One rule for big data, another for the rest of us…

This morning’s Observer column:

Last week, much of the tech world was temporarily unhinged by a circus in Cupertino, where a group of ageing hipster billionaires unveiled some impressive technology while miming the argot of teenage fandom (incredible, amazing, awesome, etc) and pretending that they were changing the world. Meanwhile, over in the real world, another tech story was unfolding. Except that this is not just a tech story: it’s a morality tale about how we have come to inhabit a world in which corporate irresponsibility, incompetence and greed goes unpunished, while little people can’t get a loan because they have an incorrect blemish on their credit records, which is almost impossible to detect and correct.

This story concerns Equifax, an outfit of which I’m guessing you’ve never heard. Nor had I. It’s one of the three largest American credit agencies (the others are Experian and TransUnion). Its business – its only business – is to collect, securely store and aggregate information on more than 800 million individual consumers and nearly 90m businesses worldwide…

Read on

Oh, and there’s a UK angle on this…

Hypocrisy on stilts

Now here’s something you couldn’t make up — unless you have plumbed the depths of surveillance capitalism. Unroll.me is a ‘service’ that promises to help you clean up your inbox. You give it permission to access your Gmail, for example, and: “Instantly see a list of all your subscription emails. Unsubscribe easily from whatever you don’t want.”

Unroll.me is owned by an analytics outfit called Slice Intelligence. And last week the New York Times (in a profile of Uber’s controversial boss, Travis Kalanick) revealed that Unroll was collecting its subscribers’ emailed Lyft receipts from their inboxes and selling the anonymized data to Uber — which used the data as a proxy for the health of its competitor’s business.

Embarrassing, eh? Not at all. Unroll’s boss, Jojo Hedaya, has published a post on the company blog under the headline “We Can Do Better”. “Our users are the heart of our company and service”, it begins,

So it was heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.

And while we try our best to be open about our business model, recent customer feedback tells me we weren’t explicit enough.

Note (i) “heartbreaking” and (ii) “recent customer feedback”. Translation: (i) disastrous; (ii) good investigative journalism by the New York Times.

Crocodile tears having been duly shed, Jojo continues:

So we need to do better for our users, and will from this point forward, with clearer messaging on our website, in our app, and in our FAQs. We will also be more clear about our data usage in our on-boarding process. The rest will remain the same: providing a killer service that gives you hours back in your day while protecting your privacy and security above all else.

I can’t stress enough the importance of your privacy. We never, ever release personal data about you. All data is completely anonymous and related to purchases only. To get a sense of what this data looks like and how it is used, check out the Slice Intelligence blog.

Thank you for being such an important part of our company. If there’s more we can be doing better, please let me know.

George Orwell would have really enjoyed this. Schmucks are “such an important part of our company”, for example. And he “can’t stress enough” the importance of said schmucks’ privacy.

But — as Charles Arthur points out — there’s nothing in Jojo’s FAQs about selling the data.

Facebook won’t fix fake news or filter bubbles for one simple reason: its business model depends on them

I’ve had a few goes at this (for example here and here) but Frederic Filloux has done an even better job:

Setting aside the need to fix its current PR nightmare, Facebook has no objective interest in fixing its fake stories problem.

In the end, it all boils down to this:

Facebook is above all an advertising machine. A fantastic one. I encourage everyone to explore its spectacular advertising interface and, even better, to spend a few bucks to boost a post, or build an ad. Its power, reach, granularity and overall efficiency are dizzying.

Facebook’s revenue system depends on a single parameter: page views. Pages views come from sharing. Which page criteria lead to the best sharing volumes?

You know the answer:

  • Emotions, preferably positive ones
  • Fun – LOLcats, listicles, cartoons,…
  • Proximity – stuff from friends and family
  • Affinities – stuff that resonates with your feelings, values and politics (and thereby locks you into your own personal filter bubble)

Sharing is key to Facebook’s business model because it leads to higher page consumption which, in turn, leads to multiple personalised advertising exposures.

It’s a great post, well worth reading in full. What I particularly enjoyed is Filloux’s takedown of young Zuckerberg’s cant about connecting everybody. This is what the lad said:

We stand for connecting every person. For a global community. For bringing people together. For giving all people a voice. For a free flow of ideas and culture across nations. And this idea of connecting the world has gotten stronger over the last century. You can now travel almost anywhere in the world in less than a day. Countries trade more openly and cooperate more easily than ever. And the Internet has enabled all of us to access and share more ideas and information than ever before. We’ve gone from a world of isolated communities to one global community, and we’re all better off for it.

Sounds good? Only problem: it’s BS. As Filloux puts it:

Facebook might have created a “global community” but its components are utterly segregated and fragmented.

Facebook is made up of dozens of millions of groups carefully designed to share the same views and opinions. Each group is protected against ideological infiltration from other cohorts. Maintaining the integrity of these walls is the primary mission of Facebook’s algorithm.

Yep. QED.

Zuckerberg, truth and ‘meaningfulness’

Wow! The controversy about fake news on Facebook during the election has finally got to the Boss. Mark Zuckerberg wrote a long status update (aka blog post) on the subject. Here’s a sample:

Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic. Only a very small amount is fake news and hoaxes. The hoaxes that do exist are not limited to one partisan view, or even to politics. Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other.

That said, we don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook. Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here. We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.

This is an area where I believe we must proceed very carefully though. Identifying the “truth” is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express an opinion that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual. I am confident we can find ways for our community to tell us what content is most meaningful, but I believe we must be extremely cautious about becoming arbiters of truth ourselves.

Well, he’s right about the elusiveness of ‘the truth’. But ‘meaningful’ ain’t it. Zuckerberg is squirming on the hook of editorial responsibility — which he desperately doesn’t want to have.

Hypocrisy on stilts: Facebook (closed) celebrating the Web (open)

This morning’s Observer column:

If there were a Nobel prize for hypocrisy, then its first recipient ought to be Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook boss. On 23 August, all his 1.7 billion users were greeted by this message: “Celebrating 25 years of connecting people. The web opened up to the world 25 years ago today! We thank Sir Tim Berners-Lee and other internet pioneers for making the world more open and connected.”

Aw, isn’t that nice? From one “pioneer” to another. What a pity, then, that it is a combination of bullshit and hypocrisy. In relation to the former, the guy who invented the web, Tim Berners-Lee, is as mystified by this “anniversary” as everyone else. “Who on earth made up 23 August?” he asked on Twitter. Good question. In fact, as the Guardian pointed out: “If Facebook had asked Berners-Lee, he’d probably have told them what he’s been telling people for years: the web’s 25th birthday already happened, two years ago.”

“In 1989, I delivered a proposal to Cern for the system that went on to become the worldwide web,” he wrote in 2014. It was that year, not this one, that he said we should celebrate as the web’s 25th birthday.

It’s not the inaccuracy that grates, however, but the hypocrisy. Zuckerberg thanks Berners-Lee for “making the world more open and connected”. So do I. What Zuck conveniently omits to mention, though, is that he is embarked upon a commercial project whose sole aim is to make the world more “connected” but less open. Facebook is what we used to call a “walled garden” and now call a silo: a controlled space in which people are allowed to do things that will amuse them while enabling Facebook to monetise their data trails. One network to rule them all. If you wanted a vision of the opposite of the open web, then Facebook is it..

Read on.

Brexit is also an elite project

The FT‘s Janan Ganesh has an acute take (behind the paywall, alas) on the Brexit campaigners. I particularly liked this bit:

“What damns the Leavers is not their belief that the Treasury forecast is wrong. It is the hint they give off that they do not really mind if it is right. They can live with a recession if they must. If others cannot, well, nobody said the path to freedom is lined with cherry blossom. Their nonchalance is all the worse for their pose as underdog yeomen, a droll routine that has cabinet members and an Etonian former mayor of London deploring the “establishment”, presumably while buffing one another’s brass necks.”

Transparency, non! (If you’re M. et Mme Piketty, that is)

Well, well. This from Frederic Filloux about the leading French public intellectual, Julia Cagé (of whom, I am ashamed to say) I had never heard.

Last year, she published a book titled Sauvez Les Medias, capitalisme, financement participatif et démocratie. The short opus collected nice reviews from journalists traumatized by the sector’s ongoing downfall and eager to cling to any glimmer of hope. Sometimes, though, the cozy entre nous review process goes awry. This was the case when star economist Thomas Piketty published a rave book review in Libération, but failed to acknowledge his marital tie to Julia Cagé. In fact, Piketty imposed the review on Libération’s editors, threatening to pull his regular column from the paper if they did not oblige, and then refused to disclose his tie to Mrs Cagé; rather troubling from intellectuals who preach ethics and transparency.

Why some software can’t be a black box

This morning’s Observer column:

For anyone interested in what is laughingly known as “corporate responsibility”, the Volkswagen emissions-fraud scandal is a gift that keeps on giving. Apart from the company’s Nazi past, its high status in German life, its hitherto exalted reputation for technical excellence and quality control, and its peculiarly dysfunctional governance, there is also the shock to consumers of discovering that while its vehicles are made from steel and composite materials, they are actually controlled by software. We are already close to the point where that software may be more valuable than all the physical materials that make up the vehicle, and, if Apple and Google have their way, that imbalance is set to grow.

Volkswagen’s chicanery was discovered by good, old-fashioned analogue detective work…

Read on

Privacy – and networked hypocrisy – begins at home

I’ve been arguing for years that the Internet holds up a mirror to human nature. And much of what we see in that mirror isn’t flattering. But that doesn’t stop us blaming the mirror rather than addressing the awkward questions that our reflected behaviour reveals. The result is stinking hypocrisy. Evan Selinger makes this point forcefully in the CS Monitor today:

When people lament that privacy is dead or dying, they typically point fingers outwards, saying that government and corporate surveillance deserve all the blame. But as recent events highlight, our urge for online voyeurism plays an important role in the erosion of privacy.

As the Ashley Madison hack had the Internet gawking over details of the possible infidelity of its members, another lurid tragedy was going viral thanks to a woman live tweeting the breakup of a couple sitting next to her on an airplane. Both are examples of people succumbing to their baser instincts and failing to look away when when someone’s personal life is spilled online.

But until we can resist those urges, stop from clicking those articles, and trolling the databases hackers’ victims, we are just encouraging other hackers with an ax to grind, digital eavesdroppers, and snoopers to uncover our private moments and publishing them for the world to see. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’ve hit that point of maturity in our collective Internet evolution.

Spot on. For chapter and verse see Jon Ronson’s terrific book — So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

The 2015 Bad Taste Award

There are reports (the reliability of which is currently unknown) that two individuals whose identities have been disclosed in the Ashley Madison hack have committed suicide.

But in this crisis, ingenious entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity. For example, this:

At least one company is using the whole unfortunate situation as a PR opportunity. Travel group CheapAir.com is offering $50 vouchers for anyone who sends the company a message from an email address that was disclosed on the leaked user list. “If your relationship is in ruins and you’re thinking about heading out of town, we have a solution for you,” the company wrote. “You may have made some mistakes, but a vacation may be just what you both need right now.”

This wins the Memex 1.1 Bad Taste Award for 2015. As the Obama election team used to say, never waste a good crisis.