These Behemoth Tech Monopolies are Starting to Own Everything!

New Orleans   When Amazon suddenly buys Whole Foods, and some hidden part of your psyche suddenly feels a pang of regret for Walmart, you know you’re in trouble and that something has gone awry in the world. Walmart was an easy target. They were everywhere. Amazon is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, but having them around the corner at a Whole Foods, even though I don’t shop there, makes me uneasy.

Are there any limits? Where are the boundaries?

Don’t get me wrong. I love my Kindle. My neighborhood pet store is so haughty and off-putting that I get my dog food from Amazon as well and save money and time while doing so. I needed a cheap phone for international calls that Google offers, but they are out of them, but Amazon will come through for me.

But, Google is also scary. European regulators are about to levy a record fine on them for privileging their own advertisers in their search algorithms. They are in a blood fight over who will control self-driving vehicles with Uber in a battle of the tech titans, although other techies and even legacy car makers are in this race, too. I use Google. We have channels on YouTube. Their maps are a godsend to the lost wayfarer. But what do they know about cars?

Not that Uber gives any comfort. Their CEO and one of the founders was forced out of the company by his big time investors, largely because he was out of control, but, hey, Uber has been out of control and past the pale in its business practices and disregard for local and national laws and regulations since it began, and they seemed unworried until there were too many headlines.

Facebook and Google are somehow going to manage the news and police internet postings. Maybe we don’t want the government doing that, but are these folks qualified since their priorities are running ad engines. Recently I read a new book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, and it’s a good one. The author made the point about the arbitrary and capricious rules of both that have endangered – and even jailed – organizers and human rights activists around the world. Their policies have both given voices and taken them away with equal impunity. All of this despite the fact that their business is communication. Did I mention the fact that the head of Amazon now also owns The Washington Post and produces TV and movies?

The disrupters become the establishment, too. AirBnb wants to be more like a hotel. Uber and Lyft want to replace car ownership, buses, and taxis. Amazon wants to automate the grocery business. Despite the branding hype and their own self promotion, all of this is not in the name of public service, but private profit. If you need any proof, look at the destructive impact these tech billionaires are having on public education, where they are clueless, yet leading the way in random directions.

Increasingly, we are finding out who is in charge, but nobody seems to be on watch and those that are seem to be sleeping at the switch.

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Google Steps Up and Bans Ads from Payday Lenders

054985500_1441013137-google-headquarters-sign-640x0_digital_trendsNew Orleans   Just because we’re chasing them, doesn’t mean that payday lenders are on the run, but recently we got a break that could end up as a fatal blow and perhaps stiffen the backbone and open the eyes of those unwilling to confront the predatory practices that define the business model of payday lenders. Google or Alphabet or whatever they are calling themselves are one the largest tech companies of the world, and they have now announced that forthwith they would no longer accept advertising from payday lenders. Hooray!

A number of consumer advocates weighted in with congratulations, and, surely, this was a win that undoubtedly came after extensive behind-the-scenes meetings, but no matter how the result was achieved, it’s a significant victory. In the highly competitive online advertising world, hopefully, it will be “monkey see, monkey do,” and followed by Facebook, Twitter, and the hundreds of other sites and applications that worship that almighty ad dollar. The payday lenders association, or whatever that gang of hyenas call themselves at the predators’ ball, cried “foul,” and claimed they were doing a public service in stealing from the poor, but they were left with no recourse. Google is a private company after all, and not some politician they can just ply with a campaign donation or sic their lobbyist on.

All of which calls into play whether or not tech companies might be good targets for more and more campaigns, and that’s worth some thought. Even while we praise Google, we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that they will be pushovers if the history and ideology of tech companies is any guide.

Apple certainly waged a huge battle under Steve Jobs and his successors to prevent unionization of its contract janitors, and to this day, unless something has changed recently, solved the problem by simply taking the work in-house as direct employees rather than deal with the union. Many of these tech companies and their execs are Ayn Rand fanboys and hard leaning libertarians. The role of Microsoft’s Gates and Facebook’s Zuckerberg in trying to privatize and charter up public school systems is now legendary, where often their main partners are the Walmart Foundation and its conservative crew. Michael Bloomberg and Charles Koch coauthored an op-ed recently where they wanted to get their two cents in on the amount of free speech on college campuses where they are afraid that administrators and professors are bending over too far to kowtow to minorities, women and others that might built the power to object to some of the baked in dogma opposing their interests. Austin, Texas voters just had to administer a butt whipping to the ride-sharing Batman and Robin, Uber and Lyft, who wanted to allow their drivers to not be fingerprinted like other drivers in that city. Facebook is taking heat as well for slanting its newsfeed and creating an echo chamber. Amazon seems the most Teflon, since it seems to still be consumer crack.

