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I ran digital ads for a presidential campaign, and Twitter is right to ban them

22:16 | 8 November

Aaron Bartnick Contributor
Aaron Bartnick (@AaronBartnick) served as Digital Director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s presidential campaign. He is currently completing graduate studies at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

As the digital director for Congressman Seth Moulton’s 2020 presidential campaign, I was responsible for everything the campaign did on the internet: the emails you claim to hate, the videos we hoped would go viral, the online infrastructure that supported organizers in the field, and more. But our biggest investment of both time and money, by far, was in digital advertising.

For our campaign and many others, digital ads were the single biggest expense outside of payroll. Yet these ads are terrible for campaigns, toxic for democracy and are even bad for the companies who profit off them. Last week, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey took a bold first step in banning political ads — Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai should follow suit.

Digital ads are one of the most important channels for acquiring new supporters and serving them that all-important question: “Will you chip in $10, $5, or whatever you can to support our campaign? Even $1 helps!” When the Democratic National Committee announced in February that presidential candidates would need a minimum of 65,000 individual donors to qualify for the first two debates, acquiring these small dollar donors became a do-or-die priority for campaigns.

The trouble is, when 25 campaigns are competing in a Democratic donor market that had just five competitors in 2016, and when each campaign is desperate to acquire new donors, prices go up. Way up.

We — and I suspect many others — routinely ran what were supposed to be revenue-generating ads at a loss, spending $10, $20, or even $30 in order to acquire one new donor and their contribution of as little as $1. This is a terrible deal for campaigns: they hemorrhage cash in order to lose money acquiring more, costing weeks or months of valuable runway, all while Facebook pockets the difference. At scale, the consequence is massive: the remaining 18 Democratic candidates have already spent over $53 million on Facebook and Google this cycle, most of it these kinds of ads.

This is $53 million — plus millions more from prolific former candidates like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Gov. Jay Inslee — which would have otherwise been invested in infrastructure to turn out voters and help Democrats in November no matter who is the nominee. Instead, it went straight into Facebook and Google’s coffers.

These ads are toxic to our democracy.

Due to short online attention spans, the character limits that enforce them and the engagement algorithms that act as gatekeepers to the digital world, campaigns must distill complex issues down to a two sentence pseudo-essence that would leave even debate moderators unsatisfied. And if you want to have a prayer of anyone clicking on your ad, it had better be as inflammatory as possible — people click when they’re angry.

The easiest way to do this is to simply make things up, something most campaigns would never consider, but which Zuckerberg made clear in congressional testimony this week his platform would happily enable. Companies like Facebook and Google force us to present voters with a world that is black and white, in which all nuance is distraction, and in which civic engagement is something that can be done from your phone for just $1 (Unless you’d like to make this a monthly recurring donation? Your support has never been more crucial!). This does not an informed, healthy democracy make.

Political ads are not even good for the companies that serve them. On a quarterly earnings call the same day as Dorsey’s announcement, Zuckerberg estimated that political ads run by candidates would make up just 0.5% of Facebook’s 2020 revenue. Assuming similar performance to the previous 12 months, in which Facebook earned $66 billion, this would be about $330 million in political ad revenue.

In exchange, Facebook has earned itself years of bad PR, increased regulatory risk as congressional leaders are beginning to see it as a national security problem, and even existential risk as leading presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren has vowed to break up the company if elected. All over revenues that hardly even justify the opportunity cost of Zuckerberg’s hours of preparation for congressional hearings.

So who benefits from these kinds of ads? Those who want to create a chaotic information environment in the United States in which facts are subjective, reality is ephemeral and the only information you can trust comes from the people manipulating social media to feed it to you. It is therefore no surprise that one of the first organizations to condemn Dorsey’s decision was the Russian state-sponsored media outlet Russia Today.

Presented with a choice between minuscule revenues and existential risk, between patching a bug in American democracy and abetting Russian propaganda, Dorsey made a wise choice for both his bottom line and his country. Zuckerberg and Pichai would do well to follow his lead.

 


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Corporate, public investments spur interest in Pacific Northwest startups

01:50 | 8 November

Dan Burgar Contributor
Dan Burgar is President of the Vancouver VR/AR Association, where he has helped develop the city's ecosystem into the second largest VR/AR hub globally. He's also a partner at Shape Immersive, which creates innovative solutions for top brands and enterprises.
Kate Wilson Contributor
Kate Wilson is a Vancouver-based journalist. Previously technology editor at the Georgia Straight, Western Canada’s largest news and entertainment weekly, she has also written for The Independent, BetaKit, BC Business, and others.

Cities have always been America’s centers of power, driving the economy forward through competition. But now, they’re ceasing to lead the country’s innovation.

As jobs and talent have clustered, expertise has spilled over urban boundaries. In locations like the Gulf Coast, Texas Triangle, Great Lakes and Southern California, metropolitan areas are cooperating across borders to share new ideas. Eleven of these have earned the title of “megaregion,” and they host some of the continent’s cutting-edge centers of technology.

The Cascadia Innovation Corridor — the strip of land down the West Coast from Vancouver, Canada to Portland, Oregon — is perhaps the best example. Home to powerhouses like Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, Lululemon, Boeing and Intel, the area has seen large investments from companies hoping to encourage further cooperation. Over the past five years, state and provincial governments have signed formal agreements for collaboration, and executive-filled conferences are being held to encourage new partnerships.

Why are businesses and government organizations investing so much into the region? Challenge Seattle CEO and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire believes it’s the evolution of a trend that’s been unfolding for decades.

“For many years, a number of international companies from Seattle have been putting Canadian headquarters in Vancouver,” she says. “So without anybody deliberately thinking about how we could work together, it was already actually happening. These organizations have decided to capitalize on [what] was happening from the ground up, and build out a vision, and bring us all together so we can really magnify the success of what’s already happening on the ground.”

Local support

The West Coast’s urban centers are linked by more than shared geography and, as Gregoire jokes, a love of the Seattle Seahawks — the Pacific Northwest is characterized by an open and inclusive culture, heterogeneous populations and creating technology with a focus on social good. Economically, too, there are similarities. West Coast cities have historically turned to Asian and South Asian markets for trade, as well as looking to each other. Washington State exports more to British Columbia than it does to all other Canadian provinces combined, and if Washington State were a country, it would represent B.C.’s third-largest international export market

For Bill Tam, a member of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor steering committee and former president of BC Tech, Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland have different reasons to support the megaregion.

“In Vancouver, which has a great startup ecosystem, a lot of those companies and a lot of the research organizations have really bought into this idea of being part of something bigger and more substantive,” he says. “I think on the U.S. side, what was interesting was that we saw the impetus come from larger companies — particularly Microsoft, but they’re not the only ones. Everyone from the Nordstroms to the REIs really see the value in learning and working together to try and build leverage, and to accelerate the things they want to do.”

Tam’s hope for the region’s success comes from its ability to share resources across cities. Vancouver, for instance, is known for its highly-educated workforce: the location’s nature-filled setting and welcoming immigration policies attracts many qualified tech employees. With its industry focused on startups, though, it lacks larger brands and anchor companies that would help propel it onto the global stage. 

The Seattle area, however, has the opposite problem. America’s tight immigration regulations make it hard for companies to secure qualified talent, but the influence of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon mean the city is a hotbed for international investment and innovation. By joining forces — and by integrating Portland, which sits somewhere between both poles — the Cascadia region, Tam believes, can emerge as a powerful global competitor. 

“I think the long-term vision for Cascadia is to feel like it is an economic region that is not only the best place to build new innovations, but also a cohesive area that understands the values of collaboration,” he says. “It ties together all the responsible aspects of how we live — whether it’s on the sustainability agenda, the environment agenda, and how we actually treat each other as an open and diverse society.”

Vancouver Skyline, (lee robinson) unsplash

Photo: Lee Robinson/Unsplash

Areas of expertise

Aside from giants Amazon and Microsoft’s dominance in ecommerce, software, and cloud-based computing, the area has spawned niche areas of expertise. President and CEO of the Business Council of British Columbia Greg D’Avignon believes those sectors will help elevate Cascadia’s profile.

“There’s a myriad of interesting companies here in British Columbia that are driving innovation,” he says. “In the quantum space, there’s D-Wave Systems, 1QBit, and others. D-Wave is the first commercial quantum computing company in the world, and it’s driving significant and complex computations on datasets to try to resolve issues that are endemic to challenges we have in terms of climate, personal health, aging, and growing populations. Life sciences is another important sector. There are some very interesting companies in the personalized medicine and health business — we’ve got Zymeworks […] and a myriad of other companies [that] are changing the nature of population-based healthcare.”

