Oct 1, 2019

Axios Login

Scott Rosenberg

Welcome back to another edition of Axios Login. Today's Smart Brevity word count: 1,380 words, a 5-minute read.

Situational awareness: Leaked recordings of Mark Zuckerberg addressing employees in July show a jokier Facebook CEO. If the government sues to break up his company, he says, "if someone's going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and fight." (The Verge)

1 big thing: Platforms fall deeper into the political-speech quagmire

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As the House's impeachment inquiry kicks off, stoking partisan tempers online, Facebook and Twitter are scrambling to deal with the fallout.

Why it matters: Social media platforms that set out to "bring the world closer together" and help people "share ideas and information" are finding that there is no bottom to the hole they're in now that their services have become political battlegrounds.

Driving the news: President Trump's tweets have often been intemperate, but since the announcement of the impeachment inquiry they have grown even more combative and menacing.

  • Trump quoted a conservative minister's argument that removing him from office would set off a new American civil war. He also twice suggested that Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic congressman who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, might be tried for treason.
  • A Harvard law professor told Newsweek the "civil war" tweet was grounds for impeachment, and Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger called it "repugnant" (on Twitter).
  • In September, Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar said Trump's retweet of a false video claiming to show her celebrating the anniversary of the 9/11 attack had put her life at risk.

In all these cases, the president used his position and his Twitter soapbox to threaten political opponents, his critics argued. They cranked up their longstanding call for Twitter to suspend his @realDonaldTrump account.

Twitter's rules bar targeted harassment and threats of violence against individuals or groups.

  • But Twitter moves with extra caution when it comes to public figures — people who "may be considered a topic of legitimate public interest by virtue of their being in the public consciousness."

Be smart: Platforms like Twitter are even less likely to take action against potentially offending public figures on the right — Trump included — since the companies have been the target of unsubstantiated complaints that they censor conservatives.

Our thought bubble: For Twitter, Trump represents a kind of catastrophic "edge case" — the term engineers use for scenarios that expose the contradictions or weaknesses in their systems.

  • His office makes him undeniably a "topic of legitimate public interest." But his tweets keep moving further across Twitter's red lines.

Meanwhile, Facebook is also struggling to assemble a coherent political-speech strategy.

  • Since 2016 Facebook has had a "newsworthiness" exemption for content that violates its rules to remain online if Facebook decides that's in the public interest.
  • Last week Nick Clegg, Facebook's VP of global affairs, announced that "from now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard." Political ads will be more strictly vetted.
  • Facebook also plans to exempt material declared to be "opinion" or "satire" from its fact-checking rules, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Between the lines: Facebook just started off a game of whack-a-mole, in which trolls and pranksters will run for office, or claim to be doing so, and creators of fraudulent content will slap on an "opinion" or "satire" label to protect it.

The bottom line: The platforms' dilemma is rooted in users' conflicting desires. Much of the public doesn't want these companies to decide what political actors can and can't say — but also doesn't want the public sphere to become a free-fire zone for hate mobs, threats, and lies.

Go deeper: Social media's new job: Content cops

2. Voice assistants add celebrity appeal

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Tech companies looking to make additional dollars from their voice assistant products are luring celebrity talent to help them out, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Driving the news: Amazon announced last week that it will be introducing Hollywood actor Samuel L. Jackson as its first celebrity voice for its Alexa voice assistant later this year. The announcement follows similar moves by Google and other tech giants.

Details: Users can access Jackson's voice for $0.99 during the introductory period, but in the future will need to shell out $4.99 to hear Jackson recite news headlines or tell jokes.

  • They can also choose whether they would like Jackson to use explicit language or not.

The big picture: Amazon isn't the only tech company to lean into the Hollywood voice appeal.

  • Google earlier this year introduced John Legend as its first celebrity voice for its voice assistant product, Google Assistant.
  • Waze, the Google-owned navigation app, has also experimented with celebrity voice-overs for directions. In May, it introduced hip-hop star DJ Khaled as a new voice option for the app in order to promote his new album.
  • Waze has featured other celebrity voices for navigation in the past, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Kevin Hart, T-Pain, and Shaq, per Mashable.

Meditation apps have also leaned into the celebrity voice craze.

  • Calm, an app designed to help users relax and sleep, said in June that it would be investing more in having celebrity voices like Matthew McConaughey tell stories for the app.

Be smart: Voice assistant technologies have long looked to diversify in order to appeal to a wider range of people.

  • Apple's voice assistant Siri can be switched to speak in multiple different or settings to resemble a male or female voice.
  • Amazon introduced 8 different voices for developers to use when building "skills" or software tasks for Alexa.
3. Exclusive: Report finds U.S. losing innovation edge

A report that will be released Wednesday from the bipartisan Aspen Cybersecurity Group suggests that the U.S. is losing its grip as a global innovation leader, and needs government action to resecure its edge, writes Axios' Joe Uchill.

Why it matters: Innovation isn't just an economic issue (though it is certainly that) — it has huge national security and geopolitical implications, too.

  • "Will America lead the technology that secures Americans?" asked Lisa Monaco, co-chair of the Aspen group, in an interview with Axios. "Will American values be reflected in the technologies of the future?"

The Aspen Cybersecurity Group is co-chaired by Monaco, Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty, and has members including two former heads of the NSA, high ranking executives from Apple andFacebook to Johnson & Johnson and Duke Energy, and several prominent academics.

The big picture: The U.S. faces substantial competition in innovation from China. Even countries like South Korea and Israel outspend the U.S. in government funding for research.

  • The Aspen report identifies 5 factors behind America's tech leadership: the decimation of infrastructure in competing nations from World War II, federal spending on foundational science, importing innovators through immigration, Cold War competition and spending on education.

The report proposes:

  • Federal funding of half the total U.S. R&D budget — that was the norm until the 1980s, when privately funded research took over. It has since declined further. The government currently funds around 22.5% of basic research.
  • Increasing the tolerance for risk in research, including funding curiosity-based science with no clear application.
  • Increased education spending, including training in tech ethics and strategically retraining people who started in other career paths.
  • Bolstering the tech workforce at all levels through immigration.
  • Easing barriers to trade while improving protections on intellectual property theft.
  • Focusing on moonshot-like goals to increase urgency and provide deadlines.
4. Nevada privacy law takes effect

California's pending European-style digital privacy law will likely be the most impactful in the country, but it won't be the first. Nevada's law takes effect Tuesday, Joe reports.

Why it matters: With no superseding federal law, we're at the start of, potentially, 50 different privacy laws covering each of the 50 states — all interacting, potentially conflicting, and affecting business and consumer peace of mind for years to come.

Details: Nevada's new law requires companies to allow users to opt out or change information sold to brokers, and differs from California's law in key ways:

  • "California is this sweeping legislation that captures pretty much every business that operates in California," Kim Phan, an attorney with Ballard Spahr, said. "Nevada is very narrowly tailored."
  • Nevada's law only applies to "internet websites or online services."
  • Unlike California, Nevada consumers have no right to take action against a company under the new rule — only the state can do that.
5. Take note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Former Udacity CEO Vishal Makhijani joins apartment rental startup Zumper as COO and president. (San Francisco Business Times)


6. After You Login

These self-driving trash cans are comical, now. But what about when they're everywhere, and they start running amok? Fortunately, thanks to this bit of instant viral video, we now have a good playbook to work from.

Scott Rosenberg