Suspicions and Opinions

How Facebook sells your data; Amazon's creepy plans; Civic Hall's end of year survey; and more.


  • This is civic tech: With high interest in the UK in the maneuverings of Parliament related to the Brexit issue, mySociety has rolled out some sophisticated improvements in how it visualizes voting blocs on TheyWorkForYou, its flagship parliamentary monitoring site.

  • While most of the Yellow Vest protest movement has been organized via Facebook, on the French island of Reunion, nearly 5000 people are organizing themselves using a discussion platform built by Cap Collectif, an online democracy startup.

  • Attend: The Center for Technology and Civic Life and the Center for Civic Design are holding a webinar Tuesday December 18 for election officials who want to learn more about how to modernize their voter registration systems.

  • Over on Civicist, Darshana Narayanan and I have launched a collective poll on what readers think the most important developments were in 2018 in tech, politics and civic life. We’re using Pol.is, a dynamic tool for real-time clustering of opinions, and it’s easy to jump in, add your opinion on a bunch of statements, and put more into the mix.

  • Food for thought: The New York Times’ Kevin Roose says that tech’s quest for the “frictionless” experience needs to be reconsidered. For example, he writes, “What if Facebook made it harder for viral misinformation to spread by adding algorithmic ‘speed bumps’ that would delay the spread of a controversial post above a certain threshold until fact checkers evaluated it?” (interesting idea, but see below re the fact checkers.)

  • Into the Amazon: Employees at a newly opened Amazon fulfillment center on Staten Island are trying to form a union affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Josh Eidelson reports for Bloomberg. Their timing is undoubtedly connected to the company’s push for greater public acceptance of its planned HQ2 expansion in nearby Long Island City. “There’s never been greater leverage — if taxpayers are giving Amazon $3 billion, then taxpayers have the right to demand that Amazon stop being a union-busting company,” said the union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum. “It’s incumbent upon the governor and the mayor to make sure that nothing happens to these workers who are standing up for their rights. 

  • Amazon’s first hearing before the New York City Council did not go well, Leticia Miranda reports for BuzzFeed News. But a recent Quinnipiac poll suggests that city voters are in favor of HQ2 by a margin of 2-1.

  • Amazon has filed a creepy patent application for Ring, the doorbell camera company it bought earlier this year. As Jacob Snow, ACLU tech and civil liberties attorney comments, “the application describes a system that the police can use to match the faces of people walking by a doorbell camera with a photo database of persons they deem ‘suspicious.’ Likewise, homeowners can also add photos of ‘suspicious’ people into the system and then the doorbell’s facial recognition program will scan anyone passing their home. In either case, if a match occurs, the person’s face can be automatically sent to law enforcement, and the police could arrive in minutes.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Some of journalists that Facebook has contracted out with to help with fact-checking news shared on the site are pushing to end the partnership, Sam Levin reports for The Guardian, because it “has produced minimal results” and the company has “repeatedly refused to release meaningful data about the impacts of their work.”

  • Stanford professor and data scientist Michal Kosinski explains, in a New York Times oped, that when Facebook says it isn’t selling your data, that’s misinformation. (I know, the irony!). That’s because when an advertiser uses Facebook to target, say, “’conservative African-American women with college educations who live in Austin and are single,’” …when you click on an ad and are sent to an advertiser’s website, the advertiser knows which ad you saw and thus which bucket you fall in.” Kosinksi adds, “Through this ad-targeting system, Facebook discloses facts about you to advertisers, in exchange for money, every time you click on an ad. I’d call that ‘selling data,’ and I bet that you would, too.”

  • Related: The next time a tech CEO from Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Experian brags about their company’s AI or how they are micro-targeting their users just to serve them the ads they’re most interested in, remember this open letter from Gillian Brockwell, a video editor at The Washington Post, about how all those services kept badgering her with baby product placements after her child was stillborn.

  • Tech and politics: Billionaire investor Chris Sacca says he’s going to put the bulk of his political money in 2020 into tech start-ups like Swing Left, The Arena and Mobilize America, as Brian Schwartz reports for CNBC.

  • Yes, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) actually asked Google CEO Sundar Pichai why his granddaughter’s iPhone was acting strangely, during Tuesday’s hearing of the House Judiciary Committee. “Congressman, iPhone is made by a different company,” Pichai replied.

  • End times: Headline of the year?

     

    And with that, it’s time to bid you all a Happy Holiday break;
    First Post is on vacation til next year! Read a book!