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1 big thing: Anti-vaccination content haunts Big Tech

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Anti-vaccination content that has long appeared in search results and on social media is getting renewed attention after the U.S. government in part attributed recent measles outbreaks to reduced vaccination levels in some areas.

Why it matters: The renewed spotlight on the issue has prompted members of Congress to demand answers from platforms about how they intend to handle conspiracy theories that could impact public safety, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva and Sara Fischer report.

Driving the news: A slew of media reports about anti-vaccination videos thriving on social media services has sent companies scrambling to address them. Most recently, BuzzFeed published a report explaining how the problem is prevalent on YouTube. Health experts are calling on Facebook to manage anti-vaccination groups.

The problem has gotten even more attention as members of Congress begin to publicly address the issue, which has troubled platforms for years.

  • House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff last week sent a letter to Google and Facebook requesting additional information on the steps they're currently taking to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to users.

The big picture: Tech companies prefer not to serve as content arbiters and have long struggled to balance free-speech ideals with efforts to limit undesirable online interactions like hate speech, bullying and misinformation. But the issue is harder to duck when the spread of false information can lead to real-world harm.

  • For this reason, many companies are taking stronger action against false vaccine-related information than they have in other areas of dubious content.

Each company is addressing the problem differently. Some are removing search results for vaccinations altogether. Others are treating medically inaccurate content like a policy violation.

The bottom line: In taking action against anti-vaccination content, online platforms are accepting arguments made by health care professionals and policymakers that they should treat it more as an incitement to public harm, like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, than as reasonable debate.

Go deeper: Kia and Sara have more on how the different companies are handling the issue here.

2. Exclusive: Ray Ozzie on his new startup

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals

The man who created Lotus Notes and helped usher Microsoft into the cloud era has a new goal: helping devices in the home get smarter by hooking them up directly to the cellular airwaves.

What's happening: Former Microsoft CTO Ray Ozzie's new startup, Blues Wireless, is working with AT&T on Notecard, a small module that securely connects all sorts of products to carriers' wireless networks.

  • The products range from appliances and alarms to vending machines and construction equipment.
  • The company, which is still small, bankrolled by Ozzie and uses mostly contractors, said it's now in trials with early customers.

How it works: The premise is that everyone from appliance makers to logistics companies will want their products to have a secure wireless connection without the hassles or risks of doing it themselves. Coming cellular networks will be able to compete favorably with Wi-Fi, Ozzie says, offering several benefits.

  • Unlike with Wi-Fi, devices can be set at the factory to connect wirelessly. Many Wi-Fi-equipped devices today never get connected because consumers either don't see enough benefit or get frustrated with the setup process.
  • Everything is encrypted, with secure credentials stored on the device itself.
  • Using Notecard, devices can connect to cloud providers like Amazon's AWS or Microsoft’s Azure without ever having to cross the public internet, offering additional security benefits.

Yes, but: The problem is more than a technical one, Ozzie acknowledges. Cellular connections cost money, and efforts to connect devices in the past left customers to manage the data costs themselves.

Blues Wireless hopes to take that hassle away by using a Kindle-like business model, selling the modules at enough of a profit to cover the cost of the device and the wireless data the devices will use. The company hasn't revealed what it plans to charge.

History lesson: In the past, Ozzie's brainstorms have typically been directionally correct but ahead-of-their-time products looking to capitalize on shifts in the way people and computers interact.

  • This time around, Ozzie says he's banking on making it easier for companies to get on board an inevitable hardware trend.
  • "Customers are trying to connect virtually everything that exists to the cloud," Ozzie tells Axios. "It’s fairly a no-brainer as compared to a technology in search of a problem."

The bottom line: There's no doubt that many more devices are going to be connected wirelessly in coming years and that not all device makers will want to handle connectivity themselves. Blues Wireless is likely to be just one of many companies willing to take on that task.

3. Google to end mandatory arbitration for employees

Google workers walked out last year over concerns about how the company handled sexual harassment claims. Photo: Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

As Axios' David McCabe first reported, Google said yesterday it will no longer require current and future employees to take disputes with the company to arbitration.

The big picture: After protests last year, the search giant ended mandatory arbitration for individual cases of sexual harassment or assault for employees.

  • Employees shortly afterwards called for the practice to end in other cases of harassment and discrimination.
  • Google now appears to be meeting that demand for employees — but the change will not apply in the same blanket way to the many contractors, vendors and temporary employees it uses.

Details:

  • The change will take effect March 21. It means that employees will have the option of suing the company over an issue, although they will still be able to pursue arbitration if they prefer.
  • The decision will not open the door to bringing lawsuits over previously-settled claims, the company said. Employees with disputes currently in arbitration who are still employed by the company as of March 21 will be able to choose to sue instead.

Google also said it would remove mandatory arbitration from legal agreements it reaches directly with its contract and temporary workforce.

  • Yes, but: It will not require the firms that employ the contract and temporary workers to make a similar change, although those firms are being told about the shift in case they want to adopt the change. Activists at Google have expressed concern with the way changes in the firm's practices aren't being applied to contractors or temporary employees.

Forced arbitration clauses have been heavily criticized for denying workers the ability to take their employers to court, including over sexual harassment.

Go deeper: Read David's full story.

4. Companies pull ads from YouTube ... Again

Some of the country's biggest advertisers are yanking their ads from YouTube after a YouTube blogger posted a video highlighting how some posts on the platform have comments that discuss sexualizing young children, Sara reports.

Why it matters: Google-owned YouTube has faced several advertiser boycotts over the years in response to reports about ads showing up next to harmful or offensive content. Most of these conflicts have eventually been resolved, but each one adds to an ongoing narrative that Big Tech services, and YouTube in particular, are not good places for established companies to run ads.

The latest: YouTube's most recent ad boycott started a few days ago, but became big news Thursday when AT&T, the second-largest U.S. advertiser, said it would pull its ads from YouTube over the controversy.

  • It's a big deal because AT&T had previously withheld its ads from YouTube for two years and then just returned to the platform in January.

Between the lines: AT&T follows other major brands like Disney, Hasbro, Nestle, and Epic Games who have pulled their ads as well.

A YouTube spokesperson says that any content, including comments, that endangers minors “is abhorrent and we have clear policies prohibiting this on YouTube.”

The big picture: YouTube has faced several ad boycotts over the years. The biggest was in 2017, after leaders in the ad industry pressured advertisers to boycott YouTube over extremist videos.

Yes, but: Advertisers often return after these walkouts. For example, Google said just a few months after the 2017 YouTube boycott that most of the advertisers that removed their campaigns had returned.

  • Our thought bubble: Advertisers return because the scale of YouTube and similar platforms enables them to target potential customers very efficiently. This boycott is likely to end no differently.

Read more of the Sara's story here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • MWC Barcelona (aka Mobile World Congress) officially starts Monday, but the multiple press conferences by various companies will start over the weekend.

Trading Places

  • Zillow Group CEO Spencer Rascoff is stepping down, with co-founder Rich Barton taking over.

ICYMI

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