Wanted: a 21st-century version of the cowboy code for Silicon Valley and a cautionary popup for Facebook screens

 

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Above: Tribute in a California hardware store to real cowboys (not the techie kind), who do not refer to people who trust them with private information as ‘dumb *ucks’; below: Facebook’s true terms of service, by way of Private Eye: Issue No. 1467, 6-19 April 2018

Private Eye Issue No.1467 6-19 April 2018

[ Note to readers on mobile devices on 30 April: the site should be working normally again, thanks to kind ‘happiness engineers’ at WordPress. ]

It was once unremarkable to hear the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley called cowboys — as praise, not condemnation, at least as late as the 1980s. They were innovators, independent-minded risk-lovers who made the suits in big corporations look like cowardly dullards. They were the forerunners of the super-millionaires, then billionaires, that the internet spawned.

Real cowboys — the inspiration for the glamorous mythological kind that enchanted audiences around the world in Hollywood westerns — were typically poor hired hands looking after cattle in round-the-clock workdays, often in conditions no workers’ union would tolerate. They found their moral compass in an unwritten Code of the West. This has been summarised in different ways, some a little dated for the few remaining cattle-herders in America, who must travel not just on horseback but on wheels subject to rules of the road — ‘Always drink your whisky with your gun hand,’ for instance, which must follow ‘Always fill your whisky glass to the brim.’

In the less rambunctious version of the essence of the Code by a poet and scholar, E. Martin Pederson, this is the list of ideals which, he says, was intended to draw a firm line of distinction between cowboys and ‘the easy success of the thief or gambler’:

hospitality and assistance to others, faithfulness to the paternalistic employer (with some exceptions), care and affection for horses, a dislike for bragging or complaining, praise for bravery, and pride in skill with horse, rope and gun.

What could the de facto equivalent be for 21st-century technology cowboys?

After last week’s public interrogation in Washington of Mark Zuckerberg, the most famous entrepreneur in contemporary Silicon Valley, Julia Carrie Wong — an old Harvard classmate of his — said that his performance at that hearing showed how little he has changed from his 19 year-old self. She republished the record he unknowingly created for posterity of his own personal code as a student — in a private text exchange with a friend that was later leaked to Silicon Valley Insider. In this extract from it, he tells his friend about his new-found powers, thanks to the website he had launched a few weeks earlier — the project that would become Facebook:

ZUCK: yea so if you ever need info about anyone at harvard
ZUCK: just ask
ZUCK: i have over 4000 emails, pictures, addresses, sns
FRIEND: what!? how’d you manage that one?
ZUCK: people just submitted it
ZUCK: i don’t know why
ZUCK: they “trust me”
ZUCK: dumb fucks

Wong also reminded us that in 2004, the Facebook leader told the Harvard Crimson that his fledgling social network had ‘pretty intensive privacy options … People have very good control over who can see their information.’ His testimony in Washington did not supply any reason to believe the seemingly ashamed and repentant adult Zuckerberg, answering questions from senators, more than the teenage Zuckerberg, in identical false assurances.

Barely a day had passed after that drama than Facebook broke its promise to regulators in Europe not to use its facial recognition technology over there. This is software that lets the company identify you in photographs, alone or with other people, that you never placed on its platform or gave anyone permission to upload there, and proceed to using data capturing details of your appearance to track your movements across the internet. Your consent to its doing all this is taken for granted unless you sign up for a Facebook account — if you don’t already have one — and follow the steps in its opt-out procedure.

What difference could a code of ethics make to technology companies behaving so rottenly? In a paper written for economists**, Stuart Gilman, an international authority on rooting out corruption in public service has explained how the codification of model conduct can improve the government of countries. He notes:

Ethics codes are as old as antiquity. […] They often capture a vision of excellence, of what individuals and societies should be striving for and what they can achieve. […] Effective codes operate at two levels: Institutional and symbolic. Within institutions codes articulate boundaries of behavior as well as expectations for behavior. That is they provide clear markers as to what behavior is prohibited (bribery) and what behavior is expected (showing impartiality to all citizens). They are also highly symbolic. Subscribing to institutional codes is the way we define a model professional not only as we see ourselves but as we want to be seen by others.

He quotes the practical justification of Adam Smith — a founding father of economics (1723-90) — for setting high ethical standards:

To be amiable and to be meritorious; that is, to deserve love and to deserve reward, are the great characters of virtue; and to be odious and punishable, of vice. But all these characters have an immediate reference to the sentiments of others. Virtue is not said to be amiable, or to be meritorious, because it is the object of its own love, or of its own gratitude; but because it excites those sentiments in other men.

In the neverending Facebook scandals, a truly disruptive technology company would impress us — YEEHA! — by making a radical commitment to behaving well and altruistically without any pressure from governments. It would take too long for legislators and the law to catch up with what these companies are doing and the extent of their incursions into the intimate realms of our lives.

The politicians who did not understand the business model or technologies behind the social media heavyweight were widely mocked for not knowing how to grill Zuckerberg  in his appearance before Congress. Facebook reforming itself would have the fastest transformative effect and would change Silicon Valley’s culture for good. How likely is that, on the evidence so far? Fat chance.

It is time to sing this site’s refrain — that Facebook should rightly be owned by its users, to whose data this company has been helping itself liberally for dubious purposes, without the fully-informed permission of those users.

In the meanwhile, we do not expect the US or EU to be capable of much more than slapping a warning on users’ Facebook screens — a popup in the same spirit as the health cautions on bottles of alcohol and cigarette packets. Sadly, government notices are never witty, or we would propose simply borrowing the warning about Facebook’s true terms of service thoughtfully composed by editors in the London offices of Private Eye (above). It should be blown up into a poster plastered everywhere on public transport and, in the company’s home territory in California, where buses and trains are scarce, on extra-large billboards on freeways and interstate highways.

** ‘Ethics Codes And Codes Of Conduct As Tools For Promoting An Ethical And Professional Public Service: Comparative Successes and Lessons’, Stuart C. Gilman, OECD, 2005 https://www.oecd.org/mena/governance/35521418.pdf

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The media establishment has begun to see sense in a user-owned Facebook — but in curbing surveillance capitalism, let’s separate the baby from the bathwater

 

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Social media users must do more than refuse to be stripped of their data like helpless moos — postgutenberg [at] gmail.com

Let’s not forget — in imposing long overdue restrictions on data-gathering by the social media giants — that without the broadcasting platforms they have given us, the software engineer Susan Fowler might have got nowhere with bearing witness to sexual stalking and degradation at Uber. She might not have galvanised a movement with its silly ‘#metoo’ hash tag** and nonstop, numbing repetition of words like ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse,’ and lent it the gravitas it needed.

In other words, let’s not throw out a near-miraculous baby — direct, unmediated, all-points broadcasting — with the bathwater. Without internet chattering about her clear, self-evidently truthful account of her Uber managers’ attempts to bully her into choking down her anger with her persecutor and living with chronic persecution — because his work was seen as invaluable to the company — intermediaries like media editors and lawyers would have interfered with her choices of words and evidence, and put brakes on her telling us precisely what she wanted us to know.

She also had her well-deserved luck of perfect timing. This weekend, the old words about a voice crying in the wilderness are rattling around in the heads of those of us who grew up with them. They are an oddly perfect fit in a lowly, secular, incommensurably different context.

Four years ago, almost no one wanted to hear about the grave risks in the massive collection of intimate data about us by Facebook,  that we joined other critics in referring to as the surveillance business model. Almost no one was prepared to do anything about Facebook helping itself to this information without our permission, or offering any form of compensation for it. Or about the fact that this company actually rejected proposals for letting people pay subscriptions for the service it offered us, because it perceived the power in giving it to us in exchange for the unrestricted freedom to delve into our minds to construct detailed psychological profiles of us to sell to advertisers or anyone else prepared to pay for them — the capacity to use ‘likes,’ as John Naughton has reminded us today in The Observer, ‘to predict accurately a range of highly sensitive personal attributes, including sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age and gender.’

Few were moved, then, to support arguments that a Facebook based on other people’s information should rightly be owned by those people — in some form of mutualisation or cooperative venture, as we proposed on this site in 2012 in a post titled ‘A Better Facebook …’ republished here last November.

Five years later, last Wednesday, the New York Times presented, as if this were a brand new idea, the otherwise commendable suggestion by three scholars — Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms and separately, Nathan Schneider in 2016: ‘[W]hat if a social network was truly run by its users?’ In a newly published book they have written together, Heimans and Timms note the unfairness of what we — like many others — have been pointing out for years: the injustice of ‘the creative output of billions of people’ being turned ‘into a giant, centralized enterprise, with most users sharing none of the economic value they create and getting no say in the platform’s governance.’

Nathan Schneider was virtually repeating exactly what post-Gutenberg proposed in 2012, in telling the NY Times columnist that in ceding more control to users, Mark Zuckerberg ‘could show that he takes democracy seriously enough to start with his own baby’. We proposed, in a 14 February 2012 post  quoting a comment we had contributed to a discussion on The Guardian site: ‘… [A] new, improved Mark Zuckerberg wants to be perceived as a force for good in society — and [… is reportedly …] clashing with the strictly business-oriented senior executives in his company over this…. If he’s serious, why not acknowledge that Facebook’s users supply the personal information about themselves that he has exploited to get rich […] and flip ownership of his company over to Facebook’s members?’

A better justification of the NY Times’ reputation for fair and critically important reporting was in a recent story illustrating the ability of faraway foreign countries to use social media’s records of our exchanges with our friends and acquaintances to control us. No, it was not about evidence of Russia interfering in the U.S. presidential election or in the Brexit vote in Britain, but about China censoring commenters on its policies using social media platforms outside China, and owned by foreign companies, and punishing one company, Mercedes-Benz, for featuring the Dalai Lama in one of its advertisements.

The report by Paul Mozur began: ‘Within its digital borders, China has long censored what its people read and say online. Now, it is increasingly going beyond its own online realms to police what people and companies are saying about it all over the world.’

If the Chinese can do this, anyone can.

We apologise for the irritating, Cassandra-like, we-told-you-so tone of this entry, but post-Gutenberg predicted precisely such a consequence from data-gathering by social media companies — in 2013. As we noted here on 15 January 2014:

Not for ages has there been a pudding quite as over-egged as the one presented as the news story of 2013 – the Orwellian mass surveillance exposé which, as it unravels, shows the UK and US governments hardly initiating nonstop monitoring but, rather, striving to keep up with companies like Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google in gathering intimate information about us and watching what we do.

[…]

Last September, this blog warned that the blinkers needed to come off too many commentators on the NSA and Britain’s GCHQ – to let them appreciate that we should be protesting not just about spooks but anyone amassing personal data about us. In an entry about reader-commenters on newspaper sites correcting the unbalanced coverage of mass surveillance, we said

Stores of information, once they are gathered, can acquire new owners. 

Lately, we have seen a suggestion on various sites that the social media giants should be turned into public utilities. This would be the wrong solution. We need distributed, decentralised ownership — by social media users — to avert the abuse of any form of centralised power. Abuse by surveillance capitalists, or our governments, or anyone else’s.

** We prefer the more constructive, spine-steeling, #NeverthelessShePersisted.

Who is going to start a movement to stop the social media giants from milking us like witless data cows? (Why a keiretsu-cooperative could be a better idea)

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Indoor rainbow, through a crack in a glass pane

Will the conversation about forcing Big Tech — especially Facebook and Google — to pay us for stripping our lives of personal information they sell to advertisers lead to a revised business model for newspaper publishing?

We launched this site in 2011 with a proposal that newspaper and other media websites share with commenters (then referred to as ‘bloggers’) the economic value that they add with their comments — a scheme we have updated intermittently since we first outlined it in 2010 as ‘The Keiretsu-Cooperative: A Model for Post-Gutenberg Publishing’.

