You never forget the first time you see Sergey Brin. This is because he is wearing Crocs, and while you have read profiles that take great pains to point out that the billionaire Google co-founder is wearing cheap plastic shoes, they still come as a surprise when you find yourself face to foot with them.
For me this experience came four years ago, when Google invited me and a bunch of other reporters down to Mountain View to get an update on its self-driving car. Brin made a surprise appearance at the event, took a handful of questions, and then went back to doing whatever Brin did during the day. (It often seemed to involve a Segway.)
Larry Page, on the other hand, you never saw at all. Brin at least seemed to be of this world — I later bumped into him at a restaurant in San Francisco, where he was attending some sort of party for the Google Glass team, wearing a pair on his face — but Page was a phantom. You might hear his voice on an earnings call every once in a while, but for the better part of the decade everyone had the same question about Larry Page: where in the world was he?
On Tuesday, we got the answer: he’s gone, and so is Brin. The co-founders wrote in a surprise farewell blog post:
If the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost. While it has been a tremendous privilege to be deeply involved in the day-to-day management of the company for so long, we believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!
Sundar Pichai is now CEO of Google and its holding company, Alphabet. And just like that, one of the founding stories of the modern-day internet — the two graduate students in their garage, devising a radically better search engine than the world had ever seen — has come to an abrupt close.
Of course, some observers wondered whether it had come to a close at all. Page and Brin remain on Google’s board and are not selling off their founder stock, which gives them ultimate control over the company’s fate. “Nothing in the Page/Brin announcement says anything about a divestiture or relinquishing of the voting control,” tweeted Luther Lowe, the Yelp lobbyist and professional Alphabet antagonist. “The fact remains: Larry Page and Sergey Brin are the most powerful and least accountable humans on the planet.”
Kara Swisher echoed those sentiments, pointing out that the founders had “essentially gone AWOL” years ago. That was backed up by Googlers I heard from. “By my reckoning, they had checked out since about the time of the transition to Alphabet in 2015/2016.”
OK, sure. But to the extent that they are leaving — why now?
One popular theory was that they are fleeing — something. Some speculated that they are fleeing a board investigation into Google’s troubling history of inappropriate relationships between Google’s mostly male C-suite and their subordinates. (If you don’t know the name Amanda Rosenberg, you should.) Or maybe they are fleeing a period of historic worker unrest at Google. Others told me they must be leaving because of the ongoing antitrust investigations into the company.
Still others wondered if they were simply trying to get out of the Google media holiday party Tuesday. (That’s a joke; they never came!) Then there was Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who tweeted “How about Page/Brin 2020?” ... to absolute crickets.
Perhaps one of these theories will prove to be true in time. In the meantime, I’m left thinking of the superb HBO series Watchmen, which is now late into its first season. It’s a superhero show where only one character has actual superhero powers: a godlike enigma named Dr. Manhattan, who began life as an ordinary scientist before being transformed into an all-powerful titan on accident.
Eventually Dr. Manhattan grows to be so powerful that he loses all interest in the affairs of ordinary humans, and goes to live by himself on Mars. People call a hotline and leave him voicemails begging for his intervention in their affairs, and he ignores them all. His time among mortals is simply done.
It’s hard not to look at Larry Page’s life and see a little Dr. Manhattan in him. A young scientist becomes a titan of industry in an accidental collision of technology and timing, sending him into such rarefied air that he all but loses interest in his former world. The rest of us shout questions at him forever, but we’re just shouting into the void.
(I don’t know who the Brin analogue would be in the Watchmen universe. Suggestions welcome!)
Page and Brin’s Google was a historical triumph. But there’s little that feels triumphant about their sudden departure. The heat turned up on Google, and they decided to head for the exits. Google’s outsized success will dominate stories about their legacy. But the way they left — bored and mostly absent in a time of crisis — is part of their legacy, too.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Facebook is expanding its efforts against ad discrimination, following a settlement with the ACLU earlier this year. Its searchable ad library will now include housing ads targeted at people in the US.
Trending down: Amazon’s on-site medical care puts workers in danger, a new investigation from The Intercept reports. The company sometimes fails to provide adequate care and discourages workers from going to the hospital, even in serious situations.
Trending up: Apple CEO Tim Cook signed a renewed commitment to the Paris Agreement, saying “humanity has never faced a greater or more urgent threat than climate change.” Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Google’s Sundar Pichai all co-signed the agreement as well.
⭐ Facebook moderators are suing the company in Europe, saying they suffered psychological trauma as a result of poor working conditions. These contractors, who work for CPL Resources in Dublin, say they lacked proper training to prepare for viewing horrific content. David Gilbert from Vice explains why this lawsuit poses a particular risk:
Facebook is already facing a lawsuit in California, brought by two former moderators who are seeking class-action status, but the lawsuit being filed in Dublin this week poses a much bigger risk for the company.
Not only are Europe’s workplace-safety rules much stricter than California’s, but among the dozen Dublin plaintiffs is one of Facebook’s own highly-paid employees.
The Facebook employee, who is seeking to remain anonymous during the court proceedings, worked on content flagged by moderators working for CPL and says that even their limited exposure to harrowing material has resulted in being diagnosed with Type 2 PTSD, which can result in symptoms ranging from irritability and panic attacks to suicidal feelings.
⭐ Fighting fake news isn’t just a job for tech companies and governments. This guide teaches you how to identify when something could be fake or taken out of its proper context — and fact-check to make sure it’s legit. Print this out and share it with your families! (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
The leak of classified trade documents between the UK and the United States resembles a Russian disinformation campaign, according to some experts. They say it could point to foreign interference in Britain’s election. (Jack Stubbs / Reuters)
Rating news sources could help limit the spread of misinformation, a new study shows. The ratings are most effective when they come from experts, rather than regular users. (Antino Kim, Alan R. Dennis, Patricia L. Moravec and Randall K. Minas / The Conversation)
The man who wrote the Facebook post that triggered the first correction under Singapore’s new fake news law is happy with how the tech company responded. “Facebook did a great job,” he said. “They didn’t say that this post contains a falsehood.” (Cameron Wilson / BuzzFeed)
Congress is split over your right to sue Facebook. Democrats have widely backed a provision that would ensure big tech companies are held liable for the data scandals they create. Republicans disagree, suggesting that it would create a storm of frivolous lawsuits that would negatively impact small businesses. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has spent nearly $1 million on Google ads since the company said it would restrict political ads in the 2020 campaign. The company said that while the new policies don’t go into effect until January, Bloomberg’s ads are already in compliance. (Alex Kantrowitz / BuzzFeed)
Should social media companies be legally responsible for misinformation and hate speech? Right now, they’re shielded by Section 230 of The Communications Decency Act, but some politicians are looking to change that. Vox surveyed the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to weigh in. (Rani Molla and Emily Stewart / Vox)
The Trump administration says a new French tax aimed at big tech companies discriminates against the United States. The announcement could lead to retaliatory tariffs as high as 100 percent on French wines. (Jim Tankersley and Ana Swanson / The New York Times)
A California college student is suing TikTok for illegally harvesting user data and sending it to China. She says the company neglected its duty to handle user data with care and knowingly violated a slew of statutes governing data gathering and the right to privacy. (Blake Montgomery / Daily Beast)
Schools in the United States are implementing pricey surveillance systems, ostensibly to keep kids safe. The technology monitors what students write in emails, chats and shared documents — some even track what they say on social media. (Lois Beckett / The Guardian)
Chinese scientists are using DNA samples from Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim minority groups to create images of peoples’ faces. The technology is also being developed in the US. (Sui-Lee Wee and Paul Mozur / The New York Times)
A Chinese diplomat is going after the US on Twitter, calling out the government’s hypocrisy in condemning China’s human rights abuses and saying American officials are scared of his country’s rise. (Ben Smith / BuzzFeed)
Russia passed a new law that will require manufacturers of smartphones, computers, and smart TVs to pre-install Russian-made software on their devices. The bill was approved earlier this year and officially signed into law on Monday. (Jon Porter / The Verge)
The FBI is treating any mobile app that comes out of Russia as a “potential counterintelligence threat,” according to a letter the law enforcement agency sent to Congress. Since 2015, Russia has required tech companies to store data on Russian users on servers inside the country, and hand it over if the government demands. (Ben Brody / Bloomberg)
⭐ Facebook created a chatbot to help employees navigate difficult conversations over the holidays. The “Liam Bot” teaches them what to say if someone wants to know how the tech giant handles hate speech, for example. Sheera Frenkel and Mike Isaac from The New York Times explain why this might be necessary:
Facebook’s reputation has been shredded by a string of scandals — including how the site spreads disinformation and can be used to meddle in elections — in recent years. In October, Mr. Zuckerberg was grilled by lawmakers for hours over everything from political advertising to work-force diversity.
For Facebook employees, that has sometimes led to questions from family and friends about why they would work for the Silicon Valley company. This year, Facebook fell to seventh place from the top spot when people were asked where they most wanted to work, according to a survey by Glassdoor, the employee reviews site.
Facebook announced the Liam Bot in a message to employees, the company said. In past years, Facebook provided employees with guidance for the holiday season by sharing news releases in internal groups, or directly with those who asked for advice. The company said it wanted to create a more efficient way to answer employee questions this year.
Google Photos added a new feature for fast messaging. With this release, Google has satisfied its legal requirement to release a new messaging product at random at least once a year. (Nick Statt / The Verge)
As Facebook expands into commerce, payments, and hardware, it’s still going to largely rely on ads as the cornerstone of its business. Other companies are pushing to diversify their businesses with subscriptions and licensing. (Sara Fischer / Axios)
A new YouTube policy will allow creators who produce gaming content to upload videos that contain simulated violence without worrying about being automatically hit by age-restriction gates. The new policy doesn’t apply to advertisement guidelines — if a video is considered too violent for marketers, it still runs the risk of being demonetized. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
In the wake of recent reporting regarding how registered sex offenders use dating apps like Tinder, some people are suggesting these apps start doing background checks on users. That could change the culture of online dating, however, by limiting how freely users are willing to talk about their sexual preferences. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
TikTok swiped one of Instagram’s senior European executives, Trevor Johnson, to head up the company’s UK and EMEA operations. The video-sharing platform has been on an aggressive hiring spree in the US and Europe. (Omar Oakes / Campaign)
Inside Twitch’s wildest talk show, a livestreamed reality TV series with 13 of the platforms more controversial personalities. (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Kotaku)
Investors and founders are starting to explore a new generation of social products that leverage the physical world, focus on content moderation and truth, or invent new content formats. (Sam Lessin / The Information)
Standing ovation to the (anonymous, I think?) class clown who built a fake Liam bot for our enjoyment, simulating the chatbot Facebook employees are using to talk with family members over the holidays:
Aunt: What are you planning to do to lose the baby weight?
Robot: We’re committed to protecting people’s privacy.