Big data: the new gasoline

This morning’s Observer column:

“Data is the new oil,” declared Clive Humby, a mathematician who was the genius behind the Tesco Clubcard. This insight was later elaborated by Michael Palmer of the Association of National Advertisers. “Data is just like crude [oil],” said Palmer. “It’s valuable, but if unrefined it cannot really be used. It has to be changed into gas, plastic, chemicals, etc to create a valuable entity that drives profitable activity; so must data be broken down, analysed for it to have value.”

There was just one thing wrong with the metaphor. Oil is a natural resource; it has to be found, drilled for and pumped from the bowels of the Earth. Data, in contrast, is a highly unnatural resource. It has to be created before it can be extracted and refined. Which raises the question of who, exactly, creates this magical resource? Answer: you and me…

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Zuckerbergus Imperator

This morning’s Observer column:

Power and money are the two great aphrodisiacs, and few people or institutions are immune to their attractions. Not even the Economist, a posh magazine which resolutely sees itself as floating above the vulgar ruckus of journalistic hackery. Last week, like an elderly dowager seduced by Justin Bieber, the venerable publication checked its collective brains at the door and swooned over Mark Zuckerberg, the infant prodigy who now presides over Facebook, and so possesses both power and money.

For the cover illustration, the magazine photoshopped a picture of a celebrated statue of Emperor Constantine the Great (272-337). Young Zuckerberg’s head, adorned with a wreath of gold laurel leaves, replaced Constantine’s. The sword in his left hand was replaced by a Facebook logo, and the emperor’s languidly drooping right hand was rotated 180 degrees so that it now gave the thumbs-up that is Facebook’s “like” symbol. (The gesture had a rather different interpretation in Roman times.) On the plinth of the statue were the words: “MARCVS ZVCKERBERGVS” and CONIVNGE ET IMPERA”, which is the nearest the photoshopper could get to “connect and rule”.

On inside pages one finds an editorial and a long article explaining why Marcvs Z is the greatest thing since Constantine.

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The European Court of Justice’s bombshell

This morning’s Observer column:

On Tuesday, the European court of justice, Europe’s supreme court, lobbed a grenade into the cosy, quasi-monopolistic world of the giant American internet companies.

It did so by declaring invalid a decision made by the European commission in 2000 that US companies complying with its “safe harbour privacy principles” would be allowed to transfer personal data from the EU to the US.

This judgment may not strike you as a big deal. You may also think that it has nothing to do with you.

Wrong on both counts, but to see why, some background might be useful….

Read on

LATER This is a truly extraordinary moment. Lots of interesting and informative stuff about it on the Web, including this piece by Julia Powles and this NYT piece by Robert Levine.

And this from Edward Snowden:

Snowden_tweet

So what happens next? My colleague Nóra ní Loideain has passed me this reassuring note:

Christopher Graham, UK Information Commissioner, said on 8 October at a meeting at Dentons [a law firm]: “Don’t panic. Safe Harbor is not the only route for international transfers. We are coordinating our thinking with other DPAs across the European Union.” The 28 DPAs which form the EU Art. 29 Data Protection Working Party met in their International Transfers sub-group on 8 October, and this group’s plenary will discuss the issue on Thursday this week, on 15 October.

Which means … what, exactly??

Quote of the Day

” Facebook is interested in “digital inclusion” in much the same manner as loan sharks are interested in “financial inclusion”: it is in it for the money.”

Evgeny Morozov, writing in the Observer, April 26, 2015.

Why the world’s poor shouldn’t be conned into thinking that Facebook is the Net

This morning’s Observer column:

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a senior minister in which he revealed that he thought the web was the internet. While I was still reeling from the shock of finding a powerful figure labouring under such a staggering misconception, I ran into Sir Tim Berners-Lee at a Royal Society symposium. Over coffee, I told him about my conversation with the minister. “It’s actually much worse than that,” he said, ruefully. “Hundreds of millions of people now think that Facebook is the internet.”

He’s right – except that now the tally of the clueless is now probably closer to a billion. (Facebook has more than 1.3 billion users, some of whom presumably know the difference between an app and the network.)

Does this matter? Answer: yes, profoundly, and here’s why…

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Even if you’re not on Facebook, you are still the product

This morning’s Observer column:

The old adage “if the service is free, then you are its product” needs updating. What it signified was that web services (like Facebook, Google, Yahoo et al) that do not charge users make their money by harvesting personal and behavioural data relating to those users and selling that data to advertisers. That’s still true, of course. But a more accurate version of the adage would now read something like this: if you use the web for anything (including paying for stuff) then you are also the product, because your data is being sold on to third parties without your knowledge.

In a way, you probably already knew this. A while back you searched for, say, a digital camera on the John Lewis site. And then you noticed that wherever you went on the web after that John Lewis ads for cameras kept appearing on the site you were visiting. What you were witnessing was the output of a multibillion-dollar industry that operates below the surface of the web. Think of it as the hidden wiring of our networked world. And what it does is track you wherever you go online…

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What happens when algorithms decide what should be passed on?

One of the things we’re interested in on our research project is how rumours, news, information (and mis-information) can spread with astonishing speed across the world as a result of the Internet. Up to now I had been mostly working on the assumption that the fundamental mechanism involved is always something like the ‘retweet’ in Twitter — i.e. people coming on something that they wanted to pass on to others for whatever reason. So human agency was the key factor in viral retransmission of memes.

But I’ve just seen an interesting article in the Boston Globe which suggests that we need to think of the ‘retweeting’ effect in wider terms.

A surprise awaited Facebook users who recently clicked on a link to read a story about Michelle Obama’s encounter with a 10-year-old girl whose father was jobless.

Facebook responded to the click by offering what it called “related articles.” These included one that alleged a Secret Service officer had found the president and his wife having “S*X in Oval Office,” and another that said “Barack has lost all control of Michelle” and was considering divorce.

A Facebook spokeswoman did not try to defend the content, much of which was clearly false, but instead said there was a simple explanation for why such stories are pushed on readers. In a word: algorithms.

The stories, in other words, apparently are selected by Facebook based on mathematical calculations that rely on word association and the popularity of an article. No effort is made to vet or verify the content.

This prompted a comment from my former Observer colleague, Emily Bell, who now runs the Tow Center at Columbia. “They have really screwed up,” she told the Globe. “If you are spreading false information, you have a serious problem on your hands. They shouldn’t be recommending stories until they have got it figured out.”

She’s right, of course. A world in which algorithms decided what was ‘newsworthy’ would be a very strange place. But we might get find ourselves living in such a world, because Facebook won’t take responsibility for its algorithms, any more than Google will take responsibility for YouTube videos. These companies want the status of common carriers because otherwise they have to assume legal responsibility for the messages they circulate. And having to check everything that goes through their servers is simply not feasible.