Sergey Brin on Internet Freedom

Over the weekend, The Guardian published an article in which Google co-founder Sergey Brin was interviewed. The Guardian distilled Brin’s views as follows:

The threat to the freedom of the internet comes, he claims, from a combination of governments increasingly trying to control access and communication by their citizens, the entertainment industry’s attempts to crack down on piracy, and the rise of “restrictive” walled gardens such as Facebook and Apple, which tightly control what software can be released on their platforms.

Today, Brin took to Google+ to clarify his position and explain that his thoughts “got particularly distorted”:

Today, the primary threat by far to internet freedom is government filtering of political dissent. This has been far more effective than I ever imagined possible across a number of nations. In addition, other countries such as the US have come close to adopting very similar techniques in order to combat piracy and other vices. I believe these efforts have been misguided and dangerous. 

Lastly in the interview came the subject of digital ecosystems that are not as open as the web itself and I think this portion has led to some misunderstanding of my views. So to clarify, I certainly do not think this issue is on a par with government based censorship. Moreover, I have much admiration for two of the companies we discussed — Apple and Facebook. I have always admired Apple’s products. In fact, I am writing this post on an Imac and using an Apple keyboard I have cherished for the past seven years. Likewise, Facebook has helped to connect hundreds of millions of people, has been a key tool for political expression and has been instrumental to the Arab Spring. Both have made key contributions to the free flow of information around the world.

It’s good to know that Brin loves Apple products. Also of note is Brin’s recommendation to check out Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet.

The Life and Death of Words

An intriguing new paper by Alexander M. Petersen et al. presents the findings of Google’s digitization project (scanning millions of books). From their abstract:

We analyze the dynamic properties of 107 words recorded in English, Spanish and Hebrew over the period 1800–2008 in order to gain insight into the coevolution of language and culture. We report language independent patterns useful as benchmarks for theoretical models of language evolution. A significantly decreasing (increasing) trend in the birth (death) rate of words indicates a recent shift in the selection laws governing word use. For new words, we observe a peak in the growth-rate fluctuations around 40 years after introduction, consistent with the typical entry time into standard dictionaries and the human generational timescale. Pronounced changes in the dynamics of language during periods of war shows that word correlations, occurring across time and between words, are largely influenced by coevolutionary social, technological, and political factors. We quantify cultural memory by analyzing the long-term correlations in the use of individual words using detrended fluctuation analysis.

How many words are in the English language? The paper gave the best-yet estimate of the true number of words in English—a million, far more than any dictionary has recorded (the 2002 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary has 348,000). More than half of the language, the authors wrote, is “dark matter” that has evaded standard dictionaries.

The paper also tracked word usage through time (each year, for instance, 1% of the world’s English-speaking population switches from “sneaked” to “snuck”). It also showed that we seem to be putting history behind us more quickly, judging by the speed with which terms fall out of use. References to the year “1880” dropped by half in the 32 years after that date, while the half-life of “1973” was a mere decade.

Finally, the authors identified a universal “tipping point” in the life cycle of new words. Roughly 30 to 50 years after their birth, words either enter the long-term lexicon or fall off into oblivion. How that’s for a half-life?

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(via Wall Street Journal)

Google Glasses are Coming

In a time when many of us are trying to find ways to disconnect from the online world, Google wants to barrage us with an invention they will unveil later this year: Google Glasses. The New York Times has the scoop:

According to several Google employees familiar with the project who asked not to be named, the glasses will go on sale to the public by the end of the year. These people said they are expected “to cost around the price of current smartphones,” or $250 to $600.

The people familiar with the Google glasses said they would be Android-based, and will include a small screen that will sit a few inches from someone’s eye. They will also have a 3G or 4G data connection and a number of sensors including motion and GPS.

Seth Weintraub, a blogger for 9 to 5 Google, who first wrote about the glasses project in December, and then discovered more information about them this month, also said the glasses would be Android-based and cited a source that described their look as that of a pair of Oakley Thumps.

They will also have a unique navigation system. “The navigation system currently used is a head tilting to scroll and click,” Mr. Weintraub wrote this month. “We are told it is very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users.”

The glasses will have a low-resolution built-in camera that will be able to monitor the world in real time and overlay information about locations, surrounding buildings and friends who might be nearby, according to the Google employees. The glasses are not designed to be worn constantly — although Google expects some of the nerdiest users will wear them a lot — but will be more like smartphones, used when needed.

