Break-Ups

Tech worker ethics; Hughes vs Zuckerberg; Bezos in space; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: Longtime open data advocate Carl Malamud is taking his battle to open up state legal records all the way to the Supreme Court, as Adam Liptak explains in this friendly profile in the New York Times. Malamud, who has being successfully improving online access to public information for 25 years, was sued by the state of Georgia for posting its official code, and while a federal appeals court backed Malamud, he wants the Supreme Court to weigh in, telling Liptak, “Repeating the laws of our country should not be considered a crime. I would like the Supreme Court to tell us which laws we are allowed to speak.”

  • Here’s some fresh advice on the ethical use of data and tech in the nonprofit sector from yours truly and my colleague Savannah Badalich, Civic Hall’s director of education and training, courtesy of Amy Ahearn at +Acumen.

  • Apply: The good folks at BetaNYC are looking to hire a public interest technologist/civic hacker.

  • The Public Lab for Open Technology and Science (where I serve on the board) is looking to hire a full-time business and operations manager.

  • Submit: TICTeC Local is seeking presentation abstracts or workshop proposals for its upcoming fall conference on the impact of local civic tech.

  • This is not civic tech: How one tech training nonprofit called Mined Minds preyed on the desperation of down-and-out West Virginians and failed to deliver on its promises to teach them to code and get well-paying jobs, as reported by Campbell Robertson in The New York Times. Reading this story I couldn’t help but think of sociologist Eric Hoffer‘s observation: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

  • Media matters: 8chan, a message board that is a hotbed of violence and racism, is owned and run by one Jim Watkins, who earns most of his money from affiliate fees on Amazon, and Judd Legum, who uncovered the connection, is calling the giant platform to cut him off for violating its policy against the sale of materials that promote hate or harassment.

  • People in eleven developing countries, including South Africa, Venezuela, Columbia, Kenya, the Philippines, India, Mexico and Vietnam, tell Pew Internet’s researchers that while they appreciate how social media has increased the ability for ordinary people to have a meaningful voice in the political process, they are also quite worried about the risk that people may be manipulated by domestic politicians using social media.

  • The Supreme Court is letting a huge antitrust class action lawsuit against Apple to more forward, which may disrupt the company’s highly profitable practice of taking 30% on every app sold through its App Store, as Adam Liptak and James Licas report for The New York Times. The plaintiffs still have to prove that Apple had a monopoly and took advantage of it. Apple argues that its tight control over its app market helps protect consumers from abuses that are more prevalent in Google’s Android ecosystem.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: If you want to see who is reselling your data to programmatic advertisers when you visit a news website, try adding /ads.txt to the URL. That tip from Maciej Ceglowski of Pinboard, who demonstrates here with bostonglobe.com/ads.txt.

  • It’s time to update WhatsApp if you care about your privacy, for as Nicole Perlroth and Ronen Bargman report for The New York Times, an Israeli firm that supplies tools for spying on activists and journalists is apparently taking advantage of a security hole. WhatsApp engineers released a patch yesterday.

  • Infowars, continued: If you think online misinformation campaigns are just about influencing elections, think again. As William Broad reports for The New York Times, Russia Today and RT America are now pushing the fringe notion that America’s new 5G network will cause brain cancer, infertility and a host of other ills, with little scientific support. (If you want to take a deep dive into where all this deliberate undermining of truthful journalism can lead, go read Peter Pomerantsev‘s 2015 memoir Nothing Is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia.)

  • Doctors who speak out in favor of vaccinations are being targeted for negative ratings on medical review sites, Liz Kowalczyk reports for The Boston Globe. “Fictitious patient reviews are just one tactic,” she reports, “vaccine opponents have also deluged Facebook and Instagram accounts of doctors and practices.” As a result, some physicians “say they know of colleagues who no longer publicly endorse vaccines.”

  • Good news: Tech workers don’t want to move fast and break things, at least not as much as the companies they work for do. That’s the main finding of a new survey by DotEveryone, which found that 28% of tech workers in the UK “have seen decisions made about a technology that they felt could have negative consequences for people or society,” and nearly half believe their sector is not regulated enough. Majorities also want more time and resources to consider the impact of their products.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Chris Hughes, who had the good fortune to be one of Mark Zuckerberg‘s Harvard roommates and who had the good sense to follow him to Silicon Valley for the company’s formative years, took aim at his former partner with a devastating 6000-word oped piece for Sunday’s New York Times calling for the break-up of the company which reverberated widely. Watch the Times’ five-minute video, which is even tougher than the article. It’s an excellent overview of almost all the issues raised by Facebook, which is unique among all the tech platforms in that it is still controlled by only one person. Missing from Hughes argument: Facebook as just one of many surveillance capitalist companies—calling for “basic privacy protections” doesn’t quite explain the problem as cogently as it needs to be. But no matter, this is the strongest and most clarifying calls to action that we’ve seen to deal with the overwhelming challenge presented by social media monopolies. (It’s also great to see how Hughes’ argument against Facebook’s overwhelming economic power builds on the ideas he outlined last June at Personal Democracy Forum where he spoke about his own good fortune and the reasons why luck shouldn’t be important in whether people can achieve economic security.)

  • Interviewed by France Info while in Paris to meet with President Emmanuel Macron, Zuckerberg sounded wounded: “When I read what he wrote, my main reaction was that what he’s proposing that we do isn’t going to do anything to help solve those issues. So I think that if what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference.” Zuck seems to be saying, without any sense of irony, that only a company as gigantic as Facebook is big enough to deal with the problems it helps magnify.

  • The fact is that much smaller tech platforms like, say, Pinterest, do a better job of self-policing, as Casey Newton pointed out a few months ago in The Verge—and that’s arguably because they aren’t so large, rich and out of touch in the first place.

  • Writing for TechCrunch about the Hughes-Zuckerberg clash, Josh Constine argues that it’s time to revive data portability as a way to open up competition in the tech platform world. That means you could take your friend list, and maybe other associated information, with you if you wanted to leave Facebook and join a different social network without losing those connections. This could also work for other platforms, say if you wanted to move from Amazon as your main e-commerce hub to, say, Etsy. (I heard Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures make this very same argument this past Friday while speaking on a panel at Columbia University’s Niejelow Rodin Global Digital Futures Policy Forum.)

  • In a bit of welcome news from Facebook, the company announced that it is raising the base pay of contractors across the United States, a response to ongoing reports that many of these workers—who start at $15 an hour—are suffering from post-traumatic stress due to all the toxic content they are forced to view as part of their jobs (since those “really advanced tools” Zuck likes to talk about still require the help of tens of thousands human content janitors.) Here’s the story from Casey Newton in The Verge, who broke this issue open with some critical reporting earlier this year.

  • Food for thought: Older people need user-friendly design as much as anyone, says Don Norman, the 83-year-old former Apple VP, who wrote the book Design of Everyday Things.

  • Crackpot trillionnaires: In case you missed it: Friday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who most days is the world’s richest man, unveiled his plans for settling a “trillion” humans in gigantic artificial space stations as his solution to the Earth’s energy limits and climate crisis. Our friend Zeynep Tufekci drily points out on Twitter that Bezos’ ideas “don’t pass high school physics.”

  • End times: World leaders perfectly lip-syncing John Lennon‘s Imagine, courtesy of synthetic media company Canny AI.

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