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Analysis | The Technology 202: The tech industry faced a reckoning. Now comes the hard part. – The Washington Post

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Analysis | The Technology 202: The tech industry faced a reckoning. Now comes the hard part. - The Washington Post

with Aaron Schaffer

On a sticky September morning almost three years ago, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified in front of Congress. 

Throughout the hearing, they repeatedly sought to assure lawmakers that they had made major strides in cleaning up their companies ahead of the 2018 midterm elections. They said they were much better prepared to combat foreign interference on their platforms. 

But as we’ve seen since, they weren’t ready for so much else. 

The social media hearing was my first reporting trip to Capitol Hill for The Washington Post. I sat just feet away from Alex Jones, the founder of the conspiracy-minded InfoWars, who was looming behind the executives. The entire day was a circuslike introduction to reporting on the intensifying power struggle between the United States government and the most influential companies in the world. 

When we later that year launched The Technology 202 newsletter, we promised we would help our audience track and decode the unprecedented ways the industry and policymakers were clashing.

As I write my last Technology 202 newsletter, the stakes for tech regulation are higher than ever before. 

We’re barreling toward yet another midterm election, where false claims about the 2020 election and pandemic threaten to be central to the political discourse. Coronavirus cases are on the rise as the U.S. surgeon general warns that misinformation is “a serious threat to public health.” Millions of Americans still don’t have access to broadband as uncertainty builds about office and school openings. And even faced with historic antitrust cases, the tech giants are just getting bigger and more intertwined in our daily lives – for better or worse. 

And despite the investments, commitments and public promises, the tech industry has less trust among Washington lawmakers and officials today than it had several years ago.

Hearing after hearing, news conference after news conference, I would watch tech executives make similar assurances to the ones I heard from Dorsey and Sandberg at that first hearing. And again and again, they came up short. 

In the early days of the pandemic, the newsletter documented their commitments to protect public health and take unprecedented steps to combat misinformation. But more than a year later, the White House pleas with Facebook and other tech companies to do more are leading the news. It all feels similar to last year, when #StopTheSteal and other false reports about the outcome of the election spread like wildfire on social media, despite months of warnings and debates about how tech companies should handle false claims of victory on Election Night. 

So where do we go from here?

At that first hearing I covered, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) told the tech executives the “Wild West” days of the tech industry were over. Now lawmakers and regulators find themselves in the tricky part: defining the next era.

The past few weeks have signaled that will involve a heavy-handed approach from Washington. Jonathan Kanter’s nomination to the Justice Department along with Lina Khan and Tim Wu’s rise under the Biden administration, have signaled greater action is coming. 

Meanwhile, the events of the past six months have left lawmakers in both parties more emboldened than ever before to take action. The recent advancement of the House antitrust bills and the bipartisan vote behind Khan’s nomination to the Federal Trade Commission show there’s a real will to do more on Capitol Hill too. 

I’m looking into digging into these issues in a new role at The Post. I’m excited to share that I’m going to be The Post’s new tech policy reporter. I look forward to digging into the ways Washington tries to hold the tech industry accountable, and I plan to bring a critical eye to the regulation that the government puts forth. 

The newsletter isn’t going anywhere. Cristiano Lima, who takes over in August, will bring insightful reporting and analysis about this critical moment to your inboxes every day. Until then, look out for a some guest appearances from some of my wonderful tech colleagues. 

Thank you to my editors, especially Rachel Van Dongen and Sara Sorcher. Their guidance, ideas and early-morning edits make this newsletter possible every day. As do our copy editors, especially Lisa Lednicer, who has saved me from mistakes. Researchers Aaron Schaffer and previously Tonya Riley have worked around-the-clock to ensure you have the latest news and best TikToks. And I’m forever grateful to all of the tech editors and reporters, who were critical collaborators every day. A special thank you to Tony Romm, who taught me so much about this beat. I’m also grateful to my parents, who have been constantly supportive and even put up with me writing this newsletter from their home in Pennsylvania during the pandemic. 

