Data Sheet—Silicon Valley vs. Alex Jones
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(Today’s essay is by Fortune senior writer Jeff John Roberts.)
The tech industry finally did the right thing and pulled the plug on conspiracy loon Alex Jones. Sites like Facebook and YouTube announced Jones, who has accused the U.S. government of backing 9/11, no longer has a place on their platform.
The decision is a welcome one in part because Jones’s “news” channel Infowars has contaminated our media and political discourse with paranoia and stupidity. Likewise, Jones deserves to be flushed because he inflects harm on his targets—most notably the grieving parents of the Sandy Hook massacre, who have faced a harassment campaign from Jones supporters who claim their children’s death was a hoax.
Unfortunately, the tech companies did themselves no favors in how they handled the Jones file. Instead of booting him over any number of outrages in recent years, the likes of Facebook, Spotify, and YouTube all waited until Apple—which removed Jones from its podcast library last weekend—went first, and then followed suit.
This played into the hands of Jones and far-right media outlets who are now shrieking of a conspiracy by Big Tech to silence critics of the government. While no such conspiracy exists, of course, the optics are not great and underscore the monopoly power wielded Silicon Valley over media. Likewise, Facebook and others failed to offer a clear explanation for booting Jones. Instead of simply stating, “We have decided to exercise our First Amendment right to ban Jones because he is a liar who exploits grieving parents,” the companies made murky claims about “community policies” and hate speech—claims that tech critics will pounce on as arbitrary and inconsistent.
Jones, meanwhile, continues to prove himself as a tech savvy propagandist. In response to his ouster from YouTube and Facebook, he took to Twitter’s Periscope platform to broadcast the perceived conspiracy against him. He has also benefited from inconsistencies in the tech companies own policies. In the case of Apple, for instance, his podcasts are gone but his popular InfoWars app remains available in the App Store.
The upshot is that the big companies need a clearer message and a sounder strategy if they want to rid themselves of the forces that have made their platforms so toxic. If they fail to do this, Jones will have lost a battle, but he will be poised to win the war.
|Jeff John Roberts|
Hazy outlook. Search giant Google is welcome back in China—as long as it complies with the nation’s censorship laws and so forth. Or is it? An op-ed posted in state-run newspaper People’s Daily said as much, but was then removed from the web.
Storms ahead. China's state run media also predicted that Apple and other unnamed U.S. tech companies could become "bargaining chips" in the brewing trade war. Same state-run newspaper People's Daily warned Apple could be "exposed if Chinese people make it a target of anger and nationalist sentiment."
Hot, hot, hot. Media mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg and former eBay and HP CEO Meg Whitman have raised $1 billion to back their new mobile streaming video service, so far called simply NewTV. “Really, this allows us to launch our vision of bringing together the best of Hollywood and Silicon Valley,” Whitman told Variety.
Mixed up files. In telecom world, we got two almost diametrically opposed views from the same government office. The Justice Department's antitrust division continued to fight the AT&T-Time Warner merger, filing an appeal to overturn its district court loss. But the New York Post reports same said division is fine with having just three national wireless carriers, paving the way for the T-Mobile-Sprint deal (Sprint's stock rose 10% and T-Mobile's 8% on Monday).
Mixed up files, the sequel. Sticking with Washington's telecom world comes a bizarre end to a bizarre story. As the Federal Communications Commission was about to gut its 2015 net neutrality rules last year, it was flooded with online comments. Chair Ajit Pai weirdly said the agency had been the subject of a hacker's DDoS attack. Now the FCC's Inspector General says there was no such attack. And Pai says he was "provided inaccurate information."
Things that make you go hmm. If banks wanted to partner with Facebook to, say, reach customers via Facebook Messenger then the banks were asked to share some data about those customers like, say, card transactions and checking-account balances. At least that's the reported deal Facebook sought from major financial institutions, the Wall Street Journal reports. In a kitchen sink response to TechCrunch, Facebook nearly denies the whole thing. “A recent Wall Street Journal story implies incorrectly that we are actively asking financial services companies for financial transaction data—this is not true," the company said. "Like many online companies with commerce businesses, we partner with banks and credit card companies to offer services like customer chat or account management.” Data shared via messaging wouldn't be used to target ads or "anything else," Facebook said.
Pounding it. Cloud messaging platform Twilio said its second quarter total revenue jumped 54% to $148 million and adjusted earnings hit 3 cents per share, reversing a loss of 5 cents a year ago. Both were better than analysts expected and shares of Twilio, which have been volatile on earnings days, gained 17% in premarket trading on Tuesday.
Hungry for more. They say Masayoshi Son's Vision Fund throws too much money into too many startups. Who can blame them? The SoftBank Group investment fund is reportedly considering investing $3 billion to $5 billion in Alibaba's Ele.me food delivery service. Fully acquired by Alibaba in April, Ele.me is locked in a fierce and expensive battle with its Tencent-owned counterpart, Meituan Dianping.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Are streaming music services locked in a competition to the death or really more like multiple advocates for renting songs instead of buying? Apple CEO Tim Cook seemed to embrace the latter model. "The key thing in music is not the competition between companies that are providing music," the CEO said last week. "It’s the real challenge is to grow the market.” Maybe that's why he agreed to be interviewed in Fast Company by Robert Safian for a long, long profile of Spotify and its CEO Daniel Ek. The journalist says he spent "many hours" with Ek and interviewed three dozen Spotify leaders, partners, artists, and competitors. What emerges is a profile in persistence and getting the details right:
Each quarter, Ek creates what’s internally called “the bets board”: a list of seven to 10 priorities, selected from among proposals made by the operating teams. Resources are allocated to the top bet first, then the second, and so on. “If you fail, fail from the bottom up,” [chief R&D officer Gustav] Soderstrom says, describing Ek’s strategy. “So number one should never fail, and eight should fail before seven. It’s surprisingly effective.”
The new free tier has been a top priority for more than a year. It reflects how important it is for the company to keep acquiring new customers (and turn them into paying ones), but it also has its own commercial element. “Billions of people listen to radio, and most of that today isn’t monetized very efficiently,” Ek says as we chat on the couch in his Stockholm office. “Commercial radio, that’s conservatively a $50 billion industry globally. The U.S. radio industry is $17 billion, close to the size of the whole global recorded music industry, which is $23 billion. And what do people listen to? Primarily music.” Ninety percent of Spotify’s current revenues come from subscriptions, but if the free product expands, so can Spotify’s radiolike advertising business. As Ek notes, with typical understatement, “We still have a lot of room to grow.”
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