Newsletter 20 – A Fractured Internet

October 1, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I wrote a piece for the Irish Times this week about the fracturing of the global internet. In the last few weeks we’ve seen TikTok be split up because the US worries that they will be used as a vehicle for Chinese foreign policy. The EU is worried that companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and hundreds more will be a vehicle for US security policy, giving the US intelligence agencies unfettered access to European citizen’s private data.

These are big skirmishes in the battle to shape the future of the internet. We’ll see many more of them in the next decade. It’s happening all over the world too – India recently banned Chinese appsRussia has banned some services for not storing their data in Russia, and Turkey is bringing in a new law with data localisation provisions

Many of the EU battles are going to play out in Ireland. They’re high stakes, but I think they’re fights worth having. Read More.

📰 News

eAuth. EC President Ursula Van der Leyen, in her recent state of the Union address, announced a plan for a European digital identity. The idea centres around a “European single-sign-on”. If you’ve ever used “Sign In With Facebook” on Netflix or Spoitfy, or used the Google, Linkedin, Twitter or Microsoft equivalents, you’ll get the rough idea. But this would be an EU service that would let you log in to all your public services “to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle.” I think Ireland should continue developing our own version of this, but there’s also merit to it being done at a European level. Not just for technical competency, but also because national ids often become local political football, and something coming in from a European level could help remove many of those difficulties. Link.

European Startups. Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, has committed to investing €1bn of his fortune in European deeptech ”moonshot projects”. Tech ecosystems tend to grow in generations, with one big success generating many others. Nokia spawned many mobile app companies in Finland (including Angry Birds!) and the Skype team in Estonia did similar, so it’s great to see another big European success story looking to do the same. I’m looking forward to the future generation of startups created by the alumni of Intercom, Stripe and others here. Link.

eGovernment. The EU released their eGovernment Benchmark, measuring how it easy it is to do several key life stage events online, like opening a business, getting a passport or registering a marriage. Ireland ranks really high for businesses, but not so great for people, landing us somewhere in the middle of the pack. Link. PDF.

Hate Speech. Following on from the ads boycott earlier this year, the tech platforms, marketing agencies and big advertisers are coming together to define hate speech and how to stop it. I get that the platforms should be involved (they have to implement the new rules after all), but it seems strange that it’s driven by advertisers and not even involving Governments or relevant NGOs. Link

Revolut. If you have a Revolut account, your money is in a bank account in the UK. From January the UK won’t be in the EU any more, so Revolut are going to move your money to a bank in Lithuania and you’ll get a new IBAN. Link

💡 Interesting Links

Portland passed a ban on all forms of automated face recognition, including in private businesses. A lone outlier in US cities. Link.

Gendered Language. When translating between two gender-inflected languages, Google Translate almost always changes the gender of occupations to fit stereotypes. Female “die Präsidentin” in German becomes male “le président” in French. Google says it’s because it pivots all translations through English, which is mostly gender-neutral. This is as much an Anglo-centric story as it is a gender one. Link.

Poverty Lawgorithms” takes a look at the negative effects of automated decision making on low income communities. For example, automated timekeeping software allows employers to automatically round down work hours and deduct break time even if employees did not take one. In one instance, casino workers were cheated an average of €380 each in unpaid wages. Link.

On our behalf. When NGOs decide to advocate to change public policy, do they hire people who look like the powerful, or those who they’re advocating for? Link.

How the Australian PM got hacked from an Instagram pic. A funny, cautionary tale about posting pics of your boarding pass online. Link

19 – Not Just A Tech Problem

September 24, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

This week we were reminded that many of the problems we’re seeing emerge with tech are just new iterations of problems we’ve always faced.

Alexis Magrigal in the Atlantic looked a series of killings widely reported as “caused by WhatsApp”.

“This year has been presented as an epidemic of violence, aided and abetted, even caused, by WhatsApp. The narrative slotted neatly into the broader discussion of Big Tech’s failures, the corrosiveness of social media, and the crises of misinformation across the world. After all, WhatsApp usage has exploded in India over the past few years, across city and country, rich and poor. Two hundred million Indians now use WhatsApp. Communal violence has been on the rise, going from 751 incidents resulting in 97 deaths in 2015 to 822 incidents and 111 deaths in 2017”

He makes a compelling case that many are just bad humans doing what they’ve always done, just now on WhatsApp.

Another paper published in Science points to the fact that “fake news” constitutes just 0.14% of an average American’s daily media diet.

Closer to home we had several reminders that disinformation and sensationalism is a wider societal problem, with 2FM looking for a debate on the efficacy of masks, and RedFM broadcasting advice that Vitamin C can cure Covid.

I don’t highlight these to encourage us to treat tech related (or tech enhanced) problems any less seriously or urgently, but just to remind that a narrow focus on just the tech involved can blind us to the deeper root cause, making our diagnoses and ultimately our solutions less effective.

📰 News

Are Twitter’s Images Biased? People can upload images of any shape or size to Twitter, but Twitter crops a small section of the image to use as a preview. In 2018 they introduced “smart auto-cropping“, a machine learning algorithm that tries to use the most interesting part of the image in the preview. Several users noticed this week that, in images with black people and white people, the algorithm seems to always focus on the white person. EG 1. EG 2.

Twitter responded fairly quickly, saying that they did test for bias when they launched, but they’ll investigate again. Another person did a test with a random sample and couldn’t recreate the effect, so it may be a case that the only examples becoming popular are the ones that seem to show bias, rather than the ones that don’t.

The whole incident is a great example for why we need more frameworks for auditing the results of automated processes. Their effect matters far more than their intent. In this case Twitter’s engineers just wanted to know “what’s interesting?” in the image, but some checks for “Is this automating racism?” “Is this automating sexism?” would still have been useful. Link.

Co-working. Apparently there’s no 400 remote working spaces in Ireland, mostly in rural areas. Rachel Lavin profiled a few of them in the Business Post. Link.

Brexit. The Johnson Government are detailing their post-Brexit plans to pick the future winners in emerging technologies, give them state-aid and create a world-leading British tech sector. Besides the difficulty this will cause in reaching a trade agreement with the EU, and the fact that all of us would love the clairvoyance necessary to pick the next Google, there’s some merit in direct funding of new technologies with public benefit. The US tech sector benefits from a lot of R&D done as publicly funded military funding, so they could achieve similar effects here, if done through the NHS for example. Then again, you probably don’t need to leave the EU to do that. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

Misinformation. An interview with Bill Gates about misinformation online. Over 20 mins he highlights many of the areas where we know the problems, but don’t yet have many concrete solutions. Link [YouTube].

Fixing bias. Algorithms can help us uncover and address systemic bias. Here’s one good example from France, where the allocation of daycare places is in the gift of local politicians, who are fighting against the algorithm that will do this more fairly. Link.

Oldspiracy. Forget 5G, in 1890 the New York Herald reported a theory that Russian Influenza was caused by the newfangled electricity. Link.

The first death sentence over zoom. As if 2020 couldn’t get more grim. Link.

Buying myself back” Model Emily Ratajkowski talks about what it means to own your own image. An excellent read. Link.

Newsletter 18 – The Fracturing Internet

September 18, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Image via NYT.

Two big international stories this week might seem quite disparate, but have the same underlying cause. It looks like Chinese owned TikTok will be bought by Oracle, to placate the Trump administration. Nearer to home the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has ordered Facebook to stop sending private data from the EU to the US, in a move that might break much of how the internet currently works.

Both are indicators that we have moved out of the “beginning” stage of the internet, where every country’s goal was just to get people and businesses “online”. Now we are embarking on the stage where, given that everyone is connected, governments try mould the global internet to match their local cultural norms and legal frameworks.

Because the Us Government can snoop on any US server it wishes, Europe is worried that Facebook and others will be a vector for US security policy, to the detriment of EU citizens. The US is worried that TikTok will be a vector for Chinese foreign policy, to the detriment of US national security.

All of these moves tread a difficult line, trying to impose your worldview to shape a single global internet, without fracturing the internet into different regional versions. China went first many years ago, intentionally fracturing the internet in their region with their “Great Firewall.” Other countries are ramping up their efforts too. India has banned many Chinese companies over the last few months. Australia has released a draft digital news bill that includes mandating 28 day notice before any algorithm changes (the kind that are often deployed on a daily basis).

This has been an emerging trend over the last few years, but in 2020 it has really accelerated. I think it will be a dominant trend for the 2020s, where we struggle with the tension between keeping the benefits of an open, global internet and the desire to make it conform to the norms and rules in our own different parts of the world.

Stories: Oracle likely to buy TikTokFacebook Ireland vs DPCAustralia’s media regulation billIndia bans 118 chines apps.

📰 News

An Post has announced it will be launching its own “Revolut-like” app in October. I saw a lot of Irish techies laugh about this on Twitter, at the notion that the Irish postal service could beat a digital-native like Revolut, but An Post is a fairly serious personal finance organisation. They have Credit Cards, Loans, insurance products and a mobile MVNO. In all of these they’ve been quite smart about how they partner with technical experts to build the product and leverage their own branding and network, so I wouldn’t write them off just yet. Link.

Journalistic privilege. An interesting case – a local journalist filmed some footage of a house on fire. Gardaí suspect fowl play and want to see the contents off his phone. He refused, invoking journalistic privilege, but a judge ruled that there’s no such thing. Link.

The Dublin Inquirer has an excellent piece on Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) which several groups are pushing for in Dublin. Once you strip back the technical language, they’re mostly talking about a Leap Card with a monthly subscription, which covers public and private transport, including the likes of Free Now taxis and bleeper bikes. The technical challenge of that sounds fun and interesting, but I’m skeptical about the public benefit of deeply integrating private transport options into a system like this. Link.

TikTok recently switched their legal European HQ to Dublin, which means we have the burden and cost of regulating them, so thankfully we might also be getting some jobs along with that too. The Irish Times reports that they’re looking for property here that could hold up to 5,000 workers. Google employs 8,000 after 15 years here, so take TikTok’s number with a pinch of salt, but it does add weight to the IDA’s claim that getting a company to locate their Data Centre here anchors them, then frequently leads to job creation. I wonder where they’ll all live? Link.

🤔 Interesting Links

Facebook often talk about their platform as a mirror for reality, but Shida Ovide illustrates the many ways that social media platforms shape reality, instead of passively reflecting it. Link.

Rethinking Rocket Internet. I always thought of Rocket Internet, the German startup builder, as a company that just copies others. And it is, but maybe that’s a good thing? It doesn’t have the romantic flair of some startup stories, and as a business owner they scare me, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a net-negative for creating competitive markets. Link.

“Another experiment showing how influential Wikipedia is on the real world: Adding two paragraphs of text & nice pictures to randomly selected articles about small European cities led to an over 9% increase in hotel stays; the edit is worth $190k per year!” Link.

Newsletter 17 – Dublin’s Fair(ly empty) City

September 10, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Was 2019 the peak of city-centre office working? Or will 2020 be remembered as a temporary blip when we all go back to the office after Covid?

6 months into the pandemic Google’s decision to abandon plans for a new 2,000 person office in Dublin feels like a strong signal that this may a trend that continues after the pandemic ends. This mirrors similar developments in cities all over the world, with the most notable one being Pinterest’s decision to cancel their lease and pay an $89.5m fine to do so.

“As we analyze how our workplace will change in a post-COVID world, we are specifically rethinking where future employees could be based,” their CFO said. At $89m, it’s a serious bet against the future of the city centre office.

If companies like Google and Pinterest are right, that poses two big questions – Where do people chose to live, when they can work anywhere? And what happens to cities if the office workers don’t return?

On the first question, for now at least, many office workers are getting out of the city. If you can work anywhere, you might as well work somewhere beautiful.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the co-working spaces in places like Skibbereen and Tralee are fully booked out these days. Airbnb have had such a strong resurgence over the summer that revenues are now 75% higher than they were at this time in 2019. Hotels are still way down.

It’s hard to know if this trend will hold or if it’s just a fun thing to do during an odd year. Cities are still where people do much more than work – where they socialise, meet romantic partners, have a wider variety of entertainment and food, etc.

Which leads to the second question… what do cities look like if office workers don’t return? In one of the best pieces I read this week, Paul Kearns writes about Dublin that “A capital that prioritises suburban shoppers, commuters and international tourists is now reaping the rewards of its anti-urban living policies.” The pandemic has revealed just how little we’ve invested in Dublin as a city to live in, rather than just one we commute and travel to. Other cities are worrying about the long term emptiness of their business districts, but we might have to worry about the whole city centre.

There’s also the knock on effects. Steve Levine points to the trillion dollar “office economy” that is being killed by remote work. Nobody is queueing in Starbucks. Business travel made up 60% of all airline revenue and (fingers crossed) may not ever be back to those levels (although I’m not sure about this one). I got a sad goodbye email from the barista in our office building last week and I can’t imagine the cleaning staff have been too busy over the last few months.

If the trend holds, those who “feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes” — will risk losing their jobs, according to Elisabeth Reynolds at MIT. Another indicator that the pandemic is affecting those on lowest incomes the hardest.

I’m not sure that we should spring into action with any long-term plans while the ultimate outcome is still so uncertain, but it certainly gives us opportunity to re-imagine what we should want from our cities, and indeed our suburbs and towns too.

National Digital IDs.

The Economist has a pair of interesting articles this week. In the first they look at how the pandemic is spurring the digitisation of Government. Lots of interesting case studies of public services shifting dramatically online – from wedding registrations, unemployment claims and doctor’s appointments. We have some stellar examples in Ireland – Revenue Online is mostly excellent (just don’t lose your cert), and the Passport application app is a delight.

They also argue, because of this, that Covid-19 strengthens the case for digital ID cards. I’d broadly agree, with all of the caveats they list, including strict legal protections of the data, giving citizens ownership and control of their data and investing heavily in security.

Two of the best practices they recommend – 1) be transparent about it (i.e. call it national id, don’t try sneak it in as something else) and 2) don’t make it mandatory – are of course the exact opposite of what we did here, claiming the Public Services Card wasn’t a national id, then making it mandatory.

Hopefully we learn from the success of initiatives like the Covid Tracker app, which prioritised our data privacy, promoted the benefits of use and invested in building trust, and got very high levels of voluntary adoption as a result.


Mobile data is getting cheap. When I worked in Vodafone, I managed the launch of Prepay mobile broadband in 2008. If memory serves, we made a massive price drop from €5 per mb to €0.5 per mb. This week 48 (Three’s youth brand) launched 100GB (and free calls and text) for €7.99 per month. That’s €0.0000799 per mb! Link.

In news that will make a small number of people very happy, the BlackBerry is back! Coming next year. Link.

The first bit of science on whether or not Contact Tracking apps actually help reduce the spread of Covid has been published by Oxford, which seems to suggest that they have a positive impact at any level of uptake, not just when most people have it installed. Link.

Interesting Links

Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science PhD student at UCD, has published a paper on the “Algorithmic Colonization of Africa”. Link.

On a topic close to my heart – the battle for the future of young men online. “‘Queer Eye’, Jordan Peterson and the battle for depressed men.” Link

A good series of Tweets from Stephen McIntyre at Irish VC Frontline, about why the Google office announcement doesn’t mean Google are pulling out of Ireland. He makes two interesting points: 1) Engineering and Sales are the important jobs at tech companies, the ones with the biggest salaries and the ones least likely to get automated or outsourced. We have lots of them here. 2) We’ve always done well at attracting Inside Sales teams here – the ones that make sales over the phone and close deals with an email. We’ve done less well on the sales teams that do in-person pitches and end deals with a handshake. They go to London. But that’s an opportunity for us, now that business travel and hand-shakes no longer exist. Link.

Election interference guns for hire. A US PR firm was running large scale, coordinated inauthentic behaviour online to influence the elections in Venezuela and Bolivia. Link.

“Should Google’s Ad Market Be Regulated Like the Stock Market?” Link.

Future crimes. A county sheriff in the US implemented a “futuristic program to stop crime before it happens.” Of course, it just lead to innocent people being monitored and harassed. Bad police can just be bad at scale now. Link.

Peter’s Newsletter 16 – Leaving Cert Predictive Grades

September 3, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I send pieces like this in a newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here.

I’m on my holidays in lovely Lahinch this week, so this will be shorter than usual.

Leaving Cert Calculated Grades – A New Natural Experiment

This week it was widely reported that the Leaving Cert predictive grading model has been changed. The minister announced on Tuesday they have “removed the use of school-by-school historical data in the standardisation model.” The department issued their own briefing note suggesting it hasn’t been removed entirely, but dramatically down-weighted.

This is quite an interesting natural experiment we’re running at a country-wide level. For just a single year, to quote the minister “Your school will not determine the results that you get through standardisation this year.” Your school has always determined this, of course, and it will again in the future, but far less so in 2020. The universities will have a higher percentage of students who have had less access to grinds, or smaller class sizes, or after school study, but one would assume have no less potential than their better-off peers.

Early indications from the department are that two trends are emerging:

  1. Overall grades are higher. Teachers have been kinder to students in 2020 than the marking system generally is. This will be tough on people who sat the Leaving in 2019 and are re-applying to the CAO now, competing with an inflated year. Similar for those who choose to sit an exam in November.
  2. The attainment gap between disadvantaged schools and the rest has narrowed this year, which is positive. Being a top performer in a disadvantaged school now means you have a chance of being among the top achievers in the country, which was not the case before.

Calculated grades are released on Monday, and the model used should be made public shortly after that too. Link.

Deliveroo tragedy. In last week’s issue I was talking about the precarious nature of many gig economy workers. On Monday night, tragically, Thiago Osorio Cortes, a 28 year-old deliveroo rider was killed in a hit-and-run in Dublin city. Crowds of Deliveroo workers held a vigil at the spire on Wednesday. Watch. Read more.

How the British government rules by algorithm. The Economist have an interesting piece on how “the over-enthusiastic application of scientific management is weakening the public sector.” I love some data-driven decision making as much as the next guy, but it’s good to see push back on the limitations and negative effects of an over reliance on data-centric approaches. “Targets create three common problems. They produce perverse results when people focus excessively on them. They tempt managers to manipulate numbers. The obsession with measurement diverts people from useful activity to filling in forms.” Read more.

A report on Micromobility (think e-Bikes and e-Scooters) shows that the industry has been hit dramatically by Covid, but should recover entirely and then grow. This is specifically the industry of shared Micromobility – like Dublin Bikes, but electric – which are predicted to be preferable to mass transit, when the cities start to re-populate. Link.

Facebook’s Election Ads. In Ireland there is a moratorium on talking about the election in the press on the day before and of an election. There’s no such moratorium online, or of online ads. Many wondered if Facebook might introduce a similar moratorium for the upcoming US elections. Yesterday they announced a half step in this direction – they won’t allow new ads in the 72 hours before election day. This means that every message that is out there and being promoted will be floating around for a few days before voting day, so in theory can be fact checked, vetted, disputed etc. and try prevent any last minute tom foolery. 72 hours seems like a very short time window for all that to happen. It took months to unravel some of the things that happened in the Brexit campaign, for example. Link.

Peter’s Newsletter 15 – Ireland’s Gig Economies

September 3, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I send this update in a newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here.

In this week’s issue: Gig economy workers, Yelp data predicts covid hotspots, fake guardian headlines, what Europe can teach silicon valley, the UK’s grading algorithm, the human cost of conspiracy theories and most of Scots wikipedia is made up. 

📰 Ideas

How do we classify workers in the gig economy? When I lived in San Francisco one of my housemates used to do “Task Rabbit” jobs the odd evening or weekend for a few extra dollars. He’d usually get a job to assemble some furniture, or move a couch or lift something heavy (he’s a tall guy!). He wasn’t a full time employee, he didn’t have to commit to a certain number of hours. He’d just mark himself available on the app when he wanted some extra spending money. It was the perfect arrangement for him.

But for many others it wasn’t so simple. Taxi drivers who were now Uber or Lyft drivers didn’t always have that luxury, many did it as a full time job, not just a nixer. And many of the platforms demanded more in return for them. Postmates and Instacart made their shoppers commit to being available for multi-hour shifts, rather than having the freedom to accept jobs as and when they want them. This starts to look less and less like “gigs” and more and more like regular old jobs.

So how do we regulate jobs like these? How do you balance the protections and rights we want to guarantee all workers, without killing the opportunities for “gigs” that many find a useful supplement to their income, or a flexible way to work around other commitments?

California is place currently trying to find this balance…. but not very well. Legislation was due to come into force today that would force all Uber and Lyft drivers to be re-classified as employees, but a court has granted an emergency stay this week. In a case of both sides being wrong, the California legislation seems very poorly drafted and overly broad, but equally incredulous is Uber and Lyft’s claims that their drivers are completely independent contractors.

In London, even though taxi-drivers are generally self-employed, the Employment Tribunal found that Uber drivers are not independent contractors. Independent contractors, they reasoned, can negotiate their fee, are free to reject work or set many of their own terms, none of which are options available to Uber drivers. They are therefore more like employees and should get employees rights, like sick pay and minimum wage. Uber are appealing this in the UK Supreme Court at the minute.

Closer to home, our major taxi app Free Now does act more like a simple connector for Taxis, so doesn’t come up against these conflicts, but we do have many “gig economy” workers, especially in food delivery like Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats. All of these companies engage their riders as self-employed contractors, rather than employees.

Earlier this year the High Court issued a finding that Dominos Pizza delivery drivers are effectively employees, not contractors, even if their contract says otherwise. The High Court’s reasoning was similar to the London tribunal’s. One would imagine they’d apply the same finding to all other gig economy companies, if a case comes before them.

Which would probably mean that services like Deliveroo, Just Eat and Uber Eats won’t be able to operate in Ireland (they already loose a ton of money even without this). And maybe that’s where we’ll end up, that they can’t be viable businesses without exploiting vulnerable workers, in which case we’ll move on without them. But it’s probably worth exploring and writing more explicit regulations for these industries, to try find a middle ground that protects workers, especially those most economically vulnerable, while also giving them and others the benefits offered by more flexible gig work.

The worst case is that we end up where California is this week, with the worst of both worlds.

🔗 Interesting Links

The data team at Yelp have taken all of their usage data and mapped it against Covid-19 outbreaks in the US. Two interesting findings. The first is the specific activities that are linked to outbreaks – “As people began resuming common pre-pandemic activities [….] – specifically, frequenting restaurants, bars and nightlife, and gyms – a clear spike in COVID-19 cases within those locations quickly followed.” Second, even in states without mandated lockdown, people naturally curtailed visits to places where social distancing is harder to enforce. Many temporary closures are becoming permanent too. Link.

You’ve probably seen those fake guardian headlines on Twitter? Some are funny parody, poking fun at the various columnists at the paper, but many are used to stoke outrage at opinions that were never published (see screenshot below). Lots of these are created on a free website, which the Guardian is now suing for copyright infringement. It’s an interesting challenge, balancing parody in freedom of speech, vs. malicious disinformation. I would have thought it would have made more sense as a Trademark / misleading consumers approach, rather than copyright, but I’m very much not a lawyer. Link.

Marietje Schaake, formerly a Dutch MEP, has been joined Stanford University in a role which I saw described as “Europe’s ambassador to Silicon Valley”. Probably a stretch, but the New Yorker have a great profile on her and the lessons America can learn from Europe about regulating tech. “Silicon Valley is not usually seen as a policy hub, but, of course, it is one. I saw there was more Silicon Valley in Europe than Europe in Silicon Valley and I felt maybe this should changeLink.

China’s Baidu (Google equivalent) blanks out parts of its maps, so these intelligent reporters in Buzzfeed used those blanks to find a network of 315 locations that look like active internment camps in XInjiang, presumably for the Uighur muslims. Stellar investigative journalism. Link.

For the stats nerds – How Does Ofqual’s Grading Algorigthm Work? – particularly relevant as our own Department of Education will be doing something similar with Leaving Cert results here. Link

This is a sad read on the real human cost of online conspiracy theories. “A Florida taxi driver, who believed false claims that coronavirus was a hoax, has lost his wife to Covid-19” Link.

The Women Making Conspiracy Theories Beautiful. Link.

It turns out most of Scottish Wikipedia (about 20,000 articles) was written by an American teenager who doesn’t speak Scots, “but simply tries to write in a Scottish accent”. Link.

Peter’s Newsletter 14 – What is QAnon?

August 21, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

In this week’s issue. A briefing note on QAnon. Plandemic 2 gets cancelled. Fatphobic Instagram? Fact-checking fails again. Earthquake alerts. How the New York Times grew millions of subscribers. Social Signalling in Social Networks and How Tik Tok’s algorithm works.

💡 Ideas

How seriously should we take QAnon? 

Every now and again a new conspiracy theory becomes popular. New world order, flat – earthers, fake moon landing (even fake moon!). Many are interesting and bizarre, but some can also be quite dangerous. The false linking of autism to vaccines, for example, is a very serious national health risk.

So it’s always hard to know how to categorise new conspiracies that emerge. Most are peculiar, but not worth spending much time getting to know, but the dangerous ones are worth studying, especially if you are interested in preventing their spread.

