The Two Faces of Apple

The evolution and success of Apple products in the future will likely hinge on how deep their commitment to privacy is, and whether they’ll have the ability to meet features and levels of personalization their competition is slinging. As such, two recent articles from The Wall Street Journal highlight both these challenges.

First up is Robert McMillan’s piece on Apple’s expansion of “cutting edge” privacy methodologies. We first heard about this shift at last year’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), the annual development get-together Apple hosts on the west coast. Essentially, Apple is investing serious resources into, and anchoring product integrity around what the industry calls differential privacy.

Two years ago, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered shoppers could be identified by linking social-media accounts to anonymous credit-card records and bits of secondary information, such as the location or timing of purchases.

”I don’t think people are aware of how easy it is getting to de-anonymize data,” said Ishaan Nerurkar, whose startup LeapYear Technologies Inc. sells software for leveraging machine learning while using differential privacy to keep user data anonymous.

Differentially private algorithms blur the data being analyzed by adding a measurable amount of statistical noise. This could be done, for example, by swapping out one question (have you ever committed a violent crime?) with a question that has a statistically known response rate (were you born in February?). Someone trying to find links in the data would never be sure which question a particular person was asked. That lets researchers analyze sensitive data such as medical records without being able to tie the data back to specific people.

Whether the expansion of this methodology will be successful, or prove a hindrance for Apple, is yet to be seen. The establishment media is casting it as a do-or-die juncture in Apple’s commitment to artificial intelligence and machine-learning initiatives. And while other companies are starting to pursue differential privacy, it is a hindrance to core products many of them have, so it’s really only being applied to photo applications and not advertising platforms, for instance.

But no matter how much Apple invests in ways to further its hardware and software services while ringing the privacy bell, it still is beholden to governments. And so: enter China.

Apple has been pressing hard into China over the last several years. As of 2017, it is Apple’s third largest market behind the US and Europe, but has started to slide due (likely) to the increasing competition in the country. According to The Wall Street Journal (again!), Apple has recently buckled under governmental pressure, and will be complying with China to store all cloud data for Chinese customers with a government-owned company.

Apple said it made the latest change to comply with China’s new rules on data storage and cloud-services operation that went into effect June 1 as part of sweeping new regulations aimed at improving cybersecurity. It also said the new data center would improve speed and reliability for customers in China.

The Silicon Valley company has been one of the technology industry’s strongest advocates for fending off government incursions into user data. In a statement, Apple said it has “strong data privacy and security protections in place and no backdoors will be created into any of our systems.”

The latest move comes as Apple has been facing increasing regulatory headwinds in China. Last year, for example, its online book and movie services was shut down by authorities, who didn’t give specific reasons for the closing.

These kinds of things are bound to happen. Apple has also had to recently navigate opening retail stores in India, as the government there had restricted companies with “cutting edge technology” to perform sales without first sourcing some percentage of components locally. This Indian law has apparently pushed sales in that country further back still.

As we see Apple continue to press forward on its hardware, software, and integration fronts, the challenge of maintaining privacy will be tested. They are one of the few, if only, major technology companies left with such goals — time will tell if they can pull it off, or if customer interest cares at all.

Update: Aug 13, 2017.

Thoughtful piece by economist Tyler Cowen on this ordeal over at Bloomberg: Don't Be Too Hard on Apple for Bending to China.

Apple is still doing plenty to help Chinese citizens counter their censors. It sells chat and messenging apps in China that allow for encryption. Apple iPhones and iPads, bought in the U.S., bypass Chinese censorship altogether when they use the 4G network (not Wi-Fi); presumably some Chinese citizens have bought these products and use them. Perhaps most important, VPN apps are still available in China through other means, or overseas, and Chinese citizens can download them and combine them with Apple products to help bypass censorship. Apple has hardly backed away from its mission of tying the world together.

