Cory Doctorow on tech industry regulations and Cambridge Analytica


It’s time to regulate the internet

Franklin Foer writes:

As Facebook’s scandals have unfolded, the backlash against Big Tech has accelerated at a dizzying pace. Anger, however, has outpaced thinking. The most fully drawn and enthusiastically backed proposal now circulating through Congress would regulate political ads that can appear on the platform, a law that hardly curbs the company’s power or profits. And, it should be said, a law that does nothing to attack the core of the problem: the absence of governmental protections for personal data.

The defining fact of digital life is that the web was created in the libertarian frenzy of the 1990s. As we privatized the net, releasing it from the hands of the government agencies that cultivated it, we suspended our inherited civic instincts. Instead of treating the web like the financial system or aviation or agriculture, we refrained from creating the robust rules that would ensure safety and enforce our constitutional values.

This weakness has long been apparent to activists toiling on the fringes of debate—and the dangers might even have been apparent to most users of Facebook. But it’s one thing to abstractly understand the rampant exploitation of data; it’s another to graphically see how our data can be weaponized against us. And that’s the awakening occasioned by the rolling revelation of Facebook’s complicity in the debacle of the last presidential campaign. The fact that Facebook seems unwilling to fully own up to its role casts further suspicion on its motives and methods. And in the course of watching the horrific reports, the public may soon arrive at the realization that it is the weakness of our laws that has provided the basis for Facebook’s tremendous success. [Continue reading…]

Mark Zuckerberg in 2009: On Facebook privacy is central


Mark Zuckerberg has been talking about privacy for 15 years — here’s almost everything he’s said.

Zuckerberg breaks silence without answering key questions

Alexis C Madrigal writes:

Two years and four months after Facebook found out that Cambridge Analytica might have illicitly pulled user data from its platform, and five days after the latest round of stories about the political consultancy’s electioneering, Mark Zuckerberg finally made a statement about the situation.

Despite Facebook previously contesting that it was a “data breach,” Zuckerberg offered up the exact solutions one might to a breach: assurances, small technical fixes, and some procedural improvements. Among other changes, Facebook will investigate apps that pulled in large amounts of its data in the past and ban those who are found to have misused data. The company will also inform people whose data has been misused, including those in the dataset that got passed to Cambridge Analytica. Zuckerberg introduced a new rule that Facebook will remove developers’ data access to users who haven’t logged in to their apps for three months. And finally, Facebook will place a notice at the top of News Feed, linking people to their app privacy settings.

This is the very minimum that Facebook had to do in this situation. It is impossible to imagine how they could not have taken any of these steps, given the public attention and pressure on the company.

But let’s look at the big questions that the Financial Times raised: “Why did Facebook take so little action when the data leak was discovered? … Who is accountable for the leak? … Why does Facebook accept political advertisements at all? … Should not everyone who cares about civil society simply quit Facebook?”

On every single one of these questions, Zuckerberg offered nothing. [Continue reading…]

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Steve Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s collection of Facebook data

The Washington Post reports:

Conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon oversaw Cambridge Analytica’s early efforts to collect troves of Facebook data as part of an ambitious program to build detailed profiles of millions of American voters, a former employee of the data-science firm said Tuesday.

The 2014 effort was part of a high-tech form of voter persuasion touted by the company, which under Bannon identified and tested the power of anti-establishment messages that later would emerge as central themes in President Trump’s campaign speeches, according to Chris Wylie, who left the company at the end of that year.

Among the messages tested were “drain the swamp” and “deep state,” he said.


The data and analyses that Cambridge Analytica generated in this time provided discoveries that would later form the emotionally charged core of Trump’s presidential platform, said Wylie, whose disclosures in news reports over the past several days have rocked both his onetime employer and Facebook.

“Trump wasn’t in our consciousness at that moment; this was well before he became a thing,” Wylie said. “He wasn’t a client or anything.”

The year before Trump announced his presidential bid, the data firm already had found a high level of alienation among young, white Americans with a conservative bent.

In focus groups arranged to test messages for the 2014 midterms, these voters responded to calls for building a new wall to block the entry of illegal immigrants, to reforms intended the “drain the swamp” of Washington’s entrenched political community and to thinly veiled forms of racism toward African Americans called “race realism,” he recounted.

The firm also tested views of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The only foreign thing we tested was Putin,” he said. “It turns out, there’s a lot of Americans who really like this idea of a really strong authoritarian leader and people were quite defensive in focus groups of Putin’s invasion of Crimea.” [Continue reading…]

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Facebook employees feel increasingly responsible for the world’s problems

At an all-hands meeting for Facebook employees at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park on Tuesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg didn’t show up. Fielding questions for just 30 minutes was the company’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal. In its dealings with Cambridge Analytica, Facebook had not acted improperly, he insisted. But as Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

One employee asked the same question twice: Even if Facebook played by its own rules, and the developer followed policies at the time, did the company ever consider the ethics of what it was doing with user data? Grewal didn’t answer directly.

As the report notes, Facebook has weathered complaints about violating user privacy since its inception.

As bad as each of these may have seemed, Facebook users have generally been unfazed. They’ve used the service in ever-greater numbers for greater amounts of time, in effect trading privacy for product. They were willing to give more and more data to Facebook in exchange for the ability to connect with old high school friends, see pictures of their grandkids, read only the news that they agree with. The concept was dubbed Zuckerberg’s Law in 2008, when the CEO argued at a conference that each year people would share twice as much information about themselves as they had the year before. Notions of privacy were eroding, Zuckerberg said in 2010. “That social norm,” he added, “is just something that has evolved over time.”

While Facebook’s mission statement says the corporation wants to “bring the world closer together,” it might be more accurate to say it aims to hold the world captive.

Facebook wants to make its product even more immersive and personal than it is now. It wants people to buy video chatting and personal assistant devices for their homes, and plans to announce those products this spring, say people familiar with the matter. It wants users to dive into Facebook-developed virtual worlds. It wants them to use Facebook Messenger to communicate with businesses, and to store their credit-card data on the app so they can use it to make payments to friends.

Employees have begun to worry that the company won’t be able to achieve its biggest goals if users decide that Facebook isn’t trustworthy enough to hold their data. At the meeting on Tuesday, the mood was especially grim. One employee told a Bloomberg Businessweek reporter that the only time he’d felt as uncomfortable at work, or as responsible for the world’s problems, was the day Donald Trump won the presidency.

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TV executives eager to boost ratings did more than Cambridge Analytica to elect Trump

Ross Douthat writes:

No doubt all the activity on Facebook and the apparent use of Facebook’s data had some impact, somewhere, on Trump’s surprise victory. But the media format that really made him president, the one whose weaknesses and perversities and polarizing tendencies he brilliantly exploited, wasn’t Zuckerberg’s unreal kingdom; it wasn’t even the Twitter platform where Trump struts and frets and rages daily. It was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news.

Start with the fake news that laid the foundation for Trump’s presidential campaign — not the sort that circulates under clickbait headlines in your Facebook feed, but the sort broadcast in prime time by NBC, under the label of reality TV. Yes, as media sophisticates we’re all supposed to know that “reality” means “fake,” but in the beginning nobody marketed “The Apprentice” that way; across most of its run you saw a much-bankrupted real estate tycoon portrayed, week after week and season after season, as a titan of industry, the for-serious greatest businessman in the world.

Where did so many people originally get the idea that Trump was the right guy to fix our manifestly broken government? Not from Russian bots or targeted social media ad buys, but from a prime-time show that sold itself as real, and sold him as a business genius. Forget unhappy blue collar heartlanders; forget white nationalists and birthers: The core Trump demographic might just have been Republicans who watched “The Apprentice,” who bought the fake news that his television program and its network sponsors gladly sold them. [Continue reading…]

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Facebook is blacklisted by major European bank, Nordea

Bloomberg reports:

The biggest bank in the Nordic region will no longer let its sustainable investment unit buy more stock in Facebook Inc.

Nordea Bank AB has decided to “quarantine” Facebook investments in the asset management unit, “given the high-level revelations and the turmoil surrounding the company with a strong public backlash,” head of sustainable finance, Sasja Beslik, wrote on Twitter.