The “QAnon” movement definitely falls into the dangerous category, but it’s very US-centric, so I’m still unsure what hold it has in Ireland. Small but growing, it seems.

What is QAnon? Since 2018 a person or people calling themselves “Q” has been making a series of posts, some containing vaguely worded statements, which conspiracy theorists interpret as predictions. Like a fan looking for meaning in song lyrics, they usually find ways to back-fill “predictions” into real world events, deeming Q to have successfully predicted them.

The rhythm of these predictions (or drops) and the frenzy that follows makes seems to build incredibly strong community between the conspiracy theorists who follow Q. This has seen it grow incredibly fast, with an estimated 1.2m people in one or more QAnon related Facebook groups as of July 2020. It also does what many other conspiracies do – isolates followers from their friends and family in real life. Reddit’s QanonCasualties has some harrowing stories from people who’s loved ones have become obsessed with QAnon.

What do they believe? Well that’s the other interesting thing about QAnon – because it’s directed by a single person/group, it shifts focus every so often and kind of acts as a catch-all of major conspiracies. 5G is mind control. Bill Gates made Covid. You name it, they got it. I’d imagine for followers this keeps the movement compelling and interesting, but also adds up to quite a bleak view of the wider world that you inhabit.

They had two major inflection points recently which significantly drove growth. Most recently Covid and lockdown, but before that, Epstein. To be fair to them, they believed the world is run by a paedofile ring of politicians and billionaires… and they weren’t exactly proven wrong.

So how worried should we be? Globally, quite. The FBI has deemed them a domestic terror threat and they have been behind a huge amount of the anti-mask movement. A Q follower is now a Republican congressional candidate in Georgia and yesterday Trump praised Q followers.

But in Ireland, I think it’s worth just being alert for now. Much of the Q narrative is around Donald Trump and how he is the great saviour, which I just don’t think translates too well here. So we seem relatively safe for now, but it’s worth understanding and keeping an eye on. The very nature of the social internet seems to be leading inevitably towards more dangerous and virulent conspiracy movements emerging.

If you want to read further, The New York Times have a good primer. Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue talked to the Beacon this week about QAnon in Ireland (summary: small but growing). Or if you want to deep-dive, check out Gallagher’s report on “The Genesis of a Conspiracy Theory.”

Or if you’d prefer to listen…. Reply All looked at one QAnon conspiracy in July. The New York Times also did a 9 part series called Rabbithole, which is fantastic.

🔗 Interesting Links

Plandemic was a 26 minute long video posted in May, which pushed several conspiracy theories about Covid and how it was intentionally released by some billionaires. Shared widely by QAnon followers it got several million views across YouTube, Facebook and elsewhere before the platforms stepped in to take it down. The sequel was released this week, but the platforms took more decisive action this time around, blocking it out right from the get go. Read more.

On the flip side of the content filtering debate, Instagram came under criticism from activists this week for removing photos of model Nyome Nicholas – Williams (@curvynyome). The photos seemed to trigger Instagram’s nudity filter, even though they’re very similar to many semi-nude (if that’s the right terminology) photos that haven’t been removed. Nyome and the photographer pointed to the fact that her photos, being of a larger, black woman, being removed while others (of skinny, non-black women) remaining on the site pointed to inherent bias in Instagram – either their AI or policies or both. It seems Instagram listened and have since updated their policies. Read more.

To further exemplify the tight-rope platforms are trying to walk between blocking too much and blocking not enough, Slate recently reported on Google blocking advertising from their articles about racism, incorrectly flagging them as racist. No technology will ever get this balance perfect, so the question we need to ask is which side we should err on? Pulling ads/support from anti-racist content, or allowing ads/support on racist content?

Add this to the growing body of evidence that fact-checking fake news doesn’t work very well. A team in UCD tested some fake news messages on people (e.g. that the COVID tracking app was made by Cambridge Analytica) and it always made people less confident about downloading, even if the story was accompanied by fake news warnings. Link.

Earthquake alerts. Google are planning to enable all android devices to work together to detect synchronous shaking in a specific area, use that to understand that an earthquake is happening, then send early warning alerts to people nearby, hopefully giving them a few seconds to get prepared. Link.

A good exit interview with the CEO of the New York Times. Interesting to see their strong focus on paid subscriber growth and building an agile digital team to deliver that. Link.

I’ll also include two excellent pieces of writing about tech platforms here which I came across this week.

Proof of X” looks at how Social Networks are designed to force people to do things for social signalling, then asks if we can design social networks that encourage people to do things that are good for them.

Eugene Wei’s “Tik Tok and the sorting hat” is a brilliant analysis of the algorithms behind TikTok’s incredible growth in the last 12 months.

What Should Ireland’s Data Centre Strategy Be?

August 14, 2020 in Essays

Last week TikTok announced it would be investing €420m in new Data Centres in Ireland, and creating up to 100 jobs in the process.

The IDA announced this as a big win for Ireland, but the announcement sparked a bit of pushback and public debate, with many questioning the wisdom of our industrial strategy that encourages Data Centres to locate here.

The main concern with Data Centres is their power usage. Eirgrid, which manages our national electricity grid, predicts that Data Centres alone will account for 29% of our total energy demand in 8 years time.

