Facebook and Twitter coordinate once more over censorship

Facebook recently removed hundreds of accounts for ‘inauthentic’ behaviour and many of those affected have also seen their Twitter accounts suspended.

In a press release entitled ‘Removing Additional Inauthentic Activity from Facebook’, Facebook explained that its doesn’t like inauthentic behaviour, by which it means accounts that seek to mislead people about their real identities and/or objectives. While there is some concern that this could be driven by the desire to influence politics, Facebook reckons it’s mostly ‘clickbait’, designed to drive and then monetise internet traffic.

“And like the politically motivated activity we’ve seen, the ‘news’ stories or opinions these accounts and pages share are often indistinguishable from legitimate political debate,” said the release. “This is why it’s so important we look at these actors’ behaviour – such as whether they’re using fake accounts or repeatedly posting spam – rather than their content when deciding which of these accounts, pages or groups to remove.”

So Facebook is not saying it’s the arbiter of ‘authentic’ speech, which is very wise as that would put it in a highly compromised position. Instead it’s taking action against people posting political content via supposedly fake accounts or who are seen to generate spam. It seems to be hoping this will allow it to remove certain accounts that focus on political content without being accused of political meddling or bias.

All this context and preamble was offered to set up the big reveal, which is that Facebook has removed 559 Pages and 251 accounts that have broken its rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behaviour. It looks like the timing of this renewed purge is influenced by the imminent US mid-term elections, with Facebook keen to avoid a repetition of claims made during the Cambridge Analytica scandal that it facilitated political meddling by allowing too much of this sort of thing to take place during the last US general election.

Of course Facebook is free to quality control its platform as much as it likes, but if it is seen to lack neutrality and objectivity in so doing, it runs the risk of alienating those of its users that feel discriminated against. In this case the loudest dissent seems to be coming from independent media, some of which feel they have been mistakenly identified as clickbaiters.

The Washington Post spoke to ‘Reasonable People Unite’, which was shut down by Facebook, but which claims to be legitimate (let alone authentic). Meanwhile Reason.com reckons libertarian publishers were targeted and spoke to the founder of The Free Thought Project, who also found himself banned in spite of claimed legitimacy.

Matt Agorist, who writes for The Free Thought Project, tweeted the following, and his subsequent piece indicated that his employer had also been removed from Twitter. This seems to be another manifestation (Alex Jones having been the most high-profile previous case) of coordinated activity between the two sites that, together with YouTube, dominate public debate in the US. A number of other publishers removed by Facebook seem now to have been suspended by Twitter.

Other independent journalists have joined the outcry, including Caitlin Johnstone and Tim Pool in the video below. The latter makes the point that many of those purged seem to be left-leaning, which at least balances the previous impression that right-leaning commentators were being disproportionately targeted, and that many of the accounts taken down may well have been guilty as charged. But the inherent subjectivity involved in determining the relative legitimacy of small publishers is a problem that is only amplified by this latest move.

It seems unlikely that the primary objective of these social media giants is to impose their world view via the censorship of content they disagree with, but this kind of coordinated banning does feel like unilateral speech policing and that should be of concern, regardless of your political position. Twitter doesn’t even seem to have made any public statements on the matter. Meanwhile the range of views considered ‘authentic’ by these private companies seems to be narrowing by the day.

 

Europe gets tech and ad giants to play ball on ‘online disinformation’

The European Commission’s drive to control what takes place online took one more step forward with the unveiling of a code of practice on online disinformation.

This code has apparently been signed up to by unnamed internet and advertising giants, but in its current form it appears to be nothing more than a set of vague aspirations designed to placate the EC for now. However it will probably be used as the thin end of the wedge to extract further concessions down the line.

It is an important step in tackling a problem which has become increasingly pervasive and threatens Europeans’ trust in democratic processes and institutions,” said Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society Mariya Gabriel. “This is the first time that the industry has agreed on a set of self-regulatory standards to fight disinformation worldwide, on a voluntary basis.

“The industry is committing to a wide range of actions, from transparency in political advertising to the closure of fake accounts and demonetisation of purveyors of disinformation, and we welcome this. These actions should contribute to a fast and measurable reduction of online disinformation. To this end, the Commission will pay particular attention to its effective implementation.”

Voluntary. That’s a good one. You can find out more about this voluntary code on this European Commission site. Disinformation is defined as ‘verifiably false or misleading information’. One good example of this could be describing something as ‘voluntary’ when in fact it was subject to duress. The EC and signatories will presumably argue the toss over what qualifies as ‘misleading’ for a while before everyone moves on.

Twitter wants your help with censorship

Social network Twitter continues to agonise over how it should censor its users and thinks getting them involved in the process might help.

While all social media companies, and indeed any involved in the publication of user-generated content, are under great pressure to eradicate horridness from their platforms, Twitter probably has the greatest volume and proportion of it. Content and exchanges can get pretty heated on Facebook and YouTube, public conversation giant Twitter is where it seems to really kick off.

This puts Twitter in a tricky position: it wants people to use it as much as possible, but would ideally like them to only say nice, inoffensive things. Even the most rose-tinted view of human nature and interaction reveals this to be impossible, so Twitter must therefore decide where on the nice/horrid continuum to draw the line and start censoring.

To date this responsibility has been handled internally, with a degree of rubber-stamping from the Trust and Safety Council – a bunch of individuals and groups that claim to be expert on the matter of online horridness and what to do about it. But this hasn’t been enough to calm suspicions that Twitter, along with the other tech giants, allows its own socio-political views to influence the selective enforcement of its own rules.

So now Twitter has decided to invite everyone to offer feedback every time it decides to implement a new layer of censorship. Do date the term ‘hate’ has been a key factor in determining whether or not to censor and possibly ban a user. Twitter has attempted to define the term as any speech that attacks people according to race, gender, etc, but it has been widely accused of selectively enforcing that policy along exactly the same lines it claims to oppose, with members of some groups more likely to be punished than others.

Now Twitter wants to add the term ‘dehumanizing’ to its list of types of speech that aren’t allowed. “With this change, we want to expand our hateful conduct policy to include content that dehumanizes others based on their membership in an identifiable group, even when the material does not include a direct target,” explained Twitter in a blog post, adding that such language might make violence seem more acceptable.

Even leaving aside Twitter’s surrender to the Slippery Slope Fallacy, which is one of the main drivers behind the insidious spread of censorship into previously blameless areas of speech, this is arguably even more vague than ‘hate’. For example does it include nicknames? Or as the BBC asks, is dehumanizing language targeted at middle-aged white men just as hateful as that aimed at other identity groups?

Perhaps because it’s incapable of answering these crucial questions Twitter wants everyone to tell it what they think of its definitions. A from on that blog post will be open for a couple of weeks and Twitter promises to bear this public feedback in mind when it next updates its rules. What isn’t clear is how transparent Twitter will be about the feedback or how much weight it will carry. What seems more likely is that this is an attempt to abdicate responsibility for its own decisions and deflect criticism of subsequent waves of censorship.

 

Russian telcos push for OTT tax on new data storage laws

Russian telcos are lobbying the government to grant new powers which would allow them to tax non-domestic internet companies to ease the burden of new data storage laws.

According to Reuters, the telcos are proposing new legislation to ease the financial burden of the new laws designed to give the state more oversight on communications within the country. As part of the new rules, telcos would be forced to store customer data in the country (calls, texts, internet search history etc.) for six months. The data storage rules come into force in October.

Ahead of the October launch date, the telcos have warned the imposition would result in larger costs. To protect the pockets of shareholders and executives alike, the telcos have suggested these incurred costs for data storage would be passed onto the consumer with tariffs potentially rising as much as 10%. Should the government look favourably on the proposed bill, telcos could seek compensation for the costs from non-domestic internet companies such as Facebook and Google.

Of course it seems perfectly reasonable for telcos to want to spread the burden of the digital economy throughout the ecosystem, it has largely bore the brunt of the financial expense while others profits at the top of the value chain for years, but this is a different matter. Facilitating government ambitions to more surgically monitor citizens and potentially eradicate the concept of privacy might not sit easily with the internet giants.

That said, bowing to government ambitions despite a conflict with apparent principles of the organization is a story which has been hitting the headlines recently. In an effort to penetrate the Great Firewall of China, Google has been creating a censorship-friendly version of its news app which could filter out stories which do not please the government. Google is not alone here as LinkedIn accepted these censorship rules years ago.

