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Down with Article 13, which is now Article 17!

Saturday, 23 March, 2019

The EU, despite its enormous bureaucracy and budgets, has singularly failed to produce an Apple, a Google, an Amazon, a Facebook, a Twitter, an Instagram, a Microsoft, an Adobe, a Whatsapp, a Reddit, a Procore, a Wikipedia…. The list goes on and on and on and on and on.

Despite its enormous budgets and bureaucracy, though, the EU is very good at one thing when it comes to technology: the shakedown. If it’s not European tech and it’s really popular, fine it. That’s the thinking in Brussels, and this has turned out to be a rather nice little earner over the past decade.

The latest scam is a proposed reform of EU of copyright law (PDF). Brussels claims this would force internet platforms to share revenues with artists by forcing the likes of Google and Facebook to pay publishers for displaying news snippets and removing copyright-protected content from YouTube or Instagram. The platforms would have to sign licensing agreements with rights holders such as musicians, performers, authors, publishers and journalists to use their work online. To do this, the platforms would have to install filters to prevent users uploading copyrighted material, but these algorithms might not see the joke in Hitler’s comments about Boris Johnson. And the filters are seen by many as the thin end of an EU wedge to throttle free speech and impose Brussels-like dreariness upon a creative continent.

The European Parliament is set to have its final vote on the proposals next Tuesday and protests against the legislation are scheduled across Europe today. The demonstrations are being organized by the Save Your Internet campaign, which has labelled the legislation “a massive threat to the free exchange of opinions and culture online.” So, sign up, hit the streets and sing along.


A perfect magazine cover

Monday, 18 March, 2019

“Facebook could afford to pay its moderators more money, or hire more of them, or place much more stringent rules on what users can post—but any of those things would hurt the company’s profits and revenue. Instead, it’s adopted a reactive posture, attempting to make rules after problems have appeared.” So writes Sarah Frier in a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story about The Apology Machine.

Bloomberg Businessweek


Zuckerberg vs. Europe

Wednesday, 23 May, 2018

During Mark Zuckerberg’s two days in April before the House of Representatives and the Senate in Washington, the criticism from the opposite side of the Atlantic was loud. The questioning politicians were uninformed, old, laughable and, to boot, American. If only urbane Europeans were allowed to get their hands on the Facebook CEO, the truth would out and the ruffian would pay the reckoning.

Well, yesterday the European Parliament had its moment when Mark Zuckerberg appeared in Brussels. And the outcome? The format was totally unfit for purpose and Zuckerberg didn’t make a single substantial pledge to change the way Facebook operated. Sure, he said he was very sorry about how his platform has been used by disreputable people for reprehensible purposes, but was that a sufficient piety for getting him to fly across the ocean? Fine words butter no parsnips, say the Eurocrats in the Berlaymont, before they order another bottle of Domaine Ramonet Montrachet Grand Cru.

The reality is that Zuckerberg was never under pressure yesterday and Facebook has nothing to fear from the European Parliament’s toothless tigers. What’s more, just a few hours before the Brussels “grilling”, Jake Kanter had a story in Business Insider titled “The backlash that never happened: New data shows people actually increased their Facebook usage after the Cambridge Analytica scandal.” Snippet:

The Cambridge Analytica data debacle was billed as Facebook’s biggest crisis, but it looks like it didn’t even leave a scratch on the company.

Facebook weathered the worst of the storm and usage actually increased, according to a client note from Goldman Sachs, citing ComScore figures. In other words, the #deleteFacebook backlash never really arrived.

Goldman Sachs said Facebook’s US unique users on mobile rose 7% year-on-year to 188.6 million in April, when the scandal was biting hard… The findings, coupled with a full recovery in Facebook’s share price, completely undercut other research, which suggested that people’s trust in Facebook has nosedived since mid-March, when whistleblower Christopher Wylie first helped reveal that 87 million users had their data compromised by Cambridge Analytica.”

The MEPs in Brussels and the Senators in Washington can huff and puff as much as the like but they’re not the smartest people in the room when dealing with Mark Zuckerberg. Moreover, he’s not afraid of them. So where does that leave the rest of us? We are on our own and we must live with the complex reality created by these powerful platforms.


Clearing history at Facebook

Thursday, 3 May, 2018 0 Comments

Facebook’s F8 Developer Conference has ended and the announcements that captured most attention were a cheaper Oculus Go headset, enhanced Instagram Stories and dating. The latter gave rise to much mirth since Facebook is always vigilant when it comes to relationships, data and not doing harm. Right?

