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Top European Union officials gave Mark Zuckerberg an icy reception during his visit to Brussels yesterday. The rebuff of the Facebook chief executive's attempted olive branch underscores how messy the social network's regulatory problems could become in Europe.
Thierry Breton, the E.U. commissioner for internal markets and services, and Vera Jourova, the vice president for values and transparency, both expressed skepticism of the social networking titan’s pitch for greater regulation of Big Tech after their meetings with him. Zuckerberg yesterday released an op-ed calling for more regulation of the industry in the Financial Times, and Facebook also unveiled a new white paper detailing the company's vision for regulating online content.
Zuckerberg's playbook is to stay a step ahead of European regulators as they plan to unveil draft artificial intelligence regulations this week and also mull changes to liability rules for online platforms. But E.U. officials are wary of Zuckerberg attempting to pass the buck to regulators as the social network increasingly comes under fire for problematic content on its service, ranging from child exploitation and terrorism to attempts to spread disinformation about elections.
“Facebook cannot push away all the responsibility,” because regulations will never solve every problem, Jourova told reporters following the meeting with Zuckerberg, according to the Associated Press. “It will not be up to governments or regulators to ensure that Facebook wants to be a force of good or bad.”
Breton meanwhile criticized the new content moderation proposal, which says companies should not be liable for content they host —- but they should be responsible for having standards and systems in place to combat illegal content. Breton, a former telecom executive, told reporters, including the Wall Street Journal, that Facebook's vision “is too low in terms of responsibility. There are interesting things, but it’s not enough.”
The clashes highlight the increased tensions between American tech titans and the E.U. as it increasingly sets the bar got tech regulation globally. The bloc already showed how its broad privacy regulations could shape a global debate — and now tech companies are growing concerned any new effort to regulate artificial intelligence or content moderation could have far-reaching effects on their way of doing business.
Zuckerberg is just the latest tech titan to engage in this song and dance. Earlier this month, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai made a similar journey to Brussels and published a strikingly similar call for regulation in the Financial Times's op-ed pages. Apple’s senior vice president for artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, has also made an appearance, according to the New York Times.
The European Union's push to regulate artificial intelligence, which could impact facial recognition, self-driving cars and other products that are increasingly core to tech companies' business, is of particular concern. Executives warned that an overly stringent regulatory regime could have unintended consequences, especially on new tech upstarts.
Margrethe Vestager, the executive vice president of the European Commission who has emerged as one of the tech company's top challengers, told the New York Times there needs to be guardrails including privacy protections, rules to prevent discrimination and requirements that ensure companies can explain how the A.I. systems work.
“We will do our best to avoid unintended consequences,” she said to the Times. “But, obviously, there will be intended consequences.”
Zuckerberg also visited with Vestager during his trip. The pair put out a joint statement, which gave little detail about their meeting beyond that the pair “had a good exchange on current issues in the digital sector.”
Facebook spokesman Andy Stone declined to comment on the skepticism surrounding Zuckerberg’s visit. Zuckerberg said in his op-ed the company is not trying to shirk responsibility by calling for more regulatory action around the world.
“To be clear, this isn’t about passing off responsibility,” he wrote. “Facebook is not waiting for regulation; we’re continuing to make progress on these issues ourselves.”
As Zuckerberg made his pitch to Europe on regulation, it's worth keeping in mind the company's proposals will be scrutinized by policymakers elsewhere, too.
Tech companies are gearing up for a discussion this week about content moderation in Washington. The Department of Justice will tomorrow convene experts for a workshop on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a legal provision that gives tech platforms immunity for content that people post on their services.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Apple announced yesterday that it won't meet its projected revenue for this quarter because of the coronavirus outbreak, my colleagues Derek Hawkins and Reed Albergotti report. Apple is the first major U.S. company to reset its projections because of the outbreak, signaling the growing impact of the virus on U.S. companies.
The coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,700, significantly disrupts the global supply chain for the tech industry. Foxconn, a major electronics producer for Apple, said last week that most of its facilities would not be able to resume operations until the end of the month. Apple says closures in China, where the disease originated, have limited production of its iPhones. Tesla also reported delays in production because of the virus, and other companies may suffer as the outbreak persists.
Concerns about growing public health risks associated with the disease have rippled out to major tech gatherings. On Friday, Facebook canceled a marketing summit scheduled to take place in San Francisco in March. IBM pulled out the RSA cybersecurity conference in San Francisco next week, it also announced on Friday. Organizers for Mobile World Congress, the biggest gathering in the telecommunications industry, canceled the Barcelona event, citing concerns about the virus two days before that.
NIBBLES: Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos announced the formation of a new fund that will provide $10 billion in grants to scientists and activists fighting climate change, my colleague Kimberly Kindy reports. The fund marks Bezos's largest commitment to address climate change to date — but it may not go far enough to address activists' concerns about the e-commerce giant's carbon footprint.
The newly formed Bezos Earth Fund will begin to distribute grants to individuals and organizations around the globe this summer, Bezos said in an announcement on Instagram.
But Bezos continues to face sharp criticism from environmental groups and many of his own employees for the significant environmental footprint of Amazon's e-commerce operations, cloud Web services and work with the oil and gas industry.
Amazon Employees For Climate Justice, a group of employees who have protested the company's environmental practices, said in a statement shared on Twitter:
As history has taught us, true visionaries stand up against entrenched systems, often at great cost to themselves. We applaud Jeff Bezos’ philanthropy, but one hand cannot give what the other is taking away.— Amazon Employees For Climate Justice (@AMZNforClimate) February 17, 2020
Bezos signed a “climate pledge” last year that commits Amazon to operate on 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Amazon also committed to increase its use of electric delivery vehicles and to be plastic-free in India by June.
BYTES: Amazon Ring, Google Nest and other Internet-connected cameras have given everyone the tools they need to become “a personal security force,” my colleague Drew Harwell writes. But many camera owners say it's also alluring to monitor people from afar — and joke that the cameras have enabled them to become voyeurs.
A Washington Post survey of more than 50 Internet-connected camera users found that many respondents praised the devices for their advertised uses, such as allowing them to check on package deliveries and their pets. They also said they were fine with the new levels of surveillance — as long as they were the viewers.
“They analyzed their neighbors,” Drew writes. “They monitored their kids and house guests. And they judged the performance of housekeepers, babysitters and other domestic workers, often without letting them know they were being recorded.”
Most users contacted by The Post told Drew those concerns weren't enough for them to turn off their devices completely. But the suspicion and paranoia stoked by the cameras — as well as recent privacy breaches — have left some users wary.
“We’re all getting too paranoid. Everybody thinks they’re going to be the next victim. And it’s set into us this mentality that we have to watch everything and everybody,” Catherine, a 58-year-old part-time Florida resident who uses a Blink camera to watch her home in Minnesota, told Drew. “They think, ‘If I put all these cameras up, I’ll be safe.’ Safe from what? … It’s only making them more afraid.”
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— Coming up:
- The Department of Justice will hold a public workshop in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday titled “Section 230 – Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability"
- The House Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a field hearing on Thursday at 2 pm at the Prince George County Central Wellness Center on the importance of rural broadband access.