Encryption, surveillance, and academic freedom: There were a number of developments on the U.S. National Security Agency surveillance front this week, including reports on the NSA’s ability to grab data from smartphones and court documents revealing that a judge ruled in 2009 that the NSA’s phone-records program “frequently and systematically violated” the procedures it said it was following.
There was also continued fallout from last week’s reports that the NSA has succeeded in breaking most online encryption by writing the standards for it. The U.S. government agency that recommends those standards tried to reassure the public that it would make its process more open, though it prompted incredulous responses from people like Techdirt’s Mike Masnick.) Johns Hopkins cryptography professor Matthew Green offered a good explanation of why it’s so troubling that the NSA is getting in through the computer security industry’s back doors. (More on his post in a bit.) Green also pointed out that this could destroy trust in the security industry, and BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel expanded on the angst running through that sector.
Security expert Bruce Schneier advised people to continue to use strong encryption to protect their online communication, though former Delicious president Albert Wenger countered that “Surveillance is a political and legal problem, not a technical problem.” At The Guardian, Cory Doctorow proposed using a dead man’s switch to alert users when a site has been compromised.
Meanwhile, Reuters’ Jack Shafer raised the alarm about the NSA’s moves to systematically subvert technical or legal opposition, and North Carolina professor Zeynep Tufekci argued that there’s no way to prove that the NSA isn’t abusing its massive powers. On the journalistic front, The New York Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan talked about the paper’s decision to publish the story, and Source talked to ProPublica’s Jeff Larson about his work on it.
The Matthew Green post I mentioned earlier led to its own bit of controversy when his university, Johns Hopkins, asked him to take the post down because of a concern about linking to classified material. The post was initially flagged by someone within the university’s Applied Physics Laboratory, which does extensive work with the NSA. (Ars Technica pulled together Green’s account of the episode via Twitter.) A Johns Hopkins dean apologized soon afterward and allowed Green to restore the post.
Techdirt’s Mike Masnick tore apart the legal justification for the takedown, while Philip Bump of The Atlantic Wire tied it to a series of cases of surveillance-related censorship and self-censorship. Several academics denounced the move to the Baltimore Sun, including NYU’s Jay Rosen, who raised dozens of critical questions about the incident in a Guardian piece, concluding that if America’s research university system “becomes captive to government and handmaiden to the surveillance state, that would be an economic and cultural crime of monstrous proportions.”
I should note, too, that there is another side to the surveillance argument: Slate’s Thomas Rid argued that the leaks have done more harm than good, and news organizations should consider destroying the Snowden documents. And Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said that it’s “treason” for her company to disobey the NSA’s orders, betraying a quite impoverished understanding of the meaning of that word.
Riptide and overlooking women in media: This spring, three fellows at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy — former Time Inc. editor-in-chief John Huey, former New York Times Co. senior vice president for digital operations Martin Nisenholtz, and Akamai executive vice chairman Paul Sagan — produced Riptide, an oral history of the collision between journalism and digital technology over the past three decades, which debuted this week. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds has a good, basic overview of the project.
Most of the conversation about Riptide revolved around who the authors talked to — or, specifically, who they didn’t talk to. Of their 61 interviews, all but five were men, and all but two were white. That narrowness of perspective sparked a backlash (summarized by Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon) that touched on some important points about narrow and oppressive aspects of the cultures of the news media and Silicon Valley. [Editor’s note: While Nieman Lab built Riptide’s website, all editorial decisions, including who to interview, were made by Huey, Nisenholtz, and Sagan.]
Journalist Meg Heckman lamented that despite their fresh format, “the authors of Riptide make an old mistake by continuing to devalue the contributions of women.” Slate’s Amanda Hess contrasted Riptide’s narrative about undermining old professional hierarchies with the hierarchies reinforced in its story: “This is a discussion about democracy led by three white men interviewing a group of overwhelmingly wealthy, powerful, white, male people. It’s embarrassing.”
Andrea Peterson of The Washington Post tied in the long-running gender and racial diversity problems the news industry has had, and at LinkedIn, Rachel Sklar drew on this week’s controversy about the “Titstare” app as an example of the type of thinking that emerges from such a male-dominated culture. Riptide’s authors responded to the outcry with a post saying that many of the key technological people at key institutions during the period they were studying were white and male, and noting that they plan to expand the project with more voices. Several of those objecting, including Heckman, Peterson, and Hess, suggested women they should have (or should) talk to.
