Thursday, February 23, 2006

Why Did You Kill Her?

The fight between religion and freedom of speech is spinning out of control as Iraqis vent their anger at the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad.

I am unsurprised by the violent reaction to this despicable crime, because the fundamental dispute between Shiites and Sunnis outrageously spawns hatred, nonstop. I am unsurprised, therefore, by the reprisal attacks at Sunni mosques.

As a Shiite, I am shocked, however, at the murder of three Sunni journalists in Samarra. They were covering the bombing in the Askari shrine for the al-Arabiya TV network when they were kidnapped by gunmen. Their bodies were discovered the following day.

Nobody knows who have murdered them, so we can't learn about the killers' motives, but I really like to know why journalists were targeted. Either Shiites slaughtered them to take revenge because the anchorwoman of the team has been so popular in Iraq. Or Sunni insurgents have committed this crime to foment more violence or possibly a civil war.

During the cartoon crisis, we said the freedom of speech must respect religious sanctities to avoid inciting hatred, but what should we do when religious hatred butchers freedom of speech?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Why I Published Those Cartoons

This is an article by the editor who commisioned the original cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad.

Childish. Irresponsible. Hate speech. A provocation just for the sake of provocation. A PR stunt. Critics of 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad I decided to publish in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten have not minced their words. They say that freedom of expression does not imply an endorsement of insulting people's religious feelings, and besides, they add, the media censor themselves every day. So, please do not teach us a lesson about limitless freedom of speech.

I agree that the freedom to publish things doesn't mean you publish everything. Jyllands-Posten would not publish pornographic images or graphic details of dead bodies; swear words rarely make it into our pages. So we are not fundamentalists in our support for freedom of expression.

But the cartoon story is different.

Those examples have to do with exercising restraint because of ethical standards and taste; call it editing. By contrast, I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out. The idea wasn't to provoke gratuitously -- and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.

At the end of September, a Danish standup comedian said in an interview with Jyllands-Posten that he had no problem urinating on the Bible in front of a camera, but he dared not do the same thing with the Koran.

This was the culmination of a series of disturbing instances of self-censorship. Last September, a Danish children's writer had trouble finding an illustrator for a book about the life of Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. The person who finally accepted insisted on anonymity, which in my book is a form of self-censorship. European translators of a critical book about Islam also did not want their names to appear on the book cover beside the name of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.

Around the same time, the Tate gallery in London withdrew an installation by the avant-garde artist John Latham depicting the Koran, Bible and Talmud torn to pieces. The museum explained that it did not want to stir things up after the London bombings. (A few months earlier, to avoid offending Muslims, a museum in Goteborg, Sweden, had removed a painting with a sexual motif and a quotation from the Koran.)

Finally, at the end of September, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen met with a group of imams, one of whom called on the prime minister to interfere with the press in order to get more positive coverage of Islam.

So, over two weeks we witnessed a half-dozen cases of self-censorship, pitting freedom of speech against the fear of confronting issues about Islam. This was a legitimate news story to cover, and Jyllands-Posten decided to do it by adopting the well-known journalistic principle: Show, don't tell. I wrote to members of the association of Danish cartoonists asking them "to draw Muhammad as you see him." We certainly did not ask them to make fun of the prophet. Twelve out of 25 active members responded.

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims.

The cartoons do not in any way demonize or stereotype Muslims. In fact, they differ from one another both in the way they depict the prophet and in whom they target. One cartoon makes fun of Jyllands-Posten, portraying its cultural editors as a bunch of reactionary provocateurs. Another suggests that the children's writer who could not find an illustrator for his book went public just to get cheap publicity. A third puts the head of the anti-immigration Danish People's Party in a lineup, as if she is a suspected criminal.

One cartoon -- depicting the prophet with a bomb in his turban -- has drawn the harshest criticism. Angry voices claim the cartoon is saying that the prophet is a terrorist or that every Muslim is a terrorist. I read it differently: Some individuals have taken the religion of Islam hostage by committing terrorist acts in the name of the prophet. They are the ones who have given the religion a bad name. The cartoon also plays into the fairy tale about Aladdin and the orange that fell into his turban and made his fortune. This suggests that the bomb comes from the outside world and is not an inherent characteristic of the prophet.

On occasion, Jyllands-Posten has refused to print satirical cartoons of Jesus, but not because it applies a double standard. In fact, the same cartoonist who drew the image of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban drew a cartoon with Jesus on the cross having dollar notes in his eyes and another with the star of David attached to a bomb fuse. There were, however, no embassy burnings or death threats when we published those.

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy.

This is exactly why Karl Popper, in his seminal work "The Open Society and Its Enemies," insisted that one should not be tolerant with the intolerant. Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, TV and radio stations.

I acknowledge that some people have been offended by the publication of the cartoons, and Jyllands-Posten has apologized for that. But we cannot apologize for our right to publish material, even offensive material. You cannot edit a newspaper if you are paralyzed by worries about every possible insult.

I am offended by things in the paper every day: transcripts of speeches by Osama bin Laden, photos from Abu Ghraib, people insisting that Israel should be erased from the face of the Earth, people saying the Holocaust never happened. But that does not mean that I would refrain from printing them as long as they fell within the limits of the law and of the newspaper's ethical code. That other editors would make different choices is the essence of pluralism.

