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Apple Blog Companies Google Microsoft Policy Politics Privacy

Europe to break up big tech if U.S. can’t

Following antitrust investigations from the U.S. Government into online giants Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple back in July 2020, the EU has now threatened to break up Silicon Valley’s big tech companies if the US can’t.

The argument revolves around monopoly and antitrust laws, put in place to stop companies from engaging in anti competitive behaviour. Whilst the U.S has been conducting investigations this December in an aim to break up Facebook and bringing seemingly incriminating emails sent from its founder to light, the EU has since released two major new drafts of regulations for tech companies. 

The two documents are the Digital Markets Act and a Digital Services Act which seek to hold companies accountable for both unfair competition and the regulation of illegal behaviour on their platforms. The documents come from the EU centre of Brussels and are the first significant revamp of policy from the EU in twenty years. Both proposals for the new acts will first need to be voted on by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament before being able to be made into law. There is, however, no timetable as of yet to when this might occur. 

The proposals include big fines for big tech companies seeking to eat up market competition. Companies will be liable for up to 10% of their worldwide revenue for acts of deliberate anti-competition, while fines for up to 6% of global revenue will be put in place for companies that fail to regulate their platforms for illegal behaviour. 

If the new laws were to come into place they would indicate one of the biggest and most significant shifts in worldwide policy making, as EU law would greatly impact US companies’ working practices. The EU laws are noted to be some of the most strict and stringent big tech companies would have to comply with.

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Blog Facebook Policy Politics

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 Companies Policy Politics

Should Amazon censor books that peddle ‘disinformation’?

Amazon has a QAnon problem, according to a new report in the European edition of Politico. The website analysed hundreds of books sold on Amazon and promoted by the e-commerce monopoly’s algorithms and found about 100 books written by QAnon cranks. There are also reportedly more than 80 books promoting conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccines.

In case you haven’t heard, QAnon maintains that the United States and thus much of the world is covertly run by a gang of satanic, blood-swigging pedophiles (including all Democrats) and that Donald Trump is fighting to save the nation from their clutches. This idea has gained quite a bit of traction over the past few years, spreading far beyond America’s borders much like the coronavirus spread out from Wuhan, China. Needless to say, QAnoners wouldn’t pass your standard PPSR check.

Unlike Facebook and YouTube, Amazon has not yet moved to censor QAnon content on its platform. That seems to me to be something for which they ought to be applauded rather than condemned—after all, free speech only matters if it’s available to everyone, not just those who express views with which we agree (Joe Stalin had no problem with free speech for purveyors of Soviet propaganda). But Politico—and I’m sure it’s not alone here—implies that Amazon needs to get with the program and ramp up its censorship practices.

Of course, Amazon already bans plenty of books, just not enough to satisfy the mass media raging appetite for censorship. Even Facebook, the digital world’s leading censor, is said to be too tolerant of speech that “offends.” The censorship enthusiasts won’t quit until everybody is muzzled—including themselves.

Politico spoke to Ciaran O’Connor, described as a “disinformation researcher,” who said that “Amazon is falling short by allowing people to promote these conspiracy theories” and by providing “online influencers with an infrastructure to monetize content and material directly linked to disinformation.”

Okay, but who gets to declare what is and isn’t real information? Ciaran O’Conner? Jeff Bezos? The US government? Are you prepared to let someone else determine whether you’re allowed to read a book? Considering Amazon’s utter domination of the online book market (several of the “alternatives,” e.g. Abe Books, are actually owned by Amazon), this goes way beyond a private company exercising its right not to stock certain books. Amazon, in all of its monopolistic glory, has the power to simply erase a book, and an author, from public visibility. If you think that’s a good thing, you’re very confused.

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Apps Blog Instagram Policy Social Media Society

Instagram vs the harlots

Strumpets et alia are reportedly up in arms over Instagram’s new (but not really new) terms of use and community guidelines, which make it difficult to advertise sexual services on the image sharing platform. As I understand it (but maybe my understanding is flawed; I’ve spent the last 24 hours shopping for a cashmere cardigan for Christmas, so my eyes and brain are little impaired), Instagram recently reiterated and rephrased its terms of use without actually changing them. But its prostitute users are still angry, claiming that the update was in fact a shot across the bow at them.

Instagram enforces the same “sexual solicitation” restrictions as Facebook. That is, it prohibits content that “facilitates, encourages or coordinates sexual encounters or commercial sexual services between adults such as prostitution or escort services.” Nor is “sexually explicit language” permitted.

More specifically, users cannot post porn, “strip club shows,” “erotic dances,” or sexual massages. They cannot solicit any of those things either. Also banned are “suggestive elements” including “sexual emojis” (I gotta get me some of them), “sexualised slang,” and my personal favorite, references to “wetness or erection.”

Sounds pretty puritanical to me. Historically, most puritans are closet perverts and/or paraphiliacs. Just a thought.

On Instagram, no images of intercourse, genitals or “close-ups of fully-nude buttocks” are allowed. Which sort of defeats the whole purpose of an image sharing app, no? What do people post on there if not close-ups of fully-nude buttocks?

There’s a little bit of latitude with regard to female nipples, including “photos of post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding.” Why anyone would feel the need to post a photo of themselves breastfeeding is a little bit beyond me, but whatever blows your hair back, I guess.

Anyway, as I said, prostitutes have their g-strings in a bunch over all of this. A sex educator called Taylor Sparks spoke about the outrage to Mashable: “Instagram and Facebook guidelines will have sex educators, tantric coaches and professional Dommes walking on eggshells because you don’t know if those monitoring your page will consider the word penis or dick more offensive.”

Good point. Better stick with “johnson” or “ramrod.” Those usually slide past the censors and into their destination. “Tallywhacker” also works.

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Policy Politics Privacy

How will Brexit affect digital privacy in the UK?

Brexit has been one big chaotic mess, but there are some beneficiaries of the madness. Facebook is one of them. It was reported yesterday that the tech corporation—which is currently getting hammered from all directions by major lawsuits—is going to move all of its UK users into agreements with its corporate headquarters in California.

Previously, users in Britain were set up with the company’s Euro headquarters in Ireland, which meant they were under the purview of the European Union and its robust privacy laws. As Ireland is still a member of the EU, many of the legal agreements it had with the UK are changing or ending altogether, and Facebook is taking advantage of that. (So is Google, for that matter. I haven’t used Google in ages. There are plenty of alternatives. For instance, when I’m looking for an NDIS provider finder, I use DuckDuckGo.)

In a statement to Reuters, Facebook’s UK branch confirmed that it was shifting British users to the California framework, but insisted rather unconvincingly that user privacy would not be affected.

“Like other companies, Facebook has had to make changes to respond to Brexit and will be transferring legal responsibilities and obligations for UK users from Facebook Ireland to Facebook Inc,” Facebook said. “There will be no change to the privacy controls or the services Facebook offers to people in the UK.”

Users in the UK will still be governed by that country’s privacy regime, which is similar to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But “people familiar with the company” told Reuters that Facebook is motivated by a desire to get out from under the GDPR’s restrictions. Among other things, the GDPR places limitations on how much data can be shared between Europe and the US.

The concern now is that London, in order to secure an attractive trade deal with Washington, will relax its own privacy laws to enable a freer exchange of information, opening up users to all manner of violations. Jim Killock, executive director of the UK-based Open Rights Group, remarked upon the danger inherent in such a development. “The bigger the company,” he explained, “the more personal data they hold, the more they are likely to be subject to surveillance duties or requirements to hand over data to the US government.”

The shift goes into effect next year; shortly after, Facebook will notify users via an update to its terms of service.

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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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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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Companies Policy Politics Social Media Society

Big Tech ramps up censorship activity

Twitter rang in the new year with one of the most prolific political purges in the young history of the digital age, leapfrogging Facebook and YouTube to claim the top spot in the censorship sweepstakes.

The festivities began in earnest in 2018 with the coordinated banning of right-wing nutbag Alex Jones and his conspiracy program Infowars. This was done under the guise of protecting innocent people from “fake news.” How good of Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey to act as our nannies. Without their paternal oversight our small little minds might be corrupted by unsavory views. Sarcasm aside, I happen to think that grown-ups should be allowed to decide for themselves what is true and what is false. In order to do so they have to have access to all the available perspectives, including those deemed “dangerous” by tech monopolies. If a small percentage end up adopting the wrong opinions, well, that’s part of living in a free society. If you want total conformity of thought, enforced by powerful people, move to Saudi Arabia.

