Aug 3, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Always a pleasure to sit in for Ina! Let's dive right into the roiling news maelstrom.

"Axios on HBO" returns tonight with a can't-miss exclusive interview with President Trump.

  • Axios' Jonathan Swan presses the president on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, reported Russian bounties (see clip), the upcoming election and much more.
  • See a preview here, then tune in for the full interview at 11pm ET/PT on all HBO platforms. 

Today's Login is 1,532 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: What a President Biden would mean for tech

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A Biden presidency would put the tech industry on stabler ground than it's had with President Trump, Axios' Kyle Daly reports. Although Biden is unlikely to rein in those Democrats who are itching to regulate the big platforms, he'll almost certainly have other, bigger priorities.

The big picture: Liberal Silicon Valley remains one of Democrats' most reliable sources for big-money donations. But a Biden win offers no guarantee that tech will be able to renew the cozy relationship it had with the Obama White House.

Where it stands: Democrats familiar with the Biden campaign's work on tech made these predictions...

1. Any early tech policy initiatives will be wrapped up in crisis response.

  • As part of a newly elected Biden administration's efforts to reverse the coronavirus epidemic's ravages, look for an early push to close the "digital divide" between connected Americans and those who can't afford or otherwise access high-speed internet — a lifeline for the shelter-in-place era.
  • That will likely involve efforts to increase broadband subsidy funding, restore Obama-era net neutrality rules and enable cities and rural co-ops to stand up public broadband networks — all priorities outlined in a "unity" agenda from Biden and primary rival Bernie Sanders last month.

2. Don't expect an aggressive tech policy agenda.

  • Several people who spoke with Axios described a constellation of Obama administration tech policy veterans advising the campaign.
  • The group includes neither bomb-throwing tech critics nor big-name Silicon Valley defenders. There's little indication its establishment-player members are ready to trot out an expansive tech platform, as Hillary Clinton had done by June 2016.
  • That's also strategic: Tech policy today is fraught with politically charged controversies over privacy and bias, misinformation, claims of censorship, antitrust issues and more. Democrats see little reason for Biden to wade into these issues during a campaign built on letting Trump sink himself.

3. Once in office, Biden would take cues from the party, even if it means getting more aggressive on tech.

  • Angered by the proliferation of misinformation on Facebook, Biden already said he wants to end online platforms' immunity from liability over material their users post.
  • Observers are split on how serious he is or whether it's still a priority. While there's bipartisan interest in revisiting the issue, changing the law requires an act of Congress.
  • Still, Biden's call signaled a willingness to go hard on tech, and mainstream Democrats are already there. Just last week, House Democrats excoriated the leaders of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple in an antitrust hearing.

4. One person to watch: Mignon Clyburn.

  • The Obama administration veteran is the only Black woman to ever run the Federal Communications Commission, during a roughly six-month stint as acting chair in 2013.
  • Observers say she'd land a choice job in a Biden administration and is favored to be his FCC chair unless she turns it down. (Clyburn declined to comment for this story.)

The bottom line: If Biden wins, the tech industry can probably breathe a sigh of relief in his first 100 days.

  • There won't be late-night tweet storms to contend with.
  • Employees and leaders will be happier on issues like immigration and LGBTQ rights.
  • But the industry will still face an administration shaped by a Democratic establishment that's increasingly hostile to them.
2. Trump and TikTok's wild weekend

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

TikTok got the full Trump treatment in a tumultuous weekend that could determine the popular video-sharing app's future. The most likely outcome — one that only first entered the picture Friday — is Microsoft purchasing TikTok from its Chinese owner.

Here's the play-by-play:

  • Friday, reports emerged that Microsoft was in talks with ByteDance, TikTok's owner, to buy the service, which has been under attack by U.S. legislators and the Trump administration for allegedly providing data to the Chinese government.
  • Friday evening, President Trump tweeted that he intended to ban the app from the U.S., presumably using the power of the Treasury Department's Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S.
  • Saturday, Axios' Dan Primack reported that the Microsoft deal was "on [Trump's] desk."
  • Sunday, Axios' Mike Allen reported that Trump was likely to approve the Microsoft deal if the U.S. firm could guarantee "complete separation" from China. Microsoft said in a blog post that CEO Satya Nadella had talked with Trump and the company was hoping to wrap up a deal with TikTok by Sept. 15.
  • Later Sunday, the New York Times reported that Trump had faced a full-court press not to block the Microsoft deal from White House financial officials, a bevy of leading Republican senators and GOP-friendly business leaders.
  • Peter Navarro, Trump's trade adviser and a prominent China critic, pushed for the app to be banned, the Times said.
  • It's the Trump White House, so the president could still change his mind.

Our thought bubbles:

  • This wouldn't be the first time the U.S. has forced Chinese owners to sell what seems to be a harmless social networking app on national security grounds. It happened in 2019 with the LGBTQ hookup app Grindr.
  • TikTok has been tech leaders' Exhibit A in arguing that competition in tech remains strong, most recently in last week's House hearings. TikTok is the first credible new social media challenger to Facebook since the rise of Snapchat, and its success suggests the internet still has room for newcomers.
  • What's bizarre: With one hand the federal government is questioning the legitimacy of trillion-dollar tech giants acquiring potential competitors; with the other, it's forcing a relatively small upstart to sell out to a trillion-dollar tech giant.
3. New standard aims to combat deepfakes

A group whose members include Adobe, Twitter and the New York Times Monday offered a plan for restoring trust in photos and video in the face of a rising tide of digital fakery, Kyle reports.

Why it matters: Deepfakes — images manipulated or generated by AI in a deceptive way — undermine trust both by tricking people into thinking phony images or videos are real and by making them doubt the veracity of real imagery.

Driving the news: The Content Authenticity Initiative Monday released a white paper outlining an open standard for a photo and video authentication system that could be built into both hardware such as cameras and smartphones and software such as Photoshop.

  • The system would record a digital signature when a photo or video is first taken, and then again each time it's edited in any way. Users would be able to see that record of the imagery's origin and any changes that have been made to it.

What they're saying: The group views authenticating images' sourcing as a more promising approach than trying to filter deceptions.

  • "Instead of all of us trying to get to where we can detect what's fake, we should prove what's real," Sherif Hanna, vice president of R&D at CAI member Truepic and a co-author of the paper, told Axios.

What's next: Members are working on prototypes for implementing the standard in software and hardware.

Kyle has more here.

4. Facebook boycott had little effect on revenue

The high-profile Facebook ad boycotts that began in June and ramped up in July, pressuring the social network to act more forcefully against hate speech, have so far not put much of a dent in Facebook's top or bottom lines, Axios' Sara Fischer reports.

Driving the news: Facebook beat Wall Street revenue expectations for the second quarter, and it said its ad business in the first three weeks of July grew at roughly the same pace as last year.

The big picture: It's hard for a boycott — even one that features 1,000+ prominent brands — to limit Facebook's income, which mostly comes from small businesses around the world that otherwise have few advertising options.

Catch up quick: The #StopHateForProfit boycott launched in June by civil rights activists got more than 1,000 brands to pull ad spend from Facebook and some other social media giants in July.

  • While some brands, like Ben & Jerry's, say they are extending their boycotts further, many plan to resume spending with Facebook now that July is over.

By the numbers: In an earnings call with investors, Facebook's CFO David Wehner said that the company's top 100 advertisers contributed roughly 16% of its total quarterly revenue last quarter.

  • He noted that this was a lower percentage from last year, meaning Facebook has been able to diversify even further away from relying on big brands.

Yes, but: The boycott still serves as a significant reputational problem for the tech giant, as it puts pressure on the company to address its shortcomings around hate speech.

What's next: Boycott organizers told Axios there's more to come from their campaign, which is beginning to extend overseas, but for the most part, the boycott will not continue into August.

5. Take note

On Tap

  • Google is slated to unveil a new Pixel phone Monday, widely expected to be the 4a, the latest in its lower-cost 'a' line.

ICYMI

  • Next up in the misinformation wars: Deepfake text generated by ever-more-capable AI routines. Researcher Renee DiResta warns of fake-comment floods and bogus "majority opinions." (Wired)
  • NYT profiles teen hacker Graham Clark, arrested for the recent hijacking of high-profile Twitter accounts. (New York Times)
  • The Open Technology Fund, which develops tools for journalists and dissidents around the world, says the Trump administration is withholding $20 million of its funding. (Washington Post)
  • William English, who created the first computer mouse and contributed much more to a legendary 1968 demo of interactive computing technology, died at age 91. (New York Times)
  • Google will invest $450 million in home-security firm ADT in a deal aimed at putting Google's Nest devices at the heart of ADT's security systems. (TechCrunch)
6. After you Login
Douglas Engelbart in a screen from the SRI 1968 "mother of all demos"

If you are tired of Zoom calls, and your interest was piqued by that Bill English obit, take a trip back in time: watch the incredible video record of SRI's 1968 public demonstration by Doug Engelbart and English of the first-ever video-conferencing system, which was also the first-ever live demo of the mouse, hypertext, online collaboration and much more.

  • The event, later dubbed "the mother of all demos" and recorded to video by Stewart Brand, foretold the world we live in today — and introduced some ideas we still haven't fulfilled.
Ina Fried