Aug 5, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

If your days are blurring together — and mine certainly are! — don't blame the news; blame our sheltering in place. Our bodies need to move in space for our minds to properly mark the passage of time. Scrolling screens just doesn't check that box.

I hope you'll still scroll through today's news-packed Login, which is 1,598 words long, a 6-minute read.

  • Join Axios cities correspondent Kim Hart Thursday at 12:30pm ET for a conversation on ethical technology and the role of tech companies in the coronavirus response with former U.S. chief data scientist DJ Patil and Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth.
  • Register here.
1 big thing: Instagram unveils its answer to TikTok

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Facebook-owned Instagram on Wednesday launched its answer to the popular video app TikTok, whose future remains in limbo, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

The big picture: Facebook has a long record — sometimes successful, sometimes not — of adopting features that have proven popular on rival platforms and rolling them out to its billions of users worldwide in an effort to avoid being eclipsed by younger upstarts.

Driving the news: Reels enters the fray as TikTok, threatened with a ban by President Trump because of its Chinese ownership, has opened negotiations to be acquired by Microsoft.

  • A world where Reels must compete with a Microsoft-owned TikTok will present a very different challenge to Facebook than a world in which TikTok has been shut down in the U.S.

Be smart: Reels is the first product Instagram has created that focuses more on creators than everyday users. Reels' video distribution algorithm will resemble TikTok's: users will see a succession of the most popular videos at the moment, rather than a small selection tailored to their individual profile.

Details: The new product will be embedded within Instagram, so that the app's 1 billion+ user base can tap into it and help it achieve wide adoption.

  • The product will debut in over 50 countries today, including the U.S., India, Brazil, France, Germany, the U.K., Japan, Australia and others.
  • It will allow users to create 15-second videos using editing tools that are embedded in Instagram's camera, like a countdown clock, a timer and a new align tool, which gives users an easy way to string together different video cuts.
  • It will include music from a big library of titles that Instagram has recently licensed from music labels.
  • Reels differs from TikTok thanks to Instagram's augmented reality effects, which let users overlay images and filters onto their videos.

Between the lines: Reels gives Instagram an opportunity to tap into a new creative community, one that's more focused on talent than the beauty-and-aesthetics topics that dominate Instagram today.

  • "We've not been historically good at helping new creators find an audience," said Vishal Shah, Instagram's VP of product, on a call with reporters Tuesday.
  • "The pitch for new creators is that Reels is a good way to get discovered, even if you don't have a follower base."

What creators like about TikTok is that they can amass huge audiences quickly if their video gains traction.

  • Instagram says creators will be able to share Reels videos privately with their friends and followers via direct messages or on their Stories, but they also now have the opportunity to be discovered by Instagram's massive audience within its Explore tab if they wish to do so and if their accounts are set to public.
  • Reels videos will live in a dedicated space within the Explore tab called the Stage.
  • Because Instagram doesn't have a "share" button, it's been hard for content on Instagram to go viral to lots of people fast.

Flashback: Instagram had previously launched a separate Reels-like app called Lasso, only to shut it down.

  • Executives told reporters on a call Wednesday that it's hard to win mass adoption for a new app.

Context: Executives acknowledged that the launch of Reels is timely, given TikTok's uncertain future in the U.S., but they say they did not expedite the launch to take advantage of the moment.

  • "This has always been part of our plan," said Shah. "We've been working on this for over a year."

Yes, but: Instagram is coming somewhat late to the game. Already, several apps like Byte, Dubsmash and Triller are trying to win over TikTok users with similar products. And one of Instagram's biggest rivals, Snapchat, is reportedly testing a TikTok-style design for exploring content.

2. TikTok tightens misinformation rules pre-election

Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

TikTok announced new rules for its users on Wednesday to curb misinformation and manipulation ahead of the 2020 election, Sara reports.

Why it matters: The Chinese-owned karaoke app aims to show that its platform won't be vulnerable to election-related mischief and malice, as it weighs a deal to sell itself to Microsoft to forestall a ban by the Trump administration.

What's new: The company announced three major changes to its content policy, which hadn't been amended since January.

  1. It's updating its policies on misleading content to more explicitly prohibit synthetic or manipulated content (e.g., deepfakes) "that misleads users by distorting the truth of events in a way that could cause harm." It's also making its policies on election meddling clearer by defining what it considers to be "coordinated inauthentic behavior."
  2. It's expanding fact-checking partnerships with PolitiFact and Lead Stories to screen potential misinformation related to the 2020 U.S. election. These partners already help TikTok fact-check around issues like climate change and COVID-19 misinformation. TikTok is also adding an in-app option for users to report election misinformation for review.
  3. It's working with with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Countering Foreign Influence Task Force. TikTok didn't say much more about this partnership, but noted that it's also working with a number of "industry-leading threat assessment platforms" to help safeguard against inauthentic activity.

Be smart: TikTok has tried to stay away from politics, but that's become more difficult as its platform grows and it faces Washington headwinds including Trump's threatened ban.

3. Former Google, Uber exec gets prison sentence

Anthony Levandowski, the engineer at the center of a year-long legal battle between Google's Waymo and Uber, was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty to one count of stealing trade secrets, per media reports, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva writes.

Why it matters: The case, which the companies settled even as Levandowski faced related criminal charges, made headlines as two of Silicon Valley's best-known companies fought to win the race to build self-driving cars.

The start of Levandowski's prison sentence will be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He filed for bankruptcy in March.

Meanwhile: His sentence comes two weeks after Levandowski filed a new lawsuit against Uber, alleging that Uber had agreed to indemnify him and provide legal defense if Waymo sued him. The suit charges that Uber violated that agreement and owes him money.  

  • Levandowski also claims that Uber owes him billions of dollars to compensate for losses he says he sustained when Uber threatened to back out of a deal to acquire his trucking business and forced him to resign instead and sell his stake at a discount.
  • He also wants Uber to pay the $179 million he's been ordered to pay Waymo, along with outstanding legal fees. 

Uber, of course, disagrees. In earlier court filings, the company argued that the indemnification agreement was null because Levandowski had not been honest about his actions, and did not cooperate with the arbitration process by initially refusing to testify. 

  • Uber declined to comment on the sentence and Levandowski’s lawsuit. 
4. A racial equality handbook for tech workers

Collective Action in Tech, a project that documents the tech industry labor movement, released a guide Tuesday to help workers fight for racial equality, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Why it matters: Racial inequality runs deep in the technology industry, and labor organizing remains relatively rare, but both issues have gained new prominence in the pandemic era.

What they're saying:

"Within the tech industry, the link between racism and economic deprivation is particularly stark. Black people are disproportionately represented in roles that are contingent, poorly paid, and highly surveilled, from delivery workers to ride-hail drivers to warehouse workers."
From the guide
  • "There are a lot of people doing amazing things right now, and we wanted to create a tool for people to do that even more, and even a little bit safer and maybe a little bit faster," Clarissa Redwine, a former Kickstarter union organizer who's part of the group, told Axios.
  • Too often, technology executives issue bland statements, the group writes, while not remedying inequality at their companies.

The big picture: The guide "gives folks a place to start, a template, which is so important," Aerica Shimizu Banks, who helped consult on the project, told Axios.

  • Banks is a former public policy manager at Pinterest who recently spoke out with allegations of mistreatment at the photo-sharing company. "A lot of folks aren't aware of their legal rights. What's great about this outline is it gives allies a road map as well."

What's happening: The group's guide for tech workers organizing offers clear tips, including reaching out to trusted circles of colleagues and steps to take for outreach, strategy, measuring success and making demands.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • Samsung kicks off its Unpacked event online in just a few minutes. There aren’t expected to be a ton of surprises. Samsung has committed to launching five devices and — largely confirming leaks — teased updates to the Galaxy Note line, new bean-shaped wireless headphones and a foldable smartphone, tablet and watch.

Trading Places

  • Phil Schiller, who has been working at Apple for longer than a whole lot of Login readers have been alive, is being "advanced" by the company to the position of Apple Fellow. His role as senior VP for worldwide marketing is going to longtime executive Greg Joswiak. Schiller will continue to oversee the App Store and Apple Events.
  • Family-focused digital-monitoring firm Life360 has brought on startup veteran Jonathan Benassaya as chief product officer.

ICYMI

  • The rise and fall of r/The_Donald, Reddit's abusive forum for Trump supporters (Wired)
  • Uber joined several other tech companies in announcing it would extend its work from home plans through July 2021. (CNBC)
  • How the QAnon conspiracy theory attracts adherents using the techniques of alternate-reality gaming. (New York Times)
  • Apple and UCLA researchers are launching a three-year study to see whether factors measurable by devices including heart rate, sleep and physical activity can help diagnose depression. (UCLA)
  • Twitter co-founder Ev Williams gave $10 million to San Francisco public schools to support digital devices and WiFi hotspots for students in need who are stuck learning from home. (SFGate)
6. After you Login

Here's what a bird in flight looks like when the camera's frame rate is synced with each wing flap.

Ina Fried