Never Mind the Privacy: The Great Web 2.0 Swindle

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 01/03/2017 - 1:43pm in

The sermon today comes from this six minute video from comedian Adam Conover: The Terrifying Cost of "Free” Websites

I don't go along with the implication here that the only conceivable reason to run a website is to directly make money by doing so, and that therefore it is our expectation of zero cost web services that is the fundamental problem. But from a technical point of view the sketch's analogy holds up pretty well. Data-mining commercially useful information about users is the business model of Software as a Service (SaaS) — or Service as a Software Substitute (SaaSS) as it's alternately known.

You as the user of these services — for example social networking services such as Facebook or Twitter, content delivery services such as YouTube or Flickr, and so on — provide the "content", and the service provider provides data storage and processing functionality. There are two problems with this arrangement:

  1. You are effectively doing your computing using a computer and software you don't control, and whose workings are completely opaque to you.
  2. As is anybody who wants to access anything you make available using those services.

Even people who don't have user accounts with these services can be tracked, because they can be identified via browser fingerprinting, and you can be tracked as you browse beyond the tracking organisation's website. Third party JavaScript "widgets" embedded in many, if not most, websites silently deliver executable code to users' browsers, allowing them to be tracked as they go from site to site. Common examples of such widgets include syndicated advertising, like buttons, social login services (eg. Facebook login), and comment hosting services. Less transparent are third-party services marketed to the site owner, such as Web analytics. These provide data on a site's users in the form of graphs and charts so beloved by middle management, with the service provider of course hanging on to a copy of all the data for their own purposes. My university invites no less than three organisations to surveil its students in this way (New Relic, Crazy Egg, and of course Google Analytics). Thanks to Edward Snowden, we know that government intelligence agencies are secondary beneficiaries of this data collection in the case of companies such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft. For companies not named in these leaks, all we can say is we do not — because as users we cannot — know if they are passing on information about us as well. To understand how things might be different, one must look at the original vision for the Internet and the World Wide Web.

The Web was a victim of its own early success. The Internet was designed to be "peer-to-peer", with every connected computer considered equal, and the network which connected them completely oblivious to the nature of the data it was handling. You requested data from somebody else on the network, and your computer then manipulated and transformed that data in useful ways. It was a "World of Ends"; the network was dumb, and the machines at each end of a data transfer were smart. Unfortunately the Web took off when easy to use Web browsers were available, but before easy to use Web servers were available. Moreover, Web browsers were initially intended to be tools to both read and write Web documents, but the second goal soon fell away. You could easily consume data from elsewhere, but not easily produce and make it available yourself.

The Web soon succumbed to the client-server model, familiar from corporate computer networks — the bread and butter of tech firms like IBM and Microsoft. Servers occupy a privileged position in this model. The value is assumed to be at the centre of the network, while at the ends are mere consumers. This translates into social and economic privilege for the operators of servers, and a role for users shaped by the requirements of service providers. This was, breathless media commentary aside, the substance of the "Web 2.0" transformation.

Consider how the ideal Facebook user engages with their Facebook friends. They share an amusing video clip. They upload photos of themselves and others, while in the process providing the machine learning algorithm of Facebook's facial recognition surveillance system with useful feedback. They talk about where they've been and what they've bought. They like and they LOL. What do you do with a news story that provokes outrage, say the construction of a new concentration camp for refugees from the endless war on terror? Do you click the like button? The system is optimised, on the users' side, for face-work, and de-optimised for intellectual or political substance. On the provider's side it is optimised for exposing social relationships and consumer preferences; anything else is noise to be minimised.

In 2014 there was a minor scandal when it was revealed that Facebook allowed a team of researchers to tamper with Facebook's news feed algorithm in order to measure the effects of different kinds of news stories on users' subsequent posts. The scandal missed the big story: Facebook has a news feed algorithm.  Friending somebody on Facebook doesn't mean you will see everything they post in your news feed, only those posts that Facebook's algorithm selects for you, along with posts that you never asked to see. Facebook, in its regular day-to-day operation, is one vast, ongoing, uncontrolled experiment in behaviour modification. Did Facebook swing the 2016 US election for Trump? Possibly, but that wasn't their intention. The fracturing of Facebook's user base into insular cantons of groupthink, increasingly divorced from reality, is a predictable side-effect of a system which regulates user interactions based on tribal affiliations and shared consumer tastes, while marginalising information which might threaten users' ontological security.

Resistance to centralised, unaccountable, proprietary, user-subjugating systems can be fought on two fronts: minimising current harms; and migrating back to an environment where the intelligence of the network is at the ends, under the user's control. You can opt out of pervasive surveillance with browser add-ons like the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Privacy Badger. You can run your own instances of software which provide federated, decentralised services equivalent to the problematic ones, such as:

  • GNU Social is a social networking service similar to Twitter (but with more features). I run my own instance and use it every day to keep in touch with people who also run their own, or have accounts on an instance run by people they trust.
  • Diaspora is another distributed social networking platform more similar to Facebook.
  • OpenID is a standard for distributed authentication, replacing social login services from Facebook, Google, et al.
  • Piwik is a replacement for systems like Google Analytics. You can use it to gather statistics on the use of your own website(s), but it grants nobody the privacy-infringing capability to follow users as they browse around a large number of sites.

The fatal flaw in such software is that few people have the technical ability to set up a web server and install it. That problem is the motivation behind the FreedomBox project. Here's a two and a half minute news story on the launch of the project: Eben Moglen discusses the freedom box on CBS news

I also recommend this half-hour interview, pre-dating the Snowden leaks by a year, which covers much of the above with more conviction and panache than I can manage: Eben Moglen on Facebook, Google and Government Surveillance

Arguably the stakes are currently as high in many countries in the West as they were in the Arab Spring. Snowden has shown that for governments of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance there's no longer a requirement for painstaking spying and infiltration of activist groups in order to identify your key political opponents; it's just a database query. One can without too much difficulty imagine a Western despot taking to Twitter to blurt something like the following:

"Protesters love me. Some, unfortunately, are causing problems. Huge problems. Bad. :("

"Some leaders have used tough measures in the past. To keep our country safe, I'm willing to do much worse."

"We have some beautiful people looking into it. We're looking into a lot of things."

"Our country will be so safe, you won't believe it. ;)"

Sunday, 26 February 2017 - 4:18pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 26/02/2017 - 4:18pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • Why debt really matters, which the IMF failed to say — Richard Murphy: […] the report only looked at who owes the debt. It did not look at who owns the debt, where and how accountable they are for it. This issue is real: it is the concentration in the ownership of debt, partly offshore, that causes so many problems, because debt imposes power. It is not for nothing that the word mortgage means ‘grip of death’. This is a modern form of slavery that consigns many to lives of little choice where compliance with the requirement of unreasonable employers is guaranteed. So it is not debt per se that is the problem: it is the power relationships implicit in it that matter and the IMF needed to address that issue and did not as far as I can see.
  • Two Loaves — J.D. Alt at New Economic Perspectives: In aggregate, then, the money system we’ve established and operate so efficiently only creates money, as it’s needed, to cover the profits of profit-seeking ventures. No money is created for ventures which do not make profits. This dynamic is doubled down on by the fact that we also operate with the institutional insistence that the sovereign government, if it decides to undertake something for the collective good, must pay for for that collective good with “tax dollars”―which are dollars previously created in the profit-earning system. There are two things peculiar about this. First is the implied premise that profit-seeking ventures are inherently good, while not-for-profit ventures are merely optional “niceties” that we can pay for on the side, so to speak. The second is our insistent belief that the money system we have cannot rationally be managed in any other way.
  • Sorting Out the Patent Trolls — Timothy Taylor: Basically, the FTC argues that the "patent assertion entities" can be divided fairly neatly into two "two distinct PAE business models: Portfolio PAEs and Litigation PAEs." The FTC steers away from using the term "patent trolls," which in this report mainly comes up in quotations from other articles buried in the footnotes. But "litigation PAEs" is the category that most people are thinking of when they refer to "patent trolls."
  • The Death of the Autodidact: And the unstoppable rise of the modern meritocrat — Ravi Mangla in the Baffler: The surgeon holding a sharp instrument inches from your arterial wall and the pilot jumping a hunk of metal over roiling waters have a license—a talisman that helps us sleep better at night. But so does your barber and your neighbor’s interior designer and—in Louisiana—your florist. In the majority of cases these requirements are another form of rent-seeking, a way for more established professionals to keep outsiders and upstarts from encroaching on their territory.
  • Metabolism — xkcd:
    Metabolism

The Politics of Technology

Published by Matthew Davidson on Fri, 24/02/2017 - 4:03pm in

"Technology is anything that doesn't quite work yet." - Danny Hillis, in a frustratingly difficult to source quote. I first heard it from Douglas Adams.

Here is, at minimum, who and what you need to know:

Organisations

Sites

  • Boing Boing — A blog/zine that posts a lot about technology and society, as well as - distressingly - advertorials aimed at Bay Area hipsters.

People

Reading

Viewing

[I'm aware of the hypocrisy in recommending videos of talks about freedom, privacy and security that are hosted on YouTube.]

 

 

Sunday, 19 February 2017 - 5:54pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 19/02/2017 - 5:54pm in

This week, I have been mostly reading:

  • Density, sprawl, growth: how Australian cities have changed in the last 30 years — Neil Coffee, Emma Baker, and Jarrod Lange in the Conversation: Melbourne may well be the exemplar for inner-city rebirth. More than any other Australian city it demonstrates the 30-year turnaround from inner-city decline to densification. […] While the turnarounds in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth have been less marked than in Melbourne, they are all no longer “doughnut cities”. This means that where people live in these cities has changed. Australia’s cities are now more densely populated – and we are much more likely to live in inner areas than we were 30 years ago.
  • Too old to work, too young to die — Warwick Smith in the Monthly: Age discrimination is already rife in Australia, with over a quarter of older job seekers reporting being affected by it. When you combine this with the push to lift the Age Pension access age to 70, the rise of contract and casual employment, and the current and projected impact of technology on the demand for skills, the situation for many older workers looks grim. If you’re an older woman, trying to return to the workforce after raising children, then things are going to be particularly hard for you.
  • An optimistic view of worker power — Bill Mitchell: [A] past national Greens leader in Australia told me that it was too politically difficult to challenge the neo-liberal macroeconomic consensus (even if my criticisms of that consensus were valid), it just distracted voters from their main message, which was unambiguously progressive in both the social and environmental context. I pointed out to that leader that by accepting the austerity narrative as the norm for responsible fiscal conduct, even if his party gained office (which it will never do in our two-party system), they would be unable to initiate their progressive social and environmental agenda because they would have hamstrung themselves in a neo-liberal macroeconomics.
  • The best lesson I ever taught — James Page in On Line Opinion: And so the discussion continued for 40 minutes. The issues included the role of religion within education, the nature of scientific fact, the nature of religion and faith, and the role of education itself. I continued to stand at the edge of the classroom, silent, and ready to intervene and perhaps commence the formal lesson. Yet that never happened. At the end of the 40 minutes I thanked the two discussants, and reminded the students of an upcoming assignment.
  • Lack of Demand Is the Economy’s Problem, Not Automation — Dean Baker: From a worker’s standpoint it doesn’t matter if they lose their job because a robot can do it better and cheaper or because a new assembly line only needs half as many workers to produce the same number of cars. In both cases they have lost their job, the specific cause doesn’t affect their economic circumstances. […] We do have a problem of a weak labor market, with employment rates for prime age workers (ages 25-54) still well below their pre-recession levels, but this is a problem of inadequate demand in the economy. There is little reason to believe that if we generated more demand through larger government deficits or smaller trade deficits we would not have more jobs.
  • An Undergraduate’s Question about Economic Policy — Thomas Palley: Neoliberals try to close down the space of political debate and social possibility by excluding all except neoliberal ideas. The tragedy of the past forty years is they have been succeeding. In the academy there is a neoclassical monopoly, and in politics Labor and Social Democratic parties have been captured by the Trojan horse of the Third Way, creating a neoliberal political monopoly.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017 - 5:22pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 15/02/2017 - 5:34pm in

I'm ranting altogether too much over local "journalism", and this comment introduces nothing new to what I've posted many times before, but since the Advocate won't publish it:

Again I have to wonder why drivel produced by the seething hive mind of News Corp is being syndicated by my local newspaper. This opinion comes from somebody who appears to be innumerate (eight taxpayers out of ten doesn't necessarily - or even very likely - equal eight dollars out of every ten) economically illiterate, and empirically wrong.

Tax dollars do not fund welfare, or any other function of the federal government. Currency issuing governments create money when they spend and destroy money when they tax. "Will there be enough money?" is a nonsensical question when applied to the federal government. As Warren Mosler puts it, the government neither has nor does not have money. If you work for a living, it is in your interest that the government provides money for those who otherwise wouldn't have any, because they spend it - and quickly. Income support for the unemployed becomes income for the employed pretty much instantly. Cutting back on welfare payments means cutting back on business revenues.

And the claim that the "problem" of welfare is increasing in scale is just wrong. Last year's Household, Income, and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) report shows dependence on welfare payments by people of working age declining pretty consistently since the turn of the century. This opinion piece is pure class war propaganda. None of us can conceivably benefit in any way from pushing people into destitution in the moralistic belief that they must somehow deserve it.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017 - 7:59pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Tue, 14/02/2017 - 8:02pm in

The glaziers and carpenters have been busy these past few weeks and a new store is taking shape at Coffs Central.

[…]

A leading Australia men's clothing brand, GazMan provides contemporary, casual and business attire for every occasion.

Men's polo shirts, chino pants, denim, knitwear sports jackets and business wear will line the about to be completed display racks.

Wow. Forget I.F. Stone or Seymour Hersch. If I'd just written a piece like this, I would have to consider hanging up my word processor for good. When it comes to local journalism, it really does not get much better than this. At the pinnacle of any profession it's all to easy to rest on one's laurels and say that there's nothing that one cannot do. It takes a special kind of crusading spirit to declare that there's nothing that one will not do.

Sunday, 12 February 2017 - 6:00pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 12/02/2017 - 4:00am in

This week, my academic performance has delivered a crushing blow to my self-confidence, so to reassure myself that I'm still capable of abstract thought, I have been mostly reading:

  • Nature is priceless, which is why turning it into ‘natural capital’ is wrong — Bram Büscher and Robert Fletcher: The move from nature to natural capital is problematic because it assumes that different forms of capital - human, financial, natural - can be made equivalent and exchanged. In practice - and despite proponents’s insistence to the contrary - this means that everything must potentially be expressed through a common, quantitative unit: money. But complex, qualitative, heterogeneous natures, as these same proponents acknowledge, can never adequately be represented in quantitative, homogenous money-units. […] Natural capital is therefore inherently anti-ecological and has little to do with giving value to nature, or rendering this value visible. It is the exploitation of nature to inject more value, and seeming legitimacy, into a faltering capitalist growth economy.
  • The true cost of our insanely low Newstart allowance — Peter Martin: This week, at the National Press Club, Social Services Minister Christian Porter dismissed suggestions that it needed to lift the Newstart unemployment benefit of just $264.35 per week. "The fact that people who find it challenging to subsist on Newstart do so for short periods of time might actually speak to the fact that that's one of the design points of the system," he said. The low rate was "working okay because the encouragement is there to move off those payments quickly".
  • Reducing income inequality — Bill Mitchell: […] financial market deregulation provided capital with ‘all its Christmases at once! – it could have a higher profit share and suppress real wages growth and keep profits high by realising the increased sales and productivity improvements. How? The trick was found in the rise of so-called ‘financial engineering’, which pushed ever increasing debt onto the household and corporate sectors. The capitalists found that they could sustain purchasing power and receive a bonus along the way in the form of interest payments. This seemed to be a much better strategy than paying higher real wages.
  • Why credit card interest rates are high — Peter Martin: The best guess as to why most of us don't much care about rates comes from studies that find that alongside the sizeable proportion of the population that pays off its cards on time (and so doesn't care about rates) is a larger group of "deluded optimists" who believe they will pay their cards off on time. They're not concerned about rates either because they falsely believe they won't have to pay them. Psychological tests show the more likely people are to select cards with high rates, the more optimistic they are about all things.
  • The current system of knowledge dissemination isn’t working and Sci-Hub is merely a symptom of the problem — Iván Farías Pelcastre and Flor González Correa in the LSE Impact Blog: Some scholars consider that, by removing barriers to access to knowledge, Sci-Hub is actually promoting the widest possible dissemination and use of academic research for the benefit of the entire scientific community. For instance, Masoud Shahnazar, Iran-based independent literary researcher, states that “we Iranians really owe [Sci-Hub] a lot” for providing access to the materials Iranian scholars require for their research. How researchers are able to access paywalled papers in a country faced with economic sanctions which prevent international payments is one of many questions that the current model cannot effectively answer.
  • Time To Treat Bank CEOs Like Adults — Dean Baker in HuffPo: Regardless of the exact motives, the real question is what will be the consequences for [Wells Fargo CEO John] Stumpf and other top executives. Thus far, he has been forced to stand before a Senate committee and look contrite for four hours. Stumpf stands to make $19 million this year in compensation. That’s almost $5 million for each hour of contrition. Millions of trouble-making high school students must be very jealous.
  • Stupefied: How organisations enshrine collective stupidity and employees are rewarded for checking their brains at the office door — André Spicer in Aeon: One well-known firm that Mats Alvesson and I studied for our book The Stupidity Paradox (2016) said it employed only the best and the brightest. When these smart new recruits arrived in the office, they expected great intellectual challenges. However, they quickly found themselves working long hours on ‘boring’ and ‘pointless’ routine work. After a few years of dull tasks, they hoped that they’d move on to more interesting things. But this did not happen. As they rose through the ranks, these ambitious young consultants realised that what was most important was not coming up with a well-thought-through solution. It was keeping clients happy with impressive PowerPoint shows. Those who did insist on carefully thinking through their client’s problems often found their ideas unwelcome. If they persisted in using their brains, they were often politely told that the office might not be the place for them.

Monday, 6 February 2017 - 8:23pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Mon, 06/02/2017 - 8:40pm in

Through trial and error Joel overcame a range of food intolerances which lead him to identify a niche in the market. Around one in four Australians suffer a food intolerance of some description and as a solution, Joel has developed a range of fresh, healthy meal choices that not only taste great, but also accommodate a wide range of common food intolerances.

One in four? According to whom? Any even mildly debilitating health problem suffered by 25% of the population is a major public health issue, not something to be solved by plucky food truck entrepreneurs. Actual medical research, as opposed to self-reported conviction, puts the figure at about one-tenth of that (eg. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.2008.03184.x), but let's not permit science to get in the way of a little entrepreneurship.

If you're going to make claims of medical efficacy based on "trial and error" and a sample size of one, why stop at one in four? Why not get into the diagnosis market and make that three in four? Coffs is hardly short of well-to-do cretins desperate to be cured of imaginary ailments.

