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Privacy not a blocker for “meaningful” research access to platform data, says report

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European lawmakers are eyeing binding transparency requirements for Internet platforms in a Digital Services Act (DSA) due to be drafted by the end of the year. But the question of how to create governance structures that provide regulators and researchers with meaningful access to data so platforms can be held accountable for the content they’re amplifying is a complex one.

Platforms’ own efforts to open up their data troves to outside eyes have been chequered to say the least. Back in 2018, Facebook announced the Social Science One initiative, saying it would provide a select group of academics with access to about a petabyte’s worth of sharing data and metadata. But it took almost two years before researchers got access to any data.

“This was the most frustrating thing I’ve been involved in, in my life,” one of the involved researchers told Protocol earlier this year, after spending some 20 months negotiating with Facebook over exactly what it would release.

Facebook’s political Ad Archive API has similarly frustrated researchers. “Facebook makes it impossible to get a complete picture of all of the ads running on their platform (which is exactly the opposite of what they claim to be doing),” said Mozilla last year, accusing the tech giant of transparency-washing.

Facebook, meanwhile, points to European data protection regulations and privacy requirements attached to its business following interventions by the US’ FTC to justify painstaking progress around data access. But critics argue this is just a cynical shield against transparency and accountability. Plus of course none of these regulations stopped Facebook grabbing people’s data in the first place.

In January, Europe’s lead data protection regulator penned a preliminary opinion on data protection and research which warned against such shielding.

“Data protection obligations should not be misappropriated as a means for powerful players to escape transparency and accountability,” wrote EDPS Wojciech Wiewiorówski. “Researchers operating within ethical governance frameworks should therefore be able to access necessary API and other data, with a valid legal basis and subject to the principle of proportionality and appropriate safeguards.”

Nor is Facebook the sole offender here, of course. Google brands itself a ‘privacy champion’ on account of how tight a grip it keeps on access to user data, heavily mediating data it releases in areas where it claims ‘transparency’. While, for years, Twitter routinely disparaged third party studies which sought to understand how content flows across its platform — saying its API didn’t provide full access to all platform data and metadata so the research couldn’t show the full picture. Another convenient shield to eschew accountability.

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More recently the company has made some encouraging noises to researchers, updating its dev policy to clarify rules, and offering up a COVID-related dataset — though the included tweets remains self selected. So Twitter’s mediating hand remains on the research tiller.

A new report by AlgorithmWatch seeks to grapple with the knotty problem of platforms evading accountability by mediating data access — suggesting some concrete steps to deliver transparency and bolster research, including by taking inspiration from how access to medical data is mediated, among other discussed governance structures.

The goal: “Meaningful” research access to platform data. (Or as the report title puts it: Operationalizing Research Access in Platform Governance: What to Learn from Other Industries?

“We have strict transparency rules to enable accountability and the public good in so many other sectors (food, transportation, consumer goods, finance, etc). We definitely need it for online platforms — especially in COVID-19 times, where we’re even more dependent on them for work, education, social interaction, news and media consumption,” co-author Jef Ausloos tells TechCrunch.

The report, which the authors are aiming at European Commission lawmakers as they ponder how to shape an effective platform governance framework, proposes mandatory data sharing frameworks with an independent EU-institution acting as an intermediary between disclosing corporations and data recipients.

It’s not the first time an online regulator has been mooted, of course — but the entity being suggested here is more tightly configured in terms of purpose than some of the other Internet overseers being proposed in Europe.

“Such an institution would maintain relevant access infrastructures including virtual secure operating environments, public databases, websites and forums. It would also play an important role in verifying and pre-processing corporate data in order to ensure it is suitable for disclosure,” they write in a report summary.

Discussing the approach further, Ausloos argues it’s important to move away from “binary thinking” to break the current ‘data access’ trust deadlock. “Rather than this binary thinking of disclosure vs opaqueness/obfuscation, we need a more nuanced and layered approach with varying degrees of data access/transparency,” he says. “Such a layered approach can hinge on types of actors requesting data, and their purposes.”

A market research purpose might only get access to very high level data, he suggests. Whereas medical research by academic institutions could be given more granular access — subject, of course, to strict requirements (such as a research plan, ethical board review approval and so on).

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“An independent institution intermediating might be vital in order to facilitate this and generate the necessary trust. We think it is vital that that regulator’s mandate is detached from specific policy agendas,” says Ausloos. “It should be focused on being a transparency/disclosure facilitator — creating the necessary technical and legal environment for data exchange. This can then be used by media/competition/data protection/etc authorities for their potential enforcement actions.”

Ausloos says many discussions on setting up an independent regulator for online platforms have proposed too many mandates or competencies — making it impossible to achieve political consensus. Whereas a leaner entity with a narrow transparency/disclosure remit should be able to cut through noisy objections, is the theory.

The infamous example of Cambridge Analytica does certainly loom large over the ‘data for research’ space — aka, the disgraced data company which paid a Cambridge University academic to use an app to harvest and process Facebook user data for political ad targeting. And Facebook has thought nothing of turning this massive platform data misuse scandal into a stick to beat back regulatory proposals aiming to crack open its data troves.

But Cambridge Analytica was a direct consequence of a lack of transparency, accountability and platform oversight. It was also, of course, a massive ethical failure — given that consent for political targeting was not sought from people whose data was acquired. So it doesn’t seem a good argument against regulating access to platform data. On the contrary.

With such ‘blunt instrument’ tech talking points being lobbied into the governance debate by self-interested platform giants, the AlgorithmWatch report brings both welcome nuance and solid suggestions on how to create effective governance structures for modern data giants.

On the layered access point, the report suggests the most granular access to platform data would be the most highly controlled, along the lines of a medical data model. “Granular access can also only be enabled within a closed virtual environment, controlled by an independent body — as is currently done by Findata [Finland’s medical data institution],” notes Ausloos.

Another governance structure discussed in the report — as a case study from which to draw learnings on how to incentivize transparency and thereby enable accountability — is the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR). This regulates pollutant emissions reporting across the EU, and results in emissions data being freely available to the public via a dedicated web-platform and as a standalone dataset.

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“Credibility is achieved by assuring that the reported data is authentic, transparent and reliable and comparable, because of consistent reporting. Operators are advised to use the best available reporting techniques to achieve these standards of completeness, consistency and credibility,” the report says on the E-PRTR.

“Through this form of transparency, the E-PRTR aims to impose accountability on operators of industrial facilities in Europe towards to the public, NGOs, scientists, politicians, governments and supervisory authorities.”

While EU lawmakers have signalled an intent to place legally binding transparency requirements on platforms — at least in some less contentious areas, such as illegal hate speech, as a means of obtaining accountability on some specific content problems — they have simultaneously set out a sweeping plan to fire up Europe’s digital economy by boosting the reuse of (non-personal) data.

Leveraging industrial data to support R&D and innovation is a key plank of the Commission’s tech-fuelled policy priorities for the next five+ years, as part of an ambitious digital transformation agenda.

This suggests that any regional move to open up platform data is likely to go beyond accountability — given EU lawmakers are pushing for the broader goal of creating a foundational digital support structure to enable research through data reuse. So if privacy-respecting data sharing frameworks can be baked in, a platform governance structure that’s designed to enable regulated data exchange almost by default starts to look very possible within the European context.

“Enabling accountability is important, which we tackle in the pollution case study; but enabling research is at least as important,” argues Ausloos, who does postdoc research at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Information Law. “Especially considering these platforms constitute the infrastructure of modern society, we need data disclosure to understand society.”

“When we think about what transparency measures should look like for the DSA we don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” adds Mackenzie Nelson, project lead for AlgorithmWatch’s Governing Platforms Project, in a statement. “The report provides concrete recommendations for how the Commission can design frameworks that safeguard user privacy while still enabling critical research access to dominant platforms’ data.”

You can read the full report here.

TechCrunch

NEWS

Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”

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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.

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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.

Citations

Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

[embedded content]

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is

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survey-says:-amazon,-google-more-trusted-with-your-personal-data-than-apple-is-–-phonearena
 

MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster

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Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.

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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”

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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”

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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”

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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

…search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.

Citations

Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

[embedded content]

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