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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - September 11th, ’21
September 11th, 2021
The Surprisingly Big Business of Library E-books
Increasingly, books are something that libraries do not own but borrow from the corporations that do.
Daniel A. Gross
Steve Potash, the bearded and bespectacled president and C.E.O. of OverDrive, spent the second week of March, 2020, on a business trip to New York City. OverDrive distributes e-books and audiobooks—i.e., “digital content.” In New York, Potash met with two clients: the New York Public Library and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. By then, Potash had already heard what he described to me recently as “heart-wrenching stories” from colleagues in China, about neighborhoods that were shut down owing to the coronavirus. He had an inkling that his business might be in for big changes when, toward the end of the week, on March 13th, the N.Y.P.L. closed down and issued a statement: “The responsible thing to do—and the best way to serve our patrons right now—is to help minimize the spread of COVID-19.” The library added, “We will continue to offer access to e-books.”
The sudden shift to e-books had enormous practical and financial implications, not only for OverDrive but for public libraries across the country. Libraries can buy print books in bulk from any seller that they choose, and, thanks to a legal principle called the first-sale doctrine, they have the right to lend those books to any number of readers free of charge. But the first-sale doctrine does not apply to digital content. For the most part, publishers do not sell their e-books or audiobooks to libraries—they sell digital distribution rights to third-party venders, such as OverDrive, and people like Steve Potash sell lending rights to libraries. These rights often have an expiration date, and they make library e-books “a lot more expensive, in general, than print books,” Michelle Jeske, who oversees Denver’s public-library system, told me. Digital content gives publishers more power over prices, because it allows them to treat libraries differently than they treat other kinds of buyers. Last year, the Denver Public Library increased its digital checkouts by more than sixty per cent, to 2.3 million, and spent about a third of its collections budget on digital content, up from twenty per cent the year before.
There are a handful of popular e-book venders, including Bibliotheca, Hoopla, Axis 360, and the nonprofit Digital Public Library of America. But OverDrive is the largest. It is the company behind the popular app Libby, which, as the Apple App Store puts it, “lets you log in to your local library to access ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines, all for the reasonable price of free.” The vast majority of OverDrive’s earnings come from markups on the digital content that it licenses to libraries and schools, which is to say that these earnings come largely from American taxes. As libraries and schools have transitioned to e-books, the company has skyrocketed in value. Rakuten, the maker of the Kobo e-reader, bought OverDrive for more than four hundred million dollars, in 2015. Last year, it sold the company to K.K.R., the private-equity firm made famous by the 1989 book “Barbarians at the Gate.” The details of the sale were not made public, but Rakuten reported a profit of “about $365.6 million.”
In the first days of the lockdown, the N.Y.P.L. experienced a spike in downloads, which lengthened the wait times for popular books. In response, it limited readers to three checkouts and three waitlist requests at a time, and it shifted almost all of its multimillion-dollar acquisitions budget to digital content. By the end of March, seventy-four per cent of U.S. libraries were reporting that they had expanded their digital offerings in response to coronavirus-related library closures. During a recent interview over Zoom (another digital service that proliferated during the pandemic), Potash recalled that OverDrive quickly redirected about a hundred employees, who would normally have been at trade shows, “to help support and fortify the increase in demand in digital.” He recalled a fellow-executive telling him, “E-books aren’t just ‘a thing’ now—they’re our only thing.”
Before the pandemic, I had never read an e-book, and didn’t particularly want to. But, during the lockdown, I spent nearly every day wandering my neighborhood in a mask and headphones, listening to audiobooks. I wanted to hear a human voice and feel the passing of time; Libby became a lifeline. As a dual citizen of the Brooklyn Public Library and the N.Y.P.L., I toggled between library cards, in search of the shortest waiting list. I did what previously had been unthinkable and spent a hundred and eighty dollars on a Kobo. I read more books in 2020 than I had in years. I was not the only one; last year, more than a hundred library systems checked out a million or more books each from OverDrive’s catalogue, and the company reported a staggering four hundred and thirty million checkouts, up a third from the year before. (Barnes & Noble, which has more retail locations than any other bookseller in the U.S., has said that it sells about a hundred and fifty-five million print books a year.) The burst in digital borrowing has helped many readers, but it has also accelerated an unsettling trend. Books, like music and movies and TV shows, are increasingly something that libraries and readers do not own but, rather, access temporarily, from corporations that do.
The company that became OverDrive began, in the mid-eighties, as a document-digitizing firm, in a suburb of Cleveland. Potash and his wife, Loree, an academic librarian, had both gone to law school at night, and their early clients were law firms that needed help digitizing large volumes of paperwork. Eventually, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (a precursor to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) hired the young company to digitize reference books, and other publishers followed. “It was probably about a ten-year struggle to get the e-book concept to grab hold,” Jon Nigbor, an early colleague and investor who left OverDrive around 1990 and sold his stake in 2010, told me. “It was the twenty-five-year overnight-success story.” (Nigbor describes himself as a co-founder of the company; Potash denies this.)
In the two-thousands, OverDrive helped publishers set up online stores and sold e-books directly to consumers through its own marketplace. The company also persuaded a few presses to license their e-books to libraries. At the time, the six largest publishers tended to sell their goods through online retailers, such as Amazon, which released its e-reader, the Kindle, in 2007. But, gradually, the Big Six began to sell digital rights to libraries under a “one copy, one user” model. As soon as one reader returned an e-book, a second reader could check it out, and so on, with no expiration date. “At the beginning, we were really trying to replicate what happens on the print-book side,” a publishing executive told me. Digital books, which could in theory be duplicated for free by any librarian with a computer, would still have waiting lists.
