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The best days of the internet are over – now our privacy will suffer

Thankfully, nobody can see the Freddie Mercury impression I uploaded to YouTube in 2006. Tomorrow's teenagers, however, might not be so lucky.

In the 11 years since I uploaded it to YouTube, 48,514 people have watched a video of my 14-year-old self singing and dancing to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. If you wanted to find the video today – and I don’t see why you would, considering that, as I arrive at “scaramouche, scaramouche”, I get distracted by a cat and, two minutes later, I hit my head on a ceiling light – you wouldn’t be able to. This is because when I started applying for grown-up jobs, I set the video to “private”. It exists on the internet but can only be seen by me.

There is an idea, propagated by anyone who nostalgically remembers a time when children played out on the streets and didn’t come home until dinner, that kids who use the internet are destined to be haunted by what they post online. Thus far, my life has not been blighted by my YouTube video, nor by the pictures I posted to Bebo in 2005, nor by the poems I scribbled on Myspace in 2008. Yet I fear that things will be different for my children, or their children.

The internet has changed so rapidly over the past decade that I can now prematurely join the “back in my day” brigade. The old Wild West of the World Wide Web has now been colonised by a few big-time cowboys. The experimental social media pages of the Noughties quickly died and took my embarrassing teenage pictures with them, but today’s social networks become more embedded in our lives by the day. While “private” used to be simply a button I could press to hide my YouTube shame, it is now a concept under threat.

At the end of 2016, the Investigatory Powers Act – or “Snoopers’ Charter”, as it has come to be known – became law. The act grants the government unprecedented spying powers, so that your online communications and search records can be intercepted by 48 different agencies, including – bizarrely – the Department for Transport and the Food Standards Agency. The level of surveillance that the act permits is dystopian, especially when used in concert with the Digital Economy Bill, which has just passed its second reading in the House of Lords. This legislation seeks, among other things, to ban “adult” sites that don’t implement age-verification measures. The word “adult” here seems deliberately vague.

The near-lawless era of the internet so far is coming to an end. Age verification, a process that involves handing over your identity, threatens internet anonymity, which in turn threatens much of the internet’s art (and arguments). The banning and blocking of websites that do not comply with the government’s moral ruling destroys the foundational freedoms of the information age, while surveillance powers threaten the way in which we use the internet.

None of this threatens my 2006 YouTube video, nor my ability to make another in 2017, but it shows that we must change the way we think about how our internet histories will haunt us as we grow. It is not embarrassing YouTube videos or pictures of drunken antics that should worry today’s teenagers, but the keywords that they search and the messages that they send. Until now, we have taken for granted that such things will remain private. That is no longer the case.

Even before the law began to curtail the Wild Web, its individual territories had already been seized, bit by bit, by a handful of powerful corporations. Facebook has acquired more than 50 companies in the past 12 years, including social networks, speech recognition services and virtual reality developers. Through these acquisitions, Face­book has obtained a staggering amount of personal data. Last August, the social network revealed that it uses 98 different aspects of your private information just to target adverts at you.

Naturally, this encroachment of our privacy has provoked a backlash. Yet the people who started sending messages on WhatsApp to avoid being spied on by Face­book Messenger were deterred when the former was acquired by the latter in 2014. This month, we learned that WhatsApp messages, too, can be intercepted and read.

Then  there is the “internet of things” (IoT). Gradually, we invite internet-connected kettles, toys and even hairbrushes into our homes, many of which are equipped with microphones that can be hacked to listen to our every word. Yet before any malicious hacker sets his or her fingers to their keys, the companies behind many IoT products freely admit to saving and storing an abundance of your personal data. Echo, Amazon’s “constantly listening” smart speaker, records everything you say to it and stores it on a server. It is George Orwell’s telescreen, except that you pay £149.99 for the privilege of having it in your home.

It feels dramatic to claim that the era of internet freedom is over, yet all the signs point that way. The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, has called these “dark, dark days”. Who will stop our freedoms being infringed further? We stand to lose so much by exiting the European Union that there has been little mention of how it protects online freedom. Last December, the European Court of Justice declared the Investigatory Powers Act to be unlawful, but will this matter after Brexit?

Posting a video of myself singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not the worst thing I did online in 2006, but it was by far the most visible. As a curious teenager, I undoubtedly asked Google how to dispose of a dead body, and long before that I definitely sent messages that should never, ever have been sent. But while I only had to worry about my poor Freddie Mercury impression, tomorrow’s teens will have to be aware that they are being watched every time they press send.

Amelia Tait is a digital culture writer for newstatesman.com. Helen Lewis is away

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era

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Man makes $4bn in two days explaining Facebook to old people

Mark Zuckerberg's supposed blockbuster grilling by Congress was the bust it was always going to be, and he went home victorious largely by default.

On Tuesday a crowd gathered on social media for what promised to be a generation-defining moment, like the moon landing, or the OJ bronco chase. There was an air of tension. Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, was about to be dragged before the public and made to answer the Questions Of The People.

Many tuned in expecting a spectacle: namely, that of a socially awkward – albeit spectatularly wealthy – geek (like the one portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg in David Fincher’s The Social Network) get absolutely tarred and feathered. Twitter filled with jokes as the crowd grew impatient. Some of them were even good.

They underestimated Zuckerberg. Expectations for his performance before a series of committees of both houses of the US congress started out lower than subterranean. Yet even at the start, the 33-year-old billionaire did look absolutely terrified. Blinking vacantly in the strobe-flashes of the cameras, his expression while he sat listening to the senators’ seemingly-endless introductory remarks was not so much lost as “404 not found”.

But over the course of an often-agonising ten total hours of testimony before a joint sitting of the Senate commerce, science, and transportation committee, and the judiciary committee on Tuesday, and the House energy and commerce committee on Wednesday, Zuckerberg managed to come out not just unscathed but victorious.

In recent years, the Facebook CEO has made an effort to learn to be a more disciplined public speaker and a more responsive interviewee. On top of that, in preparation for this appearance Zuckerberg hired a crack team of outside consultants and lawyers to coach him, and even held mock hearings to hone his answers and manner, the New York Times reported. His investment paid dividends: Zuckerberg spoke with a glossy confidence and gave an effective and assured – though somewhat robotic – performance which left many of the lawmakers visibly charmed. He largely avoided answering questions he didn’t want to, and no lawmaker was able to press him to the point where he became visibly physically uncomfortable, as he has in the past.

It was possible to watch the Zuckerberg charm offensive play out in real time, not just on social media but on the financial markets. As soon as he began to talk, Facebook stock began to rise, and apart from a bit of a dip on Wednesday morning it pretty much never stopped. On Tuesday Zuckerberg’s confidence before the Senate committee gave Facebook shares their best single day of trading in two years, closing 4.5 per cent up. By the time Zuckerberg finished answering questions on Wednesday afternoon the stock price increase meant his own personal net worth had gone up by just under $4bn.

Far from the meltdown that many tuned in expecting to see, viewers were treated to Zuckerberg dealing patiently and even-temperedly with questions that occasionally betrayed a lack of even a basic conception of how the internet works, let alone Facebook. Some of his interrogators, especially in the Senate hearing on Tuesday, barely seemed to understand their own prepared questions even as they read them aloud.

This allowed Zuckerberg to get off considerably more lightly than he appears to have been expecting. A tantalising glimpse into the hearing we could have had was given to us when Zuckerberg accidentally left his sheet of notes open on the table when he left the hearing-room for a break. The notes, which were photographed, show that he was prepared for broader existential questions on subjects like workplace diversity and European privacy regulation which sadly, in the end, went largely unasked.

Instead, some lawmakers used their time to throw dozens of redundant questions to which we already knew the answers. Zuckerberg at times looked like he was struggling to suppress his obvious delight at answering questions which contained fundamental errors, causing howls of frustration on Twitter from the watching tech press, who understood the opportunity missed. Other times, lawmakers threw softballs, leading to such scintillating exchanges as the following, between Zuckerberg and Dan Sullivan, a Republican senator from Alaska:

SULLIVAN: Mr Zuckerberg, quite a story, right? Dorm room to the global behemoth that you guys are. Only in America, would you agree with that?

ZUCKERBERG: Senator, mostly in America.

SULLIVAN: You couldn't – you couldn't do this in China, right? Or, what you did in 10 years.

ZUCKERBERG: Well – well, Senator, there are – there are some very strong Chinese Internet companies.

SULLIVAN: Right, but you're supposed to answer “yes” to this question.

The main problem was the format didn't lend itself to a genuine search for insight. That's because any time it got half-way interesting, such as in an early exchange with South Dakota senator John Thune on the technical and linguistic difficulties involved in teaching AI bots how to accurately spot hate-speech, the dialogue would be abruptly cut off as each successive legislator ran up against their four-minute time limit.

Some legislators didn’t even bother trying to ask key questions about privacy and data protection, but instead decided to fawn or grandstand. Ted Cruz took an audaciously pompous line of questioning about how he felt Facebook was biased against the political right – without mentioning, of course that he actually ranked among Cambridge Analytica’s political clients.

The lack of coordination and preparation among his interlocutors allowed Zuckerberg time and again to cast Facebook as a company exists only to make people's lives better now and forever, rather than as a for-profit surveillance organisation. Time was wasted explaining over and over that, no, Facebook does not literally “sell data”, though John Cornyn, a senator from Texas, did pull off probably Tuesday night’s only true zinger with his muttered riposte: “well, you clearly rent it”.

There were some exceptions. California Democratic senator Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, almost drew blood with a searing, sustained enquiry into whether there had been, when the company learned that user data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica, “a discussion that resulted in a decision not to inform your users”. In one of the few moments of the entire proceeding in which Zuckerberg found himself on the back foot, Harris pressed home the question a brutal seven times before her allotted four minutes were up.

His appearance before the House committee on Wednesday was testier in general but not much more enlightening. Anna Eshoo, a Democratic representative from California, scolded Zuckerberg for the opacity of the site’s terms and conditions, telling him: “you have to make it transparent, clear, in pedestrian language, just once, ‘This is what we will do with your data. Do you want this to happen, or not?’” Others pressed Zuckerberg for action controlling the sale of opioids on the Facebook platform. Zuckerberg nodded, smiled, and made the correct engaging noises at the appropriate times.

Despite his polish, the moments when Zuckerberg came closest to slipping up his mistakes were largely own goals rather than the result of incisive questioning. One particularly embarassing slip-up came during the Senate hearing when he accidentally answered “yes” to the question of whether the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had served Facebook with subpoenas. Scrambling, he hastily muddied the waters a few moments later with: “actually, let me clarify that. I actually am not aware of a subpoena. I believe that there may be, but I know we're working with them.”

Mostly, though, Zuckerberg was poised enough to avoid any question he didn’t want to answer either by promising to “have people look into it and get back to you” or with a robotically careful line like “I am not specifically aware of that.” If faced with a tough question, he could simply run down the clock for four minutes until the questioner's time ran out. And the more he talked, the more Facebook stock soared.

In the end, the most interesting part of the hearing wasn’t what was said in the room itself but in watching it all play out on social media, where commentators from the two different worlds of technology and politics collided at the same real-time event. The conversation was split right down the middle into two distinct groups: those mainly frustrated and confused by Zuckerberg’s jargon-laden technobabble, and those mainly frustrated and confused by the lawmakers’ inability to understand the basic working principles of Facebook or even the internet – though mostly they agreed with each other on their distaste for Ted Cruz.

If nothing else, it was illuminating to see just how wide the gulf between those two worlds was.

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.