Dec 20, 2019

Axios Login

You really should savor it, since this is the last Login for the year. But, if you are in a hurry, you should be able to make it through the 1,177 words in about 4 minutes.

And Login will be back in your inbox on Jan. 2. Happy holidays from all of us on the Axios tech team.

1 big thing: Facebook struggles to clean up its messes

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

To speed new products to market, Facebook famously used to tell its employees to "move fast and break things." The job of cleaning up some of the resulting debris is one the company is tackling a lot more slowly.

Why it matters: Facebook is under pressure to offer users more control and provide the public with better accountability. The company has responded with a mix of apologies, policy changes and remedial steps.

Mess one — privacy and personal data: In response to persistent controversies over Facebook's handling of personal data, CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in May 2018 the company would provide what he called a "clear history" tool, "a simple control to clear your browsing history on Facebook — what you've clicked on, websites you've visited, and so on."

  • The tool, which is now part of what the company calls its off-Facebook activity options, was delayed several times before finally arriving in three countries in August (Ireland, Spain and South Korea).
  • Facebook hasn’t expanded it to entire countries since but rather has been slowly rolling it out globally, starting with a small percentage of users. 
  • Facebook notes it initially developed a tool that, along with allowing a user to clear their past history, simply allowed or prevented such tracking in the future. But testing showed that users wanted the option to allow some, but not all, businesses to send information on them to Facebook.

Mess two — election-related misinformation: Facebook promised to release data to academics back in April 2018 as part of a foundation-backed project "to help provide independent, credible research about the role of social media in elections, as well as democracy more generally."

  • The effort has proven tougher than expected, with researchers so far getting their hands on much less data than they had hoped for amid the challenges of protecting user privacy.
  • Now the philanthropic backers of the project, who have reportedly balked at the limits Facebook has placed on providing data, are pulling back on funding new researchers.
  • One of the funders, John Arnold, tweeted, "I have no reason to believe Facebook acted with bad intent or purposely undermined the project. That being said, it is hard to look back on this without at least some degree of cynicism."
  • Facebook acknowledges challenges balancing privacy and access, but says it has delivered initial data sets to researchers and remains involved in and committed to the effort.

Mess three — conflicts over content: Facebook has a huge content moderation problem as it tries to manage the vast range of human communication it hosts and deal appropriately with political dissent, hate speech, satire, harassment and more.

  • One big project that is moving steadily but slowly toward reality is the social network's independent oversight board, aka the "Facebook Supreme Court."
  • Zuckerberg first floated the idea in April 2018. In January 2019, the company posted a draft charter, which it finalized in September. Earlier this month it announced it would set up the board with an initial $130 million grant.
  • In September, Facebook said that by the end of the year it would announce a first batch of 11 members, which would allow the board to start operating.
  • Now the company admits it's behind schedule on that front, pointing to the difficulties of appointing a group that's appropriately global and diverse.

Meanwhile: Facebook is plunging full speed ahead into new product areas that could generate tons more highly sensitive data — like Libra, its effort to create a new cryptocurrency, and Portal, its video-conferencing device that puts cameras and microphones into users' homes.

  • It has also pledged to integrate its messaging services across Facebook Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp, potentially concentrating the range of information it already has.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Facebook is slowly rolling out its "clear history" tools out to a small percentage of users around the globe now (rather than continuing to introduce it country by country).

2. Box CEO: Consensus is building around privacy

Aaron Levie. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Even as politicians in D.C. struggle to come up with national privacy legislation, Box CEO Aaron Levie says there is a growing consensus on what should be expected of companies.

Why it matters: As large companies adopt policies to comply with EU and California laws, federal legislation becomes more a formality and less of a battleground.

"We're stumbling our way there," Levie told Axios on Thursday in an interview at the company's San Francisco office.

Specifically, he said, there is growing convergence around several key points.

  • Customers should know how their data is being accessed.
  • They should have some degree of a right to revoke access.
  • There should be limits to how third parties can access that data.
  • Companies should probably be required to provide some level of auditing or reporting to the federal government.

"It's a very blurry image but you can start to see the contours of what a global privacy set of laws might look like," he said. "We're probably 5 years out from this being anything that gets standardized. But I think it is not unrealistic that things could start to converge more on this stuff."

Meanwhile, Levie expects big companies to largely adopt the California rules that go into effect in January, just as most companies adopted the EU's GDPR requirements globally. Google, for example, committed Thursday to doing just that.

"It's just how you will build your systems," he said.

The bottom line: Increased regulation is good for Box's business. "The more complex the world gets from a data privacy standpoint," Levie said, "the more companies want partners that can abstract that."

3. Robocall bill passes Senate

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congress on Thursday approved legislation to deter the flood of robocalls hitting consumers' phones, sending the bill to the president's desk, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Driving the news: The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act unanimously cleared the Senate after the House approved it earlier this month.

The bill:

  • requires carriers to verify that calls are legitimate before they reach consumers;
  • ensures that providers make robocall-blocking services available for free; and
  • bolsters the federal government's ability to impose and collect fines for illegal calls.

What they're saying: "I look forward to the president's signature on this TRACED Act in the near future, and hope, as this bill gets implemented, that it will once again be safe to answer your phone in this country," Republican Sen. John Thune said in remarks on the Senate floor.

Go deeper: Robocallers face fight on many fronts

4. Cox ordered to pay $1 billion over music piracy

A federal jury on Thursday found Cox Communications liable for failing to keep its subscribers from pirating more than 10,000 pieces of music and awarded $1 billion in damages to plaintiffs Sony Music, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI, according to Billboard.

Why it matters: In general, it has been individuals, not internet service providers, that have been held liable for piracy. However, similar lawsuits "have been filed against Charter, Charter subsidiary Bright House Networks, RCN, and Grande Communications," The Verge writes.

  • In the suit, filed in 2018, the music industry alleges that Cox "deliberately refused to take reasonable measures" to stop piracy.
  • Cox didn't kick music pirates off its service and put a cap on how many infringement notices it would even accept from copyright holders, the labels contended.

Details: The court found Cox guilty of infringement claims on 10,017 pieces of work and fined the company $99,830.29 per musical work.

What's next: Cox intends to appeal the case, per a statement the company put out, The Verge notes.

Go deeper: AT&T cuts off some customers' service in piracy crackdown

5. On Tap

On Tap

  • Lots of time with the family, hopefully some reading and writing, a few college football bowl games. Oh, sorry, I thought you were asking what I have on tap.

Trading Places

  • Rahul Roy-Chowdhury, who spent 10 years working on Chrome at Google, is now its VP of product focusing on privacy issues.