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June 16, 2019
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Drama

Zuckerberg says breaking up Facebook “isn’t going to help”

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With the look of someone betrayed, Facebook’s CEO has fired back at co-founder Chris Hughes and his brutal NYT op-ed calling for regulators to split up Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. “When I read what he wrote, my main reaction was that what he’s proposing that we do isn’t going to do anything to help solve those issues. So I think that if what you care about is democracy and elections, then you want a company like us to be able to invest billions of dollars per year like we are in building up really advanced tools to fight election interference” Zuckerberg told France Info while in Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Zuckerberg’s argument boils down to the idea that Facebook’s specific problems with privacy, safety, misinformation, and speech won’t be directly addressed by breaking up the company, and instead would actually hinder its efforts to safeguard its social networks. The Facebook family of apps would theoretically have fewer economies of scale when investing in safety technology like artificial intelligence to spot bots spreading voter suppression content.

Facebook’s co-founders (from left): Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, and Mark Zuckerberg

Hughes claims that “Mark’s power is unprecedented and un-American” and that Facebook’s rampant acquisitions and copying have made it so dominant that it deters competition. The call echoes other early execs like Facebook’s first president Sean Parker and growth chief Chamath Palihapitiya who’ve raised alarms about how the social network they built impacts society.

But Zuckerberg argues that Facebook’s size benefits the public. “Our budget for safety this year is bigger than the whole revenue of our company was when we went public earlier this decade. A lot of that is because we’ve been able to build a successful business that can now support that. You know, we invest more in safety than anyone in social media” Zuckerberg told journalist Laurent Delahousse.

The Facebook CEO’s comments were largely missed by the media, in part because the TV interview was heavily dubbed into French with no transcript. But written out here for the first time, his quotes offer a window into how deeply Zuckerberg dismisses Hughes’ claims. “Well [Hughes] was talking about a very specific idea of breaking up the company to solve some of the social issues that we face” Zuckerberg says before trying to decouple solutions from anti-trust regulation. “The way that I look at this is, there are real issues. There are real issue around harmful content and finding the right balance between expression and safety, for preventing election interference, on privacy.”

Claiming that a breakup “isn’t going to do anything to help” is a more unequivocal refutation of Hughes’ claim than that of Facebook VP of communications and former UK deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg . He wrote in his own NYT op-ed today that “what matters is not size but rather the rights and interests of consumers, and our accountability to the governments and legislators who oversee commerce and communications . . . Big in itself isn’t bad. Success should not be penalized.”

Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes

Something certainly must be done to protect consumers. Perhaps that’s a break up of Facebook. At the least, banning it from acquiring more social networks of sufficient scale so it couldn’t snatch another Instagram from its crib would be an expedient and attainable remedy.

But the sharpest point of Hughes’ op-ed was how he identified that users are trapped on Facebook. “Competition alone wouldn’t necessarily spur privacy protection — regulation is required to ensure accountability — but Facebook’s lock on the market guarantees that users can’t protest by moving to alternative platforms” he writes. After Cambridge Analytica “people did not leave the company’s platforms en masse. After all, where would they go?”

That’s why given critics’ call for competition and Zuckerberg’s own support for interoperability, a core tenet of regulation must be making it easier for users to switch from Facebook to another social network. As I’ll explore in an upcoming piece, until users can easily bring their friend connections or ‘social graph’ somewhere else, there’s little to compel Facebook to treat them better.

Uber drivers protest ahead of IPO at the company’s SF HQ

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“Drivers united will never be defeated!”

That’s the chant hundreds of drivers yelled outside Uber’s San Francisco headquarters this afternoon before heading to block Market Street. Ahead of Uber’s IPO, drivers are protesting for better wages, benefits, transparent policies and a voice, Uber driver and Gig Workers Rising member Mostafa Maklad told TechCrunch ahead of the protest.

“Uber year after year keeps cutting the rate and how much money they pay to drivers year after year,” Maklad said. “Right now, to make the same money I used to make when I started, you have to drive between 70 to 80 hours a week to make even a little less than how much money I used to. They put a lot of stress on us drivers to drive a lot of hours in order to make money. If you don’t, you can’t make money and it’s not going to be worth it.”

In addition to drivers and activists, SF Supervisor Gordon Mar was of the people advocating for driver rights today.

”We can disrupt inequality,” Mar said. “We can work toward a future where all people benefit from the prosperity here in San Francisco.”

As part of Uber’s IPO, the company offered some drivers bonuses but pale in comparison to what executives will walk away with. Uber offered some drivers a bonus up to $40,000, while Lyft offered drivers up to $10,000.

“All of us are not happy, not just with the award, but with the way they treat drivers,” Maklad said.

While some drivers want to be W-2 employees and others don’t mind being 1099 independent contractors, these drivers are united around those four key demands.

“Whether we are classified as independent contractors or employees, we are workers and human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity,” Maklad said. “They are making millions of dollars off our back and labor.”

The protest in San Francisco is a part of a bigger, worldwide effort to strike. Last week, The New York Taxi Workers Association called on U.S.-based drivers to stand in solidarity with drivers in London and log off from both Uber and Lyft today between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m.

Uber is pricing its IPO between $44 to $50 a share, seeking a valuation up to $84 billion. Lyft set a range of $62 to $68 for its IPO, seeking to raise up to $2.1 billion. Since its debut on the Nasdaq, Lyft’s stock has suffered after skyrocketing nearly 10% on day one. Lyft is currently trading at around $60 per share.

In a statement to TechCrunch earlier this week, Uber said:

“Drivers are at the heart of our service — we can’t succeed without them — and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” an Uber spokesperson said. “Whether it’s more consistent earnings, stronger insurance protections or fully funded four-year degrees for drivers or their families, we’ll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers.”

Uber had nothing to share beyond the statement it provided above, but says service reliability hasn’t been affected.

Smartcar accuses $50M-funded rival Otonomo of API plagiarism

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Ruthless copying is common in tech. Just ask Snapchat. However, it’s typically more conceptual than literal. But car API startup Smartcar claims that its competitor Otonomo copy-and-pasted Smartcar’s API documentation, allegedly plagiarizing it extensively to the point of including the original’s typos and randomly generated strings of code. It’s published a series of side-by-side screenshots detailing the supposed theft of its intellectual property.

Smartcar CEO Sahas Katta says “We do have evidence of several of their employees systemically using our product with behavior indicating they wanted to copy our product in both form and function.” Now a spokesperson for the startup tells me “We’ve filed a cease-and-desist letter, delivered to Otonomo this morning, that contains documented aspects of different breaches and violations.”

The accusations are troubling given Otonomo is not some inconsequential upstart. The Israel-based company has raised over $50 million since its founding in 2015, and its investors include auto parts giant Aptiv (formerly Delphi) and prestigious VC firm Bessemer Ventures Partners. Otonomo CMO Lisa Joy provided this statement in response to the allegations, noting it will investigate but is confident it acted with integrity:

Otonomo prides itself on providing a completely unique offering backed by our own intellectual property and patents. We take Smartcar’s questions seriously and are conducting an investigation, but we remain confident that our rigorous standards of integrity remain uncompromised. If our investigation reveals any issues, we will immediately take the necessary steps to address them.

Both startups are trying to build an API layer that connects data from cars with app developers so they can build products that can locate, unlock, or harness data from vehicles. The 20-person Mountain View-based Smartcar has raised $12 million from Andreessen Horowitz and NEA. A major deciding factor in who’ll win this market is which platform offers the best documentation that makes it easiest for developers to integrate the APIs. 

“A few days ago, we came across Otonomo’s publicly available API documentation. As we read through it, we quickly realized that something was off. It looked familiar. Oddly familiar. That’s because we wrote it” Smartcar explains in its blog post. “We didn’t just find a few vague similarities to Smartcar’s documentation. Otonomo’s docs are a systematically written rip-off of ours – from the overall structure, right down to code samples and even typos.”

The screenshot above comparing API documentation from Smartcar on the left and Otonomo on the right appears to show Otonomo used nearly identical formatting and the exact same randomly generated sample identifier (highlighted) as Smartcar. Further examples flag seemingly identical code strings and snippets.

Smartcar founder and CEO Sahas Katta

Otonomo has pulled down their docs.otonomo.io documentation website, but TechCrunch has reviewed an Archive.org Wayback Machine showing this Otonomo site as of April 5, 2019 featured sections that are identical to the documentation Smartcar published in August 2018. That includes Smartcar’s typo “it will returned here”, and its randomly generated sample code placeholder “”4a1b01e5-0497-417c-a30e-6df6ba33ba46” which both appear in the Wayback Machine copy of Otonomo’s docs. The typo was fixed in this version of Otonomo’s docs that’s still publicly available, but that code string remains.

“It would be a one in a quintillion chance of them happening to land on the same randomly generated string” Smartcar’s Katta tells TechCrunch.

Yet curiously, Otonomo’s CMO told TechCrunch that “The materials that [Smartcar] put on their post are all publicly accessible documentation, It’s all public domain content.” But that’s not true, Katta argues, given the definition of ‘public domain’ is content belonging to the public that’s uncopyrightable. “I would sure hope not, considering . . . we have proper copyright notices at the bottom. Our product is our intellectual property. Just like Twilio’s API documentation or Stripe’s, it is published and publicly available — and it is proprietary.”

Otonomo’s Lisa Joy noted that her startup is currently fundraising for its Series C, which reportedly already includes $10 million from South Korean energy and telecom holdings giant SK. “We’re in the middle of raising a round right now. That round is not done” she told me. But if Otonomo gets a reputation for allegedly copying its API docs, that could hurt its standing with developers and potentially endanger that funding round.

Apple sells wireless charging AirPods, cancels charger days later

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“Works with AirPower mat”. Apparently not. It looks to me like Apple doesn’t treat customers with the same “high standard” of care it apparently reserves for its hardware quality. Nine days after launching its $199 wireless charging AirPods headphones that touted compatibility with the forthcoming Apple AirPower inductive charger mat, Apple has just scrapped AirPower entirely. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy move for the “it just works” company. This time it didn’t.

Given how soon after the launch this cancellation came, there is a question about whether Apple  knew AirPower was viable before launching the new AirPods wireless charging case on March 20th. Failing to be transparent about that is an abuse of customer trust. That’s especially damaging for a company constantly asking us to order newly announced products we haven’t touched when there’s always another iteration around the corner. It should really find some way to make it up to people, especially given it has $245 billion in cash on hand.

TechCrunch broke the news of AirPower’s demise. “After much effort, we’ve concluded AirPower will not achieve our high standards and we have cancelled the project. We apologize to those customers who were looking forward to this launch. We continue to believe that the future is wireless and are committed to push the wireless experience forward,” said Dan Riccio, Apple’s senior vice president of Hardware Engineering in an emailed statement today.

That comes as a pretty sour surprise for people who bought the $199 wireless charging AirPods that mention AirPower compatibility or the $79 standalone charging case with a full-on diagram of how to use AirPower drawn on the box.

Apple first announced the AirPower mat in 2017 saying it would arrive the next year along with a wireless charging case for AirPods. 2018 came and went. But when the new AirPods launched March 20th with no mention of AirPower in the press release, suspicions mounted. Now we know that issues with production, reportedly due to overheating, have caused it to be canceled. Apple decided not to ship what could become the next Galaxy Note 7 fire hazard.

The new AirPods with wireless charging case even had a diagram of AirPower on the box. Image via Ryan Jones

There are plenty of other charging mats that work with AirPods, and maybe Apple will release a future iPhone or MacBook that can wirelessly pass power to the pods. But anyone hoping to avoid janky third-party brands and keep it in the Apple family is out of luck for now.

Thankfully, some who bought the new AirPods with wireless charging case are still eligible for a refund. But typically if you get an Apple product personalized with an engraving (I had my phone number laser-etched on my AirPods since I constantly lose them), there are no refunds allowed. And then there are all the people who bought Apple Watches, or iPhone 8 or later models who were anxiously awaiting AirPower. We’ve asked Apple if it will grant any return exceptions.

Combined with an apology for the disastrously fragile keyboards on newer MacBooks, an apology over the Mac Pro, an apology for handling the iPhone slowdown messaging wrong, Apple’s recent vaporware services event where it announced Apple TV+ and Arcade despite them being months from launch, and now an AirPower apology and cancellation, the world’s cash-richest company looks like a mess. Apple risks looking as unreliable as Android if it can’t get its act together.

Tech giants offer empty apologies because users can’t quit

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A true apology consists of a sincere acknowledgement of wrong-doing, a show of empathic remorse for why you wronged and the harm it caused, and a promise of restitution by improving ones actions to make things right. Without the follow-through, saying sorry isn’t an apology, it’s a hollow ploy for forgiveness.

That’s the kind of “sorry” we’re getting from tech giants — an attempt to quell bad PR and placate the afflicted, often without the systemic change necessary to prevent repeated problems. Sometimes it’s delivered in a blog post. Sometimes it’s in an executive apology tour of media interviews. But rarely is it in the form of change to the underlying structures of a business that caused the issue.

Intractable Revenue

Unfortunately, tech company business models often conflict with the way we wish they would act. We want more privacy but they thrive on targeting and personalization data. We want control of our attention but they subsist on stealing as much of it as possible with distraction while showing us ads. We want safe, ethically built devices that don’t spy on us but they make their margins by manufacturing them wherever’s cheap with questionable standards of labor and oversight. We want groundbreaking technologies to be responsibly applied, but juicy government contracts and the allure of China’s enormous population compromise their morals. And we want to stick to what we need and what’s best for us, but they monetize our craving for the latest status symbol or content through planned obsolescence and locking us into their platforms.

The result is that even if their leaders earnestly wanted to impart meaningful change to provide restitution for their wrongs, their hands are tied by entrenched business models and the short-term focus of the quarterly earnings cycle. They apologize and go right back to problematic behavior. The Washington Post recently chronicled a dozen times Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has apologized, yet the social network keeps experiencing fiasco after fiasco. Tech giants won’t improve enough on their own.

Addiction To Utility

The threat of us abandoning ship should theoretically hold the captains in line. But tech giants have evolved into fundamental utilities that many have a hard time imagining living without. How would you connect with friends? Find what you needed? Get work done? Spend your time? What hardware or software would you cuddle up with in the moments you feel lonely? We live our lives through tech, have become addicted to its utility, and fear the withdrawal.

If there were principled alternatives to switch to, perhaps we could hold the giants accountable. But the scalability, network effects, and aggregation of supply by distributors has led to near monopolies in these core utilities. The second-place solution is often distant. What’s the next best social network that serves as an identity and login platform that isn’t owned by Facebook? The next best premium mobile and PC maker behind Apple? The next best mobile operating system for the developing world beyond Google’s Android? The next best ecommerce hub that’s not Amazon? The next best search engine? Photo feed? Web hosting service? Global chat app? Spreadsheet?

Facebook is still growing in the US & Canada despite the backlash, proving that tech users aren’t voting with their feet. And if not for a calculation methodology change, it would have added 1 million users in Europe this quarter too.

One of the few tech backlashes that led to real flight was #DeleteUber. Workplace discrimination, shady business protocols, exploitative pricing and more combined to spur the movement to ditch the ridehailing app. But what was different here is that US Uber users did have a principled alternative to switch to without much hassle: Lyft. The result was that “Lyft benefitted tremendously from Uber’s troubles in 2018” eMarketer’s forecasting director Shelleen Shum told the USA Today in May. Uber missed eMarketer’s projections while Lyft exceeded them, narrowing the gap between the car services. And meanwhile, Uber’s CEO stepped down as it tried to overhaul its internal policies.

But in the absence of viable alternatives to the giants, leaving these mainstays is inconvenient. After all, they’re the ones that made us practically allergic to friction. Even after massive scandals, data breaches, toxic cultures, and unfair practices, we largely stick with them to avoid the uncertainty of life without them. Even Facebook added 1 million monthly users in the US and Canada last quarter despite seemingly every possible source of unrest. Tech users are not voting with their feet. We’ve proven we can harbor ill will towards the giants while begrudgingly buying and using their products. Our leverage to improve their behavior is vastly weakened by our loyalty.

Inadequate Oversight

Regulators have failed to adequately step up either. This year’s congressional hearings about Facebook and social media often devolved into inane and uninformed questioning like how does Facebook earn money if its doesn’t charge? “Senator, we run ads” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said with a smirk. Other times, politicians were so intent on scoring partisan points by grandstanding or advancing conspiracy theories about bias that they were unable to make any real progress. A recent survey commissioned by Axios found that “In the past year, there has been a 15-point spike in the number of people who fear the federal government won’t do enough to regulate big tech companies — with 55% now sharing this concern.”

When regulators do step in, their attempts can backfire. GDPR was supposed to help tamp down on the dominance of Google and Facebook by limiting how they could collect user data and making them more transparent. But the high cost of compliance simply hindered smaller players or drove them out of the market while the giants had ample cash to spend on jumping through government hoops. Google actually gained ad tech market share and Facebook saw the littlest loss while smaller ad tech firms lost 20 or 30 percent of their business.

Europe’s GDPR privacy regulations backfired, reinforcing Google and Facebook’s dominance. Chart via Ghostery, Cliqz, and WhoTracksMe.

Even the Honest Ads act, which was designed to bring political campaign transparency to internet platforms following election interference in 2016, has yet to be passed even despite support from Facebook and Twitter. There’s hasn’t been meaningful discussion of blocking social networks from acquiring their competitors in the future, let alone actually breaking Instagram and WhatsApp off of Facebook. Governments like the U.K. that just forcibly seized documents related to Facebook’s machinations surrounding the Cambridge Analytica debacle provide some indication of willpower. But clumsy regulation could deepen the moats of the incumbents, and prevent disruptors from gaining a foothold. We can’t depend on regulators to sufficiently protect us from tech giants right now.

Our Hope On The Inside

The best bet for change will come from the rank and file of these monolithic companies. With the war for talent raging, rock star employees able to have huge impact on products, and compensation costs to keep them around rising, tech giants are vulnerable to the opinions of their own staff. It’s simply too expensive and disjointing to have to recruit new high-skilled workers to replace those that flee.

Google declined to renew a contract with the government after 4000 employees petitioned and a few resigned over Project Maven’s artificial intelligence being used to target lethal drone strikes. Change can even flow across company lines. Many tech giants including Facebook and Airbnb have removed their forced arbitration rules for harassment disputes after Google did the same in response to 20,000 of its employees walking out in protest.

Thousands of Google employees protested the company’s handling of sexual harassment and misconduct allegations on Nov. 1.

Facebook is desperately pushing an internal communications campaign to reassure staffers it’s improving in the wake of damning press reports from the New York Times and others. TechCrunch published an internal memo from Facebook’s outgoing VP of communications Elliot Schrage in which he took the blame for recent issues, encouraged employees to avoid finger-pointing, and COO Sheryl Sandberg tried to reassure employees that “I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry.” These internal apologizes could come with much more contrition and real change than those paraded for the public.

And so after years of us relying on these tech workers to build the product we use every day, we must now rely that will save us from them. It’s a weighty responsibility to move their talents where the impact is positive, or commit to standing up against the business imperatives of their employers. We as the public and media must in turn celebrate when they do what’s right for society, even when it reduces value for shareholders. And we must accept that shaping the future for the collective good may be inconvenient for the individual.

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