Pluralistic: 11 Dec 2020

Today's links

Antitrust and Facebook's paid disinformation (permalink)

Facebook has just entered antitrust hell, as nearly every US state and the federal government have taken the giant company to court, asserting that the company used predatory acquisitions to achieve its monopoly.

But while we definitely need to pay close attention to the company's acquisitions, it's also worthwhile to look at the parts of its business it outsources – parts of the business that are key the safety of its users and its compliance with the law.

A new, engrossing, lengthy BuzzFeed article by Craig Silverman lays out a detailed case that Facebook systematically profits from disinformation: financial fraud, identity theft, dangerous scam products, and political disinformation.

Now, Facebook is HUGE, which means that it can't possibly perfectly police its sprawling self-serve ad platform, but what Silverman documents isn't cases that slip through the cracks: it's a deliberately constructed system designed to maximize profits from scam ads.

(And of course, no one came down off a mountain with two stone tablets reading THOU SHALT OPERATE A SELF-SERVE AD MARKET AT A SCALE THAT PRECLUDES POLICING THOSE ADS)

Silverman's reporting reveals the role that outsourcing plays in Facebook's ad negligence: the company hires third parties like Accenture, who, in turn, hire low-waged subcontractors to monitor its ads for ripoffs and disinformation.

This means that FB's moderation all takes place through multiple layers of indirection, so when an Accenture manager tells their subs to leave up ads bought by hacked accounts and FB can proclaim its innocence.

We don't get to look at the terms of the Accenture-FB deal to see whether FB provides incentives to tolerate fraud. We don't get to know whether moderators are being told to tolerate scams from China and Russia because FB wants the business or because Accenture went rogue.

So, back to antitrust. Facebook says that there's nothing wrong with buying up all the businesses that are adjacent to its core business – that acquiring everything from Whatsapp and Instagram to Oculus and Giphy produces "efficiencies" that benefit FB users.

But when you look at the parts of its business that it doesn't try to own, a different story emerges: FB's in-house divisions are the ones that generate lock-in and prevent competition; it outsources the parts that create negative externalities – that harm the rest of us.

In so doing, the company maintains two completely contradictory (and nakedly self-serving) positions: first, that it is a fantastic administrator that efficiently manages multiple, disparate businesses under a single roof, to the benefit of its customers and shareholders.

But also, Facebook's position is that essential business functions – like preventing repeat-offender predators from destroying the lives of its users – are literally impossible for it to integrate into its core business and has to be outsourced to specialists like Accenture.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Facebook has sustained global legal and reputational risks for the rampant paid fraud and disinformation its ad-targeting system enables. With every scandal, Facebook's crisis communications consisted of solemn promises to do better.

Inevitably, these promises are broken, and when they are, FB insists that it's just as shocked and disappointed as we are and swears it will launch a full investigation to prevent any more such lapses. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But it's actually worse than that. FB's paid disinformation scandals are just the problems that are so widespread they come to public attention – the tip of the paid disinfo iceberg. There's so much more that we don't ever learn about.

That's because FB doesn't want us to learn about it. Ad Observer is a project at NYU's Engineering school: it recruits FB users to run a plugin that makes copies of the ads FB shows them and then uploads them to a repository called Ad Observatory.

This, in turn, gets mined by academics, researchers and accountability journalists to discover and document FB's failures to live up to its own standards for fighting paid disinformation.

Naturally, FB threatened to sue them.

FB says it has to sue Ad Observer to protect its users' privacy (no, really), but FB's highly selective concern for its users' safety has an obvious pattern: the company protects users only when it is protecting its own ass; the rest of the time, it literally sells them out.

There've been reports that FB is dropping its legal threats against Ad Observer, but that's not quite true:

This morning, I heard from someone at the Mozilla Foundation who's working with the Ad Observer group who told me that FB has not even scheduled a meeting with the team, let alone informed them that it is rescinding its legal threat.

Daddy Daughter Xmas Podcast 2020 (permalink)

Every year since my daughter was four, we've recorded a Daddy Daughter Christmas Podcast. The tradition started when her nursery school closed a day before my wife's work, so I took the kid to my office for the day and we started fooling around with my mic.

At first we used to sing – Rudolph, Jingle Bells, etc – but over the last couple years she's partially or fully vetoed it. This year, my now twelve-year-old has completely refused any music interludes.

Instead, I've interviewed her about the stuff she likes and hates about 2020 and her Christmas plans, and then she delivers an extremely detailed and lucid tutorial on good horsewomanship, it's great!

If you want to listen to this year's episode, you can get it on my podcast feed:

Or download the MP3 directly:

The show notes have links to the previous seven instalments as well as the photos from years gone by:

A lethally boring story (permalink)

Here is a boring story that it literally murdering you.

It's about "pharmacy benefit managers," a phrase engineered to cause your eyes to glaze over.

PBMs are middle-men your employer pays to manage your medication. They decide which drugs your doctor can prescribe for you and negotiate the price that they'll pay drug companies and retailers for your meds.

But the largest PBMs are divisions of monopolistic insurers like CVS Health (CVS Caremark) Cigna (Express Scripts) and United Health (Optumrx). They have a conflict of interest, and a history of abusing patients by denying them med and/or charging vast co-pays to fill scrips.

In theory, 1974's Employee Retirement Income Security Act requires PBMs to be "fiduciaries" – legally obliged to act in your best interest. In exchange, ERISA bans states from meddling in PBM business, in the name of keeping administrative costs low.

Like many industrial regs, ERISA imposes a burden and offers a shield: act as a fiduciary and you escape a patchwork of 50 state-level regulations.

But like any monopolistic industry, PBMs have lots of money to spend to get right of the burden and keep the shield.

The largest PBMs have been busily fixing drug prices at sky-high rates and passing the costs on to employers and their employees. This is DEFINITELY not acting as a fiduciary!

When the people who can no longer afford their meds bring class-action suits, the PBMs cite ERISA's ban on state regulation and walk away.

Meanwhile, they argue that when they price-gouge on drugs, they're not engaged in the part of being a PBM that requires them to act as fiduciaries, and further, that almost nothing a PBM does is bound by fiduciary rules.

I am fully aware of how boring this is: words like "fiduciary" and acronyms like "PBM" and "ERISA" are eye-glazers without parallel. But the upshot is this: tails they win, heads you lose. And what you lose is the medication that keeps you alive.

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Pornoscanners trivially defeated by pancake-shaped explosives

#5yrsago What I told the kid who wanted to join the NSA

#5yrsago Ted Cruz campaign hires dirty data-miners who slurped up millions of Facebook users’ data

#5yrsago Harlem Cryptoparty: Crypto matters for #blacklivesmatter

#5yrsago Happy Birthday’s copyright status is finally, mysteriously settled

#1yrago Twitter wants to develop an open, decentralized, federated social media standard…and then join it

Colophon (permalink)

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Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 517 words (92561 total).

Currently reading: The City We Became, NK Jemisin

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