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An intimate dinner at Mark Zuckerberg's Palo Alto home could mark a turning point in civil rights' leaders ongoing feud with Facebook.
Some activists say they're hopeful that their concerns about Facebook's decision to exempt politicians' ads from fact-checking are getting through to the chief executive.
Zuckerberg “did imply that it was an evolving kind of policy" even though he's remained firm publicly in his decision on the policy during weeks of broad backlash, Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, told me. Leaders from about ten civil rights groups who dined with Zuckerberg last night warned him that politicians might abuse Facebook’s policy to suppress the vote by spreading misinformation during upcoming elections and the 2020 Census.
“I am now hopeful about the fact that he was open to the discussion and seemed to be going through a process of trying to get it right,” Sharpton said. “I’m not where we want to be, but better than where we were.”
Zuckerberg’s dinner signals the Facebook chief executive is taking a more active approach on civil rights issues after he faced criticism at last month’s congressional grilling for not being able to answer basic questions on these issues.
Representatives from groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Color of Change, and Muslim Advocates joined for the two-hour meal that included steak, scallops and carrots. They also dined with Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, and Nick Clegg, Facebook global policy chief. Yesterday marked the first time many of the leaders had engaged directly with Zuckerberg, as Sandberg and other executives have taken the lead on running the company’s civil rights outreach in recent years.
Civil rights leaders in attendance said Zuckerberg still has more homework to do. Farhana Khera, president and executive director of Muslim Advocates, told me that Zuckerberg’s skill set is in engineering -- and civil rights is a “newer space for him.”
“It is my hope that he is learning more about this space to be able to do better,” Khera said. “I’m heartened by his appreciation for the harms the platform has caused and can cause, and the responsibility to prevent those harms. In the election and voter suppression space is where there’s some room to understand how the platform is affecting these rights and principles that we all hold dear.”
Vanita Gupta, the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said it was a significant milestone for the groups to be able to appeal directly to Zuckerberg. “He's the head of a company and he is determining what policy Facebook is adopting and isn't adopting,” she said.
Facebook executives have been meeting more frequently with civil rights advocates in recent years to address their concerns on a host of topics, including hate speech, voter suppression and discriminatory ad targeting practices. The advocates appeared to be making progress as the company launched a broad civil rights audit of its business and made changes to its ad targeting practices to address concerns about potential bias in housing or credit ads.
That's why this ad policy change was especially disturbing to some activists. “This announcement really threatened to undermine all the work that we’ve been doing, particularly on the voting and census issues,” Gupta told me.
Some activists at last night's dinner told me they asked Zuckerberg and the Facebook executives to consider building more permanent civil rights resources within the company. They say the company needs to do more, though Sandberg is currently leading a civil rights task force and law firm Relman, Dane and Colfax is leading a broad civil rights review.
“Some of the challenges we've seen over the last couple of weeks are that policies are being announced and practices are being talked about that don't seem like they're being moved with a civil rights framework in mind,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change.
As Facebook has stumbled on these issues, many advocates have raised concern about the lack of diversity among the company's ranks. Facebook’s most recent Diversity Report said black people hold 3.1 percent of its “senior leadership” roles. For Hispanics, it’s 3.5 percent.
Zuckerberg has previously said Facebook will take action against politicians' ads that can lead to violence or allow voter supression. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement the company hopes the conversations around these issues would continue. Stone did not immediately respond when asked if the company was considering the groups’ requests to reconsider its fact-checking exemption for politicians, or adding more civil rights infrastructure.
“We’re grateful that these prominent leaders of the civil rights community took the time to attend a private dinner hosted by Mark and Sheryl,” Stone said. “They discussed a range of important issues and we look forward to continuing these conversations.”
Meanwhile, the civil rights leaders are keeping up the pressure. Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said last night's dinner was “not the end of the conversation.”
Her organization sent an open letter today to Zuckerberg outlining the way Facebook's policy on politicians' speech could open the company up to lawsuits. She copied Federal Trade Commission officials, Justice Department leaders and states attorney general who have been increasing their scrutiny of Facebook.
“As we enter the 2020 election season and with the 2020 Census on the horizon, time is short for Facebook to rectify the gross deficiencies in its protection of civil rights," she wrote. "Your recent statements to Congress, policy changes, and disregard for your own civil rights audit demonstrate that you still do not grasp—or do not care about—the gravity of the harm you are causing.”
BITS, NIBBLES, AND BYTES
BITS: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) says there will be open chairs for TikTok and Apple at today's hearing on China and national security, even though the companies so far have declined to appear. But lawmakers are still expected to air their concerns about the companies' dealings with the Chinese government. Microsoft executive Tom Burt is expected to be the only industry witness at the hearing, which will also feature several policy experts from the Heritage Foundation, the Center for a New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
TikTok faces growing scrutiny in Washington, where members of both parties have raised national security concerns about the company and its parent company, ByteDance, which is being investigated by a group of federal agencies. Security concerns about TikTok have also plagued its attempt to join the consortium of U.S. tech companies' efforts to counter online terrorism and extremism, Emily Birnbaum at the Hill reports.
Lawmakers probably will grill American-owned Apple over its decision to cooperate with requests from the Chinese government to remove apps that don't meet its approval. Apple, alongside Google and Amazon, still distributes hundreds of apps from Chinese companies that the U.S. government has blacklisted for abetting human rights violations, Rosalind Adams and Ryan Mac at BuzzFeed report.
Hawley slammed the two companies on Twitter:
.@Apple, one of the largest tech companies in America, has also refused to come before the committee to explain how its business dealings in China could put Americans’ personal data at risk. pic.twitter.com/EzlsysnIpD— Senator Hawley Press Office (@SenHawleyPress) November 4, 2019
NIBBLES: Democratic lawmakers wrote to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey calling on the platform to ban false information about the 2020 Census. Unlike rival Facebook, Twitter has been silent on how it is preparing to deal with misinformation about the upcoming census.
“As a platform historically vulnerable to coordinated interference campaigns, Twitter must lay out its plan to combat census disinformation and allocate people and resources to carry it out,” 58 Democratic lawmakers led by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) wrote in the letter.
The Census Bureau has hired specialists to raise awareness around the census and has coordinated with social media companies to combat similar disinformation attacks such as those against the 2016 elections, lawmakers note. Twitter has participated in meetings to coordinate with the agency, the company told Emily Birnbaum at the Hill.
Zuckerberg, who also received a copy of the letter, has promised to ban misinformation related to the 2020 Census. He told Congress last month that the company is still working on fully rolling out a policy for census content.
Lawmakers also expressed appreciation for Twitter's recent ban on paid political ads in an attempt to cut back on misinformation on the platform, but urged the company to make sure that census outreach efforts could still reach users.
The lawmakers are requesting that Twitter share its 2020 Census plans but did not give Dorsey a deadline to respond.
BYTES: Twitter has suspended accounts tied to Iranian militant group Hezbollah and Palestinian group Hamas after pressure from U.S. lawmakers, Sarah E. Needleman and Bowdeya Tweh at the Wall Street Journal report. Twitter's removal of the accounts affiliated with the groups, both of which are considered terrorist organizations by the State Department, shows the company is taking a harder stance against terrorist content.
House members asked Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to provide information on terrorist organizations on their platforms and a timeline for removing the content last month. Twitter’s response that it allowed Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s political, but not military, arms to remain on the platform sparked outrage from lawmakers in both parties. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who pushed Twitter to remove the content, applauded the website’s decision yesterday, calling “a win for the fight on terror.”
But critics say sweeping policies like Twitter's can result in discrimination against Muslim and Arabic-language users. Three reporters for a Palestinian news agency unaffiliated with either organization were removed as a result of the new ban, Sarah and Bowdeya report.
— News from the public sector:
RANT AND RAVE
Facebook has created a new logo for the Facebook Inc. parent company to distinguish it from its titular social network. The new logo, an all-caps “FACEBOOK,” will be added to Instagram and WhatsApp pages. The company wants to make sure that people know that Instagram and WhatsApp are owned by Facebook, chief marketing officer Antonio Lucio told Bloomberg News's Kurt Wagner.
Early reactions to the new logo were mixed:
The Verge's Nilay Patel:
Facebook letting Mark Zuckerberg personally design a new logo in Word 97 was an interesting choice https://t.co/Mg9cSw6Iu6— nilay patel (@reckless) November 4, 2019
Cap Watkins of Primary pointed out that the logo was evocative of another tech giant:
Many Twitter users pointed out Facebook's doubling down on branding was an odd choice given the scrutiny the company faces in Washington over buying up its competitors. The New York Times's Mike Isaac:
But there's a twist: It changes colors! NBC News's Olivia Solon:
So it changes colour near your sweatiest body parts...? https://t.co/XxknY4tUcB— Olivia Solon (@oliviasolon) November 4, 2019
— News from the private sector:
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Vann Bentley joins The Computer & Communications Industry Association's Washington office as Policy Counsel, focusing on issues including artificial intelligence and telecommunications policy. Kayvan Hazemi-Jebelli (Kay) will join the CCIA's Brussels team as Competition & Regulatory Counsel.
- The Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism will host a hearing entitled “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China, and Other Bad Actors" on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. EST.
- Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will host its annual Color of Surveillance conference on November 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a focus on the monitoring of poor and working people. You can register here.
John Oliver discusses how voting machines work on Last Week Tonight.