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Tim Berners-Lee on 30 years of the world wide web: ‘We can get the web we want’ | Technology

Tim Berners-Lee on 30 years of the world wide web: ‘We can get the web we want’ | Technology

Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee, then a fellow at the physics research laboratory Cern on the French-Swiss border, sent his boss a document labelled Information Management: A Proposal. The memo suggested a system with which physicists at the centre could share “general information about accelerators and experiments”.

“Many of the discussions of the future at Cern and the LHC era end with the question: ‘Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?’” wrote Berners-Lee. “This proposal provides an answer to such questions.”

His solution was a system called, initially, Mesh. It would combine a nascent field of technology called hypertext that allowed for human-readable documents to be linked together, with a distributed architecture that would see those documents stored on multiple servers, controlled by different people, and interconnected.

It didn’t really go anywhere. Berners-Lee’s boss, Mike Sendall, took the memo and jotted down a note on top: “Vague but exciting …” But that was it. It took another year, until 1990, for Berners-Lee to start actually writing code. In that time, the project had taken on a new name. Berners-Lee now called it the World Wide Web.

Thirty years on, and Berners-Lee’s invention has more than justified the lofty goals implied by its name. But with that scale has come a host of troubles, ones that he could never have predicted when he was building a system for sharing data about physics experiments.

Some are simple enough. “Every time I hear that somebody has managed to acquire the [domain] name of their new enterprise for $50,000 (£38,500) instead of $500, I sigh, and feel that money’s not going to a good cause,” Berners-Lee tells me when we speak on the eve of the anniversary.

Berners-Lee demonstrating the world wide web to delegates at the Hypertext 1991 conference in San Antonio, Texas. Photograph: 1994-2017 CERN

It is a minor regret, but one he has had for years about the way he decided to “bootstrap” the web up to something that could handle a lot of users very quickly: by building on the pre-existing service for assigning internet addresses, the domain name system (DNS), he gave up the chance to build something better. “You wanted a name for your website, you’d go and ask [American computer scientist] Jon Postel, you know, back in the day, and he would give you a name.

“At the time that seemed like a good idea, but it relied on it being managed benevolently.” Today, that benevolent management is no longer something that can be assumed. “There are plenty of domain names to go around, but the way people have invested, in buying up domains that they think entrepreneurs or organisations will use – even trying to build AI that would guess what names people will want for their organisations, grabbing the domain name and then selling it to them for a ridiculous amount of money – that’s a breakage.”

It sounds minor, but the problems with DNS can stand in for a whole host of difficulties the web has faced as it has grown. A quick fix, built to let something scale up rapidly, that turns out to provide perverse incentives once it is used by millions of people and is so embedded that it is nearly impossible to change course.

But nearly impossible is not actually impossible. That is the thrust of the message Berners-Lee is aiming to spread. Every year, on the anniversary of his creation, he publishes an open letter on his vision for the future of the web. This year’s letter, given the importance of the anniversary, is broader in scope than most – and expresses a rare level of concern about the direction in which the web is moving.

“While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice and made our daily lives easier,” he writes, “it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.

“It’s understandable that many people feel afraid and unsure if the web is really a force for good. But given how much the web has changed in the past 30 years, it would be defeatist and unimaginative to assume that the web as we know it can’t be changed for the better in the next 30. If we give up on building a better web now, then the web will not have failed us. We will have failed the web.”

Berners-Lee breaks down the problems the web now faces into three categories. The first is what occupies most of the column inches in the press, but is the least intrinsic to the technology itself: “deliberate, malicious intent, such as state-sponsored hacking and attacks, criminal behaviour and online harassment”.

He believes this makes the system fragile. “It’s amazing how clever people can be, but when you build a new system it is very, very hard to imagine the ways in which it can be attacked.”

At the same time, while criminal intentions may be the scariest for many, they aren’t new to the web. They are “impossible to eradicate completely”, he writes, but can be controlled with “both laws and code to minimise this behaviour, just as we have always done offline”.

Berners-Lee in 1998.

Berners-Lee in 1998. Photograph: Elise Amendola/AP

More concerning are the other two sources of dysfunction affecting the web. The second is when a system built on top of Berners-Lee’s creation introduces “perverse incentives” that encourage others to sacrifice users’ interests, “such as ad-based revenue models that commercially reward clickbait and the viral spread of misinformation”. And the third is more diffuse still: those systems and services that, thoughtfully and benevolently created, still result in negative outcomes, “such as the outraged and polarised tone and quality of online discourse”.

The problem is that it is hard to tell what the outcomes of a system you build are going to be. “Given there are more webpages than there are neurons in your brain, it’s a complicated thing. You build Reddit, and people on it behave in a particular way. For a while they all behave in a very positive, constructive way. And then you find a subreddit in which they behave in a nasty way.

“Or, for example, when you build a system such as Twitter, it becomes wildly, wildly effective. And when the ‘Arab Spring’ – I will never say that without the quotes – happens, you’re tempted to claim that Twitter is a great force for good because it allowed people to react against the oppressive regime.

“But then pretty soon people are contacting you about cyberbullying and saying their lives are miserable on Twitter because of the way that works. And then another few iterations of the Earth going around the sun, and you find that the oppressive regimes are using social networks in order to spy on and crack down on dissidents before the dissidents could even get round to organising.”

In conclusion, he says, “You can’t generalise. You can’t say, you know, social networks tend to be bad, tend to be nasty.”

For a creation entering its fourth decade, we still know remarkably little about how the web works. The technical details, sure: they are all laid out there, in that initial document presented to Cern, and in the many updates that Berners-Lee, and the World Wide Web Consortium he founded to succeed him, have approved.

But the social dynamics built on top of that technical underpinning are changing so rapidly and are so unstable that every year we need to reassess its legacy. “Are we now in a stable position where we can look back and decide this is the legacy of the web? Nooooope,” he says, with a chuckle. Which means we are running a never-ending race, trying to work out the effects of new platforms and systems even as competitors launch their eventual replacements.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee: how the web went from idea to reality

Berners-Lee’s solution is radical: a sort of refoundation of the web, creating a fresh set of rules, both legal and technical, to unite the world behind a process that can avoid some of the missteps of the past 30 years.

Calling it the “contract for the web”, he first suggested it last November at the Web Summit in Lisbon. “At pivotal moments,” he says, “generations before us have stepped up to work together for a better future. With the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, diverse groups of people have been able to agree on essential principles. With the Law of Sea and the Outer Space Treaty, we have preserved new frontiers for the common good. Now too, as the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognised as a human right and built for the public good.”

This is a push for legislation, yes. “Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open. And they have a responsibility to protect people’s rights and freedoms online.”

But it is equally important, he says, for companies to join in and for the big tech firms to do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety. “This year, we’ve seen a number of tech employees stand up and demand better business practices. We need to encourage that spirit.”

But even if we could fix the web, might it be too late for that to fix the world? Berners-Lee’s invention has waxed and waned in its role in the wider digital society. For years, the web was the internet, with only a tiny portion of hardcore nerds doing anything online that wasn’t mediated through a webpage.

But in the past decade, that trend has reversed: the rise of the app economy fundamentally bypasses the web, and all the principles associated with it, of openness, interoperability and ease of access. In theory, any webpage should be accessible from any device with a web browser, be that an iPhone, a Windows PC or an internet-enabled fridge. The same is not true for content and services locked inside apps, where the distributor has absolute power over where and how users can interact with their platforms.

In fact, the day before I speak to Berners-Lee, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg published his own letter on the future of the internet, describing his goal of reshaping Facebook into a “privacy-focused social network”. It had a radically different set of aims: pulling users into a fundamentally closed network, where not only can you only get in touch with Facebook users from other Facebook products, but even the very idea of accessing core swathes of Facebook’s platform from a web browser was deprioritised, in favour of the extreme privacy provided by universal end-to-end encryption.

For Berners-Lee, these shifts are concerning, but represent the strengths as well as the weaknesses of his creation. “The crucial thing is the URL. The crucial thing is that you can link to anything.

This is for Everyone seen during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, a nod to Berners-Lee’s creation.

This is for Everyone seen during the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012, a nod to Berners-Lee’s creation. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

“The web platform [the bundle of technologies that underpin the web] is always, at every moment, getting more and more powerful. The good news is that because the web platform is so powerful, a lot of the apps which are actually built, are built using the web platform and then cranked out using the various frameworks which allow you to generate an app or something from it.” All the installable applications that run on smartphones and tablets work in this way, with the app acting as little more than a wrapper for a web page.

“So there’s web technology inside, but what we’re saying is if, from the user’s point of view, there’s no URL, then we’ve lost.”

In some cases, that battle really has been lost. Apple runs an entire media operation inside its app store that can’t be read in normal browsers, and has a news app that spits out links that do not open if Apple News has been uninstalled.

But in many more, the same viral mechanics that allow platforms to grow to a scale that allow them to consider breaking from the web ultimately keep them tied to the openness that the platform embodies. Facebook posts still have permanent links buried in the system, as do tweets and Instagrams. Even the hot new thing, viral video app TikTok, lets users send URLs to each other: how else to encourage new users to hop on board?

It may be too glib to say, as the early Netscape executive Ram Shriram once did, that “open always wins out” – tech is littered with examples where a closed technology was the ultimate victor – but the web’s greatest strength over the past 30 years has always been the ability of anyone to build anything on top of it, without needing permission from Berners-Lee or anyone else.

But for that freedom to stick around for another 30 years – long enough to get the 50% of the world that isn’t online connected, long enough to see the next generation of startups grow to maturity – it requires others to join Berners-Lee in the fight. “The web is for everyone,” he says, “and collectively we hold the power to change it. It won’t be easy. But if we dream a little and work a lot, we can get the web we want.”

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Yanny or Laurel? Sound ‘illusion’ sets off ear-splitting arguments | Technology

Yanny or Laurel? Sound ‘illusion’ sets off ear-splitting arguments | Technology

A short audio clip of a computer-generated voice has become the most divisive subject on the internet since the gold/blue dress controversy of 2015.

The audio “illusion”, which first appeared on Reddit, seems to be saying one word – but whether that word is “Yanny” or “Laurel” is the source of furious disagreement.

Cloe Feldman

What do you hear?! Yanny or Laurel

May 15, 2018

Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology says the Yanny/Laurel sound is an example of a “perceptually ambiguous stimulus” such as the Necker cube or the face/vase illusion.

