Google’s War on Trolls Could Help Save the Internet

As I’ve noted before, pretty much every day I receive emailed queries (and sometimes phone calls) from desperate persons who have been driven effectively largely offline for fear of retaliation from anything that they might say publicly online.

I don’t usually know them. They don’t usually know me except perhaps by reputation. They’re taking a leap of faith anyway.

They almost inevitably begin with words to the effect of “I hope that I can trust you” — and the fact that they’ve been driven to tell a total stranger some of the most intimate details of their lives is heartbreaking beyond measure.

I do what I can for them in terms of offering advice, but the range of options is in reality quite limited. Law enforcement is usually uninterested in dealing with these cases even when they’ve risen to obviously dangerous levels — their typical response to concerned persons is along the lines of “stay off the Internet.”

And the fact is that nowadays it’s a vast understatement to say that you can’t safely have a thin skin if you’re going to make public statements in most Net venues.

I’ve been at this game for a long time — effectively since the earliest days of the Internet — so my skin is pretty damned thick by now.

But even I’m not completely immune to twinges of discomfort when I survey the scope of attacks that I routinely receive.

Some of them are from trolls who make the mistake of incorrectly assuming that I’m female — the speed with which they retreat if I direct them to my Harley profile shot can be awesome to behold. And of course there are the usual antisemitic morons and other white supremacist cretins, right-wing imbeciles, and all the rest. These days they seem to almost inevitably be Donald Trump supporters. As we know, he joyfully attracts them like flies to you-know-what.

Among the Internet’s — and so the world’s — most crucial questions are ones of freedom of speech vs. privacy — open communications vs. trolling, threats, and hate speech.

It’s an incredibly delicate balance — how to limit hateful attacks that drive people to desperation, without creating a social media ecosystem that unreasonably limits free speech.

There are various ways to approach this set of difficult problems.

Over in Italy right now they’re taking exactly the wrong path — proposing a law that would fine “site managers” 100,000 euros if they don’t take action against posts that simply “mock” another person. The proposal’s standard is that a person simply “feels” that they were insulted. Laughably insane, impractical, and unworkable. Pretty much anybody could really rake it in under a law like that!

Back in the real world, Internet services with a sense of responsibility have long used their Terms of Service agreements to deal with posting abuse, with various degrees of success. Keep in mind that these firms have the utterly appropriate right to determine what they will permit and host — this is reasonable editorial responsibility, not censorship (I usually view censorship per se as almost inevitably being repressive actions by governments against third parties).

It has long seemed clear to me that appropriately dealing with the rising tide of trolls and other social media posting abuses would inevitably require an intensifying partnership between automated detection systems and human insights, each bringing different strengths and limitations to the table.

This is why I wholeheartedly support the ongoing efforts of Google (or more precisely, the “Jigsaw” division of Google’s parent Alphabet, Inc.) to leverage Google’s sophisticated and powerful artificial intelligence assets to help deal with the growing trolling and hate speech scourge.

I won’t attempt to summarize the details of their project here — you can read about it at the link just above.

But I did want to take this opportunity to express my view that while obviously we cannot expect any particular efforts to completely solve the deeply complicated and significantly multidisciplinary problems of social media posting abuse, I am convinced that Google’s approach shows enormous promise.

Through the efforts of Google and others working along multiple paths of research and associated policy analysis, we have some excellent opportunities to make seriously positive inroads against posting abusers, and in the process making the Internet a better place for the vast majority of its users and the global community at large. Communications will be greatly encouraged when the “fear factor” that holds so many wonderful people back from public postings is significantly reduced.

And frankly, if these efforts also have the side-effect of reducing the number of horrific posting abuse nightmares that fill my inbox from desperate persons seeking help, that will personally be for me a very welcome plus as well.

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Hillary Was Wrong About Trump’s “50% Deplorables” — They’re Actually Much Higher

Hillary Clinton apologized today for a remark she made yesterday where she said that around half of Trump’s supporters were in a “basket of deplorables” –“the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”

Her remark was wrong, but she shouldn’t have apologized.

