Briefly: What’s the value of a free service?

At the New York Times, Patricia Cohen has written an interesting piece on how economic growth measures (e.g. Gross Domestic Product, or GDP) aren’t great at measuring some parts of the economy.

That’s because a country’s GDP doesn’t include goods or services which are ‘free’. For instance, a mother or father who doesn’t work and looks after their kid doesn’t add a dollar to GDP because they aren’t being paid — but they’re performing an immensely valuable service.

Another — increasingly important — GDP blackhole is free digital services:

The growing suspicion, however, is that in a digital world overflowing with free services like Facebook, Google and YouTube, price is an increasingly ill-suited proxy for value.

What is the worth of a free software update that protects against a nasty virus? Of the streaming service that enables you to watch shows on your computer instead of on a television? Of the hours and hours saved by looking up a fact on Wikipedia rather than having to go to a library? All have productive value but no price.

I’ve thought about this problem in relation to free/open source software too. The more people who are using open source software, the lower GDP goes, even if the user is happier than if they’d paid for propriety software.

A few simple tips to protect your privacy online

We all know we’re being tracked when we’re on the web, but what can we do about it?

Tip 1: install the Privacy Badger extension

Tracking protection is a must have. As I’ve written before:

Although I feel too guilty about using an ad blocker on the web, on the basis that it deprives websites of advertising revenue, I feel quite within my rights to use tracking protection. The message I’m sending to advertisers and websites is that “you can show me advertising, as long as it’s not creepy!”. Once you activate the feature it’s amazing how many ads are blocked.

I won’t get into it in this post, but there are many reasons why advertisers and others using creepy tracking technology to follow your every movement on the web is a really bad idea. If you want to know more, I suggest you have a look at Don Marti’s blog.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation makes this nifty extension called privacy badger for Firefox and Chrome. It sits in the background while you’re browsing and blocks dodgy domains from tracking you around the web.

It can sometimes break websites (things won’t finish loading), but if that ever happens you can easily turn off tracking protection temporarily (or you can switch browsers temporarily).

Tip 2: use DuckDuckGo search instead of Google search

Duck Duck Go is a privacy-centric search engine, which doesn’t track you around the web.

It works well, but not quite as well as Google. I recommend specifying your country in the settings which helps it work much better.

It has a few cool features like ‘bangs‘, which allows you to search other sites from DuckDuckGo. For instance, “!w Beyonce” (without the speech marks) would search Beyonce on Wikipedia, and “!gi cute cats” would search Google images for cute cats.

Tip 3: use Mozilla Firefox instead of Google Chrome

Firefox is my favourite browser (you can read more about why here.)

In short, Firefox is backed by a non-profit organisation which cares about your privacy, rather than a profit-driven company who has an interest in tracking you all around the web (I’m looking at you Google!).

Tip 4: turn off third-party cookies

This will stop every website you go to loading you up with a whole lot of useless cookies from every man and his dog.

In Firefox: open Preferences > Privacy > History. Change the setting from “Remember” to “Use custom settings for history”. Change accept third party cookies to “never”.

In Chrome: open Settings > Show advanced settings (at the bottom) > Privacy > Content settings > check the box which says “Block third-party cookies and site data”.

 

What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?

 By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)
By Oliviu Stoian, RO (CC-BY)

I’ve previously written about how Facebook is a sort of quasi monopolistic utility. Part of Facebook’s status as a dominant player is that it has a huge rule in determining what news people see. A few developments in the past few months have raised interesting questions about how Facebook deals with its role as an information gatekeeper.

Humans = bad, robots = good

You have read a while ago that Facebook was in trouble for supposedly showing a left-wing bias in an obscure part of its platform which was curated by human employees. This was not the main newsfeed but a small section called ‘Trending Topics’. In response to the controversy, Facebook switched from having humans curate the topics to using a supposedly more neutral and fundamentally workable algorithm (in other words moving to a newsfeed-like model). Continue reading “What are Facebook’s responsibilities as an information gatekeeper?”

More battles in the regulatory war between Uber and the Government

It’s been interesting to watch ongoing developments in the regulation of ‘small passenger services’ in New Zealand. The Government has conducted a review of the sector, but that doesn’t seem to have calmed the waters at all.