Faster Web & Less Bullshit, Please

It wasn’t long ago we were witnessing a cosmic shift in web development to accommodate the influx of computational powerhouse smartphones chugging through at-the-time bloatful websites. Those sites back in the mid-2000s were getting chunky with all the 2.0 insanity, and while the iPhone (in its release year of 2007) could render these sites on its 3.5” screen, it still wasn’t a great way to experience web pages. While most websites did have mobile versions of their core, desktop-friendly sites, they were woefully under-designed and lacked modern features to harbor modern conveniences (like ecommerce and rich media).

In the transitional years from the early smartphone era to now, sites tried finding a middle ground in design between too mobile-friendly (stripped down and hardly functioning) and too desktop-reliant (don’t just design sites for a large screen and tons of Internet bandwidth). This middle ground ended up becoming “responsive design”, an approach to web development that attempted to streamline page weight (for mobile) but have the flexibility of displaying the same amount of content, and typically loading the same number of scripts, across device screen sizes. For most circumstances, this was the right path to take. It wasn’t a mobile vs desktop world we were heading towards; it was a mobility world we had already entered, where the only thing that really differentiated access to websites and apps was the size of the screen and the interface accessibly (finger touch vs mouse click).

Unfortunately for everybody, this was (perhaps unintentionally) interpreted by developers that they no longer had to worry about page loading, script-rendering, and other complexities in web design contributing to page speed because an iPhone was just as powerful as your everyday, off-the-shelf laptop. Oh, and don’t mind the increasing complexity of ad networks and the growing inundation of ad placements and tracking scripts to load — any smartphone can handle those, too.

Except that this shift has left the web wounded. Everything seems to take longer to load, websites break easily, taps on mobile don’t register sometimes, and register other times, and so on and so on. I’ve written about site speed and performance before. It’s a growing problem. So much of a problem that the tech titans have taken note. Facebook attempted to remedy this and save the publishing industry by pushing hard on its Instant Articles initiative, a closed-garden approach to offering publishers a speedy alternative to their own laggard websites’ article templates and Facebook-sized reach. Apple built-in an iOS app called ‘News’, offering its take on the age-old RSS feed readers, but layering on pretty templates that were fast. And Google, the all-mighty search behemoth and purveyor of results that include the news, has aggressively pushed publishers, retailers, and websites of all kinds towards its Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) initiative, which is essentially an open source project encouraging the creation of streamlined HTML pages to reduce clutter and external JavaScript but while also running Google-only JavaScript and reassuring full reader analytics.

So How are Things Going?

Two years later, Instant Articles don’t seem to be working out as planned, as The Verge contemptuously bemoans:

But it's unclear if any huge advantage ever materialized. Facebook decided from the start that publishing a story using the Instant Articles format would not automatically improve its ranking in the News Feed. In practice, Instant Articles typically do reach more people, because people are more likely to read and share them. But as the format spread, competition increased, and any advantage to using Instant Articles was blunted within months. Given that Instant Articles were designed to carry less advertising than mobile web articles, broad reach was essential to ensure publishers would profit from the format. The reach just never arrived.

Apple’s ‘News’ app was initially off to a rocky start) in usage, but not much has been reported since. While arguments have risen about Apple’s role of gatekeeper in the news ecosystem, it seems that most publishers have welcomed it as an easy secondary publishing platform that permits a “bring your own advertising” model and subscription service options that are hard to ignore.

But what about Google. Google’s AMP project is more controversial than both Facebook and Apple’s forays, as it threatens web development integrity on the open web. A rant from The Register describes the plight as thus:

Announced in 2015, duly open sourced and integrated into Google’s mobile search, Google has pitched AMP as a way to speed the mobile web. It employs something the ads slinger calls AMP HTML that the firm describes as a “new open framework built entirely out of existing web technologies.”

What it is, is a way for Google to obfuscate your website, usurp your content and remove any lingering notions of personal credibility from the web.

If that appeals to you, here's what you need to do. First, get rid of all your HTML and render your content in a subset of HTML that Google has approved along with a few tags it invented. Because what do those pesky standards boards know? Trust Google, it knows what it's doing. And if you don't, consider yourself not part of the future of search results.

Sure, you might say: making the web faster is a noble vision. And yes, we unanimously agree, a faster web is better. But as the Register points out, “as with anything that eschews standards for its own modified version thereof, it's about lock-in. Tons of pages in Google AMP markup mean tons of pages that are optimized specifically for Google and indexed primarily by Google and shown primarily to Google users.” AMP is primarily a way for Google to combat lock-in systems from Facebook and Apple. The tech giants want everybody’s attention. But if you have an app feeding off standards (like Apple News), there isn’t a threat to disrupting the entire Internet’s web standards and rallying them around a controlled framework. We all want the Internet to be decentralized, right? Then you have to look at adopting AMP as an opposite way to do that. AMP is a choice for [Google search] inclusion, and there are monetary and attention-capturing benefits to doing so for brands and publishers. But forking your web development to accommodate a tech company’s recommended framework, a framework that is favored by that tech company’s mysterious organic algorithm for surfacing news results, is something else entirely. We’ve already seen what reckless strains of SEO has done to the web. Let’s not repeat those mistakes with reckless adoption of Google’s AMP HTML framework.

AMP also is a branding nightmare. Tapping a link from Google search results (again, the only way to access these versions of canonical pages) loads the page from Google's cached AMP index nearly instantaneously. Sharing that page simply shares the Google cached URL of the article, and trying to read more from that author/publisher is a frustration in interaction design -- the permalink button to go to the brand's actual domain is an unintuitive icon, and branding itself is obfuscated by the AMP framework's content-first philosophy. So what's in it for brands aside from handing over the keys to Google, and continuing to strain their own websites' development with the same shitty inundation of scripts, ad networks, unfriendly mobile paradigms, and page speed performance?

This debate has only just begun. But several of the Internet’s finest warriors are working on alternative solutions. The first of this anti-AMP movement is brought to you by a thoughtful fuck you project by Pinboard’s founder, Maciej Ceglowski. He basically re-created Google’s original AMP demonstration page without any of the forced Google scripts, and it represents the same performance. Maybe if we encouraged web developers to focus on leaner, cleaner designs (melding the pre-iPhone days with a more careful post-iPhone responsive design mantra) we could get to a better place for everyone. I’ll leave you with Ceglowski’s snarky comment at the bottom of his faux-AMP demo site:

Dozens of publishers and technology companies have come together to create this unfortunate initiative. However, it is 2015, and websites should be small and fast enough to render on mobile devices rapidly using minimal resources. The only reason they are not is because we are addicted to tracking, surveillance, gratuitous animation, and bloated, inefficient frameworks. Requiring a readable version of these sites is a great idea. Let's take it one step further and make it the only version.

Update: May 25, 2017

A mildly-related update here from TechCrunch on Facebook's plans for support for Google AMP and Apple News. Essentially they're trying to make it easier (and their own solution interoperable between competing formats) for publishers to more easily manage these specially-formatted content distribution channels. This comes in the form of an Instant Articles SDK (software development kit), enabling developers to "take the markup that’s used to build Facebook’s Instant Articles and use it to create the code that’s needed to build for AMP and Apple News." Note that Facebook would prefer you start with content distribution and formatting within its ecosystem, and use the Instant Articles SDK to output to competitor ones.

TechCrunch points out:

[T]he extension’s launch also comes at a time when a number of high-profile publishers have begun to abandon Facebook’s format, due to its lack of monetization options.

In April, for example, it was reported that Forbes, Hearst, The New York Times and others have backed out of Instant Articles. Other major media organizations including Bloomberg, The WSJ, ESPN, CBS News, NPR, Financial Times, and VICE News have also been holdouts, running little to no content in Facebook’s format. Others who have used the format have been winding down their support; and last month, The Guardian pulled out of both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Apple News.

