One of the principles underlying this newsletter is that email is good. Email is based on an open standard, letting many interested parties build on top of it. It’s an asynchronous form of communication, letting you ignore messages until you’re ready to deal with them. And if you want to get a bunch of your coworkers together to bring down your employer, their names are already in your Gmail directory!
That last lesson proved particularly important last year to thousands of Googlers, who had grown frustrated with their bosses over defense contracts, expansion into China, sexual harassment, and various other labor issues. When their bosses failed them, Bloomberg reported today, Gmail remained at their side. And the Google Walkout was born:
Google’s employee email system played a pivotal role in the organizing for that protest, he said, with more than a thousand workers joining an email list used to plan it. Given that employees are spread around the globe and don’t have most co-workers’ personal emails, he said, company email is key to facilitating workers’ ability to mobilize.
Google’s official public position on the Google Walkout is that it was the most beautiful coming together of cherished colleagues in the history of corporate America. “Even in difficult times, we are encouraged by the commitment of our colleagues to create a better workplace,” CEO Sundar Pichai said at the time. “That’s come through very strongly over the past few weeks.”
At the same time, however — in a weird little case that was skillfully unearthed Thursday by Bloomberg reporters Josh Eidelson, Hassan Kanu, and Mark Bergen — the company was working to take away labor protections from anyone who wanted to email 20,000 colleagues about the next walkout.
The details of the case are intricate, and the Bloomberg story is worth reading in full. The gist is that an unnamed Googler received an undisclosed punishment after posting conservative views on Google+. (I have a notes file called “Times Google Accidentally Owned Itself By Building Google+,” to which this story makes a fine addition.)
Afterward he filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. In defending itself against the complaint, Google’s lawyers said various sensible things about wanting to create a diverse and inclusive workplace, and that oh also by the way the board should invalidate an old case known as “the Purple Communications standard,” which protects employees’ right to start petitions and organize themselves via workplace email.
Bloomberg tells us the rest:
Google has denied the NLRB’s allegations of wrongdoing. In a filing responding to the NLRB, it says the employee it disciplined had committed misconduct which “interfered with Google’s lawful interest in maintaining an inclusive workplace for women and minorities that is free of unlawful bias, discrimination, and harassment.” Google also wrote that the NLRB should reverse some of the legal precedents being used against it, including the Purple Communications standard. It is not uncommon for companies to challenge legal precedents being used in cases against them.
The protection established in Purple Communications is “pretty fundamental” given the centrality of email to modern workplace communications, said Wilma Liebman, who chaired the NLRB during Obama’s first term. Given Google’s rhetoric about “the free exchange of ideas, and itself as a purveyor of mechanisms for communications,” she said, “That’s an irony that Google, of all companies, would take such a narrow position.”
At The Verge, Russell Brandom talks to labor activist Yana Calou, who works with organizers at Coworker.org, about the case. “Google is weaponizing this internal harassment to limit workers rights,” Calou says:
Labor groups are worried that Google’s strategy for short-term victory could post a longer-term threat to organizers. Google won the Damore case without overturning any broader precedents, and organizers say it shouldn’t be necessary here either. “The Damore case established that talking about working conditions doesn’t give you the right to question your coworkers for immutable characteristics like race or gender,” Calou says. “They’re separate issues and the fact that Google would use that as a foil is really sad.”
Of course, when it comes to mounting defenses of their clients, lawyers are not exactly known in their restraint. This is essentially Google’s excuse — as a spokeswoman told Bloomberg, the whole never-email-your-colleagues-to-complain-about-us thing was simply “a legal defense that we included as one of many possible defenses.” Infinite lawyers, typing on infinite typewriters, generating infinite defenses!
It’s unclear to me whether, knowing what they know now, Google lawyers will remove this particular defense from their quiver. Labor relations inside tech companies across the country are changing rapidly, and it can be difficult for associates to stay on top of management’s latest position. To work in harmony, the lawyers must coordinate. They must communicate.
They must email.
Google has been putting significant pressure on the European Union not to pass the Copyright Directive — and now it’s in limbo. That pressure appears to have been successful, as the legislation is now in limbo, James Vincent reports:
Strangely, the points being debated haven’t changed substantially since last year. While most of the Copyright Directive contains commonsense updates to laws written in 2001, there are two regulations that are causing trouble: Articles 11 and 13, which critics have dubbed the “link tax” and “upload filter.”
