site for new customers, and even that required a notorious mail-in rebate. When I mentioned to him that Radio Shack and Best Buy had announced pricing (almost certainly for completely new contract subscribers only) somewhere between $50 to $150 less on the phone (via "instant" rebates -- no mail-in delays required) -- the T-M retention rep's suggestion (in no uncertain terms) was that I find some other company to do business with other than T-Mobile.

Oh-Kay... I get the picture. The obvious solution would be to take his sage advice. Yet I really don't want to return to the overloaded AT&T data network, and I have other technical reasons for preferring GSM-HSDPA(+) to Verizon or Sprint's current mobile environments.

But my own cellular situation aside, I find T-Mobile's professed attitude toward their existing long-term customers to be inexplicable -- and perhaps suggestive of a repressed death wish -- or at least seemingly perverse business sensibilities -- on the part of parent company Deutsche Telekom.

That's sad to see from any major firm, and does not well serve their subscribers, their stockholders, nor the community of telecommunications users at large.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 12:10 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 22, 2010

Excerpts From My "Coast to Coast AM" Internet Issues Interview Last Night

Greetings. A number of persons asked if I could provide some excerpts from my two hour Coast to Coast AM interview last night regarding Google, privacy, Craigslist, "Do Not Track" -- and various other Internet-related issues of potential interest (I "warned" that this show was upcoming in a posting a couple of days ago).

I've selected about 20 minutes of material from the interview, split into two parts as audio-only YouTube presentations. I've also provided direct links below to the associated audio for each main topic area that was discussed (these topic links are as accurate as possible but may not be exact due to playback timing variations).

Please keep in mind that the interview was conducted live between Midnight and 2 AM Los Angeles time. I figure if I can manage a few somewhat coherent statements at that hour the show probably went pretty well.

Part 1 Complete

Part 2 Complete

Topics:

Google engineer's alleged spying on Google user data ("Barksdale" case)

"Zombie" Cookies

Thoughts on the proposed "Do Not Track" list

Future of the pervasive Internet and associated policy issues

Can the entire Internet crash? (and reliability concerns)

Craigslist and the "Adult Services" controversy

The importance of transparency

The potential of wireless spectrum "White Spaces"

The politicizing of technology issues

Closing

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 08:25 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 20, 2010

Back on "Coast to Coast AM" Tomorrow Night on Privacy and Internet Issues

Greetings. Late night code hackers, Beltway spooks, and other assorted lovers of the wee hours may recall my brief interview on Coast to Coast AM radio less than two weeks ago during the opening news segment -- several heart-stopping minutes of Q&A commentary regarding the hot (or at least pungent) topic of RFID-equipped trash bins.

Due to the overwhelmingly positive response from garbage pail fans around the country, I've been invited back for a two-hour stint on this national program late this Tuesday (tomorrow night).

Seriously, I'll be back on with host George Noory for one of my more typical long-form interviews on the show, starting shortly after midnight PDT (after the news break, etc.) Now of course officially that's really very early Wednesday morning, but it's easier to think of it as very late Tuesday night. Uh, right?

As usual for these extended segments on C2C, we'll probably cover a range of privacy-related and Internet topics. I already know that one issue very likely to come up is the recently disclosed "Barksdale" security breaches at Google, involving an engineer (now fired) who allegedly snooped on teenaged Google-users' private data. But hopefully we'll at least be able to touch on a bunch of interesting and relevant topics.

My boilerplate regarding C2C:

I've guested on the show many times previously, discussing a range of topics from security and privacy to other technology-related issues -- and have always been made to feel very welcome.

While Coast to Coast AM is widely known for its focus on "speculative" topics that various observers quite reasonably consider to be rather outside the "mainstream," the show also features many "hard science" guests and topics of more conventionally serious interests. Some of the best questions I've received on technology topics have come from listeners of Coast to Coast AM.

The Wired article Coast to Coast AM Is No Wack Job is a useful backgrounder if you're not already familiar with the show.

While there is no centralized free Internet streaming of the show, it is available on a vast number of stations around the country, plus satellite radio and other venues. See the station list for details.

Be seeing you.

--Lauren--

Blog Update (September 22, 2010): Excerpts From My "Coast to Coast AM" Internet Issues Interview Last Night

Posted by Lauren at 05:49 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 19, 2010

Gay or Gandalf: A Faked T-Shirt Fools Many

Greetings. As if we really should need a reminder that in the Age of Photoshop one must be very careful about trusting images on the Net, yesterday the Web was abuzz with a photo of Sir Ian McKellen, marching at a London protest against the visit of Pope Benedict.

But the mere fact of his presence wasn't the only trigger for so much attention, it was the t-shirt that he was apparently wearing. There, amidst a group of protesters wearing "Some people are gay. Get over it!" shirts, was Sir Ian, wearing the exact same style shirt, but his read "I'm Gandalf and Magneto. Get over it!"

Wow. What a sense of humor! That's pretty gutsy. "Best T-Shirt Ever!" flashed around the world endlessly in tweets, emails, and most every other form of electronic communication. Observers commented at length about McKellen's "amazing" t-shirt.

Except of course, there was no such shirt. It was a Photoshop job, and in reality (as logic prevailing over emotion would have dictated), McKellen was wearing a t-shirt with the same slogan as everyone else in the protest group. Judging from comments around the Net, it's clear that some people recognized this immediately. But it's also obvious that a great many -- likely the vast majority forwarding the image yesterday -- did not.

True, it was a pretty damn good Photoshop fraud. And yes, perhaps it's not totally impossible to imagine that McKellen was provided with a "special" shirt for the protest.

But logically, it didn't make a lot of sense for someone of Sir Ian's character to play along with a stunt quite like that involving a cause that he's known to feel very strongly about.

No real harm done by this particular episode. But it's an important reminder nonetheless, since the next provocative photo that makes the rounds may relate to a topic of great import with real consequences.

It doesn't take a wizard of Gandalf's stature to feign convincing phantasms of faked photos.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 11:14 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 16, 2010

Search Personalization: Blessing and Trap?

Greetings. Arguably the holy grail of search technology -- and of many other aspects of Internet-based services today, is personalization. Providing users with personalized search suggestions, search results, news items, or other personalized services as quickly as possible, while filtering out "undesired" information, is a key focus not only of Google but of other enterprises around the world.

But does too much reliance on personalization create an "echo chamber" effect, where individuals are mainly (or perhaps totally) exposed to information that only fits their predetermined views? And if so, is this necessarily always beneficial to those individuals? What about for society at large?

Diversity of opinions and information is extremely important, especially today in our globally interconnected environment. When I do interviews on mainstream radio programs about Internet issues, it's usually on programs where the overall focus is much more conservative than my own personal attitudes. Yet I've found that even though there's often a discordance between the preexisting views of most listeners and my own sentiments, I typically get more insightful questions during those shows than in the venues where I spend most of my time online.

And one of the most frequent questions I get afterwards from listeners contacting me by email is: "How come nobody explained this to me that way before?"

The answer usually is that personalized and other limited focus information sources (including some television news networks) never exposed those persons to other viewpoints that might have helped them fully understand the issues of interest.

An important aspect of search technology research should include additional concentration on finding ways to avoid potential negative impacts from personalized information sources -- particularly when these have the collateral effect of "shutting out" viewpoints, concepts, and results that would be of benefit both to individuals and to society.

Overall, I believe that this is somewhat less of a concern with "direct" general topic searches per se, at least when viewed as distinct from search suggestions. But as suggestions and results become increasingly commingled, this aspect also becomes increasingly complex. (I've previously noted my initial concerns in this respect related to the newly deployed Google Instant system).

Suggestions would seem to be an area where "personalization funneling" (I may be coining a phrase with this one) would be of more concern. And in the world of news searches as opposed to general searches, there are particularly salient related issues to consider (thought experiment: if you get all of your information from FOX News, what important facts and contexts are you probably missing?)

While there are certainly many people who (for professional or personal reasons) make a point to find and cultivate varied and opposing opinions, not doing so becomes much easier -- and seemingly more "natural" -- in the Internet environment. At least the possibility of serendipitous exposure to conflicting points of view was always present when reading a general audience newspaper or magazine, for example. But you can configure many Web sites and feeds to eliminate all but the narrowest of opinions, and some personalization tools are specifically designed to enhance this effect.

As our search and related tools increasingly focus on predicting what we want to see and avoiding showing us anything else (which naturally enough makes sense if you want to encourage return visits and show the most "attractive" ads to any given individual), the funneling effect of crowding out other materials of potential value appears to be ever more pronounced.

