Internet outages are getting more serious

The Interface will be off Thursday for the 4th of July holiday.

Facebook spent the last day before a long weekend like so many of us, abruptly shutting down without its boss’ permission and without any regard for its coworkers. Jake Kastrenakes reports:

Facebook has had problems loading images, videos, and other data across its apps today, leaving some people unable to load photos in the Facebook News Feed, view stories on Instagram, or send messages in WhatsApp. Facebook says it is aware of the issues and “working to get things back to normal as quickly as possible.” It blamed the outage on an error that was triggered during a “routine maintenance operation.”

The issues started around 8AM ET and began slowly clearing up after a couple hours, according to DownDetector, which monitors website and app issues. The errors aren’t affecting all images; many pictures on Facebook and Instagram still load, but others are appearing blank. DownDetector has also received reports of people being unable to load messages in Facebook Messenger.

The official explanation for the outage was that the aforementioned routine maintenance operation “triggered an issue,” so hopefully that clears things up. As discussion of the outage hit its peak, Twitter’s direct message feature stopped working, though in fairness Twitter never actually did say what caused the DM problem.

A silver lining to the outage was that it made some typically hidden parts of Facebook briefly visible. Most notably, it gave users a glimpse at the automated captions that Facebook creates using machine learning — a valuable accessibility feature for visually impaired people. James Vincent wrote it up, tongue firmly in cheek:

So if you browse through your uploaded photos, instead of seeing holiday snaps or pictures of food and friends, you’ll be shown text saying things like “image may contain: people smiling, people dancing, wedding and indoor” or just “image may contain: cat.”

In short: this is how your life looks to a computer. This is how Facebook’s AI is judging you. Do you feel ashamed before the all-seeing digital eye?!

Social media outages have been unusually frequent this year. In May, Facebook experienced what may have been its worst outage ever. As my colleague TC Sottek noted at the time, Facebook regularly describes itself as critical infrastructure for modern society — making any outage problematic, and the company’s typically opaque explanations for them unsatisfying.

Elsewhere, internet outages are proving to be more strategic. Myanmar’s Rakhine State has disabled access to the internet amid ongoing ethnic conflict, Hannah Beech and Saw Nang report. Whether the move is designed to promote stability or quash dissent is up for debate:

Government-mandated internet or social media shutdowns, which have occurred with increasing frequency in places like Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Sudan, are often deemed necessary for silencing the kind of innuendo and rumor that causes online mobs to catalyze real ones.

But such telecommunications embargoes can be designed to foil members of the political opposition as well. And they can particularly hurt vulnerable communities in conflict areas, who depend on internet connections to keep them out of the crossfire or publicize abuses in remote locations.

Whenever a social network experiences a failure in the United States, Twitter lights up with jokes about the terrible inconvenience we’re all experiencing. (Unless it’s Twitter itself that has gone down, in which case the conversation moves to Slack.)

But as more of life comes to depend on platforms, I wonder if a day will come when the jokes stop coming. In America, Facebook goes down and we all have a chuckle. In Myanmar, it’s already a crisis.

DEMOCRACY

Google and Facebook under scrutiny over UK ad market dominance

The United Kingdom’s competition czar is investigating how Google and Facebook “collect and exploit personal data and have used their power to dominate” the UK ad market, Mark Sweney reports:

The Competition and Markets Authority’s wide-ranging investigation into online advertising will focus on the sector’s two biggest players, Google and Facebook, and look at whether “consumers are able and willing to control how data about them is used and collected”.

The CMA said it planned to examine concerns about how online networks were using people’s personal data – Facebook has faced heavy criticism and scrutiny over both the Cambridge Analytica data scandal and its role in the dissemination of “fake news” – including “whether making this data available to advertisers in return for payment is producing good outcomes for consumers”.

TikTok now faces a data privacy investigation in the UK, too

The United States already fined Bytedance $6 million over data privacy issues. Now the United Kingdom is looking into it, Amrita Khalid reports:

TikTok is under investigation in the UK for how it handles the safety and privacy of young users. UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham told a parliamentary committee on Tuesday that the popular short-form video app potentially violated GDPR rules that state that technology companies must have different rules and protections for children, reported The Guardian. The UK began its probe on TikTok back in February, shortly after the FTC fined the app for child privacy violations.

Trump Facebook ads use models to portray actual supporters

The president’s campaign has turned to stock-footage actors to play supporters in Facebook ads, the Associated Press reports:

A series of Facebook video ads for President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign shows what appears to be a young woman strolling on a beach in Florida, a Hispanic man on a city street in Texas and a bearded hipster in a coffee shop in Washington, D.C., all making glowing, voice-over endorsements of the president.

“I could not ask for a better president,” intones the voice during slow-motion footage of the smiling blonde called “Tracey from Florida.” A man labeled on another video as “TJ from Texas” stares into the camera as a voice says, “Although I am a lifelong Democrat, I sincerely believe that a nation must secure its borders.”

There’s just one problem: The people in the videos that ran in the past few months are all actually models in stock video footage produced far from the U.S. in France, Brazil and Turkey, and available to anyone online for a fee.

China Is Forcing Tourists to Install Text-Stealing Malware at its Border

Five publishers teamed up this week to determine that the Chinese government was requiring tourists to install malware at the border that downloads their text messages, calendar entries, and phone logs, among other shady behavior. Joseph Cox reports:

Foreigners crossing certain Chinese borders into the Xinjiang region, where authorities are conducting a massive campaign of surveillance and oppression against the local Muslim population, are being forced to install a piece of malware on their phones that gives all of their text messages as well as other pieces of data to the authorities, a collaboration by Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Guardian, the New York Times, and the German public broadcaster NDR has found.

The Android malware, which is installed by a border guard when they physically seize the phone, also scans the tourist or traveller’s device for a specific set of files, according to multiple expert analyses of the software. The files authorities are looking for include Islamic extremist content, but also innocuous Islamic material, academic books on Islam by leading researchers, and even music from a Japanese metal band.

Google and Facebook are circling Africa with huge undersea cables to get millions online

Yomi Kazeem reports on the progress of massive undersea infrastructure projects led by big tech companies:

Facebook is reportedly working on plans for “Simba” (named after the Lion King cartoon character), an underwater cable that will circle the continent with landings on multiple coasts. It’s similar to undersea cable projects the social media giant has undertaken in Europe and Asia. It’s unclear whether or not Facebook will partner with African telecoms operators, especially for funding.

Google’s underwater cable plans are much further along. It has confirmed construction plans for a cable connecting Portugal and South Africa with the first phase due to be completed by 2021. The new cable, named Equiano (after 18th century Nigerian writer and abolitionist Olaudah Equiano), will have 20 times the capacity of the most recent projects laid in the region and will first branch out in Nigeria—Africa’s largest internet market. The project will be fully funded by Google.

ELSEWHERE

YouTube’s “instructional hacking” ban threatens computer security education

Adi Robertson reports that YouTube’s ban on “instructional hacking and phishing” videos has “swept up some channels dedicated to teaching hacking through an ethical computer security lens.”

As Kinzie and others on Twitter pointed out, that could stop some illegal behavior, but it’s potentially terrible news for anybody studying computer security — as well as people interested in countering hacking and phishing tricks. Hacking techniques are often used illegally, but they’re not necessarily illegal. They’re practiced by many legitimate researchers and computer system testers. YouTube has a similar ban for teaching theft techniques, but that’s a much less popular (and expansive) pastime than learning about computers.

Emma Chamberlain Is the Most Important YouTuber Today

Taylor Lorenz profiles a young woman who eschews the formality of her predecessors and has one of the fastest-growing channels on YouTube as a result:

The most talked-about teen influencer in the world doesn’t airbrush her photos. She doesn’t have a team of editors and photographers following her around and taking aspirational “plandids.” In fact, she doesn’t make her life seem very aspirational at all: In many of her videos, she looks like she just rolled out of bed. Emma Chamberlain shuns makeup, sometimes skips a shower, and doesn’t seem to care if she looks weird or if her camera is poised at an unflattering angle. While other YouTube stars—like Jake and Logan Paul, Bethany Mota, and Lele Pons—rely on hyper-produced, staged videos with bright thumbnails and clickbait titles, Chamberlain posts lo-fi vlogs using default fonts, clashing color schemes, and lowercase titles that never overpromise.

All of this has gained the 18-year-old some 8 million YouTube subscribers and 7.7 million Instagram followers in less than two years; her YouTube channel is one of the fastest growing in the U.S., according to the company. The analytics site SocialBladeestimates Chamberlain may be earning nearly $2 million in ad revenue on her YouTube videos alone.

Grieving People Gathered on a Facebook Support Group. Then a Hacker Showed Up.

I’m late to this, but Neil Vigdor and Laura M. Holson have an unsettling piece about what happened when an unauthorized person took over a popular grief support group on Facebook:

The moderators of the page, Grief the Unspoken, which has more than 500,000 followers, said earlier Thursday that an unidentified hacker first breached the account May 9.

The hacker posted a photo of a disfigured child, a video of a person being rescued from a burning vehicle, graphic images of medical conditions and other disturbing content, according to the page’s moderators, who removed most of the posts. On Monday, the moderators said, they lost control of the page altogether.

For LGBTQ Teens, TikTok Is the New Tumblr

Joseph Longo says more and more teens are coming out on Tik Tok. Some secrets you only want the Chinese government to know!

“Many LGBT+ teens are drawn to the app,” Peter says. “It’s an online community full of different factions and fandoms, many different groups. So you really can’t go wrong.”

“TikTok allows us teens to express ourselves more openly, because the majority of our parents don’t know about it,” says Karol, a 17-year-old from Connecticut.

Twitter Pushed Adverts for Spyware to Monitor Girlfriends

Today’s Twitter whoopsie, from Joseph Cox:

This week Twitter pushed sponsored tweets advertising a piece of spyware that is marketed to spy on a spouse. The advert heavily suggested the monitoring could be done without the subject’s consent; it is illegal to use spyware in this way in the U.S.

The news shows how companies selling consumer spyware—sometimes known as stalker- or spouseware due to who it is used by and against—leverage platforms to try and get more customers.

QuitMormon and the tricky process of leaving the Church

Lauren Larson has a fascinating profile of the online communities that help people leave the Mormon Church (known officially as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), including a popular subreddit:

Joseph started out as a questioner. He read the Essays in depth and studied the resources on FairMormon, a nonprofit providing “Faithful Answers to Criticisms of the LDS Church.” But he says that questioning the Church without suspending his faith made him feel like he was doing “mental gymnastics.” Like many doubting Mormons, he made his way to Reddit. In particular, he began to haunt the “exmormon” subreddit, a haven for Mormons scrutinizing the Church’s teachings. The subreddit has over 123,000 members and is perhaps the purest expression of the internet as a “resource.” Members come to post questions (logistical and philosophical), to share beer recommendations for first-timers (most active Mormons don’t drink alcohol, tea, and coffee), and to vent (“I suppose to her, families are forever, unless someone comes out as trans.”)

LAUNCHES

Facebook open-sources DLRM, a deep learning recommendation model

Say this for Facebook’s deep learning-based recommendation model, DLRM: it’s very logically named.

TAKES

Libra, 2 weeks in

David Marcus is here to answer your questions about Libra, such as: why?

Bringing the world closer together involves giving people tools to connect and communicate, but right now, while people can send each other text, videos, photos, and more, in many cases they can’t easily move value between one another. Economic empowerment is one of our core values, and the 90 million businesses on the Facebook platform can attest to that. We’ve done a lot to democratize free, unlimited communications for billions of people. We want to help do the same thing for digital money and financial services, with one key difference: This time around we will relinquish control over the very network and currency we’ve helped create. If Libra is successful, Facebook will first benefit from it by enabling more commerce across its family of apps. More commerce means ads will be more effective, and advertisers will buy more of them to grow their businesses. Additionally, if we earn people’s trust with the Calibra wallet over time, we will also be in a position to start offering more financial services, and generate other revenue streams for the company.

AND FINALLY …

Why LinkedIn is the only social network that survives breakups

Sal Rodriguez reports that people do not care enough about LinkedIn to remember to block their exes there:

It wasn’t until about one year later that she realized there was one social network she had missed. She logged onto her LinkedIn and saw her ex had just started a new job.

“I didn’t realize I hadn’t blocked him on there until I got a notification,” Boyd, 33 and an executive assistant in Los Angeles, told CNBC on Facebook Messenger. “At that point I had already moved on. Of course, it didn’t stop me from snooping a little!”

God bless America.

TALK TO ME

Send me tips, comments, questions, and your 4th of July barbecue side dish recipes: [email protected]

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