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As Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the U.S. Congress this week, the whole world seems to be against Facebook. Is this a watershed moment for the future of the company and the broader consumer internet as we know it? Will the tremendous public outcry against Facebook and the rest of the industry result in truly meaningful change that actually advances consumer interests and protects the long-term integrity of American democracy?
Perhaps. But if this is to happen, we will need to look beyond the monotone drumbeat of anti-industry rhetoric to understand precisely how the core business model of internet platform companies like Facebook really work. Only then can we reverse the exploitative and polarizing tactics that were likely pursued by political communicators during the 2016 elections.
Will the tremendous public outcry against Facebook result in change that actually protects the long-term integrity of American democracy?
The market structure that permitted Cambridge Analytica’s breathtaking scale of data collection and exploitation was not a hack or a breach or an illegal act. It was merely an example of the core product offered by Facebook — targeted advertising — functioning as designed and exploited to its logical (if unsavory) extreme. Leveraging user data to target ads and customize content that appeals to people is the business. And there are precious few restrictions on how it can be done, even if the results undermine the integrity of democratic political culture.
What is really at stake here is not just privacy. Yes, the fact that 87 million users’ Facebook data was (and maybe still is) out there for nefarious actors to manipulate is not good for individual privacy; none of us want our sensitive information in the hands of strangers. But if we think of the incident only in this way, we run the risk of casting it in the same light as the recent data breaches at Uber, Equifax, Sony, or Target.
Remember them? All of these incidents were significant and caught the public’s eye, too — and were equally damaging to consumer privacy. But notably, nothing really happened to any of these companies. After a few weeks of public backlash and some minor slaps on the wrist, it was back to business as usual.
But there is something different about the Facebook incident; the data leaked to Cambridge was especially rich and sensitive, and came into the possession of people who aimed to directly influence our political freedom. News reporting has not yet revealed in great detail what kind of data Cambridge took. We can guess, though. First, the data likely included personally identifiable information — persistent indicators that can uniquely identify a person including his or her name, phone number, email address, and perhaps most dangerously, Facebook user ID. Second, we know that Cambridge gained access to users’ “Likes” — that is, the pages, personalities, news reports and other content in which users indicated their interest.
The combination of these two types of data would necessarily have allowed Cambridge — and by proxy, potentially its clients — to infer the preferences, interests, beliefs and behaviors of the people whose data was stolen. And as far as we know from the disclosures, most of those 87 million people were American voters.
So, should we demand better security, privacy and policy practices of Facebook and like companies? Most definitely, yes. But this will not immediately shut off the potential for future disinformation operations. The fact is, no grade of security is capable of never being breached. And though the academic question of whether or not this incident should be classified as a “security breach” (a term that carries certain legal ramifications) has correctly been challenged by Facebook, the company could surely have done things better — in choosing its research partners, in holding them accountable for the handling of sensitive data and in disclosing these details to consumers.
But what the public needs to understand is the nature of the digital advertising industry itself — and by extension, the nature of the customized social media feeds into which these ads are integrated. We are its consumers whenever we use the internet. And though its commercial underpinnings may not be readily apparent to us, this market is driven first and foremost by our personal information.
This world of digital commerce, which is dominated by advertising, is premised on the collection of vast quantities of user data, the creation of networked platforms that offer compelling services and the sale of targeted ad space to anyone who will pay for it. The fact that nefarious actors have invaded this space now should motivate us to clean up the digital square.
Left unchecked, we will see a race to the bottom to use digital tools for political exploitation. Now is the moment to put country over party on both sides of the aisle.
Which brings us back to the matter of Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony. This is not one of those issues that can be treated with party line dogmatism. And while Trump and his brand of Republicanism may have benefited from this degradation of American politics in the short term, this is surely not a constant. Left unchecked, we will see a race to the bottom to use digital tools for political exploitation. Now is the moment to put country over party on both sides of the aisle.
So far, reaction from policymakers has been publicly strong but privately uneven. Facebook has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle following reports of data breaches, but legislation that might work to close privacy loopholes has been slow to materialize. Last October lawmakers introduced a bill, The Honest Ads Act, sponsored by a bipartisan group of Senators and supported by as many as 18. The bill proposes that the marketers that fund internet-based political advertising be explicitly displayed in the ads. This approach represents a good start. But the bill has so far failed to move out of Committee. Now that Facebook has reversed course and announced its support for the bill, this may change.
