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October 06, 2020

Situational awareness: We're still awaiting the House Judiciary Committee's long-gestating report on big tech and antitrust, which we are told is delayed by new information the committee received from Facebook — as well as some jostling with Republican members of the committee, who want the report to be less sweeping than what leading Democrats are proposing.

Today's Login is 1,402 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Supreme Court to weigh software's future

Animated illustration of a justice scale weighing the Google and Oracle logos

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Oracle and Google will have their day at the Supreme Court Wednesday, tangling via teleconference in oral arguments aimed at resolving a decade-long battle over whether common interfaces between software programs can be protected by copyright.

Why it matters: The case lies at the heart of how modern software development works, and each side says a ruling in the other's favor will chill innovation, Axios' Ashley Gold reports. More narrowly, the Supreme Court may settle the question of whether Google owes Oracle nearly $9 billion in damages, as Oracle claims.

Between the lines: When Google developed the Android smartphone operating system more than a decade ago, it tapped Java code that is now owned by Oracle.

  • That code, known as an application programming interface or API, lets other programs "speak" to Java programs.

At issue in the case is whether copyright protection should extend to APIs. Oracle says it should, and that Google stole its property. Google and other allies hold that the industry has never operated that way, and restricting APIs will inhibit innovation and harm consumers.

Catch up quick: Oracle and Google have swapped victories in lower courts.

  • Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled in Oracle's favor in 2018, prompting Google to seek Supreme Court review.
  • The coronavirus pandemic led to a postponement of oral arguments before the high court, originally slated for March.

Background: Oracle, which enjoys a good relationship with the Trump White House, has won backing from the Justice Department.

  • Oracle is in the middle of trying to become TikTok's "trusted technology partner" in the U.S., as part of a convoluted process set off by the Trump administration.
  • Google, meanwhile, is facing an imminent Justice Department antitrust lawsuit and regulatory pressure on Capitol Hill.

What Google says:

  • "A negative ruling would introduce new friction for interoperability ... which is what lets you take a picture using an iPhone, store it in Google Photos and edit it using a Microsoft laptop," Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president of global affairs, told Axios.
  • He described APIs as "plugs and sockets that help programs work with each other," which had not been thought of as copyrightable until Oracle sued Google over them.
  • Oracle's arguments "miss the larger purpose of copyright and the way software works, and some of the key legal principles that have meant that American technology companies have led the world," Walker maintained.

What Oracle says:

  • "We just have a different view of things," Oracle's executive vice president, Ken Glueck, told Axios. "Their view is to monetize as much content as they can, whether it belongs to them or not."
  • Oracle has pushed back on Google and its supporters' claim that a ruling in favor of Oracle would inhibit software interoperability. Glueck called that a "sky is falling" argument contradicted by technological advances that have continued even after the most recent court precedent — the 2018 Federal Circuit ruling — favoring Oracle's position.
  • "The notion that weaker [intellectual property] leads to more innovation is just backwards," he said.

Of note: This is the first week the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments since the death of liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had a record of defending intellectual property owners.

2. Instagram CEO: TikTok ban saga has damaged tech

Photo illustration of Adam Mosseri, the Head of Instagram, with a hand about to delete the TikTok app

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch

Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, told Axios' Sara Fischer in an interview Monday that President Trump's efforts to ban TikTok may have already dealt irreversible damage to the internet industry.

Driving the news: "The damage might have already been done in terms of normalizing this type of policy," Mosseri said. He and others have previously cautioned that nations targeting individual apps could chill innovation and free expression and encourage authoritarian governments to further extend their sway online.

What they're saying: "I think it's really going to be problematic if we end up banning TikTok and we set a precedent for more countries to ban more apps," Mosseri said. "You can imagine them feeling really emboldened to say, 'Look, you have to do this or we will ban you entirely.'"

  • "It would be bad for everyone ... It will be bad for American tech companies which have been historically the biggest international tech companies. And it's going to be bad for people, too, because you would have a more fragmented internet."

Catch up quick: Trump threatened the ban on TikTok in an August executive order, citing national security concerns around the Chinese-owned social video app.

  • Last month, Trump agreed to a deal aimed at staving off the ban, under which Oracle would serve as TikTok's "trusted technology partner" in the U.S.
  • That deal still needs to be finalized, although a federal judge last week stopped the Trump administration from blocking new U.S. downloads of TikTok in the meantime, concluding the order may have been an overreach of the president's emergency powers.

Where it stands: TikTok is still negotiating the terms of a deal with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), Treasury Department-led body that reviews transactions with foreign entities.

  • The talks are expected to end in an extensive agreement aimed at protecting U.S. national security, a source close to the situation told Ashley. The source added that the deal is not yet final but appears closer to the end than the beginning of negotiations.

The bottom line: If Mosseri is right, the whole saga may have the same global impact regardless of how it ends.

3. Instagram takes measures against bullying

In other Instagram news, the platform will announce today two new efforts designed to reduce bullying on the service.

Details: Instagram will begin automatically hiding comments similar to ones that have already been reported as harassing, though users will still have the option to click and view the hidden comment.

  • It is also warning users who repeatedly post potentially offensive comments about the consequences of doing so.

Context: That builds on a feature introduced a year ago that warns users when they are trying to post a comment similar to ones that have been found to violate harassment rules.

  • Instagram says the feature has helped reduce harassment on the service, but declined to say how often people edited or deleted their comments.

Between the lines: One of the biggest challenges is the nuance involved in understanding harassment, says Caroline Merrell, Instagram's global head of policy programs.

  • Merrell said that friends joke with one another and terms that some see as offensive are often reclaimed by marginalized groups.
  • "We can continually get better at understanding the nuances of particular communities," she said.

4. Trump COVID conspiracy theories surge

Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: Zignal; Chart: Axios Visuals

Misinformation related to President Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis has swarmed social media and the broader web since Friday, with claims that Trump is faking his illness gaining particular traction, according to data provided to Axios' Sara Fischer and Kyle Daly by social intelligence firm Zignal Labs.

Why it matters: Moments of national urgency are now becoming flashpoints in digital information wars, with misinformation being spread far and wide by malicious actors, conspiracy theorists and earnest dupes.

The state of play: False claims have already begun to diverge into a few different threads, including one holding that Democrats or “Deep State” operatives intentionally infected him as an assassination attempt.

Be smart: Some of these conspiracy theories have been spreading for months, but have experienced sharp upticks in response to the president's diagnosis.

  • One false idea picking up steam is that masks don't work, because some of the GOP officials who have been infected during the current Trump-world coronavirus outbreak did at some points wear masks.
  • This storyline grew on Sunday evening, per Zignal Labs, amid media coverage of Trump taking a masked car ride to wave at supporters outside Walter Reed hospital.
  • The unsubstantiated claim that the virus was created in a lab in China also spiked over the weekend.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang and Arm CEO Simon Segars will appear together today to discuss the future of AI at Arm DevSummit.

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