Earlier this week, in discussing Facebook’s settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over privacy violations, I lamented that the United States is governing technology platforms through fines rather than laws. Even if settlements like these satiate the public demand for accountability — and it’s not clear that this one will — they change none of the underlying conditions that enable companies to violate our privacy in the first place.
For that, you need laws — and so, let’s check in on three laws now under consideration.
One, today there was a flurry of activity surrounding potential privacy legislation in the Senate. A push for national privacy legislation began after California passed its own privacy law last year, modeled in part on Europe’s General Data Protection Legislation, and tech lobbyists hope to push through a national law to prevent a patchwork of them from developing state by state. But it faltered when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said she would oppose any legislation that overrides state law.
Rebecca Kern reported on the current state of the play in the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas. The peg for this story is that Democrats have a new draft framework for privacy legislation. They want individuals to be able to sue tech platforms for misusing their data — a so-called “private right of action.” Republicans are opposed.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) developed the draft framework, which the sources said also includes data security provisions, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both chambers work on broad privacy legislation. The move may complicate the chances that the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will advance any privacy bill this year.
“We’re not going to have a private right of action,” committee chairman Roger Wicker(R-Miss.) told reporters. “It’s totally a non-starter.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) is pushing what he calls the SMART Act — an effort to ban a variety of common growth and engagement features, some of which are arguably the lifeblood of the targeted products. Emily Stewart highlights some of the bill’s requirements at Vox:
Banning infinite scroll, auto refill, and badges and awards users get for engagement, except for in certain circumstances — such as music streaming or badges that “substantially increase” access to new services or functions, like giving a person access to a premium version of a product.
Requiring social media platforms to include “natural stopping points” for users, which would basically end scrolling after a certain amount of content.
Requiring platforms to make it a neutral process for users to accept or deny consent terms — meaning accept and decline boxes would have to look the same.
Requiring social media companies to make it easier for users to track the amount of time they spend on their platforms.
Automatically limiting the time users can spend on a platform across all devices to 30 minutes a day. Users would be able change the limits, but they would have to do so every month.
It’s easy to dismiss the bill as a nonstarter. It’s an effort to radically alter a sector of the economy using limitations that look, at least on their surface, fairly arbitrary. I asked some Silicon Valley types about the bill last night at a dinner, and they more or less howled in disbelief that such a law like this could be proposed.
Among other things, it’s just very broad. As my colleague Adi Robertson points out, Hawley’s bill would place restrictions on any site that includes user-generated content:
Unlike Mark Warner’s DETOUR dark-patterns act, Hawley doesn’t have an equivalent to “Large Online Operaters” — i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. It essentially treats anything where people talk to each other on the internet as an evil time-suck.
I’m sympathetic to that criticism, and suspect Hawley’s bill will not become law. Some of its provisions seem like gifts to other industries. Limit Americans to 30 minutes a day on social media, for example, and I imagine they’ll spend a great deal of their newfound time rediscovering television.
And yet I can’t help but wondering what might happen if at least some of its provisions were implemented. Would teens be happier if the United States outlawed Snapchat streaks, as this bill would do? Would YouTube recruit fewer people into the far right if autoplay video were illegal?
It seems valuable as a thought experiment, at least.
In the meantime, another bill under consideration has proposed a different type of experiment. Here’s Stewart again:
Another proposed law in Congress, the CAMRA Act, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), is trying to promote a data-driven approach to investigating the idea of social media addiction. The legislation would authorize the National Institutes of Health to head a research program on the effects of technology and the media on children. The legislation has five cosponsors, including three Republicans. Hawley’s office has not yet signed onto the bill and said they are reviewing the legislation.
Research on the effects of social media to date has been limited, and its conclusions often contradictory. It’s good to see bipartisan support for an effort to bolster that research, and generate data that might someday lead to better regulations. As it stands now, that day seems very far away. But I suppose we have to start somewhere.
I don’t really have much to add to this story beyond a long sigh. Betsy Woodruff and Kevin Poulsen:
Twitter has suspended a conspiracy-peddling account amplified by President Donald Trump, The Daily Beast has confirmed. Trump retweeted the account, which used the display name “LYNN THOMAS” and the handle @LYNNTHO06607841, on Tuesday afternoon. By early Tuesday evening, the account had been suspended.
A source familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast that the account was suspended for violating the Twitter rule that bars users from using multiple accounts to artificially amplify or disrupt conversations.
The tweet that Trump retweeted include a bold graphic saying, “DEMOCRATS ARE THE TRUE ENEMIES OF AMERICA!”
