On Monday morning I met with a group of activists who live under authoritarian regimes. The delegation had been brought to San Francisco by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation as part of a fellowship focused on the relationship between activism and Silicon Valley. And the big question they had for me was: why do social networks keep taking down my posts?
The question caught me off guard. For every story in this newsletter about an activist’s post wrongly (and often temporarily) being removed, there are three more about the consequences of a post that was left up: a piece of viral misinformation, a terrorist recruitment video, a financial scam, and so on. As I wrote in 2018, we are well into the “take it down” era of content moderation.
Sometimes the activists’ posts came down because their governments demanded it. Other times the posts came down because of over-cautious content moderation. Increasingly, the activists told me, social networks were acting as if they would rather be safe from government intervention than sorry. And whenever their posts and pages came down, they said, they had very little recourse. Facebook does not have a customer support hotline, much less a judicial branch. (Yet. More on that below.)
The activists’ concerns were fresh in my mind when I read about the weekend’s removal of Instagram accounts in Iran that expressed support for the Iranian general Qassem Soleiman, who was killed by the United States last week. Like a strong antibiotic, it appears that Instagram’s enforcement action wiped out both accounts tied to the ruling regime and the posts of everyday Iranians.
Facebook’s explanation? Sanctions. Here’s Donie O’Sullivan and Artemis Moshtaghian in CNN:
As part of its compliance with US law, the Facebook spokesperson said the company removes accounts run by or on behalf of sanctioned people and organizations.
It also removes posts that commend the actions of sanctioned parties and individuals and seek to help further their actions, the spokesperson said, adding that Facebook has an appeals process if users feel their posts were removed in error.
GoFundMe also removed at least two fundraising campaigns for passengers on the Ukrainian flight brought down by Iranian missiles, only to later reinstate them, my colleague Colin Lecher reported at The Verge. But Twitter, on the other hand, said it would leave posts up so long as they complied with the company’s rules.
The confusion is to be expected. Legal experts disagree on the extent to which sanctions require tech platforms to remove user posts, and the issue of Iran in particular has been giving companies fits for years. Here’s Lecher in The Verge:
While recent news has put the focus on Iran, it’s hardly the first time tech companies have mounted a zealous response to sanctions. Last year, GitHub restricted users in several countries under US sanctions.
Iran, which has faced sanctions for years, has regularly had tech companies limit use in the country in response to US policy. In 2018, Slack deactivated accounts around the world that were tied to Iran, in a move that stretched well beyond the borders of the country. Apple took several popular Iranian apps off its store in 2017 in the face of US sanctions. At the time, Apple issued a statement that’s still relevant: “This area of law is complex and constantly changing.”
At the same time, once again people around the world are waking up to the reality that their speech is governed by actors who are not accountable to them. Instagram has users but not citizens. Executives in California will decide what can be said in Tehran.
Of course, there’s vastly more free speech on Instagram than in a country like Iran, where activism is brutally repressed. But as the activists shared with me on Monday, the ramifications of social networks acting as quasi-states to reshape political speech in their countries are significant. And their struggles to appeal unjust content removals are real.
The good news is that later this year, Facebook will launch its independent Oversight Board: a Supreme Court for content moderation that will allow users to appeal in cases like the activists’ and the Iranian citizens’. One of the board’s rules will be that cases selected for review will include at least one person from the region in which the case originated. That’s not quite a democratically elected representative — but hopefully it bolsters the board’s accountability to Facebook’s user base.
There are still many questions about how the board will work in practice, and whether it can serve as a model for quasi-judicial systems at other companies. But hearing the activists’ stories today, and reading about the confusion over sanctions in Iran, it seemed to me that the board can’t launch quickly enough.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: In December, Facebook updated its standards surrounding hate speech and banned many dehumanizing comparisons.
⭐ Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new bill that would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws. It would allow them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. Cecilia Kang from The New York Times has the story:
Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.
“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.
But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.
Attorney General William Barr asked Apple to unlock two iPhones used by the gunman in the Pensacola shooting last month. The company already gave investigators data on the shooter’s iCloud account, but has refused to help them open the phones, which would undermine its privacy-focused marketing. (Katie Benner / The New York Times)
A Microsoft tool used to transcribe audio from Skype and Cortana, its voice assistant, ran for years with “no security measures”, according to one former contractor. He says he reviewed thousands of potentially sensitive recordings on his personal laptop from his home in Beijing over the two years he worked at the company. (Alex Hern / The Guardian)
Most cookie consent pop-ups seen by people in the EU are likely flouting regional privacy laws, a new study suggests. The pop-ups are ostensibly supposed to get permission to track people’s web activity. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)
India’s Supreme Court said indefinite internet shutdowns violate the country’s laws concerning freedom of speech and expression. However, the order won’t immediately impact the ongoing internet shutdown in Kashmir. The government still has a week to produce a restrictive order detailing the reasons for the shut down. (Ivan Mehta / TNW)
India ordered an investigation into Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart over allegedly anti-competitive practices. It’s the latest setback for US e-commerce giants operating in the country. (Aditya Kalra and Aditi Shah / Reuters)
⭐ Facebook and Google are no longer the top destinations for college students looking to land prestigious jobs after graduation. While some still see Big Tech as a way to make a lot of money, others feel like it’s an ethical minefield. Emma Goldberg at The New York Times explains the trend:
The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.
At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in “JoJo Rabbit”: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends.”
That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise. In August, the reporter April Glaser wrote about campus techlash for Slate. She found that at Stanford, known for its competitive computer science program, some students said they had no interest in working for a major tech company, while others sought “to push for change from within.”
Facebook shares hit an all-time high, despite attacks from both sides of the aisle ahead of this year’s presidential election. The company closed at $218.30 on Thursday, exceeding its previous high of $217.50 in July 2018 and valuing the company at $622 billion. (Tim Bradshaw / The Financial Times)
Facebook’s newest Oculus headset is in high demand, and the company has a VR-only sequel to Valve’s “Half Life” game series due out in March. The news signals Facebook’s VR quest is finally getting real. (Dan Gallagher / Wall Street Journal)
Facebook’s redesigned look for desktops is already here for some users, and will be broadly available before the spring. If you’re getting a first peak, you’ll see a pop-up inviting you to help test the “The New Facebook” when you login. (Ian Sherr / CNET)
Instagram added new Boomerang effects in an effort to compete with TikTok. Now, users can add SlowMo, “Echo” blurring, and “Duo” rapid rewind special effects to their Boomerangs, as well as trim their length. This all reminds me of one of my favorite tweets. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
AI-assisted health care systems, such as those being developed by Google, promise to combine humans and machines in order to facilitate cancer diagnosis. But they also has the potential to worsen pre-existing problems such as overtesting, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment. (Christie Aschwanden / Wired)
On TikTok, teens are using memes to cope with the possibility of World War III. The trend gained momentum after Soleimani’s death, with people posting bleak jokes about getting drafted. Fun!! (Kalhan Rosenblatt / NBC)
TikTok might launch a curated feed to provide a safer space for brands to advertise in. The decision comes as the Chinese-owned company faces new concerns about the volume of advertiser-unfriendly content on its platform.
Nine years after Twitch’s launch, the content that hardcore gamers most revile has officially become its most watched: just talking. A new report from StreamElements shows that in December, Twitch viewers watched 81 million hours of “Just Chatting.” (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Wired)
My favorite thing on Twitter is just former costars Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates supporting one another as the Oscar nominations were announced.
I love you my Bobby Boucher!!! You was robbed!! But Mama loves you!!! I learned a new urban slang word for you! You da GOAT!!— Kathy Bates (@MsKathyBates) January 13, 2020
Not the one we eat at home, Son. ❤️ https://t.co/2KDbfUjIXR
Better luck next time, Sandman. (Uncut Gems is great.)