We need to re-build news delivery. Here’s how.

For me, Wired magazine’s recent must-read yarn about Facebook’s woes reinforces a certain nagging hunch:

The supply chain for news, if you think of it as a product to be brought to market like any other, urgently needs to be re-engineered from the ground up so that it’s less reliant on Facebook and other Death Star-sized tech companies. It needs more redundancy, more antifragility, to borrow a useful buzzword from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Both publishers and the public need this to happen, albeit for different reasons. For publishers, it’s a matter of business viability, so they’re not forever stuck on someone else’s digital toll road. For the public, it’s a matter of reliability and quality of the information that acts as a lifeblood for civil society.

Facebook (and its Big Tech peers, in fairness) simply aren’t equipped or incented to fix this. Sure, it’s possible they can, given their prodigious technical smarts. But I’d argue all available evidence suggests they never in fact will.

I say that for a number of reasons, chief among them the cold, hard cash that all those clicks on nonsensical content provide.

The rest of us need to wrap our brains around this and act accordingly. That means getting to work on building a post-Facebook (and post-Death Star in general) world for news.

No question, that’s a big task. But I think the following three technologies, all open source, could provide the foundation for such a system, if we commit to building it out over time.

To stick with the supply-chain metaphor, I’ll break things thematically here into three parts that engineers might use to describe delivery of physical goods — the first 10 feet of production, the first mile of delivery to the consumer, and the last 10 feet to the consumer:

  • Kubernetes (the first 10 feet): This software helps organizations “containerize” and run applications at scale. For news organizations, that means Kubernetes can help run the various moving parts of production and publishing — like content management, audience analytics, and so on — in a more modular way. Thus the various parts can also be switched out more easily if newer tools come along later, making organizations nimbler and better able to innovate over time. Kubernetes can essentially serve as a future-proofing layer, which the news industry sorely needs.
  • RSS (the first mile): Not a new technology, by any stretch, but good ol’ Real Simple Syndication gets the job done. In particular, although RSS readers have fallen out of favor among consumers as a primary user interface with news, RSS still works great as a “firehose” for developers to broadcast news widely and integrate under the hood of their applications. The recent years’ boom in podcasting is built on a foundation of RSS, for instance, even though most consumers don’t interact with podcast feeds’ urls firsthand. Other newsy applications and sites should be re-committing to it now that the proprietary social networks are falling out of favor as broadcasting tools.
  • Solid (the last 10 feet): An MIT project led by the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, Solid is a set of conventions and open tools whose name is derived from the phrase “social linked data.” With these tools, we can personalize and improve functionality and interactivity for the news firehose using the open web rather than proprietary platforms like Facebook.

I’m starting to redesign Indizr.com, both visually and at the infrastructure layer, to incorporate all the above technologies. Of course, Indizr is a tiny site (for now), but hopefully we can provide useful proof of concept to others, including the big boys.

If you’re interested in this stuff, or if you’re doing something similar, I’m definitely curious to hear about it. Please touch base via Twitter or email me at peter[at]indizr[dot]com.

Thomas Edison famously said that people need two things to invent — imagination and a pile of junk. I think the stuff listed above is just the pile of junk we need to make a better, post-Facebook delivery system for news.

Now, do we have the imagination?

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Opening up collaboration and archiving for our newsletter

archive

The Indizr Weekly newsletter is probably the best way to keep up with this site’s posts about the intersection of privacy, hacking, and free speech. Now I’m opening up all the HTML for the newsletter’s past editions, as well as the next edition in the works.

It’s all now in this GitHub repo, licensed freely under Creative Commons 4.0.

The collection is meant to serve dual purposes.

First, it’s a complete archive. If you missed an issue, or if you’re a newbie who wants to see what the newsletter is all about, you can look at all the old coverage. (Hint: It has a lot to do with three things — privacy, hacking, and free speech.)

Second, the new GitHub repo enables greater collaboration from the community in shaping the newsletter. If you have a link you think we should include, please submit it in the comments here.

I should also say, I’ve been tinkering lately with a few pieces of Indizr’s publishing “stack,” as well as my own personal workflow around publishing. The newsletter repo is one early result I’m ready to share. More to come, so stay tuned (C:

Ad-supported sites face an unlikely new rival for revenue: Amazon

Swole Jeff

News sites and other digital publishers are already in a death match with Google and Facebook for ad sales. Now another tech giant, Amazon, may be joining the fray, according to the Wall Street Journal.

In a story Monday, WSJ tech reporter Chris Mims writes:

Amazon doesn’t break out advertising as a separate business, but according to a new report by J.P. Morgan analyst Doug Anmuth, the company racked up an estimated $2.8 billion in 2017 ad revenue. That’s small compared with his estimate for Google’s ad revenue in 2017: $73 billion. Yet in 2019, he expects Amazon’s revenue to more than double to $6.6 billion.

Mims points out that, as the internet’s major retailer by far, Amazon has the richest data on what people actually buy online. By comparison, their competitors mostly try to triangulate guesses about what you might buy through observing user behavior online, demographics, and other data about you.

That makes for a massive strategic advantage for Amazon.

To boot, the many merchants who list their goods for sale on Amazon are all jockeying for prime position when users search Amazon for, say, a pair of socks. Amazon sells top placement in those results, much like Google sells ad space atop its search results. Hence its increasing revenue opportunities.

A possible knock-on effect of this, of course, is that publishers who are already reeling from flagging ad sales may have yet another headache coming down the pike if Amazon’s ad sales grow as expected over the next few years. And the journalism that is a key lifeblood of Western democracy may get even harder for those publishers to fund.

Facing a real Big Brother this time, Apple blinks

In its early days as a company, Apple famously aired an ad during the Super Bowl positioning itself as a headband-wearing, hammer-throwing rebel taking on George Orwell’s great villain Big Brother. To put matters in more prosaic terms, Apple was trying to sell people its new Macintosh computer at the time, and its chief competitor in the marketplace was IBM. That company was the metaphorical Big Brother.

The 1980s-era IBM, however, was but a teddy bear compared to a much more true-to-life Big Brother that presently confronts Apple: China’s repressive surveillance state. And the present-day Apple, like most U.S. companies, is doing an epically crappy job at standing up to that villain.

So says lawyer and human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng in a new op-ed for the New York Times.

He writes:

Last summer, Apple announced that it would be partnering with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data, a state-owned company with Communist Party connections, to build Apple’s first data-storage center in China. Beginning Feb. 28, the iCloud content of Apple ID users registered in China will be sent to and managed by Guizhou-Cloud Big Data.

Customers registered in China, according to Apple’s new terms and conditions agreement for the country, must “understand and agree that Apple and G.C.B.D. will have access to all data that you store on this service, including the right to share, exchange and disclose all user data, including content, to and between each other under applicable law.”

In short, all personal user information stored on the iCloud — including photos, videos, text files, contacts, calendars and iCloud email — will be shared with Guizhou-Cloud Big Data and could be available to the Chinese authorities as well. Apple has said that G.C.B.D. will not have access to the personal data stored in its facility without Apple’s permission, but the new terms and conditions agreement appears to say the opposite.

It’s also worth noting, Apple’s move comes at a time when the Communist Party under President Xi Jinping seems to be getting more repressive, not less, against even the most tepidly dissident forms of expression. For instance, The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the regime’s crackdown on messaging apps. Likewise, a new video by the NYT’s news staff about the global threat to democracy in general prominently cites China as an example of a country that’s backsliding right now, not improving.

https://indizr.com/2017/12/10/wsj-chinese-authorities-are-tightening-their-grip-on-wechat-comments/

As Chen points out, Apple’s kowtowing to China is also hypocritical in light of its privacy stance back home in the U.S., where it publicly clashed with the FBI over access to a terrorist’s iPhone a few years ago. At the time, Apple said (quite correctly, from a technical standpoint) that it couldn’t provide a “back door” into the suspect’s iPhone because doing so would compromise everyone’s iPhones.

From a strategic standpoint, Apple as a company has also increasingly been pitching itself to consumers as a protector of their privacy, compared to peers like Google and Facebook that openly spy on users. This has become a bigger selling point for Apple, literally.

Chen openly pines for Apple to go to similar lengths to protect its Chinese users as it has its American users. But I have to say, as an American, Chen’s op-ed makes me wonder if Apple’s inconsistency “problem” here couldn’t just as easily or likely be resolved in the opposite direction at some point.

That is to say: With an increasingly aggressive U.S. surveillance apparatus these days, and with the ever-present imperative to make profits for its shareholders, who’s to say Apple doesn’t sell us Americans out someday just like it’s done to Chinese users?

LibreOffice: An open productivity suite that gets the job done

LibreOffice icons

I’ve got a milestone pick of sorts today for The Replacements — our occasional series about products you can use in lieu of ones from oligarch-sized tech companies. This will be our first pick that has the imprimatur of a major city’s government.

I’m talking about LibreOffice, a suite of open-source poductivity applications you can substitute for Microsoft Office. It includes a word-processor with similar functionality to Word, an Excel-like spreadsheet application, a PowerPoint-like presentation application, and so on.

I’ve used LibreOffice myself to live a (mostly) Office-free life for several years now, so I can vouch it works great for all the major tasks I need to do everyday. I’ll even confess, it’s one of those tools that’s become such a reliable go-to for me that I probably take it for granted a little bit. That’s the only reason it hasn’t been a Replacements pick even sooner.

My complacency on this front was broken this week by news that the city of Barcelona is planning to migrate all its official computing to open-source software, across several thousand PCs for its workforce. As a first step, they’re phasing out several proprietary applications in lieu of open ones, including LibreOffice.

LinuxInsider reports on some of the benefits Barcelona’s government is hoping to glean from this move:

The city hopes to save money from proprietary software license fees and to build a specialized library of open-source applications targeting the needs of government workers. Its goal is to encourage specialized open source solutions throughout governmental agencies in Spain.

The city last fall unveiled the Barcelona Digital City Plan to improve government-provided online services. The plan also supports urban technology and smart-city projects and promotes open data.

The ultimate goal of the program is to achieve and guarantee “full technological sovereignty” for the municipality through the adoption of open source technologies. This includes the potential to conduct a full public audit of the devices and software city government uses on a daily basis and then extend their functionalities.

City officials hope to push the open source envelope both to save money and improve digital security. They want to make software available in public repositories with licenses that permit third-party use and improvement.

ZDNet reports that the Barcelona government’s ultimate goal is to move all its users to the open Linux operating system as well. But as a first step, they’re starting with changes at the layer of applications that run on top of the OS, the stuff that workers use to get tasks done everyday in their jobs.

This is possible because LibreOffice has free versions available to download for macOS and Windows, as well as Linux. So the ninety-plus percent of folks who use either Windows PCs or Macs can experiment with LibreOffice in a relatively low-risk way, get comfortable with it, and then make the more serious plunge of changing the underlying OS as well.

Most Linux-focused IT pros will tell you that’s a pretty sound open-source migration plan for a big organization looking to make such a switch. By contrast, the city of Munich recently tried a more cold-turkey approach, ditching proprietary applications and the Windows OS all at once. It didn’t end well — a setback that unfortunately has turned some leadership types in government IT off open source ever since.

Hopefully, things will go better in Barcelona. On a smaller scale, you might also want to borrow their approach as well, if you’re curious about LibreOffice as a Mac or Windows user. Install it side-by-side with Office, or whatever other proprietary productivity software you’re using, and see for yourself how it stacks up.

Blogroll

I haven’t done a news summary sorta post in awhile, but it really seems one is in order right now. It’s been a dizzingly busy week or so of news in all Indizr’s key coverage areas around digital independence.

Here are all the latest headlines, breaking them down by category:

Privacy

  • By a 65-34 vote, the U.S. Senate this week voted to renew for six years a law that gives the National Security Agency broad surveillance powers, including the ability to spy on American citizens. Privacy advocates had hoped to curb these powers, which have been under closer scrutiny since Edward Snowden‘s leaks in 2013. The renewal now moves on to the House of Representatives, which is widely viewed as even more favorable ground for NSA.
  • On a happier note from Washington: Fifty senators, just one short of a majority, are now committed to a proposed resolution to reinstate net neutrality in America, according to the Washington Post.

Free Speech

  • It’s been a rough few days for the news industry — and the concept of a free press in general. On Jan. 11, Facebook publicly announced that it is changing its algorithms to show users more content from their personal contacts and less from organizations, including big publishers. On Tuesday, The Awl and its sister site The Hairpin, both popular blogs among media pros, announced they will shut down at the end of the month due to flagging business prospects. And on Wednesday, the Republican National Committee badmouthed major news organizations in its first Fake News Awards, delivering on an earlier (and thoroughly propagandistic) promise by President Trump.
  • Vice News reports that Israeli authorities have increasingly been vetting Palestinians’ social-media posts for evidence of “incitement” to terrorism. Since 2015, the government has imprisoned 470 Palestinians on such charges.
  • Future Tense, a joint project by Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University, announced it hill host a discussion on Jan. 30 titled: “Who’s Afraid of Online Speech?” The free event, which will be hosted live at the New America Foundation’s Washington headquarters, will also be livestreamed. You can RSVP to attend in-person or virtually here.
  • Some good news from the Indizr community: Longtime subscriber @lawrencepatrick was recently named program director at the San Francisco campus of Northwestern Univerity’s Medill School of Journalism. Congrats!
  • Get ready to hear more Bob Marley songs on your favorite music streaming service. Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, which has controlled Marley’s music publishing since the 1960s, has agreed to sell 80 percent of his stake in the Marley catalog, as well as several other artists, to New York’s Primary Wave Music Publishing. Blackwell, now 80 years old, told the New York Times that his decision was largely motivated by the changes that streaming has brought to the music-publishing business in general.

Hacking

  • Hacker Dave Winer, who pioneered the open Real Simple Syndication protocol, is hoping that journalists in particular will re-embrace it now that Facebook is retreating as a way for users to discover news. He’s started a new project on GitHub to collect feeds journalists should follow for their own everyday work. If you have any ideas, please contribute them! I’ve already submitted a few myself.
  • Red Hat, a major for-profit provider of Linux services, is dipping its toe into podcasting. The company just launched Command Line Heroes, which so far focuses on the history of open-source so far. Future episodes will cover active innovators and projects in open source,
    says host Saron Yitbarek.
  • Speaking of hacking heroes, our new idol is a 78-year-old great-grandmother who goes by the online handle MaDonna. Over the last decade, she’s developed 17,000 themes for the open-source browser Firefox. Full-time staff at the Mozilla Foundation, which maintains Firefox, say half-jokingly that she’s their lead quality assurance tester.

Two things product managers can learn from Black Panther

As a comic geek, I was glad to see today that ticket pre-sales for the upcoming Black Panther movie are already shattering Marvel Studios’ in-house records. The news also got me thinking about tech — fittingly so, since Black Panther’s fictional home country of Wakanda is known for its genius inventions.

In a very real-life sense, though, it struck me that this movie’s early success offers two great lessons for people who design and market tech products. To wit:

1) Give people what’s missing, not a tweaked copy of what they already have.

The reason Black Panther tickets are selling so rapidly is obvious: The audience, starved to see black superheroes headlining their own movies, is jumping at their first chance to do so in the last twenty years’ boom of comic-book movies. It’s a dynamic very similar to the one that allowed Wonder Woman to kill at the box office in 2017 — outgrossing Spider-Man and even DC’s own Justice League — because people hadn’t yet seen such a strong female hero.

These movies are succeeding precisely because they do not regurgitate a formula that’s worked well before — a white guy swooping in to save the day. Hence they’re tapping into what an economist would call pent-up demand that the old formula could never meet.

In the tech world, how many copycat products do companies crank out that just mimic some previous hit rather than truly break new ground? The umpteenth music app in the store. The new smartphone feature that the CEO can brag about onstage but only marginally affects most users’ experience. The cloud storage service that no one asked for. And on and on.

Why not give people something they (literally and figuratively) haven’t seen before? The good news is they’ll often respond enthusiastically. Bad news is that thing, by definition, won’t look like what’s come before.

Which brings us to…

2) Diversity is f&^%ing fantastic business.

Silicon Valley is just beginning to reckon with the glaring lack of women and people of color in its ranks. For good reason, the need to do this is often framed as a moral imperative.

But let’s not overlook this too: Diversity is also an imperative for stone-cold business reasons. Women and people of color constitute about 70 percent of the population of the United States, which means they’re 70 percent of consumers.

If you allow yourself to be completely out of touch with a portion of the market that large, your business is essentially leaving piles of money on the table every day. Conversely, if you attract PoCs and women as employees and customers, you’ll be stacking chips at the casino.

That’s often a marketing challenge, as companies in every industry know. But it also sometimes means, from the ground up, designing, building, and shipping products that address diverse consumers’ specific needs, as Marvel Studios is happily discovering right now.