Posts tagged ‘Silicon Valley’

Wired’s Louise Matsakis did what no other journalist could: break the story on Facebook’s forced malware scans


With how widespread Facebook’s false malware accusations were—Facebook itself claims millions were “helped” by them in a three-month period—it was surprising how no one in the tech press covered the story. I never understood why not, since it was one of many misdeeds that made Facebook such a basket case of a website. You’d think that after doing everything from experimenting on its users to intruding on users’ privacy with tracking preferences even after opting out, this would have been a story that followed suit. Peak Facebook has been and gone, so it amazed me that no journalist had ever covered this. Until now.
   Like Sarah Lacy at Pando, who took the principled stand to write about Über’s problems when no one else in the tech media was willing to, it appears to be a case of ‘You can trust a woman to get it right when no man has the guts,’ in this case social media and security writer for Wired, Louise Matsakis. I did provide Louise with a couple of quotes in her story, as did respondents in the US and Germany; she interviewed people on four continents. Facebook’s official responses read like the usual lies we’ve all heard before, going on the record with Louise with such straw-people arguments. Thank goodness for Louise’s and Wired’s reputations for getting past the usual wall of silence, and it demonstrates again how dishonest Facebook is.
   I highly recommend Louise’s article here—and please do check it out as she is the first journalist to write about something that has been deceiving Facebook users for four years.
   As some of you know, the latest development with Facebook’s fake malware warnings, and the accompanying forced downloads, is that Mac users were getting hit in a big way over the last fortnight. Except the downloads were Windows-only. Basically, Mac users were locked out of their Facebook accounts. We also know that these warnings have nothing to do with malware, as other people can sign on to the same “infected” machines without any issue (and I had asked a few of these Mac users to do just that—they confirmed I was right).
   Facebook has been blocking the means by which we can get around the forced downloads. Till April 2016, you could delete your cookies and get back in. You could also go and use a Linux or Mac PC. But steadily, Facebook has closed each avenue, leaving users with fewer and fewer options but to download their software. Louise notes, ‘Facebook tells users when they agree to conduct the scan that the data collected in the process will be used “to improve security on and off Facebook,” which is vague. The company did not immediately respond to a followup request for comment about how exactly it uses the data it collects from conducting malware checks.’ But we know data are being sent to Facebook without our consent.
   Facebook also told Louise that a Mac user might have been prompted to download a Windows program because of how malware spoofs different devices—now, since we all know these computers aren’t infected, we know that that’s a lie. Then a spokesman told Louise that Facebook didn’t collect enough information to know whether you really were infected. But, as she rightly asks, if they didn’t collect that info, why would they force you to download their software? And just what precedent is that setting, since scammers use the very same phishing techniques? Facebook seems to be normalizing this behaviour. I think they got themselves even deeper in the shit by their attempts at obfuscation.
   Facebook also doesn’t answer why many users can simply wait three days for their account to come right instead of downloading their software. Which brings me back to the database issues I discovered in 2014.
   Louise even interviewed ESET, which is one of the providers of the software, only to get a hackneyed response—which is better than what the rest of us managed, because the antivirus companies all are chatty on Twitter till you bring this topic up. Then they clam up. Again, thank goodness for the fourth estate and a journalist with an instinct for a great story.
   So please do give Louise some thanks for writing such an excellent piece by visiting her article, or send her a note via Twitter, to @lmatsakis. To think this all began one night in January 2016 …

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Posted in internet, media, publishing, technology, USA | 2 Comments »