The good thing is that at their current size, none of these tech behemoths can just hunker down and hide in Silicon Valley anymore. To the degree that public perception and buying power still is a major part of what makes them winners or losers, we may have some collective power to punish the baddies, like payday lenders, that we need to exercise even more by putting tech companies on our “must target” list.

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Is Tech Innovation Good for Workers or Creepy and Exploitative?

1211_amazonCharlotte    If you read the daily papers, which god knows I do, one of the current spins focuses on the wild innovations to the workplace and the so-called workers ‘paradise brought to us care of Silicon Valley. Games, toys, endless snacks, perks galore, all bring visions of sugar plums for workers out there in sunny California. They even make movies about the dream of working for Google, even if no one goes to see them.

It has to be time to get real. Where do we start? The Uber and its wannabes and their notion of a “gig” economy which really comes down to paying no taxes for unemployment and social security benefits and passing the vehicle, repair, and insurance costs to the drivers. The stories about Amazon building a Seattle-based sweatshop for their middle managers made the news even when the torture of their warehouse workers has long been legendary. Twitter has announced 8% layoffs under its new CEO/founder which seem exactly like the layoffs in every other business.

And, then you get to read about the development of new tools for employee surveillance using something called “sentiment analysis” which is a language analysis algorithm that crunches up blogs, Facebook posts, and all manner of internal employee comments and reactions on surveys to not just collect data offered by the workers, but to determine what they really think of their jobs and companies. Much of this is led by a company called Kanjoya in San Francisco that uses “language-processing and machine-learning to decipher emotions from text,” as reported in the Wall Street Journal. Tell me that phrase doesn’t send chills up your spine: “language-processing and machine-learning to decipher emotions from text” – egads! This kind of sentiment analysis is used by Intel, the computer chip maker, as well as by Twitter and others. With over 100,000 workers at Intel, they want to be very prepared before the revolution breaks out.

Interestingly, the Twitter folks switched because their usual surveys were under passive attack by the workers. Subhadra Dutta, a so-called “people scientist” at Twitter — and that sounds creepy, too! – says, “By the middle of the survey, people start getting bored and hitting 3, 3, 3, and then you have a data set that is so highly neutral that it is hard to do anything.” Tut-tut, workers will still be workers it seems!

For all the creepy experiments in thought control and worker mind-management coming from the techies, there was some good news from a mortgage lender based in Troy, Michigan outside of Detroit. They have launched a very old school, but radical plan which is not a way to chain workers to their work with Foosball and beanbag chairs, cafeteria vegan selections, and a snack tour but something called the “firm 40.” Believe it or not this is not a weight-loss program but a commitment that workers will only work 40 hours. United Shore Financial shoos people out of the building, but while they are in they push the pedal to the metal with “power blocks” which are 30-minute work periods with no email or other interruptions. For sure the company puts their foot on the neck of their workers for 8-straight a day with no Facebooking or on-line shopping, but frankly there are a lot of workers – and managers – that would embrace a firm-40 in Michigan rather than a loosey-goosey 60 or 70 hours in Silicon Valley.

We should expect more from technology for workers not a daily process of looking over our shoulders and weighing every word. Meanwhile we will keep an eye out for signs of resistance and encourage more workers to answer 3, 3, 3, if that’s what it takes to drive people scientists crazy.

***

Please enjoy Wilco’s The Joke Explained. Thanks to KABF.

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Reading the Chief Organizer Reports in Tehran and Around the World

Reading-LolitaChicago     A little more than a decade ago, Azar Nafisi, an Iranian professor, author, and now ex-patriot, wrote a very enjoyable book called Reading Lolita in Tehran:  A Memoir in Books.  It was a memoir obviously so it was about her own experiences before, during and after the revolution and what it was like to live with those changes, but, fascinatingly, she told the story in sections looking at authors she and a small group of women, many of them former students, read in her behind-the-doors book club of sorts, including works not only Nabokov, but also by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Jane Austen.

All of this came to mind when I noticed something interesting about who was now reading my daily blog, the Chief Organizer Reports at www.chieforganizer.org.  As opposed to those who listen to it daily on KABF radio or get it on a feed to their emails or via Facebook, Google Analytics is a great, free tool that gives you more than you might ever want to know or could possibly understand about how your website traffic works.  For the first time in seemingly forever, I scrolled down the monthly figures recently that list in rank order the readership of the Chief Organizer Reports by country and saw that predictably the United States was the big leader with 40% of the readership, but solidly in the #2 slot with more than 11% was Iran.  With another click at the readership by city, Tehran was now the single largest city where I had regular readers and in the #13 slot was Mashhad, with 2.8 million people the second largest city in Iran.  Now they had my attention?  What’s up with that?  Is there a behind the screens interest in building community organizations now in Tehran?

Mentioning this to some brothers and sisters, they’ve cautioned, that it’s best not to even ask, but obviously that’s not me!  Of course some of this may just be pure volume and coincidence, but that really doesn’t explain enough because even with 77 million people, Iran is only the 17th largest country in the world by population.

According to US Institute for Peace, “Iran is one of the most tech-savvy societies in the developing world with an estimated 28 million internet users, led by youth.”  Boasts between 60000 and 110000 active blogs, one of the highest numbers in the Middle East, led by youth.

Young people could be part of it though?   Google tells me that the Chief Organizer’s readership is 27.5% between 18 and 24, 33.5% between 25-34, or over 60% less than 34 years old, with another 15.5 less than 44, meaning 75% of my readers still are knocking on the door and ready to rock!

So, as ACORN’s first President Steve McDonald used to always caution, we don’t want “to get the big head.” A friend and fellow organizer with long ties to Iran, when queried, cautioned that with little for young people do in their Iran, once people are up and surfing and get around the nominal internet controls there, they spend a lot of time surfing.  Of course they have to because internet speeds are very slow:  Internet speeds in Iran rank 164 out of 170 countries.

Nonetheless when I look at the readership from various countries and cities, it’s overwhelmingly where we have ACORN International affiliates and partnerships, and broad, deep ties to organizing and change, all of which says to me that something somewhere in Iran, and elsewhere, is stirring.  I’m a half-full, rather than half-empty, guy, so I have to believe it’s not just boredom, but folks trying to figure out if there is something here that speaks to keeping hope alive and making change PDQ…pretty damn quick!  At least I hope so, because it’s part of why I do this every day.

If we can be a part of that happening in Iran, then we want to help!  We’re sending the same message to folks in Ethiopia, Pakistan, Turkey, and tens of other countries as well!

Ps.       For readers curious about the geography of the Chief Organizer Reports readership, here’s more for you, and if you have thoughts or ideas about what to make of it, you know how to find me:  wade@chieforganizer.org.

Rank of readership by top 10 countries

1.      United States
2.      Iran
3.      United Kingdom
4.      India
5.      Canada
6.      Pakistan
7.      Indonesia
8.      Germany
9.      Ethiopia
10.    Turkey

Rank of readership by top 20 cities

1.      Tehran
2.      New Orleans
3.      New York City
4.      Washington, D.C.
5.      Toronto
6.      London
7.      Addis Ababa
8.      Little Rock
9.      Chicago
10.    Los Angeles
11.     Houston
12.     Bristol
13.     Mashhad
14.     Mumbai
15.      Delhi
16.      Bangalore
17.      Lahore
18.     San Francisco
19.     Ottawa
20.    Athens

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Dragnet Nation Finds Personal Privacy Unobtainable with Some Tips

dragnetLittle Rock  One of my crew of personal librarians at the Alvar Street Library recommended that I read, Dragnet Nation:  A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance by former Wall Street Journal reporter, Julia Angwin.  Since usually they comment after I return something, rather steering me towards something, I thought I should honor them and their efforts by checking it out and giving it a good, hard look.  It’s a good book, but after reading Angwin’s overview and exhaustive personal experience in trying to reduce her digital footprint, deal with her own “threat model,” protect her family, and regain some semblance of privacy, here’s my own takeaway:  it’s virtually impossible!  Literally.

            And, not for lack of trying, because Angwin went above and beyond from buying services to disguise her phone number, creating false identities, buying $200 “burner” phones, and hiring companies to supposedly d-list her from computer cookie based ad tracking services. She took all of the easy steps as well, trying to navigate all of the security controls on Google and Facebook, without feeling she was making much progress.  She even abandoned Google except for “mom business” to a new search engine, DuckDuck Go, which saves nothing, and with great effort switched email services to the anarchist collective, Riseup, which swears it will fight any effort at government seizure. 

            I was eager to learn all of that, as well as to discover from her that Google has a Data Liberation Project that allows a Googler to find all of the records of their past searches, contacts, emails, and seemingly just about everything else where fingers hit the keys under their auspices. Fascinating and scary, huh?  When she mentioned that she discovered pictures she had forgotten on Google’s Picasa, I tried it but at least so far have not been able to access anything there, though I know that we all used Picasa at some point, so WTF? 

And, those were the easier and cheaper parts of her journey.  Being a journalist with an eye out of her next job in a declining industry, Angwin believes in saddling up with a smile to every paywall she sees and paying for the best, so she does things like buy a Faraday case to hide her burner phones for a pretty penny, and contracts wildly with companies to try and get her off the grid, along with paying a researcher and using her own time to do countless thankless tasks.  All of which irretrievably separates her already from all of the rest of us, meaning that as the book progressed, we quickly went from fellow travelers to bystanders watching her journey as voyeurs knowing that it was all a bridge too far from our energy and pocketbooks. 

I learned valuable tidbits though, and I’m thankful for them, even if I’m not sure how to get there from here or am honest enough to say, I won’t even try.   Things like the fact that it’s possible to reorder Google search so that it will first find things that you wrote when they hit your name rather than things written about you.  Of course she got someone to show her how to do that, and I wish she had shared that with the rest of us, because I would love to get the haters off my front pages so that they are part of the search caboose, rather than the engine.  The tip about using mnemonics as passwords was fascinating, such as converting phrases like “It’s 12 noon now I am hungry” into <I’s12Iamh> to thwart hackers and spammers.  I’d never heard the term, “wardriving” used by tech companies driving on streets to find wireless hotspots.  Scary, huh?  I loved the story about Charlie Ward from the Conway, Arkansas Ward Bus Company family having founded Demographics to help his buddy, Senator Dale Bumpers, with direct mailing in his political quests, which has now evolved into Axciom with a fancy building in downtown Little Rock, and truly one of the scariest companies in the world in this area.  I had to agree with Angwin that the “irrational compulsion to keep doors open” that undoes so much of our efforts to achieve privacy is universally shared.

But, mainly I learned something that she may or may not have intended to teach which is that at the present time given the state of corporate control, lack of regulation, and the inability of policy makers to even imagine the fact that the internet has no boundaries and trumps all borders, we simply can’t expect privacy or that we can escape the dragnet.  Angwin created an alias to escape named Ida Tarbell after the famous muckraker, and constantly worries that the fake Ida would become a part of her “family” network and defeat its purpose.  She failed to mention the fact that Osama Bin Ladin met his fate the same way using a courier to handle all communication, until eventually they found the courier and tracked him to Osama.

Meanwhile in making the best of a terrible situation here are two safeguards that I pulled from the book.

One is that if you’re worried, do as much of your business as possible in real time conversations on land line telephones.  The government still needs specific search warrants to get a seat in the old school where the law understands the tech.

The other is achieving “privacy by obscurity” by accepting all friends, all Linked-In invitations, and essentially “burying good data (real friends) under bad data (people not known).” 

Yeah, it’s counter intuitive, but it works and what the heck, if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em, and embrace people and the public sphere, since there’s no way of escaping anyway.

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Google Corrections and Google Bombing: Privacy and the Right to Know

3979743326_2aaa7d8562Houston     The European Court has everyone in a thither about whether or not the great and almighty Google might have to make some effort to correct some of the reputational damage done to people by linking information to them which is out of date or perhaps rendered untrue.  The debate now rages between what might be an individual’s potential rights to privacy and the public’s alleged right to knowledge.  The Europeans very preciously seem to value privacy while voices seem to be rising in the United States, ironically the home of the NSA and global spying, about the public’s right to information.  What should we make of all of this?

The claims of the internet of everything are wider ranging, but imperfect.  The old maxim of “garbage in and garbage out” is worth remembering before too many become confused into thinking that everything can be easily obtained even if everything might be available somewhere, somehow.  An easy example is the fact that Google searches already do not display information that is readily available, but behind paywalls.  Essentially, Google searches easily display information that is easily available and a huge amount of it, which makes it a valuable tool.  Nonetheless, the screaming rants of a right wing website are more likely to be sucked up that the careful prose of an academic analysis on the same subject.  Part of this goes to the issue that some will recall of Google “bombing” where campaigns can force content higher up the search toward the critical front page of what will show up on an item’s search by “bombing” the information in a number of ways.

My point is that Google is amazing and undoubtedly has replaced memory for many people, but unfortunately Google cannot be confused with accuracy and truth, and that seems to me the more powerful concern than whether something has “aged,” which was the case for the Spanish lawyer having now long repaid debts which was the issue brought and decided by the European court.  The right to know is still only going to be achieved by hard work and determined research, not by random, indiscriminate search engines working at the current levels.  Real people doing real work is still the requirement for knowledge.

Accuracy to me seems the much more important issue, and the more elusive to remedy.  Currently, there is no available means that anyone has to offset even the most outrageous falsehoods, which is part of the power of bullying via social media.  It reminds me of the absurdity in union elections under the NLRB, where the company is presumed to have the right to lie, as long as there is sufficient time for the union to tell the truth, all the while disregarding the imbalance between the ability of the parties to have their voices heard, which is huge for the company and minimal for the union.

At the present state of the internet, privacy is nonexistent.  Inaccuracies, breeches, insults, and other personal and reputational attacks are simply tests of character that require deep breaths and resilience.  In short it is something that is a feature of modern life that we simply have to live with.  This isn’t satisfying, but it is reality, and something that most people take so much as a given that few would likely challenge Google algorithms even if we were given the same opportunity being offered to citizens of the European Union.

Hope for the future has to be focused on forcing accuracy and a semblance of truth, since we now already know that privacy is largely a matter of sentimental nostalgia and the right to know is largely nonexistent.

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