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Sundar Pichai says as little as possible

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You maniacs sold out our second-ever Interface live event, with Uncanny Valley author Anna Wiener, in
 
January 23 · Issue #444 · View online
The Interface
You maniacs sold out our second-ever Interface live event, with Uncanny Valley author Anna Wiener, in record time. Thanks to everyone who bought a ticket, and we’ll look into finding a bigger venue for the next one. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing a good number of you on February 4th!
The basic idea behind journalism is that there are things people don’t know that they should know, and that someone ought to go find the people who do know about the things and ask them. Most of the time when a journalist interviews someone, they learn something useful, and then report it all back to us so we can have a shared understanding of reality and make better decisions about how to live.
Historically, a person that lots of journalists have wanted to talk to is the big tech CEO. As companies like Amazon and Apple grew in power, getting the chance to sit down with a Jeff Bezos or a Tim Cook became wildly appealing. Here were people who knew about many, many things — things that affected almost all of us — and could tell us about them with a candor that their employees typically will not permit themselves.
And yet when you think of what you have learned from reading the thoughts of tech CEOs over the past few years — well, what have you learned? If you hang around the darker, more thought-leader-y corners of Medium, it’s possible you’ll have gleaned a few insights into customer acquisition or recruiting. But if what you’re after is a CEO’s worldview — or even just a moderately unvarnished look into their decision-making process — you typically come up empty.
I thought about all this today while reading Adam Lashinsky’s “conversation” with Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai in Fortune. It’s the first long interview Pichai has given since being elevated to the role of Alphabet CEO, and Lashinsky asks him about many of the subjects you would expect from a journalist in his position.
Lashinsky asks why Alphabet exists, and whether Pichai will crack down on the spending of its non-Google companies. He asks what companies Pichai considers to be his competition, and whether he has a plan to deal with the possibility that the US government will attempt to break up Alphabet on antitrust grounds. And what Lashinsky gets back from Google is … almost nothing at all. Here’s a characteristically empty exchange:
Who do you see as your biggest competitors?
I’ve always worried as a company at scale your biggest competition is from within, that you stop executing well, you focus on the wrong things, you get distracted. I think when you focus on competitors you start chasing and playing by the rules of what other people are good at rather than what makes you good as a company.
Do you have a scenario you plan for in which regulators break up Alphabet on antitrust grounds?
At our scale we realize there will be scrutiny. We always engage constructively, and we take feedback to the extent there are areas where sometimes we may not agree with it. But obviously we understand the role of regulators.
So there you have it: Alphabet’s biggest competitor is itself (?), and its plan for an attempted breakup of the company is understanding the role that regulators play in society.
To be clear, I’m not not criticizing Fortune here. These are questions that almost anyone would have asked. And I doubt there are many reporters who would have gotten different answers.
But it’s clear that as prevailing sentiment about big tech companies has darkened, tech CEOs see increasingly little value in having meaningful public conversations. Instead, they grit their teeth through every question, treating every encounter as something in between a legal deposition and a hostage negotiation.
We saw this in 2018, when the New Yorker profiled Mark Zuckerberg. We saw it again last year, when Jack Dorsey went on a podcast tour. At some point this year Tim Cook will probably give a zero-calorie interview to someone, and if it’s a slow-enough news day I’ll write this column for a fourth time.
To some extent, CEO’s reticence to engage is understandable. When you are effectively a head of state, and staring down the barrel of potentially company-ending regulation, you have strong incentives to do as little thinking in public as possible. But journalists, I think, have a responsibility to point that out in real time — to call a dodge a dodge.
For a long time I thought the point of journalism was to get into a room with the CEO and ask the big questions. I was embarrassingly late to realize that the bigger story was always elsewhere, in the events unfolding just outside the CEO’s field of vision. Access will always have its appeal, and I still wouldn’t turn down an interview with the CEO of any company I cover. But as I wrote about Dorsey’s podcast tour:
The CEO is traditionally in the best position to enact change. But we have learned that once social networks grow to a certain scale, they begin to operate beyond their creators’ control. You can ask the CEOs what they plan to do about it. But the answers will always tell you less than you hope.
The solution, as ever, is to fall back on that oldest journalistic principle: talk to the people who know the things you want to find out. And that starts with the recognition that the CEO doesn’t have a monopoly on knowledge — and that to the extent he knows anything useful, he is probably going to do his best not to talk about it.

