Follow the Filter Bubble

What does Skype’s $8.5 billion dollar privacy policy look like?

/ May 10th, 2011 /

Microsoft is buying Skype for $8.5 billion – making it one of the largest tech deals in recent memory. For reference, Google paid $1.65 billion back in 2006 for Youtube. This deal is 5x the size.

Microsoft may have overpaid for the online VOIP service (voice over internet protocol), but the intent is clear: Microsoft wants to establish a firm foothold online. Aside from Bing, they don’t have much to work with.

That got me thinking – what else might Microsoft get from the deal? For that I turned to Skype’s privacy policy. The important bit:


Skype may gather and use information about you, including (but not limited to) information in the following categories:

(a) Identification data (e.g. name, address, telephone number, mobile number, email address);

(b) Profile information (e.g. age, gender, country of residence and any information that you choose to make available to others as part of your Skype user profile);

(c) Electronic identification data (e.g. IP addresses, cookies);

(d) Banking and payment information (credit card information, account number);

(e) Survey results;

(f) Information about your usage of and interaction with the Skype software, our products and websites including computer and connection information, device capability, bandwidth, statistics on page views, and traffic to and from our websites;

(g) Products or services ordered and delivered;

(h) The URL of videos that you have selected to appear in your mood message;

(i) Skype test calls made to ECHO123 (which are recorded and played back to the user and deleted thereafter);

(j) List of your contacts;

(k) Your user profile;

(l) Your username and password for other email accounts where you have provided this to us and requested us to search for your friends on Skype (please note that Skype does not retain this information or use it for any other purpose);

(m) Correspondence between you and Skype;

(n) Traffic data (data processed for the purpose of the conveyance of communications or the billing thereof, including, but not limited to, the duration of the call, the number calling and the number called); and

(o) content of instant messaging communications (please see section 13).

I doubt data mining played a major role in Microsoft’s reasoning for the acquisition, but it’s worth noting that Microsoft now has access to 665 million names, numbers, and chat logs.

Amazon’s personalized recommendation service has a sense of humor.

/ May 9th, 2011 /

That other – imperfect – gatekeeper

/ May 6th, 2011 /

The internet gave great hopes for the liberation of information. No longer controlled by elitist (or corporatist) editorial gatekeepers, now “all” the news (not just what was fit to print) could truly be accessible to the people. A new era of democratized media was dawning.

Well, that’s not exactly what happened. Writers like Evgeny Morozov point out that political power can still manipulate the internet to meet its ends. And as Eli discusses in The Filter Bubble, gatekeepers haven’t gone away – they’ve just been replaced with a new algorithmic breed, which bring their own set of concerns for democracy.

One of those concerns is what happens when the news we’re delivered is the news the personalized algorithms think we want. I’m a pretty worldly, news-savvy gal, but I admit that I can’t help clicking on those hat photos from the royal wedding or the latest gossip from Dancing with the Stars. If the personalization bots interpret those clicks as “Give the girl the fluff she wants”, how much more trash will be sent to tempt me – and how much “important” news will go missing from my news feeds?

As Eli puts it in his TED talk, the new gatekeepers may be turning us into junk-news gluttons. The old gate-keepers had their problems, but at least they made sure we got our news vegetables along with our dessert.

Or did they?

Today Slate reminded us that even our elitist of elite publishers can sideline the vegetables for sweeter fare. The day after the first GOP presidential debate of the 2012 campaign, an important marker in our political discourse, one would have thought the 4th Estate would have brought the event to our attention. Not so. The debate didn’t show up in print in the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal until somewhere between pages A3-A19. What did make the front page? Stories about “Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams, Pippa Middleton, and UFO sightings in Thailand.”

Now, in the editors’ defense, it was a debate populated by few real contenders. But still. Pippa Middleton?

Of course, since the news giants lost their captive print audiences, they’ve been in the same race to the lowest common denominator as have the personalization algorithms. Perhaps the NYT, WaPo and WSJ of 1995 would have had the debate on the front page. Either way, when it comes to getting a balanced diet of food, today we may be all on our own.

Personalization News Roundup: 5/6

/ May 6th, 2011 /

Happy Friday! In case these stories didn’t make it into your filter bubble, thought we’d share:

BusinessWeek profiles Amarnath Thombre, the programmer-turned-yente behind’s success:

A startup called Personyze (and no, that’s not a typo) has launched a suite of software that allows sites to personalize their look and content for each visitor:

New graduate programs are springing up to train the data miners of tomorrow:

As journalists step up efforts to reach audiences on Facebook and Twitter, a Canadian study shows that folks on social media prefer to get their news from friends:

News on Google, then and now

/ May 4th, 2011 /

Google has learned a thing or two in the past ten years: Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan has put together a fascinating post comparing screen shots of Google search results from the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks with results following the announcement of Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday night.

The differences are stark. A full six hours after the 9/11 attacks, Google’s search results for “World Trade Center” still gave no indication that anything was amiss. The company resorted to using ad space for news updates, and its home page told users “If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio.”

Cut to today: since Google’s search results now include social media updates and news stories, users looking for news about bin Laden on Sunday night were able to get up-to-the-minute information.

These are, needless to say, major improvements. But it’s worth noting another big change at Google since 2001 that doesn’t advance the cause of an informed citizenry: the company now automatically personalizes everyone’s search results. In all likelihood, Sullivan’s search results for “Osama bin Laden” on Sunday night were different from mine, which were different from yours.

We might hope that for a story this big, Google would scale back the whole personalization thing a bit. After all, it’s one thing to personalize the results of two people in different cities searching for “movie theater” — it’s another to serve up different results to two people who are trying to get timely, reliable information about a news story of international significance. But while researching the book, we discovered that Google does personalize results for these kinds of Big Stories: when the BP oil spill was dominating headlines last summer, we found that one person searching for “BP” mostly got links to news stories about the spill, while another got investment and financial information about the company. And, as Eli demonstrated in his TED talk, one Googler who searched for “Egypt” during the recent protests got lots of news results, while another got links to travel sites and the CIA World Factbook.

As Eli puts it, there simply is no standard Google anymore — not even for major stories like these.






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    "The Filter Bubble shows how unintended consequences of well-meaning online designs can impose profound and sudden changes on politics. All agree that the Internet is a potent tool for change, but whether changes are for the better or worse is up to the people who create and use it. If you feel that the Web is your wide open window on the world, you need to read this book to understand what you aren't seeing."

    Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget

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