Transparency-seeking OPEN Government Data Act signed into law

The federal government produces one hell of a lot of data, but despite desultory lurches towards usability there’s little guarantee that it’s available in a way that makes it useful to anyone. That may change for the better with the OPEN Government Data Act, which the President signed into law last night.

The Act essentially requires federal agencies to default when possible to making data (and metadata) public, to publish that public data in a machine-readable format, and catalog it online. It also mandates that Chief Data Officers be appointed at those agencies to handle the process.

This bipartisan piece of legislature flew through the House and Senate mostly uncompromised, though the Treasury was removed from the list of organizations to which it would apply. I’m sure they had their reasons.

It’s a big win for proponents of open government, though considering the towering ineptitude and obsolescence of the federal information technology sector, it’s probably a bit early to celebrate. By necessity many new policies and systems will have to be updated before any agency can reasonably be supposed to comply with the law, and that could take years. However it certainly seems like a good path for them to be on.

Another part of the law as signed (OPEN was combined with a few others for convenience and horse-trading purposes) is that these agencies are also now officially required to find and present evidence for any new policies or changes. Some agencies, like the FCC, are already required to do this, but others have a more free hand.

It may seem obvious — shouldn’t every policy be justified by evidence? — but this codifies the rules, for instance requiring the agencies to publicly present lists of relevant questions and the means (down to the statistical methods) they are taking to answer them.

If you’re curious about the Act itself or its sisters passed simultaneously, there’s a history of the OPEN act here; the full text of the bill is here; the announcement of the signature is here.

Geoengineering could solve our climate problems if anyone allowed it

This weekend, I finished reading Oliver Morton’s The Planet Remade (thanks to reader Eliot Peper for recommending it). Morton has a multitude of goals with the book, but there were two I think are deeply valuable. First, geoengineering is a plausible approach to solving our climate problems this century, and second, engineering the climate generates tough policy challenges, but also opportunities to make the planet more equitable.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at [email protected]) if you like or hate something here.

First and foremost: the book is mind-expanding in the best way possible. Morton confronts an extremely contentious issue with judicious facts and supreme insight gleaned over many years of studying geoengineering. Whether you are a dedicated acolyte of cloud seeding and veils or a committed opponent to any tampering of earth’s environment, he has developed a book that forces us to think about our actions and ultimately what the consequences of those choices are.

Frankly, those choices offer stark consequences. Morton describes the challenge of climate this century:

The world’s population is expected to grow from seven billion today to more or less ten billion by 2100. By that time the number of people enjoying rich-world energy privileges should also reach ten billion. So the challenge is to achieve for an extra eight billion people in the twenty-first century what was achieved for two billion in the twentieth century. Meeting that challenge implies a lot more energy usage.

Morton is a staunch environmentalist and deeply concerned about environmental justice and the inequities of the planet. But he is also a “climate realist” — he understands that our current solutions to climate change are not really solutions at all, since they either lack the scale required to solve the problem, or will continue to exacerbate existing inequities between different people of this planet.

For example, take emissions-free nuclear power, which is brought up as a panacea to our fossil fuel-driven economy. Morton writes:

If the world had the capacity to deliver one of the largest nuclear power plants ever built once a week, week in and week out, it would take 20 years to replace the current stock of coal-fired plants (at present, the world builds about three or four nuclear power plants a year, and retires old ones almost as quickly).

Sure, nuclear power plants are a literal solution, but most definitely not a pragmatic one since the scale required is just not there.

He also spends significant time deconstructing recent climate negotiations, finding that the focus on carbon has been something of a red herring (many other emissions are far worse than carbon and less directly connected to the modern industrial economy). Instead, they have been driven by the alignment of different environmentally-concerned parties:

Carbon dioxide suited scientists because it seemed like a straightforward measure of the problem. It suited greens because it was a pretty good proxy for the industrial society against which their movement was a reaction. The international negotiations that set up the UNFCCC showed that it suited developing countries because it was primarily a developed-country issue; at the time of Rio, the vast majority of all the industrial emissions since the the eighteenth century had come from Europe and America.

Carbon is of course a problem, but it has become a tagline, a brand, a cri de coeur of the international climate movement. Yet the challenges facing the planet are so much deeper than just carbon.

To avoid that narrow focus, Morton argues for a complete reframing of the climate debate toward solutions that can actually repair the climate, and even improve it for diverse populations around the world.

Now, the term “geoengineering” brings with it a bag of Hollywood-induced imagery of nuclear winters and globe-spanning hurricanes. Morton addresses those risks across his chapters, noting that geoengineering can indeed go wrong.

Even so, he convincingly argues that there are geoengineering techniques designed around key climate processes that can be high leverage, reversible, testable, and that have the scale required to actually solve climate challenges in a sustainable way. These processes aren’t speculation — we (mostly) understand the science today, and have pathways toward the technology required to execute a strategy.

The real challenge — as it always is — are humans and their governments. Morton notes that climate change has a huge deleterious impact on nations such as Maldives, but that it can also benefit certain regions by transitioning them from colder to more temperate climates.

That means that any geoengineering solution is going to face the prospect of creating winners and losers. Any international agreement is going to have to contend with those politics, and design mechanisms to ameliorate their effects.

Much as Morton calls for a planet remade, he sees an opportunity for geoengineering to trigger reflection among governments on their own interests:

Much better, rather than treating geoengineering as a technocratic way of avoiding politics, to use it as a way of reinventing politics. Exploring the potential of geoengineering could spur and shape the development of a new way of making planetary decisions. The aim should not be the development of a thermostat alone; it should be the development of a new hand to use it.

Environmentalists may balk at the idea of allowing humans to have their hands on any part of the earth system. But we are here, all seven billion of us, and we already have our brutal hands on the system. The question is whether we can start to use our hands in a far more productive way that can make the earth sustainable for centuries to come. As Morton notes, “The planet has been remade, is being remade, will be remade.” Geoengineering technologies offer solutions, if we can agree in how to use them.

Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey and also spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

Stray Thoughts (aka, what I am reading)

Short summaries and analysis of important news stories

Why Gutenberg can still recognize the book

Craig Mod wrote a compelling piece in Wired on the future of the book, and why today’s books essentially look the same as when the printing press was first invented. Despite the prognosticators expecting books to have moving pictures, interactivity, and dynamic narratives, almost nothing in that direction has actually occurred as readers continue to enjoy the traditional format. Instead, where the real innovation has taken place is on the business side, where new models from crowdfunding to email subscriptions have transformed the economics of book publishing.

Automattic’s Newspack to drive revenue for smaller publishers

While content management systems have been around for decades, almost none of these systems are designed to create revenues for their users out of the box. WordPress doesn’t have any subscription features or advertising networks built-in, which means that sites that want to make money have to spend a lot of dollars just to get setup and started.

So the announcement this morning that Automattic, the owner of WordPress.com, is going to offer a new platform combining content management with revenue called Newspack is both interesting and definitely needed. It’s a proper extension of their existing platform, and a reminder for product managers that the sustainability of their customers is critical for long-term success.

Huawei sales executive arrested in Poland

We have been following Huawei’s travails in the West for some time. One major point of contention is whether the company spies on behalf of the Chinese government. Western governments have argued that it does, but as China has repeatedly noted, they have never provided any proof.

On Friday in Poland, a Huawei executive was arrested for alleged espionage, which could provide the first public evidence of collusion between Huawei and Beijing. The company subsequently fired the executive and claimed that his actions were unrelated to the company. Poland has since called on NATO countries to remove Huawei equipment from their telecommunications infrastructure. Huawei equipment is widely installed in Europe and European governments have so far evaded calls by the U.S. to boycott the company. As the largest telecom equipment manufacturer in the world, Huawei’s response could have vast repercussions for the deployment of 5G networks.

PG&E – oh boy

Silicon Valley’s (and much of California’s) gas and electric utility is going bankrupt following massive liability claims against the utility due to its equipment sparking wildfires over the past few years. California may lead the world in innovation, but it seems to always be on the precipice of disaster when it comes to infrastructure.

What’s next & obsessions

  • I am reading The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein
  • Arman and I are interested in societal resilience startups that are targeting areas like water security, housing, infrastructure, climate change, disaster response, etc. Reach out if you have ideas or companies here.

The US continues to hammer Chinese tech

It’s another week, and another bevy of hits on Chinese tech by the U.S. government. Let’s get up to speed, plus a request for startup lawyer recommendations.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at [email protected]) if you like or hate something here.

Venture capital’s leading advocate NVCA pushes for narrower restrictions on foreign investment

Let’s start with the most exciting subject in the world: the federal rulemaking process.

Last year, Congress approved sweeping reforms of CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, providing it with new powers, including the ability to review deals made by foreign investors for minority investments (aka the kinds of equity rounds typically received by startups). That reform has put a crimp on SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which has been trying to get around the rules, and also has led to a massive decline in the amount of Chinese venture capital flowing into the Valley.

As the implementation of that reform meanders its way through the federal rulemaking process, one huge challenge is defining what the term “emerging technologies” means. Because the purview of CFIUS will extend to any technology defined under that term, its definition is critically important; but there is just one problem: no one knows what the hell that phrase even is.

So yesterday, the National Venture Capital Association, the leading advocacy org for the asset class, submitted its stance on the debate. In a filing with the Bureau of Industry and Security, the NVCA argues for a relatively narrow interpretation of emerging technologies.

The organization is specifically concerned about controls on technologies like AI/ML and gene editing through CRISPR, because these “horizontal technologies” are very under-defined and thus restrictions on investment could lead to tough challenges for many startups. For instance, startups that fall under these categories could be prevented from taking foreign investment, or sharing information with other startups. In short, it could kill American leadership in these industries.

It’s an important point, but it is also part of a wider challenge — for startups and the government — that no one knows what “AI” means any more than they know what “emerging technologies” mean. Every startup might have (or claims to have!) AI, and that could mean that highly restrictive rules from the Bureau could apply pretty much to everyone, undermining the original intent of reform legislation.

This is a process not worth paying attention to, except that if it were to go stupidly wrong (and this is DC after all), we might suddenly find that the thousands of AI startups in the Valley suddenly become “definitely not AI” startups post-haste.

Don’t expect to ride Chinese subway cars in America anytime soon (except if you live in Boston)

America’s subway cars are widely dilapidated, as riders in systems in Boston, New York, DC and SF can attest. Replacing those subway cars is a challenge, particularly because no American company manufactures them. Among the largest manufacturers is the China Railway Rolling Stock Corp., which has won deals to replace some of Boston’s aging subway cars.

Now, there is a renewed nationwide push to demand tougher cybersecurity standards on railcars as a way to prevent Chinese companies from receiving these contracts. As The Washington Post noted this week, DC’s Metro officials have rewritten its contract specifications, adding terms to require that all hardware and software go through cybersecurity verification from third-parties.

Further, Congress itself is getting involved in the matter. Per the article:

Both the U.S. Senate and House have sought to block further Chinese penetration of the transit vehicle market. Each chamber has inserted language in annual transportation appropriations bills to impose a one-year ban on new purchases of mass transit rail cars or buses from Chinese-owned companies if the procurement uses federal funding. The ban is not yet law, as final action has been put off until this year.

Cybersecurity is of course a legitimate concern, but so is lowering the cost of subway car replacements. By removing Chinese bidders from this market, Congress is effectively raising the price of subway car replacements for every city in the nation (and do you think they will pay for that increase?).

Huawei export license not renewed

Huawei has had a bullseye on its back for much of the last two years, and now it faces another restriction.

The company hosts a research and development center in Silicon Valley, quaintly called Futurewei, where it designs next-generation telecommunications tech. As reported in The Wall Street Journal, the unit has recently seen its export license for some of its technologies pulled by the Commerce Department. That move means that Futurewei won’t legally be allowed to transfer its know-how back to Huawei in China. What becomes of the lab, which the Journal reports has a budget of $16 million, is anyone’s guess.

These little policy actions are starting to add up though. While the administration at one point pulled the entire license for ZTE and nearly killed it, it seems to have now fallen into a pattern of just creating enough friction in the market to make operating a Chinese company in the U.S. annoying and unprofitable. Which, with some deep irony, is exactly how the Chinese have blocked American companies for years.

Okay, so what?

With the massive decline of Chinese investment in Silicon Valley and further export restrictions, it is clear that the Trump administration wants to sever any link between the two countries in the technology industry. While it is still early, it is clear that they have been pretty clearly successful, no doubt helped by the retrenchment of the Chinese economy as growth has slowed on the mainland.

For founders in the U.S., the complications and tough choices have actually declined substantially. A certain universe of LPs and VCs have left the market, and the Chinese market is pretty clearly marked off-limits and is probably best ignored for the time being. The toughest questions might be around partnership deals with the likes of Tencent, but those have not been as heavily targeted by authorities so far. So the China story may well disappear in the coming months as the two countries head in their own directions.

Share your feedback on your startup’s attorney

My colleague Eric Eldon and I are reaching out to startup founders and execs about their experiences with their attorneys. Our goal is to identify the leading lights of the industry and help spark discussions around best practices. If you have an attorney you thought did a fantastic job for your startup, let us know using this short Google Forms survey… and also, spread the word. We will share the results and more in the coming weeks.

What’s next & obsessions

I’m continuing to explore this theme/thesis of (societal) resilience tech that I discussed yesterday. Lots of you gave feedback on the idea and further avenues to explore.

I want to specifically thank a reader named Beau, who sent me multiple paragraphs, a dozen book recommendations and a whole list of articles on the subject to get me up to speed. I super-appreciate the thoughtfulness, and look forward to sharing more of that list in the coming days.

I love hearing from readers, so if you have thoughts, opinions, articles or books, share them with me: [email protected].

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

The end of China’s ride-sharing gig

Over the last few years, millions of Chinese workers managed to earn extra money by being ride-hailing drivers. Many picked the gig because of its flexible schedule. For those who could not otherwise afford to own a car in China’s pricy metropolises, driving around is also a status symbol, even if they are paying off car loans every month.

Most drivers on Didi Chuxing — the startup that captured 90 percent of China’s e-hailing trips in 2017 per consulting firm Bain & Company — were part-time. That’s according to a report Didi put out in October 2017, which said half of its drivers worked less than two hours a day.

The report also hailed Didi as the epitome of China’s “sharing economy,” something that Beijing has been keen to promote to spur economic growth. The all-encompassing term, which includes shared platforms from mobility to elderly care services, raked in $764 billion in 2017, shows a report by China’s Sharing Economy Research Center of the State Information Center.

But gig work in China’s fledgling ride-hailing industry is coming to an end as new regulations make part-time driving overly expensive.

No more gigs

On January 1, ride-hailing apps in China start banning drivers who operate without the required “double licenses”: one for drivers and another for the cars they steer. Municipal governments across the country have nuanced stipulations for what these certificates entail, but in general, the fresh rules aim to more closely vet drivers transporting passengers around.

To obtain the ride-hailing driver’s permit in certain cities, drivers must own a local hukou, the residency permit that controls where people can legally work. A lot of ride-hailing drivers don’t have an urban hukou as they are migrant workers from rural parts of China, so they immediately become ineligible for ride-hailing apps.

The car license, on the other hand, requires the vehicle to operate as a commercial one, bringing additional costs to drivers who must absorb the costs of car insurance and maintenance, and scrap their vehicle after 8 years.

didi chuxing

All ride-hailing vehicles in China must possess the required license (circled in red) to be on the roads starting January 1, 2019. Photo credit: TechCrunch

Under the new legal framework, drivers can still work as independent contractors. But in effect, the policy shift is driving out casual workers. “No part-time drivers want to register their private car as a commercial one because of the high costs that come with it,” a Shenzhen-based Didi driver tells TechCrunch. “Being part-time doesn’t pay the bills anymore.”

Didi’s dilemma

Like a lot of China’s nascent industries, ride-hailing took off quickly in part thanks to relatively lax government oversight at the start. The first set of industry laws took effect in 2016 when the country officially legalized apps like Uber, which was later acquired by its local competitor Didi. Since then Chinese authorities have gradually rolled out more rules and the strictest regulations, including the rollout of the double licenses, came following the deaths of two passengers who used Didi last year.

The new policies have put a squeeze on driver and car numbers. In the Tier 2 city of Nanjing alone, Didi claims to have weeded out more than 160,000 illegal vehicles, local media reported. The sharp decline in cars available on the roads inevitably leads to longer wait time and user frustration, and the $56 billion giant will need to think of ways to maintain a constant supply of drivers.

Didi took off on account of generous subsidies for both users and drivers, but its staggering loss — which is said to stand at $585 million in the first half of 2018 — means it may not be offering cash-heavy incentives in the near term. To retain labor, Didi is offering test prep for drivers. It’s also lowered the barriers to entry by letting drivers rent licensed cars it sources from car rental and automaker partners. A catchphrase started to pop up on Didi’s mobile app for drivers in December: “You supply the manpower, we provide the car.”

Aside from regulatory hurdles, Didi also faces new challengers like BMW and Volkswagen’s China partner SAIC Motor, traditional carmakers that are entering the ride-hailing scene.

“Didi has educated China about what is ride-hailing. If it doesn’t react swiftly to changing dynamics, the billions of yuan it’s burned through will suffer from low returns,” Dong Feng, founder of a Chinese car rental startup suggests to TechCrunch.

FCC will suspend most operations on Thursday if the shutdown continues

The Federal Communications Commission said on Monday that it will need to suspend most of its operations by the middle of Thursday if the partial government shutdown continues.

The FCC will continue “work required for the protection of life and property,” as well as work related to spectrum auctions, since those are funded by the money raised by auctioning off spectrum licenses. The Office of the Inspector General, responsible for conducting internal reviews, audits, and investigations of FCC programs and operations, will also remain open until further notice.

In a document outlining what needs to happen for an “orderly shutdown,” the FCC said suspended activities will include: “Consumer complaint and inquiry phone lines cannot be answered; consumer protection and local competition enforcement must cease; licensing services, including broadcast, wireless, and wireline, must cease; management of radio spectrum and the creation of new opportunities for competitive technologies and services for the American public must be suspended; and equipment authorizations, including those bringing new electronic devices to American consumers, cannot be provided.”

The FCC added that it will release more information on Wednesday about what will happen if it needs to suspend operations, including how it will affect electronic filing and database systems, filing deadlines, regulatory and application fee payments, and “shot clocks,” also known as the length of time allocated for approving or denying pending transactions.

The partial government shutdown continued into its 11th day as President Donald Trump refuses to back down on his demands for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, forcing 800,000 federal employees to go without work or work without pay. House Democrats have said they are preparing to introduce bills that will put an end to the shutdown but not include funding for the wall.

Are rightsholders ready for public domain day?

On January 1, 2019, the New Year will ring in untold numbers of additions to the public domain in the U.S., including hundreds and maybe thousands of works with at least a small public reputation. This, of course, is due to the expiration of the terms of their copyrights, some of which have been extended multiple times since the 1960s. 

This is a good thing from many perspectives, including that of authors, publishers, museum curators, teachers, old-book readers and music and film buffs. It possibly may be a slightly bad thing for a few people — primarily certain estates representing long-dead authors and other creators.

What’s a “term” in the context of copyright?

The duration, or term, of U.S. copyright is set by Congress, and has gradually crept up over time from the original 14 years (plus 14 more if the author was still alive and renewed the copyright) — in Thomas Jefferson’s time — to a whopping “life of the author plus 70 years,” as set by the 1998 “Copyright Term Extension Act” (CTEA, which extended it from life plus 50).

For works first published between 1909 and 1978, the maximum term was finally set by Congress at 95 years (assuming the author complied with a whole lot of rules, alluded to below).  And for post-1978 works, in instances where the author/creator is not a human being (such as a business commissioning a “work made for hire” under rules developed in the case-law) or the work was published under a pseudonym for an unknown person, the term can be as long as 120 years! The copyright in a work, duly registered at the time that registration was required (pre-1978), may never have been renewed, and so its protection may have quietly lapsed some time ago; for many more obscure works, it’s hard to know.

Fun fact: This Copyright Term Extension Act is also known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. Congress named it in memory of the composer of “I’ve Got You, Babe,” who, as a member of Congress from Southern California, was among the authors of the bill; he unfortunately happened to die while it was being worked on in committee. Prior to 1978, the term of U.S. copyrights was determined by fixed terms of years, subject to publication, registration and notice requirements. Here are more details on that.

How do works pass into the public domain?

Currently, works pass into the public domain according to a complex schedule, combining (sometimes awkwardly) the rules of various laws implemented over the past century.

Bear in mind, however, that many works have passed (or “fallen” or “lapsed,” as the older phrases had it) into the public domain in the U.S. for reasons other than term expiry, even during the 20 years of the CTEA extension. According to the law in effect prior to 1978, if the work was published but never registered in the U.S. Copyright Office, it did not receive protection under copyright law; a work might also not be protected by U.S. copyright law if it lacked proper notice — the © symbol and the proper wording — or if the work’s registration was not renewed after its first 28-year term expired. Or if, as a work of the federal government, it never enjoyed copyright protection in the first place.

Qui Bono? (get it?)

As it turns out, it is not just re-publishers of “classic” texts, such as Dover Thrift Editions, which benefit when new works become available. Textbook and educational publishers frequently re-use old short stories and essays in larger collections, and a work of marginal utility might become more attractive as a potential addition to these collections once the cost of clearing the rights is reduced.

For example, a few years ago a 1922 story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” (whose U.S. copyright had lapsed) was adapted into a feature film. To me, the lesson to be gleaned is that many works of the early 20th century still appear to bear some cultural cachet (or at least continuing value to society) — such that more no-cost access to these works (by their passing from copyright protection to the public domain) should have the overall effect of helping them find new audiences.

Note: Bear in mind, all of these examples are simply illustrative — without a full and careful copyright search, it is difficult to be certain of the copyright status of almost any work. On that, more below.

New works coming into the U.S. public domain also will have the effect of giving researchers new texts to run Text and Data Mining (TDM) algorithms across. It also may add to the richness of film and cultural studies.

Mark Twain proves this isn’t so easy

Unfortunately, determining when a work has in fact “fallen” into the public domain due to the term of its copyright having expired is not always as simple as one might hope.

For example, one might think that everything ever laid down by the pen of Mark Twain (S.L. Clemens, d. 1910) would be in the public domain by now. But, since he left a treasure trove of unpublished works, their copyright protection has extended for many years after his death, because, under pre-1978 law, those works’ copyright protection would not start until the works were published. The distinction between published and unpublished works has been discarded under post-1978 law, but won’t be fully effective for another 30 years. So, some items in the microfilm edition of Twain’s letters and manuscripts (their first publication) are still considered to be under copyright. He’s also enjoyed considerable success recently with the full and final publication of his autobiography.

Twain, a student of intellectual property, steadfastly argued for a perpetual copyright, but he came to realize that this was not permitted under the copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution, which refers to “securing [protection] for limited times.” But, in an age when copyright only protected works for which registrations had been obtained, he did point out that most books wouldn’t be affected by a longer term at all — for the vast bulk of them had no commercial life remaining to them a very few years after their initial publication:

One author per year produces a book which can outlive the forty-two-year limit; that’s all. This nation can’t produce two authors a year that can do it; the thing is demonstrably impossible. All that the limited copyright can do is to take the bread out of the mouths of the children of that one author per year.

I made an estimate some years ago, when I appeared before a committee of the House of Lords, that we had published in this country since the Declaration of Independence 220,000 books. They have all gone. They had all perished before they were ten years old. It is only one book in 1000 that can outlive the forty-two-year limit. Therefore, why put a limit at all? You might as well limit the family to twenty-two children.

– S.L. Clemens, in testimony to Congress, concerning proposed copyright legislation (1906)

“Forever minus a day,” another idea which has been occasionally bruited about (particularly by Congressman Bono and his widow, who was later elected seven times in her own right to Congress), would not constitute much of an effective limit, and so would, I believe, violate the Constitutional limitation; 95 years (an estimated average of the “Life plus 70” term) seems closer to a natural lifespan for a copyright — to me at least. If you and your heirs somehow can’t get the commercial value out of your work before nearly a century is out, I think there’s a takeaway lesson there.

On the other hand…

… some works do have cultural lifespans exceeding the term of copyright. The estates of certain literary, film and musical creators may stand to lose when the copyright in some of the works in their respective repertories lose copyright protection due to the lapse of their terms. For some examples of works entering the public domain on January 1, 2019, that may still have financial value to the author/creator’s heirs: Hemingway’s “Three Stories and 10 Poems” was first published in 1923; it was also the year of release for “Safety Last!” a silent film from Hal Roach Studios, starring Harold Lloyd, which many people remember. The same year saw the first publication (of the sheet music) for “Who’s Sorry Now?” which was a hit recording for Connie Francis in 1958.

But, on balance, “Nothing gold can stay,” as Robert Frost observed in a poem slated — I’m pretty sure — to enter the public domain on January 1st.* The reading, listening, and viewing public should expect to be the main beneficiary of these works entering the public domain. Indeed, 95 years is a good run for the commercial exploitation of a work. Now it’s everybody else’s turn to benefit.

