Today we travel to three past futures, and update you on recent developments! How has COVID brought us closer to robot teachers? Why did Oregon vote to decriminalize all drugs? And what the heck is going on with the antitrust suits against Google and Facebook?
- Audrey Watters — ed-tech expert & author of The Monsters of Education Technology (2014), The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015), The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology (2016), and The Monsters of Education Technology 4 (2017)
- Matt Sutton — Director, Media Relations Drug Policy Alliance
- Rani Molla — reporter, Recode
PART ONE: Teaching Robots
- 10 technology trends to watch in the COVID-19 pandemic
- Student Privacy and the Fight to Keep Spying Out of Schools: Year in Review 2020
- The year we gave up on privacy
- An ed-tech specialist spoke out about remote testing software — and now he’s being sued
- IAN’s GOFUNDME
- Cheating-detection companies made millions during the pandemic. Now students are fighting back.
- Exam anxiety: how remote test-proctoring is creeping students out
- Accessibility Suffers During Pandemic
- Students Are Pushing Back Against Proctoring Surveillance Apps
PART TWO: Decriminalized Drugs
- When does Oregon’s drug decriminalization law take effect? What happens then?
- This Advocacy Group Helped Oregon Make History on Drug Decriminalization
- Drug Policy Action’s Measure 110 Prevails, Making Oregon the First U.S. State to Decriminalize All Drugs & Expand Access to Addiction and Health Services
- American Rehab
- Addressing Diverse Populations in Intensive Outpatient Treatment
- The Effects of Decriminalization of Drug Use in Portugal
- A resounding success or a disastrous failure: Re‐examining the interpretation of evidence on the Portuguese decriminalisation of illicit drugs
- Cato Institute’s Report on Portuguese Drug Policy: Reasons for Skepticism
- Race and the Drug War
- Cracks in the System: 20 Years of the Unjust Federal Crack Cocaine Law
- Unequal under Law by Doris Marie Provine
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Oregon makes it easier to expunge old marijuana convictions
- Never Convicted, but Held Back by a Criminal Record
PART THREE: Anti-Trust Extravaganza
- Google’s three antitrust cases, briefly explained
- How the antitrust battles of the ‘90s set the stage for today’s tech giants
- Antitrust Suit Against Google is a Watershed Moment
- Why the US government wants Facebook to sell off Instagram and WhatsApp
- Big Tech nemesis Lina Khan is gaining traction for top Biden antitrust role
- Google Workers Speak Out About Why They Formed A Union: ‘To Protect Ourselves’
- ‘I’m not a robot’: Amazon workers condemn unsafe, grueling conditions at warehouse
- PNAS Science Sessions: Science Sessions are short, in-depth conversations with the world’s top scientific researchers. Listen and subscribe to Science Sessions on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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Flash Forward is hosted by Rose Eveleth and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outtro music is by Hussalonia. The episode art is by Matt Lubchansky. The voices from the future this episode were provided by
If you want to suggest a future we should take on, send us a note on Twitter, Facebook or by email at email@example.com. We love hearing your ideas! And if you think you’ve spotted one of the little references I’ve hidden in the episode, email us there too. If you’re right, I’ll send you something cool.
And if you want to support the show, there are a few ways you can do that too! Head to www.flashforwardpod.com/support for more about how to give. But if that’s not in the cards for you, you can head to iTunes and leave us a nice review or just tell your friends about us. Those things really do help.
That’s all for this future, come back next time and we’ll travel to a new one.
FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW
Transcript by Emily White @ The Wordary
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“Back to the Future: Robot Teachers, Drug Decriminalization, Anti-Trust Extravaganza”
Note from Rose: This episode includes one curse.
[Flash Forward intro music – “Whispering Through” by Asura, an electronic, rhythm-heavy piece]
Hello and welcome to Flash Forward! I’m Rose and I am your host. Flash Forward is a show about the future. Every episode, we take on a specific possible, or sometimes not so possible, future scenario. And over the years, we have done over 100 episodes. Over 100 possible, and not-so-possible futures. One of the coolest, and most terrifying things, about the future is that it just keeps happening! So today, I have a very special episode for you. We are technically still on the between-season break, but today we are going to revisit three past futures that have some interesting recent developments. We’re going to talk about them a little bit, give you a little Back to the Future action.
We’re going to start with something related to the pandemic, but not about the pandemic exactly. It’s more like that the pandemic accelerated this particular future in interesting ways.
Back in 2016, we did an episode called “Bot for Teacher” all about a future in which students learn not through in-person instruction led by fleshy, human educators, but instead all online. Here is the intro scene from that episode:
FICTION SKETCH BEGINS
Hello there, Kara. Welcome to school today. I hope you’re ready to learn! Today we are going to continue our lessons on trigonometry. Did you watch the homework video?
Hello, Kara. Let’s continue our lessons on American History. Please upload your essay on reparations to the portal.
Hello Kara. I have read your essay on reparations. Let’s discuss. Please turn on your webcam. We have identified some key points in your essay for discussion. It seems that perhaps you did not do some of the assigned reading. Did you read the Atlantic essay in your homework packet? Let’s go over it together. We’ll start on page three of the assigned essay.
Hello Kara. We haven’t detected any movement in front of the screen in a while. Are you still there?
Hello Kara. Your tracker indicates that you haven’t been at the computer during lessons. We have reset all lessons marked complete while you were not here.
Do you remember having a human teacher? What was the best thing about human teachers?
Um, playing with Ms. Lloyd, and that Ms. Lloyd helps us. And that she gives us ice packs when we bump our head, yeah, how cool is that?
Ummmm that they love me.
I like that they love me.
She’s very kind.
Do you like me?
Mmmmm… half and half.
Hello Kara. A new version of the LearnFuture software is now available. Would you like to update now?
Remember, your regional exam is tomorrow. You still have 12 lessons to complete in order to be ready for the exa–
Hello Kara, our records indicate that you missed the regional exam. Without this test you cannot move on in your education. Education is the key to your future.
Hello Kara. It has been 34 days since you logged on to your lessons portal. Are you still there? Education is the key to your future.
(echoing and overlapping): Education is the key to your future. Education is the key to your future.
FICTION SKETCH END
I have to say, relistening to that scene made me feel two things. One, stressed out. And two, kind of weirdly proud because we actually kind of got a lot of it right, especially that surveillance part of it. Because what you’ve just heard is basically what is happening right now to kids all over the United States. They’re not just being taught online. They’re being watched online.
Students have been asked to have the camera show what’s going on in their lap, making sure that students don’t have notes hidden away. To have a technology ask you to send a photo of your lap is so wildly inappropriate. But we’ve heard these stories again and again from students who are, you know, being forced to use this technology, and it’s an egregious violation of their privacy.
This is Audrey Watters. You heard her on that 2016 episode, and I called her back to talk about education and tech again.
I’m a writer. I write at a website called Hack Education, and I write about the history of the future of education technology. I have a book coming out in August from MIT Press. It’s called Teaching Machines. It’s about the history of a tech pre-computer, and my argument is that a lot of what we have today actually has its origins pre-computer, from behaviorism, particularly of the influence of B.F. Skinner.
When the pandemic began, and schools closed, and education went to partially or sometimes completely online, it was in some ways a big litmus test for just how much technology can mediate and replace in-person learning. And in many ways, ed tech failed that test.
It’s just not been a good situation. And the thing is, I think we probably should’ve known that. If you look historically at all the studies of education technology, it really doesn’t live up to the promises that people have made. People have said it’ll be utterly transformative, that students will learn better, faster, cheaper, and it’s just never proven to be the case. And it’s never proven to be the case under the best scenarios, with lots of resources, and lots of time, let alone during a pandemic when everyone is stretched so thin. So, I think people should’ve known that it was going to be pretty mediocre, at best. I think disastrous at worst. Certainly, I think that’s what we’ve seen.
People are muddling through, but I don’t think anyone’s going to come out on the other side of this, whenever that is, and say, “Wow! Let’s just continue to have our education completely mediated through technology because this has been awesome.”
Without being able to teach in person, schools turned to all kinds of technologies. Everything from Teaching Robots, which are basically just iPads on sticks that roll around, to software systems that watch students while they take tests.
One of those software systems is called Proctorio. The main pitch of Proctorio is that their systems can help teachers catch people who are cheating on tests by watching them and monitoring them for any signs of suspicious movement.
What it does is, it monitors students’ biometrics, students’ faces, students’ attention to the screen, as well as audio and visuals going on in the background. And of course, if students get flagged as cheating, they potentially could fail classes, fail exams. And where they’re high-stakes exams, this is incredibly important. There have been stories about students who’ve been, you know, sick but were afraid to blow their nose or afraid to throw up without having to keep their eyes focused on the screen.
There have been stories about students of color, in particular, for whom the facial recognition technology doesn’t work well and students have been instructed to turn more light on so the software can read their faces more easily.
Proctorio is a little different from a lot of the other proctoring tools because it is 100% algorithmic. There is no teacher on the other side of the camera actually watching. Everything is automated. And around the US and Canada, students and teachers have pushed back on this system, pointing out all of the ways that it violates students’ privacy and is based on algorithms that can do real harm. And Proctorio has responded to these criticisms really aggressively.
Ian Linkletter, he’s an instructional technologist at the University of British Columbia. He is responsible for making sure the education technology that the students and staff use at his university works, works well, and is ethical. And he tweeted a bunch of links to YouTube videos, Proctorio’s own YouTube videos, and now he’s being sued for violating the company’s IP.
The case against Ian is still in the works, and if you want to help donate to his legal fund, I will put a link in the show notes for that.
Audrey says that not only are these systems invading students’ privacy and potentially putting them at risk, they’re also just not good teaching. They’re not good pedagogy.
I think that these technologies really demonstrate how little institutions, broadly speaking, professors specifically, trust students. They don’t trust students to be able to do their own work. And I think that once you operate in a climate of deep mistrust that comes with surveillance, and then of course also with punishment, you’re never really going to have students really engage deeply, creatively, in the intellectual material that they’re supposed to be thinking about and pursuing.
It really does prevent students from being experimental, creative, and joyful in their studies. It creates a climate of fear and punishment. And I don’t think that’s what we want anytime, but certainly in the midst of a global pandemic when people are teaching and learning in not-great situations, oftentimes. This is really such an inappropriate tool for universities to be using.
I admit that at the beginning of the pandemic, I, maybe naïvely, thought that maybe this would be an opportunity to reimagine what school could be; to reconsider all the testing and the super rigid structures, and the policing, sometimes literal policing of students. But of course, that is not what happened. Instead, schools bought expensive technological systems to make sure that they could stay as close as possible to the old ways, even if that meant crushing students in the process.
My niece is 13, and she has always been, actually, a really stellar student. Loves school. And the past year has just drained it out of her. She told me that she wasn’t going to go to school anymore if school had to be online.
I hear stories all the time about students who’ve really thrived, and I think it’s important to think about why those students have thrived. I’ve heard from many students of color who love being at home because they aren’t having to deal with the bullshit racist microaggressions that students of color put up with all day from their peers and particularly from white teachers. So, I think there are students who are finding this experience to be better in many ways than what they face in the classroom. I think that’s important to recognize. But for most students, I think it really has been pretty miserable. And for teachers too.
The move to online teaching was helpful for some students but terrible for others. It also highlighted the digital divide where some students had access to computers and high-speed internet at home, and other students didn’t have any of that.
Many places in this country still do not have adequate bandwidth for one student to be online, let alone a whole family.
And my big question for Audrey was whether or not this push into, kind of, a dark future of surveillance technology in the classroom that we’ve seen over the past year: Is it undoable? Can we go back?
One of the things I think that gives me hope – hope in a strange, slanted sense, which I think is how hope works these days – is that schools have often spent a lot of money on stuff that just ends up in the utility closet, right? Probably a decade or two ago, schools went in big time on the interactive whiteboard. Schools spent tens of thousands of dollars to equip each classroom with the interactive whiteboard. It was supposed to be The Next Big Thing. It was supposed to make classes, as the board suggests, more interactive. There were supposed to be ways in which… lessons would all be geared around this interactive whiteboard. And guess what? Teachers didn’t use them. Teachers didn’t like them. They didn’t find them useful. It was a waste of money. So, the interactive whiteboards, many classrooms still have them because, where the hell are you going to put it? It’s on the wall, it’s going to stay there. But that stuff just doesn’t get utilized anymore.
I do think that’s what we’re going to see happen. Schools will have spent a ton of money on stuff that, once we have an opportunity to be back face-to-face, just isn’t going to be utilized. It’s just not what people will want. I think people will want to be in the classroom with other humans. Kids are going to want to be with their friends. Teachers are going to want to see faces in person, not behind a screen. I think students are going to be sick of screens, and I’m hopeful that that’s what we’ll come back to.
And the other thing that she’s heartened by is the way that students have taken a stand against some of this stuff.
It’s not often that the dominant story about ed tech is a negative one. Usually the press loves ed tech, and that’s not been the dominant story this year. So, I think that students have really… have been very loud about how they feel this particular technology is invasive, and extractive, and exploitative. And that gives me hope. I think that we will see students continue to be vocal about what they think technology should and shouldn’t do, not for them, but to them. And seeing students really say, “No, we don’t want this,” and demanding that their professors think differently about how to teach, how to assess, I think is something that’s actually going to change. I do think that students are… I’m hoping that students will feel more empowered to push back against this, sort of, exploitative stuff that’s happened.
Not to put too much pressure on the youths, but it is genuinely really cool to see students refusing this kind of stuff, and I hope that their parents, and teachers, and most importantly, school administrators who are buying these systems, listen to them.
So, that is update number one, and when we come back you’re going to get update number two, which is all about drugs.
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Today’s episode is sponsored in part by PNAS Science Sessions. Science Sessions are short, in-depth conversations with the world’s top scientific researchers. In less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee, you can find out how to predict the spread of Asian giant hornets with David Crowder and Gengping Zhu.
Maybe in the last year you’ve been a little bit overwhelmed by all of the bad stuff that’s been happening; the increasing boldness of white supremacists, the pandemic, climate change. So maybe you missed the fact that murder hornets exist and are spreading. But never fear, my friend, I am here to tell you that there are murder hornets and that they are slowly moving their way across the Western United States.
Now, they’re not technically called murder hornets. They’re technically called Asian giant hornets, and they get the nickname ‘murder hornets’ because a small group of these flying creatures is capable of killing an entire honeybee hive in just a couple of hours. And multiple stings can also kill a human.
The Asian giant hornet is the world’s largest hornet species, and it’s native primarily to Eastern Asia and parts of Southern Asia. And when they’re in their native range, you know, going about their business, that’s fine. They’re part of the ecosystem. They’re not, you know, decimating any of the other species, and frankly, they rarely sting people. The real concern here is that the Asian giant hornet has invaded the United States, and the worry is that the European honeybee, which is what we use for pollination in the US, has no natural defenses against these hornets. So if the worst-case scenario unfolds, if the hornet was to spread throughout the western coast of Washington, and Oregon, and even British Columbia, where there are a lot of crops grown that are pollinated by European honeybees, this could be a huge problem for those beekeeping operations and could in fact affect food production in those regions.
So for all of those reasons, you probably want to track where these murder hornets are going. And to track their spread, Crowder and Zhu looked at their native ranges in Asia to determine where they can survive and where they’re going to be the happiest in North America. And they found that the species prefers a mild temperature and a high precipitation area, which is why they initially set up shop on the Pacific West Coast.
You can hear more about these hornets, how researchers are tracking them, and where they might wind up next, on the podcast PNAS Science Sessions. Listen and subscribe to Science Sessions on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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All right, update number two.
If you are listening to this episode on this day this episode was released, which is February 2nd, 2021, that means that yesterday, February 1st, 2021, was the first day in which drugs were officially decriminalized in the state of Oregon. Now, we talked about a future where drugs were decriminalized and/or legalized in 2016. And on that episode we talked to two people who had really, really different opinions about drugs on almost all fronts. But the thing that they actually agreed on was that decriminalization of possession was a good idea. And now, in Oregon, that has happened.
So, with Measure 110, we definitely crafted this very much after other policies in other parts of the world that had been successful, such as Portugal. It decriminalizes small amounts of possession of all drugs, but it also greatly increases access to evidence-based, culturally informed treatment, harm reduction, other health services, recovery, support, and even things like housing and job assistance.
That’s Matt Sutton, the Director of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance Drug Policy Action, an organization that helped get this ballot measure written and passed in Oregon. Measure 110 has three main components. Number one, it decriminalizes possession of small amounts of drugs to be basically the same as a traffic fine.
Instead of being arrested and getting a criminal record, you would instead just get a civil citation that would result in you either paying a $100 fine or being directed to an addiction recovery center.
Number two, the measure also reduces the penalty for possession of larger quantities to mostly misdemeanors rather than felonies. And number three, it establishes those addiction recovery centers that Matt mentioned, using excess money from marijuana taxes in the state.
Now, when I first heard about this measure, I did have some questions about those recovery centers because the addiction recovery industry is complicated. There are some great organizations and services, and there are some not-great organizations and services working in this space. If you heard the podcast American Rehab, you know one of the treatment companies that I’m talking about. And if you haven’t listened to American Rehab, I very much recommend it. You definitely should. It’s really, really good.
