Archive for the ‘facebook’ tag

How to stop the tech giants turning us into techo-serfs

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We need to learn to live with the big companies which dominate the internet – but right now our only policy responses are state control or free market monopoly.

This post was first published at the New Statesman on Monday 9th February 2015

On 6 May 2010, more than half a million Facebook users voted in the UK election. We know this because they told us. Each of them pressed a button on their Facebook profile announcing they had exercised their electoral right. Their Facebook announcements almost certainly galvanised other people to vote and increased turnout. At least, we know that is what happened in the US election that November. Research on the US Facebook election experiment concluded that the “I voted” button motivated 60,000 voters to go to the polls in the US in 2010, and that in turn triggered 340,000 extra votes. Facebook’s intervention took it beyond a passive platform and towards having a more active civic role, but given the decline in voter turnout in the UK and US, few would argue that getting out the vote was not a civic good.

Facebook and other US digital media giants – Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon and others – have already become integral across our work and social lives. Half of the people in Britain who use the internet are active Facebook users. Google has an 88 per cent share of search in the UK, and 92 per cent in Europe – and even higher in mobile search. Government ministers and departments now rely on Twitter to communicate policy. Eight out of ten ebooks sold in the UK are sold by Amazon.

Many of us rely on these digital behemoths to deliver and store our correspondence, to report our news, to help us find information, to tell us how to get somewhere, to arrange our meetings, to produce and store our work. Nor is our reliance restricted to our social and working lives. Increasingly we are also using these services for democratic purposes. We start and join campaigns on Facebook. We demonstrate political support through Twitter: #jesuischarlie, #bringbackourgirls, #99percent, #icantbreathe. Google accounts for between a quarter and a half of Europeans’ method of accessing news online.

One of the consequences of this is that these commercial corporations know an awful lot about us. Facebook is, according to recent academic research, more likely to know what you like than your mum or dad. Apple, on whose iOS platform half of UK smartphone users rely, knows who you call, where you go, and a good proportion of the news you see. As for Google’s Android, which now supports the majority of smartphones in the world, the “operating system has only one core function, which is to collect data about you”.

This puts a lot of the power over British citizens in the hands of these US media giants. The power to provide or obscure information. The power to assemble and make accessible our digital identities. The power to enable us to connect and co-ordinate with one another. The power – in certain situations – to predict what we are going to do next. And the power to pass on – or sell – our private information, to retailers, media outlets, the security services, or to use for their own purposes. So powerful is the personal data held by these companies that David Cameron put gaining access to it at the forefront of his agenda when he went to see the US president in January.

Yet the UK is just one of many franchises as far as these global titans are concerned. Facebook’s 33 million British monthly users make up less than 3 per cent of worldwide Facebook users. This proportion will shrink further if Facebook’s ambition to connect some of the four billion unconnected people in the world via internet.org succeeds. The 18 million Britons who rely on Google’s Android make up less than 2 per cent of Android users worldwide.

Outside the UK, these US companies’ political influence has been even more material and profound. Facebook did not cause the 2011 Egyptian revolution, but it was critical in its incubation and early co-ordination. Twitter did not find Osama bin Laden, but we knew the Americans had thanks to Twitter. Amazon did successfully (though only temporarily) shut down access to Wikileaks when it dropped it from its cloud.

Until the last couple of years most democratic countries have simply stood by and watched as these global behemoths have grown. We have been happy to be gifted their digital tools that make our lives more efficient, more connected and – digitally, at least – more transparent.

Only recently have democratic governments begun to get anxious. It is not surprising that they are worried. These companies dominate markets and in some areas monopolise them. Some of these services are arguably becoming utilities, deprived of whose benefits one becomes unable to participate fully in society.

Moreover, they have increased their penetration and their scope far beyond the private sphere. Microsoft has developed predictive policing software. Amazon Web Services runs the CIA’s data cloud. Google predicts the spread of flu. Facebook promotes voting in elections and helps find missing children. Yet they are almost all US companies, and often do not have their headquarters in the countries in which they operate. Most have located their European offices in tax-friendly Ireland or Luxembourg.

