Jun 17, 2019

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Belated Happy Father's Day to all of my dad readers, as well as to my dad and to AJ, who is an incredible papa to Harvey (who made a cameo in last night's episode of "Axios on HBO").

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Today's Smart Brevity count: 1,504 words, < 6 minute read.

1 big thing: The role of competitors in Big Tech antitrust probes

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A proliferation of antitrust investigations into the tech giants is offering competitors a chance to sound off on claims that their larger rivals are playing dirty, Axios' David McCabe reports.

Why it matters: If the Department of Justice or Federal Trade Commission pursue formal investigations into Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple, they’ll need all the evidence they can get. The companies that compete with them could provide that by the ton.

Background: DOJ and FTC have split up authority over potentially investigating the 4 companies for antitrust violations — with Justice taking Google and Apple, and FTC getting Facebook and Amazon.

  • The House Judiciary Committee is simultaneously conducting its own investigation, which is expected to include obtaining information from companies that compete with the giants.

What they’re saying: Gene Kimmelman, president of advocacy group Public Knowledge and a former Justice Department antitrust official, tells Axios...

"The experiences of other players in the marketplace interacting with dominant firms is a fundamental element of any antitrust investigation."

What's happening: Competitors and corporate critics of the giants are already helping to shape the conversation around the issue, with anecdotal and quantitative evidence.

  • A recent House Judiciary Committee hearing on the power that platforms like Google and Facebook have over publishers included witnesses from News Corp. and the News Media Alliance, which represents many news organizations.
  • On Sunday, the lyrics site Genius went public with concerns that Google had copied content from its site and displayed it in search results — which results in less traffic to the site itself.

The bigger picture: There are a wide variety of competitors to the 4 tech giants, across a range of industries from retailers to small businesses.

  • Many of them have already made their case to the FTC as part of a process of public hearings on antitrust and consumer protection, as the New York Times noted this week.

Yes, but: Speaking up can come at a cost to smaller companies, including angering the powerful corporate giants and signaling to investors that you might go under without government intervention.

  • That’s why investigators often give competitors a venue to press their case in secret.

The bottom line: Public complaints about Big Tech that arise if investigations ramp up — whether in congressional hearings or the press — may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Go deeper: David has more here.

2. Tim Cook attacks other Big Tech companies

Cook speaks during the June 16 Stanford commencement ceremony. Photo: Liu Guanguan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Apple CEO Tim Cook used a Stanford University commencement speech yesterday to go after other tech companies, saying "this industry is becoming better known for a less noble innovation — the belief you can claim credit without accepting responsibility," per CNBC.

Why it matters: As the national conversation on tech gear-shifts from admiration to regulation, Apple hopes to carve out a safe harbor by positioning itself as a privacy champion.

Here are highlights of Cook’s address:

“We see it every day now with every data breach, every privacy violation, every blind eye turned to hate speech, fake news poisoning out national conversation, the false miracles in exchange for a single drop of your blood."
"If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated, sold and even leaked in the event of a hack, then we lose so much more than data. We lose the freedom to be human."

Of note: Cook didn't single out any company by name, but said, "It feels a bit crazy that anyone should have to say this, but if you built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos.”

Our thought bubble: It’s one thing to make these points at Stanford — it would be another to present them to federal regulators.

Go deeper: What Apple knows about you

3. Survey: Consumers ok with smart speaker ads

Chart: Adobe's Q2 Voice Report

Consumers find voice-based ads on their smart speaker to be more engaging and less intrusive than pitches in other media, according to a new survey by Adobe.

By the numbers: According to the findings, 43% of consumers found smart speaker ads to be less intrusive, compared to 26% that held the opposite view. (About 31% were neutral on the question.)

Why it matters: While smart speakers continue to proliferate, the business around voice-based advertising remains nascent.

Other findings:

  • Only 1 in 5 of those surveyed said they had shopped via their smart speaker, but willingness to do so is growing, especially for things like groceries and household items.
  • Consumers increasingly value the ability to control by voice when buying new electronics, including TVs, speakers and even cars.
  • Playing music remains the top use of smart speakers, along with getting weather or sports scores and asking all manner of questions.
  • Nearly a third of people would be keen to replace the voice of their digital assistant with a celebrity. Top choices include: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Will Smith and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Flashback: Google did briefly offer John Legend as a voice option for Assistant.)

Our thought bubble: Right now we simply don't encounter too many ads on smart speakers, so maybe that's why people don't find them intrusive? If that's the case, just give it a little time.

Methodology: Adobe surveyed 1,025 adults May 15-22 about their use of voice assistants. See methodology here.

4. Exclusive: Using data to track transphobia in media
Prototype image of how the Transphobia Project would work in graphing published media on certain topics. Screenshot: Kickstarter campaign.

Rather than react one story at a time to negative media coverage of the transgender community, producer, activist and writer Andrea James wants to map out the bias, in hopes of eventually eliminating it.

What's new: For the past year, James has been working on a data visualization project tracing connecting threads and shared sources in biased coverage. On Monday, James is going public with the effort, called The Transphobia Project, and launching a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of being able to fully fund the effort.

  • "I‘m hoping some people will see this, get excited and want to join," James tells Axios.
  • Such an endeavor is inherently subjective and James doubts her tool will get everything right. But she said, the goal is to "get people to think about this in a different way and to start holding people accountable in a way they haven’t in the past."
  • And, she adds, "It’s going to freak some people out."

The backstory: James said she was spurred to action by a cover story last year in The Atlantic that suggested there isn't clear evidence whether it is better to support or reject trans youths' gender identities. (There is scientific consensus that affirming health care improves the wellbeing and reduces the likelihood of suicide for transgender youth.)

What's next: James hopes to have the tool and initial research ready by the summer of 2020, with the goal of creating something that would be useful for spotting all manner of bias.

5. Lego offers a bridge to past and future

Lego's Tim Brooks discusses the company's work on sustainability with Axios' Ina Fried. Photo: "Axios on HBO."

Earlier this year, I had a chance to visit Lego headquarters in Billund, Denmark, in what turned out to be a look both forward and backward.

Driving the news: My reporting for Axios focused on how Lego is looking to use its iconic bricks to help middle schoolers to learn how to code, while a segment for "Axios on HBO" that aired Sunday looks at the company's ambitious quest to replace all its petroleum-based plastics with either recycled or plant-based ones by 2030.

The bottom line: You can see the full segment on HBO (and a teaser here), but basically the company has yet to find a material that will serve as a suitable substitute.

  • In touring their materials lab, I saw some plant-based options that looked just like their oil-based counterparts, but lacked the stickiness and other properties that make a Lego a Lego.
  • Others had the right feel, but the colors were muddy and matte. Still, Lego executives are confident they will reach the goal, even if they aren't quite sure how.

Details: My trip to Denmark wasn't only a look into the future, though.

  • I got a tour of the Lego Idea House, which details the company's journey, beginning with wooden toy ducks in 1932 through its pivot to plastic bricks in 1958 all the way through to the present.
  • In basement vaults accessible to workers — but not the general public — the company stores unopened set boxes from every year. It was a powerful moment when I got to view the ones from my youth, some of which I still have. You can view a bonus video of that here.

Go deeper: Axios did a deep dive on plastics over the weekend.

6. Take Note

On Tap

  • The Cannes Lions advertising conference is taking place this week in France.

Trading Places

  • Seattle-based business texting company Zipwhip named Faye Ricci as its general counsel.


  • 23 House Democrats have signed a letter to the acting Homeland Security secretary expressing concern over reports of facial recognition systems being used on American citizens. (Axios)
  • Developers voiced mixed reactions to Apple's new sign-in system, which it is making mandatory for app makers that want to offer other social sign-in options from Facebook or Google. (Wired)
  • Huawei is bracing for a big drop in non-China smartphone sales amid sanctions from the U.S. that threaten to limit its chip and software supply. (Bloomberg)
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