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Seek algorithmic accountability from Facebook: Experts to govt

Privacy experts and civil society are calling on the Indian government to seek more algorithmic accountability from Facebook in light of the recent revelations around how the social media giant’s algorithms are designed to fuel hate speech, misinformation and inflammatory posts, particularly anti-Muslim content in India.

They are also seeking the government to urgently set up an independent commission which can deliberate on possible legislation around the structure of social media and its regulation.

Experts are of the view that the government needs to ask for transparency and accountability over how algorithms along with content moderation policies of large social media companies are designed and should frame strict rules over what they can or cannot amplify. Since India is the largest market for companies like Facebook, greater corporate governance needs to be demanded on how they build products for India and what safeguards are in place, they said.

“Every time a Facebook scandal breaks, the conversation gets stuck over the need for more government regulation on social media versus the need for free speech over the Internet. Instead, we need to focus on what content is amplified by the platform, and demand greater algorithmic transparency and accountability — algorithms on the platform are optimised to maximise user engagement, not safety, and end up magnifying the worst of humankind,” said Urvashi Aneja, director, Digital Futures Lab.

Facebook, which owns instant messaging platform WhatsApp and photo sharing app Instagram, has been under fire after a whistle-blower made public a series of documents, now dubbed as ‘Facebook Files’, that accuse the technology giant of putting profit ahead of user safety including that of children, along with fuelling fake news and hate speech through its platform. In the latest expose, the whistle-blower who has identified herself as former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen has revealed that in February 2019, Facebook set up a test account in India to determine how its own algorithms work. The test, which shocked even the company staffers, showed that within three weeks, the new user’s feed was flooded with fake news and provoking images including those of beheadings, doctored images of India air strikes against Pakistan and bloodied scenes of violence.

Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of think tank IT for Change, said he is not surprised by the revelations since Facebook is a private company and its model is to maximise revenue through more engagement. “We can’t blame them, they have to be made responsible by common templates, their content moderation policies have to be made public and submitted to a regulator for review. There has to be an oversight board which is composed of outsiders and not just company-appointed officials. It ultimately boils down to algorithmic transparency,” he said.

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the exploratory effort of one hypothetical test account led to deeper analysis of its recommendation systems, and contributed to product changes to improve them. “Product changes from subsequent, more rigorous research included things like the removal of borderline content and civic and political groups from our recommendation systems. Separately, our work on curbing hate speech continues and we have further strengthened our hate classifiers, to include four Indian languages,” the spokesperson said.

Singh said the long-term solution to break the monopoly and power exercised by a few social media companies is to create “interoperable social media” which means a common platform where feeds from all major social media platforms can flow in just like an email service provider allows emails from all email hosting services, big or small. “If we create a plural set of interoperable media, it will break their structure and make it competitive and will even resolve some of the issues such as those faced by traditional media companies over losing revenue to social media,” he said.

Singh added that the Indian government should set up a commission of three to five people consisting of eminent retired judges, bureaucrats and civil society members who can transparently debate over the structure of future social media and its regulation.

The Facebook internal report which was leaked by Haugen, titled ‘An Indian test user’s descent into a sea of polarizing, nationalist messages’, further builds on previous exposes on how little Facebook – which counts India as its largest market in terms of users – has done to control inciteful and inflammatory content, especially in regional languages. Earlier this month, Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president of global affairs, said its algorithms “should be held to account, if necessary, by regulation so that people can match what our systems say they’re supposed to do from what actually happens”. He also said Facebook is open to changing a 1996 provision of US law that insulates companies from liability for what users post.

ET has reported previously that the Indian government is mulling a “rethink” of the safe harbour framework which is enjoyed by the social media platforms and thinks that the “blanket exemption” given to companies has to go in order to address these mounting issues.

To meaningfully address the problem, we need to move from addressing the symptoms to the causes and fix the business model, Aneja of Digital Futures Lab said. “Two ways to address the issue could be to ban political advertising and personalised behavioural advertising on platforms like Facebook.”

“It is also a corporate governance issue since Facebook has the largest users in India and yet most of it is controlled by Silicon Valley. We need better disclosures since the rot of Facebook is being exposed and there doesn’t seem to be any genuine commitment being shown from the company to solve the issue,” said Aneja.

Senate panel moves to compel CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter to testify

WASHINGTON: A Senate panel voted Thursday to compel testimony from the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter as lawmakers opened a new front in the battle over hate speech, misinformation and perceived political bias on social media a month before the presidential election.

The Senate Commerce Committee authorized subpoenas for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai of Google and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey to force them to appear at a planned hearing if they do not agree to do so voluntarily.

The executives’ testimony is needed “to reveal the extent of influence that their companies have over American speech during a critical time in our democratic process,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican who heads the committee.

The committee’s unanimous vote marked the start of a new bipartisan initiative against Big Tech companies, which have been under increasing scrutiny in Washington and from state attorneys general over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.

Facebook, meanwhile, is expanding restrictions on political advertising, including new bans on messages claiming widespread voter fraud. The new prohibitions laid out in a blog post come days after President Donald Trump raised the prospect of mass fraud in the vote-by-mail process during a debate with Democratic rival Joe Biden.

A new review by The Associated Press found that Facebook and Twitter still aren’t enforcing even the limited restrictions they’ve recently put in place to stem the tide of dangerous material from QAnon, with an audience of millions on their platforms. The two companies had promised to stop encouraging the growth of the baseless conspiracy theory, which fashions Trump as a secret warrior against a supposed child-trafficking ring run by celebrities and government officials.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment Thursday on the committee’s subpoena action. Representatives of Google and Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

With Trump leading the way, conservative Republicans have kept up a barrage of criticism of Silicon Valley’s social media platforms, which they accuse without evidence of deliberately suppressing conservative views.

The Justice Department has asked Congress to roll back long-held legal protections for online platforms, putting down a legislative marker in Trump’s drive against the social media giants. The proposed changes would strip some of the bedrock protections that have generally shielded the companies from legal responsibility for what people post on their platforms.

Trump signed an executive order earlier this year challenging the protections from lawsuits under a 1996 telecommunications law that has served as the foundation for unfettered speech on the internet.

At a White House event last week, officials said the legislative proposal would protect the open internet and prevent hidden manipulation by social media. In addition, Attorney General William Barr said the administration will also seek legislation to let inpiduals pursue legal claims against online platforms for “bad-faith censorship.”

Democrats, on the other hand, have focused their criticism of social media mainly on hate speech, misinformation and other content that can incite violence or keep people from voting. They have criticized Big Tech CEOs for failing to police content, homing in on the platforms’ role in hate crimes and the rise of white nationalism in the U.S.

In 2017, following the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, tech giants began banning extremist groups and inpiduals espousing white supremacist views and support for violence. Facebook extended the ban to white nationalists.

The three CEOs are being summoned to testify as the Justice Department moves toward antitrust action against Google with a focus on the company’s dominance in online search and whether it was used to stifle competition and hurt consumers.

A bipartisan coalition of 50 U.S. states and territories, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, also has been investigating Google’s business practices. They have cited “potential monopolistic behavior.”

Google has argued that although its businesses are large, they are useful and beneficial to consumers. It maintains that its services face ample competition and have unleashed innovations that help people manage their lives. Most of its services are offered for free in exchange for personal information that helps Google sell ads.

Facebook, Amazon and Apple have also been targets of sweeping antitrust investigations by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

In the House, a judiciary subcommittee has pursued its own bipartisan investigation of Big Tech’s market dominance. Zuckerberg and Pichai as well as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Apple CEO Tim Cook testified at a highly charged hearing by the panel in July.

The subcommittee, which is expected to issue a report on its findings soon, held a hearing Thursday at which experts discussed proposals to strengthen the antitrust laws and promote competition among Big Tech companies.

Speaking of the July hearing with the four CEOs, panel chairman Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., said, “We pressed them for answers about their business practices, including about the evidence we uncovered that they have exploited, entrenched and expanded their power in anti-competitive and abusive ways.”

“To put it simply, their answers were evasive,” Cicilline said. “And they raised new questions about whether they believe their companies are beyond oversight.”