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Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - May 22nd, ’21
May 22nd, 2021
Facebook Calls Links To Depression Inconclusive. These Researchers Disagree
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers' biggest fear as a parent isn't gun violence, or drunk driving, or anything related to the pandemic.
It's social media.
And specifically, the new sense of "brokenness" she hears about in children in her district, and nationwide. Teen depression and suicide rates have been rising for over a decade, and she sees social apps as a major reason.
At a hearing this March on Capitol Hill, the Republican congresswoman from Washington confronted Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai with a list of statistics: From 2011 to 2018, rates of teen depression increased by more than 60%, and from 2009 to 2015, emergency room admissions for self-harm among 10- to 14-year-old girls tripled.
"It's a battle for their development. It's a battle for their mental health — and ultimately a battle for their safety," McMorris Rodgers told the tech leaders.
But when she pointed a question specifically to Zuckerberg, about whether he acknowledged a connection between children's declining mental health and social media platforms, he demurred.
"I don't think that the research is conclusive on that," replied Zuckerberg.
It's a position that he and his company, which is working on expanding its offerings to even younger children, have held for years. But mental health researchers whom NPR spoke with disagree.
They describe an increasingly clear correlation between poor mental health outcomes and social media use, and they worry that Facebook (which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp) in particular may be muddying the waters on that connection to protect its public image.
"The correlational evidence showing that there is a link between social media use and depression is pretty definitive at this point," said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. "The largest and most well-conducted studies that we have all show that teens who spend more time on social media are more likely to be depressed or unhappy."
Correlation is not causation, and one area of further study is whether greater social media usage leads to poor mental health outcomes or whether those who are depressed and unhappy are drawn to spend more time on social media. But researchers also worry that not enough government funding is going toward getting objective data to answer these sorts of questions.
Facebook also almost certainly knows more than it has publicly revealed about how its products affect people.
NPR spoke with Twenge and two other academics whose work has focused on the links between depression and social media use and who say Facebook's public affairs team reached out to them for the first time ever in recent months for input on internal information related to the issue.
The company declined to comment about the meeting requests and about its stance on research about its platforms. But the outreach comes at a pivotal time for Facebook and its plans for growth.
Government regulation is closer than ever before, and the issue of children's mental health is one of the few concerns about Big Tech that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on.
After it was revealed that Facebook was working on a version of Instagram for children under 13, a bipartisan group of 44 attorneys general wrote a letter to Zuckerberg this month with a simple message: Stop.
"Use of social media can be detrimental to the health and well-being of children, who are not equipped to navigate the challenges of having a social media account," the letter reads. "Further, Facebook has historically failed to protect the welfare of children on its platforms."
Shortly after McMorris Rodgers spoke at the March congressional hearing, Rep. Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, asked Zuckerberg whether he was familiar with a 2019 study that found the risk of depression in children rises with each hour spent daily on social media. He said he was not.
"You enjoy an outdated liability shield that incentivizes you to look the other way or take half-measures," Castor said, "while you make billions at the expense of our kids, our health and the truth."
Twenge has been studying and writing about technology's effects on people born between 1995 and 2012 for much of the last decade.
She dubbed the generation "iGen" in a 2017 book that features an abundance of charts showing huge drop-offs in happiness among teens in the last decade compared with previous generations and huge increases in loneliness and suicide risk, especially in teens who are on their phones more than an hour or two a day.
And since 2017, those trends have mostly gotten worse.
"For depression and anxiety and self-harm, those increases have continued," Twenge said. "As smartphones became even more pervasive, social media became even more pervasive."
In the four years since her book came out, no one from any of the major social media companies reached out to her.
Until about three months ago.
"I got an email from someone at Facebook who said they were putting together an advisory panel," Twenge said.
The email came from a lower-level employee at the company on behalf of Heather Moore, a public affairs executive at Facebook who helped create the company's Oversight Board. (That panel, which is funded by Facebook through a $130 million independent trust, is made up of 20 prominent experts from around the world.) The board recently announced its biggest decision yet, siding with the company on its decision to suspend former President Donald Trump from the platform.
Two other researchers NPR spoke with say they received a similar meeting request. One did not wish to be named in this story.
The request says Facebook is "currently working on speaking with a range of experts who study algorithms and virality," but it doesn't specify whether the company is planning to assemble a more organized public- or private-facing group of experts focused on the mental health effects of the platform.
Facebook declined to provide more detail about the requests, but a spokesperson did note that a company as large as Facebook reaches out to a variety of subject-matter experts frequently.
The email does, however, allude to the company having relevant internal information regarding the mental health effects of its platforms.
"The team would like to share some insights about what we're working on internally and ask for your input," the email says.
In the March hearing on Capitol Hill, Zuckerberg told McMorris Rodgers that the company has specifically researched the mental health effects that his company's platforms have on children. But when McMorris Rodgers' staff followed up after the hearing, she says the company declined to share any of its research.
"I believe that they have done the research. They're not being transparent," McMorris Rodgers told NPR in an interview. "They seem to be more concerned about their current business model, and they have become very wealthy under their current business model. But the fact of the matter is we're seeing more and more evidence ... that their current business model is harming our kids."
Generally in response to these kinds of questions, Facebook has pointed to research indicating that poor mental health outcomes like depression stem from how people use the platforms and specifically whether they are "active" users who post and message people or "passive" users who mostly consume content.
The implication is that people have control over whether they feel bad from using the platforms, since users have a choice in whether they message their friends on Instagram, for instance, or whether they choose to scroll endlessly.
But Melissa Hunt, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says it's not so simple.
The company's success is dependent on keeping people engaged and selling advertisements based on that engagement, so Facebook, she says, is motivated to create systems that keep people on its platforms no matter the effect to their long-term well-being.
Hunt was another one of the researchers who received an inquiry from Facebook about her work linking social media use and depression.
"Basically all of the things that would contribute to these platforms being healthier for people to use, which is basically spend less time, don't follow strangers, don't spend time passively scrolling through this random feed that's being suggested to you," Hunt says. "That completely undermines their whole business model."
When she got a request for her time from the company, she says she thought about it. Then she also thought about what Facebook is currently valued at: close to a trillion dollars.
"I decided that if they were serious about that, they could pay me a nominal consulting fee," Hunt says. "So I let them know what my consulting fee was. I said I'd be delighted to weigh in and share my expertise with you."
She never heard back.
Similarly, Twenge responded to the request from the company and said she was interested in setting up a time to talk, but after a few back-and-forth messages, she has yet to hear back again.
Twenge feels strongly that while the research on the psychological impact of social media is relatively new, there are takeaways that can already be drawn, even as some insist on labeling it all "inconclusive."
"It's similar to the way that climate deniers can point to a few people in that field and say, 'There's a few people who still doubt this.' It's that false equivalence that happens too often," Twenge said. "In this case, that small but vocal group has been very skilled at getting that message out, perhaps because these companies are very receptive to it."
Questions without answers
In recent years, some have taken to comparing social media to something that previous generations used to fill idle moments to the detriment of their health: smoking cigarettes.
After smoking became nearly universal, cigarette companies famously muddied the waters on research about how their products were harming people.
"Policy making is facilitated by consensus. However, scientific research is characterized by uncertainty," wrote researcher Lisa Bero in a paper about how cigarette companies manipulated research. "It is often to the benefit of interest groups to generate controversy about data because the controversy is likely to slow or prevent regulation of a given product."
But Brian Primack, who leads the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, says comparing the current research situation around social media and cigarettes is too simplistic.
Primack used to study tobacco. ("If it kills a lot of people, I want to study it," he says about how he has chosen what to focus on throughout his career.)
Now, he spends his time investigating the effects of social media. And he sees a clear connection between depression and the online platforms.
A study he published last year found that young adults who increased their social media usage over a period of time were also found to be significantly more likely to become depressed over that same time period.
"There is an association between the two," Primack says. "Just meaning that if you put people into equal buckets in terms of how much social media they use, the people who use the most social media are also the people who are the most depressed."
But unlike cigarettes, which he says have no useful purpose, some people have shown positive health outcomes from using social media.
Brain development research in recent years, for instance, found benefits in 9- and 10-year-olds from using social media.
"Social media is very heterogeneous. In some kids it can be very beneficial, and in other kids it can be very detrimental," said the author of that study, Dr. Martin Paulus of the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. "But we still don't understand which group of kids benefit from it and which group of kids may be harmed by it."
Paulus is not confident the social media companies truly want to get to the bottom of that question either.
Several years ago, Paulus gave a presentation at Facebook with a few other researchers who were looking at the effects of social media. He came away from the meeting feeling like the company wasn't serious about actually having objective research.
"It was more like a face-saving activity," Paulus said. "Those companies, whether it's Facebook or other companies as well, they say they want research... But they're not necessarily interested in research that potentially would show that some of the things that they do are bad for kids."
It's a thorny issue to wade into. The company says that it employs hundreds of researchers and that it also supports efforts like Boston Children's Hospital's newly formed Digital Wellness Lab and the Aspen Institute's roundtables on loneliness and technology.
But it has also been criticized for using its platforms for research purposes. In 2012, the company allowed researchers to change what people saw on the platform in order to see how that would affect the nature of what they then chose to post.
The study did show evidence that people's moods are affected by what they see other people posting, but some saw the exercise as emotional manipulation, and one of the authors seemed to express regret about conducting it after the backlash.
For a company with one of the largest data troves on the human population, this question of how best to conduct research expands to other sectors too. Disinformation researchers, for instance, have long been frustrated by what the company chooses and chooses not to share.
"They could answer questions that we desperately need answered any time they want, and they just won't do it," said Ben Scott, executive director at Reset, an initiative aimed at tackling digital threats to democracy. "They've chosen, for public relations reasons, not to participate in helping the public interest... And that's outrageous."
"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains"
The potential dangers of kids spending hours hypnotized by their screens has been apparent essentially since the social media platforms were created.
Founding Facebook President Sean Parker once described, in an interview with Axios, the company's algorithms as "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology."
"God only knows what it's doing to our children's brains," Parker said. "The inventors, creators — it's me, it's Mark [Zuckerberg], it's Kevin Systrom on Instagram, it's all of these people — understood this consciously. And we did it anyway."
The problem is compounded by how little government funding is going toward studying the effects of these platforms, relative to how much of each day many Americans spend engaged with the technology.
Funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is mostly focused on curing diseases, but because there is no specific disease officially associated with screen time, experts say it's difficult to get studies funded by the federal government.
In 2019, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill that would have provided a mechanism for more NIH research on the subject. The legislation had bipartisan co-sponsors and the support of Facebook, but it never made it to a vote.
Without more of that sort of research, parents are essentially left in the dark guessing exactly how much is too much for their kids when it comes to their devices.
"The truth of it, quite frankly, is we are probably living through one of the biggest natural experiments that we've gone through with our kids," said Paulus.
Rotten Tomatoes Is Launching a Linear Streaming Channel
Streaming service debuts on The Roku Channel, Xumo and Peacock
Rotten Tomatoes is continuing on its quest to grow into something substantially bigger than its Tomatometer movie and TV rating scores.
On Tuesday, the website — owned by NBCUniversal’s Fandango — expands its entertainment footprint with the launch of The Rotten Tomatoes Channel, a new over-the-top streaming service that will initially debut on on The Roku Channel. The OTT service will then come to NBCU’s Peacock platform and Comcast-owned Xumo, with other distribution deals in the works including with internet pay-TV providers, according to Fandango.
The first 24-hour linear video channel from Rotten Tomatoes will loop about 100 hours of premium programming around the clock on the channel, culled from RT’s stable or original shows.
With the launch of The Rotten Tomatoes Channel, Fandango wants to expand its audience reach and provide new entry-points into the entire Fandango ecosystem (i.e., to push movie tickets and digital sales or rentals).
Some of the shows on The Rotten Tomatoes Channel will include “Countdown,” a show discussing the best upcoming movies and shows according to the Tomatometer and panelists; “The Vault,” a nostalgic look back at star interviews, red carpet chats, games and more from the Rotten Tomatoes archives; “Trailers Reloaded,” recapping the biggest movies and shows with an extensive collection of trailers; and “Rotten Tomatoes Essentials,” a look back at movies, shows, stars and directors that defined genres and eras.
Others in the mix are set to include “Versus,” which uses Tomatometer scores, box office data and other metrics to settle the biggest movie and TV debates of all time; “Oral History,” covering films, shows and franchises from the people who made them; and “Aftershow” (pictured above), in which movie lovers, critics, and industry experts debate some of the biggest movies of recent times.
Fandango acquired the reviews-aggregation site in 2016 from Warner Bros., which retains a 25% stake in Rotten Tomatoes.
In recent years, Rotten Tomatoes — under fire for a lack of diversity in the critics it uses to compile scores — has continued to revised its system in an effort to create a more inclusive pool of critics.
Android TV OS Reaches 80M Monthly Active Devices, Adds New Features
Google offered an update on its TV platform, Android OS, at its Google I/O developer event on Tuesday. The company said its Android TV OS now reaches over 80 million monthly active devices, including through its new experience Google TV for Chromecast, as well as other platforms like smart TVs. The company also previewed a series of upcoming features for Android TV OS, including a remote control feature for consumers and several developer updates around casting, emulators, and more.
The company repositioned Android TV OS last fall with the introduction of the Google TV experience. The new experience, which runs Android TV under the hood, now powers Chromecast with Google TV, smart TVs from Sony, and is coming soon to some TCL TVs. Android TV OS saw 80% year-over-year growth in the U.S., Google noted, when announcing its 80 million monthly active devices milestone during the Google I/O event.
Google’s milestone may seem to put Android TV OS is ahead of rivals like Roku and Amazon Fire TV, with 53.6 million and 50+ million monthly active accounts, respectively. However, these are different measurements.
Android TV OS figures are actually calculated by counting the number of devices that were actively used in a month — which means a user with multiple devices could have those devices counted separately, but a family with multiple people watching on one device would be counted once.
Roku and Amazon define monthly active users as “accounts” that have been active during the month. That means, even if that account streams on several different devices during the time period, it would only be counted once. If Roku or Amazon were to calculate active devices as Google is doing, their numbers would be higher.
In addition, Roku and Amazon Fire TV power both their respective company’s own device lineup and select TVs from partners, but Google’s Android TV OS also powers devices and services from TV and streaming device brand partners as well as TV service providers. That means this global number includes operator-tier and set-top boxes also powered by Android TV OS. It’s a different type of market.
Google today also announced it’s adding remote control features directly in Android, so users will be able to control their TV even when their existing remote goes missing. This feature, arriving later this year, will make it easier to type in usernames and passwords or search for longer titles, Google notes. It will work for all users of Android TV OS, including Google TV.
Meanwhile, for those building Android TV experiences, the company announced a handful of new features coming soon. A Cast Connect feature will allow users to cast from their Chrome browser on their phone or tablet to an Android TV app. Stream Transfer and Stream Expansion will allow users to transfer media to other devices or play audio on multiple devices.
Google is also making its first Google TV Emulator available, running on Android 11, along with an Android 11 image with the traditional Android TV experience. And developers can now also use a remote that more closely mimics TV remotes directly within the Emulator.
Following developer requests, Firebase Test Lab is adding Android TV support, as well. Initially, Firebase Test Lab Virtual Devices will run the developer’s app in the cloud on Android TV emulators to scale a test across hundreds or thousands of virtual devices. Support for physical devices will come soon.
Finally, the Android 12 Beta 1 is being made available for TV on its ADT-3 Developer Kit, starting today.
AT&T, in Abrupt Turn, Will Shed Media Business in Deal With Discovery
The telecommunications giant will spin off WarnerMedia in a transaction that will combine HBO and CNN with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN and HGTV.
Edmund Lee and John Koblin
AT&T, the wireless carrier that thundered its way into the media business three years ago with grand visions of streaming video on millions of its customers’ cellphones, has agreed to spin off its WarnerMedia group and merge it with its rival programmer Discovery Inc., the companies announced Monday.
The transaction will combine HBO, Warner Bros. studios, CNN and several other cable networks with a host of reality-based cable channels from Discovery, including Oprah Winfrey’s OWN, HGTV, The Food Network and Animal Planet.
The company will join together two of the largest media businesses in the country. AT&T’s WarnerMedia group includes the sports-heavy cable networks TNT and TBS. In addition to Discovery’s strong lineup of reality-based cable channels, the company has a large international sports business.
The merger would also be a significant about-face for AT&T, a telecommunications giant better known for servicing fiber lines and cell towers than producing entertainment and courting Hollywood. Industry experts questioned AT&T’s daring $85 billion purchase of Time Warner at a time when cord-cutting was only accelerating. The spinoff indicates a failed acquisition strategy.
WarnerMedia is run by Jason Kilar, 50, one of the early pioneers of streaming and the first chief executive of Hulu. Discovery has been led for 14 years by David Zaslav, 60, who helped it grow into a reality behemoth. Mr. Zaslav will lead the new business.
The companies said they expected the deal, which must be approved by Discovery shareholders and regulators, to be finalized in the middle of next year. The companies anticipate they will cut annual costs by $3 billion as a result of the transaction.
The new company will be bigger than Netflix or NBCUniversal. Together, WarnerMedia and Discovery generated more than $41 billion in sales last year, with an operating profit topping $10 billion. Such a sum would have put the new company ahead of Netflix and NBCUniversal and behind the Walt Disney Company as the second-largest media company in the United States.
To compete with Netflix and Disney, both AT&T and Discovery have invested heavily in streaming. AT&T has spent billions on building HBO Max, which now has about 20 million customers. Discovery has 15 million global streaming subscribers, most of them for its Discovery+ app.
The merger is a significant about-face for AT&T, a telecommunications giant that got into the media business with its Time Warner foray. Industry experts questioned AT&T’s deal, and now the spinoff indicates a failed acquisition strategy.
John Stankey, the chief executive of AT&T, has looked at its media business as a way to keep its phone customers from switching to other companies. AT&T Wireless subscribers get discounts and free access to HBO Max. A deal with Discovery could include stipulations that customers would maintain those benefits.
Before he took over as chief executive last year, Mr. Stankey was the company’s chief mergers strategist. But his track record has been spotty. In addition to planning AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner, he was behind the company’s $48 billion acquisition of the satellite operator DirecTV in 2015. The service has been bleeding customers for years; in February, AT&T sold part of the business to the private equity firm TPG for about $16 billion, a third of what it originally paid.
For Discovery, the WarnerMedia deal could finally give Mr. Zaslav the size and scale he has long sought. A swashbuckling executive who can recall ratings figures off the top of his head, Mr. Zaslav represents the last of the old guard in media, a hobnobbing mogul known for hosting lavish get-togethers at his house in the Hamptons.
The new company would create a new kind of media behemoth, one that is still living off the fat profits of old-school cable, while spending those profits (and more) on streaming.
Even with increased competition, HBO remains a standout in television, and last year, once again, captured more Emmys than any other network, studio or platform, including Netflix. It has several hit shows, including “Succession,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Barry” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” It also has a huge library that includes “The Sopranos,” “Game of Thrones” and “Sex and the City.”
The Warner Bros. TV studio likewise has produced successful shows for both its parent company, WarnerMedia, and outside studios with series like “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+), “Riverdale” (CW), “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max) and “The Bachelor” (ABC). The Warner Bros. movie studio recently released movies like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Mortal Kombat” and has big coming releases like “Dune” and “The Matrix 4.”
Brooks Barnes and Lauren Hirsch contributed reporting.
After Media Detour, AT&T Confronts Old Problems
Following its spinoff of WarnerMedia, AT&T is back to primarily being a wireless company, with all of the challenges that entails.
Edmund Lee and Lauren Hirsch
At a meeting of AT&T’s top leaders at the company’s headquarters in Dallas, Randall L. Stephenson, the chief executive, sounded a victory note. The wireless provider was on the verge of a transformative deal that would turn the phone company into a tech and media giant.
It was about to take ownership of Time Warner, the entertainment colossus behind HBO, CNN and the Warner Bros. studios. Mr. Stephenson praised his new prize, but also took a moment to take a small jab at the company he was about to acquire, according to two people with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting.
“These guys back in New York,” he said, referring to boldface executives like HBO’s Richard Plepler and CNN’s Jeff Zucker, “they think they’re ball players. They’re not ball players. They’re executives.” The company says Mr. Stephenson never made such remarks.
Five years later, most of AT&T’s top media executives have left or were ousted (though Mr. Zucker remains) and over 2,000 workers have been laid off. And AT&T has decided it can no longer sustain its media ambitions. On Monday it announced it would spin off the business into a new entity that would merge with a rival programmer, Discovery Inc.
Now it is back to primarily being a wireless phone company, with all of the issues that entails. AT&T still faces a crushing debt load of nearly $170 billion, and an expensive build-out of its 5G network, as well as rival carriers who seem to have a jump on the next generation of fast mobile internet service. AT&T will be able to lower that debt after the Discovery deal and it has a healthy wireless business.
In the long history of corporate outsiders thinking they can outsmart Hollywood, this seemed to be another ignominious example.
AT&T said its ownership made the media business, renamed WarnerMedia, much more valuable. It cut costs while investing billions to introduce HBO Max, a new streaming service that together with regular HBO has over 44 million subscribers. Mr. Stephenson, who retired last year, could not be reached for comment.
Analysts and investors still questioned how AT&T reached this point.
“They did two things wrong,” Craig Moffett, co-founder of the Wall Street research firm MoffettNathanson, said in an interview. “One, the strategy didn’t make any sense, and two, they overpaid.” He added: “You can get by with a mistake on one of those dimensions, but not on both.”
Going back to its core wireless business comes with challenges. The company faces stiff competition from T-Mobile and Verizon. The market for mobile customers is saturated, meaning everyone who wants wireless service already has it. The big three are essentially stealing customers from one another. AT&T will have to prove it can build its network faster and offer it at a better price to keep customers from defecting.
Many observers chalk up AT&T’s latest troubles to two key events: its $67 billion acquisition of the satellite operator DirecTV in 2015 and the Time Warner deal.
“It was a confounding argument from the open, where they were buying into the legacy media business in order to blow up the legacy media business,” Mr. Moffett said. “They made that same argument with DirecTV where they said they were buying it to have the content distribution muscle to blow up the content distribution ecosystem. Why do you buy it to blow it up?”
John Stankey, the head of AT&T and the strategist behind the Warner deal, disputed any characterization that it cost the company money. On Monday, he said it was likely the company would realize over $100 billion in returns, possibly more.
The company’s math goes like this: Altogether AT&T paid $107 billion for Time Warner, which includes debt. But it has taken billions out of WarnerMedia since then.
It sold off several WarnerMedia assets, including real estate, its stake in Hulu and some European businesses, for a total of $5 billion. As part of WarnerMedia’s spinoff, AT&T will be able to shed some $43 billion of debt. That brings it up to $48 billion in returns.
The phone giant’s shareholders will still own a big piece of the new business that will be merged with Discovery. AT&T presumes the new company will be valued based on Discovery’s stock price. Discovery will own 29 percent of the new business and AT&T will own the rest. Based on Discovery’s market value at the close on Friday, Discovery’s stake in the new entity would be worth $24 billion, and AT&T’s would be worth $59 billion.
Taken together, that tallies up to exactly $107 billion. It does not include at least $15 billion in cash flow that AT&T has taken out of WarnerMedia in the last three years. Nor does it include the money it spent on advice for its deal-making binges. AT&T has paid a total of $1.85 billion in advisory fees on deals worth more than $500 million each since 1995, according to Dealogic.
Big caveat: The majority of the return is based on the market value of Discovery, which has lost 6.5 percent of its stock value since Friday. It’s possible Discovery could be worth even less by the time the deal is expected to close by the middle of next year.
In other words, the deal could still be a bust for AT&T.
Mr. Moffett said AT&T appeared to buy things at a premium and sell at a discount. DirecTV, for example, has been bleeding customers for years; in February, AT&T sold part of the business to the private equity firm TPG at a valuation of about $16 billion, a third of what it originally paid.
In many ways, the problem stems from AT&T’s history. The chief architect of the modern-day AT&T is Edward E. Whitacre Jr., a Texas native who started his career as a facilities engineer with Southwestern Bell in 1963 before rising up the corporate chain to create what would eventually become one of the largest telecommunications providers in the country.
Mr. Whitacre’s philosophy, simply, was bigger is better.
He transformed Southwestern Bell, the smallest of the regional Bell telephone operators, into a phone behemoth by gobbling up company after company.
Mr. Stephenson, his successor, then transformed AT&T into a mobile giant. He secured a key deal with Apple in 2007 to become the exclusive provider of iPhone service and the company kept growing.
Mr. Stephenson cast about for ways to increase AT&T’s size and in 2011 he made a $39 billion bid to buy its rival T-Mobile. But after regulatory pushback, he walked away from the deal.
“It would have been an amazing merger,” said David Barden, a senior research analyst at Bank of America. “It would have kind of perpetuated the AT&T juggernaut of growth through acquisition — not through organic — but it failed.”
