Trust Lab was Founded by a team of well-accredited 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 venture capital firm.
trusted laboratory The basic pitch is simple: World-spanning internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube screw up their content moderation efforts so completely and consistently that decisions about what speech to remove should be handed over to completely independent outside firms, firms as Trust Lab. 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 the 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 thorniest challenges, not the global Internet.
“I am suspicious of startups that present the status quo as innovation.”
The quiet partnership announcement on October 29 is clear on the details, 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 project to long term”. that will help identify harmful content and actors to safeguard the Internet.” Key terms like “harmful” and “safeguarding” are not explained, 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.”
Although Trust Lab’s stated mission is comprehensive and grounded in reality (moderation of online content is genuinely broken), it’s hard to imagine how the startup’s alignment with the CIA is compatible with Siegel’s goal of greater transparency. and integrity to Internet governance. What would incubating anti-disinformation technology, for example, mean for an agency with a long history of perpetuating disinformation? Placing the company inside the CIA’s tech pipeline also raises questions about Trust Lab’s view of who or what might be a “bad guy” online, a nebulous concept that will no doubt mean something very different to the intelligence community in US than it means elsewhere on the Internet. -Using the world.
No matter how provocative a deal with In-Q-Tel may be, much of what Trust Lab is selling sounds similar to what Facebook and YouTube are already trying internally: implement a mix of unspecified and human “machine learning” capabilities. to detect and counter anything that is determined to be “harmful” content.
“I am suspicious of startups that present the status quo as innovation,” Ángel Díaz, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a scholar of content moderation, wrote in a message to The Intercept. “There is little that separates Trust Lab’s vision of content moderation from that of the tech giants. They both want expanded use of automation, better reporting transparency, and expanded partnerships with government.”
It is not clear how precisely the Trust Lab will address the needs of the CIA. Neither In-Q-Tel nor the company responded to multiple requests for comment. They have not explained what kind of “bad actors” the Trust Lab could help the intelligence community “prevent” the spread of content online, as the October press release stated.
Although details about exactly what Trust Lab sells or how its software product works are scant, 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 hot buzzwords. . in a bloomberg profile of Trust Lab, Siegel, who previously ran Google’s content moderation policy, suggested that a federal Internet security agency would be preferable to Big Tech’s current moderation approach, which consists largely of opaque algorithms and thousands of outsourced contractors analyze posts and timelines. In his blog post, Siegel calls for more democratic oversight of online content: “Governments of the free world have shirked their responsibility to keep their citizens safe online.”
Even if Siegel The 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 move toward more government oversight of online speech, though not in the democratic vein. described in his blog post. . “Our technology platform will allow IQT partners to view, on a single dashboard, malicious content that could go viral and gain prominence around the world,” Siegel is quoted as saying in the October press release, which omitted any information about the financial terms of the Association.
Unlike typical venture capital firms, In-Q-Tel’s “partners” are the CIA and the US intelligence community at large, entities historically unknown for exemplifying Trust Lab’s corporate principles of transparency, democratization and truthfulness. Although In-Q-Tel is structured as an independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization, its sole and 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 simple terms: “The CIA identifies pressing problems and In-Q-Tel provides the technology to address them.” An official history of In-Q-Tel published on the CIA website it says: “In-Q-Tel’s mission is to foster the development of new and emerging information technologies and to pursue research and development (R&D) that produces solutions to some of the problems most difficult IT challenges facing the CIA.
Siegel has previously written that Internet speech policy should be a “global priority,” but an In-Q-Tel association suggests a certain allegiance to Western priorities, Diaz said, an allegiance that might not take into account how these policies of moderation affect billions of people. people in the non-Western world.
“Alliances with Western governments perpetuate a racialized view of which communities pose a threat and which simply exercise their free speech,” Diaz said. “Trust Lab’s mission statement, which purports to differentiate between ‘free world governments’ and ‘oppressors,’ is a worrying preview of what we can expect. What happens when a ‘free’ government treats discussion of anti-black racism as foreign misinformation, or when social justice activists are labeled ‘racially motivated violent extremists’?