As tech companies acquired billions of users, and competition has withered, the United States paid only passing interest to antitrust concerns. Facebook’s acquisitions of WhatsApp and Instagram were approved without a hitch; Amazon successfully crushed other online retailers by temporarily lowering prices; Google began promoting its own search results (and affiliate marketing links) over those of competitors like Yelp and Expedia.
But perceptions of the internet giants began to turn in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which also produced a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats, and a swelling field of Democratic presidential candidates (led by Sen. Elizabeth Warren) who increasingly favor antitrust enforcement.
That leads us all to this weekend, and today, when sentiment appeared to turn finally — and in a bipartisan manner — in favor of a Big Tech reckoning. The sheer amount of investigations and potential investigations is dizzying, so let’s break down who’s doing what, and to whom.
Perhaps most prominently, on Monday the House announced a wide-scale investigation into Facebook, Google, and other tech giants to determine whether they have crushed competition in a way that harms consumers. Here’s Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin in the Washington Post:
The probe, announced Monday by Rep. David Cicilline (R.I.), the leader of the House’s top anti-trust subcommittee, is expected to be far reaching and comes at a moment when Democrats and Republicans find themselves in rare alignment on the idea that the tech industry has been too unregulated for too long. The sentiment spurred a sharp sell-off in tech stocks to start the week.
Cicilline said the investigation won’t target one specific tech company, but rather focus on the broad belief that the “Internet is broken,” he told reporters. In doing so, he pointed out problematic practices at tech giants such as Google, which has faced sanctions in Europe for prioritizing its own services in search returns over those of its rivals, and Facebook, which Cicilline criticized for acquiring competitors or copying their services to ensure its continued dominance in social networking.
Amazon and Apple also could figure into the committee’s early plans, he said, cautioning the goal is a broader look at the industry.
Cicilline told reporters that the investigation should include public hearings and subpoenas. It’s less clear, though, where all this is going. Forced breakups? New regulations? I suppose we have to wait for the investigation to proceed before we have a good idea of that.
But it is also worth noting that in the past two years we have seen the House rigorously investigate (nonexistent) bias against conservatives on social platforms; and (existent) problems related to data privacy and platform abuse, and the end result of all that was absolutely nothing. (Some people did have to spend a dangerous amount of time watching Diamond and Silk testify, however.)
Still, even if we have reason to be skeptical of the House’s inquiry, the investigations into Big Tech are multiplying. Let’s break them down by company. (And shout out to The Information’s Big Tech Investigations tracker, which helped me with this.)
- The Federal Trade Commission is currently investigating whether the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal means that Facebook violated its 2011 consent decree to protect users’ private information. It is separately investigating a 2018 data breach that exposed login information for millions of users. A multibillion-dollar settlement is expected to be reached.
- The FTC will also have jurisdiction over a potential antitrust inquiry, multiple outlets reported. It’s unknown whether the FTC is actually planning an antitrust investigation at this point.
- The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the Justice Department is preparing an antitrust case against Google focused on search and its other businesses. It’s unclear what the proposed remedy would be.
- The FTC has been conducting a separate privacy investigation into Google that is expected to be concluded soon, according to the New York Times.
- The FTC has been granted jurisdiction over certain competition issues, according to the Journal. (The agency was last seen approving the Whole Foods acquisition in 2017.)
- No investigation is underway yet. But Tony Romm says the FTC getting jurisdiction likely means that one is coming.
Why all this antitrust interest, you may be asking, if for the most part the above companies offer their services cheaply or for free? After all, recently antitrust regulation has been applied only to companies that reduce competition and raise prices for consumers. Jacob M. Schlesinger explores the issue in the Journal:
“Although accessing services for free may appear to be an attractive proposition, this zero-price may in fact be too high, as consumers could be extracting greater value in return for their data,” said a March report commissioned by the British government, written by Jason Furman, who was former President Obama’s chief White House economist. The report also suggests that data-privacy concerns—a nonmonetary “cost” borne by consumers using digital platforms—might be better addressed with more competition, if different companies tried to lure customers by offering tighter protections.
The huge share of the digital advertising market controlled by Google and Facebook also means they can charge more for those ads than they could in a more competitive market—costs that may be passed on to consumers with higher prices for the goods they buy online, the reports say. They add that the prominent placement of ads associated with those platforms also degrades the quality of the user experience for consumers.
So what’s next? The very boring answer is that we wait — possibly for a year and a half or more, according to an expert The Information consulted. In some cases, investigations have yet to begin — all we know is that they may be about to begin. So I’ll save any hot takes for when we’re a bit further down the road. In the meantime, it’s enough to say that the antitrust landscape in the United States is rapidly coming to look a lot more like Europe’s. And while much could go wrong between now and any enforcement action, the fact that federal agencies are taking competition more seriously is welcome news indeed.
I have more to say on this subject, but the pace at which the United States is developing a Chinese-style social credit system is notable:
Most visa applicants, including temporary visitors, will be required to list their social media identifiers in a drop down menu along with other personal information.
Applicants will have the option to say that they do not use social media if that is the case. The official noted that if a visa applicant lies about social media use that they could face “serious immigration consequences” as a result.
Tony Romm reports that Facebook is facing a legal setback in a case filed by the DC attorney general arguing that the Cambridge Analytica data privacy scandal represented a violation of consumer protection laws.
Facebook suffered an early defeat in a D.C. court Friday, after a judge rejected the social-networking giant’s request to quash a case brought by the D.C. attorney general challenging the company’s privacy practices.
The ruling by D.C. Superior Court Judge Fern Flanagan Saddler paves the way for D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine to begin “obtaining all of the evidence proving that Facebook broke District law and did not follow its own policies to protect the privacy of more than 340,000 Facebook users who reside in the District,” he said in a statement Saturday.
Max Fisher and Amanda Taub report on how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm readily serves up content to entertain child predators:
Users do not need to look for videos of children to end up watching them. The platform can lead them there through a progression of recommendations.
So a user who watches erotic videos might be recommended videos of women who become conspicuously younger, and then women who pose provocatively in children’s clothes. Eventually, some users might be presented with videos of girls as young as 5 or 6 wearing bathing suits, or getting dressed or doing a split.
On its own, each video might be perfectly innocent, a home movie, say, made by a child. Any revealing frames are fleeting and appear accidental. But, grouped together, their shared features become unmistakable.
Meet Shawn Brooks:
Brooks, a 34-year-old day laborer currently on probation after pleading guilty to domestic battery, claims that his “drunk” commentary on an unaltered Pelosi video had no connection to the now-infamous fake clip that premiered less than 15 minutes later. “I wasn’t the individual who created that Pelosi video,” he insisted in a telephone interview.
It’s conceivable that someone else actually edited the clip. But a Facebook official, confirming a Daily Beast investigation, said the video was first posted on Politics WatchDog directly from Brooks’ personal Facebook account.
Meanwhile, Lead Stories offers data on the effect of fact-checking the Pelosi video as false:
At the time Lead Stories flagged it as false, the video had 46,519 shares, 8,692 likes, and 2,268,188 views. Soon after we published, the peak rate of 2,124 shares per hour measured just two hours earlier was throttled to a trickle of just 43 shares an hour. Facebook was serving up an alert to anyone clicking the share button, informing them that the content had been rated false by a fact checker along with a link to our article explaining why it is false. Each of those 46,519 Facebook users who had already shared the post were getting the message. Facebook also dramatically reduced the display of the content on user timelines.
Ciara O’Rourke writes about the growing challenges of fact-checking images found on sites like Facebook:
The tools to manipulate images are “getting better and better,” said Hany Farid, who studies digital forensics at Dartmouth College. “Just about every image you see online has been manipulated, but not necessarily in nefarious ways.”
When a photo is uploaded to Facebook, for example, it loses metadata that can help experts figure out if an image has been doctored, Farid said. When the social media platform automatically resizes a photo before it’s uploaded, he said, “they destroy evidence, essentially.”
Google’s Cloud service had a massive disruption on Sunday, drawing attention to the extent that the entire commercial internet relies on hosting infrastructure from a tiny number of companies:
YouTube, Snapchat, Gmail, Nest, Discord, and a number of other web services suffered from major outages in the US today. The root cause was issues with Google’s Cloud service that powers apps other than just Google’s own web services. Google’s issues started at around 3PM ET / 12PM PT, and the company resolved them after more than four hours.
The issues largely affected those on the East Coast of the US, but some YouTube and Gmail users across Europe also reported that they were unable to access the services. Google’s own G Suite Status dashboard showed problems with practically every single Google web service at one point, and Down Detector listed YouTube outage reports in a number of countries worldwide.
Twitter did another whoopsie, Will Oremus reports:
After a OneZero article about a Satan parody account whose owner felt his tweets were being unfairly hidden from public view, the company acknowledged late last week that a feature intended to limit trolls had been mistakenly affecting some legitimate accounts, including his. Twitter would not say how many other users were inadvertently caught up by its algorithm, which limits the public visibility of certain accounts based on their behavior and other signals, even if they haven’t broken the platform’s rules.
“Upon further investigation, we realize some of these systems were impacting people using Twitter in a healthy way and so we adjusted them,” a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement. “Thank you for surfacing this to us, we’re always working to improve.”
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the acquisition will underpin a research group at Twitter led by Sandeep Pandey that will work toward finding new ways to leverage machine learning across natural language processing (NLP), recommendations systems, reinforcement learning, and graph deep learning. The group will also address ML ethics.
Founded in 2018, Fabula has developed a patented AI system it calls “geometric deep learning” — effectively algorithms that learn from large and complex data sets gleaned from social networks.
Facebook is deploying another longtime executive to the upper ranks of Instagram, Kurt Wagner reports:
Justin Osofsky, a longtime Facebook Inc. senior executive and member of the company’s management team, is joining Instagram as chief operating officer, the de-facto second-in-command to Adam Mosseri.
It’s a high-profile addition for Instagram, as Osofsky brings a wealth of experience from parent company Facebook, where he has spent 11 years. Osofsky was increasingly involved in safety and security efforts at Facebook following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and was responsible for teams that conduct content reviews, among other things, and also oversaw mergers and acquisitions. He previously ran media partnerships.
Today in Facebook’s pivot to privacy:
At a hearing in a class-action lawsuit over Cambridge Analytica’s accessing of Facebook user data, company attorney Orin Snyder argued that there is “no expectation of privacy” on Facebook (or social media in general), according to Law360.
“There is no invasion of privacy at all, because there is no privacy,” Snyder said while trying to convince U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria toss out the lawsuit. Snyder argued that users had given consent to share their data with third parties.
Jeff Horwitz reports on Facebook’s problems eliminating anti-vaccine hoaxes from the platform:
Facebook as of this week is still running paid ads for a prominent antivaccination group that suggests unethical doctors have conspired to hide evidence of harm vaccines do to children. Both the company’s main platform and its Instagram app recommend additional antivaccine content to users who view similar material. And the top three vaccine-related accounts recommended by Instagram are “vaccinetruth” “vaccinesuncovered” and “vaccines_revealed”—all advocates for the discredited claim that vaccines are toxic.
“We’re not where we want to be,” Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, said in an interview. “And we know that.”
Sal Rodriguez profiles Adam “Bagels” Mosseri:
He joined an intramural soccer squad at Facebook and flashed his striker skills on the field. He got the only extra-large jersey, which had the number 00 on the back — his teammates nicknamed it “Bagels.” On and off the pitch, colleagues said nice things about him. A former member of Facebook’s security staff said Mosseri and his wife, Monica, who he met at Facebook, treated everyone at the company with respect, regardless of where they were in the hierarchy.
Parents say they are using their phones too much, but their kids don’t feel addicted, according to a new study. Niraj Chokshi reports:
This year, for example, 52 percent of parents said they spent too much time on mobile devices, nearly twice as many as in 2016. Among teenagers, only 39 percent said they spent too much time on the devices, a steep decline from 61 percent.
The share of parents who felt “addicted” to their devices rose to 45 percent from 27 percent, while the share of teenagers who said the same fell to 39 percent from 50 percent.
With a proposal in the Senate to ban dark patterns, Yoree Koh and Jessica Kuronen explore how they work in in popular apps:
One of the oldest techniques in use involves getting customers to sign up for services they may not necessarily have wanted. Critics call this method “roach motel” because it’s easy to get yourself into a situation but hard to get out.
Facebook is among companies that use bright colors and button sizes that could sway users to click on a certain choice. To select the company’s less-preferred option—like deciding not to allow access to a user’s location or share a user’s contact list—users sometimes must go through multiple screens before they can ultimately opt out of sharing this information.
Brian Burlage has a Reddit karma score of 8 million, but has begun to wonder whether it was all worth it:
I was in pursuit of a daily adrenaline shot, this singular form of power that came from watching a post rocket to the top of Reddit’s popularity ladder. Nothing else mattered. Nothing beyond my fake internet points.
Gradually, I started eating less. I saw people less. My parents and I talked less, and I retreated to my room, where the silence of everything but my own clicking and typing and wandering mind filled the air around me. I worked in what felt like a four-walled enclosure, a laboratory and not a bedroom. When my back would ache or my neck would get tight, I’d pull myself away from my computer long enough to observe the thinness of my wrists.
Maza, a colleague at Vox, makes the excellent Strikethrough series on YouTube that I have often featured in this space. He has been the subject of an ongoing harassment campaign by a conservative YouTuber with 3 million subscribers, and last week a supercut of the harassment that Maza made went viral. YouTube tweeted that they would investigate, but so far has made no other comment.
Dheera Venkatraman took Snapchat’s gender-swapping filters to Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, with amusing results.
Alex Kantrowitz reports in his newsletter that VSCO is building a profitable niche community around photography:
VSCO makes its money on subscriptions. More than 2 million people paid $20 in 2018 to use the premium version of VSCO’s service. And in 2019, the app is on pace to double its subscriber and revenue numbers, VSCO CEO Joel Flory told me in a recent interview.
Making $80 million in a year directly from the people who use your service frees you to build for them and only them. There’s no need to compromise between what’s best for users and what’s best for customers when they are one and the same.
Given how much work Facebook has done around digital avatars for its VR products, it’s surprising to me that its avatars aren’t launching worldwide until later this year or early 2020. They look … fine? But at first glance, they don’t seem to have nearly as much personality as the delightfully cartoonish Bitmoji.
And speaking of personalized avatar launches, here’s some of today’s news from Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference:
While you could already adjust your Memoji to look like you by changing things like skin tone, hair color, eyes, and more, you’ll now be able to add makeup and accessories, as well. That means you can pick different eyeshadows or lip color, or add accessories to your face like piercings — or even add Apple’s AirPods in your ears.
Demoed on stage were things like lip piercings, tongue ring, ear and nose rings, as well as braces, earrings, and other minor upgrades like a gap tooth, gold tooth, and new hair and hat options. Apple picked a couple of beauty influencers to show off the new Memoji during the event.
John Herrman takes a skeptical look at social networks’ proposals to de-emphasize public engagement metrics:
Likes and retweets used to be translated into signals for people. Now they just provide signals for the machines. In the newer, less immediately comprehensible versions of our feeds, where what we see is chosen according to processes that we can only guess at, Twitter and Instagram suggest the existence of dozens of metrics that are hidden by default. If our feeds are already assembled based on cues from countless secret metrics, why not hide a couple more?
New York City Countilman Justin Brannan says that Citizen, which sends users constant notifications of police activity in their area, creates a distorted picture of cities:
I am a member of the New York City Council. I represent about 150,000 people across four neighborhoods in the borough of Brooklyn, where I grew up. Crime is now at historic lows in the city, and in my district — but because residents are constantly being bombarded with push notifications of crime, they believe the city is going to hell in a handbasket. Then it snowballs. They start believing local law enforcement isn’t doing its job, or that their neighborhood is circling the drain and losing value.
Not only is this categorically false, it’s distracting people from very real public safety issues — like reckless driving or rising opioid use — that don’t show up on the app.
And finally …
I think the answer to the question here is … maybe?
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your proposed antitrust remedies: firstname.lastname@example.org.