President Zuck

There’s a fascinating article in The Verge based on an interview with Travis McGinn, an opinion pollster who was hired by Facebook to lead an ongoing polling operation to track minute changes in public perceptions of the company’s founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg.

It was a very unusual role,” McGinn says. “It was my job to do surveys and focus groups globally to understand why people like Mark Zuckerberg, whether they think they can trust him, and whether they’ve even heard of him. That’s especially important outside of the United States.”

McGinn tracked a wide range of questions related to Zuckerberg’s public perception. “Not just him in the abstract, but do people like Mark’s speeches? Do they like his interviews with the press? Do people like his posts on Facebook? It’s a bit like a political campaign, in the sense that you’re constantly measuring how every piece of communication lands. If Mark’s doing a barbecue in his backyard and he hops on Facebook Live, how do people respond to that?”

Facebook worked to develop an understanding of Zuckerberg’s perception that went beyond simple “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” metrics, McGinn says. “If Mark gives a speech and he’s talking about immigration and universal health care and access to equal education, it’s looking at all the different topics that Mark mentions and seeing what resonates with different audiences in the United States,” he says. “It’s very advanced research.”

Well, well. Now when was the last time a corporation devoted that kind of resource to determine how the great unwashed perceives its CEO? And — since nothing strategic goes on at Facebook without the boss’s say-so, what does it tell us of Zuckerberg’s delusions about himself?

“Facebook is Mark, and Mark is Facebook,” McGinn says.

“Mark has 60 percent voting rights for Facebook. So you have one individual, 33 years old, who has basically full control of the experience of 2 billion people around the world. That’s unprecedented. Even the president of the United States has checks and balances. At Facebook, it’s really this one person.”
McGinn claimed that he joined Facebook “hoping to have an impact from the inside.“

”I thought, here’s this huge machine that has a tremendous influence on society, and there’s nothing I can do as an outsider. But if I join the company, and I’m regularly taking the pulse of Americans to Mark, maybe, just maybe that could change the way the company does business. I worked there for six months and I realized that even on the inside, I was not going to be able to change the way that the company does business. I couldn’t change the values. I couldn’t change the culture. I was probably far too optimistic.”

This sounds extraordinarily naive of McGinn. Didn’t he understand the business model on which the company is based?

Sexual predation and power

Sobering editorial by Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Nobody can deny the ground has shifted in America. Formerly invincible men are tumbling one by one as victims come out with their stories of sexual assault. Some, like Harvey Weinstein, were already fading from power, but others, like Louis CK, were still at the height of it.

Yet one man continues to defy America’s new moral norm: its president. Seventeen women have accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment. Their claims are more numerous and no less credible than those against Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for senator in Alabama. Senate leader Mitch McConnell said this week, “I believe the women” who accused Moore, and that he “should step aside.” But asked if he believes the women who accused Trump, McConnell refused to answer. (Trump’s position: Every one of those 17 women is lying.)

So yes, the ground has shifted, but some still stand high enough on it to escape the cold, swirling waters of justice. In other words, it’s still, in the end, about power. Trump’s power is that the party still needs him (or believes it does). That means it will blatantly ignore accusations that would put any other man on the street, if not in jail.

Still, if you have to be president to achieve that sort of immunity, things aren’t so bad, right? Wrong. What Trump proves is not that you have to be president, just that you have to have leverage…

Yep. And, right on cue, comes this from the New York Times:

A year later, after a wave of harassment claims against powerful men in entertainment, politics, the arts and the news media, the discussion has come full circle with President Trump criticizing the latest politician exposed for sexual misconduct even as he continues to deny any of the accusations against him.

In this case, Mr. Trump focused his Twitter-fueled mockery on a Democratic senator while largely avoiding a similar condemnation of a Republican Senate candidate facing far more allegations. The turn in the political dialogue threatened to transform a moment of cleansing debate about sexual harassment into another weapon in the war between the political parties, led by the president himself.

Zuckerberg’s Frankenstein problem

Nice Buzzfeed piece by xxx about whether Zuck is really in charge, despite his controlling shares. Here’s the nub:

Facebook’s response to accusations about its role in the 2016 election since Nov. 9 bears this out, most notably Zuckerberg’s public comments immediately following the election that the claim that fake news influenced the US presidential election was “a pretty crazy idea.” In April, when Facebook released a white paper detailing the results of its investigation into fake news on its platform during the election, the company insisted it did not know the identity of the malicious actors using its network. And after recent revelations that Facebook had discovered Russian ads on its platform, the company maintained that as of April 2017, it was unaware of any Russian involvement. “When asked we said there was no evidence of Russian ads. That was true at the time,” Facebook told Mashable earlier this month.

