Chinese response to coronavirus reveals the true nature of online censorship

Reports detailing Chinese state attempts to censor criticism of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak illustrate the danger of allowing political control over social media.

The latest is provided by Vice, which reports on a Chinese bloke afraid to go back to his home country after suspecting his WeChat had been hacked by state security services. His apparent crime was merely trying to share information about the spread of the virus with his Chinese family, who he feared were being denied access to such information.

It seems the Chinese state was initially quite laissez faire about digital communication concerning coronavirus, as it viewed such traffic as an efficient way of keeping an eye on the spread. That changed when people started slagging off the Communist Party and its leader Xi Jinping for their handling of the situation. Then the priority apparently switched from controlling the spread of the disease to controlling the spread of criticism.

Another Chinese chap is reported to have used a VPN to get onto Twitter, access to which is prevented by the great firewall of China, where he posted something about opposing tyranny. Tellingly the Chinese state took this personally and sent agents to confront him. “The content attacks the Communist Party of China,” he was told and forced to sign a promise that he wouldn’t say such things again.

This all seems like a really clear indicator of the danger of censoring along political lines, but many commentators still seem to think that such outcomes couldn’t possibly happen in the West. Vice itself recently published a piece critical of Facebook’s decision not to ban or restrict political advertising on its platform. Last year it employed the guilt by association fallacy in an apparent attempt to associate President Trump with Nazis.

Much of the US media, including its tech media, is overtly hostile to Trump. This has led to calls for social media censorship to prevent him communicating with the electorate in what they consider to be a deceitful way. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that once they open the censorship Pandora’s box, it may affect them just as profoundly as those they wish to censor.

The Chinese state is a classic dictatorship in so much as it views the welfare of its citizens to be entirely dependent on its own health. Therefore any attack in it is, by definition, a national security threat, justifying the most draconian countermeasures. Its activities and priorities during this crisis should serve as a reminder to the rest of the word of the perils of political censorship. You can’t engineer the public square such that only speech you approve of is allowed, without opening the door to tyranny.

Facebook once more begs to be regulated

Like the data addict it is, social media giant Facebook feels it can’t be trusted to moderate its own habits and thinks state intervention may be the answer.

Reuters reports that Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg (pictured) would like Facebook to be regulated in a way that’s somewhere in between how we currently regulate media companies, on once hand, and telcos. He did so in the context of people moaning about ‘bad’ content and specifically political misinformation spread over social media.

Zuck clearly thinks treating Facebook as a traditional media organisation is a step too far as it doesn’t produce its own content. But in observing that you would never punish a phone network for the stuff that passes over it, he seems to think there should be some greater degree of accountability imposed on social media companies for the content they host.

So all he’s really saying is that Facebook’s accountability for the stuff it publishes should be somewhere between 1% and 100%. Very helpful. In essence Zuck is resharing the old platform versus publisher debate and saying social media companies are neither and both – i.e. somewhere in between.

But why should Zuck want Facebook to be regulated at all? Isn’t that just inviting the state to poke its nose into his company’s private affairs? The answer is that social media censorship is an impossible task and that Facebook will never be able to please all of the people all of the time. What Zuck wants to do is find the perfect balance for his company between offloading responsibility for censorship decisions and retaining core control.

You have to wonder, however, whether Zuck has been adequately briefed on the nature of telecoms regulation. Does he know, for example, that all kinds of other things get tinkered with, including what they can charge their customers. Facebook may think a little bit of regulation will solve its content moderation problems, but letting that genie out of the lamp could well create a bunch of new ones.

Twitter surges back after positive financial results

Three months ago the Twitter share price fell off a cliff thanks to a worrisome earnings call, but bad performance does not necessarily mean a bad company.

The latest financial report demonstrated this. Revenues for the fourth quarter of 2019 were $1.01 billion, an 11% year-on-year increase, while Average monetizable Daily Active Users (mDAU) were 152 million for Q4, compared to 126 million in the same period of 2018.

The third quarter financials could now be viewed as a blot on the landscape as share price shot up 16% during the early hours of trading on Thursday February 6. This is still considerably down on the high of $45.85 in September, but momentum might well shift back in favour of one of Silicon Valley’s earliest successes.

“We reached a new milestone in Q4 with quarterly revenue in excess of $1 billion, reflecting steady progress on revenue product and solid performance across most major geographies, with particular strength in US advertising,” said Ned Segal, Twitter CFO.

“We continue to see tremendous opportunity to get the whole world to use Twitter and provide a more personalized experience across both organic and promoted content, delivering increasing value for both consumers and advertisers.”

Despite being one of the most successful social media companies in terms of adoption, Twitter is one of the Silicon Valley residents who has struggled to make a meaningful impact on the promised fortunes of the digital economy. Over the last 12-18 months, this painful equation has seemingly been balanced, but the Q3 results threw a spanner in the works.

Over the last 12-18 months, Twitter has been sorting out its house. It started offering more comprehensive products for advertisers to target and engage customers, as well as more insightful features on the reporting features. There were some minor glitches to these features during Q3, which impacted results, as did retiring legacy products.

Another factor to consider is what actually happened during 2018. In a sentence, not a lot. This meant AmDAU’s were down during the period, and therefore advertising revenues were also. All of these factors combined resulted in the poor performance during the third quarter, but they were all issues which could be fixed. This is the basis of the turnaround during the fourth quarter.

This is the first quarter the business has exceeded $1 billion in revenue and there could be more to come. With the Olympics in Tokyo, the UEFA European Championships and the US Presidential Election all taking place over the next twelve months, there certainly could be more active users on the platform, therefore more opportunity to advertise and, finally, more revenue for Twitter.

2020 could be a very good year for the company, especially with new video products and a much more comprehensive approach to advertisers.

Fourth quarter Year-on-year Full year Year-on-year
Total revenue $1.01 billion 11% $3.46 billion 14%
Net income $118 million (54%) $1.46 billion 22%
R&D spend $198 million 40% $682 million 23%

UK AI watchdog reckons social media firms should be more transparent

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation says there is strong public support for greater regulation of online platforms, but then it would.

It knows this because it got IPSOS Mori to survey a couple of thousand Brits in the middle of last year and ask them how much they trust a bunch of digital organisations to personalise what they deliver and to target advertising in a responsible way. You can see the responses in the table below, which err towards distrust but not by a massive margin. The don’t know’s probably provide an indication of market penetration.

How much trust, if any, do you have in each of the following organisations to personalise the content users see and to target them with advertising in a responsible way?
Facebook YouTube Instagram TikTok Twitter Snapchat Amazon LinkedIn BBC iPlayer Google search or Maps
A great deal of trust 7% 10% 6% 4% 6% 5% 13% 7% 16% 13%
A fair amount of trust 24% 38% 22% 8% 22% 15% 43% 25% 45% 44%
Not very much trust 30% 26% 24% 15% 25% 22% 24% 18% 17% 23%
No trust at all 32% 16% 24% 28% 25% 26% 13% 20% 10% 13%
Don’t know 8% 10% 23% 45% 23% 32% 7% 30% 11% 7%

It seems that UK punters haven’t generally got a problem with online profiling and consequent ad targeting, but are concerned about the lack of accountability and consumer protection from the significant influence this power confers. 61% of people favoured greater regulatory oversight of online targeting, which again is hardly a landslide and not the most compelling datapoint on which to base public policy.

“Most people do not want targeting stopped, but they do want to know that it is being done safely and responsibly and they want more control.” said Roger Taylor, Chair of the CDEI. “Tech platforms’ ability to decide what information people see puts them in a position of real power. To build public trust over the long-term it is vital for the Government to ensure that the new online harms regulator looks at how platforms recommend content, establishing robust processes to protect vulnerable people.”

Ah, the rallying cry for authoritarians everywhere: ‘think of the vulnerable!’ Among those, it seems, are teenagers, who are notorious for their digital naivety. “We completely agree that there needs to be greater accountability, transparency and control in the online world,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Child and Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “It is fantastic to see the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation join our call for the regulator to be able to compel social media companies to give independent researchers secure access to their data.”

The CDEI was created last year to keep an eye on AI and technology in general, with a stated aim of investigating potential bias in algorithmic decision making. This is the first thing it has done in that intervening year and it amounts to a generic bureaucratic recommendation it could have made on day one. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it did at least pad that out into a 120-page report.

The US election will test social media censorship to breaking point

Electoral losers are increasingly blaming social media for their failure, but this year will demonstrate that censorship is not the answer.

Democracy only works if the losers of elections accept defeat, but sadly few are inclined to do so these days. Now we have five stages of electoral grief that are directly analogous to the original Kübler-Ross model. We still have denial, anger and depression, but instead of bargaining we have litigation and acceptance seems to have been replaced with conspiracy theories in which social media plays a central role.

