Posts from Web/Tech

Video Of The Week: Mark Cuban At Upfront Summit

I posted the discussion my partner Andy and I did at the Upfront Summit last week.

There were other great conversations at the Upfront Summit.

This discussion with Mark Cuban was great. I totally agree with Mark that we need more tech companies to go public and have been saying that publicly for several years.

Fun Friday: How To Align A Business Model With A Market Position?

This was a fun twitter exchange yesterday:

I can’t help but think that competing with Facebook and Google in the online advertising market is an uphill battle for Twitter. They have done a great job at building a $2bn annual advertising business that pays the bills and generates positive cash flow. I know the people who have built this ad business and they are world class.

But given that Twitter’s strength is influence and impact, not page views and clicks, is there a business model that compliments the ad business that Twitter should be leaning into?

As always on fun fridays, the action will be in the comments. So let’s get this discussion going.

The End Of The Level Playing Field

I am old enough to remember the gogo days of cable TV when entrepreneurs who wanted to launch a new cable channel would go, hat in hand and cap table in tow, to the big cable companies and beg to get distribution on their networks. 

When the Internet came along in the early 90s, we saw something completely different. Here was a level playing field where anyone could launch a business without permission from anyone. 

We had a great run over the last 25 years but I fear it’s coming to an end, brought on by the growing consolidation of market power in the big consumer facing tech companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc, by the constricted distribution mechanisms on mobile devices, and by new leadership at the FCC that is going to tear down the notion that mobile carriers can’t play the same game cable companies played.

Here is a quote from the incoming FCC Chair:

“Today, the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau is closing its investigation into wireless carriers’ free-data offerings,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “These free-data plans have proven to be popular among consumers, particularly low-income Americans, and have enhanced competition in the wireless marketplace. Going forward, the Federal Communications Commission will not focus on denying Americans free data. Instead, we will concentrate on expanding broadband deployment and encouraging innovative service offerings.”

It is certainly true that consumers, particularly low-income consumers, like getting free or subsidized data plans. There is no doubt about that. But when the subsidies are coming from the big tech companies, who can easily pay them, to buy competitive advantage over that nimble startup that is scaring them, well we know how that movie ends.

It is sad to see this era ending. It was a lot of fun and quite profitable too. I am hopeful that some new competitive vector, like the Internet, will come along and make all of this moot and we are spending a lot of our time looking for it. Because backing startups on a field tilted in the favor of the incumbents is not fun and not particularly profitable either.

What If The Narrative Is Wrong?

I always like to look for where conventional thinking might be wrong. I think you can find interesting investments that way.

I was exchanging emails with a colleague yesterday about Twitter’s decision to get out of the developer tools business and I asked her if it was possible that the conventional wisdom about Twitter (it is in decline and needs to be turned around) is wrong.

I shared these two Google Trends charts with her.

Facebook “interest” over the past two years:

Twitter “interest” over the past two years:

What if Twitter is not actually in decline but has seen the bottom and is growing again?

What if Facebook is in decline but nobody has realized it yet?

I am not saying either of those things is true. I am just asking the questions.

Disclosure: My wife and I are long Twitter and have never owned Facebook stock.

Protecting The Right To Speak And Write And Blog

I stayed out of the public debate and discussion of the Gawker lawsuit because while I privately came down on the side of Gawker, the specifics of the case made me uncomfortable and I don’t think it was an ideal case to determine what is free speech and what is not.

However, the same lawyer, Charles Harder, who argued the case against Gawker, is back with another libel suit, this time against Techdirt and its founder and lead writer Mike Masnick. Regular and longtime readers of this blog will know that I am friends with Mike and have supported his efforts to speak out on Techdirt about all sorts of tech policy issues over the years.

The specifics of the Techdirt case are easier for me to get excited about. Mike has consistently and rigorously debunked the claims of Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai that he (Dr Ayyadurai) “invented” e-mail. Dr. Ayyadurai is upset with Mike about this and so he hired Charles Harder to file a $15mm libel suit against Techdirt and Mike.

Regardless of whether Dr. Ayyadurai invented email or not (I highly doubt it), we have a long standing history in scientific and technical circles and in the United States of freely, openly, and publicly debating and discussing technical issues like this. Through that sort of public debate and discussion we determine what is real and what is not and we also move the understanding of science and technology forward. These public debates can get nasty and personal, and that is unfortunate, but I believe it is better that we allow for this debate than set legal precedent that wealthy people can stifle debate by suing publications out of business.

So, I am urging everyone who cares about the legacy of free, open, and public speech and debate about technical issues to support Mike and Techdirt’s efforts to defend themselves. Mike wrote a blog post about this issue last week and this is taken from that post:

I am beyond thankful to the many of you who have reached out and offered to help in all sorts of ways. It is heartening to know so many people care about Techdirt. At some point soon, we may set up a dedicated legal defense fund. But, in the meantime, any support you can provide us will help — whether it’s just alerting people to this situation and the danger of trying to stifle a free press through meritless lawsuits, or it’s supporting Techdirt directly (or, if you have a company, advertising with us). As always, you can support us directly as a Friend of Techdirt, or check out some of the other perks you can get in our Insider program. You can also support us via Patreon.

