posted about 5 hours ago on re/code
Google’s newest office in Mountain View, California. | David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images The synonym for search finds itself in big antitrust trouble. This story is part of a Recode series about Big Tech and antitrust. Over the last several weeks, we’ve covered what’s happening with Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Meta, and Google. There’s a new Big Tech antitrust bill in town, and this one is especially painful for Google. A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act on Thursday. This bipartisan and bicameral legislation would forbid any company with more than $20 billion in digital advertising revenue — that’s Google and Meta, basically — from owning multiple parts of the digital advertising chain. Google would have to choose between being a buyer or a seller or running the ad exchange between the two. It currently owns all three parts, and has been dogged by allegations, which it denies, that it uses that power to unfairly manipulate that market to its own advantage. “This lack of competition in digital advertising means that monopoly rents are being imposed upon every website that is ad-supported and every company — small, medium, or large — that relies on internet advertising to grow its business,” Sen. Lee said in a statement. “It is essentially a tax on thousands of American businesses, and thus a tax on millions of American consumers.” Google said in a statement that this is “the wrong bill, at the wrong time, aimed at the wrong target,” and that its ad tools produce better quality ads and protect user privacy.rel You can add the new legislation to the growing pile of Google’s antitrust woes. While the media has given more attention to the antitrust issues of rivals Apple and Meta, Google is potentially in more trouble than any other Big Tech company. State and federal governments have filed four antitrust cases, all within a year of each other. In October 2020, the Department of Justice and 14 state attorneys general sued Google over alleged anti-competitive practices to maintain its search engine and search ad monopoly. That December, 38 other state attorneys general filed a separate, similar case. If you combine the two lawsuits, every state except Alabama, plus Puerto Rico, DC, and Guam, is suing Google over its search business. Last July, another 37 state attorneys general sued Google over the Google Play mobile app store. And another set of 17 attorneys general is suing Google over the ad business that Lee’s bill targets; that suit was filed just a day after the state AGs’ search case. There are also lawsuits from Epic Games and Match Group over Google’s app store and the possibility of more cases from the DOJ to come. Oh, and there’s also a wave of Big Tech-focused antitrust laws and regulations around the world to contend with. It’s too early to say how likely it is that Lee’s bill will go anywhere. But we do know that two bipartisan antitrust bills are very close to becoming law, likely by the end of the summer. Both of them would forbid Google from giving its own products preference on the platforms it owns and operates: The Open App Markets Act would force the Google Play app store to follow certain rules, while the American Innovation and Choice Online Act bans self-preferencing on platforms that Big Tech companies own and operate. Google wouldn’t be allowed to give its own products prominent placement in Google search results, for instance, unless those products organically earned that spot. Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images Google’s co-founders Larry Page, left and Sergey Brin in simpler times. This all speaks to Google’s ubiquity and power. What was once a humble search engine company has become so deeply ingrained in everything we do online that it’s difficult to imagine how the internet would function without it. But that power may have been obtained and maintained unfairly, in ways that have hurt competitors and consumers — even as many of Google’s products remain popular and free. It wasn’t always like this. Google was once seen as an industry-changing upstart that was a vast improvement over the slower and easily gamed search engines produced by Yahoo and AltaVista. Its motto was “Don’t be evil,” its algorithm returned better results, and it quickly became the market leader. Then it transformed the market again by putting ads on search results that were specific to what people were searching for — an idea the company got from a little-known and now-defunct search engine called GoTo. Google’s search ads were so successful that, even now, this business is Google’s biggest revenue generator. In 2021, search ads pulled in nearly $150 billion. That’s more than every other Google revenue source combined. Many attribute Google’s success in the ad business to its 2007 acquisition of DoubleClick for $3.1 billion. This merger was scrutinized by the Federal Trade Commission, but the agency ultimately approved it. (At least one of the commissioners who voted to approve the merger, William Kovacic, has said he regrets the decision in hindsight.) The FTC turned its gaze to Google again a few years later, in 2011, and opened an investigation into the company’s alleged anti-competitive behavior in search and ads. Though a leaked FTC staff report indicated that agency staffers felt the FTC had a case against Google, the commissioners chose not to pursue one, instead either getting agreements from Google to change some business practices or deciding that Google’s actions were justified because they improved Google’s services and its users’ experience in another. That decision has been blamed, in part, on the Obama administration’s good relationship with the company. You could also argue that the government has consistently underestimated just how big Google would become if left to grow unchecked. But Google isn’t the same company it was 10 years ago, nor is it viewed the same way. Its antitrust reckoning finally seems to be coming. What remains to be seen is just how bad it will be. How Google allegedly hurts competition For Luther Lowe, the senior vice president of public policy at Yelp and longtime Google critic, this moment is the culmination of over a decade of work trying to convince legislators and enforcers that Google has illegally entrenched its own power and profited by hurting companies like his. Lowe’s self-interest here should be obvious: His company found itself competing with Google when Google rolled out its own version of user-provided business reviews. Google puts its reviews at the top of its own search engine results, above Yelp’s organic results. “Yelp is a great example of the type of service that can be undermined when a gatekeeper chooses to put its hand on the scale,” Lowe told Recode. But, Lowe stresses, he isn’t the only person arguing that Google’s dominance makes it impossible for anyone else to compete. Google says it has competitors in all of its markets, but it also has the majority market share in most of them. Google wouldn’t provide its own numbers, but in search engines, it’s estimated to have about 90 percent of the global market. In web browsers, Google’s Chrome has about 65 percent. In mobile operating systems, Google’s Android has about 70 percent worldwide (in the United States, Android is just 40 percent, and Apple’s iOS has almost all of the rest). And, of course, there are Google’s other products, many of which lead in their own categories: YouTube, Gmail, and that display ad business. “People don’t decide to use Google, that decision is made for them” In the US, being a big and successful company and even having a monopoly isn’t illegal. It’s when that company starts using its dominance to hurt competition and consumers that you’re looking at antitrust violations. That’s what the lawsuits address and what the proposed antitrust bills are trying to ban. The lawsuit brought by the DOJ and 14 states as well as the one brought by 38 additional states and territories look at Google’s search engine monopoly. The DOJ’s case focuses on the “exclusionary agreements” Google allegedly made with other companies to keep its search engine dominant. Google isn’t just the default search engine on Chrome; it’s also the default on Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox. But Apple and Mozilla didn’t necessarily pick Google because they think it’s the best search engine for their users. Google paid them to do it. The company is believed to pay billions every year to Apple and hundreds of millions to Mozilla for that default spot. That money is the vast majority of Mozilla’s funding, and a not-insignificant chunk of Apple’s profits, too. Google spends so much to be the default search engine because it makes so much more than that off the ads on its search results. Less directly, Google’s ability to know what so much of the internet is looking for all the time helps inform other parts of its business. After all, it is a company built on data. DuckDuckGo is a rival search engine that doesn’t collect user data — privacy is one of its selling points — but it has just a fraction of the market that Google does. That’s partly because, DuckDuckGo says, it’s hard for users to switch their browsers’ default engine, which is almost always Google. The ability to switch default search engines is usually buried in user settings, and it assumes the user even knows that switching is an option. “People don’t decide to use Google, that decision is made for them,” Kamyl Bazbaz, DuckDuckGo’s vice president of communications, said. “What’s best for Google is to keep people using Google so they can gather behavioral data, and use that data to keep people using Google in a vicious cycle that keeps users tethered to their products.” Then there’s the lawsuit targeting the Google Play Store. It’s similar to the accusations levied against Apple over its App Store, but while Apple has always only allowed one App Store on its own devices, Google’s Android devices permit alternate app stores and the ability to download apps directly from developers’ websites. But, the lawsuit claims, Google doesn’t make it easy for those alternatives. It pays off developers and manufacturers not to create or use alternate stores, and it pays or requires them to pre-load Google apps on the phones they sell. Devices that use Google’s version of Android must also come with the Play Store already loaded. Android devices even slap security warnings on apps downloaded outside of the Google Play store in order to discourage users from getting their apps from them. The result: 95 percent of Android apps in the US are downloaded from the Google Play Store, according to app intelligence firm Sensor Tower. That makes it almost as much of a monopoly on Android devices as Apple’s App Store is on Apple’s. Andy Yen, CEO of Proton Technologies AG, which makes the encrypted email service ProtonMail and other privacy-focused software, echoes many developers’ complaints about the Play Store. Andrej Sokolow/picture alliance via Getty Images Google thinks its ecosystem makes everything work better. Competitors say it locks them out. Yen says it’s “technically possible but practically impossible” to use an alternate app store, and argues that it would be “suicide” if Proton didn’t make its apps available in the Play Store. But going through the Play Store means Proton is using a platform owned by the same company that makes its biggest competitor: Gmail. Proton is also giving money to Google because the company forces apps in the Play Store to use its in-app payments system, which takes a 15-30 percent commission. Google has maintained that it allows for “more openness and choice” in app markets than other companies (Apple) and that it competes not only with Android app stores but with Apple’s, too. Google also points out that its app store commissions are about the same as those in other app stores. On top of the app lawsuit and the two search-focused lawsuits, Google is also being sued by a smaller group of state attorneys general over its digital ad and ad tech business. This suit basically targets Google’s display ad business — that is, everything outside of search and YouTube ads — which brought in more than $30 billion last year. Here’s how it works: When you open a website with ads on it, many of those ads probably come from digital ad platforms and exchanges, where advertisers bid to get their ads placed in front of the viewers most likely to engage with them, based on data that those advertisers or ad networks have on those viewers. The entire process takes fractions of a second, and then you’re seeing ads for the shoes you looked at on another site last week. The inner workings of the ad tech world are complicated and opaque, but the gist of the argument from the state attorneys general is that Google has the dominant digital ad business, with stakes in every part of the process — the entire ad tech stack. Establishing that dominance is why Google bought DoubleClick 15 years ago, and growing it is why the company has continued to acquire ad tech companies since. Google has never faced as much of a threat to its business model and structure as it does today Google’s size and control, the suit alleges, make it impossible for anyone else to compete with the company’s ad tech business. Google says it has plenty of competition in a crowded field. But Amazon is the only competitor that owns every part of the ad tech stack like Google does, and no one else has the large market share in those parts (estimates range from 90 percent of the publisher ad server market to 50 percent in the supply-side platform market) that Google does. They also don’t have access to the amount of data on users Google has across its properties that makes ads more effective and valuable. “There are other options, but those other options are typically going to offer even less to either end, the publisher or advertiser, in terms of net value,” Fiona Scott Morton, a professor of economics at Yale, explained. Scott Morton, a former DOJ antitrust official who has studied Google’s ad business and its alleged monopolization of the market, also works as an antitrust consultant for Amazon and Apple. But it’s not just ad tech competitors who allegedly suffer here. The advertisers and the publishers suffer, too, if Google is manipulating the market. Google’s dominance also lets it profit from the ads its services buy and sell, with little transparency to anyone about how much that take is. That’s been especially bad for media companies that rely on ads to fund their work. Google says it charges less or equal to the industry average and that it has plenty of competition, and notes that, industry-wise, ad prices and fees have declined over the years. But Scott Morton says that doesn’t take into account what the landscape could look like if Google wasn’t so dominant in all parts of it. “Would the digital ad world be better in terms of output and price and quality and innovation if there were two or three firms trying to place digital ads?” she said. “I think the answer to that is a clear ‘yes.’” How Google may hurt consumers So, how does any of this hurt you, the consumer? After all, many of Google’s products are free, so it isn’t as though the lack of competition is increasing their price. Odds are, you regularly use at least one of Google’s many services, and you probably like it. But there could be a lot of things you aren’t getting. Google became the most popular search engine because its creators figured out a way to return better and faster results than the competition. We don’t know if Apple could make a better search engine because Google is paying Apple billions of dollars not to, and we don’t know if Google’s search wouldn’t be even better if it had some real competition (despite Microsoft’s efforts, Bing’s share of the search engine market remains very small: just about 3 percent worldwide). As Google’s search dominance grew, the company also changed its results page from a simple list of links designed to get users away from its platform as quickly as possible, to keeping them on its platform for as long as possible. That’s why, over the years, search results have changed from a list of links with a few ads at the top to a website populated with Google’s own offerings. As a 2020 report from the Markup showed, it’s become harder and harder to find organic search results on Google because so much of Google’s own stuff, including its search ads, may take up all the real estate. (Google says the Markup’s report is “flawed and misleading” and based on a “non-representative sample of searches.”) Google says these extra features make its search results better. But if Google’s own offerings aren’t as good as the organic results — as the Markup says they sometimes aren’t — then Google is using its power to push you toward an inferior product. You’re getting the best results for Google, but they may not be the best results for you. You may also be spending more on apps through Google’s Play Store, since apps are required to use Google’s in-app payment system and pay Google a generous cut. Companies have to make that up somehow — maybe that’ll come from you. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks before the House Judiciary Committee in 2018. “It’s essentially a tax on the internet,” Yen, of Proton, said. “These costs get transferred to consumers because unless you have a 30 percent profit margin, you’re going to have to pass on some of these costs. … Users are going to have to get hit with higher prices as a result.” Those increased costs may apply to digital ads, too. “If the advertiser is paying more than a competitive price, it’s paying a monopoly price to get those ads, then the consumer at the end of the day is bearing the cost,” Scott Morton said. “They’re going to be built into the price of the product.” And if Google is taking a supracompetitive cut of digital ad sales, that means the website those ads are on is getting less for them than it otherwise would have. If the website is providing free content, it can’t charge users more to make up for the loss. Instead, it will just have less money to spend on the content itself — which could lead to lower-quality products. How Google could emerge relatively unscathed Google has never faced as much of a threat to its business model and structure as it does today. But lawsuits, especially big antitrust lawsuits, take years to resolve, and it’s never certain they’ll go the government’s way. The DOJ’s case was filed in fall 2020, and it isn’t expected to go to trial until the fall of 2023. And that may proceed without the DOJ’s antitrust head, Jonathan Kanter, because he has represented some of Google’s rivals in the past and may have to recuse himself from this case. Could all those state attorneys general and the DOJ be wrong about Google? Adam Kovacevich, who was Google’s US head of public policy communications during the FTC investigation, thinks the search lawsuits have no better chance of success now than the FTC would have back in 2013 when it chose not to pursue a case against Google over preferencing its properties over those of competing, specialized search companies like Yelp. The FTC “acknowledged, frankly, the legal difficulties they would run into if they tried to make the case — which are still true today,” Kovacevich said. To him, the fact that some members of Congress now feel the need to pass new laws targeting some of those issues indicates that Google hasn’t done anything that violates the existing laws. The bipartisan antitrust bills introduced last summer could be a quicker route to change, though they won’t have as much of an impact on Google’s business model as an unfavorable outcome of a lawsuit would. Kovacevich isn’t a fan of those bills either, by the way. He’s now the CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a tech industry coalition that describes itself as “center-left” and is funded by tech companies, including Google, that would be negatively affected should the bills pass (Kovacevich wouldn’t say how much funding Google provides). He and the Chamber of Progress have been speaking out against the bills since they were introduced, claiming they would forbid companies from offering certain services or force them to introduce security issues to their devices. But Yen, of Proton, and Lowe, of Yelp, say they think the bills will go a long way toward making the playing field more fair. “I don’t think I’ll ever see an opportunity again, in my career, to have a legislative response to Big Tech’s overreaching,” Lowe said.

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Phonemakers and carriers are developing new technologies that are meant to improve emergency response. | Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images As the 911 system adapts to the age of cellphones, it’s gaining access to all kinds of new data, too. Over the coming weeks, AT&T is rolling out cellphone location tracking that’s designed to route emergency calls to 911 more quickly. The company says the new feature will be nationwide by the end of June and should make it easier for, say, an ambulance to reach someone experiencing a medical emergency. At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer. But it’s also a reminder that as phone companies promise to save lives, they’re also using a lot more data about you in the process. The AT&T upgrade is part of a broader effort to modernize the country’s approach to emergency response. T-Mobile has also started using location-based routing, and experts told Recode that the technology could eventually be universal. At the same time, the federal government is in the midst of a nationwide push to get 911 call centers to adopt a technology called Next Generation 911, which will allow people not only to call 911 but also to send texts including images and video messages — to the emergency line. Meanwhile, Apple and Google have created new software that can directly pass on information from someone’s device, like information stored on a health app. The hope is that more data will save crucial time during emergencies, but privacy experts are already warning that the same technology could be misused or exploited. “I just worry what happens the next time there’s a tragedy, the next time people are scared, and the next time there’s an opportunity to use this data in ways it was never intended,” Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP), told Recode. One of the main ways phone networks plan to use this data is to connect callers with the right 911 operator more quickly. Because the 911 system was designed to work with landlines, calls to 911 made via cellphones (mobile phones place the majority of 911 calls) sometimes get routed to the wrong 911 center. In places that use older technology, cellphones will generally connect to the 911 operator associated with the antenna on the cell tower that processes the call, not the 911 operator in the jurisdiction the person calling is currently in. When these calls are misdirected, it can sometimes take several minutes to be connected to the right dispatcher. To address this problem, carriers are turning to the sensors in smartphones, like GPS, wifi antennas, accelerometers, and pressure sensors. Depending on the phone you have, either Apple or Google can then use these sensors to estimate your current location. (Google’s system is called Emergency Location Service, or ELS, and Apple’s system is called Hybridized Emergency Location, or HELO.) With AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s new systems, when someone makes a call to 911, the phone network will use this location estimate to make a best guess as to where someone is, and then connect the call to the right 911 operator. AT&T says the whole process should take about five seconds and is supposed to locate someone’s call within 50 meters of their actual location. This isn’t the only data 911 centers have at their disposal. Apple already allows people to load their medical information — like what health conditions they have and medications they’re on — into their devices, and depending on the technology used by the jurisdiction you’re in, that info could be automatically sent to emergency responders when they dial 911. Some Apple Watch models also have a built-in fall detector that can dial 911 on its own. Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has ordered carriers to start transmitting vertical location data in addition to horizontal location data, making it easier for first responders to identify what floor someone might be on in a multistory building during an emergency. And as the federal government rolls out Next Generation 911, it’s also laying the groundwork for 911 operators to collect data from other connected devices, like cars with certain crash notification systems, building sensors, and wearables. This is all in addition to a host of other changes that a growing number of the country’s thousands of 911 call centers have been slowly making: upgrading software, sharing and collecting more analytics, and just getting better training. The idea behind all of these updates is that, with more information, dispatchers can make better decisions about an unfolding situation. “A lot of the underlying efforts around transforming 911 is really trying to help the current nation’s 911 system, prioritize health and safety for call takers and dispatchers, and really just trying to ensure that the right person is being dispatched at the right time,” explains Tiffany Russell, the mental health and justice partnerships project director at the Pew Charitable Trusts. “This police-first model is not necessarily the best response to handle these really complex problems or issues related to mental health.” In an emergency, more information could be helpful, but there are also reasons to worry about 911 collecting additional data. Allowing 911 operators to receive image- and video-based messages could create new opportunities for racial bias, Russell points out, and texting may not be the most efficient way for an operator to communicate during an emergency. The 911 system has played a fundamental role in and contributed to some of American policing’s worst problems, including over-policing, racist police violence, and deeply flawed approaches to domestic violence and behavioral health. Another growing concern is data privacy. While AT&T told Recode that location data is only used when a 911 call is in progress, there are circumstances where 911 operators can directly request that information from a carrier, even if the person who made the call has hung up, according to Brandon Abley, the director of technology at the National Emergency Number Association. There is no way for an individual user to disable the location information sent during 911 calls. These concerns with the 911 system aren’t new. When the FCC rolled out enhanced 911 — an early program to improve the kind of information 911 operators receive about wireless callers — civil liberties organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) warned about the risk that federal agencies could try to access the data created by the new technology, or it could end up in the wrong hands. A recent FBI guide to cellular data shows that law enforcement does sometimes try to collect data created by carriers’ enhanced 911 capabilities. It’s also abundantly clear that cellphone location data generally isn’t well protected. Agencies like the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have bought app-created location data on the open market, and as long as they have the right legal paperwork, law enforcement can reach out to any company that collects data about someone and ask for information. “They are not responsible with our data, there are not proper assurances in the law to limit how they use it,” Andrés Arrieta, the director of consumer privacy engineering at EFF, told Recode. “Sometimes even when there are, they keep misusing it.” These risks stand to get a lot more serious — and a lot murkier — as 911 centers across the country start receiving far more data from people’s devices. This could take some time, since 911 call centers are generally run on the local level and vary considerably in terms of the technology they use. Still, it’s critical to remember that even if a new service is designed or marketed as a new way to save lives, there’s no guarantee that’s the only way it will be deployed. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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The end of Roe v. Wade will hurt women in many ways. | Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe via Getty Images How criminalizing abortion affects women at work. Roe vs. Wade is all but certain to be overturned, which could effectively make abortion illegal in about half of US states. If that happens, historical data tells us that not only will this affect women personally, but it will jeopardize their professional lives, too. That decision, a draft of which was leaked to Politico earlier this month, affects a woman’s likelihood to work at all, what type of job she takes, how much education she receives, how much money she makes, and even the hopes and dreams she has for herself. In turn, her career affects nearly all other aspects of her life, from her likelihood to live in poverty to her view of herself. And taking away the ability to make that decision stands to upend decades of progress women have made in the workforce, which has cascading effects on women’s place in society. As Caitlin Myers, a professor of economics at Middlebury College, put it, “Childbearing is the single most economically important decision most women make.” We know all this because of decades of research on how abortion bans hurt women — research that Myers, along with more than 150 other economists, outlined in an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Mississippi case that’s likely to upend Roe v. Wade. In addition to long-term studies specifically looking at outcomes of women who were unable to get an abortion versus those who did, there’s even more robust data around the negative causal effects of having children on women in general. It’s also just common sense, according to Jason Lindo, a professor of economics at Texas A&M University. “Anyone who has had kids or seriously thought about having kids knows it’s super costly in terms of time and money,” Lindo said. “So of course restrictions that make it harder for people to time when they have kids or which increase the number of children that they have is going to have serious impacts on their careers and their economic circumstances.” Even in the absence of a national ban, state anti-abortion measures have been a huge burden on women and society at large. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) estimated that state-level restrictions have cost those economies $105 billion a year in reduced labor force participation, reduced earnings, increased turnover, and time off among prime working-age women. An abortion ban won’t affect all women equally, either. Myers says that in regions of the country where abortion is banned and where travel distances will increase for women to be able to get an abortion, about three-quarters of women seeking abortions will still do so. That means roughly a quarter of women there — in Myers’s words, “the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most financially fragile women in a wide swath of the Deep South and the Midwest” — will not receive their health care services. As the US faces an ongoing labor shortage — one led in part by women who have left the workforce to care for children and elders during the pandemic — the Supreme Court’s expected decision will exacerbate the situation and potentially change women’s experience in the workforce for years to come. 1) Women’s labor force participation could go down Abortion access is a major force that has driven up women’s labor force participation. Nationally, women’s labor force participation rates went from around 40 percent before Roe v. Wade was passed in 1973 to nearly 60 percent before the pandemic (men’s participation was nearly 70 percent at that time). Abortion bans could thwart or even reverse some of those gains. Using data from the Turnaway Study, landmark research that compares outcomes over time for women across the country who received or were denied abortions, University of California San Francisco professor Diana Greene Foster and fellow researchers found that six months after they were denied an abortion, women were less likely to be employed full-time than those who received an abortion. That difference remained significant for four years after these women were denied abortions, a gap that could affect their employment prospects even further into the future. 2) Lower educational attainment Education rates are foundational for career prospects and pay. A 1996 study by Joshua Angrist and William Evans looked at states that liberalized abortion laws before Roe v. Wade and found abortion access leads to higher education rates and labor-market outcomes. American University economics professor Kelly Jones used state abortion regulation data to determine that legal abortion access for young women who became pregnant increased their educational attainment by nearly a year and their likelihood of finishing college by about 20 percentage points. The evidence is largely driven by the impacts on young Black women. Other research by Jones and Mayra Pineda-Torres found that simple exposure to targeted restrictions on abortion providers, or TRAP laws, reduced young Black teenagers’ likelihood of attending or completing college. In turn, lower education affects which jobs women are qualified for. 3) The types of jobs women get will be more restricted Having children significantly affects the types of jobs women get, often steering them to part-time work or lower-paying occupations. While a broader abortion ban is on the horizon, plenty of individual states have already enacted TRAP laws that make getting an abortion more difficult. This legislation has also provided a natural experiment for researchers like Kate Bahn, chief economist at research nonprofit Washington Center for Equitable Growth, who found women in these states were less likely to move into higher-paid occupations. “We know a lot from previous research on the initial expansion of birth control pills and abortion care in the ’70s that, when women have a little more certainty over their family planning, they just make choices differently,” Bahn told Recode. This could lead to more occupational segregation — women’s overrepresentation in certain fields like health care and teaching, for example — which reduces wages in those fields, even when accounting for education, experience, and location. 4) All of the above negatively affect income Curtailing which jobs women get, taking time out of the workforce, receiving less education — all of these hurt women’s pay, which is already lower on average than men’s. One paper by economist Ali Abboud that looked at states where abortion was legal before Roe v. Wade found that young women who got an abortion to delay an unplanned pregnancy for just one year had an 11 percent increase in hourly wages compared to the mean. Jones’s research found that legal abortion access for pregnant young women increased their likelihood of entering a professional occupation by 35 percentage points. The IWPR estimates that if existing abortion restrictions went away, women across the US would make $1,600 more a year on average. Lost income doesn’t just affect women who have unwanted pregnancies, but also their families and their existing children. Income, in turn, affects poverty rates of not only the women who have to go through unwanted pregnancy, but also their existing children. 5) Lack of abortion access limits women’s career aspirations Perhaps most insidiously, lack of abortion access seriously restricts women’s hopes for their own careers. Building on her team’s research in the Turnaway Study, Foster found that women who were unable to get a desired abortion were significantly less likely to have one-year goals related to employment than those who did, likely because those goals would be much harder to achieve while taking care of a newborn. They were also less likely to have one-year or five-year aspirational goals in general. Limiting women’s autonomy over their reproductive rights reinforces the unequal status of women in ways that are both concrete and ephemeral, C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of IWPR, told Recode. “That’s a very psychic, emotional, psychological feeling — to feel and understand that my equality, my rights, are less than my male counterparts,” she said. ”The law is making it so. The Supreme Court is making it so.”

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A woman fans her child with a sheet of paper as a fan sits idle amid a power outage during a heat wave in Jacobabad, Pakistan, on May 11. | Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images How do we cool people without heating up the planet? The world is now 1.1 degrees Celsius — 2 degrees Fahrenheit — warmer on average than it was at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. But baked into that seemingly small change in the average is a big increase in dangerous extreme temperatures. That’s made cooling, particularly air conditioning, vital for the survival of billions of people. The devastation of extreme temperatures is playing out right now in several places around the world. A gargantuan heat wave over India and Pakistan, where 1.5 billion people live, is now in its third week. Just 12 percent of India’s population has air conditioning, but even those people are suffering. The heat has triggered power outages, water shortages, and killed dozens, although the true toll may not be known for weeks. Swaths of western Europe are also facing a heat wave, with temperatures forecasted to breach 40°C, or 104°F, later this week. Closer to home, Texas is currently facing a record-breaking heat wave just as six power plants suddenly went offline. The state’s grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, asked residents to avoid using large appliances and set thermostats to 78 degrees Fahrenheit between 3 pm and 8 pm. These searing temperatures are just the latest in a pattern of increasingly hot weather. A heat wave that would have been a once-in-a-decade event in the 1800s is now hotter and happens nearly three times as often. Heat waves that used to occur once every 50 years are now nearly five times as frequent and reach higher temperatures. Heat records are broken so often they barely register as news. In its latest review of climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said it is “virtually certain” that heat waves have become more frequent and intense across most land areas since the 1950s. Extreme heat events are also occurring over a wider region of the globe, from the depths of the ocean to the icy reaches of the Arctic. Heat waves are now such devastating events with long-lasting wounds that some countries say they should be named like hurricanes. But the most severe risks from high temperatures are in places like India and Pakistan, regions closer to the equator that are already hot and have dense, growing populations. They also have less wealth, so fewer can afford cooling when thermometers reach triple digits. The planet is only going to heat up more, rendering parts of the world unlivable. The most optimistic scenario is that global average temperatures will rise 1.5°C (2.7°F) this century, which will lead to even more intense and frequent heat waves. Right now, though, the world is on course to shoot well past this target. Regardless of whether humanity gets its act together and drastically cuts emissions of the greenhouse gases that are warming up the planet, billions of people today and into the future desperately need to cool off. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake, making this one of the most urgent technology and policy challenges. But staying cool amid the heat poses a paradox: The tactics for cooling can end up worsening the very problem they’re trying to solve if they draw on fossil fuels, or leak refrigerants that are potent heat-trapping gases. And the people who stand to experience the most extreme heat are often those least able to cool off. Manish Swarup/AP A worker drinks water next to power lines during a heat wave in New Delhi, India, on May 2. Solving this conundrum requires untangling issues of equity and justice, as well as developing better tools for cooling, beyond just ACs. It also requires rethinking the role of cooling in society. It is not a luxury, but a necessity for living in the world that we’ve created for ourselves. Heat is dangerous and costly, even before it reaches extremes Ambient temperatures are so foundational to our well-being that it’s easy to overlook their importance and the threat they pose. Extreme heat has been the deadliest weather phenomenon in the United States over the past 30 years, according to the National Weather Service. That’s because heat has so many ways of hurting people. High temperatures make it harder for humans to shed excess heat. When air reaches temperatures higher than body temperatures, more heat flows into the human body than flows out. That can cause hyperthermia, heat stroke, and death. Some medications can become less effective with heat, while others can make people more susceptible to high temperatures. During warmer weather, pollutants like ozone form faster, which can lead to breathing problems. In addition, the stress from heat is cumulative. High temperatures at night are particularly worrying because it means people have little relief from the heat during the day. Because of climate change, nights are actually warming faster than daylight hours. And when extreme heat combines with humidity, the weather can turn lethal. To measure the risk from these conditions, scientists track the wet-bulb temperature, which measures temperature and humidity conditions where water will not evaporate. Higher wet-bulb temperatures mean it’s harder for a person to cool off by sweating. A healthy person can withstand a wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, or 95°F, for six hours. Older adults, young children, and people with underlying health conditions start to suffer at much lower thresholds. But high temperatures can cause harm well before they reach the tip of the thermometer. For people who work on farms, on construction sites, in kitchens, or in factories, hotter temperatures lead to more injuries. Avoiding these risks has costs, too, as workers weigh lost wages against the potential for harm at work. Even in cooler workplaces like offices, studies have found that high temperatures reduce productivity and performance. “The knock-on effects of heat are extraordinary,” said Rachel Kyte, dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University, who coauthored a 2018 report titled “Chilling Prospects: Providing Sustainable Cooling for All.” That adds up to a huge economic toll. By one estimate, heat costs the US economy $100 billion per year, a number poised to rise to $200 billion by 2030 and $500 billion by 2050, if nothing is done to mitigate climate change or the resulting harm. There’s some debate among researchers about whether extreme heat poses a greater public health burden than extreme cold, but rising average temperatures mean that record-breaking cold events are becoming much less common, while heat records will continue to inch higher. High temperatures with little relief could also pose political challenges. “If you can’t get cool, and you have lots of young people living in cities, that is a recipe for social disruption,” Kyte said. “Nothing will radicalize you more than no job, nowhere to get cool, and nowhere to get healthy or safe food.” Yet in much of the world, air conditioning isn’t treated as essential. In the US, few states have mandates for cooling in housing, whereas most states and municipalities have a minimum heating requirement for landlords. The federal government does offer low-income households money to help pay for energy bills, including cooling and heating, but those households have to have cooling in the first place. AC is not required in federal public housing. Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images Felisa Benitez, 86, wipes sweat from her brow while taking a break on the porch of her home, where temperatures reached 99 degrees, at San Fernando Gardens public housing in Pacoima, California, in August 2021. So a huge part of the challenge in preventing harm from heat is getting people and policymakers to recognize the threat and treat cooling as a lifesaving tool. The climate paradox of air conditioning Cooling technologies, particularly air conditioning, have been reshaping societies around the world since Willis Carrier invented a device to prevent humidity from messing with ink at a Brooklyn printing plant in 1902. These changes have had far-reaching and unexpected effects. In his 2014 book How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, author Steven Johnson connected the dots between the spread of air conditioning and the election of Ronald Reagan: ACs made the southwestern US more hospitable, and the growing population of the region became an important base of support for Reagan. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, said air conditioning was the sine qua non of his country’s formation. There are now roughly 2 billion air conditioners in use around the world today, with half of those units in the US and China alone. Cooling systems like ACs, fans, and ventilation account for about 20 percent of energy use in buildings globally, according to the International Energy Agency. That adds up to two-and-a-half times as much electricity consumed globally for cooling as the entire continent of Africa uses. Cooling is not just for people. Refrigeration and freezing are essential for producing, storing, and transporting food, medicine, electronics, and, as Carrier found, books. By 2050, AC energy use is poised to triple on its current course, according to the IEA — which is roughly equivalent to the amount of electricity China uses today. Within the current crop of air conditioners, there is wide variation in efficiency and the power sources they use. The spaces they cool aren’t all insulated the same ways, either. There is also a huge gap in access. The IEA notes that for the nearly 3 billion people living in the hottest parts of the world, only 8 percent of them have ACs. And within countries, ACs are not distributed evenly. Access varies by income, but also by location. Last summer’s massive heat wave across the Pacific Northwest was especially worrying because so few people in the region have air conditioners due to the ordinarily mild climate. Seattle has the lowest percentage of households with air conditioning of any major metro area in the US. That likely contributed to hundreds of excess deaths. Disparities in access to air conditioning also fall along racial lines. Black residents in New York City account for half of heat-related fatalities despite being 22 percent of the population; access to air conditioning is a key factor. Another is that neighborhoods with predominantly racial minority residents have fewer green spaces, foliage, and tree cover. Instead, their neighborhoods often have more concrete and asphalt. That worsens the heat island effect and makes temperatures in these areas rise higher than their surroundings. It’s also a law of nature that you can’t cool a space without heating up another. In cities, the heat from running ACs at night can raise ambient temperatures by 1°C, or 1.8°F. Air conditioners pose another direct problem for the climate. Many of them use refrigerants that are also powerful heat-trapping gases. Chemicals like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) can be upward of 12,000 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. Small coolant leaks multiplied by billions of AC units could be devastating for the climate. Wang Biao/VCG via Getty Images An employee tests the performance of air conditioner units at a workshop in Fuyang, China, in May 2021. The good news is, there is a lot that can be done. And some of that work is underway now. Cooling in the climate change era requires a multi-pronged strategy In current heat waves around the world, the priority must be saving as many lives as possible, even if the only options draw on fossil fuels. “You can’t not give people power because the only power you can give them is power with too much coal in the energy mix,” Kyte said. However, taking the temperature down has to remain an urgent priority, even after the weather cools off. There are many ways to curb the climate impacts of ACs. “The answer lies first and foremost in improving the efficiency of air conditioners, which can quickly slow down the growth in cooling-related electricity demand,” wrote Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, in a 2018 report. With greater energy efficiency, air conditioners do more with less. Also, homes and businesses need better insulation and sealing to prevent waste. Another method is to manufacture more air conditioners that don’t use HFCs or other heat-trapping gases. Many countries, including the US, are phasing out HFCs. The US Senate will soon vote to ratify the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, an international treaty that commits to cutting HFCs 85 percent by 2050. At the same time, there is going to be a massive market for sustainable cooling technologies. “There are billions of people that aspire to be wealthy, and as your income starts going up, you’re going to want to have access to cooling,” Kyte said. The electricity that powers air conditioners needs to come from sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, so dialing down coal, oil, and natural gas power on the grid and ramping up wind, solar, and nuclear energy is crucial. Technology alone is not enough. ACs are only useful for people who work indoors, but millions still labor outside. Reducing outdoor air temperatures requires careful planning to ensure adequate shade and measures like cool roofs. For some jobs, workers will have to take on schedules that keep them out of the sun during the hottest times of day. In some places, the only tolerable times to work outdoors are at night. Cooling may also require a more collective approach. Rather than installing ACs on every individual home, some areas can use district cooling systems. And in emergencies, people will need public cooling centers. Regulators need to step in, too. The US currently doesn’t have a national workplace standard for heat exposure, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is now in the process of developing a rule to protect workers from high temperatures. Governments also need to enforce tougher standards for energy efficiency in cooling. The fixes for extreme heat don’t stop at the border. The countries that have historically burned the most fossil fuels now have the wealth to cope with rising temperatures, while those who contributed least to the problem are facing the most dangerous heat with the fewest resources. Ergo, rich countries are obligated to help places facing dangerous heat deploy cooling, and to help pay for it. “I think that the economic case and the global security case for investing in these countries’ ability to deploy hyper-efficient, nonpolluting technologies is pretty damn clear,” Kyte said. “We’re all living on the same planet.” So while billions of people are facing more devastating and extreme heat, protecting them and avoiding as much warming as possible benefits everyone on Earth. Air conditioning is now an unfortunate necessity, but it’s also an opportunity to address some of the underlying injustices of climate change.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
People attend a vigil for shooting victims in Buffalo, New York, on May 15. | Libby March/Washington Post via Getty Images Companies are getting better at responding to incidents like the Buffalo shooting. It’s still not nearly good enough. After the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shooting in 2019, Facebook was widely criticized for allowing the shooter to livestream his killings for 17 minutes uninterrupted. Saturday’s racially motivated made-for-the-internet mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, went differently. This time, the shooter shared his appalling acts on Twitch, a livestreaming video app popular with gamers, where it was shut down much more quickly, less than two minutes after the violence began, according to the company. When Twitch cut off the stream, it reportedly had just 22 views. That didn’t stop people from spreading screen recordings of the Twitch livestream — and the shooter’s writings — all over the internet, where they racked up millions of views, some of which came via links shared widely on Facebook and Twitter. “It’s a tragedy because you only need one copy of the video for this thing to live forever online and endlessly multiply,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank who studies social media. What this shows is that, while major social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have, since Christchurch, gotten better at slowing the spread of gruesome depictions of mass violence, they still can’t stop it entirely. Twitch was able to quickly cut off the shooter’s real-time video feed because it’s an app that’s designed for sharing a specific kind of content: first-person live gaming videos. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have a much wider pool of users, posting a much broader range of posts, which are shared via algorithms designed to promote virality. For Facebook and Twitter to stop the spread of all traces of this video would mean that these companies would have to fundamentally alter how information is shared on their apps. The unfettered spread of murder videos on the internet is an important problem to solve. For the victims and victims’ families, these videos deprive people of their dignity in their final moments. But they also incentivize the fame-seeking behavior of would-be mass murderers, who plan horrific violence that aims for social media virality that promotes their hateful ideologies. Over the years, major social media platforms have gotten much better at slowing and restraining the spread of these types of videos. But they haven’t been able to fully stop it, and likely never will. The effort of these companies so far has been trying to better identify violent videos, and then blocking users from sharing that same video or edited versions of it. In the case of the Buffalo shooting, YouTube said it has taken down at least 400 different versions of the shooter’s video that people have tried to upload since Saturday afternoon. Facebook is similarly blocking people from uploading different versions of the video, but wouldn’t disclose how many. Twitter also said it is removing instances of the video. These companies also help each other identify and block or take down this type of content by comparing notes. They now share “hashes” — or digital fingerprints of an image or video — through the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, or GIFCT, an industry consortium founded in 2017. When these companies exchange hashes, it gives them the ability to find and take down violent videos. It’s the same way platforms like YouTube search for videos that violate copyright. After the Christchurch shooting in 2019, GIFCT created a new all-hands-on-deck alert system, called a “content incident protocol,” to start sharing hashes in the case of an emergency situation like a mass shooting. In the case of the Buffalo shooting, a content incident protocol was activated at 4:52 pm ET Saturday, about two and a half hours after the shooting began. And as people who wanted to spread the distribution of the videos tried to alter the clips to foil the hash-trackers — by, say, adding banners or zooming in on parts of the clips — companies in the consortium tried to respond by creating new hashes that could flag the altered videos. But hashing videos only goes so far. One of the key ways the Buffalo shooter video spread on mainstream social media was not by people posting the video directly but instead by linking to other websites. In one example, a link to the shooter’s video hosted on Streamable, a lesser-known video site, was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter in the hours after the shooting. That link gained over 43,000 interactions, including likes and shares, on Facebook, and it was viewed more than 3 million times before Streamable removed it, according to the New York Times. A spokesperson for Streamable’s parent company, Hopin, did not answer Recode’s repeated questions about why the platform didn’t take down the shooter’s video sooner. The company did send a statement saying that these types of videos violate the company’s community guidelines and terms of service, and that the company works “diligently to remove them expeditiously as well as terminate accounts of those who upload them.“ Streamable is not a member of GIFCT. In a widely circulated screenshot, a user showed that they had reported a post with the Streamable link and an image from the shooting to Facebook soon after it was posted, only to get a response from Facebook that said the post didn’t violate its rules. A spokesperson for Meta confirmed to Recode that posts with the Streamable link did indeed violate its policies. Meta said that the reply to the user who reported the link was made in error, and the company is looking into why. Ultimately, because of how all of these platforms are designed, this is a game of whack-a-mole. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have billions of users, and within those billions, there will always be a percentage of users who find loopholes to exploit these systems. Several social media researchers have suggested the major platforms could do more by better examining fringe websites like 4chan and 8chan, where links were originating, in order to identify and block them early. Researchers have also called for these platforms to invest more in their systems for receiving user reports. Meanwhile, some lawmakers have blamed social media companies for allowing the video to go up in the first place. “[T]here’s a feeding frenzy on social media platforms where hate festers more hate, that has to stop,” New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference on Sunday. “These outlets must be more vigilant in monitoring social media content, and certainly the fact that this could be livestreamed on social media platforms and not taken down within a second says to me that there is a responsibility out there.” Catching and blocking content that quickly hasn’t yet proved feasible. Again, it took Twitch two minutes to take down the livestream, and that amounts to one of the fastest response times we’ve seen so far from a social media platform that lets people post in real time. But those two minutes were more than enough time to allow links to the video to go viral on larger platforms like Facebook and Twitter. The question, then, is less about how quickly these videos can be taken down and more about whether there’s a way to prevent the afterlife they can gain on major social media networks. That’s where the fundamental design of these platforms butts up against reality. They are machines designed for mass engagement and ripe for exploitation. If and when that will change depends on whether these companies are willing to throw a wrench in that machine. So far, that doesn’t look likely. Peter Kafka contributed reporting to this article.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
When the online self is fractured across multiple platforms, authenticity becomes a metric in producing a coherent, ready-made identity for public consumption. | Getty Images/500px Prime New “anti-Instagram” apps like BeReal claim to help users be more authentic online, but the distinction between real and fake isn’t quite that simple. BeReal, as the app’s name suggests, wants me to post my truth. Once a day at random, I am prompted to “be real,” to capture my unfiltered life synchronously through my phone’s selfie and back camera. There is, so BeReal claims, a distinctly authentic self behind social media’s smoke and mirrors, waiting to be revealed. BeReal’s premise is simple. Every day, users are randomly prompted to snap a photo within a two-minute time frame, although the window to post remains open for hours. Users can add a caption, comment on friends’ day-of posts, and interact through RealMojis, or personalized reaction photos. Upon posting, two feeds are unlocked, one personalized with friends’ posts and one a Discovery feed that features strangers in the midst of mostly mundane tasks. The feeds are updated once a day and posts expire once the next BeReal alert is sent out, presumably for users to put their phones down and live their “real” lives after a few minutes on the app. BeReal falls into the genre of “anti-Instagram” apps, novelty photo platforms that attempt to fulfill a niche social function that Instagram lacks. In this case, it’s authenticity and an ad-free experience. “BeReal won’t make you famous,” the app declares. “If you want to be an influencer you can stay on TikTok and Instagram.” Every year or so, a hot new social startup emerges from the woodwork with an overconfident vision of a better, more authentic way of being online. It rarely sticks. In early 2021, the app du jour was Dispo, which simulated the experience of using a disposable camera by having users wait for photos to develop. Dispo benefited from co-founder David Dobrik’s YouTube fame, but a scandal led investors to quickly distance themselves from the startup, even with Dobrik resigning. Later that year, Poparazzi, an app that encouraged users to take paparazzi-like shots of their friends, took off on TikTok. It shot to the top of the App Store for a few weeks, but the hype soon subsided. This year, the buzzy, VC-backed darling is BeReal, which is currently the second most-downloaded social networking app on the App Store, behind TikTok. It launched in December 2019, but nearly 75 percent, or 7.67 million, of BeReal downloads occurred this year, according to recent Apptopia data shared with TechCrunch. The app recently closed on a Series B funding round and is expected to quadruple its valuation to around $630 million, reported Business Insider in early May. “We’re always looking to connect with friends in a casual way,” said Kristin Merrilees, 20, a junior at Barnard College and BeReal user, who also writes about culture and the internet. “I think Snapchat briefly was that space until my friends stopped using it. Now, it’s BeReal that lets you peek into people’s lives throughout the day.” What is real, though, and what is fake when we spend so much of our time tethered to screens? In a commodified social media landscape, authenticity is as much of a marketing buzzword as it is an on-screen value, touted by people, brands, and, of course, apps. BeReal assumes that the authentic self can be divulged under the right conditions — that catching users off-guard will lead them to abandon all pretense. And so far, users seem to be buying into its pitch. “It has the vintage feel of early Instagram,” said Sasha Khatami, 21, who works in digital marketing. “I think it’s an interesting shift for people like me, who are used to posting curated content for so long, now toward a reminder to post in the moment.” BeReal’s unsubtle marketing strategy has led it to be a breakout hit among college students. The startup pays students to serve as campus ambassadors, refer friends, and host promotional events. Besides its trendiness, however, the app’s concept and key functions are anything but original. It’s a well-timed reinvention of FrontBack, an app that popularized the simultaneous selfie and back-camera photo before shuttering in 2015. Similarly, its unpredictable daily push alert mimics the engagement strategy of Minutiae, an anonymous daily photo-sharing app launched in 2017. Still, BeReal is not much of a threat to the established hierarchy of social platforms that have built a decade-old fiefdom off our data and attention. BeReal is not intent on remaking the social internet. Instead, it operates on the sidelines of this seemingly unshakeable world order, and is backed by some of the same firms that funded Instagram and Twitter. (Venture capitalists are perpetually on the hunt for the next big social startup, despite its history of false starts.) Its goal, like that of most startups, is to become commercially viable, which means it eventually has to find ways to make money off of its users. The app’s greatest appeal may be its current novelty and the fact that it isn’t Instagram or Snapchat. Still, BeReal can’t seem to escape the pall of the major social networks. Merrilees has noticed an uptick in people sharing their BeReals on Instagram. Some are even remixing them into TikToks, as a kind of memory reel. “A lot of people are migrating content across different platforms,” Khatami tells me. “It feels very natural to me. I started making TikToks of my BeReal photos after seeing people post theirs.” @yuhswagdopeyuh i love it @BeReal. #bereal ♬ original sound - kei Since BeReal is so insular, usage is highly dependent on individual friend circles. Once people start to tire of it, chances are, their friends will too. There’s a FOMO-ish undercurrent to the hype. People download BeReal because they’re curious. They don’t want to miss out. It’s nostalgia bait, too, for those old enough to remember the ad-free days of Instagram. The Times’s John Herrman found it to be a “reproduction of the experience of joining one of the dominant social networks when they all still felt like toys.” BeReal’s daily reminder tries to enforce a reflexive instinct to post and use the app, similar to how Snapchat users feel beholden to maintain their streaks. These alerts, however, seem more contrived than spontaneous. They run counter to not only BeReal’s stated mission but to the psychological literature on authenticity and self-perception. Authenticity is a fluid, ever-evolving social construct that cannot be clearly mediated, least of all through an app. In a critical examination of the concept, researchers Katrina Jongman-Sereno and Mark Leary argued that authenticity “may not be a viable scientific construct,” citing the varying definitions used by psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral researchers in their assessments. So, why does this concern over online authenticity seem so pervasive? The internet flattens any distinction between irony and sincerity, human and machine, real and fake. If it’s all artifice, why do we care? Our fixation on authenticity-posting is perhaps a reflection of our anxieties about the internet and how it debilitates our modern sense of self. Authenticity is a metric to measure content and the celebrities, influencers, brands, and individuals behind the facade. “Lately, it feels like more people are noticing and calling out performance on social media, like how ‘casual Instagram’ was identified as a trend,” said Maya Man, a Los Angeles-based artist and programmer. The notion of authenticity mollifies the viewer, assuring them that there is some truth to what is seen online. For the poster, it’s an ego-driven ideal to aspire toward or embody — even with content they’re paid to promote. BeReal’s attempt at curating an authentic space is far from perfect, but it gets at an unanswerable ontological question: Are we ever truly ourselves on the internet? “I view every single thing you post online as contributing to this distributed internet avatar that you’re performing,” Man said. “Performing isn’t a negative thing. It’s the fact that you have a mediated audience in mind, even if you’re posting on a private account.” “I view every single thing you post online as contributing to this distributed internet avatar that you’re performing.” Users who started using the internet at an early age, or “digital natives,” might share Man’s gestalt theory, and are more accustomed to reconciling these varying personas. It’s why people have Twitter alts, finstas, and specific accounts dedicated to food, aesthetics, or memes. Some of these disaggregated identities might be perceived as more authentic than others. Since the online self is fractured across multiple platforms and mediums, authenticity matters in that it’s a coherent, ready-made identity for consumption by a public audience. In a critique of BeReal, Real Life magazine editor Rob Horning posits: “An even more real version of BeReal would just give your friends access to your cameras and microphones without you knowing it, so they can peep in on you and see how you act when you think no one is watching. If the panoptic gaze is falsifying us, only voyeurism sets us free.” These voyeuristic conditions were what Man sought to investigate in creating Glance Back, a Chrome extension that unpredictably snaps a webcam photo once a day when the user opens a new tab. “I was very unsettled by that feeling that someone is looking at you for a long time and you’re not looking back,” she told me. “That’s what my computer feels all day, and we don’t have a chance to engage with its view.” Even under Glance Back’s unexpected voyeurism, what it captured didn’t feel any more or less authentic than BeReal’s self-directed gaze. Glance Back catches me in a distracted, bleary-eyed state, whereas I convey a more earnest, alert version of myself on BeReal. After a few weeks of observing my life’s repetitious contours through my browser and phone, it became apparent to me that authenticity is a facile concern, one that’s easier to grapple with than our constant state of surveillance. Rather than fret over our perceived authenticity, perhaps a better question is: Why are we so willing to document ourselves to prove what we already know?

