A modest proposal: How Google can weigh “right to be forgotten” requests

I took part in a panel discussion of the European Union’s “right to be forgotten” privacy directive earlier today, and it didn’t take long for the conversation to turn to one of the thornier aspects of that rule: How is any one company, even one with the resources of Google, going to adjudicate all of those requests?

Google RtbF searchThat’s turned out to be a much bigger problem than I’d feared when I covered this issue in a Yahoo Tech column in May. At the end of July, Google reported that it had received more than 91,000 requests from EU citizens asking to have particular links not shown in response to searches for their names. And many were sketchy in a way that wasn’t immediately obvious:

… we may not become aware of relevant context that would speak in favour of preserving the accessibility of a search result. An example would be a request to remove an old article about a person being convicted of a number of crimes in their teenage years, which omits that the old article has its relevance renewed due to a recent article about that person being convicted for similar crimes as an adult. Or a requester may not disclose a role they play in public life, for which their previous reported activities or political positions are highly relevant.

At the panel, I suggested there was only one fair way to resolve this, and I’ll expand on it here.

It’s clear that Google will have to research each “RtbF” request carefully to see if it falls under the EU’s exceptions for people in public life or whose activities would otherwise involve the public’s right to know. The history of search-engine abuse shows you can’t count on everybody to act ethically about their image online–and when that kind of manipulation goes uncaught by unscrupulous individuals, innocent people suffer.

But that’s not enough. Lest Google inadvertently hide material from somebody about to launch a business or a political campaign, it would be wise to check for evidence of any upcoming ventures into the public sphere by an individual. The history of “RtbF” abuse so far leaves little other choice.

EU citizens, in turn, deserve a timely response to their right-to-be-forgotten queries. The simplest way to do that for a company with Google’s search traffic and computing capabilities would be to do some advance work: It could merge its own records with other sources to determine which EU citizens clearly qualify as being in public life, which ones rank as private citizens and which ones seem likely to cross that threshold either way. To avoid unduly burdening smaller search sites also subject to the “right to be forgotten” directive, Google could allow them access to these records as well.

And so Google would come to protect the privacy of EU citizens by maintaining a massive database about them.

An extreme solution for a problem that can be solved by easier, simpler means in the real world? Yes, that’s my point.

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Hey, can you be more specific in your Facebook/Google greetings?

What’s a three-letter word for “I want to converse in real-time on a social network, and I will leave it to you to guess what about”?

Hey intro“Hey.”

Somehow, a message consisting only of that vague salutation has become a standard greeting from pals looking to kick off a conversation over Facebook messages or Google+ Hangouts. I wish that were not so.

As conversation-starters go, this is a nonstarter. It tells me nothing about what’s on your mind or the urgency of your request–unless typing it in lower case should be read as indicating a lower priority.

It’s also unoriginal. If you tried to grab my attention with the equally content-free “Ahoy,” at least I’d be thinking “ah, the salutation Alexander Graham Bell wanted us to use on the phone.”

Instead, why not just get to the point and state your question, compliment, complaint or humblebrag? You were going to do that in your next message anyway; why wait? Don’t let me hold you back!

That more direct practice seems to be how we–even those who “hey” me on Facebook or Google–have settled on using Twitter direct messages, like plain old text messaging before them.

At the same time, I have to recognize that these meaningless greetings come from friends who mean well, and that most lead to chats I appreciate. And things could be worse: I could have people trying to get my attention by saying “Yo.”

Getting flamed

You’re never going to please everybody in a job like this.; sometimes you intensely displease somebody. And so Tuesday’s Yahoo Tech column unpacking Apple’s WWDC announcements yielded an e-mail Wednesday from a reader with the subject line “Hater.” Here we go, I thought:

You are such an Apple-hater, it’s disgusting. I’m glad the Washington Post fired you. Your tech coverage sucked there. I stumbled across you today on Yahoo. Now I’ll know where to avoid you in the future.

FlamesThat kind of spittle-flecked invective goes by the name of “flaming” (or at least it once did; what do the kids call it these days?). Fortunately, it arrives exceedingly rarely and is vastly outnumbered by non-flame mail. The very next e-mail from a reader Wednesday began: “Glad to have found you on Yahoo Tech. I used to look forward to your Washington Post columns.”

