Internet giants approach the censorship point of no return

The apparently coordinated banning of conspiracy site InfoWars has brought to a head the role of social media companies in censoring public discussion.

InfoWars is headed by Alex Jones, a polemicist who likes to shout his often highly questionable views and theories at the camera. He has a large following and frequently says things that are offensive to many but, to date, he seems to have been accepted at part of the public debate mix, albeit a relatively extreme one.

However last week YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify all took down content and channels from InfoWars on the grounds that it had broken their rules. This move was celebrated by many opponents of InfoWars but also called into question the grounds for taking the action and whether those rules are being applied equally to all.

Unsurprisingly Jones thinks it’s a conspiracy, but a number of other commentators are asking whether social media censorship rules are more strict for right leaning commentators than those on the left. Conservative publication Breitbart noted that groups such as Antifa – a militant far-left organisation – seems to escape unpunished for public statements that are at least as questionable.

And then there’s the matter of free speech in general, and more specifically censorship. Most people accept there has to be some limit on what can be said in public, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre or explicitly calling for a crime to be committed, and the useful debate focuses on where that limit should be, as implemented by law.

But social media platforms are private companies and are thus free to implement their own policies independent of laws and apparent public will. For some time they have been censoring speech that would be allowed by law, which is their prerogative, but since most Western public discussion now takes place via this oligopoly of platforms, apparent coordinated action by them becomes a matter of public concern.

This concern is amplified when there is a perception of political bias behind the censorship decisions. Silicon Valley is generally considered to tend very much to the left of the political spectrum and social media seems to be especially twitchy about commentary deemed to be from the ‘far right’.

As the location for the most heated public debate, Twitter is the social media platform at the front line of the censorship issue. Intriguingly it has so far declined to ban InfoWars, despite evidence that it has violated Twitter rules. Of all the platforms Twitter seems to be having the most nuanced and sophisticated internal discussion on censorship, as evidenced by this NYT piece and the tweet below from CEO Jack Dorsey.

On top of the ethical and philosophical questions raised by the perception of selective censorship by social media companies there are also commercial ones. When YouTube started demonetizing videos it was in response to complaints from advertisers about having their brands placed alongside content ‘incompatible with their values’ or something like that. But there is a real danger, thanks to phenomena like the Streisand effect, that high profile censorship such as this will permanently drive traffic away from their platforms and create the demand for fresh competitors.

Sooner or later the big internet companies surely have to explicitly detail the cut off point for what speech they consider ‘unacceptable’ and clearly demonstrate they are implementing them even-handedly, or face an increasing backlash. It seems appropriate to conclude by referring the discussion to a couple of prominent YouTubers who, while no fans of InfoWars, are very concerned about selective censorship.

 

Tencent is aiming to do a Spotify with its entertainment and music business

The China based internet company Tencent, listed on the HKSE, is planning to spin off its music and entertainment subsidiary and list it separately on an exchange in the US.

The chairman of Tencent, Ma Huateng, also known as Pony Ma, made the announcement on Sunday 8 July, one day before Xiaomi’s trading started on the HKSE. Despite the initial price was set at the bottom end of the estimated range, Xiaomi’s share price still closed the day 1.2 percent lower than its opening price, having recovered from a heavy loss of close to 6 percent earlier in the day.

In an interesting twist, Xiaomi’s CEO Lei Jun felt the share price was depressed by the on-going trade disputes between the US and China, when he spoke to the CNN. Meanwhile, the company’s President and Co-Founder Lin Bin told CNBC that the trade war is not a major concern “as Xiaomi had not done much business in the U.S.”

Although Xiaomi is a profitable business, its thin margin (capped at 5 percent by its owner on its hardware business, which accounted for roughly 90 percent of the whole business) made investors deem the price too high.

In comparison, the global leader in streaming music, Spotify, launched its IPO in April this year on NYSE. The price rose by 13 percent on its opening day, rising to $149.01 from the initial offering of $132, despite Spotify being a loss-making company. It was traded at $175.70 when the market closed on Friday 6 July.

We can only wait for Tencent to disclose the profit and loss of its Music and Entertainment group in the run-up to the IPO, but the group, which gets all its business from China, has reported healthy growths. Its paid subscriptions, mainly for video and music, grew by 24 percent to 147 million during the first quarter of 2018, and its total video revenues grew by 85 percent year on year.

The limited appetite on the Hong Kong market, especially when the channel to China-based investors, the instrument called CDR, is hard to come by, in contrast to the enthusiasm to invest in the future on the US market, may have helped tilt the decision by the Tencent board to go for the US stock market.

AI audio is getting scary

Google is trying to make machines sound more human and that’s freaking people out.

Earlier this week Google demonstrated a cool new technology it’s working on called Duplex that is essentially an AI-powered automated voice system designed to enable more ‘natural’ conversations between machines and people. You can see the live demo below and click here for a bunch of audio clips showing how far along it is.

While there is clearly still a fair bit of fine tuning to be done, the inclusion of conversational furniture such as umms and ahs has unsettled some commentators, mainly on the grounds that it’s becoming hard to know if you’re speaking to a real person or not. While the whole point seems to be to make interacting with machines more smooth and intuitive, it seems we’ve hit a cognitive wall.

‘Google Grapples With ‘Horrifying’ Reaction to Uncanny AI Tech’, blurted Bloomberg. ‘Could Google’s creepy new AI push us to a tipping point?’ wailed the Washington Post. ‘Google Assistant’s new ability to call people creates some serious ethical issues’, moaned Mashable. ‘Google Should Have Thought About Duplex’s Ethical Issues Before Showing It Off’, fulminated Fortune. And then there’s this Twitter thread from a New York Times writer.

Hyperbolic headline-writing aside these are all good points. Google’s grand unveiling coincides with the broadcast of the second season of Westworld, a drama in which androids indistinguishable from humans rebel and decide to start calling the shots. And, of course, talk of AI (at least from this correspondent) is only ever one step away from references to The Terminator and The Matrix.

The above reactions to the demonstration of Duplex have forced Google to state that such interactions will always make it clear when you’re talking to a machine but it’s not yet clear exactly how. More significant, however, has been this timely reminder that not everyone embraces technological advancement as unconditionally as Silicon Valley and that AI seems to have already reached a level of sophistication that is ringing alarm bells.

And it’s not like Duplex is an isolated example. The NYT reports on findings that it’s possible to embed suggestions into recordings of music or spoken word such that smart speakers receive them as commands. The extra scary bit is that it’s possible to make these commands undetectable to regular punters.

Meanwhile Spotify has announced a new ‘Hate Content and Hateful Conduct Public Policy’, that is enforced by an automated monitoring tool called Spotify AudioWatch. This bit of AI is able to sift the lyrics of songs on the platform for stuff that goes against Spotify’s new policy, which you can read here.

On one hand we can all agree that horridness is bad and something needs to be done about it, on the other this is yet another example of algorithmic censorship. According to Billboard this facility is also being used to erase from history any artists that may have sung or rapped something horrid in the past too.

These various examples of how AI is being used to automate, manipulate and censor audio are quite rightly ringing alarm bells. Greater automation seems to be inevitable but it’s perfectly reasonable to question whether or not you want to live in a world where machines increasingly decide what’s in your best interests.

 

Spotify looks east with Tencent umbilicus

Music streaming service Spotify has made a clear statement of geographical intent by entering into an equity swap with Chinese internet giant Tencent.

Specifically Spotify is doing business with Tencent Music Entertainment and in its announcement it referred to the two companies as ‘the two most popular music streaming platforms in the world.’ TME runs QQMusic and KuGou, which apparently have a combined monthly user base of 450 million users. The last time Spotify revealed its user numbers they stood at 140 million, with 60 million subscribers, but it has global reach.

The companies have announced they will acquire shares in each other but the only details offered is that they will amount to minority stakes. So somewhere between 0.000000000001% and 49.9999999999999%. Tencent is also going to buy another tranche of Spotify shares just because it can.

“Spotify and Tencent Music Entertainment see significant opportunities in the global music streaming market for all our users, artists, music and business partners,” said Daniel Ek, CEO and Founder of Spotify. “This transaction will allow both companies to benefit from the global growth of music streaming.”

“We are excited to embark on this partnership with the largest music streaming platform in the world,” said Cussion Pang, CEO of TME. “TME and Spotify will work together to explore collaboration opportunities, with a common objective to foster a vibrant music ecosystem that benefits users, artists and content owners.”

“We are delighted to facilitate this strategic collaboration between the two largest digital music platforms in the world,” said Martin Lau, Tencent President. “Both of us share the same commitment to bringing music and superior entertainment experiences to music lovers, and to expanding the global digital music market for artists and content partners.”

Spotify is expected to have its IPO next year and being so intimately joined to such a big, cash rich company will probably reassure prospective investors about its long-term future. Furthermore, since that future will chiefly involve direct competition with US tech giants such as Apple and Google, this marks an intriguing moment in the balance of economic power between east and west.