With all the concerns and discussions surrounding governments wanting to limit, control, micromanage, and censor search engines, it probably should not come as a great surprise that the very fabric of time and space could be affected by the millions of words written about these topics, spinning in magnetic flux on uncountable disk drives in data centers scattered across the planet.
Still, I was not prepared for what appeared mysteriously within my inbox yesterday -- a large attachment with initially no apparent source, which turned out to be something wholly unexpected.
Thinking about where this apparently came from, and especially how it came to be here, may be an exercise in futility. So I'll simply share and let you draw your own conclusions. The universe is a mysterious place indeed -- especially where Internet censorship is concerned.
U.S. Dept. of Search Engine Censorship Services
"Changing History" - YouTube (~1 minute)
Yes, this is a satire.
When you go to do a news interview for CBS in L.A. (at least the last time I did so) you're directed to the Artists' Entrance at CBS' historic Television City in the Fairfax district. Just a few steps from the famous Farmers Market, the massive TV City complex, built in 1952, still looks futuristic even today.
You carefully snake your way from the parking lot through the bizarre, happy crowd waiting to get into Studio 33 (now named the "Bob Barker Studio") for the The Price is Right, pass through a glass door, and find yourself standing at what was once "ground zero" for much of television history.
The list of shows that have filmed or taped under the "From Television City in Hollywood!" announcement is long indeed, but one particular series that only ran from 1967 to 1969 is of special relevance today, as arguments rage about freedom of speech as applied to Google and other search engines.
Tom and Dick Smothers began performing as a comedy folk-singing duo in 1959. While he was actually the leader of the duo (and, as the world would learn, the initially more politically and socially sensitized of the pair), Tommy's constructed on-stage persona was of a friendly fool, constantly being chided by his brother. When CBS hired them to do The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour they thought they'd be getting a simple music, comedy, variety show hosted by a couple of clean-cut, noncontroversial performers. CBS was wrong. Very wrong.
The tale of the show's rise and fall is legendary, as is the manner in which the brothers increasingly pushed CBS' boundaries to criticize the Vietnam War, spotlight then controversial performers such as Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger, and in general give CBS a perpetual headache, especially as government pressure to muzzle the brothers came first from the Lyndon Johnson and then even more forcefully from the Nixon presidential administrations.
In the decades since the show's cancellation, Tom and Dick have continued to be outspoken proponents of free speech.
But especially notable as we view attempts to throttle the speech rights associated with search engine results -- which after all are essentially displaying the algorithmically processed opinions and values of the human beings who have created them -- is a concept that Tom Smothers calls "The freedom to hear."
Tom puts it quite succinctly: "What good is freedom of speech if you don't have the freedom to hear?" Like a tree falling in a forest with nobody to perceive it, the rights of listeners are an all too often forgotten aspect of the equation.
When outside parties attempt to censor, micromanage, or dictate the results generated by search engines, they are doing much more than trampling the rights of those search engines to publish their search results. Those outside parties also want to control what persons who have chosen to use those search engines or other sites will be permitted to see, to hear, to read.
There is a popular misconception that search engines exist primarily to serve the websites that they index. I would assert that this is actually a secondary purpose.
The primary purpose of search engines is (or at least always should be) to provide useful results for searchers, those persons who have chosen to use those search engines and who value the opinions and judgments that go into generating those search results.
Damaging concepts such as the EU's dangerous "right to be forgotten" are object examples of how Orwellian attempts to selectively edit slices of history out of existence may serve the desires of parties who wish certain events had never happened, but can catastrophically disrupt the public's right to search and know history as it actually occurred.
Search engine users can freely and easily choose between Google, Bing, Yahoo, and numerous other search services, each with their own take on how to best order search results and present information in useful ways.
Whether governments interfere with the traditional press such as newspapers, newer technologies such as search results, or with the editorial decisions of sites in general --- absent some sort of immediate, truly serious clear and present danger to life or limb -- they are doing much more than unacceptably violating the speech rights of those sites.
The government is also directly interfering with our own "right to hear" -- our right to make our own decisions about which services we choose to use, and our freedom to learn what those services have to say, without courts and bureaucrats forcing their own parochial views down our throats.
The concept of governments trying to plug up our ears is at least as abominable and unacceptable as their trying to cover our mouths.
Tommy Smothers was right all along.
In the classic Warner Bros. Road Runner cartoons, the stubborn but often quite technically sophisticated Wile E. Coyote (Carnivorous Vulgaris) not only persistently failed to capture his avian prey (Accelleratii Incredibus) but more often than not ended up crushed, mangled, or otherwise seriously injured as his own technologies boomeranged against him during his ultimately hopeless pursuits of the Road Runner.
The forlorn look on Wile's face as he hovered momentarily beyond the edge of a cliff, just before his long and painful plunge to the canyon floor far below, might be worth keeping in mind when we consider the real world's headlong rush into the theory, industries, and practice of "cyberwar" and its associated tradecrafts.
To be sure, we can certainly stipulate that genuine computer-related risks to businesses, infrastructure, and other aspects of our increasingly interconnected societies do actually exist.
Yet it is also clear that the business of "cyber-scaremongering" has become enormous indeed, with billions of dollars, euros, and other currencies riding on convincing politicians that computer hacking is somehow equivalent in scale to global thermonuclear war.
In fact, the degree of purposeful exaggeration being invoked toward this cause, along with rigged demos specifically designed to confuse lay (that is, essentially non-technical) observers, are awe-inspiring in their sheer audacity.
This should not be unexpected though. Cyberwar (and its close relative "cyberterrorism") have become major profit centers for private industry, a means to expand Pentagon and other government spending during a time of calls for reduced conventional weapons outlays, and also the currency of ongoing struggles for power between various agencies.
As part and parcel of this new regime, we're now seeing explicit recruiting calls not only for large number of defensive cyberwar operatives, but especially now for offensive cyber-attack experts and trainees, presumably toward creating the next Stuxnet, Flame, or other cyberattack vectors aimed at adversaries' (presumably ever more hardened) facilities and systems.
But defending computer-based operations -- while no walk in the park to be sure -- does not functionally require the same magnitude of resources as building aircraft carriers, training vast military forces, and churning out millions of tons of munitions.
Over time, it is likely to become ever more difficult to penetrate these cyber-systems, with the "easy pickings" increasingly relegated to the history books.
But the consequences of our vast cyberwar mobilizations could still be enormous, and perhaps not in the ways that our leaders had intended.
It seems unlikely in the extreme that any government would endorse the distribution of "do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits." (Step 317: Always wash your hands thoroughly with warm, soapy water after handling fissile material.)
So it is perhaps with a sense of somewhat sardonic bemusement that we can view the rise of skilled government-supported cyberattack warriors, whose talents we should not expect to be forever directed at their governments' designated targets.
These skills are particularly potent since they by and large do not need a great deal of infrastructural support to deploy, and may be easily transferred between persons and groups, or between operational specialties -- for example, the transition from cyberattacks to evasive communications.
The vast, fundamental flexibility of the Internet, with the opportunities for even unaffiliated individuals to assert significant asymmetric power through various means of obfuscation, cannot be overestimated.
This is especially important given the dramatic increases in government attempts to throttle, limit, and otherwise control Internet communications.
In the U.S., legislation such as SOPA and PIPA would have censored Web sites for the benefit of private industry. Takedowns of domain names without true due process, via government manipulation of the antiquated Domain Name System (DNS) have become all too common. Around the world, Internet speech is more and more controlled, videos are blocked, and search engines are subjected to censorship demands for essentially political reasons.
In Europe, the ham-fisted "right to be forgotten" threatens huge potential damage to freedom of information from search engines and other sources, with stupendous abuse potential.
And as if all that and more weren't enough, we now see the encroaching specter of the United Nation's ITU -- clearly feeling empowered by national governments' increasing anger at ICANN's continuing "off the rails" shenanigans -- threatening to bring a whole new dimension of nightmares to the Internet, with a likely effect of ensconcing via international treaties many of the worst of these governments' abuses against the Net.
It is perhaps poetic justice of a sort -- in the vein of "reap what you sow"-- that efforts to constrain the Internet by governments may ultimately be undermined by the very same cyberwar principles, talents, and technologies that those same governments have nurtured for an entirely different set of goals.
For as governments attempt to crack down on their own populations' free speech and information access on the Net, they are likely to discover that the Internet's flexibility -- and cyberwar skills -- may easily combine toward protecting the Net for its user community and associated speech and communications rights, rather than solely serving the will of national or other government edicts.
This then is the cyberwar in the mirror, the Pandora's box releasing energies that may actually serve not only evil, but good as well, in ways that may be wholly unexpected by the governments that chose to create and invoke their powers.
Of course, our leaders around the world may choose to minimize or ignore these scenarios, and simply plow ahead toward their planned cyberwar nirvanas.
But in doing so, they may still risk much the same fate as a certain hungry animated coyote, who learned the hard way that once you step off the cliff, you can wave your arms, try to tread air, and hold up printed signs of desperation, but the only exit is still straight down.
"The TLD Song"
To the tune of The Elements and The Major-General's Song.
ICANN's top-level domain expansion scheme can be called a lot of things: expensive, deceptive, exploitive, extortive, enraging, confusing, embarrassing, and more ... but when you actually look at the massive, rather insane list of TLD applications submitted so far, I'm forced to admit that ICANN's plan can also be called ... entertaining. And so, with apologies to the great Tom Lehrer and his Elements song, and of course to Gilbert and Sullivan and their Major-General's Song from the Pirates of Penzance, I offer ... The TLD Song.
YouTube Performance (Click "CC" for closed captions and settings.)
There's matrix, merck, memorial, guitars, guru, gap, guardian,
Estate, events, equipment, enterprises, med, eurovision,
There's free, frontier, frogans, flowers, firmdale, firestone, and financial,
(OK spammers and other crooks, are you ready to start raking in that cash?)
There's jewelry and jlc and jll and hospital,
And stroke and sucks and storage, stream, hiphop, hermes, and hitachi,
There's zulu, zone, zara, zero, zuerich, tata, tax and tattoo,
These are but a small fraction of submissions far from frugal,
- - -
The Wall Street Journal, which generally seems to oppose all proposed government regulations unless they're aimed at Google, has fired off another tirade, which prompted a quick public response from Google's Amit Singhal.
The focus again is the perceived fairness of search results, and the continuing crazy clarion call that Google Search results should somehow be "regulated" to ... well ... actually, what they'd be regulated to do isn't really clear at all.
The whole point of search is to provide the best, most relevant and useful results to users, not to try fulfill the impossible quest of sites to all have top rankings.
Unless value judgments are applied to rankings, you don't have a guide to usefulness and relevancy, you have what amounts to a phone book. The concept of the government becoming involved in search results regulation should strike more fear in the hearts of free speech, anti-censorship proponents than SOPA, PIPA, and CISPA rolled into one nightmare bundle.
Some observers continue to insist on conflating Google's organic, natural search results with paid ads and related paid placements separate from organic results, with the loudest complainers seeming to routinely be firms upset about their low natural rankings, often despite their use of "black hat" SEO techniques that Google explicitly and wisely uses as signals of low site quality.
What's really fascinating is that when you look empirically at specific examples, it's obvious that Google's algorithms create fair and reasonable organic results, and this observation is only enhanced by comparing these results with Google's competitors.
Let's explore six screenshots, all taken yesterday via Internet Explorer (which is not my browser of choice), when logged out of all services (Google, Bing, and Yahoo).
In the first three shots, I simply searched for maps. As you can see, Google returns its own map product as the first natural (organic) result. But before the Google-haters jump in, note that in shots two and three, both Bing (a Microsoft service) and Yahoo (now affiliated with Microsoft) also show Google Maps as the first natural result! No unfair bias there -- everyone seems to agree that Google Maps deserves to be on top.
Now, there is an oddity on the third screenshot (for Yahoo). Note (see my red arrow) that above that first organic result (for Google Maps), Yahoo presents a dedicated Yahoo Maps input box, of a sort that neither Bing nor Google provided for themselves for the generic maps search. Hmm.
How do we know that Yahoo Maps box isn't an organic result? Note that unlike all the following results, the Yahoo Maps entry at the top does not include a displayed URL (in green text).
Now let's move on to shots four, five, and six. A complaint being made against Google is that they provide direct answers to some queries that have specific answers available. This obviously is good for users, but how do Bing and Yahoo handle such a situation?
We search for map of cleveland. Surprise! All three services return a top result of a specific map from their own service. Google returns a Google Map result, Bing a Bing Maps result, and Yahoo a Yahoo result (the Yahoo map says Nokia on it, but includes an embedded Yahoo copyright -- recall that both Yahoo and Nokia are now affiliated with Microsoft).
Amit is right. The Wall Street Journal is wrong. Case closed.
Addendum: It is reasonable to note that the originally referenced WSJ article was at least ostensibly an opinion (op-ed) piece not authored by WSJ, and that the next day WSJ ran an article that on its face appeared to take the opposite stance, by attacking the FTC and (by proxy) President Obama. It also appears, however, that this second article was visible only in the more expensive "Professional" version of WSJ, not the broader circulation regular version where the original article was present. This seems to be classic Rupert Murdoch duplicity in action, using surrogates to play various sides of an issue. This becomes even more clear when one considers the series of anti-Google articles that have been running in WSJ, mostly seeming to feature implicit or explicit "something must be done!" rhetoric.
Acclaimed Author Ray Bradbury passed away yesterday, June 5, 2012, at the age of 91. In celebration of his life, I'd like to share with you a recording from just over 14 years ago, from a tape that's been sitting on a shelf behind me since I recorded it, on April 8, 1998. It's never been online before.
On that day, UCLA was screening François Truffaut's 1966 film version of Ray's 1953 classic Fahrenheit 451, and I'd been able make arrangements for Ray to attend, sign some books, and perhaps speak for a bit before the film.
Ray's gracious acceptance of that invitation led to his giving a most remarkable talk covering a vast range of topics. Writing. His life. The meaning of life. And much more. Including Q and A, this recording runs 80 minutes.
I can't begin to explain how much Ray's writing has meant to me, especially when I was growing up, how many times I've read 451, R is for Rocket, The Martian Chronicles, and all the rest.
So this is a very special recording for me. I hope, it will mean something for you too.
Rest in peace, Ray.
Ray Bradbury Speaking at UCLA (April 8, 1998)
They pile up in my inbox every day, without fail. People who explain to me how they don't want to be "tracked" on the Internet (though when I ask them what the word "track" means in this context, they usually hem and haw and it's pretty clear they haven't really thought this through).
Then there's the more generic ad haters. These are the correspondents who revel in explaining how they haven't seen a Web ad in YEARS thanks to various ad blockers and other tricks, but still use and depend upon the underlying Web services. "Aren't we smart?" "Aren't we clever?"
Aren't you greedy?
More and more, I see how the Internet has become -- through no fault of its own -- a sort of greed amplifier, elevating "something for nothing" from a slogan to a veritable religion.
And increasingly today, "privacy" is being invoked as cover for what is really technologically facilitated avarice.
My perspective on this is partly historical. Looking from the standpoint of the early Internet and contemporaneous network-accessible services, it seemed inconceivable that mass availability of sophisticated Internet-based applications such as we see today could possibly occur on other than a mostly fee-for-service basis.
That an alternative ad-supported model could arise instead was certainly not a foregone conclusion, and even then it took the development of "targeted" ad serving to bump clickthrough rates up to even more generally useful levels.
So from that point of view at least, getting all these services for the "price" of viewing some ads strikes me as a fantastic deal. I grew up with much the same paradigm listening to the radio, and watching television. Commercials can be entertaining or annoying, but the value proposition seemed quite reasonable.
Today, it seems that people don't want to watch any commercials at all -- but they still want to view the programs. They don't even want to manually skip over the ads. So we have folks like DISH trying to turn automatic commercial blocking into a profit center.
A great service for DISH subscribers? Perhaps.
Another illustration of consumer greed in action? Definitely.
And few persons stop to really consider what the implications are of undermining the ad-supported TV model in an all-encompassing manner that remote controls and manual commercial skipping could never natch. Nor have most of us thought about the transfer of even more programming power to Comcast, AT&T, and other pay-television providers that results from this process.
Back on the Net, the Internet greed horse is in some respects long out of the barn.
Attempts to control the unauthorized spread of music and film copies over the Net are -- to put it simply -- doomed. The MPAA and the RIAA can complain and threaten and even cajole (especially to politicians in the last case), but the technological reality is that audio and video can be transcoded, transferred, and hidden in an almost infinite variety of ways. It's the ultimate game of Whac-A-Mole, and there's no reasonable prospect that the entertainment industry is going to win this one.
I don't say this with any glee. I feel that the creators of content deserve to be appropriately compensated for their creations. But that heartfelt belief doesn't change the technological facts on the ground. That war is lost, even if the entertainment industry behemoths desperately wish not to believe that truth.
Much damage can still be done however. Attempts to codify Internet censorship and control regimes in legislation like SOPA and PIPA -- and more legislation sure to come down the pipe at some point -- can be seriously damaging to free speech and basic civil rights.
In the same vein, government cybersecurity legislative efforts such as CISPA -- addressing a real threat but hopelessly co-opted by profiteering -- threaten to genuinely undermine decades of privacy-related progress and and off the Net.
These are real and serious risks to privacy.
So too is so much of what most of us accept in our "brick and mortar" lives. Our financial transactions and commercial purchases are recorded in detail and often made available to third parties with little or no control. Virtually unaccountable credit reporting agencies collect, slice, and dice such data and exert godlike impacts on our day-to-day lives.
There are indeed many ways in which crucial aspects of our lives are at risk from major privacy-related intrusions.
But most of us ignore most of these. And instead, we see people complaining about Web ads, or anonymous targeted ad serving cookies, or technical variations from formal specs that do no actual privacy harm to anyone.
"Web ad tracking" and other Web tracking used to provide suggestions and other services seem to have become synonymous with killing kittens, even though (usually unlike what the credit agencies and their cohorts collect) they're normally not linked to personal information, their data typically isn't sold, and they're only used to serve ads that might be of more interest than a more random throw of the dice.
I talked about some of this a year ago or so in Do-Not-Track, Doctor Who, and a Constellation of Confusion.
What's really fascinating now though, is how this entire area has become not just a political astroturfing battlefield, but is increasingly creating utterly bizarre scenarios.
For example, Microsoft recently announced (apparently in contradiction to earlier assumed agreements) that they were going to set the nebulous "do not track" flag by default in their next version of their Internet Explorer browser.
Mozilla, on the other hand, said that they intended to follow through with their previously stated intention of not making "do not track" a default.
Suddenly, Microsoft -- long viewed by the Internet intelligentsia as just a notch short of Darth Vader or Bain Capital -- is hailed as a hero, and Mozilla, the traditional darling of those in the know, is condemned (along with anyone supporting Mozilla's views on this issue).
Microsoft is pandering of course, but effectively so by tapping into irrational Web ad tracking fears, and into elements of the "something for nothing" greed that -- let's face it -- we all share to one extent or another.
There are naturally exceptions to all of this. There are Web ads that are truly obnoxious -- loud auto-play Flash boxes come immediately to mind.
And there are ways in which Web tracking can become actually abusive, if associated data is inappropriately linked to personal information, or provided to third parties with laxer privacy standards.
But there are many people that no amount of assurance will satisfy. No matter how directly a firm explains how it is not abusing data, there are those observers who won't believe them. They assume the firms are lying. Or that the firms will start lying. Or that the firms will change their minds and suddenly go over to the dark side. "Or maybe ... or maybe ..." -- a veritable cacophony of "maybe fears," for which no amount of auditing or verification would ever be satisfactory.
I have no magic formula to satisfy this category of critics. If you trust a firm, you shouldn't feel the need to micromanage their technical mechanisms, be they cookies or whatever. If you don't trust a firm in the first place, you probably should avoid using their services at all.
We cannot know the future, but trust is still a fundamental aspect of our lives. Trust with our pets. Trust in our intimate moments. And yes, trust in our use of the Internet.
I'm not suggesting that everyone be blindly trustful, any more than I'd assert that everyone is equally greedy.
But I hope that we can regain a sense of proportionality and realism in our addressing of the many genuine privacy concerns. It would well serve the entire Internet community for us not to let political grandstanding and disingenuous attacks manipulate our emotions -- leading us astray from genuinely useful solutions.
There's no need to hide from the mirror, if we're willing to be honest with ourselves.