It was Trust Lab Founded in 2021 by a team of well-certified Big Tech graduates who came together with one mission: To make online content moderation more transparent, accountable and reliable. A year later, the company announced a “strategic partnership” with the CIA’s venture capital firm.
Trust Lab’s premise is simple: Global Internet platforms like Facebook and YouTube undermine content moderation efforts so fundamentally and consistently that decisions about what speech to remove must be left entirely to independent outside firms—firms like Trust Lab. In a June 2021 blog post, Trust Lab co-founder Tom Siegel described content moderation as “a big problem that Big Tech can’t solve.” The argument that the Trust Lab could solve the unsolvable caught the attention of In-Q-Tel, the venture capital firm tasked with providing the technology for the CIA’s toughest problems, not the global Internet.
“I suspect startups are promoting the status quo as innovation.”
The silent partnership announcement on Oct. 29 sheds light on the details, saying that Trust Lab and In-Q-Tel, which invest in and collaborate with firms it believes will advance the CIA’s mission, and In-Q-Tel will “work on a long-term project.” this will help identify malicious content and actors to protect the internet.” Key terms like “harmful” and “protection” are not defined, but the press release says the company will work to “identify many types of harmful content online, including toxicity and disinformation.”
Although Trust Lab’s stated mission is sympathetic and grounded in reality—moderation of online content is indeed broken—it’s hard to imagine how aligning the startup with the CIA fits with Siegel’s goal of bringing greater transparency and honesty to Internet governance. For example, what does it mean for an agency with a long history of perpetuating disinformation to incubate counter-disinformation technology? Placing the company in the CIA’s technology pipeline also raises questions about Trust Lab’s views on who or what can be “harmful” online, which is certainly a very different meaning to the US intelligence community than elsewhere on the internet. will carry – use of the world.
As provocative as the In-Q-Tel deal is, much of Trust Lab’s acquisition is similar to Facebook and YouTube’s own internal endeavors: using a mix of human and fuzzy “machine learning” capabilities. Detect and combat anything that is determined to be “harmful” content.
“I suspect that startups are presenting the status quo as innovation,” Ángel Diaz, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a content moderation scholar, told The Intercept in a message. “Trust Lab’s vision of content moderation is very little different from that of the tech giants. Both want to expand the use of automation, better transparency reporting and cooperation with the government.
It is unclear how exactly Trust Lab will meet the needs of the CIA. Neither In-Q-Tel nor the company responded to multiple requests for comment. They did not specify what types of “malicious actors” the Trust Lab could help the intelligence community “prevent” from spreading content online, as the October press release said.
While details on exactly what Trust Lab sells or how its software product works are scarce, the company does social media analytics, algorithmically monitoring social media platforms on behalf of clients and alerting them to hot-button buzzwords. . In a Bloomberg profile of the Trust Lab, Siegel, who previously ran content moderation policy at Google, suggested the federal internet security agency would prefer Big Tech’s current approach to moderation, which consists largely of opaque algorithms and thousands of outside contractors. posts and timelines. In a blog post, Siegel calls for more democratic control of online content: “Governments in the free world have abdicated their responsibility to keep their citizens safe online.”
Even if Siegel While still a dream of something like an Environmental Protection Agency for the Internet, Trust Lab’s dark partnership with In-Q-Tel suggests a step toward greater government control of online speech, if not in the democratic vein outlined in the blog post. . “Our technology platform will allow IQT’s partners to see in a single dashboard malicious content that can go viral and become popular around the world,” Siegel said in October, releasing any information about the company’s financial conditions. partnership.
Unlike typical venture capital firms, In-Q-Tel’s “partners” are the CIA and the broader US intelligence community—entities not historically known for exemplifying Trust Lab’s corporate principles of transparency, democratization, and truthfulness. Although In-Q-Tel was established as an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, its sole, express mission is to advance the interests and capabilities of the CIA and other spy agencies.
Former CIA director George Tenet, who led the creation of In-Q-Tel in 1999, clearly described the CIA’s direct relationship with In-Q-Tel: “The CIA identifies pressing problems and In-Q-Tel provides the technology. does. address them.” In-Q-Tel’s official history published on the CIA website states: “In-Q-Tel’s mission is to promote the development of new and emerging information technologies and to conduct research and development (R&D) that provides solutions to most problems. Challenging IT Challenges Facing the CIA.”
Siegel has previously written that internet speech policies should be a “global priority,” but the In-Q-Tel partnership suggests some allegiance to Western priorities that Diaz said may ignore how those moderation policies affect billions of people. people in the non-western world.
“Partnering with Western governments perpetuates the racialized view that communities are a threat and simply exercising free speech,” Diaz said. “Trust Lab’s mission statement, which purports to distinguish between ‘free world governments’ and ‘tyrannical’ governments, is a disturbing glimpse of what we can expect. What happens when a “liberal” government treats the discussion of anti-black racism as foreign disinformation, or when social justice activists are labeled “racially motivated violent extremists”?