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.

Phones, photography and the Snapchat factor

This morning’s Observer column:

Living and working, as I do, in a historic city that is swamped by tourists in the summer, I regularly get the opportunity to do some photo-ethnography. You can tell someone’s age by the kind of camera they are using. Elderly folks are still using point-and-shoot compacts. Middle-aged folks are sporting “prosumer” digital single-lens reflex cameras (DSLRs) from Canon, Nikon, Fuji and Panasonic. But as far as I can see, everyone under the age of 25 is using a smartphone, possibly with the assistance of a selfie stick.

This is partly because the main reason young people take photographs is to post them on social media, and smartphones make that easy to do. But that’s not the whole story. Those who are more serious about photography tend to upload their pictures to photo-hosting services such as Flickr. Guess what the most popular camera for Flickr members is? Apple’s iPhone – by a mile… Read on

Review of ‘The Cyber Effect’

My Observer review of Maria Aiken’s new book.

Note the doctorate after the author’s name; and the subtitle: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behaviour Changes Online; and the potted bio, informing us that “Dr Mary Aiken is the world’s foremost forensic cyberpsychologist” – all clues indicating that this is a book targeted at the US market, another addition to that sprawling genre of books by folks with professional qualifications using pop science to frighten the hoi polloi.

This is a pity, because The Cyber Effect is really rather good and doesn’t need its prevailing tone of relentless self-promotion to achieve its desired effect, which is to make one think about what digital technology is doing to us…

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Does the BBC really have a licence to snoop?

This morning’s Observer column:

My eye was caught by an interesting “scoop” in last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph: “BBC to deploy detection vans to snoop on internet users,” screamed the headline. “The BBC is to spy on internet users in their homes,” the report began, “by deploying a new generation of Wi-Fi detection vans to identify those illicitly watching its programmes online. The Telegraph can disclose that from next month, the BBC vans will fan out across the country capturing information from private Wi-Fi networks in homes to ‘sniff out’ those who have not paid the licence fee.”

Scary, eh? Before you reach for your tinfoil hat, though, some background might be helpful…

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Uber’s surrender in China: lesson for Brexiteers

This morning’s Observer column:

The big news last week was that Uber, the California-based ride-hailing company, threw in the towel in China. It announced that its Chinese rival, Didi Chuxing, would acquire all of the assets of UberChina – including its brand, business operations and data. In return, Uber gets a stake in Didi Chuxing worth £5.3bn.

Why is this significant? How long have you got?

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Watergate 2.0

This morning’s Observer column on the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computer networks:

Needless to say, it’s been dubbed Watergate 2.0, in memory of the burglary of the DNC HQ in June 1972 by people working for Richard Nixon’s campaign team. And now, just as in 1972, the key questions are: who were the burglars? And what were their motives? A number of cybersecurity firms investigated the DNC hacks and concluded that the culprits were two agencies of the Russian government, one the FSB (successor to the KGB), the other Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU. A clinching piece of evidence linking the hack to the Russians was the existence of an internet address in the DNC malware that had also been found in a piece of malware used in a Russian attack on the German parliament’s servers.

So it seems pretty clear that Putin’s lot were the burglars. But what were their motives? Here the conspiracy theories begin…

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The first self-driving car fatality proves nothing

This morning’s Observer column:

In the US, about 33,000 people are killed in automobile accidents every year. That’s 90 a day on average. So on 7 May, about 89 other people as well as Joshua Brown were killed in car crashes. But we heard nothing about those 89 personal and family tragedies: the only death that most people in the US heard about was Mr Brown’s.

Societies have to decide what they want to do about automobile safety. It will come down to a cost-benefit analysis
Why? Because he was driving (or perhaps not driving) a semi-autonomous vehicle. Writing from Detroit (coincidentally, the capital of the traditional gas-guzzling, emission-spewing automobile), two New York Times reporters wrote that “the race by automakers and technology firms to develop self-driving cars has been fuelled by the belief that computers can operate a vehicle more safely than human drivers. But that view is now in question after the revelation on Thursday that the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan was killed in an accident when the car was in self-driving mode.”

Really? With whom is the safety of self-driving cars in question? Not with anyone who knows the facts about the dangers of automobiles…

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The ‘Internet of Things’ will need better things

This morning’s Observer column:

You know the problem. You’re going abroad for a couple of weeks, during which time your house will be empty. You haven’t yet got round to installing a burglar alarm. But not to worry – just pop round to a supermarket and buy a couple of timer sockets. Plug them into the mains, set the timers to switch on and off at appropriate times twice a day, plug your lamps into them and off you go. Easy, peasy!

Well, yes. But it’s so 1950s. So analogue. Why not be really cool and have a proper networked timer socket, something that you can control from your smartphone from anywhere in the world? Something like the AuYou Wi-Fi Switch for example. Looks like it’s just the ticket. Plug it in, hold down the power button and it hooks up with the app on your (Android) smartphone, and – bingo! – job done. Now, where did you put that boarding pass?

But, hang on. Maybe you should just check the product reviews, just to be sure. Ah, here’s one by a guy called Matthew Garrett. “There’s a lot to like about this hardware,” Matthew writes, “but unfortunately it’s entirely overwhelmed by everything there is to hate about it.”

Eh? Turns out that Mr Garrett knows a lot about computer security…

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Appeasing the crocodile

This morning’s Observer column:

Winston Churchill famously defined “appeasement” as “being nice to a crocodile in the hope that he will eat you last”. By that definition, many of the world’s biggest news publishing organisations have been in the appeasement business for at least the past two years and the crocodile to which they have been sucking up is Facebook, the social networking giant.

The reason for this extraordinary self-abasement is simple: Facebook currently has more than 1.6 billion users worldwide, most of whom are very engaged with the service. Around half of them check their page every day, for example, and when they are online they spend significant amounts of time on the site or its smartphone app.

More significantly, research by the Pew Research Center revealed that these users increasingly get much of their news from their Facebook feeds. Accordingly, publishers started doing deals with Facebook to publish some (or all) of their content on it, with initially agreeable results in the shape of “referrals” – ie traffic to their own websites coming from the social network.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment…

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