“We then saw the first wrinkle in one copy, one user,” Potash said. In 2011, HarperCollins introduced a new lending model that was capped at twenty-six checkouts, after which a library would need to purchase the book again. Publishers soon introduced other variations, from two-year licenses to copies that multiple readers could use at one time, which boosted their revenue and allowed libraries to buy different kinds of books in different ways. For a classic work, which readers were likely to check out steadily for years to come, a library might purchase a handful of expensive perpetual licenses. With a flashy best-seller, which could be expected to lose steam over time, the library might buy a large number of cheaper licenses that would expire relatively quickly. During nationwide racial-justice protests in the summer of 2020, the N.Y.P.L. licensed books about Black liberation under a pay-per-use model, which gave all library users access to the books without any waiting list; such licenses are too expensive to be used for an entire collection, but they can accommodate surges in demand. “At the time of its launch, the twenty-six-circulation model was a lightning rod,” Josh Marwell, the president of sales at HarperCollins, told me. “But, over time, the feedback we have gotten from librarians is that our model is fair and works well with their mission to provide library patrons with the books they want to read.”
During the past decade, publishers and booksellers have consolidated at a rapid pace, leaving a smaller number of companies with a greater degree of influence over what and how we read. In the early days of the Kindle, Amazon undercut many of its competitors, including brick-and-mortar bookstores, by selling consumer e-books for just $9.99. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice accused Apple of conspiring with publishers to increase the prices of consumer e-books, and Apple later agreed to pay four hundred and fifty million dollars in settlement. In 2013, the six largest publishers became five when Penguin merged with Random House. (Now, the Big Five is poised to become the Big Four, if Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster is approved.) Earlier this year, a consumer class-action lawsuit accused Amazon of signing anti-competitive contracts with the five largest publishers in a “conspiracy to fix the retail price of trade eBooks.” (An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment for this story.)
Libraries now pay OverDrive and its peers for a wide range of digital services, from negotiating prices with publishers to managing an increasingly complex system of digital rights. During our video call, Potash showed me OverDrive’s e-book marketplace for librarians, which can sort titles by price, popularity, release date, language, topic, license type, and more. About fifty librarians work for OverDrive, Potash said, and “each week they curate the best ways each community can maximize their taxpayers’ dollar.” The company offers rotating discounts and generates statistics that public libraries can use to project their future budgets. When I noted that OverDrive’s portal looked a bit like Amazon.com, Potash didn’t respond. Later, he said, with a touch of pride, “This is like coming into the front door of Costco.”
Alan Inouye, the senior public-policy director at the American Library Association, told me that consolidation could reduce competition and potentially drive the cost of library e-books even higher. “OverDrive is already a very large presence in the market,” he said. The company’s private-equity owner, K.K.R., also owns a major audiobook producer, RBMedia, which sold its digital library assets to OverDrive last year. But, Inouye added, OverDrive’s influence is an important counterweight to the largest publishers and to Amazon, which dominates the consumer e-book market and operates as a publisher in its own right. (Amazon did not make its own e-books available to libraries until May, when it announced a deal with the Digital Public Library of America.) When I asked Potash about the concern that consolidation could also give OverDrive too much influence over the market, he called that “a far-fetched conspiracy theory.” He cited the company’s track record of advocating for libraries, adding, “I’m a big fan of free-market capitalism.”
To illustrate the economics of e-book lending, the N.Y.P.L. sent me its January, 2021, figures for “A Promised Land,” the memoir by Barack Obama that had been published a few months earlier by Penguin Random House. At that point, the library system had purchased three hundred and ten perpetual audiobook licenses at ninety-five dollars each, for a total of $29,450, and had bought six hundred and thirty-nine one- and two-year licenses for the e-book, for a total of $22,512. Taken together, these digital rights cost about as much as three thousand copies of the consumer e-book, which sells for about eighteen dollars per copy. As of August, 2021, the library has spent less than ten thousand dollars on two hundred and twenty-six copies of the hardcover edition, which has a list price of forty-five dollars but sells for $23.23 on Amazon. A few thousand people had checked out digital copies in the book’s first three months, and thousands more were on the waiting list. (Several librarians told me that they monitor hold requests, including for books that have not yet been released, to decide how many licenses to acquire.)
The high prices of e-book rights could become untenable for libraries in the long run, according to several librarians and advocates I spoke to—libraries, venders, and publishers will probably need to negotiate a new way forward. “It’s not a good system,” Inouye said. “There needs to be some kind of change in the law, to reinstate public rights that we have for analog materials.” Maria Bustillos, a founding editor of the publishing coöperative Brick House, argued recently in The Nation that libraries should pay just once for each copy of an e-book. “The point of a library is to preserve, and in order to preserve, a library must own,” Bustillos wrote. When I asked Potash about libraries and their growing digital budgets, he argued that “digital will always be better value,” but he acknowledged that, if current trends continue, “Yes, there is a challenge.”
Readers of the future are likely to want even more digital content, but it may not look the same as it does now. Audible, which is owned by Amazon, has already made listening to books more like streaming, with subscribers gaining access to a shifting catalogue of audiobooks that they do not need to buy separately. “We have moved away from owning, to accessing,” Mirela Roncevic, a longtime publishing and library consultant, told me. Maybe readers will expect books to feel more like Web sites, and an infinite scroll will replace the turn of the page, as it has in the digital magazine you are reading now. Perhaps readers will want images and videos to be woven seamlessly into the text, requiring a new format. The e-book as we know it “will not last,” Roncevic insisted. Lending libraries were once an innovation that helped spread literacy and popularize books. Roncevic wants libraries to continue innovating—for example, by experimenting with new formats and license models in partnership with independent or international publishers. “Libraries have more power than they sometimes realize,” she told me.
Andrew Medlar, a longtime librarian who now serves as the N.Y.P.L.’s director of BookOps, agrees that libraries need to be innovative, and believes that they need to do so in partnership with venders and publishers. “We’ve got to do it together,” he told me. It didn’t bother him if a few companies turned a profit, he added, as long as they served readers: “It comes down to more people reading more.” After all the conversations I’d had about the economics of e-books, I’d started to worry that I had become a rather expensive library patron, and I asked Medlar whether I was costing the library money by requesting books that I then failed to read, or renewing books that I hadn’t read fast enough. He said that I was, but also told me not to worry. “I don’t want patrons to feel bad about that,” he said. “To me, that’s part of being a reader.”
How Far Can You Go to Resist Being the Subject of a Viral Video?
One boy’s violent act of retribution raises uncomfortable questions about the world we’ve made for children.
When I was a kid, one of my plans was to appear on some kind of candid video show. I was dimly aware of “Candid Camera” as a phenomenon of my parents’ or possibly my grandparents’ generation, but I fantasized about “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” or even just a spot on the local news. In addition to making me famous, this appearance would capture my insouciant charm. As an unusually self-conscious child — one who used the word “insouciant” a lot, if that gives you a sense of the problem — I hoped a candid video might show me as I really was: likable, quick-thinking, maybe possessed of some undiscovered athletic ability. The best part of this plan was that I could do nothing to advance it; by definition, I had to wait for the camera to discover me. I knew the odds of such a thing happening were astronomical. In the 1990s, people did not just roll up and shoot video of children on the street.
In the 2020s, these conditions no longer obtain. Thanks to smartphones and social media, people are constantly shooting video of one another, by accident and on purpose. The candid video has ceased to be a microgenre of television and has become a historical force. Whole news cycles turn on it. In some circumstances, it has the power to start riots and end careers, but mostly it has the power to annoy everyone. In the same way that the invention of the cellphone created the loud call in a restaurant, the smartphone has made public videography a mild but pervasive nuisance. We are still the protagonists of our own lives, but we are also now at risk of becoming supporting characters in other people’s Instagram stories. And this change has happened to all of us, whether we like it or not.
Recently I saw eight seconds of video that capture this problem in its most extreme form. A boy and a girl, who appear to be of high school age, are walking into Panda Express when a third teenager with blond hair stops them in the doorway. He brings with him the energy of the hustler or the man-on-the-street interview host, and the couple are temporarily frozen, caught between suspicion and courtesy. It is a space where things could go either way. “Hey, hold on, excuse me — I have something really important to ask you,” the blond kid says to the girl. “The moment I saw you, my eyes were just — oh, my God, I love you, please could — bleagh!” The “bleagh” is the sound he makes when the other boy punches him in the face.
Several elements of this video are, well, striking. The boy who punches is wearing overalls and a yellow-striped shirt that eerily evoke one of the gang costumes in “The Warriors.” He seems to be a southpaw, and it looks as though he has thrown a punch before. But perhaps what is most remarkable is the distinct moment of resignation that he and his girlfriend share when they realize what the blond kid is doing. Around the time he gets to “my eyes,” she turns away and steps inside, while Overalls Kid calmly sets his smoothie on the ground in preparation to jack his interlocutor in the mouth. The sound of the impact is meaty. The video ends with both of them stumbling out of the frame, Blond Kid reeling and Overalls Kid winding up for another blow. It’s an efficiently cut bit of action that rewards repeat viewings, but it left me with one question: How do we feel about that punch?
I think we can agree that a punch would not be justified if Blond Kid were professing his love sincerely. But he isn’t. He’s professing his love while an unidentified fourth party records the whole thing, presumably as part of the “hit on another guy’s girlfriend” internet challenge. In this context, he is using other people as props, a bad behavior that society should discourage. But what are we willing to condone in order to discourage it? Our collective culture has just begun to decide how we feel about this kind of activity, which has been invented by new technology and will only become more prevalent in the future.
As a middle-aged man, I think of such technology as belonging to the kids, but it doesn’t. Smartphones, YouTube, TikTok and the like were brought to market by adults and then inflicted on a generation that has had little choice in the matter. Internet video belongs to Zoomers the way heroin belongs to junkies. Seen from this perspective, Overalls Kid is part of a history of violent resistance to foreign influence that Americans will recognize in everything from the Boston Tea Party to Al Qaeda to the Ewoks.
Our reams of fretting essays about how much the kids love phones tend to ignore who gave them phones in the first place. We are like parents who left the liquor cabinet unlocked and are shocked to come home and smell the children’s breath — except we’re making money, so maybe we are more like those 18th-century Britons who shipped opium to China. We aren’t forcing Zoomers to spend their childhoods watching and shooting videos; we’re just giving them the opportunity. Some kids will resist, but most will indulge that opportunity, and those who do will make a little more money for Google, for Apple, for TikTok — all the far-off companies chartered to do business with the digital natives in their new world. It is a world we call barbarous, even as we devote more and more resources to colonizing it.
Overalls Kid has seen his people (teenagers with disposable income) overrun by a foreign culture (adult technology workers) that exploits them for economic gain. And his only recourse against this exploitation is violence. Maybe he also spends his free time making prank videos, but I like to think he is desperately trying to live a normal teenage life: dressing weird, having a girlfriend, going to Panda Express even though they have already gotten smoothies because he wants to spend as much time as possible gazing at her. You know — kid stuff. And then along comes this blond kid with his videographer, and they proceed to treat his girlfriend as though she were just another girlfriend with just another guy — as the internet has taught them to do — and the blond kid even makes that hands-down-the-face Edvard Munch expression that you only see in videos, and it is all just too much. Overalls Kid hits the off switch on him.
Ironically, this act of protest against the colonization of his childhood goes viral on the internet. His refusal to be a character in a video gets millions of views, cementing his identity as a character in a video. Because you can’t escape it — the adults are so much more powerful, with billions of dollars and an army of people whose full-time job is to figure out new things for kids to do with their phones, until phones are all kid culture is. Smile! You’re on candid camera, for the rest of your life.
UK.gov is Launching an Anti-Facebook Encryption Push. Don't Think of the Children: Think of the Nuances and Edge Cases Instead
You can't reduce such a vital issue to concern over paedophiles and terrorists
Opinion The British government is preparing to launch a full-scale policy assault against Facebook as the company gears up to introduce end-to-end encryption across all of its services.
Yet the backlash has already begun, showing that officials face a tooth-and-nail fight against their attempt to derail the rollout of end-to-end encryption on the anti-social networking site and others in the Facebook estate.
Prominent in details briefed to the news media this week (including The Register) were accusations that Facebook harbours paedophiles, terrorists, and mobsters and that British police forces would effectively be blinded to the scale of criminality on the social networking platform, save for cases where crimes are reported.
It's a difficult and nuanced topic made no simpler or easier by the fact that government officials seem hellbent on painting it in black and white.
Government and law enforcement officials who briefed the press on condition of anonymity earlier this week* sought to paint a picture of the internet going dark if Facebook's plans for end-to-end encryption (E2EE) went forward, in terms familiar to anyone who remembers how Western nation states defended themselves from public upset after former NSA sysadmin Edward Snowden's 2013 revelations of illegal mass surveillance. The US National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) generates around 20 million reports of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) every year, of which 70 per cent would be "lost" if E2E encryption were put in place, claimed British officials.
The government's long-signalled push to deter Facebook from implementing E2EE comes, inevitably, at a significant cost to taxpayers: London ad agency M&C Saatchi has been hired at an undisclosed cost by the Home Office to tell the public that Facebook (and WhatsApp) harbours criminals. The ad campaign will run online, in newspapers and on radio stations with the aim of turning public opinion against E2EE – and, presumably, driving home the message that encryption itself is something inherently bad.
Other announcements due this week, from notoriously anti-encryption Home Secretary Priti Patel and intergovernmental meetings, will explicitly condemn Facebook's contemplated rollout of E2EE.
Weighing it up
Unsurprisingly, given Facebook's 42 million UK users (in 2017, according to the London School of Economics, PDF) there are indeed some criminals, and certainly criminal abusers using the site. Around 100,000 individuals are reportedly on the Sex Offenders' Register at any one time, while government officials suggested to the press that potential child sex abuse offenders on Facebook are greatly in excess of that number.
Officials suggested that the greatest threat to child safety from Facebook is that abusers can discover a safe space that normalises the sharing of CSAM and helps encourage depraved newcomers onto the platform.
Looking at the drive from a prevention-is-better-than-cure perspective, implementing E2EE would disrupt the ability of Facebook itself to monitor chat conversations for concerning content; inherent in proper implementations of E2EE is the notion that the service provider cannot read the contents of messages. It would also disrupt the platform operators' ability to scan for hashes of known child sexual abuse material (CSAM), for example by comparing hashes of new image uploads to watchlists maintained by the Internet Watch Foundation or the US' National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC.)
These are not trivial concerns. If the current state of affairs helps catch and divert abusers, and those who may be sliding down the slippery slope towards creating and sharing CSAM, perhaps maintaining it has some merits that deserve an informed public discussion.
One consequence of E2EE on major social media platforms (and not just Facebook) may be an increased demand by government for weaponisable exploits against personal devices: that primarily means Android, iOS and Windows. It would also mean police forces having to make direct attempts to break into phones and computers in search of evidence, instead of having it brought to them on request by social media companies.
There are two ways of looking at that. One is to say that police and government ought to accept a new reality where they are constrained to operate within specific one-off warrants authorising hacking into a specified device. The last quarter of a century, where legislation controlling police searches of digital devices and cloud storage failed to keep pace with technology, is a blip against a long legal and historical tradition that kept police on a short leash when it came to searches and seizures.
On the other hand, officials talking to the press raised the spectre of vulnerability disclosure by governments drying up as frustrated law enforcement agencies hoarded vulns for their own use, out of public sight or legal control.
Yet, looking beyond the issue of paedophiles that British government officials want the public conversation to focus on, implementing end-to-end encryption (E2EE) also makes it far more difficult to implement population-scale mass surveillance of the type exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013.
