October 08, 2020

My first try at the intro wasn't that funny. But, as they say, "If at first you don't succeed, hit send."

Today's Login is 1,397 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Microsoft app store playbook swipes at Apple, Google

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In a not-so-subtle dig at Apple and Google, Microsoft today announced a series of "principles" for its Windows 10 App Store — including letting users choose their own payment system for in-app purchases — that it says should serve as a model for other app stores.

Why it matters: The move comes as antitrust regulators in the U.S. and around the world are spotlighting how both Apple and Google manage their mobile platforms and as some developers charge them with running their app stores unfairly.

Details: In addition to offering developers the option to use an alternative payment mechanism for in-app purchases, Microsoft pledged that it will, among other things:

  • allow competing app stores;
  • hold its own apps to the same standards as those of other companies;
  • allow app makers to decide what they do and don't want to sell within their app;
  • and allow any developer in its store "as long as it meets objective standards and requirements, including those for security, privacy, quality, content, and digital safety."

The big picture: There's renewed debate over how much control platform makers should have over the distribution of apps that run on them.

  • Earlier this week, House Judiciary Committee Democrats issued a report suggesting Apple is a monopolist that abuses its power given both the fees it collects and its ability to limit competing apps, allegations that Apple rejects.
  • Epic Games is suing Apple and Google for making it process all in-app payments through their systems, taking a 30% cut in the process.
  • Spotify, Match Group and others have also pressed Apple to change its App Store policies.

Between the lines: Microsoft, the last Big Tech company to face antritrust prosecution and the threat of breakup 20 years ago, has largely avoided scrutiny this time around, due to both its changed behavior and differing market position.

Our thought bubble: It's a savvy move for Microsoft, which already has most of these policies in place and stands to gain more from Apple and Google opening up.

  • For example, Microsoft has been seeking looser rules to allow its Xcloud gaming service to run on the iPhone.

Yes, but: In addition to the Windows 10 store, Microsoft also runs the Xbox Store.

  • That store is more tightly controlled and the only way to get games onto the console, much like the app stores run by Apple and Google, as well as game rivals like Sony.
  • Microsoft acknowledges this in a blog post, but says those devices are more specialized and require expensive hardware that is subsidized through game sales.

What they're saying:

  • John Bergmayer, legal director, Public Knowledge: "Microsoft is in the unique position of running a dominant platform — Windows — and distributing software on mobile platforms that it does not control. I think this gives it a unique perspective on this issue."
  • Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney: "[I]t's wonderful to see Microsoft formally codify its long-held principles in Windows as an open platform and fair market for all developers and consumers."

2. Justices hear Oracle and Google code arguments

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Lawyers for Oracle and Google debated whether programming interfaces are copyrightable as the companies' decade-long legal fight arrived at U.S. Supreme Court oral arguments Wednesday, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

Why it matters: Both sides agreed that the case could determine the future health of software innovation, and both offered dire predictions — what justices repeatedly called "sky is falling" arguments — should the other side prevail.

Catch up quick: The Android mobile operating system incorporates the application programming interface (API) for Java, which Oracle now owns and says Google should have paid it for.

Between the lines: APIs are "declarative" code that describes how one piece of software can talk to another, rather than functional code that actually performs a task.

  • APIs are routinely incorporated by both partners and competitors across the tech industry. They're also often licensed.
  • At issue in this case is whether they are a form of creative expression that can be protected by copyright rules, as Oracle maintains, or a "method of operation" that never varies in form and therefore can't be copyrighted, as Google holds.
  • A sweeping court decision either way could overturn the industry's long-standing unwritten rules and transform massive codebases into legal battlegrounds.

Where it stands: Questioning was tough on Google throughout, with justices asking Google's outside counsel Thomas Goldstein why Google's use of the Java code was any different than cracking a safe to get money or stealing a rival football team's playbook.

