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September 24, 2018
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Twitter agrees to abuse transparency reports, civil rights audit

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A meek and quiet “no” was Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s refrain as he responded to an onslaught of questions from House Energy Committee Republicans about whether his service shadowbans or is biased against conservatives. A few Democrats like Rep Sarbanes (D-MD) accurately pointed out that the whole point of the hearing was to “work the ref” in an attempt to badger Twitter into an overcorrection that would promote conservatives and make it tougher to enforce its policies against right-wing trolls and conspiracy theorists.

Before the start of the hearing, Dorsey laid out data that showed Democrat an Republican congress members got the same number of impressions per tweet when controlling for follower count — debunking the theory that it suppresses conservative view points. Given the session’s spurious purpose, many of the questions were just different ways of asking if Twitter discriminated based on political ideology, which Dorsey repeatedly denied.

But two interesting points have come out of the hearing so far, which followed this morning’s session with Dorsey and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg about their efforts to prevent election interference.

First, Dorsey said that Twitter will release an abuse transparency report in order to quantify harassment on its service and its progress at preventing it. Rep DeGette (D-CO) cited Amnesty International’s “Toxic Twitter” study on harassment of women on the service. She asked if Twitter has demographic-based data on abuse and its response to reports of harassment.

Dorsey responded that “We do have data on all violations that we have seen across the platform and the context of those violations. And we do intend, and this will be an initiative this year, to create a transparency report that will make that data more public so that all can learn from it and we can be held public accountable.”

In May, Facebook began publishing abuse reports detailing the number of nudity/sexual content, graphic violence, and hate speech posts it removed and what percentage were caught by automated systems.

Twitter already publishes transparency reports full of info about requests by the government for private user data or content takedowns, as well as copyright infringement and requests by content owners to suspend pirates. But the public knows little about just how many instances of abuse occur on the platform, how often they’re reported, Twitter’s speed and accuracy with which it responds to reports, and the development of products that could thwart or remove abuse before it spreads. We’ve asked Twitter for details on what will be included.

Second, Dorsey agreed to have Twitter undergo a civil rights audit. Rep Frank Pallone (D-NJ) asked “Will you commit to working with an independent third-party institution to conduct a civil rights audit of Twitter?” as well as make the results public and use them to change policies. Dorsey agreed, while noting that it already does internal audits with its Trust and Safety Board.

Again in May, Facebook agreed to a similar civil rights audit as well as a political bias audit. These will investigae whether Facebook discriminates against minorities or suppresses conservative views. It’s unclear exactly what the scope of Twitter’s audit will be, but we’ve asked the company.

These commitments could give Twitter more ammunition with which to fight back against the accusations that it’s failing to solve the abuse problem and that it preferences liberals — if the results come back positive. But they could also become ways to prove it’s moving too slowly, and any signal of bias no matter how small is sure to be seized upon by the current administration.

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 5: (L-R) Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey testify during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing concerning foreign influence operations’ use of social media platforms, on Capitol Hill, September 5, 2018 in Washington, DC. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg faced questions about how foreign operatives use their platforms in attempts to influence and manipulate public opinion. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Yet while Dorsey spent the day saying Twitter is doing everything it can to prevent election interference and fairly enforce its policies, it’s yet to make a quantifiable financial commitment to that drive.

Facebook agreed to double its security and content moderation staff from 10,000 to 20,000 even if that hurt its profits. Yet what Rep Pallone asked how many human content moderators Twitter has, how much they’re paid, and how they’re trained, Dorsey dodged. “We want to think about this problem not in the number of people but in how we make decisions to invest in new technologies” the CEO said.

After years in the red, Twitter posted a record $100 million profit last quarter. It’s time for it to pledge some of those profits, not just more words, towards solving its problems.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Twitter is a Nazi haven for the same reason its CEO claims no bias

in Alex Jones/Apps/Congress/Delhi/Free Speech/Government/India/jack dorsey/Policy/Politics/Richard Spencer/Social/Twitter/twitter safety by

“From a simple business perspective and to serve the public, Twitter is incentivized to keep all voices on the platform”. That’s Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s argument for why “Twitter does not use political ideology to make any decisions” according to his prepared statement for his appearance at tomorrow’s hearing with the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

But it’s also validates criticism of why Twitter is reluctant to ban Nazis, hate-mongers, and other trolls that harass people on the service: It makes money off of them.

Twitter has been long-known to ignore reports of threats or abuse. It’s common to see people posting the screenshots of the messages they get back from Twitter saying that sexist, racist, homophobic, and violent remarks don’t violate its policies. Only when they get enough retweets and media attention do those accounts seem to disappear.

In fact, a Wall Street Journal report claims that Dorsey told a confidante that he’d personally intervened to overrule his staff in order to allow Infowars’ Alex Jones to remain on the app and to reinstate alt-right figure Richard Spencer.

To avoid being labeled overly liberal which could lead to a flight of conservative users, Twitter has bowed to the abusers and weakly enforced its own rules. And since these trolls can be highly engaged with Twitter, they can rack up lots of ad views. Dorsey’s statement is emblematic of that stance, prioritizing user count, share price, and revenue over safety and civility.

Elsewhere in the statement, Dorsey makes a much stronger argument for why Twitter isn’t biased against conservatives via data instead of market forces. He says that Twitter compared tweets by Democrats and Republicans and found that “controlling for the same number of followers, a single Tweet by a Republican will be viewed as many times as a single Tweet by a Democrat, even after all filtering and algorithms have been applied by Twitter.” It’s that fact Dorsey should point to, not that Twitter isn’t biased because his hands are tied by Wall Street.

Dorsey also claims Twitter is making progress by tuning its algorithm to limit the distribution of abuse. He notes that signals that reduce a tweet’s prominence include if the author has “no confirmed email address, simultaneous registration for multiple accounts, accounts that repeatedly Tweet and mention accounts that do not follow them, or behavior that might indicate a coordinated attack”, as well as “how accounts are connected to those that violate our rules and how they interact with each other.” That’s supposedly led to “a 4 percent drop in abuse reports from search and 8 percent fewer abuse reports from conversations”.

But that progress would likely to come faster if Twitter was willing to make sacrifices to its bottom line. Facebook pledged to double its security and moderation team from 10,000 to 20,000 members despite the impact that would have on profits. Twitter has yet to make a pledge as direct and quantifiable. Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg will also appear before Congress tomorrow to face tough questions about whether that hiring and its product changes are actually protecting democracy. But at least it’s throwing money at the problem.

Dorsey didn’t say Twitter was “incentivized to keep all civil voices on the platform” or “all voices that abide by our policies” — just “all voices”. But when Twitter lets trolls bully and shout down those they hate, it’s the victims’ voices that are silenced by ‘free speech’. It’s effectively endorsing censorship, not of those with conservative or even extremist views, but of the marginalized who most deserve that voice.

Hopefully during tomorrow’s House hearing, we’ll see members of congress use Dorsey’s own words to question whether his “simple business perspective” is what’s keeping such an ugly place to have a conversation.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Washington hit China hard on tech influence this week

in Asia/CFIUS/China/Congress/Delhi/European Union/Government/India/M&A/Policy/Politics/Tariffs/Theresa May/Trump administration/Venture Capital by

After months of back-and-forth negotiations, Washington moved rapidly this past week to fend off the increasing transcendence of China’s tech industry, with Congress passing expanded national security controls over M&A transactions and the Trump administration heaping more pressure on China with threats of increased tariffs.

We’ve been following the reforms to CFIUS — the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States — since the proposal was first floated late last year. The committee is charged with protecting America’s economic interests by preventing takeovers of companies by foreign entities where the transaction could have deleterious national security consequences. The committee and its antecedents have slowly gained powers over the past few decades since the Korean War, but this week, it suddenly gained a whole lot more.

