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Bits: The Week in Tech: Putting an A.I. Genie Back in Its Bottle

Each week, we review the week’s news, offering analysis about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Hi, I’m Jamie Condliffe. Greetings from London. Here’s a look at the week’s tech news:

“The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle,” Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, wrote in December, when he called for regulation of the technology.

San Francisco just put it back in.

On Tuesday, the city’s Board of Supervisors banned the use of facial recognition software by the police and other city agencies in an 8-to-1 vote. Supporters said its use by government was an invasion of privacy incompatible with healthy democracy. Departments will now need to first submit proposals and post public notices to use the technology. Private-sector and federal use isn’t affected.

That the ban was introduced by San Francisco, a city pivotal to the development of the technology, was viewed by some as a siren call. “This is like Detroit banning a certain model of vehicle because it’s too dangerous,” said Alvaro Bedoya, a visiting professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center. “You may not live in Detroit, but, boy, you’d think twice before getting in that car.”

Expect more cities to follow: Somerville, Mass., outside Boston, is considering something similar, and Brian Hofer, a paralegal who drafted the San Francisco ordinance, is pushing for other anti-surveillance measures across California.

Like it or not, it’s a rare sign that technologies viewed as threats to citizens’ well-being can be blocked. “The decision refutes a defeatist and widespread opinion that once a technology is established, you can’t stop it in its tracks,” said Evan Selinger, a philosophy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed an antitrust class action lawsuit against Apple, giving consumers an opportunity to try to prove that the iPhone maker used monopoly power to raise prices of iPhone apps.

As my colleagues Adam Liptak and Jack Nicas reported, the lawsuit focuses on the fact that Apple charges developers a commission of up to 30 percent for selling products through its App Store, bars them from selling the apps elsewhere and plays a role in setting prices.

Apple claims that it is a middleman: that customers buy software from the app developers. But the court, in a 5-to-4 ruling, said iPhone owners had a “direct purchaser” relationship with Apple, so they had the right to sue.

It’s interesting that the decision went against Apple at all. Liberal jurists often favor antitrust action, and conservatives avoid it. So you’d have expected the verdict to be 5-to-4 in the other direction, along the conservative-liberal line of the Supreme Court.

But the new justice, Brett M. Kavanaugh, tipped the other way.

You could read Justice Kavanaugh’s decision as an indicator that, as people of all political stripes begin to find Big Tech troublesome, conservatives may accept that antitrust could be a useful tool in curbing its power. If that’s accurate, Big Tech should be very concerned.

In 2019 there’s little more fashionable than calling for Facebook’s dismantlement.

This past week, Senator Kamala Harris and Joseph R. Biden Jr., two of the Democrats running for president, said it should be considered, joining another, Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has called for wider Big Tech breakups. And don’t forget that Chris Hughes, a Facebook co-founder, wrote this month that he wanted its split up, too.

We could argue (at length) about the validity of the idea. But how plausible is it?

The weapon of choice behind most of these calls is antitrust law. Fine. There’s plenty of potentially anticompetitive behavior to go after. But in terms of end results, a breakup is possible, but by no means certain, from such legal action, according to antitrust experts I spoke with.

Einer Elhauge, a Harvard law professor who was chairman of the antitrust advisory committee to the Obama campaign in 2008, told me that splitting WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook — the most popular proposal — was plausible but might depend on how deeply integrated they had become.

“It’s hard to unscramble eggs,” he said. And Facebook’s push to intertwine the platforms more closely may make such unscrambling only harder.

Harry First, a law professor at New York University who specializes in antitrust, said breaking up what then remained of Facebook would be “problematic and expensive,” making it unlikely.

More skeptical was Diana L. Moss, the president of the American Antitrust Institute, who said that for any antitrust action, “the remedy has to be applied specifically to the harm; it cannot be a broad remedy.” That means that “it may not even include breaking up the company,” but would instead involve something less severe, like conduct requirements.

Mr. First agreed that injunctions and the formal monitoring of conduct were “much more likely” outcomes than a breakup.

So if an antitrust argument is used to break up the social network, it’s not guaranteed to have the desired outcome. But, as Mr. First told me, for those who want it, “it’s good to have a goal.”

On Wednesday, more than a dozen countries, including Britain, France and Germany, signed a nine-point plan with big tech companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter to address extremist and violent content. A notable absence: the United States.

The Trump administration cited free-speech protections for not signing, saying that “the best tool to defeat terrorist speech is productive speech.”

The same day, the White House unveiled a bias reporting tool that enables people to report, to the government, censorship that they believe is a result of political bias on social networks. That thrusts into the public domain a widely held view among Republicans that platforms like Facebook and Twitter censor conservative viewpoints.

As my colleague Kevin Roose pointed out, that looks like a savvy collection tool for voter data. But it’s also an interesting, if not particularly surprising, demonstration of the priorities of the Trump administration.

■ Uber bombed its I.P.O. Its fall from a potential $ 120 billion blockbuster to a much-smaller debut that fell even further was a tale of mismanaged expectations and slumping confidence in the company’s prospects.

■ Nothing is truly secure. Intel’s computer chips, Microsoft’s operating systems and WhatsApp’s encrypted messaging were all shown to contain big security flaws this past week.

The United States is hitting out at Huawei. The Commerce Department put it on a list of firms that need special permission to buy American components and technology, which could hamstring its operations.

■ Amazon wants to sell ads. Google wants to woo shoppers. Those shared ambitions are putting the tech giants on a collision course.

■ Appalachia was supposed to get coding jobs. But the nonprofit organization that promised them, Mined Minds, has since been accused of being a fraud.

■ Fake news is still very much a thing. Russia and the far right are spreading disinformation ahead of European elections this month, and a pro-Iran group has published fake websites to attack the nation’s adversaries.

■ Russia wants you to think that 5G is dangerous, and causes cancer, infertility, autism, heart tumors and Alzheimer’s disease. It isn’t, and doesn’t.

■ Amazon wants its workers to quit. And then start their own delivery businesses to distribute its packages with the help of $ 10,000 start-up grants.

■ Brace for more Google ads. In the face of slowing growth, expect to find them on search pages, image searches and maps.

■ Forget folding-screen phones. Lenovo has a folding-screen laptop.

■ Do you still love tech? Despite all its scandal, the tech veteran Paul Ford says he’s as in love with it as ever.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

NYT > Technology

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