On Tuesday I laid out Elliott Management’s case against Jack Dorsey — or at least, what we know about it so far. The activist investor has acquired a roughly 4 percent stake in Twitter, and has reportedly expressed concerns with Twitter’s underperforming stock, its part-time CEO, and Dorsey’s stated plans to decamp to Africa for an unspecified period of time this year.
On Thursday, in a roundabout way, Dorsey responded. He attended a scheduled appearance at a Morgan Stanley banking conference, and while the interviewer didn’t muster a single question about his potential ouster, Dorsey (obliquely) answered it nevertheless. Twitter’s investor relations account tweeted some of the highlights. My favorite was this:
When I tweeted about my intention to spend a few months in Africa this year, I made a mistake and should have provided more context about why.— Twitter Investor Relations (@TwitterIR) March 5, 2020
Never let it be said that Dorsey lacks the capacity for understatement.
In any case, the CEO no longer plans to spend part of the year in Africa, as Kurt Wagner reported at Bloomberg:
“I had been working on my plans where I’d work decentralized, as my team and I do when we travel, but in light of Covid-19 and everything else going on I need to re-evaluate,” he said. “Either way we’ll continue to pursue opportunities in Africa.”
For a part-time CEO to announce that, on second thought, he will continue to run the company from headquarters instead of a different continent is generally not cause for acclaim. But given the threat Dorsey now faces to his leadership, it represented a meaningful concession.
Dorsey went on to make the case that, no matter how it may seem from the outside, his half-decade as CEO has been productive. “Five years ago we had to do a really hard reset and that takes time to build from,” he said. “We had been a company that was trying to do too many things.”
There’s a sense in which this is true. When Dorsey returned as Twitter CEO in 2015, the company was dabbling with Vine, Periscope, the identity platform Digits, and the developer tools Fabric and Crashlytics. These products had been acquired or built to help Twitter find its way to growth and profitability, which had eluded the company under former CEO Dick Costolo. But they had come at the expense of attention to the core platform, leading to Twitter’s notorious harassment problem and other issues. And however fondly (and justly) we remember Vine, none became an outsized success.
Since Dorsey’s return, Twitter has mostly wound those projects down. And the company has reinvested in its core product, leading to a notably productive 2019. But as we discussed earlier this week, those changes have led to only modest growth and profitability. Elliott appears ready to argue that Twitter could have, and should have, done better.
Notably, the activist investor has yet to release a public letter making its case against Dorsey’s leadership — typically the first step in an effort like this. I’m told that the move was not entirely unexpected — Twitter’s financial team has anticipated the likelihood of an activist investor making a move against the company for some time, a person familiar with the matter told me, and has staffed up in an effort to prepare for it.
The question is how well you can prepare for Elliott, a hedge fund that once waged a 15-year battle against the government of Argentina and won. I’ve been collecting stories about Elliott over the past few days, and many of them would send a shiver down the spine of even a top-performing CEO. Here’s Oliver Staley writing in Quartz in 2017:
Elliott Management is perhaps most notorious for its 15-year battle with the government of Argentina, whose bonds were owned by the hedge fund. When Argentine president Cristina Kirchner attempted to restructure the debt, Elliott — unlike most of the bonds’ owners — refused to accept a large loss on its investment. It successfully sued in US courts, and in pursuit of Argentine assets, convinced a court in Ghana to detain an Argentine naval training vessel, then docked outside Accra with a crew of 220. After a change of its government, Argentina eventually settled and Singer’s fund received $2.4 billion, almost four times its initial investment. Kirchner, meanwhile, has been indicted for corruption.
How do you prepare for an investor that once seized a naval training vessel? More to the point, how does Twitter — a legendarily mistake-prone company — prepare for such an investor?
Or perhaps I should say investors. Here’s Kara Swisher in the New York Times (emphasis mine):
The cutthroat firm, led by Paul Singer, has bought $1 billion worth of stock in Twitter and has nominated four directors to its eight-person board.
If the current talks break down, those seats would most likely be used to oust Mr. Dorsey from Twitter, especially if Elliott gets backing from other investing giants (which it has, according to numerous sources) and from the markets (which reacted well to Elliott’s move by pushing Twitter shares upward from $32 to $36 this week, in a very down market reeling from the coronavirus threat).
Stories about Elliott often include the line that the hedge fund prefers to work constructively with companies and avoid prolonged dramas. And yet it’s hard to think of something that Twitter has historically been worse at than avoiding drama. If Dorsey’s remarks on stage today were indicative of the company’s defense against Elliott, Twitter’s case for the CEO to remain in power may be weaker than it thinks.
And the real drama may be about to begin.
Yesterday we included a link on Cisco helping the Indian government enforce the internet blackout in Kashmir. The company denied the report. “We do not customize our products in any way to enable censorship,” the company told BuzzFeed. But as BuzzFeed’s Pranav Dixit also noted:
A 2008 Wired report showed the company had a 90-page internet document detailing how it could help the Chinese government build the “Golden Shield,” also known as the Great Firewall of China, a version of the internet heavily censored by Chinese authorities.
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
Trending up: Apple is rejecting coronavirus apps that aren’t from recognized health institutions. The App Store currently has very few apps related to the outbreak, and almost no spam.
Trending down: Google is showing ads for products that claim to prevent coronavirus, despite having a policy against them. The company said it had blocked tens of thousands of ads attempting to capitalize on the outbreak.
Trending down: The Trump campaign is flooding Facebook with deceptive ads about the Census, and Facebook wasn’t doing anything about it. After an outcry on Thursday, the company reversed course and removed the ads. That was the right call, but the company’s hesitation here lent credence to those who argue the company too often goes out of its way to placate conservatives.
Multiple cases have now been reported in San Francisco and New York City, as the virus begins its “community transmission” phase. Several employees and contractors at big tech companies have begun to be diagnosed as well.
On the office front:
A Facebook contractor in Seattle was diagnosed with the coronavirus. The company shut down the Seattle office as a precaution until March 9th. (Kurt Wagner / Bloomberg)
On the travel front:
Google has barred employees from traveling internationally for work. Last week, an employee in Google’s Zurich office tested positive for the disease. (Rob Price / Business Insider)
Apple has barred employee travel to Italy and South Korea as the coronavirus continues to spread. The company already instating a similar policy for China. (Mark Gurman / Bloomberg)
LinkedIn made all job interviews virtual due to the coronavirus outbreak. Google instituted a similar policy on Wednesday.
On the conference front:
Apple and Netflix pulled out of South by Southwest due to coronavirus concerns. Apple had planned to debut three new Apple TV+ projects at the festival, including a Spike Jonze documentary about the Beastie Boys. (Mark Gurman and Lucas Shaw / Bloomberg)
As US companies rush to prepare for the coronavirus, there are still millions of employees — many of them hourly workers — who can’t work from home and lack sufficient paid leave. (Jeff Green / Bloomberg)
Russia is behind “swarms of online, false personas” spreading misinformation about the coronavirus on social media, according to a top State Department official. The “entire ecosystem of Russian disinformation is at play,” they said. (Tony Romm / The Washington Post)
Meanwhile, Chinese trolls are spreading coronavirus disinformation in Taiwan. The viral message misleadingly stated that Taiwan’s government had lied about the number of coronavirus infections and deaths. (Craig Silverman / BuzzFeed)
The United Arab Emirates is shutting down schools for a month starting on March 8th. The news has has reignited a debate about an existing ban the government has against Skype, WhatsApp, and FaceTime. (Sylvia Westall / BloombergQuint)
⭐ Congress introduced a new law called the EARN IT Act that would remove Section 230 legal protections for tech companies that fail to remove child sexual abuse imagery. A separate, international initiative was also announced to compel the tech industry to embrace voluntary standards for combating the material. This bears close watching: the EARN IT Act could mean the end of encrypted messaging. Here’s Michael H. Keller at The New York Times:
Last year, tech companies reported nearly 70 million images and videos related to online child exploitation. They are obligated to report the material when they become aware of it on their platforms, but they are not required to go looking for it. Companies are generally not responsible for content uploaded by their users, because of a 1990s-era provision in the law known as Section 230.
The new bill, called the EARN IT Act, would carve out an exception to that rule. Companies that don’t follow the recommended standards would lose civil liability protections for that type of content. The legislation would also lower the bar for suing those tech firms.
Speaking of legislation: a bill proposed by two Democratic senators would ban YouTube from recommending unboxing videos to children. Um ... okay. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
A federal judge rejected Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s lawsuit against Google. The lawsuit claimed Google violated the First Amendment by temporarily suspending Gabbard’s presidential campaign ads. The judge rejected this claim on the grounds that Google isn’t bound by the First Amendment — much like the ruling in the Prager University case earlier this month. This was the right call. (Steven Overly / Politico)
Elizabeth Warren suspended her presidential campaign after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday. Warren led the fight to break up Big Tech in 2020. (Makena Kelly / The Verge)
Mike Bloomberg also dropped out of the presidential race, as you likely saw But his strategy wasn’t a total failure, this piece argues. In barely three months, Bloomberg built a national media apparatus that sucked up huge amounts of politics’ most precious and finite resource: attention. (Charlie Warzel / The New York Times)
Facebook filed a lawsuit against a domain name provider for registering websites masquerading as Facebook domains in order to trick people into clicking on phishing scams. Namecheap called the move an “attack on privacy and due process.” (Facebook)
Amazon warehouse workers in Illinois are demanding paid sick leave. They say the company violated local regulations by not paying them when they were ill. (Caroline O’Donovan / BuzzFeed)
Russian propagandists are trying to reach Americans with a “news” app posing as a free streaming service. The app, Portable.TV, has direct links to the Russian propaganda outlet RT. Fun! (Casey Michel / Daily Beast)
⭐ TikTok hired cyber security expert Roland Cloutier from ADP as its new chief information security officer. The news comes after a year of increased scrutiny for the company. Here’s Echo Wang at Reuters:
“As TikTok grows and serves an ever-larger, more diverse global community, we have a clear responsibility to continue to maximize security on our platform. We are thrilled to have a recognized global expert and leader like Roland to help us deliver on that promise,” [TikTok CEO Alex] Zhu said in a statement.
At ADP, Cloutier served as chief security officer, helping ensure that confidential personal information handled by the company remained secure. He worked for ADP for 10 years.
Before Clearview AI became a tool for law enforcement, the rich used it to surveil people at parties and on dates. The company let investors and clients use the facial recognition app, seemingly wherever they wanted. (Kashmir Hill / The New York Times)
Wolfcom, a company that makes technology for police, is pitching body cameras with live facial recognition to law enforcement groups across the United States. The company claims to have sold body cameras to at least 1,500 police departments, universities, and federal organizations already. (Dave Gershgorn / OneZero)
A ton of people have been posting about Nancy Cartwright, the long-running voice actor behind Bart Simpson, viewing their stories on Instagram. It turns out her social media team is using a “mass story viewing” strategy. OK! (David Mack / BuzzFeed)
Ricky Dillon started his YouTube channel in high school, when creators were still niche entertainers. Now he’s reflecting on what has changed in 10 years. Um, everything? (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
They shouldn’t have tried to hold an election AND teach Americans how to wash their hands, all in the same week. It was too much. We were overwhelmed.— ditch pony (@molly7anne) March 4, 2020