Duckduckgo.com

Virtually all internet users tend to be Google search engine users, by default. The main strategy for Google is to try to hold on to the users it has by implementing better security and privacy protection measures. This is something definitely on their agenda, but the issue still remains that user data is tracked. Therefore, Google is leaking some users who are leaving its boat in order to climb aboard that of Duckduckgo.

-Miriam Cihodariu, “Duckduckgo vs Google: A Security Comparison and How to Maximize Your Privacy.” Heimdal Security. May 16, 2019.

I left the Google boat two years ago. I have been consistently using Duckduckgo.com for a couple of years. It’s not as good as Google, but it is adequate for most searches you need to do. I typically only need to use Google if I am looking for answers to a difficult question, it requires Google maps functionality (such as looking for restaurants meeting certain criteria near a specific location), or I am looking for recent news on a specific topic. Duckduckgo.com has the ability to limit to news items, but the number of sources they have compared to Google is limited.

In short, Duckduckgo is a decent Google replacement, if you are willing to exchange a little functionality for a little more privacy. I think it is a worth doing.

Map and Monitor the World’s Freshwater Supply

“[Google is] proud to showcase a new platform enabling all countries to freely measure and monitor when and where water is changing: UN’s Water-Related Ecosystems, or sdg661.app. Released last week in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA), the app provides statistics for every country’s annual surface water (like lakes and rivers). It also shows changes from 1984 through 2018 through interactive maps, graphs and full-data downloads.”

—Brian Sullivan, “A newg app to map and monitor the world’s freshwater supply.” Blog.Google. March 21, 2019.

Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones

“We audit their practices to ensure they are complying with industry codes of conduct,” said Bowden. “No Google data is used. This extensive audit process includes regular reporting, interviews, and evaluation to ensure vendors meet specified requirements around consent, opt-out, and privacy protections.”

—Ava Kofman, “Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones.” The Intercept. January 28, 2019.

As these ideas go, this is a good use of the kind of data phones are collecting. For urban planning, it’s great to be able to look at real time road, sidewalk, public transit, building, park and other infrastructure usage.

But, it always starts with good ideas and then, the incentives encourage implementations and extensions that are a net negative, such as using real time location data and artificial intelligence to look for anomalous movement patterns for policing. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of ways this information, packaged in aggregate, could go horribly wrong.

Also, no Google data is being used? Even if true, the key word missing is “…yet.” They are seeing how it is received first, putting it on telephone service providers, before they add in Google data. A Google service of this type will eventually use Google data.

Swimming Against the Stream of Convenience

A year ago, I deleted my Facebook account. It was a bit of a watershed moment for my digital life because it was the start of a process, where I took a hard look at my use of the “free” services offered by Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple and tried to assess whether other alternatives, particularly paid ones, were better based on factoring in other considerations than cost.

Facebook was the obvious starting point. On the plus side, it helped me to keep in touch with my extended family, a few groups I liked to participate in use the platform, and the calendar of events integration into Google calendar made it very easy to plan and take advantage of all the events my city has to offer.

On the negative side, those benefits came with a cost to my well-being and to society at large. During the U.S. election, it gave me a window into the thought-processes of people in my extended social circle, and I found I started liking them a lot less. It was obvious to me that people were being manipulated, less obvious to me is that I was one of those people. Reading “The Data That Turned The World Upside Down,” I had a realization that Facebook was manipulating everyone’s thoughts and interactions that used it, and by continuing to use it, I was essentially saying it was alright. It wasn’t.

But, once your mind goes down that route, then you can’t stop. You have to look at everything. Google has more than double the advertising revenue of Facebook. Yet, I used Google for almost everything, such as email, photo storage, contacts, etc. And, the influence they have, such as the companies that surface when using search, maps, or their other products is profound, but the algorithm is even more opaque than Facebook’s. You really have no idea what kind of influence Google is having over your choices, and it is impossible to have any transparency about what is going on behind the scenes and the intent behind it. Again, using Google means you agree the convenience is worth being manipulated. For me, it wasn’t worth it.

I changed my search engine to DuckDuckGo. I switched off of Gmail to one email provider then another. I switched off Google Drive to NextCloud, a free software cloud storage solution. With Nextcloud, I was able to migrate documents, pictures, contacts and notes off of Google’s servers. Some services, such as managing RSS feeds, were also part of NextCloud, which Google chose to no longer support when they retired Google Reader.

And once you go this far, it’s a short step to look at things like Wallabag to replace Feedly. Or eliminating other social media applications that are affiliated with feudal Internet companies, such as Instagram, Whatsapp, Hangouts, etc.

Once there, I was able to take bigger steps, such as installing LineageOS onto my android phone and Linux on the desktop to replace Microsoft Windows. Or using free alternatives to apps, such as those in F-Droid over those in Google Play or LibreOffice instead of the Microsoft Office suite. These moves were organic extensions of the thought processes quitting Facebook began.

Still, some things have no ready replacements. If you don’t use Google Maps, what are the alternatives? Those that exist are objectively nowhere near as good.

Choosing to not use Amazon is possible, but it comes with significant inconvenience, trade-offs and costs. Is it better to go to Wal-Mart rather than order from Amazon? What about paying 20% more by shopping elsewhere? Consider that over half of U.S. households have a subscription to Amazon Prime. Shipping costs alone make shopping for some products online prohibitive.

For Amazon, I’ve stopped buying ebooks from them. There is a lot of reading material to choose from in this world. I try to stick to DRM free books, but failing that, I try to use services that are not Amazon and available via the library, such as OverDrive. While OverDrive is not as good from a reading experience perspective, it does have the advantage of not being part of the feudal Internet.

The only Apple product I have ever used is iTunes and iPod related devices. I find other programs integrating my music collection to be easier to use. So, my exposure to Apple is negligible.

Being against the feudal Internet is swimming against the stream of convenience. It means more cost, more aggravation, and more of your time troubleshooting problems that would “just work” if you let Google, Apple or Microsoft manage everything for you.

Looking back after a year, choosing the path less travelled by has indeed made all the difference. Not everyone can do it — due to financial, time, or other constraints — but it is worth doing, if you can.

The Case Against Google – The New York Times

“In other words, it’s very likely you love Google, or are at least fond of Google, or hardly think about Google, the same way you hardly think about water systems or traffic lights or any of the other things you rely on every day. Therefore you might have been surprised when headlines began appearing last year suggesting that Google and its fellow tech giants were threatening everything from our economy to democracy itself. Lawmakers have accused Google of creating an automated advertising system so vast and subtle that hardly anyone noticed when Russian saboteurs co-opted it in the last election. Critics say Facebook exploits our addictive impulses and silos us in ideological echo chambers. Amazon’s reach is blamed for spurring a retail meltdown; Apple’s economic impact is so profound it can cause market-wide gyrations. These controversies point to the growing anxiety that a small number of technology companies are now such powerful entities that they can destroy entire industries or social norms with just a few lines of computer code. Those four companies, plus Microsoft, make up America’s largest sources of aggregated news, advertising, online shopping, digital entertainment and the tools of business and communication.”

—Charles Duhigg, “The Case Against Google.” The New York Times. February 20, 2018.

This is the best description of the feudal internet I’ve seen. It then discusses real life implications.

“As the years passed, Shivaun and Adam got into the habit of visiting message boards where people obsessively discussed Google’s many peculiarities. They began to notice an interesting pattern among companies complaining about the search giant: Often, the aggrieved parties had, in some way, posed some kind of threat to Google’s business. And they seemed to have suffered dire consequences…

… “All of the money spent online is going to just a few companies now,” says Reback (who disdains the New Brandeis label). “They don’t need dynamite or Pinkertons to club their competitors anymore. They just need algorithms and data.”

Commercial Surveillance State

“Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.”

—Matthew Crain and Anthony Nailer, “Commercial Surveillance State.” N+1. September 27, 2017.

Giving Up Social Media & The Feudal Internet

Quitting social media is an ongoing theme of this blog with posts discussing various aspects: 

  1. Arguing against particular social media services, e.g., Be Seeing You, Facebook.
  2. Describing new technologies major Internet companies employ for surveillance, e.g., Facebook & Facial Recognition.
  3. Describing how third parties use these platforms in the service of both advertising product and manipulating public opinion, e.g., Information Operations & Facebook.

    There are some people who believe that the solution is a matter of individuals understanding the problem, transforming the design of social platforms, and changing the business incentives. In other words, the solution is either government regulation or a major company of the feudal internet — Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft — redefining the landscape to put user’s interests first.

    I think a better solution is to redecentralize the Internet. But, these efforts will need support in their early stages, and they will take time to mature. In the meantime, the best solution is to avoid the feudal Internet as much as possible and seek out other, decentralized options that can serve your needs. 

    But, decentralized options come with costs. Users pay for the service themselves rather than advertisers paying the cost in exchange for targeted advertising based on information about users.

    What options are there? Here are some suggestions to get you started. 

      So, people with minimum space requirements can substitute these alternatives for the feudal internet services for less than $100 / year. For $200 / year, most people can get enough space for their needs. Further, alternative services often have additional functionality “free” feudal services do not provide. 

      By making the choice to get away from feudal internet services, we are investing in an economic and software development environment that puts the user back in control because the user is the client, not the product. It may be that government intervention can fix some of the problems of social media and reign in the power of the feudal internet companies in the public interest. A company like Apple might do the right thing for the people using their services. But, the best option is for more people to seek out alternatives, which will give those options the opportunity to develop into viable competitors to the major Internet players.

      Notes on an Emergency

      “But at the same time, I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper. If we’re going to worry about existential risk, I would rather we start by addressing the two existential risks that are indisputably real—nuclear war and global climate change—and working our way up from there…But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.”

      —Ceglowski, Maciej. “Notes from an Emergency.” Idlewords.com. May 10, 2017.

