Google Chrome now blocks ads in order to promote advertising

The New York Times reports:

Google did not become the creator of the world’s most popular browser and a dominant advertising force by running its business in a manner that did not serve its own interests.

With the Chrome update, the company hopes to come out ahead by lessening the temptation of web users to install more comprehensive ad-blocking software. In other words, Google is betting that ridding the web of especially intrusive ads will render it more hospitable to advertising in general — and more profitable for advertisers and Google itself.

The new filter will be rolled out gradually to the browser’s hundreds of millions of users. Website operators had a few months before the launch to become compliant; going forward, those who violate the standards will be given 30 days to get in line. If they don’t, Google will demonstrate its leverage not by simply removing offending ads from a noncompliant site, but by disabling all of its ads. Revenue to the offending websites would presumably plummet as a result.

Utilizing Chrome’s popularity in this way is yet another example of Google’s singular position in the modern web. [Continue reading…]

Vietnam’s internet is in trouble


Dien Luong writes:

Vietnamese authorities have harped of late on the urgency of fighting cybersecurity threats and “bad and dangerous content.”

Yet the fight against either “fake news” or misinformation in Vietnam must not be used as a smoke screen for stifling dissenting opinions and curtailing freedom of speech. Doing so would only further stoke domestic cynicism in a country where the sudden expansion of space for free and open discussion has created a kind of high-pressure catharsis online.

Other countries, including democratic states, are also scrambling to rein in toxic information online. But while Germany, for example, specifically targets hate speech and other extremist messaging that directly affects the masses, Vietnamese leaders are more fixated on content deemed detrimental to their own reputation and the survival of the regime.

The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has repeatedly urged Facebook and Google to block “toxic” information that it said slandered and defamed Vietnamese leaders. Google sort of conformed by removing more than such 5,000 clips; Facebook also flagged about 160 anti-government accounts at the behest of the government. [Continue reading…]

Amazon behaves like a planned economy

Malcolm Harris writes:

Although they attempt to grow in a single direction, planned economies always destroy as well as build. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union compelled the collectivization of kulaks, or prosperous peasants. Small farms were incorporated into a larger collective agricultural system. Depending on who you ask, dekulakization was literal genocide, comparable to the Holocaust, and/or it catapulted what had been a continent-sized expanse of peasants into a modern superpower. Amazon’s decimation of small businesses (bookstores in particular) is a similar sort of collectivization, purging small proprietors or driving them onto Amazon platforms. The process is decentralized and executed by the market rather than the state, but don’t get confused: Whether or not Bezos is banging on his desk, demanding the extermination of independent booksellers — though he probably is — these are top-down decisions to eliminate particular ways of life.

Now, with the purchase of Whole Foods, Bezos and Co. seem likely to apply the same pattern to food. Responding to reports that Amazon will begin offering free two-hour Whole Foods delivery for Prime customers, BuzzFeed’s Tom Gara tweeted, “Stuff like this suggests Amazon is going to remove every cent of profit from the grocery industry.” Free two-hour grocery delivery is ludicrously convenient, perhaps the most convenient thing Amazon has come up with yet. And why should we consumers pay for huge dividends to Kroger shareholders? Fuck ’em; if Bezos has the discipline to stick to the growth plan instead of stuffing shareholder pockets every quarter, then let him eat their lunch. Despite a business model based on eliminating competition, Amazon has avoided attention from antitrust authorities because prices are down. If consumers are better off, who cares if it’s a monopoly? American antitrust law doesn’t exist to protect kulaks, whether they’re selling books or groceries.

Amazon has succeeded in large part because of the company’s uncommon drive to invest in growth. And today, not only are other companies slow to spend, so are governments. Austerity politics and decades of privatization put Amazon in a place to take over state functions. If localities can’t or won’t invest in jobs, then Bezos can get them to forgo tax dollars (and dignity) to host HQ2. There’s no reason governments couldn’t offer on-demand cloud computing services as a public utility, but instead the feds pay Amazon Web Services to host their sites. And if the government outsources health care for its population to insurers who insist on making profits, well, stay tuned. There’s no near-term natural end to Amazon’s growth, and by next year the company’s annual revenue should surpass the GDP of Vietnam. I don’t see any reason why Amazon won’t start building its own cities in the near future. [Continue reading…]

 

Facebook gave Russia everything it needed to help Trump become president, but we gave Facebook its power

By the admission of Facebook’s own VP of advertising, Rob Goldman, Russia’s goal of sowing division in America has been served “incredibly well” through its use of Facebook:


Is Facebook’s success in enlisting two billion members a testament to Mark Zuckerberg’s genius in creating the social media platform, or does this tell us more about the frail condition of the human mind?

