Week 4 discussion

wow, so much to think about!!! I will post the video in the next day or two (exceeded weekly vimeo limit right now). what are people’s initial thoughts about everything April had to say?

Edit: I uploaded the videos and then came back with my thoughts from today.

April gave us SOOO much to think about and I feel like she could have easily kept going for a few hours. Corporate power on the internet is such an immense topic. Here are a few things that stood out to me during her talk:

  • The five most powerful companies on the planet are all data/tech companies: Apple, Amazon, Alphabet/Google, Microsoft, Facebook
  • That monopoly was built on another monopoly which is the communications industry (I’m adding a GREAT book about this to our resource list, The Master Switch by Tim Wu)
  • They have almost complete control over how we communicate, and we give them all of our data and attention, and for this we get free services that work really well (but that we also kind of hate)
  • 84% of Google’s revenue is advertising
  • All of this corporate power makes it easier for the government to surveil us because they don’t need warrants to get this data (and regularly make other deals with these companies)
  • A data spill can’t be cleaned up
  • Targeted advertising has been shown to be discriminatory, and you can draw a line between advertising for harmful products and real world economic consequences (example of targeted advertising to people of color before the subprime mortgage collapse)
  • The regulatory environment is weak in response to this but at least the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook saga has triggered the Honest Ads Act (Klobuchar-Warner; in Congress now)
  • These companies got big off the revenue from our personal data, and then they used their size and power to help push through the repeal of net neutrality (that to me is the privacy <-> net neutrality connection)

I would have loved to have had a longer talk from/with her! As far as what she covered: I would have like to hear more about why she thinks the advocacy groups who oppose government surveillance have been less vocal regarding corporate surveillance. (Unfortunately I tend to think of questions after the fact, so.) As with what @lucedeira was referencing during the talk - there’s this American distrust of government but trust of corporate power, as if the two are so easily separated. Certainly not the case now, if it ever was in this country.

I really appreciated her putting it this way - so succinct and easily understood - and as such easier to explain, since so many of these concepts can get technical or overly complicated or theoretical quickly.

I was also pretty stunned to learn that online you don’t have to state who pays for political ads. Just… how? (That is a rhetorical question, unless there is an answer other than power and/or money.)

That bit about the data spill being something that can’t be cleaned up also stood out to me. She has a knack for explaining things in memorable and clear language: without Net Neutrality, that the Internet will likely get more boring…but also more dangerous. I’m stowing a lot of these gems away for future teaching.

I also appreciated her recommendation to be prepared with recent examples of all the heinous things – that is one area I need to work on keeping up-to-date on. That said, I also found it very compelling to have the example, a decade out, of the targeted ads from shady mortgage brokers, and the lasting impact on communities of color and poor folks.

@alison I’ve been meaning to read the Master Switch, so this is a good push up on my reading list. I have been doing a Conversation Project with Oregon Humanities about news, and one consistent theme in almost every conversation is this nostalgia for when news used to be “just the news.” This era is vaguely that covered by the Fairness Doctrine, but really represented by Walter Cronkite. Anyway, I’m thinking about this because of how folks in these conversations often seem ambivalent about media conglomeration, even as they lament its effects.

Finally, I want to admit that I am feeling pretty dumb about how little I knew about the things April talked about. I’m sure this won’t be the last time during LFI, but man – even where I knew something of the big contours of these stories, it’s embarrassing to be so ignorant. Google and FB make up 60% of the Internet ad revenue in the US? The five most powerful companies on the planet are all data/tech companies? Like, I know why I don’t know these things…but still.

@sjbrown, we can invite April back anytime, if people are into it. And if we did, we could ask her to focus on one or two of the broader themes she covered, or we could ask her to elaborate on stuff, or whatever! I know she’d be thrilled to come back.

I would have like to hear more about why she thinks the advocacy groups who oppose government surveillance have been less vocal regarding corporate surveillance.

