Category Archives: FaceBook

Facebook says its new A.I. technology can detect ‘revenge porn’

Facebook on Friday announced a new artificial intelligence powered tool that it says will help the social network detect revenge porn – the nonconsensually shared intimate images that, when posted online, can have devastating consequences for those who appear in the photos. The technology will leverage both A.I. and machine learning techniques to proactively detect near nude images or videos that are shared without permission across Facebook and Instagram.

The announcement follows on Facebook’s earlier pilot of a photo-matching technology, which had people directly submit their intimate photos and videos to Facebook. The program, which was run in partnership with victim advocate organizations, would then create a digital fingerprint of that image so Facebook could stop it from ever being shared online across its platforms. This is similar to how companies today prevent child abuse images from being posted to their sites.

The new A.I. technology for revenge porn, however, doesn’t require the victim’s involvement. This is important, Facebook explains, because victims are sometimes too afraid of retribution to report the content themselves. Other times, they’re simply unaware that the photos or videos are being shared.

While the company was short on details about how the new system itself works, it did note that it goes beyond simply “detecting nudity.”

After the system flags an image or video, a specially trained member of Facebook’s Community Operations team will review the image then remove it if it violates Facebook’s Community Standards. In most cases, the company will also disable the account, as a result. An appeals process is available if the person believes Facebook has made a mistake.

In addition to the technology and existing pilot program, Facebook says it also reviewed how its other procedures around revenge porn reporting could be improved. It found, for instance, that victims wanted faster responses following their reports and they didn’t want a robotic reply. Other victims didn’t know how to use the reporting tools or even that they existed.

Facebook noted that addressing revenge porn is critical as it can lead to mental health consequences like anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts and sometimes even PTSD. There can also be professional consequences, like lost jobs and damaged relationships with colleagues. Plus, those in more traditional communities around the world may be shunned or exiled, persecuted or even physically harmed.

Facebook admits that it wasn’t finding a way to “acknowledge the trauma that the victims endure,” when responding to their reports. It says it’s now re-evaluating the reporting tools and process to make sure they’re more “straightforward, clear and empathetic.”

It’s also launching “Not Without My Consent,” a victim-support hub in the Facebook Safety Center that was developed in partnership with experts. The hub will offer victims access to organizations and resources that can support them, and it will detail the steps to take to report the content to Facebook.

In the months ahead, Facebook says it will also build victim support toolkits with more locally and culturally relevant info by working with partners including the Revenge Porn Helpline (UK), Cyber Civil Rights Initiative (US), Digital Rights Foundation (Pakistan), SaferNet (Brazil) and Professor Lee Ji-yeon (South Korea).

Revenge porn is one of the many issues that results from offering the world a platform for public sharing. Facebook today is beginning to own up to the failures of social media across many fronts – which also include things like data privacy violations, the spread of misinformation, and online harassment and abuse.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently announced a pivot to privacy, where Facebook’s products will be joined together as an encrypted, interoperable, messaging network – but the move has shaken Facebook internally, causing it to lose top execs along the way.

While changes are in line with what the public wants, many have already lost trust in Facebook. For the first time in 10 years Edison Research noted a decline in Facebook usage in the U.S., from 67 to 62 percent of Americans 12 and older. Still, Facebook still a massive platform with its over 2 billion users. Even if users themselves opt out of Facebook, that doesn’t prevent them from ever becoming a victim of revenge porn or other online abuse by those who continue to use the social network.

In a challenge to Twitch and YouTube, Facebook adds ‘Gaming’ to its main navigation

Facebook’s gaming efforts and challenge to Twitch are taking another big leap today, as the social network begins the initial rollout of a dedicated Facebook Gaming tab in the main navigation of Facebook’s app. The goal with the new addition is to help people more easily find games, streamers and gaming groups they follow, as well as discover new content, based on their interests.

After clicking the new Gaming tab, there will be a feed of content that points you to instant games you can play with friends; videos to watch from top streamers, esports organizations, and game publishers; and updates from your various gaming groups, the company says.

The new Facebook Gaming tab builds on the gaming video destination the site launched last year as Fb.gg. That hub had offered a collection of all the video games streaming on Facebook, and a way to for gamers and fans to interact. As a top-level navigation item, Facebook’s new Gaming tab will now further extend the gaming hub’s reach.

While Twitch and YouTube are today dominating the gaming space, Facebook’s advantage – beyond its scale – are its promises of a reduced cut of transactions. On Fb.gg, gamers were able to attract new fans with the aid of Facebook’s personalized recommendations based on users’ activity, and then monetize those viewers through a virtual tipping mechanism.

Facebook’s cut of those tips ranges from 5 to 30 percent, with the cut getting smaller when users buy larger packs of the virtual currency. Meanwhile, Facebook’s fan subscriptions payments for streamers also see it taking a cut of up to 30 percent, the same as YouTube but smaller than Twitch’s roughly 50 percent.

That could potentially attract streamers who want to maximize their earnings and believe they can port their audience over to a new destination. Of course, some streamers may not trust Facebook to maintain those same percentages over time, nor believe it will ever offer the sorts of features and innovations that a more focused gaming destination like Twitch can.

Facebook also last year experimented with making its gaming hub mobile with the launch of Fb.gg as a standalone mobile app.

The app, like the web-based gaming hub, offered a way for gamers and fans to discover content, join communities, and even play instant games like Everwing, Words with Friends, Basketball FRVR, and others.

