SOPHIA SANTOS October 27, 2019
The Technology 202: Democrat drafting bill to stop Facebook from profiting off politicians' ads containing falsehoods

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Rep. David Cicilline is working on legislation targeting Facebook’s policy of allowing politicians to lie in ads, insisting that Congress has a “responsibility to prohibit” the social media giant from making money off information it knows to be false. 

The Rhode Island Democrat at the helm of the House antitrust investigation into Big Tech says it’s “not acceptable” for Facebook to insist it won’t fact-check or remove politicians’ ads even when they contain false information.

It is “shocking,” Cicilline said in an interview, that the company sees “no responsibility in ensuring that that platform is not being used to completely mislead or lie to the American people on the most critical issues of the day.” He’s particularly concerned about the broad reach of Facebook’s platform, which could allow such falsehoods to reach its billions of users. 

Legislation would mark a significant escalation in Democrats’ criticism of Facebook’s policy, which has been building since the company’s decision to allow President Trump to run an ad with false claims about former vice president Joe Biden.

It’s also a signal that Democrats were not satisfied with CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s defense on the issue that emerged as a key point of contention during his six-hour grilling on Capitol Hill earlier this week. 

Zuckerberg, whose company has long insisted it does not want to be a referee for political speech, told lawmakers that Facebook has little business incentive to not fact-check politicians’ ads. “From a business perspective, the very small percent of our business that is made up of political ads does not come anywhere close to justifying the controversy that this incurs for our company,” Zuckerberg said. “So this really is not about money. This is on principle, I believe in giving people a voice.” 

Any attempt by Congress to regulate Facebook’s approach to political ads is likely to spark a debate about what government’s role should be in shaping a private company’s decisions, especially because Zuckerberg has sought to position the policy as a matter of free speech.

Cicilline is anticipating that pushback, but he tells me the First Amendment is “not a basis” to allow Facebook to profit off lies. “Rather than being a First Amendment issue, it’s really a kind of revenue generation issue for a business,” he said.

But Republicans may not agree. Rep. Garland “Andy” Barr (R-Ky.) commended Zuckerberg’s position on ads in this week’s hearing. “I do find it highly troubling that politicians are trying to bully you to be a fact checker and to be the speech police especially in politics at the core of the First Amendment,” Barr said during the hearing. 

Cicilline said that any policy should err on the side of caution when it comes to information that’s subject to interpretation or an open question. But he draws the line at statements that are definitively false. He took issue with Zuckerberg telling Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) that she “probably” could run ads that falsely claimed Republicans were supporting the Green New Deal. That is a verifiable fact, he says: Either Republicans are, or they’re not. 

Cicilline tells me his plans for a bill are in the early stages, and that his staff is researching how the law approaches false information in ads.

“There are a number of places in our economy and in our communications system where this kind of advertisement is prohibited,” Cicilline said. “Sometimes it’s by consumer protections, sometimes it’s by [Federal Communications Commission] regulations.”


BITS: Facebook is pushing back into news in a big way through paid partnerships with some media outlets, my colleague Rachel Siegel reports. The move could allow the social network to better compete with Apple and Google’s news offerings, even as Facebook faces intense scrutiny for its handling of disinformation. 

“This is a big moment for our relationship with the news industry,” said Campbell Brown, Facebook’s vice president for global news partnerships and a former CNN journalist, told Rachel. “I know people have doubted us and our commitment to journalism. But today with this launch, we signal that we want to be a champion for great reporting.”

Starting today, the company is rolling out its specialized “News” tab to more than 200,000 people in the United States — and a greater rollout is expected next year.

News tab will initially include about 200 news organizations, including The Washington Post, News Corp., BuzzFeed News, Business Insider, Bloomberg, Fox News, NBCUniversal, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times. Facebook will pay some of those outlets, including The Post, for their content. 

 “Facebook’s plan to pay at least some of the participating outlets for their content is in part intended to assuage complaints that tech platforms have siphoned off major revenue streams from news outlets — classified advertising is one example — while paying nothing for the articles and images that appeared on the site,” Rachel writes. “Scores of news outlets have closed and hundreds more are struggling with falling revenue and declining readership while tech platforms have seen their profits boom.”

The tech industry’s impact on the news business was the subject of the first hearing as part of the House investigation into the tech industry’s power, and Cicilline says it’s a key focus of the subcommittee’s ongoing work. Cicilline, who has introduced legislation to allow news outlets to collectively bargain with the tech companies, said Facebook’s new initiative is a “modest recognition of a very large problem.”

“It’s a teeny tiny response to it, it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out and whether they actually implement it and sustain it,” Cicilline said. “But I think it does nothing to respond to that kind of really systemic problem that this current business model presents for local news.” 

NIBBLES: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) wrote a letter asking U.S. intelligence officials to assess whether Chinese-owned social media company TikTok poses a threat to national security, my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report. They’re concerned that the increasingly popular app could be a “potential target of foreign influence campaigns like those carried out during the 2016 election on U.S.-based social media platforms.” 

Schumer and Cotton are just the latest lawmakers to express concerns that the Chinese-owned company’s U.S. operations may be influenced by the Chinese government. The lawmakers questioned whether Chinese law could compel the company to share the locations and other data of U.S. users or to “support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.” Researchers have raised concerns that the app continues to censor content critical of the Chinese government in the United States, Tony and Drew reported earlier this year.

“We are not influenced by any foreign government, including the Chinese government,” TikTok responded in a blog post yesterday. The company said that all U.S. user data is stored in the United States and Singapore and is not subject to Chinese law. The company also says it has never been asked to remove any content by the Chinese government and “would not do so if asked.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) raised similar national security concerns earlier this month when he called for the Treasury Department to review the acquisition of U.S.-based by ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company.

BYTES: A popular algorithm used to guide medical care for ill patients vastly underestimates the health needs of black patients, according to a recent study, my colleague Carolyn Y. Johnson reports. The findings highlight the ubiquity of racial biases in the algorithms that help shape even the most critical areas of our lives.

While the study focused on just one tool from a company called Optum, bias probably exists in tools across the private and public sectors that help manage the health care of more than 200 million Americans, researchers reported in the journal Science.

“It’s truly inconceivable to me that anyone else’s algorithm doesn’t suffer from this,” said Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of computation and behavioral science at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, who oversaw the research. “I’m hopeful that this causes the entire industry to say, ‘Oh, my, we’ve got to fix this.’ ”

Optum is working on a fix that could more than double the number of black patients the algorithm can identify, but it’s hard to say how many algorithms for medical care have similar issues since their inner workings are often shielded from researchers. Some lawmakers have even introduced legislation to force companies to take accountability for such biases — intentional or not. Many experts also believe the onus to find biases should be on technologists, not users.

“I am struck by how many people still think that racism always has to be intentional and fueled by malice,” Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American studies at Princeton University, told Carolyn. “They don’t want to admit the racist effects of technology unless they can pinpoint the bigoted boogeyman behind the screen.”


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The Technology 202: Democrat drafting bill to stop Facebook from profiting off politicians' ads containing falsehoods

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Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey shaded Zuckerberg at the Twitter News Summit yesterday, Sarah Frier and Kurt Wagner report. He called Zuckerberg’s recent speech at Georgetown on free speech a “revisionist history” of the company’s founding.

“There’s some amount of revisionist history in all his storytelling,” Dorsey said of Zuckerberg’s recent description of how Facebook was founded. “It takes away from the authenticity and the genuineness of what we’re trying to do.”

Dorsey also criticized Salesforce’s CEO Marc Benioff for not being “genuine” in his recent criticisms of social media.

But that didn’t stop Dorsey from asking his users to stop dunking one each other, The Hill’s Mike Demarest reported:


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