A bevy of billionaires: The tech titans go (virtually) to Washington

This was originally written for the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Like the old tale of the blind men describing an elephant, where each one was convinced they had found a different animal based on whatever part they were touching, Wednesday’s congressional antitrust hearing with the heads of Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook looked dramatically different depending on your perspective. The Wall Street Journal said the six-hour hearing showed that there was room for compromise between the way Republicans perceive the technology giants and the way that Democrats do. But Slate and a number of other outlets pointed out how most of the Republican members of Congress spent their time talking about alleged bias by Facebook and YouTube aimed at conservatives (something for which there is absolutely no evidence) rather than antitrust. The Verge‘s Casey Newton said the “lunatic whipsawing between companies, issues, and conspiracy theories” made the hearing feel like a social-media feed, and not in a good way: “Every question shouted, every answer interrupted, nothing truly ventured, and very little learned. Polarized and polarizing” (although Newton also said that in the end he came away “mostly heartened” at the idea that Congress might finally be prepared to do its job as an antitrust regulator.

Part of the problem — as with with the elephant — was that the hearing was just too massive and sprawling and unfocused, and tried to cover too much ground. As Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times pointed out, each of the tech companies should probably have had its own hearing, since the antitrust issues that apply to each one are very different (Will Oremus of One Zero said sources told him the technology companies themselves pressed for a hearing with all four, as a way of muddying the waters, and if true then their attempt was successful). Even at six hours, once you subtract the grandstanding and irrelevant questioning by people like Republican Matt Gaetz — who seemed most interested in whether the companies shared what he called “American values” — or the sad spectacle of Rep. Sensenbrenner asking Zuckerberg why Facebook took down a comment from Donald Trump Jr. (something Twitter did), there wasn’t much time for more than one or two hard-hitting questions about actual anti-competitive behavior.

The fact that there were even a few of these was held up by some as a triumph — Prospect.org called it “The Triumphant Return of Congress” — something that says a lot about just how low expectations are when it comes to these kinds of hearings. And yes, it was better than the one where Facebook was asked how it made money and Zuckerberg responded, as if speaking to a toddler, “Senator, we sell ads” (and Facebook definitely makes a lot of money doing so — on Thursday, the day after the hearing, the company reported that its revenues rose to $18 billion in the most recent quarter). One of the stars of the day was Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who came equipped with voluminous notes, including some of the 1.3 million documents that Congress has accumulated over the year or so this antitrust investigation has been underway. She pinned Zuckerberg with questions about his acquisition of Instagram, including emails that showed he was planning to build a competitor if the company didn’t sell, and the CEO could only stammer “I’m not sure what you mean by threaten.” She also asked some tough questions of Amazon, including pressing chief executive Jeff Bezos on whether the company used internal sales data to launch competing products (he said this is against the rules, and he’s looking into it).

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Campaign organizers say boycott of Facebook will continue

This was originally written for the daily newsletter published by the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

For the past several weeks, Facebook has been the subject of a boycott campaign, one that has called on advertisers to pull their business from the social network, due to what the groups involved say is a failure to act quickly enough to curb hate speech and other offensive content. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, and other senior staff from the company have met with some of the groups who are leading the boycott—a list that includes Free Press, Color of Change, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Anti-Defamation League—but those groups say the response from Zuckerberg was completely unsatisfactory. Meanwhile, the social network has also been hit by an independent audit report that looked at Facebook’s handling of civil-rights related issues (including the way it has handled offensive posts from Donald Trump) and said the company’s policies and enforcement have been a “tremendous setback” for civil rights.

Using CJR’s Galley discussion platform, we arranged for a series of interviews on both of these topics with human rights and freedom of expression experts, some of whom—like Jessica González, co-chief executive of Free Press—have been directly involved in organizing the boycott campaign. In addition to her role at the advocacy group, González is an attorney and long-time racial justice advocate who co-founded Change the Terms, a coalition of more than 50 civil and digital-rights groups that works to disrupt online hate. Prior to joining Free Press, she was executive vice president and general counsel at the National Hispanic Media Coalition, and she has also worked as a staff attorney and teaching fellow at Georgetown Law School’s Institute for Public Representation. Still to come in our Galley discussion series are interviews with Jillian York, the director of international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Jenny Domino, a legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists who specializes in Myanmar, where Facebook was accused by the United Nations of aiding in the genocide of the Rohingya people.

In her Galley interview, González said that she first started paying attention to how white supremacists in particular were using the media as an organizing tool back in the late 2000s, when she was working with the National Hispanic Media Coalition. A number of groups including the Southern Poverty Law Center were tracking anti-immigrant sentiment and saw how talk radio and cable TV were being used to spread false and dehumanizing information about immigrants, and how they started using social media like Facebook in the same way. “We started organizing against this, and started talking to members of other demographic groups that are often targeted by hate: Blacks, LGBTQ people, Muslims, etc. And we followed how white supremacists were organizing online, and started drawing attention to it in the early 2010s,” said González. Those efforts led to the creation of the Change the Terms coalition. “We have a set of model corporate policies to disrupt online hate, and we’ve been asking for big tech firms to adopt them since 2018,” she said.

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The fascinating history behind the invention of paramedics

Did you know that the modern idea of paramedics — a special team of personnel with broad medical training who pick up the injured and bring them to hospital — began as a charitable effort in poor Black neighbourhoods in Philadelphia? I didn’t, until I read this 99 Percent Invisible story about Phil Hallen, a a former ambulance driver who worked with a community-driven program providing food to poor Black neighborhoods and got the idea to combine that with medical assistance to create mobile intensive-care units.

“One day, Hallen came across an article in the local paper, about a Black-operated jobs training program based in the Hill District called Freedom House. The article described how Freedom House had rolled out a kind of mobile grocery store for Black neighborhoods, using trucks to bring fresh vegetables to people’s doors.  Hallen initially thought something similar could be done to provide medical transportation to the underserved Black communities of Pittsburgh.”

Modern toilets have nothing on Pompeii when it comes to graffiti

The excavation of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was buried under an ocean of lava after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, has revealed beautiful murals, frescoes, temples and other examples of classical architecture. But it has also revealed some X-rated examples of ancient Roman graffiti as well, although this isn’t usually a part of most Pompeii tours. The blog Kashgar collected some of the best ones, and they read like the best (or worst) of the kind you find in modern washrooms, but with Roman names inserted where the modern North American names would otherwise be:

In the gladiator barracks: “Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion”

In a tavern: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates”

In a bar/brothel: “Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!”

In a bar: “I screwed the barmaid”

On a street wall: “Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog”

graffiti at pompei

Elizebeth Friedman, the godmother of crypto-analysis

Elizebeth Smith Friedman was one of the first cryptographers and one of the few women in the early years of crypto-analysis, and helped lead a team that cracked dozens of Enigma codes during World War II. Smith had been a public-school teacher but was looking for work in 1916 when she mentioned to a librarian in Chicago that she had studied Shakespeare, and the librarian mentioned this to Colonel George Fabyan, a wealthy and eccentric textile merchant who also had a fascination with the playwright.

Smith was soon hired to work at Fabyan’s private Riverbank Laboratories in Geneva, Illinois, one of the first facilities in the U.S. founded to study cryptography. She and another cryptographer she eventually married, William Friedman, were employed to decipher hidden messages that were allegedly contained in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, which Fabyan hoped would reveal the fact that Sir Francis Bacon actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s work. They were eventually hired away by the US government (over the protests of Fabyan, who intercepted their mail and removed multiple offers of employment), and their work formed the basis of what would become the National Security Agency.