Facebook’s Choice: Mission or Market?


Konrad Foerstner | Flickr

Facebook has developed software tools to help governments suppress posts they don’t like, Mike Isaac reports in The New York Times. In the past the social network, like other U.S.-based internet services, has removed content in some countries to comply with local laws. But this new approach — aimed at helping Facebook re-enter the huge China market it left seven years ago — would allow third parties to preemptively ban stories and topics from users’ news feeds.

The censorship tools haven’t yet been deployed or offered to China, according to unnamed Facebook employees who confirmed their existence, and they might never be. That depends on how badly the company wants to operate in China, where rivals like Google and Twitter have also been locked out — and how satisfied the Chinese authorities are with Facebook’s ability to stifle dissent. But anyone working at Facebook must be wondering, as the Times story does: How can you square this project with the company’s mission to “make the world more open and connected”? Or does the mission just get tossed out the window in the face of a massive market opportunity?

Data choices constantly trigger ethical choices. In other news today, Twitter reminded its business partners that its rules bar third parties from using Twitter data for surveillance purposes (Recode). “Using Twitter’s Public APIs or data products to track or profile protesters and activists is absolutely unacceptable and prohibited,” the company said. In other words, Twitter will work with law enforcement when that’s legally required but it won’t create business incentives to spy on people.

Meanwhile, digital ad marketplace Appnexus barred Breitbart News, the alt-right tabloid, from its service for violating hate-speech rules (Bloomberg). But wait: Is Appnexus simply doing the right thing? Or is this another kind of censorship? Once digital platforms start thinking ethically about their services, the dilemmas come thick and fast — and the chance to say “We’ll just stay out of this one” vanishes.

New Uber Numbers Show Unflagging Growth

Uber has provided an update to the labor study it first released in 2015, with some new insights on trends in usage of the ride-hailing service (Medium).

Exponential growth in driving for Uber continues, with active U.S. drivers doubling every six months. The divide between the majority of casual drivers (15 hours a week or less) and the minority of full-time drivers holds strong. Over time, the casual numbers increase while the full-timers dwindle.

Infrequent drivers earn roughly the same hourly rates as more dedicated drivers. Hourly earning rates for drivers are flat over time while the cost for riders drops, suggesting that the underlying dynamic of Uber’s economics can benefit riders without hurting drivers. (Remember whose study this is, though!) Flexibility remains Uber’s ace-in-the-hole: Drivers love the freedom to turn Uber work on and off at will at any time.

Court Blocks Overtime Expansion

President Obama’s expansion of mandatory overtime rules was blocked by a federal judge in Texas (Reuters). The new Labor Department regulations would have gone into effect Dec. 1 and extended overtime to an estimated 4.5 million new workers — managers and supervisory personnel who earn up to $47,500 a year. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 21 states have sued to overturn the change.

Since the incoming administration is likely to be hostile to the new rules as well, this probably means they’re doomed. On the one hand, too bad — this was the first update to overtime in decades, and the current rules are badly out of date. On the other hand, the whole structure of work is changing so fast that overtime is probably becoming irrelevant anyway. If businesses did a better job of persuading workers that they’re going to be treated fairly and generously, they’d be under less pressure to adopt the kind of rigid rules that they dislike.

Solar Lights This Island, Thanks to Tesla

Tesla is showing off how it runs an entire island, Ta’u in American Samoa, on solar power generated by 5000 panels (Engadget). Ta’u is a pretty sunny place, but 60 Tesla Powerpack batteries store enough juice to keep the place running for three days if it clouds over. 600 residents no longer have to burn diesel fuel to keep the lights on.

We’re still a long way from powering major cities from the sun, particularly in less balmy climes. But you’ve got to start somewhere.

VCs Are Here to Serve You

Roy Bahat of Bloomberg Beta writes a thank-you note to the startup founders he works with (NewCo Shift). Bahat says that when he began his work as a venture capitalist, he had misgivings, based on his own mixed experiences as a founder seeking support from at VCs. Only when he realized that “earliest-stage VC, correctly done, is also a client service job” did he fall in love with his work.

Have a fine Thanksgiving! We’re thankful you’re reading us — we’ll be back Monday.


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