FCC chairman says Twitter, Facebook, Google may need transparency law

The leader of the Federal Communications Commission says that major web companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google have offered little transparency into how they work — and it’s time to seriously consider forcing them to tell us.

In a blog post today, FCC chairman Ajit Pai calls out a long list of algorithmic and moderation decisions by web companies (including Twitter choosing not to ban New York Times columnist Sarah Jeong, a former Verge writer) and says that “consumers have virtually no insight” into how or why they happen. The same goes for privacy issues around how and where our data is used, Pai says.

“The public deserves to know more about how these companies operate,” he writes. “And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations.”

Pai’s blog post is timed to a congressional hearing that will see Facebook and Twitter executives sitting in front of a House committee tomorrow to answer questions around transparency. (Google was invited, but declined to appear.) The fact that Pai is even weighing in here is unusual: web companies make great use of the networks his agency regulates, but he does not regulate these web companies.

On top of that, Pai actively fought and stripped away similar regulations on the companies that he does regulate — internet providers. Privacy rules covering the vast amounts of data that your internet provider is capable of seeing were among the first things he scrapped after taking charge of the commission.

The points Pai makes about tech companies are not altogether wrong. How the algorithms behind major websites work and what’s happening to our data are increasingly considered critical questions, and the demand for transparency is growing.

But Pai comes at it from the same approach as President Trump, cherry-picking examples to make it seem like these are liberal companies out to silence conservative voices, rather than platforms keeping their sites safe. One example he pulls out is YouTube demonetizing videos from PragerU, a nonprofit (which is not a university) that the Southern Poverty Law Center described as offering “dog whistles to the extreme right.” Among the videos pulled were several with Islamophobic titles like “Is Islam a Religion of Peace?”

Those are moderation issues, and tech companies have increasingly been pressed to do a better job of cleaning their sites of similarly offensive content. Pai even notes in his blog post that such decisions are permissible because private companies “do not violate the First Amendment when they make certain business judgments about content on their sites.”

Pai also takes a jab at net neutrality supporters in his blog post, while misunderstanding what net neutrality means. He calls out Twitter for an error that stopped an AT&T blog post on net neutrality from being retweeted “ironically, on a day advocating about the importance of net neutrality.” But net neutrality covers internet service providers like AT&T, not web companies like Twitter, which no one is saying ought to remain perfectly neutral.

There is one core thread running through his blog post, though: that there should probably be some sort of transparency or accountability requirements on web providers, forcing them to disclose information on how they work. Though Pai stops short of fully calling for this, he compares a possible disclosure requirement with what the FCC asks of internet providers — that they share some basic information on speed, pricing, and management practices.

“After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms,” Pai writes.

This is, again, somewhat strange as Pai largely removed the FCC’s ability to make sure the companies it actually regulates are being honest in their disclosures. But the point is one that may be increasingly agreed upon in Capitol Hill.

Ultimately, though, the blog post seems to be a low-key way of dismissing calls for net neutrality and shifting the gaze of critics. Republicans and internet providers have long tried to conflate what web companies do with what ISPs do, arguing that both should be covered by the same set of rules. In his blog post, Pai lays out the argument that what web companies are doing should be what really scares us.

Trump says Amazon, Facebook, and Google represent a ‘very antitrust situation’

President Donald Trump continued his war of words against technology companies for a third day in a row, this time telling Bloomberg News in an Oval Office interview this afternoon that he sees the power and influence of companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google as a “very antitrust situation.” Trump began his heightened criticism of Silicon Valley starting on Tuesday by criticizing Google for alleged skewing of search results in favor of left-wing media organizations, after watching a related Fox News segment that cited deeply flawed study results.

“I won’t comment on the breaking up, of whether it’s that or Amazon or Facebook,” Trump said, replying to a question on whether tech companies like Facebook and Google should be regulated and potentially broken up by the US government. “As you know, many people think it is a very antitrust situation, the three of them. But I just, I won’t comment on that.” Trump reiterated his claim that “conservatives have been treated very unfairly” by Google. “I tell you there are some moments where we say, ’Wow that really is bad, what they’re doing,’” he added.

It is not clear why Amazon is included in this latest round of criticism, as it does not operate a communications platform, but it’s likely because Trump personally dislikes Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, and has criticized Amazon frequently in the past over apparent tax issues.

Trump’s attacks on tech companies have reached new heights this week and represent a growing strategy among right-wing politicians and media figures designed to paint Silicon Valley as an enemy of conservative speech. Facebook and Twitter have long been targeted by conservatives for perceived liberal bias regarding how they moderate their platforms, with Facebook having come under fire two years ago for alleged censoring of right-wing news sources in its Trending Topics feature, which has since been removed from the site.

Since then, Facebook has often been accused of censoring conservatives on its platform, though any concrete evidence on the practice remains virtually nonexistent and Congressional hearings on the subject tend to illustrate how profoundly misunderstood Facebook is by most politicians. Still, earlier this week, it was revealed that a small group of Facebook employees has come out in opposition to what it sees as systemic liberal bias within the company at a cultural level, with The New York Times reporting that the group of around 100 employees is calling for more idealogical diversity. There is no available evidence that the political makeup of Facebook employees has any concrete effect on its products whatsoever, although the existence of the right-wing group within the company is sure to complicate the optics of the situation in Washington.

Twitter has more recently come under fire for its alleged shadow banning of right-wing public figures on the platform, a misleading use of the term that has nonetheless helped craft a narrative of liberal bias within the San Francisco-based social network. CEO Jack Dorsey has spent the past year trying to craft better moderation strategies to deal with hate speech and other unsavory actions on his platform. Yet he’s found himself often placating conservatives and waltzing into endless controversies around whether accounts like those of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and his Infowars network get to stay on the platform.

