Friday 21 March, 2020

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It’s the Spring Equinox!


Boris Johnson’s fianceé is pregnant and they’re living in the same house. So shouldn’t Johnson be in quarantine too?

After all, the government’s advice is that pregnant women should self-quarantine (even though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that they are more at risk). Concealing him from public view would at least stop us being subjected to the Bertie Wooster nonsense he talked yesterday about getting this virus blighter beaten in 12 weeks. He sometimes seems incapable of engaging his brain before opening his mouth.


The Net is now vital infrastructure. So it must be protected during this crisis

As more and more people have to stay — or work from — home, the Internet is is now really part of society’s critical infrastructure. So we need to make sure that it can continue to carry the increased load that’s heading its way. That means that, in the end, some uses will have to take priority over others. I’ve been ranting for weeks that HD streaming of entertainment content should be de-prioritised, and was relieved to see that the EU has come round to that view. So it’s good to see that Netflix and YouTube announce that they will reduce streaming quality in Europe for at least the next month to prevent the internet collapsing under the strain of unprecedented usage due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Sky News reports both companies saying that the measures will affect all video streams for 30 days. “We estimate that this will reduce Netflix traffic on European networks by around 25% while also ensuring a good quality service for our members,” a Netflix spokesperson said in a statement. A spokesperson for Google, which owns YouTube, said: “We will continue working with member state governments and network operators to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.”

The Financial Times reports that in Italy, the first country to enact a full lockdown, there has been a three-fold increase in the use of video conferencing, which, alongside streaming and gaming, drove a 75 per cent rise in residential data traffic across broadband and mobile networks during the weekend, according to Telecom Italia. And the Spanish telecoms industry issued a warning at the start of the week to urge consumers to ration their internet usage by streaming and downloading more in off-peak hours.

This is going to get worse. What’s happening — predictably — is that whereas Internet use tended to spike in the evenings, now it’s higher (sometimes much higher) throughout the day. So we now have another curve that we need to “flatten”. And it’s possible, therefore, that the EU will have to revisit its Net Neutrality rules as a consequence.


How to Make Your Own Hand Sanitizer

Recipes from Wired magazine. I think I’ll stick to soap and water.


How will we know when we’re through this?

A question that Steven Levy asked during his interview of Larry Brilliant. (That’s the Larry Brilliant of eradicating smallpox and the famous TED talk about how to deal with pandemics.) His mantra: detect early, and respond early.

Here’s his answer to Levy’s question:

The world is not going to begin to look normal until three things have happened. One, we figure out whether the distribution of this virus looks like an iceberg, which is one-seventh above the water, or a pyramid, where we see everything. If we’re only seeing right now one-seventh of the actual disease because we’re not testing enough, and we’re just blind to it, then we’re in a world of hurt. Two, we have a treatment that works, a vaccine or antiviral. And three, maybe most important, we begin to see large numbers of people—in particular nurses, home health care providers, doctors, policemen, firemen, and teachers who have had the disease—are immune, and we have tested them to know that they are not infectious any longer. And we have a system that identifies them, either a concert wristband or a card with their photograph and some kind of a stamp on it. Then we can be comfortable sending our children back to school, because we know the teacher is not infectious.

The interview is well worth reading in full.

And when you’ve done that, watch his 2006 TED talk. You won’t regret it.


Could Google users in UK lose EU data protection?

This Reuters report suggests that we could.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under U.S. jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other U.S. tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

The recent Cloud Act in the United States, however, is expected to make it easier for British authorities to obtain data from U.S. companies. Britain and the United States are also on track to negotiate a broader trade agreement.

Beyond that, the United States has among the weakest privacy protections of any major economy, with no broad law despite years of advocacy by consumer protection groups.

Google, needless to say, declined to comment.

If this turns out to be true, it will mark my departure from all the Google services that I currently use. Better start organising now, just in case…

Of you’re interested here’s a how-to link.

Patronising BS from the Google boys

Announcing their decision to step down from directly managing the company they created, the Google co-founders wrote:

With Alphabet now well-established, and Google and the Other Bets operating effectively as independent companies, it’s the natural time to simplify our management structure. We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company. And Alphabet and Google no longer need two CEOs and a President. Going forward, Sundar will be the CEO of both Google and Alphabet. He will be the executive responsible and accountable for leading Google, and managing Alphabet’s investment in our portfolio of Other Bets. We are deeply committed to Google and Alphabet for the long term, and will remain actively involved as Board members, shareholders and co-founders. In addition, we plan to continue talking with Sundar regularly, especially on topics we’re passionate about!

John Gruber is having none of it:

This whole “Alphabet” thing is a joke. I still don’t get what they’re even trying for with it. The company is Google and we all know it. The subsidiary owns the parent and everyone knows it. No one is fooled by this. Nothing has changed regarding the goofy super-class shares that Page and Brin hold that give them complete control of the company. Google is a privately-held company that trades as a publicly-held one.

Here’s the thing that’s always rubbed me the wrong way about Google. They’re insulting. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates — I completely believe they’re all geniuses. But they never seem(ed) condescending. Tim Cook and Satya Nadella aren’t founders but they’re both great examples of what a CEO should be: smart, honest, respectful.

Brin and Page are almost certainly smarter than you and me. But they’re not as much smarter as they think they are. Read this whole announcement through the filter of “they think we’re dumb” and it makes a lot more sense. And if they were as smart as they think they are, they’d therefore be smart enough to recognize how tone-deaf this plays.

Yep.

‘Don’t be Evil’ changes to ‘Don’t ask me anything’

From Steven Levy, who knows as much about Google as any outsider:

Last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent an email blast to his 100,000 or so employees, cutting back the company’s defining all-hands meeting known as TGIF. The famous free-for-alls had epitomized the company’s egalitarian ethos, a place where employees and leaders could talk freely about nearly anything. More recently, however, the biweekly meeting had become fraught as it increasingly reflected Google’s tensions as opposed to its aspirations. “It’s not working in its current form,” Pichai said of what was once the hallmark of Google culture. In 2020, he declared, the meetings would be limited to once a month, and they would be more constrained affairs, sticking to “product and business strategy.” Don’t Be Evil has changed to Don’t Ask Me Anything.

It was inevitable, really. You can’t run a giant company as if it were a small startup.

Foresight, ignored

I’ve been reading “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine”, the original academic paper in which the co-founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, outlined their search engine and its properties. It’s a fascinating read for various reasons, not least the evidence it presents of the pair’s originality. And at the end there are two Appendices, the first of which suggests an eerie prescience about the extent to which advertising would be a malignant business model for any enterprise aiming at objective search. Here it is:

Appendix A: Advertising and Mixed Motives

Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

Since it is very difficult even for experts to evaluate search engines, search engine bias is particularly insidious. A good example was OpenText, which was reported to be selling companies the right to be listed at the top of the search results for particular queries [Marchiori 97]. This type of bias is much more insidious than advertising, because it is not clear who “deserves” to be there, and who is willing to pay money to be listed. This business model resulted in an uproar, and OpenText has ceased to be a viable search engine. But less blatant bias are likely to be tolerated by the market. For example, a search engine could add a small factor to search results from “friendly” companies, and subtract a factor from results from competitors. This type of bias is very difficult to detect but could still have a significant effect on the market. Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. For example, we noticed a major search engine would not return a large airline’s homepage when the airline’s name was given as a query. It so happened that the airline had placed an expensive ad, linked to the query that was its name. A better search engine would not have required this ad, and possibly resulted in the loss of the revenue from the airline to the search engine. In general, it could be argued from the consumer point of view that the better the search engine is, the fewer advertisements will be needed for the consumer to find what they want. This of course erodes the advertising supported business model of the existing search engines. However, there will always be money from advertisers who want a customer to switch products, or have something that is genuinely new. But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

In today’s edition of his regular newsletter ‘Big’, Matt Stoeller reports something Rana Foroohar, author of Don’t Be Evil: the case against Big Tech (my review of which is here), said when he asked her what was the most surprising or weird thing she learned when working on her book. “I don’t know if it’s weird”, she replied,

but the most surprising thing I leaned while researching the book was that the founders of Google, Sergei and Larry, had basically predicted the key problems with surveillance capitalism and where they would lead us back in their original paper on search, written while they were Stanford grad students. At the very end, in the appendix, there’s a paragraph where they admit that the targeted advertising business model could be misused by companies or other entities in ways that would hurt users. This is kind of a bombshell revelation given that search engines say everything they do is for users. The fact that this paper hasn’t gotten more attention makes me think people aren’t reading….which is itself part of the problem of attention capture I describe in the book.

