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Silicon Valley’s in a worst-case scenario with Russia

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy. Today, we’re talking about tech platforms’ long and sordid history with Russian propaganda. Plus, Tesla fails a climate test and Apple loses a crucial vote.

How Silicon Valley enabled Russian state propaganda

Jack Dorsey’s beard was not yet Rasputin-esque when he sat down for his first Senate hearing in September 2018. Seated to his right was Sheryl Sandberg, and over his left shoulder, a few rows back, lurked Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whom Twitter would ban from the platform the following day.

It had been a year since the world found out about Russian efforts to turn Americans against each other during the 2016 U.S. election, and Dorsey and Sandberg were there to explain what their companies had done since to ensure it never happened again.

One big change Dorsey shared: Twitter blocked Russia Today and Sputnik from advertising on the platform. Not only that, Dorsey said, but the company had also donated the $1.9 million it made from those outlets to charity. That seemed to satisfy Twitter’s inquisitors in the Senate.

For the next four years, though, not a single other major U.S. tech platform followed suit — that is, until now.

  • Over the course of the last week, Meta and Google have blocked RT and Sputnik throughout the EU, Russia and Ukraine.
  • They’ve barred them from advertising, or making money from ads, and Meta and Twitter have moved to limit their visibility in users’ feeds worldwide.
  • Shocking no one, on Thursday, RT America laid off its staff with euphemistic flourish, citing “unforeseen business interruption events.”
  • Russia, meanwhile, retaliated by banning Facebook entirely.

But despite their speedy response to the war, U.S. tech giants enabled Russian state propaganda for years. It didn’t have to be that way.

  • There are a lot of soft actions social media giants could have taken along the way that would have deprived Russian propaganda of oxygen without requiring Facebook or YouTube to block them entirely.
  • For one thing, prioritizing trustworthy information over engagement across their platforms would have helped.
  • “A lot of the things that get rid of spammers and bad actors in general would also hurt RT and Sputnik,” said Jeff Allen, a former member of Facebook’s integrity team and co-founder of the Integrity Institute think tank. “RT bats above its weight on social media, relative to Google search.”

But of course, that’s not the world that Facebook and YouTube have created for most of their existence. RT now has millions of subscribers and followers on both platforms.

  • When Meta decided last week to demote RT and other Russian state media, it was because the company had “no choice,” Samidh Chakrabarti, Facebook’s former head of civic integrity, tweeted.
  • “They needed to at least partially undo the damage that years of recommending these entities have done (and the scores of permanent Page followers they created),” Chakrabarti wrote.

Facebook and YouTube also missed an obvious chance to ride Twitter’s coattails and cut off Russian state media from ads in 2017.

  • At Facebook, at least, that’s not because the company didn’t consider it, but because it worried about how it would have to apply such a policy globally to other state media outlets like the BBC, said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s former public policy director.
  • “How do you start drawing the line around what state media is OK and what’s not?” she said, recalling those conversations.

It’s worth wondering what impact tech platforms can even have in weakening an outlet like RT, at least, inside Russia. After all, an organization funded by the Russian government hardly relies on YouTube ads to survive. “It’s important to distinguish between steps that are symbolically useful versus steps that have a real effect on the information environment,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s DFRLab.

Still, even symbolic steps have consequences. Now, tech giants have arguably found themselves in, arguably, a worst-case scenario: Having allowed Putin’s propaganda machine to grow online for years, they had no choice but to take a blunt instrument to it when a war broke out. Now, Russia has cut off access to a critical communication tool for millions of people. Which is, of course, what these companies wanted to avoid all along.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

A version of this story first appeared on Protocol.com. Read it here.

In Washington

DOJ and DHS are on opposite sides of a fight over a key cybersecurity bill that would require infrastructure companies to publicly report hacks. The bill has already unanimously passed the Senate with DHS support, but top officials at the DOJ said it would make the U.S. “less safe.”

Debate is building over whether the National AI Research Resource should be available to private-sector companies. The federally funded cloud for AI researchers was originally intended for academia, and some worry that admitting small businesses and startups will risk overloading the system early on.

The FTC is coming for the company formerly known as Weight Watchers. The commission said WW International, as it’s now known, and a subsidiary used an app to illegally collect data from kids as young as 8. Now, the company’s being hit with a $1.5 million fine and must delete any of its ill-gotten data and algorithms based on that data.

In the states

Washington state employers may soon have to provide salary information in job listings. Legislation requiring pay transparency in the home state of Amazon and Microsoft recently passed both chambers of the state legislature and would apply to all employers with 15 or more employees.

Also in Washington state: A bill that would give gig workers benefits without classifying them as employees passed the state Senate. Another version has already passed the state House. The two versions need to be reconciled before Gov. Jay Inslee can sign.

A MESSAGE FROM 4-H

Gen Z is poised to help everyone - from a rural small business to a tech giant - rethink how their business operations can help alleviate the digital divide. It’s time to give Gen Z a seat at the table for the generation that sees how tech can be a benefit but often is the barrier for advancement.

Learn more

In the courts

Justice Clarence Thomas is coming for Section 230 … again. After the court declined to hear Jane Doe v. Facebook, the case of a 15-year-old girl who was raped and sex-trafficked by a man she met on Facebook, Thomas once again called on Congress and his fellow justices to rein in Sec. 230.

Activision Blizzard is being sued by the family of a former employee who died by suicide. The plaintiffs say their daughter, Kerri Moynihan, experienced sexual harassment at the company, which they argue was a “significant factor” in her death.

On Protocol

Tesla and other tech companies are falling short on their climate pledges, according to a new report. It found that while Tesla “creates products significant to the energy transition,” it “displays a serious lack of disclosure related to its own emissions.” Meta and Square also got poor scores, while Microsoft was one of just two companies to get an A.

Alibaba, which has operations in Russia and Ukraine, has been conspicuously quiet about the war as it navigates U.S. sanctions against three of its partners.

Around the world

Russia has passed a law prohibiting “fake” news about the military, including referring to the invasion in Ukraine as an “invasion.” The law prompted TikTok to suspend all livestreams and new content from Russia.

Cogent Communications, a U.S.-based internet service provider, is cutting off access to Russia. “Our goal is not to hurt anyone. It’s just to not empower the Russian government to have another tool in their war chest,” the company’s CEO told The Washington Post.

The global swarm of volunteer hackers is making it hard to know who’s attacking whom in Russia and Ukraine. “It’s become an independent machine, a distributed international digital army,” one Ukrainian cybersecurity executive told the New York Times.

In the C-suite

Apple shareholders voted in favor of conducting a third-party audit on the company’s civil rights impact. Apple had urged investors to oppose the proposal, arguing it already conducts impact assessments. Shareholders also supported a proposal calling for a public report on Apple’s use of concealment clauses.

Cloudflare, CrowdStrike and Ping Identity are offering free cybersecurity services to vulnerable industries under the moniker of the Critical Infrastructure Defense Project. The project is a response to CISA’s “shields up” advisory for businesses. “It’s more important than ever for the security industry to band together and ensure that our most critical industries are protected and prepared,” Matthew Prince, co-founder and CEO of Cloudflare, said in a statement.

A MESSAGE FROM 4-H

People often think of the digital divide as being just about broadband access, but it is also about understanding the needs and tech literacy levels across roughly six generations. Gen Z could help companies develop products and apps that better serve the needs of our communities, our country and our world.

Learn more

Airbnbs as aid

Ukraine is obviously not a tourist destination right now. But you wouldn’t know it based on the Airbnb stats. On March 2-3 alone, users around the world booked 61,406 nights on Airbnb in Ukraine. That translates to $1.9 million going directly to Ukrainian hosts in need, said CEO Brian Chesky.

Thanks for reading — see you Wednesday!

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