Add to that the "preaching to the choir" effect in many Internet discussions. True, there are forums with vibrant exchanges of views and conflicting opinions. But note how much of our Twitter and Buzz feeds are depressingly dominated by a chorus of "Attaboy!" yells from "birds of a feather" like-minded participants.

I am increasingly concerned that technologically-based Internet personalization -- despite its many extremely positive attributes -- also carries with it the potential for significant risks that are apparently not currently receiving the research and policy attention that they deserve.

If we do choose to assign some serious thinking to this dilemma, we certainly have the technological means to adjust our race toward personalization in ways that would help to balance out the equation.

This definitely does not mean giving up the benefits of personalization. However, we can choose to devote some of the brainpower currently focused on figuring out what we want to see, and work also toward algorithms that can help determine what we need to see.

In the process, this may significantly encourage society's broader goals of cooperation and consensus, which of necessity require -- to some extent at least -- that we don't live our entire lives in confining information silos, ironically even while we're surrounded by the Internet's vast buffet of every possible point of view.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 06:09 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 14, 2010

In Perspective: Alleged Snooping at Teens' Data by Google Engineer

Greetings. While I believe it's fair to say that Gawker sometimes exhibits what appears to be a noticeable anti-Google bias, today they published a very troubling article that's impossible to ignore, alleging that a (now reportedly fired) Google employee used his privileges as a Site Reliability Engineer (SRE) to inappropriately access the private files of Google users, including minors. (An ongoing independent discussion thread on this topic is also available.)

Google has now confirmed the firing, has noted that this is the second such firing for a similar offense, and says that it will increase auditing of its logs.

Of course, Google is not the first Internet firm to be faced with such a situation. Nor should cases of individual rogue employees be used to spew forth accusations of Google being evil, not caring about user privacy, or some of the other unfounded claims I'm already seeing popping up around the Net associated with this situation.

As I noted recently in Trusting Your Friends -- and Trusting the Cloud, information technology models used by individuals, business, and governments are moving inexorably toward "cloud computing" methodologies.

Trust in these cloud-based systems and the individuals who design, operate, and maintain them is paramount.

Given the possibilities of litigation related to the current case, it is perhaps understandable that Google has apparently not been volunteering many specific details regarding these allegations and the accused employee.

However, transparency regarding policies and procedures related to employee access to Google-based data is another matter -- and this is an area where it would behoove Google to be as direct as possible with its users and the public at large. This includes providing information with the maximum specificity that is consistent with good security practices.

Among the key factors that are important to users' continued faith in the privacy and security of their information on Google services (both Google "standard" and the new "Google government services" platforms):

- Who at Google has access to Google users' content data?

- Under what conditions are Google employees officially authorized to access such data?

- Can an individual at Google access such data on their own without specific "need-to-know" authorization for specific cases, and without the oversight of any other employees during such access itself?

- What technical measures are in place to control Google employees' access to users' content data and to limit the possibilities of abuse?

- What reporting and/or logging mechanisms, and any associated audit procedures, are in place to routinely track (in real-time or retrospectively) employee access to such user content data?

A breach of the sort alleged in this case is certainly disconcerting, but no system is 100% secure.

Of more lasting concern and importance is assurance that Google's procedures, policies, and technologies associated with protection of user content data -- from both external and internal threats -- both are and remain adequate to their critical tasks, and that Google is sufficiently forthcoming about these issues.

While it is not necessarily desirable nor practical for the nitty-gritty details of security procedures to be publicly known in every instance, there is often a great deal of relevant information short of that threshold that can and should be safely made publicly available.

By definition, cloud computing resources are not under our individual direct control. Faith alone is not enough to encourage confidence in the security and privacy of these environments. It is incumbent on Google and all other Web services firms to be maximally transparent on these matters at all times.

The alternative is to risk concern among loyal users, smoldering embers of distrust among many potential users, and damaging conspiracy theories courtesy of your adversaries.

As far as I'm concerned, transparency wins.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 06:20 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 11, 2010

U.S. Army War College: "Google vs. China"

Greetings. The new, Summer 2010 edition of the U.S. Army War College's unclassified Parameters ("The US Army's Senior Professional Journal") includes a very interesting article entitled Google Confronts China's "Three Warfares" -- it's an essay well worth reading.

