If you are an average person having a customer service problem with a large social network, historically your best recourse has been prayer. Oh sure, there’s a form you can fill out somewhere in the help tab of the app, recording that you have been harassed or impersonated or unjustly suspended. But communication from the social network itself is typically limited to some automated responses, often unsatisfying.
In the old days you might have dismissed some of these issues as a minor annoyance. But as the social networks have grown into monoliths and the pandemic has nudged even more of our lives online, these issues have come to feel more acute. What once felt like low-level customer service issues now seem more like questions of citizenship. If you’re going to be cast out of the digital kingdom, don’t you deserve something akin to due process? And if you find yourself under assault by your fellow citizens, shouldn’t the platform offer you something like police protection?
I talked about these issues earlier this year on an episode of Reply All in which a caller had been trying for five years, without success, to regain access to a Facebook account to which they had lost the password. And I thought about it again today while reading about a new lawsuit filed by Brad Garlinghouse, CEO of a cryptocurrency company called Ripple, against YouTube. Adi Robertson wrote about the suit at The Verge:
In a complaint filed today, Ripple accused the video platform of selling ads and verifying accounts that promote fake cryptocurrency giveaways, then ignoring complaints about them.
Ripple runs an exchange network for the digital currency XRP, which is aimed at people who want to send money internationally. Over the past several months, scammers have created official-sounding accounts for Ripple and its CEO Brad Garlinghouse. Some of the accounts were apparently stolen from successful YouTubers who had their accounts hacked, giving the scammers hundreds of thousands of subscribers. From there, they could post videos offering big XRP rewards in exchange for smaller initial payments, bilking viewers who thought they were watching Ripple’s channel.
One fake account made news last month, and Ripple dates the issue to at least November of last year, saying it’s submitted around 350 complaints about impersonation or scamming. But it says that YouTube “ignored or otherwise failed to address” many of them. In one case, it apparently gave a hacked channel an official verification badge. And Ripple alleges that even after being warned about the scam, YouTube continued to accept paid ads related to it. The result was an “onslaught” of messages from people who believed Ripple had stolen their money or hacked their accounts. It’s not clear how much money the scammers took in total, but one account apparently earned $15,000 worth of XRP.
Every platform struggles with the problem of impersonation; it’s the reason that verified badges exist. In 2018, the New York Times found 205 accounts impersonating Facebook’s top two executives. And the cryptocurrency industry in particular is practically defined by its popularity with scammers and thieves. (There was a $25 million Ethereum heist reported on Monday, and it generated about as much discussion as news that a neighbor had left their window open overnight.)
Fake accounts and crypto scams have been a popular duo on social networks for years. In 2018, after a long period of inaction, Twitter finally began locking the accounts of people who changed their display name to “Elon Musk” — a move that has traditionally signaled the start of a scam whereby a Musk impersonator promises to give away a lot of cryptocurrency in exchange for you sending him just a little. (Never do this!) And then a few months later hackers took over the official Target account and just started doing the same scam a slightly different way.
Garlinghouse has been struggling with impersonation for years now. In 2019 an impostor created an Instagram account made to look like him and began running a scam in his name. The real Garlinghouse reported this to Instagram, which took a look ... and then 72 hours later, informed him that after investigating the company had determined that he was not actually being personated.
Garlinghouse has worked in Silicon Valley for 23 years, and was ultimately able to lean on a former colleague who was working at Instagram to get the issue addressed.
“That’s not how this should work,” Garlinghouse told me on Tuesday. “Deep down, it’s almost a moral thing. YouTube did $15 billion worth of revenue last year. You’re telling me they can’t spend more money to police their own platform?”
Ideally, platforms would detect and purge all of these accounts before they were able to bilk people out of money. Short of that, platforms could respond to credible reports of impersonation quickly and thoroughly. I can’t speak to the legal merits of Ripple’s lawsuit. But the fact that Garlinghouse thought it was his best option illustrates how dire the problem has become. It came only after Ripple hired a cybersecurity and digital threat intelligence company to help with it with reporting and takedown efforts.
If the CEO of Ripple has to go through all that to take his impersonators seriously, what hope does the average person have?
A YouTube spokesman noted that the company has tools to report abuse, and that Ripple had successfully used a separate tool for businesses to report impersonation. The company removed more than 3 million videos and banned 1.8 million accounts for violating policies related to scams in the last quarter of 2019.
But that’s little consolation for Garlinghouse, who has begun to receive physical threats from people who falsely believed he had promised to send them Ripple’s cryptocurrency, XRP. Nor does it help the people who have lost money.
