John Naughton: Tech giants face no contest when it comes to competition law | John Naughton

Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods Market ought to be blocked by monopoly regulators, but as long as they keep delivering the goods no one seems to mind

The news that Amazon had acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7bn sent shivers down the spine of every retailer in America. Shares in Walmart fell 7%, and rival Kroger by 17%. Amazon’s market capitalisation, in contrast, went up by $11bn. So why the fuss? At first sight it seemed straightforward: Amazon wanted to get into food sales, and it fancied having a network of 400 urban stores; and Whole Foods (which some of my American friends call “whole wallet” because of the cost of its products) was ailing. There was also a small political angle: John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods, had been enmeshed in a row with an activist investor that threatened to drive him from power; by selling to Amazon, he gets to keep his job. So: small earthquake in food retailing, not many dead?

Er, not quite, and only if you avoid taking the long view. And, with Amazon, the long view is the only one that makes sense. In the mid-1990s, people thought that its founder, Jeff Bezos, just wanted to run an online bookshop. After a while, as Amazon rapidly started selling lots of non-book stuff, people thought he just wanted the company to become the next Walmart. Spool forward a few more years and people realised that Bezos aspired to run “the everything store”. Then he launched Amazon Web Services (AWS) and rapidly became the dominant provider of cloud computing services. And so it went on, to the point where people began to ask: what business does Jeff Bezos not want to dominate? And the only answer to that currently is: no one knows.

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John Naughton: Google, not GCHQ, is the truly chilling spy network | John Naughton

Daily surveillance of the general public conducted by the search engine, along with Facebook, is far more insidious than anything our spooks get up to

When Edward Snowden first revealed the extent of government surveillance of our online lives, the then foreign secretary, William (now Lord) Hague, immediately trotted out the old chestnut: “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear.” This prompted replies along the lines of: “Well then, foreign secretary, can we have that photograph of you shaving while naked?”, which made us laugh, perhaps, but rather diverted us from pondering the absurdity of Hague’s remark. Most people have nothing to hide, but that doesn’t give the state the right to see them as fair game for intrusive surveillance.

By now, most internet users are aware that they are being watched, but may not yet appreciate the implications of it

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John Naughton: Want to succeed in tech? Try not to be a woman… | John Naughton

Innovative tech environments can be the least female-friendly, as Susan Fowler discovered among the cavemen of Uber

In front of me as I write this is a photograph. It’s an interior shot of one of the buildings on Facebook’s campus in California. It looks as big as an aircraft hangar, except that it has steel pillars at regular intervals. The pillars are labelled to enable people to find their desks. It’s all open-plan: nobody in this building – not even the founder of the company, Mark Zuckerberg – has a private office. And as far as the eye can see are desks with large-screen iMacs and Aeron desk chairs.

The people working at these desks are the folks who write, curate, design and maintain the algorithms that determine what appears in your Facebook newsfeed. I’ve been looking at the picture until my eyes begin to pixelate. What I’ve been trying to determine is how many women there are. I can see only three. So I ask a colleague who has better eyesight. She finds another two. And that’s it: as far as the eye can see, there are only five women in this picture.

What lies behind the derogatory attitudes to women that one finds both in the industry and the products it has created?

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John Naughton: Farewell Walt Mossberg, the scourge of Silicon Valley | John Naughton

His pioneering journalism held the industry to the same standards as other manufacturing sectors

Walt Mossberg has written his final column. Some people in the tech industry will probably have heaved a sigh of relief, because the one guy in mainstream journalism who never drank their Kool-Aid is going dark. But for those of us who value common sense and a cussedly independent temperament, his retirement is a moment for reflection.

Unlike most of the Stanford and Harvard alumni whose tech companies’ products he relentlessly scrutinised, Mossberg came from working-class origins. His grandfather was an upholsterer (and a union organiser) and his father was a door-to-door salesman who flogged dishes and blankets to millworkers. He went to Brandeis University and Columbia School of Journalism and then landed a job as a reporter (at $9,000 a year) on the Wall Street Journal, the house organ of American capitalism.

Related: Vanishing point: the rise of the invisible computer

Mossberg’s readers felt that here, at last, was someone who was on their side

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John Naughton: Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins by Garry Kasparov – review

The grandmaster’s account of his 1997 battle with Deep Blue is both thrilling and thoughtful

Garry Kasparov is arguably the greatest chess player of all time. From 1986 until his retirement in 2005, he was ranked world No 1. He is also a leading human rights activist and is probably close to the top of Vladimir Putin’s hitlist, not least because he tried to run against him for the Russian presidency in 2007. But for people who are interested only in technology, Kasparov is probably best known as the first world champion to be beaten by a machine. In 1997, in a famous six-game match with the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue, he lost 3½-2½.

In the grand scheme of things, losing by one game in a six-game match might not seem much, but at the time it was seen as a major milestone in the long march towards “artificial” intelligence (AI). With the 20/20 vision of hindsight we can view it in a less apocalyptic light: the triumph of Deep Blue was really a victory of brute computing power, clever programming and the ruthless determination of a huge but struggling corporation to exploit the PR advantages of having one of its products do something that would impress the world’s media. But if you believe that AI has something to do with cognition, then Kasparov’s epochal defeat looks like a sideshow.

Kasparov is not a good loser; the resulting media coverage didn’t do him any favours and IBM scooped the PR jackpot

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John Naughton: Move fast, Zuckerberg, or hate will kill Facebook | John Naughton

With 1.3 million new posts every minute, it’s impossible for the company’s moderators to filter out all the nasty stuff

‘Move fast and break things”, was the exhortation that Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg originally issued to his developers. It’s a typical hacker’s mantra: while the tools and features they developed for his platform might not be perfect, speed was the key aspiration, even if there were some screw-ups on the way.

In 2016, we began to realise that one of the things that might get broken in Mr Zuckerberg’s quest for speed is democracy. Facebook became one of the favourite platforms for disseminating “fake news” and was the tool of choice for micro-targeting voters with personalised political messages. It also became a live broadcasting medium for those engaging in bullying, rape, inflicting grievous bodily harm and, in one case, murder.

The Chinese government employs ‘tens of thousands’ to monitor its social media

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John Naughton: Microsoft surely takes the prize for buck-passing | John Naughton

The operating system maker’s implication that its own customers were to blame for leaving themselves open to hacking was rich indeed

So here is the “new normal”. The US has a president who is (depending on the time of day) borderline psychotic, childlike, chronically bored and/or narcissistic. He may also be a threat to the national security of his country. And he is doing things (like firing James Comey, the FBI director who was inquiring into his ties with Russia, and passing highly secret intelligence to that country’s foreign minister) that would, in normal times, have started the process of impeachment.

But these are not normal times. It doesn’t matter what Trump does for the next year because the Republicans in Congress are terrified of his supporters, who are not only unfazed by their hero’s behaviour but cannot see that he has done anything wrong. And this is possible because, as the FT columnist Edward Luce observed the other day, they are sealed inside an echo chamber in which the FBI director was not fired but resigned of his own accord and in which reports that Trump passed intelligence to the Russians are dismissed as “fake news”.

Related: How to protect your computer against the ransomware attack

Related: How to escape the online spies

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John Naughton: Vive la différence that foiled attack on Macron | John Naughton

French voters were insulated from the far right’s election meddling because they prefer to share high-quality information. And by the fact they speak French

There’s an ancient adage about new communications technologies that says we tend to overestimate their short-term impact while underestimating their long-term effects. For years, we wondered how the internet would affect democratic politics and accordingly focused on its short-term impacts. In 2003, Howard Dean showed that the network made fundraising easier for insurgent candidates. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama showed that the internet could be used not just for fundraising but also for establishing a political “brand”, mobilising canvassing support on the ground and using social media to get consistent messages out to millions of voters. Studies by scholars such as Helen Margetts showed that the technology could lower the “transaction costs” of political action, making it easier for citizens to register their support for particular causes and co-ordinate responses to events. And so on.

But, in a way, these were obvious uses of the technology. It was only in 2016 that we began to glimpse its longer-term impacts. Twitter, for example, enabled Donald Trump not only to bypass the gatekeepers of traditional media to speak directly to his followers, but also to dictate the news agenda of said media.

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John Naughton: Mark Zuckerberg should try living in the real world | John Naughton

The Facebook founder puts all his faith in an empowering ‘global community’ to cure all our ills. Dream on

On Thursday 16 February, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and supreme leader of Facebook, the world’s most populous virtual country (population 2bn) published an epistle to his 89m disciple-followers. “Building Global Community” was the headline. “On our journey to connect the world,” the supreme leader began, “we often discuss products we’re building and updates on our business. Today I want to focus on the most important question of all: are we building the world we all want?”

Good question. But wait a minute, who’s the “we” here? It crops up 156 times in the 5,700-word epistle. And it turns out that it means a lot of different things. Once in a while, it means us – you and me, the poor schmucks who are Facebook users. Sometimes, it’s the entire population of the known world – even those who are not yet Facebook users. Some of the time, it seems to mean the supreme leader and his employees who, it appears, are being called upon to shoulder the Herculean task of building a “global community”. But mostly the message is that the author of the screed presumes to speak for all of humanity. As the critic Nicholas Carr observes: “There is no opt-out to his ‘we’. It’s the default setting and, in Zuckerberg’s totalising utopian vision, the setting is hardwired, universal and non‑negotiable.”

Related: Facebook is hiring moderators. But is the job too gruesome to handle?

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John Naughton: Jimmy Wales goes after the truth. Brave man | John Naughton

The Wikipedia founder has developed one of the wonders of the internet, but his new venture could be more problematic

What has come to be called “fake news” is a hard problem to solve, if indeed it is solvable at all. This is because it is created by the interaction of human psychology with several forces: the affordances of digital technology, the business models of giant internet companies and the populist revolt against globalisation. But that hasn’t stopped people trying to solve the problem.

To date, most well-intentioned people have gone down the “fact-checking” route, on the assumption that if only people knew the facts then that would stop them believing lies. This suggests a touching faith in human nature. People have been believing nonsensical things since the beginning of time and nothing we have seen recently indicates that they plan to change the habits of millenniums.

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