Since June of last year, Facebook has been publishing a series called Hard Questions. In the latest installment in that series, David Baser, Facebook's Product Management Director, gives some details about what kind of data Facebook collects on you even if you don't have a Facebook account. David acknowledges that his post is partly a response to a question Congress posed to Mark Zuckerberg last week, which puts him a bit on the defensive with regard to the fact of this type of data collection. To wit, why does Facebook do something as arguably intrusive as collect data on folks who have no other relationship to the site?
That question remains implied, but David's answer to it does not. Here's what he says, in part:
When you visit a site or app that uses our services, we receive information even if you’re logged out or don’t have a Facebook account. This is because other apps and sites don’t know who is using Facebook.
Many companies offer these types of services and, like Facebook, they also get information from the apps and sites that use them. Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn all have similar Like and Share buttons to help people share things on their services. Google has a popular analytics service. And Amazon, Google and Twitter all offer login features. These companies — and many others — also offer advertising services. In fact, most websites and apps send the same information to multiple companies each time you visit them.
So there you have it. Facebook collects data on everyone, because everyone else is doing it. It comes off a bit like a child responding to a scolding ("And what would you do if Pinterest, LinkedIn, and Google all jumped off a bridge?"), but it's also not completely uninformative. We know all of these companies are doing this, but this type of defense can lead in one of two directions: either the practice is okay and everyone can continue to collect this kind of data, or it isn't okay and the whole system needs to change, possibly through some kind of industry-wide regulation.
Facebook's defense of its data collection practices has just called the question on how American society will respond to it.
Sean Gallagher over at Ars Technica reported yesterday on the 2018 Internet Health Report, which Mozilla puts together. I'm linking the article in addition to the report itself because Sean does such a great job summarizing it. Of course I also think the Report itself is important, and I particularly like the metrics it uses to gauge how healthy the Internet is.
Gallagher summarizes the report's concerns this way:
Of particular concern were three issues:
- Consolidation of power over the Internet, particularly by Facebook, Google, Tencent, and Amazon.
- The spread of "fake news," which the report attributes in part to the "broken online advertising economy" that provides financial incentive for fraud, misinformation, and abuse.
- The threat to privacy posed by the poor security of the Internet of Things.
I'd point out that the Report itself alludes to another concern, and it's one that I hope to give a lot of attention to in my writing here, and that's the topic of Web literacy. As I hope to explain in future posts, I think there's a reciprocal relationship between the problems above and Web literacy, which is to say the problems above are both made worse by Web illiteracy, and at the same time make Web illiteracy worse.
For now I'll put that out there as food for thought.
Many of you who know me personally know that I've become increasingly concerned with online privacy over the past few years. It's a topic that is near and dear to my heart, because I think the privacy, including online privacy, is very important to a healthy civic life. I hope to write a lot more about that going forward, but for now I want to introduce you to someone whose work I'm only beginning to dig into myself, but who has an awful lot of really smart things to say on the topic of online privacy (among other things): Zeynep Tufekci.
I spare you my attempt at a mini-biography, mostly because I'm about the least qualified person in the world to deliver. Rather, I'll point you to this TED talk that she did October of last year where she talks about the infrastructure that companies like Facebook and YouTube control and how much they're able to do with the data they collect on us.
Here are a couple of quotes a took down as I was listening:
Her prescription seems on point: "We need a digital economy where our data and our attention is not for sale to the highest bidding authoritarian or demagogue." That's actually just the sound-bite synopsis of her more nuanced call for businesses, consumers, and governments all to work together to determine what our collective vision is for all of the algorithmic magic (read: artificial intelligence) underlying these systems, how they should operate, and the moral systems that ultimately must be coded into them.
Evangelical Christians in the circles I run in have begun in the past few years to seriously confront the fact that cultural structures often exist to keep the powerful in power. I think a lot of us are going to have to take a look at what has grown out of the combination of free markets and the internet have caused to grow up, and then have a very serious discussion about what might need to change.
Jane Marie Moch, who I had the privilege for the past 35 years of calling Gram, was born March 11, 1937 and died this past Sunday on her 81st birthday, March 11, 2018. She's survived by two siblings, her three children, seven grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. She joins her husband, Norman Moch, who passed from this life a little over ten years ago. Her death comes at the end of an eighteen month battle with cancer. That battle would consume her energy, and challenge her spirit, in the final season of her life. Her family rallied around her, as did her friends. And the first thing I was asked to say was to convey our thanks to everyone who either visited her, sent cards, or otherwise extended their well wishes to her. Those kindnesses were received, and they were an encouragement to us, and most importantly to Jane.
If I had to pick one word to describe my grandmother, that word would be kind. Kindness is not a flashy or impressive word, but it's the one I keep coming back to as I've reflected since her passing. Jane showed kindness to everyone she encountered. She forged long-lasting relationships in this community in part through her kindness. She was a force of kindness in my life and the lives of so many others. I'd like to share with you a couple of stories that exemplify Jane's kindness.
During summers growing up, I would spend time with my brother and sister here in Dunkirk with Gram and Papa. That was an act of kindness itself for my parents who were able for a week or two each summer not to worry about chasing around three young kids. But there were plenty of smaller acts of kindness Jane would show us kids while we were here: She cooked for us, cleaned up after us, made spaces for us to play with each other and with other kids in the neighborhood. Theses were fun times for us, and they were enabled in large part by Jane's kindness, her willingness to take on the work of caring for and cleaning up after her grandchildren.
There are a lot of stories I could tell you about Jane and her desire to make everyone around her happy and comfortable. I believe that's a very special gift and calling that God gives to people, and Jane's kindness meant that it was a gift she possessed in spades. I could tell you about how she was always concerned that the people around her be comfortable, and how she always seemed the most in her element when she had family and friends gathered around her enjoying one another. Even in those moments she wasn't the type to make herself the center of attention, in fact quite the opposite. She would sit back and quietly and watch everyone else interact. It seemed to be a great source of satisfaction for her to know that she created an environment where people could connect and enjoy each other.
We like to tell stories about heroes, people who touch peoples' lives and change the world through grand gestures. Heroes are great, but I think if we stop to reflect, it's rarely the heroes who impact us most deeply, but rather the people who show us kindness. They're parents and grandparents; they're neighbors who reach out in needy times; they're faithful friends who bond over a common interest like Jane did with her exercise group. They're the people who are just there for us, and Jane touched our lives by just being there. When I think about Jane's life, I'm struck by the difference that one person can make in the life of a community simply by being a faithful friend to others---in other words by being kind.
When my daughter was born, my wife and I decided to name her Naomi, after the mother-in-law in the Old Testament book of Ruth. Naomi is not a very front-and-center character in that book, but as is so often the case in Scripture, the name is not a coincidence, but a meaningful one. It means pleasant, and that is exactly what Ruth's mother-in-law turns out to be. Ruth's husband---that's Naomi's son---dies, and even though that must have deeply grieved her as a mother, what we see in Scripture is her concern for the newly widowed Ruth, and with seeing her provided for. My point in sharing this story with you is to suggest that if God saw fit for someone like Naomi to be remembered forever in Scripture for nothing more than caring about her daughter-in-law, then maybe it's worthwhile for us to remember Jane today for all of her simple acts of kindness.
She may never have expressed it, but I believe Jane knew how important it was to be kind. It's no secret how faithfully she attended the daily Mass at this parish. I can tell you how faithfully she prayed, especially for the people she cared about. She prayed a novena for me eleven years ago, asking God to let me meet my wife. That same year I did. Her faith in God ran deep, deep enough to be central to who she was, deep enough for her to pass it along to future generations. In other words, I believe that it was because of her faith that Jane was able to pursue kindness as her calling. She was content not to be a hero, because she knew she didn't have to be. And if her life exemplifies anything to me, it's the peace and happiness we can bring to others if we stop trying so hard to change the world, and just treat people with kindness.