John Naughton: Extremism pays. That’s why Silicon Valley isn’t shutting it down | John Naughton

The tech giants’ need for ‘engagement’ to keep revenues flowing means they are loath to stop driving viewers to ever-more unsavoury content

Zeynep Tufecki is one of the shrewdest writers on technology around. A while back, when researching an article on why (and how) Donald Trump appealed to those who supported him, she needed some direct quotes from the man himself and so turned to YouTube, which has a useful archive of videos of his campaign rallies. She then noticed something interesting. “YouTube started to recommend and ‘autoplay’ videos for me,” she wrote, “that featured white supremacist rants, Holocaust denials and other disturbing content.”

Since Tufecki was not in the habit of watching far-right fare on YouTube, she wondered if this was an exclusively rightwing phenomenon. So she created another YouTube account and started watching Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s campaign videos, following the accompanying links suggested by YouTube’s “recommender” algorithm. “Before long,” she reported, “I was being directed to videos of a leftish conspiratorial cast, including arguments about the existence of secret government agencies and allegations that the United States government was behind the attacks of 11 September. As with the Trump videos, YouTube was recommending content that was more and more extreme.”

YouTube is embarrassed by the way it is being exploited by unsavoury actors; on the other, its bottom line is improved by ‘user engagement’

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John Naughton: How to get Twitter back on song? #NoMoreRetweets | John Naughton

They make up a quarter of all tweets, but at long last someone has found a way to turn them off…

When Twitter first broke cover in July 2006, the initial reaction in the non-geek community was derisive incredulity. First of all, there was the ludicrous idea of a “tweet” – not to mention the metaphor of “twittering”, which, after all, is what small birds do. Besides, what could one usefully say in 140 characters? To the average retired colonel (AKA Daily Telegraph reader), Twitter summed up the bird-brained frivolity of the internet era, providing further evidence that the world was going to the dogs.

And now? It turns out that the aforementioned colonel might have been right. For one of the things you can do with a tweet is declare nuclear war. Another thing you can do with Twitter is to bypass the mainstream media, ignore the opinion polls, spread lies and fake news without let or hindrance and get yourself elected president of the United States.

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John Naughton: What happens to Apple’s iCloud in China

Apple’s much-vaunted principles melt away under China’s cybersecurity law, which allows the state to access our data

Here’s your starter for 10. Question: Apple’s website contains the following bold declaration: “At Apple we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.” What ancient English adage does this bring to mind? Answer: “Fine words butter no parsnips.” In other words, what matters is not what you say, but what you do.

What brings this to mind is the announcement that from now on, iCloud data generated by Apple users with a mainland Chinese account will be stored and managed by a Chinese data management firm – Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD). “With effect from 28 February 2018,” the notice reads, “iCloud services associated with your Apple ID will be operated by GCBD. Use of these services and all the data you store with iCloud – including photos, videos, documents and backups – will be subject to the terms and conditions of iCloud operated by GCBD.”

The new terms and conditions contain a clause: Apple and Guizhou-Cloud Big Data have the right to access your account

They can blather on all they like about corporate responsibility but maximising shareholder value is all that counts

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John Naughton: How to Fix the Future: Staying Human in the Digital Age by Andrew Keen – review

As the internet giants run amok, a visionary critic calls for governments and citizens to tackle a crisis of historic proportions

Many years ago the cultural critic Neil Postman predicted that the future of humanity lay somewhere in the area between the dystopian nightmares of two English writers – George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. Orwell believed that we would be destroyed by the things we fear – surveillance and thought-control; Huxley thought that our undoing would be the things that delight us – that our rulers would twig that entertainment is more efficient than coercion as a means of social control.

Then we invented the internet, a technology that – it turned out – gave us both nightmares at once: comprehensive surveillance by states and corporations on the one hand; and, on the other, a strange kind of passive addiction to devices, apps and services which, like the drug soma in Huxley’s Brave New World, possess “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol and none of their defects”.

Users should examine their consciences. If you care about how musicians are rewarded, should you subscribe to Spotify?

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John Naughton: Don’t worry about AI going bad – the minds behind it are the danger | John Naughton

Killer robots remain a thing of futuristic nightmare. The real threat from artificial intelligence is far more immediate

As the science fiction novelist William Gibson famously observed: “The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I wish people would pay more attention to that adage whenever the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) comes up. Public discourse about it invariably focuses on the threat (or promise, depending on your point of view) of “superintelligent” machines, ie ones that display human-level general intelligence, even though such devices have been 20 to 50 years away ever since we first started worrying about them. The likelihood (or mirage) of such machines still remains a distant prospect, a point made by the leading AI researcher Andrew Ng, who said that he worries about superintelligence in the same way that he frets about overpopulation on Mars.

Related: Growth of AI could boost cybercrime and security threats, report warns

The bots and fake Facebook accounts that currently pollute our public sphere will look awfully amateurish in a couple of years

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John Naughton: Does every cloud have a silver lining? Not if it is run by an internet giant | John Naughton

Like the history of electricity generation, data processing has become centralised, so shouldn’t it be regulated in the same way?

Ten years ago, the tech commentator Nicholas Carr published The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison to Google. It was the first attempt to explain to a general audience the significance of the computing industry’s move to what became known as “cloud computing”.

In the book, Carr sketched an analogy between the building of the electric grid a century earlier and the move to cloud computing that was already well under way in 2008. Electricity was once generated locally – every factory had its own generator – but eventually it was provided by huge generating stations run by large utility companies and distributed through a national network: the grid. The same process, Carr argued, would happen (indeed, was happening) to data processing. Instead of being done locally – in the server-rooms of individual organisations – it would be done in huge server farms and the results distributed through a national (now international) network: the internet.

Related: Nicholas Carr: ‘Are we becoming too reliant on computers?’

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John Naughton: Theresa May thinks Facebook will police itself? Some hope

The PM has joined the social media ‘techlash’, but only new laws, not pious aspirations, will make a difference

It has taken an age, but at last politicians seem to be waking up to the societal problems posed by the dominance of certain tech firms – notably Facebook, Twitter and Google – and in particular the way they are allowing their users to pollute the public sphere with extremist rhetoric, hate speech, trolling and multipurpose abusiveness.

The latest occupant of the “techlash” bandwagon is Theresa May, who at the time of writing was still the UK’s prime minister. In her speech last Tuesday in Manchester celebrating the centenary of women’s suffrage, Mrs May fretted that “our public debate today is coarsening” and that “it is becoming harder to disagree, without also demeaning opposing viewpoints in the process”.

Related: Theresa May calls abuse in public life ‘a threat to democracy’

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John Naughton: Healthcare is a huge industry – no wonder Amazon is muscling in | John Naughton

Boss Jeff Bezos is ahead of the game again, spying an opportunity for big data to transform the system

‘Health groups suffer as Amazon, Berkshire and JP Morgan team up,” proclaimed the front-page headline in Wednesday’s Financial Times. The report below the line revealed that the online giant had teamed up with Warren Buffett’s conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway, and America’s biggest bank to create a not-for-profit healthcare group whose mission is to reduce the healthcare costs for their combined payroll of nearly a million employees.

Launching the initiative with his customary folksy bluntness, Buffett said that “the ballooning costs of healthcare act as a hungry tapeworm on the American economy. Our group does not come to this problem with answers. But we also do not accept it as inevitable.” If this – plus the fact that the new venture is to be a not-for-profit enterprise – was intended to be soothing, then it failed. The announcement immediately wiped billions off the valuations of the corporate tapeworms that have for decades fastened like leeches on the US healthcare system. And it’s not Buffett that scares them, but Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executiveCEO and founder.

Related: Amazon and Warren Buffett to create ‘reasonable cost’ healthcare company

Since they’re better at handling date than the medical profession they think it gives them an edge

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John Naughton: There could be a silver lining even if the bitcoin bubble does finally burst | John Naughton

The widespread adoption of blockchain technology could be good news for the internet and its users

One would need to have the attention span of a newt to be surprised by what has happened – and is still happening – with bitcoin, the so-called cryptocurrency. Non-newts are immediately reminded of the tulip mania that swept the Netherlands in the 1630s. At the peak of that bubble, in February 1637, a single bulb was selling for 10 times the average annual income of a skilled craftsworker. Robert Shiller, a Nobel laureate in economics speaking at Davos, brought up the Dutch bubble when asked about bitcoin. The tulip analogy holds, he said, but: “The question is: did that collapse? We still pay for tulips even now and sometimes they get expensive. Bitcoin might totally collapse and be forgotten, and I think that’s a good likely outcome, but it could linger on for a good long time; it could be here in 100 years.”

The downside of the media feeding frenzy around bitcoin is the way it obscures the fact that the technology underpinning it, the blockchain, or the public distributed ledger – a database securely recording financial, physical or electronic assets for sharing across a network through transparent updates of information – is potentially very important. This is because it may have more useful applications than supporting speculative bubbles or money laundering. In 2016, for example, Mark Walport, the government’s chief scientific adviser issued a report, arguing that the technology “could transform the delivery of public services and boost productivity”.

Development of the protocols for a global network is a critical responsibility, yet it’s being carried out by volunteers

An initial coin offering (ICO) is when a new cryptocurrency company offers a portion of its tokens for sale all at once to jumpstart trading, raise funds for continued development and earn a return on investment for its founders.

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John Naughton: Why Facebook has abandoned news for the important business of trivia | John Naughton

Mark Zuckerberg has clearly decided that real news has become too troublesome to bother with any more

Connoisseurs of corporate cant have a new collector’s item: Mark Zuckerberg’s latest Epistle to his Disciples. “We built Facebook,” it begins, “to help people stay connected and bring us closer together with the people that matter to us. That’s why we’ve always put friends and family at the core of the experience. Research shows that strengthening our relationships improves our wellbeing and happiness.”

Quite so. But all is not well, it seems. “Recently,” continues Zuck, sorrowfully, “we’ve gotten feedback from our community that public content – posts from businesses, brands and media – is crowding out the personal moments that lead us to connect more with each other.”

Facebook’s pivot towards ‘friends and family’ is a pragmatic tactic to take the political heat off social media

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