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  • feedwordpress 16:24:01 on 2020/03/25 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , policy, , , ,   

    Will The Coronavirus Save Big Tech? 


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    Who’s Really Behind That “Death of the Techlash” Narrative?

     

    One of my least favorite kinds of journalism is the easy win. It’s the kind of story that just lands in your lap. It feels immediately counter intuitive and of the moment, and  it simply writes itself. It’s the kind of editorial sin most often committed by columnists facing immutable deadlines, and a perfect example can be found in the Wall St. Journal last week. “OK, Fine, Let’s All Get Back on Facebook,” the headline read. The subhead explains further: “All it took was a pandemic to make Facebook’s privacy-challenged products seem highly appealing.”

    Couched as a review of Facebook products helpful in our current era of social distancing and mandated work from home, the column may well stand as a turning point in what was once knows as the “techlash.” Has the coronavirus pandemic earned the world’s most powerful purveyors of surveillance capitalism a collective pass from the press?

    It certainly seems that way. A rash of articles over the past few days have picked up this narrative – and the comms teams at Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon would be fired for malpractice for not stoking it. A good crisis must not be wasted, after all.

    But as the Journal columnist noted later in her piece, the reasons underlying society’s broad misgivings around Big Tech remain. With that prophylactic caveat duly administered, the columnist then profiled her own usage of Facebook’s services- and declared them a trend. Before COVID, the company’s many privacy missteps had led her to back away. But now that everyone she knew was stuck inside, she found herself once again checking her feeds, monitoring her neighborhood Facebook groups, and even pointing a Portal camera at her son.

    This narrative isn’t making it into the press without a bit of help. Facebook’s been quite public about the fact that people just like our columnist are in fact flocking to its products. “Facebook Is ‘Just Trying to Keep the Lights On’ as Traffic Soars in Pandemic” crows a recent Times piece. That headline quote comes from Facebook’s famously media-trained CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who hasn’t exactly made a practice of calling the press and offering offhand observations these past few years.

    It’s always instructive to note when the company actively participates in stories, and when it declines comment. Lately, there’s been plenty of open lines of communication. The Times further wonders if “Big Tech Could Emerge From Coronavirus Crisis Stronger Than Ever.” And somehow (I can’t imagine how), an “internal report” from Facebook made its way into yet another Times reporter’s hands, leading to this chef kiss of a headline: ‘The Coronavirus Revives Facebook as a News Powerhouse.” Over at Wired, Facebook author Steven Levy asks “Has the Coronavirus Killed the Techlash?” He explains: “Facebook has gotten rare kudos for its responses to the pandemic, and perhaps even more significantly, more people are using it for the kinds of meaningful interactions that Zuckerberg has been promoting for a long time. Could this be a turning point?”

    Well, yes, but I certainly hope it’s not the kind implied by present day reporting. Again, the issues our industry struggled with Before Covid won’t disappear After Covid simply because the public is thankful for services (and business models) to which we’ve already become addicted. Perhaps instead, this pandemic could offer more of a step-change opportunity, one that might just offer us new approaches to connecting to others, buying shit we need (and don’t), and staying informed. I can see those new habits already starting to form, and I certainly hope they won’t be limited to Instagram dance parties. More on those in future posts, I hope. For now, back to work.

     
  • feedwordpress 15:28:56 on 2020/02/12 Permalink
    Tags: Andrew Yang, economics, policy, , , UBI, YangGang   

    For Now, America Just Doesn’t Want to Think That Hard 


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    Andrew Yang has dropped out, which means the presidential campaign just got a lot less fun (you must watch this appreciation from The Recount!). The race also lost a credible and important voice on issues related to the impact of technology on our society.  The fact that Yang’s campaign didn’t make it past New Hampshire didn’t surprise the political experts I know, but his rabid base both online and at campaign events clearly did.

    Perhaps Yang’s message of a “Freedom Dividend” never really caught fire because stock markets are at all time highs, and his warnings about tech-driven job losses have yet to come to fruition. It’s hard to get folks to care about something that requires thinking beyond the daily headlines, and harder still to ask them to consider long term trends like AI-driven automation or the wholesale reconstruction of our social safety net. But when Yang started his quest, these issues rarely made it to the national stage. Now they’re part of our shared vocabulary.

    I first met Yang in Pittsburgh in 2018 at a technology business event, where I interviewed him in front of 500 or so students and local business leaders. I immediately invited him to a much smaller salon that Fall in New York. At both events Yang lit the place up – but it also took time for his message to resonate. His informal campaign slogan was “Make American Think Harder,” after all. As I wrote then:

    “I for one hope Yang makes it to the debate stage, and that as a society, we will seriously discuss the ideas he proposes. We can no longer afford politics as usual – not the politics we have now, and certainly not a return to the cliché-ridden blandishments of years past. The time to traffic in new ideas – radically new ideas – is upon us.”

    Andrew Yang did make it to the debate stage – but it seems that stage wasn’t built for the kind of dialog Yang wants to have. Perhaps we’re not ready to have the kind of conversation his candidacy represented.  Or maybe as a candidate, Yang simply isn’t built for the reality of American politics. Regardless, now that he’s a national figure, I’d wager Andrew Yang isn’t finished with his turn in the public spotlight. Once unknown, Yang lasted far longer than most everyone thought he would, and he’s built a brand that will only become more relevant in the years to come.

     
  • feedwordpress 02:52:58 on 2020/01/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , policy, , , ,   

    Predictions 2020: Facebook Caves, Google Zags, Netflix Sells Out, and Data Policy Gets Sexy 


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    A new year brings another run at my annual predictions: For 17 years now, I’ve taken a few hours to imagine what might happen over the course of the coming twelve months. And my goodness did I swing for the fences last year — and I pretty much whiffed. Batting .300 is great in the majors, but it kind of sucks compared to my historical average. My mistake was predicting events that I wished would happen. In other words, emotions got in the way. So yes, Trump didn’t leave office, Zuck didn’t give up voting control of Facebook, and weed’s still illegal (on a federal level, anyway). 

    Chastened, this year I’m going to focus on less volatile topics, and on areas where I have a bit more on-the-ground knowledge — the intersection of big tech, marketing, media, and data policy. As long time readers know, I don’t prepare in advance of writing this post. Instead, I just clear a few hours and start thinking out loud. So…here we go.

    1. Facebook bans microtargeting on specific kinds of political advertising. Of course I start with Facebook, because, well, it’s one of the most inscrutable companies in the world right now. While Zuck & Co. seem deeply committed to their “principled” stand around a politician’s right to paid prevarication, the pressure to do something will be too great, and as it always does, the company will enact a half-measure, then declare victory. The new policy will probably roll out after Super Tuesday (sparking all manner of conspiracies about how the company didn’t want to impact its Q1 growth numbers in the US). The company’s spinners will frame this as proof they listen to their critics, and that they’re serious about the integrity of the 2020 elections. As with nearly everything it does, this move will fail to change anyone’s opinion of the company. Wall St. will keep cheering the company’s stock, and folks like me will keep wondering when, if ever, the next shoe will drop. 
    2. Netflix opens the door to marketing partnerships. Yes, I’m aware that the smart money has moved on from this idea. But in a nod to increasing competition and the reality of Wall St. expectations, Netflix will at least pilot a program — likely not in the US — where it works with brands in some limited fashion. Mass hysteria in the trade press will follow once this news breaks, but Netflix will call the move a pilot, a test, an experiment…no big deal. It may take the form of a co-produced series, or branded content, or some other “native” approach, but at the end of the day, it’ll be advertising dollars that fuel the programming. And while I won’t predict the program augurs a huge new revenue stream for the company, I can predict that what won’t happen, at least in 2020: A free, advertising-driven version of Netflix. Just not in the company’s culture. 
    3. CDA 230 will get seriously challenged, but in the end, nothing gets done, again. Last year I predicted there’d be no federal data privacy legislation, and I’m predicting the same for this year. However, there will be a lot of movement on legislation related to the tech oligarchy. The topic that will come the closest to passage will be a revision to CDA 230 —the landmark legislation that protects online platforms from liability for user generated content. Blasphemy? Sure, but here we are, stuck between free speech on the one hand, massive platform economics on the other, and a really, really bad set of externalities in the middle. CDA 230 was built to give early platforms the room to grow unhindered by traditional constraints on media companies. That growth has now metastasized, and we don’t have a policy response that anyone agrees upon. And CDA 230 is an easy target, given conservatives in Congress already believe Facebook, Google, and others have it out for their president. They’ll be a serious run at rewriting 230, but it will ultimately fail. Related…
    4. Adversarial interoperability will get a moment in the sun, but also fail to make it into law. In the past I (and many others) have written about “machine readable data portability.” But for the debate we’re about to have (and need to have), I like “adversarial interoperability” better. Both are mouthfuls, and neither are easy to explain. Data governance and policy are complicated topics which test our society’s ability to have difficult long form conversations. 2020 will be a year where the legions of academics, policy makers, politicians, and writers who debate economic theory around data and capitalism get a real audience, and I believe much of that debate will center on whether or not large platforms have a responsibility to be open or closed. As Cory Doctorow explains, adversarial interoperability is “when you create a new product or service that plugs into the existing ones without the permission of the companies that make them.” As in, I can plug my new e-commerce engine into Amazon, my new mobile operating system into iOS, my new social network into Facebook, or my new driving instruction app into Google Maps. I grew up in a world where this kind of innovation was presumed. It’s now effectively banned by a handful of data oligarchs, and our economy – and our future – suffers for it. 
    5. As long as we’re geeking out on catchphrases only a dork can love, 2020 will also be the year “data provenance” becomes a thing. As with many nerdy topics, the concept of data provenance started in academia, migrated to adtech, and is about to break into the broader world of marketing, which is struggling to get its arms around a data-driven future. The ability to trace the origin, ownership, permissions, and uses of data is a fundamental requirement of an advanced digital economy, and in 2020, we’ll realize we have a ton of work left to do to get this right. Yes, yes, blockchain and ledgers are part of the discussion here, but the point isn’t the technology, it’s the policy enabling the technology. 
