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The battle over web privacy

A worker hidden behind a computer

Good morning! This Wednesday, debates at the World Wide Web Consortium are happening in plain sight, Apple has plans for buy now pay later, Lalamove might ditch its U.S. IPO plans, and REvil vanished from the dark web.

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The Big Story

World War W3C

The World Wide Web Consortium is usually one of the web's geekiest corners, where developers and engineers from across the web and around the globe collaborate on new technical specifications to ensure websites work no matter what browser you're using or where you're using it.

But over the last year, the W3C has become a key battleground in the war over web privacy. And it's getting pretty ugly.

It all started when Google announced key details of its plan to make Chrome more private by killing off third-party cookies and other techniques businesses use to track people around the web.

  • The announcement was a cataclysmic event for companies that rely on tracking and inspired a slew of newcomers to join the W3C in opposition to the new privacy standards Google, Apple and others were developing.

James Rosewell, who heads up the U.K.-based firm 51Degrees, was the most vocal new entrant. He began filling the W3C's forums with concerns about tech giants' anticompetitive behavior and questions about whether people really want Apple and Google making privacy decisions for them at all.

  • Rosewell and others in his camp view the privacy standards being proposed by Google as well as Apple as power grabs. "I'm deeply concerned about the future in a world where these companies are just unrestrained," Rosewell told me about his approach. "If there isn't someone presenting a counter argument, then you get group-think and bubble behavior."

But not everyone sees it Rosewell's way. For longtime W3C members and privacy advocates, the sudden influx of opposition has been a maddening development, which they say is stalling progress on new privacy features that are long overdue.

  • "They use cynical terms like: 'We're here to protect user choice' or 'We're here to protect the open web' or, frankly, horseshit like this," said Pete Snyder, director of privacy at Brave, which makes an anti-tracking browser. "They're there to slow down privacy protections that the browsers are creating."
  • Snyder and others argue that these new arrivals, who drape themselves in the flag of competition, are really just concern trolls, capitalizing on fears about Big Tech's power to cement the position of existing privacy-invasive technologies.
  • "I'm very much concerned about the influence and power of browser vendors to unilaterally do things, but I'm more concerned about companies using that concern to drive worse outcomes," said Ashkan Soltani, former chief technologist to the Federal Trade Commission and co-author of the California Consumer Privacy Act.

These debates and confrontations are happening in plain sight in public GitHub forums and open Zoom meetings. The W3C is perhaps the only place on the internet where you can find Facebook and Apple engineers negotiating and sometimes squabbling over exactly how new features should be built.

  • That makes this whole debate particularly tricky for Facebook, by the way, which relies on tracking for its massive ad business, but is in no position to publicly condemn other companies' privacy proposals after its own parade of privacy scandals in recent years.

Luckily for Facebook, other members of the W3C who are less constrained have also been highly effective in getting their point across, particularly to regulators.

  • Last year, Rosewell filed a complaint with the U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority, accusing Google of anticompetitive practices and asking the CMA to push Google to delay its plans for Chrome.
  • The CMA took Rosewell up on that complaint this year, and just last month, Google announced it would, in fact, delay its plans to ban third-party cookies.
  • As part of these negotiations, the CMA said it will be taking on an active role in the development of new standards, suggesting the regulator is about to become an influential voice within the W3C.

To privacy advocates, this is a sure sign of which side is winning the fight. Soltani said regulators are being sold on the idea that privacy and competition are on a collision course. That, he said, is a false choice. "They could have required everyone to not access that data, Google included, which would have been a net benefit for competition and privacy," Soltani said.

— Issie Lapowsky (email | twitter)

For more, read the full story at Protocol.com.

A MESSAGE FROM ANT GROUP

According to a Nielsen Report, 94% of Chinese tourists said they would pay with their phones if the method becomes more widely adopted overseas; 93% said using that method would likely increase their spending. To meet them where they are, more and more U.S. companies — both here and in China — are embracing Alipay.

Learn more

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Join Protocol's Issie Lapowsky and Megan Rose Dickey for a conversation with Earthseed's Ifeoma Ozoma, Hodgestar Scientific Computing's Jack Poulson and Expensify's David Barrett about the Empowered Employee Era and what that means for companies going forward.
July 19 at 9 a.m. PT / 12 p.m. ET Learn More

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People Are Talking

Elon Musk said the SolarCity acquisition wasn't as costly as people think:

  • "Even if we had simply bought SolarCity and shut it completely down we would have gotten $3 billion in cash flows for $2 billion. This is a no brainer."

Mississippi is deleting misleading comments from its health department Facebook page, a spokesperson said:

  • "The comments section of our Facebook page has increasingly come to be dominated by misinformation about COVID-19."

On Protocol | Workplace: VR is one way to help people understand bias in the workplace, Praxis Labs's Elise Smith says:

  • "It's not just building empathy, it's not just identifying barriers to equity but taking action to produce more just, equitable and inclusive workplaces."

Making Moves

Amazon snagged a Facebook team to help develop its $10 billion satellite project, according to The Information. The team reportedly includes more than a dozen employees in the LA area.

On Protocol | Workplace: TikTok will let employees work from home twice a week when its offices reopen. The company hasn't yet announced a back-to-office date.

General Motors is dropping $71 million on a new campus. The Pasadena-based center will allow the company to work on tech projects like VR and flying cars.

Apple will let you buy now and pay later. The company is working with Goldman Sachs on a tool that allows Apple Card users to pay for items over a couple weeks or several months.

Alan Estevez is Biden's commerce undersecretary pick. The Deloitte consultant would be in charge of a bureau that has a big say in what technologies are exported to China.

Jen Easterly will head cybersecurity at the Department of Homeland Security. She'll play a huge role in the country's handling of ransomware attacks.

Lindsay Gorman is taking over tech strategy at the White House. She was previously a fellow at Alliance for Securing Democracy and ran a tech consulting firm.

Joseph Jerome is joining Facebook Reality Labs to work on privacy and the future of tech. He previously worked on privacy and data at the Center for Democracy and Technology and taught at Seton Hall University.

In Other News

  • Facebook knew about the Capitol riot before it happened, according to an excerpt from the bombshell book "An Ugly Truth" that came out yesterday. Company execs wanted Mark Zuckerberg to call Trump about their concerns, but they bowed out to avoid bad press.
  • Alibaba and Tencent might soon work together. The companies have famously kept each other out of their platforms, but think opening up their walled gardens could help avoid the ire of China's regulators
  • U.S. telecom companies will be reimbursed for equipment from Chinese companies currently installed in their networks. The FCC OK'd a $1.9 billion program that subsidizes the cost of replacing gear from Chinese companies deemed "national security risks," like Huawei and ZTE.
  • On Protocol: REvil left the dark web, at least for now. It's not clear if the government deleted the ransomware gang's pages or if REvil itself backed down.
  • Software developer or local celeb? Tech workers like IT specialists and system architects are in such high demand that employers are treating them like stars, pushing them through quick interview processes to get them into their companies.
  • On Protocol | Fintech: Bitcoin is a big opportunity for Black entrepreneurs. Many people who have experienced systemic racism within the financial system see crypto as a way to rebuild their wealth, and are building a powerful community around it.
  • Amazon might have too much influence in the JEDI contract. Emails, interviews and other documents dug up from a few years back show a cushy relationship between Amazon execs and Pentagon officials. That raises some red flags for Amazon, which still wants the deal.
  • Lalamove wants to move its planned $1 billion IPO. The delivery firm said it's weighing whether going public in Hong Kong rather than the U.S. makes more sense, while the country continues to clamp down on overseas listings.

One More Thing

Bad podcast therapy

Even the best of friends can offer the worst advice. But you don't have to take bad advice from a good friend. Instead, let the Movie Therapy podcast give you bad advice. Every Friday, critics Rafer Guzman and Kristen Meinzer offer iffy guidance, but suggest great shows or movies that can help you get through whatever issues you're dealing with.

Topics range from how to relax when you're starting to feel like your mother to what to do if you're afraid of being killed in your sleep. And if you're at one of the companies that's reopening offices this week, you might want to start with its most recent episode: "I Don't Want To Go Back To The Office."

A MESSAGE FROM ANT GROUP

According to a Nielsen Report, 94% of Chinese tourists said they would pay with their phones if the method becomes more widely adopted overseas; 93% said using that method would likely increase their spending. To meet them where they are, more and more U.S. companies — both here and in China — are embracing Alipay.

Learn more

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Correction: This story was updated to correctly explain the circumstances of Amazon's acquisition of Facebook's satellite internet team. Updated July 14, 2021.

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