Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: YouTube to ban extremist videos | Company in firestorm over conservative commentator | Big tech braces for antitrust showdown | Study finds Russian trolls more effective than thought | Democrats want answers on medical data breach

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. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Olivia Beavers (@olivia_beavers) and Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Harper Neidig (@hneidig) and Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e).


YOUTUBE TO CRACK DOWN ON EXTREMIST VIDEOS: YouTube on Wednesday announced that it updated its policies to officially ban videos that promote extremist ideologies such as white supremacy or caste superiority, a move that will likely result thousands of videos being removed.

In a blog post on Wednesday, YouTube said it will begin “prohibiting videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status.”{mosads}

The Google-owned company said videos that “glorify Nazi ideology” would fall under that category.

It also said it would begin promoting more “authoritative content” in recommendations, an attempt to address the deluge of conspiracy theories on the platform and criticisms that users are often drawn into a “rabbit hole” of false or hateful content by YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.

“For example, if a user is watching a video that comes close to violating our policies, our systems may include more videos from authoritative sources (like top news channels) in the “watch next” panel,” YouTube wrote.

Read more here.


But the company’s plans were largely overshadowed by a controversy over conservative commentator Steven Crowder. 


YOUTUBE BLOCKS CROWDER FROM AD REVENUE: YouTube on Wednesday announced it will no longer allow a conservative commentator accused of online harassment make money from ads on his videos, just one day after the company said he had not broken any of the platform’s rules.

In a tweet, YouTube said it has “suspended” conservative personality Steven Crowder’s “monetization,” a penalty that means Crowder will continue to stay on the site but will not be able to collect ad revenue.

Social media analytics website Social Blade estimates Crowder could have been making between $81,000 to $1,296,000 per year from his channel before the change.

The move by YouTube comes as the company faces accusations of conservative censorship from Republican senators and President Trump. Conservative critics have been increasingly vocal about their belief that the country’s largest tech companies routinely remove right-wing commentary from their websites. All of the companies, including YouTube, have denied all allegations of political bias.  

“Update on our continued review–we have suspended this channel’s monetization,” YouTube said in the tweet. “We came to this decision because a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community and is against our YouTube Partner Program policies.”

YouTube made the decision under its demonetization policy, which it announced last year. It allows the company to pull back ad revenue from creators who have caused “lasting damage to the community, including viewers, creators and the outside world.”

The Crowder controversy: In a viral Twitter thread last week, Vox Media journalist Carlos Maza – who identifies as queer and is of Cuban-American heritage – compiled a montage of Crowder using a string of racist and homophobic slurs against him in YouTube videos, including “lispy queer” and the “gay Mexican from Vox.” In the clips, Crowder mocked Maza’s sexuality, at one point pantomiming oral sex with a microphone.

YouTube investigated the matter and said Crowder had not violated their policies.

“Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” the company wrote. YouTube in statements circulated to reporters said they found Crowder was “debating” Maza.

But hold on: Maza after YouTube’s demonetization decision on Wednesday tweeted, “So the f-ck what. Basically all political content gets ‘demonetized.’ Crowder’s revenue stream isn’t from YouTube ads. It’s from selling merch and “Socialism Is For Fags” shirts to millions of loyal customers, that @YouTube continues to drive to his channel. For free.”

YouTube clarified their demonetization decision in response to Maza’s tweet.

“To clarify, in order to reinstate monetization on this channel, he will need to remove the link to his T-shirts,” YouTube wrote in response.

It later added that Crowder will also need to address “all issues” with his account.

Read more here.


RIGHT CRITICIZES YOUTUBE: Right-wing social media personalities also criticized YouTube’s decision Wednesday to demonetize Steven Crowder.

“If @YouTube is now going to police insulting speech — not violent speech, not incitement, not actual fake news — because a virulently censorious, radical activist masquerading as a journalist complains about being insulted, they’re a joke,” the commentator Ben Shapiro wrote on Twitter.

More here.


TROLLING THE ELECTION: Russia’s campaign to sway American public opinion on social media during the 2016 campaign was more calculated, far-reaching and sophisticated than previously known, according to a study released Wednesday.

U.S. cybersecurity firm Symantec says the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian troll farm with links to the Kremlin, carried out “a highly professional campaign” that was “incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages.”

“While this propaganda campaign has often been referred to as the work of trolls, the release of the dataset makes it obvious that it was far more than that,” the firm wrote. “It was planned months in advance and the operators had the resources to create and manage a vast disinformation network,” the firm wrote.

Researchers reviewed almost 4,000 accounts and 10 million tweets that Twitter released last year amid scrutiny of Moscow’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 presidential race.

The study concluded that the IRA conducted a carefully calculated operation that sought to inflame tensions on both sides of the ideological divide, rather than the previous widespread assumptions that its posts were targeting just one side of the political spectrum.

In some cases, accounts were set up months in advance before they were used — long before the 2016 election. There was an average of 177 days between the creation of an account and its first tweet, Symantec said.

Read more here.


BRACE FOR IMPACT: Silicon Valley is bracing for a showdown as Congress and regulators step up their oversight of tech giants and how they wield their power.

The federal government’s top antitrust enforcers, the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), have reportedly reached an agreement on how to divide up their responsibilities for investigating Silicon Valley’s biggest companies, with the Justice Department setting its sights on Apple and Google and the FTC taking the lead on Facebook and Amazon. The agencies are said to be weighing whether to open formal investigations.

On Monday, Congress also jumped in; the House Judiciary Committee announced a bipartisan investigation into Silicon Valley and competition among online businesses.

The wide-ranging investigation will seek to determine whether tech giants have hurt competition and whether Congress needs to update the nation’s antitrust laws to address the modern internet economy.

“It’s an opportunity to look at our antitrust statutes to determine whether they need to be modernized and updated,” Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, told reporters on Monday.

The tech industry has faced tough antitrust scrutiny from European regulators but long enjoyed relaxed oversight from Washington. Now, big tech faces a high-stakes battle over their business model that could last for years.

We broke down what’s ahead… Read more here.


DATA BREACH FALLOUT: Democratic Sens. Bob Menendez (N.J.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) want answers from blood-testing company Quest Diagnostics following a recent data breach that exposed the personal information of an estimated 12 million patients, as another firm revealed that it also had medical data exposed by the incident.

The breach involved an unauthorized user gaining access to the American Medical Collection Agency (AMCA), a billing provider for Quest, potentially compromising Social Security numbers, financial information and personal medical data.

In a Wednesday letter sent to New Jersey-based Quest, the two senators sought details about how the breach occurred and what steps are being taken in response. They specifically took issue with news reports saying it took seven months for the company to publicly disclose the hack.

“As the nation’s largest blood testing provider, this data breach places the information of millions of patients at risk,” Menendez and Booker wrote. “The months-long leak leaves sensitive personal information vulnerable in the hands of criminal enterprises. Moreover, such breaches force victims to contend with identity theft that may lead to irreparable harm to their credit reports and financial futures, and to confront the real possibility that their confidential medical information and history has been exposed.”

The senators said they want to ensure that companies with access to patient data understand how to protect that information. They gave Quest until June 14 to respond to their questions about the timeline of the breach and how the company previously protected its systems.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) separately wrote a letter to Quest on Wednesday also demanding answers about the data breach, and criticized the company for failing to protect its patients’ personal information.

The letter was sent on the heels of a disclosure that another blood testing company, LabCorp, was also impacted by the AMCA data breach.

In a Tuesday filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, LabCorp reported that the personal information of 7.7 million of its customers was exposed to the same unauthorized user. LabCorp said it was informed by AMCA that the data were exposed between August 2018 and March of this year.

Read more here.


HOLD ON: Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, placed a hold Tuesday on the State Department’s notification that it plans to establish a Bureau of Cyberspace Securities and Emerging Technologies (CSET), calling its proposed mission too narrow.

“While Congress has pursued comprehensive, bipartisan legislation, the State Department has plowed ahead in its plan to create a bureau with a much narrower mission focused only on cybersecurity,” Engel told The Hill in a statement. “This move flies in the face of repeated warnings from Congress and outside experts that our approach to cyber issues needs to elevate engagement on economic interests and internet freedoms together with security.”

Engel was likely referring to the Cyber Diplomacy Act, a bill he co-sponsored along with House Foreign Affairs Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) that would establish an Office of International Cyberspace Policy at the State Department.

Engel added that the hold on the notification would stand until “the Secretary of State directs his staff to work constructively with Congress to establish a bureau that ensures the Department is able to advance the full range of U.S. interests.”

A spokesperson for the State Department confirmed the agency had “notified Congress regarding its plans to establish the new CSET bureau” but did not comment further.

McCaul, meanwhile, expressed a more positive view of the State Department’s move. A committee spokesperson for McCaul told The Hill that he “looks forward to working with the Administration and his colleagues in the House and Senate to legislate the best possible cyber structure and mission set.”

The State Department’s notification to Congress of its intent to establish CSET, obtained by The Hill on Tuesday, lays out the key staffing and coordination plan for the proposed bureau.

The agency wrote that CSET will “consolidate resources focused on cyberspace security and the security-related aspects of emerging technologies.”

Read more here.


MIND THE SECURITY GAP: A Chinese company that is designing subway train cars for U.S. cities is at the center of growing scrutiny over worries that its products could be susceptible to hacking or remote control.

Lawmakers from both parties have urged transit agencies, including the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) in New York state, not to award contracts to the China Railway Rolling Stock Corporation (CRRC), claiming concerns about national security.

They have cited cyber- and other security concerns and warned against giving a Chinese state-owned business control over critical American infrastructure.

In a letter earlier this month, a bipartisan group of House members from New York wrote to the New York City Transit Authority and the MTA, warning of “comprehensive efforts to undermine U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also zeroed in on this issue last week, calling on the Commerce Department to “thoroughly investigate” the CRRC.

The lawmakers who have put the spotlight on the CRRC acknowledge that no American companies currently manufacture rail cars. But they note that the next generation of rail cars will include Wi-Fi systems and more advanced train tracking technology and caution that more safeguards must be in place to ensure security.

The CRRC is only the latest Chinese firm to come under the microscope in the U.S. over security concerns. The administration last month decided to blacklist products from Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, before granting a 90-day delay. And the scrutiny comes with the U.S. and China in the midst of a trade war after billions in tit-for-tat tariffs and with negotiations on a new trade deal deadlocked.

The company at the center of the new firestorm, the CRRC, has ambitious plans for the U.S. market.

Read more here.


FRESHMAN DEMS VS. MCCONNELL: A group of 62 freshmen House Democrats demanded Wednesday that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) allow a vote on a sweeping election reform and security bill previously passed by the House.

The bill includes language to reform the election process, along with language to secure voting systems against cyber attacks. Senate Democrats have also introduced a companion bill.

Members who signed the letter include Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.).

Read more here.


AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Deepfakes are latest threat to American democratic system.


A LIGHTER CLICK: This week in a tweet.



Amazon adds an app that helps shoppers find a clothing alternative on platform. (The Verge)

Alexa will now be able to ask follow-up questions. (Wired)

Drone deliveries for Amazon to start in coming months. (TechCrunch)

Tech giants amass a lobbying army for an epic Washington battle. (The New York Times)

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Ayanna Pressley Bob Menendez Charles Schumer Cory Booker David Cicilline Donald Trump Eliot Engel Ilhan Omar Mark Warner Michael McCaul Mitch McConnell

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