Mar 12, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Good morning.

📺 This week on "Axios on HBO" — An exclusive: DNC chair Tom Perez said on Monday he's "not contemplating" an online convention despite the spread of the novel coronavirus (clip). Watch the full interview Sunday 6pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Situational awareness: The U.S. is officially in a bear market as stocks plunge amid coronavirus fears and President Trump’s announcement of a travel ban on Europeans.

Today's Login is only 1,479 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Coronavirus exposes the digital divide's toll

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As the coronavirus pushes more human activities online, it's forcing a reckoning with the often-invisible digital divide, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: The virus crisis is offering vivid case studies of real-world, everyday harms that result from inequality between those who have access to and can afford high-speed internet, and those who cannot.

What's happening: Both the government and private sector are moving to online systems and operations, but not everyone in the U.S. can easily follow.

  • The 2020 Census will be "online first" this year, raising concerns that it could undercount Americans who lack internet access. Coronavirus could add to that worry, complicating backup plans to count people in person. (The census will also accept responses by phone or in the mail.)
  • Coronavirus is prompting schools and businesses to consider shifts to online-only classes and work, but not every district or company has that option.
  • An $8 billion emergency federal funding package allows Medicare to expand the use of telemedicine in response to the coronavirus outbreak — though that may not be much immediate help to people who can't get to a reliable internet connection.

What they're saying: "Coronavirus, without some immediate changes being made, is certainly going to exacerbate the haves and have nots for who's digitally connected," Federal Communications commissioner Geoffrey Starks told Axios.

  • Starks, a Democrat, wants to see his agency direct funds under the FCC's telecom subsidy programs toward helping serve connectivity needs laid bare by coronavirus.

By the numbers: The FCC estimates 21 million Americans don't have access to high-speed broadband, though that number could be higher due to problems with data collection.

  • The FCC in January approved a plan to allocate $16 billion over 10 years to fund broadband deployment in unserved parts of the country.
  • The "urgency of connectivity" underscored by coronavirus "highlights the wisdom of our approach, which is to keep pressing forward as quickly as we can," Republican commissioner Brendan Carr told Axios.

Yes, but: A key issue in closing the digital divide is accurately determining where there is and isn't broadband, something the FCC has struggled to do because its process for collecting connectivity and speed data has overstated broadband coverage.

What's next: Carr has championed a pilot program now under consideration at the FCC that would see the agency offer $100 million over three years to subsidize telehealth services for low-income users, underserved areas and veterans. If successful, the program could be extended and given more funding.

But the agency's Democrats, Starks and commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, want to see the FCC do more to address immediate needs raised by the coronavirus crisis.

  • In Senate testimony this week, Rosenworcel said the FCC should be exploring how it can use its funding to help schools loan out Wi-Fi hotspots to students whose classes have shifted online.
  • Starks also offered a number of proposals, including creating additional Wi-Fi capacity to accommodate people working from home by temporarily authorizing the use of extra spectrum.

The bottom line: "We need to think creatively on how we're going to help the American people through a time of crisis," Starks told Axios. "I firmly believe that families are going to rely on connectivity in a way that they've never done before. And the FCC has to lead."

2. Scoop: Google's G Suite cracks 2 billion users

Google's G Suite, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, Hangouts, Meet and other apps, quietly passed a major milestone at the end of last year: It now has more than 2 billion monthly active users, G Suite boss Javier Soltero told Axios Wednesday.

Why it matters: Long seen as the upstart challenger to Microsoft Office, Google's productivity suite is now one of the two incumbents, facing fresh rivals of its own.

"That's a staggering number ... these products have incredible reach. Changing the way people work is something we are uniquely positioned to do."
— Javier Soltero

Driving the news: Soltero, who joined Google from Microsoft last year, said his focus has been on doubling down on features that make G Suite unique, like its robust search, conversation focus in Gmail and built-in collaboration.

Once a startup CEO himself — he sold mobile email app Accompli to Microsoft — Soltero now touts the benefits of going with an established player, rather than some company that might not even be around a year from now.

Yes, but: The presence of so many startups out there shows there is more work to be done. Soltero said. "This is not a solved problem. Nobody has run the table on communication and collaboration."

  • As for what distinguishes Google from Microsoft, Soltero pointed to its Silicon Valley culture: "I don't feel the need to be quite as outspoken here," Soltero said. "People do a lot more self-examination here, which is great."

What's next: Soltero said to expect the "smart compose" feature — which suggests email replies, for instance, based on the content of the message — to expand beyond Gmail and Docs. The feature, he said, should go everywhere it is prudent to do so.

He also sees room for improvement in better integrating the separate apps. "I think we still have work to do," Soltero said.

3. Twitter mandates employees work from home

Twitter's San Francisco headquarters. Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

After previously recommending all employees work from home, Twitter took things a step further on Wednesday, making telecommuting mandatory for nearly all employees.

Why it matters: It's another sign of just how seriously big tech companies are taking the coronavirus outbreak.

Twitter said in a blog post that it was making the move to support the health of its employees and those vulnerable in the communities in which it has offices.

Twitter also said:

  • It will continue to pay hourly workers that support its offices while employees work from home.
  • It will pay employees for costs needed to set up their home offices as well as internet fees.
  • It will reimburse additional childcare costs for employees whose traditional childcare providers are closed due to the virus.

Yes, but: The edict applies to most, but not all employees. Some folks, such as those in Twitter's data center, have to be physically in the office to do their jobs.

In other tech industry coronavirus news:

  • Google expanded its work-from-home recommendation, already issued for all of North America, to workers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
  • Representatives of large tech companies including Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft and Twitter met Wednesday with U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and representatives from various federal agencies to discuss how the tech sector can help with analyzing coronavirus information and fighting misinformation.
  • The Overwatch League is canceling its March and April events.
  • IBM said the computer it built for the Department of Energy is being used to help identify potential treatments for COVID-19.
4. GOP senators introduce bill to ban TikTok on government devices

Photo illustration: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Rick Scott are introducing legislation to bar federal employees from using TikTok on government devices, citing national security concerns, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

The big picture: Chinese tech companies like TikTok parent ByteDance are drawing rising scrutiny from policymakers who argue that Beijing can tap them to harvest vast amounts of data from Americans.

Details: The No TikTok on Government Devices Act would ban all federal employees from installing "TikTok or any successor application developed by ByteDance or any entity owned by ByteDance on any device issued by the United States or a government corporation."

  • The measure wouldn't apply in the context of cybersecurity research, intelligence gathering or any federal investigation or enforcement action.
  • "TikTok is owned by a Chinese company that includes Chinese Communist Party members on its board, and it is required by law to share user data with Beijing," Hawley said in a statement. "[I]t has no place on government devices."

Context: TikTok, a wildly popular video app, doesn't collect much personal information compared to other social media platforms, and there's little public evidence that it is monitoring other activity on its users' devices.

  • But it reserves the right under its terms of service to collect location and other data, and cybersecurity experts caution that user behavior on TikTok could be used to train artificial intelligence systems.

Go deeper: Why TikTok and Huawei are in lawmakers' sights

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Oracle, Slack and Adobe Systems are scheduled to report earnings. (I jumped the gun in yesterday's Login and suggested they were all due to report on Wednesday.)

Trading Places

  • Microsoft is reorganizing its research unit, with Peter Lee at the helm and longtime researcher Eric Horvitz named chief scientific officer.
  • Amazon delivery experience chief Maria Renz is reportedly leaving for online lender SoFi.
  • ByteDance is offloading some of founder Zhang Yiming's duties to two new roles so he can focus on global issues. Zhang Nan and Zhang Lidong will together head up the company’s China operations.

ICYMI

  • A court has struck down some of the stricter requirements the Trump administration had been imposing on those seeking an H-1B visa. (Protocol)
  • On the 31st anniversary of the World Wide Web, its inventor — Tim Berners-Lee — penned an essay on how the web isn't working for women and girls. (Medium)
  • California said it won't appeal its loss in a suit to block T-Mobile's acquisition of Sprint, after securing new commitments and pledges related to jobs and service pricing. (The Verge)
  • Video game news site Kotaku said it will start giving staff paid time off for the time they spend outside of work hours playing video games — well, the video games they are reviewing anyway. (Kotaku)
  • Magic Leap is said to be exploring a sale or other transaction. (Bloomberg)
6. After you Login

You have to watch this talented singer who redid Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" for the work-from-home era.

Ina Fried