All posts in “Tech”

Google’s taking another big step to stop the spread of fake news

The internet is filled with too many fake news websites — not the ones Donald Trump keeps falsely accusing, but real sources of provably false information — and Google’s taking another step to stop this garbage from misleading people.

The tech giant is now blocking websites from showing up in search results on Google News when they mask their country of origin.

Per the company’s newly updated guidelines, content that will be displayed on Google News must abide by the following:

Sites included in Google News must not misrepresent, misstate, or conceal information about their ownership or primary purpose, or engage in coordinated activity to mislead users. This includes, but isn’t limited to, sites that misrepresent or conceal their country of origin or are directed at users in another country under false premises.

The change may seem small, but it will have wide-ranging impact. By not including websites that mask their country of origin, Google is effectively burying fake news and reducing its chances of spreading.

Publications that willingly spread false information have been blamed for helping elect Trump. In a perfect world, people would only get their news from reputable sources, but as we all know too well, social media — especially Facebook — has made it challenging for even the sharpest readers to distinguish between what’s real and what’s false.

Google’s new war on dishonest websites should greatly help to curb the spread of actual fake news. For example, Russian publications operated by propagandists who write fake U.S. news and distribute it as if they’re legitimate American publications will have diminished online reach.

The move is not surprising considering how Google’s search engine is a primary source of news access for many people on the internet. While Google Search is, fundamentally, merely a conduit through which information flows, the company’s massive reach means it shares in the responsibilities of helping to distribute — and curate, when it comes to weeding out dishonest sources — the news.

It’s not going to happen overnight, but this new measure, along with other new features such as “Fact Check,” is a step in the right direction if Google still wants to uphold its mission statement to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” (emphasis ours)

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The 12 best apps of 2017

Just when you thought apps had gotten boring and derivative, developers have leveraged new technologies to breathe new life into mobile experiences. From games we couldn’t put down to powerful camera apps to augmented reality finally taking off, those little squares with the rounded corners on our home screens continued to surprise and delight us.

Whether it was record-breaking downloads or those hidden gems that just made our lives easier, these are the apps we loved most in 2017.

1. Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp

Nintendo delighted fans this year with another heavy dose of nostalgia in the form of Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp. The long-awaited mobile installment in the Animal Crossing series, the game proved once again Nintendo can still capture our imaginations with old favorites.

iOS

2. Astro 

An email app with a chabot built-in. Astro takes a new approach to helping you stay on top of your inbox. The app has all the organizational features you’d expect from an email client: multiple inboxes, gesture-based controls, message scheduling, and the ability to “snooze” emails for later. What makes Astro stand out, though, is the built-in assistant that learns your habits and can help remind you to stay on top of your messages. Send it a few commands and it can unsubscribe you from annoying newsletters, remind you to get back to people, and manage your VIP list.

iOS, Android

3. Ballz

One of those frustratingly addicting games that you just can’t quite seem to put down, Ballz went viral even beyond Ketchapp’s usually reliable hit-making abilities. The game is simple — use your balls to hit the bricks — and yet it requires just enough strategy that it’s near impossible to put down. No wonder it spent weeks and weeks at the top of the App Store and Google Play, earning a near-perfect 4.5-star rating. 

iOS, Android

4. Clips

Something of a mix between iMovie and Snapchat, Clips is a new kind of video app for Apple. The app, which lets you create movies out of short clips, has a bit of everything: augmented reality effects, stylized filters, AI-powered automated captions, and, yes, lots of emoji. 

iOS

5. Datally

Worrying about how much mobile date you’re using seems like one of those problems we should be able to easily avoid by now, but too often that’s just not the case. And, depending on where you live, cellular data can quickly add up to a costly investment. That’s why Google’s data-saving app Datally is so dang useful. The app not only breaks down exactly how you’re using your data; it helps you prevent apps from accessing it when you don’t want them to. Meaning: No more surprise overages.

