Weekly Roundup 10/21/20
Last Wednesday, Twitter and Facebook made moves to control the spread of a controversial New York Post article featuring dubious sources and criticizing Joe Biden. Facebook responded by flagging the article as needing to be fact checked, and Twitter responded by banning the links. These actions, marking the first time Twitter has implemented measures against misinformation around news sites, have received criticism on charges of censorship and election tampering.
The article is now again publicly available, as Twitter backtracked on its ban soon after. Internet platforms have needed to make sudden and significant changes on their content policies, influenced by both political actors and public opinion. Users have expressed a desire to understand Twitter’s policies more fully, but this may be difficult considering that new developments come fast and frequently. The New York Post controversy raises questions on how and what policies can hold steadfast, if any.
Top weekly tech headlines curated for you:
- The Global Network Initiative released a policy brief on content regulation and human rights, which warned of the potential consequences of regulations that are well-intentioned but poorly designed, and identified important characteristics for effective content regulation. The full report is available here.
- Access Now has released a series of position papers as the EU considers legislation on the Digital Services Act. The digital rights group warns lawmakers against leaving companies to censor undesirable content, and suggests ways to make content restrictions compatible with human rights. The group suggests that transparency requirements be built into any legislation and proposes the creation of an effective oversight body to ensure platforms comply.
- In the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs, Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine make a case for multilateral cooperation among democracies worldwide to develop a comprehensive technology strategy and counter the growing influence of autocratic tech powerhouses. Citing China's rapid development of 5G and AI capabilities and its Digital Silk Road initiatives, the authors propose the creation of a "T-12" of liberal-democratic powers with strong tech markets to prevent autocracies from unilaterally setting the standards for how to use novel technologies such as facial recognition. A potential T-12, they argue, could allow democratic states to coordinate their policy efforts to invest in technologies to detect AI-generated "deepfakes" and to set standards for the export of cyber-surveillance tools.
- Axios reported on another proposal for multilateral technological cooperation among democracies introduced by researchers from the U.S., Germany, and Japan. It provides recommendations for establishing shared digital privacy guidelines, secure supply chains, and conduct joint research and development among suggested founding members: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Netherlands, United Kingdom and the U.S., as well as the European Union. The full proposal, "Common Code: An Alliance Framework for Democratic Technology Policy," will be released next month.
- In a recent article in The Economist, Gary Kasparov proposes innovative technological reforms to strengthen ailing democracies. He suggests creating systems of advisory voting for citizens as "the town hall for the digital era," calls for the creation of issue-based coalitions that reach across party lines, and emphasizes the importance of simplifying the voting process using secure digital platforms.
- Media outlets in Belarus have begun using internet censorship circumvention technology NewNode to get around blocks on independent media websites placed by Lukashenko's government. NewNode is a decentralized file-sharing service by a California-based startup that allows users who can access a website to share the data with peers who cannot, creating a "self-healing network" of devices that allows users to access outlets other than state-controlled media.
- Freedom House released its annual "Freedom on the Net" report last week, highlighting the digital crackdowns that have ensued since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March. There are three major takeaways observed in the report. First, many politicians and governments used the pandemic as a pretext for limiting freedom of information, blocking independent websites, and charging journalists who reported on coronavirus cases with spreading false information. Some countries went as far as to cut off internet access for marginalized groups entirely. Second, governments have used the pandemic as justification for the expansion of surveillance regimes and technologies. In their words, "The public health crisis has created an opening for the digitization, collection, and analysis of people's most intimate data without adequate protection against abuses." Finally, analysts at Freedom House noted that the "slow-motion splintering" of the internet along national boundaries has escalated to a race for sovereignty in the cyber realm in order to restrict the flow of information and data across international borders.
- New research from scholars at the University of Toronto was published last week, shedding light on the logic of China's social media censorship. The authors found that while the state continues to push the responsibility of "self-regulation" onto average citizens, it signals strength and authority by publicly persecuting anyone who challenges government credibility on social media.
- Democracy in Africa has just launched a series on Decoding #DigitalDemocracy in Africa, drawing together new research in blogs and podcasts on the ways in which digital technology is affecting Africa and the ways that Africa is changing digital technology. A series of analytical pieces address the shift away from techno-optimism as technology is shown to be a tool of maintaining rather than upending the status quo.
- The New York Times reported that misinformation on Facebook is now more popular than it was in 2016, according to new research from the German Marshall Fund. The group found that likes, comments, and shares of articles from news outlets that regularly publish misleading or outright false content has tripled from 2016 to 2020. A Facebook spokesperson claimed that these inflated engagement metrics did not necessarily mean that misleading content reached a larger audience, but that users are more likely to engage with news online as they were forced to quarantine indoors.
- Maria Ressa, the co-founder of the online news site Rappler, was interviewed on The Lawfare Podcast on Thursday about the weaponization of the internet against democracy in the Philippines as she fights her conviction for "cyber libel" for covering the extrajudicial killings carried out by the Duterte regime. She emphasizes the ways in which the Philippines and the entire Global South have been "guinea pigs" as the impacts of Facebook's approach to disinformation have had real-world consequences for investigative journalists.
- The Technology and Social Change Research Project has just launched the Media Manipulation Casebook, a digital research platform for mapping media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. It features completed research reports and case studies of disinformation campaigns for anyone looking to understand how narratives can be manipulated and distorted online.
- Following Nintendo's launch of a Mario Kart game for the Switch console that incorporates augmented reality (AR), Access Now made the case for considering the digital rights implications of this technology, given the potential for data privacy concerns when the game maps a player's living room to create an augmented reality racetrack.
- A recent article in Foreign Affairs on the threat of cyberattacks argues that the private sector "exercises disproportionate power in the technological sphere, gobbling up data and taking on key functions of the state," including the role of protecting key infrastructure like hospitals in the event of a massive cyberattack. Due to the speed of digital innovation, it has become difficult for states to keep up with companies by passing legislation on encryption, data protection, and liability in the event of a cyber threat.
- A new podcast series, "Neither Free Nor Fair?" produced by the Political Economy Forum at the University of Washington has launched, with episodes addressing issues from democratic backsliding to election cybersecurity around the world.