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The government is putting pressure on technology behind the scenes, a former Facebook employee says. It is called jaw ossification.

This is what government officials on both sides are known to do, the so-called jaw-dropping of pressuring tech platforms to do their will. But the line between persuasion, coercion, and even censorship can become blurred.

The Supreme Court last week heard arguments from two states that argued President Joe Biden’s administration illegally forced social media companies to block conservative content. Matt Perrault, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Technology Policy, said his previous job in policy at Facebook was a constant occurrence of jaw-dropping. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation with Marketplace’s Lily Jamali.

Matt Perrault: Therefore, there is a lot of educational and informational communication between technology platforms and governments. And I think that’s mostly a positive thing. And I think most people think that’s on the side of what’s permissible under the Constitution. The question is when do we move from education, information, advice and persuasion to coercion? And I think that’s the root of the question about this case.

Lily Jamari: As you said, you spent nearly 10 years on Facebook’s policy development team. And you spoke quite candidly about how you were “repeatedly and routinely” beaten in the jaw by the government while you were there. Why? What examples do you remember?

Perrault: Yes, that was every day. It was Republican and Democratic. It wasn’t just the US government, it was foreign governments as well. So in a post that Katie Harvath, who used to work at Facebook, and I wrote for the Knight First Amendment Institute, we highlighted a few different examples. One of these involved the direct use of data by campaigns to segment voters. That data is then uploaded to platforms like Facebook through a tool called Custom Audiences, where advertisers can use it for targeting. Katie says she was told by a lawmaker’s office that they really wanted to ban the practice. So they wanted to put pressure on technology companies to ban the use of such tools. There are also other cases where there was a lot of back and forth. [Democratic U.S. Rep. and former House Speaker] The platform associated with Nancy Pelosi and the video in which she appears to be intoxicated and that video was manipulated. And there’s been a lot of pressure on how companies handle that content. Facebook continued to upload the video. And then Nancy Pelosi commented on antitrust litigation and tax breaks for platforms and how they matter. And she saw no direct connection between the two things. She’s not saying we’re going to take this step because you let this go. But I think she knew from her experience as a member of public policy teams that these threats existed. And you know that governments have many tools at their disposal, not just to pass bills and start lawsuits, but to convene public hearings, tweet, and issue press releases. There are many things government officials can do to apply pressure.

Jamari: May I ask, did Nancy Pelosi’s office ever outright ask you to remove that video?

Perrault: I can’t speak specifically about that because it wasn’t my role at the company at the time. But such interactions were routine. Again, I think I could have filled in a lot of examples in this post I did for the Knight Institute. Bipartisan examples, international examples, national examples. It was so commonplace that I thought it was just how tech companies do public policy.

Jamari: Yeah. And that her subsequent comments about the role of the tech industry in our country and how tech companies should be treated in terms of things like tax breaks were retaliation for Facebook’s failure to remove the video. In your position?

Perrault: I have no idea about that. But I think the important thing is, whether those comments are made explicitly or not, when you work on a platform, you think about the potential for such repercussions every day for everything you do. Masu. And I think that’s to some extent appropriate. For example, government officials may take action against a platform if they believe it is behaving badly. And part of that is what we expect from our government. The jaw-dropping question is when does government coercion or government intimidation result in circumventing the protections of the First Amendment? And there is a process by which governments begin to regulate and influence the content that people see. Governments can use the legislative process, they can use regulatory rule-making, they can litigate, but they’re all transparent processes, and they’re all in the sunlight that people can see and react to. It’s a democratic channel. And there could be public debate about those issues. The challenge I think about jawbone shaving is that it’s out of public view and in the dark. And that’s when government officials rely on people working on technology platforms, and in many cases, government officials don’t. [Meta CEO] People further down the public policy team, including the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, see their job as doing a good job with government officials, and the pressure in those situations can get really serious and difficult.

Jamari: Now, even as someone who has been a victim of this jaw-dropping behavior at big tech companies, you argue that there are some benefits to it. Speak me through them.

Perrault: So I really think this educational and informational element is very important. And there are many ways that governments and platforms can actually work constructively on difficult and important issues, such as election interference and various law enforcement-related issues. And I think that kind of communication is really important. There were several judges who pointed to that type of communication during the argument, and I think it’s very important to maintain that. Lower court rulings in this case have already established several data points that indicate a more intrusive approach between governments and platforms, and between some researchers and platforms and governments, on these issues. There are. And I think that’s a negative thing. We want to be clear about allowing certain actions and communications for informational and educational purposes. I think it’s beneficial for both the government and the platform.

Jamari: Yes, you also claim that “dialogue can be productive when it takes place outside the spotlight.” You quote Justice Louis Brandeis and say, “Sunlight is definitely a disinfectant.” But you say that can also erase important nuance from the discussion.

Perrault: Yeah. I think there are times when public decision-making makes things even more difficult. And actually, I feel like I experienced this with Facebook too. There was a time when I was at the company where breaches started to become more prevalent. As such, any issue that I think is worth discussing passionately outside of the spotlight is likely to have a variety of solutions surfacing, including potentially unpopular ones, and will quickly move things into the public domain. This could short-circuit the process. I think decision making can be even more difficult. And this is actually recognized in the Government Act on Transparency, which respects the deliberative process. Therefore, documents used to make decisions can sometimes be kept out of public view. And I think this is important. There are types of jaw-boning and educational and informational communication that I think are important and don’t necessarily need to be made public. To some extent it could be more educational and informative if it were made public. It can be done properly through private channels.

Jamari: Yeah. Now, I was wondering why I felt the need to talk about this now.

Perrault: So there’s a narrative about the experience of what it’s like to work at a technology company, and it doesn’t match my experience. That doesn’t mean the other stories are wrong. I’m not criticizing another story. But for me, it was important to voice what I was experiencing. And “jawbone” is actually a term I learned about long after I understood the concept. So when I was still at Facebook and thinking about doing academic work, I was thinking about what kind of problems I wanted to tackle. And I actually wrote a memo to myself to write about the indirect pressure that governments put on technology companies by circumventing the democratic process. It was really exciting for me to write something about it because it was part of my experience. It seems very plausible to me that the First Amendment can prevent the government from introducing legislation through the democratic process while applying this pressure in other ways that can achieve a similar effect. That seems strange. So when I learned of this term, and when this case started going into the judicial process, I felt it was important to me. I don’t pretend to speak for Katie, but neither of us are First Amendment scholars, so it’s important to have a voice not only about how laws and policies work, but also about how they’re legal. I think. That’s not our area of ‚Äč‚Äčexpertise. That wasn’t what we wanted to be part of the discussion about. It was important for us to consider how people working in these conditions actually experience this situation on a daily basis. And given what we’ve been through, we felt it was an important thing to speak out.


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