Big Fail: The internet hasn’t helped democracy

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New research shows that more and more of our public conversation is unfolding within a dwindling coterie of sites that are controlled by a small few, largely unregulated and geared primarily to profit rather than public interest.
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By Robert Diab, Thompson Rivers University

Hardly a week goes by without news of another data breach at a large corporation affecting millions, most recently Facebook.

In 2016, the issue became political with evidence of Russian interference in the U.S. election and the spectre of foreign control over public opinion.

American lawmakers called on Facebook’s CEO to account in high-profile congressional hearings, but the discussion focused mainly on privacy and personal data.

We have yet to come to terms with the staggering degree of control the major platforms exercise over political speech and what it means for democracy.

A new book on the economics of attention online urges us to do so. It shows that more and more of our public conversation is unfolding within a dwindling coterie of sites that are controlled by a small few, largely unregulated and geared primarily to profit rather than public interest.

[Read more…]

EU approves controversial Copyright Directive, including internet ‘link tax’ and ‘upload filter’

The Verge reports:

The European Parliament has voted in favor of the Copyright Directive, a controversial piece of legislation intended to update online copyright laws for the internet age.

The directive was originally rejected by MEPs in July following criticism of two key provisions: Articles 11 and 13, dubbed the “link tax” and “upload filter” by critics. However, in parliament this morning, an updated version of the directive was approved, along with amended versions of Articles 11 and 13. The final vote was 438 in favor and 226 against.

The fallout from this decision will be far-reaching, and take a long time to settle. The directive itself still faces a final vote in January 2019 (although experts say it’s unlikely it will be rejected). After that it will need to be implemented by individual EU member states, who could very well vary significantly in how they choose to interpret the directive’s text.

The most important parts of this are Articles 11 and 13. Article 11 is intended to give publishers and papers a way to make money when companies like Google link to their stories, allowing them to demand paid licenses. Article 13 requires certain platforms like YouTube and Facebook stop users sharing unlicensed copyrighted material.


Critics of the Copyright Directive say these provisions are disastrous. In the case of Article 11, they note that attempts to “tax” platforms like Google News for sharing articles have repeatedly failed, and that the system would be ripe to abuse by copyright trolls.

Article 13, they say, is even worse. The legislation requires that platforms proactively work with rightsholders to stop users uploading copyrighted content. The only way to do so would be to scan all data being uploaded to sites like YouTube and Facebook. This would create an incredible burden for small platforms, and could be used as a mechanism for widespread censorship. This is why figures like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee came out so strongly against the directive. [Continue reading…]

The digital corruption of the human brain

Maryanne Wolf writes:

Look around on your next plane trip. The iPad is the new pacifier for babies and toddlers. Younger school-aged children read stories on smartphones; older boys don’t read at all, but hunch over video games. Parents and other passengers read on Kindles or skim a flotilla of email and news feeds. Unbeknownst to most of us, an invisible, game-changing transformation links everyone in this picture: the neuronal circuit that underlies the brain’s ability to read is subtly, rapidly changing – a change with implications for everyone from the pre-reading toddler to the expert adult.

As work in neurosciences indicates, the acquisition of literacy necessitated a new circuit in our species’ brain more than 6,000 years ago. That circuit evolved from a very simple mechanism for decoding basic information, like the number of goats in one’s herd, to the present, highly elaborated reading brain. My research depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.

This is not a simple, binary issue of print vs digital reading and technological innovation. As MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written, we do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating. In this hinge moment between print and digital cultures, society needs to confront what is diminishing in the expert reading circuit, what our children and older students are not developing, and what we can do about it. [Continue reading…]

The defamation case against Alex Jones

The New York Times reports:

In the five years since Noah Pozner was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., death threats and online harassment have forced his parents, Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, to relocate seven times. They now live in a high-security community hundreds of miles from where their 6-year-old is buried.

“I would love to go see my son’s grave and I don’t get to do that, but we made the right decision,” Ms. De La Rosa said in a recent interview. Each time they have moved, online fabulists stalking the family have published their whereabouts.

“With the speed of light,” she said. “They have their own community, and they have the ear of some very powerful people.”

On Wednesday in an Austin courtroom, the struggle of the Sandy Hook families to hold to account Alex Jones, a powerful leader of this online community, will reach a crossroads. Lawyers for Noah Pozner’s parents will seek to convince a Texas judge that they — and by extension the families of eight other victims in the 2012 shooting that killed 20 first graders and six adults — have a valid defamation claim against Mr. Jones, whose Austin-based Infowars media operation spread false claims that the shooting was an elaborate hoax.

The Pozner hearing is a bellwether in three cases, including another in Texas and one in Connecticut, filed by relatives of nine Sandy Hook victims. It comes as the social media platforms Mr. Jones relies upon to spread incendiary claims initiate efforts to curb him. [Continue reading…]

The inventor of the World Wide Web and his mission to save it

Katrina Brooker writes:

“For people who want to make sure the Web serves humanity, we have to concern ourselves with what people are building on top of it,” Tim Berners-Lee told me one morning in downtown Washington, D.C., about a half-mile from the White House. Berners-Lee was speaking about the future of the Internet, as he does often and fervently and with great animation at a remarkable cadence. With an Oxonian wisp of hair framing his chiseled face, Berners-Lee appears the consummate academic—communicating rapidly, in a clipped London accent, occasionally skipping over words and eliding sentences as he stammers to convey a thought. His soliloquy was a mixture of excitement with traces of melancholy. Nearly three decades earlier, Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. On this morning, he had come to Washington as part of his mission to save it.

At 63, Berners-Lee has thus far had a career more or less divided into two phases. In the first, he attended Oxford; worked at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN); and then, in 1989, came up with the idea that eventually became the Web. Initially, Berners-Lee’s innovation was intended to help scientists share data across a then obscure platform called the Internet, a version of which the U.S. government had been using since the 1960s. But owing to his decision to release the source code for free—to make the Web an open and democratic platform for all—his brainchild quickly took on a life of its own. Berners-Lee’s life changed irrevocably, too. He would be named one of the 20th century’s most important figures by Time, receive the Turing Award (named after the famed code breaker) for achievements in the computer sciences, and be honored at the Olympics. He has been knighted by the Queen. “He is the Martin Luther King of our new digital world,” says Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. (Berners-Lee sits on the foundation’s board of trustees.)

Berners-Lee, who never directly profited off his invention, has also spent most of his life trying to guard it. While Silicon Valley started ride-share apps and social-media networks without profoundly considering the consequences, Berners-Lee has spent the past three decades thinking about little else. [Continue reading…]

Jaron Lanier is convinced that social media is toxic, making us sadder, angrier and more isolated

The Guardian reports:

Many of the ideas in Jaron Lanier’s new book start off pretty familiar – at least, if you are active on social media. Yet in every chapter there is a principle so elegant, so neat, sometimes even so beautiful, that what is billed as straight polemic becomes something much more profound.

The concept of random reinforcement, for example: addiction fed not by reward but by never knowing whether or when the reward will come, is well known. But Lanier puts it like this: “The algorithm is trying to capture the perfect parameters for manipulating a brain, while the brain, in order to seek out deeper meaning, is changing in response to the algorithm’s experiments … Because the stimuli from the algorithm doesn’t mean anything, because they genuinely are random, the brain isn’t responding to anything real, but to a fiction. That process – of becoming hooked on an elusive mirage – is addiction.”

The restless scrolling, the clammy self-reproach afterwards … we could recognise that as addiction quite easily, but the mathematical mechanism for having created it makes horrible sense (Lanier isn’t that interested in culprits, though he finds all of Silicon Valley pretty callow).

He wears his tech credentials lightly, as he can afford to, having been there for the creation of the internet; he was chief scientist of the engineering office of Internet2 and there in the very first chat-rooms, whence he draws the conclusion that I found the least convincing: even at its incipience, online communication tended towards the hostile. “Sometimes, out of nowhere, I would get into a fight with someone … It was so weird. We’d start insulting each other, trying to score points.” Since this all predated algorithmic manipulation, and cannot be blamed on Facebook, he concludes that we have pack behaviours and solitary behaviours: in a pack, we become locked in internecine competition; on our own “we’re more free. We’re cautious, but also more capable of joy.” [Continue reading…]

Facebook and Google hit with $8.8 billion in lawsuits on day one of GDPR

The Verge reports:

On the first day of GDPR enforcement, Facebook and Google have been hit with a raft of lawsuits accusing the companies of coercing users into sharing personal data. The lawsuits, which seek to fine Facebook 3.9 billion and Google 3.7 billion euro (roughly $8.8 billion in dollars), were filed by Austrian privacy activist Max Schrems, a longtime critic of the companies’ data collection practices.

GDPR requires clear consent and justification for any personal data collected from users, and these guidelines have pushed companies across the internet to revise their privacy policies and collection practices. But there is still widespread uncertainty over how European regulators will treat the requirements, and many companies are still unprepared for enforcement.

