May 29, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Today, for a change, we thought we would focus on content moderation on the internet. Has anyone noticed it's getting a little political?

Today's Login is 1,562 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Trump’s big, empty beef with Twitter

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Trump finally acted on his now year-old threat to take action against social media platforms for alleged bias against conservatives. But so far, according to experts in both government and the industry, the threat looks mostly empty, Axios' Scott Rosenberg writes.

Driving the news: Trump escalated his war on Twitter Friday morning, tweeting repeatedly that the company needs to be regulated after it overnight added a warning label to a tweet of his calling for the military to start shooting looters, which violated Twitter’s rules against glorifying violence.

Trump's problem, as laid out by Axios White House correspondent Jonathan Swan: He knows how essential Twitter (along with Facebook) is to his political success. He's mad at Twitter for fact-checking and placing a warning label on some of his messages. And he's frustrated that he can't bring Twitter to heel by executive fiat.

  • The order is what Trump's team, with Attorney General Bill Barr on point, came up with to placate the president after his fury over Twitter's fact check on a false claim he tweeted about mail-in ballots in California.

The order is a grab-bag of regulatory half-measures and legal Hail-Mary passes that the White House weighed and then shelved last summer, only to dust them off again.

  • Less a practical policy framework than a battle cry intended to stir Trump's legions of "keyboard warriors," it isn't likely to change the law, but could still heat up the fight.

Here's what the order is not:

It's not a credible legal strategy for overturning the protection from liability that online service providers won almost 25 years ago, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

  • Trump wishes he could do this, but only Congress can. And even though there are critics of social media among both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, it's highly unlikely there will be consensus on whether and how to amend Section 230, and even unlikelier it'll be repealed altogether, as Trump now wants.

It's not a well-crafted regulatory effort to bring the platforms under the sway of the FCC and the FTC.

  • Experts and some agency insiders are skeptical that the FCC will embrace the order's request that it find ways to limit Section 230's sway. (The FCC isn't even mentioned in Section 230.)
  • The order also asks the FTC to use its power to police deceptive practices against social media platforms that apply their content moderation rules inconsistently or with alleged bias. But that's not a realm the FTC has ever policed.

It's not much of a business threat to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the rest.

  • The order tells the Office of Management and Budget to review government spending on advertising on these platforms.
  • No company likes to lose revenue, but even pulling every federal dollar from social media firms would hardly put a dent in their bottom lines.

Here's what the order is:

  • It's an effort to cow Twitter, along with other platforms, from going further down the fact-checking road.
  • It's also a way for the White House to change the subject, for a news cycle or two at least, from a grim pandemic with a staggering death toll.
  • Most important, it's a way of firing up Trump's online troops, for whom perceived platform bias has been a longstanding grievance.

What's next: The executive order calls for a half-dozen different reviews, requests and working groups — including one for the states, convened by Barr, to get creative about cracking down on "unfair and deceptive acts and practices" by online platforms.

  • If the order makes any policy headway, Trump can claim victory.
  • If, as is more likely, it hits roadblocks in the agencies and the courts, Trump can blame "the swamp" and "the Deep State" and reap fresh bushels of partisan outrage.
2. Trump's executive order draws ire from many corners

Photo: Doug Mills via Getty Images

Reactions to President Trump's executive order were swift and mostly negative, with a wide range of business organizations, civil liberties organizations and legal scholars condemning the move.

The big picture: There's no shortage of critics of Big Tech in general and social media in particular. But there aren't a ton who believe the president should — or even legally can — regulate the speech policies of private companies.

What we're hearing: Those criticizing the president's order included legal scholars, trade organizations, politicians and interest groups from across the political spectrum, ranging from the Chamber of Commerce and Americans for Prosperity to the ACLU and Consumer Reports.

  • Many focused on the First Amendment's protection against government regulation of speech, while others said the president was overstepping his bounds by trying to change an act of Congress and direct the independent FCC and FTC to aid in the effort.
  • "This is pure political theater — and an affront to the Constitution," said Ashkhen Kazaryan, director of civil liberties at TechFreedom. "The order is a hodgepodge of outdated and inapplicable precedents combined with flagrant misinterpretations of both the First Amendment and Section 230."

Of note: Even the agencies tasked by Trump with looking into the matter — the FTC and FCC — seemed less than thrilled with the task.

