All posts in “Social”

India moves closer to regulating internet services as it fears ‘unimaginable disruption to democracy’

India said on Monday that it is moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

In a legal document filed with the country’s apex Supreme Court, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology said it would formulate the rules to regulate intermediaries by January 15, 2020.

In the legal filing, the government department said the internet had “emerged as a potent tool to cause unimaginable disruption to the democratic polity.” Oversight of intermediaries, the ministry said, would help in addressing the “ever growing threats to individual rights and nation’s integrity, sovereignty and security.”

The Indian government published a draft of guidelines for consultation late last year. The proposed rules, which revise the 2011 laws, identified any service — social media or otherwise — that have more than 5 million users as intermediaries.

Government officials said at the time that modern rules were needed, otherwise circulation of false information and other misuse of internet platforms would continue to flourish.

The Monday filing comes as a response to an ongoing case in India filed by Facebook to prevent the government from forcing WhatsApp to introduce a system that would enable revealing the source of messages exchanged on the popular instant messaging platform, which counts India as its biggest market with more than 400 million users.

Some have suggested that social media platforms should require their users in India to link their accounts with Aadhaar — a government-issued, 12-digit biometric ID. More than 1.2 billion people in India have been enrolled in the system.

Facebook executives have argued that meeting such demands would require breaking the end-to-end encryption that WhatsApp users enjoy globally. The company executives have said that taking away the encryption would compromise the safety and privacy of its users. The Supreme Court will hear Facebook’s case on Tuesday.

India’s online population has ballooned in recent years. More than 600 million users in India are online today, according to industry estimates. The proliferation of low-cost Android handsets and access to low-cost mobile data in the nation have seen “more and more people in India become part of the internet and social media platforms.”

“On the one hand, technology has led to economic growth and societal development, on the other hand there has been an exponential rise in hate speech, fake news, public order, anti-national activities, defamatory postings, and other unlawful activities using Internet/social media platforms,” a lower court told the apex court earlier.

New Facebook features fight election lies everywhere but ads

Heaven forbid a political candidate’s Facebook account gets hacked. They might spread disinformation…like they’re already allowed to do in Facebook ads…

Today Facebook made a slew of announcements designed to stop 2020 election interference. “The bottom line here is that elections have changed significantly since 2016″ and so has Facebook in response, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on a call with reporters. “We’ve gone from being on our back foot to proactively going after some of the biggest threats out there”

Facebook Protect

One new feature is called Facebook Protect. By hijacking accounts of political candidates or their campaign staff, bad actors can steal sensitive information, expose secrets, and spread disinformation. So to safeguard these vulnerable users, Facebook is launching a new program with extra security they can opt into.

Facebook Protect entails requiring two-factor authentication, and having Facebook monitor for hacking attempts like suspicious logins. Facebook can then inform the rest of an organization and investigate if it sees one member under attack.

Today’s other announcements include:

  • The takedown of foreign influence campaigns, three from Iran and one from Russia in order to protect users from deception.
  • Labelling state-owned or controlled media organizations like Russia Today on their Facebook Pages and the Ad Library to help users identify potential propaganda.
  • Added Page ownership transparency for ePages with large US audiences and those verified to run political ads which will have to display their owner’s organization’s legal name, city, and phone number or website so it’s clear where information comes from.
  • New transparency features around political ad spend including a US presidential candidate spend tracker, more geographic spending details, info on what apps an ad appear on, and programmatic access to downloads of political ad creative.
  • Much more prominent fact-checking labels will now run as interstitials warnings atop photos and videos on Facebook and Instagram that were fact-checked as false, rather than smaller labels attached below the post to make sure users know information is false before consuming it. Users will also be warned before they share posts fact-checked as false to keep them from going viral.

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  • A wider ban on voter suppression ads that suggest it’s useless to vote, provide inaccurate polling or voter eligibility information, or threaten people if they vote or based on the outcome of an election to prevent intimidation and confusion.
  • A $2 million investment from Facebook into media literacy projects to develop new methods of educating people to understand political social media and ads.
  • Facebook Protect offering hack monitoring services to elected officials, candidates political party committees, government agencies and departments surrounding elections, and verified users involved in elections.

Facebook Page Transparency Spend Tracker

Combined, the efforts could protect both campaigns and constituents from misinformation while giving everyone more clarity about where content comes from. Yet the approach highlights Facebook’s tightrope walk between policing its networks and overstepping into censorship.

In a speech last week, Zuckerberg tried to firmly plant Facebook as erring on the side of giving people a voice rather than stifling speech. He raised the threat of China’s influence over foreign businesses by dangling its giant market in exchange for adherence to its political values. And he tried to defend allowing lies in political ads, arguing that banning political ads on Facebook as I’ve recommended the company do would benefit incumbents and silence challengers who don’t have media attention.

Trump Ad 1

A Trump ad spreads misinformation claiming Democrats want to repeal the second amendment

Yet throughout the call, Zuckerberg was hammered with questions about Facebook’s willingness to fact check what users share with friends, but not what politicians pay to show to millions of voters.

People should make up their own minds about what candidates are credible. I don’t think those determinations should come from tech companies . . . People need to be able to see this content for themselves” Zuckerberg insisted. Yet if Facebook is willing to cover photos containing misinformation with a warning label you have to click to see past, it’s strange that it’s unwilling to do the same for political ads.

Like farming out fact-checking to third-party news outlets as Facebook already does, banning political ads wouldn’t force Facebook to judge the truth of individual statements, and they’d still have the right to share what they want to their own followers.

When I asked why he believes banning political ads would favor incumbents, Zuckerberg admitted “You’re right that incumbents can raise more money” and he wasn’t sure there’d been a comprehensive study on the matter. His defense relied on anecdotal beliefs of unnamed sources:

I’ve talked to a lot of people. The general belief that they have, when they’re a challenger, is that they rely on different mechanisms like ads in order to get their voices into a debate more than incumbents do . . .

From all of the conversations that I’ve had, the general overwhelming consensus from people who are participating in these things and who work on them has been that removing political ads would favor incumbents.”

While the rest of Facebook’s announcements today felt like sensible steps in the right direction, the company will need a stronger arguments for why it polices misinformation shared by users but not political ad campaigns.

Zuckerberg Elections

If it wants to find a better middle-ground, it could offer standardized ad units for political campaigns that endorse the candidate and ask for donations, but can’t make potentially untruthful assertions about them or their competitors. Alternatively it could apply fact-check labels to political ads without making calls of veracity itself. Facebook could also build other ways for challengers to grow their voice outside of ads so it could ban them without supposedly empowering incumbents.

Otherwise, it faces a political ad misinformation arms race in stern contrast to its other pro-truth efforts announced today. What will Facebook do if campaiagns make increasingly malicious and inaccurate statements about their rivals via ads, claiming only donations to their candidate can save society? And what if they keep pouring all the money they unscrupulously raise into more ads? “My opponent eats babies. Donate to me by midnight. Only I can stop them from becoming America’s dictator”

At least most of the time, users can try to avoid politics by ignoring campaign pages and unfollowing their crazy uncles. But untrue ads inject polarization and discord into people’s feeds. Facebook’s policies give the richest, most craven candidates the loudest voices. Can the social network and the democratic process survive a whole year of top spenders shouting lies?

YouTube founder secretly building sports fan game GreenPark

Chad Hurley is hunting for what comes after fantasy sports. He envisions a new way for fans to play by watching live and cheering for the athletes they love. Beyond a few scraps of info the YouTube co-founder would share and his new startup’s job listings revealed, we don’t know what Hurley’s game will feel like. But the company is called GreenPark Sports, and it’s launching in Spring 2020.

“There is an absence of compelling, inclusive ways for large masses of sports fans to compete together” Hurley tells me. “The idea of a ‘sports fan’ has evolved – it is now more a social behavior than ever before. We’re looking at a much bigger, inclusive way for all fans of sports and esports teams to play.”

GreenPark Sports Chad Hurley

Hurley already has an all-star team. One of GreenPark’s co-founders Nick Swinmurn helped start Zappos, while another Ken Martin created marketing agency BLITZ. Together they’ve raised an $8.5 million seed round led by SignalFire and joined by Sapphire Sports and Founders Fund. “With this team’s impeccable track record and vision for the future of fandom, this was an investment we had to make,” said Chris Farmer, founder and CEO of SignalFire.

It all comes down to allegiance — something Hurley, Swinmurn, and Martin truly understand. Everyone is seeking ways to belong and emblems to represent them. In an age when many of our most prized possessions from photographs to record collections have been digitized, we lack tangible objects that center our individuality. Culture increasingly centers around landmark events, with what we’ve done mattering more than what we own.

GreenPark could seize upon this moment by helping us to align our identities with a team. This instantly unlocks a likeminded community, a recurrent activity, and a unified aesthetic. And when reality gets heavy, people can lose themselves by hitching their spirits to the scoreboard.

Rather than just tabulating results after the match like in fantasy sports, GreenPark wants to be entwined with the spectacle as it happens. “We’re going to be working with a mix of ways to visualize the live game – from unique gamecast-like data to highlight clips. The social viewing experience can be much more than just the straight live video” Hurley explains.

GreenPark Sports Logo

He came up with GreenPark after selling assets of his video editing app Mixbit to BlueJeans a year ago. Hurley already had an interactive relationship with sports…though one that’s reserved for the rich: he’s part owner of the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Football Club. Meanwhile, Swinmurn co-founded the Burlingame Dragons Football Club affiliated with San Jose’s team, and is on the board of Denmark’s FC Helsingør.

Those experiences taught them the satisfaction that comes from a deeper sense of ownership or allegiance with a team. GreenPark will give an opportunity for anyone to turn fandom into its own sport. “We shared a love of sports and set out to look into opportunities around legalized sports betting in the US” Hurley tells me.” But quickly they found “it was obvious the regulated space wouldn’t allow us to innovate as quickly as we wanted” and they saw a more opportunity amidst a younger mainstream audience.

“We’re not ready to disclose publicly the exact detailed gameplay yet” Hurley says. But here’s what we could cobble together from around the web.

GreenPark Sports lets you “Destroy the other teams’ fans” to “climb the leaderboards”, its site says cryptically. According to job listings, it will pipe in live game data, starting with the NBA and expanding to other leagues, and offer cartoon characters with facial expressions and full-body gestures to let users live out the highs and lows of matches. Don’t expect trivia questions or player stat memorization. It almost sounds like a massively multiplayer online fan arena. 

As with blockbuster games Fortnite or League Of Legends, GreenPark is free-to-play. But a mention of virtual clothing hints at monetization, where you could spruce up avatars with digital team apparel. Hurley tells me “We are in the perfect storm of the thirst for innovation at the traditional league level, the next level of maturing for esports, investment in sports betting and overall dire need to better understand today’s largest populace of sports fans – Millenial / Gen Z.” The closed beta launches in the Spring.

Screen Shot 2019 10 21 at 9.45.29 AM

There’s a massive hole to fill in the wake of the Draft Kings / FanDuel marketing sure a few years ago. Most apps in the space just carry scores or analysis, rather than community. “What’s amazing about being a fan of a team or player is the common bond you have with other fans” Hurley explains, “where even if you don’t know the other fans of your team – you are all in it to win it – together.”

Publications like The Athletic have proven there are plenty of fans willing to pay to feel closer to their favorite teams. The most direct competitor for GreenPark might be Strafe, that lets you track and predict the winners of esports matches.

People already spend tons of time on building fictional worlds like Minecraft and money outfitting their Fortnite avatar with the coolest clothes. If GreenPark can create a space for sports’ fan self-expression, it could create the online destination for legions of IRL enthusiasts that see who they root for as core to who they are.

Should we rethink the politics of ‘blocking’?

Years ago, I wrote a piece criticizing a cover story by a well-known writer and political commentator that I’d met a few times, with whom I’d occasionally sparred on Twitter. The piece wasn’t merely a representation of my own views, but pulled in snarky tweets from other journalists disparaging her work too. It was a pile-on, and not my proudest moment.

The writer wasn’t exactly thin-skinned; in fact, quite the contrary: She was a brash, sometimes obnoxious feminist with strong opinions, unafraid to speak her mind. I often agreed with her, even when I found her delivery abrasive. Still, after a couple of years with me as a thorn in her side, she decided she’d had enough — and so she did something that many readers will find familiar: She blocked me on Twitter.

The block button is an important tool that allows women and other vulnerable people to have some semblance of the same Twitter experience that the average white man might, free from constant harassment. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve used it over the years to drown out nasty ad hominems, sea lions and, of course, sexual harassment — and worse. 

Twitter wasn’t always the “hell site” we know it as today. Many early users like me found professional advancement and lasting friendship in 140-character missives. But as the site grew, so did its potential for misuse. By 2014 — two years shy of its tenth anniversary — Twitter had become central to the GamerGate controversy, ostensibly a dispute about issues of sexism and progressivism in gaming but on Twitter, a free-for-all of harassment and doxing of any woman even tangentially involved in the discussion. The harassment was so severe that it drove some women off the site permanently.

Out of GamerGate emerged better tools for blocking, tools like BlockTogether that allow individual users to share a list of people they’ve blocked. The idea behind these tools is that harassers are likely to have multiple targets, so why not make it easier for potential targets of harassment to block numerous would-be harassers all at once?

But BlockTogether and similar tools are not without flaws. Once you’re on a blocklist, it can be hard to get your name removed, and if you end up, for whatever reason, on one created by a prominent or well-respected user, you may find yourself blocked by people you don’t know and would’ve enjoyed following. Some might call this reasonable collateral damage.

Numerous journalists and others have complained of finding themselves on a blocklist after a disagreement with an individual who uses them. I’m unfortunately on one used by a number of journalists. Why, you might ask, was I blocked in the first place? I remember quite clearly: It was for disagreeing with someone about the life sentence handed to Ross Ulbricht, the creator of the Silk Road website. For my opinion, I’ve lost the ability to follow or interact with dozens of journalists whose work I read.

Despite that, I don’t blame women or other minorities who’ve experienced harassment for using the block button liberally. Blocking someone isn’t a matter of free speech (unless of course the blocker in question is an elected official), as some of my harassers have claimed — rather, it’s often a matter of preserving one’s sanity. The block button, along with blocklists, are useful tools for curating space — not a safe space per se, but one free from random harassers, spammers and the like. Think of it more as a large invite-only event, as opposed to a New York City street.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if our liberal use of the block button prevents us from experiencing the kind of reconciliation that can happen in our offline communities. We often remove someone from our life, only for them to apologize their way back in later on. Even the Amish, who practice shunning as a matter of faith, allow for the repented to return.

twitter logo sketch wide inverted

Twitter’s architecture has changed over time, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. Presently, its algorithm sometimes surfaces replies — from people you do follow, to tweets from individuals you don’t — based on some assumption that you might find them interesting. Occasionally, it will surface a reply from a friend to someone with a locked account or, in rare cases, to someone who blocks you, as it did for me the other day. Someone I follow had replied with an interesting comment to a tweet from The Writer — a tweet that, of course, I couldn’t see without logging out and going directly to her profile. And so I did.

What I found was someone who, with that same fierce energy, seemed a lot more thoughtful, with views more similar to mine than I remembered. I felt a momentary pang of sadness for the camaraderie that might have been. I realized the obvious: That we’ve both grown, alongside the backdrop of the horrific political environment that’s accompanied us through the past half-decade. “Have you thought about reaching out to her?” a friend asked.

Therein lies the rub: In the case of The Writer, I could reach out to her; we’ve met in person a few times, and we retain mutual friends. She might respond favorably, or with a “thanks but no thanks,” but either way, it’s unlikely she would deem my approach to be harassment. But there’s this other journalist I’ve never interacted with, who no doubt signed up to a blocklist that I happened to be on. I discovered that she blocked me when I went to read a tweet someone had DM’d me, and was disappointed — but reaching out to her through some other channel would seem weird, invasive. It isn’t worth it.

I recently reviewed my own list of blocked accounts (you can do so through your settings), a list that numbers well into the hundreds. Most aren’t worth revisiting — there ares sexual harassers and transphobes, Bahraini bots and Roseanne Barr, some Trumpites and a few high-profile right-wing accounts. But among them, close to the bottom of the list (coinciding with the early days of the block button), I spotted a few outliers, and decided to give them a second chance.

Technology is constantly changing and progressing and yet, the block button — and blocklists — remain in rudimentary form. They’re simply not priorities for companies whose focus is on profit. But were we to redesign them, perhaps we could find a way to make blocks time-limited, or at least provide users with more nuanced options. One such existing feature is Facebook’s “snooze” button, which allows users to “mute” another person for 30 days, with a reminder when that time period is up; I found that one particularly handy last summer while a friend was going heavy on self-promotion. I use Twitter’s “mute” function to rid my feed of people with whom I have to interact professionally and thus can’t block.

And then there’s the “soft block” — a feature or bug, it isn’t clear — wherein one can block and unblock someone quickly on Twitter so that the user no longer follows them…at least until they wise up (this feature/bug is made easier by the fact that Twitter seems to be perpetually plagued by an “unfollow bug”). These tools are helpful, but with all the riches these companies have, they could design something — with input from those most affected by harassment — that is less blunt, more elegant, more thoughtful.

Ultimately, the block button is an imperfect solution to a pervasive problem, and therefore remains as necessary as ever. I know that I’ll continue to use it as long as I’m on social media. But don’t we deserve something better?

Daily Crunch: Zuckerberg has thoughts on free speech

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Zuckerberg on Chinese censorship: Is that the internet we want?

The Facebook CEO spoke yesterday at Georgetown University, sharing his thoughts on speech and “how we might address the challenges that more voice and the internet introduce, and the major threats to free expression around the world.”

Among his arguments: China is exporting its social values, political ads are an important part of free expression and the definition of dangerous speech must be kept in check.

2. Atlassian acquires Code Barrel, makers of Automation for Jira

Sydney-based Code Barrel was founded by two of the first engineers who built Jira at Atlassian, Nick Menere and Andreas Knecht. With this acquisition, they are returning to Atlassian after four years in startup land.

3. Swarm gets green light from FCC for its 150-satellite constellation

Swarm Technologies aims to connect smart devices around the world with a low-bandwidth but ever-present network provided by satellites — and it just got approval from the FCC to do so. Apparently the agency is no longer worried that Swarm’s sandwich-sized satellites are too small to be tracked.

4. Nintendo Switch hits another sales milestone

Nintendo’s North American Switch unit sales have already surpassed the lifetime worldwide unit sales of the Wii U. The company announced Thursday that they had sold 15 million units of the popular handheld console in North America.

5. HBO Max scores all 21 Studio Ghibli films

WarnerMedia has been on a shopping spree for its HBO Max service. It bought the rights to “Friends” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and now it’s using its outsized checkbook to bring beloved Japanese animation group Studio Ghibli’s films onto the web exclusively on its platform for U.S. subscribers.

6. Volvo creates a dedicated business for autonomous industrial and commercial transport

The vehicle-maker has already been active in putting autonomous technology to work in various industries, with self-driving projects at quarries and mines, and in the busy port located at Gothenburg, Sweden.

7. How Unity built the world’s most popular game engine

Unity’s growth is a case study of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation. While other game engines targeted the big AAA game makers at the top of the console and PC markets, Unity went after independent developers with a less robust product that was better suited to their needs and budget. (Extra Crunch membership required.)