Being an optimist for a better post-Google, post-Facebook era


Interesting to get this perspective on ‘Big Tech’ from The Guardian, on how it’s become tempting to blame the big Silicon Valley players for some of the problems we have today. The angle Moira Weigel takes is that there needs to be more democracy in the system, where workers need to unite and respecting those who shape the technologies that are being used.
   I want to add a few far simpler thoughts.
   At the turn of the century, our branding profession was under assault from No Logo and others, showing that certain brands were not what they were cracked up to be. Medinge Group was formed in part because we, as practitioners, saw nothing wrong with branding per se, and that the tools could be used for good. Not everyone was Enron or Nike. There are Patagonia and Dilmah. That led to the original brand manifesto, on what branding should accomplish. (I was generously given credit for authoring this at one point, but I was simply the person who put the thoughts of my colleagues into eight points. In fact, we collectively gathered our ideas into eight groups, so I can’t even take credit for the fact there are eight points.)
   In 2017, we may look at Über’s sexism or Facebook’s willingness to accept and distribute malware-laden ads, and charge tech with damaging the fabric of society. Those who dislike President Trump in the US want someone to blame, and Facebook’s and Google’s contributions to their election in 2016 are a matter of record. But it’s not that online advertising is a bad thing. Or that social media are bad things. The issue is that the players aren’t socially responsible: none of them exist for any other purpose than to make their owners and shareholders rich, and the odd concession to not doing evil doesn’t really make up for the list of misdeeds that these firms add to. Many of them have been recorded over the years on this very blog.
   Much of what we have been working toward at Medinge is showing that socially responsible organizations actually do better, because they find accord with their consumers, who want to do business or engage with those who share their values; and, as Nicholas Ind has been showing in his latest book, Branding Inside Out, these players are more harmonious internally. In the case of Stella McCartney, sticking to socially responsible values earns her brand a premium—and she’s one of the wealthiest fashion designers in the world.
   I just can’t see some of the big tech players acting the same way. Google doesn’t pay much tax, for instance, and the misuse of Adwords aside, there are allegations that it hasn’t done enough to combat child exploitation and it has not been a fair player when it comes to rewarding and acknowledging media outlets that break the news, instead siding with corporate media. Google may have open-source projects out there, but its behaviour is old-school corporatism these days, a far cry from its first five years when even I would have said they were one of the good guys.
   Facebook’s problems are too numerous to list, though I attempted to do so here, but it can be summed up as: a company that will do nothing unless it faces embarrassment from enough people in a position of power. We’ve seen it tolerate kiddie porn and sexual harassment, giving both a “pass” when reported.
   Yet, for all that they make, it would be reasonable to expect that they put more people on the job in places where it mattered. The notion that three volunteers monitor complaints of child exploitation videos at YouTube is ridiculous but, for anyone who has complained about removing offensive content online, instantly believable; why there were not more is open to question. Anyone who has ventured on to a Google forum to complain about a Google product will also know that inaction is the norm there, unless you happen to get to someone senior and caring enough. Similarly, increasing resources toward monitoring advertising, and ensuring that complaints are properly dealt with would be helpful.
