[Plura-list] Life as a fake Amazon reviewer; Don't talk about cancer on FB; Privacy as a right, not a product; Primary Richie Neal

Cory Doctorow doctorow at craphound.com
Mon Jul 13 12:24:21 EDT 2020

Today's links

* Full Employment, the podcast edition: There's no AI employment crisis,
but there IS a climate emergency.

* Life as a fake Amazon reviewer: A security economics case-study.

* Don't talk about cancer on FB: Facebook greets cancer diagnoses with a
torrent of quack remedy ads.

* Privacy as a right, not a product: Putting a pricetag on your data
makes you less private.

* Primary Richie Neal [D-MA]: Meet the powerful "Democrat" who defends
surprise billing and zero taxes for private equity.

* This day in history: 2005, 2010, 2015, 2019

* Colophon: Recent publications, upcoming appearances, current writing
projects, current reading


🎍 Full Employment, the podcast edition

This week's podcast is a reading of Full Employment, my latest Locus


It's a counter to the argument about automation-driven unemployment -
namely, that we will have hundreds of years of full employment facing
the climate emergency and remediating the damage it wreaks. From
relocating all our coastal cities to replacing aviation routes with
high-speed rails to the caring and public health work for hundreds of
millions of survivors of plagues, floods and fires, we are in no danger
of running out of work. The real question is: how will we mobilize
people to do the work needed to save our species and the only known
planet in the entire universe that can sustain it?

Here's the podcast episode:


Here's the MP3:


And here's the podcast feed:



🎍 Life as a fake Amazon reviewer

We hear a lot about how algorithms "radicalize" people, a semi-mystical
process whereby "Big Data" and "Machine Learning" turn people into
radical zombies who do whatever the system bids. In reality, it's a lot
more banal.

Take Eli Reiter's journey into becoming a paid Amazon reviewer, posting
inauthentic reviews to help vendors game the algorithm. He signed up for
a site called Rebatekey, "which offers rebates between 5% and 100% in
exchange for leaving a review."


He contacted Rebatekey customer service over Facebook Messenger.
Facebook then tagged him as someone willing to write reviews for money.
Even sleazier companies than Rebatekey send ads to people in this FB
category offering them money for paid reviews.

That's it. That's radicalization. It's just targeting.

The median human buys one or fewer fridges in their life. Targeting
fridge buyers is hard. The traditional method is stuff like billboards
near airports.

These ads represent a crude targeting method: "People who fly have
money. Fridges cost money. Put ads for fridges near airports."

It's not very effective. Almost no one who sees the ad buys a fridge.
It's like a 0.000000001% conversion rate.

FB lets you target people who've looked up fridge reviews. They also
probably won't buy a fridge after seeing your ad, but their conversion
rate will be more like 0.000001%, which is a thousandfold improvement
over airport billboards.

Companies would be nuts to turn up their nose at a thousandfold gain,
even if the overall effect size is very small. So FB gets a lot of ad

This works for any hard-to-locate trait: want to find people who believe
gender is a spectrum?

That's there.

How about people who want to march through Charlottesville carrying tiki
torches and cosplaying Civil War criminals? That's there too.

Finding people with hard-to-find traits represents a profound change in
our discourse, politics and commerce, for good and bad, but it's not a
mind-control ray, it's just targeting. Big Tech isn't made of
super-geniuses who can help you bypass the public's critical faculties
and get them to do your bidding.

Big Tech is made up of ordinary mediocrities like you and me who will
help you find otherwise difficult-to-address target audiences and show
them messages that they find compelling.


* Big Tech doesn't make people receptive to your message

* Big Tech finds people who are receptive

This whole process also has a security dimension: when we are exposed to
a new message, we seek out external indications of its validity: we read
reviews, we look at Wikipedia entries, we check ratings with neutral

These processes are imperfect, and what's more, their utility changes
over time, illustrating one of the bedrock principles of security
economics, a variation on Goodhart's Law: "Any measure becomes a target."

My favorite example of this is Google's early history: the Pagerank
alogrithm Larry Page invented made a key observation: that pages that
had a lot of inbound links were likely to be highly relevant, because
relevance was the only reason for one page to link to another.

Pagerank *trounced* every other search-ranking algorithm by slurping up
all available web-pages and counting how many links went to each page on
the web.

