Hillicon Valley: YouTube under fire | FCC gets tough on robocalls | Maine governor signs strict privacy bill | Amazon says delivery drones coming in 'months'

Hillicon Valley: YouTube under fire | FCC gets tough on robocalls | Maine governor signs strict privacy bill | Amazon says delivery drones coming in 'months'
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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'S BAD DAY: YouTube on Wednesday updated its policies to ban videos that promote extremist ideologies such as white supremacy or caste superiority, a move that could see hundreds of thousands of videos removed.

The changes aimed at curbing hate speech and misinformation come amid escalating scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers around the world over how the company, which is owned by Google, deals with bigoted or potentially radicalizing content.

But the ban was derided by critics on Wednesday as a public relations stunt. YouTube announced the policy in the midst of a high-profile controversy over its decision to allow a conservative commentator accused of racist and homophobic harassment to remain on the platform.


Capitol Hill criticism: Tech industry critics on Capitol Hill accused YouTube of putting profits over user safety and failing to dedicate enough resources to prevent the posting of hateful and extremist content to the platform, which boasts a user base of more than 1.8 billion people.

"Congress has focused a great deal on the ways in which Russian operatives exploited Twitter and Facebook in 2016, but an underdeveloped area has been the extent to which YouTube has been used by a range of bad actors, including far-right groups, to facilitate targeted harassment, spread extremist content, and radicalize an entire generation of young users," Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerTikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Watchdog report finds FBI not motivated by political bias in Trump probe Ex-Rep. Scott Taylor to seek old Virginia seat MORE (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement to The Hill.

Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThere's a lot to like about the Senate privacy bill, if it's not watered down Advocates hopeful dueling privacy bills can bridge partisan divide Key Senate Democrats unveil sweeping online privacy bill MORE (D-Hawaii) responded with skepticism to YouTube's announcement on Wednesday, saying the company seems "to only do things when they're under pressure."

"What they actually need is human observation of their platform -- not just externally from journalists and people on Twitter, but internally as a matter of principle and a matter of how they actually run their company," Schatz said. "Algorithms are amoral. People can make judgements."

Activist criticism: Civil rights activists, who have been pressing YouTube to do more about extremists proliferating and making money on its platform, celebrated the new ban on Wednesday but questioned the timing.

"The announcement of this policy, just days after being called out for their continued inaction, underscores YouTube's flawed approach to handling the growth of white nationalism on its platform: as a public relations crisis first and an operational priority second," digital civil rights group Color of Change's president, Rashad Robinson, said.

What YouTube changed: YouTube in a blog post on Wednesday announced it will begin removing videos that allege any group is superior to justify "discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status."

The Google-owned company said videos that "glorify Nazi ideology" would fall under that category, and it will begin banning videos that promote hoaxes like claims that the Sandy Hook shooting did not happen.

The controversy: But the moves come with the company under fire after it said it would not take down videos from a far-right commentator accused of harassing Vox Media journalist Carlos Maza. Maza, who identifies as gay and is Cuban American, highlighted commentator Steven Crowder using racist and homophobic slurs in videos.

YouTube investigated Crowder and concluded that he had not violated any of the company's policies.

Backtrack: After criticism, YouTube on Wednesday said it will no longer allow Crowder to make money from ads on his videos, citing "a pattern of egregious actions has harmed the broader community."

In a tweet shortly after, YouTube clarified that Crowder can lift the restrictions if he stops selling merchandise that says "Socialism is for Fags" on his account and deals with other "issues" with his YouTube presence.

The company's response only highlighted YouTube's challenges in enforcing its rules and determining where to draw the line on problematic content.

Maza in an interview with The Hill called YouTube's latest move "a bullshit policy."

"All of the content that should be targeted by this policy should already have been removed under YouTube's anti-harassment and anti-hate speech policies," Maza said. "What content is caught by this policy that shouldn't already have been caught by the former ones?"

Read more here.


