Final Exam

Opening Remarks

McChesney:

One of the main issues that Robert McChesney has with modern journalism is the fact that it is has become subject to market pressures, driven by large media conglomerates whose visions are clouded by profit. According to McChesney, commercialism is ultimately hindering objectivity in journalism.

In today’s digital age, traditional reporting and journalistic ideals are being challenged by bloggers and informal news sources. In response to a competitive market environment, mergers and acquisitions in the media world have led to several large companies controlling most news outlets. Unfortunately though, this ownership can influence the content made available through these news channels.

McChesney sees the Internet as a way to revitalize and preserve democratic discussion that has otherwise been overshadowed by neoliberalist ideals. While he recognizes the value in the Internet fostering public discussion, debate and a free flow of information, McChesney also has concerns about the integrity of journalists. The Internet allows for everyone to become a content producer or a reporter. Blogs are rising in popularity and are a daily staple for most Internet surfers. McChesney worries that the professionalism and integrity of journalism is in danger.

Auletta:
After many rejected interviews with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Auletta finally broke down the doors at Google and was able to delve into the company’s inner workings. Now an expert on the Internet giant, Auletta speaks about the building of a business that revolutionized the way we use the Web.

Auletta discusses Page and Brin’s vision for Google: a free search engine that would simply provide information for people, directing them to their destination in the fastest and most direct way possible. The company survived for a long time without leadership, as Page and Brin only saw the need for strong engineers to make the search engine what it is today.

While Google currently has earned trust with its consumers, Auletta addresses growing privacy concerns—challenging the company’s “Don’t be Evil” motto. Comparing Google’s reputation to Microsoft’s, Auletta warns about privacy, and the wealth of data about billions of users available at Google’s beckon call.

Solove:

Whereas embarrassing moments in public were once fleeting moments in our lives that we laughed off and passed on, they now face the possibility of being preserved forever online.  Hand-held devices such as camera phones or small video cameras can capture anything and be uploaded to the Internet with the click of a button.

In this always-on world, users know how to produce, find and spread information at an incredibly rapid pace. But this has grave implications for our privacy and our personal lives. Cyber bullying is nearly inescapable. A video in the wrong hands could be leaked online, both exposing information and making it permanent. Preserving one’s reputation is becoming a bigger challenge as the Internet community expands and resources become more readily available.

As a result of this new online environment, societal norms are changing. Online conduct is becoming more important as employers view social media profiles and often Google individuals to see which sites yield the highest results on the search page. As technology becomes further integrated into our lives, it will become more difficult to keep one’s personal life under wraps. Solove warns about the dangers of sharing too much information online, citing personal blogging as an example of how a seemingly harmless exchange on a blog can become widespread and potentially life-changing overnight.

Zittrain:
The Internet has become an open playground for any one to create, develop, contribute and collaborate. But how long will this last? Zittrain’s concerns lie in the future of generativity. Generative sources are open, allowing users to add their own information and contribute to something greater. Wikipedia is one example of a generative source. Without its open platform, the site’s content and resources would be scarce. The business relies on entries from its readers to expand the database.

But sometimes we don’t want to contribute. We desire a device that does it all without our help. The iPod is a good example of a non-generative device. The mp3 player is all-inclusive and iPod owners expect that. While Zittrain sees the value in non-generative devices, he worries about them becoming too prevalent, which may lead us away from a creative mindset that generative devices encourage. If generative devices degrade too much, we may lose valuable conversation and collaboration on the Internet.

Zittrain mentioned a potential downfall of generative sources as well: worms. The more transparent a source is, the more susceptible it becomes to hackers and worms. While Zittrain points out that worms have historically been relatively unsuccessful in doing any significant damage, they continue to be a threat.

Critique: Auletta and Solove

Auletta delves into the story behind Google, the company that was started by two Stanford students and grew to become one of the most powerful Internet commodities. In an interview for I Want Media, Auletta explains: “Google is not composed of cold businessmen; they are cold engineers. The difference is that Google is not obsessed with killing competitors, they’re obsessed with eliminating inefficiencies.”

Larry Page and Sergey Brin have kept their focus on Google from the beginning—concerned only with making the service more efficient and expanding its capabilities. In doing so, Google has risen to become the top search engine, receiving as many as 235 million searches per day. It is clear that users trust Google. And Google does the same for its users. While the company is working to improve the search, it is also relying on its users to maintain PageRank, in which search results are listed in order of page views. The Internet community collectively decides which sites hold the most relevance.

While the Google empire is expanding and more users are relying on the search engine daily, privacy has become a major concern. The company’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is being challenged by its competitors who see Google as a threat to their success, by traditional media outlets who are concerned that their services will become obsolete, and by users who wonder about Google’s access to their personal data.

