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Facebook and Twitter's decision to crack down on fake accounts tied to China underscores how Silicon Valley's disinformation challenges have gone global. It's just the latest sign that more countries are embracing Russia's playbook and exploiting social media to stoke political division.
Yesterday marked the first time the companies have directly attributed such a campaign to Beijing. My colleagues Marie C. Baca and Tony Romm report Twitter said it was suspending nearly 1,000 accounts, citing a “significant state-backed information operation” in connection with protests in Hong Kong. Facebook also said it was removing five Facebook accounts, seven pages and three groups after being tipped off to the use of “a number of deceptive tactics, including the use of fake accounts.”
Since the public learned of the Kremlin-backed operation to amplify political tensions among Americans ahead of the 2016 election, evidence is increasingly mounting that other countries are learning from Moscow's tactics. Researchers recently have identified similar campaigns linked to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela. The New York Times reports China may have previous “dipped its toe” into using Western social media to target elections in Taiwan starting in 2018, according to Graham Brookie, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“The Chinese have been watching what works and what doesn’t in the context of Russian information operations,” Brookie told the New York Times. “China is testing the waters on what is effective and what they can get away with.”
The revelations are already intensifying calls on Capitol Hill for Congress to take action to address disinformation on social media as the 2020 election approaches. Lawmakers have scrutinized the ways Russia exploited social media in 2016 through hearings and by commissioning reports, but they have yet to pass any legislation that aims to prevent Russia or another country from reprising these tactics.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who is running for president, says it's time for that to change.
“Foreign adversaries are using information operations to try to influence elections and divide populations around the world,” Klobuchar told me in a statement. “That's why it's crucial that Congress must act now to protect our democracy from this kind of interference here in our country.”
Klobuchar says the first step would be for Congress to pass the Honest Ads Act, legislation she co-sponsors with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.). The measure would require that political ads sold online meet the same transparency requirements as political ads sold by traditional media, such as TV and radio stations. The legislation would also require tech companies to take steps to ensure foreign actors aren't purchasing political ads to influence the election.
However, Klobuchar says the bill is stalled in Congress due to opposition from Republican Senate leadership. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been defensive about his decision to not bring other election security-related bills to the floor, previously expressed skepticism about Klobuchar's bill because he believes it will make it harder for Americans to exercise their free speech rights through political action.
In the absence of any action from Congress, the tech companies themselves have been tasked with developing their own policies for handling disinformation that may be tied to foreign adversaries — and the rules can vary widely from company to company and are often changing.
Twitter said yesterday it would bar state-owned media from buying ads on its platform as the Times reported that China Daily and other state-backed services bought ads on the platform suggesting violence in the part of Hong Kong protesters. Facebook has not followed suit, but it's taking a closer look at its policies.
“We continue to look at our policies as they relate to state-owned media,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said. “We’re also taking a closer look at ads that have been raised to us to determine if they violate our policies.”
Google did not respond to requests for comment about whether it also detected inauthentic activity related to the protests on its platforms or whether it was also considering a policy change. The company has told Reuters that state-owned media companies maintained the ability to run ads in accordance with the company's rules.
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BITS: A group of states is planning to launch a formal antitrust probe into large technology companies as early as next month, the Wall Street Journal's John D. McKinnon and Brent Kendall report. The probe could "dovetail" with increased scrutiny of Silicon Valley from the Justice Department, which announced its own review of competition in the tech industry last month.
The Journal didn't specify how many states would be joining the investigation, but it reported that up to 20 or more states could participate. The probe "is likely to focus on whether a handful of dominant technology platforms use their marketplace powers to stifle competition," John and Brent write.
The Journal reports that the political makeup of the multistate group isn't yet set, but representatives of state attorneys general from both parties have met with DOJ officials.
“The attorneys general involved have concerns over the control of personal data by large tech companies and will hold them accountable for anticompetitive practices that endanger privacy and consumer data,” a spokesman for New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, told the Journal.
Amazon, Facebook, Google and Apple -- four of the companies likely to be targeted by the probe -- did not respond to the Journal's requests for comment.
NIBBLES: Apple is overhauling its rules for kids' app developers to better protect children's privacy online. But the changes the company is planning to implement next monthalso highlight Apple's broad power over the app ecosystem as some developers raise concerns the changes could pointlessly reduce their business, my colleagues Reed Albergotti and Craig Timberg report.
Apple is planning to ban kids apps from using external analytics software, which collects detailed data about who is using an app and how they're using it. The company is also introducing new limits on advertising sales for these apps, which could pose a threat to the business model of many free apps that rely on ads for revenue. While Apple is making these changes in the name of protecting kids online, some developers say the moves won't protect kids and could possibly result in exposing them to more adult apps.
Gerald Youngblood, who created an app intended to be a safe alternative to YouTube called Tankee, is concerned about the impact the new rules could have on his company's business model, which relies on ads. Youngblood doesn't think Tankee should be punished for other apps' negligence.
“We thought they were going to shut down these apps that are ignoring privacy and targeting kids,” he told my colleagues. “We were built with privacy as a foundation.”
Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, told my colleagues that Apple was responding to parents' concerns after they complained apps were showing kids inappropriate ads. “Parents are really upset when that happens because they trust us,” Schiller said.
BYTES: President Trump tweeted Monday that Google should be sued as he repeated a previously debunked statistic that Google “manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election!”
Wow, Report Just Out! Google manipulated from 2.6 million to 16 million votes for Hillary Clinton in 2016 Election! This was put out by a Clinton supporter, not a Trump Supporter! Google should be sued. My victory was even bigger than thought! @JudicialWatch— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 19, 2019
Trump did not provide a source for his allegation. However, Fox Business aired a segment yesterday discussing testimony at a hearing last month focused on allegations that Google is biased against conservatives, according to my colleague Philip Bump. At that hearing, researcher Robert Epstein told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that “biased search results generated by Google’s search algorithm likely impacted undecided voters in a way that gave at least 2.6 million votes to Hillary Clinton” – and that number could increase to 15 million in 2020.
But Google has long denied both Epstein’s, and now Trump’s, claim.
“This researcher’s inaccurate claim has been debunked since it was made in 2016. As we stated then, we have never re-ranked or altered search results to manipulate political sentiment,” Google spokeswoman Lara Levin said in a statement. “Our goal is to always provide people with access to high quality, relevant information for their queries, without regard to political viewpoint.”
Clinton also called out the methodology of the study on Twitter:
The debunked study you’re referring to was based on 21 undecided voters. For context that’s about half the number of people associated with your campaign who have been indicted. https://t.co/0zHnWvGjSv— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) August 19, 2019
-- Third-party sellers will likely see additional costs because of a new digital tax France plans to levy against the retail giant and other tech companies, a representative from Amazon told a panel of U.S. trade officials on Monday. Amazon joined Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter in unanimously slamming the proposed 3 percent tax on the corporate revenue of digital advertisers who target and collect data on French consumers, CNN's Brian Fung reports.
"We cannot absorb this expense if we are to continue making investments in infrastructure," Peter Hiltz, Amazon's director of international tax policy and planning, said at a hearing held by the U.S. trade representative in Washington. Nicholas Bramble, a trade attorney at Google, argued that taxing corporate revenues, instead of net profits, was a “sharp departure from long-established rules.”
The White House is investigating the tax and has tried to steer France and other European countries toward a more cooperative decision-making process. but American tech companies worry that other European companies may already be narrowing in on introducing their own versions of the tax. Spain has expressed interest in adopting a similar tax and the U.K. lawmakers drafted a 2 percent tax last month. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
-- The White House will give American businesses 90 additional days to continue sales to Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, before a ban goes into effect, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced Monday in an interview with Fox Business Network. The administration will also add 46 Huawei affiliates to the 69 already included on the banned entity list, proving that the 90-day reprieve may be nothing more than a temporary detente in tensions between the two trade giants.
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