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As Congress convenes its first privacy hearing of the year today, a civil rights advocate will testify that a strong federal privacy framework is needed to protect the digital rights of people of color.
The tech industry's sweeping data collection practices are disproportionately impacting minority groups, Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at Color Of Change, will tell House members today. They are more vulnerable to bias in algorithms used to determine employment and housing decisions -- or even those used to calculate prices of goods sold online, she will warn.
According to testimony obtained by The Post, Collins-Dexter will tell the House subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce that any future privacy framework must give all people the right to know the basis for any automated decisions made about them.
“Whether intentional or unintentional, the tracking of users across the Web and what happens to that data disproportionately impacts communities of color,” Collins-Dexter will say, according to prepared remarks Color Of Change shared with The Washington Post.
Color Of Change’s testimony on the Hill puts a fine point on how civil rights groups are increasingly emerging as challengers of Big Tech. Collins-Dexter objects to the fact that previous privacy hearings have been dominated by industry voices: She wants to use her time on the witness stand today to convince lawmakers that ensuring protection for minorities online is central to any fair Internet.
As a Senate privacy hearing scheduled for Wednesday has been criticized for not including consumer advocates or civil rights groups, Collins-Dexter notes: “The frame of privacy has been owned by tech wonks,” she told me in an interview. “Really, it's not discussed as the right to feel safe or the right to not be preyed on or the right to not have civil rights violated online.”
Today, Collins-Dexter plans to tell lawmakers just how high the stakes are for communities of color. She will argue that companies can use certain data such as location information as proxies for race to discriminate in advertising or hiring decisions.
“Right now corporations are able to easily combine information about you that they’ve purchased, and create a profile of your vulnerabilities,” she will say. “Algorithms, which increasingly drive consumer and employee access, work as a kind of black box that can drive exclusionary practices.”
She'll also make the case that people of color are more exposed to certain privacy abuses because of the unique ways they use certain social media services and smartphones. Communities of color use services like Twitter or Facebook's Instagram at higher rates than white Americans, she'll testify. She will also say that “Black and Brown people regardless of economic status rely more on their smartphones than others as their primary device to use the Internet.”
That could leave these groups vulnerable to a host of privacy abuses at the hands of the tech giants, who can obtain detailed information about their location, contacts and communications through these devices.
“This leaves Black and Brown communities grappling with how to engage with platforms not built for, operated by or meant for us,” she will say in her testimony.
Color Of Change wants to see policymakers address these and other privacy-related issues through a comprehensive federal privacy framework that doesn't replace any privacy provisions states pass. Here’s what the organization wants to see in a federal privacy framework:
Limits on the collection, use and disclosure of sensitive personal data
Enhanced limits on data belonging to children and teens
Regulation of how companies build profiles about consumers based on digital data and other business practices that impact people’s health, education, financial and work prospects
A data protection agency that can enforce these rules
Lawmakers will have plenty of recommendations to consider from the many different proposals being floated by the tech and telecom industries, privacy advocates and academics.
Color of Change wants to give more enforcement powers to Washington regulators than do some of the industry groups floating proposals around town. The focus on regulating how companies build data profiles about consumers could also go further to address bias in algorithms than many of the other proposals.
Yet representatives from business trade groups, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau and Business Roundtable, as well as the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute and the nonprofit Center for Democracy & Technology, are also scheduled to testify at today’s hearing.
“We are beginning that conversation with the intention of developing legislation with the understanding that this self-regulation just isn’t working,” said subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) in a video about the hearing. “We look forward to having the hearing, and I promise you that I will get the job done.”
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BITS: The Securities and Exchange Commission asked a federal judge to hold Tesla chief executive Elon Musk in contempt for breaking the terms of a recent settlement agreement cracking down on his Twitter use, The Washington Post’s Renae Merle and Drew Harwell reported. The deal Musk reached with the agency late last year requires tweets about Tesla that could move the market to be reviewed before being published. But after the SEC inquired about Tweets sent on Feb. 19, Tesla told the agency that Musk sent one tweet that had not been preapproved.
“Tesla made 0 cars in 2011, but will make around 500k in 2019,” Musk tweeted. Tesla lawyers saw the tweet after it was sent, and they asked Musk to issue a corrective version, the SEC said in its motion. Four hours later, he published another tweet to amend the first one: “Meant to say annualized production rate at end of 2019 probably around 500k, ie 10k cars/week. Deliveries for year still estimated to be about 400k.”
The SEC didn’t ask for a specific punishment for Musk, who tweeted a meme with three words after the news of the SEC’s motion.
NIBBLES: Contractors working as content moderators for Facebook experience isolation and anxiety in jobs that expose them to graphic content such as murder as well as hate speech, the Verge's Casey Newton reported. The contractors are also paid much less than Facebook employees: Employees of Cognizant in Phoenix who work as content moderators for Facebook earn $28,800 per year. By contrast, median Facebook employees make $240,000 per year in salary, bonuses and stock options.
“It is an environment where workers cope by telling dark jokes about committing suicide, then smoke weed during breaks to numb their emotions,” Newton wrote. “It’s a place where employees can be fired for making just a few errors a week — and where those who remain live in fear of the former colleagues who return seeking vengeance.” Content moderators also say they can end up adopting fringe views after being exposed so often to conspiracies as part of their work.
Bob Duncan, vice president of operations for business process services at Cognizant, said the company warns applicants that the job includes graphic content. “We share examples of the kinds of things you can see … so that they have an understanding,” Duncan told the Verge. “The intention of all that is to ensure people understand it.” Facebook also published a post that provides further explanation about the company's relationship with content reviewers.
The story prompted many reactions and comments on Twitter. From Newton:
But this call-center model — which is also used by Google, Twitter, and others — puts essential questions of speech and security in the hands of folks who are being paid as if they're doing customer service for Best Buy.— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) February 25, 2019
From Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee and author, and Motherboard's Joseph Cox:
That... that position is not mutually exclusive dude.— Joseph Cox (@josephfcox) February 25, 2019
You can report on issues that show that FB has moderation issues, and also that FB's current approach at doing it (relatively) cheaply ends up in hurt people. Our job is to report; FB finds the solutions (if it wants)
From Alex Stamos, former chief security officer for Facebook who now teaches at Stanford University:
I think Casey's piece is important. People need to know the human cost of policing online humanity, which I saw myself. FB's contractor arrangement makes caring for these people harder.— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) February 25, 2019
AGM has a point, however, about journalists having it both ways. Nice to not be responsible. https://t.co/ccWTdCARai
BYTES: Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella defended the company's decision to sell it augmented reality headset to the military following employee criticism, according to CNN's Charles Riley and Samuel Burke. He said at Mobile World Congress that he would engage with employees on such issues, but he will not "withhold" technology from democratic governments.
"We made a principled decision that we're not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy," he told CNN Business at the conference. "We were very transparent about that decision and we'll continue to have that dialogue [with employees]," he added during the interview.
(My colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell wrote about employee calls to cancel the contract on the grounds that it could turn warfare into a "video game" here.)
-- Lime said it found a “bug” that can cause “sudden excessive braking” while the company's electric scooters are in use, The Washington Post's Peter Holley reported. “While this issue has affected less than 0.0045% of all Lime rides, some riders have been injured, and, although most have been bumps and bruises, any injury is one too many,” Lime said in a statement. “Like all forms of transportation, there is risk that we work to mitigate but cannot entirely eliminate.”
Lime said it has started issuing remote fixes for the problem, which reduced the number of incidents. The company also said that the abrupt braking issue usually occurs when scooters are going downhill at top speed.
— Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who was arrested this month and awaits arraignment, said Facebook bears some responsibility for her ordeal, The Post's Dana Priest reported. Experts says her arrest came in retaliation for identifying fake Facebook accounts controlled by supporters of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. “Ressa had intended to write a story about Facebook taking down the accounts,” Dana wrote. “But when Facebook did not act, her publication, Rappler, readied a three-part series. An avalanche of threats and lawsuits followed its publication, culminating in Ressa’s arrest and overnight detention in a cyber-libel case against her.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
-- A group of 14 Democratic House members demanded that Google and Apple stop hosting a Saudi government app that can allow men to track women's movements in Saudi Arabia, Business Insider's Bill Bostock reported. In a letter to Apple chief executive Tim Cook and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai, the lawmakers said they wanted to “express our alarm” about the fact that the app, called Absher, makes it possible to restrict the movements of Saudi women and migrant workers. Democratic lawmakers who signed the letter include Reps. Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), Ilhan Omar (Minn.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and David N. Cicilline (R.I.).
“Keeping this application in your stores allows your companies and your American employees to be accomplices in the oppression of Saudi Arabian women and migrant workers," the lawmakers said in the letter, according to Business Insider.
— The odds that Musk's project to build a high-speed tunnel in Chicago will become reality are dimming, the Verge's Ryan Smith reported. Musk's Boring Company last year planned to build a tunnel between Chicago O’Hare International Airport and downtown Chicago that would allow high-speed mass transit. But no contract for the O’Hare Express project has been signed yet. “Even if a deal is inked soon, it must cross the desk of a city council recently rocked by a federal corruption scandal, and that appears in no mood to greenlight big projects,” according to the Verge.
— A group of 11 senators from both parties want the federal government to prevent Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from selling solar energy generators in the United States, Reuters reported. “Both large-scale photovoltaic systems and those used by homeowners, school districts, and businesses are equally vulnerable to cyberattacks. Our federal government should consider a ban on the use of Huawei inverters in the United States,” the senators said in the letter, according to Reuters.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— Amazon named Indra Nooyi, Pepsi’s former chief executive, to its board, Bloomberg News’s Matt Day reported. Amazon has previously faced criticism for the lack of women in its leadership ranks. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— Today in funding news:
- House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce hearing on consumer privacy protection.
- NetChoice, a trade association of e-commerce businesses, hosts a panel on free speech online on Capitol Hill in Washington.
- Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “policy principles for a federal data privacy framework” tomorrow.
- The Cato Institute holds a conference titled “Who’s afraid of Big Tech?” on Friday.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on “digital governance and the pursuit of technological leadership” on March 4.
Failure at Trump-Kim summit could mean a return to tensions between the U.S. and North Korea:
Pence and U.S. allies in Latin America take new steps against Venezuela's Maduro:
Watch high winds blow blocks of ice over from Niagara River: