with Aaron Schaffer
An overwhelming majority of tech experts surveyed by The Technology 202 said social media companies made the right decision to suspend former president Donald Trump’s accounts following the Capitol violence.
“It seems extremely straightforward,” said Jen Pahlka, a former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that focuses on using technology to improve government services. “He incited an attack not only on the Capitol but on democracy.”
“I’m grateful Twitter, Facebook and YouTube took these actions,” Steve Case, former chief executive of AOL, said. “With great power comes great responsibility.” He expressed concern about how the Internet has evolved since the hope from more than three decades ago that his company would be a platform for diverse voices, not a tool to “distort and divide.”
The Technology 202 Network is a panel of more than 100 experts from across government, industry and the consumer advocacy community invited to vote in our ongoing, informal surveys. (You can see the full list of experts here. Some were granted anonymity in exchange for their participation.)
The decision by social media companies to strip Trump of his prized online megaphone during his final days in the Oval Office was deeply polarizing in Washington. Republicans criticized Twitter’s permanent suspension of Trump due to “risk of further incitement of violence” as political censorship. But tech companies were largely united in taking some sort of action, though Facebook has not yet decided whether it will restore access and YouTube is expected to lift its suspension later this week. Even smaller platforms including Snap and Twitch have announced similar suspensions.
Many experts said they believed the tech companies’ moves came too late.
Ifeoma Ozoma, who previously worked in public policy at Pinterest, Google and Facebook, said it was “ridiculous” that the companies had allowed the issues to escalate so drastically that suspending Trump was their only option.
“Getting to this point was a huge miss by companies who turned a range of tools into one nuclear option,” she said. “By limiting sharing, distribution, and exercising other moderation choices years or even months ago, platforms could have avoided the need to entirely remove the president’s account.”
“In my opinion they waited far too long, until it was clear Trump was on the outs and didn’t have the power to really retaliate,” said Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO and founder of ReadySet, a diversity solutions firm. “I firmly believe the 11th hour decision to suspend Trump was one that was driven just as much by self-interest and political expediency as it was ethics.”
Others agreed there was a new business rationale for the suspensions at the end of Trump’s term and the escalation of real-world violence. “They made the rational business choice at that moment. They’re not anti-conservative. They’re not anti-liberal. They’re not anything. They’re just profit centers that make every decision solely based on long term revenue maximization,” said Bradley Tusk, an Uber investor who previously served as a political strategist for the company. “That’s why they kept Trump on the platform as long as they did and why they kicked him off.”
Some experts said the suspension was proof other interventions tech companies touted to prevent the spread of disinformation during the election didn’t go far enough. “Tech companies bet on labels to contain lies on their platforms, and while there were benefits to the approach, labels were utterly insufficient to prevent verified politicians and far-right media outlets from disinforming tens of millions of people on their platforms,” said Alex Howard, director of the Digital Democracy Project at the Demand Progress Educational Fund, a nonprofit.
Still, some experts supportive of the moves expressed concern about the tech companies’ broad power.
“I think it was necessary because of the threat of imminent violence, but going forward decisions about the boundaries of the First Amendment should be made by the people, through democratically elected bodies — not by a few executives,” said Sally Hubbard, director of enforcement at the Open Markets Institute, an organization backed by groups that advocate for breaking up Big Tech.
Cindy Cohn, the executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said in this instance she supported the suspensions of the social media accounts, but she said there should always be concern when platforms “take on the role of censors.”
“Also, it’s important not to lump together all ‘tech companies’ here,” Cohn said. “Infrastructure companies like Apple and Amazon and Shopify are very different, and should be thought of differently, than social networks like Twitter and Facebook.”
(Amazon pulled support for the pro-Trump social network Parler, effectively knocking it offline, following concerns about its lack of content moderation. Apple also blocked it from its App Store.)
Some experts called on the companies to be more transparent and better explain their policies in the future.
Ali Partovi, chief executive of Neo and co-founder of Code.org, said that it’s good policy to enforce terms of service against “serial abusers.”
“The real problem is that these platforms don’t always act consistently or transparently,” he said. “That’s where they can improve.”
Limiting Trump’s use of the platforms should be just the beginning of more intensive efforts to fight violence and extremism, several respondents said.
“When it comes to protecting Black people and our democracy, de-platforming Trump is the floor, not the ceiling,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color Of Change. “The greater question now is, how can we change the incentive structure that allows social media companies to choose their profit and growth over our safety and democracy in the first place? It is a profit-driven platform feature — not a design bug — that allows white nationalist and far-right extremist groups to use their platforms to incite violence against Black people and mobilize plans to infringe on our democratic process. De-platforming Trump won’t change the toxic incentive structure in place; rather, it further illustrates how powerful the broken incentives are.”
Many participants in the minority of respondents who did not support the move declined to explain their reasoning.
Zach Graves, who serves as head of policy for the Lincoln Network, an advocacy group for conservatives and libertarians in the tech sector, said the companies faced a “hard choice” with many competing pressures.
“Particularly given the reaction outside the U.S., I worry that this will motivate more countries to regulate tech (all the way up the stack), and ultimately make the Internet more balkanized and a less hospitable place for free expression,” Graves said. “I also worry conservatives will use this incident to continue to take more aggressive stances on tech regulation. Notably, social media companies had a range of other tools besides outright suspension they could have employed, which may have played out better over the long run.”
— More responses from members of our Network panel about whether social media companies made the right decision in suspending Trump:
- YES: “Twitter’s action to permanently suspend his account is long overdue. We, along with our allies, have been pushing for the platforms to consistently enforce their policies that prohibit hate speech and disinformation about voting rights and the election process. We applaud Twitter for finally deciding its platform should not be used to spread hate and incite violence and we have urged Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and others to be equally responsible and permanently suspend Trump’s accounts.” – Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
- YES: “Nowhere in the Bill of Rights is Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube mentioned. Trump broke the rules of those services, so he suffered the consequences. Had he stopped resisting and complied with the rules, he’d still have his accounts.” – Erica Baker, director of engineering at Github
- YES: “By enabling Trump and his allies to undermine the nation’s Covid response, as well as democracy, FB, Google, Twitter, and the others demonstrated that they are a threat to national security. Even after Trump, their culture and business model will empower the most extreme voices in society at the expense of the public good.” – Roger McNamee, an early Facebook investor turned company critic
- YES: “Companies are free to set their own rules around what is appropriate for them and their users. In this case, I understand why they made the choice they did.” – Jesse Blumenthal, the vice president of technology and innovation policy for the Stand Together community, commonly known as the Koch network
- YES: “Continuing the status quo was untenable. These actions show us what it looks like when platforms exercise this power.” – Network expert who chose to remain anonymous
Our top tabs
Tech giants spent $65 million to lobby Washington in 2020.
Amazon, Facebook, Google and four other top technology giants spent record-breaking amounts to lobby the U.S. government last year, Tony Romm reports.
Here’s how much the top companies spent:
- Facebook: $19.7 million
- Amazon: $17.9 million
- Microsoft: $9.4 million
- Google: $7.5 million
- Apple: $6.7 million
- Uber: $2.3 million
- Twitter: $1.5 million
2021 is also set to be a banner year for tech lobbying in Washington, with the Biden administration under pressure to break up the companies and further regulate the industry in the wake of the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. And Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Jessica Rosenworcel, Biden’s newly named picks to lead the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, respectively, in acting capacities, are under pressure to investigate the companies and restore net neutrality.
Facing criticism from employees, Microsoft halted political donations — for now.
The company temporarily paused all donations through its political action committee, MSPAC, the company publicly confirmed in a blog post Saturday. The company plans to make a decision by Feb. 15 on whether it will end further donations to politicians who voted against the electoral college certification.
Employees have raised a wide range of concerns about the candidates supported by the company. “Microsoft needs to take its role in the current political climate seriously, and pledge to make meaningful changes to how it contributes to the political process,” longtime employee Carmen Crincoli argued in a blog post on Jan. 13, later writing that “because Satya and the senior leadership team spend so much time emphasizing how Microsoft values its employees, it is disconcerting to watch those same leaders routinely fund politicians who actively legislate against the very rights and existence of many of our fellow employees.”
Microsoft President Brad Smith defended the PAC to employees on Friday, according to remarks leaked to Pinboard founder Maciej Ceglowski:
Microsoft then published a more complete transcript of Smith’s remarks. Many corporate backers of Republican lawmakers have pulled their support in the wake of the election objections and Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
Uber laid off nearly 15 percent of Postmates’s workforce.
Most of the food delivery app’s executive team will leave, the New York Times’s Mike Isaac reports, with some set to receive multimillion-dollar exit packages. The cuts come as Uber attempts to integrate the app, which it purchased last year for $2.65 billion, with its Uber Eats division.
Last year, Uber’s food delivery service outpaced its ride-hailing division for the first time; however, the company has been plagued by the transportation industry’s contraction from the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s not the only food delivery service to announce cuts in recent days. Last week, grocery delivery and pickup service Instacart also told employees that it would be slashing its workforce.
Inside the industry
Google will provide more than $150 million to promote vaccine education and distribution.
The company also announced it would open up Google spaces to serve as vaccination sites, CEO Sundar Pichai wrote in a blog post this morning.
Google will provide $100 million in ad grants for the CDC Foundation, the World Health Organization and other global nonprofits. The company will also invest $50 million in partnership with public health agencies for outreach to underserved communities.
Google also will make some of its parking lots, buildings and other open spaces available for vaccination clinics. It’s beginning with a partnership with health care provider One Medical and public health authorities in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and Kirkland, Wash. The company plans to expand nationally based on local vaccine availability.
- Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, speaks at a Washington Post Live event on China and artificial intelligence today at 9:30 a.m.
- Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, is scheduled to speak by phone with E.U. digital enforcer Margrethe Vestager today.
- Aparna Bawa, chief operating officer of Zoom, speaks at a Washington Post Live event on the video platform and the future of work on Tuesday at 11 a.m.
- Microsoft holds a call to discuss its earnings with investors on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.
- Apple, Facebook and Tesla hold investor calls on their earnings on Wednesday at 5 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds its formal organizational meeting on Wednesday at 1 p.m.
- Google parent Alphabet and Amazon hold investor calls on their earnings on Feb. 2 at 5 p.m and 5:30 p.m., respectively.
Before you log off
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) weighs in on the mitten meme: