Posts from policy

The Spotify Apple Issue

Many people who follow tech know that Spotify has filed a complaint with the European Commission regarding the challenges that Spotify has doing business in the iOS app store.

I am very sympathetic to Spotify’s complaint. In my post last week on The Warren Breakup Plan, I wrote:

The mobile app stores, in particular, have always seemed to me to be a constraint on innovation vs a contributor to it.

Spotify has a huge user base and brings in billions of dollars of revenues every year but it has a challenging business model. Let’s say that 70cents of every dollar they bring in goes to labels and artists. That seems fair given that the artists are the ones producing the content we listen to on Spotify. But if they also have to share 30cents of every dollar with Apple, that really does not leave them much money to build and maintain their software, market to new users, pay for servers and bandwidth, and more.

You might say “well that’s what they signed up for” and you would be right except that their number one competitor is Apple. So their number one competitor does not pay the 30% app store fee, meaning that they have a competitive advantage.

But this is about more than money. If you look at the web page Spotify put up to explain how challenging it has been to do business with Apple, you will see numerous instances of Apple not approving app upgrades.

We see this with our portfolio companies a fair bit too. Apple has complete control over what gets into their app stores and what does not. And the process can be arbitrary and frustrating. But that is how it works and our portfolio companies are reluctant to make any noises publicly for fear of making their situation with Apple even worse.

I am not a fan of Warren’s idea of breaking up companies like Apple.

I like my partner Albert’s ideas better which he expressed in a tweet last week:

If it was the law of the land that any company could side load any application onto the iPhone or any iOS device, including third party app stores, we would have a much more competitive market with a lot more innovation, and Spotify would not have to go to the European Commission to deal with this nonsense.

The Warren Breakup Plan

Elizabeth Warren made news this weekend with her plan to breakup Google, Amazon, and Facebook (and also Apple).

Let me first say that I am sympathetic to Warren’s position. I particularly don’t like the way that Google, Apple, and Amazon use their market power in search and in their app stores to display their own products. The mobile app stores, in particular, have always seemed to me to be a constraint on innovation vs a contributor to it.

However, as you might imagine, I don’t love her proposal. I don’t think breaking up companies solves anything. And lots of rules on paper don’t either.

What we need is a competitive marketplace where new entrants have a chance to beat out old incumbents.

And I think we are on the cusp of that with crypto and the innovations in and around it.

This tweet exchange explains my high level view here:

I also quite like Mike Masnick’s much longer take on Warren’s plan.

What we need are policies that make it easier for startups to raise capital (like supporting ICOs instead of clamping down on them) and policies that open up the proprietary data assets of the big incumbents (like giving users control of their own data assets). Those sorts of things along with the never ending march of technology will do the trick I think.

The Amazon Backlash

NY State Senator Michael Gianaris is leading the efforts to stop Amazon from opening up a large presence in the borough of Queens in NYC.

I get that this makes for good politics at some level. Standing up for the taxpayer and expressing outrage at a massive tax giveaway to the one of the wealthiest companies in the world, run by one of the wealthiest people in the world, makes for great stump speeches.

But there is one problem with all of that. The voters and taxpayers in Queens, particularly the minority voters and taxpayers, approve of Amazon’s move to Queens by very large margins.

The very people that Gianaris and others like Ocasio-Cortez represent and are “standing up for” want Amazon in Queens by large margins.

What the voters and citizens of Queens seem to understand is that this is a once in a decade type opportunity to change the face of a borough and a city.

As historian Kenneth Jackson explained in this excellent NY Times Op-Ed piece yesterday, history shows that the economic fortunes of cities change quickly with once dominant industries moving on and new ones arriving. This is a fantastic opportunity for NYC to cement its role as a leading tech sector and one that should not be missed. There is no guarantee that the NYC of tomorrow will be as vital as the NYC of today. We have to work to make it so and this effort to recruit Amazon to NYC is exactly the kind of work which will make it so.

My friend Kathy Wylde also penned an important argument in favor of Amazon in yesterday’s Daily News. Kathy explains that Queens has been planning for this sort of thing in Long Island City for over a decade and many of the issues that the rabble rousers are raising have been considered, planned for, and are already being worked on.

In my view, politicians like Gianaris and Ocasio-Cortez are being irresponsible and reckless in their opposition to Amazon while playing politics with something that is without question good for NYC, good for Queens, and good for their voters. Their voters know it and so should they.

