Archive for the 'Research' Category

Data Dealer is Disastrous

Monday, July 15th, 2013

(or, Unfortunately, Algorithms Sound Boring.)

Finally, a video game where you get to act like a database!

This morning, the print version of the New York Times profiled the Kickstarter-funded game “Data Dealer.” The game is a browser-based single-player farming-style clicker with a premise that the player “turns data into cash” by playing the role of a behind-the-scenes data aggregator probably modeled on a real company like Axciom.

Currently there is only a demo, but the developers have big future ambitions, including a multi-player version.  Here’s a screen shot:

Data Dealer screenshot
Data Dealer screen shot (click to enlarge.)

One reason Data Dealer is receiving a lot of attention is that there really isn’t anything else like it. It reminds me of the ACLU’s acclaimed “Ordering Pizza” video (now quite old) which vividly envisioned a dystopian future of totally integrated personal data through the lens of placing orders for pizza. The ACLU video shows you the user interface for a hypothetical software platform built to allow the person who answers the phone at an all-knowing pizza parlor to enter your order. 

(In the video, a caller tries to order a “double meat special” and is told that there will be an additional charge because of his high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. He complains about the high price and is told, “But you just bought those tickets to Hawaii!”)

The ACLU video is great because it uses a silly hook to get across some very important societal issues about privacy. It makes a topic that seems very boring — data protection and the risks involved in the interconnection of databases — vivid and accessible. As a teacher working with these issues, I still find the video useful today. Although it looks like the pizza ordering computer is running Windows 95.

Data Dealer has the same promise, but they’ve made some unusual choices. The ACLU’s goal was clearly public education about legal issues, and I think that the group behind Data Dealer has a similar goal. On their Kickstarter profile they describe themselves as “data rights advocates.”

Yet some of the choices made in the game design seem indefensible, as they might create awareness about data issues but they do so by promulgating misguided ideas about how data surveillance actually works. I found myself wondering: is it worth raising public awareness of these issues if they are presented in a way that is so distorted?

As a data aggregator, the chief antagonist in the demo is public opinion. While clearly that would be an antagonist for someone like Axciom, there are actually real risks to data aggregation that involve quantifiable losses. Data protection laws don’t exist solely because people are squeamish.

By focusing on public opinion, the message I am left with isn’t that privacy is really important, it is that “some people like it.” Those darn privacy advocates sure are fussy! (They periodically appear, angrily, in a pop-up window.) This seems like a much weaker argument than “data rights advocates” should be making. It even feels like the makers of Data Dealer are trying to demean themselves!  But maybe this was meant to be self-effacing.

I commend Data Dealer for grappling with one of the hardest problems that currently exists in the study of the social implications of computing: how to visualize things like algorithms and databases comprehensibly. In the game, your database is cleverly visualized as a vaguely vacuum-cleaner-like object. Your network is a kind of octopus-like shape. Great stuff!

However, some of the meatiest parts of the corporate data surveillance infrastructure go unmentioned, or are at least greatly underemphasized. How about… credit cards? Browser cookies? Other things are bizarrely over-emphasized relative to the actual data surveillance ecology: celebrity endorsements, online personality tests, and poster ad campaigns.

Algorithms are not covered at all (unless you count the “import” button that automatically “integrates” different profiles into your database.)  That’s a big loss, as the model of the game implies that things like political views are existing attributes that can be harvested by (for instance) monitoring what books you buy at a bookstore. The bookstores already hold your political views in this model, and you have to buy them from there. That’s not AT ALL how political views are inferred by data mining companies, and this gameplay model falsely creates the idea that my political views remain private if I avoid loyalty cards in bookstores.

A variety of the causal claims made in the game just don’t work in real life. A health insurance company’s best source for private health information about you is not mining online dating profiles for your stated weight. By emphasizing these unlikely paths for private data disclosure, the game obscures the real process and seems to be teaching those concerned about privacy to take useless and irrelevant precautions.

The crucial missing link is the absence of any depiction of the combination of disparate data to produce new insights or situations. That’s the topic the ACLU video tackles head-on. Although the game developers know that this is important (integration is what your vacuum-cleaner is supposed to be doing), that process doesn’t exist as part of the gameplay. Data aggregation in the game is simply shopping for profiles from a batch of blue sources and selling them to different orange clients (like the NSA or a supermarket chain). Yet combination of databases is the meat of the issue.

By presenting the algorithmic combination of data invisibly, the game implies that a corporate data aggregator is like a wholesaler that connects suppliers to retailers. But this is not the value data aggregation provides, that value is all about integration.

