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1 big thing: Sundar Pichai's to-do list

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When he was recently named CEO of Google's parent company Alphabet, Sundar Pichai inherited a long list of issues in need of tackling — everything from addressing privacy and antitrust concerns, to managing an increasingly vocal workforce, to ensuring the future of the company's products.

The big picture: As Google CEO, Pichai was already responsible for much of this portfolio. Now, the buck truly stops with him.

Here's what Pichai's to-do list now looks like:

1. Balance privacy against Google's thirst for data. Privacy is an industrywide concern, but the challenge is especially large for a company that prides itself on collecting all the world's information.

  • Historically, that has meant the company gathers a lot of personal by following users as they journey across the internet.
  • This year, Google began touting privacy as a feature, with Pichai noting that in many cases Google actually has more information than it needs to serve up ads.
  • Balancing the quest for more data in a world of artificial intelligence with the growing demand for privacy protections remains a top task for Pichai.

2. Dodge the antitrust barrage. For a company that dominates the global search business, Google has been able to largely contain the impact of antitrust concerns for most of its history, despite a number of probes around the globe. A reckoning could be coming, however.

  • The EU has already ruled against the company a number of times, and fresh investigations are looming in the U.S. at both the state and federal levels.
  • When Pichai testifies on Capitol Hill in his new role, at least he will no longer face irritation from lawmakers complaining the company should have sent Larry Page instead.

3. Contain employee dissent without wrecking company culture. Google is dealing with an increasingly vocal workforce eager to have a say on everything from where the company does business, to what businesses it is in, to how workers (and vendors and contractors) are treated.

  • The company is straining to reconcile business realities with its long history of encouraging employees to speak out and sharing lots of internal information with them.
  • Workers have walked out over how the company has handled sexual harassment complaints and protested the prospect of Google contracts with China and the U.S. military.
  • Four recently dismissed employees who say they were fired for organizing work have filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

4. Rehabilitate YouTube's image. Although Susan Wojcicki is CEO of the Google-owned video service, she reports to Pichai, and ultimately, he is responsible for the content moderation challenges that go with being home to billions of hours of video.

  • YouTube is under increased scrutiny not just for which videos are allowed on the site and which are banned, but also for which are promoted by the platform's recommendation algorithm, and for the conditions borne by workers who scan for inappropriate content.

5. Defend the search franchise. Google continues to dominate its core business, but the company faces increased challenges.

  • As search moves from something you type in a box to a picture you take or a command you speak, competitors like Amazon, Apple and Microsoft may find new ways to win market share from Google.

6. Figure out what to do with "other bets." This is the newest area for Pichai, who now is responsible not only for Google's advertising business, but also for the longer-term plays grouped under the Alphabet umbrella in health, autonomous cars and other "moonshots."

The bottom line: There was a lot on Pichai's plate before, and even more now. He'll now have more autonomy. But ultimately, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin still own a controlling interest in the company, so Pichai still has to keep them happy.

Go deeper: Sundar Pichai on YouTube (Axios on HBO)

2. A threat to American AI talent

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

International students outnumber homegrown talent 2:1 among newly graduated AI experts, driving American leadership in the critical and increasingly crowded field, Axios' Kaveh Waddell reports.

Why it matters: Experts worry that U.S. hostility to immigration is choking this vital pipeline, potentially handing an advantage to competitors like China.

The big picture: Bright minds are the primary fuel for AI advances.

  • Experts attribute America's primacy in large part to its ability to attract the world's top talent, train them in top universities, and then employ them in academia or the booming private sector.
  • But as other countries' AI capabilities improve quickly, the balance may be upset.
  • A landmark new report on AI talent argues that "any short-term increase in other states' relative attractiveness — even if counteracted after the fact — can have long-term and potentially irreversible consequences."

Driving the news: In the new report, shared first with Axios, Remco Zwetsloot of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown analyzes the detailed education and work histories of thousands of recent AI graduates in the U.S.

  • Zwetsloot and his co-authors find that 80% of international students stay in the U.S. after graduation, a proportion that's stayed steady for years. But several looming changes threaten this trend.
  • Professional opportunities, immigration rules and personal considerations drive international students' decisions to stay or return after school — and immigration is only getting more restricted.

One particular danger, according to the report, is a rollback of Optional Practical Training, a program that allows graduates to work in the U.S. for three years after finishing school.

What's next: The White House has proposed reallocating the number of visas to accommodate more high-skilled immigrants. But Zwetsloot says that's not enough.

  • "Ultimately, increasing numerical caps will do a lot more for U.S. retention of the best and brightest than tweaking the allocation system for an insufficient number of slots," he says.

Go deeper: A potential AI talent drain

3. Netflix's growth is coming from outside the U.S.

Netflix is finally disclosing just how much of its user growth is coming from international efforts, as Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Driving the news: In a regulatory filing on Monday, Netflix released revenue and subscription data that showed the service has grown fastest in regions outside of the U.S. and Canada from 2017 to 2019.

Why it matters: This is the first time Netflix has disclosed subscriber numbers for specific regions. Netflix's streaming business in North America is still growing, but the platform — like other consumer media companies — is increasingly looking to other regions to continue its growth when business inevitably slows down at home.

By the numbers (as of Sept. 30, 2019):

  • International: More than 90 million paid subscribers outside of the U.S. and Canada
  • U.S. and Canada: 67.1 million
  • Europe, Middle East, Africa: 47.4 million
  • Latin America: 29.4 million
  • Asia Pacific: 14.5 million

1 relic thing: Netflix generated $450 million in revenue from DVD rentals in the U.S. and Canada — in 2017!

Go deeper: Streaming companies usher in new entertainment world order

4. Twilio grants $3 million to crisis responders

Communication tech firm Twilio is announcing $3 million in new grants later today, aimed at helping more than two dozen crisis services speed up their response time.

Why it matters: A prior round of funding in August focused on larger nonprofits, while these grants reach a number of lesser-known groups providing vital work to those in need. Twilio.org, the company's philanthropic arm, aims to help 1 billion people annually within 10 years.

The new grants are going to organizations that help those dealing with everything from domestic violence and sexual assault to natural disasters and suicidal feelings.

The goal of the grants is to help each of the organizations improve their response time.

"These are the instances where communications can mean the difference between hope and despair, or even at times between life and death," Twilio's chief social impact officer Erin Reilly said in an interview.

What they're saying: Trans Lifeline, which is receiving its largest-ever grant of $153,000 from Twilio, said that is enough to launch an urgently needed Spanish-language hotline to serve the U.S. and Canada by the end of June. As a result it expects to handle 44% more calls.

  • Development director Bri Barnett told Axios some of the most urgent calls the group has received in the past year have come from Latinx people, including those in ICE custody in the southwest U.S.
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The states' battle to block the Sprint-T-Mobile deal continues in a trial in a New York federal court.

Trading Places

  • Diane Rinaldo, the head of the Commerce Department's tech and telecom branch is leaving the agency, according to an internal email obtained by Axios.
  • Marian Bruno, deputy director of the FTC's competition bureau, is retiring.

ICYMI

  • Contract content moderators from Google and YouTube speak out on working conditions. (The Verge)
  • Exclusive: Facebook is funding Reuters' deepfake course for newsrooms. (Axios)
  • Aiming to boost its AI chip business, Intel is spending on the order of $2 billion to acquire Israel's Habana Labs. (ZDNet)
  • The house passed a bill that would block federal spending on Huawei or other firms believed to pose a national security risk. (CNET)
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