Democracies around the world are all mired in one crisis or another, which is why measures of their health are trending in the wrong direction. Many look at the decline of the news industry as one contributing factor. No wonder, then, that figuring out how to pay for journalism is an urgent issue, and some governments are pushing ahead with ambitious plans. Big ideas for ways to funnel billions of dollars back into newsrooms are rare, but it’s time to take a gamble on more than one.
Such an idea rose to the world’s attention this week: an Australian law that would compel search and social media platforms to pay news organizations for linking to their content. Google has decided to comply with the law and is doing deals with major companies such as News Corp, Nine, and Seven West Media. But Facebook took the other route—rather than pay for news to appear on its platform, the social media giant blocked users from accessing and sharing Australian news entirely.
Reactions have been swift. Some commentators pounced on Facebook’s actions as proof of its monopolistic intent and lack of concern for civic discourse. Others blame the Australian government for bowing to the protectionist interests of media cronies such as Rupert Murdoch, and putting tech companies in an absurd position.
Australia’s approach is now being considered by lawmakers and regulators in multiple other governments. Reuters reports that Canadian heritage minister Steven Guilbeault said Canada will model its own legislation on the Australian law. There are also some similarities in a bill proposed by US congressman David Cicilline of Rhode Island that would “provide a temporary safe harbor for the publishers of online content to collectively negotiate with dominant online platforms regarding the terms on which their content may be distributed.”
In general, these measures seek to boost the bargaining power of news organizations and help them extract value from tech giants for the content that newsrooms produce. The Australian model’s novelty lies in its arbitration mechanism, a kind of membrane between the parties intended to help them arrive at a fair exchange of value.
The Australian law will likely pass, so this grand experiment in pushing capital back to the news media will soon be under way. We’ll get to see how it works out, and whether opponents’ concerns bear out—if larger news organizations are privileged over small ones, for instance, or whether the money actually ends up being spent on producing more journalism.
But in view of the objections to this approach, what other options exist? If new subscription models are not enough to sustain the media industry, what else can be done to push billions of dollars back into journalism?
How to poison the data that Big Tech uses to surveil you
In a new paper being presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency conference next week, researchers including PhD students Nicholas Vincent and Hanlin Li propose three ways the public can exploit this to their advantage:
- Data strikes, inspired by the idea of labor strikes, which involve withholding or deleting your data so a tech firm cannot use it—leaving a platform or installing privacy tools, for instance.
- Data poisoning, which involves contributing meaningless or harmful data. AdNauseam, for example, is a browser extension that clicks on every single ad served to you, thus confusing Google’s ad-targeting algorithms.
- Conscious data contribution, which involves giving meaningful data to the competitor of a platform you want to protest, such as by uploading your Facebook photos to Tumblr instead.
People already use many of these tactics to protect their own privacy. If you’ve ever used an ad blocker or another browser extension that modifies your search results to exclude certain websites, you’ve engaged in data striking and reclaimed some agency over the use of your data. But as Hill found, sporadic individual actions like these don’t do much to get tech giants to change their behaviors.
What if millions of people were to coordinate to poison a tech giant’s data well, though? That might just give them some leverage to assert their demands.
There may have already been a few examples of this. In January, millions of users deleted their WhatsApp accounts and moved to competitors like Signal and Telegram after Facebook announced that it would begin sharing WhatsApp data with the rest of the company. The exodus caused Facebook to delay its policy changes.
Just this week, Google also announced that it would stop tracking individuals across the web and targeting ads at them. While it’s unclear whether this is a real change or just a rebranding, says Vincent, it’s possible that the increased use of tools like AdNauseam contributed to that decision by degrading the effectiveness of the company’s algorithms. (Of course, it’s ultimately hard to tell. “The only person who really knows how effectively a data leverage movement impacted a system is the tech company,” he says.)
Vincent and Li think these campaigns can complement strategies such as policy advocacy and worker organizing in the movement to resist Big Tech.
“It’s exciting to see this kind of work,” says Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the University of San Francisco’s Center for Applied Data Ethics, who was not involved in the research. “It was really interesting to see them thinking about the collective or holistic view: we can mess with the well and make demands with that threat, because it is our data and it all goes into this well together.”
Four new hacking groups have joined an ongoing offensive against Microsoft’s email servers
A Chinese government-linked hacking campaign revealed by Microsoft this week has ramped up rapidly. At least four other distinct hacking groups are now attacking critical flaws in Microsoft’s email software in a cyber campaign the US government describes as “widespread domestic and international exploitation” with the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of victims worldwide.
