Microsoft, Facebook, trust and privacy

I’ve been reminded of this ancient history a lot in the last year or two as I’ve looked at news around abuse and hostile state activity on Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms, because much like the Microsoft macro viruses, the ‘bad actors’ on Facebook did things that were in the manual. They didn’t prise open a locked window at the back of the building – they knocked on the front door and walked in. They did things that you were supposed to be able to do, but combined them in an order and with malign intent that hadn’t really been anticipated.

It’s also interesting to compare the public discussion of Microsoft and of Facebook before these events. In the  1990s, Microsoft was the ‘evil empire’, and a lot of the narrative within tech focused on how it should be more open, make it easier for people to develop software that worked with the Office monopoly, and make it easier to move information in and out of its products. Microsoft was ‘evil’ if it did anything to make life harder for developers. Unfortunately, whatever you thought of this narrative, it pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this use case. Here, Microsoft was too open, not too closed.

Equally, in the last 10 years   – that is is too hard to get your information out and too hard for researchers to pull information from across the platform. People have argued that Facebook was too restrictive on how third party developers could use the platform. And people have objected to Facebook’s attempts to enforce the single real identities of accounts. As for Microsoft, there may well have been justice in all of these arguments, but also as for Microsoft, they pointed in the wrong direction when it came to this particular scenario. For the Internet Research Agency, it was too easy to develop for Facebook, too easy to get data out, and too easy to change your identity. The walled garden wasn’t walled enough.

.. Conceptually, this is almost exactly what Facebook has done: try to remove existing opportunities for abuse and avoid creating new ones, and scan for bad actors.

MicrosoftFacebook
Remove openings for abuseClose down APIs and look for vulnerabilitiesClose down APIs and look for vulnerabilities
Scan for bad behaviorVirus and malware scannersHuman moderation

(It’s worth noting that these steps were precisely what people had previously insisted was evil – Microsoft deciding what code you can run on your own computer and what APIs developers can use, and Facebook deciding (people demanding that Facebook decide) who and what it distributes.)

  • .. If there is no data stored on your computer then compromising the computer doesn’t get an attacker much.
  • An application can’t steal your data if it’s sandboxed and can’t read other applications’ data.
  • An application can’t run in the background and steal your passwords if applications can’t run in the background.
  • And you can’t trick a user into installing a bad app if there are no apps.

Of course, human ingenuity is infinite, and this change just led to the creation of new attack models, most obviously phishing, but either way, none of this had much to do with Microsoft. We ‘solved’ viruses by moving to new architectures that removed the mechanics that viruses need, and where Microsoft wasn’t present.

.. In other words, where Microsoft put better locks and a motion sensor on the windows, the world is moving to a model where the windows are 200 feet off the ground and don’t open.

.. Much like moving from Windows to cloud and ChromeOS, you could see this as an attempt to remove the problem rather than patch it.

  • Russians can’t go viral in your newsfeed if there is no newsfeed.
  • ‘Researchers’ can’t scrape your data if Facebook doesn’t have your data. You solve the problem by making it irrelevant.

This is one way to solve the problem by changing the core mechanics, but there are others. For example, Instagram does have a one-to-many feed but does not suggest content from people you don’t yourself follow in the main feed and does not allow you to repost into your friends’ feeds. There might be anti-vax content in your feed, but one of your actual friends has to have decided to share it with you. Meanwhile, problems such as the spread of dangerous rumours in India rely on messaging rather than sharing – messaging isn’t a panacea. 

Indeed, as it stands Mr Zuckerberg’s memo raises as many questions as it answers – most obviously, how does advertising work? Is there advertising in messaging, and if so, how is it targeted? Encryption means Facebook doesn’t know what you’re talking about, but the Facebook apps on your phone necessarily would know (before they encrypt it), so does targeting happen locally? Meanwhile, encryption in particular poses problems for tackling other kinds of abuse: how do you help law enforcement deal with child exploitation if you can’t read the exploiters’ messages (the memo explicitly talks about this as a challenge)? Where does Facebook’s Blockchain project sit in all of this?

