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So long and thanks for all the fish | Technology

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I am sorry to have to inform readers of the Guardian’s long-running Ask Jack column that its much-loved author, Jack Schofield, died on Tuesday.

Jack was taken to hospital on Friday night following a heart attack and died on Tuesday afternoon.

Jack spanned many different editors over his 37 years at the Guardian, including his last few with me. He will be sorely missed by those of us that knew him at the Guardian, but most of all by his readers.

To those who have read, commented and emailed Ask Jack over the last 20 years, we want to thank you for being part of it.

Jack leaves behind an extensive archive of columns and many more pieces before that in the paper and dating all the way back to 1989 in his online archive. He will not be forgotten.

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Parler’s website shows signs of life after AWS fallout

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The Parler website home screen on a laptop computer arranged in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.

Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The website of Parler — a social media platform popular with conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump — is back online, albeit in a very limited form.

Unlike for much of last week, the website now loads and displays a brief message from Parler CEO John Matze that reads: “Hello world, is this thing on?”

The Parler website dropped offline on Jan. 11 after Amazon withdrew its support in the wake of the deadly U.S. Capitol riot. The website was reliant on cloud computing power provided by Amazon Web Services.

AWS withdrew its support for Parler on Jan. 10 after concluding that posts on the company’s website and apps encourage and promote violence.

“It is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service,” said an AWS spokesperson.

They added: “We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks and during that time we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services.”

Matze said in a statement that Parler removed violent content and added that its community guidelines don’t allow Parler to be knowingly used for criminal activity.

The Parler mobile apps are still nowhere to be seen. Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9 respectively.

Technical difficulties

While the Parler website is no longer completely offline, it’s still experiencing technical difficulties and Parler users can’t use it in the way that they did previously.

Below Matze’s brief message is a post about the company’s ongoing technical difficulties.

“Now seems like the right time to remind you all — both lovers and haters — why we started this platform. We believe privacy is paramount and free speech essential, especially on social media. Our aim has always been to provide a nonpartisan public square where individuals can enjoy and exercise their rights to both,” the post reads.

It continues: “We will resolve any challenge before us and plan to welcome all of you back soon. We will not let civil discourse perish.”

Amazon-Parler Lawsuit

Parler has sued Amazon for withdrawing its support for the company. In a lawsuit filed Jan 11. in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Parler accused Amazon Web Services of breaking antitrust laws.

“AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus,” the lawsuit said. “It is also apparently designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter.”

It continues: “This emergency suit seeks a Temporary Restraining Order against defendant Amazon Web Services to prevent it from shutting down Parler’s account. Doing so is the equivalent of pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support. It will kill Parler’s business — at the very time it is set to skyrocket.”

An AWS spokesperson told CNBC there’s no merit to the claims and Twitter declined to comment.


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The silencing of Trump has highlighted the authoritarian power of tech giants | Social media

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It was eerily quiet on social media last week. That’s because Trump and his cultists had been “deplatformed”. By banning him, Twitter effectively took away the megaphone he’s been masterfully deploying since he ran for president. The shock of the 6 January assault on the Capitol was seismic enough to convince even Mark Zuckerberg that the plug finally had to be pulled. And so it was, even to the point of Amazon Web Services terminating the hosting of Parler, a Twitter alternative for alt-right extremists.

The deafening silence that followed these measures was, however, offset by an explosion of commentary about their implications for freedom, democracy and the future of civilisation as we know it. Wading knee-deep through such a torrent of opinion about the first amendment, free speech, censorship, tech power and “accountability” (whatever that might mean), it was sometimes hard to keep one’s bearings. But what came to mind continually was H L Mencken’s astute insight that “for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong”. The air was filled with people touting such answers.

In the midst of the discursive chaos, though, some general themes could be discerned. The first highlighted cultural differences, especially between the US with its sacred first amendment on the one hand and European and other societies, which have more ambivalent histories of moderating speech. The obvious problem with this line of discussion is that the first amendment is about government regulation of speech and has nothing whatsoever to do with tech companies, which are free to do as they like on their platforms.

A second theme viewed the root cause of the problem as the lax regulatory climate in the US over the last three decades, which led to the emergence of a few giant tech companies that effectively became the hosts for much of the public sphere. If there were many Facebooks, YouTubes and Twitters, so the counter-argument runs, then censorship would be less effective and problematic because anyone denied a platform could always go elsewhere.

Then there were arguments about power and accountability. In a democracy, those who make decisions about which speech is acceptable and which isn’t ought to be democratically accountable. “The fact that a CEO can pull the plug on Potus’s loudspeaker without any checks and balances,” fumed EU commissioner Thierry Breton, “is not only confirmation of the power of these platforms, but it also displays deep weaknesses in the way our society is organised in the digital space.” Or, to put it another way, who elected the bosses of Facebook, Google, YouTube and Twitter?

What was missing from the discourse was any consideration of whether the problem exposed by the sudden deplatforming of Trump and his associates and camp followers is actually soluble – at least in the way it has been framed until now. The paradox that the internet is a global system but law is territorial (and culture-specific) has traditionally been a way of stopping conversations about how to get the technology under democratic control. And it was running through the discussion all week like a length of barbed wire that snagged anyone trying to make progress through the morass.

All of which suggests that it’d be worth trying to reframe the problem in more productive ways. One interesting suggestion for how to do that came last week in a thoughtful Twitter thread by Blayne Haggart, a Canadian political scientist. Forget about speech for a moment, he suggests, and think about an analogous problem in another sphere – banking. “Different societies have different tolerances for financial risk,” he writes, “with different regulatory regimes to match. Just like countries are free to set their own banking rules, they should be free to set strong conditions, including ownership rules, on how platforms operate in their territory. Decisions by a company in one country should not be binding on citizens in another country.”

In those terms, HSBC may be a “global” bank, but when it’s operating in the UK it has to obey British regulations. Similarly, when operating in the US, it follows that jurisdiction’s rules. Translating that to the tech sphere, it suggests that the time has come to stop accepting the tech giant’s claims to be hyper-global corporations, whereas in fact they are US companies operating in many jurisdictions across the globe, paying as little local tax as possible and resisting local regulation with all the lobbying resources they can muster. Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter can bleat as sanctimoniously as they like about freedom of speech and the first amendment in the US, but when they operate here, as Facebook UK, say, then they’re merely British subsidiaries of an American corporation incorporated in California. And these subsidiaries obey British laws on defamation, hate speech and other statutes that have nothing to do with the first amendment. Oh, and they pay taxes on their local revenues.

What I’ve been reading

Capitol ideas
What Happened? is a blog post by the Duke sociologist Kieran Healy, which is the most insightful attempt I’ve come across to explain the 6 January attack on Washington’s Capitol building.

Tweet and sour
How @realDonaldTrump Changed Politics — and America. Derek Robertson in Politico on how Trump “governed” 140 characters at a time.

Stay safe
The Plague Year is a terrific New Yorker essay by Lawrence Wright that includes some very good reasons not to be blase about Covid.



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Revealed: Tory MPs and commentators who joined banned app Parler | Conservatives

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At least 14 Conservative MPs, including several ministers, cabinet minister Michael Gove and a number of prominent Tory commentators joined Parler, the social media platform favoured by the far right that was forced offline last week for hosting threats of violence and racist slurs.

Parler was taken offline after Amazon Web Services pulled the plug last Sunday, saying violent posts and racist threats connected to the recent attack on the US Capitol violated its terms.

Analysts from the London-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) said that Parler had become a platform where the ideas of mainstream Conservative MPs coalesced with those of extremists.

Milo Comerford, senior policy manager at ISD, said: “By positioning themselves as a safe haven for free speech and an alternative to the alleged ‘liberal bias’ of social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter, platforms like Parler attracted a motley crew of ultra-libertarians, violent extremists and conspiracy theorists, as well as more mainstream ‘free speech fundamentalists.’”

At least nine of the Tory MPs on Parler joined the platform in an apparent show of support for free speech following Donald Trump’s clashes with Twitter over remarks he made following the death of George Floyd in Minnesota last year.

The social media giant warned that one of Trump’s tweets “glorified violence”, the first time it had applied such a warning on any public figure’s tweets. Twitter’s row with Trump prompted a campaign by American rightwing voices to move en masse to Parler, which encouraged Trump followers to join on 15 June with a declaration for internet independence.

Days later, Foreign Office minister James Cleverly along with Brexiter Steve Baker MP and Ben Bradley MP, who was recently accused of linking free school meals with “crack dens”, joined Parler. Far-right provocateur Katie Hopkins joined on the same day, after her Twitter account was permanently suspended. Hopkins, who on Thursday joined Ukip in time for the party’s leadership contest, owned Parler’s largest UK account with 435,000 followers when it was taken offline.

Other Tory MPs to join Parler on the same day as Hopkins include Mark Jenkinson, who last year alleged that food parcels were sold or traded for drugs in his Cumbrian constituency without offering any proof, and trade minister Ranil Jayawardena.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries.
Tory MP Nadine Dorries. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Health minister Nadine Dorries joined Parler on 21 June. Dorries had weeks earlier been reprimanded by Downing Street for sharing a video from a far-right Twitter account that falsely claimed Keir Starmer blocked the prosecution of grooming gang members when he led the Crown Prosecution Service.

The most prolific Tory MP on the site was Bradley who sent 52 “parleys” and had more than 12,000 followers. Gove sent at least 26 parleys and had more than 5,000 followers. There is no evidence any Conservative MP posted anything untoward or what might be considered extremist or far right. Some of the accounts had been hardly used and some of those activated in June 2020 appear to have been set up only to support the free speech protest.

Other notable Conservative figures on the site include pro-Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes. In June he told his followers on Parler that “it’s about time we fought back against big tech’s assault on free speech, free expression and freedom of association”.

Comerford added: “Platforms like Parler must be understood as part of a broad online extremist ecosystem, ranging from mainstream social media platforms, imageboard sites like the chans, to encrypted-messenger apps like Telegram, all of which play roles in helping extremists to mobilise, organise and propagandise.”

• This article was amended on 16 January 2021 to remove the statement that Maria Caulfield was on Parler. There is a fake account in the MP’s name on the site.


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