7 Code Conference Highlights: From Content Moderation Woes to the Facebook Breakup Debate

Twitter has moved from a platform dedicated to free speech “to one that is cognizant of the impact it’s having on the world and our responsibility and our role in shaping that,” one company executive says

Some of the biggest topics in tech — including whether Facebook and Google should be broken up and how Netflix makes its content decisions — were front and center this week at Code Conference 2019 in Scottsdale, Arizona.

But if you couldn’t make it out to the desert, don’t worry about it.

Here were the seven lessons that were learned this week at #CodeCon:

1. Everyone Cares About Content Moderation — But the Rules Are as Unclear as Ever 

The main takeaway from Code Conference 2019 is that Silicon Valley is fixated on content moderation. Several reps from some of the world’s biggest tech companies took the stage and explained how seriously they take moderation and clamping down on “hate speech” — a term that varies from company to company. How they’re fighting it, though, continues to remain cloaked behind arcane rules that often times appear to be arbitrarily enforced.

Twitter policy head Vijaya Gadde, echoing CEO Jack Dorsey’s key talking point from the last year that the company is focused on improving the “health” of conversation on its platform, said Twitter has had to crack down on undesirable speech to meet this goal.

“We’ve had to move very much from what we were, which was a platform that very much enabled as much free speech as possible, to one that is cognizant of the impact it’s having on the world and our responsibility and our role in shaping that,” Gadde said on Tuesday.

Former Twitter CEO Ev Williams, who now runs Medium, went even further on Wednesday, outlining the company’s “aggressive” moderation policy that includes reviewing what users are doing and saying on other platforms.

But it’s also clear that moderation policies can change on a whim. YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, speaking for the first time since last week’s demonetization of right-wing comedian Steven Crowder after he used slights like “lispy queer” against Vox’s Carlos Maza, said she was “very sorry” to members of the LGBTQ community offended by the company’s initial response to the issue — that Crowder hadn’t violated its policies. The Google-owned video giant ultimately demonetized Crowder after its first response was bashed by Maza and other critics.

Wojcicki said the company’s newly updated policies on hate speech, which rolled out right after the Maza-Crowder saga, had been in the works for months. YouTube had even started briefing European reporters on the guidelines before American reporters because “they’re ahead” on the clock, she said. That explanation didn’t make much sense to many people at the conference, however, who felt the new rules were obviously tied to the Crowder incident. You came away from the conference with the impression the rules are a merely a work-in-progress for many of the companies, policies that can and will be tweaked to appease advertisers and critics whenever a fire needs to be put out.

2. Breakup Big Tech? It’s Debatable

Another talking point of the conference was whether mega-tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Google and Apple need to be broken up. The idea, which has gained traction in the last year and has been touted by Democratic presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, was hotly debated.

Those in favor of an antitrust crackdown believe competition has been stifled by the tech giants. The companies have become too big and immobile, they argue, making it difficult to address issues like meddling in national elections.

Predictably, this belief wasn’t shared by the two Facebook execs at the conference, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri and Facebook VR head Andrew Bosworth.

“Personally, if we split it off, it might make a lot of my life easier, and it would probably be beneficial for me as an individual. But I just think it’s a terrible idea,” Mosseri said. “If you’re trying to solve election integrity, if you’re trying to approach content issues like hate speech, and you split us off, it would just make it exponentially more difficult — particularly for us at Instagram — to keep us safe.”

Bosworth echoed Mosseri, saying Facebook’s control of WhatsApp and Instagram allows the company to better “share and combine data” to tackle its issues.

Former Facebook product manager and current Wired author Antonio Garcia Martinez said he was in favor of breaking up the Big 4 tech companies, though. He argued the case has more to do with a “lack of consumer benefit,” rather than consumer harm, where users aren’t getting the best product because they face little competition.

“In the case of Facebook, it’s pretty clear the acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram were obviously anti-competitive blocking moves,” Martinez said. “There’s been polls out that a lot of WhatsApp and Instagram users don’t even realize they’re owned by Facebook.”

The majority of the crowd seemed to agree it was time to take action against the Big 4. New York University business professor Scott Galloway drew the biggest laughs and cheers of the conference when making the case for breaking up Silicon Valley’s biggest companies. “Without antitrust (laws), we don’t have competition,” Galloway said. “If we didn’t have the (Department of Justice) move in on Microsoft, we wouldn’t have the object of every innovator’s affection, Google. We’d also be saying ‘I don’t know, Bing it.'”

3. How Netflix Makes Its Calls

It’s not just about streaming data for Netflix. Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content, offered some rare insight into how the notoriously cryptic streaming service makes its content decisions. When Recode’s Kara Swisher asked why the company canceled its “One Day at a Time” reboot earlier this year, Holland’s response was telling — but typically vague in terms of actual data.

“The basic calculation is how much viewing are we getting for how much it costs,” Holland said. “But we also look at is it reaching different audiences, is it gaining critical acclaim, is it doing something for us as a business that we like. And ‘One Day at a Time,’ frankly, if you looked at it just from a season one standpoint, we wouldn’t have renewed that show on a viewing-to-cost basis.”

Holland, who announced the return of “Russian Doll” while at the conference, said that while much of the entertainment industry “operates in a culture of fear,” Netflix isn’t worried about taking risks.

“We’re not afraid to try a bunch of different things, some of which may work, some of which may not. It’s part of our culture to embrace mistakes and failure and learn something from it.”

4. Ryan Murphy: Bad WaPo Intern

Ryan Murphy may be a TV powerhouse, but according to Recode’s Kara Swisher he wasn’t much of an intern when he worked at the Washington Post decades ago as an aspiring journalist before he moved into writing for TV and film on shows like “Popular,” “Nip/Tuck” and the Fox hit “Glee.”

“He was the worst intern ever. But as it turned out, it didn’t matter,” Swisher, a former Post reporter, said while moderating a Netflix panel.

“Great showrunner,” Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content, chimed in.

“He was great,” Swisher added. “He was just mean to everybody at The Post — it was terrific to see.”

5. Real Life Iron Man Is a Dud

Easily the biggest letdown of Code Conference 2019 involved Gravity, a self-described “British aeronautical innovation company” that created a buzz on Tuesday morning with a promised demo of a jet-pack that essentially turned its user into Tony Stark. Between sessions, a horde of conference attendees flocked outside in anticipation.

Sadly, it wasn’t worth standing in the dry desert heat. Rather than having the pilot flying around in the sky, the jet-pack merely had him hovering at about the exact height necessary to kick someone in the head. So much for Iron Man. “That was a real downer,” one rep for a New York-based startup mumbled after the demo ended abruptly. You can catch a glimpse of it yourself below — and if the “whooshing” sound is too loud, it was 10 times worse in person.

6. Digital Media Is Only Getting More Popular

One thing that stood out from venture capitalist Mary Meeker’s annual Internet Trends Report: Americans are spending a record 6.3 hours each day interacting with digital media. Most of this time is spent on their phones — and that makes sense when you look at some of her other findings. Podcasts, for one thing, have exponentially grown in the last five years, with 700 million people worldwide listening to shows on a monthly basis.

7. Can’t Escape Trump 

Even at a tech and media conference, you couldn’t escape President Trump.

Gadde drew laughs when discussing a recent meeting with the president, where he talked to Dorsey about “improving civility” on Twitter, among other objectives.

On Wednesday, the conversation turned more serious. A.G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times, said he believes the president’s routine attacks on the media — and in particular, his use of the what he described as the “Stalinist” phrase “enemy of the people” — has put journalists abroad in danger.

Marking a detour from 2018, Code Conference was especially focused on politics this year.

Stacey Abrams, a Democrat who lost a close race for governor last year in Georgia, opened the conference on Tuesday, urging the tech industry to fight misinformation campaigns and help “level the playing field” when it comes to what she described as active attempts at voter suppression. And on Wednesday morning, the focus shifted to the U.S. border, with RAICES spokeswoman Erika Andiola comparing the detainment camps housing immigrants seeking refugee status to concentration camps. At Code Conference, politics and tech appeared to be increasingly intertwined.

Sean Burch

Sean Burch

Tech reporter • sean.burch@thewrap.com • @seanb44 

What you get:

  • in-depth coverage
  • award winning writers
  • exclusive video
  • vip access
  • thewrap magazine