Dec 12, 2019

Axios Login

It was a very short trip to D.C., but it was great to see my current colleagues at Axios and a bunch of former colleagues at Twitter's D.C. happy hour yesterday.

The good news for you is that while my flight back to San Francisco will take around 5 hours, today's Login is only 1,445 words and should take 5 minutes to read.

1 big thing: FCC readies plan to make reaching suicide hotline easier

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The Federal Communications Commission is expected to advance a proposal today that would allow Americans to reach a national suicide prevention hotline by dialing 988, as Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports. The move comes amid widespread concern about the country's rising suicide rate.

The big picture: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., with more than 47,000 deaths by suicide in 2017. With this proposal, the FCC is aiming to make it easier to reach crisis services and reduce the stigma around suicide and mental health emergencies.

  • "One aspect of this will be the creation of normalcy," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention services to LGBTQ youth, including through its own independent hotline.
  • "We call 911 if we see an emergency or if we have one ourselves. We’ll be able to call 988 when we have a mental health emergency," Brinton said. "I think that is going to de-stigmatize the idea."

Details: FCC chairman Ajit Pai's proposal asks for comment on establishing 988 as the three-digit number that would connect callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a hotline to a nationwide network of local crisis centers.

  • The federally funded Lifeline received more than 2 million calls in 2018. That's more than double the number of calls it got in 2012.
  • The FCC notes that there's some support for repurposing a number like 511 or 611, now used for traffic information and, in some places, reporting phone service troubles.
  • But the agency said it would be easier and faster to set up an all-new number than reallocate one that's already heavily used.

Why it matters: The Trevor Project found that 96% of hotline callers, when contacted afterward, reported feeling a de-escalation of suicidal thoughts following their calls. The FCC's proposal says a 1% reduction in U.S. suicides would save 470 lives a year.

Yes, but: The FCC's proposal does not consider letting people text 988 to connect to the hotline — in part because the Lifeline doesn't currently support text-message communication.

  • The Trevor Project saw massive growth after expanding its own services to include text, Brinton said. "If you're crying or you're emotional, maybe you don't want to be talking on the phone. Maybe texting is an easier way to communicate with those trying to save your life."
  • Ashley Womble, head of communications at Crisis Text Line, notes that Crisis Text Line will connect anyone in the U.S. who texts 741741 with a crisis counselor.

What's next: The FCC will have to vote again to finalize the proposal once it's done collecting comments. The agency projects it will take 18 months to get the number up and running after that final vote.

Editor's note: This piece has been changed to reflect more sensitive wording to describe suicidal thoughts. Also, we've clarified that it's text messages that Lifeline does not support — there is a web-based chat option.

2. Twitter's bid for a social network standard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Jack Dorsey's plan to fund an open source network standard left many people scratching their heads as to what Twitter's CEO hopes to accomplish.

Why it matters: Twitter is under pressure to better crack down on bots, hate speech and misinformation, but it is unclear how open standards will help address any of these issues.

Driving the news: In a series of tweets, Dorsey said that "BlueSky" is a new project to create an open decentralized social network standard that Twitter might ultimately use itself.

"Twitter is funding a small independent team of up to five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media," Dorsey said. "The goal is for Twitter to ultimately be a client of this standard."

History lesson: Past efforts to take on proprietary social networks with open standards have failed to reach mainstream success.

  • Released in 2007, OpenSocial was an early effort to allow people to share social network posts across services. It was developed by Google and MySpace, among others.
  • Developed in 1998, Jabber is an open source instant messaging protocol that came close to mainstream adoption, particularly after Google announced its support for Jabber-compatible messaging in its chat software. Facebook added its support in 2010, though both later moved away from Jabber support in favor of fully proprietary options.
  • Released in 2016, Mastodon is a free, open source microblogging service similar to Twitter, with more than 1 million users across a number of different servers. Each of those can create and enforce their own standards for what is allowed.

What they're saying:

  • Darius Kazemi, computer programmer, bot creator and artist: "Realistically I don't think this is going to go anywhere; most of these kinds of projects fail. What I'm worried about is that it is going to be a big distraction. It's going to attract resources from the ecosystem that is already out there."
  • Aral Balkan, human rights activist and co-founder of Small Technology Foundation: "Twitter is still a publicly traded adtech company and its business model isn't going to change. ... You can be sure that the alternatives to surveillance capitalism aren't going to come from the billionaires of surveillance capitalism."
  • Apple University's Jon Seff, in a tweet: "Shorter Jack: I built something without considering the consequences, made my billions, and now want to wash my hands of any moral responsibility."
3. Scooter company Spin's SF workers unionize

Photo: Interim Archives/Getty Images

San Francisco-based maintenance workers for Spin, a scooter rental company owned by Ford, have voted to unionize and join a local Teamsters chapter, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports. The move makes them the first in the scooter industry to do so.

Why it matters: Scooter companies ruffled a lot of feathers when they showed up in San Francisco (and other cities), which has long been skeptical of tech companies using independent contractors to skirt some labor costs.

  • The union vote applies to the roughly 40 workers responsible for maintenance and managing Spin's scooters available in San Francisco. Spin operates in numerous other U.S. cities, and it's unclear if workers elsewhere will also unionize.

The big picture: Spin initially began operating in San Francisco in the spring of 2018, along with rivals Bird and Lime, before all three companies were forced off the streets by regulators.

Between the lines: Spin began working with the Teamsters months ago while it was waiting for the San Francisco transportation agency to issue operating permits (it did not get one for an earlier pilot program, in part for poor labor practices), as the San Francisco Examiner reported at the time.

4. Tech industry girds itself for fake census news

Google on Wednesday offered a roundup of its efforts to keep census misinformation from infesting YouTube, search, ads and other products. It's the latest signal from a tech platform looking to show it's taking the 2020 census seriously, as Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Why it matters: Census results from 2020 will be used to draw political districts in 2022, shaping democratic representation in the U.S. for a decade.

  • That makes the census a ripe target for parties domestic and foreign that want to skew the results by taking to the internet to discourage certain groups of people from taking part.
  • Advocacy groups say these campaigns are particularly likely to target people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBTQ community.

At Google, ads and YouTube videos that misinform people about when or how to take part in the census are banned, per a Wednesday blog post.

  • The company is also looking to boost accurate information in search and to keep fake Census Bureau outreach out of people's Gmail inboxes and apps that appear in the Google Play Store.

At Facebook, COO Sheryl Sandberg promised in June that "we're going to treat next year's census like an election."

  • That means resources devoted to training employees and algorithms to detect and root out census-related misinformation, the company said then.
  • And Sandberg said Facebook would roll out a new policy on census misinformation this fall. A company spokesperson said Wednesday the policy is being finalized now.

On Twitter, the service bans false or misleading information about elections and other civic events (like the census).

  • A spokesperson said the company has been in talks with Census Bureau officials on how best to support an accurate count.
  • But Twitter has been fairly quiet about specific efforts it's taking to protect the integrity of the census, prompting a letter from 58 House Democrats last month urging CEO Jack Dorsey to go public with a plan.

What's next: The Census Bureau will conduct its count by mail, phone, the internet and in-home visits next year, primarily in the spring.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The FCC holds its December open meeting. In addition to the suicide number proposal, the commission is set to vote on a plan to split a chunk airwaves previously set aside for cars. Half would be retained for automotive safety use and the other half would go for unlicensed purposes, such as WiFi.
  • Adobe and Oracle are set to report earnings.

Trading Places

  • PayPal COO Bill Ready, who is set to leave the company by the end of the year, plans to join Google as president of commerce, TechCrunch reported.


6. After you Login

I can't give you a snow day off of work, but I can give you otters playing in the snow.