Big Tech dangers we are not talking about — especially, how the theft of our personal data is opening the way to future subjugation and control at the scale of masses, not just individuals

 

dark cloud looming -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

This week marks the first anniversary of an attempt by the Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger to organise a social media strike. It did not attract the support it deserved. That was largely because mainstream media — including nearly all the best-known newspaper sites in the UK and US — declined to publicise it. Indeed they did not mention it at all, even though the BBC and the online version of The Daily Mail — two of the most-frequented news sites in the English-speaking world — ran reports about the plan and call to action. This site outlined the probable reason why: ‘ Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook.

Grassroots tweeting and similar advertisements by the general public could — conceivably — have made up for the media silence. They did not. One reason why — probably outweighing all the others — is that in this ironic Information Age, we seem increasingly less able to absorb information and assess the reliability of its sources, especially when it is about risks and threats to our safety. 

We have to find new ways of establishing credibility. What could be better than handing out tools to let people run their own tests of any assertion? Read side-by-side, the two public-interest comments below show how helpful this can be — in the context of Big Tech’s siphoning of our personal data, the subject of innumerable posts, here (this one, for example). The first is a statement about a trend to which this site has been trying to draw attention since 2011. The second offers a way to assess its substance. They are recent, actual comments by readers on the Financial Times site (whose real-life identities pG does not know) made a few days apart, on different Big Tech-related articles there. 

The highlights are pG’s:

PiotrG

Big/Bug Tech relies on an ever-expanding expropriation of personal data to make money. Its endgame is to turn people into trained monkeys whose behaviour can be predicted and ultimately directed towards specific objectives. For now the objectives are commercial, but they could become social or political. That is the problem, and it won’t be solved by antitrust laws alone. 

However, concentration and excessive market power make the problem worse. A world where 10 people own information on 3-6 billion “customers” and manage to kill market competition, avoid supervision and remove internal (stakeholder) control is a perfect Orwellian nightmare.

Frederick E.

Anyone who thinks that it is easy to escape surveillance should install a pfsense router, or some equivalent. Set up firewall logging, even better deep packet inspection (including https via certificate installation). Then set up your privacy settings on your devices  they way you think is max what you need. Use them for a week as you would normally. Then check the firewall logs on your router. You will be surprised to see how much info from simple DNS, or DNS via https to much more detailed surveillance both facebook, google, microsoft or apple carry out. 

An average home with a computer, three phones and a tablet, plus roku (boy does that thing spy) and smart speakers leaks an inordinate amount of data even when privacy settings are set to max. 

Privacy settings are a false sense of security. Smart devices as well as computers are now designed to spy at the core OS level, no firewall, or app/plugin is going to stop it – these are higher level process that cannot override core level ones. 

The only way to block stuff at home is at the router level, but when you do so, many things simply stop working. The deal is be spied on, or don’t use it. This goes for free stuff or paid.

Unfortunately, where there should be discussion of what @PiotrG and @Frederick E. are trying to protect us from, there is precisely none about any such specifics.

How do you discover the actual origin of a bug — such as ‘surveillance capitalism’ — when its history as a feature is all but lost? Could a better Wikipedia help?

 

bug or feature? photograph by JACKI HOLLAND postgutenberg@gmail.com

Bug or feature? (at the edge of the flower’s dark centre) The shadowy face of advertising aimed at us as individuals — ‘micro-targeting’ —  makes it hard to learn about its idealistic beginnings. Photograph: Jacki Holland

If Google did not invent the phenomenon now being referred to as  ‘surveillance capitalism,’ who did? part 2 ( part 1 is here

Is the digital revolution moving too fast for academics to keep up? You could call the question mission-critical because the (possibly) inadvertent errors of some scholars are influencing regulators and law-makers drawing up rules for the digital economy. It follows naturally from the last post here on pG , which pointed out that Shoshana Zuboff is wrong to declare that Google pioneered the milking of unsuspecting internet users for our data; the routine extraction of intimate information about us and our lives in a system that she and various others have for some time been calling surveillance capitalism. 

In a piece for Fast Company a year ago, Professor Zuboff said that Google invented it … 

… more than a decade ago when it discovered that the “data exhaust” clogging its servers could be combined with analytics to produce predictions of user behavior. At that time, the key action of interest was whether a user might click on an ad.

But the Pepsi market research project using electronic beepers described here last month had the identical, advertising-oriented aims and contained almost all the components of today’s commercial surveillance, even if its technological tools were less sophisticated and intrusive.

It was completed in 1996, two years before Google was even incorporated in September 1998. Pepsi deployed the beepers to track, survey and assemble detailed taste and preference profiles of 50,000 young customers, stretching far beyond their soft drink consumption, and traded this information with twenty other companies — which also used the data to design more powerful, less resistible, advertisements for their products through what eventually came to be known as micro-targeting. It was attacked by outside observers sounding exactly like today’s critics of commercial surveillance for intruding on the privacy of its project’s participants.

The secretiveness about tools and data-milking methods of Google and other search technology giants  — as well as virtually every other company doing business on the internet — has warranted  their deeply negative portrayal in the media and scholarship. But most of the critics condemning them either failed to explain — or simply did not know — that the unwanted bug that they constitute, collectively, was lauded almost a quarter-century ago as a benign, intensely desirable prospective feature of the internet as it began to take off.

In a 1997 interview published in Wired, Tim Berners-Lee actually made such a prediction after a question from his interviewer, Evan Schwartz, about whether the advertising already starting to saturate the web was one of the undesirable, ‘unexpected turns’ that his creation had taken:

… Marketing on the Web is going to be a lot more humane than marketing in traditional mass media because it’s possible to treat people individually. If I’m interested in buying a canoe, I can say, “Hey guys, I want a canoe.” I can float that onto the Web. Then other people can satisfy their own interests by selling me a canoe, not to mention inviting me to a newsgroup about good places to go canoeing.

Doesn’t that raise privacy issues?

My gut feeling is that one should be able to negotiate how one’s information is used …

Of course there is no such negotiation — an innovation we must hope can soon be regulated into existence — but you will not find those early thoughts of TB-L on the subject by typing ‘Tim Berners-Lee advertising’ into a search box. Search results reflect the marked shift in his opinion on the subject, encapsulated in a Google listing of a 2019 article in Fast Company in which he spoke out against ‘advertising-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait,’ and characterised these as one of ‘the web’s 3 biggest cancers’. 

This pG site’s reminder of that chat with TBL is a printout sitting in a cardboard box in a garage. Its neighbours in its file include notes from unpublished conversations with Silicon Valley executives the following year, in which they described rapidly evolving marketing methods closely coupled to product design and improvement tailored, like Pepsi’s, to swift feedback from customers — only far more frequent, and well on the way to becoming today’s nonstop monitoring. As senior marketing managers at a small software startup — selling a system used by employees of other companies — said:

Part of our beta process that we’re doing right now is we have customers actually giving us feedback on the product as we develop the product […] and the engineering is responding to it and we go back to the customers [… who are … ] essentially involved in our design with us. […] These people and what do they want is really what the issue is […] and we’re just monitoring it all the time. All the feedback goes into a web form and then, boom! gets screened like two or three times a day by product marketing and engineering to figure out […] major product changes or directions … 

Hunting for such information about Silicon Valley marketing in the Wikipedia entry titled ‘Surveillance Capitalism’ would do no good, even for those readers who make it past the excruciating, jargon-laden first sentence on its background — ‘the intensification of connection and monitoring online with spaces of social life becoming open to saturation by corporate actors, directed at the making of profit and/or the regulation of action.’ 

Neither is there any allusion to it except in the vaguest terms in the online encyclopedia’s pages devoted to ‘Digital Marketing’  or ‘Interactive Marketing.’ Under ‘Surveillance Capitalism,’**  there is no trace of optimistic early expectations for it, such as TB-L’s enthusiasm for ‘humane marketing’ — although the entry does make a passing reference to ‘self-optimization (Quantified Self)’ as an instance of ‘various advantages for individuals and society’ of ‘increased data collection’ — and whose own page describes ‘a community of users and makers of self-tracking tools who share an interest in “self-knowledge through numbers.”’ 

How could Professor Zuboff have missed a prototype as large and substantial as the Pepsi project, also unmentioned in any of those Wiki pages dedicated to high-tech marketing? She would have had to do field research in Silicon Valley to avoid her error of crediting Apple and Apple alone for capitalism tailored to the needs and predilections of individuals — passing over that swiftly in a strictly abstract, generalised passage of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) about an evolutionary trend, beginning with Henry Ford, for companies to serve ‘the actual mentalities and demands of people.’ 

At one juncture in her book, she seems to be saying that she could not do any immersive research on the topic because Google, all too predictably, would not permit this: ’[O]ne is hard-pressed to imagine a Drucker equivalent [ Peter Drucker, the still unsurpassed Austrian-born theorist on business management ] freely roaming the scene and scribbling in the hallways.’ But Professor Zuboff plainly did not know enough to realise that Google was not the place to look for answers about the origins of the relentless commercial surveillance loop, or that there were rich sources of information about its practices elsewhere in Silicon Valley. 

How can scholars — and all the reviewers of her book who failed to correct her misattribution of its invention to Google — avoid this sort of mistake in future? Defects in our collective treasure-house of knowledge?

Could an even better version of the collaborative, still indispensable, still miraculously non-commercial Wikipedia be the answer? Larry Sanger, its co-founder, who long ago left that institution, has been hatching plans for an improvement he is calling the Encyclosphere, and outlined in a lecture at a conference in Amsterdam last autumn. He has promised generously to answer questions about it from almost any competent writer, and perhaps will tackle the pair in the header for this post.

** in a download on 3 March 2020

Mystery solved? Famous newspapers that ignored the Social Media Strike of 2019 have agreed to accept regular payments of millions of dollars from Facebook

 

peony, darkening of the light -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

The picture is darkening for those like the world wide web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, who ‘remain committed to making sure the web is a free, open, creative space — for everyone.’

[ Significant sections of this post-Gutenberg.com entry were edited for clarity on 2 November 2019 ]

The question of why so many famous newspapers railing against Big Tech failed to alert their readers to the Social Media Strike of 2019 — or report on it — has been answered partially, since the last post on this site.  That answer could hardly be more depressing for anyone to whom free speech and objective, independent, media matter.  Worse, it brings us closer to a real life equivalent of a dictator or other centralised authoritarian power running amok — that is, to the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

On Friday 25 October, Facebook announced that it will be paying millions of dollars to selected U.S. newspapers — the likes of The New York Times and Washington Post among them — for posting their stories (content) on its site.

According to an early August report in The Guardian that came up in search results for the query, ‘Facebook paying newspapers’ — following the accidental discovery of this news on the Wired site  — the company started hawking its offer of million-dollar-plus subsidies experimentally, in April. Could publishing organisations trying to decide whether they should accept one have failed to cover the Social Media Strike set for  4-5 July for that reason?

It certainly looks like a strong possibility, even if different considerations were at work for each publication. The Guardian, for instance, might not have been approached by Facebook, even though it has a U.S. website. The explanation for its dissing of the strike could have been that the call to action was led by Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia’s two long-estranged co-founders. The other, Jimmy Wales, has been a member of the newspaper’s parent company, Guardian Media Group, since at least 2018.

Wired has already demonstrated that taking Facebook’s cash does not necessarily — or immediately — deprive a publication of the ability to balance its reporting about that platform. Its article on the subject quoted an activist working on behalf of traditional newspapers who described the Facebook move as ‘a “conveniently timed announcement that’s clearly meant to distract from Zuckerberg getting eviscerated on the Hill this week”’ — a reference to the founder-CEO’s grilling by members of the U.S. House of Representatives financial services committee in Washington DC.

Yet, because the magazine did not spurn Facebook, Wired’s overall characterisation of the corporation’s new sugar daddy role in the lives of newspapers must be interpreted as favourable — in keeping with one quotation in its report, about the cash infusions ‘having the potential to shift parts of the news industry from “pessimism to optimism”’. [ pG’s emphasis ]

Facebook is only giving some newspapers money, in a scheme it is still unfurling, effectively playing king-maker. Is it naïve to expect that in the future, the newspapers that have until now been exposing the social media colossus’s worst business practices — and demanding that it be made accountable to the public for those actions — will start competing to win favour from it? 

How can these papers possibly cover it objectively when they are vying for larger cash handouts from it? It is hard not to imagine past leaders of newspapers proud of a tradition of reporting ‘without fear or favour’ turning in their graves.

In the U.K. and U.S., newspaper campaigns against Facebook’s data-stealing and privacy violations, among other offences, have been vital prods for MPs and legislators now investigating the need for closer government oversight, if not regulation, of Big Tech. 

If traditional media’s interests become less and less distinguishable from the social media giant’s and they can no longer act as a check on its actions and powers, what happens next? Who in the traditional Establishment could we count on to oppose a deadly merging of government and commerce — by, say, a government trying to invoke emergency powers to requisition Big Tech’s vast and ever-expanding stores of data about us? Invoke those powers illegitimately? And how could that fail to turn some of George Orwell’s nightmare visions into everyday reality? 

The progressive centralisation of media financing and power, and of data collection about ordinary citizens, raises the risk of an authoritarian central force seizing control. It could make that a cakewalk. (The newly created Big Brother would not necessarily be domestic: it could easily be a hostile foreign government.)

Newspapers that have consented to taking Facebook’s coin should reverse their decision immediately — but are unlikely to do anything of the kind. By far the most thoughtful and intelligent reaction to the novel scheme came from a writer or writers on the Techdirt website in Redwood City, in the northern half of Silicon Valley. Crisply written, and with a critical historical perspective missing from every other commentary on that subject, Techdirt‘s take on the topic is essential reading. Its conclusion is in perfect harmony with pG’s (see ‘Wanted: a brave newspaper, for an experiment in which readers become stakeholders ( updated )’:

If we want to “fix” journalism, it will require a new path forward (i.e., innovative business models).

Accepting Facebook’s Trojan horse handouts would not be the right sort of innovation or improvement on the defective business model most widely used today. Here is (Sir) Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the world wide web, lamenting the effects of that model on his brainchild’s evolution, after its open and liberating early years:

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors.

[…]

Two myths currently limit our collective imagination: the myth that advertising is the only possible business model for online companies, and the myth that it’s too late to change the way platforms operate. On both points, we need to be a little more creative.

A year ago, Facebook acquired a key to opening doors to high government offices everywhere when it hired Nick (Sir Nicholas) Clegg — Britain’s deputy prime minister from 2010-15 —  to serve as its head of global policy and communications. As the company’s capacious pockets are used to favour some venerable, still dominant old media powers not just with gifts of cash but — presumably — special treatment on its platform, old and new media seem well on their way to creating an even more unassailable Establishment.  This could make a U-turn towards decentralising power ever more difficult and probably, impossible. 

peony , darkening of the light, square -- postgutenberg@gmail.com

 

Who is trying to write the Social Media Strike of 2019 out of today’s most widely relied-on historical record? And why did so many of the most powerful traditional news sites ignore it?

 

Let a hundred flowers blossom - pink peony bud - postgutenberg@gmail[dot]com

Let a hundred flowers blossom - dried up peony bud - postgutenberg@gmail[dot]com

’Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and sciences … ‘ — said Chairman Mao, in a speech in Beijing on 27 February 1957. Chinese society has since evolved in precisely the opposite direction — as most Chinese would concede, whether for or against the policy reversal. Centralised authoritarian power in the shape of government interrupted the blossoming of Chinese culture, here symbolised by a peony — a flower native to China. Are we in the West going to let increasingly centralised and concentrated Big Tech roll back the internet’s supremely democratic, unprecedented flowering of creativity and freedom of speech — conceivably, in an unholy collaboration, soon, of government and commerce?