Not only that, but in an era where hostile foreign countries actively hack large stores of personal data for their own purposes, placing encryption barriers in their way is no bad thing. So far, we don't know the implications of countries such as China and Russia sharing and dissecting Westerners' personal details, but doubtless it's nothing positive.
Officials were grave when The Register asked what their Plan B was if Facebook shrugs off the publicity blitz and implements E2EE anyway. One said we'll still hear the stories of children targeted by abusers, but not "in sufficient time that we can intervene." Rather than being proactive, we're told, police forces would end up being reactive, responding to reports instead of proactively patrolling what they see as the digital streets of the modern era.
Yet that focus may mean that crucial nuance and balance in this debate gets missed. While taxpayer-funded messaging bombards us with "think of the children" over the next few months, think instead of what else E2EE encryption brings – both its upsides and its downsides.
A poorly informed decision hastily reached on the basis of one-sided information is no decision worth making.
Australian Court Rules Media Liable for Facebook Comments
Australia’s highest court on Wednesday made a landmark ruling that media outlets are “publishers” of allegedly defamatory comments posted by third parties on their official Facebook pages.
The High Court dismissed an argument by some of Australia’s largest media organizations — Fairfax Media Publications, Nationwide News and Australian News Channel — that for people to be publishers, they must be aware of the defamatory content and intend to convey it.
The court found in a 5-2 majority decision that by facilitating and encouraging the comments, the companies had participated in their communication.
The decision opens the media organizations to be sued for defamation by former juvenile detainee Dylan Voller.
Voller wants to sue the television broadcaster and newspaper publishers over comments on the Facebook pages of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report.
His defamation case launched in the New South Wales state Supreme Court in 2017 was put on hold while the separate question of whether the media companies were liable for Facebook users’ comments was decided.
The companies posted content on their pages about news stories that referred to Voller’s time in a Northern Territory juvenile detention center.
Facebook users responded by posting comments that Voller alleges were defamatory.
News Corp Australia, which owns the two broadcast programs and two of the three newspapers targeted in the defamation case, called for the law to be changed.
The ruling was “significant for anyone who maintains a public social media page by finding they can be liable for comments posted by others on that page even when they are unaware of those comments,” News Corp Australia executive chairman Michael Miller said in a statement.
“This highlights the need for urgent legislative reform and I call on Australia’s attorneys general to address this anomaly and bring Australian law into line with comparable western democracies,” Miller added.
Nine, the new owner of The Sydney Morning Herald, said it hoped a current review of defamation laws by Australian state and territory governments would take into account the ruling and its consequences for publishers.
“We are obviously disappointed with the outcome of that decision, as it will have ramifications for what we can post on social media in the future,” a Nine statement said.
“We also note the positive steps which the likes of Facebook have taken since the Voller case first started which now allow publishers to switch off comments on stories,” Nine added.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Voller’s lawyers welcomed the ruling for its wider implications for publishers.
“This is a historic step forward in achieved justice for Dylan and also in protecting individuals, especially those who are in a vulnerable position, from being the subject of unmitigated social media mob attacks,” a lawyers’ statement said.
“This decision put responsibility where it should be; on media companies with huge resources, to monitor public comments in circumstances where they know there is a strong likelihood of an individual being defamed,” the statement added.
The High Court decision upholds the rulings of two lower courts on the question of liability.
Courts have previously ruled that people can be held liable for the continued publication of defamatory statements on platforms they control, such as notice boards, only after they became aware of the comments.
Revealed: LAPD Officers Told to Collect Social Media Data on Every Civilian They Stop
An internal police chief memo shows employees were directed to use ‘field interview cards’ which would then be reviewed
The Los Angeles police department (LAPD) has directed its officers to collect the social media information of every civilian they interview, including individuals who are not arrested or accused of a crime, according to records shared with the Guardian.
Copies of the “field interview cards” that police complete when they question civilians reveal that LAPD officers are instructed to record a civilian’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media accounts, alongside basic biographical information. An internal memo further shows that the police chief, Michel Moore, told employees that it was critical to collect the data for use in “investigations, arrests, and prosecutions”, and warned that supervisors would review cards to ensure they were complete.
The documents, which were obtained by the not-for-profit organization the Brennan Center for Justice, have raised concerns about civil liberties and the potential for mass surveillance of civilians without justification.
“There are real dangers about police having all of this social media identifying information at their fingertips,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, a deputy director at the Brennan Center, noting that the information was probably stored in a database that could be used for a wide range of purposes.
The Brennan Center conducted a review of 40 other police agencies in the US and was unable to find another department that required social media collection on interview cards (though many have not publicly disclosed copies of the cards). The organization also obtained records about the LAPD’s social media surveillance technologies, which have raised questions about the monitoring of activist groups including Black Lives Matter.
In 2015, the department added “social media accounts” as a line on the physical field interview cards, according to a newly unearthed memo from the previous LAPD chief, Charlie Beck. “Similar to a nickname or an alias, a person’s online persona or identity used for social media … can be highly beneficial to investigations,” he wrote.
While the social media collection has gone largely unnoticed, the LAPD’s use of field interview cards has prompted controversy. Last October, prosecutors filed criminal charges against three officers in the LAPD’s metro division, accusing them of using the cards to falsely label civilians as gang members after stopping them. That unit also has a history of stopping Black drivers at disproportionately high rates, and according to the LA Times, has more frequently filled out cards for Black and Latino residents they stopped.
Meanwhile, more than half of the civilians stopped by metro officers and documented in the cards were not arrested or cited, the Times reported. The fact that a department under scrutiny for racial profiling was also engaged in broad scale social media account collection is troubling, said Levinson-Waldman.
Furthermore, when police obtain social media usernames it opens the door for officers to monitor an individual’s connections and “friends” online, creating additional privacy concerns. “It allows for a huge expansion of network surveillance,” said Levinson-Waldman, noting how police and prosecutors have previously used Facebook photos and “likes” to make dubious or false allegations of criminal gang activity.
Hamid Khan of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition noted that the LAPD also shares data with federal law enforcement agencies through “fusion centers”, and has previously used “predictive policing” technologies that rely on data collected by officers in the field and which can criminalize communities of color.
“This is like stop and frisk,” he said, of the use of field interview cards. “And this is happening with the clear goal of surveillance.” The LAPD, he noted, has allowed officers to pose undercover to investigate groups, meaning officers can create fake social media accounts to infiltrate groups.
Dr Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter LA, said she had long suspected the LAPD conducted “targeted tracking” of specific groups or individual accounts, but was surprised to learn of the default collection of this information in everyday encounters. She fears this could be part of “a massive surveillance operation”.
The copies of the cards obtained by the Brennan Center also revealed that police are instructed to ask civilians for their social security numbers and are advised to tell interviewees that “it must be provided” under federal law. Kathleen Kim, a Loyola law professor and immigrants’ rights expert, who previously served on the LA police commission, said she was not aware of any law requiring individuals to disclose social security numbers to local police.
And she said she was shocked to learn about the social security section on the cards, noting that it was “so antithetical to the department’s own policies” and clearly violated the spirit of sanctuary laws, which are supposed to prevent officers from asking civilians their immigration status. The LAPD had previously taken steps to ensure it was not requesting place of birth information to improve trust with undocumented communities, she said.
The LAPD told the Guardian on Tuesday that the field interview card policy was “being updated”, but declined to provide further details.
Monitoring Black Lives Matter LA
The revelations of broad social media data collection also raised concerns about how police monitor activists.
The Brennan Center obtained LAPD documents related to Geofeedia, a private social media monitoring firm that partners with law enforcement and has previously marketed itself as a tool to monitor BLM protests.
One internal document, which is undated but appeared to be several years old, listed the “keywords” and hashtags that the LAPD appeared to be monitoring through Geofeedia – and they were almost exclusively related to Black Lives Matter and similar leftist protests. It included #BLMLA, #SayHerName, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, #fuckdonaldtrump and the names of people killed by LA police that prompted major protests.
The list did not include any hashtags for rightwing demonstrations and far-right movements, which have grown increasingly violent in recent years in the region.
The context in which these search terms were used is unclear from the records provided, and the LAPD did not respond to questions. The city attorney’s office said the LAPD stopped using Geofeedia around 2017 and that the agency did not have a current list of keywords for social media monitoring.
Abdullah, who helped organize around many of the hashtags the LAPD was monitoring, noted that BLM’s actions were non-violent: “They’re following Black protesters who are organizing to stop violence and saying, ‘Stop killing us’ … And are they turning a blind eye to those who are actually violent: the white supremacist organizations that are growing in number?”
In a 2016 memo to LAPD included in the records, another social media tracking company, Dataminr, listed under “success stories” its tracking of a BLMLA protest outside a jail, saying the firm “uncovered the first images of people at the protest”, as well as its tracking of a protest featuring “a giant blowup statue of Trump”. The local news site, LA Taco, reported last week that LAPD had used Dataminr to monitor last year’s BLM protests for George Floyd.
Jacinta González, an organizer with advocacy group, Mijente, said the LAPD records appeared to fit a pattern of how police in America respond to protest organizations: “There is a long history of law enforcement using surveillance, whether in-person or through digital technologies to attack Black and Latino movements fighting for racial justice.”
The Brennan Center’s records further revealed the LAPD is now seeking to use technology from a new company, Media Sonar, which also tracks social media for police. In the 2021 budget, the LAPD allotted $73,000 to purchase Media Sonar software to help the department “address a potential threat or incident before its occurrence”.
The extent of the LAPD’s Media Sonar use is unclear, but the company’s communications with the LAPD have raised questions. In one message, the firm said its services can be used to “stay on-top of drug/gang/weapon slang keywords and hashtags”. Levinson-Waldman said she feared the company or police would misinterpret “slang” or lack proper context on local groups and language, and she noted research showing that online threats made by gang-affiliated youth largely don’t escalate to violence.
Media Sonar also told the LAPD it offers “pre-built keyword groups” to “help jumpstart implementation” of threat models, and helps police “cast a wide net”. The firm also said it could provide a “full digital snapshot of an individual’s online presence including all related personas and connections”.
The messages from Media Sonar suggested that the department needed significant safeguards to ensure that keywords didn’t disparately target marginalized communities and checks to ensure the data was accurate, Levinson-Waldman said.
Records show that the LAPD has requested federal funding for Media Sonar for “terrorism prevention”, but some advocates are concerned it would be used for protests. In March, a city council report analyzing the LAPD’s response to BLM protests recommended the department purchase software to analyze social media content.
Media Sonar did not respond to inquiries about its relationship with the LAPD. The LAPD did not respond to requests for comment about Media Sonar.
After Chiding Apple on Privacy, Germany Says it Uses Pegasus Spyware
Germany's Federal Criminal Police Office (BKA) purchased access to NSO Group's Pegasus spyware in 2019 after internal efforts to create similar iOS and Android surveillance tools failed.
The federal government revealed the agreement with NSO in a closed-door session with the German parliament's Interior Committee on Tuesday, reports Die Zeit.
When the BKA began to use Pegasus is unclear. While Die Zeit says the tool was purchased in 2019 and is currently used in concert with a less effective state-developed Trojan, a separate report from Suddeutsche Zeitung, via DW.com, cites BKA Vice President Martina Link as confirming an acquisition in late 2020 followed by deployment against terrorism and organized crime suspects in March.
Officials made the decision to adopt Pegasus in spite of concerns regarding the legality of deploying software that can grant near-unfettered access to iPhone and Android handsets. As noted in the report, NSO's spyware exploits zero-day vulnerabilities to gain access to smartphones, including the latest iPhones, to record conversations, gather location data, access chat transcripts and more.
Germany's laws state that authorities can only infiltrate suspects' cellphone and computers under special circumstances, while surveillance operations are governed by similarly strict rules.
BKA officials stipulated that only certain functions of Pegasus be activated in an attempt to bring the powerful tool in line with the country's privacy laws, sources told Die Zeit. It is unclear how the restrictions are implemented and whether they have been effective. Also unknown is how often and against whom Pegasus was deployed.
According to Die Zeit, Germany first approached NSO about a potential licensing arrangement in 2017, but the plan was nixed due to concerns about the software's capabilities. Talks were renewed after the BKA's attempts to create its own spyware fell short.
In July, a cooperative report from 17 media organizations exposed methods by which Pegasus has been abused by authoritarian governments to spy on human rights activists, journalists and business leaders. The same report noted a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that are thought to be tied to people of interest for supposed NSO clients.
The findings prompted swift condemnation from Apple and sparked an Israeli inquiry into NSO's business dealings.
Tuesday's news comes less than a month after the Bundestag's Digital Agenda committee chairman, Manuel Hoferlin, declared Apple to be on a "dangerous path" with plans to enact on-device child sexual assault material monitoring. Hoferlin expressed unease over the initiative in a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying the system undermines "secure and confidential communication" and represents the "biggest breach of the dam for the confidentiality of communication that we have seen since the invention of the Internet," according to a machine translation of the text.
Apple has since postponed the feature's rollout as it gathers feedback on the matter.
Maybe You Missed It, but the Internet ‘Died’ Five Years Ago
A conspiracy theory spreading online says the whole internet is now fake. It’s ridiculous, but possibly not that ridiculous?
If you search the phrase i hate texting on Twitter and scroll down, you will start to notice a pattern. An account with the handle @pixyIuvr and a glowing heart as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting i just want to hold ur hand,” receiving 16,000 likes. An account with the handle @f41rygf and a pink orb as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting just come live with me,” receiving nearly 33,000 likes. An account with the handle @itspureluv and a pink orb as a profile picture tweets, “i hate texting i just wanna kiss u,” receiving more than 48,000 likes.
There are slight changes to the verb choice and girlish username and color scheme, but the idea is the same each time: I’m a person with a crush in the age of smartphones, and isn’t that relatable? Yes, it sure is! But some people on Twitter have wondered whether these are really, truly, just people with crushes in the age of smartphones saying something relatable. They’ve pointed at them as possible evidence validating a wild idea called “dead-internet theory.”
Let me explain. Dead-internet theory suggests that the internet has been almost entirely taken over by artificial intelligence. Like lots of other online conspiracy theories, the audience for this one is growing because of discussion led by a mix of true believers, sarcastic trolls, and idly curious lovers of chitchat. One might, for example, point to @_capr1corn, a Twitter account with what looks like a blue orb with a pink spot in the middle as a profile picture. In the spring, the account tweeted “i hate texting come over and cuddle me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna hug you,” and then “i hate texting just come live with me,” and then “i hate texting i just wanna kiss u,” which got 1,300 likes but didn’t perform as well as it did for @itspureluv. But unlike lots of other online conspiracy theories, this one has a morsel of truth to it. Person or bot: Does it really matter?
Dead-internet theory. It’s terrifying, but I love it. I read about it on Agora Road’s Macintosh Cafe, an online forum with a pixelated-Margaritaville vibe and the self-awarded honor “Best Kept Secret of the Internet!” Right now, the background is a repeated image of palm trees, a hot-pink sunset, and some kind of liquor pouring into a rocks glass. The site is largely for discussing lo-fi hip-hop, which I don’t listen to, but it is also for discussing conspiracy theories, which I do.
In January, I stumbled across a new thread there titled “Dead Internet Theory: Most of the Internet is Fake,” shared by a user named IlluminatiPirate. Over the next few months, this would become the ur-text for those interested in the theory. The post is very long, and some of it is too confusing to bother with; the author claims to have pieced together the theory from ideas shared by anonymous users of 4chan’s paranormal section and another forum called Wizardchan, an online community premised on earning wisdom and magic through celibacy. (In an email, IlluminatiPirate, who is an operations supervisor for a logistics company in California, told me that he “truly believes” in the theory. I agreed not to identify him by name because he said he fears harassment.)
Peppered with casually offensive language, the post suggests that the internet died in 2016 or early 2017, and that now it is “empty and devoid of people,” as well as “entirely sterile.” Much of the “supposedly human-produced content” you see online was actually created using AI, IlluminatiPirate claims, and was propagated by bots, possibly aided by a group of “influencers” on the payroll of various corporations that are in cahoots with the government. The conspiring group’s intention is, of course, to control our thoughts and get us to purchase stuff.
As evidence, IlluminatiPirate offers, “I’ve seen the same threads, the same pics, and the same replies reposted over and over across the years.” He argues that all modern entertainment is generated and recommended by an algorithm; gestures at the existence of deepfakes, which suggest that anything at all may be an illusion; and links to a New York story from 2018 titled “How Much of the Internet Is Fake? Turns Out, a Lot of It, Actually.” “I think it’s entirely obvious what I’m subtly suggesting here given this setup,” the post continues. “The U.S. government is engaging in an artificial intelligence powered gaslighting of the entire world population.” So far, the original post has been viewed more than 73,000 times.
Obviously, the internet is not a government psyop, even though the Department of Defense had a role in its invention. But if it were, the most compelling evidence to me is the dead-internet theory’s observation that the same news items about unusual moon-related events seem to repeat year after year. I swear I’ve been saying this for years. What is a super flower blood moon? What is a pink supermoon? A quick search of headlines from just this month brings up: “There’s Something Special About This Weekend’s Moon,” “Don’t Miss: Rare, Seasonal ‘Blue Moon’ Rises Tonight,” and “Why This Weekend’s Blue Moon Is Extra Rare.” I just don’t understand why everyone is so invested in making me look at the moon all the time? Leave me alone about the moon!
Dead-internet theory is a niche idea because it’s patently ridiculous, but it has been spreading. Caroline Busta, the Berlin-based founder of the media platform New Models, recently referenced it in her contribution to an online group show organized by the KW Institute for Contemporary Art. “Of course a lot of that post is paranoid fantasy,” she told me. But the “overarching idea” seems right to her. The theory has become fodder for dramatic YouTube explainers, including one that summarizes the original post in Spanish and has been viewed nearly 260,000 times. Speculation about the theory’s validity has started appearing in the widely read Hacker News forum and among fans of the massively popular YouTube channel Linus Tech Tips. In a Reddit forum about the paranormal, the theory is discussed as a possible explanation for why threads about UFOs seem to be “hijacked” by bots so often.
The theory’s spread hasn’t been entirely organic. IlluminatiPirate has posted a link to his manifesto in several Reddit forums that discuss conspiracy theories, including the Joe Rogan subreddit, which has 709,000 subscribers. In the r/JoeRogan comments, users argue sarcastically—or sincerely?—about who among them is a bot. “I’m absolutely the type of loser who would get swindled into living among bots and never realize it,” a member of the 4chan-adjacent Something Awful forum commented when the theory was shared there in February. “Seems like something a bot would post,” someone replied. Even the playful arguments about how everything is the same are the same.
That particular conversation continued down the bleakest path imaginable, to the point of this comment: “If I was real I’m pretty sure I’d be out there living each day to the fullest and experiencing everything I possibly could with every given moment of the relatively infinitesimal amount of time I’ll exist for instead of posting on the internet about nonsense.”
Anyway … dead-internet theory is pretty far out-there. But unlike the internet’s many other conspiracy theorists, who are boring or really gullible or motivated by odd politics, the dead-internet people kind of have a point. In the New York story that IlluminatiPirate invokes, the writer Max Read plays with paranoia. “Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake,” he writes. But he makes a solid argument: He notes that a majority of web traffic probably comes from bots, and that YouTube, for a time, had such high bot traffic that some employees feared “the Inversion”—the point when its systems would start to see bots as authentic and humans as inauthentic. He also points out that even engagement metrics on sites as big and powerful as Facebook have been grossly inflated or easily gamed, and that human presence can be mimicked with click farms or cheap bots.
Some of this may be improving now, for better or for worse. Social-media companies have gotten a lot better at preventing the purchase of fake views and fake likes, while some bot farmers have, in response, become all the more sophisticated. Major platforms still play whack-a-mole with inauthentic activity, so the average internet user has no way of knowing how much of what they see is “real.”
But more than that, the theory feels true: Most weeks, Twitter is taken over by an argument about how best to practice personal hygiene, or which cities have the worst food and air quality, which somehow devolves into allegations of classism and accusations of murder, which for whatever reason is actually not as offensive as classism anymore. A celebrity is sorry. A music video has broken the internet. A meme has gotten popular and then boring. “Bennifer Might Be Back On, and No One’s More Excited Than Twitter.” At this point, you could even say that the point of the theory is so obvious, it’s cliché—people talk about longing for the days of weird web design and personal sites and listservs all the time. Even Facebook employees say they miss the “old” internet. The big platforms do encourage their users to make the same conversations and arcs of feeling and cycles of outrage happen over and over, so much so that people may find themselves acting like bots, responding on impulse in predictable ways to things that were created, in all likelihood, to elicit that very response.
Thankfully, if all of this starts to bother you, you don’t have to rely on a wacky conspiracy theory for mental comfort. You can just look for evidence of life: The best proof I have that the internet isn’t dead is that I wandered onto some weird website and found an absurd rant about how the internet is so, so dead.
Until next week,
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