September 23, 2020

Situational awareness:

  • Chinese state media editorials are denouncing the proposed Oracle/Walmart deal with TikTok, saying Beijing had "no reason" to approve the agreement backed by President Trump and putting the deal's future very much in doubt, the Financial Times reports (subscription). 
  • The Justice Department is likely to limit its antitrust suit against Google to the company's dominance of search, leaving states to pursue action on Google's role in online advertising, the New York Times reports.

Today's Login is 1,537 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: TikTok's content-moderation time bomb

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

When the dust finally clears from the fight over TikTok, whoever winds up running the burgeoning short-video-sharing service is likely to face a world of trouble trying to manage speech on it, Axios' Scott Rosenberg and Sara Fischer write.

Why it matters: Facebook's story already shows us how much can go wrong when online platforms beloved by passionate young users turn into public squares.

  • It took more than a decade for Facebook's college-student connection service to produce the morass of hate speech, misinformation, privacy violations and accusations of bias that so many see in it today.
  • TikTok is already accelerating down a similar road.

Driving the news: Tuesday, TikTok head Vanessa Pappas called on a coalition of social media platforms to coordinate ways to stop the redistribution of viral videos depicting self-harm.

  • Earlier this month, a video of a man shooting himself spread widely on TikTok.
  • TikTok's European director of public policy told the U.K. Parliament Tuesday that the video was "the result of a coordinated raid from the dark web."

What they're saying: Back when it looked like Microsoft was going to be the "winner" of the TikTok sweepstakes, founder Bill Gates called the social media business "a poison chalice."

That's what Oracle and Walmart now expect to drink, as they try to finalize a deal to avoid a ban by President Trump, move TikTok to the U.S. and away from its Chinese owner, ByteDance.

The problem: Many U.S. teens are treating TikTok not just as a channel for light-hearted fun but as a space to discuss personal problems, traumas — and politics.

  • The more serious the TikTok conversation gets, the more potential mischief and "coordinated inauthentic behavior" its users will face from bad actors.
  • In its latest transparency report released Tuesday, TikTok said it took down 104,543,719 videos for violating its standards in the first half of 2020. 90% were removed before being viewed by other users.

How it works: TikTok tripled the length of its community standards in January, aiming to draw lines around the kinds of content it would try to keep away from its young users.

  • TikTok's recommendation algorithm is tuned to amplify novelty and blow sparks of engagement into flames of popularity — a dynamic that's easily exploitable by trolls.
  • Whoever is running TikTok can certainly take steps to tweak the algorithm and bar undesirable content, but they face a perpetual game of whack-a-mole no matter what.

The traits that set TikTok's platform apart also expose it to its own set of problems.

1. It's entirely video-based. Technology has improved enormously in helping platforms remove harmful text, but video — and particularly manipulated videos — remain a huge challenge for platforms to police misinformation and fraud.

2. It's used mostly by kids and young people. The company has already received the FTC's largest-ever fine for children's privacy violations last year. Children's advocacy groups are already urging TikTok's new owners to revamp the company's children's privacy rules.

3. It's still in early stages of monetization. New owners are going to want to see a bigger financial return, but every effort to wring revenue from users will invite new strategies to game the service's rules.

If the Oracle/Walmart plan for TikTok's future overcomes all the obstacles it faces, the deal's terms would add further dimension's to the company's content moderation problems.

1. It's unclear who will control TikTok's prized recommendation algorithm.

  • China has restricted the foreign sale of domestically developed AI technologies.
  • The less direct control over the recommendation code the company has, the less power it will have to defend against misinformation attacks and hate speech.

2. The high-profile fight over TikTok's future guarantees that many groups — such as nationalists in China and pro- and anti-Trump factions in the U.S. — will be itching to flood it with their views.

3. The companies inheriting TikTok's management in the U.S., Oracle and Walmart, have little experience in the business of online moderation. They'll also be struggling to manage the service's content while simultaneously defending its security under a merciless international spotlight.

The bottom line: The TikTok saga has regularly been portrayed as a fight for a precious prize, but the winner is likely to face a difficult reckoning.

2. Adobe reinvents PDF to work better on phones

Courtesy: Adobe

Adobe has added a new "Liquid PDF" feature to the iOS and Android versions of Acrobat Reader that makes documents more readable on mobile devices.

How it works: The feature taps artificial intelligence to analyze PDF documents, identifying headers, text and images.

Why it matters: PDF became the dominant format for reproducing paper documents in digital form 20 years ago, but when people open PDFs on a smartphone they often get frustrated and stop engaging with the document.

  • "We see a lot of abandonment on mobile," Adobe's Ashley Still said in an interview.

Yes, but: There are some limitations. At least for now, Liquid Mode won't work on scanned documents (which appear as one big image), nor does it work with some alphabets, such as Japanese.

By the numbers: Adobe is seeing strong growth in its Acrobat PDF business amid the pandemic, especially for viewing and signing digital documents.

  • Monthly active Acrobat users have more than doubled since the end of last year.
  • Adobe has seen a 253% increase in Adobe Scan installs since the end of last year.
  • The company generated $375 million in revenue from its Document Cloud business, up 22% from last year.

What's next: Adobe plans to bring Liquid PDF to the desktop and web versions of Acrobat as well.

3. Microsoft nabs exclusive license to key AI program

Microsoft announced a deal Tuesday that will give it the exclusive license to OpenAI's GPT-3 language model, a tool that uses machine learning to generate remarkably human sounding text.

Why it matters: The deal provides a way for many companies to have access to the technology while seemingly allowing Microsoft to establish guardrails and parameters for how the technology can be used.

The big picture: GPT-3, which was trained on half a trillion words to optimize for a staggering 175 billion parameters, has generated all kinds of buzz in recent months, with MIT Technology Review declaring it "shockingly good."

Between the lines: While the algorithm doesn't actually "know" much of anything as factual, it's capable of writing surprisingly clearly text on just about anything, by analyzing huge swathes of the written internet and using that information to predict which words tend to follow after each other.

Flashback: Microsoft said in May it was building a supercomputer within its Azure cloud specifically for OpenAI and has also invested $1 billion in the San Francisco-based company.

4. Airbnb tool lets cities review and act on listings

Illustration: Sara Grillo

Airbnb is rolling out a new dashboard that will let participating cities and tourism organizations directly view and interact with listings and activities within their jurisdictions, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Why it matters: Municipalities have long asked for direct access to information about listings and the ability to take immediate take action against those violating local laws. And Airbnb has long resisted giving it to them.

Details: Airbnb is first providing the portal to more than a dozen cities and tourism organizations, including San Francisco, Raleigh, Buffalo, and Calgary, as part of a test pilot program. Tourism offices include Visit Tampa Bay, the City of Krakow, and Visit Tuscany.

  • Each city will have a custom dashboard displaying Airbnb listings within its jurisdictions and activity data such as average earnings and where guests are traveling from, as well as a dedicated point of contact at Airbnb to help with any issues or questions.
  • Cities will also have the ability to take action against particular listings if they find they are out of compliance, and can directly block them through the dashboard.
  • Airbnb plans to make the portal more widely available after the initial testing program, though it declined to provide a specific timeline.

Flashback: In 2015, after a defeating a San Francisco ballot measure that would have imposed stricter limits on short-term rentals, Airbnb put out what it calls its "Community Compact," a sort of pledge to work more with cities and communities to curb negative effects of rentals.

Between the lines: Despite its commitment to play nice in 2015, Airbnb has not been shy in its regulatory fights — even suing its hometown, San Francisco, the following year over proposed fines.

  • Yes, but: Municipalities' powers to bar the company from operating are very real, and this threat is now more important than ever as Airbnb prepares to finally go public.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Republican state attorneys general will meet with President Trump this afternoon to discuss Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and allegations of social media bias against conservatives, sources tell Axios' Ashley Gold.
  • Also, the Justice Department will brief state attorneys general on the status of its Google probe today, a source familiar with the process told Ashley.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the need for federal privacy legislation featuring California AG Xavier Becerra and several former FTC commissioners: Julie Brill (now at Microsoft), William Kovacic, Jon Leibowitz and Maureen Ohlhausen.

Trading Places

  • Morgan Beller, one of the founders of Facebook's Libra cryptocurrency, is leaving the company. (CNBC)
  • Parsable, which makes software to support industrial workers, hired Oji Udezue as chief product officer and James Huang as senior VP of alliances and integrations.


6. After you Login

Here's how an old TV managed to shut down the internet for an entire small town in Wales.