Through the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018, which was rolled into the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act and passed by Congress this week, CFIUS is gaining a number of new powers, more resources and staff, more oversight, and a charge to massively expand its influence in any M&A process involving foreign entities.

Lawfare has a great summary of the final text of the bill and its ramifications, but I want to highlight a few of the changes that I think are going to have an outsized effect on Silicon Valley and the tech industry more widely.

One of the top priorities of this legislation was to make it more difficult for Chinese venture capital firms to invest in American startups and pilfer intellectual property or acquire confidential user data.

Congress fulfilled that goal in two ways. First, the definition of a “covered transaction” has been massively expanded, with a focus on “critical technology” industries. In the past, there was an expectation that a foreign entity had to essentially buy out a company in order to trigger a CFIUS review. That jurisdiction has now been expanded to include such actions as adding a member to a company’s board of directors, even in cases where an investment is essentially passive.

That means that the typical VC round could now trigger a review in Washington — and in the fast timelines of startup fundraising, that might be enough friction to keep Chinese venture capital out of the American ecosystem. Given that Chinese venture capital (at least by some measures) has outpaced U.S. venture capital in the first half of this year, this provision will have huge ramifications for startups and their valuations.

The second element Congress added was requiring that CFIUS receive all partnership agreements that a company has signed with a foreign investor. Often in a transaction, there is a main agreement spelling out the overall structure of a deal, and then side agreements with individual investors with special terms not shared with the wider syndicate, such as the right to access internal company data or intellectual property. By requiring further disclosure, CFIUS will have a more holistic picture of a deal and any risks it might add for national security.

It’s important to note that Congress was keen on balancing the need for investment with the need of national security. Through oversight provisions, including allowing CFIUS decisions to be contested in the DC Court of Appeals, Congress has designed the reform to be fairer, even as it takes a harder line on certain transactions.

It will take many months for the provisions to come in full force, so some of the effects of this bill won’t be felt until the end of next year. Nonetheless, Congress has sent a clear message of its intent.

Congress’ national security concerns in financial transactions are also crossing the Atlantic. British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government are spearheading new controls over foreign investment transactions, and the EU has also launched more screenings to ensure that transactions are in the best interests of the continent. All of these legislative moves are a response to Chinese foreign direct investment, which has skyrocketed in Europe while almost disappearing in North America.

President Trump signed tariffs on China earlier this year. Now, the administration wants to more than double them.

That disappearance is a function of the on-going trade dispute between the U.S. and China, which crescendoed this past week. The Trump administration said it is considering increasing tariffs from 10% to 25% on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, significantly heightening the tariffs it had put in place earlier this year.

That threat got a swift response from China overnight, with the Chinese Commerce Ministry saying that it would put tariffs on $60 billion worth of American goods in retaliation if the U.S. followed through with its threat.

So far, the tech industry appears to have been more insulated from the back-and-forth than expected, although the increasing scope and intensity of tariffs could change that calculus. Apple updated its quarterly filing this week to include a new risk around trade disputes, saying that “Tariffs could also make the Company’s products more expensive for customers, which could make the Company’s products less competitive and reduce consumer demand.” Legal boilerplate for sure, but it is the first time the company has included such a provision in its filing.

The tariffs drama is going to continue in the weeks and months ahead. But this week in particularly was a watershed for U.S. and China technology relations, and a busy week for tech lobbyists and policy officials.

For startups, most of this news basically boils down to the following: the U.S. is one market, and China is another. Cross-investing and cross-distribution just aren’t going to be easy as they were even a few months ago. Pick a market — one market — and focus your energies there. Clearly, it’s going to be tough times for anyone caught in the middle between the two.