As a former correspondent in the Soviet Union, I am sensitive about calls for censorship on the grounds of insult. This is a popular trick of totalitarian movements: Label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. That is what happened to human rights activists and writers such as Andrei Sakharov, Vladimir Bukovsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Natan Sharansky, Boris Pasternak. The regime accused them of anti-Soviet propaganda, just as some Muslims are labeling 12 cartoons in a Danish newspaper anti-Islamic.

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants.

Since the Sept. 30 publication of the cartoons, we have had a constructive debate in Denmark and Europe about freedom of expression, freedom of religion and respect for immigrants and people's beliefs. Never before have so many Danish Muslims participated in a public dialogue -- in town hall meetings, letters to editors, opinion columns and debates on radio and TV. We have had no anti-Muslim riots, no Muslims fleeing the country and no Muslims committing violence. The radical imams who misinformed their counterparts in the Middle East about the situation for Muslims in Denmark have been marginalized. They no longer speak for the Muslim community in Denmark because moderate Muslims have had the courage to speak out against them.

In January, Jyllands-Posten ran three full pages of interviews and photos of moderate Muslims saying no to being represented by the imams. They insist that their faith is compatible with a modern secular democracy. A network of moderate Muslims committed to the constitution has been established, and the anti-immigration People's Party called on its members to differentiate between radical and moderate Muslims, i.e. between Muslims propagating sharia law and Muslims accepting the rule of secular law. The Muslim face of Denmark has changed, and it is becoming clear that this is not a debate between "them" and "us," but between those committed to democracy in Denmark and those who are not.

This is the sort of debate that Jyllands-Posten had hoped to generate when it chose to test the limits of self-censorship by calling on cartoonists to challenge a Muslim taboo. Did we achieve our purpose? Yes and no. Some of the spirited defenses of our freedom of expression have been inspiring. But tragic demonstrations throughout the Middle East and Asia were not what we anticipated, much less desired. Moreover, the newspaper has received 104 registered threats, 10 people have been arrested, cartoonists have been forced into hiding because of threats against their lives and Jyllands-Posten's headquarters have been evacuated several times due to bomb threats. This is hardly a climate for easing self-censorship.

Still, I think the cartoons now have a place in two separate narratives, one in Europe and one in the Middle East. In the words of the Somali-born Dutch politician Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the integration of Muslims into European societies has been sped up by 300 years due to the cartoons; perhaps we do not need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again in Europe. The narrative in the Middle East is more complex, but that has very little to do with the cartoons.

Flemming Rose is the culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Where to Draw the Line

I am really enjoying the cartoons war raging around the globe, because it reveals how intellectuals are double-faced and how efforts to reconcile civilizations have failed.

We winced first at the Prophet Mohammad controversy, then the Iranian-backed tournament for anti-Holocaust caricatures, followed by a tit-for-tat competition from Israelis and now a cartoon depicting Iranian footballers as suicide bombers in the upcoming World Cup.

The German newspaper behind the latest provocation claims it just wanted to mock a proposal by the Defense Ministry to deploy soldiers beside police officers to keep security during the one-month football tournament.

Malte Lehming, comment editor at Der Tagesspiegel, has said the caricature was meant for "a German audience". Asked whether it had been unwise to print it, he told the Guardian: "The problem is where you draw the line? Cartoons have to be satirical and mean."

OK, let's be satirical and mean.

Germany is going to host 32 national teams in June, so Germans' hospitality will be roughly tested. They will entertain, alongside Iranians, the American, British and French teams, among others. These nations have killed thousands of German civilians during World War II. They fairly deserve more than Iranians to be on the receiving end of jokes about collective fear of insecurity.

Six decades after the Nazi reign, certain Germans tend to entertain some tarnishing methods favored by the propaganda apparatus of Joseph Goebbels. He is famously quoted as saying that repeating a lie can make people believe it. Why these Germans, too gutless to reveal their true colors, try to dupe their audience that all Muslims are terrorists? So who's mean?

Guys, let's be candid. You, the Western intellectual elite, have failed as much as your Muslim counterparts in bridging the gap between the two giant civilizations. Sometimes you spark an alienating controversy; sometimes your Islamic peers preach hatred. Just like two gangs of spoiled school brats. The result: frustrated grassroots and emboldened rightwing fanatics.

My solution: unfettered and equal freedom of speech for both sides. I know you reject it squarely. Whenever there is a shameful revelation on your part, like the new Abu Ghraib expose, you call for media responsibility and respect for privacy. You are, indeed, cold-bloodedly stifling the freedom.

The problem is not where you draw the line; the problem is you draw the line wherever and whenever you wish.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In Search Of The Real Google

Time has an insider look at Google, but since you need subscription, I couldn't post the direct link:

It's time to make some big decisions, so the Google guys are slipping on their white lab coats. After eight years in the spotlight running a company that Wall Street values at more than $100 billion, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are still just in their early 30s and, with the stubbornness of youth, perhaps, and the aura of invincibility, keep doing things their way. So the white coats go on when it's time to approve new products. For a few hours, teams of engineers will come forward with their best ideas, hoping to dazzle the most powerful men in Silicon Valley. Google paid crazy money to attract top talent--supercharging the nerd market in the process--and this is the recruits' chance to show the investments were worth it.

