June 23, 2018 - June 29, 2018
Sleep mode? Tech giants
‘kids’ ‘fixes’ amount to baby steps
is adding a “sleep” mode to its Messenger Kids service so parents can
limit how much time children spend on it. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
New York (AP) -
Facebook is adding a “sleep” mode to its Messenger Kids service to let
parents limit when their kids can use it.
It’s the latest
concession that tech companies are making as critics question whether
they should be targeting kids at all. Among their chief concerns: The
effects on kids are not yet known, and companies might not have
children’s best interests at heart when tech for kids is such a
Rather than kill
the services completely, as some critics want, Facebook, Amazon and
Google are mostly tinkering at the edges. That leaves open the
underlying questions of whether their products truly serve a need for
the youngest set and if they are good for them.
Here’s a look at
the changes announced last week:
Facebook created a kids-friendly version of its Messenger app. It has no
ads and gives parents plenty of controls over whom their children can
chat with. The thinking was that while the regular apps are designed for
people 13 or over, younger kids were on it anyway. Facebook saw
Messenger Kids as a way to give the younger set a safer option.
- The changes:
Parents can now specify the times kids aren’t allowed on - either as a
one-time restriction or something recurring, such as after 9 p.m. every
school night. While the app is in sleep mode, kids will get a message
when they open it telling them so, and they won’t be able to use it.
- The shortcomings:
Critics say that Messenger Kids isn’t responding to a need, but rather
creating one. “It appeals primarily to children who otherwise would not
have their own social media accounts,” states a letter signed by 100
child development experts and advocates. Merely offering time controls
falls short of killing the app completely.
Since 2015, the
Google-owned service has had a child-oriented app, YouTube Kids,
described as a “safer” experience for finding “Peppa Pig” episodes or
user-generated videos of people unboxing toys.
company has been under fire for not vetting out computer-generated,
sometimes-disturbing video, such as your favorite cartoon characters
having painful dental surgery - or worse.
Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood has also asked the Federal
Trade Commission to investigate whether YouTube’s data collection and
advertising practices violate federal child privacy rules.
- The changes:
YouTube said this week that it is overhauling its kids app so parents
can limit video to those vetted by humans, rather than computers. With
this option, kids can watch only a selection of children’s programming
such as “Sesame Street” and PBS Kids.
- The shortcomings:
The old automated system is on by default, meaning parents need to
actively choose the human-only option. And YouTube is continuing to show
ads on its kid-focused service.
It also doesn’t
help that many kids (with or without their parents) use the main YouTube
site for video, meaning they miss out on both human and automated
controls for kids.
Sure, it’s fun to
ask Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant to fart - as many kids have
discovered after parents buy an Alexa-enabled Echo speaker. But parents
and childhood experts have been wondering what effects smart speakers
may have on young kids, who may not quite understand whether Alexa is
human and maybe learn from barking orders at her that barking orders is
- The changes:
Alexa will soon thank kids for shouting out questions “nicely” if they
say “please,” the online retail giant announced Wednesday. The new
response is part of a kid-friendly update that’s coming next month,
giving parents more control over the voice assistant. Adults can also
set Alexa to go silent at bedtime or block music with explicit lyrics.
- The shortcoming:
This may be appeasing parents just enough to buy more Amazon products.
After all, the company did not get to where it is today by missing out
on new business opportunities. Amazon said it will now sell an $80 Echo
Dot aimed at children, complete with colorful cases and a two-year
warranty (regular Echo Dots are $50).
June 16, 2018 - June 22, 2018
Distracted by technology? Microsoft tries to help
Microsoft rolled out a free update to its Windows 10 computer operating
system Monday, April 30, 2018, that includes new features to keep people
in a distraction-free zone. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
(AP) - Technology
companies whose devices and constantly scrolling online services have
driven us to distraction are beginning to acknowledge that their
products can be a waste of time. Some of them now say they're trying to
Microsoft is rolling out
a free update to its Windows 10 computer operating system Monday with
new features to keep people in a distraction-free zone.
The "Focus Assist"
feature enables workers to temporarily switch off email and social media
notifications during times when they need to keep their heads down. They
can allow messages from certain people to break through.
Microsoft says the update
is inspired by research showing office workers are being interrupted or
having to switch tasks about every three minutes - and it takes 23
minutes to get back in focus. Microsoft is also adding a "Timeline"
feature aimed at saving time by more easily retrieving documents or
unfinished work from the past 30 days.
"Almost every application
and web service is vying for your attention," said Aaron Woodman, a
marketing general manager for Microsoft Windows. "Increasingly, people
are going to prefer environments where they can control and manage their
It may be easier for
Microsoft to create such limits, as its business is far less reliant on
advertising than Google and Facebook. With advertising in the mix, more
time spent means more revenue.
Apple's iPhone and
Google's Android phones have "Do Not Disturb" modes for muting
notifications. Microsoft's biggest email rival, Gmail, began rolling out
a redesign this week that includes time-saving measures. One uses
artificial intelligence to allow Google to help respond to emails with
quick answers such as "Will do, thanks!" or "Sorry, I won't be able to
Facebook CEO Mark
Zuckerberg surprised investors earlier this year when he said he
welcomed the idea of fewer hours spent on his site, arguing that
"helping people connect is more important than maximizing the time
people spend on Facebook."
The social network also
on Friday said it is adding a "sleep" mode to its Messenger Kids service
to let parents limit when their kids can use it.
Facebook kills 'trending' topics, tests breaking news label
Thursday, May 31, 2018, photo shows the Trending section on a Facebook
account in New York. Facebook is shutting down its ill-fated "trending"
news section after four years. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
New York (AP) -
Facebook is shutting down its ill-fated "trending" news section after
four years, a company executive told The Associated Press.
The company claims the
tool is outdated and wasn't popular. But the trending section also
proved problematic in ways that would presage Facebook's later problems
with fake news, political balance and the limitations of artificial
intelligence in managing the messy human world.
When Facebook launched
"trending" in 2014 as a list of headlines to the side of the main news
feed, it was a straightforward move to steal users from Twitter by
giving them a quick look at the most popular news of the moment. It fit
nicely into CEO Mark Zuckerberg's pledge just a year earlier to make
Facebook its users' "personal newspaper."
But that was then. "Fake
news" wasn't yet a popular term, and no foreign country had been accused
of trying to influence the U.S. elections through social media, as
Russia later would be. Trending news that year included the death of
Robin Williams, Ebola and the World Cup.
Facebook is now testing
new features, including a "breaking news" label that publishers can add
to stories to distinguish them from other chatter. Facebook also wants
to make local news more prominent.
"It's very good to get
rid of 'trending,'" said Frank Pasquale, a law professor at the
University of Maryland and expert on algorithms and society. He said
algorithms are good for very narrow, well-defined tasks. By contrast, he
said, deciding what news stories should go in "trending" requires broad
thinking, quick judgments about context and decisions about whether
someone is trying to game the system.
In an interview ahead of
Friday's announcement, Facebook's head of news products, Alex Hardiman,
said the company is still committed to breaking and real-time news. But
instead of having Facebook's moderators, human or otherwise, make
editorial decisions, there's been a subtle shift to let news
organizations do so.
According to the Pew
Research Center, 44 percent of U.S. adults get some or all of their news
Troubles with the
trending section began to emerge in 2016, when the company was accused
of bias against conservatives, based on the words of an anonymous former
contractor who said Facebook downplayed conservative issues in that
feature and promoted liberal causes. Zuckerberg met with prominent
right-wing leaders at the company's headquarters in an attempt at damage
control. Yet two years later, Facebook still hasn't been able to shake
the notion of bias.
In late 2016, Facebook
fired the human editors who worked on the trending topics and replaced
them with software that was supposed to be free of political bias.
Instead, the software algorithm began to pick out posts that were
getting the most attention, even if the information in them was bogus.
In early 2017, Facebook made another attempt to fix the trending
section, this time by including only topics covered by several news
publishers. The thinking was that coverage by just one outlet could be a
sign that the news is fake.
The troubles underscore
the difficulty of relying on computers, even artificial intelligence, to
make sense of the messy human world without committing obvious,
sometimes embarrassing and occasionally disastrous errors.
appears to conclude that trying to fix the headaches around trending
wasn't worth the meager benefit the company, users and news publishers
saw in it.
"There are other ways for
us to better invest our resources," Hardiman said.
Pasquale said Facebook's
new efforts represent "very slow steps" toward an acknowledgement that
the company is making editorial judgments when it decides what news
should be shown to users - and that it needs to empower journalists and
editors to do so.
But what needs to happen
now, he added, is a broad shift in the company's corporate culture,
recognizing the expertise involved in journalistic judgment. The changes
and features Facebook is putting out, he said, are being treated as "bug
fixes" - addressing single problems the way engineers do.
"What they are not doing
is giving an overall account of their mission on how these fixes fit
together," Pasquale said.
The "breaking news" label
that Facebook is testing with 80 news publishers around the world will
let outlets such as The Washington Post add a red label to
indicate that a story is breaking news, highlighting it for users who
want accurate information as things are happening.
"Breaking news has to
look different than a recipe," Hardiman said.
Another feature, called
"Today In," shows people breaking news in their area from local
publishers, officials and organizations. It's being tested out in 30
markets in the U.S. Hardiman says the goal is to help "elevate great
local journalism." The company is also funding news videos, created
exclusively for Facebook by outside publishers it would not yet name. It
plans to launch this feature in the next few months.
Facebook says the
trending section wasn't a popular feature to begin with. It was
available only in five countries and accounted for less than 1.5 percent
of clicks to the websites of news publishers, according to the company.
While Facebook got
outsized attention for the problems the trending section had - perhaps
because it seemed popular with journalists and editors - neither its
existence nor its removal makes much of a difference when it comes with
Facebook's broader problems with news.
Hardiman said ending the
trending section feels like letting a child go. But she said Facebook's
focus now is prioritizing trustworthy, informative news that people find
June 9, 2018 - June 15, 2018
France to beef up
system on social media
Thursday, March 16, 2017 file photo, a French police message alert of an
attack at the Alexis de Tocqueville high school in the southern French
town of Grasse is displayed on a cell phone in Paris. France’s Interior
Ministry has announced plans to beef up its danger alert system to the
public across social media. (AP Photo, File)
Paris (AP) -
France’s Interior Ministry announced plans on Tuesday, May 30, to beef
up its emergency alert system to the public across social media.
The ministry said
in a statement that from June during immediate threats of danger, such
as a terror attack, the ministry’s alerts will be given priority
broadcast on Twitter, Facebook and Google as well as on French public
transport and television.
The statement said
that Twitter will give “special visibility” to the ministry’s alerts
with a banner.
In a specific
agreement, Facebook will also allow the French government to communicate
to people directly via the social network’s “safety check” tool, created
The ministry said
that this is the first time in Europe that Facebook has allowed public
authorities to use this tool in this way.
comes as a much-derided attack alert app launched in 2016 called SAIP is
being withdrawn after malfunctions.
Insider Q&A: Mozilla exec says
to demand better internet
May 14, 2018, file photo, Mitchell Baker attends the 22nd Annual Webby
Awards at Cipriani Wall Street in New York. (Photo by Andy
Cambridge, Mass. (AP) - The
manifesto Mitchell Baker wrote for the free software community Mozilla
declared the internet to be a global public resource and privacy a
fundamental right that “must not be treated as optional.”
Twenty years later, as executive
chairwoman and “chief lizard wrangler” of the Mozilla Foundation, Baker
says she’s on a mission to reassert those principles and update them for
an era when online privacy, rational discourse and verifiable
information seem elusive. She’s also working to refresh interest in
Mozilla’s flagship product, the Firefox browser.
Baker spoke with The Associated
Press on the sidelines of MIT’s Solve conference. Questions and comments
have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How did you come up with
“Demand better of the internet” as your five-word acceptance speech for
the Webby Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award?
A: I thought of one that was
wildly aspirational - “global, safe, trustworthy, open internet”- but
felt that didn’t capture some of what’s in the air right now - how the
internet can amplify good things but also anti-social behavior. I
thought it would be good to acknowledge that.
Q: What do you think of
Europe’s new, stricter data rules?
A: As a signal that some set
of societies will take action, they’re extremely helpful. The options
are to do nothing and hope that things resolve themselves. Or take
action, as the European Union has, knowing that some things will work
and others won’t, but that we must take a stand as a society that the
current path of commercial enterprise is unacceptable.
Q: What data does Mozilla
A: For many years we tried
to collect absolutely nothing, thinking that was the best way to ensure
privacy and security. We shifted in the last few years. But the spirit
of the (EU) law, Mozilla’s always been trying to meet. The data we do
have is mostly about our own product. We don’t sell it. We’re not
monetizing against it.
Q: How is Firefox doing?
A: There’s no question that
for a few years, (Google) Chrome has beaten us. They had the newest
generation of technology, and it showed. Once you’ve got a product out,
it’s hard to change something so deep in the guts. But we found a way to
As of November, with our Firefox
Quantum release, we have the technical crown again. It’s not easy to
reach consumers about it because you get used to the browsers you’re
using, but we do have some reaction.
Q: What’s Mozilla’s approach
to virtual reality and augmented reality?
A: Our vision is that thing
we used to call the web. Send a link, and anyone can click on that. That
seems obvious. But that’s not how AR and VR are today, where you have to
pick (a system). If I want to see that content, I have to move to the
next closed system. We’re trying to make it interoperable so developers
really have a chance to do something new and consumers like us can find
and see what we want.
June 2, 2018 - June 8, 2018
Amazon urged not to sell facial
recognition tool to police
Seattle (AP) - Amazon’s decision to market a
powerful face recognition tool to police is alarming privacy advocates, who
say the tech giant’s reach could vastly accelerate a dystopian future in
which camera-equipped officers can identify and track people in real time,
whether they’re involved in crimes or not.
It’s not clear how many law enforcement agencies have
purchased the tool, called Rekognition, since its launch in late 2016 or
since its update last fall, when Amazon added capabilities that allow it to
identify people in videos and follow their movements almost instantly.
Seattle police officer
Debra Pelich (right) wears a video camera on her eyeglasses as she talks
with Alex Legesse before a small community gathering in Seattle. The ACLU
and other organizations on Tuesday, May 22, 2018, asked Amazon to stop
selling its facial-recognition tool, called Rekognition, to law enforcement
agencies. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon has
used it to quickly compare unidentified suspects in surveillance images to a
database of more than 300,000 booking photos from the county jail - a common
use of such technology around the country - while the Orlando Police
Department in Florida is testing whether it can be used to single out
persons-of-interest in public spaces and alert officers to their presence.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy
advocates on Tuesday asked Amazon to stop marketing Rekognition to
government agencies, saying they could use the technology to “easily build a
system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone.”
That could have potentially dire consequences for
minorities who are already arrested at disproportionate rates, immigrants
who may be in the country illegally or political protesters, they said.
“People should be free to walk down the street without
being watched by the government,” the groups wrote in a letter to Amazon on
Tuesday. “Facial recognition in American communities threatens this
In an emailed statement, Amazon Web Services stressed
that it requires all of its customers to comply with the law and to be
responsible in the use of its products.
The statement said some agencies have used the program
to find abducted people, and amusement parks have used it to find lost
children. British broadcaster Sky News used Rekognition to help viewers
identify celebrities at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle
Amazon’s technology isn’t that different from what face
recognition companies are already selling to law enforcement agencies. But
its vast reach and its interest in recruiting more police departments - at
extremely low cost - are troubling, said Clare Garvie, an associate at the
Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center.
“This raises very real questions about the ability to
remain anonymous in public spaces,” Garvie said.
While police might be able to videotape public
demonstrations, face recognition is not merely an extension of photography
but a biometric measurement - more akin to police walking through a
demonstration and demanding identification from everyone there, she said.
Some police departments, including Seattle, have
policies that bar the use of real-time facial recognition in body camera
Amazon released Rekognition in late 2016, and the
sheriff’s office in Washington County, west of Portland, became one of its
first law enforcement agency customers.
A year later, deputies were using it about 20 times a
day - for example, to identify burglary suspects in store surveillance
footage. Last month, the agency adopted policies governing its use, noting
that officers in the field can use real-time face recognition to identify
suspects who are unwilling or unable to provide their own ID, or if
someone’s life is in danger.
“We are not mass-collecting. We are not putting a
camera out on a street corner,” said Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the
sheriff’s office. “We want our local community to be aware of what we’re
doing, how we’re using it to solve crimes - what it is and, just as
importantly, what it is not.”
It cost the sheriff’s office just $400 to load 305,000
booking photos - which are already public records - into the system and $6 a
month in fees to continue the service, according to an email obtained by the
ACLU under a public records request.
Last year, the Orlando, Florida, Police Department
announced it would begin a pilot program relying on Amazon’s technology to
“use existing city resources to provide real-time detection and notification
of persons-of-interest, further increasing public safety.”
Orlando has a network of public safety cameras, and in
a presentation posted to YouTube this month, Ranju Das, who leads Amazon
Rekognition, said the company would receive feeds from the cameras, search
them against photos of people being sought by law enforcement and notify
police of any hits.
“It’s about recognizing people, it’s about tracking
people, and then it’s about doing this in real time, so that the law
enforcement officers ... can be then alerted in real time to events that are
happening,” he said.
The Orlando Police Department said in an email that it
“is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public
spaces at this time.”
The testing has been limited to eight city-owned
cameras and a handful of officers who volunteered to have their images used
to see if the technology works, Sgt. Eduardo Bernal wrote in an email.
“As this is a pilot and not being actively used by OPD
as a surveillance tool, there is no policy or procedure regarding its use as
it is not deployed in that manner,” Bernal wrote.
The privacy advocates’ letter to Amazon followed public
records requests from ACLU chapters in California, Oregon and Florida. More
than two dozen organizations signed it, including the Electronic Frontier
Foundation and Human Rights Watch.