Author: Natasha Lomas

Facebook, Google and Twitter told to do more to fight fake news ahead of European elections

A first batch of monthly progress reports from tech giants and advertising companies on what they’re doing to help fight online disinformation have been published by the European Commission. Platforms including Facebook, Google and Twitter signed up to a voluntary EU code of practice on the issue last year. The first reports cover measures taken by platforms up to December 31, 2018. The implementation reports are intended to detail progress towards the goal of putting the squeeze on disinformation — such as by proactively identifying and removing fake accounts — but the European Commission has today called for tech firms to intensify their efforts, warning that more needs to be done in the run up to the 2019 European Parliament elections, which take place in May. The Commission announced a multi-pronged action plan on disinformation two months ago, urging greater co-ordination on the issue between EU Member States and pushing for efforts to raise awareness and encourage critical thinking among the region’s people. But it also heaped pressure on tech companies, especially, warning it wanted to see rapid action and progress. A month on and it sounds less than impressed with tech giants’ ‘progress’ on the issue. Mozilla also signed up to the voluntary Code of Practice, and all the signatories committed to take broad-brush action to try to combat disinformation. Although, as we reported at the time, the code suffered...

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Mozilla streamlines Firefox tracker blocking controls

Mozilla has rolled out what it bills as enhanced and simplified controls for Firefox users to manage how they block trackers. An update to its browser software, released today, offers a redesigned interface which includes new controls that let users choose from ‘standard’, ‘strict’ or ‘custom’ settings to help them control online trackers. Trackers refer to content embedded on websites that surreptitiously harvests information about visitors’ browsing activity — often for ad targeting purposes. Using a tracker blocker is therefore one way to claw back a little online privacy. Although trackers can be used for lots of functions. Hence you may not want to block ’em all. With the latest version of the Firefox browser the ‘strict’ level of tracker blocking is “for people who want a bit more protection and don’t mind if some sites break”, according to Mozilla. This mode also blocks trackers in all Windows. Whereas ‘standard’ is summed up as a “set it and forget it” mode that blocks known trackers — but only when the user is using Private Browsing mode. The standard mode will also block third party tracking cookies “in the future”. Though Mozilla looks to still be tweaking and testing that. The third option is a custom tracker blocker mode which it says is “for those who want complete control to pick and choose what trackers and cookies they want to...

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Rules to rein in ride-hailing apps coming to Barcelona

Catalonia’s regional government in Spain has agreed new rules to regulate the vehicle for hire (VTCs) sector that will require ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Cabify to substantially change how they operate in Barcelona and other local cities as soon as this week. The changes have been agreed by decree, ahead of a planned full restructuring of the law, with the Catalan generalitat saying it wants to ensure VTCs and taxis do not compete for the same work. As a first step, the government says it will introduce a new rule that requires VTC bookings to be made a minimum of 15 minutes in advance of a pick-up, with municipalities or local metropolitan areas able to require a longer wait time. It writes that such powers can be used to regulate “the use of public road domain, urban traffic management, environmental protection and the prevention of air pollution”. Ride-hailing companies Uber and Cabify have previously said they will pull out of the Catalan capital, Barcelona, if a 15-minute wait time rule is introduced. But even if the companies change their mind about leaving they would likely have to suspend services to implement software tweaks to their apps to comply with the changes.  Under the decree, VTC companies will also be prohibited from displaying the real-time geolocation of vehicles for hire in their apps prior to a booking. Only once a booking has been made...

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Google and IAB ad category lists show “massive leakage of highly intimate data”, GDPR complaint claims

Male impotence, substance abuse, right-wing politics, left-wing politics, sexually transmitted diseases, cancer, mental health. Those are just a few of the advertising labels that Google’s adtech infrastructure routinely sticks to Internet users as it watches and tracks what they do online in order to target them with behavioral ads. Intimate and highly sensitive inferences such as these are then systematically broadcast and shared with what can be thousands of third party companies, via the real-time ad auction broadcast process which powers the modern programmatic online advertising system. So essentially you’re looking at the rear-end reality of how creepy ads work. This practice is already the target of a legal complaint in Europe, filed under the bloc’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The real-time bidding (RTB) complaint, which was lodged last fall by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, previously director of the Open Rights Group; and Michael Veale, a data and policy researcher at University College London, alleges “wide-scale and systemic breaches of the data protection regime by Google and others” in the behavioral advertising industry. It argues the personalized ad industry has “spawned a mass data broadcast mechanism” which gathers “a wide range of information on individuals going well beyond the information required to provide the relevant adverts”; and also that it “provides that information to a host of third parties for a range of uses...

