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A global privacy fight lands in Hong Kong

Image: B Faria / Protocol
A global privacy fight lands in Hong Kong

Good morning! This Tuesday, tech clashes with China over privacy in Hong Kong, Google's inability to stop building social apps, and where did all the PPP money go?

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People Are Talking

Palantir filed to go public, and here is pretty much the entirety of its statement on the subject:

  • "The public listing is expected to take place after the SEC completes its review process, subject to market and other conditions."
  • I cannot WAIT to read the S-1 on this one, and finally figure out what in the world Palantir actually does.

Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg and other Facebook execs are meeting with civil rights leaders today ahead of publishing the company's D&I report, and Sandberg said the work is just beginning:

  • "It's a big moment for all of us, especially now. Much more than words, people, organizations and companies need to take action – and we at Facebook know what a big responsibility we have."

On Protocol: The pandemic proved that at-home health care is here to stay, AliveCor's Ira Bahr said:

  • "It is more convenient and it is generally far less expensive to deliver something at home electronically than it is to cause a patient to go to a clinic for treatment or analysis. At-home health care is as inevitable as Uber and Amazon."
  • If you haven't, check out Protocol's Health Care Manual, which is full of awesome stories and has more rolling out all week.

Tom Hanks has a movie heading straight to Apple TV+ instead of the big screen, and he seems … not super excited:

  • "An absolute heartbreak. I don't mean to make angry my Apple overlords, but there is a difference in picture and sound quality."

In-person career fairs are going away, HackerRank's Vivek Ravisankar thinks, and good riddance, he says:

  • "Companies unable to recruit based on geography and pedigree will now start to rely on actual skills, a far better indicator of ultimate success, thus democratizing access to the tech industry."

The Big Story

Who gets to see Hong Kong's data?

It's maybe not a straight line from "do we label President Trump's post as harmful" to "should we be sharing user data with the Chinese government," but it's not a particularly complicated route. And some of the companies already considering the first question are now wrangling with the second in a new way.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have all vowed to stop processing requests for user data coming from the Hong Kong government, after China imposed a national-security law there that cracks down on certain speech policies and basically says "we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, for any reason, all the time." (Here's a good rundown on the ins and outs of the law.)

  • TikTok, meanwhile, decided to pull out of Hong Kong altogether. It has always said it doesn't share data with the Chinese government, but the full politics there are a mess we can get into another day.
  • Facebook and Twitter, of course, are blocked in China, in part because the companies couldn't agree with the government on the rules for data collection and oversight. Google operates in the country, but only in a very limited way. But all three work in Hong Kong, and will seemingly continue to do so. So this almost seems like a deliberate test of how far China is willing to go.

The companies are calling it a "pause," as they review the legal ramifications. And for what it's worth, they've shared user data with the Hong Kong government before, so this isn't simply about sharing data with law enforcement. Facebook made clear that this is about morals and values, saying in a statement: "We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions."

  • This turns out to be kind of a perfect policy test for these companies. In China, there's been a clear distinction between money vs. values, and both sides are pretty clear. But in Hong Kong, the rules are currently changing all the time, blurring that line in the process.
  • Twitter may have extra incentive to pick a fight here, after it found last year that the Chinese government used Twitter for a huge information operation to undermine the legitimacy of Hong Kong's protest movement.

When will companies decide enough is enough, and stop working in Hong Kong? When will China decide the same and kick them out? We're in for both a race to the high ground and a game of chicken.

  • Also, as this heats up, I wonder if Apple — which both makes a big stink about privacy and runs a booming business in China — will have something to say on the subject.

STIMULUS

Money printer go confusingly brrr

Protocol's Biz Carson writes: On Monday, the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Small Business Administration revealed some of the businesses that received payroll protection program loans as part of the coronavirus bailout. It was information that it had dragged its feet on releasing (so much so that it faced lawsuits from media organizations), only to backtrack and make it public. But the published data seems to be a bit of a mess.

Firms listed are saying they never actually received the loans. Andreessen Horowitz denies applying for a loan, despite being listed as receiving a loan between $350,000 and $1 million for 24 jobs. Other venture firms, like Foundation Capital and Index Ventures, have also denied applying for or receiving loans.

  • Other businesses say they already returned the money. Zocdoc confirmed it had applied for and received a loan (between $5 million and $10 million for 250 jobs), but it ultimately returned the funds after the business rebounded, and it secured additional capital. Wikimedia said it was approved, but didn't take a loan at all.
  • Maybe blame the banks? Bird's CEO Travis VanderZanden tweeted that the company had talked to Citibank, which started an application for the company, before the scooter startup decided not to pursue it. Yet Bird was listed as receiving a loan of $5 million to $10 million to save 341 jobs. (Instead, it laid off over 400 people in March.) "Bird was erroneously listed as a company that filed for a PPP loan," the scooter startup said in a statement. "We did not apply for nor did we receive a PPP loan."

The mistakes make it hard to figure out who actually received the loans (and kept the money) and what was just a clerical error. But here's a small snapshot of tech companies that the SBA says (maybe) took PPP money:

  • In the $5M to $10M loan bucket: Getaround, Hired, Metromile, Mixpanel, Zeta Global, TradeShift, Luminar, Rubicon Global, Talkdesk, Turo, Seatgeek, the Wikimedia Foundation and Proterra.
  • In the $2M to $5M range: Envoy, Flipboard, Orbital Insight, Saildrone, Quanergy, and TuSimple
  • In the $1M to $2M range: Human Longevity, Peerspace, Wanderjaunt, Tradesy, Styleseat and Second Measure.

While there was a lot of pressure to return the loans or cancel applications, startups like Turo stand by their decision. The "PPP funds were a lifeline for our 244 employees" and its host and guest community, said Steve Webb, Turo's VP of communications.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

Stronger Care ... from anywhere, to anywhere

At Philips, we're pioneering stronger care networks with technologies we've spent decades innovating. With connected care solutions from telehealth to at-home monitoring, today's healthcare workers can face today's greatest challenges with smarter virtual tools. See how our telehealth technologies help doctors and nurses deliver care from anywhere, to anywhere.

Learn more.

APPS

Clipboard reading is on the outs

Apple's privacy-shaming is working like a charm. After iOS 14 started outing apps that constantly read the contents of users' clipboards, developers started to say the same two things: We totally didn't mean to do this, and, uh, we'll fix it.

  • Reddit had been capturing the clipboard every time users typed anything, and told The Verge it blamed "a codepath in the post composer that checks for URLs in the pasteboard and then suggests a post title based on the text contents of the URL."
  • LinkedIn said its problem was "a code path that only does an equality check between the clipboard contents and the currently typed content in a text box."

There are more examples according to Don Morton, a cofounder at Urspace and the person who's been hunting down a lot of these issues — from Google News to Patreon to, for some absolutely wild reason, the Philips Sonicare app. But Morton wrote over the weekend that we should be most worried about apps that aren't like Reddit and LinkedIn, that don't have the visibility or the reason to do the right thing:

  • "The real problem and thing that scares me," he wrote, "is the fact that ANY app has the ability to access the clipboard without permission. I could easily see 'phishing apps' starting to pop up (if they are not already) with the sole intention to scrape as much clipboard data as possible."
  • As we mentioned last week, think of all the stuff that lives in your clipboard: passwords, financial information, search queries and more. No wonder Apple's pushing to make sure you see when an app peeks.

Number of the day

$1,499.65

That was the closing price of Alphabet's stock yesterday, which sent it back into the trillion-dollar-market cap club. That meant that Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Alphabet were all above $1 trillion at the same time for the first time since before the pandemic. When this all started, some people wondered if coronavirus might help Big Tech to get even bigger. Yup.

In Other News

  • Hamilton has been very, very good to Disney+. App downloads were up about 75% this past weekend, and even if everyone was using someone else's password (you're welcome, the 450 people I sent mine to) that still means a lot of new streamers.
  • With China-made apps out of India, other companies want in. Instagram, for instance, is expanding its TikTok-like Reels feature to the country, and told TechCrunch it plans to take the app to other countries as well.
  • Don't miss this story from The Verge about a game called The Last Light, which was one of Magic Leap's most intriguing and ambitious projects … and may never be released.
  • The U.K. is taking Huawei out of its 5G plans. The Telegraph reported that the country could start phasing out Huawei's tech as soon as this year. It's a 180-degree turn from where the British government was only a few months ago, and is likely to make the Trump administration very happy.
  • Quibi is chaos; chaos is Quibi. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever get tired of reading about why Quibi totally failed to get off the ground. Ever.
  • Scooters are back on the streets, y'all. But "riders now are locals focused on commute and essential trips," said Lime.

One More Thing

Google's social network app, take 65 billion

So Google+ didn't work. Neither did Buzz or Wave or Shoelace or Keen or … honestly, it's ridiculous that I didn't even have to make one of these up for this joke to work. But say this for Google: The company doesn't quit easily. So now it has a new social network! This one's called Currents, not to be confused with the app it looks like — Google+ — or the other app Google once made called Currents. (Honestly. Come on, Google.) It's meant just for G Suite users, and I for one am looking forward to opening it twice and then forgetting it exists until Google inevitably kills it.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIPS

Philips

Stronger Care ... from anywhere, to anywhere

At Philips, we're pioneering stronger care networks with technologies we've spent decades innovating. With connected care solutions from telehealth to at-home monitoring, today's healthcare workers can face today's greatest challenges with smarter virtual tools. See how our telehealth technologies help doctors and nurses deliver care from anywhere, to anywhere.

Learn more.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce. 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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