Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram: will it blend?

Mike Isaac at the New York Times reports that Mark Zuckerberg plans to unite his three biggest services into one core infrastructure. It would mean a message sent from WhatsApp could go into Messenger, or a DM in Instagram… or something along those lines, at least.

It’s a controversial move, not least within Facebook where it is said to have been one of the factors that prompted the founders of both WhatsApp and Instagram to leave the company. The rank-and-file seems upset too:

More recently, dozens of WhatsApp employees clashed with Mr. Zuckerberg over the integration plan on internal message boards and during a contentious staff meeting in December, according to four people who attended or were briefed on the event.

Zuckerberg can also expect heavy external criticism from lawmakers that will see this as definitive evidence that Facebook is an immovable social media monopoly:

The two sides of US politics don’t agree on much. But when it comes to how to handle a problem like Facebook, mumbles over monopoly concerns have lately turned to roars.

Here’s a flashback to Zuckerberg’s Senate hearing last May, as told by Quartz:

A frustrated [Linsday Graham, Republican Senator] cut him off. “If I’m upset with Facebook, what’s the equivalent product I can go sign up for?” he said. “I’m talking about real competition you face … I’m not talking about categories.”

The Facebook CEO weaved around the question, citing a statistic that “the average American uses eight different apps to communicate with their friends and stay in touch.” Graham finally stated the question on many people’s minds.

“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” he asked.

“It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me,” Zuckerberg responded, to some laughter in the room.

The simplest way to knock Facebook down a peg or two would be to force the company to break out Instagram and WhatsApp into separate companies, just as they were before. Today, that looks like a clean break.

But if Facebook manages to merge the three services, with a central platform, it can make a stronger argument that spinning out the apps would not be straightforward at all. It isn’t three products, Zuckerberg could argue. It’s just one you can access in a variety of ways.

As we ponder Zuckerberg’s strategy, it’s perhaps telling that his first major change to Facebook post-scandals is arguably not intended not to solve its problems, but to protect its power.

Zuckerberg answers alternative allegations

A lot of words, sure, but not much said: Mark Zuckerberg has written this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. It’ll be in print on Friday.

Here’s an excerpt that caught my eye:

Another question is whether we leave harmful or divisive content up because it drives engagement. We don’t. People consistently tell us they don’t want to see this content. Advertisers don’t want their brands anywhere near it. The only reason bad content remains is because the people and artificial-intelligence systems we use to review it are not perfect—not because we have an incentive to ignore it. Our systems are still evolving and improving.

I don’t think anyone has credibly accused Facebook of this, actually.

Rather, people (correctly) state that Facebook – through algorithms that are designed to reward engagement – promotes posts that have got a lot of people clicking or commenting. That formula breeds the spread of divisive posts, whether it’s about Donald Trump or the colour of a dress.

Facebook seems to be developing a habit of answering allegations by first subtly altering the specifics of the complaint.

Tin foil hat time: as I’m writing this, we’re awaiting some likely-negative news to drop about Facebook. Is the company trying to seize the news agenda? It’ll need something a bit more substantial than this, if so.

DeepMind has mastered StarCraft

Alphabet’s DeepMind has beaten a top pro at StarCraft II. Wired reports:

After months of training, the Alphabet-owned AI firm’s AlphaStar program is now capable of playing a full game of StarCraft II against a professional human player – and winning. It might sound frivolous, but mastering a game as complex as StarCraft is a major technological leap for DeepMind’s AI brains.

Now, my initial reaction to this was: so what? We’ve seen DeepMind create an AI that beat top players at games before, a journey that started with it learning how to play, and get unbeatably good at, Pong.

Thankfully, James Temperton at Wired explains why exactly this latest bit of gaming matters:

While conquering Pong required understanding a relatively small number of basic actions, mastering StarCraft was many orders more complex. Around 300 basic in-game actions branch out into millions of possible counter-actions, all of which the AI has to understand in the blink of an eye.

Now, 18 months after work started, DeepMind has mastered StarCraft. So how did it do it? The DeepMind team has claimed a number of algorithmic and engineering breakthroughs. From game theory to working with imperfect information and mastering long term planning, the AlphaStar system had to grapple with a complex and unpredictable world.

I strongly recommend reading the full piece.

