How the Alt-Right Plans to Control Google


The European Union is threatening massive fines against firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter if contents that the EU considers to be “forbidden” aren’t removed quickly enough. The EU (and now some non-EU countries) are demanding the right to impose global censorship on Google, proclaiming that nobody on Planet Earth can be permitted to view materials that these individual countries wish to hide from their own citizens’ eyes.

The U.S. Congress is feigning newfound horror at their sudden realization that yes, Russians did influence the 2016 elections, and is now suggesting that only our brilliant politicians and bureaucrats know how to fix the problem.

Meanwhile, the horned and spiked-tail demons of the alt-right like Steve Bannon are promoting a wet dream of converting firms like Google into “public utilities” — where search results would be micromanaged for the benefit of racist, sexist antisemites like themselves — and for his president apparently residing amidst a chalked pentagram in the Oval Office.

The common thread that defines this tapestry is third parties demanding to control what these firms are permitted to let you see, to strip these firms of their rights to decide what sorts of contents they do or not wish to host.

We’ve seen this attack ramping up for years. Russia and China are obvious offenders. China’s vast Internet censorship regime is without equal and is the model to which most other countries’ Internet censorship dreams aspire. Where the technology for censorship is less advanced, the reliable mechanism of nightmarish fear can be employed — like Thailand’s recent sentencing of a man to 35 years in prison for Facebook posts critical of their damnable monarchy.

We’ve watched the EU’s escalating demands for years, knowing full well that they’d never be satisfied without the powers of global censorship being bestowed unto them.

And now joining the information control chorus are those worst elements of the alt-right. They’re combining forces with an array of other parties who just can’t get it through their thick skulls that their calls for “search transparency and equality” would result in a lowering of search quality for users to an extent that you might as well try to pick out quality websites from an old copy of the Yellow Pages.

Their collective goal is to create a playground for the worst of low quality sites, scammers, crooks, racists, fake news purveyors, and the rest of their similarly decrepit lowlife scumbags.

The alt-right really started to engage on this when firms like Google and Facebook (and to a lesser extent Twitter) recently and wisely ramped up enforcement of their longstanding prohibitions against hate speech and associated garbage, and began seriously clamping down on fake propaganda search listings and posts.

This terrifies the alt-right. They’ve built their entire business model on leveraging these platforms to spew forth their hateful and lying bile, and feel threatened at the prospect of their diseased spigot being closed off. But they’re still smart enough to align their rants with those on the far left who similarly wish to impose their own viewpoints and censorship regimes onto the rest of us.

The results can be dripping with irony. The calls for making firms like Google “public utilities” are particularly laughable, especially given that right wing politicians have long fought against public utility designations for dominant ISPs — who have spent many decades carving out geographic physical fiefdoms void of competition — where their predatory pricing policies could be maintained.

Yet anyone on the planet who has Internet access can freely connect to firms like Google, Facebook, and Twitter — and use these firms’ services without charge — unless their own governments themselves try to block them! Not only is there no possible case for such firms to be considered as public utilities, but there is no historical precedent of any kind on which to base such a concept.

Once again, it’s all really about governments and bottom of the barrel miscreants trying impose information control on the rest of us.

The scammers and crooks want their sites high in search results. The racists and other hatemongers want to disseminate their filth without limits. Russian trolls squirm at the prospect of not being able to as easily illicitly influence future elections. Politicians dream of imposing ever more total global censorship.

None of these evil players want firms like Google to have the continued ability to control the data on their own platforms for the benefit of users overall and for the broader community.

It’s through their politically motivated, falsified “public interest” claims that the alt-right and other malevolent forces are plotting to control Google, Facebook, Twitter, and more. The thirst for control over these firms even transcends these groups’ individual political differences in many cases.

It is up to us to derail these plots, to not be taken in and rolled over by their propaganda and lies, irrespective of own political and social affiliations.

With strikingly few exceptions, pretty much every time that governments become involved in controversies relating to information control or technology policies, we find that politicians and their minions manage to royally screw up everything, often for everyone except (oh so conveniently) themselves.

We won’t be fooled again.

–Lauren–

Why Won’t Roku Talk About Their Privacy Policies?


Roku makes some excellent, inexpensive video streaming products. I actually have both a Roku Stick and a great Google Chromecast — they each have somewhat different best use cases.

Some days ago the chief security officer at a large firm contacted me with a question about a potential use for Roku units in a corporate environment. They already had Roku boxes or sticks on most of their meeting room monitors, and were concerned about a specific security/privacy issue.

Essentially, they were considering use of the existing Roku units — in conjunction with the Roku Media Player app available to download to those units — to display locally created video assets.

My immediate reaction was to discourage this — much preferring a method that was totally under their control with no chance of leakage outside their own networks — even if that meant direct wiring to the displays. But for a number of reasons he insisted that he wanted to explore the use of Rokus in this application.

Unfortunately, figuring out the privacy and security implications of such a course has so far proven to be nontrivial.

The lengthy online Roku privacy policies page goes into a great deal of detail concerning the information that they collect from your devices — Wi-Fi info, channel data, search data, etc. — all sorts of stuff related to viewing of “conventional” Roku-capable streaming channels.

But the Roku Media Player app is different. It doesn’t play external streams, it play your own video or audio files from your own local server. That Roku privacy page seems to make no specific mention of their Media Player at all.

So I went to the Roku Forum to ask what sorts of data — Usage info? Thumbnail images? EXIF or other metadata? Filenames? — would be collected by Roku (or other third parties) from Roku Media Player usage.

Nothing but crickets. No responses at all. Hmm.

Next, I sent a note with the same information request to the privacy email address that Roku specified for additional questions. 

Silence.

Then I asked on G+ and Twitter. A couple of retweets later, I was contacted by the Roku Support Twitter account. They suggested the privacy email address. When I told them that I’d already tried that, they suggested the Roku legal department email address.

You know where this is going. Still no reply at all.

At this stage I don’t know what’s up with Roku. Are they just so super busy that they can’t at least shoot out an acknowledgement of my queries? Or perhaps they’re scurrying around trying to figure out what their own Media Player actually does before replying to me at all. Or maybe they just hope that I’ll go away if they don’t acknowledge my email. (To paraphrase Bugs Bunny: “They don’t know me very well, do they?”)

To say that this state of affairs doesn’t exactly create a wellspring of confidence in Roku would be a significant understatement. 

Now I want to know the answers to my questions about Roku’s privacy policies irrespective of the query from that original firm that got this all started.

We shall see what transpires.

–Lauren–

When Google Gets Your Location Wrong!


Recently, Google’s desktop news began showing me the weather and local news for Detroit in the state of Michigan, rather than for my corner of Los Angeles as had been Google’s standard practice up to that point. And local Google desktop search results are suddenly all for Detroit instead of Los Angeles — not particularly useful to me.

Meanwhile, my Google Home unit, which always happily reported the weather for my local zip code, now thinks that I’m somewhere in Hawaii instead. And my Chromecast’s screensaver is showing current temperatures that don’t seem to match any of these locales.

What’s going on? Damned if I know! And it’s a real problem, because Google no longer provides any obvious means for you to correct these kinds of errors.

When I started asking around about this, I received a pile of responses from other Google users with similar problems. For some their locations are off a bit, for others way, way wrong, like in my case.

Since some users had actually traveled to those locations at some point in the past, it appears that Google somehow got “stuck” on those old locations. But in my situation, I’ve never been to either Detroit or Hawaii. In fact, I haven’t been out of my L.A. cage in years.

The one device where my location seems to be known correctly by Google at this time is my Android phone — and that’s because the location is being pulled from the phone itself (e.g., the GPS) — as Google itself notes at the bottom of results pages on my phone.

The bottom of those Google pages on desktop say that they’re getting my location from my Internet address. That’s quite bizarre, since that IP address is quite stable for months at a time, and more to the point the public IP address geolocation databases I’ve checked all correctly show me in L.A. (either the city in general or more specifically here in the West San Fernando Valley).

At the bottom of those Google pages there is a “Use precise location” link — but as far as I can tell it has no useful effect. Google keeps insisting that I’m in Detroit in all desktop results.

As for the wrong location data now apparently being used by Chromecast and being reported by Google Home … they just add a layer of confused frosting on top of the foundational cake of these annoying Google location errors.

I realize that there are people who make a hobby out of trying to hide their locations from Google — and that’s their choice. But personally, I value the location-based services that Google provides. It’s frustrating to me — and many other users — that Google does not provide some sort of explicit mechanism for us to update this location data when it goes wrong.

One thing’s for sure, I’m not moving to Detroit, or Hawaii. OK, if I had to choose, Detroit is a fine city, but I don’t do well in cold winters, so Hawaii would likely win out.

But since in reality I’m not planning a move from L.A., I’d sure appreciate Google setting my location as being where I actually am, rather than thousands of miles away.

–Lauren–

UPDATE (September 28, 2017): As of yesterday morning, Google had me “on the move” again. My Google desktop services IP address insisted that I was in “San Diego County” — my Google Home claimed that I was in Las Vegas! Well, “getting closer” (to paraphrase Bullwinkle). Then late last night Home switched to my correct location. This morning I found that desktop services now have my location correctly as well. Did the spacetime continuum shift? Did someone at Google hear me? We may never know.

Google REALLY Doesn’t Want You Searching YouTube Channels!


Lately a lot of people have asked me if there’s any way to search for videos within a YouTube channel. “Of course!” I’d reply, “Just search at the magnifying glass field on the main channel page.”

All too often, I’d then get another email asking, “What magnifying glass?”

Uh oh.

And indeed, a look at the current YouTube channel layout reveals that Google really, seriously, apparently doesn’t want you to search for videos within a channel — unless you happen to have great vision, that is.

How do we know this? Well, let’s take a look at a typical YouTube channel user interface screenshot chunk:

Thanks to the red arrow I’ve provided, you can clearly see the “prominent” magnifying glass icon, right? No? 

