State of the Internet: Filled With Fraud

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In the last year, I wrote about government interference in the internet, and corporate interference of the internet, but there is another group that has to be acknowledged, the users themselves who often use illegal means to make money online.  This group is decentralized and located all over the world.  The internet is filled with fraud.

Advertising Fraud

Hucksters infected 1.7 million computers with malware that remotely directed traffic to “spoofed” websites — “empty websites designed for bot traffic” that served up a video ad purchased from one of the internet’s vast programmatic ad-exchanges, but that were designed, according to the indictments, “to fool advertisers into thinking that an impression of their ad was served on a premium publisher site,” like that of Vogue or The Economist.

Views, meanwhile, were faked by malware-infected computers with marvelously sophisticated techniques to imitate humans: bots “faked clicks, mouse movements, and social network login information to masquerade as engaged human consumers.”

Some were sent to browse the internet to gather tracking cookies from other websites, just as a human visitor would have done through regular behavior. Fake people with fake cookies and fake social-media accounts, fake-moving their fake cursors, fake-clicking on fake websites — the fraudsters had essentially created a simulacrum of the internet, where the only real things were the ads.

Increasingly sophisticated scam artists are stealing millions from advertisers trying to get the word out to legitimate potential customers, whose ads are actually going to robots pretending to be interested customers.

According to New York Magazine where the above quote came from, about 40% of users on the internet are bots using a number of different schemes to steal advertising revenue.

It is not just malware, it is legitimate apps doing it too.

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Amazon Fraud

For sellers, Amazon is a quasi-state. They rely on its infrastructure — its warehouses, shipping network, financial systems, and portal to millions of customers — and pay taxes in the form of fees. They also live in terror of its rules, which often change and are harshly enforced. A cryptic email like the one Plansky received can send a seller’s business into bankruptcy, with few avenues for appeal.

Sellers are more worried about a case being opened on Amazon than in actual court, says Dave Bryant, an Amazon seller and blogger. Amazon’s judgment is swifter and less predictable, and now that the company controls nearly half of the online retail market in the US, its rulings can instantly determine the success or failure of your business, he says. “Amazon is the judge, the jury, and the executioner.”

Amazon is far from the only tech company that, having annexed a vast sphere of human activity, finds itself in the position of having to govern it. But Amazon is the only platform that has a $175 billion prize pool tempting people to game it, and the company must constantly implement new rules and penalties, which in turn, become tools for new abuses, which require yet more rules to police. The evolution of its moderation system has been hyper-charged. While Mark Zuckerberg mused recently that Facebook might need an analog to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes and hear appeals, Amazon already has something like a judicial system — one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.

A recent article on The Verge called “Prime and Punishment” documented the cut throat underbelly of fraudsters undermining legitimate businesses using any tactics they can to get to the top of the search results.

For example, people used to buy five star reviews to get high on the search results, but then Amazon started deleting accounts that paid for five star reviews, so now some merchants are buying five star reviews for their competitors, then reporting their competitors and getting their competitors kicked off of Amazon. Read the full article for other dirty tricks.

This reminds me of the craziness that occasionally happened in Second Life‘s virtual marketplace for virtual items.  Every week new drama emerged on the forums of a new fraud attack. It comes with the territory of online sales.

But Amazon has become so big, they need more than just automated processes to settle billions of disputes.  It is making the worlds largest shopping site completely untrustworthy.

One could make the case that these are individuals using the site to be fraudulent to others, not the fault of Amazon.  But Amazon is far from faultless when it comes to being honest in business.  Just look at their underhanded fleecing of government in the “headquarters 2” debacle.  It’s like they are encouraging fraud.

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App Fraud

The last week there were headlines about a version of the Facebook app that monitored everything you do on the phone.  They paid teens $20 a month to use it.  This violated Apple’s terms of service, prompting Apple to block Facebook’s enterprise license, deactivating all beta versions of Facebook app being used internally.

But it is not just Facebook, a day later Apple did it to Google as well.

In both cases these license revocations only affected beta versions of apps that might be released in the future, not the popular apps used by most people.  Apple determined that both companies were distributing these beta apps outside the company, and that is what triggered the terms of service locks.

Meanwhile, it seems every few weeks there are articles like this one about popular apps that do a lot more than what they are supposed to be doing.

Fraud seems to show up a lot in the app stores.  If you search for “Messenger” thinking you will get Facebook Messenger, you will likely get instead one of a number of ad filled message monitoring apps that will cause unwanted pop up ads all over the place.

