On Tuesday, Google CEO Sundar Pichai will testify before the House Judiciary Committee. In some ways, the hearing will represent the end of an era. It’s the last time we will see a top tech executive addressing this Republican-controlled Congress before Democrats take over the House of Representatives next year. Mercifully, that likely means we will go another two years without a House hearing called to investigate spurious claims of platform “bias” against conservatives.
Makena Kelly tells us what to expect:
Pichai is anticipated to face intense questioning from Republican lawmakers who are concerned with the Silicon Valley giant’s algorithms and how they may be biased to more conservative content.
Lawmakers are also expected to grill Pichai on issues related to data privacy and anti-competitive market behavior. In September, Pichai traveled to Washington, DC to meet privately with Republican lawmakers over concerns involving algorithms and the company’s Dragonfly search engine project, but he has not formally sat before the panel for a public hearing.
Pichai’s appearance before Congress will mark the end of an era in another way, too: it marks the conclusion of his time as tech’s kindliest, least political CEO. My first impression of Pichai was formed at a Google media holiday party in 2013, when he was the only executive to attend and make small talk with reporters. (As far as I know, it was the last time an executive attended such a party.)
PIchai was then running Chrome, which he helped to grow into the world’s most popular web browser. Two years later, he became CEO of Google under the reorganized Alphabet. And by most financial measures, his tenure has been a runaway success: revenue is up 81 percent during that time, and the stock price is 76 percent higher.
And while Google has faced less criticism than fellow ad-tech giant Facebook — Facebook would say, accurately, that it has also gotten less scrutiny — the pressures on Pichai have ramped up significantly. The threat of regulation looms; employees are in open revolt over a wide range of issues; and what could be the most consequential project of his tenure — the quest to release a censored search engine in China — could further fragment the internet and while promoting authoritarian speech restrictions.
Over the past year, he has struggled with employee revolts over Google’s handling of harassment allegations, his plans to return to the Chinese market and the company’s work with the U.S. military. And he has grappled with the political fallout from a decision to fire a conservative Google employee for publishing a controversial essay.
Mr. Pichai’s penchant for consultation, once seen as a key ingredient in his success, is now viewed as indecision by some colleagues. Arguably, he has the most difficult job in Silicon Valley after that of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a fellow besieged tech leader.
In September, with questions swirling around Project Dragonfly, Pichai turned down an invitation to appear before Congress, generating a round of negative coverage. The result is that Google has lacked a strong public voice at a time when it faces some of the most difficult questions in its history.
That could begin to change next week, when Pichai belatedly takes his seat in Congress. I expect we’ll see the same calm, earnest leader who takes the stage at Google I/O each year to show off the company’s latest advances. It remains to be seen whether the House pushes him off his talking points — or whether Pichai pushes the House off of theirs. And it is always possible that the hearing, as do so many others, will basically come to nothing.
Still, the stakes are high — and the event is a milestone. Politics finally caught up to another tech CEO who had hoped to avoid it. A steady earnestness has served Pichai well in the past, but managing all the controversies now swirling around his company may require a more pugnacious approach.
Alex Isenstadt and John Bresnahan report that unknown entity — likely a foreign actor — successfully hacked into the email accounts of top officials at the National Republican Campaign Committee:
The House GOP campaign arm suffered a major hack during the 2018 election, exposing thousands of sensitive emails to an outside intruder, according to three senior party officials.
The email accounts of four senior aides at the National Republican Congressional Committee were surveilled for several months, the party officials said. The intrusion was detected in April by an NRCC vendor, who alerted the committee and its cybersecurity contractor. An internal investigation was initiated and the FBI was alerted to the attack, said the officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the incident.
European Union finance ministers couldn’t come to an agreement Tuesday on taxing digital revenues, Leigh Thomas reports.
In the original European Commission proposal, the tax was intended to be a temporary “quick fix” until a broader solution could be found among OECD members.
But this was opposed by Ireland and some Nordic countries, leading French and German finance ministers to focus solely on online advertising revenues instead. While this met with misgivings and outright opposition from at least four other ministers at a meeting in Brussels, they agreed to keep talking, said Austrian Finance Minister Hartwig Loeger, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency.
Justin Glawe finds a lot of posts on Facebook with hate speech in them.
In a move that may be designed to fend off regulation, Facebook will open up API access to apps that replicate core features of its own app — including features that let users find their Facebook friends and add them to other services, Josh Constine reports.
DuckDuckGo funded research into Google search results and found that they differed even when the user was logged out and using incognito mode. Google says that doesn’t mean the search was “personalized,” exactly — search results vary depending on what time you search, where you’re physically located, and other factors.
Sal Rodriguez reports on an uptick in Facebook employees looking for the exits after a bruising couple of years. He also reveals that employees who exit are tagged either “regrettable” (as in, Facebook wishes they had stayed) or “non-regrettable.” The latter can never come back.
Another former Facebook director said he has seen a rise in the number of his ex-colleagues who have reached out to ask about openings at his current company, and these employees often ask about advice on the best way to leave Facebook. He’s also experienced an increase in calls from other companies that are running references on current Facebook staffers.
“Once it becomes weird to tell people that they work at Facebook, or once their moms aren’t proud of them anymore, that’s when people are going to head to the exits,” he said. “I think we’re already getting there.”
Mark Luckie’s post about black employees’ experiences at Facebook was mysteriously flagged for violating Facebook’s community standards; it was restored later in the day.
Louise Matsakis writes about the administrator of an animal shelter’s Facebook page, who watches helplessly as her account gets repeatedly hacked and Facebook ignores her requests for help (until she tweeted at an executive who helped.) The larger issues are around fundraising fraud and the lack of customer support, even for accounts with more than 1 million followers.
Desperate, Alana reached out to Facebook for help by every method she could imagine. She sent emails, tweets, and even mailed letters to Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg, and the company’s board of directors. She says she also tried contacting the FBI and the Better Business Bureau. Weeks went by before she reached anyone who could help. Finally, on September 29, Alana heard back from someone via Twitter: Guy Rosen, Facebook’s vice president of product management. It was the day after Facebook announced a cybersecurity breach that impacted around 30 million users.
Everybody loves this charming tale about legendary Googlers Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, who wrote code jointly at their computers and changed the course of human history. James Somers’ story is full of terrific anecdotes about Google’s early days:
When a car goes around a turn, more ground must be covered by the outside wheels; likewise, the outer edge of a spinning hard disk moves faster than the inner one. Google had moved the most frequently accessed data to the outside, so that bits could flow faster under the read-head, but had left the inner half empty; Jeff and Sanjay used the space to store preprocessed data for common search queries. Over four days in 2001, they proved that Google’s index could be stored using fast random-access memory instead of relatively slow hard drives; the discovery reshaped the company’s economics. Page and Brin knew that users would flock to a service that delivered answers instantly. The problem was that speed required computing power, and computing power cost money. Jeff and Sanjay threaded the needle with software.
Katie Notopoulos says Tumblr’s porn culture is a key part of the internet culture of the 2000s, which has been dying out — and it’s unclear whether any of it can be meaningfully preserved:
A lot what Tumblr is banning is just gratuitous porn GIFs, and the internet is not lacking options when it comes to free pornography. But Tumblr is also a thriving place for the kind of sexual expression that you won’t find on Pornhub. “Tumblr sex sites created spaces for ALL KINDS of people who don’t have access to sexual community elsewhere,” wrote Steven Thrasher. It has always been a safe haven for young people exploring and expressing their sexuality. There is tasteful erotica, supportive places for people to post their own bodies — including those that don’t look like typical porn bodies — and to consume and engage with the wide swath of human sexual experience that can’t be replicated by logging on to xHamster and being greeted with a blast of extremely aggressive heterosexual facials.
And of course, where else could one go to see erotic fan art of the Laughing Cow cow having sex with the Lactaid cartoon cow? Personally, I enjoyed the funny crude/nude humor on Tumblr (I do a joint Tumblr, along with a few of my colleagues, called “Worst Things on the Internet,” which is very NSFW), and I’ll miss that. But I care more about the massive loss of internet history that will happen when all these images vanish forever.
Reuter is … making money on Twitter??? (But not so much that it isn’t going to lay off 3,200 people.)
According to Dan Colarusso, executive editor at Reuters TV and Reuters.com, Twitter now brings in “significant revenue,” in line with what his company gets from Google AMP. “In terms of one product on one platform, Twitter is contributing the most,” said Colarusso, but he was unable to share specific revenue details in time for publishing.
Someone stole personal information about 100 million Quora users, revealing that 100 million people use Quora.
Today, Explained — one of Apple’s most-downloaded new podcasts of 2018! — had me on to talk about Facebook’s bumpy month, year, and future. (“Sounds like you explained basically everything but today,” one colleague quipped.) I did not write this headline!
Meanwhile, over on The Vergecast, Nilay Patel and I talked about the origins online harassment and platforms’ efforts to fight it with internet historian Caroline Sinders. (She put together that great history of harassment that I linked to here recently.)
Feels like this could be some pricey advertising real estate, if groups embrace stories:
Facebook announced today that it’s rolling Group Stories out globally, after initially debuting them last year. The feature allows Group members to contribute to a collaborative story. The company’s also launching reactions in Group Stories, so users can respond to other people’s contributions with a variety of emoji as they watch.
We now have dates for F8, and once again it is located rather inconveniently (for me, anyway!) in San Jose. “When we come together, there’s no telling what we can create,” read the save-the-date note I received. And I was like, well, there’s at least some telling of what we can create!
Today in features no one asked for:
YouTube has announced it’s trickling down a feature from its YouTube Premium apps, though it’s not the background playback that everyone really wants. Rolling out now, Autoplay on Home is a new default for YouTube’s Android and iOS apps that will automatically start playing videos you see on your Home tab. Google will allow the option to disable it, or only keep it on when connected to Wi-Fi, but the company appears convinced that Autoplay on Home is a better way to experience and browse YouTube on the move.
Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who created the “ Smash. Brahmanical. Patriarchy” that Twitter CEO held up in a photo, triggering an international incident, argues Dorsey was right to stand up for the Dalit class — whose story is the story of every underrepresented and harrassed group on Twitter:
India, with almost eight million active Twitter users, is the platform’s fastest growing market. An increasing number of these users are Dalits or belong to other religious, cultural and gender minorities. There are over 260 million Dalits in India, and for many, Twitter truly represented a platform where they could speak and be heard while offering an alternative to mainstream Indian media, which has scant Dalit representation.
But India’s entrenched structures of caste privilege and power replicated on Twitter and forced caste-oppressed communities off the platform, traumatizing many in the process.
Miles Klee writes about the distinctive phenomenon of Tumblr horniness, and laments its upcoming passing:
A quick search of the not-yet-deleted archive yields all kinds of curiosities you’re unlikely to find anywhere else. There’s the Anarcho-Feminist, curated by an anthropology student who went on to direct a multidisciplinary alternative-porn festival in Switzerland. Oldenskin collects vintage nudes going back decades. Here’s an account that blends steamy lingerie spreads with astrology — and here’s one exclusively for admiring men’s sculpted butts. All of them reach for an aesthetic familiar to anyone who has used Tumblr over a sustained period: lush, gentle, dreamy, intimate. In a word, arty. Users wanted the same palettes and contours, the same cinematic angles and black-and-white exposures, as they did for their photos of architecture and Sunday morning coffee. In fact, I just found a Tumblr dedicated to naked people drinking coffee.
And finally ...
Here is an amazing chart about one politician, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is single-handedly propping up conservative publishers. Their audiences can’t get enough of her:
Quite incredible. Right leaning publishers have written over 10x the articles about @Ocasio2018 than their counterparts on the left since June 2018. Engagement numbers are staggering also - via @NewsWhip pic.twitter.com/2GHyEVPoYj— Jonathan Barnes (@BarnesWhip) December 3, 2018
I’ll bet a few of those articles are even true!
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