Android

6. Google Assistant

Yes, it was still a bit rough around the edges when it first launched, but the standalone Google Assistant app is damn useful, especially if you don’t already have a Pixel phone. Not only can the app help with standard queries you’d typically turn to Google searches for, it can tell you about what’s on your calendar, send messages, and control your music. 

iOS, Android

7. Halide

Most camera apps aren’t worth using simply because it’s just so much easier to stick with iOS’s default camera. Halide is an exception worth making, though. The app gives you full manual control over exposure, focus, ISO, white balance, and shutter speed with easy gesture-based controls that are meant to emulate old-school film cameras. 

iOS

8. HQ

Leave it to the founders of Vine (RIP) to come up with a trivia app that’s so much more than just another quiz game. Combining live video, cash prizes, and a charismatic host, HQ has taken the App Store by storm — inspiring hundreds of thousands of players to tune in and answer trivia questions at the same time each day. Yes, it still has some fail whale-like technical issues, and yes, some onlookers insist it’s all just a fad. But it’s also just incredibly fun — and remains one of the breakout games of the year.

iOS

9. Ikea Place

Augmented reality had a moment in 2017. Apple, Google, Facebook, and Snapchat all launched new platforms showcasing the tech. But even still, so much of AR is just plain gimmicky (looking at you, dancing hotdog). So it was even more surprising that one of the breakout AR apps of the year came not from a tech giant but from Ikea. The furniture company’s AR app, which lets you preview how certain pieces of furniture will look in your home, isn’t just clever — it’s actually useful. 

iOS

10. Super Mario Run

Okay, technically it launched at the end of 2016. But, considering the app helped propel Apple to its single biggest day of App Store sales at the start of the year, and later went on to be one of the most popular apps of the year, it’s safe to say 2017 was the year of Super Mario Run. Not only that, but coming on the heels of Pokémon Go, it further cemented Nintendo’s status as a (finally!) serious player in the mobile space.

iOS, Android

11. tbh

No matter how many people try and ultimately fail, it seems there will always be an appetite for services that gives us an unfiltered window into what our friends really think about us. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that tbh, an anonymous quiz app for teens, was almost instantly successful. But thanks to an innovative approach that focused on positivity, its developers proved that anonymity can be used as a force for good. It was so successful, in fact, Facebook snapped it up as part of its ongoing bid to win over younger teens.

iOS

12. Yarn

Part of a new breed of reading apps that are reinventing how young people read, Yarn quickly became one of the most popular apps in an emerging category known as “chat fiction.” The apps, which present stories as if they were SMS exchanges, have proved not only to be incredibly sticky, but extremely profitable. Yarn stands out because it mixes photos and videos into its interactive stories, making them all the more compelling.

iOS, Android

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Firefox users lose trust in Mozilla after a ‘Mr. Robot’ promo went horribly wrong

Image: NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Protip for Mozilla and the USA Network: In the future when you’re plotting a tie-in for a show about vigilante hackers, maybe don’t actually compromise people’s privacy.

Some Firefox users were none too thrilled to discover that the web browser had installed an add-on called “Looking Glass” without permission. Bearing a description that read simply, in all-caps, “MY REALITY IS JUST DIFFERENT THAN YOURS,” people were understandably suspicious.

(The all-caps utterance, it should be noted, is a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.)

That last tweet is from a Mozilla employee, in case it’s not clear.

Looking Glass turned out to be a promotional tie-in for Mr. Robot, serving as the foundation for a new alternate reality game. But the initial lack of clarity as to its purpose, coupled with the fact that it installed unprompted, caused understandable alarm.

Once it became clear that users were unhappy, Mozilla moved quickly to set things right. The initial 1.0.3 version of the Firefox extension featured the cryptic Carroll quote and nothing else, as TechCrunch noted, but a subsequent 1.0.4 update included texting explaining its purpose as an ARG.

Mozilla also created a support page to more thoroughly explain Looking Glass, and make it clear that users would have to opt in if they wanted to participate in the ARG. On top of that, the support page includes a vague mea culpa that lays out Mozilla’s mission and commitment to giving people “more control over their lives online.”

The Mr. Robot series centers around the theme of online privacy and security. One of the 10 guiding principles of Mozilla’s mission is that individuals’ security and privacy on the internet are fundamental and must not be treated as optional. The more people know about what information they are sharing online, the more they can protect their privacy.

Mozilla exists to build the Internet as a public resource accessible to all because we believe open and free is better than closed and controlled. We build products like Firefox to give people more control over their lives online.

Looking Glass didn’t self-install in every version of Firefox, and as the conversation around it grew, users began to figure out what happened. The extension is a product of Mozilla’s Shield Studies program, which is a “user testing platform for proposed, new and existing features and ideas.”

