Welcome to The Technology 202! Keep scrolling to read about the Facebook whistleblower that will officially testify before Congress next week, and why social media companies are hearing from the Drug Enforcement Administration. But first up: 

The fight to get tech giants to reveal their data is coming to a head in Congress

Lawmakers and researchers say the battle to get information out of Silicon Valley about how its products operate is crucial — not only to investigate how tools like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter may shape misinformation, mental health and data privacy, but also to inform new regulations. It’s a fight that’s coming to a head.

Historically, tech companies have tightly guarded the information coveted by policymakers and scholars, who say it could shed light on the industry’s opaque practices.

Facebook’s decision to shut off researchers’ access to advertising data last month and recent revelations about how it buries negative findings from internal investigations have rekindled calls for companies to open more data about their platforms to public scrutiny. 

But public pressure campaigns, probing letters and even congressional hearings have frequently failed to get the industry’s most powerful companies to fully cooperate. Those limitations have raised questions about what, if anything, officials in Washington can do to lift the hood on social media companies, especially giants like Facebook, Google, YouTube and TikTok.

“Many of them are worse than black boxes … some of them just provide zero access at all,” Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) told The Technology 202 after a House Science Committee hearing on social media research and disinformation on Tuesday. 

Laura Edelson, one of the New York University researchers whose account was recently disabled by Facebook, urged lawmakers to consider requiring platforms to make all their ads publicly accessible in her testimony. She also suggested granting a “safe harbor” to researchers who collect data from the sites, to “clarify the legality” of their work. At the time, Facebook said it blocked Edelson and other researchers’ accounts because they were scraping data from the site without authorization, which it claimed violated its privacy standards and a pact struck with the Federal Trade Commission. (The FTC rebuffed the claim as “inaccurate” in a letter.)

Another hearing witness, Northeastern University professor Alan Mislove, voiced support for two proposals lawmakers have already introduced: a bill requiring companies to vet their algorithms for bias and resolve any discrepancies, and another mandating that social media companies maintain a detailed ad library that’s accessible to researchers and regulators.

“We should be looking at proposals like those and encouraging academics and third parties to come up with other concrete proposals,” said Foster, who is the chair of the House Science Committee's investigations and oversight panel.

Lawmakers said Congress will need to weigh the merits of greater access to data against concerns about trampling on users’ privacy and disclosing private companies’ proprietary data. And that will require striking a delicate balance on any potential legislation. 

“We take those concerns very seriously, and how we’re going to be able to balance them is yet to be determined,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), who chairs the full committee.

Johnson said the panel will take a cautious approach to the issue, first taking time to “really research” it, and will likely hold additional hearings before acting on any legislation. 

“I think that this is probably one of the biggest social challenges that we have come in contact with,” she added.

Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center:

Rules to make data more accessible could also be exploited, Foster said, particularly if officials don't develop a “clearer definition” of what counts as legitimate research.

“That was abused for Cambridge Analytica … and so we're going to have to have someone calling balls and strikes on who is a legitimate academic researcher,” he said.

Edelson said after the session she’s working with other researchers to develop a “technical standard for how all major digital ad platforms could make all of their ads publicly transparent,” which is set to be unveiled in the coming months and could serve as a blueprint for new legislation. 

The need for greater transparency on social media is one of the few tech issues where lawmakers are united, but like many other efforts to regulate the sector, consensus starts to fade once you get into the weeds of crafting new rules.

Rep. Jay Obernolte (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House Science Committee’s oversight panel, said boosting transparency isn’t going to solve problems like online misinformation, either. Instead, he said, “It's going to be in defining exactly what it means to spread misinformation and what obligations both legally and ethically that we have in combating the spread of misinformation.”

And those pressure campaigns calling on Facebook and other companies to release more of their internal research? They can have unintended consequences as well, he argued. “I think that in the future, that will cause them to just not do the research,” he said.

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A Facebook whistleblower will testify before Congress next week as lawmakers up pressure on the social media giant

The whistleblower will testify amid a surge of Capitol Hill outrage fueled by reports on how the tech giant researched its effects on children. The Oct. 5 hearing comes less than a week after a top Facebook executive testifies before the Senate on the company’s approach to children.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee's consumer protection panel, previously said the whistleblower identified themselves as the source of the documents made public in a Wall Street Journal investigation. 

News of the hearing came hours after the latest Journal report on company research. The company looked into using play dates “as a growth lever” as it tried to compete with Snapchat and TikTok for younger users, according to the report. One internal Facebook presentation published by the Wall Street Journal says “tweens,” defined in another presentation as children between ages 10 and 12, represent a “valuable but untapped audience.”

“If kids are under 13, they’re not allowed on Instagram and they should not be using our service,” Instagram head Adam Mosseri said. “It’s not new and it’s not a secret that social media companies try to understand how teens and preteens use technology. Like all technology companies, of course, we want to appeal to the next generation, but that’s entirely different from the false assertion that we knowingly attempt to recruit people who aren’t old enough to use our apps.”

Social media companies are under pressure to stop illegal drug sales amid spike in overdoses

Anne Milgram, who leads the Drug Enforcement Administration, called out Snapchat and TikTok for not doing enough to curb the trade of illicit drugs on their platforms, and said the DEA would go to the companies with demands, Rachel Lerman and Gerrit De Vynck report. It’s not clear how the demands would help or what they would look like.

Social media companies say they’re trying to take down drug sales. But prescription and other drugs can still easily be found on social media.

Snap spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said the company does not allow drug-related activity and fights it. It also supports law enforcement in investigations, she said. TikTok spokeswoman Hilary McQuaide said the company takes down accounts that promote illegal sales of drugs by using technology and human reviewers. The company also blocks some searches when users try to find drug-related content.

Microsoft, in rebuke to Apple, will bring Epic’s ‘Fortnite’ to its online store

Microsoft is trying to attract companies turned off by Apple’s stance over fees on its App Store, Bloomberg’s Ian King and Mark Gurman report. A judge ordered Apple to change its practices in a high-profile legal dispute between it and Epic Games, though Epic’s CEO says Apple won’t allow it onto the App Store once the ruling is final, which could take years as it makes its way through appeals courts.

Microsoft won’t take a cut of sales if third-party companies have separate payment mechanisms, the company said.

Rant and rave

Amazon unveiled its latest round of gadgets, and they’re as creepy as you could have guessed. IBM Research's Mike Murphy:

CNN's Rachel Metz:

Television producer Michael Schur:

Inside the industry

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Mentions

Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan named Holly Vedova as the director of the agency’s Bureau of Competition, and Samuel Levine as director of its Bureau of Consumer Protection. They previously worked in the roles in acting capacities.

Daybook

  • Government officials speak on the third day of the four-day International Wireless Communications Expo today.
  • Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) speak at CTIA’s two-day 5G Summit, which begins today.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee holds a consumer privacy hearing today at 10 a.m.
  • Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security officials discuss facial recognition technology at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event today at 3 p.m.
  • Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis testifies before a Senate Commerce Committee panel on Thursday at 10:30 a.m.
  • FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter speaks at the National Advertising Division’s 2021 conference on Friday at 11 a.m.
  • A Facebook whistleblower testifies before a Senate panel on Oct. 5 at 10 a.m.
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event on sixth-generation technology on Oct. 6 at 3 p.m.

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