Sep 2, 2021

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Congratulations to the Lower Whoosville Sluggers who ... I bet you thought it was going to be another one of those sports intros. Well, you're right.

Today's newsletter is 1,189 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: New boss for government's tech "SWAT team"

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Courtesy the Office of Management and Budget

Mina Hsiang will lead the U.S. Digital Service, the Office of Management and Budget told Axios today, as the Biden administration beefs up its cadre of technological special forces tasked with solving problems across the federal government, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Washington is preparing to spend trillions in infrastructure money allocated by the president's top-priority legislation, and building and tuning the digital systems for those programs will demand know-how.

Driving the news: Hsiang will be the first woman and first Asian-American to be the administrator of USDS, which was launched in 2014 in the aftermath of the troubled rollout of the HealthCare.gov website.

  • Hsiang is a USDS veteran from the Obama administration and worked on the HealthCare.gov rescue team.
  • More recently, she helped the Biden administration with the launch of the Vaccines.gov website to help Americans find COVID-19 vaccines.
  • She will fill the vacancy left by the April departure of Matt Cutts, the Google veteran who led the service from 2017.

The big picture: USDS teams are deployed for crisis work that needs a quick response — such as assisting at the southern border or helping with the Afghanistan evacuation. They also help implement new programs like those created by the American Rescue Plan.

  • "Government services — and helping people access those services via many channels, including digitally — are more critical now than ever," Hsiang told Axios. "The pandemic has been a catalyst to our country's collective awareness of this truth and has mobilized people to step up and act."

Yes, but: That work also happens outside the federal government. Civic tech nonprofit Code for America on Wednesday announced the launch of a new tool, GetCTC.org, meant to help low-income Americans who aren't required to file income taxes obtain their child tax credit.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration this week announced a new program, the U.S. Digital Corps, aimed at bringing software engineers, data scientists and others into federal agencies for two-year fellowships.

  • Unlike other tech units of the federal government, the Digital Corps is meant to recruit technologists to government service at the start of their careers.
  • The initial group of 30 fellows will work with agencies including Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Flashback: The new Digital Corps builds on several government tech efforts, including USDS, that began during the Obama administration.

  • The Presidential Innovation Fellows program, launched by the White House in 2012, brings experienced technologists into federal agencies for a year-long fellowship focused on projects, such as launching a website to provide information on telemedicine during the pandemic.
  • 18F, started in 2014, helps agencies build and buy tech products, including a revamp of the Federal Election Commission's website.
2. Apple's latest concession is to Japan

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple announced late Wednesday that, as part of a settlement with Japanese regulators, it will let certain iOS programs point customers to a website for managing their accounts.

Why it matters: The deal, like other changes Apple has announced in recent days, addresses a specific concern of developers, but leaves intact Apple's key commission structure and prohibition on rival in-app payment systems, both of which remain of concern to regulators.

Details: The change applies to a category of apps, known as "reader" apps, that allow customers to access subscription content, such as music, books, magazines or videos. It's a broad category that includes everything from Netflix to Spotify to Amazon's Kindle.

  • Apple doesn't allow such services to sell digital goods or services from within the app.
  • The change will go into effect in early 2022.

The big picture: Facing inquiries from regulators around the world as well as a variety of lawsuits, Apple has made a number of concessions, while maintaining the key components of its business model, including some of the most contentious terms around payments.

  • South Korea, meanwhile, passed a bill this week that requires Apple and Google to open their apps to third-party in-app payment systems, a change Apple and Google have both resisted.
3. Facebook says it helped airlift Afghans

Facebook on Wednesday confirmed that it was part of an effort to fly 175 Afghan citizens out of Afghanistan to Mexico, including some of its own employees, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Details: The tech giant said that in an effort to get some of its employees out of the country, it joined with a group that it declined to name that is working to help journalists in Afghanistan leave the country as the Taliban assumes control.

"In the process of assisting Facebook employees and close partners leave Afghanistan, we joined an effort to help a group of journalists and their families who were in grave danger. Thanks to the leadership of the Mexican government, and the support of the UAE in providing the initial landing, the journalists have been welcomed in Mexico.”
— Facebook spokesperson

The Mexican government released a statement Wednesday confirming that a group of 175 Afghan citizens arrived at the Mexico City International Airport that was "made up of social media workers, activists and independent journalists and their families, including 75 children."

4. Quick takes: Texas passes social media bill

1. Texas has followed Florida in passing a law that would prevent large social media platforms from imposing restrictions on political content.

  • Our thought bubble: The Florida law was quickly blocked by a federal court as a constitutionality challenge proceeds, and legal experts have raised the same concerns over the Texas bill.

2. Reddit has banned a popular anti-vaccination channel that critics say had been responsible for a tremendous amount of COVID-19 misinformation, as well as for harassing users.

  • Our thought bubble: This was probably a necessary step, but Reddit, which has mostly embraced the free-speech position, is also correct to point out how hard it is to draw a line between blocking misinformation and suppressing dissent.

3. Apple announced the rollout of a new iOS feature that lets users store a digital copy of their driver's license or state ID on their phones in Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Oklahoma, and Utah.

  • Our thought bubble: This is a super-handy feature that, combined with mobile payments, is finally making it feasible to leave home without carrying a physical wallet. On the other hand, some users may have concerns about handing their phones to an officer when they get pulled over.
5. Take note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • During its quarterly earnings call, Asana announced it has hired former Zendesk operations executive Anne Raimondi as its new chief operating officer.
  • Target chief information officer Mike McNamara plans to retire next year.

ICYMI

  • Apple plans to add blood-pressure monitoring and other new health features to Apple Watch next year. (WSJ)
  • Twitter is launching its Super Follow feature, which allows users to charge for their tweets. Don't worry: mine remain free. (Twitter)
  • Microsoft announced an online hardware launch event for Sept. 22, just ahead of the Oct. 5 availability of Windows 11. (The Verge)
6. After you Login

Screenshot: Axios

So how would you explain Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes to a kid today?

  • You'd have to explain magazines, sweepstakes, and snail mail, each of which are pretty bizarre notions.
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