Give control back to your users, scholars tell Facebook

In a new position paper, scholars from Oxford and Stanford recommended nine measures Facebook should take to make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy.

The report, titled “GLASNOST! Nine ways Facebook can make itself a better forum for free speech and democracy”, was jointly published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the Oxford University. The scholars, headlined by the historian Timothy Garton Ash, recommended Facebook take concrete steps related to three key aspects of the social network’s operation: content policy and moderation practices, news feed, and governance.

The starting premise of the report is that, with over 2.2 billion active users and being in the centre of past and present controversies and conversations, Facebook has gone beyond the stage where it could choose “between self-regulation and no regulation”. Decisions made inside Facebook could have strong political, social, and cultural impact on the world outside of it. “A single small change to the News Feed algorithm, or to content policy, can have an impact that is both faster and wider than that of any single piece of national (or even EU-wide) legislation,” the report says.

Instead, the authors argued, Facebook needs to make itself more transparent with both its policies and the interpretation and implementation mechanisms of these policies to the outside world including both its users, its customers, and other institutions, and engage more with regulators and the civil society, academia, and NGOs.

The authors recognised that Facebook has made efforts in all the three aspects over the past few years, especially after the Cambridge Analytica case was uncovered. They argued however that more should be done. Specifically the authors suggested the following:

Regarding “content policy and the moderation of political speech”, Facebook should

  • Tighten community standards wording on hate speech
  • Hire more and contextually expert content reviewers
  • Increase ‘decisional transparency’
  • Expand and improve the appeals process

Targeting at “News Feed”, the authors suggested that in order to move “towards more diverse, trustworthy political information”, Facebook should

  • Provide meaningful News Feed controls for users
  • Expand context and fact-checking facilities

When it comes to the company’s “governance”, the report recognises that Facebook has adopted “cautious glasnost” recently but in order to grow “from Transparency to Accountability” the company should

  • Establish regular auditing mechanisms
  • Create an external content policy advisory group
  • Establish an external appeals body

Admittedly, Facebook is far from being the only culprit. The authors also agreed that “many of the problems identified here are also found on other platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter.” Additionally, Facebook does have policies related to content and its moderation, though their interpretation or implementation could be called into question. Platforms like Twitter on the other hand, barely have a policy or standard practice in place.

Despite the authors’ claim that the “goal of this report is to focus on areas that Facebook itself can feasibly improve now”, it would require radical changes on Facebook’s side to put any of these recommendations into practice, both how the company is run, and how it is judged. The authors argued that “ideally, the user interface and experience on Facebook should be designed to promote active, informed citizenship, and not merely clickbait addiction for the commercial benefit of Facebook, the corporation.” However, commercial benefit is the most important index how a business is evaluated. In addition to stressing the company’s responsibilities beyond business returns, the authors could also remind it of the commercial damage from not acting in a responsible way. For example, advertisers would run away from the platform if a Cambridge Analytica type of scandal were to happen again.

The changes needed, as the authors also agreed, are easier said than done. Some suggestions are reasonable. For example, the report suggested Facebook, and other social platforms, consider industry wide self-regulating mechanisms following the model of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), which oversees brokerage firms and the securities industry in the US. But it also agrees that it is hard to define the “industry” for the social networks. Other suggestions are much harder for Facebook and others to take. For example the report requests Facebook to open its data and, more importantly, its algorithms, which are the most guarded secrets in all internet companies.

The choice of the report’s title is also interesting. “Glasnost” is Russian for “openness, transparency”. Together with “perestroika”, Russian for “reform”, the concepts were popularised by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. The report suggested that, to achieve real change instead of merely glorified PR, “beyond glasnost, we need perestroika” from Facebook, a line almost surely from Professor Garton Ash, a leading scholar in Central and Eastern European history. If the young executives at Menlo Park are unaware of the historical connotation of these concepts, they may want to know that by embracing Glasnost and Perestroika, Gorbachev brought the Soviet empire to its demise.

