Google, once disdainful of lobbying, now a master of Washington influence

Google’s Eric Schmidt is no stranger to D.C. He has spent lots of time at the White House and on Capitol Hill lobbying on behalf of his titan technology company. But his relationship with Washington and the Obama administration has not always been a comfortable one.

WRITTEN BYTom HamburgerMatea Gold

PUBLISHED: APRIL 12

In May 2012, the law school at George Mason University hosted a forum billed as a “vibrant discussion” about Internet search competition. Many of the major players in the field were there — regulators from the Federal Trade Commission, federal and state prosecutors, top congressional staffers.

What the guests had not been told was that the day-long academic conference was in large part the work of Google, which maneuvered behind the scenes with GMU’s Law & Economics Center to put on the event. At the time, the company was under FTC investigation over concerns about the dominance of its famed search engine, a case that threatened Google’s core business.

In the weeks leading up to the GMU event, Google executives suggested potential speakers and guests, sending the center’s staff a detailed spreadsheet listing members of Congress, FTC commissioners, and senior officials with the Justice Department and state attorney general’s offices.

“If you haven’t sent out the invites yet, please use the attached spreadsheet, which contains updated info,” Google legal assistant Yang Zhang wrote to Henry Butler, executive director of the law center, according to internal e-mails obtained by The Washington Post through a public records request. “If you’ve sent out the invites, would it be possible to add a few more?”

Butler replied, “We’re on it!”

On the day of the conference, leading technology and legal experts forcefully rejected the need for the government to take action against Google, making their arguments before some of the very regulators who would help determine its fate.

The company helped put on two similar conferences at GMU around the time of the 18-month investigation, part of a broad strategy to shape the external debate around the probe, which found that Google’s search practices did not merit legal action.

The behind-the-scenes machinations demonstrate how Google — once a lobbying weakling — has come to master a new method of operating in modern-day Washington, where spending on traditional lobbying is rivaled by other, less visible forms of influence.

(Read the e-mails between Google and GMU officials)

That system includes financing sympathetic research at universities and think tanks, investing in nonprofit advocacy groups across the political spectrum and funding pro-business coalitions cast as public-interest projects.

The rise of Google as a top-tier Washington player fully captures the arc of change in the influence business.

Nine years ago, the company opened a one-man lobbying shop, disdainful of the capital’s pay-to-play culture.

Since then, Google has soared to near the top of the city’s lobbying ranks, placing second only to General Electric incorporate lobbying expenditures in 2012 and fifth place in 2013.

The company gives money to nearly 140 business trade groups, advocacy organizations and think tanks, according to a Post analysis of voluntary disclosures by the company, which, like many corporations, does not reveal the size of its donations. That’s double the number of groups Google funded four years ago.

This summer, Google will move to a new Capitol Hill office, doubling its Washington space to 55,000 square feet — roughly the size of the White House.

Google’s increasingly muscular Washington presence matches its expanded needs and ambitions as it has fended off a series of executive- and legislative-branch threats to regulate its activities and well-funded challenges by its corporate rivals.

Today, Google is working to preserve its rights to collect consumer data — and shield it from the government — amid a backlash over revelations that the National Security Agency tapped Internet companies as part of its surveillance programs. And it markets cloud storage and other services to federal departments, including intelligence agencies and the Pentagon.

“Technology issues are a big — and growing — part of policy debates in Washington, and it is important for us to be part of that discussion,” said Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York who works as Google’s top lobbyist. “We aim to help policymakers understand Google’s business and the work we do to keep the Internet open and spur economic opportunity.”

Molinari added, “We support associations and third parties across the political spectrum who help us get the word out — even if we don’t agree with them on 100 percent of issues.”

Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York, works as Google’s top lobbyist in Washington.

Susan Molinari, a Republican former congresswoman from New York, works as Google’s top lobbyist in Washington.

As Google’s lobbying efforts have matured, the company has worked to broaden its appeal on both sides of the aisle. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is a well-known backer of President Obama and advises the White House. Google’s lobbying corps — now numbering more than 100 — is split equally, like its campaign donations, among Democrats and Republicans.

Google executives have fostered a new dialogue between Republicans and Silicon Valley, giving money to conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Federalist Society. While also supporting groups on the left, Google has flown conservative activists to California for visits to its Mountain View campus and a stay at the Four Seasons Hotel.

The company has also pioneered new and unexpected ways to influence decision-makers, harnessing its vast reach. It has befriended key lawmakers in both parties by offering free training sessions to Capitol Hill staffers and campaign operatives on how to use Google products that can help targetvoters.

Through a program for charities, Google donates in-kind advertising, customized YouTube channels and Web site analytics to think tanks that are allied with the company’s policy goals.

Google “fellows” — young lawyers, writers and thinkers paid by the company — populate elite think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the New America Foundation.

To critics, Google’s investments have effectively shifted the national discussion away from Internet policy questions that could affect the company’s business practices. Groups that might ordinarily challenge the policies and practices of a major corporation are holding their fire, those critics say.

“Google’s influence in Washington has chilled a necessary and overdue policy discussion about the impact of the Internet’s largest firm on the future of the Internet,” said Marc Rotenberg, a Georgetown University law professor who runs the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a watchdog and research organization.

