Zuckerberg comes out swinging in face of break-up tension

Via a leaked audio-recording of a Facebook townhall meeting with employees, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has taken a combative position in the face of increasing pressure.

Taking questions from Facebook employees, Zuckerberg has taken a much more forthright and confident stance than he generally does when in the shiny lights of the public domain. The leaked audio files, courtesy of the Verge, paint a picture of a man who is prepared to go to war to protect the gargantuan company he has built over the last decade.

“So, there might be a political movement where people are angry at the tech companies or are worried about concentration or worried about different issues and worried that they’re not being handled well,” Zuckerberg said.

“That doesn’t mean that, even if there’s anger and that you have someone like Elizabeth Warren who thinks that the right answer is to break up the companies … I mean, if she gets elected president, then I would bet that we will have a legal challenge, and I would bet that we will win the legal challenge.”

Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, the Democrat Senator representing Massachusetts, is looking like the biggest political opponent of Silicon Valley. And it is becoming increasingly clear Facebook is enemy number one.

But perhaps these comments indicate just why Washington and its political leadership is acting so aggressively towards the likes of Facebook, Google and Amazon. These are companies who no-longer fear the political establishment. They are arguably more influential, and as you can see from the comments above, they believe they have the upper-hand when it comes to legal arsenals.

As we have mentioned before, this is one of the reasons we suspect politicians are taking such a firm stance against Silicon Valley in 2019. Not only are the actions and business models of these firms’ easy pickings for PR points, Washington DC seemingly does not like it is not the most influential neighbourhood in North America anymore.

On the other side of the debate, Warren has not kept her opinions about Facebook to herself or even attempted to disguise that some of the tweets have been directed towards Zuckerberg.

“We have to fix a corrupt system that lets giant companies like Facebook engage in illegal anticompetitive practices, stomp on consumer privacy rights, and repeatedly fumble their responsibility to protect our democracy,” Warren said in one tweet.

“Zuckerberg himself said Facebook is ‘more like a government than a traditional company’. They’ve bulldozed competition, used our private information for profit, undermined our democracy, and tilted the playing field against everyone else,” she said in another.

“Facebook’s anti-competitive mergers mean they face no real pressure to tackle disinformation. They won’t even do the bare minimum to improve transparency. Tech giants shouldn’t be able to wield enough power to undermine our democracy,” a final one read.

Facebook seems to be the focal point of Warren’s anger, though this might be down to the leaked audio, as well as the concentration of power at Facebook. Zuckerberg himself has admitted that his voting power at the company has made him a target for the politically ambitious, though this is not the only company which is facing pressure.

All of the major players in the Big Tech fraternity are becoming targets and it the raising temperature might hit boiling point before too long. Some of these companies might be willing to accept fines simply because they don’t make that much of a dent in the spreadsheets, but it would not be a surprise to see some aggression coming back the other direction before too long.

Silicon Valley and Washington DC both have ambitions to be the most prominent voice in the ears of the US consumer, but only one can secure that mantle.

Presidential hopeful criticizes lack of tech knowledge in US Government

Senator Elizabeth Warren has launched a Twitter tirade to blast Government officials who are seeking regulatory advice from those who will be subject to the stricter regulation.

Although understanding the consequences of new regulation from those who would be deemed most impacted in a sensible way to operate, it does appear Warren believes there is too much reliance on outside sources.

Critics of government agencies and regulatory officials will be quick to raise a glass. For some, the competency of bureaucrats is woefully lacking when it comes to understanding the nuances of the technology industry. This is perhaps understandable, the segment moves at a remarkable pace after all, however it does create the difficult regulatory landscape where companies are free to duck and dive through the grey areas of inaction, inadequacy or a lack of progress.

“I’ve got a plan to end lobbying as we know it — but strengthening Congress’ independence requires us to do more,” Warren said on Twitter. “We must invest in resources to allow members of Congress to make informed decisions without relying on self-interested outside sources.

“My plan revives and modernizes the Office of Technology Assessment, shores up congressional support agencies, and transitions congressional staff to competitive salaries — so we can have competent public policy that actually holds big corporations accountable.”

Warren has hit the nail on the head when it comes to understanding why the chasm between the technology industry and the rules governing it is so wide; those who understand how the industry works, go work for the private sector. This is down to the salaries which are being paid, and also the work itself. Do the best and brightest in the work want to work drafting rules and red-tape, or would they rather work on creating cutting edge technologies and services?

Pumping more cash into these agencies and organizations will not solve the problem of a skills shortage, but it will address one of the difficulties.

To be fair to Warren, she is addressing a problem which plagues politics; the influence of interest groups. This is not an issue restricted to Washington, though as the US is home to some of the worlds’ most influential technology companies, it is perhaps more apparent in the country than anywhere else.

With the issue of net neutrality, the telcos threw cash at the lobbyists. And when it comes to the break-up of Big Tech, Silicon Valley began signing cheques which would make eyes water. Over the course of 2018, Google spent $21.7 million on lobbyists, AT&T spend $18.5 million, Amazon $14.4 million, Facebook $12.6 million and Comcast $15.6 million. These figures are only lobbyist spend in the US, and it is also worth bearing in mind associations would have their own spend as well.

The lobby industry is a powerful one in the US, this is not something which will change unless there is a significant upheaval, though politicians and officials could be less susceptible to it. This is where Warren is making a very valid point.

Industry should be consulted on up-coming regulatory evolution, this is only reasonable as regulation is not supposed to destroy business models, however it is important those asking the questions should have a comprehensive understanding. It will (theoretically) stop officials being misled, over- or under-compensating and aids future proofed regulation.

This will be a monumental challenge for Warren and her team, though it is a lot more achievable than previous claims make by the Presidential hopeful.

In announcing her plans to charge towards the White House, Warren also declared war on Silicon Valley. In an age where politicians are making big promises, Warren raised the stakes by suggesting the break-up of Big Tech.

Dissecting these companies is a daunting task, but it is also one which a few might question the logic of. Yes, the internet giants need to be held more accountable through regulation and greater scrutiny on acquisitions which could lead to a less competitive marketplace, however these are the companies which are driving the US economic dominance on the world stage. Weakening the positions of these companies could very well undermine the pursuit of success and open the door for competitors in other nations to mount a challenge.

However, with the announcement made via Twitter, the US Government would certainly be in a better position if more ably-minded, tech enthusiasts were on the payroll. Many criticise the sluggish nature and short-sightedness of governments, irrelevant to their nationality or location, and Warren is proposing a model to reassert the capability of the Government.

Another question which you have to ask is where the money to fund these salaries is going to come from? Either some departments are deprived, taxes are further straining, monies are borrowed, or industry is asked to contribute. The latter is the most likely, though this would give another reason for industry to line the pockets of the lobbyists.

In truth, this suggestion is a nightmare for the residents of Silicon Valley. These companies have benefitted unimaginably from the regulatory chasm, seeking profits through the introduction of new business models which traditional industry could not dream of.

Ironically, the suggestion of tackling lobbyists will probably make the whisperers and nudgers even richer.

FTC Chair kicks off race to tackle big tech before it’s too late

A race seems to be heating up in the US. On one side, government officials are looking to tackle the influence of big tech, and on the other, Silicon Valley is trying to make it as difficult as possible.

Speaking to the Financial Times, Chairman of the FTC Joseph Simons has stated he believes efforts from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to more intrinsically integrate the different platforms could seriously complicate his own investigation. Back in July, it was unveiled the FTC was conducting a probe to understand whether competition has been negatively impacted by the social media giant.

However, Facebook has gone on the offensive and Simons is clearly not thrilled about it.

“If they’re maintaining separate business structures and infrastructure, it’s much easier to have a divestiture in that circumstance than in where they’re completely enmeshed, and all the eggs are scrambled,” said Simons.

This is the issue which the FTC is facing; Facebook is more closely integrating the separate brands. From a commercial perspective, this will allow the social media giant to cross-pollinate the platforms, potentially increasing revenues and enhancing the data-analytics machine, though it will also make divestments much more difficult to enforce.

Looking across the big names in Silicon Valley, this is a common business practice. The commercial benefits are of course very obvious, but it could be viewed as a defensive strategy in preparation for any snooping from government agencies.

At Google, with the benefit of hindsight, some regulators and politicians might have wanted to have block the acquisitions of Android, YouTube or artificial intelligence firm DeepMind. These acquisitions have led Google to become one of the most influential companies on the planet, though it does appear regulators at the time did not have the vision to understand the long-term impact. Now the services are so deeply embedded and inter-twined it is perhaps unfeasible to consider divestments.

Amazon is another company some of these politicians would love to tackle, but how do you go about breaking-up such a complex business, where the moving parts are becoming increasingly reliant on each-other?

Going back almost two decades, this is not the first-time regulators have attempted to tackle an overly influential player. Thanks to dominance in the PC arena, Microsoft was deemed to be negatively influencing competition when it came to software and applications. Despite Microsoft being forced to settle the case with the Department of Justice in 2001, the concessions stopped far short of a company break-up.

As part of the settlement, Microsoft agreed to make it easier competitors to get their software more closely integrated with the Windows OS, by breaking the company into two separate units, one to produce the operating system, and one to produce other software components. This was a tough pill for Microsoft to swallow, but it was a favourable outcome for the internet giant.

One view on this outcome is that Microsoft managed to structure its business in such a way it became almost impossible to split-up. If the technology giants of today can learn some lessons from Microsoft, they might well be able to circumnavigate any aggression from the US government.

Although the FTC is stealing the headlines here, it is not the only party looking to tackle the influence of Silicon Valley.

The House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee that deals with antitrust has already summoned Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google to testify. This investigation is also looking at the potential negative impact these monstrously large companies are having on competition. A couple of weeks later, the Department of Justice also opened its own probe.

Of course, there are also posturing politicians who are aiming to plug for PR points by slamming Silicon Valley. This is a very popular strategy, with the likes of Virginia Senator Mark Warner and Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren taking a firm stance. President Trump has rarely been a friend of Silicon Valley either.

Another interest element to consider are the lawyers. Reports have emerged this morning to suggest as many as 20 State Attorney Generals will also be launching their own investigation. The threat of legal action could be very worrying for Silicon Valley, with a number of the lawyers already suggesting they do not like the way the digital economy is evolving, with the concentration of power one of the biggest problems.

The US has generally tolerated monopolies or an unreasonable concentration of power in economic verticals to a point, generally until infrastructure has been sorted, though the pain threshold might be getting to close. This has been seen with a break-up of Standard Oil’s monopoly, as well as splitting the Bell System, a corporation which was a monopoly in some regions for more than a century, into the Baby Bells across North America in the 1980s.

The internet giants will never publicly state they are participating in strategies which in-effect act as a hindrance to government agencies, but it must be a pleasant by-product. First and foremost, the internet giants will want to integrate different products and services for commercial reasons, operational efficiencies or increased revenues for example, however one eye will be cast on these investigations.

It does appear there is an arms race emerging. Government agencies and ambitious politicians are collecting ammunition for an assault on Silicon Valley, and the internet giants are shoring up defences to ensure a continuation of the status quo. This is a battle for power, and its one the US Government could very feasibly lose.

The big promise of politics just got bigger

The Senator Elizabeth Warren campaign roadshow is officially underway, and the tech giants are sitting in the crosshairs.

We might be slightly protected from it in the UK, but politics in the US has become much more about theatre than concrete issues of today. For every campaign launched, there needs to be a monumental promise made which will shake the foundations of society. For Donald Trump, the wall proved to be that divisive point, and for Warren, it is the spearhead of US political and economic dominance on the global stage; the internet economy.

“I want a government that makes sure everybody – even the biggest and most powerful companies in America - plays by the rules,” Warren said in a Medium post.

“And I want to make sure that the next generation of great American tech companies can flourish. To do that, we need to stop this generation of big tech companies from throwing around their political power to shape the rules in their favour and throwing around their economic power to snuff out or buy up every potential competitor.

“That’s why my administration will make big, structural changes to the tech sector to promote more competition — including breaking up Amazon, Facebook, and Google.”

And just like Trump’s wall, in reality this promise is nothing more than a PR plug to grab headlines.

Stepping up the hubris game

President Donald Trump is the master and current reigning champion of this competition.

In 2015, Trump entered the world of politics with wide-sweeping messages of hate, xenophobia and borderline racism. These political sound bites, designed to rouse in Middle America and drive forgotten voters to the polls, culminated in the claim he would force Mexico to pay for a wall which would span the width of the US southern borders. Three years into his presidency, Trump is still searching for the wall’s funding, and Warren could be walking into the same problem.

Breaking up the internet giants, the very companies who drove the US economy for years and have now become the world’s punching bag, is a daunting task. It might sound attractive to voters, the people who seek fortunes but cannot congratulate those who have found them, but what happens if Warren is unable to deliver on the marquee promise of her campaign?

This is the very dilemma which Trump is currently facing. His campaign was built on the promise of the wall, but the world still awaits the delivery. Warren is now promising an outcome which will not come easily, potentially becoming the architect of her own downfall, offering ammunition to critics and opponents.

Big promises = big problems

Warren’s promises are a threat to the giants of Silicon Valley, and you can guarantee the lobby machine has already been kicked up a gear.

First, Warren is promising new legislation which will designate some business activities as ‘Platform Utilities’. Facebook is an example, and it does appear Warren’s vision is to separate the functional aspect of the platform from participation activities. It sounds very logical, but you have to consider that the platform in these companies is essentially run as a loss leader; these platforms are free for the consumer and would not exist if the parent company was not entitled to monetize the user.

“These companies would be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform,” said Warren. “Platform utilities would be required to meet a standard of fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory dealing with users. Platform utilities would not be allowed to transfer or share data with third parties.”

It would be interesting to hear how Warren thinks Facebook or the Google search engine would continue to function if the ability to make money was removed.

The second major point to consider from this post is the unwinding of what could be perceived as anti-competitive mergers.

At Google, Waze, Nest and DoubleClick are the three transactions which are considered anti-competitive, and therefore under these new plans would be reversed. We believe there are two major issues with this promise.

Firstly, removing these aspects of the business would be incredibly difficult, verging on impossible. This might not be the case for some, Nest for example, however DoubleClick is now so deeply embedded in various different functions of the Google business where do you even start?

Secondly, hindsight is an issue. Some of these transactions are only deemed as anti-competitive because of the success. DoubleClick may well not have been a success without the scale and power of Google. The company is being punished for being good at what it does.

In this case, 1+1+1 = 4. This transaction has been deemed as anti-competitive because of the sum of the parts. Google has collected several different components to make a greater result. Individually, each component is powerful, but the outcome is greater.

The not-so-slumbering giants

Google, Amazon, Facebook and numerous others will not take this aggressive attack on the basic business principles of Silicon Valley lying down.

Warren will not be the only politician to make a move against the wealth, power and influence of the internet giants, but the lobby and legal challenges will be astronomical. Should this promise get anywhere near a draft bill or even legislation to pass through the House, legal challenges will be lodged, PR propaganda will be launched, and in-direct, passive-aggressive threats will be made.

Lawyers are excellent at slowing the wheels of progress, and many of the world’s best lawyers call Silicon Valley home.

We suspect the Warren campaign team has not thought this strategy through entirely, there are too many holes and illogical conclusions. From a conceptual perspective, this is the Mexico wall promise in shape-shifting form. It is a promise which sounds attractive to voters but will be almost impossible to deliver.

That said, theatre in US politics works, and Silicon Valley is home to the bad guys right now. We suspect a political administration hell-bent on breaking-up the internet giants will fail, but it could be a big enough promise to attract votes.