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Tech Monopolists

Why Privacy Is an Antitrust Issue

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Finally the mainstream media is saying what many of us have known for years. Too bad they do not put their money where their mouth is and sever all business ties the likes of Facebook.

As Facebook has generated scandal after scandal in recent years, critics have started to wonder how we might use antitrust laws to rein in the company’s power. But many of the most pressing concerns about Facebook are its privacy abuses, which unlike price gouging, price discrimination or exclusive dealing, are not immediately recognized as antitrust violations. Is there an antitrust case to be made against Facebook on privacy grounds?

Yes, there is. In March, when Representative David N. Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island, called on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Facebook’s potential violations of antitrust laws, he cited not only Facebook’s acquisitions (such as Instagram and WhatsApp), but also evidence that Facebook was “using its monopoly power to degrade” the quality of its service “below what a competitive marketplace would allow.”

It is this last point, which I made in a law journal article cited by Mr. Cicilline, that promises to change how antitrust law will protect the American public in the era of Big Tech: namely, that consumers can suffer at the hands of monopolies because companies like Facebook lock in users with promises to protect their data and privacy — only to break those promises once competitors in the marketplace have been eliminated.

 

[changes are needed to (ED)…] protect the American public in the era of Big Tech: namely, that consumers can suffer at the hands of monopolies because companies like Facebook lock in users with promises to protect their data and privacy — only to break those promises once competitors in the marketplace have been eliminated.

 

To see what I mean, let’s go back to the mid-2000s, when Facebook was an upstart social media platform. To differentiate itself from the market leader, Myspace, Facebook publicly pledged itself to privacy. Privacy provided its competitive advantage, with the company going so far as to promise users, “We do not and will not use cookies to collect private information from any user.”

When Facebook later attempted to change this bargain with users, the threat of losing its customers to its competitors forced the company to reverse course. In 2007, for example, Facebook introduced a program that recorded users’ activity on third-party sites and inserted it into the News Feed. Following public outrage and a class-action lawsuit, Facebook ended the program. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes building this feature, but we’ve made even more with how we’ve handled them,” Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in a public apology.

This sort of thing happened regularly for years. Facebook would try something sneaky, users would object and Facebook would back off.

But then Facebook’s competition began to disappear. Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. Later in 2014, Google announced that it would fold its social network Orkut. Emboldened by the decline of market threats, Facebook revoked its users’ ability to vote on changes to its privacy policies and then (almost simultaneously with Google’s exit from the social media market) changed its privacy pact with users.

This is how Facebook usurped our privacy: with the help of its market dominance. The price of using Facebook has stayed the same over the years (it’s free to join and use), but the cost of using it, calculated in terms of the amount of data that users now must provide, is an order of magnitude above what it was when Facebook faced real competition.
 

But then Facebook’s competition began to disappear. Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014. Later in 2014, Google announced that it would fold its social network Orkut. Emboldened by the decline of market threats, Facebook revoked its users’ ability to vote on changes to its privacy policies and then (almost simultaneously with Google’s exit from the social media market) changed its privacy pact with users.

It is hard to believe that the Facebook of 2019, which is so consuming of and reckless with our data, was once the privacy-protecting Facebook of 2004. When users today sign up for Facebook, they agree to allow the company to track their activity across more than eight million websites and mobile applications that are connected to the internet. They cannot opt out of this. The ubiquitous tracking of consumers online allows Facebook to collect exponentially more data about them than it originally could, which it can use to its financial advantage.

And while users can control some of the ways in which Facebook uses their data by adjusting their privacy settings, if you choose to leave Facebook, the company still subjects you to surveillance — but you no longer have access to the settings. Staying on the platform is the only effective way to manage its harms.

Lowering the quality of a company’s services in this manner has always been one way a monopoly can squeeze consumers after it corners a market. If you go all the way back to the landmark “case of monopolies” in 17th-century England, for example, you find a court sanctioning a monopoly for fear that it might control either price or the quality of services.

But we must now aggressively enforce this antitrust principle to handle the problems of our modern economy. Our government should undertake the important task of restoring to the American people something they bargained for in the first place — their privacy.

LONG LONG Overdue!

Facebook’s third act: Mark Zuckerberg announces his firm’s next business model

Here lies Zuckerberg’s cynical attempt to change the narrative by implementing end to end encryption is simply a bad idea. It gets them off the hook to moderate content (read: more profits), still allows them to sell ads and makes it nearly impossible for law enforcement to do their job. Hey Zuck, why not hand hang a sign out: criminals, pedophiles, gangs, repressive regimes, etc. – “all welcome here.” I have a better idea: Get Facebook off the planet.

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If it works, the social-networking giant will become more private and more powerful

THE FIRST big overhaul for Facebook came in 2012-14. Internet users were carrying out ever more tasks on smartphones rather than desktop or laptop computers. Mark Zuckerberg opted to follow them, concentrating on Facebook’s mobile app ahead of its website, and buying up two fast-growing communication apps, WhatsApp and Instagram. It worked. Facebook increased its market valuation from around $60bn at the end of 2012 to—for a brief period in 2018—more than $600bn.

On March 6th Mr Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s next pivot. As well as its existing moneymaking enterprise, selling targeted ads on its public social networks, it is building a “privacy-focused platform” around WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger. The apps will be integrated, he said, and messages sent through them encrypted end-to-end, so that even Facebook cannot read them. While it was not made explicit, it is clear what the business model will be. Mr Zuckerberg wants all manner of businesses to use its messaging networks to provide services and accept payments. Facebook will take a cut.

A big shift was overdue at Facebook given the privacy and political scandals that have battered the firm. Even Mr Zuckerberg, who often appears incapable of seeing the gravity of Facebook’s situation, seemed to grasp the irony of it putting privacy first. “Frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services,” he noted.

Still, he intends to do it. Mr Zuckerberg claims that users will benefit from his plan to integrate its messaging apps into a single, encrypted network. The content of messages will be safe from prying eyes of authoritarian snoops and criminals, as well as from Facebook itself. It will make messaging more convenient, and make profitable new services possible. But caution is warranted for three reasons.

The first is that Facebook has long been accused of misleading the public on privacy and security, so the potential benefits Mr Zuckerberg touts deserve to be treated sceptically. He is also probably underselling the benefits that running integrated messaging networks brings to his firm, even if they are encrypted so that Facebook cannot see the content. The metadata alone, ie, who is talking to whom, when and for how long, will still allow Facebook to target advertisements precisely, meaning its ad model will still function.

End-to-end encryption will also make Facebook’s business cheaper to run. Because it will be mathematically impossible to moderate encrypted communications, the firm will have an excuse to take less responsibility for content running through its apps, limiting its moderation costs.

If it can make the changes, Facebook’s dominance over messaging would probably increase. The newfound user-benefits of a more integrated Facebook might make it harder for regulators to argue that Mr Zuckerberg’s firm should be broken up.

Facebook’s plans in India provide some insight into the new model. It has built a payment system into WhatsApp, the country’s most-used messaging app. The system is waiting for regulatory approval. The market is huge. In the rest of the world, too, users are likely to be drawn in by the convenience of Facebook’s new networks. Mr Zuckerberg’s latest strategy is ingenious but may contain twists.

The Week in Tech: Facebook and Google Reshape the Narrative on Privacy

And from the bs department

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…Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The chief executive of a huge tech company with vast stores of user data, and a business built on using it to target ads, now says his priority is privacy.

This time it was Google’s Sundar Pichai, at the company’s annual conference for developers. “We think privacy is for everyone,” he explained on Tuesday. “We want to do more to stay ahead of constantly evolving user expectations.” He reiterated the point in a New York Times Op-Ed, and highlighted the need for federal privacy rules.

The previous week, Mark Zuckerberg delivered similar messages at Facebook’s developer conference. “The future is private,” he said, and Facebook will focus on more intimate communications. He shared the idea in a Washington Post op-ed just weeks before, also highlighting the need for federal privacy rules.

Google went further than Facebook’s rough sketch of what this future looks, and unveiled tangible features: It will let users browse YouTube and Google Maps in “incognito mode,” will allow auto-deletion of Google history after a specified time and will make it easier to find out what the company knows about you, among other new privacy features.

Fatemeh Khatibloo, a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, told The Times: “These are meaningful changes when it comes to the user’s expectations of privacy, but I don’t think this affects their business at all.” Google has to show that privacy is important, but it will still collect data.

What Google and Facebook are trying to do, though, is reshape the privacy narrative. You may think privacy means keeping hold of your data; they want privacy to mean they don’t hand data to others. (“Google will never sell any personal information to third parties,” Mr. Pichai wrote in his Op-Ed.)

Werner Goertz, a research director at Gartner, said Google had to respond with its own narrative. “It is trying to turn the conversation around and drive public discourse in a way that not only pacifies but also tries to get buy-in from consumers, to align them with its privacy strategy,” he said.
Politics of privacy law

Right – pacify the masses with BS.

Politics of privacy law

Facebook and Google may share a voice on privacy. Lawmakers don’t.

Members of the Federal Trade Commission renewed calls at a congressional hearing on Wednesday to regulate big tech companies’ stewardship of user data, my colleague Cecilia Kang reported. That was before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, on which “lawmakers of both parties agreed” that such a law was required, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Sounds promising.

But while the F.T.C. was united in asking for more power to police violations and greater authority to impose penalties, there were large internal tensions about how far it should be able to go in punishing companies. And the lawmakers in Congress “appeared divided over key points that legislation might address,” according to The Journal. Democrats favor harsh penalties and want to give the F.T.C. greater power; Republicans worry that strict regulation could stifle innovation and hurt smaller companies.

Finding compromise will be difficult, and conflicting views risk becoming noise through which a clear voice from Facebook and Google can cut. The longer disagreement rages, the more likely it is that Silicon Valley defines a mainstream view that could shape rules.

Yeah — more lobbyists and political donation subverting the democracy. The US should enact an EU equivalent GDPR now. And another thing, Zuckerberg’s cynical attempt to change the narrative by implementing end to end encryption is simply a bad idea. It gets them off the hook to moderate content (read: more profits), still allows them to sell ads and makes it nearly impossible for law enforcement to do their job. Hey Zuck, why not hand hang a sign out: criminals, pedophiles, gangs, repressive regimes, etc. – “all welcome here.”

Now for Sale on Facebook: Looted Middle Eastern Antiquities

Another reason Facebook is a disgusting dangerous corporation. A 5 billion dollat fine is nothing. It needs to be wound down and Zuckerberg and Sandberg given long hard prison terms for the evil and death they have caused.

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Ancient treasures pillaged from conflict zones in the Middle East are being offered for sale on Facebook, researchers say, including items that may have been looted by Islamic State militants.

Facebook groups advertising the items grew rapidly during the upheaval of the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars, which created unprecedented opportunities for traffickers, said Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio and a former antiquities official in Syria. He has monitored the trade for years along with his colleagues at the Athar Project, named for the Arabic word for antiquities.

At the same time, Dr. Al-Azm said, social media lowered the barriers to entry to the marketplace. Now there are at least 90 Facebook groups, most in Arabic, connected to the illegal trade in Middle Eastern antiquities, with tens of thousands of members, he said.

They often post items or inquiries in the group, then take the discussion into chat or WhatsApp messaging, making it difficult to track. Some users circulate requests for certain types of items, providing an incentive for traffickers to produce them, a scenario that Dr. Al-Azm called “loot to order.”

Others post detailed instructions for aspiring looters on how to locate archaeological sites and dig up treasures.

Items for sale include a bust purportedly taken from the ancient city of Palmyra, which was occupied for periods by Islamic State militants and endured heavy looting and damage.

Other artifacts for sale come from Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The majority do not come from museums or collections, where their existence would have been cataloged, Dr. Al-Azm said.

“They’re being looted straight from the ground,” he said. “They have never been seen. The only evidence we have of their existence is if someone happens to post a picture of them.”

Dr. Al-Azm and Katie A. Paul, the directors of the Athar Project, wrote in World Politics Review last year that the loot-to-order requests showed that traffickers were “targeting material with a previously unseen level of precision — a practice that Facebook makes remarkably easy.”

After the BBC published an article about the work of Dr. Al-Azm and his colleagues last week, Facebook said that it had removed 49 groups connected to antiquities trafficking.

 

Dr. Al-Azm said his team’s research indicated that the Facebook groups are run by an international network of traffickers who cater to dealers, including ones in the West. The sales are often completed in person in cash in nearby countries, he said, despite efforts in Turkey and elsewhere to fight antiquities smuggling.

He faulted Facebook for not heeding warnings about antiquities sales as early as 2014, when it might have been possible to delete the groups to stop, or at least slow, their growth.

Dr. Al-Azm countered that 90 groups were still up. But more important, he argued, Facebook should not simply delete the pages, which now constitute crucial evidence both for law enforcement and heritage experts.

In a statement on Tuesday, the company said it was “continuing to invest in people and technology to keep this activity off Facebook and encourage others to report anything they suspect of violating our Community Standards so we can quickly take action.”

A spokeswoman said that the company’s policy-enforcement team had 30,000 members and that it had introduced new tools to detect and remove content that violates the law or its policies using artificial intelligence, machine learning and computer vision.

Trafficking in antiquities is illegal across most of the Middle East, and dealing in stolen relics is illegal under international law. But it can be difficult to prosecute such cases.
Leila A. Amineddoleh, a lawyer in New York who specializes in art and cultural heritage, said that determining the provenance of looted items can be arduous, presenting an obstacle for lawyers and academics alike.

Dr. Al-Azm said his team’s research indicated that the Facebook groups are run by an international network of traffickers who cater to dealers, including ones in the West. The sales are often completed in person in cash in nearby countries, he said, despite efforts in Turkey and elsewhere to fight antiquities smuggling.

He faulted Facebook for not heeding warnings about antiquities sales as early as 2014, when it might have been possible to delete the groups to stop, or at least slow, their growth.

As the Islamic State expanded, it systematically looted and destroyed, using heavy machinery to dig into ancient sites that had scarcely been excavated before the war. The group allowed residents and other looters to take from heritage sites, imposing a 20 percent tax on their earnings.

Some local people and cultural heritage experts scrambled to document and save the antiquities, including efforts to physically safeguard them and to create 3-D models and maps. Despite their efforts, the losses were catastrophic.
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Satellite images show invaluable sites, such as Mari and Dura-Europos in eastern Syria, pockmarked with excavation holes from looters. In the Mosul Museum in Iraq, the militants filmed themselves taking sledgehammers and drills to monuments they saw as idolatrous, acts designed for maximum propaganda value as the world watched with horror.

Other factions and people also profited from looting. In fact, the market was so saturated that prices dropped drastically for a time around 2016, Dr. Al-Azm said.

Around the same time, as Islamic State fighters scattered in the face of territorial losses, they took their new expertise in looting back to their countries, including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and to other parts of Syria, like Idlib Province, he added.

“This is a supply and demand issue,” Dr. Al-Azm said, repeating that any demand gives incentives to looters, possibly financing terrorist groups in the process.

Instead of simply deleting the pages, Dr. Al-Azm said, Facebook should devise a more comprehensive strategy to stop the sales while allowing investigators to preserve photos and records uploaded to the groups.

A hastily posted photo, after all, might be the only record of a looted object that is available to law enforcement or scholars. Simply deleting the page would destroy “a huge corpus of evidence” that will be needed to identify, track and recover looted treasures for years to come, he said.

Similar arguments have been made as social media sites, including YouTube, have deleted videos that show atrocities committed during the Syrian war that could be used to prosecute war crimes.

Facebook has also faced questions over its role as a platform for other types of illicit sales, including guns, poached ivory and more. It has generally responded by shutting down pages or groups in response to reports of illegal activity.

Some of the illicit items sold without proof of their ownership history, of course, could be fake. But given the volume of activity in the antiquities groups and the copious evidence of looting at famous sites, at least some of them are believed to be genuine.

The wave of items hitting the market will most likely continue for years. Some traffickers sit on looted antiquities for long periods, waiting for attention to die down and sometimes forging documents about the items’ origins before offering them for sale.

Sri Lanka Shut Down Social Media. My First Thought Was ‘Good.’

So was mine.

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As a tech journalist, I’m ashamed to admit it. But this is how bad the situation has gotten.

This is the ugly conundrum of the digital age: When you traffic in outrage, you get death.

So when the Sri Lankan government temporarily shut down access to American social media services like Facebook and Google’s YouTube after the bombings there on Easter morning, my first thought was “good.”

Good, because it could save lives. Good, because the companies that run these platforms seem incapable of controlling the powerful global tools they have built. Good, because the toxic digital waste of misinformation that floods these platforms has overwhelmed what was once so very good about them. And indeed, by Sunday morning so many false reports about the carnage were already circulating online that the Sri Lankan government worried more violence would follow.

It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off. But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.

In short: Stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world — we want to get off.

Obviously, that is an impossible request and one that does not address the root cause of the problem, which is that humanity can be deeply inhumane. But that tendency has been made worse by tech in ways that were not anticipated by those who built it.

I noted this in my very first column for The Times almost a year ago, when I called social media giants “digital arms dealers of the modern age” who had, by sloppy design, weaponized pretty much everything that could be weaponized.

“They have weaponized civic discourse,” I wrote. “And they have weaponized, most of all, politics. Which is why malevolent actors continue to game the platforms and why there’s still no real solution in sight anytime soon, because they were built to work exactly this way.”

So it is no surprise that we are where we are now, with the Sri Lankan government closing off its citizens’ access to social media, fearing misinformation would lead to more violence. A pre-crime move, if you will, and a drastic one, since much critical information in that country flows over these platforms. Facebook and YouTube, and to a lesser extent services like Viber, are how news is distributed and consumed and also how it is abused. Imagine if you mashed up newspapers, cable, radio and the internet into one outlet in the United States and you have the right idea.

A Facebook spokesman stressed to me that “people rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones.” He told me the company is working with Sri Lankan law enforcement and trying to remove content that violates its standards.

It pains me as a journalist, and someone who once believed that a worldwide communications medium would herald more tolerance, to admit this — to say that my first instinct was to turn it all off. But it has become clear to me with every incident that the greatest experiment in human interaction in the history of the world continues to fail in ever more dangerous ways.

In short: Stop the Facebook/YouTube/Twitter world — we want to get off.

 

But while social media had once been credited with helping foster democracy in places like Sri Lanka, it is now blamed for an increase in religious hatred. That justification was behind another brief block a year ago, aimed at Facebook, where the Sri Lankan government said posts appeared to have incited anti-Muslim violence.

“The extraordinary step reflects growing global concern, particularly among governments, about the capacity of American-owned networks to spin up violence,” The Times reported on Sunday.

Spin up violence indeed. Just a month ago in New Zealand, a murderous shooter apparently radicalized by social media broadcast his heinous acts on those same platforms. Let’s be clear, the hateful killer is to blame, but it is hard to deny that his crime was facilitated by tech.

In that case, the New Zealand government did not turn off the tech faucets, but it did point to those companies as a big part of the problem. After the attacks, neither Facebook nor YouTube could easily stop the ever-looping videos of the killings, which proliferated too quickly for their clever algorithms to keep up. One insider at YouTube described the experience to me as a “nightmare version of Whack-a-Mole.”

New Zealand, under the suffer-no-foolish-techies leadership of Jacinda Ardern, will be looking hard at imposing penalties on these companies for not controlling the spread of extremist content. Australia already passed such a law in early April. Here in the United States, our regulators are much farther behind, still debating whether it is a problem or not.

It is a problem, even if the manifestations of how these platforms get warped vary across the world. They are different in ways that make no difference and the same in one crucial way that does. Namely, social media has blown the lids off controls that have kept society in check. These platforms give voice to everyone, but some of those voices are false or, worse, malevolent, and the companies continue to struggle with how to deal with them.

In the early days of the internet, there was a lot of talk of how this was a good thing, getting rid of those gatekeepers. Well, they are gone now, and that means we need to have a global discussion involving all parties on how to handle the resulting disaster, well beyond adding more moderators or better algorithms.

Shutting social media down in times of crisis isn’t going to work. I raised that idea with a top executive at a big tech company I visited last week, during a discussion of what had happened in New Zealand.

“You can’t shut it off,” the executive said flatly. “It’s too late.”

True – but we can encourage or even ban businesses from advertising on it. Then they would whither and die and good riddance.

Don’t Plummet with Summit- another Zuckerberg Insidious Failure

…Public schools near Wichita had rolled out a web-based platform and curriculum from Summit Learning. The Silicon Valley-based program promotes an educational approach called “personalized learning,” which uses online tools to customize education. The platform that Summit provides was developed by Facebook engineers. It is funded by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician.

Under Summit’s program, students spend much of the day on their laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold mentoring sessions and lead special projects. The system is free to schools. The laptops are typically bought separately.

Then, students started coming home with headaches and hand cramps. Some said they felt more anxious. One child began having a recurrence of seizures. Another asked to bring her dad’s hunting earmuffs to class to block out classmates because work was now done largely alone.

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

Yes – personalized learning meant teachers sat doing nothing and kids sat working with their computers alone.


“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies,” said Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, who visited his son’s fourth-grade class. In October, he pulled the 10-year-old out of the school.

 

When this school year started, children got laptops to use Summit software and curriculums. In class, they sat at the computers working through subjects from math to English to history. Teachers told students that their role was now to be a mentor.
In September, some students stumbled onto questionable content while working in the Summit platform, which often directs them to click on links to the open web.

