Barack Obama speaking at a lectern
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Obama’s warning came way too late

Protocol Policy

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)

In Washington

House Republicans are requiring Twitter’s board to preserve records related to Elon Musk’s buyout offer. In a letter to board chair Bret Taylor, House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan said the request is part of the committee’s examination of “Big Tech and how to best protect Americans’ free speech rights.”

The Census Bureau’s use of differential privacy to protect people's identity is jeopardizing the data’s integrity, some experts say. Case in point: The census is reporting some Chicagoans live in the middle of the river.

Apple’s actions in China undermine its commitment to privacy, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr argued in a letter to Tim Cook. Carr accused Apple of “aggressively censoring apps at the behest of the Communist Party.” The letter follows Cook’s recent speech on the importance of privacy legislation.

A group of around 60 civil-society organizations is calling on social media companies to “staff up to protect democracy for all, across all languages” as primaries kick off for the 2022 midterm election. The advocates are also calling on platforms and services to "stop promoting the most incendiary, hateful content.”

CCIA seems to have gotten caught fibbing about Condoleezza Rice’s opposition to tech antitrust bills. The lobbying group posted a video saying the former secretary of state had “concerns around limiting America’s leading technology companies,” likely trying to build on the fact that several former national security officials — some with ties to Big Tech — have opposed the bills. But the video was old, and wasn't even about antitrust reform. Rice’s office asked that the tweet be removed after questions from Protocol, a spokeswoman for CCIA confirmed.


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On Protocol

Sheryl Sandberg tried to kill news stories in the Daily Mail about her ex-boyfriend, Activision CEO Bobby Kotick. Sandberg reportedly intervened in two separate attempts by The Daily Mail to report on a restraining order that one of Kotick’s other exes had apparently taken out against him. Now, Meta is investigating Sandberg.

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

The EU is expected to unveil its new content rules under the Digital Services Act as soon as this evening. In addition to forcing platforms to work harder to remove illegal content, the rules will reportedly include bans on dark patterns and on using certain sensitive categories to target ads. Penalties for violating the DSA could include fines of up to 6% of global sales.

Russia has banned entry to Mark Zuckerberg, Vice President Kamala Harris and 27 other U.S. officials, business executives and reporters.

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

Snap is still getting hit by Apple’s privacy changes. In its earnings call Thursday, the company also said advertisers had paused their campaigns shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “We are concerned that the operating environment ahead could be even more challenging, leading to further campaign pauses or advertiser budget reductions,” Chief Financial Officer Derek Andersen said.

Elon Musk suggested he wouldn’t abide anonymity on Twitter, posting that, if his bid to buy the company succeeds, his team will “defeat the spam bots or die trying” and “authenticate all real humans.”

In data

$163 million per year: That’s how much Disney would actually save in taxes as part of what was meant to be a punishment for its opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, according to local ABC affiliate WFTV. Florida legislators are moving to end a local “special district” that allows Disney to provide services and expedite permitting. If the administrative district disappears, the costs of running the area, which until now have largely been funded by extra taxes Disney was essentially paying itself, would have to be paid by the local community instead. Florida is also trying to bring Disney under a statute allowing lawsuits against social media companies for content moderation.


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Netflix and ... drive?

The U.K. will soon allow people in self-driving cars to watch TV while they’re on the road. Technically, self-driving cars aren’t actually allowed yet in the U.K., but according to the BBC that may change by later this year. So, enjoy watching “The Crown” while weaving your way through London, I guess. And no, you still can’t text and self-drive.

Thanks for reading — see you Monday!

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