The timing couldn’t have been better, at least for attendees of Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference this week in Aspen, for Jonathan Taplin’s recent essay in The Wall Street Journal titled “Can the Tech Giants Be Stopped?”
A lot of tech giants and their investors will be joining us in the mountains. They have many things on their minds, and among them are the difficult questions Taplin raises. Amazon sucks the life out of retail competitors, Taplin argues. Google and Facebook have vanquished what was the news industry-without contributing to the production of democracy-sustaining journalism that was the finest work of newspapers. They and a few others promise to dominate applications of artificial intelligence while paying little heed to the job-killing ramifications of the new technology.
Taplin, who expands on these arguments in his book, Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy, has a solution. Antitrust regulators should temper the power of these giants, just as they did with different degrees of success with AT&T, IBM, and Microsoft.
It’s a fascinating assertion, if not an airtight one. Taplin argues, for example, that if the Justice Department hadn’t forced Microsoft to open up access to its browser Google wouldn’t have existed. But Google was part of at least two other efforts at alternative browsers, Mozilla and Chrome. And Netscape, which battled Microsoft, faded from view. Google also does well on browsers it doesn’t control, like Apple’s Safari.
Bigness and power confer great privilege and leverage, but they also attract great scrutiny. And yet, Amazon’s prowess didn’t stop Netflix from becoming its competitor. Google has struggled mightily to find a non-search-ad-related hit.
Competition is at least as powerful as antitrust actions. The question I’d focus on isn’t can tech giants be stopped, but rather how big is too big? When does a tech giant become too easy a target and too sclerotic to beat back new competitors?
Maybe this all will come up this week.
Yikes. Tesla CEO Elon Musk called for government regulation to slow the pace of artificial intelligence research, saying the future of civilization was at risk. Speaking Saturday at the National Governors Association, Musk repeated a warning he’s given before that unrestricted AI programs could quickly get out of control. “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs, or bad food were not,” he said.
Double yikes. Problems with sexual harassment are still roiling the world of startups and venture capital. On Friday, a former employee sued performance-tracking company BetterWorks and its CEO, Kris Duggan. In court filings, the plaintiff, Bea Kim, described a workplace rife with sexist comments from management, an incident of inappropriate touching by Duggan, and the company’s inadequate response. And Bloomberg reports that VC Fred Destin, formerly of Atlas Venture in Boston and now raising his own fund, is also facing questions about an incident of alleged inappropriate behavior.
Triple yikes. Adultery website Ashley Madison said on Friday it will pay $11 million to settle a class action lawsuit on behalf of the 37 million people whose personal details were exposed in a July 2015 hack attack. Users with valid claims of losses can recoup up to $3,500 each from the web site, which marketed itself as a way to help people cheat on their spouses, with the slogan “Life is short. Have an affair.”
Still no deals. It was a rumor-filled day in telecom land on Friday. Bloomberg reported that AT&T will manage Time Warner and its entertainment business separately from AT&T’s current network and communications business once their merger is approved. And the Wall Street Journal caught Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son seeking partnerships and investments from billionaire Warren Buffett and cable industry titan John Malone.
Fast, faster, fastest. There’s a new world record for flying drones: 163.5 miles an hour. The new DRL RacerX from the Drone Racing League set the Guinness World Record for top speed by a battery-powered remote-controlled quadcopter, the league said Friday.
Harder than it looks. Android creator Andy Rubin’s new phone startup, Essential, is experiencing some bumps, Business Insider reports. Former Samsung exec Brian Wallace, who ran marketing for Essential since joining last year, has left the company, along with a PR exec. Essential is already taking pre-orders for its $700 all-black phone for delivery later this summer. TIME‘s Lisa Eadicicco got a chance briefly to try out the device recently and wrote on Friday that it will be a promising contender against the iPhone and Galaxy S8.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Economists have been puzzled by the drop in employment of young men age 21 to 30. Last year, 15% of those men (excluding full-time students) were not working or, nearly double the 8% rate in 2000. Now some new research (PDF) has found a surprising possible culprit: video games.
Researchers at Princeton and the University of Chicago looked at how people were spending their leisure time and found that young men, unlike, say, older men or women, had increased the time they spent on “gaming/recreational computing” even though their leisure time had not increased by the same amount, cutting into their work time. The shift could account for one-quarter to almost half of the drop in working for the young men. The trend took off during the Great Recession around 2008, when many may have lost jobs, but has persisted since. The nature of video gaming means that once guys start delving in, they may be tough to pull away, the authors write:
Innovations to computer and gaming leisure may have dynamic effects on labor supply. It is possible that individuals develop a habit (or addiction) for such activities. Certainly individuals build ‘leisure capital’ in the form of physical equipment, but especially human skills, that enhances enjoyment from gaming. Thus negative shocks to labor demand could have a persistent negative impact on labor supply via individuals first increasing their computer leisure, then developing a taste or skills for the activity.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
This Analyst Claims the U.S. Postal Service Is Giving Amazon a Huge Subsidy by David Z. Morris
Google’s Waymo Sent Its Self-Driving Minivans to Death Valley by Kirsten Korosec
Facebook Is Testing Something New For its Craigslist Challenger by Jonathan Vanian
AT&T Has Tentative Deal with Workers Who Went on Strike by Aaron Pressman
BEFORE YOU GO
The long-running British sci-fi show Doctor Who debuted in 1963 and has since changed the actor playing the title character 12 times. But it took until 2017 for the show to break a barrier much of society crossed decades ago. Announcing the 13th doctor, the BBC said it had finally cast a woman, Jodie Whittaker, who has previously been in series including Return to Cranford, Broadchurch, and Black Mirror.