   Google’s failure to remove content mills from its News is contributing to “fake news”, yet its method of combatting that appears to be taking people away from legitimate media and ranking corporate players more highly.
   None of these are the actions of companies that want to do right by netizens.
   As Weigel notes, there’s a cost to abandoning Facebook and Google. But equally there are opportunities if these firms cannot provide the sort of moral, socially responsible leadership modern audiences demand. In my opinion, they do not actually command brand loyalty—a key ingredient of brand equity—if true alternatives existed.
   Duck Duck Go might only have a fraction of the traffic Google gets in search, but despite a good mission its results aren’t always as good, and its search index is smaller. But we probably should look to it as a real alternative to search, knowing that our support can help it grow and attract more investment. There is room for a rival to Google News that allows legitimate media and takes reports of fake news sites more seriously. If social media are democratizing—and there are signs that they are, certainly with some of the writings by Doc Searls and Richard MacManus—then there is room for people to form their own social networks that are decentralized, and where we hold the keys to our identity, able to take them wherever we please (Hubzilla is a prime example; you can read more about its protocol here). The internet can be a place which serves society.
   It might all come back to education; in fact, we might even say Confucius was right. If you’re smart enough, you’ll see a positive resource and decide that it would not be in the best interests of society to debase it. Civility and respect should be the order of the day. If these tools hadn’t been used by the privileged few to line their pockets at the expense of the many—or, for that matter, the democratic processes of their nations—wouldn’t we be in a better place? They capitalized on divisions in society (and even deepened them), when there is far more for all of us to gain if we looked to unity. Why should we allow the concentration of power (and wealth) to rest at the top of tech’s food chain? Right now, all I see of Google and Facebook’s brands are faceless, impersonal and detached giants, with no human accountability, humming on algorithms that are broken, and in Facebook’s case, potentially having databases that have been built on so much, that it doesn’t function properly any more. Yet they could have been so much more to society.
   Not possible to unseat such big players? We might have thought once that Altavista would remain the world’s biggest website; who knew Google would topple it in such a short time? But closer to home, and speaking for myself, I see The Spinoff and Newsroom as two news media brands that engender far greater trust than Fairfax’s Stuff or The New Zealand Herald. I am more likely to click on a link on Twitter if I see it is to one of the newer sites. They, too, have challenged the status quo in a short space of time, something which I didn’t believe would be possible a decade ago when a couple of people proposed that I create a locally owned alternative.
   We don’t say email is bad because there is spam. We accept that the good outweighs the bad and, for the most part, we have succeeded in building filters that get rid of the unwanted. We don’t say the web is bad because it has allowed piracy or pornography; its legitimate uses far outweigh its shady ones. But we should be supporting, or trying to find, new ways to advertise, innovate and network (socially or otherwise). Right now, I’m willing to bet that the next big thing (and it might not even be one player, but a multitude of individuals working in unison) is one where its values are so clear and transparent that they inspire us to live our full potential. I remain an optimist when it comes to human potential, if we set our sights on making something better.

