To close out the week, let’s talk about some of the recent efforts in the United States to settle longstanding questions about moderation and encryption online.
One reason I like writing about technology companies more than I like writing about Congress is that technology companies are constantly taking action. They introduce new features, they change their policies, and then they apologize for the unintended consequences of the features and policies they released the previous week. Meanwhile, Congress prefers to talk. It holds hearings, stages press conferences, and releases letters. Occasionally bills are written, and sometimes one house or the other will even go to the trouble of passing one, but rarely do they become law.
There are publications that pay obsessive attention to the hearings, and the press conferences, and the letters, and they do excellent work. But I mostly avoid reading about proposals for new legislation in much detail, since few carry any more practical force than a newspaper op-ed.
That said, this year has seen a notable surge in legislative proposals that actually made it to the writing-it-down stage, and they revolve around two subjects that both Democrats and Republicans seem to agree deserve some attention.
The first is Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, that most misunderstood of all laws, which permits companies to moderate content on their platforms without being held legally liable for everything their users post. The upside of 230 is that it has enabled the growth of the internet economy; the downside is that some people post awful things that get shared very widely. Among the people who think it should be repealed are President Donald Trump and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden.
As Adi Robertson wrote this week at The Verge, the impulse to reform Section 230 is understandable, because it has enabled a range of bad behavior including stalking and the creation of nonconsensual “revenge porn” sites. But the proposals to fix it so far have been somewhat incoherent, and threaten to break the internet as we know it:
There’s a chance of this strategy backfiring if it’s actually implemented. Companies might conclude that Section 230 is no longer a reliable safeguard — and that would incentivize removing any content that’s risky to host, not betting that they can keep conservative users happy with a hands-off approach. If it does work as intended, users can look forward to platforms full of harassment, misinformation, and other junk that companies are too scared to remove.
That’s why I was intrigued by the Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act, which was introduced on Wednesday by Sens. Brian Schatz (D-HI) and John Thune (R-SD). The bill, writes Makena Kelly at The Verge, would “require online platforms like Facebook and Google to reveal their content moderation practices through a range of mandatory disclosures.” She goes on:
The bill is a combination of measures that encourage platforms to remove bad content and measures that keep those moderation systems in check, hoping to draw support from both sides of the ongoing debate over platform regulation.
If approved, the bill would force large tech platforms to explain how they moderate content in a way that is easily accessible to users and release quarterly reports including disaggregated statistics on what content has been removed, demonetized, or had its reach algorithmically limited. Platforms would then be required to roll out a formal complaint system for users that processes reports and explains their moderation decisions within 14 days. Users would then be allowed to appeal those moderation decisions within a company’s internal reporting systems, something that already exists on platforms like Facebook.
Other bills aimed at Section 230 would allow users to report certain content moderation decisions to the government, primarily the Federal Trade Commission. The PACT Act is in direct opposition to those proposals and allows for moderation reports to remain internal.
In many ways, the PACT Act would simply require by law a bunch of things tech companies already do voluntarily: publicly post their community standards, release reports on takedowns, allow users to appeal, and so on. But it would also enable the federal government to sue social networks over civil matters, and require networks to remove illegal content within 24 hours. So if there was a lot of drug trafficking happening on a large social network, for example, under the PACT Act the federal government might be able to sue the company over it.
To the extent that you can split the difference over partisan disagreements on Section 230, it might look something like this. I’m withholding judgment on whether it would be good law until I hear more — but it certainly seems like it has more chance of becoming law than some of the other proposals we’ve seen.
The other legislation that caught my eye this week came from three Republican senators who are seeking to end encrypted communications. The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act would create a legal framework that allows law enforcement officers to obtain court orders for the purpose of accessing encrypted digital communications. Here are Cyrus Farivar and Kevin Collier at NBC News:
The bill, which was submitted Tuesday, appears to be a formal codification of what top judicial officials have sought for well over two decades: enhancing the government’s ability to bust through strong encryption, which can make data on a cellphone or a computer almost unreadable to anyone who does not have the password to decrypt it.
“This is the full-frontal nuclear assault on encryption we’ve been fearing would come, but which no lawmaker previously had dared to put forth,” emailed Riana Pfefferkorn, associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society.
The bill was given a rapturous reception by Attorney General Bill Barr, whose Department of Justice would be freshly empowered to access our messages. I find this particularly troubling given the nakedly political character of Barr’s actions. Just this week, a current assistant U.S. Attorney in Maryland testified that he had been pressured to give preferential treatment to one of the president’s cronies, and said that Barr “poses the greatest threat in my lifetime to our rule of law.” And the New York Times reported on Thursday that Barr had taken a strong interest in the developing antitrust case against Google at the behest of his boss, the president, who has baselessly criticized the company for “censoring” his views.
