Oct 26, 2020

Axios Login

There's a lot to see on tonight's "Axios on HBO," including my interview with Jennifer Doudna, who recently was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry. She talks about the future of the CRISPR technology she helped pioneer and how science is on the ballot in this year's presidential election. Also:

  • Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) says she wants every cabinet seat to go to a progressive if Joe Biden wins (see clip). 
  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) tells Jonathan Swan that he is "very worried" about the national debt under President Trump (see clip).
  • Axios co-founders Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei break down how a President Biden could transform the government during his first 100 days in office.

Tune in at 11:16pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms.

Today's Login is 1,343 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How Biden could hold tech accountable

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Joe Biden has said he wants to make tech platforms more accountable for rampant misinformation. A number of players are now trying to get his ear on just how to do that, should he win the election, Axios' Ashley Gold reports.

The big picture: Biden has never sketched out a specific tech policy platform, leaving an opening for different interests to try to shape his views on issues pertaining to Silicon Valley — including tech's prized liability shield.

Where it stands: There are two broad camps jockeying for influence on the question of how to make tech take more responsibility for curbing misinformation, extremism and hate speech.

  • On the one side are those who want to overhaul or even altogether scrap Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that keeps platforms from being sued over moderation calls and user-posted material.
  • On the other are those who say killing Section 230 would only incentivize platforms against moderating at all. They're instead pushing to leave the law intact but find other ways to ratchet up the legal pressure on companies like Facebook and Twitter to keep harmful content offline.

The intrigue: Biden is no fan of Section 230. He told the New York Times editorial board back in January that it should be "revoked, immediately," after Facebook declined to fact-check or remove misleading anti-Biden ads from President Trump's campaign.

  • Biden's position on Section 230 remains unchanged, a campaign spokesperson told Axios.

Yes, but: He has not made Section 230 a signature campaign trail issue, and in the time since January, the issue has become far more politically charged. Conservatives including Trump have become the loudest voices calling for the repeal of Section 230, citing the alleged suppression of right-leaning online content.

What they're saying: "We've had discussions at the highest level of the campaign recently," said Jim Steyer, the CEO of children's advocacy group Common Sense Media and among the more prominent and politically connected figures calling for a Section 230 rewrite from the left.

Of note: Steyer has a close ally in this push in Bruce Reed, a top policy adviser to Biden and longtime member of the former vice president's inner circle.

  • Steyer and Reed co-authored an essay, which appears in a new book Steyer has out on technology's impact on democracy, calling on Washington to "throw Section 230 out" and start over. They say U.S. law should treat tech platforms more like publishers, which accept legal liability for the material they print.

The other side: Tech industry veterans as well as some academics and civil society groups are urging the next administration against calling for the death of Section 230.

One alternative proposal shared exclusively with Axios comes courtesy of Matt Perault, formerly Facebook's director of public policy and now at Duke's Center on Science & Technology Policy (which receives some funding from Google). It's part of the Day One Project, a set of science and technology plans compiled by a bipartisan group including many Obama administration alums.

  • Perault's plan, among other things, envisions the next president working Congress to pass a new federal law to criminalize certain online speech such as intentional voter suppression — Section 230 doesn't protect platforms from prosecution if they knowingly let users break federal laws — as well as a law to force platforms to quickly comply if a court orders them to remove illegal content.
2. Apple-Google deal in spotlight

Google hands Apple billions of dollars annually to be the default search engine on the iPhone giant’s devices, an arrangement that’s coming under renewed scrutiny as part of the government's antitrust suit against Google.

Why it matters: Google is the go-to search engine on mobile devices due to this deal, together with other pacts with wireless carriers and Android device makers. Google says users would pick it anyway, but antitrust enforcers contend the deals give Google a huge advantage over its search rivals.

How it works: Under the deal, all web searches on the iPhone, as well as queries from other devices, are sent by default straight to Google. Users have the option to change that to an alternative like Microsoft’s Bing or privacy-first search site DuckDuckGo, but few bother.

The big picture: It's one of a number of ways that the giants of tech reinforce each other's core businesses even as they compete in other areas.

Between the lines: On top of the antitrust concerns, the deal arguably serves as a workaround that lets Apple preserve its reputation for preserving user privacy while still indirectly making money off Google's harvesting of customer data.

What they're saying: CEO Tim Cook defended the deal in a 2018 interview I did for "Axios on HBO."

"One, I think their search engine is the best. ... But, two, look at what we've done with the controls we've built in. We have private web browsing. We have an intelligent tracker prevention. ... It's not a perfect thing. I'd be the very first person to say that. But it goes a long way to helping."
  • Google also defended the pacts with Apple and others in a blog post, likening them to the way brands pay for shelf space in a supermarket.

My thought bubble: Google need not go that far for an analogy. It's quite common in technology for companies to pay to have their software pre-installed on new phones or PCs, for example. However, such deals have also come under antitrust scrutiny when used to reinforce a dominant market position.

3. Using AI to unlock the genetic secrets of food

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A startup is employing machine learning to identify what it calls the "dark matter of nutrition," Axios Future's Bryan Walsh reports.

Why it matters: More than 99% of phytonutrients — the natural chemicals produced by plants — are unknown to science. If we can illuminate that dark matter, we can identify and cultivate compounds in foods for specific health value.

How it works: The startup Brightseed uses a proprietary AI platform called Forager to predict the likelihood that plants will have useful natural compounds.

  • The platform is trained on a vast library of biomedical and plant research. That allows the AI to make connections between plant ingredients and health effects far faster than any human scientist could alone.
  • "It effectively works as a Google search engine for these compounds and what they can do," says Jim Flatt, Brightseed's CEO. "Once we've found those compounds, we can develop products and services around them."

Details: The Forager system can screen by specific chemical compound, or by health benefit, searching for ingredients that might affect cholesterol or cognitive function.

What they're saying: "AI allows us to tackle things that would have taken far too long in the past computationally," says Flatt.

4. Zuckerberg, Dorsey to testify after election

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 17, Ashley reports.

What's new: The panel announced the session Friday night, staving off the need to use subpoenas to haul in the executives. Conservatives are angry that Twitter and Facebook made moves to limit the spread of the New York Post’s controversial Hunter Biden coverage.

Between the lines: Although the executives have seemingly agreed to come voluntarily, the panel still made a notable concession in scheduling the hearing. Senate Judiciary Republicans had wanted to have the hearing before the election.

Context: Dorsey and Zuckerberg, along with Google's Sundar Pichai, are also slated to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28 about Section 230 and content moderation.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Opendoor named Daniel Morillo as its first chief investment officer, overseeing pricing and data science efforts. Morillo comes from Citadel, where he was head of equity quantitative research for the past five years.


  • An antitrust suit against Facebook by state and federal authorities could come as soon as next month. (Washington Post)
  • PayPal has canceled its business with Epik, the domain name host home to Gab, the Proud Boys and other far-right sites, prompting upset from some conservatives. (Mashable)
  • Facebook is preparing for unrest around next week's election with tools developed to address instability in countries like Myanmar. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Zoom reportedly shut down video conferences on its platform intended to discuss allegations of censorship by the company. (BuzzFeed)
  • Use of the coronavirus testing program from Google sister firm Verily has been suspended in San Francisco and Oakland over privacy and inequality concerns. (L.A. Times)
6. After you Login

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