Internet ‘having midlife crisis’, says Baroness Lane-Fox

Baroness Martha Lane-FoxImage copyright
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The rise of cyber-bullying and monopolistic business practices has damaged trust in the internet, pioneering entrepreneur Baroness Lane-Fox has told the BBC.

The founder also called for a “shared set of principles” to make the web happier and safer.

She said the internet had done much good over the last 30 years.

But she said too many people had missed out on the benefits and it was time to “take a step back”.

“The web has become embedded in our lives over the last three decades but I think it’s reached an inflexion point, or a sort of midlife crisis,” she told Radio 4′s Today programme.

Baroness Lane-Fox co-founded travel booking site in 1998 before going on to sell the firm for £577m seven years later.

She described the early days of the internet as being “full of energy and excitement”, and akin to the “wild West”.

“There was this feeling that suddenly, with this access to this new technology, you could start a business from anywhere,” she said.

Tech ‘minnow’

However, she said that while technology had become a hugely important sector of the UK economy, it had not fulfilled its early potential.

While the web had given people access to the “the world’s knowledge” and enhanced communication, huge numbers still did not use the internet.

She added that the UK’s technology sector remained an “absolute minnow” compared with that of the US.

“More importantly, perhaps a handful of Western companies control a huge amount of our experience of the internet – Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon – and that is different to how I imagined,” she said.

The baroness, who is also a Twitter board member, lamented the negative effects of social media sites on some young people’s self-esteem.

And she said many people had begun to question the commercial motives of the major internet platforms, arguing they needed to be more transparent.

In response, she said there needed to be a Geneva Convention-style charter of internet good practice for web firms to sign up to.

She said the UK government’s proposal for a Digital Charter would be a good place to start, and argued that the web giants would back such an idea.

“I think an agreed set of principles is in the interest of those big companies. They want all of us to keep enjoying and using their products and services.”

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Apple’s iOS 11 kills old 32-bit iPhone and iPad apps

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Many of the affected apps are games and educational titles

Owners of iPhones and iPads who install the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system will find that some older apps will stop working.

The move will generally affect apps that have not been updated in the past two years.

Although many will have been abandoned by their developers, owners will still use some of them frequently.

It is a consequence of iOS 11 being restricted to running apps written in what is known as 64-bit code.

The number signifies how much data a processor can handle at once – the larger the figure, the faster a computer can potentially operate.

Dropping support for 32-bit software lets Apple streamline its operating system and helps it run more quickly since it no longer needs to load software libraries to make sense of the older programs.

Apple has explained in the past that it is relatively easy for app-makers to reversion their products, and its App Store has rejected updates that lack 64-bit support since June 2015.

Even so, the move bucks a general trend for operating systems to support legacy software for longer periods of time.

“Two years is a very short period for something to become obsolete, even in the technology world where things move very fast,” said Prof Alan Woodward, from the University of Surrey’s computing department.

“What most vendors have done so far – and Microsoft is the biggest example of this – is to keep as many things as compatible as possible for as long as possible.

“It wouldn’t have taken a huge amount of work for iOS 11 to have continued supporting 32-bit, so it’s difficult not to conclude that Apple is really trying to force the pace and make people move on.”

The iOS 11 update is due to be released shortly.

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Apple has made it possible to check which apps will stop working before iOS 11 is installed

Many of the affected apps are by independent developers who have shifted focus to other projects. However, the list also contains software from more established publishers, including:

  • several Disney products, including its Winnie the Pooh Puzzle Book, Tangled digital book, and Princess the Frog app
  • high-profile video games, including 2K’s XCom: Enemy Within and Gears’ Flappy Bird
  • American Express’s Amex UK-iPad
  • several Penguin Books apps for young children, including its Ladybird I’m Ready to Spell and First Focus titles, as well as its Spot Goes to School interactive book

Some of these products were still on sale in the App Store at time of writing.

IPhone and iPad owners can find out which, if any, products they will lose access to by going into their devices’ Settings menu, clicking the About button and then tapping the Applications subheading.

There are, however, benefits to installing iOS 11.

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Users of iOS 11 will be presented with a revamped App Store

Among them are:

  • support for new augmented-reality apps, which mix together graphics and real-world views
  • a redesigned App Store that includes articles about some of the products and developers it features
  • improved voices for Siri
  • a “do not disturb” facility that activates when a device detects it is being used in a moving vehicle

“Of course, you don’t have to upgrade to iOS 11, and in theory you could say people have a choice,” said Prof Woodward.

“But in practice users are bound to go up to the new version, assuming their products support it.”

64-bit v 32-bit: a brief introduction

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The number of bits in relation to a microprocessor affects the size of the numbers that can be handled by its registers – the tiny bits of memory on the processing chip itself. Those numbers are then used to address Ram (random-access memory).

In the case of 32-bit architecture, the amount of memory than can be addressed is two to the power of 32, in other words 4.3 billion values.

In the case of 64-bit architecture the processor can theoretically address 18,400,000 trillion values.

As a result, operating systems written for 32-bit chips can only access up to 4GB of Ram, but those written for 64-bit processors can, in theory, support up to 16 billion gigabytes of Ram.

If a program has been written to take advantage of a 64-bit operating system, it should mean the processor can access data that is in this larger memory rather than retrieving it from flash storage or a hard disk, which can speed up the whole processing chain.

However, including more Ram also makes equipment more expensive and power-hungry. None of Apple’s iOS products to date has included more than 4GB of Ram.

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Top China Bitcoin exchange to stop trading

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One of China’s biggest Bitcoin exchanges has said it will stop trading, after a government warning over virtual currencies.

BTCC said it would stop buying and selling on 30 September in response to tightening regulation.

It comes after authorities banned initial coin offerings on 5 September.

The country has seen an explosion of digital currency trading, sparking fears about the financial risks and speculative investing.

The price of Bitcoin tumbled sharply following the BTCC announcement late on Thursday but has since regained some ground.

Cracking down

Chinese authorities expressed concern over the investment risks involved in crypto-currencies and ordered a ban on initial coin offerings, or ICOs, earlier this month.

A growing number of tech companies are opting to sell digital “tokens” to raise funds because they are quick, easy and unregulated.

Then on Wednesday this week, the state-backed National Internet Finance Association issued a warning that virtual currencies are increasingly being used as a tool for illegal fundraising and money laundering.

BTCC, one of the world’s biggest Bitcoin platforms, said in a tweet Thursday after “carefully considering” the directive from regulators, trading on its platform would cease and it would stop registering new users from Thursday.

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BTCC also runs an international exchange from Hong Kong.

More intervention is expected. The BTCC shutdown comes ahead of speculation that the Chinese government plans to completely ban exchanges.

Reuters and other media have reported this week, citing sources, that China is planning the suspension, but the regulator has not yet made any such announcement.

China’s ICO ban, and wider fears of more regulation, has prompted a sell-off that has wiped billions of the value of crypto-currencies since they hit record highs at the start of the month.

Currency risk

Regulators around the world are in the midst of working out how to address some of the risks around virtual currencies.

The UK’s financial watchdog warned this week that ICOs are “very high-risk, speculative investments,” while the US Securities and Exchange Commission said in July that some ICOs should be regulated like other stocks.

Regulators in Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada have also pointed out some of the dangers.

Digital currencies are also facing scrutiny from the private sector. This week JPMorgan chief executive Jamie Dimon branded Bitcoin a “fraud” and said it was set to “blow up”.

Mr Dimon told an investor conference in New York that if any of his traders were found trading Bitcoin he would “fire them in a second”, and that Bitcoin was “worse than tulips bulbs”, referring to a famous market bubble from the 1600s.

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Angry Birds maker Rovio targets $1bn valuation

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The mobile games developer behind Angry Birds expects to be worth about $1bn when it lists on the stock market.

Rovio has set a range for its share sale that would value the business at between 802m euros and 896m euros ($960m-$1.07bn; £710m-£795m).

The Finnish firm’s boss, Kati Levoranta, said the listing would help the company expand further.

It is “more than just a gaming company”, she said, with sales from film and merchandising as well.

The Finnish firm expects to list on the main part of the Helsinki Nasdaq on 3 October.

For the year to 30 June, Rovio reported revenues of 265.8m euros, of which 210.1m euros came from games and 55.7m euros from brand licensing.

“The mobile gaming market is expected to grow fast and Rovio has grown faster than the market in recent years,” said Ms Levoranta.