At other points, justices appeared to be sympathetic to the arguments from software developers that a ruling in favor of Oracle would upend their work, and to Google's case that APIs are more like "plugs and sockets" than novels or movies.

Ashley has more here.

3. Tech's tightening limits on political ads

Nearly every major tech platform has acted to limit political ads in some way since 2016. Some have enacted strict bans and allow no political, social or election ads whatsoever, while others have put more temporary or partial limits in place, Axios' Sara Fischer and Ashley report.

Driving the news: Facebook said Wednesday it plans to temporarily stop running all social issue and political ads in the U.S. after the polls close on Nov. 3, a move similar to one Google announced two weeks ago.

Catch up quick: Long before the internet, the U.S. government passed sweeping laws governing political advertising on regulated media like television and radio. Those laws required advertisers to disclose their identities and spending information.

  • After the 2016 election, it became clear that Big Tech was not prepared to protect its platforms from being abused to manipulate voters and spread misinformation, including through advertising.
  • Critics began to pressure lawmakers and tech companies to create rules that would bring the same level of transparency to online ads that exists for broadcast ads.

The big picture: Congress has mostly given up on efforts in this area after it failed to pass the Honest Ads Act into law in 2018, and the Federal Election Commission, which can make rules around campaign spending, is essentially non-functional for now.

  • Various U.S. states, including California, New York, Virginia and Washington, have their own online election transparency laws. Other states have tried and failed to pass similar laws.
Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals
Data: Axios research; Table: Axios Visuals

4. Russia learns how to Gab

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Russian troll farm central to Moscow's 2016 U.S. election interference campaign appears to be behind a new operation targeting U.S. voters on Gab and Parler, social media platforms favored by the far right, as Zach Dorfman of the Aspen Institute wrote in yesterday's Axios Codebook newsletter. (You can sign up for his weekly security newsletter here.)

Why it matters: The shift by Russia's Internet Research Agency to more marginal platforms may signal that the techniques that paid off for Russia in 2016 are seeing declining returns. If Moscow is trying to influence a broad swath of U.S. voters, being relegated to platforms unknown to 99% of Americans simply won’t get the job done.

Driving the news: The move to Gab and Parler was documented in a report from social media analytics firm Graphika and an accompanying Reuters investigation late last week. This is Russia's first known use of these platforms.

Details: The fake network described by Graphika revolved around an ostensibly Europe-based website called the Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens (NAEBC).

  • The site's stated purpose was to provide news and commentary about Europe and North America from a conservative perspective, but the vast majority of its content was U.S.-oriented and "focused on racial tensions and violence and always presented minorities and liberals in a negative light," says Graphika.
  • Stymied by more robust enforcement regarding disinformation operations on mainstream platforms, the IRA operators sought to build profiles and followings on alternative platforms favored by the far right, such as Gab and Parler.
  • Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn have all taken down NAEBC-linked content on their site, while Gab and Parler have not.

By the numbers: The disinformation operation, which went public in June, failed to take hold in any meaningful way on mainstream platforms. For example, by the time its main account was removed from Twitter in late September, it had fewer than 200 followers.

  • Though still relatively small, its greatest success was on the far-right platforms: By late September, accounts associated with NAEBC had 14,000 followers on Parler and 3,000 on Gab.

The intrigue: Investigators believe that the IRA operation that created NAEBC was also responsible for the fake Peace Data website and organization, which focused on left-wing voters and engaged in anti-Biden messaging.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Twilio named Jeremiah Brazeau as CTO, replacing Ott Kaukver. Brazeau was most recently at Salesforce as a senior vice president and distinguished architect and before that was an engineer in Amazon's robotics effort.
  • Salesforce veteran Lisa Edwards is joining Diligent Corp. as its new president and COO as part of its continued expansion. Edwards spent eight years at Salesforce, most recently serving as EVP of strategic business operations.


6. After you Login

Check out this toddler's amazing reaction to tasting salt and vinegar chips.