Handmaidens

Tech reckonings at TED; civic tech personality quiz; and more


  • This is civic tech: The NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity has created the NYC Benefits Screening API to help residents learn social service benefits programs they may qualify for, Zack Quaintance reports for GovTech.

  • Wonder what kind of civic tech or public interest tech person you are? Take this quick quiz on Upworthy, courtesy of the Ford Foundation.

  • Microsoft recently turned down a request from California law enforcement to install facial recognition tech in officers’ cars and body cameras due to human rights concerns, Brad Smith, the company’s president, revealed Tuesday, Joseph Menn reports for Reuters.

  • The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing to block the Waterfront Toronto project being developed by Sidewalk Labs, the BBC reports.

  • Life in Facebookistan: It’s worth taking the time to read Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein‘s 12,000-word cover story in Wired on “15 Months of Fresh Hell Inside Facebook.” From their account, it sure seems like it’s been a horrible year inside the company. But consider the following: A year after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, no one at Facebook has been fired for the mess; nor has the company faced any government-imposed penalties for the privacy breach it allowed or the damage to democratic societies it has enabled. Facebook gave its users a button they can press on to find out if their data was compromised, and it has created some useful transparency measures for political advertising across the platform. But despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg‘s promise to improve the quality of news information shown in users’ News Feeds, Thompson and Vogelstein report that the not-so-boyish King decided to shelve a proposal that would have driven more traffic to high-quality news sites. Why? Because he was convinced that “Supporting high-quality outlets would inevitably make it look like the platform was supporting liberals, which could lead to trouble in Washington, a town run mainly by conservatives,” they report. (Reading this did put me in this frame of mind—Mom, don’t click.)

  • One more comment on Facebook’s travails. Thompson and Vogelstein report that Zuckerberg and his engineers believe they are making progress using artificial intelligence to spot and block bad content or fake accounts before they spread, which is encouraging on the face of it. But faith in AI is what built Facebook’s massive platform in the first place. Hoping that it can build a better whack-a-mole system allows the company to defer harder choices, like actually deciding to value high-quality content, or choosing to reduce the volume and velocity of human collisions that it now thrives on.

  • Oops, since May 2016 Facebook has collected the contacts of 1.5 million users without their knowledge or consent, Rob Price reports for Business Insider. The company says the information was “unintentionally uploaded” and that it is now deleting the records.

  • Speaking of Cambridge Analytica, take 18 minutes to watch journalist Carole Cadwalladr ask the TED 2019 audience, which includes many of tech’s moguls, if we will ever be able to have a free and fair election again, and if Big Tech wants to be remembered “as the handmaidens to authoritarianism.” Bracing but necessary words, and hopefully the answer is no.

  • Also at TED, here’s Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey being told by conference curator Chris Anderson that he’s way too blasé about the challenges the platform still hasn’t solved around toxic content. Has Anderson ever said anything like this before to a TED speaker? “We are on this great voyage with you on a ship, and there are people on board in steerage who are expressing discomfort and you, unlike other captains are saying, ‘well, tell me, I want to hear,’ and they’re saying ‘we’re worried about the iceberg ahead,’ and you say, ‘our ship hasn’t been built for steering as well as it might,’ and you’re showing this extraordinary calm, but we’re all saying, ‘Jack, turn the fucking wheel!’”

  • Tech execs are usually publicity shy, so you know that over at YouTube, someone decided that the recent spate of negative news about the platform’s continued promulgation of misinformation needed to be counteracted by making CEO Susan Wojcicki available for a rare profile, this one by Daisuke Wakabayashi in The New York Times. The piece does a good job of humanizing Wojcicki but offers little light on what the company may be doing about its larger social responsibilities.

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