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Toothless display lets Facebook and Twitter off the hook

By Rowland Manthorpe, technology correspondent
Google's senior executives didn't bother turning up to the senate intelligence committee, leaving an empty chair to stare disdainfully out from between Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey.
Perhaps Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and Sundar Pichai, Google's chief executive, had the right idea, because the hearing - the second round of big tech's confrontation with politicians after revelations about Russian interference in the 2016 US election - failed to deliver anything of substance.There wasn't even any political theatre to get the blood racing.Marco Rubio called Google "arrogant" and then, in the hallway, engaged in a limp squabble with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who had arrived promising to "face his accusers" after being banned from Apple, Google, Facebook and Spotify.
Toothless display lets Facebook and Twitter off the hook

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Infowars' Alex Jones clashes with senator
But that was about the sum of it.With an empty chair to go at, the senators failed to land a single punch.The failure to address the issues was perplexing, because the senate intelligence committee has been one of the leaders in the attempt to understand exactly how foreign powers undermined democratic processes across the world.Its work confirmed what is now clear: that foreign interference is not confined to elections, but is going on constantly, as malicious actors attempt to sow discord by exploiting the fault lines in American society.As Senator Burr, the committee's Republican chairman, put it: "This was not a crime against the American government. It was a crime against the American people."Unfortunately, that was the session's closing statement.The previous two hours of questioning failed to match the gravity of that charge, despite the deep mysteries surrounding the operations of Facebook in particular.Take, for instance, the number of malicious or fake accounts purged by Facebook, which by its own count numbers in the hundreds.
Toothless display lets Facebook and Twitter off the hook

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Ms Sandberg had an easy time in front of the senators
For instance, Ms Sandberg mentioned that 50 pages had been taken down in Myanmar, where Facebook has been implicated in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.Speaking to me before the hearing, Damian Collins, chair of the Commons' culture, media and sport select committee, which has been leading the investigation into the misuse of social media in the UK, told me that this represented "the tip of the iceberg"."If you look at France, the one country where they did a really proper deep dive looking at the risk of democracy being hacked by Russian agencies and others before the presidential election in 2017, that investigation led to the deletion of 30,000 accounts."I think the scale of this problem is much bigger than Facebook had been prepared to admit before and I hope really the senate pushes them on that."Reader, they did not.Nor did the committee push Ms Sandberg on what Mr Collins called "the big question" - who exactly inside Facebook was made aware of the hacking and scraping of data that then went to Cambridge Analytica?
"We're talking about something which was total breach of data law as well as being a massive infringement on users' rights," Mr Collins said.Nor did it ask how many other applications and businesses Facebook is investigating for the same thing.Nor whether Cambridge Analytica used Facebook's custom audiences tool to upload email addresses provided by the Trump campaign into the social network, a feature that a Canadian parliament committee showed was used explicitly for voter suppression.Instead the senators went for… well, what?
Toothless display lets Facebook and Twitter off the hook

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Both execs agreed that improving security for personal data is a national security issue
What answer did Senator Risch expect when he asked Ms Sandberg whether Facebook publishes its community standards? (It does.)Or Senator Cotton when he asked Mr Dorsey: "Do you prefer to see America remain the world's dominant global superpower?"Whatever he anticipated, the answer he got was: "We need to be consistent about our terms of service."The one moment of enlightenment came when Senator Wyden asked Mr Dorsey and Ms Sandberg a simple "yes" or "no" question."Personal data is now the weapon of choice for political influence campaigns and we must not make it easier for our adversaries to seize these weapons and use them against us," he said."Beefing up protections and controls on personal privacy must be a national security issue… Yes or no?"Sandberg: "Yes."Dorsey: "Yes."At last, the goal was defined.But how to get there?
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On that, we heard nothing.And on this evidence, we may have to stop looking to the US for answers.
news.sky.com
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