Monthly Archives: April 2019

Lawmakers Demand Social Network Execs Reveal What They Spend to Fight Terrorism

Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty)

By Dell Cameron, Staff Reporter at Gizmodo  April 11, 2019

The head of the House subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism is on a quest to find out precisely how much money YouTube, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter are spending each to combat extremism across their myriad platforms. Since representatives of the companies seemed unequipped to answer that question during a briefing late last month, their CEOs are now being asked to cough up those figures.

Representative Max Rose, who chairs the subcommittee, sent a letter on Thursday to each of the four companies asking for among other details their annual budgets for counter-terrorism efforts and related programs, “expressed as absolute numbers as well as percentages of your company’s total annual operating budget.”

“We’ve seen in graphic detail the extent that terrorist organizations and extremists have used social media to amplify their reach and message in recent years,” he said. “While social media companies tell us they’re taking this seriously, I want to see the numbers to back that up—and won’t stop until we get answers.”

The letter also requests the number of employees dedicated solely to countering terrorists, including, it says, domestic terrorists, far-right extremists, and white supremacists, who’ve “made use of online platforms to connect with like-minded individuals and spread their ideologies.”

The letter is cosigned by Representatives Shiela Jackson Lee, James, Langevin, and Elissa Slotkin, each of whom also serves on the subcommittee.

“As you all know, a budget is a statement of values,” the letter continues. “We believe that the level of resources your companies allocate to containing and combating online terrorist content is a reflection of the seriousness with which you are approaching this issue.”

The letter also cites a number of incidents involving acts of terrorism committed by people who first posted hateful content online, including the terrorist behind the Christchurch massacres in New Zealand that resulted in 50 dead, another 50 injured; the far-right extremist who mailed pipebombs to Democratic politicians and journalists last year; and an anti-Semitic terrorist who murdered 11 worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, who regularly posted on the alt-right platform Gab.

“From the rise and spread of ISIS, to the recent attack in Christchurch, New Zealand which was livestreamed live on Facebook, serious questions remain as to how and what the companies are doing to combat the spread of terrorism and extremism,” Rose said.

The Newfound Power of Tech Workers

Former Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter lauded workers who took action to support their beliefs.
Credit: Mike Cohen for The New York Times

By Talya Minsberg, Senior Staff Editor at The New York Times  March 2, 2019

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — Ashton B. Carter, the former secretary of defense, understands why employees of technology companies have opposed partnerships and contracts with the United States government when it comes to artificial intelligence.

“My first reaction was ‘good on you’ because you are thinking morally and you are thinking about whether what you are doing is right or wrong,” Mr. Carter said at The New York Times New Work Summit in Half Moon Bay, Calif.

The sentiment comes at a time of strained relationships between Silicon Valley technology behemoths and the United States government.

The former defense secretary Ashton B. Carter, speaking at The New York Times’s New Work Summit/Leading in the Age of A.I., said it was essential for humans to take ultimate responsibility for A.I.’s decision making, especially in matters of life and death.
Credit: Mike Cohen for The New York Times

When Mr. Carter was secretary of defense in the Obama administration, he was often considered a bridge builder between the Beltway and the Valley, founding agencies that brought together technologists and policymakers.

He notably issued a directive that stands today. “In any application of machine-assisted weaponry that involves the use of lethal force, there shall be a human being involved in the decision-making,” he said.

But those partnerships have been tested in the past year as protests, pushback and petitions have circulated widely among employees of technology companies.

Last July, Microsoft employees presented their chief executive, Satya Nadella, with a petition signed by more than 300,000 people that called on the company to cancel its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Last June, Google declined to renew its contract with Project Maven at the Pentagon after extensive pushback from employees. The project used Google’s artificial intelligence software to improve the sorting and analysis of imagery from drones.

Microsoft workers presented their bosses last year with a petition opposing a government contract.                                       
Credit: Swayne B. Hall/Associated Press

And in October, Google executives declined to even bid on another artificial intelligence project at the Pentagon valued at as much as $10 billion.

These protests speak to the newfound power of employees, said Pedro Domingos, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the author of “The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World.”

“Employees of tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, have an extraordinary amount of power, which is much different than it was 50 years ago,” he said, adding that technology companies were major players in both World War II and the Cold War. “Often companies want to do things, but then they have to backtrack because they don’t want to displace employees.”

Mr. Carter was supportive of that kind of employee involvement in his conversation with Kevin Roose, a reporter for The Times. “It’s a fair thing to challenge your leaders,” Mr. Carter said. “That’s true for troops, and it’s true for employees at a tech company.”

But, he said, “I find a lot of things more objectionable than helping your country protect you.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by the president of Microsoft, Brad Smith. In October, Mr. Smith wrote his employees a public note on the Microsoft blog regarding defense projects and collaboration with the United States government.

“First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States, and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft,” he wrote. “We are not going to withdraw from the future. In the most positive way possible, we are going to work to help shape it.”

But at the New Work Summit, he also shared some instances in which he was uncomfortable working with the government when he had ethical and technological misgivings.

“We’re very excited about facial recognition technology, but we also have concerns,” he said, referencing a partnership he declined to enter with a local police force. “This is a space where there’s been well-documented cases of bias, invasion of privacy and the potential for fundamental democratic freedoms to be placed at risk.”

The way forward has to be in the hands of technology companies like Microsoft and Google and of the United States government, Mr. Carter said. But collaboration is more important now than ever.

“Technology and public purpose is the issue of our time,” he said.


A version of this article appears in print on , on Page F3 of the New York edition with the headline: Employees’ Newfound Power. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe