Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

Dec. 16 2017 10:35 AM

Facebook's Snooze Button Is a Perfect Addition

In a rare move, Facebook is making an update that almost no one should dislike. After a few months of testing, the social network has begun rolling out a Snooze button—a discreet way to temporarily block someone’s posts from your feed.

The tool, which removes an individual’s posts from your News Feed for a month, is the perfect solution for the friend who goes on a days-long political tirade, or the cousin who keeps posting baby photos—but their baby hasn’t quite reached the stage of being “cute” yet. In its blog post, Facebook offers two more optimistic Snooze-worthy scenarios: That your uncle is posting too many photos of his new cat, or a friend is “tempting you with endless photos of ramen” on a visit to Japan.

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It works like this: To Snooze someone in your News Feed, navigate to the menu icon in the upper right of their post. Then, select “Snooze.” This will hide content from that person, page, or group from your timeline for 30 days. After that, you’ll get a notification that their Snooze period has expired and their posts will reappear, interspersed in your News Feed like normal. Snoozing someone does not affect how or how often he sees your posts in his News Feed.

Like Facebook’s other discreet News Feed management options—Unfollowing and Hiding—the person you’ve snoozed isn’t notified that you’ve done so. But Snooze lies somewhere between those two options: Hiding only removes an individual post from your feed; Unfollowing, in comparison, hides all of someone’s posts from your feed, for an indeterminate amount of time. Hiding isn’t particularly useful except in potentially teaching Facebook’s algorithms what type of posts you do and don’t like seeing. Unfollowing, while helpful, feels more extreme. Maybe you don’t want to see Aunt Susan’s posts today or next week, but sooner or later she’ll post something you’ll want to know about. The Snooze button offers a happy medium.

Enabling the Snooze feature certainly seems useful—especially ahead of the holidays, a time of excessive oversharing. The update is also interesting in light of a report Facebook released on Friday. Facebook researchers David Ginsberg and Moira Burke examined the question: Is spending time on social media bad for us? After citing explanations on both sides of the issue, the researchers concluded that there’s a distinction—it’s not how much time you spend on social media, but how you use that time that affects your well-being. “We’re working to make Facebook more about social interaction and less about spending time,” they write as a conclusion to their investigation. Updating the quality of your Facebook News Feed, including the addition of this Snooze feature, is one way the company is working on the issue.

If users aren’t happy scrolling through their feed, that’s also a threat to Facebook’s long-term outlook. In an ideal world, Facebook wants you to spend lots of time interacting on the social network—and be happy about it—so you keep coming back for that dopamine rush again and again. If you’re constantly barraged by negativity, such as one person hijacking your news feed with ill-informed opinions, you might start distancing yourself from the platform.

The Snooze feature is one way Facebook hopes to make its social media experience less frustrating, and it certainly seems to be a move in the right direction. It’s as immediate as hiding a post, but puts no onus on you to remember to re-follow someone in the future—which should eliminate that twinge of guilt about removing him from your feed. The biggest potential negative is that the feature will be used to block differing viewpoints and reinforce personal biases.

While there’s plenty of other work Facebook can do to improve the News Feed experience ahead of the drama that’s sure to be the 2018 election cycle, this was a smart update to make.

Dec. 15 2017 5:03 PM

Prosecutors Are Planning to Sell Millions of Dollars Worth of Seized Bitcoin

Prosecutors got approval from a federal judge in Utah to sell more than 513 bitcoins and 512 Bitcoin Cash they had seized from a man allegedly running a counterfeit pharmaceuticals ring on the dark web, Ars Technica reports.

 

Dec. 15 2017 3:47 PM

Here Are the States That Are Planning to Sue to Protect Net Neutrality

Net neutrality suffered a critical blow on Thursday after the Federal Communications Commission voted 3–2 to repeal the network neutrality rules that prevented internet providers from blocking or throttling access to websites or charging websites to access users at faster speeds.

But the battle is far from over. Just hours after the FCC vote, the first state attorneys general promised to sue the FCC for moving forward with the net neutrality repeal even though the public input process was rife with fraudulent entries, including the use of stolen identities, comments from bots, and submissions from suspicious Russian email addresses.

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The multistate challenge is helmed by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office has been leading the charge against the FCC’s comment-process problem. So far, his investigation has found more than 2 million comments were made using stolen identities. Schneiderman contends this is a violation of New York state law, and his office set up an online tool to allow you to check whether your identity was used to submit a comment to the FCC about net neutrality without your knowledge.

Attorneys general from Washington, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Oregon, Vermont, the District of Columbia, and Massachusetts have also announced plans to challenge the FCC’s net neutrality repeal. “There is a strong legal argument that with this action, the federal government violated the Administrative Procedure Act,” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in his statement. "We will be filing a petition for review in the coming days.” On Wednesday, attorneys general from 16 states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to the FCC requesting the vote scheduled for Thursday be delayed until the agency could suss out exactly what went wrong with its comment process. (Of course, that didn’t happen.) Many of those states might end up suing, too.

A widely circulated tweet claims that, in total, 17 states are already planning to sue, but not all of those states have released official statements on their websites or on Twitter about any such plans. I reached out to the attorneys general who signed Wednesday’s letter but have yet to make public statements and will update this post when we hear back.

It’s not just attorney generals lining up to sue the FCC. Free Press, a nonprofit that supports net neutrality and opposes the repeal, told me it plans to mount a legal challenge. The National Hispanic Media Coalition is also planning to challenge the FCC’s removal of net neutrality protections. “Chairman Pai’s repeal of net neutrality rules is a frontal attack on Latinos and other communities of color, who already face substantial barriers in getting online, staying online, and having high quality Internet,” said Carmen Scurato, vice president of policy at the coalition.

They will have a pretty strong case. According to the Administrative Procedure Act, federal regulatory agencies have to engage in a public comment process before finalizing new federal policies, but, as Schneiderman has found, the process leading up to the net neutrality repeal was so ridden with fraud that it might not have given the public a fair shake at airing their concerns.

And that’s just one problem with the process. Legal experts told me there are numerous legal holes in Pai’s net neutrality repeal. For one thing, it’s not clear whether the old rules were actually faulty. Furthermore, his move to wipe them away could be read as arbitrary and capricious, meaning his rule change might not hold up in court.

But the important thing to remember is that going to court doesn’t mean a judge will grant an injunction on the rules. Without an injunction, internet providers can still move forward with opening up internet fast lanes or blocking access to websites while the legal challenges make their way through the courts. In other words, this net neutrality roller coaster isn’t slowing down anytime soon.

Dec. 15 2017 2:00 PM

How the Far Right Is Reacting to Net Neutrality’s End

Far right and conspiracy-minded sites were applauding the FCC’s vote on Thursday to end Obama-era regulations preserving net neutrality, the principle that internet service providers cannot control speeds at which certain websites load.

A reporter for Breitbart characterized the vote as a move to “restore the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) traditional authority and expertise to regulate and litigate unfair, deceptive, and anti-competitive telecommunications practices without onerous regulations and increased cost.” Andrew Anglin, the editor of the neo-Nazi Daily Stormer news site, wrote, “This is the first step in a drastic reshaping of internet, making it free as it was before Obama’s second term.” Alex Jones of Infowars, in his livestream after the vote, said, “[FCC chairman] Ajit Pai’s a hero.”

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On Gab, an alternative to Twitter for the extreme right, users also by and large applauded the repeal. For some, the notion that liberal entities were supporting net neutrality was enough reason to scrap it. One user wrote, “The only thing people needed to know about ‘net neutrality’ is that Obama, Google, FaceBook, Twitter and a number of other large corporations wanted it. That and that alone should have raised red flags.” Others accused corporations and “globalists” of covertly spreading propaganda to control discourse during the debate.

However, as Daily Beast senior news editor Ben Collins pointed out, these anti-establishment sites may actually be more vulnerable without net neutrality regulations.

In August, GoDaddy announced it would no longer host the domain for the Daily Stormer after it published an article mocking a victim of the vehicular attack during the Charlottesville protests. Before GoDaddy’s decision, the online community was active in flagging the article by tweeting it to the company. Now that internet service providers can block content with the repeal of net neutrality, they too may receive pressure from the public to block these websites.

Yet, if popular anger at the repeal continues, such a possibility may be a stretch. Josh Stager, a telecommunications law and policy specialist at the New America foundation, wrote in an email, “I’m also pretty skeptical that the public—which is enraged over this decision and loathe their ISPs—is going to be clamoring to ask Comcast and AT&T to block anything. People aren’t eager to embrace their ISPs as gatekeepers of the internet.” (New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

Dec. 14 2017 6:29 PM

Net Neutrality's End Is Creating a Lot of Confusion About the Future of the Internet

After the FCC voted to repeal net neutrality regulations on Thursday, reactions on Twitter were strong. Many despaired about the possible end of access to a free and open internet, while others urged neutrality supporters to not give up the fight by calling their representatives in Congress and keeping an eye on the various state governments and advocacy groups that are planning to sue the FCC.

 

Dec. 14 2017 1:37 PM

What Is Ajit Pai Doing in This Anti-Net Neutrality Video Next to a Proponent of Pizzagate?

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai appeared in a video by the Daily Caller on Wednesday in which he pantomimes millennial habits to assert that you can still “gram your food” and “post photos of cute animals” if his proposal to end net neutrality goes into effect.  On Thursday, the FCC voted to end its net neutrality rules, the Obama-era regulations dictating that internet service providers cannot throttle the speeds at which certain websites load and impose fees for higher speeds.

 

Dec. 14 2017 1:26 PM

The FCC Had to Pause Its Net-Neutrality Hearing Because of a Bomb Threat

According to multiple reporters at the scene, security services cleared everyone in attendance at the FCC's much-awaited vote on net neutrality Thursday afternoon. Security guards escorted everyone out of the room, instructing them not to bring any posessions along, and then led in dogs to sniff the area.

Washington Post reporter Brian Fung also wrote on Twitter that security personnel inquired about his phone, asking him if he had taken a picture, and that other reporters noted their items had been moved around after they were let back in following the 20-minute recess.

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Upon returning, FCC chairman Ajit Pai claimed that Federal Protective Services had ordered the clearing. Margaret McGill, a Politico tech reporter, quoted an FCC official who said that someone had called in "about a specific bomb threat."

Dec. 14 2017 1:13 PM

Net Neutrality Is Over. Now What?

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted to enshrine new policies that could radically change the way you use the internet. In a 3–2 vote on party lines, the agency decided to move forward with undoing Obama-era net neutrality rules, which prohibited internet providers, like Comcast or Verizon, from blocking access to websites or charging websites a fee to reach users at faster speeds.

Democratic commissioners who voted against Chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulatory agenda didn’t mince words. “I dissent. I dissent from this fiercely spun, legally lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling Destroying Internet Freedom Order,” said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in her opening remarks at Thursday’s FCC meeting before the agency voted to ultimately abandon the net neutrality rules.

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“This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law, and the wrong side of the American public,” said Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel in her dissenting remarks.

"The internet is the greatest free market innovation in history," started Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the FCC in his speech before the final vote to ax net neutrality was finalized. "The main complaint the consumers have about the internet is not and has never been that their internet providers are blocking access to content," he continued, noting many Americans still don't have access to the internet, which he contends is the real problem. Pai has repeatedly said that net neutrality dissuades internet providers to invest in building out and expanding their network, yet Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have all said on investor calls that they've been investing more in their networks since the net neutrality rules were orginally passed in 2015.

Pai's remarks were interrupted by a roughly 15-minute abrupt recess for security reasons. During the recess, reporters and spectators were ordered to clear the room and leave their belongings behind. After the recess, Pai also criticized rhetoric around the net neutrality. "It is not going to kill democracy," he said. The vote followed Pai's remarks.

Once the rules are enacted, which could happen as early as January 2018, internet providers can begin blocking access to websites or throttling connection speeds. They’ll just need to be “transparent” about how they are managing traffic on their network, according to the regulations crafted by Chairman Pai. If AT&T says in its user agreement that it may one day decide to block access to Netflix but give free access to HBO, it is free to do so. (And we all know how closely people read user agreements.) Internet providers will be able to set up what is essentially a two-way toll, charging subscribers to access the internet and charging websites to access users.

The most flush internet companies would likely get to set the price for the fast lane, which could relegate most websites—including smaller startups and struggling news organizations—to what is, in effect, a slower internet. This would help further entrench the power of the incumbent internet companies, like Facebook, Netflix, or Google.

Pai’s decision to kill the hard-won net neutrality rules, which have only been in effect since 2015, is sure to be challenged in court by public interest groups, which have been preparing their cases since the FCC released its draft of the rules the week of Thanksgiving. But a court case won’t necessarily stop internet service providers from starting to charge websites for priority access to subscribers—that would require an injunction, and it’s not clear that will happen.

One area where the FCC might face legal pushback is on the process leading up to Thursday’s vote. When the FCC wants to make a significant new policy change, it’s typically required to solicit input from the public to learn how the new rules will affect people and businesses across the country. But after Pai released his proposal to gut net neutrality in May, the public comment process was hit by a mysterious cyberattack, which is currently under a federal investigation. Then there were the public comments. Nearly 23 million comments have been submitted, but huge numbers of them may have been fraudulent. Thousands of bots submitted comments. Others were made under stolen identities (including the names of dead people). Hundreds of thousands came from Russian email addresses, and they mostly happened to be in favor of rescinding the open internet rules. All of these problems led members of Congress, as well as other FCC commissioners, to call for the FCC to delay Thursday’s vote until some of these serious irregularities could be accounted for and the public has a fair shot to weigh in. But that didn’t happen, which could give fuel for lawsuits challenging the net neutrality rollback.

“Federal agencies have to engage in a proper notice and comment process,” said Gaurav Laroia, policy counsel with Free Press, who says his group plans to challenge Pai’s net neutrality order in court. “The FCC has failed to remedy these problems and engage in the comments in a substantive way, which they are required to do.” Commissioner Clyburn noted in her remarks at the FCC meeting Thursday that the new net neutrality rules fail to cite even one of the millions of comments, letters, and calls the FCC received from the public about the repeal of net neutrality will mean for them.

The organic comments from real people, however, overwhelming opposed the FCC’s plan to kill net neutrality. That’s similar to what we saw in 2014 and 2015, when 4 million people weighed in to let the FCC, then led by an Obama-appointed commissioner, know they supported the agency’s proposal to enshrine net neutrality.

Once the rules are enacted, assuming there’s no injunction, it’s unlikely that the internet will change dramatically overnight. Instead, you may start to notice some differences gradually. Yelp might be slower to load than Google. CNN or Fox News might be faster, and thus more accessible, than your local newspaper’s website. Your favorite local restaurant may switch to just hosting its web presence on Yelp entirely instead of having its own website, which might be much slower to load. And before we know it, the internet may start to become a much more boring place, as we navigate away from smaller websites and new startups toward those already powerful platforms that can afford to pay fast-lane prices. One of the great promises of the internet has been that there’s no telling what someone might create next. But if internet providers aren’t required to treat all websites equally, that vibrant future will likely flicker out.

Dec. 14 2017 11:41 AM

Why Trump Is Missing From Google’s Annual “Year in Search” List

On Wednesday, Google released its annual "Year in Search," which tracks trending queries for the past year. But among the list of top memes, prominent people, and how-to questions for 2017, on both the global and United States lists, one normally inescapable topic was missing: Donald Trump. It’s nice to imagine a 2017 without Trump, but really: How did the 45th president not make it on Google’s list?

It’s a matter of relativity. According to a Google spokesperson, “ ‘Trending’ queries are the searches that had a high spike in traffic over a sustained period in 2017 as compared to 2016.” So it’s not that Trump disappeared off of the global search map; rather, Google explained, “While Trump was searched incredibly widely, it's consistent from what we saw in 2016,” so he didn’t make it on the list. That’s because on the week of the presidential election, Trump’s Google searches spiked to an all-time high. He was the third among trending searches worldwide in 2016 and topped the list of trending people. (Hillary Clinton was second.)

us_decade_search_term
This graph shows the relative number of searches in the U.S. for Donald Trump over the past decade.

Google Trends

global_candidacy
Google Trends depicts the relative search volume worldwide for Donald Trump from the week of June 15, 2014, approximately a year before he announced his run for president, to the present.

Google Trends

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The three peaks in the graph above correspond to the weeks (in chronological order) right after the Access Hollywood tape broke, of the election, and of his inauguration.

Some Trump-adjacent search terms did appear on Year in Search 2017. On the global list, first lady Melania Trump made the No. 7 spot of trending public figures, while 24-day national security adviser Michael Flynn was ninth. And in the customized results for the U.S., “Activations (protests)” was its own category (not so in 2016). “NFL National Anthem Protests” topped that list, while the Women’s March on Washington was ninth.

top_people_globally
Google's Year in Search 2017 top trending people globally.

Lila Thulin

Perhaps, for five glorious seconds, looking at the default listing of only the top five entries in each category for the global Year in Search 2017, you might have entered a relieving, Trump-free internet bubble. But then you’d switch tabs and our Trump-saturated news cycle would be back with a vengeance. Thanks, Google, for the oh-so-brief reprieve—it was nice while it lasted.

Dec. 13 2017 5:49 PM

A Few Republicans Are Showing Up to Fight for Net Neutrality in the Final Hour

It’s not just Democrats who are fuming about the death of the internet as we know it. Republicans in Congress are starting—albeit super late—to speak out against the Federal Communications Commission’s plan to repeal the open internet rules, which is scheduled for a final vote on Thursday. If all goes as expected, the FCC will vote to allow internet providers to block, slow down, or charge websites trying to reach users, and the new rules could go into effect as early as January 2018.

In an interview with Slate last month, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, one of the two Democrats on the commission, argued that before the vote, there should be public hearings on net neutrality. She noted that past Republican FCC chairmen have hosted public hearings on net neutrality during their tenures. Rosenworcel further pointed to multiple serious snafus in the public comment process this year since Chairman Ajit Pai introduced his plan to rescind net neutrality in May.

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She now seems to have Republican support for that. On Tuesday, Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican from Colorado, tweeted a letter he sent asking Pai to delay rush the vote and “hold hearings on the net neutrality issue and to pass permanent open Internet legislation.”

The problems with the process so far include a deluge of comments issued with stolen identities, including those of dead people; a saturation of bots; comments from Russian email addresses that oddly overwhelmingly supported Pai’s plan to kill net neutrality; and a cyberattack on the FCC’s comment system that is currently under investigation by the Government Accountably Office. The FCC’s comment process is currently being investigated by New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who says his office has found 2 million comments sent to the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding using stolen identities.

On Wednesday, Coffman tweeted at Pai to say he’s “still awaiting a response to my letter yesterday on #NetNeutrality. My staff has called your @FCC office and received no answer.” Other Republicans have voiced opposition, too, but have offered less constructive prescriptions than Coffman. On Monday, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska, likewise broke from the Republican pack to voice his support of preserving the net neutrality rules.

And in November, shortly after Pai released his draft of the final rules, Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said in a statement to the Bangor Daily News that she does not support Pai’s plan and that “internet providers must not manage their system in an anti-competitive way that limits consumers’ choices.” That same week, Rep. Dave Reichert, a Republican from Washington, said he supports net neutrality and that he hopes “any action taken will preserve these protections for online consumers and keep the Internet open, free from interference, and make sure it stays a source of innovation and job creation.” And Rep. John Curtis, a Republican from Utah, has also voiced concern over the FCC's proposal.

But it’ll take a lot more than a few tweets and statements to journalists for Republican opposition to a net neutrally repeal to hold any sway. For one, the FCC will be voting this week to undo the rules, and the inertia is far too strong at this point to have any real chance of stopping that. Thirty-nine senators have now urged the FCC to not go through with its plan, but those were all Democrats.

It’s not that Congress is totally powerless here, though. “If Congress wanted the FCC to not go forward with its repeal, they could walk over there and tell them to knock it off until we have this thing resolved,” said Christopher Terry, a journalism professor from the University of Minnesota who specializes in tech and media policy. “The agencies are lapdogs to Congress; they have to do what they’re told.” He says that Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “could call the FCC in front of his committee and say, Wait till we figure this out. But that’s like saying the moon could crash into the earth today. It’s possible it could happen, but it’s not going to happen.” The House Energy and Commerce Committee oversees telecom issues, but Walden has come out strongly in favor of the net neutrality repeal.

If the committee won’t take action, there’s also something called a congressional resolution of disapproval, where Congress can reverse or eliminate an agency’s action. Since Trump took office, Congress has reversed more than a dozen agency actions—but these were Obama-era rules. This is the opposite situation, since the FCC itself is overturning Obama-era rules.

Furthermore, on Wednesday, more than 100 Republican representatives sent a letter to the FCC in favor of its current trajectory to repeal the open internet rules. And even if Republicans in Congress did take up the issue, though, there’s a chance that they could order the FCC to enact rules that they say will protect “net neutrality” but actually codify some of the same things Pai is looking to do, like allow for throttling from internet providers and charging websites to access users.

Still, the more Republicans who support keeping the open internet rules, the easier it is for other Republicans to do the same. Most likely, the FCC’s net neutrality repeal vote will happen, only to get tied up in court. Even if that happens, the rules would likely still go into effect in 2018. But it does mean that they may eventually be overturned. Fingers crossed.

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