Mark Zuckerberg makes the case for Facebook News

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed cheerful and even jokey when he took the stage today in front of journalists and media executives (at one point, he described the event as “by far the best thing” he’d done this week), he acknowledged that there are reasons for the news industry to be skeptical.

Facebook, after all, has been one of the main forces creating a difficult economic reality for the industry over the past decade. And there are plenty of people (including our own Josh Constine) who think it would be foolish for publishers to trust the company again.

For one thing, there’s the question of how Facebook’s algorithm prioritizes different types of content, and how changes to the algorithm can be enormously damaging to publishers.

“We can do a better job of working with partners to have more transparency and also lead time about what we see in the pipeline,” Zuckerberg said, adding, “I think stability is a big theme.” So Facebook might be trying something out as an “experiment,” but “if it kind of just causes a spike, it can be hard for your business to plan for that.”

At the same time, Zuckerberg argued that Facebook’s algorithms are “one of the least understood things about what we do.” Specifically, he noted that many people accuse the company of simply optimizing the feed to keep users on the service for as long as possible.

“That’s actually not true,” he said. “For many years now, I’ve prohibited any of our feed teams … from optimizing the systems to encourage the maximum amount of time to be spent. We actually optimize the system for facilitating as many meaningful interactions as possible.”

For example, he said that when Facebook changed the algorithm to prioritize friends and family content over other types of content (like news), it effectively eliminated 50 million hours of viral video viewing each day. After the company reported its subsequent earnings, Facebook had the biggest drop in market capitalization in U.S. history.

Zuckerberg was onstage in New York with News Corp CEO Robert Thomson to discuss the launch of Facebook News, a new tab within the larger Facebook product that’s focused entirely on news. Thomson began the conversation with a simple question: “What took you so long?”

The Facebook CEO took this in stride, responding that the question was “one of the nicest things he could have said — that actually means he thinks we did something good.”

Zuckerberg went on to suggest that the company has had a long interest in supporting journalism (“I just think that every internet platform has a responsibility to try to fund and form partnerships to help news”), but that its efforts were initially focused on the News Feed, where the “fundamental architecture” made it hard to find much room for news stories — particularly when most users are more interested in that content from friends and family.

So Facebook News could serve as a more natural home for this news (to be clear, the company says news content will continue to appear in the main feed as well). Zuckerberg also said that since past experiments have created such “thrash in the ecosystem,” Facebook wanted to make sure it got this right before launching it.

In particular, he said the company needed to show that tabs within Facebook, like Facebook Marketplace and Facebook Watch, could attract a meaningful audience. Zuckerberg acknowledged that the majority of Facebook users aren’t interested in these other tabs, but when you’ve got such an enormous user base, even a small percentage can be meaningful.

“I think we can probably get to maybe 20 or 30 million people [visiting Facebook News] over a few years,” he said. “That by itself would be very meaningful.”

Facebook is also paying some of the publishers who are participating in Facebook News. Zuckerberg described this as “the first time we’re forming long-term, stable relationships and partnerships with a lot of publishers.”

Several journalists asked for more details about how Facebook decided which publishers to pay, and how much to pay them. Zuckerberg said it’s based on a number of factors, like ensuring a wide range of content in Facebook News, including from publishers who hadn’t been publishing much on the site previously. The company also had to compensate publishers who are taking some of their content out from behind their paywalls.

“This is not an exact formula — maybe we’ll get to that over time — but it’s all within a band,” he said.

Zuckerberg was also asked about how Facebook will deal with accuracy and quality, particularly given the recent controversy over its unwillingness to fact check political ads.

He sidestepped the political ads question, arguing that it’s unrelated to the day’s topics, then said, “This is a different kind of thing.” In other words, he argued that the company has much more leeway here to determine what is and isn’t included — both by requiring any participating publishers to abide by Facebook’s publisher guidelines, and by hiring a team of journalists to curate the headlines that show up in the Top Stories section.

“People have a different expectation in a space dedicated to high-quality news than they do in a space where the goal is to make sure everyone can have a voice and can share their opinion,” he said.

As for whether Facebook News will include negative stories about Facebook, Zuckerberg seemed delighted to learn that Bloomberg (mostly) doesn’t cover Bloomberg.

“I didn’t know that was a thing a person could do,” he joked. More seriously, he said, “For better or worse, we’re a prominent part of a lot of the news cycles. I don’t think it would be reasonable to try to have a news tab that didn’t cover the stuff that Facebook is doing. In order to make this a trusted source over time, they have to be covered objectively.”

British parliament presses Facebook on letting politicians lie in ads

In yet another letter seeking to pry accountability from Facebook, the chair of a British parliamentary committee has pressed the company over its decision to adopt a policy on political ad that supports flagrant lying.

In the letter Damian Collins, chair of the DCMS committee, asks the company to explain why it recently took the decision to change its policy regarding political ads — “given the heavy constraint this will place on Facebook’s ability to combat online disinformation in the run-up to elections around the world”.

“The change in policy will absolve Facebook from the responsibility of identifying and tackling the widespread content of bad actors, such as Russia’s Internet Research Agency,” he warns, before going on to cite a recent tweet by the former chief of Facebook’s global efforts around political ads transparency and election integrity  who has claimed that senior management ignored calls from lower down for ads to be scanned for misinformation.

“I also note that Facebook’s former head of global elections integrity ops, Yael Eisenstat, has described that when she advocated for the scanning of adverts to detect misinformation efforts, despite engineers’ enthusiasm she faced opposition from upper management,” writes Collins.