To a significant degree, our attention is hardwired to be grabbed. We need the capacity to respond to unexpected triggers in our immediate environment in ways that ensure our physical survival.

But in a world where dire threats are not so commonplace, we have acquired the attention of domesticated herd animals whose waking state is occupied by foraging. It is our willingness to passively be fed that attaches us to our feed.

We have succumbed to a form of slavery in which our slave masters need apply no shackles because we have largely lost a sense of agency.

The fact that Facebook could give Russia the attention of so many million Americas was a consequence of the willingness (largely unconscious) of each of these individuals to freely give away their attention.

Until each of us reclaims the power to direct our own attention, we will continue casting out an open invitation to be led astray.

Inside the two years that shook Facebook — and the world

At Wired, Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein report:

One day in late February of 2016, Mark Zuckerberg sent a memo to all of Facebook’s employees to address some troubling behavior in the ranks. His message pertained to some walls at the company’s Menlo Park headquarters where staffers are encouraged to scribble notes and signatures. On at least a couple of occasions, someone had crossed out the words “Black Lives Matter” and replaced them with “All Lives Matter.” Zuckerberg wanted whoever was responsible to cut it out.

“ ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean other lives don’t,” he wrote. “We’ve never had rules around what people can write on our walls,” the memo went on. But “crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person’s speech is more important than another’s.” The defacement, he said, was being investigated.

All around the country at about this time, debates about race and politics were becoming increasingly raw. Donald Trump had just won the South Carolina primary, lashed out at the Pope over immigration, and earned the enthusiastic support of David Duke. Hillary Clinton had just defeated Bernie Sanders in Nevada, only to have an activist from Black Lives Matter interrupt a speech of hers to protest racially charged statements she’d made two decades before. And on Facebook, a popular group called Blacktivist was gaining traction by blasting out messages like “American economy and power were built on forced migration and torture.”

So when Zuckerberg’s admonition circulated, a young contract employee named Benjamin Fearnow decided it might be newsworthy. He took a screenshot on his personal laptop and sent the image to a friend named Michael Nuñez, who worked at the tech-news site Gizmodo. Nuñez promptly published a brief story about Zuckerberg’s memo.

A week later, Fearnow came across something else he thought Nuñez might like to publish. In another internal communication, Facebook had invited its employees to submit potential questions to ask Zuckerberg at an all-hands meeting. One of the most up-voted questions that week was “What responsibility does Facebook have to help prevent President Trump in 2017?” Fearnow took another screenshot, this time with his phone.

Fearnow, a recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, worked in Facebook’s New York office on something called Trending Topics, a feed of popular news subjects that popped up when people opened Facebook. The feed was generated by an algorithm but moderated by a team of about 25 people with backgrounds in journalism. If the word “Trump” was trending, as it often was, they used their news judgment to identify which bit of news about the candidate was most important. If The Onion or a hoax site published a spoof that went viral, they had to keep that out. If something like a mass shooting happened, and Facebook’s algorithm was slow to pick up on it, they would inject a story about it into the feed.

Facebook prides itself on being a place where people love to work. But Fearnow and his team weren’t the happiest lot. They were contract employees hired through a company called BCforward, and every day was full of little reminders that they weren’t really part of Facebook. Plus, the young journalists knew their jobs were doomed from the start. Tech companies, for the most part, prefer to have as little as possible done by humans—because, it’s often said, they don’t scale. You can’t hire a billion of them, and they prove meddlesome in ways that algorithms don’t. They need bathroom breaks and health insurance, and the most annoying of them sometimes talk to the press. Eventually, everyone assumed, Facebook’s algorithms would be good enough to run the whole project, and the people on Fearnow’s team—who served partly to train those algorithms—would be expendable.

The day after Fearnow took that second screenshot was a Friday. When he woke up after sleeping in, he noticed that he had about 30 meeting notifications from Facebook on his phone. When he replied to say it was his day off, he recalls, he was nonetheless asked to be available in 10 minutes. Soon he was on a video­conference with three Facebook employees, including Sonya Ahuja, the company’s head of investigations. According to his recounting of the meeting, she asked him if he had been in touch with Nuñez. He denied that he had been. Then she told him that she had their messages on Gchat, which Fearnow had assumed weren’t accessible to Facebook. He was fired. “Please shut your laptop and don’t reopen it,” she instructed him.

That same day, Ahuja had another conversation with a second employee at Trending Topics named Ryan Villarreal. Several years before, he and Fearnow had shared an apartment with Nuñez. Villarreal said he hadn’t taken any screenshots, and he certainly hadn’t leaked them. But he had clicked “like” on the story about Black Lives Matter, and he was friends with Nuñez on Facebook. “Do you think leaks are bad?” Ahuja demanded to know, according to Villarreal. He was fired too. The last he heard from his employer was in a letter from BCforward. The company had given him $15 to cover expenses, and it wanted the money back.

