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As a gruesome video showing the beheading of American journalist James Foley swiftly circulated online in 2014, Twitter and YouTube decided to ban the graphic content from their platforms.
As they raced to stop the videos spread under pressure from people tweeting #ISISmediablackout, major technology companies began to informally coordinate, according to a former Twitter employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record. The response marked one of the first times the technology companies worked together to identify problematic content and remove it from their competing platforms.
Twitter, which didn’t host native video at the time, began notifying video services such as YouTube of links to various versions of the video so the video service could remove them. The ex-Twitter employee said the incident was a “turning point” for the industry.
“It was a big wake-up call,” the employee said. “It brought everyone together very quickly.”
The Foley example is illustrative of what isn't yet formally happening among major tech companies as they face perhaps their biggest challenge yet from Washington over botched efforts to fight Russian disinformation during the 2016 election -- and then struggled to publicly disclose the information they found.
Though the industry now has more formal channels to help it share and identify terrorist content or child exploitation on platforms, the sharing of data about disinformation campaigns among social media networks has largely been informal and voluntary. It has not followed the example of the financial-services sector, which has -- for example -- found some effective information-sharing strategies in the event of a major breach.
This week, a pair of reports commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee underscored that Russia carried out its disinformation campaign during the 2016 election on virtually every social network even though most press reports focused on the Kremlin's efforts on Twitter and Facebook. As platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and even Pinterest were in the spotlight this week, incoming House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told my colleague Tony Romm a top challenge is tech companies “sharing information among each other,” noting it might “need to be addressed legislatively.”
Facebook, Google and Twitter previously said before the 2018 midterm elections that they were cooperating on election integrity efforts -- but they've provided very little detail about what efforts they might have implemented or are even considering to share information.
Here were their responses when asked yesterday about strategies for sharing information with each other: Facebook declined to comment. Google said the company does share information with industry and law enforcement. Twitter didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.
There are some complex and unique barriers to information sharing among the big tech firms, experts said. First off, there's no real consensus on what constitutes disinformation, raising the question of when information should be shared to begin with. There are also major differences in the way platforms display content, making similar efforts across platforms harder to track and identify. And the companies are fiercely competitive and have not always presented a public, unified front on disinformation campaigns.
Any collaboration also comes with serious concerns about protecting consumer privacy, something lawmakers are also intensely concerned about. However, a Tuesday report from the New York Times revealed that Facebook gave other technology companies like Amazon and Microsoft much broader access to its users' personal information than previously disclosed. If Facebook is willing to share personal data when it benefits the firm financially, it may be harder for them to make the case they can't share data about disinformation threats because they are concerned about privacy.
Priscilla Moriuchi, the director of strategic threat development at Recorded Future, said there’s a great deal of interest in threat sharing right now but coordination is often very limited to small, trusted groups.
“It’s one of those things that everyone thinks is a great idea,” she said. “But in practice, it’s more complicated and not as effective as we think.”
She pointed to the challenges inherent in sharing information across platforms that display different content said -- while other companies might share a common web link, Facebook won't necessarily be helped if Twitter gives it a suspicious Twitter handle.
The companies could get around this by sharing data like IP addresses, which could potentially be used to see whether the same device is posting disinformation on multiple platforms.
Any coordination may be further hampered by the intense competition among the tech giants.
A recent New York Times story exposed how Facebook’s strategy in Washington has often attempted to shift attention from its own problems by drawing scrutiny to its competitors. In a fall hearing on Capitol Hill, Google refused to send an executive lawmakers deemed senior enough as the company tried to distance itself from Twitter and Facebook on election-security issues. The result was a rash of negative media coverage for the search giant that distracted from Facebook’s time in the hot seat.
Bruce McConnell, a former top Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity official, said the competitions creates a unique challenge for tech companies. He said internally, the companies are building tools and databases to make it easier to identify and evaluate disinformation.
“They could share those tools and approaches with each other in a more formal way,” he said.
McConnell pointed out there are relatively few players in the social media industry, and they are all established and know one another. And the incentive to figure it out should be crystal clear.
“Do the companies want to get their act together individually and collectively? Or do they want the government to regulate them?” McConnell said.
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BITS: Facebook forged partnerships with several tech giants that gave those companies much more extensive access to users' personal data than the social network had previously acknowledged, according to an investigation by the New York Times’s Gabriel J.X. Dance, Michael LaForgia and Nicholas Confessore. Such vast access to Facebook data sometimes occurred without users' knowledge or consent. Here are some examples from the report of the personal information that Facebook gave to other companies:
- Facebook made it possible for Netflix, Spotify and the Royal Bank of Canada to read the private messages of Facebook users.
- The social network allowed Yahoo to view the posts of Facebook users’ friends.
- Facebook gave Bing, Microsoft’s search engine, the possibility “to see the names of virtually all Facebook users’ friends without consent.”
- It let Amazon get the names and contact information of Facebook users via their friends. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
A Facebook spokeswoman said that the social network hasn’t found any evidence of abuse by the partner companies. “Facebook did say that it had mismanaged some of its partnerships, allowing certain companies’ access to continue long after they had shut down the features that required the data,” the Times reported.
The partnerships may run afoul of a 2011 consent agreement the company struck with the FTC, which prohibits Facebook from sharing user data without explicit permission. Facebook said the arrangements did not violate the FTC agreement, but former FTC technologist Ashkan Soltani and "three former employees of the F.T.C.’s consumer protection division, which brought the case that led to the consent decree, said in interviews that its data-sharing deals had probably violated the agreement," according to the Times.
In response to the New York Times article, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called for a national privacy law. Last week, he introduced his own privacy bill:
It has never been more clear. We need a federal privacy law. They are never going to volunteer to do the right thing. The FTC needs to be empowered to oversee big tech.— Brian Schatz (@brianschatz) December 19, 2018
NIBBLES: Facebook illustrated how numerous sites and online services are “holding onto the ghosts of our Internet pasts" when it disclosed last week that a bug may have allowed third-party apps to access photos that millions of users started to upload but didn't post publicly, The Washington Post's Drew Harwell reported. “Many websites start sharing or saving the text, photos or other information before we commit with a click of ‘post,’ ‘enter’ or ‘submit,’ and sometimes even after we choose to delete,” according to my colleague.
Tiffany Li, a fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project, told Drew that companies should inform consumers that they are able to monitor more than just what users actually post. People “don’t realize that apps can track not only what you post but any activity on the app,” Li said. “And if people don’t know the risks, they haven’t been well-informed. That’s on the companies.”
Yet not all firms save data that users decided not to share publicly. “Snapchat, the video-sharing app in which most messages self-destruct, uploads content as an encrypted file to its servers once someone starts a message,” Drew reported. “But if that user has second thoughts before sending, the keys to decrypt it are never created, and the unsent message is deleted within 24 hours or less.”
BYTES: The chief executive of the company that wrote one of the reports on Russian online disinformation efforts admitted engaging in misleading online activity himself last year during a race the Alabama Senate race. However, he said he didn’t seek to affect the election’s result, The Post’s Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Aaron C. Davis reported. “Jonathon Morgan, chief executive of the research firm New Knowledge, said he created a Facebook page under false pretenses to test his ability to appeal to conservative voters and bought a small amount of retweets — spending less than $10 — to measure the potential ‘lift’ he could achieve in social media messaging,” my colleagues wrote.
Morgan said he acted in his personal capacity and was trying to figure out how misinformation spread, according to my colleagues. “At the time, it seemed kind of innocuous, and a year later, with the benefit of history … maybe I would second-guess that decision now,” Morgan said.
— As Apple tries to break into India, the company has faced "a rout” in one of the world's fastest growing emerging markets, according to the Wall Street Journal's Newley Purnell and Tripp Mickle. Contrary to its competitors, the Journal reported that Apple has been “inflexible” in its approach to the Indian market by maintaining high prices for the iPhone and not seeking to adapt the devices to meet the expectations of the country's 1.3 billion consumers.
— “The number of iPhones shipped in India has fallen 40% so far this year compared with 2017, and Apple’s market share there has dropped to about 1% from about 2%, research firm Canalys estimates,” Purnell and Mickle reported. “The Cupertino, Calif., company posted revenues of $1.8 billion in India this fiscal year. That is less than half of what executives had once hoped to capture, said a person familiar with its targets.”
— The controversial self-driving car engineer Anthony Levandowski has returned with a new start-up called Pronto.AI that plans to launch a system to improve safety in the trucking industry, Mark Harris reported for the Guardian. The product, named Copilot, will offer “lane keeping, cruise control and collision avoidance for commercial semi-trucks” on highways, according to the Guardian.
Levandowski, whom Waymo previously accused of stealing confidential files, also said that he sat in a self-driving car equipped with the Copilot technology that drove from San Francisco to New York in October without intervening during the ride except for refueling and rest stops, the Guardian reported. A time-lapse video of the drive “did not immediately reveal anything to contradict his claim,” Harris noted. “But Levandowski has little store of trust on which to draw.”
— Ken Hu, one of the four deputy chairmen of Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, pushed back during a news conference against efforts in several countries to block the company from involvement in 5G networks, the Wall Street Journal's Dan Strumpf reported. “There isn’t any evidence that Huawei poses a threat to national security to any country,” Hu said, as quoted by the Journal.
— More technology news from the private sector:
— New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced that Charter Communications will pay a total of $62.5 million to as many as 700,000 New York customers in what regulators said is the largest refund ever by an Internet provider, The Washington Post's Brian Fung reported. Charter's subsidiary Time Warner Cable was accused of providing slower Internet speed than what customers had been promised.
In a statement, Underwood warned companies doing business in New York to “fulfill your promises, or pay the price,” and said the settlement “also sets a new standard for how internet providers should fairly market their services.”
— Uber announced internally that Pennsylvania authorities have authorized the company to resume testing its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, according to the Information's Amir Efrati. Uber paused such testing following a fatal crash in Tempe, Ariz., in March.
— Uber is also seeking a tariff exemption for the electric bikes it produces in China, Bloomberg News's Eric Newcomer and Mark Niquette reported. “Uber filed a request, which was posted Monday by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, to exclude electric bicycles from a list of $16 billion in Chinese imports hit with a 25 percent tariff,” according to Bloomberg. Citing two people familiar with the matter, Newcomer and Niquette reported that Uber makes almost 1,000 electric bikes per day in China.
— Haisam Elsharkawi, a U.S. citizen of Egyptian descent, is suing the federal government as he alleges that agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security stopped him at Los Angeles International Airport last year and coerced him into unlocking his phone, according to Motherboard's Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai. Motherboard reported that when Elsharkawi declined to unlock his device and requested an attorney, “CBP officers allegedly handcuffed him and took him to a room for more questioning, where a DHS officer eventually convinced him to unlock the phone and then looked through it for 15 minutes.”
— More technology news from the public sector:
— Steen Strand will replace Sahil Sharma, who serves as vice president of hardware development at Snap, in February, according to Recode.
— Diego Piacentini, one of Amazon's most senior executives, left the company following a two-year leave, according to CNBC.
- Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao delivers a speech at the CES technology show in Las Vegas on Jan. 9, 2019.
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