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Is Google Always Listening?

Jarvis Johnson explains that big companies like Google and Facebook don’t need to listen in on you via your phone/tablet, because they already collect so much data on you that they can guess what ads might be relevant on that alone. I love the critical thinking aspect to this - it’s easy to oversimplify complex systems, because our brains aren’t good at understanding that many variables, but reality is not required to bend to our beliefs.

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The IndieWeb Movement Will Help People Control Their Own Web Presence?

This seems like a really good introduction to and rationale for the IndieWeb:

The early vision of the web was one of a decentralized and somewhat anarchic community where we each had control over our own content and our own online presence — that’s a vision that Tim Berners-Lee still endorses, but it’s one that’s put in jeopardy by the relentless centralizing tendency of big companies. And that’s why I find the Indie Web movement so interesting — not as a rejection of the corporate influence, but as a much needed counterbalance that provides the technology for people, should they so choose, to build an online presence of their own devising without giving up the communities and the connections that they have built on existing networks.

The Indie Web is the name given to a movement instigated by a group of technologists who want to put some distance between themselves and Silicon Valley. At the heart of the Indie Web are the IndieWebCamps, but I’d like to have a quick look at one of the central ideas motivating the creation of various technologies that help foster the same connectivity as social networks with a bit more freedom.

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I have nothing to hide

I know you are not a terrorist but still you give privacy for understood in many aspects of your daily physical life. You expect it every time you go to the bathroom and close the door, you expect it when you go to the doctor or you confide to a close friend.

[…]

Everyone has things that keep to themselves, things that only say to a special person, things that can be shared with close friends or family, things they talk only to a doctor and so on and so forth.

If in real life we have so many layers, why don’t we expect the same level of privacy on internet? We are giving to Facebook, Google, Linkedin and the others more information about ourselves than we give to our SO or even to ourselves (remember Google is investing in DNA mapping).

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Browse Against the Machine

[T]he web looks more and more like a feudal system, where the geography of the web has been partitioned off by the Frightful Five. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon are our lord and protectors, exacting a royal sum for our online behaviors. We’re the serfs and tenants, providing homage inside their walled fortresses. Noble upstarts are erased or subsumed under their existing order.

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Disqus is a performance and privacy nightmare

Relevant points [of disabling Disqus] are:

  • Load-time goes from 6 seconds to 2 seconds.
  • There are 105 network requests vs. 16.
  • There are a lot of non-relevant requests going through to networks that will be tracking your movements.

Among the networks you can find:

  • disqus.com - Obviously!
  • google-analytics.com - Multiple requests; no idea who’s capturing your movements.
  • connect.facebook.net - If you’re logged into Facebook, they know you visit this site.
  • accounts.google.com - Google will also map your visits to this site with any of your Google accounts.
  • pippio.com - LiveRamp identify mapping for harvesting your details for commercial gain.
  • bluekai.com - Identity tracking for marketing campaigns.
  • crwdcntrl.net - Pretty suspect site listed as referenced by viruses and spyware.
  • exelator.com - More identity and movement tracking site which even has a virus named after it!
  • doubleclick.net - We all know this one: ad services and movement tracking, owned by Google.
  • tag.apxlv.net - Very shady and tricky to pin-point an owner as they obsfuscate their domain (I didn’t even know this was a thing!). Adds a tracking pixel to your site.
  • adnxs.com - More tracking garbage, albeit slightly more prolific.
  • adsymptotic.com - Advertising and tracking that suppposedly uses machine learning.
  • rlcdn.com - Obsfuscated advertising/tracking from Rapleaf.
  • adbrn.com - “Deliver a personalized customer journey across devices, channels and platforms with Adbrain customer ID mapping technology.”
  • nexac.com - Oracle’s Datalogix, their own tracking and behavioural pattern rubbish.
  • tapad.com - OK, I cant’t be bothered to search to look this up anymore.
  • liadm.com - More? Oh, ok, then…
  • sohern.com - Yup. Tracking.
  • demdex.net - Tracking. From Adobe.
  • bidswitch.net - I’ll give you one guess…
  • agkn.com - …
  • mathtag.com - Curious name, maybe it’s… no. It’s tracking you.

I can’t visit many of these sites because I have them blocked in uBlock Origin so information was gleaned from google crawl results of the webpages and 3rd parties. Needless to say, it’s a pretty disgusting insight into how certain free products turn you into the product. What’s more worrying are the services that go to lengths to hide who they are and what their purposes are for tracking your movements.

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Build a Better Monster: Morality, Machine Learning, and Mass Surveillance

We built the commercial internet by mastering techniques of persuasion and surveillance that we’ve extended to billions of people, including essentially the entire population of the Western democracies. But admitting that this tool of social control might be conducive to authoritarianism is not something we’re ready to face. After all, we’re good people. We like freedom. How could we have built tools that subvert it?

[…]

The learning algorithms have no ethics or boundaries. There’s no slot in the algorithm that says “insert moral compass here”, or any way to tell them that certain inferences are forbidden because they would be wrong. In applying them to human beings, we leave ourselves open to unpleasant surprises.

The issue is not just intentional abuse (by trainers feeding skewed data into algorithms to affect the outcome), or unexamined bias that creeps in with in our training data, but the fundamental non-humanity of these algorithms.

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So what happens when these tools for maximizing clicks and engagement creep into the political sphere?

This is a delicate question! If you concede that they work just as well for politics as for commerce, you’re inviting government oversight. If you claim they don’t work well at all, you’re telling advertisers they’re wasting their money.

Facebook and Google have tied themselves into pretzels over this. The idea that these mechanisms of persuasion could be politically useful, and especially that they might be more useful to one side than the other, violates cherished beliefs about the “apolitical” tech industry.

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One problem is that any system trying to maximize engagement will try to push users towards the fringes. You can prove this to yourself by opening YouTube in an incognito browser (so that you start with a blank slate), and clicking recommended links on any video with political content. When I tried this experiment last night, within five clicks I went from a news item about demonstrators clashing in Berkeley to a conspiracy site claiming Trump was planning WWIII with North Korea, and another exposing FEMA’s plans for genocide.

This pull to the fringes doesn’t happen if you click on a cute animal story. In that case, you just get more cute animals (an experiment I also recommend trying). But the algorithms have learned that users interested in politics respond more if they’re provoked more, so they provoke. Nobody programmed the behavior into the algorithm; it made a correct observation about human nature and acted on it.

[…]

But even though we’re likely to fail, all we can do is try. Good intentions are not going to make these structural problems go away. Talking about them is not going to fix them.

We have to do something.

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Silo Buster - A markup generator for URL display optimizations in social content silos

A screenshot of the Silo Buster page and form, with fields for many aspects of what to display on social networks when sharing your site.

The generator supports Twitter cards, Pinterest rich pins, Google’s structured data and Facebook’s Open Graph.

Add this markup to your web pages to make links to your site look great in social apps and websites! Also, making outbound content look attractive helps people escape these content silos and venture back out onto the wild wild web!

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