Finally, the game is strangely interested in the criminal underworld, promoting hackers as a route that a legitimate data mining corporation would routinely use. This is just bizarre. In my game, a real estate conglomerate wanted to buy personal data so I gathered it from a hacker who tapped into an Xbox Live-like platform. I also got some from a corrupt desk clerk at a tanning salon. This completely undermines the game as a corporate critique, or as educational.

In sum, it’s great to see these hard problems tackled at all, but we deserve a better treatment of them. To be fair, this is only the demo and it may be that the missing narratives of personal data will be added. A promised addition is that you can create your own social media platform (Tracebook) although I did not see this in my demo game. I hope the missing pieces are added. (It seems more unlikely that the game’s current flawed narratives will be corrected.)

My major reaction to the game is that this situation highlights the hard problems that educational game developers face. They want to make games for change, but effective gameplay and effective education are such different goals that they often conflict. For the sake of a salable experience the developers here clearly felt they had to stake their hopes on the former and abandon the latter, abandoning reality.


(This post was cross-posted at The Social Media Collective.)

Scholar of Internet Freedom Denied Tenure for Human Rights Advocacy

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

(Or: Yale will be next.)

Noted freedom of expression scholar Cherian George has been denied tenure by the Singaporean government against the wishes of his faculty. His error was explaining basic tenets of political philosophy in an editorial.  I’m writing about it because this is an American problem.

Like Prof. George, I am also a professor working in the area of Internet policy. I first encountered George’s work on the subject in 2003 as guest editor for The Communication Review, where I published his research on Singaporean and Malaysian approaches to Internet censorship. I was fascinated by his comments about what happens in Singaporean Internet forums when the government is criticized. He is well-known in my circles for his 2006 book Contentious Journalism and the Internet.

Unlike Prof. George, I am an American academic with no particular connection to Singapore. And yet – strangely, unexpectedly – the Singaporean government routinely appears in my professional life and in American academia. While in Singapore for an international conference, my taxi driver asked me what I did for a living. When I said that I was a professor, he asked when I was relocating. He explained that “Singapore buys the best American professors.” He went on to highlight two specific professors in science and medicine that had been lured to Singapore.  (“What a place!” I thought, “where the average taxi driver cares so much about science!”)

While at my previous position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign the university accepted a $75m grant from the Singaporean government to establish The Advanced Digital Sciences Center at the Fusionopolis Complex, Singapore. An annual group of Singaporean Ph.D. students now visit Illinois for two years and ultimately receive an Illinois Ph.D. As a part of this program, Illinois faculty were offered the opportunity to as much as double their faculty salary and research budgets in exchange for spending a significant amount of time in Singapore and signing the intellectual property they produced over to the Singaporean government. Some faculty who considered participating jokingly called the incentives “danger pay” but that joke doesn’t seem funny to me anymore.

Just last week, while attending the annual conference of information schools in Texas, a colleague stood up and pitched the faculty attendees to consider the possibility of research funding via the Singaporean government instead of through our usual funders. If we went with Singapore, our grant amounts would be 2x to 5x more.

I had little sense that anything was at stake in Singapore’s periodic but insistent appearance in my American professional life until this week’s revelation that Prof. Cherian George was denied tenure there at NTU. Yes, when I visited the country in 2007 all of the Westerners joked about the official ban on chewing gum. Someone nervously pointed out to me that possession of 15 grams of a controlled substance will get you mandatory death by hanging. But research collaboration with Singapore seemed to be a great opportunity.

The case of Prof. Cherian George has made me revise my opinion, and I suggest you do as well. The case poses the question: what does it take for an academic there to incur the wrath of the government? The answer is remarkably little.

In 2005 George published an editorial in the Straits-Times explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. When I found out it likely played a role in George’s firing I read it expecting a fiery polemic. It reads… like an editorial explaining some of the basic political philosophy of Hannah Arendt.

Arendt was a genius and yes, she was no friend to oppressive regimes. (She famously wrote: “To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished but it is also paid by the victor.”) If this is the kind of writing the rulers of Singapore consider dangerous, a liberal education there is simply impossible, as is a modern university. George’s editorial received a direct rebuke from the Prime Minister’s office.

Prof. George is a distinguished, productive, and well-respected scholar with degrees from Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford who has repeatedly asserted that Singapore should abide by international standards of human rights, and this latter point was his downfall. As a researcher working in the same field I can say that his research record is exemplary. It is beyond question.

In 2009, George was promoted to associate professor, told that he had met all of the academic requirements for tenure, but that his tenure had been blocked by the board of trustees for what the university told him were “non-academic factors.” George reported that in a 2009 meeting the president of the university asked him to explain what reasons the government might have to block his tenure. Last year George was asked to re-apply for tenure. It has just been denied. This is supposedly on the basis of his “research and teaching,” but this is an outrageous falsehood.

In fact, the claim is so outrageous that protests against his firing are being led by his external tenure reviewers. (At least, those based in countries that have protections for the freedom of expression.) George is an academic “superstar” according to external reviewer Prof. Karin Wahl-Jorgensen at Cardiff University in the UK, and the case for tenure was “watertight.” Prof. Philip Howard at the University of Washington, a fellow of the Center for Technology Policy at Princeton and another external reviewer, writes in protest that George’s career is being “derailed by the political elites” in Singapore. I agree.

The George case is important for all American academics. The dire financial situation at the University of Illinois made lucrative research deals with authoritarian governments more attractive, and these sorts of collaborations have already been covered extensively in the Western press. I see now that this coverage has missed the mark. It has emphasized the growing trend of international campuses and the reliance on international money in American higher ed, but the coverage has failed to specify the sophisticated Singaporean higher education strategy of targeted bribery and the Singaporean danger to freedom in the American academy.

For instance, extensive media coverage of controversial Yale-N.U.S., “Singapore’s first liberal arts college” and a project of Yale University, focused on the threat to student freedoms

As a New York Times article puts it, quoting Ravinder Sidhu, “The main issue is whether students at the Yale-N.U.S. College will be able to engage in all of the activities associated with an education in the humanities — freedom of thought, the cultivation of the imagination, the ability to think critically about the arguments offered by those in authority, and the ability to fashion arguments and dissent in a civil manner.”

The important problem above is framed as: When Yale-N.U.S. teaches Arendt, will the students be able to talk about it?  But I predict that the problem may never come up.

Student freedom of expression is indeed foundational but this coverage leaves unmentioned the threat that these institutional arrangements are placing on the freedom of research and teaching. It leaves unmentioned the serious risks that any American academic takes when engaging in a Singaporean venture.

What if you went to Singapore and accidentally let it slip that you thought human rights were a good idea?  It is so clean and nice there, it’s easy not to notice that Singapore’s government is (I’ve just noticed) grouped with comparable Liberia, Palestine, Georgia, and Haiti by The Economist’sDemocracy Index.”

If your money has been doubled presumably that takes the sting off. One defense of Yale-N.U.S. was that engagement with countries like China and Haiti have generally been a good thing for Western institutions and the countries involved. But China and Haiti do not typically pay well

When I mentioned to a colleague that I was writing this, he shared the story of 75-year-old Alan Shadrake, an author and British citizen who wrote a book critical of the Singaporean justice system and its use of the death penalty. When visiting Singapore for a book launch in 2010, Shadrake was arrested for defamation and the offense of “scandalizing the court system” (a Singaporean offense). He was found guilty and jailed, despite the protests of Amnesty International. My colleague mentioned that after I publish this article I should not travel to Singapore again.

Yet I’d like to go back. I found Singapore to be a wonderful place. I’m a fan of international collaboration in higher education and I have many collaborators in Singapore. I want to stand in support of my colleagues — the faculty and students who have been overruled by the government in the case of Prof. Cherian George.

As an American academic, I think the best way to support Singaporeans now is to withdraw from any research collaboration involving the Singaporean government. We should not host international research conferences in Singapore. Stay out of Singapore until it is clear that quoting Arendt won’t get you fired (or jailed). Let’s hope that day will come soon.

(This was cross-posted to The Social Media Collective.)

Bandwidth Hogs Don’t Exist

Monday, December 5th, 2011

(or, A Decade into “Always-On” Internet.)

We’re in a paradoxical situation. broadband Internet networks keep getting better, but service provider limits on them keep getting worse.

As of this fall AT&T U-Verse has joined my cable Internet provider, Comcast, in imposing bandwidth caps of 250 GB per month on broadband Internet customers. Cox, Time Warner, Charter, and many more ISPs are now capping. Wireless or wired (and even on new fiber), the North American broadband landscape is now one where broadband internet means limits on usage.

The caps often come with additional fees. AT&T, for example, charges $10 per 50 GB as an overage charge in addition to the cap. Comcast simply threatens to permanently drop customers who go over the cap. As many commentators have pointed out, the ISPs seem to hate their customers, particularly when the customers like to use the product the ISPs are selling.

