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Tag Archives: Internet

Chart: Market Share of Internet Browser

Source : Chartr

China’s Internet Watchdog Tightens Mobile App Rules for National Security, Requires Promotion of ‘Core Socialist Values’

Iris Deng wrote . . . . . . . . .

China’s internet watchdog has updated its rules regulating mobile app development with stricter requirements for content and data protections, a move that could deal a fresh blow to the country’s developer community after more than 2 million apps disappeared from the market in a three-year span.

The Cybersecurity Administration of China (CAC) on Tuesday published the revised version of the Provisions on the Administration of Mobile Internet Applications Information Services, which will take effect on August 1, doubling the document’s length over the previous version published in 2016.

The CAC said the new rules will promote the “healthy development” of the industry. “With the rapid development and wider use of mobile apps, new situations and problems continued to emerge, which requires [the rules] to be revised and improved to adapt to new developments,” the agency said.

Included in the new rules is a requirement for app providers and distributors to promote “core socialist values” and adhere to the “correct” direction of politics, public opinions and values. App developers are responsible for content showcased in the app, and should not produce or circulate illegal information.

A combination of fierce competition and China’s crackdown on content and data irregularities has contributed to a steep fall in the number of apps available in Chinese app stores in recent years. The total number of apps available in April 2020 was 2.31 million, half of the 4.49 million available at the end of 2018, according to data from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.

However, China still has a vibrant community of app developers, which Apple CEO Tim Cook recently praised for their contribution to its global ecosystem. The country’s 5 million app developers “have always been at the cutting edge”, he told a Chinese media outlet at the Worldwide Developers Conference last week.

After China tightened regulations on cybersecurity and data handling practices last year, the new rules for app developers further highlights cybersecurity and user privacy protection. The CAC document stipulates that app developers not “endanger national security and public interest” when processing data. Security flaws and loopholes must also be reported and amended soon after they are spotted.

App providers are required to be “fair” in their handling of user data, without forcing users to agree to data processing activities or refusing to provide service to those who disagree. All new technologies, applications and functions that can influence public opinion or “mobilise society” must go through a security review process.

The legal basis for the revised regulation include three new laws that went into effect last year: the Personal Information Protection Law, Data Security Law, and the revised Minor Protection Law.

In January, the CAC also announced a new rule that requires companies operating internet platforms with the data of more than 1 million users to undergo a security review before listing on a stock exchange overseas. Another law that went into effect in March tightened control of algorithms used by Big Tech firms to recommend new content.

Source : Yahoo!

Chart: The Internet Crime Business is Booming

Source : Statista

When the Internet Knows Where You Live

Cai Yineng wrote . . . . . . . . .

On April 28, Weibo, China’s equivalent to Twitter, announced that it would begin displaying users’ IP address locations on their profile pages and on all replies posted to the site. The company framed the feature as a necessary measure for “maintaining a healthy and orderly environment for discussion.”

According to Weibo’s official community account, the new location feature is simply another tool in the site’s battle against misinformation: a way to stop users pretending they are eyewitnesses or participants in major events. A March post announcing the update made specific mention of both the war between Russia and Ukraine and the recent spate of domestic COVID-19 outbreaks as examples of the kind of controversial topics the feature will address.

Displaying users’ locations or IP addresses isn’t unprecedented. Early forums on the Chinese mainland displayed users’ IP addresses, as does PTT, a popular forum in Taiwan that spawned the catchphrase “search your IP” — a reference to the ease with which posts coming from government buildings, public relations agencies, or overseas users could be identified.

But such practices are a distant memory to most internet users on the Chinese mainland. Since the decline of forums and the Facebook-like Renren, newer apps like Weibo, WeChat, and Douyin —the Chinese version of TikTok — have redefined users’ relationship with personal privacy. Although Chinese platforms now generally require users to provide identifying information such as a phone number when registering, the information they display on their profiles is left to users’ discretion, and anonymity has become the default.

This is true even of public figures. Weibo’s own CEO, Wang Gaofei, posts under the handle “Between Coming and Going,” and his profile identifies him only as a “mobile internet analyst.” This can have unexpected consequences: In 2015, Wang expressed surprise when his account was penalized for a violation of the site’s community policy violation by a Weibo moderator who was likely unaware of his identity.

Weibo’s tolerance for anonymity, combined with the site’s relatively open structure, helped turn it into a lively public square in which its 600 million users felt relatively free to exchange ideas and engage in bold discussions on social issues. It’s also exacerbated some of the problems of the Web 2.0 era. The platform has struggled to cope with a rise in abusive posts, trolling, and hate speech. Distrust and hostility have taken over the site.

Rather than view this as a trade-off for the benefits of anonymity, or as a natural consequence of the way social media brings people from across the political spectrum together, some users see a conspiracy. The accounts that disagree with them are not doing so out of deeply held principles or beliefs, but because they are bots or agents of shadowy political forces. These accusations have become more common in recent years, propelled by the rising tide of populism. The pandemic, which might have united humanity in a common cause, only made matters worse, as unsubstantiated theories about the virus’s origin and the safety of various vaccines spread like wildfire online.

This has produced a worldview in which enemies lurk behind every social media handle. During the recent COVID-19 lockdowns, for instance, popular bloggers and even some scholars have routinely accused social media platforms like Weibo of being compromised by foreign forces seeking to undermine China and its pandemic prevention strategy.

It’s therefore not surprising that some users applauded Weibo’s new rule. A few of the above-mentioned bloggers seized on the location tags to “prove” that people who disagreed with them were doing so from outside China.

Soon, however, it became clear that location info was not a panacea — not least because the managing of major accounts is often a transnational affair. Users were puzzled to find that Boris Johnson was posting from the southern province of Guangdong, while Russian figure skater and Olympic gold medalist Anna Shcherbakova’s account was located in the United States. A number of China’s most prominent nationalist bloggers suddenly had to explain why they were posting from overseas.

Weibo quickly clarified the rule, stating that verified accounts would be allowed to hide their IP addresses, provided the person or organization behind them has publicly identified themselves. But that only reignited the controversy over the privileges enjoyed by verified users.

On a more fundamental level, it’s naive to think that social trust can be rebuilt via a technological patch. Social media has no doubt helped amplify extreme voices, but just as scholars pinpoint the 2008 financial crisis as a watershed moment in the rise of populism in America and across the West, Chinese internet watchers must grapple with the role regional and international inequalities in education, job opportunities, and digital literacy have played in the deterioration of the country’s online spaces. Stigmas, discrimination, and inferiority or superiority complexes, many of them regionally based, are as much problems online as they are offline.

If anything, the IP location policy may make matters worse. Although international users are identified only by country, domestic users are tagged by province. Users can no longer escape regional stereotypes online. Post from Shanghai, and other users will write you off as wealthy and out of touch; post from the central province of Henan, and you’ll be mocked as a thieving bumpkin.

The situation isn’t better for international users, including the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students and millions of Chinese workers living abroad. Since it’s impossible to tell an overseas student from a foreign agent through their IP location alone, anyone posting from abroad may find themselves attacked and harassed for harboring ulterior motives.

Indeed, for all the company’s efforts to regulate certain discussions, Weibo has largely taken a laissez-faire attitude toward hate speech and harassment. In 2020, Luo Xiang, an outspoken law professor and popular vlogger, quit the site after a vicious troll campaign. More recently, a Shanghai resident jumped to her death after receiving a wave of messages accusing her of not giving a sufficiently generous tip to a delivery driver. During the Wuhan lockdown in 2020, a handful of anonymous but influential bloggers harassed the relatives of COVID-19 victims. Although they were suspended, the punishment lasted just 15 days and they were allowed to keep their verified badges.

Part of the problem is that it’s in Weibo’s interest to play with fire. The site profits from engagement with controversial content, whether that’s sexist comments by high profile figures or COVID-19 conspiracy theories. A 2020 data analysis by The Paper, Sixth Tone’s sister publication, found that the most visible figure on Weibo’s heavily promoted “trending” chart was Donald Trump.

Since Weibo introduced the new feature in March, other major Chinese social media apps, including ByteDance’s Jinri Toutiao news service and Tencent’s WeChat, have started testing geolocation features of their own. The moves come months after the powerful Cyberspace Administration of China published a draft regulation that would require all social media platforms to display users’ IP locations in their profiles. If that draft becomes law, Chinese social media may become a more transparent, yet also more polarized space — a development that ironically might benefit the platforms most of all.

If Weibo and other social media apps really cared about transparency and accountability as much as they say do, they’d apply the same standards to their own community policies, recommendation algorithms, and financial arrangements with advertisers. As for our own identities, beliefs, and experiences, they are far too complex to be boiled down into a single geographic tag. No one should be judged on where they come from, much less where they post from. Underlying the new feature is an essentialist worldview that sees everyone through the lens of “us versus them.” In the process, it denies us the very thing that makes us human: agency.

Source : Sixth Tone

The Surprising Link Between COVID-19 Deaths and … Internet Access

Keren Landman wrote . . . . . . . . .

Two years into the pandemic, researchers are still trying to understand what makes some people more likely than others to die from Covid-19. Although we know some of the risk factors — like age and underlying disease — others are less obvious. Identifying them could ease our current pain, protect communities from future epidemics, and point us toward some of the societal fractures we should most urgently try to mend.

One of the more surprising answers to this question is one that appears to have a relatively straightforward solution: internet access.

This March, researchers at the University of Chicago published a study in the journal JAMA Network Open that showed one of the factors most consistently associated with a high risk of death due to Covid-19 in the US was the lack of internet access, whether broadband, dial-up, or cellular. This was regardless of other demographic risk factors like socioeconomic status, education, age, disability, rent burden, health insurance coverage, or immigration status.

The study authors estimated that for every additional 1 percent of residents in a county who have internet access, between 2.4 and six deaths per 100,000 people could be prevented, depending on the makeup of the region.

The findings held more surprises. The trend held true not just in rural areas with sparse internet access, but also in urban areas, where most homes can be wired for broadband internet. That is, people who could get internet access in cities but either don’t or can’t are also at increased risk of dying from Covid-19.

“We believe this finding suggests that more awareness is needed,” the study authors wrote in the paper. “Populations with limited internet access remain understudied and are often excluded in pandemic research.”

Still, questions remain. Why does internet access seem to be protective? And would increasing it yield meaningful improvements in public health?

The answers to those questions matter because while the American marketplace has generally treated internet access as a luxury, the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed that the ability to get online might be a matter of life or death.

America’s internet inequality, explained

Internet access has been inequitable for almost as long as there’s been an internet.

In 2000, when the Pew Research Center first began gathering data on Americans’ internet use, its researchers found large gaps: older Americans, low-income people, minorities, people with less education, and those who live in rural areas were less likely to be online.

While some of those gaps have since narrowed, most of them stubbornly remain. More than a quarter of Americans still don’t have home broadband internet, and the proportion without access is twice as high for those without any college education and those who earn less than $30,000 a year. Only 63 percent of rural homes have broadband access, as do about half of those living on tribal lands — even if they have a computer.

These inequities were not created by chance. In the US, private internet service providers developed the infrastructure for broadband internet access where it was profitable. As a consequence, many of the country’s most marginalized communities have the fewest, most expensive, and lowest-quality choices when it comes to an internet service provider.

As those access gaps persisted over the years, more and more health services came online. That left those without access unable to use telemedicine, or even easily look up information about health conditions. Over the last few years, researchers have started to see internet access, and in particular high-speed broadband, as a critical component of health — something vital for connecting people not only with health care, but also with food, housing, education, and income, all of which are considered social determinants of health.

Then, as Covid-19 pushed routine health care provider visits into the telehealth space, people without internet access — many of them already medically underserved — found health care even harder to access. Home broadband drew a sharper line than ever before between haves and have-nots; access to internet bandwidth suddenly determined access to educational instruction, economic stability, food pantry sign-ups, vaccine availability and safety information, human contact, and so many other resources.

Before the pandemic, broadband internet access was only occasionally described as a social determinant of health, but over the past two years, its centrality has crystallized. “Broadband internet access acts as a gateway to information and services,” said Natalie Benda, a health care informatics researcher who co-authored an editorial on the subject in the American Journal of Public Health.

Having broadband internet access means having access to education and financial stability, which on their own contribute to our well-being. The connections are so strong, Benda said, that the Federal Communications Commission is now framing broadband internet access as a “super” determinant of health.

There’s a huge amount of observational data showing broadband internet access tracks with other factors that predict health, like income, race, and education. However, there is almost no experimental data linking internet access with health outcomes themselves.

The pandemic provided an opportunity to accelerate our understanding of just how internet access is related to health because it exacerbated many of the existing inequalities underlying health disparities.

Linking internet access to Covid-19 mortality

Prior to the pandemic, the investigators might not have thought to include internet access as a variable, said Qinyun Lin, one of the study’s co-authors. However, another study had linked home broadband internet to Chicago-area Covid-19 mortality; that finding, combined with the team’s own pandemic experiences of retreating to life online, led them to consider internet access as essential in the Covid-19 context. The authors drew on census data on households without access to any form of internet, whether broadband, dial-up, satellite, or cellular. (Note: The study does not directly compare the impact of having broadband versus dial-up or any other category.)

In Lin’s study, internet access was the only factor associated with higher mortality rates in rural, urban, and suburban areas (the study also included measures of socioeconomic status, education, age, and other demographic risk factors). The effect was strong: In rural areas, a 1 percent decrease in a county’s internet access was associated with 2.4 deaths per 100,000 people. But the effect was even stronger in urban areas, where the same difference in access was associated with nearly six deaths per 100,000 people.

The investigators weren’t surprised to find that low internet access was associated with high death rates, said study coordinator and co-author Susan Paykin. But they were surprised by how strong the association was, and surprised by its presence in both rural and urban areas.

None of the other demographic variables the team examined — including socioeconomic status — were significant across all three types of communities, said Paykin. There’s a lot of attention and research put into broadband gaps in rural areas, “but I think that misses a lot of what’s clearly going on in suburban and urban communities,” she said. That means lack of internet access isn’t just a rural infrastructure problem. It’s likely a problem of affordability in cities as well.

Questions remain about the why of it all

Internet access doesn’t boost your immune system or filter your air — so what’s the mechanism explaining the robust relationship between low digital connectivity and high Covid-19 death rates?

The absence of internet access in a household can signify a variety of other factors that are known to increase the risk of dying from Covid-19: old age, housing problems, or difficulty accessing quality health care. But Lin’s study accounted for these characteristics in the analysis, suggesting the lack of internet access was the real source of risk.

Lin hypothesizes that it’s all about lacking information. “If they have limited access to the internet, they rely more on their personal network or their local network to get Covid-19-related information,” she said. That may lead to being influenced by low-quality information sowing distrust in vaccines, for example. But her study wasn’t designed to show why Covid-19 deaths were more common in counties where internet access was more scarce, she says, and more research is needed to answer this question.

New funding for broadband expansion will solve some access problems but not the root cause of them

The good news here is that internet access is a problem the US government has actually allocated money to solve.

In November, Congress passed an infrastructure bill that included $65 billion in funding for broadband internet expansion. Two-thirds of the funding will support the creation of infrastructure, largely in rural parts of each state, and an additional large chunk will pay for $30 monthly subsidies to help low-income households pay for internet access.

Smaller amounts have been earmarked for programs to teach new users the tech skills they need to use the internet, programs to expand access in tribal communities, and other initiatives.

That means a lot of the new money “gets funneled toward rural areas without access to what we consider basic broadband today,” said Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative.

In many ways, that’s a good thing: Because rural communities have not been profitable areas of development for the telecommunications monopolies that serve them, infrastructure to support rural access to even the lowest-speed broadband internet has been woefully underdeveloped.

But the bill doesn’t do as much to address disparities in areas that have good infrastructure but low affordability, said Marcattilio-McCracken. Residents of many cities cannot afford an $80 monthly bill for broadband internet, even with the $30 subsidies the new funding would provide. And because the bill disincentivizes competition, urban residents will not have new internet service providers to choose from any time soon.

One of the most promising solutions to urban internet insecurity — and one the Biden administration initially wrote into the bill — is the creation of cooperative community networks. These municipally run internet service providers are able to provide higher download speeds, lower prices, and better service to city residents — plus, they are relatively uncomplicated to set up, and as easy to sign up for as, say, city-run electrical utilities, Marcattilio-McCracken said.

They do require startup funding, he said, but ultimately, these providers prioritize access over profit. “They’ve got a whole different set of motives in building an operating infrastructure, and it means building more resilient communities,” Marcattilio-McCracken said.

“Broadband internet access should be a public utility,” Benda said, especially considering the research linking access to health. It’s a need, not a privilege; that means making it as accessible and adjustable as water or electricity use, she said.

Will expanding access improve health? It’s an experiment worth conducting.

Researchers know the lack of internet access is associated with poor health outcomes, but one thing still remains to be seen: Does expanding access work as an intervention to improve health?

In the coming years, the expansion of broadband will at least provide a natural experiment to test this question. Regardless, the pandemic has shown that increasing access is essential for so many reasons.

Improving internet access now would have positive effects that last beyond the pandemic, Paykin said. Telehealth and online learning for children and adults are likely here to stay. “This almost surely won’t be our last pandemic,” she said, nor our last public health emergency. Whatever challenges may come, increased broadband internet access seems likely to help people through them.

Source : Vox

Chart: Where Governments Have the Tightest Grip on the Internet

Source : Statista

Infographic: The 20 Internet Giants That Rule the Web

See large image . . . . . .

Source : Visual Capitalist

The Internet Runs on Free Open-source Software. Who Pays to Fix It?

Patrick Howell O’Neill wrote . . . . . . . . .

Right now, Volkan Yazici is working 22 hour days for free.

Yazici is a member of the Log4J project, an open-source tool used widely to record activity inside various types of software. It helps run huge swaths of the internet, including applications ranging from iCloud to Twitter, and he and his colleagues are now desperately trying to deal with a massive vulnerability that has put billions of machines at risk.

The vulnerability in Log4J is extremely easy to exploit. After sending a malicious string of characters to a vulnerable machine, hackers can execute any code they want. Some of the earliest attacks were kids pasting the malicious code in Minecraft servers. Hackers, including some linked to China and Iran, are now seeking to exploit the vulnerability in any machine they can find that’s running the flawed code.

And there’s no clear end in sight. The Log4J issue amounts to a long-term security crisis expected to last months or years. Jen Easterly, director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, has said this is “one of the most serious flaws” she’s ever seen.

For something so important, you might expect that the world’s biggest tech firms and governments would have contracted hundreds of highly paid experts to quickly patch the flaw.

The truth is different: Log4J, which has long been a critical piece of core internet infrastructure, was founded as a volunteer project and is still run largely for free, even though many million- and billion-dollar companies rely on it and profit from it every single day. Yazici and his team are trying to fix it for next to nothing.

This strange situation is routine in the world of open-source software, programs that allow anyone to inspect, modify, and use their code. It’s a decades-old idea that has become critical to the functioning of the internet. When it goes right, open-source is a collaborative triumph. When it goes wrong, it’s a far-reaching danger.

“Open-source runs the internet and, by extension, the economy,” says Filippo Valsorda, a developer who works on open-source projects at Google. And yet, he explains, “it is extremely common even for core infrastructure projects to have a small team of maintainers, or even a single maintainer that is not paid to work on that project.”

No recognition

“The team is working around the clock,” Yazici told me by email when I first reached out to him. “And my 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. (no, there is no typo in time) shift has just ended.”

In the middle of his long days, Yazici took time to point a finger at critics, tweeting that “Log4j maintainers have been working sleeplessly on mitigation measures; fixes, docs, CVE, replies to inquiries, etc. Yet nothing is stopping people to bash us, for work we aren’t paid for, for a feature we all dislike yet needed to keep due to backward compatibility concerns.”

Before the Log4J vulnerability made this obscure but ubiquitous software into headline news, project lead Ralph Goers had a grand total of three minor sponsors backing his work. Goers, who works on Log4J on top of a full-time job, is in charge of fixing the flawed code and extinguishing the fire that’s causing millions of dollars in damage. It’s an enormous workload for a spare-time pursuit.

The underfunding of open-source software is “a systemic risk to the United States, to critical infrastructure, to banking, to finance,” says Chris Wysopal, chief technology officer at the security firm Veracode. “The open-source ecosystem is up there in importance to critical infrastructure with Linux, Windows, and the fundamental internet protocols. These are the top systemic risks to the internet.”

How has it come to this? The answer comes in the form of another question: Why would tech companies pay for something they get for free? But the immense importance of open-source software means that the status quo is increasingly seen as untenable.

“Volunteerism is unsustainable for critical infrastructure because volunteers are well within their rights to only work on the fun or interesting parts of the ‘job,’ Valsorda says. “An open-source project also needs careful testing, release engineering, issue triage, security reviews, code review of contributions—and a maintainer may find some or none of these aspects motivating in themselves.”

As pressure and critics pile on the Log4J team, old questions of fairness are being asked about the open-source world.

“Fairness is a problem,” says Ceki Gülcü, who founded Log4 . “There’s this weird imbalance, where you profit from something but you don’t give anything back.”

The public is also almost completely ignorant of the immense role—and risk—of the free-labor-powered open-source software that runs the internet. OpenSSL powers encryption, for example, and Linux is behind the most widely used operating systems on the planet, including Android.

Gülcü points to the problems of recruitment and retention on open-source projects. It’s not easy to attract and keep talent on even big projects when the compensation ranges from a fraction of what a company might pay all the way down to zero. And that can have knock-on effects for national security.

In 2018, the developer behind a popular open-source project called ua-parser-js quit, unwilling to work for free anymore. The software is used by big tech firms including Google, Amazon, and Facebook. The person who took control of ua-parser-js then hijacked the software and added malicious code to the project to steal cryptocurrency. The US Department of Homeland Security eventually issued a warning to users about the hacker at work. Despite the many thousands of developers using the software, that project had raised a paltry $41.61 in funds. The original developer, who had freely given up control to the anonymous successor, called the situation “insane.”

It is not as though top-tier software developers always dedicate years of free labor and get nothing in return, however. Gülcü, for instance, parlayed his free work on Log4J into multiple lucrative software development jobs in the finance industry.

It’s actually pretty typical for open-source work to help build a portfolio that then leads to paid jobs. In some ways the structure resembles unpaid internships in other industries—a system increasingly seen as unethical, exploitative, and unfairly advantageous to people who can afford to take on heaps of uncompensated work at the expense of those who cannot. In this way, the underfunding of open-source work may perpetuate more than just technical issues.

How to fix the status quo

The problems with this situation are at last gaining recognition.

“Tech companies, enterprises, anyone writing software is dependent on open-source,” says Wysopal. “Now there is a recognition at the highest levels of government that this is a big risk.”

Easterly and other experts say that tech companies need to improve transparency. Adopting a Software Bill of Materials, as mandated by a 2021 executive order on cybersecurity from President Joe Biden, would help both developers and users better understand what is actually vulnerable to hacking when software flaws are discovered.

Valsorda, who has managed to turn his own open-source work into a high-profile career, says that formalizing and professionalizing the relationship between developers and the big companies using their work could help. He advocates turning open-source work from a hobbyist pursuit into a professional career path so that critical infrastructure isn’t dependent on the spare time of a developer who already has a full-time job. And he argues that companies should develop systems to pay the people who maintain open-source projects their fair market value.

Some companies have already recognized the need. Google recently pledged $100 million to support open-source development and to fix vulnerabilities.

Wysopal says more has to be done to understand the health of open-source projects—Was the last update a week ago or two years ago?—and then to systematically support good projects while killing the ones that can’t be secured. Another Google project, the Open Source Technology Improvement Fund, aims to audit and improve critical open-source projects.

The fallout from the Log4J vulnerabilities is a perfect example of a larger problem, though. The flaws are in the design of the software, and so to find it, you need someone who really understands the design. Current “bug bounty” models, which pay outsiders to take a look at software and find flaws, don’t do enough to help here, because outsiders simply don’t have the financial incentive to develop that kind of deep understanding.

“This is absolutely a market failure,” says Wysopal. “We’re taking the good part of shared code, and we’re making someone else take the fall for the bad part. There has to be more funding for finding and fixing.”

Source : Technology Review

Philip Agre Predicted the Dark Side of the Internet 30 Years Ago. Why Did No One Listen?

Reed Albergotti wrote . . . . . . . . .

In 1994 — before most Americans had an email address or Internet access or even a personal computer — Philip Agre foresaw that computers would one day facilitate the mass collection of data on everything in society.

That process would change and simplify human behavior, wrote the then-UCLA humanities professor. And because that data would be collected not by a single, powerful “big brother” government but by lots of entities for lots of different purposes, he predicted that people would willingly part with massive amounts of information about their most personal fears and desires.

“Genuinely worrisome developments can seem ‘not so bad’ simply for lacking the overt horrors of Orwell’s dystopia,” wrote Agre, who has a doctorate in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an academic paper.

Nearly 30 years later, Agre’s paper seems eerily prescient, a startling vision of a future that has come to pass in the form of a data industrial complex that knows no borders and few laws. Data collected by disparate ad networks and mobile apps for myriad purposes is being used to sway elections or, in at least one case, to out a gay priest. But Agre didn’t stop there. He foresaw the authoritarian misuse of facial recognition technology, he predicted our inability to resist well-crafted disinformation and he foretold that artificial intelligence would be put to dark uses if not subjected to moral and philosophical inquiry.

Then, no one listened. Now, many of Agre’s former colleagues and friends say they’ve been thinking about him more in recent years, and rereading his work, as pitfalls of the Internet’s explosive and unchecked growth have come into relief, eroding democracy and helping to facilitate a violent uprising on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in January.

Google hired Timnit Gebru to be an outspoken critic of unethical AI. Then she was fired for it.

“We’re living in the aftermath of ignoring people like Phil,” said Marc Rotenberg, who edited a book with Agre in 1998 on technology and privacy, and is now founder and executive director for the Center for AI and Digital Policy.

Charlotte Lee, who studied under Agre as a graduate student at UCLA, and is now a professor of human-centered design and engineering at the University of Washington, said she is still studying his work and learning from it today. She said she wishes he were around to help her understand it even better.

But Agre isn’t available. In 2009, he simply dropped off the face of the earth, abandoning his position at UCLA. When friends reported Agre missing, police located him and confirmed that he was okay, but Agre never returned to the public debate. His closest friends declined to further discuss details of his disappearance, citing respect for Agre’s privacy.

Instead, many of the ideas and conclusions that Agre explored in his academic research and his writing are only recently cropping up at think tanks and nonprofits focused on holding technology companies accountable.

“I’m seeing things Phil wrote about in the ’90s being said today as though they’re new ideas,” said Christine Borgman, a professor of information studies at UCLA who helped recruit Agre for his professorship at the school.

The Washington Post sent a message to Agre’s last known email address. It bounced back. Attempts to contact his sister and other family members were unsuccessful. A dozen former colleagues and friends had no idea where Agre is living today. Some said that, as of a few years ago, he was living somewhere around Los Angeles.

Federal study confirms racial bias of many facial-recognition systems, casts doubt on their expanding use

Agre was a child math prodigy who became a popular blogger and contributor to Wired. Now he has been all but forgotten in mainstream technology circles. But his work is still regularly cited by technology researchers in academia and is considered foundational reading in the field of social informatics, or the study of the effects of computers on society.

Agre earned his doctorate at MIT in 1989, the same year the World Wide Web was invented. At that time, even among Silicon Valley venture capitalists betting on the rise of computers, few people foresaw just how deeply and quickly the computerization of everything would change life, economics or even politics.

A small group of academics, Agre included, observed that computer scientists viewed their work in a vacuum largely disconnected from the world around it. At the same time, people outside that world lacked a deep enough understanding of technology or how it was about to change their lives.

By the early 1990s, Agre came to believe the field of artificial intelligence had gone astray, and that a lack of criticism of the profession was one of the main reasons. In those early days of artificial intelligence, most people in AI were focused on complex math problems aimed at automating human tasks, with limited success. Yet the industry described the code they were writing as “intelligent,” giving it human attributes that didn’t actually exist.

His landmark 1997 paper called “Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI” is still largely considered a classic, said Geoffrey Bowker, professor emeritus of informatics at University of California at Irvine. Agre noticed that those building artificial intelligence ignored critiques of the technology from outsiders. But Agre argued criticism should be part of the process of building AI. “The conclusion is quite brilliant and has taken us as a field many years to understand. One foot planted in the craftwork in design and the other foot planted in a critique,” Bowker said.

Nevertheless, AI has barreled ahead unencumbered, weaving itself into even “low tech” industries and affecting the lives of most people who use the Internet. It guides people on what to watch and read on YouTube and Facebook, it determines sentences for convicted criminals, allows companies to automate and eliminate jobs, and allows authoritarian regimes to monitor citizens with greater efficiency and thwart attempts at democracy.

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Today’s AI, which has largely abandoned the type of work Agre and others were doing in the ’80s and ’90s, is focused on ingesting massive amounts of data and analyzing it with the world’s most powerful computers. But as the new form of AI has progressed, it has created problems — ranging from discrimination to filter bubbles to the spread of disinformation — and some academics say that is in part because it suffers from the same lack of self-criticism that Agre identified 30 years ago.

In December, Google’s firing of AI research scientist Timnit Gebru after she wrote a paper on the ethical issues facing Google’s AI efforts highlighted the continued tension over the ethics of artificial intelligence and the industry’s aversion to criticism.

“It’s such a homogenous field, and people in that field don’t see that maybe what they’re doing could be criticized,” said Sofian Audry, a professor of computational media at University of Quebec in Montreal who began as an artificial intelligence researcher. “What Agre says is that it is worthwhile and necessary that the people who develop these technologies are critical,” Audrey said.

Agre grew up in Maryland, where he said he was “constructed to be a math prodigy” by a psychologist in the region. He said in his 1997 paper that school integration led to a search for gifted and talented students. Agre later became angry at his parents for sending him off to college early and his relationship with them suffered as a result, according to a friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Agre did not give him permission to speak about his personal life.
Agre wrote that when he entered college, he wasn’t required to learn about much else other than math and “arrived in graduate school at MIT with little genuine knowledge beyond math and computers.” He took a year off graduate school to travel and read, “trying in an indiscriminate way, and on my own resources, to become an educated person,” he wrote.

Agre began to rebel, in a sense, from his profession, seeking out critics of artificial intelligence, studying philosophy and other academic disciplines. At first he found the texts “impenetrable,” he wrote, because he had trained his mind to dissect everything he read as he would a technical paper on math or computer science. “It finally occurred to me to stop translating these strange disciplinary languages into technical schemata, and instead simply to learn them on their own terms,” he wrote.

Agre’s blossoming intellectual interest took him away from computer science and transformed him into something unusual at that time: A brilliant mathematician with a deep understanding of the most advanced theories in artificial intelligence, who could also step outside of that realm and look at it critically from the perspective of an outsider.

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For this reason, Agre became a sought-after academic. Several former colleagues told stories about Agre’s insatiable appetite on books from across the academic and popular landscape, piled high in his office or in the library. He became known for his original thinking that was buoyed by his widespread curiosity.

“He was a very enlightening person to think with — someone you would want to have a meal with at every opportunity,” Borgman said.

Agre combined his understanding of the humanities and technology to dissect the impact technology would have on society as it progressed. Today, many of his analyses read like predictions come true.

In a 1994 paper, published a year before the launches of Yahoo, Amazon and eBay, Agre foresaw that computers could facilitate the mass collection of data on everything in society, and that people would overlook the privacy concerns because, rather than “big brother” collecting data to surveil citizens, it would be many different entities collecting the data for lots of purposes, some good and some problematic.

More profoundly, though, Agre wrote in the paper that the mass collection of data would change and simplify human behavior to make it easier to quantify. That has happened on a scale few people could have imagined, as social media and other online networks have corralled human interactions into easily quantifiable metrics, such as being friends or not, liking or not, a follower or someone who is followed. And the data generated by those interactions has been used to further shape behavior, by targeting messages meant to manipulate people psychologically.

In 2001, he wrote that “your face is not a bar code,” arguing against the use of facial recognition in public places. In the article, he predicted that, if the technology continued to develop in the West, it would eventually be adopted elsewhere, allowing, for instance, the Chinese government to track everyone inside its country within 20 years.

Twenty years later, a debate is raging in the United States over the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and immigration officials, and some states have begun to ban the technology in public places. Despite outcry, it may be too late to curtail the proliferation of the technology. China, as Agre predicted, has already begun employing it on a mass scale, allowing an unprecedented level of surveillance by the Communist Party.

Agre brought his work into the mainstream with an Internet mailing list called the Red Rock Eater News Service, named after a joke in Bennett Cerf’s “Book of Riddles.” It’s considered an early example of what would eventually become blogs.

Agre was also, at times, deeply frustrated with the limitations of his work, which was so far ahead of its time that it went unheeded until 25 years later. “He felt that people didn’t get what he was saying. He was writing for an audience of the benighted and the benighted were unable to understand what he was saying,” Bowker said.

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“He was certainly frustrated that there wasn’t more uptake. But people who are a generation ahead of themselves, they’re always a generation ahead of themselves,” Borgman said.

Agre’s final project was what friends and colleagues colloquially called “The Bible of the Internet,” a definitive book that would dissect the foundations of the Internet from the ground up. But he never finished it.

Agre resurfaces from time to time, according to a former colleague, but has not been seen in years.

“Why do certain kinds of insightful scholars or even people with such an insightful understanding of some field essentially throw their arms in the air and go, I’m done with this?” asked Simon Penny, a professor of fine arts at University of California at Irvine who has studied Agre’s work extensively. “Psychologically people have these breaks. It’s a big question. Who goes on and why? Who continues to be engaged in some sort of battle, some sort of intellectual project and at what point do they go, I’m done? Or say, ‘This is not relevant to me anymore and I’ve see the error of my ways.’”

Several years ago, former colleagues at UCLA attempted to put together a collection of his work, but Agre resurfaced, telling them to stop.

Agre’s life’s work was left uncompleted, questions posed but unanswered. John Seberger, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Informatics at Indiana University who has studied Agre’s work extensively, said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Seberger said Agre’s work offers a way of thinking about the problems that face an increasingly digital society. But today, more than a decade after Agre’s disappearance, the problems are more clearly understood and there are more people studying them.

“Especially right now when we are dealing with profound social unrest, the possibility to involve more diverse groups of scholars in answering these questions that he left unanswered can only benefit us,” he said.

Source : The Washington Post

Infographic: What Happens in an Internet Minute In 2021?

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Source : Visual Capitalist