Targeted advertising is ruining the internet and breaking the world

Nathalie Maréchal writes:

In his testimony to the US Senate last spring, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg emphasized that his company doesn’t sell user data, as if to reassure policymakers and the public. But the reality—that Facebook, Google, Twitter, and other social media companies sell access to our attention—is just as concerning. Actual user information may not change hands, but the advertising business model drives company decision making in ways that are ultimately toxic to society. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it in her 2017 TED talk, “we’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads.”

Social media companies are advertising companies. This has never been a secret, of course. Google pioneered the targeted advertising business model in the late 90s, and Sheryl Sandberg brought the practice to Facebook in 2008 when she joined the company as chief operating officer. The cash was flowing in, and companies around Silicon Valley and beyond adopted the same basic strategy: first, grow the user base as quickly as possible without worrying about revenue; second, collect as much data as possible about the users; third, monetize that information by performing big data analytics in order to show users advertising that is narrowly tailored to their demographics and revealed interests; fourth, profit.

For a while this seemed like a win-win: people around the world could watch cat videos, see pictures of each others’ babies in Halloween costumes, connect with family, friends, and colleagues around the globe, and more. In return, companies would show them ads that were actually relevant to them. Contextual advertising had supported the print and broadcast media for decades, so this was the logical next step. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty, as it turns out. From today’s vantage point, the Arab Spring stands out as an iconic cautionary tale of techno-utopianism gone wrong. Sure, would-be revolutionaries, reformers, and human rights defenders were among the first to master the power of what we used to call “Web 2.0,” but authorities caught on quickly and used the new tools to crack down on threats to their grasp on power. Similarly, the 2008 Obama campaign was the first to harness online advertising to reach the right voters with the right message with near-surgical precision, but 10 years later the same techniques are propelling right-wing authoritarians to power in the US, the Philippines, and Brazil, and being used to fan the flames of xenophobia, racial hatred, and even genocide around the world—perhaps most devastatingly in Myanmar. How on Earth did we get here? [Continue reading…]

U.S. joins Russia, North Korea in refusing to sign cybersecurity pact

Caroline Orr reports:

More than 50 countries signed onto a historic cybersecurity pact Monday as part of the Paris Peace Forum, marking an important step forward in the global fight against cyberwarfare and criminal activity on the internet.

In addition to the governments that pledged to work together to combat malicious online activities, at least 150 tech companies and 90 charitable organizations and universities also signed onto the agreement.

However, there were a few notable absences from the list of signatories. Among the countries that declined to pledge support for the global pact were the repressive regimes of Russia, China, and North Korea — and the United States.

The agreement, known as the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace,” represents the largest and most coordinated effort to date to create a set of international laws and norms for cyberwarfare and security — akin to a Geneva Convention for the digital world. [Continue reading…]

Bitcoin: Are we really going to burn up the world for libertarian nerdbucks?

Eric Holthaus writes:

The continued growth of power-hungry Bitcoin could lock in catastrophic climate change, according to a new study.

The cryptocurrency’s growth, should it follow the adoption path of other widely used technologies (like credit cards and air conditioning), would alone be enough to push the planet to 2-degree C warming, the red line value the world agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Bitcoin essentially converts electricity into cash, via incredibly complex math problems designed to eliminate the need for government-sponsored currencies. It’s made a lot of bros rich over the past few years, but it’s also raised some significant concerns about the ethics of sucking up excess energy on a finite planet.

The libertarian nerdbucks account for only a tiny fraction (0.033 percent) of global transactions right now, but its rapid growth and already sizable energy usage are worrisome. This latest study, from researchers at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, adds to the pile of evidence that Bitcoin needs to cut down dramatically on energy use — or risk taking down our chances for a clean energy future with it. [Continue reading…]

Tim Berners-Lee launches campaign to save the web from abuse

The Guardian reports:

Tim Berners-Lee has launched a global campaign to save the web from the destructive effects of abuse and discrimination, political manipulation, and other threats that plague the online world.

In a talk at the opening of the Web Summit in Lisbon on Monday, the inventor of the web called on governments, companies and individuals to back a new “Contract for the Web” that aims to protect people’s rights and freedoms on the internet.

The contract outlines central principles that will be built into a full contract and published in May 2019, when half of the world’s population will be able to get online. More than 50 organisations have already signed the contract, which is published by Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Foundation alongside a report that calls for urgent action.

“For many years there was a feeling that the wonderful things on the web were going to dominate and we’d have a world with less conflict, more understanding, more and better science, and good democracy,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “But people have become disillusioned because of all the things they see in the headlines.” [Continue reading…]

Dramatic slowdown in global growth of internet access will amplify existing inequalities

The Guardian reports:

The growth of internet access around the world has slowed dramatically, according to new data, suggesting the digital revolution will remain a distant dream for billions of the poorest and most isolated people on the planet.

The striking trend, described in an unpublished report shared with the Guardian, shows the rate at which the world is getting online has fallen sharply since 2015, with women and the rural poor substantially excluded from education, business and other opportunities the internet can provide.

The slowdown is described in an analysis of UN data that will be published next month by the Web Foundation, an organisation set up by the inventor of the world wide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. The data shows that growth in global internet access dropped from 19% in 2007 to less than 6% last year.

“We underestimated the slowdown and the growth rate is now really worrying ,” said Dhanaraj Thakur, research director at the Web Foundation. “The problem with having some people online and others not is that you increase the existing inequalities. If you’re not part of it, you tend to lose out.” [Continue reading…]

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.
Unsplash

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…]