Give me gluten-free flour, or give me death! I want to take my snake oil as a burger to go. Ooh, and a kale and chipboard smoothy. And a side order of those healing crystals. My spirit guide says they're delicious.

Sunday, 5 February 2017 - 7:20pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Sun, 05/02/2017 - 7:20pm in

This week, I have been feeling guilty about skipping a month, and mostly reading:

  • Why Do Anything? A Meditation on Procrastination — Costica Bradatan in the New York Times: The drama of procrastination comes from its split nature. Just like the architect from Shiraz, the procrastinator is smitten by the perfect picture of that which is yet to be born; he falls under the spell of all that purity and splendor. What he is beholding is something whole, uncorrupted by time, untainted by the workings of a messed-up world. At the same time, though, the procrastinator is fully aware that all that has to go. No sooner does he get a glimpse of the perfection that precedes actualization than he is doomed to become part of the actualization process himself, to be the one who defaces the ideal and brings into the world a precarious copy, unlike the architect who saves it by burning the plans.
  • China’s Army of Global Homebuyers Is Suddenly Short on Cash — Bloomberg News: Less than a month after China announced fresh curbs on overseas payments, anecdotal reports from realtors, homeowners and developers suggest the restrictions are already weighing on the world’s biggest real estate buying spree. […] “If it’s too difficult, I’m out,’’ said Mr. Zheng, 66, a retired civil servant in Shanghai who declined to give his first name to avoid attracting regulatory scrutiny. He may abandon a 2.4 million yuan ($348,903) home purchase in western Melbourne, even after shelling out a 300,000 yuan deposit last August. He’s due to make another big payment next month. [Tick… tick… tick…]
  • Why Trump's Staff Is Lying — Tyler Cowen, Bloomberg View: By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future. Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you.
  • The Private Debt Crisis — Richard Vague: When too high, private debt becomes a drag on economic growth. It chips away at the margin of growth trends. Though different researchers cite different levels, a growing body of research suggests that when private debt enters the range of 100 to 150 percent of GDP, it impedes economic growth. When private debt is high, consumers and businesses have to divert an increased portion of their income to paying interest and principal on that debt—and they spend and invest less as a result. That’s a very real part of what’s weighing on economic growth. After private debt reaches these high levels, it suppresses demand.

Thursday, 2 February 2017 - 6:07pm

Published by Matthew Davidson on Thu, 02/02/2017 - 6:10pm in

THE Real Estate Property Guide team stepped into a suburban oasis this week at Boambee East.

Unrealestate principal and selling agent Kerry Hines said the home is a true escape from the everyday grind.

"It has a central location, close to everything, yet it's almost a private oasis," she said.

"Close to everything"? I've lived in Boambee East and the isolation almost drove me mad. You are close to nothing except mile after mile of Colorbond fencing and hopeless despair. It's the country's largest open-air prison.

Walk the streets of an evening and I guarantee that before long you'll see a miserable middle aged man sitting alone on an upturned milk crate in his garage, listening to his Cold Chisel and Meatloaf records, over and over, and reaching into the carton on the floor beside him for another joyless can of rum and coke.

You'll also see the occasional old man or woman grimly pushing a walking frame down the middle of the road, because there are no footpaths, and in any case the grass verge is full of cars; the tiny prefab half-block houses necessitate using the garage as living space, and four or five car households are the average, because walking or public transport are out of the question, despite being so wonderfully "close to everything".

Kick the juice bottle bongs, empty opioid packs, and petrol cans out of your way, make sure the guy unconscious in a pool of urine is still breathing, and within an hour or two you'll get to the nearest pub. Recent renovations can't hide the fact that it's basically a livestock shed, optimised for slopping out rather than ambiance. In any case by the time you get there, they'll be stacking chairs and locking up.

So yes, a social, cultural, and intellectual desert is the perfect spot for a suburban oasis. Enjoy!

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