Oct 29, 2020

Axios Login

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Today's Login is 1,460 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Republicans do a tech regulation about-face

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans, who traditionally oppose government regulation, pushed for new rules governing online platforms' speech policies in a high-profile hearing Wednesday that grilled the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The big picture: When GOP legislators led the fight against net neutrality rules earlier in the decade, they warned against turning the internet into a regulated space with government-imposed checks on online speech.

  • Now, their campaign against what they see as censorship of conservatives has led them down a regulatory path that looks strikingly similar, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Driving the news: The Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday held a hearing with the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google titled "Does Section 230's Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?"

  • GOP lawmakers spent much of the hearing focused not on that law per se — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms against lawsuits over moderation decisions and user-posted content — but on allegations that tech companies censor conservatives.

Catch up quick: Many on the right, including President Trump, view platforms' efforts to police content such as misinformation related to COVID-19 or voting as censorship aimed specifically at them.

  • At the hearing's start, Chairman Roger Wicker said Section 230 must be changed to stop platforms from singling out conservatives for punishment. "The time has come for that free pass to end," he said.

Between the lines: The way supporters of revoking or limiting Section 230 frame their case, it's about calling the government in to stop Big Tech's giants from promoting content they like and stifling content they don't like.

  • The idea is something akin to an internet version of the Fairness Doctrine — the former Federal Communications Commission policy, abolished during the Reagan administration, that required broadcasters to represent both sides when airing programming on political controversies.

Flashback: A digital Fairness Doctrine was just what Republicans warned against when the FCC during the Obama administration passed net neutrality rules meant to keep broadband providers from blocking or slowing access to certain online content.

Of note: FCC commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a Democrat, drew a connection between net neutrality and Section 230 during the agency's most recent public meeting Tuesday, as it voted to reaffirm its 2018 move to scrap the Obama-era rules.

  • "These pieces don't fit together," Starks said. "You can't pretend to have a light-touch regulatory framework when you're proposing to regulate online content with a heavy hand. This ideological about-face shows that the imminent Section 230 rulemaking is more about pleasing the President than making good policy."

Be smart: Some Republicans have already begun reading Fairness Doctrine-type principles into Section 230 as justification for revisiting it.

  • Sens. Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, who lit into Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey at Wednesday's hearing over bias claims, are among those who have said Section 230 is meant only to protect politically neutral online forums.
  • Such a requirement doesn't appear in the law, and Sen. Ron Wyden, who co-wrote it in 1996, is among those who have said that was never the intention.

The other side: Conservatives maintain that Section 230 serves as a special dispensation giving legal protections to the tech industry that don't apply to other sectors, such as publishing.

Our thought bubble: Any rule change that enforces a requirement of political neutrality to earn liability protection will land just as hard on the internet's conservative discussion spaces as it does on liberals. The biggest companies, like those at yesterday's hearing, will be able to afford the litigation such a future will require, while smaller operations could drown.

2. Tech's pandemic earnings blitz

Apple, Facebook, Google and Amazon are all slated to report earnings after the markets close today, and that should give us a much better sense of how the tech industry is faring through the pandemic.

Why it matters: The reports should offer a clue of how sustainable tech's "new normal" is. That's especially important, given that experts predict another, stronger wave of the coronavirus in the U.S. that could force continued reliance on remote work for office employees.

  • We've already seen strong results from Microsoft, eBay and others, so there is reason to expect strength from other big tech firms.

What to watch:

  • Google (Alphabet): Last quarter Google reported the first quarter of declining revenue since the company went public. The question for this quarter is whether the ad spending pullback has leveled off or intensified, as well as what the search giant expects for the current quarter, which includes the holiday shopping season.
  • Apple: Of course, plenty of attention will be paid to the number of iPhones sold last quarter, but those sales were before the iPhone 12 launched, so more interesting will be what Apple forecasts for the current quarter. Expect the company to continue to talk up its growing services business as well.
  • Facebook: The social network is expected to show a 12% increase in revenue from a year ago — to nearly $20 billion — but profits are seen down 10%.
  • Amazon: The retailer, which has become even more vital to many Americans during the pandemic, posted a blowout quarter three months ago. The question now is, can it do the same once again?
3. Spotify's Joe Rogan dilemma

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Spotify is getting slammed for allowing Joe Rogan, one of its most popular podcasters, to host far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones on his show, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: The company, which still distributes mostly music, will begin to encounter more of these types of problems as it expands its podcast business.

Internal emails leaked to Buzzfeed show that Spotify's general counsel has defended the company's decision to allow Rogan to host Jones.

  • The email includes talking points managers can use when defending the decision.
  • "We are not going to ban specific individuals from being guests on other people's shows, as the episode/show complies with our content policies," it advises. "It's important to have diverse voices and points of view on our platform."

Rogan hosted Jones on his podcast that aired Tuesday. In a lengthy interview, Jones disputed the effectiveness of vaccines.

  • Rogan pushed back on Jones and asked his producers to pull up the articles he referenced for more context.
  • Critics argued that by allowing Jones to be interviewed by Rogan on Spotify's platform, Spotify is giving Jones a soapbox to spew misinformation.

Catch up quick: Spotify already banned some of Jones' podcasts from its platform for violating its rules on hate speech.

The bottom line: Spotify isn't the only platform grappling with content moderation decisions. Technology has created an environment in which nearly any platform can be weaponized to promote misinformation or hate.

  • Drawing those lines has been difficult for many tech companies, including big information platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook, as well as music and video companies like Apple and YouTube, and even entertainment and wellness platforms like TikTok and Peloton and online stores like Etsy.
4. Restaurants sue Grubhub over listings

Two restaurant owners have filed a potential class action lawsuit against Grubhub, saying that the online food delivery service added their establishments without permission.

Why it matters: While intermediary services have touted their role in supporting independent restaurants and businesses during the pandemic, many have gone to great lengths to grab business that otherwise might have gone direct to the establishment.

Driving the news: The lawsuit argues that such listings create confusion and could harm restaurants' reputations. A Grubhub representative said the company doesn't comment on pending litigation, but the company was slow to move into delivering from what the industry dubs "non-partner" restaurants. Grubhub has also supported a California law that would stop the practice.

The big picture: Critics charge that intermediary services use hardball tactics including adding restaurants without permission and setting up phone numbers and web sites that go to the intermediaries rather than the merchants themselves.

Go deeper: Help Main Street allows orders directly from struggling small shops

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • It's a huge day for tech earnings. In addition to the above-mentioned giants, Shopify is set to report financial results.

Trading Places

  • ServiceNow hired veteran tech HR executive Gabrielle "Gaby" Toledano as chief talent officer. Toledano has worked in HR for 30 years at companies including Siebel Systems, Tesla and Electronic Arts.
  • Local services finder Thumbtack today named Dionna Smith as its global head of diversity, equity and inclusion. Smith previously headed diversity efforts at PowerToFly and has had roles at Delta Airlines, LexisNexis, Cisco Systems and Fiserv.

ICYMI

6. After you Login

Look, it's bound to be stressful for the next few days (or weeks, maybe months, possibly years), so here's another option for when you need a little chill-out time.