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Kentaro Toyama writes: Last month I wrote about Chinese Internet censors, who seem less concerned about eliminating criticism of the government, and more concerned with preventing grassroots collective action. What the Communist Party most fears is organized protests and activities, even when they’re not political in nature.
In America, the right to assembly is guaranteed, so there’s no censoring of tweeted incitements to mass action, political or otherwise. But thanks to Edward Snowden, we now see how far the government goes to spy on our digital communications in the name of national security. Arguably, what the U.S. government fears most is threats to its citizens’ physical safety.
Considering these revelations together allows us to see more clearly the relationship between the Internet and politics.
Until now the dominant story has been that the Internet democratizes. For many, any mention of the Arab Spring immediately calls to mind a “Facebook revolution.” For similar reasons, Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State promoted a foreign policy of Internet freedom. And, the mantra that the Internet democratizes everything is repeated over and over in the media. Just in the last few days, for example, here, here, and here.
But what both Chinese censorship and American surveillance show is that there is nothing inherently democratizing about digital networks, at least not in the political sense. Far-reaching communication tools only make it easier to impose constraints on the freedom of expression or the right to privacy. Never before have Chinese censors had it so easy in identifying subversive voices, and never before has the NSA been able to eavesdrop on the private communications of so many people. [Continue reading...]
Der Spiegel reports: Elite GCHQ teams targeted employees of mobile communications companies and billing companies to gain access to their company networks. The spies used fake copies of LinkedIn profiles as one of their tools.
The Belgacom employees probably thought nothing was amiss when they pulled up their profiles on LinkedIn, the professional networking site. The pages looked the way they always did, and they didn’t take any longer than usual to load.
The victims didn’t notice that what they were looking at wasn’t the original site but a fake profile with one invisible added feature: a small piece of malware that turned their computers into tools for Britain’s GCHQ intelligence service.
The British intelligence workers had already thoroughly researched the engineers. According to a “top secret” GCHQ presentation disclosed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, they began by identifying employees who worked in network maintenance and security for the partly government-owned Belgian telecommunications company Belgacom.
Then they determined which of the potential targets used LinkedIn or Slashdot.org, a popular news website in the IT community.
The computers of these “candidates” were then infected with computer malware that had been placed using infiltration technology the intelligence agency refers to as “Quantum Insert,” which enabled the GCHQ spies to deeply infiltrate the Belgacom internal network and that of its subsidiary BICS, which operates a so-called GRX router system. This type of router is required when users make calls or go online with their mobile phones while abroad. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: Skype is being investigated by Luxembourg’s data protection commissioner over concerns about its secret involvement with the US National Security Agency (NSA) spy programme Prism, the Guardian has learned.
The Microsoft-owned internet chat company could potentially face criminal and administrative sanctions, including a ban on passing users’ communications covertly to the US signals intelliigence agency.
Skype itself is headquartered in the European country, and could also be fined if an investigation concludes that the data sharing is found in violation of the country’s data-protection laws.
The Guardian understands that Luxembourg’s data-protection commissioner initiated a probe into Skype’s privacy policies following revelations in June about its ties to the NSA. [Continue reading...]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Gunning to win more advertising dollars, Facebook Inc. is using new ways to cull personal information from outside the social network and match it with data submitted by its billion-plus users.
The efforts are winning over advertisers such as General Motors Co. and Neiman Marcus Group Inc. but are further raising privacy concerns as Facebook harnesses a mosaic of information about its users.
On Wednesday, Facebook officially plans to roll out a new advertiser tool to help advertisers directly target Facebook users based on their offline spending history.
The tool marries what Facebook already knows about people’s friends and “likes” with vast troves of information from third-party data marketers such as Datalogix Inc., Acxiom Corp. and Alliance Data Systems Corp.’s Epsilon. That includes data on the Web pages that consumers visit, the email lists they have signed up for, and the way they are spending money online and offline.
A data broker like Datalogix, for example, aggregates information about which items and brands a consumer buys through sources like loyalty-card programs. Through software that obscures users’ identifying information such as email addresses and phone numbers, Datalogix and Facebook can combine their databases, and group users based on their offline purchases. Then, through the “partner categories” tool, brands can select which groups should see their advertisements.
For instance, a review of the “partner categories” tool by The Wall Street Journal found that categories often apply to tens of millions of people—for instance, there are some 20 million U.S. users who are heavy juice buyers on the social network.
A small chocolatier can target young parents in New York who buy lots of organic food products, for example. Hyundai Motor Co. recently ran a test to send ads to people identified as “intenders,” or those likely to buy a car soon based on their use of auto-research sites.
While Facebook doesn’t provide data on individuals to advertisers, it now can feed advertisers information on broad swaths of its members including their behavior outside of the social network. [Continue reading...]
Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele write: In the beginning, the technology gods created the Internet and saw that it was good. Here, at last, was a public sphere with unlimited potential for reasoned debate and the thoughtful exchange of ideas, an enlightening conversational bridge across the many geographic, social, cultural, ideological and economic boundaries that ordinarily separate us in life, a way to pay bills without a stamp.
Then someone invented “reader comments” and paradise was lost.
The Web, it should be said, is still a marvelous place for public debate. But when it comes to reading and understanding news stories online — like this one, for example — the medium can have a surprisingly potent effect on the message. Comments from some readers, our research shows, can significantly distort what other readers think was reported in the first place.
But here, it’s not the content of the comments that matters. It’s the tone.
In a study published online last month in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, we and three colleagues report on an experiment designed to measure what one might call “the nasty effect.”
We asked 1,183 participants to carefully read a news post on a fictitious blog, explaining the potential risks and benefits of a new technology product called nanosilver. These infinitesimal silver particles, tinier than 100-billionths of a meter in any dimension, have several potential benefits (like antibacterial properties) and risks (like water contamination), the online article reported.
Then we had participants read comments on the post, supposedly from other readers, and respond to questions regarding the content of the article itself.
Half of our sample was exposed to civil reader comments and the other half to rude ones — though the actual content, length and intensity of the comments, which varied from being supportive of the new technology to being wary of the risks, were consistent across both groups. The only difference was that the rude ones contained epithets or curse words, as in: “If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these kinds of products, you’re an idiot” and “You’re stupid if you’re not thinking of the risks for the fish and other plants and animals in water tainted with silver.”
The results were both surprising and disturbing. Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. [Continue reading...]
Nic Halverson writes: After Iran’s 2009 presidential elections, in what came to be known as the Green Movement, protesters flooded the streets and demanded that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be removed from office after he was accused of rigging votes to get reelected.
During that time, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps asked people to help identify dissenters in videos and photos, many of which were obtained from YouTube and social media sites. Since then, corrupt regimes, military and law enforcement agencies from across the Middle East, Europe and North America have routinely trolled YouTube and social media sites to try and identify protesters.
According to the 2011 Cameras Everywhere Report by human rights organization Witness, “No video-sharing site or hardware manufacturer currently offers users the option to blur faces or protect identity.”
Well, not anymore. YouTube has an announcement to make:
“As citizens continue to play a critical role in supplying news and human rights footage from around the world, YouTube is committed to creating even better tools to help them…Today we’re launching face blurring — a new tool that allows you to obscure faces within videos with the click of a button.” [Continue reading...]
Jillian York writes: Each time I log in to Facebook, I am presented with the option of visiting the profiles of friends currently in prison. These friends are not incarcerated in my country, the United States, nor are their “crimes” violent or drug-related. All are, rather, victims of political repression, imprisoned in Tehran and Damascus, or in hiding somewhere in Bahrain.
When Hossein Derakhshan (or “Hoder” as he is known to friends) was arrested back in 2009, he was the first blogger I’d met in person to fall victim to such a fate. We’d met the previous summer, at a Global Voices conference in Budapest, to the sound of dance music on a rooftop well past midnight. He was charismatic, and as I learned from many of his friends, conflicted. Just one year later, shortly after his ill-fated return to Iran, he would be arrested and sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Although our meeting had been brief, Hoder’s arrest impacted me pretty intensely. Seeing him largely ignored in the US press – despite previous praise as the “Blogfather” of the Iranian blogosphere – spurred me to speak up; I haven’t been silent since.
It was only a month after Hoder’s arrest that, along with some of the Arab world’s most prominent and respected bloggers, I was welcomed to Beirut for the second “Arabloggers” workshop for my work with Global Voices. It was there that, for the second time, I met Ali Abdulemam, the Bahraini blogger who by that point was well-known – at least in our blogger circles – for the online platform he had founded, Bahrain Online.
Like Hoder, perhaps Ali didn’t realise how brave his actions were. It was only a few months later that Bahrain began to crack down on dissidents. In August, Ali’s home was raided, he and his team arrested and charged with “inciting hatred of the government”. Though they were released not long after, Ali was arrested again the next month and charged with “spreading false information”. While in detention, he was fired from his job, tortured and reportedly denied legal counsel. He was free long enough to see the beginning of Bahrain’s uprising, but by the time the government once again began to crack down on bloggers and activists, he had disappeared.
In June 2011, Ali was tried by a military court in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly plotting an anti-government coup. He remains in hiding. More recently, my good friend Razan Ghazzawi spent time in prison for her brave work with the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, along with a number of her colleagues. Though she has since been released, Razan still faces a trial; her fate remains unknown.
Ali, Razan and Hoder are but three examples illustrating the repression that bloggers face throughout the Middle East and, increasingly, many countries across the globe. From Iran to China, Vietnam and back to Tunisia, the year following the “Arab Spring” and a series of global popular movements has resulted in crackdowns on expression, showing just how terrified governments have become of the voice accorded their citizens via the internet.
The Washington Post reports: From a trading desk in London, Paul Hawtin monitors the fire hose of more than 340 million Twitter posts flying around the world each day to try to assess the collective mood of the populace.
The computer program he uses generates a global sentiment score from 1 to 50 based on how pessimistic or optimistic people seem to be from their online conversations. Hawtin, chief executive of Derwent Capital Markets, buys and trades millions of dollars of stocks for private investors based on that number: When everyone appears happy, he generally buys. When anxiety runs high, he sells short.
Hawtin has seen a gain of more than 7 percent in the first quarter of this year, and his method shows the advantage individuals, companies and governments are gaining as they take hold of the unprecedented amount of data online. Traders such as Hawtin say analyzing mathematical trends on the Web delivers insights and news faster than traditional investment approaches.
The explosion in the use of Google, Facebook, Twitter and other services has resulted in the generation of some 2.5 quintillion bytes each day, according to IBM.
“Big data,” as it has been dubbed by researchers, has become so valuable that the World Economic Forum, in a report published last year, deemed it a new class of economic asset, like oil.
“Business boundaries are being redrawn,” the report said. Companies with the ability to mine the data are becoming the most powerful, it added.
While the human brain cannot comprehend that much information at once, advances in computer power and analytics have made it possible for machines to tease out patterns in topics of conversation, calling habits, purchasing trends, use of language, popularity of sports, spread of disease and other expressions of daily life.
“This is changing the world in a big way. It enables us to watch changes in society in real time and make decisions in a way we haven’t been able to ever before,” said Gary King, a social science professor at Harvard University and a co-founder of Crimson Hexagon, a data analysis firm based in Boston.
The Obama campaign employs rows of people manning computers that monitor Twitter sentiment about the candidates in key states. Google scientists are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track the spread of flu around the world by analyzing what people are typing in to search. And the United Nations is measuring inflation through computers that analyze the price of bread advertised in online supermarkets across Latin America.
Many questions about big data remain unanswered. Concerns are being raised about personal privacy and how consumers can ensure that their information is being used fairly. Some worry that savvy technologists could use Twitter or Google to create false trends and manipulate markets.
Even so, sociologists, software engineers, economists, policy analysts and others in nearly every field are jumping into the fray. And nowhere has big data been as transformative as it has been in finance. [Continue reading...]
Nicholas Carr writes: With a reported 900 million active members, Facebook is, by far, the largest digital-sharecropping operation that the internet has yet produced. About one out of every eight people on the planet sharecrops for Facebook today – and their collective labor is expected to put about a billion dollars of cash into CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s pocket when the company goes public in a few weeks. In a 2006 post, I explained why sharecropping is such a powerful business model for social networks and other online businesses:
One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.
Facebook’s most recent financial filing provides a great illustration of the “two economies” that underpin digital sharecropping. As Techcrunch noted, Facebook reported that it earned an average of $1.21 in revenue from each of its members during the first quarter of this year. [Continue reading...]
Stephen Marche writes: Yvette Vickers, a former Playboy playmate and B-movie star, best known for her role in Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, would have been 83 last August, but nobody knows exactly how old she was when she died. According to the Los Angeles coroner’s report, she lay dead for the better part of a year before a neighbor and fellow actress, a woman named Susan Savage, noticed cobwebs and yellowing letters in her mailbox, reached through a broken window to unlock the door, and pushed her way through the piles of junk mail and mounds of clothing that barricaded the house. Upstairs, she found Vickers’s body, mummified, near a heater that was still running. Her computer was on too, its glow permeating the empty space.
The Los Angeles Times posted a story headlined “Mummified Body of Former Playboy Playmate Yvette Vickers Found in Her Benedict Canyon Home,” which quickly went viral. Within two weeks, by Technorati’s count, Vickers’s lonesome death was already the subject of 16,057 Facebook posts and 881 tweets. She had long been a horror-movie icon, a symbol of Hollywood’s capacity to exploit our most basic fears in the silliest ways; now she was an icon of a new and different kind of horror: our growing fear of loneliness. Certainly she received much more attention in death than she did in the final years of her life. With no children, no religious group, and no immediate social circle of any kind, she had begun, as an elderly woman, to look elsewhere for companionship. Savage later told Los Angeles magazine that she had searched Vickers’s phone bills for clues about the life that led to such an end. In the months before her grotesque death, Vickers had made calls not to friends or family but to distant fans who had found her through fan conventions and Internet sites.
