Weekly Roundup 12/16/20

Top weekly tech headlines curated for you.
A person communicates with a chatbot on a phone screen.
Image credit: The World Economic Forum's Chatbots RESET report

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission sued Facebook for anti-competitive and monopolistic conduct. After a long period of investigation, the complaint alleges that Facebook's acquisition of Instagram in 2012 and of WhatsApp in 2014 were part of a systematic strategy to eliminate any threat to its monopoly on social networking. The complaint also cites Facebook's anticompetitive conditions imposed on software developers, such as only allowing APIs available to third parties if they agreed to refrain from developing competing functionality or promoting other social media platforms.

 

The lawsuit occurs against a political backdrop that is increasingly critical of Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech giants. It is important to note, however, that this lawsuit pertains only to Facebook's predatory treatment of smaller tech companies, not its accountability in the content or information space. While the legal proceedings of this case could last from months to years, it is possible that the end result would be a breakup of WhatsApp and Instagram from their parent company, akin to legal battles with Google's parent, Alphabet.

 

This week's top tech headlines, curated for you:

 

Civic Tech:

Open Internet:

  • The Uganda Communications Commission petitioned Google to block all YouTube channels that "misrepresent facts in a manner likely to mislead the public."  Most of the channels in question are affiliated with the opposition party, the National Unity Platform, and other political pressure groups.
  • Twitter, Mozilla, and other tech companies have signed on to an open letter to the EU, recommending a "tech-neutral and human rights-based" approach to content moderation and takedowns in response to what they call the "crossroads for the open internet." The letter urges regulators to consider alternatives to content removal (such as reduced visibility and shareability) where legal but harmful content is concerned so as not to have an outsized regulatory impact on smaller tech platforms compared to giants like Google and Facebook.
  • Mnemonic, a human rights NGO, has launched a global archive designed to support the advocacy of human rights defenders through digitally documenting human rights abuses and international crimes. Mnemonic has also conducted extensive research into the risks of content moderation on social media and worked with platforms to reinstate thousands of removed posts that can document human rights violations and aid truth and reconciliation efforts in conflict areas.

Disinformation:

 

Cybersecurity:

  • Suspected Russian hackers gained access to internal emails in the U.S. Treasury and Commerce departments through software updates to SolarWinds, an IT service for the federal government. Spies may have been monitoring internal communications for months. This announcement came shortly after it was revealed that premier American cybersecurity firm FireEye had also been compromised by hackers with ties to Russia.
  • As of Monday, December 14, apps in the Mac and iOS App Stores will display mandatory privacy labels to help users understand each app’s privacy and data use practices. While experts have cautioned that we have yet to see how effectively this system will work as it the level of user testing that went into this approach is unclear, this extensive tactic from a global tech giant is recognized as a promising step. 
  • The Federal Trade Commission announced Monday that it is ordering nine of the largest social media and video streaming companies in the world, including Amazon, Facebook, and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance, to provide information on how they collect and use their users’ personal data. 
  • The US Federal Communications Commission continued movements against Huawei and China Telecom last Friday, in the name of protecting national security from the Beijing government. Carriers have been ordered to remove Huawei devices and the US FCC is inquiring into China Telecom’s ability to operate within the US. The restrictions emerge out of concerns over Chinese surveillance activity outside its national borders.

 

Bots/Chatbots:

  • The World Economic Forum published a framework for governing responsible use of AI chatbots in healthcare contexts. As the COVID-19 pandemic has burdened healthcare providers and increased demand for telehealth options, chatbots have demonstrated potential to communicate effectively with patients. This paper on chatbots presents ten principles for responsible use and recommendations to operationalize those principles in the use of healthcare chatbots.

 

Other Tech News:

  • Reddit has acquired Dubsmash, a short video platform considered a rival to TikTok. 
  • Following Google's controversial firing of AI ethics researcher Timnit Gebru, some in the field have begun to see parallels between Big Tech's funding of AI ethics research in academia and the historic efforts of Big Tobacco to fund research on links between smoking and health after the 1950s.
  • Recent announcements from Silicon Valley stalwarts Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) and Oracle (ORCL) of their relocation to Texas, along with Elon Musk announcing his move last week, have contributed to what some are calling the “tech exodus.”
  • Consumer advocates say they've found major problems with the The Federal Communications Commission’s move last week to award $9.2 billion to 180 broadband providers – including sending money to wealthy urban areas that are adjacent to high-speed networks, despite the FCC’s claim that the money will bring Internet access to 5.2 million "unserved" homes and businesses in rural areas.

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