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Facebook’s mission statement is to “bring the world closer together.” But its failure to rein in rampant misinformation and violent content could be the Achilles’ heel of its global ambitions.

When the Sri Lankan government decided to temporarily block access to Facebook, WhatsApp and Google’s YouTube in the aftermath of deadly bombings on Easter Sunday, it made a unilateral decision: The risks from rampant misinformation and fake news on these platforms were greater than the communications benefits these channels could bring during a crisis.

The episode proves Facebook's “combination of unwillingness and inability to deal with the misinformation problem is one of their great weaknesses,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University's Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

The Sri Lanka shutdown offers a glimpse at one potential stark future for social media companies such as Facebook, which might see their operations severely curtailed more often in certain corners of the world if they don’t quickly improve their playbook for policing misinformation. This risk is especially pronounced in emerging markets, where Facebook is trying to rapidly attract new users — even though it may not yet have the resources to combat harmful content in these regions.

“This is an extreme step in terms of regulation, but one that I think will be becoming more common in the future,” said Barrett, whose center seeks to train business leaders to make decisions on human rights issues. “We may be at a breaking point in terms of how people around world view big social media companies.” 

Facebook and other technology giants are facing this dilemma because they haven't been proactive enough in investing in content moderation technology and policy staff in smaller markets, such as in Sri Lanka, where Sinhala is the predominant language, said Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Platform Accountability Project at the Harvard Kennedy School. 

Ghosh said Facebook was not designed for the needs of the cultural groups in Sri Lanka, and the algorithms it is developing to detect harmful content is most effective in languages such as English, and is not equipped to deal with rampant misinformation in Sri Lanka’s native language.

In a time of crisis, where government leaders are worried misinformation could exacerbate on-the-ground violence, “there’s no other choice for the government but to shut it down temporarily,” Ghosh said. 

And other governments more likely to take Sri Lanka's lead to block social media would be those in “fragile societies where the value of free speech is subordinated to other concerns,” Barrett said.

Sri Lanka's shutdown should put pressure on Silicon Valley companies to make greater investments in content moderation technology and policy resources in all of its international markets, Barrett said. 

Emerging markets might not be the biggest moneymakers for Silicon Valley tech giants in terms of ad revenue, but they are essential to Facebook’s expansion as it continues to try to increase its users around the world and show Wall Street it continues to grow at a fast clip. 

“I don’t think the social media companies can do it all from Silicon Valley anymore,” Barrett said.

Facebook over the weekend pushed back on the idea that a ban was necessary. “People rely on our services to communicate with their loved ones and we are committed to maintaining our services and helping the community and the country during this tragic time,” the company said in a statement. 

Yet the Sri Lankan government’s move is bad optics for Silicon Valley a time when policymakers around the world are increasingly considering measures to regulate technology companies' handling of harmful content. The decision to block access — even for a matter of days — is “terrible from a policy perspective” for Facebook and other tech giants, Ghosh says. 

Already, authoritarian countries like China broadly block their citizens' access to American Internet services that foster free expression, but as my colleagues Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg wrote yesterday, more democratic governments are increasingly targeting social media companies. The United Kingdom has been considering a broad range of actions to take against social media companies that host misinformation, and Australia recently passed a law that would allow the government to fine companies that do not swiftly remove violent content.

“I think that these kinds of incidents really add fuel to the fire,” Ghosh said.


BITS: Privacy advocates aren't happy with Facebook's choice for general counsel. The company announced yesterday it hired Jennifer Newstead, who helped sell the Patriot Act to Congress in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, for the top legal role, my colleague Isaac Stanley-Becker reports

From former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist Ashkan Soltani: 

The Patriot Act transformed the government's access to personal data, noteably expanding the use of national security letters -- a type of subpeona that can be issued to companies without court oversight. Newstead was the “day-to-day manager of the Patriot Act in Congress,” a deputy assistant attorney general, John Yoo, would later write in his “Insider’s Account of the War on Terror.”

Now with Facebook, Newstead will be on the other side of the courtroom, Isaac notes. Technology companies have wrestled with how much data to hand over to law enforcement, especially since the 2013 Edward Snowden revelations exposed the U.S. government's efforts to sweep up Americans' digital data. Facebook has reported a spike in government requests for data.  

Facebook also announced it hired Seattle tech industry veteran John Pinette to helm global communications. Observers noted that his experience at Microsoft might be relevant as tech companies face antitrust scrutiny in Washington. From the Telegraph's Laurence Dobbs:

NIBBLES: Two Google employees say they are facing retaliation for their activism at the company, and they are organizing a "town hall" meeting on Friday for others to discuss their own alleged experiences, Wired's Nitasha Tiku reports

Meredith Whittaker, who leads Google's Open Research, said after the company disbanded its external AI ethics council following employee backlash, she was told her role would be "changed dramatically." Claire Stapleton, an organizer of the walkout protesting Google's handling of sexual harassment claims, said two months after the protest, she was told she would be demoted from her marketing manager role at YouTube and lose half her direct reports. She said the situation only worsened when she reported it to human resources. 

“My manager started ignoring me, my work was given to other people, and I was told to go on medical leave, even though I’m not sick,” Stapleton wrote in a message shared on internal Google mailing lists. After Stapleton hired a lawyer, the company conducted an investigation and appeared to reverse the demotion, but Stapleton says the environment remains "hostile."

A Google spokesperson told Wired in a statement: "We prohibit retaliation in the workplace and investigate all allegations. Employees and teams are regularly and commonly given new assignments, or reorganized, to keep pace with evolving business needs. There has been no retaliation here.” 

BYTES: Tesla chief executive Elon Musk promised to launch an on-demand robot taxi fleet next year, which would throw the car-maker into direct competition with ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, the Wall Street Journal's Tim Higgins writes

"In a presentation on Monday to investors and analysts at company headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif., the billionaire entrepreneur said that by the middle of next year more than a million Tesla vehicles on the road will have the capability of operating without a human driver," Higgins writes. "He expects regulatory approval in at least one market that would enable a robot taxi service by the end of 2020."

Musk says Tesla owners would have an app that would allow them to push a button and put their cars into commercial service -- ferrying riders on the company's network. Tesla would collect 25 percent to 30 percent of the fee riders pay. 

“The fundamental message that consumers should be taking today is that it’s financially insane to buy anything other than a Tesla,” Mr. Musk said. “It will be like owning a horse in three years—fine if you want to own a horse, but you should go into it with that expectation.”


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-- President Trump tweeted that Twitter is "discriminatory" and said the social network doesn't "treat [him] well as a Republican." Trump has repeatedly called for the technology companies to be regulated as he alleges that they censor conservatives, a charge Twitter and other tech giants have repeatedly denied. Republicans in Congress recently held a hearing on the issue, where Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) floated anitrust action or changes to a legal shield that protects the tech companies from liability for content posted on their sites, as potential remedies for alleged bias against conservatives. 

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