Mr. Stephenson then looked to the attractive profit margins found in media and entertainment. In 2014, he announced a deal for DirecTV, a transaction that he promised would “redefine the industry.”
But AT&T bought into the pay-TV industry at its peak. Not long after it acquired the satellite service, consumers left in droves.
“One thing they didn’t — they could not have anticipated, was that 2014 was the last year linear video would grow,” Mr. Barden, referring to the cable TV business. “Because who was out there in the wings? This little company called Netflix.” Customers began to cut their cords and cable subscriptions began their descent.
Then came Time Warner. Numerous analysts pointed out that owning a company that makes money by distributing shows and films as widely as possible wouldn’t give AT&T any advantage. In other words, it would still have to license HBO and CNN to rivals like Verizon’s television service, or to cable giants like Comcast. AT&T would have a hard time justifying keeping the content for itself.
The Justice Department sued AT&T to block the deal, but it lost its case in court.
Makan Delrahim, the former Justice Department antitrust chief who oversaw the suit, said in an interview that AT&T’s rampant deal making was a “classic case” of corporate misbehaving. The company “did a series of mergers and acquisitions and really were not rational for their business execution,” he said, “T-Mobile, DirecTV and Time Warner. And this is the result.”
Mr. Whitacre, the founding chief executive of the modern AT&T, offered another view.
“The deals we made while I was chairman — which was a long time — was acquiring the businesses that we were familiar with, the businesses we were in,” he said in an interview. “And when I left, that changed.”
Mr. Whitacre, who is still an AT&T shareholder, said he liked the Discovery deal, getting the company back to “where we came from, if you would.”
Amazon Said to Make $9 Billion Offer for MGM
Todd Spangler, Joe Otterson, Cynthia Littleton
Amazon is weeks into negotiations on a deal to acquire MGM for about $9 billion, industry sources tell Variety.
Chatter that Amazon (and other tech giants) have been sniffing around MGM has circulated for some time. But sources indicated that Amazon’s interest in acquiring the studio has taken on a new tenor beyond the usual rumor mill. The deal is said to be being orchestrated by Mike Hopkins, senior VP of Amazon Studios and Prime Video, directly with MGM board chairman Kevin Ulrich, whose Anchorage Capital is a major MGM shareholder.
Reps for Amazon and MGM declined to comment.
MGM had already effectively nailed up a “for sale” sign: Variety confirmed in December that the company was looking for a buyer.
News of Amazon’s talks with MGM began to swirl this weekend. The Information reported Monday that Amazon was in talks about a potential deal for MGM, which could run between $7 billion and $10 billion. Industry sources said MGM reps have been whispering to prospective buyers for month about a price tag of $9 billion while others see it as worth about $5 billion.
In a sign Amazon has upped its focus on entertainment, last week the company announced that it had tapped Jeff Blackburn, a former high-ranking executive who recently exited the ecommerce giant, to return to Amazon in a new role overseeing a consolidated global media and entertainment group.
Amazon currently has more than 200 million Prime members worldwide, and Jeff Bezos recently told investors that 175 million of those streamed Prime Video content in the past year. The company clearly wants to turn Prime Video into an even bigger habit for its customers worldwide — and a quick way to do that would be to stir MGM’s extensive library of titles into the mix.
MGM claims to own one of the world’s “deepest libraries” of premium film and TV content.
Its 4,000 film titles include the James Bond, Hobbit, Rocky/Creed, RoboCop and Pink Panther franchises, as well as movies like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Magnificent Seven” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” The MGM TV library includes approximately 17,000 episodes of programming, including “Stargate SG-1,” “Stargate Atlantis,” “Stargate Universe,” “Vikings,” “Fargo,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Get Shorty,” “Condor,” “Fame,” “American Gladiators,” “Teen Wolf” and “In the Heat of the Night.” Unscripted shows in its portfolio include “The Voice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank,” “”The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “The Hills.”
For Amazon, media is a relatively small piece of its gargantuan empire but represents a fast-growing business segment. In 2020, the company spent $11 billion on TV shows, movies and music for Prime services — up 40% from the year prior.
For the first three months of 2021, MGM Holdings reported revenue of $403.3 million (up 27% year over year) and net income of $29.3 million (versus a net loss of $12.1 million the year prior).
Amazon's Sidewalk Network Is Turned On by Default. Here's How to Turn It Off
The company's Sidewalk mesh network goes live June 8. The good news is that you can turn it off.
Last week, Amazon said it would turn on Sidewalk, its mesh network that uses Bluetooth and 900MHz radio signals to communicate between devices, on June 8. I imagine that most people, even those who bought an Echo smart speaker in the past few years, have no idea what Sidewalk is.
I suspect most of those people would be even more surprised to know that it's turned on by default on every one of their devices. I'll get to that part in just a minute.
First, let's talk about Sidewalk. The idea behind is actually really smart--make it possible for smart home devices to serve as a sort of bridge between your WiFi connection and one another. That way, if your Ring doorbell, for example, isn't located close to your WiFi router, but it happens to near an Echo Dot, it can use Sidewalk to stay connected.
The same is true if your internet connection is down. Your smart devices can connect to other smart devices, even if they aren't in your home. The big news on this front is that Tile is joining the Sidewalk network on June 14. That means that if you lose a Tile tracker, it can connect to any of the millions of Echo or Ring devices in your neighborhood and send its location back to you.
That's definitely a nice benefit, but it's also where things get a little murky from a privacy standpoint. That's because other people's devices, like your neighbor's, can also connect to your network.
Amazon is pretty clear that Sidewalk uses three layers of encryption so that no data is shared between say, someone's Tile tracker and your network. The signal from the Tile is encrypted all the way back to the Tile app on your iPhone or Android smartphone.
Still, a feature like this seems like the type of thing you'd want some control over. If suddenly my devices are going to start connecting to my neighbor's WiFi, or theirs to mine, it seems like you'd have to opt-in, right?
That's because Amazon has enabled Sidewalk on every capable device by default. Whether or not you want your device connecting to other devices, or want your neighbors connecting to your WiFi, Amazon went ahead and made Sidewalk opt-out.
To be fair, there's a good reason it did. A mesh network of devices requires, well, a mesh. That means Amazon needs as many devices as possible to have the feature turned on. If it required you to enable it on your own, Amazon knows that almost no one would.
That has nothing to do with whether people have privacy concerns, it's just that almost no one changes the default setting for anything. Make "on" the default option and suddenly Amazon has millions of devices that can connect to Sidewalk, creating a true mesh network.
Still, opt-out is a really bad way to operate, especially when it comes to things that connect all of the devices in your neighborhood to a mesh network. What if you're just not comfortable with that? The good news is you can turn it off.
Amazon doesn't make it easy, but if you have the Alexa app, you can tap on the More tab at the bottom, then select Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. You'll see that it's set to "Enabled." Just tap the toggle and you can disable Sidewalk for all of the devices on your account.
Rural Areas Are Looking for Workers. They Need Broadband to Get Them.
Rural communities have long complained about their lack of internet access. The pandemic and President Biden’s infrastructure plan are giving them hope for a solution.
As a manufacturer of asphalt paving equipment, Weiler is exactly the type of company poised to benefit if the federal government increases spending on roads and bridges. But when Patrick Weiler talks about infrastructure, the issue he brings up first has next to nothing to do with his company’s core business.
It’s broadband internet service.
Weiler is based in Marion County, Iowa, a rural area southeast of Des Moines. Internet speeds are fine at the company’s 400,000-square-foot factory, because Weiler paid to have a fiber-optic cable run from the nearby highway. But that doesn’t help the surrounding community, where broadband access can be spotty at best. That is a problem for recruitment — already one of the biggest challenges for Weiler and many other rural employers.
“How do you get young people to want to move back into these rural areas when they feel like they’re moving back into a time frame of 20 years ago?” asked Mr. Weiler, the company’s founder and chief executive.
Rural areas have complained for years that slow, unreliable or simply unavailable internet access is restricting their economic growth. But the pandemic has given new urgency to those concerns, at the same time that President Biden’s infrastructure plan — which includes $100 billion to improve broadband access — has raised hope that the problem might finally be addressed.
“It creates jobs connecting every American with high-speed internet, including 35 percent of the rural America that still doesn’t have it,” Mr. Biden said of his plan in an address to Congress last month. “This is going to help our kids and our businesses succeed in the 21st-century economy.”
Mr. Biden has received both criticism and praise for pushing to expand the scope of infrastructure to include investments in child care, health care and other priorities beyond the concrete-and-steel projects that the word normally calls to mind. But ensuring internet access is broadly popular. In a recent survey conducted for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, 78 percent of adults said they supported broadband investment, including 62 percent of Republicans.
Businesses, too, have consistently supported broadband investment. Major industry groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers have all released policy recommendations in the last year calling for federal spending to help close the “digital divide.”
Quantifying that divide, and its economic cost, is difficult, in part because there is no agreed-upon definition of broadband. The Federal Communications Commission in 2015 updated its standards to a minimum download speed of 25 megabits per second. The Department of Agriculture sets its standard lower, at 10 m.p.s. A bipartisan group of rural-state senators asked both agencies this year to raise their standards to 100 m.p.s. And speed-based definitions don’t take into account other issues, like reliability and latency, a measure of how long a signal takes to travel between a computer and a remote server.
Regardless of definition, analyses consistently find that millions of Americans lack access to reliable high-speed internet access and that rural areas are particularly poorly served. A recent study by Broadband Now, an independent research group whose data is widely cited, found that 42 million Americans live in places where they cannot buy broadband internet service, most of them in rural areas.
According to the F.C.C.’s definition, most of Marion County has high-speed access to the internet. But residents report that service is slow and unreliable. And with only one provider serving much of the county, customers have little leverage to demand better service.
Marion County, with 33,000 people, has economic challenges common to rural areas: an aging work force, anemic population growth and a limited set of employers concentrated in a few industries. But it also has assets, including its proximity to Des Moines and a group of employers willing to train workers.
Local leaders have plans to attract new businesses and a younger generation of workers — but those plans won’t work without better internet service, said Mark Raymie, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors.
“Our ability to diversify our economic base is dependent on modern infrastructure, and that includes broadband,” he said. “We can say, ‘Come and work here.’ But if we don’t have modern amenities, modern infrastructure, that sales pitch falls flat.”
Mr. Weiler’s daughter Megan Green grew up in Marion County, then left to go to college and start her career. When she moved home in 2017 to work for her father’s company, it was like returning to an earlier technological era.
“Our cellular service is more spotty, our wireless is more temperamental, and we definitely only have one choice,” Ms. Green, 35, said. “It’s a bit of a generational thing. We rely on internet access.”
Ms. Green moved home for family reasons. But finding others willing to do the same has been difficult. Broadband isn’t the only factor — shortages of housing and child care also rank high — but it is a major one. Recruiting is Weiler’s “No. 1 challenge,” Ms. Green said, despite wages that start around $20 an hour, before overtime.
The experience of the past year has accentuated the problem. When the pandemic hit last year, Weiler sent home any workers who didn’t have to be on the factory floor. But they quickly encountered a problem.
“I was shocked to know how many of our employees could not work from home because they did not have reliable internet access,” Ms. Green said. “We’re talking ‘seven minutes to download an email’ type internet access.”
Other local companies had a similar experience. In June, the Greater Des Moines Partnership, a regional business group, commissioned a study on how to improve the area’s digital infrastructure. With the state and federal governments considering significant investments, the group hopes its study will give it priority for funding, said Brian Crowe, the group’s head of economic development.
For Marion County and other rural areas, the widespread experiment with working from home during the pandemic could present an economic opportunity if the infrastructure is there to allow it. Many companies have said they will allow employees to continue to work remotely all or part of the time, which could free workers to ditch city life and move to the country — or take jobs at companies like Weiler while their spouses work from home.
“All of a sudden, it’s not going to be the case that in order to work for leading companies, you have to move to the cities where those companies are located,” said Adam Ozimek, chief economist for Upwork, a platform for freelancers. “It’s going to spread opportunity around.”
But broadband experts say there is no way that rural areas will get access to high-speed, reliable internet service without government help. If a place doesn’t have internet access in 2021, there is a reason: generally too few potential customers, too dispersed to serve efficiently.
“The private sector’s just not set up to solve this,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied the issue. He likened the challenge to rural electrification almost a century ago, when the federal government had to step in to ensure that even remote areas had access to electrical power.
“This is exactly what we saw play out in terms of economic history in the 1910s, ’20s, ’30s,” he said. “It really is about towns being left behind.”
Verizon Forces Users Onto Pricier Plans to Get $50-Per-Month Gov’t Subsidy
You might have to change Internet plans to get the FCC's $50 low-income subsidy.
Verizon and other Internet service providers are preventing some low-income customers from getting new $50-per-month government subsidies unless they switch to different plans that are sometimes more expensive.
Over 825 ISPs nationwide are selling plans eligible for the new subsidies that the US government made available to people who have low incomes or who lost income during the pandemic. Verizon stands out among big ISPs in its use of the subsidy to "upsell" customers to pricier plans, according to a story yesterday by Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler.
"Soon after the EBB [Emergency broadband Benefit program] launched, I started hearing from Washington Post readers about their frustrations signing up with certain ISPs," he wrote. "Verizon elicited the most ire from readers."
Instead of letting people enroll online, Verizon requires them to call a phone number to sign up and then "tells some customers the EBB can't be used on 'old' data plans, so they'll have to switch," the Post article said. Verizon is limiting the plans available on both mobile and home Internet service.
The EBB is temporary, lasting until the $3.2 billion in program funding runs out or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the pandemic. Verizon customers who have to switch to a more expensive plan in order to get the $50 monthly discount would have to pay the higher rate after the subsidy expires.
"At the end of the program, you will either continue on your plan at the price without the EBB discount or you will end your Internet-related services with Verizon," a company FAQ says. "We will give you an opportunity to decide this at the beginning of your enrollment into the EBB program and again before the end of the program. If you do not affirmatively choose to keep your Internet-related services, the FCC requires that we disconnect those services at the end of the EBB program."
“It seems like EBB only benefits Verizon”
A few Verizon customers who contacted Fowler said that if they switched to a subsidy-eligible plan, they would end up paying more than they do now once the EBB expires. A man named Eric from Hopedale, Massachusetts, was told by Verizon he'd have to switch from a $62 home-Internet plan to a $79 plan, Fowler wrote.
The article continued:
Annie Styles from Arlington, Va., who pays $79 per month for her Internet, says Verizon told her she would have to switch to a plan that would cost her closer to $95. "I stopped pursuing it with them after the math didn't work out," she says.
Sharon from Harrisburg, Pa., who asked to be identified only by her first name, said she was told by two customer service representatives that she could receive the EBB discount only if she increased her current Internet speed and reconfigured her TV package, too. She said the ultimate price would have depended on what video package she was forced to switch to, as well as new equipment with fees—but she dropped her EBB application out of frustration before she got that far.
When the EBB ends, she estimates, her overall monthly Internet and TV bill would be at least $50 higher. "In my case, it seems like EBB only benefits Verizon," she said.
For home Internet, Verizon doesn't make the subsidy available at all on legacy DSL plans, which it offers in areas where it hasn't upgraded copper lines to fiber. Verizon apparently still has a few hundred thousand DSL customers, as it reports 6.3 million fiber Internet customers among 6.7 million consumer broadband connections overall. On Verizon fiber service, customers must buy a "FiOS Mix + Match Internet plan" to get the subsidy. The subsidy is also available on Verizon's 5G and LTE home Internet services.
Verizon fiber-to-the-home Internet customers who have had the same plan for a couple of years and haven't changed to the Mix & Match pricing system that FiOS adopted in January 2020 would have to give up their old plans. This can be complicated and result in very different prices in cases where a subscriber bundles broadband with TV and/or phone service.
Verizon's EBB page says that mobile customers can get the subsidy on "a Mix & Match Unlimited phone plan or a Mobile Hotspot as the main or only line on an account." Phone users who don't have a Mix & Match plan would have to switch to one to get the $50 discount.
The Mix & Match Unlimited phone plans are for postpaid mobile customers, so it appears that prepaid phone customers cannot get the subsidy through Verizon. When contacted by Ars today, Verizon declined to say whether prepaid phone customers can get the subsidy and did not answer any of our questions directly. Instead, the company pointed us to press releases that lacked specifics. Verizon also would not tell us whether the EBB subsidy is available to mobile hotspot customers with prepaid instead of postpaid plans.
AT&T, Charter, and T-Mobile are also limiting the plans eligible for the subsidies. "One refreshing standout was Comcast, the nation's largest ISP," Fowler wrote in the Post. "'If a customer is on an old plan that's not offered anymore, they are still eligible as long as they meet the qualification criteria for EBB,' [Comcast] spokesman Joel Shadle said."
