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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 8th Jan 2018

Boy trying iPhone XImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionMany parents are worried about the amount of time their children spend on their phones

Big investors have called on Apple to develop software that limits how long children can use its smartphones.

The call came from two investment groups that hold $2bn (£1.48bn) of Apple stock between them.

A letter calling for the digital locks, signed by Jana Partners and a California teachers' pension fund, was sent to the iPhone maker this weekend.

The call for better controls was welcomed by academics studying youngsters' use of technology.

Design conflict

Jana Partners and the California State Teachers' Retirement System (CalSTRS) called on Apple to consider the impact excessive use of smartphones had on the mental health of young people.

The two are worried that if Apple does not address growing concerns about smartphone use, its stock market value and general reputation could be damaged.

According to a Reuters report, half of US teenagers believe they are addicted to their mobile phones and feel the need to respond immediately to messages.

Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, said it was good to hear the call from the investors.

She added there needed to be one voice between device manufacturers, social media companies and internet service providers (ISPs) on the issue of smartphone use.

"For a long time the concern has been to not do anything that would impact a friction-free experience," Prof Livingstone told the BBC.

"Everyone would like to have a well balanced life, but the way that devices are designed currently causes a lot of conflict with parents."

She called on Apple and other device manufacturers to have all notifications on smartphones switched off by default and for the creation of occasional reminders that urged youngsters to take a break from their phone after long periods of use.

Prof Livingstone, who also runs a parenting blog, did question the use of the term "addiction" for those who spend a long time using a smartphone, however.

"Everyone will agree that there is excessive use and even obsession with smartphones, but I don't believe it's addiction," she said.

Apple has not yet responded to requests for comment.

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 8th Jan 2018

Police warning over phishing emails that convincingly mimic Debenhams' email receipts

Consumers warned about "convincing" Debenhams phishing emails

Debenhams experienced a poor Christmas trading period, according to reports

Police have warned consumers over what they describe as a wave of convincing phishing emails that mimic e-receipts from retail chain Debenhams in order to compromise people's PCs. 

The phishing emails are intended to persuade people to click on a link to check the details and status of their order, which then downloads the malicious payload. 

The emails have been circulating since before Christmas. The company is aware of the scam after recipients contacted the company, while 55 people have contacted Action Fraud after receiving the scam emails. 

While the emails copy a typical Debenhams email receipt - one sent to customers after they have purchased or ordered something in-store - they are easily given away by the fact that they come from a clearly non-Debenhams address. 

Action Fraud described the phishing e-receipt email as "the most convincing phishing email we've seen"

It continued: "More than 55 information reports have been sent to our National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB). We would advise people to not click on any links, delete it and report it to us.

"Debenhams is aware it's a fake and have had customers contact them directly about it. Their e-receipts are issued to people when they make a purchase in store and this is a carbon copy.

"So these are not only unusual, but could catch some people off guard. The giveaway is the fact they were sent from personal email addresses."

Debenhams confirmed the scam to the Daily Mail: "We are aware of this and we continually take steps to protect customers and support the work that organisations such as Action Fraud and Cyber Aware conduct to encourage customers to be vigilant and aware of the steps they can take to stay cyber secure."

Phishing has continued to grow in recent years as the most effective way for cyber attackers to penetrate both organisations, and to compromise computer users' personal details. 

Indeed, organisations rather than individuals are probably most at risk given the sums involved. 

According to the FBI, spear-phishers have netted some $2.3bn since 2013 in a variety of semi-sophisticated, global email frauds - snaring a number of senior executives in the process, costing their companies millions

Source: v3.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 8th Jan 2018

Bitcoin miners are leaving China as strict regulations start to bite

Bitcoin miners rush to leave China following regulatory clampdown

A number of the biggest Bitcoin mining companies are rushing to move their operations overseas as China continues to clamp down on cryptocurrencies.

According to Bloomberg, some of the world's most prolific mining organisations are based in China, but are rushing to leave the country after the introduction of strict regulations. 

Bitmain, which is responsible for running some of China's largest bitcoin-mining operations, has confirmed plans to shift its headquarters to Singapore as a result of the regulatory changes.


The organisation has also launched mining operations in the US and Canada in order to tighten its grip on the lucrative Bitcoin digital currency, which has grown rapidly in recent months.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Bitmain's co-founder Wu Jihan confirmed the news. BTC Top, which owns the third-biggest mining operation, has plans to move as well. It's in the process of opening a new facility in Canada.

Along with Bitmain and BTC Top, ViaBTC has been focusing on launching operations further afield. The firm operates in Iceland - where geo-thermal power is inexpensive - and the US, as well as China.

For a long time, China was the world's driving force behind the cryptocurrency craze. However, this is rapidly changing as the country's government continues to clampdown on cryptocurrencies, citing money laundering concerns. 

It has also rapidly grown to consumer a significant percentage of global electrical power output. 

Last year, China stopped local exchanges from trading virtual currencies, and it's also banned initial coin offerings. Firms and leading industry figures have been angered by these decisions.

But the Chinese Government is going further by working on proposals that could derail bitcoin mining altogether. This is the underlying computing process enabling transactions.

Inevitably, lawmakers in China want to be in a position where they can limit the power and authority exerted by cryptocurrency organisations.

Jiang Zhuoer, founder of BTC, told Bloomberg: "We chose Canada because of the relatively cheap cost, and the stability of the country and policies."

Source: v3.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 8th Jan 2018

Amazon rejects report suggesting that it plans to turn Echo voice assistants into ad machines

Amazon working on new deals to pump out ads via its Alexa AI technology, claims CNBC

The blue glow of the Amazon Echo isn't at all sinister

Amazon's Alexa AI tech is set to be expanded - with a deal in the pipeline for advertising to be pumped direct to users' devices. 

According to CNBC, the retail giant has been negotiating with a range of major companies, such as Clorox and Procter & Gamble, to let them promote their products via Alexa. 

In the near future, Amazon could roll out a service for its voice assistants that replicates Google's paid searches. Essentially, companies would pay Amazon for the privilege of their products coming up when users make voice searches. 


So far, Amazon has been reluctant to implement advertising on the Echo in-home assistant, for fear that it would put people off, but the company may find the advertising opportunity too lucrative to turn down - 

Personal assistants have boomed in popularity since the first Amazon Alexa was released in 2014, and many consumer companies fear losing money and market share as a result of artificial intelligence technology. 

As CNBC notes, brands are keen pay technology companies, such as Amazon, a lot of money to appear near the top of searches when consumers look for certain products. 

This isn't the first time that such news has hit the press. In the past, Amazon has suggested that it's looking to release a paid advertisement service for Alexa. 

Amazon has yet to make its move, although CNBC's sources suggest that it will introduce paid advertising at some point this year. 

Amazon, though, has officially rejected the report. The company said it doesn't currently have plans to bring advertisements to either Alexa or its Echo speakers. 

However, Amazon now has more than 5,000 employees working on Alexa and related products, who all need to be paid. 

Whether it proves possible to 'monetise' the devices with advertising is also open to question. 

Ernst & Young's Greg Stemler, Americas consumer products & retail industry sector leader for transaction advisory services at the firm, isn't convinced. "In these early days, artificial intelligence doesn't appear to recognise brand value, and it doesn't articulate it," he told CNBC

"It may be a real challenge for branded consumer packaged goods companies to readjust." 

Source: v3.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Tue 2nd Jan 2018


GlitchImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Although the rush to connect everything from toys to toothbrushes, cars to sex toys, and any number of household appliances to the internet, seems inexorable, there is little regulation protecting your cyber-security.

Not surprising then that there has been a raft of stories this year highlighting the vulnerabilities that are coming to light.

Now, with Christmas upon us, it's highly likely that you've considered buying a connected device, or maybe Santa will leave one for you under the tree.

But with no one else to rely upon to regulate the security of your new device, what should you do to protect you and yours?

The most important question you should ask is why the item needs to be connected to anything other than, possibly, a power source.

Ginger bread manImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionYour personal details could make a tasty target for hackers

If it's a gimmick, or even if it's a feature you think looks really "cool", ask yourself seriously if it's worth the risk.

Look at the data the device gathers, what it shares - voluntarily and if hacked - and weigh that against what the connectivity is doing for you.

Managing your risk is all you can hope for this Christmas, as nothing is ever absolutely secure, but some degree of connectivity is useful.

If it's not vital to the operation of the device think about disabling the connectivity.

If it does what it is supposed to without collecting and reporting data then disconnect it. Even then you might consider whether the device is gathering information that you would rather was not kept: see if you can erase the data or if there is some setting that prevents it being collected in the first place.

The moment you see words such as "smart" or "connected" you need to move on to the second question: is there any known problem with the item.

If the security community has found a problem you should be able to find it quickly by searching online. Look for words such as security "vulnerability", "exploit" or "flaw" in connection with the device's name.

Christmas hackerImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionConsumer group Which? has raised concerns that some connected toys can be hacked to let attackers spy on or even communicate with their owners

And don't forget to search for "data breach" in relation to the company that might hold data you and yours are being asked to provide.

Research about cyber-security of a device and its associated services is the best defence but as things currently stand you need to go and find it. Don't assume anyone will proactively send a recall notice or security notification.

If after Christmas you are the proud owner of a connected, smart device then learn how to update the firmware.

Any good vendor will have provided a means by which you can upload the latest embedded software, just like you do on your PC. However, again typically you need to be proactive as few of these devices are updated automatically by the manufacturer.

If the device has the facility to automatically update then make sure you enable it.

If there is no way to maintain the firmware in the device, then it tells you a great deal about the approach of the manufacturer to security.

It's inevitable that flaws will be found but if the manufacturer has no means of updating the device it makes little difference, even assuming the manufacturer was inclined to fix the problem.

Christmas doorImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionChecking regularly for updates can help keep attackers locked out

Although you might not want to ask if the person kind enough to give you the gift has kept the receipt, any device that you cannot update should be treated with caution - ie don't trust it with anything sensitive.

And if you're the one buying the device do your homework first. It's not always easy but the manufacturers' websites, especially their support section - assuming one exists - will usually tell you what is possible.

If you are willing to take the risk with the device, and it then requires you to provide personal data - for example to use an associated app - be very circumspect.

Don't use your real personal data - give an alternative persona. Unless it's a financial transaction there is no reason why you need give accurate information about yourself.

However, if you are joining in some form of online community - often the case with connected toys - remember that others probably are not as they appear either.

Of course, this is about balancing risk again. If you have some form of smart assistant and it doesn't know who you really are, it's not going to be nearly as useful as it would be otherwise.

Plus, in your rush to use your new device do the one thing none of us is ever really inclined to do: read the terms and conditions. Some online services reserve the right to withdraw access if you give false information.

Presentational grey line

Troubled toy


Media captionThe BBC showed in 2015 how Cayla, a talking child's doll, could be made to to say any number of offensive things.

My Friend Cayla has found itself in the unfortunate position of being the plastic face of connected toy controversy.

At the start of 2015, UK security firm Pen Test Partners showed the BBC that the device's software could be hacked, allowing an attacker to make the doll swear at its owner.

The Vivid Toy Group, which distributed the machine, played down the threat and promised its app would be updated.

But at the end of 2016, US consumer groups claimed the data the toy gathered about the children who played with it amounted to "surveillance".

In February 2017, a telecoms watchdog in Germany, a country with strict privacy laws, urged local parents to destroy any units they owned and banned further sales.

And then, earlier this month, a French data regulator accused the toy's manufacturer of a "serious breach of privacy" due to a flaw said to allow people close by to connect via Bluetooth devices, potentially allowing them to "listen and record" conversations heard by the doll.

The European Consumer Organisation has also expressed concerns, while the US Public Interest Research Group featured Cayla in its recently published Trouble in Toyland report.

Although Cayla is still listed on the websites of many leading UK High Street and online retailers, most appeared to list it as out-of-stock at the time of writing.

Presentational grey line

At the risk of having dampened the Christmas spirit, there is some good cheer on the horizon for the new year.

Christmas clean-upImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionNew data privacy laws are on their way, but it's usually better to avoid getting into a mess than having to clear it up afterwards

Many are lobbying hard for the EU to expedite the regulation of the security of Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and there is already an agreed position on the standard to which these devices should be held.

Although these regulations might not be in effect for next Christmas, 2018 does see the arrival of the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will give you the right to have your data deleted by third parties.

The authorities will have significant new powers to ruin Christmas if they don't comply.

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Tue 2nd Jan 2018


old iPhonesImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Two class action lawsuits have been launched against Apple in the US following the tech giant's admission that it slows down older models of the iPhone as they age.

Apple has said that it did this to "prolong the life" of the devices and maximise diminishing battery power.

The lawsuits were filed in California and Chicago by groups of iPhone users representing others, who they claim have suffered "economic damage".

Apple has been contacted for comment.

In the California court papers, Stefan Boganovich and Dakota Speas, who both live in LA, cite loss of use, loss of value and the purchase of new batteries as reasons for compensation, claiming that iPhone owners never consented to the "interference".

James Vlahakis, of the Sulaiman Law Group is representing the plaintiffs in the Chicago legal action.

"Apple's failure to inform consumers these updates would wreak havoc on the phone's performance is being deemed purposeful, and if proven, constitutes the unlawful and decisive withholding of material information," he said in a statement.

Mr Vlahakis added that in his view it would be a "direct violation" of consumer fraud-related legislation in Illinois, Indiana and North Carolina, where the complainants are based.

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Tue 2nd Jan 2018

Jonathan HirshonImage copyrightJONATHAN HIRSHON

Image captionFor someone who likes anonymity, it is no surprise that Jonathan Hirshon enjoys remote places such as northern Lapland

Earlier this month, Facebook announced it would be using facial recognition to let users know every time a photo of them had been uploaded to the site.

Such a feature would be extremely useful to one man - public-relations professional Jonathan Hirshon, who has managed to stay anonymous online for the past 20 years.

He has more than 3,000 friends on Facebook and regularly updates his profile with personal information - where he is going on holiday, what he has cooked for dinner and the state of his health.

But what he has never shared on the social network, or anywhere else online, is a picture of himself.

It is, he said, his way of "screaming my privacy to the world".

"I choose to share virtually everything about myself on social media, but my face is the essence of me individually and this is about refusing to give up the last piece of identifiable information that I can control."

One of the big debates of 2018 is going to be around our personal information - how we share it, what Facebook, Amazon and Google do with it and what should happen when it is stolen or hacked.

Part of that discussion will be played out in tough new EU laws coming into force in May, which aim to give citizens back control of their data.

Some believe the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will turn personal data into a commodity - as valuable as oil - that citizens can share and sell for their own benefit.

Mr Hirshon wishes the US would instigate similar laws but is doubtful that it will immediately lead to citizens getting rich on their own information.

"I'm totally in favour of it but in order to accomplish that, people will have to totally change their mindset when using social media.

"Right now, we enjoy them as [a] totally free service monetised by ads targeted very specifically at us because the services know so much about us.

"Until such time as we choose to pay for these services, when [we have] the option of keeping our data private and monetising it ourselves, the idea will remain just that - an idea."

He is also well aware that the internet is the least anonymous place on Earth.

"Privacy is an illusion - the reality is that as you go across the internet, you leave traces of yourself everywhere."

Footprints on digital backgroundImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionUpcoming European data laws are intended to make our digital footprints more transparent

Twenty five years ago - when the internet was in its infancy - he made "a conscious decision" to keep his picture off the web.

"It began as a game, to see how long I could do it for," he said. "And 25 years later it is still working."

He clearly enjoys the status of being the internet's mystery man.

"When people ask me why I do it, I give them four options. One: I am shy. Two: I used to work as a spy. Three: I am on the witness protection programme. Four: all of the above."

"I refuse to confirm or deny which one is the truth."

Lego man without a faceImage copyrightJONATHAN HIRSHON

Image captionMr Hirshon's current profile picture on Facebook

At a recent conference on the issue, Facebook's deputy head of privacy, Stephen Deadman, described GDPR as the biggest single change for Facebook since it was founded.

Julian Saunders, chief executive of personal data dashboard PORT.im said: "This is a massive, groundswell change in the relationship between businesses and people.

"Data is power, which is something that firms have known for a long time. Now, the boot is on the other foot."

"Individuals will be in much better position to know where their data is used and who it is being shared with."

Facial recognitionImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionOur faces are increasingly being used as data points

Increasingly, our faces are becoming part of our personal data footprint.

Facial recognition has been used by Facebook since 2010 to identify and tag users.

Credit card companies are looking at using selfies to allow people to pay for things, while schools are considering the technology to check attendance and law enforcement already turns to it to track down criminals.

Apple's latest phone, the iPhone X, uses facial recognition to identify the owner and keep the handset safe.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr Hirshon is open to the idea.

"I need to upgrade my phone and I want to replace it with an iPhone X."

"I trust Apple with my data. Many of the points of facial recognition are kept locally on the phone. Apple doesn't get that information."

But he is clear about one thing.

"I wouldn't buy a Google phone."

From people taking selfies to tourists on the lookout for the perfect shot, the offline world is now full of people snapping pictures.

And digital copies will often follow as sharing our lives on Instagram and other social networks becomes a normal part of the daily routine.

"I have learned to turn my head when I'm in a crowd," said Mr Hirshon.

Illustration of Spartacus dyingImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionThe Spartacus hack applies the principle of safety in numbers

He regularly speaks at conferences - places he regards as "high risk" for his online anonymity crusade.

His first slide - no matter what the topic he is speaking about - is always a picture of a camera with a red slash through it.

He also asks the organisers to remind the audience that no-one should take and post a picture of him online.

Staying anonymous is quite a job.

He regularly trawls the internet looking for pictures that may have escaped his notice, but remarkably in 25 years has found only two.

Both occurred after events he was speaking at - in Serbia and Croatia - and the photos appeared on Twitter.

"I raced to find bilingual friends in both instances to send an urgent tweet respectfully asking on my behalf to take the picture down.

"Both were happy to do so and apologised profusely for the error. Nothing done out of malice, just language issues."

He is realistic though about maintaining his facial anonymity.

"It will end eventually, but when it does I have a solution which I call the Spartacus hack."

In the 1960s film, the slave's identity was protected when many of his fellow slaves stood up and declared: "I'm Spartacus."

Mr Hirshon has adapted that idea for the digital age.

"A couple of years ago, I asked friends to tag pictures of random people, animals, minerals with my name and flood Google with them.

"So now, when one picture slips through the net, it won't matter because you are not going to be able to tell which one is me."

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 18th Dec 2017


Meghan MarkleImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image caption"Meghan Markle" topped the list of search terms, following her engagement to Prince Harry

"Meghan Markle", fiancee to Prince Harry, has been revealed by Google as the top most searched term in the UK for 2017.

It puts the royal bride-to-be ahead of "iPhone 8" and "Hurricane Irma" in the list of top search terms.

The Manchester bombing and Grenfell Tower also featured in the top 10.

The UK election featured heavily in the list of top "What is...?" queries, with people asking about a hung Parliament and the Democratic Unionist Party.

"Bitcoin" became one of the year's buzzwords and "What is Bitcoin?", "How to buy Bitcoin" and "How to mine bitcoins" all appeared on trending lists, as the crypto-currency rose in value through the year.

The online lists also reflected some of the key playground trends of 2017 - including the toy known as a "fidget spinner", which made it to number four in most searched terms, and the rise in popularity of making home-made slime, which featured in the "How to..." list.

According to Google, searches beginning in "how" increased by 150% over the last decade, hitting an all-time high in 2017.

Top trending news events included the Manchester bombing and the London Bridge attack, with the top global news trends including North Korea, the Las Vegas shooting and Catalonia's bid for independence.

"People aren't only using Google Search to find information about the topics that matter to them. They're increasingly searching for ways to take action and find out how to do things - including how to donate or volunteer in moments of crisis," said Hannah Glenny, a Google Search trends expert.

Meghan Markle also featured on the top trending "people" queries, followed by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson, who died in February. Donald Trump made it to only number six on the list.

In global search, the number one most searched term was "Hurricane Irma", followed by "iPhone 8" and "iPhone X" in second and third place.

Boy with fidget spinnerImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionFidget spinners were a hit toy of 2017 and made it to number four in most searched terms

Google UK top trending searches of 2017:

1.Meghan Markle

2.iPhone 8

3.Hurricane Irma

4.Fidget spinner

5.Manchester bombing

6.Grenfell Tower

7.13 Reasons Why

8.Tara Palmer-Tomkinson

9.Shannon Matthews

10.iPhone X

Google UK top trending 'What is...?' queries of 2017:

1. What is a hung Parliament?

2. What is an exit poll?

3. What is the Confederations Cup?

4. What is Bitcoin?

5. What is the Antikythera mechanism?

6. What is a pangolin?

7. What is a general election?

8. What is waterboarding?

9. What is the DUP?

10. What is Pink's real name?

Google's global top trending searches of 2017:

1.Hurricane Irma

2.iPhone 8

3.iPhone X

4.Matt Lauer

5.Meghan Markle

6.13 Reasons Why

7.Tom Petty

8.Fidget Spinner

9.Chester Bennington

10.India National Cricket Team

View comments

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 18th Dec 2017

What is net neutrality and how could it affect you?

Restrictions on US broadband providers' ability to prioritise one service's data over another are to be reduced after a vote by a regulator.

The Federal Communications Commission voted three to two to change the way "net neutrality" is governed.

Internet service providers (ISPs) will now be allowed to speed up or slow down different companies' data, and charge consumers according to the services they access.

But they must disclose such practices.

Ahead of the vote, protesters rallied outside the FCC's building to oppose the change.

Many argue the reversal of rules introduced under President Barack Obama will make the internet less open and accessible.

The decision is already facing legal challenges, with New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announcing he will lead a lawsuit challenging the FCC's decision.

Mr Schneiderman accused the watchdog of failing to investigate possible abuse of the public commenting process. He said as many as two million identities, some of dead New Yorkers, were used to post comments to the FCC website.

During the hearing, FCC commissioner Mr Michael O'Rielly hit back at those claims, saying staff had been able to determine and discard comments that were illegitimate.

Thursday's proceedings in Washington were halted for about 15 minutes after a security alert forced an evacuation of the FCC's chamber, the final twist in a bitter and at times vitriolic debate.

FCCImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

Image captionThe hearing was briefly suspended because of a security alert that occurred while chairman Ajit Pai was speaking

The FCC's chairman, Ajit Pai, argues the changes will foster innovation and encourage ISPs to invest in faster connections for people living in rural areas.

He refers to the change as "restoring internet freedom".

Technically, the vote was to reclassify broadband internet as an information service rather than telecommunications.

The consequence of this is that the FCC will no longer directly regulate ISPs.


Media captionWATCH: What do people know about net neutrality?

Instead jurisdiction will pass to another regulator, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Its key responsibility will be to check that the companies disclose if they block data, throttle it or offer to prioritise traffic, rather than stopping such behaviour.

One criticism of this is that US consumers often have few if any ISPs to choose between. Moreover, opponents of the change claim it could take years to address any misbehaviour.

"I dissent to this legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling, destroying-internet freedom order," said Democrat commissioner Mignon Clyburn ahead of the vote.

But fellow commissioner Mr O'Rielly, a Republican, said fears over the end of net neutrality were a "scary bedtime story for the children of telecom geeks".

Source: bbc.co.uk
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Posted by Damien Biddulph on Mon 18th Dec 2017

Shadows are cast as people wait in line before a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the Land's End restaurant Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012, in Georgetown, S.C. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Is it all just an illusion? (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In our quest for convenience, we are trading away our free choice. This is the free choice that our forebears fought wars of independence for: the right to decide where, how, and with whom we live, and the sacred rights of self-determination, a full life, and the opportunity to reach our full potential.

Yet today, AI makes decisions for us in every area of our lives without our conscious involvement. Machines mine our past patterns and those of allegedly similar people across the world, and then decide not just what news articles we see, but with whom we should commune and forge bonds, what goods and services we should purchase, or for whom we should vote in our political processes. This influences our opinions, our relationships, and our social fabric.

By replacing human-curated judgement with data-backed judgement, AI ultimately narrows our field of vision and reduces our social and economic choices—in retail, dating, entertainment, education, health care, and job opportunities. Taken individually, the nudges of mercantile and political interests may be of little consequence. But en masse, our lives become more and more subtly influenced and molded by the companies we let make decisions for us.


In this way, the salient tradeoff in the AI age is not privacy, but choice itself.

Money-making decisions

Sponsors are tuned in to our behavior, adding a mercantile sway to the information we receive. It started with consumers trading our data for convenience. In our cars, we share behavior patterns with automakers and insurance companies so they can deliver better navigation, automated driving, and lower insurance rates. In our home lives, companies use our socioeconomic profiles, life patterns, and our cognitive and visual preferences to keep us “engaged” in richer, more customized entertainment—with the hopes that we’ll pay for that next episode, in-game advantage, irrigation system, video-monitoring service, or smart-home thermostat.

Shopping online gives us the convenience of searching a catalog of billions of products from our couch—but more often only shows us our recent searches, purchases, and similar products based off them. Is that really free choice? The Amazon experience theoretically offers a vast range of products that no print catalog can match. But it also reinforces our own tastes over and over again, based on past transaction data. In practice, we stew in our own consumer characteristics; our range of exposure and choice is limited by upping the odds we’ll buy.


Or look at how hard it can be to find something new to watch on Netflix or Hulu: A search for “film noir” often only shows part of the cinematic canon based on your device, and further orders the results based on your prior watching habits. While practical, an Apple TV, an Amazon FireTV, or a Google Chromecast narrows your natural exposure to art, even when you go searching for it.

Predicative analysis

Not only are our choices narrowed by monetary incentives—they are narrowed by the use of algorithms that put us into what statistics calls “clusters,” which are groups with similar behavior profiles. If you happen to watch 1930s classic movies, enjoy swing dancing, are close to paying off your mortgage, and buy deluxe birdseed for the window feeder, the machine may place you in a retired baby-boomer group. Now you’ll be hearing a lot from cruise lines, who find their clientele in that particular cluster, and you’ll stop receiving promotional coupons from The Gap or being suggested music by Ed Sheeran in your streaming channels.

As a result of your perceived cluster, your consumption choices may be adjusted. The options that appear before you narrow, and you cease to imagine the alternatives that aren’t presented to you. The lack of choice affects your free will to really choose.


Beyond the narrowing effect of clustering is the growth-limiting effect of predicting preference from past behavior. Rather than being presented new and potentially challenging experiences, we see echoes of our past trajectory. Amazon keeps us in clusters of like-behaved shoppers; Google of like-behaved searchers; and Facebook, tragically, of like-behaved citizens. Reliant on behavior data, the machine constrains us to what we have been, rather than what we wish or hope to become.

The results

The 19th-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans are continually evolving. We have long prized the freedom to reinvent ourselves—to move to a new town or country, to take up a new trade, career direction, or hobby, or even a new religion or way of life. Choice and free agency are central to this character.

As AI narrows our choices, will it keep our careers on a single track? Will it guide our lives so that we meet only like-minded people, with whom we get along, and thus deprive us of the encounters and frictions that compel us to evolve into different, perhaps better human beings?

When our choices are constrained to narrow trajectories of consumption, relationships, news, and products, we cease to see these possibilities and life paths. If we trade more and more choice for convenience, we shut out other people’s divergent points of view and rest in the comfort of our cluster. Following this trend to its natural conclusion would extinguish our culture of constructive debate; further divide and stratify our society across political, intellectual, and commercial lines; erode our empathy, social coherence, and loyalty to those fellow humans not in our trajectory; and stifle innovation borne of cognitive and behavioral diversity, as well as the tensions that come from ideas, preferences, and tastes colliding.

In the name of our environment, economy, and humanity, we can’t afford to risk these consequences. Privacy was at the top of policymakers’ lists during the first wave of the internet. Choice and free agency deserve a top spot in the AI age.

This piece was adapted from Groth and Nitzberg’s forthcoming bookSolomon’s Code: Humanity in a World of Thinking Machines. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

Source: qz.com
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