Congress is getting better at questioning social media executivesSeptember 6, 2018
Heading into today’s tech hearings, conventional wisdom held that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg would sail through on the strength of her poise and command of the facts. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, making his first appearance before Congress, was expected to struggle. Google, which declined to send CEO Sundar Pichai (or Alphabet CEO Larry Page), and which would be represented on the dais by an empty chair, was expected to receive the worst of lawmakers’ scorn.
As the day began, before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the conventional wisdom appeared to hold. These two paragraphs from The New York Times’ formidable five-person live-blogging operation capture the dynamic:
Ms. Sandberg, who was born in Washington, and spent years living there during her time at the Treasury Department, appeared confident in her opening remarks. Speaking clearly and with practiced pacing, she complimented the committee’s previous work on election interference.
Mr. Dorsey stumbled during his opening, forgetting to turn on his microphone and reading from a cellphone he held in his hand. He added that he was also live-tweeting his opening remarks through his Twitter account.
Google, meanwhile, did indeed incur the wrath of the lawmakers. It had offered to send its chief legal and policy executive, Kent Walker, but the Senate declined. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu, and Congress looks hungry,” a lobbyist tells Mark Bergen and Ben Brody in Bloomberg. They offer some informed speculation on why Google declined to send Page or Pichai:
For Google, the Senate decision may be a calculated risk. The bad optics of an empty chair could outweigh being dragged further into a morass that Google may feel belongs to Facebook and Twitter. Google found far less election spending from Russia’s Internet Research Agency than the other two. When Walker testified in earlier hearings, the lawyer repeatedly emphasized that Google was, unlike its peers, not a “social network.”
The risk appeared not to pay off, in part because the Senate hearing — focused on how companies were working to protect their platforms from foreign attacks — was cordial and workmanlike. Unlike the disastrous House of Representatives hearing about “bias” in April, this one was conducted largely in good faith. Google missed out on a chance to build goodwill with lawmakers simply by repeating what its executives had said elsewhere — the approach that both Facebook and Twitter took, to good results.
Sandberg, as expected, sailed through her portion of the hearing, essentially elaborating on the primer that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had offered up the night before in an op-ed in the Washington Post. Facebook is hiring moderators, killing fake accounts, making ads public and searchable, and working with fact checkers to reduce the spread of misinformation. All of this had been widely publicized before, and now it’s once again part of the Congressional record.
If there was a surprise in the hearing, it was that Dorsey’s unpracticed, shy-guy persona played so well with lawmakers. He, too, offered lawmakers promises he has made elsewhere, as during his recent media tour. Twitter is thinking about labeling bots; it’s thinking about conversational health; it’s thinking about rethinking the entire service. The Senate took him at his word, praising him for his candor and (late in the day) his endurance.
In the House, where Dorsey appeared alone to answer more than four hours’ worth of lawmakers’ questions, the tone was often sharper — but members of Congress were ultimately just as deferential. Dorsey kept his cool through some bizarre moments, most notably a far-right activist screaming and a conservative lawmaker assuming the voice of an auctioneer and staging a faux auction until she could be escorted out of the building.
Peter Kafka captured the gist in Recode:
Republicans asked, over and over, whether Twitter’s programs, policies and employees favored liberal causes and politicians over conservative ones. Not at all, Dorsey patiently answered, over and over.
And Democrats split their time between complaining about other issues they wished the hearing focused on, like Twitter’s failure to keep abusive users off the platform, and the fact that the entire hearing seemed ginned up as a political exercise to help Republicans in the fall elections.
If you watched any of this, there’s no way you think US lawmakers are going to do anything about US internet companies, or anything else.
Some folks, of course, do think lawmakers are going to regulate US internet companies, possibly soon. The Justice Department said Wednesday that it would meet with states attorney general to discuss whether companies like Facebook and Google are hurting competition and stifling the free exchange of ideas. “Congress is going to have to take action here,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-VA, said in a widely circulated quote from Wednesday’s hearings. “The era of the Wild West in social media is coming to an end.”
Time will tell, though I still have my doubts. (Warner is, after all, a member of the minority party.) On the whole, though, I found the day’s proceedings heartening. Members of Congress, who have now taken several runs at top tech leaders, seem to be developing an actual command of how social-media platforms work, their benefits and risks, and the complex nature of trying to regulate them. Tech companies are responding accordingly — if not always aggressively, or even effectively.
It’s not enough. It’s not clear to me what would be enough. But it’s a start.
For more on today’s hearings, read this guide from me and my colleague Adi Robertson.
Sarah Frier and Alyza Sebenius look at Facebook’s latest refrain when it comes to defending against foreign interference, which is that it needs the government’s help.
Because behind the scenes, there is a delicate struggle over who is accountable for ensuring that another election isn’t compromised. Tech firms have been stymied in efforts to get federal agencies to provide the kinds of assistance that can only come from officials who have access to sensitive national security information, according to people familiar with the matter. The government has made it clear that the companies need to do more to prevent hacking and improper influence.
Federal agencies have been hesitant to share confidential tips that could identify or prevent the next Russia-scale attack because of security concerns, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak about the matter. The intelligence community assumes the companies already know what to look for, said the people. When the companies do ask for help, they sometimes don’t know who to call, because there’s not a single person or entity in charge. In May, the White House eliminated the role of cybersecurity coordinator. In late August, a Facebook security official invited representatives from other technology companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Microsoft Corp. and Amazon.com Inc. to a meeting at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, to share strategies and tips for detecting problems ahead of the midterms. Nobody from the government was invited, one of the people said.
