It was a big weekend on the tech and governance beat, led by news of the spread of the COVID-19 disease in the United States and its spiraling consequences for companies in Silicon Valley and beyond. Today we’re introducing a new, hopefully short-lived section of The Interface that covers the spread of the novel coronavirus around the world and the way that the companies we cover here are responding; you can find it just below The Ratio.
But if we can set aside the big story of the moment — and also arguably the second-biggest story of the moment, which would be this activist investor’s attempted ouster of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — today I wanted to highlight some of our own work: namely, The Verge Tech Survey 2020. It’s our second national survey meant to gauge public opinion in our biggest technology companies — opinion that has changed significantly over the past three-plus years, for all of the reasons we cover here each day.
Here was my top-level look at the highlights today in The Verge:
Among survey respondents:
- 56 percent said the government should break up tech companies if they control too much of the economy
- 72 percent said that Facebook has too much power
- 51 percent said Google and YouTube should be split into separate companies
Social networks generally underperformed their peers, just as they did in 2017 — the last time we conducted this survey. The survey found that 29 percent of respondents have a negative view of Facebook, and 39 percent have a negative view of Twitter.
Where does all this lead? One possibility is that growing public support for a breakup of big tech companies gives political cover to the federal agencies now investigating those companies to actually go through with it. Politico reported today that Attorney General William Barr has taken a close interest in the Department of Justice’s antitrust investigations, raising the specter that something serious could emerge.
Another possibility, though, and perhaps a more likely one, can be found in the story of another company in The Verge’s tech survey: that of Microsoft, which now enjoys an 89 percent favorability rating, with two-thirds of respondents saying the company has a positive effect on society.
That might not seem newsworthy today, when Microsoft is best known as an enterprise software company with a hobby making video game consoles. But it represents a groundswell of popular support for a company that, during the nadir of its own antitrust trial in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was polling with a favorability rating as low as 55 percent.
At that time, at least among a section of tech nerds, Microsoft was known as a ruthless competitor whose monopolistic practices had crushed competition in the tech sphere. (The company was more popular than you might think, even at the time, but it had many vocal detractors.)
The image of Microsoft as iron-fisted ruler of the tech industry persisted through the first half of the 2000s, until the rise of Google, Facebook, and Amazon dimmed the company’s star. So why is opinion of it so much higher today? For starters, the company has a kindly, whip-smart CEO in Satya Nadella, and the company has championed a variety of progressive causes.
More important, though, I think, is that most people simply stopped paying attention to the company’s core business. In the late 1990s, Microsoft was computing for most people. Your entry point to technology was a PC running Windows and Office. And when we are dependent on a technology and have few credible alternatives, we come to resent it.
Today Facebook is arguably the entry point to technology for most people. In some parts of the world, it’s said that Facebook is the internet itself. And it’s operating at a much larger scale than Microsoft ever did.
Look at Microsoft’s story and it’s easy to see how Facebook, over time, might turn public opinion around. Not by implementing a series of fixes to the crises of the moment — although it should — but by ceding at least some ground to the next generation of companies. That will mean buying fewer companies, competing more with new entrants, and diversifying its business beyond the renting of of our personal data. It will be painful, but it is absolutely possible.
Many big tech companies are born wanting to become monopolies — indeed, Facebook board member Peter Thiel suggests that they do. But to date, few monopolies have found themselves able to withstand the scrutiny that comes with global dominance — and Microsoft’s turnaround shows how well a company can fare once it sheds some of its arrogance, and retreats gracefully into the background.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending sideways: YouTube’s attempt to limit the spread of conspiracy theories has been only partially successful, according to a new study from UC Berkeley. Some conspiracy theories have disappeared from YouTube’s recommendations, while others have continued to flourish.
Trending down: A high school student created a fake 2020 candidate, and Twitter verified the account. The student said he created the fake account to test Twitter’s election integrity efforts.
Here are some of the biggest developments from over the weekend and into Monday. The two biggest themes: companies are canceling a large number of planned gatherings, and restricting employee travel in various ways. South By Southwest, which is set to take place in Austin in two weeks, is the biggest conference yet to cancel. But Facebook and Twitter both dropped out on Monday, and I expect that more will follow on Tuesday.
Tech companies across Silicon Valley are canceling events and pondering remote work and bigger cleaning budgets in response to the coronavirus, reports Lauren Hepler at Protocol. Twitter is encouraging all of its employees around the world to begin working from home if they are able to, and San Francisco-based Coinbase followed suit.
On the conference front:
- Microsoft canceled its annual Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Summit a couple weeks ahead of its opening, citing worries over the coronavirus. The event will be run as a virtual-only conference instead. (Mary Jo Foley / ZDNet)
- Twitter is canceling employee travel to the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival, including CEO Jack Dorsey’s planned keynote, due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. So far, the event is still on. (Kim Lyons / The Verge)
- Facebook followed suit in pulling out of SXSW.
- Adobe announced a planned Las Vegas summit would be streamed online instead. Google said it would take the same approach with its upcoming Cloud conference.
On the travel front:
- Google and Amazon are limiting employees’ travel due to coronavirus fears. Google is preventing employees from traveling to Italy, Iran, Japan, and South Korea, while Amazon is asking employees to defer all nonessential travel. (Nicole Wetsman / The Verge)
- Salesforce is prohibiting international travel for employees, and restricting domestic travel. The company is also replacing in-person customer events with video calls. (Salesforce)
- Facebook banned employees from bringing friends and family to the office. The company is also limiting on-site interviews due to coronavirus concerns. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
Elsewhere in the outbreak:
Roughly 2 million tweets peddled conspiracy theories about the coronavirus over the three-week period when the outbreak began to spread outside China, according to an unpublished study from the State Department. The report found signs that some of the activity may have been coordinated and inauthentic. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Police departments are spreading misinformation about meth possibly being contaminated with the coronavirus, as a joke. Some spread the false claim in an attempt at humor or to trick people into turning in their drugs, while others appear to have believed it was real. (Jane Lytvynenko / BuzzFeed)
Billionaires are fleeing to their vacation homes and trying to get early access to a coronavirus vaccine. “This is going to destroy the marriages of the rich,” said one expert. “All these husbands and wives who travel will now have to spend time with the person they’re married to.” (Max Abelson / Bloomberg)
The World Health Organization launched a TikTok account on Friday as part of its efforts to cut through coronavirus misinformation online. Its first video shows ways people can protect themselves. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
⭐ Attorney General William Barr is taking control of the Justice Department’s antitrust probes into Big Tech. Barr has handpicked a staff to lead the probe, sidelining DOJ antitrust leaders in the process. The news could be bad for Silicon Valley, since Barr has been a vocal critic of the tech industry. Leah Nylen at Politico has the story:
Barr, who at age 69 is serving his second stint as U.S attorney general, also has few deterrents to waging an aggressive attack, said Hal Singer, an antitrust economist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s business school. “Barr doesn’t need future gigs so he can pursue the tech platforms without worry about his future income,” Singer said.
Barr indicated during his confirmation hearing last year that antitrust would be one of his priorities.
“I think a lot of people wonder how such huge behemoths that now exist in Silicon Valley have taken shape under the nose of the antitrust enforcers,” he told senators.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have received the most donations from employees at California’s big tech companies ahead of Super Tuesday. The enthusiasm for their campaigns show tech workers haven’t been dissuaded by the candidates’ threats to crackdown on Big Tech. (Dave Lee, John Burn-Murdoch and Alice Kantor / Financial Times)
Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign purchased primetime ad space Sunday night — reportedly worth at least $1 million — so the former New York City mayor could cosplay as the president of the United States. He addressed the nation, vaguely, about the threat of coronavirus. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Tech companies like YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon have cracked down on coronavirus misinformation. So why are they struggling to do the same with other types of misleading content? (Craig Timberg, Tony Romm and Jay Greene / The Washington Post)
The Teamsters, a union that represents 1.4 million truck drivers, warehouse workers and other transportation laborers, is asking the FTC to open a study into Amazon’s business practices. The goal is to get more regulation for a company that’s increasingly reaching into the industries the union represents. (Karen Weise and David McCabe / The New York Times)
Apple disabled Clearview AI’s iOS app for breaking its rules on distribution. Clearview had been encouraging potential clients to download its app through a program reserved exclusively for developers. (Caroline Haskins, Ryan Mac and Logan McDonald / BuzzFeed)
Shutterstock has been censoring searches by users based in China for politically volatile subjects like “Taiwan flag.” The company’s CEO told employees who disagreed with this approach to look for jobs elsewhere. (David Ingram / NBC)
Officials from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have run facial-recognition searches on millions of Maryland drivers. These legal searches go far beyond what other states allow. Maryland also grants special driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. (Drew Harwell and Erin Cox / Washington Post)
Fredrick Brennan, founder of the widely loathed forum 8chan, faces arrest in the Phillippines over a “cyberlibel” claim. Jim Watkins, who currently runs 8chan, filed the complaint against Brennan last year, after Brennan began tweeting that Watkins was “going senile.” (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
⭐ Activist investor Elliott Management Corporation has taken a sizable stake in Twitter and plans to push for changes at the social media company, including replacing CEO Jack Dorsey. The company only has one class of stock, which means Dorsey doesn’t have voting control of his company, unlike Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel. Here’s Bloomberg’s Scott Deveau and Ed Hammond:
Dorsey is one of the only people to serve as CEO of two large public companies at the same time — he also runs Square Inc. That makes him a potential target for criticism whenever Twitter stumbles. He has also said he plans to work up to six months a year in Africa.
Twitter shares surged after the story broke about Elliot Management Corporation pushing for changes, including replacing Dorsey. (Scott Deveau, Ed Hammond, and Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
YouTube rarely reinstates removed videos — even when creators appeal. The news, which comes from the company’s new community guidelines report, marks the first time that YouTube has shared information on appeals. (Julia Alexander / The Verge)
YouTube helped shape the internet as we know it. But what if the platform had failed? This alternate reality features decentralized streaming services. (Adi Robertson / The Verge)
Facebook says it will finally roll out a “faster, smaller, and simpler” version of Messenger on iOS. The company said the new version of the app will load twice as fast and be one-fourth the size. The rollout, which was announced last spring at F8, is supposed to happen “over the next few weeks.” (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Facebook is letting users post 3D photos to their timelines from the Facebook app, even if they have a phone with a single camera. In theory, this should make it possible for a lot more phones to take 3D photos, since the photos used to require a dual-camera device. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Personal aides to Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan have been accused of serious misconduct — including assault — by their colleagues. A representative for Zuckerberg dismissed the allegations as “a collection of unfounded rumors.” (Rob Price and Becky Peterson / Business Insider)
Yolo, the app that lets teens ask for anonymous replies to questions they post on Snapchat, just raised $8 million in funding. The company became the country’s #1 app a week after launch and, nine months later, still has 10 million active users. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)
TikTok videos mocking poor British people as “chavs” have racked up millions of views and hundreds of thousands of followers. The term is typically used to describe young people “from the working-class, usually without a high level of education, who typically behaves in a loud and annoying way and wears designer clothes.”
A new social network called Botnet aims to mimic the experience of being a celebrity online. The app is populated entirely with fake adoring fans, who like and comment on your posts with reckless abandon. This version of online celebrity does not include any trolls. (Arielle Pardes / Wired)
Clearview AI, the secretive company that’s built a database of billions of photos scraped without permission from social media and the web, is developing surveillance cameras. The company has also been experimenting with augmented reality glasses. Fun! (Logan McDonald, Ryan Mac and Caroline Haskins / BuzzFeed)
Out in Arizona, where I used to live, there’s a town called Bullhead City. Someone put up a parody page for the town, which got verified. Then the town put up a real page, which Facebook took down, reports Terri Harber in the Mohave Valley Daily News.
And what’s the parody page posting about? Well let’s see:
A different post on the parody page states that “local health officials” are advising people to stay safe from the coronavirus infection by “not eating bats.”
One of the other phony health tips is to “drink hand sanitizer.”
“Most hand sanitizers claim to kill 99.9% of germs, but what about the germs inside you?” the fake post states.
Please do not drink hand sanitizer today. Thanks.