The really big announcement was underreported, though. It’s the upcoming “Clear history” functionality and Mark Zuckerberg posted about it himself:

“In your web browser, you have a simple way to clear your cookies and history. The idea is a lot of sites need cookies to work, but you should still be able to flush your history whenever you want. We’re building a version of this for Facebook too. It will be a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook — what you’ve clicked on, websites you’ve visited, and so on.”

Note 1: Facebook is using your Instagram photos to train its AIs: “Using Instagram images that are already labeled by way of hashtags, Facebook was able to collect relevant data and use it to train its computer vision and object recognition models.”

Note 2: WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum is exiting because of “privacy issues” and Cambridge Analytica is closing, citing “loss of business.”

Facebook has become synonymous with creative disruption, er, destruction.


Zuckerberg live

Tuesday, 10 April, 2018 0 Comments

Today, Mark Zuckerberg appears before the US Congress and is answering questions from a joint hearing of the Senate judiciary and commerce, science and transportation committees. Tomorrow he will face the House committee on energy and commerce.

Note: Facebook is larger than all nations, and all human groups in history, with the exception of global Christianity, which it now almost equals in numbers of “followers”.


Twitter thread on AI and FB

Friday, 6 April, 2018 0 Comments

Note: A thread on Twitter is a series of connected Tweets from one person. With a thread, you can add updates, context and background by connecting multiple Tweets together.

François Chollet constructs exemplary Twitter threads. A software engineer and artificial intelligence researcher at Google, he’s the creator of Keras, a leading deep learning framework for the Python programming language, and he has a new book out, Deep Learning with Python. In other words, he knows his AI, and he knows how Facebook uses AI to achieve its ends. Chollet’s Twitter thread from 21 March is informative and disturbing. Highlights:

The problem with Facebook is not *just* the loss of your privacy and the fact that it can be used as a totalitarian panopticon. The more worrying issue, in my opinion, is its use of digital information consumption as a psychological control vector.

We’re looking at a powerful entity that builds fine-grained psychological profiles of over two billion humans, that runs large-scale behavior manipulation experiments, and that aims at developing the best AI technology the world has ever seen. Personally, it really scares me

Twitter thread

And this is a powerful call to arms by Chollet: “If you work in AI, please don’t help them. Don’t play their game. Don’t participate in their research ecosystem. Please show some conscience”


The Age of Hypocrisy

Wednesday, 21 March, 2018 1 Comment

Without a hint self-reflection the Guardian asks: “Facebook: is it time we all deleted our accounts?” Why is this Hypocrisy with a capital H? Because the same Guardian has a community of almost eight million “likers” on Facebook and it uses the platform to flog its products. There’s no sign of the Guardian deleting that account, though.

The same goes for the much-praised post by Whatsapp co-founder Brian Acton on Twitter: “It is time. #deletefacebook.” As the world knows, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014 and the company implemented the policy Acton is objecting to now in 2010, four years before he trousered $6.5 billion of Zuck’s money. Acton knew full well what Facebook was when he sold WhatsApp to them but now, with those Facebook billions in the bank, he’s wants us to believe that he’s a privacy advocate. That’s rich, Brian, and it’s every bit as convincing as the Guardian pontificating about deleting Facebook accounts when it’s using data gleaned from Facebook to market its wares.

This is the Age of Hypocrisy


Escaping from Facebook: deactivating is not deleting

Tuesday, 20 March, 2018 0 Comments

Over at Wired, Gordon Gottsegen and Josie Colt offer advice on how to make the break. It isn’t easy, though, because deactivating is not the same as deleting:

If you’ve ever deactivated your account, you may have noticed that everything goes back to normal the next time you log in, as if nothing has happened. That’s because deactivating your Facebook account is not the same as deleting it. When you deactivate your account, you are just hiding your information from searches and your Facebook friends. Although nothing is visible on the site, your account information remains intact on Facebook’s servers, eagerly awaiting your return.

Even so, deactivating your account is still a complex process. Go into your settings and click General. At the bottom, you’ll find Manage your Account. From there, click on “Deactivate your account” and type in your password. Before you’re completely off the hook, Facebook shows you photos of all the “friends” you’ll miss (“Callie will miss you”, “Phoebe will miss you”, “Ben will miss you”) followed by a survey asking you to detail your reasons for leaving. Get through that, click Deactivate, and you’re good to go.

Now, to permanently delete your account, you’ll need to learn where the delete option resides. The easiest way to find it is by clicking the “Quick Help” icon in the top-right corner, then the “Search” icon. When you see the search field, type “delete account.” You’ll see a list of search results. Click on “How do I permanently delete my account?” and Facebook will give you the obscure instructions to “log into your account and let us know.” In this case, “let us know” is code for “delete my account,” so click on that link. From here, the final steps are clear: Enter your password and solve the security captcha, and your request to permanently delete your account is underway.

