Progressive advocacy groups call on the FTC to “make Facebook safe for democracy”

A team of progressive advocacy groups, including MoveOn and Demand Progress, are asking the Federal Trade Commission to “make Facebook safe for democracy.” According to Axios, the campaign, called Freedom From Facebook, will launch a six-figure ad campaign on Monday that will run on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, among other platforms.

The other advocacy groups behind the campaign are Citizens Against Monopoly, Content Creators Coalition, Jewish Voice for Peace, Mpower Change, Open Markets Institute and SumOfUs. Together they are calling on the FTC to “break up Facebook’s monopoly” by forcing it to spin off Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger into separate, competing companies. They also want the FTC to require interoperability so users can communicate against competing social networks and strengthen privacy regulations.

Freedom From Facebook’s site also includes an online petition and privacy guide that links to FB Purity and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Privacy Badger, browser extensions that help users streamline their Facebook ad preferences and block online trackers, respectively.

The FTC recently gained a new chairman after President Donald Trump’s pick for the position Joseph Simons was sworn in early this month, along with four new commissioners also nominated by Trump. Simons is an antitrust lawyer who has represented large tech firms like Microsoft and Sony. The FTC is currently investigating whether or not Facebook’s involvement with Cambridge Analytica violated a previous legal agreement it had with the commission, but many people are wondering if it and other federal agencies are capable of regulating tech companies, especially after many lawmakers seemed confused about how social media works during Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional hearing last month.

Despite its data privacy and regulatory issues, Facebook is still doing well from a financial perspective. Its first-quarter earnings report showed strong user growth and revenue above Wall Street’s expectations.

TechCrunch has contacted Freedom From Facebook and Facebook for comment.

EU parliament pushes for Zuckerberg hearing to be live-streamed

There’s confusion about whether a meeting between Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and the European Union’s parliament — which is due to take place next Tuesday — will go ahead as planned or not.

The meeting was confirmed by the EU parliament’s president this week, and is the latest stop on Zuckerberg’s contrition tour, following the Cambridge Analytics data misuse story that blew up into a major public scandal in mid March. 

However, the discussion with MEPs that Facebook agreed to was due to take place behind closed doors. A private format that’s not only ripe with irony but was also unpalatable to a large number of MEPs. It even drew criticism from some in the EU’s unelected executive body, the European Commission, which further angered parliamentarians.

Now, as the FT reports, MEPs appear to have forced the parliament’s president, Antonio Tajani, to agree to live-streaming the event.

Guy Verhofstadt — the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats group of MEPs, who had said he would boycott the meeting if it took place in private — has also tweeted that a majority of the parliament’s groups have pushed for the event to be streamed online.

And a Green Group MEP, Sven Giegold, who posted an online petition calling for the meeting not to be held in secret — has also tweeted that there is now a majority among the groups wanting to change the format. At the time of writing, Giegold’s petition has garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

MEP Claude Moraes, chair of the EU parliament’s Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) committee — and one of the handful of parliamentarians set to question Zuckerberg (assuming the meeting goes ahead as planned) — told TechCrunch this morning that there were efforts afoot among political group leaders to try to open up the format. Though any changes would clearly depend on Facebook agreeing to them.

After speaking to Moraes, we asked Facebook to confirm whether it’s open to Zuckerberg’s meeting being streamed online — say, via a Facebook Live. Seven hours later we’re still waiting for a response, including to a follow up email asking if it will accept the majority decision among MEPs for the hearing to be live-streamed.

The LIBE committee had been pushing for a fully open hearing with the Facebook founder — a format which would also have meant it being open to members of the public. But that was before a small majority of the parliament’s political groups accepted the council of presidents’ (COP) decision on a closed meeting.

Although now that decision looks to have been rowed back, with a majority of the groups pushing the president to agree to the event being streamed — putting the ball back in Facebook’s court to accept the new format.

Of course democracy can be a messy process at times, something Zuckerberg surely has a pretty sharp appreciation of these days. And if the Facebook founder pulls out of meeting simply because a majority of MEPs have voted to do the equivalent of “Facebook Live” the hearing, well, it’s hard to see a way for the company to salvage any face at all.

Zuckerberg has agreed to be interviewed onstage at the VivaTech conference in Paris next Thursday, and is scheduled to have lunch with French president Emmanuel Macron the same week. So pivoting to a last minute snub of the EU parliament would be a pretty high stakes game for the company to play. (Though it’s continued to deny a U.K. parliamentary committee any face time with Zuckerberg for months now.)

The EU Facebook agenda

The substance of the meeting between Zuckerberg and the EU parliament — should it go ahead — will include discussion about Facebook’s impact on election processes. That was the only substance detail flagged by Tajani in the statement on Wednesday when he confirmed Zuckerberg had accepted the invitation to talk to representatives of the EU’s 500 million citizens.

Moraes says he also intends to ask Zuckerberg wider questions — relating to how its business model impacts people’s privacy. And his hope is this discussion could help unblock negotiations around an update to the EU’s rules around online tracking technologies and the privacy of digital communications.

“One of the key things is that [Zuckerberg] gets a particular flavor of the genuine concern — not just about what Facebook is doing, but potentially other tech companies — on the interference in elections. Because I think that is a genuine, big, sort of tech versus real life and politics concern,” he says, discussing the questions he wants to ask.

“And the fact is he’s not going to go before the House of Commons. He’s not going to go before the Bundestag. And he needs to answer this question about Cambridge Analytica — in a little bit more depth, if possible, than we even saw in Congress. Because he needs to get straight from us the deepest concerns about that.

“And also this issue of processing for algorithmic targeting, and for political manipulation — some in depth questions on this.

“And we need to go more in depth and more carefully about what safeguards there are — and what he’s prepared to do beyond those safeguards.

“We’re aware of how poor US data protection law is. We know that GDPR is coming in but it doesn’t impact on the Facebook business model that much. It does a little bit but not sufficiently — I mean ePrivacy probably far more — so we need to get to a point where we understand what Facebook is willing to change about the way it’s been behaving up til now.

“And we have a real locus there — which is we have more Facebook users, and we have the clout as well because we have potential legislation, and we have regulation beyond that too. So I think for those reasons he needs to answer.”

“The other things that go beyond the obvious Cambridge Analytica questions and the impact on elections, are the consequences of the business model, data-driven advertising, and how that’s going to work, and there we need to go much more in depth,” he continues.

“Facebook on the one hand, it’s complying with GDPR [the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation] which is fine — but we need to think about what the further protections are. So for example, how justified we are with the ePrivacy Regulation, for example, and its elements, and I think that’s quite important.

“I think he needs to talk to us about that. Because that legislation at the moment it’s seen as controversial, it’s blocked at the moment, but clearly would have more relevance to the problems that are currently being created.”

Negotiations between the EU parliament and the European Council to update the ePrivacy Directive — which governs the use of personal telecoms data and also regulates tracking cookies — and replace it with a regulation that harmonizes the rules with the incoming GDPR and expands the remit to include internet companies and cover both content and metadata of digital comms are effectively stalled for now, as EU Member States are still trying to reach agreement. The directive was last updated in 2009.

“When the Cambridge Analytica case happened, I was slightly concerned about people thinking GDPR is the panacea to this — it’s not,” argues Moraes. “It only affects Facebook’s business model a little bit. ePrivacy goes far more in depth — into data-driven advertising, personal comms and privacy.

“That tool was there because people were aware that this kind of thing can happen. But because of that the Privacy directive will be seen as controversial but I think people now need to look at it carefully and say look at the problems created in the Facebook situation — and not just Facebook — and then analyze whether ePrivacy has got merits. I think that’s quite an important discussion to happen.”

While Moraes believes Facebook-Cambridge Analytica could help unblock the log jam around ePrivacy, as the scandal makes some of the risks clear and underlines what’s at stake for politicians and democracies, he concedes there are still challenging barriers to getting the right legislation in place — given the fine-grained layers of complexity involved with imposing checks and balances on what are also poorly understood technologies outside their specific industry niches.

“This Facebook situation has happened when ePrivacy is more or less blocked because its proportionality is an issue. But the essence of it — which is all the problems that happened with the Facebook case, the Cambridge Analytica case, and data-driven advertising business model — that needs checks and balances… So we need to now just review the ePrivacy situation and I think it’s better that everyone opens this discussion up a bit.

“ePrivacy, future legislation on artificial intelligence, all of which is in our committee, it will challenge people because sometimes they just won’t want to look at it. And it speaks to parliamentarians without technical knowledge which is another issue in Western countries… But these are all wider issues about the understanding of these files which are going to come up.  

“This is the discussion we need to have now. We need to get that discussion right. And I think Facebook and other big companies are aware that we are legislating in these areas — and we’re legislating for more than one countries and we have the economies of scale — we have the user base, which is bigger than the US… and we have the innovation base, and I think those companies are aware of that.”

Moraes also points out that U.S. lawmakers raised the difference between the EU and U.S. data protection regimes with Zuckerberg last month — arguing there’s a growing awareness that U.S. law in this area “desperately needs to be modernized.”

So he sees an opportunity for EU regulators to press on their counterparts over the pond.

“We have international agreements that just aren’t going to work in the future and they’re the basis of a lot of economic activity, so it is becoming critical… So the Facebook debate should, if it’s pushed in the correct direction, give us a better handle on ePrivacy, on modernizing data protection standards in the US in particular. And modernizing safeguards for consumers,” he argues.

“Our parliaments across Europe are still filled with people who don’t have tech backgrounds and knowledge but we need to ensure that we get out of this mindset and start understanding exactly what the implications here are of these cases and what the opportunities are.”

In the short term, discussions are also continuing for a full meeting between the LIBE committee and Facebook.

Though that’s unlikely to be Zuckerberg himself. Moraes says the committee is “aiming for Sheryl Sandberg,” though he says other names have been suggested. No firm date has been conformed yet either — he’ll only say he “hopes it will take place as soon as possible.”

Threats are not on the agenda though. Moraes is unimpressed with the strategy the DCMS committee has pursued in trying (and so far failing) to get Zuckerberg to testify in front of the U.K. parliament, arguing threats of a summons were counterproductive. LIBE is clearly playing a longer game.

“Threatening him with a summons in UK law really was not the best approach. Because it would have been extremely important to have him in London. But I just don’t see why he would do that. And I’m sure there’s an element of him understanding that the European Union and parliament in particular is a better forum,” he suggests.

“We have more Facebook users than the US, we have the regulatory framework that is significant to Facebook — the UK is simply implementing GDPR and following Brexit it will have an adequacy agreement with the EU so I think there’s an understanding in Facebook where the regulation, the legislation and the audience is.”

“I think the quaint ways of the British House of Commons need to be thought through,” he adds. “Because I really don’t think that would have engendered much enthusiasm in [Zuckerberg] to come and really interact with the House of Commons which would have been a very positive thing. Particularly on the specifics of Cambridge Analytics, given that that company is in the UK. So that locus was quite important, but the approach… was not positive at all.”

Zuckerberg will meet with European parliament in private next week

Who says privacy is dead? Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has agreed to take European parliamentarians’ questions about how his platform impacts the privacy of hundreds of millions of European citizens — but only behind closed doors. Where no one except a handful of carefully chosen MEPs will bear witness to what’s said.

The private meeting will take place on May 22 at 17.45CET in Brussels. After which the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, will hold a press conference to furnish the media with his version of events.

It’s just a shame that journalists are being blocked from being able to report on what actually goes on in the room.

And that members of the public won’t be able to form their own opinions about how Facebook’s founder responds to pressing questions about what Zuckerberg’s platform is doing to their privacy and their fundamental rights.

Because the doors are being closed to journalists and citizens.

Even the intended contents of the meeting is been glossed over in public — with the purpose of the chat being vaguely couched as “to clarify issues related to the use of personal data” in a statement by Tajani (below).

The impact of Facebook’s platform on “electoral processes in Europe” is the only discussion point that’s specifically flagged.

Given Zuckerberg has thrice denied requests from UK lawmakers to take questions about his platform in a public hearing we can only assume the company made the CEO’s appearance in front of EU parliamentarians conditional on the meeting being closed.

Zuckerberg did agree to public sessions with US lawmakers last month, following a major global privacy scandal related to user data and political ad targeting.

But evidently the company’s sense of political accountability doesn’t travel very far. (Despite a set of ‘privacy principles’ that Facebook published with great fanfare at the start of the year — one of which reads: ‘We are accountable’. Albeit Facebook didn’t specify to who or what exactly Facebook feels accountable.)

We’ve reached out to Facebook to ask why Zuckerberg will not take European parliamentarians questions in a public hearing. And indeed whether Mark can find the time to hop on a train to London afterwards to testify before the DCMS committee’s enquiry into online disinformation — and will update this story with any response.

As Vera Jourova, the European commissioner for justice and consumers, put it in a tweet, it’s a pity the Facebook founder does not believe all Europeans deserve to know how their data is handled by his company. Just a select few, holding positions of elected office.

A pity or, well, a shame.

Safe to say, not all MEPs are happy with the arrangement…

But let’s at least be thankful that Zuckerberg has shown us, once again, how very much privacy matters — to him personally

To make Stories global, Facebook adds Archive and audio posts

Facebook’s future rests on convincing the developing world to adopt Stories. But just because the slideshow format will soon surpass feed sharing doesn’t mean people use them the same way everywhere. So late last year, Facebook sent a team to India to learn what features they’d need to embrace Stories across a variety of local languages on phones without much storage.

Today, Facebook will start rolling out three big Stories features in India, which will come to the rest of the world shortly after. First, to lure posts from users who don’t want to type or have a non-native language keyboard, as well as micropodcasters, Facebook Stories will allow audio posts combining a voice message with a colored background or photo.

Facebook Stories will get an Archive similar to Instagram Stories that automatically saves your clips privately after they expire so you can go back to check them out or re-share the content to the News Feed. And finally, Facebook will let Stories users privately Save their clips from the Facebook Camera directly to the social network instead of their phone in case they don’t have enough space.

Facebook Stories Archive

“We know that the performance and reliability of viewing and posting Stories is extremely important to people around the world, especially those with slower connections” Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “We are always working on ways to improve the experience of viewing Stories on all types of connections, and have been investing here — especially on our FB Lite app.”

Facebook has a big opportunity to capitalize on Snapchat’s failure to focus on the international market. Plagued by Android engineering problems and initial reluctance to court users beyond U.S. teens, Snapchat left the door open for Facebook’s Stories products to win the globe. Now Snapchat has sunk to its slowest growth rate ever, hitting 191 million daily users despite shrinking in March. Meanwhile, WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories has 450 million daily users, while Instagram Stories has over 300 million.

As for Facebook Stories, it was initially seen as a bit of a ghost town but more and more of my friends are posting there, in part thanks to the ability to syndicate you Instagram Stories there. Facebook Stories has never announced a user count, and Hayes says “We don’t have anything to share yet, but performance of Facebook Stories is encouraging, and we’ve learned a lot about how we can make the experience even better.” Facebook is hell-bent on making Stories work on its own app after launching the in mid-2017, and seems to believe users who find them needless or redundant will come around eventually.

My concern about the global rise of Stories is that instead of only recording the biggest highlights of our lives to capture with our phones, we’re increasingly interrupting all our activities and exiting the present to thrust our phone in the air.

That’s one thing Facebook hopes to fix here, Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “Saving photos and videos can be used to save what you might want to post later – So you don’t have to edit or post them while you’re out with your friends, and instead enjoy the moment at the concert and share them later.” You’re still injecting technology into your experience, though, so I hope we can all learn to record as subtly as possible without disturbing the memory for those around us.

Facebook Camera’s Save feature

The new Save to Facebook Camera feature creates a private tab in the Stories creation interface where you can access and post the imagery you’ve stored, and you’ll also find a Saved tab in your profile’s Photos section. Unlike Facebook’s discontinued Photo Sync feature, here you’ll choose to save imagery one at a time. It will be a big help to users lacking free space on their phone, as Facebook says many people around the world have to delete a photo just to save a new one.

Facebook wants to encourage people to invest more time decorating Stories, and learned that some people want to re-live or re-share their clips that expire after 24 hours. That’s why its built the Archive, a hedge against the potentially short-sighted trend of ephemerality.

On the team’s journey to India, they heard that photos and videos aren’t always the easiest way to share. If you’re camera-shy, have a low-quality camera, or don’t have cool scenes to capture, audio posts could get you sharing more. In fact, Facebook started testing voice clips as feed status updates in March. “With this week’s update, you will have options to add a voice message to a colorful background or a photo from your camera gallery or saved gallery. You can also add stickers, text, or doodles” says Hayes. With 22 official languages in India and over 100 spoken, recording voice can often be easier than typing.

Facebook Audio Stories

Some users will still hate Stories, which are getting more and more prominence atop Facebook’s feed. But Facebook can’t afford to retreat here. Stories are social media bedrock — the most full-screen and immersive content medium we can record and consume with just our phones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook must make sure that “ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” That means Facebook Stories needs India’s hundreds of millions of users.

There will always be room for text, yet if people want to achieve an emotional impact, they’ll eventually wade into Storytelling. But social networks must remember low-bandwidth users, or we’ll only get windows into the developed world.

For more on Facebook Stories, check out our recent coverage:

To make Stories global, Facebook adds Archive and audio posts

Facebook’s future rests on convincing the developing world to adopt Stories. But just because the slideshow format will soon surpass feed sharing doesn’t mean people use them the same way everywhere. So late last year, Facebook sent a team to India to learn what features they’d need to embrace Stories across a variety of local languages on phones without much storage.

Today, Facebook will start rolling out three big Stories features in India, which will come to the rest of the world shortly after. First, to lure posts from users who don’t want to type or have a non-native language keyboard, as well as micropodcasters, Facebook Stories will allow audio posts combining a voice message with a colored background or photo.

Facebook Stories will get an Archive similar to Instagram Stories that automatically saves your clips privately after they expire so you can go back to check them out or re-share the content to the News Feed. And finally, Facebook will let Stories users privately Save their clips from the Facebook Camera directly to the social network instead of their phone in case they don’t have enough space.

Facebook Stories Archive

“We know that the performance and reliability of viewing and posting Stories is extremely important to people around the world, especially those with slower connections” Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “We are always working on ways to improve the experience of viewing Stories on all types of connections, and have been investing here — especially on our FB Lite app.”

Facebook has a big opportunity to capitalize on Snapchat’s failure to focus on the international market. Plagued by Android engineering problems and initial reluctance to court users beyond U.S. teens, Snapchat left the door open for Facebook’s Stories products to win the globe. Now Snapchat has sunk to its slowest growth rate ever, hitting 191 million daily users despite shrinking in March. Meanwhile, WhatsApp Status, its clone of Snapchat Stories has 450 million daily users, while Instagram Stories has over 300 million.

As for Facebook Stories, it was initially seen as a bit of a ghost town but more and more of my friends are posting there, in part thanks to the ability to syndicate you Instagram Stories there. Facebook Stories has never announced a user count, and Hayes says “We don’t have anything to share yet, but performance of Facebook Stories is encouraging, and we’ve learned a lot about how we can make the experience even better.” Facebook is hell-bent on making Stories work on its own app after launching the in mid-2017, and seems to believe users who find them needless or redundant will come around eventually.

My concern about the global rise of Stories is that instead of only recording the biggest highlights of our lives to capture with our phones, we’re increasingly interrupting all our activities and exiting the present to thrust our phone in the air.

That’s one thing Facebook hopes to fix here, Facebook’s director of Stories Connor Hayes tells me. “Saving photos and videos can be used to save what you might want to post later – So you don’t have to edit or post them while you’re out with your friends, and instead enjoy the moment at the concert and share them later.” You’re still injecting technology into your experience, though, so I hope we can all learn to record as subtly as possible without disturbing the memory for those around us.

Facebook Camera’s Save feature

The new Save to Facebook Camera feature creates a private tab in the Stories creation interface where you can access and post the imagery you’ve stored, and you’ll also find a Saved tab in your profile’s Photos section. Unlike Facebook’s discontinued Photo Sync feature, here you’ll choose to save imagery one at a time. It will be a big help to users lacking free space on their phone, as Facebook says many people around the world have to delete a photo just to save a new one.

Facebook wants to encourage people to invest more time decorating Stories, and learned that some people want to re-live or re-share their clips that expire after 24 hours. That’s why its built the Archive, a hedge against the potentially short-sighted trend of ephemerality.

On the team’s journey to India, they heard that photos and videos aren’t always the easiest way to share. If you’re camera-shy, have a low-quality camera, or don’t have cool scenes to capture, audio posts could get you sharing more. In fact, Facebook started testing voice clips as feed status updates in March. “With this week’s update, you will have options to add a voice message to a colorful background or a photo from your camera gallery or saved gallery. You can also add stickers, text, or doodles” says Hayes. With 22 official languages in India and over 100 spoken, recording voice can often be easier than typing.

Facebook Audio Stories

Some users will still hate Stories, which are getting more and more prominence atop Facebook’s feed. But Facebook can’t afford to retreat here. Stories are social media bedrock — the most full-screen and immersive content medium we can record and consume with just our phones. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself said that Facebook must make sure that “ads are as good in Stories as they are in feeds. If we don’t do this well, then as more sharing shifts to Stories, that could hurt our business.” That means Facebook Stories needs India’s hundreds of millions of users.

There will always be room for text, yet if people want to achieve an emotional impact, they’ll eventually wade into Storytelling. But social networks must remember low-bandwidth users, or we’ll only get windows into the developed world.

For more on Facebook Stories, check out our recent coverage:

Facebook launches Youth Portal to educate teens on the platform, how their data is being used

There’s probably an important gap in attention being paid at internet companies to young kids that are good targets for parental controls and older ones who are having to learn to use the internet in a responsible way on their own.

Today, Facebook is releasing a new Youth Portal that offers some guidance to teens on how to navigate the service, how to stay secure, while also helping them understand how their data is used. Facebook says that that they began showing tips for teens in the newsfeed earlier this month related to some of these topics.

While many of the sections in the portal are devoted to basic topics like how to unfriend or block someone, a bit of the information is structured in more of a journalistic format focused on helping Gen Z users start their internet usage off on the right foot in a way that older generations haven’t.

In a “Guiding Principles” section, the tips are structured after oft-quoted real world advice:

Think (for 5 seconds) before you speak

Before you post publicly, pause and ask yourself, “Would I feel comfortable reading this out loud to my parents and grandparents?” There will always be people at your school who are social media oversharers (and adults in your life who are, too). Resist the urge, ignore their noise and save the juicy details for your close friends only.

One of the more useful things it does is organize information related to Facebook’s data policy in a more accessible way that admittedly may not answer every single question but also doesn’t overwhelm young users who may just be looking for the basics. It generally aims to address stuff like what data Facebook collects and how they use that information.

At the end of the day, it’s just an information page. The Youth Portal won’t directly curb how Facebook approach cyber-bullying or abuse, but the hub does organize a lot of information that pops up on the site while you’re using it into a single place where someone can just blaze through it in a single go.

More importantly it’s just a nice resource for Facebook to refer younger users to when there’s an issue that’s more likely to get looked at then the Terms of Service-style help pages that generally hold this information.

The Youth Portal goes live today in 60 languages.

Anyone could download Cambridge researchers’ 4-million-user Facebook data set for years

A data set of more than 3 million Facebook users and a variety of their personal details collected by Cambridge researchers was available for anyone to download for some four years, New Scientist reports. It’s likely only one of many places where such huge sets of personal data collected during a period of permissive Facebook access terms have been obtainable.

The data were collected as part of a personality test, myPersonality, which, according to its own wiki (now taken down), was operational from 2007 to 2012, but new data was added as late as August of 2016. It started as a side project by the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre’s David Stillwell (now deputy director there), but graduated to a more organized research effort later. The project “has close academic links,” the site explains, “however, it is a standalone business.” (Presumably for liability purposes; the group never charged for access to the data.)

Though “Cambridge” is in the name, there’s no real connection to Cambridge Analytica, just a very tenuous one through Aleksandr Kogan, which is explained below.

Like other quiz apps, it requested consent to access the user’s profile (friends’ data was not collected), which combined with responses to questionnaires produced a rich data set with entries for millions of users. Data collected included demographics, status updates, some profile pictures, likes and lots more, but not private messages or data from friends.

Exactly how many users are affected is a bit difficult to say: the wiki claims the database holds 6 million test results from 4 million profiles (hence the headline), though only 3.1 million sets of personality scores are in the set and far less data points are available on certain metrics, such as employer or school. At any rate, the total number is on that order, though the same data is not available for every user.

Although the data is stripped of identifying information, such as the user’s actual name, the volume and breadth of it makes the set susceptible to de-anonymization, for lack of a better term. (I should add there is no evidence that this has actually occurred; simple anonymizing processes on rich data sets are just fundamentally more vulnerable to this kind of reassembly effort.)

This data set was available via a wiki to credentialed academics who had to agree to the team’s own terms of service. It was used by hundreds of researchers from dozens of institutions and companies for numerous papers and projects, including some from Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and even Facebook itself. (I asked the latter about this curious occurrence, and a representative told me that two researchers listed signed up for the data before working there; it’s unclear why in that case the name I saw would list Facebook as their affiliation, but there you have it.)

This in itself is in violation of Facebook’s terms of service, which ostensibly prohibited the distribution of such data to third parties. As we’ve seen over the last year or so, however, it appears to have exerted almost no effort at all in enforcing this policy, as hundreds (potentially thousands) of apps were plainly and seemingly proudly violating the terms by sharing data sets gleaned from Facebook users.

In the case of myPersonality, the data was supposed to be distributed only to actual researchers; Stillwell and his collaborator at the time, Michal Kosinski, personally vetted applications, which had to list the data they needed and why, as this sample application shows:

I am a full-time faculty member. [IF YOU ARE A STUDENT PLEASE HAVE YOU SUPERVISOR REQUEST ACCESS TO THE DATA FOR YOU.] I read and agree with the myPersonality Database Terms of Use. [SERIOUSLY, PLEASE DO READ IT.] I will take responsibility for the use of the data by any students in my research group.

I am planning to use the following variables:
* [LIST THE VARIABLES YOU INTEND TO
* USE AND TELL US HOW
* YOU PLAN TO ANALYZE THEM.]

One lecturer, however, published their credentials on GitHub in order to allow their students to use the data. Those credentials were available to anyone searching for access to the myPersonality database for, as New Scientist estimates, about four years.

This seems to demonstrate the laxity with which Facebook was policing the data it supposedly guarded. Once that data left company premises, there was no way for the company to control it in the first place, but the fact that a set of millions of entries was being sent to any academic who asked, and anyone who had a publicly listed username and password, suggests it wasn’t even trying.

A Facebook researcher actually requested the data in violation of his own company’s policies. I’m not sure what to conclude from that, other than that the company was utterly uninterested in securing sets like this and far more concerned with providing against any future liability. After all, if the app was in violation, Facebook can simply suspend it — as the company did last month, by the way — and lay the whole burden on the violator.

“We suspended the myPersonality app almost a month ago because we believe that it may have violated Facebook’s policies,” said Facebook’s VP of product partnerships, Ime Archibong, in a statement. “We are currently investigating the app, and if myPersonality refuses to cooperate or fails our audit, we will ban it.”

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, David Stillwell defended the myPersonality project’s data collection and distribution.

“myPersonality collaborators have published more than 100 social science research papers on important topics that advance our understanding of the growing use and impact of social networks,” he said. “We believe that academic research benefits from properly controlled sharing of anonymised data among the research community.”

In a separate email, Michal Kosinski also emphasized the importance of the published research based on their data set. Here’s a recent example looking into how people assess their own personalities versus how those who know them do, and how a computer trained to do so performs.

From the research paper based on myPersonality’s database. The computer performed almost as well as a spouse.

