Aug 12, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Greetings from your Login host this week, Scott Rosenberg, filling in while Ina takes a well-deserved summer break.

Today's Login clocks in at a trim 1,372 words (a 5-minute read).

1 big thing: Trump's pretzel-logic tech policy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration's policy toward Big Tech moved in opposite directions late last week, as the White House sought the big platforms' help in predicting mass shootings while it was also reportedly drafting plans to punish them for perceived bias.

Driving the news: Friday, the administration invoked the help of Google, Facebook and other companies to detect and deter mass shooters before they act.

  • At a White House meeting, administration officials sought ideas from tech representatives in response to Trump's Monday call for developing "tools that can detect mass shooters before they strike," per the Washington Post's Tony Romm.
  • Tech platforms have tons of data on users, but experts are skeptical that AI can replace the more painstaking work of real-world threat assessment, and they worry that algorithmic threat detection could make a lot of mistakes.

Meanwhile, the White House has circulated a draft of a new executive order aimed at imposing new restrictions on tech platforms' freedom to moderate the content users contribute, according to CNN's Brian Fung.

  • The move follows months of complaints and hearings in which conservatives have derided Facebook and Google (with little actual evidence) for censoring the right.
  • The draft order would put the Federal Communications Commission in charge of determining whether large online platforms are moderated in a politically neutral fashion.
  • Negative findings could result in the companies losing legal protection they have had since 1996 that allows them to moderate user contributions without taking on the liabilities assumed by a traditional publisher.

The catch: The draft order on platform moderation wasn't on the agenda at Friday's White House meeting, and the topic didn't come up at all, according to Axios' reporting.

  • Another contradiction: As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the FBI is seeking private-sector proposals to build a vast dragnet of social media data intended "to proactively identify and reactively monitor threats to the United States and its interests." This comes at the same time that Facebook has agreed to a $5 billion settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for violating its users' privacy rights.

Between the lines: One reason the administration wants to collaborate with social platforms to identify mass shooters is that this is a step it can take to respond to events like the El Paso and Dayton shootings without offending gun-rights believers or taking firmer and more explicit action against specific brands of extremism.

But, but, but: Today, the U.S.' most urgent domestic terror threat springs from white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other groups that sit at the far right of the ideological spectrum, law enforcement researchers have found.

  • Yet when tech platforms take action against right-wing extremists, typically for violating hate-speech policies or inciting violence against specific groups, the companies are dragged before Congress and accused of political bias.

Our thought bubble: Plenty of inflammatory speech in social media today comes straight from the Oval Office. But if tech companies tried to take action against Trump's incitements, they'd face even louder shouts of censorship.

The bottom line: The Trump strategy of "We want to work with you, but we will attack you until you get nicer" has yet to pay off in the international sphere (see China, Iran). It's hard to imagine things playing out any differently in tech.

2. A music festival with tech upgrades

Imagine being at a music festival, far enough from the stage that you can’t hear your favorite band — except when you pull out your phone, log into a special WiFi network, and instantly get the live music crystal clear into your earphones.

What's happening: Mixhalo, a San Francisco company, is making this possible, and this weekend was quietly testing its tech at the Outside Lands music festival, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

How it works: For a concert or other type of live event, Mixhalo outfits the venue with its proprietary WiFi and plugs directly into the stage’s soundboard, providing access to the same audio the musicians hear in their in-ear monitors.

  • The show’s organizers can offer access to the live audio to attendees through their own app by integrating Mixhalo’s software development kit.
  • Unlike the typical WiFi networks that attendees experience at a conference, for example, Mixhalo’s network is configured to remove density constraints (so no limit to the number of users) and only depend on range (attendees must be within the appropriate distance).

Mixhalo says that its business model is similar to a software subscription.

  • For its current deals with Metallica and Aerosmith, for example, it charges the bands a fee per show, calculated upfront based on the venues, expected number of attendees, and so on. It also charges them a small fee for the hardware it installs in the venues.
  • For “pop-up” events like Outside Lands or TechCrunch’s Disrupt Conference, Mixhalo charges a lump-sum fee based on the same factors.
3. The "30-50 feral hogs" man, revisited

Like large numbers of people on Twitter, I got a lot of chuckles out of the "30–50 feral hogs" meme that spread last week. This was the one where a guy named William McNabb replied to a comment from singer Jason Isbell criticizing the availability of assault weapons.

  • McNabb's plaintive query — "Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?" — became the butt of a zillion jokes.

Yes, but: As so often happens when non-famous people get thrown into a cruel internet spotlight, the high-velocity derision loses steam quickly upon first contact with its target's humanity.

Over the weekend, McNabb stepped forward and gave a fuller explanation of his tweet in a note to journalist Yashar Ali.

  • According to McNabb, he had asked his question seriously, based on actual incidents of packs of feral hogs invading his yard and scaring his kids.
  • As others have previously pointed out, feral hogs may sound comically outlandish to city-dwellers, but in many rural areas they're a serious problem.
  • McNabb says he supports "common-sense gun laws" and has "never owned a military-style assault rifle, but after the experience I went through, it didn’t seem completely unreasonable."

McNabb's note is another reminder — like the sagas of Rebecca Black, Justine Sacco and so many other targets of mob mockery — that at the other end of every ridicule-fueled meme is a human being from whom we might learn something.

  • As McNabb wrote: "At the heart of my question is a legitimate problem, and I firmly believe we don’t learn anything living in a vacuum."
4. How tech platforms handle a user's death

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Online platforms built for the living increasingly have to confront what to do when one of their users dies, leaving an account behind.

Details: Each major platform is different, but all have procedures in place should a user die, Axios' David McCabe reports.

  • Facebook will “memorialize” a deceased user’s account — turning it essentially into a remembrance page — at the request of family members or friends. (Family members can also request to delete the account entirely.)
  • Instagram, which Facebook owns, will also lock in the contents of someone’s account when they die.
  • Twitter will deactivate a deceased user’s account in collaboration with a “person authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member.”
  • Google will work to secure a user’s account after they die. “We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate,” the company says. “In certain circumstances we may provide content from a deceased user's account.”

Several platforms encourage users to plan ahead for their own death, often by designating an individual to handle their account. Facebook users can also tell the service to delete their account when they die.

The big picture: Social networks have repeatedly grappled with how to handle this question, developing their policies over the years — and facing criticism along the way.

  • Last year, a writer for Mashable noted that effectively anyone could memorialize a Facebook account, based on the way the system worked at the time.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg announced earlier this year that the site was now “only allowing friends and family members to request to have an account memorialized.”

  • She also said the company uses artificial intelligence to keep content from non-memorialized accounts belonging to deceased users out of other users' feeds.
  • A Facebook spokesperson wouldn't specify how the platform identifies whether someone has died, but said that there "are any number of signals we look for to indicate a person may be deceased."

Go deeper: This is one story from this past weekend's Axios Deep Dive on "The New Art of Dying." Read the whole thing here.

6. After you Login

If the world is getting you down, just keep watching Simone Biles.

Ina Fried