Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cookies and Milk

I was reading Consumer Reports about how goods are marketed using algorithms. In simple terms an algortithm is like a recipe. Step-by-step, you follow the instructions and, if the recipe is correct and you have followed the intructions correctly, you will achieve the desired outcome (e.g. a German chocolate cake). Gastronomic dreams aside, I was reminded of the meme, "If you're not paying for the product, you are the product."  Or as they used to say, "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch"  --- a phrase that originated in the 1930s refering to the ploy used by saloons to attract customers who might be tempted to order a few drinks.

So, exactly how is this done? What is the algorithm being used by marketers to stimulate your spending behavior as well as their profits? In a word, “targeted ads” so that  when I visit a website supported by adverisements, I will see ads tailored to my browsing history  that have been selected by an algorithm.

I remember when, in the early stages of the Google mail app, there were ads on a sidebar along with the email responses which I accepted as the cost of doing business.  However, one fine day while reading the email response I had received from a friend a response to the question, “when are the Jewish Holidays this year?”  I noticed the ad was, “Learn Hebrew!”  Now there was a targeted ad that made me laugh.  Upon further reflection I wondered how Google knew the contents of my initial email so that it could search its list of advertisers for the appropriate response. Then I remembered that Google was embroiled in a controversy over the privacy of its email customers. Google had openly admitted that it had an algorithm that took your email as input, searched for key words (like Jewish) and then tailored the ads to reflect these key words.

The public reaction to this scheme was basically, “What!!! The computer is reading my emails? What happened to Privacy?” and so forth. Google’s response was to point out that while the algorithm was searching for keywords, it was not trying to analyze content; it was not really Reading because it had no understanding of what was written and furthermore, the analysis was destroyed after the ads were chosen. Well, as you may suspect, this explanation did not mollify everyone. How do we know that Google is not going to use this analysis to exploit us --- all we have is their word. It comes to down to the basic question of trust and since Google’s motto at the time was, “Do no evil” and besides, Gmail had become a necessary convenience, and so the controversy soon blew over. Unfortunately everything old is new again: Google mail is redesigned to put ads into your inbox and while they are labelled with the word “ad” in very small font, the odds are greater that you’ll open an email than read a sidebar ad.

Unfortuneately, this issue has evolved to a more insidious situation whereby your profile and preferenes are shared across websites so that ads can even more targeted. Data such as your web visitation history and what you purchased at which website as well as other personal information can be shared with other sites using a mechanism cleverly called a “cookie”. Who could be against a cookie? Who does not have fond memories of cookies and milk at bedtime? There are two kinds of cookies that every Internet user should know about: First and Third party cookies. First party cookies are useful and not dangerous if they are encrypted. They can store your password so you don’t have to type it in every time you log on as well as remember where you left off the last time you visited the site. Third party cookies, however, have the capacity to invade your privacy by constructing a list of your browsing history. You can block these cookies by searching on the phrase, “How do I disable third party cookies?”

I must admit mixed feelings about cookies and targeted ads: if I’m going to get ads as the price I have to pay for using an app then i’d rather they be based on my interests rather than some random selection. On the other hand I don’t need to be reminded that, “ Here is a product that you didn’t know you needed”.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A Tale of Two Principles

In the January 16 issue of the New Yorker magazine is a short piece, “End of Innocence” by Tad Friend which describes how the Internet has enabled child sex trafficking in the US. The article quotes a Senate report claiming that over 80% of online sex-ads revenue is generated by the website Backpage.com. Prosecutors have alleged that more than 90 % of Backpage's revenue — millions of dollars each month — comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money.

According to USA Today, law enforcement officials across the country have complained for years that the adult services ads on Backpage have given pimps the ability to easily advertise and set up meetings with johns. Now, with the aid of the seamy side of the Internet, prostitutes no longer need to troll the streets for customers and pimps can collect their fees automatically when the transaction is electronic. Unfortunately these ads disguise that the children may be underage, so this system allows children to be exploited which is, of course, against the law. The issue here is to decide which right is paramount: the right to free speech as embodied in the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment to the US Constitution or the right of minors not to be exploited which is part of every state’s statute law.

The right to protect children is easy to understand so let’s examine that first. Backpage claims that they are, in fact, protecting children from sex trafficking by working with police departments to help them root out those slimey advertisers who use code words like “young, Lolita, fresh, schoolgirl” to indicate the “escort” is a child. “Backpage offered... testimonials from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, praising the site for assisting investigations. “I know your company is vilified nationally because it is an easy target,” read one testimonial, attributed to the Denver Police Department...I have told numerous people that Backpage is law enforcement friendly and does not support human trafficking.”


Backpage also claims that they are actually providing a service to sex workers that makes their job safer as the ads serve as a buffer between client and provider. Here is a link to a website which argues for the right of Backpage to provide sex-related ads under the protection of free speech.


The case against Backpage is more complicated. Most all media, including websites are protected by the First amendment which guarantees citizens free speech and under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA).

CDA Section 230 provides that internet service providers and website operators can not be held liable for content originating from a third-party. So, for example, if I use a social network like Facebook to harass someone, I can be successfully sued, but Facebook could not. This precedent was established when a suit was brought against AT&T because a stalker was using their phone lines to harass a customer and AT&T successfully argued they could not be held liable for illegal acts performed by others in much the same way that gun manufacturers are protected from prosecution when their gun is used in a crime. There are, however, provisions made If the host (Backpage.com) assists the third party (the Advertiser) in breaking the law because they become an accessory and are subject fines and imprisonment. In the instance of Backpage, prosecutors are claiming that Backpage actively helped the advertisers disguise the underage of the prostitutes so Backpage would also be liable. But this would be very difficult to prove. As a result Backpage has won two lawsuits, one in California and one in the Supreme Court which denied the lower court’s decision to prosecute.

This seems like an overly-complicated big mess but there may be a happy ending to this story. The latest twist has Backpage as of Jan 9 removing the “adult” ads section of their site. They continue to claim that their first amendment rights have been violated by the mean old feds harassing them until they had no choice but to acquiesce. Poor babies.

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