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Around the Web

Issue No. 001

States of Surveillance, AI legislation, Contileaks, the dumbest vending machine in the history of ever. And war.

Note: While the post is written in English, some links lead to articles in German.

Around the Web is a new format, in which I compile the articles I’ve read over the last week or so which influenced me in some way. It will center around digital society, combining tech and ethics, blend in a bit of design, and we’ll see what else.

I’m not sure how this will go, what will be featured, and if it will stay like this issue you are reading, or if I change it to something which requires less work.

Let’s get it started in here.

There’s a war going on outside

The news cycle has been relentless, I won’t even try to be a geo-political analyst here. Still, here are some compiled links I’ve found helpful in making sense of the senseless.

In German newspaper analyse & kritik Tomasz Konicz analyses how this war fits within a shifting global power-dynamic, that sees the USA enthroned from their role as «world police». Russia, China, and Europe try to fill in the gap. This is happening against a backdrop of economic recession. And if in crisis, war is always an option.

There’s an ongoing discussion how tech should react to Russia’s war. Namecheap, for one, decided to cut all ties with Russian customers. A move wildly critised, as it leaves them with no other choice than to submit to providers in Russia. The Russian government has made it very clear that it will not tolerate any dissent.

It has, however, made wide-reaching changes to its Internet infrastructure over the last few years. Around ten years ago the Russian internet was considered mostly resistant against censorship. This has changed. As Samanth Subramanian reports in Qaurtz, Russia has been preparing to have its Internet cut off. While the Russian states cracks down on media, the BBC started transmitting on shortwave radio frequences again.

Meanwhile, there was a small little glimpse of dissent from where nobody expected it. Alex Ovechkin said «Please, no more war.» Which is significant, not only because he’s famous, but also because he has been close to Putin. Ice hockey has been of the national sport in Russia ever since the soviet team dominated.

There’s dissent louder than the mutterings of an ice hockey player. CrimeThinc has published a statement of Russian Group Autonomous Action.

Not only one war

It is a flat-out lie that there is a war going on. The bitter truth is that there a multiple. Turkey is still shelling Kurds. The Taliban are still oppressing. Some reactions to the war in Ukraine were therefore overtly racist. Emran Feroz comments on western media coverage splitting refugees in welcome and unwelcome.

Julian Hilgers has published an interview with Sidi Omar. Omar is represantative to the United Nations of the Polisario. The Polisario declared the Arab Democratic Republic in 1976. Since then it finds itself perpetually surpressed, prosecuted and bombed by Morocco.

The interview has been published as part og Sham Jaff’s what happened last week? newsletter. If you are interested in a newsletter reporting beyond the sight of western media, make sure to subscribe.

This ain’t intelligence

In Artificial Intelligence news, the first law concerning algorithmic transparency came into effect in China. As Shen Lu reports:

The regulations stipulate that tech companies have to inform users “in a conspicuous way” if algorithms are being used to push content to them. Users reportedly will be allowed to opt out of being targeted with algorithmic recommendations.

While it has to be seen how it plays out, this is a significant step in reigning in the power of algorithms.

Similar legislation in Europe (European AI Act) and the USA (Algorithmic Accountability Act) is still rather far off. In its current state it might also not be the solution one might have hoped for. This week multiple initiatives in Europe called on the EU to ban predictive policing through the AI act.

Uber, meanwhile, has opened another Black Box of Pandora by implementing a new payment algorithm in the USA. One driver describes it as «not based on anything». Well done, Uber.

I finally got around to read the interview with Safiya Umoja Noble and Meredith Whittaker in Logic. They discuss ways to hold tech companies accountable, and to build better communities.

We have to be in community. We have to be in conversation. And we also have to recognize what our piece of the puzzle is ours to work on. While it is true, yes, we’re just individual people, together we’re a lot of people and we can shift the zeitgeist and make the immorality of what the tech sector is doing—through all its supply chains around the world—more legible. It’s our responsibility to do that as best we can.

Safiya Umoja Noble

What are you looking at?

The March/April edition of Interactions has been published, focussing on States of Surveillance.

In Resetting the Expectation of Surveillance Jonathan Bean explores how surveillance has been so ingrained in our everyday life tha we sometimes take it for granted or – arguably worse – forget that it exists at all.

So much of our technological stuff doesn’t really present us with a choice. Set up a new computer, load up a phone with apps, turn on that robot vacuum, or hop in the car, and the chances are pretty good that something, somewhere, is collecting data. Is this surveillance? The word, with roots in French and Latin, means to watch over, in the visual sense. Access to the private visual realm clearly crosses the line: Witness the emergence of the practice of taping over or physically disabling laptop webcams. In contrast, the streams of data we generate through our everyday use of technology, from smartphones to thermostats to light bulbs, are largely invisible.

While surveillance undoubtly is everywhere, it is not without alternative and resistance is not futile. Alex Jiahong Lu explores state and workplace surveillance and how these systems leave room for everyday resistance.

In Sareeta Amrute’s piece they explore the Facebook Files. The impact Facebook’s & Co surveillance apparatus has has always been unevenly distributed, hitting hardest where the companies care the least. Which is, surprise, not the global west.

The sharp inequities exhibited by these revelations of the overheated pursuit of young eyeballs regardless of deleterious effects on youth wellbeing, on the one hand, and the callous disregard for how the platform is used to propagate violence and hatred for other populations, on the other, suggest an uncomfortable fact: Race, place, and position matter deeply to these tech companies, and not in the ways that their DEIA handbooks might suggest. As such, the Facebook Files exhibit a classic case of racial capitalism.

Inside Extortion

Russian ransomware group Conti has been hit by a large leak of their internal communication. The Twitter account ContiLeaks started publishing chat logs on February, 27th.

The leaks offer an interesting look on the inner workings of an extortion group. Luckily, you don’t have to read this by yourself. Brian Krebs started a series of articles analysing the content.

Part I offers a timeline of Conti’s high profile attacks as well as prosecution efforts against the groups. Part II shows labour relations as well as the difficulties of managing a cybercrime operation. My takeaway? Maybe Conti’s employees need a union.

Similar, though from the outside look in, is the podcast series Extortion Economy by the MIT Technology Review and Propublica.

All good things might be three, just not web3

Because tech is tech, we have to cope with a new version of democracy, which tokenises all the hierarchies built into analogue democracies. And calling it future. I’m talking about governance tokens in Decentralised Organisations (DAO). Shanti Escalante-De Mattei has written a piece for Wired exploring the idea, which seems not too bad at first, until it is.

Sure, web3 has the potential to make our lives more democratic, but it’s not a silver bullet. Scale is an insurmountable problem, so is capitalistic greed. If we fall too quickly for these promises, we’ll end up looking back fondly at the days of data harvesting as we navigate a segregated internet.

A conclusion I see time and time again when technical solutions try to solve societal problems without doing the work of understanding the ways in which they inflict harm.

In its current state web3 is not much more than an update to capitalist grifting. In False Futurism Paris Marx (host of the excellent Tech Won’t Save Us podcast) writes about the Metaverse and its crypto related parts. Paris concludes:

Tech companies have always overstated the benefits their technologies will grant us and understated how much they serve their own ends of power and profit. The metaverse will be no different, especially since it’s unlikely to arrive in the form currently being sold to us.

Especially with Facebook trying to call the shots, and centralise gearing and infrastructure the future is blue. We shall paint it colourful.

Another aspect of virtualised reality is haptics. How do we feel when we are in a computer? Gadgets try to replicate the bodily experience of touching, but are reducing the once existing concept of cyborgs to another point of datafication.

Perhaps more crucially, when enveloped in Meta’s gloves, the hands will ooze data. Every motion will be captured, every gesture will be mapped, and every haptic stimulus we respond to will be recorded. Expanding biometrics to include touch could thus enable a new mode of “haptic coercion,” as Dave Birnbaum, the former head of design strategy and outreach for Immersion Corporation terms it, where digital touch can be used to prod or nudge us into making purchasing decisions preferred by a brand or advertiser.

David Parisi – Can’t Touch This

Meanwhile in art: Maybe The Guardian has found the bottom in a lake of facepalms. A hilariously malfunctioning NFT vending machine in New York City. I can’t even.

But then, the lake is deep and the water dark. And Associated Press has been trying really hard to sink to the bottom, too.

Here some more things not relating to a larger theme:

Bandcamp has been bought by Epic Games. I have mixed feelings. None of them positive. It seems more and more impossible to build anything independent on the World Wide Web today. Which is scary.

In Packaging the Pill Theresa Christine Johnson takes a closer look at something seemingly irrelevant. How changing the packaging of the birth control pill helped women stick to the regime.

To close this issue, have you ever thought about the dystopian view CAPTCHAs offers on the world? Me neither, at least not so thorougly as this piece does: Why CAPTCHA Pictures Are So Unbearably Depressing.

After eighteen years, Markus Beckedahl stepped down as editor-in-chief of netpolitik.org. During this time netzpolitik.org advanced to an important voice in digital policy. Anna Biselli will take his position.


That’s it for this week. Stay sane, hug your friends, and donate to medecins sans frontieres.

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