Some critics of Facebook speak about the company’s leadership almost like an authoritarian government — a sovereign entity with virtually unchecked power and domineering ambition. So much so, in fact, that Zuckerberg is now frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate despite his public denials. But perhaps a better comparison might be the United Nations — a group of individuals endowed with the almost impossible responsibility of policing a network of interconnected autonomous powers. Just take Zuckerberg’s statement this week, in which he sounded strikingly like an embattled secretary-general: “It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation-states attempting to subvert elections. But if that’s what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion,” he said.

Nice metaphor, this.

Facebook meets irresistible force

Terrific blog post by Josh Marshall:

I believe what we’re seeing here is a convergence of two separate but highly charged news streams and political moments. On the one hand, you have the Russia probe, with all that is tied to that investigation. On another, you have the rising public backlash against Big Tech, the various threats it arguably poses and its outsized power in the American economy and American public life. A couple weeks ago, I wrote that after working with Google in various capacities for more than a decade I’d observed that Google is, institutionally, so accustomed to its customers actually being its products that when it gets into lines of business where its customers are really customers it really doesn’t know how to deal with them. There’s something comparable with Facebook.

Facebook is so accustomed to treating its ‘internal policies’ as though they were something like laws that they appear to have a sort of blind spot that prevents them from seeing how ridiculous their resistance sounds. To use the cliche, it feels like a real shark jumping moment. As someone recently observed, Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ are crafted to create the appearance of civic concerns for privacy, free speech, and other similar concerns. But they’re actually just a business model. Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ amount to a kind of Stepford Wives version of civic liberalism and speech and privacy rights, the outward form of the things preserved while the innards have been gutted and replaced by something entirely different, an aggressive and totalizing business model which in many ways turns these norms and values on their heads. More to the point, most people have the experience of Facebook’s ‘internal policies’ being meaningless in terms of protecting their speech or privacy or whatever as soon as they bump up against Facebook’s business model.

Spot on. Especially the Stepford Wives metaphor.

How things change

The €2.4B fine on Google handed down by the European Commission stemmed originally from complaints by shopping-comparison sites that changes in Google Shopping that the company introduced in 2008 had amounted to an abuse of its dominance in search. But 2008 was a long time ago in this racket, and shopping-comparison sites have become relatively small beer because Internet users researching possible purchases don’t start with a search engine any more. (Many of them start with Amazon, for example.)

This is deployed (by the Internet giants) as an argument for the futility of trying to regulate behaviour by dominant firms: the legal process of investigation takes so long that the eventual ruling is so out of date as to be meaningless.

This is a convenient argument, but the conclusion isn’t that we shouldn’t regulate these monsters. Nevertheless it is interesting to see how the product search scene has changed over time, as this chart shows.

Source

The obvious solution to the time-lag problem is — as the Financial Times reported on January 3 — for regulators to have “powers to impose so-called “interim measures” that would order companies to stop suspected anti-competitive behaviour before a formal finding of wrongdoing had been reached.” At the moment the European Commission does have powers to impose such measures, but only if it can prove that a company is causing “irrevocable harm” — a pretty high threshold. The solution: lower the threshold.

Corporate candour and public sector cant

The UK Information Commissioner has completed her investigation into the deal between Google DeepMind and the Royal Free Hospital Trust which gave the company access to the health records of 1.6m NHS patients. The Commissioner concluded that:

Royal Free NHS Foundation Trust failed to comply with the Data Protection Act when it provided patient details to Google DeepMind.

The Trust provided personal data of around 1.6 million patients as part of a trial to test an alert, diagnosis and detection system for acute kidney injury.

But an ICO investigation found several shortcomings in how the data was handled, including that patients were not adequately informed that their data would be used as part of the test.

The Trust has been asked to commit to changes ensuring it is acting in line with the law by signing an undertaking.

My Cambridge colleague Julia Powles (now at Cornell) and Hal Hodgson of the Economist did a long and thorough investigation of this secret deal (using conventional investigative tools like Freedom of Information requests). This led to the publication of an excellent, peer-reviewed article on “Google DeepMind and healthcare in an age of algorithms”, published in the Springer journal Health and Technology in March. In the period up to and following publication, the authors were subjected to pretty fierce pushback from DeepMind. It was asserted, for example, that their article contained significant factual errors. But requests for information about these supposed ‘errors’ were not granted. As an observer of this corporate behaviour I was struck — and puzzled — by the divergence between DeepMind’s high-minded, holier-than-thou, corporate self-image and its aggressiveness in public controversy. And I wondered if this was a sign that Google iron had entered DeepMind’s soul. (The company was acquired by the search giant in 2014.)

But now all is sweetness and light, apparently. At any rate, DeepMind’s co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman and Dominic King, the Clinical Lead in DeepMind Health, have this morning published a contrite post on the company Blog. “We welcome the ICO’s thoughtful resolution of this case”, they write, “which we hope will guarantee the ongoing safe and legal handling of patient data for Streams [the codename for the collaboration between the company and the NHS Trust]”.

Although today’s findings are about the Royal Free, we need to reflect on our own actions too. In our determination to achieve quick impact when this work started in 2015, we underestimated the complexity of the NHS and of the rules around patient data, as well as the potential fears about a well-known tech company working in health. We were almost exclusively focused on building tools that nurses and doctors wanted, and thought of our work as technology for clinicians rather than something that needed to be accountable to and shaped by patients, the public and the NHS as a whole. We got that wrong, and we need to do better.

This is an intelligent and welcome response. Admitting to mistakes is the surest way to learn. But it’s amazing how few corporations and other organisations do it.

When I first read the draft of Julia’s and Hal’s paper my first thought was that the record of errors they had uncovered was not the product of malign intent, but rather a symptom of what happens when two groups of enthusiasts (consultants in the Royal Free; AI geeks in DeepMind) who were excited by the potential of machine learning in detecting and treating particular diseases. Each group was unduly overawed by the other, and in their determination to get this exciting partnership rolling they ignored (or perhaps were unaware of) the tedious hurdles that one (rightly) has to surmount if one seeks to use patient data for research. And once they had been caught out, defensive corporate instincts took over, preventing an intelligent response to the researchers’ challenge.

Interestingly, there are intimations of this in today’s DeepMind blog post. For example:

“Our initial legal agreement with the Royal Free in 2015 could have been much more detailed about the specific project underway, as well as the rules we had agreed to follow in handling patient information. We and the Royal Free replaced it in 2016 with a far more comprehensive contract … and we’ve signed similarly strong agreements with other NHS Trusts using Streams.”

“We made a mistake in not publicising our work when it first began in 2015, so we’ve proactively announced and published the contracts for our subsequent NHS partnerships.”

“In our initial rush to collaborate with nurses and doctors to create products that addressed clinical need, we didn’t do enough to make patients and the public aware of our work or invite them to challenge and shape our priorities.”

All good stuff. Now let’s see if they deliver on it.

Their NHS partners, however, are much less contrite — even though they are the focus of the Information Commissioner’s report. The Trust’s mealymouthed response says, in part:

“We have co-operated fully with the ICO’s investigation which began in May 2016 and it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed to test new technology. We also welcome the decision of the Department of Health to publish updated guidance for the wider NHS in the near future.”

This is pure cant. The Trust broke the law. So to say that “we have co-operated fully” and “it is helpful to receive some guidance on the issue about how patient information can be processed” is like a burglar claiming credit for co-operating with the cops and expressing gratitude for their advice on how to break-and-enter legally next time.

Zuckerberg’s virtual world

This morning’s Observer column:

On Thursday 16 February, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and supreme leader of Facebook, the world’s most populous virtual country (population 2bn) published an epistle to his 89m disciple-followers. “Building Global Community” was the headline. “On our journey to connect the world,” the supreme leader began, “we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?”

Good question. But wait a minute, who’s the “we” here? It crops up 156 times in the 5,700-word epistle…

Read on

Google’s new power-grab

Google’s Chrome browser is popular world wide. And it turns out that many of its users don’t like ads — which is very naughty of them in an ad-based universe. But now there are rumours that Google plans to incorporate some kind of blocking of “unacceptable” ads in its browser. Which of course might be welcome to many users. But it would also make Google the arbiter of what is “unacceptable”.

Source

The privacy vs secrecy question properly framed

This neat formulation from a 2014 essay by Shoshanna Zuboff:

We often hear that our privacy rights have been eroded and secrecy has grown. But that way of framing things obscures what’s really at stake. Privacy hasn’t been eroded. It’s been expropriated. The difference in framing provides new ways to define the problem and consider solutions.

In the conventional telling, privacy and secrecy are treated as opposites. In fact, one is a cause and the other is an effect. Exercising our right to privacy leads to choice. We can choose to keep something secret or to share it, but we only have that choice when we first have privacy. Privacy rights confer decision rights. Privacy lets us decide where we want to be on the spectrum between secrecy and transparency in each situation. Secrecy is the effect; privacy is the cause.

I suggest that privacy rights have not been eroded, if anything they’ve multiplied. The difference now is how these rights are distributed. Instead of many people having some privacy rights, nearly all the rights have been concentrated in the hands of a few. On the one hand, we have lost the ability to choose what we keep secret, and what we share. On the other, Google, the NSA, and others in the new zone have accumulated privacy rights. How? Most of their rights have come from taking ours without asking. But they also manufactured new rights for themselves, the way a forger might print currency. They assert a right to privacy with respect to their surveillance tactics and then exercise their choice to keep those tactics secret.

We need more writing like this. On the phony ‘privacy vs security’ question, for example.

As George Lakoff pointed out many years ago (but only right-wingers listened), creative framing is the way to win both arguments and votes.