The need for – and risks of – government transparency

At yesterday’s Personal Democracy Forum – where I was in the unfortunate position of speaking inbetween two of my favorite geniuses, danah boyd and David Weinberger – I sang the obvious hymn to the choir, arguing that government in a Google age means transparency. All governments’ actions and information must be searchable and linkable; we need an API to government to enable us to build atop it.

I also argue that as newspapers die – and they will – government transparency is a critical element in the new news ecosystem that will fill the void. When government information is openly available, a dwindling handful of journalistic watchdogs in a state capital can be augmented by thousands, even millions of watchdogs: citizens empowered. I’ll write more about this as part of the New Business Models for News Project.

But at PDF, I also listed four cautions regarding transparency – charges to us as citizens:

* We have to give permission to fail. In speaking with government people about What Would Google Do?, I’ve learned how much they fear failure and how cautious that makes them. Without the license to fail, government will never experiment, never open up, and never be collaborative.

In other words, we need beta government: the ability of government to try things, to open up its process, to invite us in, to collaborate. That was the lesson I learned from Google about releasing a beta: it is a statement of humility and openness and an invitation to join in. We need that in government.

* Transparency must not always mean gotcha. Oh, there are plenty of people to catch red-handed. But if transparency is about nothing more than catching bureacrats and politicians buying lunches, then we will not have the openness we need to make government collaborative.

* We have to figure out how to make government and its work collaborative. What if we were able to help government do its job? What if it acted like a network? What if it acted like Wikipedia, where a small percentage – less than 2 percent, says Clay Shirky – create it; it would not take many citizens to help make government work in new ways.

* We have to turn the discussion to the positive, the constructive. Again, there are plenty of bastards to catch. But we must move past that – especially once we have more watchdogs watching – so we can build.

I ran around the auditorium like a fool – a role I enjoy – playing Oprah and asking everyone in the audience to say what they thought government for the Google age looked like. Since I was running, I couldn’t take notes, but the #pdf09 Twitter hashtag captured some and PDF will put up a video later. Lots of great thoughts.

China blinks

I said in What Would Google Do? – and argued the point in a talk at Google in Washington – that Google and other technology companies have more influence than they know – and should use it – in protecting free speech and pressuring censorious governments. I see evidence of the strategy working – or hope I see it – in China’s decision today to delay its noxious Green Dam requirement for all PCs sold there. Government and companies put pressure on; China blinked.

Yahoo’s new CEO, Carol Bartz, said in July that it’s not her job to fix governments. But neither is it a company’s job to enable tyrannical governments in their tyranny. Technology companies from Cisco to Nokia to Siemens that have provided technology to enable censorship and tracking, and companies from Yahoo to Google that have handed over information about users to governments that use it to oppress citizens should be ashamed. And we need to shame them. We need to give them cover by demanding behavior that is not and does not support evil.

In a digital age, censoring the internet, stopping citizens from connecting with each other, and using the internet to spy on and then oppress citizens is evil. We shame companies that helped enable fascist regimes in the ’30s and apartheid in the last century. Is it time for technology boycotts? I’m not sure. But it is time for the discussion.

Help us help hyperlocal news

For CUNY’s New Business Models for News Project, we would be very grateful if local blogs and sites filled out a survey to give us data in our analysis and modeling of the economics of hyperlocal news. The survey is here.

We are trying to find out how hyperlocal blogs and sites are doing their business today – how big they are, how big an area they cover, what’s working in advertising and what’s not. The data they give will be kept anonymous; that is, we’ll release it only in aggregate. We’ll also interview some of you to find out more.

Out of this, we are working to build models to show how to optimize the business of the hyperlocal news site: revenue opportunities, network opportunities, and so on. We’ll share that work on the site as it progresses.

As of today, we have a director, a business analyst, two business consultants, two journalism graduates, and six business students working on this effort. It’s serious. The more information we have to work with, the better they can serve the community. So if you have a local news blog or site, please fill out the survey and pass it along to others you know.

Thanks.

First, kill the lawyers – before they kill the news

Following the frighteningly dangerous thinking of Judge Richard Posner – proposing rewriting copyright law to outlaw linking to and summarizing (aka talking about) news stories – now we have two more lemming lawyers following him off the cliff in a column written by the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Connie Schultz.

First note well that Schultz is married to U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown as she calls on her newspapers and employer (my former employer, Advance Publications) and fellow columnists to influence Congress to remake copyright. She should be registered as a lobbyist. No joke.

Schultz says that David Marburger, an alleged First Amendment attorney for her paper, and his economics-professor brother, Daniel, have concocted their own dangerous thinking, proposing the copyright law be changed to insist that a newspaper’s story should appear only on its own web site for the first 24 hours before it can be aggregated or retold.

Incredible. So if the Plain Dealer reported exclusively that, say, the governor had just returned from a tryst with a Argentine lady, no one else could so much as talk about that for 24 hours. A First Amendment lawyer said this.

They make vague reference to the hot news doctrine theAP has been trying to dig up from its very deep grave. Note that their definition of hot is the cycle of newspaper publishing, not the cycle of news itself. Look at how fast the Michael Jackson news spread. Under these guys’ scheme, TMZ would have had exclusive right to publish his death for a day. Well, except it’s not a newspaper. And what they care about is protecting newspapers.

Schultz and the Marbergers complain about what they call the “free-riding” of aggregators, et al. But they simply don’t understand the economics of the internet. It’s the newspapers that are free-riding, getting the benefit of links.

These newspaper people are the ones trying to act as if they own the news and can monopolize it. Those days are over, thank God.