Vickers’s web of connections had grown broader but shallower, as has happened for many of us. We are living in an isolation that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors, and yet we have never been more accessible. Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. In 2010, at a cost of $300 million, 800 miles of fiber-optic cable was laid between the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange to shave three milliseconds off trading times. Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation. We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are. We were promised a global village; instead we inhabit the drab cul-de-sacs and endless freeways of a vast suburb of information.
At the forefront of all this unexpectedly lonely interactivity is Facebook, with 845 million users and $3.7 billion in revenue last year. The company hopes to raise $5 billion in an initial public offering later this spring, which will make it by far the largest Internet IPO in history. Some recent estimates put the company’s potential value at $100 billion, which would make it larger than the global coffee industry — one addiction preparing to surpass the other. Facebook’s scale and reach are hard to comprehend: last summer, Facebook became, by some counts, the first Web site to receive 1 trillion page views in a month. In the last three months of 2011, users generated an average of 2.7 billion “likes” and comments every day. On whatever scale you care to judge Facebook — as a company, as a culture, as a country — it is vast beyond imagination.
Despite its immense popularity, or more likely because of it, Facebook has, from the beginning, been under something of a cloud of suspicion. The depiction of Mark Zuckerberg, in The Social Network, as a bastard with symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, was nonsense. But it felt true. It felt true to Facebook, if not to Zuckerberg. The film’s most indelible scene, the one that may well have earned it an Oscar, was the final, silent shot of an anomic Zuckerberg sending out a friend request to his ex-girlfriend, then waiting and clicking and waiting and clicking — a moment of superconnected loneliness preserved in amber. We have all been in that scene: transfixed by the glare of a screen, hungering for response.
When you sign up for Google+ and set up your Friends circle, the program specifies that you should include only “your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable sharing private details with.” That one little phrase, Your real friends — so quaint, so charmingly mothering — perfectly encapsulates the anxieties that social media have produced: the fears that Facebook is interfering with our real friendships, distancing us from each other, making us lonelier; and that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer. [Continue reading...]
The Guardian reports: It had been viewed more than 77m times around the world, but not by those who know the Joseph Kony best: his victims in northern Uganda.
That changed on Tuesday night when thousands flocked to watch Kony 2012, the video made by a US charity urging a grassroots campaign against the fugitive warlord that has gone viral.
The film was projected on to an ersatz cinema screen fashioned from a white sheet, held up by metal poles, in a town park. The reaction? Puzzlement, then anger, which boiled over into scuffles and stone-throwing that sent organisers fleeing for cover.
There was particular criticism of the Stop Kony campaign’s use of merchandise, such as bracelets and T-shirts, which victims said they find offensive.
“People were very angry about the film,” said Victor Ochen, director of a local charity, the African Youth Initiative Network (Ayinet), which arranged the screening. “They were all saying, ‘This is not about us, it does not reflect our lives’.”
Ochen said he had wanted to provide an opportunity for victims to see the film made by the charity Invisible Children, mindful that less than 2% of Ugandans have internet access.
The video, posted on YouTube on 5 March and narrated by one of Invisible Children’s founders, Jason Russell, had drawn the support of celebrities including George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, but provoked criticism for oversimplifying the conflict and not making clear that Kony was driven out of Uganda several years ago.
Before sunset on Tuesday two metal rods were hammered into dry dirt and grass and a white sheet hoisted to create an open-air cinema in the mayor’s gardens in the centre of Lira, 220 miles north of the capital, Kampala.
Word about the “premiere” spread on local radio, drawing a crowd on foot and bicycle that grew over several hours and was estimated at more than 35,000 by Ochen, though others put it at more like 5,000.
The expectant, excited spectators, many of whom cannot speak English, included victims who have been left scarred and maimed by Kony’s atrocities.
But Ochen, whose own father and brother were abducted by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), said on Wednesday: “Reacting to the film, there was a strong sense that the video was definitely not produced for an African audience, and that it was not sensitive enough to the victims.
“It was very hurtful for them and their families to see posters, bracelets and buttons, all looking like slick campaign ads of the person most responsible for their shattered lives. One young man who lost four brothers and one of his arms said afterwards: ‘How can anybody expect me to wear a T-shirt with Kony’s name on it?’”
He added: “For all the victims, the attempt to make Kony famous so as to prop up public support for his apprehension is laudable but the way this goal is pursued in the video is inappropriate and ignores their feelings.
“That fame is not what Kony deserves for causing so much suffering was one overwhelming reaction. People were asking: Why give such criminals celebrity status? Why not prioritise addressing the plight of the victims whose sufferings are visible?”
The screening ended amid jeers and scuffles, with some angry viewers throwing stones. Ayinet has decided to suspend planning screenings of Kony 2012 in other parts of northern Uganda indefinitely due to the hostile reaction.