“Algospeak” is becoming increasingly common across the Internet as people seek to bypass content moderation filters on social media platforms such as TikTok, YouTube, Instagram and Twitch. Algospeak refers to code words or turns of phrase users have adopted in an effort to create a brand-safe lexicon that will avoid getting their posts removed or down-ranked by content moderation systems. As the pandemic pushed more people to communicate and express themselves online, algorithmic content moderation systems have had an unprecedented impact on the words we choose, particularly on TikTok, and given rise to a new form of internet-driven Aesopian language. When the pandemic broke out, people on TikTok and other apps began referring to it as the “Backstreet Boys reunion tour” or calling it the “panini” or “panda express” as platforms down-ranked videos mentioning the pandemic by name in an effort to combat misinformation. As discussions of major events are filtered through algorithmic content delivery systems, more users are bending their language. “The reality is that tech companies have been using automated tools to moderate content for a really long time and while it’s touted as this sophisticated machine learning, it’s often just a list of words they think are problematic,” said Ángel Díaz, a lecturer at the UCLA School of Law who studies technology and racial discrimination.
Tuesday, April 12, 2022
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As government and other groups that work directly with communities across the country increasingly prioritize digital equity, programs to train new experts in the field are steadily growing. The spike is a direct result of society — from government, to nonprofits, to individuals themselves — pushing for digital equity after COVID-19 made clear the importance of closing the digital divide. Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), estimates the number of active digital inclusion training programs in the US is triple or even quadruple what it was prior to the pandemic. Siefer and the NDIA have long put out resources to guide folks with digital inclusion training. It is not uncommon, Siefer notes, for her to now discover new programs built with NDIA’s published guidance by organizers who have never touched base with the group. That is, of course, in addition to people who are reaching out to the NDIA for help, too. Perhaps the most common digital inclusion training in the country is the NDIA’s Digital Navigators model. This is, essentially, the training of trainers. Digital inclusion experts work with members of community groups where digital equity is needed. Often, these are folks who then work directly with residents in some capacity. They range from librarians to staffers at senior centers to members of housing support groups. The commonality between them is they are already trusted by populations currently on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) wants to make it easier for rural and Tribal communities to get and stay connected, planning to use a four-year grant from Google’s charitable arm to create a corps of experts who will provide digital literacy training and help local residents access low-cost broadband service and devices. These so-called “digital navigators” will be deployed via programs in 18 communities across the country. Angela Siefer, executive director of NDIA, said the digital navigator model sprang up during the pandemic, as anchor institutions like schools, libraries, social service agencies and health clinics sought to help residents access critical connectivity services. While NDIA did not create the model, it has been working to standardize it so it can be more easily replicated in other communities. But Siefer noted much of NDIA’s experience to date has been in urban communities. The organization is hoping a $10 million grant it received from Google will help it better serve rural and Tribal communities. The Google grant is the single largest NDIA has received. Siefer said in addition to using it to embed digital navigators within trusted anchor institutions, NDIA will use the money to collect data about what’s working and what isn’t to help fine tune its model. To that end, the money will also go toward the creation of new digital navigator training materials, outreach tools and other templates.
I was asked an interesting question recently: will fiber help the big telecom companies turn the corner to success? It’s a good question when looking at telcos like Frontier, Windstream, Lumen, and any others who are late to the game for converting copper to fiber. There are a lot of factors that will come into play, so the answer is likely to be different by company. On the plus side is a general consensus by many households that fiber is the best technology. There is a sizable percentage of homes in any market that will move to fiber given a chance. I’m sure this differs by community, but my experience is that 20 to 30 percent of homes will almost automatically switch to fiber, and that percentage is likely growing. It seems that all of the talk about broadband over the last few years has sold the idea that fiber is a superior technology. We know telcos are hoping this perception is true, but any perceived superiority of fiber is going to be relatively short-lived as cable companies upgrade networks to have faster upload speeds. Ultimately, there is no guaranteed path to success for a telco that finally gets around to converting to fiber. The incremental new revenues from the conversion may not be high enough to make the math work. The big telcos will be battling a negative public perception of them as quality and reliable internet service providers. They might be successful just because of the advantages that fiber has over cable company copper networks – but those advantages might not be enough to make a bottom-line difference.
[Doug Dawson is President of CCG Consulting.]
Cable companies could soon find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place as battles with fiber-to-the-home providers for subscribers intensify. Analysts at Cowen Equity Research noted cable’s standard response to competition from these players has been to lock in subscribers with promotional rates. But these rates are only available for new customers and “existing cable subscribers face substantially higher rates for broadband.” Cowen’s analysts asserted that “given the national customer bases that large Cable companies have, broad price cuts are highly unlikely, thus leaving Cable in a bind, having to decide whether to cede share or cut [average revenues per user].” While cable operators have repeatedly downplayed the threat from fiber competitors, the broadband landscape is set to change substantially over the coming years. New Street Research recently predicted that with help from government subsidies, fiber will pass around 80 percent of cable homes by 2030. Cable also faces pressure from fixed wireless broadband, which New Street Research forecasts would rake in 2.4 million net additions in 2022 compared to cable’s 1.5 million and fiber’s 1.9 million.
Charter said it has applied to receive $21 million in funding through the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund – American Rescue Plan program to cover the majority of the costs for a rural broadband build in Henderson County (TN). The company has become quite aggressive on rural broadband, which it sees as an opportunity to gain broadband and video subscribers in markets with little or no competition. The company was one of the biggest winners in the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) rural broadband auction. The auction awarded funding to bring broadband to unserved areas to the companies that committed to doing so for the lowest level of support. The Henderson County project that Charter proposes would make gigabit service available to 4,300 homes and small businesses, with Charter contributing $12.9 million toward the project cost. This would be in addition to the $5 billion Charter has said it will invest in unserved rural communities, including $1.2 billion in RDOF funding. Although the new funding that Charter has requested would come from the state of Tennessee, the Tennessee program was ultimately funded through the State and Local Fiscal Recovery program established in the federal American Rescue Plan Act. That act gave each state a pool of money that the state could use for a variety of purposes, including broadband.
Elections & Media
Email services use spam filtering algorithms (SFAs) to filter emails that are unwanted by the user. However, at times, the emails perceived by an SFA as unwanted may be important to the user. Such incorrect decisions can have significant implications if SFAs treat emails of user interest as spam on a large scale. This is particularly important during national elections. To study whether the SFAs of popular email services have any biases in treating the campaign emails, we conducted a large-scale study of the campaign emails of the US elections 2020 by subscribing to a large number of Presidential, Senate, and House candidates using over a hundred email accounts on Gmail, Outlook, and Yahoo. We analyzed the biases in the SFAs towards the left and the right candidates and further studied the impact of the interactions (such as reading or marking emails as spam) of email recipients on these biases. We observed that the SFAs of different email services indeed exhibit biases towards different political affiliations. The study found that Gmail leaned towards the left (Democrats) whereas Outlook and Yahoo leaned towards the right (Republicans) in marking emails as spam.
The US Department of the Treasury is exempting telecommunications services from ongoing sanctions against Russia. The move, confirmed April 7, follows requests from advocacy groups who feared a disruption would cut off Russian activists’ access to the outside world. It may not, however, cause companies that voluntarily cut off access to restore it. The new order authorizes business transactions involving “services, software, hardware, or technology incident to the exchange of communications over the internet,” including messaging, domain registration, email, and sharing photos or videos. It does not authorize transactions involving Russian financial institutions or state-controlled entities like the Russian Ministry of Finance. Access Now and other nonprofits have pushed the US government to avoid disrupting internet access as part of larger sanctions against Russia over its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The decision comes after several telecommunications companies pulled out of Russia and suspended user accounts from the country. Internet backbone providers Lumen and Cogent voluntarily ended service in March, as did Mailchimp operator Intuit, which said it was making the decision “in support of the people of Ukraine.” Other companies have moved specifically in response to the sanctions, however — like Slack, which blocked access from Russia citing a need to comply with US regulations.
After Russia launched its invasion, Ukrainian officials pleaded for Elon Musk’s SpaceX to dispatch their Starlink terminals to the region to boost Internet access. “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route,” Musk replied to broad online fanfare. Since then, the company has cast the actions in part as a charitable gesture. “I’m proud that we were able to provide the terminals to folks in Ukraine,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said, later adding, “I don’t think the US has given us any money to give terminals to Ukraine.” But according to documents obtained by The Washington Post, the US federal government is in fact paying millions of dollars for a significant portion of the equipment and for the transportation costs to get it to Ukraine. On April 5, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced it has purchased more than 1,330 terminals from SpaceX to send to Ukraine, while the company donated nearly 3,670 terminals and the Internet service itself. While the agency initially called it a “private sector donation valued at roughly $10 million,” it did not specify how much it is contributing for the equipment or for the cost of transportation. Sometime after the announcement, the agency removed key details from its release. It now states that USAID “has delivered 5,000 Starlink Terminals” to Ukraine “through a public-private partnership” with SpaceX but does not specify the quantity nor value of the donations.
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