But making links to webpages isn't hard. As soon as there was a reason
to link to webpages other than relevance (getting highly ranked by
Pagerank), people made linkfarms to link to their pages and climb the ranks.

Over the years, Pagerank and "Search Engine Optimizers" have been in an
arms-race in which Pagerank makes it more expensive to game its system,
and SEOs discover cheap workarounds, and/or seek out higher-margin
customers who don't mind paying to overcome the new barriers.

Which brings me back to Eli Reiter, writing fake Amazon reviews. Amazon
customers rely on reviews as an important quality signal. Highly ranked
items generate more sales, but when these items are actually
low-quality, they generate returns and reduce trust in Amazon overall.

Amazon and cheap goods vendors have been locked in an arms-race forever.
First it was authors creating fake accounts to say nice things about
their own books. Then it was companies paying clickworkers to write
reviews for products without buying them.

This gave way to "brushing" - sending terrible merchandise to random
people so Amazon would accept a review from someone else:


Now scammers are paying people like Reiter to place orders for goods,
accept delivery of them, and write reviews. The vendors who can afford
this kind of expensive countermeasure must be commanding margins of
sufficient size to make it worth their while.

Big ticket items sometimes generate these margins, as to high-volume
items - but one of the most reliable ways to improve margins is to skimp
on quality. Worse goods, made in worse conditions, yield excess rents
that can be mobilized to generate good reviews.

That is, "every measurement becomes a target."


🎍 Don't talk about cancer on FB

Big Data's primary utility isn't brainwashing, it's targeting -
surveillance lets advertisers locate people with hard-to-find traits,
which solves a lot of real business problems for merchants filling
narrow and obscure niches.


In particular, ad-targeting is really useful for con artists and
scammers, because the correlates of vulnerability to scams are easy to
identify, but hard to turn into targeted ad campaigns without mass

Which is why, when Anne Borden King of Bad Science Watch posted about
her breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook, she was inundated with quack
remedy ads from people willing to commit murder-by-fraud for their
personal enrichment.


The pseudoscience scammers offered her cumin seeds, colloidal silver
treatments, "cell quickening" and luxury Mexican beach "nontoxic

No legitimate cancer therapies were advertised to her.

King: "Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive
environment to connect their products with identities and to build
communities around their products. They use influencers and patient
testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook
'support groups' to sell their products in pyramid schemes."

Targeting solves a key business need for unscrupulous merchants.

King again: "Pseudoscience companies tap directly into our fears and
isolation, offering us a sense of control, while claiming their products
can end our pain."

Like me, King concludes that FB can't solve this problem, and that we
should stop using it. I've been a zuckervegan for more than a decade.

King's advice: "suspend, delete or even just spend less time on Facebook
(and on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook)."


🎍 Privacy as a right, not a product

Writing on EFF Deeplinks, my colleague Hayley Tsukayama  makes an
important, often overlooked observation about the "value" of your
private data: the money companies make from spying on you isn't a good
proxy for what your data is worth.


This is in the context of the DASHBOARD Act ("Designing Accounting
Safeguards to Help Broaden Oversight and Regulations on Data") which
will require spying companies to tell you how much money they make by
creating nonconsensual dossiers of your activities and preferences.

As Tsukayama writes, initiatives like these are grounded in a form of
privacy nihilism, the idea that it's too late to force companies not to
spy on us, and so the next best thing is to make them compensate us for

This is surrender. The sums companies make by spying on us are totally
uncoupled from how much our information is worth to us:

"Companies advertised lists of 1,000 people with different conditions
such as anorexia, depression and erectile dysfunction for $79 per list.
Such embarrassing information in the wrong hands could cost someone
their job or their reputation."

Rather than buying into the idea that privacy is a product, we need to
treat it like a right, with no price-tag: "No person should be coerced
or encouraged to barter it away. It's not a good deal for people to
receive a handful of dollars in exchange for it."

This echoes Malavika Jayaram's important critique: "'privacy is a
luxury' disproportionately affects people with less power, agency and


It also taps into my own dissatisfaction with the idea that "if you're
not paying for the product, you're the product" - which implies that
paying companies will make them respect you more.

If this was true, buying a John Deere tractor would cause the company to
bend over backwards to give you rights and freedoms - not abuse
copyright law to force you to get your repairs exclusively from them
(see also: Apple).

By all means let us have laws "requiring transparency about data
collection, including the right to know the specific items of personal
information companies have collected on you, and the specific third
parties who received it. Not just categorical descriptions of the
general kinds of data and recipients. Users should have a legal right to
obtain a copy of the data they have provided to an online service provider."

But this is just table-stakes. Our goal should be "Requiring companies
to respect everyone’s privacy rights—and giving individuals the power to
hold those companies accountable when they don’t."


🎍 Primary Richie Neal [D-MA]

A campaign from Fight Corporate Monopolies, a 501(c)4 "dark money" org
spun out of the American Economic Liberties Project targets Rep Richie
Neal [D-MA],co-author of a bill letting Blackstone - his top donor -
continue to gouge people with health emergencies through "surprise billing"


Surprise billing happens when a private equity looter like Blackstone
takes over the emergency room of a hospital and opts the emergency
doctors and other personnel out of the hospital's insurance plans.

That means that even if you can get through to your insurer and check
that the hospital the ambulance is racing you to is covered, you still
end up on the hook, personally, for thousands of dollars for care that
is charged a many multiples of the going rate.

It is an unimaginably unethical, corrupt and indefensible practice. The
people involved are irredeemable villains who target their fellow humans
at moments of dire need and distress.

If there is a hell, they belong there.


Neal took in $46k from Blackstone this cycle, making them his largest
donor. He is chair of the Ways and Means committee and his bill rolling
back the Trump #taxscam left Blackstone untouched. Blackstone - the
largest PE firm in the world - pays $0.00 in federal taxes.

Fight Corporate Monopolies' attack ad will run for 2 weeks in Neal's
district, at a cost of $300k.


Neal faces a primary challenge from Justice Democrat Alex Morse, Mayor
of Holyoke, whose platform backs the Green New Deal and Medicare For All.

Neal leads Democrats in accepting corporate money and is the leading
voice against Medicare for All in the Democratic caucus; he's even urged
Democrats not to say the words "Medicare for All" in public.


🎍 This day in history

#15yrsago White Wolf's last copyright debacle: DRM disaster

#10yrsago Financial genius: US record industry turns $16M in legal
spending into $391K cash

#10yrsago Open Source Hardware Definition released

#10yrsago Lessig responds to ASCAP's bizarre anti-free-culture smear
campaign https://www.huffpost.com/entry/ascaps-attack-on-creative_b_641965

#10yrsago Important fMRI study literacy tips

#10yrsago Minister responsible for Canada's DMCA loses nerve, won't
defend own bill

#10yrsago New media give way to newer media and get even better

#10yrsago Arrested for blowing bubbles at the G20 in Toronto?

#5yrsago University of Toronto upholds "alternative medicine" course
that denied vaccines, taught "quantum medicine"

#5yrsago Bloom County to return for 2016 election cycle

#1yrago London police official warns journalists not to publish leaks on
pain of imprisonment https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48973861

#1yrago #TelegramGate: leaks show Puerto Rico's appointed officials
mocking the dead as hurricanes devastate the island

#1yrago Vidcon cosplayer dressed as an influencer apology video

#1yrago Bird Scooter reportedly lost $100m in three months, needs more
capital to stay afloat

#1yrago Al Jaffee's MAD Life: how a traumatized kid from the shtetl
became an American satire icon

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Bruce Schneier (https://www.schneier.com/),
Slashdot (https://slashdot.org/).

Currently writing:

* My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and
reconciliation. Friday's progress: 543 words (37107 total).

Currently reading: Anger Is a Gift by Mark Oshiro

Latest podcast: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town (part 09)

Upcoming appearances:

"Working as Intended: Surveillance Capitalism is not a Rogue
Capitalism," Jul 21,

Upcoming appearances:

"Working as Intended: Surveillance Capitalism is not a Rogue
Capitalism," Jul 21,

Latest book:

* "Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new
introduction by Edward Snowden:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250774583; personalized/signed copies

Upcoming books:

* "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters,
bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here:
https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781626723627. Get a personalized, signed
copy here:

* "Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

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*When life gives you SARS, you make sarsaparilla* -Joey "Accordion Guy"

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