Peter’s Newsletter 11 – 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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Peter’s Newsletter 11 – How do we decide which ads to ban?

July 30, 2020 in Essays, Weekly Newsletter

There wasn’t much important news in the world of tech this week, so this week’s newsletter is a deeper piece of analysis on the ASAI’s decision to remove the Tampax commercial, the role of self-regulation and the Facebook Supreme Court which will set up later this year and make lots of decisions like these.

The “Tampons & Tea” Ad

This week the Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland upheld complaints about a tampon commercial which Tampax have been running on Irish TV.

The decision to recommend the ad be removed from air has caused quite a bit of backlash, not least because many saw the ad as genuinely educational. You don’t read this newsletter to hear a tech nerd express opinions on tampon commercials, so I won’t, but I do think it’s interesting to consider how the ASAI made their decision and to ask the more important question… who even are the ASAI?

A total of 84 complaints were made about the advertisement, under 4 broad headings. Under three of the headings, the ASAI didn’t find the complaints adequate. These were “Sexual Innuendo”, “Suitability for Children” and being “Demeaning to Women”.

The only complaints that were upheld were under the heading of “General Offence” and even here the reasoning is peculiar. From my reading of their findings, it seems that, while the ASAU didn’t find it to be offensive, enough people complained that they considered the ad to be breaking the code that “A marketing communication should not bring advertising into disrepute.”

To paraphrase, ‘We didn’t find it offensive, but enough people did, and the rules say not to be offensive’.

In defence of the position, ASAI Chief Executive Orla Twomey said in the last four-and-a-half years there have been only seven adverts that have had 60 or more complaints.

So I guess we know the magic number now. If you want any ad you dislike taken off the air, just get 60 people to fill in an online form.

Who are the ASAI?

Despite what you might first guess, the ASAI is not a government body or publicly funded. It is an industry group which has a self-regulatory code of conduct for all advertisers.

The optimistic view of this setup is that all industry players have a vested interest in keeping the standards in advertising high. If one advertiser tries something crass and eye-grabbing which opportunistically works for them in the short term, but degrades the efficacy of advertising in the long term, this is bad for everybody.

Also, not being defined in legislation gives self-regulatory bodies a bit of nimbleness to adapt as methods and trends change.

The more pessimistic view is that they do “just enough” to keep the worst behaviour at bay, but give government no impetus to setup a public regulator or enforce stricter rules. The main motive of a body like the ASAI is to keep advertising a profitable enterprise over the long term by setting code of conduct for advertisers. Sometimes this profit motive overlaps with the wider goals of society, but sometimes it does not.

This week’s decision is a good example of when those interests can come into conflict. If you’re an industry body charged with keeping a medium profitable, why wouldn’t you ban the one ad a year that generates too much controversy? Assessing it complexly is difficult and erring on the side of conservatism makes sense.

Where as a statutory (non-industry) regulator may have to weigh up a decision more complexly, considering the educational benefit, the wider context of gendered “offence” and the importance of free expression.

This decision is also another great example of how difficult it will be to regulate “political” and “commercial” advertisements as if they are always distinct and separate. Is Always’ “Run Like A Girl” ad commerical or political? Nike’s Colin Kapernick ads? What about Monsanto running ads about the benefits of fertiliser?

This isn’t the ASAI’s first difficulty with this distinction either. In 2018, they refused to hear any complaints about any advertisements in the abortion referendum, which left the digital ads in an un-regulated limbo. In 2016, they found the ads for Eircode to be misleading, it said they were outside its remit because they’re “public broadcasts.” (Which is probably fair – you can’t have an industry body regulating the government?)

Facebook’s Supreme Court

While we’re on the topic of self-regulation, the new Facebook “supreme court” has been established this summer and will soon start hearing cases.

The Facebook Oversight Board, as it’s officially called, will play an interesting role for the company and is an experiment worth watching for anyone interested in the ongoing debate around how we moderate content online. It is made up of some pretty impressive people, mostly former judges and human rights lawyers, and the intention is that it sits separate to Facebook (although funded by it).

Characterizing the FOB is tricky, as Evelyn Douek notes – “It is court-like in that it will hear appeals from and act as a check on Facebook’s policy-formation and enforcement processes and provide public reasons for its decisions. But it will also give policy recommendations, and neither its members nor those who appear before it will be lawyers applying the law. It is a private institution fully of Facebook’s own creation, but it has reasonably robust mechanisms to ensure independence from Facebook, which has put $130 million into a trust intended to fund the FOB for at least two three-year terms. It is a global body, but it would be naïve to think that it will be able to settle global speech norms when different jurisdictions have clashed about these for many decades.”

Facebook currently employees about 35,000 content moderators globally, who make decisions every minute of every day to remove content from the platform based on an ever growing set of company policies. If the removal of an individual piece of content, or a certain type of content, proves very controversial, Facebook can escalate this to the FOB for deliberation.

People who are hoping this might act like the US Supreme Court, handing down binding rulings and setting precedent for Facebook, will be disappointed. This Oversight Board won’t act in that way, and it would probably be naïve to trust that such a system could always work – Facebook can always just choose to ignore a body that it established, if it wishes.

But Evelyn Douek argues, quite compellingly, that this isn’t what optimists should hope for from a body like this. Instead, the benefit should come from the act of public deliberation itself, rather than just the final ruling. Forcing Facebook to explain why they removed content, and defend the logic publicly, should greatly enhance the public debate around these issues and also cause Facebook to more carefully consider each internal policy they implement, knowing that they may one day have to defend it publicly.

The hope is that the dialogue between the FOB and Facebook, through being forced to make arguments in cases and publicly respond to FOB recommendations, will finally ventilate the reasons behind why Facebook makes the decisions that it does by forcing Facebook to justify them. This process itself will hopefully improve decision-making, but at the very least it will provide a level of transparency and accountability that is currently sorely lacking. To those from the United States, the paradigm “strong-form” judicial review jurisdiction, this might seem feeble. But many other jurisdictions have a version of this dialogic “weak-form” review, and it often turns out to be much stronger in practice than it appears in theory.

As we’ve seen this week here in Ireland, self-regulation has its own problems. As Douek notes, “it is unsatisfactory for private, profit-driven platforms to be making these decisions unilaterally and without any accountability.

“On the other hand, heavy-handed government involvement in speech regulation is always suspect, and the cure to our current woes should not be worse than the disease. The FOB is therefore an effort to find a third, least-worst option.”

Similar to the industry that the ASAI represents, much of Facebook’s business model would just be simpler if it was an uncontroversial space to sell people’s attention to advertisers, so why not delegate some of these decisions away?

These are issues that will only become more and more prevalent in the coming decade, as the public sphere shifts from broadcast and print to digital, so every new experiment is worth watching closely. I’ll be watching with skepticism and a dash of hope.

Peter’s Newsletter 10 – The TikTok Trade War

July 23, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

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

In this week’s issue: 1) The HSE Covid Tracker accused of tracking private info, 2) Why countries are banning Chinese tech, like Huawei and TikTok, 3) A YouTube algorithm art project, 4) Crowdsourcing maps of trees in Dublin, 5) Which counties pay the most income tax? 6) A new Irish game about growing up and coming out in Ireland, 7) Ireland shares it’s Covid App with the world and 8) Twitter mutes Q-Anon.

1) Is The Covid App Violating Privacy? (No, but several news stories reported that it does)

If you have the Google version of Android on your phone (as 99% of Android users in Ireland do) and want to install apps on the phone, you’ve probably created a Google Play account. If you did (and everyone does), then your phone pings Google HQ many times throughout the day with info about where your phone is and what its doing.

Google also developed the Exposure Notification Framework, which Covid Tracking apps in many countries, including Ireland, are built upon. If you’re using the Covid Tracking app on Android, you’re also a Google Play user and Google has your data.

A research paper published this week from Trinity points this out – that the Covid Tracker App works like all other apps. The paper asks, given that the aim is universal adoption, if Google should also provide a non-Google solution. They say this one type of app should have the option of working unlike all other apps, and be usable while avoiding Google’s data mining infrastructure.

That’s fair question to ask and an interesting angle for privacy campaigners to use to pushback on Goolge’s data hungry policies. But unfortunately it’s being reported on in some cases as “The Covid App shares all your data with Google”, which is a pretty unfair characterisation and risks undermining public confidence in the app.

2) TikTok and the Chinese Trade War. Tech is the arena where the growing tensions between China and the rest of the world are playing out. The US first, and now the UK, are starting to mandate the removal of Huawei technology from their mobile networks. India banned TikTok a few weeks ago, and there’s mumblings from the US about doing the same.

The core issue is the question most democracies will have to grapple with when thinking about how they engage with these new, large Chinese tech firms. How dependent do you want to become on any company that, at any time, could be forced to carry out the foreign policy aims of the Chinese Communist Party? I certainly don’t know the answers, but here’s a few thoughts:

  • For the last 20 years, the internet and global tech landscape has been shaped by the cultural norms and legal system of one country – the US (and in particular, Silicon Valley). This won’t be the case for the next 20 years, the US will be joined by many more, in particular the EU and China.
  • A common concern is phrased as – “What if” the CCP demand that TikTok’s algorithm promote videos in favour of the CCP foreign policies (burying videos about Uighur genocide, or Hong-Kong democracy, or disrupting an EU election) on a platform that the majority of young Irish people watch every day?
  • This feels new to Americans, but the rest of us are used to using tech built in foreign countries. The rest of us have been very worried about the impact of selling political reach to the highest bidder on US tech platforms, for example.
  • If the EU is comfortable saying our data shouldn’t be transferred to the US because of their surveillance laws, is blocking Huawei or TikTok because of CCP policy much different?

I think The Economist had the best take on this with their recent cover “Trade without trust”. An escalating tit-for-tat hurts everyone. We need to find a way for the EU and US to do trade with an authoritarian country that they can’t trust but can’t ignore. Link

3) Show me your YouTube. This cool art project lets you walk a mile in someone else’s digital shoes, by experiencing their YouTube recommendations. See what the YouTube homepage looks like for a “liberal, conservative, climate denier” and others. Link.

4) Mapping Trees. Dublin City Council and the National Tree Council have launched a project to crowdsource the mapping of every tree in the city. Read more http://www.dublincity.ie/dublin-tree-map

5) If Found…. Is a new, award winning game (on iOS and PC) about coming of age in Ireland in the 90s. As game dev becomes more accessible, it’s great to see more small teams in Ireland experiment with it as a story telling and art form. Link to the game. Dublin Inquirer writeup.

6) Income Tax & Jobs Dashboard. The PBO have produced another cool dashboard, this time an interactive map of disposable income, taxes and employment levels per county. Link.

7) Covid Green. Ireland have donated the source code of our new Covid Tracker app to an open source foundation, so that it can be used by other countries who need it. Great to see. Read more.

8) Q-Anon No More. Twitter has announced they are suppressing Q-Anon related content. This is a big move and really good to see. If you’re not aware of Q-Anon, it’s a new but fairly destructive conspiracy theory that’s doing the rounds. In the same space as 9/11 denial and New World Order. These conspiracy theories have incredibly destructive mental wellbeing and social isolation impacts on those who adopt them, so moves like this are great to see Link.

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Peter’s Newsletter 09 – No €13bn Apple Tax

July 17, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter
I send this newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here.
In this week’s issue: Our Covid Tracker app is #1, The Curiosity Festival goes online, why we won’t be getting €13bn Apple Tax, Twitter got hacked, Anti-Vaxx and Covid, Privacy Shield, R/Relationships.
Ireland’s Covid Tracker App has been downloaded by about 1.3 million people. That means 26% of us have now downloaded the app, which is the highest of any country in the world. Go us! Second is Australia with 21%, according to this report.
 
The Curiosity Festival, Dublin’s International festival of science, arts, design & technology is online only this year. Lots of interesting items for people of all ages. Link.
 
Apple Tax. The EU General Court announced its ruling. This is a tax law story, not a tech one, so not in my area of expertise, but my my rough understanding is as follows: 
 
Apple has two companies in Ireland, based in Cork. The Irish revenue commissioner viewed them as not tax resident here (but also not resident in the US) and only taxed them on the small amounts of profit that they made in Ireland. The European Commission believed that all of their European profits came through Ireland, so they should all be taxed here. A sum total of €13bn of Tax that should have been charged but wasn’t. The Commission says this means Ireland’s Revenue gave special treatment to Apple which it wouldn’t normally give to other companies (“state aid”). 
 
The court ruling said that the Commission didn’t produce enough evidence that this was a sweetheart deal only applied to Apple. They didn’t show that the Cork offices controlled the Intellectual Property which was used to make massive profits, therefore didn’t prove that it should have been taxed here.
 
The Irish Revenue Commissioner doesn’t come out of the findings looking great – their process seems sloppy at best and secretive at worst – but the ruling again said that the Commission didn’t do enough to prove that errors made by Revenue were intentionally done to give Apple a unique advantage.
 
So the exceptionally small amount of tax paid by Apple on massive profits was not because of an illegal sweetheart deal, just as a result of the implementation of our general corporate tax policies. Hooray? Read more.
 