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Bill Gates at the Global Investment Summit in London, in October 2021. | Leon Neal/WPA/Getty Images The billionaire and public health leader answers five of Recode’s questions about pandemic prevention and economic disparities. The WHO estimates that the Covid-19 pandemic has killed almost 15 million people worldwide — not just from the virus, but as an indirect result of the crisis, such as being unable to get other kinds of medical care because hospital systems were overburdened. But it didn’t have to be so catastrophic. Experts say its impacts were exacerbated by a number of factors: The world was ill-prepared for a pandemic, many countries were slow to develop and provide access to Covid-19 tests, and economic inequality made everything worse. Low- and middle-income countries are still struggling to access lifesaving vaccines, putting these populations at continued risk of contracting the virus. In the US, one preprint paper found that working-class Americans were five times more likely to die from Covid-19 than college-educated Americans. Overall, the pandemic has also widened global income inequality, in part because rich countries have been able to provide more economic relief to their residents while poorer nations have had far fewer tools to recover. Two years after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, Bill Gates has written How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, a book that outlines how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation co-founder and global health expert believes the world should prepare for future health crises — including how we can tackle the enduring problem of economic inequality that puts already-vulnerable people at even greater risk. In the US, poverty rates fell in 2021 due to pandemic relief spending like stimulus checks and the expanded child tax credit. But since then, poverty has risen again, with child poverty rates sharply rising after the expiration of the expanded child tax credit, which gave many parents a monthly cash benefit from July to December of 2021. Here are five ideas Gates explored with Recode over email about how to factor in economic inequality when preparing for the next pandemic. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Whizy Kim In your book, you mention how people are wary of the great influence wealthy philanthropists have today — while also acknowledging that many governments didn’t adequately step up when the pandemic hit. How can we ensure that the government is able to step up next time? Do you see it as mostly a matter of funding the right agencies (and would that require higher taxes)? Is it a matter of political will? Is it something else? Bill Gates I’m hopeful that after the past two years — with millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars of economic impact — every country now understands that they need to be more prepared at a government level. Philanthropy can help test new ideas and mobilize resources faster than the government, but pandemic prevention needs to be funded and supported for the long term, and it requires global collaboration. The world can’t and shouldn’t rely on philanthropy to lead that. In my book, I write that governments need to prepare for outbreaks and prevent pandemics the way they fund preventative measures and practice for fires and earthquakes. To end preventable diseases and prevent emerging diseases from becoming pandemics, governments will need to increase their investments in R&D for vaccines and therapeutics, integrated disease monitoring, and well-funded multilateral organizations, like the World Health Organization (WHO). They’ll also need to make bigger investments to improve primary health care in all countries. The natural place for government funding to go is the WHO, since it was created to coordinate global response to health issues. Philanthropy can’t be a voting member of the WHO. It’s up to each member country to decide that the WHO needs to focus on pandemic prevention. But right now, the WHO is not funded to do a lot of work on pandemics. It doesn’t have a significant full-time staff. It doesn’t require countries to go through drills. That needs to change if the world wants to get serious about making Covid the last pandemic. Whizy Kim Do you think there will always be a need and a space for private philanthropy to coexist with governments? What, if anything, about the relationship between the private and public sectors needs to change? How do we get there? Who needs to change it? Bill Gates Governments play the most critical role in protecting people from infectious diseases and other serious health risks. But I do believe there’s a role for philanthropy to play — for example, we can fund initiatives that governments or the private sector can’t or won’t. Most global health issues, like malaria, need to be solved outside of traditional market-based systems, because they’re never going to be profitable for the private sector. During the Covid pandemic, global collaboration between scientists, philanthropists, and global health institutions (like the ACT Accelerator) developed, tested, and deployed safe and effective vaccines faster than ever before. That’s a great example of how the three sectors can work together to solve these big problems. Whizy Kim How might public policies need to change so we’re better prepared for the next pandemic, and what role do you see billionaires/other wealthy philanthropists playing in that? Bill Gates One of the biggest tragedies that the world learned through Covid is that governments have not invested enough in the tools they need to effectively prepare for a pandemic. Countries need to step up and develop policies and invest more in enhancing disease monitoring, funding R&D, and strengthening health systems. What I’m trying to do, and the foundation is doing, is to help catalyze new ideas, particularly ones that will help give equitable access to lifesaving tools for people in lower-income countries, who are often left behind as new health innovations come to market. We also play a role in drawing in the private sector by helping companies secure financing to produce tests, therapeutics, and vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. Whizy Kim The public discourse around Covid-19 has been extremely polarized and politicized. What’s your takeaway on the role misinformation versus good, reliable information plays in public health outcomes? Bill Gates I’m concerned about the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about public health because it’s causing people to question their own doctors and to question science. It’s understandable that people are looking for easy answers because it’s been a very scary two years. And I think most people are worried about their own health and the health of their families and loved ones. They’re coming from the right place, but they’re being pulled in by false information. Whizy Kim How big a role would you say economic inequality plays in disease outcome? It has impeded vaccine and drug access in low- to middle-income countries, but we’ve seen even within the US that Black and brown communities were some of the hardest hit by Covid-19. How do we make sure economic inequality isn’t such a major factor in surviving the next pandemic? Bill Gates Melinda and I started the Gates Foundation more than two decades ago because we were horrified by the inequity in health around the world. There has been phenomenal progress since then, but even today, a child born in Nigeria is about 28 times more likely to die before her 5th birthday than a child born in the United States. When Covid emerged, these existing health inequities helped it become a global catastrophe. In my book, I suggest a plan that includes three key measures. First, we need to enhance disease monitoring by developing early warning systems that catch new viruses and outbreaks coordinated across borders, and the world needs to stand up the GERM team, a paid, full-time group committed to pandemic prevention. [Editor’s note: The Global Epidemic Response and Mobilization team is a permanent disease outbreak watchdog group that Gates’s book proposes we create.] Second, we need to invest more in R&D for next-generation vaccines and effective treatments, and ensure manufacturing capacity in every region of the world. And we have to strengthen global health systems by investing in primary health care, especially in low- and middle-income countries, but also within low-income communities in wealthy countries. There are programs that focus on equitable health outcomes, like the Global Fund and Global Polio Eradication Initiative, Gavi, the Global Financing Facility, and CEPI. Fully funding those organizations would make a big impact in health equity around the world. [Editor’s note: These are all global health programs that the Gates Foundation has funded. The Global Fund is a public-private partnership that finances the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative is a WHO-led public-private partnership that seeks to immunize all children at risk for polio. Gavi is a public-private partnership that strives to improve vaccine access in low-income countries. The Global Financing Facility is a World Bank-led public-private partnership that focuses on promoting the health and nutrition of women and children. And CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, is a public-private partnership that invests in vaccine research.]

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Space flights are now are regular occurrence in Florida. | Marco Bello/AFP via Getty Images In Florida, a surging number of space launches has created a new type of travel headache. You can typically blame an airline flight delay on a handful of usual suspects, like bad weather, mechanical issues, and traffic on the tarmac. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there’s now a surprising new source of air travel disruption: rocket launches. In recent weeks, flights in and out of Florida have seen a sharp increase in delays. Palm Beach International Airport logged more than 100 delays or cancellations on April 15 alone. (Some of these can be attributed to a surge in private and charter flights.) Things are even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were nearly 9,000 flight delays in March. Last week, federal regulators met to discuss these disruptions, which reflect many of the ongoing challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, the rising cost of jet fuel, the Covid-19 pandemic, and a shortage of airline workers. But in Florida, a growing number of space launches — particularly those in the Cape Canaveral area — is also making flight schedules more complicated. “They close significant airspace on the east coast before and during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, the executive vice president of finance and procurement at Tampa International Airport, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re further congesting an already constrained airspace on the west coast of Florida.” While right now these delays are concentrated in Florida, this problem could get a lot worse, especially as the number of spaceflights increases and as new launch facilities, or spaceports, open in other parts of the country. The situation is also a sign that the arrival of the second space age could have an unexpected and even extremely inconvenient impact on everyday life. The spaceship problem is relatively straightforward: Air traffic controllers currently have to ground or reroute flights during launches. In order to break through the atmosphere and reach outer space, rockets must first travel through airspace that’s monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control centers and flight navigation throughout the country. While these rockets typically only spend a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris, like spent pieces of rocket hardware, either because they’re designed to shed their payloads in several stages or because the mission has failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, reenter this airspace, too. To make sure that planes aren’t hit by this debris, the FAA typically stops flights from traveling within a rectangle-shaped block of sky that can stretch from 40 to several hundred miles long, depending on the type of launch. Typically, there’s about two weeks of advance notice before each launch, and during that time, air traffic controllers can develop alternative arrangements for the flights scheduled on that day. While a launch is taking place, aviation officials track the vehicle’s entry into space and then wait for word from experts who analyze the trajectory of debris created by the launch in real time. If there is debris, air traffic controllers stand by until it falls back to Earth, which typically takes 30 to 50 minutes. Once that happens, regular flights can return to their normal flight paths. A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in 2018 — the same flight that infamously shot Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space — impacted 563 flights, created 4,645 total minutes of delays, and forced planes to fly an extra 34,841 nautical miles, according to data from the FAA. That extra mileage adds up quickly, especially when you consider the extra fuel and carbon emissions involved. Researchers from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, estimate that a single space launch could cost airlines as much as $200,000 in extra fuel by 2027, and as much as $300,000 in extra fuel in the following decade. The FAA insists it’s making improvements. Last year, the agency started using a new tool, the Space Data Integrator, that more directly shares data about spacecraft during launches and allows the agency to reopen airspace more quickly. The FAA also says it has successfully reduced the duration of launch-related airspace closures from about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency has been able to reduce that time to just 30 minutes. “An end goal of the FAA efforts is to reduce delays, route deviations, fuel burn, and emissions by commercial airlines and other National Airspace System users as the frequency of commercial space operations increase,” the agency said in a statement. Faa.gov And the frequency of launches is picking up. There were 54 licensed space launches overseen by the FAA last year, but the agency thinks that number could grow in 2022 thanks to the rise in space tourism, growing demand for internet satellites, and upcoming space exploration missions. These launches could also become more common in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which are often built on or near existing airports, ramp up operations. The FAA has already licensed more than a dozen different spaceport locations in the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as the Colorado Air and Space Port, a space transportation facility located just six miles from the Denver International Airport. The FAA’s role in the rise of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. Beyond certifying and licensing launches, the FAA’s responsibilities also include studying the environmental impact of space travel and overseeing new spaceports. The agency will eventually have to monitor space passenger safety, too. This is on top of all the other new types of flying vehicles the FAA will also have to keep its eyes on, like drones, flying air taxis, supersonic jets, and even, possibly, space-faring balloons. “Where things get contested is more on: How do all of these different types of vehicles fit in the system that the FAA is in charge of?” Ian Petchenik, who directs communications for the aircraft flight-tracking service Flightradar24, told Recode. “Things are going to get much more complicated, and having a way to figure out who has priority, how much space they need, and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much bigger long-term question.” While we’re still in the early days of the commercial space industry, some have already expressed concern that the agency isn’t headed in the right direction. The Air Line Pilots Association warned back in 2019 that the FAA’s approach could become a “prohibitively expensive method of supporting space operations,” and has urged the agency to continue to cut down on the length of airspace shutdowns during space launches. At least one member of Congress, Rep. Peter DeFazio, is already worried that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves significantly more people. Beyond air flight delays, the burgeoning space travel business has already influenced everything from the reality television we can watch and the types of jobs we can get to international politics and — because of the industry’s potentially enormous carbon footprint — the threat of climate change. Now it looks as though the commercial space industry could also influence the timing of your next trip to Disney World.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
A cliff diver in Mayo, Ireland. | Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images And should you, a normal person, care? That screaming sound you hear? That’s the stock market tumbling, led by a collapse in tech stocks: The overall market is down 18 percent this year, and tech shares are down about 30 percent. That sound is also a chorus of “I told you so” from people who’ve been comparing the bull market investors have enjoyed for many years to the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s — and who say things are going to get worse. In the dot-com bust that kicked off in March 2000, tech stocks eventually dropped nearly 80 percent. That’s the kind of collapse that could affect everyone, even if they don’t work in tech and don’t bet on stocks (or, more accurately, they don’t think they bet on stocks). And there are certainly lots of parallels: Like the dot-com era, the stock boom, which began in 2009 and then super-sized during the pandemic, has been fueled in large part by very low to nonexistent interest rates, which made investors more interested in companies that promised to deliver outsized returns. And like the dot-com era, we’ve seen plenty of companies promise products and results they can’t deliver, like hydrogen-powered trucks. But there are significant differences between 2022 and 2000. The main one: Unlike the dot-com era, many of the most valuable publicly traded tech companies today are actual companies — they make and sell things people value, and usually make a profit doing so. So while companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have all seen their shares tumble this year, it doesn’t mean their businesses are disappearing — just that investors no longer think their growth prospects are as compelling as they once were. It’s also worth pointing out that while the tech industry employs a lot of people — an estimated 5.8 million in 2021, according to the Computing Technology Industry Association — that represents only about 4 percent of total US employment. One wild card in this compare-and-contrast is the deflation of the crypto bubble, which is separate but very much related to the overall tech and stock bubble. On the one hand, the price of bitcoin and other crypto-related currencies and products seems to be evaporating very quickly: Last fall, a single bitcoin was worth $67,000; now it’s worth around $28,000. On the other hand, if you bought a bitcoin back in 2014, when it cost around $700, you’re still well off today. The main questions for crypto-watchers: Is this a complete collapse or one of the many up-and-down swings the tech world has seen for the last decade? The question for everyone else: If crypto does collapse, will that only affect people who’ve bought or used dogecoin, Bored Ape NFTs, or some other kind of crypto — a group that supposedly represents 16 percent of Americans — or could it create a “contagion” that could wreck the global economy? If we knew, we’d tell you. In the meantime, here are three charts that lay out some of the reasons it feels a lot like 2000 right now — and some of the reasons it doesn’t. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-C8WsW");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-C8WsW");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Even though you may have heard a lot about stocks and stock trading in the last couple of years — in large part because of the explosion of trading egged on by mobile apps like Robinhood — Americans aren’t significantly more exposed to the stock market than they’ve been in the past: About 58 percent of the country owns some kind of shares, whether they are individual stocks or bundles of them via 401(k)s and other retirement accounts. That’s not significantly different from the bubble era, but it’s also not a peak. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-2U3fq");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-2U3fq");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() In the dot-com era, if you wanted to invest in a tech stock, you had to go find a tech stock — and lots of people did. But now you’re likely invested in tech even if you don’t want to be. That’s because many of the biggest tech companies — like Google, Facebook, and Apple, with a combined market cap of more than $4 trillion — now make up significant chunks of the big stock indexes. Which means that relatively conservative investment vehicles, such as index funds run by Vanguard and Fidelity, own big chunks of tech companies. So even if your only exposure to the stock market is via your 401(k) or IRA, you’re probably exposed to tech stocks. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-UxV9v");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-UxV9v");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() One way to measure the relative riskiness of a stock is by measuring its ratio of price to earnings (P/E) — how much does a share of a company cost compared to its profit? In the dot-com era, when it was entirely possible to create a public company with little revenue and no profit at all, P/E ratios were off the charts. Today, big tech companies routinely throw off billions in profit, which makes for much more conservative ratios, and stock prices that should be more durable. One important outlier: Tesla shares, which have made Elon Musk the richest man in the world, with the ability to finance a $44 billion bid for Twitter, still trade at a nosebleed P/E ratio of 100. If they come back to earth, Musk will still be rich — but not nearly as much.

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posted 8 days ago on re/code
Texas Governor Greg Abbott uses his phone — possibly to look at content he wants to regulate on Twitter. | Cooper Neill/MLB via Getty Images The First Amendment doesn’t apply to Republicans anymore? The conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down a brief, unexplained order Wednesday evening that will throw the entire social media industry into turmoil if the Texas law at issue in this case is allowed to remain in effect. The decision in NetChoice v. Paxton reinstates an unconstitutional Texas law that seizes control of the major social media platforms’ content moderation process, requiring them to either carry content that those platforms to not wish to publish or be so restrictive it would render the platforms unusable. This law is unconstitutional because the First Amendment prohibits the government from ordering private companies or individuals to publish speech that they do not with to be associated with. As the Supreme Court said in Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (2006), “this Court’s leading First Amendment precedents have established the principle that freedom of speech prohibits the government from telling people what they must say.” The Texas law prohibits a social media platform “that functionally has more than 50 million active users in the United States in a calendar month” from banning a user — or even from regulating or restricting a user’s content or altering the algorithms that surface content to other users — because of that user’s “viewpoint.” The law only applies to Texas residents, businesses that operate in Texas, or to anyone who “shares or receives content on a social media platform in this state.” Practically speaking, however, a social media company could struggle to identify which users view social media content within the state of Texas, and which businesses have Texas operations. So, if they don’t want to be sued for violating the Texas law, they would likely end up applying Texas’s rules to all users. The law applies broadly, moreover, to all forms of viewpoint discrimination, regardless of whether that viewpoint is political. For these reasons, even setting aside the fact that this law is unconstitutional, it imposes a completely unworkable standard on social media platforms. Imagine, for example, that a man stalks his ex-girlfriend on Twitter, creating multiple accounts that harass her and call her “ugly,” while also encouraging others to do the same. If Twitter bans this stalker for calling his ex “ugly,” the Texas law could be interpreted to also require Twitter to ban anyone who calls the same woman “beautiful,” because the law forbids discrimination on the basis of viewpoint. Similarly, imagine that a member of the Ku Klux Klan starts a YouTube account called “Black people are worthless,” which posts videos of racial-slur laden rants claiming that Black people have contributed nothing valuable to society. If YouTube so much as tweaks its algorithm to prevent this klansman’s videos from autoplaying for unsuspecting users, it would also have to do the same to any content on the same topic expressing the opposite viewpoint — that is, the viewpoint that Black people have, in fact, made valuable contributions to society. The law permits any user who believes that a social media platform has violated the Texas law, as well as the state’s attorney general, to sue that platform in order to force compliance. A victorious plaintiff is entitled to an injunction requiring the platform to comply with the state law, as well as attorney’s fees. Courts may also “hold the social media platform in contempt” and “use all lawful measures to secure immediate compliance” if a social media company resists an unconstitutional court order requiring it to involuntarily publish content. The Texas law, in other words, would effectively turn every single major social media platform into 4chan — a cesspool of racial slurs, misogyny, and targeted harassment that the platforms would be powerless to control, unless they wanted to enact such sweeping content moderation policies that their platforms would become unusable. (Admittedly, the Texas law does permit social media companies to remove some racist and sexist content, but only if that content “directly incites criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence.”) The law was set to go into effect last December, but after two social media trade associations sued, a federal judge blocked the law one day before that could happen. The Fifth Circuit’s one-sentence order doesn’t rule on the constitutionality of the law, but reinstates it while the lawsuits play out — placing social media companies in immediate jeopardy if they engage in the most basic content moderation. Texas claims that social media is just like a train The Texas law is one of several attempts by Republican state governments to sanction media companies they perceive as insufficiently deferential to conservatives. In a statement released shortly after he signed the bill, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) claimed that he did so to thwart a “dangerous movement by social media companies to silence conservative viewpoints and ideas.” Although there are individual examples of conservatives being kicked off of social media platforms — Twitter and Facebook famously banned former President Donald Trump after they found his actions on January 6 violated their policies — the evidence that social media companies are engaged in any kind of systematic discrimination against conservative viewpoints is, to say the least, thin. Even if companies like Twitter or Facebook were targeting conservative speakers, moreover, they have a First Amendment right to do so. Corporations, like individuals, are allowed to express whatever viewpoint they choose. And they are not required to give equal time to opposing viewpoints. The rule that the First Amendment applies to corporations, and not just individuals, became controversial after the Supreme Court’s campaign finance decision in Citizens United v. FEC (2010), but this rule long predates Citizens United. In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), for example, the Court ruled that Jim Crow state officials could not use malicious libel suits to punish a media corporation that published an advertisement with a pro-civil rights viewpoint. This rule — that companies can publish whatever viewpoints they want, and can also exclude any viewpoint they want — applies to newer platforms like social media as surely as it applies to traditional platforms such as a newspaper or a company’s public statements. That was the holding of Reno v. ACLU (1997). Although Reno acknowledged that the internet offered speakers new ways to popularize their views, it held that “our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.” The First Amendment, moreover, provides free speech protections that sometimes go beyond the protections afforded to social media companies under federal laws such as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 establishes that internet platforms typically cannot be sued because they host content that may be libelous or that is otherwise unprotected by the First Amendment. In this way, they are more of a platform than a newspaper publisher legally responsible for the views expressed on their site. But even if Section 230 were repealed tomorrow, the First Amendment would still prohibit the state of Texas from ordering a social media company (or any other company, for that matter) to publish content that it does not wish to publish. To this, Texas says that the First Amendment should treat social media companies less like a newspaper, and more like a railroad. Specifically, the Texas law declares that major social media companies should be classified as “common carriers,” a term that has historically applied to buses, trains, airlines, and other transportation companies that offer their services to the general public. As one federal appeals court explained in a 2016 opinion, “common carriers have long been subject to nondiscrimination and equal access obligations” without raising any First Amendment issues. And courts have long allowed some communication forums to be classified as common carriers, such as telephone companies and broadband providers. But, as Judge Robert Pitman explained in his opinion blocking the Texas law — the opinion that was just stayed by the Fifth Circuit — there are very important distinctions between a company like Facebook or Twitter, and a phone company or internet service provider. Common carriers, Pitman explains, act “as a passive conduit for content posted by users.” Your phone company does not monitor your calls to make sure that your aren’t saying anything offensive to the people that you speak with. And your broadband provider does not read your emails and refuse to deliver ones that contain racial slurs. Social media companies, by contrast, are “more akin to newspapers that engage in substantial editorial discretion.” As Facebook told Pitman in a court filing, that company “makes decisions about ‘billions of pieces of content’ and ‘[a]ll such decisions are unique and context-specific[] and involve some measure of judgment.’” To be sure, social media platforms are not exactly the same as newspapers. The whole reason why laws like Section 230 exist is because internet platforms exist in a gray area between newspapers, which publish nothing that is not approved by a journalist employed by that paper, and telephone companies, which engage in no content moderation whatsoever. Congress enacted Section 230 because it understood that platforms that fall into this gray area should not always be subject to the same rules that apply to newspapers. But that doesn’t mean that social media companies are common carriers. Again, the sort of communications companies that are treated as common carriers — phone companies and internet service providers — are companies that typically engage in no content moderation. Social media platforms, by contrast, typically have terms of service that its users must comply with, and they employ teams of moderators who evaluate whether specific content violates these terms and must be taken down. Many also use algorithms that effectively give each user a customized experience tailored to whatever the platform thinks the user wants to see. That’s a far cry from a common carrier that acts merely as a “passive conduit.” Even if a company like Twitter could be classified as a common carrier, moreover, the anti-discrimination rules applied to such carriers are rarely absolute. Amtrak’s terms of service, for example, permits it to remove passengers “whose conduct is objectionable” or “whose personal hygiene makes them offensive.” So why shouldn’t Twitter be allowed to remove a user who, for example, bombards others with racial slurs? Texas’s approach to the First Amendment is probably only shared by a fringe of judges The Fifth Circuit’s decision halting Pitman’s order consists of only a single sentence — “IT IS ORDERED that the appellant’s opposed motion to stay preliminary injunction pending appeal is GRANTED” — and a single footnote indicating that the three-judge panel that heard this case is “not unanimous.” Although the court did not identify which of the three judges dissented, it’s not hard to guess how the votes broke down. The panel includes Judge Leslie Southwick, a relatively moderate conservative appointed by President George W. Bush, as well as two notoriously right-wing judges. Judge Edith Jones is a former general counsel to the Republican Party of Texas who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan when she was just 35 years old. Since then, she’s developed a reputation as an especially caustic conservative — Jones once told a liberal colleague to “shut up” during a court hearing, and she joined an opinion arguing that a man should be executed despite the fact that his lawyer slept through much of his trial. The third judge, Andy Oldham, is a young Trump appointee who clerked for Justice Samuel Alito. Among other things, Oldham is the author of a Fifth Circuit opinion permitting a Trump-appointed district judge to seize control of much of the nation’s policy governing the US-Mexico border. It is likely, but not entirely certain, that Jones and Oldham are right-wing outliers even when compared to the median justice on the Supreme Court. In 2021, Justice Clarence Thomas published an opinion expressing sympathy for the “common carrier” theory Texas relies on in NetChoice. But that opinion was joined by no other justice. In any event, given the enormous disruption the Fifth Circuit’s NetChoice decision is likely to create for social media companies, it is likely that they will ask the Supreme Court to intervene very soon. We will likely know if very short order, in other words, whether the Supreme Court intends to write social media out of the First Amendment.