Matt’s book Goliath: The 100-year war between monopoly power and democracy is well worth a read, btw.

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

Fines don’t work. To control tech companies we have to hit them where it really hurts

Today’s Observer comment piece

If you want a measure of the problem society will have in controlling the tech giants, then ponder this: as it has become clear that the US Federal Trade Commission is about to impose a fine of $5bn (£4bn) on Facebook for violating a decree governing privacy breaches, the company’s share price went up!

This is a landmark moment. It’s the biggest ever fine imposed by the FTC, the body set up to police American capitalism. And $5bn is a lot of money in anybody’s language. Anybody’s but Facebook’s. It represents just a month of revenues and the stock market knew it. Facebook’s capitalisation went up $6bn with the news. This was a fine that actually increased Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth…

Read on

StreetView leads us down some unexpected pathways

This morning’s Observer column:

Street View was a product of Google’s conviction that it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission, an assumption apparently confirmed by the fact that most jurisdictions seemed to accept the photographic coup as a fait accompli. There was pushback in a few European countries, notably Germany and Austria, with citizens demanding that their properties be blurred out; there was also a row in 2010 when it was revealed that Google had for a time collected and stored data from unencrypted domestic wifi routers. But broadly speaking, the company got away with its coup.

Most of the pushback came from people worried about privacy. They objected to images showing men leaving strip clubs, for example, protesters at an abortion clinic, sunbathers in bikinis and people engaging in, er, private activities in their own backyards. Some countries were bothered by the height of the cameras – in Japan and Switzerland, for example, Google had to lower their height so they couldn’t peer over fences and hedges.

These concerns were what one might call first-order ones, ie worries triggered by obvious dangers of a new technology. But with digital technology, the really transformative effects may be third- or fourth-order ones. So, for example, the internet leads to the web, which leads to the smartphone, which is what enabled Uber. And in that sense, the question with Street View from the beginning was: what will it lead to – eventually?

One possible answer emerged last week…

Read on

Finally, a government takes on the tech companies

This morning’s Observer column:

On Monday last week, the government published its long-awaited white paper on online harms. It was launched at the British Library by the two cabinet ministers responsible for it – Jeremy Wright of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the home secretary, Sajid Javid. Wright was calm, modest and workmanlike in his introduction. Javid was, well, more macho. The social media companies had had their chances to put their houses in order. “They failed,” he declared. “I won’t let them fail again.” One couldn’t help feeling that he had one eye on the forthcoming hustings for the Tory leadership.

Nevertheless, this white paper is a significant document…

Read on

Google’s big move into ethics-theatre backfires.

This morning’s Observer column:

Given that the tech giants, which have been ethics-free zones from their foundations, owe their spectacular growth partly to the fact that they have, to date, been entirely untroubled either by legal regulation or scruples about exploiting taxation loopholes, this Damascene conversion is surely something to be welcomed, is it not? Ethics, after all, is concerned with the moral principles that affect how individuals make decisions and how they lead their lives.

That charitable thought is unlikely to survive even a cursory inspection of what is actually going on here. In an admirable dissection of the fourth of Google’s “principles” (“Be accountable to people”), for example, Prof David Watts reveals that, like almost all of these principles, it has the epistemological status of pocket lint or those exhortations to be kind to others one finds on evangelical websites. Does it mean accountable to “people” in general? Or just to Google’s people? Or to someone else’s people (like an independent regulator)? Answer comes there none from the code.

Warming to his task, Prof Watts continues: “If Google’s AI algorithms mistakenly conclude I am a terrorist and then pass this information on to national security agencies who use the information to arrest me, hold me incommunicado and interrogate me, will Google be accountable for its negligence or for contributing to my false imprisonment? How will it be accountable? If I am unhappy with Google’s version of accountability, to whom do I appeal for justice?”

Quite so. But then Google goes and doubles down on absurdity with its prestigious “advisory council” that “will consider some of Google’s most complex challenges that arise under our AI Principles, such as facial recognition and fairness in machine learning, providing diverse perspectives to inform our work”…

Read on

After I’d written the column, Google announced that it was dissolving its ethics advisory council. So we had to add this:

Postscript: Since this column was written, Google has announced that it is disbanding its ethics advisory council – the likely explanation is that the body collapsed under the weight of its own manifest absurdity.

That still leaves the cynical absurdity of Google’s AI ‘principles’ to be addressed, though.