with Tonya Riley

Former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer is no stranger to regulation. 

Ballmer led the Washington state software giant from 2000 to 2014, steering the company through years of antitrust battles. 

And now he still has a foot in the political world through his nonpartisan nonprofit group, USAFacts. The organization aims to make government data available so Americans can form their own positions on policy issues by accessing everything from the amount of covid cases by county to the number of visas granted last year.

The group's mission has taken on a new level of significance since the 2016 election, with fake news and “alternate facts” frequently in the headlines. The organization recently launched a $10 million campaign, which has been running ads during the presidential debates to encourage voters to “find the nonpartisan facts behind the real stories.”


Steve Ballmer, founder of USA Facts, talks during an interview (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

We recently spoke about that work and some of the top regulatory issues facing the tech industry. Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity.  

Obviously you had a lot of experience with antitrust at Microsoft, and the Department of Justice just brought an antitrust case against Google. Do you have any advice for Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai?

Whatever youre going to do, wherever youre willing to do, whatever you think is going to be done with you and to you, its better to be done sooner than later.

Part of the issue in this antitrust world to me is you could do something to the company that seems perfectly fair, rational, reasonable and appropriate under the law. And if youve done a lot, if you do it all very well and you wind up in a position that later gets deemed a monopoly, people might tell you that that action that you engaged in that was reasonable and right is no longer okay because you have been deemed to be a monopoly. [Google will] have to decide how much they want to get stuck on the reasonableness of their action, how much theyre willing to really negotiate. Certainly my view is better to resolve these things quicker than slower, even if what you agreed to you dont necessarily think its fair. 

If its going to wind up being the resolution anyway, youre better off getting there quickly. I would say that that would be my learning from our activities. There was an earlier [Federal  Trade Commission] investigation into us starting in the early 90s, then the antitrust case in the late 90s. I don't think we wrapped things up with the European Commission until the late 2000s. There had to be a better way. 

Have the stakes changed for USAFacts, given the unique challenges with this election cycle?

The numbers we present are all government numbers. I trust in our statistical agencies. 

With the pandemic and our economy changing in real time, as things fly around, we need to anchor back in the data. And Id say that to all politicians running for any office here in 2020. 

Is it more important? Yeah, I think it probably is more important. But the thing I want to emphasize is this kind of data, this kind of information is always important. Its importance is highlighted by the current sort of wild state of affairs. 

Now that we’re several months into the pandemic, how has USAFacts had to evolve to address this crisis??

We were agile and said, Look let’s get all of the data we can get that’s relevant to this in keeping people educated. The first obvious thing to go look at is covid cases and covid deaths. You think that would be straightforward, and while there is government data, it is collected county by county. What we found early on was nobody was assembling the county-wide data into an integrated picture. So we wrote some programs to scoop up county data. We actually have a few people make phone calls also every day to get county data from some counties that you cant scoop things up electronically. And we assemble that into a daily update by county of covid cases and deaths. In fact, we were first, quickest and most reliable to do that. So the [Centers for Disease Control] has been using our data collection pipeline and has, in fact, been referring people off the CDC website to us. 

And then we said this pandemic is about two things: it’s about health and it’s about the economy. So we put together a covid-19 impact and recovery hub … And you can click on this report on our home page and immediately [see] cases and deaths by geography, unemployment claims by state and national, air travel passengers, retail sales, household spending, personal income, food scarcity, housing scarcity. What is going on? These are all numbers that are changing in real time. 

Do you think the facts are able to get the same engagement from users as some of the more viral misinformation or even exaggerated claims we see often circulating on social media??

No. People who want to get followings want to be completely provocative. They want to make emotional, exaggerated statements. Things that are truthful, and that often times they dont feed an extreme narrative on either side, are almost harder to get people to get excited about. 

If youre a partisan, and you are not open-minded, you will rally to what Ill call the extreme extreme cry and not the truthful and maybe less emotional reality. 

Do you think the social media companies themselves need to make changes so that truth and unemotional reality can break through??

I don’t think social media companies can control human emotion. If people dont want to hear about the nuance, theyre not going to hear about it. 

But policing that is different than policing hate speech or some of these other more extreme forms of outlandish behavior.

But do you think they need to make changes to address misinformation and disinformation?

Theyre going to have to get their technology to work harder, and theyre going to have to engage with the regulators to really decide what is it that society really wants them to do. To what degree do they want these guys to block expression? To what degree do they want to have them post related data? To what degree do they want to ban certain stuff? To what degree does that only need to be on people that have a lot of followers? To what degree do they need to have really smart technology that might find some things, but it might also make some mistakes as it screens through what to comment on? 

These are very tough challenges, and trying to to write them down will be hard. Itll be hard for the companies and the regulators. And I think they need to engage. I also think this is probably stuff thats better done with regulatory bodies than is done with the legislature because laws are sort of a blunt object. 

A lot of this stuff will need to be figured out with people who are chartered by our citizens and really get the nuances of these issues that these companies would face. 

Is it time to change Section 230?

Possibly, but if you modify it the wrong way, you could shut down all expression, too. If you were to rewrite 230 [which shields tech companies from lawsuits for the posts people share on their services] in the wrong way, all of a sudden social media companies would probably have to sort of shut down a lot of expression, perfectly fine and reasonable expression.

You cant go to its blanket, not okay, because then you run into freedom of speech issues. And yet we know the way things are today is also not okay. 

Our top tabs

The U.S. government says Iran was behind threatening emails sent to Democrats in swing states.?

Iranian actors allegedly used a vulnerability in the online network of the Proud Boys, a pro-Trump far-right group, to send emails threatening voters in swing states who did not vote for Trump, Ellen Nakashima, Amy Gardner, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Craig Timberg report

The emails claimed that the Proud Boys had access to privileged voter information, stoking concerns of an election breach. 

“We have already seen Iran sending spoofed emails designed to intimidate voters, incite social unrest and damage president Trump, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe said during a news conference.

Iran used voter files, some of which are public, to run the campaign, U.S. officials said. Iran is also spreading a video that implies that individuals can cast fraudulent ballots even from overseas, which Ratcliffe debunked.

Russia has also accessed voter files, the FBI confirmed, but so far there’s no evidence that Russian actors have launched similar campaigns to shake voter confidence.

Intelligence officials are warning voters to be cautious about believing or spreading unverified reports.

Since 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies have taken significant steps to protect the 2020 election from Russian and other foreign interference. Cybercom and the NSA recently have taken actions against Russia’s top spy agency and a botnet run by Russian-speaking criminals that could have been deployed to slow down election infrastructure. The agencies have also worked with social media companies to take down foreign influence campaigns before they go viral.

Tesla is forging ahead with its “Full Self-Driving” program despite concerns from safety advocates.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Aly Song/Reuters)

A group of drivers was selected this week to pilot the new software, which will allow vehicles to steer and accelerate without human touch, Faiz Siddiqui reports. The software could roll out to hundreds of thousands more users as soon as this year, Tesla says. 

But the decision sparked concerns from an industry coalition consisting of competitors Cruise, Uber, Waymo and others, which said that vehicles were not truly autonomous and the exaggeration could create danger for drivers. 

Most of Tesla’s rivals have embraced a technology called lidar sensors, which can detect the size and shape of objects around the car. While many experts consider the technology essential to driverless cars, Musk has criticized the technology as “a fool’s errand.”

Musk says the eight cameras on Tesla cars replicate lidar’s ability to see what’s happening around the car, essentially a virtual lidar. That approach may work in ideal conditions but could prove less functional in bad weather, experts say.

“Just from my experience, cameras are very dependable, but at the same time there can be a challenge when there’s harsh conditions,” said Eshak Mir, a former Tesla Autopilot engineer who reviewed and worked with data aimed at training Tesla’s neural network.

Tesla has said it wont move ahead with fully driverless cars without government approval, but its unclear what that would look like. Tesla is under investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for more than a dozen incidents involving the Autopilot software. 

At least 49 of the 50 largest U.S. police departments have tools to extract data from encrypted phones. ?

(Chris Goodney/Bloomberg News)

The ubiquity of the technology hampers arguments from law enforcement officials — including at the Justice Department — that they are unable to catch criminals unless tech companies provide them a back door, the New York Times’s Jack Nicas reports. At least 2,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide have access to the tools, public records requested by the Washington nonprofit Upturn found.

But law enforcement officials argue that the tools don’t work in every case, and the process can be expensive and time-consuming. Records from Upturn show law enforcement agencies, ranging from the biggest in the nation to small local departments, have spent tens of millions of dollars on the tools in recent years. 

Advocates are concerned about the lack of regulation around the tools. Of 110 agencies contacted by Upturn, only 10 had clear restrictions for how data accessed through the encryption hacking tools could be used. 

“They’re getting a window into your soul; it’s all of your contacts, your text messages, your entire location history, potentially embarrassing pictures, your account credentials,” said Logan Koepke, the lead author of the Upturn report. “We are placing in the hands of law enforcement something that I think is a dangerous expansion of their investigatory power.” 

Rant and rave

Streaming service Quibi is shutting down after just six months, the Wall Street Journal reported. Twitter bid farewell to the short-lived project.

This isn’t the first time that CEO Meg Whitman, who is supposedly being considered for a possible Biden administration Cabinet position, has had an expensive failure.

We’ve seen this medium come and go before.

But not all is lost:

Workforce report

Opponents of California’s Proposition 22 accuse the group backing the initiative of abusing its nonprofit status for postal discounts.?

A driver in Oakland holds a sign supporting a no vote on Proposition 22 in Oakland. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The “No On Prop 22” campaign sent a letter to U.S.  Postmaster General Louis DeJoy asking him to revoke a license granted to “Yes on 22,” the group funding the ballot initiative, saving them roughly $1.5 million in postage for mailers in support of the ballot initiative. It also wants "Yes on 22: to pay back the taxpayer-subsidized savings.

Proposition 22, which is backed by gig economy companies including Uber and Lyft, would exclude workers for the companies from a California law that reclassifies some contractors as employees.

“This is just more evidence of the kind of greed we are dealing with from these companies who are spending $186 million in their selfish quest to buy themselves a new law but refused to buy their workers PPE in a pandemic, Mike Roth, campaign spokesperson for the No On Prop 22 campaign, said in a statement.

Geoff Vetter, a spokesperson for the “Yes on 22” campaign, says it followed the rules.

“The Postal Service has a long-term policy in place of allowing the ballot measure committee of a duly authorized nonprofit to mail under the nonprofit’s authorization,” he said in a statement. “Our applications were reviewed and approved by both the IRS and the Postal Service.”

Vetter cited previous ballot measures that used the nonprofit postage, including one that Lance Olson, the lawyer who sent the complaint on behalf of “No on 22,” provided legal services for.

The Postal Service did not immediately comment. 

More workforce news:

Microsoft Shows Minimal Increases in Ranks of Black, Latino Employees (Bloomberg)

Trending

What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life? (The Atlantic)

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will discuss Section 230 at a business meeting today to modify the scope of protection from civil liability for “good Samaritan” blocking and screening of offensive material.
  • The Technology Policy Institute Aspen Forum will take place through Friday.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Section 230 with the CEOs of Twitter, Alphabet and Facebook on Oct. 28 at 10 a.m.

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