Big Tech Goes on Trial | The Dirty Secret of Art Auctions | Globalization’s Red Flags
July 30, 2020
If you’d like to take a deeper look at Chinese telecom giant Huawei and its mysterious CEO, please check out this Daily Pnut essay: WHO IS: Ren Zhengfei. The essay examines the rise of one of the world’s most controversial tech companies, its CEO, and the implications of the battle for 5G dominance.
The Good News
- Missing bear returned: Woman gets teddy bear with late mother’s voice recording back (WHIO). A happy ending to a bittersweet story.
- Northern California Esselen tribe regains ancestral land after 250 years (Guardian). The tribe is not only regaining its land, but will also work to conserve endangered species in the area.
- “Something that actually works”: Cannabis use among young people in the context of street entrenchment (Public Library of Science). This study shows the positive impacts of medical cannabis in helping people addicted to harder drugs with their battle against addiction.
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.” – Thomas Jefferson
“The great corporations which we have grown to speak of rather loosely as trusts are the creatures of the State, and the State not only has the right to control them, but it is duty bound to control them wherever the need of such control is shown.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Tech on Trial
(Pool via Getty Images)
A high profile antitrust hearing took place Wednesday as the most powerful figures in tech were grilled on their competitive tactics by members of the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights. CEOs Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Sundar Pichai of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, and Tim Cook of Apple appeared via videoconference to answer questions about whether their companies abuse their power and dominance in the online marketplace. It was the biggest hearing of its kind since Microsoft’s Bill Gates went to Washington in 1998.
Bezos, the world’s richest person, had never appeared before Congress, so his testimony was highly anticipated. He fielded multiple sharp questions on Amazon’s approach to pricing, acquisitions and how it uses data from third-party sellers. Bezos noted that Amazon has a policy prohibiting the use of third-party seller data to support Amazon’s private-label business. But he admitted: “I can’t guarantee you that policy has never been violated.”
Zuckerberg was confronted about internal company emails he sent in 2012 regarding Facebook’s billion-dollar acquisition of Instagram; the emails had been acquired by the committee as part of its year-long investigation. In one email, Zuckerberg said Instagram could be “very disruptive” to Facebook. In responding to another email, Zuckerberg said that neutralizing the potential competitor was part of the motivation for the purchase. Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-NY) said the emails showed Facebook viewed Instagram as a threat and, rather than compete with it, the company bought it. Zuckerberg didn’t deny that, but pointed out the acquisition had been approved by the Federal Trade Commission at the time.
Cook got off pretty lightly. Despite early questions about whether Apple favors certain developers on its App Store, there were few questions about Apple’s App Store guidelines for developers, which have been a main complaint among critics.
Partisan division among committee members was clear. Democrats tended to focus on the companies’ business decisions regarding use of data and behavior toward competitors, while Republicans were consistent in alleging a pattern of anti-conservative bias by the tech companies. Responding to one Republican’s question, Pichai said: “There’s nothing in the algorithm that has anything to do with political ideology.”
- Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google Prepare for Their ‘Big Tobacco Moment’ (NYT, $)
- The Tech Giants Are Dangerous, and Congress Knows It (Atlantic, $)
- The Facebook and Amazon Documents That Captivated the Hearing (Wired, $)
High Crimes in High Culture
(Michael Bowles via Getty Images)
- American companies are barred from doing business with sanctioned individuals. But a report published Wednesday by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations details how two Russian oligarchs close to President Putin have circumvented sanctions by exploiting the opaqueness of the high-dollar art world.
- Brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg used an intermediary to purchase valuable artworks at auction houses and through private art dealers on behalf of shell companies. The purchases, made after the Rotenbergs were sanctioned in 2014, totaled $18.4 million. Investigators concluded that the auction houses, including Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and private sellers never knew the true identity of the oligarchs.
- But for a sanctions policy to be truly effective, investigators said there needs to be tighter rules to force greater transparency. Specifically, the loophole allowing identities and financial transactions to be secret and anonymous needs to be closed. Senate committee chairman Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said: “It is shocking that U.S. banking regulations don’t currently apply to multimillion-dollar art transactions, and we cannot let that continue.”
- Portman said masking the identities of sellers and buyers and the source of funds “creates an environment ripe for laundering money and evading sanctions.” (NYT)
Globalization Raises Red Flags
- Huawei and TikTok were two of the most successful examples of globalization; now these Chinese companies are at the mercy of a widening geopolitical divide. The Trump administration has led an increasingly successful campaign to eliminate Huawei from the global market over alleged security fears, and it’s threatening to ban TikTok as well.Other Chinese tech companies such as Lenovo, ZTE and Xiaomi could also be at risk.
