Get access to Protocol
Where should we send your daily tech briefing?
Good morning! This Wednesday, what the two Democratic frontrunners think about tech, how coronavirus is wreaking havoc on Amazon shoppers, and what's happening to Facebook's crypto plans.
For those in SF, don't forget it's Source Code Happy Hour tomorrow! We'll be at Bartlett Hall in San Francisco starting about 5PM, and we hope we'll see you there. Turns out it's also the one-month anniversary of Protocol, so we have lots to celebrate.
People Are Talking
The work-from-home era is upon us, and Jack Dorsey is into it:
- "We just held our first fully virtual Twitter global all-hands using @Google Meet and @SlackHQ. We had folks all around the world working from home, and some in our offices. Worked flawlessly, and enabled some things that weren't possible before. Thanks Google and Slack!"
A trio of senators demanded more information from Ascension and Google about Project Nightingale:
- "Though Google began its response by telling us that the company was 'proud to provide more details on Google's work supporting Ascension,' the response ultimately did not provide us with all of the information we asked for."
Facebook wants to help researchers understand coronavirus, Mark Zuckerberg said:
- "Researchers are already using aggregated and anonymized Facebook data — including mobility data and population density maps — to better understand how the virus is spreading."
The Big Story
How the Democratic frontrunners see tech
After Super Tuesday, we may not be officially down to two Democratic candidates, but it's abundantly clear who the frontrunners are. Which means it's time to check in on how Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders think about the tech industry.
Let's start with Sanders:
- First of all, there's that proposed tax plan on startup equity. Protocol's Biz Carson did some digging and found that Sanders' plan to tax options at vesting is an old idea that just won't die. It came up in 2014, then again in 2017 in a tax overhaul that caught Silicon Valley by surprise. Its chances probably aren't much better this time. "I'd be surprised if there was a viable path for this bill," Evan Engstrom, executive director of the startup advocacy organization Engine, told Biz. But, he added: "I think it's still concerning to the startup ecosystem that this is a zombie proposal that keeps coming back."
- Sanders has talked about Section 230 before, but in mostly neutral terms, saying only that he'll work to make sure big companies are held responsible.
- He's less neutral on breaking up big tech. "These corporate giants control too much of what we see, hear and read online, and must be subjected to regulation and antitrust authority," he said.
- Sanders has also said he'll break up ISPs, spend $150 billion bringing broadband to all, and punish companies that violate privacy.
As for Biden:
- Maybe his strongest opinion so far is on 230. Asked about Facebook's protection under 230, he said: "It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy."
- Biden has also floated a minimum tax for huge companies, and wants to sanction countries like Ireland that act as tax shelters for American conglomerates.
- He hasn't had much to say about privacy or antitrust. But Protocol's Issie Lapowsky points out that Biden both voted for the Patriot Act and introduced a counterterrorism bill in 1994 that would have expanded the government's surveillance operations.
- Biden also wants to build out high-speed internet for more people, and has a plan to spend $20 billion getting it done.
As the campaign continues, and the candidate list continues to whittle down, tech figures to become a bigger issue for the two frontrunners. For more on where they stand, be sure and read Issie's great piece comparing their platforms.
Coronavirus is causing chaos on Amazon
You've seen the tweets about the over-full Costco carts and the people running for the last hand sanitizer in the store. But what happens when a pandemic panic hits the world's largest ecommerce platforms?
CNBC found price-gouging across Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Etsy, with markups as high as 582% for coronavirus-related products. Sofie Kodner, Protocol's new newsletter producer (everybody say hi Sofie!), spent some time looking at exactly what that means, particularly on Amazon:
- She found a 20-pack of N95 masks that once cost as little as $17.84 had gone up all the way to $189.99 yesterday, according to the price-tracking website camelcamelcamel.com.
- A six-pack of Purell that was $19 two months ago is now $82.99.
- Want six hazmat suits? Two years ago, you could get them for less than two bucks. Now they're $110.
Amazon appears to be fighting these trends as fast as it can. The company didn't respond to our request for comment, but Wired reports that Amazon has alerted merchants that some of their changes are "not in compliance" with its pricing policies.
But those aren't the only challenges Amazon's facing:
- Amazon has told some Prime Now customers that availability might be limited, even as it tries to expand its capabilities in other places.
- The company hasn't trimmed the number of people or trucks dedicated to either Prime Now or Amazon Fresh delivery services, Bloomberg reports. But a huge surge in demand — even for things like bottled water — has caused strain.
Also: An Amazon employee in Seattle has been diagnosed with coronavirus, and the situation in Washington continues to get worse in general. Be safe out there, everybody.
A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ
Reimagining Markets Everywhere
Nasdaq Technology is reshaping the future of global markets by redefining what a marketplace can be.
Robinhood's two no good very bad days
On Tuesday, Robinhood went down. Again. It's particularly bad timing for the $7.6 billion darling of the fintech world, as the stock market has been whipsawed these past two days by coronavirus and an interest rate cut — market conditions where everyone wants to trade.
- The most popular theory over the past two days was that Robinhood failed to code in leap year's existence — led by an enterprising Redditor who discovered Robinhood had a similar outage four years ago, also right after leap day.
- But in a blog post published on Tuesday night, Robinhood's founders blamed "unprecedented load" on its infrastructure, causing a DNS failure. "The factors included, among others, highly volatile and historic market conditions; record volume; and record account sign-ups."
- It's nice spin! Basically, Robinhood is saying, it's doing so fantastically well it couldn't even handle it.
It's not like Robinhood is alone as the only financial services company hampered by tech problems, as Quartz pointed out. But it does seem to have a unique habit of stepping on its own toes — like when it tried to launch a checking account, or when it was caught insecurely storing passwords, or when a "glitch" in the system let users make huge trades with tiny leverage.
For a company trying to convince users to leave the old way behind and embrace the coming age of tech and startups, glitches can be hard to overcome.
Atrium, the legal startup helmed by Twitch founder Justin Kan, is shutting down. It laid off over 100 employees and returned some funding to its investors. "A lot of these companies, Atrium included, did not figure out how to make a dent in operational efficiency," Kan told TechCrunch.
Nokia is planning to lay off up to 148 people in Finland by the end of 2020 — which is actually fewer than the company had initially announced in January. It's all part of the company's attempt to remake itself as a serious 5G competitor.
In Other News
- Today in coronavirus: The cancellations keep coming. Google I/O is off, but Google's looking for other digital-only ways to bring devs together this spring. (Google also asked me to clarify yesterday's note about Google Cloud, which will also be a digital-only gathering of some kind.) A bunch of companies backed out of the HIMSS health care conference. TikTok and Intel pulled out of SXSW, though the conference swears it's still happening, even though nobody's buying it. Chinese companies are adding features to their apps to help fight the virus. Square stopped doing in-person interviews. Reddit is hosting a series of AMAs with people from MRIGlobal and WebMD. r/coronavirus is also the fastest-growing subreddit, and it's not even close. It seems like every company is banning non-essential travel. Google and Cisco joined Zoom and others in offering their conferencing tools free to those who need them. And the movie "Contagion" is very, very popular again.
- Facebook is tweaking its Libra plans. Because, so far, it didn't seem like anyone liked Facebook's Libra plans. The Information reports that while Facebook will still press ahead with its plans for the Libra token, it's going to focus more on tokens backed by government-issued currencies. The digital wallet is still coming, but Facebook's crypto future is slowing down.
- From Protocol: Target has quietly opened a concept store for the future of gaming in downtown SF, where people can try out Magic Leap and Oculus Quest headsets, gaming PCs and mobile gaming rigs.
- A lawsuit claimed that ICE rigged its risk-assessment software so that its algorithm would never recommend releasing immigrants who had been arrested.
- Don't miss the NYT Magazine's profile of Hideo Kojima, the mysterious, beloved game developer whose idea of the future looks nothing like Fortnite.
- From Protocol: A thermostat maker has its eye on quantum computing. Honeywell has been working on quantum for years, the company told Protocol's Mike Murphy, and says it's built something twice as powerful as any other company's quantum gear.
One More Thing
It was an awesome experiment, and lasted more than two decades. But on Tuesday, the Berkeley SETI Research Center said it would stop the program that linked millions of people in the search for extraterrestrial life. It started as a way to connect computers all over the world so that they could process data together to look for telltale signals, but it turns out actually processing two decades' worth of data from all over the cosmos requires more processing power than your average Mac Mini. Or your average supercomputer, for that matter. Next up for the SETI program: getting its unfathomable amount of data into the cloud, where it can be processed even faster. We'll find those aliens. Eventually.
A MESSAGE FROM NASDAQ
Reimagining Markets Everywhere
Nasdaq Technology is daring to think differently.
Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, or our tips line, email@example.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.