“But Rovio is much more than just a gaming company. Angry Birds branded consumer products are already sold in some 120 counties and the first Angry Birds Movie, released in 2016, was an international box-office success.

“The listing is an important step in developing Rovio into an even stronger games-first entertainment company.”

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UN warning on growing digital ‘chasm’

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Many African nations have low net speeds but high mobile penetration

The digital divide separating developed and developing nations is in danger of becoming a chasm, warns a UN report.

The divide has grown thanks to accelerating net connection speeds in developed nations and static ones elsewhere, it said.

And 52% of the world’s population still has no access to the internet, said the organisation’s Global Broadband Progress report.

Improved net access was a key driver of other social goals, it said.

No access

The average global net access speed was now about 7.2 megabits per second (mbps), said the report which looks at how broadband, mobile phones and other communication technologies are used around the world.

However, it added, that headline figure masked significant differences between nations. In general, it said, net connection speeds in more developed nations were rising faster than elsewhere.

For instance, it said, the average access speed in South Korea was now about 28.6mbps and peak speeds of more than 184mbps had been seen in Singapore.

By contrast line speeds in many developing nations, such as the 1.5mbps available in Nigeria, had not improved significantly since the last UN broadband report was released last year.

A “chasm” could emerge because of the “deepening inequality in global connectivity between starters, adopters and front-runner countries”, said the report.

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UN: Net access can help nations speed up moves to improve agriculture and aid farmers

The differences between nations with a mature hi-tech infrastructure and developing nations were also deepened because wider use of technology could help other social goals, said the UN.

Greater use of information and communication technologies could accelerate a nation’s progress towards, for example, more sustainable agriculture or better health for citizens.

“Digital tools can increase access to health, empower patients, and provide better health information and education for all,” said the UN.

While technology was playing a part in helping many nations progress, the UN also noted that a majority of the world’s population, 52%, still had no net access at all.

There were also regional differences, with Europe topping tables of net access with 76% of its citizens being able to go online. By contrast, only 21.8% of people in Africa could access the internet.

“Large gaps in connectivity persist, mainly due to the lack of infrastructure, affordability, lack of skills or lack of relevant local content,” said the report.

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Google sued over ‘sex discrimination’

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Three women who used to work at Google have filed a lawsuit against the technology giant, alleging it pays women less than men for comparable work.

The suit says Google is aware of the situation, but has not moved to fix it.

It comes as companies in Silicon Valley face growing scrutiny over gender relations.

Google is also under investigation by the US Department of Labor over its pay practices.

“It is time to stop ignoring these issues in tech,” said Kelly Ellis, a former software engineer at Google and one of the women who filed the suit.

She posted on Twitter that she hopes the suit will force Google and other companies to change their practices.

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The lawsuit, filed in a San Francisco court, says Google discriminates against female staff with lower pay, more limited promotion, and fewer advancement opportunities compared to men with comparable qualifications.

Ms Ellis, for example, was hired in 2010 at a level typically assigned to college graduates, although she had four years of experience, according to the lawsuit. A male colleague with similar levels of experience started on a higher rung.

She was also assigned to a less prestigious engineering role, the suit says

Ms Ellis resigned from Google four years later “because of the sexist culture”, the lawsuit said.

Previous allegations

The complaint is seeking class-action status that would cover women working at the company in California for the last four years. They are looking for unpaid wages, among other remedies.

Google said it would review the lawsuit but disagreed with the “central allegations”.

“Job levels and promotions are determined through rigorous hiring and promotion committees, and must pass multiple levels of review, including checks to make sure there is no gender bias in these decisions,” spokeswoman Gina Scigliano said in a statement.

Like other companies in Silicon Valley, the company has faced questions about how it treats women before.

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Google’s Sundar Pichai criticised a memo written by an employee for being sexist

About 70% of Google’s workforce are men, according to the company. Men represent about 80% of staff in “tech” roles and 75% of leadership positions.

The Department of Labour found systematic pay disparities at the firm during a 2015 audit, according to the lawsuit. The government in January sued Google to get access to more information to see if the patterns held true across a more extensive probe.

A spreadsheet with data from 1,200 employees also found disparities, the New York Times recently reported.

Google also made headlines earlier this summer, when a memo written by a senior Google employee that criticised diversity programmes and hiring practices became public.

Google later fired him.

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Facebook to trim advert categories aimed at ‘anti-Semites’

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Facebook looks at what people do and say on its site to categorise them for advertisers

Facebook is reviewing its ad targeting system after investigators found they could direct ads to self-described anti-Semites.

Researchers at ProPublica found several ad categories for people who had declared that they “hated” Jews.

Facebook said its algorithms automatically created the categories when analysing user interests.

It said it would trim the number of categories available and check the list before letting advertisers see it.

The ProPublica researchers found the anti-Jewish categories while conducting a larger investigation into the way Facebook targets adverts at users.

To find out if the classifications were real, it bought ads that combined the three separate anti-Semitic categories with several others that were about far-right topics.

‘Discrimination prohibited’

ProPublica said it had to use several categories because Facebook would not let it buy adverts for the small number of users who had described themselves as being anti-Semitic. One category had only two Facebook users in it.

The three adverts it prepared, which advertised ProPublica’s work, were approved and posted to the news feeds of the people who had revealed they were interested in the right-wing topics.

The data informing the advertising categories on Facebook was generated automatically, said the ProPublica reporters, and was created from content people explicitly shared on the site as well as by what they revealed via their activity.

In a statement, Rob Leathern, product management director at Facebook, said it had now removed the “targeting fields”. The social network said no-one appeared to have used the ad categories before ProPublica uncovered them.

Mr Leathern said Facebook did not allow hate speech to appear on its site.

“Our community standards strictly prohibit attacking people based on their protected characteristics, including religion,” said Mr Leathern, “and we prohibit advertisers from discriminating against people based on religion and other attributes.”

However, he said, there were times when information appeared on Facebook that violated its standards.

He said it was building “guardrails” into its processes to stop offensive self-reported profile traits being used as ad categories.

“We know we have more work to do,” he said.

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Equifax data breach: Credit rating firm replaces key staff

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Equifax’s share price has fallen by more than a third

US credit report giant Equifax has replaced two senior staff after revealing last week it had suffered a massive data breach.

Data on up to 143 million Americans, about 400,000 Britons and a number of Canadians may have been stolen by hackers between mid-May and July.

The chief information officer and chief security officer have both stood down.

Equifax faces dozens of legal claims over the breach, which the US Federal Trade Commission is investigating.

Social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driving licence numbers for up to 143 million Americans were exposed, the Atlanta-based firm says.

Credit card numbers for about 209,000 Americans and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information” for some 182,000 Americans were also accessed by the hackers, it adds.

Lenders use data amassed by firms like Equifax to assess the credit worthiness of customers seeking to acquire houses, cars and credit cards.

  • Equifax confirms Britons hit by breach
  • Equifax says data breach hit 143 million

‘How did you fail?’

Susan Mauldin, chief security officer, retired and was replaced by Russ Ayres in an interim role, while chief information officer David Webb left and was replaced by Mark Rohrwasser in an interim capacity, the firm said.

The changes, made as part of the firm’s review of the cyber security incident breach, were “effective immediately”, Equifax said in a statement.

Recent massive data breaches

The company added that its external investigation was ongoing and it was working closely with the FBI in its criminal probe.

Equifax holds data on more than 820 million consumers as well as information on 91 million businesses.

Its share price has fallen by more than a third since it revealed the breach on 7 September, Reuters news agency reports.

  • Time Warner users exposed in data breach
  • UK data protection laws to be overhauled
  • Shoddy data-stripping leads to cyber-leaks

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Senator Warren wants answers

US Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has built up a reputation as a consumer champion, is demanding to know how the firm’s security systems failed.

“Equifax has failed to provide the necessary information describing exactly how this happened, and exactly how your security systems failed,” she said in a letter to the company.

“Equifax’s initial efforts to provide customers information did nothing to clarify the situation and actually appeared to be efforts to hoodwink them into waiving important legal rights.”

The credit rating firm’s chief executive, Richard Smith, has openly apologised for the breach and will testify at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing in the US Congress on 3 October.

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Reddit troll ban helped cut hateful speech

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Reddit said it was more about “honest discussion” than free speech

Closing down the places internet trolls gather can help to stop the spread of hateful comments on social media, suggests research.

