A brutal year: how ‘techlash’ caught up with Facebook, Google and Amazon

From The Guardian Online:

What goes up must come down, and in 2019, gravity reasserted itself for the tech industry.

After years of relatively unchecked growth, the tech industry found itself on the receiving end of increased scrutiny from lawmakers and the public and attacks from its own employees.

Facebook and Instagram ads were linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.
Social Media, Fake News, and the hijacking of democracy by reactionary forces at home and from abroad.

“The whole year has been brutal for tech companies,” said Peter Yared, chief executive officer and founder of data compliance firm InCountry. “The techlash we have seen in the rest of the world is just now catching up in the US – it’s been a long time coming.”

From new privacy legislation to internal strife, here are some of the major hurdles the tech industry has faced in the past year.

As the 2020 presidential race intensified, tech companies faced a growing backlash over the campaign-related content they allow on their platforms.Advertisement

In October, Facebook quietly revised its policy banning false claims in advertising to exempt politicians, drawing fierce criticism from users, misinformation watchdogs, and politicians. Following the change in policy, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took out advertisements on Facebook purposely making false statements to draw attention to the policy.

Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, over the policy change in a congressional hearing in October. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of factchecking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, as Zuckerberg struggled to answer. “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?”

Meanwhile, other tech companies took the opposite stance.TikTok, whose reported 500 million users makes it one of Facebook’s largest rivals, made clear in a blogpost in October it would not be hosting any political advertisements.

And Facebook rival Twitter banned almost all political advertising in October. Google stated in November it would no longer allow political advertisers to target voters based on their political affiliations.

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Facebook Halts Advertising Targeting Cited in Bias Complaints and Lawsuits

From today’s New York Times:

After years of criticism, Facebook announced on Tuesday that it would stop allowing advertisers in key categories to show their messages only to people of a certain race, gender or age group.

The company said that anyone advertising housing, jobs or credit — three areas where federal law prohibits discrimination in ads — would no longer have the option of explicitly aiming ads at people on the basis of those characteristics.

The changes are part of a settlement with groups that have sued Facebook over these practices in recent years, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Communications Workers of America. They also cover advertising on Instagram and Messenger, which Facebook owns.

“We think this settlement is historic and will go a long way toward making sure that these types of discriminatory practices can’t happen,” Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer, said in an interview.

The company said it planned to carry out the changes by the end of the year and would pay less than $5 million to settle five lawsuits brought by the groups.

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The Cambridge Analytica-Facebook Scandal and the Coming Data Bust

From today’s New York Times:

The queasy truth at the heart of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, which is so far the company’s defining disgrace of 2018, is that its genesis became scandalous only in retrospect. The series of events that now implicate Facebook began in 2014, in plain view, with a listing on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, where users can complete small tasks for commensurately modest sums of cash. In exchange for installing a Facebook app and completing a survey — in the process granting the app access to parts of your Facebook profile — you would get around a dollar. Maybe two.

This was a great deal, at least by the standards of the time. Facebook users were then accustomed to granting apps permission to see their personal data in exchange for much less. It was the tail end of a Facebook era defined by connected apps: games like FarmVille, Candy Crush and Words With Friends; apps that broadcast your extra-Facebook activities, like Spotify and Pinterest; and apps that were almost explicitly about gathering as much useful data as possible from users, like TripAdvisor’s Cities I’ve Visited app, which let you share a digital pushpin map with your friends.

Most of these apps, when installed, demanded permission to access “your profile info,” which could include things like your activity, birthday, relationship status, interests, religious and political views, likes, education and work history. They could also collect information about users’ friends, multiplying their reach. In providing a marketplace for such apps, Facebook made it easy for users to extend their extraordinarily intimate relationship with the site to thousands of third-party developers. One of them turned out to be connected to Cambridge Analytica, which was using the data for right-wing political campaigns — a fact that was lucidly and widely reported as early as 2015 but promptly lost in the roiling insanity of primary season. (As of Facebook’s most recent admission, data was collected on as many as 87 million users.)

Not that more exposure in the news cycle would have mattered much back then. It was self-evidently absurd to grant a virtual-farming game access to your religious views, but that’s just how the platform worked at the time, and so we got used to it, much in the same way we got used to conducting our private lives on any other corporate platform. (When Gmail first started in 2004, the fact that it placed ads based on the contents of users’ emails was considered invasive. That feeling passed; Google continued scanning consumer email until 2017, and Gmail now has more than a billion users.) Still, these individually trivial decisions never gave us cause to confront just how much we had come to trust Facebook.

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Facebook Says Cambridge Analytica Harvested Data of Up to 87 Million Users

From today’s New York Times:

Facebook on Wednesday said that the data of up to 87 million users may have been improperly shared with a political consulting firm connected to President Trump during the 2016 election — a figure far higher than the estimate of 50 million that had been widely cited since the leak was reported last month.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, also announced that Facebook would offer all of its users the same tools and controls required under European privacy rules. The European rules, which go into effect next month, give people more control over how companies use their digital data.

Facebook had not previously disclosed how many accounts had been harvested by Cambridge Analytica, the firm connected to the Trump campaign. It has also been reluctant to disclose how it was used by Russian-backed actors to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Among Facebook’s acknowledgments on Wednesday was the disclosure of a vulnerability in its search and account recovery functions that it said could have exposed “most” of its 2 billion users to having their public profile information harvested.

The new effort to appear more transparent about the data leaks — including a rare question-and-answer session with Mr. Zuckerberg and reporters — came just before Mr. Zuckerberg’s expected testimony next week on Capitol Hill, where he will most likely face criticism over how the company collects and shares the personal data of its users. Sheryl Sandberg, Mr. Zuckerberg’s top deputy, has several national television interviews scheduled for later this week.

The company said that on Monday it would start telling users whether their information may have been shared with Cambridge Analytica.

Andy Stone, a spokesman for Facebook in Washington, said the 87 million figure was an estimate of the total number of users whose data could have been acquired by Cambridge Analytica. He said that the estimate was calculated by adding up all the friends of the people who had logged into the Facebook app from which Cambridge Analytica collected profile data.

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Cambridge Analytica CEO Suspended, Involved in Hacking American Elections

From National Public Radio News:

Cambridge Analytica has suspended its CEO, Alexander Nix. The London-based company, which is accused of using data from 50 million Facebook users to influence the 2016 presidential campaign, announced the move Tuesday afternoon — one day after the release of a video that appears to show Nix acknowledging the firm’s engagement in political dirty tricks.

“In the view of the Board, Mr. Nix’s recent comments secretly recorded by Channel 4 and other allegations do not represent the values or operations of the firm,” the company’s board of directors said in a statement, “and his suspension reflects the seriousness with which we view this violation.”

The board said it is replacing Nix with Alexander Tayler in the interim as an independent investigation is conducted.

Also, the British government says it has opened an investigation of its own, seeking a warrant to search databases and servers belonging to the company. U.K. Information Minister Elizabeth Denham had demanded access to Cambridge Analytica’s databases by Monday following reports that the company improperly mined user data from Facebook to target potential voters.

However, after the firm missed the deadline, Denham told Britain’s Channel 4: “I’ll be applying to the court for a warrant.”

Cambridge Analytica says it used legal means to obtain the data and did not violate Facebook’s terms of service. Facebook has promised “a comprehensive internal and external review.”

Denham’s statement follows the latest revelation in the British media about the firm co-founded by former White House adviser Steve Bannon and heavyweight Republican donor Robert Mercer. The company is an offshoot of behavioral research and strategic communications company SCL Group with ties to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign.

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