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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Elon Musk's about-face on government censorship

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Monday! I’ve been informed we have no leave policies for just wanting to play a video game really badly, so have no fear readers: I’m not going anywhere. Send news tips and hidden shrine coordinates to: cristiano.lima@washpost.com

Below: A former ByteDance executive says China has access to U.S. data, and the Commerce Department kicks off its tech hub initiative. First:

Musk does an about-face on government censorship

For months, Twitter chief Elon Musk has vowed that the platform under his watch would not “censor” on behalf of the U.S. government, as he claimed it had done in the past. 

In November, he pledged that “Twitter will not censor accurate information about anything.” Later that month, he called for a “revolution against online censorship in America.” In December, he suggested U.S. officials engaged in “hidden state censorship in direct violation of the Constitution of the United States.” In April, he tweeted, “Censor not, lest ye be censored.” 

The months-long crusade culminated in the release of the so-called “Twitter Files,” a trove of leaked internal documents that Musk and conservative social media critics seized on as evidence the U.S. government sought to suppress speech online. 

Musk claimed the records showed that the “Government paid Twitter millions of dollars to censor info from the public” — a claim fact-checkers said was unsubstantiated

But over the weekend, Musk and the company disclosed plans to do the very thing he has spent months decrying: censor speech at the behest of a national government.  

Twitter late Friday said that in “response to legal process and to ensure Twitter remains available to the people of Turkey,” it had “taken action to restrict access to some content in Turkey today.” 

The company announced the move just hours before a landmark and tightly contested election kicked off in Turkey on Sunday pitting longtime President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu

As my colleague Perry Stein reported, critics have accused Erdogan of “cracking down on social media companies to stifle opposition voices as he tries to stay in power.”

Twitter did not publicly say what accounts would be impacted but that they had “informed” those users. Musk said Saturday they would disclose “what the government in Turkey sent us.”

The announcement sparked immediate backlash, with critics saying it contradicted Musk’s stated aim to lead the company as “a free speech absolutist.”

“Given Twitter’s total lack of transparency, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Musk’s promises of free speech have again fallen away,” tweeted Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee.

“The Turkish government asked Twitter to censor its opponents right before an election and  @elonmusk complied — should generate some interesting Twitter Files reporting,” Bloomberg Opinion columnist and former Vox writer Matthew Yglesias tweeted Saturday.

Musk took umbrage at the comments, casting it as a difficult but necessary action. “Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias?” he tweeted back. “The choice is [sic] have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”

Twitter’s decision in Turkey, however, is part of a larger trend of the company buckling to government takedown demands more often since Musk took over. 

According to a report last month by tech news publication Rest of World, Twitter under Musk “has complied with hundreds more government orders for censorship or surveillance — especially in countries such as Turkey and India.”

The report, which drew from Twitter’s own self-reported data, found that “a steep increase in the portion of requests that Twitter complies with in full.” 

The data, Rest of World’s Russell Brandom wrote, also does “not show a single request in which the company refused to comply, as it had done several times before the Musk takeover.”

Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, whose nonprofit encyclopedia fought back against a since-rescinded ban on the site in Turkey, called out Musk for not resisting the country’s orders.

“This is what it means to treat freedom of expression as a principle rather than a slogan,” he tweeted.

While it’s not uncommon for platforms to comply with court orders demanding content be taken down globally, New York Times tech reporter Ryan Mac suggested the move could create “a blueprint for repressive governments everywhere.”

“If Twitter doesn’t censor the content you want, simply threaten to cut off the service. Its owner just put it in writing,” he tweeted.

As free speech advocates and members of the press have long pointed out, Musk’s pledge to uphold “free speech” has always run the risk of conflicting with his comments about obeying local laws globally, given that many countries have moved to crack down on online speech.

And strictly adhering to local laws, as my colleagues Naomi Nix and Gerry Shih reported last year, could lead to greater safety risks “in countries where the government and powerful people frequently push social media giants to eliminate content”  they don’t like.