The point here is that sometimes addiction recovery centers prioritize profits over the people that they are ostensibly supposed to be helping. So I wanted to know, with this bill, how do they make sure that they’re not shuttling people off to these expensive and often exploitative rehab centers?
I think part of that is the majority of treatment facilities have been very much abstinence based, where it’s strictly, like, “No drugs whatsoever, no drinking, nothing.” And they haven’t really stayed up to date with science, which is, you know, especially for opioid use disorder, the gold standard is providing people medication-assisted treatment.
Also, obviously, making sure that it is culturally informed as well because we know that there are a lot of differences between people and their ability to seek help. One thing might work right for one community versus something else that might work completely differently for another community of people, and we have to be responsive to that as well.
Under the Oregon measure, there will be a committee appointed by the state government to oversee these addiction recovery centers and to make sure that the money they’re giving out to fund them is actually going to organizations that uphold all of the things that Matt just described. This board is not appointed yet, and I will definitely be keeping an eye on who exactly is on it and what kind of decisions they’re making, but that’s how they’re going to manage that.
Now, as much as I worry about these centers, I also do want to say that this piece of the measure is really important. Without helping people figure out the reasons they became addicted to drugs, whether that’s job loss, or homelessness, or mental health problems, or whatever it is, you’re never going to actually help them recover from that addiction. We talked about this a little bit in our housing episode, about how just decriminalizing homelessness doesn’t always solve the problem. The housing programs that we talked about work best when they are coupled with services and assistance beyond just the immediate, pressing problem.
And while Oregon might be the first state in the US to do this, they are not the first place in the world. Like Matt said, they modeled the bill off of Portugal’s version of this idea, which took effect in 2001, which means that we have about 20 years of evidence for how this kind of decriminalization works and the impact that it has.
Portugal actually had one of the highest rates of HIV, and hepatitis, and other infectious diseases, so that was really what they were trying to solve for. And you know, they knew that was being mainly led by people that were using drugs because, you know, they didn’t have access to safe supplies and that kind of thing. A lot of that was driven by drugs being completely illegal. As long as drugs are illegal, people are in fear of being criminalized and the repercussions that could happen, and that even keeps them from seeking services like treatment. So they decided to take a completely different approach and they said, “Let’s completely remove criminal penalties for drug possession, and instead let’s provide people access to the kind of services that they need.” So that was what they did. They created things like needle exchange programs.
What they found was, within just a few years of implementing this the rate of HIV and other infectious diseases plummeted, as did the rate of overdose deaths, and the rate of people that were voluntarily seeking treatment went way up.
There were some knock-on effects of the Portuguese law that are maybe worth noting. One study did find that people were more likely to experiment with drugs after decriminalization, but it also found that the vast majority of that experimentation did not lead to addiction or even regular drug use. Other researchers have pointed out that murders went up in the years after the Portuguese law and they say it might be related to this, but there’s no good way to prove that with a study.
It’s also important to note that we know that the current way the United States deals with drug policy has serious drawbacks itself. The American War on Drugs has always been a set of policies that has specifically targeted communities of color. In the 1980s, for example, the United States decided to make a very specific distinction between the two types of cocaine; powder cocaine and crack cocaine.
Where we treated crack a thousand times worse than powder cocaine, which really the main difference is where white people were using powder cocaine and Black people were using crack cocaine. So, in many cases we had Black people that were sentenced to these extreme sentences, led by mandatory minimums, so they would have sometimes 25-year sentences for being caught with just possession of crack cocaine. Meanwhile, white people get caught with possession of powder cocaine and they’re getting a slap on the wrist. What we saw from that is really that entire communities of color, people just taken from their homes. All these communities gutted of a whole generation of people.
For more on the racialized effects of the drug war, I recommend the book Unequal Under Law by Doris Marie Provine and, of course, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
In Oregon, they actually were able to quantify the potential impact of this new decriminalization measure.
With this Oregon measure, what we had the opportunity to do was actually, you know, request a report from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which is an independent government agency in the state of Oregon. They found that if Measure 110 were to take place, there would be a 95% decrease in racial disparities in drug arrests. That’s huge.
Matt says that the next step is to get those who are currently incarcerated or have criminal records for possession, that under this new law would simply be a ticket or a misdemeanor, reprocessed.
It’s not going to be a good look for legislators to say, “We’re not going to punish people anymore but these other people that are already punished, they’re on their own.” That’s not a good look for them.
