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Facebook’s privacy dilemma

Facebook scrutiny

Good morning! This Monday, Facebook's complicated privacy vs. transparency debate, Twitter's attempts to get out the vote, and the latest in the TikTok and WeChat sagas.

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The Big Story

Privacy or transparency. Pick one.

What everyone was talking about this weekend: Facebook demanding that a group at NYU stop collecting data about the platform's political ad targeting. The Wall Street Journal reported that the group, called NYU Ad Observatory, has recruited more than 6,500 volunteers to install a browser extension that scans their Facebook activity for political ads. Facebook said stop it:

  • "Scraping tools, no matter how well-intentioned, are not a permissible means of collecting information from us," said the letter, signed by Facebook's Allison Hendrix.
  • Facebook also apparently told NYU this project broke its rules, and threatened to take more serious action if the Observatory didn't shut down willingly.

There are two sides to this, and they can't both be right. Except ... they are both right.

On one side, it's certainly true that Facebook (and other platforms, but we like to talk about Facebook because it has 2.6 billion users) isn't nearly transparent enough about how its systems work. More, better data about its processes would be a good thing for the industry.

  • Mozilla's Ashley Boyd brought up this issue on the most recent Source Code Podcast. "We really are operating in a black box unless we set up a different relationship with the companies around transparency in third-party research," she said. Others have long agreed, and have been asking Facebook and others for more data for years.

On the other hand, Facebook's right to clamp down on anyone collecting data about its users. The Observatory says it's only collecting information about political ads, and this group is more trustworthy than most, but there's no version of your Facebook experience that doesn't also include your personal data. And when you opt in, you're tacitly doing the same for your friends.

  • And as Tim Cook always likes to say: You can't let the good guys in without also letting the bad guys in. Facebook has a mountain of evidence saying it's better to trust no one than to trust anyone at all. Even though a lot of things would be better if it were more transparent.

The industry is having this debate on a thousand different fronts, whether it's encryption or moderation or electioneering. Privacy and transparency, moderation and freedom; these things are constantly in conflict, and you can't have it both ways. There is no right answer. All you can do is decide where you land, and try to be honest and consistent about it. That's where Facebook needs to get to.

Get Out The Vote


The tech industry as a whole has poured resources and energy into helping Americans vote in this year's election, but Twitter occupies a unique space in the electoral process. And not just because that's where President Trump seems to spend most of his time.

A big focus for Twitter this year has been moderation and context-adding, because making sure people get good information is more important — and harder — than pretty much anything else. But it has also made an effort to get people engaged in the election specifically.

In the run-up to the election, Twitter studied its users and found that 90% of them were already registered and planning to vote. (Proving, yet again, that Twitter is about 40 trillion times more political than the world as a whole.) So doing a "register to vote!" drive wouldn't really have helped anybody.

  • Instead, it "focused on the next step," said Twitter public policy director Bridget Coyne. Labeling candidates to make sure people knew who they were hearing from; sharing information on how to request mail-in ballots; jumping on board the Vote Early Day program.
  • It worked with Ballotpedia, BallotReady and others to get out information on candidates, ballot measures and the like.
  • At important moments, Twitter's been putting information on people's timelines, adding to Moments, even sending a push alert on National Voter Registration Day (just in case).

One of Twitter's biggest initiatives has been the U.S. Elections Moment, Coyne said, which has been in every user's Explore page since mid-September. More recently, it added a custom Like animation for anyone tweeting the #ivoted hashtag, hoping to digitally recreate the feeling of getting the I Voted sticker. Which is like 60% of the reason people vote, right?

I asked Coyne whether she knew if Twitter's efforts have worked, since she can't just point to how many people registered to vote on Twitter. She said yes, it's tricky to measure, but the feedback has been really good: "It's not just the moment, but it's the movement. You don't just open up Twitter on Election Day, you're part of the election season."

We're doing a bunch of these stories this week, looking back at how tech tried to help voters in the runup to the election. Tomorrow: Snapchat.

People Are Talking

Vint Cerf is working on interplanetary internet, but it turns out data can still only move so fast:

  • "It doesn't take long before you're no longer in interactive mode. You're either in over-and-out mode, or you're in hi-this-is-a-nice-video-recording-I-recorded-several-hours-ago mode, which is like email. "

The pandemic is bringing health care home, Fitbit's James Park said, and it's going to stay there:

  • "If you think about the future of telemedicine, you will need this portfolio of devices within the home to give your physician that same level of insight that they might get when you go in for an in-person visit. Whether it's like a connected thermometer or an otoscope so you can check your children for ear infections. we're going to become more comfortable having these types of tools."

Even with cable dying, most streaming services don't have a chance, Time Warner's Jeff Bewkes said:

  • "These companies are competing against Netflix and Amazon, who have massively more scale for both subscription and advertising at a global level. They're all going to be collapsed. Only Disney will have enough subscribers and global scale under a distinctive family brand to make it."


TV's Tipping Point

Join Janko Roettgers on Wednesday at noon ET to answer the question: Has TV reached a tipping point? You will hear from industry experts including Tubi founder and CEO Farhad Massoudi, Cinedigm President Erick Opeka, Wurl CEO Sean Doherty and CBS News Digital EVP and GM Christy Tanner. The event is presented by Roku.

RSVP here.

Coming Up This Week

The next Big Tech CEO hearing is on Wednesday. Jack Dorsey, Mark Zuckerberg and Sundar Pichai will all appear to talk about Section 230.

It's a bumper earnings week! Reporting this week are (deep breath) Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, AMD, Spotify, Shopify, Samsung, Pinterest, eBay, Qualcomm and apparently every other company that's ever existed.

Protocol's virtual event, on the future of TV — with folks from Tubi, CBS News, Cinedigm, Wurl and others — is on Wednesday at 9 a.m. PT. It's not too late to sign up!

Oh, and NASA's announcing an "exciting new discovery" about the moon at 9 a.m. PT today. My bet: lunar two-day Prime shipping.

In Other News

  • Facebook antitrust charges could come next month, The Washington Post reports. State attorneys general are reportedly in the "late stages of preparing their complaint," while the FTC also continues to prepare.
  • Zuckerberg and Dorsey will testify about the NY Post article on Nov. 17. Which leaves more than enough time for a million other scandals to pop up for discussion before then.
  • Speaking of: Facebook is preparing for election unrest using its "at-risk" countries toolkit, The Wall Street Journal reports. The measures, previously used in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, include slowing viral content's spread and more aggressively suppressing posts.
  • Facebook moderators in Ireland are being forced to return to offices, The Guardian reports, after the contractor they worked for deemed them "essential workers." The mandate reportedly extends even to workers with high-risk family members.
  • The government is still trying to argue that it's allowed to ban TikTok, ahead of a Nov. 4 hearing. And a judge once again said that the government is not allowed to ban WeChat.
  • Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee has died. The 78-year-old helped turn Samsung into the consumer electronics giant it is today. In a dark turn of events, various Samsung companies' share prices jumped this morning, on the expectation that dividends will be increased so that Lee's heirs can pay inheritance taxes.
  • Everything is moderation: The BBC found that Apple Music, Spotify and others have been unwittingly hosting white-supremacist music. Zoom, meanwhile, shut down events that had been scheduled to discuss Zoom censorship.
  • YouTube's running out of political ad space. In some swing states, campaigns' demand for ads is so high that there aren't enough slots to place them, causing prices to double.

One More Thing

Bond. Big-budget Bond.

This year of theater-less living has changed Hollywood's economics in a big way. And since you and I can't pay $13 to go see "No Time To Die," the latest Bond flick, in theaters, MGM's trying to get one check for … slightly more than that. Variety reported it's been shopping the movie to streamers including Apple and Netflix, looking for a price around $600 million. So far, it appears, nobody's said yes.



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Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to, or our tips line, Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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