Our top tabs

Former ByteDance executive claims Chinese government had access to U.S. user data

Former ByteDance executive Yintao Yu said the Chinese government “maintained supreme access” to U.S. data belonging to the TikTok parent company, Sareen Habeshian reports for Axios.

In a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, Yu alleges that the Chinese Communist Party played a major role in guiding “‘how the company advanced core Communist values,’” adding that U.S. user data could be easily accessed via a backdoor channel, Habeshian writes.

“We plan to vigorously oppose what we believe are baseless claims and allegations in this complaint,” a ByteDance spokesperson told Axios.

TikTok has come under scrutiny from several governments due to national security concerns of its links to China. The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind a bill that would allow the Commerce Department to evaluate the security risks of foreign technologies, like TikTok, and make recommendations about whether they should be banned from the United States.

Social media platforms and news outlets grapple with how to depict graphic images online

News organizations and social media platforms are facing a dilemma over how to depict graphic content online, our colleagues Marc Fisher and Naomi Nix report.

The debate has surfaced again amid a recent mass shooting at a mall in Texas and a deadly crash outside a migrant shelter in Texas.

“From government-monitored decisions about showing deaths during World War II to friction over explicit pictures of devastated civilians during the Vietnam War and on to the debate over depictions of mass killing victims in recent years, editors, news consumers, tech companies and relatives of murdered people have made compelling but opposing arguments about how much gore to show,” they write.

Some argue that clear dissemination of gruesome images is sensational and disrespectful to victims and their families, while others argue that such content needs to be delivered uncensored to push viewers toward political action.

“Tech platforms such as Google, Meta and TikTok generally prohibit particularly violent or graphic content. But those companies often make exceptions for newsworthy images, and it can take some time before the platforms decide how to handle a particular set of images,” Marc and Naomi write.

U.S. kicks off $500 million funding notice for tech innovation hubs

The Commerce Department on Friday launched a notice of funding allowing entities around the United States to apply for designation as a Tech Hub, Lauren Feiner reports for CNBC.

The Regional Technology and Innovation Hub program gives applicants “the chance to take advantage of the funds to make their regions attractive places for entrepreneurs and technologists to live and work,” the report said.

Under the CHIPS and Science Act that passed into law last summer, the U.S. government is required to designate 20 Tech Hubs to focus on key technology areas like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. In this first funding round, $15 million in planning grants will be made available to applicants designated as Tech Hubs, and the agency aims to award five to 10 designated Tech Hubs grants between $50 million and $75 million each, Feiner writes, citing a Commerce Department official.

Eligible applicants are made up of at least one entity from a higher education institution, subdivision of local or state government, industry or firm in relevant tech or manufacturing field, economic development group, and labor organization or workforce training group, the CNBC report adds.

Inside the industry

Trust linked to porn-friendly bank could gain a stake in Trump’s Truth Social (Drew Harwell, Matt Bernardini and Matei Rosca)

Facebook pivoted to the metaverse. Now it wants to show off its AI. (Naomi Nix)

TikTok feeds teens a diet of darkness (Wall Street Journal)

Workforce report

U.S. universities are building a new semiconductor workforce (IEEE Spectrum)

Trending

Why Elon Musk picked Linda Yaccarino to lead Twitter as CEO (Faiz Siddiqui, Sarah Ellison and Naomi Nix)

An influencer’s AI clone will be your girlfriend for $1 a minute (Taylor Lorenz)

Help! My political beliefs were altered by a chatbot! (Wall Street Journal)

Daybook

  • George Mason University convenes a two-day event called “Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the New CIO Leadership Conference” beginning at 9:30 a.m.
  • The Center for Democracy and Technology holds its “Protecting Democracy in the Digital Age Online Forum” event at 3 p.m.
  • OpenAI CEO Sam Altman testifies to a Senate Judiciary panel tomorrow at 10 a.m.

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