Schmidt, MacKinnon Offer Small Business Advice
At a talk here in Washington, D.C. last night about Internet privacy rules, Rebecca MacKinnon, author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom, was asked about the value of user license agreements from large Internet companies. “They can change at any time,” she said. “I’m sure everyone got something from Google this week about their new privacy policies.”
MacKinnon argued that given the power of today’s Internet companies—one chapter is titled Facebookistan and Googledom—there needs to be a growing concern of “how technology should be structured and governed to support the rights and liberties of all the world’s Internet users.” It was an interesting talk—she was questioned by Pulitzer Prize reporter Steve Coll—that I will bring up again here and in Hotline in the future.
It reminded me of a Q&A I read a few weeks ago from Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, where he seemed to downplay the power of his company, saying “There’s a long list of things we don’t want to do,” like direct content, making movies and running newspapers (not sure who wants to do that these days). He then told a story about Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page calling him into their office for a meeting. They told him they were starting a business to build refrigerators and he should come along with them. “We had this five-minute conversation about the benefits of having a smart refrigerator, and then I realized that it was all a joke,” Schmidt said.
On a more serious note, Schmidt said that Google will probably be getting into e-commerce soon—a phone with an NFC (near-field communications) chip that you go to a terminal with and pay with the Google wallet. In another recent Q&A session, Schmidt “urged business owners to harness technology to help them accurately predict the future outlook for their companies. “You should be able to predict your business down just a few dollars just using statistical information and analysis, because it can now be done rather easily.”
He also advised business owners of the benefits of working with one or several partners rather than going into new ventures alone. If you’re a growing company, he said, make small acquisitions that can address single, specific concerns or problems. That goes along with the idea of curating your content to cover more individual niches. The ideal there, however, is to add customers, not just disburse them from your other products.
MacKinnon addressed another issue of concern for small business owners last night: cloud computing and third-party data storage. How safe and private are they? Probably not all that much. “Small businesses depend on these [outside] websites to store data,” she said. “They are legitimate users” who may get caught up with the illegitimate ones in cases like megaupload. She said you may be at the mercy of these sites when it comes to getting your data out—she called that “unaccountable sovereignty.” So far, they’ve been pretty good, she said, but who knows about the future.
During the recent debate over PIPA and SOPA, Google was able to take the very high road in protecting its financial interests. “By criminalizing links, what these bills do is they force you to take content off the Internet,” Schmidt said. “By doing so it’s a form of censorship.” MacKinnon wonders what will happen when their financial interests do not align with the First Amendment. “Does activism need to be pure to be legitimate?” MacKinnon asked. “Very few Internet and telecommunications companies have recognized that they need to [support the rights of the users] to maintain public trust over the long run.”
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