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Monthly Archives: March 2018

Facebook plans crackdown on ad targeting by email without consent



Facebook is scrambling to add safeguards against abuse of user data as it reels from backlash over the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Now TechCrunch has learned Facebook will launch a certification tool that demands that marketers guarantee email addresses used for ad targeting were rightfully attained. This new Custom Audiences certification tool was described by Facebook representatives to their marketing clients, according to two sources. Facebook will also prevent the sharing of Custom Audience data across Business accounts.

This snippet of a message sent by a Facebook rep to a client notes that “for any Custom Audiences data imported into Facebook, Advertisers will be required to represent and warrant that proper user content has been obtained.”

Once shown the message, Facebook spokesperson Elisabeth Diana told TechCrunch “I can confirm there is a permissions tool that we’re building.” It will require that advertisers and the agencies representing them pledge that “I certify that I have permission to use this data”, she said.

Diana noted that “We’ve always had terms in place to ensure that advertisers have consent for data they use but we’re going to make that much more prominent and educate advertisers on the way they can use the data.” The change isn’t in response to a specific incident, but Facebook does plan to re-review the way it works with third-party data measurement firms to ensure everything is responsibly used. This is a way to safeguard data” Diana concluded.The company declined to specify whether it’s ever blocked usage of a Custom Audience because it suspected the owner didn’t have user consent. ”

The social network is hoping to prevent further misuse of ill-gotten data after Dr. Aleksandr Kogan’s app that pulled data on 50 million Facebook users was passed to Cambridge Analytica in violation of Facebook policy. That sordid data is suspected to have been used by Cambridge Analytica to support the Trump and Brexit campaigns, which employed Custom Audiences to reach voters.

Facebook launched Custom Audiences back in 2012 to let businesses upload hashed lists of their customers email addresses or phone numbers, allowing advertisers to target specific people instead of broad demographics. Custom Audiences quickly became one of Facebook’s most powerful advertising options because businesses could easily reach existing customers to drive repeat sales. The Custom Audiences terms of service require that businesses have “provided appropriate notice to and secured any necessary consent from the data subjects” to attain and use these people’s contact info.

But just like Facebook’s policy told app developers like Kogan not to sell, share, or misuse data they collected from Facebook users, the company didn’t go further to enforce this rule. It essentially trusted that the fear of legal repercussions or suspension on Facebook would deter violations of both its app data privacy and Custom Audiences consent policies. With clear financial incentives to bend or break those rules and limited effort spent investigating to ensure compliance, Facebook left itself and its users open to exploitation.

Last week Facebook banned the use of third-party data brokers like Experian and Acxiom for ad targeting, closing a marketing featured called Partner Categories. Facebook is believed to have been trying to prevent any ill-gotten data from being laundered through these data brokers and then directly imported to Facebook to target users. But that left open the option for businesses to compile illicit data sets or pull them from data brokers, then upload them to Facebook as Custom Audiences by themselves.

The Custom Audiences certification tool could close that loophole. It’s still being built, so Facebook wouldn’t say exactly how it will work. I asked if Facebook would scan uploaded user lists and try to match them against a database of suspicious data, but for now it sounds more like Facebook will merely require a written promise.

Meanwhile, barring the sharing of Custom Audiences between Business Accounts might prevent those with access to email lists from using them to promote companies unrelated to the one to which users gave their email address. Facebook declined to comment on how the new ban on Custom Audience sharing would work.

Now Facebook must find ways to thwart misuse of its targeting tools and audit anyone it suspects may have already violated its policies. Otherwise it may receive the ire of privacy-conscious users and critics, and strengthen the case for substantial regulation of its ads (though regulation could end up protecting Facebook from competitors who can’t afford compliance). Still the question remains why it took such a massive data privacy scandal for Facebook to take a tougher stance on requiring user consent for ad targeting. And given that written promises didn’t stop Kogan or Cambridge Analytica from misusing data, why would they stop advertisers bent on boosting profits?

For more on Facebook’s recent scandals, check out TechCrunch’s coverage:

 

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Original Content podcast: We drop by Netflix’s ‘Terrace House’



Terrace House is a tough show to explain.

Like The Real World and other reality TV, the show puts a group of largely young and attractive strangers together in a house. But that’s about where the similarities end.

On Terrace House, most of the cast members genuinely seem to be rooting for each other. And while there’s drama, it’s scaled way back, so that passive aggressive remarks about soup can end up dominating an episode.

Darrell’s a big fan, so on this week’s episode of the Original Content podcast, we checked out the latest season, Opening New Doors (a co-production of Netflix and Japanese TV network Fuji). Sadly, this is his final episode as a regular host, but at least he got to go out with a bang. (And we’re hoping to lure him back.)

We also covered the week’s streaming and entertainment news, like the (distant) launch date for Apple’s TV efforts, Netflix’s plans for Carmen Sandiego and new trailers for The Handmaid’s Tale and Westworld. Plus, Jordan finishes watching the entire Star Wars saga.

You can listen in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You also can send us feedback directly.

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Does Ready Player One reveal the future of VR?



It was barely minutes after the Ready Player One premiere, and texts from my friends and colleagues in the VR community began pouring in…

“How was it?”

Those of us in the mixed reality industries have been waiting for this film like the VR messiah that will deliver us to public mass adoption. And the breathless prayer? “Please, oh please, let Ready Player One make VR look cool.”

To many, VR creators make expensive content that few will ever experience or have interest in experiencing. I have read dozens of articles in the last year announcing either the end or the beginning of VR.

I have seen VR portrayed as a portent for humanity’s most solitary, basic, and evil instincts over and over again in television and film. Most of all, I received questions from people that are confused by what this technology is and moreover, why it even has value.

Because of Ready Player One, there are now giant billboards on streets around the world where someone is wearing a VR Headset. For those of us who have lived and breathed this technology for years, this movie is everything.

And so, I was excited to find that yes, this movie portrays something that I’ve known and felt in my bones for a while now — VR is in fact cool.

I’m imagining that people will now want to suit up, run to THE VOID or the Imax Experience Center and try VR for themselves. But here’s a word of caution to the uninitiated: VR is currently not the OASIS. Please do not expect VR to feel, look and behave like the OASIS, because we are not there yet. But I’ll be damned if we’re not close.

So given this, here’s an overview of what’s present in the film, where we are today, and what the future might hold.

NOTE: Some minor film spoilers below.

Headsets

Film:

At first glance, the headsets in Ready Player One look surprisingly like generation one Oculus Rifts in size and shape. However, the film claims that Head-Mounted Displays (HMDs) projection in 2024 is composed of harmless lasers beaming directly into your retinas– far from our current display-based HMDs. The film’s headsets appear to be inside-out tracking, lightweight, wireless, and can produce images indistinguishable from reality with minimal or no processing lag. Other sci-fi-based headsets appear later in the film, when Wade upgrades his HMD to a model with semi-transparent glass. In the book, there are allusions to OASIS’ massive servers in Columbus, so all the processing power is probably not coming from the headsets themselves but rather sent via 5G (or higher) network to each user.

Today:

Off-the-shelf HMDs are tethered to powerful PCs, and those coming later in 2018 (Vive Pro , Oculus Go, and supposedly Oculus Prototype Santa Cruz, among others) are either a mobile-based power/resolution or require a PC wireless display link. While we don’t have lasers entering our retinas (yet), we can assume someone’s working on it.

Tomorrow:

When it is released, Magic Leap promises to be the closest thing we have to a complex mixed reality headset. It beams information directly into your eyes that utilize your sense of depth, which should make for a more comfortable experience than hours in a headset staring at pixels; yet, it’s imperfect as the field of view will in no way be full resolution like in the OASIS. Right now the design is somewhat clunky– there’s still a walkman-like battery pack to deal with and a FOV of 40 degrees at best. Other than the release of Ready Player One, the launch of Magic Leap One is probably the most anticipated event in the brief history of VR. As a side note, the term “VR” may no longer be applicable, because it’s predicted that AR and VR headsets will merge and become one device.

Haptics

Film: 

The haptic suits in RPO are aesthetically gorgeous. As described in the original book, an interwebbing of sensors and material covers the user’s body — it looks like a slim-fit wetsuit but with gloves and boots. When characters get shot or hit in VR, they feel the pain on their bodies, which thematically ups the stakes during the battle scenes. There’re also a few instances of “pleasure” haptics.

In the VR nightclub, Art3mis dances against Wade and the crotch region of his suit, ahem, “activates.” Other scenes contain a few cheeky allusions to some risque things people might be be up to in the OASIS.

Our villain Nolan Sorrento wears a haptic suit on his bouts in the OASIS, but usually confines the haptic experience to an ornate leather chair that allows him to feel sensations/maintain a patriarchal technical overlord vibe. (Cool.)

Today:

Sorrento’s chair feels reminiscent of the Positron rig that has been dotting film festivals and hotels lately. They’re quite comfy and are great for first time VR users. In terms of romantic haptics, the teledildonics and VR porn industry is alive and well, and new products keep being developed. Haptic gloves like Haptx VR Gloves do exist and keep getting better! So far, texture, shape, and cold/warm sensations are all achievable by individual systems and products.

Tomorrow:

Complete sensory VR immersion is years away, but is one of the most oft requested and dreamed about advances in the industry. Teslasuit appears to be the next product to market that aims to let you feel it all in VR, and it looks a hell of a lot like Wade’s suit.

Movement

Film:

One of the first scenes in the film features Wade navigating the OASIS on a simple omnidirectional treadmill. As the film progresses, movement mechanics get into completely new territory. The “sixers” (the film’s enemy army against the Gunters) stand upright in individual pods with treadmills beneath them; if needed, they and can sit down to “drive” vehicles. On the Gunter side, in Aech’s truck the “Hive Five” are tethered to the ceiling via cables for unobstructed fighting moves.

Today:

Omnidirectional treadmills exist today but the kinks are being ironed out. Many are designed similar to ones in the film (micro- and macro-treadmill arrangements). User motion tracking is done via external sensors, and for maximum movement the closest thing we have to a tetherless VR experience is location-based experiences a la The Void, and that still requires backpacks.

Tomorrow:

A Virtual Reality where your physical movements match virtually in a 1:1 ratio without the need for wires. Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) are already in use for motion capture in films and games, and these systems can be integrated into next-next-gen haptic suits for full-body presence. (That being considered, some folks will always want to play from a couch or chair.)

Digital currency

Film:

One universal currency exists in the OASIS, and its value is more stable than real-world currency. (Is FIAT even real currency some might ask? Don’t start with me, man). In the OASIS, currency is more trusted than in the actual world. Wade receives bonuses for leveling up in the race to catch the egg, and uses digital currency to order real products via drones in the real world. In the OASIS, users can go on quests that require work that are actual proof-of work.

Today:

So cryptocurrency today is a bit of a mess. Between ICO’s failing to launch or completely made up advisory boards, people are doubting the security of a digital currency. That being said, millions of people are eager to learn more about this currency revolution and its claims to strive for the financial equalization of the world.

Tomorrow:

Democratizing cryptocurrency is paramount. Some companies, like Robin Hood, are doing a great job by providing cryptocurrency to the masses via readily accessible mobile apps. Some argue that Ready Player One actually predicted the rise of cryptocurrency; however, it did not predict alt-coins such as Ethereum, Monero or Ripple.

Avatars

Film:

As Wade declares in the beginning of the film, in the OASIS you can “be whomever you want to be”, whatever appearance, ethnicity, background, gender, sex, or species. It’s all up to you as a consumer and denizen of the OASIS. For example, Wade dawns a haircut which is then corrected by Art3mis to be cooler (more spikey). Wade’s best friend Aech is an African American female but is able to be a male muscled warlord in the OASIS. There’s a glorious beauty to avatars in this film for the free folk that is contrasted by the monochromatic Sixers in their Loyalty Centers. This is a free and open internet — be who you want to be.

Today:

It would be lovely if who we are in VR is a direct representation of our real selves — however current methods for duplication leave out facets of what makes us human. For example, Facebook wouldn’t let this VR user be fat. Scanning technologies such as Windows Mixed Reality capture stages can scan your likeness — but it will cost a pretty penny.

Tomorrow:

In the future, avatar creation will be a democratized process where users can scan themselves (either face or body) to import into the cloud, or simply be whatever figure suits their preference. Think of this as a VR Chat-level of character selection but with customization to the nines.

We are at the cusp of a media revolution: New definitions of reality develop every day, and Ready Player One is giving these technologies mass market exposure.

At the same time, this film speaks to the morality surrounding how we equip ourselves with immersive tech in the new digital frontier. Will the OASIS be well protected and well propagated? Should we look to artists or business people to be the curators of this space?

If we are to avoid the advertisement-laden virtual realm that RPO’s 101 Industries desires, we must take steps in this early adoption phase. That is the core of the film’s premise: virtual reality has as much impact on the world as real reality. Choose wisely.

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Arbtr wants to create an anti-feed where users can only share one thing at a time



At a time when the models of traditional social networks are being questioned, it’s more important than ever to experiment with alternatives. Arbtr is a proposed social network that limits users to sharing a single thing at any given time, encouraging “ruthless self-editing” and avoiding “nasty things” like endless feeds filled with trivial garbage.

It’s seeking funds on Kickstarter and could use a buck or two. I plan to.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. “Why would I give money to maybe join a social network eventually that might not have any of my friends on it on it? That is, if it ever even exists?” Great question.

The answer is: how else do you think we’re going to replace Facebook? Someone with a smart, different idea has to come along and we have to support them. If we won’t spare the cost of a cup of coffee for a purpose like that, then we deserve the social networks we’ve got. (And if I’m honest, I’ve had very similar ideas over the last few years and I’m eager to see how they might play out in reality.)

The fundamental feature is, of course, the single-sharing thing. You can only show off one item at a time, and when you post a new one, the old one (and any discussion, likes, etc) will be deleted. There will be options to keep logs of these things, and maybe premium features to access them (or perhaps metrics), but the basic proposal is, I think, quite sound — at the very least, worth trying.

Some design ideas for the app. I like the text one but it does need thumbnails.

If you’re sharing less, as Arbtr insists you will, then presumably you’ll put more love behind those things you do share. Wouldn’t that be nice?

We’re in this mess because we bought wholesale the idea that the more you share, the more connected you are. Now that we’ve found that isn’t the case – and in fact we were in effect being fattened for a perpetual slaughter — I don’t see why we shouldn’t try something else.

Will it be Arbtr? I don’t know. Probably not, but we’ve got a lot to gain by giving ideas like this a shot.

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Who gains from Facebook’s missteps?



When Facebook loses, who wins?

That’s a question for startups that may be worth contemplating following Facebook’s recent stock price haircut. The company’s valuation has fallen by around $60 billion since the Cambridge Analytica scandal surfaced earlier this month and the #DeleteFacebook campaign gained momentum.

That’s a steep drop, equal to about 12 percent of the company’s market valuation, and it’s a decline Facebook appears to be suffering alone. As its shares fell over the past couple of weeks, stocks of other large-cap tech and online media companies have been much flatter.

So where did the money go? It’s probably a matter of perspective. For a Facebook shareholder, that valuation is simply gone. And until executives’ apologies resonate and users’ desire to click and scroll overcomes their privacy fears, that’s how it is.

An alternate view is that the valuation didn’t exactly disappear. Investors may still believe the broad social media space is just as valuable as it was a couple of weeks ago. It’s just that less of that pie should be the exclusive domain of Facebook.

If one takes that second notion, then the possibilities for who could benefit from Facebook’s travails start to get interesting. Of course, there are public market companies, like Snap or Twitter, that might pick up traffic if the #DeleteFacebook movement gains momentum without spreading to other big brands. But it’s in the private markets where we see the highest number of potential beneficiaries of Facebook’s problems.

In an effort to come up with some names, we searched through Crunchbase for companies in social media and related areas. The resulting list includes companies that have raised good-sized rounds in the past couple of years and could conceivably see gains if people cut back on using Facebook or owning its stock.

Of course, people use Facebook for different things (posting photos, getting news, chatting with friends and so on), so we lay out a few categories of potential beneficiaries of a Facebook backlash.

Messaging

Facebook has a significant messaging presence, but it hasn’t been declared the winner. Alternatives like Snap, LINE, WeChat and plain old text messages are also massively popular.

That said, what’s bad for Messenger and Facebook-owned WhatsApp is probably good for competitors. And if more people want to do less of their messaging on Facebook, it helps that there are a number of private companies ready to take its place.

Crunchbase identified six well-funded messaging apps that could fit the bill (see list). Collectively, they’ve raised well over $2 billion — if one includes the $850 million initial coin offering by Telegram.

Increasingly, these private messaging startups are focused on privacy and security, including Wickr, the encrypted messaging tool that has raised more than $70 million, and Silent Circle, another encrypted communications provider that has raised $130 million.

Popular places to browse on a screen

People who cut back on Facebook may still want to spend hours a day staring at posts on a screen. So it’s likely they’ll start staring at something else that’s content-rich, easy-to-navigate and somewhat addictive.

Luckily, there are plenty of venture-backed companies that fit that description. Many of these are quite mature at this point, including Pinterest for image collections, Reddit for post and comment threads and Quora for Q&A (see list).

Granted, these will not replace the posts keeping you up to date on the life events of family and friends. But they could be a substitute for news feeds, meme shares and other non-personal posts.

Niche content

A decline in Facebook usage could translate into a rise in traffic for a host of niche content and discussion platforms focused on sports, celebrities, social issues and other subjects.

Crunchbase News identified at least a half-dozen that have raised funding in recent quarters, which is just a sampling of the total universe. Selected startups run the gamut from The Players’ Tribune, which features first-hand accounts for top athletes, to Medium, which seeks out articles that resonate with a wide audience.

Niche sites also provide a more customized forum for celebrities, pundits and subject-matter experts to engage directly with fans and followers.

Community and engagement

People with common interests don’t have to share them on Facebook. There are other places that can offer more tailored content and social engagement.

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in community and activity-focused social apps gain traction. Perhaps the most prominent is Nextdoor, which connects neighbors for everything from garage sales to crime reports. We’re also seeing some upstarts focused on creating social networks for interest groups. These include Mighty Networks and Amino Apps.

Though some might call it a stretch, we also added to the list WeWork, recent acquirer of Meetup, and The Guild, two companies building social networks in the physical world. These companies are encouraging people to come out and socially network with other people (even if just means sitting in a room with other people staring at a screen).

Watch where the money goes

Facebook’s latest imbroglio is still too recent to expect a visible impact in the startup funding arena. But it will be interesting to watch in the coming months whether potential rivals in the above categories raise a lot more cash and attract more users.

If there’s demand, there’s certainly no shortage of supply on the investor front. The IPO window is wide open, and venture investors are sitting on record piles of dry powder. It hasn’t escaped notice, either, that social media offerings, like Facebook, LinkedIn and Snap, have generated the biggest exit total of any VC-funded sector.

Moreover, those who’ve argued that it’s too late for newcomers have a history of being proven wrong. After all, that’s what people were saying about would-be competitors to MySpace in 2005, not long before Facebook made it big.

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Red Hat looks beyond Linux



The Red Hat Linux distribution is turning 25 years old this week. What started as one of the earliest Linux distributions is now the most successful open-source company, and its success was a catalyst for others to follow its model. Today’s open-source world is very different from those heady days in the mid-1990s when Linux looked to be challenging Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop, but Red Hat is still going strong.

To put all of this into perspective, I sat down with the company’s current CEO (and former Delta Air Lines COO) Jim Whitehurst to talk about the past, present and future of the company, and open-source software in general. Whitehurst took the Red Hat CEO position 10 years ago, so while he wasn’t there in the earliest days, he definitely witnessed the evolution of open source in the enterprise, which is now more widespread than every.

“Ten years ago, open source at the time was really focused on offering viable alternatives to traditional software,” he told me. “We were selling layers of technology to replace existing technology. […] At the time, it was open source showing that we can build open-source tech at lower cost. The value proposition was that it was cheaper.”

At the time, he argues, the market was about replacing Windows with Linux or IBM’s WebSphere with JBoss. And that defined Red Hat’s role in the ecosystem, too, which was less about technological information than about packaging. “For Red Hat, we started off taking these open-source projects and making them usable for traditional enterprises,” said Whitehurst.

Jim Whitehurst, Red Hat president and CEO (photo by Joan Cros/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

About five or six ago, something changed, though. Large corporations, including Google and Facebook, started open sourcing their own projects because they didn’t look at some of the infrastructure technologies they opened up as competitive advantages. Instead, having them out in the open allowed them to profit from the ecosystems that formed around that. “The biggest part is it’s not just Google and Facebook finding religion,” said Whitehurst. “The social tech around open source made it easy to make projects happen. Companies got credit for that.”

He also noted that developers now look at their open-source contributions as part of their resumé. With an increasingly mobile workforce that regularly moves between jobs, companies that want to compete for talent are almost forced to open source at least some of the technologies that don’t give them a competitive advantage.

As the open-source ecosystem evolved, so did Red Hat. As enterprises started to understand the value of open source (and stopped being afraid of it), Red Hat shifted from simply talking to potential customers about savings to how open source can help them drive innovation. “We’ve gone from being commeditizers to being innovators. The tech we are driving is now driving net new innovation,” explained Whitehurst. “We are now not going in to talk about saving money but to help drive innovation inside a company.”

Over the last few years, that included making acquisitions to help drive this innovation. In 2015, Red Hat bought IT automation service Ansible, for example, and last month, the company closed its acquisition of CoreOS, one of the larger independent players in the Kubernetes container ecosystem — all while staying true to its open-source root.

There is only so much innovation you can do around a Linux distribution, though, and as a public company, Red Hat also had to look beyond that core business and build on it to better serve its customers. In part, that’s what drove the company to launch services like OpenShift, for example, a container platform that sits on top of Red Hat Enterprise Linux and — not unlike the original Linux distribution — integrates technologies like Docker and Kubernetes and makes them more easily usable inside an enterprise.

The reason for that? “I believe that containers will be the primary way that applications will be built, deployed and managed,” he told me, and argued that his company, especially after the CoreOS acquisition, is now a leader in both containers and Kubernetes. “When you think about the importance of containers to the future of IT, it’s a clear value for us and for our customers.”

The other major open-source project Red Hat is betting on is OpenStack . That may come as a bit of a surprise, given that popular opinion in the last year or so has shifted against the massive project that wants to give enterprises an open source on-premise alternative to AWS and other cloud providers. “There was a sense among big enterprise tech companies that OpenStack was going to be their savior from Amazon,” Whitehurst said. “But even OpenStack, flawlessly executed, put you where Amazon was five years ago. If you’re Cisco or HP or any of those big OEMs, you’ll say that OpenStack was a disappointment. But from our view as a software company, we are seeing good traction.”

Because OpenStack is especially popular among telcos, Whitehurst believes it will play a major role in the shift to 5G. “When we are talking to telcos, […] we are very confident that OpenStack will be the platform for 5G rollouts.”

With OpenShift and OpenStack, Red Hat believes that it has covered both the future of application development and the infrastructure on which those applications will run. Looking a bit further ahead, though, Whitehurst also noted that the company is starting to look at how it can use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make its own products smarter and more secure, but also at how it can use its technologies to enable edge computing. “Now that large enterprises are also contributing to open source, we have a virtually unlimited amount of material to bring our knowledge to,” he said.

 

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How Facebook Can Better Fight Fake News: Make Money Off the People Who Promote It



Facebook and other platforms are still struggling to combat the spread of misleading or deceptive “news” items promoted on social networks.

Recent revelations about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s slow corporate response have drawn attention away from this ongoing, equally serious problem: spend enough time on Facebook, and you are still sure to see dubious, sponsored headlines scrolling across your screen, especially during major news days when influence networks from inside and outside the United States rally to amplify their reach. And Facebook’s earlier announced plan to combat this crisis through simple user surveys does not inspire confidence.

As is often the case, the underlying problem is more about economics than ideology. Sites like Facebook depend on advertising for their revenue, while media companies depend on ads on Facebook to drive eyes to their websites, which in turn earns them revenue. Within this dynamic, even reputable media outlets have an implicit incentive to prioritize flash over substance in order to drive clicks.

Less scrupulous publishers sometimes take the next step, creating pseudo news stories rife with half-truths or outright lies that are tailor-made to emotionally target audiences already inclined to believe them. Indeed, much of the bogus US political items generated during the 2016 election didn’t emanate from Russian agents, but fly-by-night operations churning out spurious fodder appealing to biases across the political spectrum. Compounding this problem are the high costs to Facebook as a corporation: It’s likely not feasible to hire massively large teams of fact checkers to review every deceptive news item that’s advertised on its platform.

I believe there is a better, proven, cost-effective solution Facebook could implement. Leverage the aggregate insights of its own users to root out false or deceptive news, and then, remove the profit motive by charging publishers who try to promote it.

The first piece involves user-driven content review, a process that’s been successfully implemented by numerous Internet services. The dot-com era dating site Hot or Not, for instance, ran into a moderation problem when it debuted a dating service. Instead of hiring thousands of internal moderators, Hot or Not asked a series of select users if an uploaded photo was inappropriate (pornography, spam, etc).

Users worked in pairs to vote on photos until a consensus was reached. Photos flagged by a strong majority of users were removed, and users who made the right decision were awarded points. Only photos which garnered a mixed reaction would be reviewed by company employees, to make a final determination — typically, just a tiny percentage of the total.

Facebook is in an even better position to implement a system like this, since it has a truly massive user base which the company knows about in granular detail. They can easily select a small subset of users (several hundred thousand) to conduct content reviews, chosen for their demographic and ideological diversity. Perhaps users could opt in to be moderators, in exchange for rewards.

Applied to the problem of Facebook ads which promote deceptive news, this review process would work something like this:

  • A news site pays to advertise an article or video on Facebook

  • Facebook holds this payment in escrow

  • Facebook publishes the ad to a select number of Facebook users who’ve volunteered to rate news items as Reliable or Unreliable

  • If a supermajority of these Facebook reviewers (60% or more) rate the news to be Reliable, the ad is automatically published, and Facebook takes the advertising money

  • If the news item is flagged as Unreliable by 60% or more reviewers, it’s sent to Facebook’s internal review board

  • If the review board determines the news to be Reliable, the ad for the article is published on Facebook

  • If the review board deems it to be Unreliable, the ad for the article is not published, Facebook returns most of the ad payment to the media site — keeping 10-20% to reimburse the social network’s review process

(Photo by Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I’m confident a diverse array of users would consistently identify deceptive news items, saving Facebook countless hours in labor costs. And in the system I am describing, the company immunizes itself from accusations of political bias. “Sorry, Alex Jones,” Mark Zuckerberg can honestly say, “We didn’t reject your ad for promoting fake news — our users did.” Perhaps more key, not only will the social network save on labor costs, they will actually make money for removing fake news.

This strategy could also be adapted by other social media platforms, especially Twitter and YouTube. To make real headway against this epidemic, the leading Internet advertisers, chief among them Google, would also need to implement similar review processes. This filter system of consensus layers should also be applied to suspect content that’s voluntarily shared by individuals and groups, and the bot networks that amplify them.

To be sure, this would only put us somewhat ahead in the escalating arms race against forces still striving to erode our confidence in democratic institutions. Seemingly every week, a new headline reveals the challenge to be greater than what we ever imagined. So my purpose in writing this is to confront the excuse Silicon Valley usually offers, for not taking action: “But this won’t scale.” Because in this case, scale is precisely the power social networks have, to best defend us.

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Tesla says fatal crash involved Autopilot



Tesla has provided another update to last week’s fatal crash. As it turns out, Tesla said the driver had Autopilot on with the adaptive cruise control follow-distance set to minimum. However, it seems the driver ignored the vehicle’s warnings to take back control.

“The driver had received several visual and one audible hands-on warning earlier in the drive and the driver’s hands were not detected on the wheel for six seconds prior to the collision,” Tesla wrote in a blog post. “The driver had about five seconds and 150 meters of unobstructed view of the concrete divider with the crushed crash attenuator, but the vehicle logs show that no action was taken.”

The promise of Tesla’s Autopilot system is to reduce car accidents. In the company’s blog post, Tesla notes Autopilot reduces crash rates by 40 percent, according to an independent review by the U.S. government. Of course, that does not mean the technology is perfect in preventing all accidents.

As Tesla previously noted, the crash was so severe because the middle divider on the highway had been damaged in an earlier accident. Tesla also cautioned that Autopilot does not prevent all accidents, but it does make them less likely to occur.