The firing of Fearnow and Villarreal set the Trending Topics team on edge—and Nuñez kept digging for dirt. He soon published a story about the internal poll showing Facebookers’ interest in fending off Trump. Then, in early May, he published an article based on conversations with yet a third former Trending Topics employee, under the blaring headline “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” The piece suggested that Facebook’s Trending team worked like a Fox News fever dream, with a bunch of biased curators “injecting” liberal stories and “blacklisting” conservative ones. Within a few hours the piece popped onto half a dozen highly trafficked tech and politics websites, including Drudge Report and Breitbart News.

The post went viral, but the ensuing battle over Trending Topics did more than just dominate a few news cycles. In ways that are only fully visible now, it set the stage for the most tumultuous two years of Facebook’s existence—triggering a chain of events that would distract and confuse the company while larger disasters began to engulf it.

This is the story of those two years, as they played out inside and around the company. WIRED spoke with 51 current or former Facebook employees for this article, many of whom did not want their names used, for reasons anyone familiar with the story of Fearnow and Villarreal would surely understand. (One current employee asked that a WIRED reporter turn off his phone so the company would have a harder time tracking whether it had been near the phones of anyone from Facebook.) [Continue reading…]

Zeynep Tufekci: We’re building a dystopia just to make people click on ads

 

How New Zealand became a new Ararat for Silicon Valley’s misanthropic billionaires

Mark O’Connell writes:

Early last summer, just as my interests in the topics of civilisational collapse and Peter Thiel were beginning to converge into a single obsession, I received out of the blue an email from a New Zealand art critic named Anthony Byrt. If I wanted to understand the extreme ideology that underpinned Thiel’s attraction to New Zealand, he insisted, I needed to understand an obscure libertarian manifesto called The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State. It was published in 1997, and in recent years something of a minor cult has grown up around it in the tech world, largely as a result of Thiel’s citing it as the book he is most influenced by. (Other prominent boosters include Netscape founder and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, and Balaji Srinivasan, the entrepreneur best known for advocating Silicon Valley’s complete secession from the US to form its own corporate city-state.)

The Sovereign Individual’s co-authors are James Dale Davidson, a private investor who specialises in advising the rich on how to profit from economic catastrophe, and the late William Rees-Mogg, long-serving editor of the Times. (One other notable aspect of Lord Rees-Mogg’s varied legacy is his own son, the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg – a hastily sketched caricature of an Old Etonian, who is as beloved of Britain’s ultra-reactionary pro-Brexit right as he is loathed by the left.)

I was intrigued by Byrt’s description of the book as a kind of master key to the relationship between New Zealand and the techno-libertarians of Silicon Valley. Reluctant to enrich Davidson or the Rees-Mogg estate any further, I bought a used edition online, the musty pages of which were here and there smeared with the desiccated snot of whatever nose-picking libertarian preceded me.

It presents a bleak vista of a post-democratic future. Amid a thicket of analogies to the medieval collapse of feudal power structures, the book also managed, a decade before the invention of bitcoin, to make some impressively accurate predictions about the advent of online economies and cryptocurrencies. [Continue reading…]

Quinn Norton and how anti-fascists are helping bring fascism to America

How fascism is coming to America: It’s happening when people decide the ideal society is one where everyone thinks the same way. And it’s happening when people who know better, kowtow to the dictates of social media instead of doing the right thing.

I didn’t know the New York Times hired Quinn Norton until I saw news they’d parted ways. Without question, this is a greater loss to the Times and its readers, than it is to Norton — although there’s no doubt it must be a major disruption to her life and that of her family.

The irony of the situation, representative of this perverse cultural moment, is that the people most likely to take satisfaction in this turn of events probably neither read the Times nor previously had heard of Norton.

These would be the folks who take pride in their own ideological purity while failing to see that ideological purity — whatever the ideology — is a really form of fascism.

Anyone who in thought and action marches in lockstep with others and who attaches supreme value to their allegiance to a cause (however noble that cause might appear), has crossed a threshold qualitatively no different from that crossed by every German who once declared: Heil Hilter!

It doesn’t matter what the cause is. The choice of surrendering to some kind of external ideological authority has the same effect irrespective of the ideology: it makes the individual’s conscience and capacity to make independent judgments subordinate to what that individual has designated as a higher authority. It is a form of subservience that corrodes the foundations of an open society.

We are now creating a society where disqualifications seem to carry more weight than qualifications — a guarantee that conformity and mediocrity can run endemic.