News Source = techcrunch.com

Facebook really doesn’t want users to go to a fake Unite the Right counter-protest next week

in Alex Stamos/Congress/Delhi/Facebook/India/internet research agency/mark warner/Policy/Politics/privacy/Russian election interference/Sheryl Sandberg/TC/United States/Washington/Washington D.C. by

According to COO Sheryl Sandberg, getting ahead of an event called “No Unite the Right 2, DC” is the reason behind Facebook’s decision to disclose new platform behavior that closely resembles previous Russian state-sponsored activity meant to sow political discord in the U.S.

“We’re sharing this today because the connection between these actors and the event planned in Washington next week,” Sandberg said, calling the disclosure “early” and noting that the company still does not have all the facts.

A Facebook Page called “Resisters” created the event, set to take place on August 10, as a protest against Unite the Right 2 — a follow-up event to last year’s deadly rally in Charlottesville, Va. that left peaceful counter-protester Heather Heyer dead.

The Page, which Facebook identified as displaying “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” also worked with the admins from five authentic Facebook Pages to co-host the event and arrange transportation and logistics. Facebook has notified those users of its findings and taken down the event page.

This isn’t the first event coordinated by fake Facebook accounts with the likely intention of further polarizing U.S. voters. In a call today, Facebook noted that the new inauthentic accounts it found had created around 30 events. While the dates for two have yet to pass, “the others have taken place over the past year or so.”

Facebook will not yet formally attribute its new findings to the Russian state-linked Internet Research Agency (IRA). Still, the Resisters Page hosting “No Unite the Right 2, DC” listed a previously identified IRA account as a co-admin for “only seven minutes.”

That link, and whatever else the public doesn’t know at this time, is enough for the Senate Intel committee vice chairman Mark Warner to credit the Russian government with what appears to be an ongoing campaign of political influence.

“Today’s disclosure is further evidence that the Kremlin continues to exploit platforms like Facebook to sow division and spread disinformation, and I am glad that Facebook is taking some steps to pinpoint and address this activity,” Warner said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “I also expect Facebook, along with other platform companies, will continue to identify Russian troll activity and to work with Congress on updating our laws to better protect our democracy in the future.”

Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, maintained that the company “doesn’t think it’s appropriate for Facebook to give public commentary on political motivations of nation states” and calls the IRA link “interesting but not determinant.”

News Source = techcrunch.com

Russian hackers already targeted a Missouri senator up for reelection in 2018

in 2018 midterm elections/Congress/Crime/cybercrime/Cyberwarfare/Delhi/fancy bear/Government/identity theft/India/Josh Hawley/Microsoft/phishing/Politics/Putin/Russia/Russian election interference/Security/social engineering/spamming/U.S. Senate by

A Democratic senator seeking reelection this fall appears to be the first identifiable target of Russian hacking in the 2018 midterm race. In a new story on the Daily Beast, Andrew Desiderio and Kevin Poulsen reported that Democratic Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill was targeted in a campaign-related phishing attack. That clears up one unspecified target from last week’s statement by Microsoft’s Tom Burt that three midterm election candidates had been targeted by Russian phishing campaigns.

The report cites its own forensic research in determining the attacker is likely Fancy Bear, a hacking group believed to be affiliated with Russian military intelligence.

“We did discover that a fake Microsoft domain had been established as the landing page for phishing attacks, and we saw metadata that suggested those phishing attacks were being directed at three candidates who are all standing for elections in the midterm elections,” Burt said during the Aspen Security Forum. Microsoft removed the domain and noted that the attack was unsuccessful.

Sen. McCaskill confirmed in a press release that she was targeted by the attack, which appears to have taken place in August 2017:

Russia continues to engage in cyber warfare against our democracy. I will continue to speak out and press to hold them accountable. While this attack was not successful, it is outrageous that they think they can get away with this. I will not be intimidated. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, Putin is a thug and a bully.

TechCrunch has reached out to Sen. McCaskill’s office for additional details on the incident. McCaskill, a vocal Russia critic, will likely face Republican frontrunner and Trump pick Josh Hawley this fall.

News Source = techcrunch.com

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