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Archive for May, 2011

Facebook’s stealth attack on Google exposes its own privacy problem

Thursday, May 12th, 2011

OK, here’s the deal. A big corporate PR firm, Burson-Marsteller, tried to entice USA Today to lambaste a Google feature called Social Circle, on privacy grounds. It also encouraged a security blogger to write an op-ed attacking Google on the product. Burson would not say the name of its client. But instead of taking the bait, USA Today did due diligence and consulted experts who said that Social Circle was small potatoes compared to more pressing privacy stories. Instead it published a story about the Burston “whisper campaign” against Google on behalf of a secret client.

Meanwhile the blogger released a damning transcript of his exchange with the sleazy folks from Burson.

Most people would have assumed that the client was Microsoft or AT&T, Google rivals already actively involved in seizing every possible opportunity to take its foe down a notch. But last night we learned that the cowardly accuser was Facebook. Thus exposed, Facebook has ‘fessed up.

This is a stunning story for a number of reasons.

But here’s what makes the least sense—if there were privacy problems about Facebook information in Google Social Circle (which has now been transformed into a different product called Social Search), they may well have been a result of Facebook’s own practices.

Facebook was griping that Google is getting information about its users without permission. But some information that users share with Facebook is available publicly, even to people who aren’t their friends in in their social networks–or even are members of Facebook. It’s not because outsiders raided the service and exposed that information. It’s because Facebook chose to expose it.

Facebook used to have an implicit promise with its users. Basically the deal was what goes on Facebook stays on Facebook. But over the past couple of years Facebook has chosen to alter the deal. Certain profile information became available outside of Facebook, easily searchable via Google and other means. (Users can opt out of showing this but relatively few do.) Some of that profile information includes a few of the people on the user’s friend list. By repeatedly pinging public profiles, it’s possible for Google or anyone else to figure out pretty much all your friends.

This information is a lot easier to unearth from inside Facebook, but actually logging into Facebook to purloin information would indeed be troublesome. For one thing, it would violate the terms of service agreement. Is Google doing this? One of the Burson operatives implied that it is. But Google says the company does not go inside Facebook to scrape information, and I find this credible. (If Facebook has logs to prove this serious charge, let’s see them.)

When Google launched Social Search, it also said specifically that it was not going to learn about Facebook connections by mining the Web as described above. Just how Google does get Facebook information is complicated, but as Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land concluded after an extensive look, much of it seems to be by permission. Things should be more clear when Google prepares a more detailed briefing on this, which I assume it is preparing at this moment. Or maybe Facebook will directly spell out its charges now that it’s been outed.

But even if Google did scrape information from the public web, would that be so bad? You can argue whether or not Google would be crossing a privacy line by doing this. (And, remember, Google says it is not mining that public information.) But it’s an argument with a pro and con. What you cannot argue is that is not Google but Facebook that puts some Facebook information into the open Web.

That is why Facebook’s campaign is so weird. If outsiders are going to examine how third-party companies get information about Facebook’s users, you can’t help but question why some Facebook information, by default, shows up on the open web.

Also, consider this excerpt from the letter Burson’s operative named John Mercurio wrote to gin up an attack without Facebook’s fingerprints on it. “Google’s latest plan,” he wrote, “totally disregards the intimate and potentially damaging details that could be revealed, including sexual orientation, political affiliation, personal connections, etc…” This is ironic since, in my experience, Facebook user profiles with such information are much easier to view that they were in the early days of the service. Unless people actively take steps to opt out, it’s possible for “friends of friends” (i.e., strangers) to view someone’s personal information on Facebook.

And it was also remarkable that the Burson operative wailed about the privacy implications of letting millions of people examine a Facebook user’s friend list. In my experience the vast majority of Facebook users do not take the steps to hide their connections, a list which is open by default to half a billion Facebook users.

Any responsible journalistic (or congressional) examination of the Burson charges would wind up asking questions about these Facebook privacy issues.

Given this, I conclude that Facebook was running a smear campaign against itself

Over the next couple of years, the privacy practices of many companies—especially Google and Facebook—will come under severe scrutiny. Essentially it is neither company that is the cause of our privacy dilemma. It is the Internet itself. The Internet makes a broadcast of what once was a whisper. The Internet raises to the top of our attention embarrassing items that once would have faded into obscurity. The Internet allows strangers and the ill-intentioned to aggregate innocuous personal data into a devastatingly revealing dossier.

The Internet also allows companies to monetize our private information without our full knowledge. (Burying snoop tactics in the dense text of a privacy policy is not a justification.) And that gives profit-making firms a powerful incentive to abuse our privacy.

These companies want our trust. They even want us to hold off strong legislation and allow them to self-regulate. And now here comes Facebook, doing one of the dumbest things imaginable. It tried to beam attention on a privacy problem of a rival, but exposed itself as a sneaky maligner. Furthermore, the sorts of privacy fears Facebook evokes are exactly the sort that makes people worried about Facebook.

Not the greatest way to win our trust.

Why Google Does Not Own Skype

Tuesday, May 10th, 2011

So Microsoft is buying Skype for $8.5 billion, its biggest deal ever. It’s too soon to make a pronouncement on whether the purchase is an idiot move, a brilliant one, or just something in between – all the geniuses who ripped the investors who bought Skype from eBay in 2009 don’t look so smart now. But I will recount a bit of history that readers if IN THE PLEX already know: it was almost Google who owned Skype.

Here’s more detail on the story:

In 2009 a brilliant product manager named Wesley Chan was in charge of Google Voice, which was still in development. It was Google’s revamp of Grand Central, which Chan had snared in an acquisition the year before. When some Google executives heard that eBay was selling Skype, they jumped on the opportunity and began negotiating.

As Chan helped with due diligence, even going to Europe to see Skype firsthand, he became convinced that the purchase was a bad idea for Google. He concluded that one of Skype’s key assets – its peer-to-peer technology — was a mismatch for Google, which worked on the newer paradigm of cloud computing. “The worst thing about peer-to-peer is that it doesn’t work well with Google,” Chan told me during an amazing interview for IN THE PLEX in February 2010. “Peer-to-peer just eats up your bandwidth, right, it’s like the old technology.” So if Google bought Skype, Chan concluded, it would have to rewrite the entire Skype platform. Worse, buying Skype would have involved an extensive review process by the government, involving the DOJ or FCC or both. Chan figured that it would take 18-24 months to get through that process, during which Google would be at a standstill in the space. “It would’ve been disastrous,” he said.

But Google was well along on its hunt. “Everybody wanted to do it,” Chan said, “Eric [Schmidt] was bullish on it. And I said, ‘Uh-uh.’”

It was then that Wesley Chan began his plan to derail the deal. Chan happened to be close to a number of people who are unheralded powers at Google, mainly early Googlers close to Larry and Sergey whose opinions are highly regarded. One of those was Salar Kamangar, one of Google’s first ten employees and the co-creator of AdWords. (He is now the CEO of YouTube.) After Chan explained his objections, Kamanger was on board to scuttle the deal.

“Salar and I laid the grenades,” Chan told me. According to Chan, the pair went to Sergey Brin and convinced him it was a terrible deal. Then, Chan says, they brainstormed a plan to sabotage the deal in a key meeting of top executives, a gather that presumably would wind up blessing the purchase.

The idea was bait and switch—the executives in favor of the deal would assume that everything was on brack, and Chan and his allies would use shock and awe to turn things around. Chan says that he began the meeting by praising the deal. “I even had a deck that was super supportive of it,” he says.

But, according to Chan, halfway through the deck, Sergey Brin seized the floor “and started getting really negative.” He asked a series of questions that he knew would get unsatisfactory answers. Is this purchase data-driven? Who is going to spend all those months commuting to Europe? (No one stepped up.) How long is the government review expected to take? As Chan had figured, the advocates of the deal were unprepared to respond to these last-minute objections.

Chan then described the climatic moment. “[Sergey] looks at me and says, ‘Why would I want this risk? We have a team capable of building the carrier, we have the users, we have hundreds of millions of Gmail users, why do we need to have Skype?’ And at that point, Sergey gets up and says, ‘This is the dumbest shit I’ve ever seen.’ And Eric gets up and walks out of the room, and I’m like, okay, the deal’s off.” And it was.

