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Entries in rupert murdoch (5)

Monday
Dec032012

The Leveson thing

So, the Leveson report has finally arrived. As far as I can make out, the noble Lord is proposing that newspapers sign up voluntarily to some sort of regulatory system that is technically overseen, albeit at arm's length, by the government. Doesn't sound madly frightening to me (and seems very similar to what has been going on for decades without issue in my home country, Ireland, via the Press Council of Ireland) but cue cries of outrage from the press barons and their lacky Trevor Kavanagh - it's the end of free speech as we know it, yada yada.

I'm not sure however that the lack of an effective regulator of media content is really why the British press is so awful. I think said awfulness has more to do with the issue of media ownership - too much of it is concentrated in too few hands (mainly those belonging to a certain Mr Murdoch), meaning that certain media groups have become so large and influential that they are in a position where they are, in real terms, above the law. As Jeremy Hunt's dalliances with News Corp's Frederic 'Papa' Michel highlighted rather too well, such groups can effectively dictate government policy (or certainly dissuade governments from taking actions or policy positions that are not to their liking); and when a media group like News Corp feels confident enough to interfere so extensively in government, it's no wonder it isn't that bothered about interfering in the lives - or with the voicemails - of ordinary people too (even dead schoolgirls).

My tuppenceworth - not that Lord Leveson is likely to ask for it - is that if politicians are serious about tackling abuse of power by the media (questionable), they should look at how and in whose hands that power is concentrated, rather than trying to tame a media beast with a state regulator (not that I have massive qualms about the latter, providing it's set up correctly). My feeling is that if there was greater plurality of ownership in the UK media, there would be less abuse of power, and potentially more free speech going on, due to editors of multiple newspapers, magazines and TV shows not all having to toe one proprietor's line. A few right-wing tycoons owning most of the media is as much of (if not more of) a threat to free speech as light-touch government regulation designed to protect individuals from inappropriate press intrusion.

But maybe this whole discussion about the press behaving badly is a distraction from what's really going on: printed newspapers, however naughty or nice they've been, are currently in their death throes. They are going online, and as we all know, a national government trying to regulate what goes on online is going to face one hell of a headache. Even if newspaper sites could be regulated to some extent, it would be incredibly difficult to lay down the law to the blogosphere and social media.

One thing is fairly certain however: in this new digital age, owners of heavily-visited sites will be in serious positions of power, and - just like their offline counterpart, ye olde newspaper proprietors - many will be happy to abuse it; again I feel that rather than all this being a question of regulation of content, it boils down to a question of regulation of ownership: how much of the internet's big news / entertainment sites should a government allow one individual or company to own? You'd need an even longer inquiry to begin to get to the bottom of that one...

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Saturday
Jul302011

Computer says no: time to fear the algorithm?


When you are waiting at a red traffic light at a junction, a little algorithm – a formula or set of steps for solving a particular problem – is silently judging you. It’s working out how long you and other motorists have been waiting at the various sets of lights at the junction, how many pedestrians have pushed a button at a crossing, which road is the most important one, what time of day it is, how quickly you need to pee and so on. Based on these variables and what the algorithm makes of them all, you’ll either be waiting a short or a long time before you can stop cursing, uncross your legs, release the handbrake and move on (assuming, of course, that you’re the sort of person who uses the handbrake. There is a very good reason for using a handbrake whilst waiting at the lights, but that’s another, and perhaps rather boring, blog post).

Algorithms are in the news a lot at the moment, partly because a clever chap called Eli Pariser has written a book called The Filter Bubble about them. Annoyingly, this is a particular interest of mine, and he’s beaten me to writing a tome about it – but in my defence I’m a new dad and finding the time to write a blog post is very tricky, let alone attempting a book. For similar dad-related reasons, I haven’t got round to reading The Filter Bubble, but from what I can gather from reviews and an interesting TED talk he gave recently, Parisier’s focus is on how algorithms are used online. More on that in a moment, but first it’s worth pointing out that algorithms are nothing new – they’ve been around for donkey’s years, and are as much an offline phenomenon as an online one. Healthcare professionals use detailed algorithms to examine symptoms and establish courses of treatment; call centres use them to evaluate your response to certain questions and ascertain what crap to sell you. If you’ve got a Volvo it will probably tell you off for starting the engine without putting your seatbelt on, and if you get in an elevator, it will hopefully take you to a floor which corresponds to the button you press. In their simplest form, algorithms are little flowcharts which ‘process’ a situation – or you. If yes, do this; if no, do that.

