Facebook's former security head: making Facebook moderate content will cement its dominance

Alex Stamos stepped down as CSO for Facebook in August, after a career in which he rather fearlessly and bluntly warned about deficiencies in Facebook's security (this was totally in keeping with Stamos's character; he seems to have walked out on his job running security for Yahoo rather than building an NSA backdoor for them, making him something of a human warrant canary).

Stamos is now at Stanford's "Information Warfare group" where he's leading interdisciplinary teams "studying the misuse of technology" (they're producing some pretty alarming warnings).

In a wide-ranging interview with MIT Tech Review, Stamos talks about the problems of deputizing Facebook and the other platforms to police the speech that their users post, whether it be in the name of preventing harassment or hate-speech.

Stamos warns that these powers will not be exercised solely on behalf of good, legitimate states, but also on behalf of autocracies (according to Stamos, more than half of Facebook's users "live in either non-free countries or democracies without protection for speech"). But more importantly, when you put Facebook in charge of speech policing, you're saying "We want you to have more power to control what other people say and do."

Instead of giving Facebook more power, Stamos recommends other measures, like "advertising transparency" and federal legislation to limit ad targeting.

Stamos is skeptical of breaking up the platforms: he says smaller platforms are harder for states to monitor and lack the resources to effectively secure their users' data.

I take his point, but disagree. The reason Facebook has been politically permitted to behave so recklessly is that its size gives it political clout: if we want states to create the kinds of rules he advocates and enforce them, we need to make Facebook smaller so that it can't push its regulators around.

That said, there's a middle ground: mandating "data portability" so that users can leave Facebook and take their data with them, and eliminating Facebook's ability to use the law to prevent competitors from crawling Facebook on behalf of recently departed Facebook users who want to use a new service, but continuously import the messages waiting for them on Facebook while they wait for their friends to follow them to a rival platform.

Democrats are inevitably going to be more receptive than Republicans to these kinds of solutions. How do you make this nonpartisan?

The idea that election interference only helps Republicans is insane. The Russian playbook is out there. The weaknesses in our system have been demonstrated. We have signaled to our adversaries that they can interfere in our election and we will do nothing to really punish that.

So I would fully expect other adversaries to get involved in future elections. China, Iran, North Korea—the idea that all of these countries are going to support Republicans is ridiculous. So my message to Republicans is, "Let's fix this problem before you guys have to have your own 2016."

This discussion needs to move past Trump. Republicans end up with a brain freeze if you imply that Trump was not elected fair and square. So we just have to talk about the vulnerabilities and what possible impact it has in 2020. When I talk privately with Republicans they're much more receptive to this.

Facebook's ex security boss: Asking Big Tech to police hate speech is "a dangerous path" [Gideon Lichfield/MIT Tech Review]

(Image: Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY)

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