with Tonya Riley

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A nonprofit with deep ties to the newspaper industry is investing $50 million into research on technology's impact on democracy — from countering online disinformation to how companies such as Facebook and YouTube impact public opinion. 

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced this morning that it would fund new research at 11 universities in the hopes of ushering in a new academic field of study. The organization, which was founded by the owners of newspapers such as the Miami Herald, has been trying to stay on top of trends that are changing journalism — and one of the most pressing issues right now is how fake news and information is undermining what people can trust online.

“It’s our modern-day Gutenberg moment. Even as we embrace the benefits of the Internet, we need to grapple with its effect on our democracy,” said Alberto Ibargüen, the president and chief executive of the Knight Foundation, in a news release. “We need more research, data and insights to do it effectively and avoid unintended consequences. These investments make that possible.” 

More rigorous research into the trends could ultimately help everyone from policymakers, media outlets and tech companies tackle the challenges unique to the digital age. 

“What we don’t have strangely enough is a really dispassionate collection of data — long-term data — about what happens in a democratic republic when you don’t have consistently reliable information,” Ibargüen said in an interview. 

The investment is a reminder that media and academics have a role to play in solving these challenges at a time when much of the attention has been on how tech companies and Washington lawmakers are responding to the threat.  

“Our democracy is at an inflection point,” Sam Gill, Knight Foundation vice president for communities and impact, said in a statement. “Technology is fundamentally changing our society, yet we are flying blind. There is a need for innovative approaches that recognize the complexity of these challenges by joining computational sciences, social sciences and the humanities.”

Ibargüen tells me a key criteria for selecting universities for the funding was whether they could combine academics who have a computer science or digital focus with political scientists, legal scholars or experts from other social science fields. 

The foundation plans to stand up long-term research centers on the intersection of technology and politics at five universities: Carnegie Mellon University, George Washington University, New York University, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Washington. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is also investing in several of the centers. 

The foundation is also backing shorter-term research projects at six schools including Stanford University and Indiana University. These projects will develop new tools to analyze social media or study what regulation is needed to ensure democracy “survives the Internet,” per the news release. 

The funding for the new research is part of a bigger $300 million investment that the Knight Foundation is making into the future of local news. Much of that investment has been going toward addressing another challenge — the Internet's disruptive effect on newspaper subscribers and media revenue. 

The Knight Foundation is also dedicating another $11 million to research specifically designed to help policymakers and legal experts govern in the digital age. Ibargüen said the organization is seeking proposals for this research now — but aims to dig into topics such as whether Google should be broken up or whether lawmakers should change a legal shield that gives tech companies immunity for content others post on their sites. 

“There’s so many proposals at this point and very few of them have really been thought through,” Ibargüen said. 


BITS: Credit reporting agency Equifax has agreed to pay up to $700 million to settle a series of state and federal investigations into a 2017 data breach that compromised the names, Social Security numbers, credit card numbers and other personal information of nearly 150 million Americans, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The 2017 hack, which exposed the data of nearly half of the U.S. population, sparked outrage from lawmakers over the precarious data collection practices of the credit reporting industry.

Under the agreement with the states, Equifax will make $425 million available to victims of the hack to cover consumer fraud services including identity-theft protection. The company will pay $175 million to the states directly, which are also requiring Equifax to update its business and cybersecurity practices. Equifax also has agreed to pay an additional $100 million to settle a federal investigation at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which probed the matter alongside the Federal Trade Commission, the agencies said Monday.

“This is the largest data breach settlement in U.S. history,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “These data breaches occur because of corporate greed. Corporate leaders decided to put an extra dollar of profit into their pocket, as opposed to that dollar going into the infrastructure of the company to protect their data.”

NIBBLES: The Federal Trade Commission has finalized a multimillion-dollar settlement with Google for breaching federal law that prevents companies from tracking and targeting users under 13 years oldmy colleagues Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin report. The impending settlement coincides with efforts by the FTC to ramp up its enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

Advocates have filed complaints with the FTC for years that Google’s YouTube video platform illegally targets children despite claims from the company that its services are meant for users over 13. While it’s unclear what exactly the settlement will look like, it could require YouTube to change its business practices; the company has explored changing its algorithms that determine how related content is served up to users, Elizabeth and Tony report.

Turning a blind eye to underage users isn’t a problem exclusive to YouTube, say advocates who have also called out Instagram and other popular platforms. Lawmakers in Congress are considering modernizing COPPA to address services that attract larger numbers of young users despite their marketing intentions.

BYTES: Tinder joined a growing number of apps that are refusing to pay the app store fee charged by Google, Bloomberg News’s Olivia Carville reports. Analysts say that Tinder’s move to make users subscribe in the app, rather through Google’s payment system, could spark even more rebellion from developers fed up with the 30 percent cuts taken by app stores.

Since launching their respective app stores in 2008, Google and Apple have dominated the marketplace. Spotify is challenging Apple in European courts, claiming that the app store amounts to a “tax” on competitors and violates antitrust laws. Other companies, including Netflix, no longer give users the options to pay through the app stores altogether.

Tinder’s parent company Match, which met with lawmakers on the Hill and several other companies Friday to discuss data privacy, did not say whether it would also be removing its subscription service from the Apple App store.


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Coming up:

  • The Senate Judiciary will host an oversight hearing to examine enforcement of antitrust laws on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.
  • The House Financial Services Committee will host a hearing examining the use of alternative data in credit scoring to expand access to credit on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • The House Appropriations Committee will host a hearing on the budget and oversight of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday.
  • Former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, III will go in front of the House Intelligence Committee to testify about the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election on Wednesday at 12 p.m.
  • The House Appropriations Committee will host a hearing on U.S. Customs and Border Protection Border Patrol Oversight on Wednesday at 2pm.