Ride-Hail Companies Are Making Life Harder for Scooters

Robotaxis don’t exist yet. Some experts suspect they won’t circulate widely for another decade. But earlier this month, the state of California adopted new rules governing how ride-hail services without a driver behind the wheel might work.

There are separate rules for autonomous vehicles with safety drivers, and those without. But operators of both types of services will have to hand over lots of information to the government: data on where robotaxi riders are picked up and dropped off; how many miles the vehicles travel; whether the vehicles are powered by gas or electricity; whether rides are available in underserved communities; and a safety plan, which Californians will be able to comment on.

The rules contrast sharply with the first-of-their kind ride-hail rules that the state adopted in 2013. Then, the debate du jour was more, “What the heck is this Lyft and Uber business, and will it survive a battle with the taxi industry?” than “How will these business models change the world?” Now, everyone takes transportation regulation more seriously—and jockeys to weigh in.

If you’re wondering why a utilities agency gets to determine how an autonomous vehicle taxi ride works, know that it is pretty weird. The agency, created early in the 20th century to oversee gas and electric companies, now regulates telecommunications, railroads, and privately owned transportation services, like limos, tours buses, and ferries. Historically, taxis have been the domain of city rule-makers. Then came ride-hail. In 2013, amid disputes about what ride-hail was, and how long these upstart companies would last, California regulators heeded company lobbyists and crafted rules for companies like Uber and Lyft.

The ride-hail companies seized on that decision, and their lobbyists pushed it as a model elsewhere. Today, more than 40 state legislatures have passed mostly industry-friendly laws regulating ride-hail—and stripping cities of the power to oversee the services or set their own rules.

Over time, many city officials came to see those laws as a bad deal. Ride-hail services weren’t just disrupting a stagnant taxi industry. They took some people off transit. They clogged up streets, especially in busy downtowns. Even if, as the companies theorized, more people gave up their personal cars, ride-hail contributed to a spike in total vehicle miles traveled. (Turns out drivers need to travel between fares.) Yet there was little local leaders could do about it. Allowing state agencies to make the calls on ride-hail “unempowered cities,” says Marla Westervelt, a transportation policy analyst who worked at both LA Metro and the scooter-share company Bird. “It set the framework for all the fights we’re having now. It was the original sin.”

Look closely at the conversations—and disputes—that crop up around transportation and technology, and you’ll see the ghosts of those original policy decisions, and an attempt by authorities to reel back power that’s been lost. Cities, especially big ones like San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, have gotten more assertive about overseeing transportation companies—especially transportation companies that pull into town with California license plates and a pile of venture capital funding. (Chicago and DC were among the first to tax ride-hail trips to subsidize public transit.) For those cities, the questions are: How can we point this private business towards a public good? And how can we eke out enough power over them to do that?

Micromobility companies—the folks who flooded your block with shared electric scooters and bikes a few years back—have borne the brunt of this new approach. Part of the reason is practical: Cities generally have authority over their sidewalks in a way that they don’t over ride-hail vehicles. After the first, and sometimes unannounced, introductions of scooters on streets led to public backlash, many city governments chose a new approach: They slowed everything down.

“We want to know, ‘What is the role [of scooters] in the transportation network? Are people really using them to joyride? Are they taking the place of walking and bike trips? Or are they really taking the place of driving trips?” says Tilly Chang, the executive director of San Francisco’s county transportation authority, which monitors the city’s congestion.

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All the Social Media Giants Are Becoming the Same

There is no such thing as a new idea. The maxim holds true in Hollywood (honestly, a remake of Mulan?) and in Silicon Valley (“Uber but for X!”), but lately social media companies have taken unoriginality to new levels. Twitter now has Fleets, a rip-off of Instagram Stories, originally copied from Snapchat. Snapchat now has Spotlight, similar to Instagram Reels, brazenly stolen from TikTok. TikTok grew from the ashes of Vine, which was acquired by Twitter, which is now pursuing a concept called Audio Spaces, a carbon copy of Clubhouse.

Does your head hurt? Mine does, as do my thumbs, which now have three times as many platforms to scroll for short-form and ephemeral videos. I am overwhelmed with content and underwhelmed by features—at least until the next big thing comes along, and everyone lunges to copy that.

