A forthcoming research paper [PDF] from researchers at Microsoft, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pennsylvania brings up the possibility that Google and Facebook might be tracking your porn history—and, perhaps more worrisome, that using Incognito mode doesn’t help.
The paper, set to be published in the journal New Media & Society, does an excellent job of backing up the claim that porn usage ends up being tracked by Google and Facebook. Authors Elena Maris, Timothy Libert, and Jennifer Henrichsen used open source tool webxray to analyze more than 22,000 porn sites, discovering tracking code for Google on 74% and for Facebook on 10% of the sites analyzed. Software giant Oracle’s Web tracking code also showed up, appearing on 24% of those sites.
In light of the study, a Facebook spokesperson told CNET, “We don’t want adult websites using our business tools since that type of content is a violation of our Community Standards. When we learn that these types of sites or apps use our tools, we enforce against them.” Google told The New York Times that the company disallows ads on adult sites and directly prohibits adding information based on sexual interest or activities to any personalized advertising profiles.
In a swift 3-0 vote Thursday, a panel of judges in a New York federal appeals court upheld the August 2017 conviction of Martin Shkreli. The infamous ex-pharmaceutical CEO is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for fraud stemming from what prosecutors had described as a Ponzi-like scheme.
Shkreli, 36, must continue to serve his sentence and also still forfeit more than $7.3 million in assets, the judges affirmed.
The judges’ ruling came just three weeks after hearing arguments in the appeal—rather than the normal period of months, Bloomberg notes. The ruling was also an unusually short seven pages.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has called for a federal investigation into FaceApp, saying the Russian-operated mobile application “could pose national security and privacy risks for millions of US citizens.”
FaceApp for iOS and Android has been around since 2017 but just recently went viral as celebrities and many other people used it to alter photographs to make themselves look 20 years older. This has raised privacy concerns, as Americans are uploading photographs and device-related data to a service operated by a company based in Russia. The image alterations performed by FaceApp—which calls itself an “AI Face Editor”—are done on the company’s servers instead of on user devices.
The app now warns users that “Each photo you select for editing will be uploaded to our servers for image processing and face transformation.”
David Marcus, the head of Facebook’s new Calibra payments division, appeared before two hostile congressional committees this week with a simple message: Facebook knows policymakers are concerned about Libra, and Facebook won’t move forward with the project until their concerns are addressed.
While he didn’t say so explicitly, Marcus’s comments at hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday represented a dramatic shift in Facebook’s conception of Libra. In Facebook’s original vision, Libra would be an open and largely decentralized network, akin to Bitcoin. The core network would be beyond the reach of regulators. Regulatory compliance would be the responsibility of exchanges, wallets, and other services that are the “on ramps and off ramps” to the Libra ecosystem.
Facebook now seems to recognize its original vision was a non-starter with regulators. So this week Marcus sketched out a new vision for Libra—one in which the Libra Association will shoulder significant responsibility for ensuring compliance with laws relating to money laundering, terrorist financing, and other financial crimes.
Billionaire businessman and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg recently pledged to rapidly spend $500 million in a bid to push the U.S. “Beyond Carbon,” aiming to end this country’s use of coal and natural gas power in a generation or less.
In another recent piece, I featured an in-depth interview with Carl Pope, the veteran environmental leader who has essentially been the inspirational force behind Bloomberg’s evolution. The former New York City Mayor had never given a major gift to environmental causes as of a decade or so ago, until Pope “convinced” him to get involved.
My previous piece was an attempt to understand the ethical vision influencing Bloomberg’s work, by looking at Pope’s personal story and the history of the environmental movement he has helped to shape. Below, Pope joins me again to look at the details of Bloomberg’s “Beyond Carbon” plan, including how he was able to persuade Bloomberg to take it on, and some areas of controversy that could arise as the $500 million is distributed.
Epstein: Bloomberg had never given a major gift to an environmental group before he met you, and, as he writes in the book, you “convinced him” to get massively involved, to the tune now of many hundreds of millions of dollars. What do you think it is about you, the way that you approach things, or the work you do that made the two of you, in this relatively unlikely partnership, work so well?
Pope: We both like big ideas, and we both like to pursue them very pragmatically. We set very high expectations for what we want to get, and we’re willing to take necessarily small steps to get there. That’s one thing.
The second thing is, my original environmental frame was air pollution, [which] I worked on the first seven or eight years I was an environmentalist. Mike is a big public health advocate. So the fact that I was talking about saving people’s lives made a lot of sense to him.
Epstein: He talked about how you ‘showed him the numbers,’ back in 2011, on just how deadly coal actually is.
Pope: Yeah, that was the deal sealer.
Epstein: Interpersonally, what the interactions between you and him like?
Pope: We’re both public figures who are actually somewhat introspective, and so it works.
Epstein: I’ve read the “Beyond Carbon” plans as they’re presented by the Bloomberg organization. They do seem quite promising as far as broad, sweeping PR statements go.
But whether or not they will work is all in the details, right? You’re a detail-oriented person, as you just mentioned, so, what are some of the practical steps the plan calls for that you think deserve the most attention, beyond the headlines?
Pope: In A Climate of Hope, Mike and I articulated an approach to climate in which we gave our reasons for thinking that most climate leadership is going to come not from national governments but from businesses, cities, provinces, civic organizations, from the bottom up.
Team Telecom, a shadowy US national security unit tasked with protecting America’s telecommunications systems, is delaying plans by Google, Facebook and other tech companies for the next generation of international fiber optic cables.
Team Telecom is comprised of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice (including the FBI), who assess foreign investments in American telecom infrastructure, with a focus on cybersecurity and surveillance vulnerabilities.
Team Telecom works at a notoriously sluggish pace, taking over seven years to decide that letting China Mobile operate in the US would “raise substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks,” for instance. And while Team Telecom is working, applications are stalled at the FCC.
The on-going delays to submarine cable projects, which can cost nearly half a billion dollars each, come with significant financial impacts. They also cede advantage to connectivity projects that have not attracted Team Telecom’s attention – such as the nascent internet satellite mega-constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon .
Team Telecom’s investigations have long been a source of tension within Silicon Valley. Google’s subsidiary GU Holdings Inc has been building a network of international submarine fiber-optic cables for over a decade. Every cable that lands on US soil is subject to Team Telecom review, and each one has faced delays and restrictions.
Michael Bloomberg is an unrepentant capitalist who, as he says in his 2017 book A Climate of Hope, is “not exactly your stereotypical environmentalist.” Yet over the past decade, Bloomberg has become arguably the biggest environmental philanthropist in the world — especially given the $500 million investment Bloomberg announced last month that he would soon make in rapidly moving the U.S. “Beyond Carbon,” off both coal and natural gas and to a “100% clean energy economy.” How did this happen?
It turns out one of the biggest factors in Bloomberg’s green transformation has been his friendship with Carl Pope, the longtime former head of the Sierra Club, whom Bloomberg first met about a decade ago, as Mayor of New York.
Pope is not exactly a household name, but nonetheless at this point can probably be called one of the most influential environmental activists in history. He wears a leather jacket and a weathered-looking sweater on the cover of Climate of Hope alongside Bloomberg’s suit, tie, and flag pin.
The two co-authored the book — and not just in the sense that Pope ghost-wrote Bloomberg’s opinions, as happens regularly when busy political and cultural celebrities take on a lesser-known co-author for some glamour project they may barely even read. A Climate of Hope is an extended dialogue between Bloomberg and Pope, with the two alternating chapters throughout and at times even disagreeing on potentially important issues.
What there’s no disagreement on, however, is that Pope “convinced” his co-author to dive into massive environmental spending (a feat accomplished in part by showing the health-conscious Bloomberg the numbers on how lethal coal can be).
Pope is no stranger to controversy — perhaps unsurprising for a nonprofit leader who has raised money well into the nine figures. He’s a “pragmatist,” as he says many times in the interview below, which depending on who you ask either means compromise to the point of being compromised, or simply that he has a knack for actually getting things done where others merely talk.
His legacy has previously been associated with taking money from natural gas executives in a fundraising bid some saw as necessary and others called ethically tainted; with overlooking people’s polluting individual choices to buy large cars and even bigger homes; and with “looking forward to an active partnership” with Republican leaders when it was obvious they weren’t completely on board with key tenets of the environmental movement.
But Pope has also been equally or better known for pushing the Clinton/Gore administration to be better on emissions; preventing neoliberal environmentalists from adopting a nativist stance on immigration; championing a more diverse and inclusive environmental movement; and now, of course, with potentially ending the use of carbon fuel in America.
Despite 30+ years in the public eye, Carl Pope is a relatively private person who doesn’t seem to like to talk much about himself. So for starters below, I wanted to see if I could figure out what makes him tick.
Because if we could get into the heads of people who persuade billionaires to act against their short-term economic interests, with the bigger human picture in mind, maybe we could do it more often.
Then our conversation moved on to NASA, Ro Khanna, Tesla, AOC and the Green New Deal, and more. And in a soon to come follow up piece, I’ll talk with Pope about the details of the Beyond Carbon plan, including how he was able to persuade Bloomberg to take it on, and some areas of controversy that could arise as the $500 million is distributed.
All of this, after all, is part of what it means to think about the ethics of technology — Pope and Bloomberg’s work, love it or not, is certainly an attempt to reform or transform some of the most influential technologies human hands have ever touched.
How do we motivate people of all backgrounds and means to help make changes for the greener? How do we know what the right changes are to make? How do we grapple with the ethical dilemmas involved and the compromises that can seem to be required?
(Oh and by the way: in the weeks since I spoke with Pope, I have mostly been skipping big evening meals and eating more healthily in the afternoon. So at least there’s that!)
Greg Epstein: I have enjoyed discovering you as — I would even say as a historical figure, though important parts of your story are yet to be told.
I’d like to hear a bit about the key developments in your life that gave you the ethical perspective that you have.
Carl Pope: I can tell you some things about my childhood and my formation. Which particular ingredients formed my ethical perspective, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you, but I’ll tell you some things [that might] help.
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering an update to the laws governing children’s privacy online, known as the COPPA Rule (or, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). The Rule first went into effect in 2000 and was amended in 2013 to address changes in how children use mobile devices and social networking sites. Now, the FTC believes it may be due for more revisions. The organization is seeking input and comments on possible updates, some of which are specifically focused on how to address sites that aren’t necessarily aimed at children, but have large numbers of child users.
The advocacy groups allege that YouTube is hiding behind its terms of service which claim YouTube is “not intended for children under 13” — a statement that’s clearly no longer true. Today, the platform is filled with videos designed for viewing by kids. Google even offers a YouTube Kids app aimed at preschooler to tween-aged children, but it’s optional. Kids can freely browse YouTube’s website and often interact with the service via the YouTube TV app — a platform where YouTube Kids has a limited presence.
According to the letter written by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), Google has now collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S., and it used this data to engage in “very sophisticated digital marketing techniques.”
The groups want YouTube to delete the children’s data, set up an age-gate on the site, and separate out any kids content into its own app where YouTube will have to properly follow COPPA guidelines.
These demands are among those pushing the FTC to this action.
The Commission says it wants input as to whether COPPA should be updated to better address websites and online services that are not traditionally aimed at children but are used by kids, as well as whether these “general audience platforms” should have to identity and police the child-directed content that’s uploaded by third parties.
In other words, should the FTC amend COPPA so it can protect the privacy of the kids using YouTube?
“In light of rapid technological changes that impact the online children’s marketplace, we must ensure COPPA remains effective,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons, in a published statement. “We’re committed to strong COPPA enforcement, as well as industry outreach and a COPPA business hotline to foster a high level of COPPA compliance. But we also need to regularly revisit and, if warranted, update the Rule,” he added.
While YouTube is a key focus, the FTC will also seek comment on whether there should be an exception for parental consent for the use of educational technology in schools. And it wants to better understand the implications for COPPA in terms of interactive media, like interactive TV (think Netflix’s Minecraft: Story Mode, for example), or interactive gaming.
More broadly, the FTC wants to know how COPPA has impacted the availability of sites and services aimed at children, it says.
The decision to initiate a review of COPPA was a unanimous decision from the FTC’s five commissioners, which includes three Republicans and two Democrats.
Led by Simons, the FTC in February took action against Musical.ly (now TikTok), by issuing a record $5.7 million fine for its COPPA violations. Similar to YouTube, the app was used by a number of under-13 kids without parental consent. The company knew this was the case, but continued to collect the kids’ personal information, regardless.
“This record penalty should be a reminder to all online services and websites that target children: We take enforcement of COPPA very seriously, and we will not tolerate companies that flagrantly ignore the law,” Simons had said at the time.
The settlement with TikTok required the company to delete children’s videos and data and restrict underage users from being able to film videos.
It’s unclear why the FTC can’t now require the same of YouTube, given the similarities between the two services, without amending the law.
“They absolutely can and should fine YouTube, not to mention force YouTube to make significant changes, under the current regulations,” says Josh Golin, the Executive Director for CCFC. “As for the YouTube decision – by far the most important COPPA case in the agency’s history – it’s extremely concerning that the Commission appears to be signaling they do not have the authority under the current rules to hold YouTube accountable,” he says.
“COPPA rules could use some updating but the biggest problem with the law is the FTC’s lack of enforcement, which is something the Commission could address right away without a lengthy comment period,” Golin adds.