Washington Post

In defense of Facebook’s newsfeed study

[Commentary] Did Facebook overstep its bounds when it ran a secret psychological experiment on a fraction of its users in 2012? That's the question at the heart of the most recent Internet firestorm.

The consensus is that Facebook probably did something wrong. But what, exactly? To say this is one more example of Facebook prioritizing power over privacy is to vastly oversimplify what's going on here.

The reality is that people are objecting for a lot of reasons. Whatever your gut feelings about Facebook, don't give into them. Yet.

There has been a vigorous yet healthy debate going on about the convergence of business and academic research, and whether Facebook acted irresponsibly or unethically with its users' data. To understand why, let's unpack some of the charges being lobbed at the social network. Call it a taxonomy of Facebook critiques.

It used people's data for an academic study.

It manipulated people's newsfeeds to make them happy or sad.

The study made it past an institutional review board. How? The IRB looked at the results of Facebook's data analysis and gave it the green light, but evidently didn't consider how Facebook acquired the data in the first place. Was that an ethical lapse? If Facebook were an arm of the government or a federally funded academic institution, then yes. Research conducted in those environments on human subjects require an IRB's approval. But as a private entity, Facebook isn't legally bound by those requirements, nor was the study itself, apparently.
People should've been given the opportunity to opt in or out.

It's creepy.

An argument that the shortage of cyber workers is a problem that will solve itself

Talk to any talent professional in the Washington region and they’ll tell you cybersecurity jobs are among the most difficult for them to fill. Workers with the right skills are relatively hard to come by, and in a labor market dominated by the federal government and its contractors, they’re in especially high demand.

Now, the Rand Corp argues in a study that this problem will solve itself. Study authors Martin Libicki, David Senty and Julia Pollak examined existing studies on the cybersecurity workforce; interviewed government agencies, defense contractors and security firms; and looked at labor economics research to try to get a handle on the nature and scope of the cybersecurity worker shortage.

Based on that compendium of information, they predict that the high levels of compensation in this industry will be enough to lure more workers to its ranks. They predict that as the supply of these skilled workers increases over the long term, we won’t see the kind of eye-popping pay packages that we see for them now. The report forecasts that we won’t see cybersecurity pay dip below where it was in 2007, when a rash of high-profile Internet attacks made this field seem more essential. But they do predict that pay will cool off from where it is now.

The SCOTUS privacy ruling is accelerating lawmakers’ push for e-mail protections

Privacy-minded lawmakers are already capitalizing on an opening created by the Supreme Court when it unanimously ruled that police must have a warrant to search your cell phone.

Members of Congress who back stronger protections for e-mail and other electronic communications have begun citing the Court's landmark privacy endorsement, in an attempt to add momentum to their own privacy legislation.

The push to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a decades-old law that allows cops to read your e-mails if they've lain dormant for more than 180 days, has the support of the Justice Department and 220 cosponsors of a House bill known as the Email Privacy Act. The proposal would force police to get a warrant if they want to look at a suspect's e-mail. Today, that type of inspection requires little more than a subpoena.

"Even the Supreme Court of the United States, with an average age of 67, has moved ahead of Congress on technology issues," Rep Jared Polis (D-CO), one of the cosponsors, told the Washington Post. "The Court has put new wind in the sails of EPCA reform. This same standard [Fourth Amendment protections for cell phone contents] should apply to electronic communications."

Google wants to follow you everywhere, from your car to your living room

Google, already the world's leading search engine, wants a place in the rest of your life, too. At Google's annual developers conference, company executives demonstrated how Google's Android operating system can work in cars, on televisions and on wearable devices -- ensuring that consumers are never more than few moments away from Google.

Wearable technology was a main focus of the event, and Google gave a few more details about its software for smartwatches, called Android Wear. The firm also said that it is working on a project called "Google Fit" that will aggregate data from fitness apps and wearable devices to help users keep track of health data. Samsung and LG announced at the conference that they are both releasing new wearable devices -- the Samsung Gear Live and the LG G Watch -- that consumers can pre-order from Google's Play store.

Using these devices, you'll be able to do things such as call a Lyft car straight from your wrist simply by saying, "Okay, Google. Call me a car." Google has a plan for your own car, too. Its new AndroidAuto system connects your smartphone to your car dashboard, includes a button in the steering wheel that connects you to Google Maps and allows you to dictate text messages.

With cellphone search ruling, Supreme Court draws a stark line between digital and physical searches

Privacy advocates scored a huge win as the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that searching the cellphone of an arrested individual requires a warrant in most circumstances.

“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought," the court said. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple -- get a warrant.”

While this may have been obvious to the average person, the Supreme Court ruling is an "incredibly important new development in the law," Kevin Bankston, policy director at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute, argues -- one that suggests "the Fourth Amendment of the 21st century may be much more protective than that of the last century."

Searching the vast amount of data on your cellphone is different from searching your backpack, just as tracking your car with a GPS device is different from having the police follow you, and the government seizing all of the e-mail you store in the cloud is different from seizing your file cabinet." The court drew a clear distinction between digital and physical searches in the opinion, at one point saying it was the difference between horseback riding and space travel.