You know those Flashlight apps?  You don’t need them. You can turn on a flashlight on your phone very easy without an app.  Ditto apps with Q code and bar code readers. Your phone’s camera does that automatically without an app.  Then there are popular religious apps with bible quotes.  All of these are filled with ads.

Worst are “free” security apps like software cleaners and virus protection and “anti hacking” apps.  If you are not paying for a service, your phone is being flooded with ads.  These will hack your home screen and are sometimes very difficult to remove.

While I am on the topic, let me point out the fraud of “Freemium” games that Facebook was illegally pushing on minors at their parents expense.  Gaming fraud deserves a post all its own.

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Millions Lost

These are three areas where the internet has become the wild west.  It seems there is no software to protect yourself from fraudsters that isn’t itself also a fraud.  Promises of easy money online are just that: promises.

Want another example? Here is an article about defrauding kickstarter campaigns by publishing articles “for a fee”.  I wouldn’t be surprised if similar scam artists are defrauding gofundme pages of people trying to fund life saving medical treatments.

For every person who has gotten rich off the internet there are dozens that have lost.  It’s like in the movie Ready Player One, where if you kill a player, you collect all their gold, and the dead player has to start over at square one.  It’s a very good metaphor for internet based businesses today.

It seems that everyone has a scam to sell, and the internet has grown so thick with these scams that many actually support government and corporate take over to get rid of it.  Then only the big boys will make money online, and the economic hopes of the internet will be lost.

I’ve already lost hope that the internet would be the Great Equalizer that was promised. I suspect that what we will see is the continuous rise and fall of internet based empires.  If you want to play in this environment, my best advice is to watch your back.

The Age of Facebook is Over

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As my last post documented there is a plague on the internet that is having a negative affect on civilization as a whole.  Facebook is the leading cause of this plague, and despite many opportunities, has completely failed to do anything about it.  Pretty much every open group has been taken over by trolls and spam and it is impossible to have any intellectual discussion.

Social Media is the New Television

Fahrenheit 451 is a book by Ray Bradbury which is often mistaken as a tale of censorship. In fact it is a tale about how television has destroyed intellectual discourse.  I thought about this recently upon reading a couple of different articles.

First is an article “Social Media Is Killing Discourse Because It’s Too Much Like TV” which correctly identifies social media as an entertainment platform rather than an actual discussion platform. It is this decades new TV:

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining.” (Emphasis added.) And, Postman argued, when news is constructed as a form of entertainment, it inevitably loses its function for a healthy democracy. “I am saying something far more serious than that we are being deprived of authentic information. I am saying we are losing our sense of what it means to be well informed. Ignorance is always correctable. But what shall we do if we take ignorance to be knowledge?”

Social media not only does this, it makes it worse.

Social media, in contrast, uses algorithms to encourage comfort and complaisance, since its entire business model is built upon maximizing the time users spend inside of it. Who would like to hang around in a place where everyone seems to be negative, mean, and disapproving? The outcome is a proliferation of emotions, a radicalization of those emotions, and a fragmented society. This is way more dangerous for the idea of democracy founded on the notion of informed participation.

I attempted to join a Facebook group that would challenge me intellectually, it didn’t work. In fact it will never work on Facebook. The problem is that there is no mechanism for moderation on Facebook, because it would go against its business model.

Our Changing “Internet” Minds

Second is an article “Are humans evolving beyond the need to tell stories?” which starts with the observation that “novels” are a dying art form, replaced by visual storytelling that is less satisfying to our mental development.

My view is that we’re deluded if we think new technologies come into existence because of clearly defined human objectives – let alone benevolent ones – and it’s this that should shape our response to them. No, the history of the 20th century – and now the 21st – is replete with examples of technologies that were developed purely in order to facilitate the killing of people at a distance, of which the internet is only the most egregious example. Our era is also replete with the mental illnesses occasioned by such technologies – sometimes I think our obsession with viewing violent and horrific imagery is some sort of collective post-traumatic stress disorder.

The article is more broadly directed at tech and internet culture as a whole, and I am not convinced of the thesis, but as I have documented time and time again, the internet does change us and our ability to think rationally.

So stop reading blogs and pick up a book.

TV News is something you don’t need

Facebook is not the source of “fake news” and misinformation, it is the conduit for its dissemination.

TV news should take a lot of the blame for what is going on in society. We watch it because it is the quickest way to become “informed”, but it is not really informing us. Many people have decided that in the age of Trump, TV news is no longer worth watching.

The news isn’t interested in creating an accurate sample. They select for what’s 1) unusual, 2) awful, and 3) probably going to be popular. So the idea that you can get a meaningful sense of the “state of the world” by watching the news is absurd.

Their selections exploit our negativity bias. We’ve evolved to pay more attention to what’s scary and infuriating, but that doesn’t mean every instance of fear or anger is useful. Once you’ve quit watching, it becomes obvious that it is a primary aim of news reports—not an incidental side-effect—to agitate and dismay the viewer.

What appears on the news is not “The conscientious person’s portfolio of concerns”. What appears is whatever sells, and what sells is fear, and contempt for other groups of people.

As I stated in my last post, I blame the media for creating and promoting Trump. I see the exact pattern happening with “Brexit” in Britain, and the rise of the radical right all over Europe. The fear-mongering of the media is creating false fear in the general population.

If you really want to be informed, dig deeper. There are sources out there, find them.

The Need For a Course Correction

I have decided I need a change from this culture of meme and misinformation and troll trash.

For now, I have found it in Reddit, where the upvote/downvote tends to self moderate. There are still problems, especially since a lot of people like a lot of stupid crap, but I have found it to be quite a few IQ points above facebook.

The internet is a big place, and for every problem there are solutions. Reddit is not the perfect solution, but it is a start.

The INTERNETZ is NOT destroying society

Telling the world that the internet is not destroying society is probably not going to get me a ton of hits, because who wants to read an article that is stating the obvious? So I thought I’d draw attention by misspelling internet.  If I really wanted to get hits, I’d lead with some bald face lie like “‘The Demise of Guys’: How video games and porn are ruining a generation” whose main thesis is that young men growing up with video games and easy access to porn is distracting them from normal social activities, or “We expect more from technology and less from each other” whose main thesis is that the growth of texting and social media is making us too social, and we are losing our ability to be alone.  I love it when sensationalist headlines contradict each other.

Then there are the rash of Facebook doom and gloom articles: Facebook is destroying Google, Facebook is destroying Twitter, Facebook is destroying Virtual Worlds.  How long before we see an article claiming that Facebook is a threat to the human race itself? It came out yesterday, actually.

Games and Porn destroying society?

So where to start?  Lets start with the new book The Demise of Guys:

The premise of the book is that a generation of boys addicted to video games and online porn is leading to the decline of the male half of the population. The CNN article cites a lot of anecdotal info without much actual scientific citations.

There is a lot of stuff to talk about here and it is worthy of a discussion.

The book seems to focus on video game and porn addiction in boys, and blames the usual suspects: parents. Then it apparently tries to discuss the problems this is causing to society, and DAMMIT WE SHOULD DO SOMETHING!

Lets be realistic here. Yes, virtually all boys, young men, and even older men are playing video games these days, they are also watching porn. A slightly lesser percentage of girls, young women and even older women are also playing video games and watching porn. This is no doubt having an affect on society, but lets put that to the side for now.

Now what percentage of the people playing video games and/or watching porn are actually addicted to it? Research shows the percentage is actually pretty small, like 3% tops and probably closer to 1%. This is of course varies depending on what you would call an addict, but I’d say the usual definition involves engage in an activity to such an extent that it threatens our health. I’d say that is a very small percentage. Because it is a small percentage, the affect of video game/porn addiction is likely negligible, and therefore it cannot be ruining a generation of guys.

So lets stop beating around the bush and get to the heart of the issue:

Is the prevalence of video games affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

Is the easy availability of porn affecting our society, our culture, our relationships, and changing the psychology of young growing minds? Absolutely!

And now for the REAL debate question: Is this a bad thing?

Considering that every society where video games have become popular has seen a reduction in violent crime; Considering that every society in which internet porn is widespread has seen a reduction in sex crimes; Considering that video games have been designed to make players happy, and that positive psychologists have shown that artificially generated happiness is just as good as genuine happiness. I’d say, the answer is no.

But, but, but, video game playing has been demonstrated to reduce the ability to learn in traditional school settings. Then maybe it is about time to dump the traditional school definition of learning. Learning by playing games, works extremely well.

But, widespread porn is changing young people’s ability to have “healthy” relationships that lead to marriage and family and more children. Time to dump the old fashioned definitions of “healthy” relationships then. Kids today are smarter about sex and relationships than any previous generation. A lot more of them are choosing not to get married, and not have kids, and the ones that are are doing it later in life, and choosing smaller families. Young people are going to have relationships, because that is what young people do, but they have a lot more freedom today. There is no bad here.

