Sunday, June 14, 2020

How tech companies are fighting antitrust efforts with front groups

One of the big rules on Facebook is that you have to use your real name. This policy has created some controversy over the years, since it makes life harder for some activists, and crime victims, and (most famously) drag queens. But Facebook has always said that the service works so well because you can trust that the person you’re talking to is actually your friend or family member, and not someone who is faking their identity to influence you toward some malign purpose.

If you break that rule, you are engaging in what the company calls “inauthentic behavior,” which it defines as “the use of Facebook or Instagram assets (accounts, pages, groups, or events), to mislead people or Facebook:

about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that they represent about the popularity of Facebook or Instagram content or assets about the purpose of an audience or community about the source or origin of content to evade enforcement under our Community Standards.”

Anyway, along with the other big tech platforms, Facebook is currently involved in a bunch of regulatory fights over privacy and competition issues. And in some crucial areas, public opinion does not appear to be on the company’s side. In this year’s Verge Tech Survey, a national poll found that 72 percent of respondents believe Facebook has too much power, and 56 percent said the government should break up tech companies if they control too much of the economy.

One thing you can do when public opinion turns against you is hire a phalanx of lobbyists and public relations people to make the case for you in Facebook’s name, and the company has done just that. The company spent about $81 million on lobbying between 2010 and 2019, and has increased its spending over 2019 levels again this year.

Another thing you can do, though, is to hire a bunch of people to defend you in someone else’s name. Broadly speaking, this practice — masking the true sponsor of an idea to make it appear as though it originates from average citizens — is called astroturfing, and it has a long history. The Wikipedia page entry for astroturfing notes that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar begins with Cassius writing fake letters from “the public” to convince Brutus to assassinate the title character, and the idea has inspired the business community ever since.

For example, in 2011, Facebook paid a PR firm called Burston-Marsteller to plant negative stories about Google in the US media. The idea, which was based on the very-funny-in-retrospect notion that an all-but-incomprehensible Gmail feature called Google Social Circle might pose a threat to Facebook, was to scare everyone about the privacy implications of ... whatever Google Social Circle was. But then Facebook got caught and apologized and we didn’t hear a lot about Facebook-led astroturfing for a long time. (Also Google Social Circle went the way of all Google social products and rapidly faded into obscurity.)

Then last month, Tony Romm at the Washington Post introduced us to something called American Edge:

Facebook is working behind the scenes to help launch a new political advocacy group that would combat U.S. lawmakers and regulators trying to rein in the tech industry, escalating Silicon Valley’s war with Washington at a moment when government officials are threatening to break up large companies.

The organization is called American Edge, and it aims through a barrage of advertising and other political spending to convince policymakers that Silicon Valley is essential to the U.S. economy and the future of free speech, according to three people familiar with the matter as well as documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

According to Romm, American Edge is set up to ”navigate a thicket of tax laws in such a way that it can raise money, and blitz the airwaves with ads, without the obligation of disclosing all of its donors.”

Might that mislead people about the identity, purpose, or origin of the entity that American Edge represents? What about the source or origin of the content it produces?

The behavior ... it feels somehow ... inauthentic. At least to me.

Of course, one reason why these groups exist is that rival companies fund advocacy campaigns of their own to undermine their enemies. And Facebook, to its credit, takes the unusual step of listing the advocacy groups to which it contributes on a public page alongside its lobbying disclosures. Those groups, though, typically don’t list their donors after every ghostwritten op-ed.

In any case, with antitrust fever in the air, all the platforms are following in Cassius’ lead. Here’s Romm again in the Post on Wednesday:

David Espinoza appeared unhappy when Arizona joined scores of states investigating Google last year. The Phoenix-based owner of a shoe-and-leather store wrote in a local newspaper he was “amazed and a little dumbfounded” by regulators’ campaign to “change how digital platforms operate.”

“The current system is working for small businesses, and as the old saying goes: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he wrote.

But Espinoza’s words, published in September by the Arizona Capitol Times, weren’t entirely his own. They were written on his behalf by an advocacy group that’s backed by Google and other tech behemoths, reflecting Silicon Valley’s stealthy new attempts to shape and weaponize public perception in response to heightened antitrust scrutiny.

Romm goes on to explain that Google, Facebook, and Amazon are all funding advocacy groups that are engaging in letter-writing campaigns, polling, and placing op-eds in an effort to shift the conversation — often without any fingerprints from the companies themselves. This is made possible by an arrangement in which the advocacy groups take a huge portion of their funding from these companies, implement a variety of strategies designed to help those companies, and then swear that there is no connection between those two things.

None of this is new or unique to the tech industry, of course. But at a time when conspiracy theories are dominating the news, it feels worthwhile to point out a conspiracy that’s actually real: a group of giant corporations working in the shadows to manipulate public opinion without always disclosing their involvement.

It’s stuff you largely couldn’t do on Facebook. But you can do it if you are Facebook.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: Twitter announced that it will begin testing a new feature that will suggest users actually read articles before they retweet them. Can you imagine?! The test is beginning with Android users in English, which is a sick burn on English-speaking Android users. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)

Trending down: Zoom shut down the account of a group of prominent US-based Chinese activists after they held a virtual event commemorating the 31st anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th. That led the director of Google’s threat analysis group to tweet, “This is the same company that was routing calls through through China right?” (It reversed the decision at the end of the day.)

Virus tracker

Thank you to everyone who wrote in with their thoughts on the future of this item! Based on your responses, we’ve decided to retire the tracker as a daily feature. Instead, we’ll include less-frequent updates as new hotspots emerge around the world. When we do, we will still include the number of cases, deaths, and tests. But we’ll also include more analysis about what we’re seeing and why.

As always, let us know what you think of the changes.


Amazon is banning police from using its controversial facial recognition platform, called Rekognition, for the next year. The company did not specify a reason for the decision, which came just two days after IBM said it would no longer develop facial recognition technology due to the potential for human rights and privacy abuses. Here’s Nick Statt at The Verge:

It appears Amazon has decided that police cannot be trusted to use the technology responsibly. Although the company has never disclosed just how many police departments do actually use the tech. As of last summer, it appeared only two — one in Oregon and one in Florida — were actively using Rekognition, and Orlando has since stopped using it. It would appear a much more widely used version of facial recognition system is that of Clearview AI, a secretive company now facing down a number of privacy lawsuits after scraping social media sites for photos and building a more than 3 billion-photo database it sells to law enforcement.

Similarly, Amazon has faced constant criticism over the years for selling access to Rekognition to police departments. That’s despite artificial intelligence researchers, activists, and lawmakers citing concerns about the lack of oversight into how the tech is used in investigations and potential built-in bias that makes it unreliable and ripe for racial discrimination.

Democratic members of the House of Representatives published a letter asking several federal agencies to stop the surveillance of people taking part in Black Lives Matter protests. The letter demands that the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the National Guard Bureau, and Customs and Border Protection permanently cease surveilling peaceful protests. (Corinne Reichert / CNET)

As protests against police brutality continue to spread across the country, so too have fictitious rumors about antifa driving from small town to small town, reportedly intent on destruction. The misinformation allows militia members to frame themselves as “the good guys,” fighting a cowardly bogeyman easily vanquished by show of force alone. (Anne Helen Petersen / BuzzFeed)

Some companies are choosing not to advertise on Facebook due to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision not to take action on Trump’s speech that promoted violence. But it’s unclear how much money Facebook has really lost here. (Tiffany Hsu and Cecilia Kang / The New York Times)

Facebook announced it will partially lift an advertising ban on face masks. With shortages now mostly under control, the company will now allow third-party businesses to advertise cloth masks and other non-medical face coverings like bandanas. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

Facebook shut down the accounts of hundreds of anti-racist skinheads for allegedly violating the company’s community standards. Many say Facebook mistakenly conflated their subculture with neo-Nazi groups because of the historic connotations of “skinhead.” (Sarah Emerson / OneZero)

Facebook took an unprecedented step in helping the FBI hack a predator who was threatening and harassing girls. The company paid a third-party cybersecurity firm six figures to help gather evidence that would lead to the man’s arrest and conviction. A truly chilling story all the way around. (Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai / Vice)

Twitter has historically been reticent to limit speech on the platform. But now it’s jumping into a fight against Donald Trump, by putting disclaimers on his tweets. This is the story of how we got here. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg Businessweek)

In response to questions about President Trump’s incendiary tweets, Republican lawmakers tend to say they haven’t seen what he’s said on Twitter. When reporters printed out copies of the tweets to ask for comment, they still managed to avoid it. (Emily Cochrane / The New York Times)

Amazon is setting up its own COVID-19 testing labs at its fulfillment centers, following outbreaks at several locations. The company plans to test all warehouse workers every two weeks. (Christina Farr and Annie Palmer / CNBC)

Amazon recently invited reporters into a fulfillment center in Washington to see its improved safety measures. Now, when workers arrive, they are channeled past thermal cameras to take their temperatures. (Karen Weise and Ruth Fremson / The New York Times)

Contact tracing programs need to work with local communities in order to be successful. That’s especially important for poor communities and communities of color, which may be suspicious of the health care system. (Nicole Wetsman / The Verge)

Contact tracers who are trying to track and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus are being compared to Nazis in conspiracy theory content on Facebook and YouTube. Some are even getting death threats. (Jane Lytvynenko / BuzzFeed)


⭐ India, with its half-billion internet users, is emerging as a key battleground between TikTok and YouTube. It’s the biggest base for TikTok, and YouTube’s fastest growing market. Here’s Saritha Rai at Bloomberg Businessweek:

Each platform has had its share of content catastrophes, but in India, where many of the most downloaded apps are from China, a contentious border dispute has brought anti-China sentiments to the forefront of the TikTok-YouTube rivalry. An app called Remove China that scans devices and detects and discards Chinese-origin apps such as TikTok had notched 5 million downloads before Google removed it from its Play Store for policy violations. Many Indians also feel that Chinese content apps flout local values by showing inappropriate content such as vulgar dance moves. Following the Siddiqui brothers controversy, the rate of TikTok app downloads fell. Local alternatives to TikTok and YouTube — such as Mitron and Bolo Indya — are sprouting up.

Teens on TikTok have inherited the legacy of Weird Twitter and Weird Facebook, playfully posturing as retail stores and brands to create a subculture called Elite TikTok. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)

A TikTok copycat called Zynn is filled with videos that appear to be stolen from creators on other platforms. Influencers say videos they originally published to TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube were uploaded to Zynn without their consent. Google removed it from the Play Store. (Louise Matsakis / Wired)

Tech companies like Salesforce created cushy office environments with all the comforts of home. After the pandemic, they may feel more like hospitals. Say goodbye to the communal sweets jar! (Natasha Singer / The New York Times)

Apple employees in the Bay Area will slowly begin returning to the office starting on June 15th, though most won’t go back for several months. When they return, employees will be required to wear masks at all times. (Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)

Reddit named Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel to its board of directors. Seibel is replacing co-founder and board member Alexis Ohanian, who stepped down from the company’s board of directors last week and asked to be replaced by a black candidate. (Nick Statt / The Verge)

Facebook News, the company’s dedicated journalism section, launched for all users in the US. The product represents Facebook’s last effort in wooing publishers to its platform with the promise of increased distribution. There have been, uh, many of these. (Sarah Perez / TechCrunch)

Here’s how Tinder CEO Elie Seidman is adapting to a world of virtual dating. (Nilay Patel and Ashley Carman / The Verge)

A facial recognition website called PimEyes claims it allows you to upload a picture of anyone and find that same person’s images all around the internet. In essence, it’s not so different from the service provided by Clearview AI. (Dave Gershgorn / OneZero)

Things to do

Stuff to occupy you online during the quarantine.

Buy a bundle of video games to support racial justice and equality.’s games bundle, which offers more than 1,000 games for a minimum contribution of $5, has already raised more than $3 million.

Donate your AdSense revenue to Black Lives Matter-related causes. YouTubers have embraced the practice to quickly raise funds.

Those good tweets

Future historians will be asked which quarter of 2020 they specialize in.

— David Burr Gerrard (@DBGerrard) June 8, 2020

tear down every confederate statue and give them to the guy on youtube who crushes stuff with a hydraulic press

— engels and airwaves (@lenins_gf) June 5, 2020

If @zoom_us's stock price rises another 20%, this is how our calendars will look like.

— Christoph Janz #StayTheFuckHome (@chrija) June 9, 2020

it is the human’s first time trying to change the world. and they are exhausted. so while they rest for a little bit. i have stolen their sign. and will trot proudly around the house with it. until they are ready. to fight again

— Thoughts of Dog® (@dog_feelings) June 10, 2020

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