What the Aereo decision means for TV watchers

The Supreme Court's ruling against Aereo is a huge deal — not because it'll upend the TV industry, as some may have hoped, but because of the disruption it won't cause. What is (was?) Aereo, and what does the decision mean for the way we watch TV?

What is Aereo? Based in New York City, Aereo was founded by chief executive Chet Kanojia in 2012. The company uses tiny antennas to grab TV signals out of the air. Those antennas feed the broadcast programming to a DVR, which then plays the programming back to you on your PC, tablet or phone on demand.

Why is it so controversial? At issue was whether Aereo should have to pay money to TV broadcasters for their content. Right now, Aereo pays nothing -- it gets the TV signals for free just as you or I might with our own televisions grabbing signals over public airwaves. But unlike us, Aereo gets to make money off of relaying those transmissions over the Web.
What did the Supreme Court decide? The court held in a 6-to-3 vote that Aereo wasn't simply providing equipment for consumers to watch their own taped shows later, as the company claimed. Instead, Aereo was found to have violated copyright law.

Does this reading of the situation actually make sense? Well, the majority of the justices believe Aereo is really no different from a cable company, which also pays for content and transmits broadcast signals to the public. Three conservative justices disagreed. They argued in a dissent that Aereo doesn't transmit anything, publicly or privately. It's simply facilitating what customers would do on their own if they had the equipment.

Is Aereo dead? Not immediately, but pretty much. Even top Aereo investor Barry Diller admits as much.
What does this mean for the way I watch TV? The justices' decision makes life a lot harder for cord-cutters. To continue watching broadcast TV, you'll need to grab a digital antenna and hook it up to your TV. Or, you'll have to pay your cable company for those channels.

Apple buying Disney? A consultant explains why he thinks a deal is ‘frighteningly obvious.’

Apple’s success has started to become a problem. The company’s revenue and profits have grown so fast that it’s difficult for it to find new markets that will be large enough to ensure its revenues continue growing.

Apple has introduced a stock dividend and bought back shares to appease investors who question whether the world’s largest technology company by market capitulation is still a growth company. Apple is expected to release a smartwatch this fall, which should provide a boost. But Francis McIlerney, a consultant at North River Ventures, has another idea for how Apple can keep growing. Why not buy Disney?

McIlerney imagines the two combined as a “Netflix on steroids,” in which Apple would benefit from finding ways to monetize Disney’s content offerings, and Disney would have a safe and profitable place in the emerging, unbundled world of TV and video to peddle its wares. Having Disney under the Apple umbrella would also be an asset if Apple ever launches a television set, which has been suggested for years but may not become a reality.

Merger mania in media? Cable companies could be just the start

The massive cable and telecom mergers under review may just be the start of a broader wave of consolidation to hit the entertainment industry.

Rumors are rife that Time Warner is negotiating with Vice Media, the magazine-turned-media company now known for producing edgy documentaries that air on HBO. Viacom could rejoin CBS, which it split from nearly a decade ago. Univision may be seeking a buyer and has been in talks with Time Warner and CBS, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Some lawmakers and analysts say it's inevitable that television programmers will bulk up to stand up against demands from increasingly powerful cable and telecom distributors like Comcast who want to lower their costs for programming.

AT&T: Buying DirecTV would cut our costs -- but probably not yours

Could an AT&T merger with DirecTV result in savings for consumers? Senate lawmakers pressed the two companies' chief executives on that question.

But although both firms said that the acquisition would lower their operating costs, consumers wouldn't likely see those savings reflected in their monthly bills immediately, if ever. The most that TV viewers can expect right now, said AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson, would be that prices simply rise less quickly.

That didn't seem very comforting to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who kept asking variations of the same question in an attempt to secure a commitment by AT&T to price relief.

AT&T expects the DirecTV deal would eliminate the need for both companies to seek profits on the products they each sell to consumers separately. That would give AT&T greater bargaining leverage with content companies. AT&T might be able to save as much as 15 percent on programming costs, said Stephenson. But citing complexities in the programming industry, Stephenson stopped short of predicting any effects on consumers' bills.

AT&T says merging with DirecTV would help it challenge Comcast. But how?

[Commentary] AT&T hit Capitol Hill to sell Congress on its proposed merger with DirecTV. Among its arguments? If the merger goes through, we can go head-to-head with Comcast.

AT&T's case boils down to two arguments when it comes to challenging Comcast: A bigger AT&T will lower programming costs and offer a more efficient bundle of services. Testifying before a House subcommittee, AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson dropped a fascinating statistic. He claimed that for every dollar the company makes off of its video subscribers, $0.60 goes straight to the people who make the content.

In other words, 60 percent of AT&T's video revenue turns right around and leaves.

This brings us to AT&T's second argument, which is that a DirecTV merger would promote cheaper bundles. AT&T took aim at what it and DirecTV called a "synthetic bundle" -- taking, for example, broadband from one company, combining it with video from another, and then selling that as a package to consumers. Because AT&T and DirecTV each have to visit a home to make two separate equipment installations for the synthetic bundle to work, that drives up costs.