I suspect that it’s because some of them get a lot of funding from corporate giants and other Silicon Valley types, and because others pretty much are govt watchdogs as their mandate (for example the latter is true of the ACLU, although the ACLU has led the coalition against Amazon’s facial recognition stuff, it’s BECAUSE Amazon is selling it to the government).

As with what @lucedeira was referencing during the talk - there’s this American distrust of government but trust of corporate power, as if the two are so easily separated. Certainly not the case now, if it ever was in this country.

This is the other key part for sure. Lots of the internet freedom movement has come from more libertarian-minded folks who are not distrustful of corporate power. I mentioned theDeclaration of Independence of Cyberspace, which is considered hugely important to the “internet freedom” movement, but doesn’t mention corporate power once (it’s also, in my opinion, a hugely naive and silly document that doesn’t have much understanding of the real world power dynamics that MOST DEFINITELY exist on the internet, but I digress). Oh and also JPB wrote it at the World Economic Forum in Davos, if there was any lingering doubt about the author’s feelings regarding global capitalism.

I was also pretty stunned to learn that online you don’t have to state who pays for political ads. Just… how?

I know it was a rhetorical question, but I just want to chime in and say that in my opinion it’s the lack of a regulatory environment/protections against liabilities for internet corporations that April talked about. I think we could do another entire session about that alone!!!

@kellymce she’s full of gems like that! I rewatch her talks so that I can stow those talking points away for later too.

Finally, I want to admit that I am feeling pretty dumb about how little I knew about the things April talked about. I’m sure this won’t be the last time during LFI, but man – even where I knew something of the big contours of these stories, it’s embarrassing to be so ignorant.

I’ve been doing LFP full time for 3.5 years and there’s still so much I don’t know. Don’t be embarrassed! It really is an unknowably large topic. My goal is to get each of you familiar enough to teach others, especially with data points and personal stories (like the ones April brought up) that can help illustrate the larger issues. And I will repeat what I said to Sara above – we can have April back to elaborate on any of these points. We’ll also have some other speakers covering corporate power/the internet regulatory environment, so we can expand on anything that yall feel needs more coverage.

I don’t know if you’ve ever listened to the Hidden Brain podcast, but they released an episode on Monday that gives a little overview on the origins of fake news and how it’s always sort of been a thing in America (maybe not quite as nefarious as it is today, but still). It’s pretty interesting.

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I really, really appreciated this week’s lecture, especially for all of April’s awesome, visual turns of phrase, as others have said. I also appreciate how the weeks and lectures have linked with and built upon each other. I was just reading an article that was linked from something @librarianbryan posted in the week 3 thread: The House that Spied on Me, which was an experiment between 2 writers from Gizmodo, one of whom set up as many Internet of Things devices in her house as possible and the other who set up a router to monitor the traffic from those devices and see what information about her family members’ lives would be visible to their ISP.

These are a few quotes from the article:

After Congress voted last year to allow ISPs to spy on and sell their customers’ internet usage data, we were all warned that the ISPs could now sell our browsing activity, or records of what we do on our computers and smartphones. But in fact, they have access to more than that. If you have any smart devices in your home—a TV that connects to the internet, an Echo, a Withings scale—your ISP can see and sell information about that activity too.

…the Withings Home Wi-Fi Security Camera with Air Quality Sensors that I had set up in our living room. When the camera detects motion or noise, it automatically records what it’s seeing. That’s great if you’re worried about break-ins or how people treat your kid when you’re not around, but not great for protecting the intimacy of your home. The day after I set it up, it caught me walking through the living room naked, resulting in the very first nude video of me (that I know about), which was promptly sent to the cloud and saved to the Home Cam app on my phone.

It was also interesting to read about the devices and programs that run on those devices that do or do not encrypt their data streams. For example, Hulu isn’t encrypted but Netflix is… kind of.

When the TV is on, it’s usually tuned to Netflix or Hulu. I couldn’t see what they watched on Netflix because Netflix encrypts streams. But I discovered that Netflix doesn’t encrypt images, so I could see the shows being recommended to them, which is revealing in that it shows what Netflix thinks they should like

Anyway, it was really interesting to read this article after hearing about how very much of the big tech companies’ revenue is ad-based, and how very detailed that advertising can become if/when our usage data is sold.

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I just took a webinar hosted by Florida Library Webinars all about how GDPR might affect libraries. Thought y’all might enjoy it, or at least find it useful.



On Thursday California lawmakers passed one of the toughest data privacy laws in the US called the California Consumer Privacy Ac of 2018, which is similar to Europe’s GDPR protections. You can read more here: https://www.theverge.com/2018/6/28/17509720/california-consumer-privacy-act-legislation-law-vote

The law requires company to declare they types of data they collect from user and who they share the data with. It also give consumers the ability to opt out of having their data sold by companies such as Facebook.

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I will check it out – thanks for the rec!

The lecture this week reiterated for me the importance of being able to opt-out of data collection, and the need to make the choice of opting-in the norm. If such data is used for annoying ads, “reverse redlining,” and psyops political manipulation, opting-out and teaching people how to opt-out seems like the ethical thing to do. A lot of privacy education is about this—how to opt-out and how to subvert data mining when you cannot opt-out. Laws like GDPR and CA’s Consumer Privacy Act seem preferable to something like Honest Ads. Wouldn’t it be easy to obfuscate the intention of the ad, or its funding source? Would such a law apply to fake youth graffiti?

I don’t think propaganda/disinformation is anything new in political campaigns. I have free speech concerns about platforms being responsible for their content. Who is the censor? Does reconcile this with right to anonymity implied by something like Tor? Would we be having different problems if the internet was more decentralized? Are the paid ads (or now apps) on a platform different from the user generated content?

Murkier: are the rights and responsibilities of orgs like businesses or governments or nonprofits different than that of individual citizens? I recently read Secrecy World: Inside the Panama Papers Investigation of Illicit Money Networks and the Global Elite by Jake Bernstein. It chronicles International Consortium of Investigative Journalists’ effort to sift and publish the Panama Papers. The journalists had to constantly weigh individuals right to privacy versus the public’s right to know. The journalists in question had to learn quick how to be private as their lives were in danger by pursuing the story.

Deep in the weeds: for completely different point of view on Cambridge Analytica story, here’s episode 208 of the Steptoe Cyblerlaw Podcast. Their take: it’s a contractual issue between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and that’s the end of the story. I enjoy listening to the Cyberlaw Podcast because it often presents the exact opposite of what everyone else in my mediasphere is presenting. Warning: aggressively opposite.

There is so much more! April really did cover a lot of issues and a lot them don’t have easy answers for me. I would appreciate if April came back and deep dived into how data is aggregated and sold. I want to know what that looks like from the inside. It’s like our user experience is the tip of the iceberg then there’s this hidden world. I’d also like to learn more about “data scraping.” I would like to know more about “attention economics.” I will stop now.


Thanks for posting this article, @clobdell! This has me curious - if anyone wants to share: do any of you have smart appliances? Do they have privacy configurations/settings? What has your experience been with them?

(For what it’s worth, I have no smart appliances. I’m pretty committed to keeping it that way but am concerned for a near-future where “smart” is the only option for new appliances… eventually the old stuff will be beyond repair.)


@sjbrown my TV connects to the internet, which I will admit I hadn’t considered as a smart appliance before reading this article. That’s the only internet-connected non-computer, non-phone thing I have in the house, though, I’m pretty sure.


Agreed that propaganda/disinformation is part of political campaigns, but I still think there’s value in ads being required to state their funding source. I don’t see the censorship here - it’s not about a platform refusing to run an ad but rather requiring disclosure about funding. (Unless I am misinterpreting what you’re saying or missing the point? Very possible. Please let me know and I will edit accordingly!) This gets at the tricky issue of what some platforms are - I’m thinking mainly of ad-based platforms/services like Facebook and Google that also provide, but don’t source, news. They’re certainly not news organizations in any traditional sense (as in, with original reporting) but have become de facto news sources for so many. Should they have (enforceable) responsibilities about disclosure etc. if they want to position themselves as such? I most certainly don’t know the answer or even feel like I know enough to claim an opinion one way or another. What do you all think?

