The Technology 202: Facebook is still freezing all its political donations. Eventually, it may have to make a choice.

By contrast, in the wake of Jan. 6, Microsoft, Google and Amazon all eventually decided to suspend contributions just to members who voted against certifying the election results in favor of President Biden. Microsoft on Friday afternoon was the latest to announce such a policy, and it also said it would establish new Democracy Forward Initiative to support organizations that promote public transparency, campaign finance reform and voting rights. 

Facebook previously said it would continue this controversial pause until at least the end of the quarter as it reviews its processes. An indefinite suspension will likely prove untenable, as company critics noted it did for other companies. 

“Eventually you have to decide if you will continue to support members of Congress who tried to overturn the election or not,” tweeted Judd Legum, a former ThinkProgress editor-in-chief who now writes the Popular Information newsletter, after Microsoft’s decision. 

Facebook’s deliberations come at a particularly tense time for the company. 

It’s facing broad backlash from Republicans after its decision to indefinitely suspend former president Donald Trump’s accounts, preventing him from posting on its service. But at the same time, it’s facing backlash from Democrats for not doing enough to stamp out claims of election fraud and other disinformation during the 2020 election and its aftermath.

The moves underscore the heightened scrutiny over tech companies’ political spending. Tech companies’ long-standing PACs are increasingly controversial in politically polarized times. And the companies need to decide whether winning over politicians through contributions is worth alienating their largely left-leaning employee bases — who are increasingly speaking out when they disagree with their companies’ public policy decisions. 

Facebook’s PAC spent less in the 2020 election cycle than previous years, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The company spent $566,895, down from $675,630 in the 2016 election cycle. 

“These corporations are doing something very new, and something that could potentially alienate an important base for them,” Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a money-in-politics group, told my colleagues. “I’ve never heard of this happening before.”

The deliberations highlight a broader debate about the necessity of PACs in influencing the debate in Washington.

Some large companies in the industry don’t have PACs at all, completely sidestepping the controversy. Apple CEO Tim Cook argued during a 2019 interview that no company should. 

“I refuse to have one because it shouldn’t exist! I think the people that should be able to donate are people who can vote,” he said. 

Other tech companies that have stayed out of PACs say they’re now receiving calls from other businesses that want to know more about how that model works. Chris Padilla, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at IBM, recently received calls from other companies how IBM conducts government relations without a PAC, he told the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve never needed PAC checks to start productive relationships with policy makers,” Padilla told the Journal.

There’s precedent for companies to pull out of PACs altogether. 

Twitter last year shut down its corporate political action committee, and it donated the remaining funds to the NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that works for boost Latino participation in politics, and the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, which focuses on ending racial discrimination in athletics.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson said the PAC closed because it “is in line with our belief that political influence should be earned, not bought.”  

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Russian news outlets are promoting Moscow’s coronavirus vaccine on social media.

The Russian operation is targeting people in Spanish-language countries with a campaign that suggests Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine is safer than vaccines developed in the United States, the New York Times’s Sheera Frenkel, Maria Abi-Habib and Julian Barnes report

“Almost everything they are promoting about the vaccine is manipulated and put out without context,” Bret Schafer, a fellow with the Alliance for Securing Democracy, an advocacy group that tracks Russian disinformation, told the Times. “Every negative story or issue that has come out about a U.S.-made vaccine is amplified, while they flood the zone with any positive report about the Russian vaccine.”

Intelligence officials spotted an uptick in the Russian campaign after the Sputnik V vaccine was approved in August. The campaign has intensified since then, with the State Department saying that Russia is also “seeking to sow distrust” in the United States about other vaccines. 

Two of Latin America’s most influential social media accounts — for Russian news outlets Russia Today and Sputnik — have been involved in the campaign. RT told the Times that the posts highlighted by the newspaper were “a cherry-picked fraction of our coverage,” while Sputnik did not respond to the paper’s request for comment.

Senators unveiled a new bill to help users hold tech companies accountable for real-world harm. 

It would open the door for Internet users to file lawsuits over threatening posts, Tony Romm reports. The bill is the latest salvo from lawmakers over Section 230, a key Internet law that protects tech companies and other website operators from lawsuits for content moderation decisions.

The measure, known as the Safe Tech Act, would create a legal avenue for Internet users to seek court orders and file lawsuits if posts, photos and videos “threaten them personally with abuse, discrimination, harassment, the loss of life or other irreparable harm,” Tony reports. 

Calls to change the law intensified in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and increased attention on content moderation decisions by Facebook, Google, Twitter and other sites. 

The new bill, which was announced by Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), has critics, however. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a co-author of the original law, said in a statement that the “admirable goals” of the bill did not change the fact it threatened to “devastate every part of the open Internet, and cause massive collateral damage to online speech.”

“This bill would have the same effect as a full repeal of 230, but cause vastly more uncertainty and confusion, thanks to the tangle of new exceptions,” he said.

People in China say they can no longer access Clubhouse – after the app briefly evaded censorship. 

Clubhouse users in China reported the block in WeChat groups and discussed ways to get back onto the live audio app, which is surging in popularity, TechCrunch’s Darrell Etherington and Rita Liao report.

In the days before the ban, users flocked to the app because it was one of the few social networks where China’s strict Internet regulations weren’t being enforced. Chinese apps such as WeChat censor and block users critical of the country. Other social media networks — such as Twitter and Facebook — are banned altogether in China.

Before the ban, people in China were paying as much as $77 for invites to the audio social media app to listen in to discussions of hot topics such as Uighur detention camps in Xinjiang and Taiwan independence, the Financial Times’s Sun Yu reports

“Clubhouse is a very good communication platform,” Ruder Finn Managing Director Gao Ming said. “Too bad it is unlikely to have a bright future in China.”

Rant and rave

Reddit’s five-second-long Super Bowl ad made a splash. Recode’s Peter Kafka:

Times – and the tech industry – have changed since Tom Brady’s first Super Bowl:

Competition watch

Mentions

  • Pamela Karlan, who has been a member of Facebook’s oversight board, is joining the Justice Department as principal deputy assistant attorney general in the civil rights division. She resigned from her post at the independent organization.

Daybook

  • Mail-in balloting in Amazon’s first U.S. unionization vote in seven years begins today.
  • Twitter holds a call with investors to discuss its fourth quarter earnings.
  • Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) delivers a keynote address on the first day of the three-day virtual INCOMPAS communications and technology policy summit today at noon.
  • Acting Federal Trade Commission chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter delivers the keynote address at the virtual Privacy Papers for Policymakers Award event on Wednesday at 1 p.m.

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These “YouTube stars” joined “Saturday Night Live” to listen to some music for the first time:

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