Capitalism and Inequality

I was talking to a friend about AOC’s proposal to increase marginal federal rates to 70% to fund investments in fighting climate change. My friend said he was disappointed that she didn’t propose a top federal rate of 83.25% so that the marginal rate in NYC would be 100%. He was joking but his remark is important because it speaks to the nuance of the marginal rate, something AOC and her followers don’t really understand as much as they claim.

It reminds me of a heated conversation I had with my kids and their friends during our family ski trip over the year end break. Our kids, like most millennials I know, are struggling with the notion of capitalism at any cost and the massive income and wealth inequality that we are witnessing.

This headline I came across on Twitter today kind of sums it up well:

I am in the business of helping founders start companies which results in some of them becoming billionaires. Contrary to what some think, my wife and I aren’t in that club ourselves. But I know a fair number of billionaires and I have had a front row seat to the process of them going from not having a penny in their pockets to billions on their balance sheet.

And we are participants in the “economic system that creates billionaires.” I do not think it is immoral and I do not think billionaires are immoral. I do think the inequality that we allow in our country is immoral.

To me, these are two different things. And that is the gist of the discussion I was having with my kids and their friends over the year end holiday. They asked me why I don’t believe in massively raising taxes on the rich to pay for all of these new social programs that the candidates on the left are proposing.

I am a fan of many of these social programs, like medical care for all, like more affordable education for all, like new approaches to what we once called “welfare” and now is taking shape as Universal Basic Income. I have been called a communist, a socialist, a liberal, and more on this blog and all of those labels could be accurate in someone’s mind. I believe that society must find ways to support the basic needs of everyone, which include wellness, knowledge, and income. That we do not is immoral. That we allow billionaires is not.

I am a capitalist and a business person. I understand that increasing taxes on the wealthiest leads many of them to move their income and assets to lower tax jurisdictions and can be counter productive, particularly when you go beyond a certain threshold. I also understand that government is bloated and there are many places where we could cut spending to fund these new innovative programs that could help counter the immoral wealth imbalance we have in our country.

I believe that technological revolutions, like the industrial revolution and the information revolution, create opportunities for entrepreneurs to reimagine how the economy should operate. Those entrepreneurs, like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, Bezos, Page, Zuckerberg, build very powerful monopolies and amass billions.

As these revolutions reimagine how the economy should operate, many people lose jobs, can’t find jobs, find themselves in lower paying jobs, and there is real dislocation that results. And you get this “immoral wealth imbalance.”

The one part of the economy that seems immune to re-imagination is the government. If we were to force it to go through the same technological revolution that the private sector is going through, we would see massive efficiencies, and massive job losses, that would free up a huge amount of capital that could be used to pay for things like medical care for all, affordable education for all, and some amount of income for all.

That is what I am for. That is what I explained to my kids and their friends that I am for.

Times of change are times of change. And we can’t change some things but not everything.

I will end with a story from a book I read a few years ago. The book is called The Prize that was written by Dale Russakoff and is about the effort by Chris Christie, Cory Booker, and Mark Zuckerberg to fix the broken Newark NJ public school system.

The story takes place at an anti-charter school rally. Dale meets a woman who is protesting against the charter schools that are replacing the district schools. As she is talking to this woman, she explains that she is late to the rally because she had to spend all morning in line trying to get her child into the new charter school in her neighborhood. Dale is perplexed. Why would she be protesting charter schools if she is that committed to getting her child into one? The woman explains that most of her family works in the district schools and will lose their jobs if the city moves to charter schools.

And that’s where we are. We are not willing to move away from the things of the past to get the things of the future. So our elected officials decide to try to give us both and we struggle with how to pay for it all.

I am not for the emerging progressive Robin Hood narrative. I am certainly not for the entrenched conservative Let Them Eat Cake narrative. I am for a new narrative that understands that everything must change if we are to find ways to support everyone in our society.

Centralization vs Decentralization

Decentralization is one of, if not the most, discussed features of the crypto tech stack. In a decentralized system, no single body controls the system. We have most certainly not reached the era fully decentralized systems, but that is what most of the world-class technologists working in the crypto sector are focused on getting us to and I believe we will get there in the not too distant future.

If you are a student of tech history, you will not be surprised that decentralization is also the right technology arriving at the right time to solve some of the most challenging policy problems facing the tech sector right now.

Before I elaborate on that, I want to show you a slide from my colleague Nick‘s deck on crypto that he uses to talk to policymakers and elected officials. I believe he borrowed it from our friends at Placeholder and they are credited at the bottom of this slide.

Here is my quick explanation of that slide.

IBM had a near monopoly on computing by virtue of their domination of the mainframe, mini-computer, and, it seemed, the PC computing platforms.

But the open PC hardware standard allowed Microsoft to develop an operating system that could run on any computer built to the PC hardware spec and they eventually unseated IBM, only to become a near monopoly themselves.

But just as we were wringing our hands about what to do about Microsoft’s monopoly, an open source operating system (Linux), the internet protocols, and the free distribution of the world wide web undid that monopoly and we got Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other big tech platforms.

And now we are wringing our hands about these near monopolies and their market power and the ability of bad actors to manipulate them. And around the same time, the technology to architect and scale a completely decentralized system emerges.

The other thing that is true of these moments of hand wringing is that just as the technology is emerging to unseat the near monopolies, regulators and elected officials try to put the genie back in the bottle using traditional regulatory techniques that often end up more deeply entrenching these near monopolies.

To give you an example of how this might happen, I am going to suggest you all go read my partner Albert’s post from yesterday on Twitter and how one might approach addressing some of the vexing problems that platform is dealing with right now.

Albert points out that:

On the minus side the calls to treat Twitter as a traditional publisher are growing.

That is how elected officials and regulators often think. They look backwards to find a model of regulation that has worked in the past and try to apply it to a new thing. But as Albert explains:

The idea that there could or should be a single central institution, let alone a commercial company, which as a benevolent dictator resolves all of these issues to everyone’s satisfaction is a complete non-starter.

Instead he proposes a few ideas that are steeped in decentralization:

my preferred go to answer is to shift more power to the network participants by requiring Twitter (and other scaled services) to have an API. That would allow endusers to programmatically create the best version of Twitter and would also make it easier to simultaneously use Twitter and new decentralized alternatives.

And

Twitter should significantly expand the features that let individuals and groups manage the visibility for tweets for themselves. There are already useful features such as muting a conversation or blocking an individual. These could be expanded in ways that allow for delegation. For instance, users should be able to say that they want to subscribe to mute and block lists from other individuals, groups or organizations they trust. One example of this might be that I could choose to automatically block anyone who is blocked by more than x% of the people I follow (where I can choose x). Ideally these features could be implemented at the tweet/conversation level and not just the account level.

So you can see that by decentralizing the power to the edges of the network INSTEAD of further concentrating it by requiring the network owner to further centralize power is the right answer, both from a technology perspective and a regulatory/policy perspective.

Sadly, I think we are in a race with ourselves in this centralization vs decentralization debate. We need the decentralized tech stack to evolve more quickly and show the world how decentralized technology works in a mainstream way at scale before policy makers and regulators force the tech sector to go the wrong way.

And, most disturbingly, the regulators and elected officials are taking actions, well intended of course, to slow the decentralized sector down, not speed it up.

Which is why we at USV have been spending a lot of time with public servants of all kinds, educating them, imploring them, and desperately trying to get them to understand where we are, why it is an important moment, and why we need to this new technology to succeed.

Video Of The Week: The Sorkin-Clayton Interview

One of the big issues facing the crypto sector is the regulatory question, both in the US, where it looms largest, and elsewhere around the world. In the last few weeks we have seen the SEC reach settlements with several crypto projects and decentralized exchanges, all of which were the subject of enforcement actions or threatened enforcement actions. As I alluded to in this post last week, I fully expect to see the SEC continue to look hard at the crypto sector in an effort to rein in what it sees as violations of its rules on the offering and sale and trading of securities.

In the wake of all that, The New York Times hosted an event last week in which Andrew Ross Sorkin interviewed SEC Chairman Jay Clayton. 

This is a recording of that interview. The conversation is about an hour long. You can/should fast forward to 11 1/2 minutes in to bypass all the introductions.

My Amicus Brief

The Supreme Court is going to start hearing arguments today in a case where consumers are challenging Apple’s distribution monopoly on iPhone apps. These consumers are represented by the attorney generals of 30 states including California, Texas, Florida and New York.

I just heard about this case today and it is too late to file an amicus brief, so I am simply going to share my thoughts on this case here.

1/ Apple argues that consumers cannot bring suit against them as it is the app developers who are the harmed party if there is one at all. I don’t agree with that for two reasons. First, developers pass the increased costs on to the consumer. Second, the developers are not going to attack Apple because they are their only way to get to market.

2/ Apple argues that a decision against them will harm the broader e-commerce market. I don’t agree with that either. If anything, opening up the distribution system for mobile applications would massively increase the e-commerce market which is artificially constrained by Apple and Google’s mobile app store monopolies. I wrote a bit about that earlier this year.

3/ The US Chamber of Commerce did write a brief in support of Apple in which they argued that “The increased risk and cost of litigation will chill innovation, discourage commerce, and hurt developers, retailers and consumers alike.” I cannot disagree with that statement more. Innovation flourishes when there is an open market where no one party can control what can be sold. Apple routinely prevents innovative new apps from being sold in their app stores. A good example of that right now are crypto-based games and other applications that threaten Apple’s 30% take rate on digital goods business model.

Apple and Google have constrained the distribution system for mobile apps in many parts of the world and the result is higher costs for consumers, less choice, and ultimately less innovation. None of this is good for the economy. It is high time for the courts to weigh in here and open up the opportunity for third party app stores to exist on Apple and Google phones. I encourage the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the consumers in this case in hopes that it will lead to that.

A Fair Share From Airbnb

I will be attending a press event today in NYC where Airbnb is announcing a $10mm program to support local efforts that improve the lives of New York State residents.

Airbnb calls this program A Fair Share and it estimates that the $10mm is just 10% of what a home sharing tax in New York State would produce for the city and state governments.

The $10mm in financial support is going to seven organizations. They are:

  • The New York Immigration Coalition

  • New York Mortgage Coalition

  • New York State Rural Housing Coalition, Inc.

  • Win

  • GMHC

  • CSNYC

  • Abyssinian Development Corporation

These are all organizations that benefit from city and state tax dollars but need to tap into the generosity of others to deliver their services.

Take CSNYC, where I am leading the $40mm CS4All private sector capital campaign to bring computer science education to every public school building in NYC. CS4All is a ten-year $80mm effort develop over 5,000 public school computer science teachers. Half of that $80mm is coming from the NYC taxpayers. The other half is being raised from private donors. Airbnb’s generous support helps us meet our budget this year and beyond and we are very grateful for it.

But there is a larger point being made here and one that I want to highlight. Airbnb wants to operate legitimately in New York City and New York State. It wants to collect taxes on behalf of hosts of non-hotel accommodations in New York. And it wants to be a positive force for the economy in New York. But its opponents, largely the hotel industry and its employees, are standing in the way of that. This is politics getting in the way of good sense. And that is irritating to me as a citizen of New York City and New York State.

I am thrilled to accept the generosity of Airbnb on behalf of CSNYC and I am also happy to be a participant in helping Airbnb make a larger point about what is right and what should happen here. I hope that A Fair Share helps them do that.

Regulating and Legislating Tech and Tech Companies

More and more of the news around tech these days is about the relationship between technology companies and government. That was not the case a decade ago when regulators and elected officials took a largely hands off approach to technology, particularly the Internet, web, and mobile.

While I am not a fan of many of the moves that regulators and elected officials have made over the last few years, including the NYC City Council’s recent bills to clamp down on home-sharing and ride-sharing in NYC, I do believe that the tech sector and tech companies must engage with the public sector and they must do it earlier in their development.

It is hard to be an advocate for the tech sector and tech companies with the public sector, a role I play fairly regularly, when the companies in question have not been the best actors themselves.

The good news is that the tech sector no longer naively believes that it can opt out of the public discourse and political engagement.

The bad news is it is playing catch-up and is on it’s heels. That is going to take time and money to fix.

Emerging sectors like crypto and machine learning should pay heed to what has happened here and not make the same mistakes as their predecessors.

Opportunity Zones

I was at dinner with my friend Stephen a month or so ago and he was bending my ear about a provision in last year’s tax bill that provides very significant tax incentives to invest in businesses or real estate in certain locations around the US that have been underinvested in.

It all sounded way to good to be true and I kind of ignored him. This sort of thing has been part of so many economic development plans over the years that it sounded like more of the same to me.

We had dinner again last week and he started in again, but this time we were with some other friends and they chimed in.

It turns out the tax incentives are as generous as my friend said and what seemed to me to be too good to be true is in fact true.

These locations are called Opportunity Zones and here is a map that shows where they are located. I bet there are some near you. There are a ton in NYC.

Forbes has a long piece on how these rules came to be and how they work.

I have never been a fan of letting taxes drive my investing and I don’t plan to change that but there are plenty of good investments that can be made in these zones and these new rules seem like they are going to catalyze them.