Rani Molla and Shirin Ghaffary talk to Googlers about their political donations:
In interviews with Recode, Google employees (mostly engineers who work on everything from Android to virtual reality) who donated to Sanders and Warren said that breaking up Google could help consumers and spur more tech innovation by allowing for more competition from upstarts. Some even said they thought regulation could force Google itself to return to its startup roots, recreating the bootstrapped work culture that they say enabled the company’s initial success. (Google executives don’t exactly agree.)
Their support for candidates who are critical of Big Tech seems to reflect a broader movement among corporate tech employees who have begun demanding more ethical behavior and policies from their companies. In the past year, many tech employees, particularly at Google, have organized and protested against their own employers over concerns related to sexual harassment policies and controversial defense contracts with the US and foreign governments. In candidates like Warren and Sanders, these employees find an outside voice who similarly views major technology companies’ growing and unprecedented power with a critical lens. And for the first time, companies like Google have become major talking points in the presidential campaign.
Here’s a story I wish had gotten more attention last week:
Eight people have been killed in vigilante lynchings in Bangladesh, sparked by rumours on social media of children being kidnapped and sacrificed as offerings for the construction of a mega-bridge, police said on Wednesday.
The victims – who include two women – were targeted by angry mobs over the rumours, spread mostly on Facebook, that said human heads were required for the massive $3bn project, police chief Javed Patwary said in Dhaka. “We have analysed every single case of these eight killings. Those who were killed by lynching mobs – no one was a child kidnapper.”
Matthew Rosenberg rounds up criticism of Facbeook’s searchable ad library:
While ordinary users can look up individual ads without a problem, access to the library’s data is so plagued by bugs and technical constraints that it is effectively useless as a way to comprehensively track political advertising, according to independent researchers and two previously unreported studies on the archive’s reliability, one by the French government and the other by researchers at Mozilla, the maker of the Firefox web browser. […]
The Mozilla researchers, who provided their report to The New York Times, had originally set out to track political advertising ahead of the European elections using the application program interface, or A.P.I., that Facebook set up to provide access to the library’s data. They instead ended up documenting problems with Facebook’s library after managing to download the information they needed on only two days in a six-week span because of bugs and technical issues, all of which they reported to Facebook.
Facebook is building some sort of video streaming device to affix to your television, and Alex Heath reports that it is now approaching content platforms to integrate with it.
Alex Kantrowitz had a great story while I was on break about the man who led development of Twitter’s native retweet feature having regrets. It’s the first time we’ve heard someone from Twitter express regrets like this, which will likely remind you of the early Facebook employee agonistes of 2017:
Developer Chris Wetherell built Twitter’s retweet button. And he regrets what he did to this day.
“We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon,” Wetherell recalled thinking as he watched the first Twitter mob use the tool he created. “That’s what I think we actually did.”
Here’s another great report from my break on how Facebook found that its core app was essentially being outperformed WhatsApp and Instagram, leading to internal distress. Imagine if these were separate companies and Facebook actually had to compete against them, rather than simply shift resources around! Alex Heath has many fascinating details here:
One negative scenario for Facebook, according to the research, is that Facebook’s main blue app will eventually face such a decline as WhatsApp and Instagram grow.
Through its research, Facebook found that its two main messaging apps, WhatsApp and Messenger, were direct rivals in nearly every market. After analyzing countries with the highest populations of internet users, Facebook determined that there can only be one dominant messaging app, as most geographies have a single messaging app with more than 50% reach or widely use an open protocol like SMS texting.
Megan Farokhmanesh profiles the brave volunteer moderators who flood hashtags with cute and positive images to prevent them from being used to promote death and destruction. (See also this Brian Merchant piece on the subject.)
Tag cleaners, as they call themselves, drown out gore, harassment, and more by flooding a user’s tagged photos with pleasant images. It’s benevolent spam. The most prolific accounts are usually reposting the same images ad nauseam in quick bursts. Randomfloweracc, run by a 17-year-old named Lori, uses cartoons like Rilakkuma or Hello Kitty. Naomi, owner of cute.cleanup, is also partial to Sanrio characters and rainbows.
User kanyewestnandos — who posts the same meme of the rapper in a Nando’s — says tag cleaning offers protection that goes beyond simply reporting a malicious account. “It is harder to witch hunt the people who are posting graphic material because they can change their username,” they say. “And if they eventually end up getting reported they can make a new account.” Some photos or disrespectful memes may not violate Instagram’s rules, meaning they stay up. Another tag cleaner, a 15-year-old named Valerie, says that it’s a fast way to push images to the bottom of an account. “If you just report, it is likely that it won’t get taken down immediately and people will have enough time to save the picture and spread it, which is what we’re trying to avoid,” she says.
The brands are coming for all those impressionable young people on TikTok, Priya Rao reports:
Too Faced may have been the first to test the TikTok opportunity within the beauty landscape, but beauty brands across the board are now looking to the platform for relevance among Gen Z. According to marketing site The Business of Apps, 66% of TikTok users globally are under the age of 30, but in the U.S., that age bracket is even lower: 60% of the app’s monthly users are between the ages of 16 and 24.
In July, Sephora became the first beauty retailer to be incorporated into its nascent TikTok rewards program, which lets users “redeem points for cool prizes to [their] favorite stores” — tangential competitors Target and Walmart are also featured, but they don’t solely sell beauty. Ulta Beauty is also said to be exploring its TikTok strategy.
One of Facebook’s fact-checking partners outlines recommendations for improving the program, including adding ratings to describe content that is “unsubstantiated, “needs more context,” is humorous, or makes multiple claims within a post.
“‘Emo… but do it on TikTok’ is the new definitive Gen Z subculture,” Ryan Bassil reports:
If this is all new to you, here’s an e-boy primer, starting with how they look: their hair is styled like Leonardo DiCaprio’s as Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo, via Michael Pitt in The Dreamers. They smoke cigarettes, sometimes, for the aesthetic, but they’re as sober as an AA counsellor. They’ve been raised on Mac Demarco, The 1975 and lo-fi terrorcore-era Tyler, the Creator, but also Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez. Their vibe is the climax of all those faintly related spheres, filtered through Brockhampton’s brightly-coloured, post-One Direction world.
Clothes-wise: loads of chains. Bicycle chains, jean chains, wallet chains, coke can ring chains. They put padlocks around their necks. You could describe them as classic Camden Lock goth, were it not for the fact they seem like remarkably well-kept, happy – if a little performatively sad – young men, many of them seemingly being readied for a future in which their college tuition will be paid in full.
Nilay Patel interviews billionaire businessman Mark Cuban about the Facebook-backed cryptocurrency on The Vergecast:
CUBAN: And when you get a company like Facebook, with the power and leverage and the financial resources that they have, putting their tentacles into — not to pick on Africa, but African countries that have less stable currencies and governments — that can create issues that can lead to people dying. And so if Facebook were to say, “We’re going to start off the United States with Libra” or “We’re going to start off in the United States and Canada and Western Europe.” Fine, go for it. Let’s see what happens. But when you look to extend that into 2.2 billion users globally, the law of unintended consequences is inevitable, and most likely, it’s going to be a negative output.
And as I said in the CNBC interview, I think people will die as a result because when you start impacting a despot’s currency manipulation opportunities and their ability to tax and control what they can in their countries, that’s when despots tend to take matters into their own hands and people die.
This week on Why’d You Push That Button?, Ashley Carman and Kaitlyn Tiffany discuss Close Friends on Instagram, and interview Instagram director of product management Robby Stein about its development.
Close Friends never really feels bad — it only feels good to be included on someone’s Close Friends list. Was this intentional?
STEIN: One of the things we thought about when we were designing it was, “How do you make it feel like a really positive moment when someone sees one of these things pop up?” You actually feel like you’re getting something special. That was really fun when we started using it internally and getting closer to the final product that we launched. It was such a positive moment to come to Instagram and see these and feel like, “Wow, someone’s opening up a little bit more. They feel like I’m someone that they want to see more of their life. That’s awesome.”
Snap’s self-serve ad tool is now live, Anthony Ha reports.
Provocative idea here from Robin Sloan, and one supported by some smart people I know: why don’t we make social media slower?
Maybe… messages could diffuse without limit, but slowly. You want to reach a million people? Sure! It’s just going to take six months.
Maybe… the same algorithms that presently identify popular messages and promote them could have the opposite effect, like those circuit breakers in stock exchanges. They could be wired to the brakes instead of the gas.
I can see a future, very clearly, in which all social media platforms include mechanisms like these, as a matter of common sense and also of law.
Live by the face filter, die by the face filter:
Fans of a popular Chinese video blogger who called herself “Your Highness Qiao Biluo” have been left stunned after a technical glitch during one of her live-streams revealed her to be a middle-aged woman and not the young glamorous girl they thought her to be.
The revelation has led to discussions about standards of beauty across the country’s social media platforms.
Idea: use face filters to appear unnaturally old, so that when glitches happen all your followers are pleasantly surprised.
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your proposed limits on social media usage: email@example.com.