Oct 16, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Congratulations to all my D.C. readers who have a team in the World Series for the first time in 86 years.

Today's Login is 1,445 words, by the way, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Dems debate how to tame Big Tech

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Key Democratic presidential hopefuls displayed their divisions and agreements over what to do about the power of Big Tech in a lengthy chunk of last night's debate, Scott Rosenberg writes.

What they're saying: Sen. Elizabeth Warren outlined the most comprehensive antitrust-enforcement approach.

"I'm not willing to give up and let a handful of monopolists dominate our economy and our democracy. It's time to fight back.... We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating, Big Tech, Big Pharma, Big Oil, all of them."
— Sen. Warren

Though Warren's dispute with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has generated headlines, the company she took specific aim at was Amazon.

  • She said that in brick-and-mortar retail, Walmart, the largest player, has 8–9% market share, while Amazon has 49% of online sales, partly by serving as a storefront for other, smaller retailers: "It runs the platform, gets all the information, and then goes into competition with those little businesses. Look, you get to be the umpire in the baseball game, or you get to have a team, but you don't get to do both at the same time."

Sen. Kamala Harris, who 2 weeks ago called on Twitter to suspend President Trump's account for his attacks on the Ukraine whistleblower, decried Twitter's inconsistent application of rules, calling it a "grave injustice ... when the rules that apply to the powerless don't apply to the powerful."

  • Harris challenged Warren to endorse her demand that Twitter boot Trump, which she described as "a matter of corporate accountability."
  • Warren's response: "I don't just want to push Donald Trump off Twitter. I want to push him out of the White House."
  • Warren shifted the argument to highlight donations from corporations and executives (which she has forsworn): "If we're going to talk seriously about breaking up big tech, we should ask if people are taking money from the tech executives."

Sen. Bernie Sanders did not address the tech industry specifically, but broadened his antitrust attack to include finance, media, and agribusiness: "We need a president who has the guts to appoint an attorney general who will take on these huge monopolies, protect small business, and protect consumers by ending the price fixing that we see every day."

Missing in action: Joe Biden, standing center stage as the nominal front-runner, was not called on by the moderators and did not speak up on the issue.

Why it matters: Hostility toward giant tech companies is the rare issue that unites both parties today.

Tech trivia highlight: Yang gave a shoutout to Bing, Microsoft's failed search engine.

2. Twitter's "rules" give politicians a free pass

Image: Twitter

Like Facebook, Twitter is giving elected officials broader freedom, but it's tough to discern where — if anywhere— the platform is drawing a line.

Why it matters: The company posted a statement on Tuesday aimed at clarifying its policies for "world leaders," but it remains to be seen if the rules are anything other than a free pass.

Who the policy covers: Twitter tells Axios it defines "world leaders" fairly broadly, including all who:

  • Are or represent a government/elected official, are running for public office, or are being considered for a government position (i.e., next in line, awaiting confirmation, named successor to an appointed position);
  • have more than 100,000 followers; and
  • are verified users.

Context: Twitter's latest post comes amid calls from Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris for the social network to kick off President Trump.

What politicians can't say on Twitter: In theory, world leaders are supposed to follow the rules that apply to everyone else. That would mean no threats of violence, no promoting terrorism, no engaging in targeted harassment, and no harassing people of a particular race, religion, sexuality or gender.

  • But — and it's a big but — Twitter says it may leave up the posts even if politicians break the rules due to the "newsworthiness" of their comments. The company says it reserves the right to limit promotion of such tweets and to prominently note that the content has violated Twitter's rules. But it hasn't taken this step since announcing the policy in June.

What politicians can say: Basically — given Twitter's record — the answer seems to be "anything."

  • Twitter's new statement only reinforces that notion, saying, "Presently, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules."
  • Twitter isn't saying how it decides whether politicians' tweets represent "saber-rattling" as opposed to a direct threat.

Meanwhile: Chinese-owned TikTok said it is forming a committee to determine what its U.S. policies should be around content moderation.

Go deeper: What pols can and can't say on Facebook

3. Takeaways from Google's hardware event

Photo: Google

Google launched a bunch of new hardware products in New York on Tuesday, but there were few surprises given how much had leaked about the Pixel 4 and other devices.

A few things worth noting:

  • The Pixel 4 is getting broader distribution and promotion from U.S. carriers, with all the majors offering and touting the device. That's a big deal, as distribution has been one of the limiting factors for the Google smartphone.
  • The Pixel 4 doesn't support Google's Daydream VR effort, the clearest signal yet that Google has all but retreated from what was a major push a couple years back.
  • Google, like Apple, is wisely putting a lot of its attention on the camera. But it's also placing other bets, such as the Recordings app that can automatically transcribe a voice recording.

The bottom line: The Pixel 4 has quite a bit going for it, and with broader distribution, it has a better chance of actually making it to a much broader market.

4. Next up: Self-driving scooters

Illustration: Caresse Haaser/Axios

San Francisco startup Tortoise is working on (eventually) applying self-driving tech developed for autos to scooters and bikes.

As Kia Kokalitcheva reports, the goal isn't to ensure scooter riders don't have to steer, but rather to eliminate the need for human labor that rental companies now use to ferry vehicles around and redistribute them across a city.

The big picture: With "micromobility" potentially emerging as the next big wave of transportation, companies are looking to make scooters and other small vehicles as efficient and convenient as possible. Cutting labor costs and making sure vehicles are always nearby when a customer needs one is Tortoise's pitch.

Driving the news: Tortoise says that it has an agreement with the city of Peachtree Corners in Georgia to deploy and test its scooters on its streets, as well as partnerships with manufacturers like ACTON and Veemo and rental companies like Gotcha and Go X.

How it works: At least for the initial pilot tests, Tortoise's scooters will be fully controlled remotely by the company's staff. Eventually, it will begin integrating autonomous capabilities as cities get more comfortable with the technology.

  • Tortoise has developed reference designs that manufacturers, at rental companies' request, can use to build scooters equipped with the necessary sensors. The company's designs add less than $100 to a scooter in costs for the additional tech, says co-founder and president Dmitry Shevelenko.
  • The company's tech uses 2 cameras, a processor, a radar chip, a motor (on the base of the steering column), and robotic training wheels for 2-wheel vehicles in place of a kickstand.
  • Tortoise charges the rental companies roughly $50–$100 per scooter per month to operate and insure the vehicles, though it plans eventually to move to a per-mile price.
  • Even today, with humans fully operating the vehicles remotely, this approach is still cheaper than having workers on the streets to pick up and shuttle the vehicles, says Shevelenko.

Yes, but: As with the scooter rental services themselves, regulatory approval is the biggest obstacle, according to Shevelenko. The top question from rental companies so far has been about whether Tortoise can get cities to accept the new tech.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee is holding a hearing on "fostering a healthier Internet" featuring Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, as well as academics and representatives from Google and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
  • Netflix and IBM report earnings.

Trading Places

  • Jimmy Asci has stepped down as chief communications officer of WeWork, 6 months after joining the co-working company from consulting firm Teneo.
  • Alan McQuinn is leaving his position as a senior policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation to become a staffer for the House Science Committee.
  • Self-driving car startup Voyage promoted Nina Qi to COO.


6. After you Login

Now that's some curve ball.

Ina Fried