Image: Image: Emile Graphics / Juan Pablo Bravo / Protocol
April 9, 2021
Good morning! This Friday, the tech industry is trying some new things for content moderation, it looks like Amazon's union vote is going Amazon's way, the race is on to be the next WeChat, and there's been a shakeup at Box.
The Big Story
Fresh ideas about moderation
The tech industry is finally getting past thinking about content moderation as a "leave it up or take it down" proposition. Companies are increasingly thinking more holistically, building new tools that give users more control and generally letting go of the idea that AI will solve all problems.
- Twitch is expanding its policies to include some off-platform conduct, working with a third-party investigator to "take action against users for hateful conduct or harassment that occurs off Twitch services … when directed at members of the Twitch community."
- Pinterest also has some new guidelines, called the "Creator Code," meant to set the tone for how people operate on the platform. It's also giving creators more tools to remove content and promote good stuff.
- Facebook is all-in on context. It's testing a system that adds labels like "satire page" or "public official" to posts in the News Feed, in an effort to give people more information about what they're seeing and why.
The award for most out-there idea goes to Intel, which built a tool called Bleep that lets users decide how much bad stuff they want to encounter. It's designed for gamers in particular, and literally offers a slider that lets you decide how much misogyny or racism and xenophobia you're willing to hear in audio streams from other gamers: none, some, most, or all. Intel's AI will tune out any offending audio based on what you've chosen.
- This sounds crazy (and kind of is), but it's a version of something a few folks have told me the industry needs more of: user controls. Rather than decide for users what they should encounter, platforms might instead try to get very good at classifying content and then letting users pick their own filters. (Though I don't know who in their right mind is turning "name-calling" up to "all.")
Some of these systems will work; most probably won't move the needle. But it's clear that the industry is thinking seriously — and sometimes for the first time — about what their policies say and how they're enforced. The answers are rarely as easy as "leave it up" or "take it down."
Amazon's union gets a rough start
Anna Kramer writes: The weeks-long counting process for the Amazon warehouse workers' union vote in Bessemer, Alabama may end today, and it's not looking so good for the union.
The NLRB counted about 1,500 ballots yesterday, out of the 3,400 or so that were cast, and the unofficial tally has Amazon way ahead, with around 1,100 "no" votes to fewer than 500 in favor of the union.
- The union has some major catching up to do, and it's hard to imagine that the next random selection of votes will be hugely different from the last. (Of course, anything is possible.)
- The counting process is exceptionally staid (reporters are allowed to watch on Zoom). Every ten seconds or so, a National Labor Relations Board administrator yells out "yes" or "no" as they review the ballots in front of observers, and then the administrators recount the ballots every time 100 "yes" or "no" votes are recorded. Very analog.
- There are also hundreds of challenged ballots to contend with. Because ballots challenged for validity aren't included in this vote count, if the final numbers draw close enough for the hundreds of ballots to affect the result, the official decision will be paused for weeks while the NLRB schedules and holds a hearing to determine what to do about the ballots.
Vote counting will continue today starting at 9 a.m. ET, for the remaining 2,000-plus ballots. We can expect that an Amazon victory would be quickly followed by an RWDSU legal challenge against the company for unfair practices during the election, which might get the election results thrown out if successful.
- Speaking of which: A mailbox has also become the center of a scandal. Emails among USPS employees showed that Amazon pushed to set up a mailbox right outside the warehouse, which the union argued could have influenced people's votes.
No matter how this ends, it won't be over for a long time.
Who's the next WeChat?
Everybody wants to be the super app, the one place where users spend all their time (and money). Nobody has managed to come close in the U.S. But as China's government cracks down on the country's largest tech companies — including Tencent, which makes WeChat — a lot of startups are betting that there's room for a second super app giant in the country.
Douyin may be the most likely new Chinese super app, Protocol | China's Shen Lu writes:
- Douyin was ByteDance's original video app; TikTok is just Douyin for the rest of the world. But recently the app has added livestreaming, ecommerce, gaming, instant messaging and even a "group buying" feed that's kind of like Groupon.
- Douyin has 550 million users, which is smaller than WeChat's 1.1 billion. But the number is growing incredibly fast, particularly among young people.
- Douyin and WeChat have been feuding for almost as long as Douyin has existed. ByteDance's Zhang Yiming and Tencent's Pony Ma have accused each other of copying features and blocking each other's content.
Meituan and Kuaishou are two other contenders that are quickly expanding their capabilities, and practically every app in China offers some kind of mobile wallet. But while WeChat dominates in messaging, features such as video and entertainment are quickly taking up their fair share of screen time. And that makes Douyin a force to be reckoned with.
Employee activism has been in the headlines – but it turns out that most tech employees actually do trust their employers. Against the backdrop of a rapid decline in trust for the sector, can empowered employees be turned into advocates?
People Are Talking
Tech folks are taking over Austin, and Silicon Valley Bank's Dax Williamson — an Austin resident — said the early changes aren't promising:
- "There is a fairly broad-based concern that some of the things that aren't working in other areas are going to be brought here. If we price out the musicians we're going to find ourselves in a bad place."
Singapore is spending billions to bring more tech into its shipping industry, and state minister Chee Hong Tat said it has to happen fast:
- "Our goal is to be the top maritime startup hub in the world, the Silicon Valley for maritime technology. If we don't stay ahead of the competition, others will steal our lunch."
Craig Federighi explained why Apple hasn't put iMessage on Android, new court filings revealed:
- "iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones."
Bethany Mayer is the new chairwoman of Box's board. Aaron Levie is stepping down (but staying as CEO) now that the company took a $500 million investment from KKR.
Ryan Cohen is the new chairman of GameStop's board. This is what every WallStreetBets member was hoping for: the Chewy founder taking a more active role in turning around the company. I guess he likes the stock.
Zachary Kirkhorn is now a Texas homeowner. Tesla's CFO bought a $3.29 million house in Austin, Business Insider reported, as the company continues to set up shop there. Meanwhile, it reportedly hired Manuj Khurana to lead lobbying in India, where it's reportedly looking for showrooms.
In Other News
- China forced Jack Ma's business school to stop accepting enrolments, The Financial Times reported. An anonymous source said the government is worried that the school "has the potential to organise China's top entrepreneurs to work towards a common goal set by Jack Ma instead of the Communist party."
- On Protocol: Facebook was hit with a lawsuit over anti-Muslim hate. The suit alleges that Facebook has violated consumer protection laws by misrepresenting the work it's doing to combat hate groups and anti-Muslim bigotry.
- Google has a blocklist to stop YouTube advertisers from advertising against hateful content, The Markup reported. But it doesn't appear to be particularly effective: While "KKK" is blocked, "white power" and "racial holy war" weren't until The Markup flagged the issue to Google.
- Exam monitoring software Proctorio fails to recognize Black faces 57% of the time, according to a researcher. That causes problems for students trying to sit exams remotely.
- P&G worked on CAID, China's IDFA alternative, The Wall Street Journal reported. It's another sign that big advertisers are worried about Apple's impending changes.
- The Commerce Department blacklisted seven Chinese supercomputing organizations, alleging that they build tools for China's military.
- Slack and Discord are being used to deliver malware, according to a report from Cisco's Talos. Attackers are supposedly using the app's CDNs to disguise the malware.
- Even Apple's affected by the chip shortage, with MacBook and iPad production reportedly postponed as a result. ISPs are reportedly waiting as long as 60 weeks for routers to be delivered, while GM and Ford have further cut production in the U.S. Meanwhile, Mubadala is reportedly preparing to take GlobalFoundries public at a $20 billion valuation, which seems like pretty good timing.
- Neuralink says it's got a monkey to play Pong with its mind. But as others have pointed out, it's not an entirely new achievement.
One More Thing
NFT of the day
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Ja Rule really ought to make an NFT out of that iconic sandwich photo from Fyre Festival. Welp. Here we are: Trevor DeHaas is selling the iconic tweet on Flipkick, where you can bid on a piece of truly bonkers cultural history. DeHaas is hoping to sell it for at least $80,000, to help pay for his medical expenses. And he says if you buy it, you might be able to sue Netflix for copyright infringement. (I don't recommend taking his word for it.)
This is about as perfectly full-circle as we could hope to get here on NFT of the day, so we're going to retire this column. Next week: some new weird stuff.
As trust in technology has fallen, its employees have become more engaged in workplace protest – even as 83% say they trust their employers. With increased pressure from all stakeholders – employees, regulators, the media, and the public – how can the sector chart a trusted path forward?
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Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to email@example.com, or our tips line, firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy your weekend, see you Sunday.