Vladimir Putin
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine creates a disinformation dilemma for tech

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we’re talking about the tension between tech giants’ efforts to remove Russian propaganda and the historical importance of preserving it. Plus, the battle between Amazon and Alabama organizers continues and China braces for new AI regulations.

Russia looms large over Big Tech

Tech platforms have had to make a lot of tough calls about content over the years, but what to do about Russian disinformation isn’t usually one of them. Russian propaganda has more or less been fair game for removal ever since the Internet Research Agency ran roughshod over social media giants in the run-up to the 2016 election.

But that calculus is starting to look more complicated. On Tuesday, President Biden officially announced that Russia is beginning an “invasion of Ukraine.” Now, all those sock-puppet accounts, coordinated networks and misleading videos that tech giants have been routinely removing for years aren’t just violations of some corporate content-moderation policy. They may very well become evidence in what experts warn could be Europe’s largest armed conflict since World War II.

Should all that evidence just disappear? There’s a solid argument to be made that — at least publicly — it should. Russia is actively pushing “false-flag events” as a pretext for the invasion, Biden said Tuesday.

  • Already, experts are hard at work debunking narratives that have bubbled up on Facebook, Telegram and elsewhere about Western aggression and supposed violence committed by Ukrainian forces. Leaving that content alone would risk giving those falsehoods legs.
  • “What we’re seeing from Russia is lies justifying war,” said Graham Brookie, senior director of The Atlantic Council’s DFRLab. “In a physical war zone, you have to mitigate online harms that make war worse for humans.”

But there is also a huge cost to taking this content down. That’s a lesson that human rights activists, archivists and judicial organizations have had to learn the hard way before in countries including Syria and Myanmar.

  • Last year, after the military coup in Myanmar, YouTube removed channels run by the country’s military forces in hopes of preventing further incitements to violence.
  • But that action has also interfered with humanitarian and legal efforts to hold the perpetrators of that violence accountable, said Ben Strick, director of Investigations at the Centre for Information Resilience, which has been documenting human rights abuses in Myanmar and Afghanistan, as well as the buildup of troops around Ukraine.
  • “It’s a really tricky space at the moment, and we’ll probably end up seeing that in Eastern Ukraine,” Strick said.

Archivists are now racing to grab whatever they can before it disappears. Earlier this month, blockchain startup Arweave began asking people to collect whatever they could find related to the emerging conflict and commit it to the blockchain, creating a distributed ledger no platform can touch and no government can censor.

  • In eight days, this ad hoc team of archivers collected 3 million artifacts, from government press releases to TikToks to misleadingly doctored propaganda videos.
  • For Sam Williams, the founder of the Arweave protocol, it’s just as important to get Russian misinformation into that archive as it is to preserve the truth.
  • “The social media platforms are focused on helping people talk to each other today,” he said. “We're trying to focus on helping historians understand what happened today 20 or 100 or 300 years from now, with as clear eyes as they can.”

As U.S. tech platforms become an increasingly prominent battleground in global conflicts, they face an important question, Brookie said: “How do you mitigate online harms that make war worse for civilians while preserving evidence of human rights abuses and war crimes potentially?”

There’s no set international framework for how to reconcile that tension. But maybe there should be.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

In Washington

House Democrats introduced a bill to create a new tech bureau within the FTC. The bill, introduced by Rep. Lori Trahan, would create a Bureau of Digital Services Oversight and Safety, staffed by 500 technologists, lawyers and other experts who would develop rules and requirements to mitigate the risks of online platforms.

Lawmakers from both parties want Biden to push back against Europe’s Digital Markets Act. In a letter Wednesday, 30 members of Congress wrote that the DMA “as currently drafted is driven not by concerns regarding appropriate market share, but by a desire to restrict American companies’ access in Europe in order to prop up European companies.”

The White House wants more of the critical minerals used in technology and clean-energy products to be sourced in the U.S. The Biden administration on Tuesday touted billions of dollars in public and private investments to help accomplish that goal and lessen the country’s reliance on Chinese minerals.