While some Shield Studies testing items prompt users for approval before installing, others are added automatically and require a manual opt-out. And, as some discovered, it’s possible to participate in Shield Studies without specifically opting in (h/t Engadget).

Ultimately, Looking Glass doesn’t actually do anything unless the user in question chooses to participate in the Mr. Robot ARG. But this is a trust issue more than anything else. And with Mozilla’s Firefox Quantum update freshly launched — and vying to bring back users stolen away by Google Chrome — this secretly added extension is not a good look.

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The White House website redesign makes it — surprise! — even less transparent

The White House revamped its website Friday, and its new look proves it’s possible for the Trump administration to make things even more opaque.

The White House website is where the public comes to watch live videos of the president and press briefings, as well as access media statements and position papers. But the new design makes all that difficult to do.

The previous iteration of the site wasn’t anything amazing, but it was at least navigable. 

Website visitors quickly noticed that live videos were hard to find and topics Trump likes talking about, such as the economy, are on display, making it feel more like propaganda material than a public resource.

Overall, site visitors weren’t impressed.

It seems the new site is all about search, which keeps things out of view until they’re explicitly looked up, like climate. A few big issues top the page: “Economy,” “National Security,” “Budget,” “Immigration,” and “Healthcare,” but if you want anything on, say, climate change, you’ll have to search. Sure, those pointing to the redesign as another way for Trump to hide stuff may be verging a bit into conspiracy territory, but the Trump administration has a record of doing away with unwanted information.

Here’s what the White House homepage looked like just a day ago, left, and then today, right. 

Old website

Old website

New website

New website

No matter the intention behind the layout change, it’s not easy to find information, despite the White House spinning the redesign as a good thing.

“The old site was a good temporary measure that allowed us to use what the previous administration had built, but it wasn’t where it needed to be in terms of providing people with content they can easily access,” a White House official told the Washington Examiner.

The previous site wasn’t an open book by any means, but the different drop down menus made it somewhat easier to navigate to a certain topic. Now everything is hidden.

As a journalist, the since-deleted “Briefing Room” menu is a huge loss. To find live coverage on the site now requires a confusing maze of clicks starting with the subtle top left-hand corner “hamburger” icon. Once there, click “About the White House” and on that landing page head to the bottom footer where a small font says “Live.” 

That was easy -- not.

That was easy — not.

At least the over-simplified site will be cheaper to maintain and secure. A White House official told the Washington Examiner that the new site will save roughly $3 million per year. 

All that cost-cutting might sound good, but people are still asking, where’s the Spanish-language version of the site that Trump axed in January? Sorry, that page does not exist.

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Google Chrome now lets you mute those annoying autoplay videos

Image: Elaine Thompson/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Google Chrome just made surfing the web way less annoying. 

Chrome developers announced Thursday that the newest Chrome update, Chrome 64 Beta, will allow you to mute annoying autoplay videos. This is one of several features intended to help users circumvent obnoxious advertisements in the new update, reports Gizmodo

To use the feature (once you’ve downloaded the new update), click the green lock icon next to the url on the page you’re trying to mute. In the drop-down menu next to the sound icon, select “Always block on this site.” 

After that, never again will that website blast music or voiced from annoying ads when it’s not welcome.

The feature is one of many features included in the new Chrome release intended to make web browsing a safer place, despite certain kinds of intrusive advertising. 

The browser now comes with a built-in pop-up blocker for websites that make “close” buttons on pop-ups hard to find (such as third-party video hosting websites that disguise ad buttons as “play” buttons). And because of a number of new developer tools and APIs, it’s now much more difficult for malicious sites to redirect you to other sites, even if they don’t employ pop-ups. 

Google also released a tool for developers to check whether any of their sites’ practices will be blocked by the new features.

This is apparently exactly what users wanted. “1 out of every 5 user feedback reports submitted on Chrome for desktop mention some type of unwanted content,” reads Google’s blog post about the new update. 

This is just the latest step in Google’s crusade against advertisements. The company has already cracked down on ads on its mobile browser: Chrome Canary allows users to block ads that the browser deems “intrusive.” 

While it is somewhat ironic that the search giant — which happen’s to be the world’s largest advertising company — is cracking down on online ads, the update will certainly improve your browsing experience. 

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