Facebook, Google and other tech companies are accused of stealing our data or at least of using it without our permission to become extraordinarily rich. Now is the time, say the critics, to stand up and take back our data. Ours, ours, ours.
In this way of thinking, our data is like our lawnmower and Facebook is a pushy neighbor who saw that our garage door was open, took our lawnmower, made a quick buck mowing people’s lawns, and now refuses to give our lawnmower back. Take back our lawnmower!
The reality is far different.
What could be more ours than our friends? Yet I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of whom I don’t know well and have never met. But my Facebook friends are friends. We share common interests and, most of the time, I’m happy to see what they are thinking and doing and I’m pleased when they show interest in what I’m up to. If, before Facebook existed, I had been asked to list “my friends,” I would have had a hard time naming ten friends, let alone hundreds. My Facebook friends didn’t exist before Facebook. My Facebook friendships are not simply my data—they are a unique co-creation of myself, my friends, and, yes, Facebook.
Some of my Facebook friends are family, but even here the relationships are not simply mine but a product of myself and Facebook. My cousin who lives in Dubai, for example, is my cousin whether Facebook exists or not, but I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, have never written him a letter, have never in that time shared a phone call. Nevertheless, I can tell you about the bike accident, the broken arm, the X-ray with more than a dozen screws—I know about all of this only because of Facebook. The relationship with my cousin, therefore, isn’t simply mine, it’s a joint creation of myself, my cousin and Facebook.
Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.
Facebook and Google have made billions in profits, but it’s utterly false to think that we, the users, have not been compensated. Have you checked the price of a Facebook post or a Google search recently? More than 2 billion people use Facebook every month, none are charged. Google performs more than 3.5 billion searches every day, all for free. The total surplus created by Facebook and Google far exceeds their profits.
Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.
None of this means that we should not be concerned with how data, ours, theirs, or otherwise, is used. I don’t worry too much about what Facebook and Google know about me. Mostly the tech companies want to figure out what I want to buy. Not such a bad deal even if the way that ads follow me around the world is at times a bit disconcerting. I do worry that they have not adequately enforced contractual restrictions on third-party users of our data. Ironically, it was letting non-profits use Facebook’s data that caused problems.
I also worry about big brother’s use of big data. Sooner or later, what Facebook and Google know, the government will know. That alone is good reason to think carefully about how much information we allow the tech companies to know and to store. But let’s get over the idea that it’s “our data.” Not only isn’t it our data, it never was.
The increasing difficulty in managing one’s online personal data leads to individuals feeling a loss of control. Additionally, repeated consumer data breaches have given people a sense of futility, ultimately making them weary of having to think about online privacy. This phenomenon is called “privacy fatigue.” Although privacy fatigue is prevalent and has been discussed by scholars, there is little empirical research on the phenomenon. A new study published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior aimed not only to conceptualize privacy fatigue but also to examine its role in online privacy behavior. Based on literature on burnout, we developed measurement items for privacy fatigue, which has two key dimensions —emotional exhaustion and cynicism. Data analyzed from a survey of 324 Internet users showed that privacy fatigue has a stronger impact on privacy behavior than privacy concerns do, although the latter is widely regarded as the dominant factor in explaining online privacy behavior.
Sen. Leahy has a Facebook pixel, invisible to users, that gathers user data of Facebook users who visit the site. (For a quick primer on what “pixels” do, visit Facebook’s resource guide on the data-gathering tool.)
That’s right, if you visit Senator Leahy’s campaign website, it’s likely your data, including your demographics and what pages you looked at on the site, have been placed into a custom data targeting audience by Leahy’s team.
Here is more, via @tedfrank. You will note that Leahy was one of the interlocutors who confronted Zuckerberg over the privacy issue.
When does a corporate apology become a political self-confession, or jiantao (检讨), an act of submission not to social mores and concerns, but to those in power? The line can certainly blur in China. But the public apology today from Zhang Yiming (张一鸣), the founder and CEO of one of China’s leading tech-based news and information platforms, crosses deep into the territory of political abjection.
