Silicon Valley's guilty conscience - Axios
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Silicon Valley's guilty conscience

Matt Rourke, Mark Lennihan, Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

We all know that people have become addicted to their smart phones — and now Silicon Valley insiders say this is exactly what the tech giants wanted. Founding Facebook president Sean Parker told Mike Allen yesterday that he has become "something of a conscientious objector" to social media, joining the small group of insider voices exposing and criticizing Silicon Valley's operations.

The big picture: The shiny newness and mystery of Silicon Valley is wearing off. Inner operations of the most powerful tech giants are being exposed — Facebook pitches partisan data to help election advertisers, foreign actors can easily manipulate Twitter, and now developers have always intentionally designed apps to keep our brains addicted. The insiders who are speaking up are turning on the tech world they helped create — as if they're trying to clear their guilty consciences.

  • Here's what Parker said: "The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, ... was all about: 'How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?'"
    • He explained that Facebook's "likes" and "comments" notifications are dopamine hits, keeping addiction alive, "It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
  • Tristan Harris, a former product philosopher at Google who has worked at Apple, Wikia and Microsoft, has spoken out about how our minds have been "hijacked" by our phones.
    • On 60 Minutes earlier this year, he held up his smart phone, saying, "This thing is a slot machine... every time I check my phone, I"m playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?' This is one way to highjack people's minds, to form a habit."
    • He added that "there's a whole playbook of techniques that get used to get you using the product for as long as possible."
  • Justin Rosenstein, who created the Facebook "like" button and helped develop GChat, has self-imposed limits to his access of smart phone apps because of their addictive properties.
    • He told the Guardian: "It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences."
  • Biz Stone, who co-founded Twitter and recently returned to work for the company, has expressed some of his own regrets about how Twitter was built. He told Inc.: "We made a mistake when we added the Mentions tab. All of a sudden, you could see anyone who was mentioning you on the site. We put the onus on users to block someone."
Don't forget: These advocates for change in Silicon Valley once worked to create this environment, and many still profit from it. And that point isn't lost on the critics.
  • Ben Thompson, who writes the tech blog Stratechery and has worked for Apple, Microsoft and Automattic, tweeted: "Silicon Valley critics eating up Sean Parker's comments about Facebook because it fits their pre-existing views is certainly fascinating to watch." He has since deleted the tweet.
  • Hunter Walk, a former prominent Google/YouTube employee, replied to Thompson: “[W]aiting for one of our luminaries who comes to this realization to then also decide their fortune is dirty & donate all their money to social causes."
Reality check: Despite all of their issues, these companies are reporting record users and profits. And polls, including a SurveyMonkey poll for Axios, have found that they retain broad support nationwide.
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ICE is seeking a program to monitor the social media of visa-holders

ICE agents at a home in Atlanta, during a targeted enforcement operation. Photo: ICE via AP

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said at a tech industry conference last week they are seeking algorithms that can "conduct ongoing social media surveillance" of visa holders that are considered high risk, according to ProPublica.

Why it matters: The announcement of the program, later named "Visa Lifecycle Vetting," spurred backlash from civil liberty groups and immigrants, saying it would be discrimination against Muslim visa holders. Acting deputy association director for information management at ICE Homeland Security Investigations, Alysa Erichs, said the goal is to have "automated notifications about any visa holders' social media activity that could 'ping us as a potential alert.'"

  • But, but, but: According to Alvaro Bedoya, the executive director of Georgetown Law's Center on Privacy and Technology, ICE is "building a dangerously broad tool that could be used to justify excluding, or deporting, almost anyone."
  • A group of engineers, computer scientists, and other academics wrote to acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke of their "grave concerns" about the program, saying it would likely be "inaccurate and biased."
  • Carissa Cutrell, an ICE spokeswoman, told ProPublica the "request for information...was simply that - an opportunity to gather information...to determine the best way forward."
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Peter Thiel might try to buy Gawker.com

Kevin Moloney / Fortune Brainstorm Tech

Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire investor who funded ex-wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker, is seeking to pause the sales process of the now-defunct website, arguing that he was unfairly excluded from making a bid, according to a bankruptcy court filing obtained by BuzzFeed.

Why it matters: The buyer of Gawker.com (the rest of Gawker Media's properties were acquired by Univision last year) will be able to do with its contents as they please, including deleting specific articles. There are still ongoing legal actions over a few articles in the archive. Though Thiel never admitted as much, it was long rumored that his decision to help Hogan was fueled by unflattering coverage of him and his business activities over the years, including a 2007 story about the fact that he is gay.

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The blowback from Uber's data breach

A man exits the Uber offices in Austin, Texas. Photo: Eric Gay / AP

Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut are planning investigations into Uber's recently announced 2016 breach that left 57 million customers' and drivers' data vulnerable to criminals, and the FTC might launch a probe as well, according to Recode.

Why it matters: Most states (48) have some form of a law requiring companies to reveal data breaches to consumers, but Uber did not immediately disclose the details to consumers and reportedly tried to cover up the hack.

The FTC may also launch a probe into Uber, Recode reports, citing two sources who say Uber has already briefed the agency. The FTC said it was looking into the matter.

  • The FTC just penalized Uber in August for other privacy and security practices and had asked Uber to maintain all records related to privacy and security for investigators. This apparent cover-up could throw a wrench in those conclusions issued in August.
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal urged the FTC to take "swift enforcement action and impose significant penalties" on Uber, and Rep. Frank Pallone is calling for a Congressional hearing on the matter.

Global blowback: Authorities in Australia and the Philippines said they would also be investigating, and the UK's data protection regulator brought up potential penalties for Uber, per Reuters.

Bottom line: The news is not good for Uber on a global scale. It could face penalties and fines in addition to paying the steep legal price associated with suits after a year filled with other headaches related to security, privacy, and its culture.

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Men behaving badly

The bombshell report from The New York Times last month on decades of sexual harassment and assault by producer Harvey Weinstein started a domino effect as other women spoke out about mistreatment by men in positions of power.

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Trump Org. walking away from SoHo hotel

The Trump Soho hotel. Photo: Seth Wenig / AP

The Trump Organization has made a deal allowing it to walk away from the Trump SoHo hotel by the end of the month, according to the New York Times.

Why it matters: Per the Times, the hotel has "struggled to attract guests" and had to close its main restaurant in April due to what the restaurant's lawyer called a "decline in business since the election." The Trump Org. faced several lawsuits over building the hotel, per the Times, one of which alleged it "was backed by felons and financing from Russia." Russian-born businessman Felix Sater, who has been in the news following the election for having pushed for a Trump Tower in Moscow, was involved in the deal.

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Video released of North Korean defector crossing DMZ

Photo: United Nations Command via AP.

A video just released by the United Nations shows the North Korean soldier who defected to the South on November 13th making his getaway in a green jeep, running towards the border separating Panmunjom, North Korea from the South, and then collapsing on the South Korean side.

Why it matters: The event amounts to a violation of the armistice, since he was shot five times in his successful effort to defect from the North Korean regime, South Korea says. He was ultimately rescued by South Korean soldiers. Pyongyang has yet to say anything about the defection but the UN Command says it has requested a meeting to discuss the apparent armistice violations.

The scene, per the AP's Foster Klug: "It's 3:11 p.m. on a cold, gray day on the North Korean side of the most heavily armed border in the world, and a lone soldier is racing toward freedom."

  • "His dark olive-green jeep speeds down a straight, tree-lined road, past drab, barren fields and, headlights shining, across the replacement for the Bridge of No Return..."
  • "The shock of soldiers watching the jeep rush by is palpable from the video released Wednesday and no wonder: They're beginning to realize that one of their comrades is defecting to the South."
  • The defector crashes his jeep into a ditch.
  • The South says North Koreans fired about 40 rounds from AK-47s and rifles at the defector. No fire was exchanged between North and South Koreans.
  • The defector makes it over the border, and then turns around and runs back towards the North before collapsing by the wall. South Koreans crawl to pull him to safety.
  • "The entire sequence, from the first appearance of the jeep to the soldier's frenzied crossing, lasts four minutes."

A clue to life in North Korea: The defector had two surgeries to repair internal organ damage and is conscious. Surgeons "removed dozens of parasites from the soldier's ruptured small intestine, including presumed roundworms that were as long as 27 centimeters (10.6 inches), which may reflect poor nutrition and health in North Korea's military."

Watch:

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Vaccine researcher dodged medical regulations, conducted trials in hotels

Photo: AlexKich / iStock

Unlicensed and unregulated experimental vaccines were administered to at least eight herpes patients in the United States, in direct violation of US law, according to an investigation by Marisa Taylor at Kaiser Health News. The experiments were conducted secretly for several years in a Holiday Inn Express and Crown Plaza Hotel near Carbondale, Illinois.

What we already knew: William Halford, the associate professor at Southern Illinois University who conducted the experiments, died of cancer this summer. Halford had previously been accused of dodging US oversight laws by running trials out of a house on the island of St. Kitts in 2016. The St. Kitts and Nevis government says they were not notified of the research.

Why it matters: "We're not allowed to do this in guinea pigs in this country let alone human subjects," herpes expert Anne Wald told Kaiser Health News.

