Hillicon Valley: FCC watchdog clears chair of 'favoritism' claims over Sinclair | Why foreign influence campaigns may be here to stay | Facebook bans Myanmar military accounts | Web giants ask court to restore net neutrality

Hillicon Valley: FCC watchdog clears chair of 'favoritism' claims over Sinclair | Why foreign influence campaigns may be here to stay | Facebook bans Myanmar military accounts | Web giants ask court to restore net neutrality
© Greg Nash

Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill's newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley.

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DISINFORMATION CAMPAIGNS AREN'T GOING AWAY: U.S. tech companies are tamping down expectations on their ability to prevent foreign influence campaigns on social media.

With the midterm elections a little more than two months away, Silicon Valley is under heavy public and political pressure to crack down on foreign operations. However, some cyber experts say it's too late for them to secure their platforms before voters cast ballots on Nov. 6.

Companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter say they're doing their best but industry observers note that, at least in the short term, foreign manipulation efforts can only be curbed, not eliminated. Questions about those efforts will be put to top executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google when they testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Sept. 5.

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergFight looms over national privacy law Facebook teaming with nonprofits to fight fake election news China may be copying Facebook to build an intelligence weapon MORE last week offered a glimpse of what his company is likely to highlight on Capitol Hill. He described Facebook's efforts to stop foreign influence campaigns as "an arms race" in which the company is constantly adjusting to the evolving threats posed by foreign countries.

Zuckerberg's remarks came the same day that Facebook announced it had deleted more than 600 accounts that it found to be engaging in foreign misinformation campaigns, including a batch from Iran. It was the company's second disclosure this year of fake accounts spreading misinformation.

But in a column for the blog Lawfare on Wednesday, Alex Stamos, who recently left his role as Facebook chief security officer said that the most recent disclosure, along with Microsoft's revelation that conservative think tanks had been targeted by Russian hackers, is evidence that it's too late to protect the 2018 elections.

Zuckerberg has suggested that such disclosures reflect the new political reality, and some tech experts say they don't see the social media arms race ending anytime soon.

"State actors are going to find it attractive for a while," said Renee DiResta, who researches digital propaganda with the group Data for Democracy. "We should expect to see more revelations like this and see the playbook continue to evolve."

Some experts argue that the campaigns are widespread and inevitable because the very structure of social media platforms makes them ripe for this type of abuse.

Wellesley College computer scientists Panagiotis Metaxas and Eni Mustafaraj warned as early as 2012 that social media manipulation to influence politics was already happening and would continue.

"It has very little cost, for example, to throw a Twitter bomb," Metaxas said, referring to take advantage of an army of Twitter bots. "It takes just a few hours of programming--or you can probably buy a program that can do it for you. It has a lot of potential because of its low cost," he presaged.

Watching the drip: How tech companies handle the PR drip of each misinformation campaign will be interesting. Facebook has seemed to solidify its approach. It tends to get ahead of the story by releasing some information but also doesn't give a clear window into everything that's happening. Twitter and Google make their findings known later, lessening the PR blow.

Russia, then Iran, then...?: It's unclear what country's influence operation will be unveiled next but Israel could be a candidate. That's what Ronan Farrow thinks at least.

There's also a batch of accounts that Facebook has revealed that it has not yet attributed to a country or any other actor yet.

Read more here.

 

TWITTER CEO ALSO TO TESTIFY: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next month as Republican lawmakers claim that they're victims of censorship on social media.

The hearing is set for Sept. 5. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyOn The Money: Midterms to shake up House finance panel | Chamber chief says US not in trade war | Mulvaney moving CFPB unit out of DC | Conservatives frustrated over big spending bills Midterms to shake up top posts on House finance panel The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — Kavanaugh confirmation in sudden turmoil MORE (Calif.) and other Republicans have called for Dorsey to come before Congress to answer to claims that the company is biased against conservatives. Read more here.

 

FEARS OF ELECTION INTERFERENCE SPREAD TO OTHER COUNTRIES: Russia's efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election may be motivating other foreign adversaries to use social media to try to disrupt U.S. elections going forward, security experts warn.

Experts point to Facebook's announcement this week that it shuttered hundreds of pages tied to foreign governments, with many of the pages -- as well as accounts shut down on Twitter and Google -- linked to the government of Iran.

The development boosted the Trump administration's claim that other foreign groups, not just Russians, are intent to sow discord while putting a fresh spotlight on the need to ward against election meddling coming from any country.

"Look no further than the amazing return of investment yielded by [Russian President] Vladimir Putin in the 2016 election," said Ron Hosko, a former assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division. "When you see that kind of impact and the U.S. government's ... reticence to fire like weapons back, it is to me not at all surprising that we now have Iran involved in these misadventures," added Hosko, who is now president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund.

Security firm FireEye, which first flagged the suspicious accounts to Facebook, determined that certain accounts that had been sharing links to stories from a news site were fake. Since then, Google has also started to remove dozens of other Iran-linked accounts from YouTube and other sites.

Lee Foster, the manager of FireEye's information operations intelligence analysis team, said that the accounts and pages appeared to be shaping a message favorable to Iran's national interests. Foster, whose team helped uncover the initial Facebook groups from Iran, called the report revealing the Iranian influence campaign "significant because it demonstrates that there are actors other than Russia engaging in this type of activity."

The Wild West: Experts voicing concerns that other countries are taking pages out of Russia's playbook say that social media platforms and U.S. agencies need to step up their efforts to quickly detect and deter any foreign influence campaigns.

High-ranking Trump administration officials have recently warned of other countries attempting to meddle in U.S. elections, including Tehran -- claims that are bolstered by revelations of the fake accounts tied to Iran.

Experts say that while Iran has attempted to spread misinformation in the past, the latest campaign is notable because of its apparent timing after Russian attempts to influence the 2016 elections. Larry Pfeiffer, who served as the chief of staff to former CIA Director Michael Hayden, compared the current state of cyberspace to the "insanity" of the Wild West: When someone pulls off a successful heist, he said, others catch wind of it.

"When someone figured out it was easy to rob banks, suddenly [there were] a lot of bank robbers out there," Pfeiffer, who now works at The Chertoff Group, told The Hill. Read more here.

 

FCC WATCHDOG CLEARS CHAIRMAN IN SINCLAIR PROBE: The Federal Communications Commission's internal watchdog cleared the agency's Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, of showing any favoritism toward Sinclair Broadcasting Group in the review of its now-abandoned merger plans.

"Our investigation revealed no evidence of impropriety, unscrupulous behavior, favoritism towards Sinclair, or lack of impartiality related to the proposed Sinclair-Tribune Merger," the Office of Inspector General said in its report, which was released Monday.

Pai's reaction: Chairman Pai said he was "pleased" by the report. "As I said when this investigation was first announced, the suggestion that I favored any one company was absurd, and today's report proves that Capitol Hill Democrats' politically-motivated accusations were entirely baseless," he said in a statement.

In case you forgot: House Democrats last year had asked for Pai to be investigated over whether he had improperly taken actions to clear the way for Sinclair's planned $3.9 billion merger with Tribune Media. Pai was seen as a staunch advocate for right-leaning Sinclair in its quest for merger approval. But in a surprise move in July of this year, Pai referred the proposed merger to an administrative judge, a move that would likely have killed the deal.

In August, Tribune Media formally backed out of the deal and sued Sinclair for $1 billion for breaching their agreement.

The Hill's Emily Birnbaum has more here.

 

FACEBOOK BANS MYANMAR MILITARY ACCOUNTS: Facebook on Monday said that 18 accounts and 52 pages associated with the Myanmar military, including the country's top military official, had been deleted to "prevent the spread of hate and misinformation" on its platform.

The accounts were deleted swiftly after the U.N. released a new report on Monday alleging war crimes and genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar at the hands of the country's military.

Facebook has received intense scrutiny over how its platform has helped exacerbate ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Its platform, which has become a popular tool in the country, has been used to rapidly spread misinformation that fueled violence and hate against the Rohingya. Roughly 25,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed and 700,000 have fled to Bangladesh in the past year.

The U.N. report targeted several top Myanmar military officials including its commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing, that it believes should be prosecuted for genocide and crimes against humanity.

Facebook deleted the accounts of these officials after the report's release, as well as other pages associated with the Myanmar military.

"We want to prevent them from using our service to further inflame ethnic and religious tensions," Facebook said in a post, noting that around 12 million have followed the pages.

"We continue to work to prevent the misuse of Facebook in Myanmar -- including through the independent human rights impact assessment we commissioned earlier in the year," the company said. "This is a huge responsibility given so many people there rely on Facebook for information -- more so than in almost any other country."

Read more here.

 

INTERNET GIANTS URGE COURT TO REINSTATE NET NEUTRALITY RULES: Groups representing internet giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon on Monday asked a federal appeals court to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) net neutrality rules.

The Internet Association (IA) and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), two of Silicon Valley's most prominent trade groups, filed in support of a lawsuit against the FCC for its repeal of the 2015 regulations late last year.

The rules, which prohibited internet service providers from blocking, throttling or prioritizing most web traffic, were officially repealed in June. The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general and smaller internet and media companies.

"Absent conduct rules, the 'virtuous cycle' in which all participants in the internet ecosystem are able to prosper on account of open access to content has been replaced by a system in which [internet service providers] have the incentive and ability to stifle both consumer choice and new online offerings," they wrote in their filing.

The groups were joined by the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), which represents the video game industry, and the Writers Guild of America West. The FCC declined to comment on Monday's filing.

The commission, led by Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, argued that the Obama-era rules were too onerous and dampened industry investment. Pai says that the new framework, which requires broadband companies to disclose whether they discriminate against certain content, coupled with existing consumer protection laws will be sufficient at policing the industry.

But the internet industry groups on Monday dismissed that argument, saying that regulators will now be ill-equipped to combat any unfair practices and that the broadband marketplace is so concentrated that consumers will have little recourse.

Read more here.

 

SPEAKING OF NET NEUTRALITY: House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDemocrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her Sinema, Fitzpatrick call for long-term extension of Violence Against Women Act Internal RNC poll shows Pelosi is more popular than Trump: report MORE (D-Calif.) is calling on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Verizon's throttling of a California fire department's data as it was battling the largest wildfire in the state's history.

Pelosi led a group of 12 House Democrats representing districts in Northern California in sending a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons on Friday asking him to launch a probe of the incident.

"It is unacceptable for communications providers to deceive their customers, but when the consumer in question is a government entity tasked with fire and emergency services, we can't afford to wait a moment longer," the lawmakers wrote. "The FTC must investigate whether Verizon and other communications companies are being unfair or deceptive in the services they're offering to public safety entities and if so, to determine what remedies are appropriate to ensure our first responders have adequate service when lives are on the line."

The incident was revealed last week in a sworn statement submitted to a federal appeals court in D.C. as part of a lawsuit to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules.

Read more here.

 

FACEBOOK NEWS ACROSS THE POND: Germany's antitrust watchdog is planning on taking the first steps in its investigation of Facebook after alleging that the company abused its market dominance with data collection practices.

"We are conscious that this should, and must, go quickly," Federal Cartel Office President Andreas Mundt said on Monday in a news conference, according to Reuters. Mundt noted that he planned on taking the "first steps" this year, without specifying what they might be.

The country had previously ruled that Facebook had taken advantage of its dominant position in the market to obtain user data in a way that did not clearly establish meaningful consent.

Read more here.

 

VENTURE-BACKED TECH IS OUT, TOTALITARIAN-BACKED TECH ... IS IN: A high ranking Japanese government official credited China's rapid ascent in the technology sector to its totalitarian nature that lets it disregard consumer welfare considerations like privacy.

"A country like China, a more totalitarian regime, will perform better than the democratic countries," said Tadashi Maeda, governor of the state-owned Japan Bank for International Cooperation, according to The Wall Street Journal.

"We have a lot of problems gathering big data because of the privacy issue. China doesn't have such an issue. So obviously they have some advantage," he continued.

Maeda said the precedent of getting ahead while ignoring citizen privacy issues sets a "dangerous" precedent. He suggested that countries in the west along with Japan should establish common rules for sharing data as a possible solution to not lose ground to China.

 

ICYMI:

Trump Organization CFO's immunity deal is new problem for Trump -- and possibly a leg up for Mueller.

Tesla CEO says company will remain public after a remark about going-private made investors jump.

 

A LIGHTER TWITTER CLICK: The 5 stages of grief for cyber firms.

 

AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Honolulu could be leader in taxi deregulation.

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Utilities pivot from power plants to grid work for profits. (Associated Press)

Inside midterm campaigns' fight to ward off cyberattacks. (New York Magazine)

'Sleeper' case could torpedo Mueller report. (Politico)

Facebook is being eclipsed by its youthful rival Snapchat. (The Guardian)

Tech industry pursues federal privacy law, on its own terms. (New York Times)

Here's the FCC's new podcast, "More than Seven Dirty Words."