All the above examples seem rather mundane – and unless you’re particularly into the electronics in a Volvo, they are. But lately, algorithms have taken on a new importance. As with most things, the internet has sort of ‘turbo-charged’ them: it’s made them (a) more sophisticated and (b) far more prevalent, to the point where it’s virtually impossible to do anything online without encountering an algorithm that is doing its very best to make you take a very particular course of action. You are probably only reading this blog post because Facebook or Google used an algorithm to process you – or your search query – in a very specific way and decided that this article was for you. If you’re reading this in the south of France, you may well be there because when you perused the Ryanair site, it did some sums and thought that offering you a so-called free flight to Nice was a good idea. If you’re staying in a four star hotel in Nice you may be there because when you searched for hotels in the area, an online advertising algorithm pointed you in the direction of a cheap deal on four star hotels in France. Personally, if I was in a four star hotel by the Mediterranean, I wouldn’t be reading a blog post about algorithms, I’d be doing something more interesting, but there you go.

Algorithms helping you get cheap flights seems pretty harmless; a good thing, right? Perhaps, depending on what you make of global warming. However, online algorithms are not just benign little bits of code that help you find stuff you like; they are often rather more sneaky than that. If you use Gmail to read your emails, Google’s algorithms are reading them too, and displaying adverts to you based on the things – however sensitive or confidential – you are discussing in the mail. If on Facebook you casually mention that you are a bloke and list yourself as ‘single’ (yes, I know, as if anyone ever does that casually), you will see a plethora of attractive big-breasted ladies beside your news feed, all enticing you to visit their dating website, where of course all the ladies are as attractive and big-breasted as the girls in the ads. Not that I would know. If you visit an insurance website, a series of algorithms will track your every click and change the content of pages in real time to ensure that you only see the policies you are most likely to buy. If you search for a product on eBay, an algorithm will take note of this, put a ‘cookie’ on your computer (without asking you), and you will see a shedload of adverts for that product when you visit other, completely different websites. This is perhaps why, when I turn on my computer after my partner has been on Ebay, I see countless adverts for Cath Kidson products wherever I go online, and if I’ve been using her laptop, all she will see is guitars.

This is all about personalisation: very big, powerful companies filtering content and showing you stuff based on who they think you are. (And to be fair, they’ve got a pretty good idea. Every time you clicked that little ‘like’ button on Facebook, you told it you are into Ann Summers products, Tom Jones and Pizza Hut. Hence the constant ads for sexy Welsh pizza). It’s not because these companies particularly want to make the web experience better for you – although sometimes, this is a side-effect – they really just want to sell you something. But either way, personalisation algorithms are now being employed on an industrial scale, to the point where to use the internet is to be pushed hard, and in a sophisticated way, in a certain direction. And the interesting – perhaps disturbing thing – is the effect this is having on our worldview and behaviour.

Let’s take a look at worldview: it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads my blog, or has the misfortune to be subjected to my Facebook status updates, that I’m an outspoken pinko-lefty-liberal type. But I’m a tolerant guy, and I have some conservative friends. However, I’m unlikely to ‘like’ their status updates about so-called benefit scroungers or click on links they post to Daily Mail articles. Equally, my conservative friends probably won’t be too keen on my rude status updates about David Cameron or the links to Guardian editorials that I post. However, I am quite likely to click on other people’s left-leaning posts, and my Tory cousins will no doubt hit ‘like’ every time somebody whinges about a mythical gold-plated public sector pension, calls for the return of the death penalty or wants to privatise the NHS.

