Author: Romain Dillet

Gmail proves that some people hate smart suggestions

Gmail has recently introduced a brand new redesign. While you can disable or ignore most of the new features, Gmail has started resurfacing old unanswered emails with a suggestion that you should reply. And this is what it looks like:

The orange text immediately grabs your attention. By bumping the email thread to the top of your inbox, Gmails also breaks the chronological order of your inbox.

Gmail is also making a judgement by telling you that maybe you should have replied and you’ve been procrastinating. Social networks already bombard us constantly with awful content that makes us sad or angry. Your email inbox shouldn’t make you feel guilty or stressed.

Even if the suggestions can be accurate, it’s a bit creepy, it’s poorly implemented and it makes you feel like you’re no longer in control of your inbox.

There’s a reason why Gmail lets you disable all the smart features. Some users don’t want smart categories, important emails first and smart reply suggestions. Arguably, the only smart feature everyone needs is the spam filter.

A pure chronological feed of your email messages is incredibly valuable as well. That’s why many Instagram users are still asking for a chronological feed. Sure, algorithmic feeds can lead to more engagement and improved productivity. Maybe Google conducted some tests and concluded that you end up answering more emails if you let Gmail do its thing.

But you may want to judge the value of each email without an algorithmic ranking.

VCs could spot the next big thing without any bias. Journalists could pay attention to young and scrappy startups as much as the new electric scooter startup in San Francisco. Universities could give a grant to students with unconventional applications. The HR department of your company could look at all applications without following Google’s order.

When the Gmail redesign started leaking, a colleague of mine said “I look forward to digging through settings to figure out how to turn this off.” And the good news is that you can turn it off.

There are now two options to disable nudges in the settings on the web version of Gmail. You can tick off the boxes “Suggest emails to reply to” and “Suggest emails to follow up on” if you don’t want to see this orange text ever again. But those features should have never been enabled by default in the first place.

Zuckerberg doesn’t want to talk about changing the business model

Google is testifying once again before the congress about the Cambridge Analytica debacle and Facebook’s privacy policy in general. One representative in particular nailed down Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s position on many subjects.

The U.S. Representative for California's 18th congressional district Anna Eshoo started by setting the tone. “First, I believe that our democratic institutions are undergoing a stress test in our country,” she said. “Putting our private information on offer without concern for possible misuses is simply irresponsible,” she added.

Eshoo asked her constituants to submit questions that they want to ask Zuckerberg. The result is an intense four-minute yes-or-no round of questions.

While Zuckerberg was pretty good at answering yes or no to Eshoo’s questions, it wasn’t so simple with the business model question. “Are you willing to change your business model in the interest of protecting individual privacy?” she asked.

“Congresswoman, we have made and are continuing to make changes to reduce the amount of data…” Zuckerberg said. Eshoo stopped him and repeated her question word for word.

“Congresswoman, I’m not sure what that means,” Zuckerberg said.

Earlier questions were also quite telling. “Do you think you have a moral responsibility to run a platform that protects our democracy? Yes or no?” she asked. After a short hesitation, Zuckerberg answered yes.

Later in the conversation, Eshoo asked if Facebook would offer a blanket opt-in option to share their personal data with third-party companies.

“Congresswoman, yes, that’s how our platform works. You have to opt in to sign in to any app before you use it,” Zuckerberg said.

“Let me just add that it is a minefield in order to do that and you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language: ‘this is what we will do with your data, do you want this to happen or not?’ So I think this is being blurred, I think you know what I mean,” Eshoo said.

Even more interesting, when Zuckerberg said that Facebook was investigating third-party developers who “had access to large amounts of data,” Eshoo couldn’t take it.

“What does that mean?” she said. Zuckerberg repeated his answer about the internal investigation, without clarifying what Zuckerberg means by large amounts of data and who qualifies for that.

No other representative thought about asking a basic question about Cambridge Analytica’s data. Eshoo asked if Zuckerberg’s data was included in the data sold to the malicious third parties. Zuckerberg simply answered “yes.”

Facebook knows literally everything about you

Cambridge Analytica may have used Facebook’s data to influence your political opinions. But why does least-liked tech company Facebook have all this data about its users in the first place?

Let’s put aside Instagram, WhatsApp and other Facebook products for a minute. Facebook has built the world’s biggest social network. But that’s not what they sell. You’ve probably heard the internet saying “if a product is free, it means that you are the product.”

And it’s particularly true in this case because Facebook is the world’s second biggest advertising company in the world behind Google. During the last quarter of 2017, Facebook reported $12.97 billion in revenue, including $12.78 billion from ads.

That’s 98.5 percent of Facebook’s revenue coming from ads.

Ads aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed. So the company has two options — creating new products and ad formats, or optimizing those sponsored posts.

Facebook has reached ad saturation in the newsfeed

This isn’t a zero-sum game — Facebook has been doing both at the same time. That’s why you’re seeing more ads on Instagram and Messenger. And that’s also why ads on Facebook seem more relevant than ever.

If Facebook can show you relevant ads and you end up clicking more often on those ads, then advertisers will pay Facebook more money.

So Facebook has been collecting as much personal data about you as possible — it’s all about showing you the best ad. The company knows your interests, what you buy, where you go and who you’re sleeping with.

You can’t hide from Facebook

Facebook’s terms and conditions are a giant lie. They are purposely misleading, too long and too broad. So you can’t just read the company’s terms of service and understand what it knows about you.

That’s why some people have been downloading their Facebook data. You can do it too, it’s quite easy. Just head over to your Facebook settings and click the tiny link that says “Download a copy of your Facebook data.”

In that archive file, you’ll find your photos, your posts, your events, etc. But if you keep digging, you’ll also find your private messages on Messenger (by default, nothing is encrypted).

And if you keep digging a bit more, chances are you’ll also find your entire address book and even metadata about your SMS messages and phone calls.

All of this is by design and you agreed to it. Facebook has unified terms of service and share user data across all its apps and services (except WhatsApp data in Europe for now). So if you follow a clothing brand on Instagram, you could see an ad from this brand on Facebook.com.

Messaging apps are privacy traps

But Facebook has also been using this trick quite a lot with Messenger. You might not remember, but the on-boarding experience on Messenger is really aggressive.

On iOS, the app shows you a fake permission popup to access your address book that says “Ok” or “Learn More”. The company is using a fake popup because you can’t ask for permission twice.

There’s a blinking arrow below the OK button.

If you click on “Learn More”, you get a giant blue button that says “Turn On”. Everything about this screen is misleading and Messenger tries to manipulate your emotions.

“Messenger only works when you have people to talk to,” it says. Nobody wants to be lonely, that’s why Facebook implies that turning on this option will give you friends.

Even worse, it says “if you skip this step, you’ll need to add each contact one-by-one to message them.” This is simply a lie as you can automatically talk to your Facebook friends using Messenger without adding them one-by-one.

The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger

If you tap on “Not Now”, Messenger will show you a fake notification every now and then to push you to enable contact syncing. If you tap on yes and disable it later, Facebook still keeps all your contacts on its servers.

On Android, you can let Messenger manage your SMS messages. Of course, you guessed it, Facebook uploads all your metadata. Facebook knows who you’re texting, when, how often.

Even if you disable it later, Facebook will keep this data for later reference.

But Facebook doesn’t stop there. The company knows a lot more about you than what you can find in your downloaded archive. The company asks you to share your location with your friends. The company tracks your web history on nearly every website on earth using embedded JavaScript.

But my favorite thing is probably peer-to-peer payments. In some countries, you can pay back your friends using Messenger. It’s free! You just have to add your card to the app.

It turns out that Facebook also buys data about your offline purchases. The next time you pay for a burrito with your credit card, Facebook will learn about this transaction and match this credit card number with the one you added in Messenger.

In other words, Messenger is a great Trojan horse designed to learn everything about you.

And the next time an app asks you to share your address book, there’s a 99-percent chance that this app is going to mine your address book to get new users, spam your friends, improve ad targeting and sell email addresses to marketing companies.

I could say the same thing about all the other permission popups on your phone. Be careful when you install an app from the Play Store or open an app for the first time on iOS. It’s easier to enable something if a feature doesn’t work without it than to find out that Facebook knows everything about you.

GDPR to the rescue

There’s one last hope. And that hope is GDPR. I encourage you to read TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas excellent explanation of GDPR to understand what the European regulation is all about.

Many of the misleading things that are currently happening at Facebook will have to change. You can’t force people to opt in like in Messenger. Data collection should be minimized to essential features. And Facebook will have to explain why it needs all this data to its users.

If Facebook doesn’t comply, the company will have to pay up to 4 percent of its global annual turnover. But that doesn’t stop you from actively reclaiming your online privacy right now.

You can’t be invisible on the internet, but you have to be conscious about what’s happening behind your back. Every time a company asks you to tap OK, think about what’s behind this popup. You can’t say that nobody told you.

Facebook has lost $60 billion in value

Facebook is having a bad day… for the second day in a row. Following the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook shares (NASDAQ:FB) are currently trading at $164.07, down 4.9 percent compared to yesterday’s closing price of $172.56.

More importantly, if you look at Monday and Tuesday combined, Facebook shares are down 11.4 percent compared to Friday’s closing price of $185.09. In other words, Facebook was worth $537.69 billion on Friday evening when it comes to market capitalization. And Facebook is now worth $476.83 billion.

That’s how you lose $60 billion in market cap.

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