Podcast Ep. 92: Rees-Mogg Calls Toxic Masculinity ‘Jolly Good Idea’

RD92 Jacob Rees Mogg toxic masculinity

The prospect of 17th century prime minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, AI that can allegedly tell if you’re gay or straight by looking at your face, and comedian Robert Webb’s crusade against toxic masculinity are the three topics this week.

Joining us are our traumatic memories of throwing like girls in the school playground.

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The Internet needs better advocates than the censorship crusader Laurie Penny

Aaron Swartz, January 2012 by MariaJesusV

It is evident to anybody who takes an interest in free speech and its bedfellow free thought that the Internet is now the only battleground worth fighting over.

As such, any attempt by a journalist to publicise the likes of Aaron Swartz, one of the programmers behind Reddit – to name a lesser achievement – should be applauded, even if it is Laurie Penny.

But the trouble with Penny’s writing on this subject is that it is dishonest, and it fails to delineate the complex argument around distribution of information in the Internet age.

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Facebook’s ‘real name’ dilemma is just part of the battle for a public commons Internet

The Demise of Facebook, March 2013 by mkhmarketing

It is worth remembering that the explosion of the Internet was in part prompted by a donation from one Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist who decided that the World Wide Web would be gifted to humanity – a decision that cost him uncounted billions in profits he might have made by selling it.

I mention this a year after a furore broke out over Facebook’s decision to demand that users register with their “authentic identity” on the social network, by which the company meant your legal name.

This was and continues to be a problem for those wanting to use the social network under an assumed name, a group that includes victims of violence, political campaigners and transgender people. Apparently it also affects certain ethnic groups whose naming conventions don’t match up with the standards Facebook has set.

As such a so-called Nameless Coalition is campaigning to convince the social network to reverse its policy. Writing in an open letter online, the group said:

“Facebook maintains a system that disregards the circumstances of users in non-western countries, exposes its users to danger, disrespects the identities of its users, and curtails free speech.”

For its part the social network claims that the measure is necessary for security reasons. In a statement to the press an aptly nameless spokesperson for the company said:

“While we know not everyone likes this approach, our policy against fake names helps make Facebook a safer place by enabling us to detect accounts created for malicious purposes. It makes it harder, for example, for terrorist organizations to hide behind fake profiles, school bullies to anonymously smear the reputations of others, or anyone else to use an anonymous name to harass, scam or engage in criminal behaviour.”

Of course Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are under considerable pressure from governments as a potent comms channel for miscreants. Over the last year security forces in Britain and the United States have been open in criticising Silicon Valley for its adoption of encryption, the boffins being more concerned about user’s privacy than spooks’ ability to pry.

Whether drag queens are a genuine security risk is a matter readers will be able to consider for themselves. But Facebook’s dominance on social media (its users number 1.5bn) is now exposing them to a regulatory quandary – when does a privately developed technology become so essential to life that it falls into the public realm?

That sense that Facebook is a public good was recently captured by Lil Miss Hot Mess, a drag queen from San Francisco, who wrote on the Huffington Post:

“Yesterday I received an email from a mother who is a survivor of domestic violence and prefers to use a pseudonym to safely avoid her ex; she told me she uses Facebook primarily as a means of connecting with other parents whose children have disabilities and have endured abuse. After trying to explain her situation to Facebook’s bot-like customer-service team, she – like thousands of others – is now cut off from very vital support systems.”

As Lil Miss Hot Mess goes on to say, Facebook is a corporation, and ultimately concerned about the bottom line. It’s inaccurate to say that the social network is “monopolistic” – indeed, its competitors are the likes of Twitter and Google – but demands that social networks have a public responsibility will only rise as people increasingly use them.

Silicon Valley is not without a sense of public duty. But it is also full of ambitious people wanting to make big bucks and maintain control of their babies. Reconciling these impulses will be a key political battle of this century. And for my part, I’m hoping more people will fall in line with Berners-Lee.

Image Credit – The Demise of Facebook, March 2013 by mkhmarketing

Artist rebukes content leeches with Ethical Ad Blocker, forgets how cybersecurity works

Advertising in Malmo, September 2007 by Mathias Klang

Of all the controversies on the Internet, few bother people’s minds and wallets as much as the ethical debate around the use of ad blockers.

For those not in the know, ad blockers are a type of web browser plugin that stops adverts from appearing on websites. Among the most famous of these are Adblock Plus, Ghostery and NoScript, the latter two of which block other forms of content as well.

