As David Letterman’s first Netflix guest, Barack Obama warns against the ‘bubble’ of social media


David Letterman seems to be taking the title of his new Netflix show very seriously: On the very first episode of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman, he’s joined by former U.S. President Barack Obama.

The episode has plenty of funny moments, like Obama ribbing Letterman about his nearly Biblical beard. But they cover substantive political topics, too — not just during the onstage interview, but also in Letterman’s walk across Selma’s famous Edmund Pettus Bridge with Congressman John Lewis.

In fact, Letterman seems to be treating the new show as an opportunity to move a little bit away from his usual sardonic style and offer more depth and seriousness. He ended the interview by telling Obama, “Without a question of a doubt, you are the first president I really and truly respect.”

On the tech front, Obama repeated some of the points he made in a recent BBC interview with the U.K.’s Prince Harry. After being asked about threats to our democracy, Obama warned against “getting all your information off algorithms being sent through a phone.”

He noted that he owes much of his own political success to social media, which helped him build “what ended up being the most effective political campaign, probably in modern political history.” So he initially had “a very optimistic feeling” about the technology, but he said, “I think that what we missed was the degree to which people who are in power … special interests, foreign governments, etc., can in fact manipulate that and propagandize.”

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Obama then recounted a science experiment (“not a big scientific experiment, but just an experiment that somebody did during the revolution that was taking place in Egypt”) where a liberal, a conservative and a “quote-unquote moderate” were asked to search for “Egypt,” and Google presented each of them with very different results.

“Whatever your biases were, that’s where you were being sent, and that gets more reinforced over time,” he said. “That’s what’s happening with these Facebook pages where more and more people are getting their news from. At a certain point you just live in a bubble, and that’s part of why our politics is so polarized right now.”

Appropriately for a politician who was so closely associated with hope, Obama also offered some optimism: “I think it is a solvable problem, but I think it’s one that we have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”

It seems that Facebook and the other big platforms are at least trying to address the issue. Yesterday, for example, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced that the social network will be prioritizing “meaningful social interactions” over news and publisher content.

Google cancels UK ads from shady rehab clinic referrers already banned in US


Another day, another way tech giants are found to be profiting handsomely from unsavory ad practices. Today brings the news, as reported by the Sunday Times, that Google has reaped “millions” from shady companies that advertise online as help lines for people suffering from addiction, but in reality funnel those people to expensive private clinics, earning huge commissions.

The basic idea is simple, and sound: someone searching for “help quitting pain pills” or something like that should be connected with the appropriate resources, and ostensibly that’s what help lines like those investigated by the Sunday Times’ undercover crew do.

But profit-oriented private clinics, which charge tens of thousands of dollars for their services, have begun offering huge referral rewards for sending patients their direction. And the referrers, in order to snag these people in need before the competition, have begun paying more and more for prime Google placement.

The report shows that referrers were paying as much as £200, around $270, for a single clickthrough. But that’s just a drop in the bucket if they successfully refer someone to a clinic, earning ten or twenty grand. Plus it bought them consultation with Google representatives who reportedly helped keep them at the top of the results.

It may be that the people looking for help did eventually find it. But naturally, they were not informed of any of these financial arrangements.

Might be nice to know that the ostensibly objective help line you’re calling is earning huge commissions from the places it refers you to, right? That’s why “patient brokering,” as it’s sometimes called, is banned in much of the US. And why Google doesn’t allow these kinds of ads here; it banned the whole category in September.

In a statement, Google said that it had today decided to make that ban apply to the UK as well.

Substance abuse is a growing crisis and has led to deceptive practices by intermediaries that we need to better understand. In the US, we restricted ads entirely in this category and we have decided to extend this to the UK as we consult with local experts to update our policy and find a better way to connect those that need help with the treatment they need.

One needn’t be too much of a cynic to find a few things worth asking. If it’s a question of medical ethics, why were the ads allowed in the UK at all? Why not extend the ban globally? Why did it take an investigative report to cause Google to “decide” to change its policy when presumably it had the tools to identify these problems itself?

There are, of course, major differences in how these clinics are regulated and allowed to operate between the US and UK, with (as you might expect) less regulation in the former. So a one-size-fits-all ban would be premature and possibly even harmful to those looking for help. Consulting with experts is a good start.

Yet one would hope that, having found pervasive slimy tactics in a business in one major market, Google would have been more proactive about looking into the presence of those tactics elsewhere. After all, it may be a niche but this wasn’t chump change: we’re talking about millions of dollars here.

This appears to be just another entry in the log of internet companies making money from both good actors and bad, only cutting off the bad when someone else points it out. They’re happy to apologize and change the policy afterwards, but seem to have remarkably little foresight when it comes to finding such things on their own.

The FCC is still tweaking its net neutrality repeal (but that’s normal)


You may think, from the pomp accompanying the FCC’s vote in December to repeal the 2015 net neutrality rules, that the deed was accomplished. Not so — in fact, the order hasn’t even reached its final form: the Commission is still working on it. But while it may be frustrating, this is business as usual for regulations like this, and concerned advocates should conserve their outrage for when it’s really needed.

The “Restoring Internet Freedom” rule voted on last month was based on a final draft circulated several weeks before the meeting at which it would be adopted. But as reports at the time noted, significant edits (i.e. not fixing typos) were still going into the draft the day before the FCC voted. Additional citations, changes in wording and more serious adjustments may be underway.

It may sound like some serious shenanigans are being pulled, but this is how the sausage was always made, and it’s actually one of Chairman Ajit Pai’s handful of commendable efforts that the process is, in some ways at least, more open to the public.

Ordinarily the final draft of the rule might not be given out until after the vote, having been only circulated among FCC staff and other D.C. insiders. It’s something Pai has never tired of criticizing previous FCCs for, and one of the first changes he made.

Now orders like this one are released well ahead of time — but the process of fixing and updating them continues just as it did before, well past the actual vote (the timing, as Ars Technica notes, is all over the place). We’re just privy to the details now. It’s right there in the rule’s introduction:

The issues referenced in this document and the Commission’s ultimate resolution of those issues remain under consideration and subject to change. This document does not constitute any official action by the Commission. However, the Chairman has determined that, in the interest of promoting the public’s ability to understand the nature and scope of issues under consideration, the public interest would be served by making this document publicly available.

And indeed, it makes perfect sense that work should continue as long as it can in order to better bolster the chances of an order like this surviving. An extra citation, legal precedent or expert commentary could make all the difference.

The question of exactly what is being changed, however, we will have ample time to investigate: The rules will soon be entered into the federal register, at which point they both come into effect and come under intense scrutiny and legal opposition. And there’s plenty to scrutinize and oppose. I’ve asked the FCC if it will issue its own documentation of changes to the rule made after the final draft.

But that’s just the start of the next phase of the battle for net neutrality, which you can expect to last for years to come.

Featured Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images