MORE TROUBLE FOR YOUTUBE: Lawmakers are demanding answers from YouTube after researchers found its recommendation algorithms suggesting videos of scantily clad children, heightening concerns about predators on the platform.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha BlackburnMarsha BlackburnTikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions Lawsuits pose new challenge for TikTok TikTok's leader to meet with lawmakers next week MORE (R-Tenn.) sent a letter to YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki on Thursday responding to the findings detailed in a recent New York Times story.

"The sexualization of children through YouTube's recommendation engine represents the development of a dangerous new kind of illicit content meant to avoid law enforcement detection. Action is overdue," the senators wrote.

Sen. Josh HawleyJoshua (Josh) David HawleyHillicon Valley: Pentagon pushes back on Amazon lawsuit | Lawmakers dismiss Chinese threat to US tech companies | YouTube unveils new anti-harassment policy | Agencies get annual IT grades Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech TikTok chief cancels Capitol Hill meetings, inflaming tensions MORE (R-Mo.), another outspoken tech critic, said earlier on Thursday that he would introduce legislation requiring sites like YouTube to leave videos of children out of its recommendation engine.

"Every parent in America should be appalled that YouTube is pushing videos of their children to pedophiles," Hawley said in a statement. "It's equally outrageous that YouTube refuses to take the most effective step necessary to fix the issue."

The Times story detailed how seemingly innocent home movies depicting things like children playing in a pool were racking up hundreds of thousands of views on the platform, a deluge driven by YouTube's algorithm telling viewers what they should watch next.

Researchers from Harvard University's Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society found that the algorithm would take viewers from one video of children to another.

Read more here.


FCC WAGES WAR ON ROBOCALLS: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted on Thursday to allow phone carriers to block suspicious calls by default in an effort to bolster industry efforts to filter out robocalls and scammers.

The proposal would also let phone companies offer their customers the option of blocking any numbers that are not pre-approved, a service that could help protect elderly consumers from scams and telemarketers.

"We expect phone companies will move quickly to use this tool and help consumers block unwanted robocalls," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in USA Today. "Among other things, default call-blocking will reduce the costs of handling the robocalls that flood their networks and save them grief by limiting customer complaints."

Critics of the FCC's proposal say the agency should have gone further to ensure that wireless companies won't charge consumers extra to protect them from robocalls, as some carriers currently do.

"I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. Full stop," Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted against parts of the proposal, said at an FCC hearing on Thursday. "I do not think that this agency should pat itself on the back for its efforts to reduce robocalls and then tell consumers to pay up."

All five FCC commissioners voted to approve the order, though Rosenworcel and Republican Michael O'Rielly dissented against parts of the proposal.

The pushback: A coalition of trade groups representing businesses like pharmacies, debt collectors and bankers says the proposal risks hurting their ability to reach consumers with legitimate calls.

"Public safety alerts, fraud alerts, data security breach notifications, product recall notices, healthcare and prescription reminders, and power outage updates all could be inadvertently blocked under the draft Declaratory Order, among other time-sensitive calls," the groups said in a filing with the FCC last week.

The commission also voted to move forward with a proposal to provide a legal safe harbor for carriers that block spoofed numbers. That proposal will be open to public comment before advancing.

Read more on the vote here.


MAINE CHARGES AHEAD ON PRIVACY: Maine Gov. Janet Mills (D) signed into law one of the strongest privacy bills in the country on Thursday, banning internet service providers (ISP) from using, selling, or distributing consumer data without their consent.

Maine is one of the first states to take this step after California passed its own stringent privacy law last year, setting off a flurry of industry lobbying and accolades from privacy activists.

Maine's law is geared towards ISPs such as AT&T and Spectrum, while California's also applies to tech companies including Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. The law passed amid pushback from the top ISPs.  

The Act to Protect the Privacy of Online Consumer Information would prohibit any ISPs in Maine from refusing to serve a customer, penalizing them, or offering a discount in order to pressure consumers into allowing the ISP to sell their data. The law will take effect on July 1.

Mills described the new law as "common sense," adding that "Maine people value their privacy, online and off."

"The internet is a powerful tool, and as it becomes increasingly intertwined with our lives, it is appropriate to take steps to protect the personal information and privacy of Maine people," Mills said in a statement. "With this common-sense law, Maine people can access the internet with the knowledge and comfort that their personal information cannot be bought or sold by their ISPs without their express approval."

The bill was approved unanimously last week by the Maine Senate, and was sponsored by Maine State Sen. Shenna Bellows (D). Bellows said in a statement that "this law makes Maine first in the nation in protecting consumer data online."

Bellows has said previously that she is planning to introduce an Internet privacy bill in the next session that would also target companies including Google and Facebook.

Read more here.


THE DRONES ARE COMING: Amazon announced Wednesday that it intends to use drones to deliver packages to homes "within months" as the online retail behemoth seeks to further expedite product deliveries.

The company unveiled its latest Prime Air drone design, which the company said "includes advances in efficiency, stability and, most importantly, in safety."

"We know customers are always looking for something better, more convenient, and there may be times when one-day delivery may not be the right choice. Can we deliver packages to customers even faster? We think the answer is yes, and one way we're pursuing that goal is by pioneering autonomous drone technology," Jeff Wilke, who oversees Amazon's retail business, said in a statement.

"And, with the help of our world-class fulfillment and delivery network, we expect to scale Prime Air both quickly and efficiently, delivering packages via drone to customers within months."

Wilke said the fully electric drones can fly up to 15 miles and deliver goods that weigh up to 5 pounds in 30 minutes. He noted several safety features for the devices, including shrouding the wings and including sensors and algorithms to detect moving objects.

"Our drones are safe, efficient, stable, and good for the environment. We know customers have high standards, so we set a high bar for Prime Air. And we're excited to be nearing our goal," Wilke said.

Amazon's drone efforts are years in the making. CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Hillicon Valley: Pentagon pushes back on Amazon lawsuit | Lawmakers dismiss Chinese threat to US tech companies | YouTube unveils new anti-harassment policy | Agencies get annual IT grades Pentagon dismisses Amazon questions over Esper's recusal in 'war cloud' case MORE said in 2013 that he hoped drones would deliver goods to customers' homes within five years, though that deadline passed over regulatory obstacles.

Read more on the future of drone delivery here.


QUITE A LOOKER: Google announced Thursday that it will acquire data analytics firm Looker for $2.6 billion in cash, expanding the services offered to its cloud computing customers.

The acquisition comes amid increased scrutiny of Google and other major U.S. tech firms from federal regulators like the Justice Department who are reportedly taking a closer look at market share and competition.

But Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian told Reuters that he is not concerned about antitrust scrutiny over the Looker acquisition because it involves software rather than data.

Google is far behind competitors Amazon and Microsoft in the cloud computing business and holds much stronger positions in search and online advertising.

Looker is a big-data analytics platform that will allow Google Cloud customers to tap into better insights about their data, Google's parent company Alphabet Inc. said Thursday.

The two companies had an existing partnership, sharing more than 350 customers, according to Alphabet. Google's acquisition of Looker is expected to be completed later this year. It will be subject to regulatory approval.

Cloud computing allows companies to store their data in remote servers operated by companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM.

"One of the most important ways we advance Google's mission is by helping other businesses realize theirs," Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a statement. "We are excited to welcome Looker to Google Cloud and look forward to working together to help our customers solve some of their biggest challenges."

Frank Bien, the CEO of Looker, in a statement said the companies together will advance their mission to "empower humans through the smarter use of data."

Read more on the acquisition here.


AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Markets can handle climate change.



Explainer: Should Big Tech fear U.S. antitrust enforcers? (Reuters)

Microsoft deleted a massive facial recognition database, but it's not dead. (Motherboard)

Democrats take aim at Silicon Valley. They take its cash, too. (The New York Times)

How doorbell surveillance company Ring is using Facebook ads to ID suspected thieves. (Vice)