In conversation with: Jennifer Zhu Scott

In conversation this time is well-known finance and digital economy expert, Jennifer Zhu Scott. Jen recently joined the WST Board of Trustees and we are delighted to welcome her. Ian Brown sat down to find out a little more about Jennifer’s (Jen’s) path to Web Science and why she thinks we’ve invented a whole new kind of poverty and what we should be doing about it.

Ian: Hi Jen, welcome to the Trust and thanks for joining us today to give the WST members and supporters an idea of who you are and where your interests lie.

Jen: No problem – I’m really pleased to be joining the board at a time when there is so much important work to do.

Ian: Like many of us you didn’t start out as a Web Scientist but reading your Bio you have studied very widely across different disciplines in Sichuan, Manchester and many top institutions – that’s quite a journey – can you tell us a little about it?

Jen: I was brought up in an environment where my father was always tinkering, disassembling and reassembling radios, fixing lights and telephones. I was very comfortable with technology. When I was in university, I bought the parts and built my own PC. Technology and science is my native language. I remember being fascinated by what technology could do. Today, as a professional, it is evident that technology has transformed every aspect of our life. Whilst our understanding of technology leaped ahead at a breakneck pace, our understanding of the social impacts of technology (the socio-technological aspect)  has been moving much, MUCH slower. I knew there must be trade-offs between what technology could do and what it should do but there didn’t seem to be any good models or guidelines for that. Arguably there still aren’t.  

My studies started with Applied Maths & Computer Science and when I left China I came to the UK to work and later on studied Finance in my master’s degree. Data is the essence of every discipline I’ve studied. I moved into industry working for some big FinTech data companies looking at how advanced technologies could be applied to businesses individually and what the key trends would be in (digital) value.  However, I was still interested in how all these benefits could be distributed across society more broadly and continued my studies branching into public policy – trying to understand how policy is formed and how change is driven on a larger scale.

 

 

Ian: You mentioned the importance of data and you gave a TED talk in 2019 about data and why we should be being getting paid for it

Jen: Absolutely. We are supposed to work towards a more inclusive and equitable economy, but in terms of data ownership, most of us are just equally poor. Most people haven’t understood the concept or implications of data poverty. The thing I learned in China as a child is that ownership, personal ownership, brings a form of liberty and the opportunity for improvement. At a time when seven of the top 10 companies on the planet derive their wealth from data about us, the conclusion is that data is immensely valuable – but the power struggle for the ownership and control of the data has only been between corporates and governments, and individuals have no seat at the table, yet the vast majority of data is generated by individuals.  My proposal of establishing the economic value of individuals’ data with a degree of pricing power is a way to grant the individuals’ rights in a digital economy and reflect each individual’s nuanced need for privacy.

Ian: I think it’s widely accepted that when a product is offered for free it is generally the users who are actually the product. I like to think of it as receiving “free shovels” that we use to dig up all the vegetables in our garden and give away to the supermarket where we can go to buy them back! 

Jen: I would argue that in the case of the current economy, we are not even a product. Shoshana Zuboff writes in her book “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” that we are only raw materials in the current digital economy. I tend to agree with her. We also give away our time, privacy, and mental wellbeing to constantly produce data for big tech.  I argue that in many ways our ‘free will’ is an illusion – a result of algorithms to manipulate more attention and more ad clicks. Therefore, a nuanced reflection of our privacy, health and individual priorities in our digital life is an important pillar of a fair and inclusive digital economy.

Ian: That is a constant problem on the Web – finding models that fit everyone globally.

Jen: In Europe, California, and increasingly China, the regulators approach this problem with more and more limitations and regulations. In China, to respond to centralized sensitive data collection and control, the regulators are introducing data localization rules to protect national security. There are more than 60 regulators around the world that are working on more than 150 various data localization rules. But the web is supposed to transcend borders and jurisdictions. Instead of forcing a balkanization of the World Wide Web, we should enable and empower decentralized data control and ownership that puts the individual at the center. With a decentralised model, it would be harder for one corporate to put national security at risk. 

Ian: We are seeing a lot of debate about Elon Musk’s proposal to change policy at Twitter if/when he buys it. In simplistic terms are we trading free speech against hate speech?

Jen: Twitter has become a tremendously powerful platform with its algorithm driving political and social discussions around the world and whether or not Elon believes he is championing free speech for all the right reasons we have to question whether one person should be making decisions with such a huge potential impact for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Elon is using his position to improve things as he sees them, but ultimately even a “better Emperor” is still an Emperor.

Ian: So you are suggesting more regulation of these types of technologies?

