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Privacy is winning

Image: Protocol
Signal, WhatsApp and Telegram

Good morning! This Friday, what WhatsApp vs. Signal means for privacy, tech companies are working on vaccine IDs, Google might have actually finished buying Fitbit, and Andrew Yang is all in on hype houses.

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The Big Story

Privacy is a feature now

Privacy matters. Not in an intellectual way, not in a nice-to-have way, but in a "people will stop using your app for privacy reasons, even if your app is hugely popular and crucially important to billions of people" way. If people switch messaging apps because of a privacy update, you know privacy matters.

  • Obviously Signal and Telegram both had huge weeks at WhatsApp's expense, even though this particular freakout over WhatsApp privacy was overblown. (Here's a good rundown, but the tl;dr is that your chats with friends and family remain as private as before.)
  • Of course, not all "secure" chat apps are created equal. Telegram's end-to-end encryption isn't on by default and doesn't work in groups, and the company does store chat data and do some moderation.

Signal now has a real shot at being the Zoom of 2021, the app that goes from relative unknown to totally and utterly mainstream. And it has a few major things going for it.

  • It's a 501c3 nonprofit, financed by donations and grants (and, ironically, $50 million that co-founder Brian Acton made from selling WhatsApp to Facebook), which aligns its interests with its users in a much less complicated way than a company that sells ads or even business licenses. It's like Wikipedia that way, and it's working pretty well so far in both cases.
  • Signal's also been able to prove its privacy chops in court: After having user data subpoenaed, it basically said "we literally have nothing to give you," and then told the world the same thing. (Though to be fair I haven't seen a better case for Signal than from Edward Snowden, who responded to a tweet that asked why users should trust Signal with: "I use it every day and I'm not dead yet.")
  • Of course, growth might also bring some of the same issues that faced Zoom, from scaling challenges to unforeseen security issues. (Or just unexpected annoyances. Raise your hand if you got 50,000 notifications this week telling you a friend just joined Signal. Pro tip: You can turn it off.)

So does this mean we're headed toward a privacy-at-all-costs internet? That's a tricky one. There's been a renewed conversation in the last week — partly spurred by the WhatsApp vs. Signal stuff and partly by Jack Dorsey's explanation for why Twitter banned President Trump — which ended in a case for a decentralized, blockchain-based internet. (Dorsey's also a long-term fan of Signal.)

  • It certainly looks like we're heading toward a rethinking and reinvention of some of the tools and technologies we use to run our businesses and live our lives. And if you want to build those tools and technologies, you're going to have to think hard about everything up to and including the basic corporate structure in which you operate.
  • But there's a broader conversation to be had here, about the virtues of being able to moderate your platform pitted against the virtues of preserving user privacy at all costs. There's no way to see what's happening in Signal chats, and that's very much both good and bad.

The good news, though: For years, there was little upward mobility in being "the privacy option." Now it looks like that's one of the best things you can be.

Google

The new rules of M&A

Google announced yesterday that it had completed its $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit, which was first announced more than a year ago. Thing is, "completed" doesn't sound like quite the right word:

  • "The Antitrust Division's investigation of Google's acquisition of Fitbit remains ongoing," Justice Department lawyer Alex Okuliar said, per The Wall Street Journal. "Although the Division has not reached a final decision about whether to pursue an enforcement action, the Division continues to investigate whether Google's acquisition of Fitbit may harm competition and consumers in the United States." (Google, for its part, said the DOJ allowed the deal to close.)
  • Meanwhile, Australia's competition regulator delayed its decision on the deal until March, but made clear that it doesn't like the deal.

If everything is done and dusted like Google says, the promises the company had to make to get the deal approved might be precedent-setting for tech M&A going forward.

  • To get the EU to agree to the deal, Google had to promise not to discriminate against Fitbit rivals who might want to connect to Android phones, and to honor existing integrations and deals that Fitbit had made with other manufacturers. It was also required to store Fitbit data separately from Google data, so it couldn't be used for ads.
  • In announcing that the deal was done, Google's Rick Osterloh seemed unworried: "This deal has always been about devices, not data, and we've been clear since the beginning that we will protect Fitbit users' privacy." Google's going to have to keep saying that, and regulators will have to keep making sure it's the truth.

COVID

Hi, I've been vaccinated

Anna Kramer writes: Microsoft, Salesforce and Oracle are partnering with health care companies to create open-sourced encrypted vaccination cards, commonly called vaccine passports, for those who have received the coronavirus vaccine.

  • The tech firms have joined up with health-data management companies, including Mitre, Evernorth, Epic and Cerner, as well as the Mayo Clinic and the Commons Project, a tech nonprofit, to create the Vaccine Credential Initiative (VCI).
  • The group aims to create "Smart Health Cards," with open, interoperable standards that allow everyone access to their vaccination records. This will help people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 safely return to work while maintaining their privacy, according to a statement released Thursday.

Users should be able to access their vaccination records through digital wallet apps or a printed QR code under the standards. The VCI's participating health organizations have agreed to provide that data under a standardized framework using "W3C Verifiable Credential and HL7 FHIR standards," according to the statement.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

People Are Talking

From a fun oral history of Wikipedia, Wikimedia director Katherine Maher explains her product development strategy:

  • "When I have a big idea or a thing that I'd like us to do, the way to do it is to go to the community with humility. They're probably going to find all the flaws in it, and it's going to be painful. And then at the end of the process, it's going to be better."

Phone notifications on your face? Bad use of AR glasses, Facebook's Andrew Bosworth said:

  • "I gotta say, the notifications don't motivate me that much. I'm more excited about the other cases. What are the actual things that I use the phone for, that maybe I don't have to take it out of my pocket to use anymore if I have a really good device?"

The automotive chip shortage isn't an easy problem to solve, GlobalFoundries' Mike Hogan said:

  • "The long and short of it is, demand is up about 50%. And there's no asset-intensive industry like ours that has 50% capacity lying around."

The U.S. Trade Representative investigated Austria, Spain, and the U.K.'s digital service taxes, and it didn't like what it found:

  • "Each of the DSTs discriminates against U.S. companies, is inconsistent with prevailing principles of international taxation, and burden or restricts U.S. commerce."

Making Moves

Deval Patrick is joining Twilio's board of directors. The former Mass. governor also has a long history in business and investment.

Sri Srinivasan is Zuora's new chief product and engineering officer. He's previously done stints at Cisco and Microsoft.

Qualtrics hired three new execs: Julia Anas joins from Adobe as its new chief people officer; Edward Chen joins from Twilio as head of corporate development and strategy; and Gina Sheibley is leaving Salesforce to be its chief communications officer.

In Other News

  • On Protocol: Google says it's fighting election lies, but its programmatic ads are funding them. A new report found that more than 1,600 brands have advertisements running on sites that push pro-Trump conspiracy theories, with the majority of those ads served by Google.
  • The U.S. added Xiaomi to its investor blacklist, forcing American investors to divest the stock. Its shares fell 10% on the news.
  • Self-driving delivery vehicles will be exempted from some crash standards. The NHTSA said the rule change could save costs of around $995 per vehicle.
  • The Internet Association is struggling, Axios reports. It's apparently becoming increasingly difficult to balance the concerns of Big Tech with small tech, and the industry isn't particularly engaged with the lobbying group.
  • Hagens Berman brought a class action lawsuit against Amazon. It alleges that the company and big book publishers have engaged in price fixing. The firm previously won a similar lawsuit against Apple.
  • Norway's consumer protection agency said it's too hard to cancel Amazon Prime. It asked the country's consumer authority to determine whether Amazon had broken the law. In the U.S., advocate groups asked the FTC to investigate Amazon over the same problem.
  • Poland wants to make it illegal for social media companies to remove lawful content. The proposed legislation is in direct response to Facebook and Twitter's actions against Trump.
  • New office-leasing activity in San Francisco fell 71% last year, according to Cushman & Wakefield. Only 2.2 million square feet was leased, the lowest level since the early '90s.
  • I don't know if you heard it, but last night's Clubhouse chat between San Francisco district attorney Chesa Boudin and a group of tech folks led by Founders Fund's Mike Solana was one of the more interesting debates I've heard recently. If you missed it, Eric Newcomer's tweets are a good way to catch up.

One More Thing

Hype House New York

What do you get when a Silicon Valley-minded guy is in the race for mayor of New York City? You get Andrew Yang's platform: universal basic income, legalizing marijuana, "embracing co-living" and funding "content creator collectives" all over the city. If he wins, I hope someone invents a dance called The Andrew Yang Buy Me a House.

A MESSAGE FROM MICRON

Micron

For Raj Hazra, who is senior vice president of corporate strategy and communications at Micron, there has never been a more thrilling time than this golden age of data. In this interview, Hazra describes how "we are now at the doorstep of taking things that we thought were science fiction and making them real, and it's only going to be exponentially faster going forward". Read more from Micron's Raj Hazra.

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 weekend, see you Sunday.

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