Today I come bearing a treat: a guest post from The Verge’s editor-in-chief, Nilay Patel. Nilay took note of comments made Tuesday by Josh Hawley, the incoming Republican senator from Missouri, about an issue we’ll be watching closely here next year: efforts on both on the left and the right to curtail Section 230, the portion of the Communications Decency Act that in most cases exempts internet platforms from liability for what their users publish. Nilay is a lawyer as well as an editor, and I hope you’ll enjoy his perspective here. I’ll have more to say about today’s UK and FTC hearings regarding our favorite internet platforms tomorrow.
Why do Republicans make fools of themselves by misreading Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act? It’s not a hard law to read, but conservatives constantly use it to threaten platforms with legal action over moderation decisions that 230 explicitly protects. Earlier this year it was Ted Cruz (a product of Harvard Law School!) getting 230 completely wrong while questioning Mark Zuckerberg. And today we have Republican Senator-elect Josh Hawley from Missouri tweeting this nonsense:
The new Congress needs to investigate and find out. Twitter is exempt from liability as a “publisher” because it is allegedly “a forum for a true diversity of political discourse.” That does not appear to be accurate.
— Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) November 27, 2018
In addition to being the Senator-elect, Hawley is the current attorney general Missouri, and is a self-proclaimed strict constructionist of the law. So it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t know how to read the plain text and meaning of a statute — and doubly hard to imagine that he can’t read the explicit text of 203©(1), which simply says that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Twitter, of course, is the provider of an interactive computer service, and thus not to be treated as a publisher in cases like the one Hawley mentions. This is about as simple a refutation of Hawley’s tweet as is possible. It’s all right there in the statute!
Second, and more importantly, the only reason Section 230 exists is to give platforms the ability to moderate free of liability. The law was implemented in response to Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy, a 1995 case where the investment firm now immortalized in the film The Wolf of Wall Street sued Prodigy over message board posts it claimed were defamatory. The court found that since Prodigy moderated its message boards, it exerted the same editorial control as a publisher, and was thus liable for what was published.
Holding Prodigy liable for every post on its message boards was, of course, insane, and Congress responded by including 230©(2) in the Communications Decency Act, which says ”No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be held liable on account of any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access or availability of material that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected.”
You can see how Hawley might have gotten confused over this sequence of events if he were just a regular person and not, say, the current attorney general of Missouri.
Lately there’s been a bipartisan chatter around creating carve-outs to Section 230 that create liability for platforms on both sides of the aisle — the controversial FOSTA-SESTA bill most recently made platforms liable for posts that assist in sex trafficking. And Senator Ron Wyden, who wrote Section 230, told The Verge’s Colin Lecher in July that he’s open to more 230 carve-outs if the platforms don’t get their act together with moderation.
But none of this has anything to do with the nonsense being peddled by Republicans like Hawley and Cruz,who seem intent on getting both the legislative intent and plain text of 230 exactly backwards. It’s baffling — especially since the underlying policy is so easy to understand.
Issie Lapowsky recaps today’s UK hearing with Facebook, in which lawmakers from nine countries asked a company executive about a cache of sealed documents that had been seized in London last week. The committee seized on an email suggesting Russian entities had made off with tons of data in a previously undisclosed incident, but Facebook later followed up with reporters to share emails suggesting that was not in fact the case:
Over the course of three hours, they grilled Allan on Facebook’s long history of privacy screw-ups. He sat in a chair that had been reserved with a name plate for CEO Mark Zuckerberg—a theatrical nod at the fact that the Facebook founder rebuffed repeated invitations to testify before the International Grand Committee. In addition to the UK, the lawmakers there hailed from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, Latvia, and Singapore. It was the first time international parliamentarians had been invited to a hearing at Britain’s House of Commons since 1933, signaling the seriousness with which regulators worldwide now take social media platforms. […]
When reached for comment, a Facebook spokesperson told WIRED, “The engineers who had flagged these initial concerns subsequently looked into this further and found no evidence of specific Russian activity.” Facebook later supplied WIRED with redacted versions of the emails themselves. “Ok, things are not as bad as they seemed,” reads one email. “There was a series of unfortunate coincidences that made me think of the worst.” The email goes on to say that the activity was actually coming from Pinterest’s servers and was successfully pinging Facebook’s API just six million times daily, not three billion times. Facebook wouldn’t elaborate on the cause of the confusion.
Perhaps inspired by the success of this month’s Google walkout, another set of Google employees has published an open letter protesting Project Dragonfly, the censorship- and surveillance-friendly search app now in development for the Chinese market. Here’s their full memo. And here’s an excerpt:
Our opposition to Dragonfly is not about China: we object to technologies that aid the powerful in oppressing the vulnerable, wherever they may be. The Chinese government certainly isn’t alone in its readiness to stifle freedom of expression, and to use surveillance to repress dissent. Dragonfly in China would establish a dangerous precedent at a volatile political moment, one that would make it harder for Google to deny other countries similar concessions.