: LATER: Schultz has responded in the comments here. I have responded in turn. And I have just sent this message to the office of her husband:

Please consider this a press inquiry:

I want to know Sen. Brown’s stand on his wife’s column in the Plain Dealer on attempting to rewrite copyright law to give newspapers a 24-hour period of exclusivity on the news they report.

Does the senator support this legislation?

What will the senator vote on this legislation?

Will the senator recuse himself from voting on this legislation, considering his wife’s role in lobbying Congress on the issue?

Is his wife registered as a lobbyist?

The King of Twitter

Reporters have been calling today looking into the importance of Twitter and social media in the two big stories of the month: Iran and Michael Jackson. Have we come to a next step stage in social media’s impact on news? Maybe.

Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. TMZ.com got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers – that person was a node, the bus the network – and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news.

I also spoke with Tampa Bay’s Eric Deggans and we wondered together about the arc of the Jackson story in big media versus our media. I’ll just bet that the story will die off on Twitter trends, Technorati, YouTube, and Facebook sooner than it finally exhausts its welcome – and our patience – on cable news. Back in 2005, I said that TV news was paying more attention to Jackson’s trial than the audience was, as evidenced by discussion on blogs, which lost interest in the story long before TV did; indeed, they never obsessed on Jackson as TV did and TV believed we wanted to.

I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He’s still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn’t we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? Once the supernova of news explodes – taking down Twitter search and YouTube and jamming GoogleNews search – we probably to seek out TV, but it quickly says all it has to say and the rest is just repetition. If the Iraq War was the birth of CNN could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say.

Journalists end up playing new roles in the news ecosystem. Again, I followed the Iran story in the live blogs of The New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and Andrew Sullivan and they performed new functions: curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation. They worked with social media, quoting and distributing and reporting using it. I watched the filling out of the Neda video story as the Guardian called the man who uploaded it to YouTube and Paulo Coelho blogged about his friend in the video, the doctor who tried to save Neda. Piece by piece, the story came together before our eyes, in public. The journalists added considerable value. But this wasn’t product journalism: polishing a story once a day from inside the black box. This was process journalism and that ensured it was also collaborative journalism – social journalism, if you like.

The unfortuante truth about the confluence of these two stories – Jackson and Iran – is that the former pushes the latter off the front page, the constant cable attantion. But will it push Iran out of our consciousness and discussion? Again, we’ll see. I was in the car when I spoke with Eric but he told me that on Twitter, the trends were all but filled with Jackson – except for the Iran election, which was still there, in the middle. That renews my faith in us.

: LATER: Here’s the AP story.

Here’s Eric’s piece. And here’s the San Francisco Chronicle’s piece (curses to the editor to cut out reference to WWGD?).

: Interesting take from a lawyer who sees Jackson as a victim of the innovator’s dilemma.

Posner’s dangerous thinking

Mike Masnick on techdirt points us to some dangerous and incomplete thinking from Judge Richard Posner on his blog. At the bottom, Posner writes:

Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers from so impairing the incentive to create costly news-gathering operations that news services like Reuters and the Associated Press would become the only professional, nongovernmental sources of news and opinion.

Good God. Posner is not just trying to mold the new world to old laws – which is issue enough – but is trying to change the law to protect the old world and its incumbents from the new world and its innovators. He is willing to throw out fair comment and free speech for them. That is dangerous.

Posner’s thinking is incomplete in a few ways. First, he is ignorant of the imperatives of the link economy. The links and discussion he wants to outlaw is precisely how content is distributed and value is added to it in the new media economy.

Second, as Masnick points out, Posner assumes that jouranlism as it was done is journalism as it should be done: that the goal is to protect newsrooms, unchanged. But there are tremendous savings to be had thanks to the link economy: do what you do best, link to the rest.

Note how The New York Times and The Guardian – not to mention the Huffington Post and Andrew Sullivan – covered the Iran crisis. They linked. Links made their journalism complete. So did readers. The Times has three editors for every writer but in the blog, there was no need – no opening – for them. There was no need for production or design. The new news organization can and will operate at a different scale from the old one, because it can and because it must. So what is Posner protecting besides the old budget and payroll. He’s not protecting journalism – or rather, he’s protecting it only from progress.

No, sir, the news industry – and the law – must be updated for this new world and so must your thinking.

: LATER: Here’s Matt Welch at Reason.

Beta-think: Live work

Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff says the future of computing will be like Twitter – that is, live, not batched. “Any concept of batch or delay in development or execution, I think, will not be tolerated by customers anymore,” Benioff said at Structure 09 according to the Digitalbeat report.

But this urgency isn’t just about speed. It’s about organizing work around process over product: beta-think. “Even in development, customers are demanding now that they want to be able to build in that sandbox and deploy immediately, instantly, no delay,” Benioff said. Take that principle past software to other industries – news and advertising, to name two – and to work itself as beta becomes a principle of workflow and management. And that shift will bring a cultural clash to countless workplaces just as we’ve seen in the newsroom.

Many companies haven’t realized this is where things are headed, he said. Benioff recounted attending meetings with chief information officers who all refused to believe that Twitter represents anything significant; they don’t have accounts themselves because “it’s not their generation.” Benioff’s response? He types the name of their company into Twitter search and shows that they’re missing out on a huge part of the conversation. (Benioff isn’t an impartial observer here, since Salesforce’s Service Cloud product is all about connecting companies to their customers on services like Twitter.)

“I think corporations have to step it up in terms of integrating with these real-time systems,” he said.

That’s the same lesson that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has learned recently as Twitter is used to organize anti-government protesters, Benioff added: “He’s probably on Twitter right now.”