Nov 18, 2020

Axios Login

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Today's Login is 1,427 words, about a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: At Senate's tech CEO inquest, parties are worlds apart

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Democrats and Republicans both want to rein in perceived abuses by Silicon Valley, but a Tuesday Senate hearing to grill Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey showed the two parties operating in mirror universes, Axios' Kyle Daly and Ashley Gold report.

Why it matters: The distance between the parties' diagnoses of the tech industry's trespasses makes it harder than ever to imagine how they might find common ground to pass the meaningful new tech legislation they both say they want.

Driving the news: Republicans had originally convened the Senate Judiciary Committee's four-hour-plus hearing over the platforms' handling of the New York Post's Hunter Biden story. But the session ended up focusing on broader concerns over how tech firms treat political speech.

Republicans said repeatedly that tech companies were staffed by liberal employees who enforce policies that are biased against conservatives. They also said the platforms effectively act as publishers — and should take on publisher-style legal responsibilities — when they weigh content against their terms of service and take actions such as removing it or fact-checking it.

  • GOP lawmakers repeatedly asked Dorsey and Zuckerberg for lists of employees who made certain content moderation decisions at the company. Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee berated Dorsey and Zuckerberg for alleged censorship.
  • Sen. Josh Hawley dramatically unveiled the existence of an internal Facebook tool named Centra that he said is used to track users across the platform without their permission. A Facebook spokesman said the tool is used for investigating security concerns like "coordinated inauthentic behavior" or fraud.
  • The catch: Sen. Ben Sasse cautioned members of his own party against agitating for tougher tech regulation when an incoming Democratic administration would be implementing and enforcing it.

Democrats said they appreciated the more-aggressive-than-usual approaches Facebook and Twitter took regarding election-related misinformation but worried the platforms didn’t go far enough.

  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Dorsey whether the labels Twitter added to Trump’s false victory claims went far enough. Dorsey defended them, saying Twitter seeks not to silence public figures who make questionable claims but to give users more context for evaluating the statements.
  • Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked Dorsey and Zuckerberg to commit to strong action to keep misinformation from disrupting the Georgia Senate runoff races. Zuckerberg said Facebook will draw lessons from the 2020 general election and make its systems "even more robust."

Of note: The hearing saw some half-hearted feints at finding common ground. Judiciary Chair Lindsey Graham, for instance, repeatedly sought to press the executives on whether their products are deliberately addictive, an issue that has animated both Democrats and Republicans.

Yes, but: It was telling just how little attention such efforts got. Democrats and Republicans can't agree on even a simple description of the problem. Whether you think Big Tech is moderating too much or too little depends your party identification.

Our thought bubble: Hawley's reveal of Facebook's Centra tool was a perfect illustration of the alternative worlds Republicans and Democrats are now inhabiting.

  • To Hawley, a tool that Facebook uses to monitor user activity across its platform was smoking-gun proof of nefarious behavior. To Democrats, it looks like a sign the firm is taking the most basic steps against trolls, bots and disinformation campaigns.

The bottom line: Unless Democrats pull out January victories in Georgia that give them Senate control, this divide is likely to hamstring efforts to pass rules governing online privacy, changes to online platforms' liability protections, or nearly any other major tech legislation.

2. Apple lowers App Store cut for small businesses

Screenshot: Apple.com

Apple announced a new program Wednesday under which it will take a smaller 15% cut from App Store sales for businesses earning less than $1 million selling their apps, rather than the standard 30% cut.

Why it matters: Apple is under fire from some critics over its rigid App Store policies that require developers to use Apple payment systems for app sales and in-app payments, at which point Apple takes its commission.

How it works:

  • Under the new App Store Small Business Program, launching Jan. 1, developers who made up to $1 million from their apps in 2020, as well as developers new to the App Store, qualify for the reduced rate.
  • Once a participating developer surpasses $1 million in App Store revenue, the standard commission rate will apply for the remainder of the year. 
  • If a developer's business falls below the $1 million threshold in a future calendar year, they can requalify for the 15% commission for the following year.

Between the lines: The move comes amid growing criticism from some developers as well as heightened interest from antitrust regulators.

  • Fortnite creator Epic is suing Apple (and Google) over their store policies, which have also been criticized by Spotify, Match Group and others.

Our thought bubble: The move should help generate some positive press for Apple and please smaller app makers. But it doesn't really address the concerns of developers, such as Epic Games, who want a way to reach iPhone owners without taking part in Apple's payment system.

  • Case in point: "We hope that regulators will ignore Apple's 'window dressing' and act with urgency to protect consumer choice, ensure fair competition, and create a level playing field for all," a Spotify spokesperson said in a statement.
3. Firing of security official draws bipartisan rebuke

Christopher Krebs. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Though largely expected since last week, President Trump's firing of top government cybersecurity official Chris Krebs Tuesday evening was widely criticized across the political spectrum and throughout the security community.

Why it matters: Krebs, who was fired by tweet, is the latest in a series of post-election ousters from the outgoing Trump administration. Krebs had drawn Trump's ire for publicly affirming that the 2020 election was fair and free from fraud and foreign interference.

Details: Trump fired Krebs, the head of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, after Krebs repeatedly vouched for the integrity of the 2020 election — and hours after he retweeted a post from elections expert David Becker encouraging people not to "retweet wild and baseless claims about voting machines, even if they're made by the president."

  • Under Krebs, CISA created a Rumor Control website that featured debunkings of election misinformation, including false claims — like "dead people voted" — that Trump and his allies have embraced.
  • Reuters had previously reported that Krebs expected to be fired, but some had held out hope that strong public support would keep him in the job.

Krebs tweeted after his firing from a personal account: "Honored to serve. We did it right."

Between the lines: Twitter flagged Trump's tweets announcing Krebs' firing for containing disputed claims about election fraud.

What they're saying: A number of Republicans joined a chorus of Democratic officials in criticizing the move.

  • Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.): "Chris Krebs did a really good job — as state election officials all across the nation will tell you — and he obviously should not be fired."
  • David Becker, director of the Center for Election Innovation: "Krebs can leave public service with his integrity intact, knowing the tremendous positive impact he had on U.S. democracy."
  • Luta Security CEO Katie Moussouris: "This actively makes us more vulnerable to cyber attacks & could not thrill our adversaries more."

What's next: Krebs' deputy Matt Travis would have normally been in line to become acting director, but the Washington Post reported late Tuesday night that he resigned after the White House blocked him from taking the reins. Per Politico's Eric Geller, however, the next official in the line of succession is a career staffer not subject to presidential discretion.

4. Microsoft adding security chip to Windows machines

Microsoft said Tuesday it is working with chipmakers AMD, Intel and Qualcomm to bring a new security processor to Windows machines. Dubbed Pluton, the security chip is based on work done for the Xbox One and designed to bring an added layer of security.

Why it matters: A number of difficult-to-patch chip flaws in recent years have left computers vulnerable to attack. It also comes as many of the biggest tech companies, including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, are increasingly designing their own silicon to augment traditional processors.

How it works: Designed by Microsoft, the Pluton module would actually go inside the main processor made by Intel, AMD and Qualcomm and expands on an existing security approach, known as the Trusted Platform Module, that is already found in modern PCs.

Between the lines: Apple has been expanding its silicon as well, and includes a roughly similar security chip, called the T2, that has been added into recent Macs.

  • Yes, but: Researchers found a flaw in Apple's T2, so the existence of such additional security processors is not a panacea.

What's next: Expect to see more chip work from Microsoft, as well as the other Big Tech companies, as they look for greater control over the hardware in their ecosystems.

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Here's a fun flashback to what the Silicon Valley tech landscape looked like in 1991.