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Artificial Intelligence

Is or Isn’t Google Politically Neutral? Senators From the Left and the Right Ponder the Question

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WASHINGTON, July 22, 2019 — With great power comes great responsibility. And now Google, which insists that it is not slanting search results based upon political leanings, is under attack from both the left and the right.

At a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing last Tuesday — titled “Google and Censorship through Search Engines” — Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, took the opportunity to repeat his oft-made claims about Google’s allegedly anti-conservative bias.

Cruz, chairman of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, highlighted his allegations from a Monday letter to the Federal Trade Commission on Monday: Google and other major tech platforms unfairly enforce their moderation policies to silence conservative voices.

This supposed censorship is reason for Congress to rethink the legal protections of digital platforms, said Cruz, claiming that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was a trade that offered legal immunity in exchange for political neutrality.

If big tech cannot provide “clear, compelling data and evidence” of their neutrality, “there’s no reason on earth why Congress should give them a special subsidy through Section 230,” he said.

In actual fact, of course, Section 230 does not include a requirement of political or other neutrality. Online platforms are legally permitted to moderate content at their discretion while being safeguarded from liability.

Google’s mission is to be politically neutral, said a company official

Providing a platform for a broad range of information is core to not only Google’s mission but also to its business model, said Google witness Karan Bhatia, a company vice president. Bhatia argued that it simply wouldn’t make business sense for Google to moderate based on political affiliation.

Besides alienating users, it would erode their trust.

“Google is not politically biased—indeed, we go to extraordinary lengths to build our products and enforce our policies in an analytically objective, apolitical way,” Bhatia said. “Our platforms reflect the online world that exists.”

“Claims of anti-conservative bias in the tech industry are baseless,” agreed Ranking Member Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “Study after study has debunked suggestions of political bias on the part of Facebook, Google, and Twitter.”

She cited a number of studies that, she said, proved her point:

  • In June, The Economist released the findings of a year-long analysis of search results in Google’s News tab that found no evidence that Google biases results against conservatives.
  • A 37-week study into alleged conservative censorship on Facebook completed by Media Matters in April showed that left-leaning pages were actually outperformed by right-leaning pages in terms of overall user interaction.
  • In March, data analysts at Twitter performed a five-week analysis of all tweets sent by members of Congress and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democratic member was viewed as compared to a tweet by a Republican member.

Different ways of understanding ‘algorithmic bias’

Additionally, perception of algorithmic bias may stem from the complex nature of the algorithms in question, said Francesca Tripodi, a sociology professor at James Madison University. Simple shifts in the phrasing of a Google search can dramatically change the results. For example, whether a user searches for “NFL ratings up” or “NFL ratings down,” they will find content to support their query.

“What we get from Google depends primarily on what we search, and depending on what we search, conservatism thrives online,” Tripodi said.

A simple search for a person or organization will usually return straightforward data about that person or organization. The first three Google search results for “PragerU,” a conservative organization that publishes educational content, are the main PragerU website, Twitter account, and YouTube channel.

Results becomes more complicated when websites and publications use search engine optimization tools to game the results. A search for “AOC,” referring to liberal congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, will return news results from primarily conservative publications, due to marketing strategies like the fact that Fox News uses “AOC” as a search tag 6.7 times more than MSNBC, Tripodi said.

Likewise, the top YouTube results for terms like “social justice” or “gender identity” are from conservative sources. If left on autoplay, the algorithm will not steer viewers to more liberal sources but rather play a steady stream of conservative views.

Some senators were simply not persuaded by these explanations about tagging and volume of content. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., for example, suggested that a truly neutral algorithm would simply promote all news results equally “whether the article be from the Huffington Post or Breitbart.”

Factors that get considered — and screened out — by search engines

But the reality is more complicated.

Google’s search engine analyzes more than 200 factors to decide which results to display and in what order. Among these are the number of links that come to a site, how fast the pages download, how recent the content is, how well the pages are linked internally, and so on.

Political ideology is not a factor, say Google officials. But publishing material that Google deems to be a conspiracy theory — or simply misleading and factually incorrect information — could lower a web site’s Google rankings.

Cruz pointed to the fact that some of PragerU’s videos are unavailable in YouTube’s restricted mode as proof that the platform discriminates against conservative media.

Both Cruz and PragerU co-founder Dennis Prager highlighted one video in particular that has been restricted, entitled “The Ten Commandments: What You Should Know.” This restriction is “so absurd as to be hilarious,” Prager said, adding that the “only possible explanation” was that Google disliked PragerU for being an influential conservative publication.

Another possible explanation is that the video contains depictions of violence and Nazi imagery, which fall under the category of “potentially objectionable content” that YouTube’s restricted mode is designed to screen.

(Screenshots from PragerU’s video.)

Restricted videos are only filtered out for the 1.5 percent of YouTube users that choose to watch in restricted mode, said Bhatia, emphasizing that every single PragerU video is available to the 98.5 percent of viewers who use the default settings.

“Those who want to profit from YouTube must adhere to their terms of service,” said Tripodi.

Moreover, only 23 percent of PragerU’s videos are restricted, said Hirono. By comparison, restrictions apply to 28 percent of the Huffington Post’s videos, 30 percent of the History Channel’s videos, 45 percent of the Daily Show’s videos, and 61 percent of progressive socialist-leaning group The Young Turks’ videos.

Senators call on Google to fix the ‘real problems’ with the platform

“Brow-beating the tech industry for a problem that does not exist also draws attention away from the real problems with Google and other tech companies,” Hirono said. “As long as we’re busy making Google defend itself from bogus claims of anti-conservative bias, it has no incentive to address these real issues.”

Twitter has avoided using the proactive, algorithmic approach it used to remove ISIS-related content to also rid the platform of white supremacist content because it is afraid that it might also catch content posted by Republican politicians, according to a report by Vice.

Hirono referenced these stories and more, arguing that “fears of being tarred as ‘biased’ have made tech companies hesitant to deal with the real problems of racist and harassing content on their platforms.”

The platform should instead be focusing on solving problem of metadata being used to amplify hate speech, pedophilia, conspiracy theories, and disinformation, Tripodi said.

Hirono agreed, citing a recent Wall Street Journal examination that found that videos with potentially lethal content such as anti-vaccination conspiracies or fake claims for cancer cures are often viewed millions of times.

Google should prioritize devoting resources to solving real issues like those uncovered by a June investigation from The New York Times, Hirono continued, which showed that YouTube’s recommendation engine served as a roadmap leading pedophiles to find videos of younger and younger girls.

Bhatia said that the platform is fixing these problems through improving its machine learning tools and that dramatic improvement is occurring as technology progresses. It’s a difficult process because of the enormous volume of content being constantly added to the site.

“You can’t simply unleash the monster and then say it’s too big to control,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “You have a moral responsibility, even if you have that legal protection,” he said, referring to Section 230 immunity.

(Photo of hearing by Emily McPhie.)

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Artificial Intelligence

AI Should Compliment and Not Replace Humans, Says Stanford Expert

AI that strictly imitates human behavior can make workers superfluous and concentrate power in the hands of employers.

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Photo of Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab, in January 2017 by Sandra Blaser used with permission

WASHINGTON, November 4, 2022 – Artificial intelligence should be developed primarily to augment the performance of, not replace, humans, said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Stanford Digital Economy Lab, at a Wednesday web event hosted by the Brookings Institution.

AI that complements human efforts can increase wages by driving up worker productivity, Brynjolfsson argued. AI that strictly imitates human behavior, he said, can make workers superfluous – thereby lowering the demand for workers and concentrating economic and political power in the hands of employers – in this case the owners of the AI.

“Complementarity (AI) implies that people remain indispensable for value creation and retain bargaining power in labor markets and in political decision-making,” he wrote in an essay earlier this year.

What’s more, designing AI to mimic existing human behaviors limits innovation, Brynjolfsson argued Wednesday.

“If you are simply taking what’s already being done and using a machine to replace what the human’s doing, that puts an upper bound on how good you can get,” he said. “The bigger value comes from creating an entirely new thing that never existed before.”

Brynjolfsson argued that AI should be crafted to reflect desired societal outcomes. “The tools we have now are more powerful than any we had before, which almost by definition means we have more power to change the world, to shape the world in different ways,” he said.

The AI Bill of Rights

In October, the White House released a blueprint for an “AI Bill of Rights.” The document condemned algorithmic discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or age and emphasized the importance of user privacy. It also endorsed system transparency with users and suggested the use of human alternatives to AI when feasible.

To fully align with the blueprint’s standards, Russell Wald, policy director for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, argued at a recent Brookings event that the nation must develop a larger AI workforce.

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Artificial Intelligence

Workforce Training Needed to Address Artificial Intelligence Bias, Researchers Suggest

Building on the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

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Russell Wald. Credit: Rod Searcey, Stanford Law School

WASHINGTON, October 24, 2022–To align with the newly released White House guide on artificial intelligence, Stanford University’s director of policy said at an October Brookings Institution event last week that there needs to be more social and technical workforce training to address artificial intelligence biases.

Released on October 4, the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights framework by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy is a guide for companies to follow five principles to ensure the protection of consumer rights from automated harm.

AI algorithms rely on learning the users behavior and disclosed information to customize services and advertising. Due to the nature of this process, algorithms carry the potential to send targeted information or enforce discriminatory eligibility practices based on race or class status, according to critics.

Risk mitigation, which prevents algorithm-based discrimination in AI technology is listed as an ‘expectation of an automated system’ under the “safe and effective systems” section of the White House framework.

Experts at the Brookings virtual event believe that workforce development is the starting point for professionals to learn how to identify risk and obtain the capacity to fulfill this need.

“We don’t have the talent available to do this type of investigative work,” Russell Wald, policy director for Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, said at the event.

“We just don’t have a trained workforce ready and so what we really need to do is. I think we should invest in the next generation now and start giving people tools and access and the ability to learn how to do this type of work.”

Nicol Turner-Lee, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed with Wald, recommending sociologists, philosophers and technologists get involved in the process of AI programming to align with algorithmic discrimination protections – another core principle of the framework.

Core principles and protections suggested in this framework would require lawmakers to create new policies or include them in current safety requirements or civil rights laws. Each principle includes three sections on principles, automated systems and practice by government entities.

In July, Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center of George Mason University stated that he is “a little skeptical that we should create a regulatory AI structure,” and instead proposed educating workers on how to set best practices for risk management, calling it an “educational institution approach.”

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Artificial Intelligence

Deepfakes Pose National Security Threat, Private Sector Tackles Issue

Content manipulation can include misinformation from authoritarian governments.

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Photo of Dana Roa of Adobe, Paul Lekas of Global Policy (left to right)

WASHINGTON, July 20, 2022 – Content manipulation techniques known as deepfakes are concerning policy makers and forcing the public and private sectors to work together to tackle the problem, a Center for Democracy and Technology event heard on Wednesday.

A deepfake is a technical method of generating synthetic media in which a person’s likeness is inserted into a photograph or video in such a way that creates the illusion that they were actually there. Policymakers are concerned that deepfakes could pose a threat to the country’s national security as the technology is being increasingly offered to the general population.

Deepfake concerns that policymakers have identified, said participants at Wednesday’s event, include misinformation from authoritarian governments, faked compromising and abusive images, and illegal profiting from faked celebrity content.

“We should not and cannot have our guard down in the cyberspace,” said Representative John Katko, R-NY, ranking member of House Committee on homeland security.

Adobe pitches technology to identify deepfakes

Software company Adobe released an open-source toolkit to counter deepfake concerns earlier this month, said Dana Rao, executive vice president of Adobe. The companies’ Content Credentials feature is a technology developed over three years that tracks changes made to images, videos, and audio recordings.

Content Credentials is now an opt-in feature in the company’s photo editing software Photoshop that it says will help establish credibility for creators by adding “robust, tamper-evident provenance data about how a piece of content was produced, edited, and published,” read the announcement.

Adobe’s Connect Authenticity Initiative project is dedicated to addressing problems establishing trust after the damage caused by deepfakes. “Once we stop believing in true things, I don’t know how we are going to be able to function in society,” said Rao. “We have to believe in something.”

As part of its initiative, Adobe is working with the public sector in supporting the Deepfake Task Force Act, which was introduced in August of 2021. If adopted, the bill would establish a National Deepfake and Digital task force comprised of members from the private sector, public sector, and academia to address disinformation.

For now, said Cailin Crockett, senior advisor to the White House Gender Policy Council, it is important to educate the public on the threat of disinformation.

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