It was wrong because she significantly understated the degree to which Trump’s supporters are horrific, racist pigs — and far worse.

Polling data backs this up decisively.

A full two-thirds of Trump supporters cling to the racist and xenophobic belief that Obama is a secret Muslim. Almost that many still insist that he wasn’t born in the USA — a popular Trump claim that he has never repudiated.

But those opinions are a walk in the park compared with some of the other data on Trump’s salivating minions.

A third of them think that the WWII Japanese internment camps — one of the darkest actions in USA history, were a good idea.

Almost a third would support banning LGBT people from entering this country.

A full 30% of Trump voters feel that the white race is “superior” or aren’t sure that it is.

Of course the stink from Trump supporters comes directly from the top with Trump’s own xenophobic, racist, and fascist remarks and behavior — not limited to his love fest with racist dictator Putin — and from the bottom with his overwhelming support from white supremacist monsters like David Duke and the rest of the sickening, racist,  “Alt-Right” movement — some of whom now hold high positions in Trump’s own campaign organization.

And in a vivid proof of the “rotten father: rotten son” theorem, zombie son Eric Trump has continued this past week Tweeting false stories, including regarding imaginary Hillary secret earphones and — just today — a fake, doctored photo claiming to have been of a Trump rally last night (it was actually from last year). Talk about a family that’s rotten to the core.

It is undoubtedly true that not every single Trump voter is themselves a racist per se.

But there’s an old saying: “If you sleep with dogs, expect to arise with fleas.”

And by allying themselves with the racist, duplicitous creature of evil that is Donald Trump, his supporters have voluntary accepted unto themselves Trump’s filth, his disease, his hideous sensibilities that have no place outside of a nest of dung-feeding roaches — no offense meant to roaches, of course.

This is why Hillary’s estimate of the depth of Trump’s followers’ depravities was too conservative, too “politically correct” as it were.

Because Trump’s followers — by the mere fact that they’d be willing to put an ignorant, perverted sociopath like Trump in control of nuclear weapons that could destroy civilization on Earth many times over — have demonstrated that they are at the very least “deplorable” — and by most measures simply supplicants to Donald Trump’s evil itself.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

The Downsides of Google’s Chrome Security Push

Google has world class security and privacy teams, but I continue to have misgivings about certain aspects of their Chrome browser security push — particularly regarding warnings to users when connections are using unencrypted http: as opposed to https: encryption.

While the push to encrypt Internet connections by default is a laudable one, it is also essential that fundamental aspects of practicality and user reactions also be carefully considered.

I touched on some of this over a year ago in “Falling Into the Encryption Trap” — but now that Google has made more explicit their plans for browser address bar warnings to users regarding http: connections, I’m again concerned.

Apparently in January of next year Google intends to replace the current quite reasonable “information circle” indicating non-encrypted pages, with an explicit “Not secure” warning — ultimately to be displayed in bright red with a danger triangle.

I am absolutely certain — based on the many queries I receive routinely from users who are already confused and concerned about other security warnings they see and misunderstand — that the escalation to these sorts of warnings by Chrome will vastly and unnecessarily increase confusion and even panic among significant categories of non-techie users when accessing various sites important to them.

Because the truth of the matter is that it remains both impractical and unnecessary for all sites to convert to https: at this time.

It is certainly true that theoretically any site could become a vector for misinformation or malware via man-in-the-middle manipulation of their connections, and the use of various insecure and/or poorly managed ad networks increases the risks in this context.

But as a practical matter, the vast majority of exploits that users must contend with do not come from the manipulation of Internet connections. Rather, infections via email phishing, contaminated sites, and similar techniques represent the overwhelming majority of successful attack vectors.

Still, it is inarguable that all else being equal, having all connections as encrypted https: rather than unencrypted http: is extremely desirable.

Unfortunately, all else isn’t equal.

There are uncountably vast numbers of legacy sites that provide widely referenced information to enormous numbers of users, yet do not sell anything, don’t collect usernames or passwords or other private information, and don’t participate in any ad networks.

Many of these sites have been online not just for many years, but even for decades. They typically use older software systems that are difficult or impractical to directly update, and frequently operate on a shoestring (or even zero) budget, while not creating any income at all.

It will frequently prove impossible from a money and/or time standpoint for the operators of such sites to convert to https: — yet Chrome’s warning system will likely confuse their users into assuming that they are actually being spied on — rather than the actual fact that such surveillance is in any given case theoretical (and in practice an extremely low probability) on those individual connections.

And while the cost of encryption certificates has now dropped to zero with the advent of services such as “Let’s Encrypt” — the effort required to actually make them work can be anything but trivial.

I recently converted all of my sites, some of very long standing, to https: using Let’s Encrypt. Even though my sites are not fancy in any way, it was an enormous amount of work, and required every ounce of knowledge I had regarding the sites’ internal architectures. While Let’s Encrypt promotes scripts to supposedly handle such conversions automatically, I cannot recommend those procedures except for the very most trivial and simplistic of sites — anything beyond that and you’re liable to end up with a mangled site configuration nightmare — you’d better have good backups handy!

I’m frankly uncertain how to best achieve a practical compromise position regarding browser security warnings.

I do know that a scary red “Not secure” warning is likely to unnecessarily panic many users and unreasonably disadvantage many sites.

This is especially true when there is no explicit indication to users as to how they can obtain more information about that warning — such as what does it really mean in terms of actual risks? — in language that non-techies will actually understand. Even now, the security details that Chrome provides if one knows to click on the address bar security icon are pretty much technical gobbledygook as far as most users are concerned.

My sense is that despite their great skills in privacy and security matters, Google has not genuinely considered the impacts of their upcoming browser warnings on significant segments of the user and site populations, who by and large do not live 24/7 in the same rarefied security worlds as do many of us.

Luckily, this is a fixable problem, if Google is willing to put forth the effort and outreach to fix it. I respectively urge them to do so.

Be seeing you.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Oscar’s Ageism and Society’s Disposable Workers

I’ve long had a policy of avoiding involving myself in Hollywood politics — not always easy having resided here in L.A. for my entire life to date.

But something’s going on with Oscar — or more precisely the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) — that is disturbing both in and of itself, and for what it says about our society at large (including here in the tech world).

The Academy Award (Oscar) presentations have always tended to be quite “white” — more so than ever in recent years, leading to calls of racism and protests.

The Academy does have real problems in this respect. It’s not purposeful racism per se, but it is a form of effective racism that has been an outgrowth of AMPAS membership policies and the structural history of popular films and Hollywood production patterns pretty much since the dawn of the movie industry.

With recent protests being particularly embarrassing to the Academy, AMPAS has now moved to try deal with what they perceive to be their “too many voting old white men” problem.

But they’re doing it in exactly the wrong way, exchanging their existing diversity problems for outright ageism.

Rather than changing their membership and voting rules going forward for new members in a manner that would encourage racial and other diversity, they’ve decided to try cull their oldest members — some in their 90s who have been Academy members for many decades and have always played by the rules — by stripping them of their Oscar voting rights.

While this obviously does not rise to the level of the kind of rampant workplace ageism and discrimination as reported recently by The New York Times, it still is a slap in the face to loyal, older AMPAS members who have done absolutely nothing wrong, and is yet another example of society kicking older persons in the gut as an ostensible “quick fix” solution for complex structural problems. Quick “fixes” — I might add — that typically make those problems far worse rather than fixing anything at all.

Outside of the Hollywood ecosystem, the intricacies of who votes for or receives Oscars is not a matter of much import to most people.

But what AMPAS’ actions tell us about the treatment of older persons in general is very much in scope, and perhaps the sheer ham-handed, doltish approach of the Academy to their very real diversity problems shines a key light on society’s failings in this regard — illuminating the broader issues in a way especially difficult to dismiss or ignore.

And that’s the truth.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!