But most of all, thank you to all of you, our subscribers. I can’t imagine the past three years without this community, and I look forward to becoming a Technology 202 reader myself. 

Our top tabs

More than a year ago, major tech platforms banned harmful coronavirus misinformation. But it’s still proliferating.

The companies’ recommendation algorithms are at the center of the debate, Gerrit De Vynck and Rachel Lerman report. They are still designed to boost content that engages the most people.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have defended their handling of the baseless claims. But the problem stems from the earliest days of social media. 

“For a long time the companies tolerated that because they were like ‘who cares if the earth is flat, who cares if you believe in chemtrails?’ It seemed harmless, said Hany Farid, a misinformation researcher and professor at the University of California at Berkeley. “The problem with these conspiracy theories that maybe seemed goofy and harmless is they have led to a general mistrust of governments, institutions, scientists and media and that has set the stage of what we are seeing now.” 

Republicans blocked a $1 trillion infrastructure package that would invest in the nation’s Internet.

It’s a temporary setback for the bill, which senators are scrambling to hammer out a deal on by next week, Seung Min Kim and Tony Romm report. A major sticking point is how to fund the deal, as Republicans have balked at a plan to beef up the Internal Revenue Service to collect unpaid taxes.

The initial deal that was announced in June included $65 billion in spending for U.S. broadband.

“We have made significant progress and are close to a final agreement,” the bipartisan group of senators working on the deal said. “We will continue working hard to ensure we get this critical legislation right — and are optimistic that we will finalize, and be prepared to advance, this historic bipartisan proposal to strengthen America’s infrastructure and create good-paying jobs in the coming days.”

The phone number belonging to an Emirati princess who tried to escape Dubai was on a list that included spyware targets.

Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum, the 32-year-old daughter of the leader of Dubai, and her associates were added to the list of 50,000 phone numbers in the days before commandos dragged her from a getaway yacht, Drew Harwell reports. At the time, the United Arab Emirates is believed to have been a client of NSO Group, which licenses the Pegasus spyware. 

It’s not clear if what role, if any, Pegasus had in the princess’s capture. But Amnesty International’s Security Lab has found that 37 phones whose numbers were on the list contained traces of the spyware, with 23 being successfully infected.

NSO Group has repeatedly dismissed Pegasus Project reports. “It is not a list of targets or potential targets of NSO’s customers, and your repeated reliance on this list and association of the people on this list as potential surveillance targets is false and misleading,” the company said. NSO Group “does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers” and the list of numbers could have been used for “many legitimate and entirely proper” purposes “having nothing to do with surveillance,” an NSO attorney said. But a person familiar with NSO operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal operations said the company terminated its Dubai contract within the last year after hearing about the princess’ surveillance and other human-rights concerns.

After months of silence, Latifa appeared in public in May. Law firm Taylor Wessing, which says it represents her, said in a statement attributed to her that she can “travel where I want,” and “I hope now that I can live my life in peace.” A lawyer at the firm said she declined a request for an interview.

An investigation by The Washington Post and 16 media partners has also found that hundreds of public officials, including 14 heads of state and government, were also on the list. The investigation has catalyzed pressure on governments around the world to regulate cybersurveillance technology. Find all of The Post’s Pegasus Project reports here.

Rant and rave

Twitter announced that it’s testing a feature for users to privately “downvote” replies to tweets. Geek Squad founder Robert Stephens:

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian alluded to that platform’s system of upvoting and downvoting posts:

Researcher Jane Manchun Wong compared the site to Facebook:

Agency scanner

Inside the industry

Privacy monitor

  • The Computer and Communications Industry Association hosts an event on the 10th anniversary of the America Invents Act today at 1 p.m.
  • Twitter discusses its second-quarter earnings on a call today at 6 p.m.
  • Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speaks at a Brookings Institution event on cross-border data transfers on Friday at 12:30 p.m.

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