Privacy champion Max Schrems is back with another lawsuit

The man who is largely credited with the downfall of Safe Harbour has re-emerged from the shadows to take eight of the internet giants to court over GDPR violations.

As user privacy increasingly seems to be an alien concept to Silicon Valley and the other internet players, Austrian data privacy champion Max Schrems has jumped into the limelight once again. This time he is challenged eight internet companies and their data privacy practices, suggesting they are violating Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

Through a filing with the Austrian Data Protection Authority, by Schrem’s non-profit NOYB, the complaints focus on the ‘right to access’ enshrined in Article 15 GDPR and Article 8(2) of the Chart of Fundamental Rights. Amazon, Apple, DAZN, Filmmit, Netflix, Sound Cloud, Spotify and YouTube are on the receiving end of the lawsuit, with the potential penalties ranging from €20 million through to €8 billion.

“Many services set up automated systems to respond to access requests, but they often don’t even remotely provide the data that every user has a right to,” said Schrems. “In most cases, users only got the raw data, but, for example, no information about who this data was shared with. This leads to structural violations of users’ rights, as these systems are built to withhold the relevant information.”

GDPR is supposed to hand control of personal data back to said individual. Its aim is to hold the digital society accountable to their actions and provide a certain level of justification for holding onto, and potentially monetizing, an individual’s personal information. Several clauses are also aimed at transparency to ensure the user is fully informed, or at least offering the user the opportunity to be, about how these software and services providers commercialise data.

In addition to what raw data is being stored, individuals do now also have the right to know where this data was sourced, the recipients and also the purpose. This is where a few of the complaints are focusing specifically, as this is the information which was absent from some of the responses.

If privacy is an alien concept, then transparency is a dirty, inconceivable word to the internet players. It seems former habits have been hard to shake.

NOYB Snip

As you can see from the table above, Schrems has tested out how some of the internet players have reacted to the introduction of GDPR. Progress has been made, except in the case of Sound Cloud and DAZN, but that is irrelevant. The introduction of GDPR on May 25 2018 was not the starting line to gradually move yourself through to compliance, day one was a hard introduction of the rules. There are some circumstances where companies can avoid penalties, but these are scenarios where non-compliance would be seen as out of the control of the company, or best efforts have been made.

This is where these firms might find themselves in a bit of hot water. An automated response which offers up some information but not all which is required through the new regulation should not be considered good enough. The pair ignoring the requests completely should be very worried about the repercussions. And finally, the Austrian regulator will also have to decide whether four weeks is an appropriate response time or too long. None of these firms are in a safe place right now.

Another interesting aspect will be the readability of the data. In the complaint, Schrems notes the raw data was provided in what would be considered cryptic form for the general public. Users would not be able to read the data therefore it is not being made accessible by the company. Whether this is taken as a violation of GDPR remains to be seen, though Austria could set precedent.

Many of the internet giants have resisted the calls from data privacy advocates and governments around the world, but GDPR is supposed to be a stick to keep the segment in line. These are companies which will want to avoid giving too many details away as the power and depth of the data sharing economy has the potential to spook large swathes of the general public. Too much light shed on data processing and exchanging practices would also offer more ammunition to the blood-thirsty politicians, many of whom are on a PR crusade to make heads roll.

Ultimately this will give us a good indication as to how sharp European regulators’ teeth actually are. In passing GDPR, the European Commission has offered a stick to the pro-privacy regulators, but how hard they swing it remains to be seen. The dreaded ‘up to’ phrase is present when looking at potential fines, so let’s see whether these regulations have the stones to dish out appropriate punishments.

The app economy is going from strength to strength

The latest report published by App Annie showed mobile apps had their best year in 2018, and will get better in 2019.

In the report titled “The State of Mobile in 2019 – The Most Important Trends to Know”, the mobile apps analytics firm App Annie showed the latest data of the mobile apps industry, as well as their projections for the near future.

