Aug 31, 2018

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By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

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1 big thing: Tech’s make-or-break two months

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

With new attacks by President Trump, high-stakes testimony next week on Capitol Hill, and a midterm election vulnerable to online manipulation, tech’s giants are bracing themselves for the two months after Labor Day that could decide whether and how much the government regulates them.

The big picture: The companies — led by Facebook and Google but with Twitter, Apple, and Amazon also in the mix — are caught in a partisan vise, between privacy-oriented critics on the left who fear further election interference and newer charges from the right of anti-conservative bias and censorship.

We spoke with people at the big companies to map the cases they expect to make publicly and privately.

Facebook: We’re at the table. We’re willing to accept some regulation. We don’t have all the answers.

  • COO Sheryl Sandberg will testify at the Senate Intelligence Committee's hearing next week on disinformation. The company is now seasoned in the art of congressional testimony thanks to previous appearances by several executives, most notably CEO Mark Zuckerberg last spring.

Google: Our algorithms have no politics.

  • Google had been less in the spotlight than Facebook or Twitter even though it probably has more data on users and it operates YouTube, which has struggled to limit conspiracy theories and other questionable content. That, of course, changed with Trump's recent tweets.

Twitter: We’re listening to users and working with the authorities. We’re being more transparent about political ads. And we’re cracking down on fake accounts.

  • Twitter updated its ads policy Thursday to include a certification process for advertisers and more visibility into issue ads.

Apple: We don't sell your info. We don't have a social network. We're pro-privacy.

  • Unlike Google and Facebook, Apple isn’t dependent on advertising revenue, so it’s able to stand apart from rivals and say that it’s not stockpiling user data and it’s not a vector for election tampering.

Amazon: We don’t do elections. We're not a social network. We pay fair wages.

  • Amazon has been largely insulated from concerns over election meddling and malicious content, but nonetheless has a lot at stake over the next two months.

The bottom line: The companies are all adopting different versions of a “we’re different from all the others” strategy, and that could let aggressive legislators divide and conquer them on the road to regulation.

Go deeper: Team Axios has more on this here.

Meanwhile: Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked the Federal Trade Commission on Thursday to open a probe into "the competitive effects of Google’s conduct in search and digital advertising."

2. Sizing up Apple's Sept. 12 product launch

One more piece of Apple's fall plans has fallen into place — Sept. 12 is the date for its big fall product launch, which will almost certainly see the new iPhone lineup revealed, with other new hardware expected to be in the mix.

The bottom line: At this point, it's not clear how much surprise will be left in two weeks' time.

Why it matters: The iPhone is the most important and valuable product in the tech industry and all eyes are on what Apple comes up with each year.

Meanwhile: Pictures also leaked Thursday of Google's forthcoming Pixel 3.

3. Mapbox CEO vows changes after "disgusting act" of vandalism

Snap Maps is one of many apps powered by Mapbox. Photo: Snapchat

Mapbox CEO Eric Gundersen says the company will implement more protections for its data after vandalism caused its maps to briefly label New York City as "Jewtropolis."

"This is a disgusting act."
— Eric Gundersen, via phone interview

Why it matters: Mapbox, a highly-touted startup, powers maps for Snapchat, Facebook, Tinder and other major apps.

What happened: The vandalism was the result of a single OpenStreetMaps user who made dozens of changes designed to insert anti-Semitic language onto maps in New York, New Zealand and elsewhere, Gundersen tells Axios.

  • However, Gundersen says he takes full responsibility for the incident. "This was a Mapbox issue," he says. "None of our customers did anything funny. This is 100 percent our issue."
  • While Mapbox' AI system caught all the attempts and quarantined them, a human override allowed one to go live, affecting all of Mapbox's partners, including Snapchat.
"We’ve built out all these systems to make sure the hatred and increasing bile being created on the internet doesn’t impact us, and it did today," he says.

What's next: Gundersen notes that Mapbox will look to add either a second layer of human interaction to override the AI quarantine, a final machine learning check on human-approved changes, or both.

4. California cities pick scooter firms

It was a big day in the scooter wars, with San Francisco and Santa Monica each allowing a few players into their cities.

  • Santa Monica issued permits to Uber-owned Jump, Lyft, Lime and Bird for its upcoming e-scooter pilot.
  • San Francisco, meanwhile, eschewed those four in favor of two lesser known players, Scoot and Skip, which were each given one-year permits as part of its pilot program.

The bottom line: San Francisco's choices suggest scooter companies might not want to follow the Uber model of asking for forgiveness rather than permission.
Here are a few more thoughts from Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva, who's been covering the scooter wars.

  • Bird, Lime, and Spin rolled out their scooters in San Francisco this spring before the city had finished formulating its pilot program. It wouldn't be surprising if local officials are holding that against them.
  • As for Uber and Lyft, the two companies may still be dealing with their old sins — although Uber's Jump division has the only bike-share permit in San Francisco, raising questions about why that relationship wasn't rewarded.
  • Scoot has been operating full-sized scooters in San Francisco for years and has already forged a positive relationship with city officials. Skip, also based in San Francisco, has only deployed its scooters in a few cities where it has obtained the city's permission.
  • Because scooter deployment is so tightly regulated, including caps on the number of vehicles, having deep pockets to quickly grab market share won't work in this market as it did with ride-hailing.

Our thought bubble: The companies that didn't get permits in San Francisco made clear they weren't happy. But don't be surprised if they soon change their tune, arguing that missing out on San Francisco isn't a big deal since they already operate in dozens of cities.

Read more of Kia's full story.

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As Virgin Atlantic's Martyn Reding points out, this pillow is a perfect example of when the legal team wins out over the design team.

Ina Fried