An entire industry is dedicated to getting your privacy back.

The Anti-Surveillance State: Clothes and Gadgets Block Face Recognition Technology, Confuse Drones and Make You (Digitally) Invisible

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Last spring, designer Adam Harvey hosted a session on hair and makeup techniques for attendees of the 2015 FutureEverything Festival in Manchester, England. Rather than sharing innovative ways to bring out the audience’s eyes, Harvey’s CV Dazzle Anon introduced a series of styling methods designed with almost the exact opposite aim of traditional beauty tricks: to turn your face into an anti-face—one that cameras, particularly those of the surveillance variety, will not only fail to love, but fail to recognize.

Harvey is one of a growing number of privacy-focused designers and developers “exploring new opportunities that are the result of [heightened] surveillance,” and working to establish lines of defense against it. He’s spent the past several years experimenting with strategies for putting control over people’s privacy back in their own hands, in their pockets and on their faces.

Harvey’s goal of “creating a style that [is] functional and aesthetic” has driven several projects and collaborations, including a method for “spoofing” DNA, and via the Privacy Gift Shop, his drone-thwarting Stealth Wear line (clothing he claims “shields against thermal imaging…[which is] used widely by military drones to target people,” seen below) and the OFF Pocket phone sleeve, able to keep out unwanted wireless signals.

His CV Dazzle designs for hair and makeup obscure the eyes, bridge of the nose and shape of the head, as well as creating skin tone contrasts and asymmetries. Facial-recognition algorithms function by identifying the layout of facial features and supplying missing info based on assumed facial symmetry. The project demonstrates that a styled “anti-face” can both conceal a person’s identity from facial recognition software (be it the FBI’s or Facebook’s) and cause the software to doubt the presence of a human face, period.

Harvey’s work is focused on accessibility in addition to privacy. “Most of the projects I’ve worked on are analog solutions to digital challenges,” he said. His hair and makeup style tips – a veritable how-to guide for how to create “privacy reclaiming” looks at home – are “deliberately low-cost.” His current project – software to “automatically generate camouflage…that can be applied to faces” – will allow a user to “create [their] own look and guide the design towards [their] personal style preferences.”

Other low-tech protections against widespread surveillance have been gaining ground, too. Though initially designed as a tongue-in-cheek solution to prying eyes and cameras, Becky Stern’s Laptop Compubody Sock offers a portable, peek-free zone to laptop users, while the CHBL Jammer Coat and sold-out Phonekerchief use metal-infused fabrics to make personal gadgets unreachable, blocking texts, calls and radio waves. For people willing to sport a bit more hardware in the name of privacy, the Sentient City Survival Kit offers underwear that notifies wearers about real-life phishing and tracking attempts, and its LED umbrella lets users “flirt with object tracking algorithms used in advanced surveillance systems” and even “train these systems to recognize nonhuman shapes.”

Large companies are also getting in on the pushback against increasing surveillance. Earlier this year, antivirus software leaders AVG revealed a pair of invisibility glasses developed by its Innovation Labs division. The casual looking specs use embedded infrared lights “to create noise around the nose and eyes” and retro-reflective frame coating to interfere with camera flashes, “allowing [the wearer] to avoid facial recognition.” In early 2013, Japan’s National Institute of Informatics revealed a bulky pair of goggles it had developed for the same purpose.

A spokesperson for Innovation Labs claims its glasses represent “an important step in the prevention against mass surveillance…whether through the cell phone camera of a passerby, a CCTV camera in a bar, or a drone flying over your head in the street.” Innovation Labs says that, with a person’s picture, facial recognition software “coupled with data from social networking sites can provide instant access to the private information of complete strangers. This can pose a serious threat to our privacy.” Though AVG’s glasses are not scheduled for commercial release, Innovation Labs said that individuals can take a number of steps to prevent their images from being “harvested”:

“First and foremost, make sure you’re not allowing private corporations to create biometrics profiles about you. When using social networks like Facebook, be aware that they are using facial recognition to give you tag suggestions. Facebook’s DeepFace was already tested and trained on the largest facial dataset to-date (an identity labeled dataset of more than 4 million facial images belonging to thousands of identities).”

Holmes Wilson of nonprofit Fight for the Future, which works to defend online privacy and freedoms on various fronts, is more concerned with other types of privacy invasion than real-life image harvesting. “It’s pretty unlikely in most of the world that you’ll get followed around using a network of street cameras with face recognition,” he said. “It’s probably pretty likely, though, that you’ll get filmed by police at a protest. But [there’s] not much you can do about that other than wearing a mask.”

Wilson advises people concerned about privacy breaches through surveillance to first focus on the ways in which their gadgets are supplying info to third parties. “The place where it’s easiest to fight back against surveillance is in protecting the security of your messages,” he said, adding that message security “can be a problem for activists, too.” He said apps like Textsecure, Signal, and Redphone can make it “a lot harder for people to spy on you.” Wilson added:

“Phones are the biggest thing. Lots of people think of smartphones as the big privacy problem, but old-fashioned phones are just as bad, and worse in some ways. All cellphones report on your location to the network as you move around. That’s just how they work, and they need to send that information or the system won’t know where to send your call. There’s no way to turn that off, other than by turning off the phone and, for good measure, taking the battery out.”

In collaboration with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future recommends a variety of options for encrypting messages, password-protecting accounts and securing a user’s various communication and browsing activities via Reset the Net. Wilson encouraged those with specific privacy concerns to check out tutorials, resources and break-downs of privacy issues from Surveillance Self-Defense.

Last year, Facebook announced that its DeepFace facial recognition technology can detect a person’s identity from photos with 97.25 percent accuracy, only a hair below the 97.5 percent success rate for humans taking the same test. Currently, a congressional front is preparing to extend surveillance powers granted to legal bodies by Section 215 of the Patriot Act—the NSA’s legal foothold of choice with regard to mass collection of US phone records since 2006, and set to expire on June 1—with the light-on-reform USA Freedom Act.

It seems likely that a growing number of both tech-wary and tech-savvy people will continue weighing how best to ensure their personal privacy, whether by putting stark makeup on or by turning their phones off.

Janet Burns is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. Her website is warmlyjanetburns.com.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/anti-surveillance-state-clothes-and-gadgets-block-face-recognition-technology?akid=13037.265072._uEekz&rd=1&src=newsletter1035368&t=5

5 Worst Things About the Techno-Libertarians in Silicon Valley

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There’s a lot wrong with the tech industry, and it’s increasingly impacting ordinary Americans.

Nowadays the Silicon Valley is either celebrated as a hotbed of creativity or condemned as a cauldron of greed and wealth inequality.

While there are certainly some talented and even idealistic people in the Valley, there’s also an excess of shallow libertarianism, from people who have enriched themselves with government-created technology who then decide they’re being held back by government. That’s shortsighted and vain. And yes, there are serious problems with sexism and age discrimination – problems which manifest themselves with some ugly behavior.

But such ethical problems aren’t solely, or even primarily, the product of individual character defects. They’re the result of self-reinforcing cultural norms at work. Anthropologists and sociologists could do worse than study the tech culture of the Silicon Valley. It would be important work, in fact, because this insular culture is having a deep and lasting impact on our economy and society.

Here, to star them off, are five socially destructive aspects of Silicon Valley culture:

1. Tech products become the byproducts of a money-making scheme rather than an end unto themselves.

It’s almost inevitable when big money enters the picture: Smart or talented people are drawn to a field for the chance to get rich, not necessarily because it’s where their greatest talents or dreams lie.  The same thing has happened to fields as diverse as film, pop music, and the financial sector.  There’s nothing wrong with getting rich, but it should be the byproduct of a happy marriage between talent and  inspiration.

But here’s how it works instead: The goal of entrepreneurs and innovators was once summed up in the cliched phrase, “build a better mousetrap.” But for  many Silicon Valley products and services, including services like Uber and AirBnB, the goal now is to build a product which can be hyped into a multi-billion-dollar valuation – preferably by winning as much market share as possible, and then using that market position to engage in the kinds of practices usually reserved for monopolies and monopsonies (markets in which there is only one buyer). This process is described in more detail here.

Instead of building a better mousetrap, the new Silicon Valley business model works like this:

i. Give your “mousetrap” away for free, or as close to free as you can make it. (Since you’re working with digital signals transmitted over a government-invented network, that can usually be done at minimal cost. In other cases it pays to benefit from a government tax loophole (see Amazon) or make an end run around the regulations your competitors must follow (see Uber, Lyft, and AirBnB).

ii. Use these government-conferred advantages, along with your own aggressive market moves, to gain a large or decisive marketshare.  (See Amazon, Facebook, etc.) In exceptional cases, actually build brilliant and superior software to win your market share. (See Google.)

iii. Use your newfound market share to a) bend government to your will wherever possible, b) screw down your suppliers’ prices, c) hit your customers with increased prices and/or new ads or other profit-making devices, and d) manipulate your customers without their knowledge. (See Uber, Amazon, Google, Facebook, et al.)

This business model has directed much of the Valley’s efforts away from inventing genuinely creative new products – and toward the kinds of aggressive tactics that, as we’ve written before, would be very familiar to the Robber Barons of the 19th century.

2. Even inspired leaders internalize a worldview which places profits over humane behavior.

Steve Jobs is a prime example of this phenomenon. As an early innovator in the tech field, Jobs – however interested he was in making money – was not drawn to the field for the sake of money alone. Nor was he following in the footsteps of others, seeking to replicate the successes of a Zuckerberg or a Sergey Brin, as newcomers to the field are now. Jobs possessed a genuinely inspired design vision, from the earliest days of his career to his last.

And yet, for all his gifts, the pursuit of wealth led Jobs to commit some morally reprehensible deeds. As “white collar criminologist” William K. Black Jr. told me in a 2012 radio interview, Jobs’ drive to maximize profits – and his craving to get new products to market as quickly as possible – almost certainly led him to knowingly ignore abuses and safety threats to the Chinese workers who built his products.  That, in turn, led to dormitory-based workers being forced to work under extreme conditions. These unheeded warnings also led to the horrific burning deaths of several workers.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is also unquestionably an innovator. But the working conditions which Amazon’s warehouse workers endure would seem familiar to their Apple counterparts in China. As documented by Simon Head in his book “Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans” (excerpthere), Amazon’s American warehouse workers are subjected to ever-harsher production expectations and invasive measurement techniques. Head documents the case of a Pennsylvania employee who worked 11-hour shifts and was ultimately fired for “unproductive periods” which lasted only minutes. GPS devices in an England warehouse tell workers which routes they must travel – inside the warehouse – and their expected travel time.

Amazon’s German operations employed “a security firm with alleged neo-Nazi connections that … intimidated temporary workers lodged in a company dormitory … with guards entering their rooms without permission at all times of the day and night.” An Allentown facility which lacked air conditioning repeatedly reached temperatures of more than 100 degrees one summer. More than fifteen workers collapsed, but supervisors refused to open garage doors. Reports Head: “Calls to the local ambulance service became so frequent that for five hot days in June and July, ambulances and paramedics were stationed all day at the depot.”

A number of Silicon Valley CEOs were also implicated in a widespread conspiracy to illegally suppress wages and prevent job-seeking from engineers and other key employees. Mark Ames, who has reported extensively on the conspiracy, wrote that “confidential internal Google and Apple memos … clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP.”

These incidents are by no means exceptions in the Silicon Valley culture. The most generous way to interpret behavior like this is to assume that Steve Jobs and operated in a culture whose worldview downplayed the human impact of business practices. That, in fact, is reinforced by other aspects of Silicon Valley’s leadership society.

3. The culture encourages a solipsistic detachment from reality, even as its brute economic strength colonizes everything it touches.

A dispassionate observer might be tempted to wonder how a culture filled with so many smart people can remain so unaware of, and/or disinterested in, their effect on other people’s lives?

For many of them, the evidence is literally right before their eyes: San Francisco’s richness and diversity is being drained away, as the city becomes unaffordable for more and more of its citizens.  They are all good with numbers, so the statistics on growing wealth inequality should not be hard for them to understand. And their arguments – e.g., that the “sharing economy” will benefit struggling Americans – are easily punctured by even a superficial look at US demographics. (Are struggling Milwaukee residents going to get rich driving tourists around their battered town, or renting out their inner-city apartments on AirBnB?)

Most of the tech executives I’ve known aren’t bad guys. (To be clear, I haven’t met Uber’s leadership – with the exception of a brief encounter with former Obama advisor David Plouffe – and they certainly appear to be an exception.)   But even many of the “good” ones seem oblivious to the effect of their own behavior.

To a certain extent that’s an occupational hazard. I’ve spent just enough time hammering out software in the glow of a computer screen to see how easily a synthetic world can replace the one inhabited by other human beings.

But there are correctives for that: reading, contemplation, speaking with human beings from different walks of life. The Valley’s tech culture doesn’t seem to encourage that – to its detriment, and that of society as a whole.

4. The Valley gets fixated on lame (and sometimes antisocial) buzzwords.

“Move fast and break things,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a much-repeated quotation. Other tech types prattle on about “the next Big Idea.” And almost everyone wants to “disrupt” an existing industry.

Why is it good to “move fast and break things”? Isn’t it usually wiser to move carefully and build things? There may be times when it’s wise to act rapidly, or break with conventional ways of doing things. But there are also times when a hastily-executed rollout dooms a product. Sometimes it makes sense to improve the established ways of doing things, rather than upend them altogether.

When you think about it, what does this expression even mean? It’s only repeated because a) it sounds smart, and b) it was spoken by someone who is extremely wealthy, and such people are to be imitated whenever possible in the hope that some of their magic will rub off.

As for “Big Ideas”: do they really correlate with tech success? Google was a smarter search engine, but search engines were no longer a new or “big” idea by the time it came along. Craigslist? It’s online classified ads.  Facebook was originally conceived as the online version of the printed “facebooks” traditionally given to incoming freshmen so they could get to know their classmates. Neither Zuckerberg nor those Harvard twins knew what it would someday become.   There is surprisingly little correlation between tech success and actual “Big Ideas.”

Disruption’s overrated, too. Sure, it can work. Instagram disrupted home photography, for example. But Twitter, one of the smarter ideas to come from the Valley in recent years, didn’t disrupt anything. Instead it created a new market and a new medium. Sometimes “disruption” is a euphemism, whose real meaning is “use tax loopholes to undercut law-abiding vendors” or “employ Robber Baron business practices to cut suppliers prices.”

Sometimes it means nothing at all.

5. Silicon Valley’s culture is hurting our economy.

Politicians like to celebrate the tech industry as a boon to the economy, but for most Americans the opposite is true. As economist Joseph Stiglitz and others have documented, monopoly practices exert a significant drag on the economy. The economy becomes increasingly capital-driven, rather than labor-driven. Monopolies suppress wages, overcharge consumers, mistreat suppliers, and drive the economy increasingly off-course.

