Detrended

Trying to ask the right questions.

President Biden has appointed yet another pro-antitrust zealot to a prominent position in the bureaucracy, with Jonathan Kanter nominated to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division:

Kanter is known as an adversary of giant tech corporations including Google and Apple. He has represented large companies like Microsoft, as well as smaller tech companies like Google critic Yelp. He is a partner at the Kanter Law Group, which describes itself as “an antitrust advocacy boutique.”

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House said in a news release.

The battle over the next few years is shaping up to be economics and legal precedent versus an ideologically-driven administration that has already made up its mind about Big Tech (guilty!), evidence and unintended consequences be damned.

This is an… interesting take by President Biden:

“They’re killing people,” Biden said when asked what his message was to social media platforms like Facebook on the spread of false and misleading claims about the virus and the safety of vaccines that prevent it.

“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that’s — they’re killing people,” he continued.

Does spreading misinformation kill people? No, the virus kills people. If misinformation on social media plus a person’s gullibility or inability to think critically turns them into anti-vaxers then that’s a factor, but not what kills them.

Does Biden also have a problem with household conversations? Phone calls? Advertising for anything that might cause harm (say, alcohol)? Bumper stickers..?

Where does that logic stop, other than with the conclusion that the First Amendment kills people?

Interestingly, Facebook claims it “is helping save lives” with its vaccine finder tool and “authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines”.

Biden has had it out for Facebook for some time. I suspect no matter what Facebook was doing, he would find a reason to blame it.

The Australian government wants to empower a bunch of bureaucrats to “step in and take control of a company during a cyber-attack… including compelling them to install government software on their networks”.

I’m sorry, what? 😳

Tech policy in Australia is clearly being written by people who don’t have the first inkling as to how tech works. I’m beginning to suspect they don’t even know how a bureaucracy works in practice.

This really is dystopian fiction-level stuff.

That is, the underhanded tax and subsidy without taxing and subsidising:

“France's antitrust watchdog slapped a 500 million euro ($593 million) fine on Alphabet's Google on Tuesday for failing to comply fully with temporary orders the regulator had given in a row with the country's news publishers.

The U.S. tech group must come up with proposals within the next two months on how it would compensate news agencies and other publishers for the use of their news. If it does not do that, the company would face additional fines of up to 900,000 euros per day.”

Google will do what it did in Australia and strike confidential deals with French publishers to avoid the fines. It’s nothing more than a shakedown, with some of Google France’s revenue to be transferred to a few local media organisations, paid for by the French taxpayer (whatever Google ‘compensates’ news agencies with will be fully tax deductible against its local earnings) and increased barriers to entry for potential media competitors. 👏

Surprise, surprise. Pass a privacy-destroying bill in the name of counter-terrorism but make it vague enough that it can be used for any kind of spying and boom, that’s what happens:

“A major company says it plans to scour workers’ internet history for “adverse online behaviour” in a chilling example of how a proposed new law could apply to Australian workers.

Queensland power company Powerlink presented a number of examples of “online behaviours” it would seek to examine as part of a “digital footprint check” under a proposed amendment to security laws.

Listed in the presentation was the presence of news articles or media profiles featured in an employee’s internet search history that may bring “reputational harm” to Powerlink.

The company, which is owned by the Queensland government, also told union delegates it would search for “indications of poor reliability or trustworthiness, such as flagrant dishonesty” and if the person’s internet activity reveals signs they may “easily succumb to groupthink or other conformity pressures”.

Electrical Trades Union national policy officer Trevor Gauld said “one of the examples Powerlink gave was if an employee shared a political meme about legalised marijuana that might be their political view and that somehow that would be a breach”.”

File this under yet another example of poor policymaking from this government. It’s all secretive with no cost-benefit — at least one is never made available publicly or even referenced — and will have unintended consequences for years to come.

What’s with Australia’s current government and drafting laws so ill-defined that can effectively be used for anything… oh yeah, I get it now.

Australians who work in industries such as food and grocery will be placed under a similar microscope to those at risk of international espionage, Mr Gould [ETU national policy adviser] warned.

“That's how broad the bill is,” he said.

“An apprentice electrician now somehow poses a terror threat to the power industry; it's beyond ludicrous.

“Podiatrists, I admit, are pretty important people, but I would never have thought of a podiatrist as a domestic terrorist threat.”

