Wij willen met u aan tafel zitten en in een openhartig gesprek uitvinden welke uitdagingen en vragen er bij u spelen om zo, gezamelijk, tot een beste oplossing te komen. Oftewel, hoe kan de techniek u ondersteunen in plaats van dat u de techniek moet ondersteunen.

Yellow, the accelerator program launched by Snap in 2018, has selected ten companies to join its latest cohort.

The new batch of startups coming from across the U.S. and international cities like London, Mexico City, Seoul and Vilnius are building professional social networks for black professionals and blue collar workers, fashion labels, educational tools in augmented reality, kids entertainment, and an interactive entertainment production company.

The list of new companies include:

  • Brightly — an Oakland, Calif.-based media company angling to be the conscious consumer’s answer to Refinery29.
  • Charli Cohen — a London-based fashion and lifestyle brand.
  • Hardworkersa Cambridge, Mass.-based professional digital community built for blue-collar workers.
  • Mogul Millennial — this Dallas-based company is a digital media platform for black entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
  • Nuggetverse — Los Angeles-based Nuggetverse is creating a children’s media business based on its marquee character, Tubby Nugget.
  • SketchAR — this Lithuanian company is developing an AI-based mobile app for teaching drawing using augmented reality.
  • Stipop — a Seoul-based sticker API developer with a library of over 100,000 stickers created by 5,000 artists.
  • TRASH — using this machine learning-based video editing toolkit, users can quickly create and edit high-quality, short-form video. The company is backed by none other than the National Science Foundation and based in Los Angeles.
  • Veam — another Seoul-based social networking company, Veam uses Airdrop as a way to create persistent chats with nearby users as a geolocated social network.
  • Wabisabi Design, Inc. — hailing from Mexico City, this startup makes mini games in augmented reality for brands and advertisers.

The latest cohort from Snap’s Yellow accelerator

Since launching the platform in 2018, startups from the Snap accelerator have gone on to acquisition (like Stop, Breathe, and Think, which was bought by Meredith Corp.) and to raise bigger rounds of funding (like the voiceover video production toolkit, MuzeTV, and the animation studio Toonstar).

Every company in the Yellow portfolio will receive $ 150,000 mentorship from industry veterans in and out of Snap, creative office space in Los Angeles and commercial support and partnerships — including Snapchat distribution.

“Building from the momentum of our first two Yellow programs, this new class approaches mobile creativity through the diverse lenses of augmented reality, platforms, commerce and media, yet each company has a clear vision to bring their products to life,” said Mike Su, Director of Yellow. “This class shows us that there’s no shortage of innovation at the intersection of creativity and technology, and we’re excited to be part of each company’s journey.”


TechCrunch

Instagram users who miss the reverse chronological feed might get a new way to see the most recent pics and videos from who they follow. Instagram has been spotted internally prototyping a “Latest Posts” feature. It appears as a pop-up over the main feed and brings users to a special area showing the newest content from their network.

Instagram Latest Posts

For now, this doesn’t look like a full-fledged “Most Recent” reverse-chronological feed option like what Facebook has for the News Feed. But if launched, Latest Posts could help satisfy users who want to make sure they haven’t missed anything or want to know what’s going on right now.

The prototype was discovered by Jane Manchun Wong, the master of reverse engineering who’s provided tips to TechCrunch on scores of new features in development by tech giants. She generated the screenshots above from the code of Instagram’s Android app. “Welcome Back! Get caught up on the posts from [names of people you follow] and 9 more” reads the pop-up that appears over the home screen. If users tap “See Posts” instead of “Not Now”, they’re sent to a separate screen showing recent feed posts.

We’ve reached out to Instagram for a confirmation of the prototype, more details, and clarification on how Latest Posts would work. The company did not respond before press time. However, it has often confirmed the authenticity of Wong’s findings, and some of the features have gone on to officially launch months later.

Back in mid-2016, Instagram switched away from a reverse-chronological feed showing all the posts of people you follow in order of decency. Instead, it forced all users to scroll through a algorithmic feed of what it thinks you’ll like best, ranked based on who and what kind of content you interact with most. That triggered significant backlash. Some users thought they were missing posts or found the jumbled timestamps confusing. But since algorithmic feeds tend to increase engagement by ensuring the first posts you see are usually relevant, Instagram gave users no way to switch back.

