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TikTok’s many possible futures

Image: Juan Pablo Bravo / Protocol
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Good morning! This Friday, everybody wants something different from TikTok, Amazon wants to track everything about you, and get ready to start charging your face mask.

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The Big Story

Everybody's got a plan for TikTok

TikTok has become a Rorschach test over the last few months. You can look at it and imagine turning it into … well, apparently just about anything. It's the future of entertainment! A trove of data! An advertising gold mine! The next generation of shopping! Maybe it'll fix Quibi! (It won't fix Quibi.)

The most recent idea comes from Walmart, which has thrown its weight behind Microsoft's bid to buy the company. It's currently unclear what that joining of forces would look like, exactly. But what Walmart sees in TikTok is pretty clear:

  • Social-driven commerce is a huge, and growing, part of retail. Bloomberg had a good story in June about influencers essentially recreating the Home Shopping Network on their own channels, and raking in sales at crazy pace.
  • And, if you haven't noticed, you can buy things in practically every app now: Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest and so many others are pushing hard into social commerce. Amazon's been a default winner in that space for a while, largely thanks to its affiliate program, but Walmart could help build something bigger in TikTok.
  • Getting in on the relative ground floor of the next shopping boom would also get Walmart ahead of Amazon, which really hasn't fully bought into the space yet. Which is weird, actually, given how perfect a platform for this Twitch already is.

Walmart doesn't need to own TikTok to be the Official Shopping Partner of the fastest-growing thing in social. So the company's smart to get in with whoever TikTok's new owner is.

Whatever's going to happen, it now seems likely to happen ahead of the September 20 deadline, and maybe as soon as next week. Three numbers you should know in the meantime:

  • 100 million: The number of monthly active TikTok users in the U.S., which is more than double the figure from a year ago.
  • $20 billion: The highest bid we know of so far, from Oracle, for TikTok's operations in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. That bid also includes an agreement that 50% of TikTok's profit would go back to ByteDance.
  • 0: The number of CEOs TikTok has right now. Also the number of jobs Kevin Mayer has.

Wearables

Amazon wants to track everything about you

Mike Murphy writes: On the surface, Amazon's new Halo wearable seems like a pretty straightforward offering, on par with Apple's Watch and Google's Fitbit. The water resistant wearable band tracks your activity and sleep quality, but the app also has a few features that go well beyond what competitors offer. Unlike the next Apple Watch or the newest Fitbit, they could have potentially damaging ramifications if rolled out improperly.

  • The wearable will track two new types of data. The first is body fat: The app uses your phone's depth-sensor cameras and machine-learning algorithms to build a 3D model of your body, which is uploaded to the cloud, processed (and then deleted, Amazon says), and used to determine what percentage of your body is fat.
  • The second is your "tone," analyzed by listening to how you sound when you speak all day. Halo will also give you suggestions on how to improve your tone. "For example, tone results may reveal that a difficult work call leads to less positivity in communication with a customer's family, an indication of the impact of stress on emotional well-being," the company said in a release.

This tweet about how Amazon uses data, from Ali Alkhatib, a research fellow at the Center for Applied Data Ethics, had me thinking about the company's history with automated systems.

  • Earlier this year, Amazon announced a one-year pause on allowing its facial-recognition software to be used by police. That same software in the past incorrectly matched 28 U.S. congresspeople with mugshots, and the ACLU found "the false matches were disproportionately of people of color."
  • Amazon's Ring video doorbells have reportedly been accessed by the company's developers in the past. Ring has partnered with over 600 police forces across the U.S., having made a concerted effort to woo them into selling these cameras to their local communities.

Halo could really raise the stakes on what could go wrong: It's dealing with complex systems that would require huge, diverse datasets to work fairly and with any level of accuracy. Amazon told Protocol that Halo's features were "trained on a large amount of data across demographics," but history shows that bias is rife in machine learning algorithms.

  • The logical progression here is troubling. Are we on the precipice of people being convicted of crimes on the basis of AI data that shows they had an aggressive tone? Or something even worse?

Spam

Robocalls could ruin contact tracing

Shakeel Hashim writes: Robocalls have ruined many things in life: lie-ins, movie nights, our entire sense of trust. But amid the COVID pandemic, they could have life-threatening consequences.

Contact tracing relies on being able to call up strangers and speak to them. But thanks to the rise of spam calls, Glenn Weinstein told me, "people don't answer the phone as often." Weinstein is the chief customer officer at Twilio, which is licensing its communications technology to numerous state and city organizations, including Illinois and New York City.

  • "One of the keys to making these initiatives successful is setting up the right phone numbers," Weinstein said, "so that when your phone rings it says it's from the state of Illinois contact tracing team." Twilio helps set up those caller IDs and SMS short codes so people don't just ignore the messages they get.

Weinstein said Twilio's tech is helping in other ways too, like getting large remote call centers up and running. Some agencies are also using "outbound interactive voice response systems" — where you get a call from a robot that records your answers and passes them into a system.

  • "We've been involved in helping agencies to increase the level of automation in order to help their agents scale faster," Weinstein said. When you're dealing with ever-expanding networks of people — and the ticking clock of COVID — efficiency makes a big difference.

Twilio is charging government agencies for these products, and has begun working with some universities and private companies too. That means you could find yourself on the receiving end of a Twilio-powered call soon. If you answer it.

Join us next week

Intel

Edge computing is an emerging concept that holds great promise. AI best practices are still evolving in the cloud. Join us on Tuesday at 9 a.m. PT for our virtual event Computing at the Edge. Protocol's Tom Krazit will host a discussion with Edgeworx's Farah Papaioannou, IBM's Rob High, Cox Communications' Nancy Li and Swim.ai's Simon Crosby. This event is presented in partnership with Intel.

RSVP here

People Are Talking

After the shooting in Kenosha, Color of Change's Rashad Robinson urged Facebook employees to force change:

  • "Today is a chance to think about the decisions being made at your company, the people and incentives responsible, and the story you will tell yourself and others in the future about what you did or didn't do to push back. Being on the right side requires action."

Amazon started operating in Sweden, and the country's Consumer Association had some not-so-welcoming remarks:

  • "Stop hiding behind your platform. Accept responsibility for what you stock, sell and advertise. And take responsibility for your customers' safety and privacy."

What does Lindsay Graham think about QAnon? Here's what Lindsay Graham thinks about QAnon:

  • "QAnon is batshit crazy. Crazy stuff. Inspiring people to violence. I think it is a platform that plays off people's fears, that compels them to do things they normally wouldn't do."

Amazon sued Brian Hall when he left for Google, and he said his isn't the only such story:

  • "I am amazed how many people have reached out to me worried they will be sued by a big co if they leave their job. So wrong that companies, especially really big ones, can chill employees that much."

Making Moves

Chano Fernandez is the new co-CEO of Workday. He was previously co-president, and will now run the company alongside Aneel Bhusri.

Delivery Hero acquired InstaShop, as the global delivery-app market continues to consolidate. Delivery Hero paid $360 million for the company.

Nick Kalayjian is Rivian's new EVP of engineering and product. He joined from Plenty, but was at Tesla for more than a decade before that. Tesla and Rivian are already engaged in an unrelated lawsuit, so this probably won't be a particularly popular move in Fremont.

Okta is the latest company to go permanently remote. It expects up to 85% of its 2,600 employees to work remotely, and CEO Todd McKinnon said a lot of people are thinking about moving to Canada.

In Other News

  • On Protocol: A group of activists are suing the Trump administration over its Section 230 executive order, arguing that it was retaliatory and infringed upon platform users' First Amendment rights.
  • DC's Attorney General sued Instacart, accusing the company of deceiving customers and failing to pay taxes. The AG said Instacart's "service fee," which went straight to Instacart, looked like a tip.
  • Did Google unfairly bundle adtech products? Antitrust investigators are looking into it, according to Bloomberg. The matter at hand is "tying," where the sale of one product is conditional on the purchase of another — which is what the '90s Microsoft case initially focused on.
  • Facebook's anti-Apple campaign continues: It tried to tell users that Apple takes a 30% cut of digital service sales, but says Apple stopped it from displaying that message in-app.
  • Protestors built a guillotine outside Jeff Bezos' DC house. They were led by former Amazon worker Christian Smalls, who called on Bezos to double the company's minimum wage to $30.
  • On Protocol: The Trump campaign is using Facebook ads in swing states to encourage supporters to request their vote-by-mail ballots. Thousands of ads have been viewed over 1 million times in some of those key states.
  • Don't miss this profile of Zhang Yiming, ByteDance's founder, from The Wall Street Journal. One interesting tidbit: He once campaigned against the Chinese government's censorship of the internet. Life comes at you fast, eh?
  • The Aurora supercomputer will likely be delayed, thanks to problems with Intel's manufacturing. For a project supposed to showcase America's technological prowess, that's … not ideal.
  • Fortnite launched its new Marvel-themed season, but Apple users can't play it. The iOS and Mac version of the game is stuck on the last update, and no longer supports cross-play with PCs or consoles.
  • Not caught up on the OneCoin scandal? Read this. The scam brought in billions of dollars for founder Ruja Ignatova (crazy tidbit: she was even introduced to George W. Bush's brother as part of a deal to buy an oil field in Madagascar) but was undone by her brother cooperating with the FBI.

One More Thing

Masks are gadgets now

Honestly, I'm surprised it took this long before someone came out with a battery-powered, full-featured, tech-out-the-wazoo face mask. Oh, sorry, "wearable air purifier."

Join us next week

Intel

Edge computing is an emerging concept that holds great promise. AI best practices are still evolving in the cloud. Join us on Tuesday, September 1 at 9 a.m. PT / noon ET for our virtual event "Computing at the Edge." Protocol's Tom Krazit will host a discussion with Edgeworx's Farah Papaioannou, IBM's Rob High, Cox Communications' Nancy Li and Swim.ai's Simon Crosby. This event is presented in partnership with Intel.

RSVP here

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from 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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