The Biden administration has officially appointed Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel acting FCC Chairwoman, and she very well may be the first woman to hold the official position if she is nominated for it later this year, as many expect. With her record of standing for equal access, industry accountability and net neutrality, Rosenworcel’s FCC will be very different from her predecessor’s.
(Update: This article previously stated that Rosenworcel would be the first acting FCC chairwoman, but the formidable Mignon Clyburn briefly held the acting role in 2013 while Tom Wheeler was being confirmed. If nominated and confirmed, Rosenworcel would be the first nonacting chairwoman.)
“I am honored to be designated as the acting chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Biden. I thank the president for the opportunity to lead an agency with such a vital mission and talented staff. It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” she said in a statement.
While Rosenworcel’s agenda will be made clear over the coming weeks and months, it is likely we will see the return of net neutrality from the shallow grave dug for it by Ajit Pai, and probably a new effort to better understand where in the country actually needs help getting broadband to those who need it, and how to do so quickly and equitably. Her first items of business, however, will likely pertain to getting internet access to those most affected by the pandemic.
(Disclosure: The FCC regulates TechCrunch’s parent company, Verizon, but this has no effect on our coverage.)
Rosenworcel first started at the FCC in 2003 and filled other federal communications regulation roles over the years. She was nominated for commissioner by President Obama in 2011 (confirmed in 2012), and was in the running for chair in 2013, though Tom Wheeler ended up taking the spot. Her second term as commissioner began in 2017.
Throughout her tenure at the FCC Rosenworcel has pushed for net neutrality and improved broadband access for schools and economically disadvantaged areas. During Ajit Pai’s tumultuous term as chairman she offered implacable resistance to what she saw as an unjustified hands-off approach to regulating telecoms, and a fierce indictment of the FCC’s failure to act in the best interest of the people it serves. Here are a few examples.
At the 2017 vote killing net neutrality, Rosenworcel was unsparing in voicing her fury at the shadiness of the entire rule-making process:
I dissent from this rash decision to roll back net neutrality rules. I dissent from the corrupt process that has brought us to this point. And I dissent from the contempt this agency has shown our citizens in pursuing this path today. This decision puts the Federal Communications Commission on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the American public.
In 2018, with an epidemic of robocalling growing by the month, she contradicted Pai’s claim that a $120 million fine (almost certainly never collected) for one offender proved there was a “cop on the beat”:
Today the FCC adopts a forfeiture order to impose a penalty on one operation that made tens of millions of robocalls two years ago. I support it. But let’s be honest: Going after a single bad actor is emptying the ocean with a teaspoon — and right now we’re all wet.
That the industry still has not widely adopted the framework that would nip robocalls in the bud is testament to this, though they should soon after the FCC finally got in gear. (This year she also contributed a piece to TechCrunch to call for immediate action on the rollout of 5G.)
In 2019, Rosenworcel called out the agency’s seeming lack of concern about a major loophole in telecoms regulation that allowed every mobile service vendor to essentially sell real-time location data to anyone willing to pay for it:
The FCC has been totally silent about press reports that for a few hundred dollars shady middlemen can sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data. That’s unacceptable.
Her office released letters to the agency from the major carriers as a stopgap measure to inform people. When the FCC finally formally moved against the practice, she noted, “It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious.”
In 2020, Rosenworcel raised for the nth time the FCC’s lack of good data concerning broadband deployment in the country. The problem had rankled for years but was highlighted by a spectacular failure to vet industry data provided more or less on the honor system, which ended up throwing off numbers nationally:
This should have set off alarm bells at the FCC. In fact, agency staff reached out to the company nearly a dozen times over multiple years, including after this suspect data was filed. Despite these efforts behind the scenes, on February 19, 2019, the FCC used the erroneous data filed by BarrierFree in a press release, claiming great progress in closing the nation’s digital divide. When an outside party pointed out this was based on fraudulent information, the FCC was forced to revise its claim.
An embarrassing demonstration of how poor the current system is. Of the broadband report itself she had written earlier:
This report deserves a failing grade. Putting aside the embarrassing fumble of the FCC blindly accepting incorrect data for the original version of this report, there are serious problems with its basic methodology. Time and again this agency has acknowledged the grave limitations of the data we collect to assess broadband deployment.
After all, if the FCC doesn’t know who actually is getting decent broadband and who isn’t, how can they direct funds to help bridge that gap?
Lastly, late in 2020 when Pai caved to administration pressure to reevaluate the hugely important Section 230, which limits the liability of internet platforms for the content posted on them, Rosenworcel once again summed up the situation simply and honestly:
The timing of this effort is absurd. The FCC has no business being the president’s speech police.
This abortive attempt to weaken Section 230 never had legs to begin with and will not be pursued further, according to an FCC source.
These are only a handful of the more high-profile moments of Rosenworcel’s latest term, and in fact it is something of a disservice to list just them. The work of an FCC commissioner, their staff and the bureaus they rely on, is largely obscure and technical, with moments like those listed above more the exception than the rule.
With the last-minute confirmation of Republican Commissioner Nathan Simington, the FCC is currently at a 2-2 in its normally 3-2 partisan makeup in favor of the presiding administration. Since Democrats won both Senate seats in Georgia, the feared deadlock will likely be avoided, with a fifth commissioner nominated and confirmed in short order so that work can begin. We’ll know more about Rosenworcel’s priorities and agenda soon.
While the Biden Administration is being celebrated for its decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement in one of its first executive orders after President Joe Biden was sworn in, it wasn’t the biggest step the administration took to advance its climate agenda.
Instead it was a move to get to the basics of monitoring and accounting, of metrics and dashboards. While companies track their revenues and expenses and monitor for all sorts of risks, impacts from climate change and emissions aren’t tracked in the same way. Now, in the same way there are general principals for accounting for finance, there will be principals for accounting for the impact of climate through what’s called the social cost of carbon.
Among the flurry of paperwork coming from Biden’s desk were Executive Orders calling for a review of Trump era rule-making around the environment and the reinstitution of strict standards for fuel economy, methane emissions, appliance and building efficiency, and overall emissions. But even these steps are likely to pale in significance to the fifth section of the ninth executive order to be announced by the new White House.
That’s the section addressing the accounting for the benefits of reducing climate pollution. Until now, the U.S. government hasn’t had a framework for accounting for what it calls the “full costs of greenhouse gas emissions” by taking “global damages into account”.
All of this is part of a broad commitment to let data and science inform policymaking across government, according to the Biden Administration.
“It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; to hold polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; to bolster resilience to the impacts of climate change; to restore and expand our national treasures and monuments; and to prioritize both environmental justice and the creation of the well-paying union jobs necessary to deliver on these goals.”
The specific section of the order addressing accounting and accountability calls for a working group to come up with three metrics: the social cost of carbon (SCC), the social cost of nitrous oxide (SCN) and the social cost of methane (SCM) that will be used to estimate the monetized damages associated with increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
As the executive order notes, “[an] accurate social cost is essential for agencies to accurately determine the social benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions when conducting cost-benefit analyses of regulatory and other actions.” What the Administration is doing is attempting to provide a financial figure for the damages wrought by greenhouse gas emissions in terms of rising interest rates, and the destroyed farmland and infrastructure caused by natural disasters linked to global climate change.
These kinds of benchmarks aren’t flashy, but they are concrete ways to determine accountability. That accountability will become critical as the country takes steps to meet the targets set in the Paris Agreement. It also gives companies looking to address their emissions footprints an economic framework to point to as they talk to their investors and the public.
The initiative will include top leadership like the Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a position that Biden elevated to a cabinet level post).
Representatives from each of the major federal agencies overseeing the economy, national health, and the environment will be members of the working group along with the representatives or the National Climate Advisor and the Director of the National Economic Council.
While the rule-making is proceeding at the federal level, some startups are already developing services to help businesses monitor their emissions output.
Biden’s plan will have the various agencies and departments working quickly. The administration expects an interim SCC, SCN, and SCM within the next 30 days, which agencies will use when monetizing the value of changes in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from regulations and agency actions. The President wants final metrics will be published by January of next year.
The executive order also restored protections to national parks and lands that had been opened to oil and gas exploration and commercial activity under the Trump Administration and blocked the development of the Keystone Pipeline, which would have brought oil from Canadian tar sands into and through the U.S.
“The Keystone XL pipeline disserves the U.S. national interest. The United States and the world face a climate crisis. That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory. At home, we will combat the crisis with an ambitious plan to build back better, designed to both reduce harmful emissions and create good clean-energy jobs,” according to the text of the Executive Order. “The United States must be in a position to exercise vigorous climate leadership in order to achieve a significant increase in global climate action and put the world on a sustainable climate pathway. Leaving the Key`12stone XL pipeline permit in place would not be consistent with my Administration’s economic and climate imperatives.”
WhiteHouse.gov, the official website for all presidential actions and efforts, is among the first things to be changed up under the freshly inaugurated President Biden. A fashionable dark mode appeared, as well as a large text toggle for straining eyes, and the webmaster has committed to making the whole site conform to the latest accessibility guidelines.
The look isn’t so very different from the previous administration’s site — they’re both fairly modern and minimal experiences, with big photos up front and tidy lists of priorities and announcements once you drill down into a category.
But one big design change implemented by the new administration that many will appreciate is the inclusion of a dark mode, or high contrast mode, and a large type toggle.
Dark modes have been around forever, but became de rigeur when Apple implemented its own system-wide versions on iOS and macOS a while back. It’s just easier on the eyes in many ways, and at any rate it’s nice to give users options.
The WhiteHouse.gov dark mode changes the headline type from a patriotic blue to an eye-friendly off-white, with links a calming Dijon. Even the White House logo itself goes from a dark blue background to full black with a white border. It’s all very tasteful, and if anything seems like a low-contrast mode, not high.
The large type mode does what it says, making everything considerably bigger and easier to tap or click. The toggles, it must be said, are a bit over-prominent, but they’ll probably tweak that soon.
More important is the pledge in the accessibility section:
This commitment to accessibility for all begins with this site and our efforts to ensure all functionality and all content is accessible to all Americans.
Our ongoing accessibility effort works towards conforming to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.1, level AA criteria.
The WCAG guidelines are a set of best practices for designing a website so that its content can be easily accessed by people who use screen readers, need captions for audio or can’t use a mouse or touchscreen easily. The guidelines aren’t particularly hard to meet, but as many have pointed out, it’s harder to retrofit a website to be accessible than to design it for accessibility from the start.
One thing I noticed was that many of the photos on the White House website have alt text or visible captions attached — these help visually impaired visitors understand what’s in an image. Here’s an example:
Normally that alt text would be read out by a screen reader when it got to the image, but it’s generally not made visible.
Unless the metadata was stripped from the previous administration’s site (it’s archived here), none of the photos I checked had text descriptions there, so this is a big improvement. Unfortunately some photos (like the big header photo on the front page) don’t have descriptions, something that should probably be remedied.
Accessibility in other places will mean prompt inclusion of plaintext versions of governance items and announcements (versus PDFs or other documents), captions on official videos and other media, and as the team notes, lots of little improvements that make the site better for everyone who visits.
It’s a small thing in a way, compared with the changes expected to accompany the new administration, but small things tend to pile up and become big things.
As Microsoft’s Isaac Hepworth noted, there’s still lots of work to do, and that’s why U.S. Digital Services hid a little message in the source code:
If you’re interested in helping out, sign up here.
Alibaba’s billionaire founder resurfaced as he spoke to 100 rural teachers through a video, three months after his last public appearance in October, sending the e-commerce firm’s shares up more than 8% in Hong Kong.
The video was first posted on a news portal backed by the government of Zhejiang, the eastern province where Alibaba is headquartered, and the clip was verified by an Alibaba spokesperson.
Speculations swirled around Ma’s whereabouts after media reported in December that he skipped the taping of a TV program he created. Ma, known for his love for the limelight, has seen his e-commerce empire Alibaba and fintech giant Ant Group increasingly in the crosshairs of the Chinese authorities in recent months.
Ma last appeared publicly at a conference where he castigated China’s financial regulatory system in front of a room of high-ranked officials. His controversial remark, according to reports, prompted the Chinese regulator to abruptly halt Ant’s initial public offering, which would have been the biggest public share sale of all time.
Ant has since been working on corporate restructuring and regulatory compliance under the directions of the government. Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce platform, also came under scrutiny as market regulators opened an investigation into its alleged monopolistic practices.
Some argue that the recent clampdown on Jack Ma’s internet empire signals Beijing’s growing unease with the super-rich and private-sector power brokers.
“Today, Alibaba and its archrival, Tencent, control more personal data and are more intimately involved in everyday life in China than Google, Facebook and other American tech titans are in the United States. And just like their American counterparts, the Chinese giants sometimes bully smaller competitors and kill innovation,” wrote Li Yuan for the New York Times.
“You don’t have to be a member of the Communist Party to see reasons to rein them in.”
In the 50-second video, Ma talked directly into the camera against what appears to be decorative paintings depicting a water town typical of Zhejiang. An art history book is shown amid a stack of books, alongside a vase of fresh flowers and a ceramic figurine of a stout, reclining man, looking relaxed and content.
Ma addressed the 100 teachers receiving the Jack Ma Rural Teachers Award, which was set up by the Jack Ma Foundation to identify outstanding rural teachers every year. The video also briefly shows Ma visiting a rural boarding school in Zhejiang on January 10. The award ceremony was moved online this year due to the pandemic, Ma told the teachers.
When Ma announced his retirement plan, he pledged to return to his teaching roots and devote more time to education philanthropy, though the founder still holds considerable sway over Alibaba. The legendary billionaire began his career as an English teacher in Hangzhou, and on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent, he nicknames himself the “ambassador for rural teachers.”
As fears over WhatsApp’s privacy policies send millions of users in the West to Signal and Telegram, the two encrypted apps are also seeing a slight user uptick in China, where WeChat has long dominated and the government has a tight grip on online communication.
Following WhatsApp’s pop-up notification reminding users that it shares their data with its parent Facebook, people began fleeing to alternate encrypted platforms. Telegram added 25 million just between January 10-13, the company said on its official Telegram channel, while Signal surged to the top of the App Store and Google Play Store in dozens of countries, TechCrunch learned earlier.
The migration was accelerated when, on January 7, Elon Musk urged his 40 million Twitter followers to install Signal in a tweet that likely stoked more interest in the end-to-end encryption messenger.
The growth of Telegram and Signal in China isn’t nearly as remarkable as their soaring popularity in regions where WhatsApp has been the mainstream chat app, but the uplift is a reminder that WeChat alternatives still exist in China in various capacities.
Signal amassed 9,000 new downloads from the China App Store between January 8 and 12, up 500% from the period between January 3 and 7, according to data from research firm Sensor Tower. Telegram added 17,000 downloads during January 8-12, up 6% from the January 3-7 duration. WhatsApp’s growth stalled, recording 10,000 downloads in both periods.
Sensor Tower estimates that Telegram has seen about 2.7 million total installs on China’s App Store, compared to 458,000 downloads from Signal and 9.5 million times from WhatsApp.
The fact that Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp are accessible in China might come as a surprise to some people. But China’s censorship decisions can be arbitrary and inconsistent. As censorship monitoring site Apple Censorship shows, all major Western messengers are still available on the China App Store.
The situation for Android is trickier. Google services are largely blocked in China and Android users revert to Android app stores operated by local companies like Tencent and Baidu. Neither Telegram nor Signal is available on these third-party Android stores, but users with a tool that can bypass China’s Great Firewall, such as a virtual private network (VPN), can access Google Play and install the encrypted messengers.
The next challenge is actually using these apps. The major chat apps all get slightly different treatment from Beijing’s censorship apparatus. Some, like Signal, work perfectly without the need for a VPN. The catch is to sign up for Signal, a user must activate their account with a phone number, and Chinese phone numbers are tied to people’s real identities. Users have reported that WhatsApp occasionally works in China without a VPN, though it loads very slowly. And Facebook doesn’t work at all without a VPN.
“Some websites and apps can remain untouched until they reach a certain threshold of users at which point the authorities will try to block or disrupt the website or app,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire, an organization monitoring the Chinese internet that also runs Apple Censorship.
“Perhaps before this mass migration from WhatsApp, Signal did not have that many users in China. That might have changed over the last week in which case the authorities could be pondering restrictions for Signal,” Smith added.
To legally operate in China, companies must store their data within China and submit information to the authorities for security spot-checks, according to a cybersecurity law enacted in 2017. Apple, for instance, partners with a local cloud provider to store the data of its Chinese users.
The requirement raises questions about the type of interaction that Signal, Telegram and other foreign apps have with the Chinese authorities. Signal said it never turned over data to the Hong Kong police and had no data to turn over when concerns grew over Beijing’s heightened controls over the former British colony.
The biggest challenges for apps like Signal in China, according to Smith, will come from Apple, which is constantly under fire by investors and activists for submitting to the Chinese authorities.
In recent years, the American giant has stepped up app crackdown in China, zeroing in on services that grant Chinese users access to unfiltered information, such as VPN providers, RSS feed readers and podcast apps. Apple has also purged tens of thousands of unlicensed games in recent quarters after a years-long delay.
“Apple has a history of preemptively censoring apps that they believe the authorities would want censored,” Smith observed. “If Apple decides to remove Signal in China, either on its own initiative or in direct response to a request from the authorities, then Apple customers in China will be left with no secure messaging options.”
It’s official. 2020 was one of the warmest years on record either edging out or coming in just behind 2016 for the warmest year in recorded history according to data from US government agencies.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration had the year just tied with 2016, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the figure just behind 2016’s totals.
No matter the ranking, the big picture for the climate isn’t pretty according to scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York and the Washington, DC-based NOAA.
“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said GISS Director Gavin Schmidt, in a statement. “Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
That’s a dire message for the nation considering the cost of last year’s record-breaking 22 weather and climate disasters. At least 262 people died and scores more were injured by climate-related disasters, according to the NOAA.
And the combination of wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, tornados, tropical cyclones, and severe weather events like hail storms in Texas and the derecho that wrecked the Midwest cost the nation $95 billion.
Homes are engulfed in flames in Vacaville, California during the LNU Lightning Complex fire on August 19, 2020. – As of the late hours of August 18,2020 the Hennessey fire has merged with at least 7 fires and is now called the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Dozens of fires are burning out of control throughout Northern California as fire resources are spread thin. (Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)
Both organizations track temperature trends to get some sort of picture of the impact that human activities — specifically greenhouse gas emissions — have on the planet. The image that comes into focus is that human activity has already contributed to increasing Earth’s average temperature by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial age took hold in the late 19th century.
Most troubling to scientists is that this year’s near record-setting temperatures happened without a boost from the climatic weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which is a large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming.
“The previous record warm year, 2016, received a significant boost from a strong El Niño. The lack of a similar assist from El Niño this year is evidence that the background climate continues to warm due to greenhouse gases,” Schmidt said, in a statement.
The warming trends the word is experiencing are most pronounced in the Arctic, according to NASA. There, temperatures have warmed three times as a fast as the rest of the globe over the past 30 years, Schmidt said. The loss of Arctic sea ice — whose annual minimum area is declining by about 13 percent per decade — makes the region less reflective, which means more sunlight is being absorbed by oceans, causing temperatures to climb even more.
These accelerating effects of climate change could be perilous for the world at large, Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University wrote in an email to The Washington Post.
“What keeps us climate scientists up in the dead of night is wondering what we don’t know about the self-reinforcing or vicious cycles in the Earth’s climate system,” Hayhoe wrote. “The further and faster we push it beyond anything experienced in the history of human civilization on this planet, the greater the risk of serious and even dangerous consequences. And this year, we’ve seen that in spades… It’s no longer a question of when the impacts of climate change will manifest themselves: They are already here and now. The only question remaining is how much worse it will get.”
Following a comprehensive ban from Twitter and a number of other online services following last week’s assault on the Capitol by his followers, President Trump managed to put out a tweet in the form of a video address touching on the “calamity at the Capitol”… and, of course, his deplatforming.
In the video, Trump instructs his followers to shun violence, calling it un-American. “No true supporter of mine could ever endorse political violence,” he said, days after calling rioters “great patriots” and telling them “we love you, you’re very special” as they despoiled the House and Senate.
He pivoted after a few minutes to the topic that, after his historic second impeachment, is almost certainly foremost on his mind: being banned from his chief instrument of governance, Twitter.
“I also want to say a few words about the unprecedented assault on free speech we have seen in recent days,” he said, although the bans and other actions are all due to documented breaches of the platforms’ rules. “The efforts to censor, cancel and blacklist our fellow citizens are wrong, and they are dangerous. What is needed now is for us to listen to one another, not to silence one another.”
After having his @realdonaldtrump handle suspended by Twitter, Trump attempted to sockpuppet a few other prominent accounts of allies, but was swiftly shut down. What everyone assumed must be plans to join Parler were scuttled along with the social network itself, which has warned it may be permanently taken offline after Amazon and other internet infrastructure companies refused to host it.
In case you’re wondering how Trump was able to slip this one past Twitter’s pretty decisive ban to begin with, we were curious too.
Twitter tells TechCrunch:
This Tweet is not in violation of the Twitter Rules. As we previously made clear, other official administration accounts, including @WhiteHouse, are permitted to Tweet as long as they do not demonstrably engage in ban evasion or share content that otherwise violates the Twitter Rules.
In other words, while Trump the person was banned, Trump the head of the Executive branch may still have some right, in the remaining week he holds the office, to utilize Twitter as a way of communicating matters of importance to the American people.
This gives a somewhat unfortunate impression of a power move, as Twitter has put itself in the position of determining what is a worthwhile transmission and what is a rabble-rousing incitement to violence. I’ve asked the company to clarify how it is determined whether what Trump does on this account is considered ban evasion.
Meanwhile, almost simultaneous with Trump’s surprise tweet, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey unloaded 13 tweets worth of thoughts about the situation:
I believe this was the right decision for Twitter. We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety. Offline harm as a result of online speech is demonstrably real, and what drives our policy and enforcement above all.
That said, having to ban an account has real and significant ramifications. While there are clear and obvious exceptions, I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation. And a time for us to reflect on our operations and the environment around us.
Jack neither reaches any real conclusions nor illuminates any new plans, but it’s clear he is thinking real hard about this. As he notes, however, it’ll take a lot of work to establish the “one humanity working together” he envisions as a sort of stretch goal for Twitter and the internet in general.
The president of the United States is supposedly the most powerful man in the world. He also can’t post to Twitter. Or Facebook. Or a bunch of other social networks as we discovered over the course of the past week (he still has access to the nuclear launch codes though, so that’s an interesting dynamic to chew on).
