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Craigslist Founder: Websites' Terms of Service Enforcement 'Being Confused with Bias'

Craig Newmark attends the TIME 100 Gala, celebrating the 100 most influential people in the world, on April 26, 2016, in New York. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

WASHINGTON – Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, said “there are issues” with the algorithms that large technology companies use for news content but he’s more interested in investigating the “appearance of bias” when online platforms enforce their terms of service agreements.

Newmark donated $20 million to a new investigative nonprofit news website called The Markup, which was founded by Sue Gardner, former head of the Wikimedia Foundation, as well as Jeff Larson and Julia Angwin, who worked for ProPublica.

“Are you concerned that tech companies like Google and Facebook are using their algorithms to show a slanted political point of view? Is political bias in algorithms something that you would like to investigate with The Markup?” Newmark was asked during a discussion at the National Press Club luncheon last week.

“What I’m much more interested in is the appearance of bias, sometimes caused by platforms enforcing the terms of service. There are sites or speakers and, you know, if they engage in fraud or deception or disinformation, terms of service should prohibit that and then the platforms should take that action. And I think that’s being confused with bias,” Newmark said in response to the question submitted by PJM.

“There are issues with algorithms and sometimes, you know, my fellow programmers, sometimes we don’t realize the actual privilege we have and sometimes how that turns up in the code we write. I don’t think I have ever been conscious of that, although, maybe I’ve solved the problem by stopping coding in 2000 and I’m very sad about that. But the deal is – at the whole bias thing – right now we need to see more enforcement of terms of service,” he added.

When asked if he thinks the tech companies should be “self-policing” or if the federal government needs to be more involved in regulation, Newmark replied, “I think it needs to be a combination. But given the toxicity of the current political environment, I have a feeling Washington may only make it worse. As odd as it sounds, a lot of good work is beginning to happen in Sacramento. And I have a lot of confidence in some of what may happen there.”

The White House is reportedly considering an executive order to direct federal agencies to conduct an antitrust investigation of Google and Facebook for “online platform bias.”

Newmark was asked if he would like to see such an investigation take place.

“There is no bias, in that sense. There are a lot of good people in federal agencies still there. I met a lot when I was spending more time in Washington and I think more time is needed to investigate, well, to consider why terms of service – how they can be better enforced, how the terms could be improved to stop things like fraud and deception and disinformation,” he said. “This is all a moving target, because the bad actors are really, really smart. They have a lot of funding and no scruples.”

Newmark declined to elaborate on the specific stories he would like to see The Markup explore in the near future.

“I have some ideas, but I’m hesitant to describe them, since the ethics of funding nonprofit journalism are still being clarified and sometimes, a guy who’s had some success in tech, we need to learn to keep, well, I need to learn to keep my mouth shut at times,” he said. “So I’m trying not to say anything along those lines until I better understand that, so, I do know some things I’d like people to take a look at.”

Newmark referred to his $20 million donation to The Markup as “minimal” and ruled out following in the footsteps of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and purchasing a news outlet.

Buying a publication is for important fancy people,” he said. “Well, $20 million won’t get you all that much.”