(Note also that my possession of a Y chromosome makes my inbox easier to deal with. As in, I don’t have cretins expressing their disagreement with rape threats.)

And yet. A message like that requires some sort of response, and one of my character flaws is the pleasure I take in crafting a politely snarky reply–one that can withstand publicity if my cranky correspondent thinks posting it online will help his cause. So after reciting a certain line about customers from “Clerks,” I wrote back to note my history of buying and using Apple products (see, I’m a self-loathing hater!) and of complimenting them when warranted. I closed with an observation and a suggestion:

But my overall evaluation of this company’s work—or any other’s—is not a binary state. I am capable of appreciating some things it does while finding fault with others to come up with an assessment that’s neither 0 nor 1 but somewhere in between. I’m sorry you seem to be having trouble with that concept.
BTW, if you’re going to accuse somebody else of being a “hater” you might not want to delight in another person’s unemployment.

Will it persuade my reader? Maybe. About half the time I send back a civil response, the other person realizes they were talking to a fellow human being, not a thumbnail image on a Web page, and apologizes. The other half of the time, there’s no response. We’ll see how this one goes…

Mail merge? Work, home and other e-mail addresses

I keep telling myself that one of ways I maintain what’s left of my work/life balance is to have separate home and work e-mail addresses. And yet I have to ask who I’m kidding when these two Google Apps accounts, each at its own domain name, constitute separate lines or windows in a mail client, and when I’m sometimes corresponding with the same person from each address on alternate days. Meanwhile, many people I know seem to function perfectly fine with one all-purpose e-mail address.

MailboxIn a prior millennium, it was an easier call. After having lost a bunch of messages from friends during a transition from one e-mail system to another at the Post–and then discerning the dreadfulness of the new Lotus Notes system–I had little interest in trusting personal correspondence to my employer’s IT department.

I also figured that I would have less trouble staying on top of friends-and-family e-mail if it weren’t competing for space and attention in the first screen of my inbox with random PR pitches, interoffice memos and chit-chat with other journalists. And the address that wasn’t listed on a major newspaper’s Web site should, in theory, get vastly less spam.

(Because I am this persnickety about my communications tools, I also have a regular Gmail account that I use for almost all of my online commerce, financial transactions and other things that are neither personal- nor work-related. I don’t mind the ads there, while my Google Apps inboxes have no such distractions, courtesy of Google ending ad scanning for Apps users–even those on the free version it no longer offers to new users.)

It’s been years since I’ve had to worry about IT-inflicted mail misery. What about the other virtues of this split setup?

  • Being able to flag messages for follow-up means I’m now less likely to forget to answer an important message, whatever address it was sent to.
  • But I don’t need 11 different folders to sort my home e-mail after I’ve dealt with it. Less cognitive load is a good thing.
  • Having to ask myself nit-pick questions like “since I’m asking a friend about something that may lead to him being quoted in a story, should I send this message from my work address?” increases my cognitive load.
  • Searching for messages and then looking over the results is faster when I’m excluding an entire account’s worth of e-mail. But when I ask Mail for OS X to query all of the gigabytes of messages that have accumulated at both addresses… ugh.
  • My anti-spam strategy has been a total bust. When I checked earlier this morning, Google had quarantined almost 1,500 spam messages in my home account, about 100 of which were messages on my neighborhood mailing list that shouldn’t have been screened as junk.

On that last note, here’s a question for you all to ponder: That mailing list will soon be moving to a commercial hosting service subsidized by ads, and of course I haven’t yet read its privacy policy. Should I switch my subscription to my Gmail address, where I can read those messages alongside those from my neighborhood’s smaller Nextdoor group, or should I keep using my home address there?

 

Rocky Agrawal says hi

I woke up Sunday morning to an unexpected e-mail from my Bay Area pal Rakesh Agrawal: Friday afternoon, he’d quit the high-ranking job at PayPal he’d started only weeks earlier and was starting a new company.

A quick check of Google showed that Friday night, he’d gone on some sort of Twitter rampage – a stream of tweets, many incoherent and some talking trash about his now-former colleagues, and of course somebody screen-capped them all before he’d deleted what he said were supposed to be direct messages. Saturday afternoon, PayPal’s Twitter account suggested he’d been canned, reporting that he was “no longer with the company.”

