Google’s Brain Drain Should Alarm Us All

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

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

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–

A New Invite-Only Forum for Victims of Google’s Google+ Purge

Several weeks ago, in the wake of Google’s shameless and hypocritical abandonment of loyal Google users and communities with the announced rapidly approaching shutdown of consumer Google+ (originally scheduled for August, then — with yet another kick in the teeth to their users — advanced to April based on obviously exaggerated security claims) I created a new private forum to help stay in touch with my own G+ followers.

This was not something that I had anticipated needing to do.

If Google had shown even an ounce of concern for their users’ feelings, and provided the means for the “families” of users created on G+ since its inception to have some way to stay in touch after Google pulls the plug on consumer G+ (to concentrate on expanding their enterprise/business version of G+), I wouldn’t even have had to think about creating a new forum at this stage.

But relying upon Google in these respects — please see: “Can We Trust Google?” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/12/10/can-we-trust-google) — is a fool’s errand. Google has made it clear that even their most loyal users can be booted out the door at any time that upper management finds them to be an “inconvenience” in the Google ecosystem, to be swatted like flies. Given Google’s continuing user support and user trust failures in other areas, we all should have seen this coming long ago. In fact, many of us did, but had hoped that we were wrong. 

There have been continuing efforts to find some way in conjunction with Google to keep some of these consumer G+ relationships alive — for example, via the enterprise version of G+. To date, these prospects continue to appear bleak. Google seems to have no respect at all for their consumer G+ users, beyond the absolute minimum of providing a way for users to download their own G+ posting archives.

Since Google clearly cares not about destroying the relationships built up on Google+, and since I have many friends on G+ with whom I don’t want to lose touch (many of which, ironically, are Googlers — great Google employees), I created my own small, new private forum as a way to hopefully avoid total decapitation of these relationships at the hands of Google’s G+ guillotine.

A significant number of my G+ followers have already joined. But I’ve been frequently asked if I would consider opening it up further for other G+ users who feel burned by Google’s upcoming demolition of G+, especially since many G+ users are not finding the currently publicly available alternatives to be appealing, for a range of very good reasons. Facebook is nonstarter for many, and various of the other public alternatives are already infested with alt-right and other forms of trolls who were justifiably kicked off of the mainstream platforms.

So while I am indeed willing to accept invitation requests more broadly from G+ users and other folks who are feeling increasingly without a welcoming social media home, please carefully consider the following before applying.

It’s my private forum. My rules apply. It operates as a (hopefully) benign dictatorship. I reserve the right to reject any invite applications or submitted postings. Any bad behavior (by my definitions) will result in ejection, typically on a one-strike basis. All submitted posts will be moderated (by myself and/or by trusted users whom I designate) before potentially being accepted and becoming visible on the forum. Private messaging between users is not supported at this time. I make no guarantees regarding how long the forum will operate or how it might evolve, but my intention is for it to be a low-key and comfortable place for friends to post and discuss issues of interest.

If you don’t like that kind of environment, then please don’t even bother applying for an invitation. Go use Facebook. Or go somewhere else. Good luck. You’re going to need it.

If you do want to apply for an invitation, please send an email message explaining briefly who you are and why you want to join, to:

g-forum-request@vortex.com

I look forward to hearing from you.

Take care. Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

Google’s Reaction to Chromecast Hijacking Is Another User Trust Failure

You may have heard by now that significant numbers of Google’s excellent Chromecast devices — dongles that attach to televisions to display video streams — are being “hijacked” by hackers, forcing attached televisions to display content of the hackers’ choosing. The same exploit permits other tampering with some users’ Chromecasts, including apparently forced reboots, factory resets, and configuration changes. Google Home devices don’t seem to be similarly targeted currently, but they likely are similarly vulnerable.

The underlying technical vulnerability itself has been known for years, and Google has been uninterested in changing it. These devices use several ports for control, and they depend on local network isolation rather than strong authentication for access control.

In theory, if everyone had properly configured Internet routers with bug free firmware, this authentication and control design would likely be adequate. But of course, everyone doesn’t fall into this category.

If those control ports end up accessible to the outside world via unintended port forwarding settings (the UPnP capability in most routers is especially problematic in this regard), the associated devices become vulnerable to remote tampering, and may be discoverable by search engines that specialize in finding and exposing devices in this condition.

Google has their own reasons for not wanting to change the authentication model for these devices, and I’m not going to argue the technical ramifications of their stance right now.

But the manner in which Google has been reacting to this new round of attacks on Chromecast users is all too typical of their continuing user trust failures, others of which I’ve outlined in the recent posts “Can We Trust Google?” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/12/10/can-we-trust-google) and “The Death of Google” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google).

Granted, Chromecast hijacking doesn’t rank at the top of exploits sorted by severity, but Google’s responses to this situation are entirely characteristic of their attitude when faced with such controversies.

To date — as far as I know — Google has simply taken the “pass the buck” approach. In response to media queries about this issue, Google insists that the problem isn’t their fault. They assert that other devices made by other firms can have the same vulnerabilities. They lay the blame on users who have configured their routers incorrectly. And so on.

While we can argue the details of the authentication design that Google is using for these devices, there’s something that I consider to be inarguable: When you blame your users for a problem, you are virtually always on the losing side of the argument.

It’s as if Google just can’t bring itself to admit that anything could be wrong with the Chromecast ecosystem — or other aspects of their vast operating environments.

Forget about who’s to blame for the situation. Instead, how about thinking of ways to assist those users who are being affected or could be affected, without relying on third-party media to provide that kind of help!

Here’s what I’d do if I was making these decisions at Google.

I’d make an official blog post on the appropriate Google blogs alerting Chromecast users to these attacks and explaining how users can check to make sure that their routers are configured to block such exploits. I’d place something similar prominently within the official Chromecast help pages, where many users already affected by the problem would be most likely to initially turn for official “straight from Google” help.

This kind of proactive outreach shouldn’t be a difficult decision for a firm like Google that has so many superlative aspects. But again and again, it seems that Google has some sort of internal compulsion to try minimize such matters and to avoid reaching out to users in such situations, and seems to frequently only really engage publicly in these kinds of  circumstances when problems have escalated to the point where Google feels that its back is against the wall and that they have no other choice.

This isn’t rocket science. Hell, it’s not even computer science. We’re talking about demonstrating genuine respect for your users, even if the total number of users affected is relatively small at Google Scale, even if the problems aren’t extreme, even if the problems arguably aren’t even your fault.

It’s baffling. It’s disturbing. And it undermines overall user trust in Google relating to far more critical issues, to the detriment of both Google itself and Google’s users.

And perhaps most importantly, Google could easily improve this situation, if they chose to do so. No new data centers need be built for this purpose, no new code is required. 

What’s needed is merely the recognition by Google that despite their great technical prowess, they have failed to really internalize the fact that all users matter — even the ones with limited technical expertise — and that Google’s attitude toward those users who depend on their services matters at least as much as the quality of those services themselves. 

–Lauren–

USA Wants to Restrict AI Exports: A Stupid and Dangerous Idea

When small, closed minds tackle big issues, the results are rarely good, and frequently are awful. This tends to be especially true when governments attempt to restrict the development and evolution of technology. Not only do those attempts routinely fail at their stated and ostensible purposes, but they often do massive self-inflicted damage along the way, and end up further empowering our adversaries.

Much as Trump’s expensive fantasy wall (“Mexico will pay for it!”) would have little ultimate impact on genuine immigration problems — other than to further exacerbate them — his Commerce department’s new plans for restricting the export of technologies such as AI, speech recognition, natural language understanding, and computer vision would be yet another unforced error that could decimate the USA’s leading role in these areas.

We’ve been down this kind of road before. Years ago, the USA federal government placed draconian restrictions on the export of encryption technologies,  classifying them as a form of munitions. The result was that the rest of the world zoomed ahead in crypto tech. This also triggered famously bizarre situations like t-shirts with encryption source code printed on them being restricted, and the co-inventor of the UNIX operating system — Ken Thompson — battling to take his “Belle” chess-playing computer outside the country, because the U.S. government felt that various of the chips inside fell into this restricted category. (At the time, Ken was reportedly quoted as saying that the only way you could hurt someone with Belle was by dropping it out of a plane — you might kill someone if it hit them!)

As is the case with AI and the other technologies that Commerce is talking about restricting today, encryption R&D information is widely shared among researchers, and likewise, any attempts to stop these new technologies from being widely available, even attempts at restricting access to them by specific countries on our designated blacklist of the moment, will inevitably fail.

Even worse, the reaction of the global community to such ill-advised actions by the U.S. will inevitably tend to put us at a disadvantage yet again, as other countries with more intelligent and insightful leadership race ahead leaving us behind in the dust of politically motivated export control regimes.

To restrict the export of AI and affiliated technologies is shortsighted, dangerous, and will only accomplish damaging our own interests, by restricting our ability to participate fully and openly in these crucial areas. It’s the kind of self-destructive thinking that we’ve come to expect from the anti-science, “build walls” Trump administration, but it must be firmly and completely rejected nonetheless.

–Lauren–

Google’s China Dilemma Is Ours as Well

It now seems unlikely that Google will be proceeding anytime soon with their highly controversial “Dragonfly” project to provide Chinese government-controlled censored search services in China. The project has become politically radioactive — odds are that any attempt to move forward would result in overwhelming bipartisan blocking actions by Congress.

But this doesn’t mean that Google can — or that they should — leave China. About 20% of the global population is within Chinese territorial boundaries, well over a billion human beings. Even if it were financially practical to do so (which it isn’t), we cannot ethically abandon them.

Our ethical concerns with China are not with the Chinese people, they’re with the oppressive, dictatorial Chinese government.

In fact, if you ever deal directly with Chinese individuals, you’ll generally find them to be among the greatest folks you’ve ever encountered. Even if your experience is only with the multitude of Chinese-operated stores on eBay, it’s routine to receive superb customer service that puts many U.S.-based firms to shame.

So the dilemma — not just for Google but for all of us in dealing with China — is how to best serve the people of China, without directly supporting China’s totalitarian regime and their escalating and serious mass human rights abuses.

Obviously, it’s impossible to completely compartmentalize these two aspects of the problem, but there are some fairly obvious guidelines that we can apply.

Joint research projects with China — for example, in areas such as machine learning and artificial intelligence — is one category that will generally make sense to pursue, even though we realize that the fruits of such work can be used in negative ways.

But realistically, this is true of most research by humankind throughout history, and joint research projects can at the very least provide valuable insight into important work that might not otherwise be surfaced to domestic researchers.

On the other hand, participation in operational Chinese systems that wage war and/or directly further the oppression of the Chinese people should be absolutely off the table. This is the dangerous category into which Dragonfly would ultimately have resided, because the Chinese government’s vast censorship apparatus is a foundational and crucial aspect of their maintaining oppressive control over their population.

The fact that the vast majority of common queries under Dragonfly might not have been censored is irrelevant to the concerns at hand. It’s those crucial other Dragonfly queries —- censored by order of the Chinese dictators — that would drag this concept deep into an unacceptable ethical minefield.

These are but two examples from a complex array of situations relating to China. Neither Google nor the rest of us can or should disengage from China. But the specific ways in which we choose to work with China are paramount, and it is incumbent on us to assure that such projects always pass reasonable ethical muster.

As usual with so much in life, as the old saying goes (and the Chinese probably said it first) — the devil is in the details.

–Lauren–

A Terrible and All Too Common YouTube Abuse Story

If you’re a regular reader of my missives, you know that one of my continuing gripes with Google — going back many years — relates to their continuing failures to devise a system to deal appropriately with user problems in need of support escalation.

I have enormous respect for Google — a great company — but their bullheaded refusal to consider solutions that so many firms have found useful in these regards, such as ombudspersons and user advocates, is a source of continuing deep disappointment.

I’ve written about these issues so very many times over the years that I’m not going to repeat myself here, beyond saying that the usual excuse one hears — that people using free services should expect to get the level of service that they’re paying for — is not an acceptable one for services that have become so integral to so many people’s lives.

But it goes way beyond this. Escalation failures are common even with users of Google’s paid business services, and for major YouTube creators in monetary relationships with Google.

In fact, YouTube-related problems are near the top of the list of why users come to me asking for help with Google issues. Sometimes I can help them, sometimes I can’t. Either way, this isn’t something I should need to be doing from the outside of Google! Google needs to have dedicated employee roles for these escalation tasks.

I won’t here plow again over the ground that I’ve covered in the past regarding YouTube problems with Content ID and false ownership claims, and the desperation of honest YouTube creators who get crunched between the gears of YouTube’s claim/counterclaim machinery.

Rather, I’ll point to a particularly vivid very recent story of a YouTube creator who had his video (monetized with over 47 million views), ripped out from under him by someone with no actual ownership rights, and the Kafkaesque failures of Google to deal with the situation appropriately.

This case is all the more painful since this creator had enough subscribers that he had a YouTube “liaison” (something most YouTube creators don’t have, of course), but YouTube’s procedures failed so badly that even this didn’t help him. I recommend that you watch his video explaining the situation (posted just five days ago, it already has over two million views):

“How my video with 47 million views was stolen on YouTube” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4AeoAWGJBw 

And keep in mind, as he points out himself, this is far from an isolated kind of case.

Google knows what’s necessary to fix these kinds of situations. You start by hiring an ombudsperson, user advocate, or create some similar dedicated roles with genuine responsibility within the firm.

