Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Senate Republicans, DOJ target Section 230 | Facial recognition under the spotlight | Zoom launches E2E encrypted beta

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Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

230 PROBLEMS: Senate Republicans and the Justice Department unveiled proposals Wednesday that would scale back legal protections for social media platforms targeted last month by President Trump in an executive order.

The legislative and administrative moves take aim at a portion of a 1996 law that gives internet companies immunity from lawsuits for content posted on their sites by third parties and allows them to make “good faith” efforts to moderate content.

The provision, known as Section 230, has recently come under sharp criticism from the right, with Republicans accusing Silicon Valley of abusing the legal protection to censor conservative content.

In an attempt to erode some of those protections, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would make it easier for individuals to sue platforms that carry out improper moderation policies.

The Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act, co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Braun (Ind.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.), would require companies to prove a “duty of good faith” in their content moderation in order to receive Section 230 protections.

Violating that duty would be treated as worthy of damages, entitling plaintiffs to $5,000 for each affected user, along with attorney’s fees.

The measure would apply only to “edge providers,” which the bill defines as platforms with more than 30 million users in the U.S., or 300 million globally, and with over $1.5 billion in global revenue.

The Justice Department also put forward a proposal Wednesday, urging Congress to dramatically reduce Section 230’s scope.

The proposal would deny Section 230 immunity for content dealing with child exploitation, terrorism and cyber-stalking. It also recommends stripping protections from platforms that facilitate or solicit unlawful content or activity by third parties.

The DOJ called on Congress to make other changes to the statutory language, such as removing the “otherwise objectionable” phrase that allows platforms to engage in content moderation and replacing it with “unlawful” and “promotes terrorism.”

Another proposed change would add a statutory definition of “good faith” that requires content removal be consistent with terms of service and be accompanied by a “reasonable explanation.”

Wednesday’s proposals come less than a month after Trump’s executive order and reveal how Republicans plan to go after tech companies.

Trump’s order, among other things, directs an agency within the Commerce Department to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to clarify the scope of Section 230.

The order implies that a new rule could make social media platforms liable for claims based on third-party content as well as their efforts to moderate their platforms, but does not have the legal authority to change the law passed by Congress in 1996.

A lawsuit has already been filed against the order, and many more are expected.

Read more here.

 

MICROSOFT IN HOT WATER: Microsoft repeatedly marketed its facial recognition technology to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), according to emails released by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Wednesday.

The emails, dated between September 2017 and December 2018, raise questions about the tech giant’s work with law enforcement after it promised last week not to sell facial recognition to police departments.

They show that the DEA piloted the facial recognition technology and that Microsoft hosted agency personnel at its Virginia office for demos and training.

A November 2018 email shows that the DEA did not purchase the technology at the time.

The Hill has reached out to Microsoft and the DEA for comment on their relationship and cooperation with facial recognition technology.

“It is bad enough that Microsoft tried to sell a dangerous technology to a law enforcement agency tasked with spearheading the racist drug war, but it gets worse,” Nathan Freed Wessler, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said in a statement.

“Even after belatedly promising not to sell face surveillance tech to police last week, Microsoft has refused to say whether it would sell the technology to federal agencies like the DEA. This is troubling given the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s record, but it’s even more disturbing now that Attorney General Bill Barr has reportedly expanded this very agency’s surveillance authorities, which could be abused to spy on people protesting police brutality.”

Microsoft announced last Thursday that it will maintain its ban on selling facial recognition tools to police departments until there is a federal law governing the technology, following commitments on the issue by IBM and Amazon.

Read more about the emails here.

 

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: Nationwide protests against police brutality are renewing scrutiny of facial recognition technology, prompting tech giants such as Amazon and IBM to scale back their sales of the software to law enforcement at the state and local level.

The criticism of the programs is also reigniting congressional efforts to craft federal regulations for the technology.

IBM was the first major company to make a splash on the issue, announcing in a letter to Congress last week that it will end its facial recognition business entirely.

CEO Arvind Krishna said the decision was made in part due to concerns from activists and civil rights groups that law enforcement may be using the technology to identify individuals participating in the demonstrations that have erupted across the nation following the police killing of George Floyd.

Amazon followed IBM’s lead a few days later, although the company made a much more limited commitment, saying that for the next 12 months its facial recognition technology, known as Rekognition, will not be sold to police.

Critics, however, have pointed out that Amazon did not address its sale of the technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and has actively expanded partnerships between its video doorbell system Ring and police since Floyd’s killing.

Read more about the scrutiny here.

 

QUESTIONS AND CONCERNS: Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.) sent a letter to Jeff Bezos Wednesday pressing the Amazon CEO for information about the company’s one-year moratorium on selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement.

The e-commerce giant announced last week that its facial recognition tech, Rekognition, will not be sold directly to police for the next 12 months. The announcement, which came amid rising scrutiny of the technology driven by anti-police brutality protests, immediately drew criticism.

“While I am encouraged by the direction Amazon appears to be taking on this issue, the ambiguity of the announcement raises more questions than answers,” wrote Gomez, a member of the House Oversight and Reform and Ways and Means committees.

The California lawmaker pointed out that the 102-word announcement does not say whether Amazon will continue to develop its facial recognition tech during the moratorium, whether the freeze will extend to local and federal law enforcement beyond federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement or whether it applies to current contracts with law enforcement.

Gomez included in the letter a list of questions about Rekognition, noting that many of them have been asked before but not answered “adequately.”

Read more about the letter here.

 

BOYCOTT FACEBOOK: A group of civil rights organizations launched a new campaign Wednesday calling for companies to refrain from advertising on Facebook in July.

The Anti-Defamation League, NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Color Of Change, Free Press and Common Sense are calling for the pause to protest what they say is a failure by the Silicon Valley giant to make its platform less hostile.

An ad that ran in the Los Angeles Times announcing the campaign calls on corporate advertisers to “send Facebook a powerful message: Your profits will never be worth promoting hate, bigotry, racism, antisemitism and violence.”

“Facebook remains unwilling to take significant steps to remove political propaganda from its platform,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in a statement.

“It is clear that Facebook and its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, are no longer simply negligent, but in fact, complacent in the spread of misinformation, despite the irreversible damage to our democracy,” he added.

The campaign comes amid rising scrutiny on Facebook’s hands-off approach to political speech.

Read more about the effort here.

 

CUT THE CABLE: A group of federal agencies has recommended the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deny a request by a Chinese government-linked company to directly connect the U.S. and Hong Kong through an underwater communications cable.

The agencies — known as Team Telecom and made up of the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense — said the FCC should deny a request made by the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN) to connect Hong Kong and U.S., citing concerns that the cable would enable the Chinese government to access American data.

According to the Justice Department, one of the main investors in PLCN is the Pacific Light Data Company, a subsidiary of the fourth largest telecommunications provider in China.

The agencies cited concerns around cyber vulnerabilities to underwater sea cables that could make them easy to exploit.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said in a statement that the recommendation to the FCC showed the U.S. is “committed to securing our critical infrastructure, which is essential to our national security.”

“To maintain the security and prosperity of our digital economy, it is vital to ensure that undersea communications cables are secure,” Wolf said. “Routing undersea cables through Hong Kong would provide the People’s Republic of China with a strategic opportunity to collect the private information of our citizens and sensitive commercial data. Hong Kong is subject to intrusive Chinese government laws that put the demands of information by the Chinese Communist Party ahead of the privacy of U.S. consumers.”

U.S. officials have long been concerned about allowing Chinese telecom companies access to American networks, pointing to a 2017 intelligence law that requires Chinese companies and citizens to disclose data to Beijing if requested.

The Justice Department cited the Chinese intelligence law in opposing the cable between Hong Kong and the U.S., saying it should instead skip over the city due to mainland China’s control over Hong Kong.

Team Telecom did, however, give the green light to PLCN’s application to connect Taiwan, the Philippines, and the U.S., pointing to those portions of the project being controlled by subsidiaries of Google and Facebook.

Read more about the recommendations here.

 

FREE FOR ALL: Video conferencing platform Zoom announced Wednesday that it would offer a beta version of end-to-end encryption for both free and paying users beginning in July. 

Zoom previously had contemplated only offering such encryption to paying customers and not those using its free video conferencing tool. While the company boosted encryption for all users in April following widespread security and privacy concerns, it initially was not certain if it would roll out the much stronger encryption for nonpaying customers. 

Beginning in July, hosts of Zoom meetings will be able to toggle the encryption service on and off since it limits some users from joining meetings, and account administrators will be able to enable or disable the enhanced security program at the account and group level. 

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan announced the news in a blog post on Wednesday, writing that the encryption program would “balance the legitimate right of all users to privacy and the safety of users on our platform.”

Yuan wrote that Zoom had consulted with government representatives, civil liberties groups and child safety advocates, among others, in putting together and rolling out the encryption program. 

“This will enable us to offer E2EE [end-to-end encryption] as an advanced add-on feature for all of our users around the globe — free and paid — while maintaining the ability to prevent and fight abuse on our platform,” Yuan added. 

The company posted its encryption program on GitHub in May in order to solicit feedback from customers, cryptographers, nonprofits and other groups. Zoom posted an updated version of the encryption program on GitHub on Wednesday.

The focus on enhancing encryption came after Zoom began facing a wave of security and privacy concerns in March as a huge influx of individuals began using the video conferencing tool for everything from work meetings to classes to happy hours during COVID-19 shutdowns. 

Read more about the Zoom announcement here.

 

BLOCKED POLITICS: Facebook users are gaining the option to opt out of seeing political ads on the platform entirely, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced Tuesday. 

The social media giant, which has more than 2 billion users worldwide, will begin rolling out a feature that allows individuals to turn off all social issue, electoral or political ads from candidates and super PACs. The option will also be available on Instagram, the photo-sharing app owned by Facebook. 

“For those of you who’ve already made up your minds and just want the election to be over, we hear you — so we’re also introducing the ability to turn off seeing political ads,” Zuckerberg wrote in a USA Today op-ed. “We’ll still remind you to vote.”

The move comes less than five months away from the 2020 elections and as Facebook weathers continued scrutiny from lawmakers and advocacy groups over its policies surrounding misinformation. Facebook’s current ad policy exempts political ads from fact-checking. 

Critics, including presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, have repeatedly called on the company to do more to moderate what they view as dangerous content on the platform. 

The option to turn off political ads altogether will be available for a portion of U.S. users starting Wednesday, the company said in a blog post. The option will apply to social, issue, electoral or political ads with the “Paid for by” political disclaimer on them. The company is planning to make the option available in countries where it has enforcement on ads about social issues, elections and politics in the fall.

The step was made as part of a larger initiative from the company to boost voter registration this year. Facebook is pledging to help up to 4 million people in the U.S. register to vote by November. 

Facebook has defended its decision to allow political ads to contain misinformation as an effort to promote free speech. The company’s policies bar content that causes imminent physical harm or suppresses voting, but Zuckerberg has held that Facebook’s moderation should not work as an “arbiter of truth” when it comes to remarks shared by politicians. 

Read more about the decision here.

 

NETFLIX CEO DONATES TO HBCUS: Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hasting and his wife, Patty Quillin, announced on Wednesday they are donating $120 million to Spelman College, Morehouse College and the United Negro College Fund.

The donation, which comes amid a national reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality, is the largest-ever individual contribution supporting scholarships at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

“We’ve supported these three extraordinary institutions for the last few years because we believe that investing in the education of Black youth is one of the best ways to invest in America’s future,” Hastings and Quillings said in a statement. “Both of us had the privilege of a great education and we want to help more students — in particular students of color — get the same start in life.”

The two noted that HBCUs are dwarfed by other universities in terms of endowments. They said that “white capital” generally “flows to predominantly white institutions, perpetuating capital isolation.”

Each institution is set to receive $40 million. Hastings’s net worth is about $5.3 billion, according to Bloomberg News.

Hastings and Quillin added that they hoped the donations would combat this issue and help reverse “generations of inequity in our country.”

Spelman College has already made plans to use the money to fund four-year scholarships named for alumnus and civil rights icon Dovey Johnson Roundtree. 

Read more about the donation here.

 

CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW: Twitter rolled out a new feature Wednesday allowing users to record audio messages to attach to posts.  

“You can Tweet a Tweet. But now you can Tweet your voice! Rolling out today on iOS, you can now record and Tweet with audio,” the company announced in a tweet. 

Users will be able to add the audio recordings to tweets, similar to how photos and videos can be attached to posts. 

The audio recordings will be capped at 140 seconds. Once the time limit is reached, a new tweet will automatically create another in a thread with the additional voice recording, Twitter said in an online announcement about the new feature. 

Read more about the new feature here.

 

Lighter click: Only send dog photos

An op-ed to chew on: One solution to systemic racism: Quit your job

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

Facebook Groups are destroying America (Wired / Nina Jankowicz and Cindy Otis)

Inside the underground trade of pirated OnlyFans porn (Motherboard / Samantha Cole and Joseph Cox)

Inside the dangerous online fever swamps of American police (HuffPost / Jesselyn Cook and Nick Robins-Early)

Tags Chad Wolf Donald Trump Jeff Bezos Jimmy Gomez Joe Biden Josh Hawley Marco Rubio Mark Zuckerberg Mike Braun Tom Cotton

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Regular the hill posts

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)
In this photo released by the Governor of Sevastopol, Mikhail Razvozhayev telegram channel, a rescuer gestures as he helps people during an evacuation after storm and flooding in Sevastopol, Crimea, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. A storm in the Black Sea took down power grids and left almost half a million people without power after it flooded roads, ripped up trees and damaged buildings in Crimea, Russian state news agency Tass said. (Governor of Sevastopol Mikhail Razvozhayev's telegram channel via AP)

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