The showdown between Big Tech and democracy has begun
July 25, 2019
Some immensely important hearings just went down on Capitol Hill. I'm not referring to the Mueller hearings. Instead I mean the much, much more important hearings on the existential threat to our democracy posed by Big Tech.
On a single day in Washington - Tuesday, July 16, 2019 - there were two Senate hearings, a House hearing, and a Congressional briefing, all around the threat of Big Tech monopolies to take over, well, everything: the media, the retail economy, the financial system, our elections, and society itself.
It was a remarkable day. I watched many hours of these hearings and was struck, above all, by two things:
(1) The sense of alarm, across both parties, across all parts of the political spectrum, about the threat that our democracy faces from Big Tech.
(2) The willingness on the part of Big Tech companies to deny, deflect, and outright lie to protect their current practices, profits, and power.
This was a showdown between Big Tech and democracy. And it's just starting. If you care whether you live in a democracy, with free speech and fair elections and a competitive market, you should pay attention. (And yes, I know that "blog post about Congressional hearings" sounds a lot less fun than the endless stream of social media amusements that are a click, or tap, or swipe, away. Strange how those services, distracting you from the important news about Big Tech, are owned by Big Tech!)
My main suggestion is that you listen to my Techtonic episode this week (or get it in the podcast, July 22 episode). Listen to the whole show and you'll understand why there was (1) bipartisan Congressional alarm about the (2) denials, deflections, and lies from Big Tech execs.
(Update 7-30-19: Here's a thread linking to each clip: Rep. Cicilline vs Amazon and vs Google; the disturbing testimony of Andy Parker; Sen. Hirono's obvious question and Google's deceitful response; Dr. Robert Epstein's testimony about Google manipulating elections; Sen. Hawley's question and Google's deceitful response about their pedophilia business, which I covered here; and finally, Matt Stoller's overview of Facebook's Libra currency and the enormous risks it brings.)
For now, here are just two highlights.
First highlight. In the Senate hearing on Google, Senator Hawley (Missouri) asked the question, THE question, that every Google exec should be asked in every hearing, in every press conference, at every tech conference. The issue is that Google profits from pedophiles, as I wrote last month, and they continue to do so. It's outrageous, and Senator Hawley was exactly right in asking a direct question on the matter. Find this exchange at timestamp 1:19:40 in the video. He's talking with Mr. Karan Bhatia, Google's VP for government affairs and public policy.
Sen. Hawley: What is so hard about ending the automatic referral of videos featuring minors to pedophiles? Why is that difficult? Why doesn't YouTube just do it? You know you can stop it, why won't you just do it?
Google's Karan Bhatia: Senator, I'm not sure, um, we, we, we-
Sen. Hawley: You're not familiar with this issue?
Mr. Bhatia: No, I'm familiar with the issue that you're referring to, based on our policy decisions that we made earlier this year, um, we, uhh, have, eliminated or, uhh, referencing or, or, recommending videos that contain minors in risky situations, risky, risky, uh, conditions.
Let me point out that Bhatia is deflecting the question. Hawley is saying, "Why do you continue to use the Recommended Videos algorithm to show pedophiles a stream of home videos featuring kids in bathing suits, thus continuing to profit from pedophiles?"
And Bhatia is saying, "Any videos that show a kid doing something risky, we'll try not to recommend."
This is a deflection. The problem is Google's profit model, in which the Recommended Videos algorithm directs users to whatever stream of videos will keep them engaged - in this case, pedophiles that want to watch a stream of kids-in-bathing-suits videos. The kids are not in a "risky situation" or "risky condition"; the problem is Google, which is aggregating and concentrating all of these individual home movies into a single - profitable - series of videos to then present to pedophiles. For Bhatia to deflect attention onto the kids - as though the kids, or the parents filming them, are the problem - is plainly deceitful.
Continuing the exchange, Hawley asks Bhatia to clarify, and again Bhatia falls back on the deceitful deflection:
Sen. Hawley: Wait, so you're telling me that you've turned off the auto-, you've taken them out of the algorithm, you've turned off the autoreferral, you're no longer recommending videos with minors?
Mr. Bhatia: Not all minors, there will be situations where there's perfectly legitimate video footage containing minors. But videos that contain minors in risky situations, risky conditions, we have stopped recommending those videos.
Sen. Hawley: How much money does YouTube make from videos featuring children?
Mr. Bhatia: Um, I, we don't break down money that way, Senator.
Sen. Hawley: You don't- you don't know? Really? Because I thought the response to the New York Times was that it would be devastating for your business model.
Mr. Bhatia: I, I, don't know, uh, that reference...
Bhatia just claimed he's not familiar with what Hawley is talking about.
Let me repeat that: Google's VP of public policy, testifying to the U.S. Senate, claims he's unfamiliar with his own company's response in a hugely important New York Times story from last month. This is under oath.
For reference, the story was On YouTube's Digital Playground, an Open Gate for Pedophiles from June 3, and here's the relevant excerpt:
YouTube has not put in place the one change that researchers say would prevent this from happening again: turning off its recommendation system on videos of children, though the platform can identify such videos automatically. The company said that because recommendations are the biggest traffic driver, removing them would hurt "creators" who rely on those clicks.
In other words, Google is saying that since the YouTube business model relies on the profits from the Recommended Videos algorithm, they're not going to turn the algorithm off. (Purely to protect the "creators," of course!) Google's response in the New York Times is crystal clear.
Yet Bhatia claims he's not familiar with the matter. Under oath. OK.
Hawley concludes this way: "Trust and patience in your company, and the behavior of your monopoly, has run out. It has certainly run out with me, and I think it's time for some accountability."
Amen to that.
Second highlight. This illuminating exchange, from the same Senate hearing, concerned Google's treatment of Andy Parker. This is difficult material, on par with or perhaps even worse than Google's profiting from pedophilia - though the issues are related, as I'll explain.
It started with a tragedy: Andy Parker's daughter Alison, a TV news reporter, was shot and killed during a live broadcast in 2015. Video footage of the murder made its way onto YouTube, where it was watched, shared, copied, and re-uploaded thousands of times.
Andy Parker contacted Google to ask the team to remove the video from YouTube. In response, Google suggested that Mr. Parker find the videos on YouTube himself, then click to flag each copy of the video to submit it to the YouTube algorithm for review.
Senator Hirono (Hawaii) questioned Karan Bhatia about this issue. Find this at timestamp 0:37:55 in the video.
Sen. Hirono: Footage of [Alison Parker's] murder can still be found on YouTube today. I understand that when Andy first approached Google about having the footage taken down, Google's response was that Andy himself should identify any videos of the murder and flag them to Google for a takedown. Google is an 800-billion-dollar company with nearly 100,000 employees. Why should a father have to search for, watch, and flag videos of his daughter's murder in order to have it removed from YouTube? Why can't Google do this itself?
Mr. Bhatia: So, Senator, first of all, let me start by, uh, expressing my own, and on behalf of Google, you know, uh, deepest sympathy to Mr. Parker for what he's gone through.
If you watch the video, Andy Parker is clearly visible, sitting just behind Karan Bhatia. And Andy Parker is shaking his head. It's clear that, based on his own experience with Google's team, Parker does not believe or accept Bhatia's pledge of sympathy.
Let's continue with Bhatia's statement.
Mr. Bhatia: And we have indeed engaged with him over the course of time. There are a number of sets of potential concerns with different kinds of videos. So if I can explain. The first are videos that are hoax videos. So there are videos that were put out that essentially tried to make the case that the shooting of his daughter had not happened. Those videos violate our policies, and we have indeed taken all of those down.
Andy Parker again shakes his head at this moment, signalling to us, the viewers, that Bhatia is not telling the truth.
Mr. Bhatia: The second set of videos that you're referencing are a variety of videos that may be, for instance, news footage or other things of the shooting. And there, there were a couple of concer- you know, one is the question of copyright. In other words, are these videos that are owned potentially by Mr. Parker, I understand there's some evidence to that. If there is, obviously we would seek to respect the copyright holder's desires.
For the third time, Andy Parker vigorously shakes his head.
Let's review. Bhatia claims that...
- He and Google are deeply sympathetic to Andy Parker: FALSE, according to Parker.
- Google has taken down the hoax videos of the murder: FALSE.
- Google has sought to respect Andy Parker's takedown request, for any videos where he's the copyright holder: FALSE.
I hesitate to call these "lies," seeing that Mr. Bhatia, in his exchange with Senator Hawley, claimed that he's not even aware of Google's comment in a major New York Times story. Maybe that's true, and maybe all of Bhatia's statements are true, as he really doesn't know what's going on. But our choices here are limited: either Bhatia is uninformed about his company to the point of incompetence, or he's knowingly making false statements. Under oath.
Bhatia wraps up his statement by defending Google with the sheer scale of YouTube's video uploads: "Every minute, there are 500 hours worth of video that is sought to be uploaded to YouTube." He goes on to say:
Given the quantity of video that we have out there, we have to depend upon machines, effectively, to try and spot fingerprints and then spot videos that are violative of our policies, our community guidelines, or others. So we certainly use that as a first instance. We then also do look to members of the community to inform us or point us to things that they also think should be taken down, and when pointed out to us, we have human reviewers look at and take them down as well, when violative.
In that statement above, finally, finally, Bhatia answers the question. YES, they asked Andy Parker to search for, watch, and flag videos of his daughter's murder. Because he's a "member of the YouTube community." Whenever the machine doesn't do the right thing, it's up to the "community" - that is, not Google, but the users - to clean up the mess.
And this is where Andy Parker's story relates to Google's profiting from pedophiles:
• Google's Recommended Videos algorithm is optimized to curate YouTube videos of kids for maximum engagement, meaning that Google profits from pedophiles - and Google refuses to take down that algorithm.
• Google's flawed algorithm fails to take down violent, murderous videos, but in order to minimize costs (and maximize profit), Google relies on users to flag the errors. (Watch Andy Parker's testimony in the video, starting at timestamp 1:54:05, to hear him describe it.)
In both cases, Google maximizes its profits while leaving the mess for the rest of society to clean up. This problem lies at the heart of the showdown between Big Tech and democracy. While Big Tech companies hoard their gains of power and profit, they dump all the resulting problems on the rest of us. And when we ask them to help clean up, they won't even acknowledge us. There's only one response: "Talk to the machine."
- - -
P.S. If you're concerned about this, as I am, please share this post (instructions below), or point people to my email newsletter. And really, listen to my July 22 show (or get it in the podcast) to hear all of this, and more, in context.
Update: YouTube videos featuring children rank in highest views, Pew study says (July 26, published the day after this column originally ran).
- - -
Summary of hearings on July 16
Here's a summary (see below for a detailed listing). All of these occurred on July 16:
• 1. House hearing on Big Tech monopolies of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple: House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law: Online Platforms and Market Power - video here, featuring Amazon's associate general counsel, Nate Sutton; and Google's director of economic policy, Adam Cohen. (See also the chairman, Representative David Cicilline, interviewed on NPR about Google last month.)
• 2. Senate hearing on Google: Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution: Google and Censorship through Search Engines - video here. Features Karan Bhatia, Google's VP for government affairs and public policy; Andy Parker, father of Alison Parker, and Dr. Robert Epstein, past guest on July 30, 2018 Techtonic (and included in the July 22, 2018 show as well).
• 3. Senate hearing on Facebook's Libra: Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, "Examining Facebook's Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations" - video here. (The following day, July 17, there was a House hearing on Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency - video here.)
• 4. Congressional briefing on Facebook's Libra: Video of Matt Stoller at Congressional Briefing on Facebook's "Libra" Cryptocurrency. See also Stoller's "Big" newsletter (July 17) on When Facebook's Bill Lumbergh Tries to Start a Currency.
- - -
Detailed list of hearings on July 16, 2019:
• House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law: "Online Platforms and Market Power, Part 2: Innovation and Entrepreneurship" (Note - "Part 1" was a totally separate hearing held months ago)
Chair: Representative David Cicilline, Rhode Island
Presenters, Panel 1: Adam Cohen (Director of Economic Policy, Google), Matt Perault (Head of Global Policy Development, Facebook), Nate Sutton (Associate General Counsel, Competition, Amazon), and Kyle Andeer (Vice President, Corporate Law, Apple).
Presenters, Panel 2: Tim Wu (Professor, Columbia Law School), Fiona Scott Morton (Professor, Yale School of Management), Stacy Mitchell (Co-Director, Institute for Local Self-Reliance), Maureen Ohlhausen (Partner, Baker Botts L.L.P.), Carl Szabo (Vice President and General Counsel, NetChoice), and Morgan Reed (Executive Director, The App Association).
• Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution: "Google and Censorship through Search Engines"
Chair: Senator Ted Cruz, Texas
Presenter, Panel 1: Karan Bhatia (VP for Government Affairs and Public Policy, Google)
Presenters, Panel 2: Jason Kint (CEO, Digital Content Next), Andy Parker (father of Alison Parker), Dr. Francesca Tripodi (Sociology professor, James Madison University), Dr. Robert Epstein (Senior Research Psychologist, American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology)
• Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs: "Examining Facebook's Proposed Digital Currency and Data Privacy Considerations"
Chair: Senator Mike Crapo, Idaho
Presenter: David Marcus, Head Of Calibra, Facebook
• Congressional Progressive Caucus: "Congressional Briefing on Facebook's 'Libra' Cryptocurrency"
Sponsor: Congressman Jesús "Chuy" García, Illinois
Presenters: David Segal (Executive Director, Demand Progress Education Fund), Heather Slavkin Corzo (Senior Fellow, Americans for Financial Reform), Rohan Grey (Founder and President, Modern Money Network), Porter McConnell (Campaign Director, Take on Wall Street), Matt Stoller (Fellow, Open Markets Institute)
- - -
Subscribe to my Techtonic podcast to keep in touch.
- - -
To share this post, retweet this, or copy and paste this:
The showdown between Big Tech and democracy has begun, writes @markhurst:
- - -