Money: Despite the controversy, a number of investors, including Peter Thiel, have invested several million dollars in Rational Vaccines, the company founded by Halford and Hollywood filmmaker Agustín Fernández III.

Deception: Halford, who was not a physician, took clear steps to cover his tracks, telling participants to keep the experiment a secret and "writing that it would be 'suicide' if he became to public about how he was conducting his research," writes Taylor.

Complications: Patients have reported side effects from the vaccine. Kaiser Health News reports that one participants fear that the vaccine gave him a new, different type of herpes is "possible."

Contamination: Not only were the trials conducted in violation of US law, they were conducted using live viruses. Live virus vaccines are traditionally handled in extremely sterile areas - which Holiday Inns are not - to prevent contamination.

Manipulation: Halford used patient's desire for a cure to manipulate them into joining the unauthorized trial: "People underestimate how desperate people with genital HSV are," Wald told Kaiser Health News.

Denial: Southern Illinois University, which previously denied it had any knowledge of Halford's action, refused to comment to Taylor.

Read the full Kaiser Health News report here.


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Exxon joins 7 major oil companies to reduce pollution

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Exxon, Shell, BP and five other big oil and natural gas companies have announced that they are joining forces to work on ways to cut emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from natural gas production, according to Wall Street Journal.

Why it matters: There has been growing pressure from government and consumers on the energy industry to find more environmentally-friendly energy sources and production methods, and Exxon's participation leaves Chevron as the only major U.S. oil company not part of the group. These companies have already made significant investments in fossil fuels, which they believe will be an important source of energy stability even as renewables gain popularity, and natural gas is the cleanest compared to oil and coal.

The companies' joint statement: "The commitment was made as part of wider efforts by the global energy industry to ensure that natural gas continues to play a critical role in helping meet future energy. Its role in the transition to a low-carbon future will be influenced by the extent to which methane emissions are reduced."

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Anita Hill: Biden did "opposite" of what women needed in 1991

Anita Hill in 1991 and Joe Biden in 2017. Photos: John Duricka and Patrick Semansky / AP

A new look at Anita Hill's 1991 testimony against now-Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas puts a harsh spotlight on Joe Biden's handling of her allegations of sexual harassment. Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, and the Washington Post magazine reports that Hill believes Biden hasn't taken responsibility for how unfairly she was treated.

Why it matters: Here's what Hill told the Post: “[W]omen were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings. They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women's equality. And they did just the opposite."

The bottom line: Biden apologized to Hill at a Glamour magazine event earlier this month, saying he was "so sorry" for what Hill went through. Hill said she still doesn't think his comment "takes ownership of his role in what happened," and said it was a qualified apology: "That's sort of an 'I'm sorry if you were offended.'“

Biden declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post and declined to comment on Hill's response.

On Biden's speedy process:

  • Then-Rep. Pat Schroeder indicated she wanted to slow down Thomas' confirmation process in light of the allegations. But Schroeder said Biden emphasized he wanted a fast process for the hearing.
  • When the lawmakers spoke with Biden about their concerns, Schroeder claims Biden said "that he had given his word" to Sen. Joe Danforth, Thomas' chief sponsor, "in the men's gym that this would be a very quick hearing," and "kind of pointed his finger and said, 'you don't understand how important one's word [is] in the Senate.'" Schroeder added "It was really, really ugly."

On Biden's lack of control:

  • Hill said Biden didn't control the hearing so that she could speak before Thomas did, as Biden had said would happen.
  • Instead, Hill was left with what non-voting Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton called a "rebuttal before you hear the accusation," when Thomas went first. Hill called it a "preemptive strike."

On how the media covers sexual misconduct allegations:

  • Hill said the media "had a political angle" in 1991. "They were asking questions like, 'Who supported her? Who's behind her? What group is she associated with?' That was the way that they were telling the story." She cited the Republican senators and the White House "feeding" stories to the press.
  • "But then afterwards the media shifted to talking about sexual harassment in the workplace. And I think that was a segue into the year of the woman, because then that story started to be about women's experiences and how they were not being represented in Washington, D.C."
The aftermath, per WashPost: "In 1992, 24 women were elected as new members to the House and four to the Senate, more than in any previous decade. Many cited anger over Hill's treatment during the Thomas hearings as a reason for running."
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Dept. of Education changing guidelines on systemic discrimination

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Photo: Ted S. Warren / AP

The Education Department will no longer look for systematic discrimination in schools following individual complaints, according to the Associated Press.

Why it matters: This is a change from the Obama administration, which required the department to investigate whether an incident of discrimination was a part of a broader problem in a school or class. Proposed revisions from the department that were released last week omitted the word "systemic" from its guidelines, per the AP. In addition to that change, the department is moving to eliminate an appeals process, and give schools "a greater say in how a case is handled."