Netflix’s Tweet May Have Been Made Up, But That Shouldn’t Make us Much Happier

Reading Time: 2 minutes

The tweet was meant in good humour undoubtedly: a little post by Netflix, claiming 53 people watched A Christmas Prince 18 days in a row. A light hearted jibe, in the vein of banter so heavily mined by Nando’s. That figure, as some commentators suggested, may well even have been drawn from thin air – a symbolic number, if you like.

And yet the tweet inadvertently underlined an uncomfortable truth about both big data collection offered by services like Netflix or Spotify, and the power which all that information gives algorithms. Whether or not the number is true, Netflix knows a lot about you.

By now, in the wake of Snowden and Wikileaks, you’d be hard pressed to find a citizen in any democracy who didn’t have some inkling of public surveillance.
Yet in some ways, the equally pervasive work of our entertainment apps goes unnoticed.
Perhaps it’s because most of the time, it doesn’t go out of its way to draw our attention to its specificity or scope. The ‘magic sauce’ of recommendations from Spotify is not merely their accuracy, but equally their opacity. Pull back the curtain and instead of the Wizard, you find algorithms and reams and reams of data. Whilst a black box may not satisfy the more paranoid, it offers consumers space to insert a more positive image.
Indeed, as Netflix’s faux pas proved, drawing people’s attention to data collection processes which Hoover up personal (if not private, or strictly speaking sensitive) information is the best way to convince them they’re in the Panopticon.

Of course, there’s nothing to suggest Netflix has weaponised this data in any particular way, beyond recommendations and somewhat unfunny jokes. Even assuming that 53 people really did watch one movie once a day for nigh on three weeks, there’s still the question of what level of identity is available. Are people’s whole life details on offer for any employee to see and laugh at? It would seem unlikely. Far more probable would be data in aggregate – details which are anonymised in essence.

The best outcome to the outrage surrounding the tweet is not to pour on more fuel in social media moral panics, but to use it as a teachable moment. Regardless of how nefarious they are, the amount of information gleaned through entertainment platforms we use daily is immense – something which we as consumers on the other side can forget.

Secondly, it’s important to understand why, to big data analyst is, personal details are less key. Data in combination with other datasets allows them to discover details about a user which would be impossible to glean previously.

Finally, it’s key to acknowledge the centrality of algorithms. Not terrifying cybernetic creatures, they are the lifeblood of so muchblf what we do. Granted, algorithms are by no means neutral – think about risks in police algorithms and sentencing – but they can serve less dubious purposes too.

Big tech is most dangerous when we understand it less. We should be grateful for Netflix’s quite clear blunder: it offers an opportunity for just taking it.

Explainer: The Death of Net Neutrality in America

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Assume that you are one of the nigh on 90 million people worldwide subscribed to Netflix. It’s a good deal for you – you get access to a catalogue of popular TV and those weird movies which you never saw but always thought might be fun to watch – and they get your green.

The problem is that for the internet service providers (ISPs), streaming services take up considerable amounts of traffic. Not that the ISPs are being put of business – yearly profits remain immense – but for them, it makes better business sense if they can control how traffic moves on their information superhighways.

Thanks to Ajit Pai, FCC chairman and former Verizon employee, the long cherished dream of American ISPs getting control over their own destiny is about to come true. The only problem is that grabbing their destiny means grabbing control of other companies’ destinies too. And that’s not even mentioning how it could affect regular citizens.

Net neutrality, in its purest sense, is an argument against ISPs getting to decide who gets what speeds. Rather than allowing them to play slightly corrupt toll-guards, telling which cars to stop and which cars to fork over an extra few million bob, they were supposed to give everyone equal access. This was not a ruling they liked: one “cable giant”, Charter Communications, has been saved by the FCC’s bell, given that they seem to have been ‘throttling’ Netflix (i.e. significantly lowering speeds, and therefore access).

For all of its advantages, net neutrality in America had a few big flaws – most notably that it was an Obama holdover, and perhaps almost as notably, that ISPs are immensely powerful lobbyists. With one of their men working inside the FCC, they’ve succeeded in potentially fundamentally changing the political nexus for American internet habits.

Because it’s not just you not being able to get Netflix streaming as quickly as before: ISPs might start charging the streaming service to get better access. Similar pressures might be applied to Facebook and other content producers, many of whom might see fit to pass that pain onto the customer.

And if this works well enough, we might see pay to play stifle creativity at lower levels: how do smaller companies, without the money to pay ransom, deal with this scenario? The answer is ‘probably not very well’. Access from outside the country might wrack up a hefty fee, which the ISP could dictate with impunity.

And then there’s the dystopian angle: ISPs could effectively ban sites which are seen as unsavoury to their interests. We live in a time in which Google can effectively ‘vanish’ sites by delisting them, so it’s hardly a leap into the absurd.

At the end of the day, much of this is ‘worst possible outcomes’ – ISPs are money-hungry, but not necessarily megalomaniacs. That Ajit Pai has even given them the immense power they now wield, however, is a worrying sign of things to come.