In March, Uber launched in Christchurch (expanding from Auckland and Wellington). The taxi industry wasn’t pleased, particularly given Uber said it was launching with a different set of rules to taxis.

In April, Uber dropped its fares in Auckland and Wellington, and also announced that it was relaxing the rules for driver registration. Uber said it would no longer require a “P” endorsement before allowing its drivers on the road — instead they would get a criminal background check from the Ministry of Justice and an NZTA driving history check. The Transport Minister Simon Bridges and the NZTA responded by saying Uber’s new practice was illegal. Continue reading “More battles in the regulatory war between Uber and the Government”

Review: Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu edition

I received my new Meizu Pro5 Ubuntu Edition from China about a week ago. Here are my thoughts on the phone after using it for a little while.

Meizu/Joybuy.com
© Meizu/Joybuy.com

Background: the quest for an open OS

My Motorola Moto G phone (1st gen) was starting to show its age, and I thought it was time to find a new phone. I wanted to replace it with something open and thought about my options.

I was initially quite keen on FirefoxOS, a web-based operating system made by Mozilla. Alas, Mozilla announced in February 2016 that it was discontinuing its involvement in the Firefox OS project for phones, so this one is beyond hope now.

Another alternative is Cyanogen Mod (CM). CM is basically open source Android with a few modifications, and apart from it’s terribly difficult-to-spell name, the project is quite promising. It has the big advantage of being more open source than normal Android, while also allowing users to install Google apps if they choose. Fundamentally though, it’s still Android which means Google is steering the metaphorical software ship CM has latched onto. I’m also not aware of any phones which come with CM pre-installed (edit: turns out there are actually some).

Finally, Ubuntu phones have been on the horizon for a very long time, and have more recently started to look pretty good. (The OS is technically called ‘Ubuntu touch’ as it runs on tablets too) . One thing I particularly like about Ubuntu phones is that they’re designed to have frequent over-the-air (OTA) updates. This features makes them more sophisticated in this area than Android phones, despite the somewhat futile efforts of Google.

If you were cynical, you could argue that Ubuntu phones are too late arriving — the battle has been fought and Apple and Google have won — and it might only attract a few open source nerds at the fringes. But like any good open source believer, I’m hoping that the platform will eventually be a success. If I can buy a phone and help the cause then I may as well  🙂 Continue reading “Review: Meizu Pro 5 Ubuntu edition”

Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’

Kwame Opam wrote an interesting piece on The Verge a few months ago about Facebook’s responsibilities in the modern world (in the context of the Paris terror attacks). I thought his point that Facebook has become so ubiquitous that it’s akin to a ‘utility’ is a particularly interesting one:

Facebook is both a utility and an immensely powerful media company. The social network wields more influence than any single news outlet on the planet, serving as both a wire service and forum for 1.01 billion daily users. That means readers in search of a narrative will often turn to Facebook first. That’s an enormous responsibility, especially as the company acts out its ambitions of becoming a global portal to the internet at large. We need to ask ourselves: what should Facebook’s role be in determining the narratives that people follow?

Continue reading “Facebook as a powerful, ubiquitous ‘utility’”

Why users need to control the means of communication

noun_21272_cc

I have this feeling at the moment that every good platform for communication is getting ruined by commercial pressures and a lack of user control.

A run-down of the problem

When web 2.0 services were just taking off, the big change was that users were actively contributing to the liveliness of a given site. However, as time has gone on, it’s become clear that big companies have taken all that value created by users with little regard for what users want.

I’ve seen a huge number of complaints on my Twitter timeline about the decision by the company to move from a chronological timeline to a model where tweets are sorted according to a relevance algorithm (like Facebook). I’ve also noticed that both Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook seems to full of more ads than ever. The ratio of content you care about to ads seems to be getting worse by the day.

Another problem with all these platforms is that they’re closed systems. Twitter, Facebook etc. might provide a limited API which enable people to make some services incorporating parts of their platforms, but it seems these spin-offs will always be limited in some way. The closed aspect of these social media platforms also means they’re not indexable or archivable – everything is on the platform owners’ terms. The platform might enable you to embed a tweet or a post on another website, but what assurances do you have that it’s still going to work in a few years’ time?

This all boils down to: these platforms seem cool and useful, but eventually we realise they’re not that great after all, and they slowly get corrupted by the need to make money. What would a better platform look like? Continue reading “Why users need to control the means of communication”