Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future

March 23 2015 1:15 PM

What Einstein Had to Say About the Female Math Genius in Today’s Google Doodle

Monday’s Google Doodle honors mathematician Emmy Noether, because there ain’t no party like an 133rd birthday party. Noether made important contributions to theoretical physics and abstract algebra, in spite of the rampant sexism in early-20th-century academia that hindered her career.

“Noether’s advancements not only reflect her brilliance but also her determination in the face of adversity,” Doodle artist Sophie Diao wrote. Noether was known as a devoted mentor throughout her career, even though she wasn’t even always paid or given a title at the two universities where she spent most of her career (University of Erlangen and University of Göttingen). Noether was dismissed from University of Göttingen because of her Jewish heritage and came to the United States in 1933 to teach at Bryn Mawr. She died in 1935.

In a letter to the New York Times a few days after her death, Albert Einstein wrote:

In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraeulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.

It’s great to see a female mathematician featured on such prominent Internet real estate, but Google’s effort to promote women in math is slightly undermined by the bearded white dude who shows up first when you Google “mathematician.”

Stanislaw Zaremba does not, in fact, look like every mathematician ever.

Screencap of Google

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March 23 2015 1:13 PM

Congress Wants to Eliminate Protections for Some of Your Most Sensitive Records

How would you feel if your phone carrier accidentally leaked every record of every call you made—and didn’t even tell you? If you’re like most Americans, you would be livid, because the vast majority of us care deeply about the privacy of our phone records. A November report from the Pew Research Center found that 82 percent of Americans consider location information gathered by their phones to be “sensitive” or “very sensitive,” and 75 percent feel that way about the numbers they have called or texted. But a forthcoming bill from Congress could dramatically reduce the security of that information—amid a number of high-profile data breaches.

The threat comes from a bill—scheduled to be introduced in the House this week—called (incongruously) the “Data Security and Breach Notification Act of 2015.” As I explained in testimony before the House of Representatives last week, counter to its name, this piece of legislation would actually eliminate key legal protections for phone, cable, and satellite records.

What would this mean for you? You could no longer assume that any information your phone, cable, or satellite provider collects about you is protected, and companies would no longer be obligated to tell you if that information is compromised. The results could be disastrous. Just a list of the phone numbers called by a customer would reveal not only information about that customer’s ties to other individuals, but also ties to organizations, health-related entities, hotlines, support groups, and so on. That list of numbers could reveal that the customer had called a hotline for suicidal thoughts or domestic violence. It could indicate that the customer likely had an abortion, needed 911 services, battled addiction, or struggled to come to terms with her sexual orientation.

And analyzing the records further would reveal even more intimate details, including, in the words of computer scientist Ed Felten:

[W]hen we are awake and asleep; our religion, if a person regularly makes no calls on the Sabbath, or makes a large number of calls on Christmas Day; our work habits and our social attitudes; the number of friends we have; and even our civil and political affiliations.

Phone records also contain location information. Even when customers turn off GPS on their phones, carriers keep a record of which network antenna is communicating with the phone during every call. As computer scientist Vitaly Shmatikov explained last year in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, this information can be used to reconstruct a customer’s movements, revealing the path someone takes to drive to work or walk to her children’s school, or the location of his gym or place of worship.

As for cable and satellite customers’ viewing histories, it’s hard to imagine a class of information with greater potential for humiliation than an account of what we watch in the privacy of our own homes. Indeed, Congress was so spooked by the publication of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork’s innocuous video rental history in 1988 that they almost immediately passed the Video Privacy Protection Act, which protects records about video rentals.

Right now, phone carriers have to train personnel on protections for these records, have an express disciplinary process in place for abuses, and annually certify that they are in compliance with the rules. Cable and satellite providers also have to carefully protect all of their customers’ information. The new bill would change all that.

Setting aside the absurdity of eliminating data security protections under a law that purports to improve them, this makes no sense. Strong protections for communications records—like the ones we have now—are appropriate. Phone customers have no choice but to share extremely sensitive information with their carriers about whom they call, when, and how long they talk. The 91 percent of us who have cellphones have no choice but to share even more information, including data about our physical locations and movements over time. Software that carriers have required manufacturers to build into phones could reveal even more granular information about us, as we learned from the Carrier IQ controversy a few years ago.

In addition, we have very few options when it comes to choosing phone providers. Although the four major wireless carriers are nominally “national,” not one serves every area in the country. Americans who want a landline have even fewer options—there is often just one provider available for any given address.

And for the vast majority of us who have cable or satellite TV, we take it for granted that embarrassing information about what we watch will be kept private and protected.

Soon those protections could just disappear. And if, as a result, your private information falls into the wrong hands, you’ll never even know.

March 21 2015 12:59 PM

Eating My Way Through the Solar Eclipse

REYJKIVIK, Iceland—Friday morning’s total solar eclipse—the awesome spectacle produced by the moon passing directly between the sun and Earth—was an alignment of the heavenly bodies that from time immemorial have defined humanity’s conception of just that: time. It also made a great excuse to take a trip to Iceland with my brother, and made me pretty hungry.

This total solar eclipse was the first since Nov. 13, 2012, over Australia and New Zealand. The next one to hit North America will be on Aug. 21, 2017. Europe won’t see one again until Aug. 12, 2026.

But this week’s eclipse was a holy trinity: a total solar eclipse on an equinox with a supermoon. As a layman, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. But that’s why God invented Google: A vernal equinox marks the astronomical end of winter—and occurs when the sun’s rays hit the equator head-on, causing day and night to be equal. A supermoon is either a full or a new moon during the moon's closest approach to Earth in its orbit.

March 21 2015 9:00 AM

Tesla Could Soon Roll Out Self-Driving Cars. Whether They're Legal Is Another Story.

This post originally appeared on WIRED.

Forget about Google and Audi and Nissan promising we’ll see autonomous cars within the next few years. Elon Musk says he’ll roll them out in three months.

The CEO of Tesla Motors says the next big software update for the Model S will roll out in 90 days with an auto-steering function that will make the cars largely autonomous on the highway. The feature will be pretty basic—keeping the car within its lane at an appropriate speed—so it’s no big leap. Every Model S built since October has the radar, sonar and other hardware needed to pull this off, and the ability to combine all that data with navigation, GPS, and real-time traffic systems. All that’s missing is the software needed to tie it all together.

And possibly permission to actually do it. And that’s where things get murky. We asked a few experts if any of this is legal. And the general consensus was ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

The truth is, none of this is clear, for a few reasons. First, it remains to be seen exactly what Tesla plans to offer. Musk says the feature will be restricted to highway use (follows the trajectory of automakers like Mercedes-Benz and Audi), but did not specify its capabilities. When Tesla first mentioned autonomous features in October, it said “Model S will be able to steer to stay within a lane, change lanes with the simple tap of a turn signal, and manage speed by reading road signs and using active, traffic aware cruise control.”

We don’t know if that’s still the plan, and no one at Tesla returned our call seeking clarification. But on Thursday, Musk said, “there’s certainly an expectation that when autopilot on the Model S is enabled, that you’re paying attention.”

Adding to the uncertainty, the rules regulating self-driving cars are a mess. Only California, Nevada, Michigan, Florida, and Washington, D.C. govern how the vehicles can be tested. Those laws largely apply to testing, so the legality of taking a car straight to market there may be flexible: Nevada requires a special license and registration, but that only applies to cars sold in the state. Florida basically legalized it, saying it “does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology.” In California, the technology can only be tested, and is not allowed for consumer use until further notice.  According to Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, 14 more states are working on regulations, and a dozen have voted them down.

This is good news for Tesla. Because this is America, whatever’s not illegal is legal. Aside from those states (and Washington, D.C.) that have regulated autonomous vehicles, and New York (which requires drivers keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times) there’s no law against Tesla flipping a switch making it possible for the Model S to chauffeur itself down the highway. That leaves 45 states of freedom, and maybe New York, if you’re super literal and keep a hand on the wheel without actually doing anything.

So if Tesla goes ahead with its plan, letting its cars drive themselves in some conditions, it wouldn’t be breaking the law.

The cars could, however, be kicked off the road if regulators aren’t thrilled with the idea of autonomous vehicles roaming the country, says Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society, who studies self-driving vehicles. There are laws prohibiting reckless driving, for example, and “a state or local law enforcement agency could use these provisions to target” the cars “if they believed the vehicles to be dangerous.” That could lead to a revoked registration, or refusal to register cars going forward.