“The demand forecast in Ireland continues to be heavily influenced by the expected growth of large energy users, primarily Data Centres. These need a lot of power and can require the same amount of energy as a large town.”

We have signed up to aggressive carbon emission reduction targets, which we’re already at risk of missing, so an ever increasing number of power hungry Data Centres will surely worsen our performance, costing us both financially and ecologically.

Is it fair that we are giving our beef farmers grief one day, but celebrating new Data Centres the next?

The other main critique is that, given all of the power Data Centres demand, they give back very little in terms of jobs. The initial build creates a flurry of construction work, but after that the maintenance is minimal.

The Government’s policy on the benefit of Data Centres also feels weak. The Government ‘Statement on The Role of Data Centres in Ireland’s Enterprise Strategy’ says:

“Data centre presence in Ireland raises its visibility internationally as a technology-rich, innovative economy. In turn, this places Ireland on the map as a location of choice for a range of sectors and activities that are increasingly reliant on digital capabilities including manufacturing, financial services, animation, retail and global business services.”

But does that really hold up? Just because your Data Centre is in Athlone, does that make you more likely to locate your UX design team in Grand Canal Dock? I’m always skeptical of any strategy that has “raising awareness” as it’s main KPI.

TikTok’s dual announcement of HQ and Data Centre jobs this week adds weight to their claim, but overall I’m still skeptical.

Taking this all into account, however, I still think a strong case can be made for Data Centres in our strategic industrial policy.

They don’t create many jobs, sure, but that shouldn’t be entirely negative. They create a large amount of economic value, but don’t take much human intervention. So we need to ensure that we capture that value for our wider society. This means ensuring the Corporate Tax rate is enforced and paid in full.

An important factor of their energy consumption is that it is all Electricity, and every year more and more of our Electricity is generated by renewables. We’re approaching 40% in 2020, the vast majority of which is Wind.

You can’t plug a cow into a windmill, but you can a data centre.

It’s also worth asking “if not here, then where?” Due to our cool climate, Ireland could be one of the most carbon efficient places to host data centres. We’re not going to stop watching Netflix and making Zoom calls, so are we just pushing the servers behind those activities to a more carbon intensive environment?

In a simplistic view, one can imagine each new Data Centre built here being connected to a state owned Wind Farm, financed by zero interest bonds, paying large amounts of recurring revenue for its energy and paying its corporate taxes each year.

This would take a courageous industrial policy, attracting Data Centres because we know Ireland is a great place for them, and charging and regulating them accordingly.

The current Government strategy doesn’t do this. It’s far too optimistic on the positive externalities, talking about Data Centres as if they’re akin to University R&D Labs, rather than warehouses full of servers, and it’s too light on the measures we need to counter the negative externalities and push for net-zero carbon emissions. The only concrete proposals it contains are about removing local communities from the planning process, to streamline it.

I do think a stronger, more ambitious policy is possible, which continues to pitch Ireland as the home of Data Centres in Europe, but mandates a goal net-zero carbon emissions, ties in a strategy of state owned renewable generation and ensures that local communities have a say in how they benefit from these businesses.

In this model wind and cold weather can become Ireland’s new natural resource. It’s our new gold and Data Centres are how we mine them.

Peter’s Newsletter 13 – Do We Like Data Centres?

August 14, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

In this week’s issue: What should Ireland’s Data Centre strategy be? Is the NDRC value for money? Apple blocks Fortnight. Facebook removes Trump’s video. How we regulate the web. TikTok opens it’s algorithm for regulators. And a podcast recommendation.


How should we feel about Data Centres? This week I wrote a piece about Ireland’s current industrial policy of attracting Data Centres to locate here and ask if they’re really worth the environmental cost? Read more.

Interesting Links

NDRC up for tender. The NDRC was Ireland’s first tech accelerator. It is privately run but Government funded, with a mission to invest in and support new Irish tech companies. Over the last 10 years the company who runs it have received €43m from the state and the results have been fairly middling. They paid their 18 staff €111k on average, and the CEO over €250k, which is wild. The contract is up for tender, which should be announced next month. Link.

Fortnight vs. Apple. Apple’s app store is fairly tightly regulated. They refuse apps for a whole host of reasons, to keep quality high or to remove apps that might be unsafe for users. They also have strict commercial terms, taking a 30% cut on all in-app payments (and companies often have no other options but to pay). This has lead to a few high-profile clashes in recent weeks, with app makers accusing Apple of profiteering. The latest of which is Epic games, makers of Fortnight. Yesterday they gave people the option of paying them directly in-app, using a credit card, bypassing Apple’s in-app payments and their 30% tax, so Apple swiftly removed the wildly popular game from the App Store. If you’re a parent of young kids, you’ve probably already heard about this. Link.

Facebook finally removes a Trump post. The post was removed because it contained false information about COVID (that kids are ‘almost immune’), so it was a pretty clear violation of Facebook policies, but it’s the first time they have removed any of his posts. Link.

Regulate the Web. An excellent overview of the history of how we have built and regulated the internet, and where we might go from here. Link.

Simon McGarr has a piece on Ireland’s Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill and it’s ambitions to create an Online Safety Commissioner tasked with regulating… everything? Link.

TikTok have launched a new Transparency Centre, saying they “believe all companies should disclose their algorithms, moderation policies, and data flows to regulators. We will not wait for regulation to come, but instead TikTok has taken the first step by launching a Transparency and Accountability Center for moderation and data practices. Experts can observe our moderation policies in real-time, as well as examine the actual code that drives our algorithms.” Link.

Podcast recommendation – Wrongfully accused by an algorithm, from The Daily. Link.

Peter’s Newsletter 12 – The Geopolitics of TikTok’s Irish Announcement

August 6, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

In this week’s newsletter issue – The wider context to TikTok’s big Irish jobs announcement, new stats from Scotland show the bias we’ll see from the Leaving Cert grading algorithm, Australia’s plan to tax big tech to support news media.

TikTok announced that they will be hiring “hundreds” of new jobs in Ireland, investing €420m in the next two years to build their main EU data centre here. Jobs announcements are always welcome (even if they don’t fully deliver on the promise) but it’s worth looking at some of the wider politics at play behind this particular announcement.

TikTok is a social media app owned by the Chinese company Bytedance. From the earliest days, the Bytedance founder has tried his best to position the app as a global tech platform, rather than a Chinese company. Most of their user data is stored on servers are outside China. They hired an American from Disney as their CEO. They’re building up big teams outside the US. They even made TikTok unavailable in China, so videos aren’t subject to the Communist Party’s censorship rules.

All of this to try create the first truly global tech company, based in China. But at the end of the day, geopolitics is catching up. It’s still a Chinese owned company operating under the Chinese legal system, which means it is ultimately answerable to the whims of the CCP. I haven’t seen any nefarious interference in TikTok from China, but it seems like the threat alone is enough to make the US administration nervous about the app’s gaining popularity.

That’s the context within which the Irish data centre was announced this week. “This investment in Ireland” TikTok’s Chief Information Security Officer said, “will create hundreds of new jobs and play a key role in further strengthening the safeguarding and protection of TikTok user data.”

You can see the angle they’re going for here. Even the fact that the “Chief Information Security Officer” is the one they put in the press release is revealing of the strategy.

None of it has helped, it seems, as Trump’s administration is now threatening to ban the app in the US unless it sells to an American company, with Microsoft as the only potential suitor. The Trump administration continues to escalate this even further, announcing a new policy last night that includes a plan to “remove untrusted applications from U.S. mobile app stores.

TikTok’s fate should be interesting to all of us, not just because it’s used by hundreds of thousands of young Irish people, but because it is the first casualty of an escalating digital trade war between the US and China. The position the EU will take in all this, and Ireland as the home of big tech in Europe, is still unclear and certainly one worth watching as it develops.

Leaving Cert Algorithms. Often a good way to think about bias in algorithms is not that they are biased themselves, but that they reveal biases in the underlying system that they’re based on. When you feed in historical data about the way decisions were made in the past, develop an algorithm using that data, but then find the algorithm is making biased predictions, that’s a revelation about bias present in the historical decisions, moreso than the algorithm.

All this to say that we will probably find revealing biases in the calculated grades when the Leaving Cert results get released next month. The grading will done in two phases. First, a student’s grade will be guesstimated by teachers, with oversight by the principal to normalise grades within a School. That seems fine. But then the Department of Education will apply a “National standardisation” of grades, which is basically a predictive algorithm. It looks at the grades the average student in that school got in the past and uses that to predict what an average student would have got in 2020, if the Leaving Cert had gone ahead as normal. If the average grade in a School is higher than predicted, their grades will be adjusted down accordingly.

How might this look in practice? Scotland released their numbers this week. Teachers in the most deprived Schools graded their average student at 85%, but the average mark was brought down to 69%, because kids in deprived schools usually never did that well. Compare that to the least deprived schools, which were graded at 90%, but weighted down to just 84%.

Poor kids can’t get high grades in 2020 because poor kids don’t normally get high grades.

So when the calculated grades get released here and inevitably show massive unfairness similar to Scotland, remember that the unfairness is not in the new grading process, but in the deeply unfair system underneath. The inequality will be no different this year to any other, it will just be quantified and transparent in a way it wasn’t before.

The Business Model of Journalism. In Australia this week, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released a draft plan to force payments from digital platforms (Facebook, Google etc.) to pay money to Australian media organisations. It’s an interesting new approach. It claims the problem is an imbalance of power in the bargaining ability of news organisations against tech platforms.

It says that Australian news companies can’t charge Facebook and Google for “deriving a benefit from the ability to make Australian news content available to their users” and blames that on an imbalance in bargaining power.

It’s an odd approach. News articles appearing in Google search results and being shared on Facebook, driving lots of clicks to their websites, seems like something that benefits those media organisations? But the Australian government thinks Google and Facebook should pay for the privilege?

The advertising business model that supported journalism is collapsing and journalism is important to society as a whole, so the case to use a tax to prop up new media, or just directly fund journalism, has merits. Why not just explore that? This feels like a huge number of extra steps because you don’t want to call a tax, a tax.


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