New York State to Revolutionize Antitrust

The Amazon H2Q fight in 2019 woke up the anti-monopolists in New York. Now they are moving forward with a new stronger trust-busting law.

“Too Much Power in Too Few Hands” – An Interview with Senator Michael Gianaris:

Senator, first of all, thanks for talking to me. I’ll start with a simple question. Do we have a monopoly problem? And if so, can you frame the issue in terms that anybody could understand?

Sen. Gianaris: The best way I can put it is that there is too much power in too few hands. This concentration of power creates the opportunity for corruption, and not just corruption in the traditional sense, although it creates that opportunity as well. But it just corrupts the way the marketplace is supposed to work. It diminishes competition, and it squashes small and medium sized players, who can’t compete with not just the size of the biggest players, but the tactics that they’re using and their reach into multiple aspects of economic life.

For goodness sake, they are reaching into multiple aspects of governmental life, and they’re trying to dictate to governments how we should be making our decisions. And we saw it, of course, with Amazon’s second headquarters situation. They created a bidding war amongst local governments! And you saw it again, with Amazon trying to change the makeup of Seattle City Council because they weren’t happy with a proposal to help homeless people.

This power is changing the very nature of our democracy and our economic democracy, to have so few people making all the decisions.

Source: New York State to Revolutionize Antitrust (emphasis mine)

This is the key to the issue. As a theme, in my writing, I’ve complained that government regulatory power has been “captured” by corporations through campaign contributions. But here’s a guy who’s campaign doesn’t need the kind of money that Amazon can give him through a PAC. He’s a state senator, with a very comfortable seat. He can speak up. And he’s asking the right question: who’s in control?

People who seek office presumably have a mind to, you know, govern. And the money that Amazon throws around is routinely taking that power out of their hands. We need more people like Senator Gianaris who stop this bribery for control, and tell the people running Amazon, “No.” No, you can’t have this, if it means that we have to set aside ethical concerns. No, you can’t have this, if you intend to abandon your implied social responsibility to the people you employ or the city in which you run your business.

If we are going to avoid the currently-predictable, grim meathook cyberpunk future of a world of corporate states, this and this alone is the motivation that can put a stop to the trend: elected representatives with a long-term view who act like adults, and tell whining, spoiled toddlers no.

Amazon Faced 75,000 Arbitration Demands. Now It Says: Fine, Sue Us – WSJ

Companies have spent more than a decade forcing employees and customers to resolve disputes outside the traditional court system, using secretive arbitration proceedings that typically don’t allow plaintiffs to team up and extract big-money payments akin to a class action.

Now, Amazon. AMZN -0.06% com Inc. is bucking that trend. With no announcement, the company recently changed its terms of service to allow customers to file lawsuits. Already, it faces at least three proposed class actions, including one…

Source: Amazon Faced 75,000 Arbitration Demands. Now It Says: Fine, Sue Us – WSJ

Not even Amazon can afford to keep enough lawyers on hand to continue the arbitration game. They have become a victim of their own size. Hilarious.

Someone on HN dug into the actual court proceedings, and found an epic comment from the judge.

Twitter Decries India Intimidation, Will Press for Changes – Bloomberg

The social network reiterated its commitment to India as a vital market, but signaled its growing concern about the government’s recent actions and potential threats to freedom of expression that may result. The company also joined other international businesses and organizations in criticizing new IT rules and regulations that it said “inhibit free, open public conversation.”

Source: Twitter Decries India Intimidation, Will Press for Changes – Bloomberg

It is, perhaps, a little rich for Twitter to be complaining about inhibition of “free, open public conversation” after throwing conservatives off their platform after the last election, in fact, as part of a larger move, along with Facebook and Amazon, to simply cancel them from them from the internet entirely. You may or may not agree with the decision to do so, but you have to admit that the hypocrisy of complaining about pressure to do the same thing by a foreign government is a little too on-the-nose. The Indian government just wants some of the same social engineering and control that the political Left in America literally just demonstrated.

