22 Mar 2019

Raw power in the Internet era

From Two Cents' Worth, 2:00 pm on 22 March 2019

It took an extraordinary series of events to expose what raw commercial and network monopoly power looks like in the Internet age.

And how powerless even our most powerful have become.

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Five days after the terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, tributes and prayers are flowing for the fallen.

Five days after the terror attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, tributes and prayers are flowing for the fallen. Photo: AFP

In parliament, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about the role Facebook and Google played in hosting and allowing the footage of the Christchurch terror attacks to go viral in a myriad of video clips and gifs that metastasized across the Internet faster than they could be deleted.

“We cannot sit back and accept these platforms just exist, that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place they are published,” she Ardern.

“They are the publisher not just the postman. There cannot be the case of all profits and no responsibility.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern Photo: Supplied

Yet that is exactly what is happening.

Vodafone CEO Jason Paris told TV3’s The Project the industry had taken unprecedented action to block access to that content.

“Censorship is something we take incredibly seriously. It’s not our job to decide what people want to watch, but in this instance it was an extreme act of terrorism and we took extreme action in return,” he said.

Vodafone, Spark and Vocus shut down access to 4Chan and 8Chan, the two message boards in the nether regions of the Internet, where conspiracy theorists and ultra-nationalists hosted the video.

But Paris admitted it was impossible to identify all the websites, so there is a need to go directly to the source.

In an open letter, Paris and the CEO’s of Spark and 2Degrees called on Facebook, Google and Twitter to work with New Zealand’s Internet industry and the Government to find an urgent solution.

The response… crickets.

New Zealand’s most powerful telecommunications bosses heard nothing back.

Facebook’s record for action is pretty poor.

In 2015, Zuckerberg spoke to developers just two days after a video of the shooting of an elderly man in Cleveland was uploaded to Facebook by the killer, who then gave his own commentary about the murder on Facebook Live.

He acknowledged his platform plays a role in keeping communities safe and there was a lot of work to do in this area.

He promised Facebook would keep doing all it could to prevent tragedies like Cleveland from happening again.

That promise was made two years ago. It’s been seven days now since the murder of 50 people in Christchurch was live-streamed on Facebook and still, we’ve heard nothing from Zuckerberg.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: AFP

This is unsurprising to Andy Parker, whose daughter Alison was murdered by a former colleague on live TV. The gunman then uploaded the video to Facebook and Youtube with no restrictions.

Parker said silence from the tech giants has been his experience for the last two years.

“Google talks a good game but does nothing,” he told RNZ’s Kathryn Ryan.

Parker has had to apply one by one for each video to be removed and he has to prove the moment of death is shown.

“[Google] should be demanding that these cretins posting this stuff tell Google why they should be able to do it, instead of telling me ‘you need to watch your daughter’s murder and tell us why we need to take this down’.

“It is despicable. It is devoid of any human decency at all,” he said.

Parker believes Google is only interested in the data and revenue driven from clicks on the videos of his daughter’s murder.

July 19, 2016, file photo shows the Google logo at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

Photo: AP

“At the end of the day, Google monetizes this stuff. It’s about money. They don’t lose that money, and they monetize my daughter’s murder, and I won’t tolerate it.”

Here in New Zealand, anger at Facebook’s lack of action has been building.

Westpac, TSB, Vodafone, Ford New Zealand and Lotto all suspended their Facebook and Google advertising this week.

Veteran internet advertising consultant Eric Rowe is unsure whether the boycott will make a difference.

“Realistically our ad spend is a rounding error in terms of their big picture.”

It is estimated Google and Facebook made more than $800 million from New Zealand advertisers last year.

But the combined revenues of Facebook and Google in the same year were $280 billion. That’s almost as much as New Zealand’s entire GDP.

New Zealand advertisers’ contribution to their revenues is less than 0.3% of the total.

But Rowe points out the big tech companies have brands and they have images to uphold, so shifting our spend could set a good example.

This is especially true of us right now, with the eyes of the world on what we do next.”

The Government and its agencies buy about a sixth of all advertising - so they could be spending more than $100 million on social media.

State Services Commission Minister Chris Hipkins has already signalled a review of this spending.

But Rowe said they are likely to miss the targeted advertising social platforms provide and the fact that the social media platforms are less restrained about how they use their huge datasets in terms of rights and privacy.

“The govt is much more reticent about how they use their own information, but if they were willing to use their own information in the way the big tech companies use your information -  they’d find it much easier to work with local publishers and have that same level of reach,” said Rowe.

He said the other thing advertisers will miss is the measurability of social platforms and the fact they can eke out every little bit of profits.

“It’s almost too appealing and too easy to use. It’s hard to take away from a marketer the easiest toolset they’ve been given.

But something needs to change and based on the action of the tech companies to date, we shouldn’t expect them to lead the charge.

Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Sarah Frier told RNZ’s Nine to Noon that Facebook wants to do as little as possible to clean up their platforms.

“They see it as a nice thing they’re doing for their users. They don’t see it as fundamental to the future of their platform,” she said.

And she believes this is only going to get worse as Facebook moves towards encryption in a bid to deal with privacy issues.

“The upshot of that is they won’t be able to know when people are spreading terrorist content, or videos of a mass shooting or child pornography, or any of the horrible things that go viral on Facebook, and they won’t be able to take it down,” said Frier.

Why aren't masses of Facebook users deleting the app after massive security and data privacy breaches?

Photo: 123rf

“In a way they’re washing their hands by building products that make it impossible for them to see.”

But the Guardian’s technology correspondent Carole Cadwalladr believes laws could beat the social media giants back into line.

“This is where Governments have to show that it’s just not acceptable and they will pass laws and they will take action. They [social platforms] cannot be beyond the rule of law,” she said.

Cadwalladr is pretty clear and many agree, it’s time to take the power back from the big tech companies.