Google Down-Ranks Real News

Photo by enriscapes

As alluded to in yesterday’s post, the 2016 shock to what we might politely call political orthodoxy provided a boost to mainstream news subscriptions. “The [New York Times] added 276,000 net digital-only subscriptions in the final three months of 2016, the best showing since it implemented its paywall in 2011. In the weeks immediately following Mr. Trump’s election in November, subscriptions increased tenfold compared with the previous year,” wrote Shannon Bond for Financial Times in February.  Similar spikes occurred at The Washington Post and other traditional news sources. So, if nothing else, the bizarre theater of obfuscation and Twitter rants coming out of the new administration seemed at least to rekindle millions of Americans’ desire for credible reportage.

But get this.

Gerry Smith for Bloomberg reports that when The Wall Street Journal blocked Google users from reading its articles for free, its subscription business “soared” only to see this gain countered by a 44% drop in traffic from Google search.  It turns out, according to Smith, that Google’s algorithm prioritizes free content over paid content.  Assuming this is true, there’s a whole lot wrong with it, beginning with the fact that this belies Google’s boastful raison d’etre to “organize the world’s information” and deliver search results based on quality and relevance.

If the algorithm looks for free content first, this suggests that fake news and other junk content will be consistently prioritized over the WSJ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, and so on. Not only does Google’s policy in this case stifle these organizations’ flexibility to choose their own strategies for financial survival, but for the general public, it exacerbates the already toxic brew of bad information that is, at this point, literally threatening democracy itself.  And for what?

Money of course.  Google makes money by serving ads to content that users can more readily access without going through paywalls.  Consequently, makes it into the top results instead of, y’know, news—at least according to what Bloomberg is reporting. “The Journal’s experience could have implications across the news industry, where publishers are relying more on convincing readers to pay for their articles because tech giants like Google and Facebook are vacuuming up the lion’s share of online advertising,” writes Smith.

I’ve gone so far as to assert that we’ve actually lost the “information revolution.” The promise of a more enlightened society through digital technology has hardly been fulfilled, but we do have some very funny memes to stick on the fridge of history.  Given the extent to which the current narrative has been hijacked by a strange confluence of bored trolls and professional data manipulators, a sane person can be forgiven for deciding that it’s about time to unplug.  A recent report by the Data & Society Research Institute on the influence of—I guess we can call it “troll culture”—on even the mainstream media says the following:

“Mass media has greatly profited off the appeal of conspiracy theories despite their potential for harm. Network news channels feature ‘documentaries’ investigating theories without fully refuting them. In 2011, when Donald Trump began promoting the “Birther” conspiracy theory, claiming President Obama was born outside of the United States, mainstream news outlets like CNN and Fox News covered these claims extensively. Out of this environment, an entire industry of conspiracy and fringe theory has emerged.”

The report delves into the intricate network of internet subcultures described as “an amalgam of conspiracy theorists, techno-libertarians, white nationalists, Men’s Rights advocates, trolls, anti-feminists, anti-immigration activists, and bored young people,” who are directly influencing the narrative that many citizens around the world think of as the truth.  And this is bad enough.  “Google says its ‘first click free’ policy is good for both consumers and publishers. People want to get the news quickly and don’t want to immediately encounter a paywall,” writes Smith.

Sound familiar?  What’s good for Google is invariably “good for consumers.” And consumers invariably buy the pitch for a while.  Free?  Yeah, free sounds good.  Until it turns out that free actually a cost. Sometimes a very dire cost—like millions of voters who would sooner believe in alien abduction than climate science. And the point of the above quote about television news creating entertainment out of nonsense is that sensationalism will be the only thing left, if business models no longer support investigation, travel, research, fact checking, and other expensive human labor required to deliver quality journalism.  Add to all this that Google search will apparently down-rank legitimate news because it isn’t free?  Damn.

Posted in Information, Journalism | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

DCA Report: Users Demand Some Accountability For Platforms

On December 31, 2016, in a post called The Morning After or Social Media is a Humbug, I wondered whether or not 2017 would be the year when users, advertisers, and even the major web platforms would begin to demand more accountability online and move away from the general belief that a laissez-faire approach to all internet governance was universally beneficial.

