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Analysis | The Technology 202: Pressure mounts for more Silicon Valley companies to undertake civil rights audits – The Washington Post

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Analysis | The Technology 202: Pressure mounts for more Silicon Valley companies to undertake civil rights audits - The Washington Post

Facebook just received a scathing report from auditors reviewing its record on civil rights. But civil rights leaders want more companies to follow Facebook’s lead and welcome independent scrutiny about how their policies and products might discriminate against minorities. 

Vanita Gupta, the president and chief executive officer of the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights, described Facebook’s sweeping review as “the first of its kind.” 

“We believe that all tech companies should be doing this,” Gupta told me in an interview.  

Facebook yesterday rolled out a long-awaited final report on the two-year process, which delivered a blistering assessment of the company’s decisions, particularly its hands-off approach to incendiary posts from President Trump. 

“This is an important tool to ensure that the platforms are addressing very serious civil rights concerns that have been newly emerging as the platforms have been evolving,” said Gupta, who met several times with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg throughout the process. 

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (Photo by Tom Williams / POOL / AFP) (Photo by TOM WILLIAMS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Tech companies are under pressure to limit hate speech and discrimination amid a national reckoning on race. 

Much of the attention has been on Facebook in recent weeks, especially as pressure mounts from civil rights leaders, advertisers and its own employees to take a harder line on voter suppression. But no social network has a perfect record on dealing with vitriol or disinformation, and pressure is mounting for the whole industry to take stock amid national protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

Some activists want to see other companies also adopt some of the recommendations put forth in the audit of Facebook, such as hiring more people with civil rights expertise. 

The leaders of Color of Change, another civil rights group that met with Facebook this week, called for all major tech companies to also “implement a permanent civil rights infrastructure” to help address and ultimately prevent misinformation, harassment, voter suppression and content by hate groups. 

There’s some precedent for other companies engaging in independent reviews.

Companies tend to undertake an audit process in the wake of controversies or scandals — though they have not been as wide-ranging as the recent process at Facebook. Laura Murphy, who led the audit at Facebook, also wrote a 2016 report on discrimination at Airbnb and subsequently worked closely with the company on improving its policies. Former U.S. attorney general Eric Holder’s law firm led a wide-ranging report into workplace culture at Uber in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment at the company.

Facebook launched its own process in the summer of 2018, after years of complaints by civil rights groups that the company foments hatred, stemming back to when the social network was used to organize a 2017 Neo-Nazi march in Chartlottesville, Va., as Elizabeth Dwoskin and I reported. The company has touted the audit as a sign of its commitment to addressing civil rights issues. The audit contributed to the company’s creation of a policy to address disinformation related to the census, as well as overhauling housing and job ads in response to discrimination complaints. 

Yet it remains to be seen which recommendations Facebook will adopt from the final report, and how it will impact the company’s course of action on issues of speech, especially comments from Trump in the months leading up to the 2020 election.  

Civil rights audits could have key implications for the debate over the future of tech regulation in Washington. 

Gupta says she expects lawmakers to draw from the findings of Facebook’s report as Mark Zuckerberg returns to Washington later this month to testify in front of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. 

“This document is going to be used to help inform what the longer-term trajectory is on the public law and regulation conversation happening,” she told me. 

Audits could prove to be a powerful tool for civil rights activists who have been trying to force change at companies.

The Facebook audit reinforced and shed new light on many of the complaints civil rights leaders have had for years about the company’s handling of issues such as voter suppression or exemption for politicians’ speech. 

It’s certain that they’re going to keep pushing on Facebook in light of the searing report’s findings. 

“There should not be a ‘final’ civil rights audit when hate and election misinformation continue endangering our lives and democracy,” said Jessica J. González, Co-CEO of Free Press and co-founder of Change the Terms, who met with Zuckerberg and other Facebook executives yesterday. “Mark Zuckerberg cannot lead Facebook to stop hateful activity from spreading when he is unable to acknowledge how far behind Facebook truly is when it comes to protecting people of color from the danger the platform continues to pose to our lives.” 

Welcome to The Technology 202, our guide to the intersection of technology and politics.

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Facebook shut down a network of accounts affiliated with Roger Stone for manipulation. 

Roger Stone, longtime political ally of President Trump, flashes a victory gesture as he departs following a status conference in 2019. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Stone, a felon and longtime friend of Trump’s, used fake accounts and other deceptive measures to manipulate public debate, the social network said. The company removed more than 100 accounts and pages affiliated with Stone for breaking its policies on “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker wrote.  

The violating activity dated back to 2015 but was notably active during the 2016 presidential election cycle, when Stone was advising Trump’s presidential campaign, and in 2017, as federal investigators were probing him. 

