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Satya snooping at Microsoft

Good morning! This Thursday, Microsoft tries to avoid workplace surveillance, Qualcomm sees mobile taking over everything, the Senate pushes a new FCC member and we'll never ever ever stop fighting about Section 230.

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The Big Story

Big Boss is watching

Microsoft's Productivity Score isn't an entirely new feature, but it's been under new scrutiny over the last week after researcher Wolfie Christl tweeted that, "A new feature to calculate 'productivity scores' turns Microsoft 365 into an full-fledged workplace surveillance tool."

  • Basically, Productivity Scores take information — like how people use attachments, how their meetings are run, whether they're using shared workspaces, if their software is up-to-date — and puts it all into one score.
  • Microsoft always framed it as a way for IT departments to make sure they're getting the most out of 365 (and not still sending files via email attachments).
  • But the glass-half-empty version of the story looks a lot like bosses grading their employees' every move, which is particularly problematic in our current work environment.

It's an almost-too-perfect summation of a key tension inside companies everywhere right now. On one hand, you want to give your team what they need to succeed, and to make sure they're keeping up; on the other, logging their keystrokes and watching through their webcams feels creepy and bad. Microsoft's very clear that it doesn't want to be a workplace surveillance tool, but it does want to help companies do their best work. The line between the two is ... blurry.

Microsoft tweaked the way the Productivity Score works earlier this week. "We've heard the feedback, and today we're responding by making changes to the product to further bolster privacy for customers," Jared Spataro, who runs Microsoft 365, wrote in a blog post this week. The biggest change: no more individually identifiable user names. I called Spataro to talk about why this has become so complicated, and why Microsoft changed its mind so quickly.

  • User names were a late addition to the feature, Spataro noted in the post, after companies told Microsoft they wanted to better identify which teams and people were doing particularly well. Microsoft didn't catch the possible flipside quickly enough.
  • There are plenty of things Microsoft could have done, right? Change the name, fight back, just stay quiet and try to weather the storm. But the company seemed to sense that people were questioning how much it really cares about users and their privacy, and tried to jump on that quickly.

Keep an eye on this debate, within Microsoft and everywhere. Is it even possible to attempt to understand and optimize your team without also giving yourself the ability to surveil them? If you're going to do any of it, what are you required to tell your team? It matters within every company, but might matter most of all to companies like Microsoft, who make the tools all those companies can use — and abuse.

Hardware

Smartphone chips are coming for everything

Apple's new M1 Macs were just the beginning. Smartphone chips — or, at least, chips made with the knowledge and revenue that comes from a decade of making smartphone chips — are invading everything with an on switch.

This week is Qualcomm's annual Tech Summit, and (as usual) it announced a splashy new smartphone processor, the Snapdragon 888. But Alex Katouzian, Qualcomm's head of mobile, told me that the big trend to come is mobile eating everything.

  • The biggest change is about power, Katouzian said: "We're used to low-power computing on mobile, and now mobile traits are now moving to these [different] markets." Everything wants 5G, everything wants all-day battery life, everything wants to not have a fan or come in a giant cooling-optimized box, and lessons learned from smartphones can deliver on that.
  • "People were so used to saying, 'my laptop is heavy, my laptop needs to be connected to Wi-Fi, and I can take advantage of it for a couple of hours without connecting to a charger,'" Katouzian said. Now? People won't put up with that. A whole generation is starting with phones, and won't settle for a worse device just because it has a bigger screen.

Qualcomm's working with a lot of industries now, putting modems into cars and washing machines and all sorts of other places you'd never have imagined possible in 1985. But Katouzian said mobile will keep influencing the rest of the space for a long time to come. Because things are moving so fast with mobile gaming, cameras, AR and elsewhere — he mentioned eye-tracking computing a couple of times — "I think the creativity and the innovation that gets put in place for premium tier solutions is just going to scale up," he said.

Regulation

The anti-230 club has a new FCC nominee

Emily Birnbaum writes: The Senate Commerce Committee voted 14-12 to advance Nathan Simington to the FCC. So I'm sure you're wondering: Who is Nathan Simington?

Simington is a Trump ally. He helped write the Department of Commerce petition that led the FCC to reconsider the future of Section 230. Trump nominated Simington instead of Michael O'Rielly, the current Republican FCC commissioner whose nomination was pulled over his opposition to Trump's social media executive order.

  • Simington's also in hot water with Democrats after POLITICO published an email from his time at the Commerce Department in which he solicited Fox News host Laura Ingraham's help in the battle against Section 230. "Any additional support we might be able to obtain could help to get the FCC on board more quickly and thereby ensure a freer, fairer social media landscape going into the elections this fall," Simington wrote.

The full Senate still has to consider his nomination, and it's unclear if Mitch McConnell wants to use some of this session's final moments to argue with Democrats about an FCC nominee. But the vote on Wednesday bodes well for Simington, whose nomination could wind up gridlocking the FCC for months.

  • "Mr. Simington was nominated a few short weeks [after O'Rielly's nomination was pulled]," said Sen. Maria Cantwell, the top Democrat on the Commerce Committee. "It raises real questions about why the White House chose Mr. Simington, particularly given his lack of experience with the FCC, its statutory responsibilities and many of the key issues at the agency."
  • Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal has vowed to do everything in his power to keep Simington from getting through the Senate. Now it's mostly a waiting game.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

At Micron, we see an opportunity to establish memory and storage platform capabilities that will unleash software developers to deliver solutions that speed insight and ultimately support emerging customer requirements. The data-centric era has ushered in a new opportunity to tap data for business growth, but many companies continue to struggle to transform mounting data stores into competitive advantage.

Learn how here.

People Are Talking

Google's ethical AI leader Timnit Gebru said she was fired in part because Jeff Dean didn't like an email she wrote:

  • "Apparently my manager's manager sent an email [to] my direct reports saying she accepted my resignation. I hadn't resigned — I had asked for simple conditions first and said I would respond when I'm back from vacation. But I guess she decided for me :) that's the lawyer speak."

You know how Trump threatened to veto a military spending bill if Section 230 wasn't repealed? One congressional aide told us it's probably nothing:

  • "It's fair to say that most members are hopeful that this is just another hollow veto threat of a must-pass bill that has been passed every year for decades."

Beware the idea that everybody needs a co-founder, Block Party's Tracy Chou said:

  • "Sexism is so often a hidden poison that destroys any chance of compatibility ... I could not stomach working with men who do not respect me as a professional peer, but it's also reciprocal; they would never consider working with me."

Emil Michael had a good explanation for why self-driving cars are taking so much longer than we hoped:

  • "You have to count for infinite situations; a kid crossing the street, a plastic bag twirling the air that looks like a rock, what happens when it rains, incline, and so on. And just the sheer enormity of the situation just makes it a much harder problem to solve."

Section 230 isn't about neutrality, and we shouldn't make it that way, Jimmy Wales said:

  • "Having places online that are not neutral — political advocacy websites, partisan magazines, Bible study groups, etc. — who want to both have moderation against spam *and* to maintain their nature — is really good."

Making Moves

Seth McGuire is the new CRO at Galileo. He was previously at Twitter and Backbone.

Steve Wilson is QCode's new chief strategy officer. He was Apple's longtime podcasts exec, and is someone who practically everyone in audio knows well.

Gumroad is the latest company to stop tying salary to location. "Gumroad will now pay you the same salary, no matter if you live in San Francisco, Bangalore, Lagos, or anywhere else," CEO Sahil Lavingia tweeted.

Amazon is reportedly in talks to buy Wondery for more than $300 million. Evidently it's not content to let Spotify buy the whole podcast industry for itself.

In Other News

  • A Facebook antitrust suit is coming next week, Reuters reports. This one will be filed by a group of more than 40 states, led by New York. Separately, Bloomberg reports the Justice Department is looking into whether Facebook's VR practices have been anticompetitive.
  • The NLRB accused Google of violating labor laws. In a complaint, it said the company illegally spied on activist workers before firing them. Google could settle, or it might choose to take the matter to a judge.
  • Google acquired data management company Actifio. The deal was announced in the middle of Amazon's big re:Invent conference, where AWS quietly entered the multicloud era.
  • UPS told drivers not to pick up packages from Nike and Gap on Monday, according to The Wall Street Journal, amid huge demand for delivery services. FedEx, meanwhile, bought subscription delivery service ShopRunner.
  • Uber is in talks to sell Uber Elevate to Joby Aviation, Axios reports. Guess you're not getting flying taxis after all. Meanwhile, Zoox teased a self-driving announcement for Dec. 14, where it will likely reveal details on its much-hyped robotaxi.
  • China-India tensions might push Ant to sell its stake in Paytm. Reuters reports that the company is considering getting rid of its 30% stake in the payments app, likely worth around $5 billion.

One More Thing

Cyberpunk 2077 is the ultimate troll

I mean, at this stage it's possible the whole game is just one big troll designed to mess with gamers. But the much-delayed, always-close-but-never-here game is actually set to launch next week. Still, that means there's a whole week left in which to drop those yellow screenshotted notes that instantly strike fear into the hearts of gamers everywhere who are desperate to play it. Even when they're rick rolls.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

At Micron, we see an opportunity to establish memory and storage platform capabilities that will unleash software developers to deliver solutions that speed insight and ultimately support emerging customer requirements. The data-centric era has ushered in a new opportunity to tap data for business growth, but many companies continue to struggle to transform mounting data stores into competitive advantage.

Learn how here.

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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