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Mark Zuckerberg is promising a massive privacy overhaul at Facebook. But his sweeping strategy has a tradeoff: it will likely make it harder for the company to police harmful content on its platform.
Zuckerberg says Facebook's pivot toward encrypted messaging means that even the company will not be able to read the contents of the messages people send in its apps. That’s a win for privacy advocates who want users to have greater control of their data, but it will actually limit the investments the company has made so far to detect and stamp out illegal or harmful content, ranging from child exploitation to drug sales on its platform.
As Zuckerberg noted in his blog post announcing the changes, "we will never find all of the potential harm we do today when our security systems can see the messages themselves.”
Critics note that could provide welcome political cover for Facebook as lawmakers around the world are considering new ways to hold the company accountable for hate and other harmful speech on their platform. Facebook has long said it wants to avoid playing the role of an online censor -- and now it will be able to tell lawmakers it can’t police what it can’t see.
“They’re going to argue it gives them an out,” former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Ashkan Soltani said.
Facebook could be laying this groundwork because U.S. lawmakers are stepping up their scrutiny of a decades-old communications law that gives technology platforms legal immunity for the content people post on their site, called the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in October he's concerned that extremist content proliferates on social media "in no small part" because of the law's Section 230 provision. Trump tech adviser Gail Slater said in January policymakers should start looking at whether Congress needs to update the law.
And the pressure on Facebook to stamp out harmful content is even greater in Europe, where the United Kingdom is considering fining technology companies for failing to remove illegal hate speech and child exploitation. Already in Germany, there is a law that allows the government to fine the technology companies if they fail to remove content.
Some tech industry watchers warned that Facebook's decision to focus on encrypted messaging could only intensify some of the issues it's already seen with its WhatsApp platform, which has already been encrypted end-to-end for years. During the Brazil election last year, disinformation and conspiracy theories flooded the messaging platform. But Facebook couldn't use the same techniques it used to crack down on disinformation in other services because it couldn't see the messages. (The company did limit the number of times a message could be forwarded in an attempt to stop hoaxes from going viral on the service).
From the Columbia Journalism Review's Mathew Ingram:
So FB is going to move to private, encrypted, ephemeral communications -- i.e, Snapchat. But much of the hate and violence in Myanmar, India etc. was spread via private and encrypted WhatsApp. Does that absolve FB of responsibility? https://t.co/uAN4X8v4NQ— Mathew Ingram (@mathewi) March 6, 2019
And Techmeme editor Spencer Dailey:
what a great way to avoid public scrutiny for viral misinformation on the platform. the disaster of the WhatsApp model in places like India should be duly noted as where we don't want this platform to end up— Spencer Dailey (@spencerdailey) March 6, 2019
Since the 2016 election underscored how disinformation could proliferate on social media, Facebook's content moderation practices have been in the spotlight. The company has responded by making investments in more human content moderators and technology like artificial intelligence to police its site, but many of its decisions to remove content have proved controversial.
But for even years before this intense scrutiny, Facebook has policed its site for illegal content, particularly when it comes to child exploitation. Facebook has used photo-matching technology, which stops people from sharing known child exploitation images, and it reports them to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"Stuff that's grossly illegal, Facebook has never quibbled with shutting that down," said former Facebook employee and "Chaos Monkeys" author Antonio García Martínez.
Now, it will be much harder for the company to tackle that kind of content, he said.
In a Twitter thread, former Facebook chief information security officer Alex Stamos noted that the losers of yesterday's announcement were groups calling for more content moderation. He also said:
5) Right now FB gets crap (from the same people) for both invading people's privacy and not policing communications enough. This is the judo move: in a world where everything is encrypted and doesn't last long, entire classes of scandal are invisible to the media. pic.twitter.com/bIrl6lMRIq— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) March 6, 2019
Zuckerberg promised that he would consult with policymakers and law enforcement about the best ways to ensure safety measures were included as the company reorients. He also said that the company was making investments to ensure it could detect bad actors on its platform, even when it can't see the contents of their activity. That could involve detecting patterns of activity or other means, he said.
In an interview with Wired following the announcement, Zuckerberg made it clear that these safety tradeoffs were the issue he was most worried about as Facebook overhauls its business model.
"Even though we came out on the side of prioritizing privacy in building end-to-end encryption, we're also committed to taking all of 2019 to build the safety systems to do as well as we can within the framework of an encrypted system before we roll out end-to-end encryption, which is a pretty different way from how we operated five years ago," Zuckerberg said in the interview.
To be sure, as Facebook goes down this path, there will be security benefits for consumers around the world. Zuckerberg notes in his speech that many consumers want their data to be protected this way in a world of cybersecurity threats and heavy-handed government intervention.
"In the last year, I've spoken with dissidents who've told me encryption is the reason they are free, or even alive," Zuckerberg said. "Governments often make unlawful demands for data, and while we push back and fight these requests in court, there's always a risk we'll lose a case -- and if the information isn't encrypted we'd either have to turn over the data or risk our employees being arrested if we failed to comply."
At the same time, Facebook's plans could also open up new battles between the company and law enforcement around the world. Already Facebook and Apple are engaged in international regulatory battles over encryption. And new laws in the United Kingdom and Australia make it easier for law enforcement to force the companies to hand over data.
Several years ago, when Apple began encrypting its iPhones end-to-end, U.S. law enforcement sounded the alarm that it would make it harder to solve crimes. The debate flared when the Federal Bureau of Investigation tried to compel the company to turn over the contents of a phone in its investigation of the San Bernardino, California, attacks.
As Facebook takes a similar stance and develops these products, Zuckerberg made it clear he's thinking about this tricky balance and seeking input.
"Finding the right ways to protect both privacy and safety is something societies have historically grappled with," he wrote. "There are still many open questions here and we'll consult with safety experts, law enforcement and governments on the best ways to implement safety measures."
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BITS: House and Senate Democrat leaders unveiled legislation to reinstate Obama-era net neutrality rules that the Federal Communications Commission scrapped in a 2017 vote. The Save the Internet Act is a three-page bill that would reverse that 2017 decision and restore the Obama-era Internet regulations. In response to the Democratic initiative, the FCC said its repeal of the rules has “proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017, most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it,’” The Washington Post's Brian Fung reported.
While Democrats hold a majority in the House, the legislation will likely to die in the Senate unless lawmakers from both parties can come up with a compromise, Brian reported. Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said Republicans will be under pressure if the House overwhelmingly passes the Democratic bill, The Post's Tony Romm reported. “There are a number of Republicans who haven't yet been publicly identified who will be voting for it over on the House side,” Markey said, “and that will create momentum in the Senate.” But Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, has said recently that net neutrality isn't among his top priorities.
Numerous Democrats tweeted in support of the legislation.
Last year, after the Senate voted to #SaveTheNet, Paul Ryan ran out the clock on #NetNeutrality in the House. This time, it’s our House. Today, Democrats in both the Senate and House are announcing the Save The Internet Act, and we’re going to send it to Donald Trump’s desk.— Ed Markey (@SenMarkey) March 6, 2019
From Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.):
The Internet shouldn't belong to big corporations – it should belong to all of us. #NetNeutrality is the free speech issue of our time. I'm joining @SenMarkey and 40 senators on the Save The Internet Act of 2019 to finally return the internet to the American people. #SaveTheNet pic.twitter.com/KNSJdaKAuV— Sen. Cory Booker (@SenBooker) March 6, 2019
NIBBLES: The Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei sued the U.S., challenging a law that limits the company from doing business with federal agencies, the Wall Street Journal's Dan Strumpf reports. The company is challenging parts of the National Defense Authorization Act, which barred federal agencies from buying equipment from Huawei and another Chinese company, ZTE.
“In enacting the NDAA, Congress acted unconstitutionally as judge, jury and executioner,” said Guo Ping, one of Huawei’s chairmen, in Shenzhen on Thursday. “Regrettably, the NDAA was enacted to restrict Huawei without giving us the opportunity to defend ourselves.”
Huawei's lawsuit says it is the target of a “bill of attainder,” in which an entity is declared guilty of a crime through an act of legislation. The White House referred the Wall Street Journal's request for comment to the Justice Department, which declined to comment.
BYTES: Some companies have decided to take their advertising dollars away from Facebook as the social network has faced several data privacy scandals, CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez reported. Other companies said they stopped placing ads on the social network because they disagreed with the way it enforces its advertising policies.
“Facebook has a frankly despicable business model that's predicated on violating people's privacy and running an ad monopoly,” David Heinemeier Hansson, whose software firm Basecamp quit Facebook, told CNBC. “I think more people and more businesses should vote with their presence, vote with their ad dollars and consider what they want more of in this world. Our conclusion was we would like less Facebook.”
Even if some companies turn away from the social network, Facebook is still thriving financially. But the situation could become more problematic for the company if more consumers decide to turn off Facebook for good. “Advertisers may or may not leave out of principle, but they would certainly be more inclined to turn elsewhere if there's an exodus of Facebook users,” according to CNBC.
— Apple chief executive Tim Cook said during an event at the White House that almost half of the people whom Apple recruited last year in the United States didn’t have a four-year college degree, Reuters’s David Shepardson reported. Cook and other business leaders including IBM chief executive Ginni Rometty were at the White House as they are part of an advisory board on workforce matters convened by the Trump administration. “We never thought that the college degree was the thing that you had to have to do well,” Cook said, according to Reuters. Cook also said he believes “strongly” that American students should be required to become proficient in coding before graduating from high school, Shepardson reported.
— But the line that stole the show was when Trump called Cook “Tim Apple.”
Trump just called Apple CEO Tim Cook “Tim Apple” pic.twitter.com/gTHHtjWvc9— Sean O'Kane (@sokane1) March 6, 2019
From Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of the Verge:
this is the funniest thing that has happened all day https://t.co/DMQGdKsBUY— nilay patel (@reckless) March 6, 2019
From BuzzFeed News's Ryan Mac:
Getting the whole gang together:— timmy apple (@RMac18) March 6, 2019
From the Daily Show:
Welcome to the club, Tim Apple! https://t.co/TEDZ378qmZ— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) March 6, 2019
— Facebook doesn't see how it can offer its services in China as the company plans to focus its efforts on privacy, BuzzFeed News's Ryan Mac reported, citing a senior Facebook source. “The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly, said that while the company would like to enable more cross-border communication, it doesn’t see any way to run services in China or place critical operations infrastructure there because of the country's history,” Mac wrote.
— Las Vegas's tourism authority says it is recommending Elon Musk's Boring Company for a project to build a tunnel transportation system at the Las Vegas Convention Center, the Associated Press's Regina Garcia Cano reported. “If approved, the system of just over a mile long would debut by January 2021 at the facility, which hosts more than 1 million people every year,” the AP reported. “The Musk-owned The Boring Company would build the project costing from $35 million to $55 million.”
— The health-care company that Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase launched last year has not released much information about its plans, but now it has a name and a website, the Wall Street Journal's Anna Wilde Mathews reported. The venture has been called Haven and its website features a letter from Atul Gawande, its chief executive. The letter says that Haven “will create new solutions and work to change systems, technologies, contracts, policy and whatever else is in the way of better health care,” according to the Journal. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— More technology news from the private sector:
— France unveiled a proposal to collect a 3 percent tax from tech giants including Google and Facebook as critics argue that massive Web companies are not taxed properly in the countries where they operate, The Post's Hamza Shaban reported. France's Parliament is expected to pass the plan later in the year. It would apply to domestic sales and would be directed at tech companies with more than €750 million, or $848 million, in revenue globally and €25 million, or $28 million, in revenue in France.
“The cost to individual American tech companies could be significant, especially if other nations follow suit or the European Union establishes its own bloc-wide tax on tech firms,” Hamza wrote. “Facebook, for instance, does not break down revenue by country, but it took in nearly $14 billion in Europe last year.”
— Some members of the World Trade Organization started a negotiation on global digital trade but the talks face several difficulties, the Wall Street Journal's Emre Peker reported. The WTO has 164 members, but only 76 of them are taking part in the negotiation. “At stake in the talks is a global framework to regulate digital trade in goods and services, a market that is currently subject to a patchwork of different rules,” according to the Journal. “Such a system would potentially remove obstacles such as cross-border sales barriers that disrupt access to services and hinder growth in online trade, enabling small companies to access global markets and helping giants like Amazon.com Inc. and Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. tap a bigger market.”
— More technology news from the public sector:
— A report from Apple suggested that the company's suppliers have improved their labor practices but also pointed out some lingering issues, according to VentureBeat's Jeremy Horwitz. “Out of a maximum possible assessment score of 100, Apple said the average labor and human rights score across suppliers was 89, most notably finding violations in working hours and wages,” VentureBeat reported “There were 24 discovered cases of falsified working hour data, along with unspecified problems with payment of wages.”
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— News about tech incidents and blunders:
- Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act on March 12.
- House Judiciary Committee hearing on the T-Mobile and Sprint merger on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event titled “How can public policy keep up with technological change?” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on online consumer privacy on March 14.
Rep. Barragán's heated exchange with Nielsen for her department's treatment of asylum seekers:
California lit up by lightning as storm hits Golden State:
Kylie Jenner claims Forbes’ youngest self-made billionaire title: