The New York Times: News site to investigate big tech, helped by Craigslist founder

The New York Times, September 23, 2018: News site to investigate big tech, helped by Craigslist founder

By partnering with programmers and data scientists, Julia Angwin pioneered the work of studying big tech’s algorithms — the secret codes that have an enormous impact on everyday American life. Her findings shed light on how companies like Facebook were creating tools that could be used to promote racial bias, fraudulent schemes and extremist content.

Now, with a $20 million gift from the Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, she and her partner at ProPublica, Jeff Larson, are starting The Markup, a news site dedicated to investigating technology and its effect on society.

The site will explore three broad investigative categories: how profiling software discriminates against the poor and other vulnerable groups; internet health and infections like bots, scams and misinformation; and the awesome power of the tech companies. The Markup will release all its stories under a creative commons license so other organizations can republish them.

Ms. Angwin said the newsroom would be guided by the scientific method and each story would begin with a hypothesis. For example: Facebook is allowing racist housing ads. At ProPublica, Ms. Angwin’s team bought ads on the site and proved the hypothesis.

“To investigate technology, you need to understand technology. Craig is ideal for us because he has no interest or temperament for trying to interfere in coverage,” said Ms. Angwin.

Craigslist, which Mr. Newmark founded in the mid-1990s, helped to decimate print newspapers’ main source of revenue at the time: classified advertising. For many years, the outrageous success of Silicon Valley companies  kept many journalists at a remove. The societal effects of tech were hard to quantify, and moral responsibility was often sloughed off on something called an algorithm, which most people could not quite explain or examine.

Some of Ms. Angwin and Mr. Larson’s reporting tactics may violate tech platform terms of service agreements, which ban people from performing automated collection of public information and prohibit them from creating temporary research accounts. Ms. Angwin has been a strong defender of these practices and has argued that tech companies ought to allow reporters to be an exception to their rules. In the end, they proved that the algorithm was racially biased.

The two also showed how big tech companies were helping extremist sites make money, how African-Americans were overcharged for car insurance, and how Facebook allowed political ads that were actually scams and malware.

Ms. Angwin said part of her goal was to help readers understand what exactly they should be worried about when it comes to tech. She hopes the stories they take on will lead to better government and corporate policies.

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