The Republican party’s 2016 platform referred to existing network neutrality rules as the “gravest peril” putting “the survival of the internet as we know it ... at risk.” But President-elect Donald Trump is unpredictable enough that looking to his party doesn’t offer much clarity as to what he might actually do.
Rather than basing his decisions on overarching principles—or party platforms—the president elect often seems to be guided by vendetta (or at least the desire to generate a punchy sound bite). Trump’s record of opposing monopolies, for instance, often centers around his disdain for the media, which was a reliable crowd-pleaser among his supporters.
Nearly half of American Internet users have been harassed or abused online, according to a new study published by Data & Society, a technology-focused think tank. Some groups are more often targeted than others. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual users are more than twice as likely than straight users to experience abuse online, the study found, and although men and women are subject to similar levels of abuse, the attacks on women were often of a more serious nature. Of the 20 categories of harassment the researchers looked at, men were more likely to report being called names and being embarrassed online, while women were more likely to be stalked, sexually harassed, or have false rumors spread about them.
But a person doesn’t have to be the target of abuse for it to color their experience online. More than 70 percent of Americans say they’ve seen others harassed on the Internet. For black users, that percentage rose to 78; among younger users and lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans, the proportion is close 90 percent. Groups that were more likely to come into contact with online abuse were also more likely to say that people on the Internet are mostly unkind.
In retrospect, President Barack Obama wasn’t the first high-tech president just because he had a personal relationship with technology. He was also the president who oversaw Silicon Valley’s reincarnation, from industrial accessory of the PC and E-commerce era to information sovereign in the age of iPhone and Facebook. The Obama Administration mostly supported the tech sector, implicitly or explicitly, and for worse as much as better.
Now that President-elect Donald Trump is heading to the White House, things are likely to change. And Silicon Valley is worried. In July, a hundred tech-industry business leaders condemned President-elect Trump publicly, largely on social justice grounds. After his election, fear of a Trump presidency sent the tech industry into a tailspin. A prominent investor called for California to secede from the union. But once the dust clears, Trump might prove eminently compatible with Silicon Valley’s ongoing project. And if that’s the case, the technology industry’s mask of affable, harmless progressivism is about to be pulled off forever.
Rep Mike Pompeo (R-KS), the man that President-elect Donald Trump chose to lead the CIA when he becomes president, has long been a vocal supporter of expanding the government’s surveillance powers. As Congress worked to wind down the National Security Agency’s bulk data-collection program in the summer of 2016, rolling back one of the secret measures first authorized under President George W. Bush, Rep Pompeo, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, was pushing back.
In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal this January, Rep Pompeo argued forcefully against “blunting” the government’s surveillance powers and called for “a fundamental upgrade to America’s surveillance capabilities.” In the piece, he laid out a road map for expanding surveillance. "Congress should pass a law re-establishing collection of all metadata, and combining it with publicly available financial and lifestyle information into a comprehensive, searchable database. Legal and bureaucratic impediments to surveillance should be removed. That includes Presidential Policy Directive-28, which bestows privacy rights on foreigners and imposes burdensome requirements to justify data collection,"he wrote. In a break with other national-security hawks, however, Rep Pompeo wrote that mandating backdoors that would allow the government to access encrypted communications would “do little good.” He argued, as most technologists who promote encryption do, that weakening digital security in the United States would just push bad actors to switch to foreign-made or homegrown software.
There is power in numbers, or so the saying goes. But statistics mean different things to different people. Take Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, for instance. During the first presidential debate, Trump touted a 30-million strong Facebook and Twitter following as a sign of mainstream popularity not reflected elsewhere. The Clinton campaign, meanwhile, has stuck by traditional polls as evidence of her success. All these numbers—social media followings, polls, or statistics—are only as viable as the tools used to get to them. Political campaigns worldwide now use bots, software developed to automatically do tasks online, as a means for gaming online polls and artificially inflating social-media traffic.
Recent analysis by our research team at Oxford University reveals that more than a third of pro-Trump tweets and nearly a fifth of pro-Clinton tweets between the first and second debates came from automated accounts, which produced more than 1 million tweets in total. This data corroborates recent reports suggesting that both candidates’ social media followings are highly automated. What does this mean for democracy?
Facebook’s ability to let advertisers target a specific audience—for instance, women between the ages of 25 and 34 with young children—is its primary strength. More and more advertisers count on being able to identify, and market to, very specific groups. But Facebook’s advertising system not only allows marketers to choose who they most want to see their ads—it also allows them choose entire groups who will never see their ads. When placing an ad on Facebook, advertisers can explicitly exclude lots of groups, including people with any given educational level, financial status, political affiliation, and—perhaps most disturbingly—“ethnic affinity.”
"Targeting ads for housing, credit, or employment based upon race, gender, or sexual orientation violates the federal civil-rights laws that cover those fields—the Fair Housing Act, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and Title VII,” says Rachel Goodman, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If Facebook is going to allow advertisers to target ads toward or away from users based on these sensitive characteristics, it must at the very least prohibit targeting in these three areas central to economic prosperity.” A better ad-buying platform might involve a system under which ads in areas where the U.S. has key civil-rights legislation—such as housing, credit, or employment—that also include ethnic targeting automatically get flagged for review. That type of due diligence already exists in the industry.
Say that you’re 70 and you unexpectedly learn that you require a surgery that will keep you in the hospital for a week. You adamantly don’t want any of your grandkids to find the will in your house that reveals who among them gets what. You suspect they’ll be snooping against your wishes. And you have 12 hours at home to prepare. You could pick a hiding spot that they probably wouldn’t guess but might find. You could put the will in a padlocked trunk and take the key with you. But what if they still find some way into the trunk? In fact, your grandson does find a way to remove the wooden bottom, look through its contents, replace them, and reseal the trunk without you even knowing.
Hiding something is one way to keep it secure. Overwhelming would-be snoops with plausible decoys is another way. Yet virtually no one’s email inbox is deliberately seeded with fake messages so that prying eyes cannot entirely know what is real. Imagine a startup called Plausible Deniability LLC.
A Q&A with Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
You just wanted to shop for a birthday gift in peace—instead, you got ads that follow you around the Internet, and coupons in your email that remember exactly which products you clicked on. So you shut down your computer, stick your hands into your pockets, and walk to the store. Here, among the throngs of shoppers, you may feel more anonymous than you do behind a screen unburdened by cookies and tracking pixels, and you can browse in peace. Except not really. If you brought your smartphone, its GPS probably tattled on you before you even walked through the doors. Take your phone out and it might start picking up inaudible sounds broadcast throughout the store to pinpoint your location and send you targeted ads. Surveillance cameras hidden in light fixtures track your movement through the aisles, and could even be using facial-recognition software to understand your preferences and habits and attach them to your personal profile. For the past five years or so, brick-and-mortar retail stores have been trying to catch up with their online counterparts in tracking and personalization. Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, has been studying the marketing and advertising industries for decades. I spoke to Turow about these transformations, the technologies that we might one day soon carry on or even inside our bodies that will make it easier to track us, and the retail industry’s predictions and pipe dreams for the future.
It was time to address the “questions and concerns about Peter Thiel as a board member and Trump supporter,” Zuckerberg wrote in the memo, which was leaked to the website Hacker News. Keeping Thiel on the board was a reflection of Facebook’s commitment to diversity, Zuckerberg explained. “We can’t create a culture that says it cares about diversity and then excludes almost half the country because they back a political candidate...” he wrote. “Our community will be stronger for all our differences—not only in areas like race and gender, but also in areas like political ideology and religion.”(A spokesperson for Facebook confirmed to me that the leaked memo, pictured below, is authentic.)
What remains surprising is that the world’s largest publisher refuses to acknowledge the business it’s really in. Facebook has not yet come to terms with its own power or, for that matter, with Thiel’s. Facebook tells the world that it’s a champion of the free press. And now it is telling its shareholders, users, and employees that Facebook stands by a man proud to shut those freedoms down.
[Commentary] Companies share information about us in any number of unexpected and regrettable ways, and the information and advice they provide can be inconspicuously warped by the companies’ own ideologies or by their relationships with those who wish to influence us, whether people with money or governments with agendas. To protect individual privacy rights, we’ve developed the idea of “information fiduciaries.”
In the law, a fiduciary is a person or business with an obligation to act in a trustworthy manner in the interest of another. Examples are professionals and managers who handle our money or our estates. An information fiduciary is a person or business that deals not in money but in information. Doctors, lawyers, and accountants are examples; they have to keep our secrets and they can’t use the information they collect about us against our interests. Because doctors, lawyers, and accountants know so much about us, and because we have to depend on them, the law requires them to act in good faith—on pain of loss of their license to practice, and a lawsuit by their clients. The law even protects them to various degrees from being compelled to release the private information they have learned. The information age has created new kinds of entities that have many of the trappings of fiduciaries—huge online businesses, like Facebook, Google, and Uber, that collect, analyze, and use our personal information—sometimes in our interests and sometimes not. Like older fiduciaries, these businesses have become virtually indispensable. Like older fiduciaries, these companies collect a lot of personal information that could be used to our detriment. And like older fiduciaries, these businesses enjoy a much greater ability to monitor our activities than we have to monitor theirs. As a result, many people who need these services often shrug their shoulders and decide to trust them. But the important question is whether these businesses, like older fiduciaries, have legal obligations to be trustworthy. The answer is that they should.
[Jack M. Balkin is the Knight Professor of Constitutional Law and the First Amendment at Yale Law School, and the founder and director of Yale's Information Society Project. Jonathan Zittrain is a professor at Harvard Law School.]