Spinning for privacy
The way the Web works today, anything a site owner wants to know about you -- who you are, where you live, what you buy, all the stuff marketers call your "profile" -- has to come directly from your typing fingers. Earlier this week, a consortium of 60 companies led by Netscape proposed a new idea called the Open Profiling Standard, or OPS. Under the new plan, you'll type that information only once and it will be stored on your computer's hard drive -- ready to be transmitted to a Web site once you give your permission by clicking an OK button.
OPS sounds like a plan to automate the transfer of personal information to Web site operators, something they desperately desire as they try to build the online commerce industry. That isn't an inherently bad thing; one of the promises of the Web is to offer highly personalized and convenient services, and nothing can be personalized for you unless you first provide personal information, right?
But on its way through the media food chain, OPS underwent some remarkably deft spin control -- and emerged as a "proposed Net privacy standard." Gee, "Net privacy" sure sounds more appealing than "automated transfer of personal information," doesn't it?
OPS arose in part as a response to the threat of government regulation, and it does include some privacy protections, to be sure. Under OPS, Web sites aren't supposed to reuse the information you give them -- by, for instance, selling or trading it to other companies who might bombard you with e-mail -- unless you give your permission. Which, when you think about it, isn't that different from the status quo: Today, too, you have to trust Web sites to honor their privacy commitments, and you're wary if they don't make any.
More importantly, OPS doesn't address the already widespread use of "cookies" -- another Netscape technology that allows Web businesses to track your visits to their sites and store other information about your behavior on your computer's drive. Though cookies aren't innately evil and they're rarely used for nefarious purposes, they inspire a certain amount of paranoia among Net users.
It's possible to set your browser to check with you before "setting" a cookie -- but if you turn this switch on, you get bothered by dialogue boxes every other click you make. Most users never do so, or try it once and turn it off again once they realize how annoying it is. One can easily imagine OPS's carefully devised "consent" provisions similarly falling by the wayside once impatient Web surfers realize how distracting monitoring that consent can be.
OPS is plainly an effort, probably a well-intentioned one, to balance two of the Web industry's aching needs: to serve the marketers who foot its bills and to assuage the privacy fears of its users. Yet every single headline we found in Tuesday's coverage of the OPS story heralded it as a privacy initiative. The San Jose Mercury News wrote: "Netscape, others team up to protect Net privacy." The San Francisco Chronicle: "New Standard Offers Privacy Protection." The New York Times: "Industry Group to Offer Initiative for Internet Privacy." C|Net News.com: "Net privacy proposal launched." ZDNet: "Privacy standard hopes to keep online predators at bay." At least Wired News, though it too adopted the "privacy" label, injected a note of skepticism into its headline (and matched it in its story): "Netscape Proposes Half-hearted Privacy Standard."
News of Internet technology is often much more complex than many readers can follow, and so the labels and headlines news organizations choose bear an extra-important burden. Call OPS a "privacy standard" often enough and people will think it's all about privacy -- even if much of the time this standard is simply expediting your name and vital info from your computer to someone else's.
May 29, 1997
Capsules on the sidewalk
Remember that little story at the end of April about Bill Gates getting in a tussle with a Knight-Ridder executive at a newspaper industry conference? Gates told an assembly of publishers that they shouldn't worry about competition from Microsoft: "If someone starts hiring local reporters, OK, it's time to get worried."
Gates said flat out that he's not hiring "reporters" for his Sidewalk network of city guides -- which evoked guffaws in a lot of print and online publications where Sidewalk has been heavily recruiting for months. I suppose you can split hairs and say that the people Sidewalk has hired are "editors" and "critics" more than "reporters." But they're all journalists.
Still, now that two Sidewalk sites are open for business -- Seattle came first, and New York launched Monday -- it's a little easier to understand what Gates was talking about. Because it seems that, for all the talent Microsoft has rounded up (and paid well), there isn't a whole lot of writing, reporting or criticizing going on at Sidewalk. Whatever you call the people Gates has hired -- whether they're commenting on a movie, picking a restaurant or previewing an art show -- it seems that they're limited to a couple of sentences, max.
You have to hunt carefully through the Sidewalk New York site to find anything longer than a one-paragraph capsule review. The one exception I've found to date is an opus by former New York Times restaurant critic Bryan Miller on the reopening of the eatery Windows on the World -- which topped a staggering 500 words. (Perhaps the restaurant's name caught Gates' fancy.) As of yet, no one in any other Sidewalk department has come close to that kind of prolixity.
We know New Yorkers are busy people, but sheesh! Surely they could stand one extended article every now and then. And you have to wonder: What are all those journalists at Sidewalk doing, anyway? How long does it take to write a capsule? Even a great one?
I like a good short review as much as anyone, and I spent a good part of my time from 1983 to 1986 trying to make the Boston Phoenix's theater and movie capsules the best in the business. I know that writing brief reviews can be an art.
But no art thrives in isolation. If Sidewalk expects to develop into something more than an annotated phone book, Zagat guide and movie clock, it will need to go beyond database management and start thinking about cultivating writers. If that makes Microsoft into more of a direct competitor with newspapers, so what? Competition helps keep newspapers from getting lazy.
May 22, 1997
The New Yorker gushes
over Microsoft guru
Ken Auletta's vapid homages to media barons have long been the most egregiously awful offerings of Tina Brown's tenure at the New Yorker. In these "Annals of Communications," Auletta has profiled executives like Barry Diller and John Malone and, in a style better suited for royal sycophancy than business analysis, told us that these men are Giants of Our Age -- smart, dynamic "warriors of the Information Superhighway."
Of course, when serious journalists examine the records of such people they are often revealed as fallible, isolated, banal doofuses. But if the New Yorker ran such stories it would no longer be flattering itself or its audience that it's offering entree into a select gentlemen's club of multibillionaire renaissance-man geniuses. If the magazine traded in Auletta for someone tougher, it would be asking its readers to experience reality rather than fantasy, and that's never good for ad sales.
But Auletta's latest effort -- a fawning profile of Microsoft's "chief technology officer," Nathan Myhrvold, in the May 12 issue -- achieves strange new extremes of contorted hindsight logic and apologetic double-think. The article is flagged on the New Yorker's newsstand overleaf as "Bill Gates' favorite geek: Ken Auletta on the confidential memos of Microsoft gadfly Nathan Myhrvold." The table of contents line reads, "The Microsoft provocateur: Why does the company always succeed? The answer may lie in the memos of Nathan Myhrvold, the man Bill Gates put in charge of the future."
The "confidential" memos that made Microsoft's billions! From the man who's "in charge of the future"! They must be some hot stuff, huh? Surely Ken Auletta must have put his investigative pedal to the metal to score such a monster scoop.
But as you read the chunks of Myhrvold's future-gazing prose that Auletta dutifully strings together, they sound strangely familiar. Haven't we read these pontificatory scenarios -- visions of TV-and-PC convergence and super-convenient personal information technology transforming our lives -- before?
In fact, a good portion of the "confidential" stuff Auletta breathlessly unveils has already been made quite public in "The Road Ahead" -- the 1995 Bill Gates bestseller for which Myhrvold shared an authorial credit. If Auletta has uncovered anything new, it is not the substance of these memos -- but rather a clearer picture of how much responsibility for "The Road Ahead's" bland futurism actually lies with Myhrvold rather than Gates.
Thoughts from Myhrvold that postdate "The Road Ahead" -- like a memo entitled "A Penny For Your Thoughts," about the difficult prognosis for "micro-transactions" on the Net -- turn out to be as "confidential" as the pages of Microsoft's Web zine Slate, in which "Penny" and other Myhrvold prognostications have regularly been published, no doubt in mercifully edited form.
But what's truly laughable about Auletta's profile is the way it holds up Myhrvold as a "warrior-capitalist" with unique insight into the future -- while actually chronicling a sequence of bad calls on the executive's part. As part of a giant herd of media and technology leaders rather than as any kind of visionary, Myhrvold apparently embraced the early '90s mania for a "video-on-demand"-based model of interactive television -- now universally understood to be at the very best a vastly premature idea and quite possibly a total dead end.
Similarly, in 1991, Myhrvold "predicted that miniaturization and digital technology would, over the next five years, cause the personal computer to merge with consumer-electronic devices." Still waiting for that one. Auletta, treading gently, simply calls the prediction "over-optimistic" and moves on to the next plaudit.
Where Myhrvold wasn't outright wrong, he was apparently embracing the obvious. For instance, Auletta grants Myhrvold mucho credit for grasping, in a 1992 memo, that Microsoft makes its money from customer upgrades -- a startling insight that any subscriber to the computer trades might have read 100 times during the previous half-decade.
At this point, even Auletta understands how out-of-touch it was for Microsoft to be dismissing the importance of the Internet as late as 1995. He does pose the question, several times, of why the leading technology company -- and its chief technologist -- might have missed what Gates himself later called "the most important single development" in their industry since the IBM PC.
Auletta's article contains plenty of damning evidence that Myhrvold simply overlooked the Internet for shortsighted reasons: It didn't fit in with Microsoft's existing plans for the Microsoft Network. It was anarchic and full of "opinionated people who are its self-appointed guardians." He couldn't see how Microsoft would be able to make money with it.
But the New Yorker writer can't bring himself to the obvious conclusion: that, on the most important technology question Myhrvold and his company would face this decade, the chief technologist was dead wrong. Of course, to conclude that would require Auletta to dismantle his profile's adulatory framework. And writing critically could cause other "warrior-capitalists" Auletta might wish to profile to slam their doors and close their "confidential" files.
Then again, sometimes those "confidential" revelations from inside the corporate labyrinths turn out to be very old news.
May 15, 1997
No more Net virgins!
Back when the Web was young -- oh, say, two or three years ago -- newspaper columnists and critics got in the habit of writing what I'd call Net virgin columns. They'd go like this: "I decided to check out the Web to see what all the excitement was about. I was prepared for wonderful experiences. But boy, the pickings are thin, particularly in my field! And, man, is this thing slow!"
The spate of Net virgin columns was inevitable; so, thankfully, was their gradual disappearance. As newsrooms got their own Net connections, American journalists got comfortable with the new medium and stopped treating it like a passing craze or a foreign dateline.
But last Friday, readers of the New York Times -- a newspaper whose coverage of the Net has grown increasingly savvy over the past two years -- found a strange throwback buried in their papers: a genuine Net virgin column, under the byline of Times art critic Michael Kimmelman.
"I have just begun to surf the Web," Kimmelman wrote. But he already knows what he doesn't like.
Beginning with a quote from Walter Benjamin's important (and relentlessly quoted) essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Kimmelman does a search for "art" on Yahoo, dips his toes into Razorfish's Blue Dot, stops in at Joseph Squier's The Place (widely covered by many publications two years ago) and grazes a couple of online art magazines and museum sites. His cursory tour leaves him decidedly unimpressed: "Is this the best the Internet has to offer?"
Kimmelman's complaints -- some sites aren't updated often enough, and others just transplant content from other media -- are valid but hardly news. And he avidly recycles the clichés of the most banal technology commentators: "The point is, technology changes the world but not necessarily in the ways we anticipate." "Just about every graffiti artist seems to have a Web page." There's a "connection between surfing and MTV's rambling, distracted one-thing-then-another culture."
This critic's own tendencies seem to lean very much toward channel-hopping in a fog. He reports that he found Laurie Anderson's Green Room site but never seemed to figure out that it was related to her CD-ROM, "Puppet Motel" -- and the Voyager Company site that houses Anderson's material really threw him for a loop ("It connected me to an online magazine that advertised CD-ROMs and laser disks, which was linked, for some reason, to the home page for 'All Things Considered'"). Given this sense of disorientation online, it's no wonder that -- despite the profusion of worthy artistic experiments on the Web -- Kimmelman wasn't able to find anything new or unusual to report to his readers.