The article is authored by Timothy L. Thomas -- an analyst at the Foreign Military Studies Office (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas).

The article discusses -- in the context of broader U.S./China foreign relations issues -- Thomas' views of the interplay between recent Chinese hacking attacks on Google (and other enterprises), censorship, Google's reactions to the Chinese attacks, and other associated events.

I've archived a local copy (PDF) for convenient access here:

Google Confronts China's "Three Warfares"

I'd be very interested in your thoughts regarding the article. Thanks.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 12:28 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 09, 2010

Unintended Consequences: Google Instant and the "Suicide Search" (and a Solution)

Greetings. I hadn't planned to be blogging anything for now regarding the launch of Google Instant (GI). It was all over the media yesterday, including a nice spot on NBC Nightly News.

But a troubling note I received this morning has inspired this posting -- the specifics in a moment.

So far I've primarily been viewing Google Instant (which isn't yet available to all users in every country) as a superb engineering achievement with the potential to significantly improve the user search experience in various ways.

The scaling issues alone warrant hearty congratulations for all who were involved in GI's development and deployment. In fact, most of my discussions regarding GI yesterday in forums such as Google Buzz were focused on how such a feature might be implemented via browser toolbar searches (currently GI is tied to Google Home Page searches, where the rapid display changes triggered by entering a search don't conflict with an already displayed non-Google page). My orientation shouldn't be too surprising -- keep in mind that I'm basically a technical geek who morphed over the years into heavy involvement in the policy arena.

I've seen some griping about GI in various venues -- almost all of which strikes me as fairly silly. Even though Google asserts that search rankings aren't affected by GI, there are concerns about how the new search mechanism will affect SEO (Search Engine Optimization) -- the business of trying to (often artificially) boost search result rankings.

Personally, I promote the concept of creating quality "organic" content and letting the chips fall where they may. While GI is now the default mode where available, it's straightforward to disable -- both on the Google Home Page and via logged-in user preferences. As usual with defaults, it's pretty safe to assume that the vast majority of persons won't change this setting, and will use GI without a second thought.

So what's the problem?

That note I received this morning was from an old friend who works in suicide prevention. When GI was announced, he tried his standard search of the word "suicide" and was very confused -- and then concerned -- about what he saw.

When he typed "suicide," he was presented with page after page of results for "suicidedoors.com" (a custom car parts firm), instead of the usual pages of suicide-relevant results that prominently feature suicide prevention discussions -- including a Google-inserted Suicide prevention hotline number at the very top of the listings. I could appreciate my friend's upset -- you want people searching on the topic of suicide to find relevant factual listings as fast as possible without confusion.

So what's going on?

The effect my friend noted, and that I verified with various other searches, is a fundamental aspect of how Google Instant is implemented. Since GI continuously updates pages of result listings as the user types, they are presented through Google's estimation of what the most appropriate results might be for partial search terms as they are being entered in real-time.

The "problem" appears with words that are partial elements (substrings) of other words and terms. Human nature being what it is, the GI interface tends to suppress the previously standard behavior of typing a newline (the "Enter" key) after entering a search query.

So when you type the search term "man" -- there is a tendency to stop typing at that point (after the letter "n") under GI. This currently results in pages of search results for "Mandalay Bay" (the letters m-a-n are bold, and "dalay bay" are in a dim gray text in the search input box).

To get the actual desired results for the single word "man" under GI you need to ignore the search results that have appeared up to that point, and either enter a newline after the m-a-n or remember to explicitly click the Search button on the right at that juncture.

In this example, the search results are obviously "wrong" for someone who wants to search for the word "man" -- but will every searcher then think to enter a newline or click Search at that point? After all, "man" is already in bold. Reports I'm getting suggest that this is a confusing aspect to potentially a considerable number of users.

Now it's clear how the "suicide search" problem occurs.

If a user simply enters "suicide" into GI and stops, the search results presented -- for "suicidedoors" -- are wrong and potentially confusing from that user's point of view.

The user however sees "suicide" in bold text in the search box. So at this point, they must take extra actions to get the results that they really wanted. That means remembering to enter newline in the search box (there's no prompt to suggest this), or knowing to click Search in this particular case, or perhaps choosing "suicide.com" (which could be almost anything!) from the suggestions display (as it appears today). It does not appear to be currently possible to use standard Windows techniques to highlight and delete the unwanted, grayed out ("doors.com") section of the displayed search string.

It's possible to easily find significantly similar cases. A search for "health" -- without a terminating newline after the word "health" in bold text -- doesn't yield general health listings, but rather seemingly endless results for "Health Net" insurance, which is the first item on the suggested list. Good news for Health Net, perhaps not so wonderful for most health searchers in a hurry.

What this all suggests is that while Google hasn't actually changed search results rankings per se, the actions of the GI interface can drastically alter the perceived searching and search results sequences for users.

It appears that most of the time the result of these changes will probably be neutral or positive overall. But I believe it's fair to say that there are clearly some cases where negative effects could be especially confusing to users -- and these situations should be worthy of special handling.

Interestingly, a potential solution is already at hand, because Google has already acknowledged the need to "special case" some search terms under GI. As various observers have already noted, Google apparently has established a "blacklist" of "not family nor work friendly" terms that are not processed in real-time by GI, including a variety of slang. The concern of course is that searches that matched those terms as substrings would display pages of results during the typing process that could prove embarrassing either to the searcher, onlookers, or both.

When search strings on the blacklist are entered, the normal GI real-time listings display does not appear, the user is specifically prompted to enter a newline to receive their search results, and those results are displayed in a manner very similar to that of the pre-GI search procedure.

Given Google's laudable propensity to avoid manual intervention in the search results process, they no doubt wish to minimize the length of this blacklist.

However, I would suggest that strong consideration should be given to using this same mechanism to avoid the sorts of effects noted above involving searches related at least to basic health and safety concerns.

Words like "suicide" and "health" could presumably be easily added to the GI blacklist, along with a relatively few others of similar import. The effect would be to return searches on such words back to their pre-GI behavior, helping to avoid the risk of searcher confusion on these often crucial queries.

If it's worthwhile to block some slang words to avoid unnecessarily embarrassing Google searchers in various instances (and I agree that this is true), then I believe that it should also be appropriate to employ this same mechanism to help assure that a small set of critical search terms reach the most relevant results with the least possible confusion for potentially distraught searchers in a hurry.

This seems like common sense to me. I hope that Google agrees.

--Lauren--

Update (September 11, 2010): As of late today at least, GI searches for "suicide" are now showing more relevant results, though searches for "health" are still returning primarily many pages of "Health Net" listings. This suggests the continuous updating of "search suggestion" lists that could cause the kind of "irrelevant" results noted above for "suicide" to return at any time, absent changes by Google to the way these words are being handled under GI. Obviously, these search results will all bear watching over time.

Posted by Lauren at 11:52 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 07, 2010

Free Press Responds to AT&T -- AT&T Accused of Racist Rhetoric? -- And Whose Side Am I On Anyway?

Greetings. Yesterday, in New "Shark" AT&T Ad and Bizarre Blog Posting Attempt to Ridicule Net Neutrality, I suggested that the bizarre "Church of Extreme Net Neutrality ('CoENN')" terminology used throughout a recent posting on AT&T's official Public Policy Blog seemed not only to detract from their presumably intended message, but also was demeaning and not at all funny.

I have two updates related to this. First, Free Press, the primary target of that AT&T piece (and in fact an organization whose recent tactics I've criticized (see Free Press, Lauren Weinstein, Google, and Net Neutrality), contacted me to note the various recent responses to AT&T's posting.

In particular, there's this Free Press statement: AT&T Misleads FCC about ‘Paid Prioritization’ on the Internet, plus this letter to the FCC from the Open Technology Initiative, and finally this National Journal article quoting the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force).

Also relating to the AT&T posting in question, I was frankly surprised this morning by a number of messages from persons expressing suspicions that the use of the term "CoENN" by AT&T had racist overtones. Two representative quotes:

"Given the phonemic similarity to 'Cohen' (priest), I find that usage not just 'ingratiating... demeaning, and not...funny,' but outright offensive."

and:

"Not being Jewish, it might be easier for me to point out that CoENN would be pronounced Cohen. I personally, find the acronym racist and antisemitic. Given the association of Jewish activists with the civil rights movement, I find it likely that the racism is intentional."

