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Main article: Social

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Google Photos adds a chat feature to its app

20:00 | 3 December

An argument could be made that Google has over-indulged in its creation of way too many messaging apps in years past. But today’s launch of a new messaging service — this time within the confines of Google Photos — is an integration that actually makes sense.

The company is rolling out a way to directly message photos and chat with another user or users within the Google Photos app. The addition will allow users to quickly and easily share those one-off photos or videos with another person, instead of taking additional steps to build a shared album.

The feature itself is simple to use. After selecting a photo and tapping share, you can now choose a new option “Send in Google Photos.” You can then tap on the icon of your most frequent contacts or search for a user by name, phone number of email.

The recipient will need a Google account to receive the photos, however, because they’ll need to sign-in to view the conversation. That may limit the feature to some extent, as not everyone is a Google user. But with now a billion some Google Photos users out there, it’s likely that more of the people you want to share will have an account, rather than not.

You can also use this feature to start a group chat by selecting “New group,” then adding recipients.

Once a chat has been started, you can return to it at any time from the “Sharing” tab in Google Photos. Here, you’ll be able to see the photos and videos you each shared, comments, text chats and likes. You can also save the photos you want to your phone or tap on the “All Photos” option to see just the photos themselves without the conversations surrounding them.

Explains Google, the idea with the new direct sharing option is not to replace users’ preferred messaging apps — a strategy that differs from Google’s investments in apps like Hangouts and Allo in previous years. Instead, the feature wants to relocate some of the photo-sharing activity that takes place in messaging apps to Google Photos.

Google had tried a similar idea with direct video sharing and messaging from the YouTube app. But the company later shut down that feature ahead of YouTube’s announcement of the $170M FTC fine for violating U.S. children’s privacy laws, COPPA. Likely, the chat feature there would have complicated YouTube’s product, now under increased regulatory scrutiny, because many kids were using direct messaging as a way to work around parental controls and other blocks on traditional messaging apps.

Google Photos makes more sense as a place to directly message friends and family, though, and the Google account requirement means users will have to be 13 or older to gain access. (Unless parents created a Google account for their child).

Direct messaging was previously announced as “coming soon” alongside Google Photos’ big fall update that also included the launch of Stories and other features.

The new feature is launching today but the rollout will take place over the next week. It will be supported across platforms, including iOS, Android and web.

 


0

Facebook launches a photo portability tool, starting in Ireland

14:14 | 2 December

It’s not friend portability, but Facebook has announced the launch today of a photo transfer tool to enable users of its social network to port their photos directly to Google’s photo storage service, via encrypted transfer.

The photo portability feature is initially being offered to Facebook users in Ireland, where the company’s international HQ is based. Facebook says it is still testing and tweaking the feature based on feedback but slates “worldwide availability” as coming in the first half of 2020.

It also suggests porting to other photo storage services will be supported in the future, in addition to Google Photos — which specifying which services it may seek to add.

Facebook says the tool is based on code developed via its participation in the Data Transfer Project — a collaborative effort started last year that’s currently backed by five tech giants (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) who have committed to build “a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers, enabling a seamless, direct, user initiated portability of data between the two platforms”.

Facebook also points to a white paper it published in September — where it advocates for “clear rules” to govern the types of data that should be portable and “who is responsible for protecting that data as it moves to different providers”.

Behind all these moves is of course the looming threat of antitrust regulation, with legislators and agencies on both sides of the Atlantic now closely eyeing platforms’ grip on markets, eyeballs and data.

Hence Facebook’s white paper couching portability tools as “helping keep competition vibrant among online services”. (Albeit, if the ‘choice’ being offered is to pick another tech giant to get your data that’s not exactly going to reboot the competitive landscape.)

It’s certainly true that portability of user uploaded data can be helpful in encouraging people to feel they can move from a dominant service.

However it is also something of a smokescreen — especially when A) the platform in question is a social network like Facebook (because it’s people who keep other people stuck to these types of services); and B) the value derived from the data is retained by the platform regardless of whether the photos themselves travel elsewhere.

Facebook processes user uploaded data such as photos to gain personal insights to profile users for ad targeting purposes. So even if you send your photos elsewhere that doesn’t diminish what Facebook has already learned about you, having processed your selfies, groupies, baby photos, pet shots and so on. (It has also designed the portability tool to send a copy of the data; ergo, Facebook still retains your photos unless you take additional action — such as deleting your account.)

The company does not offer users any controls (portability tools or access rights) over the inferences it makes based on personal data such as photos.

Or indeed control over insights it services from its analysis of usage of its platform or wider browsing of the Internet (Facebook tracks both users and non users across the web via tools like social plug-ins and tracking pixels).

Given its targeted ads business is powered by a vast outgrowth of tracking (aka personal data processing), there’s little risk to Facebook to offer a portability feature buried in a sub-menu somewhere that lets a few in-the-know users click to send a copy of their photos to another tech giant.

Indeed, it may hope to benefit from similar incoming ports from other platforms in future.

“We hope this product can help advance conversations on the privacy questions we identified in our white paper,” Facebook writes. “We know we can’t do this alone, so we encourage other companies to join the Data Transfer Project to expand options for people and continue to push data portability innovation forward.”

Competition regulators looking to reboot digital markets will need to dig beneath the surface of such self-serving initiatives if they are to alight on a meaningful method of reining in platform power.

 


0

Facebook bowed to a Singapore government order to brand a news post as false

21:05 | 30 November

Facebook added a correction notice to a post by a fringe news site that Singapore’s government said contained false information. It’s the first time the government has tried to enforce a new law against ‘fake news’ outside its borders.

The post by fringe news site States Times Review (STR), contained “scurrilous accusations” according to the Singapore government.

The States Times Review post contained accusations about the arrest of an alleged whistleblower and election-rigging.

Singapore authorities had previously ordered STR editor Alex Tan to correct the post but the Australian citizen said he would “not comply with any order from a foreign government”.

Mr Tan, who was born in Singapore, said he was an Australian citizen living in Australia and was not subject to the law. In a follow-up post, he said he would “defy and resist every unjust law”. He also posted the article on Twitter, LinkedIn and Google Docs and challenged the government to order corrections there as well.

On the note Facebook said it “is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”. They then embedded the note at the bottom of the original post, which was not altered. Only social media users in Singapore could see the note.

In a statement Facebook said it had applied the label as required under the “fake news” law. The law, known as the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation bill, came into effect in October.

According to Facebook’s “transparency report” it often blocks content that governments allege violate local laws, with nearly 18,000 cases globally in the year to June.

Facebook — which has its Asia headquarters in Singapore — said it hoped assurances that the law would not impact on free expression “will lead to a measured and transparent approach to implementation”.

Anyone who breaks the law could be fined heavily and face a prison sentence of up to five years. The law also bans the use of fake accounts or bots to spread fake news, with penalties of up to S$1m (£563,000, $733,700) and a jail term of up to 10 years.

Critics say the law’s reach gives Singapore’s government could jeopardize freedom of expression both in the city-state and outside its borders.

 


0

European parliament’s NationBuilder contract under investigation by data regulator

19:28 | 28 November

Europe’s lead data regulator has issued its first ever sanction of an EU institution — taking enforcement action against the European parliament over its use of US-based digital campaign company, NationBuilder, to process citizens’ voter data ahead of the spring elections.

NationBuilder is a veteran of the digital campaign space — indeed, we first covered the company back in 2011— which has become nearly ubiquitous for digital campaigns in some markets.

But in recent years European privacy regulators have raised questions over whether all its data processing activities comply with regional data protection rules, responding to growing concern around election integrity and data-fuelled online manipulation of voters.

The European parliament had used NationBuilder as a data processor for a public engagement campaign to promote voting in the spring election, which was run via a website called thistimeimvoting.eu.

The website collected personal data from more than 329,000 people interested in the EU election campaign — data that was processed on behalf of the parliament by NationBuilder.

The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which started an investigation in February 2019, acting on its own initiative — and “taking into account previous controversy surrounding this company” as its press release puts it — found the parliament had contravened regulations governing how EU institutions can use personal data related to the selection and approval of sub-processors used by NationBuilder.

The sub-processors in question are not named. (We’ve asked for more details.)

The parliament received a second reprimand from the EDPS after it failed to publish a compliant Privacy Policy for the thistimeimvoting website within the deadline set by the EDPS. Although the regulator says it acted in line with its recommendations in the case of both sanctions.

The EDPS also has an ongoing investigation into whether the Parliament’s use of the voter mobilization website, and related processing operations of personal data, were in accordance with rules applicable to EU institutions (as set out in Regulation (EU) 2018/1725).

The enforcement actions had not been made public until a hearing earlier this week — when assistant data protection supervisor, Wojciech Wiewiórowski, mentioned the matter during a Q&A session in front of MEPs.

He referred to the investigation as “one of the most important cases we did this year”, without naming the data processor. “Parliament was not able to create the real auditing actions at the processor,” he told MEPs. “Neither control the way the contract has been done.”

“Fortunately nothing bad happened with the data but we had to make this contract terminated the data being erased,” he added.

When TechCrunch asked the EDPS for more details about this case on Tuesday a spokesperson told us the matter is “still ongoing” and “being finalized” and that it would communicate about it soon.

Today’s press release looks to be the upshot.

Provided canned commentary in the release Wiewiórowski writes:

The EU parliamentary elections came in the wake of a series of electoral controversies, both within the EU Member States and abroad, which centred on the the threat posed by online manipulation. Strong data protection rules are essential for democracy, especially in the digital age. They help to foster trust in our institutions and the democratic process, through promoting the responsible use of personal data and respect for individual rights. With this in mind, starting in February 2019, the EDPS acted proactively and decisively in the interest of all individuals in the EU to ensure that the European Parliament upholds the highest of standards when collecting and using personal data. It has been encouraging to see a good level of cooperation developing between the EDPS and the European Parliament over the course of this investigation.

One question that arises is why no firmer sanction has been issued to the European parliament — beyond a (now public) reprimand, some nine months after the investigation began.

Another question is why the matter was not more transparently communicated to EU citizens.

The EDPS’ PR emphasizes that its actions “are not limited to reprimands”, without explaining why the two enforcements thus far didn’t merit tougher action. (At the time of writing the EDPS had not responded to questions about why no fines have so far been issued.)

There may be more to come, though.

The regulator says it will “continue to check the parliament’s data protection processes” — revealing that the European Parliament has finished informing individuals of a revised intention to retain personal data collected by the thistimeimvoting website until 2024.

“The outcome of these checks could lead to additional findings,” it warns, adding that it intends to finalise the investigation by the end of this year.

Asked about the case, a spokeswoman for the European parliament told us that the thistimeimvoting campaign had been intended to motivate EU citizens to participate in the democratic process, and that it used a mix of digital tools and traditional campaigning techniques in order to try to reach as many potential voters as possible. 

She said NationBuilder had been used as a customer relations management platform to support staying in touch with potential voters — via an offer to interested citizens to sign up to receive information from the parliament about the elections (including events and general info).

Subscribers were also asked about their interests — which allowed the parliament to send personalized information to people who had signed up.

Some of the regulatory concerns around NationBuilder have centered on how it allows campaigns to match data held in their databases (from people who have signed up) with social media data that’s publicly available, such as an unlocked Twitter account or public Facebook profile.

In 2017 in France, after an intervention by the national data watchdog, NationBuilder suspended this data matching tool in the market.

The same feature has attracted attention from the UK’s Information Commissioner — which warned last year that political parties should be providing a privacy notice to individuals whose data is collected from public sources such as social media and matched. Yet aren’t.

“The ICO is concerned about political parties using this functionality without adequate information being provided to the people affected,” the ICO said in the report, while stopping short of ordering a ban on the use of the matching feature.

Its investigation confirmed that up to 200 political parties or campaign groups used NationBuilder during the 2017 UK general election.

 


0

Twitter tests new conversation features from twttr prototype, rollout planned for 2020

00:17 | 28 November

Twttr, the prototype app Twitter launched earlier this year, has been testing new ways to display conversations, including through the use of threaded replies and other visual cues. Now, those features have been

on Twitter.com, giving the service a message board-like feel where replies are connected to original tweeter and others in a thread by way of thin, gray lines.

As you may recall, the goal with twttr was to give Twitter a place outside of its main app to publicly experiment with more radical changes to the Twitter user interface, gain feedback, then iterate as needed, before the changes were rolled out to Twitter’s main user base. Since its arrival in March, the prototype twttr app has focused mainly on how threaded conversations would work, sometimes including different ways of labeling the posters in a thread, as well.

Currently, for example, twttr labels the original poster — meaning the person who started a conversation — with a little microphone icon, similar to Reddit. It’s also testing a way to view the tweet details in a card-style layout you can activate with a tap.

But its main focus continues to be on the display of the threads themselves.

