Surveillance shouldn’t be the new normal

As the Globe and Mail has reported — based on classified documents obtained from an anonymous source — U.S. intelligence officials appear to be mapping the communications traffic of several large Canadian corporations, including Rogers Communications Inc., one of the country’s largest internet and telecom providers. Perhaps the most depressing aspects of this news is how completely unsurprising it is.

By now, we have all been subjected to a veritable tsunami of surveillance-related leaks, courtesy of documents obtained by former U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden, a trove from which this latest piece of information is also drawn. These files suggest the National Security Agency uses every method at its disposal — both legal and otherwise — to track every speck of web and voice traffic, including tapping directly into the undersea cables that make up the backbone of the internet.

In that context, the idea that intelligence agencies are snooping on the networks of Canadian corporations like Rogers seems totally believable, despite the fact that a 66-year-old agreement between Canada and the U.S. supposedly prevents either country from spying on the residents of its partner. While the document in question doesn’t say that any snooping is occurring, it seems clear that the behaviour it describes is designed to create a map of those networks in order to facilitate future surveillance activity.

The U.S. has repeatedly argued that this kind of monitoring is necessary in order to detect the activities of potential threats to U.S. security. The problem with this approach, of course, is that no one knows where those threats will appear, or how they will manifest themselves — thanks to the diverse nature of modern international terrorism — and so the inevitable result is a kind of ubiquitous surveillance, in which every word and photo and voice-mail message is collected, just in case it might be important.

Photo by Carolina Georgatou

Photo by Carolina Georgatou

One of the risks inherent in the steady flow of leaks from Mr. Snowden and others is that the new reality they portray eventually becomes accepted, if not outright banal. Of course we are being surveilled all the time; of course our location is being tracked thanks to the GPS chips in our phones; of course the NSA is installing “back door” software on our internet devices before we even buy them. At this point, it’s hard to imagine a surveillance revelation that would actually surprise anyone, no matter how Orwellian it might be.

If nothing else, one of our duties in this kind of environment — a duty not just for journalists but for governments as well, and the Canadian government in particular — is to prevent this kind of behavior from becoming banal, to fight the overwhelming sense of “surveillance fatigue” that each new revelation triggers, by shouting our disapproval from the rooftops if necessary.

This is one reason why we should celebrate the existence of leakers and “whistle-blowers” like Mr. Snowden — and even entities like WikiLeaks, despite all the obvious flaws inherent in that organization and its founder Julian Assange — regardless of our partisan political leanings. The U.S. government and its allies may see both of these men as traitors, and their acts as treasonous, but how else are we to discover the innumerable ways in which we are being surveilled against our will?

If our government wants to maintain the trust of its citizens, it should mount its own campaign against these kinds of activities — which are taking place either with its explicit or tacit approval. Just because we are friends and trading partners with the U.S. doesn’t mean we have to submit to their vision of what the future needs to look like.

We don’t need to live in a world where the locks on our virtual doors have a secret pass-code so that government forces can enter at will if they believe we are a threat to national security, or where our every click is recorded and filed away in a secret location, and our cellphones and internet devices listen to our conversations waiting for us to utter certain red-flag trigger phrases. If our governments believe it is necessary to trade our freedom for what amounts to an illusion of security, we need to do everything in our power to convince them that it this is not a trade we wish to make.

This post originally appeared as an op-ed piece in the Globe and Mail

Gigaom is dead. Long live Gigaom

Last week, the place I’ve called my online home for over five years — a site that has been one of the leading tech blogs ever since my friend Om Malik started it in the Starbucks at the corner of Clay and Battery in San Francisco in 2006 — suddenly shut down. Gigaom was always more than just a job for me, and its death has hit me like the loss of a close friend. Like many of my former colleagues, I am still trying to process all of the feelings and thoughts its closure has triggered and understand why and how it happened. I consider this post just part of that process — I’m certainly not claiming to have any definitive answers.

Everyone wants to know why Gigaom failed, and what it says about the online media market. And I feel as though I should know, if only because I was one of the site’s media writers, and I have written so many times about the challenges other online outlets have faced. In fact, I’ve heard from more than one person who sees Gigaom’s death as some kind of karmic retribution for my past criticism of outlets like the New York Times — and perhaps it is. Frankly, it’s as good an explanation as any other.

For me, the business realities and technical aspects of Gigaom are all tied up with my feelings about the place, and about my friend Om Malik, who took a crazy gamble and left his job at Forbes to start a blog, and eventually built what I consider to be one of the best teams of writers and editors I’ve ever worked with. As I have said several times, I have absolutely zero regrets about agreeing to leave a comfy newspaper job and join him in that quest, despite the unfortunate way it ended so abruptly. Was it the best online media business ever? No. But it was a pleasure and a privilege to work there, and I am proud of what we accomplished.

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If there’s one thing that bothers me about the site’s sudden closure, it’s that it might jeopardize the careers of or influence how people see my colleagues — excellent writers and editors like Stacey Higginbotham and Katie Fehrenbacher and Janko Roettgers and Laura Owen and Kevin Tofel and Derrick Harris and Kevin Fitchard and David Meyer and Jeff Roberts and Barb Darrow and Kif Leswing and Jonathan Vanian and Biz Carson and Signe Brewster and Carmel DeAmicis. If you haven’t already reached out to hire them, you should. They are rock stars, and they don’t deserve to have their work denigrated in this way, with bank trustees — or their corporate handmaidens — telling them to turn in their laptops and shut off the lights when they leave.

I’ve talked to several media outlets about Gigaom’s death — including Digiday and the Poynter Institute and the Columbia Journalism Review — and that has helped me think through some of the issues around it. Was Gigaom killed by its reliance on outside venture capital, as some have argued? In part, I think it was. As I mentioned in one interview, VC money is a Faustian bargain of the first order: it gives you the freedom to grow quickly, but it also puts pressure on a company to show meteoric growth, and there is a harsh penalty for not doing so — and the media industry isn’t exactly known for meteoric growth of the kind VCs like to see.

One aspect that many people are ignoring, however, is that Gigaom also took on debt, via a financing with several lenders including Silicon Valley Bank, in an attempt to juice its growth even further. In a different kind of market or at a different time, this might have worked — but ultimately the company failed to produce enough cash to service that debt, and that is part of what took it down (Peter Kafka at Re/code has more on that). Creditors are orders of magnitude less accommodating than shareholders or equity investors, and they tend to be a lot more nervous as well. When they want their money, all the happy stories about future growth that startups tell VCs mean less than nothing.

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Was Gigaom also killed by the merciless evolution of the online media market? I think to some extent that’s true as well — as I told CJR, when Gigaom started, and even up to a few years ago, having a staff of 50 and 6 million unique visitors a month would have seemed like a huge success. But in a world in which behemoths like BuzzFeed and Vice are the paragons of virtue, with thousands of staff and massive traffic, Gigaom must have looked like a pipsqueak, and that affects everything from advertising to funding.

The other aspect of the business that some media-focused sites aren’t including in their calculations is that Gigaom has never been just an editorial operation that lived and died on advertising. One of the most innovative aspects of the Gigaom model was that it had three legs: ad-funded editorial, events (conferences), and a subscription research arm where analysts wrote reports for corporate clients. I still believe that this model can work, despite what some might argue is overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It’s very similar to the model that a publisher like The Economist uses, for example. Ad-supported editorial helps build a relationship with readers, and events and subscription products eventually monetize that relationship, if everything works properly.

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I don’t have — and never did have — access to the in-depth financial aspects of Gigaom’s business (and perhaps I should have, as my former colleague Celeste LeCompte argued in a recent Nieman Lab piece). But my understanding of what happened is that the editorial side of the business was not the problem. Was it hugely profitable? No. But was it doing any worse than plenty of other editorial outlets in terms of revenue or cash flow? No — in fact, quite a bit better than many, as far as I can tell. But ultimately the research arm seems to have failed to generate enough cash to justify the money that investors (and creditors) lent us to build it. Whose fault is that? I honestly have no idea. Was the model flawed, or just the execution of it? Again, I simply don’t know.

Some have argued that Gigaom was guilty of an excess of hubris, and that instead of trying to grow into something so quickly, it should have taken the slower approach of a niche site like Search Engine Land. There is certainly nothing wrong with that idea — sites like Danny Sullivan’s or Jessica Lessin’s The Information, or Mike Masnick’s TechDirt, or even Ben Thompson’s Stratechery are great examples of how small can be good. But that doesn’t mean creating such a site is the only way to go — others would like to reach for the stars, and that desire is a big part of what makes Silicon Valley what it is: an infuriating place filled with hubris and ego, but also a great example of what people can achieve when they push themselves.

Did Gigaom fail in its attempt to reach that goal? Yes. But that doesn’t mean the goal wasn’t worthwhile, or that what we built while striving to reach it was any less great. I would like to thank my friend Om for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime, and I would like to thank all of my colleagues for the pleasure of working with one of the best editorial teams on the planet. I am happy to call you my friends as well as my former co-workers. It was a great ride while it lasted. Onward!

Snapchat CEO meets with Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed

Could Snapchat, the red-hot messaging service that is reportedly working on a new funding round that will value the company at $19 billion or more, be getting some of that funding from billionaire tech investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal? It sure looks that way: the Saudi prince’s investment company put out a statement on the weekend saying that bin Talal met with Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel and the two talked about a “potential business co-operation” between their respective companies.

Prince Alwaleed — whose full name is Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al Saud — is a member of the extended Saudi royal family, and a veteran technology investor who has a stake in companies like Twitter, and a track record of investing early in companies like Apple. As a number of sources have also pointed out, the prince recently sold his stake in News Corp. and is said to be looking for a new-media entity to invest in.

Alwaleed’s interest may also be fuelled by the amount of usage that Snapchat gets in his home county. Many social-media apps like Twitter are popular in Saudi Arabia — in part because they give people a way to talk about the country’s current political regime and its various restrictions on free speech and other human-rights issues — but for Snapchat in particular Saudi Arabia is one of the largest non-U.S. markets in terms of usage.

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Snapchat has been growing rapidly over the past year, and now has more than 100 million users. And while the service started as an “ephemeral messaging” app that automatically deleted messages after a certain amount of time, it has expanded its horizons beyond just that market by launching a number of new features — including a new service called Discover, which provides short video clips and other content from media partners like CNN and BuzzFeed.

Discover is still relatively new, but media-industry insiders say the number of unique visitors and engagement levels the service is driving are huge: Digiday quoted one as saying the traffic numbers were “f***ing incredible.”. And in a recent piece about how new apps like Snapchat and Vessel are trying to compete with YouTube to lure content creators, the WSJ said that the Food Network saw more than 10 million unique visitors to its platform in 12 days after it joined the Discover service.

The platform’s popular “Snapchat Stories” are also driving massive numbers of visitors, as my colleague Carmel DeAmicis recently reported. Numbers like that are making many media watchers sit up and pay attention, so it’s not surprising that they would have caught the eye of a prominent media-industry investor like Prince Alwaleed. Whether he eventually pulls the trigger and makes an investment in the company remains to be seen.

The $19-billion question: Is Snapchat the new television?

Not that long ago, Snapchat turned down a massive $3-billion acquisition offer from Facebook, and almost everyone thought the company had lost its mind. Now, the startup is reportedly raising money in a financing round that will value it at a staggering $19 billion. Is there anything that could justify putting that kind of market value on a company that is only four years old and has almost no revenue?

Technology analyst Ben Thompson thinks there is — and it’s more than just the fact that Snapchat has a huge audience of millennials and younger users, although that’s clearly part of it. Thompson argues in a recent post at his Stratechery blog that one of Snapchat’s strengths is somewhat counter-intuitive: Namely, the fact that its model is a lot more like television than it is anything else.

“Mark Zuckerberg, earlier than just about anyone, clearly saw just how much money is going to be made on mobile. And, rumor has it, Snapchat’s investors completely agree: Bloomberg reports the company will soon be valued at $19 billion. To understand why you need to look not at other social networks, but rather TV.”

Ephemeral advertising

I confess that I found this idea jarring at first. How could a brand new mobile app that offers disappearing messages be anything like the massive market that is the conventional television business? But Thompson makes an interesting case, and one that supports the idea that Snapchat’s revenue from advertising — if it is handled properly, of course — could be substantially more than most are expecting.

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This argument rests on the idea that television is being disrupted, but not just because younger viewers are cutting the cord and streaming more video through other means (something Thompson doesn’t believe is quite as widespread as many analysts assume, thanks to cable’s lock on things like sporting events, etc.). From a revenue perspective, the real disruption is that advertising is increasingly moving away from TV, and one of the places it is going in search of new viewers is mobile.

Old media ad model

So what makes Snapchat so appealing? One thing is that its media model — at least what we have seen so far, with the new feature Discover — is relatively old-fashioned: instead of just having a bunch of user-generated content and then some native advertising mixed in, the way Twitter and Facebook do, Snapchat offers a selection of content created by a handful of media partners like CNN and Vice.

It’s true that this content is made up of short video clips and in some cases deals with unusual topics, but one of the surprising things about Discover is just how traditional it is: A lot of it is news organizations talking about the weather or ISIS or whatever is in the news — and best of all, because of the way that Snapchat works, users have to hold their finger down the whole time they are watching it. This means advertisers know for a fact that someone actually sat through their entire ad.

“Here is what Snapchat offers: Nearly 200 million monthly active users, including greater than 50% penetration among users 18-24 (33% among users 18-34), and those numbers continue to grow rapidly. Very immersive ads that can only be viewed by holding your finger on the screen; brands can have a very high confidence their message is being viewed.”

The new couch potato

Thompson offers a quote from Slate TV critic Willa Paskin that puts it well: Snapchat channels, she says, “are a throwback to the couch potato mode of passive consumption,” with stories selected for you by Cosmo, CNN, etc. All of that is available on the web as well, but using Snapchat makes it even easier because it’s in one place: “You don’t have to search for anything, click on anything, seek out anything. It has already been picked out for you. Everywhere you and your phone are has become the proverbial couch.”

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Obviously, Snapchat is not alone in this market. There are other video players who are a major force in mobile video, or getting there, including YouTube and things like Amazon Prime Video. And Facebook is not just going to sit around and watch Snapchat take over a market like that — which is why some are talking about (or perhaps hoping for) another WhatsApp-style $20-billion acquisition offer for Snapchat.

I’m also not as convinced as Thompson is that the lack of information on Snapchat’s viewers (apart from them being young) is going to work for a majority of big-brand advertisers. Thompson argues that this makes Snapchat more like TV, where figuring out who is actually watching your content is a game of smoke and mirrors — and that’s true. But in a world where Facebook can offer hyper-targeting of individual users based on a vast range of demographic and interest-based vectors, is a mass-media style offering of undifferentiated users really that appealing?

Thompson’s main point, however, seems unassailable: advertising is moving away from traditional television — in part because the audience is moving, but also because TV is becoming more about subscription-based models rather than advertising — and that money is going to have to go somewhere. And one of the places it is going is definitely mobile. Whether that means Snapchat is worth $19 billion or not remains a rather large question mark.

Two great examples of how journalism has changed for the better

Are we living in a golden age for journalism, or is it the Dark Ages? There’s nothing that gets a group of media types going like that question, which is kind of an updated version of a perennial favorite: “Are bloggers journalists?” Obviously, the kind of upheaval that leads to mass layoffs at papers like the Chicago Sun-Times or the loss of $500 million in ad revenue for the New York Times is nothing to sneeze at. But it’s important to take note of the good things as well — and the best is that journalism has been freed from its confines, and is available to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Everyone likes to point out when this state of affairs fails in some way: like when Reddit users identified the wrong man as the Boston bomber in 2013, for example, or when a network of media sites perpetuate obvious hoaxes and misinformation because they care more about clicks than the truth, something Craig Silverman described in detail in his recent report for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia.

But I think it’s also worth pointing out when “citizen journalism” — or networked journalism, or whatever we want to call it — really works, and a couple of great examples of that have come to light recently. One of them is related to a project that I’ve written about: namely, the Ukrainian Vehicle Sightings Database that British investigative blogger Eliot Higgins and his team have been putting together, which tracks the movements of Russian troops and machinery in and around Ukraine.

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Eliot, as I’ve mentioned before, has no formal journalistic training and no background in media whatsoever. But starting from his flat in Leicester, England in 2011 — where he blogged under the nom de plume Brown Moses — he became an expert in Syrian weaponry and terrorist activity by studying YouTube videos and networking with other self-taught experts. His research was cited by New York Times writer C.J. Chivers, and helped confirm that the Syrian government was using banned weapons.

In a similar way, the open database of vehicle sightings in Ukraine that Eliot and his team at the Bellingcat site have been putting together — using photos and videos and eyewitness reports of vehicles, blast craters and burn marks that have been posted by residents — has produced some fairly strong evidence that Russia has been firing missiles and other weaponry into Ukraine from inside Russian territory, despite repeated Russian denials that it is doing any such thing.

The second example comes via a piece in the New York Times magazine, which will be published in print this weekend but is already available online. It tells the story of a group of residents who live in one of the worst slums in Rio de Janeiro — a group that calls itself “Papo Reto,” meaning “straight talk.” Armed with cellphones and nothing more, they have been documenting police and government violence in Rio favelas, at great personal cost, because the Brazilian media apparently isn’t interested.

Ribeiro predicted that at some point the police would turn on the crowd. They wanted to be on hand when it happened. “Tonight, this protest will be on the news, but I doubt any of the big television stations will show the police doing anything wrong,” Ribeiro said. That was what his camera was for.

In both of these cases, there is a key reason why amateur journalism is required: in Ukraine, it is difficult for media outlets to devote the kind of resources that would be required to document every sighting of every Russian vehicle, or spend weeks analyzing different types of missile, or the blast marks that they leave when they are fired from a truck. Crowdsourcing of the kind Bellingcat does isn’t just a nice addition to existing coverage, it adds a crucial missing element.

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In the case of the Rio favela, the existing media doesn’t seem interested if a few people happen to die suspiciously, since that happens all the time — but it is of extreme interest to the residents of the Complexo do Alemão slum, and also to human-rights groups like Witness, which is trying to help more “citizen journalists” document that kind of behavior in similar situations around the world.

In a similar way, Twitter and other forms of social media have become crucial pathways for information in countries like Turkey, where most of the traditional media are either uninterested in the activities of the government or censor themselves because they don’t want to rock the boat. Twitter has become so important that Turkey has tried to ban it, and has pressured the company to block content — including the account of an alternative newspaper (to its credit, Twitter refused).

Are there flaws in citizen journalism? Of course there are. Is there a downside to giving everyone a video camera and a Twitter account and telling them to become reporters? Definitely. But there is also a massive upside to doing so, and examples like Bellingcat and Papo Reto in Rio de Janeiro make that point better than I ever could.