Gregory Viscusi, Marie Mawad, and Helene Fouquet, reporting for Bloomberg:
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said Wednesday France will take
legal action against Google and Apple and fines could be in the
“million of euros”. Fines are likely to be about 2 million euros
($2.5 million) per company, accused of taking advantage of local
developers. This comes after a two-year investigation by the
ministry’s fraud repression unit, according to an official in Le
“I learned that when developers develop their applications, and
sell to Google and Apple, their prices are imposed, Google and
Apple take all their data, Google and Apple can unilaterally
rewrite their contracts,” Le Maire said in an interview with RTL
radio. “All that is unacceptable and it’s not the economy that
we want. They can’t treat our startups and developers the way
What in the hell is he talking about? I guess the “imposed” prices could be something about the 30/70 percent split in the app stores, but it makes zero sense to argue that “Google and Apple take all their data”. Maybe this was mistranslated from French? But that seems highly unlikely given that at least one of the bylined reporters is fluent in the language.
And what’s the point of a $2 million fine? Last quarter Apple made $200 million in profit per day. It would take Apple about 15 minutes to generate $2 million in profit. This is some serious Dr. Evil math.
Facebook’s problems are more than a temporary bad PR issue. Its behavior contributes to a growing negative view of the entire tech industry.
In 1996, it required the tremendous courage of one whistleblower to expose the wrongdoings of the Big Tobacco company, Brown & Williamson, which artificially maintained the public’s addiction to cigarettes. It also helped to have robust media support, despite Big T’s intimidation. (Read this journalistic masterpiece by Marie Brenner, The Man Who Knew Too Much).
Today, things unfold much more quickly, with a cohort of people publicly denouncing the effects of tech to our children (their kids are safely shielded from addictive devices, which is not the case of the ones living in trailer parks).
Nearly every week, we see Silicon Valley execs or funders voicing their concerns about the toxicity of our tech-dominated society — especially our addiction to social media, and Facebook in particular.
A few months ago, Chamath Palihapitiya, former VP for user growth at Facebook, said he felt “tremendous guilt” about his past work (watch on You Tube here):
“I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” he said, even suggesting we take a “hard break” from social media. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. (…) No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem — this is not about Russians ads. This is a global problem.”
Even Sean Parker, who played a major role in the creation of Facebook, had his epiphany.
“[Facebook] literally changes your relationship with society, with each other … It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.(…) The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, … was all about: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that’s going to get you to contribute more content, and that’s going to get you … more likes and comments.” “It’s a social-validation feedback loop … exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” “The inventors, creators — it’s me, it’s Mark [Zuckerberg], it’s Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it’s all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway.”
Later, Roger McNamee, who presents himself as one of Zuck’s mentors and is a significant shareholder in the company, said adamantly, “Your users are in peril” (read his open letter here).
The threat, according to McNamee, actually involves the entire tech world, and he referred to an open letter to Apple from the investment firm Jana Partners and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) saying Apple must do more to help children fight addiction to its devices.
Facebook is justifiably concerned by this wave. True to the company’s hyper-centralized culture, its top management hired a full-time pollster to assess damages inflicted on the image of Mark Zuckerberg himself, and the other, more human face of the company, COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Facebook has a “Big Tobacco problem”.
The comparison seems exaggerated, but parallels do exist. Facebook’s management has a long track record of sheer cynicism. Behind the usual vanilla-coated mottos, “bringing people closer together” and “building community”, lies an implacable machine, built from day one to be addictive, thanks to millions of cleverly arranged filter bubbles.
Facebook never sought to be the vector of in-depth knowledge for its users, or a mind-opener to a holistic view of the world. Quite the opposite. It encouraged everyone (news publishers for instance) to produce and distribute the shallowest possible content, loaded with cheap emotion, to stimulate sharing. It fostered the development of cognitive Petri dishes in which people are guarded against any adverse opinion or viewpoint, locking users in an endless feedback loop that has become harmful to democracy. Facebook knew precisely what it was building: a novel social system based on raw impulse, designed to feed an advertising monster that even took advantage of racism and social selectiveness (read ProPublica’s investigation on the matter).
Part of this blind frenzy appeared justified by the fierce belief in the absolute superiority of engineering. Most tech companies are convinced that no problem in the world can resist a great team of engineers, and they all compete to get the best in every discipline. This naive view of the world led to an unabashed superiority complex, augmented by greed and sheer cynicism (it also breed a Lords vs. Serfs culture, but that is another subject).
After the election of Donald Trump, Facebook’s initial attitude was to bluntly deny any involvement in the torrent of misinformation that contributed to the Trump victory. It took a series of solid journalistic investigations to prove the contrary. Now it is certain that Facebook, for the sake of short-term profit, turned a blind eye to what was unfolding. Take a look at this video from the BBC . It is a candid interview with Theresa Hong, who worked on Trump’s team to win social media. She describes in explicit terms, how Facebook knowingly helped the Trump campaign win.
