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  1. With few exceptions, the questioning was a national embarrassment Comment This morning the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing with the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Twitter to discuss making changes to a critical piece of US legislation that provides online platforms, used by billions of people, legal protections from the content those people post. Yes, we're talking about changes to Section 230, and it was shambolic. In fact, it was worse than shambolic; it was a national embarrassment. Senator after senator appeared on screen and made wild allegations, often based on tiny, specific examples that no one else had heard of, and claimed it meant the end of democracy as we know it. After over four hours of this, it was hard not to conclude that the greater threat to democracy is the senators themselves. Dorsey's castaway during the virtual hearing look failed to wow senators. Source: US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. There have been a number of hearings this year that have repeatedly pulled Google's Sundar Pichai, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey into the Congressional orbit in order to explain their companies’ actions – and inaction. Sadly, they have achieved little except to flag the legislature’s dangerous lack of knowledge about online platforms. Today’s hearing, however, was a different magnitude of dysfunction. It should never have been held a week before an election. The collective madness that overtakes the political world in election season was in full effect, with senators from both sides spouting partisan talking points that had nothing to do with the nominal topic of the hearing: “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” We learnt almost nothing about what Google, Twitter and Facebook actually do when it comes to the flood of information that hits them every second of every day. Instead, it was all about what the senators had already decided was the problem, based on painfully thin evidence. All shouting, no listening The Republicans say they are convinced that Big Tech is censoring conservative voices, although whether they actually believe that is highly debatable. The CEOs gamely tried to explain in 100 different ways why that wasn’t the case, but no one was listening. The Democrats say they are convinced that Big Tech is not doing enough to cut down on misinformation, which they do appear to believe. But they also didn’t listen as the CEOs again gamely tried to explain in 100 different ways why that wasn’t the case. In truth, the tech platforms are putting warnings on more messages and accounts from right-wing accounts for the simple reason that those accounts are posting more misinformation; in fact misinformation has become an entire strategy for the Republican Party under President Trump. And in truth, tech platforms are not doing as much as they could with limiting misinformation because a) they don’t have to thanks to Section 230 and b) it is enormously time-consuming and incredibly expensive to do so. Their strategy appears to be to tackle the biggest examples of misinformation and let the rest slip through because anything else would require an enormous shift in how their services function. That dichotomy was, somewhat unfortunately, epitomized in the recent case of a New York Post story claiming to have emails from Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, that tangentially implied that the Democratic presidential candidate might have benefited from shady influence peddling. It is actually an interesting case study: the story is dubious to say the least. While some of a cache of emails appear to be real, the ones that are being heavily pushed are most likely not. It is transparently a political hit job with no verifiable evidence and as a result the story was turned down by several mainstream news organizations. Manipulation But Republican political operatives knew that didn’t matter if the story spread so widely on social media that it picked up its own momentum. Except in 2020, the social media companies were alert to this kind of manipulation – having been warned by the FBI to be on the lookout for it – and so when the story broke, all three of them took measures to limit its spread until the story could be verified. There was a good debate to be had about the measures they took and how they reached those decisions and what the impact was. But, of course, the actual subject matter made that impossible. Republican feigned fury at what they insisted was censorship when in reality they were railing against the fact that an effort to shift the election was stymied – in large part because of measures that the companies had put in place following pressure from Democrats. The Democrats had an opportunity to raise the level of conversation but also failed miserably. Rather than talk about the pros and cons of limiting the spread of suspected misinformation, they instead railed against how the Republicans had only called the hearing to raise the specter of censorship and re-up the Biden story in the final days of the election. And, of course, no one was able to resist complaining about President Trump in bitter, angry terms. It was shameful. But even the few senators that managed to drag themselves away from partisan attack let America down when they revealed over and over again what little understanding they have of how online platforms actually work, and then failed to listen to Pichai, Dorsey and Zuckerberg when they tried to explain. As ridiculous as it may seem, it was hard not to feel a little sympathy for the tech CEOs who, frankly, had much better things to do with their time than listen to a bunch of squabbling kids. The only benefit to them was that it prevented substantive discussion of Section 230 liability protections which they don’t want changed because of its huge benefit to them. It’s hard to imagine that Congress will manage to reach any kind of agreement on changes to the law if they can’t focus on the issue during their own hearing on the topic. The worst example? There were so many examples of appalling behavior that it’s hard to choose one. And it needs to be just one because it’s too tiring to go into more than one. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) should get an honorable mention for being most objectionable. But in terms of sheer idiocy of questioning, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) was up there with the best when he asked: “I don’t expect you to have taken poll of your employees but I just want to get a kind of a sense – because I think it’s pretty obvious – but would you say the political ideology of the employees of your company is, let’s say, 50-50 conservative versus liberal/progressive, or do you think it’s closer to 90 per cent liberal/10 per cent conservative?” Aside from the fact Johnson notes within his question that the CEOs won’t know the answer but he’ll ask it anyway AND the fact that he’s already decided what the answer is going to be and won’t accept anything other than that, the entire premise of the question – that the political leanings of employees will decide policies whose impact is much broader than partisan disputes – is itself faulty. The CEOs gamely responded – but no normal functioning member of society would imagine the question served any useful purpose when it comes to digging into the issue of Section 230 and online platforms. And that is pretty much how the entire