Companies are always eyeing their competitors to see what works; that’s just market research. But copycatting on social media has led to platforms that look suspiciously similar, with fewer things that set them apart. It’s harder to know what any given platform is for when they all do the same thing. Which major platform has a news feed, disappearing posts, private messaging, and a live broadcasting feature? That would be … all of them. This sickening homogeny of social media even extends to design: every Stories replicant uses those little circles; every TikTok clone uses the swipe-up-to-scroll. The biggest differentiator is that they all call their Xeroxed features by different names, leading to the maddening vocabulary of social media.

For the companies, reproducing the same features and formats is often an attempt to juice engagement. If people spend all of their free time scrolling through TikTok, those are precious hours siphoned from Instagram, or Twitter, or Snapchat—which means less revenue from advertisers. But simply replicating a competitor’s big idea doesn’t always lead to replicating its success. “I would say we’ve never seen a great ‘lift and shift’,” says Nicole Greene, an analyst at the research firm Gartner, where she focuses on social media. When LinkedIn and Skype adopted the Stories format, it didn’t lead to tons more engagement on those platforms—just tons of eyerolls. “The better strategy would be making it even better for your platform,” says Greene, by “tailoring these experiences or optimizing it based on the way their base is engaged.”

For all the grief that Instagram got by lifting Stories from Snapchat in 2016, the format took off with the platform’s homegrown community of influencers. Snapchat had influencers too, but a different kind—DJ Khalid, not Something Navy. On Instagram, Stories enabled thousands of niche creators to interact with their fans in a new way. Today, Instagram Stories are more popular than Snapchat, and the company has added its own flair to the format.

Reels, Instagram’s TikTok ripoff, doesn’t feel quite so distinguished yet. “It’s kind of like a poor man’s version of the real thing,” says Patrick Janelle, an Instagram influencer and the chairman of the American Influencer Council Board of Directors. Janelle makes most of his living on Instagram, where he posts photos of impeccable interiors and high-resolution selfies. He isn’t interested in Reels because he doesn’t make funny little videos to music—and if he did, he says, he would do that on TikTok. “It just doesn’t feel important, as a creator, to have the same format replicated on all of the platforms,” says Janelle. It doesn’t lead to more original creations, either: There are mass amounts of cross-posted content, like TikToks reappearing on Reels, or Instagram Stories repurposed as Fleets.

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Facebook Can Be a Boon to Nonprofits—If They Get Verified

“It could be a real benefit, especially now,” says Kristin Dunn, executive director of Camplify, which runs affordable camps for underprivileged youth in North Carolina. The group canceled its annual fall fundraiser, a barbeque with a live auction and square dancing, because of Covid-19.

Dunn first tried to register Camplify with Facebook in 2019, but she was denied because the organization had changed its name. Facebook said it couldn’t verify that Camplify was the nonprofit it claimed to be—even though the change is documented in the group’s annual form 990 filed with the IRS.

In January, Dunn tried again to register on Facebook. She followed up in March, May, and August through Facebook Messenger and got no reply. Finally, in September, Facebook notified Dunn that her application “could not be fully reviewed at this time,” because Camplify hadn’t proved it’s the same organization as the one listed on the IRS forms Dunn submitted. The email also told her Facebook doesn’t consider her organization’s address valid, because it is a post office box. In place of the Donate button, Camplify’s Facebook page now links to its PayPal account. People can donate there, but Dunn worries that the process is too cumbersome, and she wonders if she’s missing out on donations as a result.

To apply for nonprofit status with Facebook, administrators have to show that their organization is a 501(c)(3) registered with the IRS. They also have to supply tax ID and bank account numbers, and addresses for both the organization and the executive director.

But, like Dunn, many organizations say they are turned down for reasons such as operating under a name different from the one they were founded under, even if that change has been registered with the IRS.

Every nonprofit applicant is vetted by a person at Facebook to make sure the organization is legitimate and to prevent people from holding fundraisers for fraudulent or scam campaigns. But nonprofits say the process shouldn’t be this arduous.

