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Google Seeks to Break Vicious Cycle of Online Slander

For many years, the vicious cycle has spun: Websites solicit lurid, unverified complaints about supposed cheaters, sexual predators, deadbeats and scammers. People slander their enemies. The anonymous posts appear high in Google results for the names of victims. Then the websites charge the victims thousands of dollars to take the posts down.

This circle of slander has been lucrative for the websites and associated middlemen — and devastating for victims. Now Google is trying to break the loop.

The company plans to change its search algorithm to prevent websites, which operate under domains like BadGirlReport.date and PredatorsAlert.us, from appearing in the list of results when someone searches for a person’s name.

Google also recently created a new concept it calls “known victims.” When people report to the company that they have been attacked on sites that charge to remove posts, Google will automatically suppress similar content when their names are searched for. “Known victims” also includes people whose nude photos have been published online without their consent, allowing them to request suppression of explicit results for their names.

The changes — some already made by Google and others planned for the coming months — are a response to recent New York Times articles documenting how the slander industry preys on victims with Google’s unwitting help.

Credit…David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

“I doubt it will be a perfect solution, certainly not right off the bat. But I think it really should have a significant and positive impact,” said David Graff, Google’s vice president for global policy and standards and trust and safety. “We can’t police the web, but we can be responsible citizens.”

That represents a momentous shift for victims of online slander. Google, which fields an estimated 90 percent of global online search, historically resisted having human judgment play a role in its search engine, although it has bowed to mounting pressure in recent years to fight misinformation and abuse appearing at the top of its results.

At first, Google’s founders saw its algorithm as an unbiased reflection of the internet itself. It used an analysis called PageRank, named after the co-founder Larry Page, to determine the worthiness of a website by evaluating how many other sites linked to it, as well as the quality of those other sites, based on how many sites linked to them.

The philosophy was, “We never touch search, no way no how. If we start touching search results, it’s a one-way ratchet to a curated internet and we’re no longer neutral,” said Danielle Citron, a law professor at the University of Virginia. A decade ago, Professor Citron pressured Google to block so-called revenge porn from coming up in a search of someone’s name. The company initially resisted.

Google articulated its hands-off view in a 2004 statement about why its search engine was surfacing anti-Semitic websites in response to searches for “Jew.”

“Our search results are generated completely objectively and are independent of the beliefs and preferences of those who work at Google,” the company said in the statement, which it deleted a decade later. “The only sites we omit are those we are legally compelled to remove or those maliciously attempting to manipulate our results.”

Google’s early interventions in its search results were limited to things like web spam and pirated movies and music, as required by copyright laws, as well as financially compromising information, such as Social Security numbers. Only recently has the company grudgingly played a more active role in cleaning up people’s search results.

The most notable instance came in 2014, when European courts established the “right to be forgotten.” Residents of the European Union can request that what they regard as inaccurate and irrelevant information about them be removed from search engines.

Google unsuccessfully fought the court ruling. The company said that its role was to make existing information accessible and that it wanted no part in regulating content that appeared in search results. Since the right was established, Google has been forced to remove millions of links from the search results of people’s names.

More pressure to change came after Donald J. Trump was elected president. After the election, one of the top Google search results for “final election vote count 2016” was a link to an article that wrongly stated that Mr. Trump, who won in the Electoral College, had also won the popular vote.

A few months later, Google announced an initiative to provide “algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content” in an effort to prevent intentionally misleading, false or offensive information from showing up in search results.

Around that time, Google’s antipathy toward engineering harassment out of its results began to soften.

The Wayback Machine’s archive of Google’s policies on removing items from search results captures the company’s evolution. First, Google was willing to disappear nude photos put online without the subject’s consent. Then it began delisting medical information. Next came fake pornography, followed by sites with “exploitative removal” policies and then so-called doxxing content, which Google defined as “exposing contact information with an intent to harm.”

The removal-request forms get millions of visits each year, according to Google, but many victims are unaware of their existence. That has allowed “reputation managers” and others to charge people for the removal of content from their results that they could request for free.

Pandu Nayak, the head of Google’s search quality team, said the company began fighting websites that charge people to remove slanderous content a few years ago, in response to the rise of a thriving industry that surfaced people’s mug shots and then charged for deletion.

Google started ranking such exploitative sites lower in its results, but the change didn’t help people who don’t have much information online. Because Google’s algorithm abhors a vacuum, posts accusing such people of being drug abusers or pedophiles could still appear prominently in their results.

Slander-peddling websites have relied on this feature. They wouldn’t be able to charge thousands of dollars to remove content if the posts weren’t damaging people’s reputations.

Mr. Nayak and Mr. Graff said Google was unaware of this problem until it was highlighted in The Times articles this year. They said that changes to Google’s algorithm and the creation of its “known victims” classification would help solve the problem. In particular, it will make it harder for sites to get traction on Google through one of their preferred methods: copying and reposting defamatory content from other sites.

Google has recently been testing the changes, with contractors doing side-by-side comparisons of the new and old search results.

The Times had previously compiled a list of 47,000 people who have been written about on the slander sites. In a search of a handful of people whose results were previously littered with slanderous posts, the changes Google has made were already detectable. For some, the posts had disappeared from their first page of results and their image results. For others, posts had mostly disappeared — save for one from a newly launched slander site called CheaterArchives.com.

CheaterArchives.com may illustrate the limits of Google’s new protections. Since it is fairly new, it is unlikely to have generated complaints from victims. Those complaints are one way Google finds slander sites. Also, CheaterArchives.com does not explicitly advertise the removal of posts as a service, potentially making it harder for victims to get it removed from their results.

The Google executives said the company was not motivated solely by sympathy for victims of online slander. Instead, it is part of Google’s longstanding efforts to combat sites that are trying to appear higher in the search engine’s results than they deserve.

“These sites are, frankly, gaming our system,” Mr. Graff said.

Still, Google’s move is likely to add to questions about the company’s effective monopoly over what information is and is not in the public domain. Indeed, that is part of the reason that Google has historically been so reluctant to intervene in individual search results.

“You should be able to find anything that’s legal to find,” said Daphne Keller, who was a lawyer at Google from 2004 to 2015, working on the search product team for part of that time, and is now at Stanford studying how platforms should be regulated. Google, she said, “is just flexing its own muscle and deciding what information should disappear.”

Ms. Keller wasn’t criticizing her former employer, but rather lamenting the fact that lawmakers and law enforcement authorities have largely ignored the slander industry and its extortionary practices, leaving Google to clean up the mess.

That Google can potentially solve this problem with a policy change and tweaks to its algorithm is “the upside of centralization,” said Ms. Citron, the University of Virginia professor who has argued that technology platforms have more power than governments to fight online abuse.

Professor Citron was impressed by Google’s changes, particularly the creation of the “known victims” designation. She said such victims are often posted about repeatedly, and sites compound the damage by scraping one another.

“I applaud their efforts,” she said. “Can they do better? Yes, they can.”

Aaron Krolik contributed reporting.

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Tecnologia

He Warned Apple About the Risks in China. Then They Became Reality.

In 2014, shortly after Mr. Guthrie left his job as dean of the George Washington University business school, Apple hired him to teach its managers and advise executives about China. He also conducted research, and his first project was the company’s supply chain. Mr. Guthrie, now 52, left Apple in 2019 and is a professor at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University.

When he started at Apple, Mr. Guthrie said, its executives knew they relied too much on China and wanted to diversify. India and Vietnam were the top candidates, but Mr. Guthrie concluded that neither was a viable replacement.

Vietnam’s government was cooperative, but the country simply did not have enough workers, he said. India had the people, but its bureaucracy made it complicated to build infrastructure and factories. Beyond those issues, most of the smaller suppliers that made Apple’s screws, circuit boards and other components were already concentrated in China.

Apple has still pushed into India and Vietnam in recent years, including by building a smaller iPhone assembly plant in India, but Tim Cook, the chief executive, has said publicly that its supply chain will remain centered in China.

To Mr. Guthrie, that stance left Apple vulnerable, especially as China’s new leader was looking for ways to use his influence over American companies in the country. In 2014, China’s so-called dispatch labor law went into effect, limiting the share of temporary workers in a company’s work force to 10 percent. From Day 1, Apple and its suppliers were in violation.

At a Foxconn plant in Zhengzhou, China, the world’s biggest iPhone factory, temporary workers made up as much as half of the work force, according to a report by China Labor Watch, an advocacy group. After the report, Apple confirmed that the factory broke the law.

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Tecnologia

Lina Khan Was One of Big Tech’s Biggest Critics. Now She’s Its Regulator.

WASHINGTON — One of Lina Khan’s first projects as a new staff member at an antitrust think tank in 2011 was researching the history of the market for books, which had increasingly been dominated by Amazon. It was an early, unpublished entry in a body of work that has since established her as a major critic of the tech giants and corporate concentration.

She spent the next 10 years honing her arguments, becoming a leading figure in a growing movement that calls for more aggressive policing of Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon.

Now she’s in a position to put those ideas into action — and in doing so, potentially reshape how the country regulates its biggest companies. On Tuesday Ms. Khan, 32, was sworn in as chair of the Federal Trade Commission after being appointed to the role by President Biden, the youngest in the agency’s history and its most progressive in at least a generation.

“She brings to the job what I would call the boldest vision for the agency in its history,” William Kovacic, a former chairman of the agency, said of her approach to competition law. “So in that respect, she is a potentially transformative figure.”

The question is how much she will be able to accomplish.

Her fast ascent from researcher to leader of a large federal agency underscores the growing concerns about the power of the big tech companies — and big business in general — in Washington. In her new job, she will command more than 1,000 investigators, lawyers and economists who are responsible for policing the American economy.

Her reach will extend far beyond the tech giants and the antitrust legal critiques where she made her name. The F.T.C. investigates unfair or deceptive practices by companies in addition to antitrust violations. This year alone, it has challenged the merger of two cement producers in Pennsylvania, cracked down on unsupported statements about treatments for Covid-19 and reached a deal with two liquor companies over a merger it said would hurt competition for cheap sparkling wine.

But Ms. Khan will also confront her share of limits. In order to create new rules or take major actions against companies, she will need to persuade at least two of the four other commissioners to agree with her. She will also need to make decisions that can hold up in the courts, which have tended to push back against aggressive antitrust enforcement.

“If you want your vision to endure,” Mr. Kovacic said, “you have to change law and policy, and you can’t do that by yourself.”

Ms. Khan did not comment for this article. In a statement on Tuesday, she said she looked forward to “working with my colleagues to protect the public from corporate abuse.”

Ms. Khan rose quickly to prominence. After a few years at the think tank in Washington — during which she wrote, among other things, about the failure to rein in concentration in chicken farming — she went to law school at Yale. While a student there, she wrote about how Amazon’s rise illustrated the need for a more muscular approach to regulating industry. The article turned her into a celebrity in the small world of antitrust law.

Ms. Khan then made stops in Washington that established her as a behind-the-scenes presence. She worked at the F.T.C., for the progressive commissioner Rohit Chopra, and on Capitol Hill, as a staff member for a sweeping investigation of Silicon Valley’s power. As lawmakers grilled the chief executives of the Big Tech companies, Ms. Khan sat behind them.

During that time, Ms. Khan rarely circulated among Washington’s politicians and policymakers at galas and other events. Her supporters say she is cerebral, calm under pressure and generally lacking the kind of visible ego that is endemic to Washington strivers.

“She is extremely humble,” said Sarah Miller, the director of the American Economic Liberties Project and a former co-worker of Ms. Khan’s who supports her approach to antitrust. “She is focused on ideas and strong arguments.”

But as chair of the F.T.C., she will most likely need to use the bully pulpit as one of her most powerful tools.

She will be the face of the agency, and of the country’s oversight of big business. She will represent the agency at congressional hearings and on panels and in speeches for the thousands of lawyers paid to defend clients in front of the F.T.C.

Leaders of the agency frequently use those public events to present their vision of antitrust and consumer protection law, making the case to the public and their colleagues on the commission.

Ms. Khan will also have more blunt instruments at her disposal. The agency can reject mergers or force companies to modify the terms of their acquisitions. In the past decade, the agency has approved numerous deals involving the tech giants, like Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods. It didn’t stand in the way of Facebook’s purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp. But Ms. Khan has already said she thinks regulators should scrutinize those types of transactions more closely.

The agency can also take companies to court for violating the law, as when it sued Facebook last year accusing it of abusing its monopoly power. It is able to make rules regarding what constitutes fair competition.

Ms. Khan is one of five commissioners, and one of three Democrats, giving her a working majority as she starts her new job. But Mr. Chopra has been nominated to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and his departure would deadlock the commission between the Democrats and its two Republicans until Mr. Biden can get a new member confirmed by the Senate.

She also faces other threats to her agenda. Whatever major moves she makes will most likely have to survive challenges in courtrooms dominated by conservative judges. This year, the Supreme Court unanimously limited the F.T.C.’s ability to claw back money from companies that deceive customers.

Critics say that the job of antitrust and consumer protection enforcer is to adhere to laws that already exist. Her reputation, however, is built on her criticism of the laws.

Robert Bork Jr., president of the Antitrust Education Project, a group that advocates for a traditional interpretation of antitrust law, wrote on Tuesday that Ms. Khan was a “celebrity scholar recasting antitrust law into a tool to enable government to control capitalism.” Mr. Bork is the son of Robert Bork, the legal scholar who championed much of the current antitrust doctrine that Ms. Khan criticizes.

Her skepticism of an antitrust theory known as the consumer welfare standard — the measure of competition based on whether prices for consumers rise — is dangerous, Mr. Bork warned.

“When standards are vague, and the law ambiguous, the Biden administration and its regulators will have the means to arbitrarily crack down on any business,” he said.

For now, though, her supporters are elated. Representative David Cicilline, the House Democrat whose investigation Ms. Khan worked on last year, said he believed her appointment was a change from decades during which the agency largely approved corporate concentration.

“I think we can expect a very different approach with this monopoly moment and the enormous market dominance of these technology firms with Lina Khan at the head of the F.T.C.,” he said at a Wednesday news conference.

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Tecnologia

Amazon Is Brilliant. Why Not at H.R.?

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it weekdays.

We’ve heard a lot of debate about whether work at an Amazon warehouse should be considered a good job or a bad one. My colleagues Jodi Kantor, Karen Weise and Grace Ashford spent months trying to answer a different question: How well does Amazon manage all those people?

What they found was that Amazon’s systems for mass-managing its hourly work force are strained and uneven, resulting in high turnover of employees. I encourage you to read their deeply reported investigation, which left me wondering whether Amazon’s handling of arguably its most important asset — its roughly one million employees in the United States, mostly hourly workers — is effective or sustainable for the company, let alone those people.

I spoke with Karen about what she and her colleagues learned, and where Amazon’s reputation for supreme efficiency is at odds with the chaos of managing its staff.

Shira: You found that Amazon had to replace more than the equivalent of its entire hourly work force in a single year. That is stunning. Is Amazon pushing them out or are they quitting?

Karen: Both. Amazon hires so many people, often with no in-person interview and little vetting, and it loses a significant number of workers within the first couple of weeks after they’re hired. We’ve heard of people walking out on their lunch break on their first day of orientation. That creates a tremendous amount of turnover and some chaos in the workplace.

We also wrote about an employee named Dayana Santos, who had been praised by managers and then was fired for one bad day when for various reasons she wasn’t consistently producing. She’s someone the company should have wanted to keep. Amazon has since changed the policy that led to her firing, but the example shows that the company has built systems that cannot always effectively assess who is a capable worker.

Is the high rate of employee turnover intentional?

David Niekerk, a former Amazon vice president who built the warehouse human resources operations, said that Jeff Bezos didn’t want lengthy tenure for hourly employees. Company data showed that employees became less engaged over time, and Amazon wanted people who would push to go above and beyond.

Maybe Amazon doesn’t want to have so many people leave every year, but changing that is not the No. 1 priority, either. Amazon churns through so many employees that I’ve heard numerous Amazon leaders in Seattle describe a nagging fear that the company will run out of Americans to hire.

What does Amazon say about this?

Amazon told us that the rate of attrition of workers is just one metric that isn’t relevant without context. The company didn’t elaborate. Company officials didn’t say that it is unacceptable to have 150 percent turnover in a year.

Let’s be real about the dollars and cents. Isn’t it costing Amazon a lot of money to replace so many people?

It is. And a crucial — maybe the most important — factor in Amazon’s future growth is not the success of futuristic inventions like delivery drones or home robots. It’s how effectively Amazon manages the people who pick, pack and ship all those boxes to our doors.

Tech companies talk about “moonshots,” or doing the seemingly impossible. With Alexa, the company started with a vague idea but put its best people on the project, set incredibly ambitious targets and figured it out. Some Amazon executives at the corporate level and those who oversee the warehouses are asking why managing more than one million humans hasn’t been that type of high priority moonshot.

Bezos wrote in April that he wanted Amazon to become “Earth’s best employer and Earth’s safest place to work.” What does he mean? And what actions is Amazon taking?

Amazon has talked about the safety part but not as much about the other half of Bezos’ statement. Being a great employer is about more than pay, although Amazon has increased hourly wages recently and is paying new-hire bonuses.

After we inquired about the company’s policies, Amazon also changed its use of a productivity metric that some workers said had been arbitrarily applied. Someone can no longer be fired for one bad day. (Amazon said it had been reconsidering the policy for months.)

Are there successful companies that manage hourly workers differently than Amazon?

Costco’s chief executive testified to Congress that its hourly workers tend to have long tenures. That’s a source of pride for Costco.

Walmart is often criticized for its labor practices and it generally pays less than Amazon, but it says that more than 75 percent of managers at its U.S. stores started as hourly employees. It’s extremely challenging to make that jump at Amazon.

Sam’s Club, which is part of Walmart, trains workers to do multiple jobs in a store. That’s partly to keep people feeling fresh in their jobs and learning new skills. Amazon warehouse employees might do the same type of work for 10-hour shifts every day.



  • Cyberattacks are on top of the foreign policy agenda: My colleague David E. Sanger explains why digital hacking was at the top of the agenda for President Biden’s meeting Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The “deterrents that kept an uneasy nuclear peace in the Cold War won’t work with digital threats,” David writes.

  • What happened when Nigeria banned Twitter: After the government suspended people’s ability to access Twitter this month, BuzzFeed News spoke to Nigerians who felt that they lost a lifeline to speak up, connect and organize protests against inequality and violence.

  • We are the gadget guinea pigs: Amazon experiments with selling devices to see how people respond to them, like Alexa eyeglasses and buttons to reorder items like toilet paper. My colleague Brian X. Chen writes about the benefits and risks of Amazon conducting its research and development on the public. (I wrote last month about the difference between worthy real-world tests of new products and reckless ones.)

Esme the cat is an adorable thief. A woman in Oregon put up a clothesline in her yard for her neighbors to retrieve gloves, masks, bathing suits and other items that Esme had cat-burglared from them.

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