Australia: eroding people’s privacy in the name of counter-terrorism, one law at a time. I’d be interested to find out how many terrorist attacks this thwarts. I suspect after a decade the number will approximate zero.

The US Federal Trade Commission’s new chair, 32 year-old Lina Khan, has got off to an interesting start:

Less than a week into Lina Khan’s tenure as Federal Trade Commission chair, her chief of staff ordered the agency’s staff to cancel all public appearances, according to internal agency emails viewed by POLITICO.

In a June 22 email to more than two dozen of the FTC’s top staffers, Khan’s chief of staff, Jen Howard, announced a “moratorium on public events and press outreach.” … In a follow-up message two days later, Howard said that any staff who were scheduled for public events should cancel those appearances.

“I want to make clear that for any situations where staff are currently scheduled to do a public event and thus need to contact event organizers to withdraw their participation, the message they should convey is that they are sorry they can no longer participate due to pressing matters at the FTC,” she wrote.

Sounds like a great place to work. /s

But in all seriousness, a lot of economic damage could be inflicted over the next few years with Lina Khan at the helm of the FTC and Tim Wu as Biden’s special advisor for technology and competition policy. They’re antitrust zealots who want to rewrite the rulebook to one where big is automatically bad and demonstrating consumer harm is no longer a requirement.

It’s always to protect the children. At least initially:

“The European Parliament on Tuesday approved a controversial law that would allow digital companies to detect and report child sexual abuse on their platforms for the next three years.

Tuesday's vote was the final hurdle for the bill, and will allow companies to scan their platforms for explicit material without fear of violating Europe's strict privacy laws. The bill pitted the European Commission, who proposed the bill, and children's rights activists against the Parliament and Europe's privacy regulators, who fear the bill could undermine the EU's privacy rules.”

Child sexual abuse is an important issue that deserves attention but passing a bill that facilitates mass surveillance is not the solution. The fact the argument rests on invoking one of the Four Horsemen of the Infocalypse is always a good sign that something’s rotten.

It’s now 17 days until the Tokyo Olympics:

“About 90,000 international athletes, support teams and journalists are expected to arrive in Japan ahead of the games… [along with] accommodation staff, drivers, media and over 110,000 volunteers who may come into contact with arriving participants.”

Just 25% of Japan’s population have had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. What are the odds that this all goes horribly, horribly wrong?

This is from a recent interview with Noah Smith:

“First, COVID is the ultimate cover for restructuring — what my friend and former CFO Peter Currie used to call “shake and bake”. It’s an opportunity for every CEO to do all the things he/she may have wanted to do in the past to increase efficiency and effectiveness — from fundamental headcount resizing and reorganization, to changing geographic footprint, to exiting stale lines of business — but couldn’t because they would cause too much disruption. The disruption is happening anyway, so you might as well do everything you’ve always wanted to do now.

Second, it’s hard to overstate the positive shock that remote work works. Remote work isn’t perfect, there are problems, but virtually every CEO I’ve talked to over the last year marvels at how well it works. And remote work worked under the extreme duress of a pandemic, with all of the human impact of lockdowns and children unable to go to school and people being unable to see their friends and extended families. It will work even better out of COVID. Companies of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions are retooling their assumptions on geographic footprint, where jobs are located, where employees are located, how offices are configured, and if there should be offices at all.

Combining these factors, it’s possible that we’ll see a huge surge in productivity growth over the next 5 years. This productivity growth is, in my view, the key to a strong “roaring 20’s” thesis, that we are going to see an amazing economic boom in the US over the next several years, even on top of the incredible boom of 2009-2020. I don’t think that’s a certainty, but I think it’s possible — even likely.”

I’m not sure how well the public sector will capitalise on the productivity growth Marc predicts above. At least in Australia, public sector CEOs act exactly as he describes earlier in the interview, where it’s difficult to “adapt an older culture designed to bend metal, shuffle paper, or answer phones”.

It will eventually adapt by necessity (it’ll be tough to attract staff, even with job security, when private companies offer more pay and remote work) but by the time it does the private sector will be miles ahead. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it’s a shame the opportunity to improve the public sector (15-20% of the total workforce) seems to have, at least anecdotally, dodged the COVID-productivity bullet.