CONTINUED:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/how-google-is-transforming-power-and-politicsgoogle-once-disdainful-of-lobbying-now-a-master-of-washington-influence/2014/04/12/51648b92-b4d3-11e3-8cb6-284052554d74_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200

Apple’s Spotty Record of Giving Back To the Tech Industry

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Given Apple’s status as the world’s most valuable company and its enormous cash hoard, the refusal to offer even meager support to open source and industry groups is puzzling. From the article: ‘Apple bundles software from the Apache Software Foundation with its OS X operating system, but does not financially support the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) in any way. That is in contrast to Google and Microsoft, Apple’s two chief competitors, which are both Platinum sponsors of ASF — signifying a contribution of $100,000 annually to the Foundation. Sponsorships range as low as $5,000 a year (Bronze), said Sally Khudairi, ASF’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations. The ASF is vendor-neutral and all code contributions to the Foundation are done on an individual basis. Apple employees are frequent, individual contributors to Apache. However, their employer is not, Khudairi noted. The company has been a sponsor of ApacheCon, a for-profit conference that runs separately from the Foundation — but not in the last 10 years. “We were told they didn’t have the budget,” she said of efforts to get Apple’s support for ApacheCon in 2004, a year in which the company reported net income of $276 million on revenue of $8.28 billion.

~Slashdot~

Are Google and Facebook Just Pretending They Want Limits on NSA Surveillance?

By Elise Ackerman

Photo via Flickr user Ludovic Toinel

Revelations about the National Security Agency’s most controversial surveillance program, which centers on the bulk collection of hundreds of billions of records of Americans’ phone conversations, were quickly greeted with calls for reform by major internet powerhouses like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo last year. But all four companies, along with dozens of other major tech firms, are actively opposing an initiative to prevent NSA spying known as the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, leaning on secretive industry lobbying groups while they profess outrage in official statements.

Virtually immediate public condemnation of government spying put the industry in an uncomfortable position when the Snowden leaks began pouring out in June 2013, and in carefully written responses to news reports claiming that they’d cooperated with the now notorious PRISM apparatus, these tech companies emphasized their compliance with existing laws that require them to hand over user data under certain conditions.

“When governments ask Facebook for data, we review each request carefully to make sure they always follow the correct processes and all applicable laws, and then only provide the information if [it] is required by law,” Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, wrote in a blog post last June. “We will continue fighting aggressively to keep your information safe and secure.”

Statements like this suggest Zuckerberg and his industry peers would support legislative efforts to rein in surveillance, and it’s true that they’ve called for reform in letters to the Senate Judiciary Committee applauding a bill known as the USA Freedom Act. Google, Facebook, and six other tech giants have even hired a firm that claims to fight NSA surveillance on their behalf.

The real action, however, has been much subtler, with the industry wielding its influence behind closed doors using two lobbying groups to oppose certain restrictions on internet surveillance: the IT Alliance for Public Sector (ITAPS) and the State Privacy and Security Coalition (SPSC). A look at the actions of these two groups suggests that the companies want reform, sure, but only on terms that don’t affect their day-to-day business.

In particular, VICE has uncovered that ITAPS and SPSC have sent letters to politicians lobbying against the Fourth Amendment Protection Act, a wide-sweeping bill that would limit the NSA’s ability to read private electronic communications without a warrant.

Anti-surveillance bills have been introduced over the past year in more than half the states in the union, ranging from narrow laws that would require warrants for location data and email to more sweeping efforts to fight back against federal intrusions by outlawing cooperation with government agencies that engage in electronic-data collection without a warrant. The Fourth Amendment Protection Act, which has been introduced in more than a dozen states, denies state resources to federal agencies that collect electronic data without a warrant, and to companies that do the agencies’ dirty work for them. Drafted last year by a small group of nonpartisan legal activists affiliated with the Tenth Amendment Center and the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the bill is a grassroots attempt to force the NSA to change its data-collection practices—a position that has since been endorsed by the president and members of Congress, albeit in more limited form.

“I think this bill is in the finest traditions of state governments opposing federal encroachments,” said Bruce Fein, a former associate deputy attorney general and general counsel to the Federal Communications Commission at a March hearing in Maryland. “It’s important to remember that the Fourth Amendment right to privacy was the spark of the American revolution.”

State legislatures around the country have held a number of hearings on the bill, including one last month in Maryland. During these hearings, groups representing law enforcement and district attorneys have complained that the proposed legislation is too broad and would hamper criminal investigations and prosecutions. But corporate adversaries of the act have been conspicuously absent. They haven’t engaged in a public debate about the law, such as the one Google’s Larry Page called for during his appearance at the TED 2014 conference in Seattle.

In states such as California, Tennesse, and Missouri, state legislators aren’t required to discole their contacts with industry front groups under existing public records laws. When I tried to verify which government officials have been contacted by ITAPS and the SPSC, elected officials were naturally reluctant to acknowledge them. Two lawmakers—State Senator Stacey Campfield, a Republican from Tennessee, and State Senator Joel Anderson, a Republican from California—indicated they had not been contacted by the groups, though documents obtained by VICE confirmed that they had both received letters from ITAPS.

Only one lawmaker, State Senator Ted Lieu of California, voluntarily provided a copy of the letter he had received from ITAPS, a division of the Information Technology Industry Council (ITI). Founded in 1916, ITI claims to be the tech industry’s oldest trade association. It describes itself as the “premier advocacy and policy organization for the world’s leading innovation companies” and prides itself on providing “creative solutions and policy advocacy that advance the development and use of technology around the world.” In addition to the internet giants, the 56 members of ITI listed on its website include Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, IBM, Oracle, and Samsung.

In a February 20 letter to State Senator Lieu, Carol Henton, a vice president of ITAPS, said that the anti-surveillance bill would have “negative implications for companies that are seeking to make manufacturing and business investments in the state of California.” Henton specifically objected to a provision of the bill that barred state agencies, employees, and contractors from using public funds to engage in any activity that aids the federal government from collecting any individual’s electronic data without a warrant. “Many California-based companies provide technology goods and analytic services which are important to the provision of national and homeland security for U.S. citizens and this would seem to unnecessarily jeopardize their ability to compete for business with the state or political subdivisions,” Henton wrote.

