Oct 19, 2019

The roots of the deepfake threat

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The threat of deepfakes to elections, businesses and individuals is the result of a breakdown in the way information spreads online — a long-brewing mess that involves a decades-old law and tech companies that profit from viral lies and forgeries.

Why it matters: The problem likely will not end with better automated deepfake detection, or a high-tech method for proving where a photo or video was taken. Instead, it might require far-reaching changes to the way social media sites police themselves.

Driving the news: Speaking at a Friday conference hosted by the Notre Dame Technology Ethics Center, deepfake experts from law, business and computer science described an entrenched problem with roots far deeper than the first AI-manipulated videos that surfaced two years ago.

  • The technology that powers them goes back to the beginning of the decade, when harmful AI-generated revenge porn or fraudulent audio deepfakes weren't yet on the map.
  • "We as researchers did not have this in mind when we created this software," Notre Dame computer scientist Pat Flynn says. "We should have. I admit to a failing as a community."

But the story begins in earnest back in the 1990s, along with the early internet.

  • When web browsers started supporting images, people predictably uploaded porn with celebrities' faces pasted on. That, it turns out, was just the beginning. Now, 96% of deepfakes are nonconsensual porn, nearly all of them targeting women.
  • "There was something much more dark coming if we sat back [in the 90s] and let people use women's faces and bodies in ways they never consented to," Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami, points out.

Part of a 1996 law, the Communications Decency Act allowed internet platforms to keep their immunity from lawsuits over user-created content even when they moderated or "edited" the postings.

  • Now, lawmakers are toying with revising it — or even (less likely) yanking it completely, Axios tech policy reporter Margaret Harding McGill reported this week.
  • The argument is that companies are not holding up their end of the bargain. "The responsibility lies with platforms. They are exploiting these types of fake content," Franks said. "We can't keep acting like they're simply innocent bystanders."

A massive challenge for platforms is dealing with misinformation quickly, before it can cause widespread damage.

  • Ser-Nam Lim, a Facebook AI research manager, described the company's goal: an automated system that flags potentially manipulated media to humans for fact checking.
  • But, as I argued on a separate panel Friday, platforms are the first line of defense against viral forgeries. Facebook's human fact-checking can be painfully slow — in one recent case, it took more than a day and a half — and so the company's immediate reaction, or lack thereof, carries a lot of weight.

Go deeper: Social media reconsiders its relationship with the truth

Go deeper

Facebook, Google weigh changing political ad policies under pressure

Photos: Denis Charlet/AFP/ Daniel Reinhardt/picture alliance via Getty Images

Google and Facebook are both mulling changes to their political ad policies, sources tell Axios.

Driving the news: There’s no indication at this point that either company will stop running political ads. Rather, both are weighing policy changes that have been floated as compromise ideas, like limiting micro-targeting or disclosing more info about the advertiser.

Go deeperArrowNov 7, 2019

Adobe, Twitter, NYT launch effort to fight deepfakes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Hoping to stem a forecast rising tide of faked video, Adobe, Twitter and the New York Times are proposing a new industry effort designed to make clear who created a photo or video and what changes have been made.

Why it matters: With editing tools and artificial intelligence rapidly improving, it will soon be possible to make convincing videos showing anyone saying anything and photos of things that never happened.

Go deeperArrowNov 4, 2019

Senators target social media giants with data portability bill

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., left, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., on Capitol Hill in July. Photo: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call.

Three prominent tech critics in the Senate will introduce new legislation Tuesday requiring social media giants to give consumers ways to move their personal data to another platform at any time.

Why it matters: The bill's goal is to loosen the grip social media platforms have on their consumers through the long-term collection and storage of their data. Allowing users to export their data — like friends lists and profile information — could give rival platforms a chance at competing with Facebook or Google's YouTube.

Go deeperArrowOct 22, 2019