posted about 7 hours ago on re/code
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images The company says it wants to promote “more informed sharing.” The next time you try to share an article without actually reading it first, Facebook will warn you to think again. The social media company announced on Monday morning that, starting today, it will test a new feature prompting users to actually open and read articles before sharing them on the platform. Facebook will start testing the feature on around 6 percent of its global users on Android, a company spokesperson told Recode. Twitter started testing a similar feature in June of last year and rolled it out to all its users more broadly in September. Facebook’s move is the latest example of social media companies trying to slow the rampant spread of misinformation and harmful content on their platforms by nudging users to slow down before sharing content. Some social media researchers have long advocated for this kind of prompting, which they hope will minimize people reacting to a provocative headline without actually getting the fuller context of the story. But since these features are relatively new, it’s unclear how much these interventions will actually work, or if people will just skip through prompts and share news without reading it anyway. And even if someone clicks on an article after Facebook asks them to, there’s no guarantee they will actually read the whole story — so this isn’t a complete fix. Facebook announced the news on a company Twitter account on Monday, including an image of what the prompt will look like. If you open an article without clicking on it, Facebook will tell you the following: “You’re about to share this article without opening it. Sharing articles without reading them may mean missing key facts.” The company will then prompt users to either open the article first, or continue sharing without reading. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for further comment, beyond clarifying the percent of users that will test the feature. Facebook Screenshot of the new prompts Facebook will warn users with. There are some early signs that even if features like this won’t entirely stop the spread of false information or polarizing content, they may help people at least read more context about the news of the day. Back in September, Twitter shared early insights after it started testing a similar feature on its Android app. The data showed the prompts led people to open articles 40 percent more often. Last week, Twitter also rolled out a feature to prompt people to reconsider tweeting “offensive or hurtful language.” And ahead of the 2020 US presidential election, both Twitter and Facebook started combating misleading information on their platforms by labeling politically misleading tweets and barring users from “Liking” or replying to those posts. Social media companies have many levers they can pull to slow or stop the spread of harmful information and divisive rhetoric. Banning people outright — like Facebook and Twitter did with Donald Trump — is one of them, but it’s a controversial option, and in many cases, far too blunt a tool. Features like the one Facebook started testing Monday, which “nudge” users to stop sharing uninformed content, can potentially accomplish more by gradually shifting how people post on the platform — before they share divisive or misleading content.

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posted about 8 hours ago on re/code
Colonial Pipeline shut down its massive oil pipeline after a ransomware attack took some of its systems offline. Above, a Colonial facility in 2016. | Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images And what it means for gas prices. Hackers have used a ransomware attack to shut a major American oil pipeline down for several days, forcing the Biden administration to declare a regional state of emergency to keep some of the oil supply moving until the pipeline can function again. The cyberattack looks to be the largest ever on an American energy system, and yet another example of cybersecurity vulnerabilities that President Biden has promised to address. The Colonial Pipeline Company reported on May 7 that it was the victim of a “cybersecurity attack” that “involves ransomware,” forcing the company to take some systems offline and disabling the pipeline. The Georgia-based company says it operates the largest petroleum pipeline in the United States, carrying 2.5 million barrels a day of gasoline, diesel, heating oil, and jet fuel on its 5,500-mile route from Texas to New Jersey. The pipeline supplies nearly half of the East Coast’s fuel supply, and a prolonged shutdown could cause price increases and shortages and ripple across the industry. Colonial said on Monday that it hoped to “substantially restore” its operations by the end of the week and minimize disruption caused by the shutdown. According to the Washington Post, a weeklong stoppage could cause a small, temporary increase on gas prices. A hacker group called DarkSide, believed to be based in Eastern Europe, has claimed credit for the attack. DarkSide does not appear to be linked to any nation-states, saying in a statement that “our goal is to make money, [not to create] problems for society” and that is apolitical. It’s not known how much money the hackers are demanding, nor how much, if anything, Colonial has paid — assuming it’s willing to pay anything. Ransomware attacks generally use malware to lock companies out of their own systems until a ransom is paid. They’ve surged in the past few years and cost billions of dollars in ransoms paid alone — not counting those that aren’t reported and any associated costs with having systems offline until the ransom is paid. Ransomware attacks have targeted everything from private businesses to the government to hospitals and health care systems. The latter are especially attractive targets, given how urgent it is to get their systems back up as soon as possible. Energy systems and suppliers have also been a target of ransomware and cyberattacks. The cybersecurity of America’s energy infrastructure has been a particular concern in recent years, with the Trump administration declaring a national emergency in May 2020 meant to secure America’s bulk power system with an executive order that would forbid the acquisition of equipment from countries that pose an “unacceptable risk to national security or the security and safety of American citizens.” Details on how the hackers were able to gain access to Colonial’s systems haven’t been made public yet, but Bloomberg reports that the attack began on May 6, with nearly 100GB of data stolen before Colonial’s computers were locked up. A ransom was demanded, both to stop the data from being leaked on the internet and to unlock the affected systems. With the pipeline down, the company and its fuel suppliers are hoping that fuel trucks and possibly tankers will make up for some of the shortage. Emergency waivers were given by the Department of Transportation to extend driver hours for trucks and some companies are looking into chartering tankers to deliver the fuel by ship. The latter option would likely mean waiving the Jones Act, a 1920 law that requires domestic shipping to be done on ships that are built, owned, and operated by American citizens or permanent residents. This has been done for other temporary fuel crises, for example in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Sandy. But these measures won’t be enough to fully replace the oil that the pipeline delivers. Concern over the attack underscores two of the Biden administration’s stated priorities: improving American infrastructure and cybersecurity. The large-scale Russian SolarWinds hack, disclosed in December 2020, was shown to have affected several federal government systems. Biden said then that as president, “my administration will make cybersecurity a top priority at every level of government — and we will make dealing with this breach a top priority from the moment we take office. ... I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation.” Biden has also unveiled a $2 trillion infrastructure plan that includes $100 billion to modernize the electrical grid, which cybersecurity experts hoped would include improved cybersecurity measures. Biden also suspended the Trump bulk power system executive order to roll out his own plan. And he reportedly plans to unveil an executive order soon that will strengthen cybersecurity at federal agencies and for federal contractors. But these measures are more focused on preventing another SolarWinds-like attack. Federal officials told the New York Times that they don’t think the order does enough to prevent a sophisticated attack, nor would it apply to a privately held company like Colonial. The attack might be enough to show the need for cybersecurity standards for companies that play such an important role in Americans’ lives yet are left up to their own devices about the security measures they use to protect those systems. “Ransomware is about extortion and extortion is about pressure,” James Shank, chief architect of community services at cybersecurity and threat intelligence company Team Cymru, told Recode. “Impacting fuel distribution gets peoples’ attention right away. ... This emphasizes the need for a coordinated effort that bridges public and private sector capabilities to protect our national interests.” Assuming the pipeline is back up by the end of the week, it shouldn’t cause a major or prolonged disruption to the fuel supply chain or hit consumers’ wallets too hard. But the next one — and many cybersecurity experts fear there will be a next one, or several next ones — could be a lot worse if measures aren’t taken at the highest levels to prevent them. “We can not think of these attacks as impacting private companies only — this is an attack on our country’s infrastructure,” Shank added.

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posted 3 days ago on re/code
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images The document makes blunt assessments about the uphill battle to overcome competitors like Amazon, Target, and Instacart. Walmart is still the world’s largest retailer, but a recent company memo highlights its struggles to overcome competitors like Amazon, Instacart, and Target. The document also hints at challenges the company’s new subscription service Walmart+ is facing in retaining new members. The 100-page document from February, which was viewed by Recode, was created for advertising agencies that Walmart invited to compete to handle the planning and buying of ad placements for the retail giant. The memo makes several blunt assessments about the uphill battle Walmart faces to hold onto its once-dominant retail market position, including in the US grocery industry, where the company has long been No. 1 in sales. “Grocery, the growth engine of the business, is losing share rapidly,” one slide reads. “More than ever, Walmart shopper[s] are choosing the competition,” the slide continues, alongside logos of competitors like Publix, Target, and Albertsons as well as stats showing increasing customer traffic at those chains and a decline at Walmart. “Walmart is not first and preferred,” another slide about the grocery business says. “Must elevate quality assortment + value!” Even in the online grocery market, where Walmart has held the No. 1 position thanks in large part to its popular curbside pickup service at its supercenter stores, the memo reports that the company is barely holding on to the lead position. Delivery company Instacart gained popularity at Walmart’s expense early in the pandemic, when the retail chain could not keep up with the rush of customer demand, the memo states, and is seen on an enclosed chart as being nearly even with the retail giant for the top position in the US online grocery market. Walmart spokesperson Molly Blakeman declined to comment on the memo and its contents. While executives at the $400 billion retail giant are known to be self-critical internally, the memo is notable in the stark picture it paints of how competitors are chipping away at Walmart’s strengths, and the challenges the company is encountering in trying to build a viable alternative to Amazon Prime. Walmart has indeed benefited from the pandemic, with revenue and profits increasing in the company’s last fiscal year, and e-commerce sales soaring nearly 80 percent. But many of Walmart’s competitors have benefited too, from Amazon and Instacart to Target and regional grocery chains like Texas giant HEB — and the memo makes that fact clear. One of Walmart’s biggest new bets is Walmart+, a subscription service that Recode first reported on and which launched in September at $98 a year or $12.95 a month. The main perk of the service is unlimited delivery of groceries and other general merchandise from Walmart stores that, for orders more than $35, will be delivered as soon as the same day. The service also offers next-day delivery on some items from Walmart.com, fuel discounts at Walmart gas stations and those of partners, as well as access to “Scan & Go” technology, which allows shoppers to use smartphones to scan and purchase goods at Walmart stores. The Walmart memo from February says the company is seeing improvements when it comes to the percentage of members who renew when their membership lapses. But Walmart says the service still needs to improve renewal rates, as well as the rate at which free-trial participants convert to paying members and the number of members who purchase general merchandise alongside low-profit groceries. A source familiar with Walmart+ told Recode that retaining members has indeed been an issue for the new subscription service in its short existence and that retention is strongest among members who use the gas-discount perk of the program. Walmart+ is still less than a year old, though, and the memo says that the company will add more perks to the service in 2021 and might offer longer free trials as well as discounted memberships. Ahead of the Walmart+ launch, Recode reported that the retailer had considered other perks such as a branded credit card, early availability on product deals, and member access to another company’s popular streaming video service. Walmart felt pressure to create its own membership and loyalty program in part because more than half of Walmart’s top-spending families also have Amazon Prime memberships, Recode reported in 2020. Amazon, of course, is not the only threat mentioned. The memo also reveals a shrinking lead for Walmart over Instacart, the online grocery company whose contractors shop for orders at partner grocery chain stores and deliver them to customer doors that same day. An enclosed chart shows Walmart owning almost a 40 percent share of the online pickup and delivery grocery market prior to the pandemic, compared to just around 20 percent for Instacart. But the graphic shows Walmart’s share shrinking to 31 percent by February of this year, and Instacart nipping at its heels with about 30 percent share (Amazon is listed as an online grocery competitor on the slide, but its market share is not plotted on the chart.) Walmart states in the memo that it hopes to maintain its No. 1 position, in part, by investing in innovations like drone deliveries and the creation of mini-warehouses attached to stores that can more quickly fulfill online orders. Additionally, the memo states that Amazon and Target earned a larger portion of the average Walmart shopper’s spending in general merchandise categories during the pandemic. Among a competitor set that included Amazon, J.C. Penney, Target, and several other retailers, the document shows Walmart and Walmart.com sporting some of the lowest satisfaction shopper scores for quality and selection in the apparel category. Still, a company mission is to “establish Walmart as a credible apparel destination,” the document says. Despite all the hurdles and competition on many fronts, Walmart is today valued $20 billion higher than it was a year ago. But as the pandemic subsides in the US, Walmart seems well aware that continued growth is not guaranteed — and that its response to the array of competitive threats it now faces will determine its future.