The alleged reason for the paradox of faster networks = more use restrictions is that the carriers claim the fat pipes have birthed a mythic beast, the “bandwidth hog.” A small number of “hogs” are taking up the whole Internet, and it just isn’t fair to you, say the carriers. The networks wouldn’t need such restrictions if only people would use the Internet “responsibly.” As the former satire news service Wallstrip put it, apparently the Internet isn’t big enough for everyone. Some of you have to leave.

We know from the research literature that there is a major psychological difference between metered and unmetered service. The initial rapid growth of Internet use in the US back in the days of the dial-up modem has been attributed to our historical preference for flat-fee local telephone service: calls to modem banks in the 1990s largely unmetered, and this left people free to play and experiment.

I was a research assistant for the authors of a key paper in the area eleven years ago.  The paper analyzed the consequences of an “always-on” unmetered broadband Internet–then a new idea. It pointed out that the ways people use unmetered always-on Internet are drastically different from those of metered use. Here’s the cite:

François Bar, Stephen Cohen, Peter Cowhey, Brad Delong, Michael Kleeman, John Zysman. (2000). Access and Innovation Policy for the Third-Generation Internet. Telecommunications Policy 24: 489-518. (Link to full text.)

It’s a decade later and things are going backwards. The new caps and metering are the opposite of our hopes for the Internet eleven years ago. Instead of “always-on” we’re now at “watch your meter” — if you can even find out how to check it.

Now, reporters say that a new study by consultancy Diffraction Analysis using actual ISP user data has found that bandwidth caps don’t work to improve congestion problems and that the mythical “bandwidth hogs” don’t actually exist. (See the excellent coverage at DSLReports.)

A quote from a reader of the DSLReports piece puts the facts in terms of the highway metaphor:

1% of vehicle drivers on the road travel a disproportionate amount of miles compared to the average driver. But they are on the road all the time. Most of the time they are on the road there is no rush hour congestion.The heavy drivers are likely to be involved in rush hour traffic jams, but only represent a small, not terribly relevant, fraction of total drivers in the traffic jam. Limiting the amount of miles a driver can drive does nothing to widen the roads and little to keep people off the roads during traffic jams, thus does not help with congestion.

In other words, given the weak correlation between a person’s bandwidth usage right now and a person’s total bits downloaded in a month, metering obviously targets the wrong thing and is not an effective tool for managing congestion.

To refine the highway metaphor a little bit, I would explain why bandwidth caps don’t work by saying:

Commuters cause traffic jams at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. even if they only drive twice a day. Restricting the career travel of long-haul truckers won’t help.

Why do ISPs do it then? One answer is possibly incompetence. A variety of broadband carriers appear to struggle with the accurate tracking of consumer usage. They advocate metering but when they implement it they are unable to correctly measure how much data their customers use. They just don’t seem to have a grasp of what is going on inside their own networks.

However, surely many ISPs are aware of their own customer’s usage patterns. They know that “bandwidth hogs” don’t exist.  What, then, are they up to?

A much better motive for metering and caps in the case of triple-play operators (those who provide Internet and also provide pay television) is to protect their lucrative market for video from encroachment by Internet video competition.

In other words, Comcast has monopoly power in cable television in many markets. It has set its 250 GB/month cap so that it is impossible to buy television over its Internet service (take that, Netflix!) or to use free Internet video services in lieu of cable TV (take that, YouTube!), thus maintaining its monopoly in video. By the way, that is the definition of a violation of antitrust law. Hello, Justice Department?

The caps often don’t seem to have any connection to bandwidth anyway–at Comcast they were set at 250GB three years ago and have never been raised, despite drastic increases in Comcast service capacity with the adoption of newer DOCSIS 3.0 service and higher speed tiers. They also use the same caps across all of their service areas, which makes no sense if they are related to network capacity (which varies according to their adoption of DOCSIS 3.0, and other things).

It isn’t as though customers haven’t noticed this situation. Did you know that media companies–particularly carriers and networks–are almost all the most hated companies in national surveys of customer satisfaction? In one 2011 study, Internet service providers as a sector almost tied for last place (with newspapers), with Comcast dead last among its competitors at 59% satisfied.

It’s time to call out this farce of the “bandwidth hog” and the irresponsible user. Instead, let’s get some policies in place to control money hogs–the carriers that are exploiting monopoly power at our expense.


Updated 2:51 p.m. Fixed four typos, added the words “alleged,” and “fat pipes.” Added the commuters/long-haul truckers metaphor.

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. –CS]

Are Rural People Meaner?

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

(or: Is Online Gossip a Question of Locale or Scale?)

