With Facebook, Twitter in the Crosshairs of Investigators Probing Russian Interference, Let’s Consider The Risks of Applying Election Ad Rules to the Online World

  • Social media platforms are avenues for typical Americans—those without enough money to purchase expensive television or radio ads—to make their voices part of the national political dialogue. But with news that a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin maintained hundreds of Twitter accounts and purchased $100,000 worth of Facebook ads aimed at influencing American voters—and specifically targeting voters in swing states like Wisconsin and Michigan—these same social media companies are now at the center of a widening government investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

    This controversy has also sparked renewed calls for more government regulation of political ads on social media and other online platforms—including creating news rules for Internet ads that would mirror those the FEC and FCC currently apply to political ads on TV, cable, and radio. In the past, policymakers proposed essentially extending the broadcast rules to the Internet without adequately and thoughtfully considering the differences between the broadcast and online worlds. As a result, we argued for limiting the burden on online speakers from campaign finance regulations in both 2006 and 2014.

    We can’t emphasize enough what’s at stake here. Social media and digital communications have an enormous role in elections. On the whole, this is a good thing, because it creates many new avenues for Americans to communicate, share, participate, debate, and organize. Online speech rules must maintain our ability to speak out—anonymously if we choose—about candidates, elections, and issues. At the same time, American elections should be decided by Americans and not subject to foreign influence. The rules that surround our elections should be carefully created to protect American voters and not just at the moment of voting. Our right to participate and voice our opinions must not be compromised on the way to preventing foreign intervention in our elections.

    The Problems With Proposals to Blindly Apply Offline Regulation to Online Speech

    We’re still in the early stages of this latest round of policymaking. Before moving forward, regulators and lawmakers and the public need to consider the risks of applying election rules designed for broadcast to the Internet—along with the following basic and long-standing principles: enforce existing laws first, make sure that any applicable laws are tailored to the difference in size and resources of various speakers and platforms, and protect Americans’ right to participate in the public debate, including anonymously. EFF will evaluate any proposals to make sure they adhere to the following long-standing principles.

    1. It is already illegal for agents of foreign governments to buy electioneering ads. Stronger and speedier enforcement of existing laws is a better strategy than more regulation.

    Stronger enforcement of existing laws, supported by more funding and support for powerful and swift FEC enforcement efforts—including Department of Justice follow up with criminal charges for serious offenses—is the best first step for any Congressional action.

    The core concern driving the current proposals is election interference by foreign governments. Our existing election laws already prohibit foreign governments like Russia or their agents from purchasing campaign ads—online or offline—that directly advocate for or against a specific candidate. In addition, for 60 days prior to an election, foreign agents cannot even purchase ads that mention a candidate. Finally, the Foreign Agent Registration Act also requires information materials distributed by a foreign entity to contain a statement of attribution and copies must be filed with the U.S. Attorney General.

    Our election commissions, and possibly law enforcement, should already be looking deeply into potential violations of these laws during the 2016 election. Facebook and the other platforms should be cooperating with those investigations, as the law requires.

    Additionally, political campaigns are required to report their spending, yet that reporting often trails the actual purchases of ads for so long that the information is not helpful during the heat of the election. The penalties are also notoriously weak and slow, making too many of them merely afterthought for campaigns.

    We plainly need stronger enforcement of these laws, including both catching violations in time to block their influence and ensuring real consequences for those involved. It’s pretty clear that Russia doesn’t care that its interference with our elections is illegal, so it won’t care if it’s doubly illegal, but many of the agents who purchased these ads may be subject to U.S. enforcement actions. We may also need to consider how to make ad purchase information by campaigns more readily visible to the voters

    2. On the Internet, one size does not fit all.

    Don’t apply rules designed for large entities to smaller ones. Don’t apply rules based on high-cost advertising to low-cost advertising.

    One big difference between online and broadcast media: broadcast media is largely owned by a relatively few big companies. And while Facebook and Google are certainly large companies and there are several large ad placement firms online, the Internet is full of smaller platforms, websites, and blogs that have a range of sponsorship models. Applying FEC campaign finance rules designed for large companies to small platforms and individuals doesn’t make sense and can perversely further entrench the power of those large companies…

    The FEC’s campaign finance rules applicable to TV and radio advertising are based on the fact that these broadcast media utilize the scarce public spectrum. The rules are long, complex, and require significant paperwork and accounting structures, lawyers, and other significant resources. These rules make sense when applied to a handful of giant media companies that are already heavily regulated, that now control the vast majority of TV and radio in the United States, and that have the resources needed to handle onerous tracking and reporting requirements.1

    In addition, TV and radio ads with big reach are prohibitively expensive for small purchasers. Those with less than $500,000 to spend will probably find themselves shut out of all but the most obscure corners of TV and those with less than $100,000 will have a hard time purchasing national or even regional radio ads. This also helps keeps the universe of those who have to comply with the rules quite small and makes it less troubling that complying with the rules requires accounting structures, lawyers, and other significant resources.

    Of course the Internet also has gigantic corporate players—Google, Facebook, and even mid-sized companies like Twitter and Reddit that can likely handle the burden of reporting on major advertising purchases, whether singly or aggregated. Some of the big advertising networks may be able to do so, too.

    But the revolutionary thing about the Internet is that you don’t need millions of dollars to make your voice heard. The Internet has millions of small websites, podcasts, blogs, and other outlets where people can and do discuss elections and politics. Ordinary individuals without ready access to big cash can purchase Internet ads, and for little or no cost they can create YouTube videos and post banners on their personal websites to express support for particular candidates, parties, or issues. In this way, the Internet is less like radio and TV and more like print publications or even handbills—where there are many publications and the cost of ads are less.

    It is critical that any effort to consider applying the FEC’s offline rules to the online world <a name=“move368815466” id=“move368815466”></a>differentiate between big platforms, like Facebook and Google, and smaller ones, and between platforms and their users. A podcaster doesn’t have the resources of Apple even if her podcast is available from iTunes, and a Twitter personality doesn’t necessarily have the resources of Twitter even if she has hundreds of thousands of followers.

    The risk in not understanding the Internet landscape is serious. Extending the TV and radio election rules to small speakers and free and low-cost Internet speech will discourage these smaller entities from allowing or engaging in political expression at all. <a name=“move368816793” id=“move368816793”></a>If regulation is not done carefully, it could undermine one of the great gifts of the Internet—allowing those without great financial resources to make their voices heard about the candidates and issues they’re passionate about. This could also end up entrenching both large Internet companies and large broadcasters (most of whom operate online, too) even more than they already are.

    <a name=“move368817535” id=“move368817535”></a>3. Anonymity speech is critical for democracy.

    Regulations that infringe on anonymous speech will do more harm than good

    <a name=“move3688175351” id=“move3688175351”></a>Congress and regulators also need to consider the risks to privacy and anonymity of wholesale application of TV and radio disclosure rules to Internet ads and online speech. Anonymity is critical for democracy, as it’s a tool for those in the minority to safely voice their dissent. Speaking out on issues of public concern can be dangerous, and throughout our country’s history, speakers in favor of issues as wide-ranging as civil rights, reproductive rights, and religious freedom have all relied on their First Amendment right to speak anonymously in order to safely make their voices heard. Anonymous speech even played a key role in the founding of the United States: the authors of the Federalist Papers hid their identities for fear of retaliation. And courts have recognized that anonymous speech on the Internet “facilitates the rich, diverse, and far ranging exchange of ideas” and “can foster open communication and robust debate."

    Unfortunately, many initial suggestions about how to respond to and prevent Russian interference start from the premise that all speakers online must be positively identifiable. Some at the FEC argue that the identity of all who publish endorsements, even free ones, on a website must be made public. Such proposals would place an onerous burden on the small Internet publishers and platforms discussed above.

    Not only are proposals that unduly burden anonymous political speech unconstitutional, but they simply don’t work. Study after study has debunked the idea that forcibly identifying speakers is an effective strategy against those who spread bad information online. And Facebook has had a real name policy, requiring all users to use their real name, for years. It didn’t stop Russia. But it does hurt innocent people—including drag queens, LGBTQ people, Native Americans, survivors of domestic and sexual violence, political dissidents, sex workers, therapists, and doctors.

    Any rules aimed at protecting our election from foreign intervention should not infringe on the rights of Americans to engage in public debate without being forced to identify themselves or disclose other sensitive personal information.

    What Can Be Done?

    While blindly extending offline rules to the online environment is a dangerous course, there is much that can be done, especially by Internet companies. Here are a few ideas:

    1. Companies should do more to address malicious bots and other tools of channel flooding.

    One of the techniques that we’re hearing a lot about is the use of bots, fake online accounts programmed to post messages automatically and mimic a real person’s identity. Not all bots are bad, but they and similar tools can be used to manipulate public opinion by creating a sense of a mass movement where there is none. It’s suspected that Russia used this tactic to disrupt the 2016 election.

    The malicious use of bots is a problem that platforms can and should do more to address. Companies like Facebook already spend resources tracking bots when they involve spammers and other kinds of detrimental behaviors. While the problems are not identical, they share enough similar traits that the companies should be able to make progress through some concentrated effort to make locating and shutting down these strategies. Like many things, this will always be a cat and mouse game, but the companies can certainly better prioritize rooting out these malicious political bots, especially as an election approaches.

    2. Users deserve to know why they are being served certain ads.

    Another important way companies can step up right now is by being transparent about how they decide which ads to serve which users. Partly in response to a crowd-sourced campaign led by ProPublica, Facebook is taking some first steps in this direction. But the company has a long way to go. Facebook and other companies need to provide their users with real information—not vague policies or protocols—about why we are seeing the ads we are seeing. For election-related and political ads, arguing that ad placement processes and the tracking that underlies them are “proprietary” just doesn’t cut it anymore. If Facebook, Google and other companies want us to trust them to protect the democratic process going forward, they need to be transparent about how they are choosing the information they are feeding us.2

    3. ****Facebook and other companies need to allow independent auditing.

    To truly get to the bottom of things, we also need analysis by independent researchers—with no bottom line or corporate interest. Facebook, Google, and others should let truly independent researchers work with and audit their data. Right now, only Facebook has access to the data that can reveal exactly how Russian and other agents used the platform to spread divisive news, hoaxes, and misinformation—including how much of it there was, who created and read it, and how much influence it may have had. Facebook exercises complete control over independent researchers’ access to this data. There are of course serious privacy considerations that must be dealt with, but leaving the analysis to these locked-up platforms is what allowed Mark Zuckerberg to deny there was even a problem for ten whole months after the election. This is plainly not sufficient.

    Going Forward

    EFF will be evaluating proposals based on the principles and concerns noted above, and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the companies too.

    • 1. Roughly NBC/Universal, Comcast, NewsCorp. CBS, Disney, Time Warner, Cox, Clear Channel, Tribune Company, Gannett, Sinclair and Washington Post. See e.g. https://www.freepress.net/ownership/chart, http://www.businessinsider.com/these-6-corporations-control-90-of-the-media-in-america-2012-6.
    • 2. Facebook could even go a step further by doing two things: first, give users more power to avoid being tracked in the first place and second, open up the feed – let users have an API so that they can create and curate their own Newsfeeds, making it harder for foreign agents to simply buy ads on one or two platforms and thereby reach millions of Americans. We know these are not likely to be adopted by Facebook, but it’s important to keep in mind that the “total surveillance” business model of Facebook and its continued embraced of a closed ecosystem both contribute to the difficulty of solving these problems.


Tmux Commands

screen and tmux

A comparison of the features (or more-so just a table of notes for accessing some of those features) for GNU screen and BSD-licensed tmux.

