The Free Internet Project


FCC request for comments on issuing regulations on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Earlier in August 2020, the Federal Communications Commission opened a public comment period for people to express their views on "Petition for Rulemaking recently filed by the Department of Commerce regarding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996." The inquiry was prompted by Donald Trump's Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, issued on May 28, 2020. Trump has accused social media sites of suppressing conservative speech after Twitter flagged some of his tweets for violating their community standards. In the Executive Order, Trump takes the view that Internet companies that "engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints" should lose immunity under Section 230 of the CDA. That provision states in part: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." (47 U.S.C. § 230). For more about how Section 230 operates, read our prior explanation. This legislation from a time when internet communications were in their infancy has been a vital protection invoked by social media sites that enable their users to exchange information. In the Executive Order, Trump called upon "the Secretary of Commerce (Secretary), in consultation with the Attorney General, and acting through the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), [to] file a petition for rulemaking with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requesting that the FCC expeditiously propose regulations to clarify" Section 230. The NTIA did so, largely along the lines suggested by the Executive Order. 

Now, the FCC has opened up public comments on the NTIA petition. As of Aug. 24, 2020, the FCC has received 619 comments.  The FCC's involvement has already drawn controversy. In a speech in May, Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O'Reilly expressed "deep reservations" about whether the FCC had any authority to issue regulations on Section 230. On August 4, the White House announced it was withdrawing O'Reilly's nomination for another term on the FCC, meaning his tenure will end before the new Congress starts next year, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Whether or not the FCC has legal authority to issue regulations related to Section 230 (which it hasn't done so far) is likely to be contested. It its petition, the NTIA argues: 

Section 201(b) of the Communications Act (Act) empowers the Commission to “prescribe such rules and regulations as may be necessary in the public interest to carry out this chapter.” Under this authority, the FCC should promulgate rules to resolve ambiguities in Section 230. The Supreme Court has confirmed that “the grant in section 201(b) means what it says: The FCC has rulemaking authority to carry out the ‘provisions of this Act.’” Section 230, in turn, was incorporated into the Act – in the same portion of the Act, Title II, as section 201(b) – by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (1996 Act). The fact that section 230 was enacted after section 201(b) is of no consequence; the Supreme Court repeatedly has held that the Commission’s section 201(b) rulemaking power extends to all subsequently enacted provisions of the Act, specifically identifying those added by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Thus, the Commission has authority under section 201(b) to initiate a rulemaking to implement section 230. That broad rulemaking authority includes the power to clarify the language of that provision, as requested in the petition.



NYT: Facebook developing contingency plans and "kill switch" on political ads if Trump tries to "wrongly claim on the site that he won"

On Aug. 21, 2020, Mike Isaac and Sheera Frankel of the New York Times reported that Facebook is developing contingency plans just in case Donald Trump "wrongly claim[s] on the site that he won" contrary to the actual election results should they be against him. Facebook is also weighing how it should deal with Trump's attempts to delegitimize the actual election results by "by declaring that the Postal Service lost mail-in ballots or that other groups meddled with the vote." The source are "people with knowledge of Facebook's plans. Facebook is even considering creating a "kill switch" to remove political ads that contain false election results.

Google is also discussing contingency plans for the U.S. elections, but didn't reveal further details.

It's not hard to envision another nightmare Bush v. Gore scenario, in which the result of the presidential election is contested. Trump has already attacked mail-in voting.  According to the NYT, in part due to the pandemic, 9 states have mailed ballots to all voters, while 34 other states allow voters to elect mail-in voting for any reason and 7 states allow mail-in voting for certain reasons.  Prof. Ned Foley has highlighted one reason this year's election may result in a contested outcome and litigation: mail-in ballots typically result in a "blue shift" with more ballots for Democrats than Republicans in past elections from mail-in ballots for reasons that are not entirely clear.  Thus, in close races, the "blue shift" might flip a state from Republican to Democrat when the mail-in votes are counted, giving rise to unsubstantiaed claims of foul play. For more about this scenario, read this Atlantic article

D.C. Circuit Blocks Trump Appointee Michael Pack from Replacing Open Technology Funds’ Leadership

Granting an emergency motion, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction blocking the new CEO of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) Michael Pack, appointed by Donald Trump, from replacing the existing Open Technology Fund (OTF) board members with his own replacements.The OTF is a non-profit organization, one of several global media agencies monitored by the US. The OTF has funded programs in sixty countries, providing nearly two billion people, including journalists, with secured and uncensored communication tools, according to the Washington Post.

On July 21, 2020, the D.C. Court of Appeals disagreed with the lower court's rejection of the Open Technology Fund's motion for preliminary injunction. In its order, the D.C. Court of Appeals found that OTF had shown a likelihoood of success that Pack lacked statutory authority "to remove and replace members of OTF's board."  The court also found OTF would suffer irreparable harm without the injunction: “[T]he government's actions have jeopardized OTF’s relationships with its partner organizations, leading its partner organizations to fear for their safety.” The injunction restored the status quo – it reinstated the previous OTF board until the court issues a decision in the expedited appeal.

A lawyer for OTF board members, Deepak Gupta, applauded the decision. Gupta stated Pack’s actions don’t “just harm OTF and the people who work there. OTF works to advance internet freedom in repressive regimes around the world and Pack’s actions have put the safety of activists and journalists, in places like Tehran and Hong Kong, at risk.”

One day after the D.C. Circuit issued its order, the D.C. Attorney General, Karl Racine, also sued the USAGM alleging Pack’s attempted takeover of the OTF violated a local law concerning the governance of non-profit organizations. Plaintiffs in this new lawsuit include OTF board members, former ambassadors Ryan Cocker and Karen Kornbluh, public relations executive Michael Kempner, and Democratic technology policy advisor Ben Scott.

Pack took office in June 2020. Shortly after his confirmation, Pack fired the leadership of taxpayer-funded media organizations the USAGM oversees and replaced them with career officials. Three such international media outlets’ ousted leadership include Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Pack’s actions in the last month have raised massive concerns from many – from House Representatives, Senators, and others. Pack’s actions are being seen as an effort to foster favorable media coverage of Trump and his Administration.

Eleven Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives penned a letter to the heads of the House of Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Program, stating they were “deeply concerned about the firings of qualified leadership and “reports that USAGM has frozen funds and grants” for programs related to censorship evasion and internet freedom in Hong Kong and elsewhere."

Seven U.S. Senators, including GOP Senators Rubio and Graham, wrote a letter directly to Pack. In the letter, Rubio and his colleagues wrote:

The termination of qualified, expert staff and network heads for no specific reason as well as the removal of their boards raises questions about the preservation of these entities and their ability to implement their statutory missions now and in the future. These actions, which came without any consultation with Congress, let alone notification, raise serious questions about the future of the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) under your leadership.

Another major worry concerns the switch to closed-source technologies, as opposed to the open-source technologies that OTF has built its reputation on. Open-source software publishes its source code publicly, so it can be studied, verified, and improved upon by others; closed-source software does not.

“This is really the worst-case scenario,” Jillian York, the Director of International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told VICE News. She continued, “I think the really dangerous thing here is that the new leadership is under pressure to fund these closed-source technologies.”


Revisiting the Net Neutrality debate in U.S. ahead of 2020 Election

With the COVID-19 pandemic, people are in their homes more than ever. Whether it be jobs, school, or recreation, the internet is being used more than ever before, as the New York Times reported. The pandemic has pushed society to rely on online technologies, including professional video calls, virtual interviewing, and complex educational courses completely online. Though most of us take the internet’s speed and extensive supply of content on almost all topics for granted, the rules for Internet access providers are controversial. 

The main area of contention is whether the government should require Internet access providers (e.g., Comcast, Verizon) to abide by principles of net neutrality. Net neutrality “is the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) equitably provide consumer access to any legal online content and application, regardless of the source.” Thus, under net neutrality, ISPs including entities like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast Xfinity “cannot block or slow legal content flowing through their networks" or show favoritism to some websites over others. When net neutrality is discussed by the government and ISPs there are three main actions that are in question: blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization. Blocking refers to an ISP’s ability to prevent its customers from accessing content from legal sources. For example, if Verizon intentionally blocks its customers from seeing the AT&T website. Throttling is when an ISP slows or interferes with the transmission of content a customer is searching for. For example, if AT&T only allows a customer to see half of a website or makes the loading so slow that the customer chooses not to go on it. Throttling tends to go hand-in-hand with the third action called paid prioritization which is when an ISP charges additional fees to content providers if they want their content to be quickly delivered to their customers. For example, if AT&T charges CNN a prioritization fee then AT&T will ensure CNN can be quickly accessed. Also, this could include throttling of competing news outlets’ websites and slowing down customers’ access to them in order to prioritize CNN.

FCC’s Regulatory Structure

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the government entity that monitors the ISPs’ actions and they strategize how best to protect consumers in the internet space. The level of transparency ISPs have to meet in relation to blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization depends on what the FCC requires. The president of the United States chooses who become the chairman of the FCC, therefore the entity’s actions tend to be far from apolitical and change depending on who is in office.

The initial rules governing the telecommunications world were established in 1934 with the Communications Act. The FCC was given the responsibility of overseeing and regulating “telephone, telegraph, and radio communication.” Later, this was updated to technologies such as cable, broadcasting, and satellite television. Within the Communications Act, two regulatory frameworks were established: Information Services and Telecommunication Services (also known as Common Carriers). Information services are “platforms that generate, store, transform, retrieve, and process information via telecommunications.” Information services are given lighter regulations as compared to common carriers. Common carriers are “services transmitting energy for hire, including telecommunication services.” These carriers have historically faced more regulation similar to gas, electric, and telephone providers. These regulations include limitations on prices and the nature of the services provided.

Regulatory Framework Under President Obama

In 2010, the FCC established the Open Internet Order, which included new rules that were meant to provide broad internet access and create a “neutral network.” This order required ISPs to be completely transparent about any and all “blocking and unreasonable discrimination of content” that they were engaging in. An Internet Advisory Committee was established within the FCC that would monitor the ISPs and enforce the rules. Challenge to the Open Internet Order was brought claiming that ISPs were information services and therefore wrongfully heavily regulated. The DC Circuit Court upheld this challenge and ruled that information services cannot be regulated like this. Also, the anti-blocking and nondiscrimination rules were ruled too restrictive for information services. However, the transparency requirement was upheld. 

Afterwards, the FCC revised their policy and in 2015 issued the “Net Neutrality Rules for Open Internet" under FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. This policy held ISPs to the same standard as telephone companies and therefore, established them as common carriers, which can be regulated to a greater extent. This order prohibited ISPs from any blocking throttling, or paid prioritization. It also established general conduct standards to protect consumers from discriminatory practices as well as continued to enforce transparency rules. The DC Circuit Court ruled this new policy lawful due to ISPs being categorized as common carriers. For a timeline of net neutrality under the Obama administration, visit here.

Regulatory Framework Under President Trump

Shortly after President Trump’s election, the new FCC leadership under Chairman Ajit Pai proceeded to dismantle the prior net neutrality rules. In 2017, a new FCC order titled "Restoring Internet Freedom" was issued. It reclassified ISPs as information services, therefore shielding them from extensive regulation. It also eliminated any rules prohibiting blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, however transparency regarding these practices is still required. The FCC also gave the Federal Trade Commission the authority to take action against any terms of service violations by the ISPs, thus almost completely eliminating the FCC’s regulatory power. The Trump administration claims that any state interference in the ISPs’ work would go against the federal regulatory framework and be too controlling of the industry. The D.C. Circuit upheld the FCC's repeal of net neutrality, but remanded the case for consideration of several issues.

Since this policy was established, many net neutrality advocates, consumer groups, and other concerned individuals have tried to sue the FCC. Also, states such as California, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have enacted their own net neutrality rules that promote more government regulation on the ISPs that are providing services in their states. However, the federal government is challenging California's net neutrality law.

Regulatory Framework Proposed by the Biden Campaign

Former Vice President Biden’s campaign crafted a task force document with Senator Bernie Sanders and other left-leaning individuals to create an internet plan that restores net neutrality. As reported by Gizmodo, Biden has committed to investing $20 billion in rural broadband internet access and he believes that more public investment in broadband infrastructure can benefit Americans from all backgrounds. If he is elected, Biden promises to re-establish the rules prohibiting blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, most likely through the reclassification of ISPs as common carriers. Though as president Biden would not have direct say over net neutrality, he will be able to choose the new FCC chairman who aligns with his policy goals.

Regardless of your political alignment, access to the internet has become more important than ever. Whether the U.S. government should adopt net neutrality is a controversy that divides the two presidential candidates and two political parties. 

--written by Mariam Tabrez


Summary: Mounting Allegations Facebook, Zuckerberg Have Political Bias and Favoritism for Trump and conservatives in content moderation

In the past week, more allegations surfaced that Facebook executives have been intervening in questionable ways in the company's content moderation procedure that show favoritism to Donald Trump, Breitbart, and other conservatives. These news reports cut against the narrative that Facebook has an "anti-conservative bias." For example, according to some allegations, Facebook executives didn't want to enforce existing community standards or change the community standards in a way that would flag conservatives for violations, even when the content moderators found violations by conservatives.  Below is a summary of the main allegations that Facebook has been politically biased in favor of Trump and conservatives.  This page will be updated if more allegations are reported.

