Click-bait articles are rife online. Countless websites ply a trade in leading headlines designed to lure readers in, giving as little away as possible as an encouragement to click through. A virtual prick-tease, if you will. Sometimes the click is worth it, but all too often the article -- particularly on tabloid-style newspapers, magazine websites and sites peddling listicles -- is pointless or misleading. A suggestive question, the promise of sex, inappropriate references to the iPhone 6, the implication of free money... the possibilities for click-bait are virtually endless. It -- understandably -- annoys a lot of people, and it has annoyed Facebook enough for the social network to take a stand.
You've no doubt noticed that your Facebook newsfeed has become clogged up with countless "one weird trick", "ten ways to give her the best orgasm ever", and "you'll never guess what!" headlines. Now Facebook is taking steps to limit the appearance of such articles so that what users see is more interesting and relevant. In a post on the Facebook blog, it has been announced that two key updates are to be made: "the first to reduce click-baiting headlines, and the second to help people see links shared on Facebook in the best format".
The subject of US journalist James Foley's recent beheading is obviously a sensitive one, but Twitter's decision to suspend the account of users sharing the video made it about censorship as well as politics. As you are no doubt aware by now, Foley was kidnapped in Syria a couple of years ago, held captive, and on Tuesday a video was released by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). It shows Foley kneeling on the ground, reading from a script before a masked captor draws a knife, and executes him. It is grisly, horrific, depressing, heart-wrenching, and real. It spread like wildfire across YouTube, Twitter, and countless websites, but it wasn't long before censorship was seen.
YouTube quickly removed the video, but this did not stem the flow. Copies of the video were hosted elsewhere and then posted to Twitter, as were stills from the footage. This is when Twitter stepped in. Posts containing the images or video were removed, and accounts suspended. Dick Costolo, Twitter's CEO, tweeted:
In the latest blow for free speech, the government of the southern Indian state of Karnataka has passed legislation that makes it illegal to upload, share, or like content "with a view to hurt religious sentiments knowingly or unknowingly". Let's put aside the odd paradox of being able to have a "view" to do something, but to do it "unknowingly", and look at the history of this. Back in June, Karnataka police warned citizens about the type of things that were covered by the Information Technology Act.
Warning notices appeared in newspapers (of all places):
For anyone looking to stay anonymous online, Tor seems like an obvious option. At the same time, it could lull users into a false sense of security -- after all, this is a network that was, at least in the past, funded by the military and US government -- and conspiracy theories abound that Tor is nothing more than a honey trap to catch the kind of people who have a need for anonymity because of their nefarious activities. The network has evolved over the years and now agencies such as the NSA in the US and GCHQ in the UK are actively seeking out vulnerabilities so they can crack the network. But the relationships are actually far more complex than that.
According to Andrew Lewman, chief of operations at Tor, the same agencies that are trying to break Tor are also posting tips anonymously about the vulnerabilities that have been found -- giving a chance for them to be patched. Talking to the BBC Lewman said:
There are many parts of the internet that are blocked to children under the age of 13. Facebook, for instance, implements an age restriction and Google is another online firm that prevents younger web users from setting up accounts. But all this could be set to change. First reported by The Information, Google has plans to open up its service to a younger audience. This does not mean that youngsters will be free to sign up for an account and browse through the contents of YouTube without restrictions. Parents will be able to sign their children up for an account and retain control over what they are able to do online.
One of the primary concerns many people have about Google -- regardless of their age -- is privacy. Google has a proven track record in delivering tailored content and advertisements to its users, and this is something that is at odds with laws around the world when it comes to children. The news coincides with UK plans to experiment with age ratings for online videos, and privacy and child protection groups are already voicing their concerns. Of course, there is nothing to stop someone of any age from signing up for a Google account; it's easy to stretch the truth with dates of birth online. But Google specifically targeting children with its services is unchartered water.
In the wake of the death of Robin Williams, Twitter announces that it will now accept image removal requests from relatives of deceased individuals. Williams' daughter Zelda was forced to leave Twitter having been inundated with a barrage of mocked up images of her deceased father.
In the aftermath of the actor's suicide, Twitter explained that it would improve its policies. The result is an update to the way in which death is handled on Twitter. The families of deceased people have been able to request the deactivation of an account, but now new rights have been introduced.
Head to the stores to look for real, physical DVDs and Blu-rays, and you'll probably find that there's an age rating on them. Now plans are afoot to bring the same idea to the web. As insane an idea as this may sound, this is actually happening, and it is completely pointless and unworkable. Initially starting off with the involvement of YouTube and Vevo, the scheme is the brainchild of UK Prime Minister David Cameron and will start as a pilot program in October. It's something that is likely to appeal to concerned parents, but the practicalities are a rather different matter.
Announcing the ratings plan, Cameron said: "We shouldn't cede the internet as some sort of lawless space where the normal rules of life shouldn't apply. So, in as far as it is possible, we should try to make sure that the rules that exist offline exist online. So if you want to go and buy a music video offline there are age restrictions on it. We should try and recreate that system on the internet".
A few weeks ago I complained bitterly about my atrocious internet connection. The impact of a deathly slow and unnervingly unstable connection is hard to overstate. Tension and frustration chez Wilson reached boiling point. Nerves were frayed and tempers short. But as I sank into the bleak, hellish broadband abyss, a hand reached out to save me. The hand was extended by the suitably named Satellite Internet who took pity on me having read of my plight. A trial of satellite broadband was duly offered, and I don’t think I could have said "yes, please" faster. It's something I've considered before, but the startup costs had put me off.
