Dec 18, 2019

Axios Login

The rumors are true. I did complete another trip around the sun without crashing. Thanks for all those who sleuthed that out and sent along corresponding greetings.

Today's Login is 1,374 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Peter Thiel — Trump's bridge to Facebook and beyond

Thiel attends a meeting at Trump Tower in December 2016. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Silicon Valley was abuzz Tuesday after a Wall Street Journal report that Peter Thiel, the tech industry's most prominent Trump supporter, is also a key architect and promoter of Facebook's anything-goes political ad policy.

Why it matters: The report was seized on by Facebook critics who have argued that the ad policy, which exempts candidates' ads and speeches from the site's fact-checking policies, skews pro-Trump, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

The story also highlighted Thiel's role as the key intermediary between Facebook headquarters and the White House.

Driving the news: As Facebook's leadership has debated internally whether to bow to public pressure over the political ad rules, Thiel —who was Facebook's first outside investor in 2004 and has sat on the company's board since 2005 — has advised CEO Mark Zuckerberg to stand fast.

  • Facebook's service became fertile ground for the spread of misinformation in 2016 that, Trump opponents have argued, helped the GOP nominee win that election.
  • Some experts now say that the political ad policy, which has allowed the Trump campaign to purchase ads that make false statements about Democratic candidate Joe Biden, will set the social network up for a repeat performance in 2020.
  • Zuckerberg has argued that Facebook should not be in the position of regulating political speech.

The big picture: Since 2016, Thiel — a billionaire who made his first fortune at Paypal and co-founded the national security data-mining firm Palantir — has been building bridges between Trump and Facebook.

  • In a speech at the GOP convention in Cleveland in July 2016, Thiel argued that Washington was broken, Democrats were "incompetent," and the U.S. needs a "builder" like Trump to fix it.
  • Thiel served on Trump's transition team and helped organize the president-elect's first meeting with tech execs in 2016 at Trump Tower in New York, where he sat next to Trump. COO Sheryl Sandberg represented Facebook.
  • Michael Kratsios, who previously served as chief of staff at Thiel's investment fund, joined the Trump team in 2016 and now serves as U.S. chief technology officer.

In 2018, reports surfaced that Thiel had cooled on the president, and that he now viewed the Trump administration as "incompetent," too.

  • But the relationship still appears to be close enough that, when Zuckerberg testified before Congress this past October, Thiel arranged a dinner meeting for himself, the CEO and the president.

Between the lines: Thiel courts controversy and relishes contrarianism.

  • He is a conservative in an industry whose workforce leans progressive and a climate skeptic in a science-driven field.
  • Earlier this year he fired off heated and largely unsubstantiated charges that Facebook competitor Google had been "infiltrated by Chinese intelligence."
  • When the New York Times' Maureen Dowd pointed out to him in a 2017 interview that the Obama administration went eight years without ethics lapses, Thiel replied, "But there's a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring."

The bottom line: Facebook argues that Thiel's outsized role brings needed ideological diversity to the company's councils. But for critics who believe that Facebook's political neutrality claims don't pass the sniff test, the Journal story provides fresh ammo.

2. Google fires another worker activist

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Google has fired another worker — this time, an employee who created a browser pop-up that informed workers of their rights when they visited the website of a labor consultant Google had hired.

Why it matters: Remember yesterday, when we said that one of the big challenges facing Sundar Pichai is an increasingly activist-minded workforce? Well, we weren't kidding.

Driving the news: Kathryn Spiers was fired by Google on Friday and filed an unfair labor practice complaint on Monday with the National Labor Relations Board.

The twist: Both sides basically agree on what Spiers did. She created a browser pop-up that pointed to information that Google was legally required to share with workers. They just disagree whether it represents protected worker activism or an unauthorized misuse of company resources.

The bigger picture: Four workers have already complained this month to the National Labor Relations Board saying that their firing was improper.

What they're saying:

  • In her NLRB filing, Spiers says Google's actions were an "attempt to quell Spiers and other employees from asserting their right to engage in concerted protected activities."
  • Google, for its part, says the unauthorized use of the pop-up tool "was a serious violation" and insists it would have taken the same action no matter what unapproved content was served up. "We dismissed an employee who abused privileged access to modify an internal security tool," the company said in a statement to Axios.
  • Matthew Garrett, lead on Spiers' team: "Kathryn was on my team. There was zero reason why she should have asked anyone else on the team for authorisation to make changes to this extension. That's not how we do things."
  • Former Googler (and Google walkout co-organizer) Meredith Whittaker: "This is BS. ... Kathryn was punished for organizing. Full stop."
3. Facebook adding part-time fact-checking contractors

As Axios' Sara Fischer reported on Tuesday, Facebook is creating a new pilot program in the U.S. that will pay part-time contracted “community reviewers” to speed up its fact-checking process.

The big picture: The community reviewers will help to corroborate or debunk stories that Facebook's machine-learning tools flag as potential misinformation. This will make it easier for Facebook's fact-checking partners to quickly debunk false claims.

  • Facebook's third-party fact-checking partners are approved by Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network.
  • It set up the practice of outsourcing the selection of fact-checking partners to Poynter in 2016 to avoid having to make any decisions about fact-checkers that could be considered biased.

Why it matters: The company has come under fire for being too slow to identify content as misinformation.

  • But Facebook doesn't want to hire anyone who could have any sort of bias. This third-party contractor strategy, it hopes, will solve that.

Details: Facebook will hire the "community reviewers" through a third-party contractor called Appen, which selects and vets community reviewers.

  • Appen will provide Facebook with a large, distributed pool of reviewers that reflects the diversity of age, gender, ethnicity and geography of Facebook users in the U.S.
  • The reviewers will be tasked with researching potential misinformation once it is flagged by Facebook's machine learning tools.
  • Their goal is to look for information anywhere easily accessible on the web that can either contradict the most obvious online hoaxes or do the opposite, and corroborate other claims.

Be smart: The reviewers are meant to be representative of everyday Facebook users, which means they will not have any particular expertise in fact-checking.

Between the lines: Facebook says this effort is a result of conversations over several months with experts, like academics and researchers, as well as consulting with its fact-checking partners.

What's next: Facebook says this is just a small pilot program for now that it will continue to evaluate.

Sara has more here.

4. AR rival says Magic Leap's lawsuit is baseless

From Nreal's motion to dismiss Magic Leap's lawsuit. Screenshot: Axios

Augmented reality startup Nreal is asking a court to throw out a lawsuit from Magic Leap, saying the heavily touted startup's suit amounts to sour grapes rather than a breach of contract.

Why it matters: The virtual reality and augmented reality markets are taking longer to develop, prompting companies to compete for their slice of a smaller-than-anticipated pie.

  • In June, Magic Leap sued Nreal and CEO Chi Xu, who worked at Magic Leap for about a year, from mid-2015 to mid-2016. The suit alleges that Xu and Nreal are exploiting "Magic Leap's confidential and proprietary information to unfairly compete in the development of wearable spatial computing glasses and other related technology."
  • In its motion to dismiss, Nreal said "rather than focus on developing a superior product, Magic Leap has resorted to filing lawsuits to slow down new entrants in the AR market."
  • Magic Leap was not immediately available for comment.

The big picture: Despite tons of buzz and billions of dollars in funding, Magic Leap has struggled to get its product to market, and recently announced layoffs.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The antitrust trial over the T-Mobile-Sprint deal continues in New York federal court.

Trading Places

  • Edge services firm Pensando Systems hired former Cisco executive Frank Palumbo as its first chief revenue officer.


6. After you Login

Here, courtesy of tech historian Benj Edwards, is the 1980s equivalent of Twitch.