Facebook: (yet) another scandalous revelation

If you’re a cynic about corporate power and (lack of) responsibility — as I am — then Facebook is the gift that keeps on giving. Consider this from the NYT this morning:

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.

The special arrangements are detailed in hundreds of pages of Facebook documents obtained by The New York Times. The records, generated in 2017 by the company’s internal system for tracking partnerships, provide the most complete picture yet of the social network’s data-sharing practices. They also underscore how personal data has become the most prized commodity of the digital age, traded on a vast scale by some of the most powerful companies in Silicon Valley and beyond.

The deals described in the documents benefited more than 150 companies — most of them tech businesses, including online retailers and entertainment sites, but also automakers and media organizations, and include Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo. Their applications, according to the documents, sought the data of hundreds of millions of people a month, the records show. The deals, the oldest of which date to 2010, were all active in 2017. Some were still in effect this year.

Is there such a condition as scandal fatigue? If there is, then I’m beginning to suffer from it.

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…

Read on

Why the world isn’t as flat as Tom Friedman thinks

This morning’s Observer column.

Friedman’s book [The World is Flat: The Globalized World in the Twenty-first Century] is a paradigmatic exposition of the dominant narrative about technology – what one might call the Californian ideology – which sees computing technology as an essentially benign force that, over time, will iron out many of the economic, cultural and ideological divides that so disfigure our contemporary world. The basic message is that the internet creates a level playing field. And the freedoms that the network brings – freedom to communicate, access knowledge, publish and consume – will in time undermine the capacity of tyrants to keep their subjects in thrall. In this at least, the Californian ideology mirrors its Marxist counterpart, in that both believe that the state will eventually wither away.

Between now and that particular nirvana, however, a few niggling difficulties remain. One is that the state shows no sign of withering any time soon…

Google’s exclusive new operating system

Here’s an interesting angle on Google’s plan for its cloud-based operating system.

Google’s Chrome OS is a great idea. Put as much as possible into the cloud, and keep the physical device as a “thin client” to access this functionality. However, this great dependence on Internet connectivity has left the OS virtually useless for the vast majority of the world population, especially those who would have benefited the most from a low-cost, lightweight computer.

Now that a $100 computer is actually starting to look plausible, it’s ironic that those in true need of one won’t be able to use it. It will remain a luxury item, a secondary computer to those better off.

An even bleaker outlook: broadband

The numbers so far have been about Internet access, any kind, but to properly use a Web OS like the Chrome OS, you really need a broadband connection. This disqualifies an even larger percentage of the population. The mere thought of downloading and uploading documents and other data over an old dial-up connection makes us shiver.

So how common is broadband? Not as common as you might expect. For example, in the United States, 74.1% of the population has Internet access, but as of 2008, only 57% were accessing the Internet over a broadband connection. You could say that this makes Chrome OS unusable to 43% of the US population…

Thanks to Charles Arthur for passing on the link. Actually, there are time when I think that Chrome OS might not be too hot over my BT rural “broadband” DSL either.

Sugar on a stick

From Technology Review.

The open-source education software developed for the “$100 laptop” can now be loaded onto a $5 USB stick to give aging PCs and Macs a new interface and custom educational software.

“What we are doing is taking a bunch of old machines that barely run Windows 2000, and turning them into something interesting and useful for essentially zero cost,” says Walter Bender, former president of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. “It becomes a whole new computer running off the USB key; we can breathe new life into millions of decrepit old machines.”

Bender left OLPC last year to found Sugar Labs, which promotes the open-source user interface, dubbed Sugar, and educational software originally developed at OLPC. Bender has dubbed the new effort Sugar on a Stick. The software can be downloaded for free from the Sugar Labs website as part of the new initiative, which will be announced at a conference in Berlin today.

This summer, Sugar Labs will also deploy the software at the Gardner Pilot Academy, an elementary school in Boston, under a $20,000 grant from the Gould Charitable Foundation. Sugar Labs also plans to release an improved version of the software at the end of 2009.

