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It's official: Politicians have protected status on Facebook.
If they violate the company's policies by posting misinformation, hoaxes, or hate speech, Facebook generally won't intervene.
That's direct from Nick Clegg, Facebook's vice president of global affairs and communications, who said in a blog post yesterday that moving forward, it will treat speech from politicians "as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard." The company also confirmed that it exempts politicians' speech from its third-party fact-checking program.
This answered a long-running question about what the company planned to do about President Trump, who is known for spreading conspiracy theories or hateful remarks on social media that appear to break the rules. But its hands-off approach raises new questions about whether the company is serious about keeping its platform safe from adversaries seeking to exploit it for political gain.
For its part, Clegg insists the company's responsibility is to stop outside interference and be transparent about political ads, but not to intervene when politicians speak. "To use tennis as an analogy, our job is to make sure the court is ready – the surface is flat, the lines painted, the net at the correct height," Clegg said at the Atlantic Ideas Festival.. "But we don’t pick up a racket and start playing. How the players play the game is up to them, not us."
The company's hands-off approach received swift blowback.
From Kevin Roose of the New York Times:
It’s a good thing no politicians have ever run Facebook disinformation campaigns in order to tip elections or sow division, that’d be bad. https://t.co/loW42vxplA— Kevin Roose (@kevinroose) September 24, 2019
From Fabio Chiusi, a project manager at Algorithm Watch, a non-profit research and advocacy organization:
This is possibly the worst of all policy decisions on Facebook’s part: “valued political customers” should be subject to special, more (not less) stringent policy enforcement criteria — as they have a bigger responsibility to the public in terms of truth, dignity and trust. https://t.co/z2JOUbi2xx— Fabio Chiusi (@fabiochiusi) September 25, 2019
Facebook's formal policy extends far beyond the U.S. commander-in-chief, and it applies to all elected officials and people running for office around the world, at the executive, national and regional level.
Yet the Trump factor is undeniable: Ahead of the 2016 election, Deepa Seetharaman at the Wall Street Journal reported that some of Trump's posts on Facebook sparked debates within the company about how the company should treat posts from politicians. Employees argued some of Trump's posts about the Muslim ban should be removed for violating the company's hate speech policies, but Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg decided not to remove the posts.
Twitter has also faced criticism for not taking action against the president's tweets that could violate its policies on hate speech. The company announced earlier this year that it would begin labeling tweets from leaders that would otherwise be removed from the service. But it's unclear how Twitter is going to enforce this new policy. Twitter said in July that a tweet from Trump telling several Democratic lawmakers to "go back" to their countries that prompted widespread allegations of racism against women of color did not violate its policies. But independent researchers struggled to see why that wouldn't break its rules on racist content.
There are some exceptions to the new rules: Facebook will still subject ads from politicians to its community standards, and the company says it will remove posts from politicians that have the potential to incite violence. Facebook promised to weigh the public interest of a post against the potential harm, and it promised to consider many factors about a country's political environment when making that decision. Facebook's calculations for example could be different in a country that does not have a free press -- and could not easily challenge a politician's claim. If a politician shares a link, photo, or video that the company's fact checkers already debunked, the company will demote the post and include any additional information from the fact-checkers.
Clegg acknowledged the company's position would be controversial. He anticipated people would say the company is wrong to give politicians a pass on nasty or false claims, but he said the reverse could potentially be much more damaging.
"Would it be acceptable to society at large to have a private company in effect become a self-appointed referee for everything that politicians say?" he said. "I don’t believe it would be."
Alex Stamos, former Facebook chief security officer, also pushed back on critics, asking when it would be appropriate for the "spectacularly powerful" company to censor speech of candidates in a Democratic election. From Twitter:
So who, specifically? And who gets that power?— Alex Stamos (@alexstamos) September 24, 2019
The "these companies should control political speech by politicians in democracies" argument is completely incompatible with everything the same proponents say about antitrust, platform power and unaccountable executives.
BITS: The activist behind California's groundbreaking consumer privacy law wants to go even further in holding tech giants accountable with a newly unveiled ballot proposal for 2020, my colleague Tony Romm reports. The ballot initiative could bring round two of a high-stakes battle between Silicon Valley tech giants and consumer privacy advocates.
The proposal from Alastair Mactaggart, the millionaire behind the initiative that eventually morphed into the California Consumer Privacy Act, goes well beyond the protections outlined in the new law. Not only would it give users greater power over how companies collect and sell their personal data including location and financial records, it would create a new state agency to enforce the law, Tony reports. The law would also break open the black-box nature of how companies use data to determine employment prospects, financial services or even shape election results by requiring companies to explain their algorithms to users.
The new initiative will need a million signatures to make it onto the 2020 ballot, but its unforgiving stance against tech giants probably will result in an all-out lobbying assault from the industry well before then.
NIBBLES: Time for tequila shots and Run-DMC? We Work's Adam Neumann stepped down as CEO under pressure, the company confirmed today after a Wall Street Journal report. Neumann will stay as nonexecutive chairman of the board, my colleague Marie C. Baca reports.
“While our business has never been stronger, in recent weeks, the scrutiny directed toward me has become a significant distraction,” Neumann said in a statement. “I have decided that it is in the best interest of the company to step down.” The company's former co-president and chief financial officer Artie Minson and vice chairman Sebastian Gunningham will serve as co-CEOs.
The rapid removal of Neumann is a stark reversal of the company's previous stance that Neumann's leadership was crucial to its success. WeWork said in an August filing with the SEC that “If Adam does not continue to serve as our Chief Executive Officer, it could have a material adverse effect on our business.”
Not everyone is convinced the shake-up will save the company from larger issues, including a plummeting valuation and significant cash burn.
Clouflare CEO and co-founder Matthew Prince, who recently took his company public:
The track changes on the WeWork S-1 will be something to behold.— Matthew Prince 🌥 (@eastdakota) September 24, 2019
GeekSquad founder Robert Stephens:
This changes nothing about this incompetent board and WeWork’s long-term viability at large scale. https://t.co/BFZpCDylU1— Robert Stephens (@rstephens) September 24, 2019
Bloomberg News's Shira Ovide said that “everyone who broke WeWork is still there.”
Also also also now fix all the board members, bankers, investors and hangers-on who enabled this company -- until the very second potential investors said YIKES. pic.twitter.com/XTjAz10wUD— Shira Ovide (@ShiraOvide) September 24, 2019
BYTES: The Federal Communications Commission says that Sprint wrongfully claimed millions in federal funds from a program that helps subsidize cellphone and Internet service for low-income Americans. The revelation comes as Sprint and T-Mobile try to close on a $26.5 billion merger, a decision that will require FCC approval, CNN's Brian Fung reports.
The company failed to report that nearly 900,000 of the customers it claimed monthly credits for didn't use Lifeline, the subsidized service, the FCC reports. The subscribers in question represent nearly 10 percent of the Lifeline program’s subscriber base — making it potentially one of the largest cases of abuse of the program. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called the abuse a “careless disregard for program rules and American taxpayers” and said the agency will investigate the matter.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said on Twitter the agency should "throw the book" at Sprint.
When companies abuse the Lifeline program we should throw the book at them.— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) September 24, 2019
Here's what we shouldn't do: Kick off the millions of seniors, veterans, and domestic violence shelters nationwide that rely on this program to stay connected.https://t.co/idkLjtvEck
Sprint denied any intentional wrongdoing to CNN, attributing the mistake to a change in the program's guidelines in 2016. The company said it is conducting an independent audit of its operations and offered to pay back the government.
— News from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
A group of nearly 80 contract workers in a Google office in Pittsburgh voted to join the United Steelworkers yesterday. While the workers will bargain with their employer HCL America and not Google directly, it could push the company into paying better wages to contractors and granting them treatment more on par with direct Google employees my colleagues Greg Bensinger and Nitashu Tiku report.
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Luntz Global Partners, the firm founded by pollster Frank Luntz, is relaunching as Storyline Strategies and will bring on Josh Burris and Shepherd Pittman to oversee its new San Francisco office.
Lime is bringing on Nick Shapiro as their first-ever Global Head of Trust and Safety to oversee their trust and safety operations.
- Amazon will host a media event to launch new hardware on Wednesday.
- Toronto will host Elevate, a tech and innovation conference, September 20-26.
- The House Appropriations Committee will host a hearing, "Federal Trade Commission: Protecting Consumers and Fostering Competition in the 21st Century," at 10 a.m.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing on the public health threats of E-Cigarettes at 10 a.m.
— Coming up:
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host a hearing to discuss securing America's wireless future and the deployment of 5G communications on Friday at 9:30 am.
- The House Science Committe will host a hearing on "Online Imposters and Disinformation" Thursday at 2 p.m.
French designers have a new answer to grid-lock traffic, my colleague Peter Holley reports: sea taxis.