Sep 25, 2020

Axios Login

Ina Fried

I'll be off Monday and Tuesday for Yom Kippur, but Login will still find its way to you thanks to Scott Rosenberg, my mensch of an editor.

Today's Login is 1,582 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Amazon's flood of cameras and microphones

The new Echo Show 10 has a camera and screen that rotate to follow someone as they move around a room. Image: Amazon

In a Thursday event unveiling a slew of new home devices ahead of the holidays, Amazon made clearer than ever its determination to flood America with cameras, microphones and the voice of Alexa, its AI assistant.

The big picture: Updating popular products and expanding its range to car alarms and in-home drones, Amazon extended its lead in smart home devices and moved into new areas including cloud gaming and car security. The new offerings will also fuel criticism that the tech giant is helping equip a society built around surveillance.

Driving the news: Amazon introduced more than a dozen new devices and services on Thursday, including

  • New spherical Echo speakers, cheaper Fire TV sticks and faster Eero Wi-Fi routers.
  • Three new Ring products for the car, including a basic car alarm and more advanced models with cameras that can record a police stop or summon help.
  • Luna, a cloud-based gaming service that taps Amazon's cloud services and Amazon-owned Twitch to take on Google's Stadia and Microsoft's xCloud.
  • New capabilities for Alexa, including the ability to participate in interactions with multiple people.

The most futuristic offering is Ring Always Home, a $249 camera drone that flies around the house capturing video.

  • Our thought bubble: Amazon says the new drone is for people who want more home security but don’t want to pay for a camera in each room. It might also be a way for the company to get customers to subsidize field tests of its autonomous drone tech on a wide scale.

Be smart: The battle over so-called ambient computing is heating up as the tech giants see the market as nascent, but key to their future. Queries that once went to the search bar on a PC or phone will increasingly get sent to whichever screen or speaker is closest — and all the big tech companies want a piece of the action.

Where it stands:

  • Amazon was early to the market with Alexa and Echo and has extended that lead — with its own new devices and through the acquisitions of Ring and Eero.
  • Google was a fast follower with Google Assistant and has since consolidated its speaker and smart display business with its Nest smart home line.
  • Apple got in early with Siri, but Alexa and Google Assistant have more rapidly gained skills, and Apple's lone smart speaker, the pricey HomePod, has not taken off.
  • Facebook, by contrast, was late to this market but has been gaining some ground with its Portal and Portal TV devices.
  • Microsoft stumbled with its Cortana assistant and has scaled back its ambitions.

Between the lines: While Amazon has done an enviable job of getting Alexa built into all manner of gear, critics say putting microphones and cameras in so many devices and locations creates an inescapable environment of surveillance — one that often involves not just the people who buy the devices but bystanders as well.

In an interview, Alexa head Tom Taylor said that Amazon is trying to be thoughtful about privacy, including new options announced Thursday that allow customers to more easily delete recorded audio by Alexa and offer end-to-end encryption of video captured by Ring cameras.

  • "We do not want customers to have to think they are choosing between innovation and privacy," Taylor said. "They get to have both."

What's next: Google has a hardware event slated for Sept. 30, with a new Nest smart speaker expected to be among the offerings.

2. Exclusive: Voters back social media blackout for election

Fifty-two percent of voters support shutting down social media platforms altogether for the week of the presidential election, according to a poll from GQR research shared exclusively with Axios, as Ashley Gold reports.

The big picture: Tech companies have aggressively rolled out new guardrails around misinformation related to the election and taken down numerous foreign-led meddling campaigns this year, but critics continue to fear that social media is a vector for domestic and foreign deceit.

Context: In the run-up to the election, Twitter has banned political advertising, Facebook is banning new political ads a week before election day and YouTube announced a crackdown on deceptive ads this summer.

Details: The survey, commissioned by Accountable Tech, questioned 1,000 registered voters in early September. Some notable results:

  • 52% support shutting down social media platforms for the week of the election (54% Democrats and 51% Republicans).
  • 79% say social media companies should "do more to protect democracy."
  • Facebook is the most used social platform (65%), but 52% hold unfavorable views of it, and it is the least trusted news source compared to other social media and traditional media.
  • 62% say they are not confident social media companies can prevent election-related misinformation, and 91% think social media companies should do more to prevent its spread.

What they're saying: "There's a pretty staggering level of concern for how ill-prepared social media platforms are for this election. I mean, a majority of voters effectively said, 'Screw it, shut it all down.' That's not to say we should do that, but it sends a clear message to Silicon Valley that they need to step up," Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, told Axios.

3. Facebook critics take on its Oversight Board

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A group of high-profile Facebook critics on Friday announced the launch of what they are calling the "Real Facebook Oversight Board." As Sara Fischer reports, it's an effort that aims to counter an independent board established by Facebook last year to oversee its decisions on content moderation.

Why it matters: The opposing effort represents how political the fight between Facebook and its critics has become in the lead-up to the presidential election. 

Driving the news: The group includes leaders from the Stop Hate for Profit boycott, like Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, and Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, as well as prominent Facebook critics like Roger McNamee and some journalists and pundits.

  • The new oversight board rival cites an "urgent threat to democracy" leading up to its launch. It criticizes the independent oversight board, funded by Facebook, for its delayed launch.
  • The board is billing its formation as an "emergency response" to urgent issues like voter suppression, election security and misinformation.
  • The first of its meetings — which appear to be more like media events than deliberations on content decisions — will be held next week, broadcast on Facebook Live, with New York Times columnist Kara Swisher hosting.

Between the lines: The response comes just after the actual Facebook-funded appeals board announced that it would be launching earlier than expected.

  • "We are currently testing the newly deployed technical systems that will allow users to appeal and the Board to review cases. Assuming those tests go to plan, we expect to open user appeals in mid to late October," said an Oversight Board spokesperson.

A document obtained by Axios that appears to be a pitch deck for the project alleges that the actual Facebook-funded oversight board is "little more than a corporate whitewashing exercise."

  • "We will use stunts, viral video, celebrity endorsement and skillful media management to throw a spotlight on the real-time threats to democracy from the misuse of social media platforms and big tech," the document says.

The big picture: Pressure on Facebook to address misinformation and hate speech on its platform has increased ahead of the election.

  • Last week, Stop Hate for Profit, a nonprofit aimed at pressuring social media companies to tackle hate speech and misinformation, entered the second phase of its boycott, targeting Facebook specifically and getting dozens of celebrities to freeze their Instagram and Facebook accounts for one day.
  • The Financial Times reported Thursday that advertisers had struck a deal with Facebook and YouTube to address harmful content.
4. Uber: Full-time drivers handle only a quarter of California rides

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

As it fights for an upcoming ballot measure to exempt it from a California law that could force it to classify drivers as employees, Uber will release data today showing that not only are "full-time" drivers a small minority of its total drivers, but also that they are responsible for just a quarter of all trips in the state, as Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: If that ballot measure, known as Proposition 22, fails in November, ride-hailing and delivery companies will be forced to reclassify their drivers as employees.

What they're saying: "In the fourth quarter of 2019... the 9% of 'full-time' California drivers who averaged at least 40 hours online on Uber completed just 25% of trips.... the 74% of drivers who are online an average of 25 hours or less are responsible for a far higher amount of work using the app, doing 42% of trips," Uber senior economist Libby Mishkin writes in a post slated to be published today.

  • Uber also claims that this trend is even more pronounced outside of major cities.
  • In San Francisco and Los Angeles, 11% of drivers work at least 40 hours per week on average, completing 27% of all trips. In Sacramento, only 3% of drivers work full time, and they account for only 11% of trips.

Yes, but: Uber's data is based on all hours spent with the app turned on, including while a driver is waiting idle to get a new ride request, and while driving to and from a ride.

  • However, drivers are only paid while they're giving a ride, so they often spend more time online than they do earning money.

The bottom line: This fight is coming down to the wire for Uber and its peers, which recently contributed an additional $70 million to their ballot campaign.

Go deeper: Uber, Lyft win delay on court order forcing driver reclassification

Editor's note: A link to Uber's blog post with the data has been added in the first paragraph.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Comcast Ventures head Amy Banse is retiring after nearly 30 years at the cable company. Banse, who joined the company in 1991 as an attorney working on content deals, will remain as a senior adviser to the company's leadership through the end of next year. CFO Mike Cavanagh will assume direct responsibility for Comcast Ventures.


6. After you Login

Let's face it. You aren't going to get much work done today anyway. So why not spend it watching a dog and a tortoise play ball together.

Ina Fried