In short, the apps industry is doing rather well. “Consumers spent $101 billion on apps globally in 2018. This is larger than the global live and recorded music industry, double the size of the global sneaker market, and nearly three times the size of the oral care industry,” said Danielle Levitas, EVP, Global Marketing & Insights, App Annie. “Mobile experiences are so central to how we live, work and play and with consumers spending 3 hours a day on mobile, it’s clear how vital this platform is for all businesses in 2019 and beyond.”

Here is a snapshot of the highlights:

App Annie 2019 Snapshot

A few additional data points also caught our eyes:

  • Consumers on average spent 50% more time in mobile apps in 2018 than they did in 2016. Social and Communications apps made up 50% of total time spent globally in apps in 2018, followed by Video Players and Editors (15%) and Games (10%);
  • In Indonesia, mobile users spent over 4 hours a day in apps — 17% of users’ entire day. In mature markets like the US and Canada, the average user spent nearly 3 hours a day in mobile apps in 2018;
  • On average, consumers in the US, Australia, South Korea, and Japan have over 100 apps on their smartphones;
  • 74% of all consumer spending on mobile apps was on games;
  • YouTube accounted for 9 of every 10 minutes spent in the top 5 video streaming apps in 2018. It was also the number 1 app by time spent in video streaming apps for all markets except China;
  • The global consumer spending on dating apps grew by 190% from 2016 to 2018. Tinder successfully defended its number 1 position.

In terms competition between apps and between companies, three Facebook apps occupied the top three spots on the table of monthly active users. The same trio also took the top spots on the most downloads table, but Facebook Messenger edge Facebook to the top. Netflix netted the highest consumer spend on apps (followed by Tinder), while Sony’s Fate/Grand Order sat at the top of the games enjoying the highest consumer spend. Tencent on the hand, thanks to its strong line-up of apps and games, was the company that consumers spent the most on in 2018.

App Annie 2019 MAU

App Annie 2019 downloads

App Annie 2019 spend

The firm predicted that in 2019, the total consumer spending in app stores will double that of the global box office, to reach $120 billion. When it comes to media consumption, the firm sees in 2019 that 10 minutes of every hour spent consuming media across TV and internet will come from video streaming on mobile. Increased availability of premium content and service will also help.

Two years ago, we started hearing from some quarters of the industry that apps economy was dead. To read the latest data from App Annie, that pronouncement was gravely premature.

The reselling of personal data goes from strength to strength

In spite of the many moral panics of 2018, the abuse of personal data shows no sign of abating at the start of 2019.

You might assume the somewhat overblown Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which everyone got all outraged that some political campaigns used data obtained from Facebook to target their messages, would have resulted in a far more reticent approach to the commercialisation of personal data. A couple of recent stories, however, indicate the opposite is true.

Motherboard did an investigation that concluded ‘T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country.’

The investigation essentially concludes that the act of selling on personal data is intrinsically open to abuse. As soon as you hand this data to a third party you lose all control over how it is used. Quite a lot like the Cambridge Analytica case, in fact. Here’s a flow chart from the article, showing the journey resold data can take.

Motherboard data chart

Upon reading the piece a US Senator called Ron Wyden called out TMUS CEO John Legere, accusing him of not following through on a previous vow to stop selling on data in this way. Here’s Legere’s response.

Elsewhere the FT took a look at the kind of data aggregators that typically buy data from those who collect it in order to analyse it, repackage it, and sell it on as some kind of market insight. Referring to it as the ‘data broking industry, the report looks into how they operate and reveals that regulators, in Europe at least, are finally getting around to taking a closer look at how they operate.

It must be especially frustrating to proponents of GDPR that is seems to have negligible effect on what must sure have been one of the main industries is was designed to regulate. One source in the report refers to the likes of Oracle, Salesforce and Nielsen as ‘privacy deathstars’, that can sell on hundreds of datapoints tracking individuals’ every move.

Combined with growing evidence that financial services giants are behind much of the policing of online behaviour that was such a feature of 2018, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the internet is increasingly being used for the wholesale exploitation of individuals. Regulators seem ill-equipped to catch up with these privacy deathstars and it’s easy to imagine the state looking benignly at an industry that facilitates the tracking and manipulation of the public.

