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THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION IS PREPARING TO ABANDON the whole self-regulatory thing around takedowns of terrorist content. Per security commissioner Julian King, there hasn’t been “enough progress” from the platforms, and “we cannot afford to relax or become complacent in the face of such a shadowy and destructive phenomenon”. Therefore, draft legislation will force the likes of Facebook and YouTube to react more quickly, probably within one hour, when law enforcement flags up illegal material.
Here’s a take on the situation from Alex Stamos, a well-regarded security pro who was until very recently Facebook’s security chief (and oh what fun that must have been, during the Cambridge Analytica flap): “Journalist friends: laws sold to you as governments ‘punishing tech companies’ are often really about regulating the online behaviour of their citizens. The platforms are the tools, not the targets. The framing is important.”
Laws are generally about regulating people’s behaviour. And any new law that involves the big platforms will often be framed as a crackdown on those companies, which often misses the point. But I’m not sure about the framing of the platforms as tools – rather, they have become agents of law enforcement, and legislation such as that suggested here is all about forcing them to accept that role.
That’s deeply problematic, and we all need to figure out whether this is what we want. But you won’t find many of the platforms’ employees (or recent ex-employees) openly admitting that that’s the role their employers have been assuming.
(On a related note, law lecturer TJ McIntyre reckons the one-hour takedown limit would violate the right to a fair hearing, as guaranteed under the European Convention on Human Rights.)
FACEBOOK HAS EXECUTED ANOTHER ONE OF ITS MASS TAKEDOWNS of dodgy accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. This time it took out 652 pages. Two things of interest here. The first is that the culprits weren’t just Russian this time; many were from Iran. The second is that Facebook appears to have coordinated its efforts with Twitter, which shut down 284 accounts around the same time, again with Iranian targets in its sights.
THE LARGEST SOCIAL NETWORK IS ALSO MAKING IT MORE DIFFICULT for advertisers to illegally discriminate against certain groups of people. After an awful lot of hassling by journalists and civil liberties activists, Facebook will remove over 5,000 ad-targeting options that would let people hide their ads from people interested in Passover, for example, or those who have expressed an interest in Native American culture.
BIG TECH INTENDS TO FIGHT THE INDIAN government’s plans for data localisation. You’re no doubt familiar with the story by now: the government wants everyone to store people’s data locally, in order to aid investigations, but activists say it will just lead to more surveillance and companies say it’s expensive for them to build datacentres locally.
The twist here is that the US tech firms are considering framing the issue as a trade concern, at a time when the US and India are bickering about tariffs and caps on prices of medical devices. Stay tuned.
As I wrote for Fortune, this is what one should expect Google’s employees to do, given that their code of conduct literally exhorts them: “Don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!” Interestingly, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was the prime driver behind Google’s anti-censorship withdrawal from China eight years ago, appears not to have known about the re-entry plans until they got an airing in the media.
Anyhow, here’s Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s defence: “Our stated mission is to organize the world’s information. China is one-fifth of the world’s population. I think if we were to do our mission well, I think we have to think seriously about how we do more in China. I genuinely do believe we have a positive impact when we engage around the world and I don’t see any reason why that would be different in China.”
GOOGLE COLLECTS A LOT MORE DATA on you than Facebook does, according to a study by a Vanderbilt University computer scientist that was published by the anti-Google Digital Content Next trade organisation. The researcher, Prof Douglas Schmidt, reported that Google’s firehose of data lets it identify user interests “with remarkable accuracy”.
The study serves up some interesting figures. A typical day’s internet use on an Android phone sees 11.6MB of data passed to Google’s servers, and a dormant device with Chrome running in the background can send location data to Google a whopping 340 times in a day. Two-thirds of the data Google collects does not require any input from the user.
PS – GOOGLE IS BEING SUED in the US over the fact that it continues to hoover up the location data of people who have turned off location history on their devices and accounts. The complaint: “Despite users’ attempts to protect their location privacy, Google collects and stores users’ location data, thereby invading users’ reasonable expectations of privacy, counter to Google’s own representations about how users can configure Google’s products to prevent such egregious privacy violations.”
MEANWHILE, GOOGLE REPORTEDLY REBUFFED THE FBI’S EFFORTS to scoop up the location data of all its users over large areas, within two half-hour timeframes, in order to figure out who was behind a spate of armed robberies.
From the Forbes article: “Google was expected to return the information on April 19, but didn’t. The FBI filed a motion to extend the time it had to get the data, which a judge granted. But Google never handed it over, despite another three FBI motions to extend. Though the prosecutor, assistant US attorney Michael Conley, said a fifth motion would be filed if the data didn’t arrive, the government gave up the ghost earlier this month… It’s unclear whether Google didn’t want to give up the information, or if it simply couldn’t retrieve the data. There were no filings objecting to the warrant and Google declined to comment.”
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IN OTHER ZEALOUS-FEDS NEWS, THE US DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE is reportedly trying to get Facebook to break the encryption in Messenger, in order to let investigators listen in on a suspect’s voice conversations. Facebook is fighting back.
As Reuters notes, this has echoes of the San Bernardino iPhone case: “If the government prevails in the Facebook Messenger case, it could make similar arguments to force companies to rewrite other popular encrypted services such as Signal and Facebook’s billion-user WhatsApp, which include both voice and text functions, some legal experts said. Law enforcement agencies forcing technology providers to rewrite software to capture and hand over data that is no longer encrypted would have major implications for the companies which see themselves as defenders of individual privacy while under pressure from police and lawmakers.”
MICROSOFT HAS ROLLED OUT A “PRIVATE CONVERSATION” MODE IN SKYPE that’s based on the Signal Protocol – as indeed is the Secret Conversations mode in Facebook Messenger.