- There are many examples of President Trump’s paring down of US involvement in global enterprises and organizations to concentrate on an ‘America First’ agenda; decoupling the US economy from that of China is very high on the still-to-do list. Trump’s efforts to refocus on a more regional approach to trade are trending world-wide — as reflected in the difficulties of the World Trade Organization and the rise of regional trading blocs — and could portend a serious collapse of the global trade system.
- Huawei has responded to US moves to restrict its activities by forging closer supply alliances with companies in China and elsewhere in Asia, such as Samsung. TikTok could be making a similar move but in the opposite direction. It’s been reported that US investment capitalists might buy TikTok from owner ByteDance, and separate it from its Chinese version, called Douyin. (The Conversation)
- U.S. Treasury to make recommendation on TikTok to Trump this week (Reuters)
- Why Trump Will Never Win His New Cold War with China (New Yorker, $)
- A deeper look at China’s telecom giant and its mysterious CEO: WHO IS: Ren Zhengfei (Daily Pnut)
Additional World News
- Critics fear Turkey’s new social media law could hurt freedom of expression. Here’s how (CNN)
- Latin America Is Facing a ‘Decline of Democracy’ Under the Pandemic (NYT, $)
- China’s Claims to the South China Sea Are Unlawful. Now What? (NYT, $)
- The world is realizing the U.S. is no longer committed to basic standards of decency (WaPo, $)
- US to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany in ‘strategic’ move (BBC)
- Egyptian Women Get 2 Years in Prison for ‘Indecent’ TikTok Dance Videos (Time)
- Downsized hajj pilgrimage begins amid Covid-19 restrictions (Guardian)
- Iter: World’s largest nuclear fusion project begins assembly (BBC)
- Of Wine, Hand Gel and Heartbreak: Between the coronavirus and the Trump tariffs, the French wine market has collapsed. So winemakers are — sadly — sending their excess product off to another life as hand sanitizer. (NYT, $)
- Can you get the coronavirus twice? (AP)
- TeleTracking Technologies Awarded Coronavirus Data Contract in Irregular Process (NPR)
- Misinformation on coronavirus is proving highly contagious (AP)
- Stella Immanuel, Trump’s New COVID-19 Doctor, Believes in Alien DNA, Demon Sperm, and Hydroxychloroquine (Daily Beast)
- Health Experts Urge A Shutdown Do-Over As COVID-19 Cases Surge (NPR)
- Teachers Will Get Covid-19. What Will Schools Do? (NYT)
- ‘Tenet’ Is Finally Debuting—But Not in the US (Atlantic)
COVID Creeps onto Campus
- With speculation running rampant about whether colleges can safely return students to campus this fall, it appears the virus is operating ahead of schedule. A recent New York Times survey revealed that over 6,300 cases have already been linked to American universities, even as the majority of dorms remain vacant.
- These alarming figures come despite an inconsistent national protocol for reporting both cases and deaths that spring up on college campuses, with many institutions of higher learning pressing forward into the semester without publicizing any data. While most public universities and colleges that support Division 1 athletic programs are held accountable by public record laws, hundreds of private schools and community colleges are operating in outbreak anonymity.
- Because of this, it is reasonable to assume that 6,300 is a drastic underestimate of the virus’s spread, and foretells the tumultuous months ahead for students, educators, and administrators alike. In the critical cost-benefit analysis between in-person education and public safety, many students will be making calculations with a series of unknown variables.
- And while some attendees are worried solely about academics, student athletes are further incentivized to make the journey back to school. With scholarships dangling over their heads, more than 630 cases have sprouted up in Division 1 football programs as players, coaches and support staff all make summer preparations for an uncertain upcoming season. (NYT)
Love Thy Neighbor?
- Numerous public opinion polls spanning years have shown that white Christians are consistently more likely than whites with no religious affiliation to deny the existence of structural racism. This belief is held not just among white evangelical Protestants in the South, but also among white mainline Protestants in the Midwest and white Catholics in the Northeast.
- Robert Jones is the founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), an American non-profit, nonpartisan research and education organization. PRRI conducts public opinion polls on a variety of topics, specializing in quantitative and qualitative political issues as they relate to religion. Jones has studied the attitudes of religiously-affiliated Americans across the country for more than two decades.
