Dec 13, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Situational awareness: The first peeks at the next-generation Xbox — Series X — revealed that it looks kind of like ... a PC. (The Verge).

Today's Login is 1,467 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Robocallers face fight on many fronts

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Federal regulators, lawmakers, and private companies haven't found any one tool that on its own can stem the flood of robocalls, so they are trying several approaches at once, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and I report.

The big picture: There were a record 5.7 billion robocalls in October, according to YouMail, and the Federal Communications Commission has singled out the issue as its top consumer complaint.

What's happening now: The FCC is pushing both policy proposals and huge fines to deter robocalls.

  • On the policy front, the FCC has made it clear to service providers that they can offer robocall blocking services by default. It has also demanded that they implement a caller ID authentication framework known as SHAKEN/STIR, which involves creating a digital fingerprint to verify caller ID information.
  • On the enforcement front, the agency on Thursday proposed a nearly $10 million fine against a man accused of spoofing a rival telemarketing company's number to make thousands of robocalls with false allegations against a political candidate in California last year.

Yes, but: As Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel points out, the FCC hasn't collected on the majority of the robocall fines it has assessed. (The agency relies on the Justice Department to do the collecting.)

  • "Everyone should save the accolades for when we crush these calls and collect," Rosenworcel said in a statement Thursday. "And on that score, we have work to do."

On Capitol Hill, the House voted last week to approve legislation that would combat robocalls by requiring carriers to implement a caller authentication system and to give consumers free access to call blocking software.

  • The Pallone-Thune TRACED Act would also give the FCC greater enforcement powers and encourage cooperation with the Justice Department in cracking down on robocalls.
  • The bipartisan legislation is now awaiting a vote in the Senate, which is expected to come soon.

Tech companies and phone carriers are also trying to address the situation, including moves by Apple and Google as well as innovative efforts from startups.

  • Apple added a feature in iOS 13 that lets customers automatically block unknown callers, a move that protects against some spammers, but not those who are pretending to be someone you know.
  • Google has a call screening feature for its Android-based Pixel phones that can intercept unwanted calls.
  • There are also third party apps, like Nomorobo and Robokiller, that help block spam callers.

The bottom line: Someday maybe this will all change, but for now, your fingers remain the final line of defense. If you don't recognize the number, don't pick up.

Go deeper: Our robocall infestation is happening because the U.S. is still in transition from a copper-based network to a fiber-based one. (The Verge)

2. Facebook backs "Supreme Court" with $130M

Illustration: Aida Amer/Axios

Facebook has made an initial commitment of $130 million to fund a trust for its global content oversight board, as Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

The big picture: The board was first proposed in 2018 as an independent authority to help users appeal Facebook's content moderation decisions. The trust's financing is aimed at assuring its independence from Facebook.

Yes, but: The company disclosed that it was behind on announcing its board members, of which it could appoint up to 40.

  • Facebook was planning to name an initial batch by year's end, who would then be involved in selecting other members.
  • Now, it said, "we've decided to take additional time to consider the many candidates who continue to be put forward."

Details: In a blog post, Facebook estimated that the money should allow the board to operate for at least two full terms, or six years in total. It says the money will go toward office space, staff and travel expenses.

  • Facebook explained that it expects the board's staff to include "a director, case managers and a staff that support things like communications, legal, human resources and research needs."
  • It also said the trust will have at least three individual trustees and a corporate trustee. The tech giant added it's currently conducting a search for the individual trustees, who will be announced next year.

Meanwhile: The Wall Street Journal reported the FTC is weighing whether to seek an injunction barring Facebook from integrating different products, such as Instagram and WhatsApp.

Go deeper:

3. Tech's on-again, off-again campaign debate role

Tech companies have increasingly been participating as co-hosts or sponsors of political debates. But this cycle, two of the biggest tech giants, Facebook and Google, are so far noticeably absent from the Democratic primary debates, Axios' Fadel Allassan and Sara report.

Why it matters: Google and its video subsidiary YouTube, as well as Facebook, first partnered with TV networks for debates during the 2008 presidential cycle. Their presence has continued as a part of subsequent debates until this year.

  • In 2007, YouTube was the first of today's major tech platforms to partner with a TV network, CNN, for a televised debate. Candidates answered questions from constituents that came from YouTube videos.
  • Later that cycle, Facebook partnered with ABC News to co-sponsor a debate and created a special comments "soundboard" for users to post on in real-time while the debate aired on live TV.

Fast forward: Now Facebook and Google, as well as some of their other tech rivals, are facing scrutiny from lawmakers and presidential candidates for the way that their platforms can be used to spread misinformation and manipulate elections.

Driving the news: The Democratic National Committee announced on Thursday the hosts of the next four presidential debates in the first four primary and caucus states.

  • Both Facebook and Google were missing from the list of debate partners, but Apple News and Twitter were included. Facebook isn't likely to participate in any primary debates this cycle.
  • The Feb. 7 debate in New Hampshire will serve as Apple News' first debate. Apple launched Apple News+, a subscription magazine and news app, in March 2019.
  • Twitter will partner with CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute for a debate on Feb. 25 in Charleston, South Carolina.

How it works: In situations where broadcasters host debates that feature partnerships or sponsorships from tech companies, the broadcaster typically pays for most debate expenses.

  • The tech companies will sometimes strike deals with the networks to handle other costs, like the costs to set up a filing center for press or a post-debate spin room.
  • For companies like Twitter, the opportunity to partner with a network isn't just a branding play, but it can also be a chance to showcase how its platform can benefit civic discourse and participation.
  • For example, Twitter helped field debate questions from voters to candidates in real-time in 2015. Sources say it's likely the company will look to do similar things in 2020.

By the numbers: By Axios' count, there were seven primary debates on both sides that were co-hosted by or partnered with tech companies during the 2016 cycle. So far this cycle, there have been two — but there have only been debates on one side of the political aisle.

4. FCC votes to open auto airwaves for WiFi

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously Thursday to take a swath of airwaves long set aside for auto safety and open it up for WiFi and other uses.

The big picture: As Margaret reports, the FCC's proposal comes over the objections of the Department of Transportation.

  • It wanted to preserve the 5.9 GHz band for car-to-car communications aimed at preventing crashes and eventually managing traffic once self-driving and semi-autonomous vehicles hit the roads.

Driving the news: The FCC asks for comment on its plan to divvy up the airwaves, 75 MHz in total. It plans to open 45 MHz for unlicensed use like WiFi and set aside 30 MHz for auto safety tech.

  • All 75 MHz of spectrum was set aside 20 years ago for a type of vehicle safety communications that the auto industry never delivered.
  • Under the proposal, the FCC may leave some of the 30 MHz chunk of airwaves open to that earlier proposed tech. Or it may designate that whole swath for a new type of so-called "cellular-vehicle-to-everything" technology.
  • Cable companies and WiFi advocates have been pushing for access to the airwaves, while Ford and the 5G Automotive Association want to use the spectrum for the new tech.

What they're saying: Rosenworcel, Democratic commissioner, and Republican commissioner Mike O'Rielly, who have long-called for action on 5.9 GHz, welcomed the vote.

  • But the Department of Transportation still has "significant concerns" with the proposal, a spokesperson said.
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • It's the first day of the rest of your life.

Trading Places

  • Benedict Evans is leaving Andreessen Horowitz and moving back to London, he announced via a series of tweets.
  • Bonobos founder Andy Dunn is leaving Walmart, two years after the retail giant bought his menswear startup, Recode reported.
  • Salesforce promoted chief product officer (and Quip co-founder) Bret Taylor to president and chief operating officer.


  • Unable to survive in a world of Uber and Lyft, airport transportation company SuperShuttle is shutting down Dec. 31. (LA Times)
  • Meanwhile Lyft is launching a car rental service in LA and San Francisco. (The Verge)
  • Samsung says it has sold 1 million of its pricey Galaxy Fold phones. (The Verge)
  • Sources say the U.S. has reached a tentative, limited trade deal with China. (WSJ)
  • Hulu debuted new ad units catered to people binge watching a show. (Axios)
  • Twitter launched two efforts aimed at making it easier to identify political candidates on its platform. (Axios)
  • AT&T's low-band 5G network launches in 10 cities today. (The Verge)
6. After you Login

What's better than hearing "Sesame Street" characters? Hearing them do impressions of one another.

Ina Fried