Facebook Video Gets a Statistical Haircut

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Brownpau | Flickr

When Facebook sneezes, the media catch pneumonia. For some time now the ad-supported online media business has been driven by some simple principles: Advertisers love video; video is hot on Facebook; if you make lots of videos and put them on Facebook, you will make money. But what if this whole equation was based on bad numbers? That seems to be the case, based on the news that Facebook “vastly overestimated” average viewing time for video ads over the past two years (The Wall Street Journal). Naturally, ad buyers are upset, but the rest of us should be, too. Each distortion of the media economy under the influence of Facebook’s dominance means that much less diversity and risk in our informational ecosystem. It’s bad enough that Facebook twiddles the dials on the news feed at will; now we can’t trust its reporting of data. Facebook says the error was innocent, only discovered a month ago, and didn’t affect billing of advertisers. But those now-known-to-be-inflated viewing times certainly cemented Facebook video’s “this is the place to be” appeal. That it took the company two years to come clean only adds to Facebook’s credibility problem.

Yahoo finally tells the world about its gigantic data breach. Speaking of taking two years to come clean: Yahoo’s data breach turns out to be more recent than originally reported — it happened two years ago, in 2014. It’s also way larger than expected: 500 million accounts had their information compromised — that’s as in half a billion (The New York Times). The disclosure has left Yahoo buyer Verizon, which only learned of the data breach two days ago, examining its options. And it has left Yahoo’s customers staring glumly at all their other accounts and wondering what to do about changing their passwords. Yahoo is blaming a “state-sponsored actor” for the hack. (And no, that doesn’t mean an NEA-funded thespian.) Whoever is responsible, the gap between the event and its disclosure does not inspire confidence in the company, its leadership, or its industry.

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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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Shareholders Force Exxon’s Feet to Climate Fire

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Photo: Lippincott

Today’s Top Stories
 — Climate Isn’t the Only Thing Changing for Exxon Mobil: Investors want to know more about the environmental risks ahead.
 — And Then There Were None: The S&P 500 loses its only black woman CEO.
 — Facebook Isn’t Biased, According to Facebook: Internal research exonerates the company from intentional messing with its Trending Topics. Of course it did.
 — A Tale of Two Countries: The America of big cities is thriving and entrepreneurial. The other is in trouble.
 — Google Turns Off Most Useful Feature of Its New App: It has end-to-end encryption, but it doesn’t ship that way.

Climate Isn’t the Only Thing Changing for Exxon Mobil
 Shareholders are supposedly interested in a rising stock price no matter what, but some attempts to prop up stock prices may benefit the environment, however inadvertently. At Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting tomorrow, investors will vote on a resolution to force the company to reveal what climate change might do to its business (New York Times). Similar resolutions have gone nowhere in the past, but a recent SEC ruling said the vote has to happen this time. Some of those behind the resolution are activist investors who want the company to change policy; others just want transparency so they can make better investment decisions. Either way, it looks like the largest publicly traded energy company in the world is going to have to be more accountable even to those who don’t care about climate change.

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