    6. Google zags. Saddled with increasingly negative public opinion and driven in large part by concerns over retaining its workforce, Google will make a deeply surprising and game changing move in 2020. It could be a massive acquisition, a move into some utterly surprising new industry (like content), but my money’s on something related to data privacy. The company may well commit to both leading the debate on the topics described above, as well as implementing them in its core infrastructure. Now that would really be a zag…
    7. At least one major “on demand” player will capitulate. Gig economy business models may make sense long term, but that doesn’t mean we’re getting the execution right in the first group of on demand “unicorns.” In fact, I’d argue we’re mostly getting them wrong, even if as consumers, we love the supposed convenience gig brands bring us. Many of the true costs of these businesses have been externalized onto public infrastructure (and the poor), and civic patience is running out. Plus, venture and public finance markets are increasingly skeptical of business models that depend on strip mining the labor of increasingly querulous private contractors. A reckoning is due, and in 2020 we’ll see the collapse of one or more larger players in the field.
    8. Influencer marketing will fall out of favor. I’m not predicting an implosion here, but rather an industry wide pause as brands start to ask the questions consumers will also be pondering: who the fuck are these influencers and why are we paying them so much attention? A major piece of this — on the marketing side anyway — will be driven by a massive increase in influencer fraud. As with other fast growing digital marketing channels, where money pours in, fraud fast follows — nearly as fast as fawning New York Times articles, but I digress. 
    9. Information warfare becomes a national bogeyman. If we’ve learned anything since the 2016 election, it’s this: We’ve taken far too long to comprehend the extent to which bad actors have come to shape and divide our discourse. These past few years have slowly revealed the power of information warfare, and the combination of a national election with the compounding distrust of algorithm-driven platforms will mean that by mid year, “fake news” will yield to “information warfare” as the catchphrase describing what’s wrong with our national dialog. Deep fakes, sophisticated state-sponsored information operations, and good old fashioned political info ops will dominate the headlines in 2020. Unfortunately, the cynic in me thinks the electorate’s response will be to become more inured and distrustful, but there’s a chance a number of trusted media brands (both new and old) prosper as we all search for a common set of facts.
    10. Purpose takes center stage in business. 2019 was the year the leaders of industry declared a new purpose for the corporation — one that looks beyond profits for a true north that includes multiple stakeholders, not just shareholders. 2020 will be the year many companies will compete to prove that they are serious about that pledge. Reaction from Wall St. will be mixed, but I expect plenty of CEOs will feel emboldened to take the kind of socially minded actions that would have gotten them fired in previous eras. This is a good thing, and likely climate change will become the issue many companies will feel comfortable rallying behind. (I certainly hope so, but this isn’t supposed to be about what I wish for…)
    11. Apple and/or Amazon stumble. I have no proof as to why I think this might happen but…both these companies just feel ripe for some kind of major misstep or scandal. America loves a financial winner — and both Amazon and Apple have been runaway winners in the stock market for the past decade. Both have gotten away with some pretty bad shit along the way, especially when it comes to labor practices in their supply chain. And while neither of them are as vulnerable as Facebook or Google when it comes to the data privacy or free speech issues circling big tech, both Apple and Amazon have become emblematic of a certain kind of capitalism that feels fraught with downside risk in the near future. I can’t say what it is, but I feel like both these companies could catch one squarely on the jaw this coming year, and the post-mortems will all say they never saw it coming. 

