Break up Google and Facebook

One started off life as a search engine. The other was a project started by a bunch of university students in 2004. At their time of launch probably neither Google or Facebook’s initial management probably had any idea in the slightest about what their brain child’s would morph into. But 14 and 15 years later respectively, with billions of dollars in assets, world wide influence best denoted by their dominance of the social media and search engine markets, Google and Facebook are now facing a monster of their own making: a growing movement around the world to rein them in.

It is not only contrary to the spirit of a competitive market place to have such large companies in existence, but also it threatens to control society in a way most people in the West have not realized. For years we used to think Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook were a good thing and so there was little thought given to the fact that there is no regulatory body capable of monitoring and keeping them in line.

Such is Google’s dominance that it is now starting to ask users for data relating to their health. Why you might ask? To create products that can run on it and further diversify its portfolio. The idea, which may seem innocent enough is not actually all that innocent. I said it wants data about your medical issues – in other words it wants to intrude into your private life and some of your most personal affairs.

When it starts doing that, one has to put their foot down and say “enough is enough”. It is clearly obvious that Google’s insatiable appetite is now becoming a problem, that its regard for privacy is completely insincere. Despite hefty E.U. penalties being handed down to the two companies, Google appears not to be able and/or willing to accept that it is causing major harm . Nor can it accept that to dominate a market in the way it does is not competitive at all. The 90% + control of the entire internet search poses no problems if you believe Google executives.

Another company with a problem is Facebook. The company’s disorganization has been well marked by mistakes in their regular features, such as the removal of the calendar feature that enabled one to track back through posts they put up themselves. A Facebook employee named Roger McNamee decided to expose the crooked interior of his employer. He wanted to show how the activities on Facebook of Russian agents hijacked the U.S. Federal election.

Facebook in August was told it might be subject to as much as E1.6 billion in fines for a massive data breach that may have affected as many as 50 million users.It was a breach that enabled misuse of Spotify, Tinder and other applications. But a bigger question remains for a company too big for its own good and that is whether the Government will have the courage to act.

Do not get me wrong. Both Facebook and Google have their uses and have clearly done very well out of all of the users that post on their pages. But if one is not profoundly disturbed and/or disgusted at the possibility of faceless tech having access to your most intimate medical records, then it is questionable whether you were paying attention. We rely heavily on both to do much, myself included. Both can also be accused of having a non-responsive attitude to regular every day issues – almost like “Facebook Help” is just there to enable the user to do the bare minimum and nothing more.

Are Facebook and Google fit to be run as mega businesses that threaten both societal gains and civic security? I think not and believe that the time is now for breaking them up.

Official Information Act a dinosaur that cannot die

When the Official Information Act was conceived, the year was 1982. The internet was still 11 years away. Mobile phones were literally the size of bricks and computers were not common. It was unique for its time with few if any other nations having such legislation purposefully written to open up official information to the public.

In 2019, though the O.I.A. is run down. An agency in 1982 might for example have to collect a significant paper file from the vaults, clear it to be taken to the offices of those who need to see it, scrutinise the file and then take it back once the officials concerned have established what they need to know. It could take days to assemble the information. In 2019 that is not the case any more. Files have been converted electronically into .PDF format or other appropriate formats, all agencies have computers so unless it is a complex request, requesting the information is something that can be done in a matter of minutes.

But somehow the operating procedures that are triggered in carrying out a O.I.A. request for information have not made it into the 21st Century. The O.I.A. is being dragged down by an operating framework that has not adjusted to the environment it is expected to work in.  It cannot meet the myriad of demands placed on it by the New Zealand public, politicians and the bureaucratic and political systems it is supposed to maintain the transparency of.

In some respects it reminds me of dinosaurs around the world in the days and months following the impact of a large meteorite off the coast of what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. The entire food chain was impacted by the vast clouds of dust kicked up, the huge waves that radiated out in all directions. The herbivores, reliant on plants to survive – which were dying off en masse for lack of sunlight – were the first to go, followed by omnivores and finally carnivores.

Now if we look at the Official Information Act, we see that with the rise of social media the 1982 bureaucracy that administers the O.I.A. is simply not up to scratch. It is a potential game changing event because agencies are saying they cannot release the information fast enough or fails to release all that has been requested because of concerns of over release. Ministers and their advisors are running into problems about how, where, when they should view material. It has not gotten around the fact that with electronic files there are a variety of ways to manipulate the information and that it can be done very rapidly.