The region is also well-regarded in the virtual and augmented reality (VR/AR) space. Microsoft developed one of the leading AR headsets — the HoloLens — in the Pacific Northwest, and Vancouver has since been recognized as the world’s second-largest VR and AR ecosystem. More than 230 companies are located in the city, drawing on its history of gaming and visual effects to develop everything from surgical-training software to AAA-aspiring titles.

As well as individual successes in the consumer blockchain space with viral game Cryptokitties and data aggregation with Hootsuite, Cascadia is known for technical apparel, with the likes of Lululemon, REI, Eddie Bauer, Arc’teryx, and Nike choosing the region as their home. With Amazon’s monopoly on online retail, the West Coast leads North America in merchandizing tech.

“When we talk about some of the foundational pillars in the corridor, we’re talking about the movement of people and goods across the border,” D’Avignon says. “We’re talking about bringing together postsecondary in a way that is important. That’s all rooted deeply in how we look at making this region better. And then as we learn, how do we share that learning and those commercial opportunities with the rest of the world?”

 


0

T-Mobile sugar-coats Sprint merger with promises of free data — but only if it’s approved

22:52 | 7 November

The planned $26 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint has been approved by the Justice Department and the FCC, but it’s not a sure thing yet. To sweeten the deal, T-Mobile is dangling three big free and cheap data initiatives that will only go through if the merger does. A little sugar helps the medicine go down.

Contingent on creating the “New T-Mobile,” there are three big moves planned, all of which to be fair sound great:

  • 10 years of free 5G for all police, fire, emergency medical services, and other first responders countrywide
  • Free wireless service and reduced cost devices to 10 million disconnected households in U.S. and Puerto Rico
  • New $15/month prepaid plan with unlimited talk and text and 2GB of data

Obviously these are all aimed at making it seem like T-Mobile is concerned with the public good. And no one is disputing that these programs would help a lot of people out. It just feels like such a transparent play to balance out the anti-competitive risks of the merger.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Stark speculated in his dissent from yesterday’s approval decision that the merger would lead to three 900-pound gorillas that would “divide up the market, increase prices, and compete only for the most lucrative customers.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, on the other hand, asserts that the merger “will provide New T-Mobile with the scale and spectrum resources necessary to deploy a robust 5G network across the United States,” and make it competitive with Verizon and AT&T. (Disclosure: TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, but this does not affect our coverage.)

Although the regulatory hurdles are out of the way, the merger still faces a lawsuit from a collection of states who oppose the deal. That’s due to go to court soon, but may be either dismissed or delayed due to the fact that the complaints were filed before the Justice and FCC approvals, and the stipulations that came with.

 


0

Huawei calls hackers to Munich for secret bug bounty meeting

19:25 | 5 November

Chinese tech giant Huawei has asked some of the world’s best phone hackers to a secret meeting in Munich later this month as the company tries to curry favor with global governments, TechCrunch has learned.

Sources with knowledge of the November 16 meeting said Huawei will privately present its new bug bounty program, which would allow researchers to get financial rewards for submitting security vulnerabilities. The sources said the bug bounty will be focused on past and future mobile devices, as well as its new mobile operating system, HarmonyOS, Huawei’s Android competitor.

Other phone makers, including Apple, Google, and Samsung, also have bug bounties.

The move comes at a time of increased pressure on Huawei over its links to the Chinese government. Huawei has denied U.S.-led claims that it could be forced to spy on behalf of Beijing. But that hasn’t stopped the federal government from imposing sanctions and obstacles from operating in the United States. That pressure has led companies like Google from pulling its support for Android, which Huawei relies on for its phones, prompting the tech giant to find or build alternatives.

One source described the event as similar to a secret meeting hosted by Apple in August, in which the tech giant handed its most prized security researchers special “dev” iPhones to hack and find security weaknesses.

The source said that Huawei’s bug bounty meeting was likely a way to show governments that it’s willing to work with hackers and security researchers to bolster the security of its products.

Huawei, which also makes networking equipment for telecom networks, came under fire by U.K. authorities earlier this year for failing to address “serious and systematic defects” in its software at a time it’s trying to prove it’s technologies are do not pose a national security threat.

Chase Skinner, a spokesperson for Huawei, did not respond to a request for comment.

 


0

Even after Microsoft wins, JEDI saga could drag on

21:27 | 28 October

The DoD JEDI contract saga came to a thrilling conclusion on Friday afternoon, appropriately enough, with one final plot twist. The presumptive favorite, Amazon did not win, stunning many, including likely the company itself. In the end, Microsoft took home the $10 billion prize.

This contract was filled with drama from the beginning, given the amount of money involved, the length of the contract, the winner-take-all nature of the deal — and the politics. We can’t forget the politics. This was Washington after all and Jeff Bezos does own the Washington Post.

Then there was Oracle’s fury throughout the procurement process. The president got involved in August. The current defense secretary recused himself on Wednesday, two days before the decision came down. It was all just so much drama, even the final decision itself, handed down late Friday afternoon, but it’s unclear if this is the end or just another twist in this ongoing tale.

Some perspective on $10 billion

Before we get too crazy about Microsoft getting a $10 billion, 10 year contract, consider that Amazon earned $9 billion last quarter alone in cloud revenue. Microsoft reported $33 billion last quarter in total revenue. It reported around $11 billion in cloud revenue. Synergy Research pegs the current cloud infrastructure market at well over $100 billion annually (and growing).

What we have here is a contract that’s worth a billion a year. What’s more, it’s possible it might not even be worth that much if the government uses one of its out clauses. The deal is actually initially guaranteed for just two years. Then there are a couple of three-year options, with a final two-year option at the end if gets that far.

The DOD recognized that with the unique nature of this contract, going with a single vendor, it wanted to keep its options open should the tech world shift suddenly under its feet. It didn’t want to be inextricably tied to one company for a decade if that company was suddenly disrupted by someone else. Given the shifting sands of technology, that part of the strategy was a wise one.

Where the value lies

If value of this deal was not the contract itself, it begs the question, why did everyone want it so badly? The $10 billion JEDI deal was simply a point of entree. If you could modernize the DoD’s infrastructure, the argument goes, chances are you could do the same for other areas of the government. It could open the door for Microsoft for a much more lucrative government cloud business.

But it’s not as though Microsoft didn’t already have a lucrative cloud business. In 2016, for example, the company signed a deal worth almost a billion dollars to help move the entire department to Windows 10. Amazon too, has had its share of government contracts, famously landing the $600 million to build the CIA’s private cloud.

But given all the attention to this deal, it always felt a little different from your standard government contract. Just the fact the DoD used a Star Wars reference for the project acronym drew more attention to the project from the start. Therefore, there was some prestige for the winner of this deal, and Microsoft gets bragging rights this morning, while Amazon is left to ponder what the heck happened. As for other companies like Oracle, who knows how they’re feeling about this outcome.

Hell hath no fury like Oracle scorned

Ah yes Oracle; this tale would not be complete without discussing the rage of Oracle throughout the JEDI RFP process. Even before the RFP process started, they were complaining about the procurement process. Co-CEO Safra Catz had dinner with the president to complain that contract process wasn’t fair (not fair!). Then it tried complaining to the Government Accountability Office. They found no issue with the process.

They went to court. The judge dismissed their claims that involved both the procurement process and that a former Amazon employee, who was hired by DoD, was involved in the process of creating the RFP. They claimed that the former employee was proof that the deal was tilted toward Amazon. The judge disagreed and dismissed their complaints.

What Oracle could never admit, was that it simply didn’t have the same cloud chops that Microsoft and Amazon, the two finalists, had. It couldn’t be that they were late to the cloud or had a fraction of the market share that Amazon and Microsoft had. It had to be the process or that someone was boxing them out.

What Microsoft brings to the table

Outside of the politics of this decision (which we will get to shortly), Microsoft brought some experience and tooling the table that certainly gave it some advantage in the selection process. Until we see the reasons for the selections, it’s hard to know exactly why DoD chose Microsoft, but we know a few things.

First of all there are the existing contracts with DoD, including the aforementioned Windows 10 contract and a five year $1.76 billion contract with DoD Intelligence to provide “innovative enterprise services” to the DoD.

Then there is Azure Stack, a portable private cloud stack that the military could stand up anywhere. It could have great utility for missions in the field when communicating with a cloud server could be problematic.

