With Privacy as Its Shield, Facebook Hopes To Conquer the Entire Internet.

Never mind that man behind the privacy curtain.

I’ll never forget a meal I had with a senior executive at Facebook many years ago, back when I was just starting to question the motives of the burgeoning startup’s ambition. I asked whether the company would ever support publishers across the “rest of the web” – perhaps through an advertising system competitive with Google’s AdSense. The executive’s response was startling and immediate. Everything anyone ever needs to do – including publishing – can and should be done on Facebook. The rest of the Internet was a sideshow. It’s just easier if everything is on one platform, I was told. And Facebook’s goal was to be that platform.

Those words still ring in my ears as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web today. And they certainly should inform our perspective as we continue to digest Facebook’s latest self-involved epiphany.

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My Senate Testimony

(image) Today I had a chance to testify to the US Senate on the subject of Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and data privacy. It was an honor, and a bit scary, but overall an experience I’ll never forget. Below is the written testimony I delivered to the Commerce committee on Sunday, released on its site today. If you’d like to watch, head right here, I think it’ll be up soon.  Forgive the way the links work, I had to consider that this would be printed and bound in the Congressional Record. I might post a shorter version that I read in as my verbal remarks next…we’ll see.


 

Honorable Committee Members –

 

My name is John Battelle, for more than thirty years, I’ve made my career reporting, writing, and starting companies at the intersection of technology, society, and business. I appreciate the opportunity to submit this written and verbal testimony to your committee.

Over the years I’ve written extensively about the business models, strategies, and societal impact of technology companies, with a particular emphasis on the role of data, and the role of large, well-known firms. In the 1980s and 90s I focused on Apple and Microsoft, among others. In the late 90s I focused on the nascent Internet industry, the early 2000s brought my attention to Google, Amazon, and later, Twitter and Facebook. My writings tend to be observational, predictive, analytical, and opinionated.

Concurrently I’ve been an entrepreneur, founding or co-founding and leading half a dozen companies in the media and technology industries. All of these companies, which span magazines, digital publishing tools, events, and advertising technology platforms, have been active participants in what is broadly understood to be the “technology industry” in the United States and, on several occasions, abroad as well. Over the years these companies have employed thousands of staff members, including hundreds of journalists, and helped to support tens of thousands of independent creators across the Internet. I also serve on the boards of several companies, all of which are deeply involved in the technology and data industries.

In the past few years my work has focused on the role of the corporation in society, with a particular emphasis on the role technology plays in transforming that role. Given this focus, a natural subject of my work has been on companies that are the most visible exemplars of technology’s impact on business and society. Of these, Facebook has been perhaps my most frequent subject in the past year or two.

Given the focus of this hearing, the remainder of my written testimony will focus on a number of observations related generally to Facebook, and specifically to the impact of the Cambridge Analytica story. For purposes of brevity, I will summarize many of my points here, and provide links to longer form writings that can be found on the open Internet.

Facebook broke through the traditional Valley startup company noise in the mid 2000s, a typical founder-driven success story backed by all the right venture capital, replete with a narrative of early intrigue between partners, an ambitious mission (“to make the world more open and connected”), a sky-high private valuation, and any number of controversial decisions around its relationship to its initial customers, the users of its service (later in its life, Facebook’s core customers bifurcated to include advertisers). I was initially skeptical about the service, but when Sheryl Sandberg, a respected Google executive, moved to Facebook to run its advertising business, I became certain it would grow to be one of the most important companies in technology. I was convinced Facebook would challenge Google for supremacy in the hyper-growth world of personalized advertising. In those early days, I often made the point that while Google’s early corporate culture sprang from the open, interconnected world wide web, Facebook was built on the precept of an insular walled garden, where a user’s experience was entirely controlled by the Facebook service itself. This approach to creating a digital service not only threatened the core business model of Google (which was based on indexing and creating value from open web pages), it also raised a significant question of what kind of public commons we wanted to inhabit as we migrated our attention and our social relationships to the web. (Examples: https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/02/its-not-whether-googles-threatened-its-asking-ourselves-what-commons-do-we-wish-for ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/03/why-hath-google-forsaken-us-a-meditation)

In the past five or so years, of course, Facebook has come to dominate what is colloquially known as the public square – the metaphorical space where our society comes together to communicate with itself, to debate matters of public interest, and to privately and publicly converse on any number of topics. Since the dawn of the American republic, independent publishers (often referred to as the Fourth Estate – from pamphleteers to journalists to bloggers) have always been important actors in the center of this space. As a publisher myself, I became increasingly concerned that Facebook’s appropriation of public discourse would imperil the viability of independent publishers. This of course has come to pass.

As is well understood by members of this committee, Facebook employed two crucial strategies to grow its service in its early days. The first was what is universally known as the News Feed, which mixed personal news from “friends” with public stories from independent publishers. The second strategy was the Facebook “Platform,” which encouraged developers to create useful (and sometimes not so useful) products and services inside Facebook’s walled garden service. During the rise of both News Feed and Platform, I repeatedly warned independent publishers to avoid committing themselves and their future viability to either News Feed or the Platform, as Facebook would likely change its policies in the future, leaving publishers without recourse. (Examples: https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/01/put-your-taproot-into-the-independent-web ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2012/11/facebook-is-now-making-its-own-weather ; https://shift.newco.co/we-can-fix-this-f-cking-mess-bf6595ac6ccd ; https://shift.newco.co/ads-blocking-and-tackling-18129db3c352)

Of course, the potent mix of News Feed and a subset of independent publishers combined to deliver us the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and we are still grappling with the implications of this incident on our democracy. But it is important to remember that while the Cambridge Analytica breach seems unusual, it is in fact not – it represents business as usual for Facebook. Facebook’s business model is driven by its role as a data broker. Early in its history, Facebook realized it could grow faster if it allowed third parties, often referred to as developers, to access its burgeoning trove of user data, then manipulate that data to create services on Facebook’s platform that increased a Facebook user’s engagement on the platform. Indeed, in his early years as CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg was enamored with the “platform business model,” and hoped to emulate such icons as Bill Gates (who built the Windows platform) or Steve Jobs (who later built the iOS/app store platform).

However, Facebook’s core business model of advertising, driven as it is by the brokerage of its users’ personal information, stood in conflict with Zuckerberg’s stated goal of creating a world-beating platform. By their nature, platforms are places where third parties can create value. They do so by leveraging the structure, assets, and distribution inherent to the platform. In the case of Windows, for example, developers capitalized on Microsoft’s well-understood user interface, its core code base, and its massive adoption by hundreds of millions of computer users. Bill Gates famously defined a successful platform as one that creates more value for the ecosystem that gathers around it than for the platform itself. By this test – known as the Gates Line – Facebook’s early platform fell far short. Developers who leveraged access to Facebook’s core asset – its user data – failed to make enough advertising revenue to be viable, because Facebook (and its advertisers) would always preference Facebook’s own advertising inventory over that of its developer partners. In retrospect, it’s now commonly understood in the Valley that Facebook’s platform efforts were a failure in terms of creating a true ecosystem of value, but a success in terms of driving ever more engagement through Facebook’s service.

For an advertising-based business model, engagement trumps all other possible metrics. As it grew into one of the most successful public companies in the history of business, Facebook nimbly identified the most engaging portions of its developer ecosystem, incorporated those ideas into its core services, and became a ruthlessly efficient acquirer and manipulator of its users’ engagement. It then processed that engagement into advertising opportunities, leveraging its extraordinary data assets in the process. Those advertising opportunities drew millions of advertisers large and small, and built the business whose impact we now struggle to understand.

To truly understand the impact of Facebook on our culture, we must first understand the business model it employs. Interested observers of Facebook will draw ill-informed conclusions about the company absent a deep comprehension of its core driver – the business of personalized advertising. I have written extensively on this subject, but a core takeaway is this: The technology infrastructure that allows companies like Facebook to identify exactly the right message to put in front of exactly the right person at exactly the right time are, in all aspects of the word, marvelous. But the externalities of manufacturing attention and selling it to the highest bidder have not been fully examined by our society. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/its-the-advertising-model-stupid-b843cd7edbe9 ; https://shift.newco.co/its-the-advertising-model-stupid-b843cd7edbe9 ; https://shift.newco.co/lost-context-how-did-we-end-up-here-fd680c0cb6da ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2013/11/why-the-banner-ad-is-heroic-and-adtech-is-our-greatest-technology-artifact ; https://shift.newco.co/do-big-advertisers-even-matter-to-the-platforms-9c8ccfe6d3dc )

The Cambridge Analytica scandal has finally focused our attention on these externalities, and we should use this opportunity to go beyond the specifics of that incident, and consider the broader implications. The “failure” of Facebook’s Platform initiative is not a failure of the concept of an open platform. It is instead a failure by an immature, blinkered company (Facebook) to properly govern its own platform, as well as a failure of our own regulatory oversight to govern the environment in which Facebook operates. Truly open platforms are regulated by the platform creator in a way that allows for explosive innovation (see the Gates Line) and shared value creation. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/its-not-the-platforms-that-need-regulation-2f55177a2297 ; https://shift.newco.co/memo-to-techs-titans-please-remember-what-it-was-like-to-be-small-d6668a8fa630)