Instagram previously tried to help users get assurance that they’d seen all the posts of their network with a “You’re All Caught Up” insert in the feed if you’d scrolled past everything from the past 48 hours. Latest Posts could be another way to let frequent Instagram users know that they’re totally up to date.

That might let people close the app in confidence and resume their lives.


TechCrunch

We’re down in Sunnyvale, CA today, where Alchemist Accelerator is hosting a demo day for its most recent batch of companies. This is the 23rd class to graduate from Alchemist, with notable alums including LaunchDarkly, MightyHive, Matternet, and Rigetti Computing. As an enterprise accelerator, Alchemist focuses on companies that make their money from other businesses, rather than consumers.

21 companies presented in all, each getting five minutes to explain their mission to a room full of investors, media, and other founders.

Here are our notes on all 21 companies, in the order in which they presented:

i-50: Uses AI to monitor human actions on production lines, using computer vision to look for errors or abnormalities along the way. Founder Albert Kao says that 68% of manufacturing issues are caused by human error. The company currently has 3 paid pilots, totalling $ 190k in contracts.

Perimeter: A data visualization platform for firefighters and other first responders, allowing them to more quickly input and share information (such as how a fire is spreading) with each other and the public. Projecting $ 1.7M in revenue within 18 months.

Einsite: Computer vision-based analytics for mining and construction. Sensors and cameras are mounted on heavy machines (like dump trucks and excavators). Footage is analyzed in the cloud, with the data ultimately presented to job site managers to help monitor progress and identify issues. Founder Anirudh Reddy says the company will have $ 1.2M in bookings and be up and running on 2100 machines this year.

Mall IQ: A location-based marketing/analytics SDK for retail stores and malls to tie into their apps. Co-founder Batu Sat says they’ve built an “accurate and scalable” method of determining a customer’s indoor position without GPS or additional hardware like Bluetooth beacons.

Ipsum Analytics: Machine learning system meant to predict the outcome of a company’s ongoing legal cases by analyzing the relevant historical cases of a given jurisdiction, judge, etc. First target customer is hedge funds, helping them project how legal outcomes will impact the market.

Vincere Health: Works with insurance companies to pay people to stop smoking. They’ve built an app with companion breathalyzer hardware; each time a user checks in with the breathalyzer to prove they’re smoking less, the user gets paid. They’ve raised $ 400k so far.

Harmonize: A chat bot system for automating HR tasks, built to work with existing platforms like Slack and Microsoft Teams. An employee could, for example, message the bot to request time off — the request is automatically forwarded to their manager, presenting them with one-click approve/deny buttons which handle everything behind the scenes. The company says it currently has 400 paying customers and is seeing $ 500k in ARR, projecting $ 2M ARR in 2020.

Coreshell Technologies: Working on a coating for lithium-Ion batteries which the company says makes them 25% cheaper and 50% faster to produce. The company’s co-founder says they have 11 patents filed, with 2 paid agreements signed and 12 more in the pipeline.

in3D: An SDK for 3D body scanning via smartphone, meant to help apps do things like gather body measurements for custom clothing, allow for virtual clothing try-ons, or create accurate digital avatars for games.

Domatic: “Intelligent power” for new building construction. Pushes both data and low-voltage power over a single “Class 2” wire , making it easier/cheaper for builders to make a building “smart”. Co-founder Jim Baldwin helped build Firewire at Apple, and co-founder Gladys Wong was previously a hardware engineer at Cisco.

MeToo Kit: a kit meant to allow victims of sexual assault or rape to gather evidence through an at-home, self-administered process. Co-founder Madison Campbell says that they’ve seen 100k kits ordered by universities, corporations, non-profits, and military organizations. The company garnered significant controversy in September of 2019 after multiple states issued cease-and-desist letters, with Michigan’s Attorney General arguing that such a kit would not be admissible in court. Campbell told Buzzfeed last year that she would “never stop fighting” for the concept.

AiChemist Metal: Building a thin, lightweight battery made of copper and cellulose “nanofibers”. Co-founder Sergey Lopatin says the company’s solution is 2-3x lighter, stronger, and cheaper than alternatives, and that the company is projecting profitability in 2021. Focusing first on batteries for robotics, flexible displays, and electric vehicles.

Delightree: A task management system for franchises, meant to help owners create and audit to-dos across locations. Monitors online customer reviews, automatically generating potential tasks accordingly. In pilot tests with 3 brands with 16 brands on a waitlist, which the company says translates to about $ 400k in potential ARR.

DigiFabster: A ML-powered “smart quoting” tool for manufacturing shops doing things like CNC machining to make custom parts and components. Currently working with 125 customers, they’re seeing $ 500k in ARR.

NachoNacho: Helps small/medium businesses monitor and manage software subscriptions their employees sign up for. Issues virtual credit cards which small businesses use to sign up for services; you can place budgets on each card, cancel cards, and quickly determine where your money is going. Launched 9 months ago, NachoNacho says it’s currently working with over 1600 businesses.

Zapiens: a virtual assistant-style tool for sharing knowledge within a company, tied into tools like Slack/Salesforce/Microsoft 365. Answers employee questions, or uses its understanding of each employee’s expertise to find someone within the company who can answer the question.

Onebrief: A tool aiming to make military planning more efficient. Co-founder/Army officer Grant Demaree says that much of the military’s planning is buried in Word/Powerpoint documents, with inefficiencies leading to ballooning team sizes. By modernizing the planning approach with a focus on visualization, automation and data re-usability, he says planning teams could be smaller yet more agile.

Perceive: Spatial analytics for retail stores. Builds a sensor that hooks into existing in-store lighting wiring to create a 3D map of stores, analyzing customer movement/behavior (without face recognition or WiFi/beacon tracking) to identify weak spots in store layout or staffing.

Acoustic Wells: IoT devices for monitoring and controlling production from oil fields. Analyzes sound from pipes “ten thousand feet underground” to regulate how a machine is running, optimizing production while minimizing waste. Charges monthly fee per oil well. Currently has letters of intent to roll out their solution in over 1,000 wells.

SocialGlass: A marketplace for government procurement. Lets governments buy goods/services valued under $ 10,000 without going through a bidding process, with SocialGlass guaranteeing they’ve found the cheapest price. Currently working with 50+ suppliers offering 10,000 SKUs.

Applied Particle Technology: Continuous, realtime worker health/safety tracking for industrial environments. Working on wireless, wearable monitors that stream environmental data to identify potential exposure risks. Focusing first on mining and metals industries, later moving into construction, firefighting, and utilities environments.


TechCrunch

Did you notice a recent change to how Google search results are displayed on the desktop?

I noticed something last week — thinking there must be some kind of weird bug messing up the browser’s page rendering because suddenly everything looked similar: A homogenous sea of blue text links and favicons that, on such a large expanse of screen, come across as one block of background noise.

I found myself clicking on an ad link — rather than the organic search result I was looking for.

Here, for example, are the top two results for a Google search for flight search engine ‘Kayak’ — with just a tiny ‘Ad’ label to distinguish the click that will make Google money from the click that won’t…

Turns out this is Google’s latest dark pattern: The adtech giant has made organic results even more closely resemble the ads it serves against keyword searches, as writer Craig Mod was quick to highlight in a tweet this week.

Last week, in its own breezy tweet, Google sought to spin the shift as quite the opposite — saying the “new look” presents “site domain names and brand icons prominently, along with a bolded ‘Ad’ label for ads”:

But Google’s explainer is almost a dark pattern in itself.

If you read the text quickly you’d likely come away with the impression that it has made organic search results easier to spot since it’s claiming components of these results now appear more “prominently” in results.

Yet, read it again, and Google is essentially admitting that a parallel emphasis is being placed — one which, when you actually look at the thing, has the effect of flattening the visual distinction between organic search results (which consumers are looking for) and ads (which Google monetizes).

Another eagle-eyed user Twitter, going by the name Luca Masters, chipped into the discussion generated by Mod’s tweet — to point out that the tech giant is “finally coming at this from the other direction”.

‘This’ being deceptive changes to ad labelling; and ‘other direction’ being a reference to how now it’s organic search results being visually tweaked to shrink their difference vs ads.

Google previously laid the groundwork for this latest visual trickery by spending earlier years amending the look of ads to bring them closer in line with the steadfast, cleaner appearance of genuine search results.

Except now it’s fiddling with those too. Hence ‘other direction’.

Masters helpfully quote-tweeted this vintage tweet (from 2016), by journalist Ginny Marvin — which presents a visual history of Google ad labelling in search results that’s aptly titled “color fade”; a reference to the gradual demise of the color-shaded box Google used to apply to clearly distinguish ads in search results.

Those days are long gone now, though.

 

Now a user of Google’s search engine has — essentially — only a favicon between them and an unintended ad click. Squint or you’ll click it.

