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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

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

Twitter, Trafigura, and the future of press injunctions

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Goodness knows what it was like from the editors chair. But from where I sat watching the live twitter feed of #trafigura on Tuesday was utterly compelling. First there was the detective work – people trying to figure out, based on the sparse information in the Guardian’s initial article about the absurdly wide-ranging ‘super-injunction’ – which Parliamentary question the paper had been prevented from talking about. The key was ‘Carter Ruck’. Searching through Parliamentary written and oral questions a few bright sparks alighted on Paul Farrelly’s question:

‘”To ask the Secretary of State for Justice what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.”

They then tweeted about this to see if other people agreed it must be the question, and within hours confirmed with one another this must be it.

From there twitterers started looking for the Minton Report. Again, thanks to the net this was available on Wikileaks – a site unthreatened by injunctions or super-injunctions because its ‘information is distributed across many jurisdictions, organizations and individuals’. As it claims on the site, ‘Once a document is leaked it is essentially impossible to censor’.

Then social media and the power of the ‘link economy’ kicked in. Hundreds, then thousands, of people started posting 140 character messages on Twitter expressing outrage at the injunction and pointing people to the Parliamentary question, articles about Trafigura, and the Minton Report.

Within hours #trafigura had become the number one trending topic in Twitter. In other words more people were tweeting about #trafigura than about anything else in the world. At one point four of the top five trending topics on Twitter were about this story (the fifth was ‘Google Wave’).

Then, shortly after 1pm, the editor of the Guardian posted a tweet saying Carter Ruck had backed down. They would not try to prolong the injunction, and the Guardian was free to mention the parliamentary question.

Much whooping and cheering on Twitter. Stephen Fry, comedian and uber twitterer, tweeted, “Carter-Ruck caves in! Hurrah! Trafigura will deny it had anything to do with Twitter, but we know don’t we?”.

But was it Twitter wot won it? And if so, what does this mean for press freedom and the future of injunctions?

Well, if it wasn’t Twitter then one can safely say it was not the other mainstream media outlets. Almost all other newspapers, and the BBC, remained silent during the course of the morning, prevented from publishing by the ‘super injunction’. The Telegraph broke the silence in the late morning but only to report that ‘Trafigura tops list of Twitter trending topics’. There was no mention in the article of the Guardian, Paul Farrelly, or the injunction.

Newspapers are still relatively easy targets for lawyers. They are institutions, they have their own lawyers. They have editors and journalists who can be sent to jail if they break the law.

Twitterers are a far less easy target. They (or rather ‘we’, since I twitter and was twittering on Tuesday morning) are mostly individuals, not institutions or outlets. To stop twitterers Carter Ruck would have to take on thousands of individuals – many of whom are tweeting pseudonymously. To use a military analogy, it’s like an army fighting a guerilla rather than a conventional war.

Yet will these guerilla twitterers have any substantive impact on the law? Well, if they can do another #trafigura with the next injunction then injunctions may be seen to be increasingly ineffective. But this is unlikely given the Guardian took a risk publishing as much information as it did about this super injunction – and probably only got away with it (if indeed it has got away with it) because the injunction appeared to prevent the paper from reporting on Parliament – a privilege held for over 200 years, since John Wilkes’ famous battle in the 18th century (Carter Ruck subsequently denied they tried to gag Parliamentary reporting). Whether or not a Parliamentary gag was intended, one would certainly hope MPs will now put an end to the so-called ‘super-injunction’.

Most injunctions are not about issues that may be debated in Parliament, and therefore do not raise issues of parliamentary privilege. The Guardian perhaps hopes it can use the Trafigura case as a lever to crank open the whole question of injunctions. Maybe. But Private Eye has been making a lot of noise about injunctions for a long while, yet there use appears to be increasing rather than decreasing.

Moreover, there is an understandable public interest in some injunctions. When a media storm grew around the 13 year old ‘baby father’ in February the family court stepped in and issued an injunction to prevent harm to the children involved in the story.

For commercial injunctions, history has shown that people cling most closely to things they are about to lose. So it is likely to be with these injunctions – at least 12 of which have already been served this year against the Guardian (presumably more against other outlets, though we don’t really know, since they are – by law – secret). Over time, and following similar #trafigura incidents, such injunctions should become less and less effective. But the Carter Rucks of this world will keep doggedly serving them up until it costs their clients more than the benefits of buying a temporary silence.

Still, the twitterati should take heart. This was a victory for press freedom, and a victory won by the power of collective voices.

Written by Martin Moore

October 16th, 2009 at 5:02 pm

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