How to do it (if you’re rich enough)

From Microsoft’s Brad Smith:

As the impact of COVID-19 spreads in the Puget Sound region and northern California, Microsoft has asked its employees who can work from home to do so. As a result, we have a reduced need in these regions for the on-site presence of many of the hourly workers who are vital to our daily operations, such as individuals who work for our vendors and staff our cafes, drive our shuttles and support our on-site tech and audio-visual needs.

We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees. As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs. This is independent of whether their full services are needed. This will ensure that, in Puget Sound for example, the 4,500 hourly employees who work in our facilities will continue to receive their regular wages even if their work hours are reduced.

While the work to protect public health needs to speed up, the economy can’t afford to slow down. We’re committed as a company to making public health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and societal impact of COVID-19. We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.

If tech companies think they’re states, then they should accept the same responsibilities as states

It’s amazing to watch the deluded fantasies of tech bosses about their importance. In part, this is because their pretensions are taken seriously by political leaders who should know better. The daftest move thus far in this context was the Danish government’s decision in 2017 to appoint an ‘ambassador’ to the tech companies in Silicon Valley, but it’s clear that some other administrations share the same delusions.

Marietje Schaake, the former MEP who is now International policy director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, has noted this too.

Last month, Microsoft announced it would open a “representation to the UN”, while at the same time recruiting a diplomat to run its European public affairs office. Alibaba has proposed a cross-border, online free trade platform. When Facebook’s suggestion of a “supreme court” to revisit controversial content moderation decisions was criticised, it relabelled the initiative an “oversight board”. It seems tech executives are literally trying to take seats at the table that has thus far been shared by heads of state.

At the annual security conference in Munich, presidents, prime ministers and politicians usually share the sought-after stage to engage in conversations about conflict in the Middle East, the future of the EU, or transatlantic relations. This year, executives of Alphabet, Facebook and Microsoft were added to the speakers list.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg went on from Munich to Brussels to meet with EU commissioners about a package of regulatory initiatives on artificial intelligence, data and digital services. Commissioner Thierry Breton provided the apt reminder that companies must follow EU regulations — not the other way around.

In a brisk OpEd piece in yesterday’s Financial Times, Schaake reminds tech bosses that if they really want change, there is no need to wait for government regulation to guide them in the right direction. (Which is their current mantra.) They own and totally control their own platforms. They can start in their own “republics” today. Nothing stops them proactively aligning their terms of use with human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law. When they deploy authoritarian models of governing, they should be called out. “Instead of playing government”, she writes,

they should take responsibility for their own territories. This means anchoring terms of use and standards in the rule of law and democratic principles and allowing independent scrutiny from researchers, regulators and democratic representatives alike. Credible accountability is always independent. It is time to ensure such oversight is proportionate to the power of tech giants.

Companies seeking to democratise would also have to give their employees and customers more of a say, as prime “constituents”. If leaders are serious about their state-like powers, they must walk the walk and treat consumers as citizens. Until then, calls for regulations will be seen as opportunistic, and corporations unfit to lead.

Bravo! Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Tuesday 4 February, 2020

Newton’s notebook

The young Isaac Newton was a painstaking recorder of his expenditure, probably because he was relatively poor. This is one of his early notebooks, where he records his expenditure on frivolous ‘sweetmeats’ — as sugary treats were then called.

This particular notebook is included in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s current (and fascinating) Feast and Fast: the Art of Food in Europe 1500-1800 exhibition.


Surprise, surprise! There are lots of scammers on Airbnb

Good Vice investigation reveals what a lot of people already know:

The stories quickly started to fall into easily discernible categories. Scammers all over the world, it seems, have figured how best to game the Airbnb platform: by engaging in bait and switches; charging guests for fake damages; persuading people to pay outside the Airbnb app; and, when all else fails, engaging in clumsy or threatening demands for five-star reviews to hide the evidence of what they’ve done. (Or, in some cases, a combination of several of these scams.)

The article has an interesting list of the ways people (hosts as well as guests) can be scammed. And, to be fair, Airbnb seems to be willing to accept some responsibility for the bad stuff that goes on on their platform. In that sense, it provides a welcome contrast to Facebook.


Talk, don’t fly

One predictable consequence of Corona. “Zoom Video Stock Soars as Coronavirus Travel Bans Boost Focus on Videoconferencing.”

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Towards another Facebook Presidential election

Four reasons that make Frederic Filloux believe that we are heading towards another American Presidential Election swayed by Facebook.

  1. Mark Zuckerberg’s stubbornness in exonerating political advertising from any fact-checking process. In short: any false statement showing up in a newsfeed can be debunked by either Facebook team or any TPFC (third-party fact-checking) it relies on and taken down. But if the same statement appears in a paid-political ad, it is allowed to stay (unless it points to previously debunked fake news).
  2. There is no change of Facebook’s core principle, which is to reward emotion, and incendiary statements — a principle that clearly favors right-wing rhetoric (starting with Donald Trump). Facebook never considers altering its algorithm to spotlight high qualityand more even-keeled content. The reason is that it brings less engagement, which is at the core of Facebook’s economics.
  3. Unlike 2016, this time, Facebook has a vested interest in seeing Democrats lose. Whoever the nominee be, he or she will go after Facebook, at least with severe regulation and at worse with an attempt to break the companies’ holdings up.
  4. Trump digital campaign is running on full throttle compared to Democrats’. In the exact same scenario as 2016, the Trump campaign is spending heavily on social media and runs 3x more ads than Pete Buttigieg and 7x more than Elizabeth Warren, who is following Hillary Clinton’s path: in 2016, while Trump was flooding voters with 6 million different ads, HRC ran only 66,000 different versions of its message. Toyda, the numbers are staggering: according to a detailed investigation published last week by the Guardian, the Trump campaign spent $19.4m on 218,100 different Facebook ads in 2019, which were seen between 633m and 1.3bn times.

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Climate models are running hot — and nobody knows why.

Fascinating Bloomberg report. It’s not just one model, but lots of the major ones. They’re starting to predict much higher temperatures. And at the moment, there’s no consensus in the climate-research community about why this is happening. Is it just a quirk of these very complex models? Or the result of interactions that nobody’s understood? It’s a bit like the problem of inexplicable machine-learning systems. Only more worrying.