Facebook's Data Dilemma

Authoring a tech post on the Guardian this past Tuesday, Antonio Garcia-Martinez, a former product manager at Facebook, explains how he "was charged with turning Facebook data into money, by any legal means":

Converting Facebook data into money is harder than it sounds, mostly because the vast bulk of your user data is worthless. Turns out your blotto-drunk party pics and flirty co-worker messages have no commercial value whatsoever.

But occasionally, if used very cleverly, with lots of machine-learning iteration and systematic trial-and-error, the canny marketer can find just the right admixture of age, geography, time of day, and music or film tastes that demarcate a demographic winner of an audience. The “clickthrough rate”, to use the advertiser’s parlance, doesn’t lie.

Yadda yadda, we've heard this all before. It's how most ad platforms operate these days -- harnessing machine-learning and all sorts of other [likely] hobbled together algorithms that provide conduits for proprietary data to advertisers and agencies to use in various campaigns to micro-target audiences and potential customers.

This is probably where privacy advocates should come shouting that this is a misuse of personal data. But is it? Facebook has provided its users a free service monetized by users' own tenacity to share and provide Facebook (and, subsequently, its advertisers) everything about themselves. While you could argue that some of the data provided is "personally identifiable information" (PII), Facebook hasn't forced you to share that information. And since users provide that information, Facebook can more or less do what it wants with it. Garcia-Martinez tends to agree, arguing that processing profile traits and post contents to inform demographic and audience triggers can easily be done with programming, so should its application matter to the masses?

The hard reality is that Facebook will never try to limit such use of their data unless the public uproar reaches such a crescendo as to be un-mutable. Which is what happened with Trump and the “fake news” accusation: even the implacable Zuck had to give in and introduce some anti-fake news technology. But they’ll slip that trap as soon as they can. And why shouldn’t they? At least in the case of ads, the data and the clickthrough rates are on their side.

There's also a link to another Guardian post that discusses how Facebook shares teens' emotional states with advertisers (likely derived by some kind of algorithm-based sentiment model). If we've learned anything at all about algorithms, it's that they can misinform as often as they can inform. A user uproar could certainly change the fate of data sharing with advertisers, but I don't see this happening until something truly offensive occurs, probably akin to Target's mishap a few years ago. And even that won't stop the use of data to inform advertising campaigns and the marketing of products/services on these platforms. The temptation (and intrinsic need) to use data is too fierce. And the rate of engagement on these platforms, with the amount of information being provided on a daily basis, is unprecidented by anything similar in human history.

While platforms like Facebook continue to require our attention to survive, they increasingly also need us to provide data to feed its monetary engine. The two are almost inexplicably tied together. Time and tolerance will tell how this shakes out.

New York Strikes Back Against ISP Data Law

According to the New York State Senate, there is new state legislation in motion that would combat the Internet Service Provider data privacy reversal that Trump just signed into law.

Senator Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo) has introduced legislation that would ban this practice in New York State. The common-sense legislation would prohibit ISPs from selling customer browsing history and other personal information to third parties. As a public utility regulated by New York State, internet service providers must comply with state laws and regulations. This legislation would ensure that New Yorkers continue to benefit from the privacy laws that were implemented under President Obama’s administration.

If this goes through, it'll be great for New Yorkers. Perhaps other states will follow as well. But now, perhaps a larger question looms: if the Internet is classified as a public utility by the FCC, should the data be collected by ISPs in the first place? If they are the providers, sure, they probably have a right to collect the data, and yes, this New York legislation is a solid move on preventing them from selling your personal behavioral data for monetary/strategic gain. But someone, somewhere could argue this is akin to a shopping mall monitoring how many times you've taken a leak in their restroom, or how often you visit city parks and what you do there, or, perhaps, your electric company installing video cameras in your home to watch how you use their electricity.