The formatting here is simple enough to understand (I would hope). ^ means ctrl+, so ^x is ctrl+x. M- means meta (generally left-alt or escape)+, so M-x is left-alt+x

It should be noted that this is no where near a full feature-set of either group. This - being a cheat-sheet - is just to point out the most very basic features to get you on the road.

Trust the developers and manpage writers more than me. This document is originally from 2009 when tmux was still new - since then both of these programs have had many updates and features added (not all of which have been dutifully noted here).

Action tmux screen
start a new session tmux OR
tmux new OR
tmux new-session
re-attach a detached session tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
re-attach an attached session (detaching it from elsewhere) tmux attach -d OR
tmux attach-session -d
screen -dr
re-attach an attached session (keeping it attached elsewhere) tmux attach OR
tmux attach-session
screen -x
detach from currently attached session ^b d OR
^b :detach
^a ^d OR
^a :detach
rename-window to newname ^b , <newname> OR
^b :rename-window <newn>
^a A <newname>
list windows ^b w ^a w
list windows in chooseable menu ^a "
go to window # ^b # ^a #
go to last-active window ^b l ^a ^a
go to next window ^b n ^a n
go to previous window ^b p ^a p
see keybindings ^b ? ^a ?
list sessions ^b s OR
tmux ls OR
tmux list-sessions
screen -ls
toggle visual bell ^a ^g
create another window ^b c ^a c
exit current shell/window ^d ^d
split window/pane horizontally ^b " ^a S
split window/pane vertically ^b % ^a |
switch to other pane ^b o ^a <tab>
kill the current pane ^b x OR (logout/^D)
collapse the current pane/split (but leave processes running) ^a X
cycle location of panes ^b ^o
swap current pane with previous ^b {
swap current pane with next ^b }
show time ^b t
show numeric values of panes ^b q
toggle zoom-state of current pane (maximize/return current pane) ^b z
break the current pane out of its window (to form new window) ^b !
re-arrange current panels within same window (different layouts) ^b [space]
Kill the current window (and all panes within) ^b killw [target-window]
  • Criteo is an ad company. You may not have heard of them, but they do retargeting, the type of ads that pursue users across the web, beseeching them to purchase a product they once viewed or have already bought. To identify users across websites, Criteo relies on cross-site tracking using cookies and other methods to follow users as they browse. This has led them to try and circumvent the privacy features in Apple’s Safari browser which protects its users from such tracking. Despite this apparently antagonistic attitude towards user privacy, Criteo has also been whitelisted by the Acceptable Ads initiative. This means that their ads are unblocked by popular adblockers such as Adblock and Adblock Plus. Criteo pays Eyeo, the operator of Acceptable Ads, for this whitelisting and must comply with their format requirements. But this also means they can track any user of these adblockers who has not disabled Acceptable Ads, even if they have installed privacy tools such as EasyPrivacy with the intention of protecting themselves. EFF is concerned about Criteo’s continued anti-privacy actions and their continued inclusion in Acceptable Ads.

    Safari Shuts out Third Party Cookies…

    All popular browsers give users control over who gets to set cookies, but Safari is the only one that blocks third-party cookies (those set by a domain other than the site you are visiting) by default. (Safari’s choice is important because only 5-10% of users ever change default settings in software.) Criteo relies on third-party cookies. Since users have little reason to visit Criteo’s own website, the company gets its cookies onto users’ machines through its integration on many online retail websites. Safari’s cookie blocking is a major problem for Criteo, especially given the large and lucrative nature of iPhone’s user base. Rather than accept this, Criteo has repeatedly implemented ways to defeat Safari’s privacy protections.

    One workaround researchers detected Criteo using was to redirect users from sites where their service was present to their own. For example, if you visited wintercoats.com and clicked on a product category, you would be first diverted to criteo.com and then redirected to wintercoats.com/down-filled. Although imperceptible to the user, this detour was enough to persuade the browser that criteo.com is a site you chose to visit, and therefore a first party entitled to set a cookie rather than a third party. Criteo applied for a patent on this method in August 2013.

