WELCOME to Connected Rights, your cheese in the crust of digital rights news and analysis.
Enjoy this newsletter? Forward it to a friend or get them to sign up. I’m David Meyer, aka @superglaze on Twitter and @davidmeyerwrites on Facebook. Don’t forget to check out the Connected Rights website and download a copy of my book, Control Shift: How Technology Affects You and Your Rights. Welkom!
SILICON VALLEY EMPLOYEES ARE BEING urged to blow the whistle when they see their employers doing dastardly, anti-digital-rights things. Fight for the Future launched a campaign to this effect yesterday, with a website and video ad.
This is all building on the pushback of Google and Salesforce employees against unethical things those companies were/are doing. The SpeakOut.Tech campaign calls on others to follow suit, using secure whistleblowing platforms and – somewhat ironically given the campaign’s partial focus on privacy issues – micro-targeted ads “to reach employees at the biggest tech companies”.
Campaigner Jelani Drew: “Tech workers are the first line of defense, they’ve been speaking out but we need to let them know we have their back. There are a small handful of people who have the power to blow the whistle on technology that could be devastating for human rights or help an authoritarian government. We need to reach those people and show them they are not alone, and that we’ll support them if they speak out.”
GOOGLE HAS ADMITTED AN “ERROR” after it forgot to tell people buying its Nest Secure home security and alarm system that there was a microphone in there. Customers only became aware of this when the company told them earlier this month that they could start using the Google Assistant with the devices. Google: “The on-device microphone was never intended to be a secret and should have been listed in the tech specs. That was an error on our part.” The firm claims the mics were never turned on.
GOOGLE WAS GOING TO BREAK A BUNCH of ad-blocking extensions in Chrome, through changes to the browser’s extension API, but following a backlash it’s decided to tread more carefully with the revamp. “It is not, nor has it ever been, our goal to prevent or break content blocking,” the company said.
NEW EVIDENCE HAS BEEN SUBMITTED in the complaints over Google and the IAB’s scuzzy and possibly illegal ad-targeting mechanisms. The complainants used freedom-of-information requests to learn that the IAB knew full well that its real-time bidding consent mechanism “would seem, at least prime facie, to be incompatible with consent under GDPR”.
Here’s the solution, per Brave’s Johnny Ryan, the Open Rights Group’s Jim Killock, and UCL’s Michael Veale: “The IAB RTB system allows 595 different kinds of data to be included in a bid request. 4% of these should be disallowed, or truncated. The same applies to the Google system. It is an easy fix, long overdue, and will prevent the system from leaking the personal data (including location and interests) of every single person on the Web.”
FACEBOOK HAS BEEN DUBBED A BUNCH OF “DIGITAL GANGSTERS” by the British Parliament’s digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) committee, in a long-awaited report mostly dealing with online disinformation, but also privacy and antitrust.
The committee called for serious new regulation for Facebook and its ilk, making it legally liable for “harmful and illegal content” on its platform, and installing a new regulator to enforce a compulsory code of industry ethics.
To which Facebook, with characteristic arrogance, responded that it is “open to meaningful regulation”, as though it gets a say in the matter. The company really doesn’t get how these things work outside the U.S.
A nugget from the report: “The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight. But only governments and the law are powerful enough to contain them. The legislative tools already exist. They must now be applied to digital activity, using tools such as privacy laws, data protection legislation, antitrust and competition law. If companies become monopolies they can be broken up, in whatever sector.”
On the fake-news front, Facebook insisted that it has invested heavily in expanding its detection team. The same day, one of those cryptocurrency nonsense ads popped up in my news feed, purporting to report that Swedes have voted to ditch the euro (“The biggest event in history. For the first time ever, a country has taken a stand against the banks and give back [sic] to the people.”) Facebook has also claimed to have stopped carrying dodgy cryptocurrency ads, so that’s an impressive two-for-one right there!
GERMANY’S SPD, THE JUNIOR PARTNER in the country’s governing coalition, is firming up its plans for a “data for everyone” law that would force digital monopolies, such as Google and Amazon, to give the non-personal and anonymised data that they hold to the public.
From a new discussion paper on the topic: “Innovation is increasingly driven by data. The big tech companies can be much more innovative than others if they use it for big data and machine learning. Google’s autonomous cars are doing far better than their competitors, because they have access to the data troves of the group. One has to do something to counter this. Digital quasi-monopolies hinder innovation and curtail competition and consumers’ freedom of choice, endangering the social market economy.”
The idea is to give competitors a chance to compete – and not just startups, but Germany as a whole. Right now the big AI players are the U.S. and China, the former being fine with its data-munching monopolies eating international markets, and the latter taking the data it needs through authoritarian means. Putting big tech firms’ data into the public domain would give Germany the raw materials it needs, the SPD hopes.
TWITTER DOES NOT DELETE YOUR direct messages, even if you tell it to. That’s according to a security researcher who reckons it’s a bug. That may or may not be the case, but it does quite possibly mean Twitter is flouting the GDPR, under which users get to demand the deletion of their personal data.
THE COPYRIGHT DIRECTIVE MADE IT THROUGH trilogue negotiations and is now heading for the finish line, with the rather horrible Articles 11 and 13 in tow, if not entirely intact. Article 11, which is designed to whack Google with the EU-wide introduction of ancillary copyright, now comes with an exemption for “individual words or very short extracts of a press publication” – hooray for the freedom to reproduce individual words! Article 13 will still pretty much force everyone to install upload filters.
So, is all lost? Pirate Julia Reda and Wikipedian Jimmy Wales seem to think there’s still a chance to have the offending limbs cut off the beast. Reda reckons the best chance is to get the European Parliament to reject the articles, or the whole shebang, at plenary in late March or early April.
Meanwhile, the European Commission published a Medium post calling opponents of Article 13 a “mob”. The Commission subsequently withdrew the post, after people objected to the characterisation.
THE US AND RUSSIA ARE AMONG the countries that keep stymying progress toward addressing concerns about so-called killer robots – algorithmically-run weapons that do not require human intervention for targeting victims.
Human Rights Watch reports: “Despite diplomatic setbacks, it’s clear that the notion of removing human control from weapons systems and the use of force is becoming increasingly unpopular or stigmatized… Yet the US remains steadfast in its refusal to consider any move to negotiate a new treaty to prevent the development of fully autonomous weapons. There are fears that an already meek 2012 Pentagon policy directive on autonomy in weapons systems could be overridden or replaced by a much weaker policy.'”