The right to forget, or, that one terrible road stop

I predict that soon the conversation will turn from the right to be forgotten to the right to forget.

Why so? Well, now Google Maps now tries to remember places I’ve been and include them in the maps it shows me. The trouble with this (ignoring any petty privacy, commercialisation, misc concerns you may be about to mention to me) is that there are some places that should be forgotten. In particular, all of Western Sydney’s commerce is now represented to me by one service station that we stopped at on a family trip because someone needed to use the loo, but couldn’t, because its loo was splattered with largely unspecified bodily fluids.

Get it together Google! This is even worse than the way my Youtube suggestions are now and forever filled with Thomas the Tank Engine videos because of an unfortunate and lengthy phase my son went through. I insist on not navigating Sydney in future primarily in terms of which horrible public toilet I am nearest.


Quick hit: Google publishes their EEO-1 diversity data

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

As promised earlier this month, Google’s diversity data is now up on their blog.

They write:

We’ve always been reluctant to publish numbers about the diversity of our workforce at Google. We now realize we were wrong, and that it’s time to be candid about the issues. Put simply, Google is not where we want to be when it comes to diversity, and it’s hard to address these kinds of challenges if you’re not prepared to discuss them openly, and with the facts.

Their numbers — globally — are 70% male, 30% female (this seems to add up to 100%, which suggests that either Google or the EEO-1 process need to review their gender categories), dropping to 17% female among their technical employees. We’ve tabulated some data at the Geek Feminism wiki. You can compare with female-male breakdowns from some other companies (many quite small) at We Can Do Better.

Google’s US workforce is also 2% Black, way below US national figures of 13% nationwide and 3% Hispanic against 17% nationwide. (Nationwide figures from US Census numbers dated from 2012 and rounded to the nearest whole number to have the same precision as the Google figures.)

What do you think? Is disclosure a meaningful action here? Are you surprised by Google’s figures? Do you think the rest of the tech industry will or should follow?

Book review: In the Plex

Steven Levy, In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

This book started off annoying me by being a little too worshipful of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, in my opinion. So clever! So Montessori! These cheeky little geniuses will rock your world! They’re going to take over your brain and you’re going to like it! But it improved early on other histories I’ve read of Google (lest this sound like an unfortunately dull hobby of mine, I mean shorter essays over a period of ten years or so). which tend to focus on a couple of things heavily: the Google Doodles and their approach to raising venture capital. I’ve heard about all I ever want to hear about doodles and Google’s fundraising. Levy doesn’t quite stay away from the latter but it’s mercifully short at least. Instead he gets into things that are more interesting to me, namely the engineering.

He spends a fair portion of the book getting to grips with the basic design of and use-cases of the two key Google products, search and ads, in a way that’s useful to me as someone with a software engineering background, so that was a win. I’m not sure how that would read to people without said background although it didn’t strike me as very technical. Later it deals with some of Google’s key expansions: the creation of its massive set of data centres, the Youtube acquisition, the attempt to become a major search player in China, book scanning and search, and finally, social.

I’ll certainly give Levy credit for finally explaining to me the wisdom that Google “doesn’t get social”, which I hear everywhere and which no one has ever given me a bite-sized cogent explanation for. (This is a terrible admission from someone who is meant to have some idea about the tech industry, yes? But I’m not really your go to person for social either. I use it, but I don’t make sweeping claims about it.) Levy’s bite-sized explanation: Google is philosophically committed to the best answers arising from processing huge amounts of data, and is resistant to cases where the best answers arise from polling one’s friends. Whether it’s true I have no idea but at least it’s truthy.

Levy has created a good history of Google for people especially interested in Google I think, but he largely hasn’t jumped over the bar of making Google into an interesting story for people who don’t have an existing interest in it, in the way that people have done with Enron, for example. There are parts of it that start to get close, particularly the treatment of Google’s expansion into China and its sometime Beijing office. But it’s not quite there. Possibly Levy didn’t have access to enough critical sources, or, if he did, he didn’t use them to their full extent for fear of jeopardising his access to Page, Brin and Eric Schmidt and to the Google campus. (Also, it sounds like Google makes it very hard for any current employee to be an anonymous source.)

Read it if: you are interested in the history of Google, and find them impressive. You don’t need to be a complete fanboy.

