Category Google

Fake news and the faded idealism of the web

Tim Berners Lee issued an epistle recently, a call to action to save the web from some dangers which concern him.

One of them “misinformation” (or “fake news” as it rather more commonly and hysterically known). It’s a problem, he says. Everyone says it, and they’re right. Tim doesn’t identify the solution but he does have an interesting comment about the cause.

In fact the roots of the misinformation problem go right back to the birth of the web and the panglossian optimism that a new environment with new rules could lead to only good outcomes. The rights of creators, their ability to assert them and the failure of media business models on the web are at the heart of the problem – and point the way to solving it.

The problem

“Today, most people find news and information on the web through just a handful of social media sites and search engines” says Tim. Interestingly, he doesn’t mention news products or sites as a source of news.

He is definitely right about the immediate cause of the problem. But why is it that social media and search are the leading sources of news? Why is it that fake news is more likely to thrive there? Could it be something to do with the foundations of the web that Tim himself helped create?

Tim is not a fan of copyright. “Copyright law is terrible”, he said in an interview three years ago.

He is not alone in the view that copyright is incompatible with the web. In fact, the web has largely ignored copyright as it has developed, as if it’s just an error to be worked around.

However innocuous and idealistic this might have seemed at the start, it has evolved into a crisis for the creative sector, which finds it ever-harder to generate profits from their online activities.

But it has been a boon for the social media sites and search engines Tim talks about. They depend completely on the creative output of others. If you deleted all the content created by others from Google search and Facebook, what would be left? Literally nothing. It’s important for those businesses that content stays available and stays free.

So we find ourselves in an era when so-called “traditional” news media continues to struggle and the panic about “fake news” is growing ever greater. This is not a coincidence.

Fake or true is about trust

News is, at least in part, a matter of trust. You see a piece of information somewhere. Should you trust it? Is it true? What is this news and who is giving it to me?

The answer is usually a matter of context. If you saw something in, for example, a newspaper you know and trust, you’re more likely to trust it. Stripped of meaningful context, or presented in a misleading context, it’s much harder to know whether to treat something posing as news should be believed.

The social media sites and search engines which now bring us our news show us things which they call news but which they have harvested elsewhere. They didn’t create it, they can’t vouch for it, they don’t and can’t stand behind it.

But they create their own context, using algorithms which, like all algorithms, open to being gamed and abused.

These platforms are also widely trusted by their users. They create a false trust in information which, simply because of the fact that they fed it to someone, their users are predisposed to believe.

Their ability to analyse our personal data and put a personal selection in front of every user, makes it worse. No two users of Facebook ever see quite the same thing. Each has their own editor which reflects and confirms that person’s prejudice. Is this really the best way for people to find out about the world?

Who wins?

The reason it works this way is, of course, financial. The currency being traded is clicks – the desire for a user to interact with a piece of content or an ad. Pieces of content exist on their own, outside a product from which they were removed by the platforms and re-purposed as free and plentiful raw material for their click-creating, algorithm driven, machine.

Money is made from all this, but very few of the players get to make it. By far the lions share goes to the social networks and search engines, specifically Google and Facebook. They control the personal data which underlies the whole activity, and they operate at such gigantic scale that even tiny amounts of money resulting from a user doing something are magnified by the sheer volume of activities.

That’s why they rely on machines to do the editing. Anything else would be catastrophically inefficient.

In response to the Fake News hysteria that they are belatedly trying to distinguish between fake and true news, but of course they’re doing it using algorithms and buzzwords, not people.

Employees are expensive and silicon valley fortunes depend on using them as little as possible. They’re not “scalable”.

Who loses?

So it comes as no surprise that the person who usually does worst in this whole new media landscape is the person who actually created the content in the first place. They couldn’t help investing time and money in doing so.

Yet, however popular their work turns out to be, they struggle to make money from it because the money-making machinery of the internet us all built around automation. The work of creators can be automatically exploited, ultra-efficiently, without payment and without restraint by others. No wonder they do it.

But it’s not hard to see that it’s a perverse situation which concentrates revenue in the wrong place. Not only is that obviously unfair, it also gives rise to deeper problems, including fake news.

So the rest of us, the so-called end users, are collateral damage. We’re the ones caught in the middle, on the one hand being used as a source of advertising revenue for the giant platforms, on the other being fed this unreliable stream of stuff labelled, sometimes falsely, as “news”.

It’s important that creators can make money from their work

The inability to make money from content, particularly news content, gives rise to some very undesirable outcomes.

The rationale for investing in creating news content is undermined. It’s expensive and inefficient, and increasingly hard to make profitable in an internet which is optimised for efficiency and scalability. So news organisations cut costs, reduce staff, rely more on third parties. Less original news is created professionally.

Third parties sometimes step into the void to generate news and provide information. But they aren’t always ideal either. Often they are partisan, offering a particular point of view and have a principal loyalty not to the readers but to the agenda of their clients. PR people and spin doctors, for example, who have always been there trying to influence journalists and who can now, often, bypass them.

Others are more insidious. They might present themselves as experts, impartial or legitimate news organistions but in fact have another agenda altogether. Ironically, some of them might find it easier to sustain themselves because their primary goal is influence, not profit – their funders measure the rewards in other ways.

Some news organisations, for example, are state funded and follow an agenda sanctioned by their political paymasters. Others hide both their agenda and their funding and present themselves alongside countless others online as useful sources of information.

We can see where fake news comes from.

Products matter more than “content”

It’s made worse by the habit of the big platforms to disassemble media products into their component pieces of content, and present them individually to their audiences.

A newspaper, made up of a few hundred articles assembled from hundreds of thousands made available to the editors, is disassembled as soon as it’s published and turned into a data stream by the search and social algorithms.

The data stream, with every source, real and fake, jumbled up together is then turned back into a curated selection for individual users. This is done not by editors but by algorithms which present reliable and unreliable sources side-by-side and without the context of a surrounding product.

The cost of “free”

The consumer, as Tim Berners-Lee points out and frets about, is the victim of this. They don’t know when they’re being lied to, they don’t know who to trust. They might, understandably, invest too much trust in the platforms which are, in fact, presenting them with a very distorted perspective.

Their data and other peoples content is turned into huge profits for the platforms, but at the cost of undermining the interests of each individual user and, therefore, society as a whole.

Think about the money

When considering how this problem might be solved we have to think about the money.

For news organisations to be able to invest in employing people and creating news, two interlinked factors are essential.

The first is that they need to be able to make enough money to actually do all that. They need to make more than they spend. Profit is not a distasteful or optional thing, it’s an absolute necessity.

The more, the better because it encourages competition and investment.

The second is that the profit needs to be driven by the users. The more people are seeing of your product, the more opportunity to make money needs to arise – therefore the more you need to invest in delighting users and being popular by having a great product.

Running to stand still

This isn’t necessarily what happens when revenue is generated from advertising. Yields and rates tend to get squeezed over time, so even maintaining a certain level of revenue requires growth in volume every year. For many digital products, this means more content, more cheaply produced, more ads on every page. And, often, higher losses anyway.

When money is algorithmically generated from the advertising market, nearly all of it passes through the hands of a couple of major platforms. Their profits aren’t proportional to their own investment in the content they exploit, but to that of others. Good business, of course, and fantastically profitable.

Their dominance of the market, enabled by the internet, is unconstrained by regulators or effective competition. http://precursorblog.com/?q=content/look-what’s-happened-ftc-stopped-google-antitrust-enforcement This causes the profits to accumulate in great cash oceans in silicon valley, inaccessible and useless to the creators and media businesses whose search for a viable business model goes on.

The only other way

The only way for media products to make money, other than from advertisers in one form or another, is from their users directly.

Where revenue is earned by delighting consumers, their trust has to be earned and preserved. When those users are paying for your product, and choose whether to pay or not, pleasing them becomes more important than anything else.

Then the playing field for the fake news content and products gets tilted the other way by journalism which can not only afford to, but has to, shine a spotlight on the lies and dishonesty of others and where investment is rewarded by profit.

Tim Berners-Lee is wrong to hate copyright

This is why Tim Berners-Lee and others are wrong about copyright in the digital age. It might have seemed wrong to them when seen against the backdrop of an idealistic, utopian vision of the digital future.

But seen in the rather uglier light of today’s online reality its virtues are rather more apparent.

Copyright is a human right

Copyright gives creators some control over the destiny of their work. It applies to everyone who creates anything – that means you and I as well as so-called “professionals”.

Tim argues obsessively that everyone should have the right of control over data that is generated about them – privacy is his great hobby horse.

But he has argued the opposite about the near identical rights that copyright already gives to the creative works people create themselves.

The web isn’t the utopia everyone hoped for

The time has come for Tim Berners-Lee and others to acknowledge the mistake they have made about copyright. Arguing that it should be weak or non-existent doesn’t just help concentrate power and money in the hands of a tiny cadre of internet oligarchs, destroying opportunity for others at the same time.

It also destroys the economic basis for a plural, free and fearless press. It makes the space for misinformation and fake news. It betrays its users with the false promise of something for nothing. The price we really pay for the “free” web is becoming more and more obvious.

We are seeing right now how dangerous that false promise is.

It might not be fashionable but we can learn the lessons of history here. Copyright works. The idealism of the early internet has encountered a number of reality checks but the strange antipathy towards copyright has persisted and every attempt to change it has been rebuffed.

When wondering why this might be don’t forget to consider those oceans of cash swilling around on the west coast of America and ask the question “who benefits from this?”

It certainly isn’t the rest of us.

When is a link not a link?

When is a link not a link?

When someone posts a link on Facebook, the first thing that Facebook does it make a little abstract of the page they’re linking to and post it underneath. The headline, a picture or logo, a little bit of text. Takes a second or two to appear. Very handy. I can see what’s on the page without even clicking the link.

Like this. I just typed the URL and Facebook did the rest.

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But what if I own the page on the other end of the link, and I don’t want Facebook to do that? How do I stop them?

That question is part technical and part legal.

Is there any way of blocking the Facebook robot from copying the page and creating their own mini-copy of it for presenting in Facebook newsfeeds? Could it be done without blocking everyone else? Do they honour the robots exclusion protocol? (Yes, I know, I should do an experiment to find out).

But, also, is it legally OK? They are copying my stuff and they certainly aren’t asking first. Then they’re turning it into their own mini-version of my stuff, different from mine. What do they do with the copies of my version and of theirs? How can I find out?

My reason for wondering about this is because I was wondering how to reduce my exposure to Facebook. Get off it completely, obviously, would be the ideal. But like many others, I like the fact that Facebook keeps a tiny thread of connection open between me and people I would otherwise be completely detached from.

What I don’t like is that they can build up a complete record of my life. My pictures, my movements, they can recognise my children and my friends. I don’t like all that.

So I want to post my stuff somewhere else, a blog for example, and just put the links in Facebook. Have a way to talk to my friends, but without them sucking all my stuff right back in again.

It does open up a copyright can of worms as old as the web, and which people don’t really like to talk about.

At what point does the automated copying, storing, modification and re-publishing of other peoples stuff stop being a “fair use” (as the americans, who, lets face it, seem to have de facto dominance, would put it) and start being something which requires permission?

It was this question whcih led to the Automated Content Access Protocol. In part it led to the Copyright Hub. It’s lurking in the background of the forthcoming Publishers Right in the EU.

The right of businesses to grab, process, store and copy other peoples stuff seems to just be assumed now. Whole, HUGE, businesses depend on it. Search engines for a start, but also companies like Pinterest as well as, to a lesser extent, Facebook.

Perhaps it’s OK for that to be the default (although I can’t bring myself to embrace this). But surely the question I ask at the top shouldn’t be such a mystery. I have asked various geeks and they’re not quite sure. How DO you stop Facebook grabbing stuff from your site?

Surely it should be easy?

The old way, the copyright way, is that they can’t, unless you say it’s OK. That seems reasonable to me.

But if we’re going to have an internet-era reversal, where it’s OK until you say it isn’t, surely that should’t be a difficult thing to do.

So, geeks and scholars, what am I missing? I realise it’s probably more of a thought experiment than a realistic prospect. But in that spirit, how could I make a nice place online where I can put things, keep it open to humans but stop the likes of Facebook coming in and grabbing it all?

If your answer is “you can’t” or “put a password on it”, does that reasonable?

I think the internet could do better.

The free flow of hypocrisy

I’ve been hearing this phrase “the free flow of information” a lot lately. It’s been in the context of the “Publishers Right” and it is usually preceded by the phrase “will restrict”.

The heart of the concern seems to be the idea that if permission is needed before digital publications can be exploited by others, it could limit, for example, the ways in which those works can be indexed and discovered in search engines.

