Well, we’ve had quite a run of high-profile breaches in information security over the last week or so. While each case carries its own tawdry details, I think it’s worth pausing to consider them as a group for just a moment, lumped into the general category of “snooping.”
To recap for the benefit of anyone not keeping score at home, the Justice Department has been snooping on the Associated Press, Bloomberg News has been snooping on Goldman Sachs, and the IRS has been snooping on the Tea Party.
There’s something missing in that mix, though. Did you notice?
There is nary a public consumer-oriented tech company in sight in any of these stories. No Facebook. No Google. No Amazon. No Apple. Not even a Yahoo.
I don’t point this out to claim that Silicon Valley’s practices regarding snooping in its various forms are or have been perfect. But I do think this recent flurry of blowups is an opportunity to reconsider the frequent coverage of “privacy” that we see see directed at consumer Internet companies. Perhaps the way that issue has been framed in the popular imagination the last few years is doing the public a bit of a disservice, discounting other online risks that should also be considered serious.
The more I look at it, I think “privacy” is actually too narrow of a frame to encompass all the potential downsides from the rise of ever more powerful computers and ever more pervasive connection to the Internet. What we really need is a series of conversations about several issues that are loosely related but also somewhat distinct from one another. Just for starters, there’s free speech, data security, business ethics in general, and checks and balances on governmental power, which is much more vast than anything a business can exercise.
It’s also worth remembering that non-tech companies collect a lot of data on people as well, sometimes with more haphazard data practices precisely because they don’t have the expertise that tech companies do. Banks. Insurers. Airlines. For-profit education providers. Brick-and-mortar retailers with ancient computers they maintain like old manual cash registers. How does the information you share with these entities compare to what you give to Facebook?
Finally, as important as it is to point out risk factors, we should also focus more keenly on actual harm when we talk about any form of online snooping. Otherwise it’s too easy to veer into paranoia and miss out on the good aspects of all the amazing technology now at our fingertips.
There is actual harm in every one of those recent stories I mentioned up top in this post. By contrast, you know where there isn’t any? How about in all the preemptive hand-wringing over Google Glass. The new wearable, camera-equipped device is a prototype in the hands of only a few thousand people so far.
Maybe we should all just wait a little while and see how the Glass launch goes before freaking out about it. In the meantime, there are forms of snooping that we can be certain are much more worthy of the time and attention.
The first Web server began operation 20 years ago today. One of the better commemorations I’ve seen today is on the TED Blog, which summarized some general lessons on innovation from the “eureka” moment inventor Tim Berners-Lee had working on the first Web server.
Berners-Lee gave a Ted Talk of his own in 2009. First third or so in particular covers his early work on the Web, with fascinating stuff further in about the future of “linked data.”
I’m belatedly catching up today on a hilariously cheeky stunt by a couple of engineers from the startup Sencha attempting to debunk a claim by the mighty Mark Zuckerberg.
After Zuck criticized the technical capabilities of HTML5, the basic building block of the open Web, the Sencha guys thought: “No, Facebook, you’re just doing it wrong. A good mechanic never blames his tools.” So they built a demo version of Facebook that runs better in browsers than the real thing. Then they blogged about it.
My geekier friends will appreciate the nitty-gritty of this. For the non-geeks, hey, maybe you want to try out the demo, humbly dubbed Fastbook, out of curiosity. It’s mobile-oriented, since that was a crucial context to Zuckerberg’s earlier remarks. Fastbook will also display all your actual posts and news items from your friends, so you won’t miss any FB action.
Curious to hear people’s impressions in the comments.
The major business story today is causing a small trip down memory lane for me. In March 2000, I broke a story for the Wall Street Journal about the creation of a little online upstart called IntercontinentalExchange.
Today they bought the venerable New York Stock Exchange for just over $8 billion.
Now it can be told: I remember back in 2000 their PR guy approached me at an industry conference in Boca Raton to offer me the scoop. Specifically — I’m not making this up — he called me over to the stern of a rented yacht while we were on a tour down the Intracoastal Waterway sponsored by another company as a promotional event.
I distinctly remember thinking, as have beat reporters since time immemorial: “Cool, at least I’ll get a good exclusive here to show the bosses back in New York that my whole trip wasn’t a boondoggle.”
Beyond that, as the record shows, it did strike me at the time that ICE had a shot at disrupting certain market niches on Wall Street. To reach a real piece of history like this, though… Wow. I’d be lying if I said I had the slightest inkling of anything like that.
On a typical day, I’m sure Michael Bloomberg encounters plenty of people with opinions about how he should spend his money. Even more so following yesterday’s scoop by the New York Times, which reported that Bloomberg might buy the Financial Times.
For what it’s worth, I’d side with the people who think he should pass on this one, considering the declining popularity of print. Even more to the point, every print-based business-news organization like the FT or my ex-employer Dow Jones essentially needs to become more like Bloomberg LP to survive these days. If you’ve already found one of the holy grails of the media industry — a lucrative revenue stream that’s not based on ads or subscriptions to news content — why acquire a competitor who hasn’t, with an organizational culture that may not take well to the changes you’ll inevitably need to make, and so on?
To put it a different way: When the Model T started selling well, Henry Ford didn’t go out and acquire a buggy manufacturer, did he?
The NYT story mentions LinkedIn as a company that some in Bloomberg’s inner circle think might be a better acquisition. I’d add another candidate that no one seems to be mentioning — Research in Motion.
Of course, RIM famously has a lot of problems of its own and would certainly be a turnaround project for Bloomberg. But here’s why it might work:
The two companies’ user bases overlap very nicely. If you could integrate Bloomberg data and news services more tightly into Blackberry handhelds, those devices would get new life as a must-have for financial-industry types.
Bloomberg has experience integrating data and hardware closely. That’s what they originally did with terminals on traders’ desktops. In essence, they have a chance to do the same now in traders’ pockets. Even after a few years of exploding mobile usage, this opportunity is still sitting out there unanswered because…
Android and Apple’s iOS don’t integrate well with Wall Street’s data networks. Of course, the main knock on RIM is that they’re getting their butts kicked by the two 800-pound gorillas of the mobile market, with no clear end in sight. But that’s assuming all these companies are competing for the average Joe consumer. Enterprise users in general — and Wall Street users in particular — are a little different.
The main rub is that a lot of the key services that finance pros use in a typical work day run on proprietary data networks, not the Worldwide Web that the average Joe uses. The current Bloomberg terminals are a great example of one of these proprietary networks, as are the trading engines at the major stock exchanges, as are some of the trading systems that big brokerages have set up for their staff and customers.
Apple and Google have never really integrated their products well with these niche services. This is why, for instance, traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, who have been using specialized tablets for years, have never switched to iPads en masse.
Maybe the Silicon Valley types have simply overlooked this niche because they’ve been so busy fighting for consumers. Or it could be a matter of not having the right relationships, since integrating with the various financial-industry networks would require some cajoling of senior IT execs at the various banks, exchanges, etc.
Whatever their reason, the point is that Bloomberg clearly does have the expertise, the strategic interest, and the relationships. Those things would give it a fighting chance at reviving a business like RIM, whereas an ink-on-paper publisher like the FT is ultimately a hopeless case no matter how smart you are.
I find it an interesting coincidence that there’s a big telecommunications merger in the news today as we’re also looking ahead to the first U.S. presidential debate of this election. The T-Mobile/MetroPCS merger points up a big problem facing the U.S. economy that both candidates have been pretty mum about, far as I can tell.
The issue is this: How do we get more people connected to the Internet at faster speeds and relatively low cost across more devices? Our economy actually does a pretty crappy job of this compared to other developed economies, and it’s largely because we have a stultifying telcom oligarchy that limits consumer choice.
I don’t claim here to be the first one to notice this — not by a long shot. In 2010, James Losey wrote a great anti-telcom rant in Slate, including this little factoid:
If you simply look at broadband “penetration”—a measure of broadband subscribers relative to the population—the U.S. is ranked 15th by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, with 27 broadband subscribers per 100 people (check out Table 1d). And another key organization, the International Telecommunications Union, ranks the United States 16th. Just one decade ago, the United States was at the top of the list.
As for the actual speeds that our relative few broadband users enjoy here in the U.S., that picture isn’t too pretty either. A study covered by the New York Times about a year ago had us at 26th in broadband speed, behind Moldova, Congo, and Hungary, among others.
In fairness, President Obama has talked about this issue a little bit in the past. But it’s hardly seemed to be a big priority for either side or a bone of contention during the recent campaigning.
(I should add, I can’t really find anything Romney has said about it at all. But if someone out there can find remarks from him somewhere on the Web, or if someone from the campaign wants to pass along something officially sanctioned, I’d be glad to update this post to reflect that information.)
As far as I can tell, the closest the candidates come to discussing this issue on the campaign trail is when they touch on education and improving the skills of the workforce to compete for high-tech jobs. No doubt, that is a real issue of its own. But what about this other part of the picture, our technical capacity to use the Internet?
A final disclaimer: For the sake of not getting into an unproductive partisan spat myself here, I’m purposefully not going to get into a lot of specific policy proposals that I personally favor. Let it suffice that one could envision a spending-based solution for the government to provide connectivity, as Obama proposed in the story I linked above. Or there could be a conservative solution like, say, deregulating certain things within the FCC’s purview.
My only point for now is that this is a very real economic problem, and our politicians aren’t having nearly a robust enough conversation about it. This matters a lot because the Internet has become a platform upon which all sorts of economic activity is built. It’s a massive bazaar where a lot of goods are sold, and sales would probably be better if we could get more people in to browse.
Think that would help the economy?
As I mentioned in passing yesterday, Roscoe Labs is now looking for a Vice President of Engineering. First step was to post the opening on Craigslist, but I’m glad to post the full details here as well.
This should be a really exciting opportunity for the right person as the next crucial player to help us grow our company and build out our technology platform rapidly.
Some background about Roscoe: We are a self-funded, early stage, mobile-first startup building apps that bring together news junkies, casual journalists, and old pros locally.
Our founding team is made up of seasoned, smart and collegial entrepreneurs who have worked together before and who have a deep understanding of the news industry and the consumer Internet space. We are currently raising startup capital, and we fully intend to become a venture-backed company. You can find out more about us here.
We have contractor-developed software in hand that we’re using in private beta tests with small batches of users. But we need to get it ready for prime time to take our company to the next level.
You are a process god who also happens to be a talented coder. You know how to put together a software development team, and you can tell the difference between good developers and great developers. Your age and background do not matter. We value diversity and strongly encourage all qualified candidates to apply.
The VP/Engineering job is an executive, near-founder position, and compensation includes performance milestone-based bonuses and significant equity participation.
The successful candidate will:
- Like winning.
- Have impeccable personal integrity and treat others with respect at all times.
- Have a demonstrated ability to lead a software development project from start to finish.
- Be able to solve complex problems.
- Have attained or be pursuing a degree in engineering, computer science or a related technical field.
- Own a smartphone.
- Have developed an app for iOS or Android.
- Be able to demo a software program you developed on your own.
- Be able to demo a software program that was developed under your leadership.
- Appreciate and have a passion for beautiful design and smart UX.
- Have demonstrated mastery of the LAMP stack and experience building scalable Web applications.
- Be familiar with the Agile software development approach.
- Be familiar with PMI standards and practices.
- Be proficient with Python, PHP or equivalent.
- Be proficient with Objective C.
- Have working expertise with integrating third-party APIs, particularly related to social media and video sites.
- Have a deep understanding of modern server architecture and scaling issues.
Applying for this job opportunity is easy. Just email me your LinkedIn profile URL or your resume. If you have a GitHub repository or a personal web site, we’d like to check those out too. We will email you back a confirmation and instructions about next steps in the process.