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Posted in branding, business, internet, leadership, politics, publishing, social responsibility, technology, USA | 3 Comments »

Five or ten years, your Kiwi passport is not a valid government-issued ID, says Facebook


Sometimes you wonder if the big players on Silicon Valley exist in a parallel universe.
   Google, of course, is a firm that makes little sense to me: one that usually says one thing and does another, in almost every encounter I have had with it. And you know they can’t be that smart if, for many, many versions of Google Earth, they had no idea what was at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC.
   Facebook, naturally, observes these same traditions. Last year, I lost access to the website for 69 hours, when it decided posting, liking and commenting were no longer necessary features, and withdrew them. No one really seemed to mind when they couldn’t write on my wall: other than a few exceptions, folks just shrugged it off. We are, it seems, extremely accepting of having a buggy website where nothing works.
   Fast forward one year, and posting, liking and commenting are things that occasionally work on Facebook when it feels like it; most of today, they didn’t. But that’s nothing compared to a friend who has had her entire profile deleted.
   The story shows once again what geniuses must work at these firms.
   First, she found some photos of hers on another profile, so she complained through the usual channels. Instead of deleting the pirates’ photos, Facebook deleted her account instead.
   When she appealed, Facebook asked for proof of identity. She provided her New Zealand passport.
   But, according to Facebook, New Zealand passports are not a valid form of government-issued ID. Her other forms of identity were invalid, too.
   I’m interested to know how the brains’ trust of Facebook works. If a passport is not a valid government-issued form of identity, then what is? Is there something Facebook knows about that far exceeds the power of a passport? Am I to believe my American friends have held out on me all these years about this mystery form of super-identity?
   Or, of course, Facebook believes, and we have had proof of this, that no one lives outside the Pacific coast of the United States. This explains its ongoing bugs at the 1st of each month where the site’s functionality is severely reduced because it isn’t the 1st of the month in California. So if your passport doesn’t “look American”, it can’t possibly be valid.
   Here is a woman with over 50,000 fans in her business and who has been planning her wedding via the site, who has now been shut out.
   It does seem that Facebook is doing this willy-nilly. We also know its apology for shutting drag queens’ accounts last year to be insincere, when LaQuisha Redfern found herself locked out with no means of appeal.
   And yet, proven spammers (people who have spammed, and their spams reported to Facebook) are allowed to maintain their accounts. Spambots—and I found a bot net of over 90 recently (down from 277 a day, so Facebook is getting better)—are OK, too, because Facebook staff cannot tell the difference between a legitimate human being and a bot. While it deleted most of the 90 I identified, it strangely left a handful up, even though a pattern had been established. A few were old accounts that were hacked with their identities changed, but apparently that’s enough to fool Facebook into thinking they are legitimate human beings. A bot net I uncovered last year took multiple, repeated complaints before Facebook realized that they were actually bots that wrote random things on each other’s walls; never mind that what was written was incomprehensible. Literacy, it seems, is not a requirement at Facebook.
   If Facebook is deleting real humans, or, in my case, limiting its functionalities to us (although I would have thought posting, liking and commenting were pretty fundamental to the site), and maintaining bots (because, as we know, Facebook uses bots to make money), then it’s only a matter of time when it’s just a massive bot net communicating with each other, there to con companies into paying for more bots to follow them.
   Facebook it has done a lot of things right when it came to IP protection and enforcement when I have approached them. Generally, I don’t find them as offensive as Google. But just how it could have got this case so wrong is beyond me.