Auletta describes the motto as an “effective way to brand Google as a nonthreatening, almost cuddly company” (p.104). But when Google went public in 2004, old media quickly became aware of the company’s vast power and potential threat to traditional news and information outlets. The biggest concern now is that Google has access to so much data that the company has the power to access personal information from its users, making the privacy threat a growing concern.

Tim Wu of Columbia synthesized the privacy concern with Google, stating that while the company has yet to breach the privacy of its users, many wonder if Google will stay true to its original business philosophy. “Will they stay focused on search, on ‘their founding philosophy, which is really an engineers’ aesthetic of getting you to what you want as fast as you can without getting in the way?’ Or will Google become a ‘source of content, a platform, a destination that seeks to keep people in a walled Google garden?’”

That’s the question that everyone is asking. Are Larry and Sergey really that oblivious to the privacy concerns of its users? Apparently so. When the company launched Gmail in April of 2004, they omitted the delete button from the interface, bringing to light some of the first privacy fears of Google users. “Users feared that Google would peak at e-mails. And Paul Buchheiet’s e-mail scanning software only fanned this fear. For Google, it was a way to make money from e-mail by placing ads when certain keywords were typed. But critics said it was an invasion of privacy, that Big Brother was watching everything” (p.99).

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been vocal in response to criticisms of the company’s power. At the Abu Dhabi Media Summit in March 2010, Schmidt responded to fears in the audience that Google has so much information on its users. “Would you prefer someone else? Is there a government that you would prefer to be in charge of this?” Schmidt was very open with the audience, explaining that Google understands the power of the information it holds. “There are many, many things that Google could do, that we chose not to do. One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that.”

As long as the company remains transparent and stays true to its long-standing “Don’t Be Evil” motto, it will continue to have the trust of millions of users. Many are skeptical that the company won’t become greedy, suddenly driven by solely by profit rather than by its original mission to make the Web a navigable medium through an efficient search engine.

While Auletta expresses concerns about privacy in terms of a larger company obtaining personal information, Daniel Solove writes about privacy concerns and reputation as related to the Internet community as a whole in his book “The Future of Reputation.” How can we as individuals protect ourselves from both other companies and users who may use our personal data to our detriment?

Solove suggests that the Internet may be eliminating the second chance that we used to have when a rumor was spread or we made a mistake. Often, data on the Internet can be “false and defamatory; or it can be true but deeply humiliating or discrediting” (p.17). The openness of the Internet and the ability for anyone to be a content creator may end up making people more cautious in the end, thereby impeding our freedom.

Solove connects our reputation with freedom, deeming it an essential component to the way we live our lives and the relationships we develop. But what happens when our reputations are compromised? Does our freedom go with it? The Internet is making this freedom more difficult to preserve. Solove quotes Judge Benjamin Cardozo: “What gives the sting to writing is its permanence in form. The spoken word dissolves, but the written one abides and perpetuates the scandal” (p.33).

The Internet does just what Cardozo is talking about—except it applies to much more than just words. Photos and videos can implicate people or show them in the wrong light, leading to a damaged reputation. “The Internet makes gossip a permanent reputational stain, one that never fades. It is available around the world, and with Google it can be readily found in less than a second” (p.33). Not only does Google have access to a wealth of personal data, but its effective search engine is making it easy for information to be found amidst billions of Web sites.

Aside from the general concern about privacy, Solove also asserts that this fear of privacy and reputation online is breaking down social norms. While we were once able to break social norms and essentially “get away with it,” the Internet exposes us and demands a response. Solove recommends that one take advantage of the Internet’s ability to disseminate information at a rapid pace. When false or negative information about you is released online, the best thing to do is spread true information as fast as possible.

Social norms are changing, and so are the boundaries between professional writers and amateur content producers. Bloggers are getting younger, and many youth use the forum as a place to write opinions or diary entries. But all it takes is just one well-known blogger to link to a seemingly unknown Web site, and before long it becomes viral. Yahoo! recently posted a story about a young boy who covered Lady Gaga’s  “Paparazzi” at his school’s talent show. The article stated that the YouTube video had already received 36,000 views. Just one day later, the video had 8,417,886 views. In this case, the boy in the video benefitted from the exposure, receiving a call from the Ellen Show asking for him to make an appearance. But this quick dissemination of information also holds true for negative information.

Solove makes some suggestions regarding the law, recommending that we seek a middle ground between a libertarian approach that gives us too much freedom, and an authoritarian approach in which we relinquish all control to the government (clearly going against everything the constitution stands for).

Internet users should understand that nothing online is ever really private. Educating youth about the importance of online privacy and personal information online is essential. Social networks frequently communicate with third party servers that then gain access to our personally-identifiable information.  We should take advantage of the fact that we are currently able to keep our personal life separate from our online life, if we choose to do so. Soon, this will be nearly impossible.

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