with Aaron Schaffer

Large tech companies are offering to assist the government in the vaccine rollout. 

Companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google and Airbnb have offered the White House, federal agencies and local officials help in addressing vaccine logistics and pushing out digital ads. Some have even offered up their real estate connections to help create vaccination centers. 

  • Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO Dave Clark wrote a letter to President Biden offering to “leverage our operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise” in assisting the administration in its goal of vaccinating 100 million Americans in its first 100 days. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 
  • Airbnb sent a letter to the administration offering to use its real estate insights to develop “vaccine depots” in communities that lack pharmacies or medical facilities.
  • Google has offered technology to improve vaccine distribution, and announced $100 million in ad grants for the CDC Foundation, the World Health Organization and other non-profits to make public health announcements. It also is working with local health officials to provide its facilities for vaccine distribution sites.
  • Facebook has announced  $120 million in ad credits to help health ministries, NGOs and UN agencies run ads about vaccines and preventing covid around the world. 
The Biden administration says it’s willing to engage with the tech industry if it can help fight the virus. 

The administration is consulting with a wide range of companies that might be able to help –- even at a time when Democrat are criticizing the business practices of tech giants and calling for regulation. 

“We are consulting with many companies, including Amazon, about specific ways they can help execute the President’s national strategy against covid,” White House spokesman Kevin Munoz said. “Companies with logistics and technical expertise could help Americans get vaccinated more efficiently and more equitably.”

The consultations are a sign of how Silicon Valley could play a very different role in the pandemic response under the new administration. 

Tech companies made similar overtures to the Trump administration almost a year ago, in the early days of the pandemic, publicly committing to help with efforts ranging from digital contact tracing to building websites to help Americans secure coronavirus tests. But to date, those efforts, including one high-profile partnership between Apple and Google to help Americans determine whether they were exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus, have struggled to gain traction. The exposure notification system is not yet available in every state

The companies are betting they might be able to play a bigger role as the Biden administration makes fighting the pandemic its key policy focus, in sharp contrast from President Donald Trump, who largely relied on states to lead the response and consistently played down the severity of the virus. 

“There’s excitement and relief in having a functional, rational federal government again and people want to be a part of it,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist who previously led Mike Bloomberg's mayoral campaign and advises tech companies on regulation. 

Tech companies may be better suited to assisting the government in this phase of the pandemic. 

Many of the issues with the vaccine rollout are related to technical glitches or logistics problems, which tech giants are uniquely positioned to help address. That could put them in a better position to help than in the early days of the pandemic, when the focus was largely on gathering medical supplies and boosting testing capacity. 

Working on the vaccine rollout could be a good public relations move for companies with image problems. 

It also could be politically advantageous for the tech industry to cooperate with Democrats on fighting the pandemic when they’re increasingly facing the threat of regulation. Democrats in Congress have introduced legislation that would significantly overhaul antitrust and fundamental Internet laws in ways that could have a significant impact on companies’ business practices. 

“It builds goodwill with an administration and Congress considering a lot of major issues that impact tech from antitrust to privacy, Section 230 to immigration, policies on new technologies from autonomous trucks to flying cars and more,” Tusk said. “So it’s almost all gain and upside for the companies.”

Yet tech companies, including Amazon, have seen some pushback for publicly offering their help to the Biden administration on the vaccine response, and not to the Trump administration. A Fox News headline at the time of the announcement read “Why did Amazon wait until Biden’s inauguration to offer help with vaccine distribution?”

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A top European consumer group says TikTok isn’t adequately protecting children.

The European Consumer Organization, or BEUC, says that the popular short-form video app’s terms of service are unfair to users and its practices are misleading. Its complaint and alerts to European regulators comes as TikTok faces increased scrutiny in Europe.

“Children love TikTok but the company fails to keep them protected,” BEUC Director General Monique Goyens said in a statement. “We do not want our youngest ones to be exposed to pervasive hidden advertising and unknowingly turned into billboards when they are just trying to have fun.”

BEUC said that the app also violated European data protection laws. In a statement, TikTok spokeswoman Ashley Nash-Hahn said that the company has “developed an in-app summary of our Privacy Policy with vocabulary and a tone of voice that makes it easier for teens to understand our approach to privacy.” Nash-Hahn also said that the company has “taken a range of major steps, including making all accounts belonging to users under 16 private by default.”

The recent chaos on Wall Street and at the U.S. Capitol underscore the persistent influence of online communities. 

Researchers studying the impact of online collective action say that the hands-off approaches that platforms are taking with newly emboldened communities could prompt other movements to spiral out of control, Drew Harwell reports. 

“The WallStreetBets blitz and the Capitol riots marked a coming of age for the Internet’s power — not just as a viral joke, but as a way to bend reality, politics and billions of dollars in real-world cash to its own ends,” Drew writes. 

Reddit’s WallStreetBets subreddit was of particular interest to researchers, who say the forum was practically designed to be off-putting, with crude insults and memes. But it created a sense of camaraderie, they found, with one 22-year-old saying that it was a “cesspool of half idiot half geniuses all trying to get rich,” adding, “I felt like I was home.”

Through interviews, Drew found that the r/WallStreetBets followers had many of the same motivations to join the community as adherents of QAnon even though they had wildly different ambitions. The popularity of QAnon    a sprawling set of false claims that have coalesced into an extremist ideology that has radicalized its followers — shows no sign of dissipating. The conservative American Enterprise Institute last week found that nearly one in three Republicans believe that the claim that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that includes prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites” is completely or mostly accurate.

New analysis shows that Facebook rarely marked debunked Trump posts as false.

Facebook never applied “false” or misleading labels to posts by former president Donald Trump even when they repeatedly contained falsehoods or debunked claims, the Markup's Jon Keegan, Colin Lecher, and Corin Faife report. It's part of broader inconsistencies in Facebook's labeling efforts which it touts as a central prong of its efforts to thwart misinformation about elections and the pandemic. 

Through The Markup’s Citizen Browser project, the news outlet collected the Facebook feed data from more than 2,200 people and examined the frequency that those people saw labeled posts on the platform in December and January. The reporters found more than 330 users in the sample who saw posts that were flagged because they were false, devoid of context, or related to an especially charged issue, such as the election. But Facebook and its partners very rarely outright said a post was “false” — only 12 times.

“We don’t comment on data that we can’t validate, but we are looking into the examples shared,” Facebook spokeswoman Katie Derkits said. The Markup’s report does not account for posts deleted by Facebook as a result of being false, something that the company says it sometimes does.

Facebook ultimately suspended Trump's account in the fallout of the Capitol riots, and its oversight board is reviewing that decision. 

Rant and rave

Apple tweaked its syringe emoji to make it less graphic during the covid vaccine rollout. Here's a history of how it's evolved:

Competition watch

North Dakota lawmakers voted down a bill to ban app commissions.

It’s a win for Apple and Google, which brought in a combined $33 billion from the commissions last year, the New York Times’s Jack Nicas reports. The focus of the companies now turns to Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts, which are considering similar legislation. The companies are opposed by the Coalition for App Fairness, which is made up of Epic Games and other app developers.

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  • The General Services Administration has named Laila ElGohary, the Biden inaugural’s chief technology officer, as its White House liaison.

Daybook

  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on broadband access today at 11 a.m.
  • Google parent Alphabet’s chairman, John Hennessy, speaks at an event hosted by Rice University’s Baker Institute today at 1 p.m. The event will focus on science and technology opportunities for the Biden administration.
  • Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev, Reddit user Keith Gill and two hedge fund executives testify before the House Financial Services Committee Thursday at noon. The hearing is centered on meme stock Gamestop’s ups and downs.

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