Last week, as COVID-19 began its spread around the globe, I noted here that the epidemic had prompted a notable change in the big tech platforms. Where they were once loath to intervene in the affairs of their own algorithms, even when the potential harms to public health were clear, the arrival of a novel coronavirus put them in a newly interventionist mindset.
Today I want to highlight another tech giant coming around, belatedly, to the idea of editorial intervention in a crisis. The giant is Google, and while the company had previously begun directing COVID-19 queries on YouTube to the World Health Organization, it has since gone further. Here are Mark Bergen and Gerrit De Vynck in Bloomberg:
Google searches related to the virus now trigger an “SOS Alert,” with news from mainstream publications including National Public Radio, followed by information from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization displayed prominently. In contrast, a recent search for “flu season” showed the website verywellhealth.com at the top, while another search for “flu” produced tweets, including one from U.S. President Donald Trump comparing coronavirus to the common flu. [...]
On YouTube, Google’s video service, the company is trying to quickly remove videos claiming to prevent the virus in place of seeking medical treatment. And some apps related to the virus have been banned from the Google Play app store, prompting complaints from developers who say they just want to help. An Iranian government app built to keep track of infections was also removed from the Play Store, ZDNet reported.
The company is also giving up revenue. Pichai said in another recent memo that Google has blocked tens of thousands of ads “capitalizing” on the virus. It’s also pulled ads from YouTube videos that discuss Covid-19, while giving governments and NGOs free ad space on the video service.
As with the changes I highlighted last week — Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest have taken similar steps — nothing described here is extraordinary. But it is responsible, and represents a departure from the Google of even two years ago. You can attribute it to a years-long public pressure campaign from academics, activists, lawmakers, employees, or journalists. Or you could credit heightened sensitivities given that a number of tech workers are already among those who have been afflicted by the disease. Whatever the case, the important thing is that Google and others are getting their hands dirty.
Even outside the current crisis around the outbreak — and I understand that that vast majority of people’s focus is on that, as it should be — you see signs of this new interventionist mindset. I was moderately surprised over the weekend when Twitter applied a “manipulated media” tag to a doctored video — and one retweeted by President Trump, no less.
The video was deceptively edited to make it appear that Joe Biden had endorsed Trump’s reelection. (It has also been uploaded to Facebook and TikTok, among other places.) Last Thursday, Twitter instituted a new policy of labeling tweets that contained deceptive or synthetic media. But policy, as I like to say, is what you enforce, and given Twitter’s historical aversion to enforcement, there was reason to wonder how aggressively it would apply the new mandate. To the company’s credit, it enforced the policy right away.
Of course, the move had its critics — and not just among aggrieved Republicans. Many noted that the label was small and easy to miss. There’s also the question of whether such labels inform users effectively about the nature of the post. Is it clear that “manipulated media” is deceptive, potentially harmful media? Might it not be better if it took the form of a pre-roll warning, at least for deceptive videos?
These are questions worth asking. But in the meantime it’s notable that the conversation has shifted entirely from “should tech companies intervene?” to “what interventions are most effective?” It’s a shift that we’re all likely to benefit from.
I got mixed feedback on yesterday’s column arguing that Jack Dorsey’s days might still be numbered following the company’s deal with activist investor Elliott Management. A few folks wrote in to tell me that the deal had, in fact, saved Dorsey’s job, and that he was here to stay. One person told me this after speaking with another member of Twitter’s board.
On the other hand, having reviewed the agreement between Twitter and Elliott, Steven Levy take had all the same thoughts I did. And Matt Levine makes a strong numerical case for Dorsey’s relative weakness: for a big tech CEO, Dorsey simply doesn’t own very much of his own company.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Amazon executives approved a $5 million fund to support small businesses around its Seattle headquarters struggling with a dramatic slowdown since the company instructed its employees to work from home if they could.
Trending up: Google established a fund so hourly workers can take paid sick leave if they experience coronavirus symptoms. The policy also applies if people can’t come to work because they’re quarantined.
Trending up: Apple is giving hourly employees, including retail workers, unlimited sick leave if they experience coronavirus symptoms. They won’t be required to submit a doctor’s note.
Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled planned rallies today to reduce the risk of virus transmission. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Two people who attended the popular RSA security conference in San Francisco last month contracted the disease, and one is in a coma. (Jeran Wittenstein and Kartikay Mehrotra / Bloomberg)
“Flattening the curve,” explained. (Eliza Barclay and Dylan Scott / Vox)
Are open floor-plan offices making the virus’ spread worse? (Konrad Putzier / Wall Street Journal)
On the office front:
Amazon is relaxing its attendance policy for warehouse workers due to the spread of the coronavirus. The company told employees that it will not count any unpaid time off if they need to take it during the month of March. (Annie Palmer / CNBC)
Google now recommends that all of its North American employees work from home. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
Contractors at Google and Facebook are worried they might not get the same access to sick leave and remote work benefits that the companies extend to their full-time employees. (Nitasha Tiku and Elizabeth Dwoskin / The Washington Post)
Also: The coronavirus outbreak is prompting many people to start working from home. And while that makes sense during a pandemic, it’s not necessarily good for their creativity or health. As a remote work skeptic, I thank Kevin for writing this column! (Kevin Roose / The New York Times)
The Game Developers Conference, which was canceled, will instead stream some planned sessions on Twitch. (Megan Farokhmanesh / The Verge)
On the economy:
Costco is getting a bump from coronavirus panic shopping. The company’s February sales were up 12.4 percent from a year ago. (Nathaniel Meyersohn / CNN)
Broadway is slashing ticket prices to boost demand. Great time to see The Book of Mormon! Actually probably not. (David Rooney / The Hollywood Reporter)
Here’s how the coronavirus outbreak could impact the future of tech, particularly the sharing economy and the big tech companies. (Sam Lessin / The Information)
The American sports world is dragging its feet on COVID-19. While the big tech conferences are all canceled and companies make employees work from home, Major League Baseball continues to hold 15 spring-training games a day in Florida and Arizona, two of the states with confirmed cases of the virus. (Will Leitch / Intelligencer)
Coachella was postponed until October. (Gabe Meline / KQED)
⭐ The Senate Judiciary Committee pressed Google on antitrust issues during a Tuesday hearing. Among other things, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced a bill to limit the ability of big companies to lock out smaller competitors. Adi Robertson explains at The Verge:
Klobuchar described her bill, known as the “Anticompetitive Exclusionary Conduct Prevention Act,” as an across-the-board reform. It increases the burden of proof on monopolists to prove they’re not suppressing competition, and it discourages courts from granting immunity from antitrust enforcement. “We have a major monopoly problem in this country, which harms consumers and threatens free and fair competition across our economy,” she said in a statement. “Companies need to be put on notice.”
But she promoted it during a Senate hearing on digital platforms, one of several events sparked by the backlash against large tech companies. The hearing covered the tactic of self-preferencing — where a company uses dominance in one area to privilege its other services, whether or not they’re the best option for consumers. “Depending on the circumstances, these types of practices can have a devastating effect of competition,” said Klobuchar.
⭐ Federal judge Patricia Campbell-Smith said Amazon is “likely to succeed” on a key argument in the Pentagon cloud lawsuit. Campbell-Smith sided with Amazon’s contention that the Pentagon made a mistake in evaluating prices for competing proposals from Amazon and Microsoft, under pressure from President Trump. Aaron Gregg at The Washington Post has the story:
In a blow to Microsoft and the Defense Department, Campbell-Smith ordered the Pentagon to halt work on JEDI. In a lengthy opinion explaining her reasoning, she sided with Amazon’s contention that the Pentagon made a mistake in evaluating prices for competing proposals from Amazon and Microsoft. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
She also said the mistake is likely to harm Amazon materially, an important qualifier for government contract bid protests. She rejected arguments raised earlier by Microsoft and the Defense Department that Amazon should have raised its concerns sooner.
Russia has stepped up its efforts to inflame racial tensions in the United States as part of its attempt to influence November’s presidential election. The strategy involves trying to incite violence by white supremacists and to stoke anger among African-Americans. (Julian E. Barnes and Adam Goldman / The New York Times)
Last year, the knitting site Ravelry banned all pro-Trump content. The situation caused an uproar among older women on the site, who struggled to contend with issues of censorship and hate speech. (Tanya Basu / MIT Technology Review)
⭐ Twitter rewrote its developer policy in an effort to recognize “good” bots and make it easier for academics to use. Here’s Sarah Perez in TechCrunch:
Twitter data is used to study topics like spam, abuse, and other areas related to conversation health, the company noted, and it wants these efforts to continue. The revised policy now allows the use of the Twitter API for academic research purposes. In addition, Twitter is simplifying its rules around the redistribution of Twitter data to aid researchers. Now, researchers will be able to share an unlimited number of Tweet IDs and/or User IDs, if they’re doing so on behalf of an academic institution and for the sole purpose of non-commercial research, such as peer review, says Twitter.
Scientists say that lurking on social media probably won’t destroy your brain. Unless you’re a teenager, in which case it might. (Katie Notopoulos / BuzzFeed)
Facebook is testing out letting users cross-post their stories to Instagram, instead of just the other way around. The feature could save people time while allowing them to get more views on their stories. On the other hand, who cares. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are among the investors in a secretive robotics startup known as Vicarious. Its robots are now assembling sampler packs for Sephora. (Tom Simonite / Wired)
The secret-sharing app Whisper left years of users’ most intimate confessions exposed on the internet. The messages were tied to peoples’ age and location, raising concerns that the information could have been used to dox or blackmail people. (Drew Harwell / The Washington Post)
A man Gainesville, Florida was using an exercise app to track his bike rides. The app fed his location to Google, which then placed him at the scene of a crime he didn’t commit, thanks to a “geofence warrant.” These warrants, which allow police to sweep up Google location data, have increased dramatically over the past two years. (Jon Schuppe / NBC)
Fast Company names Snap the most innovative company of 2020. Mark Wilson gets an interview with CEO Evan Spiegel out of the deal. Spiegel says: “I mean . . . people come up and thank me. Like, random people. ‘Hey, thanks for not selling to Facebook. That’s bizarre, right? That’s super bizarre.” (Mark Wilson / Fast Company)
online, everyone sounds more certain than they actually are.
I’m sorry, Cameron Wilson, but what?!
Despite Tinder being banned in China, users say they’re having luck setting their location to Wuhan, allowing them to match with and chat to residents to hear their perspective on the global story.
US-based Twitter user @drethelin tweeted “Setting my tinder to Wuhan so I can get the real scoop on what’s going on” on Jan. 28 — just before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 was a public health emergency.
Wuhan has enough on its plate without having to talk to this guy. Let Tinder be Tinder!