Thursday, October 28, 2010

Web giants must get more public about privacy policies

I really hope that you've all been reading the Wall Street Journal's continuous, aggressive coverage of the digital privacy policies -- or lack thereof -- of some of the biggest Web sites on the Internet. The stories are being published under the "What They Know" banner, and they provide all manner of insight into what you should and shouldn't expect when you begin visiting particular Web sites.

The stories that are of most interest to me are, admittedly, those about Facebook because that is the social site I use the most although I am starting to wonder about Twitter, honestly. One of the latest articles in the series talks about how some of the third-party applications you're using on the platform might be transmitting your digital "ID." Since I don't use many of these applications (particularly one of the major offenders, Farmville) I know I have less to worry about than most. But I don't know what else I don't know, so it gives me pause every time I log on now.

Anyone whose children use MySpace should read the latest entry in the series, which discusses how the site might be sharing information with adverstisers.

My point in pointing to these articles is that I personally have been woefully uninformed and inquisitive about my own exposure. I can't even imagine what people with children are going through. One of my friends recently allowed his daughter to create a Facebook account. Let's just say that she is not of the "age" where should be doing so. I'm sorry, but what are you thinking?

I recently had a chance to see one of the rising stars of digital privacy, Danah Boyd of Microsoft, talk at a conference about emerging technologies in Boston. One of the things that Ms. Boyd is studying is the cycle between of how social behavior influences how technology is designed and, subsequently, how technology then changes social behavior. It's fascinating. "Having a sense of privacy is about controlling the social situation," she says. "We speak privately in public all the time."

I have to say that what Ms. Boyd is doing is very important work and the fact that she works for Microsoft is all the more intriguing.

Here in the United States, believe it or not, privacy isn't explicitly protected in the Constitution. The most well-known privacy law is probably the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which is the law that is supposed to protect the confidentiality and unauthorized disclosure of your medical records.

But privacy is one of those things that most socially ept people honor. It's time for the executives at some of these big social media and Web companies to start thinking more carefully about the norm for socially acceptable behavior, whether or not they agree with that norm. Yes, this debate is somewhat generational, but that really shouldn't matter. At the very least, the privacy policies of these companies should be very public. Then, at least, social media visitors and Web surfers can make informed decisions about where they will and will not visit.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Funding tech is great, but what about teaching the teachers?

Been horribly remiss for the last two weeks here, which is a darn shame because there really is a lot for me to write about right now. But I feel even good technophiles like me have to let the "real world" take precedence.

Ironically, today's post actually is a harbinger back to my last one, in that it is about a topic that really gets me going (in a good way): the ways that technology can change, will change, should change education. (Pick your preference.) Two big-time foundations backed with a lot of high-tech-generated moolah -- including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation -- are backing a $20 million grant program intended to spur the development of online learning tools.

Gates and Hewlett. Even if you aren't as steeped in technology as I am, those names will speak to you. To me, they are saying: We will continue to see the private sector step in to kick some sense and some money into public education. Both of which are sorely needed.

Under this particular program, which is described in detail in this New York Times article, the grants will be focused on community colleges. Another great idea because, frankly, many really smart kids have the money to go to the private institutions they want. The grants will be in the range of $250,000 to $750,000 each and scale is the intention. In other words, the backers are looking for tools that can scale.

The second round of grants will go to tools for K-12 learning environments.

The intention of Next Generation Learning Challenges is not to replace teachers, it is to make great teachers available to more students through technology. But I always find myself wondering, when I read about great initiatives like this one, just how many great teachers have been taught how to make the best use of these tools? What is the best content? What are the best subjects to communicate in this way?



Friday, October 8, 2010

Don't touch that Internet connection: Web rewrites rules of video programming

My husband and I take a lot of ribbing from our friends because, wonder of wonders, we don't subscribe to any kind of television programming. Seriously. We just found that we are too busy and too social to want to pay the subscription fee.

So, it turns out we were kind of prescient and not just weird: There is a new report out from Accenture (part of its Video-Over-Internet Consumer Usage Survey) that shows more consumers in seven different markets (not just the United States) are watch video over their Internet connection. Here's how the numbers break down:

  • 85% of the 18- to 24-year-old set
  • 82% of those ages 35 to 44
  • 64% of those over the age of 64

The survey covered more than 6,500 consumers in Australia, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

In the press release for the survey, Accenture's global broadcast lead Francesco Venturini, said:

"Consumption of video over the Internet is no longer a millenial-generation phenomenon; it's an activity that crosses all age groups. Video over the Internet is wel on its way to becoming a mass medium. Furthermore, it's clear that consumers are ready and, in some instances, may be ahead of the industry in terms of the vision they have for how, when and where they watch and interact with video content."

This has huge implications for the concept of "content," of course. Producers need to think about the small screen: roughly 72% of consumers use their notebooks to watch video, and 63% use their mobile phone. Indeed, it is interesting to me that Netflix is the first major, household-name company that I have heard of that plans original content for a service that streams to your television via the Internet.