Twitter’s ‘safety mode’ could shield politicians from harassment. It could also silence critics.

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Happy Tuesday! If you spent all of Monday talking to lawmakers about antitrust, perhaps even dressed as a billwe want to hear from you: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: The FBI’s social media monitoring raises surveillance concerns, and Trump’s social network runs into roadblocks. First up:

Twitter’s ‘safety mode’ could shield politicians from harassment. It could also silence critics.

For months, Twitter has been building out a new safety tool aimed at making it easier for users to tune out harassment, including by automatically blocking “uninvited” messages.

But the social network is still grappling with whether those protections should extend to politicians, who free speech advocates fear could use the features to silence critics.

The dynamic highlights a tricky trade-off for platforms: oftentimes the same tools that could be used to shield public officials from violent or hateful posts could serve to muzzle dissenting viewpoints.

The issue crystallized over the weekend after a prominent health-care activist, Laura Marstonreported being automatically blocked by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi‘s campaign account.

Marston had repeatedly tweeted at the account criticizing a House bill to cap the monthly cost of insulin. A spokesman for Pelosi’s campaign declined to comment.

New Republic writer Natalie Shure:

The move appeared to conflict with Twitter’s stated policies.

In September, Twitter announced it was testing a new “Safety Mode” that users could enable, which “temporarily blocks accounts for seven days for using potentially harmful language — such as insults or hateful remarks — or sending repetitive and uninvited replies or mentions.”

Article 19, a prominent digital rights group, called it “another step in the right direction towards making Twitter a safe place to participate in the public conversation without fear of abuse.”

At the time, spokesperson Trenton Kennedy told The Technology 202 that Twitter would initially be “excluding official political organizations, elected officials and political candidates” from using the feature, citing concerns about “the potential for silencing of counter-speech.”

Twitter spokesperson Tatiana Britt confirmed Monday that Pelosi’s campaign account was granted access to the feature “in error,” and that this access “has since been reversed.”

The company said its policy remains the same as it continues to test and expand who has access to the feature: that politicians and political groups won’t be allowed to use them.

“Throughout the beta, we’ll explore ways to evaluate the feature’s impact before making it available to everyone,” Britt said in a statement to The Technology 202.

Twitter’s “Safety Mode” rollout has revived the debate about whether public officials should be able to block users from seeing and reacting to their posts online.

Kate Ruanewho served as senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union at the time, told me in September that while the safety feature “could be a really good thing for most Twitter users,” public officials using it would raise concerns about citizens being cut off from information provided by their government leaders and unable to respond.

If politicians used the tools to block reactions to controversial decisions, she said, it “triggers constitutional scrutiny and is likely going to fail constitutional scrutiny.”

But online safety tools can be crucial for women and people of color, particularly those in the public sphere who often face a barrage of hateful and threatening messages online.

Free speech advocates have already notched major legal wins against politicians who block users. Most prominently, a federal judge ruled in 2018 that President donald trump violated the Constitution by blocking users on his personal Twitter account, which the judge ruled constituted a “designated public forum” protected under citizens’ First Amendment rights.

In Pelosi’s case, the account that automatically blocked users was a campaign account, not her official congressional account.

“It’s perfectly constitutional for candidates for office to use blocking tools while they’re campaigning, because campaign speech is not subject to First Amendment limitations,” Alex Abdolitigation director at the Knight First Amendment Institute, told me.

He added, “But it would be a shame if these tools were used not just to block harassment but to silence political disagreement.”

On the other hand, by blocking politicians from utilizing the new safety features, it leaves them exposed to more harassment and vitriol online.

Some studies have found that social media can be an especially hostile environment for women and people of color, and so government officials from those underrepresented groups may be particularly vulnerable to harassment without added safeguards.

While Twitter is standing pat on its policy for now, it notably has declined to say whether it will continue to exclude politicians from using the tools after it finishes testing them.

If Twitter reverses course, it could spawn more legal challenges against public officials that use the features. If it doesn’t, politicians will have one less way to try to escape harassment on the site.