There’s also a price to be paid for product inefficiency. Monopolies can sometimes squander human capital – that is, waste people’s time – by forcing them to struggle with inefficient products like Microsoft’s operating system or Facebook’s user interfaces. (More on this topic here.) Multiply every minute wasted on a Windows inefficiency or Facebook’s privacy settings by millions of users, and the cost begins to add up.

The Valley’s hurting our economy in another way, too. Somehow, some of the titans of tech have gotten the misguided idea that they are exemplars of libertarian self-created success. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Silicon Valley runs on government-subsidized technology, from microchips to the Internet itself. Corporations like Amazon used government-created tax breaks to build near-monopoly leverage and turn it against their suppliers.

And now, having enriched themselves through government generosity, some of the Valley’s billionaires are using their publicly-assisted wealth to back political candidates and organizations under a “libertarian” label that is better described, at least economically, as a far-right agenda. These candidates and organizations push our political dialogue in a more conservative direction – which in turn creates a political climate which tends to permit more of the things that have already wounded our economy, like deregulation and lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations.

All of the Valley’s cultural traits, from the profound to the trivial, reflect a culture that is urgently in need of maturation and change. One thing’s for sure: If I hear another tech titan say he plans to “disrupt” an industry, I’m going to move fast and break something.

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a blogger and writer, a former Wall Street executive, a consultant, and a former musician.

http://www.alternet.org/culture/5-worst-things-about-techno-libertarians-solidifying-their-grasp-our-economy-and-culture?akid=12994.265072.5R9qHL&rd=1&src=newsletter1034621&t=1

Big tech wants to mold this generation of youth into super-consumers

How YouTube, Big Data and Big Brands Mean Trouble For Kids and Parents

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The motivation for big tech is to mold this generation of youth into super-consumers.

There is a “digital gold rush” underway to cash in on young people’s passion for interactive media. Google and other media and ad companies are working to transform kids’ clicks and views into bundles of cash and burgeoning brand loyalty. While TV still dominates a great deal of kids’ media viewing, they are also consuming content (often simultaneously) on mobile devices, tablets, and through streaming or video-on-demand services. In February, Googlelaunched its YouTube Kids app for children five and under; Disney acquired leading youth-focused online video producer Maker Studios last year in a more than $500 million deal, giving it control of “the largest content network on YouTube”; Viacom’s Cartoon Network (CN) now offers CN’s “Anything,” providing mobile phone-friendly “micro” content and promising to serve a “network of devices giving a network of experiences to a network of fans”; and Amazon, Netflix, and others are sending more “kid targeted” streaming video-on-demand programming.

But unlike broadcast and cable TV, where there is at least a handful of FCC regulations that prevent some of the worst practices perfected by advertisers for targeting kids, the online world is mostly a regulatory-free zone when it comes to digital marketing. Advocates and child-health experts fought a long campaign, from the 1970’s to the 1990’s, to ensure that TV didn’t take unfair advantage of how kids relate to advertising—so that shows weren’t simply “program-length commercials” for toys, or that the “host” or star of a program—such as a cartoon character—didn’t also pitch products at the same time. There were also modest limits in how many ads could appear in so-called “kidvid” programming. These rules reflected research on children’s development and their inability to fully comprehend the nature of advertising. The FCC policies embraced an important principle: children were to be treated differently than adults when it came to TV advertising.

Such safeguards are even more important in the digital era, when sophisticated advertising techniques gather and analyze data on everything an individual does, and incorporate an array of powerful interactive features on mobile devices and PCs that have been designed to get results. Parents and others who care about children should be forewarned: For Google, Facebook, media companies like Nickelodeon, toy companies, and junk food marketers, the Internet is a medium whose primary focus is to help brand advertisers turn young people into fans, “influencers” (to spread the word via social media), and buyers of products. Although children benefit from using educational apps, and have greater access to more diverse entertainment and other content, the motivation really at work is to mold this generation of youth into super-consumers, encouraged to engage in a never-ending buying cycle of goods and services.

Children are now a key target for Google’s “monetization” strategies, helping the company cash in from the sales of toys, apps, junk food, and other products. (So-called “tweens” in the U.S. alone are said to influence some $200 billion a year in spending, including $43 billion of their own money.) With Google’s overall revenue growth slowing, with Facebook aggressively seeking to displace it as the global digital advertising leader, and with consumers flocking to mobile phones (instead of PCs) to view videos and use apps, kids—which were one of the only consumer groups not formally targeted by Google until now—are viewed as an essential new market to conquer. In February, Google unveiled a new advertiser-supported “YouTube Kids” app, its first “product built from the ground up with little ones in mind.” Google’s YouTube Kids “product manager” claimed that “the app makes it safer and easier for children to find videos on topics they want to explore.” Google also promised that ads “that aren’t kid-appropriate don’t surface.” But Google’s YouTube Kidsis filled with ads disguised as programming and product pitches that violate rules that broadcast and cable TV channels have to follow. A coalition of consumer, privacy, and children’s advocacy groups urged the FTC to investigate Google’s new YouTube Kids app, as well as how the company targets older children on YouTube itself. (Six of YouTube’s leading channels are “aimed at children.”)

Google wants to place even the youngest kids inside its powerful marketing apparatus, making sure they will help the company generate much-needed profits as they grew older. It is encouraging brands to take advantage of how young people are engaging in a “multi-screen experience,” including watching video on smart phones, and how YouTube combines the attributes of video service and social networking.

YouTube takes the most powerful medium for connecting with the heart and mind—video—and elevates it from a one-way communication to a two-way experience by inviting brands and consumers alike to connect, curate, create and form community … . On YouTube, brands have the unparalleled opportunity to connect with their most valuable audience and the creative freedom to do so in the most compelling way. The reward for the marketer is a fanbase moved not only emotionally, but also literally, to purchase, comment, share and advocate for that brand. In short, YouTube moves people to choose your brand.

As an article on the launch of YouTube Kids explained, “If YouTube can earn the trust of parents and hook a new group at an even earlier age, then that’s tapping a whole new market of users that will literally grow up with the service—and use it for a much longer portion of their lives.”

While appearing as a distribution service for many programmers, independent and professional, YouTube is a key part of an incredibly sophisticated, elaborate, and highly powerful global marketing apparatus. Google executives recently pledged that they are “listening to brands” and taking “action” to help make YouTube a more effective platform to help accomplish their goals.

YouTube: “one of the biggest Big Data projects in the world”

YouTube incorporates all of Google’s expertise in gathering and analyzing consumer information, so a user, even a young one, can be effectively targeted with marketing. YouTube, it explains, “is one of the biggest Big Data projects in the world.” “At YouTube, data drives the way we make decisions,” including to help its advertisers “get closer to the holy grail of precision targeting.” YouTube, explains the company, has “one of the world’s richest datasets,” which it combines with “Google’s cutting-edge technology” to “transform insights into real-world products.” YouTube continually researches and develops ways to measure and analyze how ads can work more effectively; it identifies “new algorithms and methods for optimizing ads,” “researches new ways for modeling end user behavior,” and more. Its data fuel YouTube’s “recommendation systems,” and the company is now “pushing the boundaries of science and engineering” to make its home page deliver more revenue. It offers its users, including children, “recommended videos” as well as other products that help its advertisers. Through machine learning about us, including analyzing our data, Google plans to further strengthen how it can “introduce users to areas of their interest that many did not realize YouTube had.”

