The legacy of Google+: Google’s Internet backbone for digital identity

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The news that Google would be splitting Google+ into Streams, Photos and communication has already led to dozens of articles opining about what went wrong in the search giant’s pursuit of social media. Someday, Google Hangouts and Google Talk may become part of a wireless service from Google.

One challenge for judging its success or failure is that the majority of media accounts and analysis of Google+ always compared it to Facebook. That comparison is not entirely unreasonable, given reports about how Google executives were concerned about the rise of the world’s largest social network in 2011. If Google was trying to “play catchup” after having missed social, and Facebook is the leader, how can someone not compare the efforts?

If you looked at Google+ in terms of the ability of its social stream to attract and retain the attention and participation of a billion users for an hour every day, as Facebook does, it’s hard to argue that it succeeded. If you compared the time people spend on Plus +1’ing, sharing and commenting to Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr or Twitter, Google’s effort paled.

No doubt because of my former colleague Edd Dumbill, however, I’ve always thought of Google+ as a social backbone for all of Google’s products, not simply a destination. Google+ was a way of associating an identity for hundreds of millions of users across applications and services.

When viewed in that context, it may be that Google+ is much more successful than many people have yet realized: according to Federal News Radio, the U.S. General Services Administration has quietly added Google to the list of identity providers that the federal government has authorized to provide secure digital credentials for logging into digital services. Today, it looks like Google will be be part of the federated identity strategy that could allow U.S. citizens to renew passports online, download personal heath data and reserve campground sites in the years ahead.

Even if “Streams” does end up going away, look for Google’s identity layer to endure and mature across all of its products and services, from Documents to Maps. In 2015, being able to confirm that you’re not a dog on the Internet can sometimes be useful, too.

[Image Source: JanRain social login trends]

Google hopes Mr. Smith will use “YouTube for Government” to Hangout more online

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Google launched a “Google for Government” guide today, positioning it as a “a one-stop shop where government officials can learn how to get the most out of YouTube as a communication tool.” In a post on the Google Politics blog, Brandon Feldman recounts the use of YouTube by government, linking to examples from State of the Unionlegislative hearingsexplainer videos and Hangouts and asserting that “YouTube has become an important platform where citizens engage with their governments and elected officials.”

Putting aside the question of whether there’s two-way engagement going on or not in the comment sections on political videos on YouTube, which have been historically among the most toxic online, the guide will be useful to anyone looking for best practices on livestreaming or setting up a channel, playlists and other features.  As I’ve found, it’s quite easy to livestream a Hangout, save the recording to YouTube and share it afterwards.

The guide does include a section on “engaging your community” through Google Hangouts, a venue that I still believe has tremendous potential for Presidents and other elected leaders to receive real questions from citizens, escaping the bubble of media and access journalism.

Here’s hoping more representatives use this new technology to listen to their constituents, not just use it as a cheaper way to broadcast their speeches. That’s the wish Google Feldman expressed: “If you’re a government official, whether you are looking for an answer to a quick question or need a full training on YouTube best practices, we hope this resource will help you engage in a rich dialogue with your constituents and increase transparency within your community.”

President Obama to host Google+ Hangout on January 31st

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The Google home page currently has a link to ask President Obama a question in a Google+ Hangout. That’s some mighty popular online real estate devoted to citizen engagement.

The first presidential hangout featured real questions from citizens. I hope this one is up to the same standard.

You can see publicly shared questions on the #AskObama2014 hashtag on YouTube or Google+.

More details on the “virtual road trip” with President Obama are available at the official Google blog.

We are, once again, living in the future.

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White House moves to bash patent trolls, though Congress still must enact trollbane

This morning, President Obama moved to curb suits from “patent trolls,” entities that many observers of the technology industry have been warning have increasingly been harming innovation across the United States. As it turned out, those concerned parties have been right to decry the trend: a report (PDF) contained a startling statistic: the number of lawsuits brought by patent trolls has nearly tripled in the past 2 years, now accounting for 62% of all patent lawsuits in America. As Edward Wyatt pointed out in the New York Times, this surge in patent lawsuits is directly related to the passage of a 2011 law that was designed to address the trouble.

The White House announced several executive actions today to take on patent trolls, including a series of workshops, scholarship opportunities, a consumer-facing website and a review of exclusion orders. The administration will also begin a rulemaking process at the U.S. Patent Office to that would “require patent applicants and owners to regularly update ownership information when they are involved in proceedings before the PTO, specifically designating the ‘ultimate parent entity’ in control of the patent or application.”

One interesting additional outcome of the day’s news is that White House Google+ Hangouts matter. Entrepreneur Limor Fried’s unexpected question to President Obama on patent trolls during a White House Hangout in February 2013 led to a frank answer and contributed to the White House’s action today, a connected directly made by the @WhiteHouse Twitter account. Here’s what the president said, back in February:

A couple of years ago we began the process of patent reform. We actually passed some legislation that made progress on some of these issues, but it hasn’t captured all the problems. And the folks that you’re talking about are a classic example. They don’t actually produce anything themselves, they’re just trying to essentially leverage and hijack somebody else’s idea and see if they can extort some money out of them. And, you know, sometimes these things are challenging, because we also want to make sure that the patents are long enough that, you know, people’s intellectual property is protected. We’ve got to balance that with making sure that they’re not so long that innovation is reduced. And, but I do think that our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go. And what we need to do is pull together, you know, additional stakeholders, and see if we can build some additional consensus on some smarter patent laws. This is true, by the way, across the board when it comes to high tech issues. The technology’s changing so fast. We want to protect privacy, we want to protect people’s civil liberties, we want to make sure the Internet stays open. And I’m an ardent believer that what’s powerful about the Internet is its openness and the capacity for people to get out there and just introduce a new idea with low barriers to entry.

I hope President Obama does more Google+ Hangouts and is asked more tough questions regarding drones, patents and other issues on the minds of the People, far outside of the DC media bubble.

Hangouts aside, as Greg Ferenstein pointed out at TechCrunch, the administration is going to need Congress to effectively curb these abuses: the president can’t simply declare an end to this mess: Congress must be involved.

Five relevant bills have been introduced recently, as Michelle Quinn noted out at Politico and Joe Mullen emphasized at Ars Technica, and while the legislative reforms suggested by the White House could make a real difference in curbing the worst of patent troll abuses, it’s not at all clear what this Congress is capable of passing through both chambers at this point.

Timothy Lee, newly ensconced at Wonkblog at the Washington Post, isn’t convinced that such legislation, even if passed, will effectively smash patent trolls. Lee would like to see the federal government fix a broken patent system. Unfortunately for that aspiration, Washington recently passed an America Invents Act and is now moving forward on implementation. It’s not at all clear how soon substantial reform will end up on a president’s desk again soon.

[Animated GIF credit: White House Tumblr. Oh yes, there will be GIFs. ]