*If it hasn’t already. Copyright searches, on the detail level, can be quite difficult and time-consuming. See: https://www.copyright.gov/rrc/. For any proposed commercial republication, it is certainly the course of wisdom to consult with an attorney and have a full copyright search done.

Facebook is not equipped to stop the spread of authoritarianism

After the driver of a speeding bus ran over and killed two college students in Dhaka in July, student protesters took to the streets. They forced the ordinarily disorganized local traffic to drive in strict lanes and stopped vehicles to inspect license and registration papers. They even halted the vehicle of the Chief of Bangladesh Police Bureau of Investigation and found that his license was expired. And they posted videos and information about the protests on Facebook.

The fatal road accident that led to these protests was hardly an isolated incident. Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, which was ranked the second least livable city in the world in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 global liveability index, scored 26.8 out of 100 in the infrastructure category included in the rating. But the regional government chose to stifle the highway safety protests anyway. It went so far as raids of residential areas adjacent to universities to check social media activity, leading to the arrest of 20 students. Although there were many images of Bangladesh Chhatra League, or BCL men, committing acts of violence on students, none of them were arrested. (The BCL is the student wing of the ruling Awami League, one of the major political parties of Bangladesh.)

Students were forced to log into their Facebook profiles and were arrested or beaten for their posts, photographs, and videos. In one instance, BCL men called three students into the dorm’s guestroom, quizzed them over Facebook posts, beat them, and then handed them over to police. They were reportedly tortured in custody.

A pregnant school teacher was arrested and jailed for just over two weeks for “spreading rumors” due to sharing a Facebook post about student protests. A photographer and social justice activist spent more than 100 days in jail for describing police violence during these protests; he told reporters he was beaten in custody. And a university professor was jailed for 37 days for his Facebook posts.

A Dhaka resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety said that the crackdown on social media posts essentially silenced student protesters, many of which removed photos, videos, and status updates about the protests from their profiles entirely. While the person thought that students were continuing to be arrested, they said, “nobody is talking about it anymore — at least in my network — because everyone kind of ‘got the memo’ if you know what I mean.”

This isn’t the first time Bangladeshi citizens have been arrested for Facebook posts. As just one example, in April 2017, a rubber plantation worker in southern Bangladesh was arrested and detained for three months for liking and sharing a Facebook post that criticized the prime minister’s visit to India, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bangladesh is far from alone. Government harassment to silence dissent on social media has occurred across the region and in other regions as well — and it often comes hand-in-hand with governments filing takedown requests with Facebook and requesting data on users.

Facebook has removed posts critical of the prime minister in Cambodia and reportedly “agreed to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content” in Vietnam. Facebook was criticized for not stopping the repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, where military personnel created fake accounts to spread propaganda which human rights groups say fueled violence and forced displacement. Facebook has since undertaken a human rights impact assessment in Myanmar, and it has also taken down coordinated inauthentic accounts in the country.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 10: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing on “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data”on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Protesters scrubbing Facebook data for fears of repercussions isn’t uncommon. Over and over again, authoritarian-leaning regimes have utilized low-tech strategies to quell dissent. And aside from providing resources related to online privacy and security, Facebook still has little in place to protect its most vulnerable users from these pernicious efforts. As various countries pass laws calling for a local presence and increased regulation, it is possible that the social media conglomerate doesn’t always even want to.

“In many situations, the platforms are under pressure,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now. “Tech companies are being directly sent takedown orders, user data requests. The danger of that is that companies will potentially be overcomplying or responding far too quickly to government demands when they are able to push back on those requests,” he said.

Elections are often a critical moment for oppressive behavior from governments — Uganda, Chad, and Vietnam have specifically targeted citizens — and candidates — during election time. Facebook announced just last Thursday that it had taken down nine Facebook pages and six Facebook accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior in Bangladesh. These pages, which Facebook believes were linked to people associated with the Bangladesh government, were “designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content.” The sites masqueraded as news outlets, including fake BBC Bengali, BDSNews24, and Bangla Tribune and news pages with photoshopped blue checkmarks, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Still, the imminent election in Bangladesh doesn’t bode well for anyone who might wish to express dissent. In October, a digital security bill that regulates some types of controversial speech was passed in the country, signaling to companies that as the regulatory environment tightens, they too could become targets.

More restrictive regulation is part of a greater trend around the world, said Naman M. Aggarwal, Asia policy associate at Access Now. Some countries, like Brazil and India, have passed “fake news” laws. (A similar law was proposed in Malaysia, but it was blocked in the Senate.) These types of laws are frequently followed by content takedowns. (In Bangladesh, the government warned broadcasters not to air footage that could create panic or disorder, essentially halting news programming on the protests.)

Other governments in the Middle East and North Africa — such as Egypt, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain — clamp down on free expression on social media under the threat of fines or prison time. And countries like Vietnam have passed laws requiring social media companies to localize their storage and have a presence in the country — typically an indication of greater content regulation and pressure on the companies from local governments. In India, WhatsApp and other financial tech services were told to open offices in the country.

And crackdowns on posts about protests on social media come hand-in-hand with government requests for data. Facebook’s biannual transparency report provides detail on the percentage of government requests the company complies within each country, but most people don’t know until long after the fact. Between January and June, the company received 134 emergency requests and 18 legal processes from Bangladeshi authorities for 205 users or accounts. Facebook turned over at least some data in 61 percent of emergency requests and 28 percent of legal processes.

Facebook said in a statement that it “believes people deserve to have a voice, and that everyone has the right to express themselves in a safe environment,” and that it handles requests for user data “extremely carefully.'”

The company pointed to its Facebook for Journalists resources and said it is “saddened by governments using broad and vague regulation or other practices to silence, criminalize or imprison journalists, activists, and others who speak out against them,” but the company said it also helps journalists, activists, and other people around the world to “tell their stories in more innovative ways, reach global audiences, and connect directly with people.”

But there are policies that Facebook could enact that would help people in these vulnerable positions, like allowing users to post anonymously.

“Facebook’s real names policy doesn’t exactly protect anonymity, and has created issues for people in countries like Vietnam,” said Aggarwal. “If platforms provide leeway, or enough space for anonymous posting, and anonymous interactions, that is really helpful to people on ground.”

BERLIN, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 12: A visitor uses a mobile phone in front of the Facebook logo at the #CDUdigital conference on September 12, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

A German court found the policy illegal under its decade-old privacy law in February. Facebook said it plans to appeal the decision.

“I’m not sure if Facebook even has an effective strategy or understanding of strategy in the long term,’ said Sean O’Brien, lead researcher at Yale Privacy Lab. “In some cases, Facebook is taking a very proactive role… but in other cases, it won’t.” In any case, these decisions require a nuanced understanding of the population, culture, and political spectrum in various regions — something it’s not clear Facebook has.

Facebook isn’t responsible for government decisions to clamp down on free expression. But the question remains: How can companies stop assisting authoritarian governments, inadvertently or otherwise?

“If Facebook knows about this kind of repression, they should probably have… some sort of mechanism to at the very least heavily try to convince people not to post things publicly that they think they could get in trouble for,” said O’Brien. “It would have a chilling effect on speech, of course, which is a whole other issue, but at least it would allow people to make that decision for themselves.”

This could be an opt-in feature, but O’Brien acknowledges that it could create legal liabilities for Facebook, leading the social media giant to create lists of “dangerous speech” or profiles on “dissidents,” and could theoretically shut them down or report them to the police. Still, Facebook could consider rolling a “speech alert” feature to an entire city or country if that area becomes volatile politically and dangerous for speech, he said.

O’Brien says that social media companies could consider responding to situations where a person is being detained illegally and potentially coerced into giving their passwords in a way that could protect them, perhaps by triggering a temporary account reset or freeze to prevent anyone from accessing the account without proper legal process. Some actions that might trigger the reset or freeze could be news about an individual’s arrest — if Facebook is alerted to it, contact from the authorities, or contact from friends and loved ones, as evaluated by humans. There could even be a “panic button” type trigger, like Guardian Project’s PanicKit, but for Facebook — allowing users to wipe or freeze their own accounts or posts tagged preemptively with a codeword only the owner knows.

“One of the issues with computer interfaces is that when people log into a site, they get a false sense of privacy even when the things they’re posting in that site are widely available to the public,” said O’Brien. Case in point: this year, women anonymously shared their experiences of abusive coworkers in a shared Google Doc — the so-called “Shitty Media Men” list, likely without realizing that a lawsuit could unmask them. That’s exactly what is happening.

Instead, activists and journalists often need to tap into resources and gain assistance from groups like Access Now, which runs a digital security helpline, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. These organizations can provide personal advice tailored to their specific country and situation. They can access Facebook over the Tor anonymity network. Then can use VPNs, and end-to-end encrypted messaging tools, and non-phone-based two-factor authentication methods. But many may not realize what the threat is until it’s too late.

The violent crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh accompanied government-imposed Internet restrictions, including the throttling of Internet access around the country. Users at home with a broadband connection did not feel the effects of this, but “it was the students on the streets who couldn’t go live or publish any photos of what was going on,” the Dhaka resident said.

Elections will take place in Bangladesh on December 30.

In the few months leading up to the election, Access Now says it’s noticed an increase in Bangladeshi residents expressing concern that their data has been compromised and seeking assistance from the Digital Security hotline.

Other rights groups have also found an uptick in malicious activity.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an email that the organization is “extremely concerned about the ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and on freedom of expression, which has created a climate of fear ahead of national elections.”

Ganguly cited politically motivated cases against thousands of opposition supporters, many of which have been arrested, as well as candidates that have been attacked.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement about the situation, warning that the Rapid Action Battalion, a “paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances,” and has been “tasked with monitoring social media for ‘anti-state propaganda, rumors, fake news, and provocations.'” This is in addition to a nine-member monitoring cell and around 100 police teams dedicated to quashing so-called “rumors” on social media, amid the looming threat of news website shutdowns.

“The security forces continue to arrest people for any criticism of the government, including on social media,” Ganguly said. “We hope that the international community will urge the Awami League government to create conditions that will uphold the rights of all Bangladeshis to participate in a free and fair vote.”

How Juul made vaping viral to become worth a dirty $38 billion

A Juul is not a cigarette. It’s much easier than that. Through devilishly slick product design I’ll discuss here, the startup has massively lowered the barrier to getting hooked on nicotine. Juul has dismantled every deterrent to taking a puff.

The result is both a new $38 billion valuation thanks to a $12.8 billion investment from Marlboro Cigarettes-maker Altria this week, and an explosion in popularity of vaping amongst teenagers and the rest of the population. Game recognize game, and Altria’s game is nicotine addiction. It knows it’s been one-upped by Juul’s tactics, so it’s hedged its own success by handing the startup over a tenth of the public corporation’s market cap in cash.

Juul argues it can help people switch from obviously dangerous smoking to supposedly healthier vaping. But in reality, the tiny aluminum device helps people switch from nothing to vaping…which can lead some to start smoking the real thing. A study found it causes more people to pick up cigarettes than put them down.

Photographer: Gabby Jones/Bloomberg via Getty Images

How fast has Juul swept the nation? Nielsen says it controls 75 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market up from 27 percent in September last year. In the year since then, the CDC says the percentage of high school students who’ve used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days has grown 75 percent. That’s 3 million teens or roughly 20 percent of all high school kids. CNBC reports that Juul 2018 revenue could be around $1.5 billion.

The health consequences aside, Juul makes it radically simple to pick up a lifelong vice. Parents, regulators, and potential vapers need to understand why Juul works so well if they’ll have any hope of suppressing its temptations.

Shareable

It’s tough to try a cigarette for the first time. The heat and smoke burn your throat. The taste is harsh and overwhelming. The smell coats your fingers and clothes, marking you as smoker. There’s pressure to smoke a whole one lest you waste the tobacco. Even if you want to try a friend’s, they have to ignite one first. And unlike bigger box mod vaporizers where you customize the temperature and e-juice, Juul doesn’t make you look like some dorky hardcore vapelord.

Juul is much more gentle on your throat. The taste is more mild and can be masked with flavors. The vapor doesn’t stain you with a smell as quickly. You can try just a single puff from a friend’s at a bar or during a smoking break with no pressure to inhale more. The elegant, discrete form factor doesn’t brand you as a serious vape users. It’s casual. Yet the public gesture and clouds people exhale are still eye catching to trigger the questions, “Whats that? Can I try?”

And perhaps most insidiously, vaping seems healthier. A lifetime of anti-smoking ads and warning labels drilled the dangers into our heads. But how much harm could a little vapor do?

A friend who had never smoked tells me they burn through a full Juul pod per day now. Someone got him to try a single puff at a nightclub. Soon he was asking for drag off of strangers’ Juuls. Then he bought one and never looked back. He’d been around cigarettes at parties his whole life but never got into them. Juul made it too effortless to resist.

Concealable

Lighting up a cigarette is a garish activity prohibited in many places. Not so with discretely sipping from a Juul.

Cigarettes often aren’t allowed to be smoked inside. Hiding it is no easy feat and can get you kicked out. You need to have a lighter and play with fire to get one started. They can get crushed or damp in your pocket. The burning tip makes them unruly in tight quarters, and the bud or falling ash can damage clothing and make a mess. You smoke a cigarette because you really want to smoke a cigarette.

Public establishments are still figuring out how to handle Juuls and other vaporizers. Many places that ban smoking don’t explicitly do the same for vaping. The less stinky vapor and more discrete motion makes it easy to hide. Beyond airplanes, you could probably play dumb and say you didn’t know the rules if you did get caught. The metal stick is hard to break. You won’t singe anyone. There’s no mess, need for an ashtray, or holes in your jackets or couches.

As long as your battery is charged, there’s no need for extra equipment and you won’t draw attention like with a lighter. Battery life is a major concern for heavy Juulers that smokers don’t have worry about, but I know people who now carry a giant portable charger just to keep their Juul alive. But there’s also a network effect that’s developing. Similar to iPhone cords, Juuls are becoming common enough that you can often conveniently borrow a battery stick or charger from another user. 

And again, the modular ability to take as few or as many puffs as you want lets you absent-mindedly Juul at any moment. At your desk, on the dance floor, as you drive, or even in bed. A friend’s nieces and nephews say that they see fellow teens Juul in class by concealing it in the cuff of their sleeve. No kid would be so brazen as to try smoke in cigarette in the middle of a math lesson.

Distributable

Gillette pioneered the brilliant razor and blade business model. Buy the sometimes-discounted razor, and you’re compelled to keep buying the expensive proprietary blades. Dollar Shave Club leveled up the strategy by offering a subscription that delivers the consumable blades to your door. Juul combines both with a product that’s physically addictive.

When you finish a pack of cigarettes, you could be done smoking. There’s nothing left. But with Juul you’ve still got the $35 battery pack when you finish vaping a pod. There’s a sunk cost fallacy goading you to keep buying the pods to get the most out of your investment and stay locked into the Juul ecosystem.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

One of Juul’s sole virality disadvantages compared to cigarettes is that they’re not as ubiquitously available. Some stores that sells cigs just don’t carry them yet. But more and more shops are picking them up, which will continue with Altria’s help. And Juul offers an “auto-ship” delivery option that knocks $2 off the $16 pack of four pods so you don’t even have to think about buying more. Catch the urge to quit? Well you’ve got pods on the way so you might as well use them. Whether due to regulation or a lack of innovation, I couldn’t find subscription delivery options for traditional cigarettes.

And for minors that want to buy Juuls or Juul pods illegally, their tiny size makes them easy to smuggle and resell. A recent South Park episode featured warring syndicates of fourth-graders selling Juul pods to even younger kids.

Dishonorable

Juul co-founder James Monsees told the San Jose Mercury News that “The first phase is proving the value and creating a product that makes cigarettes obsolete.” But notice he didn’t say Juul wants to make nicotine obsolete or reduce the number of people addicted to it.

Juul co-founder James Monsees

If Juul actually cared about fighting addiction, it’d offer a regimen for weaning yourself off of nicotine. Yet it doesn’t sell low-dose or no-dose pods that could help people quit entirely. In the US it only sells 5% and 3% nicotine versions. It does make 1.7% pods for foreign markets like Israel where that’s the maximum legal strengths, though refuses to sell them in the States. Along with taking over $12 billion from one of the largest cigarette companies, that makes the mission statement ring hollow.

Juul is the death stick business as usual, but strengthened by the product design and virality typically reserved for Apple and Facebook.

How Russia’s online influence campaign engaged with millions for years

Russian efforts to influence U.S. politics and sway public opinion were consistent and, as far as engaging with target audiences, largely successful, according to a report from Oxford’s Computational Propaganda Project published today. Based on data provided to Congress by Facebook, Instagram, Google, and Twitter, the study paints a portrait of the years-long campaign that’s less than flattering to the companies.

The report, which you can read here, was published today but given to some outlets over the weekend, summarizes the work of the Internet Research Agency, Moscow’s online influence factory and troll farm. The data cover various periods for different companies, but 2016 and 2017 showed by far the most activity.

A clearer picture

If you’ve only checked into this narrative occasionally during the last couple years, the Comprop report is a great way to get a bird’s-eye view of the whole thing, with no “we take this very seriously” palaver interrupting the facts.

If you’ve been following the story closely, the value of the report is mostly in deriving specifics and some new statistics from the data, which Oxford researchers were provided some seven months ago for analysis. The numbers, predictably, all seem to be a bit higher or more damning than those provided by the companies themselves in their voluntary reports and carefully practiced testimony.

Previous estimates have focused on the rather nebulous metric of “encountering” or “seeing” IRA content put on these social metrics. This had the dual effect of increasing the affected number — to over a hundred million on Facebook alone — but “seeing” could easily be downplayed in importance; after all, how many things do you “see” on the internet every day?

The Oxford researchers better quantify the engagement, on Facebook first, with more specific and consequential numbers. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, nearly 30 million people on Facebook actually shared Russian propaganda content, with similar numbers of likes garnered, and millions of comments generated.

Note that these aren’t ads that Russian shell companies were paying to shove into your timeline — these were pages and groups with thousands of users on board who actively engaged with and spread posts, memes, and disinformation on captive news sites linked to by the propaganda accounts.

The content itself was, of course, carefully curated to touch on a number of divisive issues: immigration, gun control, race relations, and so on. Many different groups (i.e. black Americans, conservatives, Muslims, LGBT communities) were targeted all generated significant engagement, as this breakdown of the above stats shows:

Although the targeted communities were surprisingly diverse, the intent was highly focused: stoke partisan divisions, suppress left-leaning voters, and activate right-leaning ones.

Black voters in particular were a popular target across all platforms, and a great deal of content was posted both to keep racial tensions high and to interfere with their actual voting. Memes were posted suggesting followers withhold their votes, or deliberately incorrect instructions on how to vote. These efforts were among the most numerous and popular of the IRA’s campaign; it’s difficult to judge their effectiveness, but certainly they had reach.

Examples of posts targeting black Americans.

In a statement, Facebook said that it was cooperating with officials and that “Congress and the intelligence community are best placed to use the information we and others provide to determine the political motivations of actors like the Internet Research Agency.” It also noted that it has “made progress in helping prevent interference on our platforms during elections, strengthened our policies against voter suppression ahead of the 2018 midterms, and funded independent research on the impact of social media on democracy.”

Instagram on the rise

Based on the narrative thus far, one might expect that Facebook — being the focus for much of it — was the biggest platform for this propaganda, and that it would have peaked around the 2016 election, when the evident goal of helping Donald Trump get elected had been accomplished.

In fact Instagram was receiving as much or more content than Facebook, and it was being engaged with on a similar scale. Previous reports disclosed that around 120,000 IRA-related posts on Instagram had reached several million people in the run-up to the election. The Oxford researchers conclude, however, that 40 accounts received in total some 185 million likes and 4 million comments during the period covered by the data (2015-2017).

A partial explanation for these rather high numbers may be that, also counter to the most obvious narrative, IRA posting in fact increased following the election — for all platforms, but particularly on Instagram.

IRA-related Instagram posts jumped from an average of 2,611 per month in 2016 to 5,956 in 2017; note that the numbers don’t match the above table exactly because the time periods differ slightly.

Twitter posts, while extremely numerous, are quite steady at just under 60,000 per month, totaling around 73 million engagements over the period studied. To be perfectly frank this kind of voluminous bot and sock puppet activity is so commonplace on Twitter, and the company seems to have done so little to thwart it, that it hardly bears mentioning. But it was certainly there, and often reused existing bot nets that previously had chimed in on politics elsewhere and in other languages.

In a statement, Twitter said that it has “made significant strides since 2016 to counter manipulation of our service, including our release of additional data in October related to previously disclosed activities to enable further independent academic research and investigation.”

Google too is somewhat hard to find in the report, though not necessarily because it has a handle on Russian influence on its platforms. Oxford’s researchers complain that Google and YouTube have been not just stingy, but appear to have actively attempted to stymie analysis.

Google chose to supply the Senate committee with data in a non-machine-readable format. The evidence that the IRA had bought ads on Google was provided as images of ad text and in PDF format whose pages displayed copies of information previously organized in spreadsheets. This means that Google could have provided the useable ad text and spreadsheets—in a standard machine- readable file format, such as CSV or JSON, that would be useful to data scientists—but chose to turn them into images and PDFs as if the material would all be printed out on paper.

This forced the researchers to collect their own data via citations and mentions of YouTube content. As a consequence their conclusions are limited. Generally speaking when a tech company does this, it means that the data they could provide would tell a story they don’t want heard.

For instance, one interesting point brought up by a second report published today, by New Knowledge, concerns the 1,108 videos uploaded by IRA-linked accounts on YouTube. These videos, a Google statement explained, “were not targeted to the U.S. or to any particular sector of the U.S. population.”

In fact, all but a few dozen of these videos concerned police brutality and Black Lives Matter, which as you’ll recall were among the most popular topics on the other platforms. Seems reasonable to expect that this extremely narrow targeting would have been mentioned by YouTube in some way. Unfortunately it was left to be discovered by a third party and gives one an idea of just how far a statement from the company can be trusted.

Desperately seeking transparency

In its conclusion, the Oxford researchers — Philip N. Howard, Bharath Ganesh, and Dimitra Liotsiou — point out that although the Russian propaganda efforts were (and remain) disturbingly effective and well organized, the country is not alone in this.

“During 2016 and 2017 we saw significant efforts made by Russia to disrupt elections around the world, but also political parties in these countries spreading disinformation domestically,” they write. “In many democracies it is not even clear that spreading computational propaganda contravenes election laws.”

“It is, however, quite clear that the strategies and techniques used by government cyber troops have an impact,” the report continues, “and that their activities violate the norms of democratic practice… Social media have gone from being the natural infrastructure for sharing collective grievances and coordinating civic engagement, to being a computational tool for social control, manipulated by canny political consultants, and available to politicians in democracies and dictatorships alike.”

Predictably, even social networks’ moderation policies became targets for propagandizing.

Waiting on politicians is, as usual, something of a long shot, and the onus is squarely on the providers of social media and internet services to create an environment in which malicious actors are less likely to thrive.

Specifically, this means that these companies need to embrace researchers and watchdogs in good faith instead of freezing them out in order to protect some internal process or embarrassing misstep.

“Twitter used to provide researchers at major universities with access to several APIs, but has withdrawn this and provides so little information on the sampling of existing APIs that researchers increasingly question its utility for even basic social science,” the researchers point out. “Facebook provides an extremely limited API for the analysis of public pages, but no API for Instagram.” (And we’ve already heard what they think of Google’s submissions.)

If the companies exposed in this report truly take these issues seriously, as they tell us time and again, perhaps they should implement some of these suggestions.

Workers protest outside Minnesota Amazon warehouse

Yesterday afternoon, Somali-American workers marched outside of Amazon’s Shakopee, Minnesota fulfillment center, chanting “hear our voice.” Estimates of the exact number of marches vary from source to source, but The Minneapolis Star Tribune puts it at around 100.

It’s a fairly familiar refrain for the company, after years of reports about questionable working conditions. Some of that came to a head earlier this year when pressure from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders led the company to adopt a $15 minimum wage for warehouse workers.

The protesters cited unfair working conditions and the insensitive treatment of a local workforce that’s approximately 40 percent East African. “We needed secured jobs, we are not robots,” one employee told a local Fox affiliate.

The protest comes the same week employees at a New York City warehouse announced plans to unionize. It is, of course, an inopportune time for the online retail giant, with the Christmas holiday a mere 10 days away.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the company expressed “disappointment,” telling Gizmodo,  “The majority of the people participating in today’s events are not Amazon associates because most Amazon associates are at work today sending out thousands of holiday packages for customers. We are disappointed in today’s efforts to undermine the dedicated and hard-working people who are the life and soul of our business. For them, it was business as usual.”

The spokesperson goes on to defend the company’s work and safety record and inclusion of paid prayer breaks, writing, “Prayer breaks less than 20 minutes are paid, and productivity expectations are not adjusted for such breaks. Associates are welcome to request an unpaid prayer break for over 20 minutes for which productivity expectations would be adjusted.”