Fool if you think it’s over

So that’s that right? The decision has been made and it’s time to move on. Amazon will go home and lick its wounds. Microsoft gets bragging rights and we’re good. Actually, this might not be where it ends at all.

Amazon for instance could point to Jim Mattis’ book where he wrote that the president told the then Defense Secretary to “screw Bezos out of that $10 billion contract.” Mattis says he refused saying he would go by the book, but it certainly leaves the door open to a conflict question.

It’s also worth pointing out that Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post and the president isn’t exactly in love with that particular publication. In fact, this week, the White House canceled its subscription and encouraged other government agencies to do so as well.

Then there is the matter of current Defense Secretary Mark Espers suddenly recusing himself last Wednesday afternoon based on a minor point that one of his adult children works at IBM (in a non-cloud consulting job). He claimed he wanted to remove any hint of conflict of interest, but at this point in the process, it was down to Microsoft and Amazon. IBM wasn’t even involved.

If Amazon wanted to protest this decision, it seems it would have much more solid ground to do so than Oracle ever had.

The bottom line is a decision has been made, at least for now, but this process has been rife with controversy from the start, just by the design of the project, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see Amazon take some protest action of its own. It seems oddly appropriate.

 


0

FCC proposes rules requiring telcos remove Huawei, ZTE equipment

21:26 | 28 October

The Federal Communications Commission said it will move ahead with proposals to ban telecommunications giants from using Huawei and ZTE networking equipment, which the agency says poses a “national security threat.”

The two-part proposal revealed Monday would first bar telecoms giants from using funds it receives from the the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, used by the agency to subsidize service to low-income households, from buying equipment from the Chinese telecom equipment makers.

The second proposal would mandate certain telecom giants remove any banned equipment they may have already installed.

In a statement, the FCC said it would offer a reimbursement program to help carriers transition to “more trusted” suppliers.

“We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security, or undermine our values,” said FCC chairman Ajit Pai in remarks. “The Chinese government has shown repeatedly that it is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do just that.”

The FCC said Huawei and ZTE were already on the list of companies that pose a threat, but that the draft order would “establish a process for designating other suppliers that pose a national security threat,” potentially opening the door for new additions.

It’s the latest move by the government to crack down on technology providers seen as a potential homeland security threat. Chief among the fears are that Huawei and ZTE are subject to Chinese laws, and could be told to secretly comply with demands from Chinese intelligence services, which could put Americans’ data at risk of surveillance or espionage.

The claims first arose in 2012 following a House inquiry, which labeled the company a national security threat.

Earlier this year, the Trump administration banned federal agencies from buying equipment from Huawei and ZTE, but also Hytera and Hikvision.

Both Huawei and ZTE have long denied the allegations.

Chairman Pai said in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal: “When it comes to 5G and America’s security, we can’t afford to take a risk and hope for the best. We need to make sure our networks won’t harm our national security, threaten our economic security or undermine our values.”

The FCC’s proposals are expected to be voted on during a meeting on November 19.

 


0

From the NBA to Sequoia to TikTok and more, a week of national security concerns with China

18:11 | 25 October

It has been a tough week for China-U.S. relations. Vice President Mike Pence ratcheted up the administration’s rhetoric yesterday, calling the NBA “a wholly owned subsidiary of the authoritarian regime” in China while the league’s commissioner Adam Silver continued to try to tamp down the intensity of criticism over the league’s business, saying in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that “We have no choice but to engage and to attempt to have better understanding of other cultures and try to work through issues.”

The NBA was hardly the only challenge between the U.S. and China. This week saw the intensification of two threads of national security concerns continue to get airtime on Capitol Hill that could have massive ramifications for startups.

The first and potentially most potent thread is swirling around TikTok, the epically popular social video app that also happens to be owned and operated by China-based ByteDance. This week, senate majority leader Chuck Schumer and senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas circulated a bipartisan letter requesting an assessment of TikTok’s national security risks.

ByteDance remains the world’s highest-valued unicorn (which, perhaps in the wake of WeWork’s collapse the past two weeks, is not an epithet that any startup wants to actually hold these days). It has received major funding from the likes of Sequoia Capital China, and is currently valued at $75 billion.

Sequoia is clearly preparing for the worst around these national security reviews. Last week, the firm confirmed to The American Lawyer that Donald Vieira, a partner at top law firm Skadden, would be joining the venture firm as chief legal officer. Vieira has spent the last few years working on cases surrounding CFIUS, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (WTF is CFIUS?), and earlier, was chief of staff of none other than the Department of Justice’s national security division.

That expertise will be critical as Sequoia potentially faces a tough reception for ByteDance in the national security circuit on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, CFIUS required video game publisher Beijing Kunlun to retroactively divest itself of its purchase of gay-dating app Grindr over concerns that the app’s user data could provide Chinese intelligence and law enforcement officials with compromising material that would allow for individual blackmail.

While Grindr’s text messages may be far more compromising than the average TikTok viral video, the app’s small user base is dwarfed by TikTok, which has seen more than 100 million downloads in the U.S. alone. That potentially wide surveillance net is of acute concern for U.S. intelligence officials.

On top of that, of course, is the media’s heightened discussion the past few weeks that ByteDance could carefully calibrate the virality of videos on TikTok to hew toward Beijing’s censorship dictates. That has led to some teens posting various memes about the Hong Kong protests to see how far they can push the platform’s red lines (as teens are wont to do).

Strategically, the China angle has become very useful for Facebook, who faces a viable threat in TikTok’s popularity according to my colleague Josh Constine. Mark Zuckerberg has made China’s potential censorship within TikTok a major speaking point, which he emphasized in a major policy speech at Georgetown:

While our services, like WhatsApp, are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the US.

Is that the internet we want?

Facebook’s strategic messaging starts to lead us to the other national security thread happing these days in DC. There have been wide concerns over the past few months on Capitol Hill over bids for subway, rail, bus, and other transit contracts from Chinese companies like state-owned CRRC and electric bus and battery manufacturer BYD . There have been motions to ban federal transit funding for projects that use vehicles from Chinese-subsidized sources.

A new report published this morning by Radarlock, a data-driven research organization, argues that Beijing is using access to these contracts to enhance its ‘civil-military fusion,’ by which China means learning how to manufacture and build leading global supply chains that help it in both private sector competitiveness and in military superiority. As the research leads Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic write:

Through both data collection and technology, CRRC contributes to Beijing’s military and military-civil fusion [“MCF”] projects: Explicitly declaring, in its company documents, a role in the military-civil fusion strategy, CRRC has set up an investment fund dedicated to MCF; operates in MCF industry zones; shares technology, resources, and data with military-and MCF-affiliates; and assigns the MCF label to high-profile projects and centers.

Like Facebook though, these results are being highlighted by industry sources, with Politico Pro noting that Securing America’s Future Energy and the Alliance for American Manufacturing have been pushing the report around DC.

And that gets back to the challenges of future economic ties between the two superpowers, notwithstanding the latest developments in the trade war negotiation (which seem as likely to conclude as Brexit is to happen).

National security policy is increasingly being used by incumbent players as a cudgel to stifle competition. Many of those national security concerns are valid — and sometimes acutely so — but we also need to be extraordinarily clear that like any market restriction, there is ultimately a consumer cost to these initiatives as well. The Chinese may go without star-studded basketball as much as Americans will go without working subway cars, and that’s the cost of a relationship that has never been built on a foundation of trust.

 


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By tweeting from a SCIF, House lawmakers put national security at risk

16:55 | 24 October

If you thought storming into a highly secured government facility with your electronics but without permission was a smart idea, you’d be wrong.

But that didn’t stop Rep. Matt Gaetz and close to three-dozen of his Republican colleagues on Wednesday from doing exactly that.

Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, proudly announced in his since-deleted tweets: “I led over 30 of my colleagues into the SCIF where Adam Schiff is holding secret impeachment depositions.” At the time, Gaetz was interrupting a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee where chairman, Schiff, was deposing senior government official, Laura Cooper, as part of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

One of the cardinal rules of entering one of these facilities is that you don’t bring in any electronics. And those lawmakers did exactly that.

No wonder Gaetz deleted his tweets.

A SCIF — a sensitive compartmented information facility — sounds fancy but in reality are just rooms designed to be secure for sharing sensitive and secret information at the higher echelons of government secrecy. There are plenty dotted around Washington DC for lawmakers and government officials to huddle in and chit-chat. There are SCIFs in the White House, Congress and every major government department in the capital — even the president’s Florida resort.

The idea is you go in to one of these rooms and they’re safe to discuss state secrets. These rooms vary by size and shape — some are enormous and are able to sit an entire congressional committee. Some can be used on the road in the form of a large pop-up tent. But they all do the same job: they’re designed to a specification so that nobody can eavesdrop on what’s being said.

So when a gaggle of Republican lawmakers stormed one of the congressional SCIFs yesterday with their electronics in their pockets, understandably a lot of people were furious.

“No unauthorized electronic devices are allowed in the SCIF precisely because they could be used to exfiltrate decoded, highly classified data,” said Alan Woodward, a professor at the University of Surrey. “Standard operating procedure is to deposit anything like a mobile phone in some storage outside before entering,” he said.

“To force your way into a SCIF and use a mobile device inside is the height of recklessness: you must know that you are endangering material that could cause grave damage to the national interest,” he added.

The rebuke was quick.

“[The lawmakers] endangered our national security and demonstrated they care more about a political stunt than protecting intelligence information,”

Mieke Eoyang, vice-president of Third Way, a national security think tank. “Foreign adversaries are constantly trying to figure out what goes on inside those rooms to figure out what the U.S. knows about them, to out U.S. high-level sources in their governments, to know what the U.S. government knows and use it against us,” she said.

“I cannot emphasize enough how serious this is,” she added.

And neither can the chairman of the House Homeland Security committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), who wrote to the Sergeant-at-Arms, the official in charge of the House’s law enforcement, expressing his anger at the infraction.

“Such action is a blatant breach of security,” said Thompson in the strongly worded letter, demanding action is taken against the violating House members.

“Inadvertently bringing electronics into a SCIF is a very common security infraction, and it is taken incredibly seriously by agencies,” said Mark S. Zaid, an attorney specializing in national security cases. “It is drilled into people’s heads to never bring their cell phone into a protected area.”

The penalties for the House members could be swift, said Zaid, including pulling their future access to classified material.

“Agencies will not hesitate to revoke someone’s security clearances when multiple infractions occur,” he said. “When it comes to intentional infractions, the repercussions would be swift and severe, as it should be.”

 


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India to spend $6 billion to revive telecom operators BSNL and MTNL

19:05 | 23 October

India said on Wednesday it plans to spend nearly $6 billion to revive loss-making state-funded telecom operators Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL).

In a press conference, telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said today the Narendra Modi government has given its in-principle approval to the merger of BSNL and MTNL and infuse billions of dollars in capital, though he did not specify a time frame.

BSNL offers telecom services across the nation while MTNL serves people in New Delhi and Mumbai. Both the firms have been bleeding money for years as competition from private players intensified in recent years after the arrival of India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani’s aggressive firm Reliance Jio. BSNL and MTNL have debt of about $5.65 billion.

The arrival of Reliance Jio, which undercut the market with its 4G-only telecom network, free voice calls and incredibly low-cost data prices, saw incumbents Vodafone and Airtel lower their prices and expand their 4G networks across the country.

MTNL, which is a listed company, will become a subsidiary of BSNL until the merger is completed, Prasad told journalists. “Neither BSNL nor MTNL are being closed, nor are they being disinvested or being hived off to third party,” he said, refuting weeks-long speculation that the government wanted to shut the carriers that serve about 120 million subscribers.

The revival plan includes a capital infusion of $2.8 billion to enable BSNL to purchase 4G spectrum, and write off of $520 million worth of taxes these purchases would incur. The network operators will additionally raise about $2.1 billion of long-term bonds that the New Delhi government will back and monetize $5.3 billion worth of assets over the next four years, the minister said.

“We want to make BSNL and MTNL competitive, and bring in professionalism,” Shankar said. The government is hopeful that BSNL would become operationally profitable in next two years, he said.

The existence of BSNL, which alone serves more than 116 million subscribers, is in the strategic interest of the nation, Prasad said in a conference last week. “Whenever we have flood or cyclone, BSNL is the first one to offer services for free,” he said.

BSNL, which uses about 75% of its revenue to pay its roughly 176,000 employees, was unable to process their salaries last month. The government said today that it will soon address this and also offer various “attractive voluntary retirement packages” to employees aged 50 or more. In a press release, the government said it would spend about $2.4 billion on the employee retirement packages.

 


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British parliament presses Facebook on letting politicians lie in ads

13:37 | 22 October

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

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

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…

 


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