These kind of social interactions have consequences for Facebook users. This is because the network makes use of an algorithm called ‘Edgerank’ to determine what to display in users’ news feeds. Without going into too much detail, it takes three variables – ‘affinity’, ‘weight’ and ‘time’ – to make a call on what pieces of content are relevant to each Facebook user. With the examples highlighted above, it will conclude that ‘right-wing’ posts are less relevant to me, and that ‘left-wing’ posts are less relevant to my conservative chums. And it will edit them out of our respective news feeds. This is truly a shame, as it means I can’t wind up my conservative friends any more. Rather more importantly, a valuable exchange of ideas is no longer taking place. Despite all the sharing of information and views that Facebook was meant to bring, every time I use it, a piece of maths is effectively hiding content from me. Not just me: 500 million or so Facebook users who are looking to it for information 20 times a day, 365 days a year. And the overwhelming majority of these have no idea at all that Facebook is taking such an active role in deciding what they should see. I’m no social scientist, but I’m sure this kind of filtering of content applied on such a huge scale cannot but have a significant impact on how people see the world. 

This algorithmic, personalised filtering is not restricted to social media news feeds. It’s now crept into search results. Up until fairly recently, you could be fairly confident that if both you and your friend searched for Russian brides on Google, and you both lived in the UK, you’d get exactly the same results. However, about a year and a half ago I started noticing – not, I must stress, as a result of searching for Russian brides – that when I searched for the same thing on Google, but in different contexts, that the results were very different. By different contexts I mean searching for the same thing

  • on more than one computer
  • when I was logged into my Google account, or when I was not logged into my Google account
  • after clicking a particular search result
  • in a different geographical location.

This was a bit of a headache, as at the time I was doing a bit of freelance work involving search engine optimisation for a music site and I kept getting multiple sets of results for the exact same keywords. It turns out that Google had started doing the same thing as Facebook – looking at a whole load of variables relating to me and making assumptions as to what floated my boat, rather than giving me an impartial set of links. In his TED talk, Parisier highlights this filtering extremely effectively, by describing an experiment where he asked a few of his friends to google ‘Egypt’ and send him a screenshot of the results provided by Google. The screenshots all varied enormously – Google had personalised the search results to the nth degree for each of his friends.

It’s worth noting however, that personalisation isn’t restricted entirely to online algorithms written by big powerful corporations; in a sense, we also write our own. Here’s an example of how. These days I mainly read the news on a smartphone. I'm going to come across as very bien-pensant here, and perhaps a bit of a knob, but my two news sources of choice are the BBC and The Guardian – and I "consume" (eughh) news via two apps that I’ve downloaded for my phone. Both these apps let me select exactly what content I want to appear when I open them. So, when I’m reading the news, I’m presented with content to do with politics, comment, technology, music and whatnot – and generally speaking not much fashion, showbiz and sport. But when I used to buy a newspaper, I would read it from start to finish, meaning I was invariably exposed to – and would read – a much wider range of stories. With news apps, even though they don’t use any surreptitious personalisation filters, they subtly encourage users to apply their own personalisation filter. The upshot is arguably a narrower view of what’s going on, despite there generally being more content available to browse.

So should we be worried about all this filtering that’s going on? Yes. Because it means that the internet is changing in a profound way. Traditionally the web has been (justifiably) viewed as a tool that

  • widens access to information
  • provides an ‘impartial’ way of sifting through information
  • increases transparency.

But now, the two major prisms through which people see the online world – arguably Facebook and Google – are throwing the above notions out the window. Facebook is actively restricting what people see in news feeds, based on perceived taste. Google’s results are no longer impartial – they’re personalised. And both services have not been at all transparent about how this filtering is / has been applied, or how to switch personalisation off.

And that’s just Facebook and Google – a multitude of sites are going down the personalisation route. It’s the Next Big Thing on the web. And when it gets to the point that every site you visit is running an algorithm that shows you ‘relevant’ information only after it has checked your IP address, cross-referenced its content with what you searched for on Google recently, examined your Facebook likes, scanned your computer for cookies and checked out that Russian brides website you were perusing the other day, the internet can no longer be considered a 'source' of information. It will be a gatekeeper far, far more powerful than Rupert Murdoch, and one that you can’t haul before parliament – or throw a foam pie at.

More Chris Singleton content

Sunday
Aug092009

What's Rupert up to?

There's a bit of a buzz going round the newspaper industry right now which involves, rather predictably, Rupert Murdoch. He's been intimating a lot of late that free online news content might soon become a thing of the past, at least where his News International titles are concerned.

Well, good luck to him. Rupert may have been pretty shrewd with regard to his business dealings in the past - and this is possibly why the press are taking this idea seriously - but in the long run, I can't possibly see this idea of paying for news content working. Here's why:

Firstly, the internet doesn't respect copy protection. Once one person has content, countless other people do, because copying and distributing a file is insanely easy. There has been much energy expounded and cash spent by record companies to copy-protect their content - and all in vain: getting free albums is easier than ever (legally or illegally). There is nothing to suggest that the newspaper industry would be any more successful in putting a wall around text, which from a technical viewpoint is even easier to copy than music.

The second reason that copy-protecting newspapers will not work has to do with something that - somewhat ironically - Murdoch is very fond of: competition. Even if he finds a viable way to protect his content, where will that leave him? Competing against a bunch of other news organisations that are all offering their content for free. He's partly aware of this, which is why his titles are attacking the BBC so much for publishing free news content...but even if the Beeb was forced to remove or scale back its online news (not entirely unthinkable if the Tories get in next year), there would still be thousands of alternatives delivering quality, free, online news output. And that's before you even consider the blogosphere, an increasingly trusted source of news and comment (if all the big newspapers were to put their content behind a wall, bloggers would have a field day).

Before charging for his content, Murdoch would do well to check out a book called 'Free: The Future of a Radical Price' by Chris Anderson. In it Anderson shows how companies are increasingly using the power of free services or content to access new markets and generate profit. The classic example he cites is Ryanair: it gives its flights away for free in order to sell a bunch of other stuff: car hire, travel insurance, accommodation, train tickets, bus tickets, scratch cards, credit cards...the list is endless. But to date it has worked, albeit at the expense of horrible flights for its customers. And the reason that it has worked is that in truth Ryanair is not actually an airline but a provider of travel services (and anything else it can flog). The free flight is the turnkey that unlocks other - and very big - markets for the company.

And digitally, the power of free content is even more pronounced. Because of its cost-free, copy-and-paste nature, digital technology effectively creates unlimited supply. And as any economist knows, when there's unlimited supply, the price of what's being supplied will drop to zero; it cannot but become free.

Murdoch - and any other digital content provider - can try to fight this; but it's a losing battle. Whether you're a rock band, a filmmaker or a journalist, you simply have to face the fact that the internet is going to make your content available for free, whether you like it or not. Content creators have a choice: to restrict content, and put themselves at a massive disadvantage, or to think creatively as to how they can unleash the power of free content and distribution. It amazes me that somebody as savvy as Murdoch isn't aware of this, and it makes me wonder if there is some ulterior motive behind his floating of his idea of charging for content. It'll be interesting to see how it pans out.

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Thursday
Oct302008

Bad for the Brand? Russell, Jonathan and the BBC

The guy across the road in our corner shop reliably informed me that only two people complained when Brand and Ross left their inappropriate messages on Manuel's - sorry, Andrew Sachs' - answer phone. A week later, the Mail on Sunday kicked up a fuss about it. And now, after most of the UK press have gone mad for this story, there are apparently 27,000 or so people moaning to the BBC about it.

My first thought on it all is this: do these people have nothing better to complain about? (Mind you, I probably have something better to do than blog about it).

My second thought: do these journalists have nothing better to write about? I mean seriously. We're in the middle of a credit crunch. America might be about to elect its first black president. Afghanistan needs a lot of work. Peter Mandelson's back in town and looking rather peculiar in ermine. But what does The Times, that so-called 'serious' paper, the paper of record etc., go and put on its front page? A story about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand making silly phone calls.

These stories have certainly had results. Brand's gone. Woss is in the doghouse for three months. BBC Radio 2 Controller Lesley Douglas has resigned. And senior BBC staff are having to apologise profusely on all their competitors' stations. The Beeb has taken a big hit here.