    So there you have it — 11 predictions for the coming year. I was going to stop at 10, but that Apple/Amazon one just forced itself out — perhaps that’s me wishing again. We’ll see. Let me know your thoughts, and keep your cool out there. 2020 is going to be one hell of a year. 

     
  • feedwordpress 01:20:42 on 2019/10/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , policy, , , tik tok,   

    Tik Tok, Tick Tock…Boom. 


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    Something’s been bugging me about Tik Tok. I’ve almost downloaded it about a dozen times over the past few months. But I always stop short. I don’t have a ton of time (here’s why) so forgive me as I resort to some short form tricks here. To wit:

    1. China employs a breathtaking model of state-driven surveillance.
    2. The US employs a breathtaking model of capitalist surveillance.

    We on the same page so far? OK, great.

    Now let’s consider Tik Tok, which is a robust combination of the two. Don’t know Tik Tok? Come on, you read Searchblog for God’s sake. Ok, well, fortunately for you, there’s the New York Times. Or…maybe not. I almost threw up in my mouth as I watched the paper of record run through its decades long practice of “Gee, Golly, Isn’t This Shiny New Tech Thing Culturally Significant, and Aren’t We Woke for Noticing It” journalism last weekend. Read it if you must.

    Ok. Time for more shorthand.

    1. Tik Tok is owned by a Chinese company.
    2. Tik Tok is addictive, seductive, you can’t look away.
    3. Tik Tok has a Terms of Service and Privacy Policy that reads, for all intents and purposes, a lot like Google, Facebook, Apple, or Amazon’s terms of service (I’m studying these over at Columbia, FWIW). In other words, Tik Tok has standard clickwrap that gives it permission to do pretty much whatever it wants with the information it collects on its users.
    4. Since they’re modeled on the policies of American surveillance capitalism, Tik Tok’s TOS and Privacy Policies state that the company may collect your: Location, email, phone number, browsing history, device information, app and file names on your device, messaging content, full list of your social network connections (should you let it use your Facebook, Twitter, Insta to find your friends, and most do), content preferences, and a shit ton of other information, not to mention any and all third-party information Tik Tok chooses to acquire and append to your profile (that’d be another shit ton, in case you were wondering).
    5. There’s nothing in Tik Tok’s TOS or Privacy Policy that stops it from sending all the information it collects to the Chinese government. In fact, if you read the policies closely, you’ll see this line: “We may disclose information to respond to subpoenas, court orders, legal process, law enforcement requests, legal claims or government inquiries.”
    6. Tik Tok is clearly concerned about anyone noticing any of this – it’s nearly impossible to find stats on how many people use it in the US (though Ad Age leaked a pitch deck recently saying it was “more than 32 million”), and you won’t find the word “China” or “Chinese” in its TOS or Privacy Policy (it used to be there, but…the company wised up).
    7. Just in case you weren’t paying attention, I refer you to #1 above. If you think Tik Tok isn’t sending information to the Chinese government, you’re sweet, but you should stay inside and stick to rotary phones.
    8. Tik Tok is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on US social networks convincing US consumers, in particular kids, to download and use the app. This is fucking brilliant, by the way.
    9. China and the US are in a pitched battle for economic and geopolitical power, and that battle will be won, in large part, based on which country has access to and dominion over consumer data at scale, which will feed machine learning and artificial intelligence systems that will most certainly be weaponized, both economically and geopolitically (there’s simply not time to explain what I mean by that now, but…let’s just say Russian interference in the 2016 election was a hack job compared to what’s afoot now).

    So, I just thought I’d point that out. But those videos, they sure are cute, no?

     
  • feedwordpress 15:59:20 on 2019/04/24 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , policy, , terms of service,   

    Mapping Data Flows: Help Us Ask the Right Questions 


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    I’ve been quiet here on Searchblog these past few months, not because I’ve nothing to say, but because two major projects have consumed my time. The first, a media platform in development, is still operating mostly under the radar. I’ll have plenty to say about that, but at a later date. It’s the second where I could use your help now, a project we’re calling Mapping Data Flows. This is the research effort I’m spearheading with graduate students from Columbia’s School for International Public Affairs (SIPA) and Graduate School of Journalism. This is the project examining what I call our “Shadow Internet Constitution” driven by corporate Terms of Service.

    Our project goal is simple: To visualize the Terms of Service and Data/Privacy Policies of the four largest companies in US consumer tech: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. We want this visualization to be interactive and compelling – when you approach it (it’ll be on the web), we hope it will help you really “see” what data, rights, and obligations both you and these companies have reserved. To do that, we’re busy turning unintelligible lines of text (hundreds of thousands of words, in aggregate) into code that can be queried, compared, and visualized. When I first imagined the project, I thought that wouldn’t be too difficult. I was wrong – but we’re making serious progress, and learning a lot along the way.

    One of the most interesting of the early insights is how vague these documents truly are. The conditional (“might,” “could,” “may” etc) seems to be their favorite verb tense. It likely comes as no surprise to dedicated readers, but despite the last two years of public outrage, tech companies can pretty much do anything they want with your data, should they care to. Another interesting takeaway: The sheet amount of information that *can* be collected is staggering. A third insight: Even if you can find the data dashboards that give you control over how your data is used, cranking them to their fullest powers often won’t limit data collection and use, but rather will limit their application in very specific use cases. It’s all about the metadata. Lastly, it’s fascinating to see how similar these documents are across the top four companies, and how Apple, for example, has pretty much exactly the same rights to use your data as, say, Facebook.

    I could go on, but what we really want to know is what *you* wish you understood about these companies’ data practices. That’s why we’ve built a very short, very subjective survey that we’re hoping you’ll take to give us input and feedback as we start to actually build our visualization.

    I’ve buried the lead, but here’s the ask: Will you please take a minute to give us your input? Here’s the link, and thanks!

     
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