YouTube is now working to “build the next generation game-console based TV experience with YouTube video content,” which will deliver “a compelling lean back experience with monetization and e-commerce offerings” (including “pay-per stream” and ad content), as well as through partnerships that “integrate” its content. Generating revenues by attracting and targeting gamers is a key part of YouTube’s marketing-to-youth strategy. It is also positioning YouTube to be a key part of digitally connected “Living Room” devices, including “game consoles, smart TV’s, set-top boxes” to “drive distribution and user engagement.”

We “put your brand in their hand”

Through its “brand channels”—“a 24/7 broadcast center where customers can watch, share and love your brand”—YouTube helps advertisers like Red Bull and Walmart “energize” its customers. These channels can be specially configured to work well with mobile devices, explains Google, so marketerscan “put your brand in their hand.” Google also offers a “Custom Brand Channel” on YouTube, “the highest level of brand channel customization,” which incorporates special “interactive applications” designed to promote the “branding” experience more effectively. Last year, as part of its ongoing effort to work more closely with leading advertisers, Google also unveiled its “Partner Select” program, which helps its clients take advantage of its advanced data-targeting platform to run ads on its top-ranked video programming.

Google is working to have YouTube play a key role erasing what’s left of the boundaries that have separated advertising and content. Through what it calls “content marketing,” YouTube promises to help its advertisers take advantage of our “shortening attention spans” to positively respond to a brand’s message, explaining that “In a world of shortening attention spans and increasing options, advertising is undergoing a sea change. More and more, ads are becoming content that people choose to watch. … [W]e use the tools and know-how developed by a generation of YouTube content creators to help brands develop ads that will resonate with today’s consumers.” As a leader in using mobile phones to target individuals based on their actual location, Google is also in the forefront of delivering its content on smart phones and similar devices, boasting that “viewing video on smartphones is far less distracted than it is on TV.”

YouTube: “Precision Targeting at Scale”

To help its advertisers, YouTube provides “precision targeting at scale” that leverages “the sight, sound and motion of video, the most persuasive ad format every evented.” Google claims that its “targeting tools are so precise” marketers “can show your ad to folks around your corner or to anyone around the world.” One can target by age, gender, zip code, language, interest, and can “retarget” someone whose data have been (largely secretly) collected when they were on YouTube or other sites. Google offers advertisers a formidable arsenal of “3rd Party Audience Data” that can incorporate details on one’s finances, buying behavior, and many other personal details. Now reaching one billion people worldwide, YouTube identifies Hispanics, teens, those “hard to reach,” as well as adult men and women as key targets; it notes, for example, that “54% of all teens” and “59% of all Hispanics” use it. (Among the “facts” on Hispanics it lists for advertisers is that “76% currently own a pet” and “58% are grocery decision makers in their household.”)

YouTube also plays a direct role helping key advertisers achieve their goals, including through its “in-house creative team” (which it calls “The ZOO”) that “can unleash the true power of your message with a custom campaign.”

YouTube’s “Brand Nirvana” Promotes Junk Food to Kids

Google has been helping Mondelez, Pepsi, and other fast-food marketers push their products—despite concerns about the global obesity epidemic—especially on young people. Last year, Mondelez signed a deal with Google that featured the candy and snack company (Oreo, etc.) making a commitment to “accelerate” its investment in online video. The pact involved the use of Google’s advanced data-driven targeting system (known as “programmatic buying”) and the development of more “branded content.” Google and Mondelez are “partnering on content pilots through YouTube’s Brand Partner Program … [to produce] low-cost video content featuring influential digital stars with Sour Patch Kids in the U.S.” Mondelez’s YouTube channel for Oreos features an array of ads dressed up as games, in English and Spanish, which is typical of Google’s use of video to promote junk food products using the full power of its platform. Fast-food companies, including such brands as Coca-Cola, Mars, Mondelez, Wendy’s, and Post cereal, are also using advanced analytics on YouTube viewing to help refine their targeting strategies.

Frank Cooper, Pepsi’s chief marketing officer, was a keynote speaker at YouTube’s “Brandcast” 2014 event. In announcing that Pepsi has increased its spending for YouTube services by 50 percent over the last year, Cooper noted that “we live in a world where visual content in the digital space is the new center of gravity for pop culture,” and being on YouTube and related digital applications enables Pepsi to be part of a conversation that is “driving culture.” When people share “your content with their friends,” he noted, it is “brand nirvana.”

YouTube as Toy Promotion Central

Google is positioning YouTube to be a central place for children to learn about toys they want their parents or family to buy. As one toy business analyst explained, “It’s a totally new way of advertising. [The YouTube channels] are becoming more and more important.” Although Google’s terms of service (ToS) for YouTube requires users to be 13 and older, it’s clear that it is targeting kids—and violating its own policy—in order to profit from the children’s market. Its ToS states that “the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.”

Yet despite its own ToS banning children from signing up, YouTube is clearly targeting kids. For example, “FunToyzCollector,” which describes itself as “all about kid-friendly videos for toddlers, babies, infants and pre-school children,” recently placed first in views among all the YouTube channels (517.3 million). The channel engages in “unboxing” toys, an increasingly sought after YouTube genre that provides viewers with a “virtual tour” of kids products, such as “Sofia the First Balloon Tea Party 2-in-1 Playset with Disney Frozen Princess Anna Elsa of Arendelle.” Very popular with young kids in the U.S., the YouTube ad-supported channel made its owner an estimated $4.9 million last year. Kids either find or are shown these channels as they search for new toys to buy or to receive as presents.

DisneyCarToys,” “a fun kid friendly toy channel” produced by Disney subsidiary Maker Studios, is another example of how Google profits by permitting the targeting of children. The channel is one of five toy-related YouTube channels that Disney acquired in 2014, including “HobbyKidsTV, ToyReviewToys, AllToyCollector, and TheEngineeringFamily.” These popular “top 40 toy channels worldwide,” which integrate Disney’s characters and brands into the programming content, are now part of Disney’s “merchandising” strategy, which will include more brand tie-ins and advertising.

Maker Studios itself has a major kids marketing presence on YouTube. It describes its “Cartoontium” set of programs as “the place to find all the best kid’s entertainment on YouTube!” One of its channels is called “Messy Painting in the Dark-Neon Arcade,” where “Toys, games and financial support [is] provided by Hasbro.” Other Cartoonium programming features “classic episodes of Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake.” “Strawberry Shortcake” and other programming include ads for toys (and some of these shows are also on the YouTube Kids app). One reason Disney acquired Maker, explained CEO Bob Iger, was to reap its “great access to data and algorithms,” which are gathered from billions of views collected through its 55,000 YouTube channels.

Another kids’ toy–focused YouTube service is also partnering with the Disney/Maker empire. “EvanTubeHD,” involving two young children (eight and five years old) and their father, “boasts more than a billion views across” three channels. The two children “review and play with the most popular kids toys currently on shelves.” As an analyst explained why toy companies are enthusiastically seeking out relationships with kid reviewers online, “Kids trust other kids more so than they would an adult.”

Maker has a broad range of marketing services it offers brands and advertisers, including “custom pre-roll” ads (the short spots that run before a YouTube or other video content starts); channel targeting (“integrate your brand message natively into our top performing channels”); and sponsorships (“More than just a logo, our unique custom sponsorships allow you to connect with our forward leaning and deeply engaged audiences”). Maker touts its strong alliance of partners, including its “custom solutions to the world’s best brands” and “effective and hyper-targeted media solutions.” Partners include Mattel, Pepsi, Warner Bros, and parent Disney. It also works with the leading ad agencies that represent major global brands “to create unique programs across our programming and talent.”

In another example of how Google fails to protect children, it allows Disney to encourage its young viewers to connect to them using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—despite these sites requiring users to be 13 years or older. So eager is Google to reap profits, it appears purposely to ignore how toy companies are establishing nothing more than 24/7 virtual ad channels on YouTube. For example, Spin Master, a “top-five” toy company, has created a “kid centric YouTube channel dubbed SpindoTV, aimed at children 6-11. Its shows are based on its toy line-up, including “Sick Bricks” and “Beat the Parents” board game. Many of its shows are a part of Google’s new YouTube Kids app. According to a Spin Master executive, “We know from our research that these kids are already on YouTube in massive numbers.” YouTube, of course, is just one method Google uses to help it reach and monetize young people. It is also “building successful apps and games” for its “Google Play for Education and Kids vertical,” helping developers create “commercially viable offerings to educators and students, parents and kids.”

The popularity of YouTube among children has triggered a “must-have-the-video-network” buying strategy from companies targeting the youth market worldwide. Marketers researching youth know that kids are using YouTube as a search engine because it includes pictures, videos, and other audio-visual material. It’s also “easy to navigate” for children, with reports that “kids who are into watching TV episodes on YouTube” like to see other episodes and “recommended videos” on the sidebar. More critically, digital market researchers studying children have identified YouTube as providing an important social and creative outlet for tweens, and finding cool YouTube videos to share with others is a form of social capital. … [T]weens most frequently share cool videos when hanging out (in person) with their friends and family. … [W]e call this phenomenon clustersharing. … [I]t speaks more to their desire to physically experience videos with others—to see, to feel and to share that experience, including their thoughts and emotions.

The same researchers advise marketers to take advantage of the “clustersharing” concept, and encourage ways to “enhance that in-person, social experience. Using ad content (like a group game) or finding a way to alleviate the agonizing “live” wait of a 15-second pre-roll between each video presents “an opportunity to enrich your brand experience with this very engaged audience.”

Tracking our “Consumer Journey”

Google is in the forefront of digital marketing companies promising to help its clients influence and “measure” what it calls the “customer journey.” It views itself as helping them analyze and place each consumer on a continuous “path-to-purchase” cycle, tracking us wherever we go, and using its resources to have us shop “until we drop”—online and off. Among the benefits Google promises its advertisers, for example, is that they will be able to identify and “value” their “best customers,” and “distinguish the whales from the wasted energy.” (“Whales” is a marketing industry term describing a big spender; “waste” is an ad term for a consumer deemed not valuable.)

YouTube conducts research to document how its advertisers positively impact our “recall” of various brand commercial messages. Google’s DoubleClick division, which uses data to determine the impact of video ads, offers advertisers the latest ways they can “verify” whether a person actually views a video ad on YouTube. To help its largest advertising clients measure how we respond to Google’s interactive marketing services, the company is now working with Nielsen and comScore, two of the leading global companies that assess consumer interaction with ads, including on YouTube.

There are other companies also helping marketers analyze YouTube data. For example, Outrigger’s “OpenSlate” platform “ingests, analyses and scores more than 220,000 YouTube channels on measures of engagement, consistency, influence, momentum and ad effectiveness.” (It now is up to 250,000 channels.) It “supplements YouTube data on more than 70 million videos with data from social media and proprietary demographic data. Our platform consistently incorporates brand advertising performance data to further develop video and channel level profiles.” Through its information, brand advertisers can identify “the highest-quality inventory on YouTube,” and then target them using a variety of Big Data tactics. (“Inventory,” as used by the online marketing industry, can either refer to individual users or programming content. Kids and teens are seen as highly valuable “inventory.”)

Time for Regulatory Action Against Google to Protect Kids

Google, as the dominant digital marketing company, has raised numerous concerns about its corporate practices, including from privacy regulators, civil liberties advocates, and competition regulators from around the world. (The company has led an anti-privacy-regulation agenda in both the U.S. and EU, to ensure that the flow of personal data that makes its interactive marketing system run will never end.) Its latest move to better monetize children through YouTube Kids is the first of what will be a succession of profit-generating ventures that help transform kids’ lives into a never-ending commercial. Even Facebook, which expressed interest in targeting children 13 and younger, has not yet directly entered the kids market. Google’s brazen move to cash in on our kids will likely spur Facebook to jettison any reticence to include them on its social network. After all, why should Google gain all the profits from this new, lucrative, and influential audience?

Beyond federal and state investigations into Google’s brazen targeting of children on YouTube, what’s needed now are new policies that ensure young people aren’t unfairly treated by digital marketers. This includes rules that don’t leave children and teens vulnerable to digital marketing practices and also better protect their privacy. For example, Google is at the forefront of companies using what is called “immersive” media, to make sure brands—including on YouTube—can “grab” our attention. All of the data gathered from our use of mobile phones, social media, and online video feed so-called “profiles” that are used to target us for advertising—increasingly regardless of location (think of a mobile discount coupon from a nearby fast food outlet appearing on children’s phones as they come out of school) and in real-time (right as you are in the store cereal or toy aisle). These practices are highly questionable when targeting adults, let alone young people.

Companies like Google should develop their own policies that actually protect and empower young people—not just turn them into the latest profit center. A global leader like Google, with immense profits, should only be offering kids commercial- (and data targeting-) free content. It shouldn’t be helping junk food and toy companies take advantage of kids to sell them products that don’t promote their development and health. It is doubtful, however, that Google will change course. It is, after all, primarily an advertising company whose allegiance is to the biggest brands and the marketing industry. It’s time for activist shareholders of Google and other companies to press for the adoption of new corporate policies that protect young people in the digital age.

Parents will have to decide whether Google’s corporate culture, focused as it is on promoting marketing to young kids, is incompatible with their values and goals. But it will also take a movement of parents, educators, public interest groups, and policymakers to force Google and other kids marketers to act responsibly. If we want to see the next generation grow up without being greatly influenced by the most powerful advertising apparatus yet developed, this is a fight we must join.

http://www.alternet.org/media/how-youtube-big-data-and-big-brands-mean-trouble-kids-and-parents?akid=12982.265072.Mk71Wq&rd=1&src=newsletter1034434&t=3

Big Data Is Watching You

The hidden price of Google, Twitter and Facebook.

big_data

BY JOANNA SCUTTS

Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money.

What are we prepared to give up in the name of convenience? ThroughoutJacob Silverman’s capacious study of the world we’re in and the world we’re making—or rather, allowing tech companies to make for us—it’s demonstrated repeatedly that billions of us are happy to surrender our privacy to save a few keystrokes. Why not log in to that other website with your Facebook or Twitter or Google ID? Why not use your real identity and photograph, with a record of your movements, all across the web? You have it on Google’s word that they’re not “evil”; what could be the harm?

Silverman’s new book, Terms of Service: Social Media and the Price of Constant Connection, does a thorough, if sometimes long-winded, job of explaining what the harm is and what it could become. He begins with an analysis of the philosophy, variously termed “techno-utopianism” or “cyber-libertarianism,” that drives the major social media companies. The ideology should be familiar in essence, if not in name—we’ve been soaking in it for the past decade. Media theorists, long before the advent of Facebook, were calling it “the Californian ideology.” It’s what happens when youthful rebelliousness and a countercultural, anti-authoritarian spirit meets gobs of cash and untrammeled power. It’s the myth—tirelessly peddled by optimistic tech, business and culture reporters and embraced by the customers who line up for new gadgets—that a corporation that calls its headquarters a “campus” and equips its offices with slides, snacks and free daycare is something other than a capitalist entity, with motives other than profit.

