Archive for the ‘public policy issues’ Category


April 3, 2009

It’s a difficult thing to struggle not to use Google in any aspect of one’s online activities.  As long as one is free to make that choice, and not unduly inconvenienced in one’s effort to make that choice, ok.  But for some folks, participation in the world that Google is creating is not a choice but instead an invasion.  This, I think, may be a useful distinction and an interesting point of departure for wondering how the private (one’s home) becomes public (visible to passers-by), and how the public becomes private (leverage for Google ad dollars).

Thoughtful slacking

March 28, 2009

Well if my blog was for a grade – or worse for a job – I would be failed and fired.  Instead of dwelling on why I have not kept up with my blogging–which would require me to sit down and write about why I spend too much time thinking and not enough time writing–I might as well get down to it.

– My Mac died earlier this month (temporarily, thank gods), so I was forced/lucky enough to use a friend’s machine for a few days.  Windows, complete with a desktop Google search bar (not sure if it searched the computer or the Internet or both) and Google set as the homepage.  I avoided both, but it was an interesting reminder about my choices and everyone else’s defaults and habits.

– Google is more useful than I reckoned for academic purposes.  Last week I used Yahoo to search for a particular sentence in a student paper that was obviously plagiarized.  Yahoo didn’t find the original paper, so I violated protocol and switched to Google, which came up with it as the top hit.  I know this is anecdotal, but it reaffirms my trust in Google and suspicion of other search engines for finding what I am hoping to find.  I think any more substantial discussion of these sorts of issues would require a more scientific study, which I neither have the time nor the energy to construct and perform.  In fact I can’t even be bothered to search for people who have done such things.  This sort of reinforces the notion that users, when given a wide range of choices, tend to go with instinct rather than empirical facts. Especially when such facts are hard to come by, but my advertisement-addled brain thinks it knows what I should trust.  On a related note, I haven’t encountered anything that comes close to being a competitor to Google Scholar (although I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking).

– In a similar vein, I was recently recalling a particularly brilliant lecture from an undergraduate professor of mine, James Merrell, who was talking about an attitude of “boundlessness” among Americans at the turn of the 18th century.  I wanted to see if he or anyone had published on the topic, so I turned to the WWW.  A quick search using Yahoo and another search engine (maybe hakia) turned up nothing.  This time I didn’t cheat – I didn’t regress to Google.  Instead I was left with the nagging feeling that I was missing out on something that could be at my fingertips, if only I had the right tools.  I also used JStor to see if he had published anything on the topic – but without success.  Perhaps I should send him an email – I’m sure he’d be somewhere between delighted to hear from me and puzzled about why that particular lecture has stuck in my head for 15 years.

– Google books.  Cheers to my friend Nystrom (a Linux-head and constructive contrarian by instinct, it should be noted), whose comment to use the Internet Archive for texts is a smart one.  For the record, has the 1909 edition of the Origin of Species (another text I am using for class – yes I am moving along at a fast clip); Google books has an 1875 edition.  IA does not, it seems, have the sort of page-by-page scrolling feature that Google Books has – you need to download the whole book and then let Acrobat or Preview (or whatever reader Linux uses 😉 deal with it.

– Changing subjects a bit and moving into the realm of public policy, one of the Google-related news stories I came across was this one about Google Voice and the potential legal problems that may follow from Google’s not-that-sly move into telecom.  Apart from privacy issues, this move also raises consolidation of power issues that IMHO Google would be smart to avoid.  This is a case where, on the surface, it seems like the marginal gain isn’t worth the increased legal risks.  But I’m just a history professor, not a lawyer or anybody who actually makes marketing decisions.

– We talked in one of my classes about the challenges of putting health records into electronic databases.  A great idea on the surface, and President Obama sure is pushing it, but even my sleepy and trusting students thought it would be a little bit weird for Google (or, worse, Microsoft) to be a centralized manager of health information. Gotta love the rhetoric though – “Google Health puts you in charge of your health information.”  To which I can see any number of users responding “Hey, what could possibly go wrong??”

