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SAN FRANCISCO — Executives from top tech companies and California's attorney general aren't waiting for Washington to take action on pressing tech policy issues.
At the first Technology 202 Live event here in San Francisco, they described how companies themselves are making changes to their own platforms to address public pressure on privacy and curbing disinformation on their platforms -- and how states are seeking to rein in the tech giants with new legislation.
“When it comes to the federal government, they move a lot slower,” said California state attorney general Xavier Becerra.
Here are some news-making moments and highlights you don't want to miss:
1. The next time a public official — perhaps even a president — tweets something that violates Twitter's standards, the message could be accompanied by a label that provides more context, Twitter's Vijaya Gadde told my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin.
Twitter is exploring how to annotate tweets that break its rules but that are in the public interest, Faiz Siddiqui reports from the Post Live event.
“One of the things we’re working really closely on with our product and engineering folks is, ‘How can we label that?’” said Gadde, Twitter legal, policy, safety and trust lead. “How can we put some context around it so people are aware that content is actually a violation of our rules and it is serving a particular purpose in remaining on the platform.”
In Twitter’s current form, Gadde said, “when we leave that content on the platform there’s no context around that and it just lives on Twitter and people can see it and they just assume that is the type of content or behavior that’s allowed by our rules."
Gadde said the plans would allow Twitter to drive important public policy discussions while still protecting its community standards. As Faiz reports, "President Trump, who has turned to Twitter as his preferred mechanism for rapid-fire messaging, has tested its community standards repeatedly."
Twitter will still remove posts that are violent or include direct threats of harm.
2. Becerra says the tech industry is “no longer a baby.” It's time for Silicon Valley to face adult consequences.
“It's not even an infant,” Becerra told my colleague Tony Romm. “In fact, I'd say it's running pretty much at Olympic speed. And so, now, it's time to treat the industry as an adult. You have to act like an adult and you have to understand there are consequences that adults face when they don't do things the right way.”
Xavier Becerra at the Tech 202 live event. (Patrick Fallon/The Washington Post.)
Becerra's comments reflect the shift in policymakers' attitudes toward the technology industry. For years, he said lawmakers treated the tech industry with kid gloves because they were afraid of hurting the industry's growth. But now that era is over.
“And so, whether it's well-known companies or not, no longer can the excuse be, 'Hey, we didn't understand what we were doing. We were very new at this. We were experimenting,'" he said. “No, you're playing with people's lives, you're playing with people's data, and you're playing with people's money.”
Becerra's tough talk signals how state attorneys general like him are increasingly taking on the tech giants. (You can read more of Tony's reporting on how state regulators are saying Washington has been to slow to take on tech and stepping up).
3. Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos says the social networking company's recent decision to reorient toward privacy is Mark Zuckerberg's way of calling the "bluff" of policymakers and consumers calling for privacy.
Stamos said Facebook is tired of getting criticized for both violating people's privacy but also failing to crackdown on bad actors on its platform. As the company faces increased responsibility to police harmful content from around the world, the only way Zuckerberg sees through the company's global crisis is to "disclaim responsibility for everything."
"Everyone's saying we want privacy, he's like, 'Great I'm going to give you privacy,'" Stamos said. "The scary side here is what's going on is a lot of the safety stuff Facebook has done is not legally required. We were not required to go look for Russian ads in 2016. Our team took that on because we cared about it and we found that stuff and turned it over and disclosed it without any legal requirement to do it."
But as Europe and California pass new privacy laws, the company is legally required to address privacy issues.
"He's reacting to the fact that laws are only getting passed on one side so all of the other stuff is kind of optional and is going to go away," Stamos said. "That doesn't mean that things are necessarily going to get significantly worse in all these areas, but depending on the exact, fine decisions that are made, it's definitely a possibility that some of the areas where Facebook has been able to get a grasp will no longer be under the control of the company."
BITS: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is charging Facebook with housing discrimination over its targeted ad platform, according to a developing story by my colleague Tracy Jan. The agency is alleging the company's system violates the Fair Housing Act by "encouraging, enabling and causing" unlawful discrimination because it restricts who can view housing ads.
“Facebook is discriminating against people based upon who they are and where they live,” HUD Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement Thursday morning. “Using a computer to limit a person’s housing choices can be just as discriminatory as slamming a door in someone’s face.”
The company agreed to a settlement last week in which it committed to make sweeping changes to its targeted ad system for housing, employment and loans after civil rights groups' complaints that the platform enabled discrimination.
Carson last year accused Facebook of allowing advertisers to exclude people based on race, gender, Zip code or religion.
NIBBLES: President Donald Trump tweeted yesterday that he met with Sundar Pichai (who is in fact Google chief executive, even though Trump called him the company's president).
....Also discussed political fairness and various things that @Google can do for our Country. Meeting ended very well!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 27, 2019
Trump's meeting with Sundar follows several rough months for Google in Washington -- where lawmakers criticized the company for its efforts to build a search product for the Chinese market and decision to pull out of a key contract with the Pentagon. Republicans including Trump have also slammed the search giant and other tech giants for bias against conservatives -- a charge the companies have denied.
"We were pleased to have productive conversations with the President about investing in the future of the American workforce, the growth of emerging technologies and our ongoing commitment to working with the U.S. government," Google said in a statement to my colleague Tony.
In addition to Trump, Pichai met with dozens of lawmakers from both parties in Congress, as well as other members of the Trump administration. Google's new Global Head of Public Policy and Government Affairs Karan Bhatia joined Pichai.
BYTES: Facebook said it would close a loophole that critics said allowed racism to thrive on its platform — banning all posts that reference white nationalism and white separatism, my colleagues Tony and Elizabeth report. Previously, the company prohibited all messages glorifying white supremacy, but that policy was criticized by civil rights advocates who said that policy undermined Facebook's efforts to combat hate speech on its platform.
The company announced in a blog post it would prohibit “praise, support and representation of white nationalism and separatism.”
“It’s clear that these concepts are deeply linked to organized hate groups and have no place on our services,” the company wrote in the blog post. The new policy also applies to Instagram.