Google, Facebook, and Twitter are platforms. So are some retail sites. What does that mean? It means that they provide the means for people to use their technology to create things for themselves. Most of the time, this is a good thing. People can communicate in ways they never could before such platforms. Likewise, people can sell things to people they never could.
Now these platforms are in a bind, as you can see in this piece and in other places: Google, Facebook, and Twitter Sell Hate Speech Targeted Ads. They are in a bind partly due to their own approach, by boasting of their ability to use AI to stop such things. They should have been much more humble. AI as it currently stands will only take you so far. Instead of relying on things like AI, they need to have better governance mechanisms in place. Governance is a cost of organizations, and often times organizations don’t insert proper governance until flaws like this start to occur.
That said, this particular piece has several weaknesses. First up, this comment: “that the companies are incapable of building their systems to reflect moral values”. It would be remarkable for global companies to build systems to reflect moral values when even within individual nations there is conflicts regarding such values. Likewise the statement: “It seems highly unlikely that these platforms knowingly allow offensive language to slip through the cracks”. Again, define offensive language at a global level. To make it harder still, trying doing it with different languages and different cultures. The same thing occurs on retail sites when people put offensive images on T shirts. For some retail systems no one from the company that own the platform takes time to review every product that comes in.
And that gets to the problem. All these platforms could be mainly content agnostic, the way the telephone system is platform agnostic. However people are expecting them to insert themselves and not be content agnostic. Once that happens, they are going to be in an exceptional bind. We don’t live in a homogenous world where everyone shares the same values. Even if they converted to non-profits and spent a lot more revenue on reviewing content, there would still be limits to what they could do.
To make things better, these platforms need to be humble and realistic about what they can do and communicate that consistently and clearly with the people that use these systems. Otherwise, they are going to find that they are going to be governed in ways they are not going to like. Additionally, they need to decide what their own values are and communicate and defend them. They may lose users and customers, but the alternative of trying to be different things in different places will only make their own internal governance impossible.
Because if you don’t have augmented intelligence, and if you solely depend on AI like software, you get problems like this, whereby automated software triggers an event that a trained human might have picked up on.
AI and ML (machine learning) can be highly probabilistic and limited to the information it is trained on. Having a human involved makes up for those limits. Just like AI can process much more information quicker than a limited human can.
See the link to the New York Times story to see what I mean.
No doubt this game of cat and mouse will go on for some time. For Adblock to prosper, they need to block ads on Facebook. Likewise, for Facebook there is too much money at stake to allow Adblock to block their ads. For details on this, see: Adblock Plus and (a little) more: FB reblock: ad-blocking community finds workaround to Facebook
One thing for sure: developers from both sides will be pushing out changes on a regular basis as this battle heats up.
Of course, behind such tactics, the deeper questions are left unresolved, questions around business models and the viability of services without access to advertising revenue.
There is so much wrong in this article, The Real Bias Built In at Facebook – The New York Times, that I decided to take it apart in this blog post. (I’ve read so many bad IT stories in the Times that I stopped critiquing them after a while, but this one in particular bugged me enough to write something).
To illustrate what I mean by what is wrong with this piece, here’s some excerpts in italics followed by my thoughts in non-italics.
- First off, there is the use of the word “algorithm” everywhere. That alone is a problem. For an example of why that is bad, see section 2.4 of Paul Ford’s great piece on software,What is Code? As Ford explains: ““Algorithm” is a word writers invoke to sound smart about technology. Journalists tend to talk about “Facebook’s algorithm” or a “Google algorithm,” which is usually inaccurate. They mean “software.” Now part of the problem is that Google and Facebook talk about their algorithms, but really they are talking about their software, which will incorporate many algorithms. For example, Google does it here: https://webmasters.googleblog.com/2011/05/more-guidance-on-building-high-quality.html At least Google talks about algorithms, not algorithm. Either way, talking about algorithms is bad. It’s software, not algorithms, and if you can’t see the difference, that is a good indication you should not be writing think pieces about I.T.
- Then there is this quote: “Algorithms in human affairs are generally complex computer programs that crunch data and perform computations to optimize outcomes chosen by programmers. Such an algorithm isn’t some pure sifting mechanism, spitting out objective answers in response to scientific calculations. Nor is it a mere reflection of the desires of the programmers. We use these algorithms to explore questions that have no right answer to begin with, so we don’t even have a straightforward way to calibrate or correct them.” What does that even mean? To me, I think it implies any software that is socially oriented (as opposed to say banking software or airline travel software) is imprecise or unpredictable. But at best, that is only slightly true and mainly false. Facebook and Google both want to give you relevant answers. If you start typing in “restaurants” or some other facilities in Google search box, Google will start suggesting answers to you. These answers will very likely to be relevant to you. It is important for Google that this happens, because this is how they make money from advertisers. They have a way of calibrating and correcting this. In fact I am certain they spend a lot of resources making sure you have the correct answer or close to the correct answer. Facebook is the same way. The results you get back are not random. They are designed, built and tested to be relevant to you. The more relevant they are, the more successful these companies are. The responses are generally right ones.
- “ If Google shows you these 11 results instead of those 11, or if a hiring algorithm puts this person’s résumé at the top of a file and not that one, who is to definitively say what is correct, and what is wrong?” Actually, Google can say, they just don’t. It’s not in their business interest to explain in detail how their software works. They do explain generally, in order to help people insure their sites stay relevant. (See the link I provided above). But if they provide too much detail, bad sites game their sites and make Google search results worse for everyone. As well, if they provide too much detail, they can make it easier for other search engine sites – yes, they still exist – to compete with them.
- “Without laws of nature to anchor them, algorithms used in such subjective decision making can never be truly neutral, objective or scientific.” This is simply nonsense.
- “Programmers do not, and often cannot, predict what their complex programs will do. “ Also untrue. If this was true, then IBM could not improve Watson to be more accurate. Google could not have their sales reps convince ad buyers that it is worth their money to pay Google to show their ads. Same for Facebook, Twitter, and any web site that is dependent on advertising as a revenue stream.
- “Google’s Internet services are billions of lines of code.” So what? And how is this a measure of complexity? I’ve seen small amounts of code that was poorly maintained be very hard to understand, and large amounts of code that was well maintained be very simple to understand.
- “Once these algorithms with an enormous number of moving parts are set loose, they then interact with the world, and learn and react. The consequences aren’t easily predictable. Our computational methods are also getting more enigmatic. Machine learning is a rapidly spreading technique that allows computers to independently learn to learn — almost as we do as humans — by churning through the copious disorganized data, including data we generate in digital environments. However, while we now know how to make machines learn, we don’t really know what exact knowledge they have gained. If we did, we wouldn’t need them to learn things themselves: We’d just program the method directly.” This is just a cluster of ideas slammed together, a word sandwich with layers of phrases without saying anything. It makes it sound like AI has been unleashed upon the world and we are helpless to do anything about it. That’s ridiculous. As well, it’s vague enough that it is hard to dispute without talking in detail about how A.I. and machine learning works, but it seems knowledgeable enough that many people think it has greater meaning.
- “With algorithms, we don’t have an engineering breakthrough that’s making life more precise, but billions of semi-savant mini-Frankensteins, often with narrow but deep expertise that we no longer understand, spitting out answers here and there to questions we can’t judge just by numbers, all under the cloak of objectivity and science.” This is just scaremongering.
- “If these algorithms are not scientifically computing answers to questions with objective right answers, what are they doing? Mostly, they “optimize” output to parameters the company chooses, crucially, under conditions also shaped by the company. On Facebook the goal is to maximize the amount of engagement you have with the site and keep the site ad-friendly.You can easily click on “like,” for example, but there is not yet a “this was a challenging but important story” button. This setup, rather than the hidden personal beliefs of programmers, is where the thorny biases creep into algorithms, and that’s why it’s perfectly plausible for Facebook’s work force to be liberal, and yet for the site to be a powerful conduit for conservative ideas as well as conspiracy theories and hoaxes — along with upbeat stories and weighty debates. Indeed, on Facebook, Donald J. Trump fares better than any other candidate, and anti-vaccination theories like those peddled by Mr. Beck easily go viral. The newsfeed algorithm also values comments and sharing. All this suits content designed to generate either a sense of oversize delight or righteous outrage and go viral, hoaxes and conspiracies as well as baby pictures, happy announcements (that can be liked) and important news and discussions.” This is the one thing in the piece that I agreed with, and it points to the real challenge with Facebook’s software. I think the software IS neutral, in that it is not interested in the content per se as it is how the user is responding or not responding to it. What is NOT neutral is the data it is working off of. Facebook’s software is as susceptible to GIGO (garbage in, garbage out) as any other software. So if you have a lot of people on Facebook sending around cat pictures and stupid things some politicians are saying, people are going to respond to it and Facebook’s software is going to respond to that response.
- “Facebook’s own research shows that the choices its algorithm makes can influence people’s mood and even affect elections by shaping turnout. For example, in August 2014, my analysis found that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm largely buried news of protests over the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., probably because the story was certainly not “like”-able and even hard to comment on. Without likes or comments, the algorithm showed Ferguson posts to fewer people, generating even fewer likes in a spiral of algorithmic silence. The story seemed to break through only after many people expressed outrage on the algorithmically unfiltered Twitter platform, finally forcing the news to national prominence.” Also true. Additionally, Facebook got into trouble for the research they did showing their software can manipulate people by….manipulating people in experiments on them! It was dumb, unethical, and possibly illegal.
- “Software giants would like us to believe their algorithms are objective and neutral, so they can avoid responsibility for their enormous power as gatekeepers while maintaining as large an audience as possible.” Well, not exactly. It’s true that Facebook and Twitter are flirting with the notion of becoming more news organizations, but I don’t think they have decided whether or not they should make the leap or not. Mostly what they are focused on are channels that allow them to gain greater audiences for their ads with few if any restrictions.
In short, like many of the IT think pieces I have seen the Times, it is filled with wrong headed generalities and overstatements, in addition to some concrete examples buried somewhere in the piece that likely was thing that generated the idea to write the piece in the first place. Terrible.
In analysing the donation, Forbes (in The Surprising Math In Mark Zuckerberg’s $45 Billion Facebook Donation) sums it up like this:
Mr. Zuckerberg’s pledge is incredibly generous. But it is also likely to involve some very savvy tax planning.
It’s true, the donation is incredibly generous. You can use all the superlatives you want, and it still amounts to something out of the ordinary. Is the donation financial savvy? Of course, but why shouldn’t it be? Either way, will it be spent well? Possibly, possibly not. For that, we will have to wait and see.
As I read people arguing against the donation, I thought about what the alternatives could be. One alternative is no donation at all. Plenty of very rich people donate only a small fraction of their money to good causes. Young billionaires aspiring to be large benefactors is something that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Another alternative is donations to political causes I disagree with. Quite a few billionaires do that. I prefer to see the billions directed otherwise.
As for people arguing for the donation, I wondered if they considered the alternative of the donation going to taxes or charities. Perhaps Zuckerberg will be very good with directing the money, better than the state or NGOs. I’d like to see a good portion go to them, though. Too little of the wealth of the 1% (or .01%) go to paying taxes that pay for a lot of things like social services and health care and the military and infrastructure. More money to pay for those things would be better. Likewise, well run charities are already up and running and could spend the money in efficient ways that a new organization cannot.
This donation is a positive thing, but you should still be able to think critically of it. Mark Zuckerberg is a smart guy and he’s maturing. Let’s hope he uses his good fortune to do good in the world.
According to Re/code, the New York Times, BuzzFeed and others have received really good terms with Facebook regarding the publishing of “Instant Articles”. For instance:
Facebook’s “Instant Articles” are designed to load, um, instantly on Facebook’s iOS app — which is the heart of Facebook’s pitch.
Facebook lets publishers use their own publishing tools, and then converts stories automatically into a format that works on Facebook’s app. There are also some cool bells and whistles, like a photo and video-panning feature Facebook imported from its all-but-forgotten Paper app. Here’s a demo video:
Facebook will let publishers keep 100 percent of the revenue they sell for “Instant Articles”; if they have unsold inventory Facebook will sell it for them via its own ad network and give publishers 70 percent of that revenue.
Facebook will give “Instant Article” publishers access to performance data on their stuff, provided by Google Analytics and Adobe’s Ominiture.
ComScore, the Web’s most important measurement company, will give “Instant Article” publishers full credit for any traffic those stories generate on Facebook’s app.
Publishers can control much of the look and feel of how Facebook presents their stories; the item BuzzFeed publishes tomorrow won’t be mistaken for National Geographic’s.
Facebook says it won’t alter its algorithm to favor “Instant Articles” over any other kind of content. But given their novelty, and the fact they’re designed to be eye-catching, it seems very likely that these things will get lots of attention at the start.
Very generous. Enticing, even.
I am keen to revisit this in a year from now, to see if Facebook has revised these terms. If Facebook treats these terms like they treat your privacy, in a year or so I expect the revised terms will not be as generous. And if some companies are not careful, they will find they let their own IT teams dwindle and they will have no choice but to stick with Facebook.
If you think this is alarming: Facebook also collects what you decide not to post, tech consultant warns – Technology & Science – CBC News, then I have more news for you.
Not only can Facebook do this, but they can do other things. For example, if they wanted to, they could track where you move your mouse, even if you don’t click on something, using technology like the kind mentioned here: web page mouse tracking – Google Search.
In fact, you don’t even have to go to Facebook to have them track you: Facebook Is Tracking Your Every Move on the Web; Here’s How to Stop It.
And if you use Facebook on your mobile phone, there’s potentially even more information they can track about you.
So, lots of reasons to be concerned. I all but avoid Facebook, but it is not an easy thing to do. In addition, I don’t think Facebook is the only one that does this. They seem to be just the most notorious.
Do you find it weird when you search for something, then go to other sites, and it seems like the product is following you around? Do you worry that sites are tracking information about you and you want to stop it?
I’d like to say there is an easy way to put an end to such tracking, but it doesn’t seem to be so. If anything, companies like Facebook, Google and others have a big financial interest in tracking you, regardless of what you think, and they are going to make it hard for you to put an end to it all.
That said, if you still want to take action, I recommend these links. They highlight tools you can use and steps you can take to limit tracking. You don’t have to be technical to read them, but you have to be comfortable making changes to your system.
- How to prevent Google from tracking you – CNET – this may be the best article that I read. Mostly focused on Google. There are useful links to tools in here and plugins you can use, like Disconnect and Ghostery. Somewhat technical.
- Facebook Is Tracking Your Every Move on the Web; Here’s How to Stop It – This Lifehacker article has more on how to deal with Facebook tracking you than Google, but it is also good.
- How to Stop Google, Facebook and Twitter From Tracking You – this piece from ReadWrite talks mostly about the Disconnect tool, but it does it in conjunction with discussion of some other tools. Seems less technical than the first two, if you found the first two links too hard to follow.
- How to Stop Google From Tracking You on the Web on NDTV Gadgets has tips that are more manual in nature, if you don’t want to download tools. Also some good information on how to deal with mobile phone tracking.
- Delete searches & browsing activity – Accounts Help via Google comes straight from the source of the tracking.
Some thoughts of my own:
- Consider using two browsers: one for your Google use (e.g. Chrome) and one for other uses (e.g. Firefox or Safari). The non-Google browser you can lock down with blockers and other tools, while the Google oriented browser could be limited to just what you need to integrate with Google.
- Avoid sites that track you, like Facebook.I know, it isn’t easy. If you have to go on Facebook — you get a call from a sibling asking why you haven’t commented on the new baby pictures there — limit yourself to a few thumbs up and leave it at that. (Knowing Facebook, they will still find a way to do something with even that data.)
- If you are really concerned, avoid Google altogether and use other search engines, like DuckDuckGo, and other email services, such as Outlook.com. There can still be tracking, but in theory this should make it harder.
- If you use any of tools, get into a habit of using them and keeping them up to date.
- Don’t forget to do the same thing on your mobile devices. Facebook can track your activity on your mobile phone, regardless of what you may be doing on the web. You can be tracked via apps just as easily as you can be tracked from your browser.
- If you do anything else, install the Disconnect plug in and then activate it and go to a newspaper site. You will be amazed just how much tracking is going on. (Also, you do NOT have to sign up for the premium version to get it working.)
Posted in advice, facebook, google, IT
Tagged advice, browsers, computers, Facebook, google, privacy, tracking, twitter
It’s not news that Facebook has been running a modified version of PHP for some time. What is news is that now so can you.
You can get a copy of it at this website:Hack. It installs on most OSs (or will, soon), and even runs in the Cloud (on Heroku).
According to this, Facebook Introduces ‘Hack,’ the Programming Language of the Future | Wired Enterprise | Wired.com, what you get is a high performing version of PHP with very little you have to change to get the performance gains.
It will be interesting to see if this helps to drive up usage in PHP. There are lots of new technologies to build web site with these days: this could make PHP a desirable option.