Satellite Internet's service uses Astra satellites, the same ones used to deliver satellite TV to Europe. This means that a smaller dish than you might expect is needed. Forget the monster installations you may have seen in people's gardens in years gone by, these days the dishes have shrunk to something that's just about the same size as those used for TV broadcasts. Installation was delayed due to my trip to the Isle of Skye (which, incidentally, has blisteringly fast internet considering it's a tiny island connected to the mainland with a small bridge), but this morning two installation engineers arrived at 8:00, having travelled more than two hours to reach me.
The issue of internet freedom is seldom far from the news at the moment, but exactly how much are the governments in different countries restricting what their web users do?
Online privacy service IVPN has produced an interactive map showing levels of internet censorship around the world. You can simply click on a country to see how it rates.
You never know when the next Twitter is going to crop up. When a new service like Pinterest, Vine, or Skype appears, if you're not quick off the mark there's a high chance you'll miss out on your preferred username. You want MarkWilsonWords? Sorry, that went ages ago… you'll have to settle for MarkWilsonWord09868. Getting stuck with a crappy username sucks, but it's very hard to monitor all of the new services that pop up so you can bag your ideal name as early as possible. This is something that EarlyClaim can help with.
It's a free service that seeks out new startups and reserves a username on your behalf -- you just say what handle you'd like, and EarlyClaim does the hard work for you. For businesses, it is important to have a brand identity that is the same across different social networks (who is going to take notice of Coca Cola 1897 on Facebook?) but it's also something that is valuable to individuals. How many times have you signed up for a site only to find that you're unable to secure the username of your choice and had to opt for something far inferior? Every time you use that service there is a constant reminder that you weren't fast enough at signing up.
We expect, and are expected, to be contactable at any given moment -- and indeed we often expect the same of others. Send a text, and you expect a response. Pen an email, and you expect to receive one in return, and fast. Hit up someone on Google chat and an all-but-instant reply is all but expected. Maybe this doesn’t sound like you, but I can guarantee that you fit on the spectrum, and also that the people you are in contact with make the same demands of you. When did this change? It used to be that you'd call a landline number and if you didn’t get a reply you might just try again a few hours later. The fact that we now carry mobiles with us virtually 24/7 means that it is weird if someone doesn't answer the call.
They can’t be busy! Try again! Still no reply? Send a text. And an email. And an IM. If it was limited to office hours, it might be understandable -- and bearable -- to some extent, but there has been a massive slip in end-times. It is acceptable to send emails to someone at any time of day. You may have woken up at 3 in the morning and thought of something relating to work, or even just something that made you laugh, and felt the need to share it immediately. The recipient, in all likelihood, will be alerted to this email on a smartphone or tablet if they don’t happen to be sitting at their computer. At 3 in the morning, it might not wake them up, but at, say, 8pm how likely is it that the email will be ignored? The recipient's working day just got extended by several hours.
The scanning of personal emails is almost universally regarded as a terrible thing. Just like the activities of the NSA, when email providers start rifling through private information, it has a tendency to upset people. The justification for governmental mass surveillance has always been that it helps to combat crime -- and of course we never have to wait for long before the words "terrorists", "extremists", and "attack" are used. Google has just demonstrated how email scanning can be used to catch criminals. In this case, Google's image recognition software was used to identify images of child abuse sent via email by a Texan man.
A 41 year old man was arrested after the system detected suspicious material. The police were alerted and requested the user's details from Google after child protection services were automatically notified of the findings. The convicted sex offender's account triggered an alert after automatic, pro-active scans detected illegal pictures and Google then reported it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Google is understandably tight-lipped about how its technology works, but as the Telegraph points out, we do already know a little about the methods used.
There was widespread condemnation of Facebook when it was revealed that the social network had been manipulating users' newsfeeds as part of a social experiment. Official complaints may have been made but it doesn’t seem to have served as a lesson for other websites. Now it transpires that OkCupid -- the dating website whose slogan is "We use math to get you dates" -- has been fiddling the figures in a series of experiments on its users. The weird thing is, the site is openly bragging about it.
In a blog post unashamedly titled "We Experiment On Human Beings!", founder Christian Rudder writes that "OkCupid doesn’t really know what it’s doing". Seems like something of an odd admission. The blog post details three experiments the dating site conducted on its subscribers. There must have been more because the post is prefaced with the words "Here are a few of the more interesting experiments OkCupid has run". Does "interesting" just mean "less controversial"? Who knows?
The inspiration for this weekend's whine, along with the reason for its slight delay are one and the same thing. An appallingly slow (often non-existent) internet connection. Well, actually it's a combination of things, a slow internet connection being just one of them. Most people -- myself included in the past -- don't give a second thought to living online. Web pages are there ready be accessed on demand. Movies are just waiting to stream. Facebook and Twitter posts stream by. And so on. At least that's how it should be. If you live out in the sticks, it's a very different story -- and it stops me from banging about Edward Snowden and the NSA.
Look at the headlines and you’d be forgiven for thinking that everyone in the "developed world" is working with a blisteringly fast connection. Forget cables, we just have our brains connected directly to the internet. But we don’t. Here in the UK, there is a very noticeable digital divide, and I know it's a similar story in many other parts of the world. I've been fairly lucky in the past. Moving house at the turn of the millennium happily coincided with the arrival of broadband in the area. Hooray! 4Mbps of downstream -- more than acceptable nearly 15 years ago. A house move later, and things jumped to 8Mbps.
Back in May, the EU Court of Justice ruled that people have a "right to be forgotten" from search results. Google fairly quickly set up an online form to allow complainants to put forward their case for censoring their appearance in results. It didn’t take long for Microsoft to follow suit, and Bing users were soon afforded the same option.
Forget.me was one service that offered to take care of Google removal requests for people, and at the time CEO Bertrand Girin promised that "if Bing and Yahoo get their Right to be Forgotten forms in order, we’ll be able to provide you with the possibility of submitting your URL to all three search engines at the same time." For Microsoft, that day has come.