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Posted in business, internet, New Zealand, USA | 1 Comment »

Google Plus is about to turn three: will media remember the hype?


As Google Plus nears yet another anniversary—I believe it’s its third next week—it’s interesting to reflect back on the much-hyped launch. Or, more accurately, on the number of people who drank the Google Kool-Aid and believed this would be the biggest thing since Facebook. Have a glance at the cheerleading: a handful of links I could find quickly today included Testically, Techcrunch, Ghacks (though I don’t blame them, since they are run for the Google community) and Readwrite. It had allies like this in the blogging community. Forbes was still championing it as late as December 2013. As I wrote this, Mashable was one that raised the issue of privacy back then, though I’m sure there were others.
   I want to clear up that I am not criticizing a single person here for a lapse of ethics. I’m simply pointing out the buzz: many tech experts pumped up Plus. I know one (there could have been more) who backtracked less than half a year later when it failed to make much of an impact and stated what he really meant.
   I realize that there are some opinion leaders on there who are doing remarkably well. However, generally, fewer people are on it actively compared with Facebook, and fewer threads and conversations take place. Despite Google’s methods of forcing people on it, by linking it to YouTube, where a lot of people comment, it still hasn’t taken off in the public’s imaginations.
   You’re always going to get a biased view from me about Google, but not one borne out of a philosophical reason or some dislike of Californians or Americans (and I have cousins and an aunt who are both). It was borne out of the disconnect between what the firm said and what the firm did: everything from the outright lies over years of the Ads Preferences Manager (a system that has since been replaced) to the blacklisting system (where, it was discovered, only two part-time people were devoted to it, leaving queries unanswered on its forums and sites unfairly and wrongly blacklisted with no resolutions). Yet I was once a Google cheerleader, if you go back far enough on this blog, let down by its actions. This blog itself was once on Blogger.
   I took the stance (which I read from Stowe Boyd) that if the original Google organized the web, and Facebook organized your friends, then that didn’t leave Google Plus an awful lot to do. What I cannot get is, with Google’s endless dismeanours, why people would continue to take its PR department’s hype at its word.
   You might argue that others haven’t been as upset by these faults as I have. That, for the overwhelming majority, they just go to Google for search and it rarely suffers downtime. In fact, it’s very good in delivering what people wanted there. This was Google’s “killer app”, the thing that toppled Altavista, the biggest website in the world.
   But, Google tells us, it owns all these other things, and we now know that it sends all those data to the NSA and is complicit in snooping. We know it got round browser settings in Safari through hacking so it could spy more on the public—until it was busted by the Murdoch Press. Courageous American attorneys-general punished Google by docking it a massive four hours’ pay.
   Surely that would be enough to turn people off? Apparently not.
   No one really seems to mind having this happen, and I am a hypocrite because I use Facebook and know it’s up to the same tricks. I had to go to the Network Advertising Initiative to block Facebook’s new ad cookie from targeting me, fetching my data when I’m off-site. But you don’t see me pump up Facebook very often. I’ll give it kudos when it’s deserved (I thought Timeline was a great interface when new) and flak when it’s not. It’s not a blind admiration, and that’s what I sense of the big G.
   And it’s not the brand. A good brand is one that is transparent and has integrity. It walks its talk. Sure, Google does well in those surveys—so what does that really say? Enron did well in surveys, too. It even won an award for climate change action.
   So why the love from some quarters of the media? Did it take Snowden and PRISM for there to be more than just casual reporting on Google’s faults? And shouldn’t there be more depth than this?
   Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s community. What the big G has done well—and Facebook, for that matter—is bring people together. Here’s a story on a man who is a tech lead on Google Glass, innovating at a university. Folks like this come together because of innovations pushed by these big tech firms. One of my good friends, who is supportive of Google, says the positives outweigh the negatives. So when Google or YouTube goes down—my queries took minutes to resolve over the weekend—most people see that. Ditto with Facebook: even when it was down for some users last week (which, incidentally, didn’t make the news, though the 20-minute global outage on Thursday did—I still maintain there is some limit people are hitting on one or some servers, and Facebook acknowledges it was a software bug, not an attack from China), I was still checking in to see if things were back. I liked my communities and the people I engaged with.
   So when it comes to pointing out a bug with Google—as I had to last year when its robot would not whitelist clean, previously blacklisted sites—that same community bands together, ignoring the pleas of innocent users, and maintaining the high-and-mighty stance that there could not possibly be anything wrong with its systems. Blogger was the same, when “tech support” and the main Blogger contact were complicit, to the point of deleting evidence that proved a fault, and it took the then-product manager’s intervention to be ethical, honest, transparent and proactive. One good guy (who has since moved on to other parts of Google—yet he still helped me out on a remaining bug last year), but one messed-up support system. And I have to wonder if that is symptomatic of the bigger picture at the big G. It’s not all fun with Owen Wilson trying to be an intern—but it sure does well getting itself into films to portray the positive, upbeat, and inspiring side of the business.
   However, it’s the task of media not to be sucked in to any of this, and to provide us an objective view. To report fairly and dispassionately, and to put aside a press junket or a Silicon Valley gathering. There are polite ways of providing criticism, if it’s about maintaining some level of mana within that community and to ensure a steady flow of inside news. I always find—and again I admit I am biased—that I can’t really read anything about Google without my mind going first to some of these deeper problems, so why not offer such a balance when they are directly relevant?
   Google Plus’s anniversary might go largely unnoticed. But it would be interesting if someone in the media noted just how many colleagues hyped it up at the time. Will we see such a report next week?

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Posted in branding, business, culture, internet, marketing, media, USA | 3 Comments »

Creating real value, and that’s not what Facebook and Twitter do


My forced Facebook sabbatical came to an end in the late morning. So what did I think of it all?
   One of my Tweets last night was: ‘I hope [it is temporary], though I have found people out for 7–12 days now. Now it’s Monday I hope they have got over their hangovers!’ At the time I thought: this Facebook is probably not a 24-hour operation. These guys are probably off for the weekend, and they work part-time. We might see them on Monday morning, US time, or whenever they come back from Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, Bill Cosby Day, or whatever it is they celebrate over there. Oh, it’s California, so they are probably stoned.
   Sixty-nine hours weren’t quite enough to break my habits, though they were beginning to change. No more was I looking up Facebook in bed before I go to the office, or having a quick gander at night. But on the desktop, I left one tab open, which would always draw me there to have a glance at what friends were up to.
   The timing was a bit exceptional: we had the top 23 pages for the Miss Universe New Zealand 2014 finalists to launch. Had it not been for that, I wonder if I would have bothered with Facebook at all. I had queries to field, direct messages to respond to.
   The direct messaging is obviously separate from the rest of Facebook, as it was the one thing that hadn’t failed. But everything else was worsening: initially losing liking, commenting and posting, then losing the fan pages I administered. Friends could not see my wall, while a few who could see it tried to like things and were given errors. Aside from a few exceptions, no one seemed to think this was out of the ordinary and worth chatting to me about. Not that I mind this: they could all get in touch with me via other media. But this signals that it is OK to get an error when liking something, and shrug it off as temporary, because we believed Facebook when it told us to try again in a few minutes. Never mind that in Facebookland, ‘a few’ means 4,000. We have low expectations of these dot coms.
   So when people joke about how these things always tend to happen to me, I wonder. I’ve always maintained they happen to us all. Maybe the difference is I don’t believe these buggers when they tell me that things will be back in a few minutes, because invariably they don’t. So I put an entry in to Get Satisfaction, or on this blog, so others don’t feel they are alone.
   And if I had found the limits of the site—because I believe on Vox I did in 2009, when exactly the same thing happened, and the techs had no way out—then Facebook should know about this.
   Facebook was, through all of this, useless. It had closed down its Known Issues on Facebook page, which seemed foolhardy, because this certainly was a known issue with the increasing number of Tweets about it. There were no acknowledgements, and most of the time, feeding anything into its report forms resulted in errors. Sometimes I got a blank screen. Its own help pages told you to do things that were impossible. If it were any other firm, people would be crying bloody murder or wanting their money back. (And I am technically a customer, through my mayoral campaign last year.)
   A few other accounts came back, for the people I interacted with on Twitter and Get Satisfaction in the same predicament.
   So what now? I might Facebook less. The 69 hours were a good reminder. One of the things I had watched during the sabbatical was the following video via Johnnie Moore, where Douglas Rushkoff speaks about how these big innovators aren’t really adding value, only capital. He gives the example of Twitter:

The company that was going to be the maker of things now has to be the site where he aggregates the other makers of things … so that you can show multi-billion-dollar returns instead of the hundred millions that you were doing … You know, for Twitter, I just saw yesterday, they’re failing! Only $43 million last quarter! Isn’t that awful? Oh my God! Only $43 million, which is, I mean, how many employees do they have? I think that would be enough but their market cap is so outlandishly huge, so much money has gotten stuck in there, that they’re gonna be stuck looking for a new way to somehow milk more money out of an otherwise great tool and they’re gonna kill it. They have to—they have to, ’cause they need that home run.

   Can we expect there to be greater innovation in such an environment, for any of these platforms? If we aren’t feeling the same buzz we once did with these sites, there’s a good reason, and the above is part of the problem. They aren’t creating value any more, only market cap and stock, or, as Rushkoff says, ‘static capital.’

This is what [Thomas] Piketty was really writing about … Capital has the ability to actually create profit, so all these companies, all this development, are really just different versions gaming the system rather than rewiring the system, rebooting it, which is the opportunity here.

   I spent part of the last few days looking at the PDF proofs for Lucire Arabia, where at least I know I am part of making something that is creating value and, through its content, helping people. While my original motive for being on Facebook et al was promotional, for my businesses, I have to question if that was the best use of my time, and for creating value. Facebook organized my friends, as Google organized the web—now that those are done, there is the next step.
   I left Vox—or rather, Vox left me when the site died and I was no longer able to post—and put more time elsewhere, namely into my first mayoral election campaign. I knew I was creating an opportunity to help people, and the upshot of that is the free wifi system we have in Wellington today (ironically probably very heavily used to update Facebook). It meant more than a means to Facebook and Instagram: the bigger picture was to signal to the tech sector that Wellington is open for business, and that we aren’t being left behind in an industry that can create frictionless exports and intellectual capital.
   We aren’t quite there again in 2014, as Facebook is back, but it may be worth contemplating just where I’m creating value for business and society when it’s not election year. This year, I don’t have a book planned—but it may have to be something where a good bunch of people are going to get some benefit.

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Posted in business, internet, New Zealand, politics, publishing, technology, USA, Wellington | 1 Comment »