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MPs consider contempt charges for Canadian company linked to Cambridge Analytica after raucous committee meeting

Aggregate IQ executives came to answer questions before a Canadian parliamentary committee. Then they had the misfortune of dealing with a well-connected British Information Commissioner, Elizabeth Denham:

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, MPs pressed Silvester and Massingham on their company’s work during the Brexit referendum, for which they are currently under investigation in the UK over possible violations of campaign spending limits. Under questioning from Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, Silvester and Massingham insisted they had fully cooperated with the UK information commissioner Elizabeth Denham. But as another committee member, Liberal MP Frank Baylis, took over the questioning, Erskine-Smith received a text message on his phone from Denham which contradicted the pair’s testimony.

Erskine-Smith handed his phone to Baylis, who read the text aloud.  “AIQ refused to answer her specific questions relating to data usage during the referendum campaign, to the point that the UK is considering taking further legal action to secure the information she needs,” Denham’s message said.

Silvester replied that he had been truthful in all his answers and said he would be keen to follow up with Denham if she had more questions.

It’s definitely a bold move to inform parliamentarians, operating in a friendly but foreign jurisdiction, that they’re being misled by one of their witnesses. So long as such communications don’t overstep boundaries — such as enabling a government official to engage in a public witchhunt of a given person or group — these sorts of communications seem essential when dealing with groups which have spread themselves across multiple jurisdictions and are demonstrably behaving untruthfully.

The Roundup for April 14-20, 2018 Edition

Walkways by Christopher Parsons

Earlier this year, I suggested that the current concerns around Facebook data being accessed by unauthorized third parties wouldn’t result in users leaving the social network in droves. Not just because people would be disinclined to actually leave the social network but because so many services use Facebook.

Specifically, one of the points that I raised was:

3. Facebook is required to log into a lot of third party services. I’m thinking of services from my barber to Tinder. Deleting Facebook means it’s a lot harder to get a haircut and impossible to use something like Tinder.

At least one company, Bumble, is changing its profile confirmation methods: whereas previously all Bumble users linked their Facebook information to their Bumble account for account identification, the company is now developing their own verification system. Should a significant number of companies end up following Bumble’s model then this could have a significant impact on Facebook’s popularity, as some of the ‘stickiness’ of the service would be diminished.1

I think that people moving away from Facebook is a good thing. But it’s important to recognize that the company doesn’t just provide social connectivity: Facebook has also made it easier for businesses to secure login credential and (in others cases) ‘verify’ identity.2 In effect one of the trickiest parts of on boarding customers has been done by a third party that was well resourced to both collect and secure the data from formal data breaches. As smaller companies assume these responsibilities, without the equivalent to Facebook’s security staff, they are going to have to get very good, very fast, at protecting their customers’ information from data breaches. While it’s certainly not impossible for smaller companies to rise to the challenge, it won’t be a cost free endeavour, either.

It will be interesting to see if more companies move over to Bumble’s approach or if, instead, businesses and consumers alike merely shake their heads angrily at Facebook’s and continue to use the service despite its failings. For what it’s worth, I continue to think that people will just shake their heads angrily and little will actually come of the Cambridge Analytica story in terms of affecting the behaviours and desires of most Facebook users, unless there are continued rapid and sustained violations of Facebook users’ trust. But hope springs eternal and so I genuinely do hope that people shift away from Facebook and towards more open, self-owned, and interesting communications and networking platforms.


Thoughtful Quotation of the Week

The brands themselves aren’t the problem, though: we all need some stuff, so we rely on brands to create the things we need. The problem arises when we feel external pressure to acquire as if new trinkets are a shortcut to a more complete life. That external pressure shouldn’t be a sign to consume. If anything, it’s a sign to pause and ask, “Who am I buying this for?”

Great Photography Shots

I was really stunned by Zsolt Hlinka’s architectural photography, which was featured on My Modern MET.

Music I’m Digging

Neat Podcast Episodes

Good Reads for the Week

Cool Things

Footnotes

  1. I think that the other reasons I listed in my earlier post will still hold. Those points were:

    1. Few people vote. And so they aren’t going to care that some shady company was trying to affect voting patterns.
    2. Lots of people rely on Facebook to keep passive track of the people in their lives. Unless communities, not individuals, quit there will be immense pressure to remain part of the network.

  2. I’m aware that it’s easy to establish a fake Facebook account and that such activity is pretty common. Nevertheless, an awful lot of people use their ‘real’ Facebook accounts that has real verification information, such as email addresses and phone numbers.

Facebook Isn’t Going Anywhere

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, there are calls for people to delete their Facebook accounts. Similar calls have gone out in the past following Facebook-related scandals. As the years have unfolded following each scandal, Facebook has become more and more integrated into people’s lives while, at the same time, more and more people claim to dislike the service. I’m confident that some thousands of people will delete (or at least deactivate) their accounts. But I don’t think that the Cambridge Analytica scandal is going to be what causes people to flee Facebook en mass for the following reasons:

  1. Few people vote. And so they aren’t going to care that some shady company was trying to affect voting patterns.
  2. Lots of people rely on Facebook to keep passive track of the people in their lives. Unless communities, not individuals, quit there will be immense pressure to remain part of the network.
  3. Facebook is required to log into a lot of third party services. I’m thinking of services from my barber to Tinder. Deleting Facebook means it’s a lot harder to get a haircut and impossible to use something like Tinder.