The argument seems to be that restricting access to “information”, imposing conditions on its use or treating some users, like automated machines, differently from others, like humans, is not just improper but sinister and shouldn’t be allowed.

Google are a leading voice in this argument, so lets have a look at how they work.

Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” is pretty much the ultimate expression of the ideals of free information advocates. For them to make something universally accessible it has to be completely unrestricted. But how unrestricted and accessible is Google itself?

You might not know it, but you can’t use Google without their permission and in return for a payment. If you’re a Google-like machine, you can’t access it at all. The universe of those who can access Google is rather less all-encompassing than their mission suggests.

Try this. Download a new web browser, install it, don’t copy across a any settings or cookies or anything. The go to Google – don’t log in.

You’ll see something like this:

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A little privacy reminder about Google’s (increasingly extensive) privacy policy sits at the top. If you click through you’ll be asked to click to show you accept the policy. Nice of them to go to effort to make sure you’re aware of it especially because it gives them pretty extensive rights to gather and exploit information about you.

This is how they pay for the free services they offer – they take something valuable from you in return and use it to make money for themselves. It’s a form of payment.

And if you don’t click to accept it, eventually you’ll see something like this:

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You are actually not allowed to use Google until you have agreed explicitly to give them payment in the form of the data they want to gather and use.

So: using Google can only be done with their permission and in return for payment in the form of data.

There’s no technical reason for Google’s restrictions. They could offer a search service without gathering any data about users at all (and other services do). Their reason for these restrictions are obviously commercial: they need to make money and this i how they do it.

Whether or not you consider this to be reasonable (after all, every business needs to be able to make money), it doesn’t seem to sit very comfortably with their mission to make “all the world’s information… universally accessible”.

Nor, by the way does their blanket ban on “automated traffic” using their services, which includes “robot, computer program, automated service, or search scraper” traffic. They ban anyone who does what Google does from accessing the information which they have gathered from others using automated traffic. “Universal access” in Google’s world doesn’t apply to services like Google – it is a service for humans only.

Again, you might think this is reasonable, but contrasting it with their demand that their machine should be allowed to access other peoples services without restriction or permission is interesting.

Google insists that everyone – human and machine – needs their permission (and needs to pay their price) before accessing and using their service. But they oppose any law which might require Google to similarly obtain permission or pay a price when they access other peoples services.

It’s absurd that there should be such a strong lobby against such an obviously reasonable and uncontroversial thing at the Publishers Right.

Google is a company which vies to be the world’s largest, and which depends for its revenues on its ability to impose terms, restrictions and forms of payment on its users. It’s hypocritical of them to object to the idea that other companies should not be allowed to do the same.

The objections to the Publishers Right, and copyright more generally, are far too often the self-interest of mega-rich companies posing as the public interest. The credulity of politicians has, thankfully, reduced in recent years and they are more inclined to regard such lobbying sceptically.

There is no conflict between the need of media companies to have business models which allow them to stay in business and the “free flow” of information. There is no conflict between the desire to distinguish between human users and machine-based exploiters of their content.

For information to flow freely, those who create it need to be able to operate on a level playing field with those who exploit it, and need to be able to come to agreements with them about the terms on which they do so. To suggest otherwise, even in the most libertarian of language, is absurd.

Permissions, babies and bathwater

A few months ago I started seeing this when I went to Google sites…

 

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Kind of funny, the privacy reminder. I’m guessing most people don’t see this because most people are logged in to Google most of the time and so have accepted their terms explicitly when they log in. But I’m not. As you can see I did a bit of investigating, and about a week later the message changed…

 

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I’m actually banned from using Google unless I accept their terms. I still don’t fancy this so it has given me an incentive to try out other search providers and – guess what – I get along fine. Great.

But it’s a bit more annoying than that because sometimes other people use Google to host things (YouTube videos, maps, documents etc) and so I’m not really using Google when I want to look at those things, Google just happens to be hosting. The price for me to watch the video, view the document, see the map is to make an agreement with Google to collect information about me. A quick look at their privacy policy confirms this is quite a long list of things they want permission to collect.

So… I can work around that if I try – “incognito” browser window (I get the “privacy reminder” message, still, but I’m not blocked), different computer, etc. But it’s annoying.

But look at this:

 

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And this

 

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Really strange. My browser can’t connect to Google sites at all. Now perhaps this was some weird technical thing – but the internet was working fine for other sites (you can see that the second one is a YouTube video embedded in a Bing search result) and I didn’t get the same error in other browsers.

So I can’t help wondering if Google’s servers are now refusing to talk to me at all. Sent my computer to Coventry. Pretending not to be there.

Whether or not that’s what happened it makes me think about the whole issue of permission, Google’s insistence that users must explcitly agree to give them data as a condition of being able to use their service brings the whole issue of “free” into clear sight.

Google isn’t free. They require quite a lot in return for being able to use their services. A quick summary from their privacy policy:

  • Information you give them such as “name, email address, telephone number or credit card to store with your account… photo”
  • Information they just gather from your machine such as device information – “hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number”
  • Usage information such as “details of how you used our service, such as your search queries; telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information and types of calls; Internet protocol address; device event information such as crashes, system activity, hardware settings, browser type, browser language, the date and time of your request and referral URL; cookies that may uniquely identify your browser or your Google Account”
  • Location information

And so on. Lots of stuff you have to give them before they’ll let you use their service. And they use it for a pretty broad range of things, also explained (although not, in my view, very clearly) in their privacy policy.

None of this is a criticism of Google. I think this is rather great, actually. I like that the deal is being made clear – at least to people who aren’t logged into Google, and that they can make their own choice about whether to click the “accept” button.

But it does highlight the issue. Permission matters – and not just in copyright.

It highlights another issue too which I alluded to above. It’s all very well asking me to opt in as a condition of using Google’s services, and all very well for me to decide not to and live without them if I want.

But what about when I’m NOT using Google’s services? I’m using someone else’s and it just so happens that THEY have decided to use Google to help?

Look at this email I got today from a company called Brewbot who make a cool device I will probably never own which brews beer for lazy people like me.

 

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I’m a sucker for a chance to win some swag, so I clicked the link to their survey and this is what I got…

 

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It’s a Google doc and it doesn’t work for me. It does if I use another browser, or an incognito window, but in my normal browser I get this inability to connect to Google. Whether or not this is related to the privacy policy issue I don’t know but there does seem to be a pattern here.

So Brewbot, it turns out, seem to have been unwittingly recruited as a data gatherer for Google. Before I can offer my survey results to Brewbot I have to agree to silently give Google the long list of stuff I described above.

Or, to look at it another way, companies using Google to host their surveys, documents, videos, whatever, are actually only able to offer those things to opted-in Google users. Not to everyone. As long as Google remains ubiquitous perhaps the distinction isn’t obvious, but who is aware of it?

This seems dysfunctional to me, and unfair. It seems a high price to pay, for users and for companies who are using Google’s services (and may well be paying for them) for reasons that are nothing to do with Google’s core consumer services.

At its heart it highlights the conundrum which is central to so many of the issues which copyright people – as well as the internet at large – need to sort out. This silent, unknowing, pervasive process which takes the place of permission and transparency is not, in the end, serving the broad interests of the users of the internet.

I’m unusual in not having accepted Google’s terms, which means I am also unusual in seeing these messages which make what’s going on slightly more explicit to me.

But isn’t this an interesting perspective from which to consider the question of price and value on the internet. While money often doesn’t change hands, rendering lots of internet services nominally “free”, lots of other valuable stuff is still given in return – and if it’s not, the service is withdrawn.

At the heart of it all, value is being exchanged for permission. The same thing that happens in the copyright world. It needs to be done better.

Google seeks licences from rightsholders, world still turning

So, despite a campaign to prevent it, the Germans have changed their copyright law a little bit, raising the possibility that search engines might have to pay a fee for news content they access.

Google has responded by changing the rules of Google News in Germany to make it “opt in”.

In other words, before Google will crawl German news sites, they will obtain permission from the publisher.

A licence, you might call it. The thing copyright law always said you needed before copying and exploiting someone else’s content.

I have seen no mention of any basis for sitting down and, you know, actually negotiating the terms of the licence with Google, talking about what you want from them in return. I presume their opt-in is a “take or leave it” sort of thing. They don’t seem to be offering money, which we can all clearly see they couldn’t possibly afford with only $10bn profit last year on a pitiful $50bn turnover.

All the German news publishers can have, it seems, is their random share of the supposed 6 billion (mostly completely worthless) visits which Google News sends to publishers. I hope they find this offer resistible bearing in mind the minimal impact that being out of Google News is likely to have on their bottom line.

