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Technology experts are skeptical of President Trump’s call for Internet companies to work with law enforcement and the Justice Department to develop tools to detect mass shootings before they even happen.
They say the Trump administration has an especially bad track record on addressing violence on social media — and has ignored major opportunities to take action on this front both at home and with other countries. Instead, they lament, Trump’s tech policy focus has been heavily centered on accusing Big Tech of anti-conservative bias– accusations the companies deny and have not been backed by substantial evidence.
Trump promised that the “perils of the Internet and social media cannot be ignored and they will not be ignored,” after this weekend’s shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The president spent more time blaming the Internet and social media for the shootings than racism, hatred or access to guns, according to an analysis by my colleague Philip Bump.
While Trump is now promising to “shine a light” on the dark corners of the internet, experts note that the administration did not even sign onto the Christchuch call, a key international agreement to curb violent extremism online after the New Zealand shootings. Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amazon and Microsoft all signed onto the May agreement to work closely with each other and the 18 participating governments to stop their platforms from fostering terrorism. The United Kingdom, Canada and France were among those who did sign on.
And violent speech on social media “wasn’t even mentioned” as the White House hosted a high-profile social media summit last month, said Clint Watts, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation special agent now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The summit’s circus-like atmosphere seemed designed to amplify conservatives’ accusations of bias against the platforms.
Trump’s call for social media companies to take a greater role in searching for possible predictors of violent acts could also be difficult to square with his charges that Big Tech is already going overboard in the effort to moderate accounts, Watts also points out.
One primary reason that social media companies do remove or limit the reach of accounts is due to concerns the speech could lead to violence, he said.
“What the administration is saying is constantly at odds with itself,” Watts said in an interview. “If you’re the main social media platforms, what do you do?”
Case in point: The White House expressed concerns that signing the Christchuch call could run afoul of the First Amendment despite his personal crusade to regulate companies for perceived bias against conservatives. Now, he’s opening the door to more drastic moderation from the companies themselves.
It also was unclear from Trump’s brief comments how the potential work with the department would differ from what technology companies already do to combat violent extremism on their platforms.
Michael Beckerman, the chief executive of the Internet Association, said the tech industry is committed to continue working with law enforcement on these issues.
“Violent and terroristic speech violate IA member company policies and have no place either online or in our society. IA members work everyday to find dangerous content and remove it from their platforms,” said Beckerman, whose trade group represents some of the large technology companies including Google and Facebook in Washington. “IA members are committed to continuing to work with law enforcement, stakeholders, and policymakers to make their platforms safer, and to prevent people from using their services as a vehicle for disseminating violent, hateful content.”
Facebook, Google’s YouTube and Twitter declined to comment on the record, but the companies all have policies that state they cooperate with law enforcement.
The mainstream technology platforms have been stepping up their efforts to combat violence and hate speech on their platforms following broad global pressure, especially after the public backlash following the New Zealand attacks earlier this year. Still, the spotlight is only growing as the El Paso gunman is believed to have posted a white nationalist manifesto to 8chan. It was the third mass shooting this year to begin with a hateful screed on the website.
Watts says the rise of fringe platforms like 8chan is actually evidence that the tech companies’ efforts to moderate content have been working, and extremists have to turn to alternative platforms where less content moderation occurs.
Watts also was skeptical that the Justice Department has the resources and and expertise to conduct research on the rise of domestic terrorism on social media.
Jessica González, co-founder of Change The Terms, a coalition of civil rights groups focused on fighting the spread of hate speech on social media, said the government can’t be trusted to take on this issue, either — and warned new tools they develop could be “dangerous” and risk infringing on free speech. It should be up to the companies to do even more to effectively enforce their policies and invest in better content moderation, González argues.
González also criticized Trump’s own attacks on immigrants on social media as “part of the problem.”
“I’m not interested in seeing predictive policing online,” González said. “I’m interested in seeing him ramp down his rhetoric online.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: The fate of 8chan, the forum used by the El Paso accused shooter to post his manifesto, has brought attention to “the role played by the Internet’s hidden infrastructure in deciding what ideas and content can circulate online,” my colleague Drew Harwell reports. The ordeal shows how the companies that provide the backbone to the Internet are having to decide about weighing in on questions of content moderation.