Like Zambia and Uganda before it, the country of Benin has levied a tax on social media usage:
The government passed a decree in late August taxing its citizens for accessing the internet and social-media apps. The directive, first proposed in July, institutes a fee (link in French) of 5 CFA francs ($0.008) per megabyte consumed through services like Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. It also introduces a 5% fee, on top of taxes, on texting and calls, according to advocacy group Internet Sans Frontières (ISF).
The new law has been denounced, with citizens and advocates using the hashtag #Taxepamesmo (“Don’t tax my megabytes”) to call on officials to cancel the levy. The increased fees will not only burden the poorest consumers and widen the digital divide, but they will also be “disastrous” for the nation’s nascent digital economy, says ISF’s executive director Julie Owono. A petition against the levy on Change.org has garnered nearly 7,000 signatures since it was created five days ago.
Kevin Poulsen finds a banned Russia-linked news agency back on Facebook:
Two weeks after Facebook expunged a supposedly independent news site linked to Russia’s military intelligence arm, the banned site is smuggling its Putin-friendly content back into the social network’s streams by using a Moscow publisher as a cut-out, the Daily Beast has found.
How does the declining trust that Americans have in social media platforms manifest in their usage? Here’s some compelling new data from Pew. I’d like to see further research that confirms this. But assuming this is even directionally correct, it suggests that social media abandonment is now a mass-mainstream phenomenon in the United States:
Just over half of Facebook users ages 18 and older (54%) say they have adjusted their privacy settings in the past 12 months, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Around four-in-ten (42%) say they have taken a break from checking the platform for a period of several weeks or more, while around a quarter (26%) say they have deleted the Facebook app from their cellphone. All told, some 74% of Facebook users say they have taken at least one of these three actions in the past year.
How difficult is hate-speech moderation? Well, Facebook’s own content moderation guidelines misidentified the provenance of a crucial image, Joseph Cox reports:
From Alex Jones to Russian troll factories to Iranian influence operations, Facebook is increasingly facing pressure to deal with its disinformation problem. But Facebook has internally fallen for ‘fake news’ itself. In a Facebook document obtained by Motherboard, the company falsely attributes an image to the recent Myanmar genocide, when it actually dates from an earthquake in another country years earlier.
The mistake, made in a document used to train some of Facebook’s content moderators and which appears to originate from a years-old piece of fake news, is particularly ironic, given that Facebook recently said it was going to remove misinformation on its platform that could lead to violence.
When BlackBerry’s hardware business failed it pivoted into becoming a patent troll, and sued Facebook earlier this year. Now Facebook has countersued.
If you ever hoped that Vimeo might evolve to challenge YouTube meaningfully as a video portal with a slightly more refined aesthetic and better curation, those hopes should now officially be dashed: the IAC-owned property is pivoting to become a stock footage destination, its CEO told Sara Fischer.
Nico and Veronica are new styles for Snap’s Spectacles sunglasses. They look good enough, but these are only cosmetic changes. I reviewed version 2 in April.
In a timely piece at The Verge — where it’s Monopoly Week, by the way! — my colleague Russell Brandom examines the case for breaking up the big four tech companies. Here’s what he has to say about Facebook:
In some ways, Facebook is the most urgent case. It’s inescapable, opaque, and it wields immense power over the fundamental functions of our society. More than any other tech giant, Facebook’s power feels like an immediate threat and the most plausible first target for congressional action. Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) has already laid out 20 different measures that would rein in Facebook and other tech giants, ranging from GDPR-style data portability requirements to more carveouts of Section 230.
But while Warner’s measures focus on nudging Facebook toward more responsible behavior, a growing number of critics see the problem as Facebook itself. It may be that a social network with more than 2 billion users is simply too big to be managed responsibly, and no amount of moderators or regulators will be able to meaningfully rein the company in. For those critics, social networks are a natural monopoly, and no amount of portability requirements will ever produce a meaningful competitor to Facebook or a meaningful check on its power.
Maciej Ceglowski — it’s pronounced just like it’s spelled! — finds the state of Democratic campaign security to be rather dire:
For the past eight months, I’ve been traveling the country in a sometimes quixotic attempt to train congressional campaigns about email security. On one recent trip, I asked a Democratic campaign manager how he was keeping track of his personal passwords. When he hung his head, I knew what was coming.
“I use the same password for every site,” he confessed. He told me about a moment of panic when a college friend who shared his password on a sports site logged in to his Gmail account as a joke. Google noticed the out-of-state login and sent him a security alert. In the minutes before the friend admitted to the prank, he saw his career flash before his eyes.
And finally …
“There’s a disconcerting style of speech that’s bubbled up from the depths of web culture and entered the dating world: the creepy asterisk,” writes Quinn Meyers. “You’re texting with someone, and before you know it, your conversation suddenly turns into a roleplay session.”
Creepy asterisks are now so universally despised that a subreddit exists with 220,000 subscribers who document the cringiest examples. It’s both PSA and support group.
So if asterisk roleplay is so skin-crawlingly gross, why do so many people still use them? What’s it like to be on the receiving end of a message like *grooms your hair* or *stretches while showing massive furcock*? And finally, what can they tell us about our constantly evolving language?
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