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Google’s plan to rethink search

Image: Protocol
Autocomplete is full of garbage

Good morning! This Friday, Google and Twitter have new plans to manage election content, Facebook launched a familiar new service, and Ninja is back on Twitch.

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The Big Story

Saving autocomplete from itself

It's less than two months until election day. A pandemic is raging. The West Coast is on fire. For tech companies, the value of helping people find good and useful information — while keeping them away from what's problematic and unhelpful — is more obvious than ever. And Google's thinking about the issue in a slightly unusual way.

  • There are two sides to Google Search. The first is the search results themselves, which Google says it's perpetually refining but doesn't want to treat with too heavy a hand. If you want to Google your way into some wacky corner of the internet, Google won't stop you.
  • On the other hand, with products like the Answer Box at the top of search results, query autocompletes and even the ads Google shows, Google is becoming more involved with what people see when they search. With these things, which Google calls "search features," it's trying to be more proactive about making sure it only shows the right stuff, it told reporters Thursday.

One of Google's newest changes is to autocomplete. Going forward, if you start to search for something like "voting by mail illegal," Google won't show any suggestions. "We will remove predictions that could be interpreted or perceived as claims for one candidate or against one candidate" as well, Google's David Graff said. Graff also said that some perfectly benign queries will be affected by this filter, and Google's fine with that.

  • "There's a tension between precision and recall in algorithms," Google VP of Search Pandu Nayak said. High precision means an algorithm only returns correct answers; high recall means it returns more answers, including some incorrect ones. Google is intentionally leaning toward recall with autocomplete: It wants to get everything right, even if that means overstepping in some places. "Protecting you from bad autocompletes is more important" than showing them as often as possible, Nayak said.
  • This is the opposite of what's happening in so many other places, where fears of overstepping and false positives can turn into … unimpressive strategies.

Google is making a plan for Election Day, too. It's working with the AP and Democracy Works to make sure it's surfacing only true information — and not, Google engineering VP Cathy Edwards said, things like false claims of victory.

While part of the problem can be solved algorithmically, humans still need to be part of the equation. Edwards acknowledged that "as the events of this year have shown, there are times when information quality is particularly important." There are more of those moments all the time right now, and they require something more than PageRank.

More Elections

Twitter prepares to delete more tweets

The word "context" has been one of Twitter's favorites over the last month. It doesn't want to be an arbiter of truth, to borrow a Zuckerbergism, but it does feel an obligation to provide more information when lies and misinformation are being spread.

As it says that, though, Twitter has taken a much more aggressive approach to hiding and even removing tweets that violates its policies. And yesterday, with a policy update, Twitter gave itself more latitude to do so:

  • Twitter said in a blog post that it will now "label or remove false or misleading information intended to undermine public confidence in an election or other civic process."
  • That could be information about the voting process, who won the election, or something else entirely.

The stakes are particularly high for Twitter, which seems likely to be the place @realdonaldtrump spends a lot of time on Election Day. (Sure, @joebiden too, but he's not quite as … avid a tweeter.) The company's just giving itself clearance to do what it deems necessary.

But the real question here is bigger than Twitter, and you should be asking this on your Zoom calls as well: What happens if the election doesn't end on Election Day? It's an economic question, a policy question, a content-moderation question, and much more. And you and your teams should be ready.

Social

Facebook launches Facebook. On Facebook.

Facebook launched a product called Campus yesterday, "a college-only space designed to help students connect with fellow classmates over shared interests." Which is to say, it launched Facebook!

Anyway, funny as it is, the point is not that everything old is new again, that it's now only a matter of time until the Winklevii come out of the woodwork, or that Mark Zuckerberg is about to roll out a way to rate the attractiveness of your peers.

No, the point is that Facebook continues to splinter, and I think that's telling.

  • Campus is a dedicated part of the Facebook app, because Facebook still desperately wants everyone downloading its big blue app. Mostly, though, Campus is its own universe, and in fact it has more in common with Facebook Workplace than with regular Facebook.
  • Meanwhile, Instagram is testing a new design that puts Reels and Shopping into their own tabs. The way Adam Mosseri described it to The Verge, Instagram is no longer one product; it's a bunch of different ones, each in their own tabs, connected only by the people who post stuff to all of them.

It's funny to see Facebook following Snapchat's lead yet again. Snap has told me for years that Discover, messaging and Stories could live in one app, that people understood how to navigate the system. Snap was right. First Facebook tried to integrate everything completely and tightly, then it tried to break everything out on its own. Now it's trying to have everything separate, but together.

Oh, and Mark: While you're rehashing old Facebook ideas, can you bring back the ChaCha? Loved that phone.

WATCH THE STATE OF THE CLOUD

Pure Storage

Yesterday, Tom Krazit explored how best practices for cloud computing are evolving during an unprecedented time, featuring Okta CIO Alvina Antar, Novant Health CDTO Angela Yochem and PagerDuty SVP of product Jonathan Rende. This event was presented by Pure Storage.

Watch the recording

People Are Talking

A lot of people downloaded Halide to take pictures of the orange skies, and Halide decided to give back:

  • "It feels wrong to benefit from this, so we are donating yesterday's sales to our local Wildfire Relief Fund."

Beware of non-gaming companies trying to figure out gaming. Reed Hastings said it's hard for everyone, including Netflix:

  • "Hollywood companies have tried forever to be big in gaming and it hasn't worked out. There's enough differences between the art forms that, you know, it's pretty challenging."

It's been a good week for Nikola, but activist short-seller Hindenburg Research isn't buying it:

  • "We have gathered extensive evidence — including recorded phone calls, text messages, private emails and behind-the-scenes photographs — detailing dozens of false statements by $NKLA Founder Trevor Milton. We have never seen this level of deception at a public company."
  • Nikola CEO Trevor Milton's response: "It will take the rest of the day to address the one sided false claims, but I will put out a detail report to address it. In the meantime, troll on."

Edward Snowden is not a fan of Amazon's latest board hire:

  • "It turns out 'Hey Alexa' is short for 'Hey Keith Alexander.' Yes, the Keith Alexander personally responsible for the unlawful mass surveillance programs that caused a global scandal. And Amazon Web Services (AWS) host ~6% of all websites."

Making Moves

Makani is shutting down. The former Alphabet company working on using kites to generate energy from wind couldn't find new investment. It released a huge amount of code, videos and data about its progress for anyone who wants to use it.

Ninja is back on Twitch. The biggest name in game-streaming moved back to his original platform, in a surely hugely lucrative multi-year deal. Here's a wild stat: Ninja didn't stream on Twitch for a year, and was still the service's most popular channel. His first stream back on Twitch? Fall Guys. Great choice.

Pierre Omidyar retired from eBay's board, though he'll remain director emeritus. Jesse Cohn also left the board, while Citigroup executive Carol Hayles and LinkedIn engineering executive Mohak Shroff joined.

Peter Marquez is AWS' first head of space policy. He was previously director of space policy for the White House's National Security Council, and worked as an adviser on Netflix's Space Force.

Steven Wymer is the new CEO of the Silicon Valley Boys & Girls Club. That's the same Steven Wymer who was previously eBay's Chief Communications Officer, where he was linked to a harassment plot that allegedly included sending a blogger a bloody pig mask — though Wymer himself has not been charged with a crime.

In Other News

  • Trump said he won't extend the TikTok sale deadline, which Bloomberg reported ByteDance is likely to miss. That raises the threat of a shutdown after the Sept. 20 deadline — though some think the real deadline might be a CFIUS one in November.
  • On Protocol: Mignon Clyburn may be Biden's most likely choice to chair the FCC if he's elected, though Jessica Rosenworcel, Geoffrey Starks and Gigi Sohn are all in the running. Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly leaning towards Nathan Simington, who is said to have helped draft the Section 230 executive order, to replace Mike O'Rielly as a commissioner.
  • The Russian military is trying to hack the Biden and Trump campaigns, Microsoft said. It also said that Chinese hackers are focused on the Biden campaign, which doesn't match a recent national intelligence assessment that said China wants Biden to win.
  • Epic Games can use Sign in With Apple after all. The company said Apple gave it an "indefinite extension."
  • Customs and Border Protection bought access to Vigilant's private security camera network. Much like the Locate X deal Protocol reported on earlier this year, it's another example of federal agencies buying private data to avoid needing warrants.
  • San Diego is turning off its Smart Streetlight cameras, and they'll remain off until the city has a surveillance ordinance in place. It's a big win for campaigners, who were unhappy with police using the cameras.
  • The Chinese ambassador to the U.K.'s Twitter account liked a porn video, and now the embassy has asked Twitter to investigate what it claims is an attack from "anti-China elements."
  • Elizabeth Holmes may plead a "mental disease" defense in her trial next year. Her lawyers asked to introduce evidence relating to a "mental disease or defect or any other mental condition" that might affect whether she's guilty. A judge allowed prosecutors to have a psychologist and psychiatrist examine Holmes.
  • Don't miss this story about how North Korean hackers launder stolen cryptocurrency, from MIT Technology Review. As one IRS agent put it, "the laundering is more sophisticated than the hacks themselves."

One More Thing

The virtual-fans thing is catching on

After watching the NBA bubble for a while, I have to say, I kind of enjoy the virtual fans? So does everyone else, apparently, because the NFL's doing it too. It's working with Microsoft Teams to put fans on stadium screens, so players and fans can cheer together during games. Awkward? Definitely. Potential for great pranks and hilarious on-camera jokes? You bet.

WATCH THE STATE OF THE CLOUD

Pure Storage

Yesterday, Tom Krazit explored how best practices for cloud computing are evolving during an unprecedented time, featuring Okta CIO Alvina Antar, Novant Health CDTO Angela Yochem and PagerDuty SVP of product Jonathan Rende. This event was presented by Pure Storage.

Watch the recording

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your weekend, see you Sunday.

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