Henton met with Lieu’s office in the first week of April. In an interview responding to some questions I had about the meeting, Lieu said that Henton and others appeared to be misinterpreting the bill, but added that he has been contacted by multiple companies and stakeholders and that he was going to amend the bill to reflect their concerns.

James Halpert, general counsel for the SPSC, said in an interview that it wasn’t fair that companies that complied with requests from the NSA—as is required by existing law—would be barred from state contracts. “The bill would place many of our members in an impossible, Catch-22 situation—be held in contempt of court or be disqualified from contracts with the State of Arizona or any political subdivision,” he wrote in a February 10 letter to State Senator Kelli Ward of Arizona. Formed in 2008 with the goal of harmonizing state and federal legislation, the SPSC includes AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cox Communications, and Time Warner Cable, along with Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo. Members discuss state legislation in a weekly call with Halpert.

In his letter, Halpert warned that the bill would have unintended consequences. “For example, if the Arizona state government or any locality uses Microsoft Outlook or Google email services, it would not be able to continue doing so under SB 1156 (Arizona’s version of the Fourth Amendment Protection Act) because both companies are legally required to provide evidence to the federal government. Instead, Arizona and its subdivisions would have to cease using those services and find new—potentially more expensive—providers,” he wrote.

Michael Maharrey, a spokesman for the Tenth Amendment Center, said Halpert’s concerns could be addressed relatively easily with an amendment that clarifies that the bill would not apply to companies that were forced to provide user data in response to a court order. But Henton’s letter indicates the tech companies’ objections run much deeper. “ITAPS is essentially opposed to the bill because it will do what the bill is intended to do,” Maharrey said in an interview. “The intent of that section is to stop the companies from cooperating with the NSA and violating our civil liberties. We want companies to make a choice.”

It’s not a choice the companies themselves care to make. Principles such as requiring the government to obtain a search warrant based on probable cause to access a person’s private communications or documents stored online sound great in the abstract, but not, apparently, at the expense of achieving traditional business goals.

http://www.vice.com/read/are-google-and-facebook-just-pretending-they-want-limits-on-nsa-surveillance?utm_source=vicenewsletter

How the Internet Is Taking Away America’s Religion

Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.

That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?

Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.

Downey’s data comes from the General Social Survey, a widely respected sociological survey carried out by the University of Chicago, that has regularly measure people’s attitudes and demographics since 1972.

In that time, the General Social Survey has asked people questions such as: “what is your religious preference?” and “in what religion were you raised?” It also collects data on each respondent’s age, level of education, socioeconomic group, and so on. And in the Internet era, it has asked how long each person spends online. The total data set that Downey used consists of responses from almost 9,000 people.

Downey’s approach is to determine how the drop in religious affiliation correlates with other elements of the survey such as religious upbringing, socioeconomic status, education, and so on.

He finds that the biggest influence on religious affiliation is religious upbringing—people who are brought up in a religion are more likely to be affiliated to that religion later.

However, the number of people with a religious upbringing has dropped since 1990. It’s easy to imagine how this inevitably leads to a fall in the number who are religious later in life. In fact, Downey’s analysis shows that this is an important factor. However, it cannot account for all of the fall or anywhere near it. In fact, that data indicates that it only explains about 25 percent of the drop.

He goes on to show that college-level education also correlates with the drop. Once it again, it’s easy to imagine how contact with a wider group of people at college might contribute to a loss of religion.

Since the 1980s, the fraction of people receiving college level education has increased from 17.4 percent to 27.2 percent in the 2000s. So it’s not surprising that this is reflected in the drop in numbers claiming religious affiliation today. But although the correlation is statistically significant, it can only account for about 5 percent of the drop, so some other factor must also be involved.

That’s where the Internet comes in. In the 1980s, Internet use was essentially zero, but in 2010, 53 percent of the population spent two hours per week online and 25 percent surfed for more than 7 hours.

This increase closely matches the decrease in religious affiliation. In fact, Downey calculates that it can account for about 25 percent of the drop.

That’s a fascinating result. It implies that since 1990, the increase in Internet use has had as powerful an influence on religious affiliation as the drop in religious upbringing.

At this point, it’s worth spending a little time talking about the nature of these conclusions. What Downey has found is correlations and any statistician will tell you that correlations do not imply causation. If A is correlated with B, there can be several possible explanations. A might cause B, B might cause A, or some other factor might cause both A and B.

But that does not mean that it is impossible to draw conclusions from correlations, only that they must be properly guarded. “Correlation does provide evidence in favor of causation, especially when we can eliminate alternative explanations or have reason to believe that they are less likely,” says Downey.

For example, it’s easy to imagine that a religious upbringing causes religious affiliation later in life. However, it’s impossible for the correlation to work the other way round. Religious affiliation later in life cannot cause a religious upbringing (although it may color a person’s view of their upbringing).

It’s also straightforward to imagine how spending time on the Internet can lead to religious disaffiliation. “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally,” says Downey. “Conversely, it is harder (but not impossible) to imagine plausible reasons why disaffiliation might cause increased Internet use.”

There is another possibility, of course: that a third unidentified factor causes both increased Internet use and religious disaffiliation. But Downey discounts this possibility. “We have controlled for most of the obvious candidates, including income, education, socioeconomic status, and rural/urban environments,” he says.

If this third factor exists, it must have specific characteristics. It would have to be something new that was increasing in prevalence during the 1990s and 2000s, just like the Internet. “It is hard to imagine what that factor might be,” says Downey.

That leaves him in little doubt that his conclusion is reasonable. “Internet use decreases the chance of religious affiliation,” he says.

