Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Tangled Web

The Future Of Censorship

I have never been one to get in a panic about web privacy. I’m too trusting, ready to believe that of course Company X will use my data in an honest and fundamentally decent way. The fact that they have my data can only improve my lot as a consumer, right?  But I do remember the first time that I was freaked out by Gmail (I’ve heard other people having similar experiences).

I had been emailing my father, I think telling him about my latest home-improvement disaster, and I had mentioned the word “tools.” Sure enough, when I read my father’s reply the next day, in the sponsored links on the right-hand side of the page were companies trying to sell me tools. Nothing particularly startling there, of course, but it still unnerved me somewhat. It’s the pact I make with Google: you give me a decent web-based email for free and I give you my data. Facebook gives me a great platform to keep in touch with friends and family, and I give them my digital life. Forever.

In a recent essay/blog post, “Identity and The Independent Web,” the writer John Battelle discusses the emergence of  “two distinct territories across the web landscape.” He calls one the "Dependent Web" and the other the "Independent Web."

The Dependent Web is dominated by companies that deliver services, content and advertising based on who that service believes you to be: What you see on these sites "depends" on their proprietary model of your identity, including what you've done in the past, what you're doing right now, what "cohorts" you might fall into based on third- or first-party data and algorithms, and any number of other robust signals.

The Independent Web, for the most part, does not shift its content or services based on who you are. However, in the past few years, a large group of these sites have begun to use Dependent Web algorithms and services to deliver advertising based on who you are.

His argument is that increasingly the dependent web is colonizing the independent -- that more and more, the content which is offered to us is tailored to what we previously have been doing on the web, what we’ve looked at, what we’ve clicked on, and how long we’ve lingered on something. The web knows what you want. In fact, in the future, the web will know the things you want before you even know them yourself.

Sure, we navigate around, in control of our experience, but the fact is, the choices provided to us as we navigate are increasingly driven by algorithms modeled on the service's understanding of our identity. We know this, and we're cool with the deal - these services are extremely valuable to us. Of course, when we drop into a friend's pictures of their kid's Barmitzvah, we could care less about the algorithms. But once we've finished with those pictures, the fact that we've viewed them, the amount of time we spent viewing them, the connection we have to the person whose pictures they are, and any number of other data points are noted by Facebook, and added to the infinite secret sauce that predestines the next ad or newsfeed item the service might present to us.

It got me thinking about censorship and something that the writer and blogger Evgeny Morozov said in a recent interview I did with him. Morozov said that in the future censorship will work much like behavioral advertising, in that it is very targeted and customized for each user. Usually, he said, the argument is that censorship isn't compatible with economic growth and globalization because authoritarian countries need their bankers to have access to “The New York Times” in order to do mergers and acquisitions.

But censorship, just like advertising, can be tailored to individual users. For example in China, bankers or government officials could have different web access than, say, human rights activists. Bankers could likely deal with Free Tibet sites (they probably wouldn't want to go there anyway), but certainly not impressionable young students. If your past profile of web browsing suggested some viewing of “problematic” sites, the content you are allowed to see in the future could be shaped accordingly. In censoring states, those fortunate enough to navigate the “independent web” will be much like those privileged party flunkies who were allowed to travel abroad during communism.

Morozov said there is a great incentive for companies or governments to develop censorship solutions that work in more or less the same way as Google or Facebook: by looking at your previous behavior and serving you relevant content. So instead of filtering based on keywords or by simply blocking access to pages/sites outright, it will be a much more customizable experience.

With all that in mind, Google suggesting tool suppliers doesn’t seem so benign. As Morozov said, “If [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin woke up one day and decided that Google should do lots of evil, then Google would be the most powerful censorship intermediary in the world” because they already have all that behavioral data. Now that really might be something to worry about.

Tags: censorship

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
by: Catherine Fitzpatrick from: New York
November 05, 2010 16:12
Your columns are such a billboard for Evgeny Morozov, Luke! Do you ever read anyone else?!

Morozov must never study a country like Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan. Russia might be content to allow people to access sites and have their Live Journals safe in the knowledge that their numbers never increase as long as the Kremlin controls mass media. Kazakhstan shuts down Live Journal cynically knowing they don't have enough bloggers to really complain and make a difference. These countries are likely to go on blocking totally sites like Youtube or Facebook -- just because they can. They can't show any business value or economic benefit -- they don't have a start-up culture and don't need one, with their kind of extensive oil and gas resources. Sure, you can argue it would seem to be in their best interests to open the Internet, but they don't see it that way, and handily hire Chinese engineers to filter the Internet.

It's funny that you think the act of customized censorship is something only some foreign regime will do, or that Google *might* do some day if it decides "not to be evil" Baloney. Morozov and others on the Google lecture circuit are always curiously uncritical of the actualities of Google. Of course Google *already* does this. Your search results are tailored to your past search results and you are dumbed down by seeing only what you are interested in. This has worsened with the inclusion of your social media connections as a search generator which dumbs you down even further to your own dumb little circle. All you have to do to see how this works is to think of certain terms to search, and compare and contrast the findings obtained from very different kind of friends. Google of course already manipulates search and our knowledge of the network by promoting Wikipedia first on nearly every return, i.e. ensuring that with its algorithms, which are secret, only heavily linked pages are indexed to appear on top -- producing a self-fulfilling prophecy as everybody clicks on and links the pages that...are already linked.

Google is already a problem for political freedom and fairness, in that it can mount huge, powerful, pervasive political campaigns, like the one it funded and promoted for "net neutrality," and heavily impact government policy. It can rope in all kinds of true socialist believers in liberation of property in this regard, then turn its back on its temporary friends and make a deal with Verizon that looks like collusion.

Morozov often describes a darkly dystopian future where the authoritarians are always in charge and all of us who fight them are doomed. Frankly, I never know whether he's really interested in challenging these regimes when he turns in that conclusion over and over again -- the net effect is to ensure that they remain unchallenged -- along with his position as a guru who always tells us that authoritarian thuggery is inevitable and we should accommodate to it. I never really hear a plan for opposition from Mr. Morozov.

About This Blog

Written by Luke Allnutt, Tangled Web focuses on the smart ways people in closed societies are using social media, mobile phones, and the Internet to circumvent their governments and the efforts of less-than-democratic governments to control the web. 
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