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posted 4 days ago on re/code
Authenticator apps like Google Authenticator might seem intimidating, but they’re easy to use and safer than texts. | S3studio/Getty Images If you’re using texts for two-factor authentication, it’s time to change to an app. Here’s what you need to know. When people ask me for security tips, I give them the basics. One is a strong and long password with upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters. (No, “Passw0rd!” is not good enough.) Each password should also be unique to each account (We love a good password manager!). And you always use two-factor authentication, or 2FA. (Don’t be like me, who didn’t have 2FA on her bank account until a hacker wired $13,000 out of it.) But the type of 2FA you use is also increasingly important. Text-based 2FA, where a text with a six-digit code is sent to your phone to verify your identity, is better known and better understood because it uses technology most of us use all the time anyway. But it’s a technology that wasn’t meant to serve as an identify verifier, and it’s an increasingly insecure option as hackers continue to find ways to exploit it. That’s why I recommend using an authenticator app, like Google Authenticator, instead. Don’t let the name intimidate you: There are a few extra steps involved, but the effort is worth it. SIMjacking: Why your phone number isn’t good enough to verify your identity By the time Mykal Burns got the security text from T-Mobile informing him that his SIM card had been changed to a different phone, it was already too late. In the 20 minutes it took Burns to get the SIM switched back to his phone, his Instagram account was gone. With access to Burns’s SIM card, the hacker simply asked Instagram to send Burns a password recovery text in order to take over Burns’s account and lock him out. All Burns could do was watch the hacker destroy that part of his online life. “It had been wiped clean of the 1,200 or so photos I had shared since creating the account in 2012,” Burns, a Los Angeles-based television producer, told Recode. SIMjacking, or SIM swapping, was famously used to take over Twitter co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey’s own Twitter account in 2019. But as Burns’s story shows, you don’t have to be a famous billionaire to be a target. If a hacker knows enough about you to convince your mobile carrier that they are you, an unsuspecting customer service representative might switch your SIM to them. There have also been cases of mobile carrier employees accepting bribes to switch SIMs, in which case a hacker wouldn’t have to know much about you at all. Putting a PIN on your SIM might prevent some of this, but it’s not foolproof. And, as Vice reported in March, hackers have found other SMS exploits that don’t even require access to your SIM card. “SMS, as a technology, has been around for a long time,” Marc Rogers, executive director of cybersecurity at Okta, an identity authentication technology company, told Recode. “It was designed to be a cheap way of sending messages. It wasn’t designed to be secure. And we built a bunch of security services on top of it. ... There are now more ways to compromise an SMS service than they can hope to fix.” Basically, if you’re using texts or your phone number to verify your identity, it’s time to consider something else. Authenticator apps — which are usually free — take a few more steps to set up than text-based authentication. Some people might find that — choosing and downloading another app, scanning QR codes, accepting tokens — to be too intimidating or simply not worth the extra effort. I’m here to tell you that it’s not intimidating, and it is worth it. “That’s our whole purpose of really promoting these authentication apps,” Akhil Talwar, director of product management for LastPass, which makes a password manager and an authenticator app, told Recode. “They’re really easy to use, they’re super secure, and they’re also convenient. You’re just getting a push notification in some cases.” How to choose and use an authenticator app Authenticator apps work the same way text-based 2FA does, but instead of having a code sent to you via text, the code appears in the app. The code also changes every 30 seconds or so as an added measure of protection — it’s next to impossible for a hacker to guess at the right code when it changes so frequently. A hacker would have to be ridiculously lucky (anything’s possible, I guess) or have possession of your physical device to gain access to the code. Several sites have recommendations for good authenticator apps and their respective features, which should help you figure out which one works best for you. Google Authenticator is one of the most popular and it comes from Google, so you can trust that it’ll be around for a long time and that the company knows what it’s doing to keep the app secure. But it’s also one of the most basic authenticator apps out there. If you’re looking for a few more features, Authy is highly recommended by most, has a nice interface, and lets you search within the app for a specific account (very helpful if you have a lot of accounts to scroll through), and is easier to switch to a new device than Google Authenticator. LastPass and 1Password’s authenticator apps can be linked to those companies’ password managers. And Microsoft’s authenticator — which, like Google, has the backing of a massive and long-running company behind it — is also a good choice. “Three key things to think about when deciding on an authenticator app are the reputation and stability of the company that created it, the independent security reviews performed on it, and the ability to backup and restore the application in case of a lost or stolen phone,” Mathew Newfield, chief security and infrastructure officer at Unisys, told Recode. Some authenticators have a push function where you simply confirm you’re trying to log into a site rather than remember and enter a six-digit code. But not all authenticator apps do this, and not all websites and apps support that functionality — at least, not yet. Some apps give you an option to have a backup in the cloud or to use the app across multiple devices, which you might be happy to have if your phone (and, therefore, authenticator app on it) breaks or is lost. Some apps have a search function so you can find the app you’re trying to log into easily — pretty helpful if you have a long list of logins. “The one overarching rule is any authentication app is better than none,” Rogers, of Okta, said. Once you’ve decided on an authenticator app and downloaded it to your device, it’s time to add your accounts to it. In honor of our friend Burns, let’s use Instagram’s app as an example of how to connect your authenticator app to an account: Go to Settings > Security > Two-Factor Authentication > Authentication App From there, Instagram will ask to open your authenticator app and add your Instagram account automatically to it. You’ll then see a 6 digit code on the app. Enter that code on Instagram and you’re all set. Google Authenticator is your basic authenticator, and now my Instagram account is on it. But you aren’t done. Instagram will then show you a set of backup codes. Write some or all of those down and keep them in a safe place (not on your phone) — you might need them to restore access to the app or website if you lose access to your phone and your authenticator app doesn’t have its own backup system. Websites are a little different to set up. In honor of our other SIMjacked friend, Jack Dorsey, let’s use Twitter’s website as our example. Go to Settings and privacy > Security and account access > Security > Two-factor authentication > Authentication app. From there, you’ll be prompted to scan a QR code with your phone’s camera, which will open your authenticator app and add your Twitter account to it. If you can’t scan a QR code or the app won’t open correctly, you can also generate a code and enter it manually instead. Authy is another authenticator app. Adding my Twitter account is easy. Back on Twitter’s site, click “next” and enter the six-digit code on your app. Again, remember to save Twitter’s backup code somewhere safe. Now that you’re set up, when you log into Instagram or Twitter, you’ll be prompted to enter a code from your authenticator app. Open the app, get the code for the account you’re trying to log into, and enter that into the site or app. You can choose to do this every time you log into a site, or you can choose to only do it once if you’re using a device you trust. And that’s it. Two very important and final things to remember Once you’ve got the authenticator app up and running on an account, make sure you’ve disabled text-based 2FA and removed your phone number from the account (unfortunately, some apps and websites won’t let you do this). And don’t use your phone number as an account recovery backup option. After all, the whole reason why you’re doing this is that phone numbers make for poor identity verifiers. Finally, if you’re getting a new phone, make sure you transfer your authenticator app from your old device to the new one. If your authenticator app requires that you have both devices in your possession to do this, make sure you plan ahead, or else you’ll have to rely on all those account backup codes to manually restore access to your accounts. Not good. Not fun. But still better than being hacked. Again, this is going to be a little more work than relying on SMS-based 2FA, but think about what you stand to lose if your accounts are hacked. You may not realize how valuable some of those accounts — and the things on them — are until you lose them. Burns now uses an authenticator app wherever possible. He was able to get his Instagram account back after two days, thanks to a connection he had at Facebook. But he didn’t get back the 1,200 photos that were on his account — including those of his beloved dog, Bonnie, who died last year. His Instagram account is private now, and his use of it has been sparing. “I have most of the original photos backed up from my phone, but gone are any photo edits (filters, etc.) I made in the app, whatever memories I attached in the captions, and any comments from others,” Burn said. “Pretty disappointing ... I didn’t really post anything to the account for a year after getting it back, and have only recently begun posting photos again.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Apple CEO Tim Cook talks about the company’s app store during the product launch of the iPhone 7 in San Francisco, California, on September 7, 2016. | MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images John Gruber has a reasonably modest proposal. Apple’s App Store is a marvel. Introduced in 2008, a year after the debut of the iPhone, it’s become a marketplace that generates billions of high-margin dollars for Apple every year. But the App Store is also a problem for Apple. The company’s tight control over it — which is the only way iPhone customers can get apps onto their devices — has attracted sharp scrutiny, generating antitrust complaints and investigations, and now, a high-profile antitrust lawsuit from Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite. It seems impossible to imagine Apple fully relaxing its grip on the App Store, where it charges app developers as much as 30 percent of each sale they make within the store. This is in part because the company believes its control protects Apple users from malware and scams, and in part because Apple’s Wall Street story now depends on the high-margin profits the store generates. So it’s dug in against an increasing number of opponents. John Gruber thinks he has a face-saving solution: better signs. Or more accurately: signs. Gruber, a blogger and podcaster with a passionate audience among Apple fans (and executives), thinks Apple will eventually have to relent on at least one of the App Store policies former CEO Steve Jobs instituted years ago: Apps can’t tell their users they can buy something — say, sign up for the paid version of an app or buy virtual currency for Fortnite — outside of the app. In practice, this means developers that don’t want to sell through the App Store — such as Netflix and Spotify, which sell subscriptions to their streaming services on their own sites, so they don’t have to give Apple a cut of their monthly revenue — can’t tell app users they can do so when they open the app. Instead, they have to just hope users figure out how to do it on their own. Here, for example, is what Spotify tells iPhone users who want to start paying the company for a monthly subscription — You can’t do it this way, but we can’t tell you how you can do it. “We know, it’s not ideal.” Developers hated the rule — created explicitly to keep customers buying things on Apple-controlled apps — back when it first showed up in 2011. But they haven’t been able to get Apple to budge. Now, Gruber told me during this week’s Recode Media podcast, it seems like relenting on this rule is the most likely concession Apple can make — it doesn’t change Apple’s overall control of its app ecosystem, and Apple can afford to take a relatively small hit to its revenue that it might feel as a result. On the other hand, Gruber argues, Apple has to do something. Courts and regulators might force it to, and continuing to dig in now is not a good look. “At some point, you have to balance the dollars from holding on to every single penny they can through the App Store, with the damage it’s doing to Apple’s brand,” he said. And that brand matters to customers — and to the developers that depend on Apple but are increasingly unhappy about the way Apple runs the store. “I also think that there’s a reckoning within Apple that they really should look at the resentment that’s grown slowly but surely, like any slow festering problem, where so many developers resent Apple” over the 30 percent fee, he said. Like many other observers, Gruber doesn’t think Epic Games is likely to prevail in its fight against Apple. And ditching the no-signs rule now wouldn’t stop the case that’s already underway. But it could certainly help Apple in other fights. The conventional wisdom is now that Spotify has a better antitrust argument — in large part because Apple sells its own music service that competes with Spotify, but isn’t subject to the same 30 percent. European Union regulators said as much last week in a preliminary finding. Changing that rule now, before things get finalized — and before other suits pile in — could give Tim Cook and the company some breathing room.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Former President Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2021. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images Trump used to be everywhere on social media. Now he’s nowhere.  Donald Trump used to be everywhere on social media — but lately, it feels like he’s nowhere. Many have noted just how little people have been talking about Trump — from cable news to Google searches — since he lost the election and was kicked off Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube four months ago. New data Recode obtained from social media measurement firms Zignal Labs and CrowdTangle shows just how drastic the drop in conversation about Trump has been. Mentions of Trump went down by 34 percent on Twitter and 23 percent on Facebook the week after he was banned from both platforms following the Capitol riot on January 6. Since then, Trump mentions have continued to decline around 90 percent on both platforms from where they were the week of the riots. (That decline may be even greater than what the current data reflects on Twitter because it doesn’t include retweets and tweets from accounts that have since been deleted, like Trump’s.) Of course, it’s impossible to divorce the decline in the Trump conversation from the fact that he’s no longer president. It’s natural for people to talk less about a world leader once he or she is no longer in office. Even before the bans, mentions of Trump had started to drop after he lost the election. But Trump wasn’t an ordinary president, and he’d made it very clear he planned to continue being present in political discourse after his loss — as evidenced by his posts inciting Capitol rioters. Still, the steep decline of mentions in recent months shows just how the president who once set a national political agenda with his around-the-clock social media posts has been relegated to lesser relevance on the mainstream internet, and in conversation more broadly. Now that the Facebook oversight board has extended Trump’s Facebook ban six more months, that dampening will likely continue. What the data shows During his four years in office, Trump was one of the most active and influential figures on social media, often setting off global news cycles with a single 140-character tweet. And even after Trump lost the election, he was able to garner unparalleled social media attention as he perpetuated baseless conspiracy theories about the election results. But everything changed when a crowd stormed the US Capitol in early January as Trump encouraged his followers to overturn the result of the election. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube then took the unprecedented step of kicking the then-sitting US president off their services. Recode asked Zignal Labs and Facebook-owned CrowdTangle for data about Trump’s social media mentions to better understand his social media presence over time, and how his social media suspensions impacted that presence. !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-eWUSI");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-eWUSI");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() On Twitter, Trump garnered nearly 50 million mentions in the week beginning January 3, the week of the Capitol riots, according to data from Zignal, which searched for “Trump” as a keyword or hashtag. The following week, after Trump was banned, mentions dropped to around 30 million and have continued to decline precipitously. In the last month, that number has shrunk to around 3 million mentions per week — or roughly the level it was at in 2016, before Trump became president. “While Donald Trump is still a heavily discussed figure on Twitter, his suspension in January has had a significant impact on the volume of mentions of his name on the platform,” said Jennifer Granston, chief customer officer and head of insights at Zignal Labs. “In the nearly five months since the permanent suspension of his account, there have been 151 million mentions of his name on Twitter. For context, during just the week of the 2020 presidential election, his name accumulated 56 million mentions.” Screenshot of CrowdTangle data on Facebook interactions — “Likes,” reactions, comments, and shares — with posts including “Trump” over time. On Facebook, the week that included Election Day 2020 had the highest number of interactions, with 427 million “Likes,” reactions, comments, and shares on posts by Trump or including the word “Trump” on Facebook pages, public groups, and verified profiles. That spiked again to around 300 million the week of the Capitol riot but has since declined to levels below any seen in the past year — around 30 million a week. CrowdTangle’s data, as of publication, includes engagement with Trump’s account that has happened after he was banned from posting. Again, it’s not entirely surprising that a lame-duck president would start to fade from public discussion. But Trump was an exception. Even after his mentions and presence on social media had begun to decline post-election, he rallied his social media followers in a drastic rebound. In early January, Trump capitalized on the “#stopthesteal” social media campaign to attempt to overturn the results of the election and once again dominate discussion on Twitter. One of the reasons the conversation about Trump finally dropped off is because, at the same time they banned Trump, social media companies also cracked down on major far-right groups that bolstered discussion of Trump online, like “#stopthesteal,” QAnon, boogaloo, and Proud Boys. For example, about a week after banning Trump, Twitter suspended more than 70,000 QAnon accounts popular among Trump loyalists. With Trump off Twitter, that also meant people couldn’t retweet or reply to him — key ways he often became central to the public conversation on social media. When his account went away, there was less for people to react to — either positively or negatively. “While there are certainly many contributing factors, now that users no longer have the ability to engage with his account, mentions of Trump’s name have shown a steady decline,” said Zignal’s Granston. It’s impossible to say exactly how much social media companies’ bans on Trump — versus the natural course of events when a politician loses — were responsible for the drop in chatter about him. But it’s important to remember just how crucial social media was to Trump’s success in the first place. He was the Twitter president, and he used social media to build his campaign, push policy, and recruit supporters. It’s also important to note that Trump still has an audience on other platforms, like his new cable news networks of choice, One America News and Newsmax. And his supporters still have robust communities like Facebook groups and pages and MAGA-oriented Twitter accounts. Trump has also said he would build his own social media platform, but so far his efforts seem more like a blog than anything like Twitter or Facebook. But it’s clear that the ban had a serious effect on the volume of conversation about Trump on mainstream platforms, even if we can’t exactly measure how much. Why Trump’s social media ban matters The decision to ban Trump from social media was one of the most challenging and controversial ones that social media companies have made to date — and they avoided making this decision until after he’d been voted out of office. Twitter and Facebook made it clear over the past four years that they did not want to ban the president. In the past, even when Trump violated these companies’ rules on harmful speech, they resisted taking down his account or taking much action at all against his rule-breaking posts, saying that it was in the public interest to keep his posts up. During Trump’s term, companies created a “newsworthiness” exception solidifying this reasoning. In the runup to the election, companies did start to take modest action against certain content that contained misinformation about voting and Covid-19. Meanwhile, conservatives have long made unfounded accusations that they were censored by social media companies. In turn, social media companies have tried to prove they were neutral platforms. Everything changed when Trump lost the election and refused to concede — and egged on increasingly violent protests in the US Capitol. There was a clear, immediate, and physical threat to the stability of US democracy. Now, that danger is seemingly less immediate, and there’s a debate about whether Trump should be brought back, or if social media companies should have indefinitely banned him at all. Proponents of the ban argue that if Trump is brought back onto the platforms, he could stoke civil unrest. And they point to how much misinformation on social media has declined after companies banned Trump and his allies — by as much as 73 percent, according to a January analysis by Zignal and reported by the Washington Post. But opponents of the bans say that social media companies should not have the power to silence a former world leader, no matter how controversial his speech, and they worry about the precedent that sets for future bans. The impact of these bans is going to be further discussed in the months to come. On Wednesday, the company’s newly created oversight board, which has been called its “Supreme Court,” ruled that Facebook was correct to suspend Trump’s account in the short term but that the company needs to come up with clearer reasoning and a timeline around whether it wants to continue the ban. The oversight board’s decision underscored that the debate around how social media companies should handle Trump will continue without any clear answers for the foreseeable future. One thing we do know now is the numbers show these bans have a clear impact.