Ben Smith, How Pro-Trump Forces Work the Refs in Silicon Valley, N.Y. Times (Aug. 9, 2020): "Since then, Facebook has sought to ingratiate itself to the Trump administration, while taking a harder line on Covid-19 misinformation. As the president’s backers post wild claims on the social network, the company offers the equivalent of wrist slaps — a complex fact-checking system that avoids drawing the company directly into the political fray. It hasn’t worked: The fact-checking subcontractors are harried umpires, an easy target for Trump supporters’ ire....In fact, two people close to the Facebook fact-checking process told me, the vast bulk of the posts getting tagged for being fully or partly false come from the right. That’s not bias. It’s because sites like The Gateway Pundit are full of falsehoods, and because the president says false things a lot."

Olivia Solon, Sensitive to claims of bias, Facebook relaxed misinformation rules for conservative pages, NBC News (Aug. 7, 2020, 2:31 PM): "The list and descriptions of the escalations, leaked to NBC News, showed that Facebook employees in the misinformation escalations team, with direct oversight from company leadership, deleted strikes during the review process that were issued to some conservative partners for posting misinformation over the last six months. The discussions of the reviews showed that Facebook employees were worried that complaints about Facebook's fact-checking could go public and fuel allegations that the social network was biased against conservatives. The removal of the strikes has furthered concerns from some current and former employees that the company routinely relaxes its rules for conservative pages over fears about accusations of bias."

Craig Silverman, Facebook Fired an Employee Who Collected Evidence of Right-Wing Page Getting Preferential Treatment, Buzzfeed (Aug. 6, 2020, 4:13 PM): "[S]ome of Facebook’s own employees gathered evidence they say shows Breitbart — along with other right-wing outlets and figures including Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, Trump supporters Diamond and Silk, and conservative video production nonprofit Prager University — has received special treatment that helped it avoid running afoul of company policy. They see it as part of a pattern of preferential treatment for right-wing publishers and pages, many of which have alleged that the social network is biased against conservatives." Further: "Individuals that spoke out about the apparent special treatment of right-wing pages have also faced consequences. In one case, a senior Facebook engineer collected multiple instances of conservative figures receiving unique help from Facebook employees, including those on the policy team, to remove fact-checks on their content. His July post was removed because it violated the company’s 'respectful communication policy.'”

Ryan Mac, Instagram Displayed Negative Related Hashtags for Biden, but Hid them for Trump, Buzzfeed (Aug. 5, 2020, 12:17 PM): "For at least the last two months, a key Instagram feature, which algorithmically pushes users toward supposedly related content, has been treating hashtags associated with President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in very different ways. Searches for Biden also return a variety of pro-Trump messages, while searches for Trump-related topics only returned the specific hashtags, like #MAGA or #Trump — which means searches for Biden-related hashtags also return counter-messaging, while those for Trump do not."

Ryan Mac & Craig Silverman, "Hurting People at Scale": Facebook's Employees Reckon with the Social Network They've Built, Buzzfeed (July 23, 2020, 12:59 PM): Yaël Eisenstat, Facebook's former election ads integrity lead "said the company’s policy team in Washington, DC, led by Joel Kaplan, sought to unduly influence decisions made by her team, and the company’s recent failure to take appropriate action on posts from President Trump shows employees are right to be upset and concerned."

Elizabeth Dwoskin, Craig Timberg, & Tony Romm, Zuckerberg once wanted to sanction Trump. Then Facebook wrote rules that accommodated him., Wash. Post (June 28, 2020, 6:25 PM): "But that started to change in 2015, as Trump’s candidacy picked up speed. In December of that year, he posted a video in which he said he wanted to ban all Muslims from entering the United States. The video went viral on Facebook and was an early indication of the tone of his candidacy....Ultimately, Zuckerberg was talked out of his desire to remove the post in part by Kaplan, according to the people. Instead, the executives created an allowance that newsworthy political discourse would be taken into account when making decisions about whether posts violated community guidelines....In spring of 2016, Zuckerberg was also talked out of his desire to write a post specifically condemning Trump for his calls to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, after advisers in Washington warned it could look like choosing sides, according to Dex Torricke-Barton, one of Zuckerberg’s former speechwriters."  

Regarding election interference: "Facebook’s security engineers in December 2016 presented findings from a broad internal investigation, known as Project P, to senior leadership on how false and misleading news reports spread so virally during the election. When Facebook’s security team highlighted dozens of pages that had peddled false news reports, senior leaders in Washington, including Kaplan, opposed shutting them down immediately, arguing that doing so would disproportionately impact conservatives, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking. Ultimately, the company shut down far fewer pages than were originally proposed while it began developing a policy to handle these issues."

Craig Timberg, How conservatives learned to wield power inside Facebook, Wash. Post (Feb. 20, 2020, 1:20 PM): "In a world of perfect neutrality, which Facebook espouses as its goal, the political tilt of the pages shouldn’t have mattered. But in a videoconference between Facebook’s Washington office and its Silicon Valley headquarters in December 2016, the company’s most senior Republican, Joel Kaplan, voiced concerns that would become familiar to those within the company. 'We can’t remove all of it because it will disproportionately affect conservatives,; said Kaplan, a former George W. Bush White House official and now the head of Facebook’s Washington office, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships."

Related articles about Facebook

Ben Smith, What's Facebook's Deal with Donald Trump?NY Times (June 21, 2020): "Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, pulled together the dinner on Oct. 22 on short notice after he learned that Mr. Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would be in Washington for a cryptocurrency hearing on Capitol Hill, a person familiar with the planning said. The dinner, the person said, took place in the Blue Room on the first floor of the White House. The guest list included Mr. Thiel, a Trump supporter, and his husband, Matt Danzeisen; Melania Trump; Mr. Kushner; and Ivanka Trump. The president, a person who has spoken to Mr. Zuckerberg said, did most of the talking. The atmosphere was convivial, another person who got an account of the dinner said. Mr. Trump likes billionaires and likes people who are useful to him, and Mr. Zuckerberg right now is both."

Deepa Seetharaman, How a Facebook Employee Helped Trump Win--But Switched Sides for 2020, Wall St. J (Nov. 24, 2019, 3:18 PM): "One of the first things Mr. Barnes and his team advised campaign officials to do was to start running fundraising ads targeting Facebook users who liked or commented on Mr. Trump’s posts over the past month, using a product now called 'engagement custom audiences.' The product, which Mr. Barnes hand-coded, was available to a small group, including Republican and Democratic political clients. (The ad tool was rolled out widely around Election Day.) Within the first few days, every dollar that the Trump campaign spent on these ads yielded $2 to $3 in contributions, said Mr. Barnes, who added that the campaign raised millions of dollars in those first few days. Mr. Barnes frequently flew to Texas, sometimes staying for four days at a time and logging 12-hour days. By July, he says, he was solely focused on the Trump campaign. When on-site in the building that served as the Trump campaign’s digital headquarters in San Antonio, he sometimes sat a few feet from Mr. Parscale. The intense pace reflected Trump officials’ full embrace of Facebook’s platform, in the absence of a more traditional campaign structure including donor files and massive email databases."

Claiming "national emergency," Trump Issues Executive Order Banning US transactions with TikTok and WeChat

Late on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020, Donald Trump issued two executive orders, one against TikTok and the other against Tencent's messaging platform WeChat.  Claiming a "national emergency," Trump invoked the authority of the "President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, including the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) (IEEPA), the National Emergencies Act (50 U.S.C. 1601 et seq.), and section 301 of title 3, United States Code." For a good summary of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, read Anupam Chander's recent Washington Post op-ed and this NPR interview with Elizabeth Goitein.

The Executive Orders prohibits, "to the exent permitted under applicable law," any transactions with "ByteDance Ltd. (a.k.a. Zìjié Tiàodòng), Beijing, China, or its subsidiaries, in which any such company has any interest" (ByteDance owns TikTok) and with WeChat in 45 days.  The Secretary of Commerce is to identify the transactions prohibited by the order 45 days after the date of the order.  The Excecutive Order also prohibits "[a]ny transaction by a United States person or within the United States that evades or avoids, has the purpose of evading or avoiding, causes a violation of, or attempts to violate the prohibition." To justify this emergency action, Trump claimed the following charges on Bytedance and TikTok:

I, DONALD J. TRUMP, President of the United States of America, find that additional steps must be taken to deal with the national emergency with respect to the information and communications technology and services supply chain declared in Executive Order 13873 of May 15, 2019 (Securing the Information and Communications Technology and Services Supply Chain).  Specifically, the spread in the United States of mobile applications developed and owned by companies in the People’s Republic of China (China) continues to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.  At this time, action must be taken to address the threat posed by one mobile application in particular, TikTok.

TikTok, a video-sharing mobile application owned by the Chinese company ByteDance Ltd., has reportedly been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States and over one billion times globally.  TikTok automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users, including Internet and other network activity information such as location data and browsing and search histories.  This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information — potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage.

TikTok also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive, such as content concerning protests in Hong Kong and China’s treatment of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.  This mobile application may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party, such as when TikTok videos spread debunked conspiracy theories about the origins of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus.