This visual trickery may be fractionally less confusing in a small screen mobile environment — where Google debuted the change last year. But on a desktop screen these favicons are truly minuscule. And where to click to get actual information starts to feel like a total lottery.

A lottery that’s being stacked in Google’s favor because confused users are likely to end up clicking more ad links than they otherwise would, meaning it cashes in at the expense of web users’ time and energy.

Back in May, when Google pushed this change on mobile users, it touted the tweaks as a way for sites to showcase their own branding, instead of looking like every other blue link on a search result page. But it did so while simultaneously erasing a box-out that it had previously displayed around the label ‘Ad’ to make it stand out.

That made it “harder to differentiate ads and search results,” as we wrote then — predicting it will “likely lead to outcry”.

There were certainly complaints. And there will likely be more now — given the visual flattening of the gap between ad clicks and organic links looks even more confusing for users of Google search on desktop. (Albeit, the slow drip of design change updates also works against mass user outcry.)

We reached out to Google to ask for a response to the latest criticism that the new design for search results makes it almost impossible to distinguish between organic results and ads. But the company ignored repeat requests for comment.

Of course it’s true that plenty of UX design changes face backlash, especially early on. Change in the digital realm is rarely instantly popular. It’s usually more ‘slow burn’ acceptance.

But there’s no consumer-friendly logic to this one. (And the slow burn going on here involves the user being cast in the role of the metaphorical frog.)

Instead, Google is just making it harder for web users to click on the page they’re actually looking for — because, from a revenue-generating perspective, it prefers them to click an ad.

It’s the visual equivalent of a supermarket putting a similarly packaged own-brand right next to some fancy branded shampoo on the shelf — in the hopes a rushed shopper will pluck the wrong one. (Real life dark patterns are indeed a thing.)

It’s also a handy illustration of quite how far away from the user Google’s priorities have shifted, and continue to drift.

“When Google introduced ads, they were clearly marked with a label and a brightly tinted box,” said UX specialist Harry Brignull. “This was in stark contrast to all the other search engines at the time, who were trying to blend paid listings in amongst the organic ones, in an effort to drive clicks and revenue. In those days, Google came across as the most honest search engine on the planet.”

Brignull is well qualified to comment on dark patterns — having been calling out deceptive design since 2010 when he founded darkpatterns.org.

“I first learned about Google in the late 1990s. In those days you learned about the web by reading print magazines, which is charmingly quaint to look back on. I picked up a copy of Wired Magazine and there it was – a sidebar talking about a new search engine called ‘Google’,” he recalled. “Google was amazing. In an era of portals, flash banners and link directories, it went in the opposite direction. It didn’t care about the daft games the other search engines were playing. It didn’t even seem to acknowledge they existed. It didn’t even seem to want to be a business. It was a feat of engineering, and it felt like a public utility.

“The original Google homepage was recognised a guiding light of purism in digital design. Search was provided by an unstyled text field and button. There was nothing else on the homepage. Just the logo. Search results were near-instant and they were just a page of links and summaries – perfection with nothing to add or take away. The back-propagation algorithm they introduced had never been used to index the web before, and it instantly left the competition in the dust. It was proof that engineers could disrupt the rules of the web without needing any suit-wearing executives. Strip out all the crap. Do one thing and do it well.”

“As Google’s ambitions changed, the tinted box started to fade. It’s completely gone now,” Brignull added.

The one thing Google very clearly wants to do well now is serve more ads. It’s chosen to do that deceptively, by steadily — and consistently — degrading the user experience. So a far cry from “public utility”.

And that user-friendly Google of old? Yep, also completely gone.


TechCrunch

At its developer conference Wednesday, Oculus showed off a pair of prototype designs for its next high-end headsets.

Two years ago, Oculus showed off its Half Dome prototype which utilized a technology called varifocal lenses to allow users to adjust where the points of focus were in an image, this is technology similar to what Magic Leap uses on its headset, but is designed to allow for a much greater range of focal planes.

The company showed off tow new prototypes including a “Half Dome 2” prototype and a “Half Dome 3” prototype.

“Half Dome 2” is optimized for weight and size significantly shrinking down the form factor of the previous prototype while reducing the weight by 200 grams. The device is also shrinking the 140 degree field-of-view of the first design, though the company says the headset will still boast a FoV that’s 20% wider than the Rift.

The headset still utilizes a system that mechanically moves the lenses inside the headset to adjust the focus, but Oculus is also looking further down the line.

