Facebook Instant Articles

From a NY Times article published in May:

Facebook’s long-rumored plan to directly host articles from news organizations will start on Wednesday, concluding months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power …

… Most important for impatient smartphone users, the company says, the so-called instant articles will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site.

The last thing I wanted in my Facebook feed was more news articles, so the technical improvement of faster load times does not benefit me in the slightest. The only reason I ever go to Facebook is to see what’s going on with family members. I already have to sort through the listicles, quizzes, and “surveys” that are shared on Facebook to get to their posts. Anything that makes it harder for me to see actual activity from the people I know is just more clutter.

Granted, given the quality of what is usually shared, it will probably be more interesting, higher-brow clutter, but still clutter. I had already started skipping over the regular timeline to exclusively check messages and alerts on the infrequent occasions I visited Facebook. Increasing clutter will make me less likely to bother looking through my timeline since I know it will be about as rewarding as looking though an email inbox with spam filtering disabled.

I can see the appeal for publishers, since most of the public is not as discerning jaded and cantankerous as me, and there are 1.25 billion active users on Facebook.

Let that sink in; that’s active users, as in people who actually log in and use Facebook on a monthly or more frequent basis. There must be many more registered users than 1.25 billion, since active use is typically much, much lower than registration.

That’s a metric asstonne[1] of people. The active users alone represent 17% of the current world population of 7.3 billion, so by the numbers, theoretically nearly 1 in 5 of people on the entire planet use Facebook right now. And it’s still growing.

The problem for publishers is that joining any social network is hazardous in the long term. Letting someone else publish your content means that you both relinquish control and eventually become a commodity on that platform. When you are one of several sources for a similar service, it becomes simple and easy to replace you if you decide not to participate anymore. Should Facebook later decide to play hardball, and The Times opt-out of publishing on Facebook’s platform, even they — with their strong reputation and mind-share in news — probably wouldn’t be particularly missed.

News publishing is in flux, and it’s increasingly clear that the older publishers are facing very difficult circumstances. Ironically, this consolidation approach was already tried on the internet in the past, and was generally resisted by the public.

Remember the buzz around web portals in the early days of the public internet? It’s one of the reasons AOL became infamous online, when their membership campaigns[2] resulted in floods of clueless “newbies” who knew naught of online etiquette honed on usenet in countless flamewars.

Becoming the latest implementation of a webportal is probably a good long-term strategy for Facebook, but it places it about a half-step in stodginess from “You’ve got mail!” territory. Hell, the only reason I got a Facebook account was due to social pressure from older family members. It was already losing enough social cachet a few years ago, when I finally caved, that a dude in his mid–30s didn’t think it was the cool new tech thing.


  1. Equal to 1.102 Imperial asstons, but substantially smaller than a Goatse.  ↩

  2. Kids: ask your parents to tell about the “free” frisbees and drink coasters AOL used to send to to everyone’s houses.  ↩

iPhone Encryption Annoys Authorities

FBI blasts Apple, Google for locking police out of phones

FBI Director James B. Comey sharply criticized Apple and Google on Thursday for developing forms of smartphone encryption so secure that law enforcement officials cannot easily gain access to information stored on the devices — even when they have valid search warrants.

U.S. attorney general criticizes Apple, Google data encryption

Holder said quick access to phone data can help law enforcement officers find and protect victims, such as those targeted by kidnappers and sexual predators.

These reactions from law enforcement officials are excellent endorsements for communication devices if you value privacy and the rule of law over expedience. Arguing for encryption or security that is easier to break is reprehensible and indefensible. For the authoritarian among us, consider this; open doors let anyone in, not just “the proper authorities”. Would you still feel okay about putting in back doors or deliberately weak encryption if a foreign power can use it to spy on Americans or perform corporate espionage?

Considering the extremely lenient approach both the Bush and Obama administrations have taken to overly-broad warrantless searches, the phrase, “even when they have valid search warrants,” is a telling note, albeit one implied by the authors of the Washington Post article and not directly quoted from FBI director, Comey.

Searching an encrypted phone is effectively no different from searching a locked safe or strongbox. Under existing laws and precedents, there must be a warrant that allows the search of the locked container and specifies what they expect to find in it. The container is itself considered property and in principle should not be damaged or destroyed in the search. According to the somewhat ambiguous case law so far, you may not be compelled to supply a combination to a safe or password to a computer that could lead to incriminating evidence.

(As far as I can tell biometric locks, like Touch ID on recent iPhones, are an even more ambiguous case than passwords. Your finger might be regarded as a “key” and you could be compelled to provide access to your finger in order to unlock your phone. That will have to be tested in the courts, I think. For the meantime, if you’re paranoid — or a criminal — you should probably not use Touch ID, and instead have a good passcode.)

People are becoming more cognizant of their behavior with regard to technology and are taking steps to bring it more into line with their “meat space” lives. Up to now, we’ve been sending postcards (email) with our return addresses written on them by effectively sticking them up on a public board (the unencrypted internet) for the next passer-by to deliver to its destination, trusting that no one will read the contents en route or backtrack us to our home address.

Using encryption for email is like putting a letter in an envelope. Locking your phone with a password is like keeping your private documents in a safe.

Now, law enforcement officials are complaining that it’s too hard to catch criminals when people lock their doors so that police can’t enter private homes freely when the owners are not present, use envelopes so no one can read private mail without having to tamper with it, and don’t use party lines so that no one else can listen in on their telephone conversations without a direct effort to do so. In short, law enforcement is losing the easy access to a great deal of information that people were in many cases unaware was being shared very publicly.

To those who argue that we should give up an expectation of privacy and abrogate some of our rights in order to make it easier to find and prosecute criminals, I reply with a quotation:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” - Benjamin Franklin

How Apple Protects Your iCloud Keychain

Apple recently released a new version of its iOS Security white paper, which gives an overview and some details of the security systems built into iOS. Over at TidBITS, Rich Mogull’s title was How to Protect Your iCloud Keychain from the NSA. It really should have been, “How Apple Protects Your iCloud Keychain”, but that wouldn’t get as much attention. Clickbait title aside, he does a good job of summarizing some of the implementation details, and explaining exactly how extensive the protections are for at least this aspect of iOS.

Microsoft Cortana

As long as they don’t turn her into a sexy version of Clippy, or let her strand me at a check point with insufficient ammo and a sense of impending doom, I think I’m actually okay with Microsoft turning Cortana into a virtual assistant. It’s obvious that the company needs some kind of personality involved with their products, and Jen Taylor certainly deserves the work. My only reservation is that Cortana might be to Siri what Bing is to Google. Considering that Siri’s inelegant failure modes have made her the butt of jokes [1], despite her entertaining sass, that might be a truly awful outcome.


  1. In Agents of Shield, one of the characters said, “This is so cool! It’s like Siri if it worked.”  ↩

Creepy Google Glass App Destroys Anonymity

Science Fiction has been dealing with ideas surrounding technologies of surveillance and sousveillance since at least the 90s — which is also when wearable computing first came into vogue. These are not new ideas.

I remember a scene in Greg Bear’s Moving Mars, I think, where an anonymous guest was refused access to a venue. The default for most people was to allow access to at least a rudimentary public profile under their real identity, but some individuals face-cloaked and broadcast pseudonyms. His later work, Slant also dealt with near-universal access to individual profiles. Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End also extensively addresses public vs. private identity, ubiquitous access to audio and visual monitoring, as well as an extension of these ideas; consensual realities.

The day is coming — very soon, I think — when anonymity until being introduced will not be the default state for people. Management of your public identity will be necessary for everyone, not just the rich and famous (or even internet famous). It really doesn’t matter what Google’s terms of service are, or even if you can trust their commitment to their stated ideals, because it won’t be up to Google. These kinds of changes are mediated by society itself.

The people who use the term “oversharing” are inevitably old farts by internet standards. People who are only a few years younger than me have very different standards of privacy. The generation that decides on whether software like this will reach widespread use is in late elementary or middle school now. In 10–15 years, how do you think that crop of former kids, now young adults, will react to privacy concerns? Probably like this and this.

Markdown File Extension

Gruber wrote:

Too late now, I suppose, but the only file extension I would endorse is “.markdown”…

and

(I personally use “.text” for my own files, and have BBEdit set to use Markdown syntax coloring for that extension, which is why I never saw a need to endorse an official extension.)

in response to Hilton Lipschitz's post, which says in part:

The correct file extension for markdown files is: .markdown

and I think both would agree with Randall Munroe's assessment of the relative trustworthiness of various File Extensions.