US scientists studied what happened on Reddit after it took action in 2015 to close down offensive chat forums.

The ban led many people to close their Reddit accounts and those that stayed toned down their language, they found.

However, the study suggests that the ban did not have a significant impact beyond Reddit.

For their study the researchers from Georgia Tech, Emory University in Atlanta and the University of Michigan analysed data on more than 100 million comments and posts put on Reddit before and after the ban.

“The ban worked for Reddit,” said the study. “It succeeded on both a user and community level.”

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The social news site took the step of banning forums, known as subreddits, because they were acting as rallying points for trolls who targeted, for instance, black people or those who were overweight.

At the time the ban was enacted in 2015, Reddit boss Steve Huffman said the site was created to support “open and honest discussion” rather than as a “bastion of free speech”.

The research looked at what happened in response to the ban by analysing the activity of people who joined in discussions on the banned forums.

On the two main banned subreddits, 41% and 33% of users respectively stopped posting or deleted their accounts.

The remainder that stayed also moderated their speech by as much as 80%, suggests linguistic analysis by the researchers.

Trolling was kept at a low level by ensuring duplicate offensive forums were quickly shut down, it said.

‘Someone else’s problem’

The ban meant the amount of hate speech flowing into and across Reddit declined by a “large and significant” amount, said the study.

The overall effect on attitudes and activity across the net was more muted, said the researchers. This was because many people who left Reddit as a result of the ban just jumped to another social network that did not moderate what they said.

Reddit’s ban effectively made the actions of the trolls “someone else’s problem” said the social scientists, and “likely did not make the internet safer or less hateful”.

Social media expert Whitney Philips told technology website Motherboard that while it was good that Reddit had taken a stance, it was important to grasp the true extent of the problem.

“Studies like this that are limited to a specific platform can create a sense of false security because it’s not looking at the whole landscape,” she said.

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Apple explains Face ID on-stage failure

Media captionWATCH: Apple’s event in two minutes

Apple has explained why its new facial recognition feature failed to unlock a handset at an on-stage demo at the iPhone X’s launch on Tuesday.

The company blamed the Face ID glitch on a lockout mechanism triggered by staff members moving the device ahead of its unveil. Yahoo News was first to report the details.

Apple’s software chief dealt with the hiccup by moving on to a back-up device, which worked as intended.

But the hitch was widely reported.

“People were handling the device for [the] stage demo ahead of time and didn’t realise Face ID was trying to authenticate their face,” an unnamed company representative is quoted as saying by Yahoo’s David Pogue.

“After failing a number of times, because they weren’t Craig [Federighi], the iPhone did what it was designed to do, which was to require his passcode.”

Media captionCraig Federighi’s demo of the new feature did not go as planned

Apple later confirmed to the BBC that the quote was real.

At its launch event, the company had earlier described Face ID as being “effortless” to use and more accurate than its fingerprint-based Touch ID system.

The older authentication system is not available on the new premium handset because it lacks a fingerprint sensor.

So, despite the fact the incident lasted only about 10 seconds, out of a near two hour long presentation, it still has the potential to undermine confidence in the company’s claims.

Apple has confirmed elsewhere that Face ID is disabled after just two unsuccessful attempts, unlike Touch ID, which requires a passcode to be manually typed in only after five failed tries.

Earlier theories of what had gone wrong included Mr Federighi’s stage make-up interfering with the system, as he was seen to wipe his face before making his second attempt, and that the phone had been recently rebooted triggering the need for a typed code.

Seeking answers

Other issues concerning the new facial recognition system have also been raised, including whether it might make it easier for the authorities or thieves to force a user to unlock their handset and whether it will handle the hijab worn by some Muslim women, among other facewear.

The iPhone X is not due to go on sale until November, and journalists at the launch at the company’s Cupertino, California headquarters were shown Face ID working in controlled circumstances.

On Wednesday, the Democrat senator Al Franken published a letter he had sent to Apple seeking more information.

“Substantial questions remain about how Face ID will impact iPhone users’ privacy and security, and whether the technology will perform equally well on different groups of people,” he wrote.

“To offer clarity to the millions of Americans who use your products, I ask that you provide more information on how the company has processed these issues internally, as well as any additional steps that it intends to take to protect its users.”

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