IMG 9032

“Half Dome 3” integrated the technology of its previous designs with an electronic varifocal module that has no moving parts and integrates a number of stacked lenses that can be turned on and off to let users move through various planes of focus (the company detailed the headset could switch between 64 planes of focus with this setup). This will enable users to view items in focus at closer distances and will let headsets function more like human eyes.

There weren’t any timelines thrown around for either prototype being productized, but Oculus is clearly investing in the high-end still inside Facebook Reality Labs.


TechCrunch

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a 35-year-old billionaire who keeps refusing to sit in front of international parliamentarians to answer questions about his ad business’ impact on democracy and human rights around the world, has a new piece of accountability theatre to sell you: An “Oversight Board“.

Not of Facebook’s business itself. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what Facebook’s blog post is trumpeting, with the grand claim that it’s “Establishing Structure and Governance for an Independent Oversight Board”.

Referred to during the seeding stage last year, when Zuckerberg gave select face-time to podcast and TV hosts he felt comfortable would spread his conceptual gospel with a straight face, as a sort of ‘Supreme Court of Facebook’, this supplementary content decision-making body has since been outfitted in the company’s customary (for difficult topics) bloodless ‘Facebookese’ (see also “inauthentic behavior”; its choice euphemism for fake activity on its platform)

The Oversight Board is intended to sit atop the daily grind of Facebook content moderation, which takes place behind closed doors and signed NDAs, where outsourced armies of contractors are paid to eyeball the running sewer of hate, abuse and violence so actual users don’t have to, as a more visible mechanism for resolving and thus (Facebook hopes) quelling speech-related disputes.

Facebook’s one-size-fits-all content moderation policy doesn’t and can’t. There’s no such thing as a 2.2BN+ “community” — as the company prefers to refer to its globe-spanning user-base. So quite how the massive diversity of Facebook users can be meaningfully represented by the views of a last resort case review body with as few as 11 members has not yet been made clear.

“When it is fully staffed, the board is likely to be forty members. The board will increase or decrease in size as appropriate,” Facebook writes vaguely this week.

Even if it were proposing one board member per market of operation (and it’s not) that would require a single individual to meaningfully represent the diverse views of an entire country. Which would be ludicrous, as well as risking the usual political divides from styming good faith effort.

It seems most likely Facebook will seek to ensure the initial make-up of the board reflects its corporate ideology — as a US company committed to upholding freedom of expression. (It’s clearly no accident the first three words in the Oversight Board’s charter are: “Freedom of expression”.)

Anything less US-focused might risk the charter’s other clearly stated introductory position — that “free expression is paramount”.

But where will that leave international markets which have suffered the worst kinds of individual and societal harms as a consequence of Facebook’s failure to moderate hate speech, dangerous disinformation and political violence, to name a few of the myriad content scandals that dog the company wherever it goes.

Facebook needs international markets for its business to turn a profit. But you sure wouldn’t know it from its distribution of resources. Not for nothing has the company been accused of digital colonialism.

The level of harm flowing from Facebook decisions to take down or leave up certain pieces of content can be excruciatingly high. Such as in Myanmar where its platform became a conduit for hate speech-fuelled ethnic violence towards the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities.

It’s reputational-denting failures like Myanmar — which last year led the UN to dub Facebook’s platform “a beast” — that are motivating this latest self-regulation effort. Having made its customary claim that it will do a better job of decision-making in future, Facebook is now making a show of enlisting outsiders for help.

The wider problem is Facebook has scaled so big its business is faced with a steady pipeline of tricky, controversial and at times life-threatening content moderation decisions. Decisions it claims it’s not comfortable making as a private company. Though Facebook hasn’t expressed discomfort at monetizing all this stuff. (Even though its platform has literally been used to target ads at nazis.)

Facebook’s size is humanity’s problem but of course Facebook isn’t putting it like that. Instead — coming sometime in 2020 — the company will augment its moderation processes with a lottery-level chance of a final appeal via a case referral to the Oversight Board.

The level of additional oversight here will of course be exceptionally select. This is a last resort, cherry-picked appeal layer that will only touch a fantastically tiny proportion of the content choices Facebook moderators make every second of every day — and from which real world impacts ripple out and rain down. 

“We expect the board will only hear a small number of cases at first, but over time we hope it will expand its scope and potentially include more companies across the industry as well,” Zuckerberg writes this week, managing output expectations still many months ahead of the slated kick off — before shifting focus onto the ‘future hopes’ he’s always much more comfortable talking about. 