This is no accident. We’re talking about a sales team deliberately helping a big customer to win a national election, unbeknownst to top management. Supposedly. Was it ignorance, cynicism, incompetence?
Another example. As in the 1990’s, when Big Tobacco felt its home market dwindling, the companies decided to stimulate smoking in the Third World. Facebook’s tactics are reminiscence of that. Today, it subsidizes connectivity in the developing world, offering attractive deals to telecoms in Asia and Africa, in exchange for making FB the main gateway to the internet. In India, Facebook went a bit too far with Free Basic, an ill-fated attempt to corner the internet by providing a free or nearly free data plan. Having some experience with Western colonialism, the Indian government rejected the deal (read this superb investigation by the Guardian).
Mark Zuckerberg is not giving up on capturing the global internet experience inside Facebook’s walled garden. Far from it. The Internet.org initiative embodies Zuck’s dream of granting global access to the internet, extolling its benefit for local economies, as recounted by The Guardian:
[Mark Zuckerberg talking:] “ There was this Deloitte study that came out the other day, that said if you could connect everyone in emerging markets, you could create more than 100 million jobs and bring a lot of people out of poverty.” The Deloitte study, which did indeed say this, was commissioned by Facebook, based on data provided by Facebook, and was about Facebook.
This digital colonialism is a pattern. Last year, when Facebook decided to test a new feature called Explore, it picked Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala, Serbia, Slovakia and Sri Lanka, a bunch of markets that look like FB’s soft version of Trump’s “shit hole countries.”
Facebook is in deep trouble. The kind of trouble that threatens its very existence. Despite its two billion users (half of the global internet population), it is far from having consolidated its service as WeChat did in China. Zuckerberg might not have the time to achieve that goal.
Facebook is not as morally flawed as Big Tobacco were. But it should forgo using similar tactics. Even if the so-called “values of Silicon Valley” it wants to embody equal roughly to the relation of a Miami plastic surgeon maintains to the Hippocratic Oath.
And for reasons I’ve never been able to understand, Android
handset makers seem willing to copy everything and anything from
Apple they can get away with (and even things they can’t get away
with), but [almost] none have copied the iPhone’s mute
switch, despite the fact that it’s a brilliant idea.
I didn’t mean to imply that the iPhone was the first device or first phone to include a mute switch, but I can see how “it’s a brilliant idea” could be taken that way. I’ve changed that to “despite the fact that it’s extremely useful”.
What I think Apple deserves credit for is defining which hardware buttons were necessary for the modern smartphone: home, power, volume up/down, and mute. Every other button moved to software, inside apps on the touchscreen. It was considered somewhat radical that the iPhone omitted the Send/End (green/red) hardware buttons that were present on just about every cell phone ever made prior to the iPhone. If Apple, the most hardware-button-averse company in the industry, has always included a mute switch, why don’t Android handset makers?
The usual Gruber selective memory. Google moved away from even the home button years ago, well before Apple did with the iPhone X.
And is the mute switch really essential? More phones are sold without a mute button than with. Sure I started by missing the mute button, but I've kept my android phones on permanently vibrate mode for incoming calls for years now.
The thing here is that the iPhone's volume buttons, by default, only change the media volume, as Android users would call it, and you have to dig through the settings to change the ring volume. You can make the volume buttons control the ringer volume as well, but then you can only control the media volume when media is playing. I think the Android 6+ solution is perfect, meaning, the notification panel for volume can be expanded to control alarm, ringer and media volumes at once. I always thought Android OEMs never had a hardware mute button because of patents.
@lasombra it's been a lot easier since a handful of versions ago; when you volume up/down it controls a single volume but there's a little toggle to expand to see all three volumes. Not that this is a super awesome UI or super intuitive, but once you get the hang of it, it's pretty easy to access. (Also, the volume controls media if media is playing, otherwise it controls the ringer. So it's somewhat context aware which can be confusing.)
There can't be an Apple patent on the mute switch though, since as Gruber points out prior art goes back to 1985. (And yes I have fond memories of the Treo 650 and its mute switch.)
But then volume down past zero to vibrate has always maintained state for me over the years on Android too. I wonder if mute is most useful when you really don't trust the OS and the apps that can control volume to leave the device silent when you want it to stay silent.
I can't remember the last time I accidentally had my phone make noises when I didn't want it to. (Android's Do Not Disturb settings, with automatic silent based on rules like time probably help that.)
While we're at it, can we get TV & Movie script writers to stop using "phone accidentally left off silent" as a plot device? That's getting pretty tiresome.