September 30, 2021
I'm back in San Francisco and planning to stick close to here for a bit. But don't worry, I'll still make sure to cover the world of tech news from the comfort of home.
Today's newsletter is 1,154 words, a 4-minute read.
1 big thing: Massive disruptions outpace tech innovations
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — The tech insider crowd partied here at Code Conference this week, but many couldn't shake the sense that the world's colossal problems are outrunning the breakthroughs their industry is promising.
- The stage brimmed with talk of flying electric taxis and space tourism. Optimists flashed "we can fix that" smiles. But there wasn't enough tech-fueled bravado to lift the shadows of misinformation, isolationism and runaway climate change.
Driving the news: Code Conference, the venerable tech gathering founded by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg, returned after a two-year break — and as a smaller event in a new location.
- It marked, for many attendees, the first in-person industry event since the pandemic shut everything down in early 2020. There was a lot of talk of huge advances set to arrive in the coming years.
Elon Musk talked about his plans for satellite internet and his broader ambitious for space travel to the moon and Mars, along with getting in some digs at rival space-loving billionaire Jeff Bezos.
- The Larry Page-backed startup Kitty Hawk brought a prototype of its pilotless electric flying taxi to the conference.
- CEO Sebastian Thrun talked about the potential for planes like Kitty Hawk's to run cheaper and use less energy even than electric cars.
Yes, but: Political and vaccine-related misinformation and a broad breakdown in truth and trust were also big topics of discussion — with those problems described in far more detail than proposed solutions.
- Former CISA head Chris Krebs called for a "whole of society" response — an urgent but vague prescription. Even the more specific remedies he urged, such as stronger civics curricula in schools, would take years to approve and longer still to have an impact.
- Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also called misinformation a "hard problem" and said neither AI nor armies of human moderators will fully solve it.
Meanwhile: Attendees struggled to outline a coherent strategy to deal with the fraying of the U.S.-China relationship that once supported a truly global tech industry.
The event closed out Wednesday with no consensus on how to take on these tough issues. There was, however, a discussion of the benefits of psychedelics, while a handful of volunteers received complementary intravenous vitamins.
Editor's note: Ina worked for Code organizer Recode and its predecessor All Things Digital from 2010 to 2016.
2. LinkedIn blocks for Beijing
LinkedIn blocked the profiles of several U.S. journalists from the company's China-based platform this week, citing "prohibited content," Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian reports. Allen-Ebrahimian's account was one of the profiles affected.
Why it matters: LinkedIn is one of the only large American social media platforms to agree to the Chinese government's demands to censor content, and is tasking its own employees with restricting what users in China can see.
- "If LinkedIn's behavior is normalized, it sends a message to companies across the globe that it is business as usual to enforce Beijing's censorship demands globally," PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.
Details: LinkedIn customer service sent Allen-Ebrahimian an email on Sept. 27 stating that, due to "prohibited content" in the summary section of her profile, the company was blocking the profile from being viewable in China.
- Melissa Chan, a former China correspondent who now works as a journalist in Berlin, posted on Twitter that she had received a similar email on Sept. 28.
- Greg Bruno, the author of a book about China's soft-power push against Tibetans, also posted on Twitter on Sept. 28 that he had received an email from LinkedIn. It cited the "publications" section of his profile, in which the only publication listed is his book.
- The LinkedIn profiles of numerous academics, researchers, government employees, and others around the world have been affected in recent months.
What they're saying: "We're a global platform that respects the laws that apply to us, including adhering to Chinese government regulations for our localized version of LinkedIn in China," LinkedIn told Axios in a statement. "For members whose profile visibility is limited within China, their profiles are still visible across the rest of the globe where LinkedIn is available."
- But LinkedIn did not respond to questions about which content specifically was considered "prohibited," which Chinese law the content violated, and whether LinkedIn maintains an internal list of prohibited topics that it uses to proactively remove profiles.
3. Amazon settles with fired workers
Amazon settled Wednesday with two former tech workers it fired after they criticized the e-commerce giant's management of warehouse workers and its impact on climate change.
Why it matters: The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found in April that Amazon had illegally fired Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa.
- The NLRB told the company it would accuse it of unfair labor practices unless it reached a settlement with the workers, the New York Times reported at the time.
Context: Cunningham and Costa joined dozens of Amazon workers last year in reporting company retaliations to the labor board.
- While Amazon has long faced accusations of unfair labor practices, scrutiny has increased during the pandemic, Axios' Shawna Chen notes.
What they're saying: Cunningham and Costa said in a joint statement the settlement was "a win for protecting workers' rights, and shows that we were right to stand up for each other, for justice, and for our world."
4. Amazon, Microsoft, Google OK cloud principles
Amazon, Google and Microsoft announced this morning that they, along with a number of other enterprise companies, have agreed on a series of principles on customer protection and data sovereignty to govern their cloud computing work.
Why it matters: The rare joint announcement shows the industry presenting a united front as regulators around the globe consider different approaches to issues ranging from where data is stored to how to handle requests from law enforcement.
Details: The Trusted Cloud Principles are still fairly broad, but reflect the industry's concern that certain regulations and proposals are not only making it hard to do business, but forcing companies to hand over customer data without even being able to notify customers.
- Beyond the three cloud giants, signatories include Atlassian, Cisco, IBM, Salesforce + Slack, and SAP.
5. Take note
- Facebook safety executive Antigone Davis is set to testify before a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on consumer protection with a focus on Instagram's impact on teens.
- Ahead of the hearing, Facebook released two slide presentations with internal research on that topic. The Wall Street Journal then released a total of six internal Facebook documents, including those two presentations.
- Axios also hears that Accountable Tech is planning a six-figure national TV ad campaign that juxtaposes quotes from Mark Zuckerberg with internal Facebook research exposed by WSJ.
- Workers called Activision's $18M settlement plan a "slap in the face." (Axios)
- Russia threatened to ban YouTube for deleting RT channels over COVID-19 misinformation. (Axios)
- ViacomCBS is paying $3.5 million to settle charges that its PlutoTV unit violated rules requiring closed captioning for some Internet-based video services. (Variety)
6. After you Login
Check out the work of this artist who uses paper cutouts to transform photos of landmarks into all-new creations.