Feb 19, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

I'm Ina Fried and I approve this introduction. (Editor's note: Well, actually Ina, technically I am the one who has to approve it.)

Today's Login is 1,042 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Justice Department takes aim at Big Tech's shield

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Trump administration is turning up the heat on one of Big Tech's most important legal protections, as the Justice Department convenes a debate over changing a law that protects platforms from suits over content their users posts, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

Why it matters: The threat to remove immunity granted by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is one of a handful of weapons that Washington is mulling using against Facebook, Google and other tech giants.

Driving the news: The DOJ is convening policy experts for a workshop Wednesday titled “Section 230 — Nurturing Innovation or Fostering Unaccountability?"

  • The event features a public morning session focused on whether the law "encourages or discourages" platforms to address online harms like child exploitation.
  • A private session in the afternoon will examine content moderation, free speech, online conduct and illicit activity, according to a person familiar with the event.
  • Speakers invited to the cl0sed-door portion include Internet Association deputy counsel Elizabeth Banker, former 21st Century Fox lobbyist Rick Lane and former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos, according to a list obtained by Axios.

The big picture: Republicans and Democrats in Congress frustrated with how tech companies handle content moderation have been debating changes to 230 to address a range of issues, including child exploitation.

  • Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham is working on draft legislation that would require tech companies to "earn" 230 protections by following best practices for fighting child exploitation, with the Justice Department in a key role to determine those guidelines.

Yes, but: Supporters of Section 230 have questioned the motives of the DOJ and proponents of changing the law, including critics from some industries that have clashed with tech — including many in the news media.

Of note: Attorney General William Barr has been campaigning for tech platforms to build back doors into their encryption systems so that law enforcement can better monitor communications while investigating child exploitation and terrorism, and some critics say he is using the Section 230 debate as a pressure tactic.

The other side: Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a co-author of Section 230, sees the move to change the law as a blow against free speech being promoted by "big legacy companies," as he wrote in the Washington Post.

"Under the guise of getting rid of lies and protecting children, they’re working with the Trump administration and top Republicans to undermine Americans' rights and give the government unprecedented control over online speech."
— Sen. Ron Wyden

Flashback: Section 230 was enacted in 1996 as part of a broader online regulation law that was eventually overturned by the Supreme Court, leaving the liability shield as the only remnant still in force.

  • An earlier court decision had left a muddy precedent suggesting that the only way online service providers could protect themselves legally was to not moderate their content at all.
  • 230's authors wanted to make it clear that online services could actively police their users' content without assuming liability for it.

For the record: Then and now, Section 230 protects platforms from civil suits over user content, but not from criminal prosecution for content that breaks federal law.

2. Coronavirus hits all of China's tech production
Expand chart
Reproduced from TrendForce; Chart: Axios Visuals

The novel coronavirus outbreak in China is affecting nearly every sector of tech manufacturing, leading analysts to reduce production estimates for everything from TVs and smartphones to laptops and video game consoles.

Why it matters: Apple's earnings warning on Monday was a wake-up call for investors, but the virus' impact will be felt farther and wider.

In a new report, analysis firm Trendforce said it was cutting its first quarter forecast for nearly all manner of high-tech goods manufactured in China. While TV and monitor production estimates got cut by only about 5% each, the firm slashed most other categories by double-digit percentages.

Yes, but: Bloomberg reports that Apple remains on track to launch its updated low-cost iPhone next month and a new iPad Pro in the coming months, despite the virus-related slowdowns.

I talked more about the virus' impact on tech in a segment on CNBC's "The Exchange" yesterday.

Go deeper: Economists warn coronavirus risk far worse than realized

3. Kickstarter workers vote to unionize

Employees at Kickstarter voted 46 to 37 to unionize, signaling a small but notable shift in an industry that has historically eschewed collective bargaining.

Why it matters: Workers who are taking a more activist stance are seeing unions as one way to have a greater voice at their companies.

Unions remain few and far between in large tech companies, but that's beginning to change.

  • A group of Instacart workers in the Chicago area voted to unionize earlier this month.
  • A number of new media companies have seen union pushes, including Vox Media and BuzzFeed News.

Go deeper: Tech's new labor unrest

4. Huawei loses a round in court

Huawei lost a round in court Tuesday, with a federal judge ruling that Congress was within its rights to exclude agencies and contractors from buying gear from Huawei and ZTE.

The big picture: This is one battle in the larger and more multifaceted conflict between Washington and Beijing that's playing out in courts, through trade negotiations and in public rhetoric.

  • As part of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress put limits on how government agencies and contractors could do business with certain companies, using language that specifically targeted Huawei and ZTE.
  • Huawei sued over the move last year, arguing the law was unconstitutional.
  • The judge ruled that Congress was acting within its rights to decide how the government spends its money.

What's next: Huawei says it will consider further legal options. Meanwhile the fight continues on many levels, with the U.S. enacting several policies designed to limit Huawei's ability to do business in the U.S. and weighing further actions.

Most recently, per the Wall Street Journal, the Trump administration has been weighing whether to require those using U.S.-made chip gear to certify their products won't be used for Huawei products.

Meanwhile: In a series of Tuesday tweets, President Trump threw his administration's Huawei policy into confusion.

  • He suggested that his own team's efforts to block U.S. sales to Chinese companies like Huawei were driven by a "National Security excuse," and said, "We don't want to make it impossible to do business with us."
  • Trump's comments will make it even harder for U.S. officials trying to persuade allies to bar Huawei equipment from their 5G networks.
5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Search Engine Land's SMX West takes place today and tomorrow in San Jose, California.

Trading Places

  • Peter Vosshall, Amazon's first distinguished engineer, has left the company after more than two decades.


  • Twitter is buying photo and video editing startup Chroma Labs. (Bloomberg)
  • Uber is shutting down a Los Angeles customer service center and outsourcing the jobs to the Philippines, sources said. (LA Times)
  • Patreon is the latest tech company to find a way into the microlending business. (TechCrunch)
6. After you Login

Check out this beautiful example of how representation matters.

Ina Fried