Yes, you read that right — it’s just a request. Facebook delays the deletion process for a few days after you submit your request, and will cancel your request if you log into your account during that time period.

Love that bit: “Facebook shows you photos of all the ‘friends’ you’ll miss (‘Callie will miss you’, ‘Phoebe will miss you’, ‘Ben will miss you’).” It’s hard to break up with Callie, Phoebe and Ben, but lots of people are thinking about it now.


Facebook predicts the end of text. Fail

Friday, 17 June, 2016 0 Comments

After 2020, Facebook “will be definitely mobile, it will be probably all video,” said Nicola Mendelsohn, head of Facebook’s operations in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, at a conference in London on Tuesday. Mendelsohn even suggested that the written word will be replaced by moving images and sound:

“The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” Mendelsohn said. “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”

Does it? Facebook is said to be hosting eight billion views a day on its platform, but most of that is happening in silence. Millennial news site Mic, which is averaging 150 million monthly Facebook views, said 85 percent of its 30-second views are without sound, while PopSugar says its silent video views range between 50 and 80 percent. Note: Facebook counts a view at three seconds.

The result is that publishers are now creating videos that have the same look and feel and they increasingly feature text that does the talking, as it were. This Facebook video about a futuristic bike features visuals with a text explanation of the content. Prediction: Text will outlive Facebook and cat videos.


We’ll fix it with video!

Thursday, 28 April, 2016 0 Comments

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was…” So begins A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and while it would be bordering on the sacrilegious to compare the fates of Facebook and Twitter to the epochal events that took place in “the year of Our Lord one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five,” the rise and fall of the great (social media) powers is the stuff of which history will be made. The fact that the tumbrels are virtual these days, makes the digital revolution less gruesome, for which we should be grateful.

Yesterday, Facebook exceeded Wall Street forecasts on almost every critical metric. The social network made $5.38 billion during the first three months of this year and grew its base to 1.65 billion monthly users. Profit was 77 cents a share, which blew away the 63 cents analysts had been expecting, and the the stock jumped nine percent in after-hours trading. During his conference call with investors, CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted: “Today, people around the world spend more than 50 minutes a day using Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger. That doesn’t even include WhatsApp yet.”

COO Sheryl Sandberg put her finger on Facebook’s success secret when she said the company is on a mission to help marketers adapt their ads for a mobile world — where messages must be shorter and often without sound. The auto-captioning feature, she added, has led people to spend 12 percent more time with an ad.

mobile video Contrast all this with Twitter, which has disappointed investors yet again with first-quarter results that showed stagnant revenue growth. Twitter, simply, doesn’t have the scale to compete with Facebook. It’s 320 million monthly users are no match for the 1.65 billion Facebook bring to the game. So, what’s the strategy? Twitter’s answer is the same that everyone else on the web has: We’ll fix it with video. That’s what Peter Kafka says in Twitter is going to have a hard time fixing its ad problem. Snippet:

“The company says it wants to convince its advertisers to upgrade their old text+photo Twitter ads with video ads, which sell at higher prices. This sounds like a good idea, but then again, it’s the same idea everyone else has — and Twitter’s already having trouble competing with everyone else.”

In Your Media Business Will Not Be Saved, Joshua Topolsky, co-founding editor of The Verge and recently head of digital at Bloomberg, pours a big bucket of water on the notion that video will fix it. “Video will not save your media business. Nor will bots, newsletters, a ‘morning briefing’ app, a ‘lean back’ iPad experience, Slack integration, a Snapchat channel, or a great partnership with Twitter.”

To paraphrase Dickens, all these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year two thousand and sixteen.


The burger bot

Monday, 18 April, 2016 0 Comments

Example 1: “Given nature of my work, I’m involved on Burger King® brand digital matters,” writes Steve Greenwood, who shows that one can dispense with the “the”.

Example 2: “Over last few months, my team and I have embarked on an exciting new journey: taking a traditionally offline company and turning it digital.”

Grammar aside, that company is Restaurant Brands International, which owns the Burger King brand. Burger King is big, Facebook is big and Steve Greenwood sees a global synergy in the making: “And one of most dominant existing user behaviors on mobile is with messaging and in particular Facebook Messenger,” he notes. His goal: to build “automated capabilities like bots” on the Messenger platform. Here’s his vision:

“You can use Messenger to book a flight, request an Uber, and later this year, we will begin releasing our bot on Messenger, which will at some point provide a whole new way to order a Whopper and all your other favorite Burger King food — all without leaving Messenger.”

The bots are coming, and they are hungry.