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January 28, 2022

You made it to Friday! And it's not just Friday. It's also Data Privacy Day and International Lego Day.

Today's newsletter is 1,162 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Meta's civil rights chief is trying to "turn the knob"

Photo illustration of Roy Austin against a backdrop of Meta logos.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Meta

A year ago, Facebook brought in Roy Austin Jr. to lead a new team focused on civil rights. Since then, he has assembled a squad of experts advising parent company Meta on everything from voting rights to hate speech to ensuring new products don't have discriminatory impact.

  • Austin's team of nine must tackle those tough issues inside a company of nearly 70,000 employees serving more than 3 billion users around the world.

In a series of exclusive interviews, Austin and members of his team spoke to Axios about the work they are taking on, the challenges facing Meta and more.

Flashback: Meta hired Austin following the completion of an external civil rights audit amid a raft of complaints that the company's products were having disparate and discriminatory impact on marginalized groups.

  • Austin, a civil rights attorney, is a former federal prosecutor and was director of the White House's office of urban affairs, justice, and opportunity during the Obama administration.
  • "At first I wasn't interested," Austin told Axios. "But what hit me was a company that touches 3.5 billion people, and I felt like if I could turn the knob just a little bit toward justice with a company with that kind of reach, that that would really be an amazing opportunity."

Austin's team has spent much of its first year trying to get to know — and be known by — the many teams within Meta and implementing dozens of recommendations from the civil rights audit.

  • Its most prominent external move was a letter Austin sent to the Los Angeles Police Department, calling on the agency to stop using fake Facebook profiles to surveil the public.
  • Austin's team was also at the forefront of getting Facebook to apologize publicly and examine why its algorithms associated a video depicting Black men with the tag "primates."

Between the lines: External critics are less concerned with who's on Facebook's team or what first-year efforts they've made than with the team's size, which looks too small to accomplish what's needed.

  • Civil rights groups continue to find instances of discrimination within Meta's existing products even as the company expands into new areas.
  • "I hope that the leaders at Facebook realize that the civil rights team needs to grow exponentially," Laura Murphy, who oversaw Facebook's landmark civil rights audit, told the Washington Post.

The other side: Austin and his colleagues insist their team is small but mighty, focused on building relationships throughout the company and empowering others concerned with civil rights to speak up as well. "A professor I once worked with said, 'How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,'" Austin said.

  • Austin notes that he only had a team of six employees and three interns when he was working at the White House during the Obama administration.

The big picture: With 3.6 billion users and myriad products from Facebook to Instagram to Quest and the metaverse, the issues that the team faces are diverse and numerous.

But it's that same scale, and the potential to drive change, that convinced Austin to join the company.

  • It also helped him recruit others, such as former FBI agent Cynthia Deitle, who gave up a job offer in academia to join Facebook as Austin's first hire, and Manar Waheed, who worked at the ACLU on race discrimination issues before joining Meta.
  • "Roy Austin is not the person you want to hire if you want to check a box and get a nod," Waheed said.

What to watch: An open question is how things will play out when civil rights concerns bump up against other issues, including political sensitivities and business concerns.

  • Austin doesn't think Facebook needs to be an "arbiter of truth" to come down harder on misinformation.
  • "We're living in a time and a society where there are people who propagate obvious falsehoods," Austin said. "My position is when those falsehoods injure historically and systemically marginalized communities, that they don't belong."

2. Crypto leads to massive surge in online scams

Reproduced from FTC; Chart: Axios Visuals

The FTC said yesterday that bogus cryptocurrency investments led to an unprecedented increase in online scams last year, Axios' Sara Fischer and Margaret Harding McGill report.

Why it matters: Cryptocurrency is an easy target because, while it's surging in popularity, there's still a lot of confusion about how it works.

  • This is especially true among younger people who are digitally savvy but less financially literate.
  • People ages 18-to-39 were more than twice as likely to report losing money to social media scams as older adults last year.

By the numbers: Investment-related scams on social media represented 37% of all reported losses, followed by romance scams and online shopping scams.

  • "People send money, often cryptocurrency, on promises of huge returns, but end up empty handed," the FTC writes.

Yes, but: While investment scams are by far the most costly for consumers, they aren't the most common. The greatest volume of complaints filed to the FCC came from rackets related to online shopping.

The big picture: Fraud cases from social media now account for roughly 25% of all fraud cases in the U.S., up 18 times from 2017.

  • Last year, more than 95,000 people reported losing around $770 million to fraud schemes on social media.

Between the lines: The FTC noted that more than a third of people who reported losing money to an online romance scam said it began on Facebook or Instagram.

  • "We put significant resources towards tackling this kind of fraud and abuse," said a spokesperson for parent company Meta.

3. Quick takes: Mask-ready Face ID

1. Apple is testing giving iPhone users the ability to use Face ID while wearing a mask as part of a new developer beta software update.

  • Why it matters: Apple adopted Face ID to replace fingerprint recognition on mobile devices, but many people have been forced to go back to entering a passcode to unlock their phones amid the pandemic.

2. Speaking of Apple, the iPhone maker crushed earnings estimates, with sales up in every geographic area and for all product categories except the iPad, which was impacted by significant component shortages.

  • The big picture: Apple is seen as a bellwether for the broader tech economy.

3. Tesla CEO Elon Musk said on an earnings call Wednesday that the company will prioritize the development of a robot meant to perform tasks that now can only be carried out by humans, Axios' Jacob Knutson reports.

  • Our thought bubble: Tesla stock has taken a beating lately. Musk knows how to stage a distraction.

4. Take note

Trading Places

  • Former Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure is leaving his post as COO of SoftBank and head of its international unit. SoftBank named Michel Combes, who was also Sprint CEO for a time, as head of SoftBank Group International.


5. After you Login

I thought we all could use a smile to end the week. And there are few smiles bigger than the one on this kid getting their first taste of queso.