Evidently, many people slept through Orwell Day in high school. How else can we explain all the positive reactions to blatant political censorship?

It began with Alex Jones; now it has expanded to social media accounts belonging to governments at odds with the United States; alternative media outlets countering official US narratives; and even individual people with no connection to any government or media outlet, but who raise inconvenient questions and look at things from a different perspective than the one espoused by, say, the Washington Post.

Twitter’s most recent censorship spree was reported on in detail by The Grayzone:

“In this latest purge, Twitter suspended the official accounts of Venezuela’s National GuardNavyAir ForceStrategic CommandPetroleum MinistryPenitentiary Services MinistryNational Commission of Information Technology, and Foundation Engineering Institute.

“The office of the government of the Capital District, the office of the vice president of the economy, and the press office of the armed forces also had their accounts removed by Twitter.”

Alternative news outlets in Venezuela were also unplugged, as was the account of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro (it was later reinstated).

Washington is targeting Maduro’s government; therefore, so is Twitter.

Who else is being targeted by Washington? Iran is. Therefore:

“In the wake of the Trump administration’s execution of Iran’s top general Soleimani, a clear act of war, Twitter moved to restrict the account of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.” Moreover:

“Many individual Iranians have been targeted as well. Users posted lists of dozens of Iranians who had their accounts taken down. These included prominent activists, journalists, and researchers who challenged Western propaganda and disinformation against their country.”

Ditto Syria:

“On January 4, Twitter temporarily suspended the official Twitter account of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A few days later, amid backlash, it restored the account.

“Twitter has repeatedly suspended and restricted the profile of Syria’s president, forcing the country’s presidential office to create multiple accounts (neither of which has verified by the company).”

Is that clear enough? As we move deeper into the darkness of the digital age, I think it’s time we retired the term “Stalinist Purge” (most young’uns probably don’t know who Stalin was) and replaced it with Dorsey-esque Purge.” Or “Zuckerbergian Purge.” Either will do.

Categories
Apps Policy Social Media Twitter

Twitter announces decentralized network plan

New from @jack: Twitter is assembling a small team of researchers to develop an “open and decentralized standard for social media.” Company CTO Parag Agrawal has been tapped as the person whose job it is to tap a leader for the project, who will then tap up to five people to work on the project, which is lamely called Bluesky. Here it is in @jack’s own words:

“Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard.

“Twitter was so open early on that many saw its potential to be a decentralized internet standard, like SMTP (email protocol). For a variety of reasons, all reasonable at the time, we took a different path and increasingly centralized Twitter. But a lot’s changed over the years…

“First, we’re facing entirely new challenges centralized solutions are struggling to meet. For instance, centralized enforcement of global policy to address abuse and misleading information is unlikely to scale over the long-term without placing far too much burden on people.

“Second, the value of social media is shifting away from content hosting and removal, and towards recommendation algorithms directing one’s attention. Unfortunately, these algorithms are typically proprietary, and one can’t choose or build alternatives. Yet.

“Third, existing social media incentives frequently lead to attention being focused on content and conversation that sparks controversy and outrage, rather than conversation which informs and promotes health.

“Finally, new technologies have emerged to make a decentralized approach more viable. Blockchain points to a series of decentralized solutions for open and durable hosting, governance, and even monetization. Much work to be done, but the fundamentals are there.”

There’s more, but all this copy and pasting is giving me carpal tunnel.

Anyway, as The Verge reports Jack’s BIG announcement is pretty small beer in the eyes of folks who are already developing decentralized networks.

“I hear Twitter wants to invest in creating a new decentralized social media protocol,” tweeted developer Darius Kazemi. “Meanwhile a bunch of us are out here already doing the hard work.”

Kazemi added:

“The hilarious thing is that they could take their budget for this initiative, slash it by 90%, distribute the remaining 10% to like 2 dozen Patreons, and thereby do approximately 1000% more to create a viable decentralized social media standard and implementations.”

Poor @jack.

Categories
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.”