Case selection will be guided by Facebook’s business interests, meaning the push, even here, is still for scale of impact. Facebook says cases will be selected from a pool of complaints and referrals that “have the greatest potential to guide future decisions and policies”.

The company is also giving itself the power to leapfrog general submissions by sending expedited cases directly to the board to ask for a speedy opinion. So its content questions will be prioritized. 

Incredibly, Facebook is also trying to sell this self-styled “oversight” layer as independent from Facebook.

The Oversight Board’s overtly bureaucracy branding is pepped up in Facebook headline spin as “an Independent Oversight Board”. Although the adjective is curiously absent from other headings in Facebook’s already sprawling literature about the OB. Including the newly released charter which specifies the board’s authority, scope and procedures, and was published this week.

The nine-page document was accompanied by a letter from Zuckerberg in which he opines on “Facebook’s commitment to the Oversight Board”, as his header puts it — also dropping the word ‘independent’ in favor of slipping into a comfortable familiar case. Funny that.

The body text of Zuckerberg’s letter goes on to make several references to the board as “independent”; an “independent organization”; exercising “its independent judgement”. But here that’s essentially just Mark’s opinion.

The elephant in the room — which, if we continue the metaphor, is in the process of being dressed by Facebook in a fancy costume that attempts to make it look like, well, a board room table — is the supreme leader’s ongoing failure to submit himself and his decisions to any meaningful oversight.

Supreme leader is an accurate descriptor for Zuckerberg as Facebook CEO, given the share structure and voting rights he has afforded himself mean no one other than Zuckerberg can sack Zuckerberg. (Asked last year, during a podcast interview with recode’s Kara Swisher if he was going to fire himself, in light of myriad speech scandals on his platform, Zuckerberg laughed and then declined.)

It’s a corporate governance dictatorship that has allowed Facebook’s boy king to wield vast power around the world without any internal checks. Power without moral responsibility if you will.

Throughout Zuckerberg’s (now) 15-year apology tour turn as Facebook CEO neither the claims he’ll do things differently next time nor the cool expansionist ambition have wavered. He’s still at it of course; with a plan for a global digital currency (Libra), while bullishly colonizing literal hook-ups (Facebook Dating). Anything to keep the data and ad dollars flowing.

Recently Facebook also paid a $ 5BN FTC fine to avoid its senior executives having to face questions about their data governance and policy enforcement fuck-ups — leaving Zuckerberg & co free to get back to lucrative privacy-screwing business as usual. (To put the fine in context, Facebook’s 2018 full year revenue clocked in at $ 55.8BN.)

All of which is to say that an ‘independent’ Facebook-devised “Oversight Board” is just a high gloss sticking plaster to cover the lack of actual regulation — internal and external — of Zuckerberg’s empire.

It is also an attempt by Facebook to paper over its continued evasion of democratic accountability. To distract from the fact its ad platform is playing fast and loose with people’s rights and lives; reshaping democracies and communities while Facebook’s founder refuses to answer parliamentarians’ questions or account for scandal-hit business decisions. Privacy is never dead for Mark Zuckerberg.

Evasion is actually a little tame a term. How Facebook operates is far more actively hostile than that. Its platform is reshaping us without accountability or oversight, even as it ploughs profits into spinning and shape-shifting its business in a bid to prevent our democratically elected representatives from being able to reshape it.

Zuckerberg appropriating the language of civic oversight and jurisprudence for this “project”, as his letter calls the Oversight Board — committing to abide by the terms of a content decision-making review vehicle entirely of his own devising, whose Facebook-written charter stipulates it will “review and decide on content in accordance with Facebook’s content policies and values” — is hardly news. Even though Facebook is spinning at the very highest level to try to make it so.

What would constitute a newsworthy shock is Facebook’s CEO agreeing to take questions from the democratically elected representatives of the billions of users of his products who live outside the US.

Zuckerberg agreeing to meet with parliamentarians around the world so they can put to him questions and concerns on a rolling and regular basis would be a truly incredible news flash.

Instead it’s fiction. That’s not how the empire functions.

The Facebook CEO has instead ducked as much democratic scrutiny as a billionaire in charge of a historically unprecedented disinformation machine possibly can — submitting himself to an awkward question-dodging turn in Congress last year; and one fixed-format meeting of the EU parliament’s conference of presidents, initially set to take place behind closed doors (until MEPs protested), where he was heckled for failing to answer questions.

