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Tech’s new regulators

Jessica Rosenworcel

Good morning! This Friday, the FTC and FCC have new acting chairs, the Alphabet Workers Union has big plans and the Beeper app is the universal messenger everyone's talking about.

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The Big Story

Tech's new regulators

Joe Biden has named Becca Slaughter and Jessica Rosenworcel as the acting chairs of the FTC and FCC, making them two of the most powerful people in tech policy. (One caveat: They're just acting chairs, so Biden could theoretically replace them. Trump appointed Ajit Pai with no acting label, and Biden could have done the same here). Protocol's Emily Birnbaum and Issie Lapowsky recently sat down with both to talk about what's top of mind for them going forward. To sum up: It's all about equity and access.

Becca Slaughter's focus is to make the FTC's enforcement actions anti-racist and increase its focus on the response to the pandemic.

  • Being anti-racist through antitrust, she said, means focusing on cases of harm that disproportionately affect people of color, such as algorithmic bias. "We see disparate outcomes coming out of algorithmic decision-making that disproportionately affect and harm Black and brown communities and affect their ability to participate equally in society," she said. "That's something we need to address."
  • She's also skeptical of Facebook's defense against the FTC's antitrust case, calling its argument "beyond a stretch."

Jessica Rosenworcel's big priority is getting 100% of Americans access to quality internet.

  • "I think we need 100% of our households online," she said. "It needs to be a national policy — 100%, nothing less, because everyone needs to have access to affordable and reliable broadband."
  • She's also highly skeptical of FCC involvement in Section 230 reform: "That's not something that my agency should be doing. Not today, not next week, not next year."

There's plenty of speculation about other candidates who could land either official nomination. FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks is an obvious competitor for Rosenworcel, and Washington insiders tell Emily they're wondering what's next for Biden-linked former FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny.

Unions

What the AWU wants

Anna Kramer writes: Since its launch in early January, the Alphabet Workers Union has almost quadrupled in size to more than 700 Googlers. As it continues to grow, the AWU hopes to eventually support specific groups of workers to form collective bargaining units, especially because the union workers are already organized into groups by their location and the type of work they do.

  • AWU wants to become an organizing nexus wherever possible alongside the Communications Workers of America, group spokesperson Alex Peterson told me: "The creation of bargaining units is something we hope we can foster by putting our overall support in terms of being able to answer people's questions."
  • The long game is about so much more than formal bargaining. "We want to really reinvigorate what it means to actually be a community of Googlers, which is something that's been eroding over the past four or five years, or even longer," he said.

Retaliation from Google is obvious worry No. 1, Peterson said, but the new union has other roadblocks ahead as well.

  • Union dues can be a deterrent: The higher the salary, the more reluctant some people become, especially those with high Bay Area rents or children and families who depend on the income.
  • And some people just don't understand the point of joining or paying dues without a collective bargaining unit. What traditionally justifies the dues payment is the arguing for higher comp.

The AWU's next year will be all about proving its worth to get past those barriers. "We have to prove ourselves in a certain sense with our workplace victories to demonstrate what we have to offer to those who might be less tuned in to the consequences of some of Google's product decisions," Peterson said.

Apps

The super-messaging app

Eric Migicovsky built a messaging app. Well, sort of: He built a messaging app that is made up of messaging apps. It's called Beeper, and for $10 a month it gathers 15 different messaging services — from Slack to WhatsApp, Discord to Signal — all into one place.

  • Some of the integrations were easy to get working, Migicovsky said, and some were tough. The toughest? iMessage, which is so tricky that Migicovsky is sending users jailbroken (and often cracked) iPhones that can essentially act as relays for incoming messages. That's as hacky as it gets!
  • He claims he isn't trying to replace all those apps. "We try to support all the features that each network has, but we're not going to support every minor feature," he said. "It's mainly text, video, images, audio attachments, group messaging." If you want to do all the Discord things, he said, go to Discord. But sending your buddy a picture shouldn't be only possible inside one app.

Beeper's underlying tech is based on Matrix, a decentralized messaging protocol that's quickly gaining steam right now.

  • The idea is simple: Why should every messaging app be its own walled garden, rather than a universal protocol like email or the web that anyone can build on top of? Even if you're ditching WhatsApp for Signal, you're still giving a lot of control to one company and its servers. Matrix wants to distribute the load, and the responsibility.
  • Twitter also appears to be interested in Matrix, and is doing some of its Bluesky work on the platform. But Matthew Hodgson, a co-founder of Matrix, said he's talked with a lot of the big names in tech recently.

A MESSAGE FROM SYNCHRONY

SYNCHRONY

Contactless payments are no longer a nice to have.

At Synchrony, we understand the challenges of running a business. Our financial and technology solutions, like touchless payment tools, help you offer your customers more tailored experiences, so they keep coming back.

Learn more about our solutions.

People Are Talking

Yes, people are leaving California, but John Chambers said the big problem is nobody wants to come anymore:

  • "We're a state that is taking an entitlement approach, it's not a good state to do business. You're seeing many companies thinking about leaving and, even worse, none of my startups are thinking about coming to California."

On Protocol: Elastic changed two of its open-source licenses just to stick it to AWS, and corporate strategist VM (Vicky) Brasseur thinks it's the wrong call:

  • "They are aiming to hit Amazon, but what they are doing is throwing a boulder at Amazon floating peacefully in a pond of an ecosystem. I don't think it's worth it. They are going to destroy their ecosystem."

Andrew Bosworth told Facebook employees to start prioritizing privacy:

  • "The burden is on us to demonstrate why certain data is truly required for the product to work … Global sentiment has clearly shifted to the point that people are willing to accept sacrifices in the quality of the product."

Parler's case against AWS got shot down hard by Judge Barbara Jacobs Rothstein:

  • "The Court explicitly rejects any suggestion that the balance of equities or the public interest favors obligating AWS to host the kind of abusive, violent content at issue in this case, particularly in light of the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol."
  • And now the FBI might be investigating Parler, too.

Elon Musk is feeling charitable:

  • "Am donating $100M towards a prize for best carbon capture technology."

Making Moves

Patreon is thinking about going public this year, The Information reported. Substack and OnlyFans get all the press, but Patreon is doing big creator business.

Instacart is cutting 1,877 jobs, including all 10 of the workers who recently formed a union.

Scott Siskind is back. The creator of the much-loved Slate Star Codex blog chose … Substack, obviously.

Sam Fisher is Okta's new head of dynamic work, helping the company rethink its work culture for a more remote world.

Steve Jurczyk is the new acting administrator at NASA, taking over from Jim Bridenstine.

In Other News

  • On Protocol: Facebook referred its Trump ban to the Oversight Board. But does the average user care what the Board has to say?
  • House representatives are taking on radicalization, and told Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Susan Wojcicki to tweak their algorithms. They asked Facebook to undergo a "fundamental reexamination."
  • On Protocol: Christian Klein is trying to reinvent SAP. One big example: a huge overhaul of the sales team's incentives.
  • Google threatened to shut down search in Australia, saying that proposed legislation forcing it to pay news publishers would hurt its business. That's despite having just agreed to pay French publishers.
  • Apple might launch a VR headset before its AR glasses. It's reportedly going to be very, very expensive and limited in availability.
  • Samsung might open a $10 billion semiconductor fab in Texas, Bloomberg reported. The news comes as Intel said it wants the bulk of its manufacturing to be done in-house by 2023.
  • Renesas and NXP are hiking car chip prices amid shortages, Nikkei Asia reported. Telecom equipment could also be affected by the price hikes.
  • China's central bank proposed anti-monopoly rules targeted at mobile payment services. The rules could halve Ant's valuation.
  • On Protocol: Loon is shutting down, with Alphabet giving up on the internet-beaming weather balloon project.

One More Thing

Everything's a smart thing!

There's no weekend project like a Raspberry Pi weekend project. And now, with the new Raspberry Pi Pico, a microcontroller that costs a grand total of $4, you can practically wallpaper your house with the little gizmos. They're low power, super simple, and have specs straight out of the 1980s. (264K of RAM!) But they're an awesome complement to lots of funky DIY smart-home projects. I can't wait to ruin a thousand of these trying to make my oven smart.

A MESSAGE FROM SYNCHRONY

SYNCHRONY

Contactless payments are no longer a nice to have.

At Synchrony, we understand the challenges of running a business. Our financial and technology solutions, like touchless payment tools, help you offer your customers more tailored experiences, so they keep coming back.

Learn more about our solutions.

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.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Geoffrey Starks' and Terrell McSweeny's names. This story was updated on Jan. 22, 2021.

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