 

In a further question, Collins asks what specific proposals Eisenstat’s team made; to what extent Facebook determined them to be feasible; and on what grounds were they not progressed.

He also asks what plans Facebook has to formalize a working relationship with fact-checkers over the long run.

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on the DCMS letter, saying the company would respond in due course.

In a naked display of its platform’s power and political muscle, Facebook deployed a former politician to endorse its ‘fake ads are fine’ position last month — when head of global policy and communication, Nick Clegg, who used to be the deputy prime minister of the UK, said: ” We do not submit speech by politicians to our independent fact-checkers, and we generally allow it on the platform even when it would otherwise breach our normal content rules.”

So, in other words, if you’re a politician you get a green light to run lying ads on Facebook.

Clegg was giving a speech on the company’s plans to prevent interference in the 2020 US presidential election. The only line he said Facebook would be willing to draw was if a politician’s speech “can lead to real world violence and harm”. But from a company that abjectly failed to prevent its platform from being misappropriated to accelerate genocide in Myanmar that’s the opposite of reassuring.

“At Facebook, our role is to make sure there is a level playing field, not to be a political participant ourselves,” said Clegg. “We have a responsibility to protect the platform from outside interference, and to make sure that when people pay us for political ads we make it as transparent as possible. But it is not our role to intervene when politicians speak.”

In truth Facebook roundly fails to protect its platform from outside interference too. Inauthentic behavior and fake content is a ceaseless firefight that Facebook is nowhere close to being on top of, let alone winning. But on political ads it’s not even going to try — giving politicians around the world carte blanche to use outrage-fuelling disinformation and racist dogwhistles as a low budget, broad reach campaign strategy.

We’ve seen this before on Facebook of course, during the UK’s Brexit referendum — when scores of dark ads sought to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment and drive a wedge between voters and the European Union.

And indeed Collins’ crusade against Facebook as a conduit for disinformation began in the wake of that 2016 EU referendum.

Since then the company has faced major political scrutiny over how it accelerates disinformation — and has responded by creating a degree of transparency on political ads, launching an archive where this type of advert can be searched. But that appears as far as Facebook is willing to go on tackling the malicious propaganda problem its platform accelerates.

In the US, senator Elizabeth Warren has been duking it out publicly with Facebook on the same point as Collins rather more directly — by running ads on Facebook saying it’s endorsing Trump by supporting his lies.

There’s no sign of Facebook backing down, though. On the contrary. A recent leak from an internal meeting saw founder Mark Zuckerberg attacking Warren as an “existential” threat to the company. While, this week, Bloomberg reports that Facebook’s executive has been quietly advising a Warren rival for the Democratic nomination, Pete Buttigieg, on campaign hires.

So a company that hires politicians to senior roles, advises high profile politicians on election campaigns, tweaks its policy on political ads after a closed door meeting with the current holder of the office of US president, Donald Trump, and ignores internal calls to robustly police political ads, is rapidly sloughing off any residual claims to be ‘just a technology company’. (Though, really, we knew that already.)

In the letter Collins also presses Facebook on its plan to rollout end-to-end encryption across its messaging app suite, asking why it can’t limit the tech to WhatsApp only — something the UK government has also been pressing it on this month.

He also raises questions about Facebook’s access to metadata — asking whether it will use inferences gleaned from the who, when and where of e2e encrypted comms (even though it can’t access the what) to target users with ads.

Facebook’s self-proclaimed ‘pivot to privacy‘ — when it announced earlier this year a plan to unify its separate messaging platforms onto a single e2e encrypted backend — has been widely interpreted as an attempt to make it harder for antitrust regulators to break up its business empire, as well as a strategy to shirk responsibility for content moderation by shielding itself from much of the substance that flows across its platform while retaining access to richer cross-platform metadata so it can continue to target users with ads…

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.)

An interview with Dr. Stuart Russell, author of “Human Compatible, Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control”

(UC Berkeley’s Dr. Stuart Russell’s new book, “Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control, goes on sale Oct. 8. I’ve written a review, Human Compatible” is a provocative prescription to re-think AI before it’s too late,” and the following in an interview I conducted with Dr. Russell in his UC Berkeley office on September 3, 2019.)

Ned Desmond: Why did you write Human Compatible?

Dr. Russell: I’ve been thinking about this problem – what if we succeed with AI? – on and off since the early 90s. The more I thought about it, the more I saw that the path we were on doesn’t end well.

(AI Researchers) had mostly just doing toy stuff in the lab, or games, none of which represented any threat to anyone. It’s a little like a physicist playing tiny bits of uranium. Nothing happens, right? So we’ll just make more of it, and everything will be fine. But it just doesn’t work that way.  When you start crossing over to systems that are more intelligent, operating on a global scale, and having real-world impact, like trading algorithms, for example, or social media content selection, then all of a sudden, you are having a big impact on real-world, and it’s hard to control. It’s hard to undo. And that’s just going to get worse and worse and worse.

Stuart Russell HUMAN COMPATIBLE Credit Peg Skorpinski

Dean’s Society – October 23, 2006; Stuart Russell

Desmond: Who should read Human Compatible?

Dr. Russell: I think everyone, because everyone is going to be affected by this.  As progress occurs towards human level (AI), each big step is going to magnify the impact by another factor of 10, or another factor of 100. Everyone’s life is going to be radically affected by this. People need to understand it. More specifically, it would be policymakers, the people who run the large companies like Google and Amazon, and people in AI, related disciplines, like control theory, cognitive science and so on.

My basic view was so much of this debate is going on without any understanding of what AI is.  It’s just this magic potion that will make things intelligent. And in these debates, people don’t understand the building blocks, how it fits together, how it works, how you make an intelligent system. So chapter two (of Human Compatible was) sort of mammoth and some people said, “Oh, this is too much to get through and others said, “No, you absolutely have to keep it.”  So I compromised and put the pedagogical stuff in the appendices.

Desmond: Why did computer scientists tend to overlook the issue of uncertainty in the objective function for AI systems?

Dr. Russell: Funnily enough, in AI, we took uncertainty (in the decision-making function) to heart starting in the 80s. Before that, most AI people said let’s just work on cases where we have definite knowledge, and we can come up with guaranteed plans.

How ‘the Internet broke America’ with The New Yorker’s Andrew Marantz

When Elizabeth Warren took on Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook earlier this week, it was a low moment for what New Yorker writer Andrew Marantz calls “techno-utopianism.”

That the progressive, populist Massachusetts Senator and leading Democratic Presidential candidate wants to #BreakUpBigTech is not surprising. But Warren’s choice to spotlight regulating and trust-busting Facebook was nonetheless noteworthy, because of what it represents on a philosophical level. Warren, along with like-minded political leaders, social activists, and tech critics, has begun to offer the first massively popular alternative to the massively popular wave of aggressive optimism and “genius” ambition that characterized tech culture for the past decade or two.

“No,” Warren and others seem to say, “your vision is not necessarily making the world a better place.” This is a major buzzkill for tech leaders who have made (positive) world-changing their number one calling card — more than profits, popularity, skyscrapers like San Francisco’s striking Salesforce Tower, or any other measure.

Enter Marantz, a longtime New Yorker staff writer and Brooklyn, N.Y. resident who has recently trained his attention on tech culture, following around iconic figures on both sides of what he sees as the divide of our time — not between tech greats whose successes make us all better and those who would stop them, but between the alternative figures on the “new right” and the self-understood liberals of Silicon Valley who, according to Marantz, have both contributed to “hijacking the American conversation.”

Author Photo Andrew Marantz credit Luke Marantz fix

Image via Penguin Random House

Marantz’s first book, “Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation,” will be released next week, and I recently had a chance to talk with him for this series the ethics of technology.

Greg Epstein: Congratulations on your absolutely fascinating new book Antisocial, and on everything you’ve been up to.

PayPal is the first company to drop out of the Facebook-led Libra Association

PayPal has become the first company to walk away officially from Facebook’s Libra, a cryptocurrency and related association that it announced earlier this year with a chain of nearly 30 big names behind the effort to help build and operate services around it.

PayPal has made the decision to forgo further participation in the Libra Association at this time and to continue to focus on advancing our existing mission and business priorities as we strive to democratize access to financial services for underserved populations,” PayPal said in an emailed statement to TechCrunch. “We remain supportive of Libra’s aspirations and look forward to continued dialogue on ways to work together in the future. Facebook has been a longstanding and valued strategic partner to PayPal, and we will continue to partner with and support Facebook in various capacities.”

A high-profile, would-be partner like PayPal backing out from the effort before it’s even gotten off the ground is a big blow to Facebook and the Libra Association, which has been struggling under the weight of speculation that some of the big organizations, initially interested in collaborating on Libra, are now on the fence about the project, put off by wave of negative reaction from regulators and others that might lead to problems launching and ultimately growing the service.

In response, the Libra Association has come out with an understated but scathing statement of its own in response to PayPal’s announcement. (Facebook had referred our questions to the group and did not comment directly.)

“It requires a certain boldness and fortitude to take on an endeavor as ambitious as Libra – a generational opportunity to get things right and improve financial inclusion,” said a spokesperson. “The journey will be long and challenging. The type of change that will reconfigure the financial system to be tilted towards people, not the institutions serving them, will be hard. Commitment to that mission is more important to us than anything else. We’re better off knowing about this lack of commitment now, rather than later.”

PayPal is the first firm to walk away from the Libra Association, but it comes at a difficult time for the project, even before it has launched.

Both regulators and other government bodies on both sides of the Atlantic — already scrutinizing Facebook and cryptocurrency as separate issues — have honed in on the project with concerns of how a Facebook-backed and promoted currency could lead to anti-competitive behavior.

Facebook and other members of the Libra Association are due to meet this month in Geneva to appoint its first board of directors, but ahead of that it’s been reported that the government scrutiny has started to spook some who have only nominally backed the project at this point.

The WSJ reported earlier this week that Mastercard, Visa and other companies may join PayPal in backing away from the Libra project. Mastercard has not responded to a request for comment, but Visa’s CEO Al Kelly has made public statements that underscore Visa’s provisional support for Libra — a position we understand remains unchanged as of today, provided regulatory and other issues do not get in the way.

“It’s important to understand the facts here and not any of us get out ahead of ourselves,” Kelly said in the company’s most recent earnings call. “So we have signed a nonbinding letter of intent to join Libra. We’re one of – I think it’s 27 companies that have expressed that interest. So no one has yet officially joined. We’re in discussions and our ultimate decision to join will be determined by a number of factors, including obviously the ability of the association to satisfy all the requisite regulatory requirements… It’s really, really early days and there’s just a tremendous amount to be finalized. But obviously, given that we’ve expressed interest, we actually believe we could be additive and helpful in the association.”

As we reported when Libra first launched, Facebook doesn’t control the Libra organization or currency, but gets a single vote alongside the remaining partners. Those that have endorsed the association currently include, alongside Mastercard and Visa, Stripe, Uber and the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Each Libra Association partner invests at least $10 million in the project and the association will promote the open-sourced Libra Blockchain.

The partners would not only pitch the Libra Blockchain and developer platform with its own Move programming language, but sign up businesses to accept Libra for payment and even give customers discounts or rewards.

Facebook has a lot riding on the success of the Association beyond just its Libra stake. The company has also launched a subsidiary company called Calibra that handles crypto transactions on its platform that would use the Libra blockchain. (It’s been quietly developing this alongside the Libra effort, including making acquisitions to expand the functionality around how it will work.)

Governments around the world have been up in arms because they are concerned that, with Libra, Facebook and its partners will try to make an end run around existing financial services and their corresponding regulations.

Perhaps in response to these pressures and how they might play out, earlier this month, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg indicated that the company would be willing to delay the launch of the cryptocurrency — it is currently planned for 2020 — in an interview with the Japanese Nikkei news service. “Move fast and break things” won’t be getting applied here.

Daily Crunch: Zuckerberg is wrong about TikTok

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 misunderstands the huge threat of TikTok

In leaked audio of a Facebook all-hands meeting, Mark Zuckerberg described TikTok as “almost like the Explore Tab that we have on Instagram.” But Josh Constine argues that this is a serious misunderstanding of the app, which is more like a new form of social entertainment.

These distinctions matter because TikTok is a rapidly growing force in social media, a.k.a. a significant threat to Facebook and Instagram. And how can Zuckerberg beat what he doesn’t understand?

2. Microsoft’s latest Surface Laptop arrives in 13- and 15-inch models

Microsoft’s press event is currently underway as I write this newsletter, but it has already announced a new piece of hardware — the latest version of the Surface Laptop, with pricing starting at $999 for the 13-inch model.

3. Court says FCC’s ‘unhinged’ net neutrality repeal can’t stop state laws

The FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules has been significantly weakened by a federal appeals court, which ruled that the Commission could not preempt state laws like those pending in California. In fact, one judge called the FCC’s logic “unhinged from the realities of modern broadband service.”

4. These are the top Y Combinator companies of all time, based on valuation

In October of 2018, Y Combinator published a mega list of the top 101 companies to have gone through the accelerator, as sorted by each company’s valuation. This morning they updated the list, with Airbnb and Stripe have swapping the top spots.

5. NASA launches a new planet-hunting telescope using a giant balloon

A new telescope will seek out planets that resemble Earth from a height of around 125,000 feet, using special optical technology that will filter out light from the stars they orbit to provide a better view.

6. Where top VCs are investing in edtech

New software, content and financing solutions for learning outside the traditional school system offer the more compelling business opportunities, particularly when it comes to vocational training. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

7. Streamlit launches open-source machine learning application development framework

Streamlit co-founder Adrien Treuille says that rather than building a one-size-fits-all machine learning tool, the key was developing a solution that was flexible enough to serve multiple requirements, depending on the nature of the data involved.

Elizabeth Warren bites back at Zuckerberg’s leaked threat to K.O. the government

Presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren has responded publicly to a leaked attack on her by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, saying she won’t be bullied out of taking big tech to task for anticompetitive practices.

Warren’s subtweeting of the Facebook founder follows a leak in which the Verge obtained two hours of audio from an internal Q&A session with Zuckerberg — publishing a series of snippets today.

In one snippet the Facebook leader can be heard opining on how Warren’s plan to break up big tech would “suck”.

“You have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies … if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge,” he can be heard saying. “Does that still suck for us? Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to have a major lawsuit against our own government. … But look, at the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”

Warren responded soon after publication with a pithy zinger, writing on Twitter: “What would really ‘suck’ is if we don’t fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy.”

In a follow up tweet she added that she would not be afraid to “hold Big Tech companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon accountable”.

The Verge claims it did not obtain the leaked audio from Facebook’s PR machine. But in a public Facebook post following its publication of the audio snippets Zuckerberg links to their article — and doesn’t exactly sound mad to have what he calls his “unfiltered” views put right out there…

Whether the audio was leaked intentionally or not, as many commentators have been quick to point out — Warren principal among them — the fact that a company has gotten so vastly powerful it feels able to threaten to fight and defeat its own government should give pause for civilized thought.

Someone high up in Facebook’s PR department might want to pull Zuckerberg aside and make a major wincing gesture right in his face.

In another of the audio snippets Zuckerberg extends the threat — arguing that breaking up tech giants would threaten the integrity of elections.

“It’s just that breaking up these companies, whether it’s Facebook or Google or Amazon, is not actually going to solve the issues,” he is heard saying. “And, you know, it doesn’t make election interference less likely. It makes it more likely because now the companies can’t coordinate and work together.”

Elections such as the one Warren hopes to be running in as a US presidential candidate… so er… again this argument is a very strange one to be making when the critics you’re railing against are calling you an overbearing, oversized democracy-denting beast.

Zuckerberg’s remarks also contain the implied threat that a failure to properly police elections, by Facebook, could result in someone like Warren not actually getting elected in the first place.

Given, y’know, the vast power Facebook wields with its content-shaping algorithms which amplify narratives and shape public opinion at cheap, factory farm scale.

Reading between the lines, then, presidential hopefuls should be really careful what they say about important technology companies — or, er, else!

How times change.

Just a few short years ago Zuckerberg was the guy telling everyone that election interference via algorithmically amplified social media fakes was “a pretty crazy idea”.

Now he’s saying only tech behemoths like Facebook can save democracy from, uh, tech behemoths like Facebook…

For more on where Zuckerberg’s self-servingly circular logic leads, let’s refer to another of his public talking points: That only Facebook’s continued use of powerful, privacy-hostile AI technologies such as facial recognition can save Western society from a Chinese-style state dystopia in which the presence of your face broadcasts a social credit score for others to determine what you get to access.

This equally uncompelling piece of ‘Zuckerlogic’ sums to: ‘Don’t regulate our privacy hostile shit — or China will get to do worse shit before we can!’

So um… yeah but no.

Nigeria’s CcHub acquires Kenya’s iHub to create mega Africa incubator

Two of Africa’s powerhouse tech incubators will join forces. Nigerian innovation center and seed-fund CcHub has acquired Nairobi based iHub — CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani confirmed to TechCrunch.

The purchase amount is undisclosed, but Tijani said CcHub will finance the deal out of its real-estate project to build a new 10 story innovation center to replace its Herbert Macaulay Way building in Lagos.

Details are emerging on how the two entities will operate together, but Tijani noted some degree of autonomy.

“The names will stay the same…iHub will remain iHub…it is a strong brand…but iHub will be supported from the central CcHub, which will help them strengthen what they do,” he said.

Per the acquisition, Tijani becomes CEO of both organizations, while Nekesa Were continues as iHub Managing Director. iHub’s existing programs will remain, according to Tijani, but CcHub will extend some of its existing activities in education, healthcare, and governance to Kenya.

CcHub will also use the iHub addition to expand its investment scope. “We’ll now have access to pipeline in Nigeria, Kenya, and Rwanda,” he said.

CcHub CEO Bosun Tijani

Tijani views the arrangement as a boost to the continent’s tech ecosystem. “It strengthens our ability to support innovation. iHub and CcHub…coming together makes us stronger; it gives us a chance to attract greater resources and talent,” he said.

The acquisition joins two of the Africa’s most recognized tech hubs. These innovation spaces, accelerators, and incubators—which tally 618 per GSMA stats—have become focal points for startup formation, training, and IT activity on the continent.

TechHubsinAfricain2019 Briter Bridges

There aren’t official rankings for Africa’s most powerful tech hubs, but if there were, CcHub and iHub would arguably be up top. This would be based on the size of their membership networks, volume of tech related programs, startups incubated, partnerships, and global visibility.

Founded in 2011 in Lagos’ tech-synonymous Yaba suburb, the Co-Creation Hub has grown into a multi-faceted innovation center. The organization manages digital skills programs for entrepreneurs and school kids, startup incubation, and a portfolio of investments through its Growth Capital Fund.

CcHub is considered a go-to spot for any tech related visit to Nigeria. It was Mark Zuckerberg’s first public stop on his 2016 Africa trip. While leaving a CcHub event in 2018, I noticed the Vice President of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, and his entourage packing into the elevator.

CcHub ZuckerbergTijani and team have mastered gaining partnerships with big global tech names. When Facebook launched its tech space in Nigeria—NG_Hub—CcHub was named lead partner. Google for Startups sponsored CcHub’s Pitch Drive, an African startup tour to Europe and Asia. CcHub also collaborated with the Government of Rwanda this year to open its Design Lab in Kigali, focused on innovating impact solutions in health, education, and governance.

The Design Lab launch extended CcHub’s West Africa reach further east and closer to iHub. The innovation center was co-founded by Erik Hersman in 2010 out of what he saw as a need in Africa’s emerging tech scene “for…creating community spaces…in major cities [for] young entrepreneurs. The nexus point for technologists, investors, [and] tech companies.”

iHub became that central spot in East Africa. Along with M-Pesa mobile-money and a vibrant startup scene, it is one of the pillars that inspired Kenya’s Silicon Savannah moniker.

iHub is also widely seen as giving rise to the Africa’s innovation center movement that inspired the upsurge in tech hubs across the continent.

IHub Kenya PeopleSince 2010, 170  companies have formed out of iHub. It has 16,000 members and has played host to most major visitors to Kenya’s tech scene. After seeing CcHub in Nigeria in 2016, Zuck then headed to Kenya and toured iHub.

There’ll be plenty for continuing coverage on how these two prominent African incubators settle into becoming one big Africa mega-hub. That includes the sustainability question and what this all means to the continent’s tech scene.

At a high level, for now, the CcHub-iHub union creates a direct innovation link between two of Africa’s most active markets for VC and startup formation—Nigeria and Kenya.

In the past, both countries’ techies have shared a healthy rivalry. That could now turn to more  collaborations, as CcHub’s acquisition connects East and West in African tech.

 

 

 

Meet Facebook’s latest fake

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a 35-year-old billionaire who keeps refusing to sit in front of international parliamentarians to answer questions about his ad business’ impact on democracy and human rights around the world, has a new piece of accountability theatre to sell you: An “Oversight Board“.

Not of Facebook’s business itself. Though you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s what Facebook’s blog post is trumpeting, with the grand claim that it’s “Establishing Structure and Governance for an Independent Oversight Board”.

Referred to during the seeding stage last year, when Zuckerberg gave select face-time to podcast and TV hosts he felt comfortable would spread his conceptual gospel with a straight face, as a sort of ‘Supreme Court of Facebook’, this supplementary content decision-making body has since been outfitted in the company’s customary (for difficult topics) bloodless ‘Facebookese’ (see also “inauthentic behavior”; its choice euphemism for fake activity on its platform)

The Oversight Board is intended to sit atop the daily grind of Facebook content moderation, which takes place behind closed doors and signed NDAs, where outsourced armies of contractors are paid to eyeball the running sewer of hate, abuse and violence so actual users don’t have to, as a more visible mechanism for resolving and thus (Facebook hopes) quelling speech-related disputes.

