Taking the venerable quote from Harry Truman,” If you cannot convince them, confuse them”, Facebook will change its coverage so that three-fourths of its total user base (including those in the United States and Canada) will not be able to file a complaint in Ireland, where Facebook’s international headquarters lies. So European Union residents are covered by the GDPR rules. This change will continue to keep Facebook in the news as being untrustworthy, and could cause the U.S. congress to add more stringent laws.
Facebook and other tech giants have been fortunate that they had been essentially unregulated … until now. On April 11 we received an email titled “[Action Required] Important updates on Google Analytics Data Retention and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)” from ‘Google Analytics’ firstname.lastname@example.org that presumably was received by billions of people with gmail email addresses or other Google associations. It alerts all of us of this data protection law affecting users based in the EU (European Union) that will be effective May 25, 2018.
We suspect that the vast majority of Internet-connected individuals had no clue that such a law was in the works, though they could hardly have missed the fact that Mark Zuckerberg was testifying in Washington, DC. Likely this mass email was intentionally timed to coincide with his testifying.
Do First Ask Forgiveness Later
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Though some other observers have scorned the technology naivete of some of the legislators, we were generally impressed with the thoughtful questions that in general dug into the key issues—most notably privacy—that had forced Mark Zuckerberg to testify.
Doubtless the large majority of Facebook users never read Facebook’s Terms of Service (TOS), just like the user agreements of other memberships they pursue. When Technology Bloopers debuted, we carefully read the TOS and included some commentary under the “Social Networks” subheading of our “Villains” heading. We pointed out two notions that have turned out to be hugely important in the current dust-up: “Users of these social networks have accepted the Terms of Service (TOS) for them, giving them permission to do many things that, upon reflection, those users might actually not want done.” and “But it is hugely one-sided in that it talks about all the things that Facebook can do and not much about the things the Facebook customer can do. And it is hugely open-ended in that it cites examples of things that Facebook can do today or might do in the future, but places no limits on them. “
The tech giants are so powerful that they feel they can get away with taking actions without asking permission, then apologizing later. Again, we had reminded in our “Villains” subheading the famous quote from Lord Acton: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.
We admit to being generally anti- to social networks. In our view they are an unnecessary sugar coating of basic functionality already provided in a range of websites. Our views were included when we originally uploaded our TechnologyBloopers website in August 2014, which included our critical analysis of Facebook’s “Terms of Service”.
Among the tech giants Facebook has recently has become the poster child for taking the notion of “if something is not forbidden by law, then it is allowed”, replacing Google (which did things like copying millions of pages of books in the name of making knowledge available, but violating the copyrights of the authors). This behavior earned a “command performance” for Mark Zuckerberg with congress as the audience.
Question: When you’ve joined the $100+ billion market cap club, what do you do next? Answer: You start invading the other members’ territories (e.g., Amazon is now chasing the digital advertising business that Facebook and Google make billions of dollars from) AND you hire a bunch of pricey lawyers to defend you against antitrust suits.
This club is pretty exclusive today, with American members including mainly Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Netflix. They are so big that to grow significantly they have to look for other big markets (like cloud computing or self-driving cars or Hollywood-type movies) to enter, and most of those big markets are already occupied by other club members or non-member already-large specialists. What are the bloopers here? A classical one would be monopoly/oligopoly pricing and/or restraint of trade. But perhaps more important might be the opportunities lost by a failure to allocate capital to creating useful NEW-AND-DIFFERENT products and services.
Mark Twain’s 1897 quote had it right: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” One possible Truth in the current fracas involving Russians, Trump’s campaign team for the 2016 presidential election, and social network companies including Facebook, Google, and Twitter is that this is an early example of wars that are fought by hackers and the Internet rather than soldiers and guns. Numerous semi-fiction books could be written or movies created about this craziness. One possible plot is that the Russians knew how unusual (AKA weird) Donald Trump is, and preferred him to Hillary Clinton as president because they could exploit that unusualness (AKA weirdness). A bunch of congresspeople are calling for regulation of these giant Internet-based companies. So are the media, who are far more regulated than Facebook, Google, and Twitter. These are crazy times, and the Russians and other enemy nations must be enjoying all the gyrations that the US is going through.
Even more dangerous to individuals, America, and the whole world, are the loopholes in the processes at internet giants like Facebook and Google. Technology is evolving faster than it can be controlled by either man or machine. And since these companies make most of their money by selling ads, exciting events—whether or not correctly reported on—boost their revenues and profits.
The technology of rapid-fire firearms that are available to crazed murderers like Craig Paddock who murdered dozens and injured hundreds in Las Vegas on October 1, is the most serious recent example. That technology was not kept in check by proper rules (and their enforcement) regarding what firearms can be sold to whom. On the information side Facebook and Google allowed two known rightwing “hate news” sites to post incorrect information unfettered, for minutes in the case of Facebook and for hours in the case of Google. All the information gaps here can can ultimately be traced to errors by humans, either failures in the basic design and implementation of the laws/rules or in the software, or in the review by people. Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle, and is misusing its powers.
Beyond such “fake news”, which can be distributed widely and quickly, the very content of the ads can be hurtful. Facebook and Google (including YouTube) apparently accepted a considerable number of ads from Russia supporting Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Since those ads were paid for, which is how those companies make money, they were motivated to accept them. Apparently only in retrospect did they investigate, after which they reported on what happened, but Facebook, at least, didn’t tell the whole story.
Like the old saw “Everyone talks about the weather but no one does anything about it” (including President Trump, who refuses to recognize global warming), there doesn’t yet seem to be any consequences for these tech giants. But change may be in the offing from places like Stanford University, which has launched a new Global Digital Policy Incubator, with a speech by Hillary Clinton. We can only hope that we can get the genie back into the bottle, by getting these tech giants under control … if that is possible.
Anyone working in Silicon Valley (or reading local newspapers) cannot fail to be personally affected by issues of workplace diversity (at least vicariously). (Actually, anyone reading the Wall Street Journal these days could not avoid seeing the variety of prose on this topic from its chorus of reporters and columnists.) And during the last couple of weeks s/he could scarcely avoid hearing about the 10-page memo written by Google’s James Damore, his subsequent firing, and the furor both locally and nationally. There is a saying in Japanese that “the nail that sticks up is the one that gets pounded down”, and we are sure that he feels very pounded down these days. And his subsequent article published in the Wall Street Journal (in a nice touch the accompanying picture shows him wearing a T-shirt that says “Goolag”) has doubtlessly made Google management feel pounded down, too. (This appears to add insult to the injury already facing Google because the U.S. Department of Labor is already claiming that Google systematically pays women less than men.)
It is no secret that the tech industry in general employs a majority of white or Asian (mainly Indian) men, particularly in technical and leadership roles, which means that Google is no better or worse than other giant tech companies. But when one digs a bit deeper, it turns out that Damore’s belief that women are less capable at writing code than men is incorrect because Indian women CAN code too.
The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Kessler points out that there is limited proof that Google’s mandatory “Unconscious Bias” training has any merit, because of the fallibility of the numerous studies that have supported its inclusion.
Actually, it is meaningless to give OVERALL statistics about percents of male/female or race without also putting them in the context of compensation or managerial level or similar measure, as we have tried to do with the illustration above.
Facebook and a handful of other social media are so entrenched that few people think about life before them. But the Web was conceived 15 years before Facebooks’s founding in 2004. Facebook put a pretty face on the Web, and billions of people have flocked to it. And Google Search, YouTube, and a handful of other giants –fueled by tons of advertising revenues—exercise a lot of control over what people can see and do, so much so that there is growing sentiment about breaking up these monopolistic organizations. And delivering fake news or vicious propaganda from the likes of ISIS (ironically ISIS can even get PAID by YouTube while it disseminates its messages of hatred) adds further pressure for this breakup.
It will take more time, but help may be on the way from the original creator of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee. He is working towards a “Better Web” where users’ control their own (private) data. One group that should benefit from greater control of their data is musicians. The title of Jonathan Taplin’s new book, “Move Fast and Break Things”, may even have caused Facebook to foresightedly replace their eponymous former motto with “Move Fast With Stable Infra(structure)”.
We at Technology Bloopers are not big fans of President Trump, but his administration’s putting pressure on tech companies’ hiring software engineers from India and China to replace Americans does seem to be consonant with his pre-election promises.
But apparently it is even worse than that. We heard a couple of days ago about one local company that not only hired a bunch of Indian H1B visa-holders, fired their American staff, and replaced them with these imported folks … after they were trained by the Americans. And this noxious practice has apparently been going on for some time, according to the Stateline folks at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Three months of coder school is not much training compared with that of the better-trained—often in American universities—and more-experienced visa-holders. But why are these American universities welcoming these foreign students? It’s because those students come bearing big funds for their education. (At state universities, it is simply that the international students must pay the same (higher) prices as out-of-state American students.) We have heard that among some of these students it is said that PhD stands for “Parents have Dough”. Interestingly, those international students are more prone to cheat on their exams. Hmmm … does that mean that their future code will be less trustworthy than that of Americans?
We wonder why the big Silicon Valley tech companies have not done a better job on their own of training software engineers. Couldn’t they be hiring “junior” software engineers from the coder schools and boosting their capabilities with on-the-job training. We suspect one reason is that it is more expensive to do that than to hire foreign help. And more time-consuming. And another reason may be that they didn’t do a good job of forecasting their growth and concomitant demand for those software engineers. Maybe the current visa flap will motivate them.
But it may not be the fault of these companies. Americans may too lazy, or too afraid to be “uncool”, to study STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Mathematics) courses so there is not enough local talent to fill the needs of Silicon Valley. Graduates with strong STEM knowledge are polar opposites to “art history majors” , a term used derogatorily to connote enjoyable-but-low-paying jobs.