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Tech CEOs grapple with the risk of future violence

January 14, 2021, 3:00 PM UTC

Tech companies are taking vastly different approaches to managing the threat of future violence following the riots at the U.S. Capitol last week.

On Wednesday, Airbnb announced that it is cancelling and blocking reservations within the Washington, D.C., area during the week of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Brian Chesky, Airbnb’s CEO, tweeted the news saying the company will refund all cancellations and pay hosts in full for any lost bookings. Several of Chesky’s followers lauded Airbnb, calling the decision “proactive” and “the right move.”

Meanwhile, at Reuters’ Next virtual forum, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said he backed YouTube’s decision to temporarily suspend, rather than permanently ban, President Donald Trump’s account. Tuesday night, YouTube removed one of Trump’s videos for violating its policies and suspended the account from posting any new videos for at least seven days. Trump won’t be banned unless he violates YouTube’s policies three times within a 90-day period, YouTube told me earlier this week.

“There is a three-strike process,” Pichai said on Wednesday. “We put the best-faith effort to be consistent and clear and transparent about how we [moderate content].”

But Steve Adler, Reuters’ editor-in-chief, didn’t let Pichai off easy. “You’re doing things after the fact,” he told the executive. “Is it a little like getting a smoke detector after the house was already burning?”

And that’s the challenge currently facing several tech companies: How proactively should tech companies take steps to prevent future violence?

Social media critics have long said services like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been too slow to react. Critics argue the services have allowed public figures like Trump to spew inflammatory comments under the guise of free speech, which ultimately resulted in real-world violence.

Following the Capitol riots, Facebook and Twitter cracked down on Trump, both banning Trump from their services “indefinitely” in hopes of preventing violence over the next couple of weeks. The decisions outraged Trump supporters, many of whom already believed social media services unfairly silenced their views—a complaint that was reprised by Republicans during Wednesday’s impeachment hearing.

And Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey seems to still be conflicted about banning Trump. “We faced an extraordinary and untenable circumstance, forcing us to focus all of our actions on public safety,” he tweeted, defending the decision only to raise issue with it in his following comment. “I feel a ban is a failure of ours ultimately to promote healthy conversation.”

If Dorsey’s comments tell us anything about the headspace of tech CEOs right now, it’s that they’re struggling to navigate this situation. And maybe, just maybe, that’s because they shouldn’t be the sole people responsible for making these decisions to begin with.

Danielle Abril
@DanielleDigest
danielle.abril@fortune.com

***

COVID-19 has been no friend to our collective mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression have soared since the pandemic began, as has alcohol and drug use. In this episode of the Brainstorm podcast, Michal Lev-Ram and Brian O’Keefe talk to business leaders intent on using technology to address the problem. Listen to the episode here

If you or anyone you know is struggling, there’s help available, any time. It’s free and you’ll reach a trained volunteer. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting the word HOME to 741-741, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

NEWSWORTHY

Pausing political ads. Google said it's suspending political ads and any others that refer to impeachment, inauguration, or U.S. Capitol protests. The suspension will begin on Thursday and is expected to remain in place until at least next Thursday, which is the day after President-Elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated. The policy will affect ads on Google’s ad tech services including Google Ads, YouTube, DV360, and AdX Authorized Buyer.

Oh Snap, Trump. Snapchat plans to permanently ban President Donald Trump on Jan. 20, according to a Axios. The decision comes after the social network suspended his account indefinitely last week along with social media rivals Facebook and Twitter. Snapchat said the ban is in “the interest of public safety, and based on his attempts to spread misinformation, hate speech, and incite violence.”

Protecting TikTokers. TikTok has stepped up privacy measures for users younger than 18. The social media service will switch accounts for new and existing users between the age of 13 and 15 to private by default. It won’t allow other users to download or remix videos posted by teens who are 15 years or younger. And teens ages 16 and 17 will have to change the default setting to allow their videos to be downloaded by others.

Dropbox downsizes. Dropbox said on Wednesday that it's cutting 315 employees, representing about 11% of its workforce. The employees were to be notified by the end of the day on Wednesday, CEO Drew Houston said in an email to Dropbox workers. Houston said the cuts are necessary in order to set up the company up for its “next stage of growth.” He also said that Olivia Nottebohm, the company’s chief operating officer, will step down on Feb. 5.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

New research from cryptographers at Johns Hopkins University suggests that the government has the tools and methods to access data on people’s locked smartphones due to weaknesses in both iOS and Android operating systems, according to Wired. The researchers have studied more than a decade’s worth of information about which security features law enforcement and cybercriminals have been able to hack. They also reviewed documents from Apple and Google to analyze the encryption provided by both companies. Ultimately, they’ve realized “almost nothing [is] protected as much as it could be,” according to one of the researchers.

“Though the smartphone protections that are currently available are adequate for a number of ‘threat models’ or potential attacks, the researchers have concluded that they fall short on the question of specialized forensic tools that governments can easily buy for law enforcement and intelligence investigations. A recent report from researchers at the nonprofit Upturn found nearly 50,000 examples of US police in all 50 states using mobile device forensic tools to get access to smartphone data between between 2015 and 2019,” writes Lily Hay Newman, senior writer at Wired.

 

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Private messaging apps Signal and Telegram are red hot after the Capitol riots By Jonathan Vanian

Who is Intel’s new CEO, Pat Gelsinger By Aaron Pressman

In a first for the crypto industry, Visa-backed Anchorage gets a federal bank charter By Jeff John Roberts

Why investors are excited to see the Plaid and Visa merger die By Lucinda Shen

Affirm hits $100 on opening day after listing at $49 By Jeff John Roberts

How patents help us invent the future By Dario Gil

The lesson from the botched COVID vaccine rollout: Sometimes you need ‘Big Government’ By Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever

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BEFORE YOU GO

If your Twitter feed looks anything like mine, it’s become quite chaotic, full of alarming news, and maybe a little depressing. So if you need a break from the intensity, I’d like to suggest a Tweep for you to follow: Thoughts of Dog.

What is Thoughts of Dog? Exactly what you’d expect: the likely thoughts of the average dog. On Tuesday, Thoughts of Dog tweeted: “it appears you have loaded the dishwasher without me. do you not need my services anymore. did you lick the plates yourself. this is a disaster.”

On Jan. 5, the dog said: “the human has to work again this week. but that’s okay. i can keep myself busy. there is a skittle under the fridge. that needs constant surveillance.”

The grammar and punctuation are bad, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from my dog. And amid some of the most intense tweets, the innocence of Thoughts of Dog brightens up my feed...and face.