To my mind, the story that we should be focussing on is not the incident but the reaction. I'll come to that in a minute, but ok, let's look at the incident.

Two fairly funny guys make some inappropriate phone calls to a man who played a fairly funny Spanish waiter in the 70s. The calls involve a reference to the fact that one of them had slept with his granddaughter, who, incidentally, describes herself as Voluptua, a 'satanic slut'. (Grandpa was in Fawlty Towers - one of my favourite shows - so I expect he's got a sense of humour). The funny guys apologise, albeit a bit badly, and slowly. Nobody notices really - until the Mail on Sunday drags up the story a week later. And suddenly people all over the country are 'extremely offended' by this 'completely unacceptable' behaviour.

Well, if those sensitive souls are that easily offended, maybe they should consider some other BBC output which, to my mind anyway, is far more offensive - but which hasn't led to any resignations (that I know of anyway). I'm talking about that wheelchair sketch in Little Britain: it has probably caused much more distress to disabled people and their carers than any ill-judged phone call.

(Or perhaps, if you are particularly touchy, you could complain that Sach's 70s portrayal of a Spanish waiter was a bit racist - I liked it though).

In essence, this was an error of judgement. Brand's producer should have been more on the ball, the people involved should have apologised to the poor satanic slut in question (and Manuel) a bit quicker and we should have all moved on with a collective yawn.

Ok, so that's the incident dealt with. Now for the reaction, which is the real story.

When the press gets its knickers in a twist about something as trivial as this story, the old 'cui bono' question has to be asked. Who benefits from all this hoo-ha? You might think it was just a case of newspapers employing the age-old tactic of trying to sell newspapers by publishing sensational stories on their front pages (at the expense of proper ones), and there may be some truth to this.

In my view though, there is more to it than that; something more profound. I think a large section of the British media hates the BBC. They hate it for two reasons: commercial and ideological. And I feel this hatred is why they have blown this dodgy phone call saga out of all proportion.

Commercially, the BBC represents a massive threat to Murdoch's empire, particularly his TV one. It's arguably the only media outlet that represents any substantial threat to Sky and the Murdoch hegemony. This, I think, is partly why the Murdoch-owned Times ran a front-page story on Brand and Ross. It shouldn't have been a front-page story; not in these troubled times. Perhaps when The Times ran this story as its main headline it gave it a gravitas it didn't deserve, and perhaps this was intentional.

I feel, however, that opposition to the BBC on ideological grounds is the more powerful driving force behind all this. The BBC represents something that directly challenges the views of the UK's extraordinarily right-wing press: it is a highly successful, publicly-owned and publicly-funded organisation. Post Thatcher and Blair it is one of the very few public services that still exist in Britain - and certainly the only one to be routinely called 'world-class'. Its existence is anathema to the right-wing press; they regularly call for it to be privatised.

So it's hardly surprising that the press would want to make a big deal out of this. They have, subtly or otherwise, done all they can to undermine an institution which they view as a threat, and diminished its standing.

In reality, the BBC is this: a much-loved institution that we all share in, and which produces some of the world's best TV and radio. It's a shame that its reputation is suffering unduly for this storm in a teacup.

On a final note, what I find the most amusing thing about all this is that Andrew Sach's granddaughter Georgina Baillie is now (nearly) a household name. Frankly I'd never heard of her before - maybe these phone calls have been the best thing to ever happen to her career. And I never knew what Manuel's real name was either.

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Sunday
Jul132008

Knives out for the economy

There are two things which seem to be dominating the UK news at the moment: the state of the economy, and knife crime. Both serious topics.

But I can't help feeling that the more the media tell us that the economy is deteriorating, and that knife crime is spiralling, the worse the economy gets (because people are scared to spend their money) and the more kids carry knives (because they're scared of being knifed).

I may be wrong, but it feels to me that we're all talking ourselves into bad situations, or reading ourselves into them.

English newspapers being (broadly) the muck that they are, they are clearly using both stories to sell papers, but I reckon it's time for a bit of calm-headedness. Or else more kids could die - and the economy will get so bad that we'll cut back on buying papers.

Obviously Murdoch will worry more about the latter.

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