"Social networks are the most important digital development in the 11 years we've been tracking it"

Friday, July 15, 2011

Jeffrey Cole, a renowned US academic and expert in technology policy as well as a much sought after public speaker, was the keynote presenter at the annual dinner held by Chilean IT and communications association Acti.

Cole spoke about topical and controversial issues affecting the digital world, such as privacy, the emergence of new mobile devices, broadband adoption and government policy.

BNamericas spoke with Cole to go deeper on some of the points he touched on.

BNamericas: You have been a consultant to the US government on digital issues. What's your take on regulation?

Cole: Regulation should be minimal to the task at hand. I'm not anti-regulation but pro self-regulation. Four years ago I told everyone to learn everything there is to learn about Second Life. A year later I said if you're in Second Life get out. It was filled with sleaze, terrorism, theft.

Second Life was a great example of something that needed regulation from Linden Labs. The government should have never regulated Second Life, but they needed some regulation on how you spend your currency, some regulation on what was and wasn't acceptable. I think the people using sites, not the government, have the right to decide what is and isn't acceptable. They should be creating standards for broadband.

BNamericas: Chile was the first country in the world to create a net neutrality law. Given that no one else has adopted such a law, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Cole: I haven't looked at how the Chilean law is crafted, but I think the fact the government is taking a stance is really important. I think Chile did a good thing with that. It remains to be seen whether that's going to be a symbolic gesture or really sell. It's also going to put pressure on other governments.

BNamericas: Do you think there is anything that Latin America can learn from the US in terms of regulation?

Cole: We have a broadband stimulus plan, though with no significant effects yet. Our broadband is nothing to be proud of. I don't think the US regulatory structure in telecom has been very good.

Most people think that the US should be, if not number one, number two in the world in terms of its broadband network. We're number 15. We have whole parts of the country with no broadband access. Our broadband is slow and expensive. I think you can learn from some of our mistakes.

We're a third world country where mobile is concerned. One of the reasons for that is the government refused to support mobile standards. We ended up - unlike Latin America - with three standards - TDMA, CDMA and GSM. Many people say the US has bad cell service because it's so big. Russia is bigger than we are and they have good cell service. Chile is long and has all sorts of challenging terrain and they do it. There's nothing special about the US as far as geography is concerned.

BNamericas: Do you think that broadband is a leveler in terms of allowing developing nations to catch up economically with the developed world?

Cole: I truly do. I believe the bigger gap is between dialup and broadband than between non-use and dialup. The non-broadband internet is a totally different, restrictive internet. Social networking is possible in a reduced form, email is possible and reading text is possible. But all of the real second, third generation applications - like using video, saving peoples' lives, surgery online, creativity, the real impact of social networking - are only possible with broadband.

BNamericas: What's your take on privacy in the internet?

Cole: Privacy is terrifying people. Teenagers have different attitudes to privacy than adults do. Scott McNealy [founder of Sun Microsystems] famously said, "There is no privacy, get over it." You should assume that if you're talking to two or more people, there is no privacy. That's a good way to proceed.

Ten years ago people would look at Amazon, Google and Microsoft and ask can I trust you? Are you going to sell my information to someone else? For the most part we trust the merchants we deal with. But that's not enough. They may not be able to adequately protect me from hackers. What happened with Sony [with the PlayStation Network was hacked and the details of 77mn users compromised] had nothing to do with Sony sharing information. They just created a system that is completely vulnerable. It's now no longer just, Can I trust you?; it's, Is your security good enough to protect me? And the answer to that is probably no.

BNamericas: So what is going to happen, as everybody is uploading their information online?

Cole: Several things are happening. Those people that ask for your information where your money is concerned, such as banks, Amazon, have to give you absolute protection should somebody abuse it. As far as targeted advertising is concerned, four things have to happen. Publishers, newspapers, advertisers have to tell their listeners, viewers, readers what information they're collecting and why. Second there have to be privacy statements that are understandable for the general public. Third there have to be serious penalties for anyone who violates those policies, and fourth there has to be an easy opt out or opt in.

But consumers are hypocritical. They say they don't want us to know anything when often they do. Many of us are about to have our cell phones say to us, "We see that you're on aisle three of the supermarket, here are some great coupons." That's going to be a little scary when our phone knows that. But when we realize those are great coupons we're going to benefit.

People say their most sensitive information is medical and financial. But through store cards you let me see everything you buy in the supermarket, which is the best information there is. With that I can tell whether you're married, whether you have children, how old you are, how wealthy you are, how healthy you are, and a hundred other things. And we trade all that for a few discount coupons. So privacy is a really complicated issue.

BNamericas: How important is the emergence of social networks?

Cole: They are the most important digital development in the 11 years we've been tracking it. We think that teenagers switch from social network to social network like a fad or a trend. We saw the rise and fall of Friendster, and when Murdoch bought MySpace we got him really angry by saying he'd lose the teenage audience there as well. To a teenager, a social network is like a nightclub. When a nightclub becomes too popular, or the uncool kids show up, you're out of there. Because what's the worst thing that can happen to you as a teenager in a nightclub? Your mother walks in and now your mother wants to friend you on Facebook.

We saw the de-emphasis on MySpace. We believe the same thing is going to happen to Facebook. I've said on record that Facebook will continue to grow for the next five years, especially in the developed world. It will grow from 550mn users to maybe close to 1bn. But we believe in about five years it will start to decline, and I don't think it will be replaced by another monolithic huge community. I think it will fragment into smaller communities of real friends. But we're not going to close our Facebook accounts. Some kids may use it to communicate with their parents and relatives, but they're going to connect with their friends elsewhere.

We don't think you can stay the hottest thing in the world for a long time; no one ever has. Look at what's happening to Blackberry. It would be interesting to see if that happens to Apple.

BNamericas: What are your thoughts on where you think mobile computing will go in the next five years?

Cole: We think the iPad is transformational. When it first came out my goal was to find out whether it would be the fourth screen, or does it replace the second [the computer]. We firmly believe it will replace the second. I don't know anybody who bought an iPad that has not looked at their computer and thought can I get rid of it?

BNamericas: So do you think that our main computing devices will be reduced to tablets and smartphones?

Cole: I think it will be tablets and smartphones because as wonderful as the smartphone is, you can't read newspapers or do much work on that size of a screen. Samsung has come out with Galaxy tablets of different sizes that work for different functions. But for doing everything, you need a screen about the size of an iPad. You're going to have 4-6% of users that still need full screens and keyboards and computers.

I think the most exciting development we may see in the future will be foldable screens - the ability to fold a large screen and put it in your pocket. Or Microsoft is working on turning any table into a desktop you can touch. But I think we're moving into a two-screen world. Or rather three screens and two devices. I think you're always going to have big screens at home, because we're going to want watch TV on something bigger than an iPad.

About Jeffrey Cole

Jeffrey Cole has been at the forefront of media and communication technology policy issues in both the US and internationally for 25 years.  In July, he joined the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism as a research professor and director of the newly formed Center for the Digital Future.

Prior to joining USC, Cole was a longtime faculty member at UCLA and served as director of the UCLA Center for communication policy, based in the Anderson Graduate School of Management.

Cole has testified before congress on television issues and has spoken as a keynote and panel member at more than 200 conferences on communications issues.

About the company

The Center for the Digital Future is part of the University of Southern California's (USC) Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. It was founded in 2004 on the belief that the best policy arises from the best information.

The center is a research and policy institute committed to work that has a real and beneficial effect on people's lives, while seeking to maximize the positive potential of the mass media and rapidly evolving communication technologies.