I had a great day in Washington, DC, taking meetings with Congressional staffers, tech platforms, and colleagues. I also had working Wi-Fi and a working newsletter provider. So thank you for your understanding these past two days, and please enjoy an early newsletter this time around.
In August, as concerns about Google’s effort to build a censored search engine for China came to the fore, I wondered whether it wouldn’t cause a crisis of morale at the company. At the time, 1,400 employees had signed an internal petition demanding more information about the project. And just this week, a (smaller) group posted on Medium urging Google to abandon the project.
”Dragonfly would also enable censorship and government-directed disinformation, and destabilize the ground truth on which popular deliberation and dissent rely,” the employees write. “Given the Chinese government’s reported suppression of dissident voices, such controls would likely be used to silence marginalized people, and favor information that promotes government interests.”
As of today, more than 400 employees had signed their name to the letter — up from 11 just yesterday. The dominant story around Dragonfly to date has been around employees’ resistance to the search engine. While some employees were said to favor returning to China, we rarely heard from them — aside from top executives fending off hostile questions at weekly all-hands meetings.
But now we have. Today TechCrunch posted a letter from Google employees taking the opposite position. And more than 500 people have signed it to date, Jon Russell and Taylor Hatmaker report. The letter reads in part:
Dragonfly still faces many difficulties and uncertainties, which can only be resolved by continuing efforts. The regulation requirements set by the Chinese government (like censorship) makes Dragonfly a challenging project. If we are not careful enough, the project can end up doing more harm than good. In any case, only with continuing efforts on Dragonfly can we learn how different approaches may work out in China, and find out if there is a way that is good for both the Chinese users and Google. Even if we fail, the findings can still be useful for bringing other services to China.
I’m going to venture to say this letter was written primarily by someone with an engineering background. It’s notable primarily for how dispassionate it is — particularly in comparison with the letter written by employees who oppose Dragonfly. They appeal to executives’ sense of humanity — while their pro-Dragonfly counterparts simply cite the morally neutral company mission to organize the world’s information and make it useful.
The Chinese government has made its own effort to organize the world’s information, of course, and it often deploys that information against its citizens in deeply dystopian ways. It’s one of the reasons I include so many links about China’s experiments with social credit, facial recognition, and other data-driven surveillance tools. I look at China and see an approach to “organizing the world’s information” that, left unchecked, makes all of us less free. And the Googlers writing in favor of Dragonfly, with what an only be called naivete, sidestep the issue entirely.
In August, I wondered how Sundar Pichai felt about the issue — and about the internal conflict roiling his company. Since then, he’s spoken in support of Dragonfly. And now that he has, that conflict has become more visible.
Pichai will get a chance to address these and other issues in December, when he will testify before the House Judiciary Committee. It will be a wide-ranging conversation, Tony Romm reports:
For Pichai, the hearing threatens to be a long wide-ranging review of Google’s business practices at a perilous political moment for the tech giant. Its closest peers, Facebook and Twitter, previously dispatched their top executives to address lawmakers’ questions — a session in the Senate in September that Pichai and Larry Page, the leader of Google parent Alphabet, opted at the time to skip. That decision left Democrats and Republicans around the Capitol frustrated and spoiling for a fight.
Since then, Google has faced immense criticism for its handling of a bug that may have exposed the personal data of hundreds of thousands of its users on Google+, its social network. The company discovered the incident in March but only revealed it in October.
I suspect very few representatives will be talking about Google+ come December. And I suspect lots of them will have questions about Dragonfly. In the meantime, there’s a rift in Google that goes to the heart of what company it wants to be — and however Pichai proceeds will define his legacy, and perhaps Google’s as well.
On Tuesday afternoon, senators asked the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission how its investigation into Facebook was going. The chairman, Joe Simons, wouldn’t say, David McCabe reports. Rude!
Blumenthal wasn’t satisfied with Simons’ answers, though it is fairly standard for the FTC to disclose little about ongoing investigations. The lawmaker said people “need to know when you will have some results” because “continuing violations clearly show” the issues with Facebook are not isolated cases.
Former Federal Trade Commission Chief Technologist Ashkan Soltani testified in front of an international committee of parliamentarians about misinformation on Facebook. He claims a Facebook representative’s earlier statements about how Facebook lets third-party developers access user data were misleading.
Daniel Funke talks to Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, about his recent intensive analysis of misinformation. The key finding: misinformation is still thriving across the social network.
Hundreds of different political groups with thousands of members produce conspiracy theories and misinformation, which then spread to more public parts of the platform. Moderators encourage others to screenshot false memes and photos so that they can avoid Facebook’s automated detection systems. And the company has been inconsistent in its enforcement of rules against accounts that violate its Community Standards, Albright found.
Another small finding: One of the pages Facebook took down last month had more engagement over the past five years than The New York Times, The Washington Post and Breitbart combined.
Sean Davis reports that at least one House staffer may go after Dorsey for testifying that Twitter’s policies are politically neutral. (Republicans consider policies that prohibit misgendering trans folks to be “political”.)
Klint Finley reports that Etsy and Tumblr will encourage their users to call legislators before a Dec. 10th deadline for Congress to restore net neutrality protections — but that tech giants are mostly sitting out the fight.
Thursday’s day of action appears to be drawing significantly less support than earlier, similar actions. In 2014, in an effort to encourage the FCC to pass strong net neutrality rules, Netflix and many other sites joined a day of digital protest by displaying graphics on their sites warning users that internet speeds might slow without net neutrality protections. As part of another day of action last year aimed at stopping the FCC from throwing out the Obama-era rules, Mark Zuckerberg posted a statement on Facebook pointing to the effort’s website, Google posted a statement to its public policy blog, and Amazon joined hundreds of sites in displaying pro-net neutrality graphics. But earlier this year, when activists pressured the Senate to restore the FCC protections, many of the larger sites were absent from the public debate.
On The Vergecast, Nilay Patel and Makena Kelly talked to Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) about Congress’ plans to regulate tech platforms in the New Year. Khanna is one to watch in 2019:
Khanna, who represents the California district that houses the Apple and Google campuses, was tasked with developing a set of principles these companies should abide by when it comes to issues like privacy, net neutrality, and anti-competitive behavior. He made the rounds, consulting with think tanks, the creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, and the tech companies themselves. From those discussions, Khanna was able to put forth a framework of 10 rights US citizens should have when they’re on the internet.
Drew Harwell reports on Predictim, a startup that “analyzes babysitters’ online histories, including on Facebook and Twitter, and offers ratings of whether they are at risk of drug abuse, bullying or having a ‘bad attitude.’” Facebook and Twitter found this all a bit dystopian for their tastes and is revoking API access.
Steemit once sent me a lot of press releases about how they were going to reinvent the social network by putting it on the blockchain and paying people for their successful posts. It was a noble effort and, it appears, a doomed one. The problem appears to be that running Steemit cost real money, rather than crypto tokens:
Steemit said the move is a result of the weakness of the cryptocurrency market. Recently, the fiat returns on the automated selling of its native cryptocurrency STEEM diminished, while the costs of running full Steem nodes increased. Steemit will now focus their efforts on reducing operating costs of the product.
Taylor Lorenz explores the “age of micro-monetization,” in which absolutely every social interaction is for sale. Who feels sad now besides me?
Noah wouldn’t tell me exactly what he brings in every month from social-media promotion, but deals such as the ones he does can quickly add up. “For a repost, depending on how long they want it up, it can go from $70 to $200,” he said. He charges $80 for an Instagram Stories swipe-up or a standard Twitter retweet, $100 to $150 for a quote tweet, and $150 for a tweet or a post to his Instagram feed. But everything is negotiable based on time: A post that’s live for only three hours will be much cheaper than one left up for 48 hours. He currently has 33,000 followers on Instagram and more than 80,000 on Twitter.
Snap lost $159 last quarter, so naturally the person in charge of running its business has been given $17.5 million to launch a “multi-brand retailer aimed at millennials.”
YouTube Red, now called Premium, housed a variety of original content that (1) was generally unwatchable, at least to those who did not grow up steeped in PewDiePie lore, and (2) did not drive much in the way of subscription revenue, which was its original purpose. Todd Spangler reports that Google is smartly shifting course here, and will make original series like its Karate Kid spinoff available to all, supported by ads. (Every time I talk about YouTube Premium I feel the need to say that paying to remove ads from YouTube is one of the subscriptions I feel best about — I use the service way more now; the benefit to the user experience is enormous.)
Twitter’s hateful content policy now explicitly prohibits misgendering or “deadnaming” transgender people, alongside other harassment and abuse tactics, Adi Robertson reports. The company says that this was previously implicit in its hate-speech policy, but like many Twitter policies it was enforced erratically.
The Facebook app’s local-news section is now expanding to 400 cities, and the company is testing alerts from government pages about relevant issues and crises.
Jessi Hempel says it’s time to retire the idea that a single powerful woman leader can fix a company of mostly men:
Sure, Sandberg now needs to be held accountable for the role she played in Facebook’s current mess. And then, we need to retrieve the fix-it shero status from Sandberg and all the other badass female COOs working in tech. Instead, we must demand that tech’s most promising companies — no longer dorm room startups but, in fact, more valuable than many of the industry stalwarts that helm the Fortune 500 — be run the old-fashioned way. They’d do well to employ CEOs, regardless of founder status, who are accountable to boards of directors able to direct them and even to fire them, instead of having to manage around them.
Farhad Manjoo is retiring from one column at the Times so he can start writing another column at the Times. In a (great!) valedictory address, he tells us, among other pieces of advice, to stop trying new things so readily:
That’s why the most important lesson I’ve gleaned in writing this column is this: Just slow down. Don’t jump on the newest thing. If it isn’t plagued with bugs or security nightmares, some other unexpected, emergent risk probably lies within it — and whatever its short-term benefits, you may live to regret it.
David Klion says Fox News should be removed from polite society. Thought experiment: what if Definers had mounted a campaign blaming the world’s ills on Fox News instead of George Soros? Would we have been more or less sympathetic?
The damage done by Fox News goes well beyond triggering the libs. In the lead-up to the November elections, Fox referred to a looming “invasion” by Central American migrants over 60 times, making it a centerpiece of national news coverage. It whipped up the conspiracy theory that Democratic donors like George Soros are working to undermine America by flooding it with migrants and refugees. That vicious lie — as false and malevolent as anything pushed on Facebook by Russian propagandists in 2016 — appears to have directly inspired the massacre of Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last month.
That was a particularly violent manifestation of the hatred and resentment Fox News has spread among millions of Americans, but have no doubt: This company is more responsible for the nationwide climate of xenophobia that enabled Trump’s presidency than any other single actor.
And finally ...
Once upon a time, when the world was sad and broken, an amazing image broke through all of the chatter to unite the people in the awe. The image was of a cow — an extremely large cow. Eventually skeptics would emerge to say that no, this was not a cow, but in a fact a steer. But not even these debates could contain the people’s joy, so desperate were they for a totem to rally around. They would not stop looking. They refused to be cowed.
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Send me tips, comments, questions, and big-ass cows: firstname.lastname@example.org.