Cloudflare, a company that protects websites from cyberattacks, terminated services for 8chan Sunday night, citing the platform’s role in both the El Paso shooting as well as two other mass shootings to take place this year. The company then moved to rival BitMitigate, the platform that took on the Daily Stormer after Cloudflare terminated the neo-Nazi site in 2017. “But by Monday afternoon, both 8chan and the Daily Stormer plunged into darkness when Voxility, a tech firm that has leased servers to BitMitigate, announced that it would no longer provide those services,” Drew reported.
8chan, which was called a terrorist haven by its own founder, “crossed [a] line,” Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince wrote in a blog post explaining the company’s decision. But Prince added that the “law may need additional remedies” to prevent companies such as his from having to make moderation decisions in the first place. “We continue to feel incredibly uncomfortable about playing the role of content arbiter and do not plan to exercise it often.”
NIBBLES: Trump warned on Twitter on Monday morning that his administration is “watching Google very closely” for signs that the company is taking actions that could hinder his path to retake the White House in 2020. Trump’s tweets followed a former Google employee’s allegations in a Fox News interview that the search giant’s executives promised to make sure that Trump “loses in 2020” in the wake of his 2016 victory.
Trump said the remarks from the former Google employee, Kevin Cernekee, cast doubt on promises he said that Google chief executive Sundar Pichai made to him during a recent visit to the Oval Office. From his Twitter:
….in 2020.” Lou Dobbs stated that this is a fraud on the American public. @peterschweizer stated with certainty that they suppressed negative stories on Hillary Clinton, and boosted negative stories on Donald Ttump. All very illegal. We are watching Google very closely!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 6, 2019
Trump also repeated accusations that the Mountain View, Calif., company is biased against conservatives. Google denied allegations of bias, telling The Tech 202 in a statement: “The statements made by this disgruntled former employee are absolutely false. We go to great lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in ways that don’t take political leanings into account. Distorting results for political purposes would harm our business and go against our mission of providing helpful content to all of our users.”
Cernekee, the former Google engineer who appeared on Fox News, says he was fired from the company for being an outspoken conservative and has filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. Google disputed this too: “We enforce our workplace policies without regard to political viewpoint. Lively debate is a hallmark of Google’s workplace culture; harassment, discrimination, and the unauthorized access and theft of confidential company information is not.”
BYTES: Amazon’s practice of tacitly encouraging sellers to lower their prices or risk being lowered in search results could come under scrutiny from Congress and the Federal Trade Commission as lawmakers pursue antitrust inquiries into the company, Bloomberg News’s Spencer Soper reports. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
Independent sellers that operate on Amazon often also list on other platforms including Walmart and eBay. But if the prices on those sites creep below the price for the same item on Amazon, merchants get a price alert with warnings that they may lose prominence in search results and other privileges that help sellers lock down a sale.
The price alerts, first developed in response to a European investigation into a former Amazon policy that explicitly required merchants to offer their best prices, were expanded to U.S. sellers earlier this year after calls to break up the company increased. But the feature could endure new scrutiny from regulators in the United States, where sellers say the company’s dominance online means they’re forced to comply or lose significant business.
“If regulators can prove that this conduct is causing merchants to raise prices on other platforms, Amazon loses the argument that their policies are all about giving everyone lower prices,” Michael Kades, a former FTC attorney and antitrust researcher, told Bloomberg.
A group of Democratic senators led by Sherrod Brown (Ohio) is demanding that Google convert its more than 120,000 contract and temporary workers into full-time employees, according to a letter they sent to Google CEO Pichai released on Monday. The senators, including 2020 hopefuls Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and Kamala D. Harris (Calif), want Google to move employees into full-time status after six months in addition to giving them equal wages and benefits as full-time employees.
“Adopting these policies will extend the economic security of Google employment to all individuals who contribute to the company’s success,” Brown wrote. The letter cites a May investigation by the New York Times’s Daisuke Wakabayashi detailing the unequal working conditions faced by the temporary employees at the company. Google contractors told Wakabayashi that they worried that reporting sexual harassment and discrimination would cost them their employment because of their tenuous job status.
Eileen Naughton, Google’s vice president of people operations, responded to the letter that Google disagreed “with any suggestion that Google misuses independent contractors or temporary workers, the Times reports.
Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg also recently targeted the employment practices of Google, which relies on a staff of more than 50 percent contractors, in his plan to address the needs of gig workers.
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