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HAT News Monthly, November: Tech for Good

6 December Subscribe
Tech news with a HAT perspective 
Issue 117

Censoring for good.

Last week there was a terror attack in New Zealand. It was despicable.

We're not going to talk about that, but we are going to talk about how in the 24h that followed there was a concerted global effort to remove the videos, graphic and otherwise, that were posted by the attacker and others of what had happened. It's an amazing thing that we (societal we) could have accomplished this. A Facebook New Zealand official posted that, "Out of respect for the people affected by this tragedy and the concerns of local authorities, we're [also] removing all edited versions of the video that do not show graphic content." Thank you, genuinely, Facebook - nobody needs to see that. 

It was friggin' hard job. In those 24h more than 1.5 million copies of the footage were uploaded and removed. 1.2 million of those were stopped right at the point of upload - that's how quick off the draw Facebook were. 

Obviously, this is a problem of scope. Did you know Google blocked more than 2 billion (!) bad ads in 2018? Their policies for advertising say things like "you can only promote xyz to abc" and they found more than 2 billion of examples of people wanting to violate them. Now, that includes just misleading or exploitational ads, so it's not all drug peddlers and terrorists, but holy crap. Thank god for machine learning! How on earth do you do this at scale without it?

So ok, we can censor the Internet now (Yay!). Google actually launched an experimental Chrome extension last week that blocks toxic commentary generally. Abuse and bullying of the marginal is real, and this is probably an absolute godsend to them. But do we really want Google (or any browser) deciding what is and isn't allowed to be seen? I mean, in some cases of course and in others no way.

Talk about a tough issue - society has an obligation for sure but it makes me super queasy that we've delegated it to multinational corp. Maybe there is a role for government in this world after all. Who'd have thought?

Now, how do we make them as efficient as tech companies?

Yours in HAT,

Leila Trilby, Editor-in-chief

The present

Some of Facebook's messaging services went down last week, and when they did Telegram saw a new 3m users register in less than 24h - a spike, to say the least! Tech platforms at scale are the very definition of clout.

It's hard to name things.


There'll be no data centers in countries with poor human rights records. Except Singapore?

Spotify and Apple are sorting out who pays for what on the app store. Suuuuuper interesting. (I'd read both!)

The future

We're hitting social media overload. Let's see what's next.

This is worth just quoting here. "...A report published on March 13th ... by a commission appointed by the British government and led by Jason Furman, who was an economic adviser in Barack Obama’s White House ... recommends more competition rather than stifling regulation or break-ups. To this end it proposes a new regulator to force firms to rewire themselves, so that users have control of their data and can switch between providers. It also suggests modernising antitrust rules." Shout. It. From. The. Rooftops.

An end-to-end, all-neural, on-device speech recognizer to power speech input from Google.

The doghouse

Part two of the Roger McNamee "exposee" on the perils of the Facebook Surveillance State came out last week. It's a heartfelt read - I'd recommend. Some choice quotes:
"I got involved with the company more than a decade ago and have taken great pride and joy in the company’s success … until the past few months. Now I am disappointed. I am embarrassed. I am ashamed."

"What I learned in the months that followed–about the 2016 election, about the spread of Brexit lies, about data on users being sold to other groups–shocked and disappointed me. It took me a very long time to accept that success had blinded Zuck and Sheryl to the consequences of their actions."

"The massive success of Facebook eventually led to catastrophe. The business model depends on advertising, which in turn depends on manipulating the attention of users so they see more ads. One of the best ways to manipulate attention is to appeal to outrage and fear, emotions that increase engagement."

I'm not sure where we go with Facebook, or where Facebook goes with us (as we wrote about last week). Ben Evans wrote a great blog post about this comparing it to the threat to Microsoft from malware 20 years ago. But I cannot imagine a world where this kind of testimony from this kind of testifier doesn't deeply impact the leaders of this dominant company. 

The last shot of the Mars Opportunity rover.

HAT News

Need testers. More requests coming soon, but we have a shortage of volunteers willing to test ours and our partners' products. Can you help?

Jiry van Nieuwburg. Truly the greatest van Nieuwburg there ever was, we are proud to welcome new HAT intern Jiry to the fold. He's help coordinate operations and community work from Cambridge. Welcome Jiry!

Jonathan Holtby, HAT Community Manager

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