This week in Technical Difficulties...
I found hope in a hopeless place (a never-ending House E&C hearing with many dodgy tech CEOs)
We want to ban surveillance advertising -- and so do 40 other national and international advocacy organizations + Silicon Valley’s Congresswoman
Instagram for kids... what could go wrong? (spoiler: everything)
Why was Mark Zuckerberg dressed as the QAnon Shaman? Just one highlight from amazing work happening across the movement
On Thursday, Big Tech CEOs were back before Congress for a House Energy & Commerce Committee hearing on social media’s role in promoting disinformation and extremism. Out of respect for you, dear readers, I’m not gonna spend too much time recapping the marathon hearing, which was familiarly frustrating. As NPR aptly put it, the #1 takeaway was ‘everyone is mad’ – and that includes those of us who spent 6 hours of our lives watching that ordeal.
(See headlines such as These House hearings on tech are a waste of time and everyone knows it and Yes or no: Are these tech hearings doing anything?)
I certainly share this snark and exhaustion – but I do think there were a few silver linings here. First: Congress is clearly much better informed and prepared for these things than they were a couple years ago; that may be a low bar, but clearing it is a critical first step toward legislating. Second: It wasn’t a partisan sh*tshow; the focus was on real issues, and there even seemed to be new bipartisan openings, like on combating harms to children. Third: Members actually took aim at Big Tech’s underlying business model, not just individual pieces of problematic content.
CNET: Big Tech's danger to kids finally aligns Democrats, Republicans
Business Insider: 'You're not bystanders': Lawmaker spars with Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai as the CEOs evade questions about how Facebook and Google profit off misinformation
Speaking of the underlying business model… In case you missed it this week, Accountable Tech and 40+ other advocacy organizations across the antitrust, privacy, and civil rights spaces launched a new coalition with a singular demand: Ban surveillance advertising. You can read our coalition’s joint letter and learn more on our coalition website, which includes an explainer video and an in-depth "real costs of the business" section outlining harms associated with surveillance advertising.
WIRED: This Group Wants to ‘Ban Surveillance Advertising’
TechCrunch: US privacy, consumer, competition and civil rights groups urge ban on ‘surveillance advertising’
NBC News: Big Tech’s critics have organized for years. Now, some are speaking with one voice.
The call-to-action is already gaining steam. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) – whose district includes Silicon Valley – announced at the hearing that she was working on legislation along these lines with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL).
And it looks like Hillary Clinton is on board too.
When your company’s claims to fame are eroding democracy, amplifying hate and conspiracy theories, and a litany of egregious privacy violations, your next move should definitely be launching a new product aimed at...children?
Buzzfeed: Facebook Is Building An Instagram For Kids Under The Age Of 13
Children under the age of 13 – notoriously experts at discerning fact from fiction – are Facebook’s new target demographic for a version of Instagram specially made for kids. As IG’s VP of Product Vishal Shah declared, Facebook is “building a version of Instagram that allows people under the age of 13 to safely use Instagram for the first time,” which raises several questions, chief among them: Oh, you can just make platforms safe for users now? If so, should we not do that across the board?
Now, unless Facebook suddenly decides to change its business model (or you know, is compelled to do so by policymakers / regulators / courts...), IG Jr. seems more likely to build a child-army for the Proud Boys than to enrich the youth experience. Seriously though, this is a disaster in the making, certain to exacerbate the very threats to children that Congress was grilling tech CEOs over – although Zuck doesn't seem particularly worried.
CNET: Instagram for kids could be coming, and it would be disastrous | Commentary: The platform incites feelings of jealousy and inferiority that would be detrimental to young minds. It's a tough enough battle as an adult.
Mashable: Zuckerberg shrugs off concerns about Instagram for kids in congressional hearing
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S... BIG TECH CRITICS
Three months into the new administration, nominations to fill important posts are rolling in—and if these appointments are early indicators of how aggressively the Biden admin intends to pursue accountability for Big Tech, consider us thoroughly encouraged.
Already, the admin has tapped antitrust celebs like Lina Khan and Tim Wu for key roles; Khan as an FTC commissioner, and Wu as Biden’s top advisor on tech and competition policy at the NEC. They’ve nominated outspoken Big Tech critics from within the civil rights community for Associate AG (Vanita Gupta) and Assistant AG for Civil Rights (Kristen Clarke) – both of whom would serve under AG Merrick Garland, who has a strong antitrust background in his own right.
And now, Jonathan Sallet – who helped craft the Obama admin’s net neutrality rules, as well as the 38-state bipartisan antitrust suit brought against Google in December – is being vetted by the White House for a top antitrust post.
NPR: Big Tech Showdown Looms As Biden Taps Top Critics Lina Khan, Tim Wu
POLITICO: Top Obama lawyer being vetted for antitrust post
ACROSS THE MOVEMENT
Beyond our exciting launch of the coalition to ban surveillance advertising, our partners from across the tech accountability movement – which continues to grow – churned out an incredible amount of noteworthy products this week. I can’t possibly capture all the amazing work that’s being done in this space here, but including some highlights below:
Public Citizen released a report about Big Tech & lobbying (spoiler: Facebook and Amazon are now the largest corporate lobbying spenders in the country);
Avaaz released a report about Facebook’s role in disinformation, from the election to the insurrection; they also co-launched a campaign with Guns Down Americacalled Face of Tech Harm, aimed at showing the human impact of dangerous disinformation;
Center for Countering Digital Hatecalled on platforms to ban the twelve leading online anti-vaxxers, which got its fair share of attention at the hearing on Thursday;
The Anti-Defamation League released a report on online hate and harassment with fascinating data highlighting the scope of the problem and the appetite for bold reform, as well as their new REPAIR Plan: a framework for fighting hate in the digital world;
SumOfUs underscored social media giants’ role in paving the way for the January 6th insurrection by – among other things – setting up a 7-foot cardboard cutout of Mark Zuckerberg dressed as the QAnon Shaman at the Capitol, an image that will forever haunt my dreams;
Tech Transparency Project released a report showing that despite bold promises to crack down on militia groups, Facebook is not only failing to tackle the problem, but indeed continuing to auto-generate pages for white supremacists;
The Consumer Federation of America published a new blog post calling for a ban on surveillance advertising. As author Susan Grant so perfectly put it: “It’s time to move away from this oppressive system of tracking, profiling and targeting individuals and toward more just and fair ways to advertise; a system that promote products and services on the basis of values such as good quality and reasonable prices, not that treats us as commodities for sale to the highest bidder.”
The Hill: UK's watchdog says Facebook acquisition of Giphy raises competition concerns
The Verge: Amazon keeps trying to troll US Congress members in perplexing new PR strategy
BuzzFeed: Hundreds Of Far-Right Militias Are Still Organizing, Recruiting, And Promoting Violence On Facebook
Media Matters: TikTok is prompting users to follow far-right extremist accounts
BBC News: Facebook removes accounts of 'China-based hackers' targeting Uighurs
Axios: Social media's great misinformation clean-up act
CNBC: Mozilla leads push for FCC to reinstate net neutrality
Washington Post: Racist anti-Asian hashtags spiked after Trump first tweeted ‘Chinese virus,’ study finds