Facebook’s one-size-fits-all content moderation policy doesn’t and can’t. There’s no such thing as a 2.2BN+ “community” — as the company prefers to refer to its globe-spanning user-base. So quite how the massive diversity of Facebook users can be meaningfully represented by the views of a last resort case review body with as few as 11 members has not yet been made clear.

“When it is fully staffed, the board is likely to be forty members. The board will increase or decrease in size as appropriate,” Facebook writes vaguely this week.

Even if it were proposing one board member per market of operation (and it’s not) that would require a single individual to meaningfully represent the diverse views of an entire country. Which would be ludicrous, as well as risking the usual political divides from styming good faith effort.

It seems most likely Facebook will seek to ensure the initial make-up of the board reflects its corporate ideology — as a US company committed to upholding freedom of expression. (It’s clearly no accident the first three words in the Oversight Board’s charter are: “Freedom of expression”.)

Anything less US-focused might risk the charter’s other clearly stated introductory position — that “free expression is paramount”.

But where will that leave international markets which have suffered the worst kinds of individual and societal harms as a consequence of Facebook’s failure to moderate hate speech, dangerous disinformation and political violence, to name a few of the myriad content scandals that dog the company wherever it goes.

Facebook needs international markets for its business to turn a profit. But you sure wouldn’t know it from its distribution of resources. Not for nothing has the company been accused of digital colonialism.

The level of harm flowing from Facebook decisions to take down or leave up certain pieces of content can be excruciatingly high. Such as in Myanmar where its platform became a conduit for hate speech-fuelled ethnic violence towards the Rohingya people and other ethnic minorities.

It’s reputational-denting failures like Myanmar — which last year led the UN to dub Facebook’s platform “a beast” — that are motivating this latest self-regulation effort. Having made its customary claim that it will do a better job of decision-making in future, Facebook is now making a show of enlisting outsiders for help.

The wider problem is Facebook has scaled so big its business is faced with a steady pipeline of tricky, controversial and at times life-threatening content moderation decisions. Decisions it claims it’s not comfortable making as a private company. Though Facebook hasn’t expressed discomfort at monetizing all this stuff. (Even though its platform has literally been used to target ads at nazis.)

Facebook’s size is humanity’s problem but of course Facebook isn’t putting it like that. Instead — coming sometime in 2020 — the company will augment its moderation processes with a lottery-level chance of a final appeal via a case referral to the Oversight Board.

The level of additional oversight here will of course be exceptionally select. This is a last resort, cherry-picked appeal layer that will only touch a fantastically tiny proportion of the content choices Facebook moderators make every second of every day — and from which real world impacts ripple out and rain down. 

“We expect the board will only hear a small number of cases at first, but over time we hope it will expand its scope and potentially include more companies across the industry as well,” Zuckerberg writes this week, managing output expectations still many months ahead of the slated kick off — before shifting focus onto the ‘future hopes’ he’s always much more comfortable talking about. 

Case selection will be guided by Facebook’s business interests, meaning the push, even here, is still for scale of impact. Facebook says cases will be selected from a pool of complaints and referrals that “have the greatest potential to guide future decisions and policies”.

The company is also giving itself the power to leapfrog general submissions by sending expedited cases directly to the board to ask for a speedy opinion. So its content questions will be prioritized. 

Incredibly, Facebook is also trying to sell this self-styled “oversight” layer as independent from Facebook.

The Oversight Board’s overtly bureaucracy branding is pepped up in Facebook headline spin as “an Independent Oversight Board”. Although the adjective is curiously absent from other headings in Facebook’s already sprawling literature about the OB. Including the newly released charter which specifies the board’s authority, scope and procedures, and was published this week.

The nine-page document was accompanied by a letter from Zuckerberg in which he opines on “Facebook’s commitment to the Oversight Board”, as his header puts it — also dropping the word ‘independent’ in favor of slipping into a comfortable familiar case. Funny that.

The body text of Zuckerberg’s letter goes on to make several references to the board as “independent”; an “independent organization”; exercising “its independent judgement”. But here that’s essentially just Mark’s opinion.

The elephant in the room — which, if we continue the metaphor, is in the process of being dressed by Facebook in a fancy costume that attempts to make it look like, well, a board room table — is the supreme leader’s ongoing failure to submit himself and his decisions to any meaningful oversight.

Supreme leader is an accurate descriptor for Zuckerberg as Facebook CEO, given the share structure and voting rights he has afforded himself mean no one other than Zuckerberg can sack Zuckerberg. (Asked last year, during a podcast interview with recode’s Kara Swisher if he was going to fire himself, in light of myriad speech scandals on his platform, Zuckerberg laughed and then declined.)

It’s a corporate governance dictatorship that has allowed Facebook’s boy king to wield vast power around the world without any internal checks. Power without moral responsibility if you will.

Throughout Zuckerberg’s (now) 15-year apology tour turn as Facebook CEO neither the claims he’ll do things differently next time nor the cool expansionist ambition have wavered. He’s still at it of course; with a plan for a global digital currency (Libra), while bullishly colonizing literal hook-ups (Facebook Dating). Anything to keep the data and ad dollars flowing.

