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During last week’s congressional hearings investigating the accessing of data from (at least) 87 million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica, several Republican lawmakers worried that companies like Facebook might have a “liberal bias” in the way it enforces its rules and moderates content posted by users. In 10 separate instances, Republicans brought up cases in which content posted by conservative-leaning Facebook users had been removed in error by the company. The most frequently cited case was the alleged censorship of conservative video bloggers Diamond and Silk. They have asserted since September that Facebook has purposely limited the reach of their brand page, and on April 5, they received a message from Facebook’s policy team saying the company determined their content was “unsafe to the community.”
Zuckerberg and Facebook have said that the “unsafe to the community” message was sent improperly and have apologized. But the deeper claims of censorship were somewhat misleading: Research by ThinkProgresssuggests that video content from across the political spectrum was made less visible after recent changes to Facebook’s algorithms. By ThinkProgress’ analysis, Diamond and Silk apparently suffered less in these changes than comparable liberal-leaning outlets. Representatives from the company told the Washington Post that they had reached out to Diamond and Silk to provide more context to explain the changes.
To read more, please see the full article on Slate here.
Nathalie Marechal, University of Southern California; Sarah T. Roberts, University of California, Los Angeles
Information and communications technology (ICT) companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Twitter are vitally important to billions of users around the world, not only in their day-to-day personal and professional lives, but also in their ability to shape social and political reality. Yet there is a pervasive lack of clarity around the policies and practices that govern user engagement on these platforms and sites, and the values that undergird them. This information is of great importance to policy researchers and civil society advocates, particularly in the wake of numerous recent events that have put the relative power and opacity of ICT companies in the spotlight. Access to information about them is often incredibly difficult to obtain, when it is available at all. These difficulties are faced by many categories of people interested in researching ICT companies, from academics to journalists, and from civil society advocates to policy researchers.
In this white paper, we outline some of the challenges we have identified as being particularly acute for policy researchers, as well as strategies for working through (and around) those issues. Advocating for civil society, human rights, and democratic values today often requires understanding the role played by ICT companies in deciding what kinds of speech are allowed (or not) on various platforms, in complying (or not) with government requests to restrict content or for user information, and in lobbying governments to enact (or not) various laws and regulations. Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies are expected to respect human rights even as nation-states retain primary responsibility for protecting human rights. As is true of many UN norms, the Guiding Principles lack a formal enforcement mechanism, so other, often soft measures have been employed in order to enact results, or even to simply gain information. Although often with various end goals in mind, journalists, researchers and global civil society organizations share the common need to know more about these practices, policies and internal guiding principles that influence the behavior and outcomes of platforms. For this reason, this disparate group with varying constituencies have developed shared techniques to obtain information about ICT companies’ policies and practices, and, importantly, to influence them. This includes sustaining demands for engagement, “naming and shaming,” shareholder advocacy, litigation, and more. These strategies all hinge on civil society groups knowing what companies are up to.
To read the full field guide, click here.
How do privacy activists see the role that online companies play in the surveillant assemblage and how does it influence their campaigning and political communication? The first two major protest events in the aftermath of Snowden’s leaks, “Restore the Fourth” and “Stop Watching Us,” focused on government spying and largely ignored the involvement of corporate actors – although, as PRISM leaks detailed, the massive amount of personal data collected by Google, Facebook, and others had eventually landed in the hands of the government.
The latter half of the first post-Snowden year, in the form of two online protest events, “The Day We Fight Back” and “Reset the Net,” saw varied attempts to address the data gathering practices of online companies, though these were carried out differently than one might have imagined. Instead of outright opposing corporate surveillance, privacy activist networks sought to include companies in their campaigns and formed temporary coalitions with them.
While aligning with corporate players like Google helped the campaigns generate a critical mass and relatively wide coverage in the media, arguably the companies have benefitted more from this partnership than the privacy advocacy community. Based on interviews with a wide array of activists, two lines of argumentations emerged about the relationship between corporations and the activist community. One stressed the necessity to uphold a constant dialogue with the companies rather than to alienate them, ensuring good and professional relations and the possibility to create change by making use of that relationship. On the other hand, some activists were deeply disturbed by the ties between some activist organizations and corporate actors, fearing that it would ultimately undermine their core message… Click here to read more.
Baidu, China’s largest search engine and one of its largest information technology companies, is on the move. In 2012 it announced plans to expand beyond Chinese borders and in 2014 began offering services in Vietnam, with similar ventures in Indonesia, Brazil, Egypt and Thailand. This project traces Baidu’s expansion into Thailand, focusing on its search product. In doing so it builds on Jiang’s work on Baidu and adds to a growing body of commentary on Chinese tech expansion abroad. Much of this commentary raises fears of the expansion of Chinese tech companies on the grounds that it will lead to censorship and access to vital industries and resources. Click here to read more.