October 22, 2020

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Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China’s role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias

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a sign on the side of a building: Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China's role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime


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Hillicon Valley: Murky TikTok deal raises questions about China’s role | Twitter investigating automated image previews over apparent algorithmic bias | House approves bill making hacking federal voting systems a crime

Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

TIKTOK TUSSLE: A deal to avert a U.S. ban on TikTok appears to have been reached over the weekend, but several questions remain about the contours of the pending agreement.

The most pressing is what role the short-form video app’s China-based parent company, ByteDance, will have in the newly formed entity TikTok Global.

President Trump suggested Monday that the deal could be in jeopardy if Oracle and Walmart – the two American companies involved in the proposal – do not have full control of the new TikTok.

“And if we find that they don’t have total control, then we’re not going to approve the deal,” he said during an appearance on “Fox & Friends.”

One of the next steps in the approval process includes a review by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

Without a term sheet being public, it is difficult to know the exact breakdown of the agreement, which was tentatively approved just before a Commerce Department order would have barred TikTok from appearing in U.S. app stores.

But from what is known, it appears that the deal falls far short of the full-on sale of TikTok to an American company that Trump originally called for in August.

Together, Oracle and Walmart will take only a 20 percent stake in the new company, TikTok said in a statement over the weekend.

According to ByteDance, other U.S.-based TikTok investors like Sequoia Capital and General Atlantic will stay on in the newly formed company, which has an estimated value of between $50 billion and $60 billion.

Even with the financial stakes of four U.S. companies, it is difficult to envision a scenario where ByteDance entirely removes itself from involvement in such a successful video app.

In a statement Monday, ByteDance emphasized it will remain in control of the new TikTok business and, crucially, the recommendation algorithm that makes the platform so popular.

That position was directly contradicted by Oracle executive vice president Ken Glueck, who said Monday that “Americans will be the majority and ByteDance will have no ownership in TikTok Global.”

The discrepancy may be explained by ByteDance’s ownership of TikTok Ltd., a business incorporated in the Cayman Islands that currently owns TikTok’s American operations.

Read more here.

ALGORITHMIC BIAS TEST CASE: Twitter is investigating the algorithm it uses to crop pictures for its mobile platform after several users pointed out a tendency to zero in on white faces.

Controversy over algorithmic bias in the automated cropping software started when user Colin Madland posted a thread about Zoom not picking up on a Black colleague’s face when using backgrounds.

Quickly he noticed that Twitter was showing only the side of the screen featuring him, a white man, in previews.

Several other users began testing the issue exposed in Madland’s thread and noted similar results.

Twitter user @NotAFile placed stock photos of a white man and a Black man with their positions swapped, and the white man was featured in the preview both times.

In response to user @bascule replicating the same results with pictures of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and former President Obama, Twitter’s communications team said it would look into the issue.

“We tested for bias before shipping the model & didn’t find evidence of racial or gender bias in our testing,” the team’s account said. “But it’s clear that we’ve got more analysis to do. We’ll continue to share what we learn, what actions we take, & will open source it so others can review and replicate.”

Twitter’s chief design officer, Dantley Davis, in another thread said that the platform would “dig into other problems with the model.”

“It’s 100% our fault,” Davis said elsewhere. “No-one should say otherwise.”

Read more here.

HACKERS BEWARE: The House on Monday unanimously approved legislation that would make hacking federal voting systems a federal crime.

The Defending the Integrity of Voting Systems Act, approved by the Senate last year, would make hacking federal voting infrastructure a crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is commonly used by the Justice Department to take action against malicious hackers.

The bipartisan bill was introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) last year.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) described the bill on the House floor Monday as “an important legislative initiative” in advance of the November general election.

“All of us want a fair and just election system, voting is an essential part of our democracy, we must ensure that our citizens have confidence in our electoral systems,” Jackson Lee said.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) also praised the bill, describing it as a way the federal government could play a role in helping states defend against threats to elections.

“Protecting our nation’s election process from bad actors must be a top priority of Congress,” Armstrong said on the House floor Monday. “Bad actors who attempt to interfere in our elections must be punished for their actions.”

Read more here.

GET OUT THE VOTE ON SOCIAL MEDIA: Facebook announced Monday that 2.5 million U.S. users have registered to vote in the upcoming general election through Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.

The number is more than halfway toward Facebook’s goal, announced earlier this year, of registering 4 million U.S. users to vote ahead of Nov. 3.

The registrations were announced as part of a kickoff of what Facebook described in a blog post as a “week of action” meant to highlight National Voter Registration Day on Tuesday.

“With six weeks until Election Day and registration deadlines fast approaching in many states, this week we’re putting the full force of our platform behind this campaign to empower every eligible voter to make their voice heard in this election,” the company wrote in the blog post.

As part of the effort, Facebook will continue showing users in the U.S. information about how to vote and register at the top of their news feeds through Friday, and on Monday kicked off a “More Questions, More Answers” campaign to raise voter awareness on its platform as well as the Facebook-owned Instagram.

Additionally, Facebook will run a virtual “vote-a-thon” on Tuesday featuring various celebrities to encourage people to vote, and it plans to launch a feature to help users get further information around early in-person and mail-in voting.

Read more here.

MAKE IT A PRIORITY: A judge in New York ordered the U.S. Postal Service to treat election mail as a priority Monday amid widespread reports of mail delays resulting from operational changes directed by President Trump‘s postmaster general.

The Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero wrote in his decision that agency workers should be allowed to make extra deliveries and work overtime ahead of the November election for the Postal Service to deliver election-related mail in a timely fashion.

“The right to vote is too vital a value in our democracy to be left in a state of suspense in the minds of voters weeks before a presidential election, raising doubts as to whether their votes will ultimately be counted,” Marrero said, according to the AP.

The judge went on to blame Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and Trump for making statements that he said gave “rise to management and operational confusion, to directives that tend to generate uncertainty as to who is in charge of policies that ultimately could affect the reliability of absentee ballots, thus potentially discouraging voting by mail.”

“Conflicting, vague, and ambivalent managerial signals could also sow substantial doubt about whether the USPS is up to the task, whether it possesses the institutional will power and commitment to its historical mission, and so to handle the exceptional burden associated with a profoundly critical task in our democratic system, that of collecting and delivering election mail a few weeks from now,” he added, according to the AP.

Read more here.

Lighter click: It’s the best day of the year 🙂

An op-ed to chew on: How technology shapes globalization

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Viral hate, election interference, and hacked accounts: inside the tech industry’s decades-long failure to reckon with risk (OneZero / Catherine Buni and Soraya Chemaly)

Gig Economy Company Launches Uber, But for Evicting People (Motherboard / Ashwin Rodrigues)

This Deal Helped Turn Google Into an Ad Powerhouse. Is That a Problem? (New York Times / Steve Lohr)

How to guard your social feeds against election misinformation (Recode / Rebecca Heilweil)

Video: Trump administration to ban Americans from downloading TikTok, WeChat (Fox Business)

Trump administration to ban Americans from downloading TikTok, WeChat

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