Our company’s decision comes as the Chinese government is openly expanding its surveillance powers and tools of population control. Many of these rely on advanced technologies, and combine online activity, personal records, and mass monitoring to track and profile citizens. Reports are already showing who bears the cost, including Uyghurs, women’s rights advocates, and students. Providing the Chinese government with ready access to user data, as required by Chinese law, would make Google complicit in oppression and human rights abuses.
And here’s an external campaign to get Google to abandon Dragonfly. Amnesty International is planning demonstrations at Google offices in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Germany, Hong Kong, the Netherlands, and Spain, reports Ryan Gallagher:
“This is a watershed moment for Google,” said Joe Westby, Amnesty International’s researcher on technology and human rights. “As the world’s No. 1 search engine, it should be fighting for an internet where information is freely accessible to everyone, not backing the Chinese government’s dystopian alternative.“
Russian hackers are “carrying out a widespread campaign that targeted the federal government, media outlets and think tanks,” report Jacqueline Thomsen and Olivia Beavers:
Some researchers told The Hill that the recent cyber efforts are a sign that hackers are exploring the new political landscape now that Democrats will be in control of the House starting in January.
And with some fearing that Russian hackers are waiting until the high-profile 2020 presidential election to fully deploy their capabilities, the post-midterm cyber campaign suggests the groups are having somewhat of a resurgence in their efforts to penetrate U.S. government institutions.
Jane Lytvynenko catches us up on a piece of viral misinformation about the US government’s current conflict with migrants at the border:
Far-right media used the photo to spread divisive false claims of it being staged. The first claims came to mainstream view on Twitter, where a user posted the photo with some of the people in it circled. This includes two people with cameras who looked to be documenting the tear gas attack and another man running roughly in the direction of the camera.
I’m seeing the faintest outlines of a backlash against Amazon Prime subscriptions over Amazon’s treatment of workers, its government contracts, and other issues. It’s one to watch — Rebecca Jennings talks to some of the folks who are jumping ship.
Another writer, Julia, who asked me not to use her last name because she works for a production company that could conduct business with Amazon Studios in the future, says she canceled her subscription after seeing the film Sorry to Bother You, which offers a stark critique of capitalism.
“I had Amazon Prime for about a year, and during that time, I watched my whole approach to consumption change,” she says. “A stack of boxes started to accumulate next to my recycling bin, and I was sort of horrified to realize how greedy I’d become. We’ve all become so accustomed to getting whatever we want, whenever we want, at little to no cost. But when anything is that cheap, there’s always someone paying for it.”
Former Facebook partnerships manager Mark Luckie published an internal memo to Medium today in which he said that at Facebook, “racial discrimination is real.” (It’s also worth reading the response from Facebook’s head of partnerships, Ime Archibong.)
Facebook’s disenfranchisement of black people on the platform mirrors the marginalization of its black employees. In my time at the company, I’ve heard far too many stories from black employees of a colleague or manager calling them “hostile” or “aggressive” for simply sharing their thoughts in a manner not dissimilar from their non-Black team members. A few black employees have reported being specifically dissuaded by their managers from becoming active in the [internal] [email protected] group or doing “Black stuff,” even if it happens outside of work hours. Too many black employees can recount stories of being aggressively accosted by campus security beyond what was necessary.
On a personal note, at least two or three times a day, every day, a colleague at MPK [Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park] will look directly at me and tap or hold their wallet or shove their hands down their pocket to clutch it tightly until I pass. The frequency is even higher when walking through Classic campus or Building 20. To feel like an oddity at your own place of employment because of the color of your skin while passing posters reminding you to be your authentic self feels in itself inauthentic.
Facebook Ads Manager keeps going down, Kerry Flynn reports, and it could affect Facebook’s quarterly earnings:
Digiday spoke to 10 ad buyers, the majority of whom manage millions of dollars on Facebook per month. To them, unanimously, Facebook’s ad manager has gotten noticeably worse over the last year. Compounding the issue, several ad buyers complained that Facebook doesn’t seem to care about the problems unless the buyer works within a holding company. The issue comes as every other major digital ad platform — Google, Amazon, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Reddit — maintains reliability far better than Facebook, according to media buyers.
The general ad buyer gospel is that Facebook is notoriously unreliable, Google is all around great and Amazon is janky with its system but undeniably unstoppable for the return of investment.
If you’re still catching up on the great Facebook bikini app email caper, please enjoy Katie Notopoulos’ 2015 story on the app now caught in the center of a global trade war / spy movie / journalism ethics seminar:
The problem that the app Pinkinis was solving was an all-too-common one: You love it when your Facebook friends post photos of themselves at the beach (humana humana humana loosens tie oowwOOOga makes squeezing gesture with both hands daddy likey), but who has time to scroll through all their friends’ photos looking for a few glimpses of exposed flesh? We’ve all been there.
Pikinis used image-analyzing software to scan through your friends’ photos and surface any bikini or bathing suit photos for your viewing ease and pleasure. Now before you feminazis claim this is sexist, please note that it would also find male swimsuit photos as well.
Tears-old Messenger threads are popping up for no apparent reason on Facebook.com, Nick Statt reports. The company says it’s a bug.
Matt Taibbi writes about the unwitting publishers caught up in Facebook’s purge of hyper-partisan news sites that were found to have participated in coordinated inauthentic activity. Taibbi says some of them deserve their pages back:
This story may be turning into one of the oldest narratives in politics: the misuse of a public emergency to suspend civil rights and concentrate power. One recurring theme of the fake-news controversy has been a willingness of those in power to use the influence of platforms like Facebook, rather than curtail or correct them. Accused of being an irresponsible steward of information, Facebook is now being asked to exercise potentially vast and opaque new powers.
Michelle Castillo says Facebook Watch is beginning to solicit shows aimed at older viewers. I think this could actually work? Pay Judge Judy whatever she wants and just see if Watch doesn’t take off among the group that once traded soap operas for Farmville:
In talks with at least three media companies, Facebook has hinted it wants Watch shows aimed at post-college millennials around parenting age and older. One media company said Facebook was asking them for shows hosted by traditional celebrities rather than social media stars. Facebook responded most positively to talent in their 30s through 50s.
Another company said Facebook said it wanted shows for a broad audience, but not focused on anyone who was under the age of 20. Any teen shows need to have adult themes that could attract older viewers. Facebook was also asking for more formats that may be familiar to traditional TV viewers and middle America, like reality and talk shows.
Google has requested Mississippi Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith refund its $5000 contribution, Judd Legum reports. She had previously made about attending a “public hanging” for her election opponent, who is black.
YouTube annotations — those ugly transparent boxes that hover over videos telling you to watch other videos or subscribe or whatever — are going away on January 15th, 2019. Bye!
Bookmark this one: a comprehensive list of major harassment campaigns online from 1990 to the present. A handy and much-appreciated resource from Caroline Sinders.
Blake Montgomery reports on a group of mostly men who are snitching on sex workers who use Snapchat and other platforms. It’s worth recalling that sex workers have begun using these platforms in part because FOSTA drove them off of Craigslist and other sites.
Porn stars and sex workers have increasingly turned to personalized content, such as subscription-only social media accounts or customized videos, to earn a living amid a glut of free online porn. Some sites like Patreon issue 1099 IRS forms for the work, but many do not because of the separation of payment and content distribution platforms.
One tweet promoting the campaign by user @womenstilltrash racked up more than 80,000 likes and retweets since Nov. 23. Prominent online right-wing personalities with a history of misogynist behavior also helped spread it.
Now anyone with a Facebook account can invite friends and followers to watch a video and chat with them. Facebook is very high on this feature internally — it emerged from the company’s research into what makes people feel good about their social-media usage.
Tweet like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, says Jay Willis:
Twitter can be a tricky medium for politicians: Its character limit precludes them from using it to engage in lengthy policy debates, and its public nature—every back-and-forth occurs in full view of supporters and opponents, and is scored in real time by volumes of hearts—can make the temptation to use it only for drags and dunks overpowering. Especially for newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had no real say in her overnight transformation into a media darling, getting ensnared in too many Twitter beefs is an easy way to allow bad-faith critics to dismiss them as unserious politicians. Thus far, she’s managed to avoid this pitfall by staying doggedly, laboriously on message, and more people are familiar with her platform as a result.
Prominent designer and tech critic Mike Monteiro says Facebook and other tech companies replace their employees’ sense of civic identity with a tribal corporate one, to the detriment of the communities around them:
Where most of the world saw a story about corporate malfeasance and corruption, Facebook employees were told a story about their community being under attack and needing to protect itself. They circled the wagons. If your community was under attack you’d circle the wagons too. And that’s the problem. Their sense of community, as designed by the corporation, was stronger than their sense of loyalty to any community outside the company. (And the benefits of being in that community so immense!) It became easier to rally against outside forces, than to question the community that provides them with nearly everything. Not to mention their own complicity by continuing to work there.
Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. says Facebook has been unfairly blamed for the outcome of the 2016 election, which yes we are still talking about here in November 2018:
When it comes to the Russians, the Berkman book also shows why this column makes a habit of dumping on any simplistic analysis that assumes pro-Trump Russian messages increased the Trump vote. As the prior administration’s intelligence chiefs made clear, Russia wanted its meddling to be seen. The real message was, “We’re screwing with you, America.” So how many votes did Mr. Trump lose during the campaign because of a torrent of partisan and media innuendo about his alleged Putin ties? The net effect of the Kremlin’s noisy activities is what matters.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the overwhelming effect of Russian meddling was to make Russian meddling a club that U.S. elites could use on each other in pursuit of ambition. Somebody might well be deserving of blame for this, but it’s not Mark Zuckerberg or Sheryl Sandberg.
And finally …
The runners-up were “representation,” “self-made” and “backlash” — so I’d say Dictionary.com got this one right! Certainly it’s The Interface’s word of the year.
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