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Jan 21, 2020

Axios Login

Hello from Davos, Switzerland. It's Login's first visit to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting (and the first time I am returning since attending as a cub tech reporter 20 years ago). I am interested to see how much Davos has changed since 1999; I know I have changed a lot.

Today's Login, meanwhile, is about the same as usual, 1,483 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: How Snapchat has dodged the techlash

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel says his company has managed to avoid heavy criticism over speech issues by clearly dividing private, largely unregulated communications from heavily moderated public broadcasts.

Why it matters: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all struggled in recent years over where to draw the line on permitted speech.

What they're saying: Responding to a question from Axios while speaking at the DLD conference in Munich on Sunday, Spiegel said that Snapchat has modeled how it treats speech after existing institutions

"One of the things we have been able to do is borrow significantly from history," Spiegel said.

  • In private communication, Spiegel said, people expect a conversation to remain private — and if the government wants access, it needs to get a warrant.
  • By contrast, he said, broadcasters have always been subject to a range of restrictions. "There's a different level of responsibility when you are talking to an audience that's that large," he said.

Online platforms' biggest problems lie in the middle ground between these two, Spiegel said — here, there have been powerfully positive uses of social media but also incredibly damaging ones.

  • "I think as a society we haven't yet decided how we want to tackle that and think about that new tool," he said. "I do think that is sort of the existential question of the moment."
  • That uncertainty, he said, is showing up in the debate over whether to revisit Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which legally protects platforms that post users' speech.

Snapchat plays in the middle ground, too, but it does so cautiously, whereas that space is where Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all built their empires.

  • On Snapchat, user-generated public stories can get pulled into stories around major public events on the Snap Map.
  • These stories can be widely consumed by anyone publicly, but are designed to be consumed at a more local level — by users who are located near a natural disaster, for instance.

Be smart: Spiegel's "look to the broadcasters" argument is one he's been refining for years (here he is making it in 2018). That means he's learned another old rule of broadcasting: You have to tell people the same thing over and over again before they will get the message.

2. Esther Dyson fights .org privatization

Esther Dyson. Photo: Dominik Gigler for DLD/Hubert Burda Media

From 1998 to 2000, Esther Dyson was the founding chairman of ICANN, the group that oversees how Web addresses are handed out. Now, she is urging that organization to block the administration of .org domains from being turned over to a private company in a deal valued at more than $1 billion.

Why it matters: .org domains have traditionally been used by nonprofits and organizations rather than commercial entities.

Driving the news: The Internet Society has announced the sale of Public Internet Registry, the entity that controls the .org domain, to Ethos Capital, a private equity firm.

  • Opponents worry that the the move will inevitably lead to higher prices for .org domains as the new owner works to make its huge investment pay off.
  • "If the Internet Society wants more steady income, we want to work with them, but we don't want them to sell .org off to the highest bidder," Dyson said in an interview at DLD in Munich on Sunday.

Dyson is a board member of Cooperative Corporation for .ORG Registrants, a group that is seeking to create an alternative to the sale.

  • "We don't want to buy .org," Dyson said. "We want if necessary to create a governance structure for it. And then we want to resign in favor of a new board elected by the 10 million-plus entities using .org domains."

History lesson: The Internet Society, which dates back to 1992, seeks to promote openness and continued technology development for the internet. Its major funding source is the Public Internet Registry. Of its $51 million in 2019 revenue, more than $44 million came from the PIR, per its financial statements.

  • The society's chairman is Vint Cerf, co-creator of the TCP/IP protocol that underlies today's internet.
  • "The .org domain has been run by a for-profit entity in the past, and there is no requirement for it to be managed by a non-profit in the future," the society declares on a "Frequently Asked Questions" page. "The .org domain is not exclusive to non-profits. As an open domain, it includes many for-profit organizations."

The big picture: There is significant opposition to the .org domain falling into private hands. Dozens of nonprofits, led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have called on the Internet Society to call off the deal.

3. CEO: Huawei can survive more U.S. "attacks"

Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei. Screenshot: Axios

Huawei chief Ren Zhengfei said today that he is prepared for any further U.S. "attacks," but he believes the world can avoid splitting into two separate technology systems.

Why it matters: The U.S. and China are locked in a fierce trade battle, with restrictions already limiting Huawei's ability to sell phones around the world.

"We are more confident we can survive even further attacks," Zhengfei said, appearing at the WEF Annual Meeting.

The backdrop: Last year, citing security concerns. the U.S. imposed a variety of restrictions that further limited Huawei's ability to do business in the U.S. as well as hampering its global operations by limiting its access to U.S. chips and software. The U.S. is also pressuring allies not to use Huawei's networking technology for their 5G systems.

  • Zhengfei expressed optimism the tensions won't lead to a complete bifurcation of Western and Chinese technology. "Whether the world will be split in two systems, I don't think so," he said. "Science is about truth; there is only one truth. It is unique."

Meanwhile: The panel with Zhengfei, which also featured Israeli philosopher Yuval Noah Harari, included a lot of harkening back to the Cold War and the race to build the atom bomb.

  • Harari pointed out that the U.S.-China tech Cold War is very close to a real arms race — the development of lethal autonomous weapons.

Yes, but: Harari ended on a hopeful note, pointing out that, in theory, powerful emerging tech could end up enhancing individual rights. Surveillance technology could keep tabs on big business and government, and antivirus software could detect efforts to manipulate your mind.

4. Google, IBM call for global regulations on AI

Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Google and IBM have both called for global regulations on artificial intelligence in recent days, warning that the technology has the potential to bring significant negative consequences along with potential good, as Axios' Ursula Perano, Kyle Daly and I report.

Why it matters: Lawmakers are largely scrambling to play catch-up on AI regulation as the technology continues to grow. Pichai did not provide specific proposals, but did urge while speaking at the Bruegel European economic think tank Monday that "international alignment" between the U.S. and the EU will help ensure AI is used primarily for good.

  • Pichai also delivered his thoughts on the matter in an op-ed in the Financial Times on Sunday, writing: "There are real concerns about the potential negative consequences of AI, from deepfakes to nefarious uses of facial recognition. While there is already some work being done to address these concerns, there will inevitably be more challenges ahead that no one company or industry can solve alone."
  • IBM also issued a fresh call for "precision regulation" of AI, expanding on principles of accountability, explainability and fairness it laid out last year and calling for global standards. It also called out the issue of bias, specifically arguing that discrimination "should never be considered acceptable" whether it is done by human or machine.

Our thought bubble: The U.S. government is also urging transatlantic consensus on AI regulation, which would deliver a unified counter to China's authoritarian use of the technology. But it would also ensure Europe doesn't charge ahead with more stringent AI regulation than Silicon Valley is prepared to accept.

Flashback: Google has long grappled with the nuances of AI and government. The company in 2018 announced it wouldn't renew a controversial Pentagon contract to analyze drone footage via AI, citing a conflict with its own principles.

Of note: In the same speech, Pichai suggested that Google would support a temporary "waiting period" on introducing facial recognition technology until a regulatory framework is in place. Europe is weighing such a temporary ban on public use of facial recognition.

The other side: Microsoft president Brad Smith argued against such a move, saying, "There is only one way at the end of the day to make technology better and that is to use it," per Reuters.

Go deeper:

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting takes place all week in Davos.
  • IBM and Netflix report earnings after the markets close.

Trading Places

  • Samsung named Roh Tae-moon as its new mobile chief.
  • Former Microsoft and Adobe executive Bill Staples is joining New Relic as chief product officer


  • Uber is selling its India food delivery business to rival Zomato in a stock deal that will give the ride-hailing giant a nearly 10% stake in Zomato. (Axios)
  • Browser maker Opera, which also offers microfinance options in places like India and Kenya via smartphone, is under fire for offering predatory loans, potentially in violation of Play Store rules. (Hindenburg Research)
  • Apple two years ago scrapped plans to let users store fully encrypted iPhone backups in iCloud following FBI complaints. (Reuters)
  • Uber is testing letting some California drivers massively raise airport fares in response to the state's new gig-worker law. (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Presidents Trump and Macron agreed to further talks to resolve disputes over France's new digital tax. (Reuters)
  • Microsoft launched an overhaul of its Edge browser, now built on Google's open-source Chromium architecture. (CNET)
6. After you Login

There's been a lot of mocking of how NFL players and coaches use the Microsoft Surface, some of it misplaced. This, though, is a little too on the nose.