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Tech States Sensemaker

Facebook’s busy week

Wednesday 9 June 2021

As Zuckerberg moves to cement Facebook’s role as a publisher with its new audio and newsletter products, his company has come under pressure, both from foreign regulators, and from its own oversight board

Here’s what you need to know this week: 

  • Facebook banned Trump for two years (in the middle of a busy week)

State by state:

  • Apple boasted about how much it paid to developers
  • Google criticised companies jumping on the “purpose parade”
  • Tencent censored nose picking on WeChat
  • Amazon’s founder prepared for a space flight
  • Microsoft denied censoring images of “Tank Man” 

State affairs

Last week was a big week for Facebook. More than any other tech state, Mark Zuckerberg’s company is forced to pivot from attack to defence on an almost daily basis. Here are some examples:

  • Donald Trump (Defence). Following criticism by the Facebook Oversight Board, Facebook announced on Friday that it would ban the former president for two years. Although Trump could return to the platform before the 2024 presidential election, Facebook signalled that it will kick him off permanently if he continues to lie about election fraud. The decision makes it unlikely that Facebook will be a major pillar of Trump’s operation going forward. Of equal relevance, the platform said it would no longer treat political figures with greater leeway than ordinary people because of their “newsworthiness”. 
  • Antitrust investigations (Defence). In the same week as the Trump decision, the UK and EU launched formal (and co-ordinated) competition investigations into Facebook. Regulators are concerned that the social media giant is relying on user data to gain an “undue competitive advantage” in Marketplace, its online classifieds business. The EU is already investigating Facebook on multiple fronts – but this is the first antitrust investigation it’s launched.
  • Newsletters (Attack). Facebook is preparing to launch a newsletter product called Bulletin. Unlike Substack, its obvious rival, Bulletin will only feature writers whom Facebook actively recruits and will also veer away from political content. Arguably, the plans end the debate about whether Facebook is a media company. Recruiting journalists to write news for you is something a media company does. 
  • Creator economy (Attack). Zuckerberg is building out a suite of audio products with a plan to tie them together with Bulletin. It will mean – for example – that a writer can add live events or audio segments to her subscription offering. This week, Zuck announced that Facebook won’t take a cut from any paid creator features until 2023. “When we do introduce a revenue share, it will be less than the 30 per cent that Apple and others take,” he said pointedly. 

Amazon: Space

Jeff Bezos will leave behind the world of warehouses and Prime delivery logistics next month when he steps down as Amazon CEO after more than a quarter of a century. Fifteen days later – on 20 July – the world’s richest man will take his brother on the first crewed flight of the New Shepard, a rocket made by his aerospace company Blue Origin. He’ll be the first of the billionaire space tycoons (the others being Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson) to ride aboard the rocket technology he’s spent millions in developing. Blue Origin’s motto is graditum ferociter: meaning “step by step, ferociously”.

While Bezos goes galactic, Amazon is being targeted by European finance ministers who want it to pay more corporate tax under the new G7 agreement on a global rate. The main company’s profit margin is underneath the threshold set by the G7, but Amazon’s lucrative cloud computing division has a much more healthy margin of 30 per cent. On Tuesday the FT reported that OECD members are exploring a special measure to treat the division – known as AWS – as a separate case, bringing it within the ambit of the tax plans. 

Microsoft: Censorship

“Tank man” is the name given to the iconic image of a lone protester standing before tanks in China’s Tiananmen Square during demonstrations in 1989. Yet on the anniversary of the crackdown, users in the US searching for the image on Microsoft’s Bing search engine were told: “There are no results for Tank man”. Microsoft – which censors search content in China, but says it doesn’t outside of the country – blamed the issue on an “accidental human error”. Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, finds that hard to believe.

Google: Corporate behaviour

Is Google turning anti-woke? Marvin Chow, vice-president of global marketing at Google, recently told advertising execs that the last 18 months were “awash [with] virtual signalling and bandwagoning, with brands saying they’re showing empathy and solidarity around Covid, but not stepping up to help solve the problem and move things forward”. In surprisingly outspoken comments made to Campaign, Chow criticised the “purpose parade” of “cringey” brands who talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk. Google was recently criticised for similar posturing over its AI ethics. 

Apple: Economy

Apple hosted its Worldwide Developer Conference on Monday, and the tech state made a point of saying it had “now paid over $230 billion” to developers since the launch of its App Store. In the wake of its dispute with Epic Games, which centered around Apple charging a 30 per cent commission to sell in its App store, the phrasing was quite thorny. Some attendees argued that the real point of note was that developers had paid Apple $69 billion in rent – simply for the privilege of selling in its ecosystem. You can read more about Apple’s other announcements here.

Tencent: Freedom of expression

Three things you won’t be seeing on Tencent’s live streaming service WeChat any time soon: discussion of politically sensitive issues, fortune telling, and “seductive lip licking”. The Chinese tech state has redoubled efforts to eliminate “vulgar” content from its platform with a long list of prohibitions that covers, among other things, spanking, wearing fishnet stockings, nose-picking, and zooming in on “sensitive” body parts. Tencent was following a statement by the Cyberspace Administration of China which vowed that it would not tolerate “harmful, false or pornographic information” on live streams. The company has a history of “cleaning up” its platform following such requests. In 2019 it removed 30,000 WeChat accounts. 

And finally…The Responsible AI Forum at Waddesdon 

Tomorrow, Tortoise and Lord Rothschild are hosting an absolutely stellar event with the aim of setting out an agenda for the development and deployment of AI as a responsible technology. Keynote speakers include Masayoshi Son, founder of Softbank, Demis Hassabis, founder of Deepmind, and Helle Thorning Schmidt, former prime minister of Denmark and co-chair of the Facebook Oversight Board – among many others.

To take a seat at the table and become a member of the Tortoise AI Network, just click on the link and we will be in touch. 

Thank you for reading the Tech States Sensemaker. We’re trying to do something new with our tech coverage – and we’d love to hear what you think. Please email opinions, tips or stories to alexi@tortoisemedia.com or luke.gbedemah@tortoisemedia.com.

Alexi Mostrous

Luke Gbedemah