A River of Leaks, a Torrent of Rage
Wikileaks has hung out another load of dirty laundry, this time putting hundreds of thousands of U.S. State Department memos out on public view. It's left many diplomats and governments red-faced, earned the leakers widespread condemnation, and called State Department security practices into question. Meanwhile, Level 3 chews out Comcast, the FTC gnashes its teeth over privacy, and Google bites dirty SEO tricksters.
12/04/10 5:00 AM PT
Wikileaks did it again. The website exists solely for the purpose of making secret information public, and some of its greatest hits -- or worst disasters, depending on your point of view -- have consisted of tens of thousands of leaked military documents relating to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This time around, Wikileaks tattled on the U.S. State Department. It put up for public view 250,000 private cables, or messages, exchanged between the State Department and 274 worldwide embassies. Some are from as recently as this year, others date back as far as 1966, and 15,000 of them are classified as "Secret."
Reading through the documents is like flipping through an extremely long and mostly very boring diary. It goes blah blah blah for page after page, and every once in a while you find a juicy part, but there aren't any revelations that really turn the world inside out. No Reptilians, no proof that Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing, nothing like that.
What you will find is a whole lot of catty diplomat name-calling. For example, some guy called North Korea's Kim Jong Il a "pudgy chap" -- the nerve!
Other documents reveal the specifics of all the shady, underhanded, back-stabby maneuvers most of us kind of expect from international relations but were never actually privy to. Discussions about Iran using ambulances to smuggle arms to Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia buttering up both the U.S. and Al Qaeda simultaneously, and the paranoia of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.
Then comes the stuff like how China is growing more and more frustrated with North Korea's behavior, and that's the kind of revelation that could have a bearing on a situation that's growing very tense right now.
In fact, anyone with the time and will to comb through everything that Wikileaks dumped into public view could easily pick out dozens of incidents or even hundreds of tidbits that could be drummed up into international scandals, if you gave them the right spin. It's just that with all this stuff coming into public view simultaneously, it's almost too much to process. Our capacity for outrage is already working double shifts.
Still, this stuff is supposed to be secret, and airing it out in public like this could potentially erode a lot of trusting relationships. And even though Wikileaks didn't exactly spill the launch codes for the nukes or anything, some have stated its action amounts to a terrorist attack.
The damage is done -- many personal relationships will be affected, and even attitudes between entire governments could be altered. What also might need changing is the way the U.S. government goes about keeping its documents and communications systems secure. In this case, a whole mess of intelligence was scooped up by an organization intent on showing the whole world what it managed to find. At least we're all on the same page -- everyone knows that everyone knows. It could be much more dangerous if a group used the same method to spy on State Department cables and then just pocketed the info for its own personal advantage, whatever that might be.
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Every Click You Make ...
Next time you're at a party, you're probably not going to make much of a riveting conversation by recounting the various sites you usually visit during your average walk around the Web. I guess it might depend on the party; I'm just speaking broadly. To advertisers and data miners, though, a record of your daily dose of news, lolcats and shoe shopping is the nectar of the gods. It teaches them what kind of ads you're more likely to click on, and companies making that stuff will pay more to pitch to you.
Variations on that kind of concept are what make so much stuff on the Web free of charge -- the providers are funded by advertisers, and they'll often use tracking methods to put together a sort of mini-dossier on your behavior.
For privacy-minded groups and individuals, that behavior-tracking is invasive, and they're generally not pleased with the ways in which most sites have attempted to police themselves and provide some degree of transparency. So now the U.S. Federal Trade Commission may get involved. It recently released a 122-page report calling for any company that collects or uses consumer data that can be traced back to an individual to promote consumer privacy and come clean with consumers about what data is being tracked and how. It also advocated the creation of a so-called Do Not Track mechanism -- an easy way for any consumer to control exactly what sites can know about you as you click around.
Privacy advocates are happy with the development, saying the industry's had its chance to self-regulate and it failed, so government intervention is needed. Outfits that rely on tracking behavior are naturally less optimistic. The Interactive Advertising Bureau says the industry has already built an opt-out mechanism all by itself. If suddenly the government starts mandating its use, it argues, that would amount to a government-sponsored ad-blocking program, which it called "inimical to the First Amendment."
Taking the Toll Road
When Netflix first arrived, the "Net" part of the name meant you could pick out movies by way of a website, as opposed to going to an actual store. Then the DVDs would come through the mail. But several years later, it's clear that Netflix really wants its business to literally deliver flicks over the Net. It's putting a streaming portal into millions of set-top boxes, it's introducing low-rate streaming-only plans for users who don't want to deal with DVDs at all, and it's even cutting deals with studios that give it the rights to stream more movies at the expense of offering DVDs for rent the day those DVDs hit stores.
But putting less emphasis on mail delivery and more on streaming means more and more of Netflix's business is dependent on an industry over which it has very little control: ISPs -- Internet Service Providers. They're the ones minding the tubes, and they're aren't nearly as regulated as something like the U.S. Postal Service.
And the cracks are beginning to show. A company called Level 3, which provides streaming services to Netflix, recently complained that ISP giant Comcast had demanded that it pay a recurring fee for transmitting online movies. Bandwidth isn't an unlimited resource, and now Comcast wants one of the biggest eaters at the table to chip in a little extra. Level 3 said it amounts to setting up an Internet toll booth, and that such an action goes directly against the basic concept of Net neutrality.