    …And Closes the Backdoor

    Last summer, however, Apple unveiled a new version of Safari with more sophisticated cookie handling—called Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP)—which killed off the redirect technique as a means to circumvent the cookie controls. The browser now analyzes if the user has engaged with a website in a meaningful way before allowing it to set a cookie. The announcement triggered panic among advertising companies, whose trade association, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, denounced the feature and rushed out technical recommendations to work around it. Obviously the level of user “interaction” with Criteo during the redirect described above fails ITP’s test, which meant Criteo was locked out again.

    It appears that Criteo’s response was to abandon cookies for Safari users and to generate a persistent identifier by piggybacking on a key user safety technology called HSTS. When a browser connects to a site via HTTPS (i.e. a site that supports encryption), the site can respond with an HTTP Strict Transport Security policy (HSTS), instructing the browser to only contact it using HTTPS. Without a HSTS policy, your browser might try to connect to the site over regular old unencrypted HTTP in the future—and thus be vulnerable to a downgrade attack. Criteo used HSTS to sneak data into the browser cache to produce an identifier it could use to recognize the individual’s browser and profile them. This approach relied on the fact that it is difficult to clear HSTS data in Safari, requiring the user to purge the cache entirely to delete the identifier. For EFF, it is especially worrisome that Criteo used a technique that pits privacy protection against user security interests by targeting HSTS. Use of this mechanism was documented by Gotham City Research, an investment firm who have bet against Criteo’s stock.

    In early December, Apple released an update to iOS and Safari which disabled Criteo’s ability to exploit HSTS. This led to Criteo revising down their revenue forecasts and a sharp fall in their share price.

    How is Criteo Acceptable Advertising”****?

    "… w__e sort of seek the consent of users, just like we had done before_."__1_ - Erich Eichmann, CEO Criteo

    _"Only users who don’t already have a Criteo identifier will see the header or footer, and it is displayed only once per device. Thanks to [the?] Criteo advertisers network, most of your users would have already accepted our services on the website of another of our partner. On average, only 5% of your users will see the headers or footers, and for those who do, the typical opt-out rate is less than .2%._" - Criteo Support Center

    Criteo styles itself as a leader in privacy practices, yet they have dedicated significant engineering resources to circumventing privacy tools. They claim to have obtained user consent to tracking based on a minimal warning delivered in what we believe to be a highly confusing context. When a user first visits a site containing Criteo’s script, they received a small notice stating, _"_Click any link to use Criteo’s cross-site tracking technology." If the user continues to use the site, they are deemed to have consented. Little wonder that Criteo can boast of a low opt-out rate to their clients.

    Due to their observed behaviour prior to the ITP episode, Criteo’s incorporation into the Acceptable Ads in December 2015 aroused criticism among users of ad blockers. We have written elsewhere about how Acceptable Ads creates a clash of interests between adblocking companies and their users, especially those concerned with their privacy. But Criteo’s participation in Acceptable Ads brings into focus the substantive problem with the program itself. The criteria for Acceptable Ads are concerned chiefly with format and aesthetic aspects (e.g. How big is the ad? How visually intrusive? Does it blink?) and excludes privacy concerns. Retargeting is unpopular and mocked by users, in part because it wears its creepy tracking practices on its sleeve. Our view is that Criteo’s bad behavior should exclude its products from being deemed “acceptable” in any way.

    The fact that the Acceptable Ads Initiative has approved Criteo’s user-tracking-by-misusing-security-features ads is indicative of the privacy problems we believe to be at the heart of the Acceptable Ads program. In March this year, Eyeo announced an Acceptable Ads Committee that will control the criteria for Acceptable Ads in the future. The Committee should start by instituting a rule which excludes companies that circumvent explicit privacy tools or exploit user security technologies for the purpose of tracking.

    1. http://criteo.investorroom.com/download/Transcript_Q3+2017+Earnings_EDITED.pdf


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  • Have you ever sent a motivational text to a friend? If you have, perhaps you tailored your message to an activity or location by saying “Good luck in the race!” or “Have fun in New York!” Now, imagine doing this automatically with a compuuuter. What a great invention. Actually, no. That’s not a good invention, it’s our latest Stupid Patent of the Month.

    U.S. Patent No. 9,069,648 is titled “Systems and methods for delivering activity based suggestive (ABS) messages.” The patent describes sending “motivational messages,” based “on the current or anticipated activity of the user,” to a “personal electronic device.” The patent provides examples such as sending the message “don’t give up” when the user is running up a hill. The examples aren’t limited to health or exercise. For example, the patent suggests sending messages like “do not fear” and “God is with you” when a “user enters a dangerous neighborhood.”

    The patent’s description of its invention is filled with silly, non-standard acronyms like ABS for “activity based suggestive” messages or EBIF for “electronic based intelligence function.” These silly acronyms create an illusion of complexity where plain, descriptive language would reveal the mundane nature of the supposed invention. For example, what the patent grandly calls EBIF appears to be nothing more than standard computer processing.

    The ’648 patent is owned by Motivational Health Messaging LLC. While this may be a new company, at least one of the people behind it has been involved in massive patent trolling campaigns before. And the two named inventors have both been inventors on patents that trolls have asserted hundreds of times. One is also an inventor listed on patents asserted by infamous patent troll Shipping and Transit LLC. The other named inventor is the inventor on the patents asserted by Electronic Communication Technologies LLC. Those two entities (with their predecessors) brought over 700 lawsuits, many against very small businesses. In other words, the ’648 patent has been issued to Troll Co. at 1 Troll Street, Troll Town, Trollida USA.

    We believe that the claims of the ’648 patent are clearly invalid under the Supreme Court’s decision in Alice v. CLS Bank, which held abstract ideas do not become eligible for a patent merely because they are implemented in conventional computer technology. Indeed, the patent repeatedly emphasizes that the claimed methods are not tied to any particular hardware or software. For example, it states:

    The software and software logic described in this document … which comprises an ordered listing of executable instructions for implementing logical functions, can be embodied in any non-transitory computer-readable medium for use by or in connection with an instruction execution system, apparatus, or device, such as a computer-based system, processor-containing system, or other system that can fetch the instructions from the instruction execution system, apparatus, or device and execute the instructions.

    The ’648 patent issued on June 30, 2015, a full year after the Supreme Court’s Alice ruling. Despite this, the patent examiner never even discussed the decision. If Alice is to mean anything at all, it has to be applied to an application like this one.

    In our view, if Motivational Health Messaging asserts its patent in court, any defendant that fought back should prevail under Alice. Indeed, we would hope that the court would strongly consider awarding attorney’s fees to the defendant in such a case. Shipping & Transit has now had two fee awards made against it for asserting patents that are clearly invalid under Alice. And the Federal Circuit recently held that fee awards can be appropriate when patent owners make objectively unreasonable argument concerning Alice.

    In addition to the problems under Alice, we believe the claims of the ’648 patent should have been rejected as obvious. When the application was filed in 2012, there was nothing new about sending motivational messages or automatically tailoring messages to things like location. In one proposed embodiment, the patent suggests that a “user walking to a hole may be delivered ABS messages, including reminders or instructions on how to play a particular hole.” But golf apps were already doing this. The Patent Office didn’t consider any real-world mobile phone applications when reviewing the application.

    If you want to look for prior art yourself, Unified Patents is running a crowdsourcing contest to find the best prior art to invalidate the ’648 patent. Aside from the warm feelings that come from fighting patent trolls, there is a $2000 prize pool.

    Despite the weakness of its patent, Motivational Health Messaging LLC might still send out demand letters. If you receive such a letter, you can contact EFF and we can help you find counsel.

    We have long complained that the Patent Office promotes patent trolling by granting obvious and/or abstract software patents. The history of the ’648 patent shows how the Patent Office’s failure to properly review applications leads to bad patents falling into the hands of trolls.

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