After the election, many citizens woke up to the reality of fake news and consequently reaffirmed some faith in traditional journalism with an immediate spike in subscriptions. In March, we saw major brand advertisers threaten to boycott Google if the search and ad giant did not figure out how to keep brand ads away from toxic content like terrorist propaganda videos.  And this morning, Digital Citizens Alliance released a new report, Trouble in Our Digital Midst, indicating that a majority of Americans may be losing trust in the internet as a source of reliable information and as a secure environment.

Building on past studies, like the overall proliferation of malware on pirate sites and trojan horse viruses used to prey on minors, DCA’s 2017 poll comprising 1,240 respondents indicates that approximately 60% of Americans currently favor the web companies taking more responsibility for the manner in which their platforms are used.  Just a few years ago, it seemed that people largely accepted the premise that online platforms should remain neutral on the assumption that it was better to allow a few bad actors to slip through the net than to risk “stifling the speech” of innocent parties. But as the potential toxicity of fake news, malware scams, terrorist propaganda, and major online hacks have become more common and high-profile, that mood appears to be shifting.

In addition to sharing its findings, the DCA compliments major players like Google and Facebook for at least altering their standard response to the ills of bad actors …

“… digital platforms over the last year have shown a new willingness to intervene, impact, or even alter the content on their platforms on issues of national importance. Given that they have opened the door, they must take a fresh and holistic look at all illicit goods, services, content, and behavior on their platforms. The response, ‘we’re just a platform,’ clearly is not the answer in response to the Fake News problem and objectionable content that has brand name advertising imprinted upon it, and it shouldn’t be the answer when it comes to stolen credit cards, counterfeit goods, illicit drugs or pirated movies, TV shows and music, or the violation of our young.” 

This new report notes that 2017 was the first time the Federal Trade Commission issued a consumer warning about the increased likelihood that visiting pirate sites will expose users to malware attacks, leaving them vulnerable to ransom demands, identity theft, and computer slaving that preys on kids by exploiting their webcams and microphones. DCA also reminds readers of the 2015 research by RiskIQ, which found that on the dark web, where hackers pay pirate site owners to distribute malware, that business was over $70 million year at the time of the study.  “Take a moment to think about that – if hackers are paying content theft websites $70 million to drop malware on their sites that infect visitor computers, how much are they making?” asks the report.

DCA proposes what it calls a “neighborhood watch” approach to address these growing problems with a new mindset.  Primarily, this would involve the major platforms doing a better job of sharing information with one another regarding bad actors the same way retailers and other industry competitors do for the overall health of their markets. “While digital platforms collaborate on policy and technical issues, there is no evidence that they are sharing information about the bad actors themselves. That enables criminals and bad actors to move seamlessly from platform to platform,” the report states.

I’m not surprised to see Google and Facebook change their tune at least a little bit this year.  The threat of boycott by the advertisers who pay the bills was sure to get a response; as would the prospect of shedding users who may become disenchanted with Facebook if it were overwhelmed by fake news, trolls, and a psychos who share live video of murder.   The DCA acknowledges the fact that it is a major challenge to weed out hackers, counterfeiters, pirates, and violent extremists from using the internet as a base of operations without harming the free-flow of interaction for the rest of us.  Still, it is at least a step in the right direction if users are indeed beginning to understand that no community–perhaps least of all a virtual one–thrives without reasonable boundaries to protect safety and fair trade.

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Out of the Fire and Into the Matrix

Photo source by orlaimagine

One of the first articles I ever published (for a magazine that no longer exists) was about cogeneration.  This is the process whereby the waste heat produced by a power plant is captured and used to heat the same structures to which it supplies electricity.  That was in 1997, just as President Clinton was about to sign the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol to the consternation of most of the GOP. In fact, the Senate refused to ratify the treaty on the usual grounds that emissions restrictions would harm the American economy.  This was also nearly a decade before An Inconvenient Truth helped bring the subject of climate change into mainstream consciousness for many Americans.

