Archives

Senator

At social media hearing, lawmakers circle algorithm-focused Section 230 reform

Rather than a CEO-slamming sound bite free-for-all, Tuesday’s big tech hearing on algorithms aimed for more of a listening session vibe — and in that sense it mostly succeeded.

The hearing centered on testimony from the policy leads at Facebook, YouTube and Twitter rather than the chief executives of those companies for a change. The resulting few hours didn’t offer any massive revelations but was still probably more productive than squeezing some of the world’s most powerful men for their commitments to “get back to you on that.”

In the hearing, lawmakers bemoaned social media echo chambers and the ways that the algorithms pumping content through platforms are capable of completely reshaping human behavior. .

“… This advanced technology is harnessed into algorithms designed to attract our time and attention on social media, and the results can be harmful to our kids’ attention spans, to the quality of our public discourse, to our public health, and even to our democracy itself,” said Chris Coons (D-DE), chair of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on privacy and tech, which held the hearing.

Coons struck a cooperative note, observing that algorithms drive innovation but that their dark side comes with considerable costs

None of this is new, of course. But Congress is crawling closer to solutions, one repetitive tech hearing at a time. The Tuesday hearing highlighted some zones of bipartisan agreement that could determine the chances of a tech reform bill passing the Senate, which is narrowly controlled by Democrats. Coons expressed optimism that a “broadly bipartisan solution” could be reached.

What would that look like? Probably changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which we’ve written about extensively over the years. That law protects social media companies from liability for user-created content and it’s been a major nexus of tech regulation talk, both in the newly Democratic Senate under Biden and the previous Republican-led Senate that took its cues from Trump.

Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter

Lauren Culbertson, head of U.S. public policy at Twitter Inc., speaks remotely during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, April 27, 2021. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A broken business model

In the hearing, lawmakers pointed to flaws inherent to how major social media companies make money as the heart of the problem. Rather than criticizing companies for specific failings, they mostly focused on the core business model from which social media’s many ills spring forth.

“I think it’s very important for us to push back on the idea that really complicated, qualitative problems have easy quantitative solutions,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) said. He argued that because social media companies make money by keeping users hooked to their products, any real solution would have to upend that business model altogether.

“The business model of these companies is addiction,” Josh Hawley (R-MO) echoed, calling social media an “attention treadmill” by design.

Ex-Googler and frequent tech critic Tristan Harris didn’t mince words about how tech companies talk around that central design tenet in his own testimony. “It’s almost like listening to a hostage in a hostage video,” Harris said, likening the engagement-seeking business model to a gun just offstage.

Spotlight on Section 230

One big way lawmakers propose to disrupt those deeply entrenched incentives? Adding algorithm-focused exceptions to the Section 230 protections that social media companies enjoy. A few bills floating around take that approach.

One bill from Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) and Reps. Paul Gosar (R-A) and Tulsi Gabbard (R-HI) would require platforms with 10 million or more users to obtain consent before serving users content based on their behavior or demographic data if they want to keep Section 230 protections. The idea is to revoke 230 immunity from platforms that boost engagement by “funneling information to users that polarizes their views” unless a user specifically opts in.

In another bill, the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) propose suspending Section 230 protections and making companies liable “if their algorithms amplify misinformation that leads to offline violence.” That bill would amend Section 230 to reference existing civil rights laws.

Section 230’s defenders argue that any insufficiently targeted changes to the law could disrupt the modern internet as we know it, resulting in cascading negative impacts well beyond the intended scope of reform efforts. An outright repeal of the law is almost certainly off the table, but even small tweaks could completely realign internet businesses, for better or worse.

During the hearing, Hawley made a broader suggestion for companies that use algorithms to chase profits. “Why shouldn’t we just remove section 230 protection from any platform that engages in behavioral advertising or algorithmic amplification?” he asked, adding that he wasn’t opposed to an outright repeal of the law.

Sen. Klobuchar, who leads the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee, connected the algorithmic concerns to anti-competitive behavior in the tech industry. “If you have a company that buys out everyone from under them… we’re never going to know if they could have developed the bells and whistles to help us with misinformation because there is no competition,” Klobuchar said.

Subcommittee members Klobuchar and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) have their own major Section 230 reform bill, the Safe Tech Act, but that legislation is less concerned with algorithms than ads and paid content.

At least one more major bill looking at Section 230 through the lens of algorithms is still on the way. Prominent big tech critic House Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) is due out soon with a Section 230 bill that could suspend liability protections for companies that rely on algorithms to boost engagement and line their pockets.

“That’s a very complicated algorithm that is designed to maximize engagement to drive up advertising prices to produce greater profits for the company,” Cicilline told Axios last month. “…That’s a set of business decisions for which, it might be quite easy to argue, that a company should be liable for.”

Apple and Google pressed in antitrust hearing on whether app stores share data with product development teams

In today’s antitrust hearing in the U.S. Senate, Apple and Google representatives were questioned on whether they have a “strict firewall” or other internal policies in place that prevent them from leveraging the data from third-party businesses operating on their app stores to inform the development of their own competitive products. Apple, in particular, was called out for the practice of copying other apps by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who said the practice had become so common that it earned a nickname with Apple’s developer community: “sherlocking.”

Sherlock, which has its own Wikipedia entry under software, comes from Apple’s search tool in the early 2000’s called Sherlock. A third-party developer, Karelia Software, created an alternative tool called Watson. Following the success of Karelia’s product, Apple added Watson’s same functionality into its own search tool, and Watson was effectively put out of business. The nickname “Sherlock” later became shorthand for any time Apple copies an idea from a third-party developer that threatens to or even destroys their business.

Over the years, developers claimed Apple has “sherlocked” a number of apps including Konfabulator (desktop widgets), iPodderX (podcast manager), Sandvox (app for building websites), Growl (a notification system for Mac OS X), and in more recent years, F.lux (blue light reduction tool for screens) Duet and Luna (apps that makes iPad a secondary display), as well as various screen time management tools. Now Tile claims Apple has also unfairly entered its market with AirTag.

During his questioning, Blumenthal asked Apple and Google’s representatives at the hearing — Mr. Kyle Andeer, Apple’s
Chief Compliance Officer and Mr. Wilson White, Google’s Senior Director Public Policy & Government Relations, respectively — if they employed any sort of “firewall” in between their app stores and their business strategy.

Andeer somewhat dodged the question, saying, “Senator, if I understand the question correctly, we have separate teams that manage the App Store and that are engaged in product development strategy here at Apple.”

Blumenthal then clarified what he meant by “firewall.” He explained that it doesn’t mean whether or not there are separate teams in place, but whether there’s an internal prohibition on sharing data between the App Store and the people who run Apple’s other businesses.

Andeer then answered, “Senator, we have controls in place.”

He went on to note that over the past twelve years, Apple has only introduced “a handful of applications and services,” and in every instance, there are “dozens of alternatives” on the App Store. And, sometimes, the alternatives are more popular than Apple’s own product, he noted.

“We don’t copy. We don’t kill. What we do is offer up a new choice and a new innovation,” Andeer stated.

His argument may hold true when there are strong rivalries, like Spotify versus Apple Music, or Netflix versus Apple TV+, or Kindle versus Apple Books. But it’s harder to stretch it to areas where Apple makes smaller enhancements — like when Apple introduced Sidecar, a feature that allowed users to make their iPad a secondary display. Sidecar ended the need for a third-party app, after apps like Duet and Luna first proved the market.

Another example was when Apple built screen time controls into its iOS software, but didn’t provide the makers of third-party screen time apps with an API so consumers could use their preferred apps to configure Apple’s Screen Time settings via the third-party’s specialized interface or take advantage of other unique features.

Blumenthal said he interpreted Andeer’s response as to whether Apple has a “data firewall” as a “no.”

Posed the same question, Google’s representative, Mr. White said his understanding was that Google had “data access controls in place that govern how data from our third-party services are used.”

Blumenthal pressed him to clarify if this was a “firewall,” meaning, he clarified again, “do you have a prohibition against access?”

“We have a prohibition against using our third-party services to compete directly with our first-party services,” Mr. White said, adding that Google has “internal policies that govern that.”

The Senator said he would follow up on this matter with written questions, as his time expired.

Elizabeth Warren for President open-sources its 2020 campaign tech

Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren may have ended her 2020 presidential run, but the tech used to drive her campaign will live on.

Members of her staff announced they would make public the top apps and digital tools developed in Warren’s bid to become the Democratic nominee for president.

“In our work, we leaned heavily on open source technology — and want to contribute back to that community…[by] open-sourcing some of the most important projects of the Elizabeth Warren campaign for anyone to use,” the Warren for President Tech Team said.

In a Medium post, members of the team — including chief technology strategist Mike Conlow and chief technology officer Nikki Sutton — previewed what would be available and why.

“Our hope is that other Democratic candidates and progressive causes will use the ideas and code we developed to run stronger campaigns and help Democrats win,” the post said.

Warren’s tech team listed several of the tools they’ve turned over to the open source universe via GitHub.

One of those tools, Spoke, is a peer to peer texting app, originally developed by MoveOn, which offered the Warren Campaign high volume messaging at a fraction of the costs of other vendor options. The team used it to send four million SMS messages on Super Tuesday alone.

Pollaris is a location lookup tool with an API developed to interface directly with Warren’s official campaign website and quickly direct supporters to their correct polling stations.

One of Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign app, Caucus, designed for calculating delegates. (Image: supplied)

Warren’s tech team will also open-source Switchboard (FE and BE) — which recruited and connected volunteers in primary states — and Caucus App, a delegate calculating and reporting tool.

The campaign’s Redhook tool took in web hook data in real time and experienced zero downtime.

“Our intention in open sourcing it is to demonstrate that some problems campaigns face do not require vendor tools and are solved…efficiently with a tiny bit of code,” said the Tech Team.

Elizabeth Warren ended her 2020 presidential bid on March 4 after failing to win a primary. Among her many policy proposals, the Massachusetts senator had proposed breaking up big tech companies, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Her campaign will continue to share the tech tools they used on open source channels.

“We’ll have more to say in the coming weeks on all that we did with technology on our campaign,” the team said.