There are lots of big questions, though of course there would also have been lots of questions if in 2002 you’d said that all enterprise software would go to the cloud. But the difference here is that Facebook is trying (or talking about trying) to do the judo move itself, and to make a fundamental architectural change that Microsoft could not.

Infective Heredity (Radio Lab)

Today, a fast moving, sidestepping, gene-swapping free-for-all that would’ve made Darwin’s head spin.

David Quammen tells us about a shocking way that life can evolve – infective heredity. To figure it all out we go back to the earliest versions of life, and we revisit an earlier version of Radiolab. After reckoning with a scientific icon, we find ourselves in a tangle of genes that sheds new light on peppered moths, drug-resistant bugs, and a key moment in the evolution of life when mammals went a little viral.

Check out David Quammen’s book The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Fake-News Fallacy

Old fights about radio have lessons for new fights about the Internet.

Radio, in its early days, was seen as a means for spreading hysteria and hatred, just as the Internet is today.

.. but Schwartz is the latest of a number of researchers to argue that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. As Schwartz tells it, there was no mass hysteria, only small pockets of concern that quickly burned out. He casts doubt on whether Dock had even heard the broadcast. Schwartz argues that newspapers exaggerated the panic to better control the upstart medium of radio, which was becoming the dominant source of breaking news in the thirties. Newspapers wanted to show that radio was irresponsible and needed guidance from its older, more respectable siblings in the print media, such “guidance” mostly taking the form of lucrative licensing deals and increased ownership of local radio stations.

.. Columbia education professor and broadcaster Lyman Bryson declared that unrestrained radio was “one of the most dangerous elements in modern culture.”

.. Iowa senator Clyde Herring, a Democrat, declared. He announced a bill that would require broadcasters to submit shows to the F.C.C. for review before airing.

.. Everywhere you looked in the thirties, authoritarian leaders were being swept to power with the help of radio. The Nazi Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda deployed a force called the Funkwarte, or Radio Guard, that went block by block to insure that citizens tuned in to Hitler’s major broadcast speeches,

.. homegrown radio demagogues like Father Charles Coughlin and the charismatic Huey Long made some people wonder about a radio-aided Fascist takeover in America. For Thompson, Welles had made an “admirable demonstration” about the power of radio. It showed the danger of handing control of the airwaves over to the state.

..  “The greatest organizers of mass hysterias and the mass delusions today are states using the radio to excite terrors, incite hatreds, inflame masses.”

..  “I wouldn’t be here without Twitter,” he declared on Fox News in March. Yet the Internet didn’t just give him a megaphone. It also helped him peddle his lies through a profusion of unreliable media sources that undermined the old providers of established fact. Throughout the campaign, fake-news stories, conspiracy theories, and other forms of propaganda were reported to be flooding social networks.

.. The problem was not simply that people had been able to spread lies but that the digital platforms were set up in ways that made them especially potent. The “share” button sends lies flying around the Web faster than fact checkers can debunk them. The supposedly neutral platforms use personalized algorithms to feed us information based on precise data models of our preferences, trapping us in “filter bubbles”

.. The threat of fake news was compounded by this sense that the role of the press had been ceded to an arcane algorithmic system created by private companies that care only about the bottom line.

.. The image of Arab Spring activists using Twitter to challenge repressive dictators has been replaced, in the public imagination, by that of isis propagandists luring vulnerable Western teen-agers to Syria via YouTube videos and Facebook chats.

.. the birth of the technology brought about a communications revolution comparable to that of the Internet. For the first time, radio allowed a mass audience to experience the same thing simultaneously from the comfort of their homes

.. John Dewey called radio “the most powerful instrument of social education the world has ever seen.” Populist reformers demanded that radio be treated as a common carrier and give airtime to anyone who paid a fee.