And they’ve already had some success doing this with marijuana convictions in Oregon once that drug was legalized. And this is a big deal because having a criminal record can make your life so much harder in so many ways, and Matt knows this firsthand.
I was actually arrested for possession of drugs when I was 18 years old, and you know, I would say that this is the biggest thing that I’ve had to deal with throughout my life. That was over 15 years ago at this point, but every time that I would think about changing jobs, there was the whole idea of, like, “Okay, I’m going to give my two weeks’ notice at this job, and then I’m going to accept this other job, they’re going to do the background check, and then they’re going to rescind this job offer, and then I’m going to be completely unemployed… I’m going to be homeless…” all these kind of fears that go through your head.
And these fears are legit. This does happen. It even happened to Matt.
I had gotten a job working at a call center, I think maybe making $7.50 or $8 an hour; not much over minimum wage. And you know, just days before I was supposed to start the job I got a call from them and they told me that they had to rescind the job offer because they found my criminal record and, you know, found out that… They said it was because they had government contracts, and because they had government contracts, they couldn’t hire anybody with a criminal record.
So here we are, I’m like, “This government gave me this criminal record, but now the government’s preventing me from getting a job.” And you know, because of this, I was also on probation at the time. One of the conditions of your probation is that you have a job. So, because the government’s preventing me from getting a job, now I’m going to be in violation of the terms of my probation and potentially sent back to jail. That is what people deal with.
And as of yesterday, in Oregon, this is not going to happen to people like Matt anymore.
Oregon, on February 1st, will become the first place in the United States to no longer criminalize people for being caught with possession of drugs. That is huge, you know? How many lives are really going to be saved because of that? How many people are never going to have to worry about having that burden of a criminal record? Never have to worry about not being able to get a job, or housing, or anything from just being caught with possession of drugs. And then, you know, they will be able to get access to those services that they do want. So, I think that is just, like, huge. It is incredibly exciting for us.
Other states are also considering joining this roster. In the November elections, Washington D.C. voted to decriminalize certain psychedelics, and Washington state, California, Vermont, they’re all thinking about laws or ballot measures like this.
No drug policy is ever going to be perfect, and Measure 110 isn’t going to magically keep everybody from overdosing, or getting addicted, or any of that. But it is a step towards a policy that seems a lot more humane and effective at keeping people alive and in their communities, which I think is a good thing to do.
So that is update number two. Now one more break and then we’re going to come back and talk about some big, exciting to me, court cases.
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All right, so let’s imagine for a moment that you are an astronaut and you want to get on the internet, obviously, so you can watch TikToks or whatever it is. And you can do that, it just takes a while. Astronauts on the ISS have to use a remote desktop tool on computers on the ground that have access to the internet. So every click has to go from the ISS to a geosynchronous satellite, back down to the ground. Then the actual click on the machine, they have to wait for the web, and then back up to the geosynchronous satellite, and then back over to the ISS. What that means is that even just moving a mouse around is slow because there are all these steps.
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Okay, last update for you, and this one isn’t, like, officially, directly pegged to any one episode or another, but it is something that has come up in a bunch of different episodes, which is this idea of big tech monopolies and antitrust. We have touched on this in a couple of episodes, basically anytime we talk about the immense power that these tech giants have, and I wanted to give you a little overview of the current, big antitrust cases that have been filed against Google and Facebook, and why they matter, and what might happen.
So let’s just start with the basics. What even is antitrust?
At its core, antitrust is when a business does something that unfairly keeps it as a monopoly. So if I were selling vegetables and I sold vegetables to 90% of the population, I have a monopoly because I sell it to more people than anyone else. Antitrust is when I do something to illegally hold onto that monopoly. You know, I break the wheels of the other produce delivery trucks so that they can’t compete with me, or I do some things to make it so other companies can’t compete with me fairly.
This is Rani Molla, a reporter at Recode who has been covering these cases. And right now there are a handful of them, so let’s start with Google.
There are currently three government and state lawsuits against Google. Two of them have to do with search and search advertising. The Department of Justice, I think back in October, along with some Republican Attorneys General, filed a lawsuit against Google about its search and search advertising, and then more recently a bipartisan coalition of a bunch of states’ Attorneys Generals, something like 35 of them, also filed another one about search and search advertising. These are really similar lawsuits and likely they’ll be combined into one later on. It’s sort of a whole political mess why they did them separately, which organizations have purview over what.