Still. Google seeking licences, eh? Asking permission? Admittedly, they only seem to be doing so to avoid being forced to share a tiny slice of their enormous wealth with those who provide their raw materials. A little tight-fisted perhaps.

But it shows that their might be new life in the old copyright dog yet. And new value, if a permission based internet starts to creep slowly closer.

A turning point: is professional creativity under threat?

There has been a lot going on, and I have been keeping my thoughts to myself. For the most part, it’s a bit depressing.

The UK government (PDF link) is still seeking to change the law so that new exceptions (aka appropriations) to copyright can be introduced whimsically by politicians without bothering to trouble parliament for a discussion first.

The wrong-headedness of this is obvious to anyone who understands how copyright works, and thank goodness it is being challenged legally by Thomson Reuters and others.

Then the French threw in the towel in their Google challenge. Having started the fight, perhaps unwisely, on a point of principle, they have given it up, utterly feebly, thanks to Google waving a cheque around. Not even a big cheque (about 14 hours of revenue for Google, I reckon – and given that they said the original proposal was a “threat to their very existence” that’s a bargain by anyone’s reckoning).

They have ended up in a situation even worse than the status quo they were challenging. The money won’t last long but the legacy of a crippled business model will continue indefinitely. They would have been much better off simply withdrawing their content.

Now, extraordinarily, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that copyright itself is illegal. Well, sort of. They seem to be saying that in many cases it is trumped by human rights law. A sort of general exception to copyright, bigger and broader than any dreamed up by even the most moronic and wilful governments.

It all seems to be getting a bit out of hand. What started as a ridiculous demonisation of copyright by people with a vested interest in being able to use other people’s stuff for free (and, in the process, grow to be among the biggest and richest companies in the world) has gone through the phase of being taken seriously by craven, populist and dim-witted politicians into a sort of orthodoxy which pervades legislative and judicial thinkers.

It’s important for everyone to step back, when they’re thinking about copyright, and consider what it’s really all about. It’s not about media corporations, monopolies, ripping off consumers, interfering with freedom of expression or otherwise damaging the cultural or economic interests of society and individuals.

At its heart, it’s about enabling people with the talent, energy and motivation to make a living from being creative.

If their work – your work maybe – effectively becomes common property as soon as its created, it’s going to make professional creativity – already in decline in many sectors – an even more perilous and penniless career choice.

We’re not there yet. Creative work isn’t quite common property. But the ability to control it, commercially and otherwise, is being chipped away at.

The UK government wants to be able to give people a right to use your stuff, whether you like it or not, whenever they feel like it.

The ECHR says that sharing your work can sometimes amount to a human right, more important than any rights you might have.

The French government, having actually stood up for its creative sector and pointed the finger at the legality and fairness of what Google do, threw their concerns aside in return for a trivial sum of money and a fleeting moment of ego-puffery for their president.

It’s not clear where the counterbalancing opportunity is going to come from. Creativity in all its forms has been one of the most revered and important facets of our society, and its most accomplished practitioners have earned respect and wealth in proportion to their achievements, and it has spawned a huge cultural and economic sector driven by the simple connection of popular success to reward.

Thanks to governments, courts and huge industrial opponents, the reward is going to be harder to come by in the future. What impact will that have on the creativity?

 

(updated 10th February 2013)

Permission to know what is going on, sir?

Google have released a new thingy, which allows people to save web content to their Google Drive (Google’s cloud-based storage thing), and do various things to it like add comments and annotations.

Nothing much unusual about that, and there are lots of similar things out there like the formerly discussed bo.lt. Not to mention every computer in the world, which copies and stores all the web content which comes its way.

The fact that is is so ordinary highlights one of the challenges of the internet for the future. The idea that keeping and changing copies of content you happen to come across should be controversial. It’s not allowed by the law, after all. To the extent that it happens as a consequence of browsing, it is the result of a technical design decision decades ago rather than a natural and inevitable consequence of digitisation.

In fact, digitisation could just as easily do the opposite. Rather than requiring multiple copies to exist, digitisation holds out the possibility of a single copy of something being accessible to everyone. To read a book, for example, you don’t need to hold your own copy in your hand any more. Everyone can read the same copy.