The media has long relied on advertising for a significant chunk of its revenue. Now that much content is available to consume for free online that reliance has only increased, and many independent content makers are also using advertising to support what they do.

As such it’s not surprising then that many complain about Adblock and similar tools. YouTubers whine about it, big corporations pay money to be exempt from it, and websites like OkCupid embed messages behind where adverts should be to chide users into putting their site onto a whitelist.

And into that breach steps Internet artist Darius Kazemi, with the launch of the Ethical Ad Blocker plugin for Google Chrome, described as follows:

“This extension provides a 100% guaranteed ethical ad blocking experience. The conundrum at hand: users don’t want to see ads, but content providers can’t give away content for free. The solution is simple: if a website has ads, the user simply should not be able to see it. This way, the user doesn’t experience ads, but they also don’t leech free content.”

Of course, part of the reason Kazumi can stage his protest so easily is because Tim Berners-Lee chose not to profit from his invention of the World Wide Web, instead giving away the technology for free as a public good.

But even laying that aside, Kazumi forgets a significant factor in ad blocking, or the blocking of scripts in general: cybersecurity.

The Internet, for all its charms, is laughably insecure. Indeed the web browsers we use everyday can be exploited to attack users without much hassle at all, in what is known as “drive-by downloads”.

To pull this off a hacker corrupts an advertising network by submitting a malicious advert to it. These ads are then posted on websites as well trafficked as the Guardian, the Huffington Post or Yahoo, attacking visitors often without their knowledge, and potentially disabling or hijacking their computer.

The other problem is privacy. Ad networks often scoop up vast amounts of data on a user as they move between websites, profiling them so they can more effectively choose which ads to display. And much of this is done not merely without consent, but without any notification at all.

Kazumi is of course welcome to claim payment for his work. But given the importance of the Internet in modern life it is unreasonable to expect anybody to abstain, and until the ad networks sort themselves out it is perfectly reasonable to protect yourself by turning on an ad blocker.

Image Credit – Advertising in Malmo, September 2007 by Mathias Klang

How GCHQ, MI5 and MI6 are dodging democratic scrutiny over ‘bulk personal datasets’

GCHQ model, Sept 2006, Matt Crypto

The British have been infringing on freedom a lot longer than their cousins across the Atlantic – so perhaps it is not surprising that we do it better.

Even as the Yanks roll back the NSA’s powers to sift through American phone records the resurgent Tory government in Britain is using its new majority to tackle freedom through the Snooper’s Charter and Extremism Bill – the latter of which does not even require a sinister sounding nickname.

Fortunately in the spirit of bringing home the revolution Privacy International, a British charity with a global remit, is challenging the spooks’ abilities to put together “bulk personal datasets” with little or no legal oversight.

Such powers only became known in March with the publication of a report by the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, which noted that these collections were only authorised implicitly by other powers granted to spies. And even the committee, which is hardly unsympathetic to the “national security” argument for snooping, had some concerns to raise:

  • “Until the publication of this report, the capability was not publicly acknowledged, and there had been no public or parliamentary consideration of the related privacy considerations and safeguards.
  • “The legislation does not set out any restrictions on the acquisition, storage, retention, sharing and destruction of bulk personal datasets, and no legal penalties exist for misuse of this information.
  • “Access to the datasets – which may include significant quantities of personal information about British citizens – is authorised internally within the agencies without ministerial approval.”

What data goodies are contained in such collections is unstated in the report, though they can contain “hundreds to millions” of records. As such it is understandable that Eric King, deputy director of Privacy International, is rather upset at the practice.

“Secretly ordering companies to hand over their records in bulk, to be data-mined at will, without independent sign off or oversight, is a loophole in the law the size of a double-decker bus,” he said.

“The use of these databases, some volunteered, some stolen, some obtained by bribery or coercion, has already been abused, and will continue to be, until the practice is overhauled, and proper protections put in place.”

The Home Office, whose secretary Theresa “Jackboot” May has been at the forefront of stamping on British freedom, maintains that such powers are necessary to stop the terrorists slaughtering us all, and that there is appropriate oversight – a view which appears naïve, careless or malignant.

At least the Brits can take comfort from the fact that unlike the Yanks we do not endow our snooping bills with names as Orwellian as the Patriot Act and the Freedom Act. It is a shame we cannot say the same for their contents.

Header Image – GCHQ Model, September 2006 by Matt Crypto