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What matters in tech, in your inbox every morning.

The web's inventor preps his sequel

Good morning! This Monday, tech worries about democracy, Tim Berners-Lee wants a second chance, and your smart speaker really likes "The Office."

People Are Talking

The U.S. government needs to get better at information warfare, says former Pentagon official Mark Mitchell:

  • "Whoever is in charge of information operations must be able to plan and respond immediately to developing situations, not have to write a policy paper that will take 4-6 weeks to get to a decision maker."

Expect big consequences from the SEC's case against Telegram, according to A16Z managing partner Scott Kupor:

  • "If policymakers wish to make changes to the process by which private companies raise capital and in turn create companies that can create value in other ways, they should honor the normal rule-making and legislative process rather than seeking to change policy via enforcement actions."

The streaming era is making life harder for writers, because of its constantly changing idea of what a TV show should be, said writer Harley Peyton:

  • "I have friends working in network television, and it's like they're on a different planet."

There might just be a way to take down AI in chess, Garry Kasparov believes:

  • "It sees over 60 million games that statistically, you know, the bishop was dominant in many more games. So I think it added too much advantage to bishop in terms of numbers. So what you should do, you should try to get your engine to a position where AlphaZero will make inevitable mistakes."

The Big Story

Taking tech's temperature on democracy

It's "Fun With Study Results Day" here at Source Code! First up: Pew surveyed nearly a thousand tech experts (including probably at least a few folks reading this email: hello!) on how technology will affect democracy in the next decade.

The prognosis: not great.

  • 49% of respondents say tech will "mostly weaken core aspects of democracy and democratic representation in the next decade." 33% said things will get better, and 18% said they'll stay the same.
  • I guess the silver-linings way to read this study is: 51% of people think things won't get any worse!

The specific issues that came up won't surprise you: deepfakes, misinformation, the increase in surveillance and data collection. The ways tech can be a force for democratic good, though, provide a nice jolt of optimism.

  • Respondents spoke of the possibilities for digital voting (which might work well someday, even if it, uh, doesn't now), more-collaborative tools for data-collection and policy-making, closer contact between officials and constituents, and even the power of live-streamed community hearings.

Many people agree that most of the issues are about information: What should be collected and disseminated; how it should be vetted, parsed and published; whether citizens can be expected to tell truth from fiction.

  • Northwestern professor Larry Keeley summed up a lot of people's thinking: He said technology could make things better for engaged users, giving them the tools and data to do practically anything, but worse for the casual users who may simply be fed more lies than they can possibly handle.

Internet

Turning the web 'right side up'

Tim Berners-Lee has been quietly working on something like a redesign of the way the internet works. (Not very ambitious, that Tim.) And the company he built to do it, called Inrupt, is ready to be a little less quiet.

The company has hired a leadership team, started work on pilot projects, and is working on ways to bring its underlying tech, called Solid, to users.

I interviewed John Bruce, Inrupt's CEO, about a year ago — when Inrupt was still lying low — and he said that Solid hoped to essentially invert the way the internet works now. Although he was careful to note: "We're not trying to turn the web upside down, we're trying to turn it right side up."

  • "What we're trading is that notion where I have 80 application logins," he said. "I've got one UI for the Solid world … I manage one application, within which I decide who and what gets access to my data."
  • With Solid, you keep hold of all your data, from health records to financial info — everything is inside your pod. You grant and control access to the pod, but it's always your data. Companies don't collect it — they simply use it when you allow.

Inrupt's right-side-up-ing of the internet is about security, certainly. But Bruce also said it could — and this is a pretty big "could" — make every app and service you use better:

  • Applications currently "give me a myopic view of my fitness or my notes or my travel," he said, "and I act as the glue between them all." Solid allows for things to work together more, to connect across services, because your ID and your pod are the hooks for everything.

In a blog post, Berners-Lee noted the many challenges ahead for Inrupt, not least of which is making it scalable. But "the world really sees value in the change we are trying to spark," he said.

Do you think Solid can work? Or does it face too many barriers? Let me know what you think: david@protocol.com.

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Connectivity

A reality check on all things 5G

"Fun With Study Results Day" entry number two: A McKinsey discussion paper about the state and future of 5G. Its fascinating conclusion: The "5G era" is only slightly about 5G.

  • Yes, 5G is important, the paper's authors argue. But so are Wi-Fi 6, low-latency connectivity with satellites, Bluetooth and RFID. We might be heading into a new era of connectivity, but 5G is just one part of the upgrade.

As for how these new technologies will be used, the paper plays all the hits: self-driving cars! AI diagnostics! Super-duper factory optimization! But it also notes an interesting side-effect:

  • Building these networks is going to connect huge populations of people who have simply never had fast internet before. And just as China's billion-plus people changed the way the internet works, the next group of people coming online could do the same. It's not the speeds, it's the access.

This is going to take a while. But if companies can build the infrastructure and figure out how to work together, the paper concludes, there are trillions of dollars to be made. Decent incentive, right there.

Coming Up This Week

The RSA conference is in San Francisco — or, at least, what's left of the RSA conference, after a run of coronavirus-related cancellations. Protocol's Adam Janofsky will be there, and he'll be bringing the best of the conference to you in Source Code all week.

On the earnings calendar, Salesforce, Box, VMWare, JD.com and Square all report results this week.

In Other News

  • Huge fintech exits are now a thing. First Plaid sold to Visa for billions. Then Morgan Stanley snapped up E-Trade (a last-bubble fintech startup, but it still counts). Now The WSJ reports that Intuit is about to buy Credit Karma for $7 billion, and that the deal could be announced as soon as today. Three is a trend, folks!
  • Twitter banned dozens of pro-Mike Bloomberg accounts for breaking its rules on "platform manipulation and spam." The plan was even less creative than Twitter bots — the campaign simply paid people to flood conversations with the same dumb tweets.
  • In fact, Mike Bloomberg's campaign is a rule-testing machine for social media, The New York Times writes. Edited ads; coordinated, paid tweet campaigns; a massive influencer ad budget. It's all forcing Twitter, Facebook and others to figure out new rules for politics — and fast.
  • From Protocol: Not every executive can afford a personal coach. But a new class of startups showed up to help teach the same lessons at a much lower price.
  • The TSA is the latest agency to ban employees from using TikTok, citing national security reasons.
  • From POLITICO: The Pentagon is sitting on a large chunk of spectrum that some people say could be crucial to building 5G networks. And everyone wants a piece.
  • From Protocol: Why do companies keep launching folding phones when the tech (and software and apps and I could go on but you get the idea) aren't ready? Well there's a charitable answer, and a … less charitable answer.

One More Thing

Your smart speaker isn't listening — at least, not on purpose

"Fun With Study Results Day" entry number three: A recent study found that smart speakers activate incorrectly between 1.5 and 19 times a day. (Count mine at the top of that range.) The study also found "no evidence" to support the idea that these devices are constantly recording our conversations. But words like "they say" and "pickle" can activate them, and "The Office" is full of speaker-activating moments. Which feels like something Michael Scott would truly love.

A MESSAGE FROM CLEAR

CLEAR is transforming the need for ID

CLEAR confirms your identity with your eyes and fingerprints, making life easier in airports and venues nationwide.

Learn more here

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to me, david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

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