Indeed, Google continues on its seemingly inexorable march toward making as many of its user interfaces as unreadable as possible for anyone with less than perfect vision, as you’ll recall I’ve mentioned “just a few” times previously, including in:

“How Google Risks Court Actions Under the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/06/26/how-google-risks-court-actions-under-the-ada-americans-with-disabilities-act

On the older YouTube interface, the magnifying glass and accompanying search entry field wasn’t all that easy to find, but compared to this new version — displaying nothing but a nearly invisible icon — the old version was an accessibility award winner!

Now, never let it be said that Google doesn’t have a sense of humor. Because they’ve built a little taunting joke into this particular interface element. If by chance you happen to mouse over this nearly nonexistent magnifying glass graphic, it suddenly appears with much greater contrast to confirm that YES! you’ve stumbled onto the golden ticket — you can click here and search now!

Of course, if it appeared with such visibility on the interface in the first place, the average user would be much more likely to see it and surmise what it meant. But hey, “We’re Google!” — if you can’t see the “invisible” form of the icon, perhaps you don’t really deserve to be searching here at all!

My own gallows humor aside just for the moment, this is one of the most quintessential examples I’ve seen of Google’s interfaces evolving toward becoming ever more useless to ever larger categories of users. 

It’s a crying shame to see such a great company so needlessly treating significant segments of their user population in such a shabby manner. 

And that’s the truth.

–Lauren–

Google’s Gmail Phishing Warnings and False Positives


Recently there have been messages from my policy-oriented mailing lists (at least one of my lists has been running for more than a quarter century) that Google’s Gmail (and its associated Inbox application) are tagging as likely phishing attempts — scary red warnings and all!

While I don’t yet understand the entirety of this situation, the circumstances behind one particular category of these seems clear, and I’ll admit that I chuckle a bit every time that I think about it now.

One might assume that with Google’s vast AI resources and presumably considerable reputation data relating to incoming mail characteristics, a sophisticated algorithm would be applied to pick out likely email phishing attempts.

In reality, at least in this case, it appears that Google is basically using the venerable old UNIX/Linux “grep” command or some equivalent, and in a rather slipshod way, too.

As you know, I discuss Google policy issues a great deal. Many Google users come to me in desperation for advice on Google-related problems. I write about Google technical matters frequently, as I explained in:

“The Google Account ‘Please Help Me!’ Flood” – https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/09/12/the-google-account-please-help-me-flood

One typical recent message of mine that’s been often getting tagged as a likely phish by Google was:

“Protecting Your Google Account from Personal Catastrophes” –
https://lauren.vortex.com/2017/09/07/protecting-your-google-account-from-personal-catastrophes

Google was apparently convinced that this message was likely a phish, and dramatically warned a subset of my list recipients of this determination.

But as you can see from the message itself, there’s nothing in there asking for users’ account credentials, nothing to suggest that it’s email attempting to fool the recipient in any way.

So why did Google think that this was likely a horrific phishing email?

Here’s why. First, my message had the audacity to mention “Google Account” or “Google Accounts” in the subject and/or body of the message. And secondly, one of my mailing lists is “google-issues” — so some (digest format) recipients received the email from “google-issues-request@vortex.com” (vortex.com is my main domain of very longstanding — it was one of the first 40 dot-com domains ever issued and I’ve been using it continually since then, more than 30 years). 

Note that the character string “google” is on the LEFT side of the @-sign. There’s nothing there trying to fool someone into thinking that the email came from “google.com” or from any other Google-related domain.

Apparently what we’re dealing with here is a simplistic (and frankly, rather haphazard in this respect at least) string-matching algorithm that could have come right out of the early 1970s!

I’ll add that I’ve never found a way to get Google to “whitelist” well-behaved senders against these kinds of errors, so some users see these false phishing warnings repeatedly. I’m certainly not going to change the names of my mailing lists or treat the term “Google Accounts” as somehow verboten!

Google of course wants Gmail to be as safe a user environment as possible, and in general they do a great job at this. But false positives for something as serious as phishing warnings is not a trivial matter — they can scare users into immediately deleting potentially useful or important messages unread, and sully the reputations of innocent senders.

If nothing else, Google needs to establish a formal procedure to deal with these kinds of errors so that demonstrably trustworthy senders can be appropriately whitelisted, rather than face these false positive warnings alarming their recipients repeatedly.

And a bit more sophistication in those phishing detection algorithms would be appreciated as well. 

In the meantime, I expect that some of you will again get Gmail phishing warnings — on THIS message. You know who you are. Sorry about that, Chief!

Oh, by the way, Google seems to have recently become convinced that I live either in Detroit or somewhere in Hawaii (I’ve never been to either). I’d probably prefer the latter over the former, but I’m still right here in L.A. as always. Unfortunately, there’s no obvious way these days to correct these kinds of Google location errors, even when your IP address clearly is correctly geolocating for everyone else — as mine is. If you’ve been having issues with Google-determined location being incorrect for you on desktop Google Search, on your phone, on Chromecasts, or with any other devices (e.g. Google Home), please let me know. Thanks.

–Lauren–