FCC lets ISPs offer just one subsidized plan
"This is tremendously disappointing," Dana Floberg, policy manager for consumer advocacy group Free Press, wrote on Twitter. "ISPs could just accept the $50 EBB for all their plans and tiers. The money's just as good. Forcing people to switch plans in order to use the benefit they legally qualify for is, at best, manipulative."
ISPs aren't required to participate in the EBB program, and those that do are not required to make more than one plan available to customers seeking subsidies.
"We adopt our proposal to require providers to offer the EBB Program discount on at least one service offering across all of its approved service areas in each of the states in which it is approved to participate," the FCC said in its order implementing the program.
Congress required the FCC to implement the subsidy program, and certain aspects like the size of the subsidies and who qualifies were decided by Congress as well. The law that created the program also prevents each ISP from charging subsidized customers more than the standard retail rate that the ISP charged as of December 1, 2020.
The FCC has some flexibility in determining other program rules, and it concluded that requiring only one service plan would boost the number of ISPs that participate. The FCC order said:
Some parties have asked that we require participating providers to make the emergency broadband benefit available on all of their service offerings. On balance, we believe that dictating the required offerings in a temporary program will discourage participation and result in less consumer choice than would otherwise be available if we provided participating providers with more flexibility. However, we note that participating providers may apply the emergency broadband benefit to any of their eligible offerings, including promotional offerings that were available as of December 1, 2020.
While one service plan is enough to meet the program requirements, the FCC said it "encourage[s] participating providers to make EBB Program support available for all its service offerings for eligible households."
Verizon: “We’re on the side of the customer”
Verizon defended its implementation of the subsidy program yesterday, saying it has enrolled nearly 1,000 customers in less than a week.
As part of Verizon's offering, some eligible customers who were on older plans will need to transition to an EBB-eligible Mix & Match plan to take advantage of the EBB benefit. With these plans, the vast majority of customers save money on their monthly bill. For example, eligible customers could choose a Mix & Match plan offering 200Mbps download and upload Internet speeds for just $54.99, including a router and no additional fees. With the $50 EBB discount, that customer would pay just $5.
Under the Mix & Match plan offerings, customers are seeing an average $25 per month savings when switching from an older plan. With the $50 monthly EBB savings, most customers can realize savings of about $75 each month depending on the services they choose to include.
But that's just an average, and yesterday's Washington Post story makes clear that some customers would have to switch to more expensive plans to get the subsidy.
A Verizon spokesperson told the Post, "There's really no story here. We're on the side of the customer and want to ensure they pay for what they need, and not for what they don't." Despite that claim, low-income customers on older Verizon plans must choose between getting the $50-per-month subsidies or keeping their current plan, even if that plan is cheaper and provides "what they need."
AT&T, Charter, and T-Mobile policies
AT&T's EBB page says the subsidy is available on home-Internet service and prepaid phone service. AT&T apparently doesn't offer the subsidy on postpaid plans.
For home Internet, the AT&T website says the subsidy is available for 100Mbps and 300Mbps plans and on plans with speeds less than or equal to 75Mbps. We asked AT&T if that includes legacy DSL and fiber-to-the-node plans and will update this article if we get an answer. AT&T sells fiber-to-the-home plans with speeds higher than 300Mbps on its fiber service, but apparently those don't qualify for the discount.
Like Verizon, AT&T requires customers to call in order to sign up for the subsidy. All of AT&T's subsidy-eligible plans are "subject to the $10/mo. fee for equipment, plus sales tax on the equipment fee of up to $1.50/mo. where applicable," AT&T says.
According to the Post, "Charter says that 'an extremely small percentage of customers' who have legacy Internet plans will have to switch to a Spectrum Internet plan as part of enrolling in the EBB." Charter told Ars that the legacy plans include those sold by Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks before they were bought by Charter in 2016 as well as "an extremely small number of Charter plans that predate Spectrum offerings." Charter said it is making the subsidy available on all current Spectrum Internet plans except its gigabit-speed offering.
"Customers cannot return to a legacy plan once they have chosen a Spectrum option," Charter said.
T-Mobile's EBB page states, "There are several plans eligible for EBB at T-Mobile," but it doesn't say which ones. A press release announcing T-Mobile's participation in the program also doesn't say which plans are eligible. The company's EBB page does say that the subsidy is available to T-Mobile wireless and home-Internet customers, Sprint customers, Metro by T-Mobile customers, and T-Mobile prepaid customers. We asked T-Mobile for more detail and will update this article if we get a response.
Frontier Lied About Internet Speed, FTC Says in Post-Net Neutrality Case
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and several states filed a lawsuit against Frontier Communications on Wednesday, accusing them of lying about internet speeds, in one of the first cases the regulator has overseen since net neutrality rules were repealed.
In the complaint, the agency and state attorneys general said Frontier advertised internet via a digital subscriber line (DSL) at certain speeds to consumers but then failed to deliver.
The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. The FTC was joined on the lawsuit by attorneys general from Arizona, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina and Wisconsin. District attorneys’ offices from two California counties also joined the complaint to represent California.
A spokesperson for Frontier, which is emerging from bankruptcy protection, said that the lawsuit was “without merit.”
“Frontier’s DSL Internet speeds have been clearly and accurately articulated, defined and described in the company’s marketing materials and disclosures,” the spokesperson said.
The complaint said Frontier has more than 3 million U.S. internet service subscribers, offering internet via DSL to some 1.3 million consumers in 25 states, many in rural areas.
Frontier has advertised different tiers of speeds to consumers, including an August 2018 mailer that offered download speeds of 12 megabits per second for $12, the complaint said.
But, the complaint said, since 2015, Frontier has “in numerous instances” promised certain speeds for its DSL internet access but did not deliver.
“Indeed, network limits imposed by Frontier prevent numerous consumers from receiving DSL Internet service at speeds corresponding to the tiers of service they pay for,” the complaint said.
Acting FTC Chairwoman Rebecca Slaughter said her agency would do its best to take over monitoring broadband providers from the Federal Communications Commission.
“As important as this case is, it also shows why the FTC can never fully fill the regulatory gap left in the wake of the repeal of Net Neutrality,” she said on Twitter. “Active oversight by the proper regulator may have prevented these violations.”
Seagate’s New Mach.2 is the World’s Fastest Conventional Hard Drive
The Exos Mach.2 is only "available to select customers" for now.
Seagate has been working on dual-actuator hard drives—drives with two independently controlled sets of read/write heads—for several years. Its first production dual-actuator drive, the Mach.2, is now "available to select customers," meaning that enterprises can buy it directly from Seagate, but end-users are out of luck for now.
Seagate lists the sustained, sequential transfer rate of the Mach.2 as up to 524MBps—easily double that of a fast "normal" rust disk and edging into SATA SSD territory. The performance gains extend into random I/O territory as well, with 304 IOPS read / 384 IOPS write and only 4.16 ms average latency. (Normal hard drives tend to be 100/150 IOPS and about the same average latency.)
The added performance requires additional power; Mach.2 drives are rated for 7.2 W idle, while Seagate's standard Ironwolf line is rated at 5 W idle. It gets more difficult to compare loaded power consumption because Seagate specs the Mach.2 differently than the Ironwolf. The Mach.2's power consumption is explicitly rated for several random I/O scenarios, while the Ironwolf line is rated for an unhelpful "average operating power," which isn't defined in the data sheet.
Still, if we assume—probably not unreasonably—a similar expansion of power consumption while under load, the Mach.2 represents an excellent choice for power efficiency since it offers roughly 200% of the performance of competing traditional drives at roughly 144% of the power budget. Particularly power-conscious users can also use Seagate's PowerBalance mode—although that feature decreases sequential performance by 50% and random performance by 10%.
According to Seagate Senior VP of Business and Marketing Jeff Fochtman, the company has been shipping Mach.2 HDDs in volume since 2019, supplying them to over a dozen major enterprise customers with dual-actuator programs. Today's wider release expands the potential customer base to include the rest of Seagate's "select" customers.
Should Customers be Able to Repair their Devices? This Federal Agency Says Yes.
Tech lobbyists say letting people fix their own stuff is too dangerous. The Federal Trade Commission isn't buying it.
For the past several years, as state legislators across the country have held hearings to consider “right-to-repair” bills that would make it easier for consumers to fix their electronic devices, lobbyists representing manufacturers have shown up to repeat the same arguments over and over: Letting people fix their own stuff is too dangerous. It creates cybersecurity risks. It infringes on intellectual property. It won’t help reduce electronic waste.
