Around the Web
Issue No. 009
Roe v Wade & privacy, crypto & and its big crash, Europe & an attack on encrypted messaging, how a mechanical clock works, and an anthem to women riding bicycles.
There was no Around the Web last week because I became very sick over the weekend. I spent this week lying in bed, too, and here I am still – recovering but also a bit annoyed. I had much better plans.
Annoyance, fittingly, is the topic of this newsletter: The last weeks saw the publication of a draft legislation threatening to overturn Roe v Wade in the USA, the inevitable collapse of the crypto market, an unrelenting heat-wave in south-east Asia, and a new attack on end-to-end encryption by the European Union.
This explanation of how a mechanical clock works, complete with interactive 3D visualisations, is marvellous. As it’s the best thing I read, I’ll leave it right in the intro.
So, how did the world turn? Let’s find out.
Roe v. Wade & the end of privacy
On May, 2nd, Politico leaked a draft opinion of the US Supreme Court.
Abortion is no bipartisan issue, though. A large majority of Americans supports safe abortion. What we see here is a decade-long coordinated attack by an ever radicalising far-right, aiming to undermine human rights. Laurie Penny published the chapter on abortion and reproductive freedom from her book Sexual Revolution.
These laws are not about the ‘right to life’. They are about enshrining maximalist control over women as a core principle of conservative rule. They are about owning women. They are about women as things.
As Charlie Warzel notes, the right is obnoxious even when they are winning.
The sore-winner complex highlights a fundamental asymmetry between the style of culture warring employed by the left and right. The right’s vision is ahistorical and logically confused, but more importantly, it is relentless. There is no appeasing this type of politics. It is a politics that will manage to use its victories to stoke additional fears inside its voters. For the media, there is no amount of evenhanded or both-sides coverage that will get the right to back down from calling the press illegitimate, biased, and corrupt. For non-Republican politicians, there is no amount of bipartisan language or good faith attempts at dialogue or engagement that will inspire bipartisanship, compromise, and a desire for majority rule. For the right, even in victory, there is only grievance and fear.
But there’s another angle I want to take a closer look it, which is how surveillance capitalism enables criminalisation. The day after Politico’s leak, Vice published an article which showed how incredibly easy it is to obtain location data of women visiting abortion clinics.
You do not need to by somewhere physical, mind. As Lil Kalish reports in Mother Jones, getting information about abortion or attending telemedicine sessions leaves a digital trace.
Now, if abortion gets outlawed, these trails all of a sudden become evidence. And instead of more than annoying ads, you might get a visit from the cops.
News coverage of digital forensics often celebrates its role in prosecuting serious felonies. But when it comes to reproductive rights, Conti-Cook says, the same tools “will be a powerful [asset] to police and prosecutors in a more criminalized landscape” for abortion seekers.
This whole situation is also the topic of the latest edition of T3thcis. Shout out, and if you want to get more tech ethics news in your inbox, you should follow them anyway.
The lesson here is to always protect your digital trails. Data is forever, legislation changes. Digital self-defence is the only viable way to protect yourself. Shoshana Wodinsky over at Gizmodo published a hands-on guide on how to stay protected.
In related news, user data from gay dating-app Grindr was sold through an ad network, too.
NFT trading has been on a downward slump for a while. Coinbase’s stock crashed 50% over the last year.
But this week Bitcoin and Ethereum, too, saw their courses collapse. At the time of writing, Bitcoin seems to have stabilised at around $30.000, the lowest price since December 2020 and down more than 50% from its all-time high in November 2021.
In El Salvador Bitcoin is legal tender which will become a huge problem for the country’s economy should Bitcoin collapse further. Most citizens have already abandoned their wallets amid security concerns.
The most dramatic story has probably been TerraUSD. Terra is an algorithmic stablecoin. Or: a Ponzi scheme. Rusty Foster tried to explain stablecoins as simple and enraged as possible, and I won't even try to do a better job, as I would inevitably fail. Now over the last week, Terra collapsed completely, taking with it some $18 billion.
Terra, and other stablecoins, have not been without criticism. Especially the algorithm flavoured variant, which are backed by basically nothing. Terra seems to be gone for good. But the volatile market remains.
Given that Bitcoin is a direct response to the 2008 financial crisis and an attempt to do things better all this feels a lot like the 2008 financial crisis, except worse.
Cryptocurrency trading throws around alleged millions and billions. Those numbers are fictions built on fictions, with a much smaller—but still real—amount of actual money at the bottom. The gateways to genuine dollars are narrow and have yet to be significantly breached. But that’s not for lack of effort from the cryptocurrency world, whose endgame appears to be to make cryptocurrency systemic and leave the government as the bag-holder of last resort when the tottering heaps of leverage fall down. It worked in 2008, after all.
This collapse spells disaster for those who had not much to lose, and their only assets in Terra. Which is the bitter thing. While it’s fun to poke at the crypto bros and their stupid ideas, the ones suffering are not the ones we laughed at.
Maybe have some Bored Apes for breakfast, or are you choking anyway?
To unchoke you, Molly White gave an interview to the Harvard Business Review, and talks sense about web3 and how it is a solution without a problem.
While crypto is imploding, tech companies lost a combined $1 trillion in market value over the last week. Facebook announced that it will largely stop hiring across the company. Now there’s good news after all.
Speaking of good news, the unionisation drive across Starbuck in the USA continues, leaving the company on its back-foot. Someone leaked the anti-union talking points Apple uses in their stores. Which are the same as is in every other company. Think different, huh.
Amazon is on a firing spree. It fired two union organisers as well as senior managers in the Staten Island warehouse which voted to unionise some weeks back.
In other capitalist news, Buy Now, Pay Later schemes are sending young people in a debt spiral.
Space, reduced from the final frontier to a billboard. SpaceX and Blue Origin spend more and more money on lobbying. As I’m sick, I also had the time to watch the new Netflix documentary on Musk’s SpaceX. Despite it being a two-hour-long PR puff-piece, you walk away with the impression that Musk has not the slightest idea how a rocket works. Which is a remarkable feat after running a rocket company for almost two decades.
News from outer space: There are earthquakes on Mars. The idea of Musk-Bezos flying to Mars only to have their nice colonies destroyed by a marsquake is, frankly, what kept me laughing while in hospital.
This ain’t intelligence
Sigal Samuel wrote a great piece for Vox, exploring the notion of fairness in AI, and why it’s so hard to build fair systems.
Computer scientists are used to thinking about “bias” in terms of its statistical meaning: A program for making predictions is biased if it’s consistently wrong in one direction or another. (For example, if a weather app always overestimates the probability of rain, its predictions are statistically biased.) That’s very clear, but it’s also very different from the way most people colloquially use the word “bias” — which is more like “prejudiced against a certain group or characteristic.”
The whole piece is not only interesting when thinking about AI, but for society as a whole.
Over at netzpolitik.org, there is a new article series on digital colonialism. The first article covers the Global labor chains of the western AI.
At the same time, the outsourcing of digital work in the Global South is inextricably linked to exploitive labor practices employed by foreign firms. The digital labor market in these regions is rampant with low wages, harsh working conditions, alienation, income disparity, racism, stress, and lack of global recognition.
Facebook published a new Large Language Model. The model, Open Pretrained Transformer (OPT-175B) is a 175-billion-parameter based model, which – according to Facebook – aims to compete with OpenAI’s GPT-3 model. It is, as Arthur Holland Michel noted, certainly doing so in terms of toxicity.
Comparing it to GPT-3, another language model released last year, the team found that OPT-175B ‘has a higher toxicity rate” and it “appears to exhibit more stereotypical biases in almost all categories except for religion.”
Given that Facebook trained the model on unmoderated Reddit comments, this seems about right. So, what we have got was not a generous gift to the research society, but an open-sourced hate spewing monster. Slow clap, Facebook.
GPT-3 is now used to write marketing copy. This might be one use of AI where I don’t object. Simply because marketing copy is the worst.
What are you looking at?
The big news in surveillance this week was certainly the EU proposal aiming to scan private chat messages and scan them for child pornography. Which seems laudable at first. Which is until you realise that such measures are useless, not even children protection organisation want them, and they are bound to end encrypted communication as we know it. Should the proposal pass, EU citizens would be subject to a level of control, commonly associated with the likes of China.
Of course, there are those who have something to gain if the EU decides to end privacy and implement such measures. Namely, the companies developing the analysis tools. One of those is run by Ashton Kutcher, who is already lobbying in Brussels.
Cities in the USA are trying to reverse bans of facial recognition technology.
Clearview AI settled a lawsuit which limits the sale of its product to private companies.
Thousands of popular websites see what you type – before you submit. It will not surprise you that a script from Facebook is among the culprits.
Express VPN advertises with far-right figure Ben Shapiro.
Social, they said
Facebook, reportedly, used the Facebook Pages of Australian public sector organisation as a bargaining chip.
According to internal documents and emails provided to The WSJ, Facebook not only shoddily took down pages for the Children’s Cancer Institute, women’s shelters, and fire rescue services (during fire season, no less), they prevented certain COVID-19 info pages from reaching users during initial vaccine rollouts. Facebook slowly restored these pages a few days later, following tentative alterations to Australian legislation regarding compensating publishers for their original news content.
We’ve seen more states coming to terms with social media companies, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has re-discovered a tool that cuts the problem at its roots: Algorithmic destruction. The slightly aggressive name basically means: If a company collects data it should not collect and uses an algorithm to facilitate data collection, it not only needs to delete the data, but destroy the algorithm for good measure.
Oh hahaha. Elon Musk’s Twitter bid is on hold. Presumably because he fears that bots make up more than 5% of Twitter’s users base. This will likely exclude those bots who root for Mr. Musk. Twitter’s legal team came after him for violating an NDA. Twitter, of course, does not Elon Musk for a bit of turmoil. This week Twitter’s Head of Product and Head of Revenue where ousted from the company. The former while being on parental leave.
Loose ends in a list of links
The Atlantic asks what happened to Jon Stewart and if, just maybe, his enemies might have prevailed.
The ESC happened yesterday, a festival of weirdness and somehow also music. Laurie Penny argues it is Europe at its best, which is true.
And while we are at singing, let’s end this issue on a beautiful note: The Brooklyn Youth Choir sings Anthem for Women’s Freedom of Body and Mind, an anthem to the liberating role the bicycle plays for women.
That’s it for this week. What fun we had. If you like Around the Web, feel free to show it to a friend who likes Around the Web. Thanks for reading. Stay sane, hug your friends, and see you next week.