Based on what I had learned about the efficiencies of cogenerating power plants and other technological solutions to reduce carbon output, I speculated in that article that emissions caps like those called for in Kyoto, while they serve an important purpose, may be surpassed by industry. As soon as enough companies realized that using less energy saves money and that investments in new energy innovation could be profitable in itself, the private sector should, in theory, do better than the regulatory mandates of a negotiated treaty. And to an extent, this is what happened.

Many American corporations have realized the benefits of low-carbon-emission investments, and they’re not going to reverse course just because the current president doesn’t believe in science.  Reporting on this very topic has been among the silver-lining responses to Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would naively pull out of the Paris Agreement; but even if the domestic private sector continues to develop energy alternatives in spite of federal policy, one major problem with not having government as a partner in innovation is that the people then have little say about where technology leads or how it’s used.  In the energy sector, this may not be a major concern, but when it comes to the effects of our data-driven society overall, that’s another story.

Among the fears that keep me up at night—and there are many of late—is that the current administration will create such a gaping policy vacuum, leaving so many Americans wanting, that we will then react by turning to the technologists to save us.  And many of these folks are indeed brilliant in their own ways, but they don’t necessarily get democracy either. Perhaps the murmurings about Mark Zuckerberg running for president are just murmurings.  Perhaps the exaggerated proposal in 2014 to anoint Eric Schmidt as “CEO of America” was meant as a provocative joke. But I find it more than plausible to imagine how we might slingshot around the gravity of this black hole administration to accelerate an already-latent desire to breed a technocracy.

After all, as much as I bash Silicon Valley for various reasons (especially how the internet giants have treated creative workers), there are certainly investors and geniuses out there solving tangible problems whether the nation’s political leaders think they should or not.  They’re investing in renewable energy solutions and medical research and advancing real innovations beyond the side-show marketing platforms we generically call the internet. It is hard to ignore the Ayn Rand-like contrast between the valley of brilliant minds and the regressive whimsy of Covfefe, which I propose become the official name for the Trump doctrine.

The problem, as we know from the world of science fiction, occurs when the wizards, in the spirit of Rand, assume that we cannot live without them. And then they turn out to be right! When oligarchs own the machine of the world and we destroy the intermediary force of representative government, we get feudalism, albeit in technological form this time.

One of the biggest challenges we currently face is how we are going to address the progress of automation and the probability of a workless future for perhaps as much as 40% of the population within a decade or two.  And while we are understandably distracted, either by supporting or denouncing efforts to rekindle “the greatness” of the United States of 1955, the AI challenges—economic, social, and moral—are “not even on our radar screen,” says Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, as reported in this article by Jamie Bartlett for The Guardian.

Theorizing that the current dominance by right-wing populism through data-manipulation  (i.e. propaganda) is merely the story of the moment, Bartlett writes, “Digital technology has helped the populist right for now, but it will soon swallow them up, along with many other political movements unable or unwilling to see how the world is changing.”  What he’s referring to is crypto-anarchy, an ideology based on the premise that networked technology will obviate the need for governments or states; and this view is only slightly divergent from the brand of libertarianism espoused by many of Silicon Valley’s leading executives.  This theme can also be heard in the political views of more than few progressives who seem to feel that government itself is an obsolete construct. Bartlett writes …

“It’s not a direct path, but digital technology tends to empower the individual at the expense of the state. Police forces complain they can’t keep up with new forms of online crime, partly because of the spread of freely available encryption tools. Information of all types – secrets, copyright, creative content, illegal images – is becoming increasingly difficult to contain and control. The rash of ransomware is certainly going to get worse, exposing the fragility of our always connected systems. (It’s easily available to buy on the dark net, a network of hidden websites that are difficult to censor and accessed with an anonymous web browser.) Who knows where this might end.”

That may sound like good news to the anarchic idealist, but there is not a single lesson in history where we find the collapse of government resulting in good times for most people.  In fact, the benign anarchists would probably be among the first slaughtered in a world of marauding survivalists reacting to the breakdown of basic systems. Perhaps it wouldn’t go that way, but the proposal that technology alone can sustain billions of people, leaving us all at our leisure to write poetry and share selfies, seems to overlook one or two qualities of human nature and the post-Enlightenment rationale for constructing democratic states in the first place.

