Thursday, March 05, 2009

The end of Surveillance State

For the last year and a half, I have published a blog over at CNET, focusing on security, privacy and technology policy. Well, as of March 4, that business relationship is now over.

As my regular readers will know, for the past few months, I have been hammering the Obama Administration for its close ties to Google/YouTube. Starting back in November of 2008, I called for the "separation of Google and State," and urged the then President-elect to find a more pro-privacy way to deliver his video messages.

Looking back through the posts I have published in the past few months, nearly every single one is focused on this issue. These include:

Why Obama should ditch YouTube
Dear Obama: Use BitTorrent for your Fireside podcasts
White House exempts YouTube from privacy rules
White House acts to limit YouTube cookie tracking
White House yanks 'YouTube' from privacy policy.

While this might seem like an insane obsession, I strongly believe that my writing helped to bring a significant amount of attention to this issue, and thus lead to real change. Consider the following:

  • In the first five days of the Obama Presidency, his web-team changed their privacy policy three times, addressing issues first highlighted on my blog.

  • Before Obama had even moved in the White House, his lawyers had written up a waiver for the YouTube cookie issue (although they still refuse to release it), addressing concerns that I had raised in November of 2008. YouTube was similarly used by several agencies during the Bush Administration, although no such waiver was felt to be necessary.

  • Within days of Obama's inauguration, his web-team rushed out a partial fix to the cookie issue for people who didn't click "play", and then shortly after, a link to the White House privacy policy was added below each embedded video on the White House Web site.

In the past six weeks, the White House web team has devoted a significant amount of time towards fixing privacy problems on the site. If the issue wasn't a priority for them when they started in late January, it certainly is now.

"The White House Dumps YouTube"

On Monday, I published a story documenting the fact that the White House had, with its latest weekly video address, opted to not use an embedded YouTube video on the official White House Web site.

The story set off a minor shit-storm in the blogosphere, which eventually lead to a New York Times story, and official denials by both the White House and YouTube.

Feeling the pressure, my editors at CNET rewrote the headline on my blog post, and then added a comment to the top stating that my story "significantly misconstrued the White House's policy on and use of YouTube."

The next day, I was notified that our business relationship had been terminated, and that CNET would no longer be requiring my blogging services.


Looking at the denials in depth

It is clear that Google (and to a lesser extent) the White House needed to issue denials, if just to save face. However, rather than addressing the specific statements in my blog post, they denied things that I never actually claimed.

Rather than actually comparing the denials to the text of my blog post, the media willingly published Google's spin-heavy version of the story.

In an effort to set the record straight, particularly with regard to CNET's statement that I "significantly misconstrued" the facts, consider the following:

Writing on the Google Policy Blog, Steve Grove wrote:

[Chris's] report is wrong. The White House decision does not mean that the White House has stopped using YouTube. The White House continues to post videos to its YouTube channel, as do other agencies like the U.S. Department of Education and the State Department.

However, my original story never claimed otherwise:

The White House is still posting copies of the videos to its official YouTube channel.

Likewise, consider the statements made by the White House to the New York Times:

Now the White House is denying that it has changed its policy on videos from YouTube, which is owned by Google, or other third parties. While it chose to host President Obama’s weekly radio and video address on, rather than embed a video from YouTube on its site, the change was simply an experiment, said Nick Shapiro, a White House spokesman.

“As the president continues his goal of making government more accessible and transparent, this week we tested a new way of presenting the president’s weekly address by using a player developed in-house,” Mr. Shapiro said in a statement. “This decision is more about better understanding our internal capabilities than it is a position on third-party solutions or a policy. The weekly address was also published in third-party video hosting communities and we will likely continue to embed videos from these services on in the future.”

Again, back to my original blog post:

It is unclear whether this switch away from YouTube marks a permanent shift in policy for the White House, or whether the Oval Office geek squad is merely testing an alternate video provider. While the latest video is served using Akamai's servers, the older videos remain as embedded YouTube files.

Looking back

While CNET goes to great lengths to state that the people writing in its Blog Network are not CNET employees, that detail often gets lost on members of the public. As a result, when I would blog something, it would be written up by other media outlets as "CNET reported that."

As an activist, this gives you a very powerful tool, since you effectively get to speak with the voice of the mainstream media. My blog gave me a soapbox which hugely amplified my voice, and permitted me to pillory companies and the government whenever I thought they were doing something they shouldn't.

In several cases, I was able to use the CNET blog to significantly shape the public debate on various issues -- such as with Google's so called "anonymization" of search log data, TSA's policies towards flying with no ID and the disclosure of identifying customer information by Internet Service Providers.

I suppose that what surprises me the most is that CNET let me editorialize on their site and with their brand for as long as they did.

Moving on

While I am clearly a bit sad about the loss of my soapbox, there is probably a silver lining in this. I am a PhD student in my third year, and I really need to start working on my dissertation soon. Blogging, even once or twice a week, takes a significant amount of time, at least when you are trying to write detailed and original analysis. It'll be nice to be able to refocus those 10 hours a week or so back on my studies.

It's likely that I'll still blog here once and a while, but now that I'm no longer contractually obligated nor paid to do so, it is likely that I'll be writing far less frequently.

Those of you who had subscribed to the CNET RSS, please re-subscribe here. And those PR hacks who keep pitching stories in the hope that I'll post your press release to CNET, please stop.


Avery said...

For some reason CNET stopped updating your Blogspot RSS feed and I failed to notice. So, from my perspective, welcome back.

Anonymous said...

Welcome back!

Devan said...

Would it kill CNET to post a message on that blog to say that you'd moved?

Anonymous said... is writing about you? PLEASE do not affiliate yourself with EFF. Eeeewww!!

BlognDog said...

Why don't you provide some information on how to give feedback on this to CNET? Or would you prefer to focus on your PhD?

Anonymous said...

C-Not has a knack for committing acts that are both co-mission and omission, like ending Surveillance State.

In an instance I know of, an investigator came across clear records exposing Michael Arrington's glowing, repetitive hyper-inflated appraisals on TechCrunch, Arrington's famous blog, of personal associates' companies. Arrington commonly intones that he discloses all his investments. But he never disclosed the personal favor he was trafficking in.

The investigator thought this would be interesting news, and passed it all to CNet.

Did CNet investigate? We'll never know; they didn't publish a word.

But they did tell Arrington that somebody was onto him - we know that from Arrington's rants on his own blog, which included reference to a point given to CNet that was not publicly known.

This demonstrates yet another example that CNet and other "new media" companies lack the instinct, feel no obligation, to get to the truth, or for fairness. Certainly they don't dare stand apart and/or take the heat from the White House or local bully, which real journalists have had to do in lonely, costly, hostile, unpopular cases before and since the Pentagon Papers. Perhaps it was one person's bad judgment - or a shared understanding at CNet that the most important issue is retaining favor with those who can make CNet appear most important.

They just don't get what integrity means. They have no balls, no shame. So Chris, you didn't lose much of a platform, especially for news stories that say "CNet reported today," because it was always people like you building credibility for them. They were too stupid and churlish to do the only job they had: to stand up for you.