We're arriving at the end of 2020 and the global pandemic has forced us into increased technological dependency.
One thing is for sure, tech companies are the great winners. Amid the stress and the struggle we've been put against, these have amassed even greater power from our dependency.
We are now totally reliant on private digital mediators to continue with our lives: being schooled, working, being entertained or simply to keep in touch with our loved ones. If this trend continues, how will it end up?
In these times we should be thankful for technology we have at our disposal but we must also be wary of the asymmetrical relation we have with it.
The tech industry is first and foremost populated by corporations. They aren't here to do us any favor.
Europe is Big Tech's main battle ground. E.U.'s Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager is opening an investigation into Amazon after stating it has breached antitrust rules by using independent sellers’ data to benefit its own retail business. Speaking of antitrust, 135 startups and tech companies have written to the European Commission to urge antitrust action against Google or some of the businesses may not survive.
As all of that happened while the E.U. laid grounds for an overhaul of its digital regulation with the Digital Services Act which wants to make tech giants more responsible for the content on their platforms and ensure that competitors have a fair chance to succeed against Big Tech.
In relation the mounting tensions between tech companies and lawmakers, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai apologized to Thierry Breton — E.U.'s Commissioner for Internal Market who's leading the overhaul of digital rules in the bloc — after an internal document laid out a plan to push back on regulation and attack the EU commissioner.
Still in Europe, the U.K. plans to create a new digital agency to regulate large tech companies in an attempt to create a more level playing field for smaller rivals. France on its end has ordered Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple to pay new 'digital tax' on 2020 earnings.
Finally in the U.S. Twitter and Facebook CEOs testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee the second time in less than a month, this time on allegations of platform censorship and algorithmic bias in their content moderation.
California passed a law that scales back the amount of data that big tech companies are allowed to collect on people.
The U.K., U.S.A., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, India, and Japan have signed a statement asking technology companies to provide a backdoor into encrypted services. Meanwhile, leaked documents seem to indicate the E.U. is drafting a proposal for a E.U.-wide ban on end-to-end encryption, following the terror attacks in Austria and France.
Vienna-based group noyb has filed a complaint against Apple over Identifier for Advertisers codes meant to track the behavior of iPhone users, arguing that doing so without users' knowledge or consent violates the Union's electronic privacy rules.
An investigation by Vice's Motherboard found the U.S. military is procuring location data from several popular apps, including Muslim Pro which has over 98m downloads.
Apple is lobbying against a bill aimed at stopping forced labor in China and would hold U.S. companies accountable for using Uighur forced labor. Still with Apple, the company will pay $113m to settle the lawsuit where it admitted it was slowing down old iPhones.
In the name of privacy, Facebook is attempting to shut down an academic study of political ad targeting that has developed work exposing the company's failures to contain scams, rip-offs, and political disinformation.
A coalition of over 40 organizations is backing the movement Make Amazon Pay, calling out the company for placing profits ahead of workers, society, and the planet.
The documentary Coded Bias premiered in November. It explores the consequences of A.I. increasingly governing our liberties and the consequences for the people A.I. is biased against. People in the U.S. can watch it at the Metrograph for $8 or you can join CFT's Telegram channel to watch it there.
ReclaimYourFace, a petition to call E.U. leaders to reject the use of biometric data to monitor the population.
What Tech Calls Thinking, a book by Stanford professor Adrian Daub that does a dismantling of the ideas that form the intellectual bedrock of Silicon Valley.
Lawrence — Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your professional path? How did you end up working as a security researcher in Berlin and what is EEQJ and what does it do?
Jeffrey — There seems to be a human desire to fit almost everything we learn into narrative stories: W doing X in place Y because Z, so that's how I tell it.
I'm very fortunate to be living in the future that many outside of manufacturing will soon inhabit: my work happens in and on the internet, and it's merely a side detail that I happen to be sitting in some physical place (Berlin, or London, or New York, or San Francisco) while it occurs.
I moved to Berlin from New York in 2008 when that became possible for me, and many others are now discovering that this is possible as well. (For many it's been practical for a decade or so, but bozo bosses wanted asses in seats, mostly due to fear and tradition. The pandemic seems to have changed most of that.)
I founded EEQJ a decade ago, and my team and I work with a small number of clients on focused projects, mostly related to data security: we help small companies become medium-sized companies efficiently, while avoiding critical data handling and storage errors that could cause their accidental destruction in the process. We're some of the best in the world, and resultantly have never once needed to advertise. I'm actually rather proud of our website, eeqj.com.
You are someone that has dropped out of Twitter after more than 10 years using the platform. You now publish on your own website (exclusively?) regardless of how many readers you may have. But others, including many small businesses, leverage social media's vast network effect to promote their products/services, gain customers and make a living.
Is dropping out of social media a viable option for users that, for one reason or another, cannot "afford" to leave social media? And if it is indeed a viable option, what other avenues would you suggest those people in order to continue making a living?
J Dropping out of centralized social media services is a good step for everyone. It's important to remember that the web and email are media and self-publishing to your friends and family is still social media.
There is a tendency in all things to trend toward large, centralized systems: manufacturing, retail, government, almost everything we do in daily life. I prefer to "shop local" and self-publish on my own website. For the moment, everyone who uses the internet can still visit private, independent web sites and web stores, and can still receive email from third parties (not run by their email host).
Advertising that isn't on censored, corporate social media still exists, and there are still many ways of directly marketing to your customers instead of building an audience as a sharecropper on a platform that will then rent access to that audience (built by you!) right back to you.
You're never building anything on Twitter or Twitch or YouTube or Instagram or Facebook except the platform's audience. It's not yours, and never will be.
One of the main things that made me give up my thousands of followers on Twitter was the fact that Twitter would simply not allow me to contact them all at once. You can't DM all of them, and thanks to their algorithmic sorting (which is really just a form of disguised censorship), people who explicitly opted in to reading what I have to say wouldn't actually see most of my posts. Even when readers would opt out of the algorithmic sorting so that they could see things chronologically, Twitter turns it back on automatically after a while, in a big "fuck you" to your preferences, telling you in no uncertain terms that Twitter will be deciding what you are allowed to read, not you.
These days, I get the email addresses of my audience. I download the whole list from my email list provider every month, and save it (encrypted) on my computer. I can always contact everyone who's opted in to reading what I have to say (at least until gmail ramps up their censorship of my readers' inboxes some day in the future).
If you don't like the fact that Facebook and Instagram is monopolizing the eyeballs and "forcing" you to advertise there, then, obviously, stop giving them your eyeballs, and stop giving them your money. You'll never be rid of these things if you and everyone else rationalizes continuing paying them. Educate your friends and family and community to do the same. If you don't like that gmail gets to decide which emails you can see and which you can't, stop using gmail. If you don't like Instagram's censorship and surveillance, stop donating content to them that makes it more attractive for your friends and family to sign up there.
Remind your favorite content creators and publishers that when they publish on these platforms, they are donating content to organizations that are actively making the world worse, and thus enabling censorship.
This isn't some theoretical issue: Facebook is already censoring government protest posts in Vietnam, and YouTube is deleting evidence of war crimes.
Twitch and Instagram have recently started censoring musicians on behalf of the copyright cartel.
L Gen Z was born with platforms such as TikTok or Instagram embedded in their daily lives. Their social dynamics are increasingly built around these digital mediators. Some argue that the new generations are becoming more privacy conscious while others say that nothing is changing in that regard. What is your take on it?
J I think the younger generations are born into a system where they're not only aware of the fact that they're constantly surveilled by large corporations (and, by extension, the US military), but also feel somewhat powerless to stop it, as they don't know any "normal" communications systems outside of these centralized, unencrypted (in the end-to-end sense), surveillance models. The privacy situation is getting worse, not better, and we need to remain vigilant and educate people, now more than ever. Facebook is no longer cool in that group, but Instagram (owned by Facebook) remains so. I'm not sure that young people will be using Instagram in 10 or 15 years.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most people use mobile devices exclusively, and very rarely use general purpose computers. Mobile devices are basically surveillance machines, so tightly integrated with online services that using the normal mainstream platforms without IDing yourself to the platform operator (and the state) is now 100% impossible. (You can't even download and install "free" apps without providing identity-linked information.)
For that to change, new types of mobile hardware and software will need to be produced, or people will need to get used to using traditional computers for more types of interaction.
L It seems most social media platforms are converging into very similar features, such as the adoption of Stories by LinkedIn followed more recently by Twitter. Besides feature similarity, these also seem to have a tendency to handle their content moderation the same way: in a very opaque and arbitrary way, only taking action once they are put against the wall by legislators or regulators.
Do you think it's manageable to do proper content moderation on the scales of Facebook, YouTube or Twitter without inevitable censorship?
J Well, any content moderation is censorship, by definition. It may be desirable censorship (such as in the case of users not receiving constant spam), but it's still censorship in the true sense of the term. Large centralized unencrypted platforms are always censored, without exception. The worst part is that they are invisibly censored, so the censorship can be tailored to specific users, specific content, or specific geographic region, and it's entirely opaque: if it's not happening to you (or not to all of your messages), you'd never know it's occurring. It wouldn't even be on the news if two postcodes in some random state couldn't send Facebook or Instgram messages that contain a certain URLs, because nobody anywhere else would be able to verify it's happening, and it wouldn't happen to any other messages in those places.
Instagram and Facebook and Twitter are already doing this today: there are many URLs you simply can't send to others, even in DMs, even from a non-spam account. They've decided what you should be allowed to say to your own friends.
Fact is, this is a setup for turnkey tyranny, because these are now the default tools in our society for people to talk to other people, and the state can demand that these companies that operate these messengers censor them to further the interest of the state, even if it's illegal for them to do so! That's what my post about Instagram is trying to illuminate: normalcy bias. We think these things are okay because they work okay most of the time, but they can be disabled to serve the interests of others when we need them most.
We're already seeing Apple censoring apps used to coordinate protests in Hong Kong, because the Chinese government ordered them to.
We only know about that because Apple's a US company and the order is Chinese. When the US government orders Apple to censor things, it may come with a gag order attached, such as the US government's current FISA orders to Apple to conduct illegal surveillance on their users without a search warrant, and Apple isn't allowed to even publish exactly how many of these demands they've received.
It's not constrained to countries perceived as unfree, however. We see Apple voluntarily backdooring their encryption to aid FBI surveillance, even in the USA.
We'd never have learned about this from Apple or the FBI; this story got out because six people inside of Apple leaked it, anonymously.
L How do you see the role of governments when it comes to regulating GAFAM? Is government intervention something that you deem necessary and if so, is it more urgent for either one of those companies? If not the government helping out evening the playing field, what alternatives do you see?
J I don't think the playing field is un-level. No one is forcing people to use iPhones or Facebook or Instgram.
There are growing popular calls for these companies to engage in even more censorship than they already do, and it seems that the narrative that anyone being able to talk to anyone without censorship is somehow bad or dangerous to our society or democracy (or whatever) is being actively promoted, stoking fear about "election interference" or "misinformation" or whatever.
This is terrifying, because normal people who may not generally agree with censorship are being lead to believe that there is widespread support for increased censorship in these apps (regardless of whether there is or not - the narrative that is being promoted is that censorship is beneficial or even necessary to protect democracy). It's sort of silly if you think about it: one of the most authoritarian/undemocratic attributes, mass censorship, is being promoted as a concept that is necessary to protect democracy. Sadly, people seem to be falling for it.
Governments everywhere will, of course, seize this opportunity (regardless of whether it was manufactured or not) to exert increased pressure on these communications tools. It's a terribly disappointing thing that even educated, reasonable people in the comparatively free west are calling for mass, centralized censorship systems to be built and expanded.
This isn't about content moderation, election security, misinformation, or conspiracy theories. This is about the basic ability of people to have conversations with friends, family, and acquaintances that the state can't read or censor, which is an essential prerequisite to a free society. If we lose that, the following decades will see us losing a lot more, with most people entirely unaware of it, because the information won't be on the news and it won't be able to spread person-to-person.
We're on a trajectory right now where we either have lost or soon will lose the ability to freely communicate with one another, and it's nothing to do with Google or Apple or Facebook other than the fact that they are a) large and b) run communications platforms.
Simply being large and centralized means that eventually you will be pressured (or forced!) to censor.
Facebook didn't invent or cause or enable the spread of harmful and destructive misinformation in society, that's been happening for thousands of years. Many billions were convinced of the existence of an invisible wizard inhabiting the sky even without the use of digital networking of any kind. While we've made great strides toward solving it as a civilization in many places by reducing or eliminating state censorship and providing greater free access to information (true and false) to all, Facebook (and others) will absolutely be used as reasons why that forward progress needs to be rolled back, and centralized authorities (whether corporate or government) must be empowered with the ability to decide what you're allowed to post, and what you're allowed to read, for the safety of your society and nation.
As Göring famously said: "Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country."
L Taking on your article "The Problem With Instagram", do you see a feasible way to build a social network that would provide what people look for in a social network yet be able to combat spam or trolling without a censorship method? How do you keep control with users and not on a centralized entity?
J Spam and trolling aren't bugs, they're features. Any system that doesn't have spam and trolling is being actively censored by someone. The question is, who is controlling that censorship, who is deciding what you are allowed to see and read?
