Congress just showed us what comprehensive regulation of Facebook would look like

Congress just showed us what comprehensive regulation of Facebook would look like

July 31, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan


As Congress has paid increasing attention to social networks over the past year, a recurring theme in the coverage has been how little lawmakers appear to understand them. The first Facebook hearing, which was tied to Congress’ investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, played as pure theater. At a subsequent hearing, senators at least asked better questions.

But despite several more go-rounds, both here and abroad, it has been unclear what lawmakers intend to do about any of it. Mark Zuckerberg is on the record saying he supports certain kinds of regulation. But so far, it hasn’t been clear what aggressive regulation of Facebook would even look like.

It’s now much clearer — or rather, it would be clear, in a world in which Democrats had the power to regulate. On Monday, Axios’ David McCabe published a fascinating policy paper from the office of Sen. Mark Warner. The paper outlines a comprehensive regulatory regime that would touch virtually every aspect of social networks.

The paper is notably well versed both on the dangers posed by misinformation and the trade-offs that come with increased regulation, especially to privacy and free speech. It’s less a polemic than a comprehensive starting point for discussion — and as talk of regulation spreads around the world, I imagine it will prove influential.

So what exactly do Warner and his staff propose? The ideas are designed to address three broad categories: misinformation, disinformation, and the exploitation of these technologies; privacy and data protection; and competition. (On the last point, the good news for tech platforms is that even Warner isn’t calling for them to be broken up. The paper does not, in other words, challenge the idea that social networks of these size should exist.)

Here are some highlights of the ideas presented.

Misinformation, disinformation, and the exploitation of technology. Ideas here include requiring networks to label automated bots as such; requiring platforms to verify identities, despite the significant consequences to free speech; legally requiring platforms to make regular disclosures about how many fake accounts they’ve deleted; ending Section 230 protections for defamation; legally requiring large platforms to create APIs for academic research; spending more money to fight cyber threats from Russia and other state-level actors.

Privacy and data protection. Create a US version of the GDPR; designate platforms as “information fiduciaries” with the legal responsibility of protecting our data; empowering the Federal Trade Commission to make rules around data privacy; create a legislative ban on dark patterns that trick users into accepting terms and conditions without reading them; allow the government to audit corporate algorithms.

Competition: Require tech companies to continuously disclose to consumers how their data is being used; require social-network data to be made portable; require social networks to be interoperable; designate certain products as “essential facilities” and demand that third parties get fair access to them.

It’s a lot to take in — and a lot of fun to consider! I recommend reading the entire report, and discussing it with your children over dinner.

In America, the report remains mostly a pipe dream. But around the world, similar ideas are gaining momentum. Over the weekend, a British parliamentary committee recommended imposing much stricter guidelines on social networks. Here’s David D. Kirkpatrick in the New York Times:

Among other proposals, the committee called for the regulators who oversee television and radio to set standards for accuracy and impartiality on social media sites, for the establishment of a “working group of experts” to rate the credibility of websites or accounts “so that people can see at first glance the level of verification,” and for a new tax on internet companies that would pay for expanded oversight.

To address influence campaigns, the committee called for the mandatory public disclosure of the sponsors behind any online political advertisement or paid communication, as required in traditional news media outlets — an idea that was proposed in Congress as well.

These proposals remain far from becoming law — but perhaps not as far as tech platforms would wish.

Democracy

Here’s why Facebook suspended Alex Jones but not Infowars

The rules governing discipline on Facebook are quite Byzantine, and Kurt Wagner does a good job here laying out what exactly is going on with Alex Jones and the various pages to which he posts. I’ll repeat my point from Friday: it’s time to rethink some of this stuff.

Alex Jones’s personal user profile is an admin for a number of Infowars-related Pages, which means he has permission to post or share videos to those Pages. Each time Jones shares a post that violates Facebook’s policies to one of those Pages, both Jones’s user profile and the Page receive some kind of “strike” against their record — essentially, a warning from Facebook to take the post down and cut it out.

But the reason Jones was suspended, but his Pages are still up, is that Jones posted the same bad content to multiple pages, drawing multiple strikes against his record. So if Jones shared three bad videos to three different pages, for example, he would receive nine total strikes, whereas each Page would receive just three.

YouTube search results for A-list celebrities hijacked by conspiracy theorists

Here’s a good example of how social networks are vulnerable to asymmetries of passion. A surge of people suddenly become interested in Tom Hanks, leading their videos to rise to the top of search results. What YouTube doesn’t know, because computers are dumb, is that the videos are all baseless accusations against Hanks, rooted in baseless conspiracies. YouTube has lately gotten better at policing search results in the wake of mass-casualty events. It needs to become similarly adept at monitoring the rise of conspiracies on other sites so it can address them as they start popping up as videos. (One advantage YouTube has is it can often take conspiracies longer to migrate there, because video usually takes longer to produce than text.)

The FBI Set Up A Task Force To Counter Russian Trolls. So Far, It’s Been Silent.

The FBI set up the Foreign Influence Task Force to monitor Russian trolls. We have basically no idea what, if anything, it is doing. Sources tell Kevin Collier it isn’t doing much.

Elsewhere

Facebook’s Next Privacy Challenge: Less Data to Target Ads

For a long time advertisers on Facebook could buy or rent data from various brokers to improve their targeting capabilities. Then Cambridge Analytica came along, and Facebook announced it would kill off that tool, known as Partner Categories. It is currently dying slowly around the world, and will be completely dead by October 1st, and now some advertisers are worried their ads will be less effective. Please keep these advertisers in your thoughts and prayers during this difficult time!

It’s Rubens vs. Facebook in fight over artistic nudity

Facebook is blocking Belgian museums from promoting the paintings of the old master Peter Paul Rubens, apparently because they contain bare breasts and buttocks. These museums may need to take a different approach here. Have they considered denying the Holocaust?

Tech Bloodletting Nears $300 Billion Since Facebook Reported

The big five tech companies saw their stocks fall another 2.5 percent, and are down 9 percent in the past three days, amid the fears kicked off by Facebook’s most recent earnings report. The S&P 500 lost 1.4 percent of its value over the same period, Elena Popina reports.

Twitter is funding college professors to audit its platform for toxicity

Twitter has announced the researchers it chose to study the “health” of conversations on the platform, and how they might be improved. My colleague Shannon Liao:

The team of researchers will be led by Dr. Rebekah Tromble, an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands who focuses on politics in social media. They will investigate how toxic speech is created on Twitter. The idea that the researchers are working off of is from previous Leiden research, which found that when a group of like-minded people gathers to discuss similar perspectives, they’re encouraged to hate those not engaged in the same discussion, thus creating an echo chamber. The researchers will see how many users exist in these echo chambers and how many users are actually talking to others with diverse perspectives.

The team will also create algorithms to track whether conversations on Twitter are “uncivil” or if they veer into “intolerant” in what could be hate speech. Uncivil conversations can sometimes be problematic, but they’re also good for political dialogue, while hate speech is “inherently threatening to democracy,” according to Twitter. The implication is that once the researchers successfully identify the differences between these two kinds of conversations, Twitter will become better equipped to target hate speech, while keeping uncivil discourse in check.

Twitter says that it will begin suspending repeatedly abusive Periscope commenters

Twitter is going to start suspending abusive Periscope commenters on August 10th. Until then — go crazy, folks!

Launches

WhatsApp’s new group video calling feature is now live

Today in features you assumed WhatsApp already had: multi-person video chat.

Domino’s Is Bringing Its Pizzas Into Augmented Reality With a National Snapchat Campaign

Several months ago my editor told me about a new augmented reality startup whose gimmick was that they would make lifelike AR representations of food, so you could open their app at a restaurant and picture what the food would look like if it was right in front of you. My editor and I thought this was an incredibly funny case of a technology in search of a problem to solve, and we laughed about it until we cried.

Anyway this startup partnered with Snap over the weekend to show you what Domino’s pizza looks like inside Snapchat.

Takes

Facebook Lenses

Ben Thompson says Facebook’s fundamental business is strong, and also that it has no real competition, so Wall Street should relax. Thompson is read obsessively inside Facebook, and I imagine this (long!) essay will calm a lot of nerves.

The Cost of Policing Facebook and Twitter Is Spooking Wall St. It Shouldn’t.

Spending many billions of dollars to improve the health of the platforms might make Facebook even more valuable than they are today, says Peter Eavis in one of those why-does-anyone-even-have-to-say-this-out-loud kind of takes:

But Facebook’s and Twitter’s growth, financial success and stock performance almost depend on maintaining networks that feel safe to users. Explaining the investments in security, Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s chief executive, said on Friday, “We do believe, ultimately, over time, that this will help our growth story and encourage more people to stay with Twitter and also tell their friends, family and colleagues about all the value they’re getting out of it.”

We’re Lucky Mark Zuckerberg Is in Charge

Mark Zuckerberg’s critics should be quiet because they have not had to deal with what Zuckerberg has had to deal with, says former Facebook employee and current Wired audience developer manager Alex Whitcomb:

Mark Zuckerberg is imperfect, like all of us, and what’s easy is berating him from the outside of the ring. But no one knows that ring—no one in history has ever even seen it. And while he deserves criticism, accountability, and honesty, I for one am glad he’s the one that’s in there.

And finally …

John Oliver fixes Facebook’s apology ad to remind you that the company still doesn’t care about you

I know that “John Oliver destroys” is a fairly tired genre by now. But he’s sharp — if a bit over the top — on its rather smarmy television ads of late. It zeroes in on a theme that has dominated here in the past few weeks: that there’s a hypocrisy in telling people how sorry you are about fake news at the same time you’re defending the rights of Holocaust deniers.

Is it just me or did these final items used to be a lot funnier????

Talk to me

Send tips, corrections, and regulations. casey@theverge.com



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