with Tonya Riley

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Democrats regularly blast tech companies for not doing enough to fight disinformation. But several top presidential candidates have yet to commit not to spread falsehoods on social media themselves. 

A new pledge from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) yesterday, just days before the Iowa caucuses, could put greater pressure on her Democratic rivals to make more forceful commitments as the election season heats up. Warren promised she won’t knowingly use or spread false or manipulated text, video, audio or other content online, my colleague Tony Romm reported

Only a handful of other candidates have offered as much clarity on their policies. Former vice president Joe Biden issued a similar pledge last year. New York entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign said in a statement yesterday that “no campaign or entity should engage in disinformation tactics that meddle with our elections.” A campaign spokesman for Sen. Amy Klobuchar issued a statement today that the Minnesota Democrat, her staff and surrogates will not knowingly use or spread false or manipulated information online.

But campaign representatives for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg did not respond to Tony's requests about whether they were willing to join Warren in making this promise. 

Campaigns' handling of disinformation on social media remains a Wild West, even years after revelations that Russian actors managed to get U.S. political figures to share their propaganda during the 2016 election. Election integrity experts concerned about a repeat of such tactics in 2020 think that it should be common sense for campaigns to make such a commitment. 

“It’s clearly not fair play to go there, so it should be an easy pledge to meet,” Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me in an interview. 

“This should just be the rule across the board,” he added. “It should be a clear norm.” 

Some experts noted that Warren and Biden are speaking out on the issue because they are the candidates who have been most directly impacted by disinformation so far. 

“We need more candidates stepping in and speaking against disinformation,” Kanishk Karan, a misinformation researcher at the think tank the Atlantic Council, told ABC News. “The discussion, by and large, is coming from the people who have experienced this sort of disinformation effort against their candidacy – and that’s an important point: the ones who’ve experienced this sort of attack against their reputation are standing up for it.”

Other top security experts have tried to make such pledges a global norm. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former NATO chief and former Danish prime minister, and Michael Chertoff, the former U.S. Homeland Security secretary, launched the Pledge for Election Integrity, which calls on candidates across the world not to share data that is gained illicitly, and not to amplify misleading doctored photos or video, among other basic cybersecurity measures. Many European candidates and Biden signed the pledge last year. 

Rasmussen and Chertoff, who co-chair the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, wrote in an op-ed on CNN last year that "candidates and parties must step up and take their own responsibility to defend democracy." 

The Democratic party as a whole has yet to set guidelines, Tony reports. State Democratic chairs in 2019 supported a proposal on election integrity calling the Democratic National Committee to establish a “framework which would discourage and prevent … illicit campaign tactics.” But the resolution never saw a vote before national party leaders.

The elephant in the room is President Trump. The commander-in-chief has not made any such pledge, even after former special counsel Robert Mueller's report exposed that his campaign and other political figures retweeted messages from Russian troll-controlled Twitter accounts. His campaign did not respond to Tony yesterday about whether he planned to pledge against sharing disinformation. 

The president has also shared doctored images to the millions following his Twitter account. Earlier this month for instance, he retweeted an altered image of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)  in a turban and hijab. The tweet falsely claimed that the two most powerful Democrats in Congress have “come to the Ayatollah’s rescue." Democrats have also criticized the president for making false claims in Facebook ads, including some misleading messages about Biden's ties to Ukraine. 

Warren said Trump's willingness to engage in sharing such falsehoods underscores why the issue is so urgent. 

“Anyone who seeks to challenge and defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 election must be fully prepared to take on the full array of disinformation that foreign actors and people in and around the Trump campaign will use to divide Democrats, suppress Democratic votes, and erode the standing of the Democratic nominee,” Warren said. “And anyone who seeks to be the Democratic nominee must condemn the use of disinformation and pledge not to knowingly use it to benefit their own candidacy or damage others.”

Warren also sought to put greater pressure on the tech companies to do more to address disinformation about elections. She called on companies to work together and with government to address disinformation, and also to alert users when they're impacted by disinformation campaigns. 

As primary votes approach, the companies appear to be stepping up their defenses. Twitter announced yesterday that it would turn on a new tool that allows people to report deliberately misleading information about how to vote or otherwise participate in a civic event. 

"As caucuses and primaries for the presidential election get underway, we’re building on our efforts to protect the public conversation," said Carlos Monje Jr., Twitter’s director of public policy and philanthropy. "We’ve turned on a tool for key moments of the 2020 U.S. election that enables people to report deliberately misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event."

