When an Angry Old Pol Shakes His Fist at the Internet

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is not a Luddite. But that did not stop him from playing one in a Senate hearing yesterday.

In keeping with the old meme that congressional pols couldn’t find the on switch of a computer if their lives depended on it, he managed to ask a Facebook executive an unquestionably stupid question, just when we need lawmakers to stop asking Facebook executives unquestionably stupid questions.

“Will you commit to ending finsta?” he said.

For those who aren’t familiar with the word, it’s not a type of pasta. Finsta is slang for a secondary Instagram account created by someone — usually a young person — to share privately with only some friends (and perhaps not with parents).

“Finsta is one of your products or services. We’re not talking about Google or Apple — it’s Facebook, correct?” Blumenthal said to Antigone Davis, the global head of safety for the social media giant, which owns Instagram, who was appearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee on consumer protection.

“Finsta is slang for a type of account,” Davis replied, trying to help the 75-year-old.

But Blumenthal pressed on, in the dead serious tone of a clueless aged uncle and demanded: “Will you end that type of account?”

I think he was actually talking about fake accounts but became confused. Finstas are not fake, they’re just private.

“I’m not sure what you’re asking,” Davis said, looking perplexed, even over a virtual link.

Point for Facebook, which was a bad thing, since the hearing that was zeroing-in on Instagram’s toxic effect on teens, especially girls, was full of important exchanges.

And even Blumenthal had a good moment: He demonstrated Instagram’s laxness by creating a fake account for a fictional teen girl with an eating disorder that showed how quickly Instagram’s algorithms handed her piles of disturbing information.

The background here is that a whistle-blower had provided the Commerce Committee’s consumer-protection subcommittee a trove of devastating internal Facebook documents; these documents were also part of a Wall Street Journal investigation.

Davis wiggled out of the mess, using a typical Facebook tactic of saying that the company was misunderstood and that its own research was narrow and misconstrued. That cynical approach is a go-to for Facebook, which specializes in muddying even its own waters as they get too hot.

It will not work this time — despite the fact that Blumenthal’s gaffe has been something of a distraction. The company whistle-blower — a product manager, according to my sources — is expected to appear before Congress next week, representing a chink in the armor of tech companies, which spend a lot of money and time making sure that their staff is so well compensated (and fed) that they don’t question the deleterious impact of their work. The whistle-blower is also expected to appear on “60 Minutes” this Sunday.

I predict a flood of these kinds of leaks, as well as continued and now-bipartisan scrutiny by Congress on the practices of social media companies like Facebook. Lawmakers may seem dumb, but they’re not stupid, and they are primed to move to legislation that will eventually rein in tech.

Rather than focus on Blumenthal’s boneheaded finsta mistake, I’d look to someone like Senator Edward Markey of Massachusetts. He was a key player in passing the important Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998, and he used a metaphor that I wrote about in a previous newsletter that is starting to stick to Facebook in a bad way and that may ultimately help lead to more stringent legislation:

“Instagram is that first childhood cigarette meant to get teens hooked early. Exploiting the peer pressure of popularity and ultimately endangering their health. Facebook is just like Big Tobacco, pushing a product that they know is harmful to the health of young people, pushing it to them early. Also, Facebook can make money. IG stands for Instagram, but it also stands for ‘Insta-greed.’”

Finsta-confusion aside, Insta-greed is easy for anyone to understand.

It would be great if Facebook executives understood it, too. As I have pointed out over and over, the platform is so toxic because executives have failed to manage what they have wrought, not because of the stylings of some kind of cabal of tobacco executives, who I do think were truly without morals.

As Mike Masnick of Techdirt correctly wrote this week: “The issues, which become clear in all of this reporting, are not of a company that is nefariously run by evil geniuses toying with people’s minds (as some would have you believe). Nor is it incompetent buffoons careening human society into a ditch under a billboard screaming “MOAR ENGAGEMENT! MOAR CLICKS!” It seems pretty clear that they are decently smart, and decently competent people … who have ended up in an impossible situation and don’t recognize that they can’t solve it all alone.”

They can’t and, more important, they won’t have to soon enough.

A more perfect regulatory union

Speaking of regulation — which is going to be a major part of the narrative for tech over the next few years — the first meeting of the Trade and Technology Council this week was an important step forward. Formed in the summer by the United States and the European Union, the group met in Pittsburgh as part of an effort to coordinate on important tech issues and standards across an array of areas like artificial intelligence, data governance, cyberattacks and more.

While one of the world’s biggest tech powers, China, is not part of the effort, that country seemed to float over the proceedings, as we see from the tone of a joint statement from the E.U. and the U.S.: “We intend to cooperate on the development and deployment of new technologies in ways that reinforce our shared democratic values, including respect for universal human rights, advance our respective efforts to address the climate change crisis, and encourage compatible standards and regulations.” Take that, China.

Among the attendees was the high-profile Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission for a Europe Fit for the Digital Age. It’s a nifty name for a nifty regulator who has long been unfairly attacked by tech for her aggressive though reasonable attempts to rein in the industry. I interviewed her twice recently — earlier this year for my “Sway” podcast and also this week at a conference I run called Code.

She talked this week about a range of things, such as whether we need more app stores beyond Google and Apple (yes), the impact of the E.U.’s groundbreaking General Data Protection Regulation after five years (good, but could be bolder) and the prospects of any substantive regulation in the U.S. (a polite, we hope so).

My favorite exchange with her came at the start when I asked for her thoughts on Facebook’s plans, which the company paused this week, for Instagram Kids.

Her quick-witted reply: “Not for my kids.”

Podcast math

One of the most important things for the fast-growing podcast space — in which I have obvious interest, given I host two — is the ability to get good rankings and understand usage ever more clearly. It’s a good thing then that one of podcasting’s distribution kingpins, Apple, is starting to hone its sharing of information on user behavior.

For the first time, Apple released a list of top paid subscriptions and free channels worldwide, for the three months from June 15 through Sept. 15. It was three months ago that the tech giant debuted its Apple service to help podcasters monetize their work.

For paid subscription podcasts worldwide, at the top of the pile are Wondery Plus, a pioneering podcasting company that was bought by Amazon in a deal that was valued at $300 million, and Luminary, which has attracted $100 million in investment, including some from the former HBO chief Richard Plepler. Among the free channels, using a measurement of the number of unique devices playing an episode for at least one second, the top two were The New York Times, which has 26 shows including my own “Sway,” and audiochuck, maker of “Crime Junkie”and “Solvable.”

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