Frankly, this interpretation of "CoENN" didn't cross my mind, and I'd personally give AT&T the benefit of the doubt on this one. I do not wish to believe that AT&T would be so utterly insensitive as to purposely invoke such imagery. My assumption and hope is that we're looking at an unintentional coincidence, not a backhanded racial smear. However, since AT&T's use of the term obviously did upset some readers, I thought it incumbent on me to note the situation and my current interpretation.

Finally, I've received a number of new "Whose side are you on anyway?" queries, from observers who have noticed that I don't seem to join exclusively with one side or another in these technical policy debates.

To this, I plead guilty. My somewhat quixotic quest is to bring a sense of reality and truth (at least as I understand them) to these discussions, and if this sooner or later upsets parties on all sides of these debates then perhaps I've got the mix more or less in the sweet spot.

And I'll make the following pledge right now. Though at the moment I "enjoy" the editorial freedom of having no master (in other words, being unemployed), my publicly stated opinions -- for whatever they're worth -- will never be for sale. Obviously when employed the ability to publicly speak about certain issues is necessarily limited -- that goes with the territory. But regardless of my (hopefully!) changed future employment status, I will never make public statements regarding my own opinions that do not correspond to my true beliefs.

That's one thing you can depend on. Thanks, all.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 11:38 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 06, 2010

New "Shark" AT&T Ad and Bizarre Blog Posting Attempt to Ridicule Net Neutrality

Greetings. Very recently in Free Press, Lauren Weinstein, Google, and Net Neutrality and The New McCarthyism of Google-Baiting Spreads Its Stain, I expressed strong condemnation of particular tactics being used by certain groups both in support of Net Neutrality (a cause that I myself very much support) and to unfairly target and attack Google.

Unfortunately, obnoxious attempts to ridicule opponents are not limited to any one side in these debates.

Case in point, a new AT&T display ad that I saw today at The Hill, which attempts to use "religious" connotations to attack aspects of Net Neutrality arguments.

Primarily consisting of the text Has the net neutrality dogma jumped the shark? -- the ad links to a 31 August posting on the AT&T Public Policy Blog titled, The Danger of Dogma.

The term "Jump the Shark" -- in case you're not familiar with it -- relates to a particular episode of the old TV show Happy Days in which one of the main characters ("Fonz") performs a water ski jump over a confined shark. So "jump the shark" now generally refers to a point in a television series (or anything else) where something particularly "ridiculous" occurs that marks the downward trajectory in the quality of the series (or whatever) itself.

But the bizarre nature of the AT&T blog item in question -- whose author apparently thought it was "oh so cute" to invoke religious imagery (of all things!) to try make their point, suggests that sharks are being jumped at AT&T as well.

Particularly noteworthy is the "dogma" posting's multiple usages of the term "CoENN" -- which AT&T defines as Church of Extreme Net Neutrality. As it happens, I'm not a religious person, but I still find such usage, not once but over and over again, to be ingratiating, rather demeaning, and really not funny at all.

In fact, the continued invoking of "CoENN" by the post's author, as if it were an everyday acronym, tended to significantly detract from the technical and policy points that AT&T presumably had actually wished to make.

AT&T's attempt to combine a serious discussion with repeated Church of Extreme Net Neutrality references can only then be seen as primarily an effort to ridicule, rather than actually provide a straightforward and serious analysis of policy issues.

This seems overall to be beneath the standards that AT&T and its shareholders would presumably wish to uphold, and -- come to think of it -- suggests that rather than just jumping the shark, AT&T in this case appears to be diminishing its own credibility by jumping over Moby Dick himself.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 06:32 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 05, 2010

Free Press, Lauren Weinstein, Google, and Net Neutrality

Greetings. Last Friday, in a posting titled The New McCarthyism of Google-Baiting Spreads Its Stain, I expressed my concerns regarding what I view to be disgraceful tactics that have been recently employed by some parties in the ongoing debates regarding Net Neutrality and related issues. Two facets that I specifically addressed were a published attack directed at me by Craig Aaron, the managing director of Free Press, and the presentation of a video (produced by Consumer Watchdog) in New York's Times Square that portrayed Google's CEO in the apparent aspect of a child molester.

This morning I received a note from Craig of Free Press regarding my posting. He asked me to share that e-mail publicly, and I will honor his request here, along with my associated reply that I sent him today.

Here are both of the communications, presented without additional comments at this time:

E-mail from Free Press to Lauren (9/5/10)

E-mail from Lauren to Free Press (9/5/10)

Take care, all.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 02:37 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein


September 03, 2010

The New McCarthyism of Google-Baiting Spreads Its Stain

Greetings. It's a truism that history tends to repeat itself. Sometimes this occurs in unexpected ways, and the rise of what I'd call anti-Google "New McCarthyism" is an object example of this particularly disappointing state of affairs.

GOP Senator Joseph McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, reached the zenith of his career around a half century ago by turning "red-baiting" -- the use of public accusations of communist membership, communist influence, or even casual contact with "communist causes," into a practically religious zeal of character assassinations.

While many of the individuals that McCarthy accused of communist ties of some sort -- however tenuous, historical, or innocent in nature -- indeed had such contacts, McCarthy, through his use of virulent exaggeration and demagoguery, purposely attempted to advance his agenda by fostering the fear of a vast and deeply dangerous communist conspiracy that in fact did not exist.

McCarthy's career began to rapidly implode in 1954, with the relatively new mass medium technology of television playing a vital role in his downfall. A brilliant and brave commentary by CBS' Edward R. Murrow in March set the stage, and a later televised congressional hearing exchange between McCarthy and Army legal counsel Joseph Nye Welch -- where Welch accused McCarthy of having lost all sense of decency -- helped to push McCarthy out of the spotlight and into well-deserved oblivion.

I found myself thinking of McCarthy's rampages -- and fall from grace -- while considering the dramatic recent escalation of reckless anti-Google rhetoric being spewed by some parties across a variety of venues.

The use of Big Lie techniques and "astroturf" funding sources in the battle against Net Neutrality are now all too traditional, so not particularly surprising.

But we seem today to have entered a "perfect storm" zone of exaggeration and hate being used as an anti-Google tactic by uncompromising pro-Net Neutrality factions -- and some elements of the "privacy intelligentsia" -- who have now deployed what could be termed "Google-baiting" techniques in some respects significantly like the red-baiting of decades ago.

As someone who has been involved in privacy-related causes for many years, and who is personally a strong believer in Net Neutrality (and the founder of the Net Neutrality Squad), it's particularly "fascinating" to find myself the target of attacks by "pro-privacy" and "pro-neutrality" forces who are apparently unhappy about my unwillingness to "toe the party line" in respect to their uncompromising "Google is the designated enemy" agendas.

The managing director of Free Press spent considerable verbiage in a recent essay declaring me a member of the "new enemy" of Net Neutrality. He condemned my attempts to find common ground in Net Neutrality debates, while ridiculing my opinion that the recent Google/Verizon Legislative Framework Proposal, despite some significant shortcomings, had the very positive effect of moving a long-stalled policy area forward and was to be congratulated as a serious, noteworthy effort. I've addressed this attack in some detail previously, so I won't dwell on it here.

I'm certainly not the only target of such attacks. Consumer Watchdog, which has been attempting to create a self-serving mountain over Google's accidental and harmless collection of Wi-Fi payload data, and is continuously pushing for an impractical and potentially privacy-invasive government-enforced "do-not-track" list, paid this week to display an obnoxious, misleading, and disgusting animation in New York City's Times Square, which seemed to portray Google's CEO Eric Schmidt as a child molester. Satire is one thing, but character assassination of the Senator McCarthy variety -- or any other kind -- is something else entirely. Consumer Watchdog could have spent that money far more usefully and honestly simply by providing meals for some of NYC's homeless.

It is indeed sad to see persons and organizations with presumably laudable motives now resorting to the same sorts of toxic political tactics that have previously so inflamed mindless passions, and so decimated rational discourse across the world -- throughout the centuries in fact.

Not only do these tactics -- by hardening positions and rejecting reasonable compromises -- stall forward positive motion on a range of important topics relating to the Internet, but they also serve to betray our basic humanity in the flame of unrestrained political opportunism.

Perhaps these factions should be more pitied than censored. But riding as they are with some of the ghostly sensibilities of Senator Joe McCarthy and the specter of McCarthyism, they should certainly be very much ashamed of themselves.

--Lauren--

Posted by Lauren at 09:44 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein