Facebook and data sovereignty

The transatlantic controversy over Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal is really just starting to unfold. I have no doubt that in the coming days/weeks/months, similar stories will emerge of other third-party applications that have inappropriately saved, shared or misused Facebook user data – CA is far from the first (or last) to do so, however egregiously.

While a lot of the attention right now is around possible regulation of Big Tech (which is good), the underlying issues at play are actually much bigger and more fundamental. Particularly for us in the United States, the fundamental questions are about personal data, our notions of privacy, and how (or whether) we want to prepare legally for the next couple of decades. And I fear that, already, policymakers are thinking much too small about the role of data sovereignty and the balance of power between citizens and a tiny number of corporations that control the information our societies run on.

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Open Source Social

Something I spend a lot of time thinking about is how you’d break open and decentralize the social web.

Today, every social network operates by enticing users with some sort of flashy product feature set (Facebook: engaging content; Snap: ephemeral messaging; Twitter: hot takes; etc.) in order to get them to add their names and behavioral data to a giant database, which the company then sells advertising against. The results are pretty clear: the incentives of this model have led to invasive tracking and loss of user privacy, harassment and abuse, and the gaming of algorithmic feeds to spread conspiracy theories and fake news; Not to mention that Facebook’s manipulation of the content in their News Feed has dealt a body blow to the business model of journalism itself.

It’s easy to imagine how a for-profit social network could be better managed, but at their root, they have to make money, and that will typically mean selling ads. A social network run as some kind of non-profit foundation (like Wikipedia) is one option, but I think there’s a better way: open-source, decentralized social. This is what I’d do if I were a bored billionaire.

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Relevancy and Truth

One of the more non-consensus views I hold is that the most venerable institutions of journalism – eg. The New York Times and Washington Post – are more likely to exist in something approximating their existing form in 50 or 100 years than are the big eyeball platforms like Google and Facebook. The recent controversy over “fake news” on both platforms demonstrates why.

The big criticism of these platforms today boils down to their respective services being increasingly gamed to deliver inaccurate, misleading or offensive content. For Google’s part, fraudulent information will occasionally appear at the top of search results for certain queries, serving up content on how Donald Trump really won the popular vote, or Holocaust denial, or crystals that cure cancer or something. At Facebook, fake news spreads like kudzu among and between communities primed to click on the agitprop of the day. In short, the two companies that organized the world’s information and social graph are grappling with how to handle a fundamental dilemma between relevancy and truth, which strikes to the heart of the advertising model that underlies their respective empires.

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Social platforms and responsibility

I’ve been mulling some words on free speech on the internet for a while, but a couple of pieces on Tyler Cowen’s blog finally moved me to write them down.

Recently there have been many, many white men on the internet extremely concerned about “censorship,” and a lot of credulous observers giving these absurd complaints the time of day. Most of them have the issue precisely backwards. The internet, and democratic society itself, would benefit from a much stronger sense of responsibility by those who own and control the platforms that matter, and by more aggressively nixing toxic and abusive behavior.

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