Article 11 gives publishers the right to charge a fee when platforms like Google or Facebook show snippets of their articles, while Article 13 makes these platforms directly liable for user-uploaded content that infringes copyright. The reason the latter is referred to as the “upload filter” is that it would likely be enforced by scanning content before it’s uploaded. Think of it like YouTube’s Content ID, but preemptively covering most of the internet.
Bing went down in China, sparking fears that the regime was about to block it for good. But then it came back online, and China blamed the whole thing on a technical error.
Consumer advocates are putting new pressure on the Federal Trade Commission over competition, Makena Kelly reports:
Groups like Open Market Institute, Color of Change, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center wrote to the Federal Trade Commission today requesting a major government intervention into how Facebook operates. The letter outlined several moves the FTC could take, including a multibillion-dollar fine, reforming the company’s hiring practices, and most importantly, breaking up one of the most powerful social media companies for abusing its market position.
California Sunday interviews a bunch of mostly anonymous current and former tech workers about many of the issues we discuss here. Here’s a former Facebook designer on why they quit:
The Boz memo was indicative of how executives really thought about Facebook. It basically said, “Bad things will happen on our platform. People will get bullied, people will get hurt, but it’s OK because we have this larger goal.” To me, that’s just not right. We should make sure that people aren’t harmed by our service because we want to grow and expand. This growth-at-all-costs manifesto pervaded everything in the company. There was a product where we would help businesses scan latent Bluetooth signals so that if a consumer came in, the business owner would pick up their signals on their own phones, and we would know where they were. We were asking business owners to help us track their customers without being upfront about our tactics to either them or our users.
Robert McMillan profiles Google’s Threat Analysis Group and its leader, Shane Huntley. It’s an in-house counter-espionage group responsible for unearthing all manner of nefarious state-sponsored activity:
Last summer, Mr. Huntley’s team stopped an allegedly Iranian-backed disinformation campaign by pulling dozens of YouTube channels that were using fake accounts to push misleading political stories primarily about the Middle East. Disinformation, especially around elections, is a new focus for Mr. Huntley’s team.
The 27-person team tracks more than 200 hacker groups that pose a threat to Google and its users, analyzing hacking techniques and clues to the groups’ identities to head off attacks. It leverages access to data across widely used Google products like Gmail, with more than 1.5 billion accounts world-wide, and to a database of attack code called VirusTotal managed by another arm of Google-parent Alphabet Inc.
Caroline O’Donovan and Charlie Warzel test YouTube’s rabbit holes to see how quickly the algorithm nudges them from normal videos to radicalizing trash. The distance is … not far:
Between January 7 and January 9, 2019, BuzzFeed News ran queries on the day’s most popular Google trending terms as well as major news stories, including Donald Trump’s primetime address on the border wall and the swearing in of the new members of the 116th Congress.
One query BuzzFeed News ran on the term “impeach the mother” — a reference to a remark by a newly sworn-in member of Congress regarding President Trump — highlighted Up Next’s ability to quickly jump to partisan content. The initial result for “impeach the mother” was a CNN clip of a White House press conference, after which YouTube Up Next recommended two more CNN videos in a row. From there, YouTube’s recommendations led to three more generic Trump press conference videos. At the sixth recommended video, the query veered unexpectedly into partisan territory with a clip from the conservative site Newsmax titled “Bill O’Reilly Explains Why Nancy Pelosi Will Fail as House Leader.” From there, the subsequent clips YouTube recommended escalated from Newsmax to increasingly partisan channels like YAFTV, pro-Trump media pundit Dinesh D’Souza’s channel, and finally channels like True Liberty and “TRUE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVES.”
It can be very hard for a social network to determine what is an allowable, good-natured parody and what is sinister misinformation. I’m sympathetic to Twitter here:
In most circumstances, parody accounts do not violate the rules so long as there is a disclosure in the bio or in the user name stating that the account does not belong to the person it’s satirizing. @BetosBlog’s bio read, “On the road of life,” and nothing else to identify whether it was a parody account.
Erin Gallagher has some nice data visualizations of high-volume Twitter accounts propping up various pro-Trump hashtags during the government shutdown.
Make time for this one: My colleague Andrew Liptak profiles the Vermont social network Front Porch Forum, which has become a useful online community for the state while remaining resolutely focused on local communities. Jack Dorsey (re)tweeted a link to it:
Front Porch Forum had come to Moretown just months before, but the site had spread throughout much of the state, town by town, since it was founded in 2000 in Burlington. The site looks like a relic from another era; its website is clean and minimal, without the pictures, reaction buttons or comment fields that most social platforms have implemented today. Users register using their real name and address, and gain access to the forum for their town or neighborhood. This network of 185 forums covers each town in Vermont, as well as a handful in neighboring New York and New Hampshire. While most towns possess their own forum, the more populated areas of the state, such as the cities of Burlington and Montpelier, are split up into more manageable districts. During normal times, people might use it to alert their neighbors about everything from runaway Roombas to notices about garage sales or public meetings. But in a pinch, it proved essential when it came to coordinating disaster relief.
Ed Pilkington talks with people who have been targeted by conspiracy theorists, such as this man, who was falsely accused of being the Parkland shooter on 4chan:
From there, Alex Jones’s conspiracy theory site, Infowars, leapt into the fray. Its “reporter” lifted Fontaine’s photo directly from 4chan and, without any attempt at verification, ran with it on the front page. “Shooter is a commie. Alleged photo of the suspect shows communist garb,” the outlet screamed. The false rumor quickly spread from Miami to Beijing.
Fontaine was horrified. “I knew a lot about the Alex Jones fanbase – that they were radical extremists who believe every word he says, and that a lot of them hold firearms. I knew my life was at risk.”
The Covington Catholic story gained traction thanks to an early viral tweet from a Twitter account that some speculated might belong to a foreign agent. But the account appears to belong to a woman who may have used banned automation methods to promote her tweets in the hopes of becoming an influencer, Brandy Zadrozny reports:
The account, which had over 41,000 followers, was run by a woman who identified herself as “Talia” and used a fake profile photo, belonging to a Brazilian blogger and model. Talia tweeted criticism of President Donald Trump and also used the account to sell teaching materials.
Moments has been abandonware for years now, which surprised me: you’d think Facebook would be motivated to hoover up as many of its users’ personal photos as possible, if only for the purpose of training machine-vision systems. Anyway it’s going to be officially dead soon, Rich Nieva reports:
“We’re ending support for the Moments app, which we originally launched as a place for people to save their photos,” Rushabh Doshi, director of product management for Moments, said in a statement. “We know the photos people share are important to them so we will continue offering ways to save memories within the Facebook app.”
Facebook said it wants to let people retrieve their photos from the app before it’s killed. Here’s how to do that: Starting Thursday, people will be able to go to a website Facebook has set up, where they can go through their photos and export them either to their computers or the camera rolls on their phones. That option will be available until May.
The BBC reports that it was able to easily find content related to self-harm on Instagram, where it is supposed to be banned. One family reports that their daughter followed several self-harm related accounts before committing suicide. Facebook apologized:
“If it’s there to sensationalise and glamourise, of course it has no place on our platform, it shouldn’t be on our platform. And if we need to work harder to make sure it isn’t on our platform then we certainly will.”
Adi Robertson reports that Brandon Fleury has been charged with using Instagram to impersonate the killer in last year’s attack on a school in Parkland, Florida, taunting the friends and family of students who died in the shooting:
Fleury had apparently chosen people with large social media followings or ones involved in political activism, attempting to gain notoriety from the harassment. (Guttenberg’s father is a prominent gun control advocate.) The affidavit says that Fleury “did not show remorse for posting the comments but explained that he would not follow through on the threats he communicated.”
Taylor Lorenz explores Instagram as if it were a giant mansion full of hidden chambers, just waiting for someone to stumble across an entrance barely visible on the Explore page. Today she tells us about TEEN MEME-AND-THEME accounts, which is so much fun to say out loud:
At first glance, a meme-and-theme page looks a lot like a general aesthetics account, a type of page dedicated to posting on a single color scheme or theme, like a digital mood board. Themes rotate frequently, but can be something as simple as all color-washed photos, celestial pictures, or any set of images that are visually similar. Administrators find the pictures on the image-sharing service We Heart It or through Google image searches. Many teens follow a set of aesthetics accounts that post photos related to their interest or the season: fall themes to get excited for Halloween, or Christmas themes for the holiday season.
