Policy

Watch Google CEO Sundar Pichai testify in Congress — on bias, China and more

Posted by | algorithmic accountability, Android, artificial intelligence, bias, China, Google, Government, House Judiciary Committee, Policy, Social, Sundar Pichai, United States | No Comments

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has managed to avoid the public political grillings that have come for tech leaders at Facebook and Twitter this year. But not today.

Today he will be in front of the House Judiciary committee for a hearing entitled: Transparency & Accountability: Examining Google and its Data Collection, Use and Filtering Practices.

The hearing kicks off at 10:00 ET — and will be streamed live via our YouTube channel (with the feed also embedded above in this post).

Announcing the hearing last month, committee chairman Bob Goodlatte said it would “examine potential bias and the need for greater transparency regarding the filtering practices of tech giant Google”.

Republicans have been pressuring the Silicon Valley giant over what they claim is ‘liberal bias’ embedded at the algorithmic level.

This summer President Trump publicly lashed out at Google, expressing displeasure about news search results for his name in a series of tweets in which he claimed: “Google & others are suppressing voices of Conservatives and hiding information and news that is good.”

Google rejected the allegation, responding then that: “Search is not used to set a political agenda and we don’t bias our results toward any political ideology.”

In his prepared remarks ahead of the hearing, Pichai reiterates this point.

“I lead this company without political bias and work to ensure that our products continue to operate that way. To do otherwise would go against our core principles and our business interests,” he writes. “We are a company that provides platforms for diverse perspectives and opinions—and we have no shortage of them among our own employees.”

He also seeks to paint a picture of Google as a proudly patriotic “American company” — playing up its role as a creator of local jobs and a bolster for the wider US economy, likely in the hopes of defusing some of the expected criticism from conservatives on the committee.

However his statement makes no mention of a separate controversy that’s been dogging Google this year — after news leaked this summer that it had developed a censored version of its search service for a potential relaunch in China.

The committee looks certain to question Google closely on its intentions vis-a-vis China.

In statements ahead of the hearing last month, House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, flagged up reports he said suggested Google is “compromising its core principles by complying with repressive censorship mandates from China”.

Trust in general is a key theme, with lawmakers expressing frustration at both the opacity of Google’s blackbox algorithms, which ultimately shape content hierarchies on its platforms, and the difficulty they’ve had in getting facetime with its CEO to voice questions and concerns.

At a Senate Intelligence committee hearing three months ago, which was attended by Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, senators did not hide their anger that Pichai had turned down their invitation — openly ripping into company leaders for not bothering to show up. (Google offered to send its chief legal officer instead.)

“For months, House Republicans have called for greater transparency and openness from Google. Company CEO Sundar Pichai met with House Republicans in September to answer some of our questions. Mr. Pichai’s scheduled appearance in front of the House Judiciary Committee is another important step to restoring public trust in Google and all the companies that shape the Internet,” McCarthy wrote last month.

Other recent news that could inform additional questions for Pichai from the committee include the revelation of yet another massive security breach at Google+; and a New York Times investigation of how mobile apps are location tracking users — with far more Android apps found to contain location-sharing code than iOS apps.

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Seized cache of Facebook docs raise competition and consent questions

Posted by | Android, api, competition, Damian Collins, data protection law, DCMS committee, Developer, Europe, european union, Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Onavo, Policy, privacy, Six4Three, Social, social network, terms of service, United Kingdom, vpn | No Comments

A UK parliamentary committee has published the cache of Facebook documents it dramatically seized last week.

The documents were obtained by a legal discovery process by a startup that’s suing the social network in a California court in a case related to Facebook changing data access permissions back in 2014/15.

The court had sealed the documents but the DCMS committee used rarely deployed parliamentary powers to obtain them from the Six4Three founder, during a business trip to London.

You can read the redacted documents here — all 250 pages of them.

In a series of tweets regarding the publication, committee chair Damian Collins says he believes there is “considerable public interest” in releasing them.

“They raise important questions about how Facebook treats users data, their policies for working with app developers, and how they exercise their dominant position in the social media market,” he writes.

“We don’t feel we have had straight answers from Facebook on these important issues, which is why we are releasing the documents. We need a more public debate about the rights of social media users and the smaller businesses who are required to work with the tech giants. I hope that our committee investigation can stand up for them.”

The committee has been investigating online disinformation and election interference for the best part of this year, and has been repeatedly frustrated in its attempts to extract answers from Facebook.

But it is protected by parliamentary privilege — hence it’s now published the Six4Three files, having waited a week in order to redact certain pieces of personal information.

Collins has included a summary of key issues, as the committee sees them after reviewing the documents, in which he draws attention to six issues.

Here is his summary of the key issues:

  • White Lists Facebook have clearly entered into whitelisting agreements with certain companies, which meant that after the platform changes in 2014/15 they maintained full access to friends data. It is not clear that there was any user consent for this, nor how Facebook decided which companies should be whitelisted or not.

Facebook responded

  • Value of friends data It is clear that increasing revenues from major app developers was one of the key drivers behind the Platform 3.0 changes at Facebook. The idea of linking access to friends data to the financial value of the developers relationship with Facebook is a recurring feature of the documents.

In their response Facebook contends that this was essentially another “cherrypicked” topic and that the company “ultimately settled on a model where developers did not need to purchase advertising to access APIs and we continued to provide the developer platform for free.”

  • Reciprocity Data reciprocity between Facebook and app developers was a central feature in the discussions about the launch of Platform 3.0.
  • Android Facebook knew that the changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user would be controversial. To mitigate any bad PR, Facebook planned to make it as hard of possible for users to know that this was one of the underlying features of the upgrade of their app.
  • Onavo Facebook used Onavo to conduct global surveys of the usage of mobile apps by customers, and apparently without their knowledge. They used this data to assess not just how many people had downloaded apps, but how often they used them. This knowledge helped them to decide which companies to acquire, and which to treat as a threat.
  • Targeting competitor Apps The files show evidence of Facebook taking aggressive positions against apps, with the consequence that denying them access to data led to the failure of that business.

Update: 11:40am

Facebook has posted a lengthy response (read it here) positing that the “set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.” They give a blow-by-blow response to Collins’ points below though they are ultimately pretty selective in what they actually address.

Generally they suggest that some of the issues being framed as anti-competitive were in fact designed to prevent “sketchy apps” from operating on the platform. Furthermore, Facebook details that they delete some old call logs on Android, that using “market research” data from Onava is essentially standard practice and that users had the choice whether data was shared reciprocally between FB and developers. In regard to specific competitors’ apps, Facebook appears to have tried to get ahead of this release with their announcement yesterday that it was ending its platform policy of banning apps that “replicate core functionality.” 

The publication of the files comes at an awkward moment for Facebook — which remains on the back foot after a string of data and security scandals, and has just announced a major policy change — ending a long-running ban on apps copying its own platform features.

Albeit the timing of Facebook’s policy shift announcement hardly looks incidental — given Collins said last week the committee would publish the files this week.

The policy in question has been used by Facebook to close down competitors in the past, such as — two years ago — when it cut off style transfer app Prisma’s access to its live-streaming Live API when the startup tried to launch a livestreaming art filter (Facebook subsequently launched its own style transfer filters for Live).

So its policy reversal now looks intended to diffuse regulatory scrutiny around potential antitrust concerns.

But emails in the Six4Three files suggesting that Facebook took “aggressive positions” against competing apps could spark fresh competition concerns.

In one email dated January 24, 2013, a Facebook staffer, Justin Osofsky, discusses Twitter’s launch of its short video clip app, Vine, and says Facebook’s response will be to close off its API access.

As part of their NUX, you can find friends via FB. Unless anyone raises objections, we will shut down their friends API access today. We’ve prepared reactive PR, and I will let Jana know our decision,” he writes. 

Osofsky’s email is followed by what looks like a big thumbs up from Zuckerberg, who replies: “Yup, go for it.”

Also of concern on the competition front is Facebook’s use of a VPN startup it acquired, Onavo, to gather intelligence on competing apps — either for acquisition purposes or to target as a threat to its business.

The files show various Onavo industry charts detailing reach and usage of mobile apps and social networks — with each of these graphs stamped ‘highly confidential’.

Facebook bought Onavo back in October 2013. Shortly after it shelled out $19BN to acquire rival messaging app WhatsApp — which one Onavo chart in the cache indicates was beasting Facebook on mobile, accounting for well over double the daily message sends at that time.

Onavo charts are quite an insight into facebook’s commanding view of the app-based attention marketplace pic.twitter.com/Ezdaxk6ffC

— David Carroll 🦅 (@profcarroll) December 5, 2018

The files also spotlight several issues of concern relating to privacy and data protection law, with internal documents raising fresh questions over how or even whether (in the case of Facebook’s whitelisting agreements with certain developers) it obtained consent from users to process their personal data.

The company is already facing a number of privacy complaints under the EU’s GDPR framework over its use of ‘forced consent‘, given that it does not offer users an opt-out from targeted advertising.

But the Six4Three files look set to pour fresh fuel on the consent fire.

Collins’ fourth line item — related to an Android upgrade — also speaks loudly to consent complaints.

Earlier this year Facebook was forced to deny that it collects calls and SMS data from users of its Android apps without permission. But, as we wrote at the time, it had used privacy-hostile design tricks to sneak expansive data-gobbling permissions past users. So, put simple, people clicked ‘agree’ without knowing exactly what they were agreeing to.

The Six4Three files back up the notion that Facebook was intentionally trying to mislead users.

In one email dated November 15, 2013, from Matt Scutari, manager privacy and public policy, suggests ways to prevent users from choosing to set a higher level of privacy protection, writing: “Matt is providing policy feedback on a Mark Z request that Product explore the possibility of making the Only Me audience setting unsticky. The goal of this change would be to help users avoid inadvertently posting to the Only Me audience. We are encouraging Product to explore other alternatives, such as more aggressive user education or removing stickiness for all audience settings.”

Another awkward trust issue for Facebook which the documents could stir up afresh relates to its repeat claim — including under questions from lawmakers — that it does not sell user data.

In one email from the cache — sent by Mark Zuckerberg, dated October 7, 2012 — the Facebook founder appears to be entertaining the idea of charging developers for “reading anything, including friends”.

Yet earlier this year, when he was asked by a US lawmaker how Facebook makes money, Zuckerberg replied: “Senator, we sell ads.”

He did not include a caveat that he had apparently personally entertained the idea of liberally selling access to user data.

Responding to the publication of the Six4Three documents, a Facebook spokesperson told us:

As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for their baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. We stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Like any business, we had many of internal conversations about the various ways we could build a sustainable business model for our platform. But the facts are clear: we’ve never sold people’s data.

Zuckerberg has repeatedly refused to testify in person to the DCMS committee.

At its last public hearing — which was held in the form of a grand committee comprising representatives from nine international parliaments, all with burning questions for Facebook — the company sent its policy VP, Richard Allan, leaving an empty chair where Zuckerberg’s bum should be.

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Facebook ends platform policy banning apps that copy its features

Posted by | Apps, Developer, Facebook, facebook platform, Facebook Policy, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook will now freely allow developers to build competitors to its features upon its own platform. Today Facebook announced it will drop Platform Policy section 4.1, which stipulates “Add something unique to the community. Don’t replicate core functionality that Facebook already provides.”

That policy felt pretty disingenuous given how aggressively Facebook has replicated everyone else’s core functionality, from Snapchat to Twitter and beyond. Facebook had previously enforced the policy selectively to hurt competitors that had used its Find Friends or viral distribution features. Apps like Vine, Voxer, MessageMe, Phhhoto and more had been cut off from Facebook’s platform for too closely replicating its video, messaging or GIF creation tools. Find Friends is a vital API that lets users find their Facebook friends within other apps.

The move will significantly reduce the risk of building on the Facebook platform. It could also cast it in a better light in the eyes of regulators. Anyone seeking ways Facebook abuses its dominance will lose a talking point. And by creating a more fair and open platform where developers can build without fear of straying too close to Facebook’s history or road map, it could reinvigorate its developer ecosystem.

A Facebook spokesperson provided this statement to TechCrunch:

We built our developer platform years ago to pave the way for innovation in social apps and services. At that time we made the decision to restrict apps built on top of our platform that replicated our core functionality. These kind of restrictions are common across the tech industry with different platforms having their own variant including YouTube, Twitter, Snap and Apple. We regularly review our policies to ensure they are both protecting people’s data and enabling useful services to be built on our platform for the benefit of the Facebook community. As part of our ongoing review we have decided that we will remove this out of date policy so that our platform remains as open as possible. We think this is the right thing to do as platforms and technology develop and grow.

The change comes after Facebook locked down parts of its platform in April for privacy and security reasons in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Diplomatically, Facebook said it didn’t expect the change to impact its standing with regulators but it’s open to answering their questions.

Earlier in April, I wrote a report on how Facebook used Policy 4.1 to attack competitors it saw gaining traction. The article, “Facebook shouldn’t block you from finding friends on competitors,” advocated for Facebook to make its social graph more portable and interoperable so users could decamp to competitors if they felt they weren’t treated right in order to coerce Facebook to act better.

The policy change will apply retroactively. Old apps that lost Find Friends or other functionality will be able to submit their app for review and, once approved, will regain access.

Friend lists still can’t be exported in a truly interoperable way. But at least now Facebook has enacted the spirit of that call to action. Developers won’t be in danger of losing access to that Find Friends Facebook API for treading in its path.

Below is an excerpt from our previous reporting on how Facebook has previously enforced Platform Policy 4.1 that before today’s change was used to hamper competitors:

  • Voxer was one of the hottest messaging apps of 2012, climbing the charts and raising a $30 million round with its walkie-talkie-style functionality. In early January 2013, Facebook copied Voxer by adding voice messaging into Messenger. Two weeks later, Facebook cut off Voxer’s Find Friends access. Voxer CEO Tom Katis told me at the time that Facebook stated his app with tens of millions of users was a “competitive social network” and wasn’t sharing content back to Facebook. Katis told us he thought that was hypocritical. By June, Voxer had pivoted toward business communications, tumbling down the app charts and leaving Facebook Messenger to thrive.
  • MessageMe had a well-built chat app that was growing quickly after launching in 2013, posing a threat to Facebook Messenger. Shortly before reaching 1 million users, Facebook cut off MessageMe‘s Find Friends access. The app ended up selling for a paltry double-digit millions price tag to Yahoo before disintegrating.
  • Phhhoto and its fate show how Facebook’s data protectionism encompasses Instagram. Phhhoto’s app that let you shoot animated GIFs was growing popular. But soon after it hit 1 million users, it got cut off from Instagram’s social graph in April 2015. Six months later, Instagram launched Boomerang, a blatant clone of Phhhoto. Within two years, Phhhoto shut down its app, blaming Facebook and Instagram. “We watched [Instagram CEO Kevin] Systrom and his product team quietly using PHHHOTO almost a year before Boomerang was released. So it wasn’t a surprise at all . . . I’m not sure Instagram has a creative bone in their entire body.”
  • Vine had a real shot at being the future of short-form video. The day the Twitter-owned app launched, though, Facebook shut off Vine’s Find Friends access. Vine let you share back to Facebook, and its six-second loops you shot in the app were a far cry from Facebook’s heavyweight video file uploader. Still, Facebook cut it off, and by late 2016, Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine.

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New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission approves minimum wage rules for app-based drivers

Posted by | gig economy, Lyft, Mobile, Policy, Startups, Transportation, Uber | No Comments

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission has approved new rules designed to provide a minimum hourly wage of $17.22 (after expenses) for drivers who work with app-based services like Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno.

Fast Company reports that the rules try to deliver that wage by requiring drivers be paid according to a formula that incorporates mileage, time and utilization rate (the average percentage of time drivers have passengers in their cars). They also call for a higher payment when drivers have to take passengers far outside the city (to compensate for them for the return trip).

A proposed bonus payment for drivers offering Uber Pool and other shared-ride options appears to have been removed from the rules.

The Independent Drivers Guild, a labor organization that advocates for drivers, has been advocating for these changes, and it praised the TLC vote in a press release.

“Today we brought desperately needed relief to 80,000 working families,” said IDG founder Jim Conigliaro, Jr. “All workers deserve the protection of a fair, livable wage and we are proud to be setting the new bar for contractor workers’ rights in America. We are thankful to the Mayor, Commissioner [Meera] Joshi and the Taxi and Limousine Commission, City Council Member Brad Lander and all of the city officials who listened to and stood up for drivers.”

And The New York Taxi Workers Alliance issued a statement from Executive Director Bhairavi Desai:

It’s the first real attempt anywhere to stop app driver pay cuts, which is an Uber and Lyft business practice at the heart of poverty wages … Ultimately, the TLC needs to regulate Uber and Lyft passenger rates, guarantee that app drivers get 80 percent of those rates, and regulate the yellow/green meter to charge the same minimum rates, so drivers across the industry can earn a raise.

Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, criticized the decision, though with careful wording emphasizing that the companies aren’t opposed to ensuring that drivers receive a living wage.

“Uber supports efforts to ensure that full-time drivers in NYC – whether driving with taxi, limo or Uber – are able to make a living wage, without harming outer borough riders who have been ignored by yellow taxi and underserved by mass transit,” said Uber Director of Public Affairs Jason Post in a statement. “The TLC’s implementation of the City Council’s legislation to increase driver earnings will lead to higher than necessary fare increases for riders while missing an opportunity to deal with congestion in Manhattan’s central business district.”

Post argued that the rules do not account for the bonuses and other incentive payments that Uber and other companies might make. He criticized the TLC for adopting “an industry-wide utilization rate that does not hold bases accountable for keeping cars full with paying passengers.”

And here’s the statement from Lyft:

Lyft believes all drivers should earn a livable wage and we are committed to helping drivers reach their goals. Unfortunately, the TLC’s proposed pay rules will undermine competition by allowing certain companies to pay drivers lower wages, and disincentive drivers from giving rides to and from areas outside Manhattan. These rules would be a step backward for New Yorkers, and we urge the TLC to reconsider them.

Specifically Lyft says that companies would be able to essentially pay drivers less by claiming a higher utilization rate than the industry average. It also says that it will be nearly impossible to implement the higher out-of-town payment rates in the 30-day window before the new rules take effect.

Update: You can read the new Driver Income and Transparency Rules here.

“Convenience costs, and going forward, that cost will no longer be borne by the driver,” said TLC Chair Meera Joshi in a statement. “Today’s rules will raise driver earnings by on average $10,000 a year and require companies to be completely transparent on how they calculate pay and car leasing costs.”

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Facebook exempts news outlets from political ads transparency labels

Posted by | ad transparency, Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Government, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook pissed off journalists earlier this year when it announced that ads run by news publishers to promote their articles involving elected officials, candidates and national issues would have to sport “paid for by…” labels and be included alongside political campaign ads in its ads transparency archive that launched in June, albeit in a separate section. The News Media Alliance — representing 2,000 newspapers, including The New York Times and NewsCorp, plus other new organizations — sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg in June protesting their inclusion. They claimed it would blur the lines between propaganda and journalism, and asked Facebook to exempt news publishers.

Now Facebook has granted that exception. Next year once Facebook has figured out more ways to verify legitimate news organizations that publish with bylines and dates, cite sources and don’t have a history of having stories flagged as false by third-party fact checkers, they’ll no longer have their U.S. ads appear in the Ads Archive. They also won’t have to carry a “Paid for by…” label when they appear in the News Feed or Instagram. News organizations will still have to verify their identity, but not through the political ads process. This exemption will roll out today in the U.K.

The change will also allow news outlets to run “dark post” ads that target specific users but don’t appear on their Pages. This will allow them to secretly test different ad variants without being exposed to potential criticism or competitors looking to copy their ad strategies.

Facebook’s political ads archive of campaign ads will no longer include publications promoting articles about politics or issues

Facebook will be using its recently built news publisher index to which outlets can apply to decide which ad buyers are exempt. That index is up and running in the U.S. and will expand to other countries, but Facebook still wants to build more safeguards against fake news outlets before starting the exemption in the U.S. For now, Facebook is using a third-party list of legitimate U.K. news outlets that’ll be exempted starting today. Jason Kint of publishers association Digital Content Next tells TechCrunch, “We are pleased that Facebook understands and values the important role of news organizations. We have worked cooperatively with Twitter who understood this from the beginning. We look forward to working in a similar fashion with Facebook.”

Facebook’s “Paid for by…” labels will no longer appear on news publishers’ ads on Facebook or Instagram

The change comes as Facebook rolls out enforcement of its political ads transparency rules in the U.K. today. “Now political advertisers must confirm their identity and location, as well as say who paid for the ad, before they can be approved to run political ads on Facebook and/or Instagram,” Facebook tells TechCrunch. These ads will also feature the “Paid for by…” label. Facebook hoped that by self-regulating ads transparency, it might avoid more heavy-handed government regulation, such as through the U.S.’s proposed Honest Ads Act that would bring internet political advertising to parity with transparency rules for television commercials.

The hope is that by determining who is paying for these ads, properly labeling them and exempting journalists, Facebook will be able to better track foreign misinformation campaigns and election interference. Meanwhile, users will have a better understanding of who’s funding the political and issue ads they see on Facebook.

[Update: This story has been updated to reflect that the news publisher exemption won’t roll out for U.S. outlets until next year.]

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Facebook staff discussed selling API access to apps in 2012-2014

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, facebook privacy, Mobile, Policy, privacy, Social, TC, Tinder | No Comments

Following a flopped IPO in 2012, Facebook desperately brainstormed new ways to earn money. An employee of unknown rank sent an internal email suggesting Facebook charge developers $250,000 per year for access to its platform APIs for making apps that can ask users for access to their data. Employees also discussed offering Tinder extended access to users’ friends’ data that was being removed from the platform in exchange for Tinder’s trademark on “Moments”, which Facebook wanted to use for a photo sharing app it later launched. Facebook decided against selling access to the API, and did not strike a deal with Tinder or other companies including Amazon and Royal Bank Of Canada mentioned in employee emails.

The discussions were reported by the Wall Street Journal as being part of a sealed court document its reporters had reviewed from a lawsuit by bikini photo finding app developer Six4Three against Facebook alleging anti-competitive practices in how it changed the platform in 2014 to restrict access to friends’ data through the platform.

The biggest question remaining is how high in rank the employees who discussed these ideas were. If the ideas were seriously considered by high-ranking executives, especially CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the revelation could contradict the company’s long-running philosophy on not selling data access. Zuckerberg told congress in April that “I can’t be clearer on this topic: We don’t sell data.” If the discussion was between low-level employees, it may have been little more than an off-hand suggestion as Facebook was throwing ideas against the wall, and may have been rejected or ignored by higher-ups. But either way, now that the discussion has leaked, it could validate the public’s biggest fears about Facebook and whether it’s a worthy steward of our personal data.

An employee emailed others about the possibility of removing platform API access “in one-go to all apps that don’t spend… at least $250k a year to maintain access to the data”, the document shows. Facebook clarified to TechCrunch that these discussions were regarding API access, and not selling data directly to businesses. The fact that the discussions were specifically about API access, which Facebook continues to give away for free to developers, had not been previously reported.

Facebook provided this full statement to TechCrunch:

“As we’ve said many times, the documents Six4Three gathered for this baseless case are only part of the story and are presented in a way that is very misleading without additional context. Evidence has been sealed by a California court so we are not able to disprove every false accusation. That said, we stand by the platform changes we made in 2015 to stop a person from sharing their friends’ data with developers. Any short-term extensions granted during this platform transition were to prevent the changes from breaking user experience. To be clear, Facebook has never sold anyone’s data. Our APIs have always been free of charge and we have never required developers to pay for using them, either directly or by buying advertising.”

A half decade-later, with the world’s will turned against Facebook, the discussions of selling data access couldn’t come at a worse time for the company. Even if quickly aborted, the idea could now stoke concerns that Facebook has too much power and too much of our personal information. While the company eventually found other money-makers and became highly profitable, the discussions illuminate how Facebook could potentially exploit people’s data more aggressively if it deemed it necessary.

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Facebook must police Today In, its local news digest launching in 400 cities

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Facebook Fake News, Facebook Journalism Project, Facebook Local News, Facebook News Feed, Facebook Policy, Facebook Today In, Government, Media, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Facebook has a new area of its app it will have to police for fake news and biased sensationalism. Facebook is launching “Today In”, its local news aggregator it began testing in January, in 400 small to medium-sized US cities. It’s also now testing it in its first overseas spot in Australia. iOS and Android users can open the Today In bookmark or opt in to getting digests of its local news in their feed. The feature includes previews that link out to news sites about top headlines, current discussions, school announcements and more.