Google, on the other hand, has remained relatively off the radar for Trump and other big-name conservatives — excluding the James Damore situation — until this week, even as the company has faced legitimate antitrust probes both in the US and Europe. In July, the European Union slapped Google with an unprecedented $5 billion fine for Android antitrust violations related to the promotion of its own software services in Google Search.

It’s unlikely Google will face anything close to that level of punishment or scrutiny here in the US, where corporate oversight is much more lax and tends to follow the tides of partisan political discourse. However, following Trump’s claims of search result bias, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) has asked the Federal Trade Commission to conduct a formal investigation into any potential anti-competitive effects in Google’s search and digital advertising practices.

On Wednesday, Trump posted a video of unknown origin to his Twitter account claiming Google purposefully decided not to link to his State of the Union (SOTU) address. Google denied the allegation and provided proof and an explanation as to why Trump’s SOTU address in 2017 was not linked on the Google homepage. Nonetheless, the video did its job of increasing the perception of Google as an enemy of conservatives, and Trump supporters even showed up at the company’s Mountain View, California headquarters this afternoon to protest.

The video was posted after Trump claimed he was losing social media followers due to Silicon Valley’s liberal bias and told reporters Tuesday that the tech companies in question are on “troubled territory” and “better be careful.”

Trump’s latest misleading attack on Google, explained

President Donald Trump intensified his criticism of Google today, posting a native video of unknown origin to his Twitter account this afternoon claiming the search giant stopped promoting the State of the Union (SOTU) address on its homepage after he took office. It turns out the video he posted is not only misleading, but also contains what appears to be a fake or misleading screenshot of the Google homepage on the day in question. The video has since been viewed more than 3.5 million times.

As Gizmodo notes, however, whoever made the video could have simply pulled a screenshot of the Google homepage for that date from the Wayback Machine prior to the start of the address, thereby misleading people into thinking Google never promoted it. The Internet Archive, the non-profit organization that manages the Wayback Machine, said it was able to find multiple instances of the Google homepage that day displaying a link to 2018 SOTU:

In a statement given to The Verge, a Google spokesperson clarifies that the company promoted neither former President Barack Obama nor Trump’s inaugural SOTU addresses in 2009 and 2017, respectively. That’s because they were not technically State of the Union addresses, but “addresses to a joint session” of Congress, a tradition set back in 1993 so that new presidents didn’t have to immediately deliver SOTU addresses after holding office for just a few weeks. Google resumed promoting Obama’s SOTU address in 2010 and continued to do so through 2016, as he held office for all six of those years.

With regard to the 2018 SOTU, Google says it did in fact promote it on its homepage. “On January 30th 2018, we highlighted the livestream of President Trump’s State of the Union on the google.com homepage,” reads Google’s statement. “We have historically not promoted the first address to Congress by a new President, which is not a State of the Union address. As a result, we didn’t include a promotion on google.com for this address in either 2009 or 2017.” Interestingly enough, a screenshot posted to the Trump-centric subreddit, r/The_Donald, shows the Google homepage on January 30th promoting Trump’s SOTU address that evening. It was posted seven months ago, while the address was ongoing.

Trump’s posting of the video to his official Twitter account is just the latest attack in a series of heightened criticism against tech companies this week, with Trump singling out Google after watching a Fox News segment about a report that claimed 96 percent of search results were for from “national left-wing media.” (The author of the report has since distanced herself from the claims, calling them “not scientific” and “based on only a small sample size” of 100 results.)

Trump parroted the report’s findings in a tweet early yesterday morning, saying Google search results are “rigged” and claiming the US government would “address” the situation. Since then, Trump has expanded his criticism of Silicon Valley and its perceived liberal bias to Facebook and Twitter, which he said later that day “are on troubled territory” and “better be careful.” However, it’s unlikely Congress can or will do anything at all about this, as Trump loves threatening policy and legal challenges against his adversaries without actually following through.

Google’s ambitions for China could trigger a crisis inside the company

On Thursday afternoon, a critical meeting at Google was derailed by a handful of tweets. Employees who had been pressing top executives for answers about the company’s plans to build a censored search engine and news app for the Chinese market appeared to have finally gotten their wish. Google cofounder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai had taken the stage to address employees’ concerns. “We’ll definitely be transparent as we get closer to actually having a plan of record,” Pichai said, according to a report from The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher.

Then employees noticed that executives’ words were being transcribed in real time by the New York Times’ Kate Conger, who had a source inside. Upon which an unidentified employee at the meeting went up to a microphone and did this, according to Business Insider’s Greg Sandoval:

”Fuck you,” said the male Google employee standing at the microphone during a pivotal moment at the company all-hands meeting on Thursday night.

According to three sources in attendance who spoke with Business Insider, the man was addressing whoever within Google was relaying what was said at the gathering in real time to a New York Times reporter. The reporter had posted statements to Twitter that had been made just minutes before by Google’s cofounder Sergey Brin and CEO, Sundar Pichai, and her tweets were displayed on a large screen before the gathering.

It was a dramatic turn of events, and it stopped the meeting in its tracks. Few details about the Chinese project were shared, and as Sandoval notes, it gave Brin and Pichai a good excuse to continue working on the Chinese project in secrecy.

But what the executives did say has raised some uncomfortable questions. (Gallagher has 13 of them for Google, all worth reading; we’ll limit ourselves to just a few.)

One, Pichai apparently characterized the nature of Google’s work in China as exploratory. Gallagher has previously reported that Google had plans to get the censored search engine — codenamed Dragonfly — into a “launch-ready state.” Maybe those things aren’t at odds — maybe something can be both launch-ready and exploratory — but Google appears to be much further down the road to relaunch in China than anyone acknowledged on Thursday.

Two, Brin said he had only recently become aware of Dragonfly. On one level, this would seem to strain credulity: Brin’s upbringing in the Soviet Union shaped his views on censorship and informed the company’s decision to exit the Chinese market in 2010. Launching an initiative to re-enter China without Brin’s express approval would seem to be a firing offense, even if Google is now a subsidiary of Alphabet and operating with less direct oversight. (Counterpoint: this is Sergey Brin we’re talking about! One of the world’s most eccentric billionaires. Yesterday he described Dragonfly as a “kerfuffle.” If you told me Brin had recently delegated all of his decision-making authority to a stack of pancakes, I would believe it.)

But while Google may have dodged a bullet on Thursday, I’m less certain than ever that the company can avoid a crisis without abandoning the project. China considers censorship a state secret, vastly restricting what Google can tell even its own employees about what its plans are. Meanwhile, a group of at least 1,400 employees is leading a charge to stop Dragonfly in its tracks.

Employees succeeded earlier this year in getting Google to stop working on a controversial project for the Pentagon. It’s hard to imagine employees successfully derailing a project to aid the American military and then failing to derail a project to aid the Chinese military. (The data generated by any Google service not being of at least some use to intelligence agencies.)

The thing I find myself wondering about the most here is what Sundar Pichai is thinking. Of the big tech-company CEOs, he is easily the kindest and most approachable. Taking Google to China — a China that is vastly more authoritarian than it was even when Google abandoned it the first time around — would require him to make compromises that will define his legacy.

The stock price would surely surge, but at the likely expense of any moral capital he hoped to spend for the rest of his career. It could also come at the expense of at least 1,400 employees, working on projects across the company.

On one hand, look at how naive we are — acting all surprised when we find out a giant corporation is in it for the money. But what happens when this new brute-capitalist version of Google finds out it’s not the company some of its most talented people signed up to work for?

Democracy

U.S. government seeks Facebook help to wiretap Messenger: sources

The U.S. government wants to force Facebook to break the encryption in Messenger authorities can listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe, report Dan Levine and Joseph Menn:

The potential impact of the judge’s coming ruling is unclear. If the government prevails in the Facebook Messenger case, it could make similar arguments to force companies to rewrite other popular encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions, some legal experts said.

Law enforcement agencies forcing technology providers to rewrite software to capture and hand over data that is no longer encrypted would have major implications for the companies which see themselves as defenders of individual privacy while under pressure from police and lawmakers.

Facebook could be responsible for how advertisers use its platform, Justice Department says

Fair housing groups have sued Facebook, saying its ad tools let landlords discriminate against women with children and other protected categories of people. Facebook sought to have the suit dismissed, saying that under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act it could not be held liable for landlords’ ads. But in a surprise move, the Justice Department argued that it potentially could be. The argument is essentially that its ad-targeting tools are so good they explicitly enable this kind of behavior:

Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, sided with the plaintiffs, noting Facebook “creates and harvests user data to develop profiles for each user, categorizing them into groups based on demographics, interests, behaviors and other criteria.”

Berman wrote, “The Complaint sufficiently alleges that, for purposes of housing advertisements, the categorizing of Facebook users based on protected characteristics, and the mechanism that Facebook offers advertisers to target those segments of the potential audience, violated the FHA.“

‘Weaponized Ad Technology’: Facebook’s Moneymaker Gets a Critical Eye

And speaking of microtargeting, Natasha Singer reports on regulators’ mounting concerns over Facebook’s impressive advertising tools:

Facebook is just one player among tech giants like Google and Twitter that also offer data-mining services to try to influence consumer and voter behavior. But Facebook’s gargantuan reach, vast holdings of user data and easy-to-use self-service advertising system have made it a lightning rod for political microtargeting.

Much of the new attention being paid to microtargeted advertising has emerged from investigations into how Russian groups interfered in elections and how the voter-profiling company Cambridge Analytica harvested the data of millions of Facebook users. Microtargeting, they have found, was a central tool for foreign groups trying to interfere in elections.

Facebook has a plan to protect the US midterm elections. Is it enough?

Kurt Wagner examines Facebook’s battle readiness heading into the midterms. Here’s what Samidh Chakrabarti, product manager for all of Facebook’s election-related efforts, had to say:

“I feel like we have a good handle and a good plan for many of the problem types that we’re seeing. But whether we will get far enough, fast enough, is really the question,” he added. “It’s just a question of time. I would love if the U.S. midterms were in 2019.”

Elsewhere

Alex Jones of Infowars Destroyed Evidence Related to Sandy Hook Suits, Motion Says

Alex Jones you absolute rascal! Elizabeth Williamson reports that the tweets Jones deleted to keep his Twitter account alive were part of the public record and not supposed to be tampered with. A real rock-and-a-hard-place situation for Jones:

At least some of the deleted content was considered evidence in the Sandy Hook cases, and Mr. Jones had been informed in writing in April that he was obligated by law to preserve all relevant material, according to the court filing in District Court in Travis County in Austin.

“As pressure mounted from pending defamation lawsuits and growing public indignation, Mr. Jones chose to destroy evidence of his actual malice and defamatory conduct,” the motion filed on Friday said. “Infowars deleted critical evidence at the precise moment plaintiff and his experts were attempting to marshal that evidence.”