The absolutely wrong conclusion to draw from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that entities like Facebook must build ever-higher walls around their services and their data. In fact, the conclusion should be the opposite. A truly open society should allow individuals and properly governed third parties to share their data so as to create a society of what Nobel laureate Edmond Phelps calls “mass flourishing.” My own work now centers on how our society might shift what I call the “social architecture of data” from one where the control, processing and value exchange around data is managed entirely by massive, closed entities like Facebook, to one where individuals and their contracted agents manage that process themselves. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/are-we-dumb-terminals-86f1e1315a63 ; https://shift.newco.co/facebook-tear-down-this-wall-400385b7475d ; https://shift.newco.co/how-facebook-google-amazon-and-their-peers-could-change-techs-awful-narrative-9a758516210a ; https://shift.newco.co/on-facebook-a156710f2679 ; https://battellemedia.com/archives/2014/03/branded-data-preferences )

Another mistaken belief to emerge from the Cambridge Analytica scandal is that any company, no matter how powerful, well intentioned, or intelligent, can by itself “fix” the problems the scandal has revealed. Facebook has grown to a size, scope, and impact on our society that outstrips its ability to manage the externalities it has created. To presume otherwise is to succumb to arrogance, ignorance, or worse. The bald truth is this: Not even Mark Zuckerberg understands how Facebook works, nor does he comprehend its impact on our society. (Examples: https://shift.newco.co/we-allowed-this-to-happen-were-sorry-we-need-your-help-e26ed0bc87ac ; https://shift.newco.co/i-apologize-d5c831ce0690 ; https://shift.newco.co/facebooks-data-trove-may-well-determine-trump-s-fate-71047fd86921 ; https://shift.newco.co/its-time-to-ask-ourselves-how-tech-is-changing-our-kids-and-our-future-2ce1d0e59c3c )

Another misconception: Facebook does not “sell” its data to any third parties. While Facebook may not sell copies of its data to these third parties, it certainly sells leases to that data, and this distinction bears significant scrutiny. The company may not wish to be understood as such, but it is most certainly the largest data broker in the history of the data industry.

Lastly, the Cambridge Analytica scandal may seem to be entirely about a violation of privacy, but to truly understand its impact, we must consider the implications relating to future economic innovation. Facebook has used the scandal as an excuse to limit third party data sharing across and outside its platform. While this seems logical on first glance, it is in fact destructive to long term economic value creation.

So what might be done about all of this? While I understand the lure of sweeping legislation that attempts to “cure” the ills of technological progress, such approaches often have their own unexpected consequences. For example, the EU’s adoption of GDPR, drafted to limit the power of companies like Facebook, may in fact only strengthen that company’s grip on its market, while severely limiting entrepreneurial innovation in the process (Example: https://shift.newco.co/how-gdpr-kills-the-innovation-economy-844570b70a7a )

As policy makers and informed citizens, we should strive to create a flexible, secure, and innovation friendly approach to data governance that allows for maximum innovation while also insuring maximum control over the data by all effected parties, including individuals, and importantly, the beneficiaries of future innovation yet conceived and created. To play forward the current architecture of data in our society – where most of the valuable information is controlled by an increasingly small oligarchy of massive corporations – is to imagine a sterile landscape hostile to new ideas and mass flourishing.

Instead, we must explore a world governed by an enlightened regulatory framework that encourages data sharing, high standards of governance, and maximum value creation, with the individual at the center of that value exchange. As I recently wrote: “Imagine … you can download your own Facebook or Amazon “token,” a magic data coin containing not only all the useful data and insights about you, but a control panel that allows you to set and revoke permissions around that data for any context. You might pass your Amazon token to Walmart, set its permissions to “view purchase history” and ask Walmart to determine how much money it might have saved you had you purchased those items on Walmart’s service instead of Amazon. You might pass your Facebook token to Google, set the permissions to compare your social graph with others across Google’s network, and then ask Google to show you search results based on your social relationships. You might pass your Google token to a startup that already has your genome and your health history, and ask it to munge the two in case your 20-year history of searching might infer some insights into your health outcomes. This might seem like a parlor game, but this is the kind of parlor game that could unleash an explosion of new use cases for data, new startups, new jobs, and new economic value.”

It is our responsibility to examine our current body of legislation as it relates to how corporations such as Facebook impact the lives of consumers and the norms of our society overall. Much of the argument around this issue turns on the definition of “consumer harm” under current policy. Given that data is non-rivalrous and services such as Facebook are free of charge, it is often presumed there is no harm to consumers (or by extension, to society) in its use. This also applies to arguments about antitrust enforcement. I think our society will look back on this line of reasoning as deeply flawed once we evolve to an understanding of data as equal to – or possibly even more valuable than – monetary currency.

Most observers of technology agree that data is a new class of currency in society, yet we continue to struggle to understand its impact, and how best to govern it. The manufacturing of data into currency is the main business of Facebook and countless other information age businesses. Currently the only participatory right in this value creation for a user of these services is to A/engage with the services offered and B/purchase the stock of the company offering the services. Neither of these options affords the user – or society – compensation commensurate with the value created for the firm. We can and must do better as a society, and we can and must expect more of our business leaders.

(More: https://shift.newco.co/its-time-for-platforms-to-come-clean-on-political-advertising-69311f582955 ; https://shift.newco.co/come-on-what-did-you-think-they-do-with-your-data-396fd855e7e1 ; https://shift.newco.co/tech-is-public-enemy-1-so-now-what-dee0c0cc40fe ; https://shift.newco.co/why-is-amazons-go-not-bodega-2-0-6f148075afd5 ; https://shift.newco.co/predictions-2017-cfe0806bed84 ; https://shift.newco.co/the-automatic-weapons-of-social-media-3ccce92553ad )

Respectfully submitted,

John Battelle

Ross, California

June 17, 2018

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Else 3.3.14: Is The Internet A Utility?

elecutilThe week was dominated by Google related stories, but the top dialog had to do with the Internet itself. I’m sensing something of a shift in society’s beliefs about the Internet’s central role in our humanity. Five years ago, no one wanted to talk about Internet access as a basic human right. In 2012, the UN called it exactly that. With access consolidating into what looks like a natural monopoly, might regulation as a utility be far behind?

Real Time (Medium) Another, denser version of previous essays asking whether it isn’t time to call the Internet a basic utility. “..the immaterial organisation of the internet has now become the most dominant force on this side of the planet...” Unfortunately, this piece is too dense. Try this one instead: The Internet Is Fucked (TechCrunch) in which the author enjoins: “Go ahead, say it out loud. The internet is a utility.There, you’ve just skipped past a quarter century of regulatory corruption and lawsuits that still rage to this day and arrived directly at the obvious conclusion.” Of course, that created a rejoinder: More? – “The Internet is an incredibly useful tool in modern society, but it isn’t essential to the basic functioning of society. Utilities are.” My take: The Internet is a basic need now for the info-organism we are all becoming. So I’m leaning toward the utility camp, I’m afraid. There’s a new book on the subject, should you be interested.

The Monuments of Tech  (NYTimes.com) A meditation, with far too photos, on the meaning of the campuses built by Google, Twitter, Apple, Facebook. Have you read The Circle yet? Read The Circle. Then read this.

Welcome to Googletown (The Verge) As long as we’re talking tech monuments, here’s a full blown deep dive into the relationship between Google and its Silicon Valley home, Mountain View. As one might expect, it’s fraught. But I’ve spent time in Mountain View before Google got there. Not that much has changed, outwardly. If Google keeps growing the way it’s planning to grow, that won’t be the case.

Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so (The Guardian) Part of me wonders why they let Ray Kurzweil out of the building at Google. But this is worth reading in any case. Related: Kurzweil’s review of Spike Jonze’ Her. 

When quantified-self apps leave you with more questions than answers (The Daily Dot ) Something of a takedown on admittedly kludgy first generation self trackers. “I tweet a lot, but it’s mostly nonsense. I don’t have a whole lot of use for “data” about myself.” I just started using the Nike Fuelband. I’ll post plenty about that I’m sure, as the first week has proven interesting.

Can Privacy Be Saved? (The New York Review of Books) Don’t you love articles that ask questions, then fail to answer them? Me too. This is a review of various government reports and Presidential speeches arising from the Snowden revelations. The essay makes a strong case for – making a stronger case for privacy. It ends by citing Orwell, Dick, and Bradbury. It does not answer the question – which may well be the answer after all.

To Be Clear: Do Not Build Your Brand House On Land You Don’t Own (Searchblog) In case you missed it, a small reminder about the perils of building on rented land.

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else 2.24: “This is how revolutions begin”

This week we thought about paid peering, fiber, and privacy in a lot of different contexts. As always if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

 

Inside The Netflix/Comcast Deal and What The Media Is Getting Very Wrong — Streaming Media
Dan Rayburn clarifies some of the bad reporting on the Netflix Comcast deal: “it simply comes down to Netflix making a business decision that it makes sense for them to deliver their content directly to Comcast, instead of through a third party” and adding that Comcast guarantees certain quality by an SLA.

Comcast is definitely throttling Netflix, and it’s infuriating
Matt Vukas tries to parse what’s going on with Comcast’s alleged throttling of Netflix traffic, playing around with encrypted VPN that masks the video traffic, and pinging the traceroute to see where is packets are coming from. His follow up post describes how hard it is for consumers to understand what’s going on with their internet traffic, especially when CDN peering relationships are part of the problem.

ajblum_house of cards

Exploring new cities for Google Fiber — Google Blog
Google expands its experiments in Kansas City and Austin to a few major cities including Portland and the Research Triangle area. This is certainly an interesting step forward, especially as the natural monopoly of cable internet providers expands. So how do we feel about Google controlling the pipes and the content?

In Pricey Facebook Deal for WhatsApp, Two Strong-Willed CEOs — WSJ
Real names or not, the value is in the usage metadata. But WhatsApp will continue to operate independently from Facebook.

Can Someone Explain WhatsApp’s Valuation To Me? — LinkedIn
danah boyd (whose new book on teens social media use just came out!) walks through the logic for WhatsApp’s value when most of what it’s solving for is “carrier stupidity.”

Glass, Darkly — MIT Technology Review
Another in depth review on Glass likes the possibilities, “But for many, I think, Glass faces an insurmountable problem. It’s impossible to miss.”

Whose Life is it Anyway? — Bookforum
Clive Thompson’s review of Julia Angwin (formerly of the Wall Street Journal’s What They Know Series) details the arduous process of becoming truly secure online.

Data pioneers watching us work — FT
Mining for efficiency and effectiveness gains, but it all sounds a little creepy, too. Steelcase is even putting sensors into furniture.

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else 12.16: “It’s not entirely rational”

This week, Google is on our minds and in the news, cookies are used for surveillance, the ephemeral web isn’t so ephemeral, and we’ve got more friends thinking about our emerging Data Society.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

 

Google’s Road Map to Global Domination – NYTimes
A long read on Google’s continued efforts to map the world. We’ve seen how important the map is to the success of the self-driving car. But is this a question of the map and the territory? “It’s not entirely rational to build a map like Google has.” Includes obligatory Borges reference, of course.

Google Adds to Its Menagerie of Robots – NYTimes
Google is acquiring Boston Dynamics, robotics firm responsible for animal-like robots in BigDog. The company also has ties to DARPA. And the autonomous plot thickens…

Google Removes Vital Privacy Feature From Android, Claiming Its Release Was Accidental – EFF
Seems like a privacy-enhancing feature that blocked apps from collecting personal data like location information was accidentally released in a recent version of Android.

NSA uses Google cookies to pinpoint targets for hacking – Washington Post
Slides suggest GooglePREFID cookies are used to identify surveillance targets. And that seemingly innocuous advertising use of cookies bleeds into more problematic uses.

4 Reasons Why Apple’s iBeacon Is About to Disrupt Interaction Design – Wired
Bluetooth Low Energy will bring us contextual information, tying content to the physical world around us.

State of Deception: Why won’t the President rein in the intelligence community? – The New Yorker
Details the political challenge weighing privacy and security against each other. The interesting takeaway for me was about the illusion of oversight: “People get on this committee and the first thing the intelligence community tries to do is get them to be ambassadors for the intelligence community rather than people doing vigorous oversight. The intelligence community basically takes everybody aside and says, ‘Here’s the way it works. . . .’ There’s no discussion about privacy issues or questions about civil liberties—those usually get thrown in afterward.”

Surveillance: Cozy or Chilling? – NYTimes
This piece explores the bodily metaphors we use to understand legal precedents for surveillance. “This framing question of ‘expectation of privacy’ is how courts currently determine what government behavior is permissible. And surely our metaphors for new technologies are vital to explaining what we ‘expect’ in terms of privacy.”

On Second Thought … Facebook wants to know why you didn’t publish that status update you started writing.  – Slate
The status updates you abandon are still being watched – if not the content then at the very least the occurance. A new study reveals self-censorship patterns on Facebook.

Disruptions: Internet’s Sad Legacy: No More Secrets – NYTimes
Even the services we thought were bringing us the emphemeral web are not as temporary as we might have expected. It is safer to assume everything is stored.

Computer Algorithm May Soon Be Picking Hipsters Out Of The Crowd – Red Orbit
Visual sorting algorithm tells the difference between hipster and goth style, binning “urban tribes.” Even if you wouldn’t call yourself a hipster, this algorithm can spot your beard.

Data & Society
danah boyd et al. are launching Data & Society, a new think/do tank addressing “social, technical, ethical, legal, and policy issues that are emerging because of data-centric technological development.” We’re excited to see more activity like this—keep an eye on this space!

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else 11/25: The Collective Hallucination of Currency

This week, bitcoin seems to have gotten the thumbs up for innovation despite some shady origins, lots of background details came out about the circumstances that approved NSA dragnet, and privacy is declared an anomaly. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS. And tweet us links!