Some people have suggested that the O.I.A. be abolished – an idea that I find somewhat excessive. The general idea and intent of the Act is fine, but the implementation of it is not. A far better solution would be to overhaul the existing legislation. This needs to happen soon. The O.I.A. cannot become like the dinosaurs did – dead because they could not adjust to the inhospitable environment – but the longer Parliament takes to overhaul it, the greater the risk becomes that someone in a position of power meaning well, but out of sheer frustration, decides the Act should be torn up completely.

Acknowledging the good, the bad and out right ugly of social media

Soon Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will address leaders of the political word and the technological world in Paris. She will be talking about the need to address hate speech on social media and how to stop the spread of videos recorded by attackers in the course of their acts of violence. As we wait for that address it is important to acknowledge the role of social media in our lives – good and bad.

Social media plays a critical role in New Zealand in dispensing information from the authorities. It came into its own during the earthquake emergencies of 2010 and 2011 where for example it was the media platform on which the Student Volunteer Army was launched. In the years since it has been used to update the public during the recent Christchurch terrorist attacks, numerous overseas emergencies such as tsunami events. The same authorities have realized that whilst establishing a channel for criticism of all sorts, and sometimes quite nasty stuff at that, it provides the public with a non urgent means of passing on information, making queries and helping with tasks such as solving crimes.It also helps to build a rapport with various agencies – notably New Zealand Police, New Zealand Defence Force – posting more light hearted content such as the “Pawlice – Doggo’s with Jobbo’s” series of posts of Police dogs and their handlers having fun.

The same social media has by orders of magnitude improved politicians ability to interact with their constituents, campaign during election periods and pass on information. All of the parties in Parliament have Facebook and Twitter accounts, which can be lightning rods of support for media savvy politicians.¬† as evidenced in the United States by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s ability to turn attacks on her back on the attacker (Fox News, Breitbart, et al). In equal measure when a politician does something particularly nasty such as attack a religious minority (Australian Senator Fraser Anning attacked the Muslim community on his Twitter account, which then got suspended), social media accounts become lightning rods of criticism. Given the ability that social media has provided politicians to do much of their constituency work, I cannot imagine any politician who tries to limit social media because of certain networks failure to shut down harmful content following the Christchurch terrorist attack.

Tragically social media when abused can be the focal point of dreadful consequences for some. Examples in point have been numerous and I have often found myself having to call out racism or other bigotted behaviour – comments about people of African descent being monkeys/chimpanzees; Muslims being goat humpers, kiddy fiddlers and such; Maori being barbaric savages, and so it goes on. Sometimes Facebook has done the right thing and blocked the person or taken down the offending content, but just as often it has left highly inflammatory stuff up. I have also found that – although they seem to have had second thoughts about this since – in its early days streaming live coverage of police trying to talk someone out of jumping off a building was apparently a thing and it would attack absolutely horrible commentary.

I have a Facebook account and a Twitter account as well as this blog. I operate three pages on Facebook – one for my Amnesty International group with input from Amnesty International New Zealand head office in Auckland, one calling for comprehensive reform of waste legislation and one for this blog. My Twitter account is so I can comment on tweets in a strictly personal capacity as myself. I owe the success of my blog, which on average at the moment gets about 200 visits a day and on occasion over 1,000 to extensive advertising I have done on Facebook.

The same Facebook, as I am sure is the case for millions around the world, has enabled me to make contact with people I have never met but am now good friends with. It has enabled me to maintain long distance friendships with people in Sweden, the United States and elsewhere. Obviously with family members living both here and abroad, making contact and showing them photos of things like birthdays, weddings, new borns and things the children have been doing, helps to close the distance in a metaphorical sense if not a literal one.

There is absolutely no doubt that we must improve our conduct on Facebook, Twitter and so forth. There is also no doubt that, despite their assertions to the contrary both and others like Instagram can do more. But this idea that all is hunky dory is complete and utter garbage. Don’t believe me? Former Facebook staff member and one of Mr Zuckerberg’s initial inner circle Roger McNamee wrote a book called “Zucked: Waking up to the Facebook catastrophe”. In Whitcoull’s now.

Time for Facebook users to re-examine their presence

As more news emerges about what went on with Analytica, I am sure that there are people who are actively weighing up their future use of Facebook. The revelations about potential misuse of member data to create targetted advertisements that may have influenced the U.S. Presidential election will have infuriated many Americans and non-Americans alike. As Facebook struggles to deal with the allegations swirling around, perhaps it is time for people to have a good hard look at their Facebook accounts.

For some people, their departure from Facebook will be natural in that for whatever reason they had decided it was time to let the social network started by Mark Zuckerberg  go anyway. For others it will come as a reaction to the worsening privacy breaches or the conclusion that their presence on it in terms of content they have put up and content they find is out of their control has gotten too much.

Facebook will not go into immediate decline. Barring Mr Zuckerberg shutting it down himself or some sort of major catastrophe (think of thermo-nuclear war), this network – love or hate it – will probably continue to grow on the back of new users in South Asia, Africa and Latin America.

For me as a user, despite being on Facebook every day, it has peaked. And in some respects it has started to decline. My friends list, despite making new friends outside of it, has remained largely stagnant for the last two years. A number of people who I used to be in semi-regular contact via Facebook Messenger have all but stopped using it, though they still maintain profiles – some of them have not actually posted anything themselves for months. I have taken down my photos from pre-2011 and the other day I downloaded a copy of all that I had put up on Facebook – it appears that I have been on it in some form or another since August 2007.

I know some people who have had business pages on Facebook have faced constant struggles with the company. They have ranged from security of the pages, to content going missing and in some cases the pages being suspended or somehow frozen for reasons that were never clear to them.

For me the constant sponsored advertisements have been a major problem. Having become aware that Facebook uses my content and data to help create targeted adverts and other content, believing that I will somehow change my already dim view of advertizing, I have significantly tightened up my settings.

But what really irks me is this potential global influence Facebook could have on elections around the world. This Analytica scandal and the politics that are happening around the fringe of it (including, but not limited to John Bolton) demonstrate to me that Mr Zuckerberg and his management team somehow believe themselves to be above the summons of elected officials. I am unclear about what domestic and international law says with regards to company officials being able to be summoned to another country to talk about actions that their employer has taken in breach of the law (domestic? international?). That said, I accept to be liable for summons by a particular country, a company may need a physical presence (office)in that country.

At the end of the day it comes down to risk. Unless it is banned by law or physically impossible to access in ones own country, no one is stopping a person from using Facebook, but one accepts that when they agree to the Terms and Conditions of Facebook, they accept that what their data is only safe from potential misuse if it has not been supplied.

The Pokemon craze: a view from the fence

It is difficult to describe how fast Pokemon Go caught on other than it spreading like wild fire. In the roughly five weeks since Pokemon Go was released it has caught the worlds attention in a way no other social media app, game or other feature has managed to. Nations all over the world have caught the craze. The game has brought $160 million in revenue and rewritten the records set by games such as Candy Crush.

Overall Pokemon Go seems to have had some surprising benefits, including major surges in people visiting monuments, religious sites and surprisingly even benefits for law enforcement trying to engage with communities. But with Pokemon Go’s success are coming a number of growing problems. People with disabilities have found that the game is difficult to play because of the physical mobility required to walk places, and groups representing disabled people have sent lists of suggested modifications to the makers in an effort to enable more people to play it.

In some parts of the world Pokemon has become a problem with players being accused of showing disrespect at monuments. In the latest news the Peace Park at Hiroshima surrounding the building above which the first nuclear bomb used in war exploded has been made off limits to Pokemon players. Around key social infrastructure such as fire stations and railway stations bans have been implemented for safety and practical reasons. Numerous countries and institutions have banned or limited its use for varying reasons. In the case of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the game is simply not available in the country because the religious authorities consider it to be a security threat and Saudi Arabia has issued a fatwa against it on the grounds of gambling (despite almost certainly having never played it).

Pokemon’s success has caused other problems as well. So many people are playing it that there has been an inevitable spike in road accidents caused by inattention as some fail to get their priorities right and focus on driving their vehicles instead of playing the game.

I personally do not see the point of Pokemon. However, convinced as I am that it will just be a passing phase I am happy to let it go as long as it does not unduly hinder what I do. Phases come and go all the time in this age of social media and my guess is Pokemon will start to wane in the next couple of months as the nobility of it wears off.