In a paper released at the close of 2017, ** five scholars and computer experts at elite U.S. institutions are calling for social media users to unite to demand payment for the streams of data about us that have made Big Tech rich, and insist on our right to determine where that information goes and on what terms.

That is the essence of the boldest conclusion of those thinkers, collaborating over the fence from these places: the School of Engineering and the Department of Economics at Stanford; Columbia’s Department of Economics; Microsoft’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer, and the Department of Economics and Law School at Yale.

Their justification for their call to action is technical, apparently aimed at mandarins (wonks) drafting economic policy, whom they hope to persuade that governments must shift ‘ownership rights in data to the users that generate them.’ (About time, we say.) They couch their arguments in basic economic theory — the theory of the firm — whose jargon and quasi-mathematical symbols obscure concepts that are easy to express in plain English. The overall impression is of rabbis presenting scriptural sanction that they felt obliged to seek in the Talmud to bolster a commonsensical moral argument: social media users must not accept being milked for our data without compensation or control.

How likely are we to see the birth of a movement with such a rallying cry? Not very, we suspect. For a start, hardly anyone seems to have heard of its ivory tower recommendation or the paper in which that was made. We only learnt of this document’s publication by chance, browsing on the site of The Financial Times [ ft.com ]. There, the final paragraph of John Thornhill’s helpful outline and commentary reminds us that the exploited have historically got the attention of their exploiters by going on strike — and suggests ‘digitally picketing social media groups under the slogan: “No posts without pay!”’

In his column’s comments section, some readers urged the FT to set an example. This one, for instance:

FTcom reader's comment on John Thornhill column

Organising movements and keeping up their momentum can be frustrating enough to drive surpassingly patient saints to distraction. Time and patience are scarce, and we have all grown used to instant gratification on the net. Anyone can sign up for an account on Twitter and broadcast a maiden tweet in minutes. A newcomer to WordPress could write and publish a first blog post in less than an hour. By contrast, although launchers of a movement to get us paid for our data could use, say, Change.org’s tools to collect signatures for petitions, that would only be the first stage of years of hard graft, gathering political support for drafting laws to regulate the ownership and sale of users’ data.

Media organisations implementing our own proposal for treating users fairly could get results faster and lead in setting standards for post-Gutenberg economic equity. These are the principal components of a ‘keiretsu-cooperative,’ or economic structure for the future — a keiretsu being a sort of Japanese industrial club made up of companies pursuing similar or complementary aims:

• A newspaper publisher might create a meta-site with one or more book publishers with which its audience overlaps — and these partners could share this site’s capital improvement and running costs.

• Reader-commenters visiting the site would not be paid for individual comments. Instead, they would buy subscriptions that would also be small financial stakes in the keiretsu publishers’ meta-site.

What would be the attractions of a scheme like this for today’s corporate media owners?

• It would reduce their dependence on advertising, which social media giants have been diverting into their coffers.

• Offering readers co-ownership of a site where they read and contribute comments would give the keiretsu publishers an edge over Facebook — which, as we have argued in this space repeatedly, should be a cooperative owned by its users.

• Drawing up rules for paying readers and commenters for each individual contribution would be a lot more complicated than allowing them to buy stakes in the meta-site. Making them co-owners would ensure their loyalty and give them an incentive to return to participate often — making the site more attractive to advertisers.

We have laid out other advantages and other dimensions of our proposal here: ‘Adapt-or-die advice for newspapers being squeezed out by Facebook: create symphysis with your reader-commenters!’

Despite our reservations about it, a movement to end social media’s data theft is guaranteed our whole-hearted support.

** ‘Should We Treat Data as Labor? Moving Beyond “Free,”’ Imanol Arrieta Ibarra, Leonard Goff, Diego Jiménez Hernández, Jaron Lanier and E. Glen Weyl, American Economic Association Papers & Proceedings, Vol. 1, No. 1, (forthcoming).