The IRS website offers a search tool to look up approved nonprofits, as does the private database GuideStar. Monica Kinsey, a consultant who helps nonprofits fundraise and promote their mission, says Facebook shouldn’t have a hard time verifying that nonprofits are who they say they are. “It shouldn’t be this difficult,” she says.

Kinsey has helped clients register on Facebook in the past, but she ran into problems working with one organization this year. She submitted the application in January. After hearing nothing from Facebook, she asked repeatedly via Facebook Messenger if there was a problem with the application. In August, Facebook told her she needed to reapply because the documents were now more than six months old. “You can’t get a human. It’s just through Messenger,” she says. “As many people as they employ, you just can’t get to a person.”

None of the 11 nonprofits WIRED spoke to had been able to contact a person at Facebook. “They refuse to speak to me on the phone,” says Kundert, of Bluegrass Pride. She tried typing insulting messages into the chat bot in an effort to provoke a response from a human; she failed. She says she’s received numerous form emails signed by “the Facebook Charity Onboarding Team” but never connected with a person who could respond to specific questions.

“By nearly every measure, these tools have been a success,” says a Facebook spokesperson. She says more than 90,000 nonprofits are registered with Facebook and more than a million organizations can fundraise on Facebook through donor-advised funds such as Network for Good. “We’ve enabled 45 million people to raise more than $3 billion globally.”

But many nonprofits say they are confused by the two systems and have a hard time navigating Facebook’s help center.

Even for those organizations that are verified, many nonprofit leaders complain that the platform is opaque. Rick Cohen, chief communications officer at the National Council of Nonprofits, says he hears at least a complaint a week from nonprofits about the platform. Cohen says organizations don’t get alerted when Facebook users set up fundraisers for them. Often, they only find out if they happen to run across the fundraiser on the group’s Facebook timeline.

For those that can’t get verified, there’s also an element of shame.

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The Tenuous Promise of the Substack Dream

Substack CEO Chris Best tells me that while he’s not out to kill what’s left of big media, the ad-free newsletter model has advantages over what traditional journalism has become—a chase for clicks where “most people’s media diets get determined by social media,” he says. “And so we end up in this world where the things that everybody reads are not the things that you would choose to put into your mind if you were sitting back and making that decision thoughtfully.” If you are paying $100 a year to follow a single writer, you’d surely be more thoughtful about it!

That’s the price of Platformer, Casey Newton’s new Substack. He started it after writing a similar newsletter for his employer Vox, for two years. He saw other journalists take the leap, including Emily Atkin, who writes a popular newsletter about climate change. Plus, during the pandemic everyone is working from home anyway. “I felt like if it works, it could just be mine,” he tells me. “And I wouldn’t have to worry about what might happen to Vox Media in 10 years.” He says he sees newsletters as something he’ll be doing for his whole career. And if he draws a relatively modest paying audience, he can match his previous salary. “I only need to have 3,000 subscribers to have the best job in journalism,” he says.

Can paid newsletters scale to be an important part of journalism, as Substack hopes? Newton is right that only a few thousand readers can get him a star salary—even after Substack’s 10 percent fee, 3,000 readers at $100 a year would put him in the top tier of industry pay, and if he gets to five or six thousand readers, he’s definitely well into the penthouse region of journalistic paychecks. But getting those readers is hard, especially if the Substack model proves successful and hundreds of other writers are tempting readers to pay for their unique and glorious content. How many can people afford? Even in these nascent days, there’s a term for the problem:“subscription fatigue.” Substack’s Best says that having that problem would mean that the model is working, but he admits that it might affect his company’s growth. “How much people are going to want to spend on stuff is obviously not unlimited,” he admits. One thing is certain—to keep readers coming back, these newsletter writers must keep delivering tangible value. Otherwise they might wonder why they are paying more than half the standard subscription price of the New York Times for the musings of a single writer.

I suspect that in the long run, star writers like Newton or the former Rolling Stone scribe Matt Taibbi, another Substack luminary, will eventually rejoin bigger publications, just as orbiting objects in space are inevitably sucked in by Earth’s gravity. Among other things, it’s simply more fun to communicate with potentially millions of readers as opposed to a few thousand paying customers. And when Covid fades, there will be newsroom culture once more, with all its exhilirating intrigues and distractions.

