Opinion | What Years of Emails and Texts Reveal About Your Friendly Tech Companies – By Tim Wu – The New York Times

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Mr. Wu is the author of “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age.”

Credit…Denis Charlet/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“The spectacle of the chief executives of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google testifying before Congress last week made for good TV drama. Yet the theatrics of the showdown distracted from the real payoff of the hearings: the accompanying cache of subpoenaed emails and texts from the past decade and a half. These documents provide compelling evidence — long rumored but seldom established — that the companies, especially Facebook and Amazon, in their rise to dominance did not always play by the rules and apparently violated antitrust laws.

Both public opinion and American law distinguish between two kinds of dominant company. The first is the monopoly fairly held: a corporation like Ford Motor that achieves dominance by virtue of its incomparable greatness. The second, its evil doppelgänger, is the company that achieves dominance unfairly — for instance, by suffocating or absorbing would-be challengers.

The Big Tech companies insist that their rise to power has been the first story, a saga of ingenuity and courage, and that their market dominance is a byproduct of continued excellence. They may be giants, the story goes, but they are friendly giants. Their immense size and power is simply what is necessary to offer users the best possible services.

The subpoenaed documents destroy that narrative. No one can deny that these are well-run companies, loaded with talent, and that each at some point offered something great. But it appears that without illegal maneuvers — without, above all, the anticompetitive buying of potential rivals — there might be no Big Tech, but rather a much wider array of smaller, better, more specialized tech companies.”

Editorial | How to Hold Big Tech’s Feet to the Fire – The New York Times

Here are some questions subcommittee members ought to consider:

The subcommittee will probably focus on the company’s relationship with third-party merchants that use the site to sell directly to consumers. Such merchants represent about 60 percent of Amazon’s sales. The company also operates an enormous shipping network, an advertising sales business and a cloud computing service that may raise alarms among regulators. Amazon’s trove of sales data gives it incredibly detailed insights into both customers and merchants.

  • After an investigation by German regulators, Amazon vowed last year to overhaul its contracts with third-party merchants. Did the company adequately do so? Does Amazon have contracts that require lower prices than other retailers’? Does it require exclusivity, meaning merchants cannot offer their goods on other sellers’ websites?

  • An Amazon lawyer told the panel, “We don’t use individual seller data directly to compete” with other businesses on Amazon’s site. But a Wall Street Journal report showed evidence that Amazon does just that, helping it create tailored private-label products that undercut competitors. What is the extent of Amazon’s use of seller data?

  • Amazon offers its sellers warehousing and shipping services worldwide. What does it seek in return, beyond a commission? Does Amazon use sales data from small merchants to source new products or to help larger sellers succeed, forcing out smaller ones?

  • In 2010, Amazon dropped diaper prices well below profitability, in a successful effort to force a competitor, Diapers.com, into acquisition talks. Amazon has since shuttered that site. Does Amazon view such actions as exclusionary? And is the company engaged in other such pricing wars in order to force a competitor to sell?

  • A Washington Post investigation showed that Amazon pushes consumers toward its private-label products even when they appear to want to buy name brands. Does Amazon favor its own products in consumers’ searches? Does it require fees or advertising purchases from merchants or brands to ensure their products rise to the top of searches?

While Apple is best known for its iPhones and laptops, it also has healthy competition from companies like Samsung and Lenovo in hardware sales. As a result, Mr. Cook is most likely to be asked about the structure of Apple’s App Store, where millions of software developers offer their apps for download.

  • Why does Apple permit only its own app store on iPhones?

  • Developers are generally required to offer their in-app purchases and paid subscriptions through Apple’s App Store, rather than on their own websites, where they may avoid Apple’s commissions. Apple has threatened to remove apps that don’t abide. How is this in the best interest of consumers and app developers?

  • Some app developers have alleged that Apple uses the detailed data it collects about app downloads to copy their ideas and that the company favors its own apps in searches. Is this true? If so, how does the company defend such practices?

Facebook’s aggressive acquisition strategy — including the giants Instagram and WhatsApp — makes it vulnerable to a breakup if regulators find that it was trying to rid the market of real competition.

  • Reportedly, the Federal Trade Commission had documents demonstrating Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012 in an explicit bid to stifle a competitor. Were those documents mischaracterized? How did Facebook’s buying Instagram benefit consumers, and how did it determine the $1 billion price?

  • British lawmakers released emails showing Facebook used an analytics app to collect detailed data about competitors in order to snuff them out. That helped Facebook decide to buy WhatsApp for $19 billion, the emails show. Couldn’t that be called an abuse of market power? Does Facebook still cull proprietary data on rivals in order to protect its market leadership?

  • Advertisers can target customers on Facebook with incredible accuracy, in part because of the platform’s ability to track users’ internet browsing activity across the web. Shouldn’t users consider those terms onerous? Also, has Facebook made assurances about the privacy of customer data that it later reneged on? What assurances do consumers have that their data will remain private and not be repurposed for Facebook’s benefit?

  • According to The Wall Street Journal, Facebook quashed efforts to make its site less politically divisive because partisan content drives more use of the site, which is beneficial to its advertising business. How can suppressing opposing views for users be viewed as anything but an abuse of power?

Opinion | I Have Cancer. Now My Facebook Feed Is Full of ‘Alternative Care’ Ads. – By Anne Borden King – The New York Times

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Ms. Borden King is an advocate working to prevent the spread of medical misinformation.

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CreditCredit…Erik Carter

“Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t. Pseudoscience companies leverage Facebook’s social and supportive environment to connect their products with identities and to build communities around their products. They use influencers and patient testimonials. Some companies also recruit members through Facebook “support groups” to sell their products in pyramid schemes.

Through all this social media, patients begin to feel a sense of belonging, which makes it harder for them to question a product. Cancer patients are especially vulnerable to this stealth marketing. It’s hard to accept the loss of control that comes with a cancer diagnosis. As cancer patients, we are told where to go, how to sit and what to take. It can be painful and scary and tiring — and then all our hair falls out. During the pandemic, many of us are also isolated. Our loved ones can’t come to our appointments or even visit us in the hospital. Now, more than ever, who is there to hold our hand?”

Opinion | When a Critic Met Facebook: ‘What They’re Doing Is Gaslighting’ –  Charlie Warzel with Rashad Robinson – The New York Times

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Mr. Warzel is an Opinion writer at large.

Credit…Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images

“Facebook’s long-awaited civil rights audit is now public and it isn’t flattering. The 100-plus-page report laid bare many of the issues facing the platform — that Facebook does not fully understand how its algorithms drive hate, that anti-Muslim speech is “rampant,” that Facebook’s reforms never fix the problem — and warned the company may “driving people toward self-reinforcing echo chambers of extremism.”

The very existence of the audit is the work of civil rights and civil society activists, who’ve pressured the company for years to remove hateful content. Rashad Robinson, the head of the civil rights group Color of Change, has been one of the leaders of this push as well as one of the vocal backers of Facebook’s recent advertiser boycott. In recent months he’s met numerous times with Facebook executives, including Mark Zuckerberg, over the company’s inability to reign in bigotry and misinformation on the platform and its failure to diversify its work force.

I spoke to Mr. Robinson after his recent meeting with Mr. Zuckerberg about the audit, about whether Facebook can be reformed and about his nightmare scenarios for Election Day. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.”

Opinion | Facebook Flunks New Audit on Civil Rights and Hate Speech – By Greg Bensinger – The New York Times

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Mr. Bensinger is a member of the editorial board.

Image  Credit…Dado Ruvic/Reuters

“It’s time for Mark Zuckerberg to really start listening.

Civil rights and good government groups and users have been shouting from the rooftops for years for real change at the world’s most powerful social media company. Facebook, they say, has helped enable misinformation about the coronavirus, elections, political repression — as well as incite actual violence. Critics have long warned about President Trump’s spread of misinformation on the platform, where hate groups like white supremacists have also found a cozy home.

Far too often Mr. Zuckerberg has chosen to allow posts spewing bigotry and lies to remain on Facebook in the name of free speech. Now, a thorough and damning audit of the company, two-years in the making and solicited by Facebook, confirms those fears.

“With each success the auditors became more hopeful that Facebook would develop a more coherent and positive plan of action that demonstrated, in word and deed, the company’s commitment to civil rights,” wrote the auditors in their 100-page report, a prepublication draft of which was obtained by The New York Times. “Unfortunately, in our view Facebook’s approach to civil rights remains too reactive and piecemeal.”

“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” the auditors wrote.”

Facebook Decisions Were ‘Setbacks for Civil Rights,’ Audit Finds – By Mike Isaac – The New York Times

“SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook has not done enough to fight discrimination on its platform and has made some decisions that were “significant setbacks for civil rights,” according to a new independent audit of the company’s policies and practices.

In a 100-page prepublication report, which was obtained by The New York Times, the social network was repeatedly faulted for not having the infrastructure for handling civil rights and for prioritizing free expression on its platform over nondiscrimination. In some decisions, Facebook did not seek civil rights expertise, the auditors said, potentially setting a “terrible” precedent that could affect the November general election and other speech issues.

“Many in the civil rights community have become disheartened, frustrated and angry after years of engagement where they implored the company to do more to advance equality and fight discrimination, while also safeguarding free expression,” wrote the auditors, Laura W. Murphy and Megan Cacace, who are civil rights experts and lawyers. They said they had “vigorously advocated for more and would have liked to see the company go further to address civil rights concerns in a host of areas.”

The report, which was the culmination of two years of examination of the social network, was another blow for the Silicon Valley company. Facebook has been under pressure for allowing hate speech, misinformation and other content that can go against people’s civil rights to fester on its site. While rivals like Twitter, Snap and Reddit have all taken action in recent weeks to label, downplay or ban such content, Facebook has said it will not do so because it believes in free speech.

 

That has spurred civil rights groups to organize a “Stop Hate for Profit” campaign aimed against the social media company. More than 300 advertisers like Coca-Cola and North Face recently agreed to pause their spending on Facebook because it had failed to curtail the spread of hate speech and misinformation on its platform.

On Tuesday, civil rights leaders met with Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, and chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, with 10 demands, including appointing a civil rights executive. But those who attended said the Facebook executives did not agree to many of their requests and instead spouted “spin.”

DL: Social Media does not have to follow the same rules as newspapers, and that has to change.

What’s Facebook’s Deal With Donald Trump? – By Ben Smith -The New York Times

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“Last Nov. 20, NBC News broke the news that Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and a Facebook board member, Peter Thiel, had dined together at the White House the previous month. “It is unclear why the meeting was not made public or what Trump, Zuckerberg and Thiel discussed,” the report said.

That was it. Nothing else has emerged since. Not the date, not who arranged the menu, the venue, the seating, not the full guest list. And not whether some kind of deal got done between two of the most powerful men in the world. The news cycle moved on, and the dinner became one of the unsolved mysteries of American power.

But I was able to pry some of those details loose last week from White House officials along with current and former senior Facebook employees and people they speak to. Most said they would only talk on the condition their names not be used, since the company is not eager to call attention to Mr. Zuckerberg’s relationship with the president.

Their accounts painted a picture of an unusual gathering — something in between a high-stakes state dinner between the leaders of uneasily allied superpowers and the awkward rehearsal dinner before a marriage that has both families a little rattled.”

Opinion | Can a Facebook Oversight Board Push Back the Ocean? – By Kara Swisher – The New York Times

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Ms. Swisher covers technology and is a contributing Opinion writer.

Credit…Richard Drew/Associated Press

“So, big surprise, I have not been asked to be on Facebook’s Supreme Court of content. I was all ready to do an anti-Sherman if called: I will accept if nominated and will serve if elected.

Half of its members were finally announced on Wednesday morning, including four co-chairs, one of whom is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, a former prime minister of Denmark. She is clearly aces in terms of reputation and credibility, one of a slate of 20 members who scream global, fancy résumés, diverse and politically balanced.

Together, the independent organization, which is funded by the social media giant by a trust it cannot mess with, will judge appeals from users on material that has been taken down from the platform by the company, and it will review policy decisions that the company has submitted to the board.

The group selected so far — there are 20 more names to come — is qualified to do all that and a bag of chips. There is a former judge and vice president of the European Court of Human Rights (Andras Sajo), the former editor in chief of The Guardian (Alan Rusbridger), a Nobel Peace Prize recipient who promoted free speech in Yemen during the Arab Spring (Tawakkul Karman), a vice chancellor of the National Law School of India University (Sudhir Krishnaswamy), the former director general of the Israeli Ministry of Justice (Emi Palmor) and the leader of Africa’s Internet Without Borders (Julie Owono).

Impressively impressive no doubt, and designed to be that way, which is why it is also nonoffensively nonoffensive.

As yet, there are no loudmouths, no cranky people and, most important, no one truly affected by the dangerous side of Facebook. I asked in a press call on Wednesday morning, for example, why there were no board members like the parents of the Sandy Hook victims, who were terrorized by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on the platform until he was finally tossed off. I also asked whether we could find out who turned down an offer to be on the oversight board.”

David Lindsay:

After the 2016 election, I learned that Facebook, confronted with the fact that Russian and Republican bullies and scoundrels had promoted fake news on Facebook, and helped it go viral with trolls and bots. Facebook refused to do anything about this disastrous misuse of thier now major news platform. It became clear to me that Facebook had to be broken up and  regulated, like all news organizations.

Here is the most popular comment, which I support:

Paul Mc
Cranberry Twp, PA

If our Justice department still had an anti-trust division, worthy of the name, Facebook would have been broken up long ago, or regulated and held accountable for it’s content, as are (most) other legitimate media organizations.

6 Replies127 Recommended

Opinion | I Invented the World Wide Web. Here’s How We Can Fix It. – The New York Times

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Mr. Berners-Lee is a co-founder of the World Wide Web Foundation.

Credit…Wren McDonald

“My parents were mathematicians. My mother helped code one of the first stored-program computers — the Manchester Mark 1. They taught me that when you program a computer, what you can do is limited only by your imagination. That excitement for experimentation and change helped me build the World Wide Web.

I had hoped that 30 years from its creation, we would be using the web foremost for the purpose of serving humanity. Projects like Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap and the world of open source software are the kinds of constructive tools that I hoped would flow from the web.

However, the reality is much more complex. Communities are being ripped apart as prejudice, hate and disinformation are peddled online. Scammers use the web to steal identities, stalkers use it to harass and intimidate their victims, and bad actors subvert democracy using clever digital tactics. The use of targeted political ads in the United States’ 2020 presidential campaign and in elections elsewhere threatens once again to undermine voters’ understanding and choices.

We’re at a tipping point. How we respond to this abuse will determine whether the web lives up to its potential as a global force for good or leads us into a digital dystopia.”

“, , ,I’m introducing a new approach to overcome that stalemate — the Contract for the Web.

The Contract for the Web is a global plan of action created over the past year by activists, academics, companies, governments and citizens from across the world to make sure our online world is safe, empowering and genuinely for everyone.

The contract outlines steps to prevent the deliberate misuse of the web and our information. For example, it calls on governments to publish public data registries, so that they are no longer able to conceal from their own citizens how their data is being used. If governments are sharing our data with private companies — or buying data broker lists from them — we have a right to know and take action.”

Opinion | Facebook Isn’t Just Allowing Lies, It’s Prioritizing Them – By Tim Wu – The New York Times

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Mr. Wu is a law professor at Columbia.

Credit…Eric Thayer for The New York Times

” “First, do no harm,” a doctrine typically associated with the practice of medicine, is the right ethic when it comes to decisions surrounding Silicon Valley’s paid promotion technologies and their effects on elections and democracy. A desire to avoid harm — in particular, the spread of misinformation — is part of what persuaded Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, to announce that his company will no longer run political ads. And Twitter is not alone: LinkedIn, Pinterest, Microsoft and Twitch also refuse political ads, while Google accepts them in some states but not others.

Facebook is now the outlier, and it is increasingly hard to understand why it is insisting on accepting not only political advertising, but even deliberate and malicious lies if they are in the form of paid advertisements. Given how much can go wrong — and has gone wrong — the question everyone is asking is: Why does Facebook think it needs to be in this game? Naïveté is at this point the most flattering explanation.

It isn’t, as some think, just about making money, for as a revenue source, the money at stake is minor. But the money does matter, in a different way. Paying for promotion is how, on social media, some speakers gain priority over others. This creates an advantage unrelated to actual popularity. Paired with the freedom to lie, the effect is to give political lies and paid misinformation campaigns a twisted advantage over other forms of election speech (like “the news.”) Even as Facebook’s “integrity” teams try to stamp out other forms of deception, paid promotions gain access to the full power of Facebook’s tools of microtargeting, its machine learning and its unrivaled collection of private information, all to maximize the influence of blatant falsehoods. What could possibly go wrong?

If the idea of prioritizing lies over truth doesn’t sound very appealing, Facebook’s defenses of its policy are almost their own misinformation campaign. Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs and communications, has suggested that Facebook sees itself as providing the “tennis court” where politicians play the game of politics. But tennis actually has strict rules; Facebook has embraced, instead, the norms of a fighting cage. More important, Mr. Clegg is hiding the more fundamental question: Who ever said Facebook needed be the tennis court in the first place?”