The project is currently being built in the a secretive laboratory of Google X. What can I say? This is something that I am not looking forward to (unlike the self-driving cars). On a related note: what happened to Google+? I’ve essentially stopped using the service.

How a Con Artist Cost Google $500 Million

The Wall Street Journal has a remarkable story on Mr. Whitaker, a federal prisoner and convicted con artist, who was the lead actor in a government sting targeting Google that yielded one of the largest business forfeitures in U.S. history. For four months, Whitaker posed as an agent for online drug dealers in dozens of recorded phone calls and email exchanges with Google sales executives, spending $200,000 in government money for ads selling narcotics, steroids, and other controlled substances. In a stunning turn of events, Google agreed to pay a $500 million fine in 2011 to avoid prosecution. The story is behind a paywall, but you can read the major part below:

Mr. Whitaker’s path to undercover operative began in 2005, when he took millions of dollars in orders for Apple iPods and other electronics at below market prices and skipped town without filling the orders, according to his account and court documents. He hopscotched around the U.S. in a private jet, evading arrest and protected by a private security detail. He briefly rented a Miami mansion for $200,000 a month.

He fled to Mexico in 2006 and started an Internet pharmacy, selling steroids and human growth hormone to U.S. consumers through Google ads, he said. The two substances—sold in the U.S. by prescription only—are sought by body builders to add muscle and by older consumers seeking to slow the signs of aging; they aren’t approved in the U.S. for such uses. Google’s policy prohibited advertising their sale online.

“It was very obvious to Google that my website was not a licensed pharmacy,” Mr. Whitaker wrote to the Journal. “Understanding this, Google provided me with a very generous credit line and allowed me to set my target advertising directly to American consumers.”

Mr. Whitaker was arrested in Mexico in March 2008 for entering that country illegally and returned to the U.S. to face charges of wire fraud, conspiracy and commercial bribery in the iPod case. Mr. Whitaker told U.S. authorities about the alleged role Google played in helping his Mexico-based pharmacy.

Federal prosecutors, seeking to test the allegation, set up a task force in early 2009 with Mr. Whitaker’s help. On weekdays, he was escorted from the Wyatt Detention Facility in Central Falls, R.I., to a former school department building in North Providence, R.I. There, under the watch of federal agents, he set a snare for Google.

Posing as the fictitious Jason Corriente, an agent for advertisers with lots of money to spend, Mr. Whitaker bypassed Google’s automated advertising system to reach flesh-and-blood ad executives. Federal agents created http://www.SportsDrugs.net, designed to look “as if a Mexican drug lord had built a website to sell HGH and steroids,” Mr. Whitaker said in his account of the sting.

Google first rejected it, along with an anti-aging website called http://www.NotGrowingOldEasy.com. But the company’s ad executives worked with Mr. Whitaker to find a way around Google rules, according to prosecutors and Mr. Whitaker’s account.

The undercover team removed a link to buy the drugs directly—instead requiring customers to submit an online request form—and Google approved it. “The site generated a flood of email traffic from customers wanting to buy HGH and steroids,” Mr. Whitaker said.

To pay Google’s fees for the growing online traffic, undercover agents made payments every two or three days with a government-backed credit card.

Federal agents grew more brazen. They created a site selling weight-loss medications without a prescription, according to Mr. Whitaker and people familiar with the matter. They also added another site selling the abortion pill RU-486, which in the U.S. can only be taken in a doctor’s office.

Google’s ad team in Mexico approved the site, so U.S. consumers searching for “RU 486” would see an ad for the site. Google ad executives allowed the agents to add the phrase “no prescription needed.”

Days later, federal agents added links to buy the drugs directly. Such sales broke U.S. laws prohibiting the sale of drugs from outside the country and without a prescription. “There were photos of the drugs, descriptions, labels that clearly printed out that we were shipping without a prescription and it was from Mexico,” Mr. Whitaker said.

By the end of the operation in mid-2009, agents were buying Google ads for sites purportedly selling such prescription-only narcotics as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Agents also got Google’s sales office in China to approve a site selling Prozac and Valium to U.S. customers without a prescription.

“Google’s employees were instrumental in bypassing policy regarding pharmacy verification,” Mr. Whitaker told the Journal. “The websites were blatantly illegal.”