But there is something else going on here too. Downey has found three factors—the drop in religious upbringing, the increase in college-level education and the increase in Internet use—that together explain about 50 percent of the drop in religious affiliation.

But what of the other 50 percent? In the data, the only factor that correlates with this is date of birth—people born later are less likely to have a religious affiliation. But as Downey points out, year of birth cannot be a causal factor. “So about half of the observed change remains unexplained,” he says.

So that leaves us with a mystery. The drop in religious upbringing and the increase in Internet use seem to be causing people to lose their faith. But something else about modern life that is not captured in this data is having an even bigger impact.

What can that be? Answers please in the comments section.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/1403.5534: Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use

 

http://www.technologyreview.com/view/526111/how-the-internet-is-taking-away-americas-religion/

Why No One Trusts Facebook To Power The Future

Facebook has a perception problem—consumers just don’t trust it.

http://commonstupidman.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Facebook-Buys-WattsApp-Facebook-Announced-To-Buy-WhatsApp-for-19-billion.jpg

April 03, 2014

In the coming years, one billion more people will gain access to the Internet thanks to drones and satellites hovering in the stratosphere.

And soon, we’ll be able to sit down with friends in foreign countries and immerse ourselves in experiences never previously thought possible, simply by slipping on a pair of virtual reality goggles.

These aren’t just gaseous hypotheticals touted by Silicon Valley startups, but efforts led by one company, whose mission is to make the world more open and connected. If one company actually pulled off all of these accomplishments, it might seem like people would fall in love with it—but once you know it’s Facebook, you might feel differently. And you’re not alone.

Facebook has a perception problem, which is largely driven by the fact it controls huge amounts of data and uses people as fodder for advertising. Facebook has been embroiled in numerous privacy controversies over the years, and was built from the ground up by a kid who basically double-crossed his Harvard colleagues to pull it off in the first place.

These days, Facebook appears to be growing up by taking billion-dollar bets on future technology hits like WhatsApp and Oculus in order to expedite its own puberty.

Its billion-dollar moves in recent weeks point to a new Facebook, one that takes risks investing in technologies that have not yet borne fruit, but could easily be the “next big thing” in tech. One such investment, the $2 billion acquisition of Oculus, left many people scratching their heads as to why a social network would pick up a technology that arguably makes people less social, since Oculus is all about immersive gaming. At least the WhatsApp purchase makes a little more sense strategy-wise, even if the $19 billion deal was bad for users.

So begins Facebook’s transition from a simple social network to a full-fledged technology company that rivals Google, moonshot for moonshot.

Companies need to keep things fresh in order to make us want them, but Facebook, like Barney Stintson from How I Met Your Mother, just can’t shake its ultimately flawed nature and gain the trust of consumers.

The Ultimate Data Hoard

If you think you’re in control of your personal information, think again.

Perhaps the largest driver of skepticism towards Facebook is the level of control it gives users—which is arguably limited. Sure, you can edit your profile so other people can’t see your personal information, but Facebook can, and it uses your data to serve advertisers.

Keep in mind: This is information you provided just once in the last 10 years—for instance, when you first registered your account and offered up your favorite movies, TV shows and books—is now given tangentially to advertisers or companies wanting a piece of your pocketbook.

Not even your Likes can control what you see in your news feed anymore. Page updates from brands, celebrities, or small businesses that you subscribed to with a “Like” are omitted from your News Feed when page owners refuse to pay. Your Like was once good enough to keep an update on your News Feed, but now the company is cutting the flow of traffic and limiting status views by updating its algorithms—a move many people think is unfair, if not shiesty.

It’s not just Page posts taking a hit, audience-wise—even your own posts could be seen by fewer people if Facebook deems them “low-quality.”

To help eliminate links it doesn’t consider “news” like Upworthy or ViralNova, Facebook tweaked its algorithm to show fewer low-quality posts in favor of more newsworthy material, like stories from The New York Times. Of course, most people appreciate this move since click-bait links can get truly annoying, but it’s concerning that Facebook has so much control over the firehose of information you put in front of your eyes every single day.

Facebook owns virtually all the aspects of the social experience—photos (Instagram), status updates (Facebook), location services (Places)—but it has also become your social identity thanks to Facebook Login, which allows it to integrate with almost everything else on the Internet. This means if you’re not spending time on Facebook, you’re using Facebook to spend time online elsewhere.

It’s this corporate control of traffic that leads to frustration from those that believe Facebook owns too much, and that working with Facebook is like smacking the indie community hard across the face.

In a sense, people are stuck. They initially trusted a company with their data and information, and in return, those people feel—often justifiably—that they’re being taken advantage of. When the time comes for someone to abandon Facebook, whether over privacy concerns or frustration with the company, Facebook intentionally makes it hard to leave.

Even if you delete your account, your ghost remains. Your email address is still tied to a Facebook account and your face is still recognizably tagged as you, even if the account it’s associated with has vanished. In this way, Facebook is almost like any other cable company—even when you die, Facebook can still make money off you. And that’s not behavior fit for a company that’s poised to take over the future.

Leveling Up

Facebook missed the boat on mobile, and its much-maligned Android application interface Facebook Home was a major failure. Though Home was a small step into hardware, it was one users clearly didn’t want.

Now Facebook is dreaming bigger. With recent acquisitions like Oculus and drone maker Titan Aerospace, the company is looking to expand outside of its social shell and be taken seriously as a technology company and moonshot manufacturer.

Facebook’s well-known slogan “move fast and break things” is regularly applied to new products and features—undoubtedly a large part of Home’s initial failure. The company is ready to try again, this time with technologies and applications that consumers aren’t yet familiar with. But this has created more questions than answers in the eyes of users and investors. And that’s not good for a company with an existing perception problem like Facebook.

