Big 3 on the Information Superhighway

With the resignation of Obama Car Czar Steven Rattner, the Big 3 –Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler– are reeling, and attention has again focused on automotive management of Federal bailout money.  E.M. Forster’s Internet “screens with a view,” could provide insights on strategic, regional brand and inventory decisions.

Regional Search Query Interest in Hybrid Cars.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hybrid Cars.

Within the Big 3, brand management and differentiation remains challenging.  However, Google Insights for Search indicates relative strengths, direction and amplitude of trending, and geographic hotbeds.  At Ford Motor Company, Lincoln has more than double the search volume as Mercury, and three times that of Volvo.  But while Mercury has interest in Kansas, Oregon, and California, Volvo is predominately popular in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.  In fact, seven of the top ten “Volvo” query states are in New England.

Regional Internet Interest in Pickup Trucks.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Pickup Trucks.

Comparing common models such as Sedan, SUV, Hatchback, Hybrid, and Pickup, managers would discover relative consumer preferences, and see that online interest –arguably a leading indicator of consumer engagement– is highly regional.  Over the past 90-days, American Google search volume on “Hybrid” cars is 265 percent greater than “Sedan,” and 900 percent greater than search on “Hatchback” vehicles.  But automotive managers would also realize that consumers in the Northeast are are increasingly interested in Hybrid vehicles, while Hatchbacks have strong popularity in Hawaii and the Pacific Northwest.  Despite rising oil prices, online queries about Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV) remain highly popular across the Southern United States, from Texas to Florida.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hatchback Cars.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in Hatchback Cars.

With SUV online popularity strong in Southern states, Ford executives might compare search volumes across their line of relevant vehicles, namely the Expedition, Explorer, Escape, and Edge.  While the Ford Expedition and Edge have comparable interest, there is 60 percent greater search volume on the Escape, and 140 percent on Ford Explorer.  However, the Ford Expedition’s limited Internet traffic comes from the region with the strongest ties to Sport Utility Vehicles.  Despite the Explorer’s popularity in Alaska, the Escape’s popularity in Michigan, and the Edge’s popularity in Iowa, the Expedition’s most interested consumers hail from Louisiana, Texas, and Florida.  By understanding regional interests in vehicle type, Ford could better target appropriate vehicles regionally.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in SUVs.

Regional Google Search Query Interest in SUVs.

As Steven Rattner makes a return to Cerberus Capital –on the shores of the Hudson, if not the River Styx– his replacement would be apt to consult Internet search as a leading indicator of consumer behavior. The Big 3 may yet become reliant on Gore’s Information Superhighway as much as they have on Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway.

Circumvention in Iran and China

The Times has a front page article this morning (yes, I still read the hard copy) on circumvention in Iran and China, which highlights a lot of people and tools we’ve discussed on this blog before, including Tor and Psiphon. (You can learn about additional circumvention resources in our tools database.) The piece also mentions Rebecca MacKinnon’s research, which we wrote about here . Her full paper is also a must read (preview: private sector blog hosting services are doing a lot of the heavy lifting for China’s online sensors).

You should also check out the recently released Berkman paper by Hal Roberts, Ethan Zuckerman and John Palfrey, where they share the results of the testing of various circumvention tools. The technology behind them all is basically the same (like a bank shot in basketball, as the Times piece says), and their testing found that not all tools work as well as one might assume. Of course, users need to make their own decision about what to use and their relative merits, so this paper is an important read. They found that Tor and Psiphon were two of the best at the time of testing. Finally, at a recent meeting of bloggers and activist from the Middle East, I was struck by how many people in countries with restrictions on free speech don’t use these advanced tools–and are often not even aware of them. Hopefully, the press coverage will help spread the word a bit further.

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From China With Love…?

There’s nothing sexier than a spy. Unless, of course, that spy is a faceless web spook stealing documents from the Dalai Lama. Hope all of you have already read this fascinating Times piece about GhostNet, the shadowy malware espionage project uncovered by those smart folks at the Munk Centre, affilited with the University of Toronto. (Munk’s Citizen Lab also broke the story of China’s Skype monitoring, which I wrote about back in December.) GhostNet covertly spied on computers in over 103 countries, including a host of different computers affiliated with the Dalai Lama. Read the full report here.

Researchers traced the servers back to their physical locations, and as it turns out three of the four are in China. It’s hard to not to feel, especially given the focus of Tibetan computers, that this wasn’t an inside job by People’s Liberation Army cyber-warriors. James Fallows, however, has made a persuasive case for skepticism.

Fallow’s chief point is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish state from non-state actors on the web. GhostWeb might be in cahoots with the Chinese intelligence service, or it might be a band of patriotic hackers, or, God knows, the CIA. One does wonder though what patriotic Chinese hackers would do with sensitive Tibetan documents besides hand them over to Chinese authorities.

Regardless, the Web’s dense underbrush of anonymity empowers astro-turfers, spreaders of misinformation and, as we can now say with certainty, powerful hacker-spies (do they wear tuxedos and drink martinis too?) to prowl unnoticed. No fancy glass cutters or laser trippers needed. This includes dramatic digital cossacks, like the kids that nearly toppled Estonia’s government websites, and more pernicious and hidden efforts like Ghostnet.

For all the powerful and positive changes the Internet heralds (and we have been eager prophets on this blog), there are coequal dangers posed by our greater inter-connection and -dependence. Not to go Luddite on you all, but remote access is always a blessing and a curse.

Berkman Releases New ‘Herdict’ Filtering Web Site

Building on the OpenNet Initiative’s (ONI’s) cutting-edge research into global Internet filtering, Berkman is pleased to announce the launch of the Herdict Web site and Firefox add-on. As we were able to show earlier this week on this blog, crowd sourcing of filtering research can be a powerful new tool for understanding what is being blocked in places like Iran, China and elsewhere. However, to be successful, a large community needs to support this initiative, so please check out the video below and Web site to see how it works. This initiative is the brain child of Berkman co-founder and co-Faculty Director Jonathan Zittrain, who stars (sort of) in the video:

And from the official announcement:

Herdict is a portmanteau of ‘herd’ and ‘verdict.’ Using Herdict Web, anyone anywhere can report websites as accessible or inaccessible. Herdict Web aggregates reports in real time, permitting participants to see if inaccessibility is a shared problem, giving them a better sense of potential reasons for why a site is inaccessible. Trends can be viewed over time, by site and by country.

So go to the Web site, try it out for yourself and help spread the word!

Google Under Fire

The Bits blog over at the NYT picked up this story of pending legal action against several senior Google executives in Italy. At stake is whether Google is responsible for having allowed users to upload a video of several bullies making fun of a boy with Downs syndrome. From this, you might be thinking that Google refused to take the video down when asked, but that is not the case. In fact, as soon as the video was flagged as inappropriate, Google removed the video. The accusation goes much deeper in asserting that Google should have pre-screened and eliminated the video before it hit the web.

In my opinion, this is not only expecting too much of a company whose site Google Video, combined with its independent subsidiary, YouTube, hosts millions of videos uploaded by users. This quote from the YouTube factsheet should help clarify its immensity:

People are watching hundreds of millions of videos a day on YouTube and uploading hundreds of thousands of videos daily. In fact, every minute, ten hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.

It would be impossible for Google to pre-screen even a fraction of those clips. A while back, in my article “How Google Decides,” I talked about how even the current method of reviewing flagged videos for legality may ultimately prove woefully inadequate.

What this case against Google really amounts to is an attack on Web 2.0 technology. In the case of the bullied boy, his privacy and protection from further, potentially global ridicule, must be weighed against the powerful information sharing capabilities of a site like YouTube. To shutter all of YouTube because one user briefly jeopardizes someone else’s privacy without permission is itself an act of bullying, one which threatens the thousands of users who lawfully make use of the site.

Don’t get me wrong, poking fun of a boy with Downs syndrome and then publicizing it is heinous and awful. Only a more reasonable response is not to demand that Google rigorously police the marketplace (it cannot do so), but to rely on a combination of collective self-governing (flagging inappropriate clips) and traditional criminal investigations into the people who post immoral, hateful or illegal content. This preserves the vibrant and rich connectivity of Web 2.0 sites without give a free pass to bullies and perverts. As the Google execs remarked in their public statement:

We are pleased that as a result of our cooperation the bullies in the video have been identified and punished.

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A $20 Laptop?

According to Foreign Policy, India is ready to unveil a $20 laptop that could seriously undermine One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) efforts to get its technology into the hands of those on the far side of the digital divide. The Indian laptop, called Sakshat, will have 2 GB of memory and wireless connectivity to the Internet. There was quite a bit of discussion here at Berkman recently when it was announced that OLPC would lay off half of its staff, and force those that remained to take pay cuts. The Indian government also apparently refused to support the OLPC project, citing it’s costs as too high and better spent on other areas of primary and secondary education. At least for now though, OLPC may not have too much to worry about since India has yet to find a manufacturer, and this is not exactly best time to launch any new technology project. In the mean time, SMS and cell phones will most likely remain the technology of choice for the majority in the developing world, which raises the need for more innovative tools like Frontline SMS to tap into their full potential for civil society.

News Flash: Bad People Use the Internet Too!

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the Internet isn’t always used just by do-gooders to do good. Alas, security analyst Bruce Schneier reminds us bad people can use the Internet too. However, he encourages us to avoid the urge to shut down new technologies, like Google Earth, just because they might some day, possibly, be used by terrorists.

If India bans Google Earth, a future terrorist won’t be able to use it to plan; nor will anybody else. Open Wi-Fi networks are useful for many reasons, the large majority of them positive, and closing them down affects all those reasons. Terrorist attacks are very rare, and it is almost always a bad trade-off to deny society the benefits of a communications technology just because the bad guys might use it too.

Our case study on post-election violence in Kenya is a perfect example of how during one episode of violence, individuals can simultaneously use the Internet for positive change (Ushahidi), while others employ it for more nefarious ends (text messages coordinating violence). In the Kenya example, we saw the same impulse by government to shut down the cell phone network that Schneier observes today, but note that instead of shutting off Kenyans’ primary form of communication, they chose to allow the cell carrier to remain in service while also sending messages encouraging peace and calm to all subscribers.

As Schneier concludes:

Criminals have used telephones and mobile phones since they were invented. Drug smugglers use airplanes and boats, radios and satellite phones. Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water, and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are – by and large – small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular. And while terrorism turns society’s very infrastructure against itself, we only harm ourselves by dismantling that infrastructure in response – just as we would if we banned cars because bank robbers used them too.

Now, if only I could take a bottle of shampoo on my next flight….

Hat Tip: Sullivan

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President To Keep Crackberry

Photo: Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

While journalists have been pestering President Obama about his smoking habit, turns out the one addiction he won’t have to kick is the one to his blackberry. Apparently he just wouldn’t take no for an an answer on this one, and his staff have devised a way for a small circle of senior staff, family and friends to get his email address–but only after they get a briefing from the White House lawyers. The Times speculates that this will set off a new round of competition for who gets access to this part of the President. Unfortunately, this very limited circle is not what Obama hoped for. As he put it in a recent interview, he hoped keeping his blackberry would be a way for him to reach outside of his small circle of advisers and be able to hear dissenting opinions. A worthy goal, but the lawyers seem to have quashed it for now.

Hit The Ground Running: New White House Web Site and Blog Go Live

At 12:01pm the new went live with a blog post from the ‘Director of New Media’ Macon Phillips. I’m guessing that is a newly created position that will attempt to take lessons from the successful Internet-driven campaign and apply them to governance.

The site promises that it will “…be a central part of President Obama’s pledge to make his the most transparent and accountable administration in American history.” And encouraging signs in the technology section of the new site which has as its top goal, “Ensure the Full and Free Exchange of Ideas through an Open Internet and Diverse Media Outlets”, and as it’s second goal:

Create a Transparent and Connected Democracy

* Open Up Government to its Citizens: Use cutting-edge technologies to create a new level of transparency, accountability, and participation for America’s citizens.
* Bring Government into the 21st Century: Use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens while ensuring the security of our networks. Appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to ensure the safety of our networks and lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.

According to CNN, a number of senior staffers were planning to be shuttled to their new offices in the White House immediately after the inauguration. Straight to work folks!

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Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics Finalists for Innovation Award

Congratulations to our friends at Ushahidi and Click Diagnostics who filled two of the top three finalists spots (out of 115 nominated projects) in USAID’s Development 2.0 Challenge. The Click Diagnostics CEO is Mridul Chowdhury who graduated from the Kennedy School, is a longtime friend of the Berkman Center, and also wrote the Internet and Democracy case study on Burma. Besides being a documentary film maker and a super nice guy, he’s also co-Founder of Click Diagnostics, which uses technology to improve rural health care delivery in the developing world. And we’ve already sung the praises of Ushahidi, whose story is detailed in our other recent case on Kenya’s post election violence. I see that Ushahidi is now also being used by Al Jazeera to map violence in Gaza. Several Berkman friends helped create Ushahidi including Ory Okolloh and Erik Hersman. You can see Erik and several other important Kenyan bloggers in this short film made after our digital activism event last year–along with a number of other leading digital activists. Neither walked away with the top prize in this one, but congratulations again to the Ushahidi community and the whole team at Click Diagnostics for snagging the runners up prizes!

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