I am hoping that Mike sets up a dedicated legal defense fund and plan to contribute to it if he does. I will let AVC readers know if that happens. Until then, let’s all get behind Mike and put a stop to this nonsense.

Fixing The Internet

Walter Isaacson wrote a blog post last week suggesting that the Internet is broken and outlining how he would fix it. I think that most of his suggestions are currently being built using blockchain technologies. Here is his list (in italics) and my reactions to it.

1) Create a system that enables content producers to negotiate with aggregators and search engines to get a royalty whenever their content is used, like ASCAP has negotiated for public performances and radio airings of its members’ works.

While not “a system to negotiate”, services like our portfolio company Mediachain‘s platform will provide much of the underlying infrastructure for this to happen.

2) Embed a simple digital wallet and currency for quick and easy small payments for songs, blogs, articles, and whatever other digital content is for sale.

Bitcoin.

3) Encode emails with an authenticated return or originating address.

While not blockchain based, standards like DKIM and SPF in the email sector provide some of this today. I am also excited about a blockchain based identity later like the one being built by our portfolio company Blockstack.

4) Enforce critical properties and security at the lowest levels of the system possible, such as in the hardware or in the programming language, instead of leaving it to programmers to incorporate security into every line of code they write.

Blockchain based applications can use the underlying security of the blockchain (using sophisticated cryptography) to achieve higher levels of security in their applications.

5) Build chips and machines that update the notion of an internet packet. For those who want, their packets could be encoded or tagged with metadata that describe what they contain and give the rules for how it can be used.

I am not sure you would need a chip or a machine to do this.

The bottom line for me is that we don’t need to build a new Internet to fix the issues Walter articulates in his blog post. We just need to continue to build new capabilities on top of our existing Internet. And, right now, the biggest potential contributor to those new capabilities is the blockchain.

Help Brands Blacklist Sites That Don’t Fit With Their Brand

One of the issues with the emergence of programmatic and re-targeted advertising is that brands target people not publications with their ad spend. And the result is a brand’s ads end up on sites that they don’t really want them on. Brands can blacklist publishers they don’t want to do business with but they have to choose to opt out. And they need to be notified when this happens.

I saw a cool approach to dealing with this yesterday. Craig Shapiro blogged about a Twitter account called Sleeping Giants.

Here is how it works:

People take a screenshot of an ad running on a site that is likely not appropriate for that brand, they tweet that screenshot to the ad’s parent company to notify them of the placement, and tag Sleeping Giants in the tweet.

Then the word spreads. Sleeping Giants promotes each tweet to it’s 11,000 followers. It also offers simple instructions how to blacklist sites from your ad campaign, so your brand won’t show up on objectionable publishers sites.

I followed Sleeping Giants today and will participate in this community driven effort to help brands keep their ads off objectionable websites. You might want to do that as well.

It Is All Spam

My friends Jeff Jarvis and John Borthwick wrote a thoughtful post about the fake news issue and put forward fifteen suggestions for the platforms and news organizations that are struggling with it.

This suggestion got my attention:

Create a system for media to send metadata about their fact-checking, debunking, confirmation, and reporting on stories and memes to the platforms.

It reminds me of the efforts in the email sector to create metadata around email messages to help the mail platforms identify what is spam and what is not. Examples of such efforts are DKIM and SPF.

If you think about the guts of the Internet, you have these simple protocols like TCP/IP, HTTP, SMTP, etc that allow information to flow from one computer to another. These systems are inherently open, often radically open. Anyone can publish anything to anyone. That has largely been a good thing because it has allowed an open communication network to develop globally without a lot of interoperability worries and work.

But when you do that, you allow all sorts of bad things to happen. And the people who build and manage internet technologies have been trying to figure out elegant solutions to all of this bad behavior for the past twenty five years (or possibly longer).

For me, the first example of this was email spam. And then search spam. Email and web search were two of the first wide open systems that were plagued with all sorts of bogus information and messages. And twenty years later, these two systems have largely been cleaned up through massive investments across multiple dimensions.

So when I hear of some new bad thing like fake news, I immediately think of spam. And I think of the things that have been done to manage and mitigate spam. There is a roadmap for mitigating and managing this sort of thing. It seems like we need to replicate it around fake news. And we should.

The Little Search Engine That Could

Our portfolio company DuckDuckGo continues to impress me.

By offering one thing that other search engines don’t offer, a promise not to store your search history, DuckDuckGo has grown impressively, year after year, with no signs of that abating.

ddg

It may turn out that in an era of growing mistrust of companies and institutions, DuckDuckGo has a very attractive proposition for the market.

I’ve used DuckDuckGo as my default search engine for years now and though I will occasionally use Google for certain queries, DuckDuckGo gets it done for me the vast majority of the time.

If you want to change your default search engine to DuckDuckGo and see what it’s like to use a search engine that doesn’t track you, go to DuckDuckGo and click the “Install” button on the upper right.

ddg-install