posted 1 day ago on re/code
Apple iPhones offer Face ID, which allows you to unlock your phone and some apps by using a facial scan. | AFP via Getty Images A growing number of gadgets are scanning your face. Facial recognition is having a reckoning. Recent protests against racism and police brutality have shined a light on the surveillance tools available to law enforcement, and major tech companies are temporarily backing away from facial recognition and urging federal officials to step in and regulate. Late last month, we learned of the first-known false arrest caused by a faulty facial recognition system, involving a Black man in Michigan identified by software that Detroit’s police chief later admitted had a 96 percent misidentification rate. And a policy group from the Association for Computing Machinery, a computing society with nearly 100,000 members, has called for the suspension of corporate and government use of the technology, citing concerns that its built-in biases could seriously endanger people. There’s also pressure from Congress. Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley and Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ed Markey have proposed new legislation that would prohibit federal government use of facial recognition and encourage state and local governments to do the same. It’s one of the most sweeping proposals to limit the controversial biometric technology in the United States yet and has been hailed by racial justice and privacy advocates. All of this follows a move by several major technology companies, including IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft, to pause or limit law enforcement’s access to their own facial recognition programs. But amid the focus on government use of facial recognition, many companies are still integrating the technology into a wide range of consumer products. In June, Apple announced that it would be incorporating facial recognition into its HomeKit accessories and that its Face ID technology would be expanded to support logging into sites on Safari. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, some firms have raced to put forward more contactless biometric tech, such as facial recognition-enabled access control. “When we think about all of these seemingly innocuous ways that our images are being captured, we have to remember we do not have the laws to protect us,” Mutale Nkonde, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Klein Center, told Recode. “And so those images could be used against you.” The convenience that many find in consumer devices equipped with facial recognition features stands in stark contrast to the growing pressure to regulate and even ban the technology’s use by the government. That’s a sign that officials looking to effectively regulate the tech will have to take into account its range of uses, from facial recognition that unlocks a smartphone to the dystopian-sounding databases operated by law enforcement. After all, when earlier this year Recode asked Sen. Jeff Merkley what inspired his push to regulate the technology, he pointed out how quickly the Photos app on his iPhone could identify members of his family. He was struck by how easily law enforcement could be able to track people with the technology, but also how powerful it had already become on his own device. “You can hit that person, and every picture that you’ve taken with that person in it will show up,” Merkley said at the time. “I’m just going, ‘Wow.’” Facial recognition is becoming more widespread in consumer devices One of the most popular uses of facial recognition is verification, which is often used for logging into electronic devices. Rather than typing in a passcode, a front-facing camera on the phone snaps a picture of the user and then deploys facial recognition algorithms to confirm their identity. It’s a convenient (though not completely fool-proof) feature made popular when Apple launched Face ID with the iPhone X in 2017. Many other phone companies, including Samsung, LG, and Motorola, now provide facial recognition-based phone unlocking, and the technology is increasingly being used for easier log-ins on gaming consoles, laptops, and apps of all kinds. But some consumer-focused applications of facial recognition go beyond verification, meaning they’re not just trying to identify their own users but also other people. One early example of this is Facebook’s facial recognition-based photo tagging, which scans through photos users post to the platform in order to suggest certain friends they can tag. Similar technology is also at work in apps like Google Photos and Apple Photos, both of which can automatically identify and tag subjects in a photo. Apple is actually using the tagging feature in its Photos app to power the new facial recognition feature in HomeKit-enabled security cameras and smart doorbells. Faces that show up in the camera feed can be cross-referenced with the database from the Photos app, so that you’re notified when, for instance, a specific friend is knocking on your door. Google’s Nest cameras and other facial recognition-enabled security systems offer similar features. Face-based identification is also popping up in some smart TVs that can recognize which member of a household is watching and suggest tailored content. Facial recognition is being used for identification and verification in a growing number of devices, but there will likely be possibilities for the technology that go beyond those two consumer applications. The company HireVue scans faces with artificial intelligence to evaluate job applicants. Some cars, like the Subaru Forester, use biometrics and cameras to track whether drivers are staying focused on the road, and several companies are exploring software that can sense emotion in a face, a feature that could be used to monitor drivers. But that can introduce new bias problems, too. “In the context of self-driving cars, they want to see if the driver is tired. And the idea is if the driver is tired then the car will take over,” said Nkonde, who also runs the nonprofit AI for the People. “The problem is, we don’t [all] emote in the same way. “ The blurry line between facial recognition for home security and private surveillance for police Facial recognition systems have three primary ingredients: a source image, a database, and an algorithm that’s trained to match faces across different images. These algorithms can vary widely in their accuracy and, as researchers like MIT’s Joy Buolamwini have documented, have been shown disproportionately inaccurate based on categories like gender and race. Still, facial recognition systems can differ in the size of their databases — that is, how many people a system can identify — as well as by the number of cameras or images they have access to. Face ID is an example of a facial recognition technology used for identity verification. The system checks that a user’s face matches up with the face that’s trying to open the device. For Face ID, the details of an individual user’s face have been previously registered on the device. As such, the Apple algorithm is simply answering the question of whether or not the person is the phone’s user. It is not designed to identify a large number of people. Only one user’s biometric information is involved, and importantly, Apple does not send that biometric data to the cloud; it remains on the user’s device. When more than one person is involved, facial recognition-based identity verification is more complicated. Take Facebook’s facial recognition-based photo tagging, for instance. It scans through a user’s photos to identify their friends, so it’s not just identifying the user, which is Face ID’s only job. It’s trying to spot any of the user’s friends that have opted in to the facial recognition-based tagging feature. Facebook says it doesn’t share peoples’ facial templates with anyone, but it took years for the company to give users control over the feature. Facebook failed to get users’ permission before implementing the photo-tagging feature back in 2010; this year, the company agreed to pay $550 billion to settle a lawsuit over violating users’ privacy. Facebook did not start asking users to opt in until 2019. The question of consent becomes downright problematic in the context of security camera footage. Google Nest Cams, Apple HomeKit cameras, and other devices can let users create albums of familiar faces so they can get a notification when the camera’s facial recognition technology spots one of those people. According to Apple, the new HomeKit facial recognition feature lets users turn on notifications for when people tagged in their Photos app appear on camera. It also lets them set alerts for people who frequently come to their doorway, like a dog-walker, but not in their photo library app. Apple says the identification all happens locally on the devices. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images Google Nest Cameras provide a video feed through a smartphone app and, for a small monthly fee, offer facial recognition features. The new Apple feature is similar to the familiar face detection feature that can be used with Google’s Nest doorbell and security cameras. But use of the feature, which is turned off by default, is somewhat murky. Google warns users that, depending on the laws where they live, they may need to get the consent of those they add notifications for, and some may not be able to use it at all. For instance, Google does not make the feature available in Illinois, where the state’s strict Biometric Information Privacy Act requires explicit permission for the collection of biometric data. (This law was at the center of the recent $550 billion Facebook settlement.) Google says its users’ face libraries are “stored in the cloud, where it is encrypted in transit and at rest, and faces aren’t shared beyond their structure.” So Google- and Apple-powered security cameras are explicitly geared to consumers, and the databases used by their facial recognition algorithms are more or less limited. The line between consumer tech like this and the potential for powerful police surveillance tools, however, becomes blurred with the security systems made by Ring. Ring, which is owned by Amazon, partners with police departments, and while Ring says its products do not currently use facial recognition technology, multiple reports indicate that the company sought to build facial recognition-based neighborhood watchlists. Ring has also distributed surveys to beta testers to see how they would feel about facial recognition features. The scope of these partnerships is worrisome enough that on Thursday Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, head of the House Oversight Committee, asked for more information about Ring’s potential facial recognition integrations, among other questions about the product’s long-standing problem with racism. So it seems that as facial recognition systems become more ambitious — as their databases become larger and their algorithms are tasked with more difficult jobs — they become more problematic. Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode that facial recognition needs to be evaluated on a “sliding scale of harm.” When the technology is used in your phone, it spends most of its time in your pocket, not scanning through public spaces. “A Ring camera, on the other hand, isn’t deployed just for the purpose of looking at your face,” Guariglia said. “If facial recognition was enabled, that’d be looking at the faces of every pedestrian who walked by and could be identifying them.” So it’s hardly a surprise that officials are most aggressively pushing to limit the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement. Police departments and similar agencies not only have access to a tremendous amount of camera footage but also incredibly large face databases. In fact, the Georgetown Center for Privacy and Technology found in 2016 that more than half of Americans are in a facial recognition database, which can include mug shots or simply profile pictures taken at the DMV. And recently, the scope of face databases available to police has grown even larger. The controversial startup Clearview AI claims to have mined the web for billions of photos posted online and on social media to create a massive facial recognition database, which it has made available to law enforcement agencies. According to Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, this represents a frightening future for facial recognition technology. “Its effects, when it’s in government’s hands, can be really severe,” Laperruque said. “It can be really severe if it doesn’t work, and you have false IDs that suddenly become a lead that become the basis of a whole case and could cause someone to get stopped or arrested.” He added, “And it can be really severe if it does work well and if it’s being used to catalog lists of people who are at protests or a political rally.” Regulating facial recognition will be piecemeal The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act recently introduced on Capitol Hill is sweeping. It would prohibit federal use of not only facial recognition but also other types of biometric technologies, such as voice recognition and gait recognition, until Congress passes another law regulating the technology. The bill follows other proposals to limit government use of the technology, including one that would require a court-issued warrant to use facial recognition and another that would limit biometrics in federally assisted housing. Some local governments, like San Francisco, have also limited their own acquisition of the technology. So what about facial recognition when it’s used on people’s personal devices or by private companies? Congress has discussed the use of commercial facial recognition and artificial intelligence more broadly. A bill called the Consumer Facial Recognition Privacy Act would require the explicit consent of companies collecting peoples’ biometric information, and the Algorithmic Transparency Act would require large companies to check their artificial intelligence, including facial recognition systems, for bias. But the ubiquitous nature of facial recognition means that regulating the technology will inevitably require piecemeal legislation and attention to detail so that specific use cases don’t get overlooked. San Francisco, for example, had to amend its facial recognition ordinance after it accidentally made police-department-owned iPhones illegal. When Boston passed its recent facial recognition ordinance, it created an exclusion for facial recognition used for logging into personal devices like laptops and phones. “The mechanisms to regulators are so different,” said Brian Hofer, who helped craft San Francisco’s facial recognition ban, adding that he’s now looking at creating local laws modeled after Illinois’ Biometric Privacy Act that focus more on consumers. “The laws are so different it would be probably impossible to write a clean, clearly understood bill regulating both consumer and government.” A single law regulating facial recognition technology might not be enough. Researchers from the Algorithmic Justice League, an organization that focuses on equitable artificial intelligence, have called for a more comprehensive approach. They argue that the technology should be regulated and controlled by a federal office. In a May proposal, the researchers outlined how the Food and Drug Administration could serve as a model for a new agency that would be able to adapt to a wide range of government, corporate, and private uses of the technology. This could provide a regulatory framework to protect consumers from what they buy, including devices that come with facial recognition. Meanwhile, the growing ubiquity of facial recognition technology stands to normalize a form of surveillance. As Rochester Institute of Technology professor Evan Selinger argues, “As people adapt to routinely using any facial scanning system and it fades to the background as yet another unremarkable aspect of contemporary digitally mediated life, their desires and beliefs can become reengineered.” And so, even if there is a ban on law enforcement using facial recognition and it’s effective to a degree, the technology is still becoming a part of everyday life. We’ll eventually have to deal with its consequences. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 2 days ago on re/code
Reid Hoffman, former executive chair of LinkedIn, on July 11, 2017, in Sun Valley, Idaho.  | Drew Angerer/Getty Images After the boycott of Facebook, Reid Hoffman thinks maybe it’s time for a boycott of Trump. Amid the advertiser boycott of Facebook, one of the Democratic Party’s biggest megadonors, Reid Hoffman, is exploring ways to launch a similar boycott of President Trump and his White House. Hoffman, the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, could spend as much as $100 million this election cycle and has elbowed his way into becoming one of the most powerful players in Democratic politics. So what issues attract his attention — and, correspondingly, his money — matter because they can help explain where the progressive movement will focus over the summer. Hoffman foreshadowed what may be his next political move this week when asked about the building protest movement against Facebook over its unwillingness to aggressively moderate Trump’s inflammatory posts. Hoffman volunteered a revealing tidbit about his political thinking. “Frankly, on the political side, one of the things I’ve been thinking about trying to go stimulate for the next month is an anti-Trump boycott,” Hoffman said in an interview on Tuesday with Anne-Marie Slaughter, the head of New America. “The various forms of enrichment with Mar-a-Lago and all the rest should not be part of an American political system. It should be protested in economic ways, as well as political ways.” Hoffman didn’t offer much detail about the idea, which is said to be in its early stages. But if companies are thinking about ways to stand up against racial hatred, Hoffman’s team thinks they shouldn’t just boycott Facebook, which broadcasts that hatred, but rather those who voice it, like Trump. Based on some of his past conversations, the move by Hoffman could resemble an effort like Grab Your Wallet, a campaign that convinced some retailers, including Nordstrom and T.J. Maxx, to drop products associated with Trump and his family. According to Shannon Coulter, the campaign’s leader, Hoffman’s team reached out to Grab Your Wallet and has had extensive talks about a donation since 2017. Hoffman’s team has declined to fund Grab Your Wallet because Coulter said they preferred to focus on electoral politics, and she hasn’t heard from Hoffman’s team in about a year. Grab Your Wallet has now broadened its work to focus on boycotting companies with board members or executives that have supported Trump politically. There are signs that this type of organizing works — the attendance at SoulCycle fell after a boycott sprang up to protest that the fitness company’s majority investor, Stephen Ross, was hosting a fundraiser for Trump. Another possibility is that Hoffman may try to organize some boycott of Trump properties, such as Mar-a-Lago, which he mentioned in the interview. The problem with that approach, though, is that now, five years after Trump announced his run for president, the brands and people that are willing to be associated with Trump properties, including his hotel in Washington, DC, have already weathered much blowback and chosen to stick around. “Something focused on Mar-a-Lago is unlikely to work, in my opinion, for the same reason it doesn’t work to boycott Trump’s hotels,” Coulter said. “The people who patronize those places are already very much on Team Trump.” The advertiser boycott of Facebook has perhaps proven a model for boycotts of brands. After Facebook repeatedly declined to moderate Trump’s inflammatory posts about racial justice protests, a group of civil rights organizations launched a campaign called Stop Hate for Profit that has convinced some of the country’s biggest brands to pause advertising on Facebook, even if it’s unclear whether that will make a serious dent in Facebook’s revenue. Facebook recently announced new plans to regulate hate speech. One of Facebook’s early investors was Hoffman’s venture capital firm, Greylock, and Hoffman and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg remain close. What Hoffman chooses to fund is closely watched in the Democratic Party. While he has had his share of stumbles and detractors in the world of politics, he and his team are the tip of the Silicon Valley spear as the tech community marshals its considerable resources to boost presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. But there are some signs that the tech community and Biden still don’t see totally eye to eye. Biden has called for the immediate revocation of Section 230, the landmark law that protects publishers like Facebook from liability over what third parties say or do on the platform. Asked what Hoffman, who has advised Biden on digital campaigning, would say to Biden about Section 230, Hoffman drew some distance from his chosen candidate, saying that there should be “less-absolute-than-publisher liability, but more than no liability.” A viewer of the session asked Hoffman about a recent Washington Post editorial saying that both Biden and Trump — who also wants to revoke Section 230, albeit for different reasons — were wrong. “Both of those two positions seem to be badly put from an American values perspective,” Hoffman said. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
TuSimple’s new autonomous freight network is backed by companies including UPS, Penske, and Berkshire Hathaway’s McLane. | TuSimple The self-driving truck company TuSimple is laying the groundwork for a futuristic autonomous freight industry. Fully autonomous trucking may be one step closer to reality. On Wednesday, the San Diego-based self-driving startup TuSimple announced what it’s calling the world’s first autonomous freight network. That means that the company is laying the groundwork for delivering a lot more of our stuff with self-driving trucks. TuSimple is hardly the only company working to making fully automated shipping a reality. Several companies, including Aurora, Daimler, and Embark Trucks, are competing for a slice of the future of self-driving freight trucks. Alphabet-owned Waymo confirmed on Tuesday that it will be expanding its own self-driving trucking routes throughout the American Southwest and Texas, following previous tests in Arizona, California, Michigan, and Georgia. TuSimple’s expansion plans seem more concrete than some of its competitors. The company is expanding existing shipments with UPS, which has also invested in TuSimple, and the foodservice delivery giant McLane. The major shipping company US Xpress, one of the nation’s largest freight companies, will also start shipping goods through TuSimple, which now has 22 contracted customers. Those companies will ultimately have influence over which routes are digitally mapped out next for self-driving trucks. “Imagine if you could influence, back in the day, where a railroad track was being built, and you could build that railroad track right to your front door,” TuSimple president Cheng Lu told Recode. “As a shipper, wouldn’t that give you a big advantage?” TuSimple plans to expand its routes in the next four years, starting with the addition of new delivery service throughout the Texas triangle of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio in 2020 and 2021. (The company plans to keep drivers behind the self-driving wheel just in case something goes awry.) By 2023, the company wants its self-driving trucks on routes between Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Florida, and hopes to be shipping nationwide by 2024. Currently, TuSimple has just 40 autonomous trucks in use — though it’s adding 10 more later this year — and its longest route is the 1,000-mile drive between Phoenix and Dallas. TuSimple’s trucks are (eventually) meant to operate without humans; they will be trained on mapped routes, but the goal is to autonomously navigate traffic— and other surprises — on the roads. The challenge is building a trustworthy, AI-powered “virtual driver” that can effectively process information from a wide array of sensors, like lots and lots of high-quality cameras, but also lidar and radar. TuSimple, which was valued at around $1 billion last year, is mainly focused on long-haul trucking and hasn’t spent as much time on self-driving cars. That’s a big difference from Waymo, which has focused on last-mile delivery and has already used its smaller self-driving minivans to move packages for UPS and AutoNation. In a call with reporters on Tuesday, Waymo’s commercial lead for trucking, Charlie Jatt, shared how the company plans to move forward with trucking. The strategy centers on demonstrating and testing a platform for self-driving trucks until the technology can be implemented into vehicles and parts produced by other manufacturers. “We see ourselves as a technology company, not a trucking or fleet management company,” Jatt said, according to a transcript of the call. “We’re developing the Waymo Driver and then will partner with OEMs to ensure that our technology can be successfully integrated on classic trucks that are being manufactured and sold to the market in the future.” Waymo said it is manufacturing some of its own self-driving trucks in Detroit — these are the giant, Class 8 shipping trucks you often see on highways — but the company wouldn’t detail how large the fleet would be. Before the autonomous trucks hit the highway, Waymo sends out smaller vehicles, generally minivans, to collect data and map out routes. Thus far, Waymo says those trucks have previously helped deliver freight for Google’s logistics division in Atlanta, but ultimately, Waymo says it wants to focus on building software and mapping technology. While TuSimple, Waymo, and others are making progress, it will be years before the majority of America’s long-haul shipping is carried out by autonomous trucks. Engineers and regulators are still studying how self-driving trucks — and self-driving cars — actually work on the road. But the hope is that the technology will make trucking cheaper, safer, faster, and more fuel-efficient. Still, these companies’ moves reflect that they’re not looking to destroy trucking as we know it, but instead want to strategically insert their autonomous technology into the manufacturing, shipping, and infrastructure that exists today. That’s probably good for trucking overall. Where it leaves truckers themselves is still unclear. Trucking jobs will change amid automation, but it’s not yet clear how One of the biggest fears about self-driving trucks is that the industry will ultimately displace the nearly 2 million people working as heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. For now, it’s not obvious how many of them will be affected in the near future. Researchers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that there are just under half a million long-haul drivers whose positions are the most vulnerable to autonomous technology, and point out that humans will still be needed for other, trucking-related tasks, like customer service and loading. Self-driving trucks that are already on the road also still need backup drivers. Meanwhile, companies like TuSimple say they’re addressing a shortage of and high turnover among long-haul drivers, pointing to research from the American Trucking Associations. There’s also concern over the dangers of truck driving, with risk factors that include long hours behind the wheel, unforgiving weather, and driving under the influence. TuSimple addresses this anxiety in its marketing. What if we could create a virtual driver who never drinks, never texts, and never gets tired?Find out more on 07.01.2020#autonomousdriving #autonomousvehicles #autonomoustrucks #selfdrivingvehicles #selfdrivingtrucks #trucking #ai pic.twitter.com/2R3XpZNFBf— TuSimple (@TuSimpleAI) June 24, 2020 But Lu, TuSimple’s president, argues that even if the technology does displace drivers, they’ll be able to find other jobs that focus more on first- and last-mile hauls, rather than the longer trips and other types of jobs that are less exhausting. “It’s not like if you’re a long haul driver, you can only be a long-haul driver,” Le said. TuSimple worked with Pima Community College in Arizona to launch an online autonomous vehicles specialist certification program that’s meant to help truck drivers adapt to the new technology. Brenna Bayles, a Kansas-based driver who owns her own truck and is studying in the Pima program, said that she doesn’t fear automation, despite concerns that AI could take away jobs in the industry. In fact, she wants to own a fleet of self-driving vehicles herself one day. “The buggy-whip manufacturers didn’t want to see cars come along,” Bayles told Recode, arguing that self-driving cars will ultimately be safer and cheaper to insure. “They either get with the program and work in that field, in the capacities that they can, or they find another field, but we don’t stop progress.” Representatives of other truckers seem less optimistic. According to Norita Taylor, a spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, beyond automation potentially threatening jobs, there are still many unanswered questions as to how self-driving trucks will navigate on-the-road situations typically handled by humans, like emergencies, problems with cargo, and dealing with law enforcement on the road. “We have a lot of concern that federal regulators are going to put on blinders and push for more technology as the answer to the industry’s problems without considering the negative impacts of those technologies,” she said. Kara Deniz, press secretary for the Teamsters, expressed concern that self-driving technology could be used to extend the hours expected of human drivers behind the wheel and limit the rest and breaks that they’re entitled to. The union remains worried about the impact this technology could have on jobs, among concerns of safety and lack of transparency. “None of these [companies’] speculations take into account the reality of driving,” Deniz said in an email, “or reflect the understanding of the industry from the perspective of someone who actually does the job day in and out.” But the reality of those jobs certainly could change, especially as companies that employ truck drivers start to look more closely at self-driving technology. While it’s not clear how fast they will get there or what the rules of the road may be, Wednesday’s news is just another sign that the technology is on its way. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox Our pick for July 2020 is Rodham, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Here’s how the Vox Book Club works: Every month, we pick a book. Throughout the month, we publish a series of discussion posts containing thoughts and discussion questions from Vox book critic Constance Grady, but we also have comments turned on and moderated so you can share your thoughts, too. Talk among yourselves! Post your opinions and questions! Or use our discussion posts as a jumping-off point for (socially distanced) discussions with your own friends and family. And at the end of the month, we gather on Zoom for a virtual live discussion. After a fantastic June spent discussing William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (watch a replay of the live event here!), in July we’ll turn to Curtis Sittenfeld’s Rodham. Rodham is an alternate history that tells us what would have happened if Hillary Rodham had never married Bill Clinton. On its own merits, Rodham is a juicy, scandalous read, with plenty to say about the way American politics have evolved during the decades the Clinton family has been in public life. (Plus, there are some oddly intimate sex scenes that in and of themselves are fodder for endless conversation.) And because this is Vox and we have access to some of the most detail-oriented politics nerds on the planet, we’re going to bring in some special Vox experts to help us fact-check Rodham’s politics and put the book into context, both as a piece of alternate political history and as a work of political Real Person Fiction. We’re going to do two discussion posts in July, each with a special Vox guest star. Both posts will assume that you’ve already read the whole book, but they’ll each approach it book from a different angle. The first discussion post for will go up on Friday, July 10. Come join us! Sign up here to be notified about new book selections, discussions, and related live events. Here’s the full Vox Book Club schedule for July 2020 Friday, July 10: Discussion post on political Real Person Fiction and how Rodham fits into the genre Friday, July 24: Discussion post fact-checking Rodham’s alternate history and examining how the book imagines Hillary Rodham Clinton, the woman, the myth, the politician Thursday, July 30: Virtual live event, details TBD. Sign up for the Vox Book Club newsletter for more info!

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
Mike Bloomberg at Sun Valley, a conference popular with billionaires. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images The debate over whether the world’s megarich are too rich is really a debate about whether America’s megarich are too rich. America is now home to almost 800 billionaires, a record high that accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s megarich. That rise of the billionaire class is made stark in a new report that paints their financial might in the most complete picture yet. It also serves as a vivid snapshot of American income inequality at a time when anti-billionaire sentiment is on the rise and fueling global backlash against ultra-wealthy elites from both the left and the right. So the debate over whether the world’s megarich are too rich is really a debate about whether America’s megarich are too rich. The number of billionaires in the US reached 788 by the end of 2019, a 12 percent increase from the prior year, according to the report from Wealth-X, which produces the comprehensive annual study. Those American billionaires now control $3.4 trillion in total assets, 14 percent more than they did at the end of 2018. The country with the next-highest number of billionaires, China, has fewer than half the number of the US. That $3.4 trillion in American billionaires’ net worth is more than the combined total net worths of the billionaires who reside in the next eight countries. Only three years prior, at the end of 2016, America had 620 billionaires. Those billionaires controlled just $2.6 trillion then. But the rise of Silicon Valley — and its tech giants, which have skyrocketed in value in the years since — has built out the American billionaire class. The San Francisco area is the third-most-common home for billionaires, up from fifth place in 2016. The other US cities now among the biggest billionaire concentrations are New York (No. 1 overall, with 113) and Los Angeles (No. 7 overall, with 44). And there are few signs that the tech boom is abating, or at least impacting the bottom line of its billionaire leaders. As the coronavirus wrecks economies around the globe, threatening the lives of low-income and working-class people, the billionaires of the world are doing pretty okay. That’s especially true in the tech sector, where there are 8.4 percent more billionaires around the globe as of May 2020 compared with the end of 2019. That’s the highest uptick of any sector. That there are more American billionaires than ever helps explain why there is more backlash than we’ve seen in a long time to their war chests and influence. “Billionaire” became an insult in the Democratic presidential primary over the past year, with candidates even debating whether billionaires “should exist.” Conservative populists have lumped in these billionaires as pursuing elite “globalist” policy goals that leave working-class Americans, such as those who voted for Donald Trump, out to dry. And a new chorus of critics have, with some success, flipped one of the assets of billionaires — their commitment to philanthropy — into a liability by turning it into a debate over tax avoidance. This public interrogation of billionaires is not merely an academic exercise. It’s having an impact. We now feel as negatively about billionaires as we did during the financial crisis in 2009. If America does enter a depression due to the coronavirus, it makes you wonder just how much worse we’ll feel about the ultra-wealthy, especially now that they’re around in record numbers. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images The social media giant just banned dozens of “boogaloo” extremist accounts. On Tuesday afternoon, Facebook announced that it had removed more than 200 accounts linked to the violent, anti-government extremist “boogaloo” movement. This move comes after weeks of criticism over the company’s handling of hate speech on its platform. Still, banning the boogaloo accounts does not solve Facebook’s larger hate speech problem. More than 100 major brands, from Unilever to Verizon, have pulled advertising from the platform after civil rights groups called for a boycott in the past week. Facebook’s efforts to address the controversy included the announcement of increased efforts to prevent voter suppression based on race and ethnicity and a potential audit of its moderation practices. The controversy over social media companies and hate speech has intensified in recent weeks as protesters across the US have been fighting for greater racial justice. About a month ago, as protests were first breaking out, Facebook ignited outrage when it decided not to do anything after President Trump posted a comment saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in a post about the protests. This enraged civil rights leaders, as well as some of Facebook’s employees. It also prompted the “Stop Hate for Profit” ad boycott, led by organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League and the NAACP. Three US senators joined the chorus on Tuesday, sending a letter to Facebook asking the company to more strictly enforce its rules on extremist content. Facebook has long had a policy explicitly forbidding hate speech. The company says it removes 89 percent of hate speech on the platform before it gets reported, and has argued that while there are always exceptions at its scale, overall, it’s doing a fine job. A recent report by the European Commission found that Facebook was faster than some of its competitors in addressing instances of hate speech. “We do not profit from hate. We have no incentive to have hate on our platform,” Facebook VP Nick Clegg said in a Bloomberg appearance on Tuesday, and reiterated in a CNN appearance. Regardless of the company’s claims about policing hate speech, recent events are furthering the perception that Facebook simply isn’t doing enough. Specifically, critics have argued that the company is making exceptions for politicians like Trump, and that flat-out violent groups like the boogaloo movement can continue to gain traction on the platform. They say that some of the company’s smaller competitors like Reddit and Twitter are more aggressively enforcing rules on hate speech, by banning or moderating accounts linked to President Trump and popular accounts that support him. Facebook’s approach fits into an established playbook for the company. The reported audit, for instance, would be the third one the company has commissioned. The company has taken down harmful conspiracy networks on its platform, only to see them pop back up or new ones arise. Meanwhile, the ad boycotts likely won’t have a dire financial impact, because the bulk of Facebook’s revenue comes from smaller brands (the top 100 advertisers only accounted for little more than 6 percent of its revenue last year). But Facebook and other social media companies at least appear to be responding to this new source of pressure. “What you’re seeing right now is people are leveraging various mechanisms — either economic or public relations — to push back on policies they don’t like,” Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John’s University School of Law who studies social media and free speech, told Recode. “And you’re seeing the platforms give in.” Twitter started a wave of social media companies coming down on Trump Recent moves by Reddit, Snapchat, Twitch, and YouTube mark a decision by social media companies to start more strictly enforcing the rules around hate speech, weeks after protests around the police killing of George Floyd have caused a national reckoning over systemic racism in the United States. In many ways, Twitter started this wave of action when in late May, it added a warning label for glorifying violence to President Trump’s “shooting … looting” post. This represented a precedent-setting move for social media companies, which have been reluctant to moderate Trump, no matter how incendiary his rhetoric. (Twitter has spent the past two years refining its policies on moderating politicians’ speech.) Facebook then struck a nerve when it responded very differently to the same Trump post on its own platform. The company chose not to moderate the post, arguing that it wasn’t an incitememt of violence but an announcement of state use of force. Now other platforms are joining in and following Twitter’s assertive lead. On Monday, Reddit banned r/The_Donald — a popular message board for Trump fans to share memes, videos, and messages — for consistently breaking its rules around harassment and hate speech. The same day, Twitch, a livestreaming company owned by Amazon, decided to temporarily suspend Trump’s account after it found some of its livestreams included “hateful conduct,” such as a rebroadcast of Trump’s kickoff rally where he said that Mexico was bringing rapists to the United States. Those moves follow Snapchat’s decision earlier in June to stop promoting Trump in its “Discover” section because his account had, in the company’s view, incited racial violence. And YouTube banned several high-profile far-right accounts, including those of white supremacist Richard Spencer and former KKK leader David Duke. While there will be plenty more examples of hate speech on these platforms that likely go unaddressed, the spate of takedowns and bans could carry serious political consequences. They run against the stated free speech values of early internet forums like Reddit, which have historically tried to be as laissez-faire as possible in their approach to moderating content. “I have to admit that I’ve struggled with balancing my values as an American, and around free speech and free expression, with my values and the company’s values around common human decency,” Reddit CEO Steve Huffman told reporters on Monday, according to The Verge, announcing the company’s decision to ban r/The_Donald. Even Facebook has notably drawn some lines with Trump, taking down a Trump campaign ad featuring Nazi insignia and at least two other Trump-sponsored pieces of Facebook content in the past few months, including a Trump ad that tried to mislead people into filling out a fake census form, and a post for copyright infringement. But the company is not reversing course on the president’s “looting ... shooting” post, and while it says it’s open to putting labels on political misinformation, it hasn’t yet done so with Trump. There’s two-way political pressure on Facebook Historically, Facebook and other social media companies have been cautious not to overly moderate content in the interest of appearing to protect free expression online. At the same time, President Trump and other Republican politicians have accused social media companies of having “anti-conservative” bias. Trump has issued an executive order attempting to overturn Section 230, a landmark internal law that shields social media companies like Facebook from being sued over what people post on the platform. The rationale for overturning Section 230, according to Trump, is that Facebook is supposedly putting its thumb on the scales against Republican content — which is a largely unproven and, many argue, bad-faith claim. That pressure puts Facebook in a bind. If it moderates popular conservative figures too much, even if those users post extremist or hateful content, that fuels Trump and other Republicans to argue that they’re being unfairly censored. On the other hand, if Facebook doesn’t do a good enough job moderating white supremacist and other hateful content, Democrats, civil rights leaders, and major advertisers could continue to accuse the company of turning a blind eye to hate. “I’m not going to pretend that we’re going to get rid of everything that people, you know, react negatively to,” said Facebook’s Clegg on CNN on Tuesday. “Politically, there are folks on the right who think we take down too much content, folks on the left who think we don’t take down enough.” While all the major platforms have long had policies on hate speech, it has often taken major national events like mass shootings to pressure the companies to put more force around these issues. So we’ll now see if Facebook turns into a meaningful change in how the company moderates content or waits for the controversy to blow over, as it has in the past. Ultimately, it looks like Mark Zuckerberg will be the judge when it comes to drawing the line on Facebook restricting hate speech versus protecting free speech. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Hear quick daily updates from Vox by asking Google Assistant to “play my news update.” | Google There’s a new way to listen to Vox stories and podcasts: “Your News Update” on the Google Assistant. Mixtapes forever changed how we listen to music. What if news got the same treatment? Enter “Your News Update,” a new way to listen to Vox podcasts on Google Assistant. Starting now, you can hear quick daily updates from Today, Explained on Google smart speakers and Assistant-enabled devices, and there’s more on the way later this year from the Vox newsroom. Here’s how it works: The Your News Update algorithm curates a selection of audio stories tailored to you. What you hear each day is ultimately determined by where you live, what you like, what you need to know that day, and the preferred sources you define in the Google Assistant app. By selecting Vox as a preferred news source, the Assistant will regularly surface stories from Vox in your update. Your News Update is available on all Assistant-enabled devices, including smart speakers, phones, and tablets. Follow the steps below to select Vox as a preferred news source. To listen, simply say to your device, “Okay, Google, play my news update,” or, “Okay, Google, play me the news.” How to make Vox a preferred news source Download either the Google Assistant (free on Android or Apple) or the Google Home app (free on Android or Apple) on your phone or tablet. For Google Assistant, open the app and tap the icon in the top right corner. Scroll down and select News. Make sure your News playlist format is set to Your News Update. Then search for Vox in the list of sources and tap the star so it turns blue. How to set Vox as a preferred source on the Google Assistant app. Taylor Maycan/Vox For Google Home, open the app and tap the icon in the top right corner. Scroll down and select Assistant Settings > News. Make sure your News playlist format is set to Your News Update. Then search for Vox in the list of sources and tap the star so it turns blue. How to set Vox as a preferred source for Your News Update on the Google Home app. Taylor Maycan/Vox Once you complete these steps, you’re ready to listen. Start by telling your Google smart speaker, “Okay, Google, play my news update.” Move through your news feed by asking to “skip” or “play the next story” (but don’t forget to say “Okay, Google” first). Tip: Shorter stories tend to play first; longer stories come later. Prefer to listen on a phone or tablet? Open the Google Assistant or the Google Home app, then tap the microphone icon to ask for Your News Update. You can also tap the keyboard icon to type the request. How to listen to Your News Update on mobile on the Google Assistant app. Taylor Maycan/Vox You can read more about Your News Update and learn more about how to listen to podcasts and news through the Google Assistant. And, of course, you can listen to Vox’s full slate of podcasts any time on your favorite device. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
A Blockbuster storefront in March 2010, shortly before the company filed for bankruptcy protection. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images It’s the newest chapter of our Land of the Giants podcast, out now. When Netflix launched in 1997, it was a tiny movies-by-mail operation, run out of a storefront in a Silicon Valley stripmall. It was going up against Blockbuster, a $6 billion behemoth that owned the movie rental business. Now Blockbuster is gone, and Netflix is a $20 billion business, one so dominant that giant companies like Disney and AT&T are remaking themselves to chase after it. Even if you don’t know this story, you know this story: Scrappy digital upstart comes out of nowhere, topples the incumbent, and becomes unstoppable. Except ... this one almost didn’t happen. Blockbuster, it turns out, ended up doing a very good job of fighting back against Netflix and might well have won, but it made some fundamental mistakes that ended up dooming its future. If you’re old enough to miss Blockbuster night — the predecessor to Netflix and chill — you can blame Netflix. But you also need to blame Blockbuster. That’s the story we tell in the newest chapter of Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect — our new seven-part podcast about Netflix and the impact it has had on Hollywood and the world. This one is part history lesson, part nostalgia trip, and, in part, an acknowledgement that luck plays an enormous part in any company’s success. We don’t want to spoil everything for you — we’d very much like you to listen to the episode below, or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts. But we can point out that Netflix itself thought it didn’t have a chance of unseating Blockbuster. That’s why Netflix co-founders Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph went to Blockbuster’s headquarters in 2000 and offered to sell their three-year-old company to their rival for $50 million. Blockbuster ended up trying to beat Netflix instead of buying it. And today Netflix is worth about $200 billion. It’s good be lucky. Subscribe to Land of The Giants on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Volunteers allowed their faces to be filmed and mapped onto the faces of anonymous survivors who appeared in the documentary Welcome to Chechnya. | HBO A new documentary highlights how the controversial technology can protect people. Caroline McGinnes might be one of the few people in the world who knows what it’s like to lend someone a face. In a new HBO documentary, her eyes, nose, and mouth help cloak the identities of LGBTQ people in Chechnya, the predominantly Muslim republic in Russia. Essentially, McGinnes volunteered to become a deepfake, in a way few have seen before. In Chechnya, LGBTQ people have faced significant persecution, including unlawful detentions, torture, and other forms of abuse. Because survivors can rarely reveal their own identities safely, the team behind the film Welcome to Chechnya turned to the same sort of technology typically seen in deepfake videos. They’re using artificial intelligence to overlay faces of volunteers on top of those of survivors. This application of deepfake-like technology can replace more traditional ways of keeping sources anonymous, like having them sit in a shadow or blurring their faces. The tech also helps better display the emotions of the survivors. “Deepfake” has become a shorthand term for a variety of technological techniques, but it’s generally understood as artificial intelligence used to alter video and audio, making it look as though someone is saying or doing something they actually haven’t. The term comes from the name of a Reddit user who deployed machine learning to swap celebrities’ faces into porn videos without their consent. But a broader industry has begun to promote similar forms of AI-assisted media manipulation — sometimes called synthetic media — that aren’t necessarily as nefarious. Like that deepfake video of Barack Obama (or Mark Zuckerberg or Kim Kardashian), the faces might not look quite right as deepfake videos tend to live in the uncanny valley. Welcome to Chechnya warns viewers that the technology is featured, and the “face doubles” can at times appear blurry, almost like watercolor. For the people whose faces appear in the film, the experience can be “pretty surreal,” according to McGinnes. “They map out all the spacing on your face,” she told Recode, “and they match everything, eyes, your jawline, everything.” Welcome to Chechnya, which debuts on June 30 on HBO and HBO Max, represents a rare positive example of deepfakes. With the help of deepfake technology, the film can shine light on human rights abuses while minimizing the risk for victims involved in the production. Right now, deepfake technology is better known for harming, rather than helping, people. Women are by far more likely to be hurt by deepfake technology. One recent report from the research group Deeptrace found that almost all deepfakes found online are in nonconsensual porn videos. Another major fear is that deepfakes can be used to impersonate political figures and to push disinformation campaigns, exacerbating the already rampant problem of fake news on the internet. Still, the promise of deepfake-like technology to anonymize people may grow more popular, experts told Recode, complicating the debate over the ethics and the regulation of this controversial application of artificial intelligence. Deepfakes can provide a cloak of anonymity The man behind Welcome to Chechnya’s technology is visual effects expert Ryan Laney, who says the technology used in the film essentially moves faces like marionette puppets. Put simply, the facial movements of those featured in the documentary guide how the faces of the “doubles” move, with the help of deep learning tech. “The eyebrows and eye shapes become something like brushstrokes,” Laney explained. “So we took the content of subjects in the film and applied the style of the activists.” (The film’s team refers to people who volunteered their faces as “activists.”) HBO Volunteers had their faces filmed from a variety of angles, and their faces were then mapped onto the faces of people who appeared in Welcome to Chechnya. Ultimately, he says the idea was to create “a digital prosthetic where 100 percent of the motion, the emotion, and the essence of what the subject is doing is there.” Essentially, the technique would subtly change a person’s eye shape, but not the fact that they were blinking. One other challenge was avoiding the uncanny valley, which is a term more often used to discuss how realistic robots should look. To address that question, the film brought in Thalia Wheatley, a social psychologist and neuroscientist at Dartmouth, and graduate student Chris Welker, to test different approaches to the face cloaks and see how pilot audiences responded. For instance, they tried out a cartoon-like adaption of the survivors’ faces that Wheatley likened to the animations from the movie Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse. Those performed the worst, the researchers said. Another version involved masking the face but keeping the original peoples’ eyes, which the researchers thought could help people connect with the subject. It didn’t really work, either. “We think the answer is that you put one person’s eyes in another person’s face and the brain just can’t resolve the incongruity and it just feels unsettling and it kicks people out of the experience,” Wheatley said. “But we don’t know for sure.” The idea of using deepfakes to anonymize people is growing more popular Laney says he’s now working to democratize this new deepfake technology for good. Through a new company, Teus Media, he wants to turn his artificial intelligence into a journalistic “digital veil” for cloaking witnesses in danger, and he says he’s already received interest. But Laney’s not the only one pushing that approach. Some startups, such as D-ID and Alethea AI, want people to use deepfake-like avatars to digitally cloak themselves. Researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and University of Albany have also worked on similar technology. The director of the University of Colorado Denver’s National Center on Media Forensics, Catalin Grigoras, emphasizes that the ethical questions surrounding synthetic media are raised when they appear to take on aspects of reality. No one has an issue with fake faces generated in Hollywood films, he says, but issues emerge, for instance, when they’re used to create false news. As for Welcome to Chechnya, the application of deepfake technology is within reason. “It’s just a new movie that has this kind of visual effects,” Grigoras said. “They are quite good, but still it is possible to detect them.” Sam Gregory, the program director of Witness, a human rights nonprofit that focuses on video and technology, says that activists he’s spoken to find it one of the few compelling applications of the technology. Gregory points to women who have used virtual masks on Snapchat to share their experience of sexual assaults through video without revealing their identities. “Over the last couple of years, it seemed like one of the most positive potential use deepfakes is to retain human features and the ability to convey emotion and preserve the essential humanity of people who faced horrible abuses,” Gregory said. Still, Gregory cautions that the deepfakes used for anonymity are not without ethical questions. For instance, he wonders to what extent a face double should match the identity and characteristics — such as their race, gender, and age — of the person whose identity they’re obscuring. Gregory adds that while this technology might help activists, it could also be used to misrepresent and target them. Expect more arguments for legitimate synthetic media When asked about the questions surrounding deepfakes, Welcome to Chechnya’s Laney says that his technology doesn’t technically count because “deepfakes as a practice are inherently non-consensual.” To him, the artificial intelligence used in the film required both the agreement of those filmed to be anonymized and the consent of the activists who volunteered their faces. Laney also emphasized that no one is trying to trick the audience. They know the technology is in place, and that it’s being used to communicate the extent to which these people are in danger. That echoes what a company called Synthesia has said. The startup, which sells similar synthetic media technology, has committed to not offering its deepfake-like technology for public use and has promised that it will “never re-enact someone without their explicit consent” including “politicians or celebrities for satirical purposes.” Currently, there is no federal law explicitly regulating the production of deepfakes in the United States, though some states have expressed interest in regulating the technology and some say existing laws may already apply. Meanwhile, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have also attempted to create rules for moderating the use of technology on their platforms. But deepfakes are part of a developing industry. As the technology becomes more prominent, we should expect more people to argue for legitimate use cases — or, at the very least, applications that are not as terrifying as the deepfakes we’re more familiar with. That will inevitably complicate how we choose to regulate them. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Courtney Bowden, 30, in front of the Amazon flex warehouse in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on June 14. Bowden was fired in March. | Hannah Yoon for Vox “I feel like I’m risking my life for a dollar” — what the struggle Amazon workers face during the pandemic says about the future of work in America. At 5:30 every morning, Rosie, an Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, checks her text messages to see if she’s received more bad news: yet another colleague infected with Covid-19, on top of the at least 50 people at her facility who she says have already gotten sick. As an older employee, Rosie is at higher risk of developing serious complications from the disease than many of her younger coworkers. Her two children beg her to quit. “It’s frightening, but you have to put on a smile and you go to work because you need the income,” Rosie, who is being identified by a pseudonym because she fears losing her job for speaking to the press, told Recode in late May. While she’s grateful for the safety precautions Amazon has introduced at its fulfillment centers in the past two months, like providing masks and hand sanitizer stations, she’s alarmed by what she says she saw and heard around her: dirty air filters that aren’t replaced, a visibly ill colleague who vomited in the bathroom — even after passing the mandatory temperature checks the company instituted in early April — and workers standing close together in the morning when they’re waiting to get shift assignments, even though the rules specify workers must always stay 6 feet apart. On a follow-up call in late June, Rosie said that since management canceled morning meetings, there is no longer crowding before shifts, and conditions have improved, but not entirely. “It affects your nerves, your mental state, your way of thinking — because you have to be cautious in everything you do now,” Rosie said. “It’s like I’m risking my life for a dollar. It’s twisted.” Last month, Rosie was shocked to hear that a colleague who she heard was in his 20s — practically “a kid,” she said — had died of Covid-19. Management never informed Rosie, and she suspects many others didn’t know either. Instead, she said, she learned the news from a coworker’s Facebook post. Management’s attitude toward the death was “hush-hush, underneath the rug — along with how many people have the disease,” Rosie told Recode. “This is how this company runs this organization.” An Amazon spokesperson disputed Rosie’s account, saying the company communicated the news about the colleague’s death in person to everyone working at the warehouse. The spokesperson also said Amazon has made it clear that all employees who feel ill must stay home and that they have several paid and unpaid leave options. But Rosie’s story is just one of several similar accounts that have emerged from workers inside Amazon fulfillment centers since the pandemic started in March, prompting an unprecedented series of internal scandals, employee protests, and public petitions that have united some of Amazon’s corporate and warehouse employees against their employer for the first time. In turn, this unrest has attracted scrutiny from top politicians over the company’s labor practices, and threatens to harm Amazon’s reputation in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of people who shop on the platform every year. It also reveals inequalities in the economy that Amazon has flourished in, an economy that the e-commerce giant is also shaping as its size and influence expand. Dakota Santiago for Vox The main entrance of an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, on June 22. Amazon, the second-largest private US employer after Walmart, pays its fulfillment center workers a $15 minimum hourly wage and offers superior benefits when compared to some major competitors. But many of the company’s workers still say they are struggling to stay afloat, and they have such limited work options that they keep showing up to sort, pack, and deliver shipments for Amazon even as they fear the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe during a global health crisis. In interviews with Recode, dozens of current and former Amazon employees, from the warehouse level to senior corporate managers, shared previously unreported details about the inner workings of the company, inconsistent enforcement of health and safety protocols, and the tactics they say the company has employed to tamp down tensions rising among its workforce. Amazon seems to be well aware that its treatment of workers during the pandemic matters. Externally, the company has launched a public relations campaign that includes TV commercials and a documentary TV series to drive home a message to customers that keeping the “retail heroes” in its warehouses safe is its top priority. But internally, employees told Recode that Amazon has responded to workers’ complaints by cracking down on dissenters. The company has fired at least six employees who were involved in recent worker protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon, including several who were visible leaders within the company on worker issues. Sources told Recode the company has also reprimanded at least six other employees during the same period who were involved in recent protests. Amazon has said that it terminated the employees in question for repeatedly violating internal policies on social distancing, internal communications, and conduct with colleagues. It denied retaliating against employees for their criticism of the company. Top Amazon executive Dave Clark, who oversees Amazon’s global warehouse network, told Recode in May, “I’ve been here 21 years, and I have never seen anybody punished or terminated or anything for speaking out or having a contrary opinion or debating something. And that continues to be the case.” Hannah Yoon for Vox Courtney Bowden, a former Amazon employee in Pennsylvania, was organizing her colleagues to demand more paid time off for part-time employees. Hannah Yoon for Vox She says she doesn’t consider herself an activist but believes it is important to join groups like Amazonians United for better job protection. Courtney Bowden, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Pennsylvania who was fired in March shortly after organizing her colleagues to demand paid time off for part-time employees, disagrees. Bowden says Amazon’s stated reason for firing her was for getting into a dispute with a coworker. “Amazon thinks that they can control all these workers speaking out by firing them,” Bowden told Recode in mid-March. “What they don’t understand is that the amount of people doing this is just going to grow, grow, grow.” Clark also told Recode that the company led many of its competitors in rolling out Covid-19 safety measures such as mandatory masks, temperature checks, and enforced social distancing in warehouses. In interviews with Recode, even warehouse employees who were critical about Amazon’s Covid-19 safety practices said they have seen some signs of improvement since mid-March. But workers told Recode that other, deeper issues that existed before the pandemic have only gotten worse — namely, that how Amazon responded to workers’ pandemic complaints exemplifies how workers have limited power or voice in how their employer treats them. What’s at stake The internal conflicts at Amazon, coupled with growing outside scrutiny, have put the company — and its customers — in a fraught position. The e-commerce giant with a $1 trillion valuation has become a symbol of the longstanding economic and racial inequalities in the US that the pandemic has exaggerated. The virus disproportionately kills more Black Americans than other ethnic groups; 80 percent of Amazon’s US warehouses are located in zip codes that have a higher percentage of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people than the regional average, according to a recent analysis by the employee activist group AECJ. Like many other white-collar tech workers in the US, most of Amazon’s corporate employees have been able to work from home. Meanwhile, Amazon’s warehouse employees, who have historically been more racially diverse than its corporate employees, have to show up in person. And as millions of other Americans have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford necessities, Amazon and companies like it are reaping record sales and hiring hundreds of thousands workers to staff their facilities, deliver products, and risk exposure to a virus that’s already killed more than 125,000 people in the US as of late June. Before the pandemic, millions of Americans already relied on Amazon for the convenience of its one- or two-day shipping. Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders and the temporary shuttering of many physical retailers only increased dependence on the company: Amazon sales and Prime membership subscriptions shot up from January to March. “The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there. It’s, ‘Just get my package to me.’” But reports of the company’s labor issues have raised uncomfortable questions. Is it possible for Amazon to maintain what its CEO Jeff Bezos calls its “obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer” while also protecting its employees? Would customers pay more and accept slower delivery times if it meant Amazon would support and pay its workers more? Do we want to live, work, and shop in an economy where more and more businesses are emulating Amazon’s business model, and where more people depend on fast-paced warehouse and delivery work to make their livelihoods? Or will politicians, Amazon’s own employees, and, most importantly, consumers demand changes from the company — and the economy in which it thrives? These questions aren’t entirely new. Well before the pandemic, Amazon was seemingly unstoppable despite reports of grueling and sometimes dangerous conditions at its warehouses. In the past 25 years, the company has grown from a scrappy online bookstore to one of the world’s most valuable companies, with its reach extending beyond e-commerce to streaming television, brick-and-mortar grocery, and cloud computing. “When we talk about Amazon, we’re really talking about the future of work,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents workers at major retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and H&M, told Recode. “Other employers feel that if they want to survive, they have to find a way to change their working conditions to replicate Amazon. And that’s exactly what we don’t want — we don’t want Amazon to be the model for what working is going to be like, of what the future of work is going to look like.” In light of the pandemic’s life-or-death consequences, assessing the future of work and Amazon’s role in it is more urgent than ever. The company does not publicly share the total number of its workers infected with Covid-19, although it has directly messaged warehouse workers individually when there is a person with a new case at their facility. Former Indiana warehouse employee Jana Jumpp started a project to crowdsource these messages from workers. She says she’s confirmed nearly 1,600 cases of Amazon warehouse employees with Covid-19 since March, and at least nine workers who have died of the disease. That case total would represent well less than 1 percent of Amazon’s US warehouse workforce, but without Amazon’s confirmation, it’s still unclear how widely the virus has spread among its employee base. Amazon declined to comment on Jumpp’s reporting to Recode, but Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman told Recode the company uses “a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work.” Jumpp says she’s getting a steady stream of reports of at least 10 to 20 new cases a day from Amazon workers across the US, which she compiles in a spreadsheet. “If the public really knew what was going in the facilities, they might think twice about shopping on Amazon,” Jumpp told Recode. That’s because what happens inside Amazon’s warehouses doesn’t just affect its employees. It will impact the rest of us, too. And the company’s customers will impact its practices. External surveys show that Amazon’s customer reputation began slipping during the pandemic, though the causes of this shift are not yet clear. The share of people who said they have a positive impression of Amazon dropped from 74 percent in January before the pandemic hit the US to 58 percent in May in two similar, separate polls of more than 1,000 people conducted by Survey Monkey with Fortune and Recode, respectively. Another recent poll by RBC Capital Markets showed a similar trend: Amazon customers are reporting record-low levels of customer satisfaction, despite making more frequent purchases. For now, it’s hard to say if we’re seeing more negative customer feedback about Amazon because people encountered inventory shortages and delivery delays due to the coronavirus, or because they’re troubled by criticisms of Amazon’s labor practices, or some other reason. If it’s merely shopping inconveniences prompting the shift in customer perception, the company may be motivated to push its employees harder, and return to pre-Covid-19 levels of worker productivity as quickly as possible. But if the shift relates to Amazon’s ethics as an employer, the company has a deeper issue to solve for, and what it does next is likely to have significant implications for the rest of the US economy. “If the public starts supporting the protests, if the customers start boycotting Amazon, then customers form a significant form of power,” Thomas Anton Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at MIT, told Recode. “The ultimate arbiters of this debate will be the public, not Amazon and not the workers themselves.” Three months of unrest and counting If it’s still uncertain how customers will ultimately respond to Amazon and how it handled the pandemic, what has become clear is that the past three months have shaken up Amazon’s internal culture, which one employee described as an “artificial internal class system” that has until now separated corporate employees from fulfillment center workers. As reports emerged of the company firing and cracking down on workers agitating for better conditions at fulfillment centers, a growing number of the company’s engineers, product managers, and designers have become embarrassed, worried, and angry. For the first time, they’re joining forces with their colleagues at the warehouse level to publicly criticize their employer, and some say they lost their jobs because of it. Meanwhile, prominent politicians like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are pressing the company on its firings of workers across corporate offices and the warehouse floor alike. “People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave,” one longtime corporate Amazon employee told Recode in late April. “At the end of the day, I want to know what kind of company does Amazon want to be: a company that allows discourse and dialogue between employees, or a company that suppresses dissent?” another Amazon employee told Recode in late April. Since March, workers have issued two petitions with more than 6,000 combined employee signatures demanding better pay and benefits, and they’ve held at least eight protests at over a dozen fulfillment centers, sortation centers, and delivery stations. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Protesters demanding better working conditions rally outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, on May 1. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Protesters show solidarity with Christian Smalls (speaking in the background) during a rally demanding better working conditions. Amazon’s response to its warehouse and corporate employees’ concerns seems to have only agitated employees more. In public statements and internal meetings, the company seems to be treating the scrutiny of warehouse conditions like a PR problem rather than an opportunity to find and fix potential operational flaws. “We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible,” top Amazon spokesperson Jay Carney said during an internal video Q&A with corporate employees in early May, of which Recode obtained an audio recording. “Look, you have situations where we have a protest at a fulfillment center and we have more organizers than actual Amazon employees out on the street.” Carney went on, “I think the total number of protesters in the city and states has been less than a fraction of a half of a fraction of a percent of our employee base, but some of the media coverage suggests that that’s not the case.” Cheeseman reiterated what the company previously said in a statement in regard to worker protests: that the “overwhelming majority” of Amazon employees have not participated and that the walkouts had “no measurable impact on operations.” “We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country,” Cheeseman told Recode. Amazon offers full-time warehouse employees the same health care insurance and 401(k) options as corporate employees. At the start of the pandemic, it also led other companies by being one of the first to grant workers a $2-per-hour wage hike, and it doubled overtime pay and provided unlimited unpaid time off. (All of these pandemic-related policies ended on June 1, prompting loud pushback from some employees.) In late June, the company announced it will pay a one-time bonus for the month of June to front-line employees and some contractors, amounting to around $500 per full-time Amazon employee and $250 for part-timers. “Our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network,” Cheeseman said. Amazon has nearly 600,000 full-time and part-time employees in the US, the vast majority of whom work in its warehouse network, so the hundreds of workers protesting are indeed only a tiny percentage of its workforce. But one corporate employee who doesn’t consider himself an activist and hasn’t been involved in any recent protests told Recode, “Many workers do not feel comfortable walking off a job for a protest, especially in this climate. So the voice of organizers should be heard as representative of the workers they’re organizing for.” Of course, Amazon’s many employees have a range of perspectives on how their employer treats them in general and how it’s handled their safety during the pandemic. Some value how Amazon pays all employees a $15-per-hour minimum wage, as well as how it offers health care and dental insurance, and highly subsidized tuition or vocational training to further employees’ careers. “Amazon is a good job in many ways: great benefits, it pays good, there are opportunities for overtime, to go to school,” said Jumpp. Others empathize with the company and the extraordinary challenges Covid-19 has created for it. But a significant number of Amazon’s employees, in warehouses and in its headquarters, feel it has let them down, and that’s fueling their criticism of the company. The growing dissent among Amazon’s corporate workforce followed a few key moves Amazon made in the early days of the pandemic: First, the company fired Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, who led an early protest against the company in March. Then company executives, led by top lawyer David Zapolsky, strategized in an executive meeting attended by Bezos about how to downplay Smalls’s complaints by characterizing him as “not smart or articulate.” Then, when Zapolsky’s notes from this meeting leaked to the press and corporate employees began to protest and question Amazon’s actions on internal company listservs, the company fired three key corporate activists in mid-April and began restricting employees’ ability to communicate on large listservs. It paused enforcing these restrictions after Recode reported on them. Amazon workers told Recode in April they were particularly concerned by what they saw as racist overtones in the notes from the executive meeting focused on Smalls, who is Black. Amazon told Recode in April that Zapolsky was unaware of Smalls’s race when he made the comments. Since then, workers’ unease has grown because four of the six workers Amazon has fired since March are people of color. Cheeseman, the Amazon spokesperson, told Recode that the company “works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one” of its employees. “We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in our workplace,” said Cheeseman. Damon Casarez for Vox Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, led a protest against the company in March and was recently fired for violating social distancing policies, according to Amazon. Smalls believes he was fired because of his activism. Brian L. Frank for Vox John Hopkins works at an Amazon distribution center in San Leandro, California. He is one of several warehouse organizers who have been pushing for better working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses in the past few months. John Hopkins is another worker who says Amazon targeted him in May for his activism at work. The company lifted his suspension in June after an internal health and safety investigation; since then, he has continued to be vocal about what he sees as retaliation and racial injustice at Amazon. Hopkins told Recode it didn’t matter that Zapolsky said he wasn’t aware of Smalls’s race when he said Smalls wasn’t articulate. “Ultimately, he [Zapolsky] didn’t have to be aware of his [Smalls’s] race — he should have been aware of the chances,” Hopkins told Recode. “Regardless of whether he knew specifically, he has to know the number of African American workers in warehouses is far larger than in AWS [Amazon Web Services]. The chances he was going to say that about a Black worker are higher.” “Race permeates everything. These aren’t disconnected issues; what’s at the heart of them all is implicit bias,” Hopkins added. Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing policies while he was on paid quarantine leave, and that it terminated the corporate employees after they violated company policies around internal communications. “There are also plenty of [employees] who are regularly talking to reporters and publishing different things that, you know, I disagree entirely with,” Clark, the Amazon executive, told Recode. “But they come back to work every day, are paid well, and nothing negative happens to them.” The six recently fired employees have all disputed Amazon’s explanations for their terminations. “It’s not okay that Amazon did that and fired that employee [Smalls]; those things aren’t normal,” one former Amazon engineer who recently left the company told Recode in late April, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “I’m not okay with going to work every day and continuing my day job while things are happening in the background. I need to show support for other people in the company.” Smalls’s case also caught the attention of politicians like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who have launched investigations into the incident, as well as Sen. Booker, who has sent several letters pressing Bezos on the matter. “What’s disturbing to me is that you have people who are, frankly, just speaking toward the crisis, and they’re seeing retaliation that is unacceptable,” Booker told Recode in early May. Since Booker wrote the letter about Smalls, the company has fired several more warehouse workers involved in activism. “These firings further marginalize employees who already feel really pressured.” While Amazon’s termination of visible activist leaders both within company headquarters and at its fulfillment centers has scared some employees, they haven’t stopped organizing. The firings further angered and encouraged critical employees to move discussions off corporate platforms so they can discuss their ethical qualms about their employer more discreetly — and freely. “I think temporarily people will be discouraged from speaking, but it’s not going to silence their inner concerns,” one employee told Recode in late April. “People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people,” former longtime Amazon corporate employee Maren Costa told Recode. Costa and her colleague Emily Cunningham were fired on April 10, shortly after they both shared a petition started by Amazon warehouse workers about the risks warehouse workers face during the pandemic. Amazon told Recode that the pair were terminated for violating Amazon’s internal policies, including one that bars employees from using company resources to solicit their coworkers for signatures. Both Costa and Cunningham were active leaders of an internal employee group that pushes the company to become more environmentally friendly, called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). After they were fired, Costa and Cunningham helped host two virtual panel discussions between warehouse workers and corporate employees about safety standards at warehouses, environmental policies, and unionization. Around 400 employees attended each event, according to the organizers. “We are definitely on the right side of history,” Cunningham told Recode in late April. “Even those of us that have more privilege doesn’t mean we’re immune to the real harm that is already coming our way. … There’s only so much insulation unless you’re an extremely rich billionaire.” Dozens of warehouse workers Recode spoke with emphasized the importance of corporate employees like Cunningham and Costa speaking out on their behalf. “While warehouse and tech workers are treated differently in many ways by Amazon, recent events have clearly shown how we’re still in the same struggle, like against retaliation from Amazon for exercising free speech,” Ted Miin, a warehouse worker at the DCH1 facility in Chicago and member of the worker group DCH1 Amazonians United, told Recode in early May. This newfound unity between front-line and office workers reflects a growing gulf between the company and segments of its workforce, who say the company’s leaders — both in its headquarters and those managing its warehouses — are disconnected from the challenges workers lower in the company face. “People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people” When you consider the scale of Amazon’s vast network of warehouses — which includes 110 fulfillment centers in the US and hundreds of smaller sorting and delivery facilities — as well as the machine-like efficiency required to keep this operation running, that’s not surprising. The pandemic has just raised the stakes. “Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” Tim Bray, a former VP-level engineer at the company, wrote in a now-viral public blog post he published in late April after quitting in protest of Amazon’s firings of Costa, Cunningham, Smalls, Bowden, and other whistleblowers. Bray called management’s decisions “chicken shit” and accused the company of fostering a “climate of fear” among its workers. (Bray later deleted the “chicken shit” language after he said people he respected told him it was “mean-spirited.”) The day after Bray posted his note, Brad Porter, the company’s vice president of robotics, defended Amazon’s measures to protect its workers in a LinkedIn post. In it, he cited technological solutions his teams have been rolling out: using AI to make sure workers are social distancing, installing thermal cameras to check workers’ temperatures, and developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation to kill Covid-19 in warehouses. But, as several employees wrote in internal emails that Recode obtained and in public comments on LinkedIn, Porter sidestepped one of the main focuses of Bray’s critique: that the company is allegedly retaliating against workers who question the company’s treatment of fulfillment center workers. “This Linkedin post has honestly left me a little sick for several reasons, because it just shows how keenly and brazenly VPs do not get it,” wrote one Amazon employee in a May 6 post on an internal corporate listserv that Recode obtained. “The fact that Brad Porter does not once mention the fired employees — something Tim Bray clearly and plainly states to be the reason for his resignation — in his exculpatory post makes things very clear: they don’t see this as an issue.” Others pointed out that Porter’s solutions were largely technical fixes to a very human problem. “Even if we eventually have all the technology in place for a COVIDfree workplace, if people don’t feel safe to speak, that’s not a safe space,” wrote another employee on the same listserv. Amazon was a tough place to work before. The pandemic has made it worse. How Amazon is handling workers’ dissent is just one part of the problem, workers say. The scale and pace of its operations have always had downsides, but now the pressure of a pandemic is making them more visible. Amazon has long been known for hiring bright, data-focused managers in its warehouse network to help increase efficiency while keeping costs down. The result has been a world-class logistics operation that offers affordable next-day delivery to millions of Americans. But there are drawbacks to that data-obsessed approach, too: quotas and metrics that don’t account for an employee having a bad day — or not feeling well — and some managers who are more comfortable evaluating numbers than human emotions. “Algorithms can be very, very dangerous … and that’s where Amazon is right now,” a former senior HR manager at Amazon told Recode. “There is no other company on the planet that is more efficient. But the downside is … you take people who don’t have life experiences, or just don’t have empathy, and it becomes very easy to look at data as the end-all, be-all, as opposed to as a guide.” Cheeseman refuted that characterization and referenced two emails that Clark sent to warehouse managers during the pandemic, which expressed the importance of keeping employees healthy and safe. “To be abundantly clear, your most important job right now has nothing to do with a metric,” Clark wrote to managers in a March 14 email that Amazon showed Recode. “It’s walking your floors, talking to your teams, supporting them if they need help or have [any] questions, and ensuring all the safety measures we have rolled out are implemented and followed.” Amazon seems aware that some of its warehouse managers focus too narrowly on meeting fulfillment goals, even if it won’t talk about it publicly. The company previously developed a computer system, Recode has learned, that periodically prompts some warehouse supervisors to get out from behind their computer and go interact with their front-line staff. Similar to how employees criticized Porter’s response to Bray’s resignation note, it’s an Amazonian solution to a very human problem. “We do have mechanisms to remind our teams what’s important to us, and that does include recognizing and connecting with associates,” Cheeseman said. “We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible” Amazon wasn’t always so intensely focused on performance metrics. A longtime former corporate employee, who was an HR manager focused on warehouses, told Recode they saw a major shift in that direction at Amazon around 2010. “When I joined, it was very apparent to me that the leaders in the facility really cared about the people,” the former HR manager said. “The Amazon that I left in fulfillment was … not that way.” Part of the change this former manager saw can be attributed to an increased reliance on performance data, as well as the implementation of so-called standard operating procedures. “We almost overindexed on processes,” said the former HR manager, while also acknowledging the business upsides to adding more structure to warehouse work. But the other factor in the shift was the type of warehouse leaders the company recruited as Amazon expanded to meet exploding customer demand. “It was all about just drive, drive, drive, and there were not a lot of very kind leaders,” according to the former manager. A former Amazon data science engineer focused on warehouse metrics told Recode, “I knew that every single time we developed a tool, we are just adding pressure. “The pressure to be consistent and perform every single second there is tremendous,” the engineer added. “Not everyone is the same.” Despite the note Clark sent warehouse managers in mid-March urging them to prioritize safety measures above delivery metrics, several employees told Recode as recently as late April that some of the company’s rigid middle managers in fulfillment centers were slow to empathize with the unique setbacks of working during a pandemic and were enforcing strict work quotas. An Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in New Jersey, who spoke to Recode on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, said in late April that the pace demanded in her warehouse made it, in her view, impossible to properly social distance: “When you’re picking an order, the bins and pallets … they’re all close together, and they’re used by multiple people at one time. And if you’re not picking up certain items within a certain time frame, you’re penalized.” The same worker told Recode that by early May, management at her site had improved on safety issues at the warehouse — making bin aisles one-way for foot traffic, and easing up enforcement of worker productivity rates. Miin, the worker in Chicago, told Recode in early April that the company was inconsistently enforcing social distancing requirements in the fulfillment center where he worked. In a follow-up interview in late June, Miin said he thought the warehouse was still facing the same issues. “When we’re protesting conditions, they bring up the 6-feet rule. But, of course, they don’t bring that up when people are trying to work hard and fast inside the warehouse — those rules are ignored,” Miin said. Cheeseman said the company denies these accusations. “That’s not true,” she wrote to Recode. “We have a policy related to social distancing and we are enforcing it across all sites.” Cheeseman said the company has implemented several ways to monitor social distancing, including spending $85 million to move existing employees into new “social distancing ambassadors” roles. Interviews with employees at other Amazon warehouses from late March through June indicate that at some facilities, management meticulously and successfully enforced social distancing. But according to Recode’s interviews with more than 30 employees across the company’s entire network, not every warehouse was operating at the same level. At many Amazon warehouses, social distancing is rigidly upheld: “At my building, the safety committee is always on top of everybody about being safe and wearing your mask,” one Amazon associate at the ACY5 fulfillment center in Swedesboro, New Jersey, told Recode in late May, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job for speaking to the press. “Even if you’re 5 feet apart, they’re always yelling at you to be 6 feet apart.” The associate said she has ample access to masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer, and that overall she feels safe at work. But she said that circumstances seem to vary from warehouse to warehouse. She said her facility had only had one confirmed employee case of Covid-19 so far in May, whereas she heard another site nearby in West Deptford, New Jersey, has dozens of cases. (Jumpp’s report shows over 20 recorded cases at the West Deptford site as of late June.) “It’s like a chain restaurant, like a Chili’s or something — each franchise may be run differently,” the Amazon associate said. Dakota Santiago for Vox Recently at the Staten Island fulfillment center, Amazon installed thermal cameras that scan employees’ body temperatures upon arrival. Dakota Santiago for Vox The same fulfillment center’s lunch room where tables are spaced 6 feet apart and workers are reminded to adhere to safe social distancing guidelines. In an interview with Recode in mid-May, Clark, the Amazon senior vice president, said he doesn’t agree that there were significant inconsistencies in the company’s response to the pandemic. “I’d love to say that we were perfect. But I don’t think anybody had a playbook for this thing,” Clark said. “We’ve learned as we’ve gone, and I think we’ve executed incredibly well.” Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, told Recode he thinks Amazon is working hard to protect its workers from the coronavirus. “The problem is this coronavirus is something we’ve never ever encountered before — this is the dilemma,” Penfield said. Clark told Recode the company faced challenges in parts of March “where in every part of the supply chain — even the medical community — getting enough sanitizer and some of those things were very challenging. “But for weeks we’ve been in a place where we’ve procured enough supplies where at every piece of the operation, we now have overages to support what teams need,” he said in the second week of May. Amazon has not been alone in struggling with the challenge of keeping the coronavirus out of its facilities. Walmart was forced to temporarily close a Pennsylvania warehouse in early April after a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases over a short period. Amazon’s biggest retail rival also faced Covid-19 outbreaks in several of its supercenter stores, including a Massachusetts location that was temporarily shuttered after 23 employees there tested positive. The activist group United for Respect says that at least 22 Walmart associates have died of Covid-19. And a dozen US state attorneys general wrote to Walmart in early June with demands over what they say has been a subpar coronavirus response when it comes to the health and safety of Walmart employees and customers. Costco, too, has come under fire from some of its employees for not standardizing health and safety protocols early enough in the US despite having stores in Asia, where the virus appears to have first spread. Indeed, government lockdown measures in the US began on a city-by-city basis, creating confusion for companies with a presence in hundreds of municipalities across the country. Even so, Amazon says it began reworking its US warehouses ahead of national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow for social distancing based on World Health Organization guidelines it was already following in its European facilities. In Clark’s interview with Recode and in Amazon statements to other media outlets, the company has argued that it took protective measures earlier than many of its peers, and, though it would not specify which ones, it seemed to allude to Walmart. Amazon began issuing masks to US warehouse employees on April 2; while Walmart did so around the same time, the brick-and-mortar giant did not make them mandatory until April 17. On April 30, Amazon vowed to spend $4 billion over three months to invest its profits on things like mass Covid-19 testing and expanding paid sick leave for its employees. As of May 13, Amazon announced that it had supplied 93 million sanitizing sprays and wipes, more than 100 million masks, and more than 2,000 new hand-washing stations across its fulfillment center network. And though Amazon ended its pandemic pay increases and unlimited time off in June, Clark told Recode that employees still have several other leave options, including ones that apply to parents with school-age children or employees with preexisting conditions. As of mid-May, Clark said more than 10,000 employees have used those other time off options, though Bloomberg reported in June that some warehouse employees are having trouble accessing these options because of a highly automated, and overwhelmed, human resources operation. But even with all the precautions that Amazon has implemented since mid-March, the coronavirus continues to spread in the US, and it’s still infecting Amazon’s workers. Workers told Recode that Amazon’s refusal to disclose exactly how many people are infected at each site makes showing up for work more stressful than it needs to be. “People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave” When there are confirmed Covid-19 cases in its facilities, Amazon said that it reviews video footage to identify every person an infected worker has been in close contact with and then notifies those individuals so they can go on paid leave. “We alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis,” Amazon has said in a statement. “This alert includes when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.” Clark told Recode that he believes a better metric for determining whether Amazon warehouses are safe is the number of employees it quarantines after they come into close contact with a coworker who later tested positive. Internal data shows that as of the first week in May, Amazon has only needed to quarantine one additional employee for every four confirmed cases, Clark said. “It means that the infections that we see … usually come from spread within a community, not inside the building.” The company said it also interviews those who test positive to see whether they have had close contact with coworkers outside of work, too. But several employees told Recode they worked closely with someone they know was later confirmed to have Covid-19, and had not heard anything from the company, even several days after potential exposure. Amazon’s Cheeseman said the company uses CDC guidance for what constitutes exposure — standing within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes — or local health guidance if it’s stricter. She added that employees have several ways to escalate concerns if they think they were exposed. When Recode asked dozens of warehouse workers if they thought Amazon was any better or worse than competitors like Walmart in how they treat workers, many said that those companies could be just as bad. But they said they expected more from Amazon and its leadership because of the company’s success. “What really makes me mad is that Jeff Bezos is one of the richest men on the planet,” said Billie Jo Ramey, a worker at the DTW1 fulfillment center in Romulus, Michigan, on a call with reporters in April. “He can afford to keep us safe.” What happens next More than three months after the pandemic transformed Amazon from being a convenient service to an essential one providing supplies to millions of homebound Americans, the company has found itself in a delicate situation. Amazon itself calls its workers “heroes.” But many of these warehouse heroes — and their corporate colleagues — are angry with their employer in ways they’ve never been before. “It’s a new moment when hundreds of workers are taking action and when tens of thousands more are signing our petitions and expressing their solidarity online,” Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, a coalition of nonprofits and organizations scrutinizing Amazon’s business practices, told Recode. “People who are not the executives of extremely wealthy corporations are realizing they’re in this together.” While unions have succeeded in organizing some of Amazon’s European workforce, no US facility has been unionized. The last attempt, in 2014, ended with a small group of Amazon technicians at a Delaware facility voting against unionization. In the past, Amazon has staved off attempts at warehouse organizing by monitoring and discouraging any preliminary signs of worker solidarity talk on the shop floor and by conceding on some of workers’ demands before they escalate further. This time, quelling organizers’ efforts won’t be so easy — but Amazon has long been preparing for the potential of unionization, which a former Amazon executive told Recode in April “is likely the single biggest threat to [Amazon’s] business model.” As early as the 2000s, Amazon began tracking the potential for unionization at each of its warehouses, building a heat map in Excel to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network, a former senior leader in Amazon’s human resources department told Recode. This calculation was based on at least dozens of metrics, including employee survey data, timing of the last pay raise, the safety record of the facility, and even the financial strength of local unions, the former HR manager said. According to this employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Amazon tracked these details to determine “where do we swoop in to figure out if there’s a problem with leadership or maybe there’s one particularly toxic employee who is really causing chaos.” Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017, now employs a similar union tracking system, Business Insider reported in April. Cheeseman said she couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of the Excel-based unionizing-tracking tool because employees who would have overseen it no longer work for Amazon. But she acknowledged that Amazon does “monitor closely sites where employees have issues and concerns to make sure we’re solving them.” Several current and former Amazon warehouse employees told Recode there have been more recent talks of unionization among rank-and-file employees, but also widespread fear that doing so could cost workers their jobs or other repercussions. “When I worked there, I joked that if I even said the word ‘union,’ I’d be kicked out. We called it [unions] the ‘u-word,’” Jumpp said. “There’s a lot of talk about unions, but I don’t know if they’ll work or not.” While established unions like United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and RWDSU have been informally helping Amazon warehouse workers in pushing for better conditions, the first real step toward unionization — actively announcing a bargaining unit and calling for a vote — hasn’t happened yet. Even if Amazon workers are still a long way from officially unionizing, their organizing and the public attention it’s drawn provide an opening to politicians ready to seize an opportunity to rein in the unparalleled power the company has consolidated in the past decade. On May 12, a group of 13 US state attorneys general pressed the company for data on Covid-linked worker infections. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights and the New York state attorney general are investigating Christian Smalls’s firing. Some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Josh Hawley, meanwhile, have used the pandemic as a time to push the company on antitrust issues, arguing that their business practices are destroying mom-and-pop businesses. The House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Amazon and the three other Big Tech giants (Facebook, Google, and Apple), recently asked Jeff Bezos to testify on issues including how Amazon competes with its own marketplace merchants. Bezos said he would show up, under certain conditions. And the Federal Trade Commission has been conducting an informal probe of Amazon since last year. These investigations, if they result in regulation or new antitrust laws, could present an existential threat to Amazon’s grip on the online retail market. And Democrats like Sen. Booker are using Amazon as an opportunity to mount a full-throated defense of stronger labor rights in the US more broadly, drawing on the larger economic anxieties Americans face during the recession. “I strongly believe that we must make sure that labor has a voice, has the right to organize, and has the power to bargain and strike,” Booker told Recode. “If not, we are going to see the country continue in this dull and perverse direction. ... It really is a worrisome trend that you’re seeing in this country where people who are working hard every day are finding themselves economically compromised, economically fragile.” Booker and the other politicians who scrutinize Amazon do so because they know the company affects far more people than the hundreds of thousands it directly employs. Amazon delivered nearly 3.5 billion packages globally last year — and that figure doesn’t even count Amazon orders delivered by partners like UPS or USPS. This has helped make Bezos the richest man in the world; meanwhile, most Americans haven’t received a meaningful raise in decades. Until significant political action or regulation on Amazon comes — if it ever does — labor organizers are trying to shame the company into action, like when Sen. Bernie Sanders helped pressure Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour back in 2018, or how in 2019, local activists, labor groups, and politicians in New York City pushed Amazon to withdraw its plans to build a new headquarters in Long Island City. “It’s very difficult to see this [employee activism] movement dying out when to a certain degree it’s successful,” said an Amazon corporate employee who is active on worker organizing around climate change and warehouse worker rights. Brian L. Frank for Vox John Hopkins (center) at a workers rally on June 19 in Oakland. Hopkins has been organizing colleagues in his area into a new worker group, Bay Area Amazonians. And then there’s the impact of all this on Amazon’s loyal and ever-growing base of customers. If they start to perceive Amazon as a company that, on the whole, is weakening rather than strengthening the working class, will their allegiance to two-day shipping and Prime subscriptions change? If customers demand changes from Amazon, could it raise the bar for labor not just at Amazon but at other retailers that imitate the company’s business practices in order to compete with it? Amazon is “a technological leader, the first place where most Americans turn to shop online, and a hugely influential political power,” former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told Recode. “So its employee practices are watched and likely to be emulated by every other big American company. When it treats its workers badly, those tawdry practices reverberate across the country.” Some workers are skeptical that customers will care, no matter what happens in Amazon’s warehouses. “The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there,” said one longtime Amazon warehouse worker in Lexington, Kentucky, who’s been internally vocal about what he feels is a lack of sanitation at his facility. “It’s, ‘Just get my package to me. Just get my package to me.’ The company is feeding off of that because on the walls and inside the facility it specifically states, ‘We are customer-obsessed.’” For now, customers are by no means rushing to cancel their Prime subscriptions, even if polls indicate that their overall perception of the company is declining. But worker unrest presents a long-term reputational problem for Amazon. Major tech companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google have all made missteps in recent years, from failing to protect user data to allegedly covering up sexual harassment issues, that have stained their reputations and sometimes cost them revenue. Worker unrest at Amazon has higher stakes, though: It has ramifications for the rest of the economy. Amazon has been ascending to dominance for years, and the pandemic has sped it up. What do its employees, who are a key part of this success, deserve? And what power should they have in shaping the direction of the company? “I think the state of affairs in our economy is that people are used to it being broken and not working for them,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “That’s the way the economy has been for some time, and not just due to Covid. But workers should be able to have higher expectations, to have power and strength as working people. To go to the table [with management] and say, ‘We should be in this together.’” Even after all their agitations for change during the pandemic, Amazon workers are still fighting to be heard. During his interview with Recode in May, Amazon’s Clark twice brought up Smalls, the warehouse worker whose firing sparked other employees’ anger toward the company. Despite the internal and external criticism Amazon faced over how its top lawyer called Smalls “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo, Clark used Smalls in the interview as an example of what dissenting workers have done wrong. In a recent interview with Recode, Smalls reflected on the significance of the memo that propelled him into the media spotlight. Damon Casarez for Vox Christian Smalls in Los Angeles on June 15. “When the leaked memo came out, it exposed who Jeff Bezos is as a person, who’s around him, who’s giving him counsel — the types of conversations that they have about their employees, and their focus on smearing me. That tells you right there they don’t care about us,” said Smalls. “It’s never going to be Amazon v. Chris Smalls. It’s Amazon v. the people.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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Courtney Bowden, 30, in front of the Amazon flex warehouse in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, on June 14. Bowden was fired in March. | Hannah Yoon for Vox “I feel like I’m risking my life for a dollar” — what the struggle Amazon workers face during the pandemic says about the future of work in America. At 5:30 every morning, Rosie, an Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, checks her text messages to see if she’s received more bad news: yet another colleague infected with Covid-19, on top of the at least 50 people at her facility who she says have already gotten sick. As an older employee, Rosie is at higher risk of developing serious complications from the disease than many of her younger coworkers. Her two children beg her to quit. “It’s frightening, but you have to put on a smile and you go to work because you need the income,” Rosie, who is being identified by a pseudonym because she fears losing her job for speaking to the press, told Recode in late May. While she’s grateful for the safety precautions Amazon has introduced at its fulfillment centers in the past two months, like providing masks and hand sanitizer stations, she’s alarmed by what she says she saw and heard around her: dirty air filters that aren’t replaced, a visibly ill colleague who vomited in the bathroom — even after passing the mandatory temperature checks the company instituted in early April — and workers standing close together in the morning when they’re waiting to get shift assignments, even though the rules specify workers must always stay 6 feet apart. On a follow-up call in late June, Rosie said that since management canceled morning meetings, there is no longer crowding before shifts, and conditions have improved, but not entirely. “It affects your nerves, your mental state, your way of thinking — because you have to be cautious in everything you do now,” Rosie said. “It’s like I’m risking my life for a dollar. It’s twisted.” Last month, Rosie was shocked to hear that a colleague who she heard was in his 20s — practically “a kid,” she said — had died of Covid-19. Management never informed Rosie, and she suspects many others didn’t know either. Instead, she said, she learned the news from a coworker’s Facebook post. Management’s attitude toward the death was “hush-hush, underneath the rug — along with how many people have the disease,” Rosie told Recode. “This is how this company runs this organization.” An Amazon spokesperson disputed Rosie’s account, saying the company communicated the news about the colleague’s death to everyone working at the warehouse in person. The spokesperson also said Amazon has made it clear that all employees who feel ill must stay home and that they have several paid and unpaid leave options. But Rosie’s story is just one of several similar accounts that have emerged from workers inside Amazon fulfillment centers since the pandemic started in March, prompting an unprecedented series of internal scandals, employee protests, and public petitions that have united some of Amazon’s corporate and warehouse employees against their employer for the first time. In turn, this unrest has attracted scrutiny from top politicians over the company’s labor practices and threatens to harm Amazon’s reputation in the eyes of the hundreds of millions of people who shop on the platform every year. It also reveals inequalities in the economy that Amazon has flourished in, an economy that the e-commerce giant is also shaping as its size and influence expand. Dakota Santiago for Vox The main entrance of an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, on June 22. Amazon, the second-largest private US employer after Walmart, pays its fulfillment center workers a $15 minimum hourly wage and offers superior benefits when compared to some major competitors. But many of the company’s workers still say they are struggling to stay afloat, and they have such limited work options that they keep showing up to sort, pack, and deliver shipments for Amazon even as they fear the company isn’t doing enough to keep them safe during a global health crisis. In interviews with Recode, dozens of current and former Amazon employees, from the warehouse level to senior corporate managers, shared previously unreported details about the inner workings of the company, inconsistent enforcement of health and safety protocols, and the tactics they say the company has employed to tamp down tensions rising among its workforce. Amazon seems to be well aware that its treatment of workers during the pandemic matters. Externally, the company has launched a public relations campaign that includes TV commercials and a documentary TV series to drive home a message to customers that keeping the “retail heroes” in its warehouses safe is its top priority. But internally, employees told Recode that Amazon has responded to workers’ complaints by cracking down on dissenters. The company has fired at least six employees who were involved in recent worker protests or who spoke out about working conditions at Amazon, including several who were visible leaders within the company on worker issues. Sources told Recode the company has also reprimanded at least six other employees during the same period who were involved in recent protests. Amazon has said that it terminated the employees in question for repeatedly violating internal policies on social distancing, internal communications, and conduct with colleagues. It denied retaliating against employees for their criticism of the company. Top Amazon executive Dave Clark, who oversees Amazon’s global warehouse network, told Recode in May, “I’ve been here 21 years, and I have never seen anybody punished or terminated or anything for speaking out or having a contrary opinion or debating something. And that continues to be the case.” Hannah Yoon for Vox Courtney Bowden, a former Amazon employee in Pennsylvania, was organizing her colleagues to demand more paid time off for part-time employees. Hannah Yoon for Vox She says she doesn’t consider herself an activist but believes it is important to join groups like Amazonians United for better job protection. Courtney Bowden, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Pennsylvania who was fired in March shortly after organizing her colleagues to demand paid time off for part-time employees, disagrees. Bowden says Amazon’s stated reason for firing her was for getting into a dispute with a coworker. “Amazon thinks that they can control all these workers speaking out by firing them,” Bowden told Recode in mid-March. “What they don’t understand is that the amount of people doing this is just going to grow, grow, grow.” Clark also told Recode that the company led many of its competitors in rolling out Covid-19 safety measures such as mandatory masks, temperature checks, and enforced social distancing in warehouses. In interviews with Recode, even warehouse employees who were critical about Amazon’s Covid-19 safety practices said they have seen some signs of improvement since mid-March. But workers told Recode that other, deeper issues that existed before the pandemic have only gotten worse — namely, that how Amazon responded to workers’ pandemic complaints exemplifies how workers have limited power or voice in how their employer treats them. What’s at stake The internal conflicts at Amazon, coupled with growing outside scrutiny, have put the company — and its customers — in a fraught position. The e-commerce giant with a $1 trillion valuation has become a symbol of the longstanding economic and racial inequalities in the US that the pandemic has exaggerated. The virus disproportionately kills more Black Americans than other ethnic groups; 80 percent of Amazon’s US warehouses are located in zip codes that have a higher percentage of Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people than the regional average, according to a recent analysis by the employee activist group AECJ. Like many other white-collar tech workers in the US, most of Amazon’s corporate employees have been able to work from home. Meanwhile, Amazon’s warehouse employees, who have historically been more racially diverse than its corporate employees, have to show up in person. And as millions of other Americans have lost their jobs and are struggling to afford necessities, Amazon and companies like it are reaping record sales and hiring hundreds of thousands workers to staff their facilities, deliver products, and risk exposure to a virus that’s already killed more than 125,000 people in the US as of late June. Before the pandemic, millions of Americans already relied on Amazon for the convenience its one- or two-day shipping offered them. Covid-19 shelter-in-place orders and the temporary shuttering of many physical retailers only increased dependence on the company: Amazon sales and Prime membership subscriptions shot up from January to March. “The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there. It’s, ‘Just get my package to me.’” But reports of the company’s labor issues have raised uncomfortable questions. Is it possible for Amazon to maintain what its CEO Jeff Bezos calls its “obsessive-compulsive focus on the customer” while also protecting its employees? Would customers pay more and accept slower delivery times if it meant Amazon would support and pay its workers more? Do we want to live, work, and shop in an economy where more and more businesses are emulating Amazon’s business model, and where more people depend on fast-paced warehouse and delivery work to make their livelihoods? Or will politicians, Amazon’s own employees, and, most importantly, consumers demand changes from the company — and the economy in which it thrives? These questions aren’t entirely new. Well before the pandemic, Amazon was seemingly unstoppable despite reports of grueling and sometimes dangerous conditions at its warehouses. In the past 25 years, the company has grown from a scrappy online bookstore to one of the world’s most valuable companies, with its reach extending beyond e-commerce to streaming television, brick-and-mortar grocery, and cloud computing. “When we talk about Amazon, we’re really talking about the future of work,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which represents workers at major retailers such as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and H&M, told Recode. “Other employers feel that if they want to survive, they have to find a way to change their working conditions to replicate Amazon. And that’s exactly what we don’t want — we don’t want Amazon to be the model for what working is going to be like, of what the future of work is going to look like.” In light of the pandemic’s life-or-death consequences, assessing the future of work and Amazon’s role in it is more urgent than ever. The company does not publicly share the total number of its workers infected with Covid-19, although it has directly messaged warehouse workers individually when there is a person with a new case at their facility. Former Indiana warehouse employee Jana Jumpp started a project to crowdsource these messages from workers. She says she’s confirmed nearly 1,600 cases of Amazon warehouse employees with Covid-19 since March, and at least nine workers who have died of the disease. That case total would represent well less than 1 percent of Amazon’s US warehouse workforce, but without Amazon’s confirmation, it’s still unclear how widely the virus has spread among its employee base. Amazon declined to comment on Jumpp’s reporting to Recode, but Amazon spokesperson Kelly Cheeseman told Recode the company uses “a variety of data to closely monitor the safety of our buildings and there is strong evidence that our employees are not proliferating the virus at work.” Jumpp says she’s getting a steady stream of reports of at least 10 to 20 new cases a day from Amazon workers across the US, which she compiles in a spreadsheet. “If the public really knew what was going in the facilities, they might think twice about shopping on Amazon,” Jumpp told Recode. That’s because what happens inside Amazon’s warehouses doesn’t just affect its employees. It will impact the rest of us, too. And the company’s customers will impact its practices. Outside surveys show that Amazon’s customer reputation began slipping during the pandemic, though the causes of this shift are not yet clear. The share of people who said they have a positive impression of Amazon dropped from 74 percent in January before the pandemic hit the US to 58 percent in May in two similar, separate polls of more than 1,000 people conducted by Survey Monkey with Fortune and Recode, respectively. Another recent poll by RBC Capital Markets showed a similar trend: Amazon customers are reporting record-low levels of customer satisfaction, despite making more frequent purchases. For now, it’s hard to say if we’re seeing more negative customer feedback about Amazon because people encountered inventory shortages and delivery delays due to the coronavirus, or because they’re troubled by criticisms of Amazon’s labor practices, or some other reason. If it’s merely shopping inconveniences prompting the shift in customer perception, the company may be motivated to push its employees harder, and return to pre-Covid levels of worker productivity as quickly as possible. But if the shift relates to Amazon’s ethics as an employer, the company has a deeper issue to solve for, and what it does next is likely to have significant implications for the rest of the US economy. “If the public starts supporting the protests, if the customers start boycotting Amazon, then customers form a significant form of power,” Thomas Anton Kochan, a professor of industrial relations at MIT, told Recode. “The ultimate arbiters of this debate will be the public, not Amazon and not the workers themselves.” Three months of unrest and counting If it’s still uncertain how customers will ultimately respond to Amazon and how it handled the pandemic, what has become clear is that the past three months have shaken up Amazon’s internal culture, which one employee described as an “artificial internal class system” that has until now separated corporate employees from fulfillment center workers. As reports emerged of the company firing and cracking down on workers agitating for better conditions at fulfillment centers, a growing number of the company’s engineers, product managers, and designers have become embarrassed, worried, and angry. For the first time, they’re joining forces with their colleagues at the warehouse level to publicly criticize their employer, and some say they lost their jobs because of it. Meanwhile, prominent politicians like Sens. Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren are pressing the company on its firings of workers across corporate offices and the warehouse floor alike. “People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave,” one longtime corporate Amazon employee told Recode in late April. “At the end of the day, I want to know what kind of company does Amazon want to be: a company that allows discourse and dialogue between employees, or a company that suppresses dissent?” another Amazon employee told Recode in late April. Since March, workers have issued two petitions with more than 6,000 combined employee signatures demanding better pay and benefits, and they’ve held at least eight protests at over a dozen fulfillment centers, sortation centers, and delivery stations. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Protesters demanding better working conditions rally outside an Amazon fulfillment center in Staten Island, New York, on May 1. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images Protesters show solidarity with Christian Smalls (speaking in the background) during a rally demanding better working conditions. Amazon’s response to its warehouse and corporate employees’ concerns seems to have only agitated employees more. In public statements and internal meetings, the company seems to be treating the scrutiny of warehouse conditions like a PR problem rather than an opportunity to find and fix potential operational flaws. “We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible,” top Amazon spokesperson Jay Carney said during an internal video Q&A with corporate employees in early May, of which Recode obtained an audio recording. “Look, you have situations where we have a protest at a fulfillment center and we have more organizers than actual Amazon employees out on the street.” Carney went on, “I think the total number of protesters in the city and states has been less than a fraction of a half of a fraction of a percent of our employee base, but some of the media coverage suggests that that’s not the case.” Cheeseman reiterated what the company previously said in a statement in regard to worker protests: that the “overwhelming majority” of Amazon employees have not participated and that the walkouts had “no measurable impact on operations.” “We encourage anyone interested in the facts to compare our overall pay and benefits, as well as our speed in managing this crisis, to other retailers and major employers across the country,” Cheeseman told Recode. Amazon offers full-time warehouse employees the same health care insurance and 401(k) options as corporate employees. At the start of the pandemic, it also led other companies by being one of the first to grant workers a $2-per-hour wage hike, and it doubled overtime pay and provided unlimited unpaid time off. (All of these pandemic-related policies ended on June 1, prompting loud pushback from some employees.) “Our focus remains on protecting associates in our operations network,” Cheeseman said. Amazon has nearly 600,000 full-time and part-time employees in the US, the vast majority of whom work in its warehouse network, so the hundreds of workers protesting are indeed only a tiny percentage of its workforce. But one corporate employee who doesn’t consider himself an activist and hasn’t been involved in any recent protests told Recode, “Many workers do not feel comfortable walking off a job for a protest, especially in this climate. So the voice of organizers should be heard as representative of the workers they’re organizing for.” Of course, Amazon’s many employees have a range of perspectives on how their employer treats them in general and how it’s handled their safety during the pandemic. Some value how Amazon pays all employees a $15-per-hour minimum wage, as well as how it offers health care and dental insurance, and highly subsidized tuition or vocational training to further employees’ careers. “Amazon is a good job in many ways: great benefits, it pays good, there are opportunities for overtime, to go to school,” said Jumpp. Others empathize with the company and the extraordinary challenges Covid-19 has created for it. But a significant number of Amazon’s employees, in warehouses and in its headquarters, feel it has let them down, and that’s fueling their criticism of the company. The growing dissent among Amazon’s corporate workforce followed a few key moves Amazon made in the early days of the pandemic: First, the company fired Christian Smalls, a warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, who led an early protest against the company in March. Then company executives, led by top lawyer David Zapolsky, strategized in an executive meeting attended by Bezos about how to downplay Smalls’s complaints by characterizing him as “not smart or articulate.” Then, when Zapolsky’s notes from this meeting leaked to the press and corporate employees began to protest and question Amazon’s actions on internal company listservs, the company fired three key corporate activists in mid-April and began restricting employees’ ability to communicate on large listserv. It paused enforcing these restrictions after Recode reported on them. Amazon workers told Recode in April they were particularly concerned by what they saw as racist overtones in the notes from the executive meeting focused on Smalls, who is Black. Amazon told Recode in April that Zapolsky was unaware of Smalls’s race when he made the comments. Since then, workers’ unease has grown because four of the six workers Amazon has fired since March are people of color. Cheeseman, the Amazon spokesperson, told Recode that the company “works hard to foster a culture where inclusion is the norm for each and every one” of its employees. “We do not tolerate any kind of discrimination in our workplace,” said Cheeseman. Damon Casarez for Vox Christian Smalls, a former Amazon warehouse worker in Staten Island, New York, led a protest against the company in March and was recently fired for violating social distancing policies, according to Amazon. Smalls believes he was fired because of his activism. Brian L. Frank for Vox John Hopkins works at an Amazon distribution center in San Leandro, California. He is one of several warehouse organizers who have been pushing for better working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses in the past few months. John Hopkins is another worker who says Amazon targeted him in May for his activism at work. The company lifted his suspension in June after an internal health and safety investigation; since then, he has continued to be vocal about what he sees as retaliation and racial injustice at Amazon. Hopkins told Recode it didn’t matter that Zapolsky said he wasn’t aware of Smalls’s race when he said Smalls wasn’t articulate. “Ultimately, he [Zapolsky] didn’t have to be aware of his [Smalls’s] race — he should have been aware of the chances,” Hopkins told Recode. “Regardless of whether he knew specifically, he has to know the number of African American workers in warehouses is far larger than in AWS [Amazon Web Services]. The chances he was going to say that about a Black worker are higher. “Race permeates everything. These aren’t disconnected issues; what’s at the heart of them all is implicit bias,” Hopkins added. Amazon said it fired Smalls because he violated social distancing policies while he was on paid quarantine leave, and that it terminated the corporate employees after they violated company policies around internal communications. “There are also plenty of [employees] who are regularly talking to reporters and publishing different things that, you know, I disagree entirely with,” Clark, the Amazon executive, told Recode. “But they come back to work every day, are paid well, and nothing negative happens to them.” The six recently fired employees have all disputed Amazon’s explanations for their terminations. “It’s not okay that Amazon did that and fired that employee [Smalls]; those things aren’t normal,” one former Amazon engineer who recently left the company told Recode in late April, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation. “I’m not okay with going to work every day and continuing my day job while things are happening in the background. I need to show support for other people in the company.” Smalls’s case also caught the attention of politicians like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who have launched investigations into the incident, as well as Sen. Booker, who has sent several letters pressing Bezos on the matter. “What’s disturbing to me is that you have people who are, frankly, just speaking toward the crisis, and they’re seeing retaliation that is unacceptable,” Booker told Recode in early May. Since Booker wrote the letter about Smalls, the company has fired several more warehouse workers involved in activism. “These firings further marginalize employees who already feel really pressured.” While Amazon’s termination of visible activist leaders both within company headquarters and at its fulfillment centers has scared some employees, they haven’t stopped organizing. The firings further angered and encouraged critical employees to move discussions off corporate platforms so they can discuss their ethical qualms about their employer more discreetly — and freely. “I think temporarily people will be discouraged from speaking, but it’s not going to silence their inner concerns,” one employee told Recode in late April. “People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people,” former longtime Amazon corporate employee Maren Costa told Recode. Costa and her colleague Emily Cunningham were fired on April 10, shortly after they both shared a petition started by Amazon warehouse workers about the risks warehouse workers face during the pandemic. Amazon told Recode that the pair were terminated for violating Amazon’s internal policies, including one that bars employees from using company resources to solicit their coworkers for signatures. Both Costa and Cunningham were active leaders of an internal employee group that pushes the company to become more environmentally friendly, called Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ). After they were fired, Costa and Cunningham helped host two virtual panel discussions between warehouse workers and corporate employees about safety standards at warehouses, environmental policies, and unionization. Around 400 employees attended each event, according to the organizers. “We are definitely on the right side of history,” Cunningham told Recode in late April. “Even those of us that have more privilege doesn’t mean we’re immune to the real harm that is already coming our way. … There’s only so much insulation unless you’re an extremely rich billionaire.” Dozens of warehouse workers Recode spoke with emphasized the importance of corporate employees like Cunningham and Costa speaking out on their behalf. “While warehouse and tech workers are treated differently in many ways by Amazon, recent events have clearly shown how we’re still in the same struggle, like against retaliation from Amazon for exercising free speech,” Ted Miin, a warehouse worker at the DCH1 facility in Chicago and member of the worker group DCH1 Amazonians United, told Recode in early May. This newfound unity between front-line and office workers reflects a growing gulf between the company and segments of its workforce, who say the company’s leaders — both in its headquarters and those managing its warehouses — are disconnected from the challenges workers lower in the company face. “People before were saying, ‘Oh, maybe Amazon’s not so bad,’ but when they see the silencing, and the censorship, and the firings, and the not listening — that is the last straw for a lot of people” When you consider the scale of Amazon’s vast network of warehouses — which includes 110 fulfillment centers in the US and hundreds of smaller sorting and delivery facilities — as well as the machine-like efficiency required to keep this operation running, that’s not surprising. The pandemic has just raised the stakes. “Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential,” Tim Bray, a former VP-level engineer at the company, wrote in a now-viral public blog post he published in late April after quitting in protest of Amazon’s firings of Costa, Cunningham, Smalls, Bowden, and other whistleblowers. Bray called management’s decisions “chicken shit” and accused the company of fostering a “climate of fear” among its workers. (Bray later deleted the “chicken shit” language after he said people he respected told him it was “mean-spirited.”) The day after Bray posted his note, Brad Porter, the company’s vice president of robotics, defended Amazon’s measures to protect its workers in a LinkedIn post. In it, he cited technological solutions his teams have been rolling out: using AI to make sure workers are social distancing, installing thermal cameras to check workers’ temperatures, and developing mobile ultraviolet sanitation to kill Covid-19 in warehouses. But, as several employees wrote in internal emails that Recode obtained and in public comments on LinkedIn, Porter sidestepped one of the main focuses of Bray’s critique: that the company is allegedly retaliating against workers who question the company’s treatment of fulfillment center workers. “This Linkedin post has honestly left me a little sick for several reasons, because it just shows how keenly and brazenly VPs do not get it,” wrote one Amazon employee in a May 6 post on an internal corporate listserv that Recode obtained. “The fact that Brad Porter does not once mention the fired employees — something Tim Bray clearly and plainly states to be the reason for his resignation — in his exculpatory post makes things very clear: they don’t see this as an issue.” Others pointed out that Porter’s solutions were largely technical fixes to a very human problem. “Even if we eventually have all the technology in place for a COVIDfree workplace, if people don’t feel safe to speak, that’s not a safe space,” wrote another employee on the same listserv. Amazon was a tough place to work before. The pandemic has made it worse. How Amazon is handling workers’ dissent is just one part of the problem, workers say. The scale and pace of its operations have always had downsides, but now the pressure of a pandemic is making them more visible. Amazon has long been known for hiring bright, data-focused managers in its warehouse network to help increase efficiency while keeping costs down. The result has been a world-class logistics operation that offers affordable next-day delivery to millions of Americans. But there are drawbacks to that data-obsessed approach, too: quotas and metrics that don’t account for an employee having a bad day — or not feeling well — and some managers who are more comfortable evaluating numbers than human emotions. “Algorithms can be very, very dangerous … and that’s where Amazon is right now,” a former senior HR manager at Amazon told Recode. “There is no other company on the planet that is more efficient. But the downside is … you take people who don’t have life experiences, or just don’t have empathy, and it becomes very easy to look at data as the end-all, be-all, as opposed to as a guide.” Cheeseman refuted that characterization and referenced two emails that Clark sent to warehouse managers during the pandemic, which expressed the importance of keeping employees healthy and safe. “To be abundantly clear, your most important job right now has nothing to do with a metric,” Clark wrote to managers in a March 14 email that Amazon showed Recode. “It’s walking your floors, talking to your teams, supporting them if they need help or have [any] questions, and ensuring all the safety measures we have rolled out are implemented and followed.” Amazon seems aware that some of its warehouse managers focus too narrowly on meeting fulfillment goals, even if it won’t talk about it publicly. The company previously developed a computer system, Recode has learned, that periodically prompts some warehouse supervisors to get out from behind their computer and go interact with their front-line staff. Similar to how employees criticized Porter’s response to Bray’s resignation note, it’s an Amazonian solution to a very human problem. “We do have mechanisms to remind our teams what’s important to us, and that does include recognizing and connecting with associates,” Cheeseman said. “We have our critics, both here in the United States and around the world, who — some are completely inconvincible” Amazon wasn’t always so intensely focused on performance metrics. A longtime former corporate employee, who was an HR manager focused on warehouses, told Recode they saw a major shift in that direction at Amazon around 2010. “When I joined, it was very apparent to me that the leaders in the facility really cared about the people,” the former HR manager said. “The Amazon that I left in fulfillment was … not that way.” Part of the change this former manager saw can be attributed to an increased reliance on performance data, as well as the implementation of so-called standard operating procedures. “We almost overindexed on processes,” said the former HR manager, while also acknowledging the business upsides to adding more structure to warehouse work. But the other factor in the shift was the type of warehouse leaders the company recruited as Amazon expanded to meet exploding customer demand. “It was all about just drive, drive, drive, and there were not a lot of very kind leaders,” according to the former manager. A former Amazon data science engineer focused on warehouse metrics told Recode, “I knew that every single time we developed a tool, we are just adding pressure. “The pressure to be consistent and perform every single second there is tremendous,” the employee added. “Not everyone is the same.” Despite the note Clark sent warehouse managers in mid-March urging them to prioritize safety measures above delivery metrics, several employees told Recode as recently as late April that some of the company’s rigid middle managers in fulfillment centers were slow to empathize with the unique setbacks of working during a pandemic and were enforcing strict work quotas. An Amazon worker at a fulfillment center in New Jersey, who spoke to Recode on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job, said in late April that the pace demanded in her warehouse made it, in her view, impossible to properly social distance: “When you’re picking an order, the bins and pallets … they’re all close together, and they’re used by multiple people at one time. And if you’re not picking up certain items within a certain time frame, you’re penalized.” The same worker told Recode that by early May, management at her site had improved on safety issues at the warehouse — making bin aisles one-way for foot traffic, and easing up enforcement of worker productivity rates. Miin, the worker in Chicago, told Recode in early April that the company was inconsistently enforcing social distancing requirements in the fulfillment center where he worked. In a follow-up interview in late June, Miin said he thought the warehouse was still facing the same issues. “When we’re protesting conditions, they bring up the 6-feet rule. But, of course, they don’t bring that up when people are trying to work hard and fast inside the warehouse — those rules are ignored,” Miin said. Cheeseman said the company denies these accusations. “That’s not true,” she wrote to Recode. “We have a policy related to social distancing and we are enforcing it across all sites.” Cheeseman said the company has implemented several ways to monitor social distancing, including spending $85 million to move existing employees into new “social distancing ambassadors” roles. Interviews with employees at other Amazon warehouses from late March through June indicate that at some facilities, management meticulously and successfully enforced social distancing. But according to Recode’s interviews with more than 30 employees across the company’s entire network, not every warehouse was operating at the same level. At many Amazon warehouses, social distancing is rigidly upheld: “At my building, the safety committee is always on top of everybody about being safe and wearing your mask,” one Amazon associate at the ACY5 fulfillment center in Swedesboro, New Jersey, told Recode in late May, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing her job for speaking to the press. “Even if you’re 5 feet apart, they’re always yelling at you to be 6 feet apart.” The associate said she has ample access to masks, wipes, and hand sanitizer, and that overall she feels safe at work. But she said that circumstances seem to vary from warehouse to warehouse. She said her facility had only had one confirmed employee case of Covid-19 so far in May, whereas she heard another site nearby in West Deptford, New Jersey, has dozens of cases. (Jumpp’s report shows over 20 recorded cases at the West Deptford site as of late June.) “It’s like a chain restaurant, like a Chili’s or something — each franchise may be run differently,” the Amazon associate said. Dakota Santiago for Vox Recently at the Staten Island fulfillment center, Amazon installed thermal cameras that scan employees’ body temperatures upon arrival. Dakota Santiago for Vox The same fulfillment center’s lunch room where tables are spaced 6 feet apart and workers are reminded to adhere to safe social distancing guidelines. In an interview with Recode in mid-May, Clark, the Amazon senior vice president, said he doesn’t agree that there were significant inconsistencies in the company’s response to the pandemic. “I’d love to say that we were perfect. But I don’t think anybody had a playbook for this thing,” Clark said. “We’ve learned as we’ve gone, and I think we’ve executed incredibly well.” Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University, told Recode he thinks Amazon is working hard to protect its workers from the coronavirus. “The problem is this coronavirus is something we’ve never ever encountered before — this is the dilemma,” Penfield said. Clark told Recode the company faced challenges in parts of March “where in every part of the supply chain — even the medical community — getting enough sanitizer and some of those things were very challenging.” “But for weeks we’ve been in a place where we’ve procured enough supplies where at every piece of the operation, we now have overages to support what teams need,” he said in the second week of May. Amazon has not been alone in struggling with the challenge of keeping the coronavirus out of its facilities. Walmart was forced to temporarily close a Pennsylvania warehouse in early April after a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases over a short period. Amazon’s biggest retail rival also faced Covid-19 outbreaks in several of its supercenter stores, including a Massachusetts location that was temporarily shuttered after 23 employees there tested positive. The activist group United for Respect says that at least 22 Walmart associates have died of Covid-19. And a dozen US state attorneys general wrote to Walmart in early June with demands over what they say has been a subpar coronavirus response when it comes to the health and safety of Walmart employees and customers. Costco, too, has come under fire from some of its employees for not standardizing health and safety protocols early enough in the US despite having stores in Asia, where the virus appears to have first spread. Indeed, government lockdown measures in the US began on a city-by-city basis, creating confusion for companies with a presence in hundreds of municipalities across the country. Even so, Amazon says it began reworking its US warehouses ahead of national guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allow for social distancing based on World Health Organization guidelines it was already following in its European facilities. In Clark’s interview with Recode, and in Amazon statements to other media outlets, the company has argued that it took protective measures earlier than many of its peers, and, though it would not specify which ones, it seemed to allude to Walmart. Amazon began issuing masks to US warehouse employees on April 2; while Walmart did so around the same time, the brick-and-mortar giant did not make them mandatory until April 17. On April 30, Amazon vowed to spend $4 billion over three months to invest its profits on things like mass Covid-19 testing and expanding paid sick leave for its employees. As of May 13, Amazon announced that it had supplied 93 million sanitizing sprays and wipes, more than 100 million masks, and more than 2,000 new hand-washing stations across its fulfillment center network. And though Amazon ended its pandemic pay increases and unlimited time off in June, Clark told Recode that employees still have several other leave options, including ones that apply to parents with school-age children or employees with preexisting conditions. As of mid-May, Clark said more than 10,000 employees have used those other time off options, though Bloomberg reported in June that some warehouse employees are having trouble accessing these options because of a highly automated, and overwhelmed, human resources operation. But even with all the precautions that Amazon has implemented since mid-March, the coronavirus continues to spread in the US, and it’s still infecting Amazon’s workers. Workers told Recode that Amazon’s refusal to disclose exactly how many people are infected at each site makes showing up for work more stressful than it needs to be. “People want to be proud of the company, but they are feeling quite ashamed and deciding whether they can change [it] from within or need to leave” When there are confirmed Covid-19 cases in its facilities, Amazon said that it reviews video footage to identify every person an infected worker has been in close contact with and then notifies those individuals so they can go on paid leave. “We alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis,” Amazon has said in a statement. “This alert includes when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.” Clark told Recode that he believes a better metric for determining whether Amazon warehouses are safe is the number of employees it quarantines after they come into close contact with a coworker who later tested positive. Internal data shows that as of the first week in May, Amazon has only needed to quarantine one additional employee for every four confirmed cases, Clark said. “It means that the infections that we see … usually come from spread within a community, not inside the building.” The company said it also interviews those who test positive to see whether they have had close contact with coworkers outside of work, too. But several employees told Recode they worked closely with someone they know was later confirmed to have Covid-19, and had not heard anything from the company, even several days after potential exposure. Amazon’s Cheeseman said the company uses CDC guidance for what constitutes exposure — standing within 6 feet for more than 15 minutes — or local health guidance if it’s stricter. She added that employees have several ways to escalate concerns if they think they were exposed. When Recode asked dozens of warehouse workers if they thought Amazon was any better or worse than competitors like Walmart in how they treat workers, many said that those companies could be just as bad. But they said they expected more from Amazon and its leadership because of the company’s success. “What really makes me mad is that Jeff Bezos is one of the richest men on the planet,” said Billie Jo Ramey, a worker at the DTW1 fulfillment center in Romulus, Michigan, on a call with reporters in April. “He can afford to keep us safe.” What happens next More than three months after the pandemic transformed Amazon from being a convenient service to an essential one providing supplies to millions of homebound Americans, the company has found itself in a delicate situation. Amazon itself calls its workers “heroes.” But many of these warehouse heroes — and their corporate colleagues — are angry with their employer in ways they’ve never been before. “It’s a new moment when hundreds of workers are taking action and when tens of thousands more are signing our petitions and expressing their solidarity online,” Dania Rajendra, director of Athena, a coalition of nonprofits and organizations scrutinizing Amazon’s business practices, told Recode. “People who are not the executives of extremely wealthy corporations are realizing they’re in this together.” While unions have succeeded in organizing some of Amazon’s European workforce, no US facility has been unionized. The last attempt, in 2014, ended with a small group of Amazon technicians at a Delaware facility voting against unionization. In the past, Amazon has staved off attempts at warehouse organizing by monitoring and discouraging any preliminary signs of worker solidarity talk on the shop floor, and by conceding on some of workers’ demands before they escalate further. This time, quelling organizers’ efforts won’t be so easy — but Amazon has long been preparing for the potential of unionization, which a former Amazon executive told Recode in April “is likely the single biggest threat to [Amazon’s] business model.” As early as the 2000s, Amazon began tracking the potential for unionization at each of its warehouses, building a heat map in Excel to identify “hot spots” in its fulfillment network, a former senior leader in Amazon’s human resources department told Recode. This calculation was based on at least dozens of metrics, including employee survey data, timing of the last pay raise, the safety record of the facility, and even the financial strength of local unions, the former HR manager said. According to this employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Amazon tracked these details to determine “where do we swoop in to figure out if there’s a problem with leadership or maybe there’s one particularly toxic employee who is really causing chaos.” Whole Foods, which Amazon acquired in 2017, now employs a similar union tracking system, Business Insider reported in April. Cheeseman said she couldn’t confirm or deny the existence of the Excel-based unionizing-tracking tool because employees who would have overseen it no longer work for Amazon. But she acknowledged that Amazon does “monitor closely sites where employees have issues and concerns to make sure we’re solving them.” Several current and former Amazon warehouse employees told Recode there have been more recent talks of unionization among rank-and-file employees, but also widespread fear that doing so could cost workers their jobs or other repercussions. “When I worked there, I joked that if I even said the word ‘union,’ I’d be kicked out. We called it [unions] the ‘u-word,’” Jumpp said. “There’s a lot of talk about unions, but I don’t know if they’ll work or not.” While established unions like United Food & Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) and RWDSU have been informally helping Amazon warehouse workers in pushing for better conditions, the first real step toward unionization — actively announcing a bargaining unit and calling for a vote — hasn’t happened yet. Even if Amazon workers are still a long way from officially unionizing, their organizing and the public attention it’s drawn provides an opening to politicians ready to seize an opportunity to rein in the unparalleled power the company has consolidated in the past decade. On May 12, a group of 13 US state attorneys general pressed the company for data on Covid-linked worker infections. New York City’s Commission on Human Rights and the New York state attorney general are investigating Christian Smalls’s firing. Some Republican lawmakers, like Sen. Josh Hawley, meanwhile, have used the pandemic as a time to push the company on antitrust issues, arguing that their business practices are destroying mom-and-pop businesses. The House Judiciary Committee, which is investigating Amazon and the three other Big Tech giants (Facebook, Google, and Apple), recently asked Jeff Bezos to testify on issues including how Amazon competes with its own marketplace merchants. Bezos said he would show up, under certain conditions. And the Federal Trade Commission has been conducting an informal probe of Amazon since last year. These investigations, if they result in regulation or new antitrust laws, could present an existential threat to Amazon’s grip on the online retail market. And Democrats like Sen. Booker are using Amazon as an opportunity to mount a full-throated defense of stronger labor rights in the US more broadly, drawing on the larger economic anxieties Americans face during the recession. “I strongly believe that we must make sure that labor has a voice, has the right to organize, and has the power to bargain and strike,” Booker told Recode. “If not, we are going to see the country continue in this dull and perverse direction. ... It really is a worrisome trend that you’re seeing in this country where people who are working hard every day are finding themselves economically compromised, economically fragile.” Booker and the other politicians who scrutinize Amazon do so because they know the company affects far more people than the hundreds of thousands they directly employ. Amazon delivered nearly 3.5 billion packages globally last year — and that figure doesn’t even count Amazon orders delivered by partners like UPS or USPS. This has helped make Bezos the richest man in the world; meanwhile, most Americans haven’t received a meaningful raise in decades. Until significant political action or regulation on Amazon comes — if it ever does — labor organizers are trying to shame the company into action, like when Sen. Bernie Sanders helped pressure Amazon to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour back in 2018, or how in 2019, local activists, labor groups, and politicians in New York City pushed Amazon to withdraw its plans to build a new headquarters in Long Island City. “It’s very difficult to see this [employee activism] movement dying out when to a certain degree it’s successful,” said an Amazon corporate employee who is active on worker organizing around climate change and warehouse worker rights. Brian L. Frank for Vox John Hopkins (center) at a workers rally endorsed on June 19 in Oakland. Hopkins has been organizing colleagues in his area in part of a new worker group, Bay Area Amazonians. And then there’s the impact of all this on Amazon’s loyal and ever-growing base of customers. If they start to perceive Amazon as a company that, on the whole, is weakening rather than strengthening the working class, will their allegiance to two-day shipping and Prime subscriptions change? If customers demand changes from Amazon, could it raise the bar for labor not just at Amazon but at other retailers that imitate the company’s business practices in order to compete with it? Amazon is “a technological leader, the first place where most Americans turn to shop online, and a hugely influential political power,” former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich told Recode. “So its employee practices are watched and likely to be emulated by every other big American company. When it treats its workers badly, those tawdry practices reverberate across the country.” Some workers are skeptical that customers will care, no matter what happens in Amazon’s warehouses. “The American psyche is so selfish that it doesn’t matter what goes on in there,” said one longtime Amazon warehouse worker in Lexington, Kentucky, who’s been internally vocal about what he feels is a lack of sanitation at his facility. “It’s, ‘Just get my package to me. Just get my package to me.’ The company is feeding off of that because on the walls and inside the facility it specifically states, ‘We are customer-obsessed.’” For now, customers are by no means rushing to cancel their Prime subscriptions, even if polls indicate that their overall perception of the company is declining. But worker unrest presents a long-term reputational problem for Amazon. Major tech companies like Facebook, Uber, and Google have all made missteps in recent years, from failing to protect user data to allegedly covering up sexual harassment issues, that have stained their reputations and sometimes cost them revenue. Worker unrest at Amazon has higher stakes, though: It has ramifications for the rest of the economy. Amazon has been ascending to dominance for years, and the pandemic has sped it up. What do its employees, who are a key part of this success, deserve? And what power should they have in shaping the direction of the company? “I think the state of affairs in our economy is that people are used to it being broken and not working for them,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “That’s the way the economy has been for some time, and not just due to Covid. But workers should be able to have higher expectations, to have power and strength as working people. To go to the table [with management] and say, ‘We should be in this together.’” Even after all their agitations for change during the pandemic, Amazon workers are still fighting to be heard. During his interview with Recode in May, Amazon’s Clark twice brought up Smalls, the warehouse worker whose firing sparked other employees’ anger towards the company. Despite the internal and external criticism Amazon faced over how its top lawyer called Smalls “not smart or articulate” in a leaked memo, Clark used Smalls in the interview as an example of what dissenting workers have done wrong. In a recent interview with Recode, Smalls reflected on the significance of the memo that propelled him into the media spotlight. Damon Casarez for Vox Christian Smalls in Los Angeles on June 15. “When the leaked memo came out, it exposed who Jeff Bezos is as a person, who’s around him, who’s giving him counsel — the types of conversations that they have about their employees, and their focus on smearing me. That tells you right there they don’t care about us,” said Smalls. “It’s never going to be Amazon v. Chris Smalls. It’s Amazon v. the people.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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“Although we are separate organizations with different missions and teams, we know it must be frustrating to feel like your work is impacted by an organization you don’t work for,” said Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. | Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Inside the unrest at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. At an emotional company town hall last week that blew past its hour-long time limit, one of Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers asked him to quit as CEO of Facebook. But the appeal did not, as one might expect, come from an engineer at Facebook. It came from an engineer at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), the education, science, and policy philanthropy Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, founded in 2015. “You and Priscilla have emphasized that Facebook and CZI are two separate organizations. This is true, but we have the same leader — you,” the CZI employee said, according to a video of the remarks viewed by Recode. “The actions you take at Facebook reflect on you as a leader and your leadership skills and values. It only reflects reality to say that our leader’s idea of free speech values calls to murder people for demonstrating over the political speech of the demonstrators themselves.” That’s when the employee presented one of the richest people in the world with three choices: Either moderate these inflammatory posts of Donald Trump, resign from Facebook, or resign from CZI. “I mean, no. None of those things would make sense,” said Zuckerberg, who seemed to be taken aback. Then, a few minutes later, he flipped the tables on the resignation question: “These organizations are different, but I do think that they come from some common sets of values. And I think at the end of the day, you all need to make whatever decisions you think are right in terms of wanting to work in an organization that is associated with a leader who is making other decisions that you may disagree with.” Zuckerberg ended with this plain matter of fact: “Quite frankly, the idea that we would resign from CZI is ridiculous.” Ridiculous or not, that one employee was speaking for a group of employees who over the past few years have found it difficult to work for the philanthropy that — although legally distinct from Facebook — is inextricably linked to a business empire they find disreputable. And in recent weeks, years of built-up angst at CZI have come spilling out, due to the ongoing protests in the US calling for an end to systemic racism after the killings of several Black Americans. These CZI employees take particular issue with the unwillingness of their boss, Zuckerberg, to place restrictions on Trump’s Facebook posts about the protests, in which he wrote, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The line between the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Zuckerberg’s $80 billion-plus charity, and Facebook, his $600 billion-plus public company, legally exists, without a doubt. But what happens at one affects what happens at the other, according to interviews with a dozen current and former employees at CZI, along with others close to it, granted anonymity due to nondisclosure agreements. The stench from Facebook — which always seems to be mired in scandal or public scrutiny — has wafted over the civic-minded and starry-eyed workforce at CZI, where many employees wrestle with the ethics of working alongside a corporation they cannot control. At least one employee has quit over the qualms. “The word they use between the two companies is that there’s a firewall — so they’re all very distinct and separate — which, in practice, doesn’t hold up,” said one current CZI employee, pointing to the philanthropy’s source of money and leadership. “They can say whatever they want, but there’s a huge area of overlap there. I think if they were just more honest about it, it would be good for everyone.” The sweep of Facebook’s crises have affected not just how the nonprofit’s employees feel, but what they do: Recode has learned that CZI scrapped a voter data project over concerns that it would attract scrutiny for Zuckerberg, who was struggling with fallout over a Facebook user data scandal involving the 2016 election. A civil rights nonprofit rejected funding CZI offered because the group didn’t want to be funded by money that it saw as tainted. Others have hesitated to use CZI products because of concerns about Facebook’s security lapses. All of this shows just how far-reaching Facebook’s scandals have been for anybody even remotely associated with Zuckerberg’s brand. Billionaires like Zuckerberg tend to point to their ambitious charities to push back against higher taxes, deflect scrutiny from their companies’ corporate practices, or even justify why billionaires like them should exist. But a new chorus of critics alleges that these donations are glorified tax avoidance meant primarily to burnish their public reputations, drawing a clear link between the business decisions and the philanthropy. So how CZI is being impacted by Facebook drama shows even more how the good work fueled by a business empire is not easily segregable from the business empire itself — or at least not as easily as the billionaires would like it to be. This long-simmering tension between the left hand and the right hand of Mark Zuckerberg Inc. spilled into public view this month when a group of CZI-backed scientists said that Facebook’s unwillingness to moderate posts from Trump was “antithetical” to the work the philanthropy was doing. And CZI’s leadership is now giving voice to that tension. This long-simmering tension between the left hand and the right hand of Mark Zuckerberg Inc. spilled into public view this month “Thank you especially to those who asked hard questions and spoke openly and honestly about how this moment, particularly CZI’s relationship with Facebook, is weighing on you,” wrote Chan and Zuckerberg, CZI’s co-CEOs, to employees following the town hall last week, in an email obtained by Recode. “Although we are separate organizations with different missions and teams, we know it must be frustrating to feel like your work is impacted by an organization you don’t work for.” CZI largely reiterated this internal note in a statement to Recode, publicly recognizing this “frustration” even though it stressed Facebook and CZI are “entirely separate.” “CZI’s strength is in its 400+ people from a diversity of backgrounds and areas of expertise,” a CZI spokesperson said. “Four years in, we’re proud of our teammates and grantees, the risks we’ve taken, and the progress we’ve made — and we’re ready to keep fighting for the systemic change and causes we believe in.” How Mark Zuckerberg’s business affects what happens at his philanthropy It wasn’t always so hard to work there. But Facebook’s run of controversies — none more damaging than its refusal to moderate Trump’s posts over the past few weeks — has agitated those who work at CZI, some of whom came to the charity specifically to pursue the mission of racial justice. CZI is one the country’s most ambitious philanthropies, dedicating $2 billion so far on tech-infused solutions for everything from coronavirus relief to what it describes as an attempt to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” in this century. Unlike other philanthropies, CZI has spent big on politics and policy and is among the biggest backers of criminal justice and immigration reform. Even though they are distinct entities, if there were no Facebook, there would be no CZI. Facebook staffers formed the core of CZI’s ranks after Zuckerberg and Chan announced its creation, with a pledge to use 99 percent of their Facebook stock. The philanthropy has ballooned in just a few years, pushing down the proportion of former Facebookers: About 10 percent of those who say on LinkedIn that they work at CZI also list Facebook as a previous employer, although sources told Recode that former Facebookers often feel like a greater percentage, given their prominence and CZI’s internal politics and culture. This is especially true on its team that builds education software, which started out as a Facebook project. It was the Cambridge Analytica data scandal in the spring of 2018, when 87 million Facebook users learned that their information had leaked, that truly changed things. Just as that ushered in a new era of scrutiny for Facebook, it also ushered in a sea change at CZI, introducing drama, staff turnover, and concerns from some employees about leadership, making the hard work of philanthropy much harder. After the news broke, CZI spent about half of its next town hall that spring talking not about CZI but about Cambridge Analytica. Some grantees reached out to the philanthropy in the aftermath of the scandal to ask if there was anything they should be concerned about, Chan told employees at the meeting. And the precipitous drop in Facebook’s share price immediately after the scandal broke raised hushed — even if speculative — questions among CZI employees about whether it could affect its budget or growth plans, sources said. (Facebook’s stock price eventually roared back.) Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress amid the Cambridge Analytica scandal, which affected his philanthropy, too. No incident better epitomizes how Facebook matters can sweep up seemingly unrelated work at CZI than what happened to a political startup that CZI acquired called Deck, according to sources. In 2017, CZI bought the company, which purchases consumer data, criminal justice data, and voter files to make predictive models about the likelihood of progressive candidates, primarily reform-friendly district attorney hopefuls, to win their races. Then, just a few days before its planned public launch in April 2018, with users already lined up, the Cambridge Analytica scandal exploded — and Zuckerberg and CZI’s leadership immediately paused the project’s launch. According to people familiar with the matter, CZI’s leaders told some employees that a data-capturing program — even one at CZI — would be too touchy in the wake of Facebook’s data troubles. The project was not outright canceled, at least not at first. But the product never launched. CZI employees working on it grew aggravated and eventually dispersed themselves across new CZI assignments, and all but one of the employees who worked on Deck have since left the nonprofit. Deck relaunched as an independent entity for Democrats late last year, with no public Zuckerberg backing. Deck was not the only piece of CZI programming that would be affected by the scandals at Facebook. Facebook’s controversies have caused some potential partners to question if they are willing to be associated with CZI. A few scientists who receive funding from CZI have told the philanthropy in recent weeks that they are reexamining if they still want to work with CZI going forward, one source said. Color of Change, a racial justice group that has been sharply critical of Facebook, turned down a $2 million grant offer last year, according to sources, who said the group effectively saw it as “dirty money” because it came from Facebook. Color of Change declined to comment. Other groups that have paused at CZI offers include some public school systems, some of which were skittish about using its flagship education initiative: a personalized learning platform called Summit. Some school leaders have told CZI officials they have concerns about the tech because of Facebook’s missteps in handling its users’ data privacy, according to sources. The most public blow-up happened in 2018 at a school in Brooklyn, where students and parents protested Summit on account of its ties to Facebook. But former CZI employees told Recode it was not uncommon for them to encounter similar hesitations elsewhere when signing data privacy agreements or renewing contracts with Summit, for instance. “How do we know that our personal information will be any better protected than it has been by you and Facebook in the past?” the group of Brooklyn students wrote Zuckerberg and Summit in 2018. Maurix/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican on August 29, 2016. Another impact of concerns around Facebook: Some employees told Recode they felt it made CZI oversensitive to public relations. They have suspicions that CZI is skittish about funding groups that would reflect poorly on Zuckerberg or would create conflict for Facebook — especially if it involved backing a grassroots, unabashedly liberal agenda. While this type of messaging is rarely explicit — Chan and Zuckerberg do speak openly of the desire to have a “big tent” and be bipartisan in their political work, even working with the Koch brothers at one point — multiple people who have worked at CZI said that after Cambridge Analytica, they feel that there is implicit messaging from leadership to not pursue too sensitive projects that could somehow boomerang back on Zuckerberg or Facebook, messaging that one current employee referred to as “guardrails.” Zuckerberg has trod lightly in politics amid unsupported accusations from the right that Facebook is biased against conservatives. “Basically anything that we did at CZI was gated by whether it would drastically affect Facebook or not,” claimed a former employee. “I eventually left the company thinking that CZI was Facebook’s PR machine.” “Basically anything that we did at CZI was gated by whether it would drastically affect Facebook or not” Another source said the Cambridge Analytica scandal affected what CZI might have otherwise done in the policy arena, primarily out of concern that a gift from Zuckerberg could jeopardize the grantee and make them vulnerable to attack. “Things where we might have leaned in that had a policy or a political edge to them, post-Cambridge the idea of doing that was much less feasible,” the source said. Over the past year, for instance, CZI was preparing to give away $1 million directly and indirectly to progressive groups after issuing a public call for applications. But late in the process, CZI decided against directly funding some particularly controversial racial justice groups outside its normal scope of work, three sources said. The nonprofits involved had expected to receive the money from CZI soon and were startled, the sources said. CZI did, in general, want to route some of these grants indirectly, working through outside intermediaries that are more specifically focused on this long-term work, a fairly normal practice. But one source said that the decision was also born out of a concern — explicitly expressed to some people — to manage any possible blowback to Zuckerberg from right-leaning critics of Facebook. CZI instead chose to route that $500,000 in intended grants through an outside organization, Solidaire, and recommended that they regrant that money to the racial justice groups that CZI had already chosen, two sources said. Solidaire has yet to make the grants. A CZI spokesperson disputed that its decision to work any grants through Solidaire was an effort to manage political blowback. CZI also pushed back on the idea that it shies away from these progressive donations more broadly. It provided a list of more than a dozen grants it had made to liberal groups, in addition to backing efforts like the immigration group FWD.US and a California ballot initiative to overturn a landmark tax law that conservatives tend to defend. “To be clear, a core part of our approach has always been bringing together unlikely allies from across the political spectrum to make real reform possible — from our work in criminal justice reform to immigration, and that is clearly reflected in our grantmaking,” a CZI spokesperson said. Inside the frustration at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative What happens at Facebook casts a shadow over CZI’s workforce, too. Just as some of the philanthropy’s possible partners are uneasy about its ties to Facebook, so are some of the philanthropy’s own employees. It’s hard to tell precisely how many of the 400 or so CZI employees, in a fairly siloed work culture, feel this way; sources who are troubled by their employer’s obvious connection to Facebook argue this concern is widespread and that most of their colleagues feel similarly, while some others see it as merely a “vocal minority.” But most employees wrestle with this tension to some extent. Over dinners or drinks, coworkers sometimes debate the role they play in boosting Zuckerberg’s reputation, in what one current employee called “a constant struggle.” CZI/Bob Riha Jr. via Getty Images Priscilla Chan is far more involved in day-to-day CZI operations than Zuckerberg. The anxiety about this is acute enough that, after Cambridge Analytica, Facebook matters began “regularly” coming up at events that are supposed to be focused on CZI, sources say. Zuckerberg is, these days, far less visible in the charity’s day-to-day affairs than Chan. But at CZI’s roughly biweekly all-hands or its monthly town halls — Zuckerberg usually attends the latter — questions about Facebook come up most of the time, especially when Facebook is in the headlines. At one town hall, for instance, after a Facebook employee named Mark Luckie penned a viral post in late 2018 saying that the company had “a Black people problem,” a CZI employee confronted Zuckerberg about whether Facebook was doing enough to support its Black employees. Some Facebook employees are still unhappy with Zuckerberg’s race record. Issues of race have also gripped CZI, where employees last week sent a letter to management saying it had to do better in how it deals with race. Zuckerberg tends to give the same answers that he offers publicly about any Facebook controversy when asked about the news of the day, sources say. But while that might have worked before a corporate audience like Facebook employees — at least until recently — it can be frustrating to some of the diverse group of people that came to CZI to try to change the world. “It’s never fully satisfying, but it always evened out — in terms of the good we do here will not be counteracted by the evil that Facebook does,” said one current employee. That was until George Floyd. Now, said that employee, “This situation feels different.” Some feel more strongly about Facebook than others. One employee said they quit in large part due to these concerns about their complicity and a lack of confidence in Zuckerberg. “I could no longer put aside this feeling of shame and almost guilt, of being part of an organization where I don’t think Mark has a moral compass” “One of the reasons I ended up leaving was that I could no longer put aside this feeling of shame and almost guilt, of being part of an organization where I don’t think Mark has a moral compass,” said one former employee. “I could no longer deny my gut feeling that this wasn’t important to him, that it was [an] about-face to save his reputation. “I tried to push that gut feeling that I had: You shouldn’t be working here. You shouldn’t be working here.” Those who do stay often share similar qualms about Zuckerberg. But they have reasons for staying: Some employees say that Facebook’s financial success gives them stability, which enables them to do far more ambitious work than they would elsewhere in the penny-pinching world of nonprofits. Others point to the role played by Chan, who is far more involved in day-to-day operations than Zuckerberg and is seen as much more proactive in grappling with the shadow of Facebook. Others cling to the “long game,” the possibility of enacting change at CZI from within. And yet another group is more fit to intellectually compartmentalize. “I think many CZI employees are overly sensitive about this. Whether we like it or not, we would not exist without Facebook. That is the hard truth,” said one current employee of Zuckerberg’s decisions. “It doesn’t matter whether I agree or not. If I worked at Facebook, then that would matter. But I don’t work for Facebook, so it’s not particularly relevant.” All of these tensions crescendoed last Tuesday at the town hall, the first after racial protests began gripping the country, when Zuckerberg spent almost the entire 80-minute session defending himself and Facebook’s decisions not to moderate Trump’s posts. One of those defenses even included a reference to how the American Civil Liberties Union defends the rights of neo-Nazis to protest out of the ACLU’s principled commitment to free speech, sources said. CZI employees pressed him on how he could reconcile the philanthropy’s motto — “A Future for Everyone” — with what some consider to be Trump’s encouragement of racial violence. “You can’t create a future for someone who’s dead,” one person told him, sources recall. “Trump is going to be judged by what he said,” Zuckerberg said at one point. “And it’s not going to be judged well, from my opinion.” “Trump is going to be judged by what he said,” Zuckerberg said at one point. “And it’s not going to be judged well, from my opinion.” Still, one current employee described the whole meeting as “deeply unsatisfying.” Another said they felt that Zuckerberg’s argument about Facebook and CZI treated them “like we’re not that intelligent.” “It really is highlighting for me how much power he has,” one of the employees said. “And the fact that, even as his direct employees, we are powerless to have our voices heard.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 9 days ago on re/code
James Bareham for Vox/Recode Facebook has banned this conspiracy site twice. But its content can still sneak back on.  It’s been a year since Facebook deleted the page for Natural News for violating the company’s rules about spam. This was a big deal for Natural News, a conspiracy site that had attracted nearly 3 million followers on its Facebook page. Then in May, Facebook took further action by banning the Natural News domain so that any link to the site would be blocked, along with some pages that frequently shared its content. Still, Natural News content has found ways to stick around. As one of the internet’s oldest and most prolific sources of health misinformation and conspiracy theories, Natural News is a hub for climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers. While it poses as a news outlet, Natural News is actually a network of sites filled with bylined articles and flanked by ads for survivalist gear and dodgy health cures. The internet trust tool NewsGuard reports that Natural News “severely violates basic standards of credibility and transparency.” Various fact-checking organizations have repeatedly flagged Natural News content as false. A new investigation from the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that focuses on countering extremism, finds that there are hundreds of active and inactive domains that point to websites associated with Natural News. It’s through some of these domains that Natural News content can still end up being shared on Facebook, the researchers found. Facebook, meanwhile, has said that Natural News was banned “for spammy and abusive behavior, not the content they posted.” Most recently, Facebook said its pages had used abusive audience-building tactics, including posting frequently and trying to evade the company’s rate limits. That hasn’t stopped Natural News from crying censorship and urging readers to appeal to Facebook and even the federal government over the bans. Meanwhile, researchers at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue say that it flagged several pages and groups that have frequently shared Natural News content to Facebook, but those pages and groups remain up. Facebook Some Facebook users have realized that Natural News content is still accessible on another domains. The persistence of misinformation is not so surprising. The 2016 presidential campaign highlighted the extent to which fake news, extremist content, and conspiracy theories pervaded Facebook. Since then, the company has ramped up its fight against the most prominent sources of false information when it removes their pages and content. But it’s typical for Facebook to ban these sources for specific policy violations, not the spreading of misinformation. That a network like Natural News can continue to spread misinformation on Facebook shouldn’t be surprising. Years after learning about the dangers and pervasiveness of fake news and conspiracy theories on its platform, the most powerful tool Facebook is using against these outlets appears to be booting their pages or banning specific domains for spam or other violations, not specifically for spreading misinformation. As he has expressed multiple times, Mark Zuckerberg does not want Facebook to appear as an arbiter of truth. Infowars, a far-right outlet known for pushing conspiracy theories, is perhaps the most famous example of this. Citing its glorification of violence and violations of the company’s hate speech policies, Facebook removed several pages associated with Infowars and its founder Alex Jones in 2018. At the time, Facebook explicitly said that the removal was not about false news. Jones himself was banned from Facebook a year later under the platform’s “dangerous individuals and organizations” policy, though pages associated with him continued to pop up on Facebook after that. Then there’s the Epoch Times, a right-leaning media outlet associated with the Falun Gong religious movement that has also published conspiracy theories. Facebook banned the Epoch Times from advertising on its platform last year after it violated the company’s political advertising transparency rules while pushing pro-Trump content and conspiracy theories. Facebook also shut down a network of fake accounts and pages linked to the Epoch Media Group for violating its coordinated inauthentic behavior rules (the Epoch Times denies the connection). Despite the bans, the Epoch Times has continued to spread misinformation on Facebook, largely through its popular Facebook page. Similarly, Facebook has banned a slew of Natural News-affiliated domains and pages. Over the past year, Natural News links attracted more interactions on the platform than both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to findings from researchers at the nonprofit activist network Avaaz. Facebook’s latest publicly announced action against the network — which included banning links from the main Natural News domain and those from two sister sites, as well as taking down several affiliated pages — seemed like an assertive move against a notorious spreader of fake news. But again, Natural News links were not banned for their content but rather other violations, and so the misinformation operation still managed to spread fake news on Facebook after those takedowns. A brief history of Natural News The mastermind behind the Natural News network is a man named Mike Adams, who calls himself “the Health Ranger” and claims to be an “activist-turned-scientist.” In the early 1990s, Adams founded an email-marketing business called Arial Software, through which he ran an anti-spam campaign. Things really took a turn when Adams also started a newswire service focused on preparing for Y2K, and he started pushing survivalist products. Eventually, Adams began building out the Natural News network, affording him more opportunity to develop his particular brand of viral paranoia as well as to build connections with other conspiracy theorists and members of the far right, including Alex Jones. For a sense of the coverage on Natural News network, consider some of what it published last week. There’s a post urging people to “activate” their Second Amendment rights and “retake” downtown Seattle; an “exclusive” revealing that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is illegally targeting small businesses selling colloidal silver, a dangerous supplement marketed as a miracle cure; and a piece warning that “Communist China” has infiltrated the United States by using solar energy farms as a front for its military officers. “They promote everything from the vaccine-autism link to natural cancer cures to the dangers of GMOs — all of that is in Natural News’s purview,” explains John Gregory, a senior analyst focusing on health for NewsGuard, adding that the site’s combination of far-right, extremist content with health information makes it “almost innovative.” Technology platforms have been responding to Natural News and its unorthodox methods for years. The site was blacklisted from Google in 2017 for using a prohibited “sneaky mobile redirect.” The ban prevented Natural News sites from showing up in certain search results (that de-indexing was soon reversed). A year later, the Health Ranger channel was apparently kicked off YouTube for violating the video platform’s community guidelines. Now the channel is still accessible but has not uploaded a new video in two years (it’s still easy to find other Natural News content on YouTube). Despite pushback from the major tech platforms, Natural News content continued to find an audience. The links even appear to find their ways around the many bans, namely those imposed by Facebook. During the first three months of 2020, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports, there were 18,000 links to Natural News-affiliated sites in public Facebook pages and groups. Adams, meanwhile, continues to complain that technology companies are censoring Natural News content. Several of the network’s sites have recently urged readers to join “the movement to end censorship by Big Tech.” “Misinformation players trying to use the takedowns to mobilize their base is becoming a constant thing,” warns Avaaz senior campaigner Luca Nicotra. “They create the fake, they publish it, they know it will be removed, and so they mobilize a base [and] create copies of it to re-upload it.” Natural News did not respond to Recode’s request for comment. Why Natural News stories can keep showing up on Facebook The mobilization effort appears to be working, and enlisting a growing number of websites to spread its content is central to the approach. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue reports that there are 21 current or historical corporate entities related to the Natural News network as well as 496 active and inactive domains. These domains often have themes — Extinction.news, Mind.control.news, and Veggie.news are just a few examples — and the sites themselves curate specific content from other Natural News sites. Many of these sites are not blocked on Facebook, which means that Natural News content can find its way onto the platform by way of these domains. Facebook’s recent announcement that it had banned three Natural News-related domains came after it major promoted the infamous “Plandemic” conspiracy video, which pushed a wide range of falsehoods about the novel coronavirus. Facebook said it began taking down the video because its claim about mask-wearing causing Covid-19 could lead to imminent harm. But, again, Facebook did not ban the Natural News domains for spreading false information. A Facebook spokesperson told Recode that the pages were removed for “spammy and abusive behavior, not the content they posted,” and added that the pages were using content farms in Macedonia and the Philippines. When describing these actions last week, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy Nathaniel Gleicher called Natural News “a conspiracy theory site that uses a range of deceptive techniques to boost their popularity” and said by banning Natural News, Facebook hoped to “stop financially motivated scammers and fraudsters.” Mike Adams responded to Facebook’s latest actions by broadcasting his network’s multiple domain strategy. He even suggested that readers could get around the Facebook ban by using links from sites or domains that would mirror content from Natural News. “In the future, we will also have alternate URLs and domain names that will allow you to share Brighteon videos,” Adams wrote in a post that appeared on multiple Natural News sites. “But those domains will of course be eventually banned by Facebook and the other tech giants, all of which are criminal operations that are complicit in communist China’s war against humanity.” Adams followed through on his promise and encouraged readers to continue sharing the “Plandemic” video by posting links from the Natural News-affiliated domain Trump.news. He also told his followers to use another domain, banned.news, to “take action” against Facebook. In early June, PolitiFact published a report about a Natural News story that had been duplicated on Trump.news. The link to the duplicate was shared about 4,000 times on Facebook. Following the PolitiFact report, Facebook banned the Trump.news domain. Banned.news has also since been banned. Facebook did not respond to Recode’s questions about why these new domains are getting banned, but it appears the company has resorted to a game of whack-a-mole with the new sites affiliated with Natural News, especially those Adams specifically instructs readers to use in order to evade the bans. Biosludge.news It’s currently possible to post article from the biosludge.news domain to Facebook. Natural News Facebook blocks the same article when you try to post a link from the Natural News domain. Indeed, Facebook has already started blocking content from additional domains associated with Natural News, but what exactly is banned — and why — remains unclear. When Recode tested 56 domains flagged by NewsGuard for novel coronavirus misinformation, about 35 were flagged. Recode also tested the 295 domains that Avaaz researchers linked to Natural News, and Facebook only blocked about 170 of those links. When Recode tested the 496 other domains identified by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, about 80 were blocked by Facebook, though it’s worth noting that many of the sites could be inactive. Facebook says it knows that spammy networks constantly change their approach, and that those networks can respond to domain bans by creating new sites with unique URLs. In monitoring attempts by these networks to return to Facebook and find new audiences, Facebook says it focuses on reducing a spam network’s ability to reach an audience, even if they can technically get their content onto Facebook by using new domains. That’s a different process from Facebook’s approach to misinformation, which it typically avoids removing. If a page or group repeatedly shares content that’s flagged and labeled by the platform’s fact-checkers, Facebook can reduce its distribution and remove it from recommendations. Pages can also have their ability to monetize and advertise taken away. In the midst of the pandemic, Facebook has taken to removing false content that could lead to imminent physical harm, but not what BuzzFeed News calls “inevitable harm,” among the other misinformation that it allows to remain up. In 2018, Facebook told New York Times journalist Kevin Roose, “We just don’t think banning Pages for sharing conspiracy theories or false news is the right way to go.” So while Facebook is taking action against Natural News, the company is not doing so under the auspices of fighting against misinformation. From a policy perspective, Facebook is fighting spam. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Google is making it easier for users to auto-delete data like their search histories. | NurPhoto/Getty Images The company’s latest privacy measure will delete some users’ data by default, but most will still have to turn the feature on manually. Google is making it easier to delete the data it collects about you — though you might still have to do a little work to enable the feature. The company announced on Wednesday that auto-delete will be the default setting for user account activity settings. That said, this “default” setting only applies to new accounts or existing accounts that now turn on data retention after having it disabled. And the default auto-delete time still gives Google as much as three years of your data, as opposed to manual auto-delete settings that keep as little as three months’ worth. Google also announced that its account privacy and security settings will soon be accessible through its search page. You’ll also be able to switch over to Chrome’s Incognito mode in its apps more easily — simply press down on your profile photo for a second or two. Incognito mode lets you browse the internet “privately,” which means Google Chrome won’t save your history or cookies on your computer. It does not, however, mean that the websites you visit or the server you use can’t see what you’re doing. The Google announcement comes just a couple days after rival Apple announced some new privacy features for its software. More on that in a second. If you have a Google account and use Google products like Gmail, YouTube, or Chrome, you’re probably logged in all the time. In this case, your activity while using those apps and services can be tracked by Google, which will then use that data to target ads to you, among other things. Over the years, Google has introduced privacy controls over the data you send the company and has made efforts to make those feature more obvious to users. You can find most of these privacy controls in your account settings by clicking on “Manage your data & personalization.” From there, you can click on “Manage your activity controls.” This is the section where you can save your web and app activity, location history, and YouTube history if you want Google to use that data to give you what it calls a “more personalized experience.” Or you can just ask Google not to save anything and have an impersonal, but more private, experience. If you decide that you do, in fact, want the personalized experience, you can still manually delete that data whenever you want or set it to auto-delete after a certain amount of time. With the newly announced changes, Google is trying to make it easier to enjoy the best of both worlds, both private and personalized, by making auto-delete the default setting for web and app activity, location history, and YouTube history. And now, the other caveats. If you have an existing account that has these things turned on — and, except for location history, they are on by default — then you’ll still have to turn on auto-delete yourself. This default setting only applies to new accounts or existing accounts that turn data collection back on. Which means millions of users won’t have this feature enabled by default after all. Google How to set your Google data to auto-delete. It appears that Google is also making more of an effort to notify existing users that they have the option to turn on auto-delete. The Google search page, for instance, now has a little notice and link to the setting beneath the main search field. Also, that default auto-delete time still gives Google a big chunk of your history: 18 months for web and app activity and location history, and 36 months — three years! — for YouTube histories. The timing of this announcement is interesting, given that Apple announced two days ago that, in the upcoming releases of iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur, apps will be required to get user permission to track them. Apple’s operating system updates will also require app developers to post a clear notice telling them what is being tracked. Apple’s move toward greater transparency and control could represent a huge boost for user privacy, one that Google does not yet offer in its Google Play store. The data Google collects about its users is a big part of its business model. Google and its parent company, Alphabet, pull in billions of dollars in revenue from ads, which are worth more when they’re targeted to the people most likely to buy the product they sell. So while Google has made some improvements in user privacy and control, it’s had a tough time convincing the general public that it truly cares about keeping their data private. And in this regard, Google has lagged behind some of its peers, like Apple, whose business model relies far more on goods and services than data and ads. Given how relatively few accounts will have this default auto-delete feature and the large amount of data that is retained even with it, it’s hard to say how much of a difference Google’s updates will really make in user privacy. But it does show that the company is trying to improve it — or at least make us think it is. Open Sourced is made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Zac Freeland/Vox How Black Lives Matter finally pushed Instagram into politics. For most people, Instagram has long been the social media platform where they escape from the real world — and politics — to share a curated highlight reel of their lives. But recently, that’s changed. It’s become an increasingly political platform amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country. In fact, Instagram has become the platform for widespread conversations in the United States about racism and how to combat it. “I think there is a shift where everyone feels guilty for not posting anything black,” said Thaddeus Coates, a Black queer illustrator, dancer, model, and animator who uses Instagram to share his art, which in recent weeks has focused on racial justice and supporting Black-owned businesses. “People aren’t just posting pictures of food anymore, because if you’re scrolling through and there’s a picture of food, and then there’s someone who was killed, and then you scroll up and there’s a picture of a protest — it’s weird.” As the US has grappled with a reckoning over systemic racism after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black Americans, Coates nearly tripled his follower base, and he’s been reposted by celebrities, featured by Instagram, and commissioned to do custom illustrations. Coates’s experience fits into a larger pattern: Established racial justice and civil rights groups are also seeing their Instagram bases swell. The NAACP has seen a record 1 million additional Instagram followers in the past month. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles’s account has gone from around 40,000 followers on Instagram to 150,000 in the past few weeks, surpassing the popularity of its Facebook page, which has about 55,000 followers. As Facebook has seen a stagnation in user activity and an aging user base, Instagram, which Facebook owns, has become the online space where comparatively younger people — many of them white — are getting an education in allyship, activism, and Black solidarity. Compared to Twitter, which has 166 million daily active users, Instagram is huge. Its Stories feature alone has more than 500 million daily active users. And while TikTok is on the rise, it’s still maturing. “It’s not surprising that Instagram is becoming more political if you think about who’s using it. It’s generational. The past couple of years, the main people who have been protesting and organizing — millennials and Gen Z — they’re on Instagram,” Nicole Carty, an activist and organizer based in New York, told Recode. Instagram’s focus on racial justice feels like a pronounced change in the usual mood on the platform Of course, political activism on social media platforms, including Instagram, isn’t new. The Arab Spring in the early 2010s relied heavily on Twitter. Facebook is full of political content. And since its inception, the Black Lives Matter movement has used all these platforms to organize and spread its message. But to many organizers, activists, and artists, Instagram’s focus on racial justice feels like a pronounced change in the usual mood on the platform. Intersectionality, a theory that explores how race, class, gender, and other identity markers overlap and factor into discrimination, is as much a topic of conversation as the usual funny memes, skin care routines, and fitness videos. It’s a shift that users, creators, and Instagram itself are embracing. There’s a performative element to some of this because posting a black box or meme about racial injustice is not the same as making a donation, reading a book, or going to a march. Some argue that the performative wokeness can hurt, rather than help, the cause. But for many activists, it’s also a way to meet people where they are. While activists acknowledge that Instagram’s increased engagement with racial justice issues will likely pass, right now they’re focused on leveraging the momentum and taking advantage of the unique ways Instagram can help their movement. Instagram gets political Facebook and Twitter have typically been the main platforms for political discussion and organizing in the US, but savvy politicians and activists have sometimes turned to Instagram to connect with voters and constituents. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) sometimes educates and answers questions from her followers live on the platform. During the 2020 primary, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) connected with voters while sipping a beer on Instagram Live. In 2018, organizing and activism around the national school walkout to demand action on gun violence took place on the platform. And during his failed 2020 presidential bid, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg poured money into an awkward meme campaign on Instagram. But generally, serious issues have been a sideshow on Instagram. No longer. Scroll through your Instagram in recent weeks and you’ve probably seen a lot more political and social justice-related content coming from fitness models and food bloggers who have steered clear of those issues in the past. Same goes for the friends you follow, and perhaps your own account — a lot of people are waking up to the realities of racism in America right now and feeling compelled to speak out. View this post on Instagram black men, be safe. I love you. 100% of the proceeds will be donated to the Minnesota Freedom Fund. Link in bio. #justiceforgeorgefloyd A post shared by Thaddeus Coates (@hippypotter) on May 27, 2020 at 1:15pm PDT View this post on Instagram Today #BreonnaTaylor would have turned 27 years old, she should still be here. Happy Birthday Breonna #sayhername #justiceforbreonnataylor A post shared by MONICA AHANONU (@monicaahanonu) on Jun 5, 2020 at 3:57pm PDT There are multiple explanations for this shift. A feature Instagram introduced in May 2018 that lets you share other accounts’ posts to your story makes it easy for people to participate. Before that, and unlike other social media platforms, Instagram had no easy, built-in option for reposting content. And during a pandemic, as many people are still living under lockdown, many are more likely to have the time and motivation to start posting about topics outside of vacation photos and aspirational lifestyle shots, said Aymar Jean Christian, an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. You can only take so many pictures of the bread you baked. And after months of quarantine, you might not be feeling super selfie-ready. People can’t go on vacation; nobody’s going to brunch or the gym. The attitude is, “all of those things are closed, so I might as well post about politics,” Christian told Recode. But this surge in political content on Instagram isn’t just coincidental. It’s intentional. Leading civil rights groups working on racial justice and policing issues, such as the NAACP and Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, are seizing on the Instagram shift. They’ve been using Instagram as a way to mobilize followers into tangible political action — getting them to attend protests, sign petitions, call their legislators — and to educate them about systemic racism. “We’re surprised and encouraged by how many non-Black folks are posting and demonstrating support. A lot of the DMs that we’re getting are from non-Black people,” Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, told Recode. “We’re getting overloaded in our DMs and trying to wade through and make sure we don’t miss things that are important,” Abdullah said. “Stuff we don’t want to miss is people volunteering to donate things, like ‘Can I bring granola bars to the protest?’ or ‘Can I bring a new sound system?’” Gene Brown, a social media strategist for the NAACP, told Recode he’s seeing a more racially diverse set of followers in the organization’s expanding Instagram follower base. “This [racism] is something the Black community has been dealing with forever, and we’re looking for white allies to help facilitate this movement,” said Brown. “Now it’s, ‘Wow, this large group of people who aren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse are not only paying attention but engaging.’” The cause has been helped by some celebrities, who have asked Black activists and organizers to take over their Instagram accounts to reach their massive follower bases. Selena Gomez, for example, has handed over her account to professor and author Ibram X. Kendi, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, and lawyer and advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, who developed the theory of intersectionality. “To know that [Gomez’s] massive audience is getting this kind of political education on Instagram is really exciting and definitely not what people associated with Instagram before,” Christian said. On June 10, 54 Black women took over the Instagram accounts of 54 white women for the day as part of Share the Mic Now, a campaign aimed at amplifying Black women’s voices. Political analyst Zerlina Maxwell took over Hillary Clinton’s account, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors took over Ellen DeGeneres’s, and Endeavor CMO Bozoma Saint John took over Kourtney Kardashian’s. The Black participants had a total of 6.5 million followers on their personal accounts, while the white women had 285 million. The campaign vastly expanded their reach. Nikki Ogunnaike, deputy fashion director at GQ, said yes immediately when she was offered the opportunity to participate. After she was matched with Arianna Huffington, “She truly handed me the keys in a way that I was actually shocked,” Ogunnaike told Recode. Huffington “was honestly like, ‘Okay, here’s my password, let me know when you’re done,’” she said. Ogunnaike used Huffington’s account to host an Instagram Live with her sister Lola Ogunnaike about their experiences as Black women in media. “The campaign is just really smart. Instagram always has so many eyeballs on it,” she said. “As we continue into the 2020 election, we have to go where people are, and Instagram is it” Instagram is also a way many people are figuring out where to send donations and how to protest where they live. In New York City, an account called Justice for George NYC has become a go-to source for people to find out about demonstrations. The account is run by a small team of anonymous volunteers and relies on local activists and organizers to stay informed on what’s happening and when, and to document images of the protests. A representative for the account told Recode that compared to Twitter, which is more overtly political, Instagram feels like a better fit for the current moment. “This movement was about so many more people than that [Twitter]. It’s about reaching a wider audience,” she said. “As we continue into the 2020 election, we have to go where people are, and Instagram is it.” View this post on Instagram After last weekend, I didn’t think I could be any more proud. But I never should have underestimated you, New York. • Powerful doesn’t even begin to explain it — y’all SHUT IT DOWN this weekend. Watching 15,000 of you taking over Brooklyn in a sea of white for #BlackTransLiveMatter march was truly a moment this city will never forget. Our bikers and skaters led the way for protestors on foot, while our artists painted the town with #BlackLivesMatter. And of course, we cheered you all on as y’all circumvented a police blockade and hopped over the barricade into oncoming traffic to cross the Williamsburg Bridge. NYC, you are UNSTOPPABLE. ✊ ✊ ✊ -AM A post shared by @ justiceforgeorgenyc on Jun 14, 2020 at 8:08pm PDT View this post on Instagram ALL OUT! — 9AM, 333 S Beaudry — On Tuesday morning the LAUSD school board will be voting on a resolution to DEFUND the LA School Police, the largest school police Dept in the country. We need EVERYONE WHO CAN to come demand that LAUSD #DefundthePolice and invest in #CareNotCops in our schools. Our babies don’t deserve to be criminalized and abused by police, they deserve to be loved, educated, and supported with the resources they need. A post shared by Black Lives Matter Los Angeles (@blmlosangeles) on Jun 21, 2020 at 8:07pm PDT With the election on the horizon, the momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram suggests it will continue to be a place for political discussion and engagement in the months to come. How Instagram is — and isn’t — primed for this moment In many ways, Instagram is poised to meet the moment. Its visual focus is particularly useful for sharing complex ideas more simply, via images rather than blocks of text. “Instagram has always been Blacker, more Latinx communities, younger, groups that are on the front lines right now in a number of ways and are more on Instagram than they are on other platforms, like Facebook proper,” said Brandi Collins-Dexter, senior campaign director at the civil rights organization Color of Change. “For us, the personal is political, and it’s hard to untangle those two.” That personal-political has a specific look and feel. Vice’s Bettina Makalintal recently described the kind of shared visual language of protest that has developed on the platform, evidenced in bright digital protest flyers, stylized illustrated portraits, and block quotes with activist statements. “I’m creating a looking glass so people can see and understand visually what Blackness is,” she said. “Blackness is not a monolith, and it’s really cool that I can use colors and patterns and rhythms to invoke that conversation.” View this post on Instagram when i say #BlackLivesMatter, that includes queer black lives too. — w/ #Pride, Every Black Life Matters. A post shared by Thaddeus Coates (@hippypotter) on Jun 1, 2020 at 7:44am PDT Popular posts on Instagram recently, like the “pyramid of white supremacy,” break down complex topics: intersectionality, the surveillance state, structural versus individual racism, and the nuances of privilege among white and non-Black people of color. It’s a deceptively simple way to educate people on complex topics that some academics spend their entire lives studying. “We think that this can help to educate folks. Sometimes people aren’t willing to read books but can really quickly take a look and learn on Instagram” “We think that this can help to educate folks. Sometimes people aren’t willing to read books but can really quickly take a look and learn on Instagram,” said Abdullah. But not everything can be explained in a single Instagram story. For more thorough conversations, racial justice advocates are using Instagram’s relatively new IGTV tool to post recurring shows, like the NAACP’s Hey, Black America. Instagram has embraced and elevated these types of conversations, placing an Act for Racial Justice notification at the top of millions of people’s Instagram feeds in early June, which linked to a resource guide with links to posts from Black creators and Black‑led organizations about racial justice. CEO Adam Mosseri on June 15 committed to reviewing Instagram’s algorithmic bias to determine if Black voices are heard equally enough on the platform. Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, launched a new section of its app with a similar goal of uplifting Black voices, pledged to donate $10 million to groups working on racial justice, and committed an additional $200 million to supporting Black-owned businesses and organizations on June 18. But it has also faced intense criticism from civil rights organizations and some of its own employees for allowing hateful speech to proliferate on its platform. Many took issue in particular with the company’s inaction on President Trump’s recent “shooting … looting” post, which many viewed as inciting violence against people protesting George Floyd’s killing. In response, Facebook has said it is considering changes to some of its policies around moderating political speech. Instagram’s most formidable competitor, TikTok, has also been accused of suppressing Black creators with its algorithms, seemingly restricting results for #BlackLivesMatter. (It later fixed this, apologized for the mistake, and donated $4 million to nonprofits and combating racial inequality). Instagram, meanwhile, has been widely viewed as a largely supportive and meaningful space for creators who care about blackness. It’s a reason, sources told Recode, why overall, it feels like there’s more of a productive conversation about Black Lives Matter happening on Instagram right now than anywhere else. The performative activism problem As much as Instagram may have helped facilitate racial activism, it has real limitations. Namely, Instagram has always been a performative platform, and many of the racial justice posts people are sharing won’t translate to action to dismantle systemic racism in the US. Take, for example, Blackout Tuesday, when throngs of Instagram users posted black boxes in support of Black Lives Matter. Many people started sharing the boxes using the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which ultimately overshadowed valuable information activists and organizers needed to share with protesters. And beyond the hashtag confusion, many questioned the value in posting a black box. “When I’m thinking, what would help me feel safe in this country? It’s not ‘I wish everyone’s Instagram squares were black,’” author Ijeoma Oluo recently told Vox. “I can’t feel that. Especially when coupled with the disengagement — people do this performative gesture and then disengage. People aren’t even open to the feedback of why that’s not helpful or what they could be doing to be helpful.” “A lot of people share memes and think that’s enough, and it’s really not” The question of performative wokeness is always an issue on social media, but activists say sharing memes about racial justice gives them a way to meet people where they are. If an Instagrammed image breaks down the issue, makes it easier to digest, and helps people feel less alienated from the movement, that’s good, said Feminista Jones, an author, speaker, and organizer. But to really be effective, people need to go beyond that. “A lot of people share memes and think that’s enough, and it’s really not,” Jones said. “They share it, and it’s really performative and them wanting to be a part of something and they see everybody else doing it, and they don’t want to be the ones who didn’t do it. So that can be problematic, too. But that’s every social media platform.” What happens next Jones’s follower count has more than doubled in recent weeks, and she said dealing with that new base has been an adjustment. She’s had to remind people she is not a “fact portal” but a multifaceted human being who also posts pictures of herself, her plants, and her child, just like everybody else. She has also noticed that some of her posts about her work projects, such as her podcast, aren’t getting as much attention as some of the memes or Black Lives Matter-related content. “If you’re here to engage my work, you need to engage my work. Read my books, buy my books, take them out of the library, listen to my podcast — it’s free,” she said. “It’s about really engaging and supporting the work we do.” When asked how they plan to keep their new followers engaged when protests die down, many activists and organizers said they weren’t sure, but that they will keep posting about injustices. “For groups like ours, Black Lives Matter, we’re a bunch of people who don’t get paid for this work — so this is work that we do because we believe in it,” Abdullah said. And then there’s a secondary problem. Even if recently politically engaged Instagram users maintain public solidarity, and Instagram becomes the permanent social media network of choice to discuss racial dynamics in America, will it eventually face the same scale of issues around polarization, harassment, and disinformation that Facebook has? For now, activists are taking advantage of the moment and looking at it as an opportunity to enact change. “There’s a balance between symbolic and instrumental organizing. Just because people are feeling a lot of pressure to do actions other people may feel are symbolic or superficial, that actually is an indication you have power to win instrumental demands,” Carty said. “Rather than thinking of it as an either/or, think of it as a both/and. It’s really powerful for millions of people to be taking some small action on social media, and there are ways to build off of that power and to transform it into instrumental, real, meaningful change.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
TikTok recently published a blog post about its popular “For You” page, but detailed information about the company’s algorithms was noticeably absent. | Nasir Kachroo/NurPhoto via Getty Images When a company “reveals” its algorithm, pay attention to what it doesn’t share. Faced with longstanding questions and speculation about how its popular “For You” feed works, TikTok released some details about how the feed works in a blog post last week. The move comes amid a broader effort by TikTok to appear more transparent, especially as the company faces accusations of both political and aesthetic censorship as well as growing pressure from lawmakers in the United States over TikTok’s relationship with its Beijing-based parent company, ByteDance. But TikTok’s post told a familiar story about how feed algorithms work. According to TikTok’s recent announcement, a variety of factors based on how users engage with the app influence what ends up in their For You feed; some of those factors matter more than others; and they’re all in service of a secret, technical sauce that the platform uses to make the best guess as to what it predicts users will want to see. This workflow is not so different from the way other social media platforms, like Facebook, describe their feeds. Companies like TikTok generally want to maximize engagement and time spent on their platform, which helps them sell advertisements. Exactly how they do that is meant to be a bit of a mystery. Among other things, not revealing everything that happens behinds the scenes helps companies dictate users’ understanding of certain feeds and their conception of algorithms in general. So while we now know a little bit more about how TikTok’s algorithm works, what TikTok chooses not to share is perhaps more important. “The more that they can keep close to the vest, the more ambiguous it is to understand,” said Kelley Cotter, a doctoral student at Michigan State University who studies public awareness of algorithms. “Without the heat on them, they’re kind of able to design and redesign as they see fit without being sort of weighed down by either regulation, lawsuits, [and] users.” Of course, TikTok is by no means unique in choosing to not reveal the exact formula behind its algorithm. But its not-so-big reveal about the For You algorithm serves as a reminder that when platforms say they’re telling us more about how their algorithms work, they’re often not telling us that much. And as long as they don’t reveal exactly how these algorithms impact users — and different types of users — people take it upon themselves to figure out how social feed algorithms work. Some may draw conclusions those platforms don’t necessarily agree with. TikTok sounds a lot like platforms describing how their feeds work In its recent blog post, TikTok explained that everyone’s For You page is unique, and users provide the app with implicit and explicit information that informs what videos they might see in the future. Some factors, like whether you watch longer videos to the end, matter more than others, such as whether a viewer and a creator are based in the same country. For users who are just starting on the app, their initial preferences — their stated interests, their response to a general video feed, and so forth — help inform what the For You feed looks like. As TikTok collects more information from that user and users like them, what shows up in the For You feed continues to be adjusted based on what the algorithm thinks they’d be interested in. Predictive models are also involved, similar to many other recommendation systems. “When you decide to follow new accounts, for example, that action will help refine your recommendations too, as will exploring hashtags, sounds, effects, and trending topics on the Discover tab,” TikTok said in its blog post. The company says that a user’s feedback, like tapping “not interested,” can also play a role in what appears in the For You feed. TikTok may also prevent certain types of content, such as “graphic medical procedures or legal consumption of regulated goods” from ending up there. Acknowledging that filter bubbles can be a problem, TikTok says that it also tries to diversify users’ feeds. Notably, the company said that the follower counts of a user posting a video — as well as the view counts of previous videos posted by that user — don’t directly influence whether they end up in the For You feed. The company did admit that “a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers.” But how revealing is what TikTok shared? Not very, explained some researchers. Marc Faddoul, a research scientist at the University of California Berkeley, said in an email that what TikTok discussed was, “from a research perspective, useless.” Faddoul added that “everything they say is obvious” and flagged as unsurprising “the fact that clicking on ‘not interested’ will decrease the prominence of similar content [and] listing all the types of user interactions which ‘might’ be used to personalize the recommendations.” The details in TikTok’s recent post also largely match up with how companies have previously characterized the algorithms that drive their own feeds. Consider how Facebook describes the factors that play into its News Feed. Facebook acknowledges that “thousands of signals that may be considered for News Feed Ranking,” and “some things have a smaller influence over what you see.” This seems similar to what we know about Instagram’s algorithm as well. Cotter, from Michigan State, also noted that a lot in TikTok’s post “very closely resembles what we’ve seen from companies in the past.” She pointed to her previous research on a series of Facebook blog posts meant to describe the News Feed. Cotter and her colleagues found that the company was more focused on explaining why the feed works as it does, rather than exactly how. Nicolas Kayser-Bril, a reporter at AlgorithmWatch, a nonprofit that focuses on algorithmic decision-making, came to a similar conclusion. “The language reminds me of what Facebook and Google write in their ‘Why am I seeing this ad?’ sections: we learn that ‘a number of factors’ are at play,” Kayser-Bril said in an email. “Absent an independent audit of TikTok’s algorithm, there is no reason to believe that we know more about it after reading the statement (we certainly know more about how the company would like its algorithm to be seen, but this is a wholly different thing).” TikTok would not say how many total factors can influence the feed. The blog post simply says that “recommendations are based on a number of factors” and provide different categories of those factors. So what kinds of information would be helpful in actually understanding how TikTok and its For You algorithm? Christo Wilson, a computer science professor at Northeastern, argues that the nuances of how the software understands content is most revealing. “You’d have to get a lot more of the nitty-gritty details of what kind of features or variables are going into recommendations,” Wilson said. “They look at hashtags. That’s, like, the most obvious thing. But are they looking at things like sentiment?” TikTok has an image problem TikTok’s blog post didn’t just come out of nowhere. Users have long been engrossed in figuring out how to get videos in the For You feed. Some TikTok influencers have even turned to making videos to share their tips on how to reach the For You feed, and some have attempted to run their own pseudo-experiments to see what gets people onto the page. Overall, the inner workings of the For You algorithm are at least a somewhat significant source of interest on the app itself. Videos with the #TikTokAlgorithm hashtag have garnered more than 130 million views. All that is great for TikTok, which wins when people spend more time on its app trying to figure out how its algorithm works in an attempt to go viral. As Vox’s Rebecca Jennings wrote earlier this year: Its algorithm serves trending content to a wide audience, so even accounts with a handful of followers can go hugely viral within the span of a few hours. Followers are racked up far more quickly than on other platforms, so having tens of thousands of them is relatively standard for anyone who’s had even a minor hit. Investigative reporting revealed other factors that might have previously been at play within the feed — factors that went unaddressed in TikTok’s recent blog post. Earlier this year, the Intercept obtained internal policy documents that encouraged content moderators to limit videos appearing in the “For You” feed that were deemed “undesirable,” including those featuring people with an “abnormal body shape” and “ugly facial looks.” TikTok also reportedly reached out to some high-profile users of its app to update them about changing rules, and the company censored political speech on its livestreaming feature. TikTok content moderators based in the US similarly told the Washington Post that they were instructed by TikTok staff based in Beijing to censor political speech as well as content deemed “vulgar.” These reports echoed content moderation documents acquired by the Guardian in 2019 as well as earlier reporting from the German site Netzpolitik that TikTok had discriminated against people with disabilities, as well as LBGTQ and fat people. “The guidelines referenced were a misguided attempt to reduce cyberbullying, drafted for use in limited countries, and they had long been out of use by the time that article was published,” a TikTok spokesperson told Recode. “Today, we take a nuanced approach to moderation, including building out a global team with deep industry experience and working with an external content advisory council of subject matter experts.” TikTok announced earlier this month that it would stop using content moderators based in China. This was around the same time that the company faced accusations of political and racist censorship in the midst of anti-police brutality protests. (As of Monday, it had job postings for content moderation staff in cities including São Paulo, Brazil, and Seoul, South Korea.) In May, TikTok users participated in a campaign that intended to highlight the work of black users as well as raise awareness of censorship on the platform. TikTok released a statement in June, acknowledging the campaign and committing to invest in “moderation strategies to better handle potentially violative content,” while pledging “to make sure [its policies and practices] do not inadvertently limit exposure for creators based on who they are.” TikTok also has a transparency problem, but it’s not alone TikTok has also been working to quell criticism that its platform isn’t transparent. The company released its first transparency report in 2019, detailing government requests for data and content removal. Notably, China was not on the list. TikTok also announced this year that it would launch a transparency center in Los Angeles focused on “moderation and data practices.” The company’s recent blog post about the For You algorithm said that experts visiting that center will eventually be able to learn more about how its algorithms operate and review the company’s source code. But its recent blog post doesn’t add up to complete transparency. Algorithm Watch’s Kayser-Bril said “such statements are just a declaration of intent” and that the transparency standard ought to be an independent audit, in which researchers are given access to production servers and databases. Kayser-Bril noted that the company’s mention of providing access to the source code was “a step in the right direction” but still not sufficient. Notably, TikTok would not say who those researchers are or will be, or if they’d be provided data beyond the company’s source code. Faddoul, the Berkeley researcher, suggested that TikTok should provide estimates of how much impact factors like view count have in the For You algorithm as well as explicit guidelines that moderators consider, including the weight that moderator decisions have on the algorithm. TikTok has not released content moderation enforcement statistics, which would include concrete figures of how much content is taken down and for what reasons (Facebook does this in its community standards enforcement reports). Faddoul added that details in the internal content moderation documents flagged by the Intercept include ones that TikTok itself should be publicly disclosing. While TikTok does lay out its community guidelines, the company doesn’t seem to release a content enforcement report (Facebook does). While TikTok does acknowledge how the For You feed generally works, the platform doesn’t discuss the impact that the feed has actually had on users. Black creators have raised concerns about censorship, for instance, and questions about the true influence of content moderators as well as the total number of factors that can actually influence what shows up in the For You the feed remain unanswered. Ultimately, Cotter said, to really understand how an algorithm works, you need empirical analysis — a study of how the system impacts users — to see what it’s doing and how that affects users. This type of research is sometimes conducted by platforms themselves and not released to the public. But even if TikTok were doing empirical analyses, it’s not clear whether the company would be acting on it. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook failed to act on internal research finding that the site was making people more divisive and polarizing. Social media companies aren’t necessarily compelled to answer to outside researchers either. A recent audit of the Instagram algorithm reportedly found that pictures that featured more bare skin were more likely to be boosted on the platform. Facebook didn’t answer the researchers’ questions, which were sent about a month before the study was published by AlgorithmWatch. A day after publication, Facebook criticized the study as flawed and explained that the platform surfaces “posts based on interests, timeliness of posts, and other factors to help people discover content.” So what’s the point of TikTok, Facebook, or any social media giant publicly announcing some vague details about how their algorithm works? “They’re PR memos,” says Cotter. “They’re trying to present these systems in the way they want them to be presented and establish the rubric for how they should be evaluated.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, in Spain in 2019. | Juan Naharro Gimenez/Getty Images for Netflix It’s one of the stories in our new Land of the Giants podcast, out now. It’s basically a requirement for any company — and especially for tech companies in the last few decades — to boast about having a unique culture and corporate values. That doesn’t mean those things have much to do with the way the company operates. Netflix, for better or worse, is different: The leaders of the streaming company take their culture very, very seriously. They credit it with the success they’ve had upending the media world and forcing giants like Disney, Apple, and AT&T to chase after Netflix. They expect its 7,000 employees to take it seriously, too. And so for the first episode of Land of the Giants: The Netflix Effect — our new seven-part podcast about the company and the impact it has made on Hollywood and the world — we wanted to dive into Netflix’s culture. The company was happy to talk about it. Netflix has long been known for its “culture deck” — a slideshow about its HR philosophy it made public years ago and that has been broadly influential in the startup world. And CEO Reed Hastings has a book — No Rules Rules — coming out this fall about Netflix’s culture. He thinks you may want to run your company the way he does. When we told people outside of Netflix that we were making an episode about the company’s culture, we often got blank looks. But when we told current and former employees about our plan, they got excited. Netflix can be a weird place to work, and most people who don’t work there don’t get how weird it is. For instance, Netflix uses its own cult-like language, like “keeper test” and “sunshining.” It also pays employees top-of-the-market salaries and gives them perks like the absence of an expense policy — employees are just supposed to use common sense. And it encourages workers to meet with recruiters from other companies so they can figure out what the top pay is for their position. The company also tells employees that they should think of themselves as members of a pro sports team, not a family. Which means they should expect to be replaced by better performers for their spot if Netflix can find them. And it often goes out of its way to tell employees when a coworker has been dismissed and why. The downside of that kind of intensity and pressure can be employees who feel overwhelmed and insecure. Wall Street Journal reporters Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint did an excellent job in 2018 of documenting the difficulty some Netflix employees had with the company’s culture, which the Journal characterized as “ruthless, demoralizing and transparent to the point of dysfunctional.” The upside is a company where employees feel they have meaningful autonomy about the way they work, and the power to get things done. One of Netflix’s overarching tenets, for instance, is “freedom and responsibility” — the ability to make decisions on your own, with accountability. Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos said that’s what enabled him to lead a pivot into original content in 2011, by spending $100 million for two seasons of House of Cards, sight unseen and without permission from his boss. “I told Reed about the deal after we did it,” Sarandos told us. Another tenet — “farming for dissent” — came out of one of the company’s biggest failures. You might remember it as a punchline: Qwikster. The short version: In 2011, Hastings wanted to move his company from its core DVD-by-mail service to online streaming, which was growing quickly but was still a smaller part of his business. So he tried splitting Netflix into a DVD business and a streaming business named Qwikster. Which meant that if his customers wanted the same services they were already getting before, they would have to subscribe to both and end up paying 60 percent more. Netflix veterans still wince about the experience: The company was skewered on social media and by SNL. Its stock dropped 70 percent, and more than 700,000 people canceled their subscriptions. Eventually, Hastings admitted that Qwikster’s name, the price hikes, and the way the company talked about it all had been a huge blunder. He rolled back the changes. But in Hastings’s narrative, the failure was useful for Netflix’s culture. He thinks that many of his top employees could have told him he was wrong but were too afraid or at least too in awe of their CEO’s former successes to say anything. “Everyone knows the tale of the self-absorbed, arrogant CEO who doesn’t listen. And there’s an element of that, because we have been so successful at so many things before that,” Hastings told us earlier this year at Netflix’s offices in Los Angeles. “But the more subtle one is that I had been so successful before that most of the executives thought ... ‘But Reed has been right on so many things. I’ll bet he’s right on this one. And I’m just not seeing it.’” After the debacle, Hastings instituted “farming for dissent,” a formal practice where employees are supposed to run their big ideas by colleagues and have them tell you candidly — on a Google Doc that’s open for everyone to see — what’s wrong with it. It’s considered integral to the company that your coworkers tell you what they really think of your idea, even if — perhaps especially if — you’re their boss. So if that’s the kind of thing you’d like to hear more about, you’re in luck: We’ve got a whole episode you can listen to right now. And we’ll have six more, covering everything from Netflix’s battle with Blockbuster Video to the way it uses its famed recommendation algorithm to the way it has remade Hollywood, coming up. Please tell us what you think: We’re on Twitter at @ranimolla and @pkafka. Subscribe to Land of The Giants on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Google staff at the company’s London headquarters on November 1, 2018 participate in a global walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases. | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images It’s the latest example of tech workers challenging their employers to do more than making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Over 1,600 Google employees have signed an internal petition as of Monday afternoon that calls for their employer stop selling its software to police. The employees’ demands follow a wave of protests calling for racial justice in the US after a spate of killings targeting black Americans, including the alleged murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man on a run in Glynn County, Georgia, and the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, who were both unarmed. “We’re disappointed to know that Google is still selling to police forces, and advertises its connection with police forces as somehow progressive, and seeks more expansive sales rather than severing ties with police and joining the millions who want to defang and defund these institutions,” reads the petition, which was started by a group of Google employees called Googlers Against Racism last week and is addressed to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet. “Why help the institutions responsible for the knee on George Floyd’s neck to be more effective organizationally?” Google did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. The company currently employs over 100,000 employees globally — so this petition’s signees represent a relatively small percentage of its workforce. But it is still one of the most significant showings of internal dissent at the company in the past few months. It’s not clear how extensively or closely Google works with US police departments. Google currently sells cloud-based software, such as the business version of its Gmail product, through a third-party vendor to at least one police department, the Clarkstown Police Department in Rockland County, New York. According to a customer testimonial page, Google touts its software as being a “catalyst for a culture change” at Clarkstown County Police Department, which was sued in 2017 by Black Lives Matter activists who said the department conducted illegal surveillance on them. Google also invests in police AI technology that includes drone surveillance through its venture capital arm, Gradient Ventures. The Google employees’ petition is the latest example of workers at major tech companies challenging their employers to do more than simply making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter. These employees want their companies to significantly change their business practices to minimize harm to the black community, both inside their companies and beyond them. In recent weeks, some Amazon employees renewed their calls for the company to stop selling its facial recognition technology to police, which it announced it would pause for the next year. And employees at Facebook have called for the company to moderate political speech that could incite racial violence or mislead voters. “We want to be proud of the company we work for. We want the company we build to speak to our values and how we want to show up in the world,” reads the Google employees’ letter, which calls for the company to “take real steps to help dismantle racism.” Civil rights advocates have warned that police disproportionately use surveillance technology, such as AI-based facial recognition or drone surveillance, against black communities — and that these practices could have a chilling effect on free speech if people feel they’re being unjustly surveilled in their everyday lives and when they engage in political activism. In the past, Google employees have uncovered details about some of the company’s controversial government contracts, and pressured the company to end them — such as Project Maven, the company’s contract with the Pentagon, and its secretive efforts to build a censored search product for China, known as Project Dragonfly. Google did not renew its contract with the Pentagon in June of 2018 and reportedly halted its work on Dragonfly in December of 2018, although a March article from the Intercept reported that the company may be resuming some of that work. In August 2019, hundreds of employees signed a protest asking the company not to bid on a project with US immigration agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), Monday’s petition about working with police departments is the first notable activist effort that’s happened at Google since November 2019, when Google fired four employee activists, including some who spoke out against the company’s work with CBP in light of humanitarian concerns about the agency’s immigrant detention facilities and family separation. Google said it fired these workers for violating its data security policies. In light of the recent protests against police brutality and racism that have spread across the nation after George Floyd’s death, major tech companies are facing a reckoning about their work with police, agitated by their own employees — and today’s letter at Google is yet another a sign of that movement’s advancement.

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Google staff at the company’s London headquarters on November 1, 2018, participate in a global walkout over the company’s handling of sexual harassment cases. | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images It’s the latest example of tech workers challenging their employers to do more than making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter. Over 1,600 Google employees have signed an internal petition as of Monday afternoon that calls for their employer to stop selling its software to police. The employees’ demands follow a wave of protests calling for racial justice in the US after a spate of killings targeting black Americans, including the alleged murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man on a run in Glynn County, Georgia, and the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, who were both unarmed. “We’re disappointed to know that Google is still selling to police forces, and advertises its connection with police forces as somehow progressive, and seeks more expansive sales rather than severing ties with police and joining the millions who want to defang and defund these institutions,” reads the petition, which was started by a group of Google employees called Googlers Against Racism last week and is addressed to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google’s parent company Alphabet. “Why help the institutions responsible for the knee on George Floyd’s neck to be more effective organizationally?” Google did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication. The company currently employs over 100,000 employees globally — so this petition’s signees represent a relatively small percentage of its workforce. But it is still one of the most significant showings of internal dissent at the company in the past few months. It’s not clear how extensively or closely Google works with US police departments. Google currently sells cloud-based software, such as the business version of its Gmail product, through a third-party vendor to at least one police department, the Clarkstown Police Department in Rockland County, New York. According to a customer testimonial page, Google touts its software as being a “catalyst for a culture change” at Clarkstown County Police Department, which was sued in 2017 by Black Lives Matter activists who said the department conducted illegal surveillance on them. Google also invests in police AI technology that includes drone surveillance through its venture capital arm, Gradient Ventures. The Google employees’ petition is the latest example of workers at major tech companies challenging their employers to do more than simply making donations and issuing statements in support of Black Lives Matter. These employees want their companies to significantly change their business practices to minimize harm to the black community, both inside their companies and beyond. In recent weeks, some Amazon employees renewed their calls for the company to stop selling its facial recognition technology to police, which it announced it would pause for the next year. And employees at Facebook have called for the company to moderate political speech that could incite racial violence or mislead voters. “We want to be proud of the company we work for. We want the company we build to speak to our values and how we want to show up in the world,” reads the Google employees’ letter, which calls for the company to “take real steps to help dismantle racism.” Civil rights advocates have warned that police disproportionately use surveillance technology, such as AI-based facial recognition or drone surveillance, against black communities — and that these practices could have a chilling effect on free speech if people feel they’re being unjustly surveilled in their everyday lives and when they engage in political activism. In the past, Google employees have uncovered details about some of the company’s controversial government contracts, and pressured the company to end them — such as Project Maven, the company’s contract with the Pentagon, and its secretive efforts to build a censored search product for China, known as Project Dragonfly. Google did not renew its contract with the Pentagon in June of 2018 and reportedly halted its work on Dragonfly in December of 2018, although a March article from the Intercept reported that the company may be resuming some of that work. In August 2019, hundreds of employees signed a protest asking the company not to bid on a project with the US immigration agency Customs and Border Patrol (CBP). Monday’s petition about working with police departments is the first notable activist effort that’s happened at Google since November 2019, when Google fired four employee activists, including some who spoke out against the company’s work with CBP due to humanitarian concerns about the agency’s immigrant detention facilities and family separation. Google said it fired these workers for violating its data security policies. In light of the recent protests against police brutality and racism that have spread across the nation after George Floyd’s death, major tech companies are facing a reckoning about their work with police, agitated by their own employees. Today’s letter at Google is yet another a sign of that movement’s advancement. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the company’s new operating systems at its Worldwide Developers Conference. | Apple The company’s new operating systems want you to know — and control — who’s watching you online. Apple is cracking down on what it allows other companies to know about you. The company announced on Monday that iOS 14 and macOS Big Sur will feature a host of improved privacy features that will give users better control over their data and knowledge over what apps and websites know about them. This is great for users who don’t like the idea of, say, a period tracker app sending their data to a company they’ve never heard of. It’s bad news for that company they’ve never heard of. Over on iOS, the mobile operating system that powers iPhones, apps will now have to get your permission before they can track your data, which is used to target ads to you based on that behavior. Apps often come loaded with secret trackers that send data, such as your location, device type, or usage time, to big companies like Facebook or Google or to the lesser-known brokers like Unacast or Cuebiq. These companies usually have their trackers in several, even thousands, of apps, allowing them to track your data across all of them. Your identity is typically anonymized and hidden behind a unique advertising identifier assigned to your phone. Privacy experts, however, will tell you that nothing is truly anonymous, and we’ve seen how it’s possible to re-identify someone. If you’re wondering how location data firms, which have been helping public health authorities track the spread of coronavirus, knew so much about where we go, these hidden trackers are how. Apple has offered users a way to opt out of this tracking for a while now. In Safari, you can find it by going to Preferences > Privacy, and then scrolling all the way down to find the switch. But most people don’t do that, either because they’re not aware the feature exists or they simply can’t be bothered. Now, Mac and iOS users will know right from the start that their apps want to track them because they’ll have to actively give the app permission to do so. Why would anyone choose to be tracked, you wonder? Well, the case advertisers like to make is that it means the ads you get will be more in line with your interests. Assuming most people decide not to allow their apps to track them, this could fundamentally change the mobile app ad tech industry. The ads will still be there, of course, but they’re worth a lot less if advertisers can’t target them to certain audiences — which means less money for the companies that make the apps. “This announcement is a great step forward for privacy,” Bennett Cyphers, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode. “For years, trackers in mobile apps have used the identifier for advertisers (IDFA) to silently profile users by default. Apple never should have added the IDFA to iOS in the first place, but it’s good to see the company cede control back to users.” The second change in iOS14 is that apps will now have to put something akin to a “nutrition label,” as Apple described it, on their apps that tells users what data may be collected about them or used to track them. Apple A sample of what an app’s data collection information box will look like. You’re probably aware of some of this already — apps have to ask your permission to access your contacts and location data, for instance — but some of the things shown on the sample label, like device identifiers, aren’t generally known. You can find this information in app privacy policies, but most people don’t read those policies because they’re usually too long and complicated. Now, information about privacy policies will be served to the user in an easily readable form. “The devil will be in the details of implementation,” Jen King, the director of consumer privacy at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, told Recode. “For example, will users understand what’s being asked of them with respect to opting-in to data tracking? Will Apple educate their users about the different practices they are highlighting in the App Store feature summaries? A concern I have is that they give their users a set of new tools without sufficiently explaining what they are for and how they work.” These moves are somewhat of a surprise given how entrenched in the app ecosystem user tracking is. But the updates are also in line with some other recent privacy-conscious decisions Apple has made. Apple’s web browser, Safari, now blocks cookies by default. Rival Google, which makes the Android mobile operating system and the Chrome browser, does not yet have these privacy-protecting features by default. (Google has a massive mobile and web advertising business.) But according to Google, a cookie ban is coming to Chrome within the next two years, and now that Apple has taken the initiative to turn mobile ad tracking off by default, Google may well follow. “This puts iOS firmly ahead of Android in terms of user control,” Cyphers added. “Android still allows all apps, and all third-party trackers, to access a user’s mobile ad ID by default. This clearly favors the interests of advertisers and data brokers over the interests of regular people. There’s now no excuse for Google to continue allowing this kind of tracking without clear and specific consent.” Speaking of Safari, Apple also announced that its upcoming macOS Big Sur will include an update to the company’s web browser that gives users an easy-to-access “Privacy Report” right up next to the URL field. In a single click, the report will tell users which website trackers the browser has blocked. Apple Safari’s privacy report will reveal all the trackers it blocks on the websites you visit. If you have tracker blocking extensions or use browsers like DuckDuckGo or Firefox, you’re probably familiar with how these work. If you aren’t, then you’ll probably find the sheer number of trackers on a typical website alarming and appreciate a way to significantly reduce — but probably not completely eliminate — them. Apple hasn’t set a release date for iOS 14 or macOS Big Sur, but expect them sometime later this year. Open Sourced is made possible by the Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 16 days ago on re/code
Former eBay CEO Devin Wenig. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images Devin Wenig says he had “no knowledge, no private understanding, no tacit approval” of the harassment campaign. Earlier this week, reports emerged of a very strange corporate scandal: Federal authorities charged several former eBay corporate security employees for their roles in a cyberstalking campaign targeting a blogger that involved Twitter harassment and mailing insects to her house. Now, former eBay CEO Devin Wenig, who led the company at the time, tells Recode that he was shocked to hear details of the campaign this week and that he gave “no direction” nor “tacit approval” for it. But the former eBay chief executive was at times so frustrated with coverage from the news website in question that he on several occasions floated the idea internally that eBay should create its own competitor publication, multiple former eBay insiders told Recode. “On Monday, I read the charges along with everyone else, and was shocked and outraged,” Wenig told Recode in a statement. “It is important for me to reiterate, and an independent investigation confirmed, that I had nothing to do with and no knowledge of the activities alleged to have occurred. There was no direction, no knowledge, no private understanding, no tacit approval. Ever.” Still, the fact that eBay’s security team allegedly felt comfortable executing such a campaign against the blogger and her husband suggest that the leadership team had, at best, problematic blind spots. On Monday, the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts revealed a case against six former eBay workers who allegedly waged an “aggressive cyberstalking campaign” against the husband-and-wife team that runs EcommerceBytes, which reports business news geared toward online merchants who sell on eBay and Amazon. The site, and some of its readers who post comments below articles, were often critical of eBay under Wenig’s leadership and sometimes of Wenig himself. Authorities accuse the former eBay workers of a wide range of malevolent activities, including shipping them “a funeral wreath, a book on surviving the loss of a spouse, and pornography – the last of these addressed to the newsletter’s publisher but sent to his neighbors’ homes.” The group, led by former eBay security head James Baugh, also surveilled the couple and considered breaking into their garage to place a GPS tracking device on their vehicle. In court documents, copies of text messages showed Wenig twice instructing his communications chief, Steve Wymer, to “take her down,” referring to the EcommerceBytes owner and writer Ina Steiner. On Thursday, Wenig told Recode in a statement that those texts “have been wildly misinterpreted and taken completely out of context in some media reports.” “I was speaking off the cuff to a communications executive about my desire to be more aggressive in our PR effort; never in my wildest dreams would I fathom that, later, someone might associate that communication with the type of activity mentioned in the Massachusetts complaint,” Wenig said in the statement. Wenig’s statement added: “I am genuinely sorry for the couple that had to endure these obscene acts. No one should have to experience that, especially not a journalist. What happened isn’t representative of the company culture I spent 8 years building, or the employees I knew there.” Court documents show that Wymer, eBay’s communications chief, hired a consultancy that “prepared a document [which] included the recommendation, among others, that eBay promote company-friendly content that would drive the Newsletter’s posts lower in search engine results.” Such an action could be seen as a fairly benign PR strategy. But Wymer also sent text messages with an aggressive tone such as: “We are going to crush this lady.” Court documents also include an exchange between Wymer and the security chief Baugh in which Baugh references an unspecified “Plan B” in relation to the EcommerceBytes couple. Wymer expressed a willingness to manage any fallout internally, but the messages do not indicate that Wymer had any knowledge of what the “Plan B” entailed. Reached for comment, Wymer told Recode, “I would never condone or participate in any such activity.” Steiner did not respond to an email seeking comment. EBay has said it conducted an internal investigation and found no evidence that Wenig directed or had any knowledge of the harassment campaign. But the company implied that “inappropriate communications” from him played a role in his ouster in September 2019. The company fired Wymer that same month in relation to an internal investigation it conducted with the help of an external law firm, after federal authorities notified the company of “suspicious actions by its security personnel toward a blogger,” according to a statement eBay posted on its website Monday. Neither Wymer nor Wenig have been charged, and authorities did not name them in the affidavit; instead, the two were simply referred to as Executive 1 and Executive 2. A spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts declined to comment on whether other eBay employees might be charged. “[I]t’s an ongoing investigation,” the spokesperson said. Multiple former eBay insiders say that over his four years as eBay CEO, Wenig often took negative press personally, and that when it came to EcommerceBytes and Steiner, he was especially thin skinned. “He would often have very colorful words to say about her,” according to one former insider. Wenig on several occasions promoted the idea internally that eBay should create its own news site for sellers to counter what he saw as biased coverage from EcommerceBytes, sources said. The competitor site was never created. Other executives, including current eBay executive Wendy Smith, also frequently aired frustrations about the site, multiple former eBay insiders told Recode. But those same sources were in agreement that they never witnessed Wenig say or do anything that would make them think he would approve, or tolerate, the alleged criminal activity. Similarly, a person who worked closely with Wymer in a previous job, told Recode that they would be shocked if the communications executive was involved with the alleged crimes. The same source admitted that the communications executive could sometimes come across as extreme in work discussions. “It’s hyperbole,” the person said of Wymer’s language in the text messages revealed in the affidavit. “Steve wouldn’t crush an ant. But in heat of the sport, he will say things that are extreme.” The eBay security team that allegedly carried out the crimes reported up to Wendy Smith, the company’s current senior vice president of global customer experience and operations, Recode has learned. EBay spokesperson Trina Somera told Recode that the company’s internal investigation “found no wrongdoing with regard to Wendy” and that “she is not one of the people referenced in the government’s complaint.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 16 days ago on re/code
This week, Attorney General Bill Barr released a set of recommendations for new legislation that would limit the immunity offered by Section 230. | Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images Following the president’s lead, Republicans are all trying to chip away at Section 230. Section 230, the law that is often credited as the reason why the internet as we know it exists, could be facing its greatest threat yet. A seemingly coordinated attack on the law is unfolding this week from the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress. It follows complaints that platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube unfairly censor conservative speech. Though some are framing the efforts as a way to promote free speech, others say the result will be exactly the opposite. Following President Trump’s executive order aimed at social media companies he thinks are censoring right-wing voices, the most direct actions taken against Section 230 arrived this week in the form of a new bill from Sen. Josh Hawley and a set of recommendations from Attorney General Bill Barr. Hawley, a 40-year-old Republican from Missouri who has made no secret of his intentions regarding Section 230, is proposing a bill that would require large platforms to enforce their rules equally to stop a perceived targeting of conservatives and conservative commentary. Hawley is also rumored to be preparing another Section 230-related bill to add to his growing collection. Meanwhile, Barr’s Department of Justice said it is calling for new legislation that, in certain cases, would remove the civil liability protections offered by Section 230. If platforms like Facebook, Google, and Twitter somehow encouraged content that violates federal law, these platforms would be treated as “bad samaritans” and would lose the immunity offered by Section 230. Like Hawley’s bill, the DOJ’s proposed rules would also force platforms to clearly define and equally enforce content rules. Civil rights advocates say they’re concerned that some of these proposed measures may end up becoming law, leading to all sorts of unintended consequences and stifling speech — which will ultimately punish internet users far more than the websites. “I do think there is a very serious risk to Section 230 right now,” Kathleen Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told Recode. “And they all concern me, not for the platforms, but for users and online free expression.” Section 230, briefly explained Section 230 is part of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. It says internet platforms that host third-party content are not civilly liable for that content. There are a few exceptions, such as intellectual property or content related to sex trafficking, but otherwise the law allows platforms to be as hands-off as they want to be with user-generated content. Here’s an example: If a Twitter user were to tweet something defamatory, the user could be sued for libel, but Twitter itself could not. This law has allowed websites and services that rely on user-generated content to exist and grow. If these sites could be held responsible for the actions of their users, they would either have to strictly moderate everything those users produce — which is impossible at scale — or not host any third-party content at all. Either way, the demise of Section 230 could be the end of sites like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, Yelp, forums, message boards, and basically any platform that’s based on user-generated content. The law also gives those services that immunity even if they moderate certain content. This is why, for instance, Twitter can take down tweets that it deems in violation of its terms of service. Sen. Ron Wyden, who was one of the architects of Section 230, has likened these provisions to a sword and shield for platforms. But as some of these platforms have increased in size, scope, and power, there has been increasing support on both sides of the aisle to chip away at the law that allowed them to flourish free of much accountability. Democrats have supported laws that crack down on websites that facilitate sexual abuse. The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) made platforms legally responsible for third-party content related to sex trafficking. The two bills, known together as FOSTA-SESTA, overwhelmingly passed in the House and Senate, and President Trump signed them into law in 2018. More recently, there’s the bipartisan Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Internet Technologies Act (EARN IT), which would require companies to follow a yet-to-be-defined set of “best practices” or else lose Section 230 immunity if third parties post child pornography on their platforms. Civil rights advocates worry what those “best practices” will be and how they might stifle all speech. Josh Hawley’s crusade for a different internet Many Republicans see altering Section 230 as a way to force platforms to fit their definition of “politically neutral.” Typically, this translates into restricting a website or service’s ability to moderate content. This seems to be the goal of Hawley’s bill, which is called the Limiting Section 230 Immunity to Good Samaritans Act. Cosponsored by Republican Sens. Marco Rubio, Mike Braun, Tom Cotton, and Kelly Loeffler, the bill would force large tech companies — that is, companies that have 30 million American users or 300 million users worldwide, as well as $1.5 billion annual revenue — to act in “good faith” when enforcing their content rules. Acting in “good faith” here means that platforms must clearly define what their rules are and enforce them consistently, rather than, say, targeting certain types of political speech, as some conservatives believe they currently do. Users who feel that their content is being unfairly removed would also have a new tool for reprisal. Hawley’s bill gives individual users who believe they’re being censored the right to sue companies for at least $5,000 as well as attorney’s fees. You can imagine how many people would be happy to take advantage of that, which would give platforms a big incentive to comply lest they be flooded with millions of lawsuits. “It is impossible to moderate user-generated content at scale perfectly, or even well, and this bill would weaponize mistakes,” Aaron Mackey, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode. “There are legitimate concerns about the dominance of a handful of online platforms and their power to limit internet users’ speech. But rather than addressing those concerns, this bill bluntly encourages frivolous litigation and will lead to massive trolling.” This isn’t Republicans’ only recent attempt at limiting Section 230. In 2019, Hawley introduced the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which would have required the Federal Trade Commission to declare platforms unbiased to get Section 230 protections. The same year, Rep. Louie Gohmert introduced the Biased Algorithm Deterrence Act, which would remove Section 230 protections from companies that moderated content using algorithms. Both were responses to conservative complaints that companies including Facebook, Twitter, and Google were selectively enforcing their content guidelines, de-platforming, shadow banning, or otherwise censoring conservatives while mostly leaving liberals alone. Sen. Ted Cruz has also been a vocal critic of platforms in this regard, erroneously asserting that Section 230 includes some kind of political neutrality requirement even though the law doesn’t say anything to that effect. Those complaints have gained steam recently. Despite being one of the biggest beneficiaries of the influence and reach these platforms can afford, President Trump had a recent tantrum over Twitter’s decision to fact-check two of his tweets, which contained inaccurate information about mail-in ballots. Soon after, Trump signed his executive order aimed at social media companies, which said platforms that go beyond “good faith” content moderation should not be entitled to Section 230 protections. An executive order is not a law and therefore its impact on an actual law is likely limited, but the right’s intention to go after big tech companies was made very clear. The Trump administration says, “The time is ripe” While recent bills in Congress have been markedly divisive, Barr’s proposed reforms manage to incorporate the issues that both Democrats and Republicans have raised with Section 230. The DOJ called this a “productive middle ground.” Note that the department’s proposals are simply suggestions for the laws Congress should enact that would actually change things, but they, like the executive order, signal how and why the Trump administration hopes to go after or control large platforms. One of Barr’s recommendations is to withhold immunity from “truly bad actors,” which are defined as sites promoting, soliciting, or facilitating content that violates federal law. Sites must also “maintain the ability to assist government authorities to obtain content (i.e. evidence) in a comprehensible, readable, and usable format.” This would be the end of services that use end-to-end encryption, which Barr has a particular problem with, and which civil liberties advocates believe will be the ultimate effect of the EARN IT act. There’s also a section that addresses “open discourse and greater transparency.” Here, Barr recommends something along the lines of Hawley’s bill — that platforms must have clear terms of service for what is and isn’t allowed on their platforms and moderate content accordingly. This includes defining “good faith,” similar to Hawley’s bill, as well as removing the part of the law that says platforms can moderate content that is “otherwise objectionable,” as Barr believes the term is too vague and has given platforms the freedom to remove anything simply by saying it’s objectionable in some way. In the background of all of this is a growing public sentiment against powerful tech companies due, in part, to how they help spread fake news and the incredible amounts of personal information about us they collect. That has surely emboldened politicians to act accordingly. Not only do we have multiple bills against Section 230, but there are also ongoing efforts to break up the biggest tech companies through antitrust investigations both in the United States and the European Union. “The Department of Justice has concluded that the time is ripe to realign the scope of Section 230 with the realities of the modern internet,” the recommendations say. This all adds up to a very real possibility that Section 230, at least as we know it, won’t be around for much longer. Hawley’s bill, which has no bipartisan support as of now, might go the way his past bills did — that is to say, nowhere. But the EARN IT Act does have bipartisan support and, like FOSTA-SESTA which did pass, targets child sexual abuse. Few politicians may want to vote against a law that says it’s meant to combat child porn, regardless of any unintended consequences. The consequences of changing Section 230 will inevitably change the internet and what we’re allowed to do on it. Ruane, from the ACLU, points to the impact of FOSTA-SESTA, which she says “has been a complete and total disaster,” and its unintended consequences as a guide for what we can expect. Faced with the new law, online platforms didn’t seek to target specific content that might relate to or facilitate sex trafficking; they simply took down everything sex or sex work-related to ensure they wouldn’t get in trouble. “It was only supposed to apply to advertisements for sex trafficking. That is absolutely not what happened,” Ruane said. “All platforms adopted much broader content moderation policies that applied to a lot of LGBTQ-related speech, sex education-related speech, and ... sites where [sex workers] built communities where they shared information to maintain safety.” She added, “It is astonishing to me that that law is being used as an example of what we should do in the future because of all the clear harms that censoring a broad amount of speech has caused.” As for Wyden, he wrote in a recent op-ed that laws that force platforms to be “politically neutral” may not encourage more speech, as conservatives who favor those laws claim, but rather suppress it. Facebook has taken a similar stance, saying on Wednesday that changing Section 230’s liability protections would “mean less speech of all kinds appearing online.” Section 230 won’t change tomorrow, if it changes at all. But a series of seemingly coordinated attacks from two of the three branches of government certainly shows some momentum toward the possibility of change. On one hand, the internet has profoundly changed since the law was introduced 25 years ago and it’s not unreasonable to believe that the law should change with it. On the other, those changes likely won’t have the impact on the companies they’re targeting that lawmakers and the administration seem to desire. The impact will largely fall on the people who use the platforms those companies run: You. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 16 days ago on re/code
President Donald Trump walks to Marine One as he departs from the White House on June 11. | Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images The campaign placed 88 ads with an obscure concentration camp symbol on them. Another day, another potentially racist dog whistle from our president and his representatives. This time, Facebook — which has been reluctant to take on problematic content from Trump, unlike social media peer Twitter — is taking action and removing it from the platform. On Wednesday, the Trump campaign placed 88 ads on Facebook — 88 is a number with Nazi connotations — that featured a symbol used by Nazis to denote political prisoners in concentration camps. The Trump campaign denied the reference to any Nazi symbols was intentional and deactivated the ads on Wednesday. (Deactivating the ads meant that they could still be seen on the pages of Trump and others, but Facebook was no longer placing the ads in users’ timelines.) Following tweets and reports about the ads, Facebook removed them on Thursday for violating its policy against “using a banned hate group’s symbol,” the company told Recode. The symbol in question is an upside-down red triangle, which accompanies text about “dangerous mobs” of “far-left groups” causing mayhem in cities. The ad then asks readers to stand with President Trump against antifa. It ran on pages for Trump, Vice President Pence, and Trump’s official campaign. Trump Make America Great Again Committee The Trump campaign’s Facebook ad included a symbol associated with Nazism. Nazis used different colors of upside-down triangles sewn onto clothing to categorize concentration camp prisoners. The pink triangle, used to denote gay people, is perhaps the best known of these, as it was later reclaimed by the LGTBQ community. Red triangles were used for political prisoners, such as people believed to be communists or social democrats. But it’s pretty obscure. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum A list of Nazi prisoner symbols from 1936. Then again, the use of a red triangle as an antifa symbol, which is what the Trump campaign claimed it was meant to be, is even more obscure. Though the campaign said on Twitter that the upside-down red triangle is “widely used” by antifa, it’s not. The image most closely associated with the group is of a red and black flag. When asked for evidence of widespread use of the upside-down red triangle, the Trump campaign pointed to a poster being sold on a website that specializes in merchandise with user-submitted images on it. The campaign also pointed out that there is an upside-down red triangle emoji. But that’s not all. Adding to claims that using a Nazi symbol was deliberate is the fact that the campaign ran exactly 88 ads featuring the symbol. The number 88 is a known code for “Heil Hitler.” According to Facebook’s ad library, the campaign placed 30 red triangle ads on the Team Trump page, 30 on Trump’s page, and 28 on Pence’s page. Those add up to 88. It’s certainly possible that the Trump campaign’s decision to go with a very specific number of ads — a number that also happens to have Nazi connections — is a coincidence. Facebook clearly doesn’t think so. It should be noted that the Trump campaign also placed ads with the same wording but with different, sometimes obscure symbols attached. These symbols, which include stop sign, a “slow” sign, and other symbols with warning exclamation points in them, do not appear to have any immediate Nazi reference built in. Similar numbers of those ads were placed on the three pages. While Facebook has given Trump and his campaign a long leash in the past, they have run afoul of its ad rules before. In March, the platform removed ads that promoted a “census” (it was a campaign survey) that some users could mistake for the official US census. This was part of Facebook’s big push against census misinformation. Facebook also took down a campaign ad that contained copyrighted music. The Trump and his surrogates have been caught using more obvious dog whistles in the past. Some of these references were so blatant that they don’t really qualify as dog whistles at all. Most famous among them might be the image showing a Star of David next to a picture of Hillary Clinton and money. (Trump claimed the symbol was meant to be a sheriff star, but later replaced it with a circle.) Trump has also retweeted accounts associated with Nazism and claims of “white genocide,” including one literally called WhiteGenocideTM. He also tweeted an image of supposed crime statistics that said 81 percent of murders of white people were committed by black people and 97 percent of black murders were committed by black people. These statistics were inaccurate and attributed to a “crime statistics bureau” that doesn’t exist. The image also showed a dark-skinned man holding a gun. It’s possible that the symbol and the number of ads were a coincidence, given the obscurity of the triangle and the fact that the number of ads was spread across three accounts. But given Trump’s past with racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic imagery on social media, it’s pretty tough to give his campaign the benefit of the doubt now. Facebook didn’t. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 17 days ago on re/code
Facebook employees working in Facebook’s elections “War Room” to combat political misinformation on social media. | Noah Berger/AFP via Getty Images Tired of political ads clogging up your Facebook page? Now there’s a way to stop seeing them. Facebook recently announced that it is now letting users turn off political ads on both their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Starting Wednesday, people will be able to turn off all social issue, electoral, or political ads from candidates, super PACs, or other organizations that have the “Paid for by” political disclaimer on them. The new move seems to be a compromise to critics who think Facebook shouldn’t let politicians lie in ads (Facebook largely allows this, arguing that moderating politicians’ speech would amount to censorship). Now, politicians can still spread half-truths and blatant lies in political ads — but you don’t have to see these ads on your feed if you don’t want to. Facebook has faced sustained criticism since the 2016 US presidential election that the company isn’t doing enough to limit political misinformation on its platform and, as a result, is hurting democracy. Most recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come under fire from civil rights advocates and his own employees for not moderating a series of posts by President Trump that made false claims about voting by mail in California. Facebook said it will be giving users more control over seeing political ads as part of a larger announcement defending how it handles politicians’ controversial posts and its initiative to launch a Voting Information Center that aims to register 4 million users to vote ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. Facebook’s new policy to let you ignore political ads is opt-in. That means if you don’t want to see ads, you’ll have to follow a series of steps. Here’s how you can do that. Note that this feature isn’t yet available for many users — it’s only starting to roll out today to some US users. Facebook says all US users should have this option in the next few weeks. If you prefer to watch a video that explains how to do this, you can see one here for Facebook and here for Instagram. Facebook Through your Facebook app settings In the Facebook app, tap the menu button (three horizontal lines in the bottom right corner of your News Feed). Tap the Settings button. Tap Ad Preferences > Ad Topics. In the pop-up menu, tap See fewer ads about this topic. Facebook Or through a political ad in your Facebook feed Pick any political ad you come across in your Facebook feed (marked as “Paid by” a political campaign, candidate, or group). Tap the Confirmed Organization button. In the pop-up menu, tap See fewer ads about this topic. Facebook Instagram Through your Instagram app settings In the Instagram app, go to your profile. Press the menu button (the three horizontal lines in the upper right corner). Tap the Settings button > Ads > Topics Preferences. Tap Social Issues, Elections or Politics. Tap Save. Or through a political ad in your Instagram feed Pick any political ad you come across in your Instagram feed (marked as “Paid by” a political campaign, candidate, or group). Tap the Paid for by button. In the pop-up menu, tap See fewer ads like this. Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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posted 17 days ago on re/code
Mark Zuckerberg has been trying to do something about education in America since 2010, when he dedicated $100 million to fixing Newark’s schools. | Charles Sykes/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images Workers at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative ask: “What side of history will this organization be on moving forward?” More than 70 employees at Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy are calling for significant internal change at the organization to combat systemic racism. It’s a rare display of activism inside the walls of a major charity. Dozens of people who work on the education team at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are asking Zuckerberg and his co-CEO, his wife Priscilla Chan, to commit to 12 changes that will make the philanthropy more inclusive as it spends millions to reform the American education system. The proposals run the gamut from boosting the number of black leaders in CZI’s management ranks to assembling an advisory group of people from historically marginalized backgrounds to advise CZI on its priorities. But the real significance of the letter is that 74 people who work for Zuckerberg — 60 of whom are on CZI’s education team — are attaching their names to the public document, braving possible consequences. Bottom-up activism is extremely rare in the world of philanthropy, even though is it becoming less so in Silicon Valley more broadly. “We acknowledge the impactful work that CZI has done recently, from our grants work to our industry-leading diversity stats. But the deeper needs of this organization remain unaddressed — our call to action is for leadership to work directly with employees to address and implement the following,” the employees wrote in the letter obtained by Recode. “Given that we are the technologists working with subject matter experts in this space, the bar of responsibility is high on our end to ensure what we design is not excluding people. What side of history will this organization be on moving forward?” About a quarter of CZI’s leadership are from any underrepresented group. Raymonde Charles, a spokesperson for CZI’s education team, said that while “racial equity is already a focus of some of our work” — such as its efforts to boost the diversity of students who enter the sciences or its grants to certain diverse groups — CZI was “committed to expanding beyond these efforts.” “We welcome feedback from our team members and have worked hard to create a safe environment for employees to make their voices heard,” Charles said. “We’re proud of the many CZI employees who have raised their hands in recent weeks to help in this new call to action.” The letter, delivered to CZI leadership on Tuesday, comes about 10 days after a group of CZI-backed scientists — who, unlike these signatories, are not employed by CZI — sent Zuckerberg and Chan a letter protesting how Facebook has not taken any actions against President Donald Trump’s inflammatory posts on its platform. The scientists said that allowing Trump to speak without proper fact-checking or moderation, especially when his posts are misleading or imply threats of violence, was “antithetical” to CZI’s mission. Zuckerberg and Chan responded a few days later in a letter also obtained by Recode, in which they reiterated Facebook’s policies but said they were personally “disgusted” by Trump’s rhetoric on race. A small handful of CZI employees signed the scientists’ letter, too, but the letter delivered on Tuesday amounts to a far greater statement. Zuckerberg has been a committed education reformer dating back to his infamous $100 million investment in Newark’s public school system, which has largely been judged as a failure. CZI’s current education projects include work like Summit Learning, a technology platform for personalized learning. Other requests raised in the CZI employees’ letter include performing an audit of Summit’s curriculum to find possible ways to make it more culturally sensitive, standing up a process to review how CZI education products affect marginalized people, and to hold every team “accountable for an equity goal the same way we do for quality.” “We, the signatories of this letter, are calling for direct action,” the letter concludes. “Show us you’re listening. Take decisive action now.” Support Vox’s explanatory journalism Every day at Vox, we aim to answer your most important questions and provide you, and our audience around the world, with information that has the power to save lives. Our mission has never been more vital than it is in this moment: to empower you through understanding. Vox’s work is reaching more people than ever, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism takes resources — particularly during a pandemic and an economic downturn. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will enable our staff to continue to offer free articles, videos, and podcasts at the quality and volume that this moment requires. Please consider making a contribution to Vox today.

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