Aug 14, 2019

Axios Login

Situational awareness:

  • WeWork, the coworking space giant, has filed plans for a $1 billion IPO, which will test the company's ambitions against investor skepticism about its business model. (Axios)
  • "A group of LGBT video creators is accusing YouTube of discrimination by suppressing their content, restricting their ability to sell advertising and culling their subscribers, according to a federal lawsuit." (WashPost)

Today's word count is 1,309, or ~5 minutes.

1 big thing: Facebook's privacy scandal Groundhog Day

Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Tuesday's news (via Bloomberg) that Facebook had contractors listen to users' private recorded messages to provide transcription quality control was hardly surprising.

  • Google and Apple had been doing the same thing until a couple of weeks ago, when they stopped after reports surfaced in public.
  • In fact, Facebook says it stopped the practice when its rivals did, as well.

The big picture: What's surprising is how little Facebook's playbook around privacy violations has changed, even after 18 months of controversy and a recent $5 billion settlement over the issue with the Federal Trade Commission.

After everything the company has been through, Facebook nonetheless:

  • Failed to disclose to users that it had people listening to their private messages, however anonymously.
  • Understood there was a problem with the practice when it decided to halt it, yet failed to report that action to its users.
  • Did not go public with any information about the issue until a news story surfaced that described the contractors as "rattled" by the work.

Flashback: The first lesson in Crisis Management 101 is get everything out on the table at once, as fast as you can. Instead, since the Cambridge Analytica data scandal first rocked Facebook in March 2018, the company has hopped from one privacy revelation to the next, having to rewind the apology tape to the start each time:

  • June 2018: Up to 14 million users learned that many posts they intended to be accessible only to small groups of friends were public instead. Facebook blamed a software bug.
  • Sept. 2018: A data breach exposes the personal information of 50 million Facebook users.
  • Dec. 2018: Facebook announces that a bug allowed outside apps to access photos they weren't supposed to, including some that users had uploaded but hadn't posted. Up to 6.8 million users were affected.
  • Feb. 2019: Facebook changes the location settings for its Android app to make them more transparent. The company had faced a previous controversy in March 2018 for scraping and saving call data from Android users' phones, but the subsequent changes it made didn't fully resolve the problem.
  • April 2019: A report revealed that Facebook user data was left unprotected by third-party developers on Amazon cloud servers, exposing 540 million records.

The bottom line: As a result, despite CEO Mark Zuckerberg's protestations that Facebook has turned over a new leaf when it comes to protecting users' information, the impression the company has given the world is that Facebook will never change.

Our thought bubble: When a company in this sort of crisis is serious about putting controversy behind it, it can come clean, conduct a thorough top-to-bottom audit, report the results, and — maybe — move on. But it might be too late for Facebook to accomplish that.

Go deeper: What Facebook knows about you

2. Cities tap into social media feedback

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Monitoring social media feeds is a common practice for major brands and companies trying to keep up with consumer sentiment and tastes. City governments are now tapping into those data streams to keep tabs on residents' chatter and complaints about what's happening around town, Axios' Kim Hart reports.

Why it matters: Twitter and Facebook posts, when combined with other city tip-lines and data collection tools, can be a gold mine of information about what citizens really think.

The big picture: Social media creates a wide-ranging sensor network of sorts that helps cities direct resources to what residents actually care about. But it can also be surprising for users who don't expect city staff to be paying attention.

What's happening: ZenCity, a Tel Aviv-based, Microsoft-backed startup, sells an AI-powered sentiment analysis tool designed to track citizen opinions so cities can gauge how they are performing. ZenCity works with 75 communities and collects more than 1.5 million social media interactions each month.

How it works: ZenCity provides a dashboard that aggregates data points including social media posts, local news stories, messages received by cities' 311 portals, and online feedback forms. ZenCity collects more than 1.5 million interactions each month, CEO Eyal Feder-Levy said. AI is used to identify and sort trends, anomalies and public sentiment.