In one class covering Paleolithic history, Summit included a link to an article in The Daily Mail, the British newspaper, that showed racy ads with bikini-clad women. For a list of the Ten Commandments, two parents said their children were directed to a Christian conversion site.

Ms. Tavenner said building a curriculum from the open internet meant that a Daily Mail article was fair game for lesson plans. “The Daily Mail is written at a very low reading level,” she said, later adding that it was a bad link to include. She added that as far as she was aware, Summit’s curriculum did not send students to a Christian conversion site.

Around the country, teachers said they were split on Summit. Some said it freed them from making lesson plans and grading quizzes so they had more time for individual students. Others said it left them as bystanders. Some parents said they worried about their children’s data privacy.

“Summit demands an extraordinary amount of personal information about each student and plans to track them through college and beyond,” said Leonie Haimson, co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, a national organization.

Of course! That is Zuckerberg’s business. Get them hooked on isolation from real human interaction, develop their online dossier early and then sell sell sell their data to advertisers. Mark and Chan, do really want to help society? Then walk off a California cliff now. You are the real merchants of death – mental and physical.

Full article here

Is America Becoming an Oligarchy?

Wait, does this have to do with Information Technology? A lot. Industrial concentration examples can be seen in Telecoms, ISP/Content, online retail, and social media.

Growing inequality threatens our most basic democratic principles.

Pete Buttigieg, who’s shown an impressive knack for putting matters well in these early days of the 2020 presidential race, nailed it recently when Chuck Todd of NBC asked him about capitalism. Of course I’m a capitalist, he said; America “is a capitalist society.”

But, he continued: “It’s got to be democratic capitalism.”

Mr. Buttigieg said that when capitalism becomes unrestrained by democratic checks and impulses, that’s no longer the kind of capitalism that once produced broad prosperity in this country. “If you want to see what happens when you have capitalism without democracy, you can see it very clearly in Russia,” he said. “It turns into crony capitalism, and that turns into oligarchy.”

Aside from enabling Mr. Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor, to swat away a question that has bedeviled some others, his rhetoric reminds us of a crucial point: There is, or should be, a democratic element to capitalism — and an economic element to how we define democracy.

After all, oligarchy does have an economic element to it; in fact, it is explicitly economic. Oligarchy is the rule of the few, and these few have been understood since Aristotle’s time to be men of wealth, property, nobility, what have you.

But somehow, as the definition of democracy has been handed down to us over the years, the word has come to mean the existence and exercise of a few basic rights and principles. The people — the “demos” — are imbued with no particular economic characteristic. This is wrong. Our definition of democracy needs to change.

Democracy can’t flourish in a context of grotesque concentration of wealth. This idea is neither new nor radical nor alien. It is old, mainstream and as American as Thomas Jefferson.

I invoke Jefferson for a reason. Everyone knows how he was occupying his time in the summer of 1776; he was writing the Declaration of Independence. But what was he up to that fall? He was a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and he was taking the lead in writing and sponsoring legislation to abolish the commonwealth’s laws upholding “entail” (which kept large estates within families across generations) and primogeniture.

Mere coincidence that he moved so quickly from writing the founding document of democracy to writing a bill abolishing inheritance laws brought over from England? Hardly. He believed, as the founders did generally, that excess inherited wealth was fundamentally incompatible with democracy.

They were most concerned with inherited wealth, as was the Scottish economist Adam Smith, whom conservatives invoke constantly today but who would in fact be appalled by the propagandistic phrase “death tax” — in their time, inherited wealth was the oppressive economic problem.

But their economic concerns weren’t limited to that. They saw clearly the link between democratic health and general economic prosperity. Here is John Adams, not exactly Jefferson’s best friend: All elements of society, he once wrote, must “cooperate in this one democratical principle, that the end of all government is the happiness of the People: and in this other, that the greatest happiness of the greatest Number is the point to be obtained.” “Happiness” to the founders meant economic well-being, and note that Adams called it “democratical.”

So, yes, democracy and the kind of economic inequality we’ve seen in this country in recent decades don’t mix. Some will rejoin that many nations even more unequal than ours are still democracies — South Africa, Brazil, India. But are those the models to which the United States of America should aspire?

A number of scholars have made these arguments in recent years, notably Ganesh Sitaraman in his book “The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution.” All that work has been vitally important. But now that some politicians are saying it, we can finally have the broad national conversation we’ve desperately needed for years.

Bernie Sanders has proposed an inheritance tax that the founders would love, and Elizabeth Warren has proposed a wealth tax of which they’d surely approve. But you don’t have to be a supporter of either of those candidates or their plans to get behind the general idea that great concentration of wealth is undemocratic.

Policies built around this idea will not turn America into the Soviet Union or, in the au courant formulation, Venezuela. They will make it the nation the founders intended. And this, as Mr. Buttigieg’s words suggest, is how Democratic candidates should answer the socialism question (with the apparent exception of the socialist Mr. Sanders). No, I’m a capitalist. And that’s why I want capitalism to change.

Dear tech companies, I don’t want to see pregnancy ads after my child was stillborn

Dear Tech Companies:

I know you knew I was pregnant. It’s my fault, I just couldn’t resist those Instagram hashtags — #30weekspregnant, #babybump. And, silly me! I even clicked once or twice on the maternity-wear ads Facebook served up. What can I say, I am your ideal “engaged” user.

