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Good morning. This is Aric Jenkins, staff writer at Fortune, filling in for Adam. Data Sheet readers might recognize me from my recent deep dives into virtual reality and Airbnb.
Today, Facebook announced tweaks to the company’s much-criticized approach to political advertising. The company’s director of product management, Rob Leathern, said in a blog post that the company plans to roll out greater transparency features for its Ad Library, a public database of ads that’s designed to hold political advertisers accountable. And the company will soon allow users to toggle a feature that shows fewer political or social issue ads in their Facebook and Instagram feeds.
Still, there is no sweeping overhaul to the system that was the subject of so much controversy in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. Facebook will stand firm on its policy allowing targeted political advertising on its platform: “Ultimately, we don’t think decisions about political ads should be made by private companies,” Leathern wrote. Ads will continue to go un-fact-checked, and campaigns can still microtarget specific audiences, a tool some lawmakers and critics say is particularly effective at spreading disinformation.
To be blunt, it may still be completely possible for politicians to advertise lies on the world’s largest social network. (“We are not deaf to [criticism of Facebook’s position] and will continue to work with regulators and policy makers in our ongoing efforts to help protect elections,” Leathern wrote.)
What’s most interesting to me is that Leathern claims regulators should step in—a plea to government that you might not usually hear from large tech companies. “Frankly, we believe the sooner Facebook and other companies are subject to democratically accountable rules on this the better,” Leathern wrote. But, “in the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies.”
Unlike Facebook, other social media companies have decided to take direct action against political advertising. Google most recently decided to limit the targeting of political ads, notably preventing the ability of campaigns to microtarget based on political affiliation. Not long before, Twitter outright banned all political advertising from the platform. “We believe political message reach should be earned, not bought,” CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted at the time.
Some, especially those concerned that targeted political ads can morph into propaganda, had hoped Twitter and Google’s measures would finally spur Facebook into action. But it seems that this latest announcement might be the company’s final word on the matter ahead of another contentious presidential election in November.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.
Slipping through the cracks. After California passed a law to try to classify Uber drivers as employees of the company, Uber has tweaked its fares and features in an effort to avoid that outcome. Passengers no longer get shown an exact upfront price, just a range, and drivers won't get punished for refusing trips.
Block that kick. Speaking of app redesigns, Twitter is planning to let users limit who can reply to their tweets, a tweak that may mitigate abusive responses. Users will be able to limit responses to only people who follow them or people they have mentioned, or allow no replies at all.
Unbundling. Is it a day of all tweaks? Verizon announced an overhaul of pricing and features for its Fios home Internet and cable service. The changes include simpler, separate choices for each service, the elimination of all of those bogus extra fees at the bottom of the bill, and a discount for Verizon wireless customers.
Listen closely. The podcasting industry continues to mature. Spotify introduced new tools to help podcasters insert targeted ads into shows and collect anonymized listener data.
That's a lot of Candy Crush. And speaking of maturing industries, Apple disclosed that its app store tallied $1.4 billion of sales just in the week between Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, a 16% increase from the same week a year earlier. Apple also said its premium News+ service has reached 100 million monthly active users.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
While Impossible Burgers and Beyond Meat sausages proliferate, some tech companies are going much further in developing new food sources in the lab. A startup called Solar Food has developed a technique to grow all manner of foods at low cost not with plant or animal cells but via bacteria. George Monbiot, a columnist at The Guardian, digs into the implications of this potential hydrogen-powered agricultural revolution.
We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation. This means multiplying particular micro-organisms, to produce particular products, in factories.I know some people will be horrified by this prospect. I can see some drawbacks. But I believe it comes in the nick of time.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
‘They Must Scale Up:’ Greenpeace Ranks China’s Tech Giants on Renewable Energy By Naomi Xu Elegant
New Laws Meant to Close Down Tax Havens and Shut Loopholes Could Have the Opposite Effect By Erik Sherman
How Neil Young’s Eccentric Online Home Was Born By Morgan Enos
ClassPass Raises $285 Million—and Hits Unicorn Status By Emma Hinchliffe
This Specialty Pencil Shop Charms Everyone From Creative Professionals to Stationery Lovers By Anna Ben Yehuda Rahmanan
BEFORE YOU GO
Hopefully, even when all of our food is grown in vats, there will still be plenty of wildlife to admire. Paper artist Lisa Lloyd could fill in any gaps. Check out her astonishingly lifelike paper sculptures of bird, bugs, and other creatures.
On Twitter: @ampressman