More than a dozen lawmakers who oversee the tech industry have kids who work or have worked for tech giants. That includes both Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. Zoe Lofgren, whose daughter works for Google, and Sen. Mike Lee, whose son was a Facebook “extern.” And you thought your Thanksgivings were awkward.

The first chief innovation officer at the FDIC quit in a blaze of glory, writing that the federal bureaucracy is “both hesitant and hostile to technological change.” In an op-ed for Bloomberg, Sultan Meghji accused federal officials of “tech hesitancy” and said “solving these problems is a matter of national security and common sense.”


Across the technology and game industries, workers are speaking up, exposing abuses, and organizing to improve their workplaces. Promises aren't enough. Workers want real change, a voice on the job, and the power that comes from joining together in a union.

Learn more

On Protocol

Union organizers filed more unfair labor practices charges against Amazon, accusing the company of interfering in organizing efforts at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, facility. Amazon handily won a union election in Bessemer last year, but a second election is currently underway.

The U.S. is unlikely to cut Russia off from the international payments system SWIFT as part of any forthcoming sanctions. Why? Because doing so would risk undermining the U.S. dollar and emboldening China- and Russia-backed alternatives.

Confused about recruiting during The Great Resignation? Tune into our virtual event on March 3 to hear from executives at Sonos, Cisco, Slack and Startup Recruiting Bootcamp. Sign up here.

Around the world

Tech giants could be forced to share more data under the EU’s proposed Data Act. The law would require “gatekeeper” companies to share users’ data with smaller companies and with users upon request.

China’s expansive new tech regulations go into effect March 1. The regulations will forbid companies from using personal information to set different prices for products and services, prohibit fake accounts and aim to crack down on addictive content, among other things.

Regulators in Ireland are expected to reach a decision about Facebook’s U.S.-EU data transfers by April. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission issued its preliminary decision Monday. Meta now has 28 days to respond before the DPC shares the decision with other EU regulators, Reuters reported.

TikTok agreed to settle a Canadian class-action suit for $2 million. The suit alleged that TikTok had illegally collected user data, a claim that the company denied. TikTok settled a similar suit in the U.S. — that one for $92 million — last year.

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief, says Apple is choosing to pay fines instead of complying with antitrust enforcement regarding payment systems for dating apps. “As we understand it, Apple essentially prefers paying periodic fines, rather than comply with a decision of the Dutch Competition Authority on the terms and conditions for third parties to access its App Store,” Vestager said Tuesday after Apple was hit with its fifth fine in a matter of weeks.

In the media, culture and metaverse

DuckDuckGo is becoming the favorite search engine of conspiracy theorists who hate Google. A review of search results by The New York Times found that Bing and DuckDuckGo yielded more “untrustworthy” websites than Google for the same search terms.

Crypto scammers are using Facebook ads to pose as … Facebook. And Amazon, Tesla and Microsoft, too. The Markup found about 20 such ads marketing bogus cryptocurrencies, using branding that would suggest they’re backed by leading tech giants.

Meet RightForge, the web-hosting company underpinning Trump’s Truth Social app. The founders launched it in response to AWS’ decision to deplatform Parler in the days after the Jan. 6 riot. It aims to be a “depoliticized server space,” one of its founders told Bloomberg. Now, if only its team could figure out how to actually let people sign up without the site melting down.

In the C-suite

Political tech veterans Lindsey Schuh Cortés, Matt Taverna and Bryan Whitaker are leaving politics to launch Statara Solutions, a data analytics firm for nonprofits, trade groups and other clients. “I need a little break from politics,” Cortés, Stratara’s CEO, told Protocol. Most recently, she led the Democratic Data Exchange, the Democrats’ attempt to match the GOP’s data operation.

In data

40,000: That’s the number of Afghan refugees Airbnb now plans to house, after surpassing its goal of housing 20,000 Afghan refugees in the last six months. The company and its nonprofit arm Airbnb.org have been working with refugee resettlement agencies and hosts around the world to provide free stays.


Across the technology and game industries, workers are speaking up, exposing abuses, and organizing to improve their workplaces. Promises aren't enough. Workers want real change, a voice on the job, and the power that comes from joining together in a union.

Learn more

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