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How Facebook Gets the First Amendment Backward

What does the First Amendment have to do with Facebook? It depends on whom you ask.Mark Zuckerberg would probably say: a lot. Over the past few weeks, he has repeatedly invoked the First Amendment to justify Facebook’s controversial decision to exempt posts and paid advertisements by political candidates from its fact-checking system. In a speech…

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How Facebook Gets the First Amendment Backward

What does the First Amendment have to do with Facebook? It depends on whom you ask.

Mark Zuckerberg would probably say: a lot. Over the past few weeks, he has repeatedly invoked the First Amendment to justify Facebook’s controversial decision to exempt posts and paid advertisements by political candidates from its fact-checking system. In a speech to Georgetown students last month, he claimed that the company’s policies are “inspired by the First Amendment.” And last week, after the Social Network director Aaron Sorkin attacked him personally in a New York Times op-ed, Zuckerberg not-so-subtly posted a quote from another Sorkin movie, The American President, to his own Facebook page: “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.”

To many of Zuckerberg’s critics, however, the First Amendment—which prohibits the government from abridging free speech—has nothing at all to do with a corporation like Facebook. Zuckerberg’s invocation of it looks, from this perspective, like a cynical ploy to dress up business decisions in a civil rights costume. As the New Yorker tech reporter Andrew Marantz recently put it, “the First Amendment would not suffer” if Zuckerberg reversed course on fact checking political ads, because the power of the state would not be involved: “No dissembling politicians would be arrested for their lies.”

It’s true that the First Amendment doesn’t bind Facebook. And yet the people making that point today probably wouldn’t find it a terribly persuasive defense if the company began banning, say, posts in support of green energy or trans rights. The First Amendment is law, but it isn’t only law—it’s a set of values and a way of thinking about the role speech plays in a democratic society. Most Americans have an instinct that at least some of the anti-censorship ideas animating the First Amendment should determine how a giant communication platform like Facebook operates.

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So, for argument’s sake, let’s take Zuckerberg at his word when he says Facebook is taking inspiration from the First Amendment, and instead ask a different question: Does the decision to not fact-check politicians actually embody First Amendment values?

In one narrow sense, the answer is yes. “If you imagined that Facebook were the government, the Supreme Court has long held that the government should intrude as little as possible with political speech relative to other forms of speech,” said Geoffrey Stone, a prominent First Amendment scholar at the University of Chicago Law School. In that spirit, refusing to police the accuracy of political ads is clearly in line with current First Amendment doctrine. “The distinction that Facebook is drawing between falsity in the commercial sphere, which we regularly regulate, and falsity in the political sphere, which we don’t regulate, is a completely valid one,” said Ashutosh Bhagwat, a law professor at UC Hastings. Congress and states can forbid false claims in a commercial for a dating app or an herbal supplement, but campaign messages are another story. In a 2014 case, for example, a federal court struck down a Minnesota law that made it illegal to spread false information to influence votes on a ballot question, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. “Once you get into the business of regulating truth, that’s a really complicated thicket to enter into,” Bhagwat said.

The problem for Facebook is that the company already has entered the thicket of regulating truth and falsehood. It’s one thing to carve out a special policy for political speech in general; it’s another to make distinctions within that category between politicians and everyone else. In effect, Facebook has set up a two-tiered system in which the likes of Donald Trump, Elizabeth Warren, and Tom Steyer are allowed to lie, but you and I are not. And that’s where the First Amendment analogy breaks down.

“There’s no basis for treating speech by people running for office differently, and more favorably, than speech by other people” under the First Amendment, Bhagwat said. “To the contrary, if anything.”

At its most basic level, the First Amendment is designed to protect the free speech rights of Americans against the powers of the state. But, if we continue to analogize Facebook to the government, the campaign speech policy tacks in the opposite direction, granting extra rights for political candidates—who are disproportionately likely to already be political officeholders—that the rest of us don’t get.

