The Daily Visionary: Thursday, January 17, 2019

A leaked internal post contradicts Google CEO’s sworn testimony to Congress of “huge teams” working on manual interventions in search results

 

The Story

 

A leaked internal discussion thread contradicts the sworn testimony made to Congress by CEO Sundar Pichai regarding Google’s manipulation of search results on both its search engine and the YouTube video platform, who stated his company does not “manually intervene on any particular search result.”

 

The leaked thread was started by a Google employee who noticed that the company had recently changed search results for “abortion” on its YouTube video platform, a change which caused pro-life videos to largely disappear from the top ten results. YouTube, a Google subsidiary, manually intervened on search results related to “abortion” and “abortions.” The intervention caused pro-life videos to disappear from the top ten search results for those terms, where they had previously been featured prominently. The posts also show YouTube intervened on search results related to American progressive activist David Hogg and US Democrat politician Maxine Waters.

 

The Details

 

Mr. Aaronson’s leaked post in full: 

I work in Trust and Safety and while I have no particular input as to exactly what’s happening for YT I can try to explain why you’d have this kind of list and why people are finding lists like these on Code Search.

When dealing with abuse/controversial content on various mediums you have several levers to deal with problems. Two prominent levers are “Proactive” and “Reactive”:

        Proactive: Usually refers to some type of algorithm/scalable solution to a general problem

            E.g.: We don’t allow straight up porn on YouTube so we create a classifier that detects porn and automatically remove or flag for review the videos the porn classifier is most certain of

        Reactive: Usually refers to a manual fix to something that has been brought to our attention that our proactive solutions don’t/didn’t work on and something that is clearly in the realm of bad enough to warrant a quick targeted solution (determined by pages and pages of policies worked on over many years and many teams to be fair and cover necessary scope)

            E.g.: A website that used to be a good blog had it’s domain expire and was purchased/repurposed to spam Search results with autogenerated pages full of gibberish text, scraped images, and links to boost traffic to other spammy sites. It is manually actioned for violating policy

These Organic Search policies and the consequences to violating them are public

Manually reacting to things is not very scalable, and is not an ideal solution to most problems, so the proactive lever is really the one we all like to lean on. Ideally, our classifiers/algorithm are good at providing useful and rich results to our users while ignoring things at are not useful or not relevant. But we all know, this isn’t exactly the case all the time (especially on YouTube).

From a user perspective, there are subjects that are prone to hyperbolic content, misleading information, and offensive content. Now, these words are highly subjective and no one denies that. But we can all agree generally, lines exist in many cultures about what is clearly okay vs. what is not okay. E.g. a video of a puppy playing with a toy is probably okay in almost every culture or context, even if it’s not relevant to the query. But a video of someone committing suicide and begging others to follow in his/her footsteps is probably on the other side of the line for many folks.

While my second example is technically relevant to the generic query of “suicide”, that doesn’t mean that this is a very useful or good video to promote on the top of results for that query. So imagine a classifier that says, for any queries on a particular text file, let’s pull videos using signals that we historically understand to be strong indicators of quality (I won’t go into specifics here, but those signals do exist). We’re not manually curating these results, we’re just saying “hey, be extra careful with results for this query because many times really bad stuff can appear and lead to a bad experience for most users”. Ideally the proactive lever did this for us, but in extreme cases where we need to act quickly on something that is so obviously not okay, the reactive/manual approach is sometimes necessary. And also keep in mind, that this is different for every product. The bar for changing classifiers or manual actions on span in organic search is extremely high. However, the bar for things we let our Google Assistant say out loud might be a lot lower. If I search for “Jews run the banks” – I’ll likely find anti-semitic stuff in organic search. As a Jew, I might find some of these results offensive, but they are there for people to research and view, and I understand that this is not a reflection of Google feels about this issue. But if I ask Google assistant “Why do Jews run the banks” we wouldn’t be similarly accepting if it repeated and promoted conspiracy theories that likely pop up in organic search in her smoothing voice.

Whether we agree or not, user perception of our responses, results, and answers of different products and mediums can change. And I think many people are used to the fact that organic search is a place where content should be accessible no matter how offensive it might be, however, the expectation is very different on a Google Home, a Knowledge Panel, or even YouTube.

These lines are very difficult and can be very blurry, we are all well aware of this. So we’ve got huge teams that stay cognizant of these facts when we’re crafting policies considering classifier changes, or reacting with manual actions – these decisions are not made in a vacuum, but admittedly are also not made in a highly public forum like TGIF or IndustryInfo (as you can imagine, decisions/agreement would be hard to get in such a wide list – image if all your CL’s were reviewed by every engineer across Google all the time). I hope that answers some questions and gives a better layer of transparency without going into details about our “Pepsi formula”.

Best,
Daniel

Background

 

Social media companies have increasingly come under fire for censorship along political lines, favouring left-wing viewpoints and often arbitrarily deactivating accounts of those it considers holds right-wing views. Prominent voices including Dave Rubin and Dr. Jordan B. Peterson recently announced their decision to abandon the platform Patreon after it shut down the account, and therefore source of funding, of several individuals. The de-platforming of voices has taken place with Google, Facebook, Twitter, and has now entered payment gateways such as Paypal.

 

Key Quotes

 

The Google employee took issue with CEO Pichai’s remarks stated that it “seems like we are pretty eager to cater our search results to the social and political agenda of left-wing journalists.

 

In response to the leak, a Google spokeswoman also insisted that “Google has never manipulated or modified the search results or content in any of its products to promote a particular political ideology.”

 

 

A new Kew research study suggests Arabica coffee could be extinct in the wild in 70 years

 

The Story

 

Research published by experts at Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew of their study in collaboration with scientists in Ethiopia found that current conservation measures for wild coffee species are not enough to protect their long-term future. Wild Arabica is considered important for the sustainability of the coffee industry due to its considerable genetic diversity. Due to Arabica’s sensitivity, climate change is having a damaging impact on commercial coffee production worldwide and could lead to the extinction of wild Arabica coffee well before the end of this century.

 

Aaron Davis, Head of Coffee Research at Kew, wrote, "Coffee plays an important role in supporting livelihoods and generating income, and has become part of our modern society and culture. The extinction of Arabica coffee is a startling and worrying prospect. However, the objective of the study was not to provide scaremonger predictions for the demise of Arabica in the wild. The scale of the predictions is certainly cause for concern, but should be seen more as a baseline, from which we can more fully assess what actions are required."

 

These are worrying prospects for the world’s favourite beverage, the second most traded commodity after oil, and one crucial to the economies of several countries. Climate change and deforestation are putting more than half the world’s wild coffee species at risk of extinction, including the popular commercial coffees Arabica and Robusta, the scientists warned.

 

Aaron Davis, head of coffee research at Kew, who co-led the work, said that among coffee species threatened with extinction are some that could be used to breed and develop the coffees of the future, including some that have resistance to disease and that can withstand worsening climatic conditions.

He said targeted action is urgently needed in specific tropical countries, particularly in Africa and particular in forested areas which are being hit hard by climate change.

 

Mr. Davis noted, “There are many countries which depend on coffee for the ... bulk of their export earnings. It’s estimated there are 100 million people producing coffee in farms around the world.

 

The Details

 

  • The Arabicas grown in the world’s coffee plantations are from very limited genetic stock and are unlikely to have the flexibility required to cope with climate change and other threats, such as pests and diseases.

  • Ethiopia is the natural birthplace of wild Arabica (Coffea arabica) coffee and Africa’s largest coffee exporter. Around 15 million Ethiopians are involved in coffee production and annual exports have an estimated value of a USD $1 billion.

  • Using computer modeling, the researchers projected how a changing climate would affect wild Arabica in Ethiopia. They found what they described as “a bleak picture” for the species, with the number of locations where it grows decreasing by as much as 85 percent by 2080.

  • In 2017, the team then looked at the influence of climate change on coffee farming, showing that up to 60 percent of the land used for Ethiopia’s coffee production could become unsuitable for use by the end of the century.

 

Background

 

Ethiopia earned 866 million USD exporting 221,000 tons of coffee during its 2016 fiscal year and, according to Ethiopian Coffee & Tea Development and Marketing Authority, it has accomplished 92 percent of its set goal to increase coffee exports.

 

Compared to the coffee export volumes of 2015/16, there had been 11.5 percent growth in the coffee exports during the fiscal year 2016/17, plus the foreign earning from coffee has raised by 20 percent due to the global coffee price hikes.

 

Market Development and Promotion Directorate Director Dassa Daniso said, “Ethiopian Coffee has been imported to over 60 countries. But, this year, 57 countries have imported our coffee, particularly, 86 percent of the total coffee exports destined for Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan, USA, Belgium, Sudan, South Korea, among others,” adding that Germany alone had imported 18 per cent of the coffee.

 

Mr. Daniso said so far, the country has not become competent enough to export value added coffee as the former coffee quality control and marketing proclamation did not allow exporting of roasted coffee. The Ethiopian government has given emphasis to attracting coffee investors by providing various incentives like cheap agricultural land, facilitating bank loans with low interest rates, 10 years tax holidays, and allowing importation of tax free machineries, among others. However, prolonged marketing chain process, illegal coffee trading among other are still bottlenecks facing coffee export market.

 

Key Quotes

 

"As part of a future-proofing exercise for the long-term sustainability of Arabica production it is essential that the reserves established in Ethiopia to conserve Arabica genetic resources are appropriately funded and carefully managed," said Tadesse Woldemariam Gole from the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia.

 

"The worst-case scenario, as drawn from our analyses, is that wild Arabica could be extinct by 2080. This should alert decision makers to the fragility of the species. Our aim is to develop and apply these analyses to other important and threatened plants, on a routine basis. There is an immense amount of information held in museum collections around the world, such as Kew, and we have only just started to unlock their potential for assessing some of society's most pressing issues," said Justin Moat, Head of Spatial Information Science at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

 

Mexicans fight back against a new US-bound caravan of more than 2,000 migrants

 

The Story

 

A new caravan that began in Honduras and quickly grew to an estimated 2,000 people made its way toward Mexico on Tuesday, and Mexicans who live along the border towns that will likely be most affected lashed out against another wave of migrants on social media.

 

On Tuesday, Honduran authorities announced they had arrested and detained Juan Carlos Molina, and identified him as an organizer and promoter of the trip. Mr. Molina, 26, was traveling with the caravan when Honduran authorities realized he had an outstanding warrant for rape charges from 2015, and arrested him, according to El Heraldo, a Honduran newspaper. Mr. Molina’s name is a new addition to the list of people and organizations – in the U.S. and Latin America – who have been flagged as suspected organizers of the caravans. The person widely recognized as the force behind the first caravan, which left Honduras last October, is Bartolo Fuentes, a former Honduran lawmaker and longtime immigration advocate.

 

The Details

 

  • On January 9 the Honduran newspaper La Prensa reported that a caravan was scheduled to leave from San Pedro Sula on Tuesday, even though the first group left the evening before.

  • La Prensa attributed the information to the immigration advocacy groups translated as ‘Communities Without Borders’ and ‘Dignifying Humans’. Both groups said 4,000 migrants would form the caravan.

  • Tensions have been prevalent in Mexican cities like Tijuana, where many of the migrants are being held in overcrowded shelters. The mix of exasperated migrants in overtaxed shelters and Mexican residents growing increasingly concerned about strains on communities has led to a number of clashes.

 

Background

 

Mr. Fuentes, who makes his contempt for Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez known at every turn, was traveling with the October caravan when Guatemalan authorities detained and deported him. Guatemalan authorities said Mr. Fuentes had failed to register with migration officials after entering the country.

 

Mr. Fuentes, who hosted a show titled ‘Without Borders’ granted several interviews to media outlets, including some in the US. He conceded that he organized the first caravan after he learned that groups of 200 or so were planning a caravan to the States but said he never expected the October caravan to grow so large and to get so out of hand.

 

The Honduran government often assails Mr. Fuentes, calling him a human trafficker who misleads desperate Hondurans into thinking they will easily arrive at the Land of Milk and Honey if they join the caravan.

 

Key Quotes

 

People of Honduras, all of you who are spinning these grand illusions and getting ready to come on this caravan and in any future others, before you leave your country, please inform yourself about how people who’ve already come on previous caravans are faring in Tijuana. Mexico is just like your country. There are many problems and needs, and you’re not going to be much better off than you were in Honduras. Please don’t trust these manipulative agitators who are encouraging you to risk everything for nothing,” said Belem Gonzales.

 

We do not want caravans of (emojis of rats). Fight conditions in your own country. You are not welcome here,” said Luis Mendez.

 

Britain’s PM survive a no-confidence motion, then Mr. Hammond tells business leaders Brexit’s Article 50 could be rescinded

 

The Story

 

Less than two hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal was voted down, Chancellor Philip Hammond held a conference call at 9.30pm on Tuesday, telling business leaders that the “threat” of a no-deal Brexit could be taken “off the table” within days and potentially lead to Article 50 “rescinded.” In a leaked recording of an hour-long conference call to the leaders of 330 leading firms, including Siemens, Amazon, Scottish Power, Tesco, and BP, all of whom warned against no deal, Mr. Hammond assured the business leaders that the Government would stop spending money on no-deal preparations and indicated the Government was open to talks over the customs union by saying it could not go into discussions with other parties “waving flags with red lines on them”.

 

Pointing to a cross-party Bill tabled by Conservative MP Nick Boles, which will force the Government to extend Article 50 if a Brexit deal cannot be reached, Mr. Hammond gave a clear “sequence” on how Article 50 could be extended. MPs will vote on an amendment that will pave the way for the Bill on Monday. Mr. Boles told The Telegraph that PM May would face a Cabinet revolt if she attempted to oppose his amendment.

 

The disclosure reveals the close nature of the relationship between the Treasury and some of Britain’s biggest businesses, and how they appear to be working in tandem to block a hard Brexit. It arguably puts an end to his ambitions for leadership of the Conservative party and adds to suspicions that Mr. Hammond has been orchestrating attempts to soften Brexit.

 

The Details

 

  • By a majority of 19, thanks in part to the support of the DUP, PM May won the confidence vote called by Jeremy Corbyn after the Government’s historic defeat on the Brexit deal on Tuesday.

  • 4 MPs abstained, including 3 independents and 1 Labour MP who was ill. In contrast to the 118-strong Tory rebellion of Tuesday, every single Tory voted against the no confidence motion that would have toppled PM May and the government had she lost.

  • Downing Street clarified Britain will leave the European Union on March 29 regardless of whether a deal is in place or not.

 

Background

 

PM May won a vote of no-confidence Wednesday night, tabled by the Labour party. Winning the confidence vote by 325 votes to 306, PM May asked the leaders of the opposition parties to meet her individually to discuss a way forward for the Brexit deal. Labour’s Leader Jeremy Corbyn declined to talk while a no-deal Brexit remained on the table.

 

Mr. Hammond set out how a backbench Bill could effectively be used to stop any prospect of no deal. He suggested that ministers may even back the plan when asked for an “assurance” by the head of Tesco that the Government would not oppose the motion. He claimed next week’s Bill, which could force the Government to extend Article 50, was likely to win support and act as the “ultimate backstop” against a no-deal Brexit, as a “large majority in the Commons is opposed to no deal under any circumstances”.

 

Key Quotes

 

Jeremy Corbyn has sat down with terrorists around the world apparently in pursuit of peace and always without preconditions. “But will he sit down with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom to tackle biggest constitutional challenge of our time without preconditions? No.” said MP James Heappey.

 

I can simply as a parliamentarian say it is clear to me there is a large majority in the Commons that is opposed to no deal in any circumstances.” said Mr. Hammond during his conference call.

 

U.S. Representative Ocasio-Cortez uses a sexually charged phrase to describe the implementation of her agenda

 

The Story

 

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is among the newly elected Democrats to Congress, said she is poised to serve on a key congressional panel overseeing Wall Street, among other incoming progressive Democrats, including Katie Porter, Rashida Tlaib, and Ayanna Pressley.

 

On Tuesday she tweeted, “I’m looking forward to digging into the student loan crisis, examining for-profit prisons/ICE detention, and exploring the development of public & postal banking. I am very grateful for the opportunity to sit on this committee as a freshman.”

 

Next, in an interview with The Washington post, she complained about being targeted by conservatives, citing the circulation of a fake photo purporting to show her in a bathtub. The self-described Millennial socialist then said, “Dude, you’re all out of bullets, you’re all out of bombs, you’re all out of all this stuff. What have you got left? I’m six days into the term, and you already used all your ammo. So enjoy being exhausted for the next two years while we run train on the progressive agenda.”

 

Her choice of words caused immediate backlash online for using the term “run train”, which has a well-known and highly disturbing connotation meaning “to gangbang” someone.

 

The Details

 

  • The reported appointments of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and the other Representatives to the House Financial Services Committee would be a setback for the industry, which had hoped the committee would be filled by moderate Democrats more sympathetic to their issues.

  • The powerful committee also oversees the US housing market, insurance, and international finance sectors, among other areas.

  • It has also long been a major source of campaign contributions from Wall Street for both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The flow of cash to the committee jumped in 2018 as the industry looked to rebuild bipartisan support it had enjoyed before the 2007-2009 financial crisis.

 

Background

 

Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is part of a wave of female Democratic congressional candidates elected in November aiming to put more support behind the party’s liberal progressive wing.

She became the youngest woman elected to Congress, representing New York’s 14th congressional district in the Bronx and Queens after upsetting a longtime Democratic incumbent. She graduated from Boston University in 2011 with degrees in international relations and economics.

 

Key Quotes

 

The CEOs of the banks now are saying, ‘What can we do to stop Maxine Waters because if she gets in she’s going to give us a bad time?’ I have not forgotten that you undermined our communities. I have not forgotten that you sold us those exotic products, had us sign on the dotted line for junk. What I am going to do to you is fair. I’m going to do to you what you did to us,” said Maxine Waters, who enjoys newly obtained congressional powers heading the House Financial Services Committee.


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