FTC launches new tech monopoly watchdog

The Federal Trade Commission announces:

The Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Competition announced the creation of a task force dedicated to monitoring competition in U.S. technology markets, investigating any potential anticompetitive conduct in those markets, and taking enforcement actions when warranted.

The task force is being pulled together with existing resources, the FTC said, and will consist of 17 staff attorneys.

Via the FTC’s Twitter thread, here’s the most interesting element to this:

“Reviews of consummated tech mergers” in the online space could open a Pandora’s Box. With US senators suggesting Facebook needs to be broken up, you can bet the Instagram/Whatsapp/Facebook unity will be high on the list of cases being examined.

What will be interesting, I think, is any sign that the FTC will start looking more smartly at acquisitions of early stage companies. When Facebook bought Instagram, back in 2012, the photo company had just 13 employees – it was not, at that time at least, a social networking superpower.

Historically the FTC (and other agencies like it in the wider world) has been set up to examine the impacts of already-major companies coming together. In tech, it’s more complicated than that – Facebook’s dominance has been about spotting big hits early on before they had a chance to compete. Then, it either buys them (Instagram) or replicates key features (Snapchat).

But, if the FTC was to disrupt that exit process, it could be counter-intuitive. A lot of VC money is stumped up on the basis that companies will a) go public or b) be acquired. Depending on how the SEC plays this, scenario B might become a lot more difficult.

The human cost of protecting Facebook

Deep, important work from The Verge’s Casey Newton:

Over the past three months, I interviewed a dozen current and former employees of Cognizant in Phoenix. All had signed non-disclosure agreements with Cognizant in which they pledged not to discuss their work for Facebook — or even acknowledge that Facebook is Cognizant’s client. The shroud of secrecy is meant to protect employees from users who may be angry about a content moderation decision and seek to resolve it with a known Facebook contractor. The NDAs are also meant to prevent contractors from sharing Facebook users’ personal information with the outside world, at a time of intense scrutiny over data privacy issues.

Newton delves into the ugliest side of the social networking industry – blocking the worst, horrific excesses of the human race.

What struck me about Newton’s story is that, really, none of it is surprising. What did we think these people had to go through? Are we surprised they’re being poorly paid? Of course not – the scandal here is that 2.5 billion of us are happy to not think about it.

What the story does, brilliantly, is place these poor souls (and they are poor souls) at the heart of the discussion about social media’s impact on our minds and society.

Microsoft doubles down on the only AR use case that makes sense (so far)

I can’t wait to try the new Microsoft HoloLens, announced on Sunday in Barcelona. Version one was bulky, hot, and only offered a limited field of view. But, the potential was obvious from beginning.

HoloLens 2 will address a lot of the handicaps. BBC News:

Microsoft said that HoloLens 2 works in a “more human way” than the first version thanks to the changes it has made. These include making the the field-of-view more than double that of its predecessor.

The firm said it had also improved the display’s resolution, which it described as being the equivalent of moving from a 720p high-definition image to a 2K one for each eye.

And, addressing the bulk issue:

The company also acknowledged that some users of the original version had found it uncomfortable to wear for lengthy periods. It said a revamped fitting system should mean the kit now felt as if it was “floating” on workers’ heads.

The result is that it now has most of its computing power packed into a case that sits at the back of your head.

I’m still concerned about the heat you’ll get off that thing – one of the design aspects I much preferred about Magic Leap’s approach was the little computer pack you put on your waist, rather than around your head.

While its getting lower in price – at $3,500, it’s 30% cheaper than v.1 – Microsoft is chasing the only realistic use case that exists right now: business. It already has plenty clients in that arena – and HoloLens’s new ability to track finger movements without any extra hardware will open up major new avenues.

Nick Bilton on the last days of Theranos

Nick Bilton in Vanity Fair writing about life inside post-expose Theranos. Elizabeth Holmes gonna Elizabeth Holmes:

Despite the chaos, she believed that Theranos could still be saved, and she had an unconventional plan for redemption. That September, according to the two former executives, Holmes asked her security detail and one of her drivers to escort her to the airport in her designated black Cadillac Escalade. She flew first class across the country and was subsequently chauffeured to a dog breeder who supplied her with a 9-week-old Siberian husky. The puppy had long white paws, and a grey and black body. Holmes had already picked out a name: Balto.

It gets worse. Read the piece.

And, it goes without saying, if you haven’t ready John Carreyrou’s book Bad Blood, do. It appears to finally be out on paperback.

I got to the end and wondered – how successful could we all be if we each had just one tenth of Holmes’ self-assurance? Remarkable. And dangerous, of course.

The curse of the Twitter reply guy

Today on Mashable, the thing you knew was a thing but never knew was a thing:

These men are colloquially known as “reply guys.” While no reply guy is the same — each reply guy is annoying in his own way — there are a few common qualities to watch out for. In general, reply guys tend to have few followers. Their responses are overly familiar, as if they know the person they’re targeting, though they usually don’t. They also tend to reply to only women; the most prolific reply guys fill the role for dozens of women trying to tweet in peace.

I once asked one of our female anchors about the grief they get from horrible idiots on the internet – she said the ones that at least think they are being nice are far worse.

Amazon argues quality over quantity in battle against Netflix

As someone who has endured several Netflix comedy “specials” recently, I can only say I’m fully on board with limiting the amount of new in favour of the amount of good when it comes to piling content onto on-demand platforms.

The Hollywood Reporter has an interview with Jennifer Salke, who, as head of Amazon Studios, is responsible of commissioning/buying up films that appear on Amazon Prime. From the piece:

In her interview with THR, Salke never mentioned Netflix. But she talked often about “the competition,” and she is positioning Amazon as different in some key ways, including the smaller size of her film slate, which she expects to amount to about 10 theatrically released movies a year, and 20 direct-to-service titles, as opposed to 90 movies due from Netflix in 2019.

Salke’s three key film executives, Matt Newman, Julie Rapaport and Ted Hope, who all share the title “co-head movies,” brought a large team to their Sundance meetings, including their marketing and publicity departments. Agents describe stark differences between sit-downs with Hollywood’s two leading streaming companies. “Netflix likes to come in and talk about their service,” says one agency source. “Amazon comes in and talks about your movie.”

Now, quality over quantity only really works if you do indeed come up with quality. Arguably, Netflix is currently achieving both, though I do think there is a ceiling at which point customers feel overwhelmed by new content appearing each time they load up the app.

Facebook ‘negotiating’ with FTC on mega fine

Tony Romm at the Washington Post with the latest on the the FTC’s investigation into Facebook:

The fine would be the largest the agency has ever imposed on a technology company, but the two sides have not yet agreed on an exact amount. Facebook has expressed initial concern with the FTC’s demands, one of the people said. If talks break down, the FTC could take the matter to court in what would likely be a bruising legal fight.

The two people familiar with the probe spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks. Facebook confirmed it is in discussions with the agency but declined to comment further. The FTC declined to comment.

“Largest ever imposed on a technology company” leaves quite a lot of room for speculation, but means it’s likely Facebook isn’t quite staring down a $14bn-or-so fine like Volkswagen did in 2016.

Facebook should take the hit, argues Recode’s Kara Swisher: