On December 14, 2016, the executives of the largest tech companies in the United States were seated around a conference table on the twenty-fifth floor of Trump Tower. After opposing Donald Trump during the election, they’d assembled to kiss the ring and find a path forward that would serve their mutual interests. While it was […]
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Tue, 09/28/2021 – 22:46
America has a serious infrastructure problem.
Maybe when I say that what comes to mind are all the potholes on your street. Or the dismal state of public transportation in your city. Or crumbling bridges all over the country. But that’s so twentieth century of you.
America’s most urgent infrastructure vulnerability is largely invisible and unlikely to be fixed by the Biden administration’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan.
I’m thinking about vulnerabilities that lurk in your garage (your car), your house (your computer), and even your pocket (your phone). Like those devices of yours, all connected to the Internet and so hackable, American businesses, hospitals, and public utilities can also be hijacked from a distance thanks to the software that helps run their systems. And don’t think that the U.S. military and even cybersecurity agencies and firms aren’t seriously at risk, too.
Such vulnerabilities stem from bugs in the programs — and sometimes even the hardware — that run our increasingly wired society. Beware “zero-day” exploits — so named because you have zero days to fix them once they’re discovered — that can attract top-dollar investments from corporations, governments, and even black-market operators. Zero days allow backdoor access to iPhones, personal email programs, corporate personnel files, even the computers that run dams, voting systems, and nuclear power plants.
It’s as if all of America were now protected by nothing but a few old padlocks, the keys to which have been made available to anyone with enough money to buy them (or enough ingenuity to make a set for themselves). And as if that weren’t bad enough, it was America that inadvertently made these keys available to allies, adversaries, and potential blackmailers alike.
The recent SolarWinds hack of federal agencies, as well as companies like Microsoft, for which the Biden administration recently sanctioned Russia and expelled several of its embassy staff, is only the latest example of how other countries have been able to hack basic U.S. infrastructure. Such intrusions, which actually date back to the early 2000s, are often still little more than tests, ways of getting a sense of how easy it might be to break into that infrastructure in more serious ways later. Occasionally, however, the intruders do damage by vacuuming up data or wiping out systems, especially if the targets fail to pay cyber-ransoms. More insidiously, hackers can also plant “timebombs” capable of going off at some future moment.
Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran have all hacked into this country’s infrastructure to steal corporate secrets, pilfer personal information, embarrass federal agencies, make money, or influence elections. For its part, the American government is anything but an innocent victim of such acts. In fact, it was an early pioneer in the field and continues to lead the way in cyberoperations overseas.
This country has a long history of making weapons that have later been used against it. When allies suddenly turn into adversaries like the Iranian government after the Shah was ousted in the 1979 revolution or the mujahideen in Afghanistan after their war against the Red Army ended in 1989, the weapons switch sides, too. In other cases, like the atomic bomb or unmanned aerial vehicles, the know-how behind the latest technological advances inevitably leaks out, triggering an arms race.
In all these years, however, none of those weapons has been used with such devastating effect against the U.S. homeland as the technology of cyberwarfare.
The Worm That Turned
In 2009, the centrifuges capable of refining Iranian uranium to weapons-grade level began to malfunction. At first, the engineers there didn’t pay much attention to the problem. Notoriously finicky, such high-speed centrifuges were subject to frequent breakdowns. The Iranians regularly had to replace as many as one of every 10 of them. This time, however, the number of malfunctions began to multiply and then multiply again, while the computers that controlled the centrifuges started to behave strangely, too.
It was deep into 2010, however, before computer security specialists from Belarus examined the Iranian computers and discovered the explanation for all the malfunctioning. The culprit responsible was a virus, a worm that had managed to burrow deep into the innards of those computers through an astonishing series of zero-day exploits.
That worm, nicknamed Stuxnet, was the first of its kind. Admittedly, computer viruses had been creating havoc almost since the dawn of the information age, but this was something different. Stuxnet could damage not only computers but the machines that they controlled, in this case destroying about 1,000 centrifuges. Developed by U.S. intelligence agencies in cooperation with their Israeli counterparts, Stuxnet would prove to be but the first salvo in a cyberwar that continues to this day.
It didn’t take long before other countries developed their own versions of Stuxnet to exploit the same kind of zero-day vulnerabilities. In her book This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends, New York Times reporter Nicole Perlroth describes in horrifying detail how the new cyber arms race has escalated. It took Iran only three years to retaliate for Stuxnet by introducing malware into Aramco, the Saudi oil company, destroying 30,000 of its computers. In 2014, North Korea executed a similar attack against Sony Pictures in response to a film that imagined the assassination of that country’s leader, Kim Jong-un. Meanwhile, Pelroth reports, Chinese hackers have targeted U.S. firms to harvest intellectual property, ranging from laser technology and high-efficiency gas turbines to the plans for “the next F-35 fighter” and “the formulas for Coca-Cola and Benjamin Moore paint.”
Over the years, Russia has become especially adept at the new technology. Kremlin-directed hackers interfered in Ukraine’s presidential election in 2014 in an effort to advance a far-right fringe candidate. The next year, they shut down Ukraine’s power grid for six hours. In the freezing cold of December 2016, they turned off the heat and power in Kyiv, that country’s capital. And it wasn’t just Ukraine either. Russian hackers paralyzed Estonia, interfered in England’s Brexit referendum, and nearly shut down the safety controls of a Saudi oil company.
Then Russia started to apply everything it learned from these efforts to the task of penetrating U.S. networks. In the lead-up to the 2016 elections, Russian hackers weaponized information stolen from Democratic Party operative John Podesta and wormed their way into state-level electoral systems. Later, they launched ransomware attacks against U.S. towns and cities, hacked into American hospitals, and even got inside the Wolf Creek nuclear power plant in Kansas. “The Russians,” Pelroth writes, “were mapping out the plant’s networks for a future attack.”
The United States did not sit idly by watching such incursions. The National Security Agency (NSA) broke into Chinese companies like Huawei, as well as their customers in countries like Cuba and Syria. With a plan nicknamed Nitro Zeus, the U.S. was prepared to take down key elements of Iran’s infrastructure if the negotiations around a nuclear deal failed. In response to the Sony hack, Washington orchestrated a 10-hour Internet outage in North Korea.
As the leaks from whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, the NSA had set up full-spectrum surveillance through various communications networks, even hacking into the private phones of leaders around the world like Germany’s Angela Merkel. By 2019, having boosted its annual budget to nearly $10 billion and created 133 Cyber Mission teams with a staff of 6,000, the Pentagon’s Cyber Command was planting malware in Russia’s energy grid and plotting other mischief.
Unbeknownst to Snowden or anyone else at the time, the NSA was also stockpiling a treasure trove of zero-day exploits for potential use against a range of targets. At first glance, this might seem like the cyber-equivalent of setting up a network of silos filled with ICBMs to maintain a rough system of deterrence. The best defense, according to the hawk’s catechism, is always an arsenal of offensive weapons.
But then the NSA got hacked.
In 2017, an outfit called the Shadow Brokers leaked 20 of the agency’s most powerful zero-day exploits. That May, WannaCry ransomware attacks suddenly began to strike targets as varied as British hospitals, Indian airlines, Chinese gas stations, and electrical utilities around the United States. The perpetrators were likely North Korean, but the code, as it happened, originated with the NSA, and the bill for the damages came to $4 billion.
Not to be outdone, Russian hackers turned two of the NSA zero-day exploits into a virus called NotPetya, which caused even more damage. Initially intended to devastate Ukraine, that malware spread quickly around the world, causing at least $10 billion in damages by briefly shutting down companies like Merck, Maersk, FedEx, and in an example of second-order blowback, the Russian oil giant Rosneft as well.
Sadly enough, in 2021, as Kim Zetter has written in Countdown to Zero Day, “[C]yberweapons can be easily obtained on underground markets or, depending on the complexity of the system being targeted, custom-built from scratch by a skilled teenage coder.” Such weapons then ricochet around the world before, more often than not, they return to sender.
Sooner or later, cyber-chickens always come home to roost.
Trump Makes Things Worse
Donald Trump notoriously dismissed Russian interference in the 2016 elections. His aides didn’t even bother bringing up additional examples of Russian cyber-meddling because the president just wasn’t interested. In 2018, he even eliminated the position of national cybersecurity coordinator, which helped National Security Advisor John Bolton consolidate his own power within the administration. Later, Trump would fire Christopher Krebs, who was in charge of protecting elections from cyberattacks, for validating the integrity of the 2020 presidential elections.
The SolarWinds attack at the end of last year highlighted the continued weakness of this country’s cybersecurity policy and Trump’s own denialism. Confronted with evidence from his intelligence agencies of Russian involvement, the president continued to insist that the perpetrators were Chinese.
The far right, for partisan reasons, abetted his denialism. Strangely enough, commentators on the left similarly attempted to debunk the idea that Russians were involved in the Podesta hack, 2016 election interference, and other intrusions, despite overwhelming evidence presented in the Mueller report, the Senate Intelligence Committee findings, and even from Russian sources.
But this denialism of the right and the left obscures a more important Trump administration failure. It made no attempt to work with Russia and China to orchestrate a truce in escalating global cyber-tensions.
Chastened by the original Stuxnet attack on Iran, the Putin government had actually proposed on several occasions that the international community should draw up a treaty to ban computer warfare and that Moscow and Washington should also sort out something similar bilaterally. The Obama administration ignored such overtures, not wanting to constrain the national security state’s ability to launch offensive cyber-operations, which the Pentagon euphemistically likes to label a “defend forward” strategy.
In the Trump years, even as he was pulling the U.S. out of one arms control deal after another with the Russians, The Donald was emphasizing his superb rapport with Putin. Instead of repeatedly covering for the Russian president — whatever his mix of personal, financial, and political reasons for doing so — Trump could have deployed his over-hyped art-of-the-deal skills to revive Putin’s own proposals for a cyber-truce.
With China, the Trump administration committed a more serious error.
Stung by a series of Chinese cyber-thefts, not just of intellectual property but of millions of the security-clearance files of federal employees, the Obama administration reached an agreement with Beijing in 2015 to stop mutual espionage in cyberspace. “We have agreed that neither the U.S. [n]or the Chinese government will conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property, including trade secrets or other confidential business information for commercial advantage,” Obama said then. “We’ll work together and with other nations to promote other rules of the road.”
In the wake of that agreement, Chinese intrusions in U.S. infrastructure dropped by an astonishing 90%. Then Trump took office and began to impose tariffs on Chinese goods. That trade war with Beijing would devastate American farmers and manufacturers, while padding the bills of American consumers, even as the president made it ever more difficult for Chinese firms to buy American products and technology. Not surprisingly, China once again turned to its hackers to acquire the know-how it could no longer get legitimately. In 2017, those hackers also siphoned off the personal information of nearly half of all Americans through a breach in the Equifax credit reporting agency.
As part of his determination to destroy everything that Obama achieved, of course, Trump completely ignored that administration’s 2015 agreement with Beijing.
Head for the Bunkers?
Larry Hall once worked for the Defense Department. Now, he’s selling luxury apartments in a former nuclear missile silo in the middle of Kansas. It burrows 15 stories into the ground and he calls it Survival Condo. The smallest units go for $1.5 million and the complex features a gym, swimming pool, and shooting range in its deep underground communal space.
When asked why he’d built Survival Condo, Hall replied, “You don’t want to know.”
Perhaps he was worried about a future nuclear exchange, another even more devastating pandemic, or the steady ratcheting up of the climate crisis. Those, however, are well-known doomsday scenarios and he was evidently alluding to a threat to which most Americans remain oblivious. What the Survival Condo website emphasizes is living through five years “completely off-grid,” suggesting a fear that the whole U.S. infrastructure could be taken down via a massive hack.
And it’s true that modern life as most of us know it has become increasingly tied up with the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT. By 2023, it’s estimated that every person on Earth will have, on average, 3.6 networked devices. Short of moving to a big hole in the ground in Kansas and living completely off the grid, it will be difficult indeed to extricate yourself from the consequences of a truly coordinated attack on such an IoT.
A mixture of short-sighted government action — as well as inaction — and a laissez-faire approach to markets have led to the present impasse. The U.S. government has refused to put anything but the most minimal controls on the development of spyware, has done little to engage the rest of the world in regulating hostile activities in cyberspace, and continues to believe that its “defend forward” strategy will be capable of protecting U.S. assets. (Dream on, national security state!)
Plugging the holes in the IoT dike is guaranteed to be an inadequate solution. Building a better dike might be a marginally better approach, but a truly more sensible option would be to address the underlying problem of the surging threat. Like the current efforts to control the spread of nuclear material, a non-proliferation approach to cyberweapons requires international cooperation across ideological lines.
It’s not too late. But to prevent a rush to the bunkers will take a concerted effort by the major players — the United States, Russia, and China — to recognize that cyberwar would, at best, produce the most pyrrhic of victories. If they don’t work together to protect the cyber-commons, the digital highway will, at the very least, continue to be plagued by potholes, broken guardrails, and improvised explosive devices whose detonations threaten to disrupt all our lives.
At least six government departments breached in likely Russian intelligence operation thought to have begun in March
The US government is still in the dark over how deeply Russian hackers penetrated its networks during the worst ever cyber attack on federal agencies, members of Congress warned on Friday.
At least six government departments were breached in a likely Russian intelligence operation thought to have begun in March. Although there is no evidence that classified networks were compromised, it is not known what the hackers may have stolen or how long it will take to purge them.
You would think that in a capitalist market one person’s million dollars would count the same as another’s. After all, money is the measure of all things, as is shown by the nonsense of putting a price on carbon emissions, or by economists judging how much you value having access to water by the price you would be prepared to pay for it. But in the mechanism of imperial finance, such equality does not hold.
This is most clearly shown in what is allowed by the powers that run the financial system. For example, the US makes sure that its dollar-dominated international banking network only accepts or pays funds from companies or countries that do not face its many sanctions. That is evident to those who read the news media. What is far less obvious are the ways in which, even among the rich, and even within the US itself, the financial system offers other means of reinforcing the inequality of wealth and power.
Take Airbnb’s recent sale of shares on the market in its IPO. The company raised around $3.7bn by selling a small stake in its ownership via 51.55 million so-called Class A shares, and that valued the whole company at around $47bn. A big jump in its shares from the offer price of $68 to around $140 gained market news attention, but a more interesting story was in the background, one that concerns what a Class A share represents.
Class inequality, even among capitalists
As I have pointed out before in reviews of Google, Facebook and other Big Tech companies, contrary to common prejudice, Class B is better than Class A. The A shares give the holder just 1 vote each. By contrast, Airbnb’s B shares have 20 votes each. This is an extreme divergence, even by Google/Facebook standards, where the B/A ratio is 10/1. The B shares were not on sale, and they are principally held by the company’s three founders and an American ‘venture capitalist’ firm, Sequoia Capital.
So, the 51.55 million A shares have that many votes, while the more than 300 million B shares have around 6 billion votes! It also implies that no matter how many further share offers there are of A shares, it is very unlikely that the small number of holders of the B shares will ever lose control of the company.
I should add here that I don’t care about this. I just want to point out a growing practice that favours monopolistic control of business resources, and one that gets little coverage.
More usually, the news media will focus on other things, such as the elaborate schemes employed by such companies to avoid taxation. Recently there has also been discussion of the monopolistic barriers to entry set up by such companies, and the ‘buy or bury’ tactics used by Facebook and others.
By contrast, this is a more hidden feature of the contemporary capitalist markets that flagrantly contradicts notions of ownership implying control. It is nevertheless quite consistent with the other aspects of the monopolisation of economic power seen today.
Tony Norfield, 11 December 2020
 There are also Class C and H shares, also with no voting power, but these are not relevant to the points made here.
“Social license is being harvested to reset the capitalist system – under the guise of a climate emergency and saving the planet. This we know: the planet will not be saved by those that have destroyed it.”
President Trump speaks in Virginia on Election Day. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
Democrats have worried that Trump would declare a premature victory via social media.
Twitter and Facebook both labeled a post President Trump shared at the end of Election Day in which he baselessly said the election is being “stolen” from him. Twitter took more aggressive action by warning users that the post is “potentially misleading” and slowing its reach; Facebook posted a label saying that ballots could take days or weeks to count.
In fact, it’s standard process in the United States for votes to be counted well after election night, and that’s even more anticipated this year given the record volume of mail-in ballots due to people staying at home during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Democrats had been worried about this very scenario — that Trump would declare a premature victory via social media — for months leading up to the election, and had been pressing social media companies for more details on how they would respond. Trump’s posts come ahead of a speech he’s expected to give on broadcast television, in which major networks have said they would fact-check false claims by Trump in near real time.
Just as Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was finishing his televised speech to say that he thinks he’s “on track” to win the election, Trump posted on his Facebook and Twitter accounts claims that “We are up BIG, but they are trying to “STEAL” the Election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles [sic] are closed!”
A few minutes after Trump posted this, it appears that his account deleted and reposted the tweet after fixing a spelling error; his first tweet had spelled it as “Poles.” Regardless, Twitter labeled the spell-checked version of Trump’s tweet with a warning label for violating its policies against civic integrity. Twitter’s label covered the content of Trump’s tweet — so that you can only see the actual post if you click in to a note that says the content in the tweet is “disputed” and “might be misleading about an election or other civic process.” Twitter has seemingly also prevented users from replying to, liking, or sharing the tweet without comment.
Shortly after Twitter moderated Trump’s post, Facebook also labeled Trump’s identical post on Facebook with a less prominent warning label stating that “Final results may be different from initial vote counts, as ballot counting will continue for days or weeks,” and a link to voting information. Unlike Twitter, Facebook has not limited people’s ability to reply to or share the post.
Once again, it seems that Twitter took the lead over Facebook in more decisively moderating Trump’s comments. But as Trump continues to comment on the results of an incomplete election in which key battleground states are expected to spend the next few days or more finalizing their counts, both companies will likely keep having to deal with these kinds of unproven claims about the results of the election.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifies before the Senate Commerce Committee on October 28, 2020. | Greg Nash/Getty Images
In the end, the Section 230 hearing didn’t have much to do with Section 230.
CEOs from two of the biggest companies in the world (and Twitter) testified in front of the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday in a hearing that was billed as a deliberation over Section 230. It ended up being more about castigating social media platforms both for censoring voices too much and for not censoring them enough.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai, and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before an almost entirely virtual panel of legislators, none of whom seemed particularly thrilled with the CEOs’ work. But their complaints differed depending on their political party. Republicans generally used the hearing to scold the companies for censoring conservative voices to the extent that they may influence the outcome of the election in Biden’s favor. Democrats objected to having a hearing at all and asked the CEOs what they were doing to suppress violent extremism and election interference on their platforms.
If nothing else, the hearings showed a bipartisan dislike and mistrust of social media platforms and a desire to do something about them.
The hearing was titled “Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?” — that bad behavior being, to its vocal conservative opponents, social media platforms censoring political viewpoints with which they disagree. But the law is much bigger than that. Section 230 allows websites to host content from users without being liable for it. For instance, you can sue a Twitter user for a defamatory tweet, but you can’t sue Twitter itself. This is what enables these sites to exist in the first place. Without immunity from lawsuits over third-party content, platforms wouldn’t allow it at all.
The law also allows platforms to moderate user content as they see fit without losing that immunity, a fact that has become a major sticking point for conservatives who feel that platforms are unfairly censoring them. While Attorney General Bill Barr and several Republican legislators want to change Section 230 to require websites to be “politically neutral” in moderation decisions, President Trump has called for an outright repeal of the law. In fact, the president repeated that demand while Wednesday’s hearing was still in progress:
The USA doesn’t have Freedom of the Press, we have Suppression of the Story, or just plain Fake News. So much has been learned in the last two weeks about how corrupt our Media is, and now Big Tech, maybe even worse. Repeal Section 230!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2020
Democrats have their own issues with Section 230 and Big Tech in general. But in the hearing, those concerns took a back seat to their grievances against its timing and the pro-Trump messages they believed committee Republicans were using it to convey.
Most Republicans barely mentioned Section 230 and instead focused on social media moderation and a perceived silencing of conservative voices, the oft-noted examples of such being President Trump’s fact-checked tweets and the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden, which Twitter and Facebook initially limited the spread of. There were also several questions about the political ideologies of employees and people who make moderation decisions, with the implication being that very few of them are conservative.
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Ron Johnson (R-WI) were especially emphatic about these points. Cruz, a frequent critic of Section 230, even advertised his appearance at the hearing on Twitter and Facebook the night before, calling it a “Free Speech Showdown,” complete with custom art that resembled a poster for a boxing match. Cruz opened his questions by saying the CEOs testifying before him “collectively pose the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections.” His use of his time didn’t really get better from there.
“Mr. Dorsey, who the hell elected you and put you in charge of what the media are allowed to report and what the American people are allowed to hear, and why do you persist in behaving as a Democratic Super PAC?” Cruz demanded. Dorsey responded that he is not in charge of those things. Cruz then retweeted several news articles containing his quote as well as posting his own video of it, indicating that his question to Dorsey was meant more for political theater than anything else.
Johnson tried to nail the CEOs down on how many of their employees are liberal and how many are conservative. In response, Dorsey said his company doesn’t keep track of employees’ politics, Pichai said he believed his employees have many different viewpoints, and Zuckerberg said he didn’t know for sure but assumes Facebook skews liberal — which was the only answer Johnson seemed to believe.
Several Republicans also pointed out that Twitter let untrue or violent tweets from other world leaders stay up while punishing Trump for his tweets, even though, as Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said, they are “true.” One example was a series of tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that seemed to promote violence against Israel, which are still on the platform.
“We did not find those to violate our terms of service because we consider them sabre-rattling, which is part of the speech of world leaders in concert with other countries,” Dorsey said. “Speech against our own people or a country’s own citizens, we believe, is different and can cause more immediate harm.”
Some Democrats used their time to criticize the timing and subject of the hearing, calling it part of a coordinated Republican effort to bully platforms into keeping conservative-leaning content up, even if it violates their policies, as well as to amplify the New York Post’s story to try to influence the outcome of the election. Others brought up how social media platforms have facilitated violent extremist groups to meet and organize and foreign powers to influence the elections. They asked the CEOs what they plan to do to prevent or squelch this content on their respective platforms as the election approaches, and whether they would pledge to stop or prevent election interference on their platforms. Dorsey, Pichai, and Zuckerberg all pledged to do so.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that Facebook makes more money when people spend more time on it, and divisive political content has been shown to contribute to that engagement.
“Does that bother you, what it’s done to our politics?” she asked.
Zuckerberg said the platform is designed to show users the content that’s most important to them.
“Most of the content on the systems is not political, it’s things like making sure you can see when your cousin had her baby,” he said.
“That’s not what I’m talking about, the cousins and the babies here,” Klobuchar said. “I’m talking about conspiracy theories … I think it’s been corrosive.”
But some senators actually took the time to ask the CEOs seemingly genuine questions about their moderation policies and algorithms as well as how Section 230 could be re-written to provide more clarity to users. Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) asked if giving Section 230’s “otherwise objectionable” rule for the type of content platforms are allowed to moderate more specific guidelines would be a solution. Zuckerberg noted that having to spell out which content is objectionable and which is not would limit their ability to moderate bullying or harassment. Dorsey and Zuckerberg said multiple times during the hearing that they would be open to increased transparency on their platforms with regard to moderation decisions.
Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), who proposed a bipartisan bill about Section 230, said he hoped to have “good faith” discussion about the law after the election. A future hearing about Section 230 is certainly possible regardless of the election’s outcome, as Trump’s feelings are well-known and Biden has said he is in favor of revoking the law — a stance that a campaign official told Recode hasn’t changed.
The co-author of Section 230, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is not a member of the Commerce Committee and so wasn’t at the hearing. But he wasn’t quiet about it, issuing a statement along the lines of many Democrats’ complaints.
“After watching the hearing today, I don’t believe my Republican colleagues have read the First Amendment, let alone Section 230,” Wyden said. “Their obsession with forcing private companies to print misinformation, lies and hate speech is unconstitutional and lays bare how little this is about Section 230 and how much it is a transparent attempt to work the refs a week before the election.”
Wyden added, “Today’s sad spectacle shows how far this body is from having a rational debate about how to make the internet a better place.”
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Near the close of the first year of the Trump presidency, executives at Facebook were briefed on some major changes to its News Feed—the code that determines which of the zillions of posts on the platform any one of us is shown when we look at Facebook. The story the company has publicly told is that it was working to “bring people closer together” by showing us more posts from friends and family, and to prioritize “trusted” and “informative” sources of news. The changes would also reduce how much news most people see, and therefore decrease revenue for many publishers.
What wasn’t publicly known until now is that Facebook actually ran experiments to see how the changes would affect publishers—and when it found that some of them would have a dramatic impact on the reach of right-wing “junk sites,” as a former employee with knowledge of the conversations puts it, the engineers were sent back to lessen those impacts. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, they came back in January 2018 with a second iteration that dialed up the harm to progressive-leaning news organizations instead.
In fact, we have now learned that executives were even shown a slide presentation that highlighted the impact of the second iteration on about a dozen specific publishers—and Mother Jones was singled out as one that would suffer, while the conservative site the Daily Wire was identified as one that would benefit. These changes were pushed by Republican operatives working in Facebook’s Washington office under Vice President of Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan (who later made headlines for demonstratively supporting his friend Brett Kavanaugh during confirmation hearings).
Asked for comment, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone would only say, “We did not make changes with the intent of impacting individual publishers. We only made updates after they were reviewed by many different teams across many disciplines to ensure the rationale was clear and consistent and could be explained to all publishers.”
Facebook used its monopolistic power to boost and suppress specific publishers’ content—the essence of every Big Brother fear about the platforms.
Glossed over in that non-answer answer is the fact that the changes were made with at least the knowledge of the disparate impact they would have on specific publishers. And that those changes appear to have been based, at least in part, on internal partisan concerns.
Stone would not comment on the slide deck. But according to someone who has seen it, it contained bar graphs indicating how much reach various news organizations would gain or lose under the revamped algorithm. One chart showed the Daily Wire, a site headed by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro that routinely shares false claims and malignant ideas (being transgender is a “delusion,” abortion providers are “assassins,” US Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., is not “loyal to America”). Another graph showed Mother Jones, whose rigorously fact-checked investigative work has garnered many of journalism’s highest awards, including—just months before that Facebook presentation—being honored as Magazine of the Year at our industry’s version of the Academy Awards.
Allow us to pause briefly while we scream out of the window. This kind of false equivalence is enraging enough when lazy pundits do it. But when the most powerful media company in the world uses it as the basis for deciding what information users should see or not see, it’s more than that. It’s an attack on your ability to stay informed. It’s an attack on democracy.
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To be perfectly clear: Facebook used its monopolistic power to boost and suppress specific publishers’ content—the essence of every Big Brother fear about the platforms, and something Facebook and other companies have been strenuously denying for years.
It’s also, ironically, what conservatives have consistently accused Facebook of doing to them, with the perverse but entirely intended effect of causing it to bend over backward for them instead. This past Thursday the Daily Wire’s Shapiro inveighed against Twitter and Facebook suppressing a widely discredited New York Post story on Hunter Biden: “Social media companies are so afraid of Democrats that they will voluntarily do what Democrats want so Democrats don’t come after them. This is a blackmail routine by Democrats against social media.” He calls it an “inside job” at Facebook and Twitter in which “top Democrats at these places decide that it’s time to shut down material.”
Replace “Democrats” with “Republicans” in those comments from Shapiro—who is also one of the conservative luminaries Zuckerberg has invited to his home for hours-long gab sessions—and you have exactly what appears to have happened in January 2018.
“The problem was that the progressive outlets were real [news] outlets like yours and the right ones were garbage outlets. You guys were one of the outlets who got singled out to balance the ledger.”
So why was Facebook changing the algorithm? In the wake of the 2016 election, it had been battling backlash for amplifying political disinformation and propaganda, foreign and domestic. But the problem that really concerned its executives was this: People were turning away from their product. After more than a year of overheated and often toxic discussion, engagement on Facebook was falling.
In late 2017, Zuckerberg told his engineers and data scientists to design algorithmic “ranking changes” that would dial down the temperature. One tool for this was prioritizing what Facebook called “meaningful social interactions” among users. Another was giving priority to news sources that Facebook’s user surveys determined to be trustworthy and informative.
But, says the former Facebook employee, there was a hitch: Everyone knew that most of the untrustworthy “junk” on Facebook, when it came to politics, originated with “conservative/conspiratorial” sites. And while Facebook was under fire from both right and left, its chief worry—now that Republicans had regulatory power in Washington—was “getting Trump off their back.”
Conservatives had been very effective at working the refs by accusing the platforms of liberal bias, especially after a widely publicized 2016 incident in which platform moderators were accused of suppressing pro-Trump content. After that, says a former employee who worked on News Feed, it was made clear that “we can’t do a ranking change that would hurt Breitbart—even if that change would make the News Feed better.” (Breitbart News, where Steve Bannon was still executive chair, seems to have been a particular obsession.)
So, too, with the January 2018 changes: “Republican lobbyists in the DC office said, ‘Hold on, how will it affect Breitbart?’” recalls another ex-employee. Testing showed that the proposed changes would take a “huge chunk” out of Breitbart, Gateway Pundit, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. There was “enormous pushback. They freaked out and said, ‘We can’t do this.’”
The code was tweaked, and executives were given a new presentation showing less impact on these conservative sites and more harm to progressive-leaning publishers—including Mother Jones. “The problem was that the progressive outlets were real [news] outlets like yours,” recalls the ex-employee, “and the right ones were garbage outlets. You guys were one of the outlets who got singled out to balance the ledger.”
It was not the first time that Kaplan had stepped up to protect conservative disinformation. The Washington Post has reported that in December 2016, senior leaders were briefed on an internal investigation known as Project P (for propaganda) showing that right-wing accounts, most of them based overseas and most with “financial motives,” were behind a lot of the viral disinformation on the platform. But Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.”
More recently, the newsletter Popular Info reported last year that whenever conservative sites were accused of violating Facebook’s policies—as when Shapiro’s Daily Wire allegedly created a network of pages to increase traffic—Kaplan stepped up to protect them. (The Daily Wire’s co-CEO Jeremy Boreing told us, “We endeavor to abide by the ever-changing rules of the platforms on which we operate, but we’re also an aggressive organization.”) It was also reportedly Kaplan who in 2018 pushed for the Daily Caller, which has been regularly excoriated for publishing misinformation, including fake nudes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to be brought in as one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners.
Back to January 2018. The graphs and slides appear to have appeased Kaplan. Zuckerberg signed off on the algorithm changes. And soon, the million-plus readers who had chosen to follow Mother Jones saw fewer of our articles in their feeds. Average traffic from Facebook to our content decreased 37 percent between the six months prior to the change and the six months after.
How much of the information you see on this powerful platform is shaped by partisan political considerations inside a company obsessed with avoiding regulation?
But the Daily Wire continued to thrive, as did the Daily Caller, Breitbart, and Fox News. Boreing says the Daily Wire saw “a significant unexplained decline in traffic in October 2017, which began to recover in December,” and that nothing “pronounced” happened as a result of the January changes. And while social media data is notoriously hard to measure, Nieman Lab’s Laura Hazard Owen, using data from the analytics company Newswhip, found that after the changes, right-wing sites saw, if anything, more engagement on Facebook. And though we don’t know how the algorithm has evolved since then, to this day the news stories with the highest Facebook engagement often come from right-wing opinion sites. This summer the Daily Wire had the most Facebook engagements of any English-language publisher in the world, according to Newswhip.
In other words, for more than two years, the news diets of Facebook audiences have been spiked with hyperconservative content—content that would have reached far fewer people had the company not deliberately tweaked the dials to keep it coming, even as it throttled independent journalism. For the former employee, the episode was emblematic of the false equivalencies and anti-democratic impulses that have characterized Facebook’s actions in the age of Trump, and it became “one of the many reasons I left Facebook.”
When Zuckerberg announced these algorithm changes in January 2018, he talked about “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” Unmentioned went the discussions about helping conservative publishers.
In fact, Facebook seems to have not just elided but actively concealed what it was doing. Several of us at Mother Jones were in meetings with company officials during this period. At a journalism conference, one of us was whisked into their corporate suite, given a logoed water bottle, and complimented about the work our team had done to share quality journalism on the platform. Ben Dreyfuss, who heads up our social media work, was told by the company’s News Partnerships team that the “trusted news” algorithm changes should have no different impact on Mother Jones than on other “quality publishers.”
How many other sites were similarly throttled? The ex-employee doesn’t recall the other publishers named in the deck, but Slate, for one, has reported a dramatic drop in its Facebook referrals after January 2018. Joe Romm, the founder of ThinkProgress, noted that site’s traffic took a “big hit.” Did the changes affect outlets like the New York Times and National Public Radio? And how was this actually done? Which criteria were changed, how broadly, and for how long? And how much of the information you see on this powerful platform is shaped by partisan political considerations inside a company obsessed with avoiding regulation?
There’s a deck out there that could help unlock some of the answers. Publishers and regulators need to see it.
Tomorrow, the House Antitrust Subcommittee will hear testimony from the CEOs of the Big Four tech firms: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Aside from possibly bringing together more wealth than ever before assembled in a congressional hearing, the event marks a triumph for a nascent movement of antitrust scholars who have revived the debate about concentrated economic power in the United States. Members of Congress will be able to detail how large tech platforms abuse their position to invade user privacy, muscle out or buy up competitors, and gouge suppliers and partners—behaviors that ultimately damage innovation and exacerbate inequality.
These problems have only grown worse with the coronavirus pandemic, as smaller businesses succumb to the economic damage, and changing patterns in teleworking and retail accelerate in ways that make Americans more reliant on technologies produced by a few firms. Shares in the Big Four, along with Microsoft, Netflix, and Tesla, added $291 billion in market value in just one day last week. The dangers of Big Tech domination are more profound now than they were even a few months ago.
But the hearing may also have the unintended consequence of associating the problem of economic concentration with Big Tech alone. The truth is that, even if Congress somehow decreed the breakup of all four tech giants, the U.S. would still have an astounding number of industries controlled by a tiny number of firms. That’s because the structure of modern capitalism favors companies that operate at once-unimaginable scale, in the absence of a government will to prevent monopolies from forming.
Lawmakers and the public should be concerned about the surveillance networks by which Facebook and Google—which dominate the digital-advertising market—track users, build data profiles on them, and serve them customized ads. But millions of rural Americans cannot access the internet to begin with, in part because telecom companies harass, fight, and induce state legislatures to pass laws restricting municipal broadband. Across America, people send their kids to Starbucks parking lots to piggyback on the wifi and complete their homework.
Amazon’s rapidly expanding e-commerce empire—and the potential consequences for Main Streets and municipal tax bases across the country—is definitely worth worrying about. But among the other forces squeezing out small retailers are dollar stores, a market segment dominated by two firms that together have about six times more outlets in America than Walmart. Last summer in Marlinton, West Virginia, I saw a Dollar General right next door to a Family Dollar. Despite the pandemic, Dollar General still plans to open 1,000 new stores in 2020.
Software developers who want to sell apps to iPhone users must do so through Apple’s App Store, which spells out rules that they must follow and collects up to 30 percent of sales. This is little different from the situation of small farmers, who must raise livestock to the exacting specifications of the meatpacking giants and can lose their livelihoods on those companies’ whims. And just as Amazon sometimes undercuts the smaller third-party sellers that use its platform, Big Agriculture competes directly with smaller suppliers; the top four hog firms, which control around two-thirds of the market, typically own farms, slaughterhouses, warehouses, and distribution trucks, every step from the pig trough to the dinner table.
Whether you are shopping for pacemakers, sanitary napkins, or wholesale office supplies, you will find very few sellers. You think you have choices in grocery aisles or at car-rental counters, but the majority of consumer products come from a handful of companies. Competition is hardly stiff when even many store brands are just renamed versions of market-leading products; at Costco, the batteries come from Duracell and the coffee from Starbucks.
To focus the discussion of monopoly on the tech sector is to minimize the scope of a problem long in the making. Forty years ago, the government essentially stopped policing industry concentration. The conservative legal theorist Robert Bork—later a failed Supreme Court nominee—and his allies in the law-and-economics movement argued that any merger making businesses more efficient must be approved, and that a larger scale generally increases efficiency. Bork’s analysis gained enormous power in the courts and the Reagan administration. The lawyers and the bankers who handled mergers and acquisitions loved it.
All Americans suffer from the wave of corporate consolidation that followed. Workers have fewer bidders for their labor and cannot secure decent wages. The number of start-up businesses has plummeted since the late 1970s. Products and services grow worse, and companies with little competition have no incentive to improve them. Concentrated supply chains are more vulnerable to disruption, as the coronavirus crisis has shown. Fewer firms shovel more economic gains to smaller groups of executives. Politics becomes unbalanced as monopolists bend lawmakers and regulators to their will. In a variety of industries, the pandemic has added to the burden on small companies while heightening the advantages enjoyed by their larger rivals that can afford to wait the catastrophe out.
The unique challenges presented by Big Tech at least receive generous media coverage. But headlines about the damage non-tech behemoths have done are waiting to be written. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker are investigating a budding scandal of large meatpackers using the coronavirus crisis to claim shortages at home while shipping record levels of pork to China. A decades-long consolidation of the banking industry was routinely justified in the name of consumer welfare, but millions of Americans are still unserved—a problem that became evident amid America’s fumbling delivery of stimulus payments to citizens. Market concentration is an underappreciated factor in the destruction of Black-owned businesses.
Prohibiting mergers and breaking up companies that contribute to such negative effects would allow America to be governed democratically, rather than by the corporate boardroom. Congress should scrutinize the concentration in internet search, social media, e-commerce, and telecom hardware. But to topple monopolies, lawmakers need to cast a wider net.