Sunday 21 June, 2020

Nick Clegg is on the wrong side of history at Facebook

Today’s Observer column:

For me, the most interesting thing about Wednesday’s farrago was the prominent role assigned in it to Nick Clegg, formerly deputy prime minister of the UK and now a bagman for the Facebook supreme leader. Listening to him on the Today programme, one wondered how he could come to countenance giving Trump a clearer run at a second term.

One answer, suggested by Anne Applebaum in her study of the rationales offered by senior Republican politicians who have found ways of accommodating themselves to Trump, is the claim that they can do more good by being “on the inside”. Funnily enough, this was the rationale also used by Clegg when he went over to the dark side. “I’m joining Facebook,” he declared, “to build bridges between politics and tech. It’s time that we harnessed big tech to the cause of progress and optimism. I believe that Facebook can lead the way.”

To hear a former liberal talk like this about a company whose carelessness and ignorance enabled ethnic cleansing and genocide in Myanmar – to take just one example from a long list of Facebook outrages – really takes the biscuit…

Read on


Quarantine diary — Day 92

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Monday 8 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

“I think we have to recognize that for most of our history, our institutions were explicitly racist.”

  • US Attorney General William Barr in an interview on CNBC.

Well, well.


Policing reform can work in the US: Camden N.J is an encouraging case-study

From Alex Tabarrok:

One of the few bright spots over the past week was Camden, NJ where instead of beating protesters the police joined them. Protests in Camden were peaceful and orderly and there was little to no looting. As I wrote last year, Camden disbanded its police force in 2013, nullifying the old union contract, and rebuilt.

Canden was sometimes reckoned to be the third most dangerous city in the US. Ever since the reforms, all of its key law-enforcement metrics have improved. The key to it seems to be breaking the police union’s control over the municipality. Which is interesting. Often unions are key to protecting workers. But sometimes they become toxic — as anyone who (like me) who remembers the print unions in London’s Fleet Street can remember.


Facebook is an autocracy, so it has a natural affinity with autocrats

My Observer column yesterday made the point that Mark Zuckerberg holds the key to whether Trump gets re-elected or not and predicted that he won’t do anything to prevent re-election.

This conjecture seemed a bit extreme to some readers. But here is a very respectable columnist, Rana Foroohar, writing in today’s FT

That brings us to what Facebook’s stance is really about — power. Like most large, ubiquitous and systemically important companies that operate globally, Facebook aligns itself with the powers that be. If it wants to stay this big and unregulated, Facebook cannot afford to upset the rulers of countries where it operates, no matter how abhorrent their actions. We saw that in Myanmar, where military personnel used Facebook to help incite the Rohingya massacres. Now we see it in the US, where Facebook refuses to run afoul of a president who just called in troops to tear gas citizens.

It is a kind of oligarchic symbiosis that we haven’t really seen in the US since 1877. That was when then-president Rutherford B. Hayes, who had been helped into office by the railway barons, ordered 1,200 federal troops to Baltimore to put down what he called a labour “insurrection”. It was the first time that federal troops had been turned against American workers, and it transformed what might have remained a local conflict into the Great Railway Strike of 1877.


And, for the avoidance of doubt, Zuckerberg is an authentic autocrat

Here’s the relevant section of the company’s SEC filing:

Our CEO has control over key decision making as a result of his control of a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock.

Mark Zuckerberg, our founder, Chairman, and CEO, is able to exercise voting rights with respect to a majority of the voting power of our outstanding capital stock and therefore has the ability to control the outcome of matters submitted to our stockholders for approval, including the election of directors and any merger, consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets. This concentrated control could delay, defer, or prevent a change of control, merger,consolidation, or sale of all or substantially all of our assets that our other stockholders support, or conversely this concentrated control could result in the consummation of such a transaction that our other stockholders do not support. This concentrated control could also discourage a potential investor from acquiring our Class A common stock, which has limited voting power relative to the Class B common stock, and might harm the trading price of our Class A common stock.In addition, Mr. Zuckerberg has the ability to control the management and major strategic investments of our company as a result of his position as our CEO andhis ability to control the election or replacement of our directors. In the event of his death, the shares of our capital stock that Mr. Zuckerberg owns will be transferred to the persons or entities that he has designated. As a board member and officer, Mr. Zuckerberg owes a fiduciary duty to our stockholders and must actin good faith in a manner he reasonably believes to be in the best interests of our stockholders. As a stockholder, even a controlling stockholder, Mr. Zuckerberg isentitled to vote his shares, and shares over which he has voting control as governed by a voting agreement, in his own interests, which may not always be in the interests of our stockholders generally.

In other words, absolute control.


Solving online events

Very perceptive essay by Benedict Evans on why it’s so difficult to replace large face-to-face conferences with online events.

Online events remind me a lot of ecommerce in about 1996. The software is raw and rough around the edges, and often doesn’t work very well, though that can get fixed. But more importantly, no-one quite knows what they should be building.

A conference, or an ‘event’, is a bundle. There is content from a stage, with people talking or presenting or doing panels and maybe taking questions. Then, everyone talks to each other in the hallways and over coffee and lunch and drinks. Separately, there may be a trade fair of dozens or thousands of booths and stands, where you go to see all of the products in the industry at once, and talk to the engineers and salespeople. And then, there are all of the meetings that you schedule because everyone is there. At a really big ‘conference’ many people don’t even go to the actual event itself. At CES or MWC, a lot of the people who go never actually make it to the conference or the show floor – they spend their days in hotel suites in Las Vegas or Barcelona meeting clients and partners. Everyone goes because everyone goes.

The only part of that bundle that obviously works online today is the content. It’s really straightforward to turn a conference presentation or a panel into a video stream, but none of the rest is straightforward at all.

First, we haven’t worked out good online tools for many of the reasons people go to these events…

Insightful essay, worth reading in full.


Quarantine diary — Day 79

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Thursday 4 June, 2020

Quote of the Day

  • Current issue of Private Eye

The government has suddenly twigged that the no-deal Brexit it’s carefully arranging will mean drugs shortages.

Every day, I wake up thinking that the incompetence of the Johnson administration can’t get worse, and every day it does. Now the FT reports that the government is struggling to rebuild stockpiles of drugs eroded by Covid-19 amid fears that a “no-deal” Brexit will jeopardise medicine supplies just as a second coronavirus wave hits the country.

It seems that Matt Hancock, the health secretary, “has accepted the need” to finalise a formal plan to rebuild a six-week stockpile of drugs. Well, that’s a start, anyway. But…

The combination of stockpiles being depleted during the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption to international production of generic drugs in India and China, and the risks of a second wave interrupting global supplies this year had raised “huge concern” in the top levels of the health department, the Whitehall official added.

With the pharmacy industry apparently indicating that it will be unable to replicate the stockpiles built last autumn, the government faces the prospect of trying to secure supplies through global procurement at a time when markets are already tight.

“Industry is saying that all last autumn’s stock has run down during Covid and the department now thinks it looks doubtful stockpiling can be industry-led, as per last time, so the government is looking at its own options too,” the official said.

Standby by for another Hancock triumph, along the lines of his inability to secure supplies of PPE because he started too late.

Interesting factoid: Hancock read PPE at Oxford, but apparently that degree programme doesn’t have anything in it about actual PPE.


Levels of public trust in government Covid information

From the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


Trump’s ludicrous biblical photo-op, and its consequences.

I mentioned this in yesterday’s Quarantine Diary.

It was brilliantly covered on the New York Times‘s podcast The Daily. A must-listen IMHO (it’s about 28 minutes)

And then read former Defense Secretary General Mattis’s condemnation of the stunt in The Atlantic, in which he says, in part:

When I joined the military, some 50 years ago,” he writes, “I swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens—much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”


How Facebook can fix itself

(Except of course that it won’t because its omnipotent boss thinks Facebook is doing just fine. And it needs to keep on the right side of Trump. This may be a good idea in terms of revenues between now and November 4. After that, perhaps less so. See my forthcoming Observer column on Sunday for more detail. )

In the meantime here’s a well-meaning piece from a former employee of the company.

If you think of Facebook as the place where people get their information, it’s like the one grocery store in a town. Everyone shops there and its shelves are mostly filled with food that is nutritious, fun, entertaining, engaging, and so on. However, sprinkled through the shelves are foods that look like regular stuff but are actually poison. I’m not talking about junk food with frivolous or empty calories. I’m talking about food that literally poisons one’s mind, turning him or her against science, facts, and other people. If you accept that there’s poison among the aisles, would you spare any resources to root it out? Are there any risks you would not take? At the very least, you would not hesitate to put warning labels on the poison.

Sweet, isn’t it. And his remedy for Facebook’s toxic behaviour? The company (by which he means Zuckerberg) needs “to build trust”.

You need to show the world that you are not putting profit over values. Therefore, I would suspend the stock buyback program. As I mentioned, you’ve committed ~$34 billion to stock buybacks. It looks like you’ve spent about $20 billion. That’s $14 billion left (please check my math). I’d devote the equivalent resources toward realizing the goal of better informing users. You’d be showing that you’re literally choosing users over profit.

What’s the metric? I don’t know, but I have confidence that you can figure it out. You have swung the pendulum all the way toward enabling expression. Let’s move it toward the quality of information, or an outcome of an accurately informed public. Success on this would be infinitely more valuable to your investors than artificially propping up the stock with buybacks.

He forgot to add the motherhood and apple pie.

__________________________________ 

The Dominic Cummings eyesight-test-game

From the FT:

“Dominic needs to get back to work,” the game instructs, “but his eyes have went all weird. Best drive to Barnard Castle with his kid just to make sure it’s safe to drive to London.” And so I find myself driving along an obstacle-strewn country road towards a distant castle. It’s difficult to concentrate because my character’s vision keeps fogging over and he won’t stop coughing. An imperious child screams at me from the back seat. I finally arrive, passing a double-decker bus displaying a banner that reads “Clap you plebs”. As I steer through the castle gate, a victory message pops on to the screen: “Your eyesight is fine.”

30 Miles to Barnard Castle was released on the game-creation platform Dreams just hours after Dominic Cummings, the UK prime minister’s chief adviser, held a press conference where he addressed his controversial trip from London to Durham under lockdown. It’s a smart example of video game satire, addressing a topical subject by subverting familiar driving game tropes. In asking players to become Cummings behind the wheel, the game elegantly underlines the most farcical aspects of his story.

Lovely stuff. Video-game authors have a sense of humour too. Who knew?


Quarantine diary — Day 75

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Sunday 17 May, 2020

Parenting is a full-time job in a pandemic

Outside our kitchen window, this evening.


Facebook’s ‘oversight board’ is proof that it wants to be regulated – by itself

This morning’s Observer column:

Here we go again. Facebook, a tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation state, has had another go at pretending that it is one. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become shadow banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook turned out to be distinctly unimpressed by that idea; after all, who would trust Facebook with money? So the project is effectively evaporating into something that looks a bit like PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s supreme leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange autocracy (population 2.6 billion) he thinks that it should have its own supreme court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later, wiser councils – possibly a guy called Nick Clegg – persuaded him that that might be just a tad presumptuous.) So it’s now just an “oversight board for content decisions”, complete with its own charter and a 40-strong board of big shots who will, it seems, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform”. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a board for locking the stable door after the horses have bolted. Let us call the Facebook oversight board by its initials: FOB…

Read on


Introducing Colonel Johnson (late of the Light Brigade), and his batman, Cummings

There’s a new comedy duo on the British political scene.

Unfortunately, they don’t make people laugh.

See today’s Quarantine Diary for details.


The rise and rise of conspiracist thinking

The Atlantic has a fascinating new series on a topic that until 2016 most people (though not me and my academic colleagues) thought was only of fringe interest.

Five substantial essays.


Quarantine diary — Day 57

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There’s ‘Facebook’; and then there’s Facebook

Dave Winer has been ruminating on the idea of ‘Facebook’ viewed not so much as “Zuckerberg’s monster” or a toxic global corporation (the way most of its critics and the media portray it) but as an astonishing global collection of human users. He’s been thinking along these lines for a while, but the way he puts it now is particularly striking. “When I was 14”, he writes,

I went to high school in the Bronx and lived in Queens. It was a 1.5 hour trip each way. I had a few choices but they all magically took the same amount of time. One of the routes was to take the Q16 bus to Main Street, then the 7 train to Grand Central, and switch to the 4 train uptown. The Bedford Park Blvd station is two blocks from the school. One day on the train, I remember this really clearly, I was watching all the houses and apartment buildings we passed, first in Queens, then in the Bronx. Inside every window, I guessed, was a family, like my own, possibly. With their dramas and struggles, stories, victories, history, abuse, happiness, fear. I tried to imagine how each of them might live and realized in an overwhelming way that I could never begin to understand who they were. NYC, even then, was an ethnically and economically diverse place. Of course as we traveled through the city, the people on the train changed too. Very few of them were Bronx Science students. There were all kinds of people. Who knew what any of them were thinking. The point is this. The world is huge. To keep our sanity we have to simplify it, and to do that we have to ignore differences. The stories we tell ourselves little connection to reality. And so any general statement about a community as huge and diverse as Facebook is certain to miss the mark, widely. And most of what we read only focuses on the company, not the users. To have that appear as journalism is just wrong because journalism has a higher calling, to find out what’s real, what’s true, and then say that.

Watching the way my own extended family uses Facebook, that strikes a chord.

Zuckerberg’s politics: Facebook Über Alles

Robust commentary from Siva Vaidhyanathan after the news that Zuckerberg has had two secret dinners with Trump in the White House:

At the very moment when the US House of Representatives reveals overwhelming evidence that Trump used his power as president to support his re-election campaign and bolster his friend Vladimir Putin by withholding support from Ukraine, Zuckerberg continues to treat the Trump White House as just another potential regulator who must be charmed.