What was Larry doing in all this? I asked Chan after he described this to me.

“Larry was kind of, oh, whatever,” Chan said. “He was checking his laptop. I don’t think he was the one that really cared about this as much [as Eric].”

Now of course, Larry is in charge of Google and fully engaged. I wonder what he’s thinking about Microsoft’s Skype deal, which is grabbing headlines just as Google’s I/O conference gets underway.

At least it wasn’t Facebook making the buy.

The Sophie Choice

Sunday, May 8th, 2011

The Google ad called “Dear Sophie” ran on “Saturday Night Live” last night just like all the other ads from all the other companies. It has been lauded, accurately, as a sweet story, and indeed it is a nice ad. It’s making news because Google has only rarely ventured into big marketing campaigns on television.

In 1999, as I discussed in In the Plex, Google hired a prospective marketing VP who suggested a big television campaign. Larry and Sergey thought it was a waste of resources that might be best deployed towards hiring more engineers. (Larry did suggest, however, that Google look into beaming its logo onto the Moon via laser.) The board of directors backed up the founders, and the VP candidate soon departed. This set a standard within the company of resistance to conventional advertising.

This stuck until the 2010 Superbowl, when Google surprisingly showed an ad . Larry Page told me a few weeks afterward the Super Bowl that part of the reason he was okay with it was that it broke an internal taboo. Taboos can be constraining. It’s best to constantly question them.

Here’s what he said then:

It’s obviously very contrary to what we normally do, and I think part of the reason we wanted to do it is for that reason. It sort of violates every known principle that we have, and every once in a while, you should test that you really have the right principles. You don’t want to end up too rigid. I think that’s maybe Montessori training or something.

The Sophie ad is something different, less an interesting experiment in breaking an internal rule than a simple push for a product (the Chrome browser) that Google wants more users to sample. You can read the background Claire Cain Miller’s excellent story on the making of the ad.

Miller mentions almost in passing that while the storyline was inspired by a real user, Google used actors in the commercial. This may well indicate a psychological shift in Google’s thinking. I once sat in on a meeting of Google’s “creative” team (this is the term of art for those cooking up marketing materials, not an appellation that implies that other Googlers aren’t creative). One of the employees suggested a campaign that would involve hiring models to illustrate how a product was used. She was quickly shot down. Google does not use models or actors, she was told.

There was a strong rationale for this. Actors and models are, by definition, not authentic. Google is supposed to be a fair judge, unaffected by artifice. Its search results do not appear as a consequence of editorial choices but by the wisdom of algorithms that are constantly recalibrated by observing the behavior if its users. Taste and sentimentality has nothing to do with this.

There were no actors seen in the Super Bowl commercial, and that was part of its charm: even though it broke one taboo, it maintained the company’s geeky dignity of logic and verifiability. The star was the stuff that appeared on the computer screen. But “Dear Sophie” is more of a classic form of Madison Avenue pitching. It’s probably something that Don Draper would come up with if Larry and Sergey were his clients. They would tell him that their product, the Chrome browser, has a lot going for it over its competitors, like speedier response and a single box to type in addresses and search queries. It runs Web applications more efficiently than other browsers, they’d tell him, and if everyone used it, it would hasten a new paradigm of cloud apps. Draper would say that all that stuff is well and good. But for our commercial, we’re going to show a tear-jerking evocation of a father compiling an online scrapbook for to his daughter as she grows up.

Straight out of the Kodak playbook–don’t brag about your specs, but play that song about Where Are You Going My LIttle One, and out will come the handkerchiefs. It’s also a stratagem used by banks and insurance companies.

And now Google does it According to Miller, they worked with an agency called Bartle Bogle Hegarty (notable clients: Johnny Walker, Vaseline, and Mentos), whose “creatives” presumably did a casting call for babies and children who would make us say “Awwwwww.”

It was brave of Google’s founders to resist this kind of advertising in the early days of the company. But now Google clearly believes that to connect with the masses on Chrome, it makes sense to hew to more traditional means of promotion. And the positive reaction “Dear Sophie” has garnered is an indication that this was the right choice.

Nonetheless, for the company that vowed not to be conventional, the concession is one more step down the slippery slope of just that.