Discover more from Slow Build by Nancy Scola
The FTC gets to play “monopoly” — the state of fed facial tech — how online fundraisers trick old folks
Plus extreeeemely tiny potatoes
Happy Wednesday morning from Washington D.C., where it remains a thousand degrees. But unlike the oven-like vibe of earlier in the week, at least there’s now a light breeze.
The FTC gets to play “monopoly” — It’s difficult to avoid the big story this week, which a U.S. District Court judge, in an, um, colorful opinion, tossing out the Federal Trade Commission’s complaint about Facebook in a case that could force the company to divest both Instagram and WhatsApp.
Colorful you say? Writes Judge James Boasberg,
This might be the first time “Insta” and “viz” have appeared in the same sentence.
But anyway, the short version is that the FTC, the judge found, failed to define “personal social networking services” and, partly because it didn’t define that space, couldn’t prove that Facebook has a monopoly in it. As Boasberg writes, this is a long-standing issue in antitrust cases, the question of “what is included in this denominator.” The commission, the judge’s thinking goes, didn’t show its work. Scola’s take: this is a crisitunity for the FTC. It’s a juicy chance for its brand-new chair, Lina Khan, to craft in the highest-profile of cases what it means to be a monopoly in the social-network space. And redefining what it means to be a monopoly is her whole shtick. Is it more homework? Yes. And the judge gave her only 30 days to do it, should she choose to do it. But it’s a chance to define the most important terms in the field, potentially for generations. For an FTC chair who came into office exactly to reset the country’s thinking on monopolies, what a thrill.
(One bit of context: Back in my government days, I worked for a member of Congress who thought it perfectly reasonable for legislation — say, fortifying the Clean Air Act — to take ten years of coalition building and maneuvering. If you moved legislation in less than a decade, you were considered a comer. So my scale for what constitutes quick change is a long one. Not for nothing is this place called Slow Build.)
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Stay tuned this Friday for a Q&A with one of my favorite thinkers on how tech has made and remade the geography of the United States, and might still again.
The White House considers a competition E.O., 2021 edition — The Biden White House, per Reuters, working on an executive order that would tell federal agencies to take into account how their decisions will effect industry competition. Consider it a re-upping of something similar the Obama White House pushed out, more symbolically than anything else, in its waning days. Reuters: “[I]t is being worked on by former Obama administration officials who now work for President Joe Biden.”
18F goes state and local — 18F, the pod of technologists housed within the General Services Administration that exists to change how the federal government buys and builds technology, is going public with a new website for its state and local efforts - namely digital projects that connect constituents with public services, like Alaska’s system for determining Medicaid eligibility.
Who cares? Well, it’s an under-the-radar chance to push the 18F culture — agile development of small technology projects, moving quickly and spending less money — out across the country, in a challenge to giant government contractors and vendors. What’s 18F’s hook here? They can only provide help to local projects that make use of federal funding. Lucky for them there’s a lot of that going around these days from the American Rescue Plan approved in March, and potentially billions more if Congress manages to pass an infrastructure package.
Why did Biden choose to run his op-ed touting the possibility of just such an infrastructure package in Yahoo News, of all places? The numbers. “(More people go to Yahoo news than CNN and the New York Times combined),” tweets the White House director of digital strategy.
The money extraction techniques of online fundraisers — The New York Times’ Shane Goldmacher has been chronicling online political fundraising tactics, and his latest looks at their effect on older people. Email pitches like “Breaking: Your donor record is an absolute abomination, how could you” and “The republic will fall if you don’t give $7.93 by midnight!” often trap older people, especially those who might struggle to figure out how to stop giving recurring donations. One of Goldmacher’s eye-catching findings: about 50% of the donations processed by ActBlue and WinRed, the left and right’s dominant digital fundraising platforms respectively, come from people 70 or older.
There are plenty of people who work in online fundraising who say those desperation moves make their skin crawl. But they do it because it works.
Rough summer for Florida’s social media law — A federal judge in Tallahassee is considering the fate of the state’s new social-media law that, among other things, restricts the ability of platforms like Facebook and Twitter to block politicians who might reside in Palm Beach. I mean, the state of Florida. Said judge does not appear to be a fan. “I won’t put you on the spot and ask you if you’ve ever dealt with a statute that was more poorly drafted,” he said to lawyers for Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Take concert photos, then profit — In Bloomberg Businessweek, Joshua Brustein breaks down how you can make good money suing over the copyright of pictures of Willie Nelson and the like by counting on people not to correctly use Creative Commons.
Federal facial tech(s) — After surveying federal agencies, GAO found that of the 42 that employ law enforcement offices, almost half are using facial recognition tools. (Three said they had them in play at the Capitol on January 6th.) Often, though, they don’t know exactly what systems their employees are using.
No, this is the best hearing name: “America on ‘FIRE’: Will the Crypto Frenzy Lead to Financial Independence and Early Retirement or Financial Ruin?” The House Financial Services Committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations today is holding a hearing on whether decentralized finance will deliver widespread economic security or bankrupt us all.
“Restoring trust in the ability for science and technology to do any kind of good in the world” — Back in January, Biden picked the sociologist Alondra Nelson to serve in a new post: deputy director of science and society in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this Wired Q&A, Nelson says that part of bringing back any sense of public faith in innovation and the like “is really being open about the history of science and technology's flaws and failures.”
And just because: extreeeemely tiny potatoes are coming back to Navajo Nation.