Monday Moves v2.3: Monopoly Men, Twitter Violations Again
Sam: Well I went “randonauting” last week and had the pleasure of being directed to the middle of the Willamette river, the Multnomah county library storage facility, and a yard that was getting a new fence installed. It was a meaningless experience, but I can see how if you were to participate with friends and embrace more creativity than I had energy for after a long day, it could be a fun way to spend a summer day. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!
Raj: This was a rough week for Big Tech’s Monopoly men. I remember being quite savvy at Monopoly as a kid, collecting massive rent with sheer ruthlessness. It’s quite fortunate that I’ve decided to use these powers for good; Tim Cook could do well to learn a thing or two.
Raj: Big Tech CEOs were forced to answer to American democracy.
This past week, the CEOs of Apple (Tim Cook), Google (Sundar Pichai), Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg), and Amazon (Jeff Bezos) testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee on concerns of anti-competitive practices. This hearing was part of a year-long investigation led by the Committee’s antitrust panel on whether these companies have become TooBigToFail. This was a tremendous opportunity for elected representatives to grill these titans of industry. Unfortunately, the opportunity was somewhat squandered by the top ranking Republican Jim Jordan, who in a bizarre memo advised fellow party members to focus on anti-conservative bias and to tread lightly on themes of corrupt monopolization. Still, there were some answers revealed in the public interest, as the growing tide of anti Big Tech sentiment on all political sides (which we have covered in v1.8) ultimately could not be stopped.
Antitrust Subcommittee Chair David Cicilline laid out these concerning patterns among all four companies:
Bottlenecking distribution channels such as an app store
Surveilling other companies to rip off potential competitors
Abusing their control by preferencing their own products.
The CEOs often contradicted themselves or revealed a lack of control over their own companies. Here are a few of the highlights:
Cicilline brought up Google’s practice of scraping other websites and presenting 3rd-party information as Google’s own information in search results. Pichai had no solid answer to the question of whether Google does so to promote certain websites and squash others in its incentive to sell ads.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal questioned Bezos on a report that Amazon scrapes seller data to use in business decisions when launching its own competing products. Bezos gave a great non-answer: “I can’t answer that question yes or no.” We covered this issue in v1.1, in which Sam wrote on how Amazon’s practice of scraping third party seller data to develop its own competing AmazonBasics products is an open secret among employees. I’ve also noted that this issue prompted shoe company Allbirds to pull its products from Amazon completely.
All four CEOs condemned the use of forced labor to manufacture their products, though there is growing evidence that most Big Tech companies are linked to slave labor in Uighur concentration camps.
I highly recommend Matt Stoller’s newsletter for a highly detailed and revealing analysis of the hearing.
Raj: Google searches increasingly keep you confined to the Google ecosystem.
Cicilline’s line of questioning shed light on a trend which no doubt we all have noticed but mostly haven’t thought about much. Julia Angwin of The Markup has published a piece detailing how Google search results increasingly just keep you limited to Google. In the past, Google’s search page used to be a simple list of 10 hyperlinks that led to different websites. Now, you might have to scroll past a third of the results page before finding one of those traditional hyperlinked results. Angwin found that Google devotes approximately 40% of the first page of search results on mobile browsers to direct answers, which Google gets by scraping data from third party sites. For example, a search on the best restaurants in Phoenix may return excerpts and reviews from Yelp on the results page itself, thus removing the need to click on a link to the Yelp website. Google does this with general encyclopaedic queries by scraping Wikipedia, with medical queries by scraping WebMD, etc.
This practice has had demonstrably negative material impacts on competitors. For example, Google presents results from Google Flights before links to the websites of airlines. Angwin notes how TripAdvisor has called out Google’s partiality as its “most significant challenge.”
This is a clear and gross misuse of Google’s control over search results. Thankfully, there are better alternatives out there. I have been using DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine for many years and recommend it to everyone. It is a lightweight, non-monopolistic, and privacy-friendly alternative to Google’s search engine.
Sam: What do Origami and SpaceX have in common?
One of my favorite Tweeters and fellow Substack users, Kane, recently had the opportunity to answer that question by interviewing the former lead solar array designer at SpaceX. Brian Ignaut explains how Origami Engineering allows him to study how best to fold solar arrays and quick prototyping of different designs. Ignaut also explains the challenges with his job because of the nature of space travel. Each solar array needs to be designed to withstand the force of the launch while maximizing power generation and minimizing mass, volume, inertia (steering complications), and cost. Ignaut also uses his skills to design impressive furniture, boxes, and a very cool chess board. Make sure to check out the full interview and give Kane a follow on Twitter!
Sam: Yikes. Another blow for Twitter (and their users).
Twitter is under investigation by the FTC for alleged privacy violations. Apparently Twitter has been using user’s phone numbers for targeted advertising, which is a violation of a 2011 settlement where Twitter agreed to take better steps in protecting personal information. In that 2011 settlement Twitter was required to honor user’s privacy choices and was banned from “misleading consumers about the extent to which it protects the security, privacy, and confidentiality of nonpublic consumer information.” This news is hot on the heels of a high profile hack where popular accounts were compromised, the perpetrators of which have just been caught (the details of the FBI track down will be detailed here next week). Twitter has been suffering a string of negative press recently, and with consumers more savvy about data protection I am sure this will not go unnoticed by users or investors.
Sam: Sorry guide dogs, robots are coming for your job also.
A student in the UK is working on a hand held device that uses the same technology found in self driving cars to help the visually impared navigate the world around them. Using Lidar, cameras, and real time data via an internet connection, “Theia” (named after the titan goddess of sight) will be able create a three dimensional view of the users surroundings. Theia then will use a gyroscope that will physically turn the handheld device and guide the user in the right direction. The goal is for the device’s communication with the user to be as intuitive as possible, using physical motion to imitate the guidance a dog in a harness would provide. The device is still in its infancy, but the technology has the potential to change thousands of people’s lives. As technology that allows computers to visualize their surroundings gets better, look for other innovative uses. Your roomba will become more efficient, your conference room will know how many people are in it, and your home security system will be able to tell the difference between a bird and an intruder.
Who’s Making Moves?
↗ UP: Stock of Virgin Galactic rose 40% in the last month. The increase is likely due to excitement generated by SpaceX and Virgin’s new ship for passenger travel.
↘ DOWN: TikTok has suffered an incredibly dicey week, with President Trump threatening to ban the app from the United States unless an American company buys it. There are talks that Microsoft may end up buying the app. Curiously, Microsoft was one tech giant missing from the antitrust hearings.
🦘 KANG: Kodak stock jumped over 400% on July 29th as investors learned of news the company had secured a loan from the government to help produce a coronavirus treatment. 79,000 Robinhood users added the stock in 24 hours. Today the stock dropped 30% on news that investors converted debt into common shares. Classic Robinhood.
That’s all for this week. Keep on moving.
Title contenders for v2.3:
Robot Guides and TikTok Divides
Solar Arrays and Big Tech Ablaze
Guide Dog Security and Big Tech Obscurity
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Until next Monday,
Raj & Sam