It’s been a rocky few weeks for the company formerly known as Facebook.
First came the Facebook papers, a series of blockbuster reports in the Wall Street Journal based on a cache of internal documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former employee turned whistleblower.
The dam broke wider last week after Haugen shared the documents with a wider consortium of news publications, which have published a slew of stories outlining how Facebook knew its productswere stoking real-world violence and aggravating mental health problems, but refused to change them.
Now the regulatory sharks are circling. Haugen recently testified before US and UK lawmakers, heightening calls to hold the company to account.
Facebook, meanwhile, appeared to be living in another universe. Its rebrand to Meta this week has prompted ridicule and incredulity that a company charged with eroding the bedrock of global democracy would venture into a new dimension without apologizing for the havoc it wreaked on this one.
But what do the Facebook papers actually mean for the future of the company? Experts are split on whether the damning reports spell doom for Meta – or if the trillion-dollar firm is too big to fail.
Facebook papers fuel calls to rein in the company
The explosive documents from Haugen revealed the extent to which Facebook knowingly allows toxic policies and business practices, and have prompted outrage from Congress, human rights groups and the public.
But while the revelations have renewed calls for legislation, actually passing it is another story, said Matt Schettenhelm, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.
“It’s easy for lawmakers to haul Facebook into hearings, pound the table and complain about the company’s problems – it’s very hard to pass a law that fixes them,” he said.
While consensus has grown that major overhaul is needed, no meaningful attempts to put a dent in the tech behemoth’s massive empire have been passed.
“In my view, Frances Haugen’s testimony will certainly lead to more hearings and bad headlines,” Schettenhelm added. “It could move Congress closer to consensus in 2022 on some types of legislation, but probably not on the most disruptive measures.”
Several laws under consideration could begin to make a dent. A bill introduced this month by Senators Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Grassley would make it illegal for tech firms to engage in “self-preferencing”– in other words, giving their own products and services priority on their platforms over those of rivals. Facebook also faces antitrust lawsuits from a coalition of attorneys general as well as the Federal Trade Commission, the US agency charged with maintaining healthy competition and sound business practices in the markets.
Another bill under discussion would update the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa) to ban tech companies from collecting data of users between the ages of 13 and 15 without explicit consent, and require the firms to delete data if requested.
A central problem the Facebook papers laid bare is that Facebook often conducts its own internal research into problems on the platform, then abandons them. In one damning example, researchers showed how Instagram has insidious effects on teenage girls, perpetuating mental health conditions like anorexia, but the company buried the results and did not change its policies in response.
A law introduced by House Democrats would address these concerns by requiring platforms to hand more data over to independent researchers who would then publish reports on exactly how it is impacting users.
But these actions do not do enough to address the issues central to Facebook’s massive power, said Evan Greer, the deputy director of digital rights non-profit Fight for the Future.
“We need lawmakers to actually take this seriously,” she said. “They should be moving forward with a real privacy bill that strikes at the heart of Facebook’s surveillance-driven business model.”
Facebook is also facing a number of potential class-action lawsuits, both from shareholders claiming it misled them and inflated the company’s share price, and users who claimed their biometric data was collected without permission.
“Those suits will take years, and Facebook will have a number of defenses,” said Schettenhelm. “Still, the company has to take them seriously: the damages could reach the billions of dollars.”
Will Zuck step down?
At a conference announcing the company’s rebrand this week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg all but ignored the mounting allegations, videoing in from his metaverse mansion, riding a fake surf board, and joking about buying virtual pets with cryptocurrency.
While the dissonance was uncanny, history indicates Zuckerberg is unlikely to pay for the transgressions.
Calls may be mounting for his resignation, but its not the first time Zuckerberg has been targeted. In 2019, many investors called on the CEO to step down as chair of the company following a year of problems, including the Cambridge Analytica scandal in which millions of users’ data was used to manipulate election results.
Facebook appears to be playing by its usual strategy – deny and move on. Its leadership has remained largely silent, dismissing the Facebook papers as a “coordinated effort” to discredit the company, and sending a lower-level executive to testify before the US Congress about the platforms’ effects on children.
But even if the company is unlikely to hold itself accountable, it’s clear Facebook may be facing more aggressive pushback in the court of public opinion.
It has admitted in recent earnings reports it is losing teenage users in droves. Advertisers have boycotted it in the past. Meanwhile, some users are saying they plan to quit the platform. And while the company’s most recent earnings report indicates the platform still enjoys a vast user base, the latest revelations may only hasten a turning of the tide.
As the potential legal ramifications of the papers play out, advocates say harm to the global community is now irrefutable. They warn the company should not be allowed to simply abscond into the Metaverse.
“Mark Zuckerberg has made multiple appearances before Congress and nothing has changed,” said Jessica J González, co-CEO of the non-profit group Free Press Action. “It’s time for immediate action to hold the company accountable for the many harms it’s inflicted on our democracy.”
Chinese hackers could target heavily encrypted datasets such as weapon designs or details of undercover intelligence officers with a view to unlocking them at a later date when quantum computing makes decryption possible, a report warns.
Analysts at Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, say Chinese hackers could also steal pharmaceutical, chemical and material science research that can be processed by quantum computers – machines capable of crunching through numbers at unprecedented speed.
In a report titled “Chinese threats in the quantum era”, the consultancy says encrypted data could be stolen by “Chinese threat groups”. It says quantum-assisted decryption will arrive faster than quantum-assisted encryption, giving hackers an edge.