“Facebook has been aware of and has encouraged our research since at least 2011,” the statement continued. It’s hard to square this with Facebook’s allegation that the project was suspended for policy violations based on the language of its redistribution terms, which is how a company spokesperson explained it to me. The likely explanation is that Facebook never looked closely until this type of profile data sharing became unpopular, and usage and distribution among academics came under closer scrutiny.

Stillwell said (and the Centre has specifically explained) that Aleksandr Kogan was not in fact associated with the project; he was, however, one of the collaborators who received access to the data like those at other institutions. He apparently certified that he did not use this data in his SCL and Cambridge Analytica dealings.

The statement also says that the newest data is six years old, which seems substantially accurate from what I can tell except, for a set of nearly 800,000 users’ data regarding the 2015 rainbow profile picture filter campaign, added in August 2016. That doesn’t change much, but I thought it worth noting.

Facebook has suspended hundreds of apps and services and is investigating thousands more after it became clear in the Cambridge Analytica case that data collected from its users for one purpose was being redeployed for all sorts of purposes by actors nefarious and otherwise. One is a separate endeavor from the Cambridge Psychometrics Centre called Apply Magic Sauce; I asked the researchers about the connection between it and myPersonality data.

The takeaway from the small sample of these suspensions and collection methods that have been made public suggest that during its most permissive period (up until 2014 or so) Facebook allowed the data of countless users (the totals will only increase) to escape its authority, and that data is still out there, totally out of the company’s control and being used by anyone for just about anything.

Researchers working with user data provided with consent aren’t the enemy, but the total inability of Facebook (and to a certain extent the researchers themselves) to exert any kind of meaningful control over that data is indicative of grave missteps in digital privacy.

Ultimately it seems that Facebook should be the one taking responsibility for this massive oversight, but as Mark Zuckerberg’s performance in the Capitol emphasized, it’s not really clear what taking responsibility looks like other than an appearance of contrition and promises to do better.

The UK and USA need to extend their “special relationship” to technology development

The UK and the USA have always had an enduring bond, with diplomatic, cultural and economic ties that have remained firm for centuries.

We live in an era of profound change, and are living with technologies set to change things ever faster. If Britain and America work together to develop these technologies for the good of mankind, in a way that is open and free, yet also safe and good for our citizens, we can maintain the global lead our nations have enjoyed in the fields of innovation.

Over past months we have seen some very significant strides forward in this business relationship. All of the biggest US companies have made decisions to invest in the UK. Apple is developing a new HQ in the iconic Battersea Power Station, close to the new US embassy, while Google is building a billion dollar new HQ in the increasingly fashionable King’s Cross. Facebook, Amazon, IBM and Microsoft are all extending their operations, and a multitude of smaller US firms are basing their international headquarters in London.

They are all coming here because as we prepare to leave the EU we are building a forward looking Britain that is open to the wider world, and tech is at the heart of this.

Similarly, there have been major expansions or new investment from British firms into the US. Jaguar Land Rover, the UK’s largest automotive manufacturer, supports more than 9,000 jobs in the USA and have recently opened their new multimillion-dollar corporate North America HQ in New Jersey.  iProov, a leading British provider of biometric facial verification technology, became the first international company to be awarded a contract from the US Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate’s Silicon Valley Innovation Program last month.

We want to work with our global partners – to share expertise, and encourage investment – as we harness technology for the wider good. And that of course includes our old friend and closest ally, the USA.

We have a great deal to offer.

The UK was recently ranked the most AI ready nation among all the OECD countries. In the past three years, new AI start-ups have been created in the UK on an almost weekly basis.

Recently, UK government and industry together committed over $1 billion to support our AI sector, much of which will go towards entrepreneurs. Funding has been set aside to create a nationwide network of tech incubators, that we’re calling “Tech Nation”, which will support new AI businesses as they get off the ground.

We are also excited by — and I am a firm advocate for — the development of blockchain and similar technologies. The UK is leading the way in many areas where blockchain has the potential to be used, such as Fintech. There are now more people working in UK Fintech than in New York or in Singapore, Hong Kong and Australia combined.

And we are eminent in the development of immersive technologies, like Augmented and Virtual Reality, which look set to radically improve many areas of life in coming years, with applications as varied as flight simulation and surgical training techniques.

There is so much to be gained from close collaboration between our two countries on these new technologies and from sharing our expertise.

Together, we can reap the economic benefits of stealing an early lead in their development. We estimate that AI, for example, if widely adopted, could add $33 billion to the UK economy. But, perhaps most importantly, we can also work together to build a strong regulatory and ethical frameworks for their wider application.

It is the role of governments across the world, the UK and US included, to set frameworks for these decentralised, cross border systems so we can manage their use in a safe and effective way.

Our aim should be to harness the power and capability of technology but always for the benefit of, and in service to the populace.

We in the UK are avowedly pro-tech, always seeking to put its power in the hands of our citizens.

We have all learned valuable lessons from the recent scandals regarding data use, most recently around Facebook’s use of data.

