May 27, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

It was nice to take a long weekend, but it's good to be back in a familiar place — your inbox. And thanks to Scott Rosenberg for holding down the fort yesterday.

Today's Login is 1,439 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Platforms' speech rules have become a political football

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Twitter made headlines Tuesday after labeling two election-related tweets from President Trump as potentially misleading — the company’s first action against the president’s tweets, which often test its policies on misinformation and abuse.

The big picture: Twitter's unprecedented move, which swiftly drew Trump's fury, was just one of four controversies over the last 24 hours involving tech platforms grappling with free speech issues. And all of them, Axios' Sara Fischer and I report, reflect what a partisan issue the policing of social media content has become.

Driving the news:

  • California's postal balloting: Trump falsely suggested that all residents of California were being sent ballots (only registered voters will get them) and that anyone would be able to vote, even non-citizens. Because Trump's tweets, per Twitter spokesperson Lindsay McCallum, "contain potentially misleading information about voting processes," Twitter affixed a message to them pointing users to a fact check.
  • Scarborough's staffer: Twitter said Tuesday it won't remove Trump's tweets baselessly suggesting MSNBC host Joe Scarborough might have murdered a congressional staffer in 2001. It issued a statement saying it was "deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family," but said Trump's tweets didn't violate its rules.
  • Facebook's "divisive" system: The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that internal research at Facebook found its platform was exacerbating extremism rather than bringing people together, but executives opted against taking action, in part out of fear of alienating U.S. conservatives. Facebook executive Guy Rosen took to Twitter to take issue with the Journal story.
  • YouTube's China censorship: YouTube came under criticism by Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey for deleting comments that appeared to be critical of China. YouTube said the move was an error, but others say the issue is widespread and, according to The Verge, dates back to October. GOP Sen. Josh Hawley pressed Google CEO Sundar Pichai for an explanation in a letter Wednesday morning.

Be smart: In each of these cases, questions of how platforms should treat controversial speech instantly became questions of what political statement any action (or inaction) by the platform would make.

  • "Whose side are we taking?" became at least as important a question as, "How fairly and consistently are we applying our own rules?"

The Trump factor: The president has been at the center of many of these controversies since taking office, posting or resharing messages that include falsehoods, conspiracy theories and personal attacks, often in apparent violation of platform rules.

  • Twitter’s action to label the vote-by-mail tweets, though unprecedented, was still a mild rebuke, with the company simply pointing people to a Twitter "moment" consisting of articles discussing the tweet and its errors.
  • Meanwhile, the company rejected a call from the Scarborough staffer's surviving husband to delete Trump's tweets on that matter.
  • Facebook, for its part, left Trump's vote-by-mail comments up without comment.

Yes, but: Trump and some allies are pointing to Twitter's action as evidence to support their longstanding claims that tech platforms are biased against conservatives.

  • The president tweeted Tuesday night: "Twitter is now interfering in the 2020 Presidential Election.... Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH, and I, as President, will not allow it to happen!"
  • He doubled down with more tweets this morning: "Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."

Reality check: Trump can neither tell Twitter what to do nor unilaterally shut the company down. But the threat of regulation and investigation is more substantial, and his allies in Congress can try to pass laws to change its practices.

  • The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that Trump was "considering establishing a panel to review complaints of anticonservative bias on social media."
  • And Hawley and fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio both argued the fact check means Twitter should lose its liability from lawsuits over user-posted content, a sweeping change that would require an act of Congress.
2. Amazon mulls buying self-driving startup Zoox

Amazon is in advanced talks to buy Zoox, a developer of autonomous vehicle technology, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday night.

Why it matters: Buying Zoox, which was planning to introduce a robo-taxi service, would be Amazon’s newest apparent move toward building an electric, autonomous logistics operation, Axios’ Joann Muller reports.

  • The e-commerce giant has previously invested in EV truck maker Rivian and self-driving-tech company Aurora Innovation.
  • The Journal cautioned that an agreement to buy Zoox may be weeks away and the discussions could still fall apart.
  • Earlier, The Information reported that Zoox was considering a sale while continuing to look for additional funding.

The intrigue: Zoox has been intent on developing a robo-taxi service using a vehicle developed in-house, but it's unlikely Amazon wants to get into driverless ride-sharing.

  • More likely, it will seek to blend Zoox's AV expertise with that of Aurora and Rivian, which it has tapped to deliver a fleet of 100,000 electric delivery trucks.

Our thought bubble: While Google and other tech companies have been flashier in their pursuit of self-driving technology, Amazon depends heavily on logistics for its core business, creating a strong incentive to pursue self-driving technology.

3. Google aims for July reopening for 10% of staff

Photo: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images

Google aims to partially reopen its offices July 6 for up to 10% of its workers, with plans to boost that to about 30% of capacity by September, according to a memo CEO Sundar Pichai sent to employees Tuesday.

Why it matters: As we've reported, most large tech companies are in no rush to return their workers to the office on a large scale. However, many are preparing for a slow reopening for those workers who do want to be in the office, as well as for jobs, like hardware design and engineering, that are challenging to perform remotely.

Details: Workers will be allowed in Google's office on a timed, rotating basis, Pichai said. The company will focus first on those who need to work in the office and let others who want to do so in if space permits.

  • "There are a limited number of Googlers whose roles are needed back in office this calendar year. If this applies to you, your manager will let you know by June 10," Pichai wrote. "For everyone else, returning to the office will be voluntary through the end of the year, and we encourage you to continue to work from home if you can."
  • The company also said it will allow employees that are working from home to expense up to $1,000 on gear for their home office.
  • The plan was earlier reported by CNET.

Go deeper: Many tech workers won't be going back to the office

Separately: Apple said it plans to reopen 100 more of its U.S. stores this week, mostly for curbside pickup.

4. LinkedIn shares tech for detecting bias in hiring

LinkedIn announced Tuesday that it is sharing the approach it uses to ensure that its new products don't inadvertently worsen existing societal inequalities.

The big picture: The Microsoft-owned platform has been working to ensure that it serves all job seekers, not just the socially well-connected.

Driving the news: The "Project Every Member" process was developed after last year’s launch of an "instant job notifications" feature.

  • Initiatives tied to the process include those push notifications; more tools to familiarize new members with the site; and features aimed at ensuring the LinkedIn platform works equally well regardless of the quality of a user's internet connection or device.
  • LinkedIn says it launched the notifications feature that kicked off the broader process to counterbalance the fact that those who apply to a job within the first few days are more likely to be seen by a recruiter.

What they're saying: "We found this feature had a significant equalizing effect — it matched the right job to the right people, regardless of their engagement on the platform or the breadth and depth of their connections," LinkedIn SVP Ryan Roslansky said in a blog post.

  • "Push notifications helped every job seeker — not just those who are privileged with high social capital — to apply for the jobs they were qualified for and to be seen."
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • HBO Max is scheduled to make its debut, the third major streaming service to launch during the pandemic.
  • HP Inc. and Box are slated to report earnings.
  • A Canadian judge is set to rule on whether senior Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou can be extradited to the U.S. to face fraud charges.

Trading Places

  • Former Google executive and DARPA head Regina Dugan has joined the board of Cruise, General Motors' self-driving car subsidiary.

ICYMI

  • Switzerland appears to be the first country with a coronavirus contact-tracing app that uses the exposure notification technology from Google and Apple. (BBC)
  • Amazon and a number of TV news stations came under criticism Tuesday for a video press release on coronavirus safety featuring an Amazon spokesperson that was aired as if it were independently produced news. (The Verge)
  • Indian antitrust regulators are reportedly probing whether Google is abusing its market position to promote its mobile payments platform in its app store in India. (Reuters)
  • Apple has released the latest version of its macOS that lets MacBook users view and manage the health of their batteries, among other features. (The Verge)
  • Global shipments of devices like phones, tablets and PCs are on track to be down 14% for 2020, Analyst firm Gartner projects. (TechCrunch)
6. After you Login

It turns out dollhouse doors make really nifty covers for electrical outlets.

Ina Fried