Facebook’s Free Data Scheme: All Eyes on the U.S. Market

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Wesley Fryer | Flickr

Is Facebook’s free internet a Trojan horse? Facebook’s free internet plan, Free Basics, didn’t work out well when it debuted in India, but now Facebook has given the project an overhaul and has its eyes on a new market: the U.S. (The Washington Post). Free Basics is a system that lets disadvantaged users get wireless access to certain services and content free — they’re not charged against the monthly data limit. The argument for this “zero rating” concept is: let’s do a better job of bringing the benefits of internet connectivity to people who can’t afford it. The argument against it is, let’s not create a two-tier internet where poorer users get subsidized access but only to services like Facebook that underwrite it. (Last year, Susan Crawford persuasively made the against case.) The devil will be in the details, and it looks like federal regulators are moving with care. But cross your fingers that someone is looking out for the long-term interests of users here, and not just those of the BigCos.

For women in business, it’s the same old same old. U.S. businesses are still failing to make any kind of headway towards gender equality, according to a new study from LeanIn.org and McKinsey. The review of 130 companies finds that women are “underrepresented at every level of the corporate pipeline,” get promoted less than men, and face extra resistance when they ask for raises. It’s even tougher for women of color. While none of this comes as a surprise, the sheer Groundhog Day-like familiarity of such results is getting painful. More than 70 percent of companies have made commitments to diversity, yet the needle has remained stuck. Less talk, more action.

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Yahoo Unlocked Your Inbox

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Scott Schiller | Flickr

Did Yahoo sell out its users and its values? Last year, Yahoo complied with U.S. intelligence demands to scan all incoming emails for a search phrase, according to an investigation by Joe Menn at Reuters. The company has denied aspects of the report. If Yahoo did what Reuters describes, it not only went beyond what other tech giants that manage our mail (like Google and Microsoft) have been willing to do; it also violated the basic trust that customers of internet services place in their providers. The Reuters report comes on the heels of news that 500 million Yahoo user accounts had their information exposed by a massive break-in. That leaves Yahoo with a double black eye — right as it’s trying to sell itself to Verizon. Users expect and deserve privacy and security. The government wants to foil terrorist plots. It’s up to companies to carefully walk the narrow line between customer rights and law-enforcement needs; instead, it looks like Yahoo staggered drunkenly into a roadside ditch. If the company hopes to retain a shred of public trust, CEO Marissa Mayer should commission an impartial external investigation — but that’s unlikely in the middle of an acquisition.

No one is looking our carbon problem in the eye. Hey, now that the European Union has joined the U.S., China, India, and many other nations in embracing last year’s Paris climate agreement, it’s going to become binding (NPR). Good news, everybody! Or maybe not. The fuzzy goals the Paris agreement sets, and its lax system for letting countries adopt their own plans, means that we are almost certainly going to miss the Paris target of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. If we were actually serious about 2 degrees, writes David Roberts (Vox), it would mean “no more exploring for new fossil fuels. No new mines, wells, or fossil fuel infrastructure. And rapid, managed decline in existing fossil fuels.” Nobody’s proposing that. Even the best-case scenarios we’re playing under assume that, as the 21st century progresses, the human species is going to have to develop some extremely effective new technologies to recover carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in the ground. This, according to Roberts, is “a huge and existentially risky bet” on the future of humanity and the planet. Maybe there should be a question or two on this at the next presidential debate. Maybe it should get an entire debate of its own.

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Here’s Where Your Facebook Profile Sleeps at Night

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Facebook’s data center is a cold mirror. Luleå is a town in Sweden, just below the Arctic Circle. Facebook operates a ginormous data center there because the frigid air helps cool its heat-radiating servers, and there’s a bounty of hydroelectric power to fuel them. Yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg posted a set of photos of the Luleå server farm, providing a remarkable tableau of what’s really a kind of modern temple of industry — a data-age Great Pyramid. We think of cloud computing as evanescent bits and ethereal data; these hulking turbines, massive rack arrays, and yawning corridors are the material forms of the cloud, repressed but persistent. The images remind us that there’s really no escape from the corporeal world; we can displace the evidence of our digital media’s physical substrate and tuck it away in the Arctic ice, but it won’t be denied. You’ll also notice how few people inhabit these images. The better we get at maintaining the technology that connects us, the more we disappear from the picture. What stubbornly remains behind: mountains of shredded hard drives. Facebook is showing them off to reassure us about its commitment to privacy, but they’re also a heartbreaking reminder of sheer waste.

Today’s partner is tomorrow’s competitor. Fedex and UPS have thrived as haulers of Amazon’s crates, but now, The Wall Street Journal reports, the Seattle-based online retail giant is weighing bringing the delivery network in house. Running its own fleet of trucks could save Amazon more than $1 billion a year. Taking on its freight-giant partners would also be a vast and risky undertaking for Amazon. Once ubiquitous, this kind of “vertical integration” has fallen out of fashion in corporate circles. But Amazon’s burgeoning, voracious need for speed and capacity is driving it to take all kinds of unconventional steps.

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Zuckerberg and Chan Vow to Delete Diseases

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Can $3 billion cure everything? “Cure all diseases” is a pretty grand ambition, but no one ever accused Mark Zuckerberg of thinking small. This lofty goal is the aim of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: a $3 billion effort to conquer all the ailments that plague our lives, beginning with a $600 million research center in San Francisco called the Biohub, organized as a joint effort among Stanford, UCSF and UC-Berkeley (The Verge). Big-buck philanthropic moonshots have a mixed track record: Zuckerberg himself stumbled earlier in his career when he pumped $100 million into Newark’s schools without thinking things through carefully enough. Older and perhaps wiser, Zuckerberg this time around is counseling patience: He and his spouse, Priscilla Chan, aim to eliminate disease in their children’s lifetime, so they’re giving themselves some decades. Zuckerberg isn’t the only big name out there promising health breakthroughs: Joe Biden is leading a national charge on cancer, in all its forms, and Microsoft is touting a research effort to learn how to reprogram cancer cells within 10 years. Let a thousand basic-research gardens bloom—particularly when they make their findings open and public.

The company that makes the machines that read your DNA. If you have ever had your DNA information analyzed, the devices that performed the test were probably made by Illumina — a $25 billion biotech giant profiled in Fast Company. Illumina has brought the cost of gene sequencing down from hundreds of millions of dollars to mere thousands today; the pace outruns Moore’s Law, the famous principle that has governed progress in computing. Illumina also has spun out two high-profile startups: Helix, which is trying to build an app store for gene-sequencing tools, and Grail Bio, which is developing cancer-screening tests. (Read NewCo editor-in-chief John Battelle’s interview with Grail CEO Jeff Huber here.) But now Illumina’s customers, the companies that buy its equipment, fear that it might try to compete with them. That leaves Illumina trying to figure out how to grow an ecosystem in which it can prosper along with those customers. Of course, it’s a lot easier to resolve such dilemmas when markets are this new, and growing this fast.

Another day, another data breach. Yahoo is expected today to confirm reports from last month that hundreds of millions of its users had their data compromised (Recode). That’s lousy news for the hobbling Web giant, which is in the middle of navigating its acquisition by Verizon. The rest of us will probably go about our business; after Target and LinkedIn and countless other giant data-spills, we’ve all become pretty ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ about the phenomenon. While Yahoo struggles to clean up its mess, we should think harder about how thoroughly we’ve tied our digital lives to something as flimsy as an e-mail address/password combo. We need a better, safer, more reliable and convenient identity system. Bring on the biometrics!

Wells Fargo fired its whistleblowers. It was bad enough to learn about Wells Fargo’s history of opening fake accounts for real customers to meet sales quotas. Now we’re learning about Wells employees who tried to blow the whistle on this practice — and lost their jobs as a result (CNN). That suggests a deeper problem at the bank, one that may not be solvable without some larger change. Bank critic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Wells CEO John Stumpf, who was testifying before a congressional committee, that he should resign. Even such high-profile turnover won’t make much of a difference, though, unless somebody — a new CEO, a board intervention, shareholder revolt, all of the above — sets out to change a company culture that clearly took a wrong turn.

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Theranos Diagnosed With Apple Disease

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Steve Jurvetson | Flickr

The tragedy of Theranos. As the media’s attention today turns to the latest iPhone unveiling, here’s a morality tale that suggests the perils in over-imitating Apple. A Wall Street Journal investigation was the proximate cause of the downfall of med-tech startup Theranos, which once promised to revolutionize the blood testing business. But a new look at the story of the company’s implosion (Vanity Fair) suggests that Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes built the firm on sand from the very start by choosing a path of secrecy rather than transparency. Holmes’ emulation of Steve Jobs extended to more than the superficial shared preference for black turtlenecks; like Jobs, she applied control-freak tactics to prevent rivals, neutral third parties, and even Theranos employees themselves from obtaining information about the company’s products. That meant that, when the Journal finally raised questions about its work, Theranos had no defenders. If Theranos was as bogus as it now appears, maybe there was never much to defend. Either way, the lesson for the rest of us couldn’t be clearer: Don’t trust anyone’s revolution unless the data is shared, the science is reviewed, and the conversation is open.

The Clinton campaign’s strength in numbers. If this year’s two presidential campaigns were startups, Trump’s would be the one that prefers winging it to wonking out. Clinton’s, meanwhile, would be the one that lives and dies by data. A profile of her campaign’s director of analytics, Elan Kriegel (Politico), shows how thoroughly statistics drive the Democratic candidate’s efforts — the timing of email campaigns, the houses that on-the-ground volunteers visit, the targeting of postal mailers and online advertising and TV campaigns. Trump famously scorns deep-diving into data, while Clinton has organized her entire effort around a “culture of testing.” In a few weeks we’ll know which candidate bet right. (If you’re betting against data smarts, though, hope you’re wealthy enough to take the loss.)

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GE Bets on the Software Biz

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Don O’Brien | Flickr

How GE is becoming a software company. Software, as Marc Andreessen famously puts it, may be “eating the world,” but GE is looking to chow down on some code (The New York Times). Having pivoted away from its concentration on finance back to its manufacturing roots since the financial crisis of 2007–8, the industrial giant has opened a software division in San Ramon, Calif., aimed at developing a digital operating system for factories. One key application is a predictive maintenance system named Predix that processes sensor data to manage systems’ repair schedules and make them more efficient. GE figures it better build an open platform for this stuff before some newcomer does — and that means the company not only has to attract employees but also must win developer mindshare. It’s an unfamiliar road for the old-line manufacturer — but GE sees no other option. It’s mind-blowing to think that GE is trying to apply agile software thinking and lean-startup methods in its business of mammoth gas turbines and airplane engines. As the Times notes, in these markets, it’s hard to see how a “minimum viable product” could ever fly. Still, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt says of the firm’s software investment, “It’s this or bust.”

Big Data is our new big daddy. As we hand over ever-larger shares of our personal and political decisionmaking to algorithms, we are turning data into a new kind of godlike authority, writes historian Yuval Noah Harari (The Financial Times). Where humanism taught us to trust the guidance of our inner compasses, “Dataism” counsels that we follow the pointers that emerge from our information systems. As we dissect the inner workings of the human machine and discover the mechanisms that drive our organisms, we will come to see our selves as data-driven, too. Such a world has no room for free will, but it can’t answer what Harari calls “the hard problems of consciousness,” either. Data can tell us how we’re doing, but it still can’t tell us what we should do with the time of our lives. You can view your gut as a calculating device or as an ineffable ecosystem; either way, it’s what you are going to go with.

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