These risks are real.  The Department of Homeland Security, Transportation Security Administration, and the United States Armed Forces have already banned the use of TikTok on Federal Government phones.  The Government of India recently banned the use of TikTok and other Chinese mobile applications throughout the country; in a statement, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asserted that they were “stealing and surreptitiously transmitting users’ data in an unauthorized manner to servers which have locations outside India.”  American companies and organizations have begun banning TikTok on their devices.  The United States must take aggressive action against the owners of TikTok to protect our national security.

Trump made similar charges against WeChat:

WeChat, a messaging, social media, and electronic payment application owned by the Chinese company Tencent Holdings Ltd., reportedly has over one billion users worldwide, including users in the United States.  Like TikTok, WeChat automatically captures vast swaths of information from its users.  This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information.  In addition, the application captures the personal and proprietary information of Chinese nationals visiting the United States, thereby allowing the Chinese Communist Party a mechanism for keeping tabs on Chinese citizens who may be enjoying the benefits of a free society for the first time in their lives.  For example, in March 2019, a researcher reportedly discovered a Chinese database containing billions of WeChat messages sent from users in not only China but also the United States, Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia.  WeChat, like TikTok, also reportedly censors content that the Chinese Communist Party deems politically sensitive and may also be used for disinformation campaigns that benefit the Chinese Communist Party.  These risks have led other countries, including Australia and India, to begin restricting or banning the use of WeChat.  The United States must take aggressive action against the owner of WeChat to protect our national security.

In a company blog post, TikTok said: "We will pursue all remedies available to us in order to ensure that the rule of law is not discarded and that our company and our users are treated fairly – if not by the Administration, then by the US courts." TikTok also called upon its 100 users in the U.S. to make their voices heard in the White House: "We want the 100 million Americans who love our platform because it is your home for expression, entertainment, and connection to know: TikTok has never, and will never, waver in our commitment to you. We prioritize your safety, security, and the trust of our community – always. As TikTok users, creators, partners, and family, you have the right to express your opinions to your elected representatives, including the White House. You have the right to be heard."

In a report by CNN, a Tencent spokesperson said it it reviewing the Executive Order. There is some confusion on the scope of the Executive Order, which names any transactions with "Tencent Holdings" (not just WeChat). Tencent is a massive global conglomerate with many products and services (e.g., videogames by Riot Games, such as "League of Legends"), not just WeChat. A White House representative later confirmed to the LA Times that the order only applies to WeChat, not all of Tencent.

Meanwhile, according to the Wall St. Journal, bills have passed in the House and Senate that, if enacted, would ban federal employees from using TikTok on government devices. To pass, Congress would have to agree on the same bill.

Facebook removes Donald Trump post regarding children "almost immune" for violating rules on COVID misinformation; Twitter temporarily suspends Trump campaign account for same COVID misinformation

On August 5, 2020, as reported by the Wall St. Journal, Facebook removed a post from Donald Trump that contained a video of an interview he did with Fox News in which he reportedly said that children are "almost immune from this disease." Trump also said COVID-19 “is going to go away,” and that “schools should open” because “this it will go away like things go away.” A Facebook spokesperson explained to the Verge: "This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation." 

Twitter temporarily suspended the @TeamTrump campaign account from tweeting because of the same content. "The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation,” Twitter spokesperson Aly Pavela said in a statement to TechCrunch. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.” The Trump campaign resumed tweeting so it appears it complied and removed the tweet. 

Neither Facebook nor Twitter provided much explanation of their decisions on their platforms, at least based on our search. They likely interpreted "almost immune from this disease" as misleading because children of every age can be infected by coronavirus and suffer adverse effects, including death (e.g., 6 year old, 9 year old, and 11 year old). In Florida, 23,170 minors tested positive for coronavirus by July 2020, for example. The CDC just published a study on the spread of coronavirus among children at summer camp in Georgia and found extensive infection spread among the children: 

These findings demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission. Asymptomatic infection was common and potentially contributed to undetected transmission, as has been previously reported (1–4). This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection (1–3) and, contrary to early reports (5,6), might play an important role in transmission (7,8). 

Experts around the world are conducting studies to learn more about how COVID-19 affects children.  The Smithsonian Magazine compiles a summary of the some of these studies and is well worth reading.  One of the studies from the Department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine did examine the hypothesis: "Decreased susceptibility could result from immune cross-protection from other coronaviruses9,10,11, or from non-specific protection resulting from recent infection by other respiratory viruses12, which children experience more frequently than adults." But the study noted: "Direct evidence for decreased susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 in children has been mixed, but if true could result in lower transmission in the population overall." This inquiry was undertaken because, thus far, children have reported fewer positive tests than adults. According to the Mayo Clinic Staff: "Children of all ages can become ill with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). But most kids who are infected typically don't become as sick as adults and some might not show any symptoms at all." Moreover, a study from researchers in Berlin found that children "carried the same viral load, a signal of infectiousness." The Smithsonian Magazine article underscores that experts believe more data and studies are needed to understand how COVID-19 affects children.

Speaking of the Facebook removal, Courtney Parella, a spokesperson for the Trump campaign, said: "The President was stating a fact that children are less susceptible to the coronavirus. Another day, another display of Silicon Valley's flagrant bias against this President, where the rules are only enforced in one direction. Social media companies are not the arbiters of truth."

US Senate Intelligence Committee Issues 4th Report on Russian Interference Based on 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment


On April 21, 2020, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee published the fourth and penultimate volume of an extensive report on Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. Volume 4 is titled “Review of the Intelligence Community Assessment.” It examines the 2017 Intelligence Committee Assessment (ICA) that determined that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. election. The Committee examined the sources and work behind creating the ICA, amidst the controversy over the U.S. intelligence investigation raised by the Trump Administration, which claimed it was politically motivated against him. The Senate Intelligence Committee report repudiates that notioin. In accordance with protecting the identities of the sources behind the ICA, much of the 157-page report has been redacted. The report unanimously concludes that the findings in the 2017 ICA back up the suspected aggressive propaganda campaign and interference conducted by Russia in the 2016 U.S. election.

Volume 4's unredacted factual background and the key findings of the examination of the ICA provide a clear view of the Committee's finding. The Committee's examination of the ICA was conducted by reviewing source documents along with interviews with officials involved in preparing the assessment. In reviewing the ICA, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) stated the committee looked at two key issues: (1) whether the final product of the ICA met the task assigned by the President; and (2) if the analysis was backed by the intelligence provided in the ICA. Burr concluded that the analysis and conclusion in the ICA were strong. No reason could be found to dispute the findings by the Intelligence Community. In a statement, Chairman Burr concluded: "The I.C.A. reflects strong tradecraft, sound analytical reasoning and proper justification of disagreement in the one analytical line where it occurred. The committee found no reason to dispute the intelligence community’s conclusions.”

The warnings of continued Russian interference and also the vigilance needed due to continued interference for the 2020 election were reaffirmed in the ICA. Russia sought to interfere with the 2016 election to harm the candidacy of Secretary HIllary Clinton and to help elect then-candidate Donald Trump. The Russian interference did not stop after the 2016 election. Russia has continued to interfere with American democracy and the extent of the aggressive attacks as noted in ICA is not exaggerated, the Senate report determined. Both Chairman Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) concluded there is no doubt that Russia will once again interfere in the 2020 election as they did in 2016.

While much of the report is redacted, the key findings validate the 2017 ICA:

  1. The ICA met the task assigned by the President; providing a bipartisan analysis of the Russian interference. None of the individuals involved in the drafting of the ICA were biased to reach specified conclusions by a particular political party, because of this the ICA provided an accurate reporting of the Russian interference during the 2016 election.
  2. The aggressive and unprecedented nature of Russia’s interference on the 2016 election is well documented in the ICA. The reporting does not far exceed its reach, with regards to warning policy makers of Russia’s role.
  3. It is important to note that within the ICA no policy recommendation was made in regard to combatting future Russian interference. While it is all but assured that Russia will again interfere in 2020, no recommendations are given. The lack of policy suggestion is intentional. The intelligence committee themselves do not make any policy, they are simply set aside to provide detailed analysis and warnings to those in place to lawfully create policy.
  4. It is noteworthy that the ICA does not include much information about any attempt that Russia made to interfere with the election in 2008 and 2012. Instead making it clear the actions in 2016 were unprecedented.

The Committee did find that the ICA fell short in certain areas. While the ICA provided a comprehensive insight about 2016 and warnings about Russia’s continued interference, they did not delve into Russian propaganda through state-owned media platforms. The lack of insight into media networks such of RT’s coverage on the leaks from Wikileaks’ containing information about the Democratic National Committee would have aided in further substantiating the full brevity of the Russian propaganda.  

Volume 4 further substantiates the need for greater steps to stop Russian interference in the U.S. election. A fifth and final volume is expected by the Committee as part of its report on the Russian interference on the election.

-written by Bisola Oni

Over 130 Companies Remove Ads from Facebook in #StopHateforProfit Boycott, forcing Mark Zuckerberg to change lax Facebook policy on misinformation and hate content

In the aftermath of Cambridge Analytica scandal in which the company exploited Facebook to target and manipulate swing voters in the 2016 U.S. election, Facebook did an internal review to examine the company's role in spreading misinformation and fake news that may have affected the election, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced. In 2018, Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was making changes to be better prepared to stop misinformation in the 2020 election. Critics criticized the changes as modest, however. As WSJ reporters Jeff Horwitz and Deepa Seetharaman detailed, Facebook executives largely rejected the internal study's recommendations to reduce polarization on Facebook. Doing so might be "paternalistic" and might open Facebook up to criticisms of being biased against conservatives.

