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3 social media CEOs face grilling by GOP senators on bias

Inside Telecom Staff

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The CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google are facing a grilling by Republican senators making unfounded allegations that the tech giants show anti-conservative bias.

The Senate Commerce Committee has summoned Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai to testify for a hearing Wednesday. The executives agreed to appear remotely after being threatened with subpoenas.

With the presidential election looming, Republicans led by President Donald Trump have thrown a barrage of grievances at Big Tech’s social media platforms, which they accuse without evidence of deliberately suppressing conservative, religious and anti-abortion views.

The chorus of protest rose this month after Facebook and Twitter acted to limit dissemination of an unverified political story from the conservative-leaning New York Post about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, an unprecedented action against a major media outlet. The story, which was not confirmed by other publications, cited unverified emails from Biden’s son Hunter that were reportedly disclosed by Trump allies.

Beyond questioning the CEOs, senators are expected to examine proposals to revise long-held legal protections for online speech, an immunity that critics in both parties say enables the companies to abdicate their responsibility to impartially moderate content.

The Justice Department has asked Congress to strip some of the bedrock protections that have generally shielded the tech companies from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms. Trump signed an executive order challenging the protections from lawsuits under the 1996 telecommunications law.

“For too long, social media platforms have hidden behind Section 230 protections to censor content that deviates from their beliefs,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the Commerce Committee chairman, said recently.

In their opening statements prepared for the hearing, Dorsey, Zuckerberg and Pichai addressed the proposals for changes to so-called Section 230, a provision of a 1996 law that has served as the foundation for unfettered speech on the internet. Zuckerberg said Congress “should update the law to make sure it’s working as intended.”

“We don’t think tech companies should be making so many decisions about these important issues alone,” he said, approving an active role for government regulators.

Dorsey and Pichai, however, urged caution in making any changes. “Undermining Section 230 will result in far more removal of online speech and impose severe limitations on our collective ability to address harmful content and protect people online,” Dorsey said.

Pichai urged lawmakers “to be very thoughtful about any changes to Section 230 and to be very aware of the consequences those changes might have on businesses and consumers.”

Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd told congressional leaders in a letter Tuesday that recent events have made the changes more urgent. He cited the action by Twitter and Facebook regarding the New York Post story, calling the companies’ limitations “quite concerning.”

The head of the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, recently announced plans to reexamine the legal protections, potentially putting meat on the bones of Trump’s order by opening the way to new rules. The move by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, marked an about-face from the agency’s previous position.

Social media giants are also under heavy scrutiny for their efforts to police misinformation about the election. Twitter and Facebook have slapped a misinformation label on content from the president, who has around 80 million followers. Trump has raised the baseless prospect of mass fraud in the vote-by-mail process.

Starting Tuesday, Facebook was not accepting any new political advertising. Previously booked political ads will be able to run until the polls close next Tuesday, when all political advertising will temporarily be banned. Google, which owns YouTube, also is halting political ads after the polls close. Twitter banned all political ads last year.

Democrats have focused their criticism of social media mainly on hate speech, misinformation and other content that can incite violence or keep people from voting. They have criticized Big Tech CEOs for failing to police content, homing in on the platforms’ role in hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have scrambled to stem the tide of material that incites violence and spreads lies and baseless conspiracy theories.

The companies reject accusations of bias but have wrestled with how strongly they should intervene. They have often gone out of their way not to appear biased against conservative views — a posture that some say effectively tilts them toward those viewpoints. The effort has been especially strained for Facebook, which was caught off-guard in 2016, when it was used as a conduit by Russian agents to spread misinformation benefiting Trump’s presidential campaign.

The unwelcome attention to the three companies piles onto the anxieties in the tech industry, which also faces scrutiny from the Justice Department, federal regulators, Congress and state attorneys general around the country.

Last week, the Justice Department sued Google for abusing its dominance in online search and advertising — the government’s most significant attempt to protect competition since its groundbreaking case against Microsoft more than 20 years ago.

With antitrust in the spotlight, Facebook, Apple and Amazon also are under investigation at the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.


