Obama’s warning came way too late
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we’re talking about a speech from a real up-and-comer in the world of disinfo research: Barack Obama. Plus, Sheryl Sandberg’s in hot water at Meta and an FCC commissioner comes for Apple.
President Obama, welcome to 2022
In his speech on disinformation at Stanford University on Thursday, former President Barack Obama said the one thing that still “nags” at him about his time in office was his “failure to fully appreciate at the time just how susceptible we had become to lies and conspiracy theories, despite having spent years being a target of disinformation myself.”
It was perhaps the most revealing line in the hourlong address, in which Obama called on tech companies, their employees, lawmakers and everyday Americans to do more to combat pollution of the information ecosystem. And though he didn’t admit it outright, with that line Obama seemed to acknowledge what a lot of folks were already thinking: that this was a speech he should have given years ago.
Obama was one of Silicon Valley’s biggest champions and coziest allies from his earliest days in office. But he was also arguably one of its earliest and most high-profile victims. That even he missed the signs of what was to come says a lot about the halo that hung over tech companies during his administration.
- This was a president who was ushered into office on a wave of racist conspiracy theories, peddled on Twitter by the man who would follow him in the White House.
- Obama mostly dismissed the birther movement — and Trump himself. In doing so, he may have failed to really examine the role social networks played in keeping the movement alive, and what that could mean for other viral lies too.
- At the time, ISIS’ vast online influence seemed to be the most urgent threat, and if the Obama White House was applying any pressure on Silicon Valley, it was to find and remove foreign terrorists.
- What Obama and his administration failed to see were the threats coming from inside the house — and they weren’t alone.
Maybe that’s why it feels like, with his Stanford speech, Obama arrived late to the party. An extremely grim party, though it’s not that any of his proposals were particularly lazy or uninformed, as some politicians’ ideas about tech often are.
- He wants transparency requirements for tech companies, including regulations that require them to share data with researchers.
- He wants changes to Section 230 protections, particularly with regard to ads.
- And he wants tech companies to “have some other North Star, other than just making money, and increasing market share.”
They’re not bad ideas. But they’re not exactly novel, either. And for anyone who’s been working on these issues from inside or outside of tech companies these last many years, they’re maybe even a little patronizing.
- Obama cast this moment as an opportunity “for companies to do the right thing,” “for employees of those companies to push them to do the right thing” and “for journalists and their supporters to figure out how we adapt old institutions.”
- But who exactly is that message for? The tech employees who have already catalyzed a worker activism movement? The newsrooms that have already spent years adapting and keep getting crushed every time the social media landscape changes? The people on the left who already believe social media created Trump and Jan. 6 and election conspiracy theories? The people on the right who haunted Obama’s own presidency with those conspiracies and who won’t accept him as messenger?
No, Obama was preaching to the congregation and to the preachers themselves: the people already doing the work he called on them to do. Still, it does lend some gravitas to an issue when a former president makes that issue his own personal mission.
The speech was noteworthy not so much for what was said as who said it. Silicon Valley was the darling of the Obama years, an economic bright spot in dark times and a shining example of American innovation. That Obama is the one now casting tech’s failures as an existential threat to democracy is a sign of just how far the industry’s political fortunes have fallen.— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)
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A MESSAGE FROM PwC
M&A and workforce reorganization can create a wealth of opportunities for companies seeking rapid growth, transformation and market expansion. In fact, 47% of executives say pursuing corporate M&As, joint ventures and alliances is their top growth driver in 2022. Unfortunately, nearly half of executives say talent acquisition and retention challenges are the biggest obstacle.
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The NTIA is waiting on the FCC to finish its broadband maps before it can allocate the $42 billion in broadband grants allocated under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Next month, NTIA will issue its notice of funding opportunity for states, but NTIA administrator Alan Davidson told Protocol the timeline for actually distributing the funding “depends quite a bit on when the FCC maps are in shape to be available for that purpose."
Around the world
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Google will give users in Europe the ability to reject all cookies after facing a fine in France. French regulators argued that Google’s earlier “accept all” button made it too difficult for users to actually exercise control over tracking. The new button will be available on YouTube and Search.The U.S., Canada, Japan, Korea and other Asia-Pacific countries will try to foster data flows and figure out how to “bridge different regulatory approaches to data protection and privacy.”
In the media, culture and metaverse
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A MESSAGE FROM PwC
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Netflix and ... drive?
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Thanks for reading — see you Monday!