Weekend news roundup

6 Dec 2010

A quick glance at some of the technology stories breaking in the weekend papers.

The money mind behind Google

The Sunday Telegraph carried a rare interview with Susan Wojcicki, credited with being the mastermind behind Google’s revenue streams. Google employee Nor 18, of a whopping 23,000-strong global workforce some 11 years later, Wojcicki is largely referred to as the woman who created AdSense – a key component of Google’s hugely successful search advertising system which sells relevant display advertising to companies. Having started as the company’s marketing manager, she now oversees all of Google’s advertising products, including AdWords, AdSense and DoubleClick.

According to its last financial report, Google’s total revenue for Q3 2010 was $7.29bn – the majority of which comes from Wojcicki’s department.

This week, of course, Google has been in the news after the European Commission announced a formal inquiry into how it manages its ranking of companies in search and how it then advertises against those rankings. The EC’s move came after complaints from three internet companies who alleged they were the victims of search “penalties” which had put their businesses at risk.

Wojcicki is clear in her answer – Google, which dominates the search market, makes every attempt to be transparent and will look at ways to improve. Even the EC admitted it wasn’t yet clear that Google had a serious case to answer. “Given our success and the disruptive nature of our business, it’s understandable that we’ve caused unease among other companies and caught the attention of regulators,” she said.

Online bullies getting younger and younger

The New York Times carried a brilliant report on the rise of bullying on sites like Facebook and how it is affecting children as young as 10 or 12. Disturbingly, it painted a picture of indifferent school principals and ISPs unwilling to help.

Cyber bullying is often legally defined as repeated harassment online, although in popular use, it can describe even a sharp-elbowed, gratuitous swipe. Cyber bullies themselves resist easy categorisation: the anonymity of the internet gives cover not only to schoolyard-bully types but to victims themselves, who feel they can retaliate without getting caught.

But online bullying can be more psychologically savage than schoolyard bullying. The internet erases inhibitions, with adolescents often going further with slights online than in person.

Do Not Track, Do Not Trick

USA Today reported on the potential impact of Do Not Track technology and how it could be used to allow internet users decide they simply do not want to be tracked by online advertisers. Do Not Track works by inserting one line of instruction into the communication that takes place between your web browser and websites. It simply asks the advertisers on every site you visit not to track you, says Jonathan Mayer, a Stanford University computer science graduate student, whose research the FTC reviewed in making its proposal. “Our aim was to make Do Not Track completely transparent to the user,” says Mayer. “They flip one switch, and all advertising networks and tracking services won’t track them.”

The catch: The burgeoning industry of advertising networks and online tracking services that have devised dozens of sophisticated ways to identify and profile specific consumers must be compelled to obey consumers’ wishes.

Testifying at a congressional hearing Thursday, David Vladeck, director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, suggested that online advertisers are not about to do that voluntarily. He testified that it would take “legislation or potentially … robust, enforceable self-regulation.”

Unlike Do Not Call, Do Not Track doesn’t require maintenance of a registry of users. It simply instructs every online advertiser not to track you. The technology is so simple that users of the Firefox web browser have been able to use a Do Not Track mechanism since July 2009. It could certainly be added to Microsoft‘s Internet Explorer, Apple‘s Safari and Google‘s Chrome browsers, says Mayer.

Return to the Tron universe

In its review of the latest Tron movie, the Observer took a look at the vast technological changes that have taken place since the first version in 1982. When Tron was released in 1982, the technology landscape was somewhat different to today. The internet as we know it did not exist; back then, it was used only by the military and a few academics. Home computing was still for serious geeks only – the Commodore 64 came out in January of that year and was so-called because it had an astonishing 64KB of memory (your average modern smartphone – say, the iPhone 4 – is about 1,000 times faster and has 8,000 times more memory).

Tron was truly pioneering in its day: the first film to use computer-generated backgrounds and special effects – albeit very basic vector graphics, along similar lines to popular games such as Asteroids and Battlezone. It also depicted a “world” inside a computer, in which humans could interact with programs – a scenario not used again until the Matrix trilogy.

The biggest advance that today’s technology brings to Tron: Legacy is the fact that one of the main characters, Clu (short for Codified Likeness Utility), is fully computer-generated – in more ways than one. Clu is an avatar – a visual representation of programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) inside the computer world. And as in the original Tron, he’s also played by Bridges. But this time, Clu looks like a much younger Bridges – a feat achieved with motion capture and CGI trickery.

The other big innovation, of course, is 3D – a technology that did exist back in 1982, but was technically far inferior to the digital 3D we see today in blockbusters such as Avatar. At an early screening at the Imax in London last week, the audience was left enthralled, willing prisoners of this virtual world: geek heaven.

Wikileaks points to China’s real motives behind Google hack

The Guardian reported the hacking of Google that forced the search engine to withdraw from mainland China was orchestrated by a senior member of the communist politburo, according to classified information sent by US diplomats to Hillary Clinton’s state department in Washington.

The leading politician became hostile to Google after he searched his own name and found articles criticising him personally, leaked cables from the US embassy in Beijing say.

That single act prompted a politically inspired assault on Google, forcing it to “walk away from a potential market of 400 million internet users” in January this year, amid a highly publicised row about internet censorship.

The explosive allegation that the attack on Google came from near the top of the Communist party has never been made public until now. The politician allegedly collaborated with a second member of the politburo in an attempt to force Google to drop a link from its Chinese-language search engine to its uncensored google.com version.