Google has apparently pulled the plug on its censored search engine for China

Google bowed to pressure by terminating its data analysis system that is vital to its planned re-entry into China with a censored search engine.

Dragonfly, the Google project to develop a search engine that would satisfy China’s censorship requirements relies on pre-empting the appearance of search results that the Chinese authorities may find offensive. To do so, Google has used 265.com, a Chinese internet portal based in Beijing it purchased in 2008, two years before it pulled out of China, to gather user behaviour data, mainly search habits. The Google team then compare what the users would see if the same search terms were used on the uncensored Google and eliminate those sites that are blocked by China’s Great Firewall. The data is then fed into the prototype Dragonfly search engine to produce results that would be acceptable to the Chinese censorship system.

According to a new report from the website The Intercept, Google has decided to shut down this data analysis system it has established with Baidu, which the search on 265.com is directed to, to harvest data. Instead the engineering team is using search queries by Chinese speaking users in other markets like the US or south-eastern Asian countries, which would be very different from what the users behind the Great Firewall would be generating and therefore defeating the very purpose of a censored search engine. Though this decision may not have explicitly spelt the death penalty for Dragonfly, it is a very close one.

A couple of factors must have played important parts in the decision-making process. Employee revolt is the first one. When Dragonfly was first exposed, an increasing number of employees have signed an internal petition to stop the project, reminiscing the company’s “Don’t Be Evil” manifesto. The very idea that Google would ponder creating a censored version for China may be a shock to most employees, but not unimaginable considering the different leaderships. Sergey Brin, who was at the helm of Google when the company shut down its China operation in 2010 as a protest, spent his childhood in the former Soviet Union, therefore had first-hand understanding of what censorship is about. Sundar Pichai, on the other hand, lacks similar sense and sensibility, having grown up in India, the largest democracy in the world.

Another source of internal pressure has come from the Privacy and Security teams. It has been reported by different media outlets that Scott Beaumont, Google’s head of China operation and the main architect behind Dragonfly, has deliberately kept the privacy and security teams in the dark as long as possible. For a company of Google’s nature, which lives on users’ trust in its willingness and capabilities to guard the security of their data, protests from these internal teams must have had the management ears. On the other hand, the fact that executives like Beaumont could carry on his secret project as long as it has must be a surprise to outside observers.

The strongest external pressure has come from the Congress. Pichai was grilled by the American law-makers last week when he was challenged by the Congressman David Cicilline (D-R.I). “It’s hard to imagine you could operate in the Chinese market under the current government framework and maintain a commitment to universal values, such as freedom of expression and personal privacy.” Pichai conceded that there was “no plans to launch a search service in China,” though he had declined to provide a positive confirmation to the Congress’ demand that Google should not launch “a tool for surveillance and censorship in China”.

With the latest decision to terminate data harvesting from 265.com, it seems Dragonfly or similar projects are put into a long hibernation.

President Xi doesn’t love the private sector, but he needs friends with benefits

Beijing has issued a new policy to encourage entrepreneurship, but it will comes with some pretty major strings attached.

Over the past few months there have been repeated cries in China, ostensibly from some parts of the academia and media, to relegate the private sector further to a second-class role in the economy, to play only a supporting part to the state-owned enterprises (SOEs), despite the former contributing 60% of China’s GDP and creating 80% of the jobs.

But at the beginning of this month Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a high-profile meeting with 50 leading private companies to reassure the private sector that “you belong to our family”. Promises were made to help alleviate the private sector’s tax burdens, make their access to the financial and capital markets easier, do away with more restriction on competing with SOEs, as well as protect their private property rights.

Since then we understand the state and local media have interviewed numerous cabinet as well as local officials who all vowed to carry out the presidential decree in earnest. Private sector sources in China have also told us that they have received many visits from local officials to hear their grievances and to promise support.

