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Google’s coronavirus ad flip-flop

Good morning! This Friday, Google flip-flops on coronavirus ads, games get reimagined for lockdown, and HBO makes some of the best shows ever free for everyone.

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People Are Talking

Amazon general counsel David Zapolsky planned to smear Christian Smalls, the strike organizer in Staten Island:

  • "He's not smart, or articulate, and to the extent the press wants to focus on us versus him, we will be in a much stronger PR position than simply explaining for the umpteenth time how we're trying to protect workers."
  • Zapolsky later apologized: "I let my emotions draft my words and get the better of me."

The gig economy won't go back to normal after coronavirus, said billionaire short-seller Jim Chanos:

  • "I know there's a body of thought that oh, well everybody will just do food delivery and we'll all take Ubers and no one is going to buy a car again, and I think the flip side of it is that the labor pool issue for the gig economy companies is going to loom very very large coming out of this crisis."

We can't let coronavirus make us accept a surveillance state, Amnesty International's Rasha Abdul Rahim cautioned:

  • "Technology can play an important role in the global effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this does not give governments carte blanche to expand digital surveillance. The recent past has shown governments are reluctant to relinquish temporary surveillance powers. We must not sleepwalk into a permanent expanded surveillance state now."

The Big Story

Google backtracks on coronavirus ads

In most cases, Google's "sensitive events" ad policy makes total sense. It prohibits any ad that "potentially capitalizes on or lacks reasonable sensitivity towards a natural disaster, conflict, death, public health emergency, or other tragic event." Think price-gouging, fear-mongering, that sort of thing.

But when the sensitive event is coronavirus, the most important story in the world and one where misinformation is rampant, things get trickier.

  • That's why Google rolled back its ban on coronavirus-related ads, which affected everything other than government-sponsored PSAs, after Protocol's Emily Birnbaum published a story saying Democrats saw the policy as a gift to President Trump.
  • Google's now allowing virus-related ads from "government entities, hospitals, medical providers and NGOs." More details about changes for political advertisers are expected in the next few days.

Senator Chris Murphy took particular notice of the story, and worked with Google to change its policies. "Free speech wins," he said. "For now."

  • "I understand the general reason for Google's caution," Murphy told Emily. "In the middle of an emergency, you don't want charlatans and conmen to be taking advantage of the situation for profit. But there's a big difference between conmen using the internet to try to make a dollar versus candidates for office engaging in legitimate political speech."
  • Time is of the essence, he said. "What else is a candidate going to be talking about right now besides coronavirus? And if you cannot talk about coronavirus, and in particular you can't criticize the president, that's a massive curtailment of speech."

It's tempting to think: Oh, it's just Google and it's just ads, there are plenty of other ways to communicate!

  • But Murphy and others argued that because Google is so dominant in digital ads — particularly when you also factor in YouTube — it was hugely problematic for the White House and CDC to be allowed to share widely when the other side couldn't respond.
  • Google is still clarifying the details for political coronavirus ads, it told Emily, but said it would allow more people to run ads related to COVID-19 in the future.

As we've seen with lots of content moderation, some things get simpler to handle in a pandemic. Political ads, though? Still as messy as ever.


Stuck at home, gamers get inventive

Last Friday night, I played Trivial Pursuit over Google Hangouts with my wife's whole family. I'm still not sure who won, honestly, but I'm totally convinced that whoever had the physical board was cheating the whole time. Anyway, I digress.

As everybody looks for ways to pass time in isolation, pretty much everybody seems to have turned to Animal Crossing. So much so that Nintendo can't seem to make enough Switches to keep up. In general, though, both people who make games and the people who play them are coming up with some truly ingenious ideas:

But some of the most inventive ways games are replacing the real world are happening in Minecraft. There, among other things, thousands of users are building a scale model of the entire planet. Which is, yes, as bananas as it sounds.

  • Deirdre Quarnstrom, a general manager for Minecraft, told me the game is seeing "all-time high usage." It's growing especially fast in education: With more than a billion students at home, teachers are turning to Minecraft to keep kids engaged.
  • Playing Minecraft offers the same sense of accomplishment that you might get from quarantine-baking or rearranging the living room. "There's something about building a house in Minecraft or sharing a build with somebody that feels like you did something," Quarnstrom said.

Sure, we could keep having the screen-time debate, but let's not for now. People are looking for ways to get through the day. I know I'll be watching both the 2K tourney and the virtual grand prix this weekend. See you in the chat!


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Ro Khanna talks startup stimulus

"This is not some large bailout for the startups," Ro Khanna told Protocol's Issie Lapowsky during our Virtual Meetup yesterday. Khanna, along with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, has spent the week pleading with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to get startups included in Congress' economic stimulus plan. Just before the meetup, McCarthy told Axios that Mnuchin had agreed to "solve" the problem.

  • "That is a big deal, if true," Khanna told Issie. "The affiliation rules make no sense" as they have been written, he added. The stimulus package currently defines small business as having fewer than 500 employees, but counts together all of the employees of any startup a VC has invested in.
  • Why can't startups just get the money from deep-pocketed VCs? Khanna said VCs will insist on job cuts. "That's my focus," Khanna said. "It's not just saving startups, it's saving the many people employed in startups."
  • Relatedly:Don't miss Biz Carson's story on why VCs say they need government help to save startup jobs.

Issie also asked Khanna about his views on universal basic income, the digital divide, and more.

  • On UBI: "People are not going to be fine with a bunch of tech leaders making money and mailing everyone a check," Khanna said. "We need something that gives them work and job opportunities."
  • Khanna suggested expanding the earned income tax credit, supplementing workers who are not making enough, and expanding Social Security disability for people who cannot work for qualifying reasons.
  • Khanna also said the FCC could be doing more to address the digital divide, including requiring or incentivizing tech companies to provide more internet access.

Don't forget to sign up for our next Virtual Meetup! Protocol's Mike Murphy will talk with Goldman Sachs' Ericka Leslie and Nasdaq's Lars Ottersgard about the extraordinary technological efforts required to keep the markets up and running.

Number of the Day


That's how many cars Tesla delivered to customers in the first quarter of 2020. (It actually built 102,672.) That's about 11,000 more than the same time last year, and yet another encouraging sign that the company's becoming a more efficient and reliable manufacturer. And given the chaos that enveloped the world in the second half of the quarter the results are even more impressive. But Tesla isn't getting everything right: The company promised to donate ventilators to hospitals, but actually sent BPAP machines.

In Other News

One More Thing

Your weekend viewing, courtesy of HBO

Here are three facts: You're stuck at home this weekend. From Friday at 5 p.m. to Monday at 9 a.m. is 64 hours. You can watch all five seasons of "The Wire," which you can now stream for free on HBO Now or HBO Go, in 60 hours. That means you'll still have time for the whole first season of "Barry" before the week's first Zoom call!

The Protocol Braintrust on remote work

Experts in Protocol's Braintrust highlight digital reliance, updated policies and communication by answering the question "What practice mandated by remote-work setups is most likely to stick around after work returns to offices?"

This week's Braintrust is brought to you by Slack.

Read it here.

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me,, or our tips line, Enjoy your weekend, see you Monday.

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