Jen: As we discussed, global regulation may not always be appropriate at the local level – this is where public policy comes in. There is an important difference between asking HOW something is done and if something SHOULD be done. Technology is a bit like medicine – we should be exploring, developing, and investigating what is possible without necessarily automatically licensing/approving every discovery, everywhere before understanding the costs, trade-offs, and local impacts.  This is about value-driven leadership  – moving beyond profits towards benefits and improvements for society as a whole.

Ian: But would you support the large-scale use of personal data in some cases? Some people argue that small amounts of data “don’t count” ..

Jen: Arguing that individual data doesn’t count is like arguing that one vote doesn’t count – it’s the principle that counts and it certainly matters to the individual. Data at scale is valuable of course – the question is who has the control. I chair The Commons Project, a tech non-profit that’s working towards interoperability and global health data standards that will allow us to respond to national and international events like pandemics by quickly sharing data between different countries and labs globally so the borders won’t need to shut down for so long. Covid has shown us the need to be able to react quickly and globally. At The Commons Project, we do not monetize individuals’ data. While there is a large amount of data in the mix, we minimize the data collection and maximize privacy protection. With the right governance model, you can build tech that puts the people at the center.

Ian: So with use cases like this that employ global technical standards for health data where is the place for Web Science?

Jen: Web Science brings together a host of interdisciplinary approaches from technology, law, philosophy, medicine, government (and many more) to examine the issues and decide the most important questions; even if we can do something, when/where is it appropriate to do so? How can we do it so there is clear accountability to the people and society? 

Historical medical data about a terminated pregnancy might inform health policy generally and future medical treatment for that one patient specifically but it might also get that patient prosecuted, imprisoned (or worse) in certain legal jurisdictions, or where policy/public opinion may change over time. We need to think beyond the narrow impact (or profit) in the present and consider the longer-term, wider strategic impact of these decisions.  

Ultimately the question is much more nuanced than “how can we capture/store the data?”.

In China, the ride service DIDI collected detailed journey/location information on over 550 million passengers and 10’s of millions of drivers. DIDIs aggregated data on billions of journeys offered detailed maps/models of locations that were not even on official maps and that showed who had been where and when. When attempting a foreign (US) listing in 2021 the Chinese government became uncomfortable about the international security and privacy implications of the data and has moved to restrict DIDI’s operations through the removal of the associated apps from mobile platforms as well as an investigation of the company’s potential abuses of personal data.

It goes to show that data and networks of data “at scale” have very different social implications to smaller private data stores – Web Science focuses on these types of networks at global scale.

Ian: What do you see as the role of Web Science going forward? What would you like to see happen?

Jen: We should be looking to educate users about how their data is used, how valuable it is, and why they should be managing it better. In Web2, companies like Facebook have data monetization baked into their business model. Their algorithm is designed to hook users to spend more time on their site because ‘time on site’ is an important determinant of advertising pricing. What the algorithm discovered is that when people are angry they tend to stay engaged for the longest time. This is why platforms like Facebook are full of divisive, provocative content that’s designed to trade your rage for advertising dollars. We live in a more and more polarised and divided world so Mark Zuckerberg can become a multibillionaire. Web Science Trust should gather the brightest minds in the world in our field to actively educate, debate, participate and build a healthier digital world.  There are so many more issues to address – how AI interacts with our data, the responsibility for the algorithms, the crypto-asset bubble, the lack of security and value model for NFT and the list goes on. It all centers around data: the use of data. the value of data, the ethics of data, and the ownership of data.

If our view of the world on the Web (what we see and what we are served up via search and social media) remains so strongly controlled by a combination of a data-centric 360-degree profile of our activities and profit-centered algorithms then I would argue that it’s not only a huge privacy issue, as people have argued – our freedom of information, our freedom to choose and, with it, our free-will are severely impacted. Does free will actually become an illusion?   

We need an impactful, multi-disciplinary conversation about data: its value, its uses, its ownership, and its potential benefits for society – that is where Web Science can and must make an impact.

Ian: Jen – thanks for joining us and once again welcome to the Web Science Trust!

WebSci21 – Video Vault No 11 – The Future of the Web and Society

Chair, Wendy Hall leads panellists, Sinan Aral, Azeem Azhar, Noshir Contractor and Jaime Teevan in a discussion no less ambitious than to summarise what we learned from the last 15 years of Web Science and to predict what the next 15 years may hold.

Keynote 5

Abstract

Web Science, as an interdiscipline, is celebrating its 15th year of interrogating how the Web has shaped Society and how Society, in turn, has shaped the Web. During this period, we have witnessed avalanches of disruptive “exponential” technologies emerge from tectonic shifts between four (or more!) Internets with their various sensibilities and sensitivities concerning openness, commerce, authoritarianism and human rights. The closing panel reflects on how all of these socio-cultural-political developments (re)shape the agenda for Web Science over the next 15 years and beyond. Specifically, panelists will consider the future of Web Science research and what it means for practitioners, policy makers and publics.

