Benner on Tech: Starboard Cynics and Zuckerberg on Censorship

Katie Benner is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about technology, innovation, and the cult and culture of Silicon Valley. She lives in San Francisco.
Read More.
a | A

People Are Talking About …

This week in hilarious bloviating: Activist investment firm Starboard Value warned Yahoo in a letter that it doesn’t like rumors that Marissa Mayer might want to buy Scripps Networks or Time Warner's CNN. I don’t like those rumors much either. When’s the last time a tech company successfully transformed into a media company? Facebook and Google are working on it, but they have a long way to go before they become my go-to for quality entertainment. The good tech/media mashups are usually born that way, and it’s a little early to declare Buzzfeed et al a success. And, well, CNN? It may be beating MSNBC, but, per Mediaite, “2014 saw the lowest primetime total viewer ratings ever for CNN as well as its lowest total day demo ratings of all time.”

But that’s not the ridiculous part. Starboard also “pressured” Yahoo to make some sort of announcement regarding its plans for a tax-efficient sale of Alibaba, as though that’s not exactly what the company will do when it reports earnings in 18 days. There must be strategic thinking around drumming up false urgency for an announcement that Yahoo is basically scheduled to make, but I don’t know what it is. (If the company flubs and stays mum this month, then I want to see the letters roll in.) And the firm pounded the table, again, for a Yahoo-AOL merger. The idea that smooshing together two legacy Internet companies (companies that some have argued need not even exist anymore) will produce a company that unlocks shareholder value for the long haul is, like, a farce. Some activists do want to build better companies. Value Act. Maybe Nelson Peltz at Trian. Some want a quick stock pop, regardless of whether the company they leave behind is a ridiculous Frankenstein of crappy legacy problems. Guess which one Starboard is …

** For your consideration: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg posted a message saying that he’ll never bow to extremists who want to censor the social network. I agree with the sentiment, of course. Free speech! But it’s just easy for companies like Facebook (and Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Pinterest and all the rest) to say that they won't bow to the extremists. Terrorists have no country. But it gets trickier when it comes to other kinds of censorship that these companies face if they want to do business in China or Russia. Obviously terror cells are their own thing, but where and how does a social media company draw the line? What are the ethics of this sort of thing?

Weekend reads galore …

** Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel makes a strong argument for why it’s dangerous to think of Uber -- and all of the other companies that use a digital, smartphone-connected tech layer to streamline our everyday activities -- as pure tech companies.

** Re/code’s Nellie Bowles has the lowdown on the unofficial brothel of CES.

** The Verge’s Nitasha Tiku stalks Dick Costolo at Soul Cycle. She gains no insight into the Twitter chief executive’s views on Twitter, but she attains fitness nirvana.

** Cluetrain publishes new clues to take on Internet threats.

** My Bloomberg View colleague Justin Fox writes the only Samsung story you’ll need to read all year, laying out why the company’s recent revenue explosion has come to a halt and why we won’t see anything like it again for awhile yet.

Ventureland

Uber Updates

** The company slashed prices in 48 cities and has decided to guarantee driver earnings, GigaOm reports, cutting into margins in order to get riders onto the platform.

**  Uber Cargo in Hong Kong, a courier service that’s not entirely unlike the bike messenger service it started in New York City last year, just launched in Hong Kong, TechCrunch reports. The NYC project was an interesting one, but shows no signs yet of completely remaking how people get same day delivery here. It’s a crowded field, and I wonder whether it will be worth it to Uber’s time if it turns out that it can’t own the space in every city.

** New York City taxi regulators temporarily lifted the suspension of five Uber dispatch bases until the company’s appeal is decided, New York Business Journal reports.

** Line Taxi, a cab hailing service embedded in a messaging app, could give Uber a run for its money in Japan, reports Tech in Asia.

Bitcoin’s ecosystem is growing, even though prices are plummeting, according to Coindesk.

Social network wars. Did you get your Ello account, surf around for a few days and then never check it again? Now you can get a Dropon account, surf around for a few days and never check it again. Maybe it all started with Path? But now we can collect social media accounts that we’ll never really use like Iggy Azalea collects haters. They come. They go. No one will remember them.

People and Personnel Moves

John Solomon, joined Apple to help run enterprise sales, Re/code reports. Solomon was previously a senior vice president with Hewlett Packard’s printing and personal systems group.

Elon Musk did a Reddit AMA, and it was reprinted by Interviewly.

Bradford Shellhammer, the co-founder of Fab.com, plans to launch the second coming of the online design and shopping site sometime in March with the backing of Lerer Hippeau Ventures. Re/code profiles Shellhammer and his new company Bezar. (Ugh, that name.)

Companies

Apple …

The company says that it has created more than 1 million jobs in the U.S., Bloomberg News reports. Specifically, making apps for Apple gadgets created more than 627,000 jobs and 334,000 jobs resulted from Apple-related spending and growth. (Customers spent more than $10 billion in the App Store in 2013.) The company also has about 66,000 U.S. employees.

Facebook …

The company acquired QuickFire Networks, a video compression startup, ZDNet reports.

Google …

The company will soon introduce an auto insurance shopping site in the U.S., reports the New York Times. The site has been available in Britain for two years.

Twitter …

Video is finally coming to the microblogging site, says Re/code.

Cybercrime Blotter

Edward Snowden talks cyberattacks and global cyberwarfare in this Nova documentary.

A cyberattack caused physical damage. It's the second time ever, and this time it happened in Germany, Wired reports. 

The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA), a bill supported by intelligence officials and industry groups worried about the nation’s cyberdefenses, will be reintroduced in the house by Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, a senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, reports the Hill.

Media Files

Neil deGrasse Tyson is getting his own talk show, reports Time.

News and Notes

CES is dead. Long live CES. The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo says that the ambivalence that’s lately plagued CES is symptomatic of the fact that the smartphone has thrown the consumer electronics era into turmoil.

Six gadgets you thought were dead were all new again at CES, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Milian.

Messaging apps Line, WhatsApp and Tango have been banned in Iran, reports the Associated Press.

Millennials are sort of gross. So 32 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds surveyed by Nielsen use their smartphones while in the bathroom. They also ranked “technology use” first as the most defining characteristic of their generation.

Attack of the mean mirrors. In the future, they might point out all of our flaws, Motherboard reports.

Science shocker. Newton’s law of cooling says that Luke Skywalker should have died in the Tauntaun’s belly. Thanks io9. Thanks a lot.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net