Recently Facebook also paid a $5BN FTC fine to avoid its senior executives having to face questions about their data governance and policy enforcement fuck-ups — leaving Zuckerberg & co free to get back to lucrative privacy-screwing business as usual. (To put the fine in context, Facebook’s 2018 full year revenue clocked in at $55.8BN.)

All of which is to say that an ‘independent’ Facebook-devised “Oversight Board” is just a high gloss sticking plaster to cover the lack of actual regulation — internal and external — of Zuckerberg’s empire.

It is also an attempt by Facebook to paper over its continued evasion of democratic accountability. To distract from the fact its ad platform is playing fast and loose with people’s rights and lives; reshaping democracies and communities while Facebook’s founder refuses to answer parliamentarians’ questions or account for scandal-hit business decisions. Privacy is never dead for Mark Zuckerberg.

Evasion is actually a little tame a term. How Facebook operates is far more actively hostile than that. Its platform is reshaping us without accountability or oversight, even as it ploughs profits into spinning and shape-shifting its business in a bid to prevent our democratically elected representatives from being able to reshape it.

Zuckerberg appropriating the language of civic oversight and jurisprudence for this “project”, as his letter calls the Oversight Board — committing to abide by the terms of a content decision-making review vehicle entirely of his own devising, whose Facebook-written charter stipulates it will “review and decide on content in accordance with Facebook’s content policies and values” — is hardly news. Even though Facebook is spinning at the very highest level to try to make it so.

What would constitute a newsworthy shock is Facebook’s CEO agreeing to take questions from the democratically elected representatives of the billions of users of his products who live outside the US.

Zuckerberg agreeing to meet with parliamentarians around the world so they can put to him questions and concerns on a rolling and regular basis would be a truly incredible news flash.

Instead it’s fiction. That’s not how the empire functions.

The Facebook CEO has instead ducked as much democratic scrutiny as a billionaire in charge of a historically unprecedented disinformation machine possibly can — submitting himself to an awkward question-dodging turn in Congress last year; and one fixed-format meeting of the EU parliament’s conference of presidents, initially set to take place behind closed doors (until MEPs protested), where he was heckled for failing to answer questions.

He has also, most recently, pressed US president Donald Trump’s flesh. We can only speculate on how that meeting of minds went. Power meet irresponsibility — or was it vice versa?

 

International parliamentarians trying on behalf of the vast majority of the world’s Facebook users to scrutinize Zuckerberg and hold his advertising business to democratic account have, meanwhile, been roundly snubbed.

Just this month Zuckerberg declined a third invitation to speak in front of the International Grand Committee on Disinformation which will convene in Dublin this November.

At a second meeting in Canada earlier this year Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg both refused to appear — leading the Canadian parliament’s ethics committee to vote to subpoena the pair.

While, last year, the UK parliament got so frustrated with Facebook’s evasive behavior during a timely enquiry into online disinformation, which saw its questions fobbed off by a parade of Zuckerberg stand-ins armed with spin and misdirection, that a sort of intergovernmental alchemy occurred — and the International Grand Committee on Disinformation was formed in an eye-blink, bringing multiple parliaments together to apply democratic pressure to Facebook. 

The UK Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee’s frustration at Facebook’s evasive behavior also led it to deploy arcane parliamentary powers to seize a cache of internal Facebook documents from a US lawsuit in a creative attempt to get at the world-view locked inside Zuckerberg’s blue box.

The unvarnished glimpse of Facebook’s business that these papers afforded certainly isn’t pretty… 

US legal discovery appears to be the only reliable external force capable of extracting data from inside the bellow of the nation-sized beast. That’s a problem for democracies. 

So Facebook instructing an ‘oversight board’ of its own making to do anything other than smooth publicity bumps in the road, and pave the way for more Facebook business as usual, is like asking a Koch brothers funded ‘stink tank’ to be independent of fossil fuel interests. The OB is just Facebook’s latest crisis PR tool. More fool anyone who signs up to ink their name to its democratically void rubberstamp.

Dig into the detail of the charter and cracks in the claimed “independence” soon appear.

Aside from the obvious overriding existential points that the board only exists because Facebook exists, making it a dependent function of Facebook whose purpose is to enable its spawning parental system to continue operating; and that it’s funded and charged with chartered purpose by the very same blue-veined god it’s simultaneously supposed to be overseeing (quite the conflict of interest), the charter states that Facebook itself will choose the initial board members. Who will then choose the rest of the first cohort of members.

“To support the initial formation of the board, Facebook will select a group of cochairs. The co-chairs and Facebook will then jointly select candidates for the remainder of the board seats,” it writes in pale grey Facebookese with a tone set to ‘smooth reassurance’ — when the substance of what’s being said should really make you go ‘wtf, how is that even slightly independent?!’

Because the inaugural (Facebook-approved) member cohort will be responsible for the formative case selections — which means they’ll be laying down the foundational ‘case law’ that the board is also bound, per Facebook’s charter, to follow thereafter.

“For each decision, any prior board decisions will have precedential value and should be viewed as highly persuasive when the facts, applicable policies, or other factors are substantially similar,” runs an instructive section on the “basis of decision-making”.

The problem here hardly needs spelling out. This isn’t Facebook changing, this is more of the same ‘Facebook first’ ethos which has always driven its content moderation decisions — just now with a highly polished ‘overseen’ sheen.

This isn’t accountability either. It’s Facebook trying to protect its business from actual regulation by creating a blame-shifting firewall to shield its transparency-phobic execs from democratic (and moral) scrutiny. And indeed to shield Zuckerberg & his inner circle from future content scandals that might threaten to rock the throne, a la Cambridge Analytica.

(Judging by other events this week that mission may not be going so well… )

Given the lengths this company is going to to eschew democratic scrutiny — ducking and diving even as it weaves its own faux oversight structure to manage negative PR on its behalf (yep, more fakes!) — you really have to wonder what Facebook is trying to hide.

A moral vacuum the size of a black hole? Or perhaps it’s just trying to buy time to complete its corporate takeover of the democratic world order…

Because of course the Oversight Board can’t set actual Facebook policy. Don’t be ridiculous! It can merely issue policy recommendations — which Facebook can just choose to ignore.

So even if we imagine the OB running years in the future, when it might theoretically be possible its membership has drifted out of Facebook’s comfortable set-up “support” zone, the charter has baked in another firewall that lets Zuckerberg ignore any policy pressure he doesn’t like. Just, y’know, on the off-chance the board gets too independently minded. Truly, there’s nothing to see here.

Entities structured by corporate interests to role-play ‘neutral’ advice or ensure ‘transparent’ oversight — or indeed to promulgate self-interested propaganda dressed in the garb of intellectual expertise — are almost always a stacked trick.

This is why it’s preferable to live in a democracy. And be governed by democratically accountable institutions that are bound by legally enforcement standards of transparency. Though Facebook hopes you’ll be persuaded to vote for manipulation by corporate interest instead.

So while Facebook’s claim that the Oversight Board will operate “transparently” sure sound good it’s also entirely meaningless. These are not legal standards of transparency. Facebook is a business, not a democracy. There are no legal binds here. It’s self regulation. Ergo, a pantomime.

You can see why Facebook avoided actually calling the OB its ‘Supreme Court’; that would have been trolling a little too close to the bone.

Without legal standards of transparency (or indeed democratic accountability) being applied, there are endless opportunities for Facebook’s self interest to infiltrate the claimed separation between oversight board, oversight trust and the rest of its business; to shape and influence case selections, decisions and policy recommendations; and to seed and steer narrative-shaping discussion around hot button speech issues which could help move the angry chatter along — all under the carefully spun cover of ‘independent external oversight’.

No one should be fooled into thinking a Facebook-shaped and funded entity can meaningful hold Facebook to account on anything. Nor, in this case, when it’s been devised to absorb the flak on irreconcilable speech conflicts so Facebook doesn’t have to.

It’s highly doubtful that even a truly independent board cohort slotted into this Zuckerberg PR vehicle could meaningfully influence Facebook’s policy in a more humanitarian direction. Not while its business model is based on mass-scale attention harvesting and privacy-hostile people profiling. The board’s policy recommendations would have to demand a new business model. (To which we already know Facebook’s response: ‘LOL! No.’)

The Oversight Board is just the latest blame-shifting publicity exercise from a company with a user-base as big as a country that gifts it massive resource to throw at its ‘PR problem’ (as Facebook sees it); i.e. how to seem like a good corporate citizen whilst doing everything possible to evade democratic scrutiny and outrun the leash of government regulation. tl;dr: You can’t fix anything if you don’t believe there’s an underlying problem in the first place.

For an example of how the views of a few hand-picked independent experts can be channeled to further a particular corporate agenda look no further than the panel of outsiders Google assembled in Europe in 2014 in response to the European Court of Justice ‘right to be forgotten’ ruling — an unappealable legal decision that ran counter to its business interests.

Google used what it billed as an “advisory committee” of outsiders mostly as a publicity vehicle, holding a large number of public ‘hearings’ where it got to frame a debate and lobby loudly against the law. In such a context Google’s nakedly self-interested critique of EU privacy rights was lent a learned, regionally seasoned dressing of nuanced academic concern, thanks to the outsiders doing time on its platform.

Google also claimed the panel would steer its decision-making process on how to implement the ruling. And in their final report the committee ended up aligning with Google’s preference to only carry out search de-indexing at the European (rather than .com global) domain level. Their full report did contain some dissent. But Google’s preferred policy position won out. (And, yes, there were good people on that Google-devised panel.)

Facebook’s Oversight Board is another such self-interested tech giant stunt. One where Facebook gets to choose whether or not to outsource a few tricky content decisions while making a big show of seeming outward-looking, even as it works to shift and defuse public and political attention from its ongoing lack of democratic accountability.

What’s perhaps most egregious about this latest Facebook charade is it seems intended to shift attention off of the thousands of people Facebook pays to labor daily at the raw coal face of its content business. An outsourced army of voiceless workers who are tasked with moderating at high speed the very worst stuff that’s uploaded to Facebook — exposing themselves to psychological stress, emotional trauma and worse, per multiple media reports.

Why isn’t Facebook announcing a committee to provide that existing expert workforce with a public voice on where its content lines should lie, as well as the power to issue policy recommendations?

It’s impossible to imagine Facebook actively supporting Oversight Board members being selected from among the pool of content moderation contractors it already pays to stop humanity shutting its business down in sheer horror at what’s bubbling up the pipe.

On member qualifications, the Oversight Board charter states: “Members must have demonstrated experience at deliberating thoughtfully and as an open-minded contributor on a team; be skilled at making and explaining decisions based on a set of policies or standards; and have familiarity with matters relating to digital content and governance, including free expression, civic discourse, safety, privacy and technology.”

There’s surely not a Facebook moderator in the whole wide world who couldn’t already lay claim to that skill-set. So perhaps it’s no wonder the company’s ‘Oversight Board’ isn’t taking applications.