“They can be seen in two ways, and often the mind flips back and forth between the two interpretations. This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation,” Alais says.

“If there is little ambiguity, the brain locks on to a single perceptual interpretation. Here, the Yanny/Laurel sound is meant to be ambiguous because each sound has a similar timing and energy content – so in principle it’s confusable.

“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.”

Alais says that for him, and presumably many others, it’s “100% Yanny” without any ambiguity.

That lack of ambiguity he says is probably down to two reasons: firstly his age. At 52 his ears lack high frequency sensitivity, a natural result of ageing; and secondly, a difference in pronunciation between the North American accented computer-generated “Yanny” and “Laurel” and how the words would naturally be spoken in Australian or British English.

This argument is further supported by an assistant professor of audition and cognitive neuroscience Lars Riecke at Maastricht University. Speaking to the Verge, Riecke suggests the “secret is frequency … but some of it is also the mechanics of your ears, and what you’re expecting to hear”.

“Most sounds – including L and Y, which are among the ones at issue here – are made up of several frequencies at once … frequencies of the Y might have been made artificially higher, and the frequencies that make the L sound might have been dropped.”

In National Geographic, Brad Story from the University of Arizona’s speech acoustics and physiology lab claimed the original recording was “laurel” but because the audio clip isn’t clear it leaves room for confusion and varying interpretations.

Story has experimented by recording his own voice pronouncing both words and found similar sound patterns for “yanny” and “laurel”.

Online commentators have added their own theories as to why people are hearing different words in the clip – and pointed out it varies depending on the level of frequency, amplitude and the type of speakers used to play back the clip.

Steve Pomeroy

Ok, so if you pitch-shift it you can hear different things:

down 30%:
down 20%:
up 20%:
up 30%
up 40%

May 15, 2018

According to the Twitter user Earth Vessel Quotes, the amount of bass projected from the sound device can have a significant impact.

Earth Vessel Quotes

you can hear both when you adjust the bass levels:

May 15, 2018

Lower frequencies increase your chances of hearing the world “Laurel” while higher ones are more likely to sound like “Yanny”.

One user wrote on Reddit: “If you turn the volume very low, there will be practically no bass and you will hear Yanny. Turn the volume up and play it on some speakers that have actual bass response (AKA not your phone) and you will hear Laurel.”

A video posted by another Twitter user, Alex Saad, backs this theory by showing the sound mix morphing from “Yanny” into “Laurel” while toggling through different frequencies.

Alex Saad

Despite objective proof I still think it’s #Laurel

May 15, 2018

Others have speculated that the difference may be down to the age of the listener, or individual physiology. As you get older, your hearing range begins to deteriorate, making certain high frequencies hard or impossible to hear. This process can begin from the age of 25.

Alex Zalben

guys help me out, does this dress say yanny or laurel

May 15, 2018

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Twitter announces global change to algorithm in effort to tackle harassment | Technology

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Twitter is announcing a global change to its ranking algorithm this week, its first step toward improving the “health” of online conversations since it launched a renewed effort to address rampant trolling, harassment and abuse in March.

“It’s shaping up to be one of the highest-impact things that we’ve done,” the chief executive, Jack Dorsey ,said of the update, which will change how tweets appear in search results or conversations. “The spirit of the thing is that we want to take the burden off the person receiving abuse or mob-like behavior.”

Social media platforms have long struggled to police acceptable content and behavior on their sites, but external pressure on the companies increased significantly following the revelation that a Russian influence operation used the platforms in coordinated campaigns around the 2016 US election.

Facebook and Google have largely responded by promising to hire thousands of moderators and improve their artificial intelligence tools to automate content removal. Twitter’s approach, which it outlined to reporters in a briefing on Monday, is distinct because it is content neutral and will not require more human moderators.

“A lot of our past action has been content based, and we are shifting more and more to conduct,” Dorsey said.

Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice-president of trust and safety, said that the new changes were based on research that found that most of the abuse reports on Twitter originate in search results or the conversations that take place in the responses to a single tweet. The company also found that less than 1% of Twitter accounts made up the majority of abuse reports and that many of the reported tweets did not actually violate the company’s rules, despite “detract[ing] from the overall experience” for most users.

The new system will use behavioral signals to assess whether a Twitter account is adding to – or detracting from – the tenor of conversations. For example, if an account tweets at multiple other users with the same message, and all of those accounts either block or mute the sender, Twitter will recognize that the account’s behavior is bothersome. But if an account tweets at multiple other accounts with the same message, and some of them reply or hit the “heart” button, Twitter will assess the interactions as welcome. Other signals will include whether an account has confirmed an email address or whether an account appears to be acting in a coordinated attack.

With these new signals, Harvey explained, “it didn’t matter what was said; it mattered how people reacted.”

The updated algorithm will result in certain tweets being pushed further down in a list of search results or replies, but will not delete them from the platform. Early experiments have resulted in a 4% decline in abuse reports from search and an 8% drop in abuse reports in conversations, said David Gasca, Twitter’s director of product management for health.

This is not the first time that Twitter has promised to crack down on abuse and trolling on its platform. In 2015, then CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged that the company “sucks at dealing with abuse and trolls”. But complaints have continued under Dorsey’s leadership, and in March, the company decided to seek outside help, issuing a request for proposals for academics and NGOs to help it come up with ways to measure and promote healthy conversations.

Dorsey and Harvey appeared optimistic that this new approach will have a significant impact on users’ experience.

“We are trying to strike a balance,” Harvey said. “What would Twitter be without controversy?”

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Twitter urges all users to change their password after bug discovered | Technology

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Twitter has urged its 336 million users to change their passwords after the company discovered a bug that stored passwords in plain text in an internal system.

The company said it had fixed the problem and had seen “no indication of breach or misuse”, but it suggested users consider changing their password on Twitter and on all services where they have used the same password “as a precaution”.

“We are very sorry this happened,” said Twitter’s chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, in a blogpost. “We recognise and appreciate the trust you place in us, and are committed to earning that trust every day.”

Twitter Support

We recently found a bug that stored passwords unmasked in an internal log. We fixed the bug and have no indication of a breach or misuse by anyone. As a precaution, consider changing your password on all services where you’ve used this password.

May 3, 2018

Companies with good security practices typically store user passwords in a form that cannot be read. In Twitter’s case, passwords are masked through a process called hashing, which replaces the actual password with a random set of numbers and letters that are stored in the company’s system.

“This allows our systems to validate your account credentials without revealing your password,” said Agrawal. “This is an industry standard.”

“Due to a bug, passwords were written to an internal log before completing the hashing process. We found this error ourselves, removed the passwords, and are implementing plans to prevent this bug from happening again.”

Agrawal advises people to change their passwords, enable two-factor authentication on their Twitter account and use a password manager to create strong, unique passwords on every service they use.

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EU: data-harvesting tech firms are ‘sweatshops of connected world’ | Technology

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The European data protection supervisor has hit out at social media and tech firms over the recent constant stream of privacy policy emails in the run up to GDPR, calling them them the “sweatshops of the connected world”.

With the tough new General Data Protection Regulations coming into force on 25 May, companies around the world are being forced to notify their users to accept new privacy policies and data processing terms to continue to use the services.

But Giovanni Buttarelli, the European data protection supervisor (EDPS), lambasted the often-hostile approach of the recent deluge of notifications.

“If this encounter seems a take-it-or-leave it proposition – with perhaps a hint of menace – then it is a travesty of at least the spirit of the new regulation, which aims to restore a sense of trust and control over what happens to our online lives,” said Buttarelli. “Consent cannot be freely given if the provision of a service is made conditional on processing personal data not necessary for the performance of a contract.”

“The most recent [Facebook] scandal has served to expose a broken and unbalanced ecosystem reliant on unscrupulous personal data collection and micro-targeting for whatever purposes promise to generate clicks and revenues.

“The digital information ecosystem farms people for their attention, ideas and data in exchange for so called ‘free’ services. Unlike their analogue equivalents, these sweatshops of the connected world extract more than one’s labour, and while clocking into the online factory is effortless it is often impossible to clock off.”

The European Union’s new stronger, unified data protection laws, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), will come into force on 25 May 2018, after more than six years in the making.

GDPR will replace the current patchwork of national data protection laws, give data regulators greater powers to fine, make it easier for companies with a “one-stop-shop” for operating across the whole of the EU, and create a new pan-European data regulator called the European Data Protection Board.

The new laws govern the processing and storage of EU citizens’ data, both that given to and observed by companies about people, whether or not the company has operations in the EU. They state that data protection should be both by design and default in any operation.

GDPR will refine and enshrine the “right to be forgotten” laws as the “right to erasure”, and give EU citizens the right to data portability, meaning they can take data from one organisation and give it to another. It will also bolster the requirement for explicit and informed consent before data is processed, and ensure that it can be withdrawn at any time.

To ensure companies comply, GDPR also gives data regulators the power to fine up to €20m or 4% of annual global turnover, which is several orders of magnitude larger than previous possible fines. Data breaches must be reported within 72 hours to a data regulator, and affected individuals must be notified unless the data stolen is unreadable, ie strongly encrypted.

While data protection and privacy has become a hot-button issue in part thanks to the Cambridge Analytica files, Buttarelli is concerned that it is simply being used as part of the “PR toolkit” of firms. He said that there is “a growing gulf between hyperbole and reality, where controllers learn to talk a good game while continuing with the same old harmful habits”.

A new social media subgroup of data protection regulators will be convened in mid-May to tackle what Buttarelli called the “manipulative approaches” that must change with GDPR.

“Brilliant lawyers will always be able to fashion ingenious arguments to justify almost any practice. But with personal data processing we need to move to a different model,” said Buttarelli. “The old approach is broken and unsustainable – that will be, in my view, the abiding lesson of the Facebook/ Cambridge Analytica case.”

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Google puts gun emoji back in holster with switch to water pistol | Technology

Google puts gun emoji back in holster with switch to water pistol | Technology

Google has become the latest firm to change its gun emoji to resemble a water pistol, falling in line with most other platforms, including Apple, Samsung, WhatsApp and Twitter.

Amid a particularly fervent period in the US anti-gun movement, led by the Floridian students of Stoneman Douglas high school caught up in a mass shooting earlier this year, users of Google-owned products and services will soon see the gun emoji rendered as a bright orange water pistol. That includes smartphones updated to the upcoming Android 9.0 “P” due for release in May.