Comcast is notoriously touchy about its tubes, and the lengths it's gone to have caught the attention of the FCC in the past. There was that big thing about BitTorrent -- how it throttled the connection speeds of users who did a whole lot of file-sharing. And it strictly limits its home users to 250 GB of data per month.
Level 3 is giving in to Comcast's demands, at least for the time being, so as not to cause a service interruption. If the additional costs remain, though, it's almost certain they'll get passed down to customers, either through higher Netflix prices or bigger Comcast bills.
Taming the Wild West
The reason disputes like this come up in the first place is because the regulations related to how Internet traffic is managed are still cloudy and very controversial. Net neutrality activists are on one side of the line, saying all information should flow freely on the Net and nobody -- not government and not business -- should be able to kink the hose on any lawful traffic for any reason. ISPs and other businesses are on the other side, saying bandwidth is a finite resource, and they need to be able to regulate traffic in order to effectively deliver services.
So far, the two factions have endured an uneasy coexistence where the only thing resembling regulations are a few limp FCC rules and a lawsuit from time to time, but no real, hard legislation. And from a certain point of view, that's a beautiful thing.
But FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to strike a clearer and stronger set of rules. He's called for a vote on a new Net neutrality proposal, and he wants it done before Christmas Day. Under the proposal, wired and wireless service providers would be banned from blocking lawful content. In order to enforce that, the FCC would have to invoke a power that depends on a certain interpretation of what exactly broadband services are, and whether that shoe fits is highly debatable.
Genachowski says that allowing the FCC to have a stronger hand in playing Internet referee would encourage investment by blowing away the fog and giving the market more certainty and reliability. But there's fear on both sides of the issue that making a bunch of rules would spoil the game and actually hamper investment. There's also concern that the FCC's powers would go too far or not far enough, or that it'll give one side or the other too many concessions.
The timing of the proposed vote is also interesting -- it's possible that by setting the vote for Dec. 21, Genachowski is trying to make this change happen before a new, more Republican-minded Congress checks in.
On the Hot Seat
The European Commission's antitrust machine just keeps going and going, and lately it's decided to try and tackle Google again due to some complaints it's received from firms in the UK and France. Each centers on how Google displays businesses in search rankings and whether it uses that placement to stifle competition.
Google, of course, denies doing anything shady. The real reason those companies' sites rank lower is because they kinda suck, according to Google, though its spokesperson worded it a little more tactfully than that.
But the EC's going to run the antitrust probe nonetheless, and it'll look particularly closely at complaints from search service providers who say they've been getting a cold shoulder in search results while Google gives favorable treatment to its own services. That last point will get even more scrutiny as it applies to specific online content such as price comparisons -- so-called vertical search services. Google has denied doing any of this as well.
A deep and long-lasting probe by European antitrust inquisitors is almost a rite of passage for American tech mega-corporations. For example, Microsoft's been there before, and maybe the history of those incidents will teach Google something about handling its own case. Then again, that history shows that the process itself can be very expensive and that when the EC talks about corrective measures like tremendous fines, it isn't making idle threats.
Some Publicity Really Is Bad Publicity
The alchemy of SEO, search engine optimization, is all about getting your website to the top of a search engine's rankings without having to pay your way there. It's normally practiced by pulling off a whole grab-bag of tricks and tweaks to everything from the page's content to how it's coded up behind the scenes. Major search engines like Google are wise to it, and they tolerate a certain amount of it, but they also do things now and then to work against it. They don't want lousy sites to get to the top just because a designer somewhere knows a magic word.
It goes like this: Mistreat your customers so they talk about you more -- nasty reviews, comments on websites, angry blog posts, etc. The search algorithms will pick up on all the chatter, and soon your ranking will climb.
True, most of the search results people see will consist of customers bad-mouthing your company, but your pride can't be wounded if you have none to begin with, so who cares, right? And maybe some companies figure that there's so much whining on the Internet that we've all grown immune. We no longer believe bad reviews because on the Web, everyone dumps on everything.
The company that the Times singled out as a prime example was an eyewear vendor called "DecorMyEyes," and its technique of mistreating customers goes well beyond the old botched orders or indifferent service reps. One customer complained that they sent her the wrong frames, then told her to just live with it when she tried to get the problem corrected. She said that when she started talking about disputing the charge with her credit card provider, the vendor reminded her that they know her address, then threatened her with sexual assault. Cherry on top: The credit card provider wasn't much help.
Right now you might be thinking that I'm actually playing into DecorMyEyes' dirty little SEO scheme by adding my own two bits to the conversation, but Google says it's fixed the problem. Instead of manually going in and pinching this one vendor in particular, though, it's actually tweaked its own algorithm, presumably preventing like-minded vendors from playing the same game. Apparently it worked -- when the changes took effect, DecorMyEyes was knocked from first-page listings for eyeglasses companies to page 7, basically the Barrow, Alaska, of search results rankings.
If the stuff people are saying about DecorMyEyes is true, then justice has been served. But by building a rule like this into its algorithm, Google is basically leaving future decisions to be made by a machine, or at least a complicated mathematical formula. It might automatically safeguard against similar behavior from others, but it's possible that mistakes might also be made, unfairly barring good websites from getting good rankings. And it looks like this also opens the door to mischief -- if you want to knock a rival off its Google pedestal, throw some fake bad reviews out there and see what happens.