Weekly Roundup 11/4/2020
Last week, the United States Senate summoned the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to appear for a hearing on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the 1996 legislation that has shielded tech companies from liability over user-generated content in the past. Republican senators on the commerce committee focused their questions on Twitter's Jack Dorsey over concerns of perceived anti-conservative bias on the platform. Democratic members of the committee questioned the CEOs about their efforts to contain the spread of hate speech and health-related misinformation, including conspiracies about the coronavirus pandemic.
Despite the hearing's intended function, the future of Section 230 (nor the ripple effects brought by SESTA-FOSTA, the law's last amendment in 2018,) was not discussed at length. Between rounds of partisan questioning, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook was the most open to reforms of Section 230, while Twitter's Jack Dorsey asked senators what he could do to earn trust that his content moderation team was acting in good faith. Many experts in the tech space have expressed fears that the repeal or significant rollback of Section 230 would disproportionately impact smaller companies like Reddit that rely on user input, all while cementing the monopoly of social media juggernauts such as Facebook on the digital public square in the U.S. and around the world.
Top weekly tech headlines curated for you:
- The German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy has released a report of recommendations for democratic states seeking to push back against recent advances of authoritarianism in non-military domains. The report draws on the knowledge of a task force of thirty leading American national security and foreign policy experts. The task force calls on the U.S. to take a more active role in shaping global technology norms and standards, and to invest in democracy-affirming technology and "social guardrails" on media platforms.
- Algorithm Watch has released its 2020 Automating Society report, in which researchers call for increased transparency of automated decision making (ADM) systems, the creation of an accountability framework, and enhanced algorithmic literacy among both government stakeholders and the general public.
- A recent article in Al Jazeera reported how social media democratized the #EndSARS protest movement in Nigeria and galvanized its youth population when conventional media outlets refused to cover the protests.
- The head of Facebook's public policy for India and South and Central Asia has resigned after facing criticism from politicians and journalists that she opposed enforcing the platform's hate speech restrictions on Hindu nationalist groups for fears of damaging Facebook's business prospects. Many Facebook employees have been left to question whether content regulation policies were being followed correctly in India.
- Following a government block of TikTok in Pakistan, one martial arts specialist who had hoped to build a following on the short video platform is challenging the ban through a petition to the country's high court. Pakistan's Telecommunications Authority has since met with senior leadership at the company to discuss content moderation practices.
- As people in Tanzania prepared to head to the polls, Access Now reported that the government ordered telecommunications companies to limit online activity around elections. The Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI) found evidence that Twitter, WhatsApp, and Telegram had all been blocked in Tanzania on October 27th, the day before a highly contested presidential election.
- Using data from Access Now, a BBC Reality Check article explains recent trends in internet shutdowns across Africa, and why it can be difficult for internet service providers to avoid these government orders.
- While the Russian federation has made public efforts to achieve "cyber sovereignty" from foreign IT services, Alena Epifanova argues that the slow development of Russia's IT capacity means it will more likely fall into technological dependence on one global tech leader. Given the Kremlin's tensions with the West, a heavier reliance on the Chinese tech sphere may be Russia's path forward.
- In the inaugural issue of Branch, an online magazine focused on the creation of an environmentally sustainable internet for all, Michael Oghia makes the case for putting sustainability on the policy agenda in the internet governance and digital rights space. He points out the interconnectedness between issues of human rights, climate change, and digital inclusion, and calls for sustainable solutions in internet supply chains, from the extraction of minerals for tech hardware to energy consumption and e-waste dumping.
- Ahead of Myanmar's elections on November 8, volumes of misinformation and hate speech on Facebook have reached record levels. In October, Facebook officials confirmed the takedown of a network of accounts operated by the Burmese military that were responsible for posting anti-Rohingya content.
- On Friday, Facebook confirmed it had suspended new group recommendations ahead of the U.S. elections. The social media platform has also dampened amplification of content using the "save our children" hashtag, which has become associated with conspiracy theorist group QAnon.
- Researchers from CNAS warn of the national security dangers of China's investments in the video game industry in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal. As millions of gamers install software from Tencent or Alibaba, the authors argue, their voice, computer, and gameplay data could be exploited far more easily than data from TikTok, which has garnered comparatively more public scrutiny. The article describes a possible scenario in which players' voice data, stored on servers in China, is used to create deepfake audio clips convincing enough to allow Chinese intelligence access to databases of sensitive personal information of government employees.
- Data privacy activists in India report that the government has failed to safeguard and secure the data collected from millions of people in COVID-19 contract tracing app Aarogya Setu. Critics claim that government agencies have not fulfilled promises to anonymize the data of individuals and record a full list of data recipients.
- Mozilla and Tactical Tech have updated their Data Detox Kit to include a guide for voters who want to understand how their data is being used by political campaigns to persuade and influence them. The kit outlines several simple steps that everyday users can take to protect their digital security, data privacy, and wellbeing online.
- Several popular apps that utilized MoPub, one of Twitter's outdated software development kits (SDKs), may have exposed the granular location data of millions of users through unencrypted location data transfers, according to the International Digital Accountability Council. Because the SDK is open-source, Twitter and MoPub have said they have no way to stop developers who choose to send unencrypted data through the unpatched version of the kit.
- The Council on Foreign Relations examines how two competing resolutions from the U.S. and Russia, which emerged from the UN's open-ended working group on cybersecurity, could hamper progress on setting international cybersecurity norms.
- Activists around the world have begun using artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition technology to identify police officers in instances of misconduct, according to the New York Times. From Hong Kong to Minsk to Portland, activists are using technology to identify officers who crack down on protesters, even when they cover their faces.
Other Tech News:
- Travel restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 have led to a rise in virtual influencers, computer-generated "people" who can go anywhere in the world to advocate for brands. While human influencers are stuck at home, one popular influencer, the playable League of Legends character Seraphine, has accumulated 400,000 followers on social media and appeared in Shanghai to promote her music.