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Facebook has a new comeback when critics say it’s time to break up the social network: Bigger is better for democracy.
Mark Zuckerberg told reporters last week that Facebook’s size is an asset when it comes to combating election interference, an issue the company has frequently characterized as a large, challenging problem it can’t solve alone. But facing a growing chorus of calls for antitrust action, Zuckerberg appears to be striking a different note and making a bold argument that the company needs to be large and rich to protect voters.
“If what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to invest billions of dollars a year, like we are, in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference,” Zuckerberg said last week, according to CNBC. “Our budget for safety this year is bigger than the whole revenue of our company was when we went public earlier this decade. A lot of that is because we’ve been able to build a successful business that can now support that.”
Tech observers say Zuckerberg may be overstating the impact that unwinding Facebook’s acquisitions of the social networks WhatsApp and Instagram would have on its efforts to combat election interference. They say there are ways the services could continue to work together to fight foreign influence even if they aren't one company.
“I don’t find it a super compelling argument,” former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos told me. “Mark is probably overstating the importance of size.”
Stamos noted that people aren’t calling for Facebook to be broken up into 20 different companies. They’re calling for its services to be split into three separate businesses — each of which have billions of users and would have significant resources to combat election interference tactics such as disinformation.
To be sure, Stamos says there are some benefits to having such services housed under one entity when it comes to fighting problematic content. When he worked there, the company would sometimes shut down WhatsApp accounts connected with Facebook accounts that were being used for terrorist recruiting, he said.
However, Stamos said regardless of whether Facebook stays together, the tech industry writ large needs to find better ways to have smaller companies coordinate with one another to address election interference.
Ashkan Soltani, a privacy advocate and former Federal Trade Commission chief technologist, agreed that scale does help in fighting problematic content online. But he said when it comes to cybersecurity threats or spam, companies have figured out how to share information with each other, and Facebook’s entities should be able to even if they are broken up.
He doesn’t buy Zuckerberg’s argument, either.
“He’s trying to figure a way to frame the consolidation of such a large entity as a positive benefit,” Soltani said.
Stamos told me the company’s critics are probably overstating the benefits of breaking up Facebook, and that it may have little impact on the company’s efforts to combat foreign influence.
“It should only be broken up because of competition issues, not because of complaints around moderation policies," Stamos said.
But Soltani says it’s possible that a breakup could improve the situation because it would mean new leaders, who may have a different philosophy and make more meaningful investments in content moderation.
“The hubris and the tone-deaf aspect of the founder is the core issue,” Soltani said. He said breaking up the company could introduce “divergent or different philosophies” in the leadership that could benefit Facebook.
BITS: San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban agencies and the police from using facial recognition software — a symbolic milestone in a growing debate over the technology critics say can exacerbate police bias and grant authorities broad surveillance powers, my colleague Drew Harwell reports.
Privacy and civil liberty advocates have warned that facial recognition technololgy could be abused for mass surveillance or used for mass arrests. The ordinance, which passed the city's Board of Supervisors, will not apply to local businesses.
"But San Francisco’s ban will resonate because of the city’s identity as a friendly backyard for some of the world’s most powerful tech firms, including Google and Facebook, whose engineers have designed systems that can detect and recognize faces for business and consumer use," Drew writes.
Other cities across the country — including Oakland, Calif., and Sommerville, Mass., near Boston — are considering similar bans. These proposals come as technology companies such as Microsoft are calling for greater regulation of the technology — but not going so far as call for outright bans.
“That a community where a lot of the folks are building facial recognition is the first to ban it is pretty telling of the dangers of the technology,” Jevan Hutson, a University of Washington law student who advocated a facial-recognition moratorium in Washington, the home state of Amazon and Microsoft, told Drew. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“For too long we’ve had this ‘move fast, break things’ model on the public side with surveillance,” Hutson added. “We’re reclaiming our ability to say no to technologies that deface democracy and our ability to live freely.”
NIBBLES: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will urge other governments and top tech giants to commit to fighting the spread of violence on social media today in the "Christchurch call," my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew report.
The voluntary pledge will be presented on the sidelines of the G7 gathering in Paris -- two months after a deadly attacks inspired by online hate left dozens dead in Christchurch, New Zealand. Officials from countries including Canada, Britain, and the United States are expected to attend, along with Facebook, Amazon and Google representatives. Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey will attend, as well as the White House top tech adviser.
Facebook, Google and Microsoft plan to sign the Christchurch pledge, the companies confirmed. Twitter did not say if it would sign or not, but it described the meeting as a “critical opportunity to listen and learn from various heads of state and digital ministers from across the world.”
The White House also has not said whether it will sign the document, and a spokesman declined to comment on Tuesday.
"Behind the scenes, though, Trump administration officials said they have been actively negotiating with French and New Zealand officials over the document’s text," my colleagues write. "While the administration supports the document’s goals, it fears some of its language would run counter to the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech, according to two people familiar with the deliberations but not authorized to discuss them on the record."
BYTES: Facebook announced it will ban people who break its "most serious policies" from its live streaming service for a period of time, such as 30 days, according to CNN's Heather Kelly. Two months ago, the accused gunman in the New Zealand shootings used Facebook Live to stream the shootings.
Facebook didn't specify all the rules it will use to enforce the one-strike approach, but it pointed to existing community guidelines that prohibit terrorist propaganda on its service. The policy will expand to other topics in the coming weeks, and offenders will also be banned from purchasing ads.
“Following the horrific terrorist attacks in New Zealand, we’ve been reviewing what more we can do to limit our services from being used to cause harm or spread hate,” Guy Rosen, vice president of integrity at Facebook, wrote in a blog post. “We will now apply a ‘one strike’ policy to Live in connection with a broader range of offenses.”
The company says under this new regime, the accused shooter in the New Zealand attacks wouldn't have been able to stream the shooting. A spokesperson did not tell CNN what policies the shooter previously violated.
The New York Times notes this is the broadest overhaul the company has made in respone to the shootings, but it still may not go far enough for critics who say Facebook Live should be shut down completely.
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