Worrying times for chocolate factories

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Calls for break up of tech giants have seemed fanciful, until now

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10 April 2019 | 0

It is a tough time to be a multinational.

With pressures for tax avoidance, bad press about personal data management and calls for a digital tax that will see them pay much more, they could be forgiven for being somewhat reticent.

However, no one was really interpreting the current travails as an existential threat. Well, not until now.

Taking a closer look at Facebook in particular, may be a guide as to how things might go in the future.

Currently Facebook is reeling from a number of shocks. The ripples from the Cambridge Analytica scandal are still reverberating, as a US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigation suggests there may well be a multi-billion dollar fine in the offing.

Not only that, it has been reported that the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has no less than seven different investigations ongoing for the big blue F, though there sixteen active investigations into such companies, including Apple, Twitter and LinkedIn too.

“An Elizabeth Warren could, even with what have been regarded as shaky arguments, win the support necessary to put pressure on regulators and legislators to make break up a much more realistic prospect”

Added to this is the ongoing fallout from leaked documents and internal communications that show a somewhat cavalier attitude to data access with organisations with whom it is doing business, as well as sharp practices with ones that have fallen out of favour, and the picture becomes muddier still. Then there are the various statements of apology and acknowledgements of shortcomings that are being highlighted for their startling familiarity, though each one has supposedly addressed something different.

Lately, Facebook has come under the spotlight again as declared US 2020 presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has called for breakup of the company, along with Apple, Amazon and Google. Commentators have said her arguments for this are somewhat less than water tight, but still, her stature and her impending campaign mean the topic, if not the supporting arguments, are going to get a lot of attention in the near future.

And the situation is further complicated by the fact that as this is being written, the European Commission has fined Google €1.49 billion for breaching EU antitrust rules through abusing its market dominance by imposing a number of restrictive clauses in contracts with third-party web sites which prevented Google’s rivals from placing their search advertisements on those sites.

Not only are individual situations becoming more difficult, the atmosphere in general is becoming more hostile.

However, other organisations have shrugged off such things in the past, mended their ways and come back stronger than ever. Microsoft and the browser wars are just such an example, though by no means the only one.

But it was the tragic events in New Zealand where a far-right inspired gun man killed 50 people in two mosques that may have a greater bearing on the situation. That appalling atrocity was filmed and streamed on Facebook, among other platforms, and after the event, the video was uploaded over and over again and watched and shared by hundreds of thousands.

Facebook stridently defended itself from criticism of its failure to take down the video by saying that they were working with New Zealand police, but in a statement on its web site added:

  • “The video was viewed fewer than 200
    times during the live broadcast.
  • No users reported the video during
    the live broadcast.
  • Including the views during the live
    broadcast, the video was viewed about 4,000 times in total before being removed
    from Facebook.
  • Before we were alerted to the video,
    a user on 8chan posted a link to a copy of the video on a file-sharing site.
  • The first user report on the original
    video came in 29 minutes after the video started, and 12 minutes after the live
    broadcast ended.
  • In the first 24 hours, we removed
    more than 1.2 million videos of the attack at upload, which were therefore
    prevented from being seen on our services. Approximately 300,000 additional
    copies were removed after they were posted.”

Facebook said that it uses AI to determine content type and suitability, but that there were limitations to the technology currently.

“We use artificial intelligence to detect and prioritize videos that are likely to contain suicidal or harmful acts, we improved the context we provide reviewers so that they can make the most informed decisions and we built systems to help us quickly contact first responders to get help on the ground. We continue to focus on the tools, technology and policies to keep people safe on Live.”

However, it points out hat for any AI, data is the key to training and consequently accuracy, and as such it is difficult to accomplish. Not only that, but the technology also has challenges distinguishing such material from the millions of hours of uploaded gaming content. This is where gamers record videos of gameplay that would look remarkably similar to real footage, but though of an innocent game, would contain largely similar material.

On the scale of the issue, 1.2 million versions of the video removed at upload and 300,000 additional copies removed, seems to be a not insurmountable challenge for an organisation that has developed tooling to allow its technicians to manage servers at an increasingly fantastic ratio of more than 40,000 to 1!

It is clear that Facebook can apply itself to such problems when it is in its own interest.

I am not for a moment likening the two technical challenges of on-the-fly video analysis and takedown and server management, but from an operational perspective, it is clear where Facebook is expending its resources and where it needs to expend more.

More to the point is the fact that a company as profitable as Facebook that has, time and again, developed world leading technologies to cite technological deficiencies in its defence, whether justifiable or not, undermines its perception by the public.

The cumulative effect of all of these pressures will likely
mean that an Elizabeth Warren could, even with what have been regarded as shaky
arguments, win the support necessary to put pressure on regulators and
legislators to make break up a much more realistic prospect.

And a final nail may well be the response of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden when told of a possible visit to New Zealand by Mark Zuckerberg:

“I am not interested in a PR exercise.”

To this was added that reining in social media platforms “will need a global response.”

The minister that has garnered admiration worldwide for her compassionate and empathetic response to the tragedy, now married with the strong action of a complete ban on military style weapons sales, may well become the leader of a charge that sees real action against what many have seen as a worsening problem.

No one of these issues might have been enough, but as with many calamitous events, a conjunction of circumstances may well result in a great fall. And if one giant is quartered, where goes the precedent?

One would imagine there are worried executives in many a chocolate factory about now.

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