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Bill Bennett

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Facebook vileness of the week

Another week, another example of Facebook not taking responsibility.

At the Wall Street Journal Jeff Horwitz writes Facebook Says Its Rules Apply to All. Company Documents Reveal a Secret Elite That’s Exempt. The story is behind a paywall.

His second deck reads:

A program known as XCheck has given millions of celebrities, politicians and other high-profile users special treatment, a privilege many abuse.

Let me XCheck that…

He says XCheck started life as a quality control measure for high-profile accounts. This would cover celebrities, politicians and journalists.

“Today, it shields millions of VIP users from the company’s normal enforcement process, the documents show. Some users are “whitelisted”—rendered immune from enforcement actions—while others are allowed to post rule-violating material pending Facebook employee reviews that often never come.”

In other words it’s a case of one set of rules for everyday users and another set of rules for the privileged.

And those rules are more different than you might imagine:

Protection

“At times, the documents show, XCheck has protected public figures whose posts contain harassment or incitement to violence, violations that would typically lead to sanctions for regular users.

“In 2019, it allowed international soccer star Neymar to show nude photos of a woman, who had accused him of rape, to tens of millions of his fans before the content was removed by Facebook.

“Whitelisted accounts shared inflammatory claims that Facebook’s fact checkers deemed false, including that vaccines are deadly, that Hillary Clinton had covered up “pedophile rings,” and that then-President Donald Trump had called all refugees seeking asylum “animals,” according to the documents.”

This is not good for society, not good for politics.

Not defensible

“A 2019 internal review of Facebook’s whitelisting practices, marked attorney-client privileged, found favoritism to those users to be both widespread and “not publicly defensible.”

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” said the confidential review. It called the company’s actions “a breach of trust” and added: “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

The problem with Facebook is that its reach and influence means nonsense that might otherwise go unnoticed crashes into the public domain where it can do maximum damage.

The most benign interpretation is that this is all done in the cause of triggering more clicks and selling more toothpaste or harmful sugary drink.

Writing about Facebook’s continual bad faith and unpleasantness is tiring.

Glassholes return with Facebook, Ray-Ban

Facebook and Ray-Ban would love you to be excited about Ray-Ban Stories.

They are sunglasses with a smattering of unimpressive technology features.

Facebook’s marketing calls them smart-glasses.

Which is brave considering they are not even as smart as the now abandoned Google Glass.

Normal-looking

In effect, it is a pair of cameras, linked to your phone by Bluetooth, and carefully disguised in normal-looking sunglasses.

That’s about it.

The new Ray-Ban glasses have two cameras to capture video or photos. These sync with an app called Facebook View.

You can fire up the camera by hitting a physical button or say: “Hey Facebook, take a video”.

Speakers

While there is no display in the lens, there are Bluetooth speakers on the frame. This lets you play sound from your phone or make and receive calls. There is a physical volume control and a pause button.

Indicators let you know the device is charged or needs a charge.

A tiny white lamp illuminates what you are filming or capturing. It serves a double purpose. The idea is that when the light is on, people know they are being filmed.

Privacy dead zone

It’s a stretch to accept that everyone who sees the white light will know what it means. But then privacy and respect for people has never been a Facebook virtue.

Nick Heer suggests you can cover the light with tape for secret filming. He goes on to explain that this violates the terms of service. As if that means anything.

There’s something nasty about a product which, while pretending to be a smart device, is a voyeur’s wet dream.

Facebook might tell you the glasses make it easy to record precious family moments. It’s unlikely the company’s marketing will warn you the glasses make it easy for creeps to record your family.

Creepy

It didn’t take long for those wise to Google Glass to label the creeps wearing that device to coin the term glassholes. If the Facebook product takes off we may see that name return.

Google Glass was not a success. If anything it did the company’s reputation more harm than good. For many people, Facebook’s reputation is already in the gutter. Seeding a new generation of glassholes isn’t going to fix that.

Hong Kong’s doxxing law spooks tech giants

Asia Internet Coalition, a Singapore-based lobby group says its members may leave Hong Kong if a new doxxing laws comes into force.

AIC members include tech giants Facebook, Google and Apple.

The group worry that legislation could make them criminally liable.

Doxxing is when people publish private details about online personalities. It can be as simple as identifying the real name of someone using a pseudonym.

It could also refer to revealing addresses, phone numbers or other details used to trace and identify people.

Doxxing victims

In recent years people have weaponised the practice in Hong Kong to the point where there are thousands of victims.

People have used doxxing to scare activists off pro-democracy protests. On the other side, protestors have revealed the names of police or court officials who acted against protestors. It has also been used against journalists.

When private details are published people may find themselves on the wrong end of threatening calls or other intimidating behaviour. Sometimes this includes attacks on family members. Doxxing can lead to identity theft.

Hong Kong’s courts have found the effects can be severe and long-lasting.

The proposed privacy law amendments aim to outlaw doxxing and force social media companies and websites to take down personal information.

Psychological harm

The Hong Kong government proposes to change the existing data privacy legislation to include doxxing acts committed with the “intent to cause psychological harm”.

A conviction would be punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of HK$1 million.

As things stand, Hong Kong’s officials can make employees of social media or other websites criminally liable.

The AIC objects to the definition of doxxing used in the proposed law. It also worries services like Facebook and Twitter might face liabilities when doxxing happens on their services.

In a letter, the AIC says the only way tech companies could avoid punishment would be by withdrawing their services from Hong Kong and ceasing to invest in the territory. It is not clear whether these companies make significant investments in Hong Kong.

iOS users vote no to Facebook app tracking

Did you ever doubt Apple users would choose to turn off Facebook app-tracking? It’s now a week since an iOS update arrived allowing users to make their own choice. Let’s look at the numbers.

Flurry Analytics, an advertising analytics company, reports around 88 percent of iOS users worldwide have chosen not to allow apps to track them. There’s a daily update of numbers of Flurry’s website.

The number is higher in the US. There a mere four percent of iOS users allow tracking.

No wonder Facebook went on the offensive with a whingey, dishonest response to Apple’s move.

It’s worth remembering there are countries where switching off Facebook app tracking is not allowed by law. And others where authorities might treat users who opt out with suspicion.

Apple’s popular move

The only conclusion to draw is that Apple’s privacy move is popular with customers.

This is an area where Android phone makers will struggle to compete.

Google’s mobile operating system has tracking baked through its insides like the word Blackpool through a stick of seaside rock. That’s the main reason Google subsidises Android.

Presumably there are Android users who prefer not to be tracked. Switching to Apple and iOS is bothersome, but worth the effort if you prize privacy.

Transparency

Apple calls the new iOS feature App Tracking Transparency. When you open an app, a pop-up appears on screen. It asks if you want to allow the app to track your activity across other companies’ apps and websites?

There are two choices. The first is “Ask App Not to Track”. The second choice is “Allow.”

If you take the first choice, Apple stops the app from using the code that identifies the device.

This is a string on letters and numbers. There is one per iPhone or iPad. It gives companies a unique identifier they can track as you move between apps and websites.

Apple then tells the app owner that you don’t want them to track you in any way. It sends a clear, unambiguous message.

It’s almost as clear and unambiguous as the message that 88 percent of users are unwilling to be surveillance fodder.

Facebook’s whingey ad-tracking response

Facebook tells users intrusive, privacy abusing ad-tracking keeps the social media service free-of-charge. It’s a snow job.

A week ago Apple upgraded its iPhone operating system. One key new feature of iOS 14.5 enraged online advertisers. It allows users to decide whether apps can track them across different sites.

Facebook’s response was to use its apps to tell users ad-tracking helps keep the service free of charge. 1 The warning appears on both the Facebook and Instagram apps.

Remember, Apple users can choose to let Facebook continue tracking. Keep in mind also that, for now, there is no similar feature on Android phones.

The implication is that without intrusive surveillance, Facebook can no longer feed you cat pictures.

Let’s stop right there

For decades before Facebook came along media companies such as newspapers, radio and TV channels managed to maintain teams of skilled journalists and talented broadcasters to keep you informed.

Like Facebook they did that by selling advertising. They had a rough idea who the audience was, in part because old media covered well-defined geographic areas. But they rarely knew much about the target audience.

Facebook has unprecedented global scale. It still knows where its audience is. Thanks to digital technology it has better location information than old media ever had.

It can piece together a lot of other information from clues its users disclose on the Facebook site. The internal Facebook data is often good enough to know if someone is about to become a parent or is in the market for a new car.

Ad-tracking means a better picture of you

By tracking a user over the rest of the online world it can get an ever more accurate picture of each individual user.

The information must be valuable to Facebook. It’s squealing and whinging tells you Apple rattled Facebook. Yet, from Facebook’s point of view there is less at stake than you might imagine.

Apple might account for close to half of US phone users, but worldwide less than one person in five uses an iPhone. And not all will use the privacy feature. (That comment didn’t age well). Facebook stands to lose extra tracking information from, at a rough guess, one user in ten.

It won’t lose all the information it gathers. It can continue to capture activity inside Facebook’s apps.

Which means in round numbers Facebook could lose five percent of the data it collects. That isn’t going to change the economics of its surveillance capitalism business model.

We know this will cost Facebook something.

At the moment it can track when users buy a product in an online store, it can then use that information to push ads for complimentary products. Think: ’You’ve bought a new motorbike, here’s a selection of helmets and leather jackets”.

When a user sees an ad on Facebook and, two days later, learns the user purchased that product online, it can bill more for the advertisement.

Ad-tracking drop in the ocean

In the first three months of 2021 Facebook took a whopping US$26 billion in revenue. Its net income was close to $10 billion. That’s double the result a year earlier.

The pace Facebook is growing at dwarfs any effect Apple’s privacy feature might have.

And that’s if we assume Facebook does not earn another cent from Apple customers who use its app. It’s an heroic assumption.

To argue that choosing not to let the technology giant know what you had for breakfast last Thursday so it can sell you a slimming aid next week means Facebook has to start charging is laughable.

It could end up costing Facebook two or three percent of its revenue. Remember, this is at a time earnings double every twelve months.


  1. At this point I should mention that for years Facebook had a message on the site that says words to the effect that the service was free and that it always would be. ↩︎