Trading generations of goodwill for cash

Also, Google rescues Robinhood from itself, and Facebook tries to look nice.

This has been a weird week, culminating with the loss of my beloved Xiaomi Mix 3 phone. I loved that phone, partially because the Xiaomi UI is amazing, but also because of the way the selfie camera is hidden. Watch the video…it’s very satisfying. The phone still appears to power on, but the screen won’t come on, so it’s not usable.

This led to my first experience of restoring all my data onto a new phone without using Google services. I de-Googled last year, and although I know there is still some surveillance DNA in my Android phone, I don’t use any Google services like Gmail or contacts, calendar, etc. I provide all those services to myself using a self-hosted and encrypted NextCloud instance.

My verdict is that getting all my data onto a new phone was harder than if I used Google services, but not so much harder than I regret it. The basic difference is that logging into my phone’s Google account would normally restore everything to it, but in my case I have nothing in my phone’s Google account. I had to re-install the apps I use (which are not Google apps and therefore are not pre-installed) and then log into each of them to start the sync down from my NextCloud server.

I’m glad it worked out pretty easily. If you’re tired of being surveilled and wonder if it is possible to de-Google, I am here to tell you yes, it is possible. And, it’s not too hard to get back up and running, even in the catastrophic scenario where your phone suddenly stops working with no notice.

Even the Ivy League schools can’t resist the call of cash

Vaccines aren’t very profitable and the big pharma companies don’t really want to be in that business. They’d much prefer lingering illnesses that require people to take their drug for years, possibly decades, because it makes more money than a vaccine which is typically given only once or twice in the course of a lifetime. Oxford University in England started developing a Covid-19 vaccine and told the world they would donate the rights to its vaccine to any drugmaker.

Until Bill Gates stepped in and pointed out to Oxford that it could make millions by licensing the vaccine. So, Oxford did just that. In one fell swoop it erased generations of good will and collapsed its reputation into a steaming pile of something that looks a lot like corporate greed.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine had been hailed last year as a miracle in the global fight against the coronavirus primarily because the research team at Oxford University had promised to share the rights to its product with any and all drugmakers, meaning that poorer countries could produce and inoculate their citizens at cost price ($3-$4 per shot — a fraction of the price of those from Pfizer or Moderna).

However, behind the scenes, the Oxford team reneged on their promise, signing an exclusive deal with pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, who made no commitment to selling the lifesaving vaccine at a low price. Even less well-known is that the decision was taken at the behest of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

This should not be a surprise, but honestly - it is. Bill Gates created one of the most predatory companies in existence, including lawsuits surrounding predatory and anticompetitive practices. That is just how Gates rolls. But I really wish he had stayed out of the vaccine thing. The world needs vaccine badly. What we don’t need are more billionaires.

Facebook’s hard-to-believe epiphany

Facebook doesn’t want to regulate itself. I don’t blame it at all - Facebook is a “first mover” which just means that there is nothing quite like it in the world. Sorry, My Spacers and Friendsterers, but even you have to admit that Facebook has eclipsed anything those sites had in mind.

It’s no longer sustainable for social media companies to self-police content and time for governments to step in, the head of public policy for Facebook Canada said Friday.

“Right now, it’s private companies like Facebook that are deciding what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook and we think that that doesn’t sit well with many people and they want public rules where there is legitimate public and democratic accountability,” he said.

That sounds nice, right? A company having an epiphany and realizing that “hey, people want government to take care of this, not us”. We can all get behind that, right? Well…it’s Facebook, so no. There’s very little good coming out of Facebook, and it certainly has provided years of evidence that its particular corporate pathology renders it unable to make decisions like normal humans.

I’d suggest the real reason that Facebook is having this come-to-Jesus moment is that it’s about to get its ass handed to it in an FTC lawsuit regarding illegal monopolization. That will likely be a long lawsuit which Facebook will fight vigorously, and showing some timidity is a good tactic to generate some good will.

Google decides user reviews don’t mean anything

Many of us have caught wind of the stock market insanity in the past few weeks. Specifically, the fact that normally impotent “day traders” were able to band together in such large numbers that they moved the market for a few stocks. A bunch of Reddit users took issue with some hedge funds shorting GameStop and AMC, and put their purchasing power together to ensure those short bets were lost, thus causing some hedge funds big losses.

Nobody really like stock shorters. The basic idea is that when you short stock, you’re betting it will drop in price, and you get to keep the spread. It is legal. It is common. But it’s also a dick move which always hurts the company being shorted because once word gets out that it is the target, the rest of the market loses confidence in it as well, the stock tends to go down, which all but assures the shorters’ predictions come true, and they make money. It does nothing good for the economy and certainly nothing good to the businesses that collapse once they’re shorted.

A lot of day traders use the Robinhood trading platform. It’s easy to buy and sell stocks, it’s ostensibly free to make trades, but we all know Robinhood is pulling money from commissions or management fees. Robinhood halted purchases of GameStop stock and the masses were not happy about that. So, they did what any normal internet user does, and wrote crappy reviews for the app.

Google then deleted over 100,000 of those negative reviews stating that they violated its terms of service over “coordinated or inorganic reviews.”

Google removed at least 100,000 negative reviews of the stock trading app Robinhood from the Google Play app store after angry users sent a flood of critical reviews that caused the app’s rating to plummet on Thursday. The app’s rating went from roughly four stars out of five on Wednesday to just one star on Thursday. Robinhood users were understandably upset after the company halted purchases of GameStop’s stock and other stocks promoted by Reddit’s WallStreetBets community.

A Google spokesperson confirmed the tech giant has deleted the reviews and defended the move overnight, telling Gizmodo over email that it has rules against “coordinated or inorganic reviews.” Gizmodo asked how negative reviews could be deemed “inorganic” when people seem reasonably upset about Robinhood’s actions in recent days. Google stopped responding to Gizmodo’s emails after that inquiry.

Which, in my entirely unqualified opinion, is a completely untenable stance to take. Users are displeased with an app, and they say so. That is how the review thing works. For Google to remove negative reviews pivots Google into “content moderation” mode which is a place no internet company wants to be. Internet companies enjoy freedom from liability for things its users post on its platform because the companies do not weigh in on the content of those posts. Aside from very bad things such as hate speech that companies can remove without shedding this protection, user generated content is usually left alone.

In this case, I don’t see any way that Google can say those reviews were not legitimate which can make it hard for Google to hide behind their reasoning for removing the negative reviews.

We should also take a moment to reflect on if this is the type of world we want. Should a private company be able to simply wipe away hundreds of thousands of customer reviews? This effectively hides the fact that Robinhood did something its users did not like, cost their users actual real money, and it elevated Robinhood’s app store rating from 1 star to 4 stars which is absolutely not a reflection of real user sentiment for the app. That ain’t right.