Slight tangent: On more cynical days, what with net neutrality gone for the time being, I wonder if we’re headed toward a US version of something like Free Basics/internet.org - if Facebook (or any platform, really) becomes the internet for many people, does that change what we should require/expect of them?

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Yeah, I think when my TV dies it’s going to be really hard to find something not smart. Seems we have a little more time before the other stuff (refrigerators, coffee makers, heating systems etc.) becomes ubiquitous. (…I hope?)

I technically have a smart TV, but I do not have it connected to my network. I do, however, have two Apple TVs connected. It’s how I watch TV (I don’t have cable). I feel dumb, but I never thought about the data Netflix or Hulu would send over my network until @clobdell posted that article. So, now I am going to do some research on settings and whatnot for the Apple TV.

I remember when smart appliances were first coming out, I had read and talked to IT people about the dangers of everything being connected. Smart TV browsers are often bare bones and do not have the same certifications and security as full versions do. Same for many other devices.

These are the Facebook ads I mentioned in one of my questions last week. I have been seeing in the subway, on screens and walls. I thought that some of you might find them useful for teaching?
I am trying to use them to organize my thoughts for last week’s assignment, to create my 5 points around them since the ads also are organized around some cardinal concepts/problems with how tech companies commodify and disregard responsibility regarding their digital products and spaces.
If anyone has issues downloading them, let me know. Maybe I can share them more easily at Github?

I would love that, especially with the EU laws (thanks @josh for sharing the webinar, will definitely take a look!) and the Californian too (thanks @langur) I have been trying to read more from Evgeny Morozov, even if just his TheGuardian op-eds especially because although he advocates for regulation he is also ware of government use/misuse.

I read this article as well! Really interesting!

My partner had “installed” an Amazon Echo in our home, and a few months later, a Google Home. He has a subscription to Google Music and liked calling it on command. I used both a few times for timers, but didn’t do much beyond that. Then he installed switches in our home that can be controlled via the devices, so I used them a bit to turn lights on and off.

Eventually it just felt creepy. I felt like things we were talking about in our home were showing up in promoted/sponsored content, and one day, I unhooked them both. He was pretty bummed, and likes to argue that my phone is doing the same thing (TRUE!), but I wanted to lessen the listening going on in our apartment. He wants to keep living with me, though, so they’re not coming back :slight_smile:

Right after you mentioned them I saw them in our BART stations! I’m not sure how much they are working. Very interesting to think about though!

Really great points here, especially considering that a lot of the surveillance problems we currently have are the result of “unintended consequences”. For me, the key point is to always think about whether or not a new law or piece of technology is actually giving more control and autonomy to the user. Working with security engineers really can help think through some of these concerns, because they’re good at spotting bugs and thinking like adversaries.

I’d also like to learn more about “data scraping.” I would like to know more about “attention economics.”

There seems to be pretty significant interest in having April back, and I know she’ll be into that! So pls sound off about what else yall would like to have her cover in depth!! A couple of our other upcoming speakers will take on some of these topics, too, but really the more the merrier.

Regarding the “smart appliances” – just wanna note that we are gonna talk about that stuff in depth in our Internet of Things week. Please of course continue the convo until then. :slight_smile:

I mean, speaking of what advertising is allowed to get away with, these are WILD to me! Facebook gets to entirely skirt taking responsibility or apologizing for what they’ve done. Instead, now they’re ON YOUR SIDE, and they get all this ad space to sell their product to you once again! It’s exactly as you said, @lucedeira – they are commodifying and disregarding responsibility. And without any regulations in place, who is to stop them? I think that the corporate disinformation aspect of all this is incredibly vital for us to grapple with as information workers.

A couple of his (older, but still relevant) books are listed on our booklist. He’s very curmudgeonly and cynical but sooooo astute in his criticisms of surveillance capitalism.

just to bring this convo into our week 5 discussion, I wanna note that this is a bit of a “privacy nihilism” argument!

and this is harm reduction!!!