March 24, 2021
Well, hello there. I guess I shouldn't be surprised it's you. I mean, who else would it be? That said, do you want me to do something if I see a stranger open your inbox?
Situational awareness: Mark Zuckerberg will tell lawmakers at tomorrow's hearing that "thoughtful reform" of Section 230 rests on requiring companies to meet best practices for handling illegal content online. Read more.
Today's edition is 1,284 words, a 5-minute read.
1 big thing: Key Democrat says it's time to write new laws for tech
The question isn't whether to regulate tech companies, but how, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) tells Axios' Margaret Harding McGill.
- His comments come as lawmakers prepare for a hearing Thursday with the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and Google.
Why it matters: Democrats, empowered in Congress and enraged by misinformation over vaccines and the election, agree it's time to legislate on tech policy, including updating the key law that shields them from liability from user-generated content. The path to passing a bill is a little clearer, and there have been signs that the largest tech platforms are ready to embrace some changes.
Driving the news: Pallone said he wants to take aim at online platforms' financial incentives to amplify misinformation and extreme content.
- "The more outrageous and extremist the content is, the more engagement and clicks they get, and therefore the more advertising dollars they get," Pallone told Axios. "If nothing else, I'd like to create a disincentive for these companies to amplify this content that leads to violence."
- In an op-ed ahead of the hearing, Facebook disputed the notion the company has a financial interest "in turning a blind eye to misinformation," saying, "We have every motivation to keep misinformation off of our apps and we've taken many steps to do so at the expense of user growth and engagement."
What's happening: The committee's hearing Thursday will focus on social media's role in promoting misinformation and extremist content, with virtual testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
Between the lines: Expect lawmakers to press the CEOs on legislative changes, but also be ready for a lot of political posturing.
- The real negotiating will be done behind the scenes.
What's next: Expect the legislation Pallone and Democrats produce to focus on updating Section 230.
Meanwhile, the CEOs are likely to make the case that broad cases to the liability shield will hurt small tech companies as much or more than the internet giants.
2. How to mismeasure misinformation
Social media giants keep trotting out jaw-dropping stats about fake accounts and rule-violating posts they're removing. But the number that matters most is how much misinformation remains up, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.
Driving the news: CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter will trot out more numbers at Thursday's congressional hearing, aiming to show us they're working hard to police the digital precincts. Meanwhile, their critics will counter that the size of the numbers tells us that the problem remains out of control.
Either way, this data is impossible to assess without some measure of the total universe of misinformation from which the companies' enforcement actions are subtracting.
- Even after the platforms have removed mountains of posts and accounts, we know there's still some volume of misinformation online — whether it's conspiracy theories, anti-vaccination propaganda, or false election claims — because reporters keep unearthing examples. But we don't know exactly how much.
- Researchers and third parties — like Avaaz, a nonprofit that released a report this week on election-related misinformation that Facebook disputes — try to fill that gap, but they don't have the same access to realtime data as the company.
Why it matters: Without knowing the total extent of social media misinformation and how much is left after the platforms' enforcement, all the takedown data in the world won't tell you whether the platforms are winning or losing.
Here's why this data is so elusive: First, we want to put a number on posts the companies missed in their enforcement efforts — but the companies can't count what they failed to catch.
- In its regular transparency reports, Facebook does report what it calls a "prevalence rate" for different kinds of content violations — a sort of "parts per million" measure, like we use for air pollution, that estimates how often readers are likely to encounter such content.
- "Prevalence" is a fascinating metric that gives us a sense of the relative volume of different kinds of problem posts, and over time it can offer some sense of which kinds Facebook is making headway against.
- But the categories — including "Adult Nudity and Sexual Activity," "Bullying and Harassment," "Dangerous Organizations: Organized Hate," and nine others — are limited.
This is where a second problem emerges: "Misinformation" itself isn't one of Facebook's categories, everyone defines it differently, and the issues where the public, politicians and the press focus their outrage keep evolving.
- False claims about election results and false information about COVID vaccines are the two likeliest kinds of misinformation to be on the committee's agenda Thursday.
- Yet neither of those types fits into any of the categories of content violation that Facebook has tracked in its past transparency reports.
- By the time the company does start tracking them, we may well face another crisis involving a new kind of misinformation problem.
Between the lines: Even when a misinformation category is well-defined and enforcement is effective, social media platforms face a tough challenge with so-called "borderline content" — posts that don't outright violate a service's rules but still raise questions about misinformation-rife realms like election fraud or vaccines.
- Removing such posts raises free-speech questions, but leaving them untouched can put the public in danger. Those concerns motivated Facebook's recent efforts to study and counter vaccine hesitancy, as reported in the Washington Post.
3. Intel commits $20B for new Arizona chip plants
Pat Gelsinger, who recently returned to Intel as CEO, announced Tuesday that the company will invest $20 billion to build two new chip manufacturing plants in Arizona.
Why it matters: The move comes amid a global chip shortage and as Intel is facing production problems that have hampered its ability to move to the latest generation of its semiconductors.
The big picture: Intel is at a crossroads. It is one of the few chip companies that still builds and runs its own manufacturing lines. Most other chip firms only design their semiconductors and rely on companies like Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing or Samsung to do the actual manufacturing.
Between the lines: In recent years, Intel has struggled to keep up with manufacturing rivals. Those troubles have forced the company to make some of its chips through other producers and raised questions about Intel's commitment to continuing to run its own manufacturing plants, known as fabs.
- Instead, Intel said Tuesday it will look to increase the amount of business it does making chips for other companies, an effort aimed at making its increased investment in manufacturing pay off.
- It's also formed a partnership with IBM to advance the U.S. semiconductor industry more broadly.
4. Quick Takes: RealNetworks fights robocalls
RealNetworks is announcing today Kontxt, a new AI-based system for fighting robocalls. It's designed to sit on a telecom company's server and help screen calls by asking unknown callers why they are calling and using algorithms to help determine whether to drop the call, connect the call or send it to voice mail.
Why it matters: Robocalls remain a huge problem and it's an arms race. With the scammers developing new techniques, it's important to identify new ways to fight back.
Meanwhile: Mapping company Here (formerly Nokia Maps) is working with Unity, best known for its game engine, to develop more realistic displays for cars.
- Combining a game engine with real-world data on roads and points of interest could be useful for far more than just cars on the road. Think much more realistic driving games, technical simulations and more.
5. Take note
- Enterprise software firm Demo is holding a free virtual event called Domopalooza. I don't believe Green Day is playing, but who knows.
- Prince Harry has taken on a role as chief impact officer at Silicon Valley tech-infused mental health startup BetterUp.
- Amazon announced that Adam Selipsky, formerly Tableau CEO and also a former AWS executive, will return to Amazon and run AWS as Andy Jassy becomes company CEO.
- Medium CEO Ev Williams notified staff Tuesday that the company is vastly scaling back its in-house editorial efforts and offering voluntary buyouts to the entire editorial staff. (Medium)
- Robinhood filed confidentially with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an initial public offering. (Axios)
6. After you Login
OnePlus introduced its new OnePlus 9 Pro on Tuesday, with a slew of camera features designed in conjunction with Hasselblad. I took the phone to Golden Gate Park where the tulips are in bloom to test out the camera system, including its macro capabilities. The results were pretty good, though a range of iPhones also did pretty well.
- The bottom line: It's hard to go wrong with tulips in bloom. My favorite shots were some vertical ones you can see here.