January 17, 2017

Satyam and the Inadvertent Web

Satyam is one of the handful of large companies who dominate the IT outsourcing market in India, A week ago today, B. Ramalinga Raju, the company chairman, confessed to a years-long accounting fraud. More than a billion dollars of cash the company claimed to have on hand, and the business success that putatively generated those dollars, now appear to have been fictitious.

There are many tech policy issues here. For one, frauds this massive in high tech environments are a challenge and opportunity for computer forensics. For another, though we can hope this situation is unique, it may turn out to be the tip of an iceberg. If Satyam turns out to be part of a pattern of lax oversight and exaggerated profits across India’s high tech sector, it might alter the way we look at high tech globalization, forcing us to revise downward our estimates of high tech’s benefits in India. (I suppose it could be construed as a silver lining that such news might also reveal America, and other western nations, to be more globally competitive in this arena than we had believed them to be.)

But my interest in the story is more personal. I met Mr. Raju in early 2007, when Satyam helped organize and sponsor a delegation of American journalists to India. (I served as Managing Editor of The American at the time.) India’s tech sector wanted good press in America, a desire perhaps increased by the fact that Democrats who were sometimes skeptical of free trade had just assumed control of the House. It was a wonderful trip—we were treated well at others’ expense and got to see, and learn about, the Indian tech sector and the breathtaking city of Hyderabad. I posted pictures of the trip on Flickr, mentioning “Satyam” in the description, showed the pics to a few friends, and moved on with life.

Then came last week’s news. Here’s the graph of traffic to my flickr account: That spike represents several thousand people suddenly viewing my pictures of Satyam’s pristine campus.

When I think about the digital “trails” I leave behind—the flickr, facebook and twitter ephemera that define me by implication—there are some easy presumptions about what the future will hold. Evidence of raw emotions, the unmediated anger, romantic infatuation, depression or exhilaration that life sometimes holds, should generally be kept out of the record, since the social norms that govern public display of such phenomena are still evolving. While others in their twenties may consider such material normal, it reflects a life-in-the-fishbowl style of conduct that older people can find untoward, a style that would years ago have counted as exhibitionistic or otherwise misguided.

I would never, however, have guessed that a business trip to a corporate office park might one day be a prominent part of my online persona. In this case, I happen to be perfectly comfortable with the result—but that feels like luck. A seemingly innocuous trace I leave online, that later becomes salient, might just as easily prove problematic for me, or for someone else. There seems to be a larger lesson here: That anything we leave online could, for reasons we can’t guess at today, turn out to be important later. The inadvertent web—the set of seemingly trivial web content that exists today and will turn out to be important—may turn out to be a powerful force in favor of limiting what we put online.

Cloud(s), Hype, and Freedom

Richard Stallman’s recent description of ‘the cloud’ as ‘hype’ and a ‘trap’ seems to have stirred up a lot of commentary, but not a lot of clear discussion of the problems Stallman raised. This isn’t surprising- the term ‘the cloud’ has always been vague. (It was hard to resist saying ‘cloudy.’ 😉 When people say ‘the cloud’ they are really lumping at least four ‘cloud types’ together.

traditional applications, hosted elsewhere

Probably the most common type of ‘cloud’ is a service that takes a traditional software functionality and moves it to remotely hosted, (typically) web-delivered servers. Gmail and salesforce.com are like this- fairly traditional email and CRM applications, ‘just’ moved to the web.

If Stallman’s ‘hype’ claim is valid anywhere, it is here. Administration and maintenance costs are definitely lower when an expert like Google funds and runs the server, and reliability may improve as well. But the core functionality of these apps, and the ability to access data over a network, have been present since the dawn of networked computing. On average, this is undoubtedly a significant change in quality, but only rarely a change in type- making the buzz much harder to justify.

Stallman’s ‘trap’ charge is more complex. Computer users have long compromised on personal control by storing data remotely but accessing it via standardized protocols. This introduced risks- you had to trust the data host and couldn’t tinker with the server- but kept some controls- you could switch clients, and typically you could export the data. Some web apps still strike that balance- for example, most gmail features are accessible via good old POP and IMAP. But others don’t.

Getting your data out of a service like salesforce can be a ‘hidden cost’ of an apparently free service, and even with a relatively standards-based service like gmail you have no freedom to make changes to the server. These risks are what Stallman means when he talks about a ‘trap’, and regardless of your conclusion about them, understanding them is important.

services involving data that can’t (yet) be managed locally

Google Maps and Google Search are the canonical examples of this type of cloud service- heaps of data so large that one would need a large data center to host your own copy and a very, very fat pipe to keep it up-to-date.

Hype-wise, these are a mixed bag. These services definitely bring radical new functionality that traditionally can’t exist- I can’t store all of google maps on my phone. That hype is justified. At the same time, our personal ability to store and process data is still growing quickly, so the claims that this type of cloud service will always ‘require’ remote servers may be overblown.

‘Trap’-wise? Dependence on these services reminds me of ‘dependence’ on a library before the internet- you can work to make sure your library respects your privacy, prefer public libraries to private ones, or establish a personal library if your reading interests are narrow, but in the end eschewing large libraries is likely to be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face. We’re in the same state with this type of cloud service. You can avoid them, but those concerned with freedom might be better off understanding and fixing them than condemning them altogether.

services that make creation of new data technically or economically feasible

Facebook and wikipedia are the canonical examples here. Unlike the first two types of cloud, where data was available but inconvenient before it ended up in the cloud, this class of cloud applications creates information that wasn’t previously feasible to collect at all.

There may well not be enough hype around this type of cloud. Replicating web scale collaborative facilities like these will be very difficult to do in a p2p fashion, and the impact of the creation of new information (even when it is as mundane as facebook’s data often is) is hard to understate.

Like the previous type of cloud, it is hard to call these a trap per se- they do make it hard to leave, but they do so by providing new functionality that is very hard to get with any traditional software model.

services offering computing and storage, rather than data

The most recent type of cloud service is remotely provisioned computing and storage, like Amazon’s EC2/S3 and Google’s App Engine. This is perhaps the most purely generative type of cloud, allowing individuals to create new services and scale them out to service millions of people without having to invest in their own physical infrastructure. It is hard to see any way in which this can reasonably be called ‘hype,’ given the reach it allows individuals and small or transient groups to have which might otherwise cost them many thousands of dollars.

From a freedom perspective, these can be both the best and worst of the cloud types. On the plus side, these services can be incredibly transparent- developers who use them directly have access to their own source code, and end users may not know they are using them at all. On the down side, especially for proprietary platforms like App Engine, these can have very deep lock-in- it is complicated, expensive, and risky to switch deployment platforms after achieving success. And they replace traditional, very open platforms- a tradeoff that isn’t always appreciated.


‘The cloud’ isn’t going away, but hopefully we can clarify our thinking about it by talking about the different types of clouds. Hopefully this post is a useful step in that direction.

[This post is an extension of some ideas I’ve been playing around with on my own blog and at the autonomo.us group blog; readers curious about these issues may want to read further in those places. I also recommend reading this piece, which set me on the (very long) road to this particular post.]

The Decline of Localist Broadcasting Policies

Public policy, in the U.S. at least, has favored localism in broadcasting: programming on TV and radio stations is supposed to be aimed, at least in part, at the local community. Two recent events call this policy into question.

The first event is the debut of the Pandora application on the iPhone. Pandora is a personalized “music radio” service delivered over the Internet. You tell it which artists and songs you like, and it plays you the requested songs, plus other songs it thinks are similar. You can rate the songs it plays, thereby giving it more information about what you like. It’s not a jukebox – you can’t find out in advance what it’s going to play, and there are limits on how often it can play songs from the same artist or album – but it’s more personalized than broadcast radio. (Last.fm offers a similar service, also available now on the iPhone.)

Now you can get Pandora on your iPhone, so you can listen to Pandora on a battery-powered portable device that fits in your pocket – like a twenty-first century version of the old transistor radios, only this one plays a station designed especially for you. Why listen to music on broadcast radio when you can listen to this? Or to put it another way: why listen to music targeted at people who live near you, when you can listen to music targeted at people with tastes like yours?

The second event I’ll point to is a statement from a group of Christian broadcasters, opposing a proposed FCC rule that would require radio stations to have local advisory boards that tell them how to tailor programming to the local community. [hat tip: Ars Technica] The Christian stations say, essentially, that their community is defined by a common interest rather than by geography.

Many people are like the Pandora or Christian radio listeners, in wanting to hear content aimed at their interests rather than just their location. Public policy ought to recognize this and give broadcasters more latitude to find their own communities rather than defining communities only by geography.

Now I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be local programming, or that people shouldn’t care what is happening in their neighborhoods. Most people care a lot about local issues and want some local programming. The local community is one of their communities of interest, but it’s not the only one. Let some stations serve local communities while others serve non-local communities. As long as there is demand for local programming – as there surely will be – the market will provide it, and new technologies will help people get it.

Indeed, one of the benefits of new technologies is that they let people stay in touch with far-away localities. When we were living in Palo Alto during my sabbatical, we wanted to stay in touch with events in the town of Princeton because we were planning to move back after a year. Thanks to the Web, we could stay in touch with both Palo Alto and Princeton. The one exception was that we couldn’t get New Jersey TV stations. We had satellite TV, so the nearby New York and Philadelphia stations were literally being transmitted to our Palo Alto house; but the satellite TV company said the FCC wouldn’t let us have the station because localist policy wanted us to watch San Francisco stations instead. Localist policy, perversely, pushed us away from local programming and kept us out of touch.

New technologies undermine the rationale for localist policies. It’s easier to get far-away content now – indeed the whole notion that content is bound to a place is fading away. With access to more content sources, there are more possible venues for local programming, making it less likely that local programming will be unavailable because of the whims or blind spots of a few station owners. It’s getting easier and cheaper to gather and distribute information, so more people have the means to produce local programming. In short, we’re looking at a future with more non-local programming and more local programming.