Sep 19, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Situational awareness: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with senators last night at a dinner arranged by Sen. Mark Warner, and continues private meetings on the Hill today. (The Washington Post)

Today's Login is 1,476 words, but some of them are short. It should take you about 6 minutes to read.

1 big thing: Obama praises data, knocks social media

Former President Obama speaks with Splunk CEO Douglas Merritt on Wednesday. Photo: Splunk

In a rare public appearance in San Francisco yesterday, Barack Obama, who credits data for helping him win the presidency, argued that tech can still be a force for good in government — if we use it the right way.

He also took a few shots at President Trump, suggesting that what a president needs is lots of access to unvarnished facts and to be surrounded by diverse viewpoints and people committed to government service, rather than profits or fame.

"The other thing that is helpful is not watching TV or reading social media."

Why it matters: Obama, who remains highly popular in the Bay Area, has largely stayed out of U.S. politics since leaving office and has limited his criticisms of his successor.

The big picture: Obama's speech at a customer event for data analytics vendor Splunk came just hours after Trump held a fundraiser in Silicon Valley.

  • Obama talked a lot about big data —pointing to health care, in particular, as an area where better use of data could lower costs and improve results.
  • "Almost our entire federal deficit, at least when I was president, could be accounted for by what we spend on health care vs. what other industrialized countries spend" to get similar outcomes.
  • He said the government has tons of data from running Medicare and Medicaid. "All that stuff is really powerful. It can be powerful for researchers, it can be powerful for policymakers."
  • Medical data is at the same time highly personal and individual privacy needs to be protected, he added.

Yes, but: Before it can make use of all that data, the federal government still has to improve its technology, Obama said.

  • Part of the problem the government faces is that it still relies on a procurement approach designed in the 1930s and 1940s that, he said, is better suited to buying staplers than choosing software.
  • There are other problems the U.S. faces that are beyond the power of data or technology to solve on their own, he argued, pointing to income inequality and climate change.

And, in other cases, technology has worsened existing social problems. He pointed to the role social media has played in dividing society as people surround themselves with voices with whom they agree.

  • "That's not healthy for a democracy and it's not healthy between countries," Obama said. "That's how wars get started and bad things happen."

Meanwhile: DJ Patil, who was the first-ever U.S. chief data scientist under Obama, and other notables released their Council on Foreign Relations' national security assessment Wednesday highlighting the challenges facing the U.S. technology sector if it fails to properly invest for the future.

2. WordPress owner Automattic raises $300 million

Automattic CEO and WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg in 2014. Photo: Auby Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE via Getty Images

Automattic Inc., the parent company of web publishing platform WordPress.com, announced on Thursday that it raised a $300 million as a part of a Series D round from Salesforce Ventures, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

The investment puts Automattic's valuation at $3 billion post-funding.

Why it matters: "A website for everyone" is the cry of a bygone tech era, but businesses and many individuals still want to set up their own websites, and WordPress remains the dominant tool in the field.

Details: The raise brings Automattic's total amount raised to $491 million in funding over 4 rounds. Salesforce Ventures joins Insight, Tiger Global, and True Ventures as an investor in the company.

  • For Automattic, the funding will help the company grow its WordPress business, says Automattic CEO and WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg.
  • For Salesforce, the funding deepens the company's commitment to WordPress and the open web, says president and chief product officer Bret Taylor.

Be smart: WordPress is an open-source software platform that's owned by a non-profit group called The WordPress Foundation. The foundation works to ensure that WordPress remains a free, open-sourced platform that's accessible for anyone to contribute to, mostly by improving its code.

  • The popular consumer-facing domain WordPress.com is owned by privately held Automattic. Mullenweg was a co-founder of WordPress. According to Mullenweg, WordPress powers more than 34% of all sites on the web.

Between the lines: Automattic makes most of its money by selling subscriptions to software services that are related to the WordPress platform, like WooCommerce, an open-source e-commerce plugin for WordPress; Jetpack, a customization and security plugin for WordPress; and enterprise WordPress for businesses.

  • It also makes money by selling advertising against some of the free blogs that users create on WordPress.com.

The big picture: In August, Automattic purchased Tumblr from Verizon for less than $3 million, a fraction of what it was worth when Yahoo bought it for $1.1 billion in 2013 (Verizon later acquired Yahoo).

  • Mullenweg alluded to the fact that he doesn't plan to make any major changes to Tumblr and that he sees it as complementary to his biggest money-maker, WordPress.com.
  • Our thought bubble: WordPress.com and Tumblr, although very different products, have both centered on creative empowerment — giving people free tools to build a platform and audience on the web.

The bottom line: The raise doesn't seem to be related to Automattic's recent acquisition of Tumblr.

Editor‘s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct amount of total funds raised over four rounds and to clarify that Yahoo, not Verizon, purchased Tumblr for $1.1 billion.

3. Bogus Putin interview shows real deepfake threat

At an MIT conference on Wednesday, a journalist pointedly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin whether he would interfere again in U.S. elections. Putin demurred.

What's happening: The world leader was actually a glitchy deepfake, Kaveh Waddell reports. His face was a real-time AI-generated mask that made a performer look like Putin on screen — but because the mask stopped at the forehead, this was Putin with a fresh head of hair.

The big picture: The stunt was a snapshot of the current state of deepfakes, a fast-improving technology that has stirred up concern for its potential to disrupt elections and business — but that also holds creative promise.

  • For the most part, deepfakes require a considerable amount of time, setup and fine-tuning — they're generally pre-recorded video clips.
  • But the Putin fake was different. It masked the speaker's face in real time — but as a result, it was considerably less convincing than the typically better-rendered clips.

The details: Putin's Wednesday cameo — portrayed by MIT Technology Review editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield, who also played himself as the interviewer — was the work of Hao Li, a USC professor and founder of a deepfake-producing startup called Pinscreen.

  • Li's on-the-fly deepfake, which appeared on screen before a live audience, wouldn't fool anyone. There was a clear dividing line between Putin's face and Lichfield's forehead, and the faux president's mouth — a notoriously difficult element to get right in in deepfake videos — often looked weird.
  • But Li has Hollywood-grade work under his belt: Pinscreen helped render the late Paul Walker in "Furious 7," and he's reportedly working on a new Will Smith movie.

In an interview with MIT Tech Review, Li says the technology is only getting better. "Our guess that in 2 to 3 years, it's going to be perfect," he told reporter Patrick Howell O'Neill. "There will be no way to tell if it's real or not, so we have to take a different approach.”

  • Li is working with Berkeley's Hany Farid, a top digital forensics expert, to improve deepfake-detection algorithms. Facebook, where Farid consults, announced this month that it's pouring money into a contest to make better detectors.
  • Yes, but: That's not an easy goal. Experts say that deepfake generation and detection will be forever chasing each other — and that deepfake-makers will always have the edge.
4. iOS 13 arrives today

Screenshot: Apple.com

Customers have to wait another day to buy the latest iPhones, but starting today they can update existing phones to the latest operating system.

Why it matters: iOS 13 won't magically add a third camera to the back of your phone, but it will deliver other features found on the latest iPhones, including dark mode, Sign in with Apple and improved maps and photos. And unlike the new iPhones, it's free (as long as you have an iPhone 6s or later).

Yes, but: Several features originally announced for iOS 13 have been pushed back until later this fall, including the ability to support playing music or a video to multiple pairs of AirPods.

Pro tip: It can sometimes take hours to download the update when it's first made available. Your phone has survived without iOS 13 for months. You can wait another few hours.

5. Take Note

On Tap

Trading Places

  • Longtime Apple PR chief Steve Dowling is stepping down at the end of next month, as Recode first reported. Marketing head Phil Schiller will add oversight of PR to his duties while Apple decides on a replacement.
  • Oscar Health named former Uber executive Meghan Joyce as COO.

ICYMI

  • DataDog raised $648 million in an IPO that priced at a higher-than-expected $27 per share, valuing the company at more than $7.8 billion. The company reportedly turned down an offer from Cisco in recent weeks that valued the company at more than its expected IPO valuation. (Bloomberg)
  • AT&T is said to be considering a sale of its DirecTV business. (CNN)
  • Microsoft's GitHub unit is buying Semmle, a startup that analyzes code for security vulnerabilities (ZDNet)
  • Inflight use of devices is prompting fierce debates over whether the windows on planes should remain dark throughout the flight. (Axios)
6. After you Login

It's amazing what this Japanese artist can do with a couple of wires and an AA battery.

Ina Fried