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Facebook demands academics disable ad-targeting data tool

Inside Telecom Staff

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Academics, journalists and First Amendment lawyers are rallying behind New York University researchers in a showdown with Facebook over its demand that they halt the collection of data showing who is being micro-targeted by political ads on the world’s dominant social media platform.

The researchers say the disputed tool is vital to understanding how Facebook has been used as a conduit for disinformation and manipulation.

In an Oct. 16 letter to the researchers, a Facebook executive demanded they disable a special plug-in for Chrome and Firefox browsers used by 6,500 volunteers across the United States and delete the data obtained. The plug-in lets researchers see which ads are shown to each volunteer; Facebook lets advertisers tailor ads based on specific demographics that go far beyond race, age, gender and political preference.

The executive, Allison Hendrix, said the tool violates Facebook rules prohibiting automated bulk collection of data from the site. Her letter threatened “additional enforcement action” if the takedown was not effected by Nov. 30.

Company spokesman Joe Osborne said in an emailed statement Saturday that Facebook “informed NYU months ago that moving forward with a project to scrape people’s Facebook information would violate our terms.” The company has long claimed protecting user privacy is its main concern, though NYU researchers say their tool is programmed so the data collected from participating volunteers is anonymous.

The outcry over Facebook’s threat was immediate after The Wall Street Journal first reported the news Friday considering the valuable insights the “Ad Observer” tool provides. It has been used since its September launch by local reporters from Wisconsin to Utah to Florida to write about the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“That Facebook is trying to shut down a tool crucial to exposing disinformation in the run up to one of the most consequential elections in U.S. history is alarming,” said Ramya Krishnan, an attorney with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, which is representing the researchers. “The public has a right to know what political ads are being run and how they are being targeted. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to be the gatekeeper to information necessary to safeguard our democracy. “

“The NYU Ad Observatory is the only window researchers have to see microtargeting information about political ads on Facebook,” Julia Angwin, editor of the data-centric investigative tech news website The Markup, tweet in disappointment.

The tool lets researchers see how some Facebook advertisers use data gathered by the company to profile citizens “and send them misinformation about candidates and policies that are designed to influence or even suppress their vote,” Damon McCoy, an NYU professor involved in the project, said in a statement.

After an uproar over its lack of transparency on political ads Facebook ran ahead of the 2016 election, a sharp contrast to how ads are regulated on traditional media, the company created an ad archive that includes details such as who paid for an ad and when it ran. But Facebook does not share information about who gets served the ad.

The company has resisted allowing researchers access to the platform, where right-wing content has consistently been trending in recent weeks. Last year, more than 200 researchers signed a letter to Facebook calling on it to lift restrictions on public-interest research and journalism that would permit automated digital collection of data from the platform.

By FRANK BAJAK AP Technology Writer – BOSTON (AP).

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UK to launch new watchdog next year to police tech giants

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UK to launch new watchdog next year to police tech giants

By KELVIN CHAN AP Business Writer

LONDON (AP) — Britain plans to create a new watchdog to police big tech companies including Google and Facebook to counter their market dominance and prevent them from exploiting consumers and small businesses.

The U.K. government said Friday that it’s setting up a “Digital Markets Unit” next year to enforce a new code of conduct governing the behavior of tech giants that dominate the online advertising market.

The Digital Markets Unit, scheduled to launch in April, will oversee a new regulatory regime for tech companies that’s aimed at spurring more competition.

The measures were foreshadowed in findings by former Obama economic adviser Jason Furman, who was commissioned by the U.K. Treasury to carry out a review of the digital economy.

It’s part of a wider push by governments in the U.S. and Europe to constrain the power of big tech companies amid concern about their outsize influence. The European Union this week unveiled proposals to wrest control of data from tech companies and is set to release details next month of a sweeping overhaul of digital regulations aimed at preventing online gatekeepers from stifling competition. In the U.S., authorities are pursuing an antitrust case against Google and lawmakers have proposed breaking up big tech companies.

U.K. Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden said online platforms bring benefits to society, “but there is growing consensus in the U.K. and abroad that the concentration of power among a small number of tech companies is curtailing growth of the sector, reducing innovation and having negative impacts on the people and businesses that rely on them.”

The government still needs to consult on how the digital markets unit will operate and approve legislation for it.

Under the new code, tech companies would have to be more transparent about how they use consumers’ data. They would have to let users choose whether to receive personalised advertising, and wouldn’t be allowed to make it harder for customers to use rival platforms.

The Digital Markets Unit could be given the power to suspend, block or reverse any decisions made by big tech companies, and order them to take certain actions to comply with the code. If companies don’t comply, the watchdog could fine them, though the maximum penalty hasn’t yet been spelled out.

Google said online tools competition in the ad tech industry has been increasing and noted it gives users tools to manage and control their data.

“We support an approach that benefits people, businesses and society and we look forward to working constructively with the Digital Markets Unit so that everyone can make the most of the internet,” said Ronan Harris, the company’s vice president for U.K. and Ireland.

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AstraZeneca manufacturing error clouds vaccine study results

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AstraZeneca and Oxford University on Wednesday acknowledged a manufacturing error that is raising questions about preliminary results of their experimental COVID-19 vaccine.

A statement describing the error came days after the company and the university described the shots as “highly effective” and made no mention of why some study participants didn’t receive as much vaccine in the first of two shots as expected.

In a surprise, the group of volunteers that got a lower dose seemed to be much better protected than the volunteers who got two full doses. In the low-dose group, AstraZeneca said, the vaccine appeared to be 90% effective. In the group that got two full doses, the vaccine appeared to be 62% effective. Combined, the drugmakers said the vaccine appeared to be 70% effective. But the way in which the results were arrived at and reported by the companies has led to pointed questions from experts.

The partial results announced Monday are from large ongoing studies in the U.K. and Brazil designed to determine the optimal dose of vaccine, as well as examine safety and effectiveness. Multiple combinations and doses were tried in the volunteers. They were compared to others who were given a meningitis vaccine or a saline shot.

Did Researchers Mean to Give a Half Dose?

Before they begin their research, scientists spell out all the steps they are taking, and how they will analyze the results. Any deviation from that protocol can put the results in question.

In a statement Wednesday, Oxford University said some of the vials used in the trial didn’t have the right concentration of vaccine so some volunteers got a half dose. The university said that it discussed the problem with regulators, and agreed to complete the late stage trial with two groups. The manufacturing problem has been corrected, according to the statement.

What About the Results Themselves?

Experts say the relatively small number of people in the low dose group makes it difficult to know if the effectiveness seen in the group is real or a statistical quirk. Some 2,741 people received a half dose of the vaccine followed by a full dose, AstraZeneca said. A total of 8,895 people received two full doses.

Another factor: none of the people in the low-dose group were over 55 years old. Younger people tend to mount a stronger immune response than older people, so it could be that the youth of the participants in the low-dose group is why it looked more effective, not the size of the dose.

Another point of confusion comes from a decision to pool results from two groups of participants who received different dosing levels to reach an average 70% effectiveness, said David Salisbury, and associate fellow of the global health program at the Chatham House think tank.

“You’ve taken two studies for which different doses were used and come up with a composite that doesn’t represent either of the doses,” he said of the figure. “I think many people are having trouble with that.”

Why Would a Smaller First Dose Be More Effective?

Oxford researchers say they aren’t certain and they are working to uncover the reason.

Sarah Gilbert, one of the Oxford scientists leading the research, said the answer is probably related to providing exactly the right amount of vaccine to trigger the best immune response.

“It’s the Goldilocks amount that you want, I think, not too little and not too much. Too much could give you a poor quality response as well,” she said. “So you want just the right amount and it’s a bit hit and miss when you’re trying to go quickly to get that perfect first time.”

What Are the Next Steps?

Details of the trial results will be published in medical journals and provided to U.K. regulators so they can decide whether to authorize distribution of the vaccine. Those reports will include a detailed breakdown that includes demographic and other information about who got sick in each group, and give a more complete picture of how effective the vaccine is.

Moncef Slaoui, who leads the U.S. coronavirus vaccine program Operation Warp Speed, said Tuesday in a call with reporters that U.S. officials are trying to determine what immune response the vaccine produced, and may decide to modify the AstraZeneca study in the U.S. to include a half dose.

“But we want it to be based on data and science,” he said.

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EU plans new rules giving Europeans more control of data

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The European Union is laying out new standards for data giving Europeans more control over their personal information as it seeks to counter the power of U.S. and Chinese tech companies.

The EU’s executive Commission on Wednesday proposed new rules on the handling of data that would aim to give people, businesses and government bodies the confidence to share their information in a European data market.

The proposed legislation would would spell out how industrial and government data – normally off limits because of intellectual property rights, commercial confidentiality or privacy rights – could be shared to help society or boost the economy. The bloc’s strict privacy rules would still apply, with mechanisms in place to preserve confidentiality or anonymity.

The aim is to drive innovation in areas such as health care or climate change by allowing data to be more easily shared with companies or researchers.

Individuals could choose to donate their data for altruistic reasons – for example, a person with a rare disease providing their health information to medical researchers. Or people could allow access for a fee or use of a service. The new rules could pose a challenge to big tech companies like Google and Facebook that currently make billions in revenue by using data to sell ads and other services.

The proposal, known as the Digital Governance Act, calls for raising trust in data sharing by setting up a new system involving neutral and trustworthy middlemen who act as brokers of pools of data.

Europeans would be able to get more control of their data through “personal data spaces” that have tools and services that let them decide who can access their data and for what purpose.

“The framework offers an alternative model to the current data handling practices offered by big tech platforms,” the EU’s Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager said at a press briefing in Brussels.

Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal market commissioner, said the regulations would help Europe become the world’s No. 1 “data continent.”

“With the ever-growing role of industrial data in our economy, Europe needs an open yet sovereign Single Market for data,” he said.

LONDON (AP) — By KELVIN CHAN Associated Press.

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