There are technical capabilities today for building mass-market social networks that are decentralized, that can also simultaneously transmit decentralized filter feeds for people to subscribe to, to block spam and other undesirable content without actually censoring that content. Just as it's not censorship when you decide to read one book and not another, when it's eyeball-decided, rather than service-decided, it's fine. There are straightforward solutions to these problems (see DNS adblocking lists for an example of the model) that users can use to filter their own feeds, rather than having some remote authority decide for them (or be ordered to decide for them by their government) what they're allowed to read.
L Do you think it's possible to build an alternative social network or any private/profit driven platform is bound to degenerate in something similar to what we currently have?
J I don't think that current social networks are degenerate. I think that's a false narrative, spread by people who want mass popular support for increased censorship of these platforms. The fact that anyone can talk to anyone (about anything they want, including things that may be detrimental to the state or the platform operators), is a useful property of these systems, not something to be stamped out. We've been lead to believe that private, uncensored communication is inherently bad by bringing up the infrequent cases: child exploitation, terrorism, spam, trolling, whatever. In the vast majority of the time these systems are used by friends and family to talk to one another.
The whole centralized, unencrypted model is dangerous, because even if they aren't being actively censored today, they will be ordered to do so in the future by the government, and that will happen silently (just like the surveillance did, prior to Edward Snowden telling us about it).
Even if the people operating these organizations are entirely anti-censorship, when the time comes, the state will present them with the choice between censoring silently (with a gag order), or going to jail. Any system that fails in this way when the military puts a gun in the face of a system administrator is a dangerous system, like a ticking bomb: when, not if.
I wouldn't want a ticking bomb in my front pocket, even if the government and the bomb maker truthfully told me it's totally safe and there are no plans to make it explode!
L Even if privacy wary and well informed users opt out of using these platforms, an increasingly large share of the world population keeps on using it. Neighbors, school teachers, politicians, and many more are there, and discourses are had and/or manipulated within these platforms.
You may delete your accounts and email your contacts directly, but aren't you ultimately going to be affected by what comes out of these platforms?
J The information you describe is coming out of neighbors, school teachers, politicians, and many more - they're not coming out of the platform, it's simply transmitted by the platform. Facebook doesn't generate any content, Facebook's users do. Facebook's users donate that content for free to Facebook because they can reach the most eyeballs there, and become more eyeballs there themselves. There's a way to break the cycle.
Imagine you're a mayor announcing a civic initiative that you want citizens to participate in, or a normal person announcing your birthday party. You want to reach your audience to maximize the people who participate in whatever it is you're promoting. Many people today post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Discord, or Twitch because it works effectively for reaching a majority of their audience. The individual people who use these tools to read cause that circumstance. If you get the reading users: citizens, your friends and family, etc to quit passively using these services, these tools become less useful to the publishers, and they are more likely to seek open and uncensored alternatives, such as email and the web. Everyone has an email address and a web browser; not everyone has (or wants) a Facebook or Instagram account.
We need to stop donating free content and attention to these systems, we need to teach our friends and family to stop donating free content and attention to these systems, and we need to actively inform publishers that, if they publish only on these platforms, they will not reach us. Hiding public content behind a signup wall (such as on Facebook or Instagram or Discord) is rude as hell, and it's doubly rude (and perhaps actually illegal) to do so if you're a public official, as then you're gating access to official, taxpayer-paid communications and content on the agreement to a legal contract (the terms of service) with a private company.
Anyone paying attention in a free society should recognize that as bullshit.
Already such things are happening today: many school districts in the US are teaching via Google devices, or via Zoom. Don't like the abusive Google or Zoom terms of service (they demand you give up your civil rights!), or don't yet have a Google/Zoom account? Then you don't get the education you've already paid for (either via taxes or tuition).
It's a bait and switch. In most areas of endeavor, it's illegal to accept money from someone for service, sign a contract with them, and, then, after the deal is signed and the customer has paid, present a second, new contract that the customer has never seen before and must sign as a condition of delivering the service. This is exactly what's happening with public (and some private university) education in the US right now.
We all need to start refusing to submit to surveillance. Even a small percentage of society, screaming loudly that they aren't getting what they've paid for, will be enough to get these organizations to reverse course on their vendor choices.
These are not public squares, they are private clubs, and the owners of the clubs get to decide what is and is not allowed to be said in their private venues, as is their right. It's important to remind everyone of these things (especially public officials, and taxpayer-funded services). Gating access to public services (education, benefits, medicine, etc) on private company contracts (e.g. Google account, Google Play Store, Apple App Store, et c) should be recognized as the discriminatory practice it is, and I'm willing to bet there are already several laws in most places against such things.
For reference, here's the current list of most of the large, censorship and surveillance systems that you should be avoiding:
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