Video games and the internet is changing society, that is a given. Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad. But the only real threats are to those that do not want society to change. To hell with them!

(Note, the above was originally posted by me at SL Universe forums where it got over 250 responses do far.)

Texting and social media destroying society?

The second sensationalist headline comes from Professor Sherry Turkle who is someone who is very thorough with her research. Again, she is pushing a book: Alone Together

As I was watching her TED talk on the topic of texting and social media’s affect on society I was making some live notes:

“The illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship” … And this is bad because?

“We turn to technology to help us feel connected in ways we can comfortably control” … You say it like its a bad thing.

“Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved” … Actually no, I’m fine with alone. It is other people that need stuff that feels like a problem that needs to be solved.

“Constant connection is changing the way people think of themselves” … Yep that’s the way it has always been. I bet there was someone like her when the telephone was invented, and when the radio was invented, and when the TV was invented. The world is changing, and I am cool with it.

And then she ends the talk, talking about learning to be alone with ourselves. Hmm, as someone who rarely texts, never bring a cellphone anywhere, only talks to people at work because that is what I am paid to do, and does not even have a twitter account, I guess she wasn’t talking to me.

Ultimately this is the same issue with video games and porn above. Getting addicted can be very bad, but what percentage really are addicted?  Probably an even smaller percentage.  But let’s ask the second question: Is texting and social media a bad thing?

Oddly this is a far more complicated issue than video games and porn issues. Social media has sparked revolutions and organized protests that have succeeded in changing the world, so it can’t be all bad.

On the other hand, I remember being able to go to the break room at lunch and actually talked to my fellow co-workers.  Now everyone goes to the break room and jumps on their cell phone.  It is too noisy for a conversation, so I go outside to the smoking area.  Not because I smoke (I don’t), but people actually talk to each other out there.

So yes, social media is changing society.  Some change will be good, and inevitably some change will be bad.

Facebook destroying society?

Once again the author of the sensationalist article is selling a book: Digital Vertigo.

Once again, the author is saying change is bad.  I’ll say change is not all bad, etc.  No need to belabor the points for a third time.

The internet first went online in 1969.  The first author to predict that “information overload” would radically change our society was in 1970.  Toffler was right, society did change, and overall those changes have been positive.

Are you an RPer or an SNer?

I was thinking of blogging a review of all the changes to Second Life over the past year, and thought it sounded boring. I was also thinking about blogging about the major FUBAR advertising mess at Facebook, but everyone else has already, and the story is pretty over now.

But it got me thinking. I have yet to actually create an account at Facebook. I have gone over to the sight and clicked on the friendly green “Sign Up” and immediately felt intimidated by the fact that they want so much personal info right up front. That and the fact that the sign up captchas dont even appear in my browser of choice (Opera) tells me right away that this is a shady operation I want no part of.

This gets me thinking about the series I did earlier in the year about Second Life at the Crossroads and the two kinds of players you find in Second Life: The Role Players and the Virtual Utopians. It seems to me that the share everything about yourself philosophy of Facebook might appeal to some Virtual Utopians, while the Role Players would avoid it like the plague. But I think the reverse is true too; I’m not sure the typical facebook enthusiast would even “get” Second Life either.

Could it be that internet enthusiasts self divide into Role Players and Social Networkers with limited cross over?

One of my observations of the many changes in Second Life over the past year, is that many recent changes have negative effects on the SL role player community, and yet I have been observing that the Role Player community in second life is probably stronger than ever. In many ways, Second Life was designed primarily for role players. It is probably the best role player program on the web. In fact I think it represents an extreme in that regard. There are Medieval RP sims, Sci-Fi RP sims, Vampires, Goreans, and you can be back in high school if you want too.

Facebook represents an extreme on the social networking side. You can if you want get up to the minute reports on the happenings of all your friends and what they were doing on the web. The “Beacon” advertising program even allowed you to view where your friends are shopping. In today’s Reality TV “I don’t care if the Government spies on me” openness, it is no wonder why Facebook is so popular. Its like a “stalker’s” best friend.

In between these two extremes, you have much bigger entities like World of Warcraft and MySpace which have at least some limited appeal to both camps. If nothing else World of Warcraft is a fun game and My Space is a great place to show off how insane you are.

Anyways its an idea looking into. Do you like to go on the web as yourself or someone else? Are you a Role Player or a Social Networker? Apparently there is little crossover and a lot of weird looks across the divide.