 

Bitcoin mining operation

Senate Committee Listens to Bitcoin Experts, Expresses Open-Mindedness – On Bitcoin
This does a good job summing up the week’s news around how the US is approaching new developments in Bitcoin. Namely, comparing it to the early internet, and echoing the importance of not stifling innovation with overly restrictive policy.

Bitcoins Bitcoins Everywhere – Brad Feld
On the heels of the bitcoin hype of this week, Feld offers a helpful deconstruction: “It’s possible to separate the functions of value store, unit of account, and transaction mechanism. They fit together neatly and are systemically related, but they’re three different things…As a software person, I think of this as a platform. A new electronic payment platform that may have significant advantages over most of the existing ones.”

The Myth of Virtual Currency – Cyborgology
“Calling Bitcoins ‘virtual currency’ is nonsensical because all currencies are virtual in that they are ‘collective hallucinations’ about measurement of worth, and they are all equally physical because they are held, exchanged and produced in very tangible ways with equally tangible consequences.”

Congress and Courts Weigh Restraints on N.S.A. Spying – NYTimes
How to handle critical response to the NSA is becoming messy, a challenge from the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed directly to the Supreme Court is turned away. It argued that the NSA “exceeded its statutory jurisdiction when it ordered production of millions of domestic telephone records that cannot plausibly be relevant to an authorized investigation.”

Fisa court order that allowed NSA surveillance is revealed for first time – The Guardian
Revealing that the “novel use” of surveillance technology made bulk collection hard to compare to previous precedents. “These definitions do not restrict the use of pen registers or trap-and-trace devices to communication facilities associated with individual users, it is finding that these definitions encompass an exceptionally broad form of collection.”

N.S.A. Report Outlined Goals for More Power – NYTimes.com
On the “golden age of Sigint”: “To be ‘optimally effective,’ the paper said, ‘legal, policy and process authorities must be as adaptive and dynamic as the technological and operational advances we seek to exploit.'”

Google’s chief internet evangelist says ‘privacy may actually be an anomaly’ – The Verge
Vint Cerf takes a historical view of privacy being relatively novel, the result of the anonymizing affordances of urban living. His important point: that we are still figuring out “social conventions that are more respectful of people’s privacy.”

Things You’re Not Supposed to Do With Google Glass – Google Glass Dating – Esquire
A.J. Jacobs did everything you are not supposed to do—including reading, getting outside help at poker, and playing Cyrano—to amusing ends.

If this doesn’t terrify you… Google’s computers OUTWIT their humans – The Register
Despite the link-baity headline, pretty interesting to think about when we can no longer understand how our algorithms work…”This means that for some things, Google researchers can no longer explain exactly how the system has learned to spot certain objects, because the programming appears to think independently from its creators, and its complex cognitive processes are inscrutable. This ‘thinking’ is within an extremely narrow remit, but it is demonstrably effective and independently verifiable.”

A Palimpsest of Code – Snarkmarket
The Google books ruling is all about turning the physical into digital: “Similarly, Google Books is also transformative in the sense that it has transformed book text into data for purposes of substantive research, including data mining and text mining in new areas, thereby opening up new fields of research. Words in books are being used in a way they have not been used before.”

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else 11.4: “Where’s the rage, man?”

This week, we dig deeper into the political implications of NSA revelations, we think about how we live with technology, note that self-driving cars are safe but driving under the influence of Glass is not, and bitcoin goes mainstream as a transaction protocol.

As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

nsa_smiley

NSA infiltrates links to Yahoo, Google data centers worldwide, Snowden documents say – Washington Post
It just keeps getting worse…this time with a cheeky emoticon smiley.

It’s time for Silicon Valley to ask: Is it worth it? – Pandodaily
Evoking David Foster Wallace’s question: “Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it?” we have to wonder where these trade offs between security and privacy and overly broad law leave us.

The Real Privacy Problem – MIT Technology Review
Passing privacy legislation won’t solve the real civic problem, argues Evgeny Morozov. “How can we make sure that we have more control over our personal information?—cannot be the only question to ask. Unless we learn and continuously relearn how automated information processing promotes and impedes democratic life, an answer to this question might prove worthless, especially if the democratic regime needed to implement whatever answer we come up with unravels in the meantime.”

Data transparency effort – successful in U.K. – to be tested in U.S. – Knight Foundation
Tim Berners-Lee and the Knight Foundation bring UK experiment the Open Data Institute to the US, advocating data standards to improve transparency.

Waiting for the Next Great Technology Critic – The New Yorker
On the event of Pogue’s and Mossberg’s respective departures from their papers, Matt Buchanan explores the kind of consumer tech criticism we need now that goes beyond describing consumption of beautiful gadgets: “The questions that consumers face, in other words, are less about what to buy than about how to live.”

Data Shows Google’s Robot Cars Are Smoother, Safer Drivers Than You or I – MIT Technology Review
Google is beginning to share data on how its self-driving cars are better drivers than humans. That same data will likely be used to change how liability gets determined: “We don’t have to rely on eyewitnesses that can’t act be trusted as to what happened—we actually have the data…The guy around us wasn’t paying enough attention. The data will set you free.”

California Woman Gets the First Ticket for Driving with Google Glass – Glass Almanac
Existing laws bump up against new technology. The California law bars video devices “at a point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and the monitor, screen, or display is visible to the driver while driving the motor vehicle.”

Bitcoin Pursues the Mainstream – NYTimes
Entrepreneur Jeremy Allaire enters the bitcoin ring with his latest start up, Circle, and calls Bitcoin as significant as the web browser.

Bitcoin as Protocol – Union Square Ventures
Bitcoin’s is changing the way transactions are represented in a “distributed public ledger.” Much like HTTP, TCP/IP and DNS, this protocol will be a building block for further innovation.

Finally, an Art Form That Gets the Internet: Opera – The Atlantic
The challenge of depicting drama as a digital media is taken on in this Opera, Two Boys. “This is an opera that is essentially set on the Internet,” says Mark Grimmer. “And we don’t know what the Internet really looks like.”

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else 9.16: Start Making Sense

This week, we’re excited about what the new M7 sensors mean for iPhone activity tracking, we’re thinking about how to rebuild trust in the internet and tech companies post-Snowden, and we’re listening to some music that plays with the boundaries between analog and digital. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Apple’s M7 Motion Sensing Coprocessor Is The Wizard Behind The Curtain For The iPhone 5s – TechCrunch
One of the most interesting new features of the iPhone 5S is the M7 sensors that bring fitness tracking to the devices we already carry in our pockets, making it easier for us to all become quantified selves without having to remember to wear our Fitbits or Jawbones.

M7 motion coprocessor will make tracking walking, running, or even driving more efficient.

This bracelet could replace your passwords, your car keys, and even your fingerprints – The Verge
Using ECG as a unique biomarker, the Nymi might introduce new ways of using our physical attributes as digital identifiers.

E-ZPasses Get Read All Over New York (Not Just At Toll Booths) – Forbes
A hacked E-ZPass reveals other checkpoints where it is surreptitiously read on the road. Must we assume that if a sensor is present, it will be read?

Video: Google Finally Explains the Tech Behind Their Autonomous Cars – PopSci
It’s a little old, but it’s a great walk through of what’s going on with driverless cars. We’re especially intrigued by the programmed signaling that goes on at four-way intersection.

Government Announces Steps to Restore Confidence on Encryption Standards – NYTimes
NIST needs to restore trust after it was revealed that the NSA is able to break encryption standards.

CloudFlare CEO: ‘Insane’ NSA gag order is costing U.S. tech firms customers – Washington Post
Customers demand greater transparency, but there are barriers to disclosing data requests details that explain tech companies’ interactions with the NSA.

Government Secrecy and the Generation Gap – FT
Bruce Schneier writes that the culture of loyalty and secrecy that intelligence agencies relies on is breaking down with generational differences. Expect more whistleblowers.

Dawn of Midi – Radiolab
This Radiolab short features Dawn of Midi, a band that plays with the boundaries between acoustic and electronic music production. We’ve gone from analog to digital and back again. Worth a listen for the music, and for the description of the process we’re going through as our tools expand our understanding of what we might be capable.

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else 9.3: Staring at the Tiny Screens

This week: Gartner’s latest hype cycle addresses the relationship between humans and machines, moral panics about our attention and time resurface, UPS optimizes drop offs around the happiness of drivers, Bitcoin’s regulatory environment gets messy, and data brokers take steps towards improved consumer transparency. As always, if you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Maps Out Evolving Relationship Between Humans and Machines – Gartner
Gartner’s latest hype cycle on emerging technologies focuses on the relationship between humans and machines. Any one of these technologies stand as examples of how data is shaping our world, and how our world is becoming data.

Google Glass and a Futuristic Vision of Fashion – Vogue
Wearable tech gets the haute couture treatment in the September issue of Vogue. The spread mixes retrofuturist aesthetic with modernist architecture. This isn’t the first time Google Glass has gone high-fashion.

Vogue Goes Back to the Future. Don’t expect enlightenment here. 

We’ve seen a streak of moral panics about how technology is changing how we relate to others around us; that we are getting out of touch with being present. Rebecca Solnit walks through the evolution, and does a poetic job of noting how we’re letting technology break up our time, and how we might reconnect with the physical world. Mike Rugnetta cuts through the language that gives agency to our devices, when we should be taking ownership over our decisions about how we use technology. Charlene deGuzman’s painful but true I Forgot My Phone gets the NYT treatment, and Clive Thompson suggests that Glass will only be most useful to interrupt or augment our attention when it matters.

The Giant Hurdle For The Internet Of Things – Popsci
What will the protocol to connect and integrate the the Internet of Things look like? There’s lots of work to be done here. Larger, cheaper wireless networks like Flutter could help connect sensor devices.

Unhappy Truckers and Other Algorithmic Problems – Nautilus
Tom Vanderbilt (author of Traffic, which we’ve also been reading), writes about the challenges of modeling the human aspects of the traveling salesman problem in UPS delivery optimization. “But modeling the real world, with constraints like melting ice cream and idiosyncratic human behavior, is often where the real challenge lies.”

Bitcoin’s complex and changing regulatory environment – Pandodaily
As cryptographic currencies like Bitcoin gain policy makers’ and regulators‘ attention, things are getting complicated.

A Data Broker Offers a Peek Behind the Curtain – NYTimes
Acxiom will launch a consumer-facing data management interface at AbouttheData.com to give us the opportunity to update and correct the demographic data they have on us. This is an important step towards improved communication and transparency between data brokers and consumers. (Caveat: John is on the Board of Acxiom.)

Health apps run into privacy snags – FT
Research reveals how free health tracking apps like MapMyRun are sharing their data (with as many as 70 third parties). Another reminder that free services are never really free.

Thoughts on privacy – Doc Searls
Doc Searls walks us through a brief history of privacy and the internet. He talks about the human instinct to talk about privacy as a bodily sense of ownership; our physical world norms aren’t matching up with  digital realities. Our take: we still haven’t caught up with those evolving norms, but what if we are moving towards a hybrid reality where physical and digital norms are merging?

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else 8.26: Getting a Little Too Comfortable with Technology

This week in the else round up we explore the responsibilities of technology builders and designers, what it will take for 3D printers and autonomous vehicles to go mainstream, and how humans will always find ways to misuse technology. If you want to keep up with what we’re reading/thinking about on a weekly basis, the best way is to subscribe to the “else” feed, either as an email newsletter or through RSS.

Addicted to Apps – The New York Times
“We cannot rely on the makers of new technology to think about the moral and privacy implications.” This article walks us through the arc of seduction of new technologies, from distrust of the creepy to dependence on the critical. Outlines many of the reasons we’re tackling the societal implications of data in the book.

Addicted to Apps, The New York Times

The Machine Zone: This Is Where You Go When You Just Can’t Stop Looking at Pictures on Facebook – The Atlantic
Natasha Dow Schüll’s work on slot machine “Addiction by Design” might explain the pleasures of infinite scrolls and click throughs on Facebook photo albums. Incidentally, the 99% Invisible podcast mentioned is also great.

The Rise of the Period Apps: Where Big Data Meets Girlie Graphics – The Cut
Women have been tracking this for a long time. Now we have pink, flowery apps developed by men to help us make better data.

Marketing to the Quantified Self – Ad Exchanger
“First-party data” from self-quantifiers is closer to the consumers, but requires more value and trust in the exchange.

Why bitcoin has a firm foothold in the online gambling world – CoinDesk
Bitcoin gambling sites might have the added benefit of trustworthiness and transparency.

3D Printing Goes Mainstream Retail – The Atlantic
Consumers need a little hand-holding from engineers to bring their 3D printing needs to life at the UPS Store.

A 3-D Scanner Reaches for the Masses – The New York Times
The Digitizer desktop scanner will make 3-D printing more accessible to the masses.

Beyond the tech, autonomous driving is an issue of trust – and parking – Digital Trends
It’s going to take a lot of infrastructure changes, like databases of parking spaces, for driverless cars to take off at scale.

Do our brains pay a price for GPS? – The Boston Globe
GPS impacts on our mental maps and way-finding abilities. What happens when our cars start doing the navigation work as well?

NSA Officers Spy on Love Interests – Wall Street Journal
Even with controls in place, technology will be misused. Human jealousy gets the better of NSA officers, code: LOVEINT.

How We Killed Privacy in 4 Easy Steps – Foreign Policy
“A legal framework that has remained largely static since the 1970s, significant changes in our use of rapidly evolving technology, commercial providers’ increasingly intrusive tracking of our every online habit, and a growth in non-state threats that has made governments the world over obsess about uncovering these dangers.”

Terms and Conditions May Apply
This documentary picks apart the lengthy TOS that we all accept without reading. The whole thing is available on Youtube [looks like it’s been taken down, but here’s the trailer and some showtimes].

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