Caution for: as noted, not really a book for people seeking a rollicking good story of corporate ups and downs in general; and not really for people looking for really sharp criticism of Google either, although his critical distance certainly increases as the book goes on.

By request: Booberday

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

SA asks:

Please, please write about the execrable “Booberday” meme on Google+.

Summary: it’s a “share pictures of your cleavage because of… breast cancer! yeah!” meme. That meta-meme is potent, folks. Got something you want people to do? Claim it’s about preventing or ameliorating or alerting or grieving breast cancer. You are now the untouchable saviour. The end.

Christa Laser on G+, link from SA:

[The Booberday meme is] demeaning, and it is precisely the gateway to harassment that drives women away from online communities. We have a responsibility as early adopters to create a respectful, caring community where everyone feels welcome. If it is acceptable in a community to post a photograph of cleavage, it becomes okay to comment on it with sexual jokes, then to comment on a photograph of a woman in the G+ community with a sexual joke, and then with sexual comments that are not jokes. If left unchecked, an online community that tolerates harassment against women can become dangerous for women, professionally and physically:

+1, as they say.

But it’s all worth it cos of the cancer, right? Mmm, let’s have a think about that.

Randall Munroe, whose partner is undergoing breast cancer treatment, writes in Liz Fong’s Google+ and in his own G+ stream:

The really frustrating thing about the “Save the boobies” campaign and similar ones is that it gets it exactly backward. Often, the point of breast cancer treatment is to destroy some or all of the boobies in order to save the woman.

Saying that we should work to cure this disease because it threatens breasts is really upsetting. For starters, it suggests that women are worth saving because they’re attached to breasts, rather than the other way around. But worse, it tells any woman who’s had a life-saving mastectomy that she’s given up the thing that made people care about her survival. What a punch in the stomach.

Barbara Ehrenreich famously wrote about breast cancer as sexy-making opportunity, among other things:

And in our implacably optimistic breast-cancer culture, the disease offers more than the intangible benefits of spiritual upward mobility. You can defy the inevitable disfigurements and come out, on the survivor side, actually prettier, sexier, more femme. In the lore of the disease—shared with me by oncology nurses as well as by survivors—chemotherapy smoothes and tightens the skin, helps you lose weight; and, when your hair comes back, it will be fuller, softer, easier to control, and perhaps a surprising new color. These may be myths, but for those willing to get with the prevailing program, opportunities for self-improvement abound. The American Cancer Society offers the “Look Good . . . Feel Better” program, “dedicated to teaching women cancer patients beauty techniques to help restore their appearance and self-image during cancer treatment.”

I could say and quote more, but almost everything I want to say Peggy Orenstein said in the NYT magazine last year:

That rubber bracelet is part of a newer, though related, trend: the sexualization of breast cancer. Hot breast cancer. Saucy breast cancer. Titillating breast cancer!…

Sexy breast cancer tends to focus on the youth market, but beyond that, its agenda is, at best, mushy. The Keep a Breast Foundation, according to its Web site, aims to “help eradicate breast cancer by exposing young people to methods of prevention, early detection and support.” If only it were that simple. It also strives to make discussion of cancer “positive and upbeat.” Several other groups dedicate a (typically unspecified) portion of their profits to “educate” about self-exam, though there is little evidence of its efficacy. Or they erroneously tout mammography as “prevention.”…

Forget Save the Ta-Tas: how about save the woman? How about “I ❤ My 72-Year-Old One-Boobied Granny?” After all, statistically, that’s whose “second base” is truly at risk.

And there’s Twisty’s long running crazysexycancer ‘adventures’. Get yer boobie shot here.

Lauredhel has also been on this for years: “Bring breast awareness back to the workplace”, Scrotes Oot F’t’ Lads!, More “Teehee! Boobies!” from the breast cancer awareness industry, Three Examples of Rape Culture in Nice Guy(tm) Breast Cancer Activism, Mount Franklin Breast Cancer ads. Let’s start a Brown Colon Cancer Awareness campaign.

Summary: you want to reduce incidence of and mortality from breast cancer? Consider funding and fundraising for research and evidence-based interventions. Want to remind the vast majority of women, especially breast cancer patients and survivors, that they aren’t sexy and compliant enough for your playground? Start a “save the tits” campaign today!

Update: there are multiple notes in Randall Munroe’s comments suggesting that Booberday wasn’t originally about breast cancer. I haven’t gone tracking the source of it, but if it’s true that dynamic is interesting. “Ew, sexist” followed by “it’s ok, it’s for breast cancer”, and when Munroe among others challenged that, back to “oh no, it’s just about boobs, so people who are or care about breast cancer patients and survivors can chill out!”

See also Sticking a pink ribbon on it doesn’t excuse “Booberday”.

Technology protest: what do you do?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Social Media Collective at Microsoft Research write about some responses to social media protest:

It’s common, and easy, to say “just don’t use it.” There’s actually a term for this– technology refusal– meaning people who strategically “opt out” of using overwhelmingly prevalent technologies. This includes teens who’ve committed Facebook suicide because it causes too much drama; off-the-grid types who worry about the surveillance potentials of GPS-enabled smartphones; older people who think computers are just too much trouble; and, of course, privacy-concerned types who choose not to use Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, websites with cookies, or any other technology that could potentially compromise their privacy. (This does not include people who can’t afford internet access or computers, or who live in areas without cell towers or broadband access.)… [There is] the idea that refusal is the only legitimate way to protest something one thinks is problematic, unconscionable, unethical, or immoral… I generally do not buy this idea. Here are three reasons why.

The Cost of Opting Out

Opting-out of watching The Bachelorette because I think it romanticizes sexism doesn’t impact me the same way that choosing not to have a cellphone does. If I choose not to have a cellphone, I am choosing to exist in a world where social norms have adapted to cellphones without adapting myself. Face it, someone without a cellphone requires everyone who interacts with that person to make special accommodations for them… not having a cellphone puts one at a serious disadvantage…

The Civic Responsibility to Critique

Members of a community (nation, state, book group, dining club, whatever) have a responsibility to criticize and suggest alternatives to things they find problematic, whether those are government principles, media representations, website policies, or laws. In fact, this is such a cultural norm that the right to protest is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the US Constitution…

It’s Not Free

Social software is not free [the blog means price for those of you who immediately thought about liberty]… Only the most staunch pro-market capitalist would argue that a customer has no right to complain about a product or service that she is paying for, either directly or through the exchange of personal information.

I was, frankly, tempted to let this slide by in a linkspam, but we’re a bit quiet around here this week, so, let’s talk about varying forms of technology protest. Here are some of mine:

I left Facebook and will probably leave LinkedIn (just need to get some opinions from colleagues on whether this will be professionally damaging) over those sites’ like of using users to advertise products (LinkedIn just turned this on, here’s how to opt-out and here is their response to criticism), and Facebook’s continual cycles of making information shared with advertisers or applications and later making it opt-out in response to another wave of protest.

I am undecided on Google+: I intensely dislike their wallet-name policy, perhaps especially given that the initial policy was “name you are known by”, but it also has a lot of the features I miss about Facebook (in-line comments, longer entries than Twitter), so the cost of opting-out is a consideration for me there.

I keep some data in the cloud and use some Google services, although not as many as a lot of tech people (my personal email is not in Gmail, for example). There’s some cost of opting-out there too: cloud computing may be a trap but I notice Richard Stallman has an organisation that pays people to be his sysadmins (or could, at least, I can’t say I am certain whether RMS admins his own boxes). I could host my own instance, Diaspora, etc, but I don’t have the time or money. There’s also reader/friend cost: many more people follow me on Twitter than on as it is, almost no one ever logs into Diaspora that I’ve seen. I am simply not powerful enough to force my friends to follow me to different sites, so to some extent I stay where they are.

Most recently, I bought an Amazon Kindle which is fairly well evil (ie, so DRMed it’s possible that it will grow legs in the night, scan and eat my paper books, and make me ring Jeff Bezos in future for permission to read them). This is actually a response to even more nastiness to some degree: at least Amazon sells some recent e-books to Australian customers, relative to almost all of the ePub vendors anyway, and moreover sells them at the US price as opposed to the special markup (about 100%) Australians pay for anything electronic or Internetty. So that’s flat-out poor options, there.

I am committed to the right to complain about things I use in general: to be honest I think a lot of the “leave if you don’t like it” criticism, at least from people who are themselves apathetic, is rooted in “it’s not cool to care about things, don’t make me watch you caring”.

How about you? What services do you stick with and complain/protest about, and why? Which ones have you left/not signed up for despite temptation, and why?

Note: a bit of amnesty would be nice in this post. We’re talking about people’s choices, and frantic attempts to convert everyone to your version of technology purity will stop the conversation. If someone says that they are actively seeking an alternative to service X that has property Y, that would be a good time to mention service Z, which offers X-like functionality with more Y. Otherwise, let people talk.

Pseudospam: nymwars continue

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

We have enough nymwars links for them to be their own linkspam, and likely our commenters have more to add too.

Lots of dedicated discussion and link tracking at and Botgirl Questi’s collection of #plusgate articles.

Front page image credit: Masked by Harsha K R, Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike.

The status of pseudonymity and privacy on Google+

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Here’s a separate thread for people most interested in keeping track of official, semi- and unofficial pronouncements about pseudonymity and/or privacy on Google+ in particular, in addition to the more general discussions taking place at Anti-pseudonym bingo and Social networking requirements. You can also discuss your feelings and reaction to various announcements here. warped-ellipsis, you can re-post your existing links in this thread if you like.

If you’re linking to a blog or Google+ discussion, please also include a summary or excerpt that explains why you’re linking to it. Is it a user test showing such-and-such a property of Google+? Is it a statement by Google or an employee? Is it a change or a clarification? That sort of thing. (No linking/quoting anything from G+ that isn’t marked “Public” please.)

Note: yes, Google+ is in beta/early launch/testing/something, and they’re actively seeking feedback. Please no nagging to people to send in their comments here as feedback, since they now know this for sure and presumably they have or will send it in if they want to, and if they haven’t they presumably have their reasons.

Social networking requirements

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

I knew that someone posted on this blog discussing what requirements a feminist-informed social network would have. Turns out it was me. A year on, and due to discussions around Google+, I think I have some positive requirements. (I recommend reading the old comments thread too.)

Control over identifying information. Name, gender, age, who you are friends with, what you talk about, what events you are in, and what you look like: this is all varyingly sensitive information and should be able to be hidden.

As few restrictions as possible on identity. Allowing use of pseudonyms, not assuming that everyone has two, or two ‘important’, names, free specification of gender if specified at all. As little structured compulsory information as possible. Unstructured, free-form, and non-compulsory are key things here.

Accessibility. State of the art accessibility design including testing with screen readers, colour palettes suited to as many variants of vision as possible, collaborative transcripting and captioning of images, no flashing ads or autoplaying video.

You own your space and control entry. This means you should be able to moderate things. Being able to ignore people is good but is not enough: you likely don’t want to subject your friends to the conversation of a person who you dislike enough to ignore.

Rigorous site-level attention to spam and harassment. No one (much) wants spam, enough said. But harassment—continued interactions or attempts to interact after being told to stop, including ban evasion—should be a terms of service level violation, as should any threats (whether or not the person has been told to stop). Use of threats or hate speech in user names and default icons or other things that appear in directory listings or search results may also need to be considered. This all requires staffing and a complaints system.

Consistent access control. If you set something private, or it was private by default at the time, it should stay that way, probably to the extent where if it can’t remain private for technical reasons, it should be deleted/hidden by the site rather than made public.

Access to your work and ability to export it. The correct thing to do here is a little tricky (are other people’s comments in your space yours to export and republish, or not? what about co-owned spaces?) The community has had some inconclusive discussions.

Fine-grained access control. I don’t think something along the lines of that which Livejournal and its forks have had for years and which Facebook and Google+ have implemented to varying degrees, is required (public blogs have a strong presence in activist discussions) but it’s useful for more universal participation. Some people need it.

Clear limits on sharing. This is something that Google+ early testers are coming up against again and again: ‘Limited’ posts are or were shareable, a commenter using someone’s name with the + sign (eg ‘+Mary’) does or did actually invite them into private comment threads without the original poster’s input. If you offer access control, the software must make it clear what controls apply to any space, and if you have influence over that or not, so that you can control your own revelations in that space. Substantial user testing to make sure that people understand what your interface is trying to say is required.

No advertising. I guess it might be possible to show people ads in a way that has neither the problem of offensive or upsetting ads (“lose weight for your wedding today!”) nor the problem of the advertisers doing dodgy malware ads to harvest your info or worse. Maybe.