At the agents’ direction, Mr. Whitaker said he signaled his illegal intent to Google ad executives, including Google’s top manager in Mexico. As a tape recorder ran, he walked Google executives through the illegal parts of the websites. He said he told ad executives that U.S. Customs had seized shipments, for example, and that one client wanted to be “the biggest steroid dealer in the United States.”

Agents at first ignored the flood of orders. But as the ersatz sites morphed into full-fledged Internet pharmacies, they worried that clients, some sick, would be expecting medication.

So customers were told they had to become members by filling out an online form and to receive a “membership kit.” The kits never arrived, but it stopped users from placing orders, Mr. Whitaker said.

In the summer of 2009, U.S. agents visited Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to tell corporate executives about the evidence they had collected. Prosecutors served grand jury subpoenas and eventually collected four million pages of internal emails and documents, as well as witness testimony.

The federal task force, which also included the Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigation, was preparing criminal charges against the company and its executives for aiding and abetting criminal activity online, prosecutors said.

Google hired attorney Jamie Gorelick, the former deputy U.S. Attorney General under President Bill Clinton. Two years later, the company reached a settlement with the government, a decision that stopped the likely introduction of emails to top Google executives had the case gone to trial.

“Suffice to say this was not two or three rogue employees at the customer service level doing this on their own,” said Mr. Neronha, the U.S. attorney. “This was corporate decision to engage in this conduct.”

Six private shareholder lawsuits have so far been filed against Google’s executives and board members, alleging they damaged the company by not taking earlier action against the illegal pharmacy ads.

Google has other potential legal exposure. Record companies and movie studios say Google willfully profits from illegal Internet piracy—an issue raised last week, when Congress dropped antipiracy legislation after opposition from Internet companies, including Google.

A 2011 study commissioned by NBC Universal estimated that nearly a quarter of all Internet traffic relates to pirated movies, TV shows and games. “There’s big business in being agnostic about what sites you place your ads on,” said Jay Roth, national executive director of Directors Guild of America, which backed antipiracy legislation.

Online scams pose another potential legal threat. Searches relating to mortgage refinancing have been among the most popular on Google, Eric Schmidt said in 2009 when he was chief executive. An investigation by Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, found that a large number of companies selling “mortgage modification” on Google bore the hallmarks of fraud.

The special inspector general’s office for the Troubled Asset Relief Program in November said it had shut down 85 alleged online loan modification schemes that defrauded homeowners through Google ads.

“Google has a natural long-term financial incentive to make sure that the advertisements we serve are trustworthy so that users continue to use our services, and we aren’t afraid to take aggressive action to achieve that goal,” the company said.

To end the sting, federal agents killed off Mr. Whitaker’s fictional character. They sent the Google employees a final email, allegedly from Jason Corriente’s brother, saying the online entrepreneur died in a car crash.

Mr. Whitaker, who pleaded guilty and faced a maximum 65-year prison term, was sentenced in December to six years, following what federal prosecutors called “rather extraordinary” cooperation. He is due for release in two years.

 

On YouTube

John Seabrook’s New Yorker piece “Streaming Dreams” explores, in-depth, the development and growth of YouTube. It’s well worth the read.

On the first video ever uploaded to YouTube:

On the evening of April 23, 2005, Karim uploaded the first video to YouTube—an eighteen-second clip of him, standing in front of the elephant enclosure at the San Diego Zoo, wearing an ill-fitting hiking jacket. He says, “The cool thing about these guys is that they have really, really, really long trunks, and that’s cool,” smirks a little, and ends with “And that’s pretty much all there is to say.” Civilization would never be the same.

On the immensity and growth of YouTube:

Today, it has eight hundred million unique users a month, and generates more than three billion views a day. Forty-eight hours of new video are uploaded to the site every minute. According to Nielsen, it drew eight times more video viewers last year than Hulu, which is jointly owned by NBCUniversal, News Corporation, and the Walt Disney Company, among others. It is the first truly global media platform on earth.

There is the premise of users and consumers in the piece. I am strictly a consumer: I’ve never uploaded a single video to YouTube.

Google X, a Top Secret Lab

I’ve known that Google has a lot of secret projects up its sleeve, and this New York Times piece provides some further guidance:

It’s a place where your refrigerator could be connected to the Internet, so it could order groceries when they ran low. Your dinner plate could post to a social network what you’re eating. Your robot could go to the office while you stay home in your pajamas. And you could, perhaps, take an elevator to outer space.