Google continues to fight these concepts, and the longer that they do so, the more that they risk trust in Google being further diminished and eventually decimated.

–Lauren–

Why I No Longer Recommend Google for Many Serious Business Applications

Recently in “Can We Trust Google?” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/12/10/can-we-trust-google), I explored the question of whether Google should be considered to be a reliable partner to consumers or businesses, given the manner in which Google all too frequently makes significant changes to their products without documenting associated user interface and other related issues appropriately.

Even worse, Google has a long history of leaving users out in the cold when Google abruptly decides to kill products, often with inadequate or questionable claimed justifications.

Google has taken such actions again and again, most recently with the consumer version of Google+ — whose users represent among Google’s most loyal fans. Today, Google announced that G+ APIs will start to break in January — causing vast numbers of active sites and archives which depend on them for various display elements (including some of my own sites) to turn into graphical garbage without significant and time-consuming modifications.

Meanwhile, Google is speeding ahead with their total shutdown of consumer G+, on their new accelerated schedule that suddenly took months off of their originally announced rapid shutdown timetable.

If this all isn’t enough of a kick in the teeth to Google fans, Google continues extolling the virtues of the new G+ features that they plan for enterprises — for businesses — which apparently will be continuing and expanding even as the consumer side is liquidated.

But I wonder how long enterprise G+ will actually last? So many business people have contacted me noting that they no longer are willing to entrust long-term or mission critical applications to Google, because they just don’t trust that Google can be depended upon to maintain products into the foreseeable future. These entrepreneurs fear that they’re going to end up being ground up in the garbage disposal just like Google’s consumer users so often are, when Google products are pulled out from under them.

This goes far beyond Google+. These issues permeate the way Google treats both consumer and business users — very much as if they were disposable commodities, where only the largest demographic groups mattered at all.

I am a tremendous fan of Google and Googlers. But I’m forced to agree that at present it’s difficult to recommend Google as a stable resource for businesses that need to plan further than relatively short periods into the future. 

For business planning purposes, all of that great Google technology is effectively worthless if you can’t depend on it being stable and still being available even a few short years from now. 

For all the many faults of firms like Microsoft and Amazon — and I’m no friend of either — both of them seem to have learned that businesses need stability above all — a lesson that Google still doesn’t seem to have really internalized.

Both Amazon and Microsoft seem to understand that the ways in which you treat the users of your consumer products will reflect mightily on business’ decisions about adopting your enterprise products and services. For all of their vast technological expertise, Google seems utterly clueless regarding this important fact.

When I mentioned recently that I still believed it possible for Google to turn this situation around, I received a bunch of responses from readers suggesting that I was wrong, that Google will never make the kinds of changes that would truly be necessary.

I will continue to try help folks with Google-related issues to the maximal extent that I can. But I sure hope that my optimistic view regarding Google’s ability to change isn’t proven to be painfully incorrect in the end.

–Lauren–

The Terrifying Moment at the Congressional Google Hearing Today

During a radio interview a few minutes ago, I was asked for my opinion regarding Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s hearing at Congress today. 

There’s a lot that can be said about this hearing. Sundar confirmed that Google does not plan to go ahead with a Chinese government censored search engine — right now. 

Most of the hearing involved the ridiculous, false continuing charges that Google’s search results are politically biased — they’re not.

But relating to that second topic, I heard one of the scariest demands ever uttered by a member of the U.S. Congress.

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wants Google to hand over to Congress the identities of the Googlers whose work relates to search algorithms. King made it clear that he wants to examine these private individuals’ personal social media postings, his direct implication being that showing a political orientation in your personal postings would mean that you’d be incapable of doing your work on search in an unbiased manner.

This is worse than wrong, worse than stupid, worse than lunacy — it’s outright dangerous McCarthyism of the first order.

Everything else that occurred in that hearing pales into insignificance compared with King’s statement.

King continued by threatening Google with various punitive actions if Google refuses to agree to his demand regarding Google employees, and also to turn over the details of how the Google search algorithms are designed — which of course Congress would leak — setting the stage for search to be gamed and ruined by every tech-savvy wacko and crook.

Steve King has a long history of crazy, racist remarks, so it’s no surprise that he also rants into straitjacket territory when it comes to Google as well.

But his remarks today regarding Google were absolutely chilling, and they need to be widely and vigorously condemned in no uncertain terms.

–Lauren–

Recent Google Posts

Can We Trust Google?
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/12/10/can-we-trust-google

The DATA Says: Google’s “Dragonfly” Chinese Search Is Doomed
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/11/28/the-data-says-googles-dragonfly-chinese-search-is-doomed

Save Google — but Let Facebook Die
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/11/22/save-google-but-let-facebook-die

After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/11/03/after-the-walkout-googles-moment-of-truth

Beware of “Self-Selected” Surveys of Google Employees
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/30/beware-of-self-selected-surveys-of-google-employees

Why Internet Tech Employees Are Rebelling Against Military Contracts
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/15/why-internet-tech-employees-are-rebelling-against-military-contracts

The Death of Google
https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google

–Lauren–

Can We Trust Google?

I consider Google to be a great company. I have many friends who are Googlers. I am dependent on many Google services and products.

But if you’ve gotten the sense that Google has been flailing around in a seemingly uncoordinated fashion lately, like a chainsaw run wild, you’re not the only one. And I’m not talking right now about their nightmare “Dragonfly” Chinese censorship project or the righteous rising tide of their own employees’ protests.

Let’s talk about the users. Let’s talk about you and me.

Some of Google’s management decisions are chopping Google’s most loyal users to figurative bloody bits.

Google has fantastic engineering teams, world-class privacy and security teams, brilliant lawyers, and so many other wonderful human and technical resources — yet Google’s upper management apparently still hasn’t really grown up.

To put it bluntly, Google management in key respects treats ordinary users like disposable bathroom paper products, to be used and quickly disposed of without significant consideration of the ultimate impacts.

There’s a site out on the Web that calls itself the Google Graveyard — they list all the Google services that have appeared and then unceremoniously vanished over the years, leaving seas of disappointed and upset users in their wake.

Today Google apparently announced that they’re pushing up the death date for consumer Google+ to April. Just recently they said it was going to be next August, so loyal G+ users — and don’t believe the propaganda, there are vast numbers of them — were planning on the basis of that original date. Google is simultaneously citing a new minor G+ security bug and is apparently using that as an excuse. But we know that’s bogus, because Google simultaneously notes that this minor bug only existed for less than a week and there was no evidence of it being exploited.

Google just wants to dump its social media users who aren’t on YouTube. No matter the many years that those users on G+ have spent building up vibrant communities on the platform. We know Google isn’t killing the essential G+ technical infrastructure, since they plan to continue it for their enterprise (paying) customers.

Who knows, maybe Google will next announce that consumer G+ will shut down 48 hours from now.

