The Sticky, Pocked Underbelly Of The Web

7th August, 2015 — Laura Kalbag

Couple saying to each other “What’s left about us that’s *not* in some database somewhere?”

Beginning this week’s roundup are some thoughts from Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and alumnus fellow of the Berkman Center: What should we call the selling of our digital body parts?

Inspired by Aral’s OuiShareFest talk, Doc asks:

  1. What do we call the unwanted harvesting of personal data (our digital body parts) online?
  2. What policies, if any, would we recommend to back the expressed wishes of people not to be followed when they are online?

What are your thoughts? Share them on our forum.

Right To Be Forgotten

“The right to be forgotten” is our right to suppress information from our pasts to protect our privacy. We looked at it in our previous roundup on Tethered Beings. It’s particularly relevant to the ubiquitous Google Search results. Julia Powles, easily the most-quoted writer in our weekly roundups, has made the concept easier to understand in her article looking at two opposing arguments:

The Database of Ruin

The Database of Ruin is a dystopia envisioned by Eric Posner, professor of law at the University of Chicago. It is the aggregation of data collected by the Internet, where both meaningful and meaningless information about us is treated as equally important.

“The database will contain the most intimate, embarrassing, destructive things. But they will be mere flecks in a torrent of utility. And because of that: you have no rights or say over the database. Your entry — and that of everyone else who can’t afford a reputation manager — is subject to the whims of the untouchable logic of the machine, scraping the sticky, pocked underbelly of the web.”

As Julia puts it, it’s “the monoculture of our digital universe: Google.” The Database of Ruin argument explains how this database, used by third parties, could easily ruin a person’s life. Especially if that data is old, irrelevant, or incorrect. And so the right to be forgotten is vital to protecting our privacy.

Swiss Cheese Internet

The Swiss Cheese Internet argument (as coined by Jonathan Zittrain, a cyberlaw professor at Harvard University) says that if we’re allowed to suppress whatever we want, we’ll just be creating holes in search results. It’s an individualistic way of approaching the Internet. When search results are subject to the laws of various different countries, “the internet becomes the lowest common denominator result of what all the world’s countries and courts are prepared to leave behind.” This follows Google’s own defence against the right to be forgotten: “no one country should have the authority to control what content someone in a second country can access.”

Both arguments are interesting, but Julia draws our attention to the conflict between economic rights, like copyright and trademarks, and personal and privacy rights. Copyright and trademark laws frequently cause the suppression of search results. The right to be forgotten is far more contentious for individuals. Julia suggests:

“They must confront the difference between a rule-based approach to free speech, which is clear but often unjust; and one which considers the merit of individual cases, and might be more fair, but is less predictable. In addition to this, it is crucial to take right to be forgotten requests out of a black box and put them into distinct, identifiable categories.”

Meanwhile, Caitlin Dewey looks at UK proposals that sites should have a delete-all-posts button to preserve the privacy of under 18s. Putting the technical difficulties aside, Caitlin gets to the key flaw in the proposal:

“We can hardly count on social media companies like Twitter or Facebook to empower users in this way; they have too much at stake in hoarding our posts, too much money at play.”


Markus Beckedahl and Andre Meister, two journalists from the German politics and technology news website Netzpolitik, are under investigation for treason. This comes after publishing details about the German government’s secret surveillance plans. Marie Gutbub and Jacob Appelbaum have written a statement that has been signed by journalists and others in support of Netzpolitik and press freedom:

“The investigation against for treason and their unknown sources is an attack against the free press. Charges of treason against journalists performing their essential work is a violation of the fifth article of the German constitution. We demand an end to the investigation into and their unknown sources.”

Show your support and add your name to the list.

Diversity in the tech industry

Amanda Schaffer writes on the MIT Tech Review this week about the tech industry’s damaging obsession with “the great man myth”:

“The problem with such portrayals is not merely that they are inaccurate and unfair to the many contributors to new technologies. By warping the popular understanding of how technologies develop, great-man myths threaten to undermine the structure that is actually necessary for future innovations.”

Amanda points out how much of Elon Musk’s success is down to the experts around him, government funding, and good timing, while the tech industry would prefer to worship him as a hero. This kind of worship excuses terrible behaviour such as “humiliating engineers and firing employees on a whim,” and perpetuates the tech industry’s diversity problem by encouraging unsupportive managerial practices.

“Hero myths like the ones surrounding Musk and Jobs are damaging in other ways, too. If tech leaders are seen primarily as singular, lone achievers, it is easier for them to extract disproportionate wealth. It is also harder to get their companies to accept that they should return some of their profits to agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation through higher taxes or simply less tax dodging.”

Rachel Thomas wrote a great piece on Medium, If you think women in tech is just a pipeline problem, you haven’t been paying attention. Rachel talks about how unconscious biases play a huge role in how women are percieved in the workplace and during the hiring process:

“Acknowledging that you have biases that conflict with your values does not make you a bad person. It’s a natural result of our culture. The important thing is to find ways to eliminate them. Blindly believing your company is a meritocracy not only does not make it so, but will actually make it even harder to address implicit bias.”

Rachel explains how training and hiring more women (the pipeline) won’t make a difference if the tech industry’s male-centric culture doesn’t change. If the problems with the culture are acknowledged and addressed, it really can make a difference.

Support human-centred independent tech journalism

White Hat Magazine is a new digital news organisation aiming to cover “how science and technology innovations change the way we live our lives.” If you, too, are sick of the Silicon-Valley-worshipping PR-masquerading-as-journalism tech press, you should support White Hat Magazine’s crowdfunding campaign. Its editorial focus covers:

It sounds like a publication the tech industry sorely needs.

What are those cheeky corporations up to this week?

In this regular section, we look at the antics of Silicon Valley’s cheekiest corporations…


Facebook has patented technology to help lenders discriminate against borrowers based on social connections. This is just one way that your social graph can and will be used against you in the Court of Surveillance Capitalism. We can only imagine the effects that such abuses of your personal information will have in further limiting social mobility, and widening inequality, in an already systemically unequal world.

According to an article on Venture Beat:

“Such technology could be harmful for the estimated 51 million Americans who have limited or no access to banking services, and could make them more prone to using alternative predatory systems such as payday loans.”


Google has quietly reintroduced Google Glass. This time around it’s aimed at enterprise users, rather than consumers. Alex Hern explains that the change in audience bypasses many of the issues experienced by consumer users, particularly the privacy concerns sparked by wearing a head-mounted camera in public places. (Enabling Google’s corporate surveillance through your own body, and also known as being a glasshole.)

However, this move introduces new concerns. Does your doctor have the right to agree, on your behalf, that Google can access your intimate medical details because they’ve chosen to wear Glass? By targeting enterprise and business users, Google could be creating a future where opting out of being on Glass means opting out of receiving crucial professional services.

On a separate note, do you remember the roundup from a couple of months ago when we mentioned Jon Baines’ complaint to Google? Jon was irritated by the innuendo implied when people searched for his name on Google and got a disclaimer on the results:

Some results may have been removed under data protection law in Europe. Learn more

As Jon didn’t receive a reply from Google, he’s now taken his complaint to the UK Information Commissioner’s Office. He asks whether the disclaimer is against Section 42 of the Data Protection Act 1998. We’ll continue to follow his case with interest.

Quote of the week

“People seem to prefer the ornate to the plain as they prefer daydreaming to thinking and mysticism to rationalism.” — Design For The Real World, Victor Papanek

Want more roundup?

See what’s On Cyriel’s Radar and trawl through this week’s link dump.