The UK government, and UK citizens, have very little influence over these tech giants, or how they behave. We trust they will be kind and do no evil, but have little leverage if they choose to do otherwise. As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of Facebook and Google+, the two “share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services”.

The recent Intelligent Services Committee report on the murder of Lee Rigby lamented the UK government’s lack of power. “None of the US companies we contacted”, the report says, “accept the UK’s jurisdiction on requests for Lawful Intercept (i.e. content) for intelligence investigations”. These US companies included Facebook, Google, BlackBerry, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple and Twitter. Given the increasing use of encryption, the report goes on: “[W]e consider this to be the single most important challenge that the [UK Security] Agencies face. It has very serious ramifications for the security of the UK”.

Non-democratic states have already taken steps to neuter these digital giants. Some have sought to block or constrain them, while nurturing national – and more compliant – alternatives. China blocked Facebook in 2009 (though, after assiduous courting by Mark Zuckerberg, is considering letting it back in). Google operates in China, but its service is frequently disrupted, meaning its share languishes at less than 2 per cent. Russia has gone further, with its lower House passing legislation in 2014 that would require internet companies to store Russian citizens personal data within Russia. Combined with the RuNet website blacklist, the restrictions on blogs with a daily audience of more than 3,000, and the “law against retweets”, this means the Russian government will have huge power over its citizens’ digital behavior, and have full knowledge of its citizens’ digital footprints.

Erich Honecker’s East German government could only dream of having this much information about and control over its citizens. No democratic state should want to go in this direction – or, if they do, then they would quickly lose any democratic credibility.

So how should the UK and other democratic societies respond? What are the alternatives to blithely accepting US digital dominance or reacting in an autocratic anti-democratic way? Have Europe’s responses to date been well-informed, forward-thinking, constructive and cognizant of civil liberties? Sadly not.

In November 2014 the EU Parliament proposed breaking up Google into separate parts – splitting search from maps, news, email and social. Even though this was a symbolic gesture it is not clear why the Parliament thought such a move would be constructive. The chief alternatives to Google in search, maps, “free” email and social are also all US tech giants.

Two months earlier George Osborne announced, with some fanfare, that “some technology companies go to extraordinary lengths to pay little or no tax here … My message to those companies is clear: we will put a stop to it”. Yet, as numerous commentators subsequently concluded, the new tax arrangements are unlikely to have much impact beyond sending a political message to Google and its peers.

The November 2014 UK government report into the killing of Lee Rigby proposed, amongst other things, that Facebook and others keep their users under surveillance and pass on information to the UK government. Not only is this technologically impractical (there are 4.75 billion pieces of content shared a day on Facebook), but creates a dangerous precedent. This would essentially mean Facebook acting as a sort of private sector GCHQ, scouring people’s profiles and correspondence for any evidence of potential terrorism or criminality (and note the ambiguity “potential”).

Perhaps the most regressive proposal of all was David Cameron’s promise, in January 2015, that, should the Conservatives be re-elected, he would pass laws to ensure that there were no ‘safe spaces’ online where people could communicate without the government being able to gain access.[xxv] Not only would this be technically impossible, to head in this direction would take the UK on a path pursued by authoritarian statist countries like Russia and China.

Cameron’s proposal, and others across Europe, indicate a wider policy vacuum. There is a digital policy black hole regarding how to deal with these companies into which regressive, reactive policies are being proposed without much thought for their practical application or their negative implications. As yet there are almost no proposed democratic alternatives. We have no separate, plausible, social-democratic option as distinct from the US free market individualist model or authoritarian statism.

This is because there has, to date, been so little substantive policy thinking about how to respond to these digital giants in a way that both acknowledges and welcomes the significant benefits they bring, but also enables us – over time – to create an environment in which we no longer rely on them so much.

If we want greater competition in the search market, why have we not discussed how to make the web easier to navigate (for example through more consistent metadata)? If we are concerned about tech giants hoarding personal data, why not consider Evgeny Morozov’s suggestion that such data “stripped of privacy-compromising identifiers… be pooled into a common resource”? If Twitter – which has always struggled to make a profit – closed down tomorrow, would we simply do without it, or wait for the market to come up with an alternative? Should we consider whether the BBC could build a public service alternative – building in proper safeguards for independence and privacy protection? If we are genuinely concerned about misuse of our private data by these US firms, should we not explore the “information fiduciary” concept suggested by Jack Balkin and others?

Our failure to explore alternatives may be due to our inability to foresee the dangers. The usefulness and convenience of these digital tools makes us blind to the potential economic, social and political risks. Until these dangers become clearer then there will be little political will to take action.

Meanwhile, our reliance on these digital leviathans continues to grow. Within the last year both Facebook and Google have taken significant steps into the world of work (see Facebook @work and Google MyBusiness) and expanded into new markets (such as through Facebook’s internet.org). If, at some point in the near future, there is another terrorist attack in the UK, the government will again place some blame on these US corporations and try to respond. Deprived of constructive, intellectually robust responses it is highly likely they will react in a way that harms not just the companies themselves, but all of us who have come to rely on them for our work, our social life and – increasingly – our civic participation.

On 7 May, many of us may click on a new Facebook “I voted” button. This will encourage more of us to vote. Facebook will have performed a civic good. But, as Jonathan Zittrain pointed out with respect to the 2010 election experiment, there is nothing to stop Facebook deliberately prompting only certain voters and thereby skewing the result. How would we ever know? Even if we did know, or found out, there is nothing we could do about it. As these tech giants bring us unprecedented tools for civic participation, we have a responsibility to think more carefully about how to ensure they “don’t be evil”.

Written by Martin Moore

February 11th, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Why we need a UK equivalent of the Knight News Challenge

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This post was first published on the LSE Media Policy Project blog on 9th October 2014

You’ll remember the scene from It’s a Wonderful Life: the angel Clarence shows George Bailey what Bedford Falls would look like if he had never existed. Mr Potter owns virtually everything in the town. There are pawnshops, night clubs and neon bars all down the high street. Nothing functions in the re-named ‘Pottersville’ without Mr Potter taking a cut.

In five years’ time, a new media giant such as Google or Facebook could have a similar stranglehold on our local media.

Our local print press continues to decline. In the first half of 2014 alone, local newspaper circulation dropped by an average of 13.5 per cent year-on-year. Since 2000, regional newspaper paid circulation has more than halved.

Hyperlocal websites are starting to fill the democratic gap, but slowly and intermittently. There are fewer than fifteen hyperlocal sites in Northern Ireland and fewer than thirty in Wales and Scotland (Ofcom, 2013). Less than a third of hyperlocal sites make enough money even to cover even basic costs (Barnett/Townend 2014).

Open data has yet to animate an army of armchair auditors, as the Coalition government hoped it would. ‘Simply putting data “out there”’, the Public Administration Committee said in 2014, ‘is not enough to keep Government accountable’ (PAC, Tenth Report).

Civic technology has not taken off in the UK as it has in the US

We do not yet have an equivalent to Nextdoor.com – the private residents’ social network, or neighbor.ly – the crowdfunding site for local civic projects, or openplans.org – digital tools to involve people more closely in planning decisions.

The amount invested in local news and civic technology in the US – for profit and non-profit – dwarfs that invested in the UK. The Knight Foundation alone has put over $235 million into journalism and media innovation in the last eight years. MacArthur, Rockefeller, Open Society, Ford and other foundations have also supported innovation in this area. Private investors have invested more still, particularly in civic technology. Between 2011 and 2013, private funders put $364 million into civic technology in the US (Knight Foundation, 2013).

In contrast, our local civic innovators and entrepreneurs are starved of support. NESTA, Technology Strategy Board and Carnegie are almost the only non-commercial funders supporting innovation in local news and information.

The consequences are becoming clear. Local news and information providers are increasingly unable to perform the role expected of the Fourth Estate. Local businesses and services are ever more reliant on non-UK technology platforms. We urgently need to alter our trajectory. We need to move from deterioration and dependence to innovation and growth.

Spurring innovation

The best way to change this is through a local news competition. A competition in which individuals and organisations would compete for awards of between £10,000 and £50,000 to start, grow and run the local news and civic technology of the future.

Similar competitions already exist in the US – like the Knight News Challenge. Over the first five years of the Challenge, Knight gave awards to 79 news innovation projects – a total of $26.5 million.

A UK version of such a competition could see a transformation of local news. Ten million pounds a year for five years would lead to over 2,000 award winners: 2,000 local news and civic technology projects around the UK. It would be a bottom up revolution in local news, driven by people in the local areas themselves. Compare this to the 30 licenses granted to organisations to provide local broadcast TV services.

Neither does such a competition need to be supported through existing public funds. The French government set up a €60 million news transition fund paid for by Google (following a dispute about whether Google should pay to display news content in its search results). Eric Schmidt has since said he is happy to discuss a similar arrangement in the UK. Alternatively, there could be a more realistic charge for the collection and commercial re-use of personal data.

Such a competition could create a flowering of innovation and information about local communities. It could energise civic participation and democratic engagement. It could leave a legacy of enterprise, experience and invention that would put the UK at the forefront of digital information development.

The alternative? We could watch as new media giants – most US-based – colonise our local areas, providing digital platforms for everything from the council to the police to local business. These digital giants would necessarily levy a charge or subsidise their services through local advertising.

As with Mr Potter’s Bedford Falls – or rather Pottersville – nothing will function in Bedford, Bedfordshire, without Google or Facebook taking a cut.

The full report on which this post is based – ‘Addressing the Democratic Deficit in Local News through Positive Plurality’ – was published by the Media Standards Trust on 9 October 2014. 

Written by Martin Moore

October 17th, 2014 at 11:33 am

Is Distrust of Facebook Contagious?

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This post was first published at the Huffington Post UK on 1st July 2014

What do these three things have in common? Over the course of a week in January 2012 Facebook deliberately manipulated the news feed of almost 700,000 users in order to compare the effects of positive and negative news. In June 2014 Instagram disabled the account of Courtney Adamo after she posted an innocent photograph of her eighteen-month old daughter showing her bellybutton, saying it violated their rules. Research by Psychologist Robert Epstein released in May claimed that Google could, simply by adjusting its search algorithms, influence the outcome of an election by an average of over 12% – easily enough to swing the vote in marginal contests.

All three are within the power and scope of Facebook and Google (Facebook owns Instagram). All three caused public consternation and, in the case of the first two, a popular backlash (it should be emphasized that the third was conceptual rather than actual – the researchers were testing a theory).

When Facebook, Google and other new media behemoths do something that causes public angst or anger they generally apologise and often shift their position.

But they are under no obligation to change their behaviour. These new media behemoths are public companies. As such they are run as autocracies not as democracies. They may perform a positive public role, but only insofar as it suits their aims and continues to support their business model.

As Rebecca MacKinnon wrote of the two big social networks in Consent of the Networked: ‘both Google Plus and Facebook share a Hobbesian approach to governance in which people agree to relinquish a certain amount of freedom to a benevolent sovereign who in turn provides security and other services’.

We know this but often appear to be in denial about it. Yet as we come to rely on these behemoths more and more, we need to remind ourselves that a benevolent sovereign is still a sovereign, and may not always act benevolently.

We need to be especially conscious when it comes to our reliance on these digital sovereigns to perform a civic function. According to the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report Facebook is ‘by far the most important network for news everywhere’. Google, Bing and Yahoo together account for between a third and a half of people’s pathway to news. News is broken on twitter rather than mainstream media.

We may rely on these digital sovereigns, but we have little control over how they perform this civic function, how they choose to evolve it, or when they stop providing it. Google just announced it would be stopping Orkut, one of its social networking platform on September 30th.

In the same way these organisations can choose what content their users are allowed to publish. Breastfeeding photographs fell foul of Facebook’s rules and were removed (the ban was quietly dropped last month). Beheadings were initially allowed, then banned, then allowed again on Facebook. They are now allowed as long as they are posted in ‘the right context’ (hard to imagine what the ‘right context’ is for a beheading).