To be fair, the big tech companies—Google and Facebook are the stars here, with Twitter, Tumblr and LinkedIn singing backup—do have goals beyond their bottom line. They want to do the kinds of things that beauty-pageant contestants want to do: cure diseases, end terrorism, go to the moon. They share a disdain for government—Mark Zuckerberg is committed to the idea of “companies over countries”—but also share a zeal for surveillance.

For Silverman, the harm of social media is both specific and philosophical. It turns journalism into a clickbait race, for instance, but it also radically changes our concepts of privacy and identity. He considers the fate of those who are chewed up and spat out by the Internet’s nano-fame cycle (nobody gets 15 minutes anymore), whose embarrassing or self-aggrandizing antics, captured on video, do the rounds and attract a quick, overwhelming torrent of derision or rage. But while we might shrug our shoulders at the fate of an Antoine Dodson or a Taylor Chapman (respectively a viral hero and villain), Silverman argues that we should be aware of the numbing and alienating consequences of the viral instinct. Not only does it frequently make clowns of those who are seriously disadvantaged, and destroy reputations and careers, it also molds the larger media world in its own image. Hate-watching a two-minute video of a reality show contestant’s racist rant is a sign that you’ll give attention to this kind of content—and the site that hosts the video, beholden to its advertisers, traffics in your attention, not your intelligence or humanity.

Headlines have always been composed to grab attention, but now they can gather intelligence too. Your decision to click—and even the amount of time you spend reading or watching—is a piece of data for which the advertiser will pay good money. As Silverman describes it, the urge to gather endless data about all of us—from our spending habits to the pace of our heartbeats—is a huge, lucrative industry, driven by the fantasy that correlation is causation, that because you did X activity, you’ll buy Y product.

It may be foolhardy to make predictions about the fast-evolving tech world, but Silverman offers some chilling evidence that the world of “big data” is beginning to affect the choices available to us. Some healthcare companies will lower your premiums if you use a fitness-tracking app (and share that data, of course). Data about what you eat and buy is increasingly being used like your credit score, to determine if you are worthy of that job, that car or that home.

So what? A good citizen who eats her greens and pays her bills has nothing to fear! And if she worries that some misstep—glancing at an unsavory website, running a red light, suffering a computer hack—will damage her, she can just pay protection money to one of several companies that exist to safeguard their clients’ online reputations. Silverman has no solution to these linked problems, of course, since there is far too much money driving this brave new world and far too little government will to resist. Mass surveillance is the present and the future. But if information—meaning data points—is corporate power, then knowledge and critical thinking may be citizen power.

Silverman is too cautious and self-conscious a thinker to inspire a revolution. Instead, he advocates a kind of lowlevel “social-media rebellion”—messing with, rather than rejecting, the digitally networked world in which we live. Putting up a cartoon monkey as your online avatar might not feel like much of a blow to the Facebook assault on privacy, but it’s an annoyance to the booming facial- recognition industry—and perhaps a few million determined annoyances can disrupt the techno-utopia in favor of the common good.

Joanna Scutts is a freelance writer based in Queens, NY, and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her book reviews and essays have appeared in the Washington Post, the New Yorker Online, The Nation, The Wall Street Journal and several other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @life_savour.

 

http://inthesetimes.com/article/17734/big-data-is-watching-you

FCC ruling sides with tech companies on “net neutrality”

shutterstock_Net_Neutrality_1

By Mike Ingram
6 March 2015

The 3-2 vote of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) February 26, in favor of new telecommunications rules has been hailed as a landmark ruling that will ensure “net neutrality,” defined as equal access to the Internet for all content providers. The reality is more complex and far less positive.

The FCC’s latest proposal does bar broadband service providers—giant companies like Comcast and the major telecoms that control so-called last-mile access to the Internet—from discriminating between different forms of content, either by offering price discounts or faster traffic speeds.

But the other major set of corporate giants, technology companies like Google, Yahoo and Netflix, will retain their monopoly control of over search and content provision. And the most dangerous enemy of a genuinely free Internet, the US government, with its vast panoply of spy agencies vacuuming up all web content, may gain additional authority over the Internet via the FCC itself.

By reclassifying broadband Internet services as a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act, the ruling puts Internet Service Providers (ISPs) under the same regulatory framework as telecommunications. Given the monopolization and price gouging that prevails in that industry, the hosannas over the FCC ruling by some advocates of net neutrality are both premature and exaggerated.

The exact language of the rules has not yet been made public, but from the statements issued by the FCC, the two main changes from an early decision in 2010—subsequently thrown out in a court challenge—were the reclassification under Title II, and the decision to apply the ruling to mobile as well as fixed-line broadband services.

Net neutrality is a set of principles designed to prevent restrictions by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments on content, sites, platforms or the kinds of equipment that may be used to access the Internet. Legitimate concern over the monopoly of broadband giants such as Comcast has generated broad support for net neutrality among online activists. The issue has prompted several online protests over recent years, including the so-called Internet slowdown of September 10 last year, when over 40,000 web sites solicited calls to senators and over 4.7 million comments to the FCC.

Following the February 25 vote, the site battleforthenet.com, which had played the major role in instigating the “slowdown,” proclaimed an “epic victory” stating, “Washington insiders said it couldn’t be done. But the public got loud in protest, the FCC gave in, and we won Title II net neutrality rules. Now Comcast is furious. They want to destroy our victory with their massive power in Congress. You won net neutrality. Now, are you ready to defend it?”

Such an analysis ignores the equally “massive power” of the tech industry both in Congress and in the Obama administration. A lengthy article published by the Washington Post March 1 describes Silicon Valley as “the new revolving door for Obama staffers.”

The article notes that the FCC decision “marked a major win for Silicon Valley, an industry that has built a close relationship with the president and his staff over the last six years.” The tech industry has “enriched Obama’s campaigns through donations” and “presented lucrative opportunities for staffers who leave for the private sector.”

The day of the FCC ruling, former White House press secretary Jay Carney joined Amazon as a senior vice president for global corporate affairs. Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe now runs policy and strategy for car service start-up Uber. Facebook hired Marne Levine, chief of staff to former National Economic Council director Lawrence H. Summers. Airbnb has three former White House press staff on its books.

The revolving door goes both directions, with a large number of Silicon Valley executives heading to Washington for stints in the Obama administration. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes helped create Obama’s online campaign and Google’s former vice president of global policy, Andrew McLaughlin worked on its tech policy agenda, according to the Post. McLaughlin later joined the Obama administration as a deputy to the chief technology officer. Obama’s former deputy chief technology officer Nicole Wong was an executive at both Twitter and Google. Megan Smith, the current chief technology officer was previously at Google and the director of patent and trademark office Michelle K. Lee was an intellectual property lawyer for Google.

It is this relationship with the technology giants rather than any genuine concern for democratic rights on the Internet that explains Obama’s intervention in net neutrality dispute. In November last year Obama called on the FCC to take up the “strongest possible rules” to protect net neutrality.

Obama’s real attitude to Internet freedom was exposed by the revelations of Edward Snowden, who documented the mandate of the National Security Agency to “collect it all”—in other words, capture the entire content of all the world’s Internet activity in order to analyze and profile all potential opponents of the American government, above all, political opposition from the working class.

