Facebook has begun inserting posts from local elected officials into users’ News Feeds in the app as part of a test it’s running, the latest in a set of moves over the past year to increase the visibility of political and election-related content on Facebook. This is one of those things that simultaneously feels like a great idea and fraught with problems. On the one hand, allowing local officials to communicate more effectively with their constituents at a time when news consumption is becoming more polarized, thanks in part to Facebook itself, seems like a great idea. On the other hand, local officials are also candidates in what sometimes seem like permanent election seasons in the US, at least for certain offices, and if Facebook only promotes posts from elected officials without promoting those of their opponents and rivals in elections, that’s an enormous issue. Of the two screenshots in the Recode piece linked below, one feels relatively apolitical while the other is clearly more political in nature, and a user who was shown only that one and not also something from a representative of a different political party would be getting only one perspective in a way that would be almost impossible for others to address without resorting to paid advertising on Facebook. The approach would massively favor incumbents over their challengers, something the US political system already does to a great extent. So although the effort seems like it has worthwhile elements, it feels like the potential for harm is significant, and I would guess that there will be a big backlash from politicians who feel they’ve been discriminated against if this test moves to a widespread rollout.
Facebook’s new ‘Town Hall’ feature helps you find and contact your government reps – TechCrunch (Mar 15, 2017)
This Town Hall feature from Facebook feels like a natural outgrowth of some of the things Mark Zuckerberg talked about in his recent manifesto. My big worry about that manifesto was that, while it acknowledged some of the problems that had grown out of Facebook’s increasing power over our lives, it seemed to think the solution was more Facebook, not less of it. This tool, for now, looks like a positive step, in that it merely helps connect people in the US with their local and federal representatives – so far, so good. But in the context of some of the things in Zuckerberg’s manifesto about Facebook facilitating new forms of local democracy, I worry that the company has bigger plans for the platform which would insert Facebook more directly into the democratic process. Definitely worth watching closely.
Apple and Google condemn Trump’s decision to revoke transgender bathroom guidelines – Recode (Feb 23, 2017)
This issue feels like it’s attracting a lot less attention than the immigration executive orders from a few weeks back, but that doesn’t mean that tech companies aren’t weighing in all the same. This article has comments from Apple, Google, and Salesforce opposing the administration’s actions, but John Paczkowski of BuzzFeed has been tweeting commentary from a number of other companies today including Facebook, IBM, and Dell. Unlike the immigration bill, where at least part of the rationale for opposing the administration was business related, this argument is being made entirely in moral terms, echoing some of the opposition to North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” last year. That’s interesting territory for big public companies to wade into – something we discussed on the Beyond Devices Podcast two weeks ago.
Uber has been by far the tech company hardest hit by the combination of its overall relationship with Trump and its response to the immigration actions last week, in some cases perhaps unfairly. But it was Travis Kalanick’s position on one of Trump’s advisory councils, and his apparent complete willingness to be close to the administration, which set the context for all that followed. Without his perceived indifference to what many others in the tech industry have seen as a deeply flawed administration, I suspect Uber’s actions over the past week wouldn’t have been seen in the same light, and as such his position on the advisory council was at least as much to blame as specific actions taken since last Friday. His departure from the council comes fairly late in the game, and so it’s not clear what difference it will make now – the narrative is fairly set at this point. But Uber has apparently lost 200,000 customers over this issue, and it’s a no-brainer that Kalanick would step down rather than continue hurting his business over this issue. It’s notable that Elon Musk remains on the council, and Tesla has also lost some Model 3 preorders over this, but he today defended his decision and stated his intention to continue to try to influence the situation from the inside rather than the sidelines. The fault lines in all this are fascinating to watch – we’re going to see lots more movement from tech companies as they seek to strike the right balance between constructive criticism and outright opposition to the administration and its policies.
via New York Times
Two politics stories today, as this one follows the Facebook story from earlier. This one also echoes an earlier story about big tech companies rethinking their political alliances both in the face of a possible shift to the right and now in the wake of an actual take over of both the executive and legislative branches by Republicans. It’s easy to see this as a swing from left to right, but I think it’s better seen as pragmatism about working with whoever is in power. The wrinkle is that Google had particularly strong ties with the Obama administration at multiple levels, and Eric Schmidt in particular was involved with the Clinton campaign, at least indirectly. Google / Alphabet arguably has the most to fear of the major tech companies from a backlash against tech companies based on their support for Democrats, and is clearly doing all it can to make nice now. Having said all that, the degree to which companies have to worry about such a backlash is surely much higher under this administration than any previous one.
These numbers get crunched every year, and are always an insight into the sometimes complex relationship between tech companies and the US government, as well as the very different strategies pursued by the various companies – Apple spends far less than some of its peers (less even than Facebook, which is a fraction of its size), while Google is always a big spender. The other thing I’m always struck by is the relatively tiny size of the spending – even Google’s $15.4m lobbying spending is minuscule in the context of its overall business – Apple’s spend was a fraction of a hundredth of a percent of its revenue for the year. It’s also interesting to see which issues the companies lobbied on: Apple lobbied mostly on technical issues directly related to its business, while Google lobbied more broadly on trade and immigration policy as well as several technical topics. All this will obviously potentially get a lot more complicated under the new administration, which has so far had a much more adversarial tone towards big tech companies than its predecessor.
Elon Musk: Surprise winner under Trump – CNBC (Jan 24, 2017)
Although the tech sector has generally recoiled in horror at the prospect of Donald Trump’s presidency, and cooperated only under duress with the incoming administration, Elon Musk of Tesla seems to be something of an exception. His history with Peter Thiel, Trump’s right hand man on tech issues, is a major enabler, but it seems to go beyond that. It would be fascinating if Musk rather than Thiel himself ended up becoming the bridge between the administration and the tech industry. Cooperating closely with the administration is still likely to be a double-edged sword – on the one hand, it may curry favor, but on the other it may anger Tesla customers who view Trump with distaste. It will be fascinating to watch how this plays out.
Inside Twitter, employees reckon with Trump – The Verge (Jan 12, 2017)
Twitter is probably the tech company that has the most complex relationship with Donald Trump as a candidate and now as president-elect. On the one hand, like many Silicon Valley people, Twitter employees seem largely to be horrified by Trump, but on the other he’s used their product more effectively than any candidate in history, and continues to use it regularly as he prepares to assume the office of the presidency. This piece does a nice job highlighting these conflicts, and the relative powerlessness of anyone at Twitter to resolve them.
Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn – The New York Times (Jan 12, 2017)
The headline is an exaggeration – two of the four big companies mentioned are based in Washington, not California, and it’s their corporate PACs which have begun to favor Republican candidates, while their employees remain very firmly left-leaning. But the article does do a great job talking through some of the changes in recent years as big tech companies have shifted their donations towards Republicans while a Democratic president was in office. The data doesn’t go back far enough to indicate whether this is just a cyclical thing, but there’s some evidence the donations were motivated by hopes for more lenient regulatory and taxation policy under a Republican administration. Now that we’re heading into Republican control of both Congress and the presidency, we’ll see how that pans out in practice.
Alibaba promises Trump it’ll create a million U.S. jobs, but don’t believe it – MarketWatch (Jan 11, 2017)
This is a great bit of analysis on the latest job creation claim from an industrial leader after meeting Donald Trump. In this case, Jennifer Booton points out that Alibaba is talking about indirect job creation in the US through a Chinese-based entity, not employing people in the US directly. But it’s another sign of both he need major tech firms seem to feel to engage with the incoming administration, and their understanding that they can ingratiate themselves with it by talking about job creation. I suspect we’ll see a lot more shaky claims about job creation made by big tech companies in the coming months and years.