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Climbing technology’s wall of worry in 2020 and beyond: Part II


The topics I covered in Part I of this piece — broadband, privacy, and innovation at the internet’s edge — were easy compared to the explosive mine fields of Part II: free speech, misinformation, encryption, and the politics of the internet. Many of you will thoughtfully disagree, but here’s how I see things today.

Beginning several years ago, Google, Facebook, and Twitter allowed themselves to be pulled far to one side by regressive opponents of free speech and neutral platforms. Instead of sensibly censoring truly dangerous, offensive, and fraudulent content, they began suppressing disfavored mainstream voices and businesses. This blocking and throttling was an ominous trend. But there’s reason for hope in 2020. 

Speaking at Georgetown in October, Mark Zuckerberg offered one of the most vigorous defenses of free speech in recent years. Then last week, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, a senior Facebook executive, wrote an internal memo which debunked some of this era’s worst nonsense and committed to political neutrality. 

As Boz wrote, Russia’s use of social media in 2016 was wildly overblown. Its effect was “infinitesimal.” If possible, the Cambridge Analytica story, which was engineered to amplify the social-media-election-hacking narrative, was even less of a worry. “A total non-event,” as Boz described it. Both narratives were instead purposeful misdirection from the real and far more insidious stories of domestic election interference and big media mendacity. 

This isn’t to say misinformation on the web isn’t a worry. Testifying before Congress last week, Gus Hurwitz, a tech law professor at the University of Nebraska, described a species of deception known as “dark patterns,” where bad actors use optical illusions and psychological tricks to fool people into clicking links or buying things. This is an example of why, in addition to digital privacy concerns, we should expand the Federal Trade Commission’s capacity to protect consumers in these vast, light-speed virtual worlds.

People are probably overly worried about so-called deep fakes, however. Yes, the video and audio mimicry technologies are impressive, and some will be fooled. But we will also quickly develop both social and technological methods to combat deception. Our common sense skepticism will rise, new verification technologies will expose fraud, and we should construct harsh new social punishments for the purveyors of malignant mistruth. Like privacy and security, veracity is a huge business opportunity. In this race, there is no final winner; we can only hope true can stay a few steps ahead of false.

Encryption will play an increasingly important role in privacy, security, verification, and all internet transactions. But on Monday the FBI blasted Apple for the agency’s inability to see into the iPhone of the terrorist who attacked the Pensacola Navy base. Apple has been assisting the FBI’s investigation every step of the way, handing over “gigabytes” of iCloud data. But Apple has no access to the encrypted data on the phone itself, and the FBI continues to insist on new laws mandating “backdoors” for all devices. No doubt, the FBI’s work is crucial, and its frustrations are real. But there are huge trade-offs. Backdoors might help the FBI, but they would definitely help criminal hackers, at the expense of law-abiding people who use encryption for privacy, security, and commerce.

Despite the dizzying technological swirl, the mainstream narrative about tech-induced disinformation is itself misleading. Much of the fear mongering is meant to elide and misdirect the public’s and policymakers’ eyes from one of the biggest deception campaigns of all time, executed not by exotic technologies but by our traditionally authoritative sources of information. Over the last four years, it was the mainstream media and government who perpetrated one of history’s deepest fakes. 

Zuckerberg and Boz’s stance is courageous in the face of this typical bombast from The New York Times, which insists Facebook’s job is a modest one: ending political lies. Although Facebook has said it won’t “fact check” political ads, social media has, ironically, been highly successful at exposing falsity from journalists and politicians working hand in glove. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and podcasts were essential outlets for independent reporters and amateur investigators who exposed much recent corruption and got many stories exactly right.

The Facebook executives’ leadership offers hope on an even broader front. Too often in recent years, corporate boards, CEOs, university presidents, and other authority figures have cowered in the face of bullies and mobs. Perhaps 2020 will be the year more leaders brush off petty politics and reassert pluralistic common sense. Let’s get back to business!