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Everybody’s (still) mad at Big Tech

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Dorsey and Zuckerberg on Zoom

Good morning! This Tuesday, it's time for yet another congressional hearing, why tech's biggest CEOs don't know what's happening in their own company and what's inside Airbnb's S-1.

Also, join us this Wednesday for our first ever gaming event! Seth Schiesel will dive into the evolution of gaming with an awesome group of execs from EA, Facebook and elsewhere. Sign up here.

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The Big Story

Yelling about Big Tech, round 3

Brew some extra coffee, take a preventive Advil and get comfy: It's Internet Bias Hearing Day!

Today's Senate Judiciary hearing — titled "Breaking the news: Censorship, suppression, and the 2020 election" and featuring Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg — is all but guaranteed to consist mostly of partisan bickering and bipartisan certainty that the social platforms keep failing to handle things correctly.

Protocol's Issie Lapowsky wrote a good preview of the hearing. There will be a lot of talk about the Hunter Biden New York Post story, but I suspect most of the hearing will focus on the claims of election fraud that are rampant on the two platforms. Here are a few things I'll be looking for in particular:

  • How are Facebook and Twitter thinking about the disinformation and lies coming from President Trump himself? Democrats will yell that Trump deserves to be held to the same standards of truth and decency as everyone else; Republicans will yell that POTUS is being censored by Big Tech. Ethan Zuckerman called this "disinfo as a political strategy," and it's much, much harder to respond to than attempted Russian influence.
  • How does the content-labeling process work? Twitter's been slammed for labeling Trump's "I won the election!" tweet with a bland statement: "Official sources called this election differently." More commonly, it slaps a "This claim about election fraud is disputed" label on problematic tweets. How does it write these? Who decides which one is used?
  • Why isn't YouTube here? Google's obviously happy to sit on the sidelines, but practically every question that's going to be asked today should also be asked of YouTube. (And to a lesser extent, even of TikTok.)
  • What will Kamala Harris ask? The VP-elect may have a chance to signal how the incoming administration will think about regulating tech.

The last time we did this, which was only about three weeks ago, it turned into a lot of grandstanding as a number of senators (particularly Ted Cruz) seemed to be looking for a viral clip rather than a substantive answer. I don't expect today to be any different. But we can hope! These are important conversations to be had, and I hope we have real versions of them soon.

Your hearing drinking game for the day: Drink (booze, coffee, Soylent, whatever) every time somebody compares social media moderation to Chinese censorship. Just don't drink too much — there's gonna be a lot of that.

CEOs

Who's really in charge here?

Anna Kramer writes: You know what's definitely going to get talked about today? Jack Dorsey apologizing for Twitter's decision to prevent users from sharing that infamous New York Post article. It prompted the reemergence of a longstanding question facing the light-handed CEO: Can one person run two companies well? While Dorsey remains leader of both Twitter and Square, he spent the last six months fending off threats from activist investors who want a more involved Twitter chief.

But it's not just Jack; Big Tech's CEOs are not omniscient. They don't like to admit it, and you might not want to believe it, but these men run corporations so large that it's impossible for them to know all that goes on inside. That doesn't excuse their lack of accountability, but I'm just here to remind you that they are, after all, people, and not the larger-than-life demigods they sometimes play in our conversations.

  • Here's a good example: Last week, Sundar Pichai, a man who rarely apologizes publicly for anything, apologized to EU Commissioner Thierry Breton for a leaked Google plot to fight back against proposed EU tech regulations by targeting Breton (what intrigue!). Now that's a big "I'm sorry."
  • Pichai said he had no idea that the leaked internal document existed and insisted he had never signed off on it. You could argue Pichai doesn't know everything for exactly this reason — what he doesn't know, he doesn't have to defend — but also there might just be too much going on for one man to process.

Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg have faced similar problems. After years of keeping his hands off the wheel, Bezos only stepped back into the everyday management in March, after the pandemic hit. And Zuckerberg's story is one we know all too well: Until recently, he was really Facebook's product guy, content to let Sheryl Sandberg keep tabs on some of the company's most critical decisions. His increased involvement was induced reluctantly, in response to enormous political and social pressure.

All the Congressional theater in the world may not move the needle much more than it already has. If Congress wants actual answers to its questions, the people who can do that best might not be the CEOs it keeps calling on.

IPOs

What worries Airbnb

It's been a fall full of big-money tech IPOs, but Airbnb's has probably been the most hotly anticipated. The company's been around for more than a decade, its valuation has been all over the map, it's had a brutal year that included laying off 1,900 people and there are a lot of investors and employees who would very much like to get rich.

Now they're one step closer. Airbnb's S-1 has been published, which means it's time to dig into some of the company's Risk Factors. All the startup classics apply: the company's losing money, it's hard to keep employees, branding is everything. But Airbnb's an unusual company in a lot of ways.

  • COVID-19 is front and center: Lockdowns are crushing Airbnb's business. (Though in the longer term, hybrid and distributed nature of work could be great for it).
  • People still think of Airbnb as the place where randos rent out their guest rooms, but the company says it's an increasingly professionalized process. "Historically, we have seen an increase in the number of, and revenue from, professional hosts on our platform," it writes. "The uniqueness of listings on our platform will be negatively impacted if the number of individual hosts does not grow at the same rate."
  • Believe it or not, Airbnb is affected by Section 230. "Although content on our platform is typically generated by third parties, and not by us, claims … or other alleged damages could be asserted against us," it explains.
  • The more popular Airbnb becomes, the more bad stuff people do at Airbnbs. (It's like Facebook, but in the world!) The S-1 mentions shootings, violence against hosts, hidden cameras and more. Policing its platform is one thing; policing its IRL effects is another.

Airbnb thinks its total addressable market is $3.4 trillion, with almost half of that coming from experiences. (Against all odds, Airbnb continues to believe in that part of its platform.) The company had a tough 2020, but believes it's the biggest name and best brand at the beginning of a massive change in how people live and move. I suspect investors are going to agree.

A MESSAGE FROM SAMSUNG NEXT

SamsungNext

Welcome to the age of synthetic media

Content generated or manipulated by AI through machine or deep learning is changing how we create, distribute, consume, and democratize media. What does synthetic media have the power to change next?

Learn more

People Are Talking

Barack Obama wants tech companies to be more proactive in their decision-making, and said democracy depends on it:

  • "The degree to which these companies are insisting that they are more like a phone company than they are like The Atlantic, I do not think is tenable. They are making editorial choices, whether they've buried them in algorithms or not. The First Amendment doesn't require private companies to provide a platform for any view that is out there."

California is "pulling the emergency brake" on COVID-related reopenings, Gov. Newsom said:

  • "We are sounding the alarm. California is experiencing the fastest increase in cases we have seen yet — faster than what we experienced at the outset of the pandemic or even this summer."

The Substack backlash is right on schedule, according to Paul Graham:

  • "I was literally talking to the CEO of Substack last night about how startups attract haters as an automatic almost physics-like consequence of growth, and wondering how long it would take before they did."

GitHub restored youtube-dl, and wants to help lead the fight to change copyright law:

  • "No matter what we do to protect developer rights, we still must work within the boundaries of the law. And the DMCA's current boundaries are hurting developers."

Making Moves

Wendy Nice Barnes is GitLab's new chief people officer. She joins from Palo Alto Networks. Merline Saintil is also joining the company's board of directors.

Jeff Bezos announced the first climate grants from his $10 billion Bezos Earth Fund. He's giving $791 million in total, to 16 separate groups, and said there's more to come soon.

Some of the old Essential team is back together, working on a company called OSOM. Jason Keats is the company's founder and "chief hooligan," and it's working on privacy-focused hardware and software. Notably not on the corporate roster: Andy Rubin.

Peiter Zatko is Twitter's new head of security. Better known in internet circles as Mudge, he comes from a similar role at Stripe.

In Other News

  • Amazon now sells prescription drugs, with free two-day delivery for Prime members. CVS and Walgreens' stocks immediately plunged with the news.
  • Max Schrems filed two privacy complaints against Apple. Noyb, his non-profit, said that Apple's use of IDFA violates EU law, because the tracking code is "placed into the device without the user's consent." Meanwhile, Apple said it would change its Gatekeeper service on Macs, after an outage last week slowed down people's computers and sparked privacy concerns.
  • Huawei sold its Honor brand to a consortium of phone sellers and distributors for an undisclosed sum. In a statement, Huawei cited the "tremendous pressure" to its consumer business caused by U.S. sanctions as a reason for the sale.
  • Tesla is finally joining the S&P 500, having reported five consecutive profitable quarters. It will be added on Dec. 21: a delightful Christmas gift for Elon.
  • HBO Max is now available on Amazon. AT&T finally agreed a deal with the distributor, leaving Roku as the last big holdout.
  • Bird might go public via a SPAC, Bloomberg reports. It could take a while though: The scooter company said it has "no plans to go public this year."
  • The U.S. military buys location data from a popular Muslim prayer app, Vice reports. Muslim Pro is one of many apps that work with data brokers X-Mode and Babel Street to provide governments with consumer location data.
  • Baidu is buying YY Live for around $3.6 billion. The acquisition gets Baidu a place in the increasingly hot livestreaming market, though YY is much smaller than competitors.

One More Thing

The last stream

The YouTube channel Unus Annus was always supposed to last for one year and no longer. Never mind that it had more than 4.5 million followers by day 365, never mind that more than 1.5 million people were watching live at the moment Unus Annus' creators shut it down and deleted the channel. I'd say you should go back and watch, but, uh, you can't. The fun post-mortem will have to do.

A MESSAGE FROM SAMSUNG NEXT

SamsungNext

Welcome to the age of synthetic media

Content generated or manipulated by AI through machine or deep learning is changing how we create, distribute, consume, and democratize media. What does synthetic media have the power to change next?

Learn more

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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