  • "The FTC is committed to robust enforcement of consumer protection and competition laws, including with respect to social media platforms, and consistent with our jurisdictional authority and constitutional limitations,” a spokesperson told Axios.
  • FCC chairman Ajit Pai also issued a fairly noncommittal statement: "The debate is an important one. The (commission) will carefully review any petition for rule making filed by the Department of Commerce."

Yes, but: There were some Republicans who spoke out in favor of the order, including FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.)

  • "Social media has a history of subjectively manipulating algorithms to censor free speech," Blackburn said in a statement. "It takes a leader like President Donald Trump to bring much needed action on Big Tech abuses."

For more reactions, check out this story.

3. Exclusive: Cruz calls for probe of Twitter over Iran

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for a criminal investigation of Twitter over allegations the company is violating U.S. sanctions against Iran, in a letter today to the Justice and Treasury departments, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: Cruz’s letter adds another dimension to the tech company’s woes in Washington, as Trump turns up the heat.

Details: Twitter allows Iranian leaders to maintain accounts on its service, and Cruz is asking Attorney General Bill Barr and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to probe whether that violates U.S. sanctions prohibiting American companies from providing goods or services to the country's top officials.

  • "I believe that the primary goal of (the International Emergency Economic Powers Act) and sanctions law should be to change the behavior of designated individuals and regimes, not American companies," Cruz wrote.
  • "But when a company willfully and openly violates the law after receiving formal notice that it is unlawfully supporting designated individuals, the federal government should take action."

Background: Cruz led an earlier letter from Republican senators to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in February, calling on the company to ban Iranian leaders. The senators suggested providing the accounts may violate U.S. sanctions.

  • Twitter responded in April, arguing that its service is exempt from the sanctions, and that the public conversation on the platform is critically important during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • "Regardless of the political agenda of a particular nation state, to deny our service to their leaders at a time like this would be antithetical to the purpose of our company, which is to serve the global public conversation," wrote Twitter executive Vijaya Gadde.
  • Twitter could not immediately be reached for comment on the new Cruz letter.

The big picture: Twitter has said it's in the public interest to have political figures' speech on its platform, even if some find that speech objectionable. That's also the reason the company gave for leaving up Trump's tweet on looters with a warning label instead of taking it down entirely.

4. NSA warns Russian hackers exploiting email flaw

The National Security Agency warned Thursday that a group of hackers tied to the Russian military has been using a flaw in widely used email server software to gain unauthorized access to various networks.

Why it matters: The effort, which has been under way since at least last August, is reminiscent of attacks linked to Russia that took place during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Details: The Sandworm Team, as the Russian military unit is known, has been using a vulnerability in the Exim mail transfer agent software used in various Unix and Linux distributions.

  • Exim has offered a patch since last year and encouraged users to update to the latest version, but not everyone keeps their systems up to date. The NSA is now urging all users to apply the patch.

In a statement, the NSA said the vulnerability offers "pretty much any attacker's dream access," as long as the victim is using an unpatched version of the software.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Hey, it's Friday and it's summer. Why don't you leave the office a little early and head home?

Trading Places

  • Rony Abovitz is is stepping down as CEO of heavily funded, but troubled augmented reality firm Magic Leap. The company did confirm it has raised badly needed additional capital.
  • Zoom has hired Damien Hooper-Campbell, former diversity head at eBay and Uber, as its first chief diversity officer.

ICYMI

  • The ACLU is suing Clearview AI, saying the controversial facial recognition company violated Illinois law and created a "nightmare scenario" for privacy. (The Verge)
  • PC and tablet shipments are expected to drop 12.4% globally this year amid the impact of the coronavirus, IDC said in a revised forecast, saying the bump from those working and schooling from home will be short-lived. (IDC)
  • Cisco is buying network monitoring firm ThousandEyes. (CNBC)
  • Microsoft said its forthcoming Xbox Series X will support thousands of games built for earlier Xbox consoles. (Polygon)
  • Google has reportedly rescinded thousands of contract job offers amid a global advertising slump. (New York Times)
  • Amazon plans to keep on most of the 175,000 workers it hired to address surging pandemic-era demand. (Wall Street Journal)
6. After you Login

I thought I was making good use of the quarantine by growing some vegetables. But, this is more impressive.

Ina Fried