Android’s snooping and Uber’s 57m data theft overshadowed by danger to net neutrality

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Which was the more damaging shock revelation last week of corporate malfeasance?  Was it that ProPublica discovered Google’s Android operating system tracks its users despite them opting out of such tracking, and after a factory rest of the phone? Or was it Uber revealing how it failed to reveal a hack that exposed 59m people’s details last year? In the case of Uber it is yet another self-inflicted crisis from a company that is astoundingly good at own goals. Not only is it unethical not to reveal such an attack but also illegal in many US states.

Even more worrying is the dumbfounding decision by the United States regulator, the FCC, to roll back the “net neutrality” that has so far defined the freedom of traffic on the internet. This decision is going to have the most far-reaching effects on the internet and how we all access it. It has the potential to be very, very bad for free speech.

Simply put, all internet service providers (ISPs) must currently treat all data and traffic as equal, be it streaming video (very bandwidth intensive) or text-based news website browsing; or be it Facebook or Twitter running. Now, if the new regulations go ahead, ISPs and telcos will be able to decide who pays for better bandwidth, arguably forcing the likes of YouTube, Netflix, Facebook and Amazon to pay more so their content gets prioritised into so-called fast lanes. On the face of it, with Netflix and YouTube consuming an estimated half of all internet traffic through their video offerings, it seems financially prudent for the ISPs. But their focus is profitability, not freedom of speech or access to information.

What about the non-profit, activist organisations doing great work through the internet? They can’t afford to pay for business class-access. How this new model could potentially suppress freedom of speech is an ongoing debate.

Simply put, it’s bad. Double plus no good, as they’d say in 1984, George Orwell’s prescient book that has depicted so much of our surveillance existence. Nothing confirms this more than discovering that Google is tracking its mobile users through Android is deeply disturbing.

Android is a big deal because it’s by far the largest mobile operating system, and the potential for not just abuse, but manipulation and snooping is enormous. Knowing everywhere we go is creepy, especially because permission was denied and they seemingly did it anyway.

It’s astounding to think that Google’s original mantra was “don’t be evil”. Now the software monolith that has a monopoly in search and mobile operating systems snoops on its own customers by tracking their whereabouts without their permission.

According to Wikipedia, that famous phrase was supposedly suggested by “Google employee Paul Buchheit… in early 2000…. Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said he ‘wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out,’ adding that the slogan was ‘also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent’.” A “bit of jab at the other companies” who “were exploiting the users”. Et tu Google?

This article first appeared in Financial Mail

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About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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