These are just a few of the dreams being chased at Google X, the clandestine lab where Google is tackling a list of 100 shoot-for-the-stars ideas. In interviews, a dozen people discussed the list; some work at the lab or elsewhere at Google, and some have been briefed on the project. But none would speak for attribution because Google is so secretive about the effort that many employees do not even know the lab exists.

The driverless cars are a number of years away from formal introduction into the marketplace…But until then, this sounds like a bad idea:

Google could sell navigation or information technology for the cars, and theoretically could show location-based ads to passengers as they zoom by local businesses while playing Angry Birds in the driver’s seat.

Apparently, Google X operates both at Google’s campus in Mountain View, CA and in an undisclosed top-secret location. Hmm.

So who’s involved with Google X?

A leader at Google X is Sebastian Thrun, one of the world’s top robotics and artificial intelligence experts, who teaches computer science at Stanford and invented the world’s first driverless car. Also at the lab is Andrew Ng, another Stanford professor, who specializes in applying neuroscience to artificial intelligence to teach robots and machines to operate like people.

I received an email from Thrun over the weekend, regarding my progress in the online Artificial Intelligence course. Unfortunately, I ended up pursuing other interests in the last couple of weeks and had to drop the course. It was excellent from the three weeks in which I actively participated in it, however.

On Early Employees and the Google Chef Situation

A recent Wall Street Journal article caused controversy regarding Zynga’s path to an IPO. Did Zynga have any right to declare that early employees give up their stock options?

The quote below also caused a stir in the blogosphere:

Built into that arrangement [stock options] is the chance that … some very early employees will end up with bigger windfalls than latecomers who contribute more to the company. Many in Silicon Valley cite an early-hired Google Inc. cook whose stock was worth $20 million after the firm’s 2004 IPO.

Zynga attempted to avoid such pitfalls. In meetings last year, Zynga executives said they didn’t want a “Google chef” situation, said a person with knowledge of the discussions.

The Google chef situation refers to an early employee at Google, Charlie Ayers, who made $20 million from his stock options at Google. Does this seem fair/right to you? Well, if you read this former Google engineer’s response, you’ll understand why the chef was important to the company. This software engineer argues that what Charlie contributed to Google on a daily basis was more than he (the software engineer) ever did. It’s a must-read post:

Working at a startup is hard. The hours are long, the stress can be brutal, and there is no guarantee of success. In fact, the odds for a raw startup (which is what Google was when Charlie joined) are very much against you. I have no idea what Google’s deal with Charlie was, but typically you take a pay cut for a shot at the brass ring. Charlie didn’t make $20M for cooking, he made $20M for taking the risk that the company he was joining would fail and that he could end up five years older, unemployed, and with nothing to show for his trouble.

But it is not Zynga’s failure to grasp this basic fact of startup economics that bothers me, it is their singling out of Charlie in particular because he’s a chef. As someone who was there in the early days I can tell you that Charlie Ayers contributed more to Google’s success that I did, and I was a senior software engineer.

Providing quality food to an ever-growing roster of hungry engineers is not an easy task. Charlie and his staff worked harder on a light day than I ever did (or probably ever will). If you doubt me, take a job in a restaurant kitchen some time. Not only that, but the stakes are higher than most people realize. Feeding a few hundred people in a professional setting is not just taking the process of preparing a home-cooked meal and multiplying. If a software engineer screws up, the site goes down. But if a chef screws up, people get sick. In extreme cases, they die.

If I were to point out that no one ever got sick from eating Charlie’s food most people would consider than to be damning with faint praise, but that is just a testament to how well Charlie did his job. Not only did he keep us well feed and free from salmonella, he inspired us. When I said that the best restaurant in town was Google’s cafeteria that was no exaggeration. Charlies food was outstanding, day in and day out. (It still is. If you’re in the Bay Area, do yourself a favor and have a meal at his restaurant.)

But Charlie’s contribution to Google’s early success went even well beyond that. Charlie was a friend and a cheerleader. Everyone at Google got to know him because everyone went through the lunch line, and Charlie was always there making sure everything was ship-shape. And Charlie got to know us, got to know our individual tastes and preferences, and bent over backwards to accommodate them, but never at the cost of compromising on his principles of making his offerings healthy and sustainable, principles he still adheres to. Being fed by Charlie was a privilege. It was inspiring. It was cool. It kept us going.

Don’t tell me Charlie deserved his payday any less than the rest of us.

What a compelling blog post. The lesson? Don’t dismiss a particular employee of a company: they may be doing more to keep the company going than you realize.

Technology’s Gang of Four

From The London Review of Books, we have this gem:

This spring, the billionaire Eric Schmidt announced that there were only four really significant technology companies: Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, the company he had until recently been running. People believed him. What distinguished his new ‘gang of four’ from the generation it had superseded – companies like Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, which mostly exist to sell gizmos and gadgets and innumerable hours of expensive support services to corporate clients – was that the newcomers sold their products and services to ordinary people. Since there are more ordinary people in the world than there are businesses, and since there’s nothing that ordinary people don’t want or need, or can’t be persuaded they want or need when it flashes up alluringly on their screens, the money to be made from them is virtually limitless…

Very interesting analogy from the real Gang of Four to technology companies. Do you agree?

Google’s Challenging Interview Question

Douglas Edwards was employee number 59 at Google. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he provides an excerpt from his book I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.

The excerpt is interesting throughout, but my favourite part of the piece is the Edwards’ recounting of the so-called “hard question” given by Sergey Brin during an interview:

“I’m going to give you five minutes,” he told me. “When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don’t already know.” He then rolled out of the room toward the snack area. I looked at Cindy. “He’s very curious about everything,” she told me. “You can talk about a hobby, something technical, whatever you want. Just make sure it’s something you really understand well.”

The author of the piece talked about the general theory of marketing. What would I say in the same position? Three items come to mind:

What would you talk about if you had five minutes? Sound off in the comments.

Readings: Pain, Woods+, Jeter’s 3,000th Hit

A few reads from today:

(1) “Thinking Away the Pain” [Wall Street Journal] – author Jonah Lehrer probes this question: can meditation and other alternative methods (including cognitive behavioral therapy, biofeedback, and hypnosis) help with relieving pain?

Pain is a huge medical problem. According to a new report from the Institute of Medicine, chronic pain costs the U.S. more than $600 billion every year in medical bills and lost productivity. Back pain alone consumes nearly $90 billion in health-care expenses, roughly equivalent to what’s spent on cancer.

Despite the increasing prevalence of chronic pain—nearly one in three Americans suffers from it—medical progress has been slow and halting. This is an epidemic we don’t know how to treat. 

(2) “Woods+” [Ftrain] – What is Google+, exactly? This is a hilarious take from Paul Ford. My favourite part is the allusion to the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.”

I know it’s confusing. But this is their competitor to Facebook basically. Except you can list your friends. That’s the circles. But it’s easier to remember if you call them holes. Like I could have a friend hole and an acquaintance hole and a K-hole. And they give you a list of friends and you stuff them in the hole, like Silence of the Lambs, except you are sending them images and text messages and hanging out with them on video chats. One of the things that can happen, according to the press, is that you can, if you are very lucky, talk with one of the founders of Google, because he’s hanging out using the service too. And you can ask him about user experience, and show him your cat.

(3) “Was Giving Jeter’s 3,000th Hit Back a Dumb Move?” [The Atlantic] – over the weekend, Derek Jeter joined an elite group of baseball players to have accumulated 3,000 or more hits in their MLB career. His 3,000th hit was a home run. The big story revolved around 23-year-old Christian Lopez, who caught the HR and then returned the ball to Derek Jeter. So what’s the issue? If Lopez decided to auction off the ball:

So how much money might the ball have fetched? According to one Bloomberg report, it almost certainly could have been sold for somewhere between $75,000 and $250,000 at auction…

But I think Lopez did the honourable thing here. In return, he received luxury box seats at Yankee Stadium, valued at $40,000+. However, the point of highlighting the article is for this fact, which you learn about in Economics 101:

Criticizing Lopez’s decision as crazy misses the maxim that “money isn’t everything.” But more importantly, it ignores an important aspect of basic economics that supports that maxim: utility theory. It teaches that money isn’t a person’s ultimate goal. Instead, they seek to maximize their personal utility. Think of utility as happiness: while money certainly plays a role in happiness for many people, it isn’t all that matters.

So, to an economist (and to someone like me), Lopez giving the ball back was a completely rational thing to do. It was the right thing to do.