Apr 10, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

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1 big thing: Be careful what you wish for in tech legislation

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A new global wave of government rulemaking for online platforms has some experts and advocates sounding a "be careful what you wish for" alarm before proposals get baked into law, Axios' Scott Rosenberg reports.

Why it matters: In taking a bigger role deciding who can say what online, governments may aim to limit the distribution of hate speech, violent content and misinformation. But they could end up narrowing free speech and privacy rights, curtailing political dissent, and harming the internet in other unintended ways.

Driving the news:

  • On Monday, the U.K. government published a "white paper" draft policy that would hold tech companies liable for any harmful content they publish.
  • Tuesday, Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) introduced a bill aimed at banning large web platforms from using manipulative design features meant to capture users’ consent or data.
  • Canada says it's pondering new regulations of internet companies, and in the wake of the shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, Australia has passed a sweeping new law with strong penalties for online services that distribute violent content.

The big picture: Internet laws, even more than other kinds of regulations, have a way of creating unintended consequences.

  • Many observers fear that the more complex and expensive compliance with the new laws turns out to be, the more likely it is that they will further entrench the power of the dominant tech superpowers — like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple — that can afford to follow them, and price out startups and challengers.
  • Some critics have also noted that laws empowering governments to make broad decisions about online content could easily be abused by capricious or malicious regimes aiming to punish opponents and stifle dissenters.

What they're saying:

  • The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and several other civil liberties groups fired off a broadside last Friday reminding legislators that "The First Amendment’s protections apply to online speech as much as to offline speech," citing a list of Supreme Court precedents.
  • "It’s also possible that in the current moment [regulators] are moving too fast," writes Casey Newton in The Verge. "A white paper that announces its intention to ban 'trolling' and 'disinformation' but makes little attempt to define either gives me the shivers."

Our thought bubble: For years activists sought to protect the internet from regulation to preserve its value as an open forum for ideas and global dialogue. The argument carries less weight now that so many Americans see the online realm in a negative light. That leaves opponents of regulation instead saying, "Let's not make things any worse."

Flashback: The first major internet regulation in the U.S., the Communications Decency Act, passed decades ago as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

  • Its central provisions restricting indecent content online were quickly thrown out by the courts as overly broad.
  • But one key rule that's still on the books, known as Section 230, protects online providers and platforms from legal responsibility for user-contributed content.
  • As a result, a law originally aimed at penalizing providers of potentially objectionable content wound up protecting them.

Be smart: The long-term impact of today's lawmaking might prove just as counterintuitive. And if enough different laws are passed in enough countries, the very idea of a "global internet" could become history.

2. Congress' hate speech hearing evokes abuse

Speaking of hate speech, Capitol Hill is busy this week with more hearings on online speech and its discontents.

What's happening: The House Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday on the role of social media in the rise of white nationalism and related hate crimes featured appearances by representatives of Google and Facebook as well as Candace Owens, the black conservative, who argued that Democratic politicians were "fear-mongering."

  • But the committee's proceedings threatened to be overshadowed by an outpouring of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic comments and other hateful speech in the comments that accompanied its livestream on YouTube, before the Google-owned video site shut down the discussion.
  • The YouTube comment thread could have been copied into the Congressional Record as the hearing's Exhibit A.

Today, action shifts to the Republican-controlled Senate, where the Judiciary Committee holds a hearing to explore the frequently raised but never substantiated claim that the Big Tech platforms censor conservatives.

As Axios' David McCabe reports, the committee leadership rejected the witness Google planned to provide.

  • Google's proposed representative was Max Pappas, an executive focused on conservative outreach with a long career in right-wing politics — including a stint as a staffer for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who will be chairing the hearing.
  • Republicans suggested Pappas wasn't senior enough.
3. Exclusive: Broadway tech incubator takes the stage

Photo courtesy of The Shubert Organization

The live theater industry is looking for ways that technology can help bring the business of Broadway into the modern era.

Enter stage left: The Broadway Tech Accelerator, a new effort backed by theater giant The Shubert Organization and Exponential Creativity Ventures.

Why it matters: Live theater, like other entertainment industries, is both trying to embrace technology in its work while also being mindful of technologies that might make their core businesses less popular or valuable.

The big picture: Broadway is behind other live-event businesses when it comes to embracing technology, Shubert digital project director Kyle Wright tells Axios.

  • "Sports has always been fantastic at this," Wright says. "Broadway and performance arts are behind."

How it works:

  • Applications are being solicited now, with the first cohort of 4 companies set to begin a 12-week program in June.
  • The first 2 weeks and last 2 weeks will be in New York, with the remaining weeks being done remotely.
  • The selected companies will get to take part in the program, receive an equity investment as well as an opportunity to pilot their technology within Shubert, if feasible.

The bottom line: The goal is threefold, Wright says, to use technology to help broaden the diversity of voices that find their way onto the stage, to keep the theater industry relevant so people want to keep seeing live events, and to make sure the industry remains relevant a decade from now.

  • "Innovation and technology are a huge piece of how we attract talent to help solve these problems," he adds.
4. Quick takes

The venerable Helvetica font is getting a makeover, per The Verge.

  • I'm imagining Helvetica at a salon. "Would you like serifs?" "No. And nothing too bold, either."

Google is holding its big cloud event, Google Cloud Next, this week.

  • Lots of noise, lots of news on Tuesday, including key open source partnerships and the rebranding of Cloud Services Platform as Anthos. But it's still hard to get a sense for whether Google is really making inroads on Amazon and Microsoft.
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Apple has hired Arthur van Hoff, one of the founders of Jaunt VR, for an undisclosed role, per Variety.


6. After you Login

KW (Kleenex warning): You don't have to be a Miami Heat fan, or really even an NBA fan, to appreciate this touching tribute to retiring guard Dwyane Wade.

Ina Fried