Google, Facebook and the power to nudge users

This morning’s Observer column:

Thaler and Sunstein describe their philosophy as “libertarian paternalism”. What it involves is a design approach known as “choice architecture” and in particular controlling the default settings at any point where a person has to make a decision.

Funnily enough, this is something that the tech industry has known for decades. In the mid-1990s, for example, Microsoft – which had belatedly realised the significance of the web – set out to destroy Netscape, the first company to create a proper web browser. Microsoft did this by installing its own browser – Internet Explorer – on every copy of the Windows operating system. Users were free to install Netscape, of course, but Microsoft relied on the fact that very few people ever change default settings. For this abuse of its monopoly power, Microsoft was landed with an antitrust suit that nearly resulted in its breakup. But it did succeed in destroying Netscape.

When the EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which seeks to give internet users significant control over uses of their personal data – many of us wondered how data-vampires like Google and Facebook would deal with the implicit threat to their core businesses. Now that the regulation is in force, we’re beginning to find out: they’re using choice architecture to make it as difficult as possible for users to do what is best for them while making it easy to do what is good for the companies.

We know this courtesy of a very useful 43-page report just out from the Norwegian Consumer Council, an organisation funded by the Norwegian government…

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Implications of Facebook’s changed newsfeed curation algorithms

Interesting piece in *Slate about the impact of news publishers of Facebook’s new-found desire to escape from news.

Slate — yes, the publication you’re reading right now — got more than 85 million clicks that originated from external sites and apps in January 2017 alone. Almost a third of them — 28 million—came from Facebook. That was more than any other single outside traffic source. Other online publications with a political focus, such as Vox and Politico, posted similarly blockbuster numbers.

It was, in retrospect, the zenith of Facebook’s influence over the news industry. Starting in about 2013, when the social network began prioritizing actual news in users’ news feed rankings—the order in which posts appear when you scroll through its app or site—Facebook had grown increasingly critical to many media outlets’ business, for better or worse. Every visitor the social network sent to an outlet’s pages translated to much-needed ad views. And it sent so many that newsrooms remolded their editorial strategies to maximize clicks, likes, and shares on Facebook. For less scrupulous publishers, that sometimes meant sensationalizing headlines or framing stories in ways that pandered to people’s biases—a trend that Facebook tried to combat algorithmically, with limited success. By August 2016, the New York Timess’ John Herrman wrote that Facebook had “centralized online news consumption in an unprecedented way,” shaping how the public perceived politics by determining which stories they’d see in their feeds. And by 2017, some antitrust thinkers concerned with its centrality to the news business were calling for Facebook to be regulated as a monopoly.

Zuckerberg’s monster

My Observer review of Siva Vaidhyanathan’s Anti-social Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy:

The best metaphor for Facebook is the monster created by Dr Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s story shows how, as Fiona Sampson put it in a recent Guardian article, “aspiration and progress are indistinguishable from hubris – until something goes wrong, when suddenly we see all too clearly what was reasonable endeavour and what overreaching”. There are clear echoes of this in the evolution of Facebook. “It’s a story”, writes Siva Vaidhyanathan in this excellent critique, “of the hubris of good intentions, a missionary spirit and an ideology that sees computer code as the universal solvent for all human problems. And it’s an indictment of how social media has fostered the deterioration of democratic and intellectual culture around the world.”

Facebook was founded by an undergraduate with good intentions but little understanding of human nature. He thought that by creating a machine for “connecting” people he might do some good for the world while also making himself some money. He wound up creating a corporate monster that is failing spectacularly at the former but succeeding brilliantly at the latter. Facebook is undermining democracy at the same time as it is making Mark Zuckerberg richer than Croesus. And it is now clear that this monster, like Dr Frankenstein’s, is beyond its creator’s control…

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Facebook and the CCTV effect

This morning’s Observer column:

Jeremy Paxman, who once served as Newsnight’s answer to the pit-bull terrier, famously outlined his philosophy in interviewing prominent politicians thus: “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” This was unduly prescriptive: not all of Paxman’s interviewees were outright liars; they were merely practitioners of the art of being “economical with the truth”, but it served as a useful heuristic for a busy interviewer.

Maybe the time has come to apply the same heuristic to Facebook’s public statements…

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Why is WhatsApp founder quitting Facebook? You can guess the answer

This morning’s Observer column:

Early in 2009, two former Yahoo employees, Brian Acton and Jan Koum, sat down to try and create a smartphone messaging app. They had a few simple design principles. One was that it should be easy to use: no complicated log-in and authentication procedures; instead, each user would be identified by his or her mobile number. And second, the app should have an honest business model – no more pretending it’s free while covertly monetising users’ data: instead, users would pay $1 a year after a certain period. Searching for a name for their service, they came up with WhatsApp, a play on “What’s Up?”

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Zuckerberg for Pope?

Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor who has been sounding the alarm about the social media giant since the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, is not letting up.

In an interview with the Mercury News, McNamee talked about why he thinks Facebook should be reined in — and possibly broken up.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the AT&T consent decree planted the seed for Silicon Valley,” McNamee wrote. “One of the many fundamental patents in AT&T’s huge portfolio was the transistor. The combination of freely licensable patents and restrictions on AT&T’s ability to enter new markets enabled entrepreneurs to create today’s semiconductor, computer, data communications, mobile technology and software industries, among others.”

McNamee told this news organization that the changes Facebook is making now don’t go far enough, and that “nobody can make them” enact change that would truly address the myriad problems with the platform, including possible manipulation of Facebook’s massive number of users.

“There are 2.2 billion people on Facebook each with their own ‘Truman Show,’ ” McNamee said. “Everybody has their own set of facts.”

In addition, he takes issue with the attitudes of Facebook’s top executives.

Facebook is “almost the same size as Christianity,” McNamee said. “When you are presiding over the largest interconnected organization in the world, that gets to your head after a while.”

Zuckerberg for Pope?

Facebook: stay tuned for more disclosures

That’s the message they’re giving to investors.

“We anticipate that our ongoing investments in safety, security, and content review will identify additional instances of misuse of user data or other undesirable activity by third parties on our platform.”

Well, well. Maybe Cambridge-Analytica is just the thin end of an interesting wedge.

So are the Democrats ready to unfriend Facebook?

Nice Observer piece by Thomas Frank, reminding us of how Obama & Co drank the Facebook Kool-Aid:

Seated with a panel of entrepreneurs from around the world, the president [Obama] lobbed his friend Zuckerberg an easy question about Facebook “creating this platform for entrepreneurship around the world”. In batting it out of the park, the Facebook CEO, clad in his humble costume of jeans, T-shirt and sneakers, took pains to inform everyone that what animated him were high-minded ideals. “When I was getting started,” he burbled, “I cared deeply about giving everyone a voice, and giving people the tools to share everything that they cared about, and bringing a community together …”

No rude senator spoke up to interrupt this propaganda. Instead, Zuckerberg went on to describe his efforts to connect everyone to the internet as a sort of wager on human goodness itself.

“It’s this deep belief that you’re trying to make a change, you’re trying to connect people in the world, and I really do believe that if you do something good and if you help people out, then eventually some portion of that good will come back to you. And you may not know up front what it’s going to be, but that’s just been the guiding principle for me in the work that we’ve done …”

That’s how it works, all right. Gigantic corporate investments are acts of generosity, and when making them, kind-hearted CEOs routinely count on Karma to reward them. That’s the “guiding principle”.

Reader, here is what the president could be heard to say as Zuckerberg ended this self-serving homily: “Excellent.”

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What Facebook’s monopoly means for developing countries

This morning’s Observer column:

The most significant moment in the US Senate’s interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg came when Senator Lindsey Graham asked the Facebook boss: “Who’s your biggest competitor?” It was one of the few moments in his five-hour testimony when Zuckerberg seemed genuinely discombobulated. The video of the exchange is worth watching. First, he smirks. Then he waffles about Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft “overlapping” with Facebook in various ways. It’s doesn’t look like he believes what he’s saying.

Eventually, Senator Graham cuts to the chase and asks Zuckerberg if he thinks Facebook is a monopoly. “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” the lad replies.

Laughter ripples through the room, as well it might. Here, at last, was something that every senator at the hearing understood. What’s less clear is whether they grasped the scale of the problem the company poses to society…

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So what is Facebook for, exactly?

What’s astonishing to me is the vacuity of Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting the world and creating a ‘global community’. This is his cover story for the real goal — to paint a target on every human’s back so that advertisers can hit them accurately. But then I’m just a cynic. And then I read this tweet by Benedict Evans, who’s a serious, perceptive and open-minded observer of these things:

Apple will make smart glasses, cars, contact lenses and neural implants. Google will make search, discovery and recommendation 10x better. Amazon will do 5 minute drone delivery and take half your retail spending. What about FB, though? They ‘connected’ half the world. What next?