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The Interface comes to an end

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Programming note: Here it is: the final edition of The Interface. Beginning Monday, this newsletter w
 
October 1 · Issue #578 · View online
The Interface
Programming note: Here it is: the final edition of The Interface. Beginning Monday, this newsletter will transition to Platformer, a new publication by me that will pick up where this one left off. If you’re subscribed to The Interface, I’ll port your email address over to Platformer at 4PM Pacific time on Friday. If you wish to unsubscribe before then for any reason, you are welcome to. (You can unsubscribe from Platformer any time you like, too.) Otherwise, expect to see Platformer in your inbox around 5P Pacific time on Monday.
The Interface began three years ago this month with the goal of organizing the day’s best journalism about the intersection of social networks and democracy and offering ways for smart people to think about current events. Over the past 578 issues, we’ve covered a long, winding, and so-far unfinished story about governments starting to reckon with technology platforms’ effects on the world around them — while platforms fight for the right to continue governing themselves on their own terms.
The Interface launched in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, and so it seems fitting that it should end as the next one unfolds. Whatever happens, it’s now clear that technology platforms will be at the center — held to account, both fairly and unfairly, for a wide range of behavior that happens on and off their services. I plan to chronicle these next events in my new newsletter, Platformer, and I hope that if you’ve enjoyed The Interface over the years you’ll check it out and let me know what you think. (A weekly Platformer column will appear on The Verge as well.)
But before I go, I want to offer one more thought on the future of platforms, and it’s this: the issues explored in The Interface are expanding beyond the core set of platforms we have covered around here, to affect a much broader set of technology companies. Tech platforms and the policies that they adopt — and, hopefully, enforce — now sit at the center of vital questions about the future of the internet and even the global economy. The questions faced by Google, Twitter, Facebook, and other social platforms remain unresolved. But some of those same questions are now migrating far beyond the realm of social networks, and companies of all kinds ought to be paying attention.
Few headlines caught me so off guard in recent weeks as this one, by James Vincent in The Verge: “Zoom cancels talk by Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled at San Francisco State University.” Vincent writes:
Zoom has canceled a webinar due to be held at San Francisco State University (SFSU) this Wednesday featuring Leila Khaled, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) who took part in two plane hijackings in 1969 and 1970. YouTube and Facebook also intervened to stop the talk.
The webinar was cancelled after pressure from Israeli and Jewish lobby groups including the Lawfare Project. They noted that the US government has designated the PFLP a terrorist organization, and claimed that by hosting Khaled on its service, Zoom was exposing itself to criminal liability for providing “material support or resources” to a terrorist group.
Zoom went on to tell Vincent that it is “committed to supporting the open exchange of ideas and conversations,” but that Khaled’s planned talk violated its terms of service.
Now, you could look at this narrowly. You could observe that the US government prevents any business from aiding terrorists, and move on.
At the same time, Zoom saw a 300 percent increase in its user base between December and April. At any given time, millions of people around the world are using Zoom. A subset of those people are speaking in public webinars. How will Zoom police itself? Who will be banned? What avenues will they have to appeal? When will it release its promised transparency report?
None of these questions are impossible to answer. But each represents a significant challenge. And it seems fair to suggest that many of these challenges may never have occurred to its founder when he set out to create a better videoconferencing solution for businesses.
Similarly, when Daniel Ek founded Spotify, he probably did not imagine having to someday weigh in on whether Oregon wildfires were started by liberal agitators. (They were not.) But then Spotify acquired The Joe Rogan Experience, one of the world’s most popular podcasts. And during one of his recent shows, Rogan falsely accused “left-wing people” for lighting forest fires in Oregon, even as law enforcement officials were warning that misinformation like this was leading to a rise in violent vigilantism. To his credit, Rogan apologized after learning he was wrong.
But other controversies seem likely to follow. Just days before the fire incident, Vice reported that Spotify employees were pressing Ek on a different matter: Rogan’s interview with an author of a recent book that has been denounced as transphobic, in which he spends part of the episode “explaining that young people are being pressured into transitioning by YouTube and other media,” Joseph Cox and Emanuel Maiberg wrote. Employees called for Spotify to take action:
“In the case of Joe Rogan, a total of 10 meetings have been held with various groups and individuals to hear their respective concerns,” Ek said, according to three sources. “And some of them want Rogan removed because of things he’s said in the past.” […]
One of the submitted questions was “Many LGBTQAI+/ally Spotifiers feel unwelcome and alienated because of leadership’s response in JRE conversations. What is your message to those employees?” Another was “Why has Spotify chosen to ignore Spectrum ERG’s guidance about transphobic content in the JRE catalog?,” referring to a group of Spotify workers who focus on related issues.
So far, the issue has hit a stalemate. Rogan continues to publish new episodes, and Spotify employees are presumably still concerned. Spotify aspires to be the largest player in all of podcasts. That will mean hosting lots of perspectives, including some that huge swathes of its user base finds distasteful. How will the company handle that pressure over time? Will it reduce its current boundaries around speech to placate employees? Or will it take a page from Brian Armstrong’s handbook, and attempt to separate the platform from politics to the furthest extent possible?
I don’t know the answers to these questions — and neither, I suspect, does Spotify. When it comes to devising policies for platforms, the real work always lies in balancing one set of harms against another. Which tradeoffs companies are willing to accept — and which the countries in which they operate will allow— are constantly shifting.
Some newer platforms, like Telepath, embrace the challenge from the start. Others, like Clubhouse, keep tripping over their shoelaces. And as various other tools transform into publishing platforms — Notion and Coda are two recent and popular ones — more moderation challenges will surely emerge.
Meanwhile, in the background, the internet itself gradually becomes more fragmented — posing risks to both challenges and incumbents alike. Platforms have never been more important to the world. But they have never been at greater risk, either.
To the more than 20,000 of you who have explored these issues with me so far, I offer you my profound thanks. I hope you’ll join me on this next phase, and continue to help me refine my thinking and identify fruitful new paths for exploration.
To my boss, Nilay Patel, thanks for saying yes when I asked if I could start a newsletter about Facebook and democracy. The default answer to questions about creative endeavors at The Verge has almost always been yes, and that goes a long way in explaining how the site has become such a defining force in the coverage of technology and culture.
And Zoe Schiffer, I thank you for being my partner in creating The Interface each day for the past year. Zoe’s incredible attention to detail has been indispensable in summarizing the links we’ve brought you here each day, and I shudder with my whole body when I think of the typos and errors she has caught while editing this column every day.
The Verge has been the job of a lifetime, and The Interface has allowed me to do the work I’m most proud of. I’m excited to keep doing it in a new form — and to do some of it at The Verge, the place where it all started.

The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
⬆️ Trending up: Snapchat has helped more than 1 million users register to vote. More than half are first-time voters, and more than 80 percent are younger than 30. (Dylan Byers / NBC)
🔽 Trending down: Amazon’s lack of transparency makes it almost impossible to track the spread of Covid-19 among warehouse workers. Some are trying to fill the gap left by the company and public health officials by compiling data on outbreaks themselves. (April Glaser, Olivia Solon, Cyrus Farivar, Adiel Kaplan and Ezra Kaplan / NBC)
Governing
President Trump is pressuring Republican lawmakers to ratchet up scrutiny of social media platforms it sees as biased against conservatives before the November election. He’s asking them to hold public hearings on Section 230 protections for Facebook and Twitter. Cristiano Lima and John Hendel at Politico have the story:
The congressional actions mark a sudden and dramatic escalation of efforts by Senate Republicans to revamp the legal shield — particularly with a Congress readying for elections and embroiled in negotiations over Covid relief. But Republicans say Section 230 has allowed social media platforms to discriminate against conservative viewpoints with impunity. Tech companies deny any such bias, and the administration itself has noted there’s limited academic data to back up the concerns.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), a top Trump ally on tech and longtime critic of Section 230, called the recent surge of activity by his colleagues “a sea change.” President Donald Trump, he said, has been a driving force in rallying them.
A Senate committee voted to authorize subpoenas that could force the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter to testify at an upcoming congressional hearing. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said it was an opportunity explore the tech giants’ efforts to oversee “Americans’ speech at a critical time in our democratic process.” (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Right-wing voices made up nine of the 10 top-performing posts on Facebook since the presidential debate Tuesday. Their view on the debate is just what you would expect — that President Trump crushed Joe Biden. Certainly, he interrupted him. (Kevin Schaul and Kevin Uhrmacher / The Washington Post)
The Proud Boys, a far-right extremist group, has received a flood of new members since President Trump refused to condemn them during the first presidential debate. Following the president’s comments, the group started selling T-shirts saying “stand down stand by.” (Jane Lytvynenko and Christopher Miller / BuzzFeed)
Misinformation about voting by mail is the most rampant form of misleading election news this year. Many of the rumors center on how mail-in voting could corrupt the outcome of the election. (Davey Alba / The New York Times)
Electronic poll books, used to check voters in at the polls, could hamper voting if they malfunction in November. There’s no evidence that anyone has deliberately exploited this potential vulnerability, but at a minimum, it could make voting more complex and brittle. (Timothy B. Lee / Ars Technica)
A Russian group accused of meddling in the 2016 election has posed as an independent news outlet to target right-wing users on social media. The Newsroom for American and European Based Citizens is run by people associated with the Internet Research Agency in Russia. (Jack Stubbs / Reuters)
The Patriot movement in Arizona has grown from a Facebook group where members shared racist memes to a formidable political force. During the pandemic, it pressured Gov. Doug Ducey into rolling back shelter-in-place orders. (Rob O’Dell, and Richard Ruelas / Arizona Republic)
Facebook is cracking down on QAnon’s use of the Save The Children movement to push falsehoods about the exploitation of children by prominent Democrats. Facebook users searching for #savethechildren hashtag will now be directed to credible child safety resources. (Jessica Guynn / USA Today)
Facebook is banning ads that seek to delegitimize the results of the 2020 election. The policy covers ads that claim legal forms of voting — like voting by mail — will corrupt the outcome of the election. (Zoe Schiffer / The Verge)
The NHS contact-tracing app is sending some users in England and Wales alerts saying they’ve been near someone who had COVID-19. The notifications were actually system checks sent by Google and Apple. (Rowland Manthorpe / Sky News)
China plans to launch an antitrust probe into Google, investigating allegations that its used the dominance of the Android operating system to stifle competition. The case was proposed by Huawei Technologies last year. (Cheng Leng, Keith Zhai and David Kirton / Reuters)
Industry
Facebook content moderators at Accenture are being asked to return to the office on October 12th, and many are scared for their safety. The company is currently under intense pressure to police misinformation on its platform. The Verge’s Nick Statt, Casey Newton, and Zoe Schiffer report:
Employees, almost all of whom are contractors, were instructed of the new policy at a company-wide town hall meeting today, say multiple people familiar with Accenture’s plans. Accenture, which has allowed its workforce of hundreds of moderators to work from home since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has not given the employees a reason for why they must return to the office. Accenture did not take questions at the town hall meeting, telling concerned employees that it would look into scheduling a second call to answer COVID-specific questions regarding matters like sick leave and time off.
Facebook contractors, almost of which are employed by third-party firms and without many of the same benefits as corporate employees, often spend their days looking at graphic videos, hate speech, and other disturbing material posted to the social network in large volumes on a daily basis. Some Facebook contractors, including those employed by Accenture, have developed post-traumatic stress disorders, and Facebook in May settled with current and former moderators for $52 million in a ruling that concluded the job had severe negative mental health effects.
Facebook is pushing people to join public groups by surfacing group discussions in the News Feed. The move could result in more visibility for dangerous communities. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
Facebook is opening its experimental predictions app, Forecast, to all users. The app lets users ask questions and predict the outcomes of events like who will win the 2020 election. (Christine Fisher / Engadget)
A secretive high-speed trading firm called Susquehanna International Group owns around 15 percent of ByteDance, making it the largest outside investor in the Beijing-based social-media company. Its stake could be worth more than $15 billion on paper. (Rolfe Winkler, Jing Yang and Alexander Osipovich / The Wall Street Journal)
Animators are building large followings on TikTok. They say the app has provided them with opportunities that just can’t be found on other platforms — opportunities that might evaporate with the Trump ban. (Jacob Kastrenakes / The Verge)
Twitter has been on the forefront of encouraging employees to work from home, even before the pandemic. The effort could give the company a greater ability to hire diverse and more affordable employees from all parts of the country. (Elizabeth Dwoskin / The Wall Street Journal)
Google is paying publishers more than $1 billion over the next three years for high-quality journalism that will be included in a new set of features called Google News Showcase. The news builds on Google’s existing news licensing program, where it pays select publishers to feature their stories in Google News and Search. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
Indian app makers are pushing back against Google for forcing them to use its “expensive and unaffordable” billing system. Google takes a 30 percent cut of in-app purchases, a policy it is newly enforcing. (Megha Mandavia and Ashwin Manikandan / Economic Times)
Big Tech stocks, which usually lead the market, suffered big losses in September. Fears of a tech bubble and looming antitrust cases likely contributed to the downturn. (Jessica Bursztynsky / CNBC)
Things to Do
Those good tweets
Henry Grabar
The stationary bikes have been moved outside and I feel like the SoulCyclers are *this* close to an epiphany https://t.co/DiKomRvdqm
Amy S. Pumpkins
Very troubling that the song "Monster Mash" isn't the Monster Mash — it's a song about the Monster Mash, which is not itself heard on the track, and is fundamentally unknowable to us.
Jenna Amatulli
convincing myself that when Stevie Nicks was writing “Dreams,” she was thinking exactly this would come of it https://t.co/rPlJmL3mcI
Talk to us
Send us tips, comments, questions, and tearful goodbyes to The Interface: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.
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