But while it remains to be seen whether these arguments will win over any of the dozen state legislatures currently considering a right-to-repair bill, one authoritative body isn’t buying them at all: the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC.
Last week, the federal consumer protection agency released a long-anticipated report to Congress examining the repair restrictions facing consumers, along with a summary of arguments for and against those restrictions. Its conclusion was stark: There’s “scant evidence” to support manufacturers’ justifications for restricting repair, while the solutions repair advocates have proposed are “well supported” by their testimonials. Advocates say that compelling companies like Apple and Tesla to release parts, manuals, and diagnostic information needed for repair will make fixing broken devices faster and more affordable. Ultimately, this will encourage us to maintain our stuff instead of replacing it, resulting in less environmental harm and electronic waste.
With the release of the report, the FTC has signaled that it plans to step up its efforts to enforce laws aimed at preventing manufacturers from restricting repair. But the symbolic nature of the report may be more significant than whatever punitive actions the agency takes next.
The right to repair movement — which promotes the idea that everyone should to be able to repair the devices they own however they want, whenever they want — has “just been given a huge shot in the arm,” said Gay Gordon-Byrne, the executive director of The Repair Association, a right-to-repair advocacy group.
Kerry Maeve Sheehan, the U.S. policy lead at the repair guide site iFixit, agreed. “[F]inally a government agency is saying what we’ve said all along — that manufacturers’ justifications for imposing repair restrictions aren’t backed by evidence,” Sheehan wrote in an email.
The report traces its origins back to a July 2019 workshop the FTC held to explore how manufacturers restrict repair of their devices. The workshop brought together right-to-repair advocates, groups representing manufacturers of everything from gaming consoles to home appliances, and independent researchers. It invited everyone to submit empirical research on the repair landscape. A year later, Congress directed the FTC to issue a report summarizing its findings, with a focus on cell phone and automobile markets.
Those findings amount to nothing less than a wholesale rejection of the anti-repair arguments advanced by lobbyists not just for cell phone and car companies, but home appliance industries, medical device makers, and more. In its 56-page report, the FTC lays out common manufacturer arguments in favor of restricting repair. For every single argument, the Commission reaches a similar conclusion: There’s little evidence to support it.
Take safety concerns. Companies will often argue that restricting access to the information and materials needed for repair prevents consumers, or mechanics that lack sufficient training, from hurting themselves. For instance, people attempting to swap the lithium-ion battery inside their phone might accidentally puncture it, causing the battery to experience a “thermal runaway event” — or in layman’s terms, overheat and explode. But aside from a single 2011 incident involving a cell phone that experienced a thermal runaway event on a plane after a faulty unauthorized repair, manufacturers provided the FTC no evidence of injuries tied to independent repair. Nor did they furnish any data demonstrating that their authorized repair shops are more careful. Meanwhile, decades’ worth of evidence from the auto repair industry shows that even the most dangerous consumer products can be safely repaired by an independent professional.
Other arguments followed a similar pattern. Consumer technology manufacturers told the FTC that handing a device that contains sensitive personal data, like a laptop, over to an independent shop can create security risks. But they failed to provide evidence that independent repair businesses are more likely to mishandle that data than the manufacturer. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers told the agency that manufacturer-backed repair providers help uphold the “brand reputation” of companies, but it didn’t demonstrate that consumers were less satisfied with repair jobs conducted by independent mechanics. And while Microsoft argued that design choices that limit device repairability — such as using glue instead of screws to secure batteries and screens in place — are driven by consumer preference, empirical research has shown that consumers also care about the longevity and repairability of their devices.
The FTC was far more sympathetic to repair advocates’ claims that manufacturer barriers make repairs take longer and cost more. It also concurred with advocates that increasing access to repair will have environmental benefits, from reducing the energy use associated with making new devices to slowing the tide of toxic electronic waste. Industry lobbyists say that they have already implemented take-back programs that have driven e-waste levels down, but many experts say this argument is misleading. While the total volume of e-waste is declining in the U.S. as electronics get smaller and lighter, researchers say that the complexity of today’s smartphones, tablets, and flat-screen TVs makes them harder to reuse and recycle. Sheehan of iFixit added that many state electronics recycling laws cover “a limited scope of products,” including old, bulky cathode-ray tube televisions but not newer technologies like smart fridges.
Overall, the FTC concluded that the repair barriers manufacturers create have “steered consumers into manufacturers’ repair networks or to replace products before the end of their useful lives” without any decent justification.
“This is a huge tool for us,” Nathan Proctor, who heads the right-to-repair campaign at the advocacy nonprofit U.S. Public Research Interest Group, said of the new FTC report. “We certainly are going to use this report to advocate for state right to repair laws.”
Indeed, the report comes as dozens of state legislatures have recently considered bills that would make it easier to repair small electronics, home appliances, and farm and medical equipment. The pandemic has helped fuel those bills by spotlighting the “digital divide” between wealthier, whiter, more urban communities, which have more access to the electronic devices they need to work and learn remotely compared with lower income, rural, and communities of color. Advocates argue that making it easier to fix broken devices could narrow that divide, since repairing a phone or laptop tends to be a more affordable option than replacing it. The pandemic has also revealed that letting manufacturers restrict the repair of specialized equipment like ventilators can be a matter of life and death.
While advocates continue to push for the right to repair to be enshrined into law, the FTC may start cracking down on companies that violate existing laws. The Commission’s investigation into repair restrictions came about, in part, due to its concern over companies violating the so-called “anti-tying provision” of the 1975 Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, which makes it illegal for manufacturers to void warranties if consumers go to an independent shop or use an off-brand part to fix their devices. If you’ve ever been told by, say, the company that made your phone or printer that opening it up and fixing it yourself will void your warranty, you know this law is not being aggressively enforced.
“People have this idea in their heads that they’re somehow violating a contract with a manufacturer” if they fix their device, said Proctor. “And this is cultivated consistently and aggressively by manufacturers.”
But the Wild West days of companies making up their own warranty rules may be numbered. The day its report came out, the FTC’s official Twitter account called on members of the public to send in a report if they were told their warranty would be voided by an independent repair.
A spokesperson for the FTC told Grist that in addition to “pursuing appropriate law enforcement options” with respect to the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act, the FTC would be looking into other legal and regulatory avenues to support independent repair “consistent with our statutory authority” and educating consumers about their rights.
“The Commission also stands ready to work with legislators, either at the state or federal level, in order to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own,” the spokesperson said.
'We Can Rock The World's Foundation': 1971 And Black Music In Revolt
Mark Anthony Neal
In March of 1971, Aretha Franklin performed a three-night stand at the Fillmore West, promoter Bill Graham's legendary venue and home base of bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Franklin's band included saxophonist King Curtis as her musical director and Billy Preston on keyboards, fresh off his stint as the "fifth Beatle" and hard at work on his own breakthrough, I Wrote a Simple Song. Besides performing her own classics and some future pop standards, including Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need to Get By," Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and Diana Ross' signature "Reach Out and Touch," Franklin sought common ground with the so-called hippie crowd long associated with the Fillmore. Her covers of Bread's "Make It With You" and especially Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With" resonated in the house, but it was her introduction of the "sanctified church" to that audience that revealed the cultural force of Black music in this moment.
With help from Ray Charles, who joined Franklin onstage the final night, she turned her four-minute song "Spirit in the Dark" into a nearly 30-minute dissertation on soul. You can hear the crowd, already in a frenzy, lose it completely when Charles takes hold of the keyboard, still learning the song — repeating "Can you feel it? Feel it in your soul?" Preston's later recollection that "the hippies flipped the f*** out" was not hyperbole.
In his book Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded, writer David Hepworth makes the case for his subject as "the busiest, most creative, most innovative, most interesting, and longest-resounding year of that era." But even that may be an understatement when considered in the context of the extraordinary flowering of Black musical expression that year. Established veterans like The Temptations and The Isley Brothers were altering their sound, as exemplified in the Isleys' cover of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's "Ohio," a song written in response to the 1970 shootings at Kent State. Away from the pop charts, Miles Davis, The Chambers Brothers, Roberta Flack, The Last Poets and Alice Coltrane were unleashing a vision of Black music whose sound and form was every bit as political as the lyrics. The spirit of the '60s lingered, but the tone of Black protest had changed — and some artists, like many activists, were no longer invested in presenting their demands with the elixirs of decorum and civility.