Following its launch, the work on twttr slowed as did the excitement over its exclusive, invite-only Twitter experience. Instead of being a continual testbed of new ideas, twttr mostly rolled out small tweaks to threads. And it never branched out beyond conversation redesigns to test entirely new features, like Twitter’s recently launched Topics, for example.

In August, Sara Haider, who had been heading up the design of Conversations on Twitter — a role that included running twttr —

she would be moving to a new team at the company. Meanwhile, Suzanne Xie, who had just joined Twitter by way of the Lightwell acquisition, stepped in to lead Conversations instead. She confirmed at the time that part of her role would be working with the twttr team to bring its best parts to the main Twitter app.

That work now appears to be underway.

Noted reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong spotted a conversation tree layout being developed on Twitter.com, identical to the one found on twttr.

And just this week, the feature was tweaked a bit more to include the ability to focus on a specific tweet, even from a permalink — also similar to twttr’s card-style layout, which highlights tweets you tap within a thread in the same way.

Wong wasn’t opted into an A/B test on Twitter.com to view this feature but rather found it through her investigative techniques, we understand.

Twitter confirmed what she found is part of the company’s broader plan to bring twttr’s features to Twitter — a rollout that will take place next year, a spokesperson said.

In addition, the company is considering how to use the twttr app to experiment with other features going forward, it says.

 

 


0

Brexit ad blitz data firm paid by Vote Leave broke privacy laws, watchdogs find

14:08 | 27 November

joint investigation by watchdogs in Canada and British Columbia has found that Cambridge Analytica-linked data firm, Aggregate IQ, broke privacy laws in Facebook ad-targeting work it undertook for the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

A quick reminder: Vote Leave was the official leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. While Cambridge Analytica is the (now defunct) firm at the center of a massive Facebook data misuse scandal which has dented the company’s fortunes and continues to tarnish its reputation.

Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings — now a special advisor to the UK prime minister — wrote in 2017 that the winning recipe for the leave campaign was data science. And, more specifically, spending 98% of its marketing budget on “nearly a billion targeted digital adverts”.

Targeted at Facebook users.

The problem is, per the Canadian watchdogs’ conclusions, AIQ did not have proper legal consents from UK voters for disclosing their personal information to Facebook for the Brexit ad blitz which Cummings ordered.

Either for “the purpose of advertising to those individuals (via ‘custom audiences’) or for the purpose of analyzing their traits and characteristics in order to locate and target others like them (via ‘lookalike audiences’)”.

Oops.

Last year the UK’s Electoral Commission also concluded that Vote Leave breached election campaign spending limits by channeling money to AIQ to run the targeting political ads on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with another Brexit campaign, BeLeave. So there’s a full sandwich of legal wrongdoings stuck to the brexit mess that UK society remains mired in, more than three years later.

Meanwhile, the current UK General Election is now a digital petri dish for data scientists and democracy hackers to run wild experiments in microtargeted manipulation — given election laws haven’t been updated to take account of the outgrowth of the adtech industry’s tracking and targeting infrastructure, despite multiple warnings from watchdogs and parliamentarians.

Data really is helluva a drug.

The Canadian investigation cleared AIQ of any wrongdoing in its use of phone numbers to send SMS messages for another pro-Brexit campaign, BeLeave; a purpose the watchdogs found had been authorized by the consent provided by individuals who gave their information to that youth-focused campaign.

But they did find consent problems with work AIQ undertook for various US campaigns on behalf of Cambridge Analytica affiliate, SCL Elections — including for a political action committee, a presidential primary campaign and various campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections.

And, again — as we know — Facebook is squarely in the frame here too.

“The investigation finds that the personal information provided to and used by AIQ comes from disparate sources. This includes psychographic profiles derived from personal information Facebook disclosed to Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, and onward to Cambridge Analytica,” the watchdogs write.

“In the case of their work for US campaigns… AIQ did not attempt to determine whether there was consent it could rely on for its use and disclosure of personal information.”

The investigation also looked at AIQ’s work for multiple Canadian campaigns — finding fewer issues related to consent. Though the report states that in: “certain cases, the purposes for which individuals are informed, or could reasonably assume their personal information is being collected, do not extend to social media advertising and analytics”.

AIQ also gets told off for failing to properly secure the data it misused.

This element of the probe resulted from a data breach reported by UpGuard after it found AIQ running an unsecured GitLab repository — holding what the report dubs “substantial personal information”, as well as encryption keys and login credentials which it says put the personal information of 35 million+ people at risk.

Double oops.

“The investigation determined that AIQ failed to take reasonable security measures to ensure that personal information under its control was secure from unauthorized access or disclosure,” is the inexorable conclusion.

Turns out if an entity doesn’t have a proper legal right to people’s information in the first place it may not be majorly concerned about where else the data might end up.

The report flows from an investigation into allegations of unauthorized access and use of Facebook user profiles which was started by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC in late 2017. A separate probe was opened by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last year. The two watchdogs subsequently combined their efforts.

The upshot for AIQ from the joint investigation’s finding of multiple privacy and security violations is a series of, er, “recommendations”.

On the data use front it is suggested the company take “reasonable measures” to ensure any third-party consent it relies on for collection, use or disclosure of personal information on behalf of clients is “adequate” under the relevant Canadian and BC privacy laws.

“These measures should include both contractual measures and other measures, such as reviewing the consent language used by the client,” the watchdogs suggest. “Where the information is sensitive, as with political opinions, AIQ should ensure there is express consent, rather than implied.”

On security, the recommendations are similarly for it to “adopt and maintain reasonable security measures to protect personal information, and that it delete personal information that is no longer necessary for business or legal purposes”.

“During the investigation, AIQ took steps to remedy its security breach. AIQ has agreed to implement the Offices’ recommendations,” the report adds.

The upshot of political ‘data science’ for Western democracies? That’s still tbc. Buckle up.

 


0

Hulu is down, and nobody’s sure why

19:45 | 24 November

Hulu is currently down.

We’re not sure why, and neither does Hulu. A stream of tweets complaining about the outage surfaced Sunday morning on the U.S. east coast. In response, Hulu’s Twitter support didn’t seem to know either, instead telling frustrated users that it’s looking into it.

Fantastic. Stay tuned for more. Or switch to Netflix instead.

 


0

Facebook prototypes Favorites for close friends microsharing

00:30 | 23 November

Facebook is building its own version of Instagram Close Friends, the company confirms to TechCrunch. There’s a lot people that don’t share on Facebook because it can feel risky or awkward since its definition of “friends” has swelled to include family, work colleagues, and distant acquaintances. No one wants their boss or grandma seeing their weekend partying or edgy memes. There are whole types of sharing, like Snapchat’s Snap Map-style live location tracking, that feel creepy to expose to such a wide audience.

The social network needs to get a handle on microsharing. Yet Facebook has tried and failed over the years to get people to build Friend Lists for posting to different subsets of their network.

Back in 2011 Facebook said that 95 percent of users hadn’t made a single list. So it tried tried auto-grouping people into Smart Lists like High School Friends and Co-Workers, and offered manual always-see-in-feed Close Friends and only-see-important-updates Acquaintances lists. But they too saw little traction and few product updates in the past 8 years. Facebook ended up shutting down Friend Lists Feeds last year for viewing what certain sets of friends shared.

Then a year ago, Instagram made a breakthrough. Instead of making a complicated array of Friend Lists you could never remember who was on, it made a single Close Friends list with a dedicated button for sharing to them from Stories. Instagram’s research had found 85% of a user’s Direct messages go to the same 3 people, so why not make that easier for Stories without pulling everyone into a group thread? Last month I wrote that “I’m surprised Facebook doesn’t already have its own Close Friends feature, and it’d be smart to build one.”

How Facebook Favorites Works

Now Facebook is in fact prototyping its version of Instagram Close Friends called Favorites. It lets users designate certain friends as Favorites, and then instantly post their Story from Facebook or Messenger to just those people instead of all their friends as is the default.

The feature was first spotted inside Messenger by reverse engineering master and frequent TechCrunch tipster

. Buried in the Android app is the code that let Wong generate the screenshots above of this unreleased feature. They show how when users go to share a Story from Messenger, Facebook offers to let users to post it to Favorites, and edit who’s on that list or add to it from algorithmic suggestions. Users in that Favorites list would then be the only recipients of that post within Stories, like with Instagram Close Friends.

 

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed to me that this feature is a prototype that the Messenger team created. It’s an early exploration of the microsharing opportunity, and the feature isn’t officially testing internally with employees or publicly in the wild. The spokesperson describes the Favorites feature as a type of shortcut for sharing to a specific set of people. They tell me that Facebook is always exploring new ways to share, and as discussed at its F8 conference this year, Facebook is focused on improving the experience of sharing with and staying more connected to your closest friends.

Unlocking Creepier Sharing

There are a ton of benefits Facebook could get from a Favorites feature if it ever launches. First, users might share more often if they can make content visible to just their best pals since those people wouldn’t get annoyed by over-posting. Second, Facebook could get new, more intimate types of content shared, from the heartfelt and vulnerable to the silly and spontaneous to the racy and shocking — stuff people don’t want every single person they’ve ever accepted a friend request from to see. Favorites could reduce self-censorship.

“No one has ever mastered a close friends graph and made it easy for people to understand . . . People get friend requests and they feel pressure to accept” Instagram director of product Robby Stein told me when it launched Close Friends last year. “The curve is actually that your sharing goes up and as you add more people initially, as more people can respond to you. But then there’s a point where it reduces sharing over time.” Google+, Path, and other apps have died chasing this purposefully selective microsharing behavior.

Facebook Favorites could stimulate lots of sharing of content unique to its network, thereby driving usage and ad views. After all, Facebook said it in April that it had 500 million daily Stories users across Facebook and Messenger, the same number as Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status.

Before Instagram launched Close Friends, it actually tested the feature under the name Favorites and allowed you to share feed posts as well as Stories to just that subset of people. And last month Instagram launched the Close Friends-only messaging app Threads that lets you share your Auto-Status about where or what you’re up to.

Facebook Favorites could similarly unlock whole new ways to connect. Facebook can’t follow some apps like Snapchat down more privacy-centric product paths because it knows users are already uneasy about it after 15 years of privacy scandals. Apps built for sharing to different graphs than Facebook have been some of the few social products that have succeeded outside its empire, from Twitter’s interest graph, to TikTok’s fandoms of public entertainment, to Snapchat’s messaging threads with besties.

Instagram Threads

A competent and popular Facebook Favorites could let it try products in location, memes, performances, Q&A, messaging, livestreaming, and more. It could build its own take on Instagram Threads, let people share exact location just with Favorites instead of just what neighborhood they’re in with Nearby Friends, or create a dedicated meme resharing hub like the LOL experiment for teens it shut down. At the very least, it could integrate with Instagram Close Friends so you could syndicate posts from Instagram to your Facebook Favorites.

The whole concept of Favorites aligns with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s privacy-focused vision for social networking. “Many people prefer the intimacy of communicating one-on-one or with just a few friends” he writes. Facebook can’t just be the general purpose catch-all social network we occasionally check for acquaintances’ broadcasted life updates. To survive another 15 years, it must be where people come back each day to get real with their dearest friends. Less can be more.

 


0

Amnesty International latest to slam surveillance giants Facebook and Google as “incompatible” with human rights

13:14 | 21 November

Human rights charity Amnesty International is the latest to call for reform of surveillance capitalism — blasting the business models of “surveillance giants” Facebook and Google in a new report which warns the pair’s market dominating platforms are “enabling human rights harm at a population scale”.

“[D]despite the real value of the services they provide, Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost,” Amnesty warns. “The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.”

“This isn’t the internet people signed up for,” it adds.

What’s most striking about the report is the familiarly of the arguments. There is now a huge weight of consensus criticism around surveillance-based decision-making — from Apple’s own Tim Cook through scholars such as Shoshana Zuboff and

to the United Nations — that’s itself been fed by a steady stream of reportage of the individual and societal harms flowing from platforms’ pervasive and consentless capturing and hijacking of people’s information for ad-based manipulation and profit.

This core power asymmetry is maintained and topped off by self-serving policy positions which at best fiddle around the edges of an inherently anti-humanitarian system. While platforms have become practiced in dark arts PR — offering, at best, a pantomime ear to the latest data-enabled outrage that’s making headlines, without ever actually changing the underlying system. That surveillance capitalism’s abusive modus operandi is now inspiring governments to follow suit — aping the approach by developing their own data-driven control systems to straitjacket citizens — is exceptionally chilling.

But while the arguments against digital surveillance are now very familiar what’s still sorely lacking is an effective regulatory response to force reform of what is at base a moral failure — and one that’s been allowed to scale so big it’s attacking the democratic underpinnings of Western society.

“Google and Facebook have established policies and processes to address their impacts on privacy and freedom of expression – but evidently, given that their surveillance-based business model undermines the very essence of the right to privacy and poses a serious risk to a range of other rights, the companies are not taking a holistic approach, nor are they questioning whether their current business models themselves can be compliant with their responsibility to respect human rights,” Amnesty writes.

“The abuse of privacy that is core to Facebook and Google’s surveillance-based business model is starkly demonstrated by the companies’ long history of privacy scandals. Despite the companies’ assurances over their commitment to privacy, it is difficult not to see these numerous privacy infringements as part of the normal functioning of their business, rather than aberrations.”

Needless to say Facebook and Google do not agree with Amnesty’s assessment. But, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

Amnesty’s report notes there is now a whole surveillance industry feeding this beast — from adtech players to data brokers — while pointing out that the dominance of Facebook and Google, aka the adtech duopoly, over “the primary channels that most of the world relies on to engage with the internet” is itself another harm, as it lends the pair of surveillance giants “unparalleled power over people’s lives online”.

“The power of Google and Facebook over the core platforms of the internet poses unique risks for human rights,” it warns. “For most people it is simply not feasible to use the internet while avoiding all Google and Facebook services. The dominant internet platforms are no longer ‘optional’ in many societies, and using them is a necessary part of participating in modern life.”

Amnesty concludes that it is “now evident that the era of self-regulation in the tech sector is coming to an end” — saying further state-based regulation will be necessary. Its call there is for legislators to follow a human rights-based approach to rein in surveillance giants.

You can read the report in full here (PDF).

 


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Twitter launches a way to report abusive use of its Lists feature

23:29 | 18 November

Like many things found on today’s social media platforms, Twitter’s Lists feature was introduced without thinking about the impact it could have on marginalized groups, or how it could be otherwise be used for abuse or surveillance if put in the hands of bad actors. Today, Twitter is taking a step to address that problem with the launch of a new reporting feature that specifically addresses the abusive use of Twitter Lists.

The feature is launching first on iOS today, and will come soon to Android and the web, Twitter says.

Similar to reporting an abusive tweet, Twitter users will tap on the three-dot icon next to the List in question, and then choose “Report.” From the next screen, you’ll select “It’s abusive or harmful.” Twitter will also ask for additional information at that point and will send an email confirming receipt of the report along with other recommendations as to how to manage your Twitter experience.

Twitter Lists have been abused for years, as they became another way to target and harass people — particularly women and other minority groups. They were particularly useful as a way to avoid being banned for abusive tweets, as Twitter took no notice of Lists.

Twitter has been aware of the problem for years, noted CNBC in an exposé that ran over the summer.

Back in 2017, Twitter said it would no longer notify users when they’ve been added to a list — an attempt to cut back on what were very often upsetting notifications. It then reversed the decision after people argued that notifications were how they learned what sort of harmful lists they had been added to in the first place.

Despite Twitter’s understanding of how Lists were abused, there have not been any good tools for getting an abusive list removed from Twitter itself — users could only block the list’s creator.

Twitter has admitted that despite the availability of its reporting tools and the increasing speed with which it handles abuse reports, there’s still too much pressure on people to flag abuse for themselves. The company says it wants to figure out how to be more proactive — today, the majority is not flagged by technology (only 38% is), but by reports from users.

This problem and all the many like it have to do with who’s built our social media tools in the first place.

Twitter, like other tech companies, has struggled with a lack of diversity which means there’s a large lack of understanding about how features could be twisted to be used in ways no one intended. Though Twitter’s diversity metrics have been improving, Twitter as of this spring was 40.2% female, but just 4.5% black, and 3.9% Latinx.

The other issue with Twitter — and social media in general — is that there’s some distance between the abuser and the victim of harassment. The latter is often not seen as a real person, but rather a placeholder meant to absorb someone’s malcontent, outrage, or hatred. And thanks to the platform’s anonymity, there are no real-world consequences for bad behavior on Twitter the way there would be if those same hateful things were said in a public place — like in a community setting such as your local church or social group, or in your workplace.

Finally, Twitter’s trend toward pithiness has led to it becoming a place to be sarcastic, cynical, and witty-at-others-expense — a trend that’s driven by a prolific but small crowd of Twitter users. The goal has very much been to “perform” on Twitter, and accumulate likes and retweets along the way.

Twitter says the new feature is rolling out now to iOS.

 

 


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