Advertising

Democrats Ask FEC To Create New Rules To Keep Foreign Influence Off Social Media Ads (thehill.com) 132

Cristina Marcos reports via The Hill: Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to establish new guidelines for online advertising platforms that would prevent foreign spending to influence U.S. elections. The move comes after Facebook provided information to Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the FBI's investigation into Russia's election interference, about Russian ad purchases during the 2016 campaign.

"The recent revelations that foreign nationals with suspected ties to the Russian government sought to influence the 2016 election through social media advertisements are deeply concerning and demand a response," 20 House and Senate Democrats wrote in the letter. "We are fast approaching the 2018 election cycle. As such, it is imperative the Federal Election Commission begin this effort in earnest," they wrote. CNN, which first reported on the Democrats' letter, cited Facebook sources saying they expect Congress may try to require disclaimers on online political ads in the future, similar to political television ads. The Democratic lawmakers suggested that any FEC guidance address how foreign actors can use corporate or nonprofit designations to avoid disclosing political spending; what advertisement platforms can do to prevent foreign campaign activity; and possible changes to disclosure standards for political advertisements.

Businesses

Amazon 'Reviewing' Its Website After It Suggested Bomb-Making Items (nytimes.com) 145

An anonymous reader shares a report: Amazon said on Wednesday that it was reviewing its website after a British television report said the online retail giant's algorithms were automatically suggesting bomb-making ingredients that were "Frequently bought together." The news is particularly timely in Britain, where the authorities are investigating a terrorist attack last week on London's Underground subway system. The attack involved a crude explosive in a bucket inside a plastic bag, and detonated on a train during the morning rush. The news report is the latest example of a technology company drawing criticism for an apparently faulty algorithm. Google and Facebook have come under fire for allowing advertisers to direct ads to users who searched for, or expressed interest in, racist sentiments and hate speech. Growing awareness of these automated systems has been accompanied by calls for tech firms to take more responsibility for the contents on their sites. Amazon customers buying products that were innocent enough on their own, like cooking ingredients, received "Frequently bought together" prompts for other items that would help them produce explosives, according to the Channel 4 News.
AI

Google's AI Boss Blasts Musk's Scare Tactics on Machine Takeover (bloomberg.com) 126

Mark Bergen, writing for Bloomberg: Elon Musk is the most-famous Cassandra of artificial intelligence. The Tesla chief routinely drums up the technology's risks in public and on Twitter, where he recently called the global race to develop AI the "most likely cause" of a third world war. Researchers at Google, Facebook and other AI-focused companies find this irritating. John Giannandrea, the head of search and AI at Alphabet's Google, took one of the clearest shots at Musk on Tuesday -- all while carefully leaving him unnamed. "There's a huge amount of unwarranted hype around AI right now," Giannandrea said at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco. "This leap into, 'Somebody is going to produce a superhuman intelligence and then there's going to be all these ethical issues' is unwarranted and borderline irresponsible."
Businesses

'Bodega' CEO Apologizes, Insists They'll Create More Jobs (cnn.com) 155

Remember those two ex-Googlers who started a company to replace mom-and-pop corner stores with automated vending kiosks? An anonymous reader writes: The company's CEO has now "apologized in the face of mounting outrage," according to CNN. CEO Paul McDonald had shared a vision with Fast Company of a world where centralized shopping locations "won't be necessary" because there'll be a tiny automated one every 100 feet. Within hours McDonald was writing a new apologetic essay insisting he's not trying to replace corner stores, which carry more items and include a human staff who "offer an integral human connection to their patrons that our automated storefronts never will." In fact, he added that "Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega -- delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open." Promising to review criticism, he added his hope was to "bring a useful, new retail experience to places where commerce currently doesn't exist."
Bodega's CEO sees it as a way to beat Amazon by offering immediate access to popular products, and TechCrunch reports the company has already raised $2.5 million, while Fast Company notes "angel" investments from executives at Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Dropbox.

The company has already begun testing 30 Bodega boxes over the last ten months, and unveiled 50 more boxes last week, with hopes to have over 1,000 by the end of next year.
Social Networks

New Book Argues Silicon Valley Will Lead Us to Our Doom (sandiegouniontribune.com) 201

Long-time Slashdot reader Zorro quotes the San Diego Union-Tribune: To many Americans, large technology firms embody much of what's good about the modern world. Franklin Foer has a different perspective. In his new book, "World Without Mind," the veteran journalist lays out a more ominous view of where Big Tech would like to take us -- in many ways, already has taken us... These firms have a program: to make the world less private, less individual, less creative, less human... Big Tech has imposed its will on the resident population with neither our input nor our permission.
The reviewer summarizes the book's argument as "Once hooked, consumers are robbed of choice, milked for profit, deprived of privacy and made the subjects of stealth social engineering experiments."

Interestingly, Foer was fired from The New Republic in 2014 by its new publisher -- Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes -- and Foer's new book includes strong criticism of the way companies are assembling detailed profiles on their users. "They have built their empires by pulverizing privacy; they will further ensconce themselves by pushing boundaries, by taking even more invasive steps that build toward an even more complete portrait of us."
Facebook

WordPress Ditches ReactJS Over Facebook's Patent Clause (techcrunch.com) 72

An anonymous reader quote TechCrunch: Matt Mullenweg, the co-founder of the popular open source web publishing software WordPress, has said the community will be pulling away from using Facebook's React JavaScript library over concerns about a patent clause in Facebook's open source license. In a blog post explaining the decision yesterday, Mullenweg said he had hoped to officially adopt React for WordPress -- noting that Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com which he also founded, had already used React for the Calypso ground-up rewrite of WordPress.com a few years ago, while the WordPress community had started using it for its major Gutenberg core project.

But he said he has changed his mind after seeing Facebook dig in behind the patent clause -- which was recently added to the Apache Software Foundation's list of disallowed licenses... [H]e writes that he cannot, in good conscience, require users of the very widely used open source WordPress software to inherit the patent clause and associated legal risk. So he's made the decision to ditch React.

Facebook can revoke their license if a React user challenges Facebook's patents.
Social Networks

Facebook Shares Details Of Russia-Bought Ads With US Investigators (cnn.com) 232

An anonymous reader quotes CNN: Special counsel Robert Mueller and his team are now in possession of Russian-linked ads run on Facebook during the presidential election, after they obtained a search warrant for the information. Facebook gave Mueller and his team copies of ads and related information it discovered on its site linked to a Russian troll farm, as well as detailed information about the accounts that bought the ads and the way the ads were targeted at American Facebook users, a source with knowledge of the matter told CNN. The disclosure, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, may give Mueller's office a fuller picture of who was behind the ad buys and how the ads may have influenced voter sentiment during the 2016 election...

As CNN reported Thursday, Facebook is still not sure whether pro-Kremlin groups may have made other ad buys intended to influence American politics that it simply hasn't discovered yet. It is even possible that unidentified ad buys may still exist on the social media network today.

Google

Social Media Site Gab Sues Google For Antitrust Violations Following Ban From Play Store (washingtonpost.com) 164

The social media site Gab.ai is accusing Google of violating federal antitrust laws when the tech giant booted Gab from the Google Play Store, according to lawsuit filed this week. From a report: The legal action is the latest salvo in an escalating battle between right-leaning technologists and leaders against Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook and Google. Gab alleges in the lawsuit that "Google deprives competitors, on a discriminatory basis, of access to the App Store, which an essential facility or resource." "Google is the biggest threat to the free flow of information," Gab chief executive Andrew Torba said in a statement. "Gab started to fight against the big tech companies in the marketplace, and their monopolistic conduct has forced us to bring the fight to the courtroom." Alternative source.
Advertising

Facebook Enabled Advertisers To Reach 'Jew Haters' (propublica.org) 253

ProPublica is reporting that Facebook "enabled advertisers to direct their pitches to the news feeds of almost 2,300 people who expressed interest in the topics of 'Jew hater,' 'How to burn jews,' or, 'History of why jews ruin the world.'" The organization even went so far as to test these ad categories by paying $30 to target those groups with three "promoted posts" -- in which a ProPublica article or post was displayed in their news feeds. Facebook reportedly approved all three ads within 15 minutes. From the report: After we contacted Facebook, it removed the anti-Semitic categories -- which were created by an algorithm rather than by people -- and said it would explore ways to fix the problem, such as limiting the number of categories available or scrutinizing them before they are displayed to buyers. In all likelihood, the ad categories that we spotted were automatically generated because people had listed those anti-Semitic themes on their Facebook profiles as an interest, an employer or a "field of study." Facebook's algorithm automatically transforms people's declared interests into advertising categories. [ProPublica provides a screenshot of their ad buying process on the company's advertising portal.]

"There are times where content is surfaced on our platform that violates our standards," said Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook. "In this case, we've removed the associated targeting fields in question. We know we have more work to do, so we're also building new guardrails in our product and review processes to prevent other issues like this from happening in the future."

Facebook

Spain Fines Facebook Over Tracking Users Without Consent (tomshardware.com) 41

Spain's Data Protection Authority has issued a 1.2 million euro fine against Facebook after it found three instances when the company collected data without informing users, as required by European Union privacy laws. Tom's Hardware reports: The AEPD found multiple issues with how Facebook gathered data on Spanish users. One of the issues was that Facebook collects data on ideology, sex, and religious beliefs, as well as personal tastes and web surfing habits without informing the users about how that data will be used. A second issue was that Facebook wasn't obtaining specific and informed consent from the users because the data it was offering them about the collection was not sufficiently clear. The company has been tracking both users and non-users of the service through the Like button across the web without informing them about this sort of tracking, nor about what it plans to do with the data. The company has said that the collection is done for advertising purposes before, but some purposes remain secret, according to the Spanish Data Protection Authority. The AEPD said this sort of collection doesn't comply with the EU's data protection regulations.

Finally, the AEPD also noticed that Facebook has not been completely purging the data about users who had already deleted their accounts and that Facebook was making use of accounts' data that have been deleted for more than 17 months. Considering the data that has remained behind is no longer useful for the purpose for which it was collected, the agency considered this another serious infringement of EU privacy laws.

Businesses

Union Power Is Putting Pressure on Silicon Valley's Tech Giants (bloomberg.com) 116

An anonymous reader writes: Organized labor doesn't rack up a lot of wins these days, and Silicon Valley isn't most people's idea of a union hotbed. Nonetheless, in the past three years unions have organized 5,000 people who work on Valley campuses. Among others, they've unionized shuttle drivers at Apple, Tesla, Twitter, LinkedIn, EBay, Salesforce.com, Yahoo!, Cisco, and Facebook; security guards at Adobe, IBM, Cisco, and Facebook; and cafeteria workers at Cisco, Intel, and, earlier this summer, Facebook. The workers aren't technically employed by any of those companies. Like many businesses, Valley giants hire contractors that typically offer much less in the way of pay and benefits than the tech companies' direct employees get. Among other things, such arrangements help companies distance themselves from the way their cafeteria workers and security guards are treated, because somebody else is cutting the checks. Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of unions and civil rights, community, and clergy groups heading the organizing campaign, says its successes have come largely from puncturing that veneer of plausible deniability. That means directing political pressure, media scrutiny, and protests toward the tech companies themselves. "Everybody knows that the contractors will do what the tech companies say, so we're focused on the big guys," says Ben Field, a co-founder of the coalition who heads the AFL-CIO's South Bay Labor Council. Labor leaders say their efforts have gotten some tech companies to cut ties with an anti-union contractor, intervene with others to ease unionization drives, and subsidize better pay for contract workers. "If you want to get people to buy your product, you don't want them to feel that buying your product is contributing to the evils of the world," says Silicon Valley Rising co-founder Derecka Mehrens, who directs Working Partnerships USA, a California nonprofit that advocates for workers. Tech companies have been image-conscious and closely watched of late, she says, and the coalition is "being opportunistic."
EU

EU Set To Demand Internet Firms Act Faster To Remove Illegal Content (reuters.com) 60

Companies including Google, Facebook and Twitter could face European Union laws forcing them to be more proactive in removing illegal content if they do not do more to police what is available on the Internet. From a report: The European Union executive outlines in draft guidelines reviewed by Reuters how Internet firms should step up efforts with measures such as establishing trusted flaggers and taking voluntary measures to detect and remove illegal content. Proliferating illegal content, whether because it infringes copyright or incites terrorism, has sparked heated debate in Europe between those who want online platforms to do more to tackle it and those who fear it could impinge on free speech. The companies have significantly stepped up efforts to tackle the problem of late, agreeing to an EU code of conduct to remove hate speech within 24 hours and forming a global working group to combine their efforts remove terrorist content from their platforms.
Facebook

The Fake News Machine: Inside a Town Gearing Up for 2020 (cnn.com) 225

CNN has a story on Veles, riverside town in Macedonia, which back in the day was known to make porcelain for the whole of Yugoslavia. But now, as an investigation by the news outlet has found, it makes fake news. Veles has become home to dozens of website operators who churn out bogus stories designed to attract the attention of Americans. Each click adds cash to their bank accounts. From the report: The scale is industrial: Over 100 websites were tracked here during the final weeks of the 2016 U.S. election campaign, producing fake news that mostly favored Republican candidate for President Donald Trump. One of the shadowy industry's pioneers is a soft-spoken law school dropout. Worried that his online accounts could be shut down, the 24-year-old asked to be known only as Mikhail. He takes on a different persona at night, prowling the internet as "Jesica," an American who frequently posts pro-Trump memes on Facebook. The website and Facebook page that "Jesica" runs caters to conservative readers in the U.S. The stories are political -- and often wrong on the facts. But that doesn't concern Mikhail. "I don't care, because the people are reading," he said. "At 22, I was earning more than someone [in Macedonia] will ever learn in his entire life." He claims to have earned up to $2,500 a day from advertising on his website, while the average monthly income in Macedonia is just $426. The profits come primarily from ad services such as Google's AdSense, which place targeted advertisements around the web. Each click sends a little bit of cash back to the content creator. Mikhail says he has used his profits to buy a house and put his younger sister through school. [...] That site was blocked a few months ago after Facebook and Google started cracking down on fake news sites. Mikhail is now retooling his operation, with his sights set firmly on the 2020 presidential election.
Google

Google Accused of Trying To Patent Public Domain Technology (bleepingcomputer.com) 101

An anonymous reader shares a report: A Polish academic is accusing Google of trying to patent technology he invented and that he purposely released into the public domain so companies like Google couldn't trap it inside restrictive licenses. The technology's name is Asymmetric Numeral Systems (ANS), a family of entropy coding methods that Polish assistant professor Jarosaw (Jarek) Duda developed in the early 2000s, and which is now hot tech at companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, mostly because it can improve data compression from 3 to 30 times. Duda says that Google is now trying to register a patent that includes most of the ANS basic principles. Ironically, most of the technology described in the patent, Duda said he explained to Google engineers in a Google Groups discussion from 2014. The researcher already filed a complaint, to which WIPO ISA responded by calling out Google for not coming up with "an inventive contribution over the prior art, because it is no more than a straightforward application of known coding algorithms." A Google spokesperson refused to comment, and the mystery remains surrounding Google's decision to patent something that's in the public domain since 2014.
Facebook

Why RSS Still Beats Facebook and Twitter for Tracking News (gizmodo.com) 108

An anonymous reader shares a report: One of the main reasons RSS is so beloved of news gatherers is that it catches everything a site publishes -- not just the articles that have proved popular with other users, not just the articles from today, not just the articles that happened to be tweeted out while you were actually staring at Twitter. Everything. In our age of information overload that might seem like a bad idea, but RSS also cuts out everything you don't want to hear about. You're in full control of what's in your feed and what isn't, so you don't get friends and colleagues throwing links into your feeds that you've got no interest in reading. Perhaps most importantly, you don't need to be constantly online and constantly refreshing your feeds to make sure you don't miss anything. It's like putting a recording schedule in place for the shows you know you definitely want to catch rather than flicking through the channels hoping you land on something interesting. There's no rush with RSS -- you don't miss out on a day's worth of news, or TV recaps, or game reviews if you're offline for 24 hours. It's all waiting for you when you get back. And if you're on holiday and the unread article count starts to get scarily high, just hit the mark all as read button and you're back to a clean slate.
Government

Should Congress Force Social Media To Investigate Foreign Propaganda Trolls? (politico.com) 266

"I fought foreign propaganda for the FBI," writes a former special agent from its Counterintelligence Division. Now an associate dean at Yale Law School, he's warning that "the tools we had won't work anymore." An anonymous reader quotes Politico: The bureau is now faced with huge private companies, like Facebook and Twitter, which are ostensibly neutral and have no professional or ethical obligation to vet the material they distribute. Further, foreign intelligence service propaganda agents are no longer human operatives on American soil -- they are invisible "trolls," often operating from a foreign country and behind social media accounts that make them impossible for the FBI to approach directly. Or, in the case of so-called bots -- software programs designed to simulate humans -- they might not even be people at all... [S]ocial media platforms can reach an almost limitless audience, often within days or hours, more or less for free: Russia's Facebook ads alone reached between 23 million and 70 million viewers.

Without any direct way to investigate and identify the source of the private accounts that generate this "fake news," there's literally nothing the FBI can do to stop a propaganda operation that can occur on such a massive scale... But Congress could pass legislation that requires social media companies to cooperate with counterintelligence in the same ways they do with law enforcement. For example, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act requires telecommunications companies to design their digital networks in such a way that would permit wiretaps for criminal cases. Similarly, requiring social media platforms to develop ways to vet and authenticate foreign users and proactively report potential bots to the FBI would enable the FBI to identify perception management operations as they are occurring. In addition to monitoring these specific FIS-based accounts, the FBI could publicly expose the source of particular accounts, ads or news...

"At this point, we have no choice: It's clear that our current counterintelligence strategy hasn't caught up to the age of asymmetrical information warfare," the former counterintelligence agent concludes. "Until it does, we'll be silently allowing our freedoms to be manipulated...."
Social Networks

Why It's So Hard To Trust Facebook (cnn.com) 139

Brian Stelter, writing for CNN: Why won't Facebook show the public the propagandistic ads that a so-called Russian troll farm bought last year to target American voters? That lack of transparency is troubling to many observers. "Show us the ads Zuck!" Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jason Calacanis wrote on Twitter when The Washington Post reported on the surreptitious ad buys on Wednesday. Calacanis said Facebook was "profiting off fake news," echoing a widely held criticism of the social network. It was only the latest example of Facebook's credibility problem. For a business based on the concept of friendship, it's proving to be a hard company to trust. On the business side, Facebook's metrics for advertisers have been error-prone, to say the least. Analysts and reporters have repeatedly uncovered evidence of faulty data and measurement mistakes. Facebook's opaqueness has also engendered mistrust in the political arena. Conservative activists have accused the company of censoring right-wing voices and stories. Liberal activists have raised alarms about its exploitation of personal information to target ads. And the news business is worried about the spread of bogus stories and hoaxes on the site. Some critics have even taken to calling Facebook a "surveillance company," seeking to reframe the business the social network is in -- not networking but ad targeting based on monitoring of users. Over at The Verge, Casey Newton documents inconsistencies in Facebook's public remarks over its role in the outcome of the presidential election last year. Newton says Facebook's shifting Russian ads stories and unwillingness to disclose information citing laws (which seem to imply otherwise) are damaging its credibility.
Technology

VR's Tough Demand: Your Undivided Attention (axios.com) 115

Ina Fried, writing for Axios: If you want to know why virtual reality hasn't taken off, you might want to blame our addiction to smartphones. Why? While the power of VR is to be transported into an immersive experience, consumers will demand a lot out of something that makes them give up Twitter and Facebook, even for a few minutes. One perspective: "It has to be a really compelling reason to get you to give up all that," Shauna Heller, a former Oculus worker who now consults on VR projects, said Thursday at the Mobile Future Forward conference near Seattle. "There aren't just a ton of those reasons just yet."
Facebook

Fake Facebook 'Like' Networks Exploited Code Flaw To Create Millions of Bogus 'Likes' (usatoday.com) 34

A thriving ecosystem of websites that allow users to automatically generate millions of fake "likes" and comments on Facebook has been documented by researchers at the University of Iowa. From a report: Working with a computer scientist at Facebook and one in Lahore, Pakistan, the team found more than 50 sites offering free, fake "likes" for users' posts in exchange for access to their accounts, which were used to falsely "like" other sites in turn. The scientists found that these "collusion networks" run by spammers have managed to harness the power of one million Facebook accounts, producing as many as 100 million fake "likes" on the systems between 2015 and 2016. A large number of "likes" can push a posting up in Facebook's algorithm, making it more likely the post will be seen by more people and also making it seem more legitimate.
Facebook

Facebook Finds a New Service To Copy: Tinder (vice.com) 46

An anonymous reader shares a report from Motherboard, written by Jacob Dube: Facebook is trying out a new feature that connects users on its Messenger chat platform, but only if they both accept. It looks a lot like Tinder, except it only appears to be connecting people who are already friends with each other. While using Facebook on my phone Wednesday night, I was greeted by a notification that said "[Name redacted] and 15 others may want to meet up with you this week." When I opened the link, I was taken to a page with photos of my Facebook friends and a question: "Want to meet up with [name redacted] this week?" It indicated that my response would be private unless we both said yes. Tap "No Thanks," and that's the end of it. The feature seems to be in beta, and, though it is currently available to me and a few of my friends in Canada, the rest of Motherboard was unable to access it. It's unclear what the feature might be called. It's not hard to see the similarity between the feature and dating apps like Tinder or Bumble, but the Facebook feature seems to connect you only to people you already know, and could have already reached on the Messenger app. The feature didn't just show me potential love interests, however. It also displayed some of my friends, indicating that it might be used to encourage people who are already friends on Facebook to hang out IRL. "People often use Facebook to make plans with their friends," a Facebook spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. "So, we're running a very small test in the Facebook app to make that easier. We look forward to hearing people's feedback." The test is reportedly limited to a small number of users in parts of Toronto and New Zealand, on iOS and Android.

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