Mar 18, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Axios will be hosting a live virtual event Thursday, March 19, on the coronavirus and pandemic preparedness. Join us at 9am ET live for this in-depth discussion that will cover the impact of the crisis. 

Today's Login is only 1,487 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech's moment to shine (or not)

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Thanks to the coronavirus crisis, Big Tech, after battling criticism for the last several years, has an opportunity to show the upside of its scale and reach.

Why it matters: If companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are able to demonstrate they can be a force for good in a trying time, many inside the companies feel they could undo some of the techlash's ill will and maybe blunt some of the regulatory threats that loom over them.

What they're saying: According to insiders I talked to, the companies all view their roles similarly: to keep existing products working even amid new demand, to provide accurate information and fight misinformation, and to help in the broader fight against the coronavirus.

"We just realize the seriousness of the moment and the importance of getting it right at a moment when our services are really needed."
— Facebook vice president Molly Cutler
  • Cutler, who largely stays out of the media spotlight, leads Facebook's strategic response team, reporting to Sheryl Sandberg, and has been running the operations of its companywide virus response effort.

When you ask people at the companies, they say they want to help because it is the right thing to do. But many acknowledge they also hope that the public will start to see their companies they way they do.

These companies start with central positions in our new, virus-transformed lives.

  • Google's Search is where most people start their information hunts, and the company also plays a role in everything from video chatting to email and productivity software to entertainment (via YouTube).
  • Facebook's core service lets people see what their friends are up to, while Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Live and Facebook Messenger each help replace in-person contact.
  • Amazon delivers needed physical goods, and also digital entertainment through Prime Video, Audible, Kindle and more.
  • Apple's devices and apps are helping people get their work done and keep the kids entertained.
  • Microsoft's shift to services over the past few years means that many workers can pick up at home where they left off at the office.

Now the companies are pushing hard not just to connect isolated people, but also to promote reliable information that's desperately needed.

  • Facebook has been working with the World Health Organization since last month, offering free advertising space in the home feed to promote accurate info.
  • Google and YouTube are promoting information from the CDC, WHO and New York Times when people enter virus-related searches.
  • Google is also building some new websites to handle coronavirus information, as you may have heard.
  • Companies are also contributing to their communities, paying hourly workers even when their on-site jobs can't be performed, and taking other public-minded measures.

Yes, but: Despite these efforts, misinformation remains a constant problem.

  • Already, Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been home to some harmful rumors, a longstanding challenge within private messaging systems.
  • The big tech companies have announced they are working together to promote quality information, but they have yet to offer many details on that effort.
  • While trying to find ways to help, Google has found itself in a tough spot, with the White House repeatedly mischaracterizing and overstating its efforts.
  • On Tuesday, Facebook was also incorrectly flagging coronavirus news stories and other accurate information as spam or violations of community standards, as the result of what the company said was a bug.
  • The big companies also face the challenge of meeting the needs of the moment while shorthanded themselves. Most are based in California and Washington, two states hard hit by the pandemic. Many of their workers are now also home teachers and caregivers, while also trying to do their day jobs.

Our thought bubble: Critics who have raised alarms about Big Tech's concentration of power, manipulation of attention and misuse of user data aren't likely to give up their analyses just because the firms pitched in during a public health crisis. Nonetheless, the companies suddenly have a new opening to burnish their public images and win some more hearts and minds.

2. Scooter companies hit the brakes amid pandemic

With some cities ordering residents indoors and a general decrease in urban activity in other places, scooter rental companies Lime and Bird are suspending their services in certain cities, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

The big picture: San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area instituted a shelter-in-place order on Monday, calling on residents to stay home except for essential needs like going to the grocery store or to the doctor, with other U.S. cities likely to follow.

The details: 

It's unclear whether either company plans to compensate workers affected by the suspension of operations. Lyft, which also owns bike rental services in a number of major cities, says it's not halting bike and scooter rentals at this time (Axios has also reached out to Uber).

Be smart: The coronavirus can spread when people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their faces, so riders using shared bikes and scooters are encouraged to disinfect handlebars, wash their hands before and after, and avoid touching their faces.

Meanwhile: Uber and Lyft (and Via's NYC service) suspended their carpool services on Tuesday to minimize the danger of passengers riding in cars with strangers.

3. TikTok launches moderation advisory group

Photo: Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images

TikTok will announce a new group today that will help guide the Chinese-owned platform's content moderation policies. The group of outside advisers includes people with expertise in child safety, hate speech and misinformation, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: Online platforms are facing intense scrutiny from lawmakers and the Justice Department over how they decide what their users can and can't say and do.

Details: TikTok's Content Advisory Council will discuss existing and potential future policies against misinformation and election interference at its first meeting later this month, TikTok U.S. general manager Vanessa Pappas wrote in a blog post.

  • Dawn Nunziato, a George Washington University Law School professor and co-director of the Global Internet Freedom Project who specializes in online free speech issues, will chair the council.

Other members include:

  • Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami Law School professor and critic of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives online companies broad license to moderate their platforms as they see fit;
  • Rob Atkinson, the president of the tech policy think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation; and
  • Hany Farid, a UC Berkeley professor who focuses on digital image analysis.

"We want to surround ourselves with experts who can both evaluate the actions we've taken and provide guidance on additional measures we could be pursuing," Pappas said.

Background: TikTok in October said it was working with lawyers from the firm K&L Gates — including former Congressmen Bart Gordon and Jeff Denham — to help form the external advisory group.

  • The company faces criticism from lawmakers on issues including privacy, content moderation, security and its ties to China, with Republican Sens. Josh Hawley and Rick Scott introducing a bill that would ban federal government employees from using the video sharing app on their work devices.
  • In January, TikTok updated its community standards, providing more details on content it deems unacceptable and its approach to misinformation.
  • And earlier this month, TikTok said it would open a transparency center in Los Angeles that will allow experts to observe its content-moderation process.
4. Amazon adjusts to meet the times

Amazon is shifting focus to make sure it can supply the most-needed products during the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Amazon delivers much-needed goods to an increasingly isolated population, and customers have come to assume it can ship almost anything overnight, often in a matter of hours. That's less likely to be the case for a while, at least for less essential products.

"In the short term, we are making the decision to temporarily prioritize household staples, medical supplies and other high demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so we can more quickly receive, restock and ship these products to customers."
— Amazon, in a blog post

As a result, the company is telling third-party merchants that it will temporarily limit the inflow of goods to its warehouses to "essential products" like household goods, baby products, personal care items, pet food and so on.

Meanwhile: Amazon said yesterday it would hire 100,000 new full- or part-time employees and raise pay to meet the increasing demand for its services. Still, some say Amazon hasn't done enough to protect its workers from the virus. More than 1,500 have signed a petition demanding hazard pay, sick leave and the shutdown of facilities a worker tests positive.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Your own personal episode of Big Brother, live, in your apartment/condo/house. And you can't vote anyone out.

Trading Places

  • Stockholm-based Resolutions Games is adding industry veteran Mike Booth to its board of directors.


6. After you Login

We've seen maps of how the impact of the coronavirus has cut carbon emissions. But it's having more immediate effects on the environment too. Like turning the canals in Venice clear.

Ina Fried