Brazil takes on Big Tech in the fight against ‘fake’ news
Authorities imposed internet shutdowns across Pakistan on May 9 as protests and riots broke out nationwide following the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Security forces arrested Khan on charges concerning a land acquisition during his time in office. But the move reflects long-standing tensions between Khan and Pakistan’s military, of which the former prime minister has become a vocal critic. Should Khan remain in custody, he will likely be barred from running for office in Pakistan’s general elections expected to be held later this year.
Alongside mobile broadband blackouts in several areas of the country, technical researchers at NetBlocks identified disruptions of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. These kinds of outages have become a knee-jerk response of governments in many parts of the world when public unrest peaks and authorities are desperate to quell protests. But right now in Pakistan, it’s “not exactly a sign of strength,” tweeted Mohammed Taqi, a columnist for the Indian news website The Wire. Pakistani human rights lawyer and tech expert Nighat Dad called the blocks “unconstitutional” and noted that they could actually help promote the spread of disinformation online. We’ll see what effects it all has in the days to come.
Twitter continues to mediate the war in Sudan. Mohamed Suliman, who I spoke with for this newsletter a few weeks back, has been tracking digital effects of the war from afar. This week, he noted that the Twitter account belonging to the Rapid Support Forces, the paramilitary organization that is at war with the Sudanese army, was tweeting photos of people that the RSF claimed to have captured. “Does Twitter content policy allow this?” he wondered. This is a really good question. But I don’t think we can expect any answers from Twitter’s PR office, which now regularly replies to media requests with nothing but this: ????
Elon Musk also abruptly announced plans to “purge” inactive accounts. People were quick to point out that this will eliminate the historical value of accounts that were once held by major voices who have gone missing or passed away. Amnesty International’s Bissan Fakih offered a few familiar names of people missing in Syria, like Syrian human rights lawyer Razan Zeitouneh and U.S. journalist Austin Tice. “Twitter is an invaluable source of material relevant to war crimes investigations around the world, much of it from accounts dating back to 2010-on,” tweeted Charles Lister, of the Middle East Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “Simply ‘purging’ such a wealth of evidence would materially weaken the long-term pursuit of justice.”
BRAZIL TAKES ON BIG TECH
Brazil’s Congress will soon vote on a Bolsonaro-era “anti-fake news” bill that would require big tech platforms to proactively remove hate speech and disinformation, curb mass messaging by politicians and make other changes that would allow regulators to have a heavier hand in determining what kinds of material stays online in Brazil and what comes down.
The bill was fast-tracked earlier this year in the wake of a series of school shootings that raised painful questions about how hatred and incitement to violence can spill from digital spaces into the real world.
Under some regimes, the law would certainly run the risk of creating an information authority that could be used to stifle the voices of critics. But it would also require Big Tech companies to overhaul their systems for reviewing and removing harmful content and probably force them to work much more closely with regulators, akin to what’s required of them in the EU under the Digital Services Act. These are all things that will detract from their profits in Brazil, which is a super lucrative market for the industry.
It’s no surprise that Big Tech companies don’t want it to pass. At the start of May, Google ran a prominent ad on its services in Brazil asserting that the law will “make your internet worse.” Meta and Spotify have also gotten in on the action. The vote was postponed last week, and Brazil’s Supreme Court now says that all three companies will need to testify before federal police about their campaigns against the bill.
A quick look at what’s happening on Twitter right now in Brazil elucidates some of the problems at hand. This is because Twitter, as I wrote last week, seems to be doing relatively little to proactively moderate content on its platform. I talked about it recently with my old colleague Yaso Cordova, a Brazilian privacy expert who also looks at harmful content online.
“Before Elon, Twitter used to comply with Brazilian laws,” Cordova told me. But Musk dismissed the entire trust and safety team in Brazil shortly after taking the helm. From there, she said, researchers saw a rise in threats of violence and hate speech, including neo-Nazi content, which is a crime in Brazil. In the past, the company would have proactively removed harmful stuff. But not anymore.
“They might be responding very well to government content removal [requests],” she told me, referring to state-issued requests, “but the government cannot oversee everything and everyone.” If the anti-fake news bill passes, it will change the game, more or less forcing the company to comply with stricter regulation or risk getting thrown out of Brazil altogether.
Cordova emphasized the fact that under the current government, removals according to state requests might work okay. But, she said, if Bolsonaro were to be elected again tomorrow, “it would be horrible.” Were Bolsonaro to return to power in the future, she argues Brazil would see a fresh round of censorship on Twitter, targeting critical voices.
Looking at the big picture, Cordova sees Big Tech’s behavior in Brazil as an example of digital colonialism. She described to me how Silicon Valley companies have invested in developing countries with big populations, like India and Brazil, “so they can harvest these people’s data.” “They will not spend on fixing the product according to local laws,” Cordova says, “because this will not allow them to maximize revenue.”
But the anti-fake news bill could force the proverbial hand of industry on this. For many authoritative voices on the topic, the demands that the bill makes of the Big Tech companies are long overdue.
WHAT WE’RE READING
The meta-race to write the best critique of the race to build hyper-awesome AI continues. Here are two top picks from this week:
- Writing for the Guardian, climate activist and scholar Naomi Klein argues that the AI race is really a big steal by Big Tech: “The wealthiest companies in history (Microsoft, Apple, Google, Meta, Amazon …) [are] unilaterally seizing the sum total of human knowledge that exists in digital, scrapable form and walling it off inside proprietary products, many of which will take direct aim at the humans whose lifetime of labor trained the machines without giving permission or consent.”
- Sci-fi writer Ted Chiang says that we should see AI not as a genie, or as a King Midas-like figure, but rather as a management consulting firm, like McKinsey. “If you want something done but don’t want to get your hands dirty, McKinsey will do it for you,” he writes in The New Yorker. Sounds all too familiar.
And finally, the community of volunteers who run Wikipedia are at odds over whether, and how, to use large language models like Chat GPT in building and maintaining the world’s largest online encyclopedia. VICE has the details.