Franklin, by this time, possessed such powerful cultural currency that it was not only her musical choices that carried heft: In 1970, she had offered to pay bail for indicted activist Angela Davis, famously stating, "Angela Davis must go free. Black people will be free." Though she had come of age adjacent to the civil rights movement, the recordings that became the spring 1971 release Live at Fillmore West were perhaps her most explicit cultural statement yet, and a portal to the more pronounced political presence that would emerge on Young, Gifted and Black and her legendary Amazing Grace live recording, both released the following year.
On the latter of those, the artist's era-defining gospel blockbuster, Franklin seems well aware of the changes afoot: She opened her sessions at Los Angeles' New Temple Missionary Baptist Church not with a traditional gospel song, but with a nod to the Black artist whose mark on this moment would be even more indelible than her own. "We can rock this earth's foundation," she sings, a light paraphrase of an exceptional lyric that Marvin Gaye had buried on the second side of What's Going On.
Gaye's album, released just two days after Fillmore on May 21, 1971, generated three singles: the introspective title track, with its famous wartime condolence, "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying"; "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," an early anthem of environmental justice; and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," a stark existential portrait of Black life. All three charted in the Top 10, and the title track sold over 2 million copies — a round rebuttal to Gaye's label head and brother-in-law Berry Gordy, who had lamented what a protest song might do to Motown's bottom line and the career of one of its most bankable stars.
Yet it was on the deep cut "Wholy Holy," a ballad co-written with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and Obie Benson of The Four Tops, where the artist may have found his most militant voice. Gaye's line, "We can rock the world's foundation," at once acknowledges the power of Black music as a political force and anticipates that power rising to meet even greater challenges.
The losses, of course, had been mounting, and not only in Vietnam. In a little more than three years before What's Going On's release, Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy had been assassinated, Black Panther Fred Hampton had become a victim of ongoing state-sanctioned violence against Black activists, and two Black students had been killed by police on the campus of Jackson State in Mississippi (though their shootings drew less attention than those of the four student killed by the National Guard at Kent State the same month).
Indeed, Aretha Franklin's offer to pay Angela Davis' bail was connected to the latter's disputed implication in a 1970 armed attempt to free the Soledad Brothers, three Black men accused of killing a guard at the California prison where they were jailed, and whose defense became a cause célèbre of the likes of Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda and Pete Seeger. The trio included activist George Jackson, whose letters from prison were published that year as the book Soledad Brother, and was still on the minds of many when Jackson was killed in prison in August 1971.
Just over two weeks after Jackson's death, tensions boiled over at Attica Correctional Facility in New York. More than half of the institution's 2,200 residents revolted, citing inhumane treatment and taking control of the prison for nearly a week. Twenty-nine incarcerated people and 10 staffers were killed when state troopers and other law enforcement officers retook the prison, bringing to an end what historian Heather Ann Thompson has called "one of the most important rebellions in American history." Musical tributes to the Soledad Brothers and the Attica uprising poured in — from John Lennon and Yoko Ono ("Attica State"), Gil Scott-Heron ("We Beg Your Pardon"), Charles Mingus ("Remember Rockefeller at Attica"), Archie Shepp ("Attica Blues") and Bob Dylan ("George Jackson").
Fifty years after its release, What's Going On remains the most elegant response to this tumultuous era, but at least a few of Gaye's peers were responding with equal gravitas, while adding a level of raw emotion that was never going to be sanctioned at Motown.
Sly and the Family Stone had been a potent, if formulaic, crossover act, which in their multi-racial and multi-genre makeup pushed against the industry's norms. The group's 1969 album Stand! is among a handful of soul recordings from that era that truly broke style boundaries, courtesy of tracks like "Everyday People," "Sing a Simple Song," the transcendent "I Want to Take You Higher" and the title track, all of which the group performed as part of its Woodstock set that summer. As Miles Marshall Lewis writes in his 33 ⅓ book on the group, "Stand! embodies everything Sly and the Family Stone brought to the table in the late sixties ... that we can all make beautiful music together if we follow the ideals of the growing counterculture — peace, love, and understanding; sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll."
But Stone, like Gaye, was railing against a label's constraints — in his case, CBS Records and executive Clive Davis, who wanted a new album with hit singles in 1970. Stone gave Davis just three songs, among them the iconic "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," which ended up on a greatest hits package that remains their biggest seller. When he finally turned in the full-length follow-up to Stand!, it was clear that crossover appeal was not the first thing on Stone's mind at the moment. There's a Riot Goin' On (originally titled Africa Talks to You), released in November 1971, sounded nothing like the group's previous work. Even its big hit, "Family Affair" — recorded with Stone's sister Rose on vocals, Billy Preston on keyboards and Bobby Womack on guitar — was a pop outlier, built around the unfamiliar pulse of the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2, an early drum machine.
In Never a Dull Moment, Hepworth writes that upon its release, There's a Riot Goin' On sounded to many "like a collection of demos with placeholder vocal parts and riffs that often trailed off into incoherence." And that may have been Stone's point. If Gil Scott-Heron, who had released the definitive version of "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" that spring, was asserting that Black revolt would exist beyond the gaze of mass media, Sly Stone seemed to coyly suggest that it might not be heard on radio airwaves either — hence the title track, four seconds of stony silence. By his watch, the political realities of the moment demanded that Black artists resist the indulgences of artistic perfection, while also producing music that in its openness could be a blueprint for what was to come next.
Befitting this singular year, what was next was already happening. In March of 1971, Melvin Van Peebles premiered Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a film he wrote, financed, directed and starred in. Though the guerilla production was hailed by none other than Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton for its depiction of one Black man's transformation into the revolutionary vanguard, it quickly eased into cult status. Gordon Parks, the legendary photographer and filmmaker, followed that summer with Shaft, a Hollywood affair with a less radical edge but just as much style. The two Blaxploitation touchstones, like the wave of films that came in their wake, had a limited cultural footprint at the time. But both made a lasting impact on Black entertainment going forward, not least because of how they sounded.
Shaft featured a score written and produced by Isaac Hayes, Stax Records' most prominent star, and anchored by the single "Theme from Shaft," which topped the pop charts and earned Hayes a best original song Oscar the following year. More than that, the album's success pointed to a lane where other Black musicians might succeed as well, the soundtrack format a vessel for aesthetic risks they couldn't take elsewhere. In 1972, Curtis Mayfield pushed the form forward with Super Fly (directed by Parks' son, Gordon Parks Jr.), the first of several soundtracks he would produce throughout the 1970s. Even Marvin Gaye got in on the action with his largely instrumental Trouble Man, also released in '72.
As for Sweetback, the auteurist Van Peebles composed its score himself — but the music was performed by a then-unknown Earth, Wind & Fire, who also released its eponymous debut and The Need of Love that same year. Maurice White's kaleidoscopic ensemble, more than anyone, personified a middle ground between Gaye and Stone's approaches. Within a few years, the group secured a spot in the pop mainstream with a catalog of Black cultural nationalism shrouded in uplift themes ("Devotion," "Keep Your Head to the Sky," "That's the Way of the World,") and a lush use of brass and strings that was greatly indebted to What's Going On.
White and company weren't the only ones paying attention to the business as well as the music: You could see the same instincts at play as struggling songwriter/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff finally got the financial backing they needed, courtesy of Clive Davis and CBS, to launch their own label that year. Philadelphia International Records' roster would eventually include soul powerhouses The O'Jays, Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes, MFSB, The Three Degrees, Lou Rawls, The Jones Girls and Teddy Pendergrass — all under an abiding claim that "The message is in the music." The label's dominance throughout the 1970s guaranteed that the Black musical revolt of 1971 would keep on reverberating.
There's a scene in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field where Sidney Poitier, who earned his first Oscar for his performance, painstakingly teaches a group of German nuns the song "Amen." It's almost comical the way he plays it, but the metaphor is effective. Songs like "Amen," "If I Had a Hammer," "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round" and "We Shall Overcome" soundtracked the protests of the 1960s civil rights movement, and became part of the lexicon through which white America began to understand Black America. The affable Poitier is here the trusted interlocutor, literally trying to get the nuns to understand the feelings of the song, not just its form.
Offscreen, Black musicians across the country were doing the same — facing the challenge of getting white Americans to hear the foundations of Black protest, to feel the aspirations in the music. A few years later, a critical mass of them would find the means to take control of the conversation, and make the case on their own terms.
Until next week,
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