Twitter hacked. Twitter suffered a very large security breach on Wednesday. The details are still fuzzy, but it seems like hackers might have got access to a tool used by Twitter staff for accessing any account (or a staff member was involved). They used it to Tweet out a link to a money making scam from many high-profile accounts, including Joe Biden, Elon Musk and Barack Obama. It’s the kind of hack people have long worried about if, for example, hackers send out a tweet from Trump declaring nuclear war, or from the Indian PM announcing the invasion of Pakistan. In many ways they got off lightly with just a simple money scam. Read more.
Anti-Vaccination groups are gearing up for a disinformation war on any potential Covid vaccine. This report suggest that the top 3 groups in the US have 950,000 followers, and anti-vaxx groups in general have over 58 million followers on Facebook. We’ve seen how damaging it is to have people rejecting mask wearing, the challenge will be immense if they reject a vaccine too. Read more.
Privacy Shield is dead. One of the rules in GDPR is that companies cannot transfer the data of EU citizens to countries that don’t have adequate protections in place for that data. If the US govt can ask Twitter or Gmail to hand over an EU citizens data, is the US then considered an un-safe country for our data? After GDPR came into effect, a quick agreement was put in place between the EU and US to cover this, known as “Privacy Shield.” This was challenged in European courts and this week the European Court of Justice found that the US isn’t a good enough place to store EU data. This was a court case between Facebook Ireland, the Irish Data Protection Commissioner and an Austrian citizen. As Digital Rights Ireland tweeted, this “will have profound impacts globally. Most immediately for Ireland, it will have an impact on Brexit negotiations and the transfer of data to the post-Brexit UK. Link.
 
Reddit Relationship Stories are often bizarre and funny, and (not too surprisingly) often fake. This interview with the fake story writers reminds me of when I’d listen to the Adrian Kennedy phone show as a kid and my dad would tell me the crazy stories were just actors honing their skills. I feel now as I did then, that made up stories are just as much fun as the real ones. Read more.

Peter’s Newsletter 08 – 1 million Covid App Downloads

July 9, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I send this newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here. In this week’s issue:

The Covid Tacker launched, National Broadband gets a big speed upgrade, Airbnb on rent prices, Joe.ie sold, Apple’s €13bn, China’s Covid Tech, and a podcast recommendation.

Covid Tracker. As I’m sure you saw, the HSE launched their covid tracker app on Tuesday. As of this email, it has been downloaded by 1 million people, which is very impressive. Some other countries hit an early plateau in growth, like Germany at 15% of the population, now at 20% after 3 weeks, but we hit 20% within 3 days. Here’s hoping it keeps going at pace towards 50% and beyond.

When an app has a target audience of “everyone”, you’ll always hit snags that you didn’t see coming, and a few have appeared this week.  The Exposure Notification framework that the app uses doesn’t work on most Phones 5 years or older. This is a small percentage of the overall population, but a higher percent of the at-risk groups, like older people. There’s also the fact that it’s only available in the Irish App Store, which precludes foreign visitors from getting it if they come here. The next step is probably to work on interoperability between national apps, which the EU is already leading on.

Small bugs aside, the rollout has been very smooth and well managed. With all of the processing occurring on-device and nothing much happening in the cloud, it also means there’s no servers to crash on day 1, which is handy!

A few things worth keeping an eye on in the coming weeks:

  1. The uninstall rate – if users are deleting it from their phones in significant numbers, as has happened in other countries, it’s a worrying sign.
  2. The percentage of people with a positive diagnosis, who then log that in the app. Hopefully the HSE start reporting on this figure. Hopefully it rises over time.
  3.  The discourse around what people do when they get an exposure alert. Will their boss give them the 14 days off work to quarantine? Can they report for testing even without symptoms?
  4. International compatibility. It looks like Northern Ireland will be copying our code, so that both apps will be compatible which is great news.

You can download the app here, or read my detailed overview of the app here.

National Broadband. The Independent are reporting that the National Broadband minimum speed available to all households will be increased from 150mb to 500mb. In the original plan, 500mb wasn’t going to happen until 2026. They explain that this is because Eir wholesale have cut their prices, and National Broadband Ireland have to match it. Read more.

Airbnb. Ronan Lyons has some interesting analysis on what lockdown revealed about Airbnb’s impact on Dublin’s rental market. In summary, he says the impact is noticeable, but not a big driver of our under-supply. An extra 3,000 rental properties became available during lockdown (compared with a 75% decline in houses for sale). But he estimates we are short about 75,000 rental homes in general, because we just don’t build nearly enough apartments. Read more.

Joe.ie. After a few months of financial difficulty, Joe Media (Ireland & UK) has been acquired by investment bank Greencastle. Read more

Apple’s €13bn. The EU courts will announce their ruling on this next week. Should be interesting! Read more.

China’s Covid Tech. Merics have compiled a good overview of the tech solutions China have employed in the fight against Covid. The exact inverse of the Irish approach, prioritising security over privacy. Read more.

🎧 Podcast Recommendation.

Modern Problem is a 2 part series on Direct Provision in Ireland, by journalist Jane McNamara. It’s not tech related, just a really well produced piece of audio journalism that explains a complex situation in under 60 minutes. Apple PodcastsSpotify.

Peter’s Newsletter 07 – 3rd July

July 3, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I send this newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here. In this week’s issue:

In this issue:
Ireland: HSE’s contact tracing app. Simon Harris’ new department. Electoral reform. Cookie Notices.
Global: Facebook act on Trump. UK’s covid app. Hate speech management. The UK online.
And a podcast recommendation.

🇮🇪  Ireland

The HSE’s Contact Tracing App was announced last week. I have a full blog post on my site with an analysis of the choices they made, but the quick summary is this – they have designed an app that maximises privacy. This may increase the level of adoption, but gives the HSE far less data to action and relies on a bluetooth technology that isn’t fully proven yet. Will this trade-off encourage more people to download and use the app, ultimately leading to a greater level of effectiveness? Only time will tell, as all countries are figuring this out as they go along. Read more.

Simon Harris has left his post as Minister for Health and will now become Minister of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. That’s quite an interesting title! I haven’t seen much detail yet, but the new minister describes it as a department “to help drive economic and social cohesion.” He explained that he sees it as having two broad goals:

  1. “Social cohesion” – ensuring more access to, and diversity within, higher education, science and research. This seems like a great focus, not just because it works towards a more equal society, but because a more diverse sector will surely produce better outcomes for the country. Technical apprenticeships could play a role here.
  2. Commercialising science. I was disappointed to see this as the way this was framed. I think this ministry could be a great opportunity to push in the opposite direction, to dive for more basic science research, to ask “what would it take to make Ireland a world-class leader in science?” The commercialisation usually follows.

It’s early days yet, so I’ll reserve judgement, but it’s certainly one to watch. Here’s a quick video the minister did about it. Follow the new dept on Twitter here.

Electoral reform. While we’re on minister watch, Malcolm Noonan of the Green Party is the new junior minister with responsibility for Electoral Reform (and Heritage). The Programme for Government promises to form an Electoral Commission by the end of next year, with the powers “to regulate online political advertising in the public interest and introduce a consistent regime relating to political advertising across all media.” Follow him on Twitter here.

Cookie Notices. The Irish Data Protection commissioner conducted a “sweep” of 40 large Irish websites to see what level of compliance each had with the cookie laws. Of the 38 who responded, only 2 got a “Green” from the DPC, the rest got an “amber” or “red”. To find only 5% of Irish companies complying with the law isn’t a good thing, but it’s hard to assess if that’s because companies are acting in bad faith, or because the law is too stringent or hard to understand, or somewhere in between.

In some senses, this transition is only difficult because so much of the infrastructure of the internet developed with an unregulated ethos for two decades, and now the ePrivacy Directive has come in with a very different philosophy. It leads to a lot of companies asking “surely you don’t mean we have to ask permission for everything?!” because not asking was the norm for so long.

On the other hand, from the consumer perspective, being asked permission for every cookie every time on every website is very cumbersome. It also forces businesses to ask permission for basic things – like counting the number of visitors to their site. Some companies are now unable to see 80% of the activity on their site once they started asking before using the basic Google Analytics cookie, for example.

There’s probably three ways we’ll move to resolve this:

  1. The business stops using the services that depend on the cookies. This means flying blind a lot more often with your advertising. When you don’t know how many sales that €10k campaign drove, it removes confidence from future decisions, improving your offering and investing further, which I think would be a net-negative. It also means killing a swath of 3rd party ad services, which is probably a net-positive.
  1. The legislation can change, categorising basic analytics services and advanced tracking behaviour as separate, and requiring different levels of permission for each. The new ePrivacy Directive from the EU is doing this.
  1. Technology solutions to make life easier for users. E.G. Telling your phone or browser that you’re ok with simple analytics on any website, but you want to be prompted every time for advanced stuff (or reject it by default). Chrome and Safari are already working on solutions in this space.

Read more: The DPC’s sweep report. Their podcast discussing the findings.

🌍  Global

Facebook content moderation. Announcing a change in their policy, Facebook will now be acting a little bit more like Twitter by labelling when a politician breaks their rules, but not removing it. From Zuckerberg’s post:

“A handful of times a year, we leave up content that would otherwise violate our policies if the public interest value outweighs the risk of harm. Often, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest, and in the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says, we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms.

We will soon start labeling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case.” Link.

The story of the UK’s homegrown covid tracing app. Link.

Hate Speech. The European Commission published a study of how fast platforms responded to notifications of hate speech. 90% of the notifications were reviewed within 24 hours and 71% of the content is removed. Facebook was the fastest and Twitter was the slowest, with YouTube somewhere in between. Link.

Ofcom in the UK released their annual “Online Nation” report. Here’s some interesting stats on how the UK uses the internet, many of which I presume are comparable here:

  • 87% of adults are online. This is flat over 5 years, so we’ve probably peaked on “getting online” activity, now we need to consider the social and economic ramifications of the 10% who will never get online, while the rest of us live digital lives.
  • Children switch from accessing the internet “mostly tablet” to “mostly smartphone” at around age 12
  • A majority of children aged 12-15 have a social media account
  • People are getting significantly more aware with how their data is being used online, and more confident in their ability to manage it
  • Around half the respondents understood that advertising is personalised online, that Youtube is funded by advertising and that the top search results were paid-for. About half did not.
  • Eighty-one per cent of 12-15 year olds said they had had a potentially harmful experience online in the past year. The big drivers here seem to be unwanted contact on Facebook & Instagram, and offensive language on Facebook and YouTube.

Report Link.

Podcast Recommendation
Running From Cops is a 6 part series about the longest running reality TV show in the US – Cops. When every police officer under the age of 40 has grown up with Cops as one of the main portrayals of policing in their culture, what impact does that have on they way they act in the job? Listen here.

The HSE’s New Covid Tracking App

July 2, 2020 in Essays

Update: Since publishing this post, the HSE app has been released. You can download it here.

The HSE have released the details of their new public facing app “Covid Tracker“. They released a very comprehensive overview, access to the app’s source code, and their detailed Data Protection Impact Assessment.

With the details of app now public, journalists, policy makers and citizens will want to start analysing and appraising the app. So what are the questions we should be asking? What constitutes a good app or a bad one? What are the trade-offs other countries had been considering, and how have they been handled here?

I’ve sketched out a series of questions which I hope are a useful framework for analysing this, or any other app that is used in the fight against Covid-19.

If you want to keep updated on the app as it progresses, you can subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. Every Friday morning I share the interesting tech & public policy news of the week.

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Overview – A “Touchpoint” for the Wider Regime

We couldn’t assess a restaurant’s new app for food delivery, without the wider context of the restaurant business itself. Is an app good if it’s always accessible, but the kitchen is only open and making food in the mornings?

Here too it’s worth a quick recap on contact tracing as a wider programme of activity before we assess how an individual app fits within that.

A contact tracing regime is a prediction exercise that takes in data from infected patients (cases), makes predictions about others they may have infected (contacts) and then takes action on those predictions. Here’s an example:

Data: A person gets diagnosed with Covid at a hospital. A staff member at the hospital asks them for all the names and phone numbers of all the people they’ve seen in the last week.

Prediction: Their contacts are predicted to have an increased likelihood of infection.

Action: Somebody calls them to recommend they self-isolate or come in for testing.

An app is a tool that can play a part in this wider regime. Most countries are looking at an app to a) help gather more data to make infection predictions and b) take action by notifying people they are at risk. Some countries, mostly Asian, are also adding proactive testing as an action, deploying resources to schools, workplaces, churches etc. where infection is predicted.

Key Questions

With this in mind, here are some of the key questions we can ask about an app, to assess its role in the wider trace & test regime, the data and privacy implications of the data it gathers and the actions it will enable our health service to take.

I’ve discussed each question in more detail below, but here’s the cheatsheet to get started:

Key Question Answer Implications
Use Bluetooth? Yes Uncertainty around the accuracy of a “contact” prediction with bluetooth
Apple/Google Framework Yes International standard. Better than any alternative bluetooth option. Anonymised solution.
Using GPS? No No sense of “place” for the virus. Can’t use location for contact prediction. Can’t show where outbreaks are occurring
Contact Notification Yes Alerts users to potential infection. Introduces spoofing risk.
Self-Diagnosis No Only allows confirmed diagnoses from HSE. Removes risk of fake activity.
Symptom Tracking Yes Anonymous information passed to HSE, but “probably” positive people are encouraged to isolate and test
Behaviour Change Yes Goes beyond “news” seen in other apps. Encourages people to “check in” every day and shows country-wide stats on app downloads, check-ins and symptom reporting.