Pushback
Yesterday, we included a link to this story about Facebook and Twitter having evidence that could keep people out of prison—but the Stored Communications Act forbids them from giving it up. Alex Stamos pushed back against the article’s framing on Twitter, saying “Updating these Reagan-signed laws is totally reasonable, but I really dislike reporting that doesn’t take into account the last decade of tech companies fighting to keep user data classified as stored communications content.”
The Ratio
Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.
🔼 Trending up: Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann is talking about his decision to pull all medical information from the platform after users started searching for vaccines. He said “we couldn’t ensure that we were giving people great information.”
🔽 Trending down: The spread of misinformation about climate change has increased during Australia’s bushfires, demonstrating the limits of Facebook’s fact-checking program. Fact checkers have focused on misleading photos and videos, but are leaving climate-related misinformation mostly untouched.
Governing
As it emerges from the shadows, Clearview is attempting to convince law enforcement that its facial recognition tool, which has been trained on photos scraped from Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other websites, is more accurate than any other on the market. However, emails, presentations, and flyers obtained by BuzzFeed News reveal that its claims to law enforcement agencies are impossible to verify — or flat-out wrong.
For example, the pitch email about its role in catching an alleged terrorist, which BuzzFeed News obtained via a public records request last month, explained that when the suspect’s photo was “searched in Clearview,” its software linked the image to an online profile with the man’s name in less than five seconds. Clearview AI’s website also takes credit in a flashy promotional video, using the incident, in which a man allegedly placed rice cookers made to look like bombs, as one example among thousands in which the company assisted law enforcement. But the NYPD says this account is not true.
Sixty years ago, Woody Bledsoe invented technology that could identify faces. Today, his place in the field of facial recognition has been largely forgotten. This profile dives into his story — and his relationship with the CIA, which seems to have become one of his clients. (Shaun Raviv / Wired)
Adrian Chen writes about why facial recognition has suddenly become a hot-button issue. “The most obvious answer is that the technology has been improved, streamlined, and commercialized,” he argues as part of a package of stories about facial recognition. (Adrian Chen / California Sunday Magazine)
People are retaliating against big tech by calling SWAT teams to executives’ homes. Facebook employees have been a particularly favorite target, with Instagram chief Adam Mosseri being swatted in November. This is insanely dangerous, and police departments have been slow to acknowledge the threat. Swatting is a violent crime and ought to be treated as one by the courts. (Sheera Frenkel / The New York Times)
Facebook is about to face off with the IRS in a rare trial to capture billions that the tax agency thinks Facebook owes. But onerous budget cuts have hamstrung the agency’s ability to bring the case. (Paul Kiel / ProPublica)
Facebook is worried about Democrats winning the presidential election. Many of them hold the social network responsible for Trump’s 2016 victory, assail it for allowing misinformation to spread, and have vowed to regulate it or break it up. (Sara Fischer and Scott Rosenberg / Axios)
Rep. David Cicilline is the House Democrat leading the investigation into Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Since he can’t issue fines or press criminal charges, he’s opted to convene high-profile hearings and give air time to smaller businesses frightened by the Big Four. (Nancy Scola and Cristiano Lima / Politico)
Twitter’s attempts to stop people from targeting ads using keywords that include sexist terms or racial slurs have created a confusing user experience. While users are still able to select those terms when targeting an ad, Twitter said the terms won’t “register” as keywords once the ad is published. (Shoshana Wodinsky / Gizmodo)
The report from FTI Consulting that strongly implicates Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the hacking of Jeff Bezos’ iPhone X in 2018 has not fully convinced the cybersecurity community. They say there are still open questions about the attack, starting with a most basic one: how exactly did the hack work? (Shannon Vavra / CyberScoop)
As India experiences the longest-ever internet blockade for a democracy, more countries are pressing the internet kill switch to snub dissent. Experts warn that the tactic is being used as a form of protest suppression. (Puja Changoiwala / OneZero)
Industry
TikTok announced a new licensing deal with Merlin, a global agency that represents tens of thousands of independent music labels and hundreds of thousands of artists. The deals allows TikTok to use music from the label on its platform and on its forthcoming music service, Resso. Ingrid Lunden from TechCrunch has the story:
The news is significant because this is the first major music licensing deal announced by TikTok as part of its wider efforts in the music industry. Notably, it’s not the first: I’ve confirmed TikTok has actually secured other major labels but has been restricted from going public on the details.
The Merlin deal is therefore a template of what TikTok is likely signing with others: it includes both its mainstay short-form videos — where music plays a key role (the app, before it was acquired by Bytedance, was even called ‘Musically’) — as well as new music streaming services.
TikTok moved its operations to a new office in Los Angeles. “While we are a global company, having a permanent office in LA speaks to our commitment to the U.S. market and deepens our bonds with the city,” writes Vanessa Pappas, TikTok’s general manager in the United States.
Twitter is rolling out a new feature that lets users add iMessage-like reactions to direct messages. The company first started testing this emoji reaction feature last year, but it’s now rolling the capability out to all users on the web, iOS, and Android. (Chance Miller / 9To5Mac)
American bathrooms have become the stage set of the moment. With good lighting, acoustics, and privacy, they’re the ideal place for the dramatic entrances, exits, skits, dances and story times of TikTok. (Taylor Lorenz / The New York Times)
Angelina Jolie is producing a BBC show to help kids spot fake news. The show explains the stories behind news and offers facts and information that helps kids over the age of 13 make up their own minds on pressing international issues. (Brian Steinberg / Variety)
TripAdvisor is cutting hundreds of jobs in an attempt to cut costs as competition from Google intensifies. The search giant has launched a variety of travel search tools, as well as reviews of hotels and restaurants, that directly compete with TripAdvisor — and appear at the top of the world’s most-used search engine. (Mark Gurman and Olivia Carville / Bloomberg)
Tinder launched some new safety features, including a photo verification system that’ll place a blue check mark on daters’ profiles. The system requires daters to take a selfie in real time that matches a pose shown by a model in a sample image. (Ashley Carman / The Verge)
And finally ...
Yesterday in this space, we brought you the story of United States senators flouting their own rules against bringing electronic devices into the room for the ongoing impeachment trial of Donald Trump. On Wednesday, senators were spotted wearing Apple Watches. Today, Niels Lesniewski writes in Roll Call, they’re taking a decidedly analog approach to solving the agony of losing their smartphones:
Sen. Richard M. Burr is trying to help out his antsy Senate colleagues.
The North Carolina Republican is providing an assortment of fidget spinners and other gizmos to his GOP colleagues at this week’s Thursday lunch.
Another approach to resolving their boredom could be simply paying attention to the trial, but I realize that’s a big ask.
Talk to us
Send us tips, comments, questions, and your questions for Sundar Pichai: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.
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