The UK’s blistering Facebook report has a good recommendation — for the UK

The United Kingdom Parliament is still mad at Facebook. How much does it matter?

We’ve known since last summer that the report of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport select committee would excoriate Facebook over failures related to competition, data privacy, and foreign interference in elections, among other issues. Today, the final report arrived — and while the rhetoric is more pitched than ever, it remains unclear what any of it will come to.

But let’s first take a look at that rhetoric, which went after Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in unusually personal terms. From Natasha Lomas’ comprehensive article in TechCrunch:

“Companies like Facebook should not be allowed to behave like ‘digital gangsters’ in the online world, considering themselves to be ahead of and beyond the law,” the DCMS committee writes, going on to urge the government to investigate whether Facebook specifically has been involved in any anti-competitive practices and conduct a review of its business practices towards other developers “to decide whether Facebook is unfairly using its dominant market position in social media to decide which businesses should succeed or fail”.

“The big tech companies must not be allowed to expand exponentially, without constraint or proper regulatory oversight,” it adds.

Commissioners added this, about the CEO. From David Pegg in the Guardian:

“Mark Zuckerberg continually fails to show the levels of leadership and personal responsibility that should be expected from someone who sits at the top of one of the world’s biggest companies,” Collins added in a statement.

Watson agreed. “Few individuals have shown contempt for our parliamentary democracy in the way Mark Zuckerberg has,” he said. “If one thing is uniting politicians of all colours during this difficult time for our country, it is our determination to bring him and his company into line.”

A fair amount of this outrage at Zuckerberg is related to the fact that he declined to appear before the committee. Still, it seems likely that even had Zuckerberg taken his verbal beating in public, the general thrust of the 110-page report — and its 51 recommendations — would have been the same.

As Lomas notes in her report, the UK government accepted only three of the committee’s initial 42 recommendations. In some places, the committee seems to be as mad at the government as it is at Facebook:

“We hope that this will be much more comprehensive, practical, and constructive than their response to the Interim Report, published in October 2018. Several of our recommendations were not substantively answered and there is now an urgent need for the Government to respond to them.”

I won’t pretend to know how Parliament will react to the finished report. And so I’ll just highlight one good recommendation from the list — one I suspect even Facebook might agree with. From Pegg’s story:

Calls on the British government to establish an independent investigation into “foreign influence, disinformation, funding, voter manipulation and the sharing of data” in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 general election.

This sort of investigation would have been useful here in the United States in the aftermath of the 2016 election. While we will never know precisely how Russian interference affected the presidential election, I’ve argued that we should investigate it under the assumption that the attack was significant. Who was involved in these campaigns? How did they work? What effects did they have?

One hope I have after reading the DCMS report is that the work that should have been done here may still happen overseas — and that a future presidential administration may take the lessons learned and apply them in the United States.

Democracy

Google reaped millions in tax breaks as it secretly expanded its real estate footprint across the U.S.

Start with this Lizza Dwoskin story about how Google has won millions in tax breaks as it expanded around the country. It’s not the only tech giant doing public real estate deals behind closed doors:

Google — which has risen to become one of the world’s most valuable companies by transforming the public’s ability to access information — has vastly expanded its geographic footprint over the past decade, building more than 15 data centers on three continents and 70 offices worldwide. But that development spree has often been shrouded in secrecy, making it nearly impossible for some communities to know, let alone protest or debate, who is using their land, their resources and their tax dollars until after the fact, according to Washington Post interviews and newly released public records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

NATO Group Catfished Soldiers to Prove a Point About Privacy

Issie Lapowsky writes about a red team that tricked soldiers into giving away valuable information on Facebook:

The group “attempted to answer three questions,” Nora Biteniece, a software engineer who helped design the project, told WIRED. “The first question is, What can we find out about a military exercise just from open source data? What can we find out about the participants from open source data? And, can we use all this data to influence the participants’ behaviors against their given orders?”

The researchers discovered that you can find out a lot from open source data, including Facebook profiles and people-search websites. And yes, the data can be used to influence members of the armed forces. The total cost of the scheme? Sixty dollars, suggesting a frighteningly low bar for any malicious actor looking to manipulate people online.

These Women Joined Facebook To Follow Their Crushes. Now They’re Using Their Skills To Expose Abusive Police.

What if Facebook, but … good for democracy? That’s the refreshing angle on this story from Tamerra Griffin:

Women in Sudan are using private Facebook groups created to creep on crushes to dox state security officers brutalizing demonstrators during huge anti-government protests sweeping the country.

When security agents and police abusing their power have had their identities exposed, they have been hounded by people in their own neighborhoods, beaten up, and sometimes even chased out of town.

Fighting disinformation across our products

Kristie Canegallo, Google’s vice president of trust and safety, links to a new white paper [PDF] about the company’s efforts to reduce disinformation. Here’s what the paper has to say about deepfakes:

One example is the rise of new forms of AI-generated, photo-realistic, synthetic audio or video content known as “synthetic media” (often referred to as “deep fakes”). While this technology has useful applications (for instance, by opening new possibilities to those affected by speech or reading impairments, or new creative grounds for artists and movie studios around the world), it raises concerns when used in disinformation campaigns and for other malicious purposes.

The field of synthetic media is fast-moving and it is hard to predict what might happen in the near future. To help prepare for this issue, Google and YouTube are investing in research to understand how AI might help detect such synthetic content as it emerges, working with leading experts in this field from around the world.

Twitter Just Deleted A Tweet From An Account Linked To Iran’s Supreme Leader About Salman Rushdie

Sometimes Twitter leaves up violent tweets from world leaders after declaring them newsworthy. Here’s a time the company decided to take one down, from Ryan Mac:

Twitter removed a tweet from an account that reportedly belongs to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei on Friday for appearing to call for the execution of noted novelist Salman Rushdie.

In the tweet, the account @khamenei_ir, which provides “regular updates and news about Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei,” reminded its nearly 550,000 followers of the 1989 “verdict” against Rushdie, in which Iran’s previous leader declared the author be put to death for his controversial work, The Satanic Verses

Trump’s DHS Guts Task Forces Protecting Elections From Foreign Meddling

Stopping foreign interference requires a joint effort from tech companies and the government. And it sure doesn’t look like the government is holding up its end of the bargain. Erin Banco and Betsy Woodruff report:

Two teams of federal officials assembled to fight foreign election interference are being dramatically downsized, according to three current and former Department of Homeland Security officials. And now, those sources say they fear the department won’t prepare adequately for election threats in 2020.

“The clear assessment from the intelligence community is that 2020 is going to be the perfect storm,” said a DHS official familiar with the teams. “We know Russia is going to be engaged. Other state actors have seen the success of Russia and realize the value of disinformation operations. So it’s very curious why the task forces were demoted in the bureaucracy and the leadership has not committed resources to prepare for the 2020 election.”

Want to reduce political polarization? Save your local newspaper

Relevant here insofar as many people who lose a local newspaper presumably replace that reading with social media: “In places that lose a newspaper, split-ticket voting decreases by almost 2 percent,” write Joshua P. Darr, Johanna Dunaway, and Matthew P. Hitt. “Without trustworthy political information, we fall back on party labels and our partisan identities.”

This shift in media may have a direct effect on how people vote. Local newspapers help protect American democracy by giving people the information they need to hold local government accountable. They also provide an alternative to national news, which often focuses on partisan conflict.

As political scientists and communications scholars who study the media’s influence on voters, we wanted to know whether these changes in the news industry had political effects. In our new study, we show that the loss of local news leads to political polarization, making governing more difficult both locally and nationally.

India is turning its back on Silicon Valley

Manish Singh examines the rapidly deteriorating relationship between India and US tech giants:

Amazon and Walmart, which made a massive $16 billion bet on India last year, are not the only Silicon Valley companies to have found themselves on the receiving end of what many describe as increasingly hostile regulations introduced by the government.

Lobby groups that represent U.S. companies and industry watchers say they see an extreme shift from the “warm, welcoming, collaborative” approach the government exhibited in 2014. “In the past year or so, the engagement has been combative, with abrupt, disruptive policy changes that are being held without consultation, and, unusually, with absolutely no room for negotiation or even deadline extensions — as we saw with data localisation and FDI in ecommerce,” Prasanto K Roy, a technology and policy analyst, told VentureBeat.

Elsewhere

Why is Facebook suggesting I look at photos of my female friends in bikinis?

File under “algorithms are biased.” Melissa Locker:

When you type “photos of my female friends” into the search bar, you don’t even need to finish typing the phrase, before Facebook serves up a selection of photos from your female friends–selfies, wedding pictures, profile pics. Searching for male friends, though, requires typing in the entire phrase “photos of my male friends” and then hitting return before serving up a veritable Whitman’s Sampler of weird photos. I got what are presumably male dogs and two male-themed cartoons, including one cautioning men against peeing outdoors in the polar vortex–none of which were posted by friends or pages I follow. (Sorry, “Good Morning Images,” but I’m not ready to commit.)

Facebook’s Portal learned its video skills from some of Hollywood’s best cameramen

Facebook is selling the idea that its video phone is chock full of Hollywood movie magic. Mark Sullivan

Portal’s AI has a good deal of film-industry knowledge embedded into the layers of its neural network. It knows, for example, what a “cowboy shot” is (a shot from mid-thigh up that shows not only the subject’s face, but what he’s packing in his holster). It knows when and how to focus in on people, and ignore the environment around them.

A lot of interesting ingredients–artificial and human–went into building Portal’s camera, and the company is just now talking about it.

The Tech Whiz Behind Vine and HQ Trivia Made Millions in His 20s. He Was Dead by 34

Here’s a beautiful longform obituary for the self-taught coder Colin Kroll, who helped invent Vine and HQ Trivia before his accidental death in December. Among other things, it reports that tensions between HQ’s founders made were severe. From Shalini Ramachandran, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Yoree Koh:

Facebook showed informal interest in acquiring the company, but talks cooled after the Recode article, according to people close to the company. Facebook didn’t respond to requests for comment. Until that point, the two founders had essentially served as co-CEOs. Now Mr. Yusupov took the title of CEO.

Mr. Kroll told friends and family he suspected Mr. Yusupov of leaking damaging information to edge him out. Mr. Yusupov declined to comment on the allegation. Mr. Liew brought in an executive coach to help the men rebuild trust. Mr. Kroll apologized to Mr. Yusupov for causing issues and said he wanted to move past them.

Snap is offering to pay $50,000 per episode for original Snapchat Discover shows

Several months into Snap’s experiment with originals, none of them seemed to have broken through. Snap is buying more of them anyway, Tim Peterson reports:

Snap is offering to pay companies $40,000 to $50,000 per episode for original series to premiere on Snapchat, according to four entertainment execs with knowledge of the matter. The company is looking for Snap Originals that would air for 10 to 12 episodes, with each episode running between five and seven minutes, the execs said.

The End of Employees

Lauren Weber has an eye-opening piece about the expanding usage of contractors at big companies like Google and Facebook, where non-employees can make up 20 to 50 percent of the workforce. I suspect we’ll see a lot of second-order consequences of that move in the months and years to come.

Outsourced workers at Google parent Alphabet arrive through staffing agencies such as Zenith Talent, Filter LLC and Switzerland’s Adecco Group, which alone bills Alphabet about $300 million a year for contractors and temps who work there, according to an Adecco executive.

Google wouldn’t comment on how it decides which jobs are done by contractors rather than employees. A former contractor in the search division says he got the impression from conversations and meetings that he was a nonemployee because his skill set wasn’t a core feature of the product on which he was working. He says managers also needed the ability to ramp down quickly if the project wasn’t successful.

Peach isn’t dead yet

Peach, a pop-up social network that came and mostly went in 2016, is still used by a small cadre of diehards — and they were bereft when the site sputtered last week, Bijan Stephen reports:

“To say I’m bereft would be an understatement,” wrote my friend Alison, who owns an aerial gym and who was a prolific, early blogger.

For the past several years, Peach has been my favorite place on the internet. Despite its clunky interface and tendency to crash, I and others have found it to be a place where we could allow ourselves to be vulnerable in a way we couldn’t anywhere else. I’ve used it to talk about my father’s declining health, my travails as a brand new business owner and aging aerialist, and my evolving sexuality. Today I mentioned to a friend that my internet support network had been down for two days and I actually cried.

Launches

Instagram is testing a donation sticker in Stories

Sure, why not.

Takes

Amazon’s grave HQ2 mistake: The political landscape changed but the company’s playbook didn’t

Jason Del Rey says Amazon is built to exploit every advantage — and that’s what got it into trouble in New York City.

This New York City battle felt very different. For starters, New York City does not need Amazon. Plus, Ocasio-Cortez’s election and subsequent celebrity meant that when she focused her laser on the Amazon deal, her massive following did too.

Among a growing segment of the left, it was cool to hate on Amazon. And other politicians took note.

Bill de Blasio: The Path Amazon Rejected

The mayor of New York City tries to save face after initially championing the Amazon project:

The lesson here is that corporations can’t ignore rising anger over economic inequality anymore. We see that anger roiling Silicon Valley, in the rocks hurled at buses carrying tech workers from San Francisco and Oakland to office parks in the suburbs. We see it in the protests that erupted at Davos last month over the growing monopoly of corporate power.

Amazon’s capricious decision to take its ball and go home, in the face of protest, won’t diminish that anger.

 

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