Nonetheless, the Substack model has a future. It is perfect for enterprising reporters—ambitious newcomers, disgruntled mid-termers, and post-buyout veterans—to pick an unfilled niche that serves the obsessions or business needs of small groups of people with some cash to spend. Think of it as edge journalism: covering the hell out of beats that traditional publications haven’t even thought of, or if they did, wouldn’t assign a full-time reporter to obsessively research. Even this isn’t new; as a college student, Brian Stelter, for instance, got his start in media with his blog, TVNewser, which ventured deep into the weeds of an industry that loved to read gossip about itself. If he were doing it today, Stelter undoubtedly would have done it via Substack. I see a lot of absolute beginners pursuing that course in the years ahead. And some of them, like Stelter, who is now a CNN star, will be plucked up by bigger venues.

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Marissa Mayer’s Next Act Is Here

When Marissa Mayer decided to start her own company, after nearly five years as Yahoo’s CEO and 13 years at Google, she turned to her rolodex of contacts. For a startup in its early stages, success often has less to do with what you’re building than who is building it. And Mayer, one of Silicon Valley’s marquee names, had a lot of numbers she could call. There are over 14,000 people stored in her iPhone.

So it’s not surprising that Mayer assembled a fine team at Lumi Labs. Enrique Muñoz Torres, her cofounder, has more than a decade of experience in advertising and search products; Rohit Chandra, the head of engineering, has a PhD from Stanford. Like many of the other recruits, they worked with Mayer at Yahoo and Google, and no doubt jumped at the chance to work with her again, in the old Google office that she’d rented for the “good juju.”

Mayer, who was the 20th employee of Google, has spent her career on some of the most iconic products in consumer software. She designed the interface for Google Search, organizing the world’s information, and helped to launch Google Maps, an ambitious project in mapping the entire planet. She was also on the small team that developed Google AdWords, the platform responsible for most of Google’s revenue. At Yahoo, where she became CEO in 2012, she oversaw the acquisition of Tumblr; when she left, in 2017, she reportedly received a $186 million exit package. That, along with her deep connections and star power in Silicon Valley, put Mayer in a position to do whatever she wanted next. She has chosen to make a better address book: an iPhone app for organizing your contacts, using AI.

“It’s crazy that we can have self-driving cars and global facial recognition, but still can’t do simple things like remove duplicates in your contacts,” Mayer said, in an interview this week with WIRED.

Word that Lumi Labs’ first product would focus on contacts was initially reported by The Information last July. After two years and $20 million in capital investments, not to mention Mayer’s own money, that app, Sunshine Contacts, is finally here. Lumi Labs is also rebranding as Sunshine for the launch.

Phone with Sunshine App

Courtesy of Sunshine

For now, Sunshine Contacts is available by invitation only. After downloading the app, users can grant it access to their Apple Contacts and Gmail. Sunshine Contacts scrapes information from those contact lists and messages to build a database of people you know. (The company has pledged to “protect your data, keep it safe, and never sell it.”) It automatically deletes double entries, syncs scattered information, and fills in gaps like a missing last name. It can also update out-of-date information, like deleting someone’s old corporate email, and has features to easily swap contact information with people nearby. The app is free to use, with plans to introduce paid features later on.

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What Happened to the Deepfake Threat to the Election?

At a hearing of the House Intelligence Committee in June 2019, experts warned of the democracy-distorting potential of videos generated by artificial intelligence, known as deepfakes. Chair Adam Schiff (D-California) played a clip spoofing Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and called on social media companies to take the threat seriously, because “after viral deepfakes have polluted the 2020 elections, by then it will be too late.” Danielle Citron, a law professor then at the University of Maryland, said “deepfake videos and audios could undermine the democratic process by tipping an election.”

The 2020 campaign is now history. There were upsets, but deepfakes didn’t contribute. “Not really, no,” says Giorgio Patrini, founder of deepfake-tracking startup Sensity. Angie Hayden, director of product at the AI Foundation, which is testing a deepfake detection tool with media organizations and nonprofits including the BBC, also reported a quiet campaign. “It’s nice when your tech saves the day, but it’s better when the day doesn’t need to be saved,” she says.

Plenty of disinformation swirled, and swirls still, around the recent vote, but the misleading videos that contributed appeared to be artisanal, not algorithmic. Fact-checkers found videos that had been deceptively described or edited with conventional tools, like a clip edited to make it look like Joe Biden had greeted Floridians as Minnesotans. An AI-generated profile photo was uncovered attached to a fake persona pushing a muddled and discredited smear against Biden’s son, but it played only a peripheral role in the stunt.

Twitter and Facebook added rules specific to deepfakes to their moderation policies in early 2020, but neither appears to have used them. A Twitter blog post last week rounding up its election efforts said it had added labels warning of misleading content to 300,000 tweets since October 27, which was 0.2 percent of all election-related posts in that period. It didn’t mention deepfakes, and a company spokesperson said he had “nothing specific” on the topic. Facebook didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Two deepfake video campaigns that did try to persuade US voters did so openly, as efforts to warn of the technology’s potential.

Phil Ehr, a Democratic House candidate in the Florida panhandle, released a campaign ad featuring a deepfake version of his opponent, incumbent Republican Matt Gaetz, saying uncharacteristic phrases such as “Fox News sucks” and “Obama is way cooler than me.” Ehr’s own face—apparently fully human—breaks in to deliver a PSA on deepfakes and nation-state-backed disinformation. “If our campaign can make a video like this, imagine what Putin is doing right now,” he says.

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Campaign adviser Keith Presley says Ehr, a Navy veteran who had worked on electronic warfare, wanted to prod Gaetz to engage on the topic of disinformation, which Ehr believed Gaetz had downplayed. The campaign got in touch with RosebudAI, a startup that uses deepfake technology to make images and video for fashion shoots and online commerce. Presley says the campaign designed the 60-second spot to minimize the chance it could be maliciously repurposed, showing the algorithmic Gaetz only on a TV in voters’ living rooms, not full screen, and including giveaway glitches. Gaetz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Despite his sophisticated ad, Ehr lost badly. Presley says although no malicious deepfakes appeared during the campaign, it’s still important to educate people. He pointed to a paradox of watching for the fruits of technology claimed to be capable of seamlessly mimicking reality: “How would anybody know?”

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Joe Biden Will Be the Next President. Now What?

We knew it might be an Election Day unlike any other. But after last Tuesday, it soon became evident that this year’s US presidential race would culminate in an election week. Millions of voters opted to mail their ballots this year, due in part to concerns about in-person voting during a global pandemic. This surge in mail-in ballots meant some states took longer than usual to count votes and determine whether Democratic nominee Joe Biden or incumbent Republican Donald Trump had won the state.

This Election Day purgatory, while not totally unexpected, left plenty of time and space for tensions to fester, for cable news anchors to swipe at maps of the Electoral College, for misinformation to seep from dark corners of the internet into our news feeds, and for the current President to, well, tweet.

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But now, the race has finally been called for Joe Biden. And with the most critical part of this election now in the rear view mirror (we hope), the big question is: What’s next? How will this affect the way our nation approaches future elections—and the future of election security? How will zteam Biden address the Covid-19 pandemic? What does a Biden administration mean for tech policy? And will we somehow find our way, as a society, out of the bog of misinformation that exists on internet platforms and that has contributed so much to the country’s divisions? On this week’s Get WIRED podcast, we talk to Gilad Edelman, Lily Hay Newman, and Emma Grey Ellis about why the polls were so wrong (again), how we know we can trust the election results, and why people keep spinning up online conspiracy theorists. Also: Election memes.

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One Big Challenge for Biden? China’s Push for Tech Supremacy

As America staggered through the final stretch of a bitter and divisive US presidential election last month, China was putting the finishing touches on carefully drawn plans for economic recovery, an enhanced military, and crucially, increased technological self-reliance.

The proposals, outlined in the Chinese Communist Party’s latest Five Year Plan, highlight a key challenge for president-elect Joe Biden at the outset of his four-year term.