The Google guys can be tough sells. Page, a computer geek from Michigan who as a boy idolized inventor Nikola Tesla (you know, the guy who developed AC power), has a Muppet's voice and a rocket scientist's brain. Brin, born in Russia and raised outside Washington, is no less clever but has a mischievous twinkle in his eye. When he drops little asides--"Let's make the little windows actually explode when you close them," he tells a group presenting new desktop software--no one seems certain whether to laugh or start writing the computer code. Both men often rise from the conference-room table to pace or to grab a snack or just to appear bored. In a culture of creativity, there's nothing wrong with keeping people off balance.

A team of four engineers enters the meeting room, each clutching an IBM Think Pad. They have just 20 minutes: a digital clock projected on the wall ticks it down. You don't go before Brin and Page--joined by CEO Eric Schmidt, 51, the Silicon Valley veteran brought in a few years ago to provide adult supervision--until you have your pitch down. And the way Google operates, you don't have your pitch down until you have the numbers to quantify its superiority. The engineers tell Brin and Page that they can generate extra advertising revenue by adding small sponsored links to image-search results, as Google already does with text searches. "We're not making enough money already?" Page asks. Everyone laughs. The share price has soared as high as $475, making Google, in market-cap terms, the biggest media company in the world. (The stock plummeted early this month on earnings that Wall Street didn't like, although it's still far above its 2004 IPO price of $85.) The engineers press on. Their trials predict the tweak would be worth as much as $80 million a year in additional revenue. Brin isn't moved. "I don't see how it enhances the experience of our users," he says. It probably wouldn't hurt it much either. But the Google guys reject the proposal--"Let's not do it," Brin declares, to the engineers' obvious disappointment--leaving the $80 million on the table.

Whether Google gets it right in sessions like that--balancing business opportunities against consumers' trust--is crucial to the company's future. After eight years of incredible growth, it's fair to ask whether Google is due for a stumble. To put it another way, Can Google maintain its success and remain true to the ideals that made it so popular? These are the guys who adopted as their informal corporate motto "Don't be evil." Sure, analysts in recent years have asked frequently whether Google's luck has run out, and yet the company kept thriving. But its vulnerability was plainly evident two weeks ago when jittery investors cashed out en masse after it reported an 82% increase in its fourth-quarter profit (below the market's expectations) and again after Google said it was launching a heavily censored Chinese-language site. Plus Google faces tough competition from big players like Yahoo!, which is making a dramatically different bet on the Internet's future, and Microsoft, which plans to challenge Google in search and advertising. The Google guys are feeling the heat. "I worry about Microsoft," Brin told TIME. "I don't worry about competing with them, but they've stated that they really want to destroy Google. I feel like they've left a lot of companies by the wayside."

To be sure, many Google watchers are still gaga. Safa Rashtchy, a managing director of investment firm Piper Jaffray, says he expects Google shares to reach $600 by the end of this year. But the big bet behind the lofty share price--that Google can keep up its torrid rate of growth--is far from a sure thing. At last week's close of $363 a share, Google's P/E ratio (stock price divided by earnings per share, a measure of expected profits) is a whopping 76. Compared with the average of about 20 for S&P 500 tech stocks, Google, by that yardstick at least, is way overvalued. "People should not assume that Google will succeed at and dominate whatever it pursues," says Scott Kessler of Standard & Poor's Equity Research. "The company has been trying to diversify but hasn't done a great job at monetizing its new offerings."

To gauge Google's ability to weather the storms, TIME spent several days at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. It's a unique experience. Set up in 1998 in a Silicon Valley garage (O.K., that part's familiar), Google inflated with the Internet bubble and then, after everything around it collapsed, kept on inflating. Google's search engine--devised by Brin and Page when they were Ph.D. candidates at Stanford--was better than the rest and, without any marketing, spread by word of mouth from early adopters to, eventually, your grandmother. Search became Google; google became a verb. The world fell in love with the fun, effective, blindingly fast technology and its boy-wizard founders. Ultimately, the company even found a business model--advertising--and last year made a profit of nearly $1.5 billion on revenue of $6.1 billion.

Beyond that quantifiable success, Google has tried to be special, the company that won't give in to the dark side, be it censorship, greed or just plain jerkiness. It's hard to say exactly what "Don't be evil" means, and one could argue that that's the unwritten principle of every respectable corporation. But Brin and Page's ultimate vision--to make nearly all information accessible to everyone all the time--is a tricky thing, given that a lot of us (individuals, corporations, governments) aren't comfortable with a 100% free flow of data. Just last week Google was slammed for a software feature that results in the company's storing users' personal data for up to a month. At times like these, Google keeps that mantra handy--Don't be evil, don't be evil, don't be evil--as a reminder to try to do the right thing in a complex world. Which means turning down $80 million windfalls from time to time. Or telling U.S. prosecutors, as Google did last month, that it won't hand over data on people's Internet use.

That's why Google's decision to launch a censored website in China was so jarring. (See "Google Under the Gun," TIME, Feb. 13, 2006.) Doing a totalitarian government's bidding in blocking the truth in order to make a few extra bucks is practically the definition of evil. Google acknowledges that it's in a tough situation but says it ultimately has to obey local laws. "There's a subtext to 'Don't be evil,' and that is 'Don't be illegal,'" says Vint Cerf, an Internet founding father who now serves as "chief Internet evangelist" at Google. "Overall, having Google there is better than not having Google there." But at what cost? Can Brin and Page live with the idea that Chinese Netizens can't access anything other than the official line on, say, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and that Google is part of the cover-up?

There's another big question that makes Brin and Page squirm: Does Google have a master plan? To outsiders, it sometimes seems as if the company is investing everywhere, trying to be everything, often giving its products away. A few of the newer pursuits: a proposal to provide free wireless Internet service for San Francisco; an online video store selling TV shows and NBA games; a classified-advertising site; a project to scan every book ever published and make the texts searchable; a free desktop package loaded with software; free instant messaging and online voice communication; a $1 billion investment in America Online. (AOL, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner.) In the past year or so, Google Inc. has doubled in size to about 6,000 employees to handle all the new work. Even the bullish Rashtchy acknowledges that "Google is a black box for most people."

So what's the plan? World domination? Keep throwing money at everything and see what works? Google isn't making friends along the way, taking on the likes of Microsoft (desktop software), eBay (classified advertising), phone companies (the San Francisco wi-fi plan) and others. Google keeps a confidential list of the 100--yes, 100--top priorities under development. That's a long list, and investors would love to know more about it and what Page, Brin and Schmidt are thinking. But secrecy is part of the culture. Google doesn't even invite analysts in for earnings-guidance sessions, so the resulting surprises can lead to big share-price swings like the recent drop. "We don't generally talk about our strategy ... because it's strategic," says Page. "I would rather have people think we're confused than let our competitors know what we're going to do."

What's certain is that Google will keep looking for new ways to organize and search for information. It will try to make money on most of them, primarily through advertising. It will expand more overseas (Google calculates that two-thirds of the world's Internet population speaks a language other than English), and it will form more global partnerships with content providers. Here are some things Google watchers speculate it is pursuing: new ways to search for (and perhaps buy) music, an online payment service to rival PayPal, some sort of smart phone, a space elevator to transport stuff to the moon. (Don't laugh. Brin and Page can't seem to let go of that last one, at least as an idea to kick around.) To help accomplish its goals, whatever they may be, Google raised $4.2 billion late last year through a second stock offering.

It's part of the Google ethos to pretend, at least, not to care about the share price or let it affect strategy. "We're not a $100 billion company, in my mind. We're just Google," says CEO Schmidt, a soft-spoken former executive of tech firms Novell and Sun Microsystems who seems comfortable with his role as the third Google guy. (That's something like being the fifth Beatle but far more lucrative.) Indeed, inside Google, obsessing about the stock price is almost evil. Marissa Mayer, a vice president, imposes penalties on anyone she catches tracking the latest tick. "If I see someone looking at the share price, they owe the cost of one share," says Mayer. A few have had to pay up, she says. Early last week that could have meant a fine of nearly $400.

Brin and Page set the tone at Google. They are businessmen who didn't go to business school, and they believe that gives them a creative edge. Their standard attire is black T shirt, jeans and sneakers (and white lab coats for special occasions). They are at once playful--they used to take part in the regular roller-hockey games in the Google parking lot--and solemnly idealistic, as when discussing Google's new $1 billion philanthropic arm. Brin and Page are products of Montessori schools and credit the system with developing their individuality and entrepreneurship. They're often accused of being arrogant, but to the extent that they are, it may not be egotism as much as an insistence on doing things their way. (The pair sometimes celebrates big Google milestones by going out to Burger King.) "We've obviously been successful," says Brin. "But there's been a lot of luck."

Success has allowed the Google guys to retain a childlike approach. (It probably helps that although they have girlfriends, each is single.) Page, 33, grew up in Michigan obsessed with inventing things. In college he built a functioning ink-jet printer out of Lego pieces. Page's father was a computer-science professor at Michigan State; his mother taught computer programming. When he isn't working, Page spends his time staying fit (his latest passion is windsurfing) and playing with gadgets, like his new TiVo-type radio device. He's into music (he attended a recent U2 concert in Oakland) but has mostly given up the saxophone he played as a kid. Compared with Brin, Page is probably a deeper thinker and bigger nerd. I saw him preparing his keynote speech for the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas--the geek-world equivalent of the Super Bowl--nearly a month before it took place. (He ended up bringing Robin Williams onstage with him; Williams called Page "Mensa boy" and mocked how he talks: "Larry, do you realize you sound just like Mister Rogers?")

Brin, 32, has also been precocious all his life. Born into a Jewish family in Moscow, Brin fled Russia with his parents amid rising anti-Semitism in the late 1970s and settled in the U.S. Brin's father Michael teaches applied probability and statistics at the University of Maryland; his mother works at NASA. Brin from an early age was fascinated with numbers; his father gave him his first computer, a Commodore 64, when he turned 9. Brin's other love is gymnastics, and he studied flying trapeze at a circus school in San Francisco. He has lately taken up springboard diving. Michael Brin recently visited the West Coast to check in on his son, the billionaire. "Sergey was a good boy," Michael wisecracks, "when he was asleep."

Brin and Page's creation is a company that is quirky and practically shouts it out. The lava lamps and electric scooters that replaced the original Segways at the "Googleplex" headquarters in Mountain View have become iconic. There is also a sand-volleyball court, a pair of heated lap pools and, for some reason, a ball pit with dozens of brightly colored plastic balls, like the one you throw the kids into at Ikea. The dress code? "You have to wear something," says Schmidt. And even he can't explain the (phoneless) London-style phone booth that stands in one hallway--"Who bought that?!" he wonders aloud, sounding like the sole sane person in a loony bin. Above all, there is Google's fetishistic devotion to food; the company serves three excellent meals a day, free, to its staff, at several cafأ©s. In what passes in Mountain View for a crisis, Google has spent months trying to find a successor, or maybe two, to replace departing head chef Charlie Ayers, who once cooked for members of the Grateful Dead. A search committee has been meeting with candidates. We're not talking meat loaf and bug juice. In a recent tryout, the executive chef from an acclaimed area restaurant prepared sugar-pie pumpkin lasagna and cedar spring lamb chops.

What's intriguing is that this slightly goofy, self-indulgent culture has proved so adept at nuts-and-bolts business. Schmidt says he intentionally propagated the perception of Google as a wacky place to allow the company to build up its business under the radar. "With the lava lamps and scooters, everybody thought we were idiots, the last vestiges of the dotcoms," he says. "It worked until it leaked out how well we were doing." Many details didn't become known until Google had to file its financials just before going public in 2004.

Google owes much of its success to the brilliance of Brin and Page, but also to a series of fortunate events. It was Page who, at Stanford in 1996, initiated the academic project that eventually became Google's search engine. Brin, who had met Page at student orientation a year earlier, joined the project early on. Their breakthrough, simply put, was that when their search engine crawled the Web, it did more than just look for word matches; it also tallied and ranked a host of other critical factors like how websites link to one another. That delivered far better results than anything else. Brin and Page meant to name their creation Googol (the mathematical term for the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes), but someone misspelled the word so it stuck as Google. They raised money from prescient professors and venture capitalists, and moved off campus to turn Google into a business. Perhaps their biggest stroke of luck came early on when they tried to license their technology to other search engines, but no one met their price, and they built it up on their own.

The next breakthrough came in 2000, when Google figured out how to make money with its invention. It had lots of users, but almost no one was paying. The holy grail turned out to be advertising, and it's not an exaggeration to say that Google is now essentially an advertising company, given that that's the source of nearly all its revenue. What Google did was master the automation of online advertising, perfecting a model developed by (later renamed Overture and eventually sold to Yahoo!). Here's how the system works. If you're a company selling sneakers, you can bid to have a link to your website appear in the sponsored area whenever someone does a Google search for, say, tennis or Michael Jordan or sneakers or all of those and more. How prominently your ad will be displayed depends on how much you bid and how many people click on your ad. That means you can't just buy your way to the top; your link also has to appeal to users. You pay Google for every click you receive.

Google then had another brainstorm: extend the ad-link idea beyond search queries so that any content site could automatically run ads linked to its text. Google's technology, known as AdSense, can instantly analyze the text of any site and deliver relevant ads to it. Your sneaker company could place ads on tennis-information sites that participate in the Google network. Brin and Page signed up thousands and thousands of clients before their competitors knew what was happening. Now Google plans to apply the model in other media, and it just bought dMarc Broadcasting, whose automated systems connect advertisers with radio stations.

Unlike many competitors in Silicon Valley, Google tends to let engineers run the show. The company is almost allergic to marketing. (Name another $100 billion company that doesn't run TV ads.) Innovation tends to bubble up from those bright young minds. The challenge is keeping them all happy. The free food and laundry and the heavily subsidized massages and haircuts all help, but there also has to be enough creative work to go around. Google came up with a formula to help ensure this. Every employee is meant to divide his or her time in three parts: 70% devoted to Google's core businesses, search and advertising; 20% on pursuits related to the core; and 10% on far-out ideas. The San Francisco wi-fi initiative resulted from someone's 10% time; so did Google Talk, a free system for instant and voice messaging. If Google ever builds that space elevator, it will no doubt be during 10% time.

It may sound like a random split, but Brin, who got his undergraduate degree in mathematics, insists, without much elaboration, that 70-20-10 is scientifically based. One learns not to question his ability to make calculations. At one stage, I ask him to figure out how tall the 8 billion Web pages that Google once said it indexes would be if they were stacked pieces of paper. He quickly comes up with an answer, then keeps crunching numbers in his head as we discuss other issues. Finally, after recalculating his estimate for paper width, he blurts out: "500 miles." I ask Brin whether, as a kid, he used to play with numbers, adding digits, say, in the phone book. "No," he says. "That would be crazy."

To manage all those engineers and their ideas, Google needs gatekeepers. The workhorse is Mayer, 30, a superfast-talking, blond, blue-eyed force of nature who in high school starred on both the debate and the pom-pom teams. Mayer joined Google in 1999 as employee No. 20 and the first female engineer and now manages innovation in the search field. Several times a week, she holds university-style office hours, during which her charges come by with questions about projects in development. Mayer greets them at her desk, which is cluttered with solar-powered bobble heads and other Japanese toys. Depending on the problem, she may serve as editor, designer, coder or friend. At a session a few weeks ago, a procession of earnest young men and women arrived to discuss projects they hoped would win her approval and, eventually, Brin's and Page's. Some were whimsical. (A designer was creating an interface so that Google users searching Christmas would see a candy-cane border around the results.) Others were all business. (A female engineer took in test results that showed ad revenue could increase by tens of millions of dollars if Google simply enlarged the type size for certain sponsored links. Brin and Page will hear that one.) Other proposals were clearly sinking when Mayer invoked her mother, as in, "I'm just not sure my mom would understand this."

The clout of Google's engineers was evident when the company was developing its e-mail system, now known as Gmail. Paul Buchheit, a headstrong engineer who reported to Mayer, was creating the prototype. One night in 2001, he and Mayer discussed applying advertising links to e-mail so that if you opened a message from, say, your brother that included the line, "Mom and I played tennis yesterday," you would see links to firms selling racquets and sneakers. It's all automated; no human would be reading your mail. But, as Mayer puts it, "there's a creepy factor." The two debated until the wee hours of the morning and ultimately decided not to go ahead with the ads. Or so Mayer thought. When she logged on to the e-mail system the next day, the ads were up and running. Buchheit had hacked it together. When Mayer, Brin and Page played around with it (there were only six people using Gmail then), it didn't seem particularly evil. And so another advertising model was born; Gmail linked to ads when it ultimately launched in 2004.

To keep innovating, Google has to outwit and outspend the likes of Yahoo! and Microsoft for the best young brains. Even though few of Google's insta-millionaires have cashed in their stock options and quit since the 2004 IPO, Google is on a hiring binge, adding about 100 people a week. It applies quirky tests of talent. Google once put up a billboard on Route 101, the heavily trafficked artery that links the Valley to San Francisco, that said, in its entirety:

(first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits of e).com

No Google logo, no recruiting pitch. Just the equation. The curious who solved it (yep, it's typed the answer into their browsers and went to that Web page, which offered another, harder problem (don't ask) that finally led to an invitation to interview at Google. The company also has inserted the "Google Labs Aptitude Test" in geeky publications like Linux Journal. It poses 21 questions, ranging from absurdly complex mathematical equations to poetic queries like "What is the most beautiful math equation ever derived?"

When Google hires someone, it generally isn't for a specific job. The idea is to bring in talent that can be slotted wherever there's a need. A new Googler might be placed on a team developing search applications for mobile phones and, when that project is done, help write code for, say, a video-search prototype. Chikai Ohazama runs the team developing Google Earth, the company's mesmerizing satellite-imagery application. Ohazama, a software engineer, was a co-founder of Keyhole, the firm that developed the technology, which Google acquired two years ago. On a recent afternoon he sits with his team in a conference room brainstorming new applications. Google Earth has to be seen to be appreciated: it seamlessly brings together images of the globe taken from above. You can zoom in to see your house or pull back for a broad view of the city or the country or the world. Google is trying to figure out how to make money from the free service, and for now it is throwing engineers at the problem. It's similar to Google's origins: first perfect the technology, then figure out the business plan. Ohazama gets reports from a series of team members: a woman has figured out how to superimpose U.S. hiking trails on the images. Another is adding in ferry routes. A third reports he's struggling to get data on the terrain in Connecticut. Despite some glitches, Ohazama urges the team to press on: "It's fine to make mistakes for now," he says, "until the point where we have to turn it on."

As Google rushes forward, it's reasonable to ask whether it is making the right bets on the Internet's future. For one thing, Google has tempted Microsoft into battle by developing new Web-based software and exploring partnerships that could challenge the Seattle giant's desktop dominance. But it's Yahoo!--which has a significantly different vision--that could most threaten Google. At stake is the future of search. For Google, it is all about harnessing the vast power of the Internet to get results as quickly and accurately as possible. (Google maintains tens of thousands of servers to store all those cached Web pages it searches.)

But what if in the future, search were to become more personal, more local? We might turn more to our friends, neighbors and even strangers for opinions, recipes, travel tips and so on. That, more or less, is what Yahoo!'s bet is about. Yahoo! figures we won't be satisfied with a fat data-crunching search engine like Google's. Yahoo! is focusing instead on "social search," in which everyday Internet users pool their knowledge to create alternative systems of content that deliver more relevant results--which, of course, can be monetized.

"Yahoo! is all about the people," says Caterina Fake, co-founder of the wildly successful photo-sharing site Flickr, which Yahoo! purchased last year. Flickr symbolizes the Yahoo! approach. Its collection of tens of millions of photos is all user generated and user cataloged. Participants themselves "tag" the pictures by typing in keywords that let others search the photos. Yahoo! last year also acquired, a social-bookmarking website that lets users share their favorite sites, music and other findings--allowing others to effectively look over their shoulders to find interesting stuff. "We're applying the wisdom of the crowds to find information," says Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo!'s head of search technology. "It's collaborative."

