Net Partiality Issue #2

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After a small summer hiatus, we are back with the second issue of our new internet reads newsletter, which we have since baptised “Net Partiality” (credit goes to Teo Firpo for coming up with the name!). This newsletter is curated by Nesta as part of the Engineroom project, one of the umbrella projects under the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet banner. Learn more about the project here.

If you would like to receive this newsletter directly in your inbox, don’t forget to sign up here.

Again, do send over any article, event or other tips for inclusion in the newsletter, feedback also much appreciated as we continue to shape Net Partiality over the next months.

Special thanks also to Felix Szabo for helping find articles to be included.

Reads from across the internet we particularly enjoyed:

  • Delivered in China: “How E-Commerce Is Transforming Rural China” by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker. Incredible long read about China’s rapidly growing e-commerce industry, now also rapidly expanding into rural areas (and the impressive leapfrogging that comes with it: from tiny village stores to drone delivery in a matter of years).
  • I’ve seen that face before: ”Amazon’s Face Recognition Falsely Matched 28 Members of Congress With Mugshots” by Jacob Snow for the ACLU. The ACLU, which has called for a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance, conducted an experiment using Amazon’s Rekognition software to match members of the US congress against a database of mugshots - returning 28 false positives (disproportionately misidentifying non-white congress members!), again highlighting the unreliability and potential danger of the technology. Bonus: Another good piece, this one by Woodrow Hartzog on Medium, on why facial recognition tech is so dangerous.
  • They code, they vote: “The Political Education of Silicon Valley” by Steven Johnson for Wired. Long read on the evolving political philosophy of Silicon Valley - whoever still thinks of SV as a hotbed of libertarianism is about two decades behind the times; more left-wing and pro-welfare than the average democratic county, it does keep its distaste for regulation.
  • Brussels Power: “Margrethe Vestager, lost in (cyber) space” by Simon van Dorpe and Joanna Plucinska for Politico EU. Will the Competition Commissioner’s new case around football shirts and video games finally spell the end of geoblocking in the EU?
  • Banality of Evil: “Everything bad about Facebook is bad for the same reason” by Nikhil Sonnad in Quartz. One of the better pieces I’ve read about the underlying reasons for the social network’s mounting problems. Studying Facebook through an Arendtian lens gives an interesting perspective: the company isn't evil per se - its singular, cult-like focus on "connecting the world" has instead just made it completely forget about the impact on the individual.
  • Digital neighbourhoods: “Hoverboarding While Black: Digital Neighborhood Groups and the New Politics of Public Space” by Clarence Harlan Orsi for the Boston Review. Great piece about the emerging ecosystem of neighborhood Facebook and WhatsApp groups and how these groups, meant for promoting bake sales and asking about garbage collection times, often rapidly devolve into vigilantism and not-so-covert racism.
  • “The Rumours of Big Tech’s death are greatly exaggerated” : “Stumbles? What Stumbles? Big Tech Is as Strong as Ever” by Farhad Manjoo in the New York Times. Not sure I entirely agree with the assessment, but Farhad Manjoo makes an interesting case that - despite all the bad news, from Facebook’s plummeting share price to Google’s EU fine - talk about the end of Big Tech is likely to be misguided. Apple hitting a $1 trillion market cap this week would support that thesis.
  • Privacy by accident? “Big Brother’s Blind Spot: Mining the failures of surveillance tech” by Joanne McNeil for the Baffler. “[AI can be] Orwellian when accurate, but Kafkaesque when inaccurate”- very interesting piece on the underreported limitations of data mining methodologies; but isn’t algorithms’ inability to, for example, identify non-white and LGBTQ faces not actually a blessing in disguise?
  • *Ban Bang*: “Regulating the Guns of the Future” by Sarah Holder for Citylab. Good write-up of landmark case in the US about whether or not 3D-printed guns (or rather, the online distribution of detailed guides on how to make them) should be legal. Should the right to print, or informing others how to, be a fundamental right? Is this a matter of free speech? Likely to have big implications for the years ahead.
  • Stopping at nothing: “When a Stranger Decides to Destroy Your Life” by Kashmir Hill for Gizmodo. Terrifying story about how one women’s reputation online got destroyed by a perfect stranger offended by a comment she left online.
  • News from the Western front: “Life Aboard the Rocket Ship: An Interview with an Anonymous Engineer” in Logic Magazine. Insightful interview with an (anonymous) software engineer in Silicon Valley about the Valley’s acquisition and frenzied hiring culture, the cognitive dissonance between SV’s myth-of-the-founder cultus and push to monopolise further and further, and failure.
  • Alt-right not alright: “Alt-Right Troll To Father Killer: The Unraveling Of Lane Davis” by Joseph Bernstein for Buzzfeed A story of how far-right online personality Lane Davis turned to murder.
  • DECODE: “Reclaiming the Smart City: Personal Data, Trust and the New Commons” by Theo Bass, Tom Symons and Emma Sutherland. Excellent new report by Nesta colleagues working on the DECODE project on how city governments are taking a more responsible approach to the collection and use of personal data.
  • Tech neutrality: “Fred Turner: Silicon Valley Thinks Politics Doesn’t Exist” by Nora Khan in 032c: Fascinating interview with Stanford media theorist Fred Turner: [On value systems governing tech ethics] “I’ve always found it very hard to think about any system, any planned, top-down system as, by definition, benevolent. The best systems and institutions are constantly focused on negotiation, on structured negotiation. So, the best institutions are places that have a constant system of check and balances.”
  • A Solution for When Smart Tech Goes Dumb: “An SMS car-tracking app inspired by Cameroon’s internet shutdown is set to spread across Africa” by Amindeh Blaise Atabong for Quartz Africa. Interesting article on how a young ethical hacker in Cameroon built an SMS-based solution to keep car trackers working, even when the internet goes out. We often don’t think about how a deliberate internet shutdown also disrupts anything from IoT-sensors to payment systems, not just dissident speech.
  • Fighting Fake News: “Lawmakers in UK and US Propose Sweeping Changes to Tech Policies to Combat Misinformation” by Justin Hendrix for JustSecurity. Good write-up comparing the main recommendations in both US Senator Mark Warner’s and the UK’s House of Commons Committee on Culture, Media, and Sport’s newly released white papers on fake news and the weaponisation of information. The DCMS report on its own is well worth the read.
  • Q&A(non): “#QAnon, the scarily popular pro-Trump conspiracy theory, explained” by Jane Coaston for Vox. You probably have seen the word “QAnon” spring up everywhere in the past weeks, probably wondering what it was all about. This Vox article gives a good overview of the bizarre and rather terrifying conspiracy theory that has taken the internet by storm.

Other bits and pieces:

  • You and AI: Watch here the recording of the great Kate Crawford’s talk about ethical machine learning and removing bias at the Royal Society this July.
  • Project Dragonfly:

Interesting twitter thread on leaked documents about Google’s intentions to build a censored search engine in China (already violating one of its stated AI ethics principles, as well as arguably its former “Don’t Do Evil” credo…!). Also read the original reporting from The Intercept, who broke the story, here.

  • What’s Ahead for Engineroom: If you are interested in learning more about the Engineroom project more generally, do have a look at this new blog we have up which outlines our plans for the next months.

NB: Last time we put some recommendations here for interesting upcoming events related to the internet. If you would like us to continue adding events to the newsletter, let us know and we’ll bring them back.


Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Katja Bego

Principal Researcher, Next Generation Internet

Katja Bego was Principal Researcher and data scientist in Nesta’s technology futures and explorations team.

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