“One-offs, fine. Usually that’s something that a company can manage in a responsible way,” Beslik said by phone. “What we’re worried about are systemic issues” and how they “are managed” once they emerge, he said. [Continue reading…]

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I am being used as scapegoat – academic who mined Facebook data

The Guardian reports:

[Aleksandr] Kogan [a Moldovan-born researcher from Cambridge University at the center of Facebook’s data breach] said the scandal raised questions about the business model of social networking companies. Kogan said: “The project that Cambridge Analytica has allegedly done, which is use people’s Facebook data for micro-targeting, is the primary use case for most data on these platforms. Facebook and Twitter and other platforms make their money through advertising and so there’s an agreement between the user of ‘hey, you will get this amazing product that costs billions of dollars to run and in return we can sell you to advertisers for micro-targeting’.”

Kogan also disputed Cambridge Analytica’s claim that he had approached them with the idea.

He said: “That is a fabrication. They approached me; in terms of the usage of Facebook data they wrote the terms of service for the app. They provided the legal advice that this was all appropriate. So I’m definitely surprised by their comments and I don’t think they are accurate.”

He pointed out that it paid up to $800,000 to recruit about 200,000 people to use it. He said: “I have never profited from this in anyway personally. This money was paid mostly … for the participants – each person was paid $3 to $4 (£2.10 to £2.80), so that’s where really the money went.”

Kogan said he was told that the scheme was legal but accepts he should have questioned the ethics of the exercise.[Continue reading…]

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Cambridge Analytica says it ran ‘all’ of Trump’s digital campaign


Channel 4 News reports:

Mr Nix boasted about Cambridge Analytica’s work for Trump, saying: “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy.”

Separately, Mr Turnbull described how the company could create proxy organisations to discreetly feed negative material about opposition candidates on to the Internet and social media.

He said: “Sometimes you can use proxy organisations who are already there. You feed them. They are civil society organisations.. Charities or activist groups, and we use them – feed them the material and they do the work…

“We just put information into the bloodstream to the internet and then watch it grow, give it a little push every now and again over time to watch it take shape. And so this stuff infiltrates the online community and expands but with no branding – so it’s unattributable, untrackable.”

Cambridge Analytica’s senior executives were also filmed discussing a twin-track strategy to campaigning, putting out positive messages through the official Donald J Trump for President campaign, while negative material was pushed out through outside organisations.

Cambridge Analytica’s chief data scientist Dr Tayler said: “As part of it, sometimes you have to separate it from the political campaign itself. So in America you know there are independent expenditure groups running behind the campaign… Super pacs. Political action committees.

“So, campaigns are normally subject to limits about how much money they can raise. Whereas outside groups can raise an unlimited amount. So the campaign will use their finite resources for things like persuasion and mobilisation and then they leave the ‘air war’ they call it, like the negative attack ads to other affiliated groups.”

In a different meeting, Mr Turnbull described how the company created the “Defeat Crooked Hilary” brand of attack ads, that were funded by the Make America Number 1 super-PAC and watched more than 30 million times during the campaign.

Coordination between an official election campaign and any outside groups is illegal under US election law.

The New York Times reports:

Announcing the chief executive’s suspension, the company said in a statement that “in the view of the board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”

The company said it had asked Alexander Tayler, its chief data officer, “to serve as acting C.E.O. while an independent investigation is launched to review those comments and allegations.” [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports:

The information commissioner is seeking an urgent court warrant to enter the London headquarters of the elections consultancy Cambridge Analytica after the firm was caught in an undercover sting boasting about entrapping politicians, using honey traps and running fake news campaigns.

Elizabeth Denham said she had also demanded that Facebook halt a data audit of Cambridge Analytica, saying it could prejudice her investigation.

Cybersecurity consultants from Stroz Friedberg, who had been engaged by Facebook to do the audit, were at CA’s office in London on Monday evening when the ICO asked them to leave so the authorities could pursue their own investigation.

An ICO spokesman said the commission had issued a demand to access CA’s records and data.

Analytica has not responded to the commissioner by the deadline provided; therefore, the information commissioner is seeking a warrant to obtain information and access to systems and evidence related to her investigation,” the spokesman said. [Continue reading…]