Zhang’s apology, posted to WeChat at around 4 AM Beijing time, addressed recent criticism aired through the state-run China Central Television and other official media of Jinri Toutiao, or “Toutiao” — a platform for content creation and aggregation that makes use of algorithms to customize user experience. Critical official coverage of alleged content violations on the platform was followed by a notice on April 4 from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT), in which the agency said Toutiao and another service providing live-streaming, Kuaishou, would be subject to “rectification measures.”
Read through Zhang’s apology and it is quickly apparent that this is a mea culpa made under extreme political pressure, in which Zhang, an engineer by background, ticks the necessary ideological boxes to signal his intention to fall into line.
At one point, Zhang confesses that the “deep-level causes” of the problems at Toutiao included “a weak [understanding and implementation of] the “four consciousnesses”. This is a unique Xi Jinping buzzword, introduced in January 2016, that refers to 1) “political consciousness” (政治意识), namely primary consideration of political priorities when addressing issues, 2) consciousness of the overall situation (大局意识), or of the overarching priorities of the Party and government, 3) “core consciousness” (核心意识), meaning to follow and protect Xi Jinping as the leadership “core,” and 4) “integrity consciousness” (看齐意识), referring to the need to fall in line with the Party. Next, Zhang mentions the service’s failure to respect “socialist core values,” and its “deviation from public opinion guidance” — this latter term being a Party buzzword (dating back to the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests) synonymous with information and press controls as a means of maintaining Party dominance.
Zhang also explicitly references Xi Jinping’s notion of the “New Era,” and writes: “All along, we have placed excessive emphasis on the role of technology, and we have not acknowledged that technology must be led by the socialist core value system, broadcasting positive energy, suiting the demands of the era, and respecting common convention.”
In the list of the company’s remedies, there is even a mention of the need to promote more content from “authoritative media,” a codeword for Party-controlled media, which suggests once again that the leadership has been unhappy with the idea of algorithms that wall users off from official messaging if they show no interest in such content.
AI Grant (aigrant.org) is a distributed AI research lab. Their goal is to find and fund the modern day Einsteins: brilliant minds from untraditional backgrounds working on AI.
They need a software engineer. The qualifications are twofold: an intrinsic interest in the problem of identifying talented people across the world, and a demonstrated ability to ship software projects without much supervision. This doesn’t have to be through traditional means. It could just be side-projects on Github.
They’re also looking for a psychologist with experience in personality and IQ modeling.
Bay Area location is a big plus, but not a requirement. If you’re interested in learning more, email firstname.lastname@example.org with information about yourself.
This is not a paid ad, but I am seeking to do a favor for the excellent and highly talented Daniel Gross (and perhaps for you), with whom you would get to work. Do please mention MR if you decide to apply!
Here is her NYT piece, I’ll go through her four main solutions, breaking up, paragraph by paragraph, what is one unified discussion:
What would a genuine legislative remedy look like? First, personalized data collection would be allowed only through opt-in mechanisms that were clear, concise and transparent. There would be no more endless pages of legalese that nobody reads or can easily understand. The same would be true of any individualized targeting of users by companies or political campaigns — it should be clear, transparent and truly consensual.
Who can be against “clear, transparent and truly consensual?” But this reminds me of those conservatives who wish regulations would be shorter, simpler, easier to write — it’s not always that easy and wishing don’t make it so. (Try sitting down with someone in the immediate process of writing such a rule.) That said, let’s think about what maybe will happen. How about the United States adopting some version of the forthcoming EU GDPR? That might in fact be an OK outcome (NYT). But will that be clear and transparent? Is any EU regulation clear and transparent? Can anyone tell me, sitting in their seats right now, if it will outlaw the blockchain or not? Whether it outlaws the blockchain or not, could either of those outcomes be called “consensual”? I don’t think Tufekci has given an actual proposal yet.
Second, people would have access, if requested, to all the data a company has collected on them — including all forms of computational inference (how the company uses your data to make guesses about your tastes and preferences, your personal and medical history, your political allegiances and so forth).
This is not feasible, as computational inference is usually not transparent and often is understood by nobody. But even the simpler stuff — what exactly is the call here? That Facebook has to send you a big zip file? Is the goal to inform people in some meaningful way? Or simply to deter Facebook from having the information in the first place? If it’s the latter, let’s have a more explicit argument that people would prefer a Facebook they have to pay for. Personally, I don’t think they would prefer that and already have shown as such.
Third, the use of any data collected would be limited to specifically enumerated purposes, for a designed period of time — and then would expire. The current model of harvesting all data, with virtually no limit on how it is used and for how long, must stop.
“Must”? Not “should”? That is a classic example of trying to establish a conclusion simply by word usage. In this context, what does “enumerated” mean? Are we back to GDPR? Or they send you an email with a long list of what is going on? Or that information sits behind a home page somewhere? (So much for simple and transparent.) You have to opt in to each and every use of the data? So far it sounds like more bureaucracy and less transparency, and in fact this kind of demand is precisely the origin of those lengthy “opt in” statements that no one reads or understands.
Fourth, the aggregate use of data should be regulated. Merely saying that individuals own their data isn’t enough: Companies can and will persuade people to part with their data in ways that may seem to make sense at the individual level but that work at the aggregate level to create public harms. For example, collecting health information from individuals in return for a small compensation might seem beneficial to both parties — but a company that holds health information on a billion people can end up posing a threat to individuals in ways they could not have foreseen.
Maybe, but there is no example given of harm other than an unspecified speculation. It also seems to be saying I don’t have a First Amendment right to write personal information into a text box. And who here is to do the regulating? Government is one of the biggest violators of our privacy, and also a driving force behind electronic medical records, another massive medical privacy violator (for better or worse), most of all after they are hacked and those who have sought mental illness treatment have their identities put on Wikileaks. The governmental system of identity and privacy is based around the absurdity of using Social Security numbers. Government software is generations behind the cutting edge and OPM was hacked very badly, not to mention Snowden made away with all that information. And government is to be the new privacy guardian? This needs way, way more of an argument.
I do understand that the author had only a limited word count. But googling “Zeynep Tufekci Facebook” does not obviously bring us to a source where these proposals are laid out in more detail, nor is there any link in the on-line version of the article to anyone else’s proposal, much less hers. So I say this piece is overly confident and under-argued.
What instead? I would instead start with the sentence “Most Americans don’t value their privacy or the security of their personal data very much,” and then discuss all the ways that limits regulation, or lowers the value of regulation, or will lead many well-intended regulations to be circumvented. Next I would consider whether there are reasonable restrictions on social media that won’t just cement in the power of the big incumbents. Then I would ask an economist to estimate the costs of regulatory compliance from the numerous lesser-known web sites around the world. Without those issues front and center, I don’t think you’ve got much to say.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, the community banks are likely to be good, here is one excerpt:
I think of community banks as enjoying relatively high levels of trust. Millions of Americans have walked through the doors of their local banks and dealt with the loan officers, tellers and account managers, giving the business a human face. A community bank cannot serve a region without sending out a fair number of foot soldiers. Banks tend to have longstanding roots in their communities, and a large stock of connections and accumulated social capital.
In turn, community banks have converted this personal trust into political clout. There are community banks in virtually every congressional district, and these banks have developed the art of speaking for many different segments of American society, not just a narrow coastal elite. When these banks mobilize on behalf of a political cause, they are powerful, as illustrated by the likelihood that they will get regulatory relief from the Dodd-Frank Act, probably with bipartisan support. They have such influence that one member of the Federal Reserve Board must be a community banker, even though few economists see much rationale for this provision.
Given their usefulness, it would be wrong to describe community bankers as a stagnant sector of our economy. Still, the same features that make them trusted and politically powerful also make them unlikely to be major sector disruptors.
Already you can see a problem shaping up, as perhaps the faster-growing, higher productivity gain companies will have less experience. And indeed often the very dynamic, big tech companies are not so good at public relations:
Alternatively, let’s say you were designing a business that, whatever its other virtues might be, would not be very good at public relations.
First, you would make sure the business had come of age fairly recently. That would ensure the company didn’t have a long history of managing public relations, learning how the news media work, figuring out what it will or will not be blamed for, and rooting itself in local communities.
The next thing you might do is to concentrate the company’s broader business sector in one particular part of the country. That would ensure that the companies’ culture didn’t reflect the broadest possible swath of public opinion. Better yet, don’t choose a swing state such as Pennsylvania or Ohio, but rather opt for a region that is overwhelmingly of a single political orientation and viewed by many Americans as a bit crazy or out of touch. How about Northern California?