He has also, most recently, pressed US president Donald Trump’s flesh. We can only speculate on how that meeting of minds went. Power meet irresponsibility — or was it vice versa?

 

International parliamentarians trying on behalf of the vast majority of the world’s Facebook users to scrutinize Zuckerberg and hold his advertising business to democratic account have, meanwhile, been roundly snubbed.

Just this month Zuckerberg declined a third invitation to speak in front of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation which will convene in Dublin this November.

At a second meeting in Canada earlier this year Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg both refused to appear — leading the Canadian parliament’s ethics committee to vote to subpoena the pair.

While, last year, the UK parliament got so frustrated with Facebook’s evasive behavior during a timely enquiry into online disinformation, which saw its questions fobbed off by a parade of Zuckerberg stand-ins armed with spin and misdirection, that a sort of intergovernmental alchemy occurred — and the International Grand Committee on Disinformation was formed in an eye-blink, bringing multiple parliaments together to apply democratic pressure to Facebook. 

The UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s frustration at Facebook’s evasive behavior also led it to deploy arcane parliamentary powers to seize a cache of internal Facebook documents from a US lawsuit in a creative attempt to get at the world-view locked inside Zuckerberg’s blue box.

The unvarnished glimpse of Facebook’s business that these papers afforded certainly isn’t pretty… 

US legal discovery appears to be the only reliable external force capable of extracting data from inside the bellow of the nation-sized beast. That’s a problem for democracies. 

So Facebook instructing an ‘oversight board’ of its own making to do anything other than smooth publicity bumps in the road, and pave the way for more Facebook business as usual, is like asking a Koch brothers funded ‘stink tank’ to be independent of fossil fuel interests. The OB is just Facebook’s latest crisis PR tool. More fool anyone who signs up to ink their name to its democratically void rubberstamp.

Dig into the detail of the charter and cracks in the claimed “independence” soon appear.

Aside from the obvious overriding existential points that the board only exists because Facebook exists, making it a dependent function of Facebook whose purpose is to enable its spawning parental system to continue operating; and that it’s funded and charged with chartered purpose by the very same blue-veined god it’s simultaneously supposed to be overseeing (quite the conflict of interest), the charter states that Facebook itself will choose the initial board members. Who will then choose the rest of the first cohort of members.

“To support the initial formation of the board, Facebook will select a group of cochairs. The co-chairs and Facebook will then jointly select candidates for the remainder of the board seats,” it writes in pale grey Facebookese with a tone set to ‘smooth reassurance’ — when the substance of what’s being said should really make you go ‘wtf, how is that even slightly independent?!’

Because the inaugural (Facebook-approved) member cohort will be responsible for the formative case selections — which means they’ll be laying down the foundational ‘case law’ that the board is also bound, per Facebook’s charter, to follow thereafter.

“For each decision, any prior board decisions will have precedential value and should be viewed as highly persuasive when the facts, applicable policies, or other factors are substantially similar,” runs an instructive section on the “basis of decision-making”.

The problem here hardly needs spelling out. This isn’t Facebook changing, this is more of the same ‘Facebook first’ ethos which has always driven its content moderation decisions — just now with a highly polished ‘overseen’ sheen.

This isn’t accountability either. It’s Facebook trying to protect its business from actual regulation by creating a blame-shifting firewall to shield its transparency-phobic execs from democratic (and moral) scrutiny. And indeed to shield Zuckerberg & his inner circle from future content scandals that might threaten to rock the throne, a la Cambridge Analytica.

(Judging by other events this week that mission may not be going so well… )

Given the lengths this company is going to to eschew democratic scrutiny — ducking and diving even as it weaves its own faux oversight structure to manage negative PR on its behalf (yep, more fakes!) — you really have to wonder what Facebook is trying to hide.

A moral vacuum the size of a black hole? Or perhaps it’s just trying to buy time to complete its corporate takeover of the democratic world order…

Because of course the Oversight Board can’t set actual Facebook policy. Don’t be ridiculous! It can merely issue policy recommendations — which Facebook can just choose to ignore.

So even if we imagine the OB running years in the future, when it might theoretically be possible its membership has drifted out of Facebook’s comfortable set-up “support” zone, the charter has baked in another firewall that lets Zuckerberg ignore any policy pressure he doesn’t like. Just, y’know, on the off-chance the board gets too independently minded. Truly, there’s nothing to see here.

