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Twitter to Investigate Auto-Crop Algorithm After Accusations of Racial Bias

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  • Twitter users believe they discovered a racial bias in an algorithm the platform uses to automatically select which part of an image it shows in a photo preview.
  • Many argued that the auto-cropping tool showed a white bias after testing the theory with photos of Black and white people, cartoon characters, and even dogs. 
  • However, others who tested the theory generated results that did not support this idea. Regardless, most users admit that these experiments have their limitations and agree that the current results at least show that this is something worth looking into.
  • The company released a statement saying it tested its system for bias in the past but admitted it needs to conduct further analysis of it. Online, Twitter employees seemed to welcome the public discourse and the company promised to share its results as well as further actions it may take.

Potential White Bias 

Twitter responded to concerns over its automatic cropping algorithm Sunday after users believed they discovered a racial bias in the tool.

In 2018, Twitter began auto-cropping photos in its timeline previews to prevent them from taking up too much space in the main feed and to allow multiple photos to appear in the same tweet. To do this, the company uses several algorithmic tools that focus on the most important part of the picture, like faces or text. 

However, users recently began to spot issues with the algorithm. The first person credited for highlighting a potential problem was PhD student Colin Madland. He made his discovery while highlighting a different racial bias he thinks he found on the video-conference company Zoom. 

Madland tweeted that when his Black colleague uses a virtual background on Zoom, his head is erased. When he uploaded examples to show this happening to his Black colleague and not himself, he noticed that Twitter was only showing his own face in its preview. 

Soon after, others followed up with more targetted experiments. Cryptographic and infrastructure engineer Tony Arcieri, for example, tweeted out two long images with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel and Former President Barack Obama. 

The two photos have the politicians stacked on top of each other in different orders but with white space in between them. The experiment showed that Twitter would focus on McConnell, no matter what order the photos were stacked in.

Another user found that the algorithm even focused on McConnell when two photos of Obama were present in a single stack.

A similar white preference appeared in examples of Black and white men in suits, Simpsons characters Lenny and Carl, and even black and white dogs. 

Examples That Don’t Support White Bias Theory

Others looking into this theory of a white bias found results that did not support the idea. 

For example, one user found that photos of Obama were cropped for the preview over photos of Donald Trump. 

Still, some researching the trends noted that these experiments do have their limitations and are likely influenced by tons of other factors. Some believe the algorithm recognized high profile figures or considers brightness and contrast, among other photo elements.

Twitter’s Chief Design Officer (CDO), Dantley Davis, even suggested that the choice of cropping sometimes takes brightness of the background into consideration.

However, ohers found examples that rejected that idea. Regardless, all these tests did a lot to convince people that there was something worth looking at here, including Davis, who has been experimenting himself.

He’s not alone in his research. In fact, plenty of other Twitter users have been going to great lengths to track their results as they try to study what is going on.

Twitter Promises to Investigate 

On Sunday, a Twitter spokesperson eventually released a statement admitting that the company had work to do.

“Our team did test for bias before shipping the model and did not find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” the company explained.

But it’s clear from these examples that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, and will open source our analysis so others can review and replicate.” 

Davis also isn’t the only employee that has appeared to welcome all of this public discourse. The company’s Chief Technology Officer, Parag Argawal tweeted, “This is a very important question. To address it, we did analysis on our model when we shipped it, but needs continuous improvement. Love this public, open, and rigorous test — and eager to learn from this.”

See what others are saying; (The Next Web) (The Guardian) (Mashable

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Uber Forks Over $19 Million in Fine for Misleading Australian Riders

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The penalty is just the latest in a string of lawsuits going back years.


Uber Gets Fined

Uber has agreed to pay a $19 million fine after being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for making false or misleading statements in its app.

The first offense stems from a company policy that allows users to cancel their ride at no cost up to five minutes after the driver has accepted the trip. Despite the terms, between at least December 2017 and September 2021, over two million Australians who wanted to cancel their ride were nevertheless warned that they may be charged a small fee for doing so.

Uber said in a statement that almost all of those users decided to cancel their trips despite the warnings.

The cancellation message has since been changed to: “You won’t be charged a cancellation fee.”

The second offense, occurring between June 2018 and August 2020, involved the company showing customers in Sydney inflated estimates of taxi fares on the app.

The commission said that Uber did not ensure the algorithm used to calculate the prices was accurate, leading to actual fares almost always being higher than estimated ones.

The taxi fare feature was removed in August 2020.

A Troubled Legal History

Uber has been sued for misleading its users or unfairly charging customers in the past.

In 2016, the company paid California-based prosecutors up to $25 million for misleading riders about the safety of its service.

An investigation at the time found that at least 25 of Uber’s approved drivers had serious criminal convictions including identity theft, burglary, child sex offenses and even one murder charge, despite background checks.

In 2017, the company also settled a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for $20 million after it misled drivers about how much money they could earn.

In November 2021, the Justice Department sued the company for allegedly charging disabled customers a wait-time fee even though they needed more time to get in the car, then refused to refund them.

Later the same month, a class-action lawsuit in New York alleged that Uber charged riders a final price higher than the upfront price listed when they ordered the ride.

See what others are saying: (ABC) (NASDAQ) (Los Angeles Times)

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Report Finds That Instagram Promotes Pro-Eating Disorder Content to 20 Million Users, Including Children

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According to the study, even users hoping to recover were given eating disorder content because they were “still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble.”


Instagram Promotes Eating Disorder Content

Instagram promotes pro-eating disorder content to millions of its users, including children as young as nine-years-old, according to a Thursday report from the child advocacy non-profit group Fairplay.

The report, titled “Designing for Disorder: Instagram’s Pro-eating Disorder Bubble,” studied what it called an eating disorder “bubble,” which consisted of nearly 90,000 accounts that reached 20 million unique users. The average age of the bubble was 19, but researchers found users aged nine- and 10-years-old that followed three or more of these accounts. Roughly one-third of those in the bubble were underage. 

According to Fairplay, Instagram’s parent company Meta derives $2 million in revenue a year from the bubble and another $228 million from those who follow it. 

“In addition to being profitable, this bubble is also undeniably harmful,” the report said. “Algorithms are profiling children and teens to serve them images, memes and videos encouraging restrictive diets and extreme weight loss.”

“Meta’s pro-eating disorder bubble is not an isolated incident nor an awful accident,” it continued. “Rather it is an example of how, without appropriate checks and balances, Meta systematically puts profit ahead of young people’s safety and wellbeing.”

Researchers identified the bubble by first looking at 153 seed accounts with over 1,000 followers that posted content celebrating eating disorders. Some used phrases like “thinspiration” or other slang terms like “ana” and “mia” to refer to specific eating disorders. Others included an underweight body mass index in their bios. 

Those seed accounts alone had roughly 2.3 million collective followers, 1.6 million of which were unique. Of those unique users, researchers looked at how many seed accounts each followed to determine that nearly 90,000 accounts were part of the eating disorder bubble. Those accounts totaled over 28 million followers, 20 million of which were unique.

These pages posted content ranging from memes and photos of extreme thinness to screenshots of progress on calorie counting apps. One user said they were on their third day of eating just 300 calories. 

Others, including children under the age of 13, put their current weights and goal weights in their account bios. Some wrote that they “hate food” or were “starving for perfection.”

Content’s Impact on Children

Fairplay claimed that many of those in the bubble wanted to recover but were essentially trapped in Instagram’s algorithm. 

“Many of the biographies of users in the bubble talk about wanting to or being in recovery, wanting to get ‘better’, to ‘heal’ or being aware of how unwell they were,” the report said. “However, these users are still in Instagram’s algorithmically curated bubble. They will still be feeding content from other accounts in the bubble, including the seed accounts, that normalizes, glamorizes or promotes eating disorders.”

The report also showcased the firsthand account of a 17-year-old eating disorder survivor and activist identified as Kelsey. Kelsey wrote that it was impossible to “imagine a time when the app didn’t have the sort of content that promotes disordered eating behavior.” 

“I felt like my feed was always pushed towards this sort of content from the moment I opened my account,” Kelsey continued.

“That type of content at one point even got so normalized that prominent figures such as the Kardashians and other female and male influencers were openly promoting weight loss supplements and diet suppressors in order to help lose weight.”

Kelsey said Instagram delivered that content without any relevant searches, but posts about body positivity needed to be actively sought out. 

The report concluded by arguing that there needs to be legislation that regulates platforms like Instagram by requiring them to prioritize user safety, particularly for children.

Meta and Instagram have long been accused of disregarding child safety. Last year, a whistleblower unveiled documents that revealed the company knew of the harm it posed to young people, specifically regarding body image. A Meta spokesperson told The Hill that they were unable to address the most recent allegations in Fairplay’s report.

“We’re not able to fully address this report because the authors declined to share it with us, but reports like this often misunderstand that completely removing content related to peoples’ journeys with or recovery from eating disorders can exacerbate difficult moments and cut people off from community,” the spokesperson said.

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (CNet)

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Etsy Sellers Strike Amid Increased Transaction Fees and Mandatory Offsite Advertising

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“What began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople,” an Etsy seller wrote in a petition. 


Thousands of Etsy Sellers Shut Down Shops

Roughly 15,000 Etsy sellers are closing up their online shops starting Monday in protest of several grievances they have with the platform, including a new fee increase.

Starting on Monday, transaction fees are getting boosted from 5% to 6.5% on the platform. CEO Josh Silverman sent a memo claiming that this hike will allow the company to “make significant investments in marketing, seller tools, and creating a world-class customer experience,” but sellers have been frustrated by the change. 

“Etsy’s last fee increase was in July 2018. If this new one goes through, our basic fees to use the platform will have more than doubled in less than four years,” seller Kristi Cassidy wrote in a petition calling for a strike. As of Monday morning, over 50,000 Etsy sellers, customers, and employees had signed the petition.

“These basic fees do not include additional fees for Offsite ads – which started during the first wave of the pandemic,” Cassidy continued. 

Offsite ads allow Etsy to advertise sellers’ products on other websites like Google. Sellers who make over $10,000 a year reportedly have no way of opting out of the program and Etsy takes at least 12% of sales generated through the promotions. 

“Etsy fees are an unpredictable expense that can take more than 20% of each transaction,” Cassidy wrote. “We have no control over how these ads are administered, or how much of our money is spent.”

Etsy became a pandemic success story as online shopping rose amid lockdowns. Many turned to the platform to purchase masks and other goods, prompting its stock, sales, and number of sellers to rise. 

“It’s really obnoxious to tell us sellers, ‘Hey, we made record profits last year and we’re gonna celebrate by raising your fees a whole bunch,’” Bella Stander, a maps and guidebooks publisher who sells on Etsy, told the Wall Street Journal.  

What Etsy Sellers Are Demanding

Currently, there are over five million sellers on Etsy. Cassidy hopes that if enough of them unite, the company will have to respond. 

“As individual crafters, makers and small businesspeople, we may be easy for a giant corporation like Etsy to take advantage of,” she wrote. “But as an organized front of people, determined to use our diverse skills and boundless creativity to win ourselves a fairer deal, Etsy won’t have such an easy time shoving us around.”

In the petition’s list of demands, it asks that Etsy cancel the transaction fee increase, allow sellers to opt out of offsite ads, and provide a transparent plan to crack down on resellers who take up space on the platform.

It also demanded that Etsy end its “Star Seller Program,” which impacts how sellers can interact with their buyers.

“Etsy was founded with a vision of ‘keeping commerce human’ by ‘democratizing access to entrepreneurship.’ As a result, people who have been marginalized in traditional retail economies — women, people of color, LGBTQ people, neurodivergent people, etc. — make up a significant proportion of Etsy’s sellers,” Cassidy wrote.

“But as Etsy has strayed further and further from its founding vision over the years, what began as an experiment in marketplace democracy has come to resemble a dictatorial relationship between a faceless tech empire and millions of exploited, majority-women craftspeople.”

In a statement to Yahoo Finance, an Etsy spokesperson claimed that sellers were the company’s “top priority.”

“We are always receptive to seller feedback and, in fact, the new fee structure will enable us to increase our investments in areas outlined in the petition, including marketing, customer support, and removing listings that don’t meet our policies,” the spokesperson said. “We are committed to providing great value for our 5.3 million sellers so they are able to grow their businesses while keeping Etsy a beloved, trusted, and thriving marketplace.”

The strike was a trending topic on Twitter Monday morning. Many sellers took to the social media site to pledge their support to the movement. 

Many sellers are urging buyers to refrain from using the site for the remainder of the week, which is how long the protest is currently scheduled to last.

See what others are saying: (The Wall Street Journal) (Yahoo Finance) (TechCrunch)

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