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Taming the Apex Predators of Tech

Taming the Apex Predators of Tech

To rein in monopolies, maybe we need to rethink what a monopoly is.

Via NYTimes, By Kara Swisher


In a tech galaxy that now seems far, far away, everyone was terrified of Bill Gates. He was the Apex Predator of Tech.

You wanted to make software? Microsoft would crush you. You wanted to start an online service? Microsoft would decimate you. You wanted to make a browser to navigate the World Wide Web? Chomp!

It was that last one that finally stopped Mr. Gates and Microsoft. The government accused the company of being a monopoly and of engaging in anticompetitive practices against Netscape and its Navigator browser. In 2001 the government won a landmark case against the company that required it to submit to more oversight and make it easier for other companies to offer competing software.

The Sherman Antitrust Act had prevailed over the leading power in tech, and what happened after was a resurgence of innovation that ushered in a spate of new companies and ideas. You can draw a pretty straight line from that decision to the growth of Google and Amazon and Apple, the explosion of Facebook and the introduction of start-ups like Uber, Airbnb, Pinterest and Slack.

In recent years tech has backtracked, except this time we have several Apex Predators instead of just one. Google and Facebook are the most obvious. More and more people in the media and in politics, as well as consumers, have become fearful of these companies for the damage they can do and the unregulated power they wield.

Something has to be done, but what? Even as distrust of big tech companies increases and governments move to control them, their businesses have never been more successful.

One option is privacy legislation. Europe passed such a law in 2016. While there is no national privacy law in the United States, California will soon have a state-level law, and other states are considering similar reforms. The idea of restricting tech companies’ use of personal data becomes more popular with every hack and every instance of abuse. Still, the likelihood of the United States passing a national privacy law with teeth is small.

Then there are the fines, such as a multibillion-dollar one that the Federal Trade CommissionClose X is considering to punish Facebook for privacy violations. While the fine would be the largest the agency has ever levied, it would also be far too small to make a difference. When Facebook announced it might have to hand over $5 billion as its get-out-of-jail-free card, Wall Street cheered and Facebook stock rose.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of talk about the ways that countries can work together to improve the online ecosystem. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand met with President Emmanuel Macron of France last week, for example, about creating an intergovernmental effort to end online extremism. While laudable in theory, very little of this hand-wringing is likely to result in any rules with heft. In addition, the prospect of governments making rules around the restriction of speech is rife with ethical dilemmas.

Finally there’s the biggest gun: Using antitrust law to break up big tech companies. Calls for antitrust action have become increasingly loud, most notably in a recent essay in this paper by the Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. His statement that the company should be broken up attracted a lot of attention, especially after he called the power held by Mark Zuckerberg, his former college roommate, “un-American.” That had to hurt, even if the blow is likely to be glancing, since antitrust cases are slow-moving and hard to pull off.

And yet the idea of using antitrust to rein in these companies got a significant boost recently with the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a lawsuit from consumers aimed at how Apple runs its App Store to proceed in a lower court.

Breaking with the more conservative wing of the court in a 5-4 decision, Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority opinion that Apple’s arguments that it wasn’t subject to a lawsuit over its app prices “disregard statutory text and precedent, create an unprincipled and economically senseless distinction among monopolistic retailers and furnish monopolistic retailers with a how-to guide for evasion of the antitrust laws.”

Apple has and will continue to argue that it is not a monopoly in either hardware and software — which is true. But the case, though narrow, is still a flashing neon sign of change. It centers on rethinking the idea of what a monopoly is with an eye to the power of the network effect. Even if a company doesn’t completely dominate its sector, if its platform can exercise what amounts to an iron-fisted control over consumers, perhaps it should be considered a monopoly after all.

Google and Facebook are good examples, because they hold sway in all kinds of ways that make it hard for other companies to compete and for consumers to escape. Google’s share of the search market allows it to dominate mapping, recommendations, email, video, documents and more, while Facebook rules the social media world through its main app along with Instagram and WhatsApp.

None of this is good for consumers, except perhaps by the measure of convenience, because the choices they have are limited and never likely to challenge the status quo. In other words, these companies are Apex Predators, too. You don’t have to be as powerful as Bill Gates once was to be just as harmful.

The question now is: How do we get consumers on top of the food chain for once?

Kara Swisher, editor at large for the technology news website Recode and producer of the “Recode Decode” podcast and Code Conference, is a contributing Opinion writer.

Kohl’s Will Now Accept Amazon Returns At All Its Stores

Kohl’s Will Now Accept Amazon Returns At All Its Stores

Can’t beat ’em? Join ’em. Sigh…

Buy something on Amazon and want to send it back? Kohl’s will take it off your hands for you. The department store chain announced Wednesday that starting in July, it will accept Amazon returns at all of its 1,150 stores.

Kohl’s says it will accept “eligible Amazon items, without a box or label, and return them for customers for free.” The program will expand a pilot introduced at Kohl’s stores in the Los Angeles, Chicago and Milwaukee markets in 2017.

The move highlights a major headache of shopping online: You often can’t try something before you buy it, and if the item doesn’t work out, it can be a hassle to return it.

The Kohl’s-Amazon partnership offers one solution, at least for people with a Kohl’s nearby. (Kohl’s stores are often located in suburban strip malls, not city centers, so the partnership won’t help many carless urbanites.)

And why might Kohl’s want to partner with its online competitor? Foot traffic and new customers. If Amazon shoppers go to Kohl’s to make a return, perhaps they’ll pick up a few items while they’re at it.

Read full article…

The Con of the Side Hustle

The Con of the Side Hustle

Mainstream news media is routinely attacked as an unreliable source for deeper truths, let alone, in-depth reporting.
That may be true in all too many cases, but, media provides public platforms for opinion writers.
Read enough of them, across the spectrum, and you’ll come away with valuable perspective.
Get enough of that, and truth is easier to find.


The language portraying second jobs as liberating or glamorous masks the reality of the insecure working lives of many Americans.

Via NYTimes, By Alissa Quart

Ms. Quart is the author of “Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America.”

Ride-sharing cars have become ubiquitous in New York. Uber tries to attract drivers by promoting the job as a “side hustle.”Credit: Chad Batka for The New York Times

An attractive woman behind the wheel of a gray car says to the camera, “These days anyone can have a side hustle.” She then whisks off to the gym, for her other job as a personal trainer, beaming as she goes from one gig to another. This ad for the ride-share company Uber seeks to entice new drivers to join their ranks by using the “side hustle” come-on. The company isn’t alone.

Similarly laborious “side hustles” are celebrated in popular media and advertising, from self-help articles and other web content that exhort us to, say, work for a design studio part-time or sell CBD oil (great as a side hustle for moms, supposedly). Even pastors can use a side hustle, according to one evangelical blogger.

During tax season, you will also find filing suggestions for side hustlers. (Report all of your income! Deduct expenses!)

The truth is, working multiple gigs creates complications when you do your taxes. Compared with those with salaried jobs, who pay their taxes seamlessly through withholding, for side hustlers “the process will be a lot messier,” according to Steven Dean, the faculty director of the Graduate Tax Program at New York University Law School. You have to estimate and pay taxes on your own, he notes, and your expenses may not be reimbursed by your employer. In other words, paying quarterly tax estimates gives workers with side hustles yet another side hustle — being their own accountant, although this gig doesn’t even pay.

Nevertheless, this nouveau moonlighting continues to be exalted ­as cool, empowering or freeing. This mantra is false: Side hustles are not simply a new version of working as a “wage slave” so that we can do what we love in our off hours. Instead, far more often, people take on second or third side hustles because of wage stagnation or low pay at their full-time jobs.

Over the past few years, I have interviewed dozens of people who work a full-time job or close to it — teachers, professors, administrators and nurses, among others — and supplement their incomes by driving for Lyft or serving as a barista. They are not doing it for the glamour. They need these second jobs because their first jobs don’t cover astronomically rising rents, record health care costs or swelling college tuition. A full 30 percent of Americans do something else for pay in addition to their full-time jobs, according to an NPR/Marist survey last year.

Yet this sales pitch for the “side hustle” takes what we once called, more drably, another job and gives it a gloss, with a tiny shot of Superfly, disguising unstable working hours and a lack of bargaining power as liberation. You can see the twisted alchemy of what Reddit’s founder Alexis Ohanian has called “hustle porn.

Commercial websites like Side Hustle Nation extol the joy of the new unstable labor, although its payoff actually arrives for only a few. As Nick Loper, the site’s “chief side hustler” writes, “My escape route was a side hustle business I built in my spare time — and you can do it too.” Medium has a whole Side Hustle publication. It bears the legend “You’re more than your day job.”

This language tries to make the dreary carousel of contemporary life sound more fun. “The phrase the ‘side hustle’ has gained a strange kind of prestige from downwardly mobile, college-educated tech workers,” said John Patrick Leary, the author of “Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism,” a sharp recent book on this troubling new lingo. Its glitz and energy derives from “a hip-hop genealogy,” although the side hustles name-checked in that genre are perhaps not the same as those imagined by Uber.

The “side hustle” is one of a growing roster of trendy corporatized idioms, like ordinary household appliances that are now “smart” or plain vanilla businessmen and women remade into the more exotic “entrepreneurs.” Our jobs are now “flexible,” although we are the ones contorting ourselves to work at all hours, or we are professionally “nimble” because we are trying to survive on freelance gigs.

Ultimately, like so much of this lexicon, the “side hustle” describes the overworked outsiders to privilege, who are forced into informal vocations by the absence of a legitimate economy. They are then told that suffering is valiant and also groovy. In a recent viral BuzzFeed piece describing millennials as the “burnout generation,” side hustles are listed as one of the main culprits.

There are some surprising benefits to side hustles. The 2017 tax reform introduced the qualified business income deduction, which provides side hustling workers with a rate reduction. But some people may not understand it, and this small benefit doesn’t make up for an uncertain work life.

So what can we do? For starters, anyone writing about work, whether as a journalist or as a social media exhibitionist, should stop glorifying long hours at work or juggling multiple workplace identities. Instead, we could be more open about what all these “side hustles” are really doing to our minds and bodies.

As workers, we might acknowledge that “side hustle” is an insidious term and resolve never to use it again. More broadly, we must fight other forms of this falsifying new jargon and seek out more truthful language. We could follow Raymond Williams, the cultural theorist, who once wrote that we should interrogate the language of contemporary society and “change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history.” Most important, we can agitate to raise wages. If we do that, we won’t need cute euphemisms to cloak the chaotic truth of working life in today’s America.

Wireless Companies Sell Your Data, and Invade Your Privacy.

Wireless Companies Sell Your Data, and Invade Your Privacy.

Another buzzkill reminder about modern life in a society with a government that seemingly doesn’t care enough to protect its people. Corporations that think nothing about its customers privacy as long as a dollar can be made selling it?

As much as I think the causes are clear, i.e, weak, indecisive, or, corrupt government, that doesn’t pass, nor enforce the laws, I do believe, we as citizens have a responsibility to at least stay as informed as possible, to be equipped to manage our privacy or data with some degree of effort. This is a responsibility with “us,” as users of technology, and seekers of knowledge.

I read a lot of articles such as these. Not just because I’m interested in technology and modern communication, but, because it is part of everyday life. I find that important to recognize and point out. Not everyone else does. Why not?

There is a meaty argument about literacy and educational levels having a direct impact on why, and how, so much apathy and passiveness pervades the masses in this country. Not just about politics, for instance (longstanding), but, modern issues such as this one. Virtually sanctioned invasion of our private lives by big business, or anyone else they sell it off to.

I’m not trying to veer to far afield on this, but, I believe that passiveness, apathy, and cynicism are the triumvirate at the core of what we have wrought on ourselves with technology today. It deserves a whole other essay to discuss. 

I know it sounds bad, but, I believe there’s still enough people who are not handicapped by this paralysis to fight back, to make a difference. So why don’t we? Don’t we care…enough? Don’t we believe it…matters? Do we just move on, and conclude that these sorts of things are hopeless struggles against big business and corrupt governments?

It’s such an easy argument. It’s so easy to accept. But its a mistake. 

Cynicism is not the foe of big business and bad government. It’s the friend of both. Cynicism does not inhibit and curtail more of the same behavior. It stimulates and grows more of it, because it breeds passivity. This is going to be a big battle, if it ever does come from the “people”. The real war from here on is not about brother against brother. That’s a mere distraction, a diversion to cultural coffee table feuds. The real war is right here in this article, multiplied by a hundred more that are written and acted out every day. Big money, big business, big tech, and a bought and paid for government. At some point, we all have to ask ourselves the famous question. Are we part of the solution, or part of the problem.

Related links:

Despite promises to stop, US cell carriers are still selling your real-time phone location data

Over 200 bounty hunters bought data ‘tens of thousands of times’] User location data sold by AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint is making its way to bounty hunters, says report

Carriers Swore They’d Stop Selling Location Data. Will They Ever?

Carriers selling your location to bounty hunters: it was worse than we thought

Below is a pasted in article from the NYTimes:

Why It’s So Easy for a Bounty Hunter to Find You

Wireless companies sell your location data. Federal regulators should stop them.

By Geoffrey Starks
Mr. Starks is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

April 2, 2019

When you signed up for cellphone service, I bet you didn’t expect that your exact location could be sold to anyone for a few hundred dollars. The truth is, your wireless carrier tracks you everywhere you go, whether you like it or not. When used appropriately, this tracking shouldn’t be a problem: location information allows emergency services to find you when you need them most.

But wireless carriers have been selling our data in ways that allows it to be resold for potentially dangerous purposes. For instance, stalkers and abusive domestic partners have used location data to track, threaten and attack victims. This industrywide practice facilitates “pay to track” schemes that appear to violate the law and Federal Communications Commission rules.

Companies are collecting and profiting from our private data in hidden ways that leave us vulnerable. As you carry your phone, your wireless carrier records its location so calls and texts can reach you. And you can’t opt out of sharing location data with your carrier, as you can with a mobile application. Your carrier needs this data to deliver service. But, according to recent news reports, this real-time phone location data has long been available to entities beyond your wireless carrier, for a price. In one alarming example, reported by Vice, a bounty hunter was able to pay to track a user’s location on a map accurate to within a few feet. In another case, a sheriff in Missouri used location data provided by carriers to inappropriately track a judge.

In other words, an ability that seems to come right out of a spy movie is now apparently available to just about anybody with your phone number and some cash. The pay-to-track industry has grown in the shadows, outside of the public eye and away from the watch of regulators.

Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, first raised the alarm last year, sending a letter to the F.C.C. on May 8 demanding an investigation into abuses by the pay-to-track industry. The Times reported on the issue the same week. Senator Wyden also demanded answers from the major wireless carriers. After that, the top wireless companies said that bounty hunters and others would no longer have access to their customers’ locations.

But months later the reports continue. Other recent articles suggest that highly accurate GPS location information from our phones — which, according to F.C.C. rules, should be used to send help to 911 callers — is still available on a location-data black market. Since then, wireless companies have said they’ll stop selling our location information completely — eventually.

The misuse of this data is downright dangerous. The harms fall disproportionately upon people of color. According to the Pew Research Center, people of color rely more heavily on smartphones for internet access, so they create more of this data, which makes them more vulnerable to tracking. Researchers also know that location data can be used to target them with misinformation or voter suppression tactics. It can also lead to assumptions about a person’s race or income level, assumptions that can feed into discriminatory automated decision making.

What is the government doing to protect us? Congress passed laws years ago protecting this kind of information and entrusted the F.C.C. with the responsibility of enforcing them.

It is unquestionably the F.C.C.’s job to protect consumers and address risks to public safety. Our location information isn’t supposed to be used without our knowledge and consent and no chain of handoffs or contracts can eliminate the wireless company’s obligations. This is particularly true for the misuse and disclosure of GPS-based 911 location data — which is squarely against F.C.C. rules.

The F.C.C. says it is investigating. But nearly a year after the news first broke, the commission has yet to issue an enforcement action or fine those responsible. This passage of time is significant, as the agency usually has only one year to bring action to hold any wrongdoers accountable before the statute of limitations runs out. Some may argue that the F.C.C.’s authority to take action against wireless carriers for this activity has gotten weaker in recent years, with the repeal of consumer-focused privacy and net neutrality rules during the current administration. But I believe that the commission still has ample authority to address these egregious pay-to-track practices.

Federal action is long overdue. As a Democratic commissioner at the Republican-led agency, I can call for action, but the chairman sets the agenda, including deciding whether and how quickly to respond to pay-to-track schemes. The agency’s inaction despite these increasingly troubling reports speaks volumes and leaves our duty to the public unfulfilled. The F.C.C. must use its authority to protect consumers and promote public safety, and act swiftly and decisively to stop illegal and dangerous pay-to-track practices once and for all.