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HROT: Remain the master of your own data with BabelApp

2021-01-26

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HROT: Remain the master of your own data with BabelApp

Yesterday, a new issue of the weekly magazine HROT came out. It addresses a very timely issue: the Digital Markets Act. The author of the article “How to Subdue Titans” touches upon, among other things, the impact of the Act on such commonly accessible communication platforms as WhatsApp or Signal. He also presents BabelApp as an alternative for secure encrypted communication whereby your data truly remain yours.  

“It’s probably clear to every one of us that using a “free” service means that we pay to its provider in some other way – usually by our data. Someone who wants to remain the master of his or her own data has to pay for applications such as Silent Circle, BabelApp or Armour Comms,” says Daniel Deyl, author of the article.

You can find the full article in english below or in original czech language along with many others in issue of HROT magazine and also in its online version at tydenikhrot.cz

 

FACEBOOK, TWITTER, AMAZON: HOW TO TAME TITANS

Winners of the digital revolution have become the new world rulers. After decades of silence, politicians are trying to restrict their power – or take advantage of it.

 

You would not want to be in Julien Jin’s shoes. Chinese authorities most likely are holding him at home against his will, whereas in the US the FBI is out to get him. And his situation will not get better anytime soon.

Chinese American Jin (in his old homeland known as Xinjiang Jin) was until last fall an executive in a California company called Zoom. Last year, the company was in the right place at the right time as employers under pressure of the pandemic began using its software intensively to organize videoconferences. This was reflected, too, in the price of its stock: in comparison with last March, it increased fivefold, and today, after a slight correction, it still is three times higher than it was.

Our Julien Jin had a delicate position at Zoom: He was a link in negotiations with the Chinese government. He shuttled between California and Beijing and smoothed the edges of the Chinese communists’ requirements so that their square peg would fit into the round hole that was the American corporate environment with least possible inconvenience.

Be proactive!

When 2 years ago China suddenly launched its “big firewall,” Zoom was among those foreign companies needing to comply with the newly established conditions in order to regain access to the Chinese market. Zoom had an eminent interest in this, as its clients had been complaining that they were unable to call their Chinese partners and demanded that Zoom be so kind as to do something about it.

Jin was very busy at that time. Beijing’s requirement was clear: If Chinese talk – anywhere in the world – through Zoom about forbidden topics, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre or last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, they are violating Chinese laws. So the government requires Zoom to “report proactively and give early warnings” about such violations of law. And just in case Zoom would not be entirely sure which call is legal and which is not, the Chinese will help. In other words, let us spy whenever we want and you will have your business.

Jin listened. According to a statement from Zoom cited in a complaint issued by Washington’s Department of Justice, Jin took advantage of the company’s “weakened internal control processes” and actually arranged spying for Beijing for some time. When Zoom accounts of those Chinese who were not afraid to talk about forbidden topics started to disappear, the whole thing came to light. Zoom fired Jin and put the blame on itself. It continues to offer its products in China through partner businesses (BizConf Communications, Suirui Zhumu Video Conference, Systec Umeet), Jin is in China, and if he will not want to go to the US, the whole thing will probably just fade away.

Jin’s story, however, encompasses nearly all the fundamental controversies of today’s internet: the power stemming from the large quantity of users, the freedom to communicate that technologies give to them, but also risks – the degree of protection for their privacy, the impossibility to control one’s own information, and political pressure (often invisible) here or there. These controversies have been fermenting in the online world for years already, but coincidentally in these weeks they ripened to be resolved in the most important places all at once.

Concentrated power

It shouldn’t work like this in a democracy but it happened: the decisive moment in the confrontation between Donald Trump and the American political establishment was not the time of announcing the presidential election results. It was the point at which Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg decided to cut Donald Trump off from the social networks owned by their companies, Twitter and Facebook. Like it or not, more tangible evidence as to the power of technologies is hard to find.

This demonstration of power came just at the time when politicians in all the big power centers were taking a deep breath in anticipation of more vigorous regulation of the internet, the technologies linked with it, and the people – who like Dorsey and Zuckerberg – pull their strings. Dramatic Washington events only added an already obvious urgency to ambitions to regulate the internet (and the use of digital technologies generally).

This urgency was only amplified by a seemingly insignificant event concerning the encrypted messaging service WhatsApp. The service had been founded in 2009 by the programmer Brian Acton. Five years later, he sold it to Facebook on the express condition that FB would not be placing advertisement there. When Zuckerberg blew off that promise in 2019, Acton left the Board of Directors of Facebook and founded another service of the same character called Signal.

At the beginning of January this year, WhatsApp sent 2 billion of its users a message saying that they would need to agree with passing on a larger portion of their personal data to be shared with Facebook. People started leaving WhatsApp (8 million went to Acton’s Signal, millions more

to a competitor called Telegram), although they previously had shared a lot of data with Facebook already and the concern that FB will “read” their messages is probably not based on true facts. The story well illustrates how every reference to privacy and data makes people nervous (although these same people often tell all there is to say about themselves on FB but that’s a bit different story). And it is probably clear to every one of us that using a “free” service means that we pay to its provider in some other way – usually by our data. Someone who wants to remain the master of his or her own data has to pay for applications such as Silent Circle, BabelApp or Armour Comms.

Washington is in any case one of the centers of power, and its decisions about the fate of social network providers have a global impact. The other centers are Brussels and Beijing. We will talk about Brussels later, but of course the Chinese also are regulating – albeit in their own way. Last year, Chinese authorities shut down the attempt of Ant Group to make the largest IPO in history and began investigating the largest local private company, the online seller Alibaba, in relation to monopoly behavior. The link between the two companies, their founder (and the wealthiest man in China) Jack Ma, literally disappeared at the end of October and reemerged only last week – to say something to about a hundred rural teachers from an unknown place via videoconference. Regulation can take many forms.

Obsolete law

The Americans will probably let neither Zuckerberg nor Jeff Bezos from Amazon disappear, but Washington will be happy nevertheless. The freshly ruling Democratic Party has been preparing for tougher regulation of the internet for at least the past 4 years (as is to be expected, mainly because social networks, with Facebook in the lead, helped Donald Trump in 2016 to gain power at the expense of Hilary Clinton).

In light of the dispute around Dorsey’s and Zuckerberg’s decision to delete Donald Trump’s accounts, freedom of speech in the context of social networks is currently coming up most often in the USA. Social network providers have been profiting up to now from a quarter century-old arrangement – and you can know that it is just that old. The Communications Decency Act of 1996 stipulates that Twitter, Facebook and the like are merely platforms offering people space to express opinions but they are not publishers of these opinions. If they were publishers, they would have a scarcely practicable responsibility for not breaking the law.

At the other extreme, there is a situation not much different from the current one where anybody can publish anything one wants. The disadvantages were beautifully demonstrated by President Donald Trump, whose Twitter account was for many years full of hateful lies. Their giant political impact led Jack Dorsey to the aforementioned and debatable non-systemic step of deleting a president’s account.

This is a point of argument mainly due to the fact that in the USA, the debate about freedom of speech has been running into difficulties precisely because the Act from 1996 counted neither upon the power of social media nor upon a president of Trump’s type. So it is becoming clear that it is difficult to fit the phenomenon of social media into categories known from the offline world, where the key position of a publisher is defined much more clearly.

There probably exists a need, therefore, for a different type of rules to which we have not yet become accustomed. And exactly such rules may be created in Brussels, where they also are boiling water to cook the digital bigwigs. The European Commission presented on 15 December a draft of two acts that will become the backbone for brand new regulation of the online environment. The European Parliament will be deliberating about them in the first half of this year.

Vestager again

The person responsible for originating these two acts is Margrethe Vestager, the Danish European Commissioner for Competition and newly a Vice President of the European Commission for all things working in ones and zeros. This fact alone probably makes the Big Tech companies a bit queasy, because Vestager has been the sole source of important regulatory obstacles in the past 4 years. Simply put, the prepared act on digital markets sums up the antitrust provisions of the EU for internet companies and the act on digital services takes care for everything else, including freedom of speech. New is that the act differentiates companies operating at the borderline between platform versus publisher according to size – the bigger company, the more requirements and greater responsibilities.

From this follows also the biggest issue: New regulation will of course bring a spate of lawsuits and nobody is more prepared for them than Big Tech. So we can get ready for a situation wherein the internet will be very bewildering. We also know that not every move of the EU in this direction is successful. A well-meant provision to protect personal data known as GDPR was of minimal relevance to real privacy protection; nevertheless, it guaranteed that teachers in kindergartens are not allowed to take photos of kids for a bulletin board. Every web site is pestering you with a dialog box requiring an agreement with this rule and that rule, all of which are written in tiny letters and have never yet been read by anybody.

The alternative is nevertheless even less appealing. An apt description may be found in a book entitled Don’t Be Evil by the Financial Times digital expert Rana Foroohar. She compares today’s technologies to the industrial world at the end of 19th century, when a high degree of concentration of power allowed the big players to dictate conditions to a level unbearable for the rest of society.

Particularly insidious

Impressive is the picture of two students at California’s Stanford University who in their work entitled The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine warn against dangers of a business model that allows such a search engine to earn money from advertisement: “The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users.” On the contrary, claim the authors, there is a danger that the search engine results will be “inherently” biased, which is “particularly insidious”. The two astute students were named Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and they founded Google still in that same year and took advantage of exactly the very thing against which they were warning.

Foroohar therefore suggests a couple of basic rules that could help society to face up to such insidiousness. One of them is to ban the combination of an entity’s own business with a search engine/platform (for instance, Google could not mention in its search results the producer of electric cars Waymo). Another measure would be to establish a special technological fund into which the Big Tech companies pay a tax directed especially toward reeducation of people who have lost their jobs because of them.

Not all such recommendations are equally realistic, but the West will need to follow some similar path. Whether good practice will emerge from American Democrats or from the pen of European Commissioner Vestager is not all that important.

Author: Daniel Deyl, Týdeník HROT

 

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