Nov 5, 2019

Axios Login

Ina Fried

Hi again from L.A., where I am enjoying lots of fun in the sun ... as I commute to and from the convention center for Adobe Max.

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

1 big thing: IBM seeks rules for facial recognition

Facial recognition at Dulles Airport. Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/Getty

While tech companies have historically opposed government regulation of their industry, increasingly they are looking to legislation to set some basic ground rules.

The latest: IBM, one of several big tech companies selling facial recognition programs, plans to call on Congress to regulate the technology — but not too much, as Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

Why it matters: China has built a repressive surveillance apparatus with facial recognition; now, some U.S. cities are rolling it out for law enforcement. But tech companies worry that opponents will react to these developments by completely putting the kibosh on the technology.

The big picture: IBM's proposal joins calls for federal facial recognition regulations from Microsoft, Amazon and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

  • Big Tech is threatened by a yearlong groundswell of bans and proposed restrictions on facial recognition bubbling up in cities like San Francisco and states like Massachusetts.
  • The companies say these moves would cut off beneficial uses of the technology, like speeding up airport security or finding missing children.
  • Yes, but: They stand to gain from keeping the market open.

What's happening: In a white paper shared first with Axios, IBM is calling for what it calls "precision regulation." That means limiting potentially harmful uses rather than forbidding use of the technology entirely.

  • IBM proposes treating various kinds of facial recognition differently. Face detection software, which simply counts the number of faces in a scene, is less prone to abuse than face matching, which can pick specific people out of a crowd.
  • "There will always be use cases that will be off limits," IBM chief privacy officer Christina Montgomery tells Axios. "That includes mass surveillance and racial profiling."

At issue is public trust in facial recognition. Companies hope that curtailing some uses will rescue the technology from sliding into pariah status.

Details: IBM calls for three policies it says are ready to be implemented immediately.

  1. Requiring notice and consent for people subject to facial recognition authentication, such as in a workplace or on a social media platform.
  2. Implementing export controls that prevent the sale of facial matching technology — the kind police could use to pick wanted criminals out of a crowd.
  3. Mandating that law enforcement authorities disclose facial recognition technology and publish regular transparency reports.

What they're saying:

  • "We're responsible stewards of technology," Montgomery tells Axios. "We vet client engagements at the highest levels of the company."
  • "If adopted, IBM's proposal would clear the way for the deployment of this authoritarian technology in our communities, a move opposed by the public, AI experts, and democratically-elected legislatures across the United States," says Matt Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California.
2. Exclusive: PayPal's move on physical stores

Photo: "Axios on HBO"

While it has struggled in the past to convert its success online into a presence in physical retail stores, PayPal is planning another go at it.

During an "Axios on HBO" interview, CEO Dan Schulman said that the company will make new efforts starting next year under both the PayPal and Venmo brands.

Why it matters: The offline and online payments worlds are increasingly converging; Apple, for example, has introduced the Apple Card to go along with Apple Pay.

Details: PayPal thinks it can succeed now even though it has struggled in the past.

  • Schulman said that Paypal didn't have much to offer as a simple alternative to a credit card, but it can offer more in a world where people want to use reward points, split payments or even bypass the checkout line entirely.
  • "Before it was kind of a a a solution in search of a problem," Schulman said. "What I'm beginning to see right now is so that you can do different things now by tapping a phone. ... And as a result, you'll see PayPal increasingly become a part of the physical world as well as the digital world."
  • Schulman was short on details, but mentioned that QR codes could play a role, especially with small and micro businesses, while PayPal can also tap into the NFC transactions already accepted for things like Apple Pay and Google Pay.

You can view this part of the interview here.

Earlier: PayPal's CEO doesn't think entering China will force his company to compromise its values.

3. YouTube's standoff with Heritage Foundation

Photo: Carsten Rehder/picture alliance via Getty Images

The Heritage Foundation is preparing to unveil a video Tuesday that slams YouTube for what it says is the censorship of its voice on YouTube's platform, sources tell Axios' Sara Fischer.