hearing went down. The only issue worth noting is that Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has again broken ranks with the tech industry and said that he thinks it “makes sense to modify Section 230” to bring it inline with modern realities. But that Zuck hopes people will consider the impact on smaller companies and so either waive the impact of any changes on them, or add some kind of minimum (money or users) before any changes are imposed. Meta But there was a much greater irony surrounding the hearing. At the same time a virtually worthless discussion was going on within Congress, the online version of what was being discussed was dramatically different – and worse. Reams of tweets and posts emanated from political accounts that painted an entirely false view of what had happened. Ted Cruz’s team had even prepared graphics that looked like a boxing match and seeded Twitter asking people to turn in to see him berate Twitter’s Jack Dorsey. And within minutes of nonsensical angry questions being asked by senators in the hearing, video grabs of the questions – minus responses or context – were put together and posted online, presumably in an effort to make it look as though they were standing up to Big Tech and grilling their CEOs. Social media misinformation has become the goal. It’s no wonder that Congress can’t agree on how to limit or manage it when they are focused on producing their own versions. The bigger question may just be: is it time to reflect on the fact that COVID-19 has brought the globe to a standstill and decide that “going viral” is something that needs to be stamped out? There was however one thing that everyone could agree on: Jack Dorsey’s long, scraggly beard is an absolute disgrace. Seriously man, get some beard oil as an absolute minimum. What is Section 230? It's part of America's Communications Decency Act that, with some caveats, shields online platforms from being sued for content shared by their use. Source
  2. Another day, another hearing of tech giants in Congress. Wednesday’s hearing at the Senate Commerce Committee with Apple, Amazon, Google and Twitter, alongside AT&T and Charter, marked the latest in a string of hearings in the past few months into all things tech: but mostly controversies embroiling the companies, from election meddling to transparency. This time, privacy was at the top of the agenda. The problem, lawmakers say, is that consumers have little of it. The hearing said that the U.S. was lagging behind Europe’s new GDPR privacy rules and California’s recently passed privacy law, which goes into effect in 2020, and lawmakers were edging toward introducing their own federal privacy law. Here are the key takeaways. Tech giants want new federal legislation, if not just to upend California’s privacy law For once, the tech giants seemed to agree with one another. AT&T, Apple, Charter and Google used their time in the Senate to call on lawmakers to introduce new federal privacy legislation. Tech companies spent the past year pushing back against the new state regulations, but have conceded that new privacy rules are inevitable. Now the companies realize that it’s better to sit at the table to influence a federal privacy law than stand outside in the cold. In pushing for a new federal law, representatives from each company confirmed that they support the preemption of California’s new rules — something that critics oppose. AT&T’s chief lawyer Len Cali said that a patchwork of state laws would be unworkable. Apple, too, agreed to support a privacy law, but noted as a company that doesn’t hoard user data for advertising — like Facebook and Google — that any federal law would need to put a premium on protecting the consumer rather than helping companies make money. But Amazon’s chief lawyer Andrew DeVore said that complying with privacy rules has “required us to divert significant resources to administrative tasks and away from invention.” Sen. John Thune (R-SD) asked the representatives why lawmakers shouldn’t adopt the same standards seen in Europe and California at a federal level, but none of the companies could answer. “That question lingers here,” said Thune. “The opposition that you’ve expressed to these rules is one that can nonetheless accommodate the kind of rules that we’ve seen in GDPR and California.” Google made “mistakes” on privacy, but evades China search questioning Google took a rare moment to admit it hasn’t always taken the right approach to privacy — though, it wouldn’t point to any specific incident. “We acknowledge that we have made mistakes in the past, from which we have learned, and improved our robust privacy program,” Keith Enright, Google’s chief privacy officer, said in his opening statement. But that, lawmakers said, contrasted with recent reports of the company’s return to China — almost a decade after it pulled out of the country after allegations of Chinese efforts to hack into the search giant’s systems and ethical conflicts with China’s censorship policies. Google reportedly began working on “Dragonfly,” a China-focused search engine that would block certain keywords to fall in line with China’s censorship rules. The effort has been widely decried by human rights groups, and led to a high-profile resignation. Prior to the Senate hearing, a former Google engineer sent a letter to the committee asking lawmakers to pressure Enright to respond. Google to date has refused to confirm or comment on the reports, but Enright said that “there is a Project Dragonfly.” “We are not close to launching a search product in China,” he said, in response to one lawmaker. Later, he said that he didn’t think the company “could or would launch a product” without including its privacy and security policies. Startups might struggle under GDPR-ported rules, companies claim Startups and small businesses with slimmer resources than the tech giants could be a major casualty if GDPR-like rules were ported into federal law. Enright said that ensuring compliance under GDPR was complicated and costly, but wouldn’t put a figure on how much Google had spent on complying with GDPR when asked by one lawmaker. Enright suggested that it was likely in the millions of dollars. But even larger companies like Charter, which are wholly U.S.-based and have no European presence, said they wouldn’t know how they would be affected if GDPR principles were ported over stateside. Charter’s policy chief Rachel Welch said that the U.S. should “put its own stamp” and not just roll over GDPR principles. Apple added that self-employed developers and software house startups could suffer under new federal privacy rules. The company has some 20 million developers that rely on its app store to sell their software. “Small companies don’t have teams of lawyers to draft things,” said Apple’s Bud Tribble, and asked that any new federal rules should consider startups “to help make things clear and so that businesses have one set of rules than many sets of rules to follow.” It’s a line parroted by tech giants before and without much evidence to back it up. Although some companies have shuttered operations in Europe, other startups hit the deadline and continue to thrive. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) called for greater representation from startups to help understand the cost breakdowns to understand it better. Thune said that the committee won’t “rush through” legislation, and will ask privacy advocates for their input in a coming hearing. Source
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