Aug 22, 2018

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1 big thing: Making sense of the latest foreign attacks on Facebook

Photo: Alberto Pezzali/NurPhoto via Getty Images

It started as a joke. What with the Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort news both breaking Tuesday afternoon, it would be a good time for someone to dump some bad news. I even joined in on the fun, promising a spot in Login to any tech company looking to air their dirty laundry.

But what was a fun quip on Twitter at 2:45pm PT was no laughing matter two hours later, as Facebook held a hastily scheduled press call to reveal it had uncovered yet more fake news emanating from hostile foreign powers.

The details: Facebook revealed that it was aware of several new fake news efforts — or, in its own phrase, "coordinated inauthentic behavior" — including campaigns traced back to Iranian state media and the Russian government.

Something to ponder: Facebook noted that in this case it didn't immediately take down the posts, opting instead to learn more about the actors and their playbook, as well as giving law enforcement time to investigate.

What they're saying:

  • “This is further evidence that foreign adversaries are actively using social media to divide Americans and undermine our democratic institutions," says Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who has been taking the lead on tech policy on Capitol Hill.
  • "This announcement reinforces what the Committee established in our recent, bipartisan hearing on the issue," says Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Namely, that the goal of these foreign social media campaigns is to sow discord, that Russia is not the only hostile foreign actor developing this capability, and that addressing this threat requires technology companies, law enforcement, Congress, and the Intelligence Community working together."
  • "It will take a bipartisan and whole of government approach to combat these foreign influence campaigns designed to divide us, as well as the continued efforts of the technology firms," says Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) "Ultimately, this is not an issue of party, and both Democrats and Republicans can count on being the target of foreign hackers and cyber influence campaigns."

Yes, but: As concerning as the Iranian and Russian attacks on Facebook were, they were caught. As The Verge's Casey Newton notes, there was an arguably more alarming Facebook story yesterday: a study showing how harmful Facebook can be even when used within proper bounds.

Plus, the New York Times reports that new research suggests a rise in Facebook usage in Germany may have a direct correlation with an increase in attacks on refugees.

2. Zuckerberg pours millions into midterm initiatives

Even as Facebook works to protect the November elections from outside interference, two of its founders are looking to make their voices heard.

CEO Mark Zuckerberg and co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are mounting campaigns to get voters to approve housing and criminal justice reforms directly at the ballot box in November, Axios' David McCabe reports.

The details: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (founded by Zuckerberg and his wife, physician Priscilla Chan) and the Open Philanthropy Project (primarily funded by Moskovitz and his wife, former reporter Cari Tuna) have already poured millions this election cycle into different ballot initiatives.

Why it matters: Silicon Valley's philanthropists are melding charity, advocacy and private sector investment — and have the potential to be hugely influential for decades.

Go deeper: David has more here.

3. Verizon: Slowing fire truck's connection was error

Protesters rally in Chicago in support of net neutrality. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Verizon said Tuesday that it made a customer service mistake by not quickly restoring high-speed wireless service to a fire truck that had gone over its data cap, but insists net neutrality is not to blame.

Driving the news: The fire department in Santa Clara, Calif., said that during the effort to fight the recent Mendocino Complex fire, one of its trucks, equipped with Verizon wireless service, had its connection speeds dramatically slowed, and was unable to restore full-speed service until it agreed to take out a higher-speed plan.

The allegations, reported earlier Tuesday by Ars Technica, were made as part of a suit by a number of states and other entities to reverse the FCC's move to end net neutrality.

What they're saying:

"This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services."
— Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a declaration, per Ars Technica.

Verizon, meanwhile, issued the following statement in response:

"This situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court."
"Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost.... Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. "
"In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward."
4. Amazon boosts college research on voice tech

Amazon is announcing today that it's growing its Alexa Fellowship program, which looks to fund academic research into voice technology. The effort will expand to 14 new colleges in addition to four already taking part in the program.

Why it matters: Amazon benefits from both the resulting research and the trained graduates.

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