RSS is back. Again. Except it isn’t.

I’ve always used RSS readers to keep up-to-date with what my favourite websites are publishing. It’s just easier and quicker than checking them all individually. Yes I was sad to see Google Reader go in 2013for me that was more useful than Gmailbut moved on to Feedbin, then Feedly, and have been happily skimming the web there ever since.

I’ve not met anyone IRL that uses RSS, or even knows what I’m talking about. So when the tech pundits are saying RSS is back, was it ever here in the first place?

Here’s Thomas Ricker from The Verge back in 2015, trying to big-up RSS.

You can have your ad blockers, I’ll stick with RSS
RSS has never been fashionable — it’s always been a news gathering tool for nerds, not norms. But now, more than two years after the untimely demise of Google Reader, RSS almost feels cool — like listening to vinyl or hating things on Twitter.

One of the benefits of reading websites via their feeds is the lack of ads cluttering up the place.

With interest so low, RSS users like me can fly under the radar, quickly consuming vast quantities of news almost completely devoid of ads. Sure, some sites only feed headlines and a few choice blurbs, but many publish the entire content of their stories. Regardless, it’s still the best solution I’ve found for keeping up with news.

Three years later and here we are again. The emphasis isn’t on getting past the ads this time, but on avoiding the algorithm.

It’s time for an RSS revival
The modern web contains no shortage of horrors, from ubiquitous ad trackers to all-consuming platforms to YouTube comments, generally. Unfortunately, there’s no panacea for what ails this internet we’ve built. But anyone weary of black-box algorithms controlling what you see online at least has a respite, one that’s been there all along but has often gone ignored. Tired of Twitter? Facebook fatigued? It’s time to head back to RSS.

[…]

“There are multiple approaches to connecting to news. Social felt pretty interesting at first, but when you mix social and algorithmic, you can easily get into these noise bubbles, or areas where you don’t necessarily feel 100 percent in control of the algorithm,” says Edwin Khodabakchian, cofounder and CEO of popular RSS reader Feedly. “A tool like Feedly gives you a more transparent and controllable way to connect to the information you need.”

Wired’s call for a revival might be a little over-optimistic. Here’s TechCruch’s view.

RSS is undead
Don’t get me wrong, I love RSS. At its core, it is a beautiful manifestation of some of the most visionary principles of the internet, namely transparency and openness. The protocol really is simple and human-readable. It feels like how the internet was originally designed with static, full-text articles in HTML. Perhaps most importantly, it is decentralized, with no power structure trying to stuff other content in front of your face.

It’s wonderfully idealistic, but the reality of RSS is that it lacks the features required by nearly every actor in the modern content ecosystem, and I would strongly suspect that its return is not forthcoming.

Using RSS readers is seen as a way of taking back control over the updates you’re presented with, rather than relying on social media algorithms. Ben Evans has a great rundown of where Facebook’s algorithmic newsfeed came from and why it’s so difficult to get right. Say you ‘friend’ 200 or 300 people, “and each of them post a couple of pictures, tap like on a few news stories or comment a couple of times, then, by the inexorable law of multiplication, yes, you will have something over a thousand new items in your feed every single day.” …

The death of the newsfeed
This overload means it now makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back. If you have 1,500 or 3,000 items a day, then the chronological feed is actually just the items you can be bothered to scroll through before giving up, which can only be 10% or 20% of what’s actually there. This will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. It’s not so much chronological in any useful sense as a random sample, where the randomizer is simply whatever time you yourself happen to open the app. ’What did any of the 300 people that I friended in the last 5 years post between 16:32 and 17:03?’ Meanwhile, giving us detailed manual controls and filters makes little more sense – the entire history of the tech industry tells us that actual normal people would never use them, even if they worked. People don’t file.

This is the logic that led Facebook inexorably to the ‘algorithmic feed’.

 

Well I still like my Windows Phone. Mostly.

I’m fully aware that, by being a Windows Phone user, I’ve been backing the losing horse in what’s turned out to be a two—not three—horse race, but for the most part I still enjoy having it. Yes, the lack of key apps is a nuisance sometimes, and yes, it would be nice if the OS was a little more reliable, but there were many positives to the platform. Tom Warren from The Verge outlines a few of them, as well as some of the possible consequences of this reduction in mobile phone competition.

I miss Windows Phone
Windows Phone debuted in 2010 with Microsoft’s Metro design philosophy, and a focus on glancing at your phone for information instead of digging in and out of apps. Two obvious features I miss from Windows Phone’s Metro design are the dark mode and Live Tiles. … Live Tiles were one of Windows Phone’s most unique features. They enabled apps to show information on the home screen, similar to the widgets found on Android and iOS. You could almost pin anything useful to the home screen, and Live Tiles animated beautifully to flip over and provide tiny nuggets of information that made your phone feel far more personal and alive. I’m hopeful that Apple will eventually take the Live Tiles concept, or even one that was designed for iOS 8, and bring it to the iPhone. Widgets just aren’t enough. Rumors suggest Apple is planning to refresh the iOS home screen soon, so there’s hope that iOS might move away from its static and dull home screen.

Really New Windows Phone Ad

Microsoft’s next move

A fascinating glimpse from Ben Thompson into how a change in management at Microsoft led to a change in priorities, organisation and culture.

The end of Windows
That wasn’t the only news that week: Microsoft also renamed its cloud service from Windows Azure to Microsoft Azure. The name change was an obvious one — by then customers could already run a whole host of non-Windows related software, including Linux — but the symbolism tied in perfectly with the Office on iPad announcement: Windows wouldn’t be forced onto Microsoft’s future.

[…]

That summer Nadella undertook his first reorganization, separating the company into three divisions: Cloud and Enterprise, Applications and Services, and Windows and Devices. … I believe this reorganization was the turning point: not only were the two teams Nadella announced last week basically formed at this time, but more importantly, Windows was left to fend for itself.

Whilst it seems an obvious move — and the article notes the company’s rising stock price since the new CEO took over — it ends on a cautionary note.

This, then, is Nadella’s next challenge: to understand that Windows is not and will not drive future growth is one thing; identifying future drivers of said growth is another. Even in its division Windows remains the best thing Microsoft has going — it had such a powerful hold on Microsoft’s culture precisely because it was so successful.

GDPR and a Digital Protection Agency?

Ok, I know I said that I’ll stop reading articles about personal data abuses, but they just keep coming.

Silicon Valley has failed to protect our data. Here’s how to fix it
What’s been unfolding for a while now is a rolling catastrophe so obvious we forget it’s happening. Private data are spilling out of banks, credit-rating providers, email providers, and social networks and ending up everywhere.

[…]

Given that the federal government is currently one angry man with nuclear weapons and a Twitter account, and that it’s futile to expect reform or self-regulation from internet giants, I’d like to propose something that will seem impossible but I would argue isn’t: Let’s make a digital Environmental Protection Agency. Call it the Digital Protection Agency. Its job would be to clean up toxic data spills, educate the public, and calibrate and levy fines.

That sounds like a very sensible, pragmatic and effective approach, so it’s obviously going to be ignored. It was interesting reading that after hearing about another data breach yesterday, this time with a fitness app. It seems the company dealt with it appropriately though. This time.

The MyFitnessPal hack may affect 150 million people. It could’ve been even worse.
Under Armour and MyFitnessPal seem to have some good data practices in place: Payment information was kept separate from general user information, which was stored separately from user-uploaded app data. Under Armour also appears to have reacted swiftly once it learned of the breach and notified users and the public a few days later—a stark comparison to other companies, such as Uber, which hid its 2016 data breach by paying off the hackers. Still, it’s an important reminder that being hacked isn’t a matter of if—it’s when.

What will these companies make of the GDPR, I wonder.

WTF is GDPR?
Last year the company [Facebook] told us it had assembled “the largest cross functional team” in the history of its family of companies to support GDPR compliance — specifying this included “senior executives from all product teams, designers and user experience/testing executives, policy executives, legal executives and executives from each of the Facebook family of companies”.

“Dozens of people at Facebook Ireland are working full time on this effort,” it said, noting too that the data protection team at its European HQ (in Dublin, Ireland) would be growing by 250% in 2017. It also said it was in the process of hiring a “top quality data protection officer” — a position the company appears to still be taking applications for.

And this.

How Europe’s new privacy rule is reshaping the internet
Much of the GDPR builds on rules set by earlier EU privacy measures like the Privacy Shield and Data Protection Directive, but it expands on those measures in two crucial ways. First, the GDPR sets a higher bar for obtaining personal data than we’ve ever seen on the internet before. By default, any time a company collects personal data on an EU citizen, it will need explicit and informed consent from that person. Users also need a way to revoke that consent, and they can request all the data a company has from them as a way to verify that consent. It’s a lot stronger than existing requirements, and it explicitly extends to companies based outside the EU. For an industry that’s used to collecting and sharing data with little to no restriction, that means rewriting the rules of how ads are targeted online.

They know everything about us, and that’s ok?

I really need to stop reading articles about how our personal data is being used and abused by seemingly everyone on the internet. Nothing good can come from going over the same bad news. These from The Guardian are the last ones, I promise.

Why have we given up our privacy to Facebook and other sites so willingly?
If you think you’re a passive user of Facebook, minimising the data you provide to the site or refraining from oversharing details of your life, you have probably underestimated the scope of its reach. Facebook doesn’t just learn from the pictures you post, and the comments you leave: the site learns from which posts you read and which you don’t; it learns from when you stop scrolling down your feed and how long it takes you to restart; it learns from your browsing on other websites that have nothing to do with Facebook itself; and it even learns from the messages you type out then delete before sending (the company published an academic paper on this “self-censorship” back in 2013).

[…]

Lukasz Olejnik, an independent security and privacy researcher, agrees: “Years ago, people and organisations used to shift the blame on the users, even in public. This blaming is unfortunate, because expecting users to be subject-matter experts and versed in the obscure technical aspects is misguided.

“Blaming users is an oversimplification, as most do not understand the true implications when data are shared – they cannot. You can’t expect people to fully appreciate the amount of information extracted from aggregated datasets. That said, you can’t expect users to know what is really happening with their data if it’s not clearly communicated in an informed consent prompt, which should in some cases include also the consequences of hitting ‘I agree’.”

So what kind of data are we talking about? What are we sharing? Everything from where we’ve been, what we’ve ever watched or searched for, to even what we’ve deleted.

Are you ready? This is all the data Facebook and Google have on you
This information has millions of nefarious uses. You say you’re not a terrorist. Then how come you were googling Isis? Work at Google and you’re suspicious of your wife? Perfect, just look up her location and search history for the last 10 years. Manage to gain access to someone’s Google account? Perfect, you have a chronological diary of everything that person has done for the last 10 years.

This is one of the craziest things about the modern age. We would never let the government or a corporation put cameras/microphones in our homes or location trackers on us. But we just went ahead and did it ourselves because – to hell with it! – I want to watch cute dog videos.

And texts and calls too.

Facebook logs SMS texts and calls, users find as they delete accounts
Facebook makes it hard for users to delete their accounts, instead pushing them towards “deactivation”, which leaves all personal data on the company’s servers. When users ask to permanently delete their accounts, the company suggests: “You may want to download a copy of your info from Facebook.” It is this data dump that reveals the extent of Facebook’s data harvesting – surprising even for a company known to gather huge quantities of personal information.

So what can be done?

Beware the smart toaster: 18 tips for surviving the surveillance age
Just over a week ago, the Observer broke a story about how Facebook had failed to protect the personal information of tens of millions of its users. The revelations sparked a #DeleteFacebook movement and some people downloaded their Facebook data before removing themselves from the social network. During this process, many of these users were shocked to see just how much intel about them the internet behemoth had accumulated. If you use Facebook apps on Android, for example – and, even inadvertently, gave it permission – it seems the company has been collecting your call and text data for years.

It’s not me, it’s you! So Facebook protested, in the wake of widespread anger about its data-collection practices. You acquiesced to our opaque privacy policies. You agreed to let us mine and monetise the minutiae of your existence. Why are you so upset?

Most of the tips the article lists fail to really address the issues above, as they are more about how to secure your accounts from hackers, rather than dealing with Facebook and Google intrusions and opaque consent agreements. But a couple are worth highlighting.

12. Sometimes it’s worth just wiping everything and starting over
Your phone, your tweets, your Facebook account: all of these things are temporary. They will pass. Free yourself from an obsession with digital hoarding. If you wipe your phone every year, you learn which apps you need and which are just sitting in the background hoovering up data. If you wipe your Facebook account every year, you learn which friends you actually like and which are just hanging on to your social life like a barnacle.

[…]

18. Finally, remember your privacy is worth protecting
You might not have anything to hide (except your embarrassing Netflix history) but that doesn’t mean you should be blase about your privacy. Increasingly, our inner lives are being reduced to a series of data points; every little thing we do is for sale. As we’re starting to see, this nonstop surveillance changes us. It influences the things we buy and the ideas we buy into. Being more mindful of our online behaviour, then, isn’t just important when it comes to protecting our information, it’s essential to protecting our individuality.

Socialschadenfreude

I’m enjoying reading about the mess Facebook is in, with the Cambridge Analytica scandal. We all like to see successful things in trouble, I guess.

Remember when the ‘fake news’ style of direct marketing first hit Facebook by storm, allowing Trump to win the presidency? This first article from 2016 explains how these highly personalised posts worked.

Cambridge Analytica and the secret agenda of a Facebook quiz
In this election, dark posts were used to try to suppress the African-American vote. According to Bloomberg, the Trump campaign sent ads reminding certain selected black voters of Hillary Clinton’s infamous “super predator” line. It targeted Miami’s Little Haiti neighborhood with messages about the Clinton Foundation’s troubles in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. Federal Election Commission rules are unclear when it comes to Facebook posts, but even if they do apply and the facts are skewed and the dog whistles loud, the already weakening power of social opprobrium is gone when no one else sees the ad you see — and no one else sees “I’m Donald Trump, and I approved this message.”

It turns out those staggeringly large datasets were obtained in a somewhat underhand way.

How Trump consultants exploited the Facebook data of millions
So the firm harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission, according to former Cambridge employees, associates and documents, making it one of the largest data leaks in the social network’s history. The breach allowed the company to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned its work on President Trump’s campaign in 2016.

Surprise surprise, the company as a whole is far from ethical.

Trump’s election consultants filmed saying they use bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians
An undercover investigation by Channel 4 News reveals how Cambridge Analytica secretly campaigns in elections across the world. Bosses were filmed talking about using bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers.

And so the powers that be are wanting answers.

Cambridge Analytica: Facebook boss summoned over data claims
In a letter to Mr Zuckerberg, Mr Collins accused Facebook of giving answers “misleading to the Committee” at a previous hearing which asked whether information had been taken without users’ consent.

He said it was “now time to hear from a senior Facebook executive with the sufficient authority to give an accurate account of this catastrophic failure of process”.

Requesting a response to the letter by 26 March, the MP added: “Given your commitment at the start of the New Year to “fixing” Facebook, I hope that this representative will be you.”

Here’s someone willing to help.

Facebook whistleblower gives evidence to MPs on Cambridge Analytica row
Sandy Parakilas, who has claimed covert harvesting was routine at the social network, told the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee Facebook did not do enough to prevent, identify – or act upon – data breaches

But so far nothing.

Where is Mark Zuckerberg?
That is the most prevalent question from people following Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, the data firm Trump hired to help with his 2016 presidential campaign. Over the weekend, we learned that Cambridge Analytica collected data from some 50 million Facebook users without their consent back in 2015, a revelation that has led to a public outcry about Facebook’s data policies, a tanking stock price and fear of increased regulation.

What can we do? How should we respond to all this? #DeleteFacebook?

WhatsApp co-founder tells everyone to delete Facebook
The tweet came after a bruising five-day period for Facebook that has seen regulators swarm and its stock price plunge following concerns over data privacy in the wake of revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of user data.

Hating Facebook’s easy. Deleting everything, not so much.

You want to quit Facebook, but will you really click the button? These folks tried.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, 68 percent of U.S. adults use Facebook, three quarters of them checking the platform daily. When Facebook reaches a moment of crisis — and it has had a lot of them recently — there’s a wave of users who wonder why they are on the platform in the first place. With the news late last week that Facebook had suspended the data firm Cambridge Analytica for improperly collecting data from Facebook users, this viral discussion about quitting for good has started once again.

