with Tonya Riley

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Democrats are ratcheting up pressure on tech companies to do more to address President Trump's spread of false or hateful information on social media.

The calls, which are a focus on the 2020 campaign trail, are moving to Congress as the chair of the House Science Committee calls on the companies to take action.

“I know there gets to be a pretty close edge of freedom of speech,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.) said during an interview with me on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” that aired this weekend. “But at the same time, I think we ought to have a freedom of responsibility.” 

Johnson says it's time for Congress to "get more aggressive" in making sure companies such as Facebook and Twitter don't incite partisanship on social media. “We've got to be a little bit more aggressive and making sure there's responsibility there.” 

This sentiment from leading Democrats signals that Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg might face a frosty or even hostile reception when he testifies on Capitol Hill this week. He will almost certainly be on the defensive about Facebook's recent announcement it will not fact-check or moderate politicians posts or ads, which is fueling concerns the company is allowing the spread of misinformation ahead of the elections. 

The issue has become a flashpoint among Democratic White House hopefuls. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Joe Biden have criticized Facebook's recent decision to run a Trump campaign ad that made false claims about the former vice president's dealings with Ukraine. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), has called on Twitter to suspend the president's account. 

Johnson’s comments came during a wide-ranging interview with me and C-SPAN’s Peter Slen, where we discussed the state of tech regulation in Washington and her committee’s efforts to ensure the United States is investing in technology. Here are some excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited for clarity:

On disinformation ahead of the 2020 election:

Zakrzewski: [Your committee recently held] a hearing on deepfakes, videos that are edited with artificial intelligence to make it look like people are doing or saying things that never happened. As we get closer and closer to the 2020 election, do you think that the tech companies are doing enough to address disinformation? 

Johnson: That is difficult to tell. I think that we need to be more knowledgeable so that we also can be involved and know what we need to look for so that we will know ourselves when it's off course. That is a challenge. It's a challenge because we've not been down this road before, but there are many other roads that are going to be coming along that we have not been before, and we've got to make sure we step up to the plate. 

And it has to be bipartisan. You know, the Constitution is bipartisan. The responsibility to this nation is not partisan. We have allowed ourselves to fall off into a lot of partisanism.

On partisanship in Congress:

Zakrzewski: You've talked a lot about STEM education and efforts to stay focused on innovation and the future in Congress. But at this politically divided moment in Washington, as impeachment really heats up, do you think that there's bipartisan will in Congress to pass some of these measures that you've mentioned? 

Johnson: Ninety-five percent of the legislation that has come out of my committee has been very bipartisan. We are focused on that. It should not be partisan. Technology is not partisan. Technology doesn't see what color or what gender, and nor should we be worried about that other than inclusiveness. We are continuing to work together as a committee. We have a very robust committee. Very bright, some new minds and some returning members. But we've got new energy, new interest. And we are covering the areas of interest. I can't say we will get the attention we deserve, but we are doing hard work, and it's hard work that's going to matter in the future. 

On how the United States should think about artificial intelligence and automation: 

Slen: Is it important that the U.S.beats China when it comes to artificial intelligence?

Johnson: It's important that we keep pace, and hopefully sometimes we'll lead. But we're not investing the same amount of time nor money in the research to keep up with China. That is a concern that I have. We cannot dream and assume that we can keep up without those investments. 

Zakrzewski: Last [week] at the Democratic debate, automation was a key issue that came up. One presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur from New York, has been proposing a universal basic income to address the changes in work that AI might bring to the U.S. economy. What do you think of those proposals for a universal basic income? 

Johnson: That's an idea we need to entertain. I'm not going to shut the door on any idea of that sort. Because we are challenged by our future. We in this country are losing ground. We cannot afford that. We have got to invest in order to have the returns on the investment.

On the future of privacy regulation: 
Zakrzewski: Earlier this year, there was a lot of discussion about passing a bipartisan federal privacy law by the end of the year, but it seems like those talks have largely deteriorated. But what do you think the chances are that Congress passes federal privacy legislation before the 2020 election? 

Johnson: I can't predict that, but I can tell you I'd never give up. You have to keep trying. And sometimes one day it looks like it's impossible, and it passes the next day. So you just never give up if you know what you're doing is the right thing for the people. 


BITS: Democrats are struggling to keep up with a flood of incendiary online ads from the Trump campaign, Matthew Rosenberg and Kevin Roose at the New York Times report. Democrats' lagging social media presence highlights a divide between older operatives who are hesitant to take a page out of Trump's playbook and younger campaign staff who are pushing for more edgy advertisements.

Even as Democrats investigate the president for impeachment, Trump's campaign has been able to use the scandal to its advantage, running a variety of ads experimenting with attacks on Biden, including one that made false allegations that the former vice president threatened to withhold foreign aid from Ukraine if it didn't end an investigation into his son. Biden, in contrast, has drastically dialed back his online advertising.

“We see much less of that kind of experimentation with the Democratic candidates,” said Laura Edelson, a researcher at New York University who tracks political advertising on Facebook, told the Times. “They’re running fewer ads. We don’t see the wide array of targeting.” Edelson compared Trump's lead to a “a supercar racing a little Volkswagen Bug.”

Meanwhile, digital consultants focused on helping Democrats win online report pushback against ads that might be perceived as overly provocative or as clickbait. But that strategy could be a losing one online. While Facebook denies that negative ads do better on the platform, its refusal to remove false ads seems to have given negative attacks like those from the Trump campaign an advantage, Matthew and Kevin report.

“There’s an algorithmic bias that inherently benefits hate and negativity and anger,” Shomik Dutta, a digital strategist and a founder of Higher Ground Labs, an incubator for Democratic start-ups, told the New York Times. “If anger has an algorithmic bias, then Donald Trump is the captain of that ship.”

NIBBLES: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) admitted last night that he has been running the undercover Twitter account “Pierre Delecto," my colleague Allyson Chiu writes

Slate reporter Ashley Feinberg connected the account to the former presidential candidate after he told the Atlantic he had a secret Twitter account to monitor political chatter. “C’est moi,” Romney told McKay Coppins, who wrote the Atlantic story, after being asked about Delecto.

The 72-year-old senator brought up his covert Twitter account with the Atlantic as he discussed Trump lashing out at him on social media. Romney said the account follows only 668 people, including journalists, comedians and athletes. “He explained that he uses a secret Twitter account — ‘What do they call me, a lurker?’—to keep tabs on the political conversation,” Coppins wrote.

Feinberg was able to identify the account with only those few details -- and the assumption that Romney would be using the account to follow his family members. “Romney, a known family man, would want to keep close tabs on his offspring," wrote Feinberg, who also discovered that former FBI director James B. Comey was on Twitter using the alias “Reinhold Niebuhr." Feinberg focused on a public account belonging to Allie Romney Critchlow, the senator’s oldest grandchild. That account “has just 481 followers, making digging through them an annoying-but-not-impossible feat,” Feinberg wrote. She began to look closely at accounts following Critchlow that appeared to be making an effort to conceal their identity. She soon found the Delecto account, which appeared to match up with many of the clues Romney gave the Atlantic. 

It's still unknown how Romney chose this pseudonym, but Twitter users were eager to find out. 

From NBC reporter Ben Collins:

And there were plenty of jokes:

BYTES: Amazon is struggling to make sure third-party sellers aren’t shipping customers expired or fraudulent goods as it increasingly pushes into grocery sales, Annie Palmer at CNBC reports. Brands and consumer advocates have called out the company for not doing enough to protect consumers, concerns that could factor into Congress’s evaluation of the online marketplace’s business practices. One data analytics firm told CNBC that 40 percent of the sellers for the top 100 best-selling food items had more than five customer complaints about expired goods.

Amazon told CNBC that third-party sellers are required to provide Amazon with an expiration date if they're selling an item meant for consumption and to guarantee that the item is good for at least 90 more days. But consumer advocates question how consistently the policy is enforced.

The irregular enforcement has made it difficult for brands hoping to stop third-party sellers from reselling expired products from their company. Baby formula and children's nutrition company Abbott Laboratories told CNBC that it is dedicating more of its own resources to spot fraudulent and expired listings, including testing third-party products.

Amazon says it uses artificial intelligence to try to catch repeat offenders, but that Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, said that “bad actors are constantly attempting to evade our automatic tools and review procedures.” (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)


-- Civil rights and consumer advocates are raising concerns that the Housing Department's proposal to change a key rule would make it harder for tenants to sue housing providers that use discriminatory algorithms in renting and advertising properties. The rule, which has yet to go into effect, vastly misunderstands how algorithms work and would walk back years of housing rights upheld by the agency, 24 civil rights and consumer protection groups wrote to the agency on Friday.

“Algorithmic bias is generally difficult to detect, and these defenses would prevent plaintiffs from standing up for themselves,” Spandana Singh, policy analyst at New America’s Open Technology Institute, one of the signing groups, said in an emailed statement. 

HUD's new rule would let housing providers off the hook if they can show that the algorithm they use is “produced, maintained, or distributed” by a third party that meets industry standards. But advocates point out that there is virtually no industry standard when it comes to preventing algorithmic discrimination. For instance, Facebook, one of the biggest online housing advertisers, was criticized by HUD and housing rights advocates before committing to updating its policies earlier this year. Just last month, its algorithms were implicated in a discrimination lawsuit brought against seven Washington-area housing companies.

— More news from the public sector:


— News from the private sector:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


— Coming up:

  • Mark Zuckerberg will testify in front of the House Financial Services Committee in a hearing called “An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" on Wednesday at 10 a.m.

  • The Senate Banking Committee will host a hearing to examine data ownership, focusing on exploring implications for data privacy rights and data valuation, on Thursday at 10 a.m.

  •  Amazon and Twitter will announce their third-quarter earnings on Thursday.


Mark Zuckerberg spoke to Fox News' Dana Perino about censorship, conservative bias, calls to break up Big Tech, and the 2020 elections on Friday.