There are no federal regulations in place yet, but based on a 2013 non-binding statement, NHTSA isn’t hot on the idea of consumer operation of autonomous vehicles just yet. It “could also attempt to intervene if it has evidence that automated vehicles are not reasonably safe,” Smith says.

And what about California, home to Tesla, where the Model S is popular enough to replace the grizzly bear on the state flag? Even with laws governing autonomous tech, it’s not clear. It all depends on how the car’s capabilities are defined, based on NHTSA standards, which rank automation from Level 0 (you don’t even get cruise control) to Level 5 (think Minority Report). Level 2 cars offer some automation, including the combination of adaptive cruise control and lane centering. They’re totally legal in California, says Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the state DMV.

But if the software lets the Model S operate like a Level 3 car, letting the human “cede control of all safety-critical functions” to a machine that can, say, change lanes on its own, then it’s illegal. Cars with such capabilities, like the Audi A7 I piloted from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas, must be certified as test vehicles before they hit the pavement. You can’t sell them to the public.

In those states that haven’t yet moved to regulate autonomous cars, Smith says the reaction of regulators likely will depend on how the cars are received by the public, and how well Tesla communicates its intentions. “At this point broad public attitudes will matter as much if not more than particular legal language,” he says.

California, for its part, is hardly anti-autonomous driving. It created its rules as a framework for the testing a whole slew of companies were already doing in Silicon Valley, and already is working on rules for allowing Level 3 cars on the market. “We’re smack dab in the middle of them now,” says Bernard Soriano, deputy director at the state’s DMV. He would not offer an ETA, but says “we’re close.” That process includes the automakers, Soriano says. “We’ve been working very collaboratively with them and to their credit, they’ve been very open with us.”

Tesla already has gone to legislative war with states that don’t let it sell its cars through stores rather than independent dealerships, so don’t be surprised if it unleashes its attorneys once again. But so far, it looks like this might be one of those times when seeking forgiveness beats asking for permission.

Also on WIRED:

March 20 2015 6:48 PM

Space May Not Be Very Accessible, But SpaceX's Photos Will Be

Space feels like an endless frontier, but distinctly human considerations inevitably encroach on our musings over its vastness. Can people own land on the moon? Can we harvest hydrocarbons on Titan? And who should own images of space? Because NASA is a government agency, the images it collects belong in the public domain (except for some contractor photos, though they’re still released under a Creative Commons license). The goal is to allow people to easily share and adapt space content. And now SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space-transport company, has begun posting photos in a Flickr album under the Creative Commons license.

The decision follows pressure for SpaceX to observe the tradition of releasing openly accessible space photos. The Flickr album says “some rights reserved,” and indicates that anyone can distribute or modify the photos so long as they credit SpaceX and aren’t using the photos commercially. The company’s Flickr homepage says, “These official SpaceX images are being made available for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use by the public.”

As more private companies enter the space industry, this could be a valuable precedent. As the Atlantic notes, other space companies like Orbital Sciences and Lockheed Martin have their Flickr photos set to “all rights reserved.”

SpaceX’s decision to list its photos as “some rights reserved” means that they aren’t as limitlessly usable as NASA photos. But it’s a step in the right direction. As huge as space is, most people don’t have a lot of access to it. They should at least be able to learn from and enjoy the photos.

March 20 2015 5:40 PM

California’s Next Megadrought Has Already Begun

As California limps through another nearly rain-free rainy season, the state is taking increasingly bold action to save water.

On Tuesday, the California state government imposed new mandatory restrictions on lawn watering and incentives to limit water use in hotels and restaurants as part of its latest emergency drought regulations. On Thursday, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced a $1 billion plan to support water projects statewide and speed aid to hard-hit communities already dealing with shortages. Last month federal water managers announced a “zero allocation” of agricultural water to a key state canal system for the second year in a row, essentially transforming thousands of acres of California farmland into dust.

This week’s moves come after the state has fallen behind targets to increase water efficiency in 2015 amid the state’s worst drought in 1,200 years. Last year, voters passed a $7.5 billion water bond and the legislature approved its first-ever restrictions on groundwater pumping, which won’t go into full effect until 2025. Stricter, more immediate limits on water use are possible as summer approaches.

TheCalifornia drought has intensified during its four-year duration, with 40 percent of the state now in “exceptional drought,” the highest category.

Courtesy of U.S. Drought Monitor

But it’s not enough. These moves are small potatoes compared to what’s needed to rein in statewide water use, of which agriculture forms the vast majority. Last week, a pair of op-eds, one in the Guardian, the other in the Los Angeles Times, spoke with urgency about the West’s growing water crisis.

“California has no contingency plan for a persistent drought like this one (let alone a 20-plus-year mega-drought), except, apparently, staying in emergency mode and praying for rain,” wrote NASA water scientist and University of California-Irvine professor Jay Famiglietti. A better plan, he said, was for “immediate mandatory water rationing” across the state. Famiglietti’s work has focused on the shocking recent declines in groundwater across the West, where excessive pumping has caused the ground to sink at rates up to a foot per year and a measurable rise in global sea levels.

Underlying the frantic, short-term search for water is an ominous underlying trend that threatens to fundamentally transform America’s most important agricultural state. Climate change may have already initiated a new megadrought.

But first, a reality check: California’s cities have more than enough water to withstand the current drought and then some. They simply don’t use that much. Not true for agriculture, which uses 80 percent of California’s water—10 percent of that just on almonds. Though it’s still a national powerhouse, fed increasingly by fast-depleting groundwater supplies, the state’s agriculture industry has likely begun a long-term decline due mostly to simple math. Abnormally dry conditions have dominated in 11 of the last 15 years, and the cuts have to come from somewhere. Agriculture is the elephant in the ever-shrinking room of California water.

California’s record low snowpack threatens the existence of agriculture in the nation’s most productive state.

Courtesy of theCalifornia Department of Water Resources

Statewide, California’s snowpack is now at a record low—just 12 percent of normal, and less than half of last year’s astonishingly meager total. Normally, California’s snowpack holds the equivalent of about 15 million acre-feet of water around its traditional April 1 peak, about as much as all the state’s reservoirs combined. This year, it’s as if half of the state’s water reserves simply vanished. It’s difficult to imagine the hardship the state will face this summer as the rivers of snowmelt that normally feed the state during the dry season dwindle dangerously. As I wrote last year during my drought-themed reporting trip across the West, California just wasn’t built to handle a world without snow.

But it’s not just California. It’s been freakishly hot out West all winter. Other states are also suffering, with record low water levels expected this year in the two major reservoirs on the Colorado River—Lake Mead and Lake Powell. The warm winter has helped to dry up the land even more, and pre-emptively melt what little snow has graciously fallen.

If a megadrought has already begun—and there is increasingly strong evidence to support that it has, or will soon—there will be widespread implications, including a significant reshifting of California agriculture outside the state. The California of the past is gone, and climate change is bringing a new one faster than it seems we’re ready for.

March 20 2015 4:48 PM

Is the Internet’s Favorite Piracy Site Too Big for Its Own Good?

This post originally appeared on WIRED.

Popcorn Time was an instant hit when it launched just over a year ago: The video streaming service made BitTorrent piracy as easy as Netflix, but with far more content and none of those pesky monthly payments. Hollywood quickly intervened, pressuring Popcorn Time’s Argentinian developers to walk away from their creation. But anonymous coders soon relaunched the copyright-flouting software. Today, Popcorn Time is growing at a rate that has likely surpassed the original, and the people behind it say they’re working on changes designed to make the service virtually impervious to law enforcement.

As Popcorn Time celebrated the first anniversary of its rebirth, WIRED chatted via email and instant message with a software developer from Popcorn-Time.se, one of the most popular of several reincarnations of Popcorn Time. (The anonymous developer asked us to use Popcorn Time’s smiling popcorn-box mascot “Pochoclin” as his or her pseudonym.) Popcorn Time’s masked representative says the streaming movie and TV app is flourishing—in defiance of many of the world’s most powerful copyright holders and EURid, the domain registrar that seized the original site’s web domain last year.

Popcorn-Time.se, Pochoclin says, has millions of users and is growing at the mind-bending rate of 100,000 downloads per day. He or she also hinted that a forthcoming switch to a peer-to-peer architecture will make the service far harder for copyright cops to attack. “We’re at the threshold of one of the most exciting times since we started this project,” Pochoclin writes. “Making all our data available via p2p will mean that Popcorn Time will no longer rely on domains and centralized servers but only on its user base.”

“After everything we went through,” Pochoclin said, “this will be our sweetest revenge and our biggest victory.”

When Popcorn-Time.se started responding to WIRED’s questions in November, Pochoclin said the reborn project already had 4 million users. But it had taken a serious hit a few months earlier, when Brussels-based domain registrar EURid revoked its website domain, Time4Popcorn.eu. At its new Swedish domain, it’s only recently returned to that earlier adoption rate. (Pochoclin wouldn’t reveal the size of its current user base for fear of drawing more attention from law enforcement or copyright holders.) “[EURid’s domain seizure] was just a small setback … a small but painful kick to the balls,” the spokesperson says. “We’ve grown this project tremendously since we picked it up … The numbers just keep rising.”

A chart of Google searches for Popcorn Time over the last year, showing its quick growth since the shutdown of the original site in March of last year. (Source: Google Trends, which shows only relative search trends rather than absolute numbers of searches.) From WIRED.

For any other year-old startup, those numbers would seem ludicrous. But Popcorn Time is giving away Hollywood’s most valuable content for free, and making that piracy easier than ever. Download Popcorn Time’s app and in seconds you’re offered a slick menu of streaming TV shows and movies at least as easy to navigate as Netflix or Hulu—but with higher-quality video and hundreds of recent movies and TV shows paid services don’t offer.

Popcorn Time isn’t a new kind of piracy so much as an inviting new front-end interface for the BitTorrent underground. The software collects and organizes popular files from existing BitTorrent sources like the Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents, Isohunt, and YTS. “We’re like Google,” Pochoclin says, “scraping for new content all over the internet.” By integrating its own video player and prioritizing its downloads from the first chunk of the video file to the last, it makes those sites’ files immediately streamable. With Popcorn Time, the complexity of BitTorrent search engines, trackers, clients, seeds, decompression, playback, and storage is reduced to a single click. That’s made this BitTorrent-for-dummies the virtually undisputed future of video piracy.

Pochoclin says Popcorn-Time.se offers this streaming service pro bono. It doesn’t charge for downloads, and neither its app nor its website display ads. “We just did it for the love of this project,” Pochoclin writes. “It was something we believed in. And once it started taking off … as it did from the start, all the love that we were getting from Popcorn Time users made us just keep on going without really stopping to think where this road is taking us.”

That road, it seems, points toward a collision course with Hollywood’s copyright lawyers. Documents revealed in last year’s Sony hack revealed that the Motion Picture Association of America boasted of a “major victory” in pressuring Popcorn Time’s original developers to scupper the service. The MPAA declined to comment on any measures it’s taking against the new Popcorn Time. In a Jan. 20 letter to shareholders, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings wrote that “piracy continues to be one of our biggest competitors,” and referred to Popcorn Time by name, calling a graph showing its rising Google searches “sobering.” Neither Netflix nor Hulu responded to WIRED’s requests for comment.

Pochoclin says the service doesn’t do anything illegal: It merely organizes preexisting BitTorrent files hosted on other sites. “It’s all automated and all working on existing open-source technologies and existing websites online. Therefore, it’s legal. Or better … not illegal,” Pochoclin says. “We all live in a free society, where what is not forbidden is allowed.”

That’s not a defense that’s likely to succeed in an American court. An MPAA spokesperson pointed out in an email to WIRED that previous software like Napster, Grokster, isoHunt, and Limewire didn’t directly host content either, but courts ruled that all of them were infringing on copyrights. Even though it merely helps users stream video files made available elsewhere, Popcorn Time could be accused of “contributory liability,” says University of Richmond intellectual property law professor Jim Gibson. A service whose primary, intended function is aiding copyright infringement doesn’t need to host any files to be illegal. “If they know that they’re actually facilitating the downloading or streaming of copyrighted movies and they continue to do it, they’re in trouble,” Gibson says.

With legal threats looming, Popcorn-Time.se is working on new defenses. In about a month, the group says it plans to launch a version of the app that will update its TV and movie content with the same peer-to-peer BitTorrent protocol that it uses to stream movies, pulling data from other users rather than a central server. That means that even if its domain or other central infrastructure is taken down, Popcorn Time would still function. In a second upcoming phase, Popcorn-Time.se says it will have the ability to update the app itself via peer-to-peer downloads, using cryptographic signatures to ensure no malicious code propagates through its network. When those updates are in place, Pochoclin says, “only our users will decide whether we live or die … This way, Popcorn Time will be unstoppable.”

But even if the service itself does develop an invincible peer-to-peer architecture, Popcorn Time’s developers may be personally vulnerable to a lawsuit or even criminal charges. The Swedish founders of the Pirate Bay, for instance, were successfully prosecuted for running the massively popular BitTorrent website, and the United States is seeking the extradition of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom from New Zealand to face criminal copyright infringement charges.

For now, Popcorn Time’s developers depend on their unnamed web hosting company to ensure their anonymity, which is hardly a bulletproof strategy. “We’re anonymous but not in hiding,” Pochoclin says. “We guess our hosting company does know who we are. But they’re not supposed to give our information out to anyone. And it’s good enough for us.”

With Popcorn Time’s popularity skyrocketing, it may soon find out whether those defenses are good enough to hold off a horde of MPAA lawyers, too. Pochoclin may be cute. But he’s made some powerful enemies.

Also on WIRED:

March 20 2015 11:26 AM

Yes, Google Manipulated Its Search Results. It’s Probably Allowed To.

On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published an explosive story on a Federal Trade Commission report detailing how Google manipulated its search results to benefit its own services. In most other contexts, this kind of monopoly-building practice would probably put Google on the losing end of an antitrust lawsuit. But since at least 2003, the search-engine giant has argued that the First Amendment protects its right to alter its search results any way it pleases. Thursday’s disclosure doesn’t just validate Google’s free-speech argument—it actually strengthens it.

As I explained last year, Google’s constitutional defense here is pretty simple. The company claims that by designing a complex algorithm that turns gigabytes of information into a list of links, it is exercising something akin to editorial control. Just as newspaper editors choose which stories to publish, and encyclopedia editors select which entries to include, Google decides what information to present to its users, and how that information should be presented. Organizing and publishing information about facts and opinions is core free-speech activity that usually merits full First Amendment protection. According to Google, there’s no reason for that constitutional protection to collapse merely because the information is being presented on a search engine.

When I described this theory in November, I noted that it had one glaring weakness. Google has consistently asserted that it does not manipulate its results to favor certain websites, leaving the work of organizing links up to its algorithm. If this were true, Google would barely be asserting any kind of true editorial control over its results, rendering the company’s claims to protected expression rather dubious. Thursday’s revelation, however, makes this concern a moot point. The fact that Google did tweak its results to favor certain links proves that the company really was exercising editorial judgment, and thus was engaging in a form of free speech. In other words, the more Google violated core antitrust principles, the more protected its speech became.

This incentive system is more than a little perverse. But it’s also probably a necessary cost of freedom of expression on the Internet. If the government could interfere with Google’s search results, it would also hold the power to meddle with review sites like Yelp—or, in the extreme, the editorial judgment of individual webmasters who curate information and present it to readers in a customized order. The Supreme Court barred this state intrusion into free expression in print form 41 years ago. There’s really no reason the rules should be different just because the marketplace of ideas has relocated to the Internet.

March 20 2015 11:09 AM

Secret FTC Report Says Google Promoted Its Services Above Others in Search Results

In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission cleared Google of charges that the company had stifled competition by rigging its search results to promote its own content and services (like restaurant recommendations and flight results). But an FTC staff report obtained by the Wall Street Journal provides evidence that the company did exactly that.

On Thursday, the Journal began reporting on the 160-page report from 2012, which argued in favor of launching a massive antitrust case against Google. The report was accidentally given to the Journal alongside other documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. It outlines an extensive FTC investigation, which concluded that Google gave a leg up to its services for travel, local business reviews, and shopping. To do this, the report says, the company altered its normal search result–ranking process and “scraped” other sites, meaning that it copied useful content from other sites for its own services and even threatened to remove the sites if they didn't allow this data sharing.

The report gives examples of times when this practice led to inferior results ranking above better-quality ones, like when Google flight data came up first even though other services had more extensive flight offerings.

This practice has long been rumored, and companies like Yelp (that are negatively impacted by it) have publicly aired their suspicions. Even a casual user of Google search has probably seen anecdotal evidence that the company could be promoting its own services and links above others.

As the Journal reports, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt told a Senate panel in 2011 (when he was chief executive) that “he was not aware of any strange boosts or biases” in the company’s search results. And Google General Counsel Kent Walker echoed this on Thursday, noting that the FTC never took action on the issue. Walker also said that Google frequently makes legitimate changes to its search algorithm.

Since Google search is so much more popular than other search alternatives and has so many users every day, it's important to understand the company’s methods. Richard Gingras, the head of Google News, told Slate last week that Google’s main priority in search is to “recommend the best possible sources based on all the signals we have.” But there may have been other motivators at work.

March 19 2015 4:58 PM

Welcome to Global Warming’s Terrifying New Era

On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Earth’s global temperature for February was among the hottest ever measured. So far, 2015 is tracking above record-warm 2014—which, when combined with the newly resurgent El Niño, means we’re on pace for another hottest year in history.

In addition to the just-completed warmest winter on record globally (despite the brutal cold and record snow in the eastern U.S.), new data on Thursday from the National Snow and Ice Data Center show that this year’s peak Arctic sea ice reached its lowest ever maximum extent, thanks to “an unusual configuration of the jet stream” that greatly warmed the Pacific Ocean near Alaska.

But here’s the most upsetting news. It’s been exactly 30 years since the last time the world was briefly cooler than its 20th-century average. Every single month since February 1985 has been hotter than the long-term average—that’s 360 consecutive months.

More than just being a round number, the 30-year streak has deeper significance. In climatology, a continuous 30-year stretch of data is traditionally what’s used to define what’s “normal” for a given location. In a very real way, we can now say that for our given location—the planet Earth—global warming is now “normal.” Forget debating—our climate has officially changed.

This 30-year streak should change the way we think and talk about this issue. We’ve entered a new era in which global warming is a defining characteristic and a fundamental driver of what it means to be an inhabitant of planet Earth. We should treat it that way. For those who care about the climate, that may mean de-emphasizing statistics and science and beginning to talk more confidently about the moral implications of continuing on our current path.

Since disasters disproportionately impact the poor, climate change is increasingly an important economic and social justice issue. The pope will visit the United States later this year as part of a broader campaign by the Vatican to directly influence the outcome of this year’s global climate negotiations in Paris—recent polling data show his message may be resonating, especially with political conservatives and nonscience types. Two-thirds of Americans now believe that world leaders are morally obligated to take steps to reduce carbon.

Scientists and journalists have debated the connection between extreme weather and global warming for years, but what’s happening now is different. Since weather impacts virtually every facet of our lives (at least in a small way), and since climate change is affecting weather at every point in the globe every day (at least in a small way), that makes it at the same time incredibly difficult to study and incredibly important. Formal attribution studies that attempt to scientifically tease out whether global warming “caused” individual events are shortsighted and miss the point. It’s time for a change in tack. The better question to ask is: How do we as a civilization collectively tackle the weather extremes we already face?

In the aftermath of the nearly unprecedented power and destructive force of Cyclone Pam’s landfall in the remote Pacific island nation of Vanuatu—where survivors were forced to drink saltwater—emerges perhaps the best recent example I’ve seen of a government acknowledging this changed climate in a scientifically sound way:

Cyclone Pam is a consequence of climate change since all weather is affected by the planet’s now considerably warmer climate. The spate of extreme storms over the past decade—of which Pam is the latest—is entirely consistent in science with the hottest ever decade on record.

The statement was from the government of the Philippines, the previous country to suffer a direct strike by a Category 5 cyclone—Haiyan in 2013. As chair of the Climate Vulnerable Forum negotiating bloc, the Philippines also called for a strengthening of ambition in the run-up to this year’s global climate agreement in Paris.

The cost of disasters of all types is rising around the globe as population and wealth increase and storms become more fierce. This week in Japan, 187 countries agreed on a comprehensive plan to reduce loss of life from disasters as well as their financial impact. However, the disaster deal is nonbinding and won’t provide support to the most vulnerable countries.

Combining weather statistics and photos of devastated tropical islands with discussions of political and economic winners and losers is increasingly necessary as climate change enters a new era. We’re no longer describing the problem. We’re telling the story of how humanity reacts to this new normal.

As the Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger, in an editorial kickoff of his newspaper’s newly heightened focus on climate, said, “the mainstream argument has moved on.” What’s coming next isn’t certain, but it’s likely to be much more visceral and real than steadily upward sloping lines on a graph.