What else? How do your favourite sites do on these?

Anti-pseudonym bingo

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

People testing the Google+ social network are discussing increasing evidence that, terms of service requirement or not, Google+ wants people to use their legal names much as Facebook does. Skud shares a heads-up from a user banned for using his initials. Then, for example, see discussion around it on Mark Cuban’s stream, Skud’s stream and Sarah Stokely’s blog.

Let’s recap really quickly: wanting to and being able to use your legal name everywhere is associated with privilege. Non-exhaustive list of reasons you might not want to use it on social networks: everyone knows you by a nickname; you want everyone to know you by a nickname; you’re experimenting with changing some aspect of your identity online before you do it elsewhere; online circles are the only place it’s safe to express some aspect of your identity, ever; your legal name marks you as a member of a group disproportionately targeted for harassment; you want to say things or make connections that you don’t want to share with colleagues, family or bosses; you hate your legal name because it is shared with an abusive family member; your legal name doesn’t match your gender identity; you want to participate in a social network as a fictional character; the mere thought of your stalker seeing even your locked down profile makes you sick; you want to create a special-purpose account; you’re an activist wanting to share information but will be in danger if identified; your legal name is imposed by a legal system that doesn’t match your culture… you know, stuff that only affects a really teeny minority numerically, and only a little bit, you know? (For more on the issue in general, see On refusing to tell you my name and previous posts on this site.)

Anyway, in honour of round one million of forgetting about all of this totally, I bring you anti-pseudonymity bingo!
5x5 bingo card with anti-pseudonymity arguments
Text version at bottom of post.

What squares would you add? Continue reading “Anti-pseudonym bingo”

Who you speak to and where you are: why it matters

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

Warning: this post discusses intimate partner violence and rape. Please place a trigger warning on links to this post.

If you are currently at risk of violence, here are some links for viewing when you’re on a safer computer: National Network to End Domestic Violence: Internet and Computer Safety [USA], Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence: Internet Safety [USA] and Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria: Tip Sheet: Technology Safety Planning [Australia].

Cross-posted to Hoyden About Town.

Abusive relationship and spousal rape survivor and blogger “Harriet Jacobs” at Fugitivus is angry and scared today:

I use my private Gmail account to email my boyfriend and my mother.

There’s a BIG drop-off between them and my other “most frequent” contacts.

You know who my third most frequent contact is?

My abusive ex-husband.

Which is why it’s SO EXCITING, Google, that you AUTOMATICALLY allowed all my most frequent contacts access to my Reader, including all the comments I’ve made on Reader items, usually shared with my boyfriend, who I had NO REASON to hide my current location or workplace from, and never did.

My other most frequent contacts? Other friends of [my ex-husband]’s.

Oh, also, people who email my ANONYMOUS blog account, which gets forwarded to my personal account. They are frequent contacts as well. Most of them, they are nice people. Some of them are probably nice but a little unbalanced and scary. A minority of them ”” but the minority that emails me the most, thus becoming FREQUENT ”” are psychotic men who think I deserve to be raped because I keep a blog about how I do not deserve to be raped, and this apparently causes the Hulk rage.

There’s lots of other comment today on Google’s Buzz automatically assuming that your frequent email contacts should be your Buzz contacts, and making the connection with them public:

There will quite possibly be more by the time I’ve finished writing this post, let alone by the time you read it. But having to fight this battle on a site-by-site, service-by-service basis is disgusting. For a number of groups of people, including people who are the targets of a violent obsession among others, information about who they are in contact with, where they live and what they’re interested in has life-threatening implications. For a larger number of people it has non-life-threatening but potentially serious implications for their job, for example, or their continuing loving relationship with their family. Sometimes people are in frequent contact with people who have power over them, and/or who hate them. Why aren’t privacy policies centring that possibility, and working out the implications for the rest of us later?

Note: as I hope you anticipate, attempts to victim-blame along the lines of “people who are very vulnerable shouldn’t use technology unless they 100% understand the current and all possible future privacy implications” not welcome.

Update 13th February: Fugitivus has had a response from Google making it clear that protected items in Reader were not shared despite appearances, and stating some changes that are being made in Reader and Buzz in relation to issues she raised.