“The people who have been scammed ... they don’t have the resources to go after YouTube,” Garlinghouse said. “Individuals who lost — maybe it’s $1,000, maybe it’s $10,000 — they’re not going to go after YouTube. These people have reached out to me asking for help. And I feel a responsibility to community members who are getting scammed.”
In any case, the risks to average people on the internet are real. Between January 1st and and April 15th, scams cost Americans $13.44 million, the Federal Trade Commission reported last week. And platform content moderation efforts, which have rarely been robust even in good times, are now made more challenging by a pandemic that has put some moderators out of work and forced others to work from home.
Which means that, for those who find themselves ground between the gears of a tech platform’s indifference, the next several months promise to be more difficult than usual. A small number of people may seek redress of their grievances through the legal system. Everyone else, as usual, will be left to fill out their forms, send the into the void, and pray.
In the meantime, as Garlinghouse prepared to announce his lawsuit on Tuesday, multiple impostor accounts were still live on YouTube. He emailed his team with news of the suit before it went public. A few hours later, the accounts were finally removed. Garlinghouse had found a way to get some measure of justice — but for countless others looking for the same, it promises to be a long wait.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️ Trending up: Facebook is opening applications for its $100 million in grants to small businesses affected by the coronavirus. Here’s how to apply.
⬇️ Trending down: More than 300 Amazon warehouse workers at 50 facilities across the country have pledged to call out of work in the coming days to protest Amazon’s handling of the coronavirus. It’s the largest mass action against the company since the start of the pandemic.
⬇️ Trending down: Spectrum employees are getting sick while adhering to a company policy that has required thousands of them to work in offices and call centers rather than from home. More than 230 workers have tested positive for COVID-19.
⭐In Singapore, only about one in five people have downloaded the country’s COVID-19 tracking app. And it’s one of the more successful efforts in this space to date. The app, called TraceTogether, uses Bluetooth to log when people have been close to one another. Aradhana Aravindan and Sankalp Phartiyal at Reuters report:
The modest numbers in a tech-savvy country where trust in government is high shows the challenges facing public health authorities and technology experts around the world who are looking to exit lockdowns and believe contact-tracing apps can play an important role in restarting economies.
A few countries, including South Korea and Israel, are using high-tech methods of contact tracing that involve tracking peoples’ location via phone networks. But such centralized, surveillance-based approaches are viewed as invasive and unacceptable in many countries for privacy reasons.
⭐Jack Dorsey seemed to be on his way out as CEO of Twitter before the pandemic hit. Nick Bilton at Vanity Fair takes a deep look at how he’s navigated the crisis and why the recent turmoil might delay Elliott Management’s plans to replace him:
But, in an uncanny twist, given the virus now decimating the global economy, Dorsey might have just received a stay of execution. Any stock declines will be attributed to coronavirus eviscerating the markets as a whole. According to someone familiar with the company’s internal projections, the amount of time people spend on the site is expected to rise this quarter. While people around the globe are on lockdown in their homes, the one place millions are turning to for a constant flow of information is social media, especially Twitter. Most importantly for Dorsey is that with travel bans and social distancing, Cohn’s CEO search will be limited, and the “fucking killer” likely won’t be able to attend the first board meeting in person, which means Dorsey won’t be sweating as Cohn presses him with tough questions, unlike the board members who oversee the company now.
