Julian Assange: “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’”

As I sit here working on a forthcoming article—Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights—about powerful internet intermediaries and human rights, I was intrigued to come across Julian Assange’s op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times entitled The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’.

Assange, the reclusive founder of WikiLeaks, has harsh words for Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, authors of the new book The New Digital Age. Schmidt, of course, is executive chairperson of Google, and Cohen is an author, a former advisor to Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton, and currently Director of Google Ideas.

Assange, pointing to this writing partnership as further evidence of the increased intertwining of governments and powerful internet companies, states in his characteristic polemic:

“THE New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

Assange continues, attacking Google’s view of its own role in society:

“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.

Although Assange’s rhetoric is perhaps overheated, the concerns he raises are without a doubt real. Similar concerns are echoed by authors such as Rebecca MacKinnon in her excellent and accessible book Consent of the Networked. I agree with MacKinnon that one of the most important issues we face today is the emergence of extremely powerful corporate intermediaries and their ever-increasing power. As MacKinnon notes in her book (page xxiii), in the first half of the 20th century, corporations were confronted with employee safety and health concerns, and in the second, with the environmental movement. But today, “most Internet and telecommunications companies have failed to accept responsibility—beyond cyberutopian platitudes—for the rights of their customers and users.”

Similarly, my forthcoming article Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights addresses the nature of “Super-Intermediaries” such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and assesses the role that international human rights law might provide in guiding powerful non-State internet actors. My core thesis is that powerful internet intermediaries have exceptional power, and as such, bear especial responsibilities to the public. (Or as Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!”)

But responsibility to do what? Do good? Not do evil? These ideas of power, responsibility, and evil bring me back full-circle to Assange and his op-ed. His article’s title, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, mocks Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” But ironically, as I point out in my draft article (not yet online), Google honcho Eric Schmidt, when asked what “Don’t Be Evil” meant, once replied: “Evil . . . is what [Google co-founder Sergey Brin] says is evil.”

Wow! This is a circular and empty definition: evil is what Google says it is. Such a definition is at the least extremely unsatisfying and at the worst baldly Orwellian.

But I honestly think that Google does not view itself as Orwellian. And in fairness, I know that many people in the company sincerely want to do good for the world. But accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder participation are crucial. Organizations like the Global Network Initiative (an organization that looks to some, but not all human-rights principles and includes some, but not all of today’s Super-Intermediaries) provide a good start. Also important are transparency reports such as those now provided by Google, Twitter, and Microsoft. So there are some promising developments. But more needs to be done to ensure that powerful Super-Intermediaries do good and are held accountable.

More thoughts to follow in the weeks ahead as I wrap up the article, which is forthcoming in the Intercultural Human Rights Law Review. I suspect that this article will be only the first of a number of papers on such matters.

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

The right kind of chilling effect: “Instagram loses half its daily users after T&Cs debacle”

Companies have to understand that people are finally starting to pay attention to T&Cs.

“After a month which saw Instagram float some rather contentious changes to its terms and conditions as well as ditching support for Twitter cards, the number of people using the service daily has dropped by almost half.”

Source: Wired.co.uk. Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

Is Tumblr the future of open-network social blogging? I think yes and here’s why.

This afternoon, I came across an interesting posting by ilovecharts (via lauraolin) with a Google Trends graphic comparing the search terms tumblr, blog, wordpress, and livejournal. It showed that “tumblr” has surpassed “blog” in terms of public search consciousness. That may show a small, but significant shift in the nature of social blogging.

I did some additional Trends analyses. Here’s one comparing “blog,” “tumblr,” and “wordpress” from 2007 to the present:


Note that “blog” has remained more or less steady as a search term. However, in 2011, “tumblr” started to grow significantly and recently passed up “blog” as a search term. In comparison, “wordpress” – which is a great blogging platform I use for most of my other sites – has stayed at a low, steady level for years. This is not to say that WordPress is not commonly used, but rather that it is less visible in the collective mind of searchers. This suggests to me that tumblr is growing steadily in the minds of the public as a blogging platform. As I’ll suggest below, Tumblr’s strength is that it is like Twitter in 3-D.

Let’s run some other searches: let’s add “twitter” to the same search:


Note that “twitter” is in much greater use as a search term. That’s not surprising. But also note the somewhat similar trajectories of both “twitter” and “tumblr.” The term “twitter” started to take off in 2009, and “tumblr” in 2011. The term “twitter” has a bigger and earlier spike, but the steady growth of both is undeniable.

But let’s not overstate things. If one adds “facebook” into the mix, that term overshadows everything.


So what do these searches suggest? For one thing, that Facebook is still the king of social media and likely to remain so for a long time. However, Facebook serves a different function from Twitter and Tumblr. Whereas Facebook is typically used for closed or semi-closed social networks, Twitter and Tumblr are more commonly used for open networks where typically anyone can follow or view. Thus, I think the proper comparison is not between Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter, but between Tumblr and Twitter.

Thus, the charts above provide strong evidence that Tumblr is growing quickly as a blogging platform, and that this growth is not dissimilar (though weaker) than that of Twitter a few years back. I think this is because Tumblr is like Twitter in 3-D. Here’s why:

First, like Twitter, Tumblr is built to provide the easy and attributed reposting of the Tumblr posts of others. This makes reposting the norm on Tumblr, which makes it extremely easy to build a new site. In that sense, Tumblr is like Twitter, in that repostings (“retweets” on Twitter) are common and expected.

Second, Tumblr has advantages that Twitter lacks. Tumbler is not limited to 140 words, and permits large posts in a variety of formats, such as graphics, audio, video, quotes, and more. Also, unlike the 140-character limit in Twitter, Tumblr users may use multiple tags without sacrificing valuable space.

In short, Tumblr is a blogging tool (like WordPress), but with the open social-networking benefits and norms of Twitter. In fact, considering that Tumblr permits a single post to be reposted, remixed, and shared virally, it probably makes no sense to label Tumblr as “one-to-many” or “many-to-many.” Instead, Tumblr is viral. Put differently, it is “3-D” (but without the need for special glasses or an admission ticket).

Cross-posted to my Infoglut Tumblr; title altered on The Digital Garbage Net.

The Digital Garbage Net is back-ish.

After a long hiatus, I’m returning to blogging at this site. For a long time, I had great difficulties finding a voice for this blog. Solely academic? Photography? Popular culture? General snarkiness? “D: All of the above”? As my efforts towards tenure took precedence, I let this blog languish, like a dusty library book so overdue you just want to forget about it.

Since then, I’ve found that other social media are in many ways a far better fit for the broader interests noted above. I’ve been a frequent user of Twitter, and have also recently learned the shared joys of Tumblr.

I’m not certain about the future of this blog, but for now, I’m going to narrow its focus, posting primarily on digital culture, technology, and law. For the foreseeable future, I suspect that my Tumblr blog — infoglut.tumblr.com — will be my primary blog, with this site, The Digital Garbage Net, secondary. However, posts relevant to both the Tumblr blog and this site may be cross-posted.