Tags: ethics

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Saturday, November 10th, 2018

Webmentions at Indie Web Camp Berlin

I was in Berlin for most of last week, and every day was packed with activity:

By the time I got back to Brighton, my brain was full …just in time for FF Conf.

All of the events were very different, but equally enjoyable. It was also quite nice to just attend events without speaking at them.

Indie Web Camp Berlin was terrific. There was an excellent turnout, and once again, I found that the format was just right: a day of discussions (BarCamp style) followed by a day of doing (coding, designing, hacking). I got very inspired on the first day, so I was raring to go on the second.

What I like to do on the second day is try to complete two tasks; one that’s fairly straightforward, and one that’s a bit tougher. That way, when it comes time to demo at the end of the day, even if I haven’t managed to complete the tougher one, I’ll still be able to demo the simpler one.

In this case, the tougher one was also tricky to demo. It involved a lot of invisible behind-the-scenes plumbing. I was tweaking my webmention endpoint (stop sniggering—tweaking your endpoint is no laughing matter).

Up until now, I could handle straightforward webmentions, and I could handle updates (if I receive more than one webmention from the same link, I check it each time). But I needed to also handle deletions.

The spec is quite clear on this. A 404 isn’t enough to trigger a deletion—that might be a temporary state. But a status of 410 Gone indicates that a resource was once here but has since been deliberately removed. In that situation, any stored webmentions for that link should also be removed.

Anyway, I think I got it working, but it’s tricky to test and even trickier to demo. “Not to worry”, I thought, “I’ve always got my simpler task.”

For that, I chose to add a little map to my homepage showing the last location I published something from. I’ve been geotagging all my content for years (journal entries, notes, links, articles), but not really doing anything with that data. This is a first step to doing something interesting with many years of location data.

I’ve got it working now, but the demo gods really weren’t with me at Indie Web Camp. Both of my demos failed. The webmention demo failed quite embarrassingly.

As well as handling deletions, I also wanted to handle updates where a URL that once linked to a post of mine no longer does. Just to be clear, the URL still exists—it’s not 404 or 410—but it has been updated to remove the original link back to one of my posts. I know this sounds like another very theoretical situation, but I’ve actually got an example of it on my very first webmention test post from five years ago. Believe it or not, there’s an escort agency in Nottingham that’s using webmention as a vector for spam. They post something that does link to my test post, send a webmention, and then remove the link to my test post. I almost admire their dedication.

Still, I wanted to foil this particular situation so I thought I had updated my code to handle it. Alas, when it came time to demo this, I was using someone else’s computer, and in my attempt to right-click and copy the URL of the spam link …I accidentally triggered it. In front of a room full of people. It was midly NSFW, but more worryingly, a potential Code Of Conduct violation. I’m very sorry about that.

Apart from the humiliating demo, I thoroughly enjoyed Indie Web Camp, and I’m going to keep adjusting my webmention endpoint. There was a terrific discussion around the ethical implications of storing webmentions, led by Sebastian, based on his epic post from earlier this year.

We established early in the discussion that we weren’t going to try to solve legal questions—like GDPR “compliance”, which varies depending on which lawyer you talk to—but rather try to figure out what the right thing to do is.

Earlier that day, during the introductions, I quite happily showed webmentions in action on my site. I pointed out that my last blog post had received a response from another site, and because that response was marked up as an h-entry, I displayed it in full on my site. I thought this was all hunky-dory, but now this discussion around privacy made me question some inferences I was making:

  1. By receiving a webention in the first place, I was inferring a willingness for the link to be made public. That’s not necessarily true, as someone pointed out: a CMS could be automatically sending webmentions, which the author might be unaware of.
  2. If the linking post is marked up in h-entry, I was inferring a willingness for the content to be republished. Again, not necessarily true.

That second inferrence of mine—that publishing in a particular format somehow grants permissions—actually has an interesting precedent: Google AMP. Simply by including the Google AMP script on a web page, you are implicitly giving Google permission to store a complete copy of that page and serve it from their servers instead of sending people to your site. No terms and conditions. No checkbox ticked. No “I agree” button pressed.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, when it comes to my own processing of webmentions, I’m going to take some of the suggestions from the discussion on board. There are certain signals I could be looking for in the linking post:

  • Does it include a link to a licence?
  • Is there a restrictive robots.txt file?
  • Are there meta declarations that say noindex?

Each one of these could help to infer whether or not I should be publishing a webmention or not. I quickly realised that what we’re talking about here is an algorithm.

Despite its current usage to mean “magic”, an algorithm is a recipe. It’s a series of steps that contribute to a decision point. The problem is that, in the case of silos like Facebook or Instagram, the algorithms are secret (which probably contributes to their aura of magical thinking). If I’m going to write an algorithm that handles other people’s information, I don’t want to make that mistake. Whatever steps I end up codifying in my webmention endpoint, I’ll be sure to document them publicly.

Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Google Walkout Organizers Explain Their Demands

This instance of collective action from inside a tech company is important, not just for the specifics of Google, but in acting as an example to workers in other companies.

And of all the demands, this is the one that could have the biggest effect in the US tech world:

An end to Forced Arbitration.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Escape from Spiderhead | The New Yorker

Madeline sent me a link to this short story from 2010, saying:

It’s like if Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon wrote an episode of Black Mirror. I think you’ll like it!

Yes, and yes.

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

Good Tech Conf | Using technology for social good

This looks like a really interesting two-day event here in Brighton in November. Like Indie Web Camp, it features one day of talks followed by one day of making.

After a day of tech talks from project teams using their skills for social good, you’ll have the chance to take part in workshops and hackathons to use your own talents for a worthy cause.

And you get to go up the i360.

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

Changing Our Approach to Anti-tracking - Future Releases

This is excellent news from Mozilla. Firefox is going to make it easier to block vampiric privacy-leeching and performance-draining third-party scripts and trackers.

In the physical world, users wouldn’t expect hundreds of vendors to follow them from store to store, spying on the products they look at or purchase. Users have the same expectations of privacy on the web, and yet in reality, they are tracked wherever they go.

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Unchained: A story of love, loss, and blockchain - MIT Technology Review

A near-future sci-fi short by Hannu Rajaniemi that’s right on the zeitgest money.

The app in her AR glasses showed the car icon crawling along the winding forest road. In a few minutes, it would reach the sharp right turn where the road met the lake. The turn was marked by a road sign she had carefully defaced the previous day, with tiny dabs of white paint. Nearly invisible to a human, they nevertheless fooled image recognition nets into classifying the sign as a tree.

Tuesday, June 26th, 2018

Untold AI: The Untold | Sci-fi interfaces

Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.

And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?

Tuesday, June 19th, 2018

A Book Apart, We’re donating 25% profits to RAICES

What’s happening right now at the US border is heartbreaking and inexcusable. We’re donating 25% of all profits today and tomorrow (June 19 & 20) to RAICES, to help reunite detained immigrant parents and children.

[Essay] Known Unknowns | New Dark Age by James Bridle | Harper’s Magazine

A terrific cautionary look at the history of machine learning and artificial intelligence from the new laugh-a-minute book by James.

Saturday, June 16th, 2018

Artificial Intelligence for more human interfaces | Christian Heilmann

An even-handed assessment of the benefits and dangers of machine learning.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

The Amish understand a life-changing truth about technology the rest of us don’t — Quartz

The headline is terrible but this interview is an insightful look at evaluating technology.

I remember Kevin Kelly referring to the Amish as “slow geeks”, and remarking that we could all become a little more amish-ish.

It’s not that the Amish view technology as inherently evil. No rules prohibit them from using new inventions. But they carefully consider how each one will change their culture before embracing it. And the best clue as to what will happen comes from watching their neighbors.

Superfan! — Sacha Judd

The transcript of a talk that is fantastic in every sense.

Fans are organised, motivated, creative, technical, and frankly flat-out awe-inspiring.

Monday, May 21st, 2018

Google Duplex and the canny rise: a UX pattern – UX Collective

Chris weighs up the ethical implications of Google Duplex:

The social hacking that could be accomplished is mind-boggling. For this reason, I expect that having human-sounding narrow AI will be illegal someday. The Duplex demo is a moment of cultural clarity, where it first dawned on us that we can do it, but with only a few exceptions, we shouldn’t.

But he also offers alternatives for designing systems like this:

  1. Provide disclosure, and
  2. Design a hot signal:

…design the interface so that it is unmistakeable that it is synthetic. This way, even if the listener missed or misunderstood the disclosure, there is an ongoing signal that reinforces the idea. As designer Ben Sauer puts it, make it “Humane, not human.”

Pi-hole®: A black hole for Internet advertisements

This looks like a terrific use of a Raspberry Pi—blocking adtech surveillance at the network level.

Wouldn’t it be great if the clichéd going-home-for-Christmas/Thanksgiving to fix the printer/wifi included setting up one of these?

There’s an article about Pi-hole in Business Week where the creators offer some advice for those who equate any kind of online advertising with ubiquitous surveillance:

For publishers struggling to survive even with maximum ad surveillance, the Pi-hole team recommends a renewed focus on subscriptions, affiliate links, and curated endorsements for products and services that might truly interest users, similar to the way podcast hosts may talk about how much they personally enjoy a sponsor’s products. There’s nothing wrong with pitching people stuff they might enjoy, the team says. It’s just the constant, ever-intensifying surveillance that needs to stop.

Thursday, May 10th, 2018

Kumiho. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan shares my reaction to Google Duplex:

Frankly, this technology was designed to deceive humans.

And he points out that the team’s priorities are very revealing:

I’ll say this: it’s telling that matters of transparency, disclosure, and trust weren’t considered important for the initial release.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Google Duplicitous

I can’t recall the last time I was so creeped out by a technology as I am by Google Duplex—the AI that can make reservations over the phone by pretending to be a human.

I’m not sure what’s disturbing me more: the technology itself, or the excited reaction of tech bros who can’t wait to try it.

Thing is …when these people talk about being excited to try it, I’m pretty sure they are only thinking of trying it as a caller, not a callee. They aren’t imagining that they could possibly be one of the people on the other end of one of those calls.

The visionaries of technology—Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R Licklider—have always recognised the potential for computers to augment humanity, to be bicycles for the mind. I think they would be horrified to see the increasing trend of using humans to augment computers.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Why Silicon Valley can’t fix itself

Backlash backlash:

The nature of human nature is that it changes. It can not, therefore, serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be.

Saturday, April 28th, 2018

An Apology for the Internet — From the People Who Built It

A hand-wringing, finger-pointing litany of hindsight, published with 11 tracking scripts attached.

  1. Start With Hippie Good Intentions …
  2. … Then mix in capitalism on steroids.
  3. The arrival of Wall Streeters didn’t help …
  4. … And we paid a high price for keeping it free.
  5. Everything was designed to be really, really addictive.
  6. At first, it worked — almost too well.
  7. No one from Silicon Valley was held accountable …
  8. … Even as social networks became dangerous and toxic.
  9. … And even as they invaded our privacy.
  10. Then came 2016.
  11. Employees are starting to revolt.
  12. To fix it, we’ll need a new business model …
  13. … And some tough regulation.
  14. Maybe nothing will change.
  15. … Unless, at the very least, some new people are in charge.

Monday, April 23rd, 2018

Spinning jenny. — Ethan Marcotte

During the Industrial Revolution, as new machines were invented to increase output, business owners often dreamed of an entirely automated workforce—of a factory without workers. I assume their workers had different dreams.

Ethan thinks through the ethical implications of increasing automation and efficiency über alles:

I can’t stop thinking about how much automation has changed our industry already. And I know the rate of automation is only going to accelerate from here.

At the very least, maybe it’s worth asking ourselves what might happen next.

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

Fantasies of the Future: Design in a World Being Eaten by Software / Paul Robert Lloyd

The transcript of a terrific talk by Paul, calling for a more thoughtful, questioning approach to digital design. It covers the issues I’ve raised about Booking.com’s dark patterns and a post I linked to a while back about the shifting priorities of designers working at scale.

Drawing inspiration from architectural practice, its successes and failures, I question the role of design in a world being eaten by software. When the prevailing technocratic culture permits the creation of products that undermine and exploit users, who will protect citizens within the digital spaces they now inhabit?