with Aaron Schaffer

Tech titans are teaming up to remind Americans that their phones could be used to prevent the spread of the coronavirus

Apple, Google, nonprofit organizations, venture capitalists and others are funding the first national campaign to encourage people to turn on smartphone tools notifying them if they've been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus. The campaign could bring renewed attention to Apple and Google's virus-tracing system, which has not yet gained widespread U.S. traction. 

The “Connect and Protect” ad campaign uses a combination of celebrities and local influencers to raise awareness about the availability of the tech tools, which are now available in 24 states, territories and D.C. The campaign is launching as more U.S. states are planning launch apps based on the Apple and Google tools and there is some evidence such tools have been more effective abroad where they were adopted more broadly.

“We now have evidence that it's effective, we now have critical mass and we now have an administration that is responding to the pandemic at a national level," said Kameka Dempsey, a member of the  COVID-19 Technology Task Force, the nonprofit running the Connect and Protect campaign. “It feels like the timing is right.”

The campaign comes as the United States approaches a grim milestone in the pandemic. 

It's been almost a year since the first covid-19 fatality in the United States, and nearly 500,000 Americans have lost their lives. Backers of the advertising campaign say the smartphone tools could play a key role in containing the pandemic as many Americans wait to get vaccines. 

"Phone-based Exposure Notifications can be a powerful public health tool to help control the spread of COVID-19 and save thousands of lives," said Rajiv J. Shah, president of The Rockefeller Foundation and a former Obama official, which is one of the advertising campaign's sponsors.  “Even as we race forward with vaccines, we urgently need to ramp up testing and tracing to combat the virus.”

If adopted widely, the tools could play a critical role in future phases of the pandemic as more schools, businesses and public spaces reopen, and the need for effective contact tracing grows. 

The campaign is specifically designed to focus on Black and Latino communities, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. Dempsey said the campaign is designed to build trust in the smartphone tracing tools by focusing on a message of community.

The United States took a state-by-state approach to digital contact tracing. 

The Apple and Google partnership was widely seen as one of the most promising tech efforts aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus. But it initially faced broad privacy concerns and pushback from health officials, who questioned its efficacy. And its takeoff sputtered in the U.S., where it's managed state by state rather than by the federal government. The digital tools are only effective if many people opt in and actually use them. 

The COVID-19 Technology Task Force, the nonprofit running the campaign, is working with the government on coordinating the tech industry's response. The group hopes the Biden administration will focus on rolling out a country-wide exposure notification system. To date, the group says adoption has been strong in California, Colorado, Maryland and Connecticut. (My colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler has a helpful guide to how you can enable the tools in your own state here.) 

That stands in stark contrast to several European countries, where the tools were more widely promoted by governments and adopted by citizens. In the United Kingdom, officials released a study last week estimating the NHS COVID-19 app has stopped the spread of 600,000 coronavirus cases after directing more than 1.7 million people since September to isolate due to exposure. Researchers at the Alan Turing Institute and Oxford University found for every 1 percent increase in app users, the number of coronavirus cases can be reduced by 2.3 percent. 

Google and Apple initially did little to use their massive advertising power to raise awareness of the tools. 

The the companies' backing of the campaign is a shift, after they largely didn't use their hefty advertising budgets or high-profile product events to raise awareness. Task force members including Ron Conway, John Borthwick and Fred Wilson also contributed funding fir the campaign. iHeartMedia, Spotify, United Airlines, ViacomCBS and WPP also provided financial support or are helping distribute the ads. 

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Mark Zuckerberg intervened to prevent Facebook from banning posts praising Alex Jones. 

Zuckerberg didn’t consider Jones to be a hate figure, so he allowed praise and support of the Infowars publisher to remain on the platform at odds with the company's content rules at the time, BuzzFeed News’s Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman write. The decision highlights the company's willingness to bend its rules to placate conservatives and avoid political backlash, and the decision had ripple effects on Facebook's efforts to police other right-wing violence.

“Mark personally didn’t like the punishment, so he changed the rules,” a former policy employee told BuzzFeed News, noting that multiple teams and experts spent hours determining Jones should be banned. The company removed Jones's account, but his followers could continue to share supportive posts.

The Jones loophole and other similar decisions resulted in a freeze on new designations of dangerous people and organizations for nearly a year, according to former Facebook officials. A former core data scientist wrote they’d seen “a dozen proposals to measure the objective quality of content on News Feed diluted or killed because … they have a disproportionate impact across the US political spectrum, typically harming conservative content more.” BuzzFeed News attributed many of the decisions to the relationship between Zuckerberg and Joel Kaplan, the company’s vice president of global public policy, who publicly courted the Trump White House.

Lawmakers are prepared to grill Zuckerberg in Washington next month as prosecutors probe Jones's possible role in the Jan. 6 breach of the Capitol. 

Facebook confirmed the report. “Mark called for a more nuanced policy and enforcement strategy, spokesman Andy Stone said. 

Big Tech employees were a key funding source for the Biden campaign.

Employees of Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook were the five largest sources of funding for President Biden’s campaign and joint fundraising committees, the Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins and Emily Glazer report. The Biden campaign collectively raised $15.1 million from employees of those firms, a massive sum that raises questions about Biden’s ties to the technology sector and antitrust scrutiny related to the companies. 

Regulators are pursuing antitrust investigations or cases against Google, Facebook and Amazon. Biden is under pressure from Democrats to break up the companies or restrict their abilities to collect user data and spread online falsehoods. 

The findings could further inflame tensions between the industry and conservatives, who have argued that tech companies and their employees are biased against them. 

“There is a disconnect between the tech industry and many Republicans,” Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, told the Journal. “We don’t like Silicon Valley — and they don’t like us.”

Google faces criticism after firing the founder of its ethical artificial intelligence team.

The company fired Meg Mitchell, the head of the team, signaling the turmoil in the critical division shows no sign of letting up, Bloomberg News’s Nico Grant, Dina Bass and Josh Eidelson report. Mitchell's departure only intensifies ongoing scrutiny of the company’s AI teams and diversity practices. 

Mitchell served in the same division as Timnit Gebru, a leading Black woman in the field whose exit from the company late last year catalyzed a debate over the future of AI and management at Google. Mitchell emerged as one of the most outspoken critics of Google's treatment of Gebru. 

Mitchell said in a tweet she was “in too much pain to articulate much of anything useful. Firing @timnitGebru created a domino effect of trauma for me and the rest of the team, and I believe we are being increasingly punished for that trauma.”

Alphabet accused Mitchell of improperly downloading files from its systems, and the company locked her out of email and other systems for five weeks as it reviewed her conduct. 

After conducting a review of this manager's conduct, we confirmed that there were multiple violations of our code of conduct, as well as of our security policies, which included the exfiltration of confidential business-sensitive documents and private data of other employees, a Google representative said.

Mitchell pushed back. “I don't know about those allegations, actually,” Mitchell told CNN. “I mean, most of that is news to me.”

Mitchell said she was fired hours after Google on Friday said it had wrapped up its investigation into the removal of Gebru and told employees it would make changes to its approach to research, diversity and employee departures. 

Rant and rave

The fallout over Google's firing of Mitchell has ricocheted around Twitter. A more lighthearted take by Microsoft Threat Intelligence's Kevin Beaumont:

Android Police Editor-in-Chief David Ruddock:

The Third Pole Managing Editor Omair Ahmad:

Chelsea Manning:

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Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee begins its first day of hearings on President Biden’s nomination of judge Merrick Garland to be his attorney general today at 9:30 a.m.
  • Bilal Sayyad, the former director of the Federal Trade Commission’s office of policy planning, speaks at an event hosted by the conservative Federalist Society today at noon. 
  • Microsoft President Brad Smith and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on emerging technology on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m.
  • Ranking Digital Rights launches its 2020 Corporate Accountability Index at a New America event on Wednesday at 11 a.m.
  • Sen. Todd C. Young (R-Ind.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) speak at an event on augmented and virtual reality hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

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