The UK’s inquiry into fake news is focused on a long-dead bikini-finding app

The UK’s inquiry into fake news is focused on a long-dead bikini-finding app

November 27, 2018 0 By Nazmul Khan


On Saturday, the Observer published an article describing a rather incredible caper that took place in the United Kingdom. As part of an ongoing inquiry into fake news, Parliament seized a cache of documents obtained during legal discovery in a case mounted by an app developer against Facebook in an unrelated matter in the United States.

Carole Cadwalladr, who rose to prominence this year as one of the journalists who broke the Cambridge Analytica story, has the tale:

Damian Collins, the chair of the culture, media and sport select committee, invoked a rare parliamentary mechanism to compel the founder of a US software company, Six4Three, to hand over the documents during a business trip to London. In another exceptional move, parliament sent a serjeant at arms to his hotel with a final warning and a two-hour deadline to comply with its order. When the software firm founder failed to do so, it’s understood he was escorted to parliament. He was told he risked fines and even imprisonment if he didn’t hand over the documents.

“We are in uncharted territory,” said Collins, who also chairs an inquiry into fake news. “This is an unprecedented move but it’s an unprecedented situation. We’ve failed to get answers from Facebook and we believe the documents contain information of very high public interest.”

What, exactly, might be of interest here? In the Wall Street Journal, Deepa Seetharaman catches us up on Six4Three and why it’s suing Facebook:

The Six4Three lawsuit stemmed from Facebook’s decision in 2014 to stop giving outside developers broad access to information about users’ friends. The move was a harsh blow to developers, forcing a number of apps to shut down, while Facebook argued it helped bolster user privacy.

Six4Three was the developer of an app called Pikinis, which allowed its users to find photos of Facebook users in bathing suits. It ceased operation in 2015 because of Facebook’s decision to curtail access to its users’ data, according to the lawsuit.

The 2014 changes were, of course, the ones designed to tamp down on the kind of invasive third-party data harvesting that would eventually come back to bite Facebook this year with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

What makes the seizure of documents strange is that so little of the Cambridge Analytica story is, at this late date, in dispute. We know what data was made available to third-party developers before 2014. We know Facebook gradually became uncomfortable with how these developers were exploiting its users. We know they deliberated about it internally and eventually shut off the spigot.

Seetharaman suggests that it is these deliberations that are of interest to Collins. And perhaps some spicy emails will see the light of day. But it’s hard to square the facts of the case with the way the document cache is presented in the Observer, which is as a development somewhere on the level of the Pentagon Papers.

And in any case, it remains unclear what 2014 data privacy discussions have to do with Collins’ inquiry, which is supposed to be investigating the impact of fake news. The inquiry, which began in 2017, produced an interim report in July. Perhaps the document cache will link data privacy and fake news. Or perhaps a politician is simply casting about looking for new cudgels with which to beat Facebook in front of television cameras.

Collins’ committee will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, and may discuss the cache of documents then. (Mark Zuckerberg was invited to go, and declined.) But as we waited for those internal communications to become public, a new court filing introduced a rather amazing twist.

Collins only got the documents because he was able to ascertain the hotel in which Ted Kramer, Six4Three’s managing director, was staying during a business trip to London. And who told him that? Ryan Mac has the story in BuzzFeed:

Although Kramer concedes he does not know how the DCMS committee knew where he was staying in London, he suggests in a 19-page court filing made on Monday that Carole Cadwalladr, a freelance reporter at British outlet the Observer, had tipped off the committee to his hotel address so that it could obtain the documents. Kramer and his lawyers did not immediately respond to his request for comment. Cadwalladr also did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Damian Collins declined to comment. […]

The filing alleges that on November 17, 2018, during a phone conversation with Cadwalladr, Kramer told the reporter he would be on an unrelated business trip to London. According to the document, “she suggested they meet for her to receive another update on the case. Mr. Kramer agreed to meet with her at his hotel and sent her a calendar invitation with the address of the hotel.”

Standards for journalistic ethics vary widely from country to country. In the United States, it would typically be frowned upon for a reporter to tip off a government body that a foreign national and source was coming to town and might be in possession of documents useful in an ongoing inquiry. At the very least, such an arrangement would require a prominent disclosure from the journalist were she ever to write about the seizure of those documents.

In any case, it certainly seemed possible on Monday that the contents of the document cache would amount to less than the Observer suggested — and that the story of how Collins obtained it might amount to much more.

