David McCabe
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Facebook employees fret about the company's Russia problem

Facebook's developer's conference earlier this year. Photo: Noah Berger / AP

BuzzFeed News' Charlie Warzel finds that employees at Facebook feel the company doesn't deserve to be the focus of the deepening crisis of Russian election meddling online, especially after critics previously hit the company for censoring content. "There are lots inside thinking, 'We're the victims,'" one source told him, and that the company is "just a battlefield in a greater misinformation campaign."

Go deeper: The whole story is worth reading to get a sense of what the mood is like inside the secretive company.

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Tech firms' top lawyers will testify in hearings on Russian interference

Facebook and Alphabet's Google are among the companies called to testify. Photo: Mark Lennihan / AP

Google, Facebook and Twitter will all send their top lawyers to testify before Capitol Hill investigators looking into Russian election meddling at public hearings in early November. Google confirms it is sending General Counsel Kent Walker, Twitter has chosen its acting General Counsel Sean Edgett and Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch was confirmed as the company's pick Wednesday morning.

What it tells us: In sending their top legal executives, the companies are acknowledging the seriousness of the investigation at hand.

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New bill aims to make online political ads more transparent

Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mark Warner introduce the bill on Wednesday. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

A bipartisan group of senators rolled out a bill Wednesday that would set new transparency requirements for online political ads, with an eye towards platforms like Google and Facebook.

Why it matters: Russian operatives allegedly used Facebook, Google and Twitter in an election meddling campaign in 2016. Those companies don't support the legislation yet.

The details:

  • Large platforms would have keep records on political ads (who was targeted and other details) once an advertiser spent $500 on political ads in the previous 12 months — a relatively low threshold. Platforms could be penalized by the Federal Election Commission for failing to comply.
  • The bill puts disclaimer requirements on online political ads by updating the FEC's definition of an "electioneering communication" to include digital ads.
  • It would also require online platforms, as well as broadcast stations, to take steps to stop foreign election interference.

What's next?: It's not clear the bill has the support to move forward; John McCain is the only Republican currently supporting it. Democrat Amy Klobuchar, one of the bill's sponsors along with Virginia's Mark Warner, said the lawmakers were answering questions from colleagues who haven't yet signed on.


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Facebook sending top lawyer to testify before Congress

Facebook is under pressure over the role its platform may have played in Russian election meddling. Photo: Paul Sakuma / AP

Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch will testify for the social giant at two Capitol Hill hearings next month on Russian meddling, per the company. NBC News first reported the news.

The bigger picture: By sending its top lawyer — rather than a lower-level policy staffer — the company is trying to project that it's taking the investigations being conducted by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees seriously.

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Facebook's head of experimental hardware is leaving

Regina Dugan is leaving Facebook. Photo: Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images

The head of Facebook's skunkworks division Building 8 will leave the company. Regina Dugan said in a statement given to Recode that there's "is a tidal shift going on in Silicon Valley, and those of us in this industry have greater responsibilities than ever before" and that the "time feels right" to be "thoughtful about new ways to contribute in times of disruption." She said in a different post that she will be in charge of a "new endeavour."

Why it matters: Dugan arrived at Facebook last year to lead a division tasked with projects like building a way to type with your mind. Her departure comes as the company faces enormous pressure over its role in an increasingly unequal and divided society.

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FCC chairman pushes back on Trump's NBC tweets

Pai at an open meeting earlier this year. Photo: Robin Groulx / Axios

FCC chairman Ajit Pai offered a measured response Tuesday to President Trump's tweets last week arguing for a challenge to broadcast licenses for NBC stations. Pai, speaking at an event hosted by the right-leaning Mercatus Center, said the Federal Communications Commission would not revoke a license based on content.

"I believe in the First Amendment, the FCC under my leadership will stand for the First Amendment, and under the law the FCC does not have the authority to revoke the license of a broadcast station based on the content of a particular newscast."

The bigger picture: Pai's been under pressure to respond as the nation's top media regulator, appointed by a president who regularly attacks the media.

Go deeper: Why Trump can't revoke the licenses. One reason: NBC the network doesn't have a license from the government.

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Trump hates fake news, loves big media

Illustration: Sam Jayne / Axios

President Trump continues to publicly belittle big media organizations as "fake news," but in Washington, his administration's moves are a boon to big media companies. Telecom and technology companies are being deregulated while smaller media companies worry about their ability to survive.

Why it matters: On the campaign trail, populist Candidate Trump vowed to "break up the new media conglomerate oligopolies" and to shut down the biggest media deal of the year. But President Trump's administration has actually encouraged consolidation as part of its deregulatory blitz.

Consider:

  • The number of announced media deals rose under the new administration, per PwC, with both the first and second quarter eclipsing the final year of the Obama administration in deal volume — as well as much of 2015.
    • While analysts say changes in viewing habits are driving consolidation in the media industry, they also say that's being helped along by the administration's deregulatory stance.
  • Google and Facebook are growing bigger than ever: Trump told Axios earlier this year that Facebook's dominance didn't concern him, because the platform enables him to communicate directly with the American people.
    • From regulators to Republican lawmakers, there has been little appetite to take on the companies beyond mandating more transparency for political ads — something that's grounded in national security concerns, not antitrust doctrine.

Who's benefited?

  • The telecom companies. Ajit Pai's FCC is well on its way to repealing net neutrality regulations and given the green light to arrangements that give free data to customers who use certain applications or services. And Republican lawmakers voted to repeal privacy regulations for the companies.
  • Broadcasters — particularly the Trump-friendly Sinclair. The FCC removed a key regulatory hurdle for local news consolidation, clearing the way for Sinclair's acquisition of Tribune's stations.
  • Google and Facebook. The titans of the internet are taking tons of flak on Capitol Hill over the role they may have played in Russian election meddling. But President Trump has been quiet about it and hasn't acknowledged that there was Russian election meddling in the first place. Meanwhile, his antitrust regulators don't seem interested in pursuing the companies despite pressure from the left.

Yes, but: The good fortunes of a select few big media companies shouldn't obscure the fact that Trump is using his office to carry out grudges against individuals reporters and outlets for reporting things he doesn't like.

Just last week he said — twice! — that licenses for NBC stations should be challenged and potentially revoked. His media regulator, Pai, was silent — despite earlier this year declaring himself a defender of the free press in response to questions about the president's attacks.

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Top lawmakers push for airwaves transfer to stay on schedule

A cell tower in Missouri. Photo: Jeff Roberson / AP

Members of congressional leadership are urging the Federal Communications Commission not to let the timeline for handing over airwaves from local broadcasters to wireless providers slip in a letter obtained by Axios. They argue it would hurt rural areas where access to high speed internet is scarce.

The bigger picture: Cellular carriers — especially T-Mobile — want to get their hands on the spectrum they bought in a recent auction from local broadcasters as fast as possible. Broadcasters have pushed in the past to slow down the timeline.

The details:

  • A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the Republican conference in the House, and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise are signed on to the letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. It also includes Democrats like California Rep. Anna Eshoo, formerly the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee's tech subcommittee.
  • They want the process of transitioning airwaves used by broadcasters to wireless carriers who bought them in a recent auction — known as the repack — to stay on schedule. The current deadline in July 3, 2020.
  • "By encouraging a rapid, reasonable, and cost-effective transition of the 600 MHz spectrum, the FCC can help ensure that citizens in rural America enjoy the benefits that reliable, high-speed internet connectivity promise," the lawmakers write in the letter, expected to be sent to Pai on Monday morning.
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Facebook isn’t changing its business because of Russia

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg sent a clear message to Washington yesterday in an interview with Axios' Mike Allen: Facebook will help investigators looking into Russian election meddling on the platform, but it isn't changing the core values and business plan that have powered the company's growth.

