Trust Lab was founded by a team of Big Tech alumni who came together in 2021 with one mission: to make online content moderation more transparent, accountable, and trustworthy. A year later, the company announced a “strategic partnership” with the CIA’s venture capital firm.
Trust Lab’s core discourse is simple: global internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube so thoroughly and systematically botch their content moderation efforts that decisions about which discourse to remove should be left to completely independent outside companies – companies like TrustLab. In a June 2021 blog post, Trust Lab co-founder Tom Siegel described content moderation as “the big problem Big Tech can’t solve.” The claim that Trust Lab can solve the unsolvable seems to have caught the attention of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm tasked with securing technology for the CIA’s toughest challenges, not those of the global Internet.
“I’m wary of startups that present the status quo as innovation.”
The low-key October 29 partnership announcement is light on specifics, stating that Trust Lab and In-Q-Tel — which invests in and collaborates with companies it believes will advance the CIA’s mission — will work on “a long term project. this will help identify harmful content and actors to protect the Internet. Key terms such as “harmful” and “backup” are unexplained, but the press release goes on to say that the company will work to “identify many types of harmful content online, including toxicity and misinformation.”
While Trust Lab’s stated mission is sympathetic and grounded in reality — online content moderation is genuinely broken — it’s hard to imagine how consistent the startup’s alignment with the CIA is with the goal. of Siegel to bring greater transparency and integrity to Internet governance. What would it mean, for example, to incubate counter-disinformation technology for an agency with a long history of perpetuating disinformation? Placing the company in the CIA’s tech pipeline also raises questions about Trust Lab’s view of who or what might be an online “harmful,” a nebulous concept that will no doubt mean something very different to the American intelligence community than it means elsewhere on the Internet. -using the world.
No matter how provocative an In-Q-Tel deal might be, much of what Trust Lab is peddling seems similar to what Facebook and YouTube are already trying internally: deploying a mix of human and unspecified “machine” capabilities. learning” to detect and counter any content considered “harmful”.
“I’m wary of startups that portray the status quo as innovation,” wrote Ángel Díaz, a University of Southern California law professor and content moderation expert, in a message to The Intercept. “There’s not much that separates Trust Lab’s vision of content moderation from that of the tech giants. They both want to expand the use of automation, better reporting transparency, and expanded partnerships with government. »
How precisely Trust Lab will meet the CIA’s needs is unclear. Neither In-Q-Tel nor the company responded to multiple requests for comment. They did not explain what type of Trust Lab “harmful actors” could help the intelligence community “prevent” the spread of content online, as the October press release states.
While details on what exactly Trust Lab sells or how its software product works are scarce, the company appears to be in the business of social media analytics, algorithmically monitoring social media platforms on behalf of clients. and alerting them to the proliferation of buzzwords. . In a Trust Lab Bloomberg profile, Siegel, who previously led content moderation policy at Google, suggested that a federal internet security agency would be preferable to Big Tech’s current approach to moderation, which is primarily into opaque algorithms and thousands of subcontractors bent on messages and timelines. In his blog post, Siegel calls for greater democratic oversight of online content: “Governments in the free world have shied away from their responsibility to keep their citizens safe online.
Even though Siegel vision of something like an environmental protection agency for the web remains a pipe dream, Trust Lab’s murky partnership with In-Q-Tel suggests a step towards greater government surveillance of online speech, though quite not in the democratic vein described in his blog post. “Our technology platform will allow IQT partners to see, in a single dashboard, malicious content that could go viral and gain prominence around the world,” Siegel said in the October press release. , which omitted any information about the financial terms of the partnership.
Unlike typical venture capital firms, In-Q-Tel’s “partners” are the CIA and the wider US intelligence community – entities that have not historically been known to exemplify corporate principles. of transparency, democratization and veracity of Trust Lab. Although In-Q-Tel is structured as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization, its only explicit mission is to advance the interests and enhance the capabilities of the CIA and other spy agencies. .
Former CIA Director George Tenet, who spearheaded the creation of In-Q-Tel in 1999, described the CIA’s direct relationship with In-Q-Tel in stark terms: “The CIA identifies the problems and In-Q-Tel provides the technology to address them. An official history of In-Q-Tel published on the CIA website states: “The mission of In-Q-Tel is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and to pursue research and development (R&D) that produce solutions to some of the most difficult computing problems facing the CIA.
Siegel has previously written that the politics of internet speech must be a “global priority,” but an In-Q-Tel partnership suggests a certain loyalty to Western priorities, Díaz said – a loyalty that might not take into account the how these moderation policies affect billions of people. people from the non-Western world.
“Partnerships with Western governments perpetuate a racialized view of communities that pose a threat and are simply exercising their freedom of expression,” Díaz said. “Trust Lab’s mission statement, which purports to differentiate ‘free world governments’ from ‘oppressive’ governments, is a disturbing glimpse of what we can expect. What happens when a “free” government treats talk of anti-black racism as foreign disinformation, or when social justice activists are labeled “racially motivated violent extremists”? »
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