Local campaigns, that may previously have been led by a local newspaper, are often now organized through Facebook. Whether they are to save a library, to stop a bypass, or find a missing person, these are, by most people’s definition, civic campaigns. Facebook is not obliged to enable people to run these campaigns, and is within its terms of use to censor them – algorithmically or manually.

We should not fool ourselves into believing that algorithms are somehow neutral. Algorithms are like recipes. If you change an ingredient in the recipe, you change the dish. Tweak an algorithm and suddenly, invisibly, the results you receive will change (for good examples see The Filter Bubble).

Algorithms can be as influential in defining an editorial agenda as a newspaper editor. In its experiment Facebook chose to adjust its algorithm to censor specific news updates on the basis of key words. How is this different from a newspaper editor deciding not to publish a news story because of the effect it may have on the reader? Or the advertiser? The chief difference is that people know news stories are chosen subjectively. Many believe that algorithmic results are objective.

This may account for why lots of people appeared to be shocked by Facebook’s psychological research experiment in which its users were the guinea pigs. But this was not the first experiment nor will it be the last.

But whereas one can debate with an editor, or question editorial decisions, it is very hard to see how one can do the same to an algorithm. Especially since these algorithms are closely guarded secrets, the equivalent of the Coke formula.

Revelations about Facebook experiments are waking us up to the fact that these services are not neutral, neither are they simply there for the public good. Yet they are now an integral part of our lives – not just our social but our civic lives too. Our influence over what they do, however, or over what services they provide, or how they use our personal information, is tiny. If you think firing a peashooter at an elephant is ineffectual, try firing emails at Facebook HQ in Menlo Park California.

Written by Martin Moore

July 9th, 2014 at 8:33 am

Facebook becomes a source of US election news

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The good old Pew Center has conducted a fascinating study into how Americans are getting their news about the US election.

The big finding is, once again, that the internet continues to grow as a source of campaign news – and at the same time traditional media continues to decline (though it needs to be noted that traditional sources are not declining as quickly as the internet is rising). 24% of Americans now regularly get news about the election online – and this rises to 42% of 18-29 year olds.

But within the big picture some of the detailed figures are astonishing. The survey finds that more than a quarter of 18-29 year olds (27%) use social networking sites to get information about the campaign (and 37% of 18-24 year olds).

Information, what information? I realise I’m a social networking neanderthal (having scribbled on none of my Facebook friends’ walls and joined only 2 groups) but the news information I get via Facebook is along the lines of ‘Alison prefers friday nights to monday nights’ or ‘Sarah says she has a crush on an octogenarian DJ’. You can go out and find information about the campaign (see Barack Obama’s ‘Notes’ for example’) and receive news from groups, but in the first case this is hardly impartial and in the second pre-filtered.

This finding can’t help but fuel the concerns of those who think people will become increasingly deaf to any information that might quaintly be called ‘public interest’, prefering to find stuff themselves (however unbalanced) or hear it from their peers.

On a brighter note, the survey suggests serendipity is not dead. 52% of web users said ‘they “come across” campaign news and information when they are going online to do something else’. I guess this is a little like channel surfing late at night, stumbling upon ‘This Week’ and getting stuck listening to Michael Portillo arguing with Dianne Abbot.

And the report also finds that people go to a remarkable range of websites for campaign news. ‘For every person getting campaign news from a site like MSNBC or CNN,’ Pew says, ‘there is a person getting campaign news from a website that targets a far smaller audience’ – most of these being niche internet news websites.

At this rate it looks as though the internet should surpass traditional media as the main source of election news for young people in 2012. Although what ‘news’ they’ll get from it is far from clear.

At least there will always be a hard core of young people interested in politics. An impressive 8% of enthusiastic 18-29 year olds signed up as a ‘friend of the candidate’ – future campaign co-ordinators perhaps?

Written by Martin Moore

January 15th, 2008 at 12:40 pm

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