Let’s dig into each of these here in detail.

The Apple/Google Bluetooth Exposure Notification Service

This is one of the core functionality choices within the app. They have chosen to use bluetooth to measure proximity and predict a contact.

Generally, a contact is defined someone you share a pocket of air with for a period of time. This app will endeavour to record anyone you’ve been near for a while (within 2 metres or less, for 15 minutes or more) in the 14 days leading up to either of you getting diagnosed with covid. This is the European CDC definition of a close contact.

The Apple/Google exposure notification framework sits “always on” in the background on your phone. It gives your phone an anonymised id. When your phone comes near another person with the app installed, your phones swap ids via bluetooth. Later, if one of you get diagnosed with Covid, you’ll be asked if you have the app installed.

If you do, then the HSE will ask if you’re willing to upload your contact history, which is a list of all the anonymised ids you came in contact within the previous 14 days. If you say yes, the HSE send you a code by SMS. You input this into your app and it uploads a list of all the IDs of contacts on your phone.

The HSE servers will send this list to every single app. Each app will scan through the list, and if one of the IDs matches that person’s phone, the person gets an alert.

 

GPS and Location Data

This app does not ask the users to automatically share location data. This was a big choice by the HSE, which alleviates many privacy concerns, but removes any sense of “place” from the data the app gathers.

This means that bluetooth will be the only measure of proximity when determining a contact. The app will know if a likely contact took place, but not where in the country that was, or who the people involved were.

This will surely calm the concerns of many privacy experts and advocates. It helps the HSE avoid the risk of headlines that read “HSE app tracks your location data” which could severely hamper adoption and public trust in the app.

On the flip-side, it means the app gives the HSE less information about where the virus is in Ireland, but I think they have made some clever prompts and additions in other parts of the app and system which will capture much of this information in different ways, but without the attention-grabbing headlines of location tracking.

Contact Notification

Because the contact predictions are all being done anonymously, the HSE cannot text, call or visit anyone who might have the virus, they can just send them an anonymous push notification.

The app will alert a contact with a push and with a persistent in-app message. It will then show them a list of recommendations for keeping safe and self-isolating.

Most interestingly, it will also ask if they would like to share their phone number and get a call from the HSE. This will allow for more traditional contact tracing to take place. It will be really interesting to see what the uptake rate on this option is.

Proactive Testing

One feature of successful contact tracing regimes, like Singapore and South Korea, is proactive testing. Reaching out to people and groups of people (like workplaces) where contacts might have occurred and proactively test as many of them as you can.

At first glance, with anonymised bluetooth and no GPS, it would seem that this app wouldn’t support such activity, but digging a bit deeper it looks like it might?

The first way it does this is by offering users the ability to request a phone call from the HSE once they get a contact notification. On that phone call, there’s every possibility that the person can be asked some extra information, if they wish to share it, about where in the country they live. They could be also be encouraged to take a test, at which point their details could be taken, including where they live and a verbal contact history recorded, as happens today without the app.

The other place some additional personal data can be captured is in the app’s symptom tracking section.

Symptom Tracking

This is, to my mind, the most unique part of the Irish app, which I haven’t seen in any other country’s apps. The app will encourage people to “Check In” every day, and report how they’re feeling.

 

One of the motivators to do this is the nationwide stats that will be shared within the app – how many tens of thousands “checked-in” today. Sort of like an Operation Transformation, but for Covid fighting.

This is really hard to assess before launch. You can see the potential if it goes well, but also the risk of how publicly and visibly it could fail. Those aren’t the kind of risks usually taken by the civil service, so fair play to them on that front.

If it works, a large portion of the country will be recording their symptoms. Without any extra information, there isn’t much action that can be taken based on that data, but the app does prompt users to enter their sex, age range and location. So the HSE can get some self-reported data on location and demographics of users who are reporting symptoms. They also keep capturing extra data on confirmed cases outside the app, like they do today.

 

Conclusion

You can see the balance they’re trying to strike here. Removing any functionality that is greedy for user data, or could even be perceived as a privacy concern, will help build trust and get adoption. Using the Apple/Google exposure notification system is the most privacy conscious route to allow for contact notification, but it doesn’t really support “contact tracing”.

They then layer in some behavioural nudges in the form of “join the fight” daily check ins and “would you like a phone call?” notifications, which capture just a small amount of actionable data, and from only the most interesting users (probable infections) and in a manual way that doesn’t feel invasive. In that way they bring in some contact tracing elements, but just the minimum effective dose.

There are probably 3 key risks they need to overcome with the launch:

  1. That the Apple/Google bluetooth system proves effective enough at recording contacts accurately
  2. That people trust the app and download it
  3. That people check it regularly enough to make the data capture from check-ins meaningful

It seems like a very well intentioned, good faith effort at balancing all the competing concerns and I hope, for all of our sakes, that the bets they’ve made pay off.

 

Peter’s Newsletter 05 – 26th June

June 26, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I send this newsletter every Friday morning. Subscribe for free here. In this week’s issue:

💡 Ideas:
Apple’s New Updates,
Are Tech Tools Neutral?
📖  Interesting Links: 
Wrongfully accused by an algorithm,
Workhuman is a unicorn,
Fact-checking Fake Images,
Citizen neuroscience.
🎧  Podcast Recommendation
How Facebook Is Undermining ‘Black Lives Matter’

💡 Ideas

Apple’s New Updates.
On Monday Apple had their annual developer conference, with lots of interesting tech changes announced. Here’s some of the more interesting one from a public policy perspective:

1. They’re re-designing the way apps ask for your data. They want to balance information that is both comprehensive, but also easy to understand and digest. If someone can’t understand what they’re agreeing to, can they really consent? Apple talks about its new labelling system like a nutrition label on food, and I think it’s a big step in the right direction.

2. They’ve also given more power to users in the ways they share data, with the options to give an app access to a single picture, rather than the whole library, to grant approximate location so an app can know roughly, but not exactly, where you are. There’s also a mic/camera indicator on phones (like the green light on your laptop’s webcam) that will let you know an app is using your microphone or camera.

3. They have a few extra “good corporate citizen” updates – The Safari browser will show how many trackers and cookies it blocks on each website, Apple Watch prompts to wash your hands and Memoji wearing face-masks. Read more.

