Weekly Roundup 11/19/2020

By Elizabeth Sutterlin | November 19, 2020

Small Photo
Header image from the "Freedom of the Media and Artificial Intelligence" report.
Image credit: The Global Conference for Media Freedom

The CEOs of Facebook and Twitter, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, appeared in front of the Senate judiciary committee on November 17th to face questions about their handling of the US election. The majority of questions were on content moderation, with Republican senators focused on alleged anti-conservative bias, though researchers have found no evidence to support this. Senator Lindsey Graham called for a reform of Section 230 that would provide greater transparency when Facebook and Twitter remove or limit the amplification of content on their platforms. Senator Blumenthal of Connecticut, who led the charge to amend the law in 2018, agreed that Section 230 needed "aggressive reform" for reasons other than censorship accusations. 


Dorsey and Zuckerberg both seemed in favor of transparency reforms, and Dorsey posted on Twitter that he supported giving users more choice in the algorithms that select what content is shown on their feeds. In October, the big tech executives, along with the CEO of Google, were summoned to another Senate hearing on Section 230, but the opportunity to reform privacy legislation, antitrust laws, or other measures that would help limit big tech’s monopolistic power took a backseat to political grandstanding. 


Top weekly tech headlines curated for you:


Open Internet:

  • The Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) published a report on the dilemma between the principle of freedom of information and the "right to be forgotten," or to have information about private individuals removed from the public Internet. Researchers found that the practice has led to censorship of information that is relevant to the public interest, and that it has endangered press freedom in Europe by leading to removal of news articles and erasing content from digital public record.
  • Internet observers from NetBlocks reported a partial internet shutdown in Iran on November 16th, the one-year anniversary of protests over fuel prices and a total internet blackout that occurred in 2019.
  • ChinaFile analyzed publicly-available Chinese government technology procurement notices in close detail to compare surveillance tactics across municipalities. Researchers found that purchases of surveillance technology (including cameras, predictive policing software, smartphone forensic systems, and platforms to combine this data) reached their highest levels in 2019. While experts say China is still far from an Orwellian surveillance state, that kind of mass surveillance regime could become reality in the future. 
  • Analysis from DW found that most of India's 121 internet shutdowns last year occurred during or after incidents of police brutality or violent protest and were used as a tool to stifle dissent. Scholar Jan Rydzak calls them "an invisibility cloak for state violence," allowing brutality to fly under the radar when communication services are down.
  • The Cyrilla Initiative and the Association for Progressive Communications have published a report on the legal mechanisms surrounding government-mandated internet shutdowns across the global South. While internet disruptions are becoming a more frequent tool for repressive governments to silence dissent, the report presents a survey of citizens who have pushed back and taken states to court.
  • On November 15th, authorities in Belarus ordered the throttling of mobile phone bandwidth in Minsk as protests against Lukashenko continued.



  • Ron Deibert, founder of the Citizen Lab, discusses the hidden ecological costs of our smartphone and social media usage and exposes the "technological mirage" that prevents us from seeing the environmental impact of each website we load and email we send. He urges us to hold on to our consumer electronics and fight a culture of planned obsolescence.



  • As large social media platforms begin to clamp down on misinformation, alternative social networks have seen a massive uptick in account registrations. Parler, an app similar to Twitter that describes itself as "the premier free speech social network," shot to the top of the App Store's most downloaded apps over the weekend. Experts worry that the rise of more niche news and social media platforms could lead to a dangerous fracturing of the information ecosystem.
  • While there have been massive amounts of disinformation on Chinese-language social media platforms WeChat and Weibo before both the 2016 and 2020 U.S. elections, Foreign Policy reported that this year, many first- and second-generation Chinese-Americans went to great lengths to counter rumors and provide factual Chinese language news coverage of the election.


Countering Violent Extremism:

  • Buzzfeed News reported that Facebook failed to enforce its call-to-arms policy that prohibited event pages from encouraging people to bring weapons to intimidate and harass individuals. After the shooting of protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, reporters found that third-party content moderators had never been instructed to enforce this policy. The event inviting people to bring guns to protests in Kenosha remained public on Facebook even after users flagged it 455 times.



  • This week, Canada and Botswana co-hosted the Global Conference for Media Freedom. As part of the events of the conference, the OSCE published a paper on the impacts of AI on press freedom and freedom of expression. Their research finds that AI's strong potential to surveil and censor for both economic and political reasons threatens freedom of information and media pluralism.


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