Elon Musk Confronts a Fateful Tweet and an ‘Excruciating’ Year

I’ve mostly avoided sharing news about Elon Musk in this space, but as a case study in Never Tweet, the Tesla CEO has rapidly cleared a space for him in the Hall of Fame. I don’t want to make too much light of this — Musk appears to be struggling with serious health issues here — and yet it’s worth pointing out in column about social media just how much trouble his Twitter account is causing him. From the story by David Gelles, James B. Stewart, Jessica Silver-Greenberg, and Kate Kell:

In the interview, Mr. Musk added that he did not regret his Twitter post — “Why would I?” — and said he had no plans to stop using the social media platform. Some board members, however, have recently told Mr. Musk that he should lay off Twitter and focus on making cars and launching rockets, according to people familiar with the matter.

Facebook’s Inconsistent Ad Policy Hurts Bra and Underwear Sellers

Smaller bra and underwear companies say Facebook unfairly bans their ads, saying they don’t comply with policies about “nudity and sexualization.” (Personally I have always found that bras help prevent nudity.)

Jeff White, co-founder and owner of Andrew Christian, a company that markets underwear to LGBTQ+ men, said via email that he sees the same inconsistencies in the ads his company submits to Facebook and Instagram. “Even using very specific targeting and very conservative images and language we probably only get 50% of our ads approved,” he says. Of those approved, around half are discontinued in the middle of the ad campaign, added White. The company has also had one of their ad accounts terminated entirely.

Fake numbers? Facebook misled advertisers with inflated ‘potential reach,’ lawsuit says

A group of advertisers are suing Facebook for misleading them about an ad’s “potential reach.” I am not a lawyer but I expect they will have a hard time that their ads could not “potentially” reach however many people Facebook said they could. It’s an ad! On the internet! Anyone could see it. Potentially.

Takes

Google complicity in Chinese censorship could endanger press freedom elsewhere

The Committee to Protect Journalists asks Google not to pursue Dragonfly:

Still, by integrating its services with the Chinese model, Google risks enabling serious violations beyond censorship. According to Bloomberg, Google is also working to launch cloud services in China, including products like Google Drive and Google Docs. Cynthia Wong, a senior researcher on the internet and human rights at Human Rights Watch, said she is concerned the government could employ such products, which are commonly used by journalists, as a “honey pot” to surveil and even jail reporters and their sources. The state already combs through digital records to find citizens who challenge it: a 2017 investigation by The Wall Street Journal found Chinese authorities routinely use posts from the social media platform WeChat as evidence to prosecute dissent.

And finally …

Elon Musk Is Working Too Hard

Just how bad can a single tweet be? Matt Levine, in a string of commentaries about Elon Musk that ought to win him a Pulitzer next year, has my new favorite answer to this question:

Last week Musk infamously tweeted that he had “funding secured” for a buyout of Tesla at $420 per share; it has since come out that that was not, in the ordinary usage of those words, true. “In the interview, Mr. Musk added that he did not regret his Twitter post — ‘Why would I?’ — and said he had no plans to stop using the social media platform.” Why would he regret the tweet about going private? Because he is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission, is being sued by investors, and may well end up costing the company (or himself) hundreds of millions of dollars in damages? Tesla made about $588 million last quarter from selling cars; my rough estimate of the damages caused by Musk’s going-private tweet is at least $606 million. If the shareholder lawsuits settle for anything like that amount, then Musk’s tweet was as bad as shutting down the assembly line for three months. Sabotage!

There are bad tweets, there are worse tweets, and then there are tweets that cost your company $606 million. Personally I’m feeling much better about my own tweets lately!

Have a nice weekend.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, weekend plans: casey@theverge.com.

Google employees are protesting the company’s secrecy over censored search engine in China

About a thousand Google employees have signed a letter protesting the company’s efforts to build a censored version of its search engine in China, as reported by The New York Times. The letter calls for more transparency and consideration of the human rights issues involved, as internet monitoring and collaboration with the Chinese government is used to stifle dissident voices and even put activists’ personal information at risk.

The letter reads “currently we do not have the information required to make ethically-informed decisions about our work, our projects, and our employment,” as two anonymous sources informed the Times. It continued, “Google employees need to know what we’re building.”

On August 3rd, The Intercept and The Information reported that Google is working on a censored search app and a censored news app for China, with the ultimate aim being to revive a censored version of its search engine in the country. Work on the apps reportedly began last year and has been kept secret by the company. Google declined to comment on the news. The company left China in 2010, after an attempt to run an uncensored search engine did not sit well with Beijing.

The move to return marks a huge reversal from the company’s position years ago, back when its motto was “Don’t Be Evil.” When Google was staunch about internet freedom issues, it even had a position in Asia called Head of Free Expression. Last Friday, Lokman Tsui, the former head of free expression at Google commented on the move to The Intercept, calling it “a really bad idea, a stupid move.” Tsui elaborated, “In these past few years things have been deteriorating so badly in China — you cannot be there without compromising yourself…I can’t see a way to operate Google search in China without violating widely held international human rights standards.”

Employees have been protesting the decision to build a censored search engine by internally circulating memes that lament a lack of results when searching for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and by posting (since deleted) tweets decrying the move.

Nonprofits like Amnesty International and, more recently, the Electric Frontier Foundation have published statements in response. The EFF wrote yesterday that other tech companies like Facebook and Apple were eyeing China eagerly and the main search engine competitor in China, Baidu, had received backlash for deceptive ads and phishing sites. But even if China did need Google and the move was understandable from a business perspective, “in 2018, the potential for damage when large tech companies cooperate with repressive states has grown,” the EFF explained. Echoing Google employees’ words, the EFF wrote “it’s this lack of transparency that concerns us most…It is better to have this debate now, in public, than to pick up the pieces when the damage has been done.”

Google did not immediately respond to comment. The company has repeatedly ignored requests for comment, despite being responsive to commenting on other stories. Its sole statement on its situation in China is from August 3rd: We provide a number of mobile apps in China, such as Google Translate and Files Go, help Chinese developers, and have made significant investments in Chinese companies like JD.com. But we don’t comment on speculation about future plans.”

Google defends controversial China project in meeting with employees

Google CEO Sundar Pichai and co-founder Sergey Brin have addressed the controversy over “Dragonfly,” reportedly an effort to re-enter the Chinese market with a news and search product, in an all-hands meeting with employees. Pichai described the effort as “exploratory” and in the “early stages,” according to a transcript obtained by Bloomberg. “We are not close to launching a search product in China,” he told employees. “And whether we would do so or could so is all very unclear.”

The Dragonfly project would reportedly involve censoring information in accordance with the Chinese government’s demands, which has prompted some employees to protest the company’s secrecy over the matter. “I think there are a lot of times when people are in exploratory stages where teams are debating and doing things, so sometimes being fully transparent at that stage can cause issues,” Pichai said, according to BuzzFeed News. “So I do think there are genuine issues teams are grappling with. We are as a company, I think, more committed to transparency than probably any company in the world.”

“Our stated mission is to organize the world’s information,” Pichai added. “China is one-fifth of the world’s population. I think if we were to do our mission well, I think we have to think seriously about how we do more in China. I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China.”

Brin said that the Dragonfly project only came to his attention because of the “kerfuffle” over it. “Googlers should feel broadly proud of their work, not feel that it compromises their principles,” he added, before changing the topic after becoming aware that his and Pichai’s comments were leaking. Reporters from publications including The New York Times and BuzzFeed News were tweeting out quotes from the meeting as it was taking place.

How a wily Californian beat Google and Facebook’s influence operation

Amid a national reckoning over the perils of social media, a looming question has been whether — and how — the US government might respond. A series of hearings in Congress raised the specter of onerous new rules without ever quite convincing anyone that regulation was imminent. Amid deep partisan disagreements, the worst that Facebook, Google, and Twitter have had to contend with some sharply worded questions.

But all the way across the country, a different story was playing out. A single wealthy man, suddenly radicalized on the subject of data privacy, began consulting with experts in the hopes of crafting strong, state-level privacy protections. His name is Alistair Mactaggart, and he succeeded. Here’s how my colleague Colin Lecher described California’s new data privacy law at the time:

The California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018 is set to dramatically change how businesses handle data in the most populous state. Companies that store large amounts of personal information — including major players like Google and Facebook — will be required to disclose the types of data they collect, as well as allow consumers to opt out of having their data sold.

The legislation was a very-slightly-watered-down version of an initiative that Mactaggart planned to place on the ballot. Despite relatively little financing, the initiative received more than twice the required signatures and was polling favorably at the time the California legislature intervened.

Now, from Nicholas Confessore in The New York Times, we have the unlikely story of how the privacy act came about. It’s a very long read, well worth your time, that tells at least two stories. The first is about how Google and Facebook rose came to spend more on lobbyists than any other companies, developing deep ties to elected officials in both major parties, effectively insulating themselves from any regulation that would check their growth or revenue potential.

Facebook, a decade younger than Google, built its political apparatus twice as fast, as if observing a kind of Moore’s Law of influence-peddling. When it went public in 2012, the company had 900 million users — less than half its current size — and earned a relatively modest profit of $53 million. Over the next several years, Facebook simultaneously became one of the world’s biggest collectors of personal data and a powerful presence in Washington and beyond. It acquired Instagram, a rival social media platform, and the messaging service WhatsApp, bringing Facebook access to billions of photos and other user data, much of it from smartphones; formed partnerships with country’s leading third-party data brokers, such as Acxiom, to ingest huge quantities of commercial data; and began tracking what its users did on other websites. Smart exploitation of all that data allowed Facebook to target advertising better than almost anyone, and by 2015, the company was earning $4 billion a year from mobile advertising. Starting in 2011, Facebook doubled the amount of money it spent on lobbying in Washington, then doubled it again. The company employed just 10 lobbyists in state capitals around the country in 2012, according to my analysis of data collected by the National Institute on Money in Politics. By the time Mactaggart and Arney began work on their privacy initiative, it had 67. The tech industry was particularly powerful in California, its home base, where it doled out millions in campaign contributions to state candidates and parties.

But until recently, companies like Facebook and Google also had something that Wall Street and Big Oil and the cable companies didn’t. To many people in Washington, they were the good guys. Through the Obama years, the tech industry enjoyed extraordinary cachet in Washington, not only among Republicans but also among Democrats. Partnering with Silicon Valley allowed Democrats to position themselves as pro-business and forward-thinking. The tech industry was both an American economic success story and a political ally to Democrats on issues like immigration. Google enjoyed particularly close ties to the Obama administration: Dozens of Google alumni would serve in the White House or elsewhere in the administration, and by one estimate Google representatives visited the White House an average of about once a week. But the Obama world had relationships with other firms too. Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, served on a high-level Obama advisory council on jobs and held a fund-raiser for Obama’s re-election campaign at her home in Atherton, Calif. The founders of Twitter, LinkedIn and the app developer Zynga together contributed more than $2 million to a pro-Obama super PAC.

