We’re on a roll with these newsletters now and I can’t wait for you to see what’s coming up this month.
Data, data everywhere
When technology perpetuates racism: Charlton McIlwain writes for MIT Technology Review about the fascinating origins of criminal justice information systems in the United States. Drawing parallels to the use of technology to trace COVID-19 outbreaks and monitor protestors, he highlights the long-term trust-eroding impact of systems whose precursors were designed to target Black people and the civil rights movement. The modern-day impact of historical systems is no clearer than in the process of redlining, by which 1930s US mortgage lenders established maps of subjective assessments of neighbourhood safety that are still affecting people today. Racist judgments made back then have destined many areas to low investment and poor service provision. While the practice of redlining is no longer allowed, decisions are increasingly being made by artificial intelligence, which is slurping up all of the same kinds of data about people and their neighbourhoods. This algorithmic discrimination is more pernicious because it is hidden.
Information overload: We’re facing information overload, being bombarded with too much online news that is too negative to handle, argues Eric Ravenscraft for One Zero. This has implications for our mental health, the business of accountability journalism and the spread of online misinformation, he writes, as we allow ourselves less time to scrutinise stories while accelerating news cycles mean that some public interest reporting gets buried. April and May saw a particularly significant increase in news avoidance: in a recent survey, 59 per cent of respondents said they avoided the news at least ‘sometimes’.
Threat level: Infodemic: Meanwhile, the WHO and EU have adopted the term ‘infodemic’ to describe the increase in COVID-19-related fake news. In a recent communication, the Commission went as far as saying that China and Russia had actively engaged in targeted disinformation campaigns in Europe ‘to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.’ In response, the EU is asking online platforms to increase their efforts to tackle the ‘infodemic’ and submit monthly reports on policies and actions taken to improve users’ awareness of disinformation, promote authoritative content and limit advertisement placement. Platforms have also been asked to step up cooperation with researchers at the newly established European Digital Media Observatory, which supports the creation of a cross-border and multidisciplinary community of independent fact-checkers and academic researchers.
Tick-tock, come along now: It’s been two years since the UK Government announced a flagship National Data Strategy to unlock the power of the country’s data and build public trust in its use. We’re still waiting and the issues it could cover are becoming more pressing by the day. Last year’s letter from a group of civil society organisations lays out the top priorities for the strategy, with calls to invest in skills, lead the strategy from the top of Government, and ensure that the public and data users are thoroughly consulted. Will it happen this year?
A new plan to preserve our privacy: Hacks, leaks and sneaky data sharing have become the norm for internet users, now forced to take defensive manoeuvres to protect themselves from untold levels of spam emails, scam calls and ‘pre-approved’ credit cards. Once it’s stolen, it’s impossible to remove it. But how can we challenge surveillance capitalism? Well, we start by forbidding companies to use personal information as a commodity and let the tech companies find new business models, according to this Salon long read. Could this approach to legislation create a new privacy-focused world?
Privacy alone can’t fix today’s power imbalances: Michael Veale, co-developer of the decentralised DP-3T system that inspired Apple and Google’s approach to privacy-aware COVID-19 contact tracing, warns in the Guardian about the perils of confusing privacy with power concentration on the internet. Veale points to ‘federated’ or ‘edge’ computing and cryptographic tools that allow big tech companies to pursue potentially problematic ends without privacy-invasive means. He argues that we need to rethink digital rights because even if the solution adopted by Apple and Google is ‘great for individual privacy… the kind of infrastructural power it enables should give us sleepless nights.’
But the bursting of a new dotcom bubble might: The adtech industry is heading for a fall according to this piece in The Correspondent from November, which rings true with recent developments. This in-depth analysis recounts trials and tests of the effectiveness of online advertising and finds it lacking, following a handful of case studies including eBay, and concluding that ‘It’s very hard to change behaviour by showing people pictures and movies that they don’t want to look at.’
New things coming up
The apps that nobody controls: A raft of new systems are being created to wrest control of the internet back from the world’s tech companies, and Dfinity has laid down its Internet Computer Protocol in support. Unlike traditional internet services that require central servers, Dfinity’s apps are distributed across the network, moving between servers and distributing cryptocurrency to their temporary hosts. The hope is that users will retain control over their personal data when using the apps and that they’ll be governed by the hivemind rather than a single authority.
The New Tech Cold War: Is the West losing the tech innovation race to China? We’re falling behind on AI, quantum and networking technology, and the Huawei debacle has shone a light on China’s industrial strategy to dominate in these areas. Find out if the UK or the US will manage to break free of Chinese innovation in this audio investigation from BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera.
Speaking of which: 22 French and German companies have banded together to develop common principles for a cloud services platform to serve Europeans. Launching in 2021, GAIA-X will be entirely non-profit, and led by German Minister Peter Altmaier. SAP, Atos, Siemens, Bosch and Deutsche Telekom are all on board. GAIA-X won’t create a direct cloud competitor to challenge US and Chinese services, but initiators hope that it will pave the way for new competitors to arise, while respecting European privacy principles.
And some bits on online content
Not content with what we’ve got: There have been all kinds of activity on content control this month, handily summed up by Mark Scott. France’s highest constitutional court has struck down legislation to force Google, Facebook and other platforms to remove hate content within 24 hours and the UK’s Online Harms Bill has been pushed to next year, but could actually be delayed ‘for years’. At the same time, Germany has approved a law forcing social platforms to report serious incidents of hateful content, the US Department of Justice is pushing to remove platforms’ immunity from lawsuits and Ireland is ramping up efforts to force platforms to build safety into their designs.
Inside the internet’s mind: Adioma has put together an incredible interactive infographic of some of the most popular topics and pieces of content. Inequality, death, kids and the future all feature heavily, with hearty long reads to dig into. Find out how to be mentally strong, how to power Germany with solar and how to die on your own terms.