April 26, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Opting Out of Tracking

Photo by Filip Baotic on Unsplash.
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins & Viviana Padelli

Produced by Decode Democracy, the Decoder is a newsletter to help you track the most important news, research, and analysis of deceptive digital politics. Each week, we’ll send you coverage of the webs of entities that seek to manipulate public opinion, their political spending ties, and the actors working to safeguard our democracy. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up! 

  • Opt-out update: The much-anticipated iOS 14.5 update is reportedly launching today. The update will allow users to opt-out of data tracking in apps which is then shared with third parties, something that previously caused a public fight between the tech giant and Facebook. When the update is released, Decode Democracy is urging everyone to opt-out of this cross-app tracking.
  • India blocks posts: Facebook and Twitter have removed or blocked a number of posts critical of India’s handling of the coronavirus crisis following an order from the Indian government, TechCrunch reports. While Twitter has left the tweets up globally, it has blocked them in India. The website Medianama, which first reported on Twitter’s actions, noted that some of the tweets were from high profile public figures including MPs, government ministers, and actors. India claimed the order was made against posts that could incite panic, hinder the pandemic response, or were misleading, though critics are doubtful. India’s 2000 Information Technology Act essentially allows the government to block content at will. India and Twitter have previously faced off over whether or not the social media company would take down content, although there doesn’t appear to be a similar conflict in this instance.
  • AI regulation: The European Commission has released the world’s first ever draft proposal for regulating artificial intelligence. The proposal would apply to any company operating AI in Europe, not just those based in the bloc. Dr. Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna of the Future of Privacy Forum has a thread delving into many of the specifics of the proposal. MIT’s Technology Review reports that regulation may be coming to America soon as well, especially targeting AI race or gender biases.
  • Governmental goings-on: The Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing Tuesday on algorithmic amplification. Politico has a good who-what-where-when analysis. A new bill proposed by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) would require that government agencies obtain a court order before accessing information from data brokers. The bill, which has attracted bipartisan support, would close a loophole that requires law enforcement companies to get a warrant for data from mobile providers and tech platforms, but not from data brokers.
  • Khan nomination hearing: In Protocol, Ben Brody reports that Lina Khan received a surprisingly bipartisan reception in her nomination hearing for a post at the Federal Trade Commission Wednesday. Khan favors tough tech regulation, and is well-known as the leader of the “hipster antitrust” movement. In the Washington Post, Cat Zakrzewski argues that her hearing signals tough antitrust regulation is coming.
  • Accountability priorities: Color of Change, a leading racial justice organization, has proposed a series of “Tech Accountability Priorities” for the Biden/Harris administration in 2021. They include antitrust laws, protecting privacy and preventing algorithmic discrimination, eliminating disinformation, and regulating political ads online.
  • Turning toxicity down: In the Atlantic, Evelyn Douek wrote about Facebook’s restriction of posts that could incite violence in the wake of the verdict in the trial over George Floyd’s murder. The essential question the article poses: if Facebook can do this in an emergency situation, why can’t it do it all the time?
  • Non-English misinformation I: A report from Avaaz finds that Facebook is acting on less than half of fact-checked misinformation in non-English European languages. The report caught the attention of the European Commission’s Vera Jourova, who tweeted that, “FB & other platforms must do more to ensure their policies are vigorously enforced across the globe.”
  • Non-English misinformation II: Buzzfeed reports that young Vietnamese Americans are afraid their parents are falling prey to anti-vaccine conspiracy theories. The article looks especially at the role YouTube is playing in spreading misinformation. While YouTube told Buzzfeed it addresses misinformation across all languages, it did not provide specific data on the removal of Vietnamese-language content.
  • Nextdoor’s anti-racism notifications: Nextdoor has announced a new “anti-racism” push notification, that detects phrases such as “All Lives Matter” and prompts the author to consider editing their post. The notification does not moderate such posts. Currently, moderators on Nextdoor are selected algorithmically. Last year, the Verge reported on Black users being routinely silenced by community moderators.
  • Facebook fail: Despite public statements to the contrary, an internal Facebook report uncovered by Buzzfeed acknowledges that the company failed to adequately address the “Stop the Steal” movement. The report further finds that the company’s focus on fake accounts and individual groups led it to miss coordinated incitements to violence led by real people.
  • Too much power I: The Washington Post has created some great data visualizations of what put the “Big” in “Big Tech,” mapping acquisitions by Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google over the last t20 years. In The New York Time’s “On Tech” column, Shira Ovide examines the power many Big Tech companies hold, and our response to it.
  • Too much power II: Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has said that the company has a “scary” amount of power. Speaking about the decision to ban then-president Donald Trump, Stone said that while he agreed with the choice, it’s jarring that unelected individuals made it. The New York Times also looked at Facebook’s ability to decide whether or not a story counts as news.
  • Parallel media economy: The Washington Post has a profile on conservative commentator Dan Bongino where he talks about building a “parallel media economy.” In the interview, Bongino speaks about investing in Parler as well as a streaming service alternative to YouTube. In The Nation, Zoe Carpenter writes about a similar theme, exploring misinformation and the far-right digital media ecosystem.
  • Research: New research from Northwestern’s Computation Journalism Lab looks at how Twitter’s algorithm shapes what users are exposed to. The study found the algorithm elevated suggested tweets, showed fewer external links, and created a slightly partisan echo chamber. In Harvard’s Misinformation Review, Victor Pickard looks at how blindness to structural biases inherent in commercial media has historically fed the spread of disinformation. In the University of Utah’s Political Research Quarterly, a new paper finds that right-wing violence is more common in areas that are electorally competitive and predominantly white.

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