Of course, if we imagine the internet without the constant, prolific and uncontrolled copying which is embedded within its technical protocols, it’s a very different place. Fundamentally, creators would know what was happening to their content, because they would have some control over the master copy. Creative success would be better rewarded and so the internet economy would truly be a creative economy. The protocols and marketplaces of the internet would have sprung up around the idea of permission rather than presumption, and huge new opportunities would have arisen as a consequence.

Contrast that with what we have. Google’s product, and many others, work on the assumption that permission is entirely unnecessary. Making copies, changing work, sharing it with others is all just fine.

The usual circular justification for this (“it’s fine because everyone does it, it’s how the internet works, if it wasn’t fine the internet wouldn’t work”), itself absurd, doesn’t really cover it. After all, copyright hasn’t been abolished yet, and this activity isn’t embedded in the bandwidth-compensating early internet protocols which still underpin things like web browsing (and subsequently protected by various laws, new and old, or generous interpretations of them).

Permission is still, in law, required to make a copy of something. Permission can be denied, perhaps because the proposed copying is damaging, or insufficiently rewarding, or just because someone decides to say “no”.

That concept doesn’t seem to feature in Google’s product. It doesn’t say how a site owner can prevent people copying their content in this way, and I’m guessing that is because they can’t. Doubtless a tortuous DMCA takedown process can be used by anyone who discovers a copy they don’t like (complete with intimidating – and copyright infringing – report to Chilling Effects if the complaint goes to Google) but no ability to prevent it happening in the first place.

The idea of permission seems to just be absent from increasing parts of the internet.

Permission for search engines to create massive, permanent and complete databases of all the content they come across isn’t needed, they say. Part of their justification is that while they might keep huge databases, they only show “snippets” to users, which makes it OK. Oh, but the content owner can’t decide on what snippet is shown either.

The need for permission to be obtained before content is copied for things like bo.lt and this new Drive thingy isn’t needed either. Well, it is in law, but not in practice. Finding and removing copies, wildly impractical and expensive, also requires considerable formalities and the promise of punishment by publishing your complaint, as if exercising your legal rights is somehow wrong.

And now the cloud is creating a new category of permissiveness, things done in private or for small audiences. It’s OK to create a service which facilitates illegal copying because it’s the equivalent of something which would otherwise have happened behind closed doors. As if the law stops at your front door.

This is all a bit scary, it means control is getting ever looser at the same time as the ability of technology to tame the chaos is increasing.

Why shouldn’t a creator want to know who has made copies of their work and why? Is it unreasonable to want to make sure corrections, changes or withdrawal of content actually takes effect? Why shouldn’t someone be able to refuse permission for a use they don’t like or which conflicts with something else they’re doing? Or keep something exclusive to themselves?

And, obviously, what’s wrong with wanting to make money from your work and wanting to stop people stealing it or other people making money.

It’s notable, as I have observed before, that the companies making the most money from content on the internet are those who invest the least in its creation. This seems to be getting worse, not better, even as the technical capabilities to reverse it increase.

The creation of new services, which are entirely detached from the technical baggage of the past, which actually and actively exacerbate this catastrophic trend shows, not for the first time, the contempt with which technology companies view content and creators. Offering users a convenience, without any consideration for reasonableness or the law, isn’t “disruptive” or “user-focussed”, regardless of whether users would be doing it anyway without your help. It’s amoral, self-interested and just wrong.

The internet’s potential to elevate creativity and creative success to the very pinnacle of our culture and economy is still there, but it is still under sustained attack constantly. A permission-driven internet is an opportunity, not a threat.

How much longer we’ll be able to cling to the idea that it can happen, though, is questionable.

The French fancy making life hard for Google, but are they kidding themselves?

After the revelation that withdrawing from Google News seems to do little (if any) damage to publishers, Eric Schmidt has been in France trying to persuade the President not to allow news publishers to charge Google for including their content on Google News.

Google says such a move would “threaten the very existence” of Google. A feeble protest, and an overblown threat. As if anyone thinks such a thing could kill Google; but even if it could why should anyone care? If Google isn’t smart enough to know how to innovate their way past challenges then maybe their days are numbered anyway.

Google also say that if the French persist with this they will just stop including French content in Google News. Based on the Brazilian experience that’s not much of a threat, since the French publishers probably wouldn’t feel much impact at all.

More intriguing is why the publishers don’t just withdraw their content rather than ask their government to get involved. They can do it any time they like; nobody forces them to be included in any Google search.

