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As Zuckerberg Continues Hill Testimony, Privacy Takes Backseat To ‘Censorship’ Accusations

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WASHINGTON, April 11, 2018 – Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrived at the Rayburn House Office Building Wednesday for the second day of his first trip to Capitol Hill as a witness, this time before members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His prepared testimony was the same, but the atmosphere was quite different.

Not only did Zuckerberg have to contend with slightly more inquisitors – 55, compared with the 42 members of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary Committees he dealt with yesterday – but the atmosphere a more raucous one as well, stemming from the sometimes younger and more rabidly partisan nature of the so-called “people’s house.”

Some of the more tech-savvy committee members laid into Zuckerberg for his company’s record of privacy failures over the years. Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore, lauded Facebook as “an American success story” while invoking the company’s notorious – and retired – motto of “move fast and break things.”

“While Facebook has certainly grown, I worry it has not matured. I think it is time to ask whether Facebook may have moved too fast and broken too many things,” Walden said during his opening statement.

Same statement, different day

Zuckerberg, for his part, began his testimony with the same opening statement he gave at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, repeating word-for-word his apology for Facebook’s failures on privacy, “fake news,” and other issues that have been brought to light since Donald Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 election.

“It was my mistake, and I’m sorry. I started Facebook, I run it, and I’m responsible for what happens here,” he said, making his statement the latest in a string of similar apologies he’s had to make over the years.

But Zuckerberg’s audience appeared less impressed – and far less deferential – than their older colleagues in the more sedate upper chamber. Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., whose role representing part of Silicon Valley makes her no stranger to technology, chided Zuckerberg for Facebook’s failure to spell out its privacy practices in “clear and pedestrian language.”

Her Democratic colleague from New Mexico, Rep. Ben Lujan, also noted that Facebook had allowed sometimes-malicious actors to scrape massive amounts of data from the site, and only disabled that ability a week before Wednesday’s hearing.

“Facebook knew about this in 2013 and 2015, but you didn’t turn the feature off until Wednesday of last week,” said Lujan said. “This is essentially a tool for these malicious actors to steal a person’s identity and put the finishing touches on it.”

Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., compared the data practices of Zuckerberg’s “cozy community” on Facebook’s data practices to the film “The Truman Show,” before asking: “Who owns the virtual you? Is it you or them?”

Zuckerberg began to repeat his answer from yesterday asserting that everyone owns their own data before Blackburn cut him off. “I can’t let you filibuster right now.”

Diamond and Silk take center stage, and stay there

Once she’d silenced Zuckerberg, Blackburn then changed the subject from privacy and consumer protection to that of two people who weren’t present for the hearing – but ended up being the unlikely stars of it nevertheless — pro-Trump social media personalities – and frequent Fox News guests – Diamond and Silk.

The pair, whose legal names are Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, are sisters, and two of President Donald Trump’s most vocal African-American supporters, who according to The Daily Beast, their frequent Fox News appearances have made them among Trump’s favorite TV talking heads. Earlier this week, they complained that Facebook had restricted their ability to push notifications of new content out to fans of their Facebook page because their content was deemed “unsafe to the community,” a decision which some conservative commentators and Republicans had incorrectly characterized as a “ban” or “censorship.”

“Diamond and Silk is not terrorism,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn wasn’t the first – or only — committee member to invoke Diamond Silk as unlikely heroes or open other lines of inquiry what conservatives call a battle against censorship from a tech industry based in predominantly-liberal Silicon Valley.

The subject of the sisters’ complaints about Facebook first made it into the hearing record when the committee’s former chairman, Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, devoted his allotted question time to queries sourced from his constituents using his own Facebook page, appropiately enough.

“In that specific case, our team made an enforcement error and we have already gotten in touch with them to reverse it,” Zuckerberg said.

A ‘very important question’ about possible changes to the Facebook algorithm

Rep. Steven Scalise, R.-La., a computer scientist by training, asked what Zuckerberg called a “very important question” – whether Facebook executives directed any changes to the algorithm the site employs to determine which stories its’ users see that would bias it in any way against conservative content.

Zuckerberg’s response was unequivocal: There is absolutely no directive in any of the changes that we make to have a bias in anything that we do.

His denials, however, didn’t appear to convince Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., who sometime later returned the hearing’s focus to questions about Diamond and Silk, even going so far as to display a poster of the duo before apparently asking a question on their behalf.

“Diamond and Silk have a question for you, and that question is, what is unsafe about two black women supporting President Donald J. Trump?” Long asked.

“Nothing is unsafe about that,” Zuckerberg replied.

(Photo of Diamond and Silk with then-candidate Donald Trump, Creative Commons licensed from Flickr user mccauleys-corner)

Andrew Feinberg was the White House Correspondent and Managing Editor for Breakfast Media. He rejoined BroadbandBreakfast.com in late 2016 after working as a staff writer at The Hill and as a freelance writer. He worked at BroadbandBreakfast.com from its founding in 2008 to 2010, first as a Reporter and then as Deputy Editor. He also covered the White House for Russia's Sputnik News from the beginning of the Trump Administration until he was let go for refusing to use White House press briefings to promote conspiracy theories, and later documented the experience in a story which set off a chain of events leading to Sputnik being forced to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Andrew's work has appeared in such publications as The Hill, Politico, Communications Daily, Washington Internet Daily, Washington Business Journal, The Sentinel Newspapers, FastCompany.TV, Mashable, and Silicon Angle.

Public Safety

Lack of People Opting Into Emergency Alerts Poses Problems for Natural Disaster Scenarios

Disaster protocol experts remarked on lessons learned from fire outbreaks in Boulder County, Colorado.

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Photo of Lori Adams of Nokia discussing emergency communications response to Colorado wildfires at Mountain Connect by Drew Clark

KEYSTONE, Colorado, May 26, 2022 – A lack of people opting into local emergency alerts poses a severe challenge for public officials during natural disasters, a panel of experts said Tuesday.

The panel remarked on just how significant the number of people not subscribed to emergency alerts is during a panel on disaster preparedness at the annual Mountain Connect conference.

In Boulder, getting emergency alerts is on an opt-in basis, whereas in other areas, it is opt-in by default.

The specific focus of the panel was on lessons learned from the outbreak of fires in Boulder County, Colorado this past December.

Fires presented challenges for providers

Several challenges of managing a response to the fires were recounted.

Blake Nelson, Comcast’s senior director of construction, stated that some of his company’s underground broadband infrastructure buried at a considerable depth was still melted from the heat of the fires to cause service outages for customers. Thomas Tyler, no stranger to disaster response as Louisiana’s deputy director for broadband and connectivity through several hurricane responses, pointed out that it is quite possible local officials may be skilled in responding to one type of disaster such as a hurricane but not another like a tornado.

Screenshot of Blake Nelson, Jon Saunders, Wesley Wright and Thomas Tyler (left to right)

The panel also spoke to the challenges of coordination between essential companies and agencies if people do not have personal relationships with those who work at such entities other than their own.

Successful emergency responses to service outages during disaster serve as models for the future, with Nelson stating the internet provider opened up its wireless hotspots to temporarily increase service access and Tyler saying that standing up Starlink satellite internet access helped bring broadband to Louisiana communities only accessible by bridge or boat during their periods of disaster.

Conversation moderator Lori Adams, senior director of broadband policy and funding strategy at Nokia, suggested keeping town servers not in municipal buildings but rather off site and Wesley Wright, partner at law firm Keller and Heckman, recommended the Federal Communications Commission’s practice of developing strong backup options for monitoring service outages.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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Education

Closing Digital Divide for Students Requires Community Involvement, Workforce Training, Event Hears

Barriers to closing the divide including awareness of programs, resources and increasing digital literacy.

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Screenshot of Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

WASHINGTON, May 24, 2022 – Experts in education technology said Monday that to close the digital divide for students, the nation must eliminate barriers at the community level, including raising awareness of programs and resources and increasing digital literacy.

“We are hearing from schools and district leaders that it’s not enough to make just broadband available and affordable, although those are critical steps,” said Ji Soo Song, broadband advisor at the U.S. Department of Education, said at an event hosted by trade group SIIA, formerly known as the Software and Information Industry Association. “We also have to make sure that we’re solving for the human barriers that often inhibit adoption.”

Song highlighted four “initial barriers” that students are facing. First, a lack of awareness and understanding of programs and resources. Second, signing up for programs is often confusing regarding eligibility requirements, application status, and installment. Third, there may be a lack of trust between communities and services. Fourth, a lack of digital literacy among students can prevent them from succeeding.

Song said he believes that with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act, states have an “incredible opportunity to address adoption barriers.”

Workforce shortages still a problem, but funding may help

Rosemary Lahasky, senior director for government affairs at Cengage, a maker of educational content, added that current data suggests that 16 million students lack access to a broadband connection. While this disparity in American homes remained, tech job posts nearly doubled in 2021, but the average number of applicants shrunk by 25 percent.

But panelists said they are hopeful that funding will address these shortages. “Almost every single agency that received funding…received either direct funding for workforce training or were given the flexibility to spend some of their money on workforce training,” said Lahasky of the IIJA, which carves out funding for workforce training.

This money is also, according to Lahasky, funding apprenticeship programs, which have been recommended by many as a solution to workforce shortages.

Student connectivity has been a long-held concern following the COVID-19 pandemic. Students themselves are stepping up to fight against the digital inequity in their schools as technology becomes increasingly essential for success. Texas students organized a panel to discuss internet access in education just last year.

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