However, the strategy of keeping Facebook’s Gaming efforts more separated from Facebook’s main site may not have paid off – the Fb.gg Android app, for example, only has some 100,000+ installs according to Google Play.

Instead, much like YouTube recently decided – Facebook will now leverage the power of its platform to boost interest in its gaming content.

YouTube in September said it was giving its Gaming hub a new home right on the YouTube homepage, and would shut down its standalone Gaming app. (The latter doesn’t seem to have occurred, however). As YouTube noted, gaming was a popular category, but the majority of viewers weren’t looking for a separate app or experience – they were just visiting YouTube directly.

Similarly, Facebook today says that over 700 million people play games, watch gaming videos or engage in gaming groups on Facebook. That’s a far larger number than those who downloaded the Fb.gg app, and surely a much larger number than those who have been visiting the Fb.gg destination directly.

That said, Facebook is continuing its tests on mobile with a standalone (rebranded) Facebook Gaming app on Android, which will have more features that the Gaming tab.

Facebook says it will roll out the Gaming tab to a subset of the over 700 million Facebook game fans, and will expand it over time to more gaming enthusiasts across the network. If you don’t see the new tab in your main navigation bar, you can still find it by going to the Bookmarks menu on Facebook.

 

 

Daily Crunch: Telegram soars after Facebook outage

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Telegram gets 3M new signups during Facebook apps’ outage

In a message sent to his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov wrote, “I see 3 million new users signed up for Telegram within the last 24 hours.” Durov doesn’t offer an explicit explanation for Telegram’s sudden spike in signups, but he does take a thinly veiled swipe at social networking giant Facebook.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Facebook and its related family of apps went down for most of Wednesday.

2. Google removed 2.3B bad ads, banned ads on 1.5M apps + 28M pages, plans new Policy Manager this year

Using both manual reviews and machine learning, Google said that in 2018 it removed 2.3 billion “bad ads” that violated its policies — which at their most general forbid ads that mislead or exploit vulnerable people.

3. Uber reportedly raising $1B in deal that values self-driving car unit at up to $10B

Uber is in negotiations with investors, including the SoftBank Vision Fund, to secure an investment as large as $1 billion for its autonomous vehicles unit. The deal would value the business at between $5 billion and $10 billion, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal.

4. Opportunity’s last Mars panorama is a showstopper

The Opportunity Mars Rover may be officially offline for good, but its legacy of science and imagery is ongoing — and NASA just shared the last (nearly) complete panorama the robot sent back before it was blanketed in dust.

5. AI photo startup Polarr raises an $11.5 million Series A

At the moment, Polarr is probably best known for its photography app for iOS and Android, which utilizes machine learning and AI to improve image editing. The company says it has around four million monthly active users.

6. WeWork Labs is launching a food tech accelerator

WeWork is committing $1 million to back the first batch of companies.

7. Facebook won’t store data in countries with human rights violations — except Singapore

When Mark Zuckerberg said in a lengthy blog post that Facebook would not build data centers in countries with poor human rights, he chose to ignore Singapore — known for a lack of privacy and freedom of expression.

Telegram gets 3M new signups during Facebook apps’ outage

Messaging platform Telegram claims to have had a surge in signups during a period of downtime for Facebook’s rival messaging services.

In a message sent to his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov’s just wrote: “I see 3 million new users signed up for Telegram within the last 24 hours.”

It’s probably not a coincidence that Facebook and its related family of apps went down for most of Wednesday, as we reported earlier. At the time of writing Instagram’s service has been officially confirmed restored. Unofficially Facebook also appears to be back online, at least here in Europe.

Durov doesn’t offer an explicit explanation for Telegram’s sudden spike in sign ups, but he does take a thinly veiled swipe at social networking giant Facebook — whose founder recently claimed he now plans to pivot the ad platform to ‘privacy’.

“Good,” adds Durov on his channel, welcoming Telegram’s 3M newbies. “We have true privacy and unlimited space for everyone.”

A contact at Telegram confirmed to TechCrunch that the Facebook apps’ downtime is the likely cause of its latest sign up spike, telling us: “These outages always drive new users.”

Though they also credited growth to “the mainstream overall increasing understanding about Facebook’s abusive attention harvesting practices”.

A year ago Telegram announced passing 200M monthly active users. Though the platform has faced restrictions and/or blocks in some markets (principally Russia and Iran, as well as China) — apparently for refusing government requests for encryption keys and/or user information.

In Durov’s home country of Russia the government is also now moving to tighten Internet restrictions via new legislation — and thousands of people took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities this weekend to protest at growing Internet censorship, per Reuters.

Such restrictions could increase demand for Telegram’s encrypted messaging service in the country as the app does appear to still be partially accessible there.

Durov, who famously left Russia in 2014 — stepping away from his home country and an earlier social network he founded (VK.com) because of his stance on free speech — has sought to thwart the Russian government’s Telegram blocks via legal and technical measures.

The Telegram messaging platform has of course also had its own issues with less political downtime too.

In a tweet last fall the company confirmed a server cluster had gone down, potentially affecting users in the Middle East, Africa and Europe. Although in that case the downtime only lasted a few hours.

The adversarial persuasion machine: a conversation with James Williams

James Williams may not be a household name yet in most tech circles, but he will be.

For this second in what will be a regular series of conversations exploring the ethics of the technology industry, I was delighted to be able to turn to one of our current generation’s most important young philosophers of tech.