No one knows about the accidents that didn’t happen, only the ones that did. The consequences of the public not using Autopilot, because of an inaccurate belief that it is less safe, would be extremely severe. There are about 1.25 million automotive deaths worldwide. If the current safety level of a Tesla vehicle were to be applied, it would mean about 900,000 lives saved per year. We expect the safety level of autonomous cars to be 10 times safer than non-autonomous cars.

In the past, when we have brought up statistical safety points, we have been criticized for doing so, implying that we lack empathy for the tragedy that just occurred. Nothing could be further from the truth. We care deeply for and feel indebted to those who chose to put their trust in us. However, we must also care about people now and in the future whose lives may be saved if they know that Autopilot improves safety. None of this changes how devastating an event like this is or how much we feel for our customer’s family and friends. We are incredibly sorry for their loss.

This development, of course, comes in light of a fatal accident involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Tempe, Arizona.

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UberRUSH is shutting down



Uber is closing the doors on its on-demand package delivery service for merchants, RUSH, in New York City, San Francisco and Chicago, TechCrunch has learned. In an email to users, Uber said it plans to close RUSH operations June 30, 2018.

“At Uber, we believe in making big bold bets, and while ending UberRUSH comes with some sadness, we will continue our mission of building reliable technology that serves people and cities all over the world,” Uber’s NYC RUSH team wrote to customers.

Uber has since confirmed the wind-down.

“We’re winding down UberRUSH deliveries and ending services by the end of June,” an Uber spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re thankful for our partners and hope the next three months will allow them to make arrangements for their delivery needs. We’re already applying a lot of the lessons we learned together to our UberEats food delivery business in over 200 global markets across more than 100,000 restaurants.”

With UberRUSH, which I forgot still existed, people can request deliveries for items no more than 30 pounds in size, except animals, alcohol, illegal items, stolen goods and dangerous items like guns and explosives. Last April, Uber stopped providing courier services to restaurants, encouraging them to instead use UberEATS, the company’s food delivery service. The shutdown of UberRUSH comes shortly after Shyp, an on-demand shipping company, announced its last day of operations.

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Chinese police foil drone-flying phone smugglers at Hong Kong border



Dozens of high-tech phone smugglers have been apprehended by Chinese police, who caught onto their scheme to send refurbished iPhones into the country from Hong Kong via drone — but not the way you might think.

China’s Legal Daily reported the news (and Reuters noted shortly after) following a police press conference; it’s apparently the first cross-border drone-based smuggling case, so likely of considerable interest.

Although the methods used by the smugglers aren’t described, a picture emerges from the details. Critically, in addition to the drones themselves, which look like DJI models with dark coverings, police collected some long wires — more than 600 feet long.

Small packages of 10 or so phones were sent one at a time, and it only took “seconds” to get them over the border. That pretty much rules out flying the drone up and over the border repeatedly — leaving aside that landing a drone in pitch darkness on the other side of a border fence (or across a body of water) would be difficult to do once or twice, let alone dozens of times, the method is also inefficient and and risky.

But really, the phones only need to clear the border obstacle. So here’s what you do:

Send the drone over once with all cable attached. Confederates on the other side attach the cable to a fixed point, say 10 or 15 feet off the ground. Drone flies back unraveling the cable, and lands some distance onto the Hong Kong side. Smugglers attach a package of 10 phones to the cable with a carabiner, and the drone flies straight up. When the cable reaches a certain tension, the package slides down the cable, clearing the fence. The drone descends, and you repeat.

I’ve created a highly professional diagram to illustrate this technique (feel free to reuse):

It’s not 100 percent to scale. The far side might have to be high enough that the cable doesn’t rest on the fence, if there is one, or not to drag in the water if that’s the case. Not sure about that part.

Anyway, it’s quite smart. You get horizontal transport basically for free, and the drone only has to do what it does best: go straight up. Two wires were found, and the police said up to 15,000 phones might be sent across in a night. Assuming 10 phones per trip, and say 20 seconds per flight, that works out to 1,800 phones per hour per drone, which sounds about right. Probably this kind of thing is underway at more than a few places around the world.

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