Wikipedia decision to delete '2019 Social Media Strike' on 22 July 2019 postgutenberg@gmail.com

The debate among Wikipedians about the article on the 2019 Social Media Strike ended with a decision to delete it on 22 July

The point of this post on pG is to create a record of the unsettling deletion this summer of a crucial memorialisation of the 2019 Social Media Strike — almost on a par with authoritarian governments writing out of history not just evidence of atrocities linked to them, but world-famous leaders and activists and their causes. The  perpetrator of this erasure is bizarre — the Wikipedia, or the net’s most generous gift to the congenitally curious, after search engines. Others have surely noticed the wiping-out — even if  repeated search queries have failed to yield any signs of shared noticing and dismay.

Some time in early summer, Larry Sanger, a computer scientist and web entrepreneur, began to broadcast an invitation to join a first-ever mass protest, slated for 4-5 July, against the ever more alarming concentration of power and intrusions into our lives on the largest internet platforms — such as Facebook and Twitter — that governments have so far left mostly unregulated. These are the platforms and phenomenon now referred to as Big Tech.

This pG site echoed the Sanger appeal. Though no one connected to pG can write computer code or has any qualifications in computer science, that response put a website dedicated to exploring ideas for the future evolution of publishing on the same side as the technorati (technical + literati) or technocratic elite — and notably out of step with traditional, conventional media. 

To be clear, those most aware of and best equipped to understand the deadly risks for us all in Big Tech power acted to support the strike. A shocking number of those who control the biggest megaphones for getting out the word about it did not.

This is easily seen in the links that search engines supply for ‘social media strike 2019’.

Compare these lists of web sites that either did or did not advertise or commemorate the strike in any way — unless pG has missed something, through incompetence (that readers are invited to complain about by leaving a comment below):

NO MENTION OF 2019 SOCIAL MEDIA STRIKE:

In addition to to their regular features and editorials on, and (/or) diligent reporting about Big Tech’s dark side, these publications frequently run op-ed analyses of that subject by outside experts  — which makes their shunning of the strike all the more interesting.

The Atlantic theatlantic.com 

The Financial Times ft.com

The Guardian guardian.co.uk

The New Yorker thenewyorker.com 

The New York Review of Books nybooks.com 

The New York Times nytimes.com 

The Washington Post washingtonpost.com 

JOINED OR DREW ATTENTION TO 2019 SOCIAL MEDIA STRIKE:

BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-48825410

Newsweek https://www.newsweek.com/reddit-technology-social-media-strike-larry-sanger-facebook-twitter-1447549

New York Post https://nypost.com/2019/07/02/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-social-media-strike-over-privacy-issues/ 

Reddit’s r/technology subreddit — a section of the forum popular with the technorati, which has millions of members, and went dark for 24 hours to support the strike. https://www.reddit.com/r/technology/comments/c7g36c/social_media_strike_proposed_for_july_45_by/

Salon https://www.salon.com/2019/07/03/wikepedia-co-founder-plans-social-media-strike-will-it-work/ 

Slashdot https://tech.slashdot.org/story/19/06/30/1727228/wikipedia-co-founder-calls-for-a-social-media-strike-july-4-5 

The Daily Mail https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7202111/Wikipedia-founder-calling-social-media-strike-demand-platforms-restore-user-privacy.html

The Evening Standard https://www.standard.co.uk/tech/social-media-strike-larry-snager-internet-dark-a4183046.html 

The Register https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/07/01/wikipedia_founder_calls_for_social_media_strike/ 

Wired https://www.wired.com/story/larry-sanger-declaration-of-digital-independence/ 

Most curious of all was the treatment of the strike by the Wikipedia. Even before the event, it was given its own page in the online encyclopedia, which read as follows — in clear if inept prose, like sentences supplied by Google Translate on a bad day — just after midnight in California on 4 July 2019:

2019 social media strike is an upcoming pre-planned proposed potential strike on 4th and 5th of July 2019 advocated by former Wikipedia co-founder Dr. Larry Sanger coinciding with the Independence Day of the United States (on 4 July 2019) against the social media tech giants over data control.  It is supposed to be a two day strike inviting the social media users to switch off their access to social media platforms mainly such as Facebook and Twitter. The motive of the strike is to demand for the social media platforms to be decentralized from the top level management to the social media users in order to have the firm control over the data and also to solve the problems related to data privacy. [ pG’s highlight ] He also requested the volunteers to join him during the course by boycotting the social media networks on 4th and 5th of July 2019 or at least on either one of these mentioned dates. Larry Sanger is critical of the social media administrators over the misuse of users data and questioned the failures of them in solving the problems related to data privacy.[

The former Wikipedian also created a blog on his official website #Social media strike and also created an own petiton with the named titled Declaration of Digital Independence as a key to inspire the social media users to join him during the strike. He requested the volunteers those who are wishing to take part in the strike should sign in the relevant petition including the e-mail addresses in order to verify that they are legally taking part in the social media strike. The petition has gathered more than 1500 signatures as of 3 July 2019, a day before the strike.

But today, on 30 September 2019, that text is nowhere to be found in the Wikipedia. All that remains is this notice: 

Wikipedia does not have an article with this exact name. Please search for 2019 social media strike in Wikipedia to check for alternative titles or spellings.

Scrolling down to the bottom of this ghostly document reveals that the original entry for the strike was deleted on 22 July 2019, after an ‘Articles for Deletion’ debate by Wikipedians.

In their jargon, which is not wholly impenetrable, these were the winning arguments that justified the expungement:

Fails notability requirements, at the very least per WP:PERSISTENCE. — Fyrael (talk) 15:21, 15 July 2019 (UTC)

  • Delete Can’t really find anything about how it panned out. Sanger himself says it failed because of Twitter filters; that should speak for itself, IMO. – John M Wolfson (talkcontribs) 06:33, 19 July 2019 (UTC)
  • Delete Per WP:NOTNEWS. No lasting notability. AmericanAir88(talk) 15:19, 21 July 2019 (UTC)
  • Delete Doesn’t look like it succeeded at all, I fail to see how important this will be in the future. – numbermaniac 03:18, 22 July 2019 (UTC)

Failed ‘notability requirements’ — really? Despite the strike’s respectful and intelligent coverage by the BBC and the online version of The Daily Mail? The former happens to be ‘the world’s largest news website,’ and the latter ‘the most visited English language newspaper website in the world,’ according to careful citations in — who’d have thought it! — Wikipedia articles about them ( here and here ).

And if the strike did fail, so what? 

Some of the most transformative social movements in the story of homo sapiens have had a feeble, damp-squib start. For a topical example, think of little Greta Thunberg and her campaign for action on climate change. As Bloomberg pointed out last week, the 16 year-old native of Sweden has turned around an environmental movement in Austria that was ‘frozen out of parliament just two years ago.’ 

The path of activism is strewn with such surprises — and the absence of evidence of progress is most certainly not evidence of a lack of progress.

So what explains the social media strike’s dissing by media heavyweights — and the Wikipedia’s erasure of the movement’s sputtering start? 

Possibilities that need investigation:

•Mainstream media live in terror of falling foul of e.g.., Facebook and Google. Consider, for instance,The Financial Times  — one surprising newspaper on the list of the unsupportive — which has run no end of thundering indictments of Big Tech by its editorial writers. Yet for reasons that must surely be related to some form of financial compensation by the search engine giant (unless pG is hallucinating), FT.com offers readers the option of signing in via Google or its own digital gatekeeper — which presumably lets Google collect data about exactly what some readers do on the site, every time they use its sign-in box. Information beginning with exactly who they are; their political opinions; personality and psychological profile; allies and enemies.

• Internal Wikipedia politics. Larry Sanger — the strike leader — was a co-founder of the net encyclopedia but left the organisation after a well-known disagreement about its evolution and ‘business model’. Could lingering resentments be part of the explanation for the decision to wipe the strike out of the record?