Hi. I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news.
You say antitrust. I say: How much?
There is little as fashionable in 2019 as the desire to curb Big Tech’s power. But knowing how far regulators should go in putting limits on Silicon Valley’s largest companies isn’t straightforward.
At one extreme, there are calls to break up Big Tech. Senator Elizabeth Warren grabbed headlines during the week when she called for just that. Ms. Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, argued that companies shouldn’t offer their own products on platforms they controlled (like Apple’s selling apps on its App Store — something Spotify called out to European regulators on Wednesday). She also said she would roll back anticompetitive acquisitions, such as Facebook’s takeovers of Instagram and WhatsApp.
Her pitch isn’t perfect, as The New York Times’s Kevin Roose pointed out — it’s too generic, misses easy wins and overlooks some big issues. But it is a bold, inspiring rally cry for Big Tech’s biggest critics.
At the other end of the spectrum: tech companies. Ideally, the likes of Facebook and Google would love to perpetually operate in the lightly regulated world that helped them grow so quickly. But even Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, acknowledged that it was “inevitable that there will be some regulation” when he testified to the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April.
There’s plenty of room between those extremes. Take, for example, a report published Wednesday by the British government, which called for an overhaul of antitrust policies for Big Tech. Its main proposal: that a new regulator identify companies with “strategic market status,” then block some activities — such as promoting their own products or services in search results over those belonging to competitors (hello, Google!).
That, the report’s authors say, is a “more pro-business and pro-consumer solution” than “changing antitrust law to drive breakup” of businesses.
So who’s right? Mr. Zuckerberg, at least when he says regulatory intervention is inevitable. There’s strong bipartisan support for such regulation. As for where a line should be drawn, that’s harder to say.
Breaking up big companies isn’t easy: It’s expensive and takes a long time. And it doesn’t always go to plan. The last notable attempt to do so, when a judge ruled two decades ago that Microsoft be cleaved for having violated antitrust law, was overturned on appeal. So Ms. Warren could have her work cut out for her.
But it may ultimately become a question of balancing ambition with need. Is it better to gamble on breaking up big companies, or guarantee that new rules curb some of their behavior? That’s something that lawmakers are going to have to wrestle with.
Trading off trust for profit to build A.I.
When OpenAI was founded three years ago, it had a huge goal: to build artificial intelligence software that was as capable as the human brain. Its founders said that because it was a nonprofit with noble ambitions — it had $1 billion in funding from backers to pay its way — the public could trust it to build that so-called general artificial intelligence.
Only, $1 billion doesn’t go far with goals like that. Huge computing resources and big salaries to attract talent burn through cash. Actually, it turns out, some profits might be useful.
So, Wired reported, Open AI announced that it was changing its business model. To keep up with Facebook and Google, it created a OpenAI L.P., a company that can take money from investors that need to return a profit, like venture funds. That will make it easier to raise funds. Down the line, it might monetize some of the technology it develops. But the company decided to cap the returns that investors will see — to $100 for every dollar invested.
One way to think of that figure is that OpenAI deems a 100-times return to be an ethical margin on building a general A.I. — enough to make it a feasible endeavor, but not so much as to tar it with the Big Tech brush. That reasoning clearly holds if you inhabit Silicon Valley. But it will be interesting to see if that profit cap is enough to put everyone at ease.
What the web could look like in 30 years
On March 12, 1989, Tim Berners-Lee proposed an idea for linking digital files that his boss, Mike Sendall, called “vague but exciting.” It ultimately became the World Wide Web, and 30 years later we’re left with much to love — and hate — about its existence.
At an event at London’s Science Museum on Tuesday to mark the web’s passage into its fourth decade, Mr. Berners-Lee was asked what it might look like in another 30 years. Here’s what he said:
■ “It’s not, I think, for us to try and guess.”
■ “Look at what’s happened over the last 30 years. The web has changed really dramatically, and a lot of that we couldn’t have predicted.”
■ “What we can do is we can say what web we want.”
■ “We want a web which is open. We want a web which is royalty-free. We want a web which is discrimination-free.”
Worthy goals. And in an article he wrote this past week, Mr. Berners-Lee laid out steps that may be required to ensure they happen:
■ “Governments must translate laws and regulations for the digital age. They must ensure markets remain competitive, innovative and open.”
■ “Companies must do more to ensure their pursuit of short-term profit is not at the expense of human rights, democracy, scientific fact or public safety.”
■ “Platforms and products must be designed with privacy, diversity and security in mind. “
■ “And most important of all, citizens must hold companies and governments accountable.”
Thirty years on, Mr. Sendall’s analysis might apply equally well to this proposal, too.
And some stories you shouldn’t miss
Elon Musk really dislikes whistle-blowers. According to Businessweek, Mr. Musk, the Tesla chief executive, set out to destroy one employee who leaked details about raw materials wastage at the company.
How does Google pay off executives accused of misconduct? Handsomely: Two shared a total of $135 million, according to details that emerged from a lawsuit during the week.
Who will fund the next wave of tech start-ups? That’ll be the millionaires who are created when companies like Airbnb and Uber go public.
You should care about TikTok. You might never use it, but it could reshape social media as you know it.
Scientists dropped a smartphone into a blender. Because that, apparently, is the best way to work out how much cobalt, gold and other substances are in there.
How to disappear (almost) completely: A Bitcoin evangelist offered 15 steps to going dark while staying online.
Silicon Valley wants to build a monument. To Silicon Valley, obviously.
Jamie Condliffe is editor of the DealBook newsletter. He also writes the weekly Bits newsletter. Follow him on Twitter here: @jme_c.