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Google’s big privacy push

Google's privacy products

Good morning! This Wednesday, what Google's big privacy push at I/O 2021 means for its business, why WeWork is winning in a post-pandemic world, the countdown to Robinhood's IPO begins, and how the Citizen app bungled the pursuit of an arsonist.

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The Big Story

Google I/O was all about 'private by design'

Google I/O kicked off yesterday as an all-virtual developer conference — the second in this format since the pandemic began — dedicated to all things Android, Chrome and the broader Google ecosystem. In years past, I/O has straddled the lines between a consumer product event, a standard developer confab and a kind of philosophical presentation on the future and how Google's technology roadmap will take us there.

This I/O featured an even heavier focus on Google's priorities, including improved privacy controls within Google products and services and the company's ever-growing investment in artificial intelligence.

  • Most important, according to CEO Sundar Pichai, is that the company develops and maintains products focused on user security and control and a "private by design" philosophy. That was a new and oft-repeated mantra we heard during the keynote and, in a way, it's a response to Apple's "privacy is a fundamental human right" slogan.
  • "All of our products are guided by three important principles: With one of the world's most advanced security infrastructures, our products are secure by default. We strictly uphold responsible data practices so every product we build is private by design. And we create easy to use privacy and security settings so you're in control," Pichai wrote in Google's post-keynote roundup.

Google's future largely hinges on AI and privacy, and its ability to keep executing on both in the future. The company needs users to keep handing over data to underpin its ad business and to keep using its products to give those ads eyeballs to reach. And ever-improving AI is how Google has tried to differentiate its hardware and software products, from the Pixel phone camera to the Google Assistant platform. To improve AI, Google needs — you guessed it — more data: a steady stream of it, in fact.

Yet Google can only keep these various parts in synchronicity if it can keep users trusting the power of its privacy controls and, at a broader level, trusting the company with any of their data at all.

  • It's key that consumers think they're better off compromising with Google by handing over some data in exchange for great (and free) products, than fleeing to another platform, like Apple's more privacy-minded iOS or the ultra-convenience of Amazon's Alexa ecosystem.
  • This is an especially pressing problem for Google amid Apple's more aggressive privacy push of late, including the new App Tracking Transparency change that allows users to opt out of mobile tracking across apps and websites.

That's why among the biggest takeaways from this year's I/O was how much more granular Google's privacy controls are becoming, in both the newly announced Android 12 and in its largest products like Google Maps and Google Photos.

  • Jen Fitzpatrick, Google's senior vice president of core systems and experiences, said multiple times during her portion of the keynote that "Google never sells your personal information to anyone," and later in a blog post she wrote: "Every day, we focus on making sure you're in control of your data by building products that are secure by default and private by design."
  • That many of these new features are coming to Pixel devices and the Android platform first and in some cases exclusively is another key message Google wants to send. Google wants to incentivize people to stay in its ecosystem, just as Apple does with certain hardware exclusive to the iPhone. Though for Google, it's about granting access to better and more powerful AI and privacy features.

The company understands that it presents a kind of Faustian bargain in which consumers put up with the ads and the data collection and the tracking in exchange for world-class, free products and services. But if Google is to be believed when it says it has a "private by design" mindset and that it is in fact committed to protecting its users, perhaps that's a deal worth taking.

— Nick Statt (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

The most recent elections made it clear: Voters in both political parties support higher wages. The federal minimum wage hasn't changed in 12 years, despite significant cost-of-living increases. Amazon saw the need to do more for their employees and communities and in 2018 raised their starting wage to at least $15 an hour.

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People Are Talking

Stripe is embracing remote work, which means embracing long-form writing, business lead Michael Siliski said:

  • "Engineers, partnerships, PMs, everybody is producing documents. That's part of how Stripe has always worked, from a perspective of trying to get to the right answer and make sure the best ideas come through, not just the loudest voices. It helps facilitate the flow of information in a world where we're increasingly remote."

The future of work is confusing, and Marcelo Claure said that's great news for WeWork:

  • "[Companies] are basically sending us their employees because they don't know how many days they're going to be working. They don't know where their business is going to grow."

On Protocol | Enterprise: Screw your grand plan for AI dominance, Andrew Ng said:

  • "One of the most important steps is to deliver a quick win. Small pilot project and then take it to a successful outcome. And that initial quick win often teaches an organization lessons that would then be useful for the second, third and fourth projects."

Dianne Morales, a candidate for NYC mayor, said she supports a ban on facial recognition:

  • "Companies that monitor their workers using facial recognition too often fall short and engage in predatory tactics like racial profiling to expedite security measures. This is unacceptable and I will outlaw the use of facial recognition technology on most mediums. AI is built by humans with human biases."

Speaking of facial recognition, Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, said "60 Minutes" erased the contributions of Black women in its special on racial bias in police use of facial recognition:

  • "I even spent additional time building a custom demo for @andersoncooper and made recommendations on research to include and subjects to interview with emphasis on the stories of the #excoded who have been falsely arrested. There was an interview scheduled and on my way to receive a COVID-19 test I got a last minute notification that the interview had been canceled before I even reached the destination."

Making Moves

Bill Hinman is now a partner at &vest. The former SEC director of corporation finance also has a long history of helping guide companies through IPOs.

Beeple is joining the board at Otoy. Regular humans call him Mike Winkelmann, and he'll help the company figure out the future of NFTs and other digital content.

Vince Steckler is Nord Security's newest board member. The former Avast CEO is also Nord's first independent director.

Richard Yu is now in charge of Huawei's smart car unit. He continues to lead the company's consumer tech division, which he led to prominence before U.S. bans undermined that part of the business.

In Other News

  • China didn't ban crypto, but it got closer. Three government-linked associations banned member financial institutions and payment companies from registering, trading, clearing and settling crypto transactions. Since then, crypto prices have been falling fast.
  • Apple is speeding up its Intel-replacement plan. It's getting ready to update almost the entire Mac line, Bloomberg reported, with new designs and new Apple-made chips. This whole M1 thing appears to be a smashing success. (Also, reviewers seem to mostly like the new iMac.)
  • On Protocol: Thought the meme stock trend was already extreme? Fidelity is beginning to offer debit, savings and investing accounts for teens whose parents and guardians also invest with Fidelity. Good luck, parents.
  • Robinhood's S-1 could drop next week. The company is planning to go public in late June, Bloomberg reported, in what will surely be the craziest investing moment in a year of crazy investing moments.
  • President Biden kind of launched the new electric F-150. Ford's new EV truck will be officially revealed tonight, but that didn't stop Biden from taking a ride in one after a speech in Michigan yesterday.
  • Don't miss this Vox story on how the Citizen app sparked a citywide hunt for an arson suspect … who turned out to be the wrong person.
  • Venmo is blocking certain payments to Palestinian relief efforts. Rest of World reports that the payment app is blocking payments with the words "Palestine" or "Palestinian" and "emergency fund," citing U.S. sanctions.
  • Amazon extended its ban on police use of its facial recognition software. It said last year it hoped Congress would pass a law regulating the tech, which turned out to be just a tad optimistic.
  • Microsoft is ditching its Chrome OS killer. Instead, some of the Windows 10X features will end up in Windows 10, because they "shouldn't just be confined to a set of customers," Microsoft said in an all-time great spin job.

One More Thing

You have to pick a future of work

Many, maybe even most, employees will have the chance to go back to the office sometime in the next few months. What will it look like? Who will go? Who knows! But Bill Gurley tweeted something we've been hearing a lot recently: that the only wrong decision is no decision. "We are going to see a lot of experiments with structure," Gurley said. "All remote, hybrid, & the oddly contrarian all in-person. If company declares, I support all forms. I predict indecision will be the one that fails. Figure out where you are going and head there!"

This goes for companies and for individual employees. Are you a twice-a-week-in-the-office person? All remote all the time? Basically moving into a coffee shop? Doesn't matter. Pick a schedule and plan to stick with it for as long as it works. Otherwise, you're signing up for weekly chaos.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

"This is the first time in my life that I have dental insurance, vision insurance, [and] life insurance." Making more than $15 an hour and comprehensive benefits gives Leonardo and Amazon employees like him peace of mind and the freedom to do more — like go back to school.

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

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