In old-fashioned authoritarian states, conformity was imposed through institutionalized brutality, but we are now conjuring a form of grassroots authoritarianism where the oppressors are mostly gleeful volunteers, herded by commercially-driven algorithms.

In order to appreciate Quinn Norton you don’t need to agree with everything she’s written or everything she’s done, but to get a flavor of her sharp mind and keen wit, watch this short talk she gave a few years ago:

 

In explaining why she accepted the job offer from the New York Times, Norton wrote:

Some people want to spend their careers covering events as they break. Others, as beat reporters, and investigators, using stories to hold power accountable. I’d done those things — and they were fun — but I found they weren’t where my heart was. I was happiest when I was writing long explainers and open-ended stories about what people hope for. What I’d wanted, more than anything, wasn’t to hold abusers accountable, but to help the world understand itself well enough to stop the abuse before it started.

Anyone who has the time and interest to hunt down tweets that can be weaponized, probably doesn’t have much interest in or capacity to help the world understand itself. On the contrary, they are participating in a kind of behavior that is shaping our world in a profoundly unreflective way.

Now that the Times has dumped Norton as lead opinion writer on the power, culture and consequences of technology, who’s going to take her place? Someone who writes clickbait for Gizmodo?

No one can write about culture while also being a slave to conformity.

I don’t care what color anyone’s uniform is; the problem is in the uniformity, not the color.

In the conclusion of her essay on John Rabe (which is well worth reading) that (among other reasons) got her branded as a “Nazi sympathizer,” Norton writes:

For me there is only this in the story of John Rabe: there are no clear bad guys or good guys in humanity. There is just an uncomfortable pause, where you can let history crowd in on you. The best you can do is be quiet in the face of the terrible contradictions, and try to figure out what the next right thing is.

Let’s just imagine social media and online journalism if it was drained of sanctimony, hyperbole, and hypocrisy, and instead opened more space for nuance and deliciously long pauses.

Imagine a platform on which quiet reflection won more attention than loud mouths.

What am I imagining? Maybe a world without the internet…

I guess another Carrington Event would do more harm than good, but I’m not altogether sure.

With the very best technology, humanity is digging its own grave

Technology is generally thought of as extending human capabilities by facilitating everyday actions more easily or allowing us to do things that would otherwise be impossible.

From this expansive perspective, technological advance has become synonymous with human progress. Conversely, the less technology populations possess, the more they are viewed as developing or even less evolved.

What these views mask are the multiplicity of ways in which technology feeds human regression.

The regressive mechanism built into technology in most of its manifestations is its propensity to externalize human skills.

If there’s something a person can do but a machine can do with greater economy, then the human skill soon becomes redundant. Having become redundant, it falls into disuse and soon atrophies.

This is not a small problem. It’s the reason that humanity is rapidly filling its ranks with a mass of diseased and disfigured bodies.

Any time I walk down the concourse in a busy airport (a place in which it’s possible and reasonable to start making generalizations about the current condition of the human body), I’m struck and shocked by the fact that, at least in the United States, the majority of people have impaired walking abilities. The causes are obvious: obesity and/or lack of exercise.

The technology that allowed Americans to have the greatest mobility of any population in human history has created people who have less capacity to mobilize themselves than ever.

Pandemic chronic disease largely resulting from physical neglect (which itself mostly results from mass distribution of the most addictive drug ever created: convenience) along with an atmosphere dangerously over-burdened by carbon, are both direct consequences of our lethal dependence on technology.

Picture the world that’s just around the corner in which we will move around in self-driving cars, permanently attached to mobile devices, shopping in stores where we don’t need to talk to anyone or staying at home where virtually anything can now be delivered.

Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, would have you believe that this world of maximized convenience will be some kind of utopia. But have no doubt: this is how humanity is digging its own grave.

The problem of externalizing human skills was anticipated long ago by Socrates when he warned about the impact of the first social medium and most widely replicated piece of technology: the written word.

Socrates warned that writing:

will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering [the purported inventor of writing, Theuth, was advised], but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.

But if Socrates couldn’t dissuade Plato from diligently writing down this warning about the danger of writing, it’s hardly surprising that concerns about the risks involved in the externalization of memory (and other externalized human skills) have never exerted much influence in Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, an organization has come together with the aim of “realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.”

A quixotic ambition?

Maybe, but at least the Center for Humane Technology has been created by industry insiders who have an intimate understanding of the technologies and business practices they are challenging.

When people like Tristan Harris warn that “our society is being hijacked by technology,” don’t mistake this as sniping from some anti-technology curmudgeon.

Harris and his cohorts were until recently active participants in the hijacking. They understand exactly how this operation has been conceived, implemented, and is having its intended effects.