It might sound like a wizzard wheeze to get the law changed to force payment but there’s a flipside. If such a condition is imposed by law rather than negotiation, it could end up making Google’s access to their content a right, as long as payment is made.

I think control should stay with publishers, they should set terms and prices, the government should provide the framework within which they do so and then stand well back.

As soon as government start interfering, treating different categories of content differently, setting prices or terms or anything else bad things happen. The market, such as it is, gets locked in to a particular way of working and it destroys future innovation and competition. And this market hasn’t even got started yet, we shouldn’t force old age on it quite yet.

I know French (and German, and other) newspaper industries are desperate for revenues, and easy quick ways of getting them are attractive, but this sort of thing is a last resort. Traditionally they are reserved for when everything else has failed.

There are a few things to try first. Here are some suggestions for beleaguered newspapers trying to work out how to deal with search.

Be brave.

Withdraw your content from Google News. Maybe even from Google search (leave enough behind so people searching for your title can find it). And other search engines too. Since you get so little money from those sources, you’ll be risking little. And you can turn it back on easily enough.

If a search engine offers to make it worth your while to include your content in their product, negotiate with them. Do a deal which works for you – payment, helping sell subscriptions, ad share, whatever.

Tell your readers about it, why your content is in one place and not another. Point out the gap in the results they get from the search engines which don’t want to do a deal.

If none of them want to pay you, use them to deliver what you need, not what they need. Put enough stuff in them to attract the attention you need, and no more. Experiment with the best way to do that, and constantly refine your approach. Use other channels and relationships to attract users. Ask your users to pay, and work hard to make sure your product is worth paying for. Spend your SEO budget on other kinds of marketing, or just save it.

Just do something. Stand up for yourselves and the value of what you do.

Make a market.

Stop being so impotent and stop asking governments to load the dice in your favour.

The law you need is already there; just start using it.

No to Google News: common sense or suicide? – An update

Well that didn’t take long.

Apparently the Brazilian boycott of Google News has cost them just 5% of their traffic. They think that’s “a price worth paying”. I’d say so too. I don’t know how their revenues stack up but I would be surprised if the financial cost was much greater than zero.

As Techcrunch says, the source (the Brazilian newspaper association) isn’t exactly unbiased but if this number is correct then “Google could be in trouble”.

Saying no to Google News: common sense or suicide?

Brazilian newspapers have, en masse, withdrawn their content from Google News.

The response, not least from Google itself, is the usual mix of unhelpful and self-interested grandstanding. Google’s comparison of themselves to a cab driver bringing customers to a restaurant is particularly absurd, since most restaurants want customers who can pay, and aren’t interested in being flooded with people who can’t or won’t.

For me, the best thing about this move is it will create some real evidence which can be used in place of all the posturing and crystal-ball gazing which normally accompanies any discussion of the merits or otherwise of having content in Google search results.

The bald facts are pretty stark for most newspapers.

If they’re ad-funded, the majority of their revenue is generated by a relatively small proportion of their users. More traffic does not mean more money, necessarily.

Traffic from Google, or Google News, is of varying value and in many cases a large proportion of it is close to zero value to the newspaper. It neither delivers a significant direct income from ad sales, because of excess inventory, nor does the user go on to become a loyal and frequent visitor. Often, users are satisfied with the content they see on Google News and don’t visit at all. Even when they do, their next move is straight back out of the site again – so called “drive by” visitors.

Last time I looked at actual logs it was clear that the visitors most likely to become loyal were ones who used your actual newspaper title in their search terms. In other words having your home page in search engines was enough to target the most attractive potential visitors.

So if your goal is to focus on those users who might become loyal and frequent, high-value, visitors (the actual paying restaurant customers, in Google’s analogy), you might want to experiment with trying to control who comes and who exploits your content. In the real world it is called marketing, knowing your customer, having a strategy for targeting the people you’re most interested in. Withdrawing from Google News, given that so little revenue accrues from it, is a low risk thing to do and will potentially deliver much valuable data to help separate fact from speculation.

If, into the bargain, Google values your content enough to really want it, then maybe they will sit down and discuss a deal. If not, nobody has lost anything, and once you have learned enough you can decide if, how and when to put some or all of your content back into search.

I look forward to seeing what happens, and am pleased to see someone actually do something instead of just endlessly talking about it.

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