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The White House hasn’t said how it plans to use the data it’s collecting about people’s experiences with bias on social media. But in Silicon Valley, it's viewed as the administration's latest political stunt.
Venky Ganesan, a partner at technology investor Menlo Ventures, told me the White House’s new survey about bias on social media is “pure kabuki theatre” and an attempt to curry political points with conservatives. He said the Trump administration’s repeated accusations that tech companies censor conservative voices are unfounded because even though most Silicon Valley executives are liberal or libertarian, they wouldn’t let politics get in the way of their primary goal: making money.
“Algorithms and products don’t have political biases because that’s not how you optimise to make money,” he wrote in an email. “The only bias the products have is to monetise users and make money for the companies.”
The Internet Association, a trade association representing Facebook, Google and other tech companies, also pushed back on President Trump’s repeated accusations that their products are biased against conservatives. The association says the platforms are open and enable the speech of all Americans — including the president himself.
“That’s why the president uses Twitter so much,” said Michael Beckerman, the Internet Association's chief executive. “He actually used Twitter for this particular announcement, which is perhaps ironic.”
Silicon Valley is punching back as the Trump administration opens a new battleground in its tense war with the tech industry. But this time some of Silicon Valley’s typical Washington foes — privacy advocates and Democrats in Congress — are on the tech industry's side, underscoring the broad criticism of the plan.
The Trump administration launched a tool allowing users to submit their experiences with what it described as bias on Wednesday evening, following years of President Trump's repeated threats to regulate the companies for stifling conservative voices. The Trump administration declined to tell my colleague Tony Romm what it planned to do with the data it’s amassing. “The White House wants to hear from all Americans — regardless of their political leanings — if they have been impacted by bias on social media platforms,” spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement.
Privacy advocates want answers about how the data is being handled -- and until they get them, they think the White House should stop using the tool. A consumer privacy nonprofit organization wrote a letter to Trump yesterday calling for the White House to halt the collection of personal information. The White House submission form requests respondents share their name, age, email addresses, phone number, citizenship status and links to their social media profiles and posts.
“The White House seeks to collect detailed sensitive personal information, yet there is no indication that privacy interests were considered,” the Electronic Privacy Information Center wrote. The group also said the form raises “substantial First Amendment concerns” and that it believes the data collection is “unlawful, unconstitutional and itself a violation of the First Amendment.”
EPIC is arguing that the federal agencies are required to conduct a privacy impact assessment before collecting personal data of this nature, and there's no indication the White House conducted such a review before launching the tool.
On the Hill yesterday, Democratic lawmakers say the survey raises serious questions about government ethics and abuse of power, according to Politico.
“I think it raises questions related to the abuse of power,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told reporters on Capitol Hill yesterday. “If it’s not authoritarian, it’s the first or second cousin of authoritarianism.”
BITS: U.S. tech companies could be impacted if a ban on exporting hardware and services to Chinese-based Huawei goes into effect, highlighting U.S. dependence on China's tech industry, my colleagues Greg Bensinger and Reed Albergotti write.
Huaewei says it spends $1 out of every $7 of its annual $70 billion procurement budget buying components from U.S. companies. Huawei relies on U.S. suppliers for wireless chips, antennas and handset operating software -- and the ban could weaken its ability to produce the latest equiptment.
Huawei says the ban, which hasn't yet taken effect, could threaten U.S. jobs.
“This decision is in no one’s interest,” spokesman Chasen Skinner said in an email to my colleagues. “It will do significant economic harm to the American companies with which Huawei does business, affect tens of thousands of jobs, and disrupt the current collaboration and mutual trust that exist on the global supply chain.”
Representatives for U.S. suppliers, who did not want to be identified, told my colleagues they were uncertain about the lasting impact of the Huawei ban on their operations.
Those companies would have to apply to the government for special approval to continue supplying Huawei, Center for Strategic and International Studies adviser William Reinsch, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration, told my colleagues.
“That doesn’t mean every license would be denied, but it would be on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “It also gives the government an intelligence bonanza” in the form of a list of every U.S. supplier to Huawei.
NIBBLES: Facebook said it shut down 265 fake accounts run by a social media company in Israel for "coordinated inauthentic behavior," signaling the increasingly global nature of social media disinformation, my colleagues Craig Timberg and Tony Romm report.
Facebook's announcement was atypical because it singled out a company that appeared to profit from its disinformation efforts. Archimedes Group, the affected company, claims the ability to “use every tool and take every advantage available in order to change reality according to our client’s wishes.”
The accounts were on Facebook and Instagram, which the social network also owns. Archimedes Group is banned from both services.
“We’re taking down these Pages and accounts based on their behavior, not the content they posted,” said a post by Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of global cybersecurity policy. “As in other cases involving coordinated inauthentic behavior, the individuals behind this activity coordinated with one another to mislead others about who they were and what they were doing, and that was the basis for our action.”
Archimedes Group maintained 65 Facebook accounts, 161 Facebook pages, 23 Facebook groups and four Instagram accounts. It also had posted 12 Facebook events. About 2.8 million accounts followed at least one of the pages set up by the Archimedes Group. Facebook said the company’s accounts bought $812,000 in ads using various currencies, dating back to 2012.
Archimedes Group did not respond to a request for comment my colleagues made through its website.
BYTES: More than half a dozen recruiters who recently left Facebook say the company saw a sharp decline in job offer acceptance rates after the public learned of the Cambridge Analytica scandal in March 2018, CNBC's Salvador Rodriguez writes.
Students at top universities are turning down job offers from the embattled social network at higher rates.
"Among top schools, such as Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and Ivy League universities, Facebook’s acceptance rate for full-time positions offered to new graduates has fallen from an average of 85% for the 2017-2018 school year to between 35% and 55% as of December, according to former Facebook recruiters," Rodriguez writes. "The biggest decline came from Carnegie Mellon University, where the acceptance rate for new recruits dropped to 35%."
The company also saw a decline in acceptance rates among software engineers for its products teams. Acceptance rates for those teams declined from 90% to almost 50% in early 2019.
Facebook spokesman Anthony Harrison told CNBC the company’s head count grew 36% year over year from the first quarter of 2018 to the first quarter of 2019. Facebook disputed the accuracy of the recruiters’ accounts, but declined to point out any specific points that were wrong. Harrison contacted CNBC after the story was published to say “these numbers are totally wrong.”
“Facebook regularly ranks high on industry lists of most attractive employers,” Harrison said in a statement. “For example, in the last year we were rated as #1 on Indeed’s Top Rated Workplaces, #2 on LinkedIn’s Top Companies, and #7 on Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work. Our annual intern survey showed exceptionally strong sentiment and intent to return and we continue to see strong acceptance rates across University Recruiting.”
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