As a self-proclaimed tech enthusiast, I was excited by the prospect of hearing an engineer from Google speak about his role in leading Google’s Transparency Engineering team which uses data to help protect free expression and free speech on the web. Brian Fitzpatrick, an alum of Loyola University Chicago, started Google’s Chicago engineering office in 2005. He currently leads the engineering teams for Google’s Transparency Report and Data Liberation initiatives.
It was insightful to learn about Fitzpatrick’s work on gathering usage data, and further producing the data into usable information. Fitzpatrick also mentioned Google’s ability to track traffic globally, and how researchers can use the data to identify anomalies. After listening to his work, I researched Fitzpatrick more deeply. Two years ago, his Chicago team of engineers began tallying and helping publish the number and types of government requests Google receives to remove content from its products or turn over information about users. His work in combating online censorship and bringing to light the amount of governmental requests Google received to censor content was astonishing. In fact, even Fitzpatrick was astonished at the extent a country would go to censor content. He never expected Egypt to completely turn off the Internet, but it did and Libya followed. According to Fitzpatrick, Google reports on “blunt instruments,” or the cutting off of access to an entire site. This is what reporters and researches follow closely. Fitzpatrick and his team of engineers reveal within minutes when Egypt brings down the Internet or when Syria inexplicably restores access to YouTube. What could be specific benefits of this?
Google’s work through Fitzpatrick’s team has revealed to me the importance of keeping such data public. His team’s work has converted would-be-historic-records to breaking news, and reveals the extent to which countries might go to censor private, and possibly incriminating or inciting, data. Google’s transparency reports seem to be for us then? In fact, other companies should follow suit, including social networks. Which companies do you think should release data transparency reports? While Fitzpatrick spoke about his team’s work at gathering traffic data, further research reveals the impact of this type of work. The following is an in-depth article about Fitzpatrick and his team’s efforts in policing free speech on the Internet http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2012-10-19/news/chi-engineers-at-google-chicago-polices-governments-trying-to-police-the-internet-20121019_1_requests-for-user-data-search-engine-google-chicago. To learn more about Brian Fitzpatrick, visit http://research.google.com/pubs/author35663.html.
Lastly, and perhaps interestingly, who knew how much of Google – one of the most-visited websites in the entire world – relied on copper wire! Fitzpatrick and Google found at when infrastructure was stolen and Google dramatically lost traffic…sometimes the intangible results from the tangible.