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06 September 2018

Search Neutrality

We rely on search engines to navigate the world on a daily basis and in a variety of forms. Google alone saw at least 5.5 billion daily searches in 2016 and holds over two-thirds of the United States search market. Whatever it is we search for and on whatever search engine we choose, we expect the results we get to be relatively unbiased, ordered by their relevance to the search. Each search engine chooses and orders its results differently based on algorithms most hide from the public. A search engine, especially one the size of Google, has the power to make sites disappear into relative obscurity by listing them lower or not at all.

Although we might expect our search results to be relatively unbiased, there isn’t a guarantee that they will be. In 2014, a Sa...

12 July 2018

#WalkAway and Russian Ops

Bot activity across the political spectrum is nothing new. In a University of Southern California (USC) study, bots accounted for a fifth of political activity on Twitter in the 2016 election. Bots also accounted for 400,000 of the 2.8 million Twitter users tweeting about the election, or about 15% of the users the USC study looked at. While bots supported campaigns from all political leanings, research has shown that Trump had and continues to have a significantly higher number of supporters that are bots rather than real people.

Social media has been actively fighting the invasion of bots. Takedowns of bot accounts are ongoing and happen at such a magnitude that some sites, such as Twitter, have found the growth of their user base growing much more slowly than expected. The bot scourge appears unlikely to stop anytime soon. Spurred by a possibility of a “blue wave” in the 2018 midterm elections...

21 June 2018

Bet You Won't Click Right Here

It’s no secret that advertising revenue drives the Internet. Online advertising has surpassed 200 billion dollars and reaches nearly every corner of the Internet. Online ads make up the majority of the revenue of Internet giants including Facebook and Google and pay for many other free-to-use services and account for an estimated 25% to 40% of Internet traffic on some networks, in one study. To convince us to click, ads have evolved to be increasingly intrusive and targeted. Some sites even run ads that look like normal news articles.

The actual ads are only part of the story. Without people to see them and, sites hope, to click on them, ads don’t make money. As soon as someone leaves or decides not to visit in the first place, a site is losing money. This is part of the reason that sites add ...

30 May 2018

Social Media Empowers Democracy and Oppression

If you listen to the ways social media sites describe themselves, it’s usually a description of connecting and empowering people. If you haven’t recently read the mission statements of social media sites, Twitter’s published mission statement focuses on “giv[ing] everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers” and Facebook’s is “to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” While those statements aren’t false, at least at face value, operating at a global scale means that the reality isn’t quite as romantic.

Social media has indeed empowered all kinds of movements. Most users of large social networks connect with others freely without a lot of thought to the network behind them, or its rules. In some ways, social media may be a more approachable version of the largely uncensored IRC ...

10 May 2018

How To Manipulate Elections In The 21st Century

Propaganda isn’t a new idea, but we’ve been witnessing its evolution into a 21st century version. Through history, propaganda wasn’t always true but it was usually believable. The word propaganda came into normal use around 1914 but the act it describes is far from new. The ancient Greeks used games, theatre, courts, and religious festivals to spread their ideas, the mass media of the time. Over time, the medium for propaganda evolved to the modern media at the time. Today’s propagandist has a lot more choices for outlets, including the Internet and social media which can spread ideas faster than ever, with opaque fake identities that are hard to catch.

Although spreading stories to push a belief isn’t anything new, making them believable isn’t important anymore. Starting the spread of a false stor...

25 April 2018

Sorry, Reality Violates Our Community Guidelines

Censoring content—whatever the reason, be it for keeping adult content out of the hands of minors, because of manufactured outrage, or any other reason—is an interesting dilemma when it comes to digital content. Parental controls aren’t exactly new or complicated, and online services are increasingly adding “kid-friendly” restricted versions of their services. For the most part, those restrictions aren’t anything too novel as far as gated content is concerned. However, digital bans are more enforceable and certain formats of content can be modified on the fly with surgical precision. We might not always know it’s happening or why since sometimes the only reason for a takedown is a violation of “community guidelines.”

China is one of the most cited examples of digital censorship (though there are other countries with similar policies including Turkey). China’s Internet is controlled by the state and exists within what’s referred to colloquially as “The Great Firewall of Ch...

15 April 2018

We're Addicted To Social Media

It’s not just you; leaving social media is hard. Social sites appear to be genuinely addictive and human psychology has a difficult time resisting them, especially when everyone around us is using them. The effects may even be getting stronger as we find social sites part of our daily lives, carried in our pockets and increasingly, worn on our wrists.

The idea that a service could be addictive isn’t exactly new. CNN posted about Facebook addiction in 2009 and there are articles that are even older. Addiction and social media is hitting to the mainstream discussion lately as questions about the true effects of social media continue to mount after the 2016 election.

Addictive effects of social media have been studied with varying degrees of scientific rigor. In data gathered from an experiment called 99 days of freedom, which encourages people to stop using Facebook for 99 days,

05 April 2018

The Web And Our Attention

The Internet has a weird influence on our attention. We decide the value of a web page, and whether it’s worth reading, in seconds. Ten to twenty seconds is the average amount of time people spend on a web page (assuming it loaded reasonably quickly; waiting for a page to load drives people away). We look in a very particular pattern when we visit a page to decide what it’s about and if it’s valuable to us. Studies have figured out how we behave and sites (and advertisers) are learning to tailor pages and ads to attract our attention and hold onto us for longer.

Not all of this is bad. Sites can use the research to improve how people actually read their content which makes our experience better. This saves us time and effort when browsing the web because we’re able to visually scan a page and, if the site is designed well, get the gist of it ...

25 March 2018

Your Digital Stuff May Not Be Yours

On a Friday in 2009, some people discovered that copies of Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm had mysteriously vanished from their Amazon Kindle e-readers. While this wasn’t the only case of mysteriously vanishing books (copies of Harry Potter and Ayn Rand novels vanished at other times), it was interesting enough to hit the news because 1984 was involved. The disappearing books was not, of course, accidental. Amazon had intentionally taken down the books and deleted downloaded copies from Kindles due to copyright disputes. It sparked an interesting discussion about ownership of digital goods; depending on how you’ve purchased them, maybe you don’t fully own them.

Amazon acknowledged that perhaps its choice to delete the books from the devices of customers who had bought them was a bad one and promised it would change its policies. But, in 2012 Amazon

07 March 2018

Big Cloud, Big Leverage

Net neutrality is extremely important in protecting the Internet as it exists today, but it may not go far enough. The guidelines recently struck down by the FCC that preserved net neutrality only apply to Internet Service Providers, the companies that provide access to the Internet. While we need regulatory protection from ISPs due to a lack of competition, we may be forgetting the other side of the cloud; the services we access via our ISPs. Owning a big, widely used cloud means online services have their own leverage over ISP business and customer experiences.

Neutrality as it pertains to online services is distinct from net neutrality, though related. It’s possible for an online service to violate the goals of net neutrality without violating net neutrality. Online services are able to see what ISP their customers come from, assuming they’re not using a VPN service, TOR, or something similar to mask their origin. Using that information, a service could treat visitors ...

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