‘I’m With Them’ provides resource for those harassed at work

If 2018 was about exposing grotesque wrongdoing, here’s hoping 2019 can be about putting systems in place minimise the chance of workplace harassment happening again.

Today, a site called I’m With Them launched. Axios’ Ina Fried explained how it works in her (excellent) morning newsletter:

– People register with I’m With Them, which works with a third-party service to authenticate the identity of those reporting misconduct.

– They report what happened to them and who perpetrated the action.

– If reports reach a “critical mass” around a perpetrator, the site shares the victims’ emails with one another.

The site was made by a husband and wife team: Scott McGregor, former CEO of semiconducter giant Broadcom and his wife, Laurie Girand. Girand has a strong record of consumer and victim advocacy.

This isn’t just for the tech industry, but you can see how it has been built with some high profile tech cases in mind. In the sweep of venture capitalists swept up in the #metoo movement, it was clear that one of the reasons they were able to get away with their behaviour was because the women involved were isolated, working at different firms in different cities, perhaps even different countries.

I’m With Them, if successful, is a step towards solving that problem – a chance for victims to share their experiences, privately.

Apple lays off over 200 from Project Titan autonomous vehicle group

Apple has “dismissed” 200 people working on Project Titan, the firm’s car unit. CNBC has the scoop.

Apple spokesperson:

We have an incredibly talented team working on autonomous systems and associated technologies at Apple. As the team focuses their work on several key areas for 2019, some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives, across all of Apple.

The idea that Apple is “working on a car” has always seemed a little off to me. It just didn’t make sense for the firm. What would they be solving?

But software – that’s another matter. CarPlay, with all the services it can carry, has big, immediate potential.

As Apple makes its move deeper into services vs hardware – as evidenced by its TV partnerships announced at CES – we can expect cars to be a major part of that. Why try and build a Mercedes when you can just power it instead?

We might not ever be able to drive an Apple car, but we’ll certainly be driving with Apple.

Mark Zuckerberg fed Jack Dorsey some cold goat

Rolling Stone has an interview with Jack Dorsey. They asked him about his relationship with Mark Zuckerberg:

What was your most memorable encounter with Zuckerberg?
Well, there was a year when he was only eating what he was killing. He made goat for me for dinner. He killed the goat.

In front of you?
No. He killed it before. I guess he kills it. He kills it with a laser gun and then the knife. Then they send it to the butcher.

A . . . laser gun?
I don’t know. A stun gun. They stun it, and then he knifed it. Then they send it to a butcher. Evidently in Palo Alto there’s a rule or regulation that you can have six livestock on any lot of land, so he had six goats at the time. I go, “We’re eating the goat you killed?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Have you eaten goat before?” He’s like, “Yeah, I love it.” I’m like, “What else are we having?” “Salad.” I said, “Where is the goat?” “It’s in the oven.” Then we waited for about 30 minutes. He’s like, “I think it’s done now.” We go in the dining room. He puts the goat down. It was cold. That was memorable. I don’t know if it went back in the oven. I just ate my salad.

It’s hard to find a metaphor in that.
I don’t know what you’re going to do with that, but hopefully that’s not the headline. Revenge is a dish best served warm. Or cold.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone described the piece as “An interview that finally shines a little light on what @jack is actually like”. And so, it seems fair to draw a few conclusions. One, Jack thinks he’s still a punk:

Can you be punk rock and be who you are right now? Is that really possible?
Can I be that today? Yeah, I think so. I hope so. I think we need different takes on life. There’s a number of people who might come from a similar background as I did and be a little bit weird or odd or whatnot and see me as being weird and odd and extra: “Yeah, if you can do it, I can do it.”

Second, he seems to hold Zuckerberg, and his company, with at the very least a small level of contempt. Aptly enough for a man who invented Twitter, he says an awful lot with this short sentence:

I see Mark as a very, very smart businessman. He will excel to gain as much market share as possible.

And third, he makes a great defense of Elon Musk. Note the difference in tone in how he describes his admiration for Musk as a person, rather than simply a businessman:

He is ridiculous. You have to be. You have to be to think that big. I love him. I love what he’s trying to do, and I want to help in whatever way. I have a friend who’s a music producer. I asked him, “What got you into music?” He said, “I’ve never been able to play music. I don’t even really know if I have good taste. I love musicians, and all I want to do is help them.” I feel a similar kind of understanding of Elon. I understand what he wants to do, and I want to help. That’s the role of any toolmaker. We’re making tools.

Walkies app Wag demands silence in exchange for paying for dog’s cremation

Technology companies are notorious for keeping bad news under wraps with Non-Disclosure Agreements, but this seems… very wrong.

Wag, the app that pairs dog walkers with dogs needing a walk, offered to fully compensate a couple whose dog died while on a walk – but only if they agreed to not speak of the incident to anyone. BBC News:

The couple were told by a Wag representative the company would “take care of all of the expenses, such as Winnie’s cremation”.

The company then issued the couple a non-disclosure agreement forbidding them from speaking about the incident.

“We could not leave any negative reviews. We could not make posts on social media. We could not hold Wag or the walker responsible,” Mr Moore wrote.

Now, of course, the Streisand Effect is in full force. An arguably foolish move from Wag given, on the whole, I think people would expect that accidents will always happen.

Wag’s statement stressed the company had a strict vetting process, but didn’t go on to explain why it required silence in order to properly address the couple’s loss.

Tech’s lobbying in 2018 hit new heights

The Washington Post’s Tony Romm (who else?) has written about the staggering amount spent by technology firms on lobbying last year, according to pubic disclosures.

The biggies – Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft – spent a combined $64m. Romm continues:

The tech sector’s most prolific spender was Google: It shelled out more than $21 million last year to lobby Congress, the White House and key federal agencies on issues including online privacy, an analysis of the disclosure reports shows. That marks a new record for the search giant, which spent roughly $18 million in 2017 — more than any other company across all industries — to influence policymakers in the nation’s capital.

For context, last year Google spent $18m. Why the jump? You may have noticed the revolving door of congressional hearings that had the bosses of these firms dragged in front of lawmakers. Big Tech knows they are going to be regulated, and so they are investing big in making sure the pendulum falls as close to their side as possible.

Drone grounds flights at America’s 11th busiest airport

Uh-oh. My reporting for BBC News:

A pilot told air traffic control that one of the drones came within 30ft (9m) of his aircraft. He was flying at Teterboro Airport, a nearby private facility, but officials grounded Newark International flights as a precaution. The airport is the 11th busiest in the US, with 20 million passengers a year.

Easyjet’s chief executive has called the recent major disruption at Gatwick a “wake-up call” for the aviation industry. Now, with Newark disrupted, even briefly, calls to solve this glaring issue will intensify. Newark is a gateway for many travelers going to and from New York City, and rogue drone pilots simply can’t be allowed to disrupt normal operations.

MIT’s Technology Review resurfaced its piece from December about the probability of a fatal drone attack on a commercial jet. It’s… sobering:

Anti-drone systems like nets might protect high-value targets like the White House, 10 Downing Street, or the immediate vicinity of major airports. But there is too much airspace around to protect it all—and from a technical perspective a drone can fly 2,000 feet up just as easily as it can fly near the ground. There is simply no good technical countermeasure to a swarm of semi-autonomous drones attacking an airliner. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the vast majority of people with the necessary technical skills are not willing to commit mass murder.

Your old tweets might expose where you live

From the putting-the-cat-back-into-the-bag dept, here’s a piece from Wired’s Issie Lapowsky on how old tweets contained precise location data that was accessible through Twitter’s API:

The tool, called LPAuditor (short for Location Privacy Auditor), exploits what the researchers call an “invasive policy” Twitter deployed after it introduced the ability to tag tweets with a location in 2009. For years, users who chose to geotag tweets with any location, even something as geographically broad as “New York City,” also automatically gave their precise GPS coordinates. Users wouldn’t see the coordinates displayed on Twitter. Nor would their followers. But the GPS information would still be included in the tweet’s metadata and accessible through Twitter’s API.

Twitter didn’t change this policy across its apps until April of 2015. Now, users must opt-in to share their precise location—and, according to a Twitter spokesperson, a very small percentage of people do. But the GPS data people shared before the update remains available through the API to this day.

It’s another example – as if we needed one – of the naivety within top social networks when it came to the collection and sharing of personal data.

What’s worse in this case is that Twitter’s software was not clear that it was gathering and sharing this kind of location data.

Twitter should have known better. Its response –  that users had the chance to opt out and delete the data – is no response at all. Contrition remains in very short supply.