Beginning in January 2021, Chinese hackers known as Hafnium began exploiting vulnerabilities in Microsoft Exchange servers. But since the company publicly revealed the campaign on Tuesday, four more groups have joined in and the original Chinese hackers have dropped the pretense of stealth and increased the number of attacks they’re carrying out. The growing list of victims includes tens of thousands of US businesses and government offices targeted by the new groups.
“There are at least five different clusters of activity that appear to be exploiting the vulnerabilities,” says Katie Nickels, who leads an intelligence team at the cybersecurity firm Red Canary that is investigating the hacks. When tracking cyberthreats, intelligence analysts group clusters of hacking activity by the specific techniques, tactics, procedures, machines, people, and other characteristics they observe. It’s a way to track the hacking threats they face.
Hafnium is a sophisticated Chinese hacking group that has long run cyberespionage campaigns against the United States, according to Microsoft. They are an apex predator—exactly the sort that is always followed closely by opportunistic and smart scavengers.
Activity quickly kicked into higher gear once Microsoft made their announcement on Tuesday. But exactly who these hacking groups are, what they want, and how they’re accessing these servers remain unclear. It’s possible that the original Hafnium group sold or shared their exploit code or that other hackers reverse engineered the exploits based on the fixes that Microsoft released, Nickels explains.
“The challenge is that this is all so murky and there is so much overlap,” Nickels explains. “What we’ve seen is that from when Microsoft published about Hafnium, it’s expanded beyond just Hafnium. We’ve seen activity that looks different from tactics, techniques, and procedures from what they reported on.”
As the Texas power crisis shows, our infrastructure is vulnerable to extreme weather
On Valentine’s Day, a rare burst of Arctic air spread across the central US and into Texas, dropping temperatures there into the single digits and nearly causing the state’s power grid to collapse. A state known for its abundant energy resources saw widespread failures of natural-gas and electricity systems that left more than four million Texans without power for days.
The proximate cause of Texas’s grid failure is now well understood. Frigid temperatures drove electricity demand to a new winter record that exceeded even the “extreme” demand scenario considered by the state’s power grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT. Then dozens of natural-gas power plants and some wind turbines rapidly went offline, plunging the Texas grid into crisis. To prevent the whole grid from going down, ERCOT ordered utilities to initiate emergency blackouts and disconnect millions of customers.
Scientists are still working to determine whether the fast-warming Arctic is driving more frequent breakdowns of the “polar vortex,” which precipitated the Texas freeze. But we know that climate change is making extreme weather like heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and flooding more frequent and more severe. Any of these events can push our critical infrastructure to the breaking point, as happened in Texas. How can we prepare?
Climate resilience will require investment of up to $100 billion per year globally in our infrastructure and communities. But careful planning can help our scarce resources go further.
Looking back, Texas’s troubles offer several key lessons for how to make both critical infrastructure and vulnerable communities everywhere more resilient to climate extremes.
Assessing future risks
First, it’s worth noting that grid failure alone did not lead to the intense suffering and loss of life Texas residents faced.
Natural-gas wells and gathering lines also froze, cutting gas production and supply for the state’s pipelines and power plants in half just as demand soared. Elsewhere, water treatment plants lost power, and frozen pipes caused water distribution networks to lose pressure. Frozen roadways prevented residents from traveling safely.
The connections between these infrastructure systems keep the lights on and taps flowing in good times but can compound failure when things go bad.
Extreme weather also tends to cause multiple parts of critical systems to fail at the same time. These kinds of simultaneous failures are far more probable than one might think. If 10 power plants each have a 10% chance of failure but these probabilities are all independent, the chance that they all fail simultaneously is infinitesimal (0.00000001%).
A 1% chance that 10 power plants all fail at once is far more worrisome. So building resilient infrastructure means paying close attention to extreme events that can slam large parts of the system all at once, whether that’s a winter storm, wildfire, hurricane, or flood.
Lastly, the worst human impacts of any infrastructure failure don’t come from the outage itself. They come from exposure to freezing temperatures, a lack of clean water to drink, dwindling food supplies, and the fear that help may not come soon enough. So the magnitude of suffering is determined not only by the magnitude of the infrastructure failure but also by each community’s ability to weather the storm.