Are Tech Tools Neutral?
One expression that techies love (myself included) is that “tech is neutral.” Tools in general are neutral, a hammer can be used to build a house or kill a person. The intent of the user can be good or evil, but the tool itself is neutral.

Scratching one layer beneath the surface and it’s clear that tools and tech aren’t always entirely neutral. The paper “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” published in 1980 by Langdon Winner suggests that, while of course the intent of the user and the social context in which it is used matters, it’s also true that “artefacts can contain political properties.” He says:

“At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions of efficiency and pro ductivity […] but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority.”

“Consciously or not, deliberately or inadvertently, societies choose structures for technologies that influence how people are going to work, communicate, travel, consume, and so forth over a very long time. In the processes by which structuring decisions are made, different people are differently situated and possess unequal degrees of power as well as unequal levels of awareness.”

He breaks the possible ways in which technologies are political into two categories. In the first, flexible technologies have a range of choices for how they can be implemented and adopted, and these choices can have political significance. In the second, the mere adoption or creation of a technology has consequences for the way it re-structures power and authority around it.

In the first instance, the configuration of a technology is political. Broadband cables may be neutral, but we shift economic power towards communities where we install it, and away from communities that we don’t.

Some choices are less obvious and intentional. Every tech service that doesn’t make itself accessible to those with disabilities has (often unintentionally) removed power and access from already marginalised communities – not just from the tech, but from jobs, relationships and active citizenry that they enable.

On the flip side, look at the “sound recognition” features Apple announced this week, which alert deaf users to sounds the phone hears like “baby crying” and “smoke alarm.”

“Technological innovations are similar to legislative acts or political foundings that establish a framework for public order that will endure over many generations. For that reason, the same careful attention one would give to the rules, roles, and relationships of politics must also be given to such things as the building of high ways, the creation of television networks, and the tailoring of seemingly insignificant features on new machines. The issues that divide or unite people in society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper, but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete, wires and transistors, nuts and bolts.”

In his second category of technologies, he’s talking about the political changes in society that new technologies create around themselves. One interesting example he gives is nuclear power vs. solar.

If a nation decides to adopt nuclear technology, certain forms of government are almost a necessity. “If you accept nuclear power plants, you also accept a techno-scientific-industrial military elite. Without these people in charge, you could not have nuclear power.”

Solar Power, on the other hand, can be decentralised and localised. You could imagine ways in which that technology would empower individuals to be less reliant on the military-nuclear state or economically reliant on the company that owns the coal plant. Or, you can imagine communities and local authorities managing power generation locally and using the proceeds from it to fund local projects. What if wind power generation was considered a local natural resource and taxed at the local level?

Social Media Platforms can be considered for the way they restructure political power too. They caused the collapse of many traditional gatekeepers. These include newspaper editors and TV anchors, but also incumbent politicians, large advertisers and religious leaders. The printing press and broadcast TV and mass advertising technologies structured power in their favour in a way that the internet does not. 

As they are no longer the primary gatekeepers of information, their loss of power and influence (and many times, moderation) has restructured society, as has the increase in power gained by the average citizen, artist, small business and new political candidate. 

Of course, as the social networks have dismantled the power of old gatekeepers and distributed it to individuals, they have also accrued vast amounts of it for themselves as the new algorithmic gatekeepers.

“The things we call ‘technologies’ are ways of building order in our world.”

“The adoption of a given technical system unavoidably brings with it conditions for human relationships that have a distinctive political cast. For example, centralized or decentralized, egalitarian or inegalitarian, repressive or liberating.”

“Taking the most obvious example, the atom bomb is an inherently political artifact. As long as it exists at all, its lethal properties demand that it be controlled by a centralized, rigidly hierarchical chain of command closed to all influences that might make its workings unpredictable. The internal social system of the bomb must be authoritarian; there is no other way. The state of affairs stands as a practical necessity independent of any larger political system in which the bomb is embedded, independent of the kind of regime or character of its rulers. Indeed, democratic states must try to find ways to ensure that the social structures and mentality that characterize the management of nuclear weapons do not “spin off’ or “spill over” into the polity as a whole.”

This is true for the structures of government that manage technologies, but also for the kinds of companies that produce and sell them.

The dominant form of industry in the 1800s, the small family firm, could not manage the new technology of the railroad. It required layers of management and centralised authority to co-ordinate and therefore the modern corporation. Did railroad technology make the modern corporation inevitable? Or put another way, was inventing the corporation the only way society could get the benefit railroads delivered?

We could ask questions like this about Amazon’s size and dominance. Does the very nature of eCommerce demand an Amazon? Are there aspects of online commerce – the economies of scale, the delivery infrastructure, the catalogue – that imply Amazon as the only model of organising authority and power? Or can other models exist – like infrastructure for many small businesses (Shopify or Stripe) or standalone marketplaces (eBay, Etsy). 

In this reality, the emergence of eCommerce created a man worth $100bn (Jeff Bezos), but was that inevitable? Could it have happened another way? Do the benefits of eCommerce demand to be managed by a large, centralised and hierarchical organisation?

Another interesting modern parallel is the politics of contact-tracing apps for Covid-19. We often focus on the privacy issues inherent (“does the Dept of Health know my GPS location?”), but less so the political systems they shape around them – authorities that can tell citizens where to go, what to wear, how to behave etc.

I’ll give Langdon Winner the last word:

“In our times people are often willing to make drastic changes in the way they live to accord with technological innovation at the same time they would resist similar kinds of changes justified on political grounds. If for no other reason than that, it is important for us to achieve a clearer view of these matters than has been our habit so far.”

📖  Interesting Links

Wrongfully accused by an algorithm. The New York Times reports on a faulty facial recognition match led to a Michigan man’s arrest for a crime he did not commit. Read more.

Workhuman is a unicorn. First Stripe, then Intercom, now Workhuman is the next Irish-run tech company to reach a $1bn valuation (a.k.a a Unicorn). Read more.

Fact-checking Fake Images. Google are now showing fact checking notices on Google Images search results, which is great to see. We often focus so much on social newsfeeds that we forget just how many people perform searches every day, and how large the potential for misinformation is there. Read more.

Citizen neuroscience. “The rise of do-it-yourself (DIY) neuroscience may provide an enriched fund of neural data for researchers, but also raises difficult questions about data quality, standards, and the boundaries of scientific practice.” Read more.

🎧  Podcast Recommendation
How Facebook Is Undermining ‘Black Lives Matter’, an episode from New York Time’s “The Daily”. Link.

Programme for Government 2020 – The Digital Impact

June 18, 2020 in Public Policy

This week the coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party published their Programme for Government document. This post is a first-look at some of the key areas in the document relating to tech and digital.

Contents:

  1. The National Digital Strategy
  2. Energy
  3. Sláintecare
  4. Broadband
  5. Online Safety
  6. Cybersecurity
  7. Apprenticeships
  8. Electoral Reform
  9. Media
  10. Advertising
  11. Remote Working / Regional Development
  12. The Irish Tech Sector

1. National Digital Strategy

On Page 29, the PFG sets out the National Digital Strategy:

We will develop a new National Digital Strategy, which will:

  • Utilise the increased level of national connectivity that is being delivered by the National Broadband Plan, particularly in rural Ireland.
  • Drive digital transformation in the public service, with greater integration of digital services.
  • Further develop Ireland’s leadership in new digital technologies, including cloud computing, data analytics, blockchain, Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence.
  • Direct the Office of Government Procurement (OGP) to support the adoption of new technologies through the development of new public service frameworks.
  • Explore how Ireland can be at the forefront of protecting citizens’ rights with respect to facial recognition technology, access to encryption tools, and net neutrality.

We will commence a public consultation on the National Digital Strategy, with a view to completing and publishing the strategy within six months.

I’m not too sure how to assess any of that, not a huge amount of concrete items to latch onto. The “increased level of national connectivity” won’t go un-utilised, so I guess that’s a relief? 🤷‍♂️

Our last National Digital Strategy was published in 2013 and was focused on getting individuals and businesses online, so probably no harm to refresh it. The goals included:

  • To get 10,000 Irish businesses online for the first time
  • To halve the number of “non-liners” (people who have not yet engaged with the internet) by 2016
  • Completion of the rollout of 100mbs to all post primary schools

The Dept of Taoiseach published a public consultation on a new National Digital Strategy back in October 2018. “Following the conclusion of the consultation phase, all submissions will be published online and Government will draft and publish a Strategy that reflects them.” I can’t find where any of that happened, but the website of the National Digital Strategy team says the consultation feedback is still “under review”.

2. Energy

There are some good, time-bound targets around smart-grid type activity in the Green New Deal section (p. 36), including:

  • Prioritise the development of microgeneration, letting people sell excess power back to the grid by June 2021.
  • Ensure that the energy efficiency potential of smart meters starts to be deployed in 2021 and that all mechanical electricity meters are replaced by 2024

3. Sláintecare

e-Health is a major part of the agreed Sláintecare plan, so it has a decent mention on page 45. It repeats support for several plans that are already underway – the “eHealth Strategy for Ireland“, the Individual Health Identifier programme and implementing the Electronic Health Record system in the new National Children’s Hospital, then nationally.

The only new piece is “exploring the potential for introducing a 24-hour triage and health-concerns telephone and website service”

4. Broadband

There’s a broadband section on page 72 but it just says things like “Seek to accelerate the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan” and supporting other things that are already ongoing. The only new thing is potentially “greater powers of enforcement” for ComReg.

5. Online Safety

The Domestic and Sexual Violence section (p. 87) commits to “Enact the Harassment & Harmful Communications Bill (as amended), in order to outlaw image-based sexual abuse and to prevent the abusive sharing of intimate images online.

The Online Safety section also has commits to establishing the Online Safety Commissioner, which is an interesting office:

We will enact the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill and establish an Online Safety Commissioner. The Online Safety Commissioner will:

  • Require online platforms to set out the steps they will take to keep their users safe online and to build safety into the design of their platforms.
  • Ensure that new Online Safety Codes can combat cyber bullying material and material promoting eating disorders, self-harm, and suicide.
  • Provide a mechanism for further categories of harmful content to be added following consultation with the Oireachtas.
  • Require that services operate effective complaints procedures.
  • Ensure that advertising, sponsorship, and product placement are not harmful and that they uphold minimum standards.
  • Require platforms to have takedown measures that are timely and effective.
  • Promote positive digital citizenship among children and young people, in conjunction with Webwise and other educational partners, schools, and the Ombudsman for Children.
  • Develop a research programme led by internationally recognised experts to review the existing and developing literature in relation to (a) the consequences, benefits and potential harms to society and children specifically of digital activity and (b) the concept of duty of care and the public interest in the design of online platforms.

The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) will be replaced with a new Media and Online Safety Commission, when the legislation is enacted.

We will support digital literacy schemes across the country and will continue to support the Digital Skills for Citizens Scheme.

This could be one of the more interesting developments to follow over the lifetime of this Government, especially with the Digital Services Act coming down the line, the Irish Online Safety Commissioner could become a pivotal role just like the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has become since GDPR.

6. Cybersecurity

“We will take the necessary actions to protect Ireland against hacking, cybercrime, crypto-jacking, hacktivism, and cyber espionage.

We will:

  • Build the capacity of the National Centre for Cyber Security (NCCS) to protect the public and private sectors against cybercrime on foot of the capacity review currently underway.
  • Expand the NCCS’s ability to monitor and respond to cyber security incidents and developing threats.
  • Implement the National Cyber Security Strategy, recognising the potential and important role of the Defence Forces.
  • Increase digital literacy among citizens and businesses to better enable the identification of threats online.
  • Develop cyber security capacity in Ireland to better protect citizens, companies, and institutions”

I left the introductory line in here just because I like that “crypto-jacking” is a phrase that made it into the Programme for Government.

7. Apprenticeships

Unfortunately the apprenticeships section (p. 99) doesn’t reference anything on digital apprenticeships. As software becomes an integral part of every industry there will be an increasing number of job opportunities that shouldn’t need someone to do a 4 year computer science degree to write or fix a bit of code.

8. Electoral Reform

The electoral reform section commits to establishing an Electoral Commission by the end of 2021, which has been a long time coming. It will be given the powers “to regulate online political advertising in the public interest and introduce a consistent regime relating to political advertising across all media.

It also promises to improve voter registration:

“Complete the modernisation process for voter registration, involving:

  • The simplification of forms and the registration process, including an online option.
  • A rolling (continuously updated) Electoral Register.
  • A single, national Electoral Register Database.
  • A move to a system of identity verification, using one’s PPSN.”

I would be very excited if this actually comes to pass.

Also, not strictly Digital, but I’m also excited about the plast to examing “replacing by-elections with an alternate list system [….], the use of postal voting, with a view to expanding its provision [and] a fund to support political and electoral research by academics and researchers.”

9. Media

Although the specifics are vague, I like the way this section (p. 122) talks about the future of media in Ireland in general. For legacy reasons, we have considered our media in separate silos based on their distribution – “Broadcasts” covers radio and TV, print is separate, online is too. This document first talks about “Bring[ing] together all policy functions relating to broadcast media, print media and online media into a single media division within a government department.

It also commits to “expand the remit of the Public Service Broadcasting Commission to become a Future of Media Commission and to consider the future of print, broadcast, and online media in a platform agnostic fashion.” which I think makes a lot of sense.

Other than that it’s quite light on specifics, but do I hope whoever drafted it ends up working in the relevant ministry.

10. Advertising

The document plans a move away from self-regulation towards giving the CCPCa more active enforcement role.” This is a recurring theme in the document, giving more teeth to regulators, like ComReg, The Central Bank and CCPC.

11. Remote Working / Regional Development

The National Economic Plan (p. 20) will be guided by principles, including “Innovation in our workplaces through digitalisation, remote and flexible work practices.” and commits to “Publish a Regional Technology and Clustering Programme to strengthen the links between SMEs, Educational Training Boards, multinational corporations and third-level educational institutions and help drive competitiveness, productivity, and innovation in the regions.”

The “Green New Deal” section (p. 33) also features remote working as the 4th key policy change “Developing a strategy for remote working and remote service delivery, taking advantage of the opportunity for a rapid roll-out of the National Broadband Plan.”

The “Balanced Regional Development” section (p. 61) commits to “Develop a national remote working policy to facilitate employees in working from home, or from co-working spaces in rural areas, and to support the retention of skilled young people in rural communities.”, to “Examine the feasibility and merits of changing tax arrangements to encourage more people to work remotely.” and, strikingly, Mandate public sector employers, colleges, and other public bodies to move to 20% home and remote working in 2021.

This sentence is repeated again on page 121, but with this bit extra at the end – “and provide incentives for private- sector employers to do likewise.

12. The Irish Tech Sector

Page 19 commits to “Enact legislation for the introduction of a new €2 billion Credit Guarantee Scheme, SURE scheme, and the warehousing of tax liabilities.” and “Scale up MicroFinance Ireland so that it can support greater numbers of small businesses and start-ups in accessing finance. Review how we can utilise and leverage European Investment Bank funding and other opportunities for external funding to the maximum extent possible, to support our recovery and transition to a low-carbon future.

The National Economic Plan (p. 20) commits to “Scale up Enterprise Ireland support for smaller companies to invest in technology for clean processes, waste, and energy efficiency.”

Peter’s Newsletter 04 – 12th June

June 18, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Dehumanizing Zoom. Court hearings moving to zoom could lead to harsher outcomes. Studies have shown that people are more likely to be deported in immigration hearings if they appear on video than in person, and people applying for asylum are less likely to be granted it over video too. Read more.

Outsourced Moderators. New York University released a report with 8 key recommendations for Social Media companies to improve content moderation. The big one is to stop outsourcing the work. These workers have to watch the worst of what the internet has to offer and then decide if it breaks to rules. The report’s recommendations are intended both to improve the wellbeing of the workers and to make the moderation outcomes better. Better outcomes are particularly important in volatile regions like Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Ethiopia, where it social media content has sparked violence and resulted in deaths. Read more.

Many of these outsourced jobs are based in Dublin, paying about €12 per hour. Jennifer O’Connell did a great piece in The Irish Times on the work involved last year. Read more.

“Deepfakes” are the product of a new video editing technique, essentially photoshopping someone’s face into a video. Many people are worried about their use in politics. “What if someone fake’s a video of Trump declaring war?” But Deepfakes were originally invented by Reddit users to put women’s faces into porn videos and unfortunately, that’s what most of it is used for now. A study found that over 90% of deep-fake videos online involve non-consensually photoshopping a woman into porn. Often celebrities or women they know personally. Vox produced a great video on this emerging vector of harassment online. Link.

End-to-End Encryption involves trade-offs between privacy and safety, so it’s interesting to see how Zoom are planning to strike the balance. If you get a paid account, they’ll make your video calls E2E encrypted, meaning no Zoom employee could listen in – for the company or on behalf of law enforcement. But they won’t be encrypting calls for free accounts. Zoom’s explanation is that most nefarious action happens with free accounts, with people unwilling to enter their billing details, which I guess makes sense. It’s an interesting place to draw the line between privacy and safety, which isn’t an option available to most messaging services like WhatsApp or FB Messenger, which typically have no paid users. Read more.

Shared Micromobility, a term which encompasses bike share schemes like Dublin Bikes and electric scooters like Lime, is set to benefit from Covid. In particular as cities return to work, but commuters look for alternatives to busy public transport. Read more

Moby, the second private Micromobility company set to launch its electric bike-sharing scheme in Dublin, is profiled in The Currency. Link.

But e-scooters still aren’t legal in Ireland. They’re classed as Mechanically Propelled Vehicles, so must be taxed and insured, but according to the Gardaí “As it is currently not possible to tax or insure eScooters etc., they are not considered suitable for use in a public place.” Read More.

Here’s a beautiful flowchart of where all of our energy comes from. Link.

German restaurant seatings (on the OpenTable app) are now back to pre-lockdown levels. Link.

Is Remote Working the new Tourism? If we understand the benefit of spending money to attract tourists to our towns for a week or two, surely the same Return-on-Investment calculations can be done on attracting remote workers out of Dublin for several years? Interesting idea gleaned from a Twitter conversation between people working in tourism, remote working and on Clare County council. Read more.

Podcast recommendation. A few years ago Reply All did an episode about a computer system to record crime stats and the effect it had on the NYPD. It’s a great example of Goodhart’s law – “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” As pressure mounted to increase stops, searches and arrests, a system to measure crime ends up creating it. Worth a listen amid the current conversation around the future of policing in the US. Link.

The Parliamentary Budget Office have produced a digital, visual flowchart of how tax receipts and government spending have been impacted by Covid. More of this please. Link.

RTE’s posts will get start getting tagged on Facebook soon, as will the posts of all other state-owned or state-backed content producers. Youtube has been already doing this for quite a while. In Ireland, the tags will only appear on the page itself or in the Ads Library (where nobody but nerds like us look), but in the US posts in the newsfeed will be individually tagged, so hopefully that happens here too shortly. Read more.

Challenger Banks are making a significant impact in Ireland. N26 now has 100,000 customers here and Revolut has a million. It has the same number of customers as bank of Ireland, but 6% of the staff (1.5k vs 24k). As this ecosystem evolves I think we’ll start thinking about our Pillar Banks (BOI, AIB, PTSB) as the core banking infrastructure layer, similar to how we think about Eir’s broadband network or ESB networks – with consumer facing apps built on top of them. But which parts of banking, like mortgages, deposit insurance or transfers, sit in which layer is still to be discovered. 

  • The Currency have an interview with N26’s Head of Europe. Link.
  • A great overview of the difference between opening an account with a traditional vs. challenger bank. Link

Ask the experts. “When 511 Epidemiologists Expect to Fly, Hug and Do 18 Other Everyday Activities Again.” Link