Update: This story was updated to include a new pledge from Klobuchar's campaign. 


BITS: Lack of Internet access could be a barrier to participating in the first-ever digital census, local officials and Internet access advocates warn. They told House lawmakers yesterday it could particularly be a barrier for minority communities because they're more likely to reside in areas with insufficient or exorbitantly expensive broadband. 

The warnings at a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing yesterday highlights the potential complications of bringing the census online — an effort that was intended to make it easier to reach demographics that are traditionally hard to count. 

“If you don’t have the Internet, you essentially don’t count. And if you don’t count, you don’t matter,” said Joshua Edmonds, director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit, where 40 percent of citizens lack access to broadband. the Associated Press ranked the city as the most difficult-to-count city for the census, in part because of limited Internet access.

Other witnesses pointed out that failure to count people with limited Internet access could further exacerbate inequality, since the Federal Communications Commission relies on census data in decisions related to broadband funding. 

Detroit has pushed initiatives such as putting kiosks in grocery stores to help with the digital census, but federal funding is needed, Edmonds said. Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), who represents a district that is difficult to count, promoted her legislation, the Digital Equity Act of 2019, which would offer grants to states to increase digital access. 

NIBBLES: Facebook agreed to pay $550 million to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging the company harvested users' facial data without their permission in violation of Illinois state law, Tony reports. The settlement illustrates the role state privacy laws could play in protecting consumers from tech giants while lawmakers struggle to pass federal legislation. 

“The Illinois law has real teeth. It pretty much stopped Facebook in its tracks,” Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit group that filed a brief in the case, told Natasha Singer and Mike Isaac at the New York Times. 

“Tech firms and other companies that collect biometric data must be very nervous right now,” he added.

Facebook had denied any wrongdoing and even asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The court declined to do so last week, setting the civil suit back in motion.

The payout is a drop in the bucket for Facebook, which paid a $5 billion fine to settle with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations last year.

BYTES: Google temporarily shut down its offices in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan because of the coronavirus outbreak, Nick Statt at the Verge reported yesterday. The search giant -- as well as Facebook, Amazon and Apple -- has also restricted employee travel in light of the outbreak, which originated in China and has led to at least 170 deaths and more than 7,000 known cases

Google will keep its offices closed in accordance to government guidance, it told Nick. The municipal government of Shanghai ordered companies to not resume work until Feb. 3. Google is also advising employees returning from China to work from home for at least two weeks.

China is a significant player in the tech hardware industry and some analysts warn that the work restrictions could rattle global supply chains, my colleagues David J. Lynch and Rachel Siegel report. Apple chief executive Tim Cook told investors that executives are “working on mitigation plans to make up any expected production loss” on Tuesday.

A number of other global companies are also taking measures to help protect their employees. British Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines have cut their routes to China and Starbucks has closed more than half of its Chinese locations. Tesla also shut down its Shanghai factory under orders from the Chinese government. The White House told airline executives that it is considering suspending all flights between the United States and China, David and Rachel report.


— News from the public sector:


— News from the private sector:


-- The Unicode Consortium revealed 117 new emojis yesterday, Jay Peters at The Verge reports.  That includes a transgender flag emoji, which Google and Microsoft proposed, as well as multiple gender neutral options. You likely won't see them on your devices until the fall, but Twitter already picked out some fan favorites:

The clear winner of the day was the so-called "Italian hand gesture." Artist Erica Henderson:

But cybersecurity journalist Kim Zetter pointed out the meaning isn't universal.

A close second was the crying-smile emoji. The New York Times' Charlie Warzel:

There were a few flops in the bunch, as journalist Erin Strout pointed out:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:



— Coming up:

  • New America’s Open Technology Institute will host an event titled “Privacy’s Best Friend: How Encryption Protects Consumers, Companies, and Governments Worldwide” on Feb. 4 at 12 p.m.
  • Federal Trade Commissioners Noah Joshua Phillips and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter will address current technology policy issues during a panel conversation hosted by the Technology Policy Institute on Feb. 5 at 10 a.m.
  • Silicon Flatirons will host its “Technology Optimism and Pessimism” conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder. Speakers include Federal Communications Commissioner Michael O’Rielly and Federal Trade Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
  • Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24 to 27 in Barcelona.