Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Facebook reeling after NYT report | Dems want DOJ probe | HQ2 brings new scrutiny on Amazon | Judge upholds Russian troll farm indictments | Cyber moonshot panel unveils recommendations

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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FACEBOOK REELING AFTER NY TIMES REPORT: Facebook is being hit with fresh criticism from Capitol Hill as lawmakers reacted harshly Thursday to a New York Times investigation that detailed the company’s efforts to wield influence in Washington after becoming aware of Russia-linked activity on its platform during the 2016 presidential campaign.

The explosive article laid out how Facebook’s leadership was reluctant to confront the Russian efforts on its platform and was unprepared for the firestorm over the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

{mosads}On Thursday, a group of Senate Democrats — Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Coons (Del.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) — wrote to the Justice Department, asking them to “expand any investigation into Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to include whether Facebook – or any other entity affiliated with or hired by Facebook – retaliated against critics or public officials seeking to regulate the platform, or hid vital information from the public.”

The Times story is likely to fuel some members’ calls to regulate Facebook and other platforms, as many Democrats have become furious over the string of data privacy breaches and what they see as a lack of accountability in the industry.

“It’s alarming, it’s appalling,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told The Hill. “It shows that they were not behaving like a neutral platform. It shows that they were engaged in information operations. That they have engaged in a strategy to avoid any oversight or regulations. This is what you get when an American corporation gets so big and is exempted from any meaningful oversight.”

The tech giant is also facing allegations of anti-Semitism after the Times reported that the company used a Republican opposition research firm called Definers Public Affairs to accuse liberal financier George Soros of funding some of the groups that were speaking out against Facebook as it faced public scrutiny over its handling of both the Russian disinformation campaigns and the Cambridge Analytica debacle. 

Read more here.


Dem lawmakers push DOJ to get involved: A group of Democratic senators on Thursday urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate Facebook following allegations that it attempted to discredit critics who pushed for the company to be regulated.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) spearheaded a letter signed by fellow Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal (Conn.), Chris Coons (Del.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) pressing DOJ to probe the company in the wake of a New York Times report detailing how the company retaliated against its detractors amid the fallout from scandals at Facebook since the 2016 election.

“Reports indicate that the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are conducting an investigation into Facebook’s failure to prevent and provide notice regarding the compromise of user data and the misuse of the platform by foreign governments,” the senators wrote. “As the Department and other agencies proceed with the investigation, we urge you to consider new information that has come to light regarding Facebook’s behavior and to expand the scope of your inquiry accordingly.”

We’ve got the details here.


Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook: Facebook will implement a system allowing users to appeal content decisions made by the company to an independent body of experts for adjudication, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday.

In a blog post, Zuckerberg announced that an “independent body” of apparent experts in language and hate speech would be established to provide “transparent and binding” decisions about content on the site.

“[W]e’re planning to create a new way for people to appeal content decisions to an independent body, whose decisions would be transparent and binding. The purpose of this body would be to uphold the principle of giving people a voice while also recognizing the reality of keeping people safe,” Zuckerberg wrote, adding that the group would be established next year.

“This is an incredibly important undertaking — and we’re still in the early stages of defining how this will work in practice,” he added, noting that Facebook is still working to decide how members of the “independent body” will be selected.

“Over time, I believe this body will play an important role in our overall governance. Just as our board of directors is accountable to our shareholders, this body would be focused only on our community,” Zuckerberg wrote.

Reead more here.


Former Facebook security chief responds to NY Times report: Former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos on Thursday took part of the blame for not doing enough at Facebook to stop nascent political misinformation campaigns in 2016, following a scathing New York Times report about the company’s missteps over the past year.

“I failed to prepare my employer for the disinformation campaign and that is on me,” Stamos tweeted.

While Stamos took some blame, in a tweet thread he also took at aim at other groups he felt were partially responsible for enabling Russian election interference and credited Facebook for going public with information about misinformation campaigning on its platform when other companies did not.

Read more here.


Facebook cuts ties with GOP public relations firm: Facebook has cut ties to a political consulting group, Definers Public Affairs, that it hired to discredit its critics and opponents in the wake of scrutiny its received over the past year.

The company’s decision follows a New York Times story detailing the work Facebook paid Definers to do, including linking the company’s critics to liberal donor and hedge fund billionaire George Soros.

Facebook has now terminated its relationship with Definers. According to the company, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg were not aware of the company’s relationship with Definers.

“It is wrong to suggest that we have ever asked Definers to pay for or write articles on Facebook’s behalf — or to spread misinformation,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement on Thursday. “The relationship with Facebook was well known by the media — not least because they have on several occasions sent out invitations to hundreds of journalists about important press calls on our behalf.” Read more here.


Rand Paul on Facebook: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said Thursday that Facebook must convince conservatives they are not censoring them if it wants to keep making money.

“I think if it gets so bad that they don’t allow conservative viewpoints on Facebook, I think you will get to a point where people will leave in droves,” Paul told CNN Thursday.

“So Facebook, if they want to keep making money, are going to have to convince conservatives that they’re not the enemy.” 

Read more here.


AIMING FOR THE (CYBER) MOON: A presidential committee has voted to move forward with its cybersecurity “moonshot,” a daunting task aimed at making the U.S. a global leader on cyber over the next decade.

Members of the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee (NSTAC) sent their 56-page report to the White House on Wednesday, calling for the Trump administration to establish a council and executive director to make cybersecurity a priority for the federal government, U.S. businesses and American citizens.

The report also issued a dire warning on the future of attacks, saying that over the next 10 years the U.S. will see “more severe and physically destructive cyber attacks than have been experienced to date,” and that cyber threats need to be viewed as “an existential threat to the American people’s fundamental way of life.”

But how to prepare for tomorrow’s threat today is the challenge, according to Peter Altabef, chairman of the moonshot subcommittee and CEO of security firm Unisys. “It’s that balance of, you have to take a long view to really sustainably fix it, but you actually already have to get started because we’re living in a very urgent situation,” Altabef told The Hill.

The panel’s report is short on details for tackling the myriad of cyber issues at hand and instead favors creating a framework to address those problems. “We decided rather than look at what has to happen in the next three months or six months, let’s look at this over 10 years,” Altabef said.

The cybersecurity moonshot, modeled after the national effort to put a man on the moon within a decade of former President Kennedy’s 1961 promise to do so, began in February of this year.

The NSTAC-approved report recommends that the White House create a cybersecurity moonshot council to work on the program, and appoint an executive director to oversee day-to-day efforts.

If the White House decides to carry out the report’s recommendations in full, it would establish a long-standing initiative at the highest level of the executive branch focusing on cyber, meaning the proposed council would operate at the White House level and elevate the topic in an administration that has faced criticism for not doing enough to address cybersecurity.

Read more of our coverage of the effort here.


NOT EVERYONE IS HAPPY ABOUT AMAZON COMING TO TOWN: The $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies that Amazon is reaping from its new offices in New York and Virginia is bringing new scrutiny on the tech giant from public officials.

Lawmakers and officials whose towns won out in the search are welcoming the company with open arms, predicting that its arrival will bring massive economic investments into their communities.

But others are raising questions about the wisdom of gifting billions in taxpayer dollars to the second most highly valued company in the world when local infrastructures are struggling.

Amazon has already been in the spotlight over its wage practices and market dominance, attracting criticism from lawmakers in both parties and from President Trump.

Its bold plans to expand on the East Coast, though, threaten to intensify that criticism and turn it into a punching bag over numerous hot-button issues, from employee benefits to affordable housing to special incentives for corporations. 

Read more here.


Gillibrand speaks out on Amazon: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday voiced reservations about the package of incentives New York offered Amazon to locate part of its new headquarters in Queens, echoing criticism from some progressives about the deal.

“While I’m glad that Amazon recognizes that Queens is a great place to do business, I’m concerned about the lack of community input and the incentives that Amazon received in order to convince them to bring those jobs to New York,” Gillibrand said in a statement on Wednesday night.

“One of the wealthiest companies in history should not be receiving financial assistance from the taxpayers while too many New York families struggle to make ends meet,” she added.

Read more here.


I DON’T BUY IT: A federal judge on Thursday upheld an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller against a Russian troll farm charged with using social media to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Judge Dabney Friedrich, a Trump nominee, rejected Concord Management and Consulting’s request to dismiss the Mueller indictment, according to court documents. The Russian firm has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to defraud the U.S. government and interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

Friedrich in part rejected the firm’s argument that the indictment should be tossed out because there is no U.S. law that prohibits interfering in an election.

The judge argued that the question is not whether underlying laws that pertain to foreign agents or political spending in elections were violated, but whether the company’s actions were “deceptive and intended to frustrate the lawful government functions” of the Federal Election Commission, Department of Justice or Department of State.

“The difficulty for the government, however, is not identifying deceit — of which there is plenty — but connecting that deceit to the lawful government function of ‘administering federal requirements for disclosure,’ which the defendants allegedly conspired to impair,” Friedrich wrote in a 32 page opinion memorandum, which pointed to past legal precedents.

The judge also criticized the company for going too far in arguing what the special counsel has to prove in this conspiracy case, which Friedrich notes is different from cases centered solely on violating foreign agent or election laws.

Mueller’s team has accused Concord Management of funding the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm that spread false and misleading information on social media as part of a sophisticated effort to interfere in the heated presidential race.

Read more here.



A list of reports “that expose the use of targeted surveillance for the purpose of spying on members of civil society, suppress dissent, and monitor journalists.”

A breakdown of U.S. vs. Russian U.N.-adopted resolutions on norms in cyberspace, per CFR: “One resolution, sponsored by Russia, creates an open-ended working group of the General Assembly to study the existing norms contained in the previous UN GGE reports, identify new norms, and study the possibility of “establishing regular institutional dialogue … under the auspices of the United Nations.” The other resolution, sponsored by the United States, creates a new Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to study how international law applies to state action in cyberspace and identify ways to promote compliance with existing cyber norms.”



Future-proofing blockchain regulation — is it possible?



Top Dems: DOJ position on Whitaker appointment ‘fatally flawed‘. (The Hill)

Alleged Russian cybercriminal arrested in Bulgaria at U.S. request. (CyberScoop)

How election hacking and voter suppression play into Georgia election. (The Intercept)

Amazon’s long game is clearer than ever. (Rolling Stone)

Tags Amy Klobuchar Brian Schatz Chris Coons Donald Trump Kirsten Gillibrand Mark Zuckerberg Mazie Hirono Rand Paul Robert Mueller

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