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Archive for December, 2009

On Facebook, Only the Rich Have Privacy

Monday, December 21st, 2009

(or: Technology Policy by Default.)

If you are one of 350 million Facebook users, you may recall that when you recently used the site you were asked to “update” your privacy settings.  This Facebook privacy “transition” started earlier in December, and it has now escalated into a full-blown scandal.  EPIC just filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and the bad press is building up.  Essentially the EPIC claim is that this is a “transition” to less privacy for you, handled in a deceptive manner.

(a double entendre?)

Facebook and indeed most Internet companies like to justify their policies with reference to individual choice as an ideal.  The individual user has “options” “settings” and “preferences”.  Each person should set their own privacy settings and indeed choose anything else that is controversial — the companies involved say that this is much better than the scary government choosing for everyone.  Yet a moment’s consideration of this false choice will tell you that it doesn’t hold up.  After all, who has time to monitor all of the possible settings and configurations for every piece of software that we use?  Moreover, how much of privacy is really a matter of taste that should vary for each person? Few have the knowledge and the energy to develop an informed opinion about every checkbox and button we encounter online.  Even given the time, interest, and knowledge, it can be remarkably hard to find these settings at all.

It turns out that the people who most benefit from the ability to set their own software preferences are well educated I.T.-saavy professionals with money — the people who suffer are the poorer and less educated users.  So making privacy an individual option basically takes privacy away from the poor.  This may sound bold but hear me out:  If you followed that request to update your privacy settings, it eventually led you to a page that looks like the following image.


(Click to enlarge.)

What kind of psychological weight follows from Facebook asking you make a choice and then selecting one of the two options for you in advance? (In this case, note the option on the left is selected by default — the one that in most cases gives you less privacy.)  Rajiv Shah and I published a paper last year titled Software Defaults as De Facto Regulation (PDF) looking at this question.

We used the example of wireless access points to investigate how often people change their default settings and what kind of people do so.  The nice thing about wireless access points is that different routers have different defaults, and it is possible to monitor the default settings of wireless access points by driving around with a laptop computer and listening to their transmissions (which we did).  Of course the content of the setting matters — but privacy settings on facebook and security settings on wireless routers are at least similar.

Research in progress!
(Click to enlarge.)

In this study we looked at several groups of routers, the largest being more than a quarter million (!).  In at least some circumstances, when a setting is turned “ON” by default, from 96-99% of users just follow the default.  When the default was set to “OFF” and then users were told to change manufacturer defaults, from 28-57% of users did so.  In this case, equipment likely to be maintained by paid I.T. experts was somewhat more likely to have changed defaults (a 16% difference for one setting).

By looking at wireless settings in different neighborhoods of Chicago, we also found at least a suggestion that people in poorer neighborhoods were more likely to obey manufacturer’s default settings. (Long parenthetical:  Here and in the title of this post “poor” and “rich” are proxies for money as well as other things — wealth is a proxy for education and time as well as just money.  Poorer people will tend to have less technology skill and less time to become informed and interested in things like social network privacy issues.)

So calling this a “choice” basically means the manufacturers choose for most people, particularly if they are not skilled (see p. 42 of our paper).  Facebook gets to have the appearance of consultation (after all, you “agreed” by clicking through the above screen) even though the result overall is the reduction of privacy.  As is clear in the table of this analysis of the Facebook privacy transition, the Facebook move is all about changing the defaults.  They presumably did so because more data accessibility means more visibility and value for their service.

The larger point is that facilitating “choice” is bankrupt as a societal strategy for managing difficult problems (like privacy) related to new technologies.  More than anything, it’s a strategy to circumvent difficult public deliberation (in this case, about privacy) that we as a polity ought to have.  Even in the case of decisions with real consequences, if individual choice is used, as we put it: “the authority of software trumps that of advice” (p. 43)… Facebook’s pre-selected default options are going to be the societal policy in this area.  And that means that effective regulation requires the scrutiny of defaults.  Pushing individual choice offers us false freedom and this is not good enough.