Both Google and Facebook have rolled out new policies and products to comply with GDPR, but Schrems’ complaints argue those policies don’t go far enough. In particular, the complaint singles out the way companies obtain consent for the privacy policies, asking users to check a box in order to access services. It’s a widespread practice for online services, but the complaints argue that it forces users into an all-or-nothing choice, a violation of the GDPR’s provisions around particularized consent. [Continue reading…]

Human society is unprepared for the rise of artificial intelligence

Henry Kissinger writes:

The internet age in which we already live prefigures some of the questions and issues that AI will only make more acute. The Enlightenment sought to submit traditional verities to a liberated, analytic human reason. The internet’s purpose is to ratify knowledge through the accumulation and manipulation of ever expanding data. Human cognition loses its personal character. Individuals turn into data, and data become regnant.

Users of the internet emphasize retrieving and manipulating information over contextualizing or conceptualizing its meaning. They rarely interrogate history or philosophy; as a rule, they demand information relevant to their immediate practical needs. In the process, search-engine algorithms acquire the capacity to predict the preferences of individual clients, enabling the algorithms to personalize results and make them available to other parties for political or commercial purposes. Truth becomes relative. Information threatens to overwhelm wisdom.

Inundated via social media with the opinions of multitudes, users are diverted from introspection; in truth many technophiles use the internet to avoid the solitude they dread. All of these pressures weaken the fortitude required to develop and sustain convictions that can be implemented only by traveling a lonely road, which is the essence of creativity.

The impact of internet technology on politics is particularly pronounced. The ability to target micro-groups has broken up the previous consensus on priorities by permitting a focus on specialized purposes or grievances. Political leaders, overwhelmed by niche pressures, are deprived of time to think or reflect on context, contracting the space available for them to develop vision.

The digital world’s emphasis on speed inhibits reflection; its incentive empowers the radical over the thoughtful; its values are shaped by subgroup consensus, not by introspection. For all its achievements, it runs the risk of turning on itself as its impositions overwhelm its conveniences. [Continue reading…]

Data centers, the factories of the digital age, emit as much CO2 as the airline industry

Yale Environment 360 reports:

The cloud is coming back to Earth with a bump. That ethereal place where we store our data, stream our movies, and email the world has a physical presence – in hundreds of giant data centers that are taking a growing toll on the planet.

Data centers are the factories of the digital age. These mostly windowless, featureless boxes are scattered across the globe – from Las Vegas to Bangalore, and Des Moines to Reykjavik. They run the planet’s digital services. Their construction alone costs around $20 billion a year worldwide.

The biggest, covering a million square feet or more, consume as much power as a city of a million people. In total, they eat up more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity and emit roughly as much CO2 as the airline industry. And with global data traffic more than doubling every four years, they are growing fast.

Yet if there is a data center near you, the chances are you don’t know about it. And you still have no way of knowing which center delivers your Netflix download, nor whether it runs on renewable energy using processors cooled by Arctic air, or runs on coal power and sits in desert heat, cooled by gigantically inefficient banks of refrigerators.

We are often told that the world’s economy is dematerializing – that physical analog stuff is being replaced by digital data, and that this data has minimal ecological footprint. But not so fast. If the global IT industry were a country, only China and the United States would contribute more to climate change, according to a Greenpeace report investigating “the race to build a green internet,” published last year. [Continue reading…]

The fake news Russians hear at home

Anne Applebaum writes:

Because it touches us, because it involves the U.S. president, and because it has produced a lot of headlines, the strategy and tactics of Russian government disinformation in the West have lately been big news. Because it’s far away, and because it happens in a different language, we’ve thought a lot less about Russian government propaganda in Russia. But it will eventually matter to us — maybe sooner than we think.

The transformation of Russian media hasn’t happened overnight. Back in 2010, the Internet in Russia was a relatively vibrant place, where people with different kinds of ideas argued things out, at least some of the time. Independent media had some traction, and independent voices were heard. There were negative stories about the Western world, but positive ones, too. Eight years later — following Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency, and a sharp change in government information policy — the situation is different.

This isn’t because Russia has become the Soviet Union, or a totalitarian state with one newspaper. Russia now has multiple sources of information: different television channels, many with high-quality entertainment programs; a range of newspapers, some very professional; both highbrow and lowbrow magazines and websites. But the appearance of variety is deceptive. Though the styles are very different, the vast majority of media is owned by the state or state-linked companies, and the stories are often remarkably alike. On television, which is where most Russians get their news, much of what they see about the West is overwhelmingly dark and negative. [Continue reading…]