Either social media companies are common carriers, and free of any censorship (where affected parties can always sue for any and all illegal speech), or they are, by default, a platform in support and service of censorship, and fair game to be manipulated by anyone with the legal or financial pressure to do so on their behalf. You cannot have it both ways.

jwz: ENGAGEMENT!

Every time we post to our Facebook account, it immediately gets 2-5 one-word comments from random Indian dudes with locked accounts that are years old and have thousands of friends:

Source: jwz: ENGAGEMENT!

There’s never post about Facebook on “Hacker” “News” where the comment thread isn’t filled with people saying, “I hate it too, but what do you want me to do? Never know anything that’s going on around me? There’s literally no other option.” Even JWZ himself, who abhors Facebook, still uses the platform to promote is nightclub in San Francisco. That’s how deeply ingrained the service has become to society, and how irreplaceable it is to local businesses.

This is a pitch-perfect example of what I was talking about in my previous post. This irreplaceability is precisely what all tech investment is gunning for: total control of a channel. Eliminating all competitors in the space, and establishing a monopoly. If you want to advertise some local social event, at this point, Facebook is your de facto only choice.

Right now, Uber seems like a good idea. Door Dash seems pretty nifty. WeWork sounds great. But make no mistake, once those platforms have removed all the competition in their spaces, their services will start to experience the same sort of corruption that is being described here. Scammers will flourish, as they focus their efforts. All of these services will come to feel like shopping at Amazon, where you used to be able to trust the reviews and delivery times, and now it’s just a roll of the dice on both.

Amazon Denies Workers Pee in Bottles. Here Are the Pee Bottles.

“You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you?” Amazon tweeted. Drivers say they’re being gaslit.

Source: Amazon Denies Workers Pee in Bottles. Here Are the Pee Bottles.

This is America, where the biggest, richest companies on the planet can’t even pay workers enough to let them take proper bathroom breaks. It would be funny if it weren’t so extensively documented for years, and yet our captured government does nothing about it.

This sort of unfettered capitalism is making me a liberal. We bail out companies, time after time, while they give their executives obscene bonuses, and let people fend for themselves, to try to make a living like this. This is not the sort of thing the United States should be about.

I can’t, in good conscience, continue to support an economic system like this. We’re watching a new feudalistic society take shape, in which there is an aristocracy of business owners and executives, and a proletariat of peasants that work their “fields” for subsistence. Modern-day America has all but wiped out all the middle-class economic progress of the post-war boom. The “American dream” is dead.

People are getting angry about it. I know, because I’m one of them. I think the Republicans are going to be out of power for a long time, especially if another Trump is the best they can do.

When U.S. blamed Saudi crown prince for role in Khashoggi killing, fake Twitter accounts went to war

Saudi-based Twitter accounts using fake profile pictures, repetitive wording and spammy tactics sought to undermine the conclusion by U.S. intelligence officials, made public Friday, that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” the operation that led to the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Source: When U.S. blamed Saudi crown prince for role in Khashoggi killing, fake Twitter accounts went to war

More and more of our news cycle is centering on Twitter. The blue-check-mark journalists who enjoy relative stature on the platform get preferential treatment, and there’s hardly a news article today which doesn’t reference at least one Tweet for an official quote. Like Amazon reviews, American society is placing increasingly-serious trust in an inherently untrustworthy system, and the people who run it are doing so in opaque and unaccountable ways.

#SocialMediaIsDestroyingSociety

Fake Amazon reviews ‘being sold in bulk’ online – BBC News

A Which? investigation found 10 sites offering fake Amazon Marketplace reviews from as little as £5 each.

An Amazon spokesman said: “We remove fake reviews and take action against anyone involved in abuse.”

Source: Fake Amazon reviews ‘being sold in bulk’ online – BBC News

As I was saying, some consumer-protection outfit in our government should literally shut Amazon’s “review” system down. It’s a complete fiasco. And the mere idea that Amazon is doing anything significant to combat the problem is a slap in the face, on top of the spit in the eye. You don’t even have to read an exposé to understand this. Ten minutes of reading reviews, and you can feel it in your bones.

I still use Amazon, for name-brand purchases of things that I would tend to put off buying for a couple weeks, until the next time I went to a store. With Prime, if you’re buying something well-established, and clearly delineated, it can be a nice convenience. But for anything requiring a decision, I avoid it.

If you’re going to put any faith in any reviews on the site, you have to filter by the 1-star ratings, and read them carefully. Unfortunately, competitors are also buying negative reviews of the competition’s products, so you can’t really trust them either. Trying to sort out the truth of online reviews is much more work than simply going to a store, and selecting an option on the shelf.

As I’ve also said before, Best Buy, Target, and other big-box retailers are doing the curation for us, and it turns out there’s a lot of value in this. I hope more people wake up to this fact. They’re simply not going to carry obvious junk that loses money for them through high rates of returns. Thus you have a reasonable expectation that anything you buy at retail is going to essentially “do what it says on the tin.” This is why I’ve gone back to doing most of my physical purchases from retailers, and avoiding the whole scammy thing.

Plus, you don’t have to play the game of Chinese roulette in whether or not the thing you finally select on the site is going to come over on a slow boat from the Far East, despite your “free” “2-day” shipping.

On the one hand, I find it difficult to believe that Amazon is the most successful realization of online commerce that our modern computer technologies can produce. On the other hand, you really can’t expect any different outcome, given the profit motives of all involved.

A comment from the Slashdot thread about this article sums it all up nicely:

Yup. And Amazon does not really want to fix the issue. They could if they wanted to, but they just won’t do anything about it, even when you report blatant violations and that’s from personal experience of a fake reviewer ring ganging up on me.

A while ago I bought some of the “top selling” binoculars from Amazon.co.uk because they looked shady and as I am quite familiar with scopes and binos I did some thorough and rather technical reviews. I was a top-500 reviewer at the time and the reviews appeared near the top. The result was that the sellers messaged me to warn me they are “reporting my account as of a malicious rival”, they left comments accusing me of being the owner of “rival store Agena Astro” (that was bizarre – that’s a large and very reputable US astro retailer to which I have no affiliation), and then my reviews started getting dozens of downvotes daily (it was possible then) until my reviews disappeared from the front page. Then, I got a message from someone with screenshots from a facebook group where the seller had users whom they paid and/or gave free products to, asking to downvote all my reviews. The guy told me he was in that group to get free products, but when he saw that message and looked up my profile he just could not do it and contacted me instead. I forwarded all the screenshots to Amazon, even though it should have been obvious that a group of users mass downvoting specific reviews is not something legitimate, and Amazon thanked me and did nothing. From a top-500 reviewer I fell well below top-1000, while the “best seller” garbage binoculars stayed on with glowing clueless or fake reviews visible. My profile did not recover even after the downvote feature was removed, the mass downvotes are permanent.

I have been a Prime member for over a decade and buy most online things from Amazon (not blindly, I do look around), but I miss the days when I could rely on Amazon reviews for purchases, or when the searches either returned good products or no products, not a sea of crap you have to navigate through…

Of course, then you have to wonder if he was telling the truth.

Stepping up for a truly open source Elasticsearch | AWS Open Source Blog

Last week, Elastic announced they will change their software licensing strategy, and will not release new versions of Elasticsearch and Kibana under the Apache License, Version 2.0 (ALv2). Instead, new versions of the software will be offered under the Elastic License (which limits how it can be used) or the Server Side Public License (which has requirements that make it unacceptable to many in the open source community). This means that Elasticsearch and Kibana will no longer be open source software. In order to ensure open source versions of both packages remain available and well supported, including in our own offerings, we are announcing today that AWS will step up to create and maintain a ALv2-licensed fork of open source Elasticsearch and Kibana.

From https://aws.amazon.com/blogs/opensource/stepping-up-for-a-truly-open-source-elasticsearch/. (Because Amazon seems to have broken the auto-embedding from the WordPress widget.)

Someone pointed out that the company behind Elastic made a profit of $500M last year