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May 20, 2021

It's all done but the intro, I tell my editor. And that depends on whether the Warriors win.

  • They didn't. So no intros for anyone.

Today's newsletter is 1,348 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: The prison phone kickback game

Illustration of a prisoner carrying a giant quarter to a payphone.  
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Incarcerated people and their families pay high rates to talk by phone in part because the deals phone companies cut with prisons and jails drive the prices up — and the Federal Communications Commission is looking to lower them, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: People who stay in contact with friends and family while in prison are more likely to succeed once they're out.

How it works: Phone service providers pay prisons and jails so-called "site commissions," usually based on revenues, when competing to win the sole contract to provide phone service at the facilities.

  • These payments are used for a variety of purposes — sometimes related to the cost of providing phone service. But in some cases they are used for operating expenses or other programs.
  • The providers recoup the cost of the payments in the rates they set for calls, which family and friends must pay to accept calls from incarcerated individuals.

Driving the news: The FCC will vote Thursday to impose lower limits on the prices phone service providers can charge for some calls at prisons and large jails.

  • The FCC's order focuses on calls made from one state to another because the agency doesn't have the power to set rates for calls made within states.
  • According to a public draft, the FCC order would also set a 2-cent-per-minute cap on the costs phone providers can pass through to callers to recover the payments they make to secure contracts.

What they're saying: "Site commissions drive up the already exorbitant rates that the incarcerated and their families pay just to keep in touch," acting FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement.

Between the lines: The kickback structure means that phone providers, rather than competing by providing the lowest prices, try to provide prisons with the highest payments.

The draft of the FCC's order attempts to curb they way these costs are passed through, but would allow for higher costs when state laws or regulations require site commission payments.

  • "That's just a loophole, and it's going to create a mess," Al Kramer, senior fellow at advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Axios. "It's going to motivate states to just pass a statute to get around this."

The other side: Major phone providers Securus and Global Tel*Link have argued that paying site commissions are a cost of doing business and they should be allowed to recover those costs. 

Read the full story.

2. Tinder tries to curb offensive messages

A mock=up of a new Tinder screen asking users if they are sure they want to post something that has been flagged by Tinder's AI as potentially offensive.
A mock-up of Tinder's "Are you sure?" screen. Image: Tinder

Tinder parent Match Group is debuting a new screen asking customers "Are you sure?" before they post potentially offensive language. It says the technique has reduced such language by 10% in early testing.

Why it matters: It's another example of the kind of tools tech companies can deploy on the middle ground between just banning content and taking an anything-goes stance.

How it works: When Tinder's AI systems detect language that could be seen as disrespectful, a warning screen pops up, giving users the option to change their wording. The detection algorithm was trained on language that users have reported as offensive in the past.

Between the lines: Tinder says both features appear to be helping, and not just in the immediate moment.

  • Those who saw the "Are you sure?" prompt were less likely to be reported for inappropriate messages over the next month.
  • Those asked whether they were bothered by content were 46% more likely to report inappropriate messages.

The big picture: Tinder says it's the first dating service to use this approach, though the technique does resemble one used by Twitter.

What they're saying: "As a new generation starts dating, we believe we have a responsibility to educate Tinder's members — many of whom are entering the dating pool for the first time — about what kind of behavior is and is not appropriate when building new relationships," Tinder safety head Tracey Breeden told Axios.

Meanwhile: TikTok is announcing an effort today to allow creators who deal with hate or harassment to more easily deal with large volumes of unwanted comments.

3. Facebook: Gov't internet shutdowns on the rise

Animated GIF of a facebook AP button with a "no" symbol in the upper left corner
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook says that its services were interrupted 84 times in 19 countries in the second half of last year, compared to 52 disruptions in eight countries that took place during the first half of the year. That's a symptom of a growing trend among countries to restrict access to social media and the open internet, Axios' Sara Fischer and I report.

Why it matters: Government censorship, whether through complete blackouts or laws limiting certain types of content, is a growing threat to the notion of the internet as an open global network.

Details: During the last six months of 2020, Facebook also said government requests for user data increased 10% from 173,592 to 191,013. The company says it continues to scrutinize all government requests for any user data.

  • Of the total volume, the U.S. continues to submit the largest number of requests, followed by India, Germany, France, Brazil and the U.K.
  • Similarly, from the first half of 2020 to the second, the number of times Facebook had to restrict access to content based on local law increased 93% globally, from 22,120 to 42,606. Those increases, Facebook says, were driven mainly by increases in requests from the U.K., Turkey and Brazil.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic saw a surge in local law enforcement agencies cracking down on content that they argued was tied to misinformation that could impact public safety.

  • Free speech critics argue that many of these laws are used to silence dissenters. An Axios report earlier this year also shows that internet blackouts have skyrocketed globally amid political unrest.

Separately: Facebook also noted that the amount of content it removed from organized hate groups surpassed the amount it removed from terrorist organizations. As Protocol notes, that's the first time that's happened since Facebook began reporting such stats in late 2017.

Meanwhile: Twitter posted a blog acknowledging that following an investigation, it determined the tool that automatically cropped images on the site contained bias that favored white people and women.

4. FTC sues Frontier over internet speeds

The Federal Trade Commission and six state attorneys general sued Frontier Communications on Wednesday, saying the internet service provider did not deliver the internet speeds it promised to consumers.

Why it matters: Axios' Kim Hart reports, Frontier is the only internet provider in many rural, small and mid-sized communities. The FTC's lawsuit claims Frontier upcharged consumers for higher-speed tiers of service, and then failed to deliver them.

Between the lines: The move signals that FTC acting chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter plans to be aggressive in holding companies accountable for the promises they make to consumers — a key basis for the agency's enforcement actions.

  • It also comes as the Biden administration is launching an effort to lower the price of broadband for all consumers.

Details: The complaint says Frontier advertised certain tiers of service in mail and online ads, and then sold the plans to consumers over the phone and online.

  • The service in question is the company's DSL connection, which is transmitted over copper telephone wires. Frontier provides DSL service to about 1.3 million customers in 25 states.

The other side: In a statement, Frontier said it believes the lawsuit is "without merit" and that it will present a "vigorous defense."

  • The company added that Frontier serves rural areas that are sparsely populated and difficult to serve, and that its DSL service has retained satisfied customers.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • The Epic vs. Apple trial continues with a series of expert witnesses on the stand on Thursday and Apple CEO Tim Cook expected to testify on Friday. The case could wrap up by Monday, though a verdict could take weeks or months.

Trading Places

  • Paul Kopacki, former Heroku CMO and Salesforce marketing exec, was named chief marketing officer for fintech data privacy software vendor Skyflow.

ICYMI

  • Peter Thiel and J.D. Vance are among the investors in a new round of funding for Rumble, a video sharing site popular in some conservative circles. (The Hill)
  • Crime app Citizen is being sharply criticized after it wrongly identified a homeless California man as having started a wildfire and offered a $35,000 reward for his capture before retracting the post the next day. (The Guardian)

6. After you Login

Lego designer Matthew Ashton shows off the company's new "Everyone is Awesome" set of mini figures in a rainbow of colors.
Lego designer Matthew Ashton shows off the company's new "Everyone is Awesome" set of mini figures in a rainbow of colors. Photo: Lego

Lego announced its first set developed with the LGBTQI community in mind. The "Everyone is Awesome" set includes 11 minifigures, each in a different color and with their own hairstyle.

  • The project was designed by Lego VP Matthew Ashton who said it is a celebration of the LGBTQI community within Lego as a company and among its fans. "I wanted to create a model that symbolises inclusivity and celebrates everyone, no matter how they identify or who they love," Ashton said.
  • The $35 set will be available from Lego online and at its own stores June 1 — the start of Pride month.