None of these is unheard of. Mr Xi, who has assumed supreme power and has steered the country more and more towards a Mao-style governance, has not been the biggest fan of market economy and has not shied from saying so. But the time has changed. Private sector confidence in the economy has hit a historic low, and many businesses have opted to sell and pull out of the country. One of the highest profile cases in recent years was the withdrawal of Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong tycoon, who owned Hutchison (and ultimate owned Three UK). This is not helped by the slowdown of the economy in general and the trade war with the US. The country desperately needs the private sector to shore up the economy and keep people employed.

As a follow-up action, Beijing’s municipal government issued its new policy to improve business environment. Many concrete measures are put into place, including shortening the approval process of new business set-up to three days by the end of 2018, and to two days by the end of 2019, and the process to register fixed assets to one to four days. The new regulation also raised the threshold of business revenue that can enjoy favourable tax rate as well as the tax-deductible amount companies can spend on R&D equipment.

The measures may be favourable to private businesses but may not always be beneficial to individuals. For example, business owners are given more flexibility on how much social security payment they can choose to pay for their employees, especially the housing benefit. More importantly, buried in Article 15 of a total of 22 articles, are the specifications on implementing “social credit system” in Beijing.

As was already reported, Beijing vowed to implement the social credit system by 2020 as a model of “city of integrity and honesty” for the whole country. Specifically, the authorities (15 municipal government departments and all the 16 district councils) will complete three lists: data list, behaviour list, and measure (reward and punishment) list, which are to be used to give every resident (22 million of them) a “social security point”.

The names of individuals and businesses that lose credit will be publicly shamed. As the regulation stated in unambiguous terms, those with good points will have “green channels” opened to them in areas like market access, public service, travel, employment, setting up own business, etc. On the other hand, anyone who loses a credit point somewhere will be restricted everywhere.

This most likely will be the biggest artificial intelligence and smart city project (and not in the IoT sense) in the world. But, with the presidential backing, it may succeed.

40% of the world’s population on 5G by 2025, says GSMA

GSMA’s Director General spoke at Huawei’s MBBF 2018 event, talking up the prospect and promises of 5G and artificial intelligence

Mats Granryd, the Director General of the telecom trade organisation GSMA made a keynote speech themed on “intelligent connectivity” at Huawei’s MBB 2018 event at London’s ExCel today. Granryd put spotlight on 5G and AI as the key enablers to what the telecom industry has to offer in the years to come.

In addition to predicting that 70% of the world’s population, or roughly 6 billion people will be on mobile internet, GSMA forecast 40% of the world population will be on 5G networks. When it comes to AI, on top of improving individual experience (e.g. Personal Assistants) and serving new industry needs (e.g. network slicing), Granryd highlighted what the combined AI capabilities can do for society. The GSMA’s “Big Data for Social Good” initiative has launched in seven countries around the world. Mobile operators in those markets have worked with local partners to enable air pollution warning, malaria spreading prediction, and natural disaster preparedness, using big data and machine learning and prediction capabilities.

Guiqing Liu, EVP of China Telecom, the world’s largest integrated operators in the world by subscriber number, then took the stage to share what China Telecom saw as the biggest opportunity for telecom operators to undertake the digital transformation, especially with the ascendency of industry markets. Liu included four key capabilities the industry in particular the operators need to master to succeed in the transformation. They are: end-to-end slicing to cater to different user and industry needs; FMC edge computing to deliver seamless experience; 5G+Cloud based network and services to provide flexible and special customisation; and 5G+AI to both optimise service delivery and network management.

Liu also outlined the key challenges the industry is facing before 5G can become a real commercial success. He conceded that use cases now are still very much focused on eMBB, and the industry has not thought through how to change business models in the new era, including how to bill customers for the new use cases. On network challenges, in addition to the CAPEX and OPEX and skill gap, Liu also pointed the indoor coverage weakness intrinsic of the high frequency bands most 5G networks will be built on.

Is China’s AI industry much ado about nothing?

Investment in China’s AI companies has plummeted after hitting a high in 2017, amid inflated valuation and unfulfilled promises.

In July the research firm ABI Research released a report tracking investment in AI. China’s AI industry attracted $4.9 billion private sector investment in 2017, overtaking the US for the first time as the world’s biggest AI investment destination. Barely four months have passed when the firm published an update to show that the investment in China’s AI sector has plummeted in the first half of 2018, attracting only $1,6 billion, less than one third of the level of its biggest rival.

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A couple of factors may have contributed to the decline in the investment level. Valuation of start-ups has soared. According to Kai-Fu Lee, a former Google senior executive who nowadays runs a venture capital investing in China’s technology sector, the reasonable valuation of a typical AI start-up in China is less than half of the price level it was a year ago. This may well have put off some investors.

Another factor could be the speed of progress. “[We’re] at a juncture where the generic use cases have been addressed,” Lian Jye Su, the firm’s principle analyst spoke to the Financial Times. “And building generic general purpose chatbots is much easier than specific algorithms for industries like banking, construction, or mining because you need industry knowledge and buy-in from the industry.”

But specialised AI products are hard to come by and take a long time to develop. So, some companies chose to take a short-cut to show their progress. Natural language processing is one such competitive sector. Not too long ago a controversy arose when a simultaneous translator claimed that the company that hired him at a conference in China used a voice-to-text engine to display his translate to the conference audience, pretending the live speech was AI machine-translated. The company explained that it was using a hybrid solution.

The much hyped, and feared, “social credit” system is also moving at a slow pace. Recently a university in southern China, instead of using AI to troll internet traffic, decided to resort to the analogue way of detecting dissent: it required all students and staff to hand in their computers, mobile phones, and USB sticks to be inspected by the school authorities. It backfired badly, and the university told the media that it would “rethink” the scope of its approach.

At the end of the day it falls to the technology heavyweights rather than the start-ups to take charge. Huawei and Alibaba have both started developing their own AI chips to shore up its vertical integration capability. This will take much longer than developing a gimmicky application, hybrid or not, but will be much more specialised and more powerful, especially supported by the large amount of data the companies possess.

What to bin and what to keep; the big data conundrum

Figuring out what is valuable data and binning the rest has been a challenge for the telco industry, but here’s an interesting dilemma; how do you know the unknown value of data for the usecases of tomorrow?

This was broadly one of the topics of conversation at Light Reading’s Software Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network event in London. Everyone in the industry knows that data is going to be a big thing, but the influx of questions are almost overwhelming as the number of data sets available.

“90% of the data we collect is useless 90% of the time,” said Tom Griffin of Sevone.

This opens the floodgates of questions. Why do you want to collect certain data sets? How frequently are you going to collect the data? Where is it going to be stored? What are the regulatory requirements? How in-depth does the data need to be for the desired use? What do you do with the redundant data? Will it still be redundant in the future? What is the consequence of binning data which might become valuable in the future? How long do you keep information for with the hope it will one day become useful?

For all the promise of data analytics and artificial intelligence in the industry, the telcos have barely stepped off the starting block. For Griffin and John Clowers of Cisco, identifying the specific usecase is key. While this might sound very obvious, it’s amazing how many people are still floundering, but once this has been identified machine learning and artificial intelligence become critically important.

As Clowers pointed out, with ML and AI data can be analysed in near real-time as it is collected, assigned to the right storage environment (public, private or traditional dependent on regulatory requirements) and then onto the right data lakes or ponds (dependent on the purpose for collecting the data in the first place). With the right algorithms in place, the process of classifying and storing information can be automated, freeing up the time of the engineers to add value, though it also keeps an eye on costs. With the sheer volume of information being collected increasing very quickly, storage costs could rise rapidly.

And this is below the 5G and IoT trends have really kicked in. If telcos are struggling with the data demands of today, how are they going to cope with the tsunami of information which is almost guaranteed in tomorrow’s digital economy.

Which brings us back to the original point. If you have to be selective with the information which you keep, how do you know what information will be valuable for the usecases of tomorrow? And what will be the cost of not having this data?