There is much more at the link. The clincher of course is this:
And we have been building a political system that favors the time-honored company rather than the radical innovator.
That is a new paper by Linda Schilling and Harald Uhlig, here is the abstract:
How do Bitcoin prices evolve? What are the consequences for monetary policy? We answer these questions in a novel, yet simple endowment economy. There are two types of money, both useful for transactions: Bitcoins and Dollars. A central bank keeps the real value of Dollars constant, while Bitcoin production is decentralized via proof-of-work. We obtain a “fundamental condition,” which is a version of the exchange-rate indeterminacy result in Kareken-Wallace (1981), and a “speculative” condition. Under some conditions, we show that Bitcoin prices form convergent supermartingales or submartingales and derive implications for monetary policy.
In this framework, I would attribute the volatility of the recent Bitcoin price to a) sometimes being in the speculative equilibrium or uncertainty about such, b) regulatory uncertainty, and c) uncertainty about the hedging or store of value properties of Bitcoin and other cryptoassets. If you are interested in other considerations, here is a good Jimmy Song essay on why Bitcoin might be special. And see this paper by Garratt and Wallace, though unlike with Schilling and Uhlig I am less sure how they are modeling the black/gray market uses for Bitcoin as a transactions medium.
Geoffrey Fowler asks that question, here is one bit from his analysis:
You can actually put a dollar figure on how much we’re worth to the social network. Facebook collected $82 in advertising for each member in North America last year. Across the world, it’s about $20 per member. Facebook the company is valued at about $450 billion because investors believe it will find even more ways to make money from collecting data on its 2 billion members.
You might imagine charging Americans $82 a year, though at that price the overall network would be smaller and of lower value to users. Alternatively, Zeynep Tufekci wrote (NYT):
Internet sites should allow their users to be the customers. I would, as I bet many others would, happily pay more than 20 cents per month for a Facebook or a Google that did not track me, upgraded its encryption and treated me as a customer whose preferences and privacy matter. [She earlier had cited 20 cents per month as their profit per customer…TC takes all of these numbers with a grain of salt.]
Like Jonathan Swift, I have a simple proposal: don’t use “Facebook the service,” and conduct all of your social networking on WhatsApp, which by the way is owned by “Facebook the company.” WhatsApp is fully encrypted, and it has no algorithms and indeed few bells and whistles of any kind. From each person, messages are stacked in sequential order. You can send photos and you can delete content, permanently I believe. You can set up groups. There is some kind of microphone function, though I’ve never figured it out. And did I mention it is totally free? Zero ads too. Nor is the page cluttered, nor do you get these little notifications: “You have 37 messages, 49 notifications, 23 friend requests, 81 pokes, and a partridge and a pear tree,” etc.
Everything you are asking for exists now, from “Facebook the company,” though it is not “Facebook the service.”
Problem solved! Oh, wait, you’re not interested…? What should I infer from that?
Addendum: I do get that if everyone switched from “Facebook the service” to WhatsApp, the cross-subsidy would diminish and the terms of WhatsApp would change. But still, at the margin, and in the meantime, plenty of people — including you — could switch and I expect this deal can remain the same. Be a free rider! Our democracy may depend on it.
The author is Edward Tenner and the subtitle is What Big Data Can’t Do. Overall, I prefer to read Tenner on engineering more narrowly construed, but still I found some novel and interesting ideas in this book, as you might expect.
Most notably, I was struck by his claim that the rise of “Big Tech” and the rise of finance are more or less the same thing. Many of the tech innovations are in fact transactional innovations, and both the “financialization” revolution and much of social network tech promulgate the idea of “life as a portfolio,” albeit portfolios of different kinds. Both have an ideal of “friction-free commerce,” or social interactions, as the case may be, and of course in both cases this is organized by code.
Furthermore, if you make buying and finding things much easier, finance as a percentage of gdp likely will go up. Do not forget that Jeff Bezos was first a young star at Shaw, a hedge fund. Is it any accident that finance and tech are often, these days, competing for the same pool of talented young quant workers?
Here is one good bit from Tenner:
We have all heard of Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Only technical specialists and historians have heard of Jacobus Verhoeff. Yet when Bezos planned to transform online retailing, bookselling was a natural beginning because, thanks to Verhoeff’s algorithm, more books had standardized product numbers than any other category of merchandise.
You can buy the book here.
Here are more arguments about blockchain from Kai Stinchcombe, here is one ouch:
93% of bitcoins are mined by managed consortiums, yet none of the consortiums use smart contracts to manage payouts. Instead, they promise things like a “long history of stable and accurate payouts.” Sounds like a trustworthy middleman!
Auditing software is hard! The most-heavily scrutinized smart contract in history had a small bug that nobody noticed — that is, until someone did notice it, and used it to steal fifty million dollars. If cryptocurrency enthusiasts putting together a $150m investment fund can’t properly audit the software, how confident are you in your e-book audit? Perhaps you would rather write your own counteroffer software contract, in case this e-book author has hidden a recursion bug in their version to drain your ethereum wallet of all your life savings?
It’s a complicated way to buy a book! It’s not trustless, you’re trusting in the software (and your ability to defend yourself in a software-driven world), instead of trusting other people.
Comparative ethnographic analysis of three middle schools that vary by student class and race reveals that students’ similar digital skills are differently transformed by teachers into cultural capital for achievement. Teachers effectively discipline students’ digital play but in different ways. At a school serving working-class Latino youth, students are told their digital expressions are irrelevant to learning; at a school with mostly middle-class Asian American youth, students’ digital expressions are seen as threats to their ability to succeed academically; and at a private school with mainly wealthy white youth, students’ digital skills are positioned as essential to school success. Insofar as digital competency represents a kind of cultural capital, the minority and working-class students also have that capital. But theirs is not translated into teacher-supported opportunities for achievement.
In terms of influence, absolutely:
Traditionally, Americans have thought of New York City as the country’s cultural and intellectual center. That’s no longer the case. New York dominates in many areas, most of all the arts, but those are no longer the most influential or innovative parts of the American Zeitgeist.
Don’t be fooled by the fact that NYC feels higher status or is so diverse or has some of the coolest people. Right now it is not the place with the generative ideas — sorry!
Here is my bit on D.C.:
The D.C. area is the center of legalistic thinking, which is increasingly important with the growth of government and the regulatory state. Lawyers and policy-makers are our engineers for incentives, so to speak, even if they don’t always get it right. Their efforts are backed by an array of economic, legal, political, public opinion and bureaucratic expertise that is without parallel in history. If, for instance, you talk to the specialist at the Treasury Department on accelerated tax depreciation, that individual will be impressive, even though his or her final output may be filtered through some very unimpressive political constraints.
D.C. has also become an increasingly important media center, where so many rhetorical battles over the future of the country are started. President Donald Trump maximized his influence by moving to the nation’s capital, though augmented by Twitter, a San Francisco product.
I’m not saying you have to like this, in fact it may end in the overregulation of tech and the Bay Area — America’s other generative center — to the detriment of economic dynamism:
But the Bay Area and the D.C. area are built on such different principles, and they don’t understand each other very well. It’s more likely that we see a rude awakening, as the U.S. realizes its two most influential centers have been pulling the country in opposite directions.
Here is the rest of my Bloomberg column, recommended.
Under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, companies will be required to completely erase the personal data of any citizen who requests that they do so. For businesses that use blockchain, specifically applications with publicly available data trails such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, truly purging that information could be impossible. “Some blockchains, as currently designed, are incompatible with the GDPR,” says Michèle Finck, a lecturer in EU law at the University of Oxford. EU regulators, she says, will need to decide whether the technology must be barred from the region or reconfigure the new rules to permit an uneasy coexistence.
Here is more from Olga Kharif at Bloomberg.
Jaywalkers in China are to be named, shamed and slapped with an instant SMS fine.
And it’s all thanks to cutting-edge artificial intelligence.
In the southeastern city of Shenzhen, police have set up AI-powered boards by crossings.
If you jaywalk, a CCTV camera will scan your face and flash it up on the huge screens for all to see, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
If that wasn’t embarrassing enough, there are now plans to ping offenders’ phones with quick-fire fines as soon as they violate the grim rule.
The AI company behind the billboards, Intellifusion, is in talks with mobile phone networks and local social media platforms to enforce the new system.
To be clear, I consider this report speculative. But not impossible.