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posted 5 days ago on re/code
Abdulhamid Hosbas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images Your move, Mark. Donald Trump will stay off Facebook for now, Facebook’s new oversight board decided on Wednesday. But will he eventually come back? In an unexpected decision, the oversight board insisted that it is not its job to decide, but Facebook’s. “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities,” reads the ruling. “The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty.” While the board did rule that Facebook was justified to suspend Trump in the wake of the January 6 Capitol riot, it said Facebook should have clearer standards for why it did this, and it must determine how long the suspension will last. The board gave the company six months to go back to the drawing board and clarify the length of Trump’s suspension, or decide to delete his account altogether. Essentially, the board put the long-term problem of what to do about Trump back in the hands of the person who seems to want it least: CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook has “shirked its responsibilities” Facebook’s oversight board — which has been likened to its “Supreme Court” — is a quasi-judicial body that Facebook tasked with handling some of its toughest content moderation decisions. The board is currently made up of 20 international human rights lawyers, activists, journalists, and former government officials. Facebook says it has granted the board full autonomy to make its own decisions separate from the company, and funded it with $130 million. The biggest criticism of Facebook’s new oversight board has been that it is a way for Facebook — specifically Zuckerberg — to punt the responsibility of making difficult decisions. With its decision today, the board punted back. In fact, the board has said that it was wrong for Facebook to refer the case to them at all. Facebook didn’t follow its own rules in not setting a time limit for Trump’s suspension, in the board’s view, and failed to follow a “clear procedure.” That’s a startling rebuke of how Facebook operates. “Facebook’s decision to impose an indefinite suspension wasn’t supported by their own rules. And then to request the oversight board to endorse this move was actually wrong,” said the board’s co-chair Helle Thorning-Schmidt at a press conference on Wednesday morning. Thorning-Schmidt repeatedly said that the company had “shirked its responsibilities” in its handling of the Trump suspension. When asked what she thought Facebook’s reaction would be to the board’s decision, Schmidt said that the company should appreciate it — but it’s hard to imagine Zuckerberg as completely thrilled with this outcome. In a statement, Facebook said, “We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate.” It said Trump’s accounts would remain suspended in the meantime. “What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” Trump wrote in a statement shortly after the board’s decision. “These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.” Facebook is under intense political scrutiny from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who claim Zuckerberg and his stewards cave to partisan pressure in how they apply company rules about what people can and can’t say on Facebook. Republicans have long accused Facebook of censoring conservative viewpoints, while many Democrats say the company isn’t doing enough to remove misinformation that’s spread by some Republican politicians. Facebook has insisted since its start that it is a neutral platform and that it is not its job to regulate political speech; in some ways, it created the oversight board to handle that thorny problem. Wednesday’s decision — which could be read as a rebuke of the company — makes it clear the board won’t do that job for Facebook. A decision that opens more questions than it answers The Trump case is by far the most high-profile and consequential decision the board has made to date — even though it isn’t quite as declarative as many expected. The decision has momentous implications for what world leaders are allowed to say on social media, and for free speech on the internet as a whole. It confirms that Facebook was right to block Trump for inciting violence in January, but it leaves open the question of whether or not a social media platform should ban a world leader entirely. During his four years in office, Trump repeatedly spread misleading and inflammatory statements on Facebook and Twitter — from denying the threat of Covid-19 to saber-rattling a potential nuclear conflict — and he did so largely without consequences. World leaders are shielded by social media companies’ “newsworthiness” exception, which said rules for regular people that ban them from saying blatantly harmful or threatening speech don’t apply in the same way to world leaders. But in the months surrounding the US election, Trump finally crossed a line even Facebook could not justify: After months of sharing baseless claims about the election being “stolen” from him, he encouraged his some 90 million social media followers to protest the results — leading to the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol building, which resulted in 5 deaths. Virtually every major social media platform, beginning with Twitter, responded by either suspending or permanently banning Trump’s access to his accounts. Facebook and other companies said this was in the public interest of preventing further violence and preserving democratic order. While many have supported Facebook and other social media companies’ decisions to ban Trump indefinitely or permanently, others have argued that it was an overreach and amounts to unwarranted suppression of the speech of a world leader — no matter how dangerous his posts may be. More than 9,000 people submitted public comments to the board about Trump’s case, including Trump himself. A group of Republican members of Congress, including Rep. Ken Buck (CO) and Jim Jordan (OH), argued in a public statement to Facebook that it demonstrated a bias against conservatives in banning Trump. Republicans like Jordan have long accused the Silicon Valley tech giants of anti-conservative bias for enforcing rules around harmful speech on politicians like Trump, while Democrats have accused the company of caving to political pressure from the right and allowing politicians like Trump to spread lies and encourage violence. “[W]e remain concerned that the de-platforming standards are not applied in a fair and neutral manner,” stated the Republican congressional letter. It said Facebook applied “overaggressive” restrictions on sharing a controversial New York Post article about Hunter Biden in the runup to the election and that this action showed the company “had a clear preference for the Biden-Harris campaign.” Other critics of Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, including Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC), have asked why Facebook and Twitter haven’t banned other world leaders such as Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei or North Korea’s Kim Jung Un for their controversial tweets and undemocratic offline actions. And it’s not just Republicans. Even nonpartisan organizations like the ACLU and progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who typically denounce Trump have raised concerns about Big Tech’s unilateral power to effectively revoke people’s ability to participate in the online public sphere. “You have a former president in Trump, who is a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a xenophobe, a pathological liar, an authoritarian, somebody who doesn’t believe in the rule of law,” Sanders told Vox co-founder and New York Times columnist Ezra Klein in March. “But if you’re asking me, do I feel particularly comfortable that the president, the then-president of the United States could not express his views on Twitter? I don’t feel comfortable about it. ... Yesterday it was Donald Trump who was banned and tomorrow it could be somebody else who has a very different point of view.” Still, leading free speech advocates, including the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, submitted comments saying that Facebook was in the right for banning Trump. “The oversight board examines not just the rights of Donald Trump to have an account, but also the rights of others to be free from incitement to violence as we saw on January 6,” said David Kaye, the former UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and current law professor at UC Irvine a few weeks before the oversight board issues its decision. “It’s not just about speech, per se, of the speaker — it’s also about the audience.” Deciding what to do about Trump is just one of Facebook’s many challenges Aside from its immediate decision on Trump, the board also made a series of broader policy recommendations to Facebook. One key recommendation called for Facebook to run a comprehensive review of its “potential contribution to the narrative of electoral fraud” and the “exacerbated tensions” that led to the Capitol riot, and to reflect on Facebook’s “design and policy choices” that “may allow its platform to be abused.” While that policy recommendation isn’t binding, it’s an important acknowledgment that the Trump ban is just one problem. Facebook has deeper, foundational issues to solve. Moreover, it puts forward the idea — which Facebook has steadily denied — that its platform may be contributing to and perpetuating political polarization in the world. Overall, today’s decision means Facebook is still deep in hot water. While the oversight board may have been designed as a way to neatly solve tough problems for Facebook, for now, it has posed more questions than it has answered. The oversight board has given Facebook six months to decide what to do with Trump’s account. Trump, meanwhile, has said that he plans to build his own social media network where he can speak freely without moderation — although so far, all he has is essentially a blog, which he announced just a day before the board’s decision. It’s up to Facebook now to decide how much it will — or won’t — actually listen to its board’s recommendations.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress in March in a hearing about misinformation. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images Facebook’s oversight board ruled that the social media service can keep Trump off its platforms for the next six months, but that the service itself must make a final decision. Former President Donald Trump will not be returning to Facebook — at least for now. On Wednesday morning, the Facebook oversight board, a body of journalists and policy experts appointed by the company to rule on its toughest content decisions, announced that Facebook was right to block Trump from posting on its platform in January. But the board opened the door to Trump possibly returning to the platform by saying Facebook should not have banned him indefinitely. Facebook banned Trump in the wake of the storming of the US Capitol on January 6, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the risk of violence was “simply too great.” Twitter also banned Trump permanently that same week. Before the ruling, there was no indication Facebook had any plans to lift its indefinite suspension of Trump. In its ruling, the oversight board said that it upheld the suspension of Trump’s account, but warned that an “indefinite suspension” was inappropriate. Now, the board says Facebook has six months to make a final decision about a permanent response to Trump’s account. The board said that the company could restore his account, or could permanently boot him — but that it needed to make a decision either way. Essentially, the board is punting the final decision over Trump’s account back to Facebook. For now, that means that Trump will continued to be barred from the social media platform, but that Facebook must soon decide if it will allow him to return. Before he was banned, the former president used the platform to spread false claims about Covid-19, to question the legitimacy of the US presidential election and mail voting, and he appeared to encourage violence against protesters in the midst of demonstrations over George Floyd’s murder. At the same time, the oversight board’s decision sets a new precedent for how it will guide Facebook on how to handle the accounts of politicians and heads of state, a group that have been given more leeway to violate the platform’s community guidelines than typical users. “In applying a vague, standardless penalty and then referring this case to the Board to resolve, Facebook seeks to avoid its responsibilities. The Board declines Facebook’s request and insists that Facebook apply and justify a defined penalty,” the board wrote in its decision. Basically, the oversight board is making it clear that it expects Facebook to make these calls and take responsibility for them. In its decision, the board added that, beyond the question of Trump’s individual account, “[w]hile all users should be held to the same content policies, there are unique factors that must be considered in assessing the speech of political leaders.” The oversight board’s decision is its most important yet. The board, which started taking cases last October, has ramped up its work in recent months and already issued several decisions concerning Facebook’s policies on hate speech, nudity, and harmful misinformation. Many of its early decisions have involved posts that Facebook has taken down from everyday users, while Wednesday’s decision is its first regarding a (now former) head-of-state’s access to their account. “Facebook must, within six months of this decision, reexamine the arbitrary penalty it imposed on January 7 and decide the appropriate penalty,” said the board in its decision. “This penalty must be based on the gravity of the violation and the prospect of future harm. It must also be consistent with Facebook’s rules for severe violations which must in turn be clear, necessary, and proportionate.” The case was originally expected to take about 90 days, but the board extended its own deadline following the influx of more than 9,000 public comments. (The oversight board also received a “user statement” on Trump’s behalf.) The oversight board will not release the names of the panel of five people who wrote the decision, which — according to the board’s rules — must have been approved by a majority of the 20 member board. The decision comes as critics have continued to question the oversight board’s legitimacy, dismissing the body as a cover for Facebook. Facebook first suspended Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Capitol attack. While referring the case to the board, the company’s head of global affairs, Nick Clegg, said the decision was made in the “extraordinary circumstances” of “a US president actively fomenting a violent insurrection designed to thwart the peaceful transition of power.” Facebook, he said, encouraged the board to uphold its decision to suspend the former president, arguing that politicians are not allowed to use the platform to incite violence. The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining...Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Thursday, January 7, 2021 Although the oversight board has power when it comes to individual bans or content decisions, that power has significant limitations. If it decides that Facebook should change its policies, it can only make recommendations about how to do that. Beyond directing Facebook to make and explain a final and “proportionate response” in regard to Trump’s account, the company recommended that Facebook come up with a system to “rapidly escalate content” in question if it’s political speech from an influential speaker. The board also recommended that Facebook review how its design and policy choices may have contributed to the election fraud narrative and “the exacerbated tensions that culminated in the violence in the United States on January 6.” Unlike the specific decision regarding Trump’s account, these recommendations are not binding. Still, they could influence how the company acts in the future. Wednesday’s decision signifies that Facebook — at least in the oversight board’s view — was within its rights to ban Trump from its platform, which sets a precedent for other world leaders. On Wednesday, Facebook acknowledged the ruling from the oversight board. “We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” the company said in a statement. “In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.” Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Bill and Melinda Gates are America’s foremost philanthropists. | Michele Crowe/CBS via Getty Images How important are billionaires? Look at the reaction to Bill and Melinda Gates’s divorce. A divorce is typically a private matter that affects a family, with little consequence for the public at large. But the split between Bill and Melinda Gates could have far-reaching consequences for global health and American life because they are the country’s biggest charitable donors — a sign, as sure as any, of just how central a role billionaire philanthropists play in our society. In the immediate aftermath of the surprise announcement, everyone from critics of billionaires to former Gates Foundation executives was grasping for explanations about what this could mean for the world’s most important philanthropy. To some, the divorce suggested that major strategic changes could emerge in the years to come, with entire nonprofit sectors and hundreds of billions of dollars hanging in the balance. To others, the Gates’s divorce was not that dissimilar from any other couple’s — a reflection of the ironclad legal commitments they already made, and the family’s stated commitment to work together. “I think the real story here is not the divorce itself having an impact, but the reaction the public had to the news,” said Megan Tompkins-Stange, a University of Michigan professor who has studied the Gates Foundation closely. “There was widespread fear and anxiety on behalf of the foundation’s current grantees, which in and of itself illuminates the extent to which the Gates’s actions cause ripple effects in the rest of the philanthropic sector.” The anxiety surrounding the Gates divorce isn’t surprising when you consider what happened when Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Scott announced their split in 2019. While we didn’t know it at the time, the philanthropic world ended up transformed by their $36 billion divorce settlement. What’s different with this Seattle tech billionaire divorce is that we know that this deal will reverberate in the world of mega-charity in some way or another because of their track record as major donors. Bill and Melinda Gates created a charitable trust that today manages about $50 billion on behalf of the Foundation — that money is donated irrevocably and cannot be redirected. But there is another estimated $150 billion or so of Gates wealth that currently sits outside the Foundation’s walls, a sum that presumably will be split between the couple in a to-be-announced divorce settlement. Now that the money is up to their individual — rather than collective — whims, it is possible that the fortune could end up funding different work than it would have ordinarily. When the Gateses jump-started the Giving Pledge a decade ago, the couple wrote that they “had committed the vast majority of our assets to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.” We don’t know whether that will still be the case after the divorce. So in some ways, the bigger story is the money that has yet to be apportioned to the Gates Foundation and currently sits at places like Cascade Investments, the Gates family’s personal investment shop. This money, Gates insiders speculate, theoretically might have gone to the Gates Foundation over the next few decades, but now it might go to outfits like Pivotal Ventures, Melinda Gates’s personal investment company focused on gender equality; or to Gates Ventures, her husband’s investment shop. One former Gates Foundation executive, granted anonymity to offer a candid view, wondered whether Melinda Gates, over time, would focus more of her energy on Pivotal and less on their jointly run foundation. The Gates Foundation itself is presenting a calm face: The $50 billion philanthropy said that both Bill and Melinda Gates would remain trustees of the foundation. “They will continue to work together to shape and approve foundation strategies, advocate for the foundation’s issues, and set the organization’s overall direction,” a spokesman told Recode. But while that may be true now, divorces are complicated, and even an initially amicable split can turn acrimonious or tense with time. So it’s impossible to know how exactly the next few years, or decades, will go. “Even if they’re both clearly leading the foundation, I don’t see any scenario where it’s not going to turn into the things he cares about and the things she cares about,” said another former exec, who described there as already being a “massive, complex field of landmines between the foundation, Pivotal, and Gates Ventures.” Even people who used to work closely with the Gates couple disagree with one another about how the divorce might affect the foundation. Asked how big a deal this would be for the Gates Foundation, on a scale of 1 to 10, one former executive pegged it with at least a 7. Another prior Gates aide gave it a 3. A third was even more bullish, saying that when it comes to the program, the impact would be a 0 or a 1. Big changes could come, said one insider, but only once the Gateses are no longer preoccupied with what is sure to be a complex legal process. In the meantime, at least, some of the former executives predict that internal day-to-day matters could grow more paralyzed if the pair ends up struggling to cooperate, especially for people like Gates Foundation CEO Mark Suzman, who will have to manage the board. But when it comes to the nonprofits themselves that depend on the Foundation’s largesse? There may be anxiety, but less drama than meets the eye. For now, the dominant feeling in the Gates orbit is a sullen dolefulness for their mentors.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Former President Donald Trump’s new online presence is live, and it’s a blog. | Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images The website was announced the day before a major decision about whether or not Trump can return to Facebook. Former US President Donald Trump has a new way to communicate with his supporters — but it looks more like a basic website than like the social media platforms he’s been indefinitely banned from since January. For several months, Trump’s team has said it’s working on a new social media platform that will rival Facebook and Twitter as a place where the former president can communicate with his followers without any moderation. This site, called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” isn’t quite that. Fox News first reported on what it called a “new communications platform” on Tuesday, just a day before Facebook’s oversight board, a group of journalists and policy experts that can overturn Facebook’s most controversial decisions, is expected to announce its binding ruling about whether or not Trump can regain access to his suspended Facebook account. Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told Fox News after it published its initial article that the website is “not a new social media platform” but instead a “great resource to find [Trump’s] latest statements and highlights from his first term in office,” and that his team would have new information about a social media platform soon. For now, Trump’s new website appears to be more like a blog — essentially for posting texts and images with some basic sharing functionality. Users can read posts Trump has shared, “heart” them, and then reshare them to Twitter and Facebook, but they cannot directly comment on the former president’s posts or post their own content on the platform. Trump appears to be the only user posting content on the website at this time. After Trump was accused of encouraging his followers to incite violence in the lead-up to and during the January 6 Capitol riot, virtually every social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, banned Trump from their platforms. The conservative social media platform Parler, which Trump’s team started using after the former president was banned from other social media networks, was soon after banned from Apple’s and Google’s app stores altogether for allegedly allowing its users to incite physical violence on the platform. Trump and several other Republican Party leaders have argued that this sudden erasure of Trump’s social media presence amounts to Big Tech silencing conservative voices. Trump’s team vowed to come up with its own way to directly reach his fans, and it seems this new site is the first small step toward that goal. It’s yet to be seen if and how Trump will continue that effort once the oversight board rules on May 5 about his Facebook ban.

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posted 6 days ago on re/code
Former President Donald Trump’s new online presence is live, and it’s a blog. | Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg/Getty Images The website was announced the day before a major decision about whether or not Trump can return to Facebook. Former US President Donald Trump has a new way to communicate with his supporters — but it looks more like a basic website than like the social media platforms he’s been indefinitely banned from since January. For several months, Trump’s team has said it’s working on a new social media platform that will rival Facebook and Twitter as a place where the former president can communicate with his followers without any moderation. This site, called “From the Desk of Donald J. Trump,” isn’t quite that. Fox News first reported on what it called a “new communications platform” on Tuesday, just a day before Facebook’s oversight board, a group of journalists and policy experts that can overturn Facebook’s most controversial decisions, is expected to announce its binding ruling about whether or not Trump can regain access to his suspended Facebook account. Trump senior adviser Jason Miller told Fox News after it published its initial article that the website is “not a new social media platform” but instead a “great resource to find [Trump’s] latest statements and highlights from his first term in office,” and that his team would have new information about a social media platform soon. For now, Trump’s new website appears to be more like a blog — essentially for posting texts and images with some basic sharing functionality. Users can read posts Trump has shared, “heart” them, and then reshare them to Twitter and Facebook, but they cannot directly comment on the former president’s posts or post their own content on the platform. Trump appears to be the only user posting content on the website at this time. After Trump was accused of encouraging his followers to incite violence in the lead-up to and during the January 6 Capitol riot, virtually every social media platform, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, banned Trump from their platforms. The conservative social media platform Parler, which Trump’s team started using after the former president was banned from other social media networks, was soon after banned from Apple’s and Google’s app stores altogether for allegedly allowing its users to incite physical violence on the platform. Trump and several other Republican Party leaders have argued that this sudden erasure of Trump’s social media presence amounts to Big Tech silencing conservative voices. Trump’s team vowed to come up with its own way to directly reach his fans, and it seems this new site is the first small step toward that goal. It’s yet to be seen if and how Trump will continue that effort once the oversight board rules on May 5 about his Facebook ban.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
After an exodus of residents during the pandemic, San Francisco is starting to see people trickle back as the economy gradually reopens, pushing rents higher for the first time since last year’s lockdowns. | Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg via Getty Images America’s high home prices could turn us into a nation of renters. Noelle listed her house on a Thursday last August and accepted one of several offers above her asking price the following Tuesday. The 36-year-old auction house employee wanted to capitalize on the red-hot real estate market to sell her family’s home of 10 years in order to make enough money to buy her dream house. She’d planned on living in a nearby Long Island rental for six months to wait for prices to calm down and better options to come on the market. Now, Noelle thinks it could take two years, and she’s even considering buying a fixer-upper to give her family options. “This is going to be a different summer than we expected,” Noelle told Recode. Her old house had a pool and a big backyard. Her rental has a small backyard, no pool, and is not as big as the four-bedroom colonial she had. Noelle, who requested that we not use her last name, is one of the millions of Americans contending with the double-edged sword of a booming housing market. The sellers’ market is making those who already own homes even wealthier, while high prices push homeownership further out of reach for many Americans. In turn, the housing boom is creating a new population of home renters: people who in years past would have been able to afford a home but are now getting priced out. While some people prefer renting a home to buying one, the home rental trend can’t be divorced from the high price of homes, which is forcing many people to rent what they can’t buy. Home prices are astronomically high, but houses are nonetheless being plucked off the market faster than ever. In March, the median single-family home in the US sold for a record $335,000 and typically spent just 18 days on the market (it took twice as long in the already hot market in March 2019, when the median price was $261,500), according to the National Association of Realtors. !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-2gD4x");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-2gD4x");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Most recently, the pandemic and the premium that it put on private indoor and outdoor space has driven demand and prices. But like many things, this was an existing trend that the pandemic merely accelerated, and it has its roots in a confluence of factors, from an aging millennial population to an influx of private equity. What’s driving up prices on houses Some 5.6 million single-family homes sold last year — more than at any time since the housing bubble — and the prices of those homes were up 9 percent from a year before, according to the National Association of Realtors. The organization expects average housing prices to go up another 9 percent this year — another huge jump from the typical 3-5 percent annual price growth and far above the rates at which people’s income is rising. Though not the root cause, the pandemic did accelerate those costs, as schooling and working from home made having a nice, large living space all the more important. “It has reminded us all of the importance of home and how essential it is to have a safe space of shelter from the outside world,” Zillow Group principal economist Chris Glynn told Recode. The pandemic also allowed subsets of Americans who remained employed — usually those who were more gainfully employed in the first place — to save money for a downpayment, as there was less for them to spend their money on. “It’s like everybody got locked in their house and got forced to save, which is a home-builder’s dream,” John Burns, CEO of his eponymous John Burns Real Estate Consulting, told Recode. Coupled with historically low mortgage interest rates, this past year has encouraged many Americans to try their luck buying a house. !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-fD33J");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-fD33J");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() The reasons are demographic as well. Millennials, who make up the largest living cohort, have arrived at the age where they’re forming new households and buying their first and even second homes (though that milestone happened later than in previous generations). And as millennials with growing families flock to the housing market, the supply of homes has not been enough to keep up. Many people, including older Americans who don’t move as much as young ones or who were afraid to let people visit their homes in the pandemic, are holding onto their homes longer, meaning many existing homes — which make up the vast majority of home sales — have not been entering the market. Additionally, new home construction, though it has ramped up lately, has been depressed since the Great Recession devastated the construction industry. High lumber prices are also delaying and driving up the cost of new housing. !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-P2R6p");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-P2R6p");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Finally, investor interest in renting out single-family homes as an asset class has led them to buy up much of the housing stock that individuals once would have. Buying homes to rent means there are fewer to buy to live in, which, by extension, has led more potential buyers to rent. Investors — which include everyone from individuals looking to earn extra income to pension funds to foreign governments — are competing with individuals to buy houses. And it can be more attractive (and quicker and safer from a financial standpoint) to sell a whole development to investors in a single-family rental company than to a series of individuals. “Now they’re selling a lot of these homes in bulk for rentals because institutional money is coming into play,” Ivan Kaufman, founder and CEO of Arbor Realty Trust, which finances commercial real estate, said. “So it’s exacerbated the lack of supply of homes for sale.” The rise of single-family rentals During the Great Recession, when the housing bubble popped and when millions of Americans foreclosed on their homes, investors swooped in to buy those homes at a discount. The low prices made it feasible for big business to enter a market controlled by mom-and-pops, usually individuals who owned and maintained a single or a few rental properties as an extra income source. New technologies also made it easier to price and buy properties around the country, rather than relying on local experts, as well as to lease out and even maintain properties. Individuals still dominate as single-family rental landlords, but companies and corporations are taking a bigger share of the pie. In 2018, the last available year for this data from the US census, companies and partnerships made up about 16 percent of single-family rental ownership while real estate corporations and real estate investment trusts controlled a growing 2.3 percent. Now about 20 percent of all home-buying activity is from investors, according to Burns, who thinks that number is going up. Many of these investors will rent out those properties, rather than live in them themselves. And a growing 4.5 percent of new home construction is being purpose-built for rentals, more than double the historical average, according to Arbor Realty Trust. Institutional ownership of these rentals can be a good or bad thing for renters, depending on how you look at it. Corporate ownership means you can probably contact someone about repairs day or night and don’t have to worry about your landlord being on vacation. But it also means that rents are bound to go up with the market (whereas a mom-and-pops might leave rents alone for good tenants). Regardless, single-family rentals are becoming an increasingly important way to house the aging millennial population. “Think of the sheer size of this population,” Selma Hepp, deputy chief economist at CoreLogic, a property analytics firm, said. “More of them are buying and more of them are looking to rent.” But renters are outpacing buyers. The number of renter-occupied households has grown 29 percent since 2000, according to John Burns Real Estate Consulting estimates using Census data, while the number of owner-occupied households grew just 17 percent. Kaufman from Arbor said that more than half of those renters are leasing houses rather than apartments — a longstanding trend that’s expected to grow post-pandemic. About 60 percent of new single-family renters are coming from cities, driven by the same trends boosting the home-buying market. Stock in single-family rental companies like Invitation Homes and American Homes 4 Rent are at all-time highs. Occupancy rates for single-family rentals are at a generational high of more than 95 percent. !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-epyX3");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-epyX3");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Single-family rentals are fitting the desire to live in a house without the cost of actually buying it. “You have a supply-and-demand imbalance, and the rental market is an option for people who can’t afford to buy homes,” Kaufman said. Monthly housing costs are much lower for single-family rentals compared with single-family home purchases, according to Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, and the typical income of families living in those rentals is more modest as well. And while rental prices are growing, they’re going up nowhere near as fast as home-buying prices. Home prices in February were up 17 percent compared to a year earlier, while single-family rent was up less than 4 percent, according to data from CoreLogic. Of course, with the higher housing costs of purchased homes also come the equity of those homes that people can sell later — an important way to build wealth. The rise of single-family rentals is one of many trends portending the erosion of personal ownership. Thanks in part to digitization, people are renting rather than owning everything from music to farm equipment, ultimately giving them less control over what happens with that stuff. What this all means for the future of housing The breakneck pace of home price growth is going to continue until there’s enough supply to meet demand, which Lawrence Yun, National Association of Realtors’ chief economist, doesn’t expect to happen until sometime next year. “Next year at least the multiple offers will go away,” Yun said, referring to the situation of receiving numerous offers above the asking price. “But I think the prices will be higher next year, so it’s a trade-off.” The thing is, with the notable exception of the Great Recession which was caused by a housing bubble, housing prices generally tend to go up. And this housing boom is much different from the last one in its fundamentals: People are putting more money down and their credit ratings are high, so the likelihood of a crash is low. Remember, in the pandemic, the US has also been in a recession while these housing prices have skyrocketed. So even if that growth slows to a normal level in the low single digits, it will have still jumped 20 percent in the past two years alone, further putting homeownership out of reach for many Americans whose incomes haven’t grown in lockstep. If people who have just sold their home and who have excellent credit are having trouble, that’s bad news for the rest of America. “As homes become prohibitively expensive, more and more people fall out of the race of home buying,” CoreLogic’s Hepp said. Fewer people in the market for homes, in turn, would cause prices to slow down, she said, but it could be too late for many. Under all this pressure, homeownership, which is currently at a respectable high 65.6 percent, could begin to fall. It’s already down from about 68 percent last year, though during the pandemic there were some issues with census data collection, which means the true rate is unclear. !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-h6TLW");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-h6TLW");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() What is more clear is what a lack of homeownership could mean for Americans. “It’s creating a greater divide between the haves and have-nots,” Yun said. “Homeowners are getting sizable wealth gain. Renters are getting left out.” It could also make the existing low homeownership rates for Black Americans worse. Yun urged for more housing development to help alleviate the problem. One potential release valve in all this is the potential for American office workers, at least, to work from anywhere. That’s causing many Americans to try and buy homes in areas like the South and Southwest where the costs aren’t so high and where their paychecks from remote work can go further. Untethering people from their offices could lead to a “great reshuffling” of where people decide to live, Zillow’s Glynn said, “with an eye toward locations that they may not have ever considered before.” He’s seeing lots of interest in places in the Sun Belt, like Austin and Charlotte. Of course, just because people can work from home, doesn’t mean their bosses will let them do so forever. For those hoping to stay where they are and buy a new home, Yun suggests they “maneuver carefully” and include things like a contingency clause that the sale will only go through if they’re able to get another house. And if that doesn’t work, they can always rent.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testifying remotely at a congressional hearing in October 2020. | Greg Nash/AFP/Getty Images Jack Dorsey has bought Scroll, an ad-blocking startup. It’s part of a larger subscription push. Twitter has been a free service for its users ever since it launched in 2006. Now it’s getting more serious about getting you to pay up, via an optional subscription service it’s building. Here’s the most recent example of Twitter’s plans, which are evolving in plain sight: It has bought Scroll, a startup that sells a subscription ad-blocking service and distributes most of its revenue to publishers. Twitter says Scroll, which worked with publishers including the Atlantic, BuzzFeed, and Vox Media, will continue to operate, though it will temporarily stop signing up new subscribers. What’s more interesting about this announcement is that Twitter says Scroll will “become a meaningful addition to our subscriptions work” and will be integrated into an “upcoming subscription offering we’re currently exploring.” Twitter says it will bring on all 13 of Scroll’s employees, including CEO Tony Haile. Twitter hasn’t spelled out what its subscription plans are — except to say that it has some and that it will continue to make most of its money from its free, ad-based service. But you can see the contours of what Twitter is up to. It has already launched Revue, a Substack clone that lets users create and sell their own newsletters; it takes a 5 percent cut of any revenue those subscriptions generate. Twitter has also said it plans to take “a small amount” from any sales generated via Spaces, a Clubhouse clone that lets users set up their own audio “rooms” to host conversations. Right now the service is free, but Twitter has announced plans to let users sell access to particular rooms. And now it’s adding Scroll, a service that launched in 2018 and gives users the ability to block ads when they visit sites from participating publishers. In exchange for stripping the ads off their sites, Scroll gives publishers the majority of the revenue it generates via $5 monthly subscriptions. Haile has said his service isn’t supposed to replace internet advertising, but says publishers who work with his company can make more money that way than via ads. From the outside, though, it appears as though Scroll hasn’t had the traction Haile would have liked: While he initially launched with a network for about 300 sites, he hasn’t been able to convince some major publishers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to join his network — even though they were investors in his company. And if Scroll had a substantial number of subscribers, he likely wouldn’t have sold the company to Twitter. It will be interesting to see what happens to Scroll now. On the one hand, syncing up with Twitter’s base of 200 million active users could give it a chance to find much wider distribution. On the other hand, I wonder if publishers will be wary about tying up with a big tech platform, given past experiences with Facebook. The social network has changed its media strategy multiple times and left publishers scrambling to catch up — or worse. Speaking of the other big tech platforms, Twitter’s subscription push could be a real differentiator between it and other social media companies that make most of their money from advertising. Google and Facebook, the two companies that dominate digital ads, haven’t done much at all with subscription services so far. Google’s YouTube offers an ad-free service with a smattering of extra features, but that’s about it. Instead, big tech players have generally tried working with publishers by offering them distribution for their content, a share of ad revenue, and, more recently, grudgingly offering them license fees for access to their stuff. Twitter, on the other hand, hasn’t done much with media companies besides some start-and-stop efforts to get them to make video programming for the service. Let’s see what happens now.

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posted 7 days ago on re/code
Bill and Melinda Gates’ divorce will be closely watched, with possibly huge implications. | Getty Images for Global Citizen The billionaire couple is getting a divorce. Bill and Melinda Gates, the leaders of the world’s most venerated and powerful philanthropy, said on Monday that they were getting a divorce — an earthquake moment in the nonprofit sector. The billionaire couple sets the strategic vision for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which they co-founded and which spends more than $5 billion a year on causes like US education and worldwide disease eradication. Their divorce potentially has enormous implications for their work. The couple made the surprise announcement in concurrent posts on their personal Twitter pages. In their statement, the Gateses said they would “continue our work together at the foundation.” “But we no longer believe we can grow together as a couple in this next phase of our lives.” A Gates Foundation spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment seeking additional details on how this might affect the Foundation’s work. The divorce proceedings are sure to be complicated. The Gates family has a net worth approaching $150 billion, and their separation could set records for the largest divorce settlement to date. The largest settlement ever was recorded a few years ago when Jeff Bezos, the world’s wealthiest man, finalized a divorce from MacKenzie Scott for about $36 billion. While a divorce proceeding is typically a private affair, given how important Bill and Melinda Gates are to the world, this separation could have massive consequences for public life.

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
A protester participating at a January 2020 rally against the arrival of Prime Minister Narenda Modi in Kolkata, India. | Indranil Aditya/NurPhoto via Getty Images The Indian government is silencing its critics on Twitter and Facebook. As the coronavirus pandemic rages in India, claiming thousands of lives, many Indians are turning to social media to demand that the government handle the public health crisis better. And now, the government is silencing these critics in its latest threat to the future of free speech on the internet in the world’s second-most populous country. In recent weeks, the Indian government has requested that companies like Twitter take down content that it says contains misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic. But critics say that India’s political leadership under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using the premise of misinformation to overreach and suppress criticism of the administration’s handling of the pandemic. A similar debate has also played out in the US around how companies like Twitter and Facebook should moderate harmful speech on their platforms, particularly when that speech comes from world leaders. But the issue has taken on an increased intensity in India, where the government is more aggressively and directly pressuring tech companies to block content it takes issue with. “Internet companies are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Anupam Chander, a law professor at Georgetown University who focuses on the regulation of international speech online. “They face a government that is accusing them of essentially abetting a violation of law. At the same time, there are huge free expression concerns here.” India is the world’s biggest democracy and has a history of robust political debate. Its constitution protects people’s rights to freedom of speech and expression — with some exceptions including for content it deems defamatory. But under the Modi administration of the past several years, the country has expanded its internet regulation laws, giving it more power to censor and surveil its citizens online. The government has several levers to pressure US-based tech companies into compliance: It could arrest Facebook and Twitter staff in India if their employers don’t follow orders. Even further, India could yank Twitter or Facebook off the local internet in India entirely, as it recently did with TikTok and several major Chinese apps in June. And the government resorted to effectively shutting down the internet in Kashmir in February 2020 when it wanted to quiet political dissent in the region. Now, the tension between US social media companies and the Indian government has reached an all-time high because of the fierce debate around Modi’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And what happens next could determine whether Indians will continue to have the same kind of access to a relatively open social media environment or if the walls around what people are allowed to say online in India will close up even more. Some fear that the country may become more like China, where the government tightly controls its residents’ access to information and where US tech giants like Google and Facebook have tried — and failed — to operate successfully. What happened with recent takedowns In recent days, Twitter and Facebook have taken down or blocked political content that’s critical of the Indian government. On Wednesday, Facebook confirmed that it temporarily blocked posts with a #ResignModi hashtag in India, but it later said it was a mistake because of content associated with the hashtag that violated its policies. Facebook has since restored access to the hashtag. Facebook declined to comment on how many or what takedown requests it has received from the Indian government in recent weeks. A source familiar with the company said Facebook only took down a small portion of the total requests it received. In sharp contrast to Facebook, Twitter is more transparent and discloses takedown requests through an outside organization, Lumen. Twitter acknowledged that the Indian government asked it to take down several dozen tweets recently, which were about the Covid-19 pandemic in India, as first reported by Indian news site MediaNama. Recode reviewed the more than 50 tweets that Twitter blocked or deleted at the request of the Indian government in recent weeks. While some could be considered misleading — including one viral image showing devastation in India supposedly related to the pandemic which Indian fact-checker AltNews reported to be outdated — it wasn’t clear what was misleading about several other posts, which appeared to be straightforward news and political commentary. One of the blocked tweets, for example, is a link to a Vice news article about a mass Hindu religious bathing ritual being held in the river Ganges during the most recent Covid-19 surge — which has been widely reported in other outlets as well. Another is a satirical cartoon showing a caricature of Modi making a speech over burning coffins, with the prime minister saying, “Have never seen such huge crowds at a rally.” The Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which issues takedown requests to social media companies on behalf of the Indian government, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for Modi’s BJP Party also did not respond to a request for comment. In response to Recode’s questions about how Twitter decides which posts to block or take down, a spokesperson for Twitter emailed Recode the following statement: When we receive a valid legal request, we review it under both the Twitter Rules and local law. If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only. The company also said it notified account holders directly when they receive a legal order pertaining to their account. Many free speech advocates are quick to accuse social media companies like Twitter of too easily giving in to pressure from the Indian government. In the past, the company has taken a more aggressive and public stance against the Modi administration — such as in February when it refused to block political activists and journalists who used Twitter to criticize the Indian government’s new agricultural reforms, which many farmers in India had been protesting for months. Now, during the pandemic, companies like Twitter are again being tested about how much they’re willing to follow the Indian government’s orders — and run the risk of being shut down entirely if they disobey them. “It’s easy for us to say Twitter shouldn’t do this. But the question is whether it wants to continue operating in the Indian market,” said Chander. “It’s a very complicated dance.” One route US social media companies could take is to try to contest the government’s recent takedown requests in the Indian courts, which Chander said are relatively independent of Modi. The US government, which has a close relationship with India, could also pressure Modi’s administration to loosen its grip on social media. On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that the Indian government ordering social media companies to block posts critical of the government “certainly wouldn’t be aligned with our view of freedom of speech around the world.” The White House has other diplomatic leverage it could use, like threatening to cut off trade agreements or other diplomatic relations between the two countries. For now, the White House is focused on the larger issue of vaccine distribution in India. This week, the administration announced — under increasing global pressure — that it will reverse course and export Covid-19 vaccine materials to the country. So far there’s been no public indication that the Biden administration is considering taking any diplomatic action around the country’s stance toward social media. Regardless, it’s clear that there’s a growing battle between the Indian government and US social media companies. What happens next will be a sign of where the future of free speech in the country seems to be heading.

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posted 10 days ago on re/code
Apple CEO Tim Cook introducing new products at a virtual launch event. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images Suddenly, Apple has multiple antitrust fights on its hands. A new one starts Monday. The trial that kicks off in a federal courtroom in San Francisco on Monday is extraordinary: Epic Games, one of the world’s most popular and valuable game companies, is suing Apple, the world’s most valuable company. Epic wants Apple to make fundamental changes to its powerful Apple App Store. If it succeeds, it would change the way the app economy works. One sign of the trial’s importance to both companies: Apple CEO Tim Cook and Epic CEO Tim Sweeney are both scheduled to testify during the trial. Sweeney even plans on attending the proceedings in person for three weeks. But even though the Epic trial is … epic, it’s more of a leading indicator for Apple than a one-off. Apple has been able to run its app store by its own rules — no matter how much grumbling from big and little developers that created — for more than a decade. Now, a growing list of lawmakers, regulators, and companies are trying to change that using antitrust arguments. Even if Epic doesn’t succeed, someone else might. If that happens, it won’t just affect a $2 trillion company and a constellation of companies that depend on its iPhone to get their software into your hands. It could affect iPhone users, too. In theory, if Apple is forced to loosen its grip on its app store, it could reduce prices for the apps you pay for today. Or, in Apple’s version of the story, it could make its iOS ecosystem more vulnerable to scams and malware. The battle lines of the Epic-Apple fight were drawn last summer. That’s when Epic tried selling virtual currency on its popular Fortnite game without going through Apple’s app store, where it would have to pay a 30 percent tax to Apple. Apple responded, as Epic expected, by kicking Fortnite out of its app store, and then Epic responded by filing an antitrust lawsuit. Epic wasn’t the first developer to complain about the rules Apple has set up around its app store, which is the only way developers can get their software onto Apple’s phones. Magazine and newspaper publishers, Netflix, and Spotify have also complained about the arrangement. All of them say that the 30 percent fee Apple takes from every transaction —that number can drop to 15 percent in some cases — is too onerous. There are other complaints as well, like the way that Apple controls access to subscribers’ and buyers’ personal information or the way Apple prevents developers from telling customers they can also pay for services outside of the app store ecosystem — which could save customers or developers money. But until Epic sued Apple last summer, no developer had taken on Apple directly. Instead, they tended to agree to Apple’s terms, or as Netflix and Spotify did, they stopped trying to sell things through the Apple App Store altogether. Epic’s decision to sue seems to be driven partly by business reasons. If it didn’t have to pay Apple’s 30 percent tax, Epic could generate a lot more revenue from the sales of its digital currency, which players use to buy funny costumes and other ephemera. But other platforms that Epic uses to distribute Fortnite, including Sony and Microsoft, also take 30 percent cuts from microtransactions, and Epic doesn’t complain about that. Which is why the suit also seems driven by Tim Sweeney’s personal conviction that Apple, a company he says he used to idolize, is choking off developers’ ability to build interesting and innovative businesses. Apple believes you should have a choice! Just not about payments. Nor stores. Nor a choice to play Fortnite. Nor a choice for developers to distribute apps directly. Apple thinks those choices should be Apple’s alone.— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) April 28, 2021 Last fall, Sweeney even compared his suit to the efforts of civil rights activists in the 1960s. And when criticized for that overreach, doubled down: It’s a good article. Hey critics, please read what I said and tell me if it’s actually wrong: When the rules were wrongful, it was right to disobey them. That’s the comparison to the civil rights movement. pic.twitter.com/WMomQXwEjr— Tim Sweeney (@TimSweeneyEpic) November 18, 2020 And unlike some other people who complain about Apple, Sweeney has the resources to do something about it: Epic is a very profitable software company currently valued at $29 billion — about $10 billion more than it was prior to suing Apple last summer — and Sweeney himself is worth an estimated $7 billion to $9 billion. None of which means Epic will win its case. Its main argument is that Apple’s control of distribution for its iOS devices constitutes an illegal monopoly. But there isn’t a long legal history of courts ruling against companies that control the market for their own brand of products. One major exception is a 1992 ruling against Kodak, which had been sued by vendors who repaired its copy machines; in that case, the Supreme Court said vendors who complained that Kodak forced them to use Kodak-made or Kodak-approved parts to fix Kodak machines had a viable antitrust argument. The vendors eventually won their case and received damages plus the ability to buy Kodak parts at reasonable prices. Another example that Epic will likely reference is the Department of Justice’s campaign against Microsoft in the 1990s, when the software company essentially owned the PC market, but that case ended in a settlement. (Epic has hired antitrust expert Christine Varney, who headed up the DOJ’s antitrust division during Barack Obama’s tenure and also represented Netscape, the internet browser company, during the DOJ-Microsoft trial.) Apple’s counterargument is fairly simple: The company says it can’t be a monopoly because it doesn’t own the phone market — it shares it with Google’s Android — and because Fortnite players can play the game on devices made by lots of other companies, including Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo. Apple also argues, more or less, that it built the Apple App Store and the iPhone, and so it should be able to set the terms that govern the ecosystem around them. Epic, it says, wants to run its own store, on its own terms, on Apple’s property. Apple’s antitrust problems are growing No matter who wins the Apple-Epic case in the first round of this battle, there is almost certain to be an appeal, so whatever happens in Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’s courtroom won’t be the end of the story. But it’s also not the only Apple antitrust story right now. Spotify says its music service operates at a disadvantage against Apple’s music service because Apple wants Spotify to pay a 30 percent fee on subscription revenue that it doesn’t charge itself. Spotify hasn’t sued Apple directly, but it has been pressing lawmakers in the United States and Europe to pursue antitrust actions against Apple, and it has made headway: On Friday, the EU issued a preliminary finding supporting Spotify’s argument. In theory, an EU ruling could eventually result in a fine of up to 10 percent of Apple’s annual revenue. But any changes the EU eventually extracts from Apple could be huge because its app store is the core driver for Apple’s growing push to sell “services” instead of just hardware. Right now, services account for nearly 20 percent of Apple’s revenue. Other charges could be coming in other countries. The United Kingdom is investigating Apple over similar charges, and this week the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission said Apple — as well as Google — needs “to improve outcomes for app developers and consumers” or face additional regulation. And in the US, where anti-Big Tech scrutiny has mostly focused on social media companies, a growing number of lawmakers have started to pay attention to the way Apple runs its app store. Earlier this month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar held a hearing that focused primarily on Apple’s control of iOS apps, and included testimony from app-makers that have gone out of their way to support Epic in its court case, including Spotify and Match Group, the online dating company. Klobuchar, who just published a book about digital-age monopolies, appears set on making Apple her biggest test case. “You could still have a successful Apple, but still demand more consumer protections to make it easier for people to compete,” she told The Verge’s Nilay Patel earlier this month. I’m skeptical about the overall narrative of a rising “techlash,” especially in Washington, where Democrats and Republicans don’t appear to be living on the same planet — which makes creating legislation that will rein in big tech companies quite challenging. But a variety of observers think that Apple and Amazon may be easier targets for lawmakers who want to slow down tech: Both companies run marketplaces and sell their own products in the same marketplaces. Forcing them to stop doing that may be a much easier task than determining how much free speech Facebook or Twitter should allow on their platforms. So yes: For the next three weeks, watch the Apple-Epic fight — at the very least, it’s a chance to see two tech billionaires duke it out in public. But pay attention to every other antitrust battle Apple is fighting at the same time. Collectively, there’s a good chance they could change the way Apple — and your iPhone — works.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
A man stands in front of an Apple store in Berlin, Germany, in December 2020. | Steffi Loos/Getty Images Apple’s App Store is facing antitrust complaints around the world. In an apparent blow to Apple’s ongoing and international antitrust woes over its App Store, the European Union’s European Commission issued a “statement of objections” on Friday saying it believes Apple is abusing its position in the music streaming app marketplace, in what could be a violation of the EU’s antitrust laws. The preliminary findings do not bode well for Apple for the outcome of the commission’s investigation, which was prompted by a complaint from Spotify. “By setting strict rules on the App Store that disadvantage competing music streaming services, Apple deprives users of cheaper music streaming choices and distorts competition,” Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission who oversees competition and antitrust enforcement, said in a statement. “With Apple Music, Apple also competes with music streaming providers.” The European Commission found that Apple’s App Store rules — and the fact that the App Store alone was the only way for Apple mobile device users to get apps for their iPhones and iPads — forced app developers to play by those rules and pay Apple’s commissions if they wanted access to Apple’s users. The commission on purchases and subscriptions Apple demands, the European Commission said, led to higher prices for those users. The commission also objected to Apple’s anti-steering provisions, which prevent companies from informing users that they could purchase subscriptions outside the App Store. A statement of objections is not the end result of an investigation, but it is a formal step in the process. If Apple is found to have violated the EU’s antitrust rules, it could be fined up to 10 percent of its annual revenue. “The European Commission’s Statement of Objections is a critical step toward holding Apple accountable for its anticompetitive behavior, ensuring meaningful choice for all consumers and a level playing field for app developers,” Spotify’s head of global affairs and chief legal officer Horacio Gutierrez said in a statement. Apple maintained, as it has all along, that the vast majority of the Spotify app users don’t have paid subscriptions, and that Spotify makes money off of ads to those free subscribers, while Apple provides the resources to host the Spotify app in its store. Paid subscriptions through the app give Apple a 30 percent commission for the first year, and 15 percent thereafter. “At the core of this case is Spotify’s demand they should be able to advertise alternative deals on their iOS app, a practice that no store in the world allows,” Apple said in a statement. “Once again, they want all the benefits of the App Store but don’t think they should have to pay anything for that. The Commission’s argument on Spotify’s behalf is the opposite of fair competition.” The investigation into the App Store was launched after a complaint to the European Commission from Spotify in 2019. The audio streaming service alleged that Apple’s App Store and Apple Pay services unfairly benefitted Apple over third parties like Spotify, which are forced to distribute their apps through the App Store and must therefore follow the store’s rules. Spotify said it was forced to raise its rates for subscriptions purchased through the app to make up for the 15 to 30 percent commission it had to pay to Apple. The European Commission’s preliminary findings did not address Spotify’s complaint about Apple Pay, which is a separate case. Apple launched its own, very similar Apple Music streaming service in 2015, which it could promote to Apple device owners. Though the European Commission’s findings merely address the App Store’s practices with music streaming services, Spotify’s complaint echoes that of many companies that allege that they are at a distinct disadvantage to Apple. In addition to Apple’s mandatory commissions, the company can see how well third-party apps do and create its own versions of them, which Apple can then install on its devices and promote in its App Store. Apple is known for this practice even outside of the App Store; for instance, it recently introduced the AirTag, a tiny tracking device that’s remarkably similar to Tile, but has the exclusive use of Apple’s “Find My” system. The App Store’s practices are also under scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority launched an investigation in March into the App Store’s commission as well as the company’s requirement that the app be distributed through it. At the end of April, Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission, last seen recommending the controversial law that could have forced Facebook and Google to pay news organizations for hosting or even linking to their content, warned Apple and Google that their “significant market power” in their respective app stores, including commissions, promotion of their apps over those made by third parties, and mandatory use of their payment systems for in-app purchases, may require regulation to address. American lawmakers and regulators have stepped up scrutiny of Big Tech and antitrust practices, with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) positioning herself as one of Congress’s biggest critics of Apple’s App Store (and Big Tech in general). Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) proposed in 2019 that Apple should not be allowed to both run an App Store and distribute its own apps in it. And several states are working on their own bills targeting Apple and Google’s app store fees and practices — though none have successfully passed a bill into law. The EC’s decision could be a preview of how an antitrust lawsuit in the US over the App Store will go. Epic Games, which makes the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple when the company kicked Fortnite out of its App Store after Epic tried to bypass its mandatory in-app payment system. Opening statements in that trial are set to begin next week. “Ensuring the iOS platform operates fairly is an urgent task with far-reaching implications,” Spotify’s Gutierrez said.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. | Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images It’s difficult to get honest feedback from workers who fear retaliation. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos recently said warehouse employees like working for his company so much that “94% say they would recommend Amazon to a friend as a place to work.” But some of his own employees aren’t buying that statistic. The 94 percent number was gleaned from an employee survey program at Amazon called Connections, which asks Amazon employees to answer a single question each day before they can start working on their company computer or their warehouse workstation. Bezos cited the stat in mid-April in his final letter to shareholders as Amazon’s CEO. But in interviews with Recode over the past two weeks, a half-dozen Amazon employees and managers, two of whom are familiar with the inner workings of the Connections program, said that many Amazon employees have widespread concerns about the Connections program and the accuracy of its data and insights. These employees told Recode that many Amazon employees do not answer Connections questions honestly because they fear their responses are not truly anonymous, and they fear retaliation if they give negative feedback. Others told Recode that some managers, both in warehouses and in corporate offices, pressure their staff to answer questions favorably. A warehouse manager and employee also said workers often just choose the top answer to more quickly get on with their day. Such skepticism is noteworthy not only because Amazon leans on Connections survey results for public statements and announcements, but also because the program was developed by Amazon’s human resources division and informs how the country’s second-largest private-sector employer evaluates employee job satisfaction. While Bezos defended the company’s treatment of front-line workers in the shareholder letter, which came out shortly after a historic union vote failed at an Alabama warehouse, he also seemed to acknowledge critics when he wrote that Amazon needs “a better vision for how we create value for employees” and that his new goal is for Amazon to be “Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work.” On Wednesday, LinkedIn named Amazon as the No. 1 workplace “to grow your career.” Amazon spokesperson Adam Sedo sent Recode a statement about the Connections program that said: “Becoming Earth’s Best Employer and Safest Place to Work requires, among other things, listening to feedback from our employees as often as we listen to feedback from our customers. One way we do that is through Connections, a question our employees answer confidentially every day. Instead of having to wait for the results of an annual employee survey, Amazon managers receive access to daily feedback from their teams and use it to improve the employee experience continuously. This approach helps managers take action quickly and address concerns immediately.” According to multiple sources, the survey program is a “pet project” of Amazon’s human resources leader Beth Galetti, a former top logistics executive at FedEx who first joined the tech giant in 2013 as a vice president of human resources. She now is one of approximately two dozen executives at Amazon on Jeff Bezos’s exclusive senior leadership team, or S team, and one of only four women. Connections questions can include everything from asking an employee how they feel about their manager to queries about staff restroom cleanliness. According to a source who worked on the Connections team, the program was one of the first large-scale experiments of a company carrying out a daily employee survey. But this employee said that in the early days of the program, some colleagues felt that the daily cadence of questioning was a fundamental flaw that was less effective at accurately assessing an employee’s experience than a quarterly or monthly survey would. Sedo, the spokesperson, said the company strongly disagrees with the idea that the daily cadence is a flaw. He added that Amazon asks several questions repeatedly over a period of time so that trends are detectable. Managers can view aggregate data about their staff’s answers on a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis. Either way, one of the biggest issues with the survey program, according to all six employees who spoke to Recode, is that there is a common concern among Amazon’s employee base that their answers will not remain anonymous. “It is a persistent concern that responses aren’t confidential/anonymous,” says a current Amazon warehouse area manager, a job that typically entails managing dozens of front-line warehouse workers handling a specific task, such as picking items from shelves, stowing them, or packing boxes. Sedo, the company spokesperson, said that all answers are confidential and that employees can choose not to answer a question. Two sources said that warehouse workers often choose the top answer, which seems to frequently be the most positive choice, just to get on with their day. Others, on small teams, fear that even if their name is not tied to their survey answers, managers may be able to take an educated guess at who responded negatively based on prior interactions and retaliate against them in some way. Managers of teams of more than four employees can view aggregate survey results from their staff, but those who lead teams smaller than that can’t, the Amazon spokesperson said. “Depending on the size of team, people used to be able to figure out who said what,” according to a former Amazon employee familiar with the inner workings of the program. “So after a while, some employees decide, ‘I’m not going to be honest.’” Beyond all of this, several sources, both in corporate and warehouse settings, say they know of managers who coach employees on how to answer questions in an effort to get ahead of survey results that might not reflect well on the manager. Sedo, the Amazon spokesperson, said the company prohibits managers from telling their staff how to answer questions or asking them how they responded. Despite these concerns, some sources said Connections results can be useful if there is, in fact, trust between a manager and their staff. “My experience with my team in the FC was that it was pretty accurate, but I also encouraged my team to be open and honest so I could use the scores as intended to address their barriers and concerns,” says the Amazon warehouse area manager. “It does allow me to easily understand what kinds of things are making the team unhappy and/or where my opportunity areas are as a manager.” The source said the Connections website also provides tips on how to address low employee scores. But this same manager said there are “definitely managers that will coach their teams how to answer because it’s a performance metric that will be referenced during reviews.” That fact, plus concerns about anonymity and retaliation, cast enough doubt over the accuracy of survey results that they should be viewed skeptically, according to all of the sources who spoke to Recode, whether for internal use or in Jeff Bezos’s final annual letter to Amazon shareholders.

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posted 11 days ago on re/code
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh is looking at you, Uber and Lyft. | Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images That could mean big trouble for companies like Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash. US Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Reuters on Thursday that gig workers should be treated as employees. Having President Joe Biden’s top labor official say so is a welcome development for this class of workers — including drivers for Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash — which has long sought this distinction but has so far been unsuccessful. “We are looking at it but in a lot of cases gig workers should be classified as employees ... in some cases they are treated respectfully and in some cases they are not and I think it has to be consistent across the board,” Walsh told Reuters. “These companies are making profits and revenue and I’m not (going to) begrudge anyone for that because that’s what we are about in America ... but we also want to make sure that success trickles down to the worker,” he said. A national decision on who is and isn’t an employee could have broad implications for the US workforce, of which approximately a quarter to a third, depending on the estimate, could be considered a contract or gig worker. Being considered an employee guarantees workers a number of benefits, like guaranteed minimum wage and overtime, that contract workers don’t have. Gig workers have long complained about unfair working conditions, from making less than minimum wage to lack of health care, and straight-up exploitation. After a long battle by labor activists, New York City passed the first minimum wage legislation for Uber and Lyft drivers in 2018. During the pandemic, gig economy workers have been especially hard hit. The labor fight to make gig economy workers into employees suffered a huge blow last fall in California, where many of the gig economy companies are based, with the passage of Proposition 22. The ballot initiative, which was written by Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, among others, effectively declared ride-hailing drivers independent contractors, but did provide them with minor protections. Prop 22 overturned previous state legislation, Assembly Bill 5, which had ordered gig companies to prove workers’ jobs were outside of their core business, in order to consider them contractors. Ride-hailing service Uber famously said its drivers were not part of its “usual course” because it was a tech platform for “digital marketplaces” and not primarily an employer of drivers. Gig companies spent $200 million lobbying for the passage of Prop 22, a sum that makes sense when you consider that analysts estimated making drivers employees would cost Uber an additional $500 million and Lyft $200 million each year. Employees can cost employers 20 to 30 percent more than contract workers, according to estimates from the Economic Policy Institute. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash stock dropped substantially after Reuters published Sec. Walsh’s comments. The labor secretary helps set guidelines for how workers are treated. It’s unclear if the Department of Labor will institute new policies about how to classify workers, but at the very least, the secretary’s statement signals that the Biden administration is thinking about the issue.

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posted 12 days ago on re/code
Barack Obama in Silicon Valley back in 2011. | Stephen Lam/Getty Images Meet a stealth investment firm run by Robbie Robinson, who advises the former president. Former President Barack Obama’s financial adviser has been quietly investing in startups led by founders of color through a new investment firm, Recode has learned. A new venture capital firm called Pendulum Holdings has in recent months been approaching and funding companies led by founders of color, according to people familiar with the matter. The firm is led by Robbie Robinson, who helped set up the financial affairs of the Obama family after they left the White House. He remains an adviser to the family. The fund, whose efforts haven’t previously been reported, is the latest attempt to better support Black founders, who receive only about 1 percent of venture capital funding, according to estimates. Corporate America has vowed to do better in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, and one way to do that is to launch firms with an explicit focus on backing these entrepreneurs. Racial diversity in the world of startups matters because these companies create businesses, products, and wealth that can either perpetuate or help close inequality in the first place. Pendulum also represents another tie, even if loose, between the Silicon Valley startup scene and the Obamas, who have long had a soft spot for tech. Since leaving the White House, the Obama family has struck content deals with companies like Netflix and Spotify and continued to cultivate relationships with venture capitalists. “The conversations I have with Silicon Valley and with venture capital pull together my interests in science and organization in a way I find really satisfying,” Obama said back in 2016 on the cusp of leaving the White House, stirring speculation that he might be interested in a more hands-on role in the startup world. To be clear, Obama is not currently an investor in the funds launched by Robinson, although the pair do remain in touch on financial matters. The funds require a minimum $1 million investment to gain access to the deals found by Pendulum, according to a federal disclosure filed by the firm. Pendulum declined to comment. Pendulum, which launched in 2019, has kept quite a low profile. It has granted no interviews, operates no website, and has publicly announced no deals since launch, despite being in the process of raising up to $250 million for a pair of investment vehicles, according to securities filings. But a draft of a not-yet-published website accessed by Recode pulls back the curtain. “Pendulum is an inclusive & strategic growth investing and advisory platform designed for a new generation of business builders and leaders,” reads the unpublished site, which was found through a public Google search before being deleted after Recode reached out. “Our ambition is to create a system that reimagines how great companies are built and redefines who gets to build them.” One way in which the firm is trying to redefine who gets to build them is by supporting people of color. The firm targets its investments on founders of color, backing companies like Crown and Conquer, a creative ad agency, and Nickson, a furniture rental startup. The firm is staffed primarily by people of color. Robinson, who serves on the council for the National Museum of African American History, leads the shop with D’Rita Robinson, his wife and the firm’s co-founder and head of operations. Having more Black Americans making the decisions about what to fund can help make sure that the products and services that startups bring to the world serve a diverse audience. Robinson has had other prominent clients, but doing the financial spadework for a former president is a particularly unique relationship. Robinson worked for Byron Trott, a powerful Chicago banker who was Robinson’s longtime mentor. “First of all, to Robbie and D’Rita, thank you so much for helping to pull this together,” Obama said in 2015 at a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee hosted at their house. “We’re so grateful to the whole Robinson family.” Two years later, Robinson took a yearlong leave from Trott’s firm to help Obama navigate the world of paid speeches and book deals, sometimes working from Obama’s Washington office. A press release that year from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office identified Robinson in part as an “Advisor to President Barack Obama.” “As the Obamas were concluding their presidency, they reached out to me about potentially working with them,” Robinson told the alumni magazine of Morehouse College in his only public interview about the arrangement. “This was an opportunity I never could have dreamed of yet was very prepared for.”

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posted 14 days ago on re/code
Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images App Tracking Transparency is here, but many apps aren’t offering it yet. Apple’s mobile operating system update, iOS 14.5, went live today with a highly anticipated, long-awaited privacy feature the company first announced way back in June 2020: App Tracking Transparency. But you might not notice it on your iPhone in the near future. With App Tracking Transparency, apps will have to ask users for their permission to access Apple’s Identifier for Advertising (IDFA), a unique code assigned to mobile devices. Data brokers and ad marketers use this IDFA to track users across apps, combining their behavior into one comprehensive user profile, which companies then use to send targeted ads. As this Apple promotional video explains, it all happens behind the scenes. The user is usually unaware of what’s happening, who their data is going to, and has little recourse to prevent it: Now, the first time a user opens an app, they’ll see a prompt that informs them that an app wants to track them and gives them the option not to be tracked. That alone is a big step forward for privacy — at least, as far as privacy across apps goes. It doesn’t do anything when it comes to data collected within the apps themselves, or whatever you do on different devices, like a laptop. Unfortunately, if you’ve downloaded iOS 14.5 and you’re eager to tell those apps to stop tracking you, you might be in for a bit of a wait. Developers, not Apple, decide when to put up the prompt. They don’t have to do so on launch day, which is why a lot of them haven’t and why you’re probably not seeing any prompts yet. Apple didn’t respond to request for comment on whether developers have a deadline to get the prompt up and running. If it’s anything like Apple’s privacy nutrition labels, developers will have to have the prompt installed by the next app update. Some developers — Google, for instance — really took their time with the privacy labels. How to opt out of most tracking right now But here’s the thing: You don’t have to wait for developers to put up a prompt (something many of them probably aren’t all that eager to do in the first place). You can proactively turn off app tracking right now! In fact, you’ve been able to do that for a while with a feature somewhat buried in your settings. Here’s how: Settings > Privacy > Tracking > Turn off “Allow apps to request to track” That will automatically opt you out of being tracked across apps. You won’t get the satisfaction of telling individual apps to take their inter-app snooping and shove it, but you will get the privacy without the wait. Also buried in those privacy settings is another kind of ad targeting: the kind that’s done by Apple itself. Apple sells ads that appear on its own services, including Apple News and Stocks and the App Store, and the company uses your behavior on those services — as well as biographical information you supply and your purchases of other Apple products like music, books, and TV shows — to target ads to you. Apple is reportedly working on another ad format called Suggested Apps, which will appear on the App Store. (Currently, Apple’s Search Ads only appear in App Store searches.) Here’s how to opt out of that tracking: Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising (scroll all the way down to the bottom) > Turn off “Personalized Ads” Apple is continuing to establish itself as a tech company that’s focused on privacy and security by trying to stand in stark contrast to its competitors Google and Facebook, who have had their share of privacy issues. Companies that rely on data collected across apps, assuming Apple’s feature will dramatically decrease that data flow, are not happy about the new feature. But privacy-conscious consumers will be — at least, whenever they get the chance to use it. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 15 days ago on re/code
Corbis via Getty Images The long-awaited iOS 14.5 update is finally rolling out with a new privacy tool. On Monday, Apple is rolling out a long-awaited privacy feature for iOS. The latest version of the company’s mobile operating system, iOS 14.5, will prompt iPhone and iPad users to opt out of tracking in apps that monitor their behavior and share that data with third parties. This new feature is a significant step for user privacy, as it gives people more control over their mobile phone app data and how it’s used by companies, like Facebook and Google, to target ads. At the same time, the move has frustrated app developers and tech companies that have relied on the reservoir of user data for years, and who fear they’re likely to be cut off from it in the near future. The biggest difference most people will see with the introduction of the new privacy tool, called App Tracking Transparency, is a pop-up that appears when you open an app that tracks you: Apple Since 2012, apps developed for iOS have used an Identifier for Advertising (IDFA) to conduct tracking across different websites and apps. Apps usually collect this identifier so they can connect the information about the user gathered through the app to information about that user gathered elsewhere, like on the web, in order to better target ads. Before 14.5, Apple mobile users were able to limit ad tracking through toggles deep in the software’s settings, but this newest update directly prompts users to approve and disapprove this tracking for every app. With the App Tracking Transparency feature, however, apps will need users’ permission to access a user’s IDFA before conducting tracking, which could include collecting user data to sell to data brokers or linking a user’s app data with third-party data that was collected in order to target ads. These new rules, Apple has said, will also impact other app processes, including sharing location data with data brokers and implementing hidden trackers for the purpose of conducting ad analytics. Some ad industry experts believe a large number of users will opt out of tracking when the new app tracking transparency feature goes live. The iOS 14.5 software update is considered a major win for user privacy and is expected to give iPhone users a much greater sense of the type of tracking that takes place in their devices (in fact, privacy advocates were frustrated that the tool wasn’t rolled out earlier). While Apple users had some control over ad-tracking in the past, it’s easier than ever for users to opt out of being tracked. “They’ll see a simple pop-up that basically prompts them to answer the question of, are they okay with being tracked or not? If they are, things move on,” Apple CEO Tim Cook explained in an interview with Kara Swisher earlier this month. “If they’re not, then the tracking is turned off for that individual with respect to that specific app.” At the same time, this new Apple feature has frustrated other technology companies that rely heavily on this data to support their web advertising businesses. Google has announced a number of changes to its Google ads systems following the announcement of the new Apple privacy features. The update has also led to a rather public fight between Facebook and Apple. Facebook has run a months-long media campaign claiming that Apple’s changes will hurt the personalized ads that support small businesses. The change is actually more likely to hurt Facebook, assuming many Facebook users opt out. Apple has been running a campaign of its own, touting privacy and security as key features of its products, for years. Tim Cook, the company’s CEO, has long emphasized that Apple is not in the data business, a position that has increasingly put him at odds with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. App Tracking Transparency isn’t even the only big privacy update in iOS 14, which also includes “privacy nutrition labels” that encourage apps to provide explanations of their privacy that are easier to understand. Aside from its privacy features, iOS 14.5 offers a few other reasons to update your software. For instance, you will now be able to set your phone to automatically download security updates, rather than remembering to do this yourself. New emoji options are available. You also now have the option to unlock your phone using an Apple Watch if the device’s Face ID cameras see that you’re wearing a mask. The App Tracking Transparency tool won’t necessarily mean an end to all tracking, and Apple is already playing whack-a-mole trying to find and stop other workarounds for identifying your device. Still, this newest feature is a new and in-your-face way to remind users about the kind of data apps are seeking about them. Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.

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posted 18 days ago on re/code
A woman works from home in September 2020 during the Covid-19 pandemic. | Robin Utrecht/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images At least heading back to the office means cheaper electric bills. There are plenty of reasons why you might dread heading back to the office, but your home electricity bill isn’t one of them. Americans — many of whom worked remotely this past year rather than in their offices — have shouldered larger electricity expenses than usual as they stayed home, charged their computers and phones, and kept the lights on. Their offices, in turn, saved money on electricity. In the three quarters last year after the US Covid-19 epidemic became widespread, residential electric usage rose by about 7.5 percent compared with the same period the previous year, according to an analysis of Energy Information Administration electricity sales data by Tufts University economics professor Steve Cicala. Commercial electricity consumption, meanwhile, declined by 7 percent in that time. !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-c3y79");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-c3y79");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() That works out to roughly $75 more on average in electric bills per customer over the three quarters, but that figure disguises big jumps in certain places like Connecticut and California, where many office workers worked from home and where bills increased $240, on average, according to Cicala. Using monthly pricing data for electricity and adjusting for weather patterns, that works out to about $10.4 billion more in residential electric spending, in Q2-Q4 2020. Commercial spending, which includes offices but also establishments such as restaurants and hotels, declined nearly $7 billion in that same time. In addition to individual homes being less efficient than shared offices for electricity consumption, residential electricity rates are higher than commercial rates. !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-4Weor");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-4Weor");i.style.minWidth="100%";i.style.border="none";e.appendChild(i)})}() Cicala’s previous research found that residential energy usage had risen by as much as 10 percent from April to July 2020 — energy usage is at its highest during the summer. That usage moderated a bit as the year went on. Still, Cicala said, “a 7.5 percent increase is just completely jumping off the charts of normal year-to-year charges.” Indeed, before the pandemic, residential energy usage had been declining about 1 percent per year, thanks to more efficient appliances and lights, among other improvements. Increased electric bills mean many Americans were having to shell out more money during a precarious economic time. Of course, that could be balanced out by less money spent on commuting to and from work, depending on your situation. What’s more, after the 2017 tax overhaul under former President Donald Trump, employees can no longer claim federal tax deductions for their home offices, even as their employers — whose offices have sat empty — can. While not available for federal taxes, several states offer their own tax breaks for employee expenses. Some employers also reimburse work-from-home costs, and some states require them to do so. “Simply put, in general, if you’re an employee working from home, you can’t deduct unreimbursed employee expenses (including the use of a home office),” Susan Allen, senior manager for tax practice and ethics at the American Institute of CPAs, told Recode. And there are also other issues at play than electricity. Staying at home and not commuting helped contribute to a rare decline in greenhouse gas emissions during the pandemic and saved Americans many hours in transit. (But working from home has meant longer workdays and more meetings, as well, so perhaps it’s a wash). Either way, this trend may not last much longer, since many Americans will be heading back to the office this summer or fall.

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posted 19 days ago on re/code
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has selected Andrew Steer, the former head of the World Resources Institute, to lead his $10 billion climate change philanthropy. | World Resources Institute A conversation with Andrew Steer about the US Earth Day climate summit, and how he wants to spend Bezos’s money. It’s a momentous week for action on climate change. On Thursday, the White House is convening 40 world leaders for an Earth Day summit where the United States is expected to announce new commitments to curb its greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Washington Post, the US is considering doubling its previous target, cutting emissions 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. In doing so, the US — the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter — would end up committing to the largest cuts in emissions in the world. Many other countries are also not sitting idle. Major economies like the United Kingdom, the European Union, and even China have their sights set on zeroing out their greenhouse gas emissions entirely. Others plan to ramp up their ambitions from the tepid goals set in the wake of the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The accord aims to limit warming this century to below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, with a more ambitious target of 1.5°C. It’s been a struggle to get to this point, with decades of stops and false starts just to get countries to agree to limit climate change at all, not to mention the last four years of US backpedaling under Donald Trump. Now, scientists say the world has less than a decade to get on course for meeting the 1.5°C goal. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas emissions worldwide are poised to rise again this year as economies rebound from the Covid-19 pandemic. Andrew Steer is a leading authority on international climate change policy and has been closely involved in the ebbs and flows of global action for more than a decade. He worked as a special envoy for climate change at the World Bank between 2010 and 2012. And until recently, he led the World Resources Institute (WRI), one of the premier think tanks on climate change and other environmental issues. WRI’s work has been indispensable for my own reporting, from their policy papers on energy to their visualizations to their briefings walking reporters through the intricacies of international climate negotiations. Steer was recently poached by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to lead the Bezos Earth Fund, one of the world’s largest climate philanthropies, pledging to spend $10 billion by 2030 to address climate change. View this post on Instagram A post shared by Jeff Bezos (@jeffbezos) I talked to Steer recently about how we arrived at this moment, why he still believes in the more aggressive targets for limiting warming, and what we can expect from international climate negotiations. I also asked him what areas should be priorities for investment and his ambitions for his new job. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Umair Irfan During your time at WRI, there were a lot of shifts in momentum around climate action. To your mind, what has been the most significant shift over the past decade and how meaningful do you think that’s been? Andrew Steer When I joined WRI in 2012, we were still in a situation where quite frankly there wasn’t a global strategy for addressing climate change at all. The Paris deal was remarkable in that it was really a new type of international agreement. It wasn’t the kind of textbook agreement that the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference had tried to deliver. It was something actually much more modern, much more creative, much more risky, based upon the notion that it was too early to get countries to make concrete commitments. The hypotheses that it was based on turned out to be remarkably accurate. The hypothesis was that the first time around when you asked countries to make commitments, they’re not going to be very impressive and they are certainly not going to add up to a solution. Then the hypothesis was that over the next five years, for a whole range of reasons, you would start getting ambitions rising. The assumption was that there would be technological change, that costs would come down, that the politics might change for the better, that citizens might come forward and demand change. Quite honestly, most of us that were there in Paris would not have imagined that today 59 countries would have committed to move to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century, or that 1,500 major global corporations would commit to net-zero and to science-based targets. So in a way, the Paris agreement, easy although it is to criticize for being voluntary, actually turns out to have been very smart. Having said that, we’re absolutely not where we need to be, and committing to net-zero by 2050 doesn’t mean that you will have clear five- and 10-year paths. Umair Irfan President Biden is convening world leaders partially as a trust-building exercise after the US rejoined the Paris Agreement on January 20, his first day in office. What kind of diplomacy does the US need to be doing right now and what are the ingredients of a good climate commitment from the US? What about other countries? Andrew Steer It seems to us that the Biden administration is doing remarkable outreach with remarkable energy. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and his team are doing an enormous number of high-level calls and some pretty exciting potential partnerships. These partnerships relate to technology, they relate to trade, they relate to finance, and they relate to voluntary carbon markets. In terms of the US’s own nationally determined contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement, it has to be ambitious, and this is not easy. We in the United States, we’re starting behind the curve. We’ve got some catching up to do, and so we have to be thinking of something like a 50 percent reduction during this decade and over the baseline of 2005 levels of emissions. We need to see not only China come up with an NDC that brings forward the country’s peak of emissions from 2030, but we need to see sort of the advanced countries — Japan, Canada — to come forward. And then we need the middle-income countries. Indonesia is doing actually quite well in many areas, but we’re concerned that its NDC might not be as ambitious as it could be. As we look around the world at the so far $16 trillion that have been allocated to the post-Covid-19 stimulus packages to bring back the world economy, it’s not yet an encouraging story on a greener future, but it can still be. It’s not too late. Umair Irfan Are there any areas that stand out to your mind that should be priorities for investment, where we can see some of the most bang for our buck? Andrew Steer We no longer have the luxury of leaving what seems to be expensive on the table. We no longer have the luxury of saying we can’t afford to tackle the so-called hard-to-abate sectors — steel, cement, ocean shipping, airlines — because we need to do that in order to solve the problem. That doesn’t mean that this decade they are going to see massive declines in their carbon emissions, but it does mean that we need to invest in research so we bring those cost curves down. So the question you asked, which is where should you put the money, now is a much richer and deeper question. Probably the biggest single area of untapped gain relates to what are called nature-based solutions and which is recognizing the power of nature to be the greatest carbon capture and storage in the world. There’s a hundred million hectares of land in Africa that could be restored by bringing carbon down to the Earth in the form of trees and bushes and soils and crops in a way that would be massively attractive economically and massively attractive environmentally. And so too in this country. There are huge opportunities for these nature-based solutions. Umair Irfan Is the 1.5°C target under the Paris Agreement still worthwhile or should we focus on the easier target of limiting warming below 2°C? Is 1.5°C even realistic at this point given that emissions are still going in the wrong direction? Andrew Steer It’s not only realistic, it’s essential: We have to stick to 1.5. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the body of climate researchers convened by the United Nations, came out with its 2018 report and said actually the idea of 2°C of warming is too risky for the future of the world, we have to aim for 1.5°C, a lot of people said, “Wow, this is dangerous.” Why? Because political leaders and corporations will run for the hills saying “It’s too difficult now.” The amazing thing is that the degree of energy and leadership that was brought to climate change accelerated a lot after that goal to go to 1.5. One of the most interesting things to try to understand is why did that happen. I think it happened for two reasons. One was a psychological reason, that real leaders actually want to be part of history. They actually find this exciting, especially in the private sector. So you now have probably 100 corporate CEOs that signed up to programs like the climate commitment that the World Economic Forum does. The Climate Pledge has a whole lot, and so does Science-based Targets. When we set up Science-based Targets, we never would have dreamt that 1,500 major corporations would sign up to them, all voluntarily, and most of them are now signed up to the 1.5°C target. And I think the second reason is a recognition that if you don’t engage now there are going to be truly disruptive changes. There’s nothing incremental about it anymore. You don’t want to be part of yesterday’s game and so you join in with more enthusiasm. Now obviously, most still do not, so don’t get me wrong, but there are now a growing number of commitments that we almost have enough to create this tipping point. The reason that we should have more hope now of the 1.5°C than we had before is because of the notion that we need disruptive change. There’s something called path dependency. Path dependency is when you’re on a path and you know it’s not the best path, but there’s no way of getting back to the other one. For example, the United States loses billions of hours a year in traffic. That costs the United States billions of dollars in economic losses. Everybody knows it makes no sense at this stage of civilization to be sitting billions of hours in a traffic jam, but we don’t have a way of redesigning our cities comfortably enough. The only way is through real disruption, and so I think what we’ve had in the last few years is a recognition that actually there are some disruptive jumps possible. That’s what’s exciting people right now. Umair Irfan What do you see as the role of philanthropies like the one you’re going to lead? Andrew Steer Philanthropy has an amazing role. Philanthropy can be flexible, it can be quick, it can be nimble, it can take risks, and we need all of those things. But it also needs to be analytically sound. It needs to be rigorous in its accountability and it needs to be transparent. That’s what the best philanthropies are. For me, it’s a huge privilege to join the Bezos Earth Fund. Umair Irfan Is there anything you can tell me about your ambitions or agenda for your new post at the Bezos Earth Fund? Andrew Steer Jeff Bezos decided he wanted to put $10 billion of his own wealth to be part of this incredibly exciting and transformative decade. We will certainly be focusing on the kind of system changes that are required and we will be analyzing where it is that we can play the most helpful role, by injecting the right kind of funding, the right kind of time, in the right kind of way, to the right kind of players so that we can accelerate the path towards that positive tipping point after which change becomes unstoppable. We’re going to think about it very much from a human lens as well. We need to take issues of environmental justice into account. The poor and people of color have suffered a great deal from climate change, both in this country and even more internationally. We need to make that an important theme of this as well.

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posted 19 days ago on re/code
Elon Musk has donated $150 million to charities this year — more than in all previous years combined. | Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images Texas schools. A food bank. Now a climate-change prize. The Tesla founder discovers Big Philanthropy. Elon Musk is on a philanthropy spending spree. In the months immediately after briefly becoming the world’s richest person, Musk has been transforming his profile as a philanthropist, appearing seemingly every few weeks bearing gifts — in public. That represents a departure from Musk’s penchant for privacy and his relatively thin history as a major donor, despite being one of the country’s wealthiest people for a decade. In the last few months, the Tesla founder appears to have been on the most aggressive streak of charitable giving in his life, moving so fast that he sometimes fails to give the recipients a heads-up. He is making his largest public donations ever and at a pace that seems to outstrip any other point in his career. All of that activity will be highlighted on Thursday when Musk speaks at a buzzy rollout for his single-biggest donation, a $100 million jackpot for the winner of a climate contest he created. Over just the first four months of 2021, Musk has committed almost $150 million directly to charities, according to Recode reporting and public announcements. That more than doubles Recode’s best estimate of all his charitable giving before 2021, which amounted to about $100 million based on available information. And that’s not all. Behind the scenes over the last few months, Musk’s foundation has been spending more time reaching out to other major philanthropists and intermediaries to try and find ideas for grants and learn best practices, Recode is told. It makes sense that Musk’s lean philanthropy team — it has no known full-time staff — would do that. Philanthropists are often encouraged to borrow one another’s ideas and share notes if they are struggling to find worthy places to grant money — an ailment that Musk has recently copped to. “Critical feedback is always super appreciated, as well as ways to donate money that really make a difference (way harder than it seems)” he tweeted in January. Part of what happened next was coincidental. Part of it was the fallout of that tweet. Over the next three months, Musk committed: $100 million for Thursday’s prize $30 million to nonprofits in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas; $20 million of that goes to local district and charter schools, the other $10 million is meant to revitalize the downtown of the city of Brownsville, Texas $5 million to Khan Academy, a platform for online courses, which came as a complete “surprise” to the nonprofit, a spokesperson said $5 million to a pair of Boston-area researchers studying the coronavirus $1 million to Feeding Texas, which operates food banks in the new home state of Musk and his foundation Gifts of undisclosed amounts to a fund run by Barstool Sports (after initially resisting); a space-focused competition run by SteamSpace; and a project run by UNICEF to expand internet access in the developing world But it is the XPrize competition that is Musk’s single largest charitable commitment to date. The $100 million will be awarded to entrepreneurs who come up with the best technologies to capture carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lock it away permanently. Musk is set to unveil the details of the four-year competition and answer questions in a glitzy rollout live from Cape Canaveral, Florida. That donation was a direct consequence of his January tweet. Peter Diamandis, an entrepreneur who runs the competition, saw his request and replied publicly and then privately to Musk, who had backed a previous XPrize. Diamandis had an idea: What if we did another one on a new issue? “One of the attributes about Elon is when he’s clear about wanting to do something, he moves very fast,” said Diamandis. Musk eventually agreed to headline a launch event, too. “The reason for the publicity is to get as many people to know that this prize exists.” Some of Musk’s other donations have been more low-key. Last fall, the head of Musk’s family office, Jared Birchall, “reached out of the blue” to Feeding Texas head Celia Cole after seeing a tweet about her organization. Musk was interested in making a $100,000 donation for Covid-19 relief. When the winter storms struck Texas this winter, Cole’s team reached back out to Musk’s — who added another zero to his first gift. “It was a quick ask and a quick yes,” Cole recalled. “He seems to be settling into Texas, and maybe he’s working to make Texas his focus.” Musk is also being quite transparent — even playful, coy, and attention-seeking with tweets that tease multi-part announcements and create several independent news cycles. All of those donations have been announced publicly, despite his previous belief that his charitable giving should be anonymous. This Elon publicity machine sometimes gets ahead of itself, as he is prone to do on Twitter. When Musk first announced the XPrize contest in a tweet, he said “details next week” — they didn’t come until almost three weeks later. When Musk told the world that he’d give $30 million to the Brownsville area, he somehow forgot to tell the city of Brownsville, whose mayor said he had no idea the money was coming before the tweet was sent. That money hasn’t yet arrived. The mayor, Trey Mendez, told Recode that the city “has had initial discussions” with the Musk Foundation about the contribution since the tweet a month ago. City officials are now belatedly putting together a plan for how to spend it. It was a similar manna-from-heaven moment for the area’s schools, which primarily teach Latino students in a part of the country where more than one-third of families live in poverty. Beginning just after Easter, Musk’s team called a series of meetings with Cameron County superintendents and charter school heads to inquire how much money they might need and what was on their wish lists. $5 million of the $20 million for area schools was deposited last Friday — awarded based on the number of students enrolled in each district. The other $15 million is expected to be distributed in future tranches beginning this summer for more projects, based in part on any early accomplishments. “Their judgment will be if we did what we said we’re going to do and if they got the bang for the buck that they wanted us to get, is my impression,” said Roger Lee, whose Rio Hondo Independent School District was awarded $100,000 to boost local transportation services and to support a robotics program at an elementary school. Musk’s private spacecraft company, SpaceX, has been building operations out in the Rio Grande Valley, and his philanthropy to the area surely helps tend to local relations, too. He has brought superintendents like Lee to SpaceX offices, and his interest in improving local schools and job training could pay dividends in the long run for SpaceX, which Musk says needs to hire more local technical talent. In his corporate career, Musk has displayed this similar speed and flair for pizzazz. Musk moves quickly — sometimes too quickly — which in mega-philanthropy can get money out the door but can backfire if corners are cut. The pizzazz at Tesla and SpaceX has turned Musk into something of a showman, which if applied to charity, could help burnish Musk’s reputation. To be sure, even with this spurt of charity, Musk has a long way to go before his name is to be etched among his generation’s great philanthropists. While he is no longer the world’s wealthiest person, Tesla stock has skyrocketed and brought his net worth with it, boosting his estimated assets to $190 billion. His $250 million or so in disclosed lifetime giving is only about 0.1 percent of those assets, as critics are quick to point out. He has said not to expect major charitable gifts — the types that would satisfy the Giving Pledge he signed, for instance — until decades from now, when he may feel free to finally sell some Tesla stock. And this is all to say nothing of whether Musk’s charitable gifts will actually do any good or whether the system that allows him to choose winners among nonprofits and cities is fundamentally fair and democratic. But for the first time in a while, Musk appears to be doing the work. Change may be afoot.

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