People see Facebook moving fast and breaking things to serve its own purposes, not for the benefit of the Internet, or in the case of Oculus, the benefit of dedicated fans.

Facebook isn’t leaving the social realm, at least not yet. It’s still relying on the flagship website to power its larger plans, particularly Internet.org, which aims to bring the next billion people online.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants a Facebook that connects the world, becoming a convenient way for people to find one another, and a gateway for Internet connectivity in developing countries.

Zuckerberg announced last week how he plans to bring the Internet.org initiative into fruition—and it sounds like a plan straight out of a sci-fi novel. The company is putting its newly-acquired drones to work, powering the Internet in communities that don’t yet have it, which is being accompanied by other technologies like lasers and satellites to distribute the connectivity in largely-populated areas.

When Zuckerberg first announced Internet.org, he initially threw shade at Google’s similar Project Loon, which attempts to connect the world via Wi-Fi balloons.

“Drones have more endurance than balloons while also being able to have their location precisely controlled,” he wrote in a white paper explaining the project. Of course regardless of the method, with more people online, Facebook will control more data and information, and have a larger pool of people to use for advertising.

To gain more users—and keep the ones it has—Facebook needs to change. But when Facebook’s CEO starts talking about drones and lasers powering the Internet, despite the company’s history of reckless privacy policies, it immediately sets off red flags for users.

Facebook Is Growing Up

Last October, when Facebook finally admitted teenagers were abandoning the network for other hot services like Snapchat and Tumblr, the Internet heaved a collective, “Told you so!” 

But teens aren’t the future for Facebook. Zuckerberg’s company has ambitions that go beyond selfies. It can’t remain the same forever, especially if it wants to stay relevant in the ever-changing technological landscape.

Facebook wants to build the Internet’s future infrastructure. It wants to be a part of the technology of that power the next billion people’s online experiences ten more years down the road. Zuckerberg has personally tried to bolster his raw perception with his $1 salary—a symbolic gesture, sure, but nothing Steve Jobs or Bill Gates hadn’t done before.

To build and control the future it wants, it will have to “be more cool” and ease up on its control of users. Facebook has many exciting projects, but it won’t have an audience left unless it addresses its perception problem. Trust is paramount, especially on the Internet, and people need to know that Facebook is making things to improve the human experience, not just spending billions to make even more billions off our personal information.

Facebook has a great opportunity to improve its image with its exciting multi-billion dollar acquisitions. Prove to us you don’t just care about money, Facebook, and perhaps we’ll all realize how much you really have grown in the last 10 years.

Lead image by Madeleine Weiss for ReadWrite; Oculus Rift photo by Adriana Lee for ReadWrite; drone photo courtesy of Titan Aerospace

http://readwrite.com/2014/04/03/facebook-whatsapp-oculus-drones-lasers#awesm=~oAHsnDifdw62lz

Google snoops on public Wi-Fi networks

 

…then asks the Supreme Court to defend it

 

By Nathaniel Mott

 

Google has asked the United States Supreme Court to consider its case that collecting emails, passwords, and other personal information as part of its Street View program was legal.

The request comes after the company failed to persuade an appeals court that gathering the data was protected by the Wiretap Act because it “only” collected unencrypted information from public networks that anyone could access. Circuit Judge Jay Bybee wrote in the court’s decision that this defense is faulty. ”Even if it is commonplace for members of the general public to connect to a neighbor’s unencrypted Wi-Fi network,” Bybee wrote, “members of the general public do not typically mistakenly intercept, store, and decode data transmitted by other devices on the network.” Snooping on public Wi-Fi networks is not allowed by the Act, Bybee and the other judges hearing the case decided, and the lawsuit was allowed to continue.

Google thinks otherwise. It argues in its request that the appeals court’s decision threatens the Act’s ability to protect Americans from having their phone calls intercepted because of how it defines “radio waves.” Furthermore, Google claims it ”fails to account for modern technological developments and will have wide-ranging harmful consequences,” arguing that because security professionals sometimes accidentally gather information from public Wi-Fi networks that this decision will prevent them from doing their jobs.

Wired contests those claims. ”If the Supreme Court hears the case and eventually rules that unencrypted Wi-Fi sniffing is legal, that might be seen as a boon to criminals who eavesdrop on public access points to sniff out passwords or credit card numbers,” it notes in its report. Put another way: Google’s contention that its collection of medical records, private messages, and other personal information should be ignored because any arguments against that right will create more problems than they solve is deceitful. But Google isn’t worried about that — the company has a history of relying on underhanded defenses of the Street View program.

In December 2013, Pando’s Yasha Levine described Google’s attempts to confound Federal Communications Commission investigators as they looked into the Street View program:

As FCC regulators struggled to get a handle on Google’s mass surveillance program, the company used every corporate crisis management trick in the book to avoid scrutiny. It issued a series of shifting denials that its Street View cars collected wireless transmissions, ignored requests for documents, misled investigators about the extent of its data collection and, in a last ditch effort, tried shifting the blame for the whole thing on a single Google engineer. The company claimed that this employee had gone rogue, building and deploying the Wi-Fi surveillance feature without approval of his superiors.

In the end, FCC investigators obtained documents and internal correspondence showing without a doubt that upper management knew about and signed off on Street View’s wiretapping capabilities. And even more disturbing: the FCC obtained emails showing Google had been analyzing and integrating the data that it had intercepted.

Google hasn’t offered an honest defense of its Street View program in all the years that government officials have been investigating its systematic erosion of consumer privacy. The company claims that the information gathered from public Wi-Fi networks was collected by accident, but then analyzed that very data it had intercepted. It argues that any decision against its right to collect that information could further endanger the privacy of millions of people, but seems to think that its attempts to gather personal information should be protected by the same laws it hopes to undermine. Now Google wants to bring the Supreme Court into the mix.

Perhaps the company could use Street View to find the “don’t be evil” principles it once held.

Reactions from around the Web

Ars Technica notes how important a Supreme Court verdict on this issue would be:

Google wants the Supreme Court to reverse a decision concluding that the media giant could be held liable for hijacking data on unencrypted Wi-Fi routers via its Street View cars.

The legal flap should concern anybody who uses open Wi-Fi connections in public places like coffee houses and restaurants. That’s because Google claims it is not illegal to intercept data from Wi-Fi signals that are not password protected.

PCWorld adds further background on the case and notes that the FCC’s unwillingness to bring Google to bear could assist it if the Supreme Court decides to hear its argument:

Between 2007 and 2010, Google equipped its Street View cars with Wi-Fi antennas and software that collected data transmitted by Wi-Fi networks in nearby homes and businesses, which included both network identifying information and so-called payload data transmitted over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks. The company acknowledged in May 2010 that it had inadvertently collected some personal data from unencrypted networks and apologized for it.

Google in its appeal to the Supreme Court does not, however, accept that the collection of the data was illegal, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission declined to take enforcement action after investigating Google, including for possible violations under the Wiretap Act.

Pando weighs in

Yasha Levine’s continued coverage of the scandal from December 2013:

And the most troubling part of the story: we would have never found out about any of this, if it hadn’t been for a few persistent German regulators, who hounded Google and forced it to disclose its internal Street View documentation. Without them, Google would still be spying on our internet traffic, and we’d be none the wiser.

Google’s Street View program showed the dangers of allowing seemingly benevolent technology companies to deploy powerful surveillance technology in public spaces with zero oversight. It also showed how little power the average person has against a giant company like Google, how little protection or recourse we have.

A Program to Control Internet Communications?

The Drones of Facebook (and the NSA)

by ALFREDO LOPEZ

“Connectivity,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a CNN interview last year, “is a human right.”

If it surprises you that one of the kings of the corporate Internet would repeat a slogan used by Internet activists to mobilize against companies like his, examine the context. Zuckerberg made his remark to support and explain a new set of Facebook strategies that will, if successful, put the world’s Internet connectivity under his company’s control.

It’s called internet.org which is not only a real website but a consortium of companies and government agencies Facebook is leading. The very name — “internet.org” — also provides a glimpse of Facebook’s intentions.

Using a combination of drones, satellites and other technologies, Facebook seeks to bring connectivity to the entire world. The picture is remarkable: Facebook satellites and drones with six month life cycles will bounce every connection signals (like Wify) to people in every corner of the earth. Every human being will now have access to the Internet.

On its face, it’s a wonderful idea until you realize that this would put all the world’s connectivity in the hands of one company and a coalition of partners it’s brought on to realize the project. Those partners, by the way, include — are you ready? — the National Security Agency of the United States.

Zuckerberg reminds us that this isn’t imminent; it’s a project for what he calls “the far-off future”. But he doesn’t explain how far off “far-off” is. Connectivity projects are a process and portions of the world would be progressively “hooked up”. In fact, his company has already invested $1 billion in the project and, he says, will continuously invest a lot more.

The people of the world are, Zuckerman says, “… going to use it to decide what kind of government they want, get access to healthcare for the first time ever, connect with family hundreds of miles away that they haven’t seen in decades.”

The Facebook announcements followed by a year an announcement by Google that it’s researching how to use huge balloons to bring the Internet to the world or at least to remote locations in it. Google calls it “Project Loon”.

The obscene irony in using drone technology (used, among many other things, to kill thousands of people a year) to bring the human race together is offensive, but the very real threat posed by putting most people’s communications in the hands of one company is deeply disturbing. To grasp that threat and the reason behind these initiatives, one must understand that this is a corporate response to a very real problem.

If you live in the United States (or one of what are commonly called “developed countries), most people you know are probably connected in some way to the Internet. In fact, over 70 percent of the households in this country are Internet- capable. The same is roughly true of Canada, much of Europe, Japan and the People’s Republic of China. But Africa is a different story: only 7 percent are connected there. Latin America varies with about 30 percent of Mexico connected, 60 percent in Brazil (one of the leading Internet countries) and about 55 percent in Venezuela, but less than 20 percent in most of the other countries. Besides China and Japan, Asia , at under 20 percent connected, is almost as unconnected as Africa.

(Here’s an interactive map with the precise numbers by country.)

The implications of the problem are obvious: people can’t communicate in those places like they can here and that frustrates the very purpose of the Internet, curtailing the possibilities it provides for collaboration and social change.

The reasons for the problem are just as obvious. For one thing, technology is hampered by under-developed infrastructure — the absence of the electricity and telephone wires we take for granted and that the Internet thrives on. Additionally, governments in many of these countries are reluctant to prioritize communications — often for obvious reasons, since a communicating population often overthrows bad governments. Finally, there are tight and restrictive controls placed on these regions by the communications companies that serve them. Nobody is looking to expand the Internet very aggressively in much of the world.

That’s a problem for most us but it’s a different kind of problem for Facebook. While activists and organizers see the problem as an impediment to organizing, Facebook sees the problem in terms of market. Right now, the ubiquitous social networking giant has about a billion people signed up. If you don’t think that’s marketing gold, consider the fact that Zuckerman’s stock in Facebook is now worth about $3 billion. But capitalists don’t sit around counting their money like Mafia chieftans; they look for ways to make more of it. If Facebook is going to expand its user-base, and to cash in on the advertising revenues those numbers generate, it has to look to the rest of the world. To do that, it has to put the rest of the world on-line.

