Instagram Live Now Hosts More People With ‘Rooms’

Everything may be happening on screens these days, but people haven’t let that box them in. Musicians have made music videos on Zoom, with backup dancers performing choreography in their own separate squares. Public figures have given interviews on Clubhouse, with audience members asking heated questions from their homes. Chefs, whose restaurants had closed, are offering cooking classes to audiences on Twitch, preparing the same meal miles apart.

People have also turned to Instagram Live, as Verzuz rap battles became appointment viewing and influencer interview series made headlines. But the feature, which has been around since 2016, always had one major limitation: You could only broadcast with one other person at a time. Now, Instagram is expanding Live with Live Rooms, a feature that lets up to four people join a broadcast. The company hopes it results in more creative use of its platform, as it competes to keep people’s attention amid a growing number of options.

While Instagram Live has supported two-person streaming for years, the company says it was never a very popular feature. Then the pandemic arrived, and that changed dramatically. Last February and March, the company says it saw 70 percent more viewership on Instagram Live than in previous months. Creators also started going live with a partner more often. Having more than one guest, however, required some juggling. When Diddy hosted a charity event on Instagram Live for health care workers in April, he had to rotate celebrities like Cardi B, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Michelle Obama in and out of the second spot.

“The number one most requested feature was, ‘Can I go live with multiple people?’” says Kristin George, Instagram’s director of product for creators. With Live Rooms, anyone can start a live broadcast and then add up to three guests, who will receive a push notification inviting them to join. Each person appears in their own square, similar to a video call, but with the usual trappings of an Instagram stream: Live comments appear onscreen, creators can use augmented reality filters, and viewers can pay money in the form of “badges,” Instagram’s version of a digital tip jar. When building the function, George says four people seemed like the maximum before rooms felt too crowded, but it’s possible that number will increase in the future.

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With Live Rooms, anyone can start a live broadcast and then add up to three guests.

Courtesy of Instagram

Instagram started testing Live Rooms several months ago in India and Indonesia, large markets that had been extremely active on Instagram Live in 2020. So far, George says, she’s seen creative uses of the feature. One beauty influencer invited three friends to do a tandem makeup tutorial, showing how the products worked on different face shapes and skin tones. Another creator hosted a Bachelorette-style show with a woman and two potential suitors.

These types of crossover events aren’t just about creative expression—they’re also a growth strategy. By appearing together in a stream, creators can build each other’s audiences and cross-pollinate their networks.

For its global rollout on Monday, Instagram has organized a week of events to show what else the new feature can do. Programming includes several round-table discussions with creators, including two sessions to discuss the #BuyBlack movement, an effort to support Black-owned businesses that gained more attention last summer. Another Live Room, with prominent queer creators like Alok Vaid-Menon, Basit, Travis Alabanza, and Pidgeon, will raise money for the Transgender Law Center.

“I really believe collab culture is the future,” says George. “People want to create together even when they’re apart, or maybe especially when they’re apart. What’s been really interesting about what’s happening in the market right now on social media is that everyone’s leaning into that trend in a different way.”

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One Free Press Coalition Spotlights Journalists Under Attack – March 2021

In May 2019, WIRED joined the One Free Press Coalition, a united group of preeminent editors and publishers using their global reach and social platforms to spotlight journalists under attack worldwide. Today, the coalition is issuing its 25th monthly “10 Most Urgent” list of journalists whose press freedoms are being suppressed or whose cases demand justice. This iteration focuses on women in anticipation of International Women’s Day observed March 8.

In an industry long dominated by men, more and more female journalists around the world are telling important stories and reporting the news for their communities. These brave journalists face a unique set of challenges and threats. More than 70 percent have experienced more than one type of harassment, threat, or attack in the course of their work, according to a 2018 report published by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and online threat monitor Trollbusters. Given the social stigmas tied to gender-based violence, many women may choose not to report incidents or to leave the profession.

Six of the women on the list this month are behind bars, and 13 percent of all imprisoned journalists in 2020 were women. One of the journalists on the list this month was murdered in connection to her reporting, and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented 70 female journalists murdered since 1992. At least one of the cases on this list has faced some form of targeted online harassment, an issue endemic to the industry. In terms of beat, the journalists on this list cover a wide range of issues and stories, but politics remains one of the most dangerous for journalists globally, according to CPJ research.

1. Tal al-Mallohi (Syria)
Syrian journalist, currently held without charge, has spent more than ten years in total behind bars. She is detained on the orders of a security adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Asad.

2. Solafa Magdy (Egypt)
Imprisoned freelance journalist faces rapidly worsening health conditions, medical neglect and abuse in detention.

3. Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova (Belarus)
Independent journalist and camera operator each sentenced to two years in prison relating to coverage of anti-government protests.

4. Maria Elena Ferral Hernández (Mexico)
March 30 marks one year since two unidentified men on a motorcycle shot and killed newspaper correspondent following prior threats.

5. Pham Doan Trang (Vietnam)
Web reporter and magazine founder, held in pre-trial detention since October, awaits trial on anti-state charges after facing years of threats.

6. Frenchie Mae Cumpio (Philippines)
Web journalist and radio anchor, who covers alleged police and military abuses, has been detained one year and could face a prison sentence of 6-12 years.

7. Anastasia Mejía (Guatemala)
Indigenous journalist was arrested for broadcasting—and accused of participating in—a protest against a local official. Her home was raided on the same day, and she was held in pre-trial detention for over a month.

8. Ayşegül Doğan (Turkey)
Turkish journalist is currently free, pending appeal, but faces more than six years’ jail time for bogus terrorism charges.

9. Neha Dixit (India)
Freelance reporter recently endured an attempted break-in, stalking and months of threatening phone calls that included death threats and references to her journalism, as well as an ongoing defamation case.

10. Haze Fan (China)
Bloomberg News Beijing staff member was detained on suspicion of endangering national security.

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How Google’s Grand Plan to Make Stadia Games Fell Apart

Eventually, Stadia Games and Entertainment teams got the software and people it needed to gain momentum prototyping Stadia games. The allure of a Google-sized paycheck and an exit ramp from the crunch-fueled hamster wheel was enough to draw a critical mass of developers to Stadia Games and Entertainment. Artists, producers, audio experts, programmers had been brought on with the promise of making one-of-a-kind games for a revolutionary software—and, many believed, without the threat of layoffs hanging like the sword of Damocles, as is too often the case at traditional game companies. Teams were exploring what Google games could look like, how to best to tap into the power of Google’s massive data centers and showcase cloud gaming. Then, Covid-19 struck.

In April 2020—a month after the Los Angeles studio was announced—Google implemented a hiring freeze. “Now is the time to significantly slow down the pace of hiring,” Pichai said in an internal message, “while maintaining momentum in a small number of strategic areas where users and businesses rely on Google for ongoing support, and where our growth is critical to their success.” Gaming, according to four sources, was not one of those “strategic areas.”

“If the company was OK putting us on a hiring freeze, they were also OK with damaging our ability to build content,” says one source. “The studio was not yet fully formed and ready to produce games. That put on the brakes, and was a statement. We interpreted it as a lack of commitment from Google to make content.”

Google is not the first tech giant to run into these difficulties. Amazon followed a similar arc. In 2020, WIRED investigated the enormous challenges Jeff Bezos’s empire has faced producing first-party games in its Amazon Game Studios. Like Google, Amazon hired the best of the best: trusted developers like Far Cry 2’s Clint Hocking, System Shock 2’s Ian Vogel, EverQuest’s John Smedley, and Portal’s Kim Swift, many of whom were excited about the stability and relatively higher paychecks associated with the tech giant. Amazon’s goal, according to several sources, was to make a billion-dollar franchise that would help advertise the company’s cloud technology, proprietary game engine, and Twitch streaming service.

The approach, sources say, was hubristic. Amazon wanted to “win at games,” developing several AAA games simultaneously despite its nonexistent track record in the industry. Amazon Game Studios head Mike Frazzini has no prior professional experience in games. High expectations combined with Amazon idiosyncrasies—an obsession with in-house software, for example, and a fixation on measuring success with data—has led to failure after failure. Amazon has cancelled at least three of its games: Project Nova, Breakaway, and Crucible, the last of which was canceled just five months after release.

AAA game development can cost between $100 million and $200 million. Successes like Blizzard’s Overwatch come from the ashes of failures, like the company’s scrapped massively multiplayer online role-playing game Titan. Product design at big tech companies may not always be straightforward, but game design is a resource- and money-intensive labyrinth.

“I think it’s a lack of understanding of the process,” says one source who works at Stadia. “It seemed there were executive-level people not fully grasping how to navigate through a space that is highly creative, cross-disciplinary.”

Throughout Google’s hiring freeze, game developers felt thwarted in accomplishing their goals. Prototypes were being developed without full resources; the studios weren’t working at full capacity. When performance review time came, three sources say, Google judged game developers against benchmarks created for UX or visual designers. There isn’t a number associated with “fun-to-play,” or a process-based workflow for generating creativity. Veteran game developers lobbied for their work culture as much as they could. Over time, Google seemed to soften. Developers got the tools they needed, the appropriate reviews processes. But not the headcount. Frustration persisted.

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Boston Dynamics’ Robot Dog Is Now Armed—in the Name of Art

In Spot’s Rampage, the robot roams an art gallery with a paintball gun.

Boston Dynamics has racked up hundreds of millions of YouTube views with viral clips of its futuristic, legged robots dancing together, doing parkour, and working in a warehouse.

A group of meme-spinning pranksters now wants to present a more dystopian view of the company’s robotic tech. They added a paintball gun to Spot, the company’s doglike machine, and plan to let others control it inside a mocked-up art gallery via the internet later this week.

The project, called Spot’s Rampage, is the work of MSCHF (pronounced “mischief,” of course), an internet collective that regularly carries out meme-worthy pranks.

Previous MSCHF stunts include creating an app that awarded $25,000 to whomever could hold a button down for the longest; selling “Jesus Shoes” sneakers with real holy water in the soles (Drake bought a pair); developing an astrology-based stock-picking app; and cutting up and selling individual spots from a Damian Hirst painting.

Daniel Greenberg, a member of MSCHF, claims there’s a serious side to Spot’s Rampage though. “Anytime you see a TikTok or a dance it’s like, ‘Oh God, Spot is so happy,’” Greenberg says. “But if we actually talk candidly about what it’s going to be used for in the real world, you could say it’s police, you could say it’s military.”

Needless to say, Boston Dynamics isn’t very happy. The company tweeted on Friday: “We condemn the portrayal of our technology in any way that promotes violence, harm, or intimidation. Our mission is to create and deliver surprisingly capable robots that inspire, delight and positively impact society.”

Michael Perry, the company’s vice president of business development, says Spot’s terms of use prohibit violent uses of the robot. “The core things we’re trying to avoid are things that harm people, intimidate people, or break the law,” Perry says.

Perry adds that it is a particular concern because the company is trying to sell its robots. “It’s not just a moral point, it’s also a commercial point for us,” he says.

Because the robot periodically checks in with Boston Dynamics servers, it would theoretically be possible to disable the Spot that MSCHF is using. “We’re wrestling with that,” Perry adds. The MSCHF crew claim to have a workaround ready just in case.

Boston Dynamics has spent decades developing robots that balance dynamically—that is by constantly moving—in order to traverse difficult terrain. The technology, which emerged from academia, was developed with funding from Darpa for more than a decade before Google acquired it in 2013. Boston Dynamics was sold to Softbank in 2017, and it was acquired by Hyundai in 2020. The company began selling Spot for $74,500 in 2019.

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Australia Is Fighting a Platform War on the Wrong Battlefield

Hi everyone. This week, I’ve resisted temptation and written about Australia without a single mention of kangaroos, shrimp on the barbie, or Naomi Watts. (Even though she once appeared in a TV movie version of one of my books.) G’day!

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The Plain View

When they started their respective companies, the founders of Google and Facebook had no idea that they would eventually find themselves charged with destroying the news industry. Google’s Page and Brin wanted to capture all the web, on the reasonable premise that anyone who set up a site on that open channel would welcome the traffic. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg didn’t even envision that people on his network would be swapping news links, but came around to the idea of the News Feed as a personalized newspaper, equating news with “stories” about parties, weddings, and who friended who. Like Google, Facebook assumed that the sites its users linked to would welcome the traffic.

One need only look to Australia this week to see that things didn’t work out that way. The news business in general is hurting, and some publishers, notably the powerful Rupert Murdoch, say that platforms profiting from their news content is a big reason why. This argument has won the favor of the country’s government, which is considering a law demanding that platforms like Google and Facebook negotiate compensation for the damage its behavior has done to news publications.

