Rory O’Connor to read from his new book

Backscratching Day festivities continue with my interview at thephoenix.com with old friend Rory O’Connor. The occasion is O’Connor’s excellent new book, “Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands and Killing Traditional Media,” published by City Lights.

O’Connor will appear on Tuesday, May 22, at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith to talk about his book and sign. His book grew out of a semester he spent a few years ago at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center after stepping down as editorial director of NewsTrust. The idea behind NewsTrust was that an online community could identify and evaluate journalism with respect to sourcing, fairness and the like. Unfortunately, O’Connor discovered that too many of the people who joined NewsTrust were pushing a political agenda.

Among the more provocative ideas that O’Connor discusses in “Friends, Followers and the Future” is that Facebook is actually a fairly effective platform for sharing diverse sources of information, since members tend to cultivate a lot of “weak ties” with acquaintances whose political views and life experiences may be quite different from their own.

The larger issue, in O’Connor’s view, is trust. We no longer fully trust legacy media, whether it’s the New York Times or Fox News. Facebook, Google and other online services present their own trust issues. “But I’m optimistic,” he concludes, “that ultimately the ongoing digital information revolution will help us not only to trust, but also to verify.”

Fighting for our online freedom of speech

As I’m sure you already know, Wikipedia’s English-language site is the most prominent to go dark today in protest of two bills being considered by Congress to crack down on copyright infringement.

The bills, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), in the House, and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), in the Senate, are being pushed by major media corporations. Copyright infringement is a real problem, of course, but these bills would place the interests of copyright-holders above all other considerations. Save the Internet puts it this way:

If they are passed, corporations (with the help of the courts) will become the arbiters of what is and isn’t lawful online activity, with millions of Internet users swept in their nets as collateral damage.

Earlier item here. Note that the Big Brother poster I used to illustrate the item is missing. I wonder if that has anything to do with the protest.

And be sure to have a look at Google.

Thinking about Rick Santorum’s Google problem

Rick Santorum

As you probably know, if you Google the word “santorum,” the very first result will be an extremely offensive website created by the gay activist Dan Savage, who was responding several years ago to Rick Santorum’s disturbingly graphic opposition to homosexuality. (Weirdly, the term “google problem” now leads to the same sort of thing.)

Now that Santorum’s presidential campaign has gotten a sudden jolt of attention, the issue of Santorum and Google is being talked about once again. I’m still thinking this through. But aside from muttering “ewww,” I also believe Google is failing at its core search business by not doing something to move Savage’s prank down in its rankings.

Here’s why. The only reason you would have to be searching for information about Santorum is that you want to find out more about him. If you want to see Savage’s handiwork, you’re not searching for information — you just want to see what the fuss is all about, or you’re curious to see whether it’s still there. If the very first result you get is the Savage page, then Google has failed at its mission of providing you with useful, relevant information about your search term.

What to do about it? The problem, as I understand it, is that Google is loath to undertake any sort of editorial intervention with its search results. From time to time it changes its secret sauce in order to defeat those who are trying to game the system. It managed to eliminate  a racist photo of Michelle Obama by rewriting its search algorithm, for instance. But the company can’t really fix the Santorum problem without reaching in and doing it by hand. (For some non-geeky technical background on the Santorum issue, see this New York Times story by Noam Cohen and this Politico item by Ben Smith.)

Well, what of it? Wikipedia has considerably more adult supervision than it did in its earliest days, and is a better research tool as a result. Most people also prefer an edited news site to a robotically assembled compilation like Google News.

I’m not calling for censorship. Savage’s site shouldn’t be disappeared. But it seems fairly obvious to me that if the first two or three (or five or six) Google results regarding “santorum” ought to be about, you know, Rick Santorum.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Big Brother Steve is not watching you

I started writing an “Apple’s not really spying on you” post a little while ago and ditched it on the grounds that I don’t fully understand all the issues involved. (That’s a first, eh?)

But I recommend this post at the Center for Democracy and Technology by John Morris, who speculates that the real reason Apple set up your iPhone to track your location is to save on battery life.

I do think there’s less to this controversy than meets the eye (as Morris writes, the location file “normally never leaves your devices”). Still, Apple (and Google, which does the same thing with its Android operating system) could have done better.

Mapping their way to cheap eats

Please have a look at my students’ Google map project in my Reinventing the News class. Every semester, this is always one of my favorites: students fan out into the neighborhhoods around Northeastern to take pictures, write blog posts and plot them on a map. This time, they chose to review cheap-eats places in and around the Back Bay.

The project is currently near the top of Boston.com’s Your Town/Back Bay site (Northeastern has a partnership with the Boston Globe to provide content to Your Town). I think the students did a great job. They took it seriously, they had fun and they learned something about how free, easy-to-use online tools such as mapping can enhance journalism.

Update: It’s featured prominently on the Your Town/Roxbury site as well.

Introducing Media Nation’s first local sponsor

Due to my recent run-in with the Googletron, I decided to see if I could solicit some local advertising. Today I would like to introduce you to my first: Chan Miller Creative, whose banner ad graces the top of the page.

Go ahead and click — unlike the model that prevails elsewhere online, Media Nation does not charge extra per click. Which means that even I can click through without costing Chan Miller any additional money.

I am deeply appreciative of Chan Miller’s sponsorship of Media Nation, which came about when partner Ken Gornstein responded to this post. I’m hoping to unveil another local sponsor in the near future.

So what happened to Google ads? They’re now in the upper right, below the header, where the Flyerboard used to be. The Flyerboard, administered by the Boston Blogs advertising network, had fallen on hard times. I’ll bring it back if that changes.

Handling the technical details is Adam Gaffin, editor and publisher of Universal Hub. There is no better friend to the Boston blogging community than Adam.

The last word (I hope) on the Googletron and me

Last week Google restored my AdSense account without explanation, though I had already learned through a back channel that an employee discovered I’d been hacked. A couple of days later I received the following e-mail from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office:

Dear Mr. Kennedy:

Thank you for contacting the Office of Attorney General Martha Coakley. The Office is not able to handle every matter that is brought to its attention; however, we do take note of every complaint received, and watch for a pattern of complaints related to a particular company, individual, or industry.

Thank you for bringing this matter to the attention of the Attorney General’s Office.

Sincerely,

Benjamin Vitalini
Public Inquiry & Assistance Center

Here is my response:

Dear Mr. Vitalini:

Thank you for your letter of January 25 regarding my complaint about Google for cutting off my AdSense account and confiscating the money I had earned. I agree with you that my issue was a small one, but I hope you will find it useful in establishing the “pattern of complaints” that you are looking for. I would note that I gave you information about other, similar situations in my original letter.

Since I last wrote to you, Google has restored my AdSense account and returned my money. I have received no official explanation as to what happened, but have learned through a back channel that a Google employee determined my account had been hacked. Though I’m grateful, I know that the only reason my account was restored was because I am fairly well known in the blogging community. In my case, someone who reads my blog contacted a personal friend who works for Google. That is not something that is going to work for most people.

The central problem, I believe, is that Google has automated the process of detecting problems with AdSense accounts and shutting them down — and then offers no recourse to a human being. I think regulators nationwide should insist that Google offer some way for aggrieved customers to complain to a person rather than to a computer, and to receive a clear explanation as to what went wrong and why.

Sincerely,

Dan Kennedy

I hope I’m done with this. And I still plan to replace the overhead with local advertisements, which will allow me either to eliminate or play down my Google ads.

Earlier coverage.

The Googletron blinks

As you can see, Google ads are back — at least until I can replace them with the locally based sponsors I’ve got lined up. Maybe I’ll find another spot for them on the page. Here’s the e-mail I received a little while ago:

Hi Dan,

Please disregard our previous message. After thoroughly re-reviewing your AdSense account, we’ve decided to reinstate your account. However, there will be a delay before ads start running on your website, as it may take up to 48 hours before all of our servers are informed of the change.

We appreciate your patience, and apologize for any inconvenience. If you have any questions, please visit our Help Center at http://www.google.com/adsense/support, or contact us at http://www.google.com/adsense/support/bin/request.py.

Sincerely,

The Google AdSense Team

Still no explanation of what went wrong, though I have it on good authority that a Google employee discovered my account had been hacked.

I’m glad that this has been resolved, of course. But what really needs to happen is that when Google’s computers detect a problem and shut you down, you should be able to access technical support and message an actual human being to find out what’s going on.

No doubt Google would have to hire a few more people, but I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Earlier coverage.

Interested in sponsoring Media Nation?

I don’t consider myself at liberty to disclose where I got this, but I’ve been reliably informed that a Google employee looked at my AdSense account, determined it had been hacked and is in the process of restoring it.

That would be great, but Google really needs to find a way to deal with this problem in a systematic way. In my case, I knew somebody who knew somebody, which is good for me, but ultimately no way to run a railroad.

In any event, the experience has got me thinking about what I ultimately want to do with what’s now a blank space at the top of Media Nation. Even if Google does make good, I would rather sell that space on my own. It would have to be a very simple transaction — more of a sponsorship than a true ad.

If anyone is interested, please drop me a line at (oh, irony of ironies) dkennedy56 {at} gmail {dot} com.

Fighting back against the Googletron

I just got back from the post office, where I sent this letter — and the five attachments to which I’ve linked — to Attorney General Martha Coakley. I have no illusions that my little consumer complaint warrants much in the way of time and resources. Rather, I’m hoping that she or someone in her office will understand the fun and publicity that would come their way by taking on mighty Google. I’ll keep you posted on what happens.

By the way, if you click on Attachments #1 or #2, you’ll see an unfamiliar e-mail address for me. Don’t bother sending me anything there. I used it only for AdSense, and I’m probably going to shut it down.

January 20, 2011

Attorney General Martha Coakley
One Ashburton Place
Boston, MA 02108 -1518

Dear Ms. Coakley:

I write to you today about a matter of consumer fraud so small that your first instinct may be not to pursue it. Yet it involves one of our largest and most important companies, Google — which, as you know, has a substantial operation in Massachusetts. And what Google has done to me is just the tip of the iceberg. I have learned that I am one of many people whom Google has essentially defrauded under its AdSense program.

For me it began in September 2010, when I signed up with Google to have advertising automatically posted on my blog, Media Nation (www.dankennedy.net). The earnings were slow but steady. When I checked my account several weeks ago, I saw that I had earned about $120 to $130, and that I would receive a check after January 31.

Then, on January 16, I received an e-mail from Google informing me that “we’ve determined that your AdSense account poses a risk of generating invalid activity.” My account was shut down (which is why I can’t tell you exactly how much money I’m owed), and I was informed that the money I had earned would be refunded to the companies whose ads had appeared on Media Nation (see Attachment #1). I filed an appeal, and on January 20 was informed that it had been rejected (see Attachment #2).

I have no idea why Google did this. As you can see, no information is provided in either of the two e-mails I received from the company. What I have learned is that this high-handed behavior is characteristic of the way Google runs its AdSense program. See, for instance, Aaron Greenspan’s article in the Huffington Post (Attachment #3) and Dylan Winter’s column in Duckworks Magazine (Attachment #4). I have also read about similar complaints on various Internet message boards. I wrote about my own situation for Media Nation earlier this week (see Attachment #5).

I hope you will agree with me that this is outrageous behavior on Google’s part. My strong suspicion is that no human has even looked at my account — that this was all determined by Google’s software sniffing around my site and finding a traffic pattern that seemed to suggest a problem, even though it was perfectly innocuous.

The amount of money may be small, but it is time someone in government stood up to Google executives and told them they cannot confiscate the earnings of people with whom they do business and without even giving them a reason.

Sincerely,

Dan Kennedy