Now, does this mean Cambridge Analytica will have no effect? No. In fact, Facebook’s second-worst nightmare is probably an acceleration of decreased use of the social network. So if people use Facebook hesitantly and significantly decrease how often they’re on the service this could open the potential for other networks to capitalize on the new minutes or hours of attention which are available. But regardless, Facebook isn’t going anywhere barring far more serious political difficulties.

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There’s another theory floating around as to why Facebook cares so much about the way it’s impacting the world, and it’s one that I happen to agree with. When Zuckerberg looks into his big-data crystal ball, he can see a troublesome trend occurring. A few years ago, for example, there wasn’t a single person I knew who didn’t have Facebook on their smartphone. These days, it’s the opposite. This is largely anecdotal, but almost everyone I know has deleted at least one social app from their devices. And Facebook is almost always the first to go. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and other sneaky privacy-piercing applications are being removed by people who simply feel icky about what these platforms are doing to them, and to society.

Some people are terrified that these services are listening in to their private conversations. (The company’s anti-privacy tentacles go so far as to track the dust on your phone to see who you might be spending time with.) Others are sick of getting into an argument with a long-lost cousin, or that guy from high school who still works in the same coffee shop, over something that Trump said, or a “news” article that is full of more bias and false facts. And then there’s the main reason I think people are abandoning these platforms: Facebook knows us better than we know ourselves, with its algorithms that can predict if we’re going to cheat on our spouse, start looking for a new job, or buy a new water bottle on Amazon in a few weeks. It knows how to send us the exact right number of pop-ups to get our endorphins going, or not show us how many Likes we really have to set off our insecurities. As a society, we feel like we’re at war with a computer algorithm, and the only winning move is not to play.

There was a time when Facebook made us feel good about using the service—I used to love it. It was fun to connect with old friends, share pictures of your vacation with everyone, or show off a video of your nephew being extra-specially cute. But, over time, Facebook has had to make Wall Street happy, and the only way to feed that beast is to accumulate more, more, more: more clicks, more time spent on the site, more Likes, more people, more connections, more hyper-personalized ads. All of which adds up to more money. But as one recent mea culpa by an early Internet guru aptly noted, “What if we were never meant to be a global species?”

As much as I’d like to believe that users will flee Facebook, I still think the network effect will keep them inside the company’s heavily walled garden. It’ll take a new generation using new applications and interested in different kinds of content creation — and Facebook not buying up whatever is popular to that generation — for the company’s grasp to be loosened.

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Facebook’s DNA

Om Malik:

Having followed Facebook for a long time, I know what really plagues the company is that being open and transparent is not part of its DNA. This combination of secrecy, microtargeting and addiction to growth at any cost is the real challenge. The company’s entire strategy is based on targeting, monetizing and advertising.

Common sense ideas such as being humane, understanding its impact on society and civic infrastructure — well that doesn’t bring any dollars into the coffers. Call me cynical, but reactive apologies are nothing but spin.

So very true.

WhatsApp Profits

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp made sense in terms to buying a potential competitor before it got too large to threaten Facebook’s understanding of social relationships. The decision to secure communications between WhatsApp users only solidified Facebook’s position that it was less interested in mining the content of communications than on understanding the relationships between each user.

However, as businesses turn to WhatsApp to communicate with their customers a new revenue opportunity has opened for Facebook: compelling businesses to pay some kind of a fee to continue using the service for commercial communications.

WhatsApp will eventually charge companies to use some future features in the two free business tools it started testing this summer, WhatsApp’s chief operating officer, Matt Idema, said in an interview.

The new tools, which help businesses from local bakeries to global airlines talk to customers over the app, reflect a different approach to monetization than other Facebook products, which rely on advertising.

This is Facebook flipping who ‘pays’ for using WhatsApp. Whereas in the past customers paid a small yearly fee, now customers will get it free and businesses will be charged to use it. It remains to be seen, however, whether WhatsApp is ‘sticky’ enough for consumers to genuinely expect businesses to use it for customer communications. Further, Facebook’s payment model will also stand as a contrast between WhatsApp and its Asian competitors, such as LINE and WeChat, which have transformed their messaging platforms into whole social networks that can also be used for robust commercial transactions. Is this the beginning of an equivalent pivot on Facebook’s part or are they, instead, trying out an entirely separate business model in the hopes of not canibalizing Facebook itself?

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WhatsApp to start sharing user data with Facebook

WhatsApp to start sharing user data with Facebook:

WhatsApp says that sharing this information means Facebook can offer better friend suggestions by mapping users’ social connections across the two services, and deliver more relevant ads on the social network. Additional analytics data from WhatsApp will also be shared to track usage metrics and fight spam.

WhatsApp now provides about the best security of any chat application that is available. Sadly, the privacy aspects of the company are now being weakened as Facebook more fully integrates WhatsApp into the broader range of Facebook companies.