Stone on some occasions amplified posts made by anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, which at the time was publishing damaging Democratic Party emails initially stolen by Russian hackers, Facebook said.

Nathaniel Gleicher, head of security policy for Facebook, said that Stone’s personal accounts were shut down. Of Stone’s personal accounts, Gleicher said, “We saw them deeply enmeshed in the activity here.”

TikTok says it removed removed 49,247,689 videos globally during the second half of 2020. 

The social media application logo TikTok is displayed on the screen of an iPhone (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The company publicized the figure in its second transparency report, which aims to shed light on content moderation decisions and responses to government data requests. TikTok released the report this morning as it faces global scrutiny, including in the United States where Trump has said he’s considering banning the Chinese social app to punish China over the coronavirus. 

TikTok removed the most videos in India, where it is now banned. The company took down 16,453,360 during the six month period beginning in July 2019. TikTok reported taking down 4,576,888 videos in the United States. 

The company also disclosed how many government law enforcement requests in received from countries around the world. China and Hong Kong were notably absent from the list, as the company faces concerns in Washington that it could be sharing data with the Chinese government. 

The company told the Wall Street Journal that the Chinese government has never requested access to any of its user data and that TikTok wouldn’t share any if asked. TikTok received no requests from Hong Kong during 2019, noting that it’s been a relatively small market. TikTok pulled its app from Hong Kong this week as the government adopted a restrictive new law that could force companies doing business there to provide data to the Chinese government. 

TikTok did receive 100 total requests from the U.S. government during the second half of 2020, and it produced some data in 82 percent of those instances. 

Amazon told sellers they will no longer be able to anonymously sell products on its U.S. site.

Packages move along a conveyor belt at the Amazon fulfillment center in Hyderabad, India.

The e-commerce service said the policy change would “help customers make informed shopping decisions.” But my colleague Jay Greene notes the move could also help curb sales of dangerous and counterfeit items, which Jeff Bezos could face questions about when testifies before the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee later this month. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The company announced the change on its website where it shares information with the sellers who list goods on its site. “Amazon doesn’t do random things just to try to help consumers,” said Juozas Kaziukenas, CEO of the e-commerce research firm Marketplace Pulse.

Kaziukenas said the company may have made the move to get ahead of the upcoming hearing, which will also include the chief executives of Facebook, Google and Apple. The Trump administration targeted counterfeit sales from foreign companies, saying in a 54-page report in January that online marketplaces such as Amazon have fostered counterfeiters.

Rant and rave

Japan’s theme parks stole my 2020 motto: 

Japan’s theme parks have banned screaming on roller coasters because it spreads coronavirus. “Please scream inside your heart.” https://t.co/DJjC40H0Ap

— Ben Pershing (@benpershing) July 8, 2020

Agency scanner

A new report revealed thousands of contracts between Big Tech and federal law enforcement agencies. 

The Pentagon and federal law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have secured thousands of deals with major tech companies that have not been previously reported, April Glaser reports for NBC. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Hewlett Packard and even Facebook are among companies with ties to these agencies, according to new research from the technology accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry. 

Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist who left the company in 2018 after months of efforts to get clarity about plans to deploy a censored version of its search engine in China called Project Dragonfly, led the research. Poulson studied more than 30 million government contracts signed or modified in the past five years. 

He uncovered that many of the consumer-facing tech companies are subtracting with the government. Often the procurement contracts mask the depth of the relationship between companies and the government, he said. 

“Often the high-level contract description between tech companies and the military looks very vanilla and mundane,” Poulson said in an interview with NBC. “But only when you look at the details of the contract, which you can only get through Freedom of Information [Act] requests, do you see the workings of how the customization from a tech company would actually be involved.”

Inside the industry

Twitter is developing a subscription service that could boost revenue. 

The San Francisco social network said in a job listing for a senior software engineer that it was “building a subscription platform” under a team code-named “Gryphon,” The Wall Street Journal reports. The company is seeking a payment and subscription client work lead.

“This is a first for Twitter!,” the company said in the posting.

Trending

Daybook

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing on consumer risks during the covid-19 pandemic today at 12 p.m.
  • Carnegie’s Partnership for Countering Influence Operations and Twitter will host an event on influence operations on Twitter today at 1 p.m.

Before you log off

Are the Zoomers alright? 

Today’s third @washingtonpost quarantine TikTok features a potential ban https://t.co/uuYkOY0FyI pic.twitter.com/qBf4R3qp6F

— Dave Jorgenson 🕺🏼 (@davejorgenson) July 7, 2020

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