TikTok’s ties to China still a source of controversy

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

In July of 2020, TikTok—the Chinese-owned video-sharing service that has become popular with young internet users—was deep in talks to sell itself to Microsoft, or possibly Oracle, after the Trump administration suggested that TikTok’s Chinese ownership represented a national security threat. The president was said to be considering an executive order forcing ByteDance, TikTok’s parent company, to divest itself of the app, so a number of options were on the table, including selling a controlling stake in the $100-billion company to a consortium of US investment companies. Trump eventually issued an executive order banning US corporations from doing business with ByteDance, because of the alleged security risk posed by Chinese access to the app’s data, as well as allegations that the Chinese government forced TikTok to censor mentions of Tianenmen Square and similar protests. Despite all the furor, ByteDance was never forced to sell, and the issue seemed to fade from view after Joe Biden became president.

Over the next two years, however, TikTok’s command of the social-media marketplace has only increased, to the point where it now has more than one billion users worldwide. According to a recent report from David McCabe at the New York Times, the subject of TikTok’s ties to China and the potential security risk never went away, and in fact has grown more urgent in recent months—at least for some in Congress, and in the Biden administration. The Times reported that last year, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, met with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, and discussed China’s impact on US industrial policy. During that discussion, the Times wrote, Rubio raised concerns about Beijing’s influence over TikTok, and Sullivan said he shared those concerns. Mark Warner, the Democratic senator from Virginia, told the Times he had also been in “active conversations” with the administration about the app.

Such concerns were undoubtedly fueled in part by a report from Emily Baker-White at BuzzFeed that said staffers at ByteDance routinely accessed data on US TikTok users. “For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the US is stored in the US, rather than China,” Baker-White wrote. “But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users.” BuzzFeed reported that this happened despite sworn testimony from a TikTok executive in a 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decided who could access such data. “Nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing,” Baker-White wrote.

Continue reading “TikTok’s ties to China still a source of controversy”

The platforms and the challenges of the next election

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

With the midterm elections approaching in the US, the major social platforms have all released new statements about how they are planning to handle any misinformation and abuse that might arrive later this year. As Sarah Roach, Nat Rubio-Licht and Issie Lapowsky put it in Protocol’s “Source Code” newsletter on Wednesday: “It’s mid-August of an election year in America, which can only mean one thing: It’s time for every social media company to announce how it plans to combat whatever fresh hell November has in store.” Based on what Meta (the parent company of Facebook), Twitter, Google, and Tiktok have said about their midterm plans so far, the order of the day appears to be “stay the course.” In other words, none of the platforms appear to be making any dramatic departures from the way they handled the last election and its aftermath—and, depending on your perspective, that could be either a good thing or a bad thing.

Kurt Wagner and Alex Barinka wrote for Bloomberg that “after years of revising and updating its election strategy, Meta is pulling out a familiar playbook for the US midterms, sticking with many of the same tactics it used during the 2020 general election to handle political ads and fight misinformation. That largely means focusing on scrubbing misinformation about voting logistics and restricting any new political ads in the week prior to Election Day.” Nick Clegg, the head of global affairs at Meta and a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, wrote on the company’s blog on Tuesday that its approach to the 2022 US midterms “is consistent with the policies and safeguards we had in place during the 2020 US presidential election,” and that Facebook has “hundreds of people” working to prevent misinformation and abuse. Clegg also said the company plans to stick to its plan to review Donald Trump’s ban in January 2023, even if Trump declares his intention to run in the next election.

Not everyone is happy about Facebook’s decision to go forward with the same policies and practices it used in 2020, however. After Clegg posted the company’s plans on Twitter, NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics responded that by most accounts, Facebook’s misinformation policy “worked fairly well—until they disbanded the election integrity unit and slowed enforcement after Election Day. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake again.” Kayla Gogarty, deputy research director at Media Matters For America, said that she is “alwways skeptical of Facebook’s ad restrictions. Following the 2020 election, it banned ads about social issues, elections, and politics, but let The Daily Wire earn millions of impressions on ads that seemingly fit that criteria.”

Continue reading “The platforms and the challenges of the next election”

‘Day by Day, I Realized I Have the Freedom Here’

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

A group of Afghan employees from the Kabul bureau of The New York Times adjust after evacuation to the United States: “Marwa Rahim began the day preoccupied with something very different than war. She had bought a new pink-and-white dress for the return of in-person medical school, and it needed to be pressed. Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, had reliable power only in the middle of the night, so she set her alarm for 2 a.m., ironed her dress and went back to bed. When she awoke at 7 a.m., she saw the text from a friend: The Taliban were advancing, fast. Marwa put on her dress anyway, hoping she might still make it to class.”

Hackers linked to China have been targeting human rights groups for years

A hacking group linked to China has spent the last three years targeting human rights organizations, think tanks, news media, and agencies of multiple foreign governments, according to a revealing new report from the cybersecurity firm Recorded Future. The report, shared exclusively with MIT Technology Review, offers new clues about how the Chinese government gains the ability to hit more espionage targets—and frees up resources within intelligence and military agencies to carry out more advanced hacking.

Continue reading “‘Day by Day, I Realized I Have the Freedom Here’”

The Money Is In All The Wrong Places

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

Two weeks ago, Sydney Sweeney was on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. The accompanying profile was full of glamorous photos, as is the custom. In the story that ran under and around those images, Sweeney talked about how frustrating it has been for her to watch nepotism babies breezily enter an industry she fought to be in, and how Hollywood doesn’t encourage loyalty, and how she still feels somewhat financially insecure. This, as you can imagine, created swift and immediate backlash—against Sweeney.

Dave Karpf on the problems with “longterm-ism”

Longtermist philosopher William MacAskill has a book coming out soon, and he’s been on quite the media blitz. You can read an adapted excerpt here, in the New York Times, or read his Time Magazine cover story, or his Foreign Affairs article or listen to Ezra Klein interview him, or read Gideon Lewis-Kraus’s in-depth profile in the New Yorker. But Dave Karpf, a professor from George Washington University, says: “There’s something deeply troubling about Longtermism. I don’t mind it as a philosophical thought-experiment, but it has adopted the trappings of a social movement (one that is remarkably popular with rich technologists like Elon Musk), and we ought to ask some hard questions about who is promoting it and what it ultimately aims to achieve.

Continue reading “The Money Is In All The Wrong Places”

Heather Havrilesky on writing

From Heather Havrilesky’s excellent newsletter “Ask Molly,” some thoughts on writing:

“One of the best qualities a writer can have is the conviction that not every thought that passes through her head is interesting or useful or entertaining or worthwhile. This is also a quality that makes it very difficult to write. If you return to the same default of questioning the value of your words… well, you have to be writing a lot of words to publish any of them. First drafts of useless bullshit tend to pile up on your desktop.”

“When your writing seems magnificent, you feel almost supernatural. When your writing seems pointless, you feel like a farm worker whose sleeves got caught in the threshing machine one day. Your hands are mangled and you can’t do your job and you definitely blame yourself, even though the social worker making wellness visits keeps insisting otherwise. She’s very nice and her zucchini bread is delicious but she doesn’t understand you. You have a head full of manual tasks and a heart full of harvests. Corn is ripening and then turning brown inside your limbs. There’s a full moon inside your skull, pressing on your forehead. But all you can do is sit in one place, staring at your hands.”

For Sale: The ‘Sexiest’ Hourly Rate Hotel in Manhattan

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

The Liberty Inn, the last hourly rate hotel in Manhattan’s meatpacking district, bills its rooms as the “most sexiest” in the city, and according to the New York Times, for nearly 50 years it has “provided sanctuary for bouts of afternoon passion, clandestine affairs and lunchtime quickies.” So when it was reported that it had been put on the market with hopes of fetching about $25 million, Alex Vadukul decided to check in, to bear witness to a kinky vestige of old New York before it was gone.

The Reluctant Prophet of Effective Altruism

“Effective altruism,” which used to be a loose, Internet-enabled affiliation of the like-minded, is now a broadly influential faction, especially in Silicon Valley, and controls philanthropic resources worth about $30 billion. Though William MacAskill is only one of the movement’s principal leaders, “his conspicuous integrity and easygoing charisma have made him a natural candidate for head boy,” says the New Yorker.

Continue reading “For Sale: The ‘Sexiest’ Hourly Rate Hotel in Manhattan”

A backcountry camping trip to Spider Lake

This year for our backcountry camping trip we went to Spider Lake (the one in Massassauga Provincial Park, west of Highway 400 just south of Parry Sound, not the several other Spider Lakes I found when I tried to search Google). We went in through Three-Legged Lake, after checking in at the park office — which is across the road at Oastler Lake, and a ways north of the put in. It was a beautiful sunny day, and without much wind at all, we made pretty good time paddling to the far west side of Three-Legged Lake, where the portage is. Or rather, we *would* have made good time if we had been going the right way. Which we weren’t, as it turns out.

Becky and I were in one canoe, following a couple of strangers who seemed to know where they were going. But Marc and Kris had the map in their canoe and they said we had to turn left. So we did, and as we were paddling past some cottages, a woman shouted out: “Are you going into the park?” Yes, we said — Spider Lake. “It’s the other way!” she yells, pointing in exactly the opposite direction. “Don’t worry, it happens to lots of people!” We waved and then turned around and headed back the way we came, only to have a kid at a different cottage yell “Are you going to Spider Lake?” Yes, we said. “It’s that way,” he yelled, pointing to the northwest. Very helpful crowd on Three-Legged Lake! And apparently quite used to people who don’t know where they are going 😂

At the portage, we got out the canoe cart, since we brought two old and heavy canoes this year, instead of renting nice light Kevlar ones which we could carry over our heads. It was only a short portage, maybe 350 metres, although there was a fair bit of up and down and tree roots etc. to get the cart over, and a wooden gangplank across a swamp that had a bunch of soft and broken boards. On the portage, we ran into a young woman and her husband and three kids — one a baby, maybe six months old, and two who looked to be about five and seven maybe. They also had two dogs, a setter and what looked like a Samoyed.

Continue reading “A backcountry camping trip to Spider Lake”

Facebook, abortion, and data privacy

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

This week, Meta—the parent company of Facebook—was widely criticized for handing over private messages between a mother and her 17-year-old daughter in Nebraska, in which they discussed ending the girl’s pregnancy. According to the Lincoln Journal Star, police in Nebraska got an anonymous tip in April that the girl had suffered a miscarriage and then buried the remains. They charged the girl and her mother in early June with a felony—for disposing of the body—and two misdemeanors, for concealing evidence and making a false report. After those charges were filed, the police officer investigating the case got a court order that forced Facebook to produce the private message history between the mother and her daughter, and found evidence that they ended the pregnancy by using abortifacient pills. The mother was charged with two additional felonies: one for performing or attempting an abortion on a pregnancy at more than 20 weeks, which is illegal in Nebraska, and one for performing an abortion without a medical license.

Although the ending of the pregnancy and the court order both took place before Roe v. Wade was overturned, many argue the incident is still a sign of what might happen now that abortion has become illegal or is likely to become illegal in a number of states. The story “shows in shocking detail how abortion could and will be prosecuted in the United States, and how tech companies will be enlisted by law enforcement to help prosecute their cases,” Vice wrote, in a story detailing the text messages. But Andy Stone, head of communications at Meta, said on Twitter that “nothing in the valid warrants we received from local law enforcement in early June, prior to the Supreme Court decision, mentioned abortion. The warrants concerned charges related to a criminal investigation and court documents indicate that police at the time were investigating the case of a stillborn baby who was burned and buried, not a decision to have an abortion.” The warrants also originally included non-disclosure orders, Stone said, “which prevented us from sharing any information about them” (the orders have been lifted).

Casey Newton, who writes a technology-focused newsletter called Platformer, said the consensus he saw emerging on Twitter and elsewhere following the incident was that Facebook was wrong for turning the private messages between the girl and her daughter over to police. “But of course Facebook complied with law enforcement’s request,” he wrote. “All the company would have known at the time is that police were investigating a stillborn fetus, and on what basis could the company credibly reject that request?” Both Google and Facebook receive tens of thousands of requests every year from government bodies and law enforcement, and expecting them to resist all of them seems naieve. Even if Facebook could somehow determine whether a specific court order was worthy or not, Newton writes, “there are costs to continuously flouting the government [and] you can bet that somewhere a Republican attorney general is salivating over a court battle that would put Facebook, abortion, and his name in the headlines.”

Continue reading “Facebook, abortion, and data privacy”