It also tells the story of how Mactaggart used California’s initiative process to make an end run around their influence. Facebook and Google had teamed up to defeat an Obama-era privacy initiative, Confessore reports. Mactaggart benefited from increased skepticism about tech companies broadly, but he also got an unexpected gift this spring: the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook, sending the company’s stock price plunging and setting in motion the worst crisis in the company’s history. Cambridge executives had long bragged about deploying powerful “psychographic” voter profiles to manipulate voters. Now Facebook was forced to acknowledge that Cambridge had used voters’ own Facebook data to do it. The damage was not only legal and political — Facebook faced lawsuits and new inquiries by regulators in Brussels, London and Washington — but also reputational. Silicon Valley’s public image had survived the Snowden revelations. But tech companies, already implicated in the spread of “fake news” and Russian interference in the 2016 election, were no longer the good guys. When Arney took one of his sons canvassing on the train, it was suddenly easy to get people to sign their ballot petition. “After the Cambridge Analytica scandal, all we had to say was ‘data privacy,’ ” he told me.

Before Cambridge Analytica, Facebook was a top donor to something called the Committee to Protect California Jobs, which tech company lobbyists had established to kill Mactaggart’s initiative. After Cambridge Analytica, Facebook announced it would no longer donate to the effort. And when it became clear that compromise legislation was the only thing to stop the initiative from going to the ballot, Facebook endorsed it.

It’s a twisty tale, artfully told. It’s also a heartening account of a time our democracy more or less worked — and could offer a roadmap for other states (or activists) looking to craft privacy regulations of their own. California’s privacy bill has its critics — Mike Masnick of TechDirt calls it “an unmitigated disaster.” But it’s also an account of how an outsider used the system, fairly, to overcome the influence peddling operation of the two best-funded players in the game.

Or, in the perfect formulation of privacy researcher Ashkan Soltani, who worked on the legislation: “Mactaggart had offered Silicon Valley a take-it-or-leave-it privacy policy — the same kind that Silicon Valley usually offered everyone else.”

Democracy

1 big thing: The talk of the swamp …

Facebook is the company most mentioned by Congress over the past decade, with Google a distant second, Sara Fischer reports.

How three conspiracy theorists took ‘Q’ and sparked Qanon

Here’s a great story from Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins, who tracked down the three people who banded together last November to promote the Qanon conspiracy theory, profiting all the way. Among other things, this story offers a great illustration of how idiotic conspiracies make the leap from one platform to another, and how conspiracy theorists ultimately turn on their own:

In November 2017, a small-time YouTube video creator and two moderators of the 4chan website, one of the most extreme message boards on the internet, banded together and plucked out of obscurity an anonymous and cryptic post from the many conspiracy theories that populated the website’s message board.

Over the next several months, they would create videos, a Reddit community, a business and an entire mythology based off the 4chan posts of “Q,” the pseudonym of a person claiming to be a high-ranking military officer. The theory they espoused would become Qanon, and it would eventually make its way from those message boards to national media stories and the rallies of President Donald Trump.

The Flourishing Business of Fake YouTube Views

In January the New York Times exposed “fake follower factory” Devumi, which was among the more successful businesses selling Twitter followers online. Now Michael H. Keller finds Devumi and other businesses selling fake YouTube views — a trivial-sounding problem that undermines our reality in various ways. There could be tens of millions of fake views a day, Keller says.

Still, the challenges are significant. At one point in 2013, YouTube had as much traffic from bots masquerading as people as it did from real human visitors, according to the company. Some employees feared this would cause the fraud detection system to flip, classifying fake traffic as real and vice versa — a prospect engineers called “the Inversion.”

“The problem itself was extraordinary,” said Blake Livingston, a member of YouTube’s fraud and abuse team at the time who has since left the company.

Italy’s anti-vaccine push is fueled by populist politics and social media misinformation

Organizers of a successful fight against vaccines in Italy have used Facebook effectively to recruit supporters, Eileen Drage O’Reilly reports:

A Facebook spokesperson tells Axios that the company’s position in general is that removing provocative matter does not help build factual awareness or in different approaches to health.

Fighting Conspiracy Theories, Sandy Hook Parent Is Thwarted by Online Policies

WordPress parent Automattic is standing by Alex Jones amid an effort by the parent of a Sandy Hook shooting victim to remove his conspiracy posts:

Automattic has repeatedly responded to Mr. Pozner with form letters saying “because we believe this to be fair use of the material, we will not be removing it at this time.” The letters explain that fair use could include “criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.” They also warn that the company could collect damages from people who “knowingly materially misrepresent” copyrights.

“The responses from their support people are very automated, very generic, very cold and there’s just no getting through to them,” Mr. Pozner said.

After Facebook, YouTube, and others ban him, Alex Jones directs supporters to Tumblr

Jones is also apparently still welcome on the famously permissive Tumblr platform.

On Periscope, Alex Jones tells supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against antifa, the mainstream media, and “Chicom operatives”

And speaking of permissive, Jones was on Periscope today telling his followers to get their “battle rifles” ready, which to my ears sure sounds like an incitement to violence against the Twitter rules.

How WeChat Filters Images for One Billion Users

Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory at the University of Toronto, published a new analysis of how WeChat censors images to comply with Chinese government guidelines:

Findings show that WeChat uses two different algorithms to filter images: an Optical Character Recognition (OCR)-based approach that filters images containing sensitive text and a visual-based one that filters images that are visually similar to those on an image blacklist.

Chinese Cops Now Spying on American Soil

Speaking of WeChat: China is pressuring its ethnic Uighur minority to help it build a global database of expatriates, and monitoring their conversations on the chat app to make sure they comply.

Elsewhere

Tinder co-founders and 8 others sue dating app’s owners

Sean Rad is leading a charge to swipe $2 billion from Tinder’s corporate parent.

Facebook buys rights to show La Liga games in India | Technology | The Guardian

Here’s another sports deal from Facebook:

The company has signed an exclusive agreement to show La Liga games featuring Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and other stars for the next three years. The deal will allow Facebook to show all 380 matches for the new season, which starts on Friday, to users in India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

YouTube Offers Cash If Stars Stump for New Features

YouTube is paying top creators to promote new paid memberships and chat features, Lucas Shaw reports. Some are getting hundreds of thousands of dollars.

YouTube introduced paid memberships, paid chats and a new merchandising program earlier this year to placate top talent and keep up with major competitors. Many people with large followings on the video site have complained that it doesn’t offer ways to make money beyond advertising, and that YouTube’s efforts to shield advertisers from controversial content has hurt their sales.

Google, Facebook Security Guards Finally Have a Union Contract

Five years after they started, about 3,000 guards at Facebook, Google, and other tech companies have a union contract, Melanie Ehrenkranz reports.

Launches

HQ Trivia introduces an Apple TV app to less efficiently play with friends

HQ Trivia makes more sense as a TV app than most games, though it’s not clear to me that this will drive a new round of growth for the company in the same way that (say) a new hit game would.

Instagram now lets you send private polls through DMs

Do you want to ask your friends if you look cute but are afraid to ask on a public story? Now you may do so via private message.

TechDen fights your kids’ tech addiction using… a box

TechDen is a $119 box and maybe the first Kickstarter gadget to emerge from the Time Well Spent movement. The way it works is, you tell it how much you want you or your kids to use your phones, and the phones stay locked in the box until a time of your choosing. Looking at the TechDen I feel an enormous urge to attack it with a baseball bat.

Takes

Warner’s Plan to Ruin the Internet

Andy Kessler tells Sen. Mark Warner to take his ideas for regulating Facebook and shove them. I found this rather hilariously overblown:

Good luck getting through Mr. Warner’s 23-page report. It’s filled with impossible-to-implement mandates (identify bots), silly bromides (addressing the safety and security of at-risk individuals), and dangerous power grabs (updating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act). If even a handful of these proposals become law, faceless bureaucrats would control the internet instead of energetic entrepreneurs. No one would win under this new internet. And compliance costs would be so massive that no new startups would emerge.

We’re Bad At Regulating Privacy, Because We Don’t Understand Privacy

Mike Masnick hates recently adopted privacy regulations around the world, including the California law mentioned in today’s lead item. Better regulation would focus on transparency and control, he says. (Counterpoint: Facebook has offered users transparency and control around their data for years, and Cambridge Analytica happened anyway. Most people just didn’t realize what they were doing when they gave away their friends’ data.)

There are better ways of dealing with all of this, starting with recognizing the idea that privacy is a trade-off. If that’s the case, there should be two key concepts for any competent approach to privacy: transparency and user control. As discussed above, many of the problems today (and nearly all of the concerns) are over the lack of transparency. This impacts both the cost and the benefit sides of the equation. If we don’t understand what data is being collected or what it’s being used for (or how it’s being stored), along with what actual benefits we’re getting, it’s much, much more difficult to make an informed decision about whether or not the trade-off is worth it. And the issue of control is connected to that, in that the more control end users have over their own data, the more they’re able to make informed choices in weighing the costs and benefits.

Facebook’s Story Problem — and Opportunity

Ben Thompson examines fears that stories advertising won’t monetize as well as News Feed advertising. Those fears are valid in the short term and maybe over the long term as well, he says. But the format is good for brand advertising, and the biggest 200 advertisers are brand advertisers. So it seems highly possible that Facebook’s advertising mix will simply shift from direct-response to brand ads over time, generating more than enough revenue to keep the lights on in Menlo Park.

SEO Is Back. Thank God.

Optimizing for search creates a better internet than optimizing for social networks, argues Brian Feldman:

SEO content, on the other hand, dispenses with the emotional in favor of the mechanical. It can be stilted and awkward — but it’s more honest and transparent. When a writer pads their article for the trailer of the newest Marvel movie with search keywords — data like the cast and crew and opening date — they’re optimizing for the Google robots. But they’re also providing genuinely useful information. Social content was about manipulating people into clicking, sharing, and posting. SEO is about manipulating robots into treating your content as the best example of sought-after information.

Let’s all go back to Tumblr

Jeremy Gordon says it’s time to go back to Tumbr, which I would be fine with, because Tumblr at its peak was probably the best blogging community I was ever a part of. (2016-present Facebook beat tech reporting is a close second, though.) But that’s the main thing, at least to me: Tumblr was better at community building than Twitter is, and better for blogging than Facebook ever was.

On Tumblr, people could go on for at long as they needed to, a valuable tool for posters who could actually justify it. (And I use the past tense here in the context of my own experience; if you’re still doing this, bless you and yours.) Posts could be as short as necessary, but you could also find a historical deep dive, an interesting think piece (and not the kind derisively referred to as “takes”), a photo essay, or simply just a nice blog about someone’s life. The whole impetus behind following people on social media is, “Hey, I like this person’s brain, and am open to spending more time with it.” Tumblrs delivered the full, unrestrained range of someone’s head — funny, serious, and everything else.

Podcast!

Wednesday is the season finale of Converge, and in this episode I chat with Intercom’s Eoghan McCabe. Among other things, we talk about why he’s still bullish on bots — but not on Facebook or WhatsApp. Check it out anywhere you find podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Overcast, Spotify, our RSS feed, and wherever fine podcasts are sold.

And finally …

#Resistance Twitter Star Seth Abramson Wants to Turn His Threads Into a Book

Maxwell Tani gets his hands on the book proposal from Seth Abramson, who has gained a measure of fame with voluminous Twitter threads promising the Resistance that we are rapidly nearing the end of the Trump administration. Abramson’s self-regard is somewhat legendary, and so I found it hugely entertaining to read his proposal, which is to print out his Twitter threads in book form:

“A book of this sort is daring,” he writes. “Few if any have leveraged the advantage that books offer in collating, organizing, and amplifying in narrative form an intensely followed Twitter feed.”

Daring is one word for it, though I’d probably use another.

Talk to me

Send me tips, comments, questions, draft legislation: casey@thevege.com.

Google reportedly using Chinese site it owns to develop search term blacklist

We now know more about how Google is developing its censored search engine for China. To comply with Chinese authorities, Google has been using search samples from a Beijing-based website it owns to make blacklists, according to The Intercept, which broke news of Google’s work on the censored search engine last week.

While most of Google’s services are blocked in China, its website 265.com remains open. The search engine on 265.com redirects to Baidu, China’s dominant search company, by default, but Google can apparently see the queries that users are typing in.

Google engineers are reportedly sampling those search queries in order to develop a list of thousands of blocked websites it should hide on its upcoming search engine in China. Blacklisted results, which include topics like the Tiananmen Square massacre, will result in users seeing a blank page, The Intercept reports.

On Baidu, if you search for something less specific, like Taiwan or Xinjiang, you’ll get a partial blackout where you can only see tourist information and not politically sensitive news reports. It could be possible that Google is taking a similar tack.

Originally, 265.com was founded in 2003 by Chinese entrepreneur Cai Wensheng, who’s also the founder of Chinese beauty app Meitu. Google bought the site in 2008, while it was still operating its search engine within China. Google has essentially been using the site to figure out what Chinese users are searching for since 2008, and now that it is working on an Android search app, it will finally have a use for that data.

After reports surfaced last week of Google’s plans to return to China with a search app, a news app, and potentially cloud services, US employees reacted in anger and confusion. Management shut down access to documents related to the project. And in the meantime, employees are spreading tongue-in-cheek memes related to human rights in China, according to The Intercept. One meme shows a Chinese internet user searching for the Tiananmen Square massacre and getting a result saying it wasn’t real. We’ve reached out to Google for comment.

Baidu CEO says it will defeat Google if it returns to China

Last week, reports surfaced that Google is planning to return to China with censored apps alongside talks about bringing cloud services over as well. Naturally, its biggest rival in China has something to say about that. Baidu CEO Robin Li wrote on his verified WeChat account that if “Google decides to return to China, we are very confident we can just PK and win again.” By PK, he was referencing “player-kill,” Chinese slang that originated as a gaming reference for when you kill another player, usually in a multiplayer role-playing game.

Both companies offer search engine services, cloud services, and develop AI for use within their products. They also develop hardware products, but search is their biggest overlap.

Li writes that Chinese tech companies have grown even more powerful since Google left China in 2010 after it began to challenge censored search results. “Chinese tech companies have already taken the lead… The whole world is copying from China,” he wrote. After Google vacated, Baidu absorbed its market share for a total of over 70 percent of the Chinese market.

Yet despite Li’s confidence, internet users commenting on Weibo appear to prefer Google over Baidu. Many commented on Li’s post that they would gladly uninstall Baidu and start using Google if it was allowed back in China. An internet poll on Weibo suggested that 86 percent of users would pick Google over Baidu. When Google was still in China, its search results would often differ from Baidu’s and were thought to be more accurate and slightly less censored.

When news that Google was considering returning to China appeared, Baidu’s stock price fell 7.7 percent. As of this writing, it continues a downward trend, declining 2.67 percent from yesterday’s high.

We’ve reached out to Google for comment. Baidu confirmed that Li’s social media post was legitimate to The Verge but declined to further comment.

Update August 7th, 12:40PM ET: This article has been updated after hearing back from Baidu.

Google reportedly in talks to bring its Cloud service to China

Earlier this week, reports emerged that Google was working on tailoring its search and news apps for China in order to comply with the country’s censorship laws. Now, it appears the tech giant is also taking steps to bring its cloud business to the country.

According to an unnamed source who spoke to Bloomberg, Google is looking to partner with major Chinese cloud and server providers to deliver services such as Google Drive and Google Docs to the country. The goal, they say, is to run these services through China-based data centers and servers, similar to the way Apple runs its iCloud operations inside the country. Candidates for the partnership were narrowed to three firms this past March — those companies include Tencent and Inspur Group.

It’s unclear whether these partnership efforts will come to fruition, and Bloomberg’s source added that the recent trade tensions between China and the US might complicate any agreement.

Though Google typically runs its collection of cloud-based apps through its own data centers, China requires that digital information be stored in-country, forcing the US-based tech company to partner up with local businesses. Though Google Cloud’s chief, Diane Greene, wouldn’t confirm the initiative to Bloomberg, the report pointed out that Google is currently seeking to hire a Shanghai-based employee to manage their cloud operations there. The Verge has reached out to Google and will update when comment becomes available.