with Tonya Riley

With Tonya Riley

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Top social media companies are adopting stricter rules to limit scams and thwart misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. But posts continue to surface that violate them underscoring how the companies are engaged in an infinite game of whack-a-mole that's tough to win. 

A page with more than 1,200 followers was peddling N95 masks on Facebook yesterday – despite the company's policies prohibiting such sales to prevent people from exploiting the public health emergency with scams or price gouging. Several accounts were also claiming to sell the masks on its subsidiary Instagram. 

A researcher even surfaced an instance of a sponsored post in his News Feed selling face masks and thermometers. These accounts were no longer available on Facebook and Instagram as of this morning, after The Technology 202 asked the company about them. 

“Since covid-19 was declared a public health emergency, Facebook has removed millions of ads and commerce listings for the sale of masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and covid-19 test kits," Facebook spokesman Devon Kearns said. “While enforcement is not perfect, we have put several automated detection mechanisms in place to block or remove this material from our platform.”

YouTube and Twitter removed videos and and a post on their services last night for violating their policies about coronavirus content – after The Technology 202 asked whether they violated policies. YouTube removed 10 videos, mostly posted yesterday, that were peddling high-in-demand N95 medical masks. Twitter took down a tweet with more than 1,000 retweets that was touting claims that a controversial drug cured coronavirus – even though there's no proven treatment for the infection. 

The pandemic may be a turning point for Silicon Valley: Many of the big tech companies appear to be taking a tougher and more proactive stance against harmful coronavirus content than they policed against election meddling. 

Twitter, for instance, broadened its definition of public harm to address content that goes against authoritative health sources. 

“We’ll continue to review and require the removal of tweets that do not follow the Twitter rules," spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said. "This is an evolving global conversation, and we’re committed to remaining vigilant.” 

But perfection may be elusive given the massive scale of the tech platforms and the deluge of hoaxes and swindlers seizing on people's fears during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We're seeing a surge in coronavirus misinformation on social media as this pandemic intensifies in the U.S.,” said Nir Hauser, the chief technology officer of the firm Vinesight, which alerted The Technology 202 to the tweet making unproven claims about a coronavirus cure. “Coronavirus misinformation can have deadly consequences when it leads people to ignore life-saving instructions from authorities.”

The Federal Trade Commission said yesterday that there has been a significant jump in coronavirus-related fraud. Since the beginning of the year, the FTC has received more than 7,800 coronavirus-related reports from consumers, double what they were about a week ago. However, the agency doesn’t track how many of those reports are of scams that originated on social media. Many involve robocalls, texts and emails posing as government officials or businesses offering virus-testing kits. The agency reports these complaints have already cost Americans nearly $5 million. 

It doesn't help that the Silicon Valley titans are dealing with covid-related disruptions to their normal content moderation practices. 

Facebook, for instance, put its army of content moderators on paid leave last month, and now it's relying more heavily on algorithms to flag coronavirus hoaxes and scams. The company says it's making coronavirus-related abuse a high priority, and it began automated enforcement on products like masks and hand sanitizer. The company expects its systems will improve over time. 

Critics of the social media companies say the companies aren’t prepared because they weren’t attentive enough to fighting bad actors on their services in the past. They see many parallels to the tactics that coronavirus swindlers are using and drug dealers. For instance, the posts peddling masks often include a WhatsApp number to contact the seller much like posts peddling other contraband such as steroids on the services. 

“Our systems found these posts and video using the same logic and forensics used to expose sellers of opioids and steroids in 2018 and 2019,” said Eric Feinberg, vice president of Coalition for a Safer Web and the founder of the research firm GIPEC, whose systems uncovered the Facebook and YouTube posts that the Technology 202 flagged to the companies. “This is another example of the social media platforms’ failure to keep pace with criminal actors who are taking advantage of the panic and fear of the coronavirus.” 

Advocates for online safety say the technology companies won't make major changes until they're forced by regulators or lawmakers. 

“The platforms are not going to change their business model until someone makes them do it. People have been hurt, swindled, humiliated … and that’s not enough to get them to do something different,” said Tom Galvin, executive director of safety group Digital Citizens Alliance. “The social media platforms have become a place where criminals can hide and consumers can be easily confused. We’ve been tracking these sites for seven years and it isn’t getting better. It’s getting worse.” 


BITS: A group of senators is calling on the Trump administration to provide more clarity to start-ups about their eligibility for small business loans created in the recent stimulus package. Many companies that raised venture capital funding are concerned that “affiliation rules” that predate the new program could make them ineligible. 

Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) co-signed the letter, which calls on Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Small Business Administration chief Jovita Carranza to create a “bright line test” that would ensure certain small businesses with minority equity investors would be eligible for the loans. 

“American start-ups, particularly in more capital-intensive areas such as life sciences, are instrumental in navigating both our nation’s health response as well as our efforts to support telework and online education,” they wrote. “Clear guidelines from the SBA will ensure that innovative small businesses with minority equity investors -- particularly those that can provide critical assistance in our nation’s response to this pandemic -- are eligible for the small business lending facility.” 

The senators’ letter adds to a frenzy of activity in Washington to ensure start-ups can get access to a slice of the nearly $350 billion in federal small business relief. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Ro Khanna, both California Democrats, sent a letter seeking more clarity on the rules yesterday. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) also led a group of House lawmakers in a similar letter, which asked for a waiver of the rules.

NIBBLES: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) wants to know what videoconferencing company Zoom is doing about a rise in reports of hackers hijacking private meetings to share hateful language and illicit images. The number of attacks, known as Zoombombing, have grown with the software's popularity during the coronavirus pandemic.

“The millions of Americans now unexpectedly attending school, celebrating birthdays, seeking medical help, and sharing evening drinks with friends over Zoom during the Coronavirus pandemic should not have to add privacy and cybersecurity fears to their ever-growing list of worries,” Blumenthal wrote in a letter to Zoom chief executive and Chairman Eric Yuan.

The FBI issued a bulletin about the attacks yesterday, citing several instances where cybercriminals have dropped in on virtual classrooms to share pornographic or hateful content.  

Civil rights advocates also voiced concerns. An online petition created by a member of the advocacy group Color of Change urging Zoom to address racist attacks has received more than 20,000 signatures.

“Zoom takes its users’ privacy, security, and trust extremely seriously, Zoom Chief Marketing Officer Janine Pelosi said in a statement. We appreciate Senator Blumenthal's engagement on these issues and look forward to discussing with his office.”  She condemned the behavior described in his letter.

But researchers say that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to privacy concerns with the service. The company's encryption also may not be as strong as its marketing implies, Micah Lee and Yael Grauer report for the Intercept. Zoom also leaked the personal information of at least 1,000 users to other users that had the same personal email domain, Joseph Cox at Motherboard reported. The New York state attorney general is already probing the company’s privacy and security protections.

BYTES: President Trump praised American Internet and phone providers for keeping communications online under very strongly increased strain, at a news conference yesterday. But he also took a dig at European telecommunications providers without providing evidence that the American providers were faring much better. 

“If you look at Europe, they went a different route than we did and much different route we were talking about that just a little while ago and they are having tremendous problems,” Trump said after speaking with leaders from Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, T-Mobile, Charter, Liberty Media, LionTree and CenturyLink earlier in the day. “But with business at a level that nobody has seen it before on the Internet, it is holding up incredibly well, and they expect that to continue no matter what.” 

The European Union requested streaming services including Netflix, YouTube and Facebook to limit their streaming quality to help prevent Internet outages last week. But there have been no major outages in Europe, the telecommunications regulator for the European Union reported yesterday

Federal Communications Commission chief Brendan Carr said data shows U.S. network performance is “strong and resilient” at an agency meeting yesterday, but the agency did not release specific numbers.

All of the firms Trump spoke with reached an agreement with the FCC earlier this month not to pull service from subscribers unable to pay their bills because of the coronavirus for the next 60 days. Some have also made public WiFi hotspots available to more Americans during the crisis.


– Washington yesterday became the first U.S. state to adopt a law that prohibits government agencies from using facial recognition for broad and warrantless surveillance. But privacy advocates who wanted an all-out ban say the legislation does not go far enough. 

They say the law still leaves the door wide open for government abuse of the technology. American Civil Liberties Union of Washington's Jennifer Lee called the legislation “insufficient.”

“We will continue to push for a moratorium to give historically targeted and marginalized communities, such as Black and Indigenous communities, an opportunity to decide not just how face surveillance technology should be used, but if it should be used at all,” Lee said in a statement.

It's also a coup for local tech giant Microsoft. The legislation was introduced by Washington state Sen. Joe Nguyen (D), a Microsoft employee, and the company pushed for the regulation. Microsoft President Brad Smith, who has long called for greater regulation of facial recognition, praised the law for introducing testing requirements to determine how accurate the software is before government agencies use it.

“In our view, this approach is both necessary and pragmatic,” Smith wrote in a blog post. “Washington’s new law shows how regulation and market forces can move forward together in a way that advances innovation to meet public needs.”

The law also requires government employees to be trained in the technology and calls for “meaningful human review” before the technology is used in decision-making. 

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