We want to build a system that protects and cherishes the freedom of the Internet while protecting the rights of individuals, and their property, including intellectual property.

We want to see freedom in a framework; where our tech entrepreneurs have the space to innovate, knowing they do so with full public trust. Trust underpins a strong economy, and trust in data underpins a strong digital economy.

So in the UK we are developing a Digital Charter, to agree norms and rules for the online world and put them into practice. Our starting point is that what is unacceptable offline should not be tolerated in the online world. That includes how tech companies treat private citizens and use their data, as well as how people treat each other online.

Important changes like these cannot be agreed by one country alone. It is more important than ever that we work together and find common ground so we can make sure that tech continues to change the world for the better. Based on our mutual love of freedom and individual rights Britain and America have through history risen to challenges together. I firmly believe working together we can build that brighter future.

Hollywood producer plans to incentivise content viewers with tokens

With so much controversy swirling around the advertising-driven business models typified by Facebook and Google, and the increasing rigours of regulations like GDPR, it’s no wonder the Blockchain world is starting to whet its appetite at the prospect of paying users for attention with crypto assets.

Now a company involved in the production of Hollywood blockbusters featuring the likes of James Franco, Selena Gomez, Alec Baldwin, Heidi Klum and Al Pacino is backing a new startup to reward viewers in this manner.

Hollywood producer, Andrea Iervolino (best known for backing the James Franco film “In Dubious Battle” based on the novel by the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck) has decided to enter the fray by launching a new blockchain platform called TaTaTu. The startup’s aim is to bring a social, crypto economy to the entertainment industry.

Iervolino says the platform ill allows users to get rewarded for the content they watch and share with others through the use of crypto tokens. Of course, whether it can actually pull that off remains to be seen. Many other startups are trying to play in this space. But where Iervolino might just have an edge is in his Hollywood connections.

The idea is that the TaTaTu token can also be used by advertisers to run their ads on the platform. Organisations will also be able to earn tokens by uploading content to the platform. The more content an organisation brings to the platform, the more revenue they earn. TaTaTu aims to show ads to viewers and will even share advertising revenues with them in return for their attention.

But it doesn’t stop there. Users are supposed to invite their friends via their social media to join TaTaTu, and then watch and create videos that can be shared with friends, chat with other members, and share the content they like. TaTaTu will give its users the possibility to be rewarded for their social entertainment activity. TaTaTu plans to not only movies and videos, but also music, sports, and games. So this is quite a grand vision which, frankly, will be tricky to pull off outside of perhaps just sticking to one vertical like movies. This is like trying to do YouTube and Netflix at the same time, on a blockchain. Good luck with that.

But Iervolino is putting his money where his mouth is. The AMBI Media Group, a consortium of vertically integrated film development, production, finance and distribution companies (which counts End of Watch, Apocalypto, and The Merchant of Venice among its title) and which he co-runs with Monaco-based businesswoman Lady Monika Bacardi, is said to have put in $100M via a token pre-sale.

Building the platform will be CTO Jonathan Pullinger who started working in the Bitcoin space in late 2012, developing crypto mining software and building mining rigs. Since then he has worked on several Blockchain projects, including Ethereum smart contracts (ERC-20 tokens and other solidity based solutions), Hyperledger, Fabric, the Waves Platform and lightning nodes.

House Democrats release more than 3,500 Russian Facebook ads

Democrats from the House Intelligence Committee have released thousands of ads that were run on Facebook by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency.

The Democrats said they’ve released a total of 3,519 ads today from 2015, 2016 and 2017. This doesn’t include 80,000 pieces of organic content shared on Facebook by the IRA, which the Democrats plan to release later.

What remains unclear is the impact that these ads actually had on public opinion, but the Democrats note that they were seen by more than 11.4 million Americans.

You can find all the ads here, though it’ll take some time just to download them. As has been noted about earlier (smaller) releases of IRA ads, they aren’t all nakedly pro-Trump, but instead express a dizzying array of opinions and arguments, targeted at a wide range of users.

“Russia sought to weaponize social media to drive a wedge between Americans, and in an attempt to sway the 2016 election,” tweeted Adam Schiff, who is the Democrats’ ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee. “They created fake accounts, pages and communities to push divisive online content and videos, and to mobilize real Americans,”

He added, “By exposing these Russian-created Facebook advertisements, we hope to better protect legitimate political expression and safeguard Americans from having the information they seek polluted by foreign adversaries. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant.

In conjunction with this release, Facebook published a post acknowledging that it was “too slow to spot this type of information operations interference” in the 2016 election, and outlining the steps (like creating a public database of political ads) that it’s taking to prevent this in the future.

“This will never be a solved problem because we’re up against determined, creative and well-funded adversaries,” Facebook said. “But we are making steady progress.”