President Trump’s efforts to kneecap Chinese technology have only partially succeeded. Ironically, they may ultimately accelerate China’s development in key cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence, chipmaking, 5G, and biotechnology.

Foreign policy experts say the US needs to confront China on issues such as market access, forced technology transfers, and human rights. But many say America’s approach to China badly needs a reboot. To out-compete Beijing, and its aspirations as a global tech power, they say the president needs to do more than just hold China back.

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

“The entirety of our strategy can’t be about simply cutting China off, in part because China will develop other alternatives,” says Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

Shirk says the US needs a more nuanced understanding of what it’s trying to achieve with its China policy. For instance, besides preventing China from dominating in 5G, the government should have a clear strategy for advancing its own 5G industry. She also argues that the US officials dealing with China increasingly need a deep understanding of technology—just as expertise in nuclear weapons was key to US policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The timing of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee meeting—on the eve of the US election—shows that President Xi Jinping’s plans are independent of who occupies the White House, says Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Most of what we do is about countering China, but most of what China does, it’s not about countering the US,” he says. “It’s about China pursuing its own strategic objectives over the longer term.

The Trump administration has dealt aggressively with China on trade as well as technology. The administration ramped up sanctions on the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, which is seen as a threat because of its leading role in supplying 5G hardware and because of supposed ties to the Chinese government that make it a security threat.

The latest sanctions, imposed in August, bar the export of chips made with US fabrication equipment and software to Huawei, a maneuver that effectively cuts off the company’s supply of cutting-edge processors for devices such as smartphones. The US has also succeeded in persuading some European allies to remove Huawei’s technology from their wireless networks.

The Trump administration’s record on other Chinese tech issues is mixed. In October 2019, the administration restricted exports to Chinese AI companies, which it accused of supplying surveillance technology used for repression of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. The administration’s assault on Chinese-owned video-sharing company TikTok, based on questionable claims of security risks, led to a forced sale to Oracle and Walmart that has since devolved into a confusing mess.

Restricting Chinese companies from acquiring chips with US technology has only deepened China’s commitment to spend big to advance its own chip-making capabilities. The OECD says the Chinese government invested more than $200 billion in its domestic chip industry between 2014 and 2018. That was already set to grow under Beijing’s Made in China 2025 plan, which calls for 70 percent of chips to be produced domestically by that year. It may still take decades or more for China to advance in this area, however, given the engineering challenges involved with manufacturing the latest silicon components.

“The Chinese government will be forced to focus more on technology and innovation,” says Huiyao Wang, president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, and an adviser to the Chinese government on economic issues.

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Trump Broke the Internet. Can Joe Biden Fix It?

The DOJ isn’t the only source of anti-monopoly enforcement. The Federal Trade Commission has enormous, mostly unused power to rewrite the rules of competition. Without Congress’ approval, the FTC could issue rules, for example, that simply ban the use of noncompete clauses, binding arbitration clauses in user agreements, or the kinds of exclusive contracts that have come under scrutiny in the Google case. The tricky thing is that FTC commissioners serve seven-year terms and can only be fired for cause. Right now, the commission is made up of three Republicans and two Democrats, all of whom joined in 2018. That means one of the Republicans will have to retire or return to the private sector in order for Biden to get to install a majority that will enforce his priorities.

The even bigger question is just what those priorities are. Biden didn’t talk much about antitrust on the campaign trail. His extended network of informal advisers included both anti-monopoly hawks and Big Tech defenders. The key thing to watch out for is which side of the debate ends up with more influential roles in Biden’s administration. You can bet the jockeying is already underway.

So whether we’ll see bold, aggressive, consequential antitrust enforcement and rulemaking against Big Tech during the Biden administration, or just modest, incremental, possibly-doomed-in-the-courts stuff, is still up in the air. What’s for sure is that we’ll see something. Antitrust gets five out of five JBEICs.

Privacy Law

two joe bidens eating ice cream

You might find this hard to believe, but there was a time not so long ago, maybe 2019, when tech policy nerds thought Congress might actually pass a bipartisan federal data-privacy law. A number of senators have introduced a variety of bills, most of them in good faith, many of them somewhat intelligent, and some of them with sponsors from both parties. Wild, right?

