August 12, 2009

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I’ve written a lot of stuff on the Web, and when I need to find some of it, Google is where I go. Lately, however, the going hasn’t been quite as good, because Google most of the time asks me if I want to spell my surname differently. For example, if I look up searls infrastructure, I get “Did you mean: Searles infrastructure“? I never used to get that. Now I do.

The former brings up 251,000 results, by the way, while the latter brings up 11,600. And the top result is a guy named Searle.

On that search, by the way, Bing does a better job. At least for me. Same with Yahoo.

[Later…] See the comments below. Looks like we got some debugging of sorts done here. And thanks to Matt and Pandu for responding, and so quickly. Well done.

In Align the interests of: 1. Users and 2. Investors., make a radical yet sensible case for users becoming investors. It’s very consistent with what we’re learning from Scoble plus FriendFeed turning into Friendfeed minus Scoble, which Dave wrote about in Scoble, your blog still loves you, and to which I added a comment that included this:

  The only publication on Earth that’s all Robert’s is his blog. That’s where his soul is, because he can’t sell it.
  …We’re back to first principles now. Users and developers, diggin’ together. Working on stuff that will survive the deaths of companies — and of bright ideas that can’t live anywhere but inside companies that own roach-motel environments that can be sold or shut down tomorrow.

The problem with living in most VC-funded company environments isn’t just that they keep us from living elsewhere (which is bad enough to begin with). It’s that the environments are like houses built to flip. The main idea isn’t to build a great house, but to sell it. It was a lesson I unpacked here in 2001:

  When the “internet economy” was still a high-speed traffic jam somewhere back in 1999, I was at a party in San Francisco. Most of the folks there were young, hip “entrepreneurs”. Lots of all-black outfits, spiky haircuts, goatees and face jewelry. I fell into conversation with one of these guys–a smart, eager young chap I’d met at other gatherings. He was on his second or third startup and eagerly evangelizing his new company’s “mission” with a stream of buzzwords.
  “What does your company do, exactly?” I asked.
  “We’re an arms merchant to the portals industry”, he replied.
  When I pressed him for more details (How are portals an industry? What kind of arms are you selling?), I got more buzzwords back. Finally, I asked a rude question. “How are sales?”
  “They’re great. We just closed our second round of financing.”
  Thus I was delivered an epiphany: every company has two markets–one for its goods and services, and one for itself–and the latter had overcome the former. We actually thought selling companies to investors was a real business model.

Dave take this another step by suggesting that any company whose first loyalty is not to its customers or users is a risky prospect. And that user ownership is a good fix. I agree.

It’s not that we have to blow up everything that came before. It’s that we need to build a new kind of enterprise: founding a People’s Software Company whose first act is to IPO and pool the financial resources of users who believe there is a gap in what Silicon Valley is providing using their old models for corporate structure.

This is definitely in alignment with what we’ve been thinking about and working on with ProjectVRM. And, as with the project Dave wants us to think about here, it’s hard to see the need if you’re looking at the world from the vendor’s side of the demand/supply relationship.

Yesterday Jim Sinur posted Escaping the Zombie Zoo with Better Customer Facing Processes, in which he writes,

  Why can’t I have my own portal that understands me and all the companies I work with and the processes that I use on some frequency? I do like online banking and my bank’s website is somewhat intuitive. Paypal is not too bad either, but why can’t I create a menu of processes I want in stead of organizing favorites? This menu remembers me and all my passwords. I can give it instructions like calculate my net worth as of a certain date and it does it for me. I can tell it to pay certain bills that coordinate with my 15th of the month income check instead of having to rely on credit cards that expire and banks that you can’t control well.
  I want a “Process of Me” where companies can allow me to customize my processes and interface.

What Jim wants is VRM — a way he can manage vendors, rather than just have them managing him. Vendors should adapt to his needs and processes, rather than the reverse, which is what he complains about earlier in his post, and that we all live through every time we have to whip out a loyalty card to interact with some vendor in a lame, exclusive and non-user-driven way.

After Jon Garfunkel replied with a pointer to ProjectVRM, Jim asked, “Which vendors are supporting this or is it a grass roots movement?”

What Dave proposes is one way to remove that distinction.

I’m a born researcher. Studying stuff is a lot of what I do, whether I’m looking out the window of an airplaine, asking a question at a meeting, browsing through the Web and correspondence, or digging through books and journals in libraries.

Most of my library work, however, isn’t in library buildings. I work on my own screen. And there, much of what I’ve been studying lately is in Google scans of books.

I appreciate that Google has done Google Books. I also find the Google Books searching and reading process difficult in much the same way that looking at microfiche is difficult. The difference is that microfiche was in its time the best that could be done, while Google Books is great technology crippled by necessary compromise.

Much of that compromise — still ongoing — is around protecting both libraries and copyright holders. Contention around that topic has been large and complicated. A couple weeks back I hung out at Alternative Approaches to Open Digital Libraries in the Shadow of the Google Book Search Settlement: An Open Workshop at Harvard Law School, and left it better informed and less settled than ever.

In the Huffington Post, Pamela Samuelson, one of the world’s top copyright authorities, has a piece titled The Audacity of the Google Book Search Settlement, that begins,

  Sorry, Kindle. The Google Book Search settlement will be, if approved, the most significant book industry development in the modern era. Exploiting an opportunity made possible by lawsuits brought by a small number of plaintiffs on one narrow issue, Google has negotiated a settlement agreement designed to give it a compulsory license to all books in copyright throughout the world forever. This settlement will transform the future of the book industry and of public access to the cultural heritage of mankind embodied in books. How audacious is that?

She adds,

  Under the settlement, the Authors Guild and AAP are tasked with creating a new collecting society, the Book Rights Registry, which is supposed to find class members, sign them up, and pay them from a revenue stream that Google intends to generate from its commercialization of these books…
  Google will pay to the Registry 63 percent of the revenues it receives from its commercialization efforts of out-of-print books. After deducing its expenses, the Registry will pay royalties to those who have registered with it. Yet, the agreement also authorizes the Registry to pay out unclaimed funds from orphan and other unregistered works to registered owners, even though they are neither the authors nor the publishers of potentially millions of books.

It gets far more icky and complicated than that. Pamela continues,

  However, much larger questions call into question whether the settlement should be approved. One is whether the Authors Guild and AAP fairly represented the interests of all authors and publishers of in-copyright books during the negotiations that led up to the settlement agreement. A second is whether going forward, they and the newly created Registry to which they will give birth will fairly represent the interests of those on whose behalf the Registry will be receiving revenues from Google. As well-intentioned as they may be, the Authors Guild and AAP have negotiated an agreement that serves the interests of the core members of their organizational constituencies, not the thousands of times larger and more diverse class of authors and publishers of books from all over the world.

In What the Google Books Settlement Agreement Says About Privacy, Eric Hellman writes,

  Google, as presently constituted, has every reason to be concerned about user privacy and guard it vigilantly; its business would be severely compromised by any perception that it intrudes on the privacy of its users. As Larry Lessig pointed out at the Berkman workshop, that doesn’t mean that the Google of the future will behave similarly. Privacy concerns should be addressed; the main question has been how and where to address them. My reading of the settlement agreement is that it may be possible to address these concerns through the agreement’s Security Standard review mechanism, through oversight of the Registry, and through state and federal laws governing library patron privacy.

There’s a story this morning on NPR about how Google is building “the prospect of a virtual super-library”. Privacy is the angle on that one too. It’s also been the angle of the EFF for a long time. They’re looking for legally binding privacy guarantees. Google thinks a copyright conflict agreement would be a “wierd” place to put those guarantees.

It is a fortuitous but odd conflation. As Todd Carpenter tweets, “I don’t dismiss privacy concerns (have disabled WhysperSync on my #kindle for privacy) There are just bigger issues at stake.” Todd runs NISO, a publishing standards organization (he is also, by small-world coincidence in this thread — since, oddly, we’ve hardly talked about it, at least so far — my son-in-law). He also blogs here.

Here’s the larger issue for me: Google is a monopoly. One example. I’m looking right now at an AR&D case study (a .pdf I can’t find on the Web at the moment) of Jerry Damson Automotive Group, which the report says is the largest automobile dealer in Alabama. Here’s an excerpt:

  So where is the Damson group’s focus, if not on local media?
  “Every minute of every day is spent thinking about the consequences of our decisions as it relates to Google.” This remarkable statement is one that more advertisers will be making as they, too, grow in their un-derstanding of the Web and how advertising works in a hyperconnected universe. Boles is far ahead of most, but others will not be far behind, for people like him are paving the way for a future generation of strategies and tactics that enable commerce. “We begin each chunk (morning, mid-day, afternoon and evening) of the day with Google Analytics.”

Substitute libraries for “local media”, and you get a sense of the impact here .

Here at Harvard we have Hollis, one of the world’s largest searchable library catalogs. Maybe the largest, I dunno. But it’s a big one, and it matters. When I search through the Hollis catalog, which I do nearly every day through a search thing in my browser toolbar, many of the results are accompanied by a book cover graphic and a link that reads, “Discover more in Google Books”. That pops me out of Hollis and into Google Books itself. In other searches (through the new catalog, which is fancier), I get no mention of Google Books, but when I click on the picture of a book cover, Google Books is where I go. It’s in a different window, but still I get the impression that Google Books is part of Hollis. And that creeps me out a bit, handy as it is in some ways.

Siva Vaidhyanathan is writing a book called The Googlization of Everything: How one companyh is disrupting culture, commerce and community — and why we should worry. He spoke at the workshop as well, and has lots of deep and good things to say.

Lessig says this settlement moves books down the path of documentary films: access encumbered by a bunch of agreements, without a guarantee of future access. It is “worse that a digital bookstore.” It brings us to “an excessive permission culture” produced by “a structure of oligopolies”. A “tendency to access” but not of free access. He suggests that we are turning our culture over to tigers when they still look like kittens.

There is not an easy answer. Or set of answers. So I’ll stand right now on the questions raised at the end of this Seth Finkelstein essay in The Guardian:

  Amid all the reactions, an overall lesson should be how little can be determined by legalism, and how much remains unsettled as new technology causes shifts in markets and power. There’s some value in enemy-of-my-enemy opposition, where the interests of an advertising near-monopoly are a counterweight to a content cartel. But battles between behemoth businesses should not be mistaken for friendship to libraries, authors or public interest.