      Be Seeing You, Facebook

      tl;dr: I have decided to delete my Facebook account. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated. To quote from the television show, The Prisoner: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own!” Join me, and quit Facebook today. (1175 words)

      “In the Miami district of Little Haiti, for instance, Trump’s campaign provided inhabitants with news about the failure of the Clinton Foundation following the earthquake in Haiti, in order to keep them from voting for Hillary Clinton. This was one of the goals: to keep potential Clinton voters (which include wavering left-wingers, African-Americans, and young women) away from the ballot box, to ‘suppress’ their vote, as one senior campaign official told Bloomberg in the weeks before the election. These ‘dark posts’—sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—included videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators, for example.”
                —Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, The Data That Turned the World Upside Down

      I have decided to delete my Facebook account. This post is to explain why and to encourage others to do the same.

      There is no shortage of criticisms of Facebook and excellent blog posts that discuss the many problems of Facebook in detail. It can be overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the discussion of a particular issue, such as privacy, or combination of issues and the supporting documentation involved.

      But, there is really just one essential point. Facebook is a surveillance platform designed to gather and sell as much information on its users as possible and provide a medium for the delivery of advertising and propaganda to them for its clients. To use Facebook is to consent to being spied upon and manipulated.

      Of course, it has to offer something useful to the people that use it too. It helps its users stay in touch with other users they know, expand their social networks, form groups, share photos, buy and sell items, plan events, read curated content matched to individual interests, find jobs, etc. There is no arguing that it is a powerful and useful social platform.

      But, it’s not free. Facebook’s market capitalization is ~$385 billion. According to Facebook’s Fourth Quarter and Full Year Results for 2016, it made $8.63 billion in advertising revenue, invested $4.49 billion in capital, and has a monthly user base of 1.86 billion. In other words, they made $4.63 in advertising revenue per monthly user, and they invested $2.41 of that in capital expenditures in 2016. Based on market capitalization, every monthly user is worth $206 to Facebook’s value.

      Who is paying the costs of Facebook and our “free” use of the service? And what do they get in return? Marketers, data aggregators, governments and others get detailed information about users and the ability to deliver targeted advertising to those users that are most receptive to their messages or they can eliminate or mute other points of view. These profiles combined with the media delivery capability of the platform is Facebook’s product. You are Facebook’s product. You are being “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered” making Facebook and its clients billions of dollars.

      Facebook made $8.63 billion in 2016 selling data and delivering ads to its users. How much of that money was used to influence you? And how much did it cost you to pay for Facebook at the store, at your polling place and in the various ways Facebook influences how you perceive the world, e.g., “unfriending” someone? It is difficult to say what those costs are, but the only thing that is certain is that they are there and they are likely much higher than you expect.

      There are many implications from how Facebook makes money. First, Facebook is incentivized to collect as much information as possible, and it uses its ability to progressively redefine its terms of service followed by public relations and marketing to convince its users to accept a continually lowering bar of privacy. The more information it has on its users, the better its product.

      Selling user’s data, invariably, is going to support the expansion of the surveillance state. The company may even do so unknowingly, such as when its data was used by a third party to produce a survellience product for police monitoring of activists of color.

      Or, since Facebook is an advertising platform, what is the difference between advertising and emotionally manipulative social research on users without independent ethical oversight? Is there a difference?

      If Facebook works with data brokers to deliver a targeted ads, like those featuring Hillary Clinton talking about black men as “predators”, how is this different from “fake news”? What does “fake news” mean when Facebook also engages in censorship in cooperation with various governments? Is “fake” anything that doesn’t agree with a given state’s narrative? Even the truth can be fake, when it is cut up and delivered for the purposes of manipulating an audience into a pre-determined conclusion, which is Facebook’s business model. Facebook is the primary peddler of “fake news” on the Facebook platform. Going after “fake news” outlets is simply eliminating the competition.

      The article quoted at the top of this essay made me realize that Facebook isn’t just a standard media and advertising platform, one that could be managed through ad and javascript blocking browser extensions to minimize its intrusiveness. Rather, one of the fundamental tasks of Facebook is to create psychological profiles of its users (which includes ~80% of U.S. internet users or 68% of all U.S. adults), testing messages on them, and then delivering those tested messages in real time to targeted groups. All of this is done with little or no transparency, where it is difficult to tell paid propaganda from the propaganda your social circle willingly transmits through the platform, giving it perfect camouflage.

      Using Facebook and allowing myself to be manipulated in this way is something I can no longer do. In conjunction with deleting Facebook, I have also deleted my other social media accounts, such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr, Flicker, etc., because they present many of the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree.

      Then, there is Google. Like Facebook, Google is in the business of collecting data on it’s users and selling advertising. This shows there is something deeply flawed with business models that are built around selling user’s information, and to the degree it is possible, we should pay for the services we use. Freedom comes at a cost — in time, convenience and money. When you are getting something that makes things easy, convenient and is provided for at no cost, you’re paying in your freedom. Best to choose the harder or more expensive path when it’s possible, and to do without when it’s not.