The bans last week were exceptional — but so is Trump. There may not be another president this century who pushes the line of public discourse quite like the current occupant of the White House (at least, one can only hope). If the whole Trump crisis was truly exceptional though, it could simply be ignored. Rules, even rules around free speech, have always had exceptions to handle exceptional circumstances. The president provokes a violent protest, he gets banned. A unique moment in American executive leadership, for sure. Yet, apart from the actor, it’s hardly an unusual response from the tech industry or any publisher where violent threats have been banned for decades under Supreme Court precedent.
Why then aren’t we ignoring it? I think we can all feel that something greater is underfoot. The entire information architecture of our world has changed, and that has completely upended the structure of rules around free speech that have governed America in the modern era.
Freedom of speech is deeply entwined with human progressivism, with science and rationality and positivism. The purpose of a marketplace of ideas is for arguments to be in dialogue with each other, to have their own facts and deductions checked, and for bad ideas to be washed out by better, more proven ones. Contentious at times yes, but a positive contention, one that ultimately is meant to elucidate more than provoke.
I’m a free-speech “absolutist” because I believe in that human progress, and I believe that the concept of a marketplace of ideas is the best mechanism historically we have ever built as a species for exploring our world and introspecting ourselves. Yet, I also can’t witness the events that transpired last week and just pretend that our information commons is working well.
I get it — that seems contradictory. I understand the argument that I’m supporting free speech but not really supporting it. Yet, there is a reasonable pause to be taken in this moment to ask some deeper, more foundational questions, for something is wrong with the system. I’m struggling with the same context that the ACLU in its official statement is struggling with:
ACLU struggling here on this one….this is American Civil Liberties Union after all. pic.twitter.com/mWFOWJPwon
— Eric Lipton (@EricLiptonNYT) January 9, 2021
It’s a milquetoast response, a “we condemn but we are also concerned” sort of lukewarm mélange. It’s also a reasonable response to a rapidly changing environment around speech. In the same vein, I’m a staunch defender of the marketplace of ideas, well, a marketplace of ideas, one that unfortunately no longer exists today. Just think about everything that isn’t working:
We’ve known this event was coming for decades. Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock,” about the inability of humans to process the complexity of the modern, industrialized world, came out in 1970. Cyberpunk literature and sci-fi more generally in the 1980s and 1990s has extensively grappled with this coming onslaught. As the internet expanded rapidly, books like Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows” interrogated how the internet prevents us from thinking deeply. It was published a decade ago. Today, in your local bookstore (assuming you still have one and can actually still read texts longer than 1,000 words), you can find a whole wing analyzing the future of media and communications and what the internet is cognitively doing to us.
My absolute belief in “free speech” was predicated on some pretty clear assumptions about how free speech was supposed to work in the United States. Those assumptions, unfortunately, no longer apply.
We can no longer assume there is a proverbial public square where citizens debate, perhaps even angrily, the issues that confront them. We can no longer assume that information dreck gets filtered by editors, or by publishers, or by readers themselves. We can no longer assume that the people who reach us with their messages are somewhat vetted, and speaking from truth or facts.
We can no longer assume that any part of the marketplace is frankly working at all.
That’s what makes this era so challenging for those of us who rely every day on the right to free speech in our work and in our lives. Without those underlying assumptions, the right to free speech isn’t the bastion of human progressivism and rationality that we expect it to be. Our information commons won’t ensure that the best and highest-quality ideas are going to rise to the top and propel our collective discussion.
I truly believe in free speech in its extensive, American sense. So do many friends who are similarly concerned for the perilous state of our marketplace of ideas. Yet, we all need to confront the reality that is before us: The system is really, truly broken, and just screaming “Free Speech!” is not going to change that.
The way forward is to pivot the conversation around free speech to a broader question about how we improve the information architecture of our world. How do we ensure that creators and the people who generate ideas and analyze them can do so with the right economics? That means empowering writers and filmmakers and novelists and researchers and everyone else to be able to do quality work, over perhaps extended periods of time, without having to upload a new photo or insight every 10 minutes to stay “top of mind” lest their income tumbles.
How can we align incentives at every layer of our communications to ensure that facts and “truth” will eventually win the day in the asymptote, if not always right away? How do you ensure that the power that comes with mass distribution of information is held by those who embody at least some notion of a public duty to accuracy and reasonableness?
Most importantly, how do we improve the ability of every reader and viewer to process the information they see, and through their independent actions drive the discussion toward rationality? No marketplace can survive without smart and diligent customers, and the market for information is no exception. If people demand lies, the world is going to supply it to them — and in spades, as we have already seen.
Tech can’t solve this alone, but it absolutely can and is obligated to be part of the solution. Platform alternatives with the right incentives in place can completely change the way humanity understands our world and what is happening. That’s an extremely important and intellectually interesting problem that should be enticing to any ambitious engineer and founder to tackle.
I’ll always defend free speech, but I can’t defend the system in the state that we see it today. The only defense then is to work to rebuild this system, to buttress the components that are continuing to work and to repair or replace the ones that aren’t. I don’t believe the descent into rational hell has to be paved by misinformation. We all have the tools and power to make this system what it needs to be — what it should be.
Parler is at risk of disappearing, just as the social media network popular among conservatives was reaching new heights of popularity in the wake of President Donald Trump’s ban from all major tech social platforms.
Amazon Web Services, which provides backend cloud services, has informed Parler that it intends to cut ties with the company in the next 24 hours, according to a report in BuzzFeed News. Parler’s application is built on top of AWS infrastructure, services that are critical for the operation of its platform. Earlier today, Apple announced that it was following Google in blocking the app from its App Store, citing a lack of content moderation.
Parler, whose fortunes have soared as users upset at the President’s silencing on mainstream social media outlets flocked to the service, is now another site of contention in the struggle over the limits of free speech and accountability online.
Parler CEO John Matze said that the platform would be offline for at least a week, as “they rebuild from scratch” in response to AWS’ communications.
In the wake of the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday and a purge of accounts accused of inciting violence on Twitter and Facebook, Parler had become the home for a raft of radical voices calling for armed “Patriots” to commit violence at the nation’s capitol and statehouses around the country.
Most recently, conservative militants on the site had been calling for “Patriots” to amplify the events of January 6 with a march on Washington DC with weapons on January 19.
Even as pressure was came from Apple and Amazon, whose employees had called for the suspension of services with the company, Parler was taking steps to moderate posts on its platform.
The company acknowledged that it had removed some posts from Trump supporter Lin Wood, who had called for the execution of Vice President Mike Pence in a series of proclamations on the company’s site.
Over the past few months, Republican lawmakers including Sen. Ted Cruz and Congressman Devin Nunes — along with conservative firebrands like Wood have found a home on the platform, where they can share conspiracy theories with abandon.
In an email quoted by BuzzFeed News, Amazon Web Services’ Trust and Safety Team told Parler’s chief policy officer, Amy Peikoff that calls for violence that were spreading across Parler’s platform violated its terms of service. The company’s team also said that Parler’s plan to use volunteers to moderate content on the platform would prove effective, according to BuzzFeed.
“Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service,” BuzzFeed reported the email as saying.
Here’s Amazon’s letter to Parler in full.
Thank you for speaking with us earlier today.
As we discussed on the phone yesterday and this morning, we remain troubled by the repeated violations of our terms of service. Over the past several weeks, we’ve reported 98 examples to Parler of posts that clearly encourage and incite violence. Here are a few examples below from the ones we’ve sent previously: [See images above.]
Recently, we’ve seen a steady increase in this violent content on your website, all of which violates our terms. It’s clear that Parler does not have an effective process to comply with the AWS terms of service. It also seems that Parler is still trying to determine its position on content moderation. You remove some violent content when contacted by us or others, but not always with urgency. Your CEO recently stated publicly that he doesn’t “feel responsible for any of this, and neither should the platform.” This morning, you shared that you have a plan to more proactively moderate violent content, but plan to do so manually with volunteers. It’s our view that this nascent plan to use volunteers to promptly identify and remove dangerous content will not work in light of the rapidly growing number of violent posts. This is further demonstrated by the fact that you still have not taken down much of the content that we’ve sent you. Given the unfortunate events that transpired this past week in Washington, D.C., there is serious risk that this type of content will further incite violence.