An era of rising authoritarianism and a rapidly eroding rule of law strikes me as the most dangerous possible time to eliminate encryption protections in the United States. For the moment, the Lawful Access Bill has no Democratic cosponsors. Here’s hoping it stays that way.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: TikTok announced a Creator Diversity Collective to help bring more inclusion and representation to the platform. The company also released a new feature that notifies users if they duet or react to a video that was removed for violating TikTok’s Community Guidelines. (TikTok)
🔃 Trending sideways: Amazon is renaming Seattle’s NHL stadium Climate Pledge Arena. Here’s hoping they increase the temperature inside by one degree each year. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
🔽 Trending down: Facebook is continuing to push QAnon groups on Trump supporters even after saying the groups had been removed from recommendations. Researchers believe Facebook is playing a crucial role in recruiting new followers for the movement. (Julia Carrie Wong / The Guardian)
🔽 Trending down: Facebook is currently running ads for conservative companies that feature racist “kung flu” phrases. The platform’s policies are supposed to prohibit ads that encourage discrimination based on personal attributes like race, ethnicity, and national origin. (Eric Hananoki / Media Matters)
Yesterday, there were 36,975 new cases of the novel coronavirus — a record high for the United States. The unhappy milestone comes as states begin to reopen, and new hotspots emerge in places like Lee County, Arkansas (621 new cases) and Anderson County, Texas, (1,013 new cases) which had previously escaped the worst of the disease.
On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott paused the state’s reopening process in light of the growing number of cases. Intensive care units in Houston are at 97 percent capacity, and a quarter of those patients have tested positive for COVID-19, as reported by The New York Times. Abbott was quick to point out that the pause isn’t meant to be a permanent solution. “The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” he said. “This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business.”
His statement supports a theory political analyst Nate Silver tweeted yesterday. While polls suggest the majority of Americans support lockdown orders, keeping people shut indoors might not be sustainable politically. If politicians buy that logic (and so far, it appears they do), we’ll likely see a lot more of this dance. A mini-reopening, followed by a resurgence in cases, followed by a temporary shutdown. Repeat.
For more on the resurgent pandemic, check out Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger’s rt.live, which was updated on Thursday with impressive new detail pages for every state.
⭐ Under the direction of Attorney General William Barr, the Justice Department is swiftly marshaling forces for a possible antitrust lawsuit against Google. The move is drawing fire from critics who say the agency has become outrageously politicized under President Trump. Here’s David McCabe and Cecilia Kang at The New York Times:
Mr. Barr, who has repeatedly said publicly that the tech industry’s power required examination, is expected to decide in the coming months whether to file a lawsuit accusing Google of abusing its power in the market for advertising technology and search products. A successful suit against the company could win plaudits from Mr. Trump. It could also reshape Google’s business, transform a large chunk of the economy and perhaps even end the era of unfettered growth in Silicon Valley.
A judge in Virginia said Rep. Devin Nunes can’t sue Twitter over posts from a parody account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow.” Nunes was seeking $250 million in damages, saying the posts were defamatory. The judge said Section 230 protects Twitter from the suit. For now! (Bryan Pietsch / The New York Times)
The Justice Department and a coalition of state attorneys general are taking the first steps toward launching an antitrust probe of Apple. They’re looking specifically at Apple’s ironclad control of the App Store, which developers like Basecamp have been loudly criticizing of late. (Leah Nylen / Politico)
The US House Committee on Oversight and Reform opened an investigation into how data broker Venntel collects and sells data from Americans’ mobile phones to government agencies for warrantless tracking. Lawmakers are looking into whether the data collected can reveal precise movements of millions of Americans, including children. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
A tech company called Mobilewalla used cell phone information to estimate the demographics of protesters, including their race, age, and gender and where they lived. Sen. Elizabeth Warren said it was an example of the consequences of the lack of regulation on data brokers in the US. (Caroline Haskins / BuzzFeed)
Discord shut down one of the largest servers used by followers of the “boogaloo” movement for inciting violence. Members were offering their military expertise to help advance the goals of the movement. Now, Discord has removed the server — and deleted the accounts of all 2,258 members. (Tess Owen / Vice)
Amazon launched a new Counterfeit Crimes Unit to fight counterfeit products on its website. The new team will work to proactively “go on the offensive” against counterfeiters, instead of just reacting by trying to identify and block bad listings. (Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge)
The Daily Wire, the website run by right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro, is one of the most popular publishers on Facebook, despite lacking much original reporting. Its success is due in large part to a network of Facebook pages, each built by exploiting racial bias, religious bigotry, and violence, that systematically promote the website’s content. (Judd Legum / Popular Information)
Teens on TikTok are forming political coalitions to campaign for their chosen candidates, post news updates, and fact-check opponents. They are sharing real-time commentary for an audience that is far more likely to watch YouTube videos than turn on a cable news channel. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
New studies are looking at conservative media’s role in fostering confusion about the seriousness of the novel coronavirus. They paint a picture of a media ecosystem that amplifies misinformation, entertains conspiracy theories and discourages audiences from taking concrete steps to protect themselves and others. (Christopher Ingraham / The Washington Post)
France, the UK, Italy and Spain offered to limit the scope of a proposed global digital tax after the US threatened to hit those countries with tariffs if they moved ahead with planned levies on tech companies. (Alberto Brambilla and Richard Bravo / Bloomberg)
France is struggling to get people to activate its contact tracing app, StopCovid. It has been activated 1.8 million times since June 2nd, corresponding roughly to 2.7 percent of the population, and has led to the notification of just 14 people that they may have been exposed to the virus. (Sam Schechner / The New York Times)
The Department of Justice is objecting to Facebook and Google’s 8,000-mile undersea internet cable to Hong Kong. Officials say it offers “unprecedented opportunities” for Chinese government espionage. (Justin Sherman / Wired)
⭐ Twitch is permanently banning streamers as it reckons with sexual assault allegations. A Medium post cataloging the incidents lists more than 60 people accused of misconduct, in many cases with accusations from multiple people. Here’s Jacob Kastrenakes at The Verge:
Their accounts have led to a growing demand for Twitch to do a better job moderating, protecting, and setting the tone for its community. The company has said it will investigate and potentially punish the accused users, and as of Wednesday night, it had begun issuing permanent bans. But streamers are doubtful that Twitch is ready to take them seriously. [...]
The men accused of harassment and misconduct range from streamers with thousands of followers to those with hundreds of thousands of followers or more. Some of the stories involve incidents that happened on Twitch, such as men who were allegedly streaming while messaging underage fans for sexual photos. Others didn’t happen on Twitch directly but involve people in its community. Several people said they met an abuser through Twitch or that misconduct occurred at a Twitch event or an afterparty at a Twitch convention.
⭐ Verizon just became the biggest advertiser to join the Facebook ad boycott. Here’s Nick Statt at The Verge:
“We have strict content policies in place and have zero tolerance when they are breached, we take action,” Verizon’s chief media officer John Nitti told CNBC in a statement. “We’re pausing our advertising until Facebook can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable and is consistent with what we’ve done with YouTube and other partners.” Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The companies participating, including Verizon, say they intend to pull ads throughout July, but to resume purchasing placement on Facebook after that. Verizon gave no concrete reasoning for the move. Yet the company’s decision aligns with the demands spelled out in an ADL open letter to Facebook advertisers published earlier today that used Verizon as an example of Facebook’s failings, recounting how one of the company’s ads was found running against a post promoting the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory.
Mark Zuckerberg spoke with major advertisers on Facebook’s client council over concerns the platform isn’t doing enough to fight hate speech. He acknowledged the advertisers’ boycott, explained the company’s position, and tried to assure them that the company is reviewing its policies. (Tanya Dua / Business Insider)
Apple is re-closing almost all of its Florida stores after new COVID-19 spikes. Of the company’s 272 US stores, 10 percent are now closed. (Cameron Faulkner / The Verge)
Hey opened its email service to everyone (no invite code required) after Apple approved its latest app update. The new version offers 14-day burner email accounts with randomized addresses for iOS users, making the app “functional” by Apple’s definition when it is first downloaded. (Chaim Gartenberg / The Verge)
Facebook started to roll out a notification screen to let people know when they’re about to share news articles that are more than 90 days old. The move is part of the company’s effort to ensure news on Facebook is timely and credible. (But the Legum story above notes that a lot of popular content is just old fear-mongering that has been repackaged and given a fresh timestamp, which this update can’t account for.) (Facebook)
Google redesigned Google Photos with new ways to navigate the app and a simplified pinwheel icon. It also added a map view that lets users explore their photos and videos by location. Neat! (Casey Newton / The Verge)
Google is expanding the ways people can make video calls on smart displays powered by Google Assistant with new support for group calling in Google Meet and Duo. The new video group calling abilities will be available on the Nest Hub Max and other Assistant smart displays with cameras starting today. ( Dan Seifert / The Verge)
Google will pay for news content from select publishers as part of a new licensing program announced today. It says the content will form part of a “new news experience” coming later this year. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
YouTube is now testing a TikTok clone. It looks a lot like Reels, Facebook’s TikTok clone, and lets users record themselves in 15-second segments. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
TikTok launched a new platform called “TikTok For Business” that will serve as the home for its marketing solutions for brands. The platform includes access to TikTok ad formats, including its marque product, TopView, which is the ad that appears when users first launch the TikTok app. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)
As art museums get on TikTok, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence is emerging as an unlikely leader in the social media space. It’s posting unusually irreverent videos that challenge its dignified reputation. (Alex Marshall / The New York Times)
Things to do
Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.
Cyberpunk 2077 is one of the year’s most anticipated games, and despite several delays, its developer released some new gameplay trailers today. The Verge’s Nick Statt played a bit of it and loved it.