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Breaking up big tech: continued scrutiny for Facebook

A world without Facebook – or any other of its online social media outlets such as Instagram and Whatsapp – seems almost unimaginable for some. In fact, an increasing number of the global population are born into a world they will never know without an ever growing digital realm. For those born between the mid- to late- 1990s until the early 2010s, this generation has even become known as Gen Z – or rather Generations Zoomers since the undeniable takeover of 2020 from the digital conference platform zoom in wake of the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Since its launch in 2004 Facebook has continually dominated our social sphere, affecting both our online and offline behaviours. It’s growing control as a media conglomerate has caused much controversy in more recent times this year, yet the social media giant is not accustomed to controversy and lawsuits. The infamous dispute between founder Mark Zuckerberg and some fellow Harvard law students was encapsulated in the 2010 film The Social Network, starring Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and even Justin Timberlake. 
With a history of breaking up large company monopolies such as logging companies in the 1840s, Standard Oil in the 1910s, and then AT&T in the 1980s, the U.S. Government has finally taken on big tech. Following investigative court proceedings with the four online giants Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google back in July 2020, the government has once again taken on Facebook for holding too much power in the social media sphere. The government has since filed an antitrust law against Facebook, directed at the company’s tactics of buying rival competition. Whilst policy makers have described the court proceedings as likely to be an uphill battle though are keen to break up the monopoly that arguably stifles rival competition and hinders creative diversity, others have criticised the government for attempting a break up that could cause unintended and unforeseeable consequences.

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Amazon Apple Blog Companies Facebook Google Instagram Messaging Microsoft Politics Privacy Social Media TikTok Twitter Video Chat WhatsApp YouTube

US government investigating how 9 social media companies collect and use data

The Federal Trade Commission, which enforces US antitrust and consumer protection laws, has issued orders to nine social media companies demanding information about how and for what purposes they collect and store user data. The FTC is also wants to know about the companies’ advertising and user engagement practices, specifically as they relate to child and adolescent users.

The list of targeted companies is a rogues gallery of digital malefactors: Amazon, ByteDance (owner of TikTok), Discord, Facebook, Reddit, Snap, Twitter, WhatsApp, and YouTube. They have 45 days to respond to the order. I’m not sure, but I don’t believe that any of them have 1300 numbers.

On its webpage, the FTC writes that the objective is to gain a fuller understanding of:

  • how social media and video streaming services collect, use, track, estimate, or derive personal and demographic information;
  • how they determine which ads and other content are shown to consumers;
  • whether they apply algorithms or data analytics to personal information;
  • how they measure, promote, and research user engagement; and
  • how their practices affect children and teens.

“The FTC wants to understand how business models influence what Americans hear and see, with whom they talk, and what information they share,” explained the FTC in a press statement. “And the FTC wants to better understand the financial incentives of social media and video streaming services.”

As CNBC reports, there’s a clause in the FTC Act that enables the FTC to conduct wide-reaching probes that are separate from law enforcement. These are known as “6(b) studies.” The FTC carried one out earlier this year in which it reviewed various takeovers by some of the major US monopolies, namely, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

Of course, Bill Gates’ Microsoft was the subject of a major antitrust lawsuit in 2001. In that case, Microsoft was confirmed as a corporate outlaw operating in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. Now Facebook finds itself faced with a similar lawsuit filed just this month by the FTC along with 48 attorneys general. In that suit, Facebook is alleged to have taken over Instagram and WhatsApp after determining that, if left alone, they could pose a threat to Facebook’s hegemony.

Thus, Facebook is accused of unlawfully crushing competition and subsequently harming consumers by limiting their range of options, particularly with regard to privacy. Facebook plans to use the fact that the FTC approved its takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp as the main pillar of its defense.

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Facebook Policy Politics Privacy Social Media Uncategorized

Australia sues Facebook for spying on users sans consent

Facebook has been sued by a regulatory body in Australia for allegedly (but we all know it’s true) gathering personal data from users without their knowledge or consent. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says Zuckerberg’s corporation used the Onavo Protect VPN app to spy on Australian users in 2016 and 2017, collecting and storing their data in order to boost Facebook’s profits. Facebook did this, the filing asserts, while telling users that the app would protect their data and keep it safe.

That is what a VPN (virtual private network) is meant to do: keep your data secure and prevent you from being monitored by nefarious actors like Facebook. But you really can’t trust any digital technology these days, especially if it’s being promoted by Facebook. If you want privacy you’d better just stick to face-to-face conversations, or maybe 2 way radios.

“Through Onavo Protect, Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app,” said a statement from ACCC chair Rod Sims.

He added:

“Consumers often use VPN services because they care about their online privacy, and that is what this Facebook product claimed to offer. In fact, Onavo Protect channelled significant volumes of their personal activity data straight back to Facebook.

“We believe that the conduct deprived Australian consumers of the opportunity to make an informed choice about the collection and use of their personal activity data by Facebook and Onavo.”

The ACCC is seeking pecuniary penalties, though it did not specify how much.

Whether Facebook did what the ACCC accuses it of doing isn’t really up for debate. In 2018 the British parliament published internal Facebook documents that detailed how the company used data from the Onavo app to gather valuable information about user activity—as well as valuable information about competitors. For example, the app allowed Facebook to identify WhatsApp as a competitive threat, at which point Facebook moved to take it over. Classic predatory monopolistic behavior, and a clear violation of US antitrust legislation.

Where’s Ted Roosevelt when you need him?

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Apple Companies Facebook Privacy Social Media

Facebook doesn’t like that Apple is going to inform its users that they’re being spied on by Facebook

Few things are more tiresome than a squabble between miscreant corporations, especially when they’re as scummy as Facebook and Apple. But here we are. Facebook—the surveillance/data-stealing monopoly—is lashing out at Apple for changing its operating system in a way that Facebook says will make it harder for businesses to assault users with targeted advertisements.

In a blog post, Facebook asserts that Apple’s new transparency policy is “about profit, not privacy.” As though Facebook isn’t motivated exclusively and pathologically by profit. Facebook accusing another predatory corporation of greed is like the US government condemning one of its enemies for war crimes. It’s just hypocrisy of the worst sort. All this garbage does make me tired; if only I had an electric adjustable bed to tumble into right now.

“Facebook is speaking up for small businesses,” writes Dan Levy, VP of Ads and Business Products, and Apple is “hurting small businesses and publishers who are already struggling in a pandemic.” Pretty rich coming from the company that, according to a lawsuit filed recently by the federal government, is actually a predatory trust that systematically crushes or takes over any business that it fears might eventually become a competitor and threaten its absolute domination of the social media and digital advertising markets. That company cares about small businesses. Sure.

What Apple will do is this: Whenever an iPhone user opens an app, the system will alert them to the fact that their data is being tracked for advertising purposes. The user can then opt out of the surveillance program if they wish.

That’s what has Facebook all steamed up right now. The company is so vexed that it took out full-page ads in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. The ad reads in part: “Without personalised ads, Facebook data shows that the average small business advertiser stands to see a cut of over 60% in their sales for every dollar they spend.”

“Facebook data,” eh? I’m sure that’s completely reliable. Definitely not skewed to Facebook’s advantage. My personal internal data shows that Facebook is full of shit. I trust that yours shows the same.

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Facebook Politics Social Media Twitter

List of Facebook and Twitter execs that donated to Biden’s campaign

The big tech monopolies have come under a lot of scrutiny lately, and it’s about time. Facebook is now the subject of anti-trust lawsuits filed by the government of the United States as well as the attorneys general of 47 US states. The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Google (check out Google adwords agency) have all been grilled by the US Congress in recent months. During these congressional hearings, Democrats mostly concentrate on anti-trust violations while Republicans complain about censorship of conservative voices.

