Welcome to Codebrief

Welcome to Codebrief. It’s a weekly newsletter providing a roundup of tech, privacy and legal news with a point of view, without the bullshit. Its simple goal is to help you understand the week’s news and why it matters – all while providing the occasional lukewarm take. Tech news doesn’t have to be dry and dense, so we’re out to make it enjoyable.

I’ve been blogging since the beginning of 2018, and the newsletter is an effort to bring regular news to readers in a more intimate format.

Facebook Unbundled

We also make cool graphics to illustrate ideas. This week: Remember when craiglist was the site being unbundled? Now it’s Facebook – a graphic of the 35+ companies trying to carve out a niche on Facebook’s turf.

The great Facebook unbundling.


Facebook and Content Moderation

Reaction to Mark Zuckerberg’s recent interview with Ezra Klein was swift and mostly negative, as you might imagine. Among other things, Zuckerberg argued that an independent appeals board may be best equipped to deal with content moderation:

Over the long term, what I’d really like to get to is an independent appeal. So maybe folks at Facebook make the first decision based on the community standards that are outlined, and then people can get a second opinion. You can imagine some sort of structure, almost like a supreme court, that is made up of independent folks who don’t work for Facebook, who ultimately make the final judgment call on what should be acceptable speech in a community that reflects the social norms and values of people all around the world.

The piling on top of Facebook is a little much at this point, but can you blame journalists for jumping on the company perhaps most responsible for the demise of their profession?

Anyway, The pattern of Zuckerberg looking to offload moderating responsibility is a consistent narrative of his and reveals something interesting about where his head’s at. A couple weeks ago he asked Kara Swisher (rhetorically) “who chose me to be the person that [decides the line on hate speech]?”

I’ve tweeted about this before, but in Wired’s March feature about Facebook’s struggles with fake news and the general shitstorm hanging over its head for the past year, there seemed to be a misunderstanding of § 230 of the Community Decency Act, the statute that shields internet intermediaries (like Facebook) from liability even if they do engage in content moderation:

“Then there was the ever-present issue of Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. If the company started taking responsibility for fake news, it might have to take responsibility for a lot more. Facebook had plenty of reasons to keep its head in the sand.”

That’s just not the way § 230 works: it definitely does not incentivize companies to keep their heads in the sand. The statute is designed to allow intermediaries to moderate content in any way they see fit, without facing liability for content that “falls through the cracks.” To what extent Zuckerberg actually understand this seems to be an open question.

AT&T and Time Warner Rages On

The AT&T–Time Warner antitrust case barreled into its third week on Monday, with the Justice Department focusing on Turner’s heavy-handed negotiations with distributors. Questioning this week has focused on both Turner’s negotiations with YouTube TV and Charter Communications, and the impact a combined AT&T–Time Warner might have on negotiating power. The government is trying to show that the combined company will have increased leverage to demand onerous rates from AT&T’s rival distributors, along with new online upstarts like YouTube TV that offer skinny bundles to subscribers at cheaper prices.

Netflix, of course, is the elephant in the room. It owns distribution to some 120 million subscribers across the world (and increasingly owns the content it distributes), making it difficult for even the largest of domestic integrated media and distribution companies (e.g. a combined AT&T and Time Warner) to compete.

What’s interesting about this case is the time frame used to think about antitrust. In the short term, an AT&T–Time Warner merger seems like a worrisome vertical tie up, with a large distributor (AT&T) aligning itself with a content producer (Time Warner) so that said content can be more easily pushed to consumers.

But in the long-term, Netflix is the existential threat to the cable TV business model, and incumbents like AT&T and Time Warner are ill-equipped to compete with it. Netflix’s superior consumer experience — complete with no ads and entire seasons dropped in one day — is the fundamental disruption the media industry is battling. So far, incumbents’ answer to the threat of Netflix have simply been to combine with other ossified incumbents, displaying a lack of creativity that doesn’t bode well for the industry long term.

In its own way, Disney is also looking to stave off competition from Netflix with its forthcoming over-the-top streaming service. This much is clear: in an era of abundant consumer choice, owning the consumer relationship is essential. In the media industry, no one has done that better than Netflix to date.

1s and 0s

After filing a similar suit against Facebook, now Blackberry is filing a patent infringement suit against Snapchat, for patents related to some messaging technology. It’s the latest instance of an old-line company leveraging old IP to extract rent from new-age companies. Last week a judge ruled for Oracle in a never-ending case against Google regarding the use of Oracle-owned Java APIs in Android. It’s dumb how IP laws too often work to protect incumbents at the cost of innovation, but that’s the way law works now, I guess.

Microsoft and the DOJ both asked the Supreme Court to dismiss a case pitting the two against each other over whether prosecutors can force technology companies to hand over data stored overseas after Congress passed a law that resolved the dispute. With the passage of the CLOUD Act in the recent Omnibus spending bill, the case is mooted. The Act provides that government can access data stored over seas, but a provider has the chance to object, which would open the government’s request up to a comity analysis (i.e. balancing of foreign state concerns).

The tricky ethics of the NFL’s new open data policy. Since 2015, every player in the National Football League has been part cyborg. Well, kind of: Embedded in their shoulder pads is an RFID chip that can measure speed, distance traveled, acceleration, and deceleration. Those chips broadcast movement information, accurate to within six inches, to electronic receivers in every stadium. Even the balls carry chips. Want to see how fatigued your QB is in the 4th quarter? It’s coming, sooner or later.

Panera Bread is in hot coffee over a security flaw that may have exposed info of millions of customers (Ars Technica).

Finally, a summary of some key Electronic Communication Privacy Act provisions in the wake of Cambridge Analytica.

In other news, privacy law is hot hot hot.

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