It's no crime to be ignorant of the Web, but why advertise it? Newspaper critics should know better. Imagine transplanting Kimmelman's uninformed approach to the Web back into his own field:
I have just begun to visit art museums. After visiting a handful chosen at random, I can tell you exactly what is wrong with them: You often have to travel quite far to get to them. They are each laid out differently. They claim to present the best art of the ages, but I didn't like a lot of what I saw in the ones I checked out. Whole rooms and exhibits under the label of "Permanent Collection" never change! Also, many museums hide a good part of their holdings from public view because they don't have enough wall space. Yet despite these problems, just about every city seems to have a museum. Is this the best the art world has to offer?
It's time to declare a moratorium on know-nothing Net virgin columns, with all their extravagant displays of cluelessness. It's one thing to be clueless when everyone else is, too; but after more thoughtful commentators have moved on to more sophisticated ground, it's just plain embarrassing.
Oh, yeah: Kimmelman also reports that the Web is really slow.
May 7, 1997
What's in a domain name?
The Washington Post headline sounded alarming: "Network Solutions Dropped as Registrar of Internet Domains." If the small company in Virginia that currently hands out domain names has been "dropped," who will pick up the ball? Will domain-name chaos ensue?
The story, it turned out, was not nearly so precipitous or calamitous: What happened was that the National Science Foundation, which gave Network Solutions a contract to run the domain-name business through April 1998, announced that it was not renewing the old contract -- and not giving out any new ones.
On the eve of an international conference in Geneva to deliberate over domain-name service (DNS) authority, the NSF announcement was less a bombshell than a confirmation of an already existing state of near-anarchy. Players in this free-for-all include Network Solutions (which claims full authority over the widely used and coveted .com domains), the International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC, which has proposed seven new top-level domains like ".firm" and ".store" and a lottery to add 28 independent registries for them), international telecommunications boards, private Net businesses and, of course, the U.S. government.
The conflict among these groups is important but dense, a bureaucratic and technical swamp full of numbing acronyms. Behind it may lie another and potentially more ominous story that doesn't seem to be getting much attention.
According to Gordon Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Report newsletter, the DNS battle is far less important than a less-well-publicized but more technologically central conflict looming over IP number assignment. IP numbers -- the 12 digits that identify every computer on the Net -- are the Internet's real addresses; domain names are just aliases or pointers that sit in front of the numbers and make the Net a (little) bit easier to navigate. If Cook is right, we should be seeing a lot fewer headlines about domain names and a lot more about the less sexy but more fundamental IP numbers.
Today, the final authority for IP number assignment resides with an obscure body known as the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA), which operates out of the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) at the University of Southern California and is run by Jon Postel, a computer scientist who was one of the Net's pioneers. But Cook says that IANA and Postel have been left vulnerable in the current environment of bureaucratic infighting and legal jockeying.
Postel's and IANA's authority derives from custom and from a contract between DARPA, the Federal agency that funded the Internet's early development, and the ISI. Cook says that since that contract expired on April 1 and was not renewed, IANA is vulnerable to the first bad court decision to come down the pike.
Here's his nightmare scenario: Say a lawsuit gets brought against Postel or IANA by a company that wants to run its own set of domain names or IP numbers, in competition with the existing authorities. Say the suit comes before a judge who's not particularly friendly to Internet tradition or educated in Internet technology.
Asks Cook: "What's gonna happen when a judge says, 'I don't see any legal authority for Postel to do what he's doing. I mean, "The consensual authority of the Internet community"? I beg your pardon, what's that?'" The result could be chaos: "If anybody can put anything in the root servers, then domain name service will eventually break."
What does this mean in practical terms to the average user? If domain name service "breaks," every Web address you type in your browser, every bookmark and every link would give you the same error message: "Unable to locate the server. The server does not have a DNS entry." Every e-mail you send would be returned to you as undeliverable. The Net as we know it would crash.
IANA is "the linchpin of the Internet," in Cook's words, and it's "floating on air" right now. Disaster, it turns out, may be almost as imminent as the Washington Post suggested -- but for very different reasons than the paper reported.
May 1, 1997