Radical Instrument

IT is changing the exercise of power. Radical Instrument is picking up the signals.

Posts Tagged ‘censorship

China and Google’s long-term strategy

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There’s already been a torrent of commentary on Google’s policy decision with respect to Google.cn – with some of the clearest found in posts by Ethan Zuckerman, Evgeny Morozov, and Jonathan Zittrain, among others. The debate and points of interpretation mostly deal with Google’s potential motives. A purely cynical play or an attempt to live up to corporate values, maybe with some cost/benefit analysis of censorship technologies thrown in?

As a manager responsible for some measure of business strategy, I’m going to wager that Google’s decision is not that different from most business decisions (albeit one informed by better data). Define the problem, assess root causes, outline the risks and rewards of solution alternatives – and when you’re 80% confident in your decision, execute. You have to believe that the internal meetings that preceded this move made reference to Google’s core values at one point, at least. It’s a rare successful company that makes a critical strategy decision without asking is this really who we are? Purely cynical moves of this magnitude require a lot of purely cynical people, having the same discussion in the same conference room – as well as a level of clarity into consequences that is rare for most business decisions.

At the same time, it’s hard to see this as a deliberately planned triumph of values, as others have implied. Google had an immediate business problem:   a security incident and theft of IP that challenged the “feasibility of its business operations [in China].” Consider this from the point of view of those operations (and for data here I’m going to rely in part on a new report by the search marketing firm Reform Digital) –

1.  Google has a much smaller (~20-25%) market share in China than market leader Baidu (~64-76%) . While the near-term trend is unclear, the numbers haven’t moved much since 2007 – except for Baidu (for an alternative view on the last six months, look here).

2.  The market may be splitting between a more educated and affluent segment (Google.cn) and the rest, including continued high volumes of new users (Baidu)…with what are probably better margins to Google.

3.  Google’s ability to grow beyond search (remember, the business objective is about “improving access to information,” not just search) could be limited. Baidu runs the third-largest social networking site (after two other Chinese sites), and I’d guess there’s some questions around Google’s potential in the mobile (where Symbian is apparently dominant) market and browser market (where Google may or may not have a share in the second-most popular browser behind IE). This matters, of course, when you’re envisioning displacing the Microsoft model with Chrome’s browser-based OS and web-based applications.

This last point, I think, is where the question of corporate values comes in. You have a smaller but profitable market in which you’ve developed a compromise between the regulators’ objectives (censorship) and your business objective (improving access to information to deliver value to customers). You have an incident (security breach, IP theft) that threatens your ability to provide continued value to your core customers. You look at your longer-term strategy and question whether the compromise you adopted can really work with your plans for growth into adjacent markets – not just customer markets, but markets in different technologies. And here’s the critical point:  you can’t disaggregate the question of values from strategy, because if Google decides to, well, acquiesce at this point, it fundamentally changes what Google.cn becomes over the next few years. Changing strategy in any significant way – whether internally or due to external pressure – changes how customers perceive your brand, with implications for both revenue as well as who you become as a company.  If you’ve lived through this in a business, it’s easier to understand than articulate.

Thinking more broadly, another reason to consider this in light of Google’s long-term strategy is because Google’s long-term strategy does lay out a future for end-user computing writ large, starting with the Chrome OS as an alternative to the Microsoft and Apple models. Consider a 2015 scenario in which Google has departed China, but Chrome, Android, and Google Apps have reshaped personal and even corporate computing models for the average North American user – a scenario that might be realizable (see for instance, comment from GM’s CIO on the enterprise readiness of Google Apps). Does personal computing in China evolve along a parallel track led by different companies, or start to move in a different direction, with consequences not seen for another five or ten years? A bit of a stretch, perhaps, considering that data is data…but I think the historical evidence does suggest that national approaches to computing can diverge significantly, with the most important consequences not understood until much later.

Written by Mark

January 17, 2010 at 11:45 pm

Joining the 2009 prediction racket

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Forecasting has taken a beating in 2008, from the hard landing crash of the economy to the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, from the odds of seeing snow in Las Vegas this winter to the chances given to the NY Giants against the Patriots in Superbowl XLII. 

