Facebook’s Terms & Conditions in human-readable form

This morning’s Observer column:

One of the few coherent messages to emerge from the US Senate’s bumbling interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg was a touching desire that Facebook’s user agreement should be comprehensible to humans. Or, as Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana put it: “Here’s what everyone’s been trying to tell you today – and I say it gently – your user agreement sucks. The purpose of a user agreement is to cover Facebook’s rear end, not inform users of their rights.”

“I would imagine probably most people do not read the whole thing,” Zuckerberg replied. “But everyone has the opportunity to and consents to it.” Senator Kennedy was unimpressed. “I’m going to suggest you go home and rewrite it,” he replied, “and tell your $1,200 dollar an hour lawyer you want it written in English, not Swahili, so the average American user can understand.”

Since Zuckerberg’s staff are currently so overworked, the Observer is proud to announce that it has drafted a new, human-readable user agreement that honours Zuckerberg’s new commitment to “transparency”. Here it is…

Read on

The death of the news feed

Ben Evans has a very thoughtful essay on his Blog about the intrinsic contradictions of social media. It’s basically about digital overload and is long and complicated and so worth reading in full. But he provides a useful summary towards the end, which goes like this:

All social apps grow until you need a newsfeed
All newsfeeds grow until you need an algorithmic feed
All algorithmic feeds grow until you get fed up of not seeing stuff/seeing the wrong stuff & leave for new apps with less overload
All those new apps grow until…

— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) January 22, 2018

I’m reminded of Clay Shirky’s famous aphorism that “there’s no such thing as information overload; it’s just filter failure”. Evans’s point is that normal human beings can’t — or won’t — use filters.

The Windrush scandal

Can’t think of a better summing-up of this astonishing and infuriating fiasco than this commentary from eiDigest (a daily newsletter I get every morning):

The Daily Mail‘s Sarah Vine thinks that as a saga of government and civil service incompetence, of ineptitude bordering on cruelty, of ingratitude, ignorance and failure, the Home Office’s disastrous misjudgment in relation to the children of Windrush arrivals from the Commonwealth countries takes some beating. That said, it’s not the first time we’ve been here: a decade ago, Gurkha veterans — natives of Nepal who have served alongside British soldiers for almost 200 years, with more than 50,000 dying in service and 13 receiving the Victoria Cross — were forced to take the Labour government of the day to the High Court in order to win the automatic right to settle here. And now, we’ve let it happen again.

In The Guardian Tanja Bueltmann says that when even the Daily Mail – usually the anti-immigration cheerleader – lambasts the government for mistreating immigrants, calling it a “fiasco that shames Britain”, it is clear that the situation really is very bad indeed. The treatment of the Windrush generation is as shameful as shameful gets, and no apology or U-turn can undo the harm already done to people’s lives. The extent of that harm remains somewhat unclear, however. Although we can get an idea from the many devastating personal accounts, the full reach is not yet known. While the immigration minister, Caroline Nokes, noted on Monday that Windrush-era citizens had been wrongly removed from the UK, it now transpires that the government does not actually know what has happened. Only now is the Home Office checking whether anyone has actually been deported.

The i‘s Oliver Duff notes it is only through campaigning reporting (from newspapers across the political spectrum) that ministers have belatedly been stirred to action. The Windrush scandal is a shameful chapter for a government that wants​, ​and needs​,​ to open Britain to the world. Immigration can never be reduced to numbers, despite Mrs May’s obsession: it is about people, and we are a richer nation for many of those who have chosen to make their lives on these islands.

The best question Zuckerberg was asked was the one he couldn’t answer

I agree with Dave Winer:

Senator Lindsey Graham asked Zuck the right question on Tuesday. Who are your competitors? The answer is they have none, though Zuck wouldn’t say that. That is the big problem. Solve it and all the others go away.

Zuck tried to laugh off the question, but the answer was as clear as day and he knew it. In the social-networking business, Facebook is the monopoly to end all monopolies.

Automation isn’t just about technology

This morning’s Observer column:

Ideology is what determines how you think when you don’t know you’re thinking. Neoliberalism is a prime example. Less well-known but equally insidious is technological determinism, which is a theory about how technology affects development. It comes in two flavours. One says that there is an inexorable internal logic in how technologies evolve. So, for example, when we got to the point where massive processing power and large quantities of data became easily available, machine-learning was an inevitable next step.

The second flavour of determinism – the most influential one – takes the form of an unshakable conviction that technology is what really drives history. And it turns out that most of us are infected with this version.

It manifests itself in many ways…

Read on

How Facebook got into trouble, and why it can’t fix itself

My Observer OpEd about the Zuckerberg Apology Tour:

Ponder this … and weep. The United States, theoretically a mature democracy of 327 million souls, is ruled by a 71-year-old unstable narcissist with a serious social media habit. And the lawmakers of this republic have hauled up before them a 34-year-old white male, one Mark Elliot Zuckerberg, the sole and impregnable ruler of a virtual country of about 2.2 billion people who stands accused of unwittingly facilitating the election of said narcissist by allowing Russian agents and other bad actors to exploit the surveillance apparatus of his – Zuckerberg’s – virtual state.

How did we get into this preposterous mess?

Read on

Fixing Facebook: the only two options by a guy who knows how the sausage is made

James Fallows quotes from a fascinating email exchange he had with his friend Michael Jones, who used to work at Google (he was the company’s Chief Technology Advocate and later a key figure in the evolution of Google Earth):

So, how might FB fix itself? What might government regulators seek? What could make FaceBook likable? It is very simple. There are just two choices:

a. FB stays in its send-your-PII1-to-their-customers business, and then must be regulated and the customers validated precisely as AXCIOM and EXPERIAN in the credit world or doctors and hospitals in the HIPPA healthcare world; or,

b. FB joins Google and ALL OTHER WEB ADVERTISERS in keeping PII private, never letting it out, and anonymously connecting advertisers with its users for their mutual benefit.

I don’t get a vote, but I like (b) and see that as the right path for civil society. There is no way that choice (a) is not a loathsome and destructive force in all things—in my personal opinion it seems that making people’s pillow-talk into a marketing weapon is indeed a form of evil.

This is why I never use Facebook; I know how the sausage is made.


  1. PII = Personally Identifiable Information