Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.
Hi. I’m Jamie Condliffe; greetings from London. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news.
Can Facebook profit from privacy?
You can’t have missed it: Facebook plans to shift people toward private messaging and away from the public broadcasting on which its business was built. Think encrypted communications among smaller groups of people, and ephemeral messages that can be deleted. In theory, that change could help the company overcome some of the problems it has faced.
But Facebook has promised privacy features before that have never appeared — something skeptics were quick to point out after the plan was revealed on Thursday.
“I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform,” Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, wrote in a 3,200-word manifesto describing the shift.
If we are to assume he means it, there’s still a huge problem: He lacks a business model.
A shift to a private Facebook would crimp its current revenue streams. Most of its profits come from targeted ads enabled by the open sharing of content. In the encrypted future that Mr. Zuckerberg imagines, that will be hard. The company would also effectively rule out expansion into big potential markets like Russia and China, because it won’t run servers in countries with authoritarian governments.
So how can it make money? Mr. Zuckerberg mentions commerce and payments, which fits with reports that Facebook is building a cryptocurrency. But that’s all he says, really.
Mr. Zuckerberg seems O.K. with the lack of a plan. “The basic way that we’ve approached things is first to focus on building the consumer service that people really want,” he said to Wired. “That will be the foundation. If we do that well, the business will be fine.”
Of course, a trick for monetizing private messaging may be hidden in his back pocket. If it isn’t, his critics’ skepticism may be proved right.
Big Tech antitrust, in the House
Earlier in the week, Representative David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who leads the House antitrust subcommittee, proposed an idea to curb Big Tech’s dominance.
During the Great Depression, the Glass-Steagall Act forced banks to separate commercial and investment banking operations. Mr. Cicilline told the Financial Times that something similar could apply to tech.
“It’s an interesting idea whether there would be a way to think about separating what platforms do versus people who are selling products and information,” he said.
Sadly, this feels like a nonstarter. Splitting the operations of banks was relatively straightforward; the data sales and platform components of companies like Google and Facebook are (whatever Mr. Zuckerberg says) deeply intertwined.
Still, it’s probably one of many options. “There aren’t easy answers” to Big Tech antitrust questions, Mr. Cicilline said to Bloomberg Opinion in January. “We’re not going to approach this, like, ‘Here’s my solution.’”
He has the wind at his back. Congressional hearings with Facebook and others last year revealed that lawmakers in both parties have antitrust concerns about tech companies. And the Federal Trade Commission recently announced a task force of 17 lawyers dedicated to “monitoring competition in U.S. technology markets.” The commission’s director of competition, Bruce Hoffman, said some companies could be forced to “spin off” previous acquisitions.
How far these efforts will go — and how quickly — remains unclear. It may be difficult to prove violation of federal antitrust law until the laws are updated to better apply to technology companies. And splitting a company like Facebook or Google would require costly, lengthy legal battles that the government may yet balk at.
Who’s to blame for robo-car deaths?
Arizona prosecutors said Tuesday that they wouldn’t charge Uber with a crime after one of its autonomous cars hit and killed a pedestrian last year. Instead, they said investigators should look into what the safety driver “would or should have seen that night.”
One interesting point about the news was raised by Frank Douma, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies:
“It’s a very conventional way of thinking to say we can expect and we should expect people to sit and monitor technology that is otherwise doing all the decision-making.”
The “handoff problem” — that humans are too easily distracted to safely retake control of an autonomous vehicle in an emergency — is well documented. The Uber accident provided a first glimpse of how the law would deal with that issue. It suggests that, for now, the onus remains on the “driver.”
Huawei is angry. Maybe too angry.
The Chinese telecom giant Huawei sued the United States government on Wednesday over a ban that prevents government agencies from using the company’s products because they may violate national security. Days earlier, Meng Wanzhou, the company’s chief financial officer, sued the Canadian authorities for arresting her.
Huawei is aggrieved by the Trump administration’s hardware ban and its lobbying of other governments to shun the company’s products when building 5G wireless data networks. The lawsuits are just one response: A defensive advertising campaign and outspoken interviews were already in play.
Those more conventional lobbying approaches may have been working: Countries like Britain and Germany, which have considered the White House’s pleas, have wavered and may ultimately use Huawei hardware.
But the lawsuits make Huawei look rash and aggressive. Is that the kind of company a government wants to help build critical infrastructure?
And some stories you shouldn’t miss
The National Security Agency stopped its controversial phone spying. The system, which analyzed logs of Americans’ domestic calls and texts and was introduced to surveil conspirators in Al Qaeda, has been scrapped.
Google said it was paying male workers too little. It gave $9.7 million in additional compensation to level things up for 10,677 employees, about 69 percent of them men. But the survey that led to the raises did not address a critical question: Are women hired at a pay grade below their qualifications?
Net neutrality is back in Washington. Congressional Democrats announced bills that seek to reinstate net neutrality rules. Whether the bills can pass is another matter.
Chinese hackers hit universities. An elaborate set of attacks sought to steal research about military maritime technology.
Artificial intelligence cameras can spot shoplifters before they steal. Software can identify “restlessness and other potentially suspicious body language,” according to Bloomberg.
You don’t know data overload. Gizmodo invites you to meet the digital hoarders who collect “terabytes of text files.”
Jamie Condliffe is editor of the DealBook newsletter. Follow him on Twitter here: @jme_c.