Democracy

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg Is Tainted by Crisis After Crisis

Sarah Frier digs into the various ways Sandberg’s standing has been hurt by two years of perma-crisis. This story inadvertently triggered a daylong debate on Twitter after Frier, citing Facebook, reported that the company’s vaunted election war room had been shut down and replaced with a Friday-morning meeting. After I tweeted about it, Facebook’s Guy Rosen tweeted back that the war room not only wasn’t shutting down, but that it would expand. Then TechCrunch wrote about that.

Anyway, my unpopular opinion is that the war room was probably useful and not (just!) a PR stunt, and I’m glad that the idea of a focused cross-functional teams sharing physical office space will endure into the future. My popular opinion is that Frier’s story good and that you should read it.

Information Attacks against Democracies

Bruce Schneier has a new paper out that is highly relevant to our interests here. Here’s a good, concise summary:

Democracies, in contrast, are vulnerable to information attacks that turn common political knowledge into contested political knowledge. If people disagree on the results of an election, or whether a census process is accurate, then democracy suffers. Similarly, if people lose any sense of what the other perspectives in society are, who is real and who is not real, then the debate and argument that democracy thrives on will be degraded. This is what seems to be Russia’s aims in their information campaigns against the US: to weaken our collective trust in the institutions and systems that hold our country together. This is also the situation that writers like Adrien Chen and Peter Pomerantsevdescribe in today’s Russia, where no one knows which parties or voices are genuine, and which are puppets of the regime, creating general paranoia and despair. […]

In other words, the same fake news techniques that benefit autocracies by making everyone unsure about political alternatives undermine democracies by making people question the common political systems that bind their society.

Memo from a ‘Facebook nation’ to Mark Zuckerberg: You moved fast and broke our country.

Kara Swisher interviews Maria Ressa, co-founder of the news site Rappler in the Philippines, who is facing 10 years in prison for honestly reporting on its authoritarian leader. She blames his rise, in part, on Facebook:

RESSA: President Duterte, in his second state of the nation address, in July of 2017, singles us out, he doesn’t, he attacks the top television network but he singles us out and says, “This Rappler is foreign-owned or 100 percent owned by foreigners.” I couldn’t help myself, because we were live. I automatically tweeted about it, “Mr. President, you’re wrong.” I want my independence. This is part of the reason we set up Rappler. Then within a week the first investigations began. Then the cases came in.

Russia accuses Google of failing to remove links to banned sites

Russian state officials formally accused Google of breaking the law by not removing links to websites that are banned in the country, Colin Lecher reports:

The potential penalty that Google could face is minuscule for a company of its size: officials said in the statement that the search giant could only face fines of up to 700,000 roubles, or about $10,000. But Reuters reports that the Russian government has been considering more drastic actions, including fining companies up to 1 percent of annual revenue for failing to comply with similar laws. Russia has passed a series of laws in recent years that give the government more power to censor the web, and has clashed with major websites like Wikipedia over the rules.

Google tightens political ad policies ahead of 2019 EU elections

Google has announced it will publicize the identity of organizations paying for political ads during the 2019 EU Parliamentary Elections, Jon Porter reports, in a move that could address Facebook’s dark money problem.

Any ad that mentions a political party, candidate, or office holder will have to tell users who paid for it, with Google also introducing a new process to verify these identities.

Google flouting EU competition ruling, say rival price comparison sites

An EU ruling says Google has to give “equal treatment” to rival shopping sites. They’ve written a letter saying the company is not meeting that condition.

YouTube Lets California Fire Conspiracy Theories Run Wild

YouTube has gotten better about removing conspiracy theories from top search results, but Caroline Haskins finds a miss on the California wildfires:

Currently, when a user starts typing “California fire” into YouTube, the top autocomplete search suggestions are “conspiracy 2018,” “agenda 21,” and “laser beam,” all of which refer to conspiracy theories related to California’s wildfires. Similarly, typing in “California wildfire” leads YouTube to suggest “lasers,” “directed energy weapon,” and “dew,” which is an acronym for “directed energy weapon.” Simply typing “California fire” and searching it does return straightforward news coverage, which is an improvement over, say, the false flag and crisis actor conspiracies YouTube was surfacing about the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting earlier this year.

Beijing to Judge Every Resident Based on Behavior by End of 2020

Beijing will adopt “a lifelong points program” by 2021, assigning individual ratings to each resident, Bloomberg reports in a chilling story:

The capital city will pool data from several departments to reward and punish some 22 million citizens based on their actions and reputations by the end of 2020, according to a plan posted on the Beijing municipal government’s website on Monday. Those with better so-called social credit will get “green channel” benefits while those who violate laws will find life more difficult.

The Beijing project will improve blacklist systems so that those deemed untrustworthy will be “unable to move even a single step,” according to the government’s plan. Xinhua reported on the proposal Tuesday, while the report posted on the municipal government’s website is dated July 18.

America’s Elite Universities Are Censoring Themselves on China

American universities have many Chinese students and increasingly get a lot of funding from China, and increasingly they are biting their tongues for fear of aggravating the Communist Party, Isaac Stone Fish reports:

More often, the self-censorship is nuanced and difficult to detect. “You’re not going to get a lot of China specialists openly confessing that self-censorship is a big problem,” said Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California who is known for his critical stance toward the Chinese Communist Party. And yet Pei believes that those who communicate to non-academic audiences, particularly in the media, thus increasing the likelihood that the Chinese government will see their work, and those who work on sensitive issues like Tibet, must watch what they say. “You don’t want to go out on a limb,” he said. “You want to come across as very measured.” Sounding “too strident,” he said, not only risks “the ire of the Chinese government but could also lose the respect of your peers, who value evidence above opinion.” Robert Barnett, who ran Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies Program from its founding in 1999 until stepping down in 2017, emphasized that Columbia never actively restricted his work, but that there was often “a very strong tendency within the university, and with many prestigious institutions in the U.S., not to include people who study the kind of subject I work on in any kind of academic collaborations in China or in dialogues with Chinese delegates.”

Elsewhere

No Refuge for Investors as 2018 Rout Sends Stocks, Bonds, Oil Lower

Tech stocks keep dropping. Akane Otani and Michael Wursthorn report:

Twenty-six funds dumped their entire stakes in Facebook Inc. in the third quarter, according to a Goldman Sachs Group analysis of 13-F filings, including billionaire Daniel Loeb’s Third Point LLC, which offloaded 4 million shares, citing “a very disappointing quarter” for Facebook.

It’s Easy To Blame Online Rhetoric For Violence. The Reality Is Much Harder.

Joe Bernstein explores the cases of two far-right keyboard warriors in an effort to learn how much the online culture war can be blamed for real-world violence:

The truth is, as researchers of violent extremism like James and Horgan will tell you, the vast majority of people who use Gab and Stormfront will never commit a violent crime. That’s not to absolve online communities of the beliefs of their members. It’s not to say digital spaces can’t play a major role in ushering people toward violence. As the lasting influence of Anwar al-Awlaki and Dylann Roof show, they can. It’s not even to say such spaces have a right to exist on private hosting services. They don’t — at least not as far as the First Amendment is concerned. But there isn’t an easy answer when it comes to finding the small number of people who will commit extremist violence.

Internal Facebook memo sees outgoing VP of comms Schrage take blame for hiring Definers

The newsletter was off when this story broke, and it seems like too much time has passed to really weigh in on it here now. The key thing is that Facebook admitted to sending Definers after George Soros. Six days later, that’s all that really matters.

Instagram’s new profile designs emphasize users instead of their follower count

Like Twitter before it, Instagram is shrinking follower counts on the profile.

Who could buy Discord? Acquirers have been giving the gaming startup a long look.

Teddy Schleifer looks at who might buy the platform popular among video game players and horrible racists. Some relevant chatter about Facebook:

Facebook might make the most sense and the least sense of everyone on this list. The most sense because Facebook is the big tech company for communication and messaging, which is what Discord does. Plus Facebook has a strong interest in gamingand the reputation for going out and spending big on companies that can help expand its social networking moat.

The biggest knock on the Facebook idea is that it feels unlikely that the government will let the social giant buy up another communications service. One person who has spoken with Facebook in the past said the company is concerned about antitrust regulators if it were to purchase Discord.

WhatsApp ‘employee number 4’ jumps ship

Neeraj Arora was WhatsApp’s chief business officer and often discussed as a potential replacement for Jan Koum. But then Facebook gave Chris Daniels the job, and now Arora is leaving after seven years.

WhatsApp India head: Abhijit Bose to lead messaging platform in its biggest market

WhatsApp has a new leader in India:

The mobile messaging platform, owned by Facebook (FB), has appointed its first India chief, it said in a statement late on Wednesday. Abhijit Bose, co-founder and CEO of Indian digital payments firm Ezetap, will become head of WhatsApp India in early 2019. “Bose will build WhatsApp’s first full country team outside of California,” the company said.

He will be based in Gurgaon, a rapidly growing tech hub on the outskirts of New Delhi that is also home to other big names like Google and Microsoft.

WhatsApp Is Changing the Way India Talks About Food

Priya Krishna examines how WhatsApp has become a hub for people to discuss farming and food — an unusual hybrid of online forum, help line, and blog:

But among Indians who produce, cook or care about food, the service has been a godsend. In a country where culinary traditions are often spoken but not written, WhatsApp has provided an open, democratic forum where Indians can share and codify their knowledge and skills, in new ways, and even profit from them.

“One of the problems with documenting Indian food is that the people who prepare it” — mainly homemakers, farmers and young cooks — “tend to be less empowered and less formally educated,” said Vikram Doctor, 51, a journalist in Mumbai. “They just don’t document. They are not comfortable using a computer or blogging, or people just don’t ask them.”

Here’s How A Secret Meeting Of Twitter Execs And Indian Activists Caused A Caste Scandal

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey went to India and posed for a picture holding a poster reading “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy,” a reference to harassment and abuse that takes place on Twitter and elsewhere as a result of India’s historical caste system. This caused a furious uproar among right-wing Hindus. The entire thing is as close as Silicon Valley has ever come to producing a perfect episode of Veep.

How Twitch CEO Emmett Shear thinks about tech addiction

Kurt Wagner talked to Twitch CEO Emmett Shear about tech addiction. He seemed mostly dismissive of the idea, which is surprising to me given how many of his streamers are broadcasting for eight or more hours a day:

SHEAR: Twitch people don’t open our app that many times a day. They just open it for a long time when they do. And I actually think that’s a much healthier way of interacting with your technology, and with entertainment. You know? I go to a movie, I’ll spend two hours watching a movie. That doesn’t mean that I’m addicted to the movie. It just means that it’s a good piece of entertainment I decided to go sit down and watch. And I don’t necessarily think that’s such a big deal.

That said, we definitely are paying attention to this, and I think that it’s really important for every tech business to be self-reflective about, you know, “Is this addictive? Are people actually getting value out of their usage?” And making sure people feel like … You know, you give them the tools to have control over that.

Launches

Nothing launched Monday, as everyone was very tired from Thanksgiving.

Takes

Lean Out

Kara Swisher says Sheryl Sandberg is getting too much blame over the Definers scandal and that the real blame belongs with Mark Zuckerberg.

To be clear, as the No. 2 in charge, Ms. Sandberg deserves much blame for the bad decisions at Facebook. But it’s notable that she is under much more fire than Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive. While he underwent some scrutiny at Congressional hearings and in interviews, he has somehow managed to come off like a geek who has lost his way in the woods. Whatever blame he got has dissipated quickly.

Sheryl Sandberg Can’t Have It All

Jennifer Senior says Sheryl Sandberg uniquely does deserve blame over the Definers scandal:

What makes Sandberg’s current behavior so unsavory is that she put corporate interests — and her own image — ahead of the needs of democracy. She would sooner downplay Facebook’s involvement in a national security crisis than compromise the integrity of her reputation. And in so doing, Sandberg, one of the country’s most influential and renowned feminists, may have contributed to the historic loss of the first viable female candidate for president of the United States.

Do You Have a Moral Duty to Leave Facebook?

Philosopher S. Matthew Liao’s answer to the title question is maybe — but not yet:

For now I’m going to stay on Facebook. But if new information suggests that Facebook has crossed a moral red line, we will all have an obligation to opt out.

And finally …

AI Mistakes Bus-Side Ad for Famous CEO, Charges Her With Jaywalking

I’m sorry but this is the best story about artificial intelligence and facial recognition of all time:

A facial recognition system in the city of Ningbo caught Dong Mingzhu, the chair of appliance-making giant Gree Electric, running a red light. Only it turned out not to be Dong, but rather an advertisement featuring her face on the side of a bus, local police said on Weibo Wednesday.

Who would have guessed that dystopian surveillance systems linked to our true identities would have a down side?

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, and secret document caches: casey@theverge.com.





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