But let’s say that these two are basically one lawsuit and they have to do with… Google is the dominant search engine. If you look for anything on the internet, 90% of the time you’re going through Google. And the lawsuits say that Google has done a variety of things to illegally keep its advantage in the search market. One of those is that it pays competitors or pays other companies, like it pays Apple so that when you use Safari, even though you’re using a different web browser, you’re actually using Google Search on there. And it pays Apple billions of dollars a year to ensure that Google gets to be the dominant search engine there as well.
They prioritize their own search results compared to competitors. Let’s say something like Yelp, the argument goes that you have to go through Google in order to get to Yelp, and Google will just give you the answer, so it kind of gets rid of the competition in that way. So, those are the first two cases.
The third case was filed in Texas by ten Republican Attorneys General – which, just as an aside, always sounds totally wrong to me but is in fact the correct way to say that; Attorneys General. Anyway, this Texas case is a little bit different than the other two, which are both about search. This one is about advertising.
The basic argument is that Google has a marketplace to buy and sell online ads. It owns the marketplace, it also buys, and it also sells the ads, so there’s an inherent conflict of interest that makes it really hard for anyone to compete with Google. They also allege that Google teamed up with Facebook in order not to compete over certain stuff in order to get a more preferential deal, so that would be just conspiring to price fix argument or that sort of thing.
Rani says that eventually at least two of these cases will probably be combined and presented as one giant antitrust case. But it won’t be a quick and easy process.
It’s going to be a long and drawn-out affair. It’ll probably take years.
Then there are the two cases currently against Facebook.
They say that Facebook has, sort of, bought out or copied and eclipsed its competition. Facebook has made a number of acquisitions. It bought Instagram, for example. Or for the case of Snapchat, it just does what Snapchat does. It copies the same thing that its competitor is doing, and because Facebook is such a big company and it already has this user base of billions of users, if Facebook buys another or copies another company, it has a built-in base of users that could immediately use WhatsApp, or Instagram, or whatever it buys, and then all of a sudden WhatsApp or Instagram have all of Facebook’s users.
And Rani says that we can probably expect similar cases to show up against other tech giants soon as well.
My hunch would be that, like, they’re going to go for the easiest ones first. But I mean, I would expect ones to come for Amazon and Apple as well.
And the sheer number of these lawsuits does sort of seem to suggest that something has changed. Something has shifted in both how regular people and lawmakers see these tech titans.
I think the biggest change is just how big these tech companies have become. You know, if you even just look over the past year while so many Americans lost their jobs, and everyone can’t go out of their house because of coronavirus, and then you look at the market cap, which is like a stand-in for the value of these big tech companies, while stocks in general… A lot of different stocks suffered, all these companies were doing poorly, people were unemployed, the value of tech stocks has just shot up. So, they’re worth so much more now even than they were worth one year ago. So, I think just by virtue of owning such a relatively larger share of the economy than they did before… They just have such a bigger footprint than they did before, people are going to, obviously, look at them a lot more closely than they used to.
But all of these cases, both present and future, kind of hinge on a big definitional thing, which is the nature of antitrust. Now, Rani already described to you the basics of what antitrust is; breaking the wheels of your competitor’s cart so you can control the supply. But one key thing to know is that it’s not actually a problem, according to the way that these rules have been interpreted, for one company to have a monopoly or to control the market. That’s fine. It’s a problem when their actions harm competition, meaning they do things like raise prices beyond what the market would otherwise generate.
But when you’re doing something with the internet, when you’re doing something, like, when there’s free products, it’s really hard to say, “They’ve raised prices on consumers,” because there’s no such thing as price. What’s changing is the interpretation of that harm to consumers, and that’s… more and more we’re thinking about data privacy as harm. Because there aren’t any other options, you’re forced to give Facebook all of your information. You don’t have to pay Facebook any more, but Facebook is also not telling you how valuable all that data is that you’re giving them. So, a lot of this just has to do with the changing interpretation of what consumer harm is, and this administration might have a different idea of what antitrust cases they’re going to go after compared to a few years back. So, this is a moving and evolving thing.
The cases we just described were all brought under the Trump administration, and obviously now we have a new president and he is making appointments to positions that will probably change the way different agencies think about consumer harm.
People are looking at the appointments that Biden’s going to make for the FTC and the DOJ, organizations that deal in antitrust. It looks like this woman named Lina Kahn, she’s considered a big tech nemesis, she’s in line for one of the top spots for a commissioner job at the FTC. So, that would be bad for big tech. On the other hand, it looks like the positions at the Department of Justice might go to people who’ve formerly worked for big tech companies, so they would be a bit nicer to big tech. So, it depends on the appointments Biden makes now.
Like Rani said, these cases will take years to come to some kind of finale. And of course, these tech companies have a bazillion dollars to fight them and an entire army of lawyers. So, who knows what is going to happen? But the people bringing these suits, they do believe that they can win them, and they are going to try. This isn’t just procedural or for show. And if they do win, then there’s this question of what happens next.
What these cases want is, they want to break up big tech, and breaking up big tech means a variety of things. For Facebook, it could mean getting rid of some of the acquisitions that Facebook has made. You know, split off WhatsApp and split off Instagram, things that have helped it become and stay the biggest social network. For something like Google, or I guess the same thing would be for Amazon, where they have these marketplaces, it would be that you can’t own the marketplace and also sell on the marketplace.
Amazon, which doesn’t have any antitrust lawsuits against it right now, the big criticism right now is that they own the biggest online marketplace, and then they also have all this information from that marketplace, like what people buy, what they’re looking for, and then they sell stuff on that marketplace. It gives them what seems like a very clear advantage over the people they’re competing against on their own platform. So, it would be to break up either… in terms of splitting the company apart or splitting what they’re allowed to do apart.
The hope is that if these big companies are fractured, it could create space for smaller companies to have a better chance at making it.
The example that everyone likes to bring up is, you know, the last time the government brought an antitrust case against a tech company was 20 years ago, and that was Microsoft. And because at the time they took this case against Microsoft, it enabled Google to exist. Part of the Microsoft case had to do with their web browser, and how they were putting that with PCs, and they had the dominant web browser. Now, you know, Google has Chrome. Google exists. So the idea is that if there aren’t the biggest tech companies in the world sucking all the oxygen out of the room, that’ll give a little bit more life to these smaller companies.
Now, personally, I am not that excited about the idea that we could make room for another Facebook. But I do think that it’s worth interrogating just how much power, and control, and money these gigantic corporations have. And thinking about whether they are actually making the world better or not.
I know that’s a slippery question. It’s hard to answer. But when so many people are suffering during this pandemic, including many workers at these giant tech firms, while the company and executives make unfathomable sums of money, it just feels like something is broken, right? And if antitrust is the mechanism by which some of that power can be wrestled away, okay. Great. Let’s do it.
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Okay, that is all for this little update episode. Do you like these? Do you want more of these? Maybe I’ll do another one in the middle of the year as well. Let me know what you want to hear updates on if there are past futures that you really want to get some sort of update. And if you are a Patron or a Time Traveler, you can get little updates like this in every newsletter, so if you liked this and you are not a supporter, you can check that out. The links to all of that stuff are in the show notes.
Flash Forward is hosted by me, Rose Eveleth, and produced by Julia Llinas Goodman. The intro music is by Asura and the outro music is by Hussalonia. Julia and I are in the midst of planning out the next season, so now is a great time to suggest a future that we should take on. If you want to do that you can send a note on Twitter, Facebook, or the best way is by email. You can email Info@FlashForwardPod.com. We do really love hearing your ideas and it’s been really fun to plot out the next season. So send us something there if you want to.
If you want to discuss this episode, some other episode, other updates to past futures that you’ve seen in the news, or just the future in general, you can join the Facebook group. Just search Flash Forward Podcast and ask to join. There is one question you have to answer, basically to show that you know that this is about the Flash Forward podcast and not the science fiction show FlashForward, which existed for a short period of time and I love deeply. The show’s not named after that show, but if you do want to watch it, I recommend it. It’s fun and weird.
And if you want to support Flash Forward, this Flash Forward, the Flash Forward podcast, there are a few ways that you can do that. Head to FlashForwardPod.com/Support for more about how to give. If financial giving is not in the cards for you, please do go to Apple Podcasts and leave a nice review. I do read them all, including the mean ones, and they make me feel sad. So, if you leave nice reviews, that makes me feel happy, and that’s nice. So if you like the show, leave a review, or just tell your friends about the show. Really, a lot of people find the show because a friend recommends it, so please do that. That really does help.
That is all for this update episode. We’re back to being on a break, so you won’t hear from us again for a little while, but I hope you enjoyed this and I hope you are having a great week. Okay, bye.
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