Around a decade ago, Williams won the Founder’s Award, Google’s highest honor for its employees. Then in 2017, he won an even rarer award, this time for his scorching criticism of the entire digital technology industry in which he had worked so successfully. The inaugural winner of Cambridge University’s $100,000 “Nine Dots Prize” for original thinking, Williams was recognized for the fruits of his doctoral research at Oxford University, on how “digital technologies are making all forms of politics worth having impossible, as they privilege our impulses over our intentions and are designed to exploit our psychological vulnerabilities in order to direct us toward goals that may or may not align with our own.” In 2018, he published his brilliantly written book Stand Out of Our Light, an instant classic in the field of tech ethics.

In an in-depth conversation by phone and email, edited below for length and clarity, Williams told me about how and why our attention is under profound assault. At one point, he points out that the artificial intelligence which beat the world champion at the game Go is now aimed squarely — and rather successfully — at beating us, or at least convincing us to watch more YouTube videos and stay on our phones a lot longer than we otherwise would. And while most of us have sort of observed and lamented this phenomenon, Williams believes the consequences of things like smartphone compulsion could be much more dire and widespread than we realize, ultimately putting billions of people in profound danger while testing our ability to even have a human will.

It’s a chilling prospect, and yet somehow, if you read to the end of the interview, you’ll see Williams manages to end on an inspiring and hopeful note. Enjoy!

Editor’s note: this interview is approximately 5,500 words / 25 minutes read time. The first third has been ungated given the importance of this subject. To read the whole interview, be sure to join the Extra Crunch membership. ~ Danny Crichton

Introduction and background

Greg Epstein: I want to know more about your personal story. You grew up in West Texas. Then you found yourself at Google, where you won the Founder’s Award, Google’s highest honor. Then at some point you realized, “I’ve got to get out of here.” What was that journey like?

James Williams: This is going to sound neater and more intentional than it actually was, as is the case with most stories. In a lot of ways my life has been a ping-ponging back and forth between tech and the humanities, trying to bring them into some kind of conversation.

It’s the feeling that, you know, the car’s already been built, the dashboard’s been calibrated, and now to move humanity forward you just kind of have to hold the wheel straight

I spent my formative years in a town called Abilene, Texas, where my father was a university professor. It’s the kind of place where you get the day off school when the rodeo comes to town. Lots of good people there. But it’s not exactly a tech hub. Most of my tech education consisted of spending late nights, and full days in the summer, up in the university computer lab with my younger brother just messing around on the fast connection there. Later when I went to college, I started studying computer engineering, but I found that I had this itch about the broader “why” questions that on some deeper level I needed to scratch. So I changed my focus to literature.

After college, I started working at Google in their Seattle office, helping to grow their search ads business. I never, ever imagined I’d work in advertising, and there was some serious whiplash from going straight into that world after spending several hours a day reading James Joyce. Though I guess Leopold Bloom in Ulysses also works in advertising, so there’s at least some thread of a connection there. But I think what I found most compelling about the work at the time, and I guess this would have been in 2005, was the idea that we were fundamentally changing what advertising could be. If historically advertising had to be an annoying, distracting barrage on people’s attention, it didn’t have to anymore because we finally had the means to orient it around people’s actual intentions. And search, that “database of intentions,” was right at the vanguard of that change.

The adversarial persuasion machine

Photo by joe daniel price via Getty Images

Greg: So how did you end up at Oxford, studying tech ethics? What did you go there to learn about?

James: What led me to go to Oxford to study the ethics of persuasion and attention was that I didn’t see this reorientation of advertising around people’s true goals and intentions ultimately winning out across the industry. In fact, I saw something really concerning happening in the opposite direction. The old attention-grabby forms of advertising were being uncritically reimposed in the new digital environment, only now in a much more sophisticated and unrestrained manner. These attention-grabby goals, which are goals that no user anywhere has ever had for themselves, seemed to be cannibalizing the design goals of the medium itself.

In the past advertising had been described as a kind of “underwriting” of the medium, but now it seemed to be “overwriting” it. Everything was becoming an ad. My whole digital environment seemed to be transmogrifying into some weird new kind of adversarial persuasion machine. But persuasion isn’t even the right word for it. It’s something stronger than that, something more in the direction of coercion or manipulation that I still don’t think we have a good word for. When I looked around and didn’t see anybody talking about the ethics of that stuff, in particular the implications it has for human freedom, I decided to go study it myself.

Greg: How stressful of a time was that for you when you were realizing that you needed to make such a big change or that you might be making such a big change?

James: The big change being shifting to do doctoral work?

Greg: Well that, but really I’m trying to understand what it was like to go from a very high place in the tech world to becoming essentially a philosopher critic of your former work.

James: A lot of people I talked to didn’t understand why I was doing it. Friends, coworkers, I think they didn’t quite understand why it was worthy of such a big step, such a big change in my personal life to try to interrogate this question. There was a bit of, not loneliness, but a certain kind of motivational isolation, I guess. But since then, it’s certainly been heartening to see many of them come to realize why I felt it was so important. Part of that is because these questions are so much more in the foreground of societal awareness now than they were then.

Liberation in the age of attention

Greg: You write about how when you were younger you thought “there were no great political struggles left.” Now you’ve said, “The liberation of human attention may be the defining moral and political struggle of our time.” Tell me about that transition intellectually or emotionally or both. How good did you think it was back then, the world was back then, and how concerned are you now?

What you see a lot in tech design is essentially the equivalent of a circular argument about this, where someone clicks on something and then the designer will say, “Well, see, they must’ve wanted that because they clicked on it.”

James: I think a lot of people in my generation grew up with this feeling that there weren’t really any more existential threats to the liberal project left for us to fight against. It’s the feeling that, you know, the car’s already been built, the dashboard’s been calibrated, and now to move humanity forward you just kind of have to hold the wheel straight and get a good job and keep recycling and try not to crash the car as we cruise off into this ultra-stable sunset at the end of history.

What I’ve realized, though, is that this crisis of attention brought upon by adversarial persuasive design is like a bucket of mud that’s been thrown across the windshield of the car. It’s a first-order problem. Yes, we still have big problems to solve like climate change and extremism and so on. But we can’t solve them unless we can give the right kind of attention to them. In the same way that, if you have a muddy windshield, yeah, you risk veering off the road and hitting a tree or flying into a ravine. But the first thing is that you really need to clean your windshield. We can’t really do anything that matters unless we can pay attention to the stuff that matters. And our media is our windshield, and right now there’s mud all over it.

Greg: One of the terms that you either coin or use for the situation that we find ourselves in now is the age of attention.

James: I use this phrase “Age of Attention” not so much to advance it as a serious candidate for what we should call our time, but more as a rhetorical counterpoint to the phrase “Information Age.” It’s a reference to the famous observation of Herbert Simon, which I discuss in the book, that when information becomes abundant it makes attention the scarce resource.

Much of the ethical work on digital technology so far has addressed questions of information management, but far less has addressed questions of attention management. If attention is now the scarce resource so many technologies are competing for, we need to give more ethical attention to attention.

Greg: Right. I just want to make sure people understand how severe this may be, how severe you think it is. I went into your book already feeling totally distracted and surrounded by totally distracted people. But when I finished the book, and it’s one of the most marked-up books I’ve ever owned by the way, I came away with the sense of acute crisis. What is being done to our attention is affecting us profoundly as human beings. How would you characterize it?

James: Thanks for giving so much attention to the book. Yeah, these ideas have very deep roots. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says, “All that we are is a result of what we have thought.” The book of Proverbs says, “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.” Simone Weil wrote that “It is not we who move, but images pass before our eyes and we live them.” It seems to me that attention should really be seen as one of our most precious and fundamental capacities, cultivating it in the right way should be seen as one of the greatest goods, and injuring it should be seen as of the greatest harms.

In the book, I was interested to explore whether the language of attention can be used to talk usefully about the human will. At the end of the day I think that’s a major part of what’s at stake in the design of these persuasive systems, the success of the human will.

“Want what we want?”

Photo by Buena Vista Images via Getty Images

Greg: To translate those concerns about “the success of the human will” into simpler terms, I think the big concern here is, what happens to us as human beings if we find ourselves waking up in the morning and going to bed at night wanting things that we really only want because AI and algorithms have helped convince us we want them? For example, we want to be on our phone chiefly because it serves Samsung or Google or Facebook or whomever. Do we lose something of our humanity when we lose the ability to “want what we want?”

James: Absolutely. I mean, philosophers call these second order volitions as opposed to just first order volitions. A first order volition is, “I want to eat the piece of chocolate that’s in front of me.” But the second order volition is, “I don’t want to want to eat that piece of chocolate that’s in front of me.” Creating those second order volitions, being able to define what we want to want, requires that we have a certain capacity for reflection.

What you see a lot in tech design is essentially the equivalent of a circular argument about this, where someone clicks on something and then the designer will say, “Well, see, they must’ve wanted that because they clicked on it.” But that’s basically taking evidence of effective persuasion as evidence of intention, which is very convenient for serving design metrics and business models, but not necessarily a user’s interests.

AI and attention

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Greg: Let’s talk about AI and its role in the persuasion that you’ve been describing. You talk about, a number of times, about the AI behind the system that beat the world champion at the board game Go. I think that’s a great example and that that AI has been deployed to keep us watching YouTube longer, and that billions of dollars are literally being spent to figure out how to get us to look at one thing over another.

Daily Crunch: Facebook pulls Warren ads criticizing Facebook

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Facebook’s ad team shoots itself in the foot by pulling Elizabeth Warren campaign ads

Facebook’s advertising department pulled Elizabeth Warren campaign ads touting the senator’s proposal to break up big tech. According to Politico, the offending ads were pulled over their use of the Facebook brand in their copy.

The removal appears to be short-lived, but it has given the Warren campaign ammunition for their argument.

2. Marking 30 years of the web, Tim Berners-Lee calls for a joint fight against disinformation

“If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us,” said the inventor of the World Wide Web in an open letter. “We will have failed the web.”

3. Google paid $105 million to two executives accused of sexual harassment

The suit, filed by shareholder James Martin, confirms the board of directors approved a $90 million exit package for Andy Rubin “as a goodbye present to him. No mention, of course, was made about the true reason for Rubin’s ‘resignation’ — his egregious sexual harassment while at Google.”

4. Twitter’s new prototype app ‘twttr’ launches today

Initially, the new twttr app will focus on testing new designs for conversations. As the company demonstrated at CES, the app will show a different format for replies, where conversations themselves have a more rounded chat-like shape and are indented so they’re easier to follow.

5. Russia blocks encrypted email provider ProtonMail

The block was ordered by the state Federal Security Service, formerly the KGB, according to a Russian-language blog, which obtained and published the order after the agency accused the company and several other email providers of facilitating bomb threats.

6. Hulu and Spotify launch an even more steeply discounted bundle of $9.99 per month

This effectively lowers the price of Hulu’s ad-supported service to nothing.

7. Amazon reportedly nixes its price parity requirement for third-party sellers in the US

Amazon will stop forbidding third-party merchants who list on its e-commerce platform in the United States from selling the same products on other sites for lower prices, according to Axios.

Instagram founders say losing autonomy at Facebook meant “winning”

Rather than be sore about losing independence within Facebook, Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom told me it was an inevitable sign of his app’s triumph. Today at South By South West, Systrom and fellow co-founder Mike Krieger sat down for their first on-stage talk together since leaving Facebook in September. They discussed their super hero origin stories, authenticity on social media, looming regulation for big tech, and how they’re exploring what they’ll do next.

Krieger grew up hitting “view source” on websites while Systrom hacked on AOL booter programs that would kick people off instant messenger, teaching both how code could impact real people. As Instagram grew popular, Krieger described the “incredi-bad” feeling of fighting server fires and trying to keep the widely loved app online even if that meant programming in the middle of a sushi restaurant or camping retreat. He once even revived Instagram while drunk in the middle of the night, and woke up with no memory of the feat, confused about who’d fixed the problem. The former Instagram CTO implored founders not to fall into the “recruiting death spiral” where you’re too busy to recruit which makes you busier which makes you too busy to recruit…

But thankfully, the founders were also willing to dig into some tougher topics than their scrappy startup days.

Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger (from left) drive to Palo Alto to raise their Series A, circa January 2011

Independence vs Importance.

“In some ways, there being less autonomy is a function of Instagram winning. If Instagram had just been this niche photo app for photographers, we probably would be working on that app for 20 year. Instead what happened was it got better and better and better, and it improved, and it got to a size where it was meaningfully important to this company” Systrom explained. “If this thing gets to that scale that we want it to get to which is why we’re doing this deal, the autonomy will eventually not be there as much because it’s so important. So in some ways it’s just an unavoidable thing if you’re successful. So you can choose, do you want to be unsuccessful and small and have all the autonomy in the world, or no?”

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Mike Krieger speaks onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger followed up that “I think if you study . . . all the current companies, the ones that succeed internally eventually have become so important to the acquiring company that it’s almost irresponsible to not be thinking about what are the right models for integration. The advice I generally give is, ‘are you okay with that if you succeed?’ And if you’re not then you shouldn’t do the deal.” If the loss of autonomy can’t be avoided, they suggest selling to a rocket ship that will invest in and care for your baby rather than shift priorities.

Asked if seeing his net worth ever feels surreal, Systrom said  money doesn’t make you happy and “I don’t really wake up in the morning and look at my bank account.” I noted that’s the convenient privilege of having a big one.

The pair threw cold water on the idea that being forced to earn more money drove them out of the company. “I remember having this series of conversations with Mark and other folks at Facebook and they’re like ‘You guys just joined, do not worry about monetization, we’ll figure this out down the road.’ And it actually came a lot more from us saying “1. It’s important for us to be contributing to the overall Fb Inc . . . and 2. Each person who joins before you have ads is a person you’re going to have to introduce ads to.” Systrom added that “to be clear, we were the ones pushing monetization, not the other way around, because we believed Instagram has to make money somehow. It costs a lot to run . . . We pushed hard on it so that we would be a successful unit within Facebook and I think we got to that point, which is really good.”

But from 2015 to 2016, Instagram’s remaining independence fueled a reinvention of its app with non-square photos, the shift to the algorithm, and the launch of Stories. On having to challenge the fundamental assumptions of a business, “You’ve got maybe a couple years of relevance when you build a product. If you don’t reinvent it every quarter or every year, then you fall out of relevance and you go away.”

That last launch was inspired by wanting to offer prismatic identity where people could share non-highlights that wouldn’t haunt them. But also, Systrom admits that “Honestly a big reason why was that for a long time, people’s profiles were filled with Snapchat links and it was clear that people were trying to bridge the two products. So by bringing the two products [Feed and Stories] into one place, we gave consumers what they wanted.” Though when I asked anyone in the crowd who was still mad about the algorithm to hiss, SXSW turned into a snake pit.

Regulating Big Tech

With Systrom and Krieger gone, Facebook is moving forward with plans to more tightly integrate Instagram with Facebook and WhatsApp. That includes unifying their messaging system, which some say is designed to make Facebook’s apps harder to break up with anti-trust regulation. What does Systrom think of the integration? “The more people that are available to talk with, the more useful the platform becomes. And I buy that thesis . . . Whether or not they will in fact want to talk to people on different platforms, I can’t tell the future, so I don’t know” Systrom said.

AUSTIN, TX – MARCH 11: Josh Constine, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom speak onstage at Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW)

Krieger recommended Facebook try to prove users want that cross-app messaging before embarking on a giant engineering challenge of merging their backends. When I asked if Systrom ever had a burning desire to Instagram Direct message a WhatsApp user, he admitted “Personally, no.” But in a show of respect and solid media training, he told his former employer “Bravo for making a big bet and going for it.”

Then it was time for the hardest hitting question: their thoughts on Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to regulate big tech and roll back Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. “Do we get our job back?” Systrom joked, trying to diffuse the tension. Krieger urged more consideration of downstream externalities, and specificity on what problem a break up fixes. He wants differentiation between regulating Facebook’s acquisitions, Amazon white-labeling and selling products, and Apple’s right to run the only iOS App Store.

Acquisition vs Competition

“We live in a time where I think the anger against big tech has increased ten-fold — whether that’s because the property prices in your neighborhood have gone up, whether it’s because you don’t like Russian meddling in elections — there are a long list of reasons people are angry at tech right now and some of them I think are well-founded” Systrom confirmed. “That doesn’t mean that the answer is to break all the companies up. Breaking companies up is a very specific prescription for a very specific problem. If you want to fix economic issues there are ways of doing that. If you want to fix Russian meddling there are ways of doing that. Breaking up a company doesn’t fix those problems. That doesn’t mean that companies shouldn’t be broken up if they get too big and they’re monopolies and they cause problems, but being big in and of itself is not a crime.”

attends Interactive Keynote: Instagram Founders Kevin Systrom & Mike Krieger with Josh Constine during the 2019 SXSW Conference and Festivals at Austin Convention Center on March 11, 2019 in Austin, Texas

Systrom then took a jab at Warren’s tech literacy, saying “part of what’s surprised me is that generally the policy is all tech should be broken up, and that feels to me again not nuanced enough and it shows me that the understanding of the problem isn’t there. I think it’s going to take a more nuanced proposal, but my fear is that something like a proposal to break up all tech is playing on everyone’s current feeling of anti-tech rather than doing what I think politicians should do which is address real problems and give real solutions.”

The two founders then gave some pretty spurious logic for why Instagram’s acquisition helped consumers. “As someone who ran the company for how many years inside of Facebook? Six? There was a lot of competition internally even and I think better ideas came out because of it. We grew both companies not just one company. It’s really hard question. What consumer was damaged because it grew to the size that it did? I think that’s a strong argument that in fact the acquisition worked out for consumers.” That ignores the fact that if Instagram and Facebook were rivals, they’d have to compete on privacy and treating their users well. Even if they inspired each other to build more engaging products, that doesn’t address where harm to consumers has been done.

Krieger suggested that the acquisition actually spurred competition by making Instagram a role modeI. “There was a gold rush of companies being like ‘I’m going to be the Instagram of X . . . the Instagram of Audio, the Instagram of video, the Instagram of dog photos.’ You saw people start new companies and try to build them out in order to try to achieve what we’ve gotten to.” Yet no startup besides Snapchat, which had already launched, has actually grown to rival Instagram. And seeing Instagram hold its own against the Facebook empire would have likely inspired many more startups — some of which can’t find funding since investors doubt their odds against a combined Facebook and Instagram

As for what’s next for the college buddies, “we’re giving ourselves the time to get curious about things again” Krieger says. They’re still exploring so there was no big reveal about their follow-up venture. But Systrom says they built Instagram by finding the mega-trend of cameras on phones and asking what they’d want to use, “and the question is, what’s the next wave?”

Another reason to fear Facebook: Trump admin considers using social media to deny you benefits

As if you needed another reason to stop posting on Facebook

The Trump administration is reportedly working in collaboration with the Social Security Administration to develop a plan for combing through social media posts for evidence — whatever that means — that those receiving certain types of government benefits should have those benefits denied. That's right, your 'gram-worthy vacation pics could soon cause you to lose your disability insurance benefits. 

So reports the New York Times, which cites "administration officials" as confirming that the White House is "actively" working on making this authoritarian fever dream a reality. The idea is not a new one, the Times notes, having been suggested in an earlier Social Security budget request, but this new reporting confirms that it's moved past the conceptual phase. Read more...

More about Facebook, Twitter, Donald Trump, Social Media, and Tech

Online platforms need a super regulator and public interest tests for mergers, says UK parliament report

The latest policy recommendations for regulating powerful Internet platforms comes from a U.K. House of Lord committee that’s calling for an overarching digital regulator to be set up to plug gaps in domestic legislation and work through any overlaps of rules.

“The digital world does not merely require more regulation but a different approach to regulation,” the committee writes in a report published on Saturday, saying the government has responded to “growing public concern” in a piecemeal fashion, whereas “a new framework for regulatory action is needed”.

It suggests a new body — which it’s dubbed the Digital Authority — be established to “instruct and coordinate regulators”.

“The Digital Authority would have the remit to continually assess regulation in the digital world and make recommendations on where additional powers are necessary to fill gaps,” the committee writes, saying that it would also “bring together non-statutory organisations with duties in this area” — so presumably bodies such as the recently created Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (which is intended to advise the UK government on how it can harness technologies like AI for the public good).

The committee report sets out ten principles that it says the Digital Authority should use to “shape and frame” all Internet regulation — and develop a “comprehensive and holistic strategy” for regulating digital services.

These principles (listed below) read, rather unfortunately, like a list of big tech failures. Perhaps especially given Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s repeat refusal to testify before another UK parliamentary committee last year. (Leading to another highly critical report.)

  • Parity: the same level of protection must be provided online as offline
  • Accountability: processes must be in place to ensure individuals and organisations are held to account for their actions and policies
  • Transparency: powerful businesses and organisations operating in the digital world must be open to scrutiny
  • Openness: the internet must remain open to innovation and competition
  • Privacy: to protect the privacy of individuals
  • Ethical design: services must act in the interests of users and society
  • Recognition of childhood: to protect the most vulnerable users of the internet
  • Respect for human rights and equality: to safeguard the freedoms of expression and information online
  • Education and awareness-raising: to enable people to navigate the digital world safely
  • Democratic accountability, proportionality and evidence-based approach

“Principles should guide the development of online services at every stage,” the committee urges, calling for greater transparency at the point data is collected; greater user choice over which data are taken; and greater transparency around data use — “including the use of algorithms”.