For example, Houston works with ZenCity to gauge how residents are responding to changes in city services, such as a recent garbage pick-up schedule change, and a project equipping free WiFi on public buses and trains.

The big picture: Cities naturally want to take advantage of the troves of information citizens are sharing on social media, but some people may not be expecting to be "listened to" when blowing off steam about a traffic jam or venting about a snow plow.

Go deeper: Read Kim's whole story — and subscribe to her weekly Axios Cities newsletter.

3. Twitter's plans to let you follow topics

Twitter revealed yesterday in a gathering with journalists that’s it’s planning to roll out a feature that lets users follow specific topics on the service.

What's happening: The social network is testing a bevy of new features like conversation moderation, search for private messages, and more, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Yes, but: The company also used the event to discuss some of its work and processes in areas like user safety, the “health” of the service, and security — areas in which Twitter has been heavily criticized for failing to take swift or clear action to solve problems.

Some highlights:

  • Twitter conversations: Along with experimenting with threading conversation replies, the company is also “re-energizing [its] investment in DMs,” said product management director Sara Haider, which will include an upcoming search function for direct messages.
  • User control: The company is testing various ways to let users exert more control over their experience of the service. For example, in Canada it’s testing the ability for users to moderate replies to their tweets by downgrading certain responses.
  • Content moderation: Twitter now has nearly 1,500 employees focused on moderation and responding to content reports, who are now spread across 9 locations around the world (up from 2 locations a year ago, according to Donald Hicks, VP of service).
  • Del Harvey, VP of trust and safety, also confirmed that the company has yet to use its new “public interest” label intended for cases in which content from a public figure violates the site's rules but is allowed to remain up.
  • Edit button: “It’s a feature that we should build at some point but it’s not anywhere near the top of our priorities,” said product chief Kayvon Beykpour, adding that Twitter should find a way to help people fix typos, or clarify what they said, though there are obvious risks that such a feature could be abused.
  • Interest topics: Beykpour said there will be topics that Twitter will bar from emerging as ones users could follow, though he didn’t use any specifics or examples (he was prompted by a reporter’s question about topics like anti-vaccination).
4. Tariffs on hold for many consumer tech products

The impending 10% tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese imports targeted by President Trump will be delayed from Sept. 1 to Dec. 15 for some products, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced yesterday.

Details: Certain products will also be taken off the list based on "health, safety, national security and other factors," Axios' Zachary Basu reports.

Why it matters: The delay — for items like cellphones, laptops, video game consoles, certain toys, computer monitors, and certain items of footwear and clothing — will help accommodate the holiday rush to ship products from China, easing the financial burden on U.S. importers.

  • IPhones are included in the delay, but tariffs will fall on other Apple products, like AirPods and the Apple Watch, as planned on Sept. 1, per Reuters.

Between the lines: The threat of a crashing stock market and higher Christmas shopping prices appears to have spooked the Trump administration, despite the president's false insistence that China pays the cost of tariffs directly into the U.S. Treasury.

5. Take note

Trading places

  • Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell is leaving Facebook. He was the last of Oculus' founding team remaining at the social network, which acquired the VR firm in 2014. (The Information)
  • Uber has hired Thomas Ranese as vice president of global marketing. (Uber)


  • The FTC's chairman said in an interview that he is willing to break up large tech companies if antitrust investigations warrant. (Bloomberg)
  • The Pentagon's inspector general is reviewing the bidding process for a $10 billion cloud computing contract known as JEDI. (The Hill)
  • SalesForce is toning down the Hawaiian shtick after complaints from real Hawaiians in its workforce. (The Daily Beast)
  • A U.K. biometrics database with fingerprints and other personal ID info for over 1 million people was publicly exposed. (The Guardian)
  • Snap's new-model Spectacles cost $380, more than twice the previous model. (The Verge)
6. After you Login

That fish tube really is something. So are the nerdy jokes about it.