FBI contract to monitor social media raises surveillance worries

The FBI’s new contract to purchase 5,000 licenses of Babel Street’s Babel X software is worth as much as $27 million and appears to be one of the largest contracts for the software by a civilian agency, Aaron Schaffer reports for The Cybersecurity 202.

It comes in the wake of criticism that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies didn’t catch on to social media posts that seemed to foreshadow the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol. While it’s not clear what exactly the contract entails, contracting documents provide a blueprint for the FBI’s aspirations for the technology. Critics of government surveillance say they raise red flags.

“It turns out that people dismissed as paranoid because they thought Big Brother was watching everything they say on social media were not paranoid after all,” said Greg Nojeima senior counsel and co-director at the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Security and Surveillance Project.

Lawmakers are already raising concernswith Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, telling Aaron that he wants an FBI briefing on the subject. The FBI, Babel Street and IT vendor Panamerica Computing didn’t respond to requests for comment about the contract.

Musk bought a major stake in Twitter. Current and former employees are fretting.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk bought a 9.2 percent stake in the social media giant, becoming its largest shareholder weeks after questioning the platform’s commitment to free speech, my colleagues Taylor Telford, Faiz Siddiqui and Elizabeth Dwoskin reported Monday. The move feels shock waves through the company.

“Musk’s surprise move sparked instant speculation among current and former employees that Twitter, which has been mired in management turmoil following a battle with activist shareholders and [former CEO Jack] Dorsey’s sudden departure last year, was on a path to become even more chaotic, according to people familiar with internal conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive matters,” according to the report.

They added, “Some worried that the freewheeling Musk, who has promoted misinformation about the coronavirus and decried ‘censorship,’ would push Twitter in a libertarian direction, away from blocking or restricting accounts that cause social harm.” Twitter declined to answer questions about Musk.

Trump’s Truth Social hits turbulence

Form president donald trump‘s Truth Social is showing signs of trouble.

The company’s chiefs of technology and product development in less than a year “have resigned their senior posts at a critical juncture for the company’s smartphone-app release plans, according to two sources familiar with the venture,” Reuters’ Helen Coster and Julia Love reported. And according to Politico’s Meridith McGraw and Emily Birnbauma third executive, chief legal officer Lori Heyer-Bednarhas also quit.

“Trump has been upset with the state of his social media venture, Truth Social, and is eyeing major shake-ups to the company, including positions on the board of Truth Social’s parent company, Trump Media and Technology Group,” according to Politico.

The company had said it planned to be fully operational by the end of March, but is still struggling with technical issues and a long waitlist of users unable to access the app.

Elon Musk to join Twitter’s board of directors, teases ‘significant improvements’ (CNBC)

Corporate responsibility NGO says encryption is good for human rights (Joseph Menn)

SEC head has four new questions about crypto (Axios)

Verizon unit TracFone reaches $13.4 mln US false claims settlement (Reuters)

Leaked: New Amazon Worker Chat App Would Ban Words Like “Union,” “Restrooms,” “Pay Raise,” and “Plantation” (Intercept)

Activision Blizzard employees walk out over lifting of vaccine mandate (Mike Hume and Shannon Liao)

An ex-cop fell for Alice. Then he fell for her $66 million crypto scam. (Jeremy B. Merrill and Steven Zeitchik)

Semantle is like the Dark Souls of Wordle (Tim Rizzo)

  • Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is adding Narda Jonesformerly of the White House, to her team as chief of staff, and Priscilla Delgado Argeris formerly of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, as chief adviser. Acting chief of staff, Travis Litmanwill soon be leaving.
  • Tech trade group NCTA has hired Kyle Dixonformerly of WarnerMedia; Jeff Freeland, formerly of the White House; and Becky Tangren, formerly of CableLabs; to its legal and government relations teams, and promoted Lee Friedman to deputy chief for federal legislative affairs.
  • Alex Bornyakovdeputy minister of digital transformation of Ukraine, join Cat Zakrzewski at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 9 am to discuss his country’s efforts to pressure tech companies to come to Ukraine’s aid.

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