May 16, 2019

Axios Login

Hi from Los Angeles, where I am moderating an Axios roundtable exploring solutions to the affordable housing crisis. And thanks to tech editor Scott Rosenberg for making sure you have more to read than just this intro.

1 big thing: White House goes it alone on tech speech

Illustration: NurPhoto/Getty Images

While world leaders joined with tech companies to sign a pact to combat terrorists and extremists online, the White House broke from the agreement and offered its own tool Wednesday for countering what it sees as censorship by tech platforms, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The move is a signal that the White House is looking to step up its fight against Silicon Valley companies over accusations of bias rather than work with them and its allies to reduce online threats.

Driving the news: On Wednesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris announced a call to action that will addresses the abuse of technology to spread terrorist content and extremism.

  • More than a dozen other countries endorsed the effort, including key U.S. allies like the U.K., Australia, Canada, Germany and Japan.
  • Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter put out a statement also endorsing the Christchurch Call. (Sources tell Ina that Twitter's Jack Dorsey was the only tech CEO to show up to the meeting in Paris.)
  • Facebook also announced new restrictions on the use of its Facebook Live video service, which the New Zealand shooter used to broadcast his rampage.
  • But the Trump administration said in a statement citing free speech concerns that the U.S. "is not currently in a position to join the endorsement” of the Christchurch Call. The statement said that, instead, “the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”
  • The Christchurch Call itself consistently declares that efforts against extremist speech should be made "in a manner consistent with the rule of law and international human rights law, including freedom of expression."

Hours later, the White House launched a new tool that will allow any U.S. citizen to submit a complaint if they think they were unfairly censored on social media platforms.

  • Skeptics were quick to point out that the online form was not very sophisticated and could be easily gamed by anyone who wanted to troll the administration.
  • The White House says the tool is meant to help people share stories about ways social media platforms unfairly targeted their free speech, but the online form where users can submit requests also appears to be a mechanism for collecting their email addresses.

The big picture: Social media bias has become a major talking point for President Trump and conservatives who argue that Silicon Valley companies are censoring their perspectives.

Be smart: This attitude demonstrates a reversal of Trump's welcoming view of social media platforms when he was running for office.

  • After he was elected, Trump told Axios that he liked platforms like Twitter and Facebook because they allowed him to reach voters in an unrestricted way, unlike the mainstream media.
  • Today, the president uses Twitter as his main communications vehicle, often sending dozens of tweets in a single day, even as he ramps up the bias accusations.

What's next: Expect questions from congressional Democrats and free speech activists about what the White House intends to do with the data and responses it collects from its new complaint tool.

2. Tech's regulation debate moves from "whether" to "how"

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The debate over regulating the power of giant tech companies has rapidly moved on from "whether" to "how," writes Axios' David McCabe.

Why it matters: Today's arguments among companies, academics and regulators over acceptable fixes for the concentration of tech power will set the boundaries of tomorrow's legislation and court decisions.

Driving the news: At a conference at the University of Chicago's business school this week, participants are weighing a series of proposals for introducing more competition into the tech space and addressing other concerns about digital platforms.

  • Flashback: The same conference in 2017 asked a more preliminary question: "Is There A Concentration Problem In America?"

Key question: How far should governments go, and what tools should they use.

  • Possible options range from breaking companies up to more mild remedies.
  • Some presenters believed antitrust law should be used to rein in the companies, while others favored tighter regulations of the companies' behavior.
  • Alanna Rutherford, VP of global litigation at Visa, said that antitrust law was "not the only tool, or even the best tool in many cases, to regulate digital platforms."

One idea that received substantial attention was the creation of a new independent regulator — as opposed to encouraging the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on tech, or giving it more power.

  • “It begs the question of why our existing institutions aren’t functioning, because the Digital Authority exists — it’s called the Federal Trade Commission," said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the progressive Open Markets Institute.

Yes, but: There were some at the conference, like conservative economist Tyler Cowen, who remained doubtful about broad concerns around corporate concentration in America.

  • "I feel like I’m sort of arguing with the Flat Earth Society," legal scholar Tim Wu said to Cowen.

Our thought bubble: Putting the tech giants under new scrutiny, with executives testifying multiple times in the last year, might have been the easy part for global regulators. Figuring out a lasting solution will be a more drawn-out battle.

3. Cybersecurity task force harks back to '50s

The last two presidents have been resistant to formalizing a cybersecurity strategy.

What's new: The new Cybersecurity Solarium Commission hopes that by replicating the process President Eisenhower used to form a nuclear strategy in the 1950s, they can develop one that will last, Axios' Joe Uchill reports.

The big picture: Presidents Obama and now Trump have argued that formalizing how the U.S. will combat cyberattacks reduces the executive branch's agility.

  • Lawmakers, including Sen. Angus King who co-chairs the Solarium group, have argued that as long as the U.S. has no doctrine, countries like Russia and China will see no consequence to an attack.
  • "Right now, we're a cheap date," King tells Axios.

Details: The commission, which formally launched last week, is a 14-member task force composed of 4 current lawmakers; directors or deputy directors of National Intelligence, Defense, the FBI and Homeland Security; and representatives from academia and industry.

  • The group takes its form and name from the Solarium Commission Eisenhower used to develop a nuclear strategy in 1953.
  • Like the original Solarium, the cybersecurity version will split into working groups, competitively arguing for different strategies. Those strategies will include persistent engagement, deterrence (which will include increasing resiliency), and the development of diplomatic norms — three global rules of the road for cyber operations.
  • "A problem for all three approaches is the question of attribution," co-chair Rep. Mike Gallagher said. "We know who launched a missile, but it's harder to tell who set off a cyberattack."

Go deeper: Read Joe's full post here.

4. Uncovering secret government AI systems

IIlustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The criminal justice system has eagerly taken up AI tools for surveillance, policing and sentencing — software that can track people's faces, deploy patrols where crime appears most likely, and recommend whether to grant bail.

Why it matters: One problem is that these tools are often cloaked in secrecy, so it can be impossible to judge their accuracy, or even know where and how they are being used, Axios' Kaveh Waddell writes. Critics say this opens the door to misuse and discrimination.

Driving the news: San Francisco yesterday approved the most restrictive government surveillance regulations in the U.S.

  • The new measure, if it is passed a second time next week, entirely bans official facial recognition in the city — though it does not apply to federal agencies — and requires every department that wants to use surveillance technology to apply for permission.
  • At the other extreme, across the Pacific, is China. It is implementing the most Orwellian surveillance system on the planet, leaning especially hard on facial recognition to identify and track its Uighur minority.

Between the lines: When poorly coded or deployed, AI systems can make huge mistakes or harm some groups more than others. But where faulty facial recognition in Snapchat might mean some people can't use a fun filter, flawed police software can land the wrong people in jail.

Go deeper: Read Kaveh's full story.

5. Take Note

Trading Places

  • Dave Arnold, Tesla's senior communications director, will leave the automaker in June, TechCrunch reports.


  • Trump issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. companies from using telecom services solely owned by a foreign adversary, clearing the way for a ban on Chinese-owned Huawei. (Axios)
  • Twitter's #YouKnowMe hashtag took off as women shared their abortion experiences following passage of a wave of new anti-abortion laws, most recently in Alabama. (Los Angeles Times)
  • WeWork offered its first quarterly report since filing confidentially for an IPO. (Axios)
  • Kickstarter says it will not "voluntarily recognize" a union established by its employees. (The Verge)
6. After you Login

Has Pinterest grown so powerful in its aesthetic hegemony that we must call in the antitrust cops? "It's time to break up Pinterest," Mike Shields writes.