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posted 9 days ago on re/code
Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan. | Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images With the confirmation of Alvaro Bedoya, FTC chair Lina Khan is free to carry out her vision. It took eight months of hearings, nominations, health-related delays, and a tie-breaking vote from the vice president, but the Senate has confirmed Alvaro Bedoya as the Federal Trade Commission’s fifth commissioner. More importantly — and almost certainly why his confirmation was such a drawn-out and contentious process — he’s its third Democrat, and soon will likely be a deciding vote himself. The FTC has been gridlocked with two Republican commissioners (Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson) and two Democrats (chair Lina Khan and Rebecca Kelly Slaughter) for most of Khan’s tenure. Anything Khan wanted to do that needed the commission’s vote would either have to get the support of at least one Republican or it wouldn’t happen at all. That won’t be the case anymore. “Alvaro’s knowledge, experience, and energy will be a great asset to the FTC as we pursue our critical work,” Khan said in a statement. “I’m excited to begin working with him, along with our other Commissioners, once his appointment is made final by President Biden.” Bedoya comes to the FTC from Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, of which he was the founding director. His nomination, made way back in September, was welcomed by privacy advocates. Bedoya said in his confirmation hearing last year that he intended to focus on privacy issues, including data and facial recognition. With no federal consumer privacy law, the FTC’s powers are limited, but it still can — and has — gone after companies for privacy issues. At his hearing, Senate Republicans claimed they took issue not with Bedoya’s privacy stance but with his public tweets. Bedoya has tweeted that President Trump is a white supremacist and that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a “domestic surveillance agency.” At the hearing, Sen. Ted Cruz accused Bedoya of being a “left-wing activist, a provocateur, a bomb-thrower, and an extremist. Sen. Roger Wicker said he thought Bedoya’s “strident views” meant he wouldn’t be able to work with the Republican commissioners. Bedoya said those tweets were made when he was a private citizen and were in response to government actions that he believed were harmful. On Tuesday, the day before Bedoya’s confirmation, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Bedoya a “foolish choice” and an “awful nomination.” It’s more likely that Republicans’ issues were not with Bedoya or his tweets, but with the fact that Bedoya gives the FTC the Democratic majority it has lacked since Rohit Chopra left in October. Republicans aren’t thrilled with Khan’s work at the FTC, to say the least, seeing her as a divisive radical progressive who is intent on reshaping the agency’s approach to antitrust and giving it more authority than they think it should have. The business world isn’t a fan of Khan, either. The lobbying group US Chamber of Commerce has made no secret of its issues with her, and recently sent a letter to Sens. Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell urging them to put off the Bedoya vote because his confirmation would give Khan a majority. Antitrust reform advocates, on the other hand, celebrated Bedoya’s confirmation. “Alongside Chair Lina Khan and Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter, we can finally envision an effective FTC that plays a vital role in leveling the playing field and restoring our nation’s economy,” Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, said in a statement. The anti-Bedoya side did get its way for a while; Bedoya’s confirmation was delayed considerably. It took so long for the Senate to confirm Bedoya that he had to be re-nominated at the beginning of this year. When it became clear that no Republicans would vote for Bedoya, Schumer had to wait until every Democratic senator and Vice President Harris was present to vote him in. Earlier attempts were thwarted when Sen. Ben Ray Luján had a stroke, and then again when several Democratic senators and the vice president tested positive for Covid-19. On May 11, Bedoya was confirmed 51-50. That’s not to say that the FTC has done nothing during the last seven months of gridlock. The agency unanimously agreed to block a massive merger between semiconductor chip companies Nvidia and ARM as well as a merger between Lockheed Martin and Aerojet. And Khan has been able to move forward with things that don’t need an agency vote and probably wouldn’t have gotten the Republican commissioners’ votes if they did. Khan wasn’t able to get the votes for a study into pharmacy benefit managers, something she said “greatly disappointed” her. And the FTC didn’t act on the Amazon-MGM merger before it closed, which many expected it to given Khan’s history of criticizing Amazon for alleged anti-competitive actions. Bedoya will enter an agency that appears to be having some internal issues. There is intra-commissioner bickering, for one: Wilson has made no secret of her distaste for Khan’s approach to leadership and antitrust enforcement. But a recent survey also showed that agency employees’ trust in and respect for senior leaders plummeted during Khan’s short tenure. The FTC told Recode that the survey was conducted during a period of considerable change at the FTC, and that Khan has “enormous respect” for the FTC staff and is “committed to making sure that the FTC continues to be a great place to work.” As far as the Republican commissioners are concerned, however, there’s reason to believe they’ll get along better with Bedoya than they apparently do with Khan. Last November, Wilson tweeted that she “would indeed be delighted to welcome” him and his privacy knowledge, adding that “he’s a really nice guy with whom I enjoy interacting!” And Phillips said last September that Bedoya would be a “bright and thoughtful voice.” With Bedoya on board, Khan can look forward to running the FTC the way she did last summer, when the FTC had three Democratic commissioners — which is surely the way she’s envisioned since she became its chair. During that time, the agency successfully re-filed its lawsuit against Meta, with Wilson and Phillips voting against it. Khan no longer has to settle for whatever the Republican commissioners will stomach. That Amazon-MGM merger might have closed, but it can still be challenged. And perhaps Bedoya will, true to his word, work on improving consumer data privacy. Khan has already signaled that the FTC will be looking at data privacy — which has gotten a lot of recent attention following the news that Roe v. Wade may be overturned — as both a consumer protection and a competition issue. That should make the Big Tech companies, whose power largely comes from the data they collect, nervous.

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posted 9 days ago on re/code
The rise of cryptocurrency has created a new type of job: crypto detective. | wenjin chen/Getty Images The government is looking for tech-savvy detectives who can crack down on crypto. As an agent on the IRS’s cyber investigations team, Chris Janczewski led some of the government’s biggest crypto busts, including the takedown of a major child exploitation site and the seizure of much of the $4.5 billion of bitcoin stolen during the 2016 Bitfinex hack. Those busts helped Janczewski make the jump to the private sector a few months ago. He’s now the head of investigations at a private crypto intelligence firm called TRM Labs, which, among other things, focuses on detecting illicit crypto transactions. Most people probably aren’t even aware that this kind of crypto detective work is a thing, but Janczewski is making a career out of it. “I don’t think the sentence ‘stolen NFT of a Bored Ape Yacht Club worth millions of dollars’ existed until a couple of weeks ago,” Janczewski told Recode. “There isn’t necessarily a playbook — or there isn’t a whole lot of experience — for people that have looked into those types of things.” Cryptocurrency is an increasingly common factor in criminal activity. It shows up in everything from terrorist financing operations and ransomware attacks to run-of-the-mill fraud and scams. The problem is likely getting worse, too. Chainalysis, a crypto research firm, found that crypto crime transactions reached an all-time high last year. As a result, there’s growing interest in investigators like Janczewski, who know how to scour the blockchain — the massive public ledger that records cryptocurrency transactions — for clues that link anonymous exchanges of crypto to real people who can be sued or charged with a crime. These probes have brought to light all types of criminal operations, including a network of illegal bitcoin ATMs that a New York man used for money laundering, and a $1.1 million “rug pull” involving NFT cartoons called Frosties. (An NFT rug pull occurs when someone tricks people into investing in an NFT project, only to cancel the project later and keep the money.) Demand for crypto crime-fighters is booming. The Securities and Exchange Commission last week said it would double the size of its cyber unit and expand its focus on the crypto industry, including NFTs and crypto asset exchanges. The Department of Justice formed a crypto enforcement group last fall, and the FBI said in February it would assemble its own crypto team. At the same time, there’s also been a surge in business for private outfits that run their own crypto investigations, often on behalf of individuals or other companies. Companies like TRM Labs and CipherBlade, another blockchain investigation firm, act almost like private eyes for the crypto age. There are even crypto vigilantes: independent, and often anonymous, internet sleuths who search for evidence of crypto scams and schemes in their free time. Like most things crypto-related, crypto detective work isn’t necessarily intuitive. Crypto transactions are all publicly recorded, which means that identifying the wallets criminals use to store their digital currency is relatively simple. But because these transactions are also anonymous, crypto investigators have to look for leads that can connect a particular crypto transaction to other activity on the web. For instance, they might be able to tie a wallet, which is effectively an address for a crypto account, to an established platform, like Coinbase — these companies are legally required to track the identities of their customers — or a portion of the dark web that’s already on investigators’ radar. Doing these investigations often requires going undercover online, sometimes using covert, disguised accounts that the government has seized and kept on hand for years. “In traditional investigations, we know who committed the crimes and follow the money to prove it,” explains Dana Windsor, a spokesperson for the IRS’s criminal investigations unit, which had 80 crypto-related cases on its docket at the end of last year. “In crypto investigations, we know what the crime is and follow the money to prove who committed the crime.” That might sound simple enough, but finding these connections is extremely difficult, and generally requires technical expertise that veteran detectives just don’t have. Federal agencies like the IRS, the FBI, and the State Department have spent millions of dollars on contracts with private crypto intelligence firms. These companies often have access to powerful machine learning software that can sift through huge numbers of transactions and look for leads. Even with this software, these investigations are getting harder, since criminals are constantly developing new ways of concealing their methods. One of the biggest hurdles ahead for crypto crime-fighting is the fact that there’s not necessarily an established pipeline of people who can help. Right now, there’s no specific pathway to becoming a crypto investigator, so it’s mostly been a career people have stumbled upon. Janczewski, for instance, studied accounting before he became a crypto cop for the IRS. And CipherBlade crypto researcher Paul Sibenik told Recode he got into crypto detective work after he ran a side gig as a consultant for people in divorce cases who thought their spouses were stashing away bitcoin. Another problem is that some of the firms that have the crypto expertise the government needs are, at the same time, running afoul of regulators. Last month, for instance, Anchorage Digital — the bitcoin bank the US Marshals Service hired to store the crypto the government seizes after criminal investigations — was flagged by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for violating money-laundering rules. Now that contract is on hold. Of course, the people who best know their way around the blockchain may be more interested in profiting from crypto than regulating it. Many of the people most excited about crypto are actively opposed to the notion of stepping up enforcement. “Government has a very difficult time competing in the area of crypto because the technologists are recruited heavily into the Web3 space because there’s so much venture capital money,” John Reed Stark, an outspoken critic of crypto and the former chief of the SEC’s Office of Internet Enforcement, told Recode. “There is absolutely a real brain drain in government when it comes to technology.” That could soon be a big problem. President Joe Biden has insisted that there’s a place for cryptocurrency in the mainstream, provided that there’s a place for cryptocurrency rules, too. But without people to enforce those rules, it’s not clear that much will change in the world of crypto. After all, as long as there’s crypto flowing through our financial system, there will be people determined to use it in less-than-legal ways. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Times Square, New York, in 2019. | Paul Rovere/Getty Images Ads were supposed to be on their way out, replaced by subscription money. Now Netflix, Disney, and everyone else is learning to live with them. Reed Hastings was consistent, year after year. Any time someone asked the Netflix CEO when he’d introduce ads to his streaming service, he insisted that it made no sense. Netflix was a better service because it didn’t have ads, he would say. That was when Netflix was growing. Now it’s shrinking — and now Netflix says it will have ads: Last month, after announcing that his company had lost subscribers for the first time in a decade, Hastings told investors he wanted to introduce a lower-priced version of the service that would have ads “over the next year or two,” though he was unclear about the details. “I’m sure we’ll just get in and figure it out.” There’s a lot of figuring out to do. This week, Netflix has moved up the timetable, telling employees an ad tier could roll out before the end of 2022. All of which underscores a significant change in the way streaming video companies view their business — and how some people are going to view TV and movies. TV advertising, which seemed like it was destined to be a relic, is suddenly very much alive again, even with services that once staked their identities on the absence of ads. Last year, for instance, HBOMax started selling a lower-priced tier with ads; Disney+ is adding one of its own this year. It’s a head-snapping turn for an industry that seemed as though it was sprinting away from ads as fast as it could — in part because it was following Netflix’s anti-ad lead. But if you step back, there are two easy-to-understand reasons why streamers are embracing ads, willingly or reluctantly: Even in 2022, there’s an enormous amount of money in TV advertising, and it’s still growing: Media agency Zenith predicts advertisers will spend $65 billion on TV ads this year, up 4 percent from last year. Even in 2022, people still watch a lot of TV programming. But they’re increasingly watching it on streaming services on their TVs — streaming services now account for 30 percent of TV time, per Nielsen. So advertisers want to fish where the fishes are. The streaming wars are expensive to fight. All of the new services chasing Netflix are throwing billions of dollars into programming to attract and keep their subscribers. In the old days, networks and studios had multiple ways to make money from programming — ads, cable TV subscription fees, and syndication —but the new model removed all of those in favor of a single fee from consumers. Adding back ads is a way to bring in more money and/or increase profits — which are increasingly important to investors. What’s a little harder to understand is why the ad experience on streaming TV — for the people paying for the ads and the people who have to watch them — is still lousy. Conventional TV advertisers know exactly when and where their ads run, and have at least some sense they are reaching a lot of people with a single buy. But while streaming platforms offer the promise of more data and better targeting, advertisers have to confront a confusing array of different programmers, ad-serving companies, and platforms. Streaming TV viewers, meanwhile, will encounter unskippable ads that frequently repeat multiple times per show, and oftentimes seem randomly stitched into TV shows or movies without any rhyme or reason. They’re often way too loud — so much so that US lawmakers have proposed regulating them. All of this in a medium that was supposed to be more personalized and smarter than old-time TV. Instead, lots of it seems as dumb and scattershot as the spam in your inbox. “We’ve taken everything the internet taught us about how to make ads shittier and brought it to TV,” says Joe Marchese, a former internet and TV ad executive (he sold his TrueX company to Fox in 2014) who now runs Human Ventures, a startup investment company. “There is an enormous flaw between how digital ad tech has evolved and what will be needed to be successful in a TV environment,” says Dave Morgan, a longtime digital ad executive whose current company, Simulmedia, works with conventional and streaming TV advertisers. Which makes it somewhat puzzling is that Netflix, which long made ad-free streaming a core part of its brand, is now rushing into ads, seemingly without much planning and no apparent infrastructure. Ditto for Hastings’s earnings call comments suggesting he’d like to outsource much of the work to “other people [who would] do all of the fancy ad-matching and integrate all the data about people, so we can stay out of that.” That’s because most TV ad industry people I talk to argue that the worst parts of the streaming ad experience stem from the maze of middlemen that sits between advertisers and streamers, which often makes it hard to figure out where, when, and how ads end up on your screens. None of that jibes with Netflix’s history of taking great pains to control every part of its service — from creating its own distribution system back in its DVD-by-mail days, to building out a sophisticated system to deliver streaming video. So either Hastings has a plan he’s been building out quietly, out of view of the ad industry, or he’s quickly spinning something up to shore up Netflix’s revenue and stock price. Either scenario would be surprising. Before we go any further: If you’ve become used to ad-free streaming at places like Netflix, Disney+, and HBO, you don’t necessarily need to worry, as long as you’re willing to pay up. All of those companies either have or are working on a tiered service, where the most expensive versions will be ad-free and cheaper ones will have ads. But many of the new — and fastest-growing — services are explicitly built to carry ads, like Comcast/NBCU’s Peacock, Paramount’s Pluto, and 21st Century Fox’s Tubi. The tech-based TV companies are increasingly interested in ad-supported streaming as well: Amazon has something called Freevee, which used to be called IMDb TV; Roku has its own free Roku channel, currently stocked with bargain-bin leftovers (and those Quibi shows you never watched) but may one day feature programming from pay TV channel Starz. None of which is necessarily bad. Programmers argue, correctly, that ad-supported streaming can give consumers more choice about what they want to watch and how much, if anything, they want to pay for it. And some advertisers say they’re quite happy with the advantages digital TV ads can offer. Sam Bloom, the CEO of Camelot Strategic Marketing & Media, says he’s spending around $200 million on streaming TV ads for his clients and is pleased that the tech lets him strip out some waste. Roku, for example, uses “Automated Content Recognition” tech on its smart TVs that lets it track what people are watching, regardless of whether it’s coming from a streaming service or cable or even over-the-air TV. That may strike you as creepy, but for Bloom, it’s a plus: It allows him to not show ads to viewers that have already seen his clients’ ads, or allows him to target customers who have seen ads from his customers’ rivals. Still, even the most optimistic digital TV booster will concede that streaming TV ads have a lot of growing up to do. “It’s in an awkward adolescent phase,” an executive at a major streaming tech company tells me. But with money rolling in, it’s not clear how that happens anytime soon. “Yes, you’ll see a bunch of tweets about how ‘I watched something and saw the ad three times and I hated this experience,’” says an executive who runs a major ad-supported streaming service. “But that person still watched it.” Thank you very much for your feedback on my recent entries; I don’t respond to all of your notes but I do read them and will occasionally include them here. And let me know what you think about this week’s column — or anything else. You can @ me on Twitter or send me an email: [email protected]

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Donald Trump speaking to supporters in Nebraska in May 2022. | Scott Olson/Getty Images Here’s why Trump would want to return to the platform if Elon Musk lets him. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and soon-to-be-owner of Twitter, made waves on Tuesday when he said he would let former President Donald Trump back on the social media platform he was banned from in January 2021. “I do think it was not correct to ban Donald Trump, I think that was a mistake,” Musk said, speaking at the Financial Times Future of the Car conference. “I would reverse the perma-ban.” That’s exactly what Trump and his supporters have long been demanding — and even suing for. Trump has said he has no interest in coming back, and will instead be using his Twitter-clone app, Truth Social. “I won’t be going back on Twitter,” the former president told CNBC in late April. “I like Elon Musk. I like him a lot. He’s an excellent individual. We did a lot for Twitter when I was in the White House. I was disappointed by the way I was treated by Twitter.” There’s good reason, though, to expect that Trump may start his Twitter account up again if given the chance. (Musk isn’t expected to take over for the next several months, and the Twitter sale still isn’t a done deal.) Trump built his political career using Twitter, paired with cable news. Up until the day he was banned, Twitter was an incredibly effective tool for Trump. He had some 67 million followers, making him the most popular world leader on the app. And so far, he hasn’t been able to rebuild a similarly large or engaged audience since he was kicked off Twitter and all the other major social media platforms. Of course, people are also talking about Trump less these days because he’s no longer president — but that could change, considering he’s expected to run again for the Republican presidential nomination. Here’s why you should take Trump’s claims of being over Twitter with a grain of salt. Trump still doesn’t have a good Twitter alternative Instead of using Twitter, Trump has said he’s moving his social media presence to Truth Social, the Twitter-clone app that he helped create. Truth Social sets out to be a “Big Tent” social media platform rivaling Twitter and Facebook that encourages an “open, free, and honest global conversation without discriminating against political ideology.” But in reality, the app is dominated by almost exclusively right-wing users and has had a troubled start. First, Truth Social’s launch was delayed by several weeks. Then, when it launched in late February 2022, most users couldn’t log on. The app accumulated a waiting list of millions of people. Truth Social’s CEO said the app would be “fully operational” by the end of March, but many still report being waitlisted, and those who are using it so far report a clunky user experience. The app’s financial viability is also in question, as its source of funding — a merger between a SPAC (a special purpose acquisition company, a shell company whose sole purpose is to buy other companies) and the Trump Media & Technology Group — is at risk as it is under investigation by federal regulators and facing a decline in valuation. Two top executives have also resigned from Truth Social in recent months, less than a year after joining the company. And even if Truth Social sorts out its technical and financial challenges, it still won’t have the same massive reach as Twitter or Facebook. Currently, Truth Social has an estimated 2 million users. Twitter, with 330 million users, is more than 150 times larger. It also attracts users of all political persuasions — including journalists and influencers — who react to and amplify Trump’s messages, helping him stay in the news. If you’re a politician like Trump, you’re going to have a far wider impact sharing your thoughts on a major social media platform rather than on a niche app where you’re preaching to the choir. Other than being banned, Trump has no real beef with Twitter Up until the day he was banned, Twitter was an incredibly effective tool for Trump to promote his political agenda in real time, without the intermediary of the press fact-checking his claims or analyzing his decisions. The only real problem Trump had with Twitter was that it banned him. Sure, Trump wasn’t happy about the fact that Twitter began in 2020 to label a few of his many false and inflammatory tweets with warning signs and fact-checks, but even that didn’t stop him from continuing to tweet incessantly. In the past, Trump had often claimed that Silicon Valley was run by liberal elites who he said were censoring him and other conservatives on social media. But now, Trump has found an ally in Musk, who is increasingly appealing to the right wing and is also aligning with Trump in accusing Twitter’s current employee base of having a pro-liberal bias. Trump and his supporters change their minds all the time Lastly, Trump changes his mind all the time. Like many politicians, he flip-flops on issues, including building a wall at the US-Mexico border and threatening to leave the Republican Party. And he’s generally amenable to people who support him, as Musk is doing now, even if they haven’t been his biggest fans in the past. Other conservative leaders, such as Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson, have quietly returned to Twitter since the news of Musk’s takeover — calling it a “pivot point” in history — after previously criticizing the company. Carlson was suspended from Twitter in March for tweeting that articles referring to US Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine — who is a transgender woman — as a “man” were true. The Fox News host and his supporters framed his suspension as an attack on free speech and refused to delete his tweet. After Musk’s bid to buy Twitter broke in the news in April, Carlson seems to have quietly deleted the tweet that kept him off the platform. His account has since been reinstated. In the end, it would benefit Trump to follow Carlon’s lead and similarly set aside his issues with Twitter. The former president is expected to soon launch his 2024 presidential bid, and he can use all the attention he can get.

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Starbucks workers rallied in Seattle to protest the company’s union-busting efforts. | Jason Redmond/AFP via Getty Images Joining the picket line like it’s 1939. Based on the news lately, it would seem like unions are growing. Staffers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee announced on Tuesday they had formed a union. This is after Starbucks workers last week reached 50 union wins across the country, and many more locations are slated to do so in the near future. According to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), about 250 total Starbucks stores, representing nearly 7,000 employees, have so far petitioned to unionize. And last month, workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York City defied all odds by winning their first union battle against the second-biggest employer in the United States. People are successfully unionizing across the economy, from retail to tech, and their wins are leading to even more union interest. Petitions for union representation in the first half of 2022 are up nearly 60 percent from last year. This raft of union organizing, unthinkable just a few years ago, is happening against a very favorable backdrop, including a tight labor market, record inequality, and a pro-union administration, which extends to the leadership at the NLRB, the organization tasked with running union elections and enforcing labor law. Meanwhile, public approval of unions is at its highest level since 1965. What we don’t know yet is whether these events are enough to meaningfully combat longstanding headwinds, from anti-union policy to the rise of gig work, that have caused union membership to decline for decades. Last year, amid a similar set of circumstances, the number of union members in the US went down by 240,000, leaving the rate of union membership at a low of 10 percent — half what it was in the 1980s. The pandemic has been a sort of double-edged sword for unions, giving people more reasons to organize and also causing union and non-union workers to lose their jobs. It’s possible the psychic weight of union wins is bigger than their actual weight. A typical Starbucks only has 26 workers, and there hasn’t yet been public union activity at the vast majority of the company’s 9,000 corporate stores. After one Staten Island Amazon fulfillment center won its vote to unionize, a second sort center lost, and there are more than 800 Amazon warehouse facilities across the country. It’s not clear where this will all net out. This year’s total union membership numbers won’t be available until the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases them early next year. Until then, we do know that a number of individual unions have been successfully bucking the trend in recent years by adding members. Labor organizers have done so by employing a variety of tactics, new and old, and could help other shops do the same. Labor experts laud unions’ efforts but say more is needed at a policy level to ensure these recent wins aren’t just a flash in the pan. Is this sustainable? By all accounts, now is as good a time as any for unions to organize. The current climate bears a number of parallels to the 1930s, when the US saw its greatest union growth. As it did in that time period, the country has a pro-union administration, companies making huge profits, and employees keenly aware that they’re not sharing in those profits. The global pandemic, like the Great Depression, magnified the chasm between employees and big corporations. Meanwhile, a tight labor market and high level of quits in the ongoing Great Resignation have given workers more leverage, either to find better work or to form a union to make their jobs better. There’s no silver bullet when it comes to the best way to organize. Strategies vary by who is organizing, in what industry, and when. There are, however, a number of good ideas going around. In many cases, successful unions are organizing people who haven’t been organized before. They’re really just following the changing American workforce, which is increasingly made up of service industry workers. “For a long time, there was a belief you couldn’t organize low-wage workers or part-time workers,” Patricia Campos-Medina, executive director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s labor school, told Recode. “Industry has changed. Our economy has changed.” David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images Demonstrators hold signs during the ‘Fight Starbucks Union Busting’ rally in Seattle. Unions that have gone after these growing sectors have had success, she said, pointing to unions like United Food and Commercial Workers Union and Workers United. In recent years, Workers United, the parent of the Starbucks union, has been expanding into fast food as well as nonprofits and distribution companies. The union went into the pandemic with about 82,000 members; it now has 87,000, even though it, like many unions, lost members during the pandemic as companies shuttered and laid off staff. Its numbers don’t include the employees at newly unionized Starbucks because they don’t yet have a contract. Part of what makes companies like Starbucks ripe for unionizing is that it is in an industry known for poor wages, working conditions, and benefits — and where improvements could mean the most. Things like dealing with extra costs from inflation, having to purchase PPE, or taking an Uber rather than public transit have a much bigger effect on people making $30,000 a year than they do for people making more. Additionally, the nature of their jobs puts these workers in close contact with customers — a dangerous prospect amid a global pandemic. “When you work in an industry that has some of the lowest-paid jobs in all of industry such as the service industry or distribution or in traditional manufacturing, the effects of a global pandemic and the changes in how that affects your work are felt in a much greater way,” Richard Minter, Workers United Vice President, said. These workers also feel some of the greatest dissonance with the leaders at their companies. The pandemic only exacerbated the divide. Retail workers put their lives in danger while their executives worked from home and their companies raked in huge profits. A Brookings analysis found that front-line workers saw negligible wage gains while their company shareholders got much richer. These workers faced other downsides as well. Minter relayed the story of workers at a production facility whose managers would scold them over the intercom about coming back from break a few minutes late or using the bathroom too much — while the managers were working from home. Workers in these industries are looking for recourse from those demeaning situations through unionization. Another thing successful unions are doing is relying more heavily on worker-led organizing, as technology has also made it easier for the workers themselves to tell their stories and organize their colleagues. “Their sphere of influence, because of technology and social media, allows a partner in Buffalo to have an amazing impact with partners in Miami, Florida, or Hialeah, or Phoenix, Arizona, or Mesa, or Seattle,” Minter said. Starbucks Workers United is predominantly led by workers themselves, who organize new workers and even bargain their own contracts, though with assistance from Workers United. Amazon Labor Union is an entirely new union forged by Amazon workers. Its founder, Chris Smalls, and his fellow organizers understood precisely what workers at their warehouse needed because they are workers themselves. Creating worker-led unions also means finding, teaching, and promoting union leadership from within — especially workers who demographically represent their workforce. “I was a bartender and a busboy,” said Ted Pappageorge, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226, a Nevada union that has members from 178 countries. “All of our folks came out of the ranks, like a lot of other unions, but we spend a lot of time developing leadership inside the rank-and-file and they have big-time decision-making [capabilities] when it comes to these organizing drives.” Joe Buglewicz/Bloomberg via Getty Images Then Vice-President Joe Biden walked the picket line with Culinary Workers Union Local 226 members outside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas in 2020. The Culinary Union has become such a powerful force that it helped sway Nevada for Biden in the last presidential election. The union’s membership is still down about 20 percent from pre-pandemic numbers because it works so heavily with resorts, which have been struggling as business travel slowly returns, but in the previous 25 years, the union had seen its size triple. Its parent organization, Unite Here, has faced similar losses due to its work in the hotel industry, but since the start of the pandemic has organized about 20,000 new workers into its union. To represent a wider swath of Americans, unions like Unite Here have broadened the scope of issues they cover far beyond wages and benefits. For unions, that means everything from fighting for citizenship for undocumented workers to combating on-the-job sexual harassment to lobbying to cancel student debt. They’ve also changed how they do things. “We used to have a very formal formula about how many committee members you need per worker, when you could go public,” D Taylor, international president of Unite Here, told Recode. “I think some of those rules have definitely been loosened up because workers are anxious, they’re angry, and, if the job sucks, they’re not going to stay in it. You’ve got to take advantage of the moment.” For union organizers, that means being more creative in their strategy, soliciting a lot more ideas from workers themselves, and going faster. It also means taking risks they hadn’t before. In some cases lately, Unite Here has been striking for recognition, rather than going through the process of a union vote, which puts their paychecks in jeopardy. They’re also going public with campaigns earlier, which can help them seize the moment but also gives employers more time to fight against the union. Real growth requires updating union law We don’t yet know if this movement has staying power, but many experts believe the US needs updated labor policies if organized labor is going to grow in the future. Union laws haven’t been updated significantly since 1947, when lawmakers updated the original National Labor Relations Act to be more anti-union, Wilma Liebman, former chairperson and longtime member of the NLRB, said. “Unfortunately, labor law reform has been tried and failed for decades,” Liebman said. Current interpretation of union law makes forming a union incredibly tough. Even if workers manage to unionize, companies can find a variety of ways to stall and aren’t compelled by law to agree on a first contract. For starters, there needs to be better enforcement of existing law, according to David Weil, dean and professor at Brandeis University’s policy school. That means “making sure that, during the course of a union election that both sides — the union side in particular — has the opportunity to make its case and that the management side is not allowed to use its disproportionate impact on scaring workers out of ultimately agreeing to a union,” Weil said. The current general counsel of the NLRB, Jennifer Abruzzo, is working on leveling the playing field by opposing captive audience meetings, wherein companies can force workers to listen to anti-union rhetoric while on the clock. She also wants to revive the Joy Silk doctrine, which would require unions to show majority support without having to go through a formal election. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders joined Amazon Labor Union founder Chris Smalls, center, at a union rally before a second Amazon facility on Staten Island voted in April. It would also help the cause if the NLRB had more power. If a company does something potentially illegal to influence the election, such as Starbucks saying they’re raising wages for non-union workers, unions can file unfair labor practice charges with the NLRB. The Starbucks union has already filed 112 unfair labor practice charges against the coffee company. But if the NLRB finds the company to have behaved illegally (as it recently did with Starbucks) there’s little the agency can do beyond a slap on the wrist and asking them to do better next time. As punishment for a pattern of intimidation and retaliation against union organizers, the NLRB asked the company to read a notice to workers explaining their rights, to reinstate and provide back pay to fired workers, and to give the union equal time to make its case. The existing law also requires unions to organize by company, rather than by sector, which scholars have argued puts union companies at a disadvantage and lessens overall union membership. To make matters worse, some state laws let employees opt out of unions and union fees. The PRO Act, which was passed by the House last year, would go a long way toward remedying some of these issues and making it easier to unionize, but that legislation has been stalled in the Senate, where it’s unlikely to pass. In the meantime, extra-union activities are helping shore up the gaps. Campaigns like Fight for $15 and a Union, the Workers Defense Project, and the Nail Salon Minimum Standards Council Act are attempting to get better standards, pay, and benefits for different segments of workers around the country. The incremental benefits such programs have gotten help raise the floor for all workers, and provide a better platform from which to unionize, according to Sarita Gupta, co-author of The Future We Need: Organizing for a Better Democracy in the Twenty-First Century. “It starts to expand people’s notion of what they should be demanding in this moment, what they can be demanding,” Gupta said. “It sets the unions up to be able to talk to more workers, meet their immediate economic demands, and also begin that conversation about, ‘What would it look like if you had more of a sustained voice in your workplace?’ While the data showing declining membership numbers through 2021 tells one story about the state of unions in America, there’s a harder to quantify shift in organized labor happening. Just how drastic that shift is will decide where the labor movement goes from here.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Bill Gates at the 8th International Conference on Agriculture Statistics in New Delhi, India, in 2019. | Indraneel Chowdhury/NurPhoto via Getty Images The billionaire’s new book shows why we can’t expect the 1% to come up with solutions for the rest of us. “Many people in rich countries were shocked by the world’s unequal response to Covid,” Bill Gates writes in his new book, How to Prevent the Next Pandemic, which offers insights into how the tech billionaire and global health leader believes the world should prepare for global health crises. “Not because it was out of the ordinary but because health inequities are not visible to them the rest of the time. Through Covid—a condition the whole world was experiencing—everyone could see how unequal the resources are.” He’s right. Today inequality is more visible than ever, both in the US and globally, and it’s a problem the world must address to stop future pandemics, and even to get through the one we’re still living in. But for Gates, philanthropy is the cure for inequality, and business-driven tech and science development will save us from another Covid-19. “I am a technophile,” he writes. “As a founder of a successful technology company, I am a great believer in the power of the private sector to drive innovation.” He’s missing the point. Throughout his book, which does offer some innovative ideas for how the world could work together to better prepare for pandemics, Gates occasionally touches on how economic inequality worsens health crises. But he largely glosses over the root causes of the problem and how to solve them. As the insights in his book make clear, Gates views inequality as an unfortunate misallocation of resources, an oversight where some people just don’t get enough of the pie. That’s not entirely surprising. Gates is the fourth-wealthiest person in the world, one whose success depended on private sector innovation and competition. Our economic system has richly rewarded him — in his experience and from his vantage point, it’s harder to see how that system could be an engine of misery. But especially in the US, Covid-19 is a blaring siren warning us that this allocation of resources isn’t a coincidence; instead, it has everything to do with how our economy and the global economy are designed to function. Over 1 million Americans have now died from Covid-19. It isn’t a random group of people: one preprint paper found that working-class Americans were five times more likely to die from Covid-19 than college-educated Americans. Working-class Hispanic men had a mortality rate 27 times higher than white college-educated women. Another study analyzed Covid-19 mortality rates in over 219 million American adults and found that if racial and ethnic minorities between 25 to 64 years old had faced the same mortality rate as college-educated white Americans, there would have been 89 percent fewer deaths. For Dr. Sara Stevano, an economist at the SOAS University of London, it was clear from the beginning of the pandemic that capitalism would exacerbate its impact. Everyone recognized the effect Covid-19 had on the economy — but Stevano looked at how the economy itself made Covid-19 worse. “Our economic system was very much responsible for how the crisis unfolded,” she told Recode. As the world tried to contain the pandemic, workers were reorganized between essential and non-essential. What the designation really pinpointed, said Stevano, was people who did what she calls “social reproduction work.” These are jobs that help others survive and keep working — jobs in the service industry, in health care, or jobs like teaching that “produce” people for the workforce. And this includes the informal labor that’s done inside homes, like caregiving. It’s low-wage or even unpaid work disproportionately done by women and Black and brown people. As of 2019, over 90 percent of childcare workers in the US were women. Working-class Americans died at staggering rates during the pandemic at least partly because these least protected and compensated people were disproportionately responsible for holding the social fabric together. At the same time, this system rewarded just a few people with high profits. Pharmaceutical companies raked in record profits from Covid-19 drugs and vaccines; tech stocks boomed, and the number of billionaires around the world shot up by 30 percent. There’s no way of preventing future pandemics without reckoning with this economic contradiction. Gates acknowledges that he has gotten wealthier during the pandemic too (according to Forbes, in 2020 his net worth was about $98 billion; at time of writing, it’s about $127 billion), and says it isn’t fair. But the way to fix this injustice, in his view, is more generosity — to become even more committed to The Giving Pledge, which is a commitment certain billionaires, from Elon Musk to Mackenzie Scott, have signed as a promise to give away at least half of their fortunes in their lifetimes. Charity, however, has limits and still doesn’t address the causes of this troubling wealth gap. “Philanthropy is just not going to save us,” said Dr. Jen Cohen, an economist at Miami University. “You can’t get a redistributive policy that comes out of profit obtained through exploitation.” Stevano agreed. “What needs to change is a system that allows these few people — the top 1 percent — to become so obscenely rich, including during times of crisis,” she said. This critique of philanthropy has a long history, dating back to the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation, a charity created by oil baron John D. Rockefeller in 1913. How can philanthropy do important, necessary work without fueling the cycle of wealth inequality, especially when there’s little accountability for its impacts? Private philanthropy often doesn’t have to reveal who its donors are, how much they’ve given, or how effective its spending is. It doesn’t have to answer to the public the way government spending does, which is why critics have long criticized it for being undemocratic. Philanthropy can make the wealthy feel like they’re doing their part for society — and also burnish their public images — while changing nothing fundamentally about how they got their riches, and the inequality they fueled along the way. It’s worth noting that Gates launched the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which is one of the largest philanthropic foundations in the world today, around the same time that Microsoft was facing an antitrust trial that essentially questioned whether the tech giant was conducting business fairly, or trying to unscrupulously quash competition to get ahead. On the one hand was an image of Gates as a ruthless capitalist, yet on the other hand he appeared as a benevolent philanthropist who wanted to share his largesse with the world. Gates agrees that philanthropy alone isn’t enough to solve inequality or prevent pandemics — he makes the case in his book that private philanthropy should work with governments to fund programs and infrastructure, especially on issues that aren’t profitable enough for the private sector to get involved in. Rich countries, for example, should give a small percentage of their annual GDP to poor countries so they can boost their health systems. The focus of the Gates Foundation, in fact, has been on “areas where the markets fail to solve big problems,” he writes in his book. But the real question Covid-19 has surfaced isn’t when markets fail to solve big problems — it’s when markets create or contribute to them. Early on in the pandemic, a man hoarding over 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer in his garage made headlines and drew criticism. But instead of seeing pandemic profiteering as an exception to the general rule of well-behaved people, Cohen argues that we should see these behaviors as rational — at least under the logic of capitalism. Framing it as a few bad apples glosses over how our economic system incentivizes this kind of self-interested behavior. It’s capitalism “functioning as it normally would,” Cohen told Recode. “There’s no extraordinary thing even happening there.” And it highlights the core conflict of interest between profit motive and public health. The point is that our economic system doesn’t encourage us to treat public health as a collective good. That’s evident in the disinvestment of public health that’s been happening for decades, which stymies our ability to respond to health crises. The growth of for-profit private hospitals and hospital corporate monopolies has been pushed by the idea that the for-profit model could improve efficiency, but research shows that for-profit hospitals make our health care system less stable — if they’re not a successful business, they close, and we’ve seen a steady trend of hospital closures over the past several decades. To those who’ve been paying attention to the effects of putting profit above public health, the devastation Covid-19 brought wasn’t surprising. Dr. Howard Waitzkin, a medical sociologist at the University of New Mexico, points to the decline in US life expectancy between 2014 and 2017. “And of course, since the pandemic started, it has declined a couple of more years,” he said. How vaccine distribution played out during the pandemic also highlighted the shortcomings of our current approach to global public health. The world rejoiced when the first Covid-19 vaccines were developed, and acknowledged the importance of distributing them fairly. The faster everyone could get vaccinated, the safer we would all be from new variants. But COVAX, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative whose mission was to deliver vaccines to low- and middle-income countries quickly, ultimately failed because rich countries hoarded so many vaccines. It’s clearly not enough to recognize what the collective interest is. We have to live under a political and economic system that encourages it. And one of the obstacles standing in the way is the view, as Gates expresses in his book, that we don’t need structural change — that we can just nudge the private sector in the right direction by using the reward of big profits as an enticement. “I’m not defending every decision that a pharmaceutical company has ever made about pricing a product, and I’m not asking anyone to feel sorry for the industry,” Gates writes. “But if we’re going to tap into their expertise in developing, testing, and manufacturing drugs and vaccines — and there’s no way to prevent or even stop pandemics unless we do — then we need to understand the challenges they face, the process they go through when they’re deciding what products to work on, and the incentives that push those decisions in one direction or another.” In many countries, private industry did play an important role in speeding up the development of safe, effective Covid-19 vaccines through a mix of public and private funding. But too few people are calling for a deeper examination of the downsides of depending heavily on the private sector for global health issues. Waitzkin calls this the “quasi-religious characteristics of capitalism” — that capitalism isn’t just an economic structure, but a deeply embedded ideology that often doesn’t face much scrutiny, which makes it easier to believe that our current system is the best way to promote societal well-being without seeing strong evidence confirming it. In Capital, French economist Thomas Piketty’s study of capitalism in the 21st century, he criticizes that economists don’t attempt enough empirical analysis of capitalism. Private drug companies did develop effective vaccines that helped save millions of lives — but so did Cuba’s nationalized pharmaceutical industry. Still, a growing number of people seem to be recognizing that drastic changes are needed. “I do not see how we can prevent future pandemics unless we start with a radical rethink of the entire economic system,” said Stevano. It’s understandable that a billionaire who made his fortunes in tech isn’t interested in criticizing a system that’s benefited him. It’s also true that technology does have the potential to improve the world’s issues in numerous ways. But Covid-19 shows us that no amount of tech or science innovation will prevent crises like Covid-19 unless we address the root of inequality: an economic structure that’s tilted so far in favor of economic growth and the already-wealthy that it systematically devalues people on the lowest rungs of the class system while demanding that they bear the highest costs.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Amazon is recruiting rural local businesses to deliver packages seven days a week, 360 days a year. | Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images The e-commerce giant is recruiting local businesses in Alabama, Mississippi, and Nebraska as part of a secretive new delivery program. Since at least last summer, Amazon has quietly been recruiting mom-and-pop shops in rural America to join an experimental delivery program. The company is paying participating small businesses a per-package fee to deliver Amazon orders within a 10-mile radius to their neighbors’ homes in states like Nebraska, Mississippi, and Alabama. The local businesses Amazon is recruiting range from florists to restaurants to IT shops, and none of them are required to have prior delivery experience — just a commitment to deliver Amazon packages seven days a week, around 360 days a year, and a physical location to receive parcels each morning. As Amazon’s ambitions to speed up delivery times and handle more of its own deliveries has grown, rural America has posed the thorniest logistical and financial challenges. While delivery drivers in cities and suburbs might be able to deliver two dozen packages per hour or more, the distance between homes in rural and other remote communities means drivers can only handle half that amount or less, making deliveries to these locales more costly. As a result, Amazon has handed off these deliveries to partners including UPS and, most notably, the US Postal Service, to handle the so-called “last mile” in small-town America. The new local business delivery beta test seems aimed at perhaps one day replacing its existing partners as Amazon’s sales grow and the Postal Service navigates its own financial and operational challenges. Amazon hopes the new program could help it take more control over customer deliveries in sparsely populated areas and improve the delivery speed to these customers’ doors. The company has already tried versions of the program in a few international markets, including India since 2015, but the testing in the United States is more recent. The delivery program marks just the latest example of Amazon offering small businesses an opportunity to earn new revenue by integrating with the tech giant’s growing ecosystem. From third-party merchants offering up inventory that bolsters Amazon’s massive online product catalog, to urban delivery companies working exclusively for Amazon to ferry hundreds of orders a day to the homes of Prime customers, Amazon has perfected the art of attracting small businesses with new business opportunities, while simultaneously making the Amazon product more attractive — all the while keeping enough distance from the partners so they can avoid liability if something goes wrong. In the case of the new delivery initiative, Amazon is only recruiting existing businesses, in part because they already possess liability insurance, one Alabama small business owner who is participating in the program says the company told them. Some of these small businesses are being paid around $2.50 to $3 per package, and have recently been successful in persuading Amazon to add modest increases to their rates as gas prices have soared. An Amazon webpage marketing the program says business owners can expect to make $1,500 to $2,000 a week if they deliver 600 to 800 packages weekly. That amounts to roughly $2.50 per package. Marc Wulfraat, a logistics consultant whose firm tracks Amazon’s warehouse network, told Recode he would have expected the pay to be at least $3.50 per package to make the service attractive to businesses. By positioning the opportunity as a side hustle for rural businesses rather than a core money-maker, Amazon might be able to offer these businesses just enough financial incentive to keep them satisfied with the gig while making the tough economics of rural delivery work. But if Amazon’s history with small businesses is predictive of future relationships, some partners will find great success with the program while others will leave disappointed or disenchanted. Amazon is pitching the initiative — currently called the Amazon Hub Delivery Partner program internally — as a way to bring in supplemental income by handling anywhere from a couple of dozen to a few hundred packages a day. “All of our partners operate primary businesses and this program provides opportunity to help supplement their income,” Lauren Samaha, an Amazon spokesperson, said in a statement. In return, the small businesses and their workers have to commit to accept and deliver packages every day of the week, including Sundays, with just five holidays off each year, according to answers in a FAQ section of a webpage marketing the program. In the past, Amazon has at times cut back the package volume earmarked for a given small business if they don’t complete the deliveries. But the small business owner who spoke to Recode said the program has provided a nice financial boost for his family during the pandemic, as well as some neighbors he’s hired. “The appeal is diversifying the business and also creating jobs for people in the community,” the Alabama business owner told Recode. The business owner requested anonymity to speak candidly about the program without Amazon’s permission. “That’s something we care about, and it’s been really good for my jobbers.” But the Amazon partner also warned that some small businesses have found the commitment too demanding on top of their core operation and have backed out. “Seven days a week for me is not a big deal because I’m at my shop every day,” they said. “But for some people, it is a big deal.” Revelations of the new delivery program come as Amazon continues to take control over more customer orders from the time an order is placed on its app to the moment it arrives at a customer’s door. Amazon is doing this partly out of necessity as online shopping volumes, especially during holiday seasons, outstrip the transportation and delivery capacities of the country’s largest parcel delivery companies. Amazon would also eventually like to offer its logistics services to other companies as an additional money-maker. Through a division called Amazon Logistics, or AMZL, Amazon now oversees the delivery of an estimated two-thirds of customers orders in the US, while the share of Amazon packages sent through USPS and UPS continues to decrease. Amazon’s share of package delivery has been growing each and every year since the inception of AMZL, and Amazon’s global consumer CEO Dave Clark said Amazon will likely become the largest delivery company in the country this year. In cities and suburbs, packages shipped through Amazon’s own AMZL delivery network are contracted out to thousands of delivery firms — referred to internally as delivery service providers or DSPs — that are created by entrepreneurs to exclusively service Amazon with fleets of 20 to 40 vans. The employees or contractors hired by these firms typically drive Amazon-branded vans or trucks, wear Amazon-branded uniforms, and are monitored and judged by Amazon technology and performance expectations. But Amazon doesn’t recruit entrepreneurs to start these companies in rural areas because the volume of packages in these geographies hasn’t historically been able to support standalone businesses. Enter the small-business shops looking to just make supplemental money as part of the new rural delivery program. These business owners and their workers use their own vehicles to handle deliveries. In job listings, Amazon hiring managers say the program is expanding in 2022. The Alabama small business owner said that Amazon reps have told them the program is emerging from the pilot phase and has been approved for greater investment. Samaha said the program is still in beta testing. In a short, taped webinar online, Amazon said that one of its earliest partners — a florist in Nebraska — began delivering Amazon packages in July 2021. In recent months, Amazon has been joining local chambers of commerce in rural communities and pitching the program in town hall-style gatherings. A public webpage says the company is currently accepting business referrals in just 10 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Nearly a decade ago, Amazon started offering Sunday delivery of packages through a partnership with the US Postal Service to make the shipping perks of the Prime membership program even more attractive. But even years later, the USPS does not support Sunday delivery in every town in America, leaving a hole that these small mom-and-pop establishments are now being asked to fill. “Small towns are not used to that,” the Alabama small business owner said. “Customers have been very thankful for that.” Rural USPS postal carriers and postmasters have also previously told Recode that the increase in e-commerce shopping during the pandemic has at times led to an overwhelming amount of Amazon parcels on top of regular mail, resulting in routes taking considerably longer than the amount of time carriers are actually being paid for. Amazon’s other logistics end game is to eventually make its delivery network available to non-Amazon businesses, though the timeline of fulfilling that ambition was pushed back by the pandemic. Yet if Amazon eventually wants to do that, it may need to prove that it can offer wider and more consistent delivery coverage than the traditional players do today. “Amazon is trying to figure out ways to be smarter than the established [shipping] carriers,” said Marc Wulfraat, the logistics consultant. “They want to cover any zip code so they can go out to market and [sell] their logistics as a service. The problem is… it’s a huge expense to get to that last 15 percent of the population.” But with rural mom-and-pop shops taking on some of those expenses, Amazon may very well get there. Along the way, even more of the country will end up working for the Amazon labor machine.

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posted 15 days ago on re/code
If Roe is overturned, you might want to think twice about what you do with your phone. | Getty Images/iStockphoto The pre-Roe world didn’t have data privacy laws. The post-Roe world needs them. The leaked draft of a Supreme Court decision that could overturn Roe v. Wade has many preparing for what appears to be an all-but-certain future in which abortion is illegal in many parts of the United States. The pervasive and barely regulated data collection industry could have a big role to play in investigating and proving cases against people accused of performing or getting what may soon be illegal abortions. We don’t know if that will happen, but we do know a lot of data is readily available if law enforcement wants it because there’s very little, legally, restricting its collection. And we also know the police use that data all the time, getting it through court order or by simply buying it. Through your phone and your computer, they can find out where you go, who you interact with, what you say, what you search the internet for, which websites you visit, and what apps you download. This isn’t just true of abortion-related data; police have always had ways to access your private data. But now, a lot of people who weren’t concerned about what the police or data brokers knew about them before may suddenly have a lot to worry about — and there’s very little out there to keep their private lives private in a court of law. “The dangers of unfettered access to Americans’ personal information have never been more obvious,” Sen. Ron Wyden, a longtime advocate and proponent of online privacy laws, told Recode. One big concern seems to be whether period tracker apps could be used to find and prosecute people who get abortions. Period apps are problematic for a lot of reasons, but somehow tipping off the police that you got an abortion is pretty far down on the list. Far worse is the pervasive and barely regulated data collection industry that has been allowed to build and share detailed profiles of all of us for years. The fact is, it’s easy enough to delete a period app from your phone. It’s a lot harder to delete the data it collected about you. And it’s just about impossible to conceal the rest of the online trail that could help prove you broke an anti-abortion law. “The dangers of unfettered access to Americans’ personal information have never been more obvious” There’s the possibility that all of this data could be used to go after people getting illegal abortions in the future because it’s already being used to help in the investigation of many crimes. An internet search for abortion-inducing drugs was used as evidence to charge with murder a woman who gave birth to a stillborn baby (those charges were dropped). Google data obtained by police placed a man’s phone near the site of a murder; the man was arrested but was later released without charge. Several cases against alleged January 6 insurrectionists have been built on data obtained from companies like Google and Meta. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) buys location data to try to find entry points used by undocumented immigrants. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. The internet as we know it didn’t exist pre-Roe, when abortion was illegal. It does now. Online privacy laws, on the other hand, largely don’t. But they could. All the data you give away — and who can get it For now, as long as they follow the appropriate legal channels, law enforcement agencies can obtain pretty much everything you do on your devices. For almost all of us, that’s a lot of data. You can try to lock down your own device, but if the data is also possessed by a third party like Google, that’s where the police will go to get the information they want. This can include what’s known as reverse search warrants or keyword searches for devices that were in a certain location — say, a building in which police suspect illegal abortions are being performed — or for devices that searched for certain keywords, like “where can I get an abortion.” There’s a legal gray area here. Some judges have ruled that such searches are unconstitutional, but they’re still happening. In fact, the use of them has increased exponentially in the last several years. “There’s a lot of opportunity for police to take advantage of the lack of clarity in the law,” Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s speech, privacy, and technology project, said. “Which is why lawmakers can and should step in.” But there’s no gray area when it comes to evidence law enforcement can get about you specifically if they have reason to believe you’ve committed a crime. To give a recent example: Many cases against alleged January 6 insurrectionists were built on data the FBI got from Google and social media. In some cases, this included the suspect’s movements to and from their homes as well as within the Capitol building. It also included the contents of their emails, web searches, websites visited, and YouTube videos watched. You might think the police having such a large data trail to follow is a good thing when it’s used against people whose actions you disagree with. You might not feel the same way if it’s used against people whose actions you support. That means that in places where abortion is illegal — assuming such a thing does happen — there won’t be much a company like Google can do if police have a warrant for data that could be evidence of a crime. There’s also the possibility that people pretending to be the police could obtain data, too. As Bloomberg recently reported, it has happened before. That’s why privacy and civil rights advocates say the less data those companies are forced to give to law enforcement, the better. Laws that minimize the amount of data collected, that restrict what other parties can do with that data, and that allow consumers to delete their data would go a long way here. There’s also the data that the police (and any other especially motivated private citizens) can buy. Data brokers, it turns out, make for a nice workaround to the Fourth Amendment. Law enforcement can simply buy data it would otherwise have to get a court order for, which it may then use to help in its investigations. We have plenty of examples of this to draw from: The IRS, the FBI, the DEA, ICE, and even the military do this. This data can be as granular as the movements of an individual in the real world, and data brokers love to combine it with what that individual does online for an even more comprehensive and revealing profile. During the Trump administration, ICE didn’t just use cellphone location data to find a tunnel underneath an abandoned KFC that was used to smuggle drugs over the border; it also used it to find out where undocumented immigrants were crossing the border. It’s entirely possible that authorities could use this type of movement data to find out where illegal abortions are being performed. It’s not just the government that can buy this data. Private businesses and people do it all the time. Vice recently purchased aggregated location data for a week’s worth of visits to 600 “family planning centers,” some of which offer abortions, for just $160 from a company called SafeGraph. (The government is one of SafeGraph’s customers, by the way.) After Vice published a story detailing how it sold data about family planning centers, SafeGraph said it would stop, but it’s safe to assume there are other companies out there still doing similar things. We also have cases of advertising companies using geofencing, or targeting ads to devices within a certain location, to send anti-abortion ads to people inside women’s health clinics. Data brokers will often say that their data is aggregated and anonymized, but we know there’s no guarantee that the data will stay aggregated and anonymous. Last summer, a priest was outed after a Catholic news outlet obtained location data sourced from Grindr. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Grindr’s data was routinely shared with or sold to Grindr’s ad partners. These are very real, very bad examples of how location data can be obtained, re-identified, and used against someone if it falls into the wrong hands — perhaps those belonging to anti-abortion activists who believe any actions they take are righteous. They also highlight why we need to regulate this industry to prevent it from happening again. If abortion laws can change, so can privacy laws There are privacy bills out there that would slow or stop the flow of data that could be used against them. Perhaps the end of Roe v. Wade will be what gets these languishing bills over the finish line. “There are a number of types of laws that could really make a difference,” Wessler said. “Some of them aimed at what law enforcement can get access to, and some aimed at what companies are allowed to collect and sell about us without our express permission and consent.” The Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act would close the loophole that allows law enforcement to buy information from data brokers that they’d otherwise have to get with a warrant. Sen. Wyden introduced the bill in April 2021, and it has bipartisan and bicameral support. “Passing the Fourth Amendment Is Not For Sale Act would make it harder for Republican states to persecute women by buying up big databases of information without warrants and then hunt down anyone seeking an abortion,” Wyden told Recode. But it doesn’t stop all this data from being out there to be purchased in the first place, and not just by the police. “Far more needs to be done to protect the rights of pregnant people. Every company that collects, stores, or sells personal data should be aware that they could soon be a tool for a radical far-right agenda that is trying to strip women of their fundamental privacy rights,” Wyden explained. All this assumes that these companies care about who uses their data and how. It also suggests that they’ve implemented measures to minimize and control the flow of it. The fact is, they usually don’t have to do this, and they make more money if they don’t. There are a number of types of laws that could really make a difference Consumer privacy laws would go a long way toward reducing what data is out there and available for anyone to access in the first place. Several bills like this have been introduced in Congress over the years, some with better protections than others. What they all have in common is that none of them went anywhere. Meanwhile, other countries and even some states have advanced stronger consumer privacy laws in recent years. Privacy laws that require affirmative opt-in consent to collect data — especially sensitive data, like location, health data, and search histories — and give consumers control over if that data is sold or shared would go a long way here. Opt-in consent is the difference between Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature, which doesn’t give out certain types of data unless you tell it to, and Facebook, which just lets you opt out of being tracked after the fact, as long as you can find the option in your privacy settings. Many privacy advocates also believe opt-in consent should be required before a company can share or sell that data to third parties. Data minimization rules, they say, would also help because these would only allow what an app needs to function to be collected. Customers should also have the right to delete their data upon request. In lieu of a federal consumer privacy law, individual states have tried to pass their own. A few have recently passed industry-friendly laws that privacy advocates aren’t fond of. But then there’s California, which has the strongest privacy law in the country, or Illinois, which has a biometric privacy law, or Maine, which bans internet service providers from selling their customer’s data without the customer’s consent. New York state lawmakers have been trying to ban reverse search and keyword warrants for years. A lack of digital privacy might have been a deal you were willing to make when you thought you knew the laws and assumed you’d never break them. But, as we may soon see, laws change. Unless privacy laws also change, by the time you realize you do have something to hide, it’ll be too late.

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posted 15 days ago on re/code
Sri Lankan Navy soldiers work to remove debris — including tiny plastic pellets called nurdles — blanketing the beach near Colombo, Sri Lanka, in May 2021, after the Singapore-registered container ship MV X-Press Pearl caught fire and sank near Colombo Harbor. | Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images “We’re making these nurdles and basically spilling oil, just in a different form.” NEW ORLEANS — On an overcast day in April, on the edge of Chalmette Battlefield, a few miles outside the city, Liz Marchio examined a pile of broken twigs and tree branches on the bank of the Mississippi River. “Usually I try to look — oh, there’s one,” said Marchio, a research associate for the Vertebrate Museum at Southeastern Louisiana University. She bent down to pick up something with a pinch of her thumb and forefinger and placed it in her palm for me to see. The object in Marchio’s hand was small, round, and yellowish-white, about the size of a lentil. It looked like an egg, as if a fish or salamander or tadpole could come wriggling out of it. Marchio handed it to me and turned to flip over a tree branch floating in the water, where dozens more lay waiting underneath. She made a sound of disgust. We had come hunting, and we had quickly found our quarry: nurdles. A nurdle is a bead of pure plastic. It is the basic building block of almost all plastic products, like some sort of synthetic ore; their creators call them “pre-production plastic pellets” or “resins.” Every year, trillions of nurdles are produced from natural gas or oil, shipped to factories around the world, and then melted and poured into molds that churn out water bottles and sewage pipes and steering wheels and the millions of other plastic products we use every day. You are almost certainly reading this story on a device that is part nurdle. That is the ideal journey for a nurdle, but not all of them make their way safely to the end of a production line. As Marchio and I continued to make our way upriver toward New Orleans’ French Quarter, she began collecting nurdles in ziplock bags, marking in red Sharpie the date, location, number of beads collected, and the time taken to collect them. Neel Dhanesha/Vox Nurdles mix easily with the debris floating in the Mississippi River. Neel Dhanesha/Vox Liz Marchio collects nurdles beside a levee in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in April. At one point, on the side of a levee outside the Lower Ninth Ward, she collected 113 nurdles in five minutes. This is not uncommon: An estimated 200,000 metric tons of nurdles make their way into oceans annually. The beads are extremely light, around 20 milligrams each. That means, under current conditions, approximately 10 trillion nurdles are projected to infiltrate marine ecosystems around the world each year. Hundreds of fish species — including some eaten by humans — and at least 80 kinds of seabirds eat plastics. Researchers are concerned that animals that eat nurdles risk blocking their digestive tracts and starving to death. Just as concerning is what happens to the beads in the long term: Like most plastics, they do not biodegrade, but they do deteriorate over time, forming the second-largest source of ocean microplastics after tire dust. (A nurdle, being less than 5 millimeters around, is a microplastic from the moment of its creation, something also known as a primary microplastic.) There’s much we still don’t know about how plastics can harm the bodies of humans and animals alike, but recent research has shown that microplastics can be found in the blood of as much as 80 percent of all adult humans, where they can potentially harm our cells. We may not eat the plastic beads ourselves, but nurdles seem to have a way of finding their way back to us. In most of the United States, the federal and local government respond to nurdle spills big and small in the same way: by doing practically nothing. Nurdles are not classified as pollutants or hazardous materials, so the Coast Guard, which usually handles cleanups of oil or other toxic substances that enter waterways, bears no responsibility for them. Likewise, most state governments have no rules in place around monitoring, preventing, or cleaning up nurdle spills; a spill is often an occasion of great confusion as local and state environmental agencies try to figure out who might be responsible for managing it. In the eyes of the federal government and every state except California, which began regulating marine plastics in 2007, nurdles are essentially invisible. For all official purposes, a nurdle that has escaped into the wild may as well have entered a black hole. “Here in Louisiana, we’re making these nurdles and basically spilling oil, just in a different form,” said Mark Benfield, an oceanographer at Louisiana State University who studies microplastics, “And no one notices it, and no one seems to do anything about it.” A nurdle often escapes from the plastic production process in mundane ways, slipping into drains at factories or spilling out of cargo containers while being transported by trains and ships. When nurdles are being loaded into trains, for example, they are often blown into rail cars using large hoses. The beads can leak around the edges of hoses at factories and out the sides of rail cars as they travel to distribution centers; Benfield and Marchio have both found nurdles lining the sides of tracks used by nurdle-carrying trains. Sometimes, however, a large spill — often during transportation — will send millions or even billions of nurdles out into the world all at once, coating shorelines with deposits so thick they could be mistaken for banks of snow. In May 2021, a container ship off the coast of Sri Lanka caught fire and sank, releasing an estimated 1,680 metric tons of nurdles in an incident the United Nations called “the single largest plastic spill on record.” About a year earlier, in August 2020, a storm hit a ship docked at the port of New Orleans, knocking a container filled with bags of nurdles into the Mississippi River. Hundreds of millions of beads escaped from their bags, coating local beaches in white plastic and floating down toward the Gulf of Mexico. They would remain long after the spill; Marchio pointed to a small dimple on the side of the first nurdle we found that identified it as a likely remnant of that spill. “Big spills, like by ship containers and barge … that’s probably about once a year,” said Jace Tunnell, director of the University of Texas’ Mission-Aransas National Estuarine Research Reserve and founder of the Nurdle Patrol citizen science project, which asks contributors to count nurdles on their local beaches and uses the data to create a map of the pollution. The map could easily be mistaken for a map of plastic production sites: The vast majority of red and purple dots, which correspond to particularly high levels of nurdles, appear in the petrochemical hubs of Texas and Louisiana. “What happens every single day — it’s a chronic problem — is the loss of pellets during on-loading and off-loading and during transportation,” Tunnell said. Most plastic does not biodegrade, and a spilled nurdle does not simply disappear. Many wash up on shorelines, like the ones Marchio and I saw, where they easily blend in with the sand, shells, and assorted debris; if undisturbed, they will likely remain there for hundreds if not thousands of years. A nurdle in the wild is a sneaky thing. Even before it starts breaking down, it is difficult to spot from afar, unlike the plastic bags or bottles we often associate with plastic pollution. It does not give off a heat signature or emit fumes, or create a sheen on the surface of water the way an oil spill might. What it does do is attract toxic pollutants. A nurdle floating down, say, the Mississippi River will absorb the pollutants riding alongside it while sloughing off the water, Benfield told me. It also provides a convenient home for phytoplankton, which will go on to attract zooplankton, which eat the phytoplankton and emit dimethyl sulfide — better known as the smell of the sea. For many marine animals, the smell of the sea is the smell of food. Seabirds like albatrosses and petrels track dimethyl sulfide to locate patches of plankton from afar, swooping down to pluck their plankton-eating prey out of the water. A nurdle is the size and shape of a fish egg; its camouflage is nearly perfect after some time in the water, looking and smelling like easy pickings to fish, birds, turtles, and crustaceans alike. Once eaten, nurdles can tangle a creature’s intestines or make it feel as if it is full, said Benfield. A 1992 EPA report found that at least 80 species of seabirds ate nurdles; Benfield said that number has since more than doubled. Plastics provide no nutrients to animals, but an animal that fills up on the beads will eat less food as a result, meaning it could starve to death without even knowing it was starving — especially if its digestive tract is too small to pass the nurdle. Photographs from the aftermath of the spill in Sri Lanka showed fish filled with the pellets, white plastic lining their insides. Saman Abesiriwardana/Pacific Press/Shutterstock A dead fish with a mouth full of nurdles washed ashore on a beach near Wellawatta in Colombo, Sri Lanka, after a container ship caught fire and sank near the Colombo harbor in May 2021. Eranga Jayawardena/AP A crab makes its way across a Sri Lankan beach covered in nurdles days after the container ship sank. There were 87 shipping containers of nurdles on board. Plastics are endocrine disruptors, meaning they can stunt an animal’s development, and researchers are studying whether toxic pollutants can pass from a nurdle into an animal’s tissue and subsequently up the food chain. But measuring the full impact is difficult, in part because it’s difficult to know exactly what causes a marine animal to die in a world that is increasingly hostile to marine animals. Preventing nurdle spills, say Tunnell and Benfield, would involve a number of deceptively simple changes. Companies can place containers in loading areas to catch any nurdles that fall during their loading and unloading from rail cars, install screens on storm drains to catch beads that wash away, or make the bags they’re packed into before being shipped out of a sturdier material so they’re less likely to split open. Workers can double-check valves on rail cars to make sure they’re fully tightened and vacuum up nurdles that spill onto factory floors. Cleaning nurdles up after they’ve spread through an ecosystem is much harder, and no one wants to be responsible for it. The most promising solutions so far involve machines that are essentially vacuums with sieves that filter out sand while sucking up the nurdles. But they have yet to be widely tested, let alone adopted, and they’d be of little use cleaning up beads in the water. Nurdles have a significant impact on the environment long before they are formed, as well. The vast majority of the plastics plants in the United States are located alongside communities of color, which are disproportionately impacted by industrial pollution. Those plants emit a toxic mixture of pollutants including ethylene oxide, styrene, and benzene; there are so many petrochemical plants located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that the area has become known as “cancer alley.” The tide may slowly be turning: Last year, residents of Louisiana’s majority-Black St. James Parish managed to delay the construction of a massive new plastics plant in their community, arguing that they’d suffer undue environmental harm, but the plants that are already in the area will continue to pump out both nurdles and the pollutants that come from making them. As the world moves toward renewable energy and demand for fossil fuels is expected to peak in the near future, the oil and gas industry is increasingly shifting its business focus to plastic production. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050 thanks to a fracking boom in the United States that makes natural gas extremely cheap to produce. That will lead to a rise in nurdle production. The question on researchers’ minds is where these beads will end up. Mark Benfield scrunched up his face as he bent at the waist to examine the sand below him, placing his hands on his knees for support and looking a bit like a human-sized question mark. “This is hard on your back,” said Benfield. “A few decades from now we’ll all have nurdle-related back issues. Nurdle-osis, like scoliosis,” he joked. We were standing on the beach at Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge, on the Gulf of Mexico a couple of hours’ drive south of New Orleans. The beach was empty aside from Benfield, myself, a couple of LSU students, and the occasional crab or seagull. This was the place where, in 2021, Benfield had found hundreds of nurdles nestled in the dunes, indicating a spill somewhere offshore. At first, Benfield thought they may have been the remnants of the 2020 spill in New Orleans. “But when we started to look at the shape and the weights, they were different,” Benfield said, “so there was some big spill of nurdles that we didn’t even know happened.” Neel Dhanesha/Vox Mark Benfield searches for nurdles at the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. “Your eyes start to get a search image for them after a while,” Benfield said. Neel Dhanesha/Vox Mark Benfield holds a nurdle he found. Nurdles are usually smaller than 5 millimeters around, making them primary microplastics. By the time Benfield and I went to Elmer’s Island, most of those nurdles had disappeared. Storms had eaten away at the dunes, and the wind likely pushed the beads inland to the marsh just north of where we were standing, where they would quickly settle into the mud and become unrecoverable. Within a few minutes of arriving, however, Benfield found one hidden amid a pile of sticks that had washed up on the sand. “This must be pretty recent,” he said; it had probably washed in with the tide a day or two ago, though there was no way to tell when it had spilled or where it had come from. Benfield produced a ziplock from a pocket of his cargo pants and dropped the nurdle inside. The sound of shells crunching underneath our shoes accompanied us as we made our way up the beach; occasionally, Benfield would drop to his hands and knees to check whether he was looking at a nurdle or a shell. “I used to come to the beach to look for shark teeth,” Benfield said. “Now I’m looking for nurdles.” That changed for Benfield after the 2020 spill in New Orleans. While he had been studying microplastics in the Gulf of Mexico since 2015 and found nurdles in the Mississippi River during previous research trips, he’d only ever pulled a handful out of the river at most; that August, they blanketed the banks. Benfield recruited Marchio, who worked for the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park at the time, to help document the spill, and together they spent days traveling to points along the Mississippi River, laying down square frames and counting tens of thousands of beads in the space of a single square foot. As the local community learned about the spill through local news outlets and word of mouth, concerned residents organized cleanup efforts. Word got out that Benfield was interested in the nurdles, and people began sending him samples. At one point, Marchio found an entire bag of nurdles, practically intact, underneath a wharf in New Orleans. The name of the manufacturer, Dow Chemical, was still clearly stamped on the bag, along with a warning: “DO NOT DUMP INTO ANY SEWERS, ON THE GROUND, OR INTO ANY BODY OF WATER.” Neel Dhanesha/Vox Mark Benfield holds a nearly intact bag of nurdles recovered after a container full of nurdles fell off a ship docked in New Orleans in 2020. While Benfield, Marchio, and the volunteers busied themselves with trying to document and clean up the spill, state and federal agencies spent weeks trying to decide who, if anyone, ought to be responsible for oversight of the spill and any potential cleanup. While the Coast Guard usually takes responsibility for cleanups of oil and toxic substances that spill into waterways, it has no responsibility for nontoxic spills. Because nurdles aren’t deemed hazardous to human health under federal or Louisiana state law, a court had to decide which agency, if any, was responsible for cleaning up the spill, said Gregory Langley, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “The problem with court action is it’s not instantaneous,” Langley said. The Mississippi River, of course, was not beholden to the courts; while the agencies waited and debated whose job it was to clean up the nurdles, the current carried them downriver. “If you lose something in the river,” said Langley, “it’s gone.” About three weeks after the spill, the ship’s operator paid for a small crew of men with booms, leaf blowers, and butterfly nets to clean up a small section of the river. The voluntary cleanup, the DEQ reasoned, rendered waiting for the court a moot point; no determination was made about which agency, if any, would have been responsible for the spill. That cleanup crew was mostly for show, Benfield told me, and most of the nurdles had already disappeared, carried downriver by the current and blown away by the wind. The DEQ still doesn’t know who would be responsible for cleaning up such a spill in the future. “All of that is subject to court action,” Langley told me. So the DEQ would still have to wait for a court decision in the event of a future spill. Benfield and Marchio have since become the de facto Louisiana outpost of a countrywide effort to document, map, and, eventually (they hope) stop nurdle spills. In the aftermath of the 2020 spill, Benfield turned his lab in LSU’s Baton Rouge campus into a sort of evidence room. When I visited, jars of nurdles lined the countertop by a sink; dozens more were packed into boxes, ready to be shipped to Jace Tunnell in Texas so he could include them in teaching kits he sends to schools around the country. The bag of nurdles Marchio found underneath the wharf in New Orleans sat in one corner, next to a bucket filled with a mixture of sand, twigs, and nurdles brought in by a well-meaning local who helped with the cleanup in 2020. When Benfield finds new nurdles, he analyzes them under a spectrometer to see what they are made of; he hopes to eventually build a database of nurdles so that they can be traced back to their origin. In an ideal world, he’d receive samples of nurdles from plastics manufacturers that could make that sort of tracing easier, but he doubts they would be open to the idea; there’s no business case for accountability, he reasons. Neel Dhanesha/Vox Benfield analyzes a nurdle found at the Elmer’s Island Wildlife Refuge using a spectrometer in his lab at Louisiana State University. He hopes to eventually build a database of nurdles that can be used to trace them to their source. “It’s ridiculous. If I went to the river and tossed in hundreds of plastic bags, I’d be in trouble,” Benfield said. Under Louisiana law, he would likely be fined somewhere between $500 and $1,000 for littering, at the least, and have to serve a few hours in a litter abatement program. “But because (the nurdles) are so small,” he continued, “the companies get away with it.” Being the documenter of plastic pellets is thankless work. There’s little funding for researching them, and Benfield, Marchio, and Tunnell often speak with the air of people resigned to the seemingly quixotic quest of tilting at nurdles. “Nurdles infiltrate your brain,” Marchio said to me once. “I have to remember that my role is monitoring, not cleaning. If I try to clean, I’ll just get frustrated.” So what does doing something about nurdles look like? The plastics industry’s stance on plastic pollution at large has long been that recycling needs to be improved. More responsible consumer behavior and waste-management practices, the industry line goes, will bring post-consumer plastics back to manufacturers that can reuse them. But a nurdle almost never reaches a consumer’s hands in its base form, and asking consumers to solve the nurdle problem through recycling would be akin to asking drivers to clean up an oil spill by conserving the fuel in their cars. Unlike a finished plastic product, the solution to nurdle spills, like nurdles themselves, will have to be found somewhere in the plastic production process. For a brief moment a few years ago, it seemed as though the answer could come from the courts. In 2019, a federal judge in Texas approved a $50 million settlement in a case brought by Diane Wilson, a retired shrimper, which alleged that a plant run by the Taiwanese plastics giant Formosa Plastics had violated its permits by illegally discharging nurdles into the water in and around Lavaca Bay, on the Gulf Coast in Calhoun County, Texas. The settlement, which was the largest of its kind in American history to result from a civil environmental lawsuit, included a consent decree that committed Formosa to “zero discharge” standards. In other words, the company’s plant at Lavaca Bay’s Point Comfort had to stop releasing pellets into the water or risk fines of up to $10,000 for each violation in the first year, increasing annually to a maximum of $54,000 per violation. Formosa isn’t quite keeping its end of the bargain. Since it began operations in June 2021, said Wilson, a wastewater monitoring facility set up to keep tabs on Formosa’s pellet discharge has logged at least 239 violations, for fines totaling $5.3 million and counting. “The implementing of this consent decree is the hardest thing we have ever done,” said Wilson, who at 73 years old has been an environmental activist for more than 30 years. “You’ve got to be on them all the time. Most of my life is almost full-time Formosa.” For Formosa, which is the sixth-largest chemical company in the world with sales of $27.7 billion in 2020, a $5.3 million fine is “almost like the cost of doing business,” Tunnell said. At least for now, it seems it’s cheaper to simply keep racking up those small fines over time than to make any potential large investments that would be needed to stop the nurdles from spilling in the first place. In the meantime, Wilson told me, fishers in Lavaca Bay continue to pull up fish with nurdles in their guts; oyster fishers have found the beads nestled in their catch like pearls. The area is home to a mercury superfund site — an EPA designation for contaminated industrial areas that receive funding for cleanup efforts — that was closed to fishing for decades due to the threat of mercury poisoning. Mercury has already devastated local marine life; now, Wilson says researchers and activists are concerned the nurdles may absorb the mercury and become vectors that can carry the mercury beyond Lavaca Bay. “People just ignore it,” Wilson said. Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images The Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, south of Houston, in November 2021. It set up shop here in 1983, near the waters where shrimpers used to catch shrimp in abundance. Mark Felix/AFP via Getty Images Former shrimper Diane Wilson outside the Formosa Plastics plant in Point Comfort, Texas, in November 2021. Wilson has been documenting alleged pollution by Formosa for years. While Wilson’s lawsuit was a remarkable victory, it was also an indicator of the difficulty of addressing nurdle pollution piecemeal. Wilson and her collaborators spent years collecting thousands of beads from around the area — including one discharge site in the middle of the water, which Wilson had to kayak out to — and it was only through amassing a mountain of evidence that she was able to convince a judge that Formosa’s Point Comfort plant was responsible for the beads that were washing up in the area. Attributing nurdles to a particular source is difficult, and repeating the feat would require a similar effort for every nurdle production plant in the country. “I think the best place to start is to take a small step backward and recognize we have laws on the books already that are meant to regulate pollution and emissions from manufacturing and production facilities,” said Anja Brandon, US plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, a nonprofit that works to protect oceans and marine life. “Namely in this instance, the Clean Water Act, kind of our bedrock environmental law.” The Clean Water Act passed in 1972 after the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire in 1969, drawing national attention to the country’s polluted waterways. Today, the act regulates the discharge of various pollutants into waters around the country; it’s a major reason why many of the nation’s rivers are cleaner now than they were 50 years ago. “These laws haven’t been updated to meet the needs of the moment,” said Brandon. In most of the country, she explained, “plastic nurdles have essentially gotten off scot free because they have yet to be classified or specifically labeled as a pollutant.” The rare exception is California, which in 2007 became the first and so far only state to pass a law classifying nurdles as pollutants to be regulated under the Clean Water Act, citing their contribution to litter on beaches and the possibility that they could be mistaken for food by marine animals. Lawmakers in Texas and South Carolina have introduced similar legislation, though both bills seem stuck. The Texas bill, introduced in the House by representative Todd Hunter last year, never moved forward, while the South Carolina bill passed the state senate in 2021 but was recently shelved in the House. Closing the nurdle loophole, says Brandon, would require classifying nurdles as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act at the federal level. Lawmakers have shown some support for this approach: In 2020, then-Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act, which would have put in place wide-ranging regulations on plastics and recycling. Identical bills were reintroduced in the House by Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and in the Senate by Jeff Merkley (D-OR) in March 2021, but neither bill has moved beyond committee. In April 2021, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the much shorter and more tightly focused Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, which would give the EPA regulatory control over nurdles through the Clean Water Act; that bill has also been stalled. The plastics industry is opposed to both bills. “We do not think that plastics belong in the environment. They belong in the economy,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, a major plastics industry trade group. That said, he continued, “The Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act is really a bad piece of legislation. It has a very nice title. But it can be very misleading to the average person.” Legislation like the Break Free From Plastics Pollution Act or the Plastic Pellet Free Waters Act, Baca argued, are disguised attempts to simply shut down plastic manufacturing in the US more broadly. “We generally think that the best approach here is to think about this holistically in a way that looks at loss across the entire value chain and puts in place best practices to avoid the loss within the environment,” he continued. Baca pointed to Operation Clean Sweep, or OCS, a voluntary program run by the American Chemistry Council and the Plastics Industry Association that’s meant to curb nurdle leaks and spills but maintains no oversight mechanism and imposes no penalty for failure to comply. “Many of our companies are inserting state-of-the-art technology within their facilities ... to ensure that they limit the loss of pellets going on,” Baca said. When I asked Baca for more information, he demurred, citing the possible use of proprietary technology. Formosa Plastics, the subject of Diane Wilson’s lawsuit, is not only a participant in Operation Clean Sweep but also a member of OCS blue, a “data-driven VIP member offering” of Operation Clean Sweep that “enhances the commitment to management, measurement, and reporting of unrecovered plastic releases into the environment from resin handling facilities.” Members receive plaques commemorating their enrollment. Neel Dhanesha/Vox Nurdles seen under a microscope. The nurdle in the middle has begun degrading through exposure to the elements; the white ones nearby are from recent spills and haven’t been in the environment long enough to start degrading. It is estimated nurdles can stay in the environment for hundreds or even thousands of years. “I think they have a lot of good practices that ought to be mandatory, but they’re voluntary,” said Tunnell. “That obviously does not work. There needs to be accountability.” One way to create that accountability, Tunnell told me, would be to classify plastic pellets as hazardous substances outright, which would not only bring much tighter scrutiny to the production process but also give the Coast Guard the authority to coordinate and perform cleanups whenever a spill occurs. This is something like the nuclear option for nurdles, and would no doubt be the subject of stiff opposition from the plastics industry if it ever becomes a matter of debate. For Tunnell, the stakes are existential. A failure to stop nurdles from spilling would be like giving up on the future of our world. “At the end of the day, it comes down to the next generation,” Tunnell said. “These plastic pellets will be around for hundreds of years. It’s not like they dissolve. They’re just accumulating and accumulating, and even if you’re in high school right now, your great-grandkids will see the same pellets on the beach. So I think we owe it to my great-grandkids and their great-grandkids to do something about this now.”

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posted 15 days ago on re/code
People are installing battery packs inside their homes. | Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images How batteries can help power homes, buildings, and the grid. It seems as though everyone is talking about electric vehicle batteries lately. Automakers are racing to make these batteries more powerful so they can convince more people to buy EVs, and the Biden administration is spending billions to make the United States a manufacturing hub for next-generation battery technology. But even as EV batteries soak up the spotlight, another kind of battery is gaining momentum: home batteries. The concept of a home battery is simple. In the same way that a laptop battery powers a laptop when it’s not plugged into an outlet, a home battery powers a home when it’s not receiving power from the grid or a renewable energy source. Hundreds of thousands of people have already installed Tesla Powerwalls, solar-powered home battery packs that provide a few hours of backup power. And as extreme weather events, like last year’s devastating winter storm in Texas, have stretched the power grid to its limits, even more consumers have started buying these and other types of home batteries. The government is throwing its support behind similar kinds of upgrades to the power grid. On Tuesday, the Energy Department said that it would spend more than $3 billion from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law on EV batteries as well as batteries meant for long-term energy storage, including batteries that could one day power people’s homes and businesses. This money will fund projects focused on boosting the US’s supply of key battery components, as well as developing the country’s overall battery manufacturing capacity. The hope is that these investments will help the US build more batteries that could then be installed not only in people’s homes but also in neighborhoods and throughout the grid, playing a critical role in easing the growing pressure on the country’s aging energy infrastructure — and making it more resilient. “We have to build clean homes and start with clean homes that are fully electrified, which use batteries to stabilize their load and be part of a clean grid,” Ryan Brown, the CEO of the small battery startup Salient, told Recode. “Otherwise, there’s just not a really good prospect for solving climate change.” This week, Salient announced a partnership with a Texas-based sustainable homebuilder, Horton World Solutions, to demonstrate its new zinc-ion battery technology. If all goes according to plan, the companies will install these batteries in more than 200,000 homes over the next decade. Home batteries vary in size and energy storage capacity, and while many are based on familiar lithium-ion technology, some take advantage of being stationary to use more abundant materials, like zinc. Each battery — some people install multiple for more storage — is usually about as big as a television and typically costs at least a few thousand dollars. Beyond Tesla, there are a few large electronics companies like LG Chem and Panasonic — both of which are in the EV battery business — that sell home battery packs, as well as lesser-known battery makers like Salient, Generac, and Enphase. Bigger batteries or large battery banks could power many homes simultaneously. While these giant battery systems wouldn’t fit into a single residential building, they could be connected directly to the power grid or to microgrids that power an entire apartment building or neighborhood. Compared to a home battery in a single-family home, this sort of setup would allow entire communities of people to access electricity when power is unavailable or extra-expensive — this is why some experts say they’re a much more equitable approach to the future of energy. Regardless of their scale, home batteries and other types of stationary batteries have become a critical part of the effort to increase the world’s supply of renewable energy in the fight against climate change. The reason is straightforward: Because the sun isn’t always around to power solar panels and there isn’t always wind to power turbines, utility companies and individuals alike need batteries to store their renewable energy to ensure that it’s available when people actually need it. Stationary batteries ultimately expand the overall capacity of the grid, which is especially important as we move to electrify things that are currently powered by fossil fuels. “We also see potential increased adoption of electric vehicles and even heat pumps for replacing gas furnaces,” Dharik Mallapragada, a research scientist at MIT’s Energy Initiative, told Recode. “Batteries can come in handy there because they can basically shift consumption … in terms of how much you’re drawing from the grid.” In addition to his administration’s latest investment in battery technology, President Joe Biden in March used the Defense Production Act to order production of critical materials needed for stationary storage, which he called “essential to the national defense.” Some state governments, along with utilities, have also started offering financial incentives for people to buy home batteries as well as commercial battery banks. California has even updated its state energy code to require that all new commercial and high-rise multifamily buildings install batteries, as well as solar panels. “Within the next few years, everybody will realize that they will need a battery,” Jehu Garcia, a battery reseller who runs a DIY YouTube channel about batteries, told Recode. “Right now it’s kind of up for grabs: Who’s gonna make the move first? Is it going to be the homeowners, or is it going to be the utilities? But it’s going to happen either way.” Even the EV industry is investing in the stationary battery business. In addition to offering its Powerwall batteries to individuals, Tesla recently finished building one of the world’s largest batteries for PG&E in Northern California, and has also started work on another utility-scale battery outside Houston that could power 20,000 homes. CATL, a Chinese company that’s arguably the world’s largest EV battery manufacturer, last month announced plans to produce 900 battery systems for a Texas-based renewable energy company that will support the state’s beleaguered power grid. Meanwhile, GM is designing its Ultium batteries so that they could eventually be repurposed to provide long-term energy storage, and Nissan announced earlier this year that it would test a similar idea using its EV batteries at a power plant in Spain. All this represents progress, but it also serves as a reminder that we may need all the batteries we can get. The International Energy Association estimates that in order to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, the world will need to boost the world’s battery storage capacity from the 17 gigawatts we had in 2020 to 585 gigawatts by the end of the decade. That means that batteries may need to be ubiquitous — inside people’s cars, in the basement of apartment buildings, and on site at power plants. As intimidating as this task seems, it’s just one piece of the very complicated puzzle of figuring out how to combat climate change. This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one!

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posted 17 days ago on re/code
Elon Musk at the 2022 Met Gala. | Sean Zanni/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images It’s complicated. You’ve never heard of him, but Mike was one of Twitter’s best-case scenarios. Mike — a high school teacher in Ontario, Canada, who has asked me not to use his last name — signed up for Twitter in 2007, shortly after it launched. He used it as a portal into a world he could never access any other way: It let him communicate with famous people he admired, and sometimes they responded. “I used it to ask [writer] Neil Gaiman a question, and he answered, and I thought it was amazing,” he told me. He did the same thing with director Ava DuVernay, and ended up getting invited to a screening of her movie Selma, and got to meet her in real life. And now Mike’s not on Twitter anymore. He left after the 2016 presidential election, after concluding that the service wasn’t good for society — or his own psyche. “I was spending too much time on it,” he says. “And it was just a constant provocation of anxiety. What is it adding to my life to be getting minute-by-minute updates about all the horrors of the world, and all the stupid things people are saying constantly?” Except ... Mike is still on Twitter, sort of. That’s how he found me when I asked Twitter users to talk about their experience of quitting the service: He doesn’t tweet or log into his account. But he takes lots of peeks, even though it doesn’t make him happy, and even though he uses a productivity app to try to stop himself from looking. “I lurk pretty heavily,” he admits. All of which is to say that, although we talk about Twitter using shorthand — hellsite, bad business, thing that was supposed to help democracy flourish but didn’t — Twitter isn’t a monolith. It’s used by 217 million people, and each of them has a different, and oftentimes complicated and conflicted, relationship with the service. And we don’t know how they’re going to react if Elon Musk ends up buying Twitter for $44 billion. What we can do, though, is look backward and see if Twitter’s history has any clues about the future. Which seems possible, since the few clues Musk has dropped about his Twitter plans suggest he wants to revert to an earlier iteration of Twitter — one with fewer rules and more lax enforcement of abuse and misinformation. That was the Twitter that lots of Twitter users got sick of — and announced so publicly. Maybe you recall comedian Leslie Jones declaring that she was leaving the service in the summer of 2016 after being swamped with racist attacks coordinated by an alt-right troll whose name you may have already forgotten. But weeks later, after Twitter permanently banned her antagonist, she was back, Or writer Lindy West, who explained in a 2017 essay in the Guardian why she was ditching the platform after five years: “I talk back and I am “feeding the trolls”. I say nothing and the harassment escalates. I report threats and I am a “censor”. I use mass-blocking tools to curb abuse and I am abused further for blocking “unfairly”,” she wrote. “I have to conclude, after half a decade of troubleshooting, that it may simply be impossible to make this platform usable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators.” I checked in with West this week to see how her Twitter-free life was going, four years later. Like Mike, she talked about it as a former addict might: “In retrospect, it absolutely destroyed my mental health. The idea of waking up in the morning and looking at the phone on my bedstand and thinking, “What’s going to be there?” — and sometimes it was the worst thing in the world — I don’t miss that,” she said. At least as important: The upside that Twitter was supposed to offer her — attention and admiration from an audience she wanted to reach with her writing — turned out to be a mirage. “Nothing happened to my career after I left Twitter,” she said. “There was absolutely no discernible effect, except that my mental health was better.” (And yes, West acknowledges that someone who writes for the Guardian and the New York Times will find it easier to leave Twitter than someone who’s hoping to use Twitter to help them get jobs writing for the Guardian and the New York Times.) But it’s not as though West doesn’t want attention or doesn’t like social media. She’s got a substantial following on Instagram, where she says people are much nicer than they were on Twitter. Plus a substack, of course. You almost always find that ambivalence — sometimes about Twitter, sometimes about all of the internet — when you talk to Twitter quitters. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman announced that he was bailing in 2016, citing continued, coordinated anti-Semitic abuse. But two years later, he was back. The main reason, Weisman said, was Twitter had spent time and effort figuring out how to remove some of its most awfully behaved users: “It’s not the cesspool that it once was,” he says. “The steps that Twitter made were in good faith and they should be rewarded for that.” But Weisman also feels he should be on Twitter — partly so he can mainline news, and partly so he can promote his and his colleagues’ work. And then, in his next breath, he casts doubt on that motivation: Twitter, he argues, may be a good place to promote yourself. But to get people to read your work? Not so much. “I can see a tweet with enormous numbers of mentions and retweets or whatever — and then I click on the statistics about how many people actually read the story and its infinitesimal. It’s nothing,” he says. “People delude themselves about the power of Twitter to promote your story. It’s delusional.” And yes, Twitter is also used by people who aren’t in media and don’t have big public profiles. Those people can be conflicted about it, too. Derek Powazek is a former web designer who used to live in California’s Bay Area. He was an early Twitter fan — he thinks he may have been user number 4,000. Now he’s a hemp farmer in rural Oregon, and values the connections Twitter has allowed him to make and sustain. It has been particularly helpful to find like-minded people online, he says, when there aren’t that many living near him in the real world. “On its best day, Twitter is like a form of telepathy,” he says. “You know what your friends and people you admire are thinking about that day, as if by magic.” But Powazek talks about Twitter as an addictive product, too — one he’s tried to get off multiple times, including right now: “It’s like quitting a drug. I’m going through it now — I literally have withdrawals.” The question for Powazek and everyone else who has used and even loved Twitter, gotten sick of it, and then quit (at least temporarily): If Elon Musk owns Twitter, will he bring it backward and make it even harder to love? We don’t know, obviously, and it’s likely that Musk doesn’t, either: His well-documented shoot-first decision-making style means that anything is on the table. And his initial commentary and tweets about his intentions suggest that he hasn’t given his $44 billion purchase-to-be terribly deep thought beyond a general sense that there should be less moderation on the service. It’s possible we’ll learn more in the near future: Musk has had to outline at least a gesture of his vision to banks who’ve agreed to lend him money for his purchase, and I’ve been told he has been doing the same recently to prospective investors. Some of this will become public via reporting, and Musk may choose to share some of it himself. But we won’t know how any of this pans out until Musk actually owns the thing and then starts operating it. And then we’ll have to ask a couple hundred million people how they think things are going before we can really draw any conclusions.

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posted 18 days ago on re/code
Amazon workers participate in a May Day rally in Manhattan a day before a worker union lost an election at a second New York City warehouse. | Stephanie Keith/Getty Images The loss at an Amazon sort center in Staten Island comes a month after a historic win at a nearby warehouse. A month after a new union started by Amazon warehouse workers became the first to win a US election in the company’s history, workers at a nearby Amazon facility voted against unionizing with the same grassroots organization. Workers at an Amazon package sort center, known as LDJ5, voted 618 to 380 against unionizing with the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), a union founded last year by fired Amazon worker Chris Smalls and several colleagues. A victory at LDJ5 would have given the union the right to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with Amazon at two key warehouses that play separate but complementary roles in serving Amazon customers in the critical New York City metropolitan area. That combination could have given organizers more leverage in contract negotiations with Amazon, but that advantage looks gone for now. The loss comes a month after the historic election at a larger nearby Amazon fulfillment center called JFK8. There, the union captured 2,654 votes, while 2,131 voted against organizing. (Workers at Amazon fulfillment centers like JFK8 pick, stow, and pack customer merchandise to the tune of 300 to 400 items an hour, while workers at sort centers like LDJ5 typically sort already-packaged orders by geographic destination.) Amazon is seeking to throw out the results, arguing that both the union and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), which oversaw the election, acted inappropriately. The NLRB has scheduled a May 23 hearing to discuss Amazon’s objections. Separately, Amazon is still dealing with an organizing attempt by a separate union, the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, in Bessemer, Alabama. Votes were tallied in late March for a re-do election at the Alabama warehouse called BHM1, after an NLRB official ruled that Amazon illegally interfered with the first election at the facility in 2021. The union is currently trailing by a little more than 100 votes in Bessemer, but the outcome is still up in the air because Amazon and the union contested more than 400 additional ballots combined. Those need to be scrutinized at a future hearing — and potentially counted — before a final result is confirmed in the coming months. In the first overturned Bessemer vote in 2021, workers had voted overwhelmingly in Amazon’s favor. Whether a win or a loss at LDJ5, ALU was going to have an uphill battle, even if the original JFK8 election victory is upheld. Large anti-union employers like Amazon typically try to stall contract negotiations in the hopes the organizers or workers will lose interest, especially in a workplace like an Amazon warehouse where annual turnover rates have surpassed 100 percent. If a year passes after a finalized union election victory without a collective bargaining agreement, a decertification vote can take place. “It’ll be a big challenge to get that first contract in a reasonable amount of time, and the workers will need to continue organizing, continue to fight, and possibly take job actions in order to win that first contract,” Rebecca Givan, a Rutgers University labor professor, told Recode. This loss may make that JFK8 contract even harder to attain. Depending on your point of view, the loss at LDJ5 could suggest that ALU was only able to win at JFK8 because the worker-leaders personally knew many of the associates in the building and will struggle to organize any other Amazon warehouses. Amazon operates more than 800 warehouse facilities of different sizes across the US. Some might also see the defeat as a sign that ALU, with only a sliver of the resources of large established unions, tried to bite off more than it could chew. On the other hand, this week’s loss could be interpreted as a simple manifestation of the deck being stacked too heavily against ALU. The LDJ5 sort center workforce consists of a greater percentage of part-time workers than JFK8 — which typically makes organizing harder — and Amazon spent aggressively to make sure it doesn’t end up on the wrong side of history in a second straight union election. (Amazon spent more than $4 million on anti-union consultants in 2021 alone.) Amazon sort center roles also have a reputation among workers for being less stressful than some of the main roles at a larger fulfillment center like JFK8. Givan, the Rutgers professor, said she did not agree with those who might call the first victory a fluke in the wake of a loss at the second location. “People who don’t have a particular understanding of the broken NLRB process think that an election outcome is the result of a free and fair election where workers just said whether or not they wanted to unionize and that there is no undue influence or pressure,” Givan said. “In reality, it’s a demonstration of … the successful fear-mongering of the anti-union campaign.” In the union drive at the larger JFK8 facility, the union said it wanted to push Amazon leadership for large hourly raises, longer breaks for workers, and union representation during all disciplinary meetings to prevent unjust firings that may exacerbate already-high staff turnover. At the smaller LDJ5 sort center, organizers said one key motivation to unionize was Amazon’s unwillingness to provide workers with enough hours to make ends meet. Work hours are “not based on what workers want or the workers need,” a union organizer and LDJ5 employee recently told the New York Times. “It’s based off of what Amazon has figured out to be most efficient at the expense of the workers.” Still, even before the loss at LDJ5 — or the victory at JFK8, for that matter — the pressure from the first pandemic-era union drive at the Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse seemed to have forced Jeff Bezos to reconsider the company’s treatment of its workforce. In his final shareholder letter as CEO in 2021, he said his company needs “to do a better job for our employees.” In the same letter, Bezos announced a new mission for his company: “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” Then came the win at JFK8 despite Amazon’s long history of union-busting in the 28 years since Jeff Bezos founded the company in 1994 as an online seller of books. But on Monday, the latest inflection point in the internal labor battle went Amazon’s way.

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posted 18 days ago on re/code
President Joe Biden speaks about ongoing supply chain problems, domestic semiconductor supplies, and his administration’s efforts to “make more in America” on January 21 in Washington, DC. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images A billion-dollar chip factory just opened in upstate New York. The Biden administration wants more. MARCY, New York — From afar, the new Wolfspeed factory in upstate New York looks like any other large corporate office building, with an unassuming gray exterior and large glass windows. But hidden inside is a high-tech plant that’s almost entirely operated by a fleet of robots programmed to build semiconductors with a high level of precision. The scene is a far cry from the manual labor of the 20th-century Ford assembly line, and it just might be the future of American manufacturing, at least according to the politicians and executives who celebrated the plant’s grand opening in late April. To mark the occasion, a few hundred people, including Wolfspeed employees, investors, and local officials, gathered in a large tent just a short walk away from the factory’s entryway. A series of speakers, including Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe, took turns boasting about the plant’s importance — for local jobs, for technology, for fighting climate change, and even for American prosperity. Also in attendance was Eric Bach, the chief engineer of Lucid Motors, an electric automaker that, just a few hours earlier, announced it would start using Wolfspeed’s chips in its vehicles. The star of the show: New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, who claimed the new facility was part of the “greatest comeback in the history of this nation” before she took a spin in one of the luxury Lucid EVs. “This has to happen. No longer can the country, the United States, be brought to its knees because of supply chain issues,” Hochul told Recode. “Make them here! Make them in New York! We’ll put the money behind it.” Courtesy of Wolfspeed Wolfspeed CEO Gregg Lowe shows Gov. Kathy Hochul the manufacturing process at the company’s chip fabrication facility in Marcy, New York, on April 25. Wolfspeed’s factory is opening its doors after more than two years of a worldwide semiconductor shortage that left cars without parts and the health care system low on medical devices. To produce more chips, the Biden administration, with the help of state governments, now plans to invest $52 billion in the chip industry to build more factories just like the new plant outside Utica, New York. The hope is that these plants won’t just make more semiconductors; they’ll spur a tech manufacturing renaissance in the same country that invented the computer chip and produced Silicon Valley decades ago. This new crop of chip factories, sometimes called fabs, won’t be ready in time to solve the current chip shortage. These facilities will take years to build, and even when they’re completed, they won’t produce as many chips as the US uses. Still, the government thinks the fabs could play a critical role in blunting the impact of a future crisis, like climate change or another pandemic. They also might help the US regain leadership in the industry it created and catch up to Taiwan, which makes almost all of the world’s most advanced chips today. What’s unclear, however, is whether funding the construction of new fabs will be enough to make that happen. Building a single fab is a huge industrial project, so building several — quickly — will be a colossal undertaking. To an extent, the US is trying to domesticate technology that, for decades, has been produced by an international supply chain made up of thousands of companies, which means the success of these new fabs may still depend on other parts of the world. And even as the White House races to claim a bigger share of the world’s total chip manufacturing, other countries, including Taiwan, are trying to do the same thing, which means there’s no guarantee the US will end up with the upper hand that it wants. How America lost its homemade chips The US once dominated chip manufacturing. In 1947, scientists at Bell Labs created the world’s first transistor, a basic electronic switch, that can turn a signal on and off. This component became the foundation for the integrated circuit, also known as a computer chip, which packed multiple transistors into a single device. As the technology developed, new companies began competing not only to design chips with more transistors, but also to produce these chips at scale. High-tech manufacturing corridors emerged in Texas and what became Silicon Valley, paving the way for advanced consumer devices and appliances, often built with chips made in America. James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images The world’s first transistor on display at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. The government played a pivotal role in making sure the US led the charge on this technology. The Defense Department was often the first customer for early semiconductor startups, and government officials sometimes required companies to share their designs so that other firms could use them, too. This support funded initial research that these chip companies otherwise couldn’t afford and laid the foundation for the tech industry we have today. The US used this funding strategy — sometimes called industrial policy — again in the late 1980s when it spent $900 million on a partnership called Sematech, in which American chip companies tried to ensure that they wouldn’t be overtaken by emerging competitors in Japan. For a time, the program succeeded. But in recent decades, the US government has invested less and less in its homegrown chip industry, while other governments including Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and, more recently, the European Union and China, have invested more. These massive subsidies — along with lower labor costs — have made it much cheaper for American companies to manufacture semiconductors abroad. Some even have taken a “fabless” approach, and focused their entire business on researching and designing chips rather than making them. As a result, just 12 percent of the world’s chip manufacturing takes place in the US today, compared to 37 percent in 1990. This shift has benefited one company in particular: Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, or TSMC, a Taiwanese chipmaker that manufactures chips on behalf of other firms. There’s a race to make smaller transistors — so more of them can fit onto a single chip — and TSMC is currently winning. Because of all of its manufacturing experience, Taiwan now makes 92 percent of chips, including the most advanced semiconductors on the market today, which have transistors that are less than 10 nanometers wide. None of these advanced chips are currently made in the US, which makes officials very worried. “It’s a highly concentrated supply chain in certain parts of the world like Korea and Taiwan, and that has made our economy really vulnerable to disruptions because small events in countries can lead to large cost increases for American consumers and large shocks to US GDP,” Sameera Fazili, the deputy director of the Biden administration’s National Economic Council, told Recode. “They have the most advanced leading-edge chips, whereas we consume over 30 percent of those chips.” In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images Employees work in the wafer fab of Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. in Shanghai, China, in February 2011. The China-based manufacturer is one of the largest chip foundries in the world. This concern is based, in part, on fears that China may invade Taiwan at some point and attempt to take control of its chip-manufacturing capacity. But there are other reasons to be worried about the state of US semiconductors. The US doesn’t currently make very many of the most basic, or legacy, chips, which are typically produced where they can be made for less. These are the chips that became unavailable during the pandemic, and that made lots of technology hard to find and drove up car prices. The US will also need to manufacture more chips to maintain its hold on the auto industry, since EVs will likely need at least twice as many chips as their gas-powered counterparts do. How to build a chip factory To make its chips, Wolfspeed uses silicon carbide, a semiconducting material that’s especially useful for chips that power motors, like those in EVs. This silicon carbide comes in the form of translucent discs called wafers, which are delivered from another Wolfspeed plant in North Carolina. That facility has a special furnace that gets half as hot as the surface of the sun, which is needed to refine the material. Once these silicon carbide wafers are delivered to Wolfspeed’s facility in Marcy, they’re sent to a manufacturing floor, where a small army of robots slowly transforms them into sheets of chips. Chipmaking is extremely delicate — the tiniest speck of dust or human hair can taint an entire batch — so Wolfspeed refines its wafers in a cleanroom, a highly monitored manufacturing floor with powerful air filtration systems. Inside this cleanroom, robots shuttle wafers between manufacturing steps while technicians monitor their activity from a nearby control room. This process includes lithography, when tiny patterns are printed into the wafer, and something called deposition, which involves adding layers of metals onto the silicon carbide. Once those steps are completed, the wafers are sent to another facility where they’re diced into individual chips. The entire operation is automated, and on the rare occasion that workers do need to enter the cleanroom, they have to wear astronaut-like protective gear, including a full bodysuit, a face shield, and boots. Making chips is an intricate process, but building a factory that can do this type of manufacturing is even more complicated. For one thing, fabs can’t go just anywhere. They need to be close to a reliable source of electricity, since they can use as much energy as 50,000 homes in a single year (they release a lot of carbon emissions, too). These factories also need to be near a large body of water, which they use to clean and cool down their equipment, which, in turn, produces wastewater that needs to be treated. And it’s better if they’re not particularly close to any airports or geological fault lines; seismic activity can disrupt the incredibly precise machinery they use. Then there’s the matter of the supply chain. Beyond the fab, making a chip can involve 70 different border crossings and more than 1,000 steps, and a single disruption in one country or during a particular step can throw the entire process off course. That’s because there are usually very few, if any, other options for supplies when something goes wrong. For example, just one company in the Netherlands, ASML, makes the specialized, $200 million lithography tools that many advanced chip fabs rely on. And just two firms, both based in Ukraine, supply about half of the specialized neon gas that fabs throughout the world use to control these lasers. Of course, securing all this equipment has gotten even more difficult during the pandemic. “We couldn’t get this. We couldn’t get that,” John Palmour, Wolfspeed’s chief technology officer, told Recode. “It was just a constant supply chain scramble.” Courtesy of Wolfspeed Wolfspeed’s silicon carbide 200mm semiconductor wafer. All of this means the cost of building a fab can range from $1 billion to $20 billion, depending on the complexity of the chips that are being manufactured. This is the primary reason that the recent surge in demand for chips — fueled in part by the demand for more laptops and more cars — did not immediately result in more chip fabs. Because these plants take years to greenlight and construct, chip companies aren’t eager to spend billions on building more factories, since demand could always subside. This is partially why governments often intervene and provide incentives to build more chip factories. Case in point: New York officials spent decades trying to attract a semiconductor company to Marcy, where New York state has funded a nanocenter associated with the SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Wolfspeed only agreed to take over the site after another company backed out and New York offered to subsidize the fab with a $500 million grant — about half of its total construction costs. Now, even more money is on the horizon, not just for another Wolfspeed factory, but for possibly even bigger fabs, including a new $100 billion megafab in Ohio built by Intel, which the administration is hoping will regain “the leading edge” and start building the same kind of advanced chips that TSMC makes. President Joe Biden, in his most recent State of the Union address, said that this facility, once it’s built, could provide as many as “10,000 new good-paying jobs.” The big chip bet Before any of that can happen, officials say the US needs to pass a $52 billion package called the Chips Act, which would subsidize the construction of several new fabs. Currently, the bill is packaged within a broader proposal called the United States Innovation and Competition Act, legislation focused on competitiveness with China. While the House and the Senate version of this plan aren’t exactly the same, the initiative has the support of Republicans, Democrats, the White House, and the major chip companies. The support from the industry isn’t surprising; each of these companies could theoretically receive up to $3 billion to build a new factory, and another $2 billion may be earmarked specifically to build a fab that would exclusively focus on more basic chips used in cars. Proponents of the massive bill argue that it’s the bare minimum because other countries are still subsidizing chip manufacturing, too. Back in 2014, China launched a $150 billion effort to boost its own semiconductor industry over the next decade, and the country has imported fewer and fewer chips in recent years. South Korea plans to spend as much as $65 billion on its own national chip initiative. The European Union also has its own $49 billion Chips Act, and its member countries, including Spain and Germany, will soon launch their own incentive programs. “The clock is ticking,” John Neuffer, the CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association, a trade organization that represents American chip companies, told Recode. “Decisions are being made today as to where to site those fabs.” Courtesy of Wolfspeed A Lucid electric vehicle cuts the ribbon at the new Wolfspeed chip fab in Marcy, New York, on April 25. Not everyone loves this approach; it’s effectively a corporate subsidy for companies that are already extremely profitable. Sen. Bernie Sanders has been highly critical of the Chips Act, and has said that chip companies should have to give up equity in exchange for massive grants. Others have argued that these companies would build new factories in the US regardless of federal incentives, since they also have reasons to steer clear of potential geopolitical conflict. And critics point out that chipmaking is not quite the jobs-creator that it’s sometimes advertised as, with most actual chip manufacturing being done via automation. There’s no guarantee the funding will work. The US may not have enough of the specialized workers that chip manufacturing requires to support the number of fabs that officials want. Will Hunt, an analyst at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET), estimates that eight new fabs may require at least a few thousand foreign workers, since many of these facilities need to hire people with previous experience working in semiconductor manufacturing. Another concern is that the US’s lengthy regulatory and permitting process could slow down the construction of new factories, and the US already builds new fabs at a slower rate than countries in East Asia. Even after these facilities are constructed, they may not produce the number of chips or jobs that companies promise. A senior economic official at the White House told Recode that while the $52 billion will boost American chip manufacturing, it won’t be enough to produce the number of chips the US consumes. Still, the government thinks that gaining this manufacturing expertise could be critical during a future emergency. After all, the pandemic has illustrated time and time again that when supplies are short, countries will try to secure the world’s most sought-after products — whether it’s chips, masks, or vaccines — and can even use them as a way to influence international relations. Governments would rather other governments be dependent on them than the other way around. In other words, they want bargaining chips. So it’s not surprising that semiconductors have become that leverage. These tiny little chips are ubiquitous and have become a necessity in most people’s everyday lives. There’s no indication that’s changing anytime soon, especially since more powerful devices — which use even more powerful semiconductors — are always being rolled out. As long as the world depends on this technology, countries will want as much control over chips as they can get. That means that even with Wolfspeed’s factory now open for business, the US still has a long road ahead.

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posted 20 days ago on re/code
Protesters take part in an anti-government demonstration near the president’s office in Colombo on April 30, 2022, demanding President Gotabaya Rajapaksas resignation over the country’s crippling economic crisis. | Ishara S. Kodikara for AFP via Getty Images A mountain of foreign debt has led the country to default on loans for the first time since their 1948 independence. After a month of intense civilian-led protests over Sri Lanka’s deteriorating economy, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa agreed to appoint a new council on Friday to lead the formation of an interim government. The resolution would create a coalition made up of all parties in Parliament and would remove the grip of the Rajapaksa family dynasty currently ruling the country. At issue is the country’s economic future which is in shambles after defaulting on payments on its mountain of foreign loans — estimated to be worth $50 billion — for the first time since the country gained independence from the British in 1948. Signs of Sri Lanka’s impending economic crisis became increasingly apparent over the last two years of the Covid-19 pandemic as food prices soared and power blackouts increased in frequency. Sri Lanka currently has about $7 billion in total debt due this year. Many attribute Sri Lanka’s economic crisis to the mishandling of its finances by successive governments through mounting foreign debt and continued infrastructure investments. The Rajapaksa administration also implemented sweeping tax cuts in 2019, slashing the value added tax (VAT) rate — the tax applied to imports and domestic supplies — from 15 percent to eight percent which contributed to a decrease in the country’s revenue. The president’s older brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is expected to be removed as prime minister as part of an agreement brokered by former President Maithripala Sirisena, who defected with dozens of other members of the incumbent president’s governing party in April in protest of the Rajapaksas’ poor governing. But the country’s power struggle may have sown discord between the two brothers which could exacerbate its political impasse. On Friday, the Associated Press reported a spokesperson for the prime minister did not immediately confirm the elder Rajapaksa’s removal, saying that any such decisions would be announced by the prime minister in due time. The country continued to mount foreign debt without sufficient revenue A big part of Sri Lanka’s economic woes is its ballooning foreign debt, namely to fund its aggressive turn to infrastructure development under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the elder Rajapaksa sibling and two-time prime minister. With its finances already bleeding, Sri Lanka took out major investment loans from state-owned Chinese banks to fund its infrastructure projects including a controversial port development in the Hambantota district. The Sri Lankan government justified the Hambantota project as a way to grow its economy as a bustling trade hub comparable to Singapore. However, the project was riddled with corruption and stalled, and Sri Lanka eventually handed over the port’s control to China as collateral after it was unable to pay back its loans. Over the last decade, Sri Lanka amassed a debt of $5 billion to China alone, making up a large portion of its overall foreign debt, according to the BBC. Sri Lanka’s bloated debt to China and the Hambantota project failure are often held up as an example of the “debtbook diplomacy” that China has pursued in the last couple of decades. Some believe China has expanded that monetary diplomacy approach through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure project involving Chinese investment in infrastructure developments in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe that is later repaid, as part of China’s bid to increase global influence as a growing economic power. About 139 out of 146 of the world’s countries, including Sri Lanka, have signed on to China’s BRI project. While an infrastructure project on such a global scale may provide some economic benefits to the participating countries, the BRI has inevitably become a strategic way for China to gain political leverage with economically vulnerable countries across the Asia-Pacific region. At least 16 countries involved in the BRI project have been saddled with billions of dollars of debt which China then has leveraged, according to an independent analysis by Harvard’s Kennedy School for the US State Department. About 22 percent of Sri Lanka’s debt is owed to bilateral creditors — institutional investors from foreign governments — according to CNBC. Neighboring India has sought to grow its bilateral cooperation with Sri Lanka partly as an attempt to secure its influence in South Asia over China. India recently gave Sri Lanka a $1.5 billion credit line to tide over the country’s fuel crisis in addition to another $2.4 billion through a currency swap and loan deferment since January. As the country amassed foreign debt, its tourism sector — previously a $44 billion industry and a primary revenue source for the island — took successive hits. In 2019, tourism suffered after a series of church bombings that killed nearly 300 people, including some foreign nationals. The next year, the Covid-19 pandemic halted tourism and other major sectors, spurring a global economic downturn. Although Sri Lanka saw some increase in its number of foreign visitors last year, the ongoing pandemic combined with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — both nations leading sources of tourism for Sri Lanka before the conflict — continued to slow the industry’s recovery. A worsening crisis triggered mass protests The country’s issues escalated in March when the Sri Lankan government announced a 13-hour daily power cut as a way to save energy amid the ongoing crisis. Without sufficient power, many were unable to do their jobs as the economic crisis continued, prompting mass unrest. Thousands of Sri Lankans took to the streets in the weeks following the power cut to protest the country’s growing crisis. On April 1, President Rajapaksa declared an emergency as growing unrest saw protesters clash with police. The entire Sri Lankan government Cabinet resigned in protest not long after the emergency law was implemented, causing Rajapaksa to revoke the law. Among those who resigned was Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, another member of the Rajapaksa family and the president’s nephew. With growing political unrest and no resolution in sight, Rajapaksa’s rivals began calls for a no-confidence vote against his administration. “We are confident we have the numbers and we will bring the motion at the appropriate time,” opposition lawmaker Harsha de Silva told CNBC. Hoping to placate critics, President Rajapaksa sought to form a new unity coalition under his leadership but failed to gain support. In April, the government also announced it would temporarily suspend foreign debt payments, marking the first time Sri Lanka had defaulted on foreign loans since its independence. Experts had been warning of a potential dire situation around the country’s finances for some time. When the country defaulted, the government had been negotiating a bailout plan with the International Monetary Fund, which had assessed its accumulated debt as unsustainable. “The government intends to pursue its discussions with the IMF as expeditiously as possible with a view to formulating and presenting to the country’s creditors a comprehensive plan for restoring Sri Lanka’s external public debt to a fully sustainable position,” the Finance Ministry said in a statement. In a meeting with Cabinet officials a week later, President Rajapaksa acknowledged his government’s role in the country’s declining economy. Specifically, the president said the government should have approached the IMF earlier for support in tackling its unruly foreign debt and that they should have avoided the ban on imported chemical fertilizers which was meant to preserve Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange holdings but instead hurt its agricultural production. “During the last two and a half years we have had vast challenges. The Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the debt burden, and some mistakes on our part,” Rajapaksa said. Now, Sri Lanka’s future rests on whether the president’s proposed government changes will placate his growing opposition long enough for a solution to come through from the IMF. The Sri Lankan head of finance, Nandalal Weerasinghe, has stated that such a hoped-for deal could still be months away, however.

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posted 20 days ago on re/code
The Great Resignation is not just for kids. | Getty Images/iStockphoto Older, more tenured people are increasingly quitting their jobs. With prices soaring and analysts predicting a recession on the horizon, it might not seem like the best time to quit your job. But that’s not keeping American workers, especially older, more tenured ones, from doing so. Higher-paid workers are increasingly quitting their jobs, as the Great Resignation — also known as the Great Reshuffle — enters its second year. Earlier in the pandemic, the trend was led by younger, less-tenured workers in low-paying industries like retail, food service, and health care. Now, the main growth in quit rates is coming from older, more tenured workers in higher-paid industries like finance, tech, and other knowledge worker fields, according to data from two separate human resources and analytics companies. These workers say they are searching for less tangible benefits like meaning and flexibility. That changing composition of who is quitting paints an increasingly complicated picture of the state of work in America and suggests that while quit rates have decreased slightly from their highs last year, the phenomenon is not going away just yet. “The Great Resignation is almost like a train, where it’s built all this momentum and it’s hard to slow down, but certain workers are getting off the train and new workers are coming on,” said Luke Pardue, an economist at Gusto, which provides payroll, benefits, and human resource management software to small- and medium-sized businesses. Rates of quits are always highest among younger workers — those who tend to be less invested in their jobs and whose lives are less stable. This was true during the early stages of the pandemic when these workers quit their jobs amid heightened demand to eke out better wages and conditions elsewhere (though those gains are unlikely to be permanent). But those quit rates have been declining. Data from Gusto, which typically works with companies that have around 25 employees, shows that the average tenure of people who quit has grown in every age group and in nearly every industry. In other words, older people who’ve worked at a job longer are also quitting. A similar change is happening at bigger companies, according to data from people analytics provider Visier. !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-ceS03");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-ceS03");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() !function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}});window.addEventListener('DOMContentLoaded',function(){var i=document.createElement("iframe");var e=document.getElementById("datawrapper-yDfl6");var t=e.dataset.iframeTitle||'Interactive graphic';i.setAttribute("src",e.dataset.iframe);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("frameborder","0");i.setAttribute("scrolling","no");i.setAttribute("aria-label",e.dataset.iframeFallbackAlt||t);i.setAttribute("title",t);i.setAttribute("height","400");i.setAttribute("id","datawrapper-chart-yDfl6");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Between the first quarter of 2021 and 2022, the greatest growth in resignations was among people aged 40 to 60 and those with a tenure of more than 10 years, a Visier dataset from companies with over 1,000 employees shows. Older and more tenured people are especially likely to be quitting in knowledge worker industries like finance and tech. Their reasons are myriad. “Don’t look for one thing that’s driving the Great Resignation,” Ian Cook, Visier’s vice president of people analytics, told Recode. “It’s actually made up from a combination of different patterns and will continue to change as the labor market changes and as the economic recovery changes.” Among the more financially stable set, quits are being driven by everything from a desire to continue working remotely to a greater search for meaning to simply having the means to do so. Columbia Business School professor Adam Galinsky calls this iteration of the Great Resignation the “great midlife crisis.” “At the midpoint of life, we become aware of our own mortality, and it allows us to reflect on what really matters to us,” said Galinsky. The pandemic has amplified that effect. “A global pandemic obviously makes people reflect on their own mortality in terms of being afraid of dying themselves or having a loved one or family and colleagues pass away.” Importantly, the people who quit to hold out for the jobs they want or forgo work entirely are usually the ones with the financial means to do so. Galinsky, who is currently on sabbatical in Hawaii, says he’s seen it among his peers and among other high-earning knowledge workers now working from his island getaway. He mentioned a Bloomberg employee who quit after the finance publication called workers back to the office and who now works on a pasta truck. Such workers, either due to savings or a spouse’s income, have the freedom to look for other work, including gig work or starting their own business. A Gusto survey of new businesses shows that they’ve shifted from e-commerce startups earlier in the pandemic to more professional services, like, say, an accountant starting her own firm rather than working for someone else. Many of these workers, especially those who are older and more stable in their careers, now have the perspective to consider what they really want out of their lives and work. After more than two years of successfully working from home, many knowledge workers are loath to come back to the office, and some are jumping ship if they feel they have to do so. That makes sense. Data from Slack’s ongoing survey of 10,000 knowledge workers just found that with a third of them now back in the office five days a week, their work-related stress and anxiety has reached its highest level since the survey began in 2020. Growth in knowledge worker quits also might just simply be a case of people copying one another. “Workers who have this experience, that switched a job, that became more flexible, talk about it and how they had a great experience, and that leads their neighbor or their friend to do the same,” Pardue said. They’re also quitting because there are a lot of jobs out there for them. The number of business and professional services job openings is at a record high, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. According to job site Indeed, the number of high-paid job postings has not cooled as much as postings for low-paid jobs (postings for both remain above pre-pandemic levels). So while the future might look grim, the present looks just fine for these workers, who are confident in the current tight job market. As Galinsky put it, “People believe less in global warming on days it snows.”

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