Jun 12, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Before you start reading, do you mind hitting the snooze button for me? And turning out the lights? Thanks, you're a peach.

Today's Login is 1,555 words, a 6-minute read.

Situational awareness: Facebook is pausing its integration of recently acquired Giphy into Instagram as U.K. antitrust regulators launch a probe into the deal.

1 big thing: Big Tech's reckoning on race

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Tech companies are starting to open their wallets to confront racial inequities, but the issues that the industry needs to address go far beyond just writing checks.

The big picture: The lack of black and Latinx representation in the tech workforce is well documented, but the industry also must grapple with the vast impact its products can have in healing inequality — or worsening it.

Driving the news:

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook announced a new $100 million effort aimed at supporting racial equality and at boosting Apple's internal hiring and supplier diversity efforts. The effort, to be led by executive Lisa Jackson, will initially focus on the U.S. before expanding globally.
  • Google announced that YouTube is launching a $100 million initiative to support black creators. Separately, Google is expanding its advertising guidelines so that advertisers will no longer be able to target job, housing and credit ads by ZIP code, among other categories. Google already barred such digital redlining based on categories including race, sexual orientation and nationality.
  • PayPal announced a $530 million effort aimed at supporting black- and minority-owned businesses and to boost its own internal diversity efforts. Most of the money — $500 million — goes toward a fund that can invest in black and minority entrepreneurs.
  • Microsoft said Thursday that it won't allow police in the U.S. to use its facial recognition technology until the government sets rules on its use, following moves earlier this week by IBM, which is getting out of the business entirely, and Amazon, which said it was banning police use of its Rekognition technology for a year.

Yes, but: Silicon Valley still has a ways to go on diversity.

Hiring...

  • The makeup of a tech firm's workforce shapes everything from its culture to the biases that are embedded in its products.
  • Most large tech companies now report diversity breakdowns of their staffs, showing only modest gains, if any, in boosting the numbers of black and Latinx employees. (As workers of Asian descent are well represented in tech, companies typically track progress on diversity by looking at numbers for black and Latinx employees, as well as gender breakdown.)
  • Flashback: Intel was a pioneer in putting significant dollars into diversifying tech, announcing in 2015 that it would spend $300 million to boost its own minority representation, as well as that in the tech industry overall. This year, it pledged to, by 2030, double the number of women and underrepresented minorities in senior leadership.

Leadership...

  • The executive suites and boards of large tech companies remain overwhelmingly white.
  • Microsoft, Google and IBM all have CEOs of Indian heritage, but there are no black CEOs of Fortune 500 tech companies.
  • The venture capital industry, whose choices typically determine which startup founders get funding, is also overwhelmingly white.

Company culture...

  • Google has come under fire from employees in recent weeks over actions perceived as downplaying diversity.
  • Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reportedly told an all-hands meeting that the company didn't want to release its diversity numbers publicly because it would reinforce the notion that the tech industry is dominated by white men. Snap disputed the report’s account of Spiegel’s comments, in a statement saying it is "fully committed to publicly releasing our diversity numbers, along with more context and plans for meaningful action."
  • LinkedIn: At a recent company meeting on diversity, some workers reportedly used the anonymous nature of the event to defend racist notions.

Products...

  • Facial recognition software has come under fire for both poorly identifying people of color and how it's used, especially by governments and law enforcement. Several companies have called for legislation, but until this week many continued to sell the technology to police anyway. With several big players now halting such sales, one question is whose technologies those agencies will use.
  • Artificial intelligence algorithms today too often end up automating society's preexisting biases. That's increasingly dangerous as society turns to machine-learning-based algorithms to help make critical decisions on who gets an apartment, loan or job.
  • Culturally insensitive products have resulted from tech long being designed predominately by and for white men. That shows up in subtle ways, including the inability to use accent marks in forms, but also broader ways, such as speech recognition systems performing less well on black voices.

Go deeper: Tech's Black Lives Matter branding hits reality bump

2. FCC Republican voices doubts about Trump's executive order

FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republican Federal Communications Commissioner Mike O'Rielly said he's unsure whether his agency has the authority to carry out President Trump's executive order targeting tech firms' legal protections, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: Trump's order seeks to have the FCC craft regulations limiting the scope of legal immunity that online platforms have under federal law. All three commission Republicans would need to support such regulations for them to pass, as the FCC's two Democrats are certain to oppose them.

Details: In an interview Wednesday for C-SPAN's "The Communicators," O'Rielly told Margaret he sympathizes with the president's claims that conservatives have been unfairly stifled online, but "what we do about that is a different story."

  • O'Rielly questioned whether Congress gave the FCC the power to regulate based on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes platforms from legal action over user-posted content and moderation decisions.
  • "I have deep reservations they provided any intentional authority for this matter, but I want to listen to people," O'Rielly said, later adding, "I do not believe it is the right of the agency to read into the statute authority that is not there."
  • The executive order directs the Commerce Department to petition the FCC to review the issue. Assuming it gets to that stage, O'Rielly wants the FCC to put the matter to the public for comment.

Context: O'Rielly has been nominated by the White House for another term on the commission. The Senate Commerce Committee has a hearing on his renomination scheduled for Tuesday.

  • FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has stayed relatively quiet on the executive order, while the third Republican on the commission, Brendan Carr, has been vocal in his support.
3. Zoom confirms Beijing asked it to suspend activists

U.S. video conferencing company Zoom issued a statement on Thursday acknowledging that Beijing asked it to suspend several U.S.- and Hong Kong-based Chinese activists for holding events commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports.

The big picture: Zoom claims it only took the action, first reported by Axios, because the Chinese government informed the company that "this activity is illegal in China" and that meeting metadata showed "a significant number of mainland China participants."

  • Zoom has faced growing scrutiny over security concerns and its ties to China. China forbids free discussion of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement.

What they're saying:

"We strive to limit actions taken to only those necessary to comply with local laws. Our response should not have impacted users outside of mainland China. We made two mistakes:
We suspended or terminated the host accounts, one in Hong Kong SAR and two in the U.S. We have reinstated these three host accounts. 
We shut down the meetings instead of blocking the participants by country. We currently do not have the capability to block participants by country. We could have anticipated this need. While there would have been significant repercussions, we also could have kept the meetings running."
— Zoom blog

What's next: Zoom said that it will no longer allow requests from the Chinese government to impact anyone outside of mainland China and that it is working on technology that will allow it to remove or block participants based on geography.

4. New Snap tools show shift from messaging app to camera platform

Image: Snapchat

Snapchat on Thursday introduced a slate of new products, tools and partnerships that move the company closer to being a platform for developers and businesses, rather than just a chat app for friends, as Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Why it matters: With increased investments in things like gaming and augmented reality, Snapchat's business is beginning to look more like that of Chinese tech giants, which make money via value-added services like in-app purchases, rather than just ads.

The big picture: Snapchat's growth in messaging, while stable, is not enough to compete with titans like Google and Facebook for ad revenue long term.

  • So Snapchat is looking to build a developer ecosystem around its camera technology to unlock new forms of revenue.

What's new: Snapchat launched several new tools and shows Thursday at its second annual Partner Summit, broadcast virtually this year.

For developers, Snapchat has created Snap Minis, which allows them to make small apps within Snapchat's mobile app using standard web tools.

  • Minis will integrate within conversations on Snapchat, so friends can coordinate, say, buying concert tickets or meditating together.
  • Camera Kit brings Snapchat’s AR capabilities and camera engagement into developers' own apps so they can, for instance, integrate Snapchat Lenses (augmented-reality filters).
  • Lens Studio​ is a new, free desktop application designed for developers and artists to build and distribute AR Lenses on Snapchat.

For users, Snap has created features that make things like gaming and content consumption more interactive.

  • Local Lenses allows users to create 3D worlds on top of their own neighborhoods, almost like an AR-driven version of Minecraft.

Sara has more here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Subtly checking your phone while pretending to be paying close attention to a Zoom meeting.

Trading Places

  • Chris Cox is returning to Facebook as product chief after having left last year following a disagreement with CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Chip industry veteran Jim Keller is leaving his role as a senior VP at Intel immediately for "personal reasons," but will remain an adviser for the next six months. Keller previously worked at Tesla and Apple and had two stints at Intel rival AMD.
  • Audrey Gellman is stepping down as CEO of The Wing, a women-oriented coworking startup.

ICYMI

  • Google is countersuing Sonos for patent infringement. (Axios)
  • Twitter has deleted more than 170,000 accounts tied to the Chinese government that it says were mischaracterizing that country's role in COVID-19. (CNN)
  • Sony revealed the design for its PlayStation 5 — due out later this year — as well as sneak peeks at some upcoming games. (The Verge)
  • Internet Archive is ending its National Emergency Library of e-books as it faces a lawsuit from publishers. (New York Times)
  • Palantir is reportedly preparing to file for an IPO that could happen as soon as this fall. (Bloomberg)
6. After you Login

This Twitter thread debunking one of the depressingly numerous coronavirus conspiracy theories is some solid detective work.

Ina Fried