But even if the bill does find the votes, it does not go far enough. Transparency alone — even if there was consensus around a gold standard — cannot stop the actions of nefarious actors intent on affecting our electoral process. Nor would proposed algorithms that might better detect malicious content, because disinformation actors and other bad players will find ways around them.
Even with the current backlash, it is difficult to imagine legislation that reforms the ways that internet data is collected and advertising algorithms are developed could find enough votes.
What we need is comprehensive reform of business practices in the sector. As we argued in a report published by New America and the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School earlier this year, it is the business model of the digital advertising industry itself that has been the root cause of the problems that have surfaced over the past few years.
More effective than the Honest Ads Act would be a baseline privacy law. But even with the current backlash, it is difficult to imagine that legislation that reforms the ways that internet data is collected and advertising algorithms are developed could find enough votes to pass Congress.
This is a grim reality. Our challenge is not just to overcome the natural resistance of mega-corporations to regulatory oversight, but to break free of the self-defeating partisanship that threatens to turn an existential crisis of democratic integrity into another Washington soap opera. Cambridge Analytica has shown us the consequences of failure. What we need now is leadership — from industry and from government — that meets this crisis with ambition and principle.
Ben Scott is senior advisor at New America and served as Policy Advisor for Innovation in the U.S. State Department during the Obama administration.
St Vincent volcano: Around 16,000 people flee communities after eruption of La Soufriere | World News
About 16,000 people have had to flee their ash-covered communities after a volcano erupted on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.
The eruption of La Soufriere on Friday has transformed the island’s usual lush towns and villages into a gloomy, grey landscape.
It was the 4,000-ft volcano’s first major eruption since 1979.
Thousands of residents have had to evacuate their homes and seek shelter with as many belongings as they could stuffed into suitcases and backpacks.
It comes after a strong sulphur smell was unavoidable on Saturday as ash blanketed large parts of the island.
There have been no reports of anyone being killed or injured by the initial blast or those that followed.
The had government ordered people to evacuate the most high-risk area around the volcano before the eruption after scientists warned that magma was moving close to the surface.
Government authorities delivered water, food and supplies to the shelters where many had fled to.
The island’s international airport remained blanketed in ash and smoke on Saturday making the runway barely visible.
Western Australian towns evacuated after tropical cyclone barrels down with 100mph winds | World News
A tropical cyclone has hit the western coast of Australia with winds of more than 100mph (170km) and much of the area put on “red alert”.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Meteorology, Todd Smith, said cyclone Seroja was now at category two but had reached “category three cyclone intensity” with damaging winds which would continue into the night.
Emergency services opened shelters in preparation for the high winds and coastal flooding.
Category 2 #TCSeroja rapidly moving southeast. Impacts to the west coast of WA begin this afternoon and inland parts this evening and overnight. Dangerous conditions including destructive wind gusts, intense rainfall and a dangerous storm tide. Latest info https://t.co/bku7VbhoZa pic.twitter.com/UD1DrGfve9
— Bureau of Meteorology, Western Australia (@BOM_WA) April 11, 2021
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said in a bulletin: “There is a possible threat to lives and homes.
“You need to take action and get ready to shelter.”
The DFES has so far put five coastal towns on “red alert”.
Some towns north of Perth were evacuated while sandbags were being made available to residents further down the coast.
A category three classification can see wind speeds of up to 170mph (224km).
After touching down on the north western town of Geraldton (124 miles/200km north of Perth) and dumping more than 10cm of rain in just two hours, tropical cyclone Seroja headed inland, lessening slightly in intensity.
However, officials were still braced for a “high degree of damage” to buildings in the area.
A spokesman for the Western Australia emergency services department explained that buildings were not constructed to withstand such strong winds in a region as it typically too far south to fall into the path of cyclones.
Russia: Inside the Kremlin’s military build-up along the Ukraine border | World News
At the Maslovka railway station just south of the Russian city of Voronezh, there’s a small military camp, a few trucks and a tent.
The clearing in front is rutted thanks to the steady unloading of military equipment in recent weeks.
A soldier recognises us from the day before.
“Hello spies,” he said.
Russia’s military build-up in Crimea and along the border with Ukraine has hardly been subtle.
It has coincided with the breakdown of the latest ceasefire in the simmering conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
More and more videos have appeared on social media of Russian troop movements – artillery convoys along the bridge connecting Russia with Crimea; trains loaded with weaponry coming from as far east as Siberia.
These sightings from ordinary Russians alongside warnings from Ukrainian generals preceded the Russian military’s announcement of exercises in the region and sent alarm bells ringing across Western capitals.
The kit unloaded at Maslovka is headed to a nearby training ground, which has been turned into a huge military field camp.
It stretches for around a mile and a half and backs right onto a neighbourhood of dachas, the weekend homes of mostly Voronezh city-folk who tell us the build-up began in late March.
We accidentally drive right in, though the soldiers make no effort to come after us.
There are a large number of military trucks, row after row of tents, troops milling about.
The sign at the entrance is one that most Russian conscripts remember from military service – “Difficult on exercise, easier in the fight”.
The site was first identified through open source methods by the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) in Moscow.
“It looks more like preparing for an offensive operation, not just to protect our land,” CIT’s Ruslan Leviev told us in Moscow.
But he does not believe it’s a prelude to war.
“It looks like a show of force to put pressure on the Ukrainian government, to show your posture on the international stage, to show your position to the new American administration.”
Locals pottering around their dachas hardly spare a thought for the military build-up next door.
“If Zelensky (the Ukrainian president) isn’t a fool, then nothing will happen. If he is a fool, anything could happen,” said Nina, a pensioner who we meet watering her garden.
“‘Anyway, it’s not him who decides things, it’s the Americans.”
She does not want to give her surname.
“I hope I haven’t revealed any military secrets,” she added.
“There are always exercises here, every summer,” said Yuri, a local guard.
“Stop all this talk of war.”
But there are not exercises on this scale.
Neither here nor elsewhere along Russia’s border with Ukraine.
Not since the annexation of Crimea has Russia beefed up its presence there to this extent, re-deploying an air brigade from near the Estonian border and sending 10 naval vessels from the Caspian to reinforce the Black Sea fleet.
In response, the US has announced it will send two warships into the Black Sea.
The German chancellor asked Vladimir Putin this week to wind down the military build-up.
This Sunday after consultations with his US counterpart, Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted the same.
It does not appear to be happening.
The Russian position is clear. What happens on Russian soil is Russia’s business.
It is hard to argue with that.
The UK 🇬🇧 & US 🇺🇸 firmly oppose Russia’s campaign to destabilise Ukraine. @SecBlinken & I agreed Russia must immediately de-escalate the situation & live up to the international commitments that it signed up to at @OSCE. Our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty is unwavering.
— Dominic Raab (@DominicRaab) April 11, 2021
But ostentatious muscle-flexing around Ukraine is not an option for the West to ignore – the stakes are too high, they are for all involved.
Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky may clamour for fast-track NATO membership but he will not get it.
For all their loud protestations over NATO’s possible eastward-creep, the Kremlin knows that.
US President Joe Biden may declare his unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and integrity but he will be wary of walking anywhere near potential conflict with Russia.
And surrounded as he is by Russian forces, president Zelensky knows re-taking the country’s eastern Donbas region, parts of which are held by separatists, is wishful thinking as is any large-scale fight with his powerful neighbour to the East.
It is of course hard to know what Russia is playing at but they seem to be eyeing the long game.
Coercive diplomacy to extract concessions in negotiations on Donbas, a powerful display of military muscle for the new US administration to take note of while the de facto annexation of the separatist regions of Ukraine chugs along apace.
According to Russian state news agency Ria Novosti, 420,000 people in the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics have already received Russian passports.
Russia is aiming for one million by parliamentary elections this September.
“It’s unifying their legislation with the Russian one, it’s providing them with the Russian vaccine, it’s providing them with passports. It doesn’t mean Russia wants to annex them,” said Maxim Samorukov from the Moscow Carnegie Institute.
“At least in the near future,” he added.
It also provides quite the justification for full-scale intervention should Russia’s calculus change.
President Putin has said allowing Ukrainian troops along Russia’s border with the separatist regions could lead to a Srebrenica-type massacre – the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces.
Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s representative in negotiations on Ukraine, has threatened that a Ukrainian assault on Donbas would be a ‘”self-inflicted gunshot wound in the foot and to the head”.
“If the Srebrenica massacre takes place there, we will have to stand up for their defence,” he said.
Sharp rhetoric to match an aggressive display of military might.
All in the interests of deterrence? Perhaps.
But also an indication that eight years of sanctions has hardly served to deter Russia from at the very least flexing its muscles, if not more.
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