We only hurt the ones we love: phoning in more bad news

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Everyone I talk to concedes smartphones are bad for us. Very few agree on exactly what the harms are — let alone what to do about them.

Experts have two main takes on where to look for digital harms. One is directed at the reader. Your digital life is a misery, here’s what to do. Author Paul Greenberg will soon publish iQuit: 50 Things to Do iNstead — and gives us a foretaste in a piece titled “In Search of Lost Screen Time.” With a forthright sub-title: “Imagine what we could do with our money, and hours, if we set our phones aside for a year.”

The other approach is to blame everything on Silicon Valley, and these days who wouldn’t. One recent example is A People’s History of Silicon Valley by Keith Spencer, with another forthright sub-title: “How the tech industry exploits workers, erodes privacy and undermines democracy.”

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How convenience is killing our online privacy

A growth industry

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The massive corporate hacks just keep coming. Let’s embrace the good news — they’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the real villains.

Facebook’s September data breach affecting 50 million users was child’s play compared to the 500 million accounts compromised by Marriott in November. Except Facebook has so many other things to apologize for this year — the latest phase in what Zeynep Tufekci refers to drily as Zuckerberg’s “14-year apology tour.”

Last week another screwup exposed photos stored by 7 million Facebook users in so-called “private” folders — Facebook’s answer to the wireless carrier’s “unlimited” data. Their PR lede: “We’re sorry this happened.”

Web destinations like to keep costs down, what business doesn’t. Unfortunately, that means cheaping out on security. American firms keep getting away with this outrageous corner-cutting since there are no serious, government-imposed consequences for lousy security, regardless of how many users have to suffer the inevitable result.

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Does the Internet have a future?

Toronto hipster hangout Regulars, where real life is staging a comeback

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As William Gibson once said: “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.” Gibson himself isn’t sure how he came up with the idea. But uneven distribution looks like a good call these days.

Recent developments indicate the U.S. digital divide has reached a stubborn pause; global growth of Internet access has slowed dramatically; and the “public” Internet is on its way to breaking up into three large pieces.

US market saturated

In September, the Pew Research Center announced that after a long period of growth, the share of Americans who go online, use social media or own key devices has plateaued. The market is saturated, with a catch: it’s only saturated among consumers already participating in digital life. Continue reading

Banned! France vows to make school kids pay attention

The cool French kids: ditching their phones at school?

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In January, I mentioned a bold move promised by French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer: a ban on phones in the lower grades. I took exception to two planned exceptions noted by the minister:

“You may need a mobile phone, for example, for educational purposes, for emergency situations…” Oops. As soon as you allow that phones have any legitimate purpose in the classroom then students, vendors and campus admins will all find ingenious wedges to beat the system.

I also pointed out France had had a similar law on the books since 2011. Fast forward to last month, with the new rules in place (an official announcement is posted on the ministry website).

The new law is aimed at school kids in “écoles” (grades 1-5) and “collèges” (grades 6-9). It’s remarkable the authorities have passed legislation to confront this crisis of inattention, which covers all networked devices. Even more so that they’ve gone way back to 1st grade, recognizing that bad habits begin early. Continue reading

Let’s not confuse online privacy with tech business practices

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In yesterday’s post I made a few snarky comments about this week’s upcoming hearing before the US Senate Commerce Committee, featuring a half-dozen of the IT firms we love to hate: Amazon, Apple, Google, Twitter, AT&T and Charter Communications. Wednesday’s theatrics are billed as “Examining Safeguards for Consumer Data Privacy.”

In the leadup discussing Tom Wheeler, I noted one of his main policy goals is to find ways to give consumers “control of how their information is collected and how it is used.” I neglected to mention what Wheeler does not recommend:

“Losing control of personal information means losing control of the economic equilibrium that originally established the exchange of “free” services for targeted information. The solution is not to eliminate the exchange of information for value…” (emphasis added)

This position is in keeping with Wheeler’s view that killing the core tech business models is less likely to produce happiness than fixing them to benefit of all parties. Easier said than done.

So I was struck by what NY Times technology reporter Natasha Singer has to say this weekend about the Senate hearing and the way forward for consumers: summed up in the title, Just Don’t Call It Privacy. Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (2)

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If we’re short on remedies for our Internet ills, we’re sure not short on the red flags and warning signs.

Last week, for example, celebrity cryptographer Bruce Schneier published his 14th book –– Click Here to Kill Everybody: Security and Survival in a Hyper-connected World. It seems to be selling well — hardly surprising given the importance of the topic and Schneier’s knack for describing arcane technical ideas in a punchy, readable style.

Schneier shares an abiding interest in tech policy, much like former FCC chair Tom Wheeler, whose own policy prescriptions we looked at in the previous post. His recent paper — “Time to Fix It: Developing Rules for Internet Capitalism” — argues it’s time for the IT industry to “deal responsibly with the world they created.”

Wheeler reminds us that in Washington, tech companies have been “taking fire from both sides of the aisle.” The appearance before Congress two weeks ago of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey showed how daunting it will be to “regulate” the big platforms. And the Internet’s biggest monopolist — Google/Alphabet — didn’t even show up for this convo. What’s a good Republican supposed to do with that kind of snub? Continue reading

Remedies large and small for our Internet ills (1)

“Breaking things is easy, dealing with the effects is hard.” –Tom Wheeler, August 2018

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I had a conversation this morning with a neighbor who, like some of my best friends, is a practising lawyer. The talk turned to privacy, which is of considerable interest to people who trade in privileged information.  

I had some unkind words for Google, and suggested he try using DuckDuckGo instead of the obvious choice. I had to spell the name several times. But what about all those other ways Google gets you, he asked — including Gmail, which I’d urged him to start using a few years ago, he reminded me.

Recent figures illustrate the uphill battle even this small step entails. As of July, Google’s search engine owned over 86% of the search market in the US. DuckDuckGo sits at 0.64%, comfortably ahead of MSN and Yandex RU. Continue reading

Facebook may be the least of our worries

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It’s no fun being a pessimist. But the leading indicators keep suggesting life online will get a lot worse before getting better. Let’s see what we can foretell from these four recent items…

  • Facebook’s market cap plunges 19%
  • Your smart-TV is spying on you
  • Teens are online constantly
  • Phones in class impair performance

1. Facebook: schadenfreude. Last Thursday Zuckerberg dropped a theoretical $19 billion from his net worth, as investors blew off $119 billion of the company’s stock-market value — the biggest one-day drop in stock-market history. Investors were annoyed about Facebook forecasting a drop in revenue and continuing rise in expenses, not about the company’s tacky treatment of its users — although the increased expenses probably have something to do with remediating said tacky treatment. Continue reading