“I know many people disagree, but, in general, I don’t think it’s right for a private company to censor politicians or the news in a democracy,” Zuckerberg said at Georgetown. But if fact-checking amounts to censorship, the unavoidable implication is that Zuckerberg thinks it is right to censor the rest of Facebook’s users—the ones who aren’t politicians. (Meanwhile, as Julia Carrie Wong recently pointed out in The Guardian, Facebook has been silent on how the policy applies to Facebook’s billions of users around the world, most of whom don’t live in Western-style democracies in the first place.)

Yet if Zuckerberg treats ordinary Facebook users as second-class speakers, he seems to be simultaneously giving us too much credit as listeners, insisting that it’s up to us to figure out whether politicians are lying or not. This idea, too, has some support in the First Amendment tradition—at least on the surface. In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously argued that “the theory of our Constitution” is that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” While this metaphor has its limitations—we probably don’t want the government to decide whether our tap water is safe to drink by taking an opinion poll—it stands for the principle that the government must let public debates play out freely, without picking sides.

But the “marketplace of ideas” theory depends on us all participating in the same discussion. “Until recently, we assumed that public debate was public,” said Bhagwat. “And so when people said things that weren’t true, we knew that they were saying things that weren’t true, and we could respond to them.”

Facebook has set up a very different kind of marketplace, one where advertisers can direct completely different messages to different audiences. As Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the Federal Election Commission, argued in The Washington Post last week, targeted advertising makes it “easy to single out susceptible groups and direct political misinformation to them with little accountability, because the public at large never sees the ad.” Weintraub and others have therefore proposed eliminating microtargeting for political ads. One reason that approach to combating misinformation may be more promising than banning political ads altogether, as Twitter plans to do, or by relying on ever more fact-checking, is that it aligns more neatly with First Amendment ideas about how political debate is supposed to play out in a democracy.

For now, though, Facebook’s policy and free speech principles will remain an awkward fit. Zuckerberg has repeatedly invoked the importance of giving everyone a “voice”—a word he used 31 times during the Georgetown speech. But the two-tiered ad policy implies that some voices are more important than others. Sometimes, those important voices will be political outsiders running insurgent campaigns. But much more often, they will be members of the existing ruling class. The unstated assumption of Facebook’s policy is that what politicians have to say is more worth hearing than what the rest of us have to say. That’s one way of looking at democracy. You just won’t find it in the First Amendment.


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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from…

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Goodyear’s reCharge Concept Tire Regenerates Burned Off Rubber

If Goodyear scientists have their way, replacing complete tires every year or so simply because a few millimeters of rubber wears off will become a thing of the past. The company this week unveiled a far-out concept for a tire that will automatically generate its own tread, continuously replacing the rubber that sloughs off from daily use.

Called reCharge, the concept looks at how to curb the waste that plagues Goodyear’s industry: About 250 million tires were scrapped in the US in 2017. “The tire is one of the few components that doesn’t stay on for the life of the vehicle,” says CTO Chris Helsel. “It’s replaced quite often. So the first problem to solve was to make the tire more of a permanent structure, as part of the vehicle itself.”

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To make that happen, Goodyear’s engineers designed something that works a bit like a stick of lip balm. At the center of the wheel sits a cylindrical, pressurized cartridge filled with liquified, biodegradable tire compound. As the miles stack up and the tread wears down, the pressure differential between the interior of the cartridge and the tire surface draws out the compound. It oozes out of channels radiating from the center to the tread surface automatically, passing through a grid-like frame that molds it into the proper shape. (The system is envisioned as incorporating both tire and wheel, with a non-pneumatic support structure instead of a tire attached to a metal rim.) When exposed to outside air—where the rubber meets the road—the compound hardens, and your tires never go bald.

The reCharge tire is very much a concept, but some of the ideas it promotes could make it onto your car in the next few years.

Courtesy of Goodyear

So instead of tossing old tires every few years, you’ll keep the bulk of the structure as long as you’ve got the car. The central cartridge would need replacing a few times over the wheel’s projected lifespan of between 100,00 and 300,00 miles, Goodyear estimates. That means less waste, Helsel says, since worn down tires get tossed even if the structural components beneath the tread and in the sidewall remain perfectly intact.

The reCharge concept comes with some other neat ideas built in. Helsel says sensors embedded within the reCharge structure can analyze wear patterns and driving style, and tune the type of compound the user might install next in order for it to better match. Aggressive brakers and performance nuts would get one kind of chemistry, hyper-miling road-trippers another. Goodyear could account for climate and road quality as well.

The tire is also well suited to electric vehicles. Because they’re usually heavier than their gas-powered counterparts and apply greater torque during acceleration, they can wear out tires 20 to 50 percent faster, Helsel says. “So you’re going to need a tire that lasts longer. This idea will allow for extended tire life and much easier swaps, and replacing just the cartridge will require one tenth of the number of parts that would need replacing compared to conventional tires.”

The concept, though, isn’t near production. Goodyear hasn’t made the all-important compound, and getting it to work as described would be complex, especially the bit about hardening with oxidation. Helsel says the company envisions something including fibrous material to enhance strength, inspired by the renowned toughness of natural spider silk. But different elements of the reCharge concept could trickle out sooner than a complete product—potentially within a decade. So the proposed tire compound, the structural framework, or the embedded sensors and artificial-intelligence-based analysis of use patterns might appear earlier in conventional tires. So your tires may get smarter—but they’ll still eventually lose the tread.


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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think…

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New TCL Foldable Phone Concepts Are Weird but Exciting

TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.

The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a trifold display; think the triple-folded paper brochure you get at state parks, except replace the paper with a phone. It’s one of the first concepts we’ve seen with two separate hinge mechanisms working simultaneously, converting a 6.65-inch phone into a 10-inch tablet.

Photograph: TCL

I got a chance to play around with a prototype. It feels very rough around the edges—namely, it’s stiff and tough to unfold—but the device veritably went from a traditional-looking phone into an iPad-like tablet. You can also fold one-third of the screen away for the times you don’t need the maximum available amount of screen space. I can easily see myself unfolding this in a coffee shop and pulling out a slim Bluetooth keyboard to type up some words instead of lugging around a laptop.

Unfortunately with so much folding going on it, it’s a very thick phone—around the chunkiness of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, if not more. It’s not terribly fun to use one-handed.

That’s why the second concept is a little more interesting. It’s not exactly a foldable phone, rather a phone with a “rollable” screen, as TCL puts it. It looks just like an ordinary smartphone with a 6.75-inch screen, but spectacularly, you can tug on the right edge of the handset to roll out more display and increase the screen real estate to 7.8 inches—about as much as the iPad Mini, and with no folding required. This design keeps the phone really thin at 0.35 inches. The dummy unit I used required me to manually extend the screen, but TCL said it has a motorized version that automatically does it.

Since TCL manufactures its own displays, the company has gone wild playing around with various form factors. It has more than three dozen other concepts floating around in its factories. However, it’s likely the two concepts being unveiled today (as well as the wallet-like foldable device that debuted at CES) will never make it to market.

“We are not shy to show some of these ideas to engage in a discussion, to get your feedback, to learn,” says Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing at TCL. “We believe this is much more important than just putting a product out, keep the volumes low, charge a very high price, and make the consumer a beta user and pay for it. That’s not TCL’s style.”

This testing phase lets the company identify which types of foldable phones resonate with people the most. Once it nails down a particular design and form—and there’s apparently a leading candidate—TCL intends to create a portfolio of foldables that give several options to buyers.

Being patient also gives the company time to figure out how to make foldable phones more affordable overall. Most of the products we’ve seen from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, and Huawei start at $1,380 and go all the way up to $2,700. That’s far more expensive than some of TCL’s most popular TVs.

“We’re not here to make novelty products,” says Jason Gerdon, head of global strategic communications. “We’re here to make innovation accessible.”

Whatever design TCL ends up settling on, the foldable phone is expected to arrive by the end of the year or early 2021. Before then, TCL is expected to launch its first US phones: the TCL 10 Pro, 10L, and the TCL 10 5G, which it teased at CES. (Gerdon said TCL doesn’t see the Covid-19 outbreak causing a substantial impact on its supply chain in the immediate term, but there is a chance products could be delayed “the longer the crisis continues.”)

Regardless, all this shows just how much TCL is now investing in its own brand name after a few attempts at leveraging others. It licenses the BlackBerry name and made a couple of keyboard-laden phones, but after making no real gains in smartphone market share, TCL is ending its BlackBerry contract this summer. Streit said making BlackBerry phones was still a very valuable learning experience.

TCL also licenses the Alcatel brand and owns Palm, both of which are here to stay. Alcatel will continue to offer ultra-low-cost phones—the TCL phone brand will sit just above it—and Palm will explore other ways to minimize screen time like, say, slapping a flexible screen on your wrist as a bracelet, Streit suggested.

Whether foldable phones prove to be a big part of our future is still up in the air. There’s no singular folding device stealing the hearts of mainstream consumers. But it’s undeniable that a folding screen makes any phone just a little more interesting.


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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.Next came Adobe…

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Amid Coronavirus Fears, Startups Rethink the Virtual Conference

The first conference to go was Mobile World Congress. The annual gathering of electronics makers and phone geeks announced the cancellation just weeks before it was set to begin, in late February, for the sake of safety. Global concern over the new coronavirus was rising, and plus, exhibitors were dropping left and right.

Next came Adobe Summit. Then Facebook F8. Within weeks, Google had canceled its annual developer conference, Google I/O, and Google Cloud Next, its cloud-focused conference. Microsoft called off its MVP Summit. IBM pulled the plug on Think. TED decided to hold off on its gathering, debating only whether to delay it or put it online. The organizers of SXSW wrung their hands, even after its biggest tech exhibitors—Twitter and Facebook among them—pulled out. On Friday, the city of Austin finally canceled the event.

As concern over Covid-19 sets in, people around the world are rethinking large gatherings. Social soirees have been canceled, universities are moving classes online, and more companies are instituting mandatory telecommuting policies—Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Salesforce have each asked their employees to work from home in recent weeks. If the coronavirus is going to reshape the way we work, as some have hypothesized, it will also need to change how we do conferences, a trillion-dollar industry in which millions of people participate each year. A new group of startups is trying to sell the business world on the value of virtual alternatives, but the appeal of networking IRL has so far had a stubborn way of sticking around.

Read all of our coronavirus coverage here.

Conferences have long been the gold standard for exchanging ideas and strengthening professional relationships, both in business and academia. Sure, they can be a bit stuffy, but gathering people in the same room has measurable benefits. One study, from MIT, found that scientific collaborations that came out of conference meetings were “more novel, cross-disciplinary and more frequently cited than projects between two researchers in the same institution.”

It’s the execution of those events that’s often lackluster: People gather in hotel ballrooms, sit in stiff chairs, and watch a series of unsurprising talks and panel discussions. Many conferences end up being self-congratulatory echo chambers rather than forums for new knowledge. Technology hasn’t created much disruption either. Instead, tech conferences have become high-production spectacles as the industry emulates Steve Jobs and his commercial-style developer conferences. Those events aren’t cheap, either: Adobe Summit, before turning itself into a digital-only event, charged $1,695 per ticket—and that was the early bird price. That’s to say nothing of the cost of travel and the inevitably overpriced conference hotel rooms.

The alternate ideas have been fairly uninspired: webinars, panel livestreams. Xiaoyin Qu, the cofounder of a new virtual conference startup called Run the World, says the problem with most virtual conferences is the inability to meet other people. She attended dozens of conferences last year for market research and found that the best moments often weren’t the keynote speeches, but the breakout sessions or coffee breaks when conference attendees could bump into one another. When people met someone at a conference whose work was relevant to them, it made the $1,000 ticket worth it. When they didn’t, conferences sometimes felt like “a waste of time.”

Run the World came out of stealth this month and has backing from Andreessen Horowitz. Connie Chan, the general partner who led the investment, described Run the World as “a hybrid of Zoom video, Eventbrite ticketing, Twitch interactivity, and LinkedIn networking.” The platform allows conference organizers to livestream talks, discussions, and panels in return for a 25 percent cut of ticket sales. It also lets conference attendees fill out a profile describing their interests and uses an algorithm to match them with others; a virtual “cocktail party” feature lets attendees meet each other through video calls. (The “cocktails” are, obviously, BYO.)

Hopin, another startup that came out of stealth a few weeks ago, takes a similar approach to virtual conferencing. The platform combines livestreamed presentations with virtual networking, including a ChatRoulette-style feature for meeting other attendees. Most of the networking at conferences happens during unscheduled time, when people are milling about or hanging around the hotel bar. “That’s why people go to events; it’s not for livestreaming,” Hopin’s founder, Johnny Boufarhat, told Crunchbase News. “You go physically to network with people, to interact with people. And that’s what we solve.”

Moving conferences online can solve other problems, too: It reduces travel costs, environmental pollution, and accessibility concerns. Cutting out the in-person costs can also significantly reduce the price of admission and lets conference organizers invest more of their budget into speakers. For many conferences, Qu says, “around 20 percent is spent on the venue, 20 percent on food and beverages, and almost 20 percent is on equipment.” Most budgets she looked at had left conference organizers with less than 5 percent of their budget for program design and speaker fees.

The idea isn’t to make conferences free or accessible to everyone: some friction, Qu says, ensures that the relevant people show up and actually participate. But because conference organizers don’t have to worry about filling a big venue, in theory they can spend more on paying speakers’ fees and can create more-focused events. Qu has already seen people using Run the World to organize super-niche conferences, like an event for coaching engineers on how to date. It had 40 attendees. “If you no longer need to sign a venue lease 10 months before the conference and hire 30 people to work on that for a half a year, then it makes more sense to do these,” says Qu. “You don’t need to wait until 100,000 people show up to make it happen.”

Still, virtual conference platforms haven’t found much traction. David Pearlman, who researches travel and tourism at the University of New Orleans, wrote a paper a decade ago about the promise of virtual reality for the conference industry. Back then, he thought virtual conferences had a good shot at becoming the industry standard. But they haven’t really picked up momentum. “If anything, they’ve died back,” he says.

That’s partly because most people don’t own virtual reality headsets. But Pearlman says it’s also because meeting people as an avatar remains awkward, and digital platforms have struggled to re-create serendipitous encounters. Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, has been trying to solve this with a virtual reality event space called Sansar, launched in 2017. Participants can log on to chat with each other from around the world or attend live concerts in VR. These aren’t simply livestreams—they’re events designed to foster person-to-person interaction. (The company’s pitch for its concerts: “Meet friends, cop merch, snap selfies. Show off your best moves and emotes: the floss, the shoot, the shiggy, whatever.”) Recently, Sansar introduced a virtual conference stage too, but it hasn’t taken off.

As more conferences get canceled or moved online, organizers could have a chance to explore these emerging platforms as an alternative to the boring old webinar. Qu says Run the World will waive fees for conference organizers who have had to cancel due to the coronavirus. But that’s unlikely to create a sea change, says Amy Calvert, CEO of the Events Industry Council, a trade group.

The coronavirus outbreak isn’t the first time major conferences have been forced to move online. “There are wildfires; there’s what happened in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina,” says Calvert. None of those events have spurred an industrywide shift toward digital conferences, she says, because attendees simply don’t get the same value. “The virtual elements are never going to replace the face-to-face meetings, because people want to connect and build those relationships and foster those networks.”

Most major conferences seem to agree. This year, Google has rebranded Google Cloud Next as Cloud Next ’20: Digital Connect. It’s the company’s largest annual conference, with over 30,000 attendees, so Google decided to bring it online rather than cancel it outright. “Innovation is in Google’s DNA and we are leveraging this strength to bring you an immersive and inspiring event this year without the risk of travel,” the company wrote after announcing the decision. What does that innovation look like? It plans to webcast the keynotes and add some digital “ask an expert” sessions with Google teams. Perhaps the most innovative thing it’s done is agree to refund the cost of tickets and offer the conference content for free.

Other conferences have made it perfectly clear that they don’t plan to stay digital-only. Collision, a 30,000-person tech conference held in Toronto, announced last week that it wouldn’t be holding its gathering this year and will instead move its programming online. Next year, though, it’s already planning another in-person event.


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