Why it matters: The government and users now need to decide if that is enough.

The details:

  • Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."
  • Facebook, she said, would have run an ad purchased by Rep. Marsha Blackburn that was blocked on Twitter because of anti-abortion language the platform called inflammatory. "When you cut off speech for one person, you cut off speech for other people."
  • Asked about whether the Trump campaign's ad targeting overlapped with the targeting used by Russian pages, Sandberg dodged the question multiple times. Instead she offered a defense of the sprawling targeted ad operation that has made Facebook billions.

How it works: Facebook's business model is to grow as big as possible and sell ads against a mass audience that consumes its content. That's especially effective when combined with corporate support for broadly allowing all voices and perspectives on the platform. And it's lucrative: Facebook currently boasts over 2 billion monthly active users and brings in $34 billion dollars in revenue annually, most of which comes from advertising.

The problem: That model has drawn backlash from government officials and users alike, because it allows people to spread fake news and hoaxes on the platform intentionally. It also allows groups of all viewpoints to buy ads on the platform, something its rivals Twitter and Snapchat have resisted.

The bottom line: This approach puts many of the company's critics in direct conflict with the vision Sandberg laid out. Facebook has said it will take actions to better monitor the platforms' automated ads business by manually reviewing ads that are targeted using political and social behavioral attributes. But those types of ads only make up a tiny fraction of Facebook's entire business, and the company has given no indication that it would make more sweeping changes.

What's next: Users will either accept this mentality or grow frustrated with the platform's limited changes. Sandberg is betting they respond to Facebook and the viewpoints it shows them. She bragged that the platform connects people to their "weak ties," or people they aren't close to. "Twenty-three percent of your friends on Facebook have a stated ideology that's different than yours," Sandberg said.

In the coming weeks, Congress must also decide if Facebook's vision of inclusivity is a threat to democracy. Lawmakers who met with Sandberg said Thursday following the event that Facebook had to meet a balance between supporting free speech and removing unacceptable content — but their concerns might not lead to any regulation stronger than new digital political ad disclosure rules.

Sandberg held firm to the company's longstanding hard line on free speech, saying the company would not remove the Russian-linked ads if they were posted by "legitimate people" and not fake accounts. "The thing about free expression is that when you you allow free expression, you allow free expression."

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How lawmakers responded to Sheryl Sandberg's pitch

Sandberg in January. Photo: Thibault Camus / AP

In her swing through DC (which included an interview with Axios), Sheryl Sandberg made the case that Facebook is ready to work with legislators. It seems that, at least so far, concerned lawmakers are willing to wait and see before pushing for major new legislation.

The bigger picture: In various meetings, Sandberg argued that while Facebook can remove some content from its platform, it needs to tread carefully to uphold broad values of free speech. Here's how that message was received by lawmakers:

  • In her meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, according to lawmakers, Sandberg used the example of an anti-immigrant message as one that would be in a grey area as Facebook decided what to take down. Lawmakers indicated the company was facing a complicated question when balancing free speech concerns with policing the platform. "She heard that we all believe in free speech also, and there's things on there that she definitely doesn't want to see on there but she feels because of free speech and the kind of company they are that they're not going to agree with everything [posted on the platform]," said Rep. Robin Kelly (D-IL)
  • Others expressed discomfort with Facebook's role as an arbiter of what is appropriate content. "If you are a member of the Klan, and you have your banners up [on Facebook], and you are not saying 'let's go lynch black people,' then just having the Klan and your banners up is extremely offensive to me and I would love to see that not be there," said Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), another member of the CBC. "But I'm sure Facebook is not going to take it down just because they're saying, 'I'm in the Klu Klux Klan.'"

The bottom line: Lawmakers don't seem ready to push regulations more aggressive than new transparency requirements for political ads — at least this early in their inquiries. "I don't think we really know enough to make any recommendations at this point," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, who met with Sandberg this week.

Go deeper: The New York Times breaks down Sandberg's tour.