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pirate wires #35 // another day another tech hearing, the resurrection of jack dorsey, and a little hope for heroics
Thank you for coming, we hate you. Last week, Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai, and Jack Dorsey were once again dragged before Congress to be told by a handful of career politicians “we honestly just don’t like you.” The purpose of this most recent hearing was ostensibly to understand disinformation, but really it was called to provide an opportunity for politicians to performatively batter a few popular ‘Big Tech’ bogeymen, and to grandstand. Still, despite the best efforts of Congress, we did learn a couple of important things. In the first place, many of our political representatives are quite serious about drafting what sounds like extremely unconstitutional disinformation policy. In the second, Jack Dorsey is now publicly-committed to defending the open internet from both his own company, and the government. Is this all an act? I can’t see why. Under the microscope of an increasingly-hostile state there’s no reason an entirely self-interested CEO would tell Congress he believes it should be less powerful. To me, it really does seem Dorsey is committed to building his way out of the censorship problem with tools like Bluesky, a decentralized social media protocol. If true, he would make many enemies both in government and the more authoritarian corners of the press, and we would of course be forced to stan (cautiously).
Today, a recap of the hearing. Full video here:
The circus kicked off with opening statements from select representatives, and there became immediately apparent what would be the tenor of the hearing. Almost every comment, from every congressperson, fell into the category of “technology companies are actually quite evil,” though the sentiment came in a variety of flavors: tech CEOs are responsible for the riot at the capitol (obviously), tech CEOs are responsible for Americans hating each other, there is chaos, for which tech CEOs are responsible, and extremism, wow is there extremism!, and misinformation, and did I say chaos? The viral film Plandemic was cited as the reason Americans are refusing to vaccinate, which is for the record not a thing that is happening. Tech CEOs are responsible for genocide, I learned last week, and the age of “self-regulation” has come “to the end of its road” as, we would later be told explicitly, tech platforms have undermined “the very foundations of our Democracy.”
Mark, your response?
It was time for our CEOs to make their opening statements, and Zuckerberg responded sanely, soberly, respectfully: there are problems, he said, but our greatest problems are actually quite ancient, and the freedom to express ourselves is a core American value we have to protect. That having been said, Facebook is totally down for some light censorship on things like the virus and election integrity.
Sundar didn’t do much for me this hearing, but he did mumble through a few incredible pieces of information in his opening statement. On the topic of disinformation, politicians and journalists spend a lot of time focused on dramatic, outlier anecdotes. But some figures from Google I found shocking: YouTube users upload 500 new hours of video a minute, 15 percent of Google searches each day are new, and YouTube’s information panels on our election results have been viewed more than 8 billion times. How many times was our most hated example of evil pandemic misinformation, Plandemic, viewed? It was seen around 8 million times before it was nuked by tech executives. Meanwhile, Google’s vetted Covid-19 resources have been viewed 400 BILLION times. How, I wondered, is the scale at which companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter operate not a larger part of the disinformation story? But the truth is I didn’t have much time to think it over before my world was permanently altered by the apparition of Gandalf the Black.
Jack Dorsey video’d into the hearing with a freshly-shaven head, in what can only be described as a sharp and very rich guy suit, his golden nose ring glinting in the warm daylight of his office, and a Bitcoin BlockClock peaking out from behind him. It was as if he’d flown in directly from winter break in the world of Snow Crash. Or traveled back from the future with an urgent message for humanity. Roughly, my first sense of it all was this:
Jack appealed to Congress: “I hope we’ll talk about long-term solutions.” What he meant, and what he would hint at for the rest of the hearing, was Bluesky.
Long story short, we did not talk about long-term solutions.
In direct questioning, Mike Doyle immediately and stupidly opened by demanding our CEOs explain whether they think the Covid-19 vaccines work, thus betraying either total ignorance of the technology industry or a dedicated refusal to understand the culture of what is by all evidence the most important industry in America. Jack, our world-weary wizard, attempted the simplest of push backs: “why does this matter — ”
“Yes or NO,” asked Doyle.
Dorsey almost seemed to sigh, and then, with the audio equivalent of a teenaged eye-roll, and a kind of ‘here we go again’ vibe, “yes, [I believe the vaccines work], however that’s not the point.”
Doyle continued his line of attack after mentioning a handful of what he believed to be terrible sites and users, not by name, and certainly with no citations, thus ambiguously framing a question while demanding an immediate “yes or no” decision, a bad faith rhetorical tactic that would become the theme of the entire hearing. Will you delete these terrible sites and users you have never heard of, but that I have heard of, and that I promise are terrible?
Mark, politely: ???
Sundar, politely: ???
Jack, curtly: “we remove everything against our policy.”
Next up, Bob Latta, and roughly it was ‘let’s switch gears a bit, I’m going to tell you a story about a young girl who killed herself, which is your fault.’ But the congressman quickly pivoted to something not insane, and Zuckerberg had his first chance to answer one of his favorite questions: how should we regulate you?
Mark said he’d like to see large social media companies required to provide transparency reports explaining what kinds of harmful content are on their platforms. He summarized a few of the different (quite severe) types of harmful content, and stated plainly and smartly that the only reasonable legislative solution would be requiring large technology platforms to remove clearly illegal content. Implicitly, by the way, this would seem to defend our right to all other forms of speech, and places Zuckerberg clearly on the side of freedom, even with the entire Washington establishment now firmly wanting to destroy him. Respect.
Jan Schakowsky was up. Roughly: Mr. Zuckerberg, do you accept that Facebook is responsible for the capital riots? Yes or no? Mark saw things differently. Gus Bilirakis took his turn at bat. Roughly: Mr. Dorsey, surely you accept Twitter is creating child prostitutes and cop killers. Will you finally share information on law breakers with the authorities? Dorsey, I think genuinely confused, answered that his company already worked with authorities. Bilirakis doubled-down, and insisted they did not. Dorsey doubled-down, and once again, politely, rebuffed the accusation.
Bilirakis, really believing he was onto something here: "Will you commit to doing what I'm telling you you're not doing in the future." (A verbatim quote)
Jack: "...? We'll commit to doing what we're doing."
Then “yes or no,” Frank Pallone asked Zuckerberg: did you approve a proposal that reduced “efficacy” of removing “extremism” to 80%. Zuckerberg attempted to provide context to the confusing question, which was not allowed.
Cathy Rodgers: suicide is your fault. Bobby Rush: [mostly incoherent yelling], but also racism is your fault. Fred Upton: you realize both Republicans and Democrats hate you, yes? (Yes, we all realize this). Finally, Anna Eshoo brought us to the good stuff:
“Are you willing to completely ‘overhaul’ your ‘core recommendation engine,’” she asked Sundar, presumably to work her own worldview into America’s most important search engine. “YES OR NO?”
Sundar attempted to explain that Google already overhauled its recommendation engine. Eshoo, in total disbelief, asked if he was saying the “anti-defamation league, and all these journalists and researchers, don’t know what they’re talking about?” While everyone at home was shaking their head “yes,” a more polite Sundar simply asked if he could explain.
This is when Eshoo lost her mind, and literally said out loud she didn’t have time for explanations, which of course begs the question: what the hell is the purpose of these hearings?
Eshoo further characterized “explanations” of extremely complex, nuanced topics as “filibustering,” and turned to Mark. Your business model is explicitly the harvesting of money from human misery, she said, and also thanks for QAnon, and by the way we’re going to ban your current advertising model. You agree we should do this, yes?
Zuckerberg: [attempts to explain]. Eshoo: [performative fury]. Zuckerberg: [attempts meta comment on the importance of nuance]. Eshoo, tired of Zuckerberg’s ‘disrespect,’ turns to her next target: Mr. Dorsey, will you ban this tweet I don’t like? Yes or no?
Dorsey said he would not ban the Tweet that Eshoo didn’t like. Why? Because it didn’t violate his company’s policy.
Eshoo, who hates explanations, presumably now looking for one: “What kind of policy is this, a policy FOR misinformation?” (Another verbatim quote)
Dorsey, an actual king: “No.”
This is roughly around the time Jack started tweeting.
Because why not? Clearly none of this mattered.
Eventually, Kathy Castor asked each CEO if they’d seen The Social Dilemma.
Mark, politely: ‘I haven’t but I’m familiar.’
Sundar, politely: “I have.”
“And uh — ”
Jack, cutting in, disgusted: “No.” A pause, and then again, just absolutely repulsed by the question: “No.”
Castor made some reasonable points about social media’s tendency to make us all miserable, then raised the addiction question — is Twitter the new nicotine? In a world where congressional hearings were about understanding rather than grandstanding we might have spent a few hours drilling into these issues. But that’s not the world we live in. Castor more-or-less asked Zuckerberg how much money he made selling crack to children under the age of 13. Zuckerberg answered children aren’t allowed on Instagram. Castor countered: but "every parent knows their kids are on Instagram," even though they shouldn't be on Instagram. To which Zuckerberg, and every responsible parent on the planet, was just like: ??
It was Bill Johnson’s turn to beat the piñata. Porn! Civil War! Do you agree you are a drug dealer!
Zuckerberg and Dorsey: “No.”
Then Johnson asked each CEO if they believed they should be held accountable to Congress and the public. Zuckerberg and Sundar shared a confused sort of ‘We are? Which is why we’re here? At this absolute fucking circus?’ But Jack took a different approach.
“Yes,” he answered, “we should be accountable to the public.”
“I said accountable to Congress and the public,” said Johnson.
After a beat, “yes,” said Jack. But this was only after once against hinting at his commitment first and foremost to larger, more important ideals than obedience. Dorsey’s hermit shit is over, and the wizard didn’t come to play. Jack came to the hearing in order to speak simply, directly, and unapologetically on behalf of the single most important American ideal: freedom.
Johnson referred to this answer, and to the tenor of answers from our CEOs throughout the day, as smug. But how were the CEOs meant to answer questions like “do you agree you’re enabling child prostitution for money”? Yes, and thank you for the thoughtful query?
Jerry McNerney seemed to moderate his colleague’s brazen disrespect with an earnest thank you to the men on panel. He then asked one of the day’s few good questions: are we ever going to see any transparency into the 3rd party fact-checkers Facebook keeps referencing? Who are they? What are their guidelines? What is the review process for “untrue” material? I often wonder about the New York Post’s Hunter Biden story myself, which Facebook sent in for some mysterious truth review many months ago. Well, what’s the verdict? More importantly, who passed that verdict?
Zuckerberg skipped around the question, and McNerney switched gears. He asked if Zuckerberg would favor hypothetical legislation on disinformation and advertisements that struck me as almost certainly unconstitutional.
Zuckerberg and Dorsey: *confused silence* followed by: can we see it first?
McNerney: Cool, thanks for the support, we are definitely going to pass this bad law.
Driving forward the conversation on bad laws and legislation, Peter Welch asked if we should create a public Truth Committee (my verbiage). The false choice was thus: should decisions pertaining to disinformation be made by private companies or publicly elected officials?
Zuckerberg: Private companies should not make these decisions alone. Maybe a truth committee would help!
Sundar: A mix of the two perhaps, also this is hard.
Jack, eyes ablaze, suddenly alive, as if he’d been waiting to answer this question for three hours, as if he’d been waiting to answer this question for three decades, as if he’d come back in time specifically to answer this question:
The only really moving “question” of the day came from Tim Walberg, who did us the favor of not pretending he cared about answers and used his time almost entirely to monologue. He eloquently opened with “when both sides don’t like something it’s probably good,” implying the industry leaders were in an impossible situation, and were doing their best. He then thankfully asked the only question about censorship that ever matters: who will control this tool? Walberg quoted the Founding Fathers with “our constitution was meant for a moral people and can’t work with any other.” He argued that, actually, a lot of the cultural and social degradation we’re seeing in this country has nothing to do with the technology industry. He cited a failure of parents, of schools, and of churches. Finally, he asked: do you think you should be the arbiters of truth?
“I don’t think we should be the arbiters of truth,” said Dorsey, “and I don’t think the government should be either.”
There was more performance from Congress after this — more extremism, more capitol riots, more ‘you like pedophiles better than conservatives,’ and ‘actually you just like pedophiles,’ a little more ‘tech CEOs created racism,’ and ‘agreeing with my climate change opinions should be written into law’ — but Dorsey’s firm ‘no’ on truth arbitration is really, for me, where the hearing ended.
Earlier, when pressed on bullying, Zuckerberg said perhaps the most insightful thing of the day. Yes, he argued to Congress, all of this stuff is horrible, but none of it is illegal, and by the way your job is to make laws, so why are you asking me to do things not even you, a lawmaker, can or will? I always assumed the reason our politicians were attempting to bully tech leaders into censorship was specifically because politicians can’t legally cap free speech themselves. But by the end of this hearing, lawmakers were admitting interest in legislation on speech-related topics I once thought impossible. The problem, as should be obvious to everyone by now, is our political leaders aren’t opposed to Big Tech censorship, or even to disinformation. Our political leaders are mostly just opposed to themselves not having control over the censorship, and they only ever seem to call it “disinformation” when they disagree with the implied thrust of a given story. In every other case, it’s simply “news.” Our political culture has in some significant sense eroded to the point that the following, from a sitting United States Senator who just tried to be president, is no longer a massive scandal:
Newsflash: heckling senators is literally an inalienable right. This is the kind of freedom for which Americans used to sacrifice their lives.
For years now, I’ve expressed concern over an impulse towards censorship in tech, and industry leaders have indeed made many, many mistakes in this regard. Twitter has probably made the most. But after this hearing I remembered a small handful of ideologically-liberal (the real kind) technology executives and workers, despite their many faults, are still our best chance at preserving freedom in a world of ascendant authoritarianism.
Dorsey in particular came to the hearings with one goal: to make it clear, in the Gandalfian spirit of the One Ring, that the power to control speech is too great for anyone — is too great to exist.
He baited our congressmen multiple times, almost begging them to ask about Bluesky, which would at least in theory dramatically reduce the power of both Twitter and the government to censor. Think back to Jack’s last appearance in the hearings. He seemed tired, and dazed, with that incredible unkempt beard (before the shaping), and that wild uncut hair (before the shaving). It seemed to me back then that he’d been dragged from a dungeon at Twitter HQ, where some neon-haired HR executives were holding him hostage, and paraded before the world to weakly parrot talking points. But my sense today is he was likely just exhausted. If he really cares about keeping the internet free, this past year was probably even more alarming for him than the rest of us, and certainly more taxing. Jack knows he’s one of the few people actually empowered to protect the open internet, and now that the election is over he has a little breathing room. He’s flexing. You might even say he’s starting to believe that decentralizing social media, thus ensuring once and for all our inalienable freedoms, is shaping into something like his destiny.
Or maybe I’m just hoping.
Tech needs a new hero. Bezos is about to dip, and Zuckerberg is doing everything in his power to stem a federal dismantling of the industry. Elon’s taking us to Mars, and that’s a kind of spiritual direction I’m always here for, but we need someone focused on the fundamentals — will we be able to speak freely in ten years or not? Jack stepped into this hearing with his ruby-red censorship button and said: I don’t deserve this power, you don’t deserve this power, and I will do everything I can to make sure no one ever has this power again. Any questions?
There were none.
Dorsey’s performance was courageous, and if the rhetoric is real, if he’s truly focussed on protecting a free and open internet, it’s really worth pointing to — proudly — and saying “this is who we are.”
For now, I need to believe it’s real.
Link Library // March 30, 2021
Perfectly timed, Katherine Boyle published another banger this week. Check out her piece On Seriousness, in close alignment, I think, with our conversation on heroics.
One of the strangest aspects of this winter’s Capitol riot was the outsized prominence of esoteric faith by way of the "QAnon shaman," who believes he's a starseed. I wanted to know more about the movement, so I asked the incomparable Default Friend to enlighten me in a contributed piece for Pirate Wires.
DF also does great work over at her Substack, which you can find here.