Both tech companies such as Google and Yahoo, as well as telecommunications giants like Comcast and AT&T are deeply implicated in the mass spying on the US and global population by the NSA. They routinely hand over data when asked and only expressed any concern once the extent of this was made known by Snowden.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/03/06/netn-m06.html

‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social media

By Binnaz Saktanber On February 20, 2015

Post image for ‘Cease and censor’ in Turkey’s war on social mediaTurkey has a track record of ruthlessly cracking down on social media users, and both Twitter and Facebook appear happy to play ball with the censors.

Photo by Murad Sezer

On February 9, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey sent his first tweet ever: “Today is World No Tobacco Day” he wrote in Turkish — bluntly ignoring the fact that it wasn’t even World No Tobacco Day — “Use your willpower against this poison and #DontGiveInToCigarettes.” Erdoğan even signed the tweet with his initials RTE in the style of Barack Obama, who signs his personal tweets -bo.

The content of the tweet was no surprise, given that the war against tobacco is one of the personal crusades of the Islamist ruler, and that everybody and their mum is tweeting today, including politicians and world leaders who often want to engage with their public personally. What was surprising was that Erdoğan, who once famously declared social media to be “the worst menace to society” and who blocked Twitter altogether on March 2014, was tweeting at all.

So what has changed? Did Erdoğan suddenly decide to embrace Twitter and stop censoring social media? Not quite. The Turkish government is no longer blocking the likes of Twitter thus keeping a façade of freedom, but it blazes the trail in a new type of censorship regime. I call it “cease and censor.”

The worst part is that Twitter seems to be helping it by implementing its “country-withheld content” policy. First employed in 2012 to block neo-Nazi accounts in Germany, the policy complies with the concerned country’s local laws and blocks a tweet or an account only in that country when faced with a legal order. This is understandable in cases of hate speech or criminal offenses, but the policy becomes awfully problematic when it interferes with freedom of expression and is applied according to local laws that are designed to censor freedom of expression at all costs, such as Turkey’s internet law.

Facebook also complies with the Turkish government’s requests to block and censor political content. @Madigudisi in Twitter and Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post) on Facebook are two victims of this new censorship regime. I talked to them to learn their stories and to better understand how this new regime of censorship works.

Tech-savvy netizens versus archaic politics

But first, let’s refresh our memories. Last March, the Turkish government blocked Twitter amid alleged leaked recordings implicating Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his family members and other government officials on a corruption scandal. Another recording had senior army officials discussing intervention in Syria. The recordings were posted mainly on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter.

“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic,” said a furious Erdoğan before blocking Twitter. A YouTube ban followed. The blatant censorship created an outcry at home and abroad. Hashtags #twitterbannedinturkey and #youtubebannedinturkey became worldwide trending topics within minutes, garnering millions of furious tweets criticizing Turkish government’s censorious antics. Every news outlet in the world reported the issue, while rights groups and the international community condemned the bans.

Turkey’s Constitutional Court lifted the Twitter ban on April 2 and the YouTube ban on June 4, stating they violated laws on freedom of expression. The court’s decision was widely applauded. Yet it did not affect that much in terms of Turkish netizen’s social media activity, as tech-savvy citizens never actually stopped tweeting, and mocked the blocks by circumventing it almost immediately thanks to VPN services and changing their DNS numbers.

At the time, I argued that ancient censorship mechanisms and archaic politics do not work in the face of technological dissent and the voice of the streets anymore. The Turkish government must have felt the same, since it soon began to employ a different tactic to keep social media giants like Twitter and Facebook on a short leash without actually having to block them: threatening them with banning their service altogether and imposing heavy fines, bombarding them with court orders, and making them block specific content and accounts.

Accomplice to censorship

When the transportat minister Lütfi Elvan tweeted “If your phones do not work after an earthquake, call the ministry” on May 28, 2014, he received a witty reply from Twitter user @Madigudisi. “This is not Zaytung [a local mock news portal similar to The Onion]. Goodbye to the brain…”

On July 13, Madigudisi received an email from Twitter’s legal team asking him if he would voluntarily delete the tweet. The message referenced a court ruling about the tweet, claiming it to violate Turkish law. In short, it was a polite recommendation of self-censorship from a social media giant that once famously praised itself as the “free speech wing of the free speech party,” and which promised to “stand with our users in Turkey who rely on Twitter as a vital communications platform” in the midst of the blocking of its service.

Twitter waited for three days for a voluntary deletion, and then censored the tweet. Instead of the original tweet, visitors now see a notice informing them this tweet has been withheld in their country. Madigudisi did not reply to Twitter or contest the ruling. Doing so would reveal his identity and bring more lawsuits.

His fear was not paranoid. Twenty-nine people were put on trial for tweets posted during the Gezi protests in a court case in which the then-Prime Minister Erdoğan is himself listed as a victim. All of the tweeters were accused of “inciting the public to break the law.” Three of them were also accused of “insulting the Prime Minister.”

The tweets they were trialled for were nothing but information on the location of police forces during the protests, passwords for wireless networks in the protest locations where 3G service was not usually available, and messages of support for the nationwide protests. In short, not that different than what millions of other people were tweeting during the summer of 2013.

In the last hearing on September 22, 2014, 27 of the accused were acquitted of all crimes. Yet one defendant was fined 8.000Turkish liras (roughly US$3.200) for “insulting the Prime Minister” and another’s file has been set apart for a future date. Amnesty International, which has been following the trial, declared that “no evidence presented in court points to criminal conduct that is not protected under international human rights standards on the right to freedom of expression,” and pointed out that the prosecution suggested authorities aim to discourage others from using social media in a country where Twitter was blocked before.

Withholding content, blocking accounts

Madigudisi is not the only casualty of Turkey’s “country-withheld content” policy. According to Twitter’s latest transparency report, Turkey had the highest number of removal requests (477) for 2.642 different accounts between July and December, filing five times the amount of requests of the next country on the list. Compared to the first half of the year, Turkey’s requests increased 156 percent and the number of accounts specified grew over 765 percent. As a result, 62 accounts and 1820 tweets were withheld.

Twitter received 328 court orders and 149 requests from Turkish government agencies to remove content ranging from violations of personal rights to defamation of private citizens and/or government officials, just like Madigudisi’s tweet.

In the report, Twitter has defended the policy, releasing the following statement:

We filed legal objections with Turkish courts in response to more than 70% of Turkish orders received. Objections were filed where we believed the order interfered with freedom of expression laws or had other deficiencies. Our objections to Turkish courts prevailed only ~5% of the time. We un-withheld three accounts and 196 tweets following the acceptance of several objections that Twitter filed in the Turkish courts in response to various removal demands.

In the last year, in addition to Madigudisi, three anonymous accounts used to reveal alleged phone conversations implicating Erdoğan in the corruption scandal were also blocked, as well as the account of the activist hacking group TheRedHack. RedHack’s last act was to hack the records of the biggest internet service provider of the country and dedicate it to Ali İsmail Korkmaz, who was killed during the Gezi protests.

Another casualty is Fuatavni, the whistleblower account claiming to write from inside the government with close to a million followers. Fuatavni’s account was blocked shortly after he tweeted details about a wave of arrests of police officers related to the December 17 corruption scandal. Having warned his followers that his account might be blocked, he now writes under the pseudonym FuatAvniFuat, but it is not clear how long this account will last.

