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How Zuckerberg's Facebook Is Like Gutenberg's Printing Press - Oh Dear...

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How Zuckerberg's Facebook is like Gutenberg's printing press


Historian fears Cambridge Analytica saga just tip of iceberg, writes James Hohmann.


When historian Niall Ferguson moved from Harvard to Stanford two years ago, he was struck by Silicon Valley's indifference to history. The hubris he saw reminded him of what he encountered on Wall Street as he researched a book about the history of banking during the years before the financial crisis. He became convinced the technology sector was careening toward its own crisis and decided to write about it.


The crisis has finally arrived, thanks to Cambridge Analytica, conveniently timed to coincide with the publication of Ferguson's book on the history of social networks, from the Freemasons to Facebook. The Square and the Tower is a cautionary tale that challenges the conventional wisdom that growing interconnectedness is inherently good for society.


"Our networked world is fundamentally vulnerable, and two-factor authentication won't save us," Ferguson said at the Hoover Institution, where he is a senior fellow.


Since President Donald Trump's victory, much has been written about parallels between the present and the rise of authoritarian leaders in the 1930s. Ferguson thinks that's lazy analysis. For most of the 20th century, communications systems were amenable to central control. This was a fluke of the Industrial Revolution, which produced telegraphs and then telephones. These technologies had an architecture that allowed whoever controlled the hub to dominate the spokes, which led to more hierarchical power structures.


To understand the current era, Ferguson believes we need to look more at what happened after Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press. Like the web, the use of these presses was difficult to centrally control.


"At the beginning of the Reformation 501 years ago, Martin Luther thought naively that if everybody could read the Bible in the vernacular, they'd have a direct relationship with God, it would create 'the priesthood of all believers' and everything would be awesome," Ferguson said.


"We've said the same things about the internet. We think that's obviously a good idea. Except it's not ... any more than it was in the 16th century. Because what the Europeans had was not 'the priesthood of all believers'. They had 130 years of escalating religious conflict ..."


The more he studies that period, the more echoes Ferguson sees in the 21st century.


"What one can see in the 16th and 17th centuries is polarisation, fake news-type stories, the world getting smaller and therefore contagion is capable of spreading much faster.


"These big shifts in network structure led to revolutions against hierarchical institutions," he said.


Ferguson points to recent studies showing that fake news can spread faster and farther than real news when it's especially sensational. "The crazy stuff is more likely to go viral because we're kind of interested in crazy stuff, but this is not surprising historically," he said.


"The idea that witches live amongst us and should be burned went as viral as anything that Martin Luther said ... Indeed, it turned out that witch burning was more likely to happen in places where there were more printing presses."


The author said it affected his sleep when he thought about how some of the dynamics on social media would play out in the future.


"I'm much more worried than a non-historian by what I see because history tells me that the polarisation process keeps going, and it doesn't just stop at verbal violence because at a certain point that's not satisfying," Ferguson said.


Enter Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg is worth about US$64 billion ($89b) through creating an addictive social network that capitalised on the desire for connection.


The site had been embattled for allowing the Kremlin to use its platform to sow domestic discord. The Russians were buying political ads to target US voters. Now Zuckerberg is under growing scrutiny for the firm's failure to safeguard data following whistleblower revelations about Cambridge Analytica, a voter-profiling firm which harvested the personal information of as many as 50 million users and earned US$6 million from Trump's 2016 campaign.


The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Facebook broke the law or violated a 2011 settlement agreement. A bipartisan chorus in Congress is demanding Zuckerberg testify under oath. His lobbyists are negotiating the details of an appearance. Recognising the political risk, Facebook executives have even begun saying publicly they're receptive to being more heavily regulated.


"I don't think they have thought deeply at all about the historical significance of their predicament, and I blame Mark Zuckerberg for dropping out of Harvard before he took any of my classes," Ferguson quipped.


"If he had taken my course in western civilisation, he'd know that he's become a strange amalgam of John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst all at once. They went through a phase of deep unpopularity."


Ferguson, who like Carnegie is a native of Scotland, believes the US Government must move aggressively to rein in the power of such companies. "If we don't act, the next phase of the process will be even uglier than the current Cambridge Analytica phase — which is the tip of the iceberg. Think of how many other people have downloaded the data. The window was open for years."


He believes legislative changes could increase Facebook's liability and make it more accountable for damaging information trafficked on its platforms.


"It is an untenable state of affairs that a few private companies know more about the citizens of a country than the citizens themselves, much less the government. And it is untenable that the companies concerned are ... so easily instrumentalised by hostile foreign governments that as many people saw Russian-originated content in 2016 as voted in the presidential election.


"Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, you cannot possibly think this is okay."


Ferguson thinks media coverage of the midterms needs to emphasise how vulnerable the internet remains to manipulation.


"It's as if people who work professionally in politics just want to pretend that it's still pre-2008, whereas the entire system of politics has completely changed. Facebook advertising is the most powerful tool in politics. I don't think we're doing nearly enough to avoid another legitimacy crisis around this."



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While manipulation by foreign entities with malicious motives (or even without) is a concern -- the internal forces exploiting social media as an 'echo chamber' tool to create social mobs disturbs me even more. On both sides. Further - the platforms themselves are becoming political actors as much as tech tools (tweaks to the algorithims to exclude or promote desired results, demonetization on youtube for not eschewing the correct political stance, shadow bans on twitter for popular conservative critics, etc.).


This genuinely bothers me. We'll see how it all shakes out over time, but I have not witnessed social media bringing in a renaissance of critical thinking and the flow of ideas - rather they have begun to lean towards the opposite.

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Normally I am not one to say "I told you so" - but ::


Facebook said Wednesday that most of its 2 billion users likely have had their public profiles scraped by outsiders without the users' explicit permission, dramatically raising the stakes in a privacy controversy that has dogged the company for weeks, spurred investigations in the United States and Europe, and sent the company's stock price tumbling.


The acknowledgment was part of a broader disclosure by Facebook on Wednesday about the ways in which various levels of user data have been taken by everyone from malicious actors to ordinary app developers.


"We’re an idealistic and optimistic company, and for the first decade, we were really focused on all the good that connecting people brings," Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. "But it’s clear now that we didn’t focus enough on preventing abuse and thinking about how people could use these tools for harm as well."


As part of the disclosure, Facebook for the first time detailed the scale of the improper data collection for Cambridge Analytica, a political data consultancy hired by President Trump and other Republican candidates in the last two federal election cycles. The political consultancy gained access to Facebook information on up to 87 million users, 71 million of whom are Americans, Facebook said. Cambridge Analytica obtained the data to build “psychographic†profiles that would help deliver targeted messages intended to shape voter behavior in a wide range of U.S. elections.


But in research sparked by revelations from a Cambridge Analytica whistleblower last month, Facebook determined that the problem of third-party collection of user data was far larger still and, with the company's massive user base, likely affected a large cross-section of people in the developed world.


Facebook and other social media sites are facing scrutiny over their privacy settings. Here's how you can keep your data private and why you should care. (Elyse Samuels, John Parks/The Washington Post)

“Given the scale and sophistication of the activity we’ve seen, we believe most people on Facebook could have had their public profile scraped,†the company wrote in its blog post.


The scraping by malicious actors typically involved gathering public profile information — including names, email addresses and phone numbers, according to Facebook — by using a “search and account recovery†function that Facebook said it has now disabled. Facebook didn't make clear in its post exactly what data was collected.


The data obtained by Cambridge Analytica was more detailed and extensive, including the names, home towns, work and educational histories, religious affiliations and Facebook “likes†of users, among other data. Other users affected were in countries including the Philippines, Indonesia, U.K., Canada and Mexico.


Facebook initially had sought to downplay the problem, saying in March only that 270,000 people had responded to a survey on an app created by the researcher in 2014. That netted Cambridge Analytica the data on the friends of those who responded to the survey, without their permission. But Facebook declined to say at the time how many other users may have had their data collected in the process. The whistleblower, Christopher Wylie, a former researcher for the company, said the real number of affected people was at least 50 million.


Wylie tweeted on Wednesday afternoon that Cambridge Analytica could have obtained even more than 87 million profiles. "Could be more tbh," he wrote, using an abbreviation for "to be honest."


Cambridge Analytica on Wednesday responded to Facebook's announcement by saying that it had licensed data on 30 million users. Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica from its platform last month for obtaining the data under false pretenses.


Facebook's announcement, made near the bottom of a blog post Wednesday afternoon on plans to restrict access to data in the future, underscores the severity of a data mishap that appears to have affected about one out of every four Americans and sparked widespread outrage at the carelessness of the company's handling of information on its users. Personal data on users and their Facebook friends was easily and widely available to developers of apps before 2015.


With its moves over the past week, Facebook is embarking on a major shift in its relationship with third-party app developers that have used Facebook’s vast network to expand their businesses. What was largely an automated process will now involve developers agreeing to “strict requirements,†the company said in its blog post Wednesday. The 2015 policy change curtailed developers’ abilities to access data about people’s friends networks but left open many loopholes that the company tightened on Wednesday.


The news quickly reverberated on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are set to grill Zuckerberg at a series of hearings next week.


"The more we learn, the clearer it is that this was an avalanche of privacy violations that strike at the core of one of our most precious American values – the right to privacy," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has called on Zuckerberg to testify at a hearing next week.


“This latest revelation is extremely troubling and shows that Facebook still has a lot of work to do to determine how big this breach actually is,†said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which will hear from Zuckerberg on Wednesday.



“I’m deeply concerned that Facebook only addresses concerns on its platform when it becomes a public crisis, and that is simply not the way you run a company that is used by over 2 billion people,†he said. “We need to know how they are going to fix this problem next week at our hearing.â€


Facebook announced plans on Wednesday to add new restrictions to how outsiders can gain access to this data, the latest steps in a years-long process by the company to improve its damaged reputation as a steward of the personal privacy of its users.


Developers who in the past could get access to people’s relationship status, calendar events, private Facebook posts, and much more data, will now be cut off from access or be required to endure a much stricter process for obtaining the information.


Cambridge Analytica, which collected this information with the help of Cambridge University psychologist Aleksandr Kogan, was founded by a multimillion-dollar investment by hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and headed by his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who was the company's president, according to documents provided by Wylie. Serving as vice president was conservative strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who also was the head of Breitbart News. He has since left both jobs and also his post as top White House adviser to Trump.


Until Wednesday, apps that let people input a Facebook event into their calendar could also automatically import lists of all the people who attended that event, Facebook said. Administrators of private groups, some of which have tens of thousands of members, could also let apps scrape the Facebook posts and profiles of members of that group. App developers who want this access will now have to prove their activities benefit the group. Facebook will now need to approve tools that businesses use to operate Facebook pages. A business that uses an app to help it respond quickly to customer messages, for example, will not be able to do so automatically. Developers’ access to Instagram will also be severely restricted.


Facebook is allow banning apps from accessing users' information about their religious or political views, relationship status, education, work history, fitness activity, book reading habits, music listening and news reading activity, video watching and games. Data brokers and businesses collect this type of information to build profiles of their customers’ tastes.


Facebook last week said it is also shutting down access to data brokers who use their own data to target customers on Facebook.


Facebook’s broad changes to how data is used apply mostly to outsiders and third parties. Facebook is not limiting the data the company itself can collect, nor is it restricting its ability to profile users to enable advertisers to target them with personalized messages. One piece of data Facebook said it would stop collecting was the time of phone calls, a response to outrage from users of Facebook’s messenger service who discovered that allowing Facebook to access their phone contact list was giving the company access to their call logs.



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Type in your full name on Google and search. It was hard to find me not so many years ago, but when I do it now ... I find my birth date, my parent's names, my sister's name, my nephew's name, my address (old one), the universities where I studied etc, That's a big change and came as something of a shock.

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