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Big Brother is still watching you and he goes by the name Facebook | John Naughton

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The security guru Bruce Schneier once famously observed that “surveillance is the business model of the internet”. Like all striking generalisations it was slightly too general: it was strictly true only if by “the internet” you meant the services of a certain number of giant tech companies, notably those of Facebook (including WhatsApp and Instagram), Google (including YouTube), Twitter and Amazon.

The trouble is (and this is what gave Schneier’s aphorism its force) that for a large chunk of networked humanity, especially inhabitants of poorer countries, these walled gardens are indeed what people regard as “the internet”. And that’s no accident. Although Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap everywhere, mobile data tends to be prohibitively expensive in poor countries. So the deal offered by western tech companies is that data charges are low or zero if you access the internet via their apps, but expensive if you venture outside their walled gardens.

Of all the companies, Facebook was the one that first appreciated the potential of this strategy. It offered a way of signing up a billion new users in hitherto underserved parts of the world, thereby reducing the digital divide between the global north and the south. This meant that it could be spun as a philanthropic initiative, initially badged as internet.org and then as Free Basics. The app gave users access to a small selection of websites and services that were stripped of photos and videos and could thus be browsed without paying for mobile data. The rationale was that Free Basics would provide a taster of the internet, which would let people see the value of being connected. Conveniently, though, it also made Facebook the gateway to the internet for these new users. It was the default setting, as it were, in an online world where most people never change defaults and so functioned as a gateway drug for online addiction.

Rather to Facebook’s surprise, Free Basics was not universally welcomed in some of its target territories. The most vocal opposition came in India, the most important market outside of the west, where ungrateful critics perceived it an example of “digital colonialism” and it was eventually blocked by the country’s telecoms regulator on the grounds that it violated the principle of net neutrality by explicitly favouring some kinds of online content while effectively blocking others. Beyond India, however, Free Basics seems to be thriving, being used by “up to 100 million” people in 65 countries, including 28 in Africa.

Last May, Facebook launched a kind of Free Basics 2.0 called Discover. It’s a mobile app that can be used to browse any website using a daily balance of free data from participating mobile network partners. Effectively, it strips out all website content that’s data-intensive (images, video, audio) and displays a pared-down version of the site. “We’re exploring ways to help people stay on the internet more consistently,” explains the Facebook blurb. “Many internet users around the world remain under-connected, regularly dropping off the internet for some period of time when they exhaust their data balance. Discover is designed to help bridge these gaps and keep people connected until they can purchase data again.”

Sounds good, eh? But a recent study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine, on how Discover works in the Philippines (where it has replaced Free Basics) found that not all websites seemed to be stripped for onward viewing. When accessing Facebook through Discover, for example, it wasn’t stripped much – just 4% of images were removed from Instagram, compared with more than 65% of images on other popular sites such as YouTube and e-commerce platform Shopee. The inference was that Discover rendered Facebook’s own services far more functional than those of its competitors. Charged with this, the company blamed a “technical error” that had since been resolved.

Maybe it has, but it might not be wise to trust what Facebook has to say on questions such as this. It’s not that long ago, for example, that it offered its users Onavo Protect, a free virtual private network (VPN) app that would protect their privacy. The company is now being sued by Australia’s competition and consumer commission (ACCC) for using Onavo to allegedly spy on users. “Through Onavo Protect,” said the regulator, “Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.” Facebook responded that it was “always clear about the information we collect and how it is used”, that it had cooperated with the ACCC’s investigation and that it “will continue to defend” its position in response to the regulator’s filing.

You get the point? Maybe surveillance isn’t the only business model of the internet. Hypocrisy runs it a close second.

What I’ve been reading

Masters and servants
Between Golem and God: The Future of AI is a beautifully structured essay on the 3 Quarks Daily website.

Dressed for all weathers
How clothing and climate change kickstarted agriculture is the thesis of an intriguing Aeon essay by Ian Gilligan, a prehistorian at the University of Sydney.

On the mend
Monopolists Are Winning the Repair Wars is a terrific blog post by Cory Doctorow on the importance of the “right to repair” our own equipment.

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Google, Apple and Microsoft report record-breaking profits | Google

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Google, Apple and Microsoft reported record-breaking quarterly sales and profits on Tuesday night as the firms continue to benefit from a pandemic that has created a “perfect positive storm” for big tech.

Apple made a $21.7bn (£15.6bn) profit for the three-month period that ended in June, its best fiscal third quarter in its 45-year history, boosted by strong sales of the iPhone 12 and growth in its services business.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, reported second-quarter revenue of $61.8bn (£44.5bn), a 62% increase on the same period a year earlier, and a profit of over $18.5bn (£13.3bn), more than twice its profits for the same period last year. The company’s advertising revenues rose 69% from last year.

Microsoft, too, beat expectations, reporting revenues of over $46bn (£33bn) for the quarter – a rise of 21% compared to the same quarter last year.

The results come after Tesla reported a record profit on Monday in one of the busiest ever weeks for quarterly US earnings results. The big tech blowout earnings continue with Facebook on Wednesday and Amazon on Thursday.

Collectively, the market value of Google, Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Facebook is now worth more than a third of the entire S&P 500 index of America’s 500 largest traded companies, as their share prices have soared during the pandemic.

Thomas Philippon, an economist and professor of finance at New York University, said big tech firms have been the biggest economic winners from the pandemic as global lockdowns have pushed more businesses and consumers to use their services.

“They were already on the rise and had been for the best part of a decade, and the pandemic was unique,” Philippon said. “For them it was a perfect positive storm.”

Analysts at Morgan Stanley reckon Alphabet is on course to achieve full-year net income of $65bn, a 59% increase on 2020. Its annual sales are, the bank reckons, on track for $243bn – a $60bn increase on last year.

Alphabet’s shares have risen by 75% in the past year to a record $2,670, but analysts predict they could climb higher still despite regulators around the world threatening to curb its dominance of the internet search market. Morgan Stanley said the stock could reach as high as $3,060, and even under a worse case scenario is unlikely to fall below $1,800.

Morgan Stanley analyst Brian Nowak said pandemic lockdowns had boosted Google as consumers spent more time online researching potential purchases. He said survey data showed that 54% of retailers ranked Google search products, including YouTube, as “their first place to go to research products online, up from 50% in past surveys”.

“Google websites growth is likely to rebound in ’21 as we believe there are several underappreciated products driven by mobile search, strong YouTube contribution, and continued innovation, such as Maps monetisation,” Nowak said in a note to clients.

Apple has been making so much money that over the past eight years it has bought back $421bn worth of shares, but it still has about $80bn of cash sitting on its balance sheet.

When Microsoft reported a 31% rise in profits at its last quarterly results, its chief executive, Satya Nadella, said it was “just the beginning” as the shift to digital technology was “accelerating” fast.

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The share price rise of the big tech firms has made billions for their super-rich founders and early investors. Forbes magazine calculated recently that there are now 365 billionaires who made their fortunes in technology, compared with 241 before the pandemic.

Collectively, the world’s tech billionaires hold personal fortunes of $2.5tn, up 80% on $1.4tn in March 2020. Amazon’s founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, remains the world’s richest person with an estimated $212bn fortune, and is closely followed in the league table of the wealthy by Tesla co-founder Elon Musk with $180bn, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates with $151bn, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg with about $138bn.

Zuckerberg believes the internet will take on an even bigger role in people’s day-to-day lives in the future, and instead of interacting with it via mobile phones people will be immersed via virtual reality headsets.

He said Facebook would transition from a social media platform to a “metaverse company”, where people can work, play and communicate in a virtual environment. Zuckerberg said it would be “an embodied internet where instead of just viewing content – you are in it”.

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Scam-baiting YouTube channel Tech Support Scams taken offline by tech support scam • The Register

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The Tech Support Scams YouTube channel has been erased from existence in a blaze of irony as host and creator Jim Browning fell victim to a tech support scam that convinced him to secure his account – by deleting it.

“So to prove that anyone can be scammed,” Browning announced via Twitter following the attack, “I was convinced to delete my YouTube channel because I was convinced I was talking [to YouTube] support. I never lost control of the channel, but the sneaky s**t managed to get me to delete the channel. Hope to recover soon.”

To fool Browning, the ruse must have been convincing: “I track down the people who scam others on the Internet,” he writes on his Patreon page. “This is usually those ‘tech support’ call frauds using phone calls or pop-ups. I explain what I do by guiding others in how to recognise a scam and, more importantly, how to turn the tables on scammers by tracking them down.”

Browning has made a name for himself with self-described “scam baiting” videos, in which he sets up honeypot systems and pretends to fall for scams in which supposed support staffers need remote access to fix a problem or remove a virus – in reality scouring the hard drive for sensitive files or planting malware of their own.

“I am hoping that YouTube Support can recover the situation by 29th July,” Browning wrote in a Patreon update, “and I can get the channel back, but they’ve not promised anything as yet. I just hope it is recoverable.”

Whether Browning is able to recover the account, and the 3.28 million subscribers he had gathered over his career as a scam-baiter, he’s hoping to turn his misfortune into another lesson. “I will make a video on how all of this went down,” he pledged, “but suffice to say, it was pretty convincing until the very end.”

Tech support scams have been going on for about as long as people have needed technical support, but a report published by Microsoft last month suggested the volume may be declining. The same report found that the 18-37 age group was the most likely to fall victim – and that 10 per cent of those surveyed had lost money to a scammer.

YouTube was approached for an explanation of how deleted accounts could be restored and what precautions it has in place to prevent its users – even those with considerable experience in the field of con-artistry – from falling victim to tech support scams, but was unable to provide comment in time for publication.

Browning did not respond to a request for comment. ®



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Orion the humpback whale ‘a dream sighting’ for marine observers

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A member of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group spotted the humpback whale while out conducting a survey on marine life off the Donegal coast.

Marine mammal observer Dr Justin Judge described the moment he spotted a lone humpback whale off the coast of Donegal as “a dream sighting.”

Judge spotted the whale at 9.30 on the morning of 9 July while representing the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (IWDG) on board the Marine Institute’s RV Celtic Explorer.

The group of researchers and observers was out on the waters around 60 kilometres north-northwest of Malin Head when they saw the whale. They were carrying out the annual Western European Shelf Pelagic Acoustic (WESPAS) survey.

“This is a dream sighting for a marine mammal observer,” Judge said. He explained that the creature would be nicknamed Orion – which had a personal meaning for Judge and his family.

“The individual humpback whale ‘Orion’ has been named after the Greek mythological hunter, since the whale was moving with the fish stocks for food. It is also my son’s middle name so fitting on both fronts,” Judge said.

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He added that the team had also observed “a lot of feeding action from a multitude of cetacean species that day, including bottlenose, common, Risso’s and white-sided dolphins, grey seals and minke whales.”

To date, the IWDG has documented 112 individual humpback whales in Irish waters since 1999, many of which are recorded year after year. Humpback whales are frequent visitors to Irish waters as they are an ideal feeding area for humpback whales stopping off in the area on their migration across the Atlantic.

The beasts are identifiable thanks to the distinctive pattern on the underside, which is unique to every individual whale.

“Observing any apex predator in its natural environment is exciting but a new humpback whale for Irish waters, this is special,” WESPAS survey scientist, Ciaran O’Donnell of the Marine Institute said.

The Marine Institute’s WESPAS survey is carried out annually, and surveys shelf seas from France northwards to Scotland, and west of Ireland. WESPAS is the largest single vessel survey of its kind in the Northeast Atlantic, covering upwards of 60,000 nautical miles every summer. The survey is funded through the European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Fund under the Data Collection Programme which is run by the Marine Institute.

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