Zuckerberg’s politics favor two things: the interests of Facebook and people like him. So it’s no wonder Zuckerberg got close to the two American presidents who have served over his company’s history. Since the world abandoned its mindless worship of Facebook and Silicon Valley in recent years, Zuckerberg has been on a constant if unsuccessful campaign to save face and stem efforts to regulate or fracture his company.

So the problem with Zuckerberg’s politics is not just that they seem to have turned to the right. His politics have not changed at all. The world has. The problem is that by choosing an amoral set of principles and positions he has become deeply immoral.

Facebook’s strategic obfuscation

Facebook’s Carolyn Everson, vice president of global marketing solutions, was interviewed by Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference in Los Angeles yesterday. Vox had a nice report of the interview. This section is particularly interesting:

When pressed on Facebook’s refusal to fact-check political ads, Everson tried to defend the company’s stance by referencing the rules that govern how broadcasters must handle political advertisements. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission has extensive guidelines for television and radio broadcasters around political advertising that bar broadcasters from censoring ads or from taking down ones that make false claims. Those guidelines don’t apply to online platforms, including Facebook, but the company has consistently tried to hide behind them.

“We have no ability, legally, to tell a political candidate that they are not allowed to run their ad,” Everson said.

That’s complete baloney. Facebook is not bound by any regulations governing TV ads. It can shut down anyone or anything it likes or dislikes.

After the interview, a Facebook spokeswoman walked back the comments and said that Everson misspoke when she said Facebook was legally barred from refusing to run political ads.

An audience member also asked Everson why Facebook has decided to allow right-wing website Breitbart to be listed in its new News tab, which is ostensibly an indication that Breitbart offers trusted news, despite being a known source of propaganda. “We’re treating them as a news source; I wouldn’t use the term ‘trusted news,’” Everson said, pointing out that Facebook will also include “far-left” publications.

Which of course raises interesting questions about Facebook’s standards for determining the “integrity” of the news sources it includes in its tab, which the company extolled when it launched the feature in October.

How “Don’t Be Evil” panned out

My Observer review of Rana Foroohar’s new book about the tech giants and their implications for our world.

“Don’t be evil” was the mantra of the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the graduate students who, in the late 1990s, had invented a groundbreaking way of searching the web. At the time, one of the things the duo believed to be evil was advertising. There’s no reason to doubt their initial sincerity on this matter, but when the slogan was included in the prospectus for their company’s flotation in 2004 one began to wonder what they were smoking. Were they really naive enough to believe that one could run a public company on a policy of ethical purity?

The problem was that purity requires a business model to support it and in 2000 the venture capitalists who had invested in Google pointed out to the boys that they didn’t have one. So they invented a model that involved harvesting users’ data to enable targeted advertising. And in the four years between that capitulation to reality and the flotation, Google’s revenues increased by nearly 3,590%. That kind of money talks.
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Rana Foroohar has adopted the Google mantra as the title for her masterful critique of the tech giants that now dominate our world…

Read on

Facebook contradictions

Proud announcement from Facebook:

Today, we removed four separate networks of accounts, Pages and Groups for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior on Facebook and Instagram. Three of them originated in Iran and one in Russia, and they targeted a number of different regions of the world: the US, North Africa and Latin America. All of these operations created networks of accounts to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing. We have shared information about our findings with law enforcement, policymakers and industry partners.

We’re constantly working to detect and stop this type of activity because we don’t want our services to be used to manipulate people.

To which Charles Arthur comments: “I thought manipulating people was basically the point.” Which it is. It’s just that apparently some kinds of manipulation are verboten. And of course, as Charles says, this is just the stuff they’re catching.

Sauce for the goose…

You have to hand it to Elizabeth Warren sometimes. Annoyed (as I am) about Facebook’s insistence on continuing to allow untruthful political ads to run on the platform, Warren placed an untruthful ad herself to see what happened (and, clearly, to annoy Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s the gist of the NYT report of the jape:

The Democratic presidential candidate bought a political ad on the social network this past week that purposefully includes false claims about Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and President Trump to goad the social network to remove misinformation in political ads ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

The ad, placed widely on Facebook beginning on Thursday, starts with Ms. Warren announcing “Breaking news.” The ad then goes on to say that Facebook and Mr. Zuckerberg are backing the re-election of Trump. Neither Mr. Zuckerberg nor the Silicon Valley company has announced their support of a candidate.

“You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking, ‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not,” Ms. Warren said in the ad.

In a series of tweets on Saturday, Ms. Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, said she had deliberately made an ad with lies because Facebook had previously allowed politicians to place ads with false claims. “We decided to see just how far it goes,” Ms. Warren wrote, calling Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit machine” and adding that Mr. Zuckerberg should be held accountable.

Lovely.