Other technology companies might not be as flexible as Google or LinkedIn. Those who maintain principles and refuse to fund the governments ambitions to rid Russia of independent thought will potentially face regulator Roskomnadzor reducing the speed of access to their websites for Russian users.

This is nothing but a proposal for the moment, though should it progress, the internet companies will face another principles versus profits dilemma.

UK opposition leader want to tax US tech giants and ISPs to pay for better journalism

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the UK Labour party, has proposed a special tax on US tech giants and UK ISPs in order to fund public interest journalism.

The context in which he made the announcement at the Edinburgh TV Festival was a juxtaposition in the decline of the journalism industry with the rise of social media. Traditional media has lost a lot of revenue to Google and Facebook especially and there is growing suspicion of so much media power being held by so few companies.

Social media is coming under increased pressure to censor the material published on its platforms, but there is growing concern that such censorship may result in certain viewpoints effectively being outlawed on the sphere of public debate over the internet. Corbyn has previously indicated he would like to have more control over the media but struck a more conciliatory tone towards journalism in this speech, having apparently concluded big tech is the real bad guy..

“One solution to funding public interest media could be by tapping up the digital monopolies that profit from every search, share and like we make,” he said in a speech entitled ‘We can fix our failing media by setting journalists and citizens free to hold power to account’. “Google and news publishers in France and Belgium were able to agree a settlement. If we can’t do something similar here, but on a more ambitious scale, we’ll need to look at the option of a windfall tax on the digital monopolies to create a public interest media fund.”

It’s easy to view a lot of this, coming from a card-carrying socialist, as a thinly disguised tax grab, but there does seem to be evidence of deeper thought too. It comes as a pleasant surprise to see Corbyn call for less government influence over the media, especially since his party has consistently called for just the opposite.

“Currently, ministers can veto FOI releases,” said Corbyn. “On two occasions, this veto has been used to block information about the UK’s decision to pursue military action against Iraq. That can’t be right. We will look at ending the ministerial veto to prevent the Information Commissioner being overruled.

“The best journalism takes on the powerful, in the corporate world as well as government, and helps create an informed public. This work costs money. We value it but somehow that doesn’t translate into proper funding and legal support. So, we should look at granting charitable status for some local, investigative and public interest journalism.

“If we want an independent BBC, we should consider setting it free by placing it on a permanent statutory footing, with a new independent body setting the licence fee. The licence fee itself is another potential area for modernisation. In the digital age, we should consider whether a digital licence fee could be a fairer and more effective way to fund the BBC.

“A digital licence fee, supplementing the existing licence fee, collected from tech giants and Internet Service Providers, who extract huge wealth from our shared digital space, could allow a democratized and more plural BBC to compete far more effectively with the private multinational digital giants like Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook.”

On reflection this speech seems to be both a cynical tax grab and a thoughtful look at the rapidly evolving public information environment at the same time. Something is definitely broken in the media industry, thanks mainly to the apparent market expectation that quality journalism should be free. Whether or not scapegoating and taxing a few big tech companies is any kind of solution to this problem, however, remains highly debatable.

EU set to impose tough new rules on social media companies

The European Commission is reportedly planning to bring in new laws that will punish social media companies if they don’t remove terrorist content within an hour of it being flagged.

The news comes courtesy of the FT, which spoke to the EU commissioner for security, Julian King, on the matter of terrorists spreading their message over social media. “We cannot afford to relax or become complacent in the face of such a shadowy and destructive phenomenon,” he said, after reflecting that he doesn’t think enough progress had been made in this area.

Earlier this year the EU took the somewhat self-contradictory step of imposing some voluntary guidelines on social media companies to take down material that promotes terrorism within an hour of it being flagged. In hindsight that move seems to have been made in order to lay the ground for full legislation, with Europe now being able to claim its hand has been reluctantly forced by the failure of social media companies to do the job themselves.

So long as the legal stipulation if for content to be taken down when explicitly flagged as terrorist by police authorities it should be pretty easy to enforce – indeed it could probably be automated. But legislation such as this does pose broader questions around censorship. How is ‘terrorist’ defined? Will there be a right of appeal? Will other organisations be given the power to demand content be taken down? Will this law be extended to other types of contentious content?

At the end of the FT piece it is noted that, while the EU still allows self-regulation on more subjective areas like ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’, Germany is a lot more authoritarian on the matter. Given the considerable influence Germany has over the European bureaucracy it’s not unreasonable to anticipate a time when the EU follows Germany’s lead on this matter.

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump – avid user of Twitter but loather of much of the mainstream media – got involved in the social media censorship debate via his favoured medium. You can see the tweets in question below and, while he appears to be motivated by concern that his own supporters are being selectively censored, his broader point is that censorship is bad, full stop.

Lastly Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey continues to publicly agonise about the topic of censorship and specifically how, if at all, he should apply it to his own platform. In an interview with CNN he conceded Twitter as a company has a left-leaning bias, but stressed the platform is policed according to user behaviour rather than perceived ideology. He also noted that transparency is the only answer to allegations of bias.

Google faces mutiny over leaked China plans

Google is reportedly developing a censored version of its search engine especially for China but some of its employees aren’t happy about it.

The Chinese version of Google is apparently code-named Dragonfly and was first revealed by The Intercept at the start of this month. It apparently resulted in a fair big of internal hand-wringing within Google, which culminated in a letter calling for greater transparency on ethical issues being circulated within the company and signed by hundreds of employees.

The NYT and BuzzFeed were among the publications to get a leaked copy of the letter. “To make ethical choices, Googlers need to know what we’re building,” commenced the letter “Right now we don’t. So we, the undersigned, are calling for a Code Yellow on Ethics & Transparency at Google.”

Here’s the footnote explaining what a Code Yellow is: “A Code Yellow is a standardized process in Engineering for addressing new or long-simmering business-critical problems that span multiple groups. A Code Yellow includes: an executive responsible for the process; an overall owner; a clear list of objectives to be resolved before closing the Code Yellow; and weekly (or more frequent) updates to any interested parties.

Essentially the people who wrote the letter seem to be worried about the lack of consultation with the rank and file within Google on significant ethical decisions such as facilitating state censorship or working with the military. As a company Google prides itself on its ‘liberal’ politics and right-on ethics, so it can hardly be surprised that its employees have a bit of a moral panic every now and then.

Apparently the matter was addressed at an all-hands staff meeting yesterday, which was inevitably leaked to the likes of Bloomberg and Buzzfeed, but execs pulled the plug on the discussion when the leaking quickly became apparent. They got as far as saying Dragonfly isn’t set in stone yet before throwing in the towel.

Google has a delicate line to walk here. It made its corporate politics clear when it sacked engineer James Damore for internally discussing the matter of trends in job type preference according to sex after that publication became public. Now its employees are leaking internal discussions expressing concerns over the company’s ethics. While it’s bot viable for it t0 change corporate strategy every time someone has a moan, it must be seen to be treating these concerns with due gravity.

Internet giants approach the censorship point of no return

The apparently coordinated banning of conspiracy site InfoWars has brought to a head the role of social media companies in censoring public discussion.

InfoWars is headed by Alex Jones, a polemicist who likes to shout his often highly questionable views and theories at the camera. He has a large following and frequently says things that are offensive to many but, to date, he seems to have been accepted at part of the public debate mix, albeit a relatively extreme one.

However last week YouTube, Facebook, Apple and Spotify all took down content and channels from InfoWars on the grounds that it had broken their rules. This move was celebrated by many opponents of InfoWars but also called into question the grounds for taking the action and whether those rules are being applied equally to all.

Unsurprisingly Jones thinks it’s a conspiracy, but a number of other commentators are asking whether social media censorship rules are more strict for right leaning commentators than those on the left. Conservative publication Breitbart noted that groups such as Antifa – a militant far-left organisation – seems to escape unpunished for public statements that are at least as questionable.

And then there’s the matter of free speech in general, and more specifically censorship. Most people accept there has to be some limit on what can be said in public, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre or explicitly calling for a crime to be committed, and the useful debate focuses on where that limit should be, as implemented by law.

But social media platforms are private companies and are thus free to implement their own policies independent of laws and apparent public will. For some time they have been censoring speech that would be allowed by law, which is their prerogative, but since most Western public discussion now takes place via this oligopoly of platforms, apparent coordinated action by them becomes a matter of public concern.

This concern is amplified when there is a perception of political bias behind the censorship decisions. Silicon Valley is generally considered to tend very much to the left of the political spectrum and social media seems to be especially twitchy about commentary deemed to be from the ‘far right’.

As the location for the most heated public debate, Twitter is the social media platform at the front line of the censorship issue. Intriguingly it has so far declined to ban InfoWars, despite evidence that it has violated Twitter rules. Of all the platforms Twitter seems to be having the most nuanced and sophisticated internal discussion on censorship, as evidenced by this NYT piece and the tweet below from CEO Jack Dorsey.

On top of the ethical and philosophical questions raised by the perception of selective censorship by social media companies there are also commercial ones. When YouTube started demonetizing videos it was in response to complaints from advertisers about having their brands placed alongside content ‘incompatible with their values’ or something like that. But there is a real danger, thanks to phenomena like the Streisand effect, that high profile censorship such as this will permanently drive traffic away from their platforms and create the demand for fresh competitors.

Sooner or later the big internet companies surely have to explicitly detail the cut off point for what speech they consider ‘unacceptable’ and clearly demonstrate they are implementing them even-handedly, or face an increasing backlash. It seems appropriate to conclude by referring the discussion to a couple of prominent YouTubers who, while no fans of InfoWars, are very concerned about selective censorship.

 

So much for ‘Don’t be Evil’ as Google bows to China censorship – sources

Many of the internet giants managed to put principles before profits when dealing with China, but willpower does seem to be fading as Silicon Valley attempts to work around the Great Chinese Firewall.

Search giant Google is seemingly the next to sacrifice freedoms of modern society in pursuit of the fortunes promised in the Chinese market. According to the Intercept, Google is currently developing a news-aggregation app for use in China which will comply to the governments strict censorship rules. While this is only a news app for the moment, it is a foot through the door; once present, it might be easier to launch further services.

Bowing to the demands of the ‘inquisitive’ Chinese government is not uncommon, though many of the internet players have resisted to date. LinkedIn did cave, and while it did seem Facebook was getting closer after years of wooing, including a very smoggy run around Tiananmen Square from CEO Mark Zuckerberg, though the failure to retain a business registration suggests the team was not willing to submit completely.

Google has reportedly been working on the app since early 2017, with the project codenamed ‘Dragonfly’. The first versions of the app have already been shown to officials, while the final version could be launched in the next six to twelve months, pending final approval from the government. The app would allow the government to block what is deems unfavourable content on topics such as political opponents, free speech, sex, news, and academic studies.

Content banned in China of course includes anything which directly criticises the ruling party, though also past events. Any references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre as anything more than a Western myth are banned for instance, while any content which is focused on bringing down the establishment also hits the firewall. Both 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell have been banned. Sites which have been banned include social media such as Twitter and Facebook, but also the BBC, Wikipedia and the New York Times.

One question which might be worth asking is whether this is too little too late. Google left the country eight years ago, refusing to succumb to the censorship demands, though in the void, Baidu emerged. This has been the case for all the Silicon Valley companies who deserted China, a domestic alternative appeared. As reported in the quarterly earnings earlier this week, Baidu is doing well. Google might be the dominant search engine everywhere else, but people are creatures of habit; before it can make any money it will have to convince Chinese consumers to leave the familiar and engage with a distant memory.

The app itself will not only automatically block websites which feature on the Chinese sh*t list, but also complete searches. Certain words and phrases will be caught by the filter blocking any results from appearing on the page. The development of the app has been limited to a couple of hundred employees, though the majority are unlikely to receive the news well.

Google’s work with the US Defence Department to aid the accuracy of drone strikes with its AI technology was not well received, with a few thousand employees threatening to leave the business unless ‘Project Maven’ was ended. These employees at least maintain the principles of Silicon Valley, seemingly still living to the “Don’t be Evil” mantra of Google, even if it has been removed from the official code of conduct, and we suspect they will not receive news of the censored app favourably.

Google has a very positive image around the world. Despite making billions in profit each quarter, dealing with data in a questionable manner and constantly being investigated by the European Commission for antitrust violations, the brand has managed to maintain this friendly and upbeat persona. Whether censorship impacts this image remains to be seen.