“We have a number of misinformation filters in place to ensure that fake news and clickbait does not surface on Today In. We also provide people the ability to report suspicious content on Facebook and within Today In specifically” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “The misinformation filters are the same across Facebook that we’ve previously talked about – downranking clickbait, ratings from third-party fact checkers” they said. However, “the content in the surface is pulled by algorithm”, so there’s always a chance that problematic content slips through. For now, there will be no ads in Today In.

 

 

Facebook is also now testing Local Alerts with 100 local government and first responder Pages that can be issued to inform citizens about urgent issues or emergencies, such as where to take shelter from a hurricane. The Local Alerts are delivered via News Feed, Today In, and Pages can also target users with notifications about them. Again, while Facebook may be vetting which Pages get access to the Local Alerts feature, it must closely monitor to make sure they’re using it to provide vital info to their communities rather than just grab traffic at sensitive moments.

Facebook is hoping to fill a void after surveys found 50 percent of users wanted more local news through Facebook. It previously tested Today In with New Orleans, La.; Little Rock, Ark.; Billings, Mont.; Peoria, Ill.; Olympia, Wash.; and Binghamton, N.Y. The feature could give local outlets a referral traffic boost that could help offset the fact that Facebook has drained ad dollars from journalism into its own News Feed ads. And to make sure “news deserts” without enough local outlets still have robust Today In sections, Facebook will collect headlines from surrounding areas.

But the launch also opens up a new vector for policy issues, and it’s curious that Facebook would push forward on this given all its policy troubles as of late. It will have to ensure that Today In only aggregates content from reliable and fact-focused local outlets and doesn’t end up peddling fake news. But that in turn could open it to criticism suggesting it’s biased against fringe political outlets that believe their clickbait is the real story.

Users who want to check if they have access to Today In can visit this interactive map. The list includes Facebook’s hometown of Menlo Park and nearby Oakland, but not San Francisco. It’s also skipping big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. in favor of places like Mobile, Alabama; and Provo, Utah.

To find the mobile-only feature in Facebook (there’s no desktop version), users will hit the three-line “More” hamburger button and scroll down looking for “Today In [their city]”. Otherwise, they may stumble across one of its digests showing the headlines, thumbnail images, and publications for three of the biggest local news stories.

After tapping through or opening the Today In bookmark, they’ll be able to horizontally swipe through different sections like In The News that features recent stories and can be toggled to display sports. As per usual, Facebook isn’t above promoting its own content, like user and Page News Feed posts discussing local topics, Groups you could join, or Events you could RSVP to. Once you hit the end of a daily edition, you’ll see a “You’re all caught up” notice, similar to Instagram’s feature designed to keep you from over-scrolling.

Facebook infamously turned away from news in favor of content from friends at the start of 2018, precipitating a significant decline in News Feed reach and referral traffic for links to articles. That left a lot of outlets feeling burned, as many had staffed up thanks to the that flow of traffic and the ad dollars it generated. Now some are having to lay off journalists, especially those making video content that Facebook also dialed down.

By resurfacing local news, Facebook could help strengthen ties in local communities as part of its new mission statement to “bring the world closer together”. But if that news contains heavy partisan bias or hypes up nothingburgers, it could lead to more polarization. Facebook already has trouble finding enough third-party fact checkers to verify viral news stories. Now it may expose itself to even more liability to be the arbiter of truth now that it’s fragmented the news space into hundreds of distinct digests.

This conundrum will play out again and again. Facebook wants to keep pushing forward with product launches it thinks can help society, but it in turn takes on even greater responsibility to protect us that it hasn’t proven it deserves.

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Tech giants offer empty apologies because users can’t quit

Posted by | Amazon, Apple, Apps, Cambridge Analytica, Drama, Elliot Schrage, Facebook, Facebook Policy, facebook privacy, GDPR, Google, Government, Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft, Mobile, Policy, privacy, project maven, Security, Social, Talent, TC | No Comments

A true apology consists of a sincere acknowledgement of wrong-doing, a show of empathic remorse for why you wronged and the harm it caused, and a promise of restitution by improving ones actions to make things right. Without the follow-through, saying sorry isn’t an apology, it’s a hollow ploy for forgiveness.

That’s the kind of “sorry” we’re getting from tech giants — an attempt to quell bad PR and placate the afflicted, often without the systemic change necessary to prevent repeated problems. Sometimes it’s delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s in an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it in the form of change to the underlying structures of a business that caused the issue.

Intractable Revenue

Unfortunately, tech company business models often conflict with the way we wish they would act. We want more privacy but they thrive on targeting and personalization data. We want control of our attention but they subsist on stealing as much of it as possible with distraction while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us but they make their margins by manufacturing them wherever’s cheap with questionable standards of labor and oversight. We want groundbreaking technologies to be responsibly applied, but juicy government contracts and the allure of China’s enormous population compromise their morals. And we want to stick to what we need and what’s best for us, but they monetize our craving for the latest status symbol or content through planned obsolescence and locking us into their platforms.

The result is that even if their leaders earnestly wanted to impart meaningful change to provide restitution for their wrongs, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and go right back to problematic behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, yet the social network keeps experiencing fiasco after fiasco. Tech giants won’t improve enough on their own.

Addiction To Utility

The threat of us abandoning ship should theoretically hold the captains in line. But tech giants have evolved into fundamental utilities that many have a hard time imagining living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you needed? Get work done? Spend your time? What hardware or software would you cuddle up with in the moments you feel lonely? We live our lives through tech, have become addicted to its utility, and fear the withdrawal.

If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But the scalability, network effects, and aggregation of supply by distributors has led to near monopolies in these core utilities. The second-place solution is often distant. What’s the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that isn’t owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile and PC maker behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best ecommerce hub that’s not Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?

Facebook is still growing in the US & Canada despite the backlash, proving that tech users aren’t voting with their feet. And if not for a calculation methodology change, it would have added 1 million users in Europe this quarter too.

One of the few tech backlashes that led to real flight was #DeleteUber. Workplace discrimination, shady business protocols, exploitative pricing and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the ridehailing app. But what was different here is that US Uber users did have a principled alternative to switch to without much hassle: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefitted tremendously from Uber’s troubles in 2018” eMarketer’s forecasting director Shelleen Shum told the USA Today in May. Uber missed eMarketer’s projections while Lyft exceeded them, narrowing the gap between the car services. And meanwhile, Uber’s CEO stepped down as it tried to overhaul its internal policies.

This is why we need regulation that promotes competition by preventing massive mergers and giving users the right to interoperable data portability so they can easily switch away from companies that treat them poorly

But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these mainstays is inconvenient. After all, they’re the ones that made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic cultures, and unfair practices, we largely stick with them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the US and Canada last quarter despite seemingly every possible source of unrest. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We’ve proven we can harbor ill will towards the giants while begrudgingly buying and using their products. Our leverage to improve their behavior is vastly weakened by our loyalty.

Inadequate Oversight

Regulators have failed to adequately step up either. This year’s congressional hearings about Facebook and social media often devolved into inane and uninformed questioning like how does Facebook earn money if its doesn’t charge? “Senator, we run ads” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said with a smirk. Other times, politicians were so intent on scoring partisan points by grandstanding or advancing conspiracy theories about bias that they were unable to make any real progress. A recent survey commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.”

When regulators do step in, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help tamp down on the dominance of Google and Facebook by limiting how they could collect user data and making them more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market while the giants had ample cash to spend on jumping through government hoops. Google actually gained ad tech market share and Facebook saw the littlest loss while smaller ad tech firms lost 20 or 30 percent of their business.

Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations backfired, reinforcing Google and Facebook’s dominance. Chart via Ghostery, Cliqz, and WhoTracksMe.

Even the Honest Ads act, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed even despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There’s hasn’t been meaningful discussion of blocking social networks from acquiring their competitors in the future, let alone actually breaking Instagram and WhatsApp off of Facebook. Governments like the U.K. that just forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the moats of the incumbents, and prevent disruptors from gaining a foothold. We can’t depend on regulators to sufficiently protect us from tech giants right now.

Our Hope On The Inside

The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock star employees able to have huge impact on products, and compensation costs to keep them around rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It’s simply too expensive and disjointing to have to recruit new high-skilled workers to replace those that flee.

Google declined to renew a contract with the government after 4000 employees petitioned and a few resigned over Project Maven’s artificial intelligence being used to target lethal drone strikes. Change can even flow across company lines. Many tech giants including Facebook and Airbnb have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees walking out in protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.

Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communications campaign to reassure staffers it’s improving in the wake of damning press reports from the New York Times and others. TechCrunch published an internal memo from Facebook’s outgoing VP of communications Elliot Schrage in which he took the blame for recent issues, encouraged employees to avoid finger-pointing, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees that “I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry.” These internal apologizes could come with much more contrition and real change than those paraded for the public.

And so after years of us relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now rely that will save us from them. It’s a weighty responsibility to move their talents where the impact is positive, or commit to standing up against the business imperatives of their employers. We as the public and media must in turn celebrate when they do what’s right for society, even when it reduces value for shareholders. If apps abuse us or unduly rob us of our attention, we need to stay off of them.

And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good may be inconvenient for the individual. There’s an oppprtunity here not just to complain or wish, but to build a social movement that holds tech giants accountable for delivering the change they’ve promised over and over.

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Instagram kills off fake followers, threatens accounts that keep using apps to get them

Posted by | Apps, Election Interference, Facebook, instagram, Instagram Election Interference, Mobile, Policy, Social, TC | No Comments

Instagram is fighting back against automated apps people use to leave spammy comments or follow then unfollow others in hopes of growing their audience. Today Instagram is removing from people’s accounts who use these apps inauthentic follows, Likes and comments that violate its policies; sending them a warning to change their password to cut ties with these apps, and saying people who continue using these apps “may see their Instagram experience impacted.” Instagram tells me it “may limit access to certain features, for example” for those users.

Instagram is also hoping to discourage users from ever giving another company the login details to their accounts as this can lead to them being hacked or having their account used to send spam. So if you see Instagram follower accounts drop, it’s not because that profile offended people, but because the followers were fake.The renewed vigor for policy enforcement comes amidst the continuing threat of foreign misinformation campaigns on Facebook and Instagram designed to polarize communities and influence elections in the U.S. and abroad. Facebook has said that inauthentic accounts are often the root of these campaigns, and it has removed 754 million fake accounts in the past quarter alone, and stopping these spam apps could prevent them from misusing clients’ accounts. Instagram has been taking down fake accounts since at least 2014, but this is the first time it’s publicly discussed removing fake likes from posts. It now says “We’ve built machine learning tools to help identify accounts that use [third-party apps for boosting followers] and remove the inauthentic activity.”

Some of the most popular bot apps for growing followers like Instagress and Social Growth have been shut down, but others like Archie, InstarocketProX and Boostio charge $10 to $45 per month. They often claim not to violate Instagram’s policies, though they do. The New York Times this year found many well-known celebrities had stooped to buying fake Twitter followers from a company called Devumi.

InstarocketProX advertises how it takes control of your account to like and follow people to dupe them into following back

Users typically have to provide their username and password to these services, which then take control of their accounts and automatically Like, comment on and follow accounts associated with desired hashtags to dupe them into following the unscrupulous user back. The spam app users will now get scolded by Instagram, which will send “an in-app message alerting them that we have removed the inauthentic likes, follows and comments given by their account to others” and be told to change their passwords.

One big question, though, is whether Instagram will crack down harder on ads for services that sell fake followers that appear on its app. I’ve spotted these in the past, and they sometimes masquerade as analytics apps for assisting influencers with tracking the size of their audience. We asked Instagram and a spokesperson told us “Ads are also subject to our Community Standards, which prohibit spammy activity like collecting likes, followers, etc. — so you are correct that ads promoting these services violate our policies. Please feel free to report them if you see them.”

Follower accounts on apps like Instagram have become measures of people’s influence, credibility and earning potential. This is becoming especially true for social media stars who are paid for brand sponsorships in part based on their audience size. Now that brands are even paying “nanoinfluencers” with as few as one thousand followers to post sponsored content, the allure to use these services can be high and lead to an immediate return on illicit investment.

If no one can believe those counts are accurate, it throws Instagram’s legitimacy into question. And every time you get a notification about a fake follow or Like, it distracts you from real life, dilutes the quality of conversation on Instagram and makes people less likely to stick with the app. Anyone willing to pay for fake followers doesn’t deserve your attention, and Instagram should not hold back from terminating their accounts if they don’t stop.

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Answering its critics, Google loosens reins on AMP project

Posted by | Advertising Tech, AMP Project, Apache Software Foundation, Apple, Apps, cloudflare, Google, Microsoft, Mobile, mobile web, Mozilla, open source, Policy | No Comments

Accelerated Mobile Pages, or AMP, has been a controversial project since its debut. The need for the framework has been clear: the payloads of mobile pages can be just insane, what with layers and layers of images, JavaScript, ad networks, and more slowing down page rendering time and costing users serious bandwidth on metered plans.

Yet, the framework has been aggressively foisted on the community by Google, which has backed the project not just with technical talent, but also by making algorithmic changes to its search results that have essentially mandated that pages comply with the AMP project’s terms — or else lose their ranking on mobile searches.

Even more controversially, as part of making pages faster, the AMP project uses caches of pages on CDNs — which are hosted by Google (and also Cloudflare now). That meant that Google’s search results would direct a user to an AMP page hosted by Google, effectively cutting out the owner of the content in the process.

The project has been led by Malte Ubl, a senior staff engineer working on Google’s Javascript infrastructure projects, who has until now held effective unilateral control over the project.

In the wake of all of this criticism, the AMP project announced today that it would reform its governance, replacing Ubl as the exclusive tech lead with a technical steering committee comprised of companies invested in the success in the project. Notably, the project’s intention has an “…end goal of not having any company sit on more than a third of the seats.” In addition, the project will create an advisory board and working groups to shepherd the project’s work.

The project is also expected to move to a foundation in the future. These days, there are a number of places such a project could potentially reside, including the Apache Software Foundation and the Mozilla Foundation.

While the project has clearly had its detractors, the performance improvements that AMP has been fighting for are certainly meritorious. With this more open governance model, the project may get deeper support from other browser makers like Apple, Mozilla, and Microsoft, as well as the broader open source community.

And while Google has certainly been the major force behind the project, it has also been popular among open source software developers. Since the project’s launch, there have been 710 contributors to the project according to its statistics, and the project (attempting to empathize its non-Google monopoly) notes that more than three-quarters of those contributors don’t work at Google.

Nonetheless, more transparency and community involvement should help to accelerate Accelerated Mobile Pages. The project will host its contributor summit next week at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where these governance changes as well as the technical and design roadmaps for the project will be top of mind for attendees.

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