Summary


Chair, Wendy Hall leads panellists in a discussion to summarise what we learned from the last 15 years of Web Science and to predict what the next 15 years may hold.

About the Video Vault Series

In partnership with the ACM we are pleased to be able to release a series of videos from the most recent Web Science Conference (ACM WebSci’21) that were previously only available to attendees of the conference.

The series will be released fortnightly and will include a selection of Keynote talks and Spotlight panel discussions.

Copyright / Links

This video is (c) 2021 provided under license from the ACM.

 

WSTNet Lab Profile: Cardiff HateLab

Cardiff University is the home of a WSTNet lab with two related, but distinct groups: Pete Burnap’s Social Data Lab (based on data visualisation and analysis using COSMOS) which makes social media analysis much more accessible for non-coding academics and also Matt William’s HateLab which uses a COSMOS-based dashboard to identify and analyse hate speech structures and trends in a range of social media sources across modern forms of on-line hate including racial, political, gender and religious intolerance.  

Williams (who holds a chair in Criminology at Cardiff) has been researching the clues left in social media since 2011 but was frustrated by the lack of tools/accessibility for any but the most skilled coders and worked with Prof. Pete Burnap to develop a more user-friendly toolset called COSMOS which allows researchers to focus on the meanings and interpretations of social media data rather than the underlying technologies.

With new tools/possibilities delivered by COSMOS, new research questions began to surface and the “Hate Speech and Social media” project was launched in 2013. This led to the founding of the HateLab where Matt has been director since 2017 where his group has attracted more than £3m in funding. He has published a series of papers and in 2021 he published a summary of more than 20 years research in his book The Science of Hate

 

HateLab could be seen as something of a poster child for Web Science having been featured widely in the press and the media with HateLab research being covered in: LA TimesNew York PostThe Guardian (also here), The Times (also here and here), The Financial TimesThe IndependentTelegraph (also here), TortoiseNew ScientistPoliticoBBC NewsThe RegisterComputerWeeklyVerdictSky NewsTechWorld and Police Professional. On TV, their research underpinned an episode of BBC One’s Panorama, an episode of ITV’s Exposure and an ITV NEWS special report. HateLab is been used as part of the National Online Hate Crime Hub announced by the UK Home Secretary in 2017

HateLab collects data from several platforms including Twitter (They have also been highlighted by Twitter as a featured developer partner), 4Chan, Telegram and Reddit and the tools look for trends and patterns using AI techniques which link the timing, causality and impacts which can link physical acts of violence whilst the appearance and timing of hate speech. Williams has found certain patterns and timings in his work (he calls it the “half-life” of hate speech and this may be critical in understanding how to manage/calm/delay responses in on-line communities if strong reactions (esp. physical reactions to online hate speech) are seen to quickly fade and be much more temporary in nature than other forms of crime.

Whilst it is perhaps clear that real-world “trigger” events (such as Covid, Brexit, Trump speeches, London Bridge attacks etc.) can/do give rise to waves of on-line reactions (with hate being the least desirable of these) it is perhaps less obvious (and more interesting) to consider that a certain level and timing of hate speech might be associated with, and contribute to, higher levels of physical violence. HateLab is looking at the possibility of developing predictive models which not only allow non-academic groups how to gauge and better manage different types of hate speech and volatile communities on-line but might also help to prevent on-line hate spilling over into physical violence.

The recent case of Ex-President Trump and his on-line incitement to “march on the capital building” being a chilling example of the need for this sort of model.  

We asked Matt about his take on the new owner at Twitter and how Musk’s view on free speech might affect his research and his overall objective to reduce hate-speech …  

 “Twitter have been really busy since 2015 trying to manage the whole on-line harm issue and frankly they’ve done a pretty good job – They’ve employed huge numbers of moderators that have ensured that a lot of the more unpleasant material that is ON the platform (and that we have access to via the API for research purposes) is not VISIBLE on the platform where ordinary users can be harmed by it. There is obviously a trade-off between the notion of on-line harm and freedom of speech and we’ll have to wait and see what effect Elon’s new policies have on the resurgance of what is thought to be harmful content. Certainly we’ve seen a reduction in the amount of hatespeech across the twitter API over recent months/years but its unclear whether users have migrated to more tolerant platforms or whether the Twitter filtering is now being reflected in the API output. Overall we’ve had a very positive relationship with Twitter and we’d obviously like to continue to work with them”.

DISCLOSURE:

I have to admit to being just a tiny bit disappointed that Matt is not also the brains behind HateLab: the London-based cyberpunk band which I stumbled on when googling more about his work 😉

Early NFT investor embarrassed by no resale interest

The recent surge in NFT coverage in tyhe technology and financial press was typified by the story of an early NFT auction in which an investor paid $2.9m for an NFT linked to Twitter Founder Jack Dorsey’s first ever Tweet on the platform. This, it was claimed, was an example of how new value could be created using NFTs and how investing in buying and selling NFTs would be the next big thing. The sales of NFTs have indeed grown large though the residual value, and ROI on the resale of NFTs have been much less impressive.

In the interim it has been widely reported not only that NFT exchanges have struggled with growing numbers or fraudulent issues, fake NFTs, market manipulation, price rigging and thefts (ironically specifically the issues that block chain technologies are intended to prevent) but also that a lot of the apparent liquidity in NFT markets (the number of buy/sell transactions) has been artificially (and illegally) inflated by the same parties being on both sides of the transaction in any attempt to give the impression that NFT are easily/quickly traded and that prices are going up.

In what must be considered a massive PR blow to the industry as a whole, the buyer of this famous first Tweet NFT, Sina Estavi has recently tried to sell what is probably the most famous NFT in existence for sale referring to it as the “Mona Lisa of the Digital World” for an eye-watering $48m on the OpenSea NFT exchange (asking more than 16x what he paid for it in March 2021) and was met with initially offers of only hunderds of dollars and at the time of writing a highest bid of just $6’800 – some 0.000141 of the asking price and barely 0.0023 of what he paid for it. Surely a “rug pull” of epic proportions.

Our condolensces go to Mr Estavi who had allegedly planned to donate about $25m of the expected proceeds to charity though we think he has badly mis-judged what he has purchased. While he claims this NFT is the “Mona Lisa of the Digital World” – something which would indeed be priceless, surely what he has actually bought is an NFT for a photo of the Mona Lisa which can be bought in any gift shop for a few dollars or downloaded from the Web for free. 

Perhaps more correctly he bought $2.9m of attention/publicity for himself and the new NFT exchange he is launching whilst the NFT that remains behind when the news stories and buzz are forgotten actually captures very little inherent value beyond the attention and novelty they generate. Who was the second woman to fly solo across the Atlantic? The second athelete to break a 4-minute mile? No-one remembers and I suspect the the second person to own this NFT might be equally forgetable.

Perhaps NFTs are becoming a new currency of the “attention economy” joining subscribers, likes and upvotes. In any case potential investors must now surely be ultra-careful about certificates pointing to notional assets that are hard (impossible) to differentiate from the free alternatives.

Elon Musk to acquire Twitter for $44bn

Despite claiming in a recent interview that “technically” he could afford to purchase Twitter personally, Musk has chosen instead to fund the $44bn (£34.5bn) takeover with $21bn of his own money plus debt structures.

The threatened poison pill response from the Twitter board appears to have been ineffective in the light of threatened legal action by Musk against the board members who, surprisingly, own virtually no Twitter stock themselves leaving themselves open to serious fiduciary malpractice suits if they had not entertained Musk’s offer as being of major benefit to the shareholders.  

Musk had publicly offered to “save $3m a year” on Twitters bottom line by not paying any board members (Musk himslef takes no salary for any of his management roles) and so it remains unclear whether the current board will simply disolve, whether founder Jack Dorsey (a friend of Musk) will now remain and who will steer the company in the short term. Musk will appear at an employees meeting to handle questions in the coming days/weeks.

Musk has made much of the need for a free speech platform for the world as a whole – calling it “the bedrock of a functioning democracy” even if that free speech may be negative or oppose our own views. He is known to prefer “timeouts” to lifetime bans similar to the one imposed on ex-president Trump.

“I hope that even my worst critics remain on Twitter, because that is what free speech means,” he tweeted on Monday.

One critic (Robert Reich former US Secretary of Labor) alleged in the Guardian that Musk had bought Twitter “to preserve his own free speech and not free specch for other people” and so we will need to wait to see what free speech means under a new Twitter and whether Musk can live up to his ambitions for a better Twitter.

WebSci’22 Registration is open

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14th ACM Web Science Conference 2022 (WebSci’22)
26-29 June, 2022
Hybrid conference: Barcelona, Spain, and online (co-located with Hypertext 2022 and UMAP 2022 )
https://websci22.webscience.org/

This year, the ACM Web Science Conference will run in hybrid mode. Both online and in-person presentations will be streamed, and most of the activities will be set up to increase the experience for in-person interaction.

The WebSci’22 conference organizers seek to foster an accessible and inclusive conference. They recognize that ACM WebSci’22 attendees have differing abilities to pay, and have instituted a tiered pricing program to accommodate different financial needs.

For more information and to register go to

https://websci22.webscience.org/registration/