The Web is Still Small

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Given that we are fumbling toward a video-enabled Web, moving large video files around should be increasingly ordinary.  Services like Netflix streaming have invested in streaming movies because they want to get out from under their $300 million yearly postal bill (says Nightline).  All sorts of new home technologies are trying to address the problem of moving big HD video files around the many machines in the bourgeois home.  Verizon is investing over $10 billion in fiber infrastructure because they think we’ll want to move around really large files.

But all is not smooth and easy.  Zune is trying to sell me downloadable TV episodes yet my new XBox 360 is already full.  And I think I bought the biggest one?  (Can’t remember.)  Let’s consider something incredibly simple:  clicking on a link in a web browser to download a large file.

Yes, it’s amazing how difficult it is to move around a large file!  Here’s a test:  I’m using a wired ethernet connection from my University office with a fast new computer and 760 GB free on my disk.  You’d think: “no problem.”  (Or maybe “Bring it on!“)

Let’s try to download a 1.7GB file using a variety of methods.  That’s really not a very big file.  A Superbit edition DVD from Columbia Tri-Star is at least 4.3 GB for 90 minute movie in plain old DVD format (not Blu-Ray).  The movie “Ice Age 2” in Blu-Ray is 22 GB.  So hey, not a very hard test, right?

Web browsers, however, are not up to the job.  Google Chrome and whatever version of Internet Explorer I have can’t download files over 2GB because of a limitation in Windows.  Firefox built in a workaround to the limit, but it took me 3 hours to download the file and then I couldn’t open it because it had errors.  Errors?! What is this, the dawn of Fetch?  The early days of FTP?  I’m getting CRC error flashbacks.

Flashback to the early Internet!

So I tried some specialized downloaders with interesting results.

Here’s the summary:

Internet Explorer: FAIL (1)
Google Chrome: FAIL (1)
Firefox: 3 hours, then FAIL (2)
downthemall: 7 hours, then FAIL (3)
flashget: 12 minutes


(1) – due to HTTP download limit (probably in Windows?)
(2) – downloaded with errors, file unreadable
(3) – I think it fails while trying to preallocate space on disk — hard to know what it is doing

C’mon web browsers.  Let’s get it together here.

On Systems Thinking, Part 2 (The Revenge)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

In a previous post “On Systems Thinking” I foolishly said that I loved my steam heating system and that I had fixed it.  This was too much hubris for the universe to stand, and so it broke.  The funny thing is, it broke in a way that is very puzzling to me — so puzzling that no one can figure out what is wrong.

Everything used to work, then I suddenly started having trouble with four out of my twenty radiators.  They are all grouped in one area of my house.  I made a sketch of the problem area here:

my kmc-vacuum system problem area (PDF scan of a drawing that I made)

Everything to the left of the drawing works.
Everything to the right of the drawing works.
Everything in the drawing used to work.

Because I have an unusual heating system (the K-M-C Vacuum System: state of the art in 1906) there are no vents on my radiators.  There is only one vent in the basement.  This is what makes it a real puzzler to me.  If the vent line were blocked, everything to the left should not work.  But the fact that the stuff on the left works and the stuff on the right works means the vent line must be working OK, at least in the basement.

Two of the radiators warm up a little at the middle of the heating cycle (I labeled them #2 and #3), right when I would expect them to.  Then they cool down.  They cool down while the boiler continues to fire and well before the system shuts off.  So the boiler is steaming but the steam is not going here for some reason.  But the fact that they DID get warm at all means that the steam CAN get there and the venting does work briefly.

I’m really not sure what to do.  This is a major problem as 4/20 radiators not heating means a big part of my house is suddenly not livable! Any ideas?

I’ve also posted this on  In case it helps, here is a flickr photoset of my radiators that I put on the previous post.  I keep re-reading Dan Holohan’s books hoping for a flash of insight that will let me understand what is going on inside these pipes but nothing is coming to me.  Aaarrrgh.

In Search of the Most Defensible YouTube Video

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

(or: “Miley Cyrus Squeezes Out Laughing Babies?“)

I write about media technology.  Lately I have been doing some research on online video distribution.  Every day this topic is getting more mainstream, but I still avoid describing myself as a “YouTube researcher.” If I did, I’m sure the first image to come to mind would probably be me closely studying a laughing baby (below; 98 million views on YouTube to date) or maybe the Evolution of Dance (131 million views)



(click for video)

It’s not that Media Studies has ever been held in particularly high regard as an important subject (though the cinema people keep trying), but when writing about online video there’s an even greater presumption of frivolousness.  As I am often arguing about the valuable role of public media and media generated by what we used to call “the audience,” I get stuck between the dead-boring vibe of PBS pledge drives and scenes of people freaking out on their webcams.  Either this is perceived a good-for-you but not something we’d actually watch (PBS), or it’s momentarily amusing but perceived as ultimately valueless (YouTube freakout).

What I need is to unearth an kind of ur-example of the value of participatory media.  Some instance of obvious widespread social value that came from a non-traditional source and spread via the Internet.  A fantastic visual expose of some important social issue that was rejected/ignored by the mainstream media until thanks to (ta daa…) Internet distribution it gained a wide audience and some really important social change resulted.

Censorship in other countries has led to some well-known examples there (e.g., the Neda Soltan video in Iran) but I have a hard time thinking of an effective example in the U.S.  When I ask people for ideas I get things like “Dancing Parrot on YouTube Leads to Scientific Theory” and sure, I’m glad that ornithology and neuroscience are moving forward but I’m hoping for a little more PUNCH.  Or I get people referring to Matt Drudge and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.  I’m hoping for a little less SLEAZE.

Some people speculate that Internet video is leading to new experiments in aesthetic form — by this theory we should be looking for the Francois Truffaut of grainy 30-second pratfall videos (220,000 views) and, once found, this will establish the medium’s value.  I don’t think so.  It will take a while to see if we have a new art form that achieves widespread recognition and I’m not keen to wait.  Also I’m not sure I want to let “high culture” decide this one for me.

But I guess low culture doesn’t sound like a good way to argue it, either.

Saget Americas Funniest Home Videos

(YouTube c. 1989)

There is an area of scholarly research about participatory media and lately it hasn’t helped me with this problem.  Trying to figure out what the group formerly known as “the audience” is up to has a long tradition (from Herta Herzog’s classic “On Borrowed Experience” in the 1940s)[1].  The participatory media people are often interested in what the participators are up to regardless of what they are doing.  From Textual Poachers and beyond, a lot of brainpower has been used to justify seemingly-frivolous fan activity as actually important.[2]

I’m mostly on board with that, but… can’t we come up with a really kick-ass example that doesn’t require this argument?  What is it that participatory mediamakers are doing that is obviously crucial for society … not seemingly-frivolous activity that we have to defend.

In some areas the nontraditional producers already have access to a broad audience.  Popular YouTube videos now rival or surpass the viewership of Super Bowl commercials.  (Partly because Super Bowl commercials don’t reach an audience as large as you might think.)  I think this is a useful comparison because they are both often quite short and we think of the Super Bowl ads as the most exclusive short venue for the televisual since Apple’s 1984 ads.

The news today is that if you look at the most popular YouTube videos of all time, the nontraditional creators are no longer what this platform seems to be providing.  (At least, when considering access to the large audience that very popular videos on YouTube reach.)  I didn’t do a systematic study of this, but as I periodically check this page over the last few years I’ve noticed that professionally produced music videos are slowly pushing out all of the laughing babies.  This is entirely predictable as music videos are easier to monetize for YouTube, the company that has to pay the bandwidth bill.  We would expect them to more frequently feature and recommend videos that are profitable for them and videos that advertisers are happy to juxtapose their advertisements with.  More MTV, less homebrew spastic webcam teens, in other words.  They’re turning back to the older model of broadcasting.

So let me open it up to you.  If I want to argue that non-traditional video creators need access to a large audience, is there a good example of their value that I can use to justify this?  What is the most defensible example you can think of that shows that non-traditional video creators are doing something obviously useful that should be protected?  This is not an idle question, as from here it looks like in the contest for our attention the non-traditional creators are on the way out.

After they’re gone, when I say I am a media researcher who studies YouTube I guess people will think of Miley Cyrus (106 million views).


[1] Herta Herzog, (1941) “On Borrowed Experience: An Analysis of Listening to Daytime Sketches,” Studies in Philosophy and Social Science 9(65).

[2] Henry Jenkins.  (1992).  Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture.  New York: Routledge.

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