Entities structured by corporate interests to role-play ‘neutral’ advice or ensure ‘transparent’ oversight — or indeed to promulgate self-interested propaganda dressed in the garb of intellectual expertise — are almost always a stacked trick.

This is why it’s preferable to live in a democracy. And be governed by democratically accountable institutions that are bound by legally enforcement standards of transparency. Though Facebook hopes you’ll be persuaded to vote for manipulation by corporate interest instead.

So while Facebook’s claim that the Oversight Board will operate “transparently” sure sound good it’s also entirely meaningless. These are not legal standards of transparency. Facebook is a business, not a democracy. There are no legal binds here. It’s self regulation. Ergo, a pantomime.

You can see why Facebook avoided actually calling the OB its ‘Supreme Court’; that would have been trolling a little too close to the bone.

Without legal standards of transparency (or indeed democratic accountability) being applied, there are endless opportunities for Facebook’s self interest to infiltrate the claimed separation between oversight board, oversight trust and the rest of its business; to shape and influence case selections, decisions and policy recommendations; and to seed and steer narrative-shaping discussion around hot button speech issues which could help move the angry chatter along — all under the carefully spun cover of ‘independent external oversight’.

No one should be fooled into thinking a Facebook-shaped and funded entity can meaningful hold Facebook to account on anything. Nor, in this case, when it’s been devised to absorb the flak on irreconcilable speech conflicts so Facebook doesn’t have to.

It’s highly doubtful that even a truly independent board cohort slotted into this Zuckerberg PR vehicle could meaningfully influence Facebook’s policy in a more humanitarian direction. Not while its business model is based on mass-scale attention harvesting and privacy-hostile people profiling. The board’s policy recommendations would have to demand a new business model. (To which we already know Facebook’s response: ‘LOL! No.’)

The Oversight Board is just the latest blame-shifting publicity exercise from a company with a user-base as big as a country that gifts it massive resource to throw at its ‘PR problem’ (as Facebook sees it); i.e. how to seem like a good corporate citizen whilst doing everything possible to evade democratic scrutiny and outrun the leash of government regulation. tl;dr: You can’t fix anything if you don’t believe there’s an underlying problem in the first place.

For an example of how the views of a few hand-picked independent experts can be channeled to further a particular corporate agenda look no further than the panel of outsiders Google assembled in Europe in 2014 in response to the European Court of Justice ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling — an unappealable legal decision that ran counter to its business interests.

Google used what it billed as an “advisory committee” of outsiders mostly as a publicity vehicle, holding a large number of public ‘hearings’ where it got to frame a debate and lobby loudly against the law. In such a context Google’s nakedly self-interested critique of EU privacy rights was lent a learned, regionally seasoned dressing of nuanced academic concern, thanks to the outsiders doing time on its platform.

Google also claimed the panel would steer its decision-making process on how to implement the ruling. And in their final report the committee ended up aligning with Google’s preference to only carry out search de-indexing at the European (rather than .com global) domain level. Their full report did contain some dissent. But Google’s preferred policy position won out. (And, yes, there were good people on that Google-devised panel.)

Facebook’s Oversight Board is another such self-interested tech giant stunt. One where Facebook gets to choose whether or not to outsource a few tricky content decisions while making a big show of seeming outward-looking, even as it works to shift and defuse public and political attention from its ongoing lack of democratic accountability.

What’s perhaps most egregious about this latest Facebook charade is it seems intended to shift attention off of the thousands of people Facebook pays to labor daily at the raw coal face of its content business. An outsourced army of voiceless workers who are tasked with moderating at high speed the very worst stuff that’s uploaded to Facebook — exposing themselves to psychological stress, emotional trauma and worse, per multiple media reports.

Why isn’t Facebook announcing a committee to provide that existing expert workforce with a public voice on where its content lines should lie, as well as the power to issue policy recommendations?

It’s impossible to imagine Facebook actively supporting Oversight Board members being selected from among the pool of content moderation contractors it already pays to stop humanity shutting its business down in sheer horror at what’s bubbling up the pipe.

On member qualifications, the Oversight Board charter states: “Members must have demonstrated experience at deliberating thoughtfully and as an open-minded contributor on a team; be skilled at making and explaining decisions based on a set of policies or standards; and have familiarity with matters relating to digital content and governance, including free expression, civic discourse, safety, privacy and technology.”

There’s surely not a Facebook moderator in the whole wide world who couldn’t already lay claim to that skill-set. So perhaps it’s no wonder the company’s ‘Oversight Board’ isn’t taking applications.


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