- PRRI surveys conducted in 2018 found that white Christians collectively are nearly twice as likely as non-religiously affiliated whites to believe the killings of Black men by police are isolated incidents rather than indicative of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. White Christians are also about 30 percent more likely to say monuments to Confederate soldiers are symbols of Southern pride rather than symbols of racism. They’re are also about 20 percent less likely to agree with this statement: “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for Blacks to work their way out of poverty.”
- Jones says that, as a white Christian who was raised Southern Baptist and shaped by a denominational college and seminary, he is pained to see these data patterns. What’s worse is that these questions only hint at the magnitude of the problem. To determine the breadth of these attitudes, Jones created a “Racism Index” consisting of 15 questions, designed to go beyond personal biases and include perceptions of structural injustice. After studying data collected from years of research, Jones has concluded that holding racist views is positively and independently associated with white Christian identity. (NBC News)
Additional USA News
- Donald Trump stokes racial fears with appeal to white suburban voters (Guardian)
- Intelligence disputes fuel rare public acrimony among Gang of Eight (Politico). The Gang of Eight is a (usually) bipartisan committee made up of Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders who guide other legislators on highly classified intelligence matters. Members of the Gang of Eight have access to some of the nation’s most classified intelligence which even other Congress members are not privy to.
- Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘resting comfortably’ after non-surgical procedure (Guardian). Presidential races are about more than just selecting the next commander-in-chief: with control over the White House comes the power to nominate Supreme Court Justices, who serve for life. As Justices Ginsburg and Breyer are both over 80, the next administration could have nomination power for two SCOTUS seats, meaning whichever party wins could gain a long-lasting hold over the judicial branch.
- Portland protests: Federal forces ready for phased pull-out (BBC)
- From the Start, Federal Agents Demanded a Role in Suppressing Anti-Racism Protests (NYT, $)
- Minneapolis police say ‘Umbrella Man’ was a white supremacist trying to incite George Floyd rioting (Star Tribune)
- Is the Postal Service Being Manipulated to Help Trump Get Reelected? (New Yorker, $)
- How Fox News may be destroying Trump’s reelection hopes (WaPo, $)
- What Will a Post-Trump G.O.P. Look Like? (NYT, $)
- Billionaire Created a Perfect Experiment by Erasing $34 Million in Student Debt (Bloomberg, $)
- What John Lewis Taught Me (Politico)
Crushing Carbon Capture
- A new feasibility study suggests that spreading crushed rock on farm fields could act to capture carbon and improve soils. While using crushed rock to capture carbon isn’t a new idea, it has yet to be employed by humans. Carbon absorption through dirt has had an important stabilizing effect on the Earth’s climate over millions of years, but the changes take place over very long periods of time.
- Some common minerals react with water and CO2 as they weather, converting CO2 from the air into bicarbonate dissolved into bodies of water. The bicarbonate, along with calcium and magnesium, may stay in ground water or wind up in the ocean. Either way, it’s no longer a greenhouse gas in the air. This weathering process pulls greenhouse gasses from the air, so it makes sense to try speeding up the process so that it has a meaningful effect in a human life span.
- One way to accelerate this process is to grind up the rock into small particles to make it quickly dissolve in water, much like powdered sugar particles do. Researchers created models of croplands and climates, calculated the weathering rates of crushed rock based on local soil conditions, and the energy requirements needed for the process, to come up with an estimate of each country’s potential for using this technique. Globally the researchers estimate this process could be used to capture 500 million to 2 billion tons of CO2 per year in 2050. (Ars Technica)
- Can Trees Live Forever? New Kindling for an Immortal Debate (NYT, $). The world’s oldest tree is over 5,000 years old. For comparison, the UK is just over 300 years old, and the US is almost 250 years old. We occupy a very small part of the world’s history even when compared to the lifespan of just one single organism.
- Archaeologists discover likely source of Stonehenge’s giant sarsen stones (Guardian)
- The lost treasures of London’s River Thames (BBC)
- I Was a Screen Time Expert. Then the Coronavirus Happened. (NYT, $)
- What happens when you reach your limit online (Verge)
- How the world’s smelliest fruit could power your phone (BBC)
- An interesting look at the underbelly of Southeast Asia’s shining city-state: The Fantasy and the Cyberpunk Futurism of Singapore (Wired, $)
- The Psychological Toll of Rude E-mails (Scientific American)
- How to read more books (Psyche). Everyone says they want to read more, but modern life has eroded our attention spans. Now is the perfect time to rebuild your attention span and get back into the habit of paperbacks.
- Rethinking the Science of Skin (New Yorker, $)
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