And yet we continue. In the spirit of tradition (if not science and probability), here are my top five calls on for where (and how) ICT will (and won’t) affect international affairs in 2009

1. Global economic conditions tilt the balance towards greater Internet regulation… Watch for nationalist-protectionist tendencies to surface in cyberspace as much as they will in the world of physical trade, assuming the recession extends until mid-2009 or longer. Expect commentators to blur their depictions of “unregulated finance” and “unregulated cyberspace,” and for politicians to justify Internet regulation as a means to “safeguard the economy,” whether by preventing cyber-crime or otherwise. 

2. …and prolong the “digital divide” in the developing world.  The capital drought has already halted or delayed major investments in the developed world. Watch for a similar, if not amplified, effect on ICT projects – charitable or otherwise – in BRIC countries, and definitely the Third World. Cell phones will remain a key network technology in the Third World – but without additional investment, will existing networks be able to handle increased capacity?

3.  Cybercrime gets worse.  The recession presents two key conditions for fraud and exploitation:  (a) significant dislocation in the corporate environment, presenting opportunities for the leakage of sensitive information, and (b) heightened psychological insecurity, increasing the size of the “target audience” for exploitation. Add in year-over-year improvements in criminals’ technical savvy, and 2008 looks to be a year to batten down the security hatches. For a good read, see McAfee’s annual cybercrime report.

4.  The next “Internet election” might be in Iran.  Expect a lot of attention to be paid to Iran’s 2009 presidential election, slated for June. There’s an interesting question as to whether Iran’s filtering mechanisms, which block access to five million websites, will be able to contain both (a) criticism of current President Ahmadinejad from political rivals and (b) both a web-savvy populace’s desire for information and the desire of external parties (e.g., exile groups) to provide it. OpenNet Initiative has an article from November (original source:  ynetnews.com) noting the passage of a draconian “computer crimes” bill earlier this year. Seems like the regime might lack some confidence in its firewall.

5.  Cloud computing will raise new questions about regulation, privacy, and security.  If there’s any technology in the hype cycle right now, it’s cloud computing (see this earlier post for more background). If – and this is a big if – we’re on a path towards the concentration of processing and storage in a limited number of massive data centers, servicing hundreds (or thousands, or…) of customers, there’s going to be a showdown with some questions that have yet to see satisfactory resolution. Such as:  will there be political acceptance of warrantless surveillance (not to mention government data-mining) once data is concentrated? Will government cybersecurity efforts concentrate on fortifying “clouds” as critical infrastructure, and leave the rest of the Internet wild? What responsibilities do Internet giants have towards governments for the data that runs through them? The answer’s going to have to be a little more precise than Google’s “Don’t be evil.” 2009 won’t be the year these questions get answered, but I’m betting that we’re going to start hearing (and listening to) them more.

Written by Mark

December 24, 2008 at 1:22 am

Web 2.0 and political organizing, post-Obama

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After the U.S. Presidential election, a friend commented to me that every U.S. election from 2008 forward would look to copy the Obama campaign’s innovative use of social networking technologies. But it won’t be limited to the U.S., and it won’t be limited to elections:

Exhibit A:  The Australian government has proposed the introduction of mandatory content filters at ISPs. Coordinated protests were held today in Brisbane, Hobart, Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, and Canberra in response. How best to coordinate them – and ensure turnout? Turn them into Facebook events, and list them with YouTube footage, printable flyers, response tracking data and contact info for government officials, and FAQs and links covering every possible aspect of the issue. You can find it all at Australia’s Electronic Freedom Project wiki

Post-script:  The Daily Telegraph is reporting that 300 showed up at Sydney’s event, most of whom were “young and tech-savvy.” It’ll be interesting to see whether issue-specific campaigns can generate the scale that an event like an election can. More thoughts on this later.

Exhibit B:  According to an Australian news source, the SITE Intelligence Group has reported that an online jihadist is advocating a “Facebook invasion,” to access a new audience for propaganda. No surprises there – if the technology exists, expect it to be exploited. What’s more interesting is this claim by a Bangladeshi general that social network technologies have effectively radicalized the Bangladeshi diaspora population in Britain. If accurate (and I’m going to assume that what we see on the web always adds some degree of distorting amplification) what does this mean on-the-ground?

What’s post-Obama practice for organizing political action, whether of the legitimate or illegitimate variety?

Written by Mark

December 13, 2008 at 9:54 pm