France says Apple’s operating system prevents contact-tracing apps, designed to stop the spread of the virus, from working. Apple prevents contact-tracing apps using its Bluetooth technology from running constantly in the background if that data is going to be moved off of the device, a limit designed to protect users’ privacy. Which means that France of all countries is now in the hilarious position of pushing Apple to make its operating system less secure. (Helene Fouquet / Bloomberg)
From Israel to South Korea to China, governments around the world are using technology to track the coronavirus outbreak. Now, experts are raising concerns about how long the infringement of privacy will last. (Arjun Kharpal / CNBC)
Donald Trump won the presidency by using Facebook’s advertising machinery in exactly the way it was intended. He’s poised to do it again. (Ian Bogost and Alexis C. Madrigal / The Atlantic)
Facebook’s summer 2020 internship program will be entirely virtual due to the pandemic. Given how much of the value of an internship is absorbing office culture and building relationships with more senior people, this is a huge bummer for interns at every company forced to go virtual this year. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
Demand for reliable news on Facebook has been at an all-time high since the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. As the company figured out how best to respond to the crisis, a top executive in charge of the news division came down with the virus herself. (Issie Lapowsky / Protocol)
Facebook agreed to censor “anti-state” posts from users in Vietnam after state-owned telecom companies slowed traffic to a crawl. It’s one of many times the company has faced pressure to take down anti-government content in countries around the world. (James Pearson / Reuters)
Google is rolling out a new project called the Google Healthcare API to make it easier for patients to access their health information via third-party apps, particularly during the pandemic. Previously, Google’s use of customer data to target ads made people suspicious of initiatives in the healthcare space. (Christina Farr / CNBC)
Developers are making bots to find open Whole Foods delivery slots. Some of the bots even complete the user’s food order. Amazon owes its customers a level playing field for placing orders, and they’re not getting one. (Joseph Cox / Vice)
Kickstarter announced plans to lay off employees. CEO Aziz Hasan told workers that the company has seen a roughly 35 percent drop in crowdfunding projects listed on the site amid the pandemic. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
The coronavirus pandemic has shut down the live-music business. Now, musicians are streaming concerts from home to help pay the bills. I’ve attended two concerts so far on StageIt, a company profiled here. They were great. (Lucas Shaw / Bloomberg)
As demand for protective gear surged due to COVID-19, SafeMask, an overpriced and misleadingly marketed mask, became the promoted piece of safety equipment on the internet. It may have earned millions of dollars as the result of aggressive email marketing campaigns that included dubious safety claims. (Craig Silverman and Trevor Davis / BuzzFeed)
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a tip line for people to report on people violating social-distancing rules. It was immediately flooded with penis photos and Hitler memes, illustrating once again that every story is, on some level, a content moderation story. (Tina Moore, Gabrielle Fonrouge and Bruce Golding / New York Post)
Total cases in the US: At least 780,536
Total deaths in the US: More than 37,000
Reported cases in California: 33,879
Reported cases in New York: 247,543
Reported cases in New Jersey: 88,806
Reported cases in Massachusetts: 88,806
The Federal Communications Commission rejected calls from city governments to extend the comment filing period for part of its 2018 net neutrality rollback. The commission already gave a 30-day extension last month. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
A new map shows that you can’t maintain social distancing on many New York City sidewalks. Often, the sidewalks aren’t wide enough to prevent the spread of COVID-19. What should public health officials do about this? (Bijan Stephen / The Verge)
Stocks of Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Alphabet and Facebook account for more than 20 perfect of the market cap of the entire S&P 500 index. It’s a greater concentration in the top stocks than was seen during the dot com bubble of 2000. (Lewis Krauskopf / Reuters)
Snapchat use is way up during the COVID-19 pandemic. The app’s daily active users have grown by 11 million this quarter and by 20 percent year over year. But Snap is still an ad-based business facing an uncertain future along with the rest of us. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Google is now letting business owners list their products on Google Shopping for free. Before now, an e-commerce company would need to pay for ad placement on Google Shopping. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
Alex Stamos — formerly the security chief at Facebook and now a Zoom advisor —said he trusts the company’s privacy measures enough to use it for his own meetings. He also said Zoom has to rethink its product “from the ground up,” now that consumers are using the service. (Kevin Stankiewicz / CNBC)
A possible criminal organization is selling over 267 million Facebook profiles for $623 apiece on the dark web. While none of these records include passwords, they do contain information that could allow attackers to perform spear phishing or SMS attacks to steal credentials. (Lawrence Abrams / Bleeping Computer)
Meet the Chinese TikTok star whose intricate finger dances inspired the choreography in Grimes’ “Violence” music video. There’s never been a better time to learn an intricate finger dance! (Hanna Lustig / Insider)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Watch Bon Apetit’s Molly Baz make biscuits with her dad. My heart is rather easily warmed these days, but I can’t imagine anyone not being charmed by this video.
Catch Travis Scott’s tour on Fortnite. He has several dates planned in coming days.
Those good tweets
Oh look, it’s a perfect story to send us off today, from Olivia Carville at Bloomberg:
As coronavirus infections tore across the U.S. in early March, a Silicon Valley executive called the survival shelter manufacturer Rising S Co. He wanted to know how to open the secret door to his multimillion-dollar bunker 11 feet underground in New Zealand.
The tech chief had never used the bunker and couldn’t remember how to unlock it, said Gary Lynch, general manager of Texas-based Rising S Co. “He wanted to verify the combination for the door and was asking questions about the power and the hot water heater and whether he needed to take extra water or air filters,” Lynch said. The businessman runs a company in the Bay Area but lives in New York, which was fast becoming the world’s coronavirus epicenter.
Before you leave for your panic bunker, please remember to double-check the secret door code. You don’t want to wind up as the lead anecdote in a story like this, I promise.