Despite the concerns about fake news and misinformation affecting the 2020 election, Facebook took the position that fact checking for misinformation did not apply to the posts and ads by politicians in the same way as they applied to everyone else. Facebook's policy was even more permissive to political ads and politicians. As shown below, Facebook justified this hands-off position as advancing political speech: "Our approach is grounded in Facebook's fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, especially in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is the most scrutinized speech there is. Just as critically, by limiting political speech we would leave people less informed about what their elected officials are saying and leave politicians less accountable for their words."

Facebook's Fact-Checking Exception for Politicians and Political Ads

By contrast, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey decided to ban political ads in 2019 and to monitor the content politicians just as Twitter does with all other users for misinformation and other violations of Twitter's policy.  Yet Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach: "“I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online." Zuckerberg even said Twitter was wrong to add warnings to two of President Trump's tweets as misleading (regarding mail-in ballots) and glorifying violence (Trump said, "When the looting starts, the shooting starts" regarding the protests of the Minneapolis police Derek Chauvin killing of George Floyd)  Back in October 2019, Zuckerberg defended his approach in the face of withering questioning by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 


In May and June 2020, Zuckerberg persisted in his "hands off" approach. Some Facebook employees quit in protest, while others staged a walkout.  Yet Zuckerberg still persisted. 

On June 17, 2020, Color of Change, which is "the nation’s largest online racial justice organization," organized with NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Sleeping Giants, Free Press, and Common Sense Media a boycott of advertising on Facebook for the month of July. The boycott was labeled #StopHateforProfit. Within just 10 days, over 130 companies joined the ad boycott of Facebook.  It included many large companies, such as Ben and Jerry's, Coca-Cola, Dockers, Eddie Bauer, Levi's, The North Face, REI, Unilver, and Verizon. 

On June 26, 2020, Zuckerberg finally announced some changes to Facebook's policy.  The biggest changes:

(1) Moderating hateful content in ads. As Zuckerberg explained on his Facebook page, "We already restrict certain types of content in ads that we allow in regular posts, but we want to do more to prohibit the kind of divisive and inflammatory language that has been used to sow discord. So today we're prohibiting a wider category of hateful content in ads. Specifically, we're expanding our ads policy to prohibit claims that people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others. We're also expanding our policies to better protect immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from ads suggesting these groups are inferior or expressing contempt, dismissal or disgust directed at them."

(2) Adding labels to posts, including from candidates, that may violate Facebook's policy. As Zuckerberg explained, "Often, seeing speech from politicians is in the public interest, and in the same way that news outlets will report what a politician says, we think people should generally be able to see it for themselves on our platforms.

"We will soon start labeling some of the content we leave up because it is deemed newsworthy, so people can know when this is the case. We'll allow people to share this content to condemn it, just like we do with other problematic content, because this is an important part of how we discuss what's acceptable in our society -- but we'll add a prompt to tell people that the content they're sharing may violate our policies.

"To clarify one point: there is no newsworthiness exemption to content that incites violence or suppresses voting. Even if a politician or government official says it, if we determine that content may lead to violence or deprive people of their right to vote, we will take that content down. Similarly, there are no exceptions for politicians in any of the policies I'm announcing here today." 

Facebook's new labeling of content of candidates sounds very similar to what Zuckerberg criticized Twitter as being wrong. And Facebook's new policy on moderating hateful content in ads that "are a threat to the physical safety, health or survival of others," including "people from a specific race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, caste, sexual orientation, gender identity or immigration status," seems a positive step to prevent Facebook being a platform to sow racial discord, which is a goal of Russian operatives according to U.S. intelligence. 

Facebook new policy on moderation of political ads and posts by politicians and others

The organizers of the boycott, however, were not impressed with Facebook's changes. They issued a statement quoted by NPR: "None of this will be vetted or verified — or make a dent in the problem on the largest social media platform on the planet. We have been down this road before with Facebook. They have made apologies in the past. They have taken meager steps after each catastrophe where their platform played a part. But this has to end now."


Trump Campaign Snaps at Being Removed from Snapchat's Discover Page

On June 3, 2020, Snapchat decided to stop promoting the Snapchat account of Donald Trump on its Discover page, which provides a feed of stories from celebrities and other popular profiles that are curated by Snapchat for its users.


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