AWS provides technology and services to customers across the political spectrum, and we continue to respect Parler’s right to determine for itself what content it will allow on its site. However, we cannot provide services to a customer that is unable to effectively identify and remove content that encourages or incites violence against others. Because Parler cannot comply with our terms of service and poses a very real risk to public safety, we plan to suspend Parler’s account effective Sunday, January 10th, at 11:59PM PST. We will ensure that all of your data is preserved for you to migrate to your own servers, and will work with you as best as we can to help your migration.
– AWS Trust & Safety Team
After years of placid admonishments, the tech world came out in force against President Trump this past week following the violent assault of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. on Wednesday. From Twitter to PayPal, more than a dozen companies have placed unprecedented restrictions or outright banned the current occupant of the White House from using their services, and in some cases, some of his associates and supporters as well.
The news was voluminous and continuous for the past few days, so here’s a recap of who took action when, and what might happen next.
Twitter has played a paramount role over the debate about how to moderate President Trump’s communications, given the president’s penchant for the platform and the nearly 90 million followers on his @realDonaldTrump account. In the past, Twitter has repeatedly warned the president, added labels related to electron integrity and misinformation, and outright blocked the occasional tweet.
This week, however, Twitter’s patience seemed to have been exhausted. Shortly after the riots at the Capitol on Wednesday, Twitter put in place a large banner warning its users about the president’s related tweet on the matter, blocking retweets of that specific message. A few hours later, the company instituted a 12-hour ban on the president’s personal account.
At first, it looked like the situation would return to normal, with Twitter offering Thursday morning that it would reinstate the president’s account after he removed tweets the company considered against its policies around inciting violence. The president posted a tweet later on Thursday with a video attachment that seemed to be relatively calmer than his recent fiery rhetoric, a video in which he also accepted the country’s election results for the first time.
Enormous pressure externally on its own platform as well as internal demands from employees kept the policy rapidly changing though. Late Friday night, the company announced that it decided to permanently ban the president from its platform, shutting down @realDonaldTrump. The company then played a game of whack-a-mole as it blocked the president’s access to affiliated Twitter handles like @TeamTrump (his official campaign account) as well as the official presidential account @POTUS and deleted individual tweets from the president. The company’s policies state that a blocked user may not attempt to use a different account to evade its ban.
Twitter has also taken other actions against some of the president’s affiliates and broader audience, blocking Michael Flynn, a bunch of other Trump supporters, and a variety of QAnon figures.
With a new president on the horizon, the official @POTUS account will be handed to the new Biden administration, although Twitter has reportedly been intending to reset the account’s followers to zero, unlike its transition of the account in 2016 from Obama to Trump.
As for Trump himself, a permanent ban from his most prominent platform begs the question: where will he take his braggadocio and invective next? So far, we haven’t seen the president move his activities to any social network alternatives, but after the past few years (and on Twitter, the last decade), it seems hard to believe the president will merely return to his golf course and quietly ride out to the horizon.
Snap locked the president’s account late Wednesday following the events on Capitol Hill, and seemed to be one of the most poised tech companies to rapidly react to the events taking place in DC. Snap’s lock prevents the president from posting new snaps to his followers on the platform, which currently number approximately two million. As far as TechCrunch knows, that lock remains in place, although the president’s official profile is still available to users.
Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the concomitant Black Lives Matter protests, the company had announced back in June that it would remove the president’s account from its curated “Discover” tab, limiting its distribution and discoverability.
The president has never really effectively used the Snap platform, and with an indefinite ban in place, it looks unlikely he will find a home there in the future.
Facebook, like Twitter, is one of the president’s most popular destinations for his supporters, and the platform is also a locus for many of the political right’s most popular personalities. It’s moderation actions have been heavily scrutinized by the press over the past few years, but the company has mostly avoided taking direct action against the president — until this week.
On Wednesday as rioters walked out of the halls of Congress, Facebook pulled down a video from President Trump that it considered was promoting violence. Later Wednesday evening, that policy eventually extended into a 24-hour ban of the president’s account, which currently has 33 million likes, or followers. The company argued that the president had violated its policies multiple times, automatically triggering the one-day suspension. At the same time, Facebook (and Instagram) took action to block a popular trending hashtag related to the Capitol riots.
On Thursday morning, Mark Zuckerberg, in a personal post on his own platform, announced an “indefinite” suspension for the president, with a minimum duration of two weeks. That timing would neatly extend the suspension through the inauguration of president-elect Biden, who is to assume the presidency at noon on January 20th.
What will happen after the inauguration? Right now, we don’t know. The president’s account is suspended but not deactivated, which means that the president cannot post new material to his page, but that the page remains visible to Facebook users. The company could remove the suspension once the transition of power is complete, or it may continue the ban longer-term. Given the president’s prominence on the platform and the heavy popularity of the social network among his supporters, Facebook is in a much more intense bind between banning content it deems offensive, and retaining users important to its bottom line.
It’s not just social networks that are blocking the president’s audience — ecommerce giants are also getting into moderating their platforms against the president. On Thursday, Shopify announced that it was removing the storefronts for both the Trump campaign and Trump’s personal brand.
That’s an evolution on policy for the company, which years ago said that it would not moderate its platform, but in recent years has removed some controversial stores, such as some right-wing shops in 2018.
PayPal meanwhile has been deactivating the accounts of some groups of Trump supporters this week, who were using the money-transfer fintech to coordinate payments to underwrite the rioters’ actions on Capitol Hill. PayPal has been increasingly banning some political accounts, banning a far-right activist in 2019 and also banning a spate of far-right organizations in the wake of violent protests in Charlottesville in 2017. These bans have so far not extended directly to the president himself from what TechCrunch can glean.
Given the president’s well-known personal brand and penchant for product tie-ins before becoming president, it’s a major open question about how these two platforms and others in ecommerce will respond to Trump once he leaves office in two weeks. Will the president go back to shilling steaks, water and cologne? And will he need an ecommerce venue to sell his wares online? Much will depend on Trump’s next goals and whether he stays focused on politics, or heads back to his more commercial pursuits.
For supporters of Trump and others concerned about the moderation actions of Facebook and other platforms, Parler has taken the lead as an alternative social network for this audience. Right now, the app is number one in the App Store in the United States, ahead of encrypted and secure messaging app Signal, which is at number four and got a massive endorsement from Elon Musk this week.
Parler’s opportunism for growth around the riots on Capitol Hill though has run into a very real barrier: the two tech companies which run the two stores for mobile applications in the United States.
Google announced Friday evening that it would be removing the Parler app from its store, citing the social network’s lack of moderation and content filtering capabilities. The app’s page remains down as this article was going to press. That ban means that new users won’t be able to install the app from the Play Store, however, existing users who already have Parler installed will be able to continue using it.
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed reports that Apple has reportedly sent a 24-hour takedown notice to Parler’s developers, saying that it would mirror Google’s actions if the app didn’t immediately filter content that endangers safety. As of now, Parler remains available in the App Store, but if the timing is to be believed, the app could be taken down later this Saturday.
Given the complexities of content moderation, including the need to hire content moderators en masse, it seems highly unlikely that Parler could respond to these requests in any short period of time. What happens to the app and the president’s supporters long-term next is, right now, anyone’s guess.
Finally, let’s head over to the rest of the social networking world, where Trump is just as unpopular as he is at Facebook and Twitter HQ these days. Companies widely blocked the president from accessing their sites, and they also took action against affiliated groups.
Google-owned YouTube announced Thursday that it would start handing out “strikes” against channels — including President Trump’s — that post election misinformation. In the past, videos with election misinformation would have a warning label attached, but the channel itself didn’t face any consequences. In December, the company changed that policy to include the outright removal of videos purveying election misinformation.
This week’s latest policy change is an escalation from the company’s previous approach, and would result in lengthier and lengthier temporary suspensions for each additional strike that a channel receives. Those strikes could eventual result in a permanent ban for a YouTube channel if they happen within a set period of time. That’s precisely what happened with Steve Bannon’s channel, which was permanently banned Friday late afternoon for repeated violations of YouTube’s policies. Meanwhile, President Trump’s official channel has less than 3 million followers, and is currently still available for viewing on the platform.
Outside YouTube, Twitch followed a similar policy to Facebook, announcing Thursday morning that it would ban the president “indefinitely” and at least through the inauguration on January 20th. The president has a limited audience of just about 151,000 followers on the popular streaming platform, making it among the least important of the president’s social media accounts.
In terms of the president’s supporters, their groups are also being removed from popular tech platforms. On Friday, Reddit announced that it would ban the subreddit r/DonaldTrump, which had become one of a number of unofficial communities on the platform where the president’s most ardent supporters hung out. The social network had previously removed the controversial subreddit r/The_Donald back in June. Discord on Friday shut down a server related to that banned subreddit, citing the server’s “overt connection to an online forum used to incite violence.”
Lastly, TikTok announced on Thursday that it was limiting the spread of some information related to the Capitol riots, including redirecting hashtags and removing violent content as well as the president’s own video message to supporters. The president does not have a TikTok account, and therefore, most of the company’s actions are focused on his supporters and broader content surrounding the situation on Capitol Hill this week.
Twitter permanently banned the U.S. president Friday, taking a dramatic step to limit Trump’s ability to communicate with his followers. That decision, made in light of his encouragement for Wednesday’s violent invasion of the U.S. Capitol, might seem sudden for anyone not particularly familiar with his Twitter presence.
In reality, Twitter gave Trump many, many second chances over his four years as president, keeping him on the platform due to the company’s belief that speech by world leaders is in the public interest, even if it breaks the rules.
Now that Trump’s gone for good, we have a pretty interesting glimpse into the policy decision making that led Twitter to bring the hammer down on Friday. The company first announced Trump’s ban in a series of tweets from its @TwitterSafety account but also linked to a blog post detailing its thinking.
In that deep dive, the company explains that it gave Trump one last chance after suspending and then reinstating his account for violations made on Wednesday. But the following day, a pair of tweets the president made pushed him over the line. Twitter said those tweets, pictured below, were not examined on a standalone basis, but rather in the context of his recent behavior and this week’s events.
“… We have determined that these Tweets are in violation of the Glorification of Violence Policy and the user @realDonaldTrump should be immediately permanently suspended from the service,” Twitter wrote.
Screenshot via Twitter
This is how the company explained its reasoning, point by point:
- “President Trump’s statement that he will not be attending the Inauguration is being received by a number of his supporters as further confirmation that the election was not legitimate and is seen as him disavowing his previous claim made via two Tweets (1, 2) by his Deputy Chief of Staff, Dan Scavino, that there would be an ‘orderly transition’ on January 20th.
- “The second Tweet may also serve as encouragement to those potentially considering violent acts that the Inauguration would be a ‘safe’ target, as he will not be attending.
- “The use of the words ‘American Patriots’ to describe some of his supporters is also being interpreted as support for those committing violent acts at the US Capitol.
- “The mention of his supporters having a ‘GIANT VOICE long into the future’ and that ‘They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!’ is being interpreted as further indication that President Trump does not plan to facilitate an ‘orderly transition’ and instead that he plans to continue to support, empower, and shield those who believe he won the election.
- “Plans for future armed protests have already begun proliferating on and off-Twitter, including a proposed secondary attack on the US Capitol and state capitol buildings on January 17, 2021.”
All of that is pretty intuitive, though his most fervent supporters aren’t likely to agree. Ultimately these decisions, as much as they do come down to stated policies, involve a lot of subjective analysis and interpretation. Try as social media companies might to let algorithms make the hard calls for them, the buck stops with a group of humans trying to figure out the best course of action.
Twitter’s explanation here offers a a rare totally transparent glimpse into how social networks decide what stays and what goes. It’s a big move for Twitter — one that many people reasonably believe should have been made months if not years ago — and it’s useful to have what is so often an inscrutable high-level decision making process laid out plainly and publicly for all to see.
“In the context of horrific events this week, we made it clear on Wednesday that additional violations of the Twitter Rules would potentially result in this very course of action,” Twitter wrote. “… We made it clear going back years that these accounts are not above our rules and cannot use Twitter to incite violence.”
Trump will not be able to get around Twitter’s ban by making a new account or using an alias, a Twitter spokesperson clarified to TechCrunch. If the president attempts to evade his suspension, any account he uses will also be subject to a ban for breaking Twitter’s rules.
Update: Trump appeared to do just that Friday night, popping up on @POTUS. “We will not be SILENCED! Twitter is not about FREE SPEECH,” Trump tweeted through that account, indicating that his team might build his own platform in the “near future.”
Twitter emphasized that it made the threat of an impending ban clear and called this week’s events “horrific.” While Trump has previously broken the platform’s rules, the company’s maintained his account under its special guidance for world leaders and information in the public interest.
In an in-depth breakdown, Twitter published the assessments of Trump’s tweets that led to his suspension. Two of his tweets on Thursday appear to have pushed the account over the edge, and Twitter interpreted them as potentially inciting violence in the context of the week’s events.
On Wednesday, Twitter suspended President Trump’s account until he deleted three tweets that the company flagged as violating its rules. Trump’s account was set to reactivate 12 hours after those deletions, and he returned to the platform on Thursday night with a video in which he appeared to concede his election loss for the first time.
Trump crossed a line with Twitter when he failed to condemn a group of his supporters who staged a violent riot at the Capitol building while Congress met to certify the election results. In one tweet, Trump shared a video in which he gently encouraged the group to return home, while reassuring his agitated followers that he loved them and that they were “special.”
At that time, Twitter said that Trump’s tweets contained “repeated and severe violations” of its policy on civic integrity and threatened that any future violations would result in “permanent suspension” of the president’s account.
After close review of recent Tweets from the @realDonaldTrump account and the context around them we have permanently suspended the account due to the risk of further incitement of violence.https://t.co/CBpE1I6j8Y
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 8, 2021
Wednesday, January 6:
As a result of the unprecedented and ongoing violent situation in Washington, D.C., we have required the removal of three @realDonaldTrump Tweets that were posted earlier today for repeated and severe violations of our Civic Integrity policy. https://t.co/k6OkjNG3bM
— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) January 7, 2021
Thursday, January 7:
Friday, January 8:
While Facebook initially took more drastic action against Trump’s account in the aftermath of Wednesday’s chaotic siege on Capitol Hill, Twitter has a longer history of friction with the outgoing president. In early 2020, Twitter’s decision to add a contextual label to a Trump tweet calling mail-in voting “fraudulent” prompted the president to craft a retaliatory though largely toothless executive order targeting social media companies.
Trump held the same grudge through the end of the year, trying to push a doomed repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — the law that protects online companies from liability for user-generated content — through Congress in increasingly unusual ways.
Twitter’s move Friday to suspend the sitting U.S. president from its platform is a historic decision — and one the company avoided making for the last four years. In the wake of Wednesday’s insurrectionist violence, and Trump’s role in inciting it, tech’s biggest social networks appear to have at last had enough.
But as with election conspiracies, dangerous COVID-19 misinformation and the camo-clad extremists who attacked the Capitol this week, it’s too late to undo the chaos that real-time Trump unleashed over the last four years, 280 characters at a time.
Reports that a laptop from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office was stolen during the pro-Trump rioters’ sack of the Capitol building has some worried that the mob may have access to important, even classified information. Fortunately that’s not the case — even if this computer and others had any truly sensitive information, which is unlikely, like any corporate asset it can almost certainly be disabled remotely.
The cybersecurity threat in general from the riot is not as high as one might think, as we explained yesterday. Specific to stolen or otherwise compromised hardware, there are several facts to keep in mind.
In the first place, the offices of elected officials are in many ways already public spaces. These are historic buildings through which tours often go, in which meetings with foreign dignitaries and other politicians are held, and in which thousands of ordinary civil servants without any security clearance would normally be working shoulder-to-shoulder. The important work they do is largely legislative and administrative — largely public work, where the most sensitive information being exchanged is probably unannounced speeches and draft bills.
But recently, you may remember, most of these people were working from home. Of course during the major event of the joint session confirming the electors, there would be more people than normal. But this wasn’t an ordinary day at the office by a long shot — even before hundreds of radicalized partisans forcibly occupied the building. Chances are there wasn’t a lot of critical business being conducted on the desktops in these offices. Classified data lives in the access-controlled SCIF, not on random devices sitting in unsecured areas.
In fact, the laptop is reported by Reuters as having been part of a conference room’s dedicated hardware — this is the dusty old Inspiron that lives on the A/V table so you can put your PowerPoint on it, not Pelosi’s personal computer, let alone a hard line to top secret info.
Even if there was a question of unintended access, it should be noted that the federal government, as any large company might, has a normal IT department with a relatively modern provisioning structure. The Pelosi office laptop, like any other piece of hardware being used for official House and Senate business, is monitored by IT and should be able to be remotely disabled or wiped. The challenge for the department is figuring out which hardware does actually need to be handled that way — as was reported earlier, there was (understandably) no official plan for a violent takeover of the Capitol building.
In other words, it’s highly likely that the most that will result from the theft of government computers on Jan. 6 will be inconvenience or at most some embarrassment should some informal communications become public. Staffers do gossip and grouse, of course, on both back and official channels.
That said, the people who invaded these offices and stole that equipment — some on camera — are already being arrested and charged. Just because the theft doesn’t present a serious security threat doesn’t mean it wasn’t highly illegal in several different ways.
Any cybersecurity official will tell you that the greater threat by far is the extensive infiltration of government contractors and accounts through the SolarWinds breach. Those systems are packed with information that was never meant to be public and will likely provide fuel for credential-related attacks for years to come.
Former U.S. cybersecurity official Chris Krebs and former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos have founded a new cybersecurity consultancy firm, which already has its first client: SolarWinds .
The two have been hired as consultants to help the Texas-based software maker recover from a devastating breach by suspected Russian hackers, which used the company’s software to set backdoors in thousands of organizations and to infiltrate at least 10 U.S. federal agencies and several Fortune 500 businesses.
At least the Treasury Dept., State Dept. and the Department of Energy have been confirmed breached, in what has been described as likely the most significant espionage campaign against the U.S. government in years. And while the U.S. government has already pinned the blame on Russia, the scale of the intrusions are not likely to be known for some time.
Krebs was one of the most senior cybersecurity officials in the U.S. government, most recently serving as the director of Homeland Security’s CISA cybersecurity advisory agency from 2018, until he was fired by President Trump for his efforts to debunk false election claims — many of which came from the president himself. Stamos, meanwhile, joined the Stanford Internet Observatory after holding senior cybersecurity positions at Facebook and Yahoo. He also consulted for Zoom amid a spate of security problems.
In an interview with the Financial Times, which broke the story, Krebs said it could take years before the hackers are ejected from infiltrated systems.
SolarWinds chief executive Sudhakar Ramakrishna acknowledged in a blog post that it had brought on the consultants to help the embattled company to be “transparent with our customers, our government partners, and the general public in both the near-term and long-term about our security enhancements.”
Following a slate of temporary and permanent bans from a number of the top online platforms, popular video streaming service Twitch today confirmed that it has disabled the President of the United States’ account. A spokesperson for the site told TechCrunch,
In light of yesterday’s shocking attack on the Capitol, we have disabled President Trump’s Twitch channel. Given the current extraordinary circumstances and the President’s incendiary rhetoric, we believe this is a necessary step to protect our community and prevent Twitch from being used to incite further violence.
Twitch’s actions follow similar measures taken by Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, which over the course of the last day all placed new restrictions on the president’s account. Facebook also took the unprecedented step of suspending the president’s account for the remainder of his term, which ends on January 20.
The social platforms took action against the president’s accounts after he incited a group of his supporters in a riot at the Capitol. Trump encouraged a crowd to march toward Congress after a rally Wednesday in which the president again pushed false claims about a “stolen” election.
At the Capitol, the crowd swelled and easily overcame barriers in place by police, flooding into the building and looting lawmakers’ offices, resulting in a number of injuries and four deaths. Lawmakers were inside the building at the time and were forced to evacuate, later reconvening to certify the election results.
It’s the image that’s been seen around the world. One of hundreds of pro-Trump supporters in the private office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after storming the Capitol and breaching security in protest of the certification of the election results for President-elect Joe Biden. Police were overrun (when they weren’t posing for selfies) and some lawmakers’ offices were trashed and looted.
As politicians and their staffs were told to evacuate or shelter in place, one photo of a congressional computer left unlocked still with an evacuation notice on the screen spread quickly around the internet. At least one computer was stolen from Sen. Jeff Merkley’s office, reports say.
A supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump leaves a note in the office of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as the protest inside the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C, January 6, 2021. Demonstrators breached security and entered the Capitol as Congress debated the 2020 presidential election Electoral Vote Certification. Image Credits: SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images
Most lawmakers don’t have ready access to classified materials, unless it’s for their work sitting on sensitive committees, such as Judiciary or Intelligence. The classified computers are separate from the rest of the unclassified congressional network and in a designated sensitive compartmented information facility, or SCIFs, in locked-down areas of the Capitol building.
“No indication those [classified systems] were breached,” tweeted Mieke Eoyang, a former House Intelligence Committee staffer.
Hi, former HPSCI staffer here.
Congressional offices deal in unclassified information. Most of the things they deal with are open source.
Classified information dealt with in designated Congressional SCIFs. No indication those were breached. https://t.co/Ciel6BW3oU
— Mieke "18 USC 2383" Eoyang (@MiekeEoyang) January 7, 2021
But the breach will likely present a major task for Congress’ IT departments, which will have to figure out what’s been stolen and what security risks could still pose a threat to the Capitol’s network. Kimber Dowsett, a former government security architect, said there was no plan in place to respond to a storming of the building.
My heart goes out to the unsung IT heroes at the Capitol tonight. My guess is they’ve never had to run asset inventory IR before – a daunting, stressful task in a tabletop exercise – and they’re running one (prob w/o a playbook) following a full on assault of the Capitol.
— socially distant, mask wearing bat (@mzbat) January 7, 2021
The threat to Congress’ IT network is probably not as significant as the ongoing espionage campaign against U.S. federal networks. But the only saving grace is that so many congressional staffers were working from home during the assault due to the ongoing pandemic, which yesterday reported a daily record of almost 4,000 people dead from COVID-19 in one day.
Digital services taxes adopted by India, Italy, and Turkey in the past years discriminate against U.S. companies, the U.S. Trade Representative said on Wednesday.
USTR, which began investigations into the three nation’s digital services taxes in June last year, said it found them to be inconsistent with international tax principles, unreasonable, and burdening or restricting U.S. commerce.
In its detailed reports, which the office has made public, USTR studied how these digital taxes affected companies including Amazon, Google, Facebook, Airbnb, and Twitter. USTR said it conducted these investigations on the ground of Section 301 of the U.S. Trade Act of 1974.
India, which has become the largest market for Silicon Valley giants Google and Facebook, introduced digital taxes in 2016 to target foreign firms. Last year, the world’s second largest internet market expanded the scope of its levy to cover a range of additional categories.
USTR investigation found (PDF) that New Delhi was taxing “numerous categories of digital services that are not leviable under other digital services taxes adopted around the world” and that the aggregate tax bill for U.S. companies could exceed $30 million per year. It also took issue with India not levying similar taxes on local companies.
Despite the strong findings on three nations’ digital services taxes, USTR said it is not taking any specific actions “at this time” but will “continue to evaluate all available options.”
U.S. tech companies have in the past supported terms brokered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. But OECD, which is currently in the middle of working out technical details for agreements for over a 100 nations, doesn’t expect to finish the work until mid-2021. In the absence of OECD agreements, various countries are moving forward with their own versions of the taxes.
Since June last year, USTR has initiated investigations into digital services tax instituted — or proposed to be put in place – by a number of countries including Austria, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union, Indonesia, Spain, the United Kingdom, and France, which resumed collecting digital services tax from US companies late last year.
In retaliation, USTR had set a January 6 deadline for levying a 25% tariff on a range of French imported goods including cosmetics and handbags.
USTR did not say whether the tariff had been enforced, but in a statement said it expects to announce the progress or completion of additional investigations in the near future.
The State Department ordered diplomats to stop posting on social media after pro-Trump rioters stormed the United States Capitol, reports CNN, citing three diplomatic sources. Diplomats overseas were also told by the under secretary for public affairs to remove scheduled content for Facebook, Hootsuite and Twitter until told otherwise, and that planned social media posts from the State Department’s main accounts were also being suspended.
According to CNN, diplomats are usually only told to pause social media posts after a terrorist attack or major natural disaster.
As of late Wednesday evening in the United States, the main State Department Twitter account had only retweeted a thread by Secretary of State MIchael Pompeo in which he said “the storming of the U.S. Capitol today is unacceptable.”
So far, the official Instagram accounts of the State Department’s Instagram and Pompeo and the State Department’s YouTube have made no posts after the rioting at the Capitol, while the State Department’s Facebook page has a post repeating Pompeo’s Twitter thread.
TechCrunch has contacted the State Department for comment.
Social media platforms scrambled to react after an extraordinary and terrifying day of violence that resulted in the deaths of four people. Rioters breached the Capitol early Wednesday afternoon, as electoral votes were being counted, forcing lawmakers to evacuate (the joint session was later reconvened).
On Wednesday afternoon, Twitter required the removal of three of President Donald Trump’s tweets and locked his account for twelve hours, before stating that he would be permanently suspended for future violations of its Civic Integrity policy. Facebook and Instagram announced that the president would barred from posting to his accounts for 24 hours and began blocking content posted to the #StormTheCapitol hashtag.
Today’s historic and terrifying coup attempt by pro-Trump extremists in Washington, D.C. played out live the same way it was fomented — on social media. Once again Twitter, streaming sites, and other user-generated media were the only place to learn what was happening in the nation’s capital — and the best place to be misled by misinformation and propaganda.
In the morning, official streams and posts portended what people expected of the day: a drawn-out elector certification process in Congress while a Trump-led rally turned to general protests. But when extremists gathered at the steps of the U.S. Capitol building, the country watched isolated flare-ups between them and police turn into a full-blown violent invasion of several federal buildings, including where Congress was holding a joint session.
Network news and mainstream sources struggled to keep up as people on both sides documented the chaos that followed. As extremists pushed into the outlying buildings, then the rotunda, then the House and Senate chambers, everyone from White House press pool reporters to political aides and elected officials from both parties live-tweeted and streamed the events as they happened.
Videos of outnumbered security guards retreating from mobs or trading blows were seen by millions, who no doubt could barely believe it was really occurring. Meanwhile, reports propagated from around the country as smaller invasions of government buildings took place.
They’re shooting into the chamber. pic.twitter.com/l9owW7BAVt
— Matt Fuller (@MEPFuller) January 6, 2021
On one hand, it further demonstrated the power of social media to serve as a distributed, real-time aggregator of important information. It is hard to overstate the importance of receiving information directly from the source, such as when people inside the Senate chamber posted images of the rioters attempting to break through a barricaded door while security inside pointed their guns through broken windows.
Representatives, aides and reporters posted live as they were evacuated from their offices, told to lie on the ground to avoid being shot, or given gas masks in case tear gas or pepper spray was deployed. What might have seemed an abstraction when reported by a talking head on the National Mall was rendered shockingly visceral as these people expressed fear for their lives. The people to whom we have been trained to alert of such things, our elected officials, were the very ones being threatened.
However, social media also allowed for the amplification and normalization of these historic crimes as rioters streamed as they went and posted images to fringe sites like Parler and Trump-themed Reddit clones. It wasn’t hard to spot rioters apparently “doing it for the ‘gram” despite those images and videos comprising what amounts to a confession of a federal crime.
Cops are taking selfies with the terrorists. pic.twitter.com/EjkQ83h1p2
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 6, 2021
Meanwhile Trump and his allies downplayed the violence, blaming Democrats for using “malicious rhetoric” and repeating unfounded claims regarding the election.
Years of “we take this very seriously” by the likes of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg have done little to curb the activity by the likes of white supremacists, self-styled “militias” like the Proud Boys, and misinformation aggregators like “Stop the steal” groups. Despite constant assurances that AI and a crack team of moderators are on the job, it is still on these platforms that we find misleading and false information about topics such as COVID-19 and election security.
Tech leaders today voiced, not for the first time, their frustration with these companies, and while deplatforming has proven effective in some ways, it is not a complete solution. As the cost and difficulty of launching, say, a streaming site, continues to decrease, it is only to be expected that when a YouTuber gets kicked off that platform, they will land softly on another and their audience will follow.
The promise and the danger of social media were both on display today at their absolute maximum. One can hardly imagine such an event playing out in the future without the intimate details to which we were treated from the sides of both government and insurrectionists.
While Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have taken varying actions, of varying seriousness and permanence, it seems clear that whether or not they want to crack down on the worst of it, they may no longer be able to, either because they lack the tools, or the offenders have built a Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube of their own.
Twitter took a new action against President Trump’s account Wednesday, adding a large, pop-up warning message to his latest tweet addressing the ongoing chaos on Capitol Hill. The company has restricted engagement on the tweet, citing a “risk of violence.”
Trump’s new message to his mob of angry supporters came in video form, following an earlier tweet encouraging the crowd to be “peaceful.” In the video, Trump both affirmed his supporters’ conspiracy-rooted grievances and gently encouraged them to leave.
“I know your pain. I know you’re hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it. Especially the other side. But you have to go home now,” Trump said. “Go home, we love you. You’re very special.”
A crowd of agitated Trump supporters broke into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. Wednesday, storming into Congressional chambers and even invading the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The effort, connected to the “Stop the Steal” movement which Trump has regularly encouraged, happened as Congress was meeting to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral win.
Twitter has previously hidden the president’s rule-breaking tweets, affixed them with small warning labels and limited their engagement, but the large pop-up is a tool we hadn’t yet seen the company use. Twitter said today that it would “[explore] other escalated enforcement actions” in light of the situation unfolding at the Capitol. It’s not clear if the pop-up is appearing for all users and we’ve asked the company if this was one of the escalated measures it referred to.
“In regard to the ongoing situation in Washington, DC, Twitter’s Trust & Safety teams are working to protect the public conversation occurring on the service and will take action on any content that violates the Twitter Rules,” a Twitter spokesperson said. “Let us be clear: Threats of and calls to violence have no place on Twitter, and we will enforce our policies accordingly.”