Apple first transformed its gun emoji from a realistic looking silver revolver into a green water pistol in 2016 after a succession of high-profile US shootings and pressure from activists, to a mostly positive response (“not political correctness gone mad; smart”, was one Guardian writer’s opinion).

However, users also pointed out that the unilateral change could cause problematic confusion when Apple’s iOS users sent a water-pistol emoji, which when viewed by other mobile users would still appear as a lifelike gun. The problem was exacerbated when, at the same time as Apple’s water pistol was introduced, Microsoft moved in the opposite direction, changing its zap-gun style into a realistic revolver. At the time the company said: “Our intent with every glyph is to align with the global Unicode standard, and the previous design did not map to industry designs or our customers’ expectations of the emoji definition.”

Speaking on the Emoji Wrap podcast in 2016, Google’s product manager Agustin Fonts was also hesitant about shifting to a water pistol to remain “as compatible with other systems as possible”.

All platforms’ gun emoji designs and how they have changed. Photograph: Emojipedia / Jeremy Burge

Emojis are approved by the Unicode Consortium, the industry body which oversees software standards and developments, but tech platforms are at liberty to introduce their own designs of approved glyphs.

Apple’s standalone shift has become less problematic however, with WhatsApp following its lead in 2017 and swapping the gun for a toy rendition, and Samsung and Twitter making the change in 2018. Facebook has announced that it will also make the switch across the remainder of its products soon.

In 2016, a hunting rifle emoji proposed by the Unicode Consortium as part of an Olympic Games set was shot down, with efforts led by Apple and Microsoft. Unicode Consortium president Mark Davis said that “there was consensus to remove them”, while a Gun Control Network spokesperson said: “All those who have been traumatised by gun threats and gun violence will be grateful for this significant gesture of respect and support.”

Despite its opposition to the rifle emoji however, Microsoft remains the most prominent mainstream tech company to have not changed the revolver to a water-pistol emoji, nor commented on any plans to.

A bomb, knife and swords remain part of current emoji sets.

‘I’m sitting next to a weirdo on the bus’ and other true meanings of emoji

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Twitter reports profit for second quarter in a row and adds 6m new users | Technology

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It’s taken 12 years, but Twitter is now a money-maker. The social media company reported its second profitable quarter on Wednesday, driven by a 10% rise in users and faster growth overseas.

Twitter has struggled since it went public in 2013 and user growth has slowed dramatically. But while its US base is still declining, the company now seems to have found a rich source of international growth.

In its first financial quarter, Twitter’s revenue rose 21% from a year earlier to $664.9m, comfortably ahead of analysts’ expectations, and posted a profit of $61m, compared with a loss of $61.6m in the same quarter last year.

Twitter’s daily active users (DAU) rose 10% year-over-year, while monthly user numbers rose 3% to 336m. The company added 5 million people outside the United States and a million inside its home market.

Twitter now has 69 million monthly users in the US, 1% lower than this time last year, and 267 million internationally.

Twitter struggled for years to make a profit and its internal problems led to an exodus of executives and layoffs. Co-founder Jack Dorsey rejoined the company as chief executive last May and the company set a goal of “driving towards” profitability.

Advertising revenue rose 21% to $575m over the quarter, with strong growth in Asia.

As with its peers, Twitter is facing a backlash over the misuse of its platform by parties spreading fake news and hate speech. Twitter said it expects to increase its headcount by 10-15% in 2018 as it seeks to tackle the issues.

Doresey said: “The first quarter was a strong start to the year. We grew our audience and engagement, marking another quarter of double digit year-over-year DAU growth, and continued our work to make it easier to follow topics, interests, and events on Twitter.”

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Arron Banks, the insurers and my strange data trail | Technology

Arron Banks, the insurers and my strange data trail | Technology

If a 29-year-old Peugeot 309 is the answer, it’s fair to wonder: what on earth is the question? In fact, I had no idea about either the question or the answer when I submitted a “subject access request” to Eldon Insurance Services in December last year. Or that my car – a vehicle that dates from the last millennium – could hold any sort of clue to anything. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, however, in pursuing the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it’s that however weird things look, they can always get weirder.

Because I was simply seeking information, as I have for the last 16-plus months, about what the Leave campaigns did during the referendum – specifically, what they did with data. And the subject access request – a legal mechanism I’d learned about from Paul-Olivier Dehaye, a Swiss mathematician and data expert – was a shot in the dark.

Under British data protection laws, “data subjects” – you and me – have the right to ask companies or organisations what personal information about them they hold. And, a series of incidents had led me to wonder what, if any, personal information Leave.EU – the campaign headed by Nigel Farage and bankrolled by Arron Banks, a Bristol-based businessman – may have held on me. By the time I submitted my request in December, I’d already been writing about them and their relationship with Cambridge Analytica for almost a year – the first piece in February triggering two investigations by the Electoral Commission and Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).

But, in November, I appeared to touch a nerve. Leave.EU’s persistent but mostly lighthearted attacks on my work began to change in tone. Conservative MPs had started to criticise the government’s Brexit plans, it had been revealed that Robert Mueller was investigating Cambridge Analytica, and it was in the middle of this that Leave.EU put out a video: a spoof video that showed me being beaten up and threatened with a gun. It was intended to creep me out. And it did. What else, I wondered, did Leave.EU have planned? What else did it know about me? And where had it come from? Companies House shows dozens of companies registered in Banks’s name and variants of his name – Aaron Banks, Aron Fraser Andrew Banks, Arron Andrew Fraser Banks, to name three – including a private investigations firm, Precision Risk and Intelligence Ltd. Andy Wigmore – a director of Eldon and Leave.EU’s spokesman – had told me previously that all insurance firms had access to police databases for fraud prevention purposes.

So, on 17 December last year I submitted a request to Liz Bilney, chief executive of both Leave.EU and Eldon Insurance Services, that asked for the personal information held on me by 19 of Banks’s companies.

Email to an employee requesting artwork to make Carole look ‘manic’. It was subsequently used in a Leave.EU tweet.

The letter triggered a steam of abuse, Banks and Wigmore revealing the contents of my letter in a series of tweets. The next day, I complained to the ICO that my attempt to access my private data, as is my right under British law, had been disclosed publicly and used as the basis to attack me further. The ICO found them to be “likely” in breach of the Data Protection Act and said it had written to notify them. Bilney asked me to pay £170 – you can charge up to £10 for each request by law – and just over a month later I received two folders of data, one relating to the personal information held on me by Leave.EU and the other by Eldon Insurance Services.

The second folder was a surprise. And not just to me. “We have no information on you dopey! You are a political adversary not a customer…” Banks had tweeted at me. And when I’d complained, he said: “You aren’t a customer, we don’t hold any data on you and frankly a journalist asking questions isn’t private, dopey!”

He was right: I wasn’t an Eldon customer. But there it was: my Eldon data, a spreadsheet, that showed it had gathered 12 different sets of data on me from three different sources. These were identified by different codes and a legend supplied with the spreadsheet revealed the codes represented software companies. And there was my data: Eldon had my name, age, address, email address, friends and family who had been on my car insurance and how I had been scored for risk.

How did Eldon have it? And where did it come from? Was I – or had I been – a customer of Eldon at some point? I hadn’t, it turned out, but a search of my inbox revealed that on 27 July last year, I’d taken out car insurance on the basis of a quote I’d obtained from The telling detail was that it was sent at 13.34, the same time as the final entry on the spreadsheet.

I had given all sorts of private information: my home, car, personal relationships, and it had passed that private, sensitive information on to Eldon.

Going back to Moneysupermarket, I could see that I’d consented to my data being shared with its partners when I sought quotes and that, according to the terms and conditions it had set out, it could share it if it wanted.

Two months earlier, I’d spent 72 hours getting increasingly unsettled by the video Leave.EU put out and which, despite hundreds of complaints from people, it had refused to take down. Banks had previously told me that “I wouldn’t be so lippy in Russia” and both he and Leave.EU had made a habit of retweeting personal attacks directed at me by the Russian Embassy’s Twitter account. The video, showing a photoshopped image of me being hit in the face to the music of the Russian national anthem, went up the same week the Telegraph launched an attack on “Brexit mutineers”. Brendan Cox – the widow of Jo Cox – said that it created “a context where violence is more likely”. Another Leave.EU tweet called them a “cancer”. The atmosphere was ugly. And the video felt threatening. I felt threatened. It wasn’t so much that it had been put up, but that it stayed up – only coming down, eventually, when the Observer’s editors intervened.

I tell the story at length because this is the context in which I found out this information. And because it turns out that my experience may not be unique. Moneysupermarket responded: “Our providers use the personal information from our customers to generate personalised quotes for the service they have asked for (such as quoting for car insurance) and are not allowed to use this information for anything else unless they have permission from the customer.”

But I had given my consent and it shared my information in accordance with its privacy policy. In its annual report, it reveals it holds data on 24.9 million people – half the British electorate.

A post-Brexit advert for Eldon Insurance.

A post-Brexit advert for Eldon Insurance.

My disquiet about what information companies and organisations hold on me, and how it might be used, is a disquiet that, in the light of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, should perhaps be felt by everyone.

Or at least raise questions. Questions, such as: what private information do Banks’s companies hold on you? Where did it come from? How might it have been used?

Last week an ex-director of Cambridge Analytica, Brittany Kaiser, made explosive new claims in testimony to MPs. She appeared before the select committee for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and told MPs that, despite ferocious denials repeated for more than a year, Cambridge Analytica did process data for Leave.EU and Ukip. It did carry out work for the campaign, she said.

But she also told MPs – and submitted evidence – that she had been asked to devise a strategy to combine Ukip, Leave.EU and Eldon insurance data to politically profile people. What’s more, she said, she visited Eldon’s call centre and HQ in Bristol, which had also served as the campaign HQ for Leave.EU, and seen with her “own eyes” how Eldon employees used Eldon data to target people with political messages.

If true, Ravi Naik, a human rights lawyer who specialises in data rights, says it would be a scandal on the level of the one now engulfing Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Because my attempt to find something as benign and unavoidable as a new insurance deal – just like millions of others – for my Peugeot had inadvertently revealed personal data they potentially had access to.

“It’s what Christopher Wylie has been saying about the weaponisation of data,” says Naik. “The idea that by doing something fundamental to your day-to-day life could have led to sensitive personal information being used in ways you don’t know about, let alone consented to.”

Banks told the Observer that Kaiser’s evidence “was a tissue of lies”, that she had visited Eldon’s offices only once, that the call centre handled calls from the public or those who followed Leave.EU on social media, and that the company “absolutely refutes” that any insurance data was used in the campaign. He said: “Eldon has never given… any data to Leave.EU, they are separate entities with strong data control rules. And vice versa.”

The folder containing my Eldon data was one of two I received back. The other marked Leave.EU contained all sorts of odd material: emails I’d sent Banks and Wigmore, and replies they’d sent to me. Emails they’d sent employees about me. Emails about mocking up Photoshopped images of me to put out on Twitter.

Typical is this one from 13 December, in which Wigmore writes: “Can we get a picture of carole codswallop accepting her award Oscar style thanking the Russians, Facebook Arron and myself with caption only 75p spent on Brexit etc – make it funny.”

Or this one from May last year, four days after the Observer published the first story that used Wylie, the Cambridge Analytica whistleblower, as an anonymous source: “Can you do a tile of Carole Cadwalladr with a tin foil hat on, looking manic at a computer with a big whiteboard with illuminati triangles with a big chalkboard filled with formulae etc. No copy. She’s looking into the campaign trying to find a big global conspiracy and we want to take the piss out of her…”

Carole’s 29-year-old Peugeot

Carole’s 29-year-old Peugeot has been an unlikely gateway to new discoveries about data.

He did. The image – flatearth.jpg – is attached in the next email and later @LeaveEUOfficial put it out on Twitter. “Madwoman @carolecadwalla is desperate to unearth some global conspiracy to undermine the #EURef. There isn’t one. Leave won, get over it!”

So far, so predictable. The “piss taking” was – until November’s video – the main mode of communication from Leave.EU to me. But the email chain and others in the folder pose more questions. Questions about the relationship between Banks and Leave.EU. About the relationship of Banks with Eldon insurance. And their relationship to each other. Questions that urgently need answers.

Because the request to Leave.EU was assigned to an employee whose email states “(Eldon Insurance Services)” and who has worked for Eldon Insurance Services Ltd since October 2016. He was assigned the “task” by someone with a Leave.EU email address and the email links through to a password-protected website called

Also cc-ed is another employee who Kaiser’s emails, released via parliament last week, show was involved with the work that Cambridge Analytica did for the campaign. His LinkedIn profile describes him as doing political work on behalf of Eldon Insurance.

Other employees are listed as working for working both companies. Eldon’s operations manager, for example, is also Leave.EU’s operations manager. When asked about this crossover of employees, directors and projects, Banks said: “During the campaign a small number of managers were allocated, expensed in the EC [electoral commission] return and worked on Leave.EU.” When asked about current employees, including current employees who were working for both organisations concurrently, he gave no reply.

Leave.EU was, and still is, based within Eldon Insurance’s HQ. Westmonster, the political news site Banks founded and funded, is registered to an Eldon Insurance address. Adverts for his firm GoSkippy are routinely sent to people on Leave.EU’s mailing list. Last year, Banks defended the practice, saying: “Why shouldn’t I? It’s my data.” When asked again last week, he said: “Leave.EU after the referendum campaign carried the occasional ad for insurance, so what?” In an email a day later, he said: “Eldon has never given … any data to Leave.EU.”

Last week, the Observer revealed that in the same week that the ICO had raided Cambridge Analytica’s office and seized evidence, it had issued “information notices” to both Leave.EU and Banks, a regulatory action that asks for information to be provided, for which non-compliance is a criminal offence. The questions are being asked, it seems. However, Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, told a conference last week that it urgently needed stronger powers to conduct its investigations. “We need the regime to reflect that data crimes are real crimes,” she said.

The questions are out there. Whether the ICO has the power to get the answers – or whether we’re going to continue to rely on clues obtained by a parliamentary committee and a 29-year-old Peugeot – remains to be seen.

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Twitter handles are big business, even if the owner doesn’t want to sell | Technology

Twitter handles are big business, even if the owner doesn’t want to sell | Technology

Everything has a price, even the top Twitter handles, and if somebody does not want to sell then they may be forced to relinquish their account.

“We have a marketplace which allows the sale of Twitter handles,” says Philly, a subversive marketer who founded ForumKorner, an online gaming forum. “Unlike some websites, however, we do not allow the sales of stolen accounts that some people phish, or hack, to obtain before reselling them.”

It’s the same across the whole of social media. Last month a teenage boy was given a £5,000 cruise in exchange for his Snapchat username while accounts on Instagram are sold openly on online marketplaces.

Shady brokers stalk the web searching for the most potentially lucrative handles, convincing their owners to part with them before reselling at a significantly higher price.

“It’s funny some people don’t know the true value of a handle,” says another trader on condition of anonymity. “For example, I used to look for three-letter acronyms. The handle would generally go for around $30 but little do they know people look for specific @’s correlating with their business. I’ve flipped $20-$40 to $700 on multiple occasions.”

Elsewhere, people allege their accounts have been phished, and their handles stolen and sold, yet Twitter has apparently not implemented robust systems to prevent the practice.

“Twitter has yet to go after the hackers or phishers, let alone the legitimate account sellers, like myself,” says Philly. “Phishing an account is as easy as downloading an infected program, ticking a couple options and hitting run.”

“They used social engineering strategies with multiple other services and sites (like Amazon),” says Josh Bryant, a designer at a digital product firm, who documented how he almost lost his handle in a blog post.

“The why is just money. I own both @jb on Twitter and Instagram and there’s a huge economy for desirable usernames right now. If a hacker can get them, list and sell them before the site responds they stand to make a pretty healthy profit.”

‘Twitter sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me,’ says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Another user claims their username was taken by Twitter itself. “A broker kept approaching me, and when I declined his final offer, a formal complaint was made to Twitter, by whom I don’t know, and the handle was handed over to JPMorgan,” says Chase Giunta, a software developer who previously owned the handle @Chase.

“I always assumed JP Morgan would want it since they’re the largest bank in the US, but I also assumed they, or maybe even Twitter, would contact me directly to set up some kind of exchange – not some shady broker.”

Twitter, however, does not permit the trading of usernames. It explicitly states: “Attempts to sell, buy, or solicit other forms of payment in exchange for usernames are also violations and may result in permanent account suspension.” This does not seem to have stopped them changing hands, though.

“After his last offer, I received action from Twitter,” says Giunta. “The steps they took to take my account down were incredibly unsettling. They sent me automated emails claiming I was impersonating Chase Bank, which I wasn’t, before they took the username from me.”

“Of course, in hindsight, I would’ve accepted his last $20,000 offer. But I thought I was doing the ‘right thing’ by turning it down at that time.”

This sentiment was echoed by Patrick de Laive, the founder of The Next Web, who was offered $20,000 for @patrick by an athlete.

Accounts may be permanently removed due to prolonged inactivity to prevent handle squatting. In the early days of the social media giant, this meant people could contact the administrator and request inactive handles.

A former Twitter employee told the Guardian how they could request unused usernames for themselves and family. Others have since demonstrated the relative ease in which enterprising people can secure their desired handle.

“I got my first name as my Twitter handle after a six-month campaign that included some light Internet stalking, badgering staff at Twitter, $250 and a visit to the patent office,” says Haje Jan, a director at Bold, a venture capitalist company, whose first name was taken by an inactive user.

“I registered a web domain for my first name to strengthen my case (in case the trademark people decided to look any deeper), then forked over my £170 to the Intellectual Property Office, registering Haje™ as a trademark.”

“Armed with the trademark I contacted Twitter’s support team and about a week later, I received an email saying that I could either create a new account or move the username to an existing account. Mission accomplished – and it turned out to be easier than I anticipated.”

It’s not just individuals who have bought up desirable usernames. The state of Israel bought the @israel handle for reported six-figure sum in 2010, while CNN employed the owner of @cnnbrk as a consultant in exchange for transferring them the account.

“Twitter has always been very clear that it’s against their terms and conditions to sell usernames but that hasn’t stopped people trying,” says Sue Llewellyn, who trains journalists to use social media. “They also frown upon people squatting on usernames – ie creating an account and not using it.”

“Frankly I think if a big name celebrity wanted a specific name that wasn’t being used then they could probably get it.”

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Twitter bans 270,000 accounts for ‘promoting terrorism’ | Technology

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Twitter removed more than 270,000 accounts around the world for promoting terrorism in the second half of 2017, according to the company’s latest transparency report.

The number of accounts permanently suspended for sharing what the firm called extremist content between July and December represents a drop for the second period in a row.

The social network puts this down to “years of hard work making our site an undesirable place for those seeking to promote terrorism”.

Nick Pickles, Twitter UK’s head of public policy, said: “The overwhelming majority of these accounts were detected by our own technology, with just 0.2% of the accounts we suspended in 2017 being flagged by the police.”

Almost 75% of accounts were suspended before they sent their first tweet, according to the report, and 93% were discovered by tools that Twitter engineers had built.

Twitter is understood to also use a combination of US and EU lists of terrorist organisations as well as research from academics and experts to identify terrorists on its network.

The number of reports of abusive behaviour submitted by government representatives also dropped amid a marked change in the type of abusive behaviour reported. Two-thirds of the 10,000 reports concerned violated rules over impersonation, with only 16% of the reports for harassment and 12% for hateful conduct. Harassment and hateful conduct each accounted for a third of reported accounts in the first half of 2017.

Only a quarter of reports of abusive behaviour submitted by government representatives were acted upon by Twitter, compared with 98% of reports relating to the “promotion of terrorism”.

Twitter’s biannual transparency report details requests from governments around the world, but not individual users from each country.

The UK government made 760 requests for information and five court orders across the period. The US made 1,761 requests for information, the most of any government, and Turkey made the most legal demands, with 466 court orders and 3,828 requests of a different legal nature.

Over the last six months the social network has removed the accounts of several high profile right-wing activists in the UK and US, including Britain First and Tommy Robinson in the UK. The move prompted accusations of censorship from the activists’ supporters.

Twitter does not comment on individual cases of suspended accounts but pointed towards its rules about online abuse and hate speech when asked about the suspension of Robinson’s account.

Pickles said Twitter, now working with other big technology companies in the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT) to “drive change across the web”, had permanently suspended more than 1.2m accounts for breaking rules about promoting terrorism since August 2015.

He said: “Since GIFCT was established last summer we’ve worked with more than 70 companies to help them tackle terrorist use of the internet, in addition to rolling out new technology and funding research. We’re encouraged by the positive results and will continue to look for new and innovative ways to expand our progress.”

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