The central concern is that when the electorate votes for the other team it must be because they were mislead in some way, because no rational, fully informed person could fail to recognise the superiority of my team. In the past some blame could be attached to the mainstream media, something the UK Labour party still persists with. In the US, however, Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 despite having the support of no major media, would appear to render that theory obsolete.

Trump was able to prevail because politicians are no longer dependent on the old media to communicate directly with the electorate, thanks to social media. But this significantly lowered barrier to entry into the public sphere also provides fertile ground for electoral losers searching for mitigation and another bite at the cherry.

A favourite on both sides of the pond is to blame ‘the Russians’. While cold war fervour largely shifted its focus to China, Russia remains a strong source of bogeymen. Now it should be noted that there is plenty of evidence of social media bot farms originating from a number of countries, including Russia, that apparently seek to meddle in elections. What is much harder to prove is whether they had any effect on the outcome of elections whatsoever.

The small matter of evidence is never going to stand in the way of those refusing to concede defeat, however, and it has now become conventional wisdom that social media censorship is vital if we are to ever have untainted elections again. Since the US is in the middle of another of its interminable general election campaigns this year, the heat is being turned up on social media and they are being forced to respond.

Last week Twitter announced it was ‘turning on a tool for key moments of the 2020 US election that enables people to report misleading information about how to participate in an election or other civic event.’ The tweet implies the tool has a broader purpose than that, though, as it also includes intimidation and misrepresenting of political affiliation. Already you can see how a simple censorship objective becomes immediately and massively complicated under the weight of interpretation, semantics and generally chasing its tail.

Then you have Google and its subsidiary YouTube blogging about how much they ‘support’ elections, whatever that’s supposed to mean. Again a lot of this focuses on content that is intended to mislead voters, but since electioneering is biased by definition, surely all of it is intended to mislead to some extent. YouTube also reiterates its aim to promote ‘authoritative’ voices, which is code for establishment media and commentariat.

In contrast, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is increasingly pushing back on censorship, having tried and failed to walk that tightrope since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Perhaps motivated by the prospect of an extra four years of Trump, who has made his feelings known on censorship, Zuckerberg is now turning all free speech absolutist on us. Whether that position will survive even the first engagement of the US electoral process remains highly debatable, however.

Early signs of the immense pressure these platform owners will come under are already appearing, with the Democrats mobilising supposed experts to ‘protect’ the electoral process. “Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus will mark the DNC’s greatest challenge so far in efforts to guard its presidential contenders from the same fate that befell Hillary Clinton in 2016 when her campaign was upended by a Russian-backed hacking and disinformation effort,” reports the Washington Post in depressingly partisan fashion.

If that WaPo piece is anything to go by everyone is going to be trying to manipulate not only the US Presidential election, but the Democratic primaries too, where non-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders is currently the front-runner. Presumably YouTube doesn’t intend to punish the country’s mainstream media for misleading the electorate, so it seems it will support democracy by censoring everyone else.

As ever, censoring free societies is a game of whack-a-mole, in which policy-making can never hope to keep up with the desire of its people to say what they want. Even if the social media companies are successful in their stated censorship objectives, which they won’t be, the team that loses will still blame them. So they might as well not bother and trust their users to sort the wheat from the chaff. Afterall, they’ve been doing that with mainstream media for years.

Facebook faces €5mn fine in Italy

The Italian competition authority, Autorita’ Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM) is intending to fine Facebook €5 million for ignoring its previous ruling.

Having already been fined €10 million in December 2018 for violating the country’s consumer code, the AGCM has followed up with another seven figure-fine for ‘non-compliance’. Facebook has seeming not made amends for the violations of yesteryear, by adequately informing the user of data collection, and will face another investigation.

The new investigation, which has been confirmed by the Regional Administrative Court of Lazio, will potentially fine Facebook an additional €5 million.

The issue which is at the crux of this saga for Facebook is ultimately one of transparency. While Facebook does not charge users for its services, the Italian competition regulator does not feel the social media giant is doing enough to make its users aware of how personal data is collected, store and analysed for commercial means.

Although Facebook removed the ‘it’s free and always will be’ tag from the website under orders from the regulator, it is now believed the social media giant failed to ‘adequately and immediately’ inform users on the data collection ambitions. Facebook also failed to publish the amending statement on the platform.

In addition to a €5 million fine, Facebook will have to publish an amending statement on the homepage of its website, the app and the personal page of each registered Italian user, should the proceedings find Facebook guilty.

While it will surprise few Facebook is finding itself in another spot of bother when it comes to transparency and honesty with its users, it is quite surprising the social media simply ignored the demands of the regulator. Although it is far from a good corporate citizen, it seems highly unusual the team simply didn’t pay attention to the Italian regulator in the first place.

Pelosi rips into Facebook for ‘shameful’ behaviour

Democrat Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has sent a tsunami of abuse towards Facebook, suggesting the social media giant has zero interest in serving its users.

Speaking during her weekly press briefing, the defacto leader of the Democrat party tore into Facebook’s policies of refusing to factcheck statements made by politicians, facilitating the sponsored misleading of voters by Russian parties during the last election, and cosying up to the current political administration for no other reason than for financial gain.

“I think the Facebook business model is strictly to make money,” said Pelosi. “They don’t care about the impact on children, they don’t care about truth, they don’t care about where this is all coming from, and they have said even if they know it’s not true, they will print it. They have been very abusive of the great opportunity which technology has given them.

“All they want are tax cuts and no anti-trust action against them, and they smooze this administration in that regard.”

Pelosi isn’t necessarily saying anything which numerous people are thinking. Facebook is a profit-making machine and has demonstrated on numerous occasions its executives put money before the privacy rights of customers or the experience of the platform. Pelosi coming out in such an aggressive stance against the social media giant is certainly an interesting twist though.

As a company, Facebook should be a bit nervous about any Democrat momentum heading into the November General Election. Although the Democrat candidate has not been named yet, there are plenty who have been very critical of Big Tech in general and Facebook in particular.

The bookies currently have Joe Biden as the favourite to win the Democrat nomination for the General Election, a man who recently said he would get rid of Section 230, the law that shields Facebook from liability for what their users post. Elizabeth Warren is another who is attracting attention, and she launched her campaign for nomination under the promise she would break-up Big Tech. Bernie Saunders and Pete Buttigieg, two more front-runners, has echoed Warren’s desire to dismantle Silicon Valley.

In years gone, the Democrat party was traditionally the side of the political sphere which would favour Silicon Valley and its disruptive residents. This is far from the truth today, as Big Tech is finding it has few friends sitting on either side of the aisle.

Twitter tries to find another way to solve the censorship dilemma

Social media giant Twitter is exploring the creation of an open standard that it hopes will provide the answer to the impossible question of censorship.

As you would expect the announcement was made by Twitter CEO via a tweet in which he announced the creation of a small team to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media. In the thread he cites some of the inspiration for the move as coming from an essay entitled ‘Protocols, Not Platforms: A Technological Approach to Free Speech’. The author of that essay has already written an article cautiously welcoming this move.

Right now all social media are siloed platforms providing their own technology and rules. That means they’re also in the impossible position of trying to censor the stuff their users publish in order to please other users as well as advertisers and regulators. Right now they face constant pressure from all three and, of course, can never please all of the people all of the time.

At the core of the dilemma, as the essay implies, is free speech and its opposite: censorship. Determining what speech is good and bad is inherently subjective and an impossible tightrope to walk. We have long argued that any attempt to do so is futile and that the best solution for social media platforms would be to throw themselves at the mercy of regulators, thus absolving themselves of responsibility for censorship decisions.

This move by Twitter seems to be an early investigation into the possibility of an alternative resolution by creating a basic social media protocol, of which it would by just one of the clients, that could serve as the foundation for a number of other platforms. All social traffic would take place over this protocol, but then individual platforms could implement their own unique rules about what content they allowed to be published.

It’s very early days and there are all kinds of reasons why it may never take off, but it seems like a step in the right direction. Right now social media companies are being regulated like platforms but as they increasingly curate the content they host are acting more like publishers. Unless they find a way of resolving this conundrum themselves, state authorities will end up doing it for them,

As if to illustrate the point YouTube has announced yet another update to its harassment policy, including ‘a stronger stance against threats and personal attacks’. This amounts to a ban on ‘veiled or implied threats’, ‘demeaning language that goes too far’ and ‘content that maliciously insults someone based on protected attributes’.

On the surface who could have a problem with action against threatening, demeaning and insulting speech, right? It’s only when you try to establish the precisely when speech crosses any of those lines that you see what a futile, subjective and censorious policy this is. Expect a further update within months after some one claims to be upset about something and then another soon after that. You never know, eventually YouTube might come around to this protocol business.

Facebook revenues surge as EU antitrust team revs its engine

Facebook has been on somewhat of a rollercoaster ride over the last 24 hours, revealing another quarter of impressive year-on-year growth, while rumours circulate it could be facing a competition probe.

In Menlo Park, California, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and CFO David Wehner boasted of another quarter which demonstrated the Facebook advertising machine is not slowing down, while on the other side of the Atlantic, Reuters has suggested the European Commission has taken the first steps in an antitrust investigation concerning the Marketplace feature.

What is worth noting is these are only the preliminary steps, and it will be some time before the European Commission decides whether to formally launch a full-investigation. After complaints alleged Facebook was using its market power to create an unfair competitive advantage, the European Commission has sent surveys to various players in the industry to better understand how the competitive landscape has developed.

For Facebook, this should be seen as a worrying sign. Details are thin on the ground for the moment, but it does appear rivals in the ‘classified ads’ segment are suggesting Facebook should not be allowed to diversify. The questionnaire sent to various players in the industry asks how many referrals came from the social media platform.

The question which seems to be asked here is whether it should be allowed to leverage such a massive user-base to steal business of rivals. The issue which Facebook might face is that it doesn’t collect revenue in the same way as those who are challenging the Marketplace.

Traditionally, the ‘seller’ is charged by the media outlet to engage the ‘buyers’ though Facebook has undermined this transaction. There is no charge to sellers to list products, with revenues being driven through sponsored listings and promotions embedded through the search results. Facebook is using its traditional ‘walled garden’ approach, creating an experience for users but charging companies for the pleasure of engagement.

Should the European Commission come to the consumer this is an abuse of market behaviour, rather than the evolution of commerce as we progress towards the digital economy, Facebook’s pursuit of new revenues by expanding the ‘walled garden’ model to new segments could be threatened.

Although revenues are looking healthy for the moment, a glass ceiling will be hit unless Facebook can offer new experiences. Advertising revenues have grown in-line with the userbase of the platforms, though there are only a finite number of users across the world. Facebook has to think of new ways to keep people on the platforms for longer, and for new reasons. Marketplace has been a success, though this is a threat to all diversification not just eCommerce.

From a revenue perspective, these new initiatives do seem to be aiding growth. Total revenues for the three-month period ending September 30 stood at $17.383 billion, a year-on-year increase of 28%, while net income was $6.091 billion, up 19%.

Daily actives users and monthly active users are also on the up, 9% and 8%, with the team now claiming 2.2 billion people now use Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Messenger on a daily basis.

Facebook is a business which is certainly facing risks, though the potential to diversify is quite remarkable. New elements such as the Marketplace or the dating features being tested, are re-engaging users at a time when the social media giant seemed to have lost its way. However, this progress could be undermined should European antitrust authorities believe the Facebook disruption is only possible because of an unfair advantage.

US Senators suspect TikTok could be a national security threat

Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer have written to the Intelligence Community to request a national security investigation into social media video app TikTok.

Although TikTok has been paid particular attention in the request, the duo is asking other China-based applications with a significant US presence are also given some consideration. The move could represent an expansion of the aggression towards China and strain trade-talks between the two parties further.

“We write to express our concerns about TikTok, a short-form video application, and the national security risks posed by its growing use in the United States,” the pair said in the letter to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.

“TikTok’s terms of service and privacy policies describe how it collects data from its users and their devices, including user content and communications, IP address, location-related data, device identifiers, cookies, metadata, and other sensitive personal information. While the company has stated that TikTok does not operate in China and stores US user data in the US, ByteDance is still required to adhere to the laws of China.”

The comments above pay homage to a Chinese law which requires Chinese companies to comply with requests from the Government and its intelligence agencies. While the law also states Chinese companies can refuse the request if it contradicts with the domestic laws in which the company operates, it is clear the US and others do not believe this clause holds much credibility or weight.

After being launched in 2017 by ByteDance, TikTok has proven to be a very successful additional to the social media scene. The app boasts more than 110 million downloads in the US alone and became the world’s most downloaded app on Apple’s App Store in the first half of 2018.

While this is the first-time politicians have waded into the waters, there has been criticism of TikTok from other avenues. US think tank Peterson Institute for International Economics described TikTok as a ‘Huawei-sized problem’, posing a national security threat to ‘the West’. The thinking here seems to be that the app collects location and biometric data and is unable to deny requests from the Chinese Government.

TikTok has proven to be an immense success in its short life, though the attention from security agencies in the US is an ominous sign. Alongside the shadow of doubt which will be cast on the app in the eyes of US citizens, it is not unfeasible for some sort of restrictions to be placed on the business.