The way we access websites is about to change. As a result, crisis talks have now been scheduled between the U.K. government and the internet industry to discuss the risks. The primary concern is a proposed but as yet unconfirmed update to Google’s popular Chrome web browser, one that would hit many of the techniques used to monitor internet content for both safety and snooping. It isn’t just Google that will change. But the market-leading position of its Chrome browser has focused governmental minds.
These days, almost everyone is familiar with the concept of internet domain names and the fact that memorable, human-readable addresses are translated into machine-readable IP addresses. But most people have likely never heard of DNS over HTTPS or DOH, and so will be unaware of a planned change to how all this works.
However, DOH is now being fast-tracked, and it has agitated U.K. child safety and intelligence agencies enough to convene a crisis meeting on 8 May, citing child safety, cybersecurity and even terrorism as concerns.
DOH will encrypt the addresses of the websites we visit, potentially bypassing local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and connecting directly to central nameservers that could well be managed by the companies behind the browsers themselves. This means that many of the filtering and protection tools in place today, usually administered by ISPs, would no longer work.
The new approach brings definite security advantages, notwithstanding that we’ll be entrusting Google and its peers with even more data on us. If the addresses of the websites you want to visit can’t be seen, they can’t be filtered or policed. And campaigners claim that this has implications for the fights against terrorism and extremism, as well as for child safety.
Coming at a time when the monitoring of online content has never been more in the news, and when cybersecurity breaches are reported weekly, the clear need to improve online security is driving welcome change. But the unintended consequences of those changes are apparently now a major concern.
The Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) is one of its greatest strengths and also one of its greatest weaknesses. The internet is easy to use, but that comes with the risk of the manipulation of DNS names, with snooping on open traffic, and, in many parts of the world, with local monitoring and filtering. So it’s little surprise that the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) has been working on a revised approach.
As open traffic, your IP address and browsing activities can be profiled and your requests can potentially be intercepted and manipulated. Who you are and what you’re looking at can be monitored. But with more and more of what is done online being encrypted, the very act of accessing specific websites can be encrypted as well. This is what DNS over HTTPS is all about, bypassing locally held DNS nameservers, sending encrypted traffic to a central server instead.
The change would see web browsers (or other central services) handling domain queries, transparently to users, rather than fielding these as open internet traffic through the ISP. More secure and less open to interception, yes, because all of this would be encrypted HTTPS traffic, but it means that you would be serviced from a central location and not by an operator under your country’s legislative control. Think of it as a built-in, always-on VPN.
A presentation from BT on the ‘Potential ISP Challenges with DNS over HTTPS’ earlier this month, acknowledged that “DOH could be a game changer in operator/application dynamics” with fast-tracked standards bringing potentially adverse implications on cybersecurity and on safety from online harms. BT cited a reduced ability to derive cybersecurity intelligence from malware activity and DNS insight, significant new attack opportunities for hackers, and the inability to fulfill government mandated regulation or court orders as potential concerns.
Online responses to the ‘crisis’ suggested that this latter point, the impact on government snooping, was much more of a concern for the authorities than any impact on online safety filters.
Crisis meeting scheduled
According to the Sunday Times, a crisis meeting has now been convened for 8 May to bring together the country’s major ISPs, including BT, Virgin, Sky and TalkTalk, with the country’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) to discuss the implications. The primary concern is that it will be impossible for the country’s ISPs to filter out illegal or inappropriate material. This could have implications for terrorism, extremism, child safety and, of course, password-protecting the U.K.’s countrywide porn habits from July 15, as announced last week.
Because DOH is expected to be largely centralized, and (at least initially) managed by the major browsers, this is where Google comes in. Chrome is the U.K.’s most popular browsing application. With DNS queries not being serviced by an ISP’s nameservers, the ISPs would have no way of tracking, filtering or policing browsing. It would invalidate child safety locks and render useless the planned porn filter. For the ISPs, it could also mandate a rethink in the ways content is cached through efficient and cost-effective content delivery networks.
The well-populated databases of dangerous sites held by ISPs would be bypassed. But, it would also make government online snooping much more difficult. According to the Sunday Times, “BT, which has 9m broadband customers, said in a statement that parental controls, the first line of defense for millions of households, could be rendered ‘ineffective’ by the new system. It added that it could ‘hamper our ability to protect customers from online harms’.”
A spokesperson for the U.K.’s Internet Services Providers’ Association, the trade association representing more than 200 ISPs, including BT, Sky and Virgin, told me that “U.K. broadband providers are actively involved at a national and international level in ensuring that encrypted DNS is implemented in a way that does not break existing protections provided to U.K. internet users. If internet browser manufacturers switch on DNS encryption by default, they will put users at serious risk by allowing harmful online content to go unchecked. Internet browser companies must ensure that parental controls and cybersecurity protections offered by broadband companies continue to work and protect users. We would expect internet browsers to provide the same protections, uphold the same standards and follow the same laws as U.K. ISPs currently do.”
No need to panic?
The encryption of DNS name traffic is not the issue. The central management of the system, bypassing local controls, is the issue. There’s no reason that the new ecosystem cannot work in the existing framework. But it won’t start out that way, and it puts significant control in the hands of the device browsers. Theoretically, there could be device- or even application-specific DOH datasets accessed. And any user filtering would need to be at a device level instead of relying on the ISP. These changes need to be fully communicated and documented in how-to guides before being made.
For their part, Google has confirmed that an encrypted version of Chrome is already available but is not yet included as standard. In a statement, the company said that “Google has not made any changes to the default behavior of Chrome.”
Instagram will now hide likes in 6 more countries
Would the internet be a better place if we all paid a little less attention to fake internet points? Instagram is still trying to figure it out.
Just a few months back, Instagram started testing a design tweak that would no longer show the total number of “likes” other users’ posts had received. You could still see everyone that liked your photos and videos — but anyone else’s stuff? Don’t worry about it.
While the company hasn’t said much about how the tests are going so far, it seems they’re going well enough to expand them. Initially rolled out in just Canada, it’ll roll out to users in six more countries starting today:
- New Zealand
Curiously, some users in Canada (the first country where hidden likes were tested) reported yesterday that likes had returned to their feed. Instagram confirmed to us that the testing in Canada is still ongoing. Meanwhile, likes seem to be gone again in Canada as of this afternoon.
So why hide likes? Instagram says it’s “because [they] want your followers to focus on the photos and videos you share, not how many likes they get.”
In other words: when likes are public, people care too much about them. People view it as a metric of success — teasing those who get too few, or buying likes to try to gain admiration. If a post doesn’t get enough likes, people delete them to make it seem like all of their photos are hits. In theory, hiding likes from the feed but making them visible to the creator lets people get some sense of what’s working, without having to worry so much about whatever anyone else is taking away from the like count on any given photo.
Here’s what Instagram looks like with the design tweak. Note the banner up top giving the user a heads up of the change, and that the like bar just says “Liked by username and others” instead of any specific number of users:
Twitter launches the ‘Hide Replies’ feature, in hopes of civilizing conversations
Twitter today is beginning its test of a radical and controversial change to its service with the launch of a new “Hide Replies” feature. Effectively, this option gives users the ability to wrestle back control over a conversation they’ve started by hiding any replies they feel aren’t worthy contributions — for example, replies that are irrelevant or outright offensive.
One of the problems with Twitter — and with many social networks, for that matter — is that an otherwise healthy conversation can easily be disrupted by a single individual or a small number of people who don’t contribute in a positive fashion. They come into a thread to start drama or they make inappropriate, rude or even hateful remarks.
Of course, users can choose for themselves to either Mute or Block people like this, which limits their ability to affect their own personal experience on Twitter. But this doesn’t remove their comments from others’ view. The “Hide Replies” feature, however, will.
But it’s not the equivalent of a delete button. In other words, hidden replies are not removed from Twitter entirely, they are just placed behind an icon. If people want to see the hidden replies, they can press this icon to view them.
Twitter’s goal with the feature is to encourage more civil conversation on its platform. It could work, as those who want their comments seen by a wide audience will have to find a way to express themselves in an appropriate fashion — without taking the conversation off course or resorting to insults or trolling. Otherwise, they know their replies could be hidden from the default view.
But this change is not without significant downsides.
For example, a user could choose to hide replies that simply (and even politely!) disagreed with their view. This would then create a “filter bubble” where only people who shared the original poster’s same opinion would have their comments prominently displayed. In this case, the feature would be silencing other viewpoints — and that’s in direct opposition to Twitter’s larger goal of creating a public town square on the web, where every voice has a chance to be heard.
More worryingly, a user could choose to hide replies that attempt to correct misinformation or offer a fact check. That’s a significant concern at a time when social media platforms have turned into propaganda dissemination machines, and have been infiltrated by state-supported actors from foreign governments looking to manipulate public sentiment and influence elections.
Twitter claims the feature provides transparency because hidden replies are still available for viewing to anyone who wishes to see them. But this assumes that people will notice the small “hidden replies” icon and bother to click it.
The ability to hide replies is initially available only to users in Canada, but tweets with hidden replies will be accessible by all Twitter users worldwide.
We’re testing a feature to hide replies from conversations. This experience will be available for everyone around the world, but at this time, only people in Canada can hide replies to their Tweets.
We want to know what you think. Please Tweet us your feedback and questions! https://twitter.com/TwitterCanada/status/1151547186636906498 …Twitter Canada✔@TwitterCanadaLaunching today. Let us know what you think! https://twitter.com/TwitterCanada/status/1149327628106641408 …1,0756:42 PM – Jul 17, 2019Twitter Ads info and privacy3,786 people are talking about this
In a statement posted as a series of tweets and replies to others, Twitter explained its goals around the new addition:
We’re testing a feature to hide replies from conversations. This experience will be available for everyone around the world, but at this time, only people in Canada can hide replies to their Tweets…They’ll be hidden from the main conversation for everyone behind a new icon. As long as it hasn’t been deleted and/or is not from an account with protected Tweets, everyone can still interact with a hidden reply by clicking the icon to view. We want everyone on Twitter to have healthy conversations, and we’re working on features that will help people feel more comfortable. We’re testing a way for people to hide replies they feel are irrelevant or offensive.
Social media is due for a course correction, and Twitter at least isn’t afraid to try significant changes to its platform. (It’s even trying a new prototype of its app, called twttr.) However, some would argue that permanent bans on rulebreakers and more attention to enforcing existing policies would negate the need for features like this.
Twitter launches its faster, cleaner design, including new color themes
We’ve been hearing rumblings of a redesigned Twitter.com for months, but it’s finally here. The social network today revealed its new look – designed to better line up with its mobile apps – is rolling out to users today.
Hard Fork?HARD FORK
Cleaner aesthetics aside, there are a few key functionality changes:
- The ‘Explore’ tab is now available on desktop, making it easier to find live video and local moments based on your location.
- Bookmarks, lists, and your profile are easier to access with their own spots in the side navigation menu.
- Direct Messages now have a larger view, allowing you to respond to messages and see your various conversations on the same screen.
- The sidebar menu makes it easier to switch between accounts
- You now have two options for dark mode, as well as various themes and color options.
These changes are built upon a major revamp of Twitter‘s back-end architecture – the company says it rebuilt Twitter.com from scratch.
Among its goals were creating a faster, more efficient platform, and ensuring mobile users have access to the same breadth of features as desktop users. Tablet users, for example, will be able to use the same keyboard shortcuts as desktop users. Moreover, the new site will only load features as you need them, helping save data for those on metered connections.
Twitter says it received “hundreds of thousands of responses” during its test period, guiding the final design. As usual, the internet is likely to be divided on a new look, but at least this one brings some meaningful improvements.
The design is rolling out gradually now, but if you don’t have it yet, you can go ahead and try it by clicking on your avatar and selecting “Try the new Twitter.” Be warned: once you switch, you can’t go back.
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