Myanmar refugees sue Facebook for $150 billion

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Three years ago, a United Nations’ fact-finding mission looking into what it called a genocide committed against the Rohingya community in Myanmar—which saw hundreds of thousands of people displaced, and more than ten thousand tortured, and killed—released a report looking into the causes of the violence. One of the contributing factors, the UN mission found, was hate speech and propaganda spread via Facebook pages and accounts, including some that were maintained by Myanmar’s military police, known as the Tatmadaw. Although Facebook eventually took action to ban some of the most egregious examples, UN observers said these accounts and pages were able to foment violence and hatred against the Rohingya for months, if not years.

Facebook admitted that its own report on the violence in Myanmar—prepared by an independent non-profit called Business for Social Responsibility, and released at the same time as the UN report—found “we weren’t doing enough to help prevent our platform from being used to foment division and incite offline violence.” The company apologized for not doing more to prevent violence being fueled by its platform, and promised to expand its policies and add moderation in Myanmar. Some believe it needs to do a lot more, however: this week, in a multi-country effort, lawyers representing thousands of members of the Rohingya refugee community filed legal claims against Facebook demanding $150 billion in compensation for the harms their people suffered.

In the UK, the BBC reported that a British law firm representing some of the refugees has written a letter to Facebook, saying it plans to file a suit in Britain’s High Court because Facebook’s algorithms “amplified hate speech against the Rohingya people,”and that the company failed to hire moderators familiar with the political and cultural situation in Myanmar. The letter also claims that Facebook failed to “take appropriate and timely action” to remove posts or ban accounts that incited violence against the Rohingya. In the US, a law firm representing some Rohingya refugees filed a class action complaint in California, alleging that Facebook was “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration” in Myanmar.

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The fall of the Berlin Wall was triggered by an incompetent bureaucrat

Most people think the Berlin Wall came down because President Ronald Reagan told Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” But a historian explains that it was actually the product of a mistake, by a bureaucrat who hadn’t paid attention at a meeting about loosening entry and exit restrictions between the two halves of Germany, and who mis-spoke. He was supposed to say that residents of East Germany could apply for travel visas, but instead, he told them they were free to cross the border immediately. And the rest is history:

When the wall started to fall on November 9th, it was a mistake. In the face of mass protests against the regime in 1989 and thousands of East Germans seeking refuge at West German embassies in Eastern Europe, East German leaders waived the old visa rules stating that citizens needed a pressing reason for travel, such as a funeral or wedding of a family member. The Communist Party official who announced these changes, Guenter Schabowski, missed most of the key meeting about the travel procedures and went unprepared to a news conference. In response to reporters’ questions about when the new law would take effect, he said, “Immediately, without delay.”

Schabowski left the impression that people could immediately cross the border, though he meant to say they could apply for visas in an orderly manner. Over the next several hours, thousands of East Berliners gathered at the checkpoints along the wall. Since the country’s leaders hadn’t intended to completely open the border, the supervisors at the crossing points had received no new orders. The chief officer on duty at the Bornholmer Street checkpoint, Harald Jaeger, kept calling his superiors for guidance on how to handle the growing mass of increasingly angry East Berliners expecting to be let through. Jaeger finally gave up around 11:30 p.m. and allowed people to pass through en masse. The East German regime never fully regained control.

via “Five Myths About the Berlin Wall

Making platforms liable for algorithms is easier said than done

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Over the past several years, Congress has held a seemingly never-ending series of hearings into “Big Tech,” the handful of companies that control much of our online behavior: Facebook, Twitter, and Google. They’ve looked into whether the platforms allowed foreign agents to influence the 2016 election, whether their algorithms suppress certain kinds of speech, and whether they harm young women, and in many cases these hearings have been a forum for grandstanding. This week saw another in the series, a hearing by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called “Holding Big Tech Accountable: Targeted Reforms to Tech’s Legal Immunity.” The subject of the hearing was a piece of legislation that has been an ace in the hole for the platforms in all of their other congressional appearances: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

This clause protects electronic service providers from liability for the content posted by their users — even if that content is harmful, hateful, or misleading — and for the past few years, pressure has been building within Washington to somehow find a way around it. That pressure came to a head when former president Donald Trump signed an executive order in 2020 asking the Federal Trade Commission to do something about Section 230 (even though the agency has no legal right to do so). Before he became president, Joe Biden said that he believed Section 230 “needs to be revoked, immediately,” and since he took office a number of legislative proposals have been put forward in an attempt to do that, including a recent one from Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, which would carve out an exception for medical misinformation during a health crisis, making the platforms liable for distributing anything the government defines as untrue.

Republican members of Congress have introduced their own similar proposals for a host of other Section 230 carve-outs, aimed at forcing platforms to keep certain kinds of content (conservative speech), while forcing them to remove others (cyber-bullying, etc.). This week’s hearing was held to consider a number of other pieces of similar legislation aimed at weakening or even dismantling Section 230. They include one supported by four of the top Democratic members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, called “The Protecting Americans From Dangerous Algorithms Act,” which would expose the platforms to lawsuits for making personalized recommendations to users that cause them harm. At least some of the hearing was taken up — as many previous ones have been — with statements from Republican members about how platforms like Facebook and Twitter allegedly censor conservative content (which studies have shown is not true).

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The true story behind the board game Monopoly

For decades, Parker Brothers, the game company, liked to claim that the game Monopoly was invented by “a plucky entrepreneur named Charles Darrow in the middle of the Depression,” author Steven Berlin Johnson explains. But in fact, Monopoly began more than thirty years earlier, with a game patented in 1903 by a brilliant and multitalented political radical named Lizzie Magie. It was called The Landlord’s Game.

Born in Illinois in 1866, Magie had an eclectic and ambitious career. She worked at various points as a stenographer, poet, and journalist. She invented a device that made typewriters more efficient, and worked part-time as an actress on the stage. For a long time, her greatest claim to fame came through an act of political performance art, placing a mock advertisement in a local paper that put herself on the market as a “young woman American slave” — protesting the oppressive wage gap between male and female salaries.

Magie was also a devotee of the then-influential economist Henry George, who had argued in his bestselling 1879 book Progress and Poverty for an annual “land-value tax” on all land held as private property — high enough to obviate the need for other taxes on income or production. Many progressive thinkers and activists of the period integrated “Georgist” proposals for single-tax plans into their political platforms and stump speeches. But only Lizzie Magie appears to have decided that radical tax reform might make compelling subject matter for a board game.

As Johnson explains, Darrow would eventually be immortalized as the sole inventor of Monopoly, but was actually one of the great charlatans in gaming history. “Without altering the rules in any meaningful way, Darrow redesigned the board with the help of an illustrator named Franklin Alexander, and struck deals to sell it through the Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia and through FAO Schwarz. Before long, Darrow had sold the game to Parker Brothers in a deal that would make him a multimillionaire.”

In unrelated Monopoly news, a World War II intelligence officer named Christopher Clayton Hutton used Monopoly to smuggle escape plans and tools to prisoners in German POW camps.

Games like Monopoly were often allowed in the prison camps, as Germans believed it was a diversion for soldiers who might otherwise use their free time to plot escapes. Unbeknownst to them, some prisoners were actually receiving contraband within the game sets like silk maps—which could help them navigate to safety once outside of the prisons, and were quieter than paper maps. Along with the maps, the Monopoly boards could contain a small compass, a saw, and a file. Real money could even be concealed with the play money of the game.

Twitter’s new privacy policy could clash with journalism

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, Twitter said it is expanding its privacy policy to include what the company calls “private media.” The existing policy prevents users of the service from sharing other people’s private information — phone numbers, addresses, and other personal information that might make someone identifiable against their will. Users who share this kind of data have found their accounts blocked or restricted in a variety of ways. The new addition to the policy forbids “the misuse of media and information that is not available elswhere online as a tool to harass, intimidate, and reveal the identities of individuals.” Twitter said it is concerned because personal imagery can violate privacy and lead to emotional or physical harm, and this can “have a disproportionate effect on women, activists, dissidents and members of minority communities.”

Twitter’s blog post goes on to say that the ban applies to any imagery — photo or video — regardless of whether it includes actual abusive content. The important criteria, the company says, is that the content was posted “without the consent of the person depicted.” The only exception is if the person in question is “a public figure,” or if the relevant imagery is shared “in the public interest, or adds value to public discourse.” How the company will determine if the content is in the public interest is unknown, and how it defines the term “public figure” is also unclear. The new policy seems likely to re-ignite the kinds of debates that Twitter’s “newsworthiness” standard sparked when it was used to justify keeping abusive tweets posted by former president Donald Trump.

Even if the person is a public figure, Twitter says it may still remove images or videos if it believes that the purpose of the sharing the content was to “harass, intimidate, or use fear to silence them.” How Twitter intends to determine whether the images were posted in order to harass, intimidate, or silence an individual is unclear. The company says it will “try to assess the context in which the content is shared,” including whether the image is publicly available and/or is being covered by mainstream/traditional media, and whether it adds value to the public discourse or is “relevant to the community.” The policy adds that media shared about private individuals is acceptable provided it “contains eyewitness accounts or on the ground reports from developing events.”

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