So, in other words, a reversal of the ‘opt-out if you want any privacy’ approach to settings that’s generally favored by tech giants — even as it’s being challenged by complaints filed under Europe’s GDPR.

The UK government is due to put out a policy White Paper on regulating online harms this winter. But the Lords Communications Committee suggests the government’s focus is too narrow, calling also for regulation that can intervene to address how “the digital world has become dominated by a small number of very large companies”.

“These companies enjoy a substantial advantage, operating with an unprecedented knowledge of users and other businesses,” it warns. “Without intervention the largest tech companies are likely to gain more control of technologies which disseminate media content, extract data from the home and individuals or make decisions affecting people’s lives.”

The committee recommends public interest tests should therefore be applied to potential acquisitions when tech giants move in to snap up startups, warning that current competition law is struggling to keep pace with the ‘winner takes all’ dynamic of digital markets and their network effects.

“The largest tech companies can buy start-up companies before they can become competitive,” it writes. “Responses based on competition law struggle to keep pace with digital markets and often take place only once irreversible damage is done. We recommend that the consumer welfare test needs to be broadened and a public interest test should be applied to data-driven mergers.”

Market concentration also means a small number of companies have “great power in society and act as gatekeepers to the internet”, it also warns, suggesting that while greater use of data portability can help, “more interoperability” is required for the measure to make an effective remedy.

The committee also examined online platforms’ current legal liabilities around content, and recommends beefing these up too — saying self-regulation is failing and calling out social media sites’ moderation processes specifically as “unacceptably opaque and slow”.

High level political pressure in the UK recently led to a major Instagram policy change around censoring content that promotes suicide — though the shift was triggered after a public outcry related to the suicide of a young schoolgirl who had been exposed to pro-suicide content on Instagram years before.

Like other UK committees and government advisors, the Lords committee wants online services which host user-generated content to be subject to a statutory duty of care — with a special focus on children and “the vulnerable in society”.

“The duty of care should ensure that providers take account of safety in designing their services to prevent harm. This should include providing appropriate moderation processes to handle complaints about content,” it writes, recommending telecoms regulator Ofcom is given responsibility for enforcement.

“Public opinion is growing increasingly intolerant of the abuses which big tech companies have failed to eliminate,” it adds. “We hope that the industry will welcome our 10 principles and their potential to help restore trust in the services they provide. It is in the industry’s own long-term interest to work constructively with policy-makers. If they fail to do so, they run the risk of further action being taken.”

Don’t break up big tech — regulate data access, says EU antitrust chief

Breaking up tech giants should be a measure of last resort, the European Union’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, has suggested.

“To break up a company, to break up private property would be very far reaching and you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with more mainstream tools,” she warned this weekend, speaking in a SXSW interview with Recode’s Kara Swisher. “We’re dealing with private property. Businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation.”

Vestager has built a reputation for being feared by tech giants, thanks to a number of major (and often expensive) interventions since she took up the Commission antitrust brief in 2014, with still one big outstanding investigation hanging over Google.

But while opposition politicians in many Western markets — including high profile would-be U.S. presidential candidates — are now competing on sounding tough on tech, the European commissioner advocates taking a scalpel to data streams rather than wielding a break-up hammer to smash market-skewing tech giants.

“When it comes to the very far reaching proposal to split up companies, for us, from a European perspective, that would be a measure of last resort,” she said. “What we do now, we do the antitrust cases, misuse of dominant position, the tying of products, the self-promotion, the demotion of others, to see if that approach will correct and change the marketplace to make it a fair place where there’s no misuse of dominant position but where smaller competitors can have a fair go. Because they may be the next big one, the next one with the greatest idea for consumers.”

She also pointed to an agreement last month, between key European political institutions on regulating online platform transparency, as an example of the kind of fairness-focused intervention she believes can work to counter market imbalance.

The bread and butter work regulators should be focused on where big tech is concerned are things like digital sector enquiries and hearings to examine how markets are operating in detail, she suggested — using careful scrutiny to inform and shape intelligent, data-led interventions.

Albeit ‘break up Google’ clearly makes for a punchier political soundbite.

Vestager is, however, in the final months of her term as antitrust chief — with the Commission due to turn over this year. Her time at the antitrust helm will end on November 1, she confirmed. (Though she remains, at least tentatively, on a shortlist of candidates who could be appointed the next European Commission president.)

The commissioner has spoken up before about regulating access to data as a more interesting option for controlling digital giants vs breaking them up.

And some European regulators appear to be moving in that direction already. Such the German Federal Cartel Office (FCO) which last month announced a decision against Facebook which aims to limit how it can use data from its own services. The FCO’s move has been couched as akin to an internal break up of the company, at the data level, without the tech giant having to be forced to separate and sell off business units like Instagram and WhatsApp.

It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a massive plan to merge all three services at the technical level just last week — billing the switch to encrypted content but merged metadata as a ‘pro-privacy’ move, while clearly also intending to restructure his empire in a way that works against regulatory interventions that separate and control internal data flows at the product level.

The Competition Commission does not have a formal probe of Facebook or the social media sector open at this point but Vestager said her department does have its eye on how social media giants are using data.

“We’re sort of hoovering over social media, Facebook — how data’s being used in that respect,” she said, also flagging the preliminary work it’s doing looking into Amazon’s use of merchant data. (Also still not yet a formal probe.)

“The good thing is now the debate is really sort of taking off,” she added, of competition regulation generally. “When I’ve been visiting and speaking with people on The Hill previously, I’ve sensed a new sort of interest and curiosity as to what can competition achieve for you in a society. Because if you have fair competition then you have markets serving the citizen in our role as consumer and not the other way around.”

Asked whether she’s personally convinced by Facebook’s sudden ‘appreciation’ of privacy Vestager said if the announcement signifies a genuine change of philosophy and direction which leads to shifts in its business practices it would be good news for consumers.

Though she said she’s not simply taking Zuckerberg at his word at this point. “It may be a little far-reaching to assume the best,” she said politely when pushed by Swisher on whether she believed a sincere pivot is possible from a company with such a long privacy-hostile history.

Big tech, small tax

The interview also delved into the issue of big tech and the tiny amounts it pays in tax.

Reforming the global tax system so digital businesses pay a fair share vs traditional businesses is now “urgent” work to do, said Vestager — highlighting how the lack of a consensus position among EU Member States is pushing some countries to move forward with their own measures, given resistance to Commission proposals from other corners of the bloc.

France‘s push for a tax on tech giants this year is “absolutely necessary but very unfortunate”, Vestager said.

“When you do numbers that can be compared we see that digital businesses they would pay on average nine per cent [in taxes] where traditional businesses on average pay 23 per cent,” she continued. “Yet they’re in the same market for capital, for skilled employees, sometimes competing for the same customers. So obviously this is not fair.”

The Commission’s hope is that individual “pushes” from Member States frustrated by the current tax imbalance will generate momentum for “a European-wide way of doing things” — and therefore that any fragmentation of tax policies across the bloc will be short-lived.

She also she Europe is keen for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to “push forward for this” too, remarking: “Because we sense in the OECD that a number of places in the world take an interest also in the U.S. side of things.”

Is the better way to reset inequalities related to big tech and society achieved via reforming the tax system or are regulators doomed to have to keep fining them “into the next century”, wondered Swisher.

“You get a fine when you do something illegal. You pay your taxes to contribute to society where you do your business. These are two different things and we definitely need both,” responded Vestager. “But we cannot have a situation where some businesses do not contribute and the majority of businesses they do. Because it’s simply not fair in the marketplace or fair towards citizens if this continues.”

She also made short shrift of the favored big tech lobbyist line — to loudly claim privacy regulation helps big guys because it’s easier for them to fund compliance — by pointing out that Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation has “different brackets” and does not simply clobber big and small alike with the same requirements.

Of course small businesses “don’t have the same obligations as Google”, said Vestager.

“I’d say if they find it easy, I’d say they can do better,” she added, raising the much complained about consumer rights issue of consent vs inscrutable T&Cs.

“Because I still find that it’s quite tricky to understand what it is that you accept when you accept your terms and conditions. And I think it would be great if we as citizens could really say ‘oh this is what I am signing up to and I’m perfectly happy with that’.”

Though she admitted there’s still a way to go for European privacy rights to be fully functioning as intended — arguing it’s still too hard for individual consumers to exercise the rights they have in law.

“I know I own my data but I really do not know how to exercise that ownership,” she said. “How to allow for more people to have access to my data if I want to enable innovation, new market participants coming in. If that was done in large scale you could have an innovative input into the marketplace and we’re definitely not there yet,” she said.

Asked about the idea of taxing data flows as another possible means of clipping the wings of big tech Vestager pointed to early signs of an intermediate market spinning up in Europe to help individual extract value from what corporate entities are doing with their information. So not literally a tax on data flows but a way for consumers to claw back some of the value that’s being stripped from them.

“It’s still nascent in Europe but since now we have the rights that establishes your ownership of your data we see there is a beginning market development of intermediaries saying should I enable you yourself to monetize your data, so it’s not just the giants who monetize your data. So that maybe you get a sum every month reflecting how your data has been passed on,” she said. “That is one opportunity.”

She also said the Commission is looking at how to make sure “huge amounts of data will not be a barrier to entry in a marketplace” — or present a barrier to innovation for newcomers. The latter being key given how tech giants’ massive data pools are translating into a meaty advantage in AI R&D.

In another interesting exchange, Vestager suggested the convenience of voice interfaces presents an acute competition challenge — given how the tech could naturally concentrate market power via preferring quick-fire Q&A style interactions which don’t support offering lots of choice options.

“One of the things that is really mindboggling for us is how to have choice if you have voice,” she said, arguing that voice assistance dynamic doesn’t lend itself to multiple suggestions being offered every time a user asks a question. “So how to have competition when you have voice search?.. How would this change the marketplace and how would we deal with such a market? So this is what we’re trying to figure out.”

Again she suggested regulators are thinking about how data flows behind the scenes as a potential route to remedying interfaces that work against choice.

“We’re trying to figure out how access to data will change the marketplace,” she added. “Can you give a different access to data because the one who holds the data, also holds the resources for innovation. And we cannot rely on the big guys to be the innovative ones.”

Asked for her worst case scenario for tech 10 years hence, she said it would be to have “all of the technology but none of the societal positive oversight and direction”.

On the flip side, the best case would be for legislators to be “willing to take sufficient steps in taxation and in regulating access to data and fairness in the marketplace”.

“We would also need to see technology develop to have new players,” she emphasized. “Because we still need to see what will happen with quantum computing, what will happen with blockchain, what other uses are there for all if that new technology. Because I still think that it holds a lot of promise. But only if our democracy will give it direction. Then you will have a positive outcome.”