Monday morning, he got on a plane from New Orleans to Newark, after which the Twitter strangeness continued: a string of reports about a phone’s declining battery, veiled insults about former co-workers, requests for a new iPhone, some outright gibberish. After a few lucid tweets following a nap that acknowledged people’s concerns, the tweetstorm got hard to follow all over again. Mutual acquaintances, one of who’s known him much longer than me, started asking about his well-being. I had the same question in mind.

So I met him for dinner with no idea what to expect. I can report that contrary to the Hunter S. Thompson-esque persona he’d been creating, he seemed in command of his wits and confident in the ultimate success of his social-media strategy. In my experience, he has not been a dummy or a newbie on that subject, which has made all of this so confounding to watch. It’s… well, not how I went about publicizing my departure from my old employer.

We talked for a little while about people he’s liked at AOL, Twitter and PayPal and hiring and retention practices he didn’t like at those places–the kind of banter I’ve had more than once with other tech-industry types–and he invited me to record and post that conversation. Have a listen if you want, and please forgive the crummy audio quality caused by recording at a crowded bar:

Note that as he was saying a few nice things about PayPal president David Marcus (whom I met last year at Mobile World Congress and thought a pretty sharp guy), Marcus was posting a note on PayPal’s blog denouncing Rocky’s “mad rants.” My friend no longer seems so fond of his old boss, going by this a.m.’s tweets.

We also discussed the company he’s planning to start up–I can’t report much about that, owing to Rocky revealing so little–and for which he says he has ample funding. There was a vague job offer too. He does not have my answer yet.

10:27 a.m. Revising and extending my remarks to answer one question: So how do I know this guy? Rocky worked at the Post during some of its earliest and more awkward ventures into online publishing, although I didn’t get to know him all that well until years later. If management had listened to people like him who grok user experience and customer behavior (see also: being right about Groupon’s business-model weaknesses way before a lot of other people), my old industry might be in better shape. Don’t count the guy out, in other words.

Re: Reader mail

I started answering e-mail from readers in the summer of 1994, and I’m still not done.

Close-up of OS X Mail’s interface.People keep sending more messages, true, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever reached Inbox Zero with respect to audience correspondence more than a handful of times, none of which followed the invention of blogging and social media.

The sad thing is that even as the tools I use to report and write keep improving, my options for staying on top of reader feedback haven’t advanced much since IMAP e-mail gave me the ability to flag a message for follow-up and see that annotation everywhere I check my mail.

So aside from those occasions when I have the luxury of writing back almost immediately, I still save too many of my replies for a frantic catch-up session, usually staged when I’m trying to finish a workday or during travel-induced idle time.

(Feature request for e-mail developers: Let me bookmark the point in my inbox at which I set aside reader e-mail and should resume answering it when I next have time.)

The “good job!” messages take the least time to reply–you write “thanks” and that’s about it–while I can’t resist taking the time to craft clever, snarky responses to the angrier feedback. That’s not healthy, and yet my colleagues at the Post and I used to debate the best way to reply to an unhinged reader’s spittle-flecked missive. I recall one more diplomatic reporter saying he’d simply write back “You may be right,” while a crankier co-worker half-jokingly suggested “Thanks for reading, as difficult as it must have been.”

E-mails asking “how do I do this?” or “how do I fix this?” take the longest amount of time to answer but can’t be neglected at all: They feed my USA Today Q&A column, and before that the Q&A I did for the Post.

The easiest way to get me to answer your message quickly is to tell me something I didn’t know. Think things like some breakdown in service or violation of the rules at a company or a government office, an error nobody’s seen before, or one weird trick to get a gadget or an app to do something that’s not in the manual. Otherwise, I can only fall back on the usual guidelines, which happen to overlap with the advice I’ve been giving to PR professionals for years: Use a descriptive subject header (as in, not “Help”) and make your case in the first sentence or two.

I’d like to tell you that from now on, I will do better, but I would be either lying or foolishly optimistic. This is a most honest statement: Please hold, and your e-mail will be answered in the order it was received.

#corrected: Fixing your errors on Twitter

I screwed up on Twitter yesterday morning. In the grip of nerd rage over a story about an Apple patent application–and without sufficient caffeine in my body–I tweeted that the Cupertino, Calif., company had received a patent on a feature that had debuted in a third-party app some three years before its 2012 filing.