– Finally, the point when I wondered why I bother: an article that reported that “craigslist” has replaced “myspace” as the top search term as recorded by a market research company that measures click-throughs.  This is interesting for only one reason: it tells me that people don’t understand how to use a browser address bar.  What kind of a world is this?  If you had told me that there are even 10 people in the country who, if they wanted to go to craigslist, would go to google (or any search engine) and type “craigslist,” I would have laughed in your face.  Yet the other top ranked sites include ebay, facebook, and netflix.  (Does anybody realize that if you type those same neologisms into an address bar, you get to where you want to go?)  The only actual search term–and by this I mean a natural language term, not a url that is not a real English word–was “yellow pages.”  I am absolutely astonished and dismayed by this.  I wonder if this sort of thing leads to mass depression among the designers and usability folks at Mozilla, Safari, Opera, etc?  I guess this underscores the point that the political economy of search is WAY more important than the convoluted politcal economy of DNS.  If I were a Google executive I would be thrilled with this news.  I wonder when people will realize that ICANN has just been a smokescreen (or magnet for academics who fantasize about “multistakeholder governance”), and the real action has been going on at, facebook, twitter, and other masters of the “first hit is free” school of network effects?  They collect our money and our trust, and we choose to give it to them.

PS – maybe folks will begin to see things more clearly and critically when Siva’s book comes out?

Google in the News

March 26, 2008

My silence indicates that it is getting easier and easier to avoid using Google in my own web-surfing life.  Yet there have been 2 news stories in the past few days that indicate others may not have it so easy.

1. The saga of Geert Wilders and his reportedly offensive film.  The story here can be briefly summarized: Dutch right-wing politician/filmmaker decides to make a movie called “Fitna” that argues the Koran is “fascist.” (What is the deal with these Northern European fanning the flames of hate?) Dutch TV stations (sensibly) refuse to show it; Wilders in turn decides to put it on the Web; at which point the company that hosts his website, Network Solutions, declares that his (still unseen) film violates their acceptable use policy, or something, and suspends his site.

There is, obviously, a lot to talk about here, including whether the norms of the
First Amendment apply to the rest of the world (or if they should);  if Network Solutions’s actions therefore are “censorship”; and how easy it would be for Wilders simply to get another website and/or move his domain to another hosting company. Most commentators seemed to get caught up in the first points, a sort of Danish cartoon rehash.  My own take was to recall the old saying (attributed to John Gilmore, founder of the EFF) that the “Net treats censorship as damage and routes around it.” Basic principles of distributed networks here–although the interesting part of the Wilders story is that it exposes the points of control in an allegedly uncontrolled (or uncontrollable for cyberlibertarians) network.  And Network Solutions turns out to be one point of control – a choke point, if you will.

All this is interesting enough; but a post by Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard and Oxford cyberlawyer extraordinare) to Dave Farber’s IP mailing list exposed another choke point: Google.

Zittrain’s main point was to show how NetSol (which had come under a lot of criticism from the American anti-censorship types) could be playing multiple roles here: name registrar, host of domain name registry, and/or website host for Wilders’ site.  NetSol thus has several opportunities to influence content on the Web.  But a throwaway line at the end of the post was, for me, most revealing:

“There are plenty of alternative places to host a site — but only one domain name that may have accrued Google karma, inbound links, etc.”

The point here is about “Google karma”–that all names are not the same, and that Google (or rather Google’s algorithms) decides who is worthy of attention and who is not. The same, of course, can be said for any search engine.  The key comes down to how they decide how to match search terms with what is “out there” on the Web.  The difficulty of this decision–from a purely qualitative standpoint–is something I can sympathize with.  Historians are supposedly “objective” interpreters of the past (this caricature is partially our own fault).  The reality is that we choose what to call “history” and we choose what to ignore.  Of course Google (and web search in general) is a different kettle of wax (or ball of fish, mix whatever metaphors you like)… and they are in the business of convincing surfers (and investors) that their quantitative search results are a good match for qualitative desires.  But the fact remains that they decide what people see–and for people like Wilders who just want some attention, these decisions take on heightened importance.

There is also the theory that this whole saga is an April Fools hoax. If only that
were true…

2. This morning I came across this totally weird heaadline: “Rich Parents Prefer Google, Are Better At Spotting Suspect Info.”
How can you not want to read a story with a headline like that?
An alternative headline might have read: “55% of the richest survey participants in a group of 120 people surveyed 4 years ago liked Google.”
I won’t get into some of my skepticism about research methodologies used to measure “skills divides”; and it’s unfortunate for everyone that data like these take 4 years (!?!) to analyze and publish. The study, of course, does not appear to ask (or answer) questions such as “why do they prefer Google?”  But–and I stress, this is according to the little news write-up I linked to above, and I have lazily and probably regrettably not read the full article in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology–they do come up with a sensational conclusion: governments should help educate their citizens.  Amen!