To me, a crypto-anarchist is a guy who insists on paying for a RedBull with Bitcoin because he has no idea how the RedBull got to the vendor in the first place. No question technology is a major part of that supply chain, but we forget the human element at our peril. As Barlett notes in that article, the efficiencies gained by “Uberizing” multiple sectors of the economy come at the cost of labor rights due to the lack of accountability for the virtual “employer.”  And when it comes down to brass tacks, civil rights are profoundly intertwined with labor rights.

One of the dangers of the presently divisive climate, driven by so much false information, is that Americans in particular will forget how fragile the Republic actually is.  It’s just words on paper that we try to live up to, and that effort has produced some incredible results—particularly in the arts and sciences.  The inherent brittleness of the American contract has historically been mitigated by the sustainability and economic security of a large middle-class.   So, if enough things break and our “nation turns its lonely eyes” to Google, what follows is hard to say, but I don’t think it will be democracy.

Posted in Digital Culture, Politics | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

EFF Petition Language Used in Fake Emails to the FCC

Photo by Elnur

It’s depressing how often one reads news that makes the United States seem as though we’re reliving the 19th century rather than an enlightened 21st.  With that comment, you might think I’m referring to the current administration (and I certainly could be), but at the moment, I refer to Americans across the political spectrum who seem willing to return to the political tactics of Tammany Hall, albeit in digital form.

On May 31, the National Legal and Policy Center, a D.C. watchdog group, reported that an “initial forensic analysis” of the 2.5 million comments submitted to the FCC on Net Neutrality found that over 465,000 of these were fake. It further states that over 100,000 of these comments used language from the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Dear FCC” petitioning tool in support of “Net Neutrality.”  Although the NLPC did not accuse the EFF of processing these false emails, the organization was quick to defend itself as though it had been so accused.  It’s June 1 response states …

“NLPC’s report is false. Not one name, email address, or email domain cited in the report matches to any of the comments that came through EFF’s comment tool.”

Then, missing the point and seizing the moment, the statement proposes …

“Throughout the FCC’s comment process, we’ve seen malicious actors attempt to discredit the process by generating obviously fake comments. Their hope is that they can drown out the voices of the overwhelming majority of Americans who support net neutrality.” 

I am in no way qualified to assert that the EFF had any direct hand in the fake emails, but somebody spammed the FCC; and I have no problem saying that the EFF’s rebuttal is preposterous.  If there is a manipulator trying to sway public opinion “away from Net Neutrality,” it would be easier and more effective to SPAM the FCC with comments in support of that agenda than it would be to plant false data with the hope that its discovery will make the EFF look bad as a tangential way to tip the scale on the neutrality debate.  That’s a convoluted process expecting a lot of the public that, frankly, has bigger fish to fry these days.

It is far more likely that the false emails in this case have been generated by a manipulator who is on the same side as the EFF on the neutrality issue, and the EFF’s failure to denounce the practice is both telling and typical of our times.  In short, it seems that people across the political spectrum have forgotten that American democracy demands that the means are more important than the ends—a discipline that requires vigilance and which may be in regression thanks largely to social media.

Even people who are thoughtful about big issues will naturally respond to memes and headlines with short claims like “X million Americans support Net Neutrality.”  We accept these statements as fact and help to spread them, lending them the credibility of our endorsement. That’s politics via Facebook and Twitter, and whichever side can claim the larger number stands a decent chance of winning the debate regardless of merit.  During the SOPA/PIPA dustup, the EFF and similar organizations crowed loud and long about the apparent overwhelming groundswell of support to defeat those bills. But nobody stopped to wonder how many ineligible voices—kids, trolls, foreign citizens, bots—were represented in those numbers.

Now that there is a full-scale congressional investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and we’re doing a lot of soul-searching into the nature of populism, people are beginning to at least consider the insidious role data manipulation can play via this internet thing that groups like the EFF like to call “the greatest tool for democracy ever invented.”  In this regard, I encourage readers to follow the ongoing investigation by British journalist Carole Cadwaldr into the role of data manipulation in national elections.