In other discussion about the project, Mathew Ingram of paidContent argued that the riptide metaphor absolves all of these executives of blame as if it was something no one could have seen coming. Many people did see it coming, he said, but they weren’t listened to in mainstream news organizations. Blogging and RSS developer Dave Winer also talked about what inhibited technological innovation at places like The New York Times.
Twitter’s going public: Twitter announced yesterday (via a tweet, naturally) that it had filed an initial public offering, a long-awaited development. The IPO is secret, which, as this Quartz piece explains, means that it doesn’t have to disclose its financial details until a few weeks before it goes public, and that it has annual revenues below $1 billion. Fortune’s Dan Primack suggested that it may file that public document soon, though. In a thorough story on the situation, The New York Times reported that Twitter filed earlier this summer, and the IPO could happen early next year.
That secret filing means we don’t know Twitter’s valuation yet, but GigaOM estimated it at $14 billion. BuzzFeed’s John Herrman predicted that a public Twitter would revolve around real-time, keyword-oriented ads built around live media events. “It can contain and monetize the internet’s constant eruptions, including the unpredictable ones but especially the predictable ones,” he wrote. And Matt Buchanan of The New Yorker said Twitter would be built around a mobile- and media-centric design.
Slate’s Will Oremus offered a similar explanation about how Twitter makes money (or is about to make money) — targeted advertising built around TV-related conversation. The Week’s Ryu Spaeth gave some reasons Twitter is in better shape than Facebook was pre-IPO, and Mathew Ingram of GigaOM gave an appreciation of just how far Twitter’s come. Peter Kafka and Mike Isaac of All Things D questioned whether Twitter is growing fast enough, however.
Reading roundup: A few other media stories worth noting this week, led by a few acquisitions and splits:
— Tina Brown, the magazine veteran who presided over the end of Newsweek’s print run, will leave The Daily Beast, which she co-founded, to start her own events company. BuzzFeed broke the story, and The New York Times has a good review of the falling out between Brown and The Daily Beast’s parent company, IAC. Meanwhile, Bloomberg reported that IAC is considering selling The Daily Beast as Brown leaves. The Guardian’s Michael Wolff and paidContent’s Mathew Ingram both critiqued Brown’s time at The Daily Beast and mused on her failures there as the marker of the end of an era.
— The Washington-based Robert Allbritton, who owns Politico, reached into the New York media scene this week with the purchase of the online local news organization Capital New York. As The New York Times noted, Capital has a Politico-esque model of a small staff breaking media and political stories, and Politico’s Jim VandeHei told Digiday of the plans to beef up Capital’s operation and apply Politico’s business model. The Lab’s Joshua Benton explained why that model might not apply as well to Capital, and Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon talked to Capital co-editor Tom McGeveran about the move.
— A U.S. Senate committee passed a media shield law on to the full Senate with a definition of journalists that would include students and longtime freelancers in addition to traditional professional journalists, though would very specifically exclude WikiLeaks or any similar organizations. Politico’s Dylan Byers gave some background behind the compromise, and Techdirt’s Mike Masnick criticized the narrowness of the definition of journalists.
— The social curation tool Storify was bought by the commenting platform Lifefyre. The Lab’s Justin Ellis and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram explained the company’s plans to expand and refine Storify. (Don’t worry, it’s still going to be free.)
— Facebook announced new tools that allow news organizations more ability to search for and analyze real-time information from conversations there. The New York Times’ Vindu Goel and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram explained how Facebook is trying to catch up to Twitter on conversation around media with these moves.
— Apple had one of its big product announcements this week, but as the Lab’s Joshua Benton noted, it didn’t include much for journalists. The BBC’s Marc Settle did offer a guide to Apple’s new operating system for journalists, though.
— Finally, the Jeff Bezos/Washington Post analysis has been coming fast and furious for the last month or so, but two insightful pieces emerged this week: French news exec Frederic Filloux proposing “Washington Post Prime” and the Lab’s Ken Doctor breaking down the “runway” Bezos’ cash is giving the Post.