Delete tweetThe problem was, Apple had only applied for a patent on a text-while-you-walk system that would overlay message conversations on your phone camera’s view of your surroundings. Oops.

So I tweeted something, um, transparently wrong. Now what? I’ve attended more than one panel discussion on this, and the answers usually get stuck on one of two conflicting imperatives: Don’t let the error go unfixed, but don’t look like you’re hiding the mistake either.

(See my earlier post about documenting changes to your story, if necessary in comments you leave yourself.)

Since you can’t edit the incorrect tweet or even flag it as wrong in the way you could amend a flawed story or blog post, letting it stand risks perpetuating the mistake. But if you delete it, then the evidence of your error vanishes.

What I decided to do was to delete the tweet, follow up by saying what I’d gotten wrong, and then redo the original tweet with a reasonably obvious hashtag, #corrected, to indicate that it was a “CX” for an earlier version:

Does that routine work for you all? Or am I once again seriously overthinking something that people with real jobs don’t worry about at all?

In other news, earlier this afternoon I was glad to see that the Ask Patents clearinghouse for prior art will include this Apple filing in an upcoming call for submissions:

 

Snapshots from SXSW

It’s now been three days since I got off the plane at National Airport, officially ending this year’s SXSW itinerary, and it’s taken me that long to catch up on sleep, do laundry and edit and upload pictures. (The traditional post-conference LinkedIn binge remains undone.)  And maybe I’ve gained a smidgeon of perspective on the event too.

Attendees make their way through the convention center.Once again, my primary first-world problem was deciding which panels and talks to attend. I was more ruthless and/or lazy this time, deciding I wouldn’t even try to get to such relatively distant locations as the AT&T Conference Center at the University of Texas’s campus (where my 2012 panel drew maybe 20 people) or the Hyatt Regency at the other end of the Congress Avenue Bridge.

But then I wound up not watching any panels outside the convention center and the Hilton across the street. Of those, remote interviews with Julian AssangeEdward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald topped my list. But I was also fascinated by a debate about net neutrality in which law professor Tim Wu noted our own responsibility in putting a handful of giant companies in charge (“we don’t have a culture on the Internet of preferring alternatives”), a talk about wearable computing that pivoted to discussions of “implantables” and “injectables,” and an honest unpacking of the failure of tech journalists to break the NSA-surveillance story (TechCrunch co-editor Alexia Tsotsis: “We need to step back from our role as cheerleaders and give a more critical eye to the people we’re surrounded with”).

My geographically-restricted attendance led me to miss many other discussions that had looked interesting beforehand. Not only was this narrow-minded conduct, it stopped me from walking around more to make up for all the food I ate.

It would be hard to avoid putting on a few pounds while in Austin on a normal weekend, but when you don’t have to pay for most of your food, courtesy of pervasive corporate and PR sponsorship, the city becomes a thoroughly enabling environment. And a delicious one! For example: the brisket at La Barbecue (thanks, Pinterest), algorithm-driven cuisine at IBM’s food truck, and breakfast tacos at Pueblo Viejo (that was on my own dime, and you should be happy to spend yours there too when you’re in Austin).

Austin’s nightlife hub on the first night of SXSW Interactive.As for empty calories–um, yeah, they’re not hard to find at SXSW either. This is the single booziest event on my calendar. That can be an immense amount of fun (my Sunday night somehow involved both seeing Willie Nelson play a few songs with Asleep at the Wheel from maybe 20 feet away, followed by the RVIP Lounge’s combination of touring bus, open bar and karaoke machine), but waking up the next morning can be brutal. To anybody who had a 9:30 a.m. panel on Sunday, only hours after the time change cut an hour out of everybody’s schedule: I’m so sorry.

And then the night after I left, some drunk-driving idiot crashed through a police barricade and killed two people.

Even before that, the “do we really need this event now that it’s been overrun by marketing droids?” conversation about SXSW was louder than usual. I have to note that three of the most interesting panels–the Assange, Snowden and Greenwald interviews–featured subjects thousands of miles away; in theory we all could have watched those from home.

But this is also an event where you meet people you wouldn’t otherwise see and might not ever meet–a long-ago Post colleague from copy-aide days, Internet activists you should know for future stories, journalists who put up with the same problems as you, entrepreneurs with interesting ideas that might go somewhere, and so on. Maybe this is a colossal character defect on my part, but I enjoy those conversations–even the ones with the marketing droids. And that’s why I do this every year.

(After the jump, my Flickr set from the conference.)

(7:30 p.m.: Tweaked a few sentences because I could.)

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So long, Sulia: lessons from an experiment in compressed journalism

My time contributing short updates to the microblogging site Sulia wrapped up unceremoniously Monday morning when an e-mail–“ending our paid arrangement”–landed in my inbox. The site’s pivoting in another direction that doesn’t involve paying for my input or that of what seems to be most other contributors it had signed up (for example, my friend Rocky Agrawal); so it goes.

Sulia compose dialogThe departure of any one freelance client isn’t that big of a deal, but in this case it was a different sort of medium, and I learned some things along the way that seem worth sharing.

The basic idea here was to get paid a little for writing the equivalent of three tweets in a row–a minimum of 700 characters, a maximum of 2,500. On clicking the “Post” button at Sulia, those updates would appear automatically under my name on Twitter and at my public Facebook page–and that’s when I was met with confusion. Readers had no idea what the heck Sulia was or what I was doing there, leading me to post an explanation here after the first three weeks.

It took longer for me to pace myself so that I wouldn’t be rushing to finish my weekly quota of 10 posts in the last hours of Sunday–and to figure out what topics fit best into this pressurized container. In retrospect, holding off on live-tweeting interesting talks so I could post a longer recap on Sulia was a mistake, while it was smarter to use that greater character count to break some local wireless news in slightly more depthdo the cost-of-ownership math for a new smartphone, or recount my experience upgrading an operating system.

Overall, this site filled a useful void in my work by allowing me to share my notes in a medium slightly longer and less evanescent than Twitter while also getting paid (and without having to send an invoice first). I‘m not sure how I’ll replace that.

Among no-payment options, Twitter puts me back in a 140-character box, Facebook and Google+ have enough of my personal business already, LinkedIn seems too business-focused, and as for Medium–well, I already have a blog here. Alas, my WordAds revenue has been so minimal to date that it’s not worth thinking about the potential income from any one extra post.

Or perhaps the Sulia experiment was a mistake all along, and I should have put the time spent crafting those 40-some morsels a month into finding three or four good stories to sell elsewhere. Either way: on to the next thing…

Time-zone arbitrage

Spending the past five days in Barcelona, six hours ahead of the East Coast, has me thinking anew about the finer points of having different digits on your clock and those of editors and readers. 

World clockYes, jet lag sucked. I woke up Monday at 4:30 a.m. and then couldn’t get back to sleep, leading to a couple of naps in the press room. (A laptop does not make a good pillow.) But a day later, my eyelids no longer felt like they weighed 200 pounds, and I realized again that the time-zone gap can also be my friend.

Specifically, it turns the morning into—not an accountability-free zone, but at least a self-directed time, thanks to almost nobody in a position to direct my coverage being awake. Then it allows my copy to arrive early in an editor’s day for a change. If my editor is based in the Bay Area, I look even more prompt: The story sent at 5 p.m. arrives at 9 a.m.

At some point, this equation will flip and I’ll have an evening upended when an editor decides my copy needs another run through the typewriter. But so far, the worst that’s happened is me turning into that annoying guy who answers e-mails on his phone during dinner.

Social media also highlights that temporal shift: Twitter and Facebook look a lot quieter than usual until lunchtime, to the point where I question the wisdom of tweeting out observations that will get lost in the timelines of most of my usual audience. But then I  have my phone pinging with notifications until I go to sleep myself.

Back at home, the three-hour gap between the East and West Coast should also benefit me when dealing with editors there. But it’s too easy to waste that advantage until it’s 6 p.m. here and I have a different deadline looming in my own time zone: cooking dinner.

Flying to the West Coast, meanwhile, permits jet lag to work for me: On the first couple of days, I usually snap awake not much later than 5 a.m., and I am never more productive than in those hours before I finally get breakfast. And if the event I’m covering won’t have people committing news after lunch—for example, Google I/O keynotes usually start at 9 a.m. and run until about noon—my workday will also end earlier than usual.

But then I also have to deal with the 7-9 p.m. keynote that opens each CES. Not only does it throw a wrench in my scheduling machinery, it ensures I can’t eat until a time that feels more like 11 p.m. At least I don’t have to write stories about those things anymore.