Intimidation and despair

Madigudisi is neither a journalist, nor does he trust mainstream media. He says he opened a Twitter account the same day the Gezi protests started, with the sole purpose of tweeting about the protests and obtaining uncensored news about the events. He tweeted 24/7 (“in tears” he says) and tried to provide logistical support to protesters. For him Twitter is pivotal: “Without this platform it is impossible for us to know what is really going on in the country because the press is not free. That’s why I was so disappointed with this censorship.”

On January 15, the Turkish government warned it will shut down Twitter and Facebook if they do not block accounts mentioning documents revealing a weapon delivery to Syria. On January 2, 2014 two trucks belonging to Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) were stopped for a search by a state prosecutor, finding weaponry inside. The trucks were going to Syria and the incident sparked controversy that the contents were meant for jihadists in the neighboring country.

At the time, a court issued a ban on the publication of news related to the incident. Following tweets that publish documents related to the incident, Turkey’s Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) issued a warning that the March 2014 government decree banning coverage  is still valid. The New York Times reported that “networks like Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus complied with the court order on Wednesday, removing content from accounts to avert a shutdown.”

No need for big threats for Facebook, as the company already frequently allows the Turkish government to censor content. According to the company’s latest and second ever transparency report, Turkey is the second most frequent censor of the social network, after India. Turkey restricted 1.813 pieces of content between January and June 2014, primarily because it defamed or criticized Ataturk or the Turkish state. Many Kurdish pages including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — the largest pro-Kurdish party in the country — are closed down, sparking an online petition from academics around the world and the suspicion that the blocks are political in nature.

“The sole purpose of this censorship is to intimidate us.” Madigudisi reflects. “I am not afraid. I will continue to voice my opinion no matter what. But I cannot help but feel despair. I am also very angry, why should I restrict my freedom of speech? There was nothing defamatory or insulting in my tweet, I just made a humorous observation.”

Politically motivated page removals

Ötekilerin Postası (The Other’s Post), a small citizen journalism outlet mainly reporting on the Kurdish issue, has had their Facebook page blocked repeatedly after they became one of the most popular alternative news sources due to its coverage of the Gezi protests. The page has been blocked ten times since July 2013, each time having been forced to open a new one.

As Fırat Yumuşak, an editor for the outlet, says: “This censorship is a direct result of the government’s efforts to suppress the internet during and after the Gezi protests. Facebook is cooperating with the Turkish government. Even government officials admitted this. This is the reason why Facebook was not blocked when other social media sites were.”

Yumusak said they have tried to contact Facebook to reverse the decisions, to no avail. After their page had been censored “because their logo of a pomegranate is found erotic” or a news item about a child sexual abuse case has been found pornographic, they have written to Facebook Europe Director Richard Alan.

When Alan gave an interview to the Turkish newspaper Radikal, he said: “Someone filed a complaint about the page and checked the box of pornographic content as a reason. We have examined the page and found no such content. Yet, we have concluded that the page had violated our terms of conditions by posting content that praises the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). They were posting content that had the flag and symbols of PKK. Posting this flag is a concrete violation of our rules even when it is done without being aware of it. For example, if someone posts a photo and there is someone in that photo carrying a PKK flag in the background, this is against our rules.”

Soon after the interview, The Other’s Post received an email from Facebook’s User Operations. The email was only signed with the first name Deniz, without a surname, and apologized for providing them with an incorrect explanation about why their page had been removed. “Yet,” the email read, “you have violated our standards many times so your page will not be republished.”

According to Yumusak, the problem lies in the fact that Facebook’s said rules and community standards are not up to date and inclusive enough for specific countries: “Because the standards are designed for a global audience, they do not reflect the realities of Turkey. While mainstream media outlets can publish a picture of Öcalan (the jailed leader of PKK), when we publish it we are accused of promoting terrorist activities and get censored,” he says.

Yumusak also argues that Facebook is not transparent enough: “For example, we received messages like ‘your page has been removed because we have received a sufficient amount of complaints.’ What is that amount? We asked several times and got no answer. This lack of transparency allows Facebook to easily cooperate with the authorities. Their page removals are more political than a simple technical act. At this point my thought is that Facebook will censor a page if they want to censor a page. They will create whatever reason necessary to do so. And they cooperate with the government doing so, because they don’t want to give up their market share or ads revenues.”

A façade of freedom

Like Madigudisi, Yumuşak believes in the power of social media in voicing and organizing dissident and that’s why the cut hurts deep. “Gezi showed us that social media provides an alternative platform for popular movements to speak for themselves and to break up the information barrier owned by the dominant classes. The psychological barrier also broke. People went from thinking ‘I am the only one who thinks this’ to ‘I am not alone’. It also helps organizing and mobilizing collective action: you get to learn where the police are, who needs help and where,” he said.

Intimidating the likes of Madigudisi and The Other’s Post is easy for Turkish officials to do thanks to the new internet censorship law providing them ample power in the name of protecting “the common good” and “privacy” while infringing on freedom of expression and online dissent against the government altogether.

The new internet bill, which is cited in the court ruling Madigudisi received, gives enormous power to Turkey’s telecommunications authority. Any URL can be blocked within four hours without a court decision, hence without your knowledge. Internet providers are now obliged to store all data on user activities for two years and to provide the data upon request. The intimidation policy also works outside the courthouse, when families become scared for their loved ones who voice dissent in social media. Madigudisi said he has closed his Facebook account because his family was concerned “something would happen to him or he would get jailed.”

But more importantly, this type of “cease and censor” regime helps the government keep a façade of freedom and avoids Turkey being boiled in the same pot as internet enemies like Iran and China while censoring political content all the same. Actually, it looks like the government prefers people to tweet their dissent so that they can spot the “suspects” more easily. Less international criticism, less local protest, easy targets, and all the censorship one’s heart desires. It looks like Turkey hit the jackpot of despotism.

“Facebook and Twitter are ending lives”

We might argue that this is not that big of a deal compared to last March, when Twitter and YouTube were blocked entirely. People are so tech-savvy they can bypass the censorship easily. Encryption software, VPNs, changing the DNS settings, changing your country settings in Twitter: all easy enough remedies that people are well versed in.

We might say that Twitter’s “country-withheld policy” has good intentions. At least one can see a censored tweet in another country, or by changing the country settings. Yet, the danger in that mentality is that Twitter is actually making it less evident that censorship has occurred, thus becoming an accomplice in censoring governments whether they want it or not.

Until Twitter and Facebook become censorship-free, users are forced to cope with the situation. Madigudisi uses VPN and changes passwords every week. Yumusak says they sneak around the censorship by writing the “forbidden” words in reverse or even just posting the news with the headline “Facebook censored this content.”

Yet the responsibility to protect the freedom of expression should not rest on the shoulders of ordinary people and should not be reduced to technical gimmicks. There is no guarantee that the Turkish government will not find a way to block these technologies or pass further bills restricting internet freedom.

Erdoğan made his first speech as president-elect to the provincial heads of his party. He said: “I don’t speak via social media. I don’t like to tweet, schmeet, because you know what they cause in society. Facebook and Twitter are ending lives.” Now even he is tweeting! Maybe it’s time Twitter and Facebook start being more courageous in terms of human rights and basic principles of free speech, instead of succumbing to the censorious antics of authoritarian governments. This is what we expect of them — if they want to keep their seats at the free speech party, that is. Otherwise they should stand up and leave.

Binnaz Saktanber is a Fulbright scholar and a PhD candidate at the City University of New York. Her research revolves around the interaction between social media, politics and social movements. Saktanber is also a blogger and writer who is published in numerous Turkish and international publications. She is based in İstanbul and New York.

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/02/turkey-social-media-twitter-facebook/