Thanks Google! — YouTube Cracks Down on Dangerous Videos

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When I feel that Google is making policy mistakes, I don’t hesitate to call them out as appropriate. I don’t enjoy doing this, but my goal is to help Google be better, not to see a great company becoming less so.

On the other hand, I much enjoy congratulating Google when they make important policy improvements — and yeah, it’s nice when this involves an area where I’ve long been urging such changes.

So I’m very pleased by Google’s newly announced changes to YouTube acceptable content rules, to significantly crack down on dangerous prank and dare/challenge videos on YouTube.

I’ve written about my concerns in this area many times, for example in “YouTube’s Dangerous and Sickening Cesspool of ‘Prank’ and ‘Dare’ Videos” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/05/04/youtubes-dangerous-and-sickening-cesspool-of-prank-and-dare-videos), approaching two years ago.

I am not unsympathetic to Google’s philosophical and practical preferences for a “very light touch” when it comes to excluding specific types of content from their YouTube platform. In a perfect world, if all video creators behaved responsibly in the first place, we likely wouldn’t be facing these kinds of challenges at all. But of course, the reality is that irresponsible creators of all sorts permeate vast swaths of the Internet ecosystem.

The new YouTube “Policies on harmful or dangerous Content” (https://support.google.com/youtube/answer/2801964), should in theory go a long way toward appropriately addressing the kinds of concerns that I and others have expressed about dangerously inappropriate videos on YouTube.

Whether the new rules will actually have the desired positive effects will of course depend on how rigorously Google enforces these rules, and in particular whether that enforcement is evenhanded — meaning that large YouTube channels generating significant revenue are subject to the same serious enforcement actions as much smaller channels. 

Time will tell in this regard. But today, as someone who very much loves YouTube and who considers YouTube to be an irreplaceable aspect of my daily life, I want to thank Google for these positive steps toward making YouTube even better for us all. Kudos to the teams!

–Lauren–

Boot to the Head: When You Know that Google Just Doesn’t Care Anymore

Views: 343

If you’ve ever needed more evidence that Google just doesn’t care about users who have become “inconvenient” to their new business models, one need only look at the saga of their ongoing handling of their announced Google+ shutdown.

I’ve previously discussed what I believe to be the actual motivations for this action, that’s suddenly pulling the rug out from beneath many of their most loyal users (“Can We Trust Google?” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/12/10/can-we-trust-google). But let’s leave the genesis of this betrayal of users aside, and just look at how Google is handling the actual process of eliminating G+.

What’s the technical term for this that I’m searching for? Oh yes: disgraceful.

We already know about Google’s incredible user trust failure in announcing dates for this process. First it was August. Then suddenly it was April. The G+ APIs (which vast numbers of web sites — including mine — made the mistake of deeply embedding into their sites, we’re told will start “intermittently failing” (whatever that actually means) later this month.

It gets much worse though. While Google has tools for users to download their own G+ postings for preservation, they have as far as I know provided nothing to help loyal G+ users maintain their social contacts — the array of other G+ followers and users with whom many of us have built up friendships on G+ over the years.

As far as Google is concerned, when G+ dies, all of your linkages to your G+ friends are gone forever. You can in theory try to reach out to each one and try to get their email addresses, but private messages on G+ have always been hit or miss, and I’ve had to resort to setting up my own invite-only forum for this purpose (“A New Invite-Only Forum for Victims of Google’s Google+ Purge” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2019/01/05/a-new-invite-only-forum-for-victims-of-googles-google-purge).

If I’d been running G+ and had been ordered from “on high” to shut it down, I would have insisted on providing tools to help users migrate their social connections on G+ to other platforms, or at least to email! Google just doesn’t seem to care about the relationships that users have built over the years on G+.

You know what else I’d be doing if I ran G+ at this point? I’d be showing respect for my users. I’d be damned well warning everyone about the upcoming shutdown on a continuing basis — not just with an occasional post on G+ itself visible only to users following that official G+ user, and not relying on third-party media stories to inform the user community.

I’d have “butter bar” banners up keeping all G+ users informed. I’d be sending out emails to users updating them on what’s happening (so far as I know, only G+ API users have been contacted by email about the shutdown).

And with only a few months left until Google pulls the plug on G+, I sure as hell wouldn’t still be soliciting for new  G+ users!

Yep — believe it or not — Google at this time is STILL soliciting for unsuspecting users to sign up for new G+ accounts, without any apparent warnings that you’re signing up for a service that is already officially the walking dead!

Perhaps this shows most vividly how Google today seems to just not give a damn about users who aren’t in their target demographics of the moment. Or maybe it’s just laziness. We can assume that consumer G+ is being operated on an ever thinner skeleton crew these days. Sure, encourage users to waste their time setting up profiles and subscribing to communities that will be ghosts in a handful of weeks. What do we care?