Let’s face it, you simply cannot depend on Google honorably even sticking to their own service shutdown dates and not pulling the plug earlier — users be damned! Who really cares about the impacts on those users, right?

You want another recent example? Glad you asked! Google over the last handful of days suddenly, and with no notification at all, started removing a feature from Google Voice, causing the way incoming calls are treated by the system to suddenly change for users employing that option in call screening. Because Google didn’t bother to notify any Google Voice users about this in advance, users only found out when their callers started expressing confusion about what was going on. I’m in useful discussions with the Google Voice team about this situation, and Google asserts that most users didn’t choose a mix of options that were affected by this.

But that’s not the point! For those users who did use that option set, this was a big deal, a major disruptive change that they were not told about (and in fact, still have not officially been informed about as far as I know), leaving them no opportunity to take reasonable proactive actions and limit the negative impacts.

The list of similarly affected Google products and services goes on and on.  Google adds and removes features and changes user interfaces without warning, explanation, or frequently even any documentation. They kill off services — used by millions — on short notice, and even when they give a longer notice they may then suddenly chop months from that interval, as they have with G+.

Some might argue that users who don’t pay for Google services shouldn’t expect much more than nuthin’. But that’s garbage.

Vast numbers of persons depend on Google for many aspects of their lives. In many cases, they would happily pay reasonable fees for better support and some guarantees that Google won’t suddenly kill their favorite services! Innumerable people have told me how they’d happily pay to use consumer G+ or Google Voice under those conditions, and the same goes for many other Google services as well.

And yet, except for the limited offerings in “Google One” and media offerings like YouTube and Music premium services, essentially the only other way to pay for standard Google services is through Google’s “G Suite” enterprise model, which is domain-centric and far more appropriate for corporate users than for individuals.

Google knows that as time goes on their traditional advertising revenue model will become decreasingly effective. This is obviously one reason why they’ve been pivoting toward paid service models aimed at businesses and other organizations. That doesn’t just include G Suite, but great products like their AI offerings, Google Cloud, and more.

But no matter how technically advanced those products, there’s a fundamental question that any potential paying user of them must ask themselves. Can I depend on these services still being available a year from now? Or in five years? How do I know that Google won’t treat business users the same ways as they’ve treated their consumer users?

In fact, sadly, I hear this all the time now. Users tell me that they had been planning to move their business services to Google, but after what they’ve seen happening on the consumer side they just don’t trust Google to be a reliable partner going forward.

And I can’t blame folks for feeling this way. As the old saying goes, “Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

The increasingly shabby way that Google treats consumer users in the respects that I’ve been discussing here has real world impacts on how potential business users view Google.  The fact that Google has been continuing to pull the rug out from under their most loyal consumer users has not been lost on business observers, who know that even though Google’s services are usually technically superior, that fact alone is not enough to trust Google with your business operations.

Google works quite hard it seems to avoid thinking much about these negative impacts. That’s part of the reasons, I believe, why Google fights so hard against filling commonly accepted roles that so many firms have found to be so incredibly useful, such as ombudspersons, ethics officers, and user advocates.

In some ways, Google management still behaves as if Google was still a bunch of PCs stacked up in a garage. They still have not really taken responsibility for their important place in the world.

Personally, I still believe that Google can turn around this situation for the better. However, I am forced to admit that to date, I do not see significant signs of their being willing to take the significant steps and to make the serious changes necessary for this to occur.

–Lauren–

The DATA Says: Google’s “Dragonfly” Chinese Search Is Doomed

Google’s highly controversial “Dragonfly” project, exploring the possibility of providing Chinese-government censored and controlled search to China, is back in the news — with continuing protests by concerned Google employees, including public letters and other actions.

I have previously explained my opposition to this project and my solidarity with these Googlers, in posts such as: “Google Admits It Has Chinese Censorship Search Plans – What This Means” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/08/17/google-admits-it-has-chinese-censorship-search-plans-what-this-means) and other related essays.

There are a multitude of reasons to be skeptical about this project, ranging from philosophical to emotional to economic. Basic issues relating to freedom of speech and individual rights come into play when dealing with an absolute dictatorship that sends people to “reeducation” camps where they are tortured merely for having the “wrong” religions, or where making an “inappropriate” comment on the tightly-controlled Chinese Internet can result in authorities dragging you away to secret prisons.

There is also ample evidence to suggest that if Google proceeds to provide such search services in China, they will be mercilessly attacked by politicians from both sides of the aisle, many of whom already are in the ranks of the Google Haters.

But for the moment, let’s attempt to set such horrors and the politics aside, and look at Dragonfly in the cold, hard logic of available data. Google famously considers itself to be a “data-driven” company. Does the available data suggest that Dragonfly would be practical for Google to implement and operate going forward?

The answer is clearly negative.

Philosopher George Santayana’s notable assertion that: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is basically another way of saying “If you ignore the data staring you in the face, don’t be surprised when you get screwed.”

And the data regarding the probability of getting burned, screwed, or otherwise bulldozed by China is plentiful.

Google of course has plenty of specific data in hand about this. They tried providing censored search to China around a decade ago. The result was (as many of us predicated at the time) ever-increasing demands for more censorship and more control from the Chinese government, and then a series of Chinese-based hack attacks against Google itself, causing Google to correctly pull the plug on that project.

Fast forward to today, and Google management seems to be asserting that somehow THIS time it will all be different and work out just fine. Is there any data to suggest that this view is accurate?

Again, the answer is clearly no. In fact, vast evidence suggests exactly the opposite.

The optimistic assertions of Dragonfly proponents might have a modicum of validity if there were any evidence that China has been moving in a positive direction relating to speech and other human rights (in either or both of the technological and non-technological realms) in the years since Google’s original attempt to provide censored Chinese search.

But the data regarding China’s behavior over this period clearly demonstrates China moving in precisely the contrary direction! 

China has used this time not to improve the human rights of its people, but to massively tighten its grip and to escalate its abuses in nightmarish ways. And especially to the point of this discussion, China’s ever more dictatorially monitored and controlled Internet has become a key tool in the government’s campaign of terror.

China has turned the democratic ideals of the Internet’s founders on their heads, and have morphed their own Internet into a bloody bludgeon to use against its own people, and even against Chinese persons living outside of China.

The reality of course is that China is an economic powerhouse — the West has already sold its economic soul to China to a major degree. There is no reversing that in the foreseeable future. Neither threats nor tariffs will make a real difference.

But we still do have some free choice when it comes to China.

And one specific choice — a righteous and honorable choice indeed — is to NOT get into bed with the Chinese dictators’ Internet control and censorship regime.  

Giving the Chinese government dictators any control over Google search results would be effectively tantamount to embracing their horrific abuses — PR releases to the contrary notwithstanding.

