Google Laws

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There is a common debate that resurfaces whenever it is time to appoint the next Supreme Court justice.  To some, humanism matters, because it is the real effects on humans that should be taken into account when interpreting the law.  On the other hand, strict constructionists tend to believe the job of a judge is to apply the text of the law only as it is written, without regard to any external conditions.  They leave no room for the empathy of Sonia Sotomayor.

I have recently been led to wonder, if it is indeed the written text of the law that governs, why then would we even need judges?  Couldn’t Google do all the legwork at this point?  I can see it now: a case comes to the docket, prosecution and defense attorneys feed their arguments into the search bar – include a couple keywords like abortion, immigration, and habeus corpus – and wait 0.32 seconds for Google to scan through centuries of laws and legal opinions…presto!  Instant ruling based solely on the written text.

It may sound ridiculous, but such capability might not be that far-fetched.  Google Scholar has already gone through the arduous process of posting full text legal opinions from U.S. federal and state district, appellate and supreme courts.  And a team of computer scientists and journalism professors at Northwestern University recently developed a new software that allows computers to sift through data and automatically write news stories, without the need for any human authors.

Google co-Founder Sergey Brin once said in response to privacy concerns, “All we are doing is showing ads.  It’s automated.  No one is looking,” referring to the algorithms used in generating ads.  This is all fine and dandy on the internet, where we would all rather not have any visible connection between search results and our personal search activities.  But laws are immutably connected to the activities of real people, and for that reason we’d never allow an algorithm to write our laws and risk that some cold computer might write opinions that might land innocent people in jail or fail to protect the liberty of civilians.  We rightly insist that justices be watching.

I think this idea is partly behind some of the apprehension surrounding Elena Kagan’s nomination.  The New York Times profile of Kagan paints her as a cold, calculating machine, much like an algorithm.  Each step in her career is framed as though guided by detailed instructions on how to reach the Supreme Court.  Read this.  Join the student paper. Study law.  If not here, then there.  Exclude terms like, “my opinion is…”

This is what so far has put people on edge.  The thought of someone as rationally calculating as a mathematical equation  is quite concerning to anyone who might believe in empathy, or who thinks someone’s actual opinions might matter when writing opinions.  With the stakes so high, we shiver at the thought of someone being led blindly by instruction, like the enslaved ant unwittingly building the anthill.

But perhaps the law is the right place for ants.  After all, we are a common law nation, whereby our laws are not single statutes, but really the mass accumulation of individual opinions piled up like dirt and twigs.  No single opinion is designed to uphold the entire structure, nor does any single ant fully comprehend the shape of the hill being built or believe they have any out-sized role in ensuring its stability.  They just carry the dirt in their mouths and drop it where they understand it must lay.  The shape of the law becomes clear.  Slowly.

I can support such caution on the court, as long it it is what Ezra describes as “a personality type” and not a life-long political move to hide the public from any of her real views.  Because the ant who only wants to be queen – particularly the one without any experience writing judicial opinions – might just lay a shoddy foundation for the hill.

*I am far from a legal scholar, so your more informed comments are encouraged.  Any reasoned opinion works too.  No spam.

Posted on May 17th 2010 in news

Biking with Android

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Android finally brought me bicycling directions on Google Maps.  I let it take me on a tour across Brooklyn today.  It works quite nicely for stop, check where I am, and move on, but I’m yearning for the day it becomes my perfect biking GPS.  It’s not quite there yet.

First, you can’t navigate with bike directions in the way you can with driving directions, which is unfortunate.  I can’t imagine it would be that difficult to replicate that functionality, so I suspect it won’t be too long, perhaps in the Android 2.2 update, code-named Froyo.  In the meantime, I’m gonna be ready.  Project: $5 Handlebar phone mount, courtesy of Lifehacker.

[this is crucial, as texting while biking is set to become a problem.  Last summer, I watched a kid texting on his bike run right into a parked car and clip off the rear view mirror.  Dude just kept going]

It also won’t be a complete experience until I can drag and drop points on the route, like you can on the web, with real-time adjustments to the route.  When that hits, I’ll be ready to roll, phone strapped to the handlebar, grabbin’ speaker phone conversations as the street names pass under me on the navigator.  Sweet.

One cool thing now is that you can add the terrain layer on your directions and check out where the hills are around you.  But it doesn’t do much for me; it basically had all of Brooklyn flat.  Park slopes don’t count.

All in all, though, I am just pleased to have it.  It is pretty on-point with choosing routes and finding all the bike lanes around the city, miles of which have emerged over the past couple years and bumped NYC up to the second-most bike friendly city in states, according to National Geographic.  Loving it.

Posted on May 13th 2010 in news

Google’s authoritarianism and China’s democracy

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[Image Source: FakeSteve]

We’re often told to take Google’s “Don’t be evil” slogan with a grain of salt.  It’s a corporation, after all, with a fiduciary responsibility to its shareholders and thus allegedly constrained in its effort to promote non-evil causes.

So how do we explain Google’s decision to leave China?  Some thoughts are rounded up:

Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch speculated they are trying to save face after failing to capture share:

Does anyone really think Google would be doing this if it had top market share in the country? [...] Google has clearly decided doing business in China isn’t worth it, and are turning what would be a negative into a marketing positive for its business in the rest of the world.

Parsa Sobhani, joining voices on WashPo, say it is just pure strategy:

While much of the media point to the ['do no evil'] slogan as the basis of the power play, one can see that the self-censorship policy simply doesn’t align with [Google's] business vision…to make information universally accessible and useful.

Danny Sullivan scoffed at the hypocrisy:

But bottom line, it was still a business move, to me. If Google just wanted to help people in China get good information, it could have spent the past four years helping to construct ways for people in China to bypass their government’s firewall. Or the past four years arguing that the US government and US-based businesses should follow its lead in staying out of China.

And Matthew Forney and Arthur Kroeber, opining at the Wall Street Journal, say its all about trust:

The reason is simple: Google’s business model requires that its consumers trust that their information will be absolutely secure. So when Google says it will “do no evil” and will never compromise on its principles or its technologies, the world must believe it.

Whatever your take, the irony of the whole thing is that Google would not be able to promote democracy in China were it not for its own fundamentally authoritarian governance structure.

When the company went public in 2004 they created a dual-class voting structure that basically gave Larry Page and Sergey Brin unbridled power and authority – outside shareholders cannot override their decisions.  Amalie Tuffin explained at the time:

Google and its selling shareholders are selling Class B common stock, having 1 vote per share in the offering; Google’s founders, its CEO Eric Schmidt, and certain others will retain Class A common stock, having 10 votes per share, after the offering. In the initial offering, only about 10% to 15% of Google’s shares will be sold to the public and thus Google’s current owners would initially retain control in any event. However, this dual-class stock structure will allow Google’s insiders to retain effective control over Google long after a majority of the company is owned by the public.

Consider the implications.  Could any other company operating under the traditional rules of delivering returns to shareholders afford to walk away from the 1.3 billion-person behemoth that is China?

Google’s IPO precedent may be replicated by Facebook and others.  And as social networking companies become increasingly important to democratic movements, we may yet see more of this sort of corporate activism in the future.

What are your thoughts?  Purely strategic?  Just business?  Hypocritical? Is Google’s stock structure fair to shareholders?  Or is it a chance to break free of corporate constraints on social responsibility?

Meanwhile others have been inspired – Dell is moving factories out of China and GoDaddy stopped registering websites on the mainland.

To keep a pulse on the availability of Google services in mainland China, click here.

Posted on April 6th 2010 in news

May I Buzz In?

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So Google Buzz blindsided us.  People woke up to a new little icon in their gmail, curiously clicked it, and found themselves once again exposed to the people they communicate with.

Many found they had been nudged in a direction that they didn’t want to go.  Status messages, Picasa uploads and what soon amounted to online chats were shared, by default, with nearly every person we’d ever contacted, from our closest friends to that dude we once had an ebay transaction with.

Some expressed concerns.  Google made some changes.  People started freaking out.  Google apologized and made some more changes.  People filed a law suit.  And so it continues.

I tend not to worry too much about the privacy stuff, which puts me in line with the younger generation but a little distanced from my peers.  But to many people, the problem with Buzz wasn’t just the sharing part, it was the “by default” part.  It was the proposition that Google would go ahead and decide who would be privy to your personal information without even bothering to ask you.

It reminded me of something.  The notions of nudges and defaults, based in theories of behavioral economics, has influenced a lot of policy decisions recently.  For example, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg initiated calorie labeling at fast food restaurants in hopes of curbing the obesity epidemic and people lashed out this apparent paternalism.   The news of an initial study showing labeling might actually increase calorie consumption provided comfort to critics.  But theories posited that people grew overconfident about consumption since they had more information, and the more encouraging news emerged that the key was to also affix a line suggesting a 2,000 calorie diet.

In other news, the Obama administration has pushed for automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans.  One of the biggest economic mysteries has been why people so often fail to take full advantage of the tax benefits of a 401(k).  But recent studies suggested that people were far more likely to maintain a 401(k) if they were enrolled by default, with an option to opt-out, instead of choosing to opt-in.  Retirement savings are getting a big boost from this minor default switch.

The point I hope to make with these two stories is that defaults and nudges are good in that they force us to educate ourselves about the issues.  Fast food patrons are more cautious when they understand how one meal can easily take up 75% of their daily recommended calories.  Workers are more likely to take advantage of 401(k) plans once they learn about the tax savings.  The Google Buzz debacle’s silver lining is that it once again forced us to educate ourselves about our online privacy.

Because let’s be honest; we didn’t bother to learn about these privacy issues on our own.  Most of us were on Facebook for years before the news broke that they “owned” our photos and information, sparking outrage and forcing changes to the terms of service.

So if Google Buzz’s brief overexposure forced me, and students, and employees, and parents around the world to take a closer look at their privacy policies and educate themselves, I for one don’t mind.

Posted on February 27th 2010 in ideas, news

Making maps saves lives

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Google’s Lalitesh Katrigadda speaks on the importance of maps in disaster response and general economic development:

The shocker in this piece is that, as of 2005, only 15% of the world is mapped to the level of detail that many of us who fancy turn-by-turn directions and snickering at burning houses on Google Street View have become accustomed to.

The Google Mapmaker tool gives users satellite images and allows anyone to become a cartographer, mapping the streets of their communities to be viewed by planners, policymakers, emergency responders, and everyday street users.

Disaster relief is of particular importance.  As news of the 7.0 earthquake in Haiti spreads, we should consider the capacity for emergency responders to reach people in need.  While natural disasters are tragically random and unpredictable, efficient emergency response has the potential to drastically mitigate their casualties.

We’ve been laying roads on this planet for a pretty long time; we should at least have documentation of what they look like.

Posted on January 13th 2010 in news
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