Thursday, October 05, 2006

On confidentiality and the present forum

When I started work at Google, I signed a confidentiality agreement, as is standard at technology companies. So, of course, I now know all sorts of juicy internal Google stuff that I cannot share here, which is mildly frustrating but both obvious and expected.

What's less obvious, to me, is what I can write about. Google has an official corporate blogging policy, but it basically amounts to "don't transmit confidential information and don't tarnish Google's reputation". Now, reputation's pretty easy: reasonable people must realize that all organizations sometimes hire nutballs like me, and that therefore any random insane or obnoxious thing I say is not endorsed by Google.

However, confidentiality's a trickier matter. If I write about technology at all, then I have to do it in a way that conveys no information to the reader about confidential matters. What does that mean?

One interpretation would be that I can write about anything in technology, except when it's related to what I do at Google. But, of course, over time, that would actually reveal what I work on at Google. If I write about many topics in computing technology, but not X, then over time it becomes increasingly likely that I'm working on X, particularly if some big X-related news item comes down the pipe and I remain conspicuously silent.

(Well, lately I've been rather silent for no particular reason --- pondering my confidentiality agreement is part of it, but I also just haven't felt much like writing. But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that my posting picks up again.)

Another interpretation would be that I can't write about technology at all. In my opinion, that's not reasonable. It would be absurd for Google to ask its employees to stop thinking, speaking, and acting on technology-related issues, particularly issues related to public policy. Regardless of my source of employment, I still live in a democracy (for the time being), and therefore have both a right and a civic responsibility to participate in the public sphere. I'm assuming that Google doesn't expect its employees to forego that.

On the other hand, in a world of at-will employment, I could in principle be fired for being a good citizen. I guess I'm just betting Google won't do that.

Anyway, I could probably second-guess this forever, but at some point I have to drive a stake in the ground. So, be advised:

  • If I post about X, you cannot infer that I work on anything related to X at Google, or that Google is planning to do something about X.
  • If I post about X, you cannot infer that I do not work on anything related to X at Google, or that Google is not planning to do something about X.
  • Anything I post here reflects my own thinking, on my own time, drawing on information that is publicly available from communication outside of any confidentiality agreement with Google, and does not reflect the existence of any Google policy, product, or snack food.

Anyway, hopefully you get the picture.

As a side note, you often hear Hayekian apologists for capitalism talk about how the market's price signals are a magnificent mechanism for aggregating information from decentralized actors. But every seriously competitive and innovative market is rife with confidentiality agreements like the one I recently signed. Price signals seem like a crude and low-bandwidth interface to such an enormous wealth of information. Astonishing amounts of knowledge gets locked up in these mile-high vertical silos, and price signals are little dime-size spigots screwed onto the bottom of each silo.

I'm not a communist. Communism was about abolishing the price signal interface. I'm a post-capitalist: I believe there must be better, richer interfaces waiting to be discovered.

I suppose you could argue that contracts already enrich the economic interface a great deal. With contracts, an economic transaction's no longer an exchange of a sum of dollars for a physical good, but rather an exchange of arbitrarily negotiable bundles of rights.

But somehow, despite that flexibility, we still end up with enormous amounts of information locked up in silos. This cannot possibly be the best way to organize information production. Academia and open source software do better in at least one way: when someone publishes a scientific result, or writes a patch for an open source project, that information gets distributed to everyone, not just the people living inside some confidentiality wall. The entire universe of potential cooperators immediately receives a richly informative broadcast of the innovation, not just a 3-tuple consisting of a scalar value and two names ("$4.95", "Alice", "Bob").

However, for a variety of complicated reasons, proprietary software companies do seem to produce certain kinds of research and software that wouldn't get made in academia or the open source world.

So, I don't really know what the answer is. I have a copy of Benkler's Wealth of Networks somewhere in my huge, freshly unpacked mound of books. I suppose I should read it.


  1. I wonder if you're being a little paranoid about this. Given that the issue of technology is very broad, and even if you were to pick up blogging at full speed, I think it would be unreasonable to think that the pace of your blogging would outstrip the pace of technological topics that can be discussed, particularly since you tend to go into depth when you do discuss a topic (this post is an excellent example).

    Who's keeping track? How many Googlemployees have blogs or can hold discussions in public?

    It would be a good policy to not make specific comments on any of Google's projects, since that'll cover your butt on several fronts, but aside from that, I think your freedom of speech will be as unhindered as the rest of us.

    I'd think that comments that you can make of Google should be as specific as a discreet husband could say about his wife in polite company: "She's a horrible cook, but she gives great backrubs." You probably shouldn't say how she nearly killed you with the salmon mousse and then made up for it with a butt massage, for example.

  2. BTW, nice foray into the broader implications of contracts and safeguarding information and such. I just don't think your situation warrants so much alarm; think of all the high security people that work with classified material and manage to keep their mouths shut on the important bits. At least, if you accidentally let slip something in conversation, the likelihood of getting a country blown up is pretty much nil.