Increasing online giving by intelligent design

I’m not an unqualified admirer of Jakob Neilsen’s work, but this Alertbox post makes a lot of sense. What he was trying to find out is what affects online donors’ decisions

We asked participants what information they want to see on non-profit websites before they decide whether to donate. Their answers fell into 4 broad categories, 2 of which were the most heavily requested:

* The organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work.

* How it uses donations and contributions.

That is: What are you trying to achieve, and how will you spend my money?

Sadly, only 43% of the sites we studied answered the first question on their homepage. Further, only a ridiculously low 4% answered the second question on the homepage. Although organizations typically provided these answers somewhere within the site, users often had problems finding this crucial information.

As we’ve long known, what people say they want is one thing. How they actually behave when they’re on websites is another. Of the two, we put more credence in the latter. We therefore analyzed users’ decision-making processes as they decided which organizations to support.

In choosing between 2 charities, people referred to 5 categories of information. However, an organization’s mission, goals, objectives, and work was by far the most important. Indeed, it was 3.6 times as important as the runner-up issue, which was the organization’s presence in the user’s own community.

(Information about how organizations used donations did impact decision-making, but it was far down the list relative to its second-place ranking among things that people claimed that they'd be looking for.)

People want to know what a non-profit stands for, because they want to contribute to causes that share their ideals and values. Most people probably agree that, for example, it’s good to help impoverished residents of developing countries or patients suffering from nasty diseases. Many organizations claim to do these very things. The question in a potential donor’s mind is how the organization proposes to help. Often, sites we studied failed to answer this question clearly — and lost out on donations as a result…

OLPC downsizes

ArsTechnica reports that

In an announcement posted to the OLPC wiki, Negroponte reveals that the organization will have to significantly scale back and cut costs in order to continue operating. The new budget constraints have necessitated major layoffs and pay cuts.

"Like many other nonprofits that are facing tough economic times, One Laptop per Child must downsize in order to keep costs in line with fewer financial resources. Today we are reducing our team by approximately 50% and there will be salary reductions for the remaining 32 people," he wrote. "While we are saddened by this development, we remain firmly committed to our mission of getting laptops to children in developing countries."

Another victim of OLPC budget cuts is the Sugar project, a Linux-based education software platform that OLPC developed for its laptops. This cut is unsurprising, because OLPC has gradually been moving away from Sugar and has increasingly sought to support Windows. It is still unclear whether OLPC will continue to encourage its large buyers to adopt Sugar, but Negroponte says unambiguously that the organization will be working on transitioning Sugar development entirely to the community.

The report goes on to describe the OLPC project’s “extreme dependence on economy of scale” as its Achilles heel.

The organization was not able to secure the large bulk orders that it had originally anticipated and fell short of meeting its target $100 per unit price. The worldwide economic slowdown has made it even more difficult for OLPC to find developing countries that have cash to spare on education technology. The latest restructuring effort could help OLPC regain its focus, but the failure of its past attempts to do so don’t really provide much confidence.

Hmmm… I’m sorry that they’ve hit trouble, but my sympathy is tempered by irritation at the way the project seems to be re-focussing on running Windows.

Wikipedia offline

Wikipedia produces a downloadable version of the encyclopedia aimed at the schools, with content relevant to the national curriculum. Great idea, and one that could have some serious applications in developing countries where schools have difficulty getting a workable internet connection. The blurb describes it as

a free, hand-checked, non-commercial selection from Wikipedia, targeted around the UK National Curriculum and useful for much of the English speaking world. It has about 5500 articles (as much as can be fitted on a DVD with good size images) and is about the size of a twenty volume encyclopaedia (34,000 images and 20 million words). Articles were chosen from a list ranked by importance and quality generated by project members. This list of articles was then manually sorted for relevance to children, and adult topics were removed. Compared to the 2007 version some six hundred articles were removed and two thousand more relevant articles (of now adequate quality) were added. SOS Children volunteers then checked and tidied up the contents, first by selecting historical versions of articles free from vandalism and then by removing unsuitable sections. External links and references are also not included since it was infeasible to check all of these.

The project is a joint venture with SOS Children’s Villages.

Thanks to BoingBoing for the link.