But the two parties never could see eye to eye on a few sticking points—chief among them whether the law should let ordinary people sue companies for violations, and whether it should preempt state laws that go further.

Still, when the 117th Congress gets down to business next year, there will be a few decent legislative proposals already on the table and no all-consuming presidential election to ruin the prospect of getting anything done. And with the passage of Prop. 24 in California, otherwise known as the California Privacy Rights Act, there’s extra pressure. The act is quite a bit more aggressive than the state’s existing privacy law, and once it kicks in, it could become a de facto national standard, given California’s outsize clout in the economy generally and the tech sector in particular.

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One Clear Message From Voters This Election? More Privacy

As the most important outcome of the 2020 election remains in flux, voters in California and Michigan approved new privacy laws Tuesday: California’s Prop 24, which extends provisions of a 2018 privacy law, and Michigan’s Prop 2, which consolidates piecemeal orders into a requirement for police to seek search warrants before seizing electronic data.

Strengthening privacy is one of the few reliably bipartisan endeavors in modern politics, but the two measures scrambled traditional alliances on privacy: The ACLU opposed the California proposition, while police chiefs supported the Michigan measure. If those politics are any indication, privacy in the post-2020 landscape will be odd, iterative, surprisingly bipartisan, and very complicated.

California’s Prop 24 ratifies the California Privacy Rights Act, the successor to 2018’s California Consumer Privacy Act. Conceived as a parallel to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, the CCPA left many privacy advocates unhappy with loopholes that let Facebook, Google, and hordes of anonymous data brokers avoid regulation.

The CCPA exempted many forms of targeted advertising, essentially permitting the collection and sharing of personal user data without consent—precisely the activity the law was intended to eliminate. CCPA also left enforcement solely to the already overburdened state attorney general, a concession that caused an ongoing rift between two of its authors, Mary Stone Ross and Alastair Mactaggart. (Mactaggart coauthored the CPRA, which Ross opposed.)

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illustration of 2020 in red and blue

Companies have many ways of profiting from collecting and accessing our data. Few involve money directly exchanging hands in a sale. The law approved Tuesday targets the companies once able to evade regulation by claiming they “share” but don’t “sell” data. CPRA combines the concepts of sharing, selling, and monetizing data. It requires companies to disclose what they’re collecting from users and with whom they’re selling or sharing the data, and it requires them to allow users to opt out of having their data collected, whether or not it’s “sold” in the literal sense.

CPRA creates a new category of Sensitive Personal Information (SPI), including race, sexuality, religion, and health data. Businesses must disclose to users if they plan to collect, share, or sell SPI. Once informed, users can prevent companies from sharing SPI. It also allocates $10 million to a new California Privacy Protection Agency that will enforce the law.

Finally, the language of the 2018 law left the door open for companies to require users to opt out of tracking from each site they visit rather than end tracking with one swoop. CPRA allows users to employ a global opt-out, such as a Do Not Track tool, but also to allow tracking selectively.

Privacy advocates who oppose CPRA see this as one of many examples of one step forward, two steps backward. Enforcement doesn’t begin until 2023, businesses with less than $25 million in revenue in are exempt, credit reporting giants like Experian and Equifax are exempt from most of its provisions, and companies can still withhold certain perks or discounts from consumers who choose not to share data.

This last concession is especially contentious. The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU of Northern California, staunch privacy defenders for generations, both cited this for why they opposed Prop 24. Both have concerns it could incentivize a “pay for privacy” structure that encourages people to hand over their data for cash and discounts. This could be especially harmful for communities of color, the ACLU argued in an October blog post, because vulnerable users will be compelled to exchange their data for lower prices, while more privileged users can afford to decline. This contradicts the protections brought on by the new SPI distinction.

CPRA’s biggest supporters, including Consumer Watchdog’s executive director, Carmen Balber, admit the legislation isn’t perfect but evinces a new model for stronger privacy protections.

“I would love to win the whole fight in one fell swoop, but that rarely, if ever, happens in the real world,” Balber says, instead noting that the legislation is written specifically to allow for future revisions. “I think that’s probably the model we’re going to see for [privacy] reform across the country.”

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