Antitrust fights in the tech industry have always been problematic. Software is a “non-rival” good — additional copies cost nothing to produce, and one person possessing it doesn’t exclude another — so monopolies don’t feel like such a big problem, and the industry changes so quickly that monopolies tend to be fleeting. The last big antitrust battle in tech, the 1990s-era case against Microsoft, created a lot of sound and fury but mostly succeeded in distracting, rather than dismantling, its target.
“Tech Week” for the Trump administration begins today — although if the effort to set a policy agenda is as ineffectual as the recent “Infrastructure Week,” this might be the last thing you hear about it. Tech CEOs — many of the same faces who trooped to Trump Tower last December, including Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Alphabet/Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt, and a host of others (but no one, apparently, from Facebook) — are gathering at the White House under the auspices of Trump son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner’s American Technology Council (Tony Romm in Recode).
This week, Kushner is slated to bring peace to the Middle East while he also interviews a bevy of lawyers to protect him from the widening net of the Russian election-interference investigation. So he might be a little busy. But the Tech Week agenda is packed too, with issues like modernizing gov tech, cyber-security, and high-skilled immigration. Cook and others will reportedly also raise the topics of privacy and human rights (Axios). We’ll see how far that gets.
It’s true that the technology used by the U.S. air traffic control system is antiquated. In fact, the system’s repeated failed efforts to modernize have become the gold standard of epic tech failures, the Hundred Years’ War of the digital age. Still, that record doesn’t give an automatic free pass to any upgrade plan, and President Trump’s new proposal to privatize the system raises some tough questions.
Trump wants to hand the entire system over to a private company, which theoretically will be able to solve the problems that have bedeviled the current regime. But, but, but: The new company will still have to meet FAA standards, so it’s not as if it would get some magical anti-red-tape powers (even if we wanted such a thing in the realm of air safety). The hope is that private industry has the knowhow to pull off a massive tech upgrade that the public sector has fumbled. The reality is that big airlines like British Airways, Delta, and Southwest keep experiencing massive software failures themselves.
For a decade, the concept of the “lean startup” ruled in tech. Under the gospel according to Eric Ries, you would spend modest sums to bring customers a “minimum viable product” — typically, one made out of software — as fast as possible, exposing your idea to market forces and feedback to avoid costly early-cycle mistakes.
Lean startups taught us plenty of lessons, but the times are changing, writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times, and now we’re entering the era of the “fat startup.” A fat startup is one that’s tackling a real-world challenge that demands major resources from the very beginning. Manjoo’s model example is a firm called Opendoor that makes offers to buy homes sight unseen, makes purchases with fast deal closings and then resells the homes itself. Opendoor aims to add liquidity to the real estate market and certainty and convenience for homeowners who need to sell.
Uncertainty is the bane of business planning. But uncertainty is everywhere — so, mostly, managers just try to roll with it. Sometimes, however, so much uncertainty gets thrown at once on a particular industry that it just freezes up.
That’s what happened to healthcare in the U.S. yesterday, when Republicans in Congress passed a massive repeal/rewrite of Obamacare (Vox). No one had read the whole bill. The Congressional Budget Office hadn’t analyzed its impact. And everyone agreed that whatever the House passed, the Senate was largely going to ignore.
People generally do whatever they can to minimize their tax payments. If the Trump administration’s new tax proposals ever make their way into law, we’ll all have one big new tax loophole to leap through (The New York Times): turn yourself into a company.
President Trump wants small business, family businesses, and indeed all businesses that are currently organized as “pass-through entities” to pay the same low (15 percent) tax rate he wants to charge all businesses. A pass-through is any company that passes its earnings through to the owners for them to report on their personal tax returns. This includes everyone from your Uber driver all the way up to Trump’s own real estate conglomerate.
Dissent is feverish in the Trump era, and we’ve all grown accustomed to posts by “rogue” social media accounts set up anonymously by disgruntled government insiders. Now Twitter is suing the federal government to resist attempts to force it to reveal the identifying personal information of the owner of one such handle — @ALT_USCIS, a self-described “immigration resistance” account (The New York Times). The ACLU is defending the anonymous Tweeter, while Twitter’s lawsuit — first reported in The Intercept — proceeds in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Social media platforms and internet services like Twitter, Facebook, and Google sometimes receive requests from law enforcement authorities for similar information in cases involving terrorist attacks, national security, and other criminal matters. This case looks a lot more dubious on the face of it — more like a petulant administration’s effort to silence a critic than a legitimate conflict between a crime investigation and privacy rights.
If only racism, like tooth enamel, would just dissolve under the sweet balm of Pepsi-Cola! Then we’d solve all our problems. Alas, it is not to be — as everyone in the world pointed out to Pepsi after it unveiled, and then withdrew, a new ad in which a Kardashian-clan scion hitches a ride on the Black Lives Matter movement (Tracy Jan in The Washington Post).
Surely someone at Pepsi understood that drafting a white celebrity model like Kendall Jenner to play the part of peacemaker in a hostile confrontation between a diverse crowd of young protesters and police might not be a great idea — and would cause the world to cringe. The whole thing is a sugar-coated, white-washed, ludicrously tone-deaf trivialization of everything that is actually at stake in a divided America today. The firm and its ad agency either (1) failed to include anyone of color in its decision-making process; (2) did have such people in the room, but ignored them; or (3) didn’t really care as long as the world ended up talking about their spot.
The Trump administration has had the slowest start in recent history in hiring people to run the government. For example: At the conclusion of the Obama administration, there were 24 people on the White House chief technology officer’s staff. Now there’s one (The New York Times). The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has been decimated.
But that’s OK, because there’s really not much going on these days with science and technology anyway, right? Furthermore, what science-policy wonks see as a dereliction of duty could be intentional strategy: achieving Steve Bannon’s “deconstruction of the administrative state” by depopulating the bureaucracy. Conservatives would like to eliminate the White House science office entirely, so why waste time interviewing candidates? Maybe all these empty seats are a feature, not a bug.
The climate war heated up significantly today as President Trump signed a series of executive orders gutting the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce U.S. carbon emissions (The Washington Post). The orders instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to rewrite rules Obama instituted that would have led to the closing of old coal-fired power plants across the country. The policy is being pushed under a banner of “energy independence.” But the U.S. gets all of its coal domestically already, so: Huh?
The president doesn’t have legal authority to unilaterally revoke the Obama rules, known as the Clean Power Plan. That means these orders will kick off a long legal fight. Meanwhile, employment in the U.S. coal industry has been contracting for decades, thanks to reduced demand, competition from other energy sources, and increasing automation of those mines that remain open.