Why it matters: The video will be the first public acknowledgment of a months-long, behind-the-scenes dispute between the conservative think tank and the tech giant.

Details: In late September, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki met with Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James and other members of Heritage's leadership team at their offices in Washington, sources tell Axios.

  • The meeting, which isn't that unusual for either party, was used to discuss an array of issues, including censorship.
  • While sources say the gathering was cordial, the two groups came to a standstill over YouTube's removal of a 2017 video from Heritage's content arm, the Daily Signal.

YouTube removed the video, which features a doctor making a comment about transgender issues, as a violation of its hate speech policies. Sources say that the tech giant offered to re-list the video, but only if the Daily Signal removed the transgender reference by the doctor. Heritage sees that either-or choice as censorship.

  • In the video, Dr. Michelle Cretella, a pediatrician, says, "See, if you want to cut off a leg or an arm you're mentally ill, but if you want to cut off healthy breasts or a penis, you're transgender."
  • While the Heritage Foundation concedes that those comments are controversial, it argues that the topic of body alteration is worth having a civil debate around.
  • "As one of the largest content platforms in the world, YouTube should welcome more discussion rather than eliminating speech at the mob's command," said Rob Bluey, Heritage's vice president of communications, in a statement.

Between the lines: Heritage went through a similar standoff with Facebook, but eventually had its video reposted as a part of an appeals process.

The big picture: The standoff highlights a wider issue that conservatives face in squaring off against Big Tech. Some conservatives feel conflicted about crying foul over YouTube's decisions because of their belief that private companies should be free to set their own policies.

  • The Heritage Foundation, which has strong ties to the Trump administration, takes a conservative positions on issues likes abortion and LGTBQ rights, but it also promotes free market economics and deregulation.
  • "As conservatives who believe in free enterprise, the last thing we should be calling for is government regulation or coercion of private companies," Bluey said.

Go deeper: Inside YouTube's hate speech minefield

4. Voters globally face election tampering

Last year, 93% of people living in a country with an election faced internet-driven election interference from their own government or domestic partisans, according to the 2019 "Freedom on the Net" report.

Why it matters: With all the focus on foreign governments tampering with U.S. elections, it's jarring to note that the U.S. was one of the nations where domestic actors led election interference in 2018, as Axios' Joe Uchill reports.

Freedom on the Net is a longstanding annual global ranking of nations by relative levels of government interference in the internet.

  • The report is compiled by the human rights advocacy group Freedom House, which this year emphasized the relationship between elections and internet freedom.
  • The researchers outlined three ways that governments and partisans might use the internet to jostle an election: disseminating false and misleading content as propaganda, blocking users from social media or political sites that may sow doubt in the state or arresting internet users for online political speech.

Between the lines: Freedom House specifically identifies disinformation circulating during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearing as evidence the U.S. struggles with information operations.

The rankings put U.S. in seventh place out of the 65 countries in the report. (Iceland won.)

  • Though the U.S. remains a "free" nation, FreedomHouse notes that the U.S. scores declined thanks to increased digital surveillance, including that of immigrant populations and travelers crossing the border.
5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Jim Lanzone, who has run CBS Interactive since 2011, is stepping down as CEO at year's end, to become executive-in-residence at Benchmark Capital; Lanzone will be succeeded at CBS by current COO Marc DeBevoise.
  • Kellan Elliott-McCrea, former CTO at Etsy and architect at Flickr, has joined Dropbox.
  • The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has hired Kayvan Hazemi-Jebelli to join its Brussels team as competition & regulatory counsel. Meanwhile, Vann Bentley is joining CCIA's Washington office as a policy counsel, focusing on AI and telecommunications policy, among other things.


6. After you Login

Check out this cat, who stole the show during last night's Giants-Cowboys game.

Ina Fried