Though both companies deny culpability, Google this week decided to toss some millions from its vast profits to Murdoch and other publishers. (The deal is couched as part of an existing global program, but the timing inextricably links this arrangement to the impending law in Murdoch’s native country.) The ever-stubborn Zuckerberg, meanwhile, has dug his heels in, a move he makes so often that one suspects a team of cobblers is on call. Not even waiting for the law to pass, he ordered his team to change the News Feed to the No News Feed, wiping all links to news articles in Australian news feeds and also blocking links to Australian news sites worldwide. Facebook didn’t win any friends by executing the removal so ham-handedly that it wound up accidentally taking down government and public-interest sites offering vital information.

The weird thing about these machinations is that this war—which may well spread to other countries not happy with the platforms—is being fought on the wrong battlefield. Though the law doesn’t seem terribly specific about the issue, Australian lawmakers seem to have accepted the long-voiced Murdochian claim that Google and Facebook are stealing news content by linking to articles, sometimes even providing snippets. But that claim is bogus: The links are beneficial to the news organizations, as they send readers to their pages. If a news site wants to opt out, it can simply block the links. Where’s the harm?

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Aurora Partners With Toyota on Self-Driving Sienna Taxis

Autonomous driving startup Aurora announced on Tuesday that it has scored a partnership with Toyota to build self-driving taxis based on the Toyota Sienna minivan. Aurora says it’s aiming to have a fleet of Sienna prototypes ready for testing on public roads by the end of the year. Denso, a major Japanese auto parts manufacturer, will also contribute to the project.

It’s a significant win for Aurora, which has struggled to figure out its business model in a fast-changing industry. A couple of years ago, Aurora’s plan was to supply self-driving software and sensors to incumbent automakers. The company had a partnership with Volkswagen that was supposed to lead to Aurora’s technology being incorporated into Volkswagen’s vehicles, with plans to launch a self-driving taxi service. But the two companies parted ways in 2019, calling Aurora’s strategy into question. Aurora did sign an investment deal with Hyundai around the same time, but they’ve said little about that relationship since then.

Later in 2019, Aurora pivoted to long-haul trucking as the first application for its self-driving technology. Some consider trucking to be an attractive market for a self-driving startup because freeways are a relatively simple environment for software to understand. Last month, Aurora announced a partnership with truck maker PACCAR to build self-driving semi trucks.

In December, Aurora seized on an opportunity to get back into the taxi business by purchasing Uber’s struggling self-driving technology division. In addition to turning over its self-driving assets and personnel, Uber invested $400 million in Aurora.

Aurora argues that these relationships—with Toyota, Denso, and Uber—make Aurora ideally situated to become a player in the self-driving taxi business. Aurora can work with Toyota and Denso to design and build self-driving vehicles, then offer rides via the Uber network. If these initial partnerships go well, Aurora may be able to entice other automakers and ride-hailing networks to join the Aurora platform.

At least that’s the theory.

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The WIRED Guide to Self-Driving Cars

How a chaotic skunkworks race in the desert launched what’s poised to be a runaway global industry.

The fundamental question is whether Aurora can get its self-driving technology working. Aurora is widely respected for the quality of its engineers. But Aurora got a relatively late start, and its technology hasn’t yet received as much public scrutiny as industry leaders like Waymo (owned by Alphabet) and Cruise (owned by GM and Honda). Not much is known about the performance and safety of Aurora’s self-driving sensors and software, which might still be years away from a commercial launch.

And while a wide network of partners is helpful in theory, it can also make it more complicated to bring a product to market. Aurora hasn’t yet explained how it envisions its taxi service working. For example, we don’t know whether the cars will be owned by Toyota, Aurora, Uber, or third-party fleet managers to be brought on board at a future date.

Most of Aurora’s competitors combine multiple functions under the same roof. Waymo, for example, is using cars supplied by partners like FCA and Jaguar. But the other major functions—technology development, fleet ownership, and ride-hailing network—are being managed in-house by Waymo. Cruise is directly owned by GM and Honda, making it easier for Cruise engineers to work closely together with their counterparts at the carmakers. Like Waymo, Cruise is expected to own its cars and operate its own ride-hailing network.