The upshot here though isn’t to suggest that Google is required to operate G+ forever, but rather that the way in which they’ve handled the announcements and ongoing process of sunsetting a service much beloved by many Google users has been nothing short of atrocious, and has not shown respect for Google’s users overall.

And that’s nothing short of very dismal, and very sad indeed.

–Lauren–

Google’s Brain Drain Should Alarm Us All

Views: 1214

The casual outside observer can be readily excused for not noticing the multiplying red flags.

At first glance, so much seems golden for Google.

Google is still expanding its physical infrastructure by leaps and bounds. New buildings, new data centers, new offices — just last week we learned that Google will be taking over virtually the entire old Westside Pavilion for offices here in L.A. I used to hang out there many years ago, back when it was a relatively new shopping mall.

The pipeline of graduating students into Google’s HR machine remains packed to overflowing, and as usual there are vastly more applicants than positions available.

But to those of us with deeper connections to the firm and its employees, there are alarm bells sounding loudly.

Google is in the midst of a user trust and ethics crisis, and an increasing number of their best long-term employees are leaving.

Their reasons vary — after all, nobody is expected to stay with one firm forever, and there are career paths to be considered. 

However, it is undeniable to anyone who really knows Google that there is an increasing internal glumness, a sense of melancholy and in some cases anger, toward some key decisions that management has been making of late, and regarding the predicted trajectory for Google that logically could result.

As at most firms, there has always been some degree of friction at Google between management and the “rank and file” employees — traditionally staying largely internal to the firm and out of public view.

This has changed recently, with a series of controversial internal issues spilling out dramatically into the external world, in the form of employee protests and other employee actions really never seen before in modern Big Tech workplaces. 

Consternation over Google’s links to military projects, a potential censored search project for China, and a massive payout to a high-ranking employee accused of sexual harassment — the world at large has taken note of these issues and more.

Just in the last few days, a major shareholder lawsuit has been filed against Google relating to the sexual harassment case. And coincidentally a couple of days ago, the Arms Control Association named the 4000 Googlers who opposed Google’s contract with the Pentagon’s “Project Maven” as the “Arms Control Person(s) of the Year.”

There have indeed been some positive internal changes at Google resulting from this unprecedented level of employee activism — for example, Google has formalized an important and positive set of AI Principles.

For many Googlers, this has been too little, too late. Particularly among female and LGTBQ employees — but by no means restricted to those groups — the atmosphere at Google is no longer seen as welcoming and ethical. And increasing numbers of Googlers — alarmingly including those who have been at Google for many years, who have been the representatives of Google’s culture at its best, and who have constituted the ethical heart of the company — have left or are about to leave.

And this appears to be only the beginning. I’ve lost count of the Googlers I know who have asked me to keep an ear open for outside positions that fall into their areas of expertise — a bit ironic since I’m always looking for work myself. 

These kinds of situations can be devastating to a firm in the long run, in and of themselves.

They also hand Google’s political and other enemies — the haters and more — political ammunition that can be used against Google not only to the detriment of the firm at a time when Big Tech is increasingly being inappropriately framed as “enemies of the people” by Luddite forces on the left and the right — but to the ultimate detriment of Google’s users and everyone else as well.

Yet compared to Google’s competition — for example firms like Amazon and Microsoft who happily accept military combat contracts, or Apple with its highly problematic actions to help China block open Internet access by removing VPN and other apps — Google’s ethics have traditionally been a cut above the others.

As Google’s brain and ethics drains continue, as more of their best and most principled employees leave, Google’s moral advantage over those other firms is rapidly deteriorating, and the exodus of such employees is always a “canary in the coal mine” warning that something fundamental has gone awry. 

So long as Google management chooses not to directly and effectively address these issues, to not dedicate significant resources toward reclaiming the ethical, user trust, and employee trust high grounds, there is little reason to anticipate a course correction from the increasingly dark path on which Google now appears to be traveling. 

–Lauren–

Finally, Some Good News About the EU’s Horrendous “Right To Be Forgotten” Law

Views: 371

I’ve been highly critical — to say the least — of the European Union’s insane global censorship regime — “The Right To Be Forgotten” (RTBF) — since well before it became actual, enacted law.

But there’s finally some good news about RTBF — in the form of a formal opinion from EU Advocate General Maciej Szpunar, chief adviser at Europe’s highest court.

I’m not sure offhand when I first began writing about the monstrosity that is RTBF, but a small subset of related posts includes:

The “Right to Be Forgotten”: A Threat We Dare Not Forget (2/2012):
https://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000938.html

Why the “Right To Be Forgotten” is the Worst Kind of Censorship (8/2015):
https://lauren.vortex.com/archive/001119.html

RTBF was always bad, but it became a full-fledged dumpster fire when (as many of us had predicted from the beginning) efforts were made to enforce its censorship demands globally. This gave the EU effectively worldwide censorship powers via RTBF’s “hide the library index cards” approach, creating a lowest common denominator “race to the bottom” of expanding mass, government-directed censorship of search results related to usually completely accurate and still published news and other information items.

In a nutshell, Maciej Szpunar’s opinion — which is not binding but is likely to be a strong indicator of how related final decisions will turn out — is that global application of EU RTBF decisions is usually unreasonable. While he doesn’t rule out the possibility of global “enforcement” in “certain situations” (an aspect that will need to be clarified), it’s obvious that he views routine global enforcement of EU RTBF demands to be untenable. 

This is of course only a first step toward reining in the RTBF monster, but it’s potentially an enormously important one, and we’ll be watching further developments in this arena with great interest indeed.

–Lauren–

Why Google Is Terrified of Its Users

Views: 1435

Have you ever seen the “10 Things” philosophy page at Google? It’s uplifting. It’s sweet. And in significant respects, it’s as dead as the dodo:

https://www.google.com/about/philosophy.html

Even if it didn’t say so, you’d know that this page has been around at Google for a long, long time, because it still speaks of “doing one thing really, really well” and calls Gmail and Maps “new” products.

By no means is everything on that page now inoperative, but it’s difficult for some sections not to remind one of the classic film “Citizen Kane” where Charles Foster Kane himself rips his own, now “antique” Declaration of Principles to shreds.

Point number one on that nostalgic Google page is of special note: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”

I would argue that when those words were first written many years ago, Google’s users — and the entire Internet world — were very different from today. By and large, the percentage of non-techies in Google’s user community was much smaller. You didn’t have so many busy non-technical persons, older people, and others for whom technology was not a 24/7 “lifestyle” but who were still very dependent on your services.

And of course, Google’s range of services was much narrower then, and Google services were not such a massive part of so many people’s lives around the world as those services are today.

Google has traditionally been — and still to a significant extent is — something of a “black box” to most users.  Unless you’ve been on the inside, many of its actions seem mysterious and inscrutable. Even being on the inside doesn’t necessarily free one completely of those observations.

While there have been some improvements in some respects, especially in regard to Google’s paid services, overall Google still seems to have something of an “us vs. them” attitude — keep the users at arm’s length — when it comes to the majority of their users, a tendency to wall users off in significant respects. 

Granted, when you have as many users as Google, you can’t provide “white-glove” personalized service to all of them.

But even within the practical range of what could be done to better serve users overall, one senses that Google decreasingly cares about you unless you’re a genuine paying customer, and even then only to the minimal extent required. 

Part of this is likely driven by quite realistic fears of potentially draconian actions by pandering politicians in governments around the planet, and the declining value of traditional online advertising models.

But Google’s at best lackadaisical attitude toward so many of its users is still impossible to justify. Just to note two recent examples that I’ve discussed, why would Google not choose to proactively help Chromecast users whose devices might be hijacked, even if the underlying fault wasn’t actually Google’s? And how can Google justify the sudden and total abandonment of loyal Google+ users who have spent many years building close communities, without even bothering to provide any tools to help those users stay in touch with each other after Google pulls the plug? 

It’s a matter of priorities. And at Google, only a limited number of particular users tend to be a priority.

It goes further of course. Google’s institutional fear of the “Streisand Effect” — reluctance to even mention a problem to avoid risking drawing any attention to it — rises essentially to the level of neurosis.

Google’s continual refusal to give users a truly representative “place at the deliberation table”  through user advocates, or the means to escalate serious dilemmas through ombudspersons or similar roles, are ever more glaring as related issues continue to erupt into public notice, often with significantly negative PR impacts, making Google ever more vulnerable to the whims of opportunistic regulators and politicians.

Some years ago when I was consulting to Google, I was in the office of a significantly high ranking executive at their Mountain View headquarters (one clue to knowing if someone is a significant executive at Google — they have their own office). I was pitching my concepts for roles like ombudspersons, and he was pushing back. Finally, he asked me, “Are you volunteering?”

I thought about it for a few seconds and answered no. A role like that without the actual support of the company would be useless, and it seemed obvious from my meetings that the necessary support for such roles within the company did not exist.

In retrospect, even though I’ve always assumed that his question was really only meant rhetorically, I still wonder if I should have “called his bluff” so to speak and answered in the affirmative. It probably wouldn’t have mattered, but it was an interesting moment.

One way or another, the political “powers that be” today have the long knives out for Google and other Internet-based firms. And I for one don’t want to see Google go the way of DEC and Bell Labs and the long list of other firms that once seemed invincible but now either no longer exist or are mere shadows of their former once-great selves.

Given current trends, I’m unsure if Google — even given the will to do so — can turn this around fast enough to avoid the destructive, toxic, political freight trains headed toward it. Many of my readers frequently suggest to me that even that sentiment is overly optimistic.

We shall see.

–Lauren–