THE BLOG

Transparency in the Age of ADHD

02/26/2013 03:55 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2013

I was having a coffee with a friend when I mentioned I had texted her earlier that day. She apologized for not having responded: "I saw the message," she said. "Oh, I know," I replied with a smirk. She gave me a concerned look. I then showed her the said message on my own iPhone, which now displayed the status "read." It turned out my friend had not been aware that her new iPhone five was automatically set to displaying the message status. Rather than choosing a default feature that revealed less information, Apple chose the one that conveyed more. My friend, a busy journalist with a hectic schedule, visiting Washington, D.C. to cover the inauguration, admitted to not having even entertained the idea, since she had no time to explore the phone settings.

We live in a time where "crazy busy" is the norm -- even a cultural exigency. Surely, you must be slacking off if you are not "crazy busy"! A recent New York Times centerpiece brought troubling news that an ever growing number of (especially young) people actively seek and succeed to obtain Adderall without prescription. This powerful ADHD medication provides one with a "tunnel-like focus," much coveted in the era of instant demands lurking from an ever growing number of media platforms.

And so, in the era of hyperactivity, who has the time to read the lengthy Terms of Service that govern how much of your personal information now belongs to Facebook, Twitter or Google? The heck with it, you just scroll down without even skimming and click "OK," to obtain your desired "free" service. Yet, that there's no such thing as free lunch is an offline rule that particularly holds online. Entertain the idea that Facebook's partner company, "Datalogix", tracks whether people who see the ads on the social network end up buying the advertised products in stores. Sure, there's an "opt-out button," but it is not easy to find, nor is it located on Facebook website.

If we cannot find the time to learn about these privacy issues that have an impact on our personal lives, perhaps it's small wonder that the Google Transparency report seems to generate little interest outside of a narrow community of scholars and technology experts interested in privacy. Why should you be interested in this biannual report, whose latest issue came out just weeks ago? While it may not impact you directly at the moment, this report discloses which governments asked Google to reveal information about users they happen to be interested in. Moreover, it tells you which governments asked for some content to be removed from Google's platforms. The Google Transparency report seems to generate little interest outside of a narrow community of scholars and technology experts interested in privacy. Why should you be interested in this biannual report, whose latest issue came out just weeks ago? While it may not impact you directly at the moment, this report discloses which governments asked Google to reveal information about users they happen to be interested in. Moreover, it tells you which governments asked for some content to be removed from Google's platforms (including YouTube), laying out the number of requests per each government.

What took everyone by surprise in the last issue of Transparency, was an increasing number of requests, particularly coming from the countries of the developed world such as Germany, France and the United States. Google's compliance rates have declined substantially, yet, as the Atlantic Magazine writer Rebecca Rosen observes, not because the company has tightened its policies, but "because the governments are getting more aggressive in the types of material they see fit to request."

So, how does Google decide which demands to grant and which to deny? When it comes to content removal, Google is obliged to comply with the national law of the country where it operates. So, if a court order is issued in Germany to remove Nazi-promoting content, Google would block it in Germany, even though such content does not violate the U.S. law. While Google provides guidelines on how it makes decisions, there are cases where the company refuses to take down the content despite an existing court order. In the U.S., for instance, Google wrote in the Report that it had refused a court order to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies. Yet, it did not specify which agencies were concerned and why the request had been declined.

Moreover, take for example two strikingly similar content removal requests: that of Pakistani Ministry of Information Technology's to take down six YouTube videos that mocked Pakistani Army; and that of Turkish authorities to block six videos insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern-day Turkey. While the former had been rescinded, the latter had been granted.

It is clear that a lot of these requests are attempts to censor political speech. While Google seems to do an honest job in breaking down the requests, according to the motive behind them, e.g. "defamation," "privacy and security," "government criticism," and "national security," (among others), there is also a label called "other," and it is not clear if these are different types of requests that are just lumped together for the purposes of statistical reporting, for they are too minor to be reported on their own; or if these indeed form a distinct, yet undisclosed, category. I wonder if I went directly to Google, would the company be willing to divulge that information? I have yet to try and do so. Finally, I would be interested to learn if I could also obtain the details of every single request, which are not available on the website.

Perhaps the most high-profile case of this kind happened in October last year when a top Google executive in Brazil was arrested for refusing to comply with the court order demanding to take down YouTube videos that targeted a Brazilian political candidate.

The tidal wave of requests has spurred another major platform, Twitter, to publish a Transparency report of its own. Regardless of norms that Google and Twitter might choose to follow, we often forget that these decisions of public interest are no longer in the hands of governments, but those of private, profit-driven companies, which is part of the larger process of privatization of the public sphere. Yet, in times where interconnectivity obliges instantaneous responses, whoever has the time to think about privacy, let alone the public sphere?