TOC Power and productivity Your Turn

January 15, 2013

Fresh from his victorious encounter with the FTC, Eric Schmidt goes to Pyongyang. Some see his trip as "an act of vanity, or worse, hubris" and a propaganda coup for the young Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un, according to Andrew Jacobs (*). These opinions are short-sighted in the extreme.

Although not a state, Google is a genuine world power. Although a friend of the United States' president, it is engaged in a two- major theater war.

In Europe, "Joaquin Almunia, the EU's competition chief" told Alex Barker Google "need[s] to provide results and real remedies" to stop "diverting traffic [to [its] own services]" (**). In Asia, China has proven it can counter Google's quest for world domination. It is hard to dismiss the signal Eric Schmidt sends by stopping in Beijing right after his warm welcome in the Land of Morning Calm. If China tolerates its testy neighbor, it should show more respect to Google too. Birds of the same feather flock together.

For diplomatic cover, perhaps Eric Schmidt declared he came to China to follow in the footsteps of the Qian Long Emperor. Whenever the latter traveled between Beijing and Jehol, his summer residence (1), his litter carried him in comfort and speed on a reserved lane, specially smoothed for the occasion by some twenty-three thousand people. Or so computed a contemporary British ambassador, Lord Macartney (2).

A well surfaced highway, a good car suspension and no need to pay attention to the road, nor a driver for his services. Once the Google car passes certification, will not the luxury lavished on the Emperor of China become available to every one of us and with absolutely no one in attendance?

Collision-avoiding, self-driving cars dramatize what can be achieved by the invisible cooperation of numerous digital agents. W. Brian Arthur is right to warn us that "physical jobs are disappearing into [this] second economy [...] not to reappear" (***). What will sustain social solidarity if states continue to finance it by taxes on labor, especially in manufacturing, in the face of a structural dearth of jobs due to automation?

Yet automation itself stems from a dearth of workers, coupled with our taste for comfort and speed. Without automation, even China could only dream of mobilizing more than 10,000 workers for more than one beneficiary, more than a couple of times a year.

With automation, Google can read all the electronic mail it handles for us without involving one human spy. Not only our words, but our faces and now our intents too, thanks to "linguistic analysis software", whose use by "compliance departments" is set to grow, per Jennifer Thompson (****).

The Stasi would have envied such feats of productivity. No wonder Kim Jong-Un invited Eric Schmidt. They share a common goal. But instead of castigating this trip as "not particularly helpful", the US Government should direct its indignation to Google Manifest Destiny to spy on its citizens.

Meanwhile what should we think of Mr Almunia's rodomontades? Here is my bet. The European Union commissioner will demand Google put a light red background on every search answer leading to a Google service. Or maybe it will be a light blue one. Google will vigorously oppose this measure and the fierce opponents will then both claim victory by settling on a pale green background.

Once safely within the pale, Google will point out it is now as respectable as any media. See how the New York Times endlessly uses its own pages to promote its store and the Financial Times its online services. This is no conflict of interest. If Google clearly labels its content and separates objective reporting from self-advertising, it discharges its editorial duty with respect to the consumer. Since, in promoting its own products, it loses the market price value of a space it could have sold to other advertisers, it discharges its fair play duty with respect to the competitor.

Free may well feel sore of this demonstration of power. "The second-largest broadband provider in France" recently tried to "block online ads" only to be "persuaded [...] to restore full access" under pressure from the French Government, writes Eric Pfanner (*****). Some data utilities are less equal than others. BT has been there before. Output data from a search and it belongs to you, from a pipe and it belongs to your source. Unfair.

Pleading against net neutrality, Free is another self-interested bully, only smaller. Declining to chose between censorship and surveillance, I am for preventing companies from growing so big they kill market-based competition in the name of market freedom. For a start, forbid such companies from playing multiple roles. Free should keep its pipes equally open to any paying consumer and Google should be kept from content production.

With its criteria on how to achieve eprivacy, Yann Krupa's recent thesis provides another perspective on power and productivity (3). The author first finds fault with the centralization of a Facebook for failing to address "vertical privacy issues", the power of a system owner to spy on its users. He is also critical of solutions which impose a priori restrictions on users, a blow to their "genericity" and hence their productivity.

Focusing on well known methods, he neglected the ePrio technology. His pragmatic choice unfortunately weakened the universality of his typology.

Because ePrio asks each user to install a software platform signed by a central authority and each application developer to submit to an audit by this authority (4), Yann Krupa may well deny its approach is decentralized. But what counts is to guarantee confidential data is accessed by no one but the person it qualifies. Any such system is proof against vertical spying and should be considered decentralized, whatever its exact architecture.

He would also say the ePrio solution is not generic in view of what he would see as intrusive constraints imposed on users and developers alike. He prefers eprivacy specifications to be given as a protocol to implement rather than as a platform API to build on. Does this difference matter much?

Instead of a mechanism which, like ePrio's, prevents bad behavior a priori, Yann Krupa based his solution on using social norms to police itself a posteriori. Unambiguous, this third criteria reveals the two approaches to be both poles apart and complementary. In today's legal framework, to entrust any confidential data to strangers or companies is naive. But to live among friends without exchanging any confidential information is stifling.

Good mechanisms decentralize power to users and their rules foster, rather than limit productivity but society still needs social norms, which require its members to take the responsibility of their acts and especially to make recommendations. By definition, this value cannot be entirely automatized and everybody is called to add to it. Eric Schmidt may recommend Kim Jong-Un to his friends. I will not recommend Eric Schmidt to mine.

Whenever possible, power is best decentralized. However desirable, productivity cannot supplant social output.

But if society fails to properly value social flows, power will flow to the mighty few. Will North Korea be the model for the Information Age?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ........... Visit by Google Chairman May Benefit North Korea, by Andrew Jacobs (New York Times) - January 11, 2013
  • (**) ......... Antitrust chief holds all the aces, by Alex Barker (Financial Times) - January 11, 2013
  • (***) ....... The second economy, by W. Brian Arthur (McKinsey Quarterly) - October 2011
  • (****) ..... Rogues revealed by bad language, by Jennifer Thompson (Financial Times) - January 7, 2013
  • (*****) ... France Orders a Popular Internet Provider to Stop Blocking Online Ads, by Eric Pfanner (New York Times) - January 8, 2013
  • (1) for more details, see Jehol, now Chengde, in the wikipedia
  • (2) see chapter 30 of L'Empire Immobile, by Alain Peyrefitte (Fayard), 1989
  • (3) for more details, see Privacy as Contextual Integrity in Decentralized Multi-Agent Systems,
    by Yann Krupa (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Etienne) - September 10, 2013
  • (4) ideally this authority should be independent of ePrio and its role limited to guarantee the conformance of the software to its claims of confidentiality
January 2013
Copyright © 2013 ePrio Inc. All rights reserved.