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Ex-YouTube engineer: Extreme content? No, it’s algorithms that radicalize people

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In the age of fake news and radicalization, the real enemy is not content itself. It’s the algorithm pushing that content up to the top of users’ ‘recommended’ lists. 

That’s according to software engineer Guillaume Chaslot. He should know: he used to work at YouTube and helped build the tech giant’s recommendation algorithm. 

“We need to understand the difference between freedom of speech and freedom of reach. You’re free to say whatever you want to say – but there shouldn’t be freedom to amplify this,” Chaslot told a conference ahead of the Mozilla Festival weekend in London.

He added that extreme content in itself is not problematic. He is actually in favor of having as much content as possible on current platforms. 

Google’s YouTube has recently come in for criticism for its poor management of potentially harmful content. As a result, it has recently made the removal of videos that violate its policy its number one priority.

At the same time, the platform has to perform a delicate balancing act between content moderation and freedom of speech. In a quarterly letter to YouTubers, CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote: “A commitment to openness is not easy. It sometimes means leaving up content that is outside the mainstream, controversial or even offensive.”

The debate about content moderation is not new. But for Chaslot, the issue now is that companies not only publish content, but apply algorithms to it. 

“Algorithms are built to boost watch time, and that typically happens through viewing increasingly radical videos,” he told ZDNet. 

“Someone could be completely radicalized through viewing hours of YouTube videos on end – and from the perspective of the algorithm, that’s actually jackpot.” 

When he worked at YouTube, he said he raised this issue and suggested including more diverse videos in the platform’s recommendation algorithm.

He was met with skepticism from management, so he left the company and started digging to find out where exactly the algorithm would lead him.

This coincided with the 2016 presidential election in the USA, and his research confirmed that YouTube’s algorithm was pushing users to watch more radical videos.

His results were published last year, with the disclaimer that they could only be partial, since the company withholds from the public any data about which content its algorithm promotes.

“We don’t know how much YouTube promotes radical ideas like terrorism,” said Chaslot. “They are doing better but in the course of history, we have no idea, and we will probably never know.”

YouTube has ramped up efforts to change its recommendation algorithm. This year, it launched a trial in the UK to reduce the spread of what it calls “borderline content” after a similar trial in the US halved the views of such content from recommendation, according to the company.

But this is not enough, according to Chaslot. He added that it is now necessary to create efficient legislation to tackle the issue.

“It is similar to when we realized that tobacco was killing people,” he said. “First, we needed the scientific evidence showing that tobacco is harmful – and now, we need the scientific evidence that YouTube is promoting extremism.”

Only once this evidence is produced can there be growing public awareness of the issue, before legislation is introduced, he said. “We made rules to stop people from smoking in public places, not from smoking altogether,” he pointed out. “Something similar should be done with content.”

But with current laws, nothing forces online platforms to share the data that would enable scientific research in the first place. 

As a result, the world is governed by secret algorithms that decide on 70% of what viewers see on YouTube, and 100% of what they read on Facebook, he argued. Euphemistically, Chaslot described this as “a bit crazy”.

ZDNet has contacted YouTube for comment and will update this article if it receives a response.  



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The Five Pillars of (Azure) Cloud-based Application Security

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This 1-hour webinar from GigaOm brings together experts in Azure cloud application migration and security, featuring GigaOm analyst Jon Collins and special guests from Fortinet, Director of Product Marketing for Public Cloud, Daniel Schrader, and Global Director of Public Cloud Architecture and Engineering, Aidan Walden.

These interesting times have accelerated the drive towards digital transformation, application rationalization, and migration to cloud-based architectures. Enterprise organizations are looking to increase efficiency, but without impacting performance or increasing risk, either from infrastructure resilience or end-user behaviors.

Success requires a combination of best practice and appropriate use of technology, depending on where the organization is on its cloud journey. Elements such as zero-trust access and security-driven networking need to be deployed in parallel with security-first operations, breach prevention and response.

If you are looking to migrate applications to the cloud and want to be sure your approach maximizes delivery whilst minimizing risk, this webinar is for you.

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Data Management and Secure Data Storage for the Enterprise

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This free 1-hour webinar from GigaOm Research brings together experts in data management and security, featuring GigaOm Analyst Enrico Signoretti and special guest from RackTop Systems, Jonathan Halstuch. The discussion will focus on data storage and how to protect data against cyberattacks.

Most of the recent news coverage and analysis of cyberattacks focus on hackers getting access and control of critical systems. Yet rarely is it mentioned that the most valuable asset for the organizations under attack is the data contained in these systems.

In this webinar, you will learn about the risks and costs of a poor data security management approach, and how to improve your data storage to prevent and mitigate the consequences of a compromised infrastructure.

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CISO Podcast: Talking Anti-Phishing Solutions

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Simon Gibson earlier this year published the report, “GigaOm Radar for Phishing Prevention and Detection,” which assessed more than a dozen security solutions focused on detecting and mitigating email-borne threats and vulnerabilities. As Gibson noted in his report, email remains a prime vector for attack, reflecting the strategic role it plays in corporate communications.

Earlier this week, Gibson’s report was a featured topic of discussions on David Spark’s popular CISO Security Vendor Relationship Podcast. In it, Spark interviewed a pair of chief information security officers—Mike Johnson, CISO for SalesForce, and James Dolph, CISO for Guidewire Software—to get their take on the role of anti-phishing solutions.

“I want to first give GigaOm some credit here for really pointing out the need to decide what to do with detections,” Johnson said when asked for his thoughts about selecting an anti-phishing tool. “I think a lot of companies charge into a solution for anti-phishing without thinking about what they are going to do when the thing triggers.”

As Johnson noted, the needs and vulnerabilities of a large organization aligned on Microsoft 365 are very different from those of a smaller outfit working with GSuite. A malicious Excel macro-laden file, for example, poses a credible threat to a Microsoft shop and therefore argues for a detonation solution to detect and neutralize malicious payloads before they can spread and morph. On the other hand, a smaller company is more exposed to business email compromise (BEC) attacks, since spending authority is often spread among many employees in these businesses.

Gibson’s radar report describes both in-line and out-of-band solutions, but Johnson said cloud-aligned infrastructures argue against traditional in-line schemes.

“If you put an in-line solution in front of [Microsoft] 365 or in front of GSuite, you are likely decreasing your reliability, because you’ve now introduced this single point of failure. Google and Microsoft have this massive amount of reliability that is built in,” Johnson said.

So how should IT decision makers go about selecting an anti-phishing solution? Dolph answered that question with a series of questions of his own:

“Does it nail the basics? Does it fit with the technologies we have in place? And then secondarily, is it reliable, is it tunable, is it manageable?” he asked. “Because it can add a lot overhead, especially if you have a small team if these tools are really disruptive to the email flow.”

Dolph concluded by noting that it’s important for solutions to provide insight that can help organizations target their protections, as well as support both training and awareness around threats. Finally, he urged organizations to consider how they can measure the effectiveness of solutions.

“I may look at other solutions in the future and how do I compare those solutions to the benchmark of what we have in place?”

Listen to the Podcast: CISO Podcast

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