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How not to talk about privacy

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Good morning! This Tuesday, what WhatsApp got wrong about privacy, a look at the Compass S-1, and Sergey Brin wants to build a giant battery.

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The Big Story

WhatsApp's privacy mess

For a privacy policy change that wasn't all that major, WhatsApp sure blew the execution. It's now almost two months since the company's first attempt to tell users that it was changing its policy, and there's still a lot of confusion out there.

Some quick background: WhatsApp changed its policy so that when users decide to message with businesses, those businesses can collect and store a bit of data on customers. As I wrote for Protocol today, business chat is a key part of the company's future — 175 million people already use it every day — and so it needed a subtle tweak.

  • But by saying "we're changing our privacy policy," WhatsApp made the rookie mistake of actually encouraging people to read the privacy policy. Which says, among other things, that "as part of the Facebook Companies, WhatsApp receives information from, and shares information with, this family of companies."
  • That's not new to the policy, but it was news to a lot of WhatsApp users.

Nothing actually changed here, Facebook's head of WhatsApp Will Cathcart told me. "What we're trying to do here is add new, optional business features — people don't need to use them — and explain it for everyone in our terms and privacy policy," he said.

  • But WhatsApp has had to explain and re-explain and re-re-explain the changes. It's also now trying to find ways to convince users all over again that privacy really is a core value of WhatsApp. Because a lot of people don't believe that anymore.
  • Meanwhile, a court in India — WhatsApp's most popular market — is deciding whether the policy update, and the fact that users don't get to opt out, is against the law.

I see two takeaways here for any business. One, that your privacy policy should be written as narrowly and humanly as possible — because if you lawyer-speak yourself into doing whatever you want, you'll scare people off. And two, that people actually care about privacy now.

  • Cathcart said that was his lesson, too: "A lot of people say, 'do people really care?' They care. And you can see that really clearly here."
  • Now, Cathcart said he's learned the value of explaining things slowly and carefully. WhatsApp is trying to do just that, and give people more time — until May 15 — to decide what to do. But the policy hasn't changed since the backlash. And the backlash hasn't gone away.


Compass is shaking up the real-estate biz

I guess not everybody's going the SPAC route this year: Real-estate startup Compass published its S-1 last night. And the last 12 months have been good for its business:

  • Compass did $3.7 billion in revenue last year, up from $2.4 billion the year before, and shrunk its losses down to $270.2 million.
  • It started off rough, though: Compass laid off 15% of its staff last March, before things rebounded like crazy.

The Compass pitch is very "Uber for real estate," in that it takes a relatively everyday thing — selling houses to people who want to buy them — and sprinkles some tech on top. (Here's a good history of the company's complicated reputation in the space.)

  • Its big thing, if you didn't know, is acting as sort of a Salesforce for real estate agents, with financial data, buyer analytics and tools for taking snappy videos of homes. It's also (mostly) just a real estate broker.
  • Its S-1 touts the Compass CRM, which is "powered by AI," which means … not a lot. But the company points out that rather than try to make real estate agents a thing of the past, it's working with them. That has given Compass shortcuts into a lot of markets, and has helped it grow fast.

But what could go wrong? Let's look at some risk factors:

  • The economy is everything. More than most tech companies, Compass is sensitive to things like interest rates, and there's a growing sense that the current free-money policies can't last forever.
  • It's a gig economy company. Agents on Compass are independent contractors, which comes with some of the same regulatory and conduct questions that Uber and DoorDash deal with.
  • What if somebody does get rid of the agents? Compass has some automated tools, but its primary competition is a middleman-free way to buy a home. We're not there yet, but the iBuyers are growing.

Compass was last valued at $6.4 billion, but if Opendoor's SPAC and the recent market performance of companies like Zillow and Redfin are any indication, it's likely to see a jump from that when it goes public.

(By the way, longtime Source Code readers might remember that because Compass is going public now, Protocol's Biz Carson loses our bet. But she's on leave, so I'll let it slide.)

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In an interview with Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., Lantzach shares his take on edge computing: There are more innovations to come — and technology leaders should think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

Read more

People Are Talking

Apple's walled garden is also a safe space for hackers, Citizen Lab's Bill Marczak said:

  • "It's a double-edged sword. You're going to keep out a lot of the riffraff by making it harder to break iPhones. But the 1% of top hackers are going to find a way in and, once they're inside, the impenetrable fortress of the iPhone protects them."

Amy Klobuchar made clear that she's going to keep pushing for legislation to fight back against Big Tech:

  • "Do we want better safeguards on tech platforms? Yes. Increased transparency? Yes. Nondiscrimination rules? Yes. I would say much of this we can do with rules of the road we put in place through legislation which until now and this year wasn't even seriously being considered."

Some things about work can move online, Sherry Turkle said, but don't let mentoring get lost:

  • "I wouldn't have had my successes in my life had I not been mentored face-to-face so many times, by so many people who cared about me and who paid attention to me. I don't think that's so easily done on a screen. Mentoring really happens best face-to-face. I feel very strongly about that, even as we've gotten so used to screens in this pandemic."

Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicted big shake-ups in the ISP market, and said there's one surprising reason cable isn't dead yet:

  • "You're always clicking between the apps, all the time. Once you can get the whole aggregation together and make it look very similar to what you do in a cable environment, then that interactivity becomes second nature and doesn't really matter who's doing the bundle. It could just be your set-box provider, your smart TV provider."

Making Moves

Sergey Brin would like to hire someone — maybe you! — for his airship company, LTA Research and Exploration. The job: to build an absurdly huge hydrogen fuel cell.

Goldman Sachs is getting its crypto trading desk going again. Last time it did that, Bitcoin promptly crashed. Just saying.

T-Mobile has laid off 5,000 people since its merger with Sprint, per a recent court filing. This comes from the combined company that promised new jobs "from day one."

Boingo is going private, in a deal that values the company at $854 million. For obvious reasons, it's been a tough year for in-flight Wi-Fi.

Yang Hou is the new chairman and CEO for Microsoft Greater China. He joins from Qualcomm, and replaces Alain Crozier.

Elizabeth Nieto is Spotify's new head of equity and impact, leading the diversity, sustainability and social impact teams. She previously led Amazon's DEI team.

In Other News

  • On Protocol | Policy: Apple and Google lobbyists are swarming Arizona. They're worried about HB2005, which would allow app developers to use third-party payment systems, and they're going all out: Apple hired the governor's former chief of staff.
  • On Protocol: A senior Amazon manager is suing the company for race and gender discrimination. Charlotte Newman alleges in the suit that former AWS director Andres Maz sexually assaulted her, and that the company failed to promote her.
  • The Medium Workers Union lost its union recognition vote. It received 75 yes votes, one short of the simple majority it agreed on with the company's management. The union said it would take a break before deciding what comes next.
  • The U.S. is unprepared for AI competition with China, the Eric Schmidt-led National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence said. In a report, the commission called for increased funding, a Technology Competitiveness Council, and suggested targeting chipmaking equipment "choke points" to stop China gaining semiconductor supremacy.
  • On Protocol | China: Chinese tech companies are obsessed with nicknames. Forcing employees to choose an alias breaks down intra-office hierarchies — but it may also make it harder for workers to organize.
  • Ant isn't sharing all the data the People's Bank of China requested from it, The Financial Times reported. It's reportedly blaming privacy laws for why it isn't sharing the consumer data, annoying the authorities. Meanwhile, the company reportedly told employees that it would provide a "short-term liquidity solution" for employees who want to sell shares after last year's failed IPO.
  • On Protocol: Roku is buying Nielsen's video ad business. It's Roku's second major ad tech acquisition.

One More Thing

The little mustache that wasn't

Amazon recently made one of those little design tweaks that I'm guessing it hoped you wouldn't notice. Its app icon now looks like a box with a piece of tape coming over the top, and not … a mouth with a very specific kind of tiny mustache on top. It's a definite improvement! Going from "looks like Hitler" to "looks like Avatar Aang" is a pretty huge upgrade.



In an interview with Tom Lantzsch, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Internet of Things Group (IoT) at Intel Corp., Lantzach shares his take on edge computing: There are more innovations to come – and technology leaders should think equally about data and the algorithms as critical differentiators.

Read more

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to, or our tips line, Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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