While Republican rhetoric is almost 100 percent nonsense, it’s abundantly clear that Facebook and Twitter do in fact have a cultural and political bias that favors shallow mainstream liberalism. The kind of liberalism conveyed by Joe Biden, for example. Indeed, Fox News reports that top executives at both Facebook and Twitter donated many a dollar to Biden’s presidential campaign. Moreover, none donated to Trump’s fascist reelection campaign.

Using Federal Election Commission records, Fox discovered that Erin Egan (Facebook vice president of public policy) donated the maximum $2,800 to Biden in October. She also donated the same amount to Biden’s uninspiring primary campaign.

Also donating the maximum allowable amount to Biden during the primary was Facebook’s chief revenue officer David Fischer, who went on to give a niggardly $750 to Biden during the general election.

David Wehner, Facebook’s chief financial officer, also pumped the maximum $2,800 into the Biden campaign. As did four of Facebook’s vice presidents—Gene Alston, Michael Verdu, Shahriar Rabii and T.S. Khurana—and the chief operating officer of Instagram (owned by Facebook), Marne Levine.

It was pretty much the same story at Twitter, which, you may recall, drew the ire of Republicans shortly before the election by flat-out censoring a New York Post story alleging financial and political improprieties on the part of Joe Biden’s ne’er-do-well son Hunter (now under investigation for tax fraud). Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—who now sports a Russian peasant beard—later testified to the US Congress that it was a mistake to censor the article. But the damage had been done.

Anyhow, Twitter VP Matt Derella gave Biden’s campaign $2,000 in September, while senior director Ryan Oliver and senior director of product management James Kelm (not execs) donated the full monty. Kelm donated $2,800 to Biden’s primary campaign as well.

Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment, while Twitter said it “enforces the Twitter rules judiciously and impartially for everyone on our service.” A demonstrable absurdity contradicted by their prolific censorship.

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Facebook Policy Politics Privacy Social Media Society

Facebook extends more tentacles into UK economy

Facebook is reportedly going to bring in 1,000 employees from London, mostly for product development and safety purposes, bringing the tech/surveillance/censorship company’s UK workforce to more than 4,000. According to Reuters, most of the new jobs will be tech-related—e.g. software engineering and data science. The rest will be part of Facebook’s “community integrity” squad, whose job it is to “remove harmful content from platforms like Facebook, Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp.” “Community integrity” is an interesting euphemism for censorship. (See here.)

Nicola Mendelsohn, Facebook’s vice president for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the company was satisfied with Prime Minister Boorish Johnson’s attempts to address its Brexit-related concerns.

“The Johnson government has been very clear about what that looks like,” Mendelsohn said, “and so we will continue to invest here in London.”

Boorish is happy about it:

“We are committed to making the UK the safest place in the world to be online, alongside being one of the best places for technology companies to be based.”

As Reuters reports, Facebook is taking measures to rehabilitate itself after the Cambridge Analytica mess, in which a third party company was able to collect private information from millions of Facebook users without their consent. Facebook didn’t address, or even divulge, the massive breach until it was called out by several news outlets. Zuckerberg eventually agreed to testify about the scandal in front of the US Congress, giving a decidedly robotic performance.

“We also understand that this [securing user data] is an ongoing important conversation—we want to be part of that conversation,” Mendelsohn said in a boilerplate statement. “We want to be working with policymakers in this area to get to thoughtful policy.”

She proceeded to boast, based on Facebook’s own reading of a study by Copenhagen Economics, that the company has created more than 3 million jobs in Europe.

Given less attention is Facebook’s ability to eliminate jobs. Here’s an example. In 2016, Inc. Magazine named Render Media the second fastest-growing media company in the United States. Two years later Render Media announced that it was going out of business.

“In a note to clients, Render Media blamed changes to Facebook’s branded content guidelines, which led it to no longer support its partner publishing network with articles,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “The spokeswoman for the company also said that the social media site’s recent news feed algorithm tweak contributed to the decision, among other factors.”

