Axios Login

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May 28, 2020

Remember how yesterday we said online content moderation has gotten hopelessly intertwined in partisan politics? We weren't kidding.

Anyway, more on that below.

Today's Login is 1,660 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: New calls to curtail targeted political ads

Illustration of cursors as arrows embedded in a target.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Policymakers and advocates are pushing for new limits on political advertisers' ability to narrowly target voters with tailored messaging on major tech platforms, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Kyle Daly report.

Why it matters: Critics say the targeted political ads are a key means of spreading misinformation on topics like the presidential election and the pandemic.

Driving the news: Ranking Digital Rights, a research program affiliated with the New America think tank, is calling on Facebook and other online platforms to limit targeted advertising in the lead-up to the November election in a report released Wednesday.

  • Democratic lawmakers are also pressuring tech companies with new bills to curb political ad targeting online.

The big picture: Advocates of limiting the targeted ads say they let campaigns launch questionable and outright false messaging at the narrow demographic slices most likely to be receptive to it, all with little accountability or oversight.

  • Defenders of the practice say it drives voter engagement and fundraising, and that it’s simply a more effective — and cost-effective — way of reaching voters with campaign messaging.

Details: The Ranking Digital Rights report says severely limiting or altogether eliminating advertisers' ability to target individuals online would "dramatically reduce the flow and impact of election-related disinformation and misinformation on social media."

  • In the short term, the group wants Facebook and Google to only let political advertisers target people by geographic area, and offer a transparency mechanism to provide insight on policy enforcement, RDR senior policy analyst Nathalie Maréchal told Axios.
  • "If I had my magic wand, I would apply this to all ads," Maréchal said. "But if they would start with political ads only between now and November, that would be much better than the current situation."

Where it stands: The three leading social media firms all took divergent approaches on political ad targeting in policies they announced following sustained pressure that began last year to crack down on misinformation in campaign ads.

  • Twitter banned all political ads.
  • Google banned the use of data any more specific than age, gender and postal code to target ads at voters.
  • Facebook opted against limits on microtargeting as it largely left in place a broadly permissive political advertising policy.

Reality check: This close to the presidential election, these companies aren't likely to make major changes to political ad policies they spent months developing.

Meanwhile, House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee chairman David Cicilline and five cosponsors have introduced the Protecting Democracy from Disinformation Act to restrict narrow targeting of online political ads to only using age, gender and location.

  • A broader bill from California Rep. Anna Eshoo would limit targeting by online political advertisers to geography.

Yes, but: The bills are unlikely to draw the broad bipartisan support they'd need to pass both houses of Congress, particularly before the 2020 election.

  • The Honest Ads Act, first introduced in 2017, which would increase transparency requirements for online ads, hasn't gained much traction on the Hill.

The bottom line: The report and bills are unlikely to spur immediate action, but they may force campaigns and tech companies to revisit thorny questions around ad targeting as election season heats up.

  • "Do they want to go down in history as as having enabled deadly information to continue to spread and be weaponized on on their platforms?" RDR director Rebecca MacKinnon told Axios. "How do they want to be remembered in history for their role in this particular election?"

2. Trump pledges executive order targeting social media

President Trump is expected today to sign an executive order taking aim at social media companies over claims of political bias, following Twitter's decision to post a fact-checking label on two Trump tweets falsely characterizing California’s mail-in ballot process.

Why it matters: Any attempt to, as Trump tweeted Wednesday, "strongly regulate, or close ... down" social media companies via executive order would likely fall short. But it would still be a serious escalation of the president’s attacks on tech platforms and a signal to allies in Congress who could legislate more meaningful policy changes.

One key area where the government could apply pressure on online platforms: Lawmakers have already eyed rolling back the protections granted under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes online platforms immune from liability for content that users post.

  • A draft of the order, obtained by Axios, that was circulating in the administration Wednesday night would have the Commerce Department ask the FCC to write regulations that could narrow the conditions in which Section 230 applies.
  • The draft also tasks the FTC with reviewing complaints about bias on the platforms, potentially treating certain content moderation moves such as account bannings and takedowns as unfair trade practices.
  • Yes, but: The overnight draft is just that — a draft — and could undergo substantial changes before it heads to Trump's desk.

Reality check: The president does not have unilateral power to shut down companies or regulate them.

  • This week a federal appeals court, ruling in a case brought by conservative activists against social media companies, affirmed that private websites are not public spaces and social media companies don't have First Amendment obligations.
  • And the FTC and FCC were reportedly resistant when asked last year about being tasked with policing social media bias.

The bottom line: Strong limits to Section 230 would almost certainly require action by Congress.

  • Sen. Josh Hawley said, in a series of tweets Wednesday, that he would introduce legislation to strip platforms of their protections if they offer what he described as editorializing.
  • Complaints of anti-conservative bias are unlikely to resonate with Democrats, who control the House. However, there are critics of Big Tech in both parties.

Meanwhile, the fight between Trump and Twitter continued to flare.

  • Presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway and others blamed a Twitter official, Yoel Roth, for the service’s fact-checking move, citing partisan tweets in his timeline and sparking a torrent of anger against him online.
  • Wednesday night, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted, "Fact check: there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this."

Of note: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticized Twitter's move to fact-check Trump's tweets in an appearance on Fox News, arguing that private companies should not be serving as "arbiters of truth."

3. Outrage over Uber's junking of electric bikes

Photo of  bright red JUMP electric bikes

Row of JUMP electric bikes. Photo: Anna-Rose Gassot/AFP via Getty Images

After Uber's recent transfer of its JUMP division of bike and scooter rentals to rival Lime, Uber is disposing of thousands of its electric bikes, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Driving the news: Over the last few days, reports that stocks of JUMP bikes in several cities are getting scrapped have angered biking advocates. They see Uber's decision as a waste of some of the most beloved vehicles for shared use. 

What they're saying: "We explored donating the remaining, older-model bikes, but given many significant issues — including maintenance, liability, safety concerns, and a lack of consumer-grade charging equipment — we decided the best approach was to responsibly recycle them," an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. 

  • The company says it is disposing of whatever vehicles Lime did not choose to purchase as part of the deal, and is working with a firm that specializes in this type of recycling.
  • Uber says that the proprietary design of the JUMP bikes and scooters means they require custom parts and only specially trained technicians can repair them, making it challenging and even unsafe to donate the vehicles to organizations or individuals.
  • It also says that there is no consumer-grade charging equipment available for its bikes.

Between the lines: Uber appears to have offloaded its bike and scooter division in the first place as a cost-cutting measure, so it's unlikely to take any steps that add to its costs.

  • Meanwhile, acquirer Lime also has to be vigilant about taking on additional costs given its precariousness amid the coronavirus pandemic. It likely took only the bikes it deemed essential to its operations. 

4. Arizona sues Google over location tracking

An illustration of the Google Maps logo on a smartphone with a blurred map in the background

Photo Illustration: Mateusz Slodkowski/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Arizona's attorney general sued Google on Wednesday, accusing the company of violating state law by misleading customers on its location tracking practices, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: This opens up yet another legal front for Google at a time when it's also facing antitrust scrutiny at the state and federal level.

Details: Republican Attorney General Mark Brnovich began investigating Google's privacy practices in 2018, after an Associated Press investigation found that some Google apps stored location data despite location history being turned off.

  • The lawsuit, filed in state court, alleges Google violated the state's consumer fraud law by misleading customers about whether they were truly able to stop location tracking.
  • "I think it's very important to protect Arizona consumers, especially the privacy rights of anyone here in Arizona — they've been led to believe they could opt out location tracking, but Google continues to invade their personal privacy," Brnovich told Axios. "It's become nearly impossible to stop Google from tracking your movements."
  • Google clarified the way it handles the storage of location information shortly after AP published its story.

What they're saying:

“The Attorney General and the contingency fee lawyers filing this lawsuit appear to have mischaracterized our services. We have always built privacy features into our products and provided robust controls for location data. We look forward to setting the record straight.”

— Jose Castaneda, Google spokesperson

Between the lines: This case is separate from the broader, state-led antitrust investigation into Google, although Arizona is also part of that investigation.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • In addition to reporting earnings, Box added former Autodesk CEO Carl Bass to its board of directors.
  • Nokia veteran Sari Baldauf took over as the Finnish company's chairwoman, succeeding Risto Siilasmaa.


  • Apple is buying Inductiv, which specializes in machine learning. (Bloomberg)
  • Chipmaker Micron raised its revenue outlook for the current quarter citing strong demand, especially for data center hardware. (Reuters)
  • HBO Max was unavailable on Roku and Amazon devices at launch after the companies failed to reach distribution deals for the new streaming service. (Wall Street Journal)

6. After you Login

Last summer I took part in a writing residency at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and two of the amazing writers in my cohort have new books out this month:

  • Meredith Talusan's memoir, "Fairest," tells of her journey as a transgender, albino Filipina woman who was a kid actor in the Philippines before moving to the U.S., attending Harvard and becoming a writer. You can read an excerpt here and Meredith has a full slate of online events coming up as well.
  • Corinne Manning, meanwhile, has a new collection of stories entitled "We Had No Rules," which offers a series of first-person stories that cross lines of geography, sexuality and time. Manning, along with several other writers, will be doing a free online reading tonight from 6–8p.m. PT. (Click here to register)