Most Web Searches in Africa Bring Up Only Results from the US and France

Early advocates of the internet’s democratizing power believed it would give people more of a voice about their own communities and countries. Instead, it appears to be reinforcing digital divides between wealthier and better connected countries and poorer, less developed countries.

A Google search for “Accra,” the capital of Ghana, returns its Wikipedia entry, travel advice from Lonely Planet and TripAdvisor, and a few news websites like the Guardian. Almost none of the search results come from pages hosted in Ghana, and though results come from six different countries, five of them are in the global north, as opposed to in Africa.

Only eight countries in Africa have a majority of content that is locally produced. Most content comes from the United States and to a lesser extent, France, according to a new study published in the Annals of the American Association of Geographers. In Africa, only South Africa and Madagascar ranked high in terms of local content. Even capitals or large cities like Lagos see little local content in Google search results.

“This gives rise to a form of digital hegemony, whereby producers in a few countries get to define what is read by others,” researchers Andrea Ballatore, Mark Graham, and Shilad Sen concluded. They analyzed more than 33,000 Google search results for 188 capital cities and found that the US accounted for over half of the first page of results for 61 countries.

Source: Quartz Africa

Beware of Google’s Intentions

Journalist Susan Crawford takes a critical look at Quayside, Google’s Sidewalk Labs’ project in Toronto:

The situation appears messy: The details of the arrangement are not public, the planning process is being paid for by Google, and Google won’t continue funding that process unless government authorities promise they’ll reach a final agreement that aligns with Google’s interests. There are civil servants in every city, I’m willing to bet, who are deeply worried about massive IoT deals by their cities with companies like Google. It is likely that the burdens of these arrangements, over the decades to come, may outweigh whatever short-term benefits the city obtains. In partnering with local governments to create infrastructure, Alphabet says it is only trying to help. Local governments shouldn’t believe it.

Source: WIRED

Have a unique view on ‘data for good’? I want to hear from you

I’m thrilled to share that I’m now managing editorial for the Digital Impact (DI) portfolio hosted by the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford PACS. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Liquidnet, and Knight Foundation, DI works to improve digital culture and infrastructure by helping professionals to handle data safely, ethically, and effectively.

Digital Impact is enriched with perspectives from every corner of the public sphere. Our community of experts, virtual roundtable series, and dynamic toolkit draw on the experiences of organizations working toward integrating appropriate data management and governance throughout their work.

Have a viewpoint on data you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you. Visit digitalimpact.org, submit your idea there, or pitch me directly here.

Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook

wired-cover-2018-facebook-zuckerbergFacebook has been shaken to its core as it came to grips with being perhaps the most powerful media outlet in the world. Among other things, the company grappled with claims of liberal political bias, accusations that it was destroying the free press, and outrage that it had sold ads to Russians trying to influence the 2016 election. What was it like inside the company as these crises unfolded? How has Facebook changed as a result? What is it doing now to address its shortcomings?

WIRED’s Nicholas Thompson and Fred Vogelstein spoke with more than 50 current or former Facebook employees to answer these questions in an enthrallingly detailed article titled “Inside the Two Years that Shook Facebook.” Thompson and Vogelstein realized in October that they were both interested in writing features on different aspects of the epic tale, so they decided to team up. Having worked together on “The Plot to Kill Google” in 2009, they knew it would be a happy marriage. The result is an investigative tour de force.

Source: Mark Robinson on Facebook’s two years of hell via WIRED

Negotiating for Privacy When Data Sharing Goes Too Far

Individuals can do things that increase or decrease how easy it is to publish their data, but the digital economy is designed to capture our data. Blaming users is like blaming a victim for getting kidnapped.

Which is not to say that civil society organizations have it easy – there’s no practical way to track the full range of commercially available applications, their data policies, or the number of ways they could collect or lose control of data and cause harm. Civil society organizations may understand how dangerous their situation is, but that doesn’t mean they can monitor the entire market.

The knee-jerk reaction is to push for government regulation or human rights. While we should always work toward better laws, there are a lot of flaws to putting all our eggs in that basket. The law isn’t good at classifying data or risk, regulators have limited jurisdictions, and courts are terrible at adjudicating these kinds of cases.

Even worse, the 2018 World Justice Report declared “a crisis for human rights,” after showing that rule of law and human rights systems are weakening in 2/3 of the countries measured. When it comes to data capture – the law isn’t particularly effective, and where it is, it’s good at punishing the criminal, not saving the victim.

The good news, is that like protecting yourself from kidnapping, there aren’t perfect answers, but there’s a lot of little things we can do that, together, make a big difference. We don’t need international treaties to write better procurement contracts, we don’t need government interdiction to have workplace policies, and we don’t need commercial regulation to negotiate privacy policies that do more than boilerplate terms of service.

Source: Sean McDonald via Digital Impact

Academia Open to Thought, Closed to Thinkers

I don’t think I fully grasped the implications of this until my own access was cut off from Rutgers University. Because of this, I cannot see beyond snippets of the latest articles written by my peers unless I’d like to pay the exorbitant per article fee.

Each of these obstacles is a microcosm of the systemic problems plaguing the academic world today. Information is hoarded by institutions more interested in profitability than pedagogy.

Ownership is privileged over access and universities become less bastions of public knowledge than toll-extracting gatekeepers, hoarding scholarship for the privileged few able to have the connections to get in and to afford skyrocketing tuition costs.

Access, in academia and beyond, is a political question relegated to the back burner, one that needs to be reckoned with to have any chance of saving “higher learning.”

Source: Stephen McNulty via Cyborgology

Facebook Now Ghetto of Fake News, Censorship and Foreign Interference

Years of limited oversight and unchecked growth have turned Facebook into a force with incredible power over the lives of its 2 billion users. But the social network has given rise to unintended social consequences, and they’re starting to catch up with it.

Facebook is behind the curve in understanding that “what happens in their system has profound consequences in the real world,” said Fordham University media-studies professor Paul Levinson. The company’s knee-jerk response has often been “none of your business” when confronted about these consequences, he said.

That response may not work much longer for a company whose original but now-abandoned slogan — “move fast and break things” — still seems to govern it.

“There’s a general arrogance — they know what’s right, they know what’s best, we know how to make better for you so just let us do it,” said Notre Dame professor Timothy Carone, who added that it’s true of Silicon Valley giants in general. “They need to take a step down and acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers.”

Source: Voice of America

A Spanish Town That Runs on Twitter

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Visualization of the mayor’s connections to the community. To the right, details about his Twitter activity. In this screen shot of a data explorer developed by Martin Saveski, each circle represents a Jun citizen or organization. The lines represent Twitter follower relationships. The four colors denote sub-networks of people within Jun who are closely tied to each other by their Twitter activity. Source: William Powers and Deb Roy via HuffPost

Mayor José Antonio Rodríguez Salas has spent years turning his small Spanish town into one of the most active users of Twitter anywhere in the world.

For Jun’s 3,500 residents, more than half of whom have Twitter accounts, their main way to communicate with local government officials is now the social network. Need to see the local doctor? Send a quick Twitter message to book an appointment. See something suspicious? Let Jun’s policeman know with a tweet.

For José María de la Torre Sarmiento, an architect who stopped by Jun’s town hall after work to verify his Twitter account, the chance to quickly send tweets remained preferable to submitting government forms that took weeks to process.

“I work from home and use internet services all the time,” he said during the five-minute verification. “Why can’t I do the same thing when I use public services?”

Source: The New York Times

The Rise of the Interstitial User

Apple users usually expect for their devices to perform basic system management and maintenance, monitoring background processes so that a rogue task doesn’t drag down the currently active app, for example.

But when Apple confirmed users’ suspicions that a recent update was aggressively slowing older devices, the story quickly gained national attention, culminating in the company cutting the price of battery replacement service and apologizing for the misunderstanding in an open letter to customers. Though Apple never goes as far as to admit wrongdoing in the letter, their direct appeals to customers’ “trust” and “faith” serve as an implicit acknowledgement that the company disregarded a boundary somewhere.

Given how social media and messaging services have, as Jenny Davis says, “extended beyond apps and platforms, taking on the status of infrastructures and institutions,” Apple’s moves to smooth device performance and subtly automate connectivity make some sense. “They have become central to society’s basic functions, such as employment, public safety, and government services,” Data & Society scholars argued in response to Carpenter v. United States.

The ubiquity of networked phones not only facilitates access but furnishes society’s layers of contingency – the many convenient, useful and at times crucial services we enjoy and rely on every day. When our societal infrastructure shifts, as it inevitably does, we feel it and often anticipate its impact.

Indeed, as part of the “cyborgian bargain,” we both expect and are specially equipped to continually renegotiate our status within ever shifting socio-technical systems. For the trust we exercise conditionally with and through society’s mediating infrastructures and institutions, we do not expect an equitable exchange so much as we demand reciprocation, however tenuous and incomplete, commensurate with our wants and desires.

The sort of user we are becoming now might be better described as interstitial, a status emerging from our agency in relation to and actions afforded by socio-technologies. Instead of the ancillary user that platforms imagine molding and fixing in place, the interstitial user contends that our interests and desires necessarily defy simple categorization and we will use what options we have at our disposal to pursue our aims in spite of designers’ wishes.

Source: Nathan Ferguson via Cyborgology

Lucy Bernholz on What’s Missing in Digital Spaces Right Now

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Image: Kyle Smith via GitKraken

The most important thing that’s lacking is actually any kind of private space where you are not being monitored by the corporations whose tools you’re using to have whatever conversation you’re having.

So, every time you have a conversation in a digital environment, all of it, there’s a third party who’s got that information — always a corporation. And then all of that exchange is also being monitored by the government.

If the fundamental premise is that this activity of non-profits happens outside of those realms, it literally doesn’t exist in digital space, because we’re playing in their house, if you will. We may well need and would all benefit from an environment that provides some protections for us in those spaces as they exist.

When we talk about digital civil society we always say, ‘Look, we need to invent this, because we don’t have it.’ The best way to protect somebody else’s digital data in that environment is to not collect it. If you don’t have it, then it’s not at risk.

Non-profits have been excited to use things like free online documents and spreadsheets that are stored in the cloud and shared across organizations, and this comes at no direct financial cost to them. If you upload to those systems the names of everyone participating in your programs, with their address their email and their phone number, you’ve just given it away to other parties.

But, if you collect that information and don’t store it online, for one, or you encrypt it, for two, or you store it on your own servers and not in other people’s houses, as I like to think about it, then you are providing the same degree of integrity to that data that you again provide to the money that you rely on to do your business in the first place. You’re treating it with integrity toward your mission.

And if your mission, for example, is helping vulnerable people in your community, don’t do it in such a way that you essentially make them more vulnerable.

Source: Lucy Bernholz via Vermont Public Radio (audio)