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The facts about Facebook

This is a critical reading of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s article in the WSJ on Thursday, also entitled The Facts About Facebook.  Yes Mark, you’re right; Facebook turns 15 next month. What a long time you’ve been in the social media business! We’re curious as to whether you’ve also been keeping count of how many times you’ve been forced to apologize for breaching people’s trust or, well, otherwise royally messing up over the years. It’s also true you weren’t setting out to build “a global company”. The predecessor to Facebook was a ‘hot or not’ game called ‘FaceMash’ that you hacked together while drinking beer in your Harvard dormroom. Your late night brainwave was to get fellow students to rate each others’ attractiveness — and you weren’t at all put off by not being in possession of the necessary photo data to do this. You just took it; hacking into the college’s online facebooks and grabbing people’s selfies without permission. Blogging about what you were doing as you did it, you wrote: “I almost want to put some of these faces next to pictures of some farm animals and have people vote on which is more attractive.” Just in case there was any doubt as to the ugly nature of your intention.  The seeds of Facebook’s global business were thus sewn in a crude and consentless game of clickbait whose idea titillated...

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SoundCloud co-founder and chief product officer, Eric Wahlforss, is leaving

SoundCloud’s Eric Wahlforss is stepping away from the music and podcast streaming platform he co-founded after more than a decade at the company, most recently in the chief product officer role. Wahlforss announced the decision to step back from day-to-day ops — and “transition into an advisory role” — in a post on social media, writing: “After more than 11 years of building up our wonderful platform for artists, DJs and audio creators, I have come to the realisation that now is the right time for me to take a break, reflect and think about what to create next. “So I have decided to step back from day-to-day operations at SoundCloud, and transition into an advisory role for the company starting March 1st.” After 11+ years of building SoundCloud, it is time for me to take a break, reflect and think about what’s next. I will be stepping back from day-to-day operations and into an advisory role on March 1st. I am incredibly proud of what we have achieved and deeply grateful. pic.twitter.com/71DQ8h0Sjv — Eric Wahlforss (@ericw) January 24, 2019 Wahlforss previously served as SoundCloud’s CTO. But in early 2017 an ex-Yahoo VP of engineering, Artem Fishman, was hired to take the role as the company made a series of changes to its leadership structure in an attempt to shift focus and stem losses that, in 2015, were running at $52 million...

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pi-top’s latest edtech tool doubles down on maker culture

London-based edtech startup, pi-top, has unboxed a new flagship learn-to-code product, demoing the “go anywhere” Pi-powered computer at the Bett Show education fare in London today. Discussing the product with TechCrunch ahead of launch, co-founder and CEO Jesse Lozano talked up the skills the company hopes students in the target 12-to-17 age range will develop and learn to apply by using sensor-based connected tech, powered by its new pi-top 4, to solve real world problems. “When you get a pi-top 4 out of the box you’re going to start to learn how to code with it, you’re going to start to learn and understand electronic circuits, you’re going to understand sensors from our sensor library. Or components from our components library,” he told us. “So it’s not: ‘I’m going to learn how to create a robot that rolls around on wheels and doesn’t knock into things’. “It’s more: ‘I’m going to learn how a motor works. I’m going to learn how a distance sensor works. I’m going to learn how to properly hook up power to these different sensors. I’m going to learn how to apply that knowledge… take those skills and [keep making stuff].” The pi-top 4 is a modular computer that’s designed to be applicable, well, anywhere; up in the air, with the help of a drone attachment; powering a sensing weather balloon; acting as the brains for...

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Facebook agrees to do more to tackle scam ads after celebrity defamation lawsuit

Facebook has agreed to plough more resource into combating the use of its advertising platform by scammers, saying it will do more to tackle scam ads that use well-known public figures to try to trick consumers. It plans to launch a dedicated scam ad report button in the UK, slated to go live in around three months’ time, as well as set up a specialist, locally-based team to monitor ad reports, keep an eye on scammer trends and generally work on getting celebrity-exploiting scam ads taken down more quickly than its current AI-aided ad review systems have been doing....

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