.. broadcasters were under intense pressure to show that they were not turning listeners into a zombified mass ripe for the Fascist picking. What they developed in response is, in Goodman’s phrase, a “civic paradigm”: radio would create active, rational, tolerant listeners—in other words, the ideal citizens of a democratic society. Classical-music-appreciation shows were developed with an eye toward uplift. Inspired by progressive educators, radio networks hosted “forum” programs, in which citizens from all walks of life were invited to discuss the matters of the day, with the aim of inspiring tolerance and political engagement. One such program, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air,” featured in its first episode a Communist, a Fascist, a Socialist, and a democrat.

.. much of the progressive concern about listeners’ abilities stemmed from the belief that Americans were, basically, dim-witted—an idea that gained currency after intelligence tests on soldiers during the First World War supposedly revealed discouraging news about the capacities of the average American.

.. Today, when we speak about people’s relationship to the Internet, we tend to adopt the nonjudgmental language of computer science. Fake news was described as a “virus” spreading among users who have been “exposed” to online misinformation. The proposed solutions to the fake-news problem typically resemble antivirus program

..  One rarely cited Pew statistic shows that only four per cent of American Internet users trust social media “a lot,” which suggests a greater resilience against online misinformation than overheated editorials might lead us to expect.

..  Most people seem to understand that their social-media streams represent a heady mixture of gossip, political activism, news, and entertainment

.. You might see this as a problem, but turning to Big Data-driven algorithms to fix it will only further entrench our reliance on code to tell us what is important about the world—which is what led to the problem in the first place.

.. Young Trump enthusiasts turned Internet trolling into a potent political tool, deploying the “folk stuff” of the Web—memes, slang, the nihilistic humor of a certain subculture of Web-native gamer—to give a subversive, cyberpunk sheen to a movement that might otherwise look like a stale reactionary blend of white nationalism and anti-feminism.

.. For conservatives, the rise of online gatekeepers may be a blessing in disguise. Throwing the charge of “liberal media bias” against powerful institutions has always provided an energizing force for the conservative movement

.. The first modern conservatives were members of the America First movement, who found their isolationist views marginalized in the lead-up to the Second World War and vowed to fight back by forming the first conservative media outlets.

.. Since attacks on the mid-century liberal consensus were inherently controversial, conservatives found themselves constantly in regulators’ sights.

.. In 1961, a watershed moment occurred with the leak of a memo from labor leaders to the Kennedy Administration which suggested using the Fairness Doctrine to suppress right-wing viewpoints. To many conservatives, the memo proved the existence of the vast conspiracy they had long suspected.

.. Thus was born the character of the persecuted truthteller standing up to a tyrannical government—a trope on which a billion-dollar conservative-media juggernaut has been built.

.. conservative skepticism of gatekeepers is not without a historical basis. The Fairness Doctrine really was used by liberal groups to silence conservatives, typically by flooding stations with complaints and requests for airtime to respond

.. This created a chilling effect, with stations often choosing to avoid controversial material. The technical fixes implemented by Google and Facebook in the rush to fight fake news seem equally open to abuse, dependent, as they are, on user-generated reports.

.. A recent report by the investigative nonprofit ProPublica shows how anti-racist activism can often fall afoul of Facebook rules against offensive material, while a post by the Louisiana representative Clay Higgins calling for the slaughter of “radicalized” Muslims was deemed acceptable.

.. Despite the focus on algorithms, A.I., filter bubbles, and Big Data, these questions are political as much as technical. Regulation has become an increasingly popular notion; the Democratic senator Cory Booker has called for greater antitrust scrutiny of Google and Facebook, while Stephen Bannon reportedly wants to regulate Google and Facebook like public utilities.

.. a slew of tech companies banned the neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer, essentially blacklisting it from the Web.

.. Zuckerberg recently posted a fifty-seven-hundred-word manifesto announcing a new mission for Facebook that goes beyond the neutral-seeming mandate to “make the world more open and connected.” Henceforth, Facebook would seek to “develop the social infrastructure to give people the power to build a global community that works for all of us.” The manifesto was so heavy on themes of civic responsibility that many took it as a blueprint for a future political campaign.