Render isn’t the only casualty:

“The branded content changes, along with a related tweak to Facebook’s news feed algorithm that reduces the amount of content from publishers in favor of posts from friends and family, have stymied companies that rely heavily on traffic from Facebook to prop up their businesses. Earlier this year, the female-focused digital publisher LittleThings closed its doors, after the news feed change caused its traffic to plummet by 75%.”

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Apps Blog Facebook Policy Politics Social Media

US government may block integration of Facebook apps

Facebook is reportedly planning to combine Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp into a single digital package. Not so fast, says the US government. As NBC News reports, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been investigating Facebook for a while to determine whether it is in violation of antitrust laws, which are designed to prevent corporations from monopolizing markets and crushing competition. Here is a clip from NBC’s report:

“The FTC could seek a preliminary injunction to stop Facebook from weaving its disparate parts together. An injunction could deal a severe blow to Facebook and its efforts to combine its services, which began earlier this year. It would also leave the company more vulnerable to being broken up.”

Such an injunction would require a majority vote from the five-member FTC, which could reportedly happen as soon as January.

Here is more from NBC:

“Pursuing an injunction would be an extraordinary step for the FTC, which does not typically try to undo mergers that have already happened. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. The five-member commission would need to vote to pursue the injunction and then file suit in federal court. The FTC would also need to prove that Facebook was in violation of antitrust law.”

News of the FTC’s potential action was first reported in the Wall Street Journal; Facebook shares dropped 3 percent as a result.

The WSJ story quotes some hot air discharged from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in March, whereby he stated:

“There are privacy and security advantages to interoperability. With the ability to message across our services…you’d be able to send an encrypted message to someone’s phone number in WhatsApp from Messenger.”

Translation: this is good for our bottom line.

The WSJ also quoted Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, a former senior adviser for the FTC, as saying:

“The advantages are that it gets things moving, and sort of forces things to a judicial decision very quickly, as opposed to having an antitrust investigation going for five years….The burdens of proof can be higher for the government, but if they’ve got a good case it can be advantageous.”

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Apps Facebook Politics Privacy Social Media

Facebook, of Cambridge Analytica fame, angry that app lets Instagram users spy on each other

And for the most ironic news of the week, Facebook is appalled that an app allowed people to view the profiles of Instagram users, even if the profiles are set to private. The app, aptly called Ghosty, has been downloaded more than 500,000 times via the Google Play Store. Ghosty is advertised in the following terms:

“You can view all the profiles you want to view including hidden profiles on Instagram. You can download or share photos or videos from your Instagram profiles to your gallery.”

The folks over at Facebook have caught wind of this, and they’re not happy. “This app violates our terms,” Zuckerberg’s company said in a statement. “We will be sending a cease and desist letter to Ghosty ordering them to immediately stop their activities on Instagram, among other requests. We are investigating and planning further enforcement relating to this developer.”

Meanwhile, in a sly attempt to appear to be concerned about the privacy and well-being of its users, Facebook-owned Instagram has begun testing an update to its app that reportedly makes it so that the “like”-count on a given post is only visible to the author of the post.

Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri said the idea is to eliminate the competitive aspect of Instagram, whereby users desperately try to attract as many “likes” as possible to feel popular and boost their fragile self-esteem. After all, everyone knows a person is only as likable and successful as their last Instagram post.

“It’s about young people,” Mosseri said. “The idea is to try and depressurise Instagram, make it less of a competition and give people more space to focus on connecting with people that they love, things that inspire them and it’s really focused around young people. We get to see how it makes people feel about the platform, how they use the platform and how it affects the creator ecosystem but I’ve been spending a lot of time on this personally.”

As for Facebook attacking Ghosty, that’s a laugh. Facebook is one of the most invasive institutions in the world. Its whole business model is based on the bulk collection of user data—which legally belongs to them, not you, and which it can store forever—which it then shares with other corporations who exploit it to target you with personalized advertisements.

Your information is not safe with Facebook and it never will be.