May 6, 2020

Axios Login

Ina Fried

Writing this intro is the only thing standing between me and some reruns of "The Office." So, gotta run.

Today's Login is 1,378 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Supreme Court mulls if First Amendment covers robocalls

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments Wednesday on whether political organizations have a constitutional right to annoy you with robocalls, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Why it matters: A decision barring restrictions on robocalls could open the floodgates to many more than the tens of billions of Americans already endure — and expand the treatment of corporate activities and political organizations' expenditures as constitutionally protected speech.

What's happening: As part of its limited spring docket of cases argued via teleconference, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments Wednesday in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants Inc.

  • At issue in the case is a 2015 amendment to the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), the law that places limits on the use of robocalls and is the foundation of all the mechanisms federal regulators have to enforce those limits. The 2015 change exempts callers that are collecting debts owed to the U.S. government, such as federal student and housing loans.
  • The question before the court is whether that carve-out violates the First Amendment by establishing a content-based test for what calls can and can't be made. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled that it did and said the exemption should be stripped from the law.

Yes, but: If a majority on the Supreme Court agrees that the TCPA as amended is unconstitutional, it could also take aim at the statute instead of the exemption, hollowing or tossing out the 1991 law and regulations that depend on it.

  • In other words, such a ruling would broadly treat robocalls as protected speech that can't be abridged by the government.

Throwing out the law would be an extreme outcome. But some parties weighing in on the case are urging the court to take broader slashes at TCPA.

  • Facebook, in an amicus brief, asked the court to toss out severe restrictions TCPA places on the use of autodialers, a central piece of the law. The company said the law's definition of what constitutes an autodialer is squishy, arguably applying to all modern smartphones and opening the door for any number of unconstitutional limits on speech.
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a similar argument in its own brief, criticizing both the autodialer restrictions and limits placed on calls made to cell phones. "The remedy for a First Amendment violation is more speech, not less," the group wrote. "If the TCPA violates the First Amendment, the prohibition must go, not the exemption."

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for one, has shown sympathy in the past for an expansive reading of the First Amendment as superseding laws meant to restrict corporations' behavior.

  • While still on the D.C. Circuit, Kavanaugh authored the dissent to the 2017 ruling that upheld the (since-reversed) Obama-era net neutrality rules. One of his two core arguments was that the rules abridged the First Amendment rights of ISPs by overriding their editorial discretion over content that passes through their networks.
  • More broadly, the 2010 Citizens United decision, citing the First Amendment rights of corporations and private organizations, lifted many restrictions on political ad spending.

The big picture: Most Americans want fewer robocalls in their lives. Today's laws aren't very effective at limiting them, but striking them down would likely lead to even more calls.

  • In that case, winners would include political groups aiming to spend big ahead of the November election, and conservatives who champion the rights of corporations and the idea that spending money is a form of speech.
  • Losers would be those Americans who want to be left alone.

My thought bubble: It's hard to imagine that the framers had in mind that corporations' rights to use robots would outweigh individuals' right to be free from intrusion in their homes. But then, the Constitution is strangely silent when it comes to robots.

2. Scoop: Google.org doubles donations to $100M

Google.org granted $5 million to Opportunity Finance Network, which provides capital for underserved SMBs. Photo: Opportunity Finance Network

Google.org, the search giant's philanthropic arm, is doubling its planned coronavirus response donations to a total of $100 million, as Axios exclusively reported earlier today.

Why it matters: The effort is in addition to coronavirus-related moves by the corporate side and, in some cases, also comes with hands-on technical support from Google employees to help organizations with the technical aspects of their efforts.

What she's saying: In an interview, Google.org head Jacquelline Fuller acknowledged that "there's an overwhelming need." Overall, Google.org is doling out about $1 billion over five years and is looking for places where it can truly make a difference and partnerships with organizations that can make its dollars go farther, Fuller said.

With COVID-19, that's meant a range of actions:

  • Cash grants for those most in need, through GiveDirectly.
  • Working with organizations, such as Opportunity Finance Network, that help women-led and minority-led businesses that may have more challenges getting traditional funding.
  • Support for distance learning efforts, especially those that work in languages other than English, as more than 1 billion students around the world are out of school due to the pandemic.

Background: Google.org has already given out $50 million in grants, with $25 million going toward economic relief and recovery, $15 million to health and science and $10 million to distance learning projects. Google.org is now pledging a further $50 million, as well as 50,000 hours from Google employees to help with coronavirus-specific efforts.

Yes, but: Some have criticized Google for not opening its purse strings further. With the cash grants, for example, the company donated a portion of the target amount, relying on donations from Google employees and others to reach its goal.

3. Airbnb cuts 25% of workforce

Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Getty Images

Airbnb is laying off nearly 1,900 employees, or a quarter of its global workforce, as it tries to weather the near-total halt of travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: Despite raising $2 billion in debt and equity last month, cutting marketing expenses and freezing hiring, the company couldn't escape having to cut a significant number of jobs, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

  • "Airbnb's business has been hit hard, with revenue this year forecasted to be less than half of what we earned in 2019," CEO Brian Chesky said in a company email announcing the layoffs.
  • For severance, employees will receive 14 weeks of pay, plus an additional amount based on their tenure and location. They will also receive extended health care coverage (for 12 months in the U.S. and through the end of the year elsewhere), and the company is removing the first-year minimum to vest their equity if they joined in the past year.
  • The layoffs were not a condition to Airbnb's recent financings, per a spokesperson.
  • Questions also remain about the company's plans to go public this year.

Go deeper: CEO Brian Chesky's full statement

4. California suit says Uber, Lyft drivers are employees

Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California's attorney general, along with city attorneys for San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, is suing Uber and Lyft over the companies' classification of drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, Kia reports.

Why it matters: This is the latest move in a long-running effort to get the companies to reclassify their drivers. It follows multiple lawsuits from individual drivers over the years, as well as last year's new California law codifying a state Supreme Court decision that makes it harder to classify workers as contractors.

Details: The lawsuit seeks penalties and damages, and aims to get the companies to stop classifying drivers as independent contractors.

  • Along with enforcing the new labor law, known as AB5, the lawsuit also cites the state's Unfair Competition Law, arguing that the companies are getting unfair advantages over others that are classifying their workers as employees.

While the lawsuit is focused on Uber and Lyft, the attorneys told reporters during a press call that they are monitoring other gig economy companies and are not ruling out taking further action.

Kia has more here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Today's earnings reports include Square, Lyft, PayPal and IAC.

Trading Places

  • As Axios' Margaret Harding McGill scooped yesterday, Zoom has hired Information Technology Industry Council EVP Josh Kallmer to be its head of global public policy and government relations.
  • Longtime National Association of Broadcasters communications chief Dennis Wharton is retiring.

ICYMI

6. After you Login

Four words: Tub time cub time.

Ina Fried