US Tech Companies Under Scrutiny in White House Russia Probe
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA — Inside a converted port terminal, thousands of tech entrepreneurs gathered this week to pitch their ideas at TechCrunch Disrupt, an annual event that focuses on emerging technologies.
But this is no ordinary time for the tech industry, which finds itself under increasing scrutiny from Washington over how Russia used social media to influence the U.S. elections.
This week, Facebook announced that it would give U.S. lawmakers access to ads linked to Russia that were placed on the site leading up to the 2016 presidential election.
"We are in a new world," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook live event on Thursday. "It is a new challenge for internet communities to deal with nation states attempting to subvert elections. But if that's what we must do, we are committed to rising to the occasion."
For the entrepreneurs at Disrupt, the tech industry's troubles in Washington seemed a sideshow to the technology they are working on.
Spurred on by their own sense of idealism, the startup founders said technology is mostly a force for good, connecting the world and helping information flow freely.
But concerns over how Russia has apparently exploited these modern tools of communication for propaganda gave some entrepreneurs pause. Can they control how their technology is used? Should the government provide more oversight?
Technology is "allowing people to have more freedom to create and more freedom to communicate," said Lachlan Phillips, whose company, AdRobot, helps businesses make video ads and distribute them on social media.
But he acknowledged that "a malevolent message might have been quiet in the past, and that can be quite loud now."
The traditional Silicon Valley view has long been that technology is just a tool, and that any problem caused by a new innovation would be solved by more technology.
That's what Amy Chen is betting on. She has created a site — 99 Voices — for users to rate businesses and political leaders. But she isn't sure that people aren't rigging the votes. Chen is hoping that making people register with a U.S. mobile phone number will help ensure who is on her site.
"I don't know if technology can solve this issue," she said. "It would be nice if each person gets one vote and one say, and that's the platform [on which] you can judge what is public opinion."
Dylan Sidoo's company, Disappears.com, focuses on encrypted messaging. Like SnapChat, his firm offers a messaging app called Vanish.
For Sidoo, communications security is a social good, even if some might use his service for nefarious purposes.
"People say there are drawbacks about this kind of security, that different personnel can use it for different things, maybe not the most positive things in the world," he said. "If the company has good intentions, initially, that's fine from there."
This week, Facebook also announced that it would add more humans to review its automated ad-buying process. Reports showed that some advertisers were able to target people who expressed anti-Jewish ideas.
Phillips, of AdRobot, said companies have a moral responsibility to know how their technology is used, something that computer algorithms, no matter how well designed, can't get right on their own.
"My belief is that we are still a human society," he said. "And we need that human layer to ensure that we are people talking to people."