“Encrypted data with intelligence longevity, like biometric markers, covert intelligence officer and source identities, social security numbers, and weapons’ designs, may be increasingly stolen under the expectation that they can eventually be decrypted,” the report says. It says “state-aligned cyber threat actors” will start to steal or intercept previously unusable encrypted data.
However, it adds there is a “very small” likelihood that quantum computing could break the latest encryption methods before 2030. The analysts say quantum computing’s advantages over classical computing – the computing used in everything from laptops to mobile phones – are at least a decade away.
“Although quantum computers’ current abilities are more demonstrative than immediately useful, their trajectory suggests that in the coming decades quantum computers will likely revolutionize numerous industries – from pharmaceuticals to materials science – and eventually undermine all popular current public-key encryption methods,” the report says.
Quantum computing is viewed as an exciting development. For example, experts say it could predict accurately what a complex molecule might do and thus pave the way for new drugs and materials.
China is already a strong player in the field, and Booz Allen Hamilton says it expected the country to surpass Europe and the US – where IBM recently made the most powerful quantum processor – in quantum-related research and development.
“Chinese threat groups will likely soon collect encrypted data with long-term utility, expecting to eventually decrypt it with quantum computers,” the report says. “By the end of the 2020s, Chinese threat groups will likely collect data that enables quantum simulators to discover new economically valuable materials, pharmaceuticals and chemicals.”
Good news for those in the UK with primary school-aged kids and wondering what to do when the next bout of home-schooling hits: design a logo for the first UK satellite launches.
2022 could be a big year for launching satellites from Blighty’s shores as the first launchers gear up for a historic blast-off. Assuming the facilities have been built and all the necessary consents given and boxes ticked.
There are currently seven possible spaceport sites across the UK, from Cornwall in England through Llanbedr in Wales and up to the Western Isles in Scotland. Cash has been lobbed Cornwall’s way to support a horizontal launch by Virgin Orbit from Spaceport Cornwall and more toward Scotland for Orbex’s ambitions to launch vertically from Sutherland.
Should all the approvals happen and construction be completed, there is every chance the UK might host its first launch at some point in 2022.
Hence the need for a logo and thus a competition aimed at inspiring kids to consider a career in the space industry. And, of course, it is all worthy stuff: “Logo designs,” intoned the UK Space Agency, “should reflect how data from small satellites can help inform solutions to climate change as well as generate a source of pride in the UK’s space ambitions.”
What, we wondered, could possibly go wrong?
We put this question to Rob Manuel, one of those behind web stalwart b3ta.com. B3ta has a long history of (among other things) image challenges, the results of which tend to pop up, often unattributed, in timelines around the world. Now heading into its third decade, the site continues to push out a weekly Friday newsletter to email subscribers.
In terms of how to engage participants, Manuel said: “If anyone asks me, and they rarely do, I encourage competitions to be as open as possible – publish the results as they’re coming in. Try and create a buzz that something is happening rather than everything going in the bin.”
“As for things going wrong,” he went on, “well, there’s always an element who’ll want to subvert it.”
The competition is open to children aged 4-11 and will run until 11 March 2022. There are two age categories (4-7 and 7-11) over 12 regions in the UK. Designs can be drawn, painted, or created on a computer and either submitted on the logoliftoff.org.uk site or via post. Some basic questions also need to be answered, and children can work on their own or in a team of up to four.
We asked the UK Space Agency if it would take Manuel’s advice and post entries ahead of the competition close. We will update should it respond. ®
The Galway tech start-up was one of two winners at the sport-focused pre-accelerator programme.
A start-up developing real-time video analytics for sports has been named ‘most investable’ at SportX, a new pre-accelerator in Ireland for founders with sports and wellness business ideas.
RugbySmarts took the title at the inaugural SportX showcase last week, securing a cash prize.
The Galway-based start-up aims to automate and simplify sports analytics using AI, machine learning and computer vision, helping coaches to improve player and team performance with a platform that could also be transferred to other sports.
RugbySmarts was founded last year by CTO William Johnstone, who has previously worked with Connacht Rugby, and CEO Yvonne Comer, who is a former Ireland international rugby player.
Meanwhile, the award of ‘best impact on sport’ was given to TrojanTrack. This start-up, founded in 2021 by Dublin-based Stephen O’Dwyer, is looking to combine quantitative biomechanical analysis with deep neural network tech in the equine industry.
The aim is to gain feedback on a horse’s injury or gait imbalance without using invasive technology, such as motion-tracking software that requires markers to be attached to the animal’s skin.
‘Next-gen sports-tech entrepreneurs’
SportX was launched earlier this year by advisory firm Resolve Partners, Sport Ireland and ArcLabs – the research and innovation centre at Waterford Institute of Technology.
The aim of the pre-accelerator programme was to build on tech and business ideas for the sport and wellness industries, giving founders access to academic, clinical and commercial resources.
The six-week programme involved workshops and engagement with advisers, entrepreneurs, subject experts and investors. Participants also had the opportunity to pitch to the US-based Techstars Sports Accelerator.
At the SportX showcase last week, nine teams had five minutes each to pitch their business ideas to a panel of judges.
The two winners were selected by the panel, which featured Gary Leyden of the ArcLabs Fund 1 GP, Sport Ireland’s Benny Cullen and Niall McEvoy of Enterprise Ireland.
At the launch of SportX earlier this year, Leyden said the goal of the programme was to find “the next generation of sports-tech entrepreneurs who can leverage the amazing enterprise and sports-related supports within the south-east of Ireland”.
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