[…]

But the idea of quitting always seems to spread further than the follow-through. Even as we learn more about what Facebook does to us, that knowledge comes into conflict with what Facebook has grown to do for us. For many, that moment of hovering over the deactivate button feels a lot like trying to leave a store that’s giving away candy.

If only we all did this earlier.

Should I delete Facebook? The Cambridge Analytica files explained
To avoid this kind of data breach being used to target you, you need to be very careful about the data permissions you give to your connected apps – but even if you do that, you’re still at risk of your friends offering your data to third parties when they give their apps certain permissions. Highly personalised adverts are probably on your feed already.

So should you delete your Facebook account? Let’s hear from Theresa Hong again. “Without Facebook”, the Trump campaigner said last year, “we wouldn’t have won.”

You have your answer.

But perhaps there’s no need to worry, because we don’t really care about any of this, after all.

The only privacy policy that matters
Do you care? We’ve gone so far down the internet highway that we rarely ask that question anymore. But it’s still pertinent. Do you care that your privacy has been, and will be, repeatedly invaded — and that anything you share (willingly or otherwise) on the internet can and will be used against you?

I think I know the answer. I don’t have access to your information. I didn’t pose as an academic to download a treasure trove of social media data. I haven’t coded a programmatic advertising platform aimed at enabling a pair of machines to automatically decide which marketing messages you’ll be more receptive to at any given moment. And yet, just by sharing this medium with you, I feel I know you well enough to know your answer.

You don’t give a shit.

Caught out by their own documents #2

Dutch Data Protection Authority accidentally leaked its employees’ data
“When it comes to data leaks, the same procedures apply to all parties, including us,” Gras added. Still, Gras insisted that the blunder in question was relatively mild and did not require any formal notification.

“A data breach must be reported if it leads to serious adverse consequences for the protection of personal data, or if there is a significant chance that this will happen,” she stated.

So it appears that the leak was too insignificant to necessitate reporting it to themselves.

PDF problems again…

Back under the bonnet

Russell Davies on the backward steps we’ve taken with how we relate to the web.

Let’s make the grimy architecture of the web visible again
And, for a while, domain names and URLs became part of the fun of the web. While the more commercial parts of town got excited about the money changing hands for cars.com, the bohemian quarters were creating baroque constructions like del.icio.us or mucking about with ridiculously domains. I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as when I realised I could buy agoodplaceforacupofteaandathink.com. Surely, I thought, this must already have been snapped up. And then the URL shorteners arrived.

[…]

It’s increasingly apparent that a more digitally literate citizenry would be good for a thousand different reasons. A great way to start would be to make URLs visible again, to let people see the infrastructure they’re living in. Perhaps it’s time for some pro-URL sloganising: Beneath The Shorteners, The Web!

Agreed. Another example of this has been prevalent in TV and radio advertising for a while now — adverts ending with calls to search specific keywords or hashtags, rather than directing potential customers to web addresses. As well as reinforcing this move to de-emphasise URLs, dumbing-down the internet and creating more reliance on search engines, it can also work against those companies themselves.

The lunacy of search term CTAs in TV ads
Additionally, it is very difficult to dominate page one of the search results for those generic terms. Taking the Mini Original commercial shown above, the search query they told viewers to search for online was ‘New Original’. When conducting this search on Google, the first page of results are no where near dominated by Mini. As you can see from the screenshot below, seven of the listings are nothing to do with the car.

From mighty oaks, little acorns grew

The hulking, retro computers that made way for your iPhone
His delightful images present every dial, button and screen in exquisite detail. The computers in Guide to Computing are quaint—slow and stodgy by today’s standards—yet fascinating. They are the precursor to the machines so central to your life. Appreciate their importance, but also their beauty.

Beautiful examples of relatively recent objects that we just don’t see any more. They may as well be from the pyramids.

Guide to Computing
This wonderful series of historic computers documents the evolution of design within computing history. Featuring such famous machines as the IBM 1401 and Alan Turing’s Pilot ACE and the Xerox Alto; Guide to Computing showcases a minimalist approach to design that precedes even Apple’s contemporary motifs.

IBM2401