I’m quoted in this morning’s New York Times Story, In Small Towns, Gossip Moves to the Web, and Turns Vicious. This came about because I’ve done some recent research on social media and rural communities (citations below), including a long-term ethnographic study of social media use in rural Native American communities in California and (with Eric Gilbert and Karrie Karahalios) a study of rural vs. urban use of social networking sites.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: In case you aren’t aware of the web aggregator (, it is a portal site owned by newspaper companies that provides a “home page” for every city and town in the US.  That page consists of a feed of local news, presumably generated algorithmically, mixed in with weather, polls, and–critical for our story today–a forum.

Topix forums have become the online place to be for some small towns.  Unlike social media sites such as Google Plus and Facebook, which have pursued a policy of only allowing real names online, the Topix forums allow anonymous posting.

The result is a cesspool of gossip, with posts that have titles like, “People to Stay Away From.” That thread consists simply of a list of the real names of people in Pearisburg, VA that the poster, a “Mr. Kickass,” doesn’t like. The NYT piece included some examples but they chose tame ones.

A normal Topix small-town board includes a purported attempt to out a gay man, accusations that so-and-so has AIDS, a diatribe against miscegenation, public shaming of “bad parents,” announcement that this or that person is a crackhead, and more.  All of these posts are anonymous.

Yes, it looks like Topix is transforming gossip. Just as the Internet has transformed buying airline tickets, is making gossip more efficient. It’s now easier to reach a larger number of people, and (a terrible side effect), indexing by search engines means that an impermanent medium like gossip can now stay online indefinitely to haunt you forever. And I agree that gossip can ruin lives. There are problems.

Yet it’s not clear to me that these are rural problems. I agree that rural people are different from urban people. They are in aggregate more likely to be older, less mobile, poorer, and less educated. And we know that rural people use the Internet differently from urban people.

But remember that Juicy Campus scandal about three years ago (NYT: College Gossip Leaves the Bathroom Wall and Goes Online)? This was a new online forum that allowed anonymous posting, and it filled up with scandalous gossip about sex and drugs (well, mostly sex). It ruined lives. That was a scenario but the locale wasn’t small-town America, it was the University of California, Duke, and Yale.

Chris Tolles, the Topix CEO, is quoted in the Times article linking the situation on the Topix forums to the Hatfields and McCoys. C’mon, Mr. Tolles. Give us a break. At least he didn’t mention Deliverance.

I think the formula is:

anonymity + a defined community (scale) = gossip

Rural doesn’t appear in that equation.

Champaign-Urbana, where I live, is a small town, but it is too big to fit most definitions of a rural area. I think it would be great if all of the gossips, racists and bigots lived on farms somewhere far away from me, but I just don’t think that’s the case. (For more on this, see Mary Gray’s excellent book.)

The situation as a whole reminds me of early efforts to spread the telephone to rural America a century ago (see Fischer’s excellent research). Then, CEOs of telephone companies often refused to build in rural areas because they thought that rural people were all poor and stupid. All of the major telephone company CEOs lived in big cities, and they were sure that rural folks, if given a telephone, would be too dumb to use it, would complain a lot about it, and would probably only play banjo to each other anyway.

I don’t think rural people are meaner.

[This post was cross-posted to the social media collective. -CS]

[Thanks to Kristen Guth for thinking of the Juicy Campus comparison.]


Further reading:

Sandvig, C. (2012). Connection at Ewiiaapaayp Mountain: Indigenous Internet Infrastructure. In: L. Nakamura & P. Chow-White (eds.) Race After the Internet. New York: Routledge. (link to proofs)

Gilbert, E., Karahalios, K. & Sandvig, C. (2010). The Network in the Garden: Designing Social Media for Rural LifeAmerican Behavioral Scientist, 53 (9): 1367-1388.


There’s More to Internet Freedom

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

(or, Is Google the new United Press Syndicate?)

Over at the Huffington Post I have a new blog post co-authored with Dan Schiller that tries to flag the current and timely Internet Freedom / Free Flow of Information / Right to Connect debate with a little more context. Here it is:

Free Flow of Information and Profit
by Dan Schiller and Christian Sandvig

(Photo tweeted from Cairo’s Tahrir Square by @richardengelnbc
click to enlarge)

In at least some sense it is a response to Monroe Price’s earlier post, “Clinton’s ‘Long Game’ Advancing Internet Freedom,” as well as Ethan Zuckerman’s reaction to Clinton’s 2011 Internet Freedom speech.

HuffPo made it a “Featured Post!”  Woo!

But there are no comments.  Boo! I think we used too many big words.

This photo is from Richard Engel of NBC.  Translation is supposedly “thank you / facebook / youth of Egypt.”

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