The EFF defends the internet writ large as the essential tool for speech and democratic principles, declares that FCC Chairman Pai’s agenda threatens all of that, but then downplays the significance that at least 20% of the emails associated with this very campaign appear to be fake. We’ve seen this brand of politics before from similar groups.

As reported in April of 2016, Fight for the Future’s brag about the 100,000 citizens who responded to the USCO’s request for comments about the DMCA appeared to be at least partly fake based on an experiment conducted by David Lowery and his colleagues. In fact, it appears that the Canadian company Tucows, which is implicated in that same FFTF campaign was also employed in John Oliver’s so-called grassroots campaign “Go FCC Yourself,” which processed such thoughtful comments as “Fuck you Ajit Pai for what you’re are trying to do and I hope you die a horrible painful death with no remembrance to your name …” (I do love how the internet fosters the big ideas.)

I have already proposed in a few recent posts that Net Neutrality is so complex an issue that I doubt many actual citizens who sign these petitions understand what they’re signing anyway.  Add to this a substantial number of fake signatories and geniuses like the one cited above, and I’m at a loss to discern how this politics of cybernetic ballot stuffing is any better than the Breitbart network of gobbledygook posing as news.  I’ll keep an open mind about the FCC and neutrality and watch what happens;  but so far, the only player in this whole story who has actually given me reason to think about the issue, rather than a lame talking point, is Ajit Pai.

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Can We Ever End Legalized Piracy?

Creators of every stripe must watch Miranda Mulholland’s May 24th speech delivered to the Economic Club of Canada.  The musician, composer, and label-owner, with nearly 20 years of professional experience, does an excellent job of contrasting the realities of being a professional creator in today’s market against the rhetorical promises of the corporate leaders who designed that market.  In addition to answering some of the classic tech-utopian “advice”—like adapting, selling CDs at venues, touring, etc.—Mulholland focuses broadly on the subject of accountability and the fact that what we normally call piracy occurs on legal platforms.  She says …

“Let’s look at the biggest music service in the world – YouTube. Did you know that 82% of YouTube users use it for music? It is supported by advertising and it is based on user uploaded content. But wait. Running a commercial site based on unauthorized uploading of copyrighted music is illegal, right?

YouTube says, it isn’t our fault – we are just the shop window. We didn’t put the items in the window, so we are not accountable for them. We are a passive intermediary. We are not liable for this massive copyright infringement.”

Because YouTube is currently a mix of licensed and unlicensed music, it is hard to get a fix on the percentage of infringing v. non-infringing uses.  Anecdotally, though, musicians like Mulholland tell this story time and again.  Still, she hardly asserts that business should return to the way things were before the digital revolution but instead looks forward, recommending specific actions that artists, industry, consumers, and government can take to get the formula right.  And with very subtle differences, what’s good for Canada is good for the U.S.  Her top item for government:  End Tech Company Safe Harbors. (Okay, they spell it harbours up there.)

As has been widely reported by countless independent artists as well as large rights holders, the intended balance in the provisions of the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act was soon overwhelmed by the unforeseen volume of copyright infringement on legal platforms.  And because the largest of these platforms YouTube is part of a $700 billion-dollar empire called Google (Alphabet), litigation is an economic non-starter. Moreover, the major rights holders remain in an awkward limbo comprising negotiated deals with YouTube while still sending millions of notices of infringement of their works on the site.*

Since 2015, the US Copyright Office has been conducting a review of the DMCA; and many artists and creators have for several years been advocating some type of Take Down/Stay Down provision.  One way or another, based on the case law to date and the financial power of providers like Google, it does seem as though only legislative action can recalibrate the intended compromise with rights holders by, among other things, clarifying the statutory conditions a service provider must meet in order to retain the liability shield known as the “safe harbor.”

Of course consumers will be told—and have been told—that any revision to the safe harbor conditions in the DMCA will destroy innovation, free speech, and the internet itself.  We know the play. The Internet Association, along with “digital rights” activists like EFF will come out in full force against any proposed change. And they will all claim to be acting on behalf of consumers.  But the bottom line is this:  the DMCA presently enables massive corporations to grind up the dreams and labors of independent creators; and over time, consumers who want new works—or who wish to become creators themselves—will very likely find themselves part of the piling dust.