While the intent is the same, the reasons underscore the divergence in potential outcomes. If you connect a population to the Internet, and it depends on that connection, your ability to turn it off gives you virtually dictatorial powers. Governments in some countries have, in the recent past, shut off portions of the Internet to their populations — a means of political control or for the quashing of growing social movements. Activists can get around those restrictions using other lines of communication or other systems…provided they can access them. But it one company can stop all access, that option for free communication is gone.

But the more pressing problem is in terms of content delivery. With the recent court decision on Net Neutrality, a providing company has power to provide fuller access to some sites and to slow access to others. It can now, under the law, simply deny access to certain content to its users. When a company controls access for 10 million users (like Comcast, for instance), the outcome is horrible. But when a company controls access for several billion, it’s devastating.

What’s even more disturbing is who Facebook is partnering with. What in the world is the NSA doing as part of this “connect the world” coalition? Facebook will only say the NSA is working on research to use its satellite system to expand connectivity. But if the agency is handling that chunk of connectivity, what will that mean for people’s privacy and rights?

The NSA spies on everyone it can. It collects all the data it can. It has shown no respect for people’s rights or for constitutional restrictions. It is a criminal organization and, under this plan, it would control Internet access for large parts of the world.

Are all these horrors coming to fruition?

Many “experts” and pundits would caution us against being paranoid. The project is far off from completion although the technology for it is actually feasible and could be put in place in a couple of years. You have to negotiate with countries and other companies and all that takes time, as several technology columnists have pointed out.

But if you have that kind of power, negotiations can be scaled down to a matter of money — a fee paid to any specific government and, in this technology world, money talks. How may cash-starved developing country governments, offered usage fees and basic “authority” over their people’s connectivity, are going to turn down an offer to put their population on line? All Facebook would have to do is assure a government some basic “control”.

Besides, since the program can be incrementally realized, Facebook can prioritize certain sections of the world over others. One can only imagine the problems that would produce.

In the end, though, whether the company would do any or all of this or not isn’t the issue. We structure our rights to make sure that decisions about them are never in the hands of one person or one institution. If connectivity is, as Zuckerberg says, “a human right”, then it should never be up to him or his company to decide who among us has it, how and when.

Alfredo Lopez writes about technology issues for This Can’t Be Happening!

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/04/03/the-drones-of-facebook-and-the-nsa/

 

A surprising new warning on robots and jobs

When even the Economist starts hemming and hawing

about automation and labor markets, it’s time to get worried

A surprising new warning on robots and jobs
(Credit: josefkubes via Shutterstock)

When the Economist magazine starts warning about the threat of robots, it’s high time to grab your survival gear and light out for the back country. Journalism’s preeminent defender of the market wisdom of Adam Smith’s invisible hand rarely questions the forward march of innovation. But in a special report on our fast-arriving robot future published in the print edition this week, the Economist does just that. Kind of.

As headlines go, the warning is hardly definitive: “Job destruction by robots could outweigh creation.” The story itself is hedged so thickly one can barely see the central thesis: Robots might be threatening our jobs, but we’re not really sure. Globalization is also a problem — as is the arrival of women in the workforce. Pick your poison men: women or robots!

But just the fact that the Economist is even asking the question of whether robots could conceivably have a negative impact on labor markets is worth taking notice of. It’s a reflection of a shift in opinion on the part of people the Economist takes seriously — credentialed economists.

Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge.

The Economist also mentions the work of MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who argue that “technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades.” (Salon’s interview with Brynjolfsson and McAfee can be found here.)

But the magazine doesn’t go much further than pointing out that there are some new concerns. Far more ink is lavished in this special report on the wonders of the new technology coming down the pike than the potential dangers. There’s even a wave of the hand at everyone’s favorite utopian technological dream: Once robots are doing all the work, our main problem will be figuring out what to do with our abundance of leisure time.



It is even conceivable that the fruits of greater productivity will be distributed so as to allow people to work less and spend more time doing other things. After all, the humor in the double meaning of the message that “Our robots put people to work” depends on understanding that people do not necessarily want to work, if they have better things to do.

Wouldn’t that be nice! The real question is: distributed by whom? The benefits of a potential robot utopia are unlikely to be widely distributed without strong political leadership. Unfortunately, so far, there’s very little evidence to support the notion that governments, anywhere, have a clue on how to steer us through a robot future.

The Corporate PR Industry’s Sneaky War on Internet Activism

By Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell

Illustration by Cei Willis

The internet may be great for you, what with its Movshare links and fascinating “Which Game of Thrones character are you?” quizzes, but please spare a moment to think about those poor souls in the corporate PR and lobbying game, the flacks who get paid fat wads of cash by some of the worst people in the world to make sure that governments see things their way. In the old days, these champions of murderous dictators and big polluters were able to talk politicians round to their way of thinking over boozy lunches in opulent private members’ clubs. Nowadays, they’re forced to do the devil’s work in the harsh glow of a laptop screen rather than the more persuasive atmospheres created by soothing candlelight and expensive whiskey.

In recent years, the lobbying game has changed thanks to social media websites, citizen journalism (described by one lobbyist as “a major irritant”), and online petitions capable of getting millions of signatures in a matter of hours. Among the lobbyists affected by this shift is James Bethell, whose firm, Westbourne Communications, is in the business of fighting back against what it calls the “insurgency tactics” of online campaigners (“insurgency” here meaning “having a negative opinion and a blog/Twitter account” rather than actual guerrilla warfare). Their current clients include the oil and gas company Cuadrilla, the frackers who have been trying to convince people in Lancashire and Sussex to get behind the idea of pumping a load of poisonous water under their houses. Westbourne also led the campaign to defend HS2, a propsed high-speed rail line, from English communities who’d rather there weren’t trains roaring past their homes at 125 MPH. When you’re trying to get a $60 billion railway expansion, you need approval from the UK government—which means hiring a firm like Westbourne to keep a lid on protests.

Unfortunately for lobbyists, “Now almost everyone in the country has become a self-appointed campaigner,” as Bethell said in a 2011 interview. “Everybody’s seen The West Wing and has a Google account, and therefore has both the intelligence and the strategy, plus the technology, to put together a kitchen-table campaign.”

So how do you go about fighting this scourge of democratic, grassroots activism?

“You’ve got to fight them on every street corner,” advised Bethell. “You can’t just sit and watch your opponents run around doing what they like. You’ve got to get out into the bush, using their tactics and being in their face.”

If we’re sticking with the over-the-top military analogies, it’s obvious that the internet is a crucial battleground. It’s also a useful tool for lobbyists when it comes to them finding out who they’re up against. While their surveillance techniques might not be in the league of the NSA, corporate monitoring of citizen-activists has become a common tactic, and there’s been a significant amount of investment in this area. Today, commercial lobbyists operate sophisticated monitoring systems designed to spot online threats. It you bad-mouth a large corporation in 140 characters, chances are the corporation’s social media people will find it. Their job, then, is to sift through the sea of online malcontents and find the “influencers.”

“The person making a lot of noise is probably not the influential one,” Mike Seymour, the former head of crisis management at PR and lobbying giant Edelman, told fellow flacks attending a conference across the road from UK Parliament in November 2011. “You’ve got to find the influential one, especially if they are gatherers of people against us.” His point was eloquently made by events happening across town—as he spoke, Occupy protests were creating headlines around the world. Seymour explained that once these influencers are identified, “listening posts” should be put out there, to “pick up the first warning signals” of activist operations.

Once they have this intelligence, lobbyists can get to work. Part of Westbourne’s response to its HS2 critics was to “zero in” and counter “inconsistent” press reports, as Bethell explained to high-speed rail advocates in the US. More broadly, Westbourne advised US lobbyists of the need to “pick off” their critics with “sniper-scope accuracy”—to “shut them up,” as he explained to an audience of distinguished guests at a conference in 2012. Westbourne engages in aggressive rebuttal campaigns, which involves creating a feeling among opponents that everything they say will be picked apart. This is an “exhausting but crucial” part of successful lobbying, says Bethell.

That kind of nastiness is necessary, but it is also generally accepted in lobbyist circles that the only way to combat activists’ “negative information” online is with positive information. This is not as nice as it sounds.

Reputation Changer Demo from Simplifilm on Vimeo

There are now hundreds of companies offering to manipulate Westbourne Communications to make finding negative information about them all but impossible. A promotional video for one such company, Reputation Changer, promises to make criticism “disappear.” This is done by creating new, positive content that fools search engines into pushing the “dummy” content above the negative, driving the output of critics down the Google rankings (relying on the fact that few of us click beyond the first page of results).

BP, for example, was found to have been manipulating Google in the wake of the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—the company appears to have been attempting to get its message (“Learn more about how BP is helping”) at the top of Google searches relating to the spill. NGOs and affected communities without the resources of the oil giant were therefore blocked from getting their message (“Look how badly BP has fucked us”) across.

Lobbying firms are in the search engine optimization business too. They will create phony blogs for clients that are made to appear as if they’ve been created by outsiders. Press releases that no journalist will ever see are pumped out just so there’s something else to read on Google when a client faces hostility. “Online, you should constantly be coming up with new content that can help push negative information down,” a lobbyist from global agency Burson-Marsteller advised colleagues in 2013, during a debate on winning the “kitchen-table conversation.”

“Of course we do it as well,” said Tim Bell, the head of PR firm Bell Pottinger and a master at killing stories, in interview. “Everybody wants the best information to appear at the top of the page.”

Another favored technique of lobbyists is the doctoring of Wikipedia, a site that is widely loathed in the industry for its phenomenal reach and for the fact that a tiny community of editors is able to decide whether a corporation has a “controversies” section on their wiki or not. “A ridiculous organization… created by a bunch of nerds,” is Tim Bell’s take on the site. Accounts associated with Bell Pottinger were caught scrubbing the profiles of, among many others, the arms manufacturer and client the Paramount Group, at least two large financial firms, and the founder of libel specialists Carter-Ruck.

“It’s important for Wikipedia to recognize we are a valuable source for accurate information,” Bell told PR Week. This someone whose company has famously spun the reputations of dictators, repressive governments, polluting oil firms, and arms companies facing bribery charges—it even won a contract from the US-supported government in Iraq to promote the concept of democracy.

Attempts by lobbyists to manage information like this are nothing new. What has changed is the sophistication of the technology, which has given PR firms and others a host of new tactics, like fake blogs and online “front” groups. The reach of so-called “astroturf” campaigns—where lobbyists manufacture fake grassroots support—is also magnified thanks to the web.

According to another of Britain’s leading lobbyists, Peter Gummer, lobbyists are on a quest to make the digital space their own. He assured delegates of the 20th Public Relations World Congress in Dubai in 2012: “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t. This is our moment.”

Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell wrote a whole book about this kind of thing. It’s called A Quiet Word: Lobbying, Crony Capitalism and Broken Politics in Britain. You can buy it here.

http://www.vice.com/read/how-corporate-lobbyists-use-the-internet-to-destroy-democracy?utm_source=vicefbus

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