Friday round-up: A week in tech (30/11/18)

Regular followers of this round-up may have noticed that I have implied on occasion that popular time-wasting exercise Facebook is run like some kind of vast international crime network.

Well, wouldn’t you know – now it’s official (sort of)!

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Appearing before a truly global hearing, and filling the giant and ominous gap left by elusive el capo Don Zuckerberg, Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice-president of policy solutions, was told by MP Paul Farrelly that the thought that occurred to him was ‘racketeering’. Ouch.

Featuring inquisitive politicians from nine countries, and following the unprecedented seizure of a nest of Facebook documents by MPs on Monday, the committee grilled fall-guy-for-the-day Lord Allan – but were enraged and astonished by the continuing absence of boss M Zuckerberg.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee tweeted: ‘9 countries. 24 official representatives. 447 million people represented. One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?’

Where indeed. Ecuadorian embassy?

Canadian politician Charlie Angus joined in the fun, telling Lord Allan that ‘We’ve never seen anything quite like Facebook, where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions…seem to have been upended by frat-boy billionaires from California’.

Well, quite.

So, what’s going on? Well, as you probably know by now, Facebook has an interesting relationship with its users’ data, and the fuss can really be distilled into a few words: Cambridge Analytica, Brexit, Trump, Russia.

And the event’s big reveal? Discovered amongst the seized documents was an email from all the way back in 2014 in which a Facebook engineer reported that huge amounts of user data were being pulled from the social network by Russian IP addresses.

Lord Allan didn’t seem to know much about any of this mischief and said he’d get back with more info. However, since then Facebook has said it looked into the matter at the time and ‘found no evidence of specific Russian activity’. Right.

In fact, Lord Allan didn’t seem to know much at all. He couldn’t name a single instance of his firm banning apps for breaking its rules; but later that day the Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told the hearing that Facebook informed the ICO it had banned 200 apps during the past summer alone!

If you’re still a Facebook user, I’d enjoy it while you can. I don’t think it’s going to be around much longer.

***

Now, here’s a couple of stories about various things going on concerned with China, determined as I am to be put on a dark list in some file in Beijing.

New Zealand has joined the growing list of countries to ban the use of tech built by Chinese firm Huawei, citing national security concerns.

With 5G networks being set up across the world, poor old Huawei keeps getting the bum’s rush when it knocks on the door to see if anyone wants its communications wares.

Australia has already forbidden the company from its 5G fields, while the US, UK, Germany, Japan and Korea are looking into things very closely.

It’s feared that with the line between Huawei and the nosey Chinese government being blurred at best, any kit laid down by the firm could be used for spying etc.

But perhaps there’s some good news after all: Papua New Guinea isn’t fussed and is planning to go ahead and allow Huawei to build some internet for it. Back in the summer, Papa New Guinea’s government avowed to build its own version of Facebook, so perhaps Huawei/the Chinese government can help out there, too.

What next? This isn’t much of a story but it’s mildly amusing/sinister. An AI system in the Chinese city of Ningbo spotted someone jaywalking and displayed their face on a billboard to shame them.

The only problem with this otherwise terrific scheme was that the shamed individual, Dong Mingzhu, had actually only appeared in image form on the side of a bus.

Ningbo police laughed that the silly AI system/overlord had made a silly mistake when it spotted Ms Dong’s visage in an advert. Good times.

***

Burnt-tasting coffee hawkers Starbucks has introduced a massive shakeup of its tax policies and will henceforth dutifully and happily pay its fair share.

Only joking. What the firm has actually done is pledged to block access to pornography over its free WiFi in its US shops.

Apparently, you’re not actually allowed to use its wireless to watch porn anyway – but now the firm will explicitly block its consumption.

I assume you’re thinking what I’m thinking: who on Earth would watch porn in public, in a coffee shop of all things, anyway?

Well, according to Starbucks, which has yielded to anti-porn group Enough is Enough, ‘it occurs rarely’. Thank heavens.

Enough is Enough successfully pressured McDonald’s into making its WiFi porn-tight back in 2016, and is furious that Starbucks apparently broke an earlier promise to do the same.

The group said: ‘Starbucks continues to serve up free, unrestricted WiFi to its customers, opening the door for patrons to view graphic or obscene pornography, view or distribute child pornography (an illegal crime) or engage in sexual predation activity.’

And there’s already been a reaction. According to abysmal celebrity ‘news’ site TMZ, porn website YouPorn is so incensed by the move that it has banned Starbucks products from its…make sure I spell this correctly…offices.

Not sure this is proper news, but it’s got WiFi in it so that’ll do. In the meantime, as the proscription doesn’t appear to be in force in the UK, I suppose you should take care where you sit/who you sit next to/what you touch if you happen to be visiting Starbucks.

By Max Salsbury

Friday round-up: A week in tech (30/11/18)

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