Based on just a sampling of the anecdotal experiences described by rights holders, both large and small, who attempt to use DMCA for enforcement, it is very likely that YouTube would be found to have already abrogated its “safe harbor” shield through non-compliance with one or more provisions of the DMCA as written.  Of course, for us to prove this, somebody would have to file a new copyright infringement claim against the company, and that won’t happen—not because a plaintiff would lack standing on the merits, but because Google is simply too big to sue. Ironically enough, though, the perception endures that the 300lb gorillas in this story are still Hollywood and the recording industry.

Viacom v. YouTube Is Unfinished Business

Readers probably remember that ten years ago, when YouTube was new, and only recently acquired by Google for $1.65 billion, the video platform was sued for infringement and vicarious infringement by a class of rights holders led by Viacom.  In 2010, the District Court granted a summary judgment in favor of YouTube, holding that the platform was entirely shielded by §512 of the DMCA; but on appeal in 2012, the Second Circuit called the lower court decision “premature,” finding that there were several triable issues of fact, and remanded the case back down.

Because the parties settled in March of 2014, just days before a new round of oral arguments was scheduled back at the Second Circuit, we’ll never know whether or not the rights holders would have been able to demonstrate to a jury that YouTube was failing to comply with key provisions in the DMCA and thus forfeit its safe harbor.  What we do know is that Viacom had provided evidence that YouTube’s founding executives, in its earliest days, were making calculated decisions to not remove material they knew to be infringing because the content was driving traffic.  We also know that the circuit court held that there were statutory issues warranting further discovery where YouTube might have been found wanting in holding up its end of the DMCA bargain.

The circuit court opinion also cites YouTube’s own internal audit at the time, which revealed that 60% of its content was copyrighted content and that only 10% of that material was authorized.  So, it is no exaggeration to say that while the Viacom case dragged on, YouTube grew its dominant position on the backs of creators, who were involuntarily “sharing” their work for no return.

Since 2010, the platform has grown from 24 hours of video uploaded every minute to 300 hours every minute; and the assumption has been that a service provider cannot know, amid all that material, what is and is not infringing.  Indeed, one of the formative principles of DMCA was that ISPs would not have to affirmatively monitor for infringement, but would instead be required to respond to each individual infringing use upon notification by the rightful owner of the copyright.

The flaw in this mechanism is now obvious and its consequences for creators are clear. A platform like YouTube is able to monetize infringements at warp speed while responding to claims at the pace of a horse and buggy by contrast—all while generating so much ad revenue that the company becomes untouchable via litigation. At the same time, shielded from liability for mass infringements on its own platform, YouTube enjoys an aggressive bargaining position that has enabled it to pay far lower rates than competing services for those works they do license.

There is a disconnect between the intent of the DMCA and the manifest reality. And what’s falling through the statutory cracks are the middle-class livelihoods of thousands of creators like Miranda Mulholland. Meanwhile, that promise that digital-age models replace old models for the artists who learn to “adapt” has been consistently disproven by creators who have actually done everything the digital gurus told them to do.

I suspect the prospect of ending safe harbors, as Mulholland proposes, is a non-starter. The principle of limiting liability for sites hosting User Generated Content remains sound; and it cannot be discounted that a site like YouTube must also manage an appeals process for wrongful claims against creators who build successful channels on the site and do not carelessly infringe copyrights.  Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that YouTube walks, talks, bargains, and earns money like a very actively-managed distribution network rather than the “dumb pipe” they claim to be when threading the loopholes of the DMCA.

While digital rights activists criticize every possible solution—from voluntary measures to legislative amendment—the fact is we now have 20 years worth of data not available to the authors of the DMCA in 1998.  These data show what artists like Miranda Mulholland have tried repeatedly to explain on the most human level—that they’re getting clobbered by an industry making fortunes from their labor.  Copyright law has always had to evolve when confronted with new technologies and new paradigms.  And in context to the lifespan of the public internet, the DMCA is ancient history.

*The irony is not lost on me that Mulholland’s video is best shared via YouTube, but that’s part of the challenge. They’re pretty much the only game in town.

See also:


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