But teenagers also love memes, and meme-and-theme pages merge these two genres into one. While a meme-and-theme page looks like an aesthetics account, below the surface it’s teeming with memes. Like thread accounts, meme-and-theme pages take advantage of Instagram’s photo-carousel feature: Administrators keep their grids looking pretty by uploading on-theme photos as the first post in each carousel. But when a user swipes left, a series of memes is revealed.
You could write this story at any time about any tech platform and it would be true. But in a world where people feel so closely tied to their social accounts, it feels insane that account recovery is still largely a prayer-based enterprise. Karissa Bell:
What Instagram doesn’t say is that account remediation (the company’s official term for reuniting hacking victims with lost accounts) can take weeks or months to resolve, and some users are never able to regain access to their accounts.
In a tweet, Instagram chief Adam Mosseri told Mashable: “This is definitely an area we need to do better, and we’re currently working on making it easier for people to get their accounts back.”
HQ is playing around with other ways for players to win, including a way to accumulate points over time:
There will continue to be games with cash rewards, says Brandon Teitel, SVP of programming and partnerships at HQ. The company recently began dividing the almost month-long runs of the show into seasons, and Teitel says the season that began on Monday — season two — will give away more cash than the last.
Players will also be able to compete for points over the course of a season. “We look at it as another way to win HQ,” Teitel says. “I think a lot of people traditionally have thought it’s really hard to win HQ, and it is. Not everyone is going to win the game, but getting credit for the questions that you got right feels really good.”
Here’s a feature that feels inspired by something similar on Reddit. It’s … fine? Most of the threads I read aren’t very long and don’t generate much confusion about who started them. It might be useful in longer threads featuring lesser-known tweeters, though.
Business features of WhatsApp have migrated from the mobile app to the desktop, Aatif Sumar reports:
WhatsApp also dropped a new statistic: over 5M small businesses now use the app regularly (larger organizations use the Business API). In many parts of the developing world, WhatsApp has been a boon for facilitating commerce. From lead generation and promotion to after-sales service and collection, WhatsApp has served as a CRM and customer-facing website rolled into one — there are even startups dedicated to making selling over WhatsApp easier. All this means we should expect new features to keep making their way to the app, and in my opinion, monetization of WhatsApp Business seems like a much better option than adding advertisements to the largely-unused Status section.
Here Mark Zuckerberg offers the extended dance remix of “Senator, we sell ads.”
I believe everyone should have a voice and be able to connect. If we’re committed to serving everyone, then we need a service that is affordable to everyone. The best way to do that is to offer services for free, which ads enable us to do.
Kashmir Hill got rid of Facebook for a while and she missed it so much!
It’s the proverbial double-edged sword: I feel both out of touch when not on these channels, but like I’m worse at being in touch because they exist.
Funnily enough, reading a draft of this story convinces one of my editors, who has never had Facebook or Instagram, to join the latter because he realizes he doesn’t have a way to show cool things “to a bunch of people I know at the same time without texting them [when] they’re not really worth texting over.”
Farhad Manjoo’s column on whether most people — or especially the media — should spend much time on Twitter generated a lot of discussion on Twitter, as you might expect. (One thing it disconuts too heavily, in my opinion: Twitter is often very entertaining!) I can’t imagine writing this newsletter without Twitter, but this characterization of its current incarnation feels basically right to me:
But Twitter is not that carefree clubhouse for journalism anymore. Instead it is the epicenter of a nonstop information war, an almost comically undermanaged gladiatorial arena where activists and disinformation artists and politicians and marketers gather to target and influence the wider media world.
Almost any fine against the company would be a slap on the wrist, April Glaser argues — unless regulators get creative.
And finally …
Do you ever wake up in a cold sweat that someone you’re dating is famous on Instagram? Because I am going to, now:
It got to the point where I was like: Okay so I’m going to mute you on Instagram; I want to see you at the end of day and not really know that you know you were emotional over this and over that. At first she was very okay with that. And then as it got further into the relationship she said listen, I think I should be with someone that’s encouraging me to put content out. And I was like: well, that’s not me. There’s videos of her at 4 o’clock in the morning eating a hamburger dancing to the music and thinking you know why, what are you doing?
After we broke up, all my friends would start sending me her stories like a dude did you see this today. After we broke up I was in her story, she said “oh I just went through a mini breakup” and that was an absolute nightmare.
If my next breakup is featured in an Instagram story I am calling the police!
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and your secret NLRB lobbying documents: email@example.com.
Read more: theverge.com