Mar 21, 2019

Axios Login

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1 big thing: Tech looks to limit offline harms from online activity

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the escalation of real-world harms triggered by digital activity, technology companies are scrambling to avoid being a conduit for deceit, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: As the digital realm becomes more intertwined with our lives, big companies are under increasing pressure to help mitigate offline harm caused by technologies like automated advertising, social algorithms, artificial intelligence and digital editing tools.

Driving the news: Google announced last week that in 2018 it removed 2.3 billion ads and 1 million ad accounts that violated the company's policies. Many of those ads were linked to fake or dangerous businesses, according to Scott Spencer, Google's director of sustainable ads.

"Our goal is to think more about how we can ensure safety in online and offline transactions. This is an increasingly big focus of ours. You couldn't vet the quality of a product or service through Yellow Pages, but we're trying to do just that."
— Scott Spencer

Be smart: Since nearly anyone can create a business and make it look legitimate online, companies like Facebook and Google are cracking down on ads that promote businesses engaged in deceptive or dangerous practices offline.

  • Addiction treatment facilities are one example of a type of business whose ads Google evaluates with expert help, Spencer tells Axios.
  • Ticket resellers, third-party tech support, and local services (like repairmen) are also examples of businesses Google is working with experts to evaluate.
  • Psychics who mine Facebook to seem clairvoyant are being shown up by pranksters who make up fictional Facebook profiles, such as seen in this New York Times sting operation..

The threat of physical harm from online activity has become increasingly more apparent in recent weeks.

  • Anti-vaccination content that's long appeared in search results and on social media is now being regulated by social platforms after the U.S. government attributed recent measles outbreaks in part to reduced vaccination levels in some areas, spurring a media frenzy around the issue.
  • Terrorist attacks and mass shootings, like the recent New Zealand mosque attack, highlight ways that extremists are using social media channels to inspire hate and spread horrifying footage of mass killings. Tech platforms, particularly YouTube, have been under pressure from regulators and advertisers to crack down on content that could incite this type of behavior.
  • Fake rallies have been a problem for Facebook for a while, but an instance last month in Ukraine shows just how susceptible people around the world can be to fake promises of money or political activism, per BBC.

The bottom line: Shady businesses have always swindled people, even before they were able to easily create fake profiles, events and ads. But digital platforms give bad actors a whole new online toolkit to perpetrate fraud and mayhem in the offline world.

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2. Google resists pressure to pull LGBT "conversion therapy" app

Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Apple, Amazon and Microsoft have all pulled the plug on an app from Living Hope Ministries that aims to convince people that their same-sex sexual attractions are both sinful and changeable.

Much to the consternation of LGBTQ rights groups, though, Google has so far refused to take down the app, which the groups say amounts to a form of conversion therapy.


  • The app offers podcasts, testimonials and articles and includes sections for men, women, young people, and parents.
  • More than 139,000 people have signed a petition calling on Google to ban the app, which has been downloaded at least 1,000 times. (The Google Play app store no longer gives specific download numbers but reports rough tiers.)
  • A separate petition, calling on Apple to reinstate the app, has 20 signatures.

Why it matters: The practice of conversion therapy is roundly opposed by the mainstream medical community as both ineffective and dangerous.

  • Conversion therapy is opposed by prominent professional medical associations including the American Medical Association, the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
  • A 2018 study by the Family Acceptance Project found rates of attempted suicide by LGBT youth whose parents tried to change their sexual orientation were more than double the rate of LGBT youth who reported no such attempts.

Yes, but: Supporters of the app maintain it isn't endorsing or practicing conversion therapy.

Between the lines: While Apple and Amazon were able to ban the apps due to policies against objectionable content, the wording of Google's terms of service are less broad. Advocacy groups, however, argue the app is tantamount to encouraging self-harm and child endangerment, both of which do violate Google's terms of service.

What they're saying: Several major LGBTQ rights groups tell Axios they have written letters to Google CEO Sundar Pichai and have been trying, unsuccessfully, to meet with company executives face-to-face to voice their concerns. Google, meanwhile, isn't commenting on its decision.

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3. AT&T CEO downplays Time Warner exec departures

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson played down the recent departure of executives from Time Warner, which the company acquired last year and used to build its new WarnerMedia unit.

Why it matters: Stephenson’s bet that the telecom company can use original content to compete with Amazon and Netflix depends on its ability to integrate the Time Warner properties into its business.

Background: Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes departed the company when the deal closed.

  • HBO chief Richard Plepler and Turner president David Levy both left recently after it became clear they’d lose power in the consolidated company.
  • And Kevin Tsujihara stepped down this week as the head of the Warner Bros. movie studio after allegations he worked to set up job opportunities for an actress with whom he was in a sexual relationship.

What he’s saying: “Does it worry me? Yeah, of course you worry,” Stephenson said during an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. “But other than the head of Warner Bros. studios ... the rest of them were not surprises.”

  • He said that Plepler “did an amazing job growing HBO to where it is today, but where the world is going is a very different place.”
  • He said the company would focus on diversity in hiring executives in the future.

Stephenson also weighed in on the debate over shunning Huawei networking technology on national security grounds.

  • “I don’t think our government is doing their best work in explaining why this security risk exists,” he said.
  • He said he was less worried about the Chinese government eavesdropping than about a foreign company being enmeshed with connected infrastructure down the road.
  • “We have to ask ourselves a question: If that much of our infrastructure will be attached to this kind of technology, do we want to be cautious about who is the underlying company behind that technology?” he said. “We damn well better be.”
4. eBay to begin accepting Google Pay

Online marketplace eBay is announcing today it will start accepting Google Pay for some purchases. The move follows the addition of Apple Pay last year as eBay prepares for the end of an operating agreement with PayPal that expires in the middle of next year.

For the moment, eBay is offering Apple Pay (and soon Google Pay) to certain buyers in a new payment experience, while PayPal remains the primary option for most consumers.

The bottom line: With PayPal now a separate company, it's in eBay's best interest to offer whatever methods help it turn browsers into buyers.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Game Developers Conference continues in San Francisco.
  • CanSecWest continues in Vancouver.

Trading Places

  • Walmart CTO Jeremy King is leaving for a "new adventure."


  • Continuing to dribble out hardware news ahead of a services press event next week, Apple yesterday introduced an updated version of its AirPods wireless earbuds, including "Hey Siri" support and an optional wireless charging case.
  • Hundreds of South Korean hotel guests were reportedly surreptitiously filmed and the videos streamed onto the internet. (CNN)
  • A significant Android vulnerability went unpatched for years and millions of older devices will never get an update to deal with the issue. (Wired)
6. After you Login

Yesterday I brought you slow-mo snow. But, for those who prefer spring, here's this.