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The hot air behind Congress’ social media subpoenas

January 14, 2022, 6:01 PM UTC

Social media organizations certainly bear some responsibility for creating the conditions that led to last January’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. As such, the U.S. House Select Committee, which is investigating the riot, possesses valid grounds for seeking internal information from the nation’s largest tech companies about their actions before, during, and after the violence.

And yet, it’s hard to shake a cynical feeling that Thursday’s subpoenas of four social media giantsYouTube parent Alphabet, Facebook parent Meta, Reddit, and Twitter—play like political theater amid a national discourse around tech’s responsibility for our broken public square.

From a strictly practical standpoint, the committee failed to make the case Thursday that the four companies engaged in obstruction of information requests, as alleged by committee chairman and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss. 

In separate letters to each company, Thompson made flimsy accusations of unresponsiveness, providing virtually no documentation to back up his claims. As a result, the debate over compliance turned into a back-and-forth of vague accusations and denials. 

Furthermore, it’s worth noting the incredible breadth of documents sought by the committee, which set an unrealistic timeline for producing the records in late August. 

From Facebook alone, the committee sought 14 types of records, many of them remarkable in scope. One piece involved seeking “internal communications, reports, documents, or other materials relating to internal employee concerns about content on the platform” in connection with 2020 election misinformation, efforts to overturn the election results, extremist organizations, and malevolent foreign actions. You get all that?

From a political standpoint, it’s also hard to see how the committee’s demands will shift entrenched positions on Silicon Valley.

While European lawmakers are already well on their way to establishing new content regulations, Washington appears nowhere close to enacting comprehensive legislation. 

That prospect figures to dim even further following this November’s midterm elections, with Republicans having a good chance of retaking the House. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive GOP House speaker in 2023 if his party prevails and a vociferous select committee critic, in an interview with Axios this week once again assailed Big Tech for too much censorship instead of criticizing its policing of objectionable content.

That leaves the public relations battle. And at this point, it’s been well-established through media reports and internal leaks that social media companies—Facebook, in particular—drowned under a flood of conspiracy theories and coordination that took place on their platforms. Twitter’s former CEO, Jack Dorsey, admitted as much.

Some Big Tech critics will continue to argue this failure represents an inherent flaw in these companies that warrants corrective regulatory action. Others will keep railing against tech leaders for using this event as a reason to remove more content from their platforms.

The select committee’s subpoenas increase the likelihood that Congress will uncover new nuggets of information about social media companies’ role in giving rise to an ignominious moment in American history. It’s a noble endeavor that, if done right, will serve the public good.

To expect that its work will move the needle, though, still feels overly optimistic.

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Some prime real estate. Google announced Friday that it has purchased a $1 billion office space in London, a signal of the company’s commitment to in-person work amid a broader shift in tech to remote employees, CNBC reported. Google already rents parts of the colorful, multi-use development that features about 408,000 square feet of office space on the west side of downtown London. The move comes as construction nears completion on Google’s $1 billion-plus U.K. headquarters on the city’s north side.

A win for activists. Microsoft plans to hire an outside law firm to review its sexual harassment and gender discrimination policies, and to release a summary of how the company handled past allegations of misconduct against co-founder Bill Gates and other executives, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. Activist investors won support in November from fellow shareholders for a demand that the company take both steps of transparency, largely in response to The Journal’s reporting that Gates had an affair with an employee and solicited another staffer while leading the company. Microsoft executives recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal.

A class-action headache. Facebook parent company Meta faces a multibillion-dollar class-action lawsuit in the U.K. after a prominent lawyer said she will sue on behalf of Brits whose personal data was mined by the social media outfit, Reuters reported Friday. A senior adviser to Great Britain’s financial regulatory watchdog said she plans to file a lawsuit alleging Facebook imposed unfair terms of use on 44 million people from 2015 to 2019. Facebook officials responded that users had “meaningful control” over the information they shared with the company.

An Elon flip-flop? Tesla founder Elon Musk tweeted Friday that his electric-vehicle maker will accept the cryptocurrency Dogecoin as payment for some merchandise sold by the company, a semi-reversal of Tesla’s decision in May 2021 to stop accepting Bitcoin due to the environmental impact of crypto mining. Tesla fans can now buy branded belt buckles, whistles, and kid-sized four-wheel vehicles using Dogecoin, one of Musk’s favorite cryptocurrencies. The tweet sent the value of Dogecoin up about 11% as of late Friday morning.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Congress does something…right? Turns out Democrats and Republicans might agree on one thing: the “terms of service” for websites are too dang long. The Washington Post reported Thursday that a bipartisan group of lawmakers plans to introduce the aptly named Terms-of-service Labeling, Design, and Readability Act—also known as the TLDR Act, hip parlance for the acronym behind “too long; didn’t read—in an effort to boost transparency on the web. The bill would require site operators to show a “summary statement that succinctly outlines terms of service, as well as which potentially sensitive data that will be collected.

From the article:

Rep. Lori Trahan, D-Mass., one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said companies are exploiting the fact that most users skip over their terms to lure them into compromising agreements that expose more of their personal information.

“It's not a surprise that some companies have taken full advantage of these contracts to include provisions that expand their control over users' personal data,” Trahan said in an interview Wednesday.

And she said convoluted service agreements are stripping consumers of the ability to make informed decisions about whether joining a given site or platform is worth the cost of entry.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Tesla hammered on reports that its futuristic Cybertruck will be delayed to 2023, by Christiaan Hetzner

Jack Dorsey’s Block wants to make Bitcoin mining ‘more distributed and efficient in every way’, by Kurt Wagner, Sarah Frier, and Bloomberg

These 9 countries are trying to create their own digital currencies to beat crypto, by Marco Quiroz-Gutierrez

While finance chiefs weigh crypto, unicorn fintech Ramp is adding stablecoins to its balance sheet, by Declan Harty

How COVID-19 has impacted corporate and city sustainability efforts, Jonathan Vanian

A 3-part metaverse theory will keep you up at night, by Tristan Bove

BEFORE YOU GO

A new kind of members-only establishment. Give me a second to get my best Stefon impression ready: New York’s hottest club is…an NFT restaurant? The founder of restaurant reservation service Resy plans in 2013 to debut the members-only Flyfish Club, a dining establishment that customers can only access if they possess a non-fungible token. Potential diners already have bought about 1,500 tokens, which can be re-sold on the open marketplace, to help the Flyfish Club raise about $14 million worth of Ethereum cryptocurrency, per the project’s manager. The blockchain influence, however, will end at the front door. Cash and credit only inside the restaurant.

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