Even with these advantages, industry leaders like Waymo and Cruise have struggled to bring their products to market—or in Waymo’s case, to expand it beyond one corner of the Phoenix metropolitan area. Aurora’s challenge is to demonstrate that it can succeed where its larger rivals have struggled.

This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.


More Great WIRED Stories

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Would You Trade a Bitcoin for a Tesla?

For a brief moment on Sunday, before Tesla said it had invested $1.5 billion in bitcoin and planned to let people use the cryptocurrency to pay for its cars, bitcoin’s price could be expressed with a fittingly simple figure: It was worth the same as a base Tesla Model 3. The next day, however, the comparison got more complicated, as the news of Tesla’s investment propelled the value of one bitcoin well on its way to paying for a second car. It’s dipped and surged a few times since then. No guarantees how many EVs a bitcoin will yield by the time you read this article.

Hence, to some, the strangeness of a company at once announcing it had invested a great deal of money in bitcoin as an asset—among the largest corporate purchases of a cryptocurrency thus far—while also asking you to spend it like dollars. It’s a problem almost as old as bitcoin—practically definitional, in fact, ever since the first modest orders of pizza with bitcoin that is now worth on the order of billions of dollars. Today it’s the prospect of buying a car (the price of the cheapest Model 3 is $37,990, and should still be the same tomorrow) which depreciates the moment it’s driven off the lot. You’ll have a used Tesla, sure, but perhaps you’ll have missed out on the next cryptocurrency spike.

In recent months, the tide has shifted in one direction: that bitcoin is a store of value, the kind of thing you buy and hold in the hope of someday selling it for more cash. Banks and hedge funds have increasingly jumped onto the idea, looking for fresh returns in a time when stocks look a little frothy and there’s little reward in parking money in bonds and cash. In doing so, they’ve bought into the idea that bitcoin will stick around and that it could hold value long-term, like platinum or gold—a legitimate alternative asset. Tesla gave similarly anodyne logic in the filing that revealed its new holding, that it wanted to “diversify and maximize returns on our cash that is not required to maintain adequate operating liquidity.” In other words, Tesla sees the same upsides that other corporate buyers do. Bitcoin is high risk and high reward—and mostly, recently, it’s been rewarding. “The cynical view is that they believe they can make money on it,” says Michael Ramsey, an automotive analyst at Gartner.

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The WIRED Guide to Bitcoin

The cryptocurrency represents amazing technological advances. Bitcoin has a way to go before it’s a a true replacement for, or even adjunct to, the global financial system.

Still, Tesla’s interest in bitcoin also speaks to a more spiritual association. “I just smirked at first. It’s kind of a perfect marriage,” Ramsey says. First, there’s Tesla’s unusual appetite for risk. Then there’s a story of overlapping fan bases, which have helped turn Tesla CEO Elon Musk into perhaps the most important crypto influencer around. Last month, when he added #Bitcoin to his Twitter bio, the value of the cryptocurrency surged 20 percent in an hour. (It has since been removed.) A series of playful tweets about Dogecoin on Sunday sent the value of the so-called “meme” cryptocurrency, started initially as a joke, to record heights. While Ramsey is skeptical that many people will take Tesla up on the idea of trading their bitcoin for cars, for practical reasons, it’s not a bad marketing move, he adds. For a certain kind of person, a bitcoin for a Tesla sure sounds like the ultimate flex. (That is, if you can get over the idea of purchasing an EV with a cryptocurrency that runs on the same amount of power as a midsize country.)

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A Historic Union Vote Gets Underway at Amazon

It might be the most tracked shipment in Amazon history: 5,800 mail ballots are being sent out to the union-eligible workers at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama, fulfillment center on Monday. In the coming weeks they’ll be used to decide the largest US union election at the 26-year-old company, the country’s second-largest employer. It’s an unlikely vote, coming from an unlikely site, but if the labor organizers win, the Bessemer warehouse, not yet a year old, will become the country’s first unionized Amazon facility and potentially a bellwether for the industry nationwide.

Alabama isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of labor organizing; it’s a right-to-work state with a union membership rate of 8 percent, nearly three points below the national average (itself near an all-time low). The Birmingham suburb of Bessemer, however, has a deep history of strong unions that haven’t been shy about striking. The Amazon facility sits atop land once owned by US Steel, a major employer in the region until the industry’s decline in the latter half of the 20th century. Workers at the mills there belonged to United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in North America.

These days, the state is home to 12,000-plus poultry workers represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. When the pandemic hit, the RWDSU became a regular feature of local news reports about the safety protections it won for its workers. The group from Amazon who first contacted the RWDSU over the summer included workers who had been union members at previous jobs; some had friends and family in the RWDSU. “I truly believe that if we win,” says Joshua Brewer, an RWDSU organizer in Alabama who’s working on the Bessemer campaign, “it will be because grandparents and uncles and parents talked to these young folks who work out here and said, this helped me, and it’s a good thing.”

Employees at Amazon fulfillment centers are tasked with retrieving products from miles of shelves and quickly packing them into boxes that eventually make their way to customers’ doors. Part of the job stress, workers say, stems from the company’s highly automated tracking system. Cameras blanket the warehouses, and the company’s Time Off Task (TOT) system tracks every second workers aren’t picking, packing, and stowing to meet quotas, or “make rate.” Too much TOT is grounds for termination. Workers fear that if a family member falls ill or some bad lunch meat necessitates extra bathroom breaks, that could be it for their job. Human frailty seems “like a kink in their system,” says Brewer. Grievance procedures, which would allow workers due process and union representation in responding to discipline, rank high on workers’ list of demands, as do more frequent, scheduled rest periods.

Amazon spokesperson Rachael Lighty contends that “Amazon already offers what unions are requesting for employees: industry-leading pay, comprehensive benefits from the first day on the job, opportunities for career growth, all while working in a safe, modern, and inclusive work environment. At Amazon, these benefits and opportunities come with the job, as does the ability to communicate directly with the leadership of the company.”

Although Amazon’s benefits and $15 minimum wage exceed industry averages, workers at fulfillment centers across the country have long bemoaned the relentless pace of work under the company’s ever-surveilling eye. A September Reveal investigation of Amazon warehouses uncovered a serious injury rate of 7.7 percent in 2019, nearly double the most-recent industry average. The physical toll can lead to high turnover. One 2020 study of California warehouses by the National Employment Law Project found the average turnover rate in counties with Amazon warehouses was 100.9 percent in 2017 (meaning more workers left than started), compared to just 38.1 percent in 2011, the year before Amazon dropped anchor in the state. Amazon calls the study misleading, saying its attrition rate is on par with industry average, although the company didn’t share specific numbers.

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Finally, an Interesting Proposal for Section 230 Reform

By the end of last year, there were few better symbols of bad-faith politics than Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that gives online platforms legal immunity for user-generated content. After a fairly sleepy existence since its passage in 1996, Section 230 turned into an unlikely rallying cry for a subset of Republican politicians who disingenuously blamed it for letting social media platforms discriminate against conservatives. (In fact, the law has nothing to do with partisan balance, and if anything allows platforms to keep more right-wing content up than they otherwise would.) Down the home stretch of his reelection campaign, Donald Trump began dropping Section 230 references into his stump speeches. The whole thing culminated with a pair of depressing Senate hearings that, while nominally about Section 230, were little more than PR stunts designed for Ted Cruz to get clips of himself berating Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. Senate Democrats didn’t quite cover themselves in glory either.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to see a legislative proposal on Section 230 that thoughtfully, if imperfectly, addresses some of the most glaring problems with the law. The SAFE TECH Act, a bill announced on Friday morning by Democratic senators Mark Warner, Mazie Hirono, and Amy Klobuchar, is an encouraging sign that members of Congress are paying attention to the smartest critiques of Section 230 and trying to craft appropriate solutions.

First, a brief refresher is in order. Section 230 was passed in 1996 in order to encourage interactive platforms on the nascent internet—message boards, at the time—to self-moderate. The first part of the law says that “interactive computer services” are not legally liable for user-generated content. The second part says that they are free to moderate that content without becoming liable for it. This solved the dilemma of a company putting itself at greater legal risk by being more proactive about monitoring harmful content.

In recent years, the law has occasioned quite a bit of debate. Section 230’s defenders credit it with enabling the rise of the modern internet. They argue that interactive websites would be unimaginable without it, crushed under the threat of lawsuits from anyone offended by a comment, post, or customer review. The law’s detractors counter that Section 230 lets companies like Facebook and YouTube, along with shadier bottom-dwellers, profit off of hosting harmful content without having to bear the costs of cleaning it up.

Some of the questions raised in this debate are difficult to answer. But some are pretty easy. That’s because judges have interpreted Section 230 immunity so broadly that it has led to legal outcomes that seem obviously perverse. Today, Section 230 protects gossip sites that actively encourage users to submit nasty rumors and even revenge porn, essentially legalizing a harassment-based business model. Until Congress recently intervened, it protected sites like Backpage, that were set up to facilitate prostitution. It lets companies off the hook even when they have been made aware that they are being used to inflict harm on people. In one now-notorious case, a man’s ex-boyfriend impersonated him on Grindr, the popular gay dating app, sending a stream of men to his home and work addresses looking for sex. Grindr ignored the victim’s pleas to do something about it. After the victim sued, a federal judge ruled that Section 230 protected Grindr from any responsibility.

The law is even applied to commercial transactions whose consequences are felt in the physical world. In 2012, a Wisconsin man murdered his wife and two of her coworkers using a gun he had bought from Armslist, a “firearms marketplace.” Because he was subject to a restraining order, he was legally prohibited from owning a gun. Armslist allowed him to get around that. The victim’s daughter sued, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court eventually ruled that Section 230 made Armslist immune, because the ad for the gun was posted by a user.

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The Amazon Case Signals a Tougher Stance on Gig Economy Firms

The Federal Trade Commission said Tuesday that Amazon had agreed to repay drivers for its Flex delivery service almost $62 million that consumers had intended as tips, but that Amazon retained for several years. The FTC called Amazon’s tipping practices “deceptive.”

“We have a long history of bringing cases against bogus business opportunities and phony income claims. This case puts an internet economy spin on that history,” acting FTC Chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, a Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

In other words: Gig companies beware. The move is “unmistakably an indication of the agency’s commitment to devoting additional attention and enforcement resources to monitoring the behavior of gig employers, and to punish misrepresentation and fraud,” says William Kovacic, a former chair of the FTC and now a professor at George Washington University Law School. “This is an expansion.”

According to an FTC complaint, the settlement stems from advertisements Amazon posted when it launched Amazon Flex in 2015, through which workers sign up as independent contractors delivering Amazon goods. Those ads—and subsequent statements by Amazon—promised prospective workers $18 to $25 an hour in base pay, plus 100 percent of customers’ tips. But the FTC alleges that by late 2016, Amazon had begun to use an algorithm to determine new base pay rates by workers’ locations, and to subsidize that base pay with customer tips. That meant that if, for example, Amazon determined that area’s base pay rate was $14, and a customer tipped a driver $4 for their work, Amazon would use the customer tip to meet the promised minimum pay of $18.

Have you worked as an Amazon Flex driver, and would like to talk to a reporter about your experience? Email Aarian Marshall at aarian_marshall@wired.com. WIRED protects the confidentiality of its sources.

The complaint says that hundreds of drivers complained to Amazon about the pay discrepancies. A 2019 Los Angeles Times article described drivers, assigned by chance to deliver packages to their own homes, tipping themselves very specific figures to determine if the full tips were reaching their accounts. They weren’t. Meanwhile, according to the FTC, internal Amazon emails show employees describing the situation as “a huge PR risk for Amazon” and “an Amazon reputation tinderbox.” In mid-2019, Amazon adjusted its tipping practices.

Under the settlement, Amazon will pay the $62 million to the FTC, which will then give the money to the drivers who earned it. The FTC does not yet know how many drivers will be entitled to payments, according to spokesperson Jay Mayfield. Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

Other gig companies have similarly manipulated worker tips and pay—and, to a lesser degree, also been called on the carpet by regulators. In 2019, after public outcry, DoorDash changed a policy that used customers’ tips to subsidize its workers’ minimum pay rate. Instacart has also been accused of misleading customers into thinking an optional service fee would be collected as tips for workers. (The company changed its policy on the fee in 2018.) Both companies have been sued by the District of Columbia for consumer deception. The Instacart case is pending, but DoorDash last November paid $2.5 million to DC for misleading consumers over tipping.

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