Dear Cheryl1 (my NSA angel),

Hi there. I have been reading (but you knew that) about the latest cycle of ad blocking, and how it will be the end of advertising/journalism/the internet as we know it2. It is fun to remember how pop-up blocking was also the end of internet advertising as we knew it!

Anyways, my favorite piece to come out of all this is a talk transcript by the head of Pinboard.3 I encourage you to read it yourself, but here are some choice pull-quotes.

On ad morals:

The ad networks’ name for this robotic deception is ‘ad fraud’ or ‘click fraud’. (Advertisers like to use moralizing language when their money starts to flow in the wrong direction. Tricking people into watching ads is good; being tricked into showing ads to automated traffic is evil.)

On regulation:

When I flew over to give this talk, I wasn’t worried about my plane falling out of the sky. Eighty years of effective technical regulation (and massive penalties for fraud) have made commercial aviation the safest form of transportation in the world.

On smart refrigerators:

Samsung recently got in hot water with their smart refrigerator. Because it failed to validate SSL certificates, the fridge would leak your Gmail credentials (used by its little calendar) to anyone who asked it. All I wanted was some ice, and instead my email got hacked.

On living in San Francisco:

You wouldn’t hire a gardener whose houseplants were all dead. But we expect that people will trust us to reinvent their world with software even though we can’t make our own city livable.

Seriously, it is ten minutes of reading well spent.

Have a great day,
Craig


  1. The NSA is an equal oportunity employer.
  2. Here is the same guy from that editorial (he is EIC, btw), two months earlier, lamenting the terrible mobile web user experience, which is almost entirely caused by ads and trackers.
  3. My least favorite piece was Marco Arment’s, who, after proclaiming ad blockers the future and creating the most popular one on iOS, probably found out it was blocking ads on his own site.
Also on:
Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site [Updated] (Gizmodo)
When hacker group Impact Team released the Ashley Madison data, they asserted that “thousands” of the women’s profiles were fake. Later, this number got blown up in news stories that asserted “90-95%” of them were fake, though nobody put forth any evidence for such an enormous number. So I downloaded the data and analyzed it to find out how many actual women were using Ashley Madison, and who they were.

Full of schadenfreude if you are a fan of:

  • marital fidelity
  • recognizing scams
  • responsible database management

Almost None of the Women in the Ashley Madison Database Ever Used the Site

Also on:

It is the DMZ week between the two major developer conferences of the year, I/O and Appple’s WWDC. Shots were fired by Google in the form of free and unlimited photo storage and an omnipresent search assistant for its upcoming OS update. fans have already begun reflexively asserting that “Google ain’t no thing”:

Everything has a price. With Apple, you typically pay them money, and they sell you premium products and services in return. That type of cost and relationship is easy to understand.
With Google, you typically pay them attention and data, and they give you free or cheap products and services in return. That cost and relationship is harder to understand.

First of all, no, it is not hard to understand. For decades if not longer, services have used advertising to mitigate cost to the user. Ever listened to a radio, or read a newspaper, or received junk mail?

Second (and more nitpicky), you would be hard pressed to find anyone else making the argument for Apple offering users more choice. I am running a custom launcher, a third-party SMS client, and readily switch between three different browsers depending on my use cases. Ever tried that on iOS? /android-troll

Apple CEO Tim Cook even joined in:

“We believe the customer should be in control of their own information. You might like these so-called free services, but we don’t think they’re worth having your email, your search history and now even your family photos data mined and sold off for god knows what advertising purpose. And we think some day, customers will see this for what it is.”

The first takeaway from this is that the Apple camp is placing a priority on while at the same time knocking “so-called free services” down a peg. This implies that privacy is only available to those who can afford it. This sentiment is much larger moral hazard than allowing tailored advertising to subsidize service.

The most important takeaway, however, is that this sentiment could turn into Apple’s Waterloo if they don’t make some major improvements to their services. Google Photos has long been superior to iPhoto, only to be hamstrung by its dependence on Google’s misunderstood social network. Google solved that problem this year by separating them. Apple needs to give people a reason to pay out the nose for their competing product besides “hey, we won’t check out your pictures.”

Google offers value in exchange for information, which is why they are seen as a pinnacle of innovation. Apple offers value in exchange for cold hard cash, which is why they are seen as a walled garden surrounding a mountain of cash. Hopefully Apple’s private #cloud will open up and rain some new ideas on WWDC this year, instead of nude photos of celebrities. /terrible-apple-troll-pun

Also on:

I finally uninstalled the Facebook app on my phone about two weeks ago, mostly because it sucks. I checked back a few nights ago via the browser, and I had not missed much of anything (except an old friend getting engaged – congrats!). The next logical step is to stop sharing things on Facebook. For the better part of a year, I have prided myself on doing my sharing almost exclusively through third-party avenues (because I want control over my data, and I am a social network hipster), and the only step left is to stop.

Why do I go back, even to share? Because everyone else is there. Facebook has been around for eons in Internet Time. In the beginning, it functioned more like an actual “face book”, which people did not update daily. However, it was still people you actually knew and wanted to keep up with. Those roots continue to reinforce themselves over time as you build a digital archive of yourself, but what is left is a gargantuan filter bubble. It is much harder to break out of a filter bubble of people you know IRL, which Facebook knows. That is why the point of the site was lost somewhere between the immediate, actual, meaningful connections and “Your friends like Diet Coke, you should too!” (Of course, this could all change in a week.)

The laundry list of things Facebook actually does is pretty impressive until you consider that several other places offer the same service, usually better. General status updates work very well on Twitter; if it is longer than 140 characters, get a blog. Dropbox, Flickr, and Picasa all offer picture storage and sharing, with the added bonus of export. Instant messaging can be done with GTalk, iMessage, or the mother of all internet communique: email. Link sharing and other content curation are Tumblr’s forte. Foursquare has check-ins locked down. Personal moments meant to be shared with only close friends and family can be set up easily in Path or Google+. In fact, G+ does pretty much all of this, and shares it more intuitively than Facebook.

Lifehacker beat me to it, but the way Facebook has adapted their advertising is annoying, albeit nefariously intuitive. Ads themselves are not all that bad. The service has to make money somehow. Google is basically an advertising company, but aside from the search results page it is generally unobtrusive, and the service is good enough that it warrants forgiveness. Almost all the services mentioned are ad-supported, and the alternative to that is paying your own way with something like App.net.

So, for those visiting from my Facebook link, welcome to my page. You may see it pop up occasionally on my FB feed in the future, but independence has to start somewhere. One last cleanup of various outdated likes and other personal details, and I will be on my way. This is a break, not a full-on deletion (because how else will I occasionally use Spotify?). And if they change and improve somehow, I will gladly eat these words.

I keep wrestling with when and how to leave Facebook (and actually have a long draft in progress for when I finally do). But where does one go now? What are the other options?

Well, Twitter was my first thought. But I have almost always used third-party clients to access Twitter, and they have been dicks about that lately. In fact, the developers of my favorite Twitter clients (Falcon Pro and Carbon for Android) held a G+ hangout just yesterday to discuss the token limit situation. I hardly ever tweet from the desktop, but even that is better with third-party apps like Tweetbot (I’m not counting Tweetdeck, which was awesome until Twitter bought it and then totally neglected the Android client).

Google+ is another possible outlet. It manages to have all the features of Facebook (and does a few of them better) without the squicky feeling that they will always step on my privacy. That is an implicit issue with Google, but that has always been their modus operandi: fantastic services in exchange for advertisement. However, Google+ also feels like an endpoint. It is a place where items I share can end up, but I can’t take them and move them elsewhere, like WordPress.  Twitter and FB suffer from this as well (I haven’t investigated Tumblr as much, but I fear the same).

But then yesterday’s App.net news came, and it is starting to sound better and better. Smaller community, great global stream, built-in storage, developer friendly, and user-first. It hits all the right buttons. I may have to give this a try.

There will come a time when we all host our own data and are able to share it however we choose. Until then, I will continue being a social network hipster.

The amount of people that do not (or even choose not to) understand modern technology and the internet is bewildering. I see it day to day at work (my company thinks it is a “tech” company! Cute) and from the people elected to make laws. I remember a TA in a software engineering course tell us about an internship he had in which he automated all his work in the first couple days using a few Python scripts. This gave him a free summer to goof around. Menial tasks can generally be avoided these days.

I guess that is why CISPA bothers me. It seems like a step in the right direction from SOPA, but that step mostly benefits the intermediaries handling user information, not end users themselves. Internet communication is (generally) free speech, and expecting to know who can see your data seems reasonable enough. But the people writing the laws do not see this perspective; they see terrorists and scofflaws (always wanted to use that term) that must be stopped at all costs, and the internet as a readily governable entity. If you can’t obtain a warrant for that information, then why do you need it?

The bottom line is just understanding what you are getting into when you are sharing data online. Microsoft keeps calling out Google for this, and the only reason it gains any traction is from the personification of Google reading your email. Putting any rational thought into that renders it absurd (how many people would they have to hire to read every Gmail account?). Part of the reason I started this blog, besides having a place for longform thoughts, is that I don’t really trust Facebook with my data that much to begin with. Ever since they went public, they have seemed a little desperate about finding new ways to monetize my data. I would like to use that data to interact with people instead of with more computers. And if I would like it to be private, it should be private.