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.

Must journalists and writers wait for salvation in heaven, or Godot? Facebook cares more about helping publishing businesses than creators

 

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is proof that the destruction of the livelihood of print journalists began long before the digital revolution in publishing. - Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

This gorgeously illustrated 1997 essay in The New York Times is a marker in the destruction of print journalists’ traditional means of economic survival — which began before the digital revolution in publishing.
– Graphic by Phillipe Weisbecker

 

‘Genius has patience,’ Michelangelo reportedly said, but how much patience can reasonably be expected of ordinary mortals? This week’s announcement by Facebook of a clever ploy for co-opting some of the most famous print newspapers into serving its own ambitions led post-Gutenberg to re-read a passage about waiting for salvation in heaven in Wuthering Heights. What saves the chapter from soppiness is that Cathy, like any actual, lively little girl, frequently has to be scolded for cheekiness by her father, the beneficent Mr. Earnshaw, and this happens just before he dies, when she and her darling Heathcliff — who has yet to turn into the über-monster of romantic fiction — are close by. A few hours later the housekeeper, Nelly Dean, checks on them.

I ran to the children’s room: their door was ajar, I saw they had never lain down, though it was past midnight; but they were calmer, and did not need me to console them. The little souls were comforting each other … no person in the world ever pictured heaven so beautifully as they did, in their innocent talk; and while I sobbed and listened, I could not help wishing we were all there safe together.

Why will drawing such a parallel make strange, bordering on bizarre, reading for anyone not closely acquainted with journalism and the writing life? Because no one has been broadcasting the harrowing stories of bottomless insecurity, agony, havoc, misery and ghastly compromises in the private lives of journeymen scribblers who have been mown down by the juggernaut of online publishing.

Why not? Pride. Denial. Never-say-die bravado that makes affecting Beckettian irony and superficial detachment, when discussing the topic at all, preferable to bleeding onto the carpet. If there has been a richly documented multi-part series on this subject in a well-known newspaper — some counterpart of award-warning coverage of, say, the suffering of iron and steel factory workers in the West put out of work by foreign competition, or about shamefully exploited and underpaid electronics and garment industry workers in the East – post-Gutenberg has somehow missed it.

Numbers — related not to journalists but their comrades in the making of books — are the chief evidence of the despair on which no one is reporting noticeably.  A headline in the Guardian last month inspired by a University of London study of writers’ earnings read, ‘Median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wage’. [p-G’s emphasis] Most shocking was that ‘17% of all writers did not earn anything at all during 2013,’ even though ‘98% of those authors had published a work every year from 2010 to 2013.’

A report earlier this month on a panel discussion of the same subject organised by the American Authors Guild stated that preliminary results of a similar survey of U.S. authors revealed that …

… 49% of U.S. authors assessed their writing income has decreased over the last five years. Respondents’ median writing-related income decreased 24% in that time frame, to $8,000, while they spent nearly 50% more time marketing themselves and their work.

Now, here comes Facebook, bearing gifts – none of them directly designed to help reporters, writers and editors, working in-house or as freelances, or any other actual creators of the stuff of news, as opposed to media owners and their financial managers and overseers:

This week, Facebook launched Instant Articles, a feature that allows publishers to host their news stories and content directly on Facebook. For consumers, this is a much faster, richer, and easier experience for reading articles directly on their News Feeds and primarily on mobile. For Facebook, this is a big improvement to the user experience and to its app “stickiness.”

That is an extract from a report in Forbes the old ‘capitalist’s tool’, and the business-and-technology section of the NY Times said:

The news publishers can either sell and embed advertisements in the articles, keeping all of the revenue, or allow Facebook to sell ads, with the social network getting 30 percent of the proceeds. Facebook is also permitting the news companies to collect data about the people reading the articles with the same tools they use to track visitors to their own sites.

For publishers, the Facebook initiative represents the latest in a series of existential balancing acts. The social network, which has more than 1.4 billion active users worldwide, captures more attention of mobile users — and prompts more visits to news sites — than virtually any other service.

While we seem to be watching Mark Zuckerberg lead newspaper bean-counters to the Promised Land, a piece of news about him at the week’s end was hardly what those of us worrying about media concentration and mogul megalomania wished to see. Maybe his intentions were all-virtuous; maybe not:

 …Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has responded to Ukrainians’ complaints about “unfair” deleting and blocking of their Facebook posts and accounts. The tech boss says they were too hateful.

In a Thursday Q&A session, Zuckerberg dismissed claims of Russian influence being behind the blockings. He was responding to a complaint that had garnered almost 50,000 likes. …

Post-Gutenberg would be infinitely more comfortable with decisions about censorship made by a moderation panel made up of democratically elected Facebook users than unilaterally, by the big chief himself. Once Zuckerberg has enough newspapers beholden to him, will he prove capable of resisting corruption by excessive power?

We prefer Google’s openness to new conceptions of media organisations and digital publishing: 

Google is spearheading the creation of a new fund that will give grants to European news organisations that are creating “high-quality journalism.”

The new Digital News Initiative (“DNI”) is being launched as a partnership with eight European newspapers: Les Echos, FAZ, The Financial Times, The Guardian, NRC Media, El Pais, La Stampa and Die Zeit.

The money will not be spent at those titles. Rather, they will advise on the spending of a €150 million fund to help news organisations “demonstrate new thinking” in digital journalism.

Google is also going to invest in training and research for journalists, including staff in London, Paris, and Hamburg who will train newsrooms in digital skills. It will invest in training partnerships, as well as funding research into digital journalism. …

About time, too. A 1997 article that turned up in forgotten clippings files about a year ago reminded us that digital disruption has merely accelerated the destruction of traditional publishing that began decades ago. In ‘The Writer Is Dead. But His Ghost Is Thriving,’ Jack Hitt anatomised the train of events through which scribblers ghosting books for celebrities earned the living wages they no longer could, writing under their own names.

With any luck, the spheres of exploration in Google’s Digital News Initiative will include co-owned media — the subject about which this blog drones on tirelessly. Leaving out the cooperative idea, which has the support of the wildly popular Pope Francis, some Charlie Hebdo staffers and the rapper Jay Z  — a group diverse enough to have been imagined by a lunatic — would make not the smallest particle of sense.

Also for paying attention to the needs of creators of all stripes, we would like to see Facebook and Google do more in copyright protection, so that tragedies of throttled creativity, such as the one described in this outstanding contribution to the bulletin of the venerable Authors Guild, can be averted:

… In the nineteenth century, American magazines printed pirated British prose rather than pay American writers; the practice stunted the emergence of a national literary culture. We could read Dickens without paying him; was that worth sending Melville to work in the Customs House? Who knows what he might have produced with greater financial security? In my case, I planned a really expansive digital edition of my next book, with dynamic interactive maps, embedded with videos, and ways for readers to explore the intertextuality of this book with my previous two. But why send readers to an edition that will earn me less than the hardcover, that will be pirated immediately, and that Google might appropriate? I’m not running a charity. That is a digital work that will not come to be, because of piracy and the attacks on the value of digital creations.

T. J. Stiles, ‘Among the Digital Luddites,’ Authors Guild Winter 2015 Bulletin