Change the whole system

4th April, 2015 — Laura Kalbag

Image of a trojan horse. One man to another: I have no idea! But it's free

It wouldn’t be a roundup without an excerpt from Bruce Schneier’s book, Data and Goliath. This week, the excerpt published in American Scientific details how we are surveilled, and our data is collected, by both government and corporate interests.

What are those cheeky corporations up to this week?

Keeping up with the innovation/dodgy goings-on in Silicon Valley is hard work. So, I’m bringing you the brightest and best of the threatening behaviour and human rights infringements from our big favourites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, in a new section I’m calling “What are those cheeky corporations up to this week?”:

Facebook tracks logged out users, in violation of EU law

There goes my Facebook strategy of logging out of Facebook every session to prevent tracking. A study has found that Facebook is tracking all of its users, even if they’ve opted out of tracking. “The research also found that logged out users, and people who don’t have an account at all, were having their Web movements tracked by Facebook through its use of social plugins, primarily the ‘Like’ button.” Such tracking contravenes EU cookie laws.

Google bullies and censors news and activist sites

Google AdSense has bullied sites, including MintPress News and, with threats to block ad revenue if they publish photos that serve as evidence of war crimes. With few alternative ad networks, independent media outlets are forced to comply with censorship in the name of Google AdSense’s ambiguous and vague terms of service.

Twitter is placing the ads in user profiles, but not for verified users

“For now, the ads only appear to users who are logged in — it’s tough to serve a targeted ad to a mystery user.” Even though verified users usually have the most followers, and thus their profiles will have more visitors, ads won’t be shown on their profiles. re/code points out that this is possibly because brands wouldn’t want promotional tweets for their competitors’ products, but unverified users don’t get a choice. Commercial interests 1, Individuals 0.

Capitalism, inequality, and how we need to change the whole system

Adrian Short has written a constructive critique of Martha Lane Fox’s Dimbleby Lecture. Adrian’s criticism focuses on how Martha’s principle analysis that our problems with tech education, internet access, and gender inequality stem from big tech vs. the state. Adrian contradicts this, explaining how “The fundamental divide online, as with everywhere else, is between major institutions (whether commercial, state or charitable) and individuals.” He also makes the argument that all of these issues stem from the “inequality that’s a feature not a bug of capitalism.”

In an answer on the question of ‘How we might face a world of fast innovation, slow growth and rising inequality’ in The Long+Short, Andrew Keen questions the popular notion that technology can help save society, declaring that “the operating system of 21st century economic life isn’t the answer to solving the two fundamental problems of late industrial economics: inequality and joblessness. Indeed, what it’s creating is a new “precariat” class of “gig” workers, selling their labour on networks like Uber, Airbnb and Taskrabbit.” Andrew maintains that “The answer is stronger regulation of new monopolists like Google and Amazon. The answer is new labour laws to protect the precariat. Rather than the internet, the answer is government.”

Still, inequality grows, and the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), the proposed trade treaty between the European Union and the United States, could enable corporations to sue governments whose policies damage their interests. It’s a major threat to democracy.

In this wonderful and heartwarming piece on Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan, the oldest company in the world, Natasha Lampard suggests that we should be focusing “not on an exit strategy, but on an exist strategy, a strategy built on sticking around; a strategy not for a buy-out, but for a handing down, a passing along.” Thinking more long term would prevent companies from abandoning their customers in favour of a big payout, and interacting more meaningfully with the people they serve.

What’s in a name?

The language we use when we’re communicating issues in technology and wider society is incredibly important. It’s all too easy to be confused by Facebook deciding to redefine private as “a set of experiences that help people feel comfortable”. As Dave Peck of Cloak VPN (Virtual Private Network) explains:

“These days, however, we’ve begun to wonder if the confusion is sometimes intentional. All too often, we see these words knowlingly abused by online publications and, alas, by some of our competitors. These abuses look like snake oil to us, as people sow uncertainty in service of a quick buck.”

This fantastic blog post, the start of a series, gives the definitions of ‘security,’ ‘privacy,’ and ‘anonymity’ in accessible language, explaining why they’re important, and how tools and services might protect us.

This week Aral called out a company called for stating that they are ‘open’ when they are a proprietary platform with lock-in. Aral explains more in ‘The Orwellian doublethink of ‘open data’: when closed is open.’

The frequent misunderstanding of the intent, and business models, of corporations providing “free” tools and services is laid out in Doc Searl’s blog post, Captivity rules. Doc shares the comments of people who are embracing the free-with-advertising model of Facebook with little knowledge of the consequences. Doc explains that this is the standard position, and that those of us opposing these forces are the outliers. “So let’s face it: captivity rules — until we can prove that freedom beats it.”

Now that’s a call to action.

Bullying, feminism and security

This week, Nadia Goodman from TED, wrote about their approach to moderating comments on Monica Lewinskys’s TED talk on The Price of Shame. It follows an extreme example of a familiar story, where hateful comments were used in an attempt to shame someone into silence. Ironic, as it’s the subject of the TED talk itself. Nadia explains how their team’s thoughtful moderation resulted in promoting positive and helpful comments, and reduced the impact of the trolls.

As these stories are horrifyingly common, everyone should read and take heed of the recommendations in Safe Hub Collective’s DIY Guide to Feminist Cybersecurity. In an incredibly thorough set of resources aiming to help you “take control of your digital spaces,” it addresses anonymity, hacking prevention, owning your own data, and potential problems with social media and phones.

Identifying and punishing the individuals behind these kinds of bullying a crime is a start, but the tech industry and wider society, needs to change the culture that leads to such attacks. Nancy Householder Hauge’s piece on Misogyny In The Valley is a courageous account of how Nancy’s outlook on sexism has changed over her time in the tech industry, and how society is biased towards stereotypical male behaviour:

“‘Successful’ behaviors in corporate America were set by men, based upon how men use their brains and how they interact. Women do not readily fit into the corporate culture created by men, which values only the standards set by them. Alternate models of workplace skills are not yet understood and appreciated. Prevailing thought has always assumed that stereotypical male work behaviors are empirically proven to be winning behaviors.”

A little audio bonus

If you’re interested in, and want to hear more about why we’re doing it, and how I (Laura) got involved, you can listen to the latest episode of The East Wing podcast. The show is presented by Tim Smith, who is always a fabulous host.