censorship

Misleading Project Veritas Accusations of Google “Bias” Could Prompt Bad Law

Tomorrow, the Senate’s Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on The Constitution will hold a hearing on Google’s alleged anti-conservative bias and “censorship.”  In a video released last month, James O’Keefe, a conservative activist, interviews an unnamed Google insider. The film, which has been widely shared by conservative outlets and cited by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and President Donald Trump, stitches a narrative of Orwellian, politically-motivated algorithmic bias out of contextless hidden camera footage, anodyne efforts to improve search results, and presumed links between unrelated products. Although the film’s claims are misleading and its findings unconvincing, they are taken seriously by lawmakers who risk using such claims to justify needless legislation and regulation. As such, they are worth engaging (the time stamps throughout this post refer to the Project Veritas video that can be viewed here).

Search algorithms use predefined processes to sift through the universe of available data to locate specific pieces of information. Simply put, they sort information in response to queries, surfacing whatever seems most relevant according to their preset rules. Algorithms that make use of artificial intelligence and machine learning draw upon past inputs to increase the accuracy of their results over time. These technologies have been adopted to improve the efficacy of search, particularly in relation to the gulf between how users are expected to input search queries, and the language they actually use to do so. They are only likely to be adopted to the extent that they improve the user’s search experience. When someone searches for something on Google, it is in the interest of both Google and the user for Google to return the most pertinent and useful results.

Board game enthusiasts, economics students, and those taking part in furious public policy debates over dinner all may have reasons to search for “Monopoly.” A company that makes it the easiest for such a diverse group of people to find what they’re looking for will enjoy increased traffic and profit than competitors. Search histories, location, trends, and additional search terns (e.g. “board game,” “antitrust”) help yield more tailored, helpful results.

Project Veritas’ film is intended to give credence to the conservative concern that culturally liberal tech firms develop their products to exclude and suppress the political right. While largely anecdotal, this concern has spurred hearings and regulatory proposals. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently introduced legislation that would require social media companies to prove their political neutrality in order to receive immunity from liability for their users speech. Last week, President Trump hosted a social media summit featuring prominent conservative activists and conspiracy theorists who claim to have run afoul of politically biased platform rules.

The film begins by focusing on Google’s efforts to promote fairer algorithms, which are treated as attempts to introduce political bias into search results. The insider claims that while working at Google, he found “a machine learning algorithm called ML fairness, ML standing for machine learning, and fairness meaning whatever they want to define as fair.” (6:34) The implication being that Google employees actively take steps to ensure that Google search results yield anti-conservative content rather than what a neutral search algorithm would. Unfortunately, what a “neutral” algorithm would look like is not discussed.

Although we’re living in the midst of a new tech-panic, we should remember that questions about bias in machine learning and attempts to answer them are not new, nor are they merely a concern of the right. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the International Committee of the Fourth International have expressed concerns about algorithmic bias. Adequate or correct representation is subjective, and increasingly a political subject. In 2017, the World Socialist Web Site sent a letter to Google, bemoaning the tech giant’s “anti-left bias” and claiming that “Google is “’disappearing’ the WSWS from the results of search requests.”

However, despite the breathlessness with which O’Keefe “exposes” Google’s efforts to reduce bias in its algorithms, he doesn’t bring us much new information. The documents he presents alongside contextless hidden camera clips of Google employees fail to paint a picture of fairness in machine learning run amok.

One of the key problems with O’Keefe’s video is that he creates a false dichotomy between pure, user created signals and machine learning inputs that have been curated to eliminate eventual output bias. The unnamed insider claims that attempts to rectify algorithmic bias are equivalent to vandalism: “because that source of truth (organic user input) has been vandalized, the output of the algorithm is also reflecting that vandalism” (8:14).

But there is little reason to presumptively expect organic data to generate more “truthful” or “correct” outputs than training data that has been curated in some fashion. Algorithms sort and classify data, rendering raw input useful. Part of tuning any given machine learning algorithm is providing it with training data, looking at its output, and then comparing that output to what we already know to be true.

The Federal Election Commission Is Bad Enough

Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook, has proposed Congress create a new agency to “create guidelines for acceptable speech on social media.”

As Hughes notes, this proposal “may seem un-American.” That’s because it is. At the very least, Hughes’ plan contravenes the past fifty years of American constitutional jurisprudence, and the deeply held values that undergird it. Let’s examine his case for such a momentous change.

China’s War on Free Speech

China’s market economy with socialist characteristics rose from the ashes of Mao Zedong’s failed experiments with central planning. Under that repressive regime, private enterprise was outlawed and individuals become wards of the state. When Deng Xiaoping became China’s paramount leader, he abandoned Mao’s class struggle as the centerpiece of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and embarked on economic liberalization. There was hope that greater freedom in trading goods and services would also lead to a freer market in ideas.

That hope was dashed when troops cracked down on protesters in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Deng’s famous “Southern Tour” in 1992 resumed economic reform—and China has become the world’s largest trading nation—but protectionism in the market for ideas remains intact. Under President Xi Jinping, who advocates globalization but has cracked down on the free flow of information, China has become less free. 

In the just released World Press Freedom Index, published by Paris-based Reporters sans Frontières (RSF), China is ranked 176 out of 180 countries, just a few notches above North Korea—and President Xi is referred to as “the planet’s leading censor and press freedom predator.” In preparation for the 19th CCP Congress later this year, there has been an uptick in the war on free speech. 

Campaign Finance Censors Lose Debate to Reddit

Yesterday, the website Reddit, which is aptly called “the front page of the Internet,” featured an interesting discussion on attempts to overturn Citizens United, the 2010 Supreme Court case that held that the First Amendment protects the right of corporations and unions to make independent expenditures in elections. A group of five people working to overturn the decision fielded questions from the community in a so-called “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) thread. Past AMAs have been created by a wide-range of famous and interesting people, including Jon Stewart and even Barack Obama.

The five advocates titled the thread “We’re Working on Overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court Decision – Ask Us Anything!” Fielding questions were Aquene Freechild from Public Citizen, Daniel Lee from Move to Amend, John Bonifaz from Free Speech for People, Lisa Graves from Center for Media and Democracy, and Zephyr Teachout former candidate for New York governor and associate professor of law at Fordham University.

At the beginning of the AMA they proclaimed:

January 21st is the 5th Anniversary of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United v. FEC decision that unleashed the floodgates of money from special interests.

Hundreds of groups across the country are working hard to overturn Citizens United. To raise awareness about all the progress that has happened behind the scenes in the past five years, we’ve organized a few people on the front lines to share the latest.

Surprisingly, at least to me, the AMA was a disaster. Reddit caters to younger people and, as such, it is generally quite left-wing. The Reddit “Politics” community, in particular, is known for having a substantial left-wing tilt. I had thought the community would rally around the advocates—pat them on the back, complain about the Koch brothers, and pontificate on how no “real” policy change can occur until “big money” is silenced.

Instead, the community not only asked excellent and difficult questions, but they clearly identified the fundamental problems with the advocates’ position.

More Censorship in Venezuela

More than 16,000 murders occurred in Venezuela in 2009. That compares with 4,550 homicides reported in 1998, the year Hugo Chavez was elected president. The fact that Venezuela now has one of the world’s highest violent crime rates underscores the Chavez revolution’s utter neglect of the basic and proper functions of government.

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

The Internet Is Not .gov’s to Regulate

Imagine that Congress passed a law setting up a procedure that could require ordinary citizens like you to remove telephone numbers from your phone book or from the “contacts” list in your phone. What about a policy that cut off the phone lines to an entire building because some of its tenants used the phone to plot thefts or fraud? Would it be okay with you if the user of the numbers coming out of your phone records or the tenants of the cut-off building had been adjudged “rogue” users of the phone?

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