Google has one other big challenge: itself. Are 100 "top priorities" too many to keep track of? Or has Google created a system that can handle it all? So far, it has managed to innovate fast enough to justify all the hiring and, arguably, even the sky-high share price. And along the way, a lot of people have become very rich. (Brin and Page are probably worth about $10 billion apiece.) But the annals of Wall Street are littered with tales of brilliant founders who created successful companies, then branched into too many areas, only to see it all come crumbling down or, just as bad, to see new guys in suits come in to run things. Schmidt's guiding hand and the 70-20-10 system are supposed to ensure that that won't happen. Brin and Page also brought in Bill Campbell, the chairman of Intuit, as a trusted management adviser.

Yet Google may also have to adapt to its new identity. It's hard to stay quirky and beloved when you're the $100 billion gorilla in the room, especially if you make unsavory deals with Beijing. And that wasn't Google's first p.r. hit. A reporter for tech-news website CNET last year set out to discover how much personal data she could find about CEO Schmidt by googling him. She uncovered his net worth, street address, whom he had invited to a political fund raiser--and put it all online. Google went ballistic, declaring it would boycott CNET for a year. After intense criticism, it dropped the ban.

Ultimately, Google's business proposition is about trust. It retains loads of our data--what we search for, what we say in our Gmails--so we need to know it won't be evil with them. That's why Google declined that U.S. government request. That's also why, unlike Yahoo!, Google doesn't want to create its own content in any significant way. Once you do that, Brin and Page reason, people will start to wonder about the search results, whether they are skewed to help Google's bottom line. And once people wonder about that, the whole model--of this innovative, seemingly trustworthy company--is compromised. Do the Google guys pay attention to what people think? You bet. During our interview, Brin pops out to look for the December copy of Wired. In 2004 the magazine had put him and Page on the cover with the adoring line GOOGLEMANIA! The recent cover, by contrast, includes the line GOOGLEPHOBIA: WHO'S AFRAID OF SERGEY? (WHO ISN'T?), touting an article about the enemies Google is making as it expands. Brin picks up the issue and shakes his head in dismay. "I find it surprising," he says. But that's what happens when you're No. 1, even if you're trying to be the good guy.

With reporting by Laura A. Locke / San Francisco

Monday, February 13, 2006

Cartoons War

I found this fine article in the Economist. It says f ree speech should override religious sensitivities and it is not just the property of the West.

“I DISAGREE with what you say and even if you are threatened with death I will not defend very strongly your right to say it.” That, with apologies to Voltaire, seems to have been the initial pathetic response of some western governments to the republication by many European newspapers of several cartoons of Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper in September. When the republished cartoons stirred Muslim violence across the world, Britain and America took fright. It was “unacceptable” to incite religious hatred by publishing such pictures, said America's State Department. Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, called their publication unnecessary, insensitive, disrespectful and wrong.

Really? There is no question that these cartoons are offensive to many Muslims. They offend against a convention in Islam that the Prophet should not be depicted. And they offend because they can be read as equating Islam with terrorism: one cartoon has Muhammad with a bomb for his headgear.

It is not a good idea for newspapers to insult people's religious or any other beliefs just for the sake of it. But that is and should be their own decision, not a decision for governments, clerics or other self-appointed arbiters of taste and responsibility. In a free country people should be free to publish whatever they want within the limits set by law.

No country permits completely free speech. Typically, it is limited by prohibitions against libel, defamation, obscenity, judicial or parliamentary privilege and what have you. In seven European countries it is illegal to say that Hitler did not murder millions of Jews. Britain still has a pretty dormant blasphemy law (the Christian God only) on its statute books. Drawing the line requires fine judgements by both lawmakers and juries. Britain, for example, has just jailed a notorious imam, Abu Hamza of London's Finsbury Park mosque, for using language a jury construed as solicitation to murder. Last week, however, another British jury acquitted Nick Griffin, a notorious bigot who calls Islam “vicious and wicked”, on charges of stirring racial hatred.

Drawing the line

In this newspaper's view, the fewer constraints that are placed on free speech the better. Limits designed to protect people (from libel and murder, for example) are easier to justify than those that aim in some way to control thinking (such as laws on blasphemy, obscenity and Holocaust-denial). Denying the Holocaust should certainly not be outlawed: far better to let those who deny well-documented facts expose themselves to ridicule than pose as martyrs. But the Muhammad cartoons were lawful in all the European countries where they were published. And when western newspapers lawfully publish words or pictures that cause offence—be they ever so unnecessary, insensitive or disrespectful—western governments should think very carefully before denouncing them.

Freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right but the defining freedom of liberal societies. When such a freedom comes under threat of violence, the job of governments should be to defend it without reservation. To their credit, many politicians in continental Europe have done just that. France's interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, said rather magnificently that he preferred “an excess of caricature to an excess of censorship”—though President Jacques Chirac later spoiled the effect by condemning the cartoons as a “manifest provocation”.

Shouldn't the right to free speech be tempered by a sense of responsibility? Of course. Most people do not go about insulting their fellows just because they have a right to. The media ought to show special sensitivity when the things they say might stir up hatred or hurt the feelings of vulnerable minorities. But sensitivity cannot always ordain silence. Protecting free expression will often require hurting the feelings of individuals or groups, even if this damages social harmony. The Muhammad cartoons may be such a case.

In Britain and America, few newspapers feel that their freedoms are at risk. But on the European mainland, some of the papers that published the cartoons say they did so precisely because their right to publish was being called into question. In the Netherlands two years ago a film maker was murdered for daring to criticise Islam. Danish journalists have received death threats. In a climate in which political correctness has morphed into fear of physical attack, showing solidarity may well be the responsible thing for a free press to do. And the decision, of course, must lie with the press, not governments.

It's good to talk

It is no coincidence that the feeblest response to the outpouring of Muslim rage has come from Britain and America. Having sent their armies rampaging into the Muslim heartland, planting their flags in Afghanistan and Iraq and putting Saddam Hussein on trial, George Bush and Tony Blair have some making up to do with Muslims. Long before making a drama out of the Danish cartoons, a great many Muslims had come to equate the war on terrorism with a war against Islam. This is an equation Osama bin Laden and other enemies of the West would like very much to encourage and exploit. In circumstances in which embassies are being torched, isn't denouncing the cartoons the least the West can do to show its respect for Islam, and to stave off a much-feared clash of civilisations?

No. There are many things western countries could usefully say and do to ease relations with Islam, but shutting up their own newspapers is not one of them. People who feel that they are not free to give voice to their worries about terrorism, globalisation or the encroachment of new cultures or religions will not love their neighbours any better. If anything, the opposite is the case: people need to let off steam. And freedom of expression, remember, is not just a pillar of western democracy, as sacred in its own way as Muhammad is to pious Muslims. It is also a freedom that millions of Muslims have come to enjoy or to aspire to themselves. Ultimately, spreading and strengthening it may be one of the best hopes for avoiding the incomprehension that can lead civilisations into conflict.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Our Kind of Punishment

What's the most striking image of Mahatma Gandhi in your mind? Close your eyes and try to see him.

Most likely you can see him calmly
sitting at his spinning wheel. That timeless image is engraved in our mental photo bank, but what's its enduring secret?

His posture is peaceful and reassuring, utterly detached from his surrounding. Nothing can disturb his tranquility, but we all know how that enfeebled Indian leader managed to lead
his nation to independence in 1947. Gandhi advocated civil disobedience and non-violence.

That's why we can never imagine him in a hostile pose. The same could be said about Nelson Mandela or any other liberation leader in the history, including the Prophet Mohammad.

Like him or dislike him, it's almost impossible for you to dispute Mohammad's well-documented hatred for violence. He preached a faith that at least literally means peace, no matter how it is misrepresented and misinterpreted by his power-thirsty followers.

In some countries, the protests against the insulting Danish cartoons have turned hysterically violent, with some fatalities reported in Afghanistan and Somalia. They did not lose their lives in vain, hopefully, but I wonder if the prophet would have condoned torching and looting buildings belonging to guests.

publication and the ensuing protests have raised unsettling questions: Was the whole issue a bait designed to prove a null hypothesis that Muslims, moderate and/or fanatic, are intrinsically violent? What's the line between justified anger and irrational rage? Would the next big war be fought on resources, as experts foresee, or among religions? How can we define and safeguard local values in an increasingly globalized world? How others can respect those values without fear of submission? And who can set possible punishments for trespassers?

"A strange thing, our kind of punishment! It does not cleanse the offender, it is no expiation: on the contrary, it defiles more than the offense itself," says the
German thinker Nietzsche.

Any knee-jerk protest would besmirch only Islam by uniting its hardline opponents and undermining its moderate followers.

Ironically, Gandhi became a victim of hatred and vengeance. How hopeless. His legacy of tolerance can never be victimized. How hopeful.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Challenge My Taboos Respectfully

The brain behind caricaturing Prophet Mohammad might have wished to awaken Muslims, especially those living in secular European states, to a reality befitting our modernist era. The intended reality is simply manipulated.

Religion, like love and beauty, seems to us quite irrational. It differs from science because we, keen on objective evidence, are incapable of testing all relevant parameters.

This doesn't permit us to handle the irrational with matching irrationality, though. In other words, trying to put out a raging fire with petrol would be painfully self-defeating.

When most Muslims condemn terrorist acts of their co-religionists, their call for recognizing Islam as a pacifist religion by Westerners is, sometimes with tentative reasons, overlooked. Stereotyping is the last thing a multicultural society can afford to keep its coherence intact.

Sociologists advise us to avoid pigeonholing members of a race or religion by promoting a composite identity kit, one featuring a mixture of secular and patriotic allegiances. The best formula to achieve a frictionless collective identity is, thus, mutual respect.

Both Muslims and non-Muslims claim the other part fails to show enough respect towards its founding values. The key is tolerance.

Europeans say they have a right to freedom of speech and even to "blaspheme" and Muslims, traditionally conservative, must be understandingly tolerant.

I embrace the belief that in an open society, nobody is above the law and nothing is exempt from critique. "If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things," says the great thinker Rene Descartes.
I can't embrace the belief that in an open society, you are allowed to doubt things selectively and hypocritically.

In nine European countries, a shred of doubt about the Nazi Holocaust of Jews can easily put the suspect behind the bars. British PM Tony Blair last week called Iran's plans to hold a so-called academic conference on the topic as "ridiculous and stupid."
Sound minds condone neither Mr. Blair's blind reasoning nor Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's branding Holocaust a "myth."

Challenging taboos is admirable since it serves the human race, but please do it respectfully. And without grudge.