You surely saw my heartfelt thank-you post to all the girlfriends who came to my baby shower, and the sister-in-law who flew in from Arizona for said shower tagging me in her photos. You probably saw me googling “holiday dress maternity plaid” and “babysafe crib paint.” And I bet Amazon.com even told you my due date, Jan. 24, when I created that Prime registry.

But didn’t you also see me googling “braxton hicks vs. preterm labor” and “baby not moving”? Did you not see my three days of social media silence, uncommon for a high-frequency user like me? And then the announcement post with keywords like “heartbroken” and “problem” and “stillborn” and the 200 teardrop emoticons from my friends? Is that not something you could track?

You see, there are 24,000 stillbirths in the United States every year, and millions more among your worldwide users. And let me tell you what social media is like when you finally come home from the hospital with the emptiest arms in the world, after you and your husband have spent days sobbing in bed, and you pick up your phone for a few minutes of distraction before the next wail. It’s exactly, crushingly, the same as it was when your baby was still alive. A Pea in the Pod. Motherhood Maternity. Latched Mama. Every damn Etsy tchotchke I was considering for the nursery.

And when we millions of brokenhearted people helpfully click “I don’t want to see this ad,” and even answer your “Why?” with the cruel-but-true “It’s not relevant to me,” do you know what your algorithm decides, Tech Companies? It decides you’ve given birth, assumes a happy result and deluges you with ads for the best nursing bras (I have cabbage leaves on my breasts because that is the best medical science has to offer to turn off your milk), DVDs about getting your baby to sleep through the night (I would give anything to have heard him cry at all), and the best strollers to grow with your baby (mine will forever be 4 pounds 1 ounce).

And then, after all that, Experian swoops in with the lowest tracking blow of them all: a spam email encouraging me to “finish registering your baby” with them (I never “started,” but sure) to track his credit throughout the life he will never lead.

Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If your algorithms are smart enough to realize that I was pregnant, or that I’ve given birth, then surely they can be smart enough to realize that my baby died, and advertise to me accordingly — or maybe, just maybe, not at all.

Regards,

Gillian

Addendum:

Rob Goldman, VP of advertising at Facebook, responded to an earlier version of my letter, saying:

“I am so sorry for your loss and your painful experience with our products. We have a setting available that can block ads about some topics people may find painful – including parenting. It still needs improvement, but please know that we’re working on it & welcome your feedback.”

In fact, I knew there was a way to change my Facebook ad settings and attempted to find it a few days ago, without success. Anyone who has experienced the blur, panic and confusion of grief can understand why. I’ve also been deluged with deeply personal messages from others who have experienced stillbirth, infant death and miscarriage who felt the same way I do. We never asked for the pregnancy or parenting ads to be turned on; these tech companies triggered that on their own, based on information we shared. So what I’m asking is that there be similar triggers to turn this stuff off on its own, based on information we’ve shared.

But for anyone who wants to turn off parenting ads on Facebook, it’s under: Settings>Ad Preferences>Hide ad topics>Parenting.

I have a better idea – just say no to facebook and related social media “look at me look at me” posts and get on with growing up and living your own life.

Google Fined $1.7 Billion by E.U. for Unfair Advertising Rules

The Monopolists and Oligopolists party that keeps rolling on. The U.S. needs to get on board NOW with Europe. In fact even Europe is a bit weak. It is time to break up the monopolies and oligopolies and spur real competition across many sectors.

This article underlies just one example. It is not just Google, but several other tech companies including those in Telecoms, shopping, and so on. The U.S. is now the land of Oligopolies and Monopolies. Vigorous anti-trust enforcement is needed now!
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LONDON — European authorities on Wednesday fined Google 1.5 billion euros for antitrust violations in the online advertising market, continuing its efforts to rein in the world’s biggest technology companies.

The fine, worth about $1.7 billion, is the third against Google by the European Union since 2017, reinforcing the region’s position as the world’s most aggressive watchdog of an industry with an increasingly powerful role in society and the global economy. The regulators said Google had violated antitrust rules by imposing unfair terms on companies that used its search bar on their websites in Europe.

Europe’s regulatory approach was once criticized as unfairly focusing on technology companies from the United States, but is now viewed as a potential global model as governments question the influence of Silicon Valley. Europe is at the forefront of a broad debate about the role of tech platforms like Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, and whether their size and power hurt competition.

With the announcement on Wednesday, the European fines against Google total roughly 8.2 billion euros, or $9.3 billion. But the bloc has not received any of the money yet; Google is appealing the earlier decisions, and is mulling whether to appeal the most recent ruling.

“Google has cemented its dominance in online search adverts and shielded itself from competitive pressure by imposing anticompetitive contractual restrictions on third-party websites,” Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s top antitrust watchdog, said in a statement. “This is illegal under E.U. antitrust rules.”

The fine centers on contracts that license the use of Google’s search bar on websites run by newspapers, blogs, travel services and other companies. European regulators said the operators of the third-party websites using Google’s search bar had been required to display a disproportionate number of text ads from Google’s own advertising services over competing digital advertising companies.

The practice, regulators said, undercut competitors, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, that were trying to challenge Google in search.

“There was no reason for Google to include these restrictive clauses in its contracts, except to keep its rivals out of the market,” Ms. Vestager said at a news conference in Brussels. She said the ruling covered 2006 to 2016, when Google stopped the practices.

Europe’s actions against Silicon Valley are influencing policy debates around the world, but some critics question the overall effectiveness of the penalties.

The European Union spent a decade investigating Google, a slow and deliberate process, during which the company’s business and power continued to grow. Annual revenue at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, reached $137 billion last year, compared with $22 billion a decade earlier. On Wednesday, Google shares rose 2 percent.

The Google cases highlight a larger question policymakers face in overseeing the digital economy.

“As it becomes increasingly clear that antitrust fines or after-the-fact remedies are not enough to bring vibrant competition to the market, governments will need to move to deeper tech sector regulation to remedy problems,” said Gene Kimmelman, a former antitrust official in the Justice Department who is now president of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group. He suggested rules preventing tech platforms like Google from favoring their own services.

In the United States, where there has been limited regulation of tech companies, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has made breaking up Google and other tech giants a priority in her presidential campaign. This week, Representative David Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, called for a federal antitrust investigation of Facebook.

In response to the ruling on Wednesday, Google said, “Healthy, thriving markets are in everyone’s interest.”

“We’ve already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the commission’s concerns,” Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, said in a statement. “Over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe.”

The case is the last of three investigations the European Commission has pursued against Google, which has headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Last year, Ms. Vestager fined Google a record €4.34 billion for using its ownership of the Android mobile operating system to unfairly undercut rivals in the mobile phone market, a decision that also forced the company to change how it bundled its apps on smartphones. In 2017, the company was fined 2.4 billion euros for unfairly favoring its own shopping services over those of rivals.

The two previous rulings have not had a big impact on Google’s financial health, but they have forced the tech giant to adjust some business practices.

After the Android ruling last year, Google for the first time began charging handset makers to pre-install Gmail, Google Maps and other popular applications for Android devices in the European Union.

Perhaps in an attempt to head off additional inquiries, Google announced a number of further changes to services across Europe on Wednesday, after rivals complained that it continued to benefit from anticompetitive business practices.

For the first time, the company said, it will ask Android phone users in Europe if they want to switch to a web browser and search engine not owned by Google. To allow more competition when customers shop with Google, it will give other shopping sites more prominence in its search results, the company also said. Google said it would do the same with local search queries in Europe, such as when a person searches for a restaurant, a move that could help companies like TripAdvisor and OpenTable.

Outside of its review of practices by Google and others, the European Union has adopted tough new privacy rules that many countries outside Europe now view as a template. Regulators here have also investigated tech companies’ tax practices and called for more scrutiny of artificial intelligence.

The decision on Wednesday against Google will be one of the final major antitrust rulings in the five-year term of Ms. Vestager, whose crackdown on Silicon Valley while competition commissioner has made her a minor celebrity in the often-staid world of European politics.

Ms. Vestager has expressed openness to serving another term as the bloc’s top antitrust watchdog, but she is also considered a contender to become president of the European Commission, the most powerful executive position in the European Union. Her future will depend in part on the outcome of European parliamentary elections in May.

Even with her possible departure, pressure on the technology industry is not easing.

The European Union is expected to adopt new copyright regulations as early as next week that would impose restrictions to stop unlicensed content, like music and videos, from being shared on tech platforms like Google and Facebook. Another proposal tries to block the sharing of hate speech and extremist content, a policy that some critics say could lead to censorship.

At the same time, regulators across Europe are pursuing several lines of inquiry.

Ms. Vestager’s office announced last year that Amazon was under investigation for its treatment of independent sellers who use its website to reach customers.

Apple, which in 2016 was ordered to pay Ireland $14.5 billion in back taxes, is now under scrutiny for its App Store policies. Facebook is facing separate inquiries related to its business practices and handling of user data. Google’s advertising practices are also being monitored by privacy advocates who are urging regulators to begin a new investigation for violating privacy rights.

“Businesses and consumers, they depend on platforms to get the best out of digitization,” Ms. Vestager said. “Illegal behavior in these cases is a very serious affair.”

High tech is watching you

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In new book [The Age of Surveillance Capitalism], Business School professor emerita says surveillance capitalism undermines autonomy — and democracy

The continuing advances of the digital revolution can be dazzling. But Shoshana Zuboff, professor emerita at Harvard Business School, warns that their lights, bells, and whistles have made us blind and deaf to the ways high-tech giants exploit our personal data for their own ends.

In her new book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” Zuboff offers a disturbing picture of how Silicon Valley and other corporations are mining users’ information to predict and shape their behavior.

The Gazette recently interviewed Zuboff about her belief that surveillance capitalism, a term she coined in 2014, is undermining personal autonomy and eroding democracy — and the ways she says society can fight back.
Q&A
Shoshana Zuboff

GAZETTE: The digital revolution began with great promise. When did you start worrying that the tech giants driving it were becoming more interested in exploiting us than serving us?

ZUBOFF: In my 2002 book, “The Support Economy,” I looked at the challenges to capitalism in shifting from a mass to an individual-oriented structure of consumption. I discussed how we finally had the technology to align the forces of supply and demand. However, the early indications were that the people framing that first generation of e-commerce were more preoccupied with tracking cookies and attracting eyeballs for advertising than they were in the historic opportunity they faced.

For a time I thought this was part of the trial and error of a profound structural transformation, but, certainly by 2007, I understood that this was actually a new variant of capitalism that was taking hold of the digital milieu. The opportunities to align supply and demand around the needs of individuals were overtaken by a new economic logic that offered a fast track to monetization.

GAZETTE: What are some of the ways we might not realize that we are losing our autonomy to Facebook, Google, and others?

ZUBOFF: I define surveillance capitalism as the unilateral claiming of private human experience as free raw material for translation into behavioral data. These data are then computed and packaged as prediction products and sold into behavioral futures markets — business customers with a commercial interest in knowing what we will do now, soon, and later. It was Google that first learned how to capture surplus behavioral data, more than what they needed for services, and used it to compute prediction products that they could sell to their business customers, in this case advertisers. But I argue that surveillance capitalism is no more restricted to that initial context than, for example, mass production was restricted to the fabrication of Model T’s.

Right from the start at Google it was understood that users were unlikely to agree to this unilateral claiming of their experience and its translation into behavioral data. It was understood that these methods had to be undetectable. So from the start the logic reflected the social relations of the one-way mirror. They were able to see and to take — and to do this in a way that we could not contest because we had no way to know what was happening.

We rushed to the internet expecting empowerment, the democratization of knowledge, and help with real problems, but surveillance capitalism really was just too lucrative to resist. This economic logic has now spread beyond the tech companies to new surveillance–based ecosystems in virtually every economic sector, from insurance to automobiles to health, education, finance, to every product described as “smart” and every service described as “personalized.” By now it’s very difficult to participate effectively in society without interfacing with these same channels that are supply chains for surveillance capitalism’s data flows. For example, ProPublica recently reported that breathing machines purchased by people with sleep apnea are secretly sending usage data to health insurers, where the information can be used to justify reduced insurance payments.

GAZETTE: Why have we failed even now to take notice of the effects of all this surveillance?

ZUBOFF: There are many reasons. I chronicle 16 explanations as to “how they got away with it.” One big reason is that the audacious, unprecedented quality of surveillance capitalism’s methods and operations has impeded our ability to perceive them and grasp their meaning and consequence.

Another reason is that surveillance capitalism, invented by Google in 2001, benefitted from a couple of important historical windfalls. One is that it arose in the era of a neoliberal consensus around the superiority of self-regulating companies and markets. State-imposed regulation was considered a drag on free enterprise. A second historical windfall is that surveillance capitalism was invented in 2001, the year of 9/11. In the days leading up to that tragedy, there were new legislative initiatives being discussed in Congress around privacy, some of which might well have outlawed practices that became routine operations of surveillance capitalism. Just hours after the World Trade Center towers were hit, the conversation in Washington changed from a concern about privacy to a preoccupation with “total information awareness.” In this new environment, the intelligence agencies and other powerful forces in Washington and other Western governments were more disposed to incubate and nurture the surveillance capabilities coming out of the commercial sector.

A third reason is that these methodologies are designed to keep us ignorant. The rhetoric of the pioneering surveillance capitalists, and just about everyone who has followed, has been a textbook of misdirection, euphemism, and obfuscation. One theme of misdirection has been to sell people on the idea that the new economic practices are an inevitable consequence of digital technology. In America and throughout the West we believe it’s wrong to impede technological progress. So the thought is that if these disturbing practices are the inevitable consequence of the new technologies, we probably just have to live with it. This is a dangerous category error. It’s impossible to imagine surveillance capitalism without the digital, but it’s easy to imagine the digital without surveillance capitalism.

A fourth explanation involves dependency and the foreclosure of alternatives. We now depend upon the internet just to participate effectively in our daily lives. Whether it’s interfacing with the IRS or your health care provider, nearly everything we do now just to fulfill the barest requirements of social participation marches us through the same channels that are surveillance capitalism’s supply chains.

GAZETTE: You warn that our very humanity and our ability to function as a democracy is in some ways at risk.

ZUBOFF: The competitive dynamics of surveillance capitalism have created some really powerful economic imperatives that are driving these firms to produce better and better behavioral-prediction products. Ultimately they’ve discovered that this requires not only amassing huge volumes of data, but actually intervening in our behavior. The shift is from monitoring to what the data scientists call “actuating.” Surveillance capitalists now develop “economies of action,” as they learn to tune, herd, and condition our behavior with subtle and subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt us toward their most profitable outcomes.

What is abrogated here is our right to the future tense, which is the essence of free will, the idea that I can project myself into the future and thus make it a meaningful aspect of my present. This is the essence of autonomy and human agency. Surveillance capitalism’s “means of behavioral modification” at scale erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and in thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgment and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society. Democracy is also eroded from without, as surveillance capitalism represents an unprecedented concentration of knowledge and the power that accrues to such knowledge. They know everything about us, but we know little about them. They predict our futures, but for the sake of others’ gain. Their knowledge extends far beyond the compilation of the information we gave them. It’s the knowledge that they have produced from that information that constitutes their competitive advantage, and they will never give that up. These knowledge asymmetries introduce wholly new axes of social inequality and injustice.

GAZETTE: So how do we change this dynamic?

ZUBOFF: There are three arenas that must be addressed if we are to end this age of surveillance capitalism, just as we once ended the Gilded Age.

First, we need a sea change in public opinion. This begins with the power of naming. It means awakening to a sense of indignation and outrage. We say, “No.” We say, “This is not OK.”

Second, we need to muster the resources of our democratic institutions in the form of law and regulation. These include, but also move beyond, privacy and antitrust laws. We also need to develop new laws and regulatory institutions that specifically address the mechanisms and imperatives of surveillance capitalism.

A third arena relates to the opportunity for competitive solutions. Every survey of internet users has shown that once people become aware of surveillance capitalists’ backstage practices, they reject them. That points to a disconnect between supply and demand: a market failure. So once again we see a historic opportunity for an alliance of companies to found an alternative ecosystem — one that returns us to the earlier promise of the digital age as an era of empowerment and the democratization of knowledge.