For the Twentyzillionth Time

Is social media "status as a service" or "surveillance as a service"?


  • This is civic tech: If you watched the Super Bowl, you may remember an ad from IBM called “Dear Tech” that spun a vision of magical solutions that tech is going to solve, which left out a lot of the key problems that tech is helping create. Well, some of the good folks at MIT’s Center for Civic Media have made a serious parody response called “Dear Big Tech,” as Evan Selinger reports for Slate.

  • Related: Middle East human rights activist Esra’s al Shafei says that we need more foundations to support the infrastructure and technical needs of civil society organizations and non-profits. Especially for organizations in repressive countries, the cost of maintaining dedicated servers, monitoring services and other forms of additional security are quite high.

  • Maurice Cherry‘s podcast Revision Path was recorded live from Civic Hall last week, focusing on the State of the Internet 2019 as divined by Anil Dash of Glitch and Matt Mitchell of CryptoHarlem/Tactical Tech. Video of the event, which was our first “Forum @ Civic Hall,” can be found here.

  • Apply: The Women Startup Challenge is looking for women-led startups focused on solving big problems like climate change, voting rights, human rights, water and food insecurity, immigration, online harassment, privacy, reproductive justice; there’s a $50,000 cash prize and the deadline is March 28th.

  • Attend: Our friends at CivicMakers and the GovTech Fund are launching a new series of webinars called “#ThisIsGovTech,” starting with a session on “Access and Accessibility for All” on March 21 featuring Alex Banh, the digital equity manager for the city and county of San Francisco.

  • Information disorder: A group of entities posing as newspapers in key battleground states heading in 2020, with names like the Tennessee Star, The Ohio Star and The Minnesota Sun turn out to be the work of a shadowy conservative PAC, Alex Kasprak and Bethany Palma report for Snopes.com.

  • Hackers tied to North Korea have targeted American and European businesses for the last 18 months, including the days last week while President Trump and Kim Jong-un were meeting in Vietnam, Nicole Perlroth reports for The New York Times.

  • The NSA has stopped using its controversial system for snooping on Americans’ domestic phone calls and text, Charlie Savage reports for The New York Times. The program was one of several disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013. Savage adds, The disclosure that the program has apparently been shut down for months ‘changes the entire landscape of the debate,’ said Daniel Schuman, the policy director of Demand Progress, an advocacy group that focuses on civil liberties and government accountability. Since ‘the sky hasn’t fallen’ without the program, he said, the intelligence community must make the case that reviving it is necessary — if, indeed, the National Security Agency thinks it is worth the effort to keep trying to make it work.”

  • Why is a new book pushing the Qanon conspiracy theory in the top 100 of book sales on Amazon? Ben Collins of NBC News reports that it’s been “pushed by Amazon’s algorithmically generated recommendations page.” As our friend the technosociologist Zeynep Tufekci commented, “Recommendation algorithms chasing velocity and spikes, and quite vulnerable to being played by small groups of extremists, will fuel nihilism and extremism, part twentyzillion.”

  • In case you need a refresher on how Amazon bullies public officials who try to impose obligations on the company (like taxes, which it paid none to the feds last year), read this story by Karen Weise, Manny Fernandez and John Eligon in The New York Times.

  • Here’s a mind-blowing guide to the leading data-brokerage companies, courtesy of Steven Melendez and Alex Pasternack in Fast Company, who used a new Vermont law requiring more transparency from the industry.

  • Tech and politics: “More than 900,000 volunteer ‘cell phone pramukhs’ are creating neighborhood-based WhatsApp groups to disseminate information” promoting India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as the world’s biggest democracy gears up for national elections, Quartz’s Philippa Williams and Lipika Kamra report. The opposition Congress party has a similar effort, but as they report, “the widespread popularity of WhatsApp could have a damaging effect on the election.” One thing they note—despite changes made by Facebook to throttle WhatsApp’s vitality, “you can still send messages to 256 people at once and forward them five times – which means you can share something with 1,280 people in seconds.”

  • Google will stop running political ads on its platforms in Canada because of new transparency rules that the company says are too onerous to enforce, Tom Cardoso reports for The Globe and Mail. The rules require online platforms to maintain a registry of all the political or partisan ads they directly or indirectly publish.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Newly leaked internal documents expose a global lobbying operation on behalf of Facebook seeking to head off “overly restrictive” data privacy legislation, Carole Cadwalladr and Duncan Campbell report for The Guardian.

  • Eugene Wei, a top software engineer who was most recently at Oculus, Facebook’s virtual reality company, has written a super-long 20,000-word blog post arguing that what social network platforms are giving to their users is “status as a service.” I disagree, channeling Shoshana Zuboff (whose new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism is a must-read and who I will likely be citing a lot more in coming days). What these companies are exploiting is the human hunger for status affirmation. What they are selling, as Zuboff argues, is “surveillance as a service.” There, I saved you an hour. But I do respect anyone who still blogs and at such length.

  • Vanity Fair’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood got to hang out with Facebook’s head of global policy, Monica Bickert, and her team as they wrestle with the day-to-day challenges of telling the company’s content moderators what they should do about expressions like “men are scum.” His feature article nicely illustrates why content moderation is hard, or as Zuylen-Wood puts it “well-intentioned, though possibly doomed.” It’s worth reading the piece to get a better idea of Facebook’s plans for its new review board (which won’t be called a Supreme Court despite the resonances), which will have some authority over content decisions. But take care—this isn’t a story about what Facebook really does, which is mine the hell out of user data, it’s a story about what it has to do to keep that other, deeper, business stocked with plenty of freely supplied raw material. (Zuboff, again.)

  • Facebook has filed a patent application for a system that would provide “digital forums to enhance civic engagement,” using social networking data to draw in people who may have “a predicted interest” in a proposed law or amendment, Adi Robertson reports for The Verge. You can almost imagine how this would work alongside the “Supreme Court.”

  • Having pushed users to submit their phone numbers to set up two-factor authentication, a valuable security move, Facebook is apparently also using those numbers to make people findable and targetable for advertising, a move that has security and privacy advocates up in arms, TechCrunch’s Zack Whitaker reports.

  • Food for thought: Becca Abbe on the connections between today’s mesh networks and the 1970s “back to the land” movement. (Courtesy of our old pal Jessica McKenzie and her fun newsletter Pinch of Dirt.)