Blowing the Lids Off

Sri Lanka and the platforms; the antitrust case builds; and more.

  • This is civic tech: Jacqueline Lu, Patrick Keenan and Chelsey Colbert of Sidewalk Labs describe work underway to build a visual language for informing people how, why and what data on them is being collected in the public realm.

  • Speaking of data collection, here’s a new report from a team of Data & Society researchers—Mark Latonero, Keith Hiatt, Antonella Napolitano, Giulia Clericetti, and Melanie Penagos—on the problems that arise around data collection with migrants and refugees in Italy. (Nice work, Antonella!)

  • Privacy, shmivacy: Writing for The New York Times oped page, technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci makes a critical point about our present day lack of privacy—even if you are someone who tries to limit how much you share online, powerful “data inference” programs can make statistically valid statements about your beliefs, moods and identity based on how much they know about other people. Opting out doesn’t protect you.

  • Related: In a new paper for the Institute for New Economic Thinking titled “The Antitrust Case Against Facebook,” Dina Srinivasan argues that when Facebook had real competition, it limited how much it tracked users, but once it locked in the market, surveillance took over. She says that Facebook’s deceptive promises about protecting user privacy were a form of anticompetitive behavior, a violation of antitrust law.

  • To regulate, or not to regulate? Former Obama White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett (and Lyft board member) tells Yahoo Finance’s Andy Serwer that big tech firms “should work with the regulators [rather] than try to fight them.” She adds, ““Figure out, are there ways where you could make it safer and less able to be penetrated and threatening to our civilization as we know it?”

  • Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt disagrees, also telling Yahoo Finance’s Serwer, “it’s generally better to let the tech companies do these things.” He admits that Google may have failed in the past to understand the severity or scale of the problems originating on its platforms, but now, he insists, “Our response has, in my view, been very strong,” he said. “Today, we have all sorts of software that enforces policies of one kind or another.”

  • Two of the Google employees who helped organize a massive walkout last November tell Natasha Tiku of Wired that they are now facing on-the-job retaliation. One, Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google’s Open Research, says she has been told she needs to “abandon” her work on AI Ethics and her role at the AI Now Institute. The other, Claire Stapleton, had to hire a lawyer to keep the company from demoting her.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Responding to the horrific bombings in Sri Lanka and subsequent shutdown of Facebook and YouTube by the government there, New York Times oped columnist Kara Swisher writes, “social media has blown the lids off controls that have kept society in check. These platforms give voice to everyone, but some of those voices are false or, worse, malevolent, and the companies continue to struggle with how to deal with them. In the early days of the internet, there was a lot of talk of how this was a good thing, getting rid of those gatekeepers. Well, they are gone now, and that means we need to have a global discussion involving all parties on how to handle the resulting disaster, well beyond adding more moderators or better algorithms.”

  • Parents and students in Kansas are rebelling against Summit Learning, a “personalized learning” system funded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, Nellie Bowles reports for The New York Times. Complaints include increased stress, loss of data privacy, and in some cases seizures from all the additional screen time.

  • Facebook’s new general counsel, Jennifer Newstead, helped craft and steer the Patriot Act—which greatly expanded the US government’s surveillance powers in the wake of the 9-11 attacks—through Congress, Isaac Stanley-Becker reports for The Washington Post. Independent technologist Ashkan Soltani comments, “it’s going to be incredibly difficult to fulfill Zuckerberg’s ‘Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking’ when the new general council who will advise @Facebook on encryption policy previously architected the Patriot Act.”

  • If San Francisco is now the “town that apps built,” as Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal so tartly puts it, the new wave of IPO millionaires who are going house-hunting are going to turn the city into the town that software engineers ate.

  • Tech and politics: Senator Elizabeth Warren is doing well in terms of donations from employees of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google, despite her calls to break up Big Tech, Casey Tolan reports for The Mercury News. She was in third with $39,000, behind Senator Kamala Harris ($51,700) and Senator Bernie Sanders ($47,000).

  • New York City’s Charter Revision Commission is in the early stages of considering a change to ranked choice voting, Reuven Blau reports for The City.

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