By MARCY GORDON AP Business Writer – WASHINGTON (AP)

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Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent

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Twitter CEO defends Trump ban, warns of dangerous precedent

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended his company’s ban of President Donald Trump in a philosophical Twitter thread that is his first public statement on the subject.

When Trump incited his followers to storm the U.S. Capitol last week, then continued to tweet potentially ominous messages, Dorsey said the resulting risk to public safety created an “extraordinary and untenable circumstance” for the company. Having already briefly suspended Trump’s account the day of the Capitol riot, Twitter on Friday banned Trump entirely, then smacked down the president’s attempts to tweet using other accounts.

“I do not celebrate or feel pride in our having to ban @realDonaldTrump from Twitter,“ Dorsey wrote. But he added: ”I believe this was the right decision for Twitter.”

Dorsey acknowledged that shows of strength like the Trump ban could set dangerous precedents, even calling them a sign of “failure.” Although not in so many words, Dorsey suggested that Twitter needs to find ways to avoid having to make such decisions in the first place. Exactly how that would work isn’t clear, although it could range from earlier and more effective moderation to a fundamental restructuring of social networks.

In Dorsey-speak, that means Twitter needs to work harder to “promote healthy conversation.”

Extreme measures such as banning Trump also highlight the extraordinary power that Twitter and other Big Tech companies can wield without accountability or recourse, Dorsey wrote.

While Twitter was grappling with the problem of Trump, for instance, Apple, Google and Amazon were effectively shutting down the right-wing site Parler by denying it access to app stores and cloud-hosting services. The companies charged that Parler wasn’t aggressive enough about removing calls to violence, which Parler has denied.

Dorsey declined to criticize his Big Tech counterparts directly, even noting that “this moment in time might call for this dynamic.” Over the long term, however, he suggested that aggressive and domineering behavior could threaten the “noble purpose and ideals” of the open internet by entrenching the power of a few organizations over a commons that should be accessible to everyone.

The Twitter co-founder, however, had little specific to say about how his platform or other Big Tech companies could avoid such choices in the future. Instead, he touched on an idea that, taken literally, sounds a bit like the end of Twitter itself — a long-term project to develop a technological “standard” that could liberate social networks from centralized control by the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

But for the moment, Dorsey wrote, Twitter’s goal “is to disarm as much as we can, and ensure we are all building towards a greater common understanding, and a more peaceful existence on earth.”


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — By DAVID HAMILTON

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US blacklists Xiaomi, CNOOC, Skyrizon, raising heat on China

Inside Telecom Staff

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US blacklists Xiaomi, CNOOC, Skyrizon, raising heat on China

The U.S. government has blacklisted Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp. and China’s third-largest national oil company for alleged military links, heaping pressure on Beijing in President Donald Trump’s last week in office.

The Department of Defense added nine companies to its list of Chinese companies with military links, including Xiaomi and state-owned plane manufacturer Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (Comac).

U.S. investors will have to divest their stakes in Chinese companies on the military list by November this year, according to an executive order signed by Trump in November.

Xiaomi did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Xiaomi Corp. overtook Apple Inc. as the world’s No. 3 smartphone maker by sales in the third quarter of 2020, according to data by Gartner. Xiaomi’s market share has grown as Huawei’s sales have suffered after it was blacklisted by the U.S. and its smartphones were cut off from essential services from Google.

Separately, the Commerce Department put China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC) on the entity list, an economic blacklist that forbids U.S. firms from exporting or transferring technology with the companies named unless permission has been obtained from the U.S. government. The move comes after about 60 Chinese companies were added to the list in December, including drone maker DJI and semiconductor firm SMIC.

CNOOC has been involved in offshore drilling in the disputed waters South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with other countries including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia.

“China’s reckless and belligerent actions in the South China Sea and its aggressive push to acquire sensitive intellectual property and technology for its militarization efforts are a threat to U.S. national security and the security of the international community,” U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

“CNOOC acts as a bully for the People’s Liberation Army to intimidate China’s neighbors, and the Chinese military continues to benefit from government civil-military fusion policies for malign purposes,” Ross said.

CNOOC did not immediately comment.

Chinese state-owned company Skyrizon was also added to the economic blacklist, for its push to “acquire and indigenize foreign military technologies,” Ross said.

Beijing Skyrizon Aviation, founded by tycoon Wang Jing, drew U.S. criticism for an attempt to take over Ukraine’s military aircraft engine maker Motor Sich in 2017. The concern was that advanced aerospace technology would end up being used for military purposes.


HONG KONG (AP) — By ZEN SOO

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Microsoft ousts rivals from CES marquee as show moves online

Inside Telecom Staff

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This week, Microsoft had a big test on its hands — how to help transform the world’s biggest gadget show into an online-only event.

The choice of Microsoft to power this year’s CES and create a virtual showcase for its 1,800 exhibitors gave the tech giant a big promotional boost over its best-known cloud computing rivals, Amazon and Google.

But it also posed reputational risks, as organizers of this week’s event tried to cobble together a trove of web content and mostly prerecorded panel discussions in a way that could at least partially evoke the gaudy, high-energy convention that takes over the Las Vegas strip each January.

At times, it was hard to pretend this year’s virtual CES was a live event.

“Don’t tell people we’re recording in December,” said panel moderator and venture capitalist Rajeev Chand, jokingly admonishing a Twitter executive after his comments revealed that their debate on user privacy, aired Tuesday, was taped nearly a month earlier.

The Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that runs CES, said it made a final decision in July that its premier event would be virtual, then put out a request for bids and evaluated more than 40 digital platforms before announcing its choice of Microsoft in October. The tech company already had some experience hosting its own big events virtually during the pandemic, including last year’s Build and Ignite conferences, each of which had roughly 200,000 participants.

But Microsoft’s marquee involvement in CES is a change from recent years when Google and Amazon dominated the annual Las Vegas convention with ubiquitous marketing and splashy displays — even a theme park-style ride — as they competed against each other to showcase their digital voice assistants.

Microsoft, by contrast, has kept a lower profile as it’s shifted from a consumer-focused business to one focused on selling its software and services to big organizations.

“Microsoft as a partner might have affected a couple of companies who view themselves as competition, I’m not sure,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the CTA.

Neither Google nor Amazon has said if they had sought to win the contract to run this year’s digital CES, but both companies were mostly sitting out the show this year and showcasing their latest wares elsewhere.

“We talked to all the leading tech companies,” said Jean Foster, CTA’s senior vice president of marketing and communications. “Many of these companies were taking the physical world and putting it online. They had avatars walking around a virtual show floor. That’s just not consistent with what we’re doing.”

The event also needed a cloud computing provider that could handle a huge volume of attendees from around the world. And it needed to be able to create a system to register, bill and authenticate attendees.

“We needed high performance and security, so obviously that’s built into the Microsoft brand,” Foster said.

But the job required Microsoft to accomplish some tasks that went beyond what it did for its own events – namely, to recreate, or replace, the experience of a giant showcase of gadgets and technology.

“How could we bring a large group of exhibitors together and show off what they had to say and their value propositions in a way that’s not an expo,” said Bob Bejan, the Microsoft executive who runs its global events and production studios and is leading the CES project. “Because you can’t translate this stuff. You have to reinvent in this medium.”

Anchored at Microsoft’s production studio in Redmond, Washington, the event is designed to turn a typical directory of exhibitors into an interactive digital experience using a mix of video, audio and chat. It’s a test for Microsoft products such as Teams, the workplace communications app that the company is trying to make a must-have service for workplaces during the pandemic.

Conference attendees could send each other messages — no more than 250 of them — and use Teams for virtual meet-and-greet sessions that Bejan said was supposed to work like a “digital parallel to what you would do at an expo or a hotel lobby bar.”

Even when the pandemic wanes, Bejan said Microsoft is pivoting to a future in which he expects digital experiences will remain an important component of conferences and other live events.

By MATT O’BRIEN

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