The data — the history — teaches us clearly that there is no “just dipping your toe into the water” when it comes to collaboration with unrepentant, dictatorial regimes in the process of extending and accelerating their abuses, as is the case with China. You will not be able to make China behave any “better” through your actions. But you will inevitably be ultimately dragged body and soul into their putrid deeps. 

The data is obvious. The data is devastating. 

Google should immediately end its dance with China over Chinese censored search. Dragonfly and any similar projects should be put out of their miseries for good and all.

–Lauren–

Save Google — but Let Facebook Die

Do you know why Facebook is called Facebook? The name dates back to founder Mark Zuckerberg’s “FaceMash” project at Harvard, designed to display photos of students’ faces (without their explicit permissions) to be compared in terms of physical attractiveness. Essentially, a way he and his friends could avoid dating “ugly” people by his definition. Zuck even toyed with the idea of comparing those student photos with shots of farm animals. 

Immature. Exploitative. Verging on pre-echos of evils to come.

Fast forward to Facebook of today. As we’ve watched Zuckerberg’s baby expand over the years like a mutant virus from science fiction, we’ve had plenty of warnings that the at best amoral attitudes of Zuck and his hand-picked cronies have permeated the Facebook ecosystem. 

It’s long been a given that Facebook ruthlessly controls, limits, and manipulates the data that users are shown — to its own financial advantage. 

But long before we learned of Facebook’s deep embeds in right-wing politics, and the Russians’ own deep manipulative embeds in Facebook, there were other clues that Facebook’s ethical compass was virtually nonexistent.

Remember when it was discovered that Facebook was manipulating information shown to specific sets of users to see if their emotional states could be altered by such machinations without their knowledge? 

Over and over again, Facebook has been caught in misstatements, in subterfuge, in outright lies — including the recent revelations of their paying an outside PR hit firm to fabricate attack pieces on other firms to divert attention from Facebook’s own spreading problems, even to the extent of the firm reportedly spreading false antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Zuck and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg found an outgoing employee to fall on his sword to take official responsibility for this, and initially both Zuck and Sheryl publicly disclaimed any knowledge of that outside firm’s actions. But now Sheryl has apparently reversed herself, admitting that information about the firm did reach her desk. And do you really believe that control freaks like Mark Zuckerberg and Sandberg weren’t being kept informed about this in some manner all along? C’mon!

Facebook of course is not the only large Internet firm with ethical challenges. Recently in “The Death of Google” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), and “After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth” (https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/11/03/after-the-walkout-googles-moment-of-truth), I noted Google’s own ethical failings of late, and my suggestions for making Google a better Google. Importantly, those posts were not predicting Google’s demise, but rather were proposing means to help Google avoid drifting further from the admirable principles of its founding (“organizing and making available the world’s information” — in sharp contrast to Facebook’s seminal “avoid dating ugly people” design goal).  So both of those posts regarding Google were in the manner of Dickens’  “Ghost of Christmas Future” — a discussion of bad outcomes that might be, not that must be.  

Saving Google is a righteous and worthy goal.

Not so Facebook. Facebook’s business model is and has always been fundamentally rotten to its core, and the more that this core has been exposed to the public, the more foul the stench of rotten decay that Facebook emits.

“Saving” Facebook would mean helping to perpetuate the sordid, manipulative mess of Facebook today, that reaches back to its very beginnings — a creation that no longer deserves to exist.

In theory, Facebook could change its ways in positive directions, but not without abandoning virtually everything that has characterized Facebook since its earliest days. 

And there is no indication — zero, none, nil — that Zuckerberg has any intention of letting that happen to his self-made monster.

So in the final analysis — from an ethical standpoint at least — there is no point to trying to “save” Facebook — not from regulators, not from politicians, and certainly not from itself. 

The likely end of Facebook as we know it today will not come tomorrow, or next month, or even perhaps over a short span of years. 

But the die has been cast, and nothing short of a miracle will save Facebook in the long run. And whether or not you believe in miracles, Facebook doesn’t deserve one.

–Lauren–

My Thoughts on New Studies of Toxic Emissions from 3D Printers

Some new studies are quantifying the levels of toxic emissions from conventional 3D printers using conventional plastic filaments of various types. The results are not particularly encouraging, but are not a big surprise. They are certainly important to note, and since I’ve discussed the usefulness of 3D printing many times in the past, I wanted to pass along some of my thoughts regarding these new reports. (Gizmodo’s summary is here: https://gizmodo.com/new-study-details-all-the-toxic-particles-spewed-out-by-3d-p-1830379464).

The big takeaways are pretty much in line with what we already knew (or at least suspected), but add some pretty large exclamation points.

PLA filament generally produces far fewer toxic emissions than most other filament compositions (especially ABS), and is what I would almost always recommend using in the vast majority of cases.

The finding that inexpensive filaments tend to have more emissions than “name brands” is interesting, probably related to levels of contaminants in the raw filament ingredients. However, in practice filament has become so fungible — with manufacturers putting different brand names on the same physical filament from the same factories — it’s often difficult to really know if you’re definitely buying the filament that you think you are. And of course, the most widely used filaments tend to be among the most inexpensive.

My own recommendation has always been to never run a 3D printer that doesn’t have its own enclosed build area air chamber (which the overwhelming vast majority don’t) in a room routinely occupied by people or animals — print runs can take many hours and emissions are continuing the entire time. Printing outside isn’t typically practical due to air currents and sudden temperature changes. A generally good location for common “open” printers is a garage, ideally with a ventilation fan.

The reported fact that filament color affects emissions is not unexpected — there has long been concern about the various additives that are used to create these colors. Black filament is probably the worst case, since it tends to have all sorts of leftover filament scraps and gunk thrown into the mix — the fact that black filament tends to regularly clog 3D printers is another warning sign.

Probably the safest choice overall when specific colors aren’t at issue, is to print with “natural color” (whitish, rather transparent) PLA filament, which tends to have minimum additives. It also is typically the easiest and most reliable to print with, probably for that same reason.

The finding that there is a “burst” of aerosol emissions when printing begins is particularly annoying, since it’s when printing is getting started that you tend to be most closely inspecting the process looking for early print failures.

So the bottom line is pretty much what you’d expect — breathing the stuff emanating from molten plastic isn’t great for you. Then again, even though it only heated the plastic sheets for a few minutes at a time (as opposed to the hours-long running times of modern 3D printers), I loved my old Mattel “VAC-U-FORM” when I was a kid — and who knows how toxic the plastics heated in that beauty really were (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCvgvWiZNe8). Egads, not only can you still get them on eBay, replacement parts and plastic refill packs are still being sold as well!

I guess that they got it right in the “The Graduate” after all: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dug-G9xVdVs

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–

After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth

UPDATE (November 22, 2018): Save Google — but Let Facebook Die

– – –

Google has reached what could very well be an existential moment of truth in its corporate history.

The recent global walkout of Google employees and contractors included more than 20,000 participants by current counts, and the final numbers are almost certain to be even higher. This puts total participation at something north of 20% of the entire firm — a remarkable achievement by the organizers.

Almost a month ago, when I posted my concerns regarding the path that this great company has been taking, and the associated impacts on both their employees and users (“The Death of Google” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2018/10/08/the-death-of-google), the sexual assault and harassment issues that were the proximate trigger for the walkout were not yet known publicly — not even to most Googlers.

These newly reported management failures clearly fit tightly into the same pattern of longstanding issues that I’ve frequently noted, and various broad concerns related to Google’s accountability and transparency that have been cited as additional foundational reasons for the walkout.

Google today — almost exactly twenty years since its founding — is at a crossroads. The decisions that management makes now regarding the issues that drove the walkout and other issues of concern to Googlers, Google’s users, and the world at large, will greatly impact the future success of the firm, or even how long into the future Google will continue to exist in a recognizable form at all.

That so many of these issues have reached the public sphere at around the same time — sexual abuse and harassment, Googlers’ concerns about military contracts and a secret project aimed at providing Chinese-government censored search, and more — should not actually be a surprise.

For all of these matters are symptomatic of larger problematic ethical factors that have crept into Google’s structure, and without a foundational change of direction in this respect, new concerns will inevitably keep arising, and Google will keep lurching from crisis to crisis.

The walkout organizers will reportedly be meeting with Google CEO Sundar Pichai imminently, and I fully endorse the organizers’ publicly stated demands.

But management deeds are needed — not just words. After a demonstration of this nature, it’s all too easy for conciliatory statements to not be followed by concrete and sustained actions, and then for the original status quo to reassert itself over time.

This is also a most appropriate moment for Google to act on a range of systemic factors that have led to transparency, accountability, and other problems associated with Google management’s interactions with rank-and-file employees, and between Google as a whole and its users. 

Regarding the latter point, since I’ve many times over the years publicly outlined my thoughts regarding the need for Google employees dedicated to roles such as ombudsperson, user advocates, and ethics officer (call the latter “Guardian of Googleyness” if you prefer), I won’t detail these crucial positions again here now. But as the walkout strongly suggests, these all are more critically needed by Google than ever before, because they all connect back to the basic ethical issues at the core of many concerns regarding Google.

These are all interconnected and interrelated matters, and attempts to improve any of them in isolation from the others will ultimately be like sweeping dirt under the proverbial rug — such problems are pretty much guaranteed to eventually reemerge with even more serious negative consequences down the line.

Google is indeed a great company. No firm can be better than its employees, and Google’s employees — a significant number of whom I know personally — have through their walkout demonstrated to the world something that I already knew about them. 

Googlers care deeply about Google. They want it to be the best Google that it possibly can be, and that means meeting high ethical standards vertically, horizontally, and from A to Z.

Now it’s Google’s management’s turn. Can they demonstrate to their employees, to Google’s users, and to the global community, that loyalty towards Google has not been misplaced?

We shall see.

–Lauren–

Beware of “Self-Selected” Surveys of Google Employees

Late today I was sent a “press release” from “Blind: Your Anonymous Workplace Community” (“teamblind”) with the headline: 

88.4% of Google Conservatives Feel Their Political Views Not Welcome at Work

along with some response breakdowns of “liberal” – “moderate” – “conservative” and so on.

I wasn’t really familiar with Blind, but I did remember something from August where they claimed that:

65% of Google Employees Are in Favor of Censored Search

These are intriguing numbers, but as an old statistics guy from way back — ever since I read the 1954 (and still a classic) “How to Lie with Statistics” by Darrell Huff — I had to ask myself, what sort of statistically valid methodology is Blind using to gather these numbers?

Turns out — as far as I can tell at this point (and I’m certainly open to being corrected on this if I’m wrong!) — there appears to be no valid statistical methodologies in those surveys at all!

Blind’s primary model, as far as I can determine, is an app that interested users can install where various surveys are offered, and users who want to participate in particular surveys can choose to respond to them. 

To help ensure that workplace surveys are answered by actual employees of specific firms, Blind apparently verifies that users have appropriate corporate email addresses.

That serves to try keep random people out of the surveys, but doesn’t make those surveys in any way statistically valid, because they apparently remain fully “self-selected” surveys subject to the well known problems of “self-selection bias” effects.

In other words, you can’t infer any statistical information from these surveys beyond the opinions of the particular people who happened to be interested enough at any particular time to respond, and that will vary greatly depending on the nature of the questions and the types of people predisposed to install the Blind app and participate in any Blind surveys in the first place.

Your basic Statistics 101 course explains why the big polling organizations like Gallup — who do generate statistically valid surveys and polls — use carefully designed mathematical models to determine whom THEY will contact for surveys. They don’t just say “Hey, come on over and vote on this!” That’s why meticulously designed surveys of around 1000 or so people can be extremely accurate even when looking at national issues.

That’s not to say that Blind’s self-selected surveys regarding Google or other firms are worthless — they are indeed snapshots of interested users from subsets of their app’s user community. But that’s all.

It would be a tremendous error to try extrapolate from self-selected Blind surveys to any populations beyond the specific individual app users who chose to respond — so such surveys are essentially worthless for serious analysis or policy planning purposes.

This was true when Darrell Huff wrote his book in the mid-20th century, and it remains just as true today.

–Lauren–

Why Internet Tech Employees Are Rebelling Against Military Contracts

Of late we’ve seen both leaked and open evidence of many employees at Internet tech firms in the U.S. rebelling against their firms participating in battlefield systems military contracts, mostly related to cloud services and AI systems.

Some reactions I’ve seen to this include statements like “those employees are unpatriotic and aren’t true Americans!” and “if they don’t like the projects they should just quit the firms!” (the latter as if everybody with a family was independently wealthy).

Many years ago I faced similar questions. My work at UCLA on the early ARPANET (a Department of Defense project) was funded by the military, but was research, not a battlefield system. A lot of very important positive research serving the world has come from military funding over the years and centuries.

When I was doing similar work at RAND, the calculus was a bit more complex since RAND’s primary funding back then was also DOD, but RAND provided analytical reports to decision makers, not actual weapons systems. And RAND had a well-earned reputation of speaking truth to power, even when that truth was not what the power wanted hear. I liked that.

But what’s happening now is different. The U.S. military is attempting to expand its traditional “military-industrial” complex (so named during a cautionary speech by President Eisenhower in 1961) beyond the traditional defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon.

The new battle systems procurement targets are companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft.

And therein lies the root of the problem.

Projects like Maven and JEDI are not simply research. They are active battlefield systems. JEDI has been specifically described by one of its top officials as a program aimed at “increasing the lethality of our department.”

When you sign on for a job at any of the traditional defense contractors, you know full well that battlefield operational systems are a major part of the firms’ work.

But when you sign on at Google, or Microsoft, or Amazon, that’s a different story.

Whether you’re a young person just beginning your career, or an old-timer long engaged in Internet work, you might quite reasonably expect to be working on search, or ads, or networking, or a thousand other areas related to the Net — but you probably did not anticipate being asked or required to work on systems that will actually be used to kill people.

The arguments in favor of these new kinds of lethal systems are well known. For example, they’re claimed to replace soldiers with AI and make individual soldiers more effective. In theory, fewer of our brave and dedicated volunteer military would be injured or killed. That would be great — if it were truly accurate and the end of the story.

But it’s not. History teaches us that with virtually every advance in operational battlefield technology, there are new calls for even more military operations, more “interventions,” more use of military power. And somehow the promised technological advantages always seem to be somehow largely cancelled out in the end.

So one shouldn’t wonder why Google won’t renew their participation in Maven, and has now announced that they will not participate in JEDI — or why many Microsoft employees are protesting their own firm’s JEDI participation.

And I predict that we’re now only seeing the beginnings of employees being unwilling to just “go along” with working on lethal systems.

The U.S. military has made no secret of the fact that they see cloud environments, AI, robotics, and an array of allied high technology fields as the future of lethal systems going forward.

It’s obvious that we need advanced military systems at least for defensive purposes in today’s world. But simply assuming that employees at firms that are not traditional defense contractors will just “go along” with work on lethal systems would be an enormous mistake. Many of these employees are making much the same sorts of personal decisions as I did long ago and have followed throughout my life, when I decided that I would not work on such systems.

The sooner that DOD actually understands these realities and recalibrates accordingly, the better.

–Lauren–

The Death of Google

UPDATE (November 22, 2018): Save Google — but Let Facebook Die

UPDATE (November 3, 2018): After the Walkout, Google’s Moment of Truth

– – –

The Death of Google
Lauren Weinstein
8 October 2018

Blog: https://lauren.vortex.com/the-death-of-google
PDF: https://lauren.vortex.com/google-death.pdf
Google Docs: https://lauren.vortex.com/google-death.gdoc

Google is dying. It may be possible to save the patient, but it’s also quite possible that Google has already passed the point of no return, especially with the array of forces now attacking it from all sides and from within. Since this situation has been largely enabled by unforced errors committed by Google itself, the prognosis can only be described as bleak.

Unfortunately, I have strong doubts that Google is capable at this time of making the kinds of “lifestyle changes” that would be required to truly save themselves. I would love to have these doubts proven to be incorrect.

A company named Google and its parent Alphabet will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, but for all practical purposes the Google that we all know appears to be in a kind of terminal decline, even as the money continues rolling in for now.

How can this be?

Today’s announcements of a Google+ security breach and the upcoming shutdown of consumer Google+ are but immediate symptoms of a malignancy that has been creeping through Google for years. UPDATE (October 11, 2018): This turns out to be more of a bug than a breach per se, and as I note below its security impact is virtually nil. However, it still should have promptly been made public.

As a big fan of Google, spending a significant amount of my time retorting the mischaracterizations and lies of the Google haters via my written posts and radio interviews, I take no pleasure in this kind of diagnosis.

I’ve watched the death throes of other major technology firms over the years, who originally seemed nothing short of invincible. 

AT&T for one. Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was another. Their declines took time — these are processes rather than events. It’s actually a fairly long list if you go far enough back. DEC was assimilated into other firms and its talent siphoned off in various directions. AT&T today is still large and powerful but in many ways is but a shadow of its former self, with its gems like Bell Labs long since morphed into meaningless.

The forces that are ripping Google apart are somewhat different in kind, but all the more tortuous and painful to behold.

For at its core, Google is suffering a complex and multifaceted ethical dilemma that not only threatens to decimate the firm from the inside over time, but has opened up vast gaping wounds that legions of politically-motivated Google haters are using to further evil agendas.

I’ve traveled quite the arc when it comes to Google. In their earlier days starting some 20 years ago, I was a rather intense critic — various of their early data collection and privacy practices seemed to be driven by a cavalier attitude that I viewed as unacceptable.

My first direct physical contact with Google occurred in 2006, when I was invited to Google’s L.A. offices to give a talk that I entitled “Internet & Empires” (the video of that presentation by a significantly younger version of myself is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PGoSpmv9ZVc). 

I believe it was the first talk they’d ever recorded at that office. There was no podium yet — I just sat on the edge of a table for the presentation.

My interactions with Googlers that day — both from the Q&A and our later discussions before I headed home — yielded me an immediate epiphany of sorts.

Googlers are probably the best people I’ve ever met or worked with in tech — or anywhere else for that matter. It was an honor to consult to Google internally and work directly with them for a significant period several years ago.

They’re intelligent. They care. Many of them are pretty nerdy — but I certainly plead guilty to that myself. I’ve nearly never met a Googler that I didn’t like.

But it became immediately clear that day back in 2006 that something of a discontinuity existed between “rank and file” Googlers and some individuals in Google’s upper management. Even on that first day of contact, Googlers expressed to me their frustrations in this regard, relating to the very issues that I had discussed in my talk.

Over the years since, a wide range of issues related to Google have changed dramatically for the better. Google has become a world-class leader in privacy, security, and artificial intelligence policies. This doesn’t mean that Google is perfect in these respects, and bugs can still occur, but they have excellent people working on those teams — I know many of them personally — who put their lives into this important work. 

However, in key respects it seems that the chasm between Google’s management and other Googlers has grown from a disconnect to a gaping chasm.

Google has always had what I’d charitably call “blind spots” in various areas. Over the years I’ve written publicly about these many times, and I won’t go into detail about them again here, but we can briefly review a few.

Customer service has been an ongoing problem since day one. It has certainly made significant positive strides over time, but still is massively lacking in important respects, especially when dealing with growing populations of non-techie users who depend on Google products and services, but are increasingly left behind by Google user interface designs and available help resources.

When it comes to user interfaces, readability, and similar areas, we again see a sort of “split personality” from Google. They have excellent and rapidly evolving resources for persons with severe conditions like blindness, but continue to deploy low contrast fonts and confusing user interfaces that drive many users with common visual deficiencies absolutely nuts.

Proposals to create the kinds of roles at Google that have been so successful elsewhere — such as Ombudspersons and Consumer Advocates — have continually and routinely hit brick walls at Google whenever I’ve suggested them. I’ve probably written a hundred thousand words or more on this topic alone in my various essays about Google issues.

It has been very clear that Google’s style of public communications has became a major part of their ongoing problems — because in my experience so many common false claims about Google are easily refuted when you take the time to actually do so in a way that non-techies will appreciate.

Yet Google PR has always had a tendency to clam up when something controversial occurs — until the situation has escalated to the point that silence is no longer an option, and matters have become much worse than they would have been if dealt with publicly in a prompt fashion. Google’s deeply entrenched fear of the “Streisand Effect” — the idea that if you say anything about a bad situation you will only draw attention to it — has not served them well.

Today’s belated announcement of a security breach related to Google+, which appears to be the handy excuse for Google to shut down consumer Google+ over a period of 10 months — a process that Google also announced today — encapsulates much of what I’ve said above.

Though the practical impact of the breach seems to be negligible, Google played directly into the politically-motivated hands of the lying Google haters, who have already been screaming for Google’s blood and for its executives to be figuratively drawn and quartered. 

These kinds of Google communications strategies are giving the evil haters even more ammunition to use for false accusations of political user censorship, they give the EU additional excuses to try fine Google billions extra to enrich EU coffers, and they give massive energy to the forces who want to break up Google into smaller units to be micromanaged for political gain by politicians and those politicians’ minions and toadies. 

In the case of Google+, while I don’t have any inside information about today’s announcements, it’s pretty easy to guess what happened.

I’ve been a very active user of Google+ since the first day of beta availability in 2011. But it was obvious from the outset that Google management’s view of the platform was significantly different from its many dedicated users — and there are many millions of them despite the claims of naysayers. I have a wonderful core following of Google+ users who are absolutely great people, and the loss of Google+ will make me both sad and yes, extremely angry. It’s difficult to consider this to be anything short of loyal users being betrayed by Google itself.

Because it didn’t have to happen. Google+ has obviously been operating on very limited internal support resources for quite some time — this was apparent to anyone who used G+ routinely. And there were some terrible executive decisions made along the way — perhaps mostly notably an ultimately abandoned integration of G+ and the YouTube commenting system, which cross-contaminated completely different spheres of interest with disastrous effects. I advocated against this both publicly and internally, but even though it was ultimately rescinded the damage was already done.

Another Google self-inflicted injury is the new controversy over purported plans for Google to again provide Chinese government censored search in China, a concept that Google abandoned many years ago. I’ve written a lot about this recently — I believe it’s a terrible idea and plays into the hands of Google’s adversaries — but I won’t get into the details again here, other than to note the great distress that these moves and the ways that they were handled internally have caused many Googlers who have spoken out publicly.

And yet as I’ve also recently written, when we view that leaked Google TGIF video where Google executives discuss this matter, you won’t see any evil intents, and in fact you’ll find execs emphasizing the need to continue preventing any political bias from finding its way into Google search or other Google products. So their hearts are clearly in the right place overall.

But even the best of intentions are not enough.

With the opening words of Google’s 2004 IPO Founders Letter, Larry Page and Sergey Brin wrote:

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

I can’t help but be reminded of that classic scene in “Citizen Kane” where Charles Foster Kane takes the “Declaration of Principles” that he’d written many years earlier and rips them to pieces, declaring them to now be antique.

It is indeed possible, even likely, that Google can continue onward without the kinds of changes that I and other Google supporters have advocated over the years, and still make bushels of money.

But it won’t be the same Google. It will have become the “conventional company” kind of Google, not the firm of which so many Googlers are so rightly proud, and that so many users around the globe depend upon throughout their days.

The Google that we’ve known will be dead. And with its passing, we’ll be entering into a much darker phase of the Internet that many of us have long feared and have worked so hard to try prevent.

And that loss would be terrible for us all.

–Lauren–

How to Disable Gmail’s Annoying New “Smart Compose” Predictive Typing Feature

UPDATE (October 6, 2018): It appears that at least some Gmail users are now getting an (apparently one-time) pop-up box giving the option to turn off “Smart Compose” when it first becomes active for them. This is definitely an improvement. However, if someone accepts that default (“Got it”) to try it out, there’s no clue provided to help the user turn it off again at some future time, without digging around in the user interface as I describe below. Many users report regretting accepting it in the first place, since they didn’t know how to turn it off afterwards.

– – –

I had sort of hoped that Google would step up to the bat on this one themselves, but my inbox is still full of queries about this — all day, every day.

Google recently deployed a feature in Gmail that tries to guess what you’re about to type, and “helpfully” fills it in for you. They activated it by default, with no information provided to users (not even a one-time pop-up information bubble) explaining how to turn it off. (Please see update above regarding this aspect.)

I’ve seen this “Smart Compose” feature described publicly with a range of adjectives, including intrusive, wonderful, invasive, creepy, accurate, loony, mistaken, helpful, misguided — well, you get the point, opinions are all over the map.

In my case, I’d say that “annoying” is the descriptor I’d sort to the top of the heap. 

With the understanding that Google has great AI and is itching to use it whenever and wherever possible, I don’t really need it analyzing my email drafts as I type them. At least in my case, its proposed wordings are nearly always — what’s the technical term? — oh yes, WRONG. Not what I intend or want to write. 

And the predictions intrusively and continuously interrupt my flow of typing as each one needs to be individually bypassed. 

More Google-enhanced “dumbing-down” I really don’t need. Luckily, like the silly little “smart reply” labels that Gmail pops up by default these days (also useless for me, but far less annoying than Smart Compose”) this feature CAN be disabled.

Of course, you have to go on the usual Google user interface scavenger hunt to figure out how to turn this new feature off, because as I noted above, Google sprung it on everyone without information about opting out from its tender mercies. (Please see update above regarding this aspect).

I would not assert that “Smart Compose” is useless. For users who do find it helpful that’s excellent, fine, and dandy. More power to them, as the saying goes. Smart Compose generally seem more acceptable and helpful for mobile use — though Google mobile voice input is so good that voice is my own preferred method to input text on mobile.

My foundational complaint here isn’t that Google deployed Smart Compose, but rather that they enabled it by default without providing users even basic related information, including the all important “How the hell do I turn this damned thing off?” — the very question filling my inbox of late! (Please see update above regarding this aspect.)

So here’s how you turn it off. It’s easy, IF you know how.

Click the desktop Gmail gear icon at the upper right. Then click Settings. You should already be on the General tab at this point. Scroll down until you find “Smart Compose” and click the “Writing suggestions off” choice. Many users assume that their changes have taken effect at this point. Nope, not yet. You next must scroll all the way to the bottom of the page and click “Save Changes” to actually cause any changes to take place.

By the way, you can also turn off the “Smart Reply” feature I mentioned above, via this same settings page. 

There are many better ways that Google could have deployed Smart Compose. Instead of enabling it by default, they could have popped an invitation to try it. Or if it had to be enabled by default, they could have popped a little box saying something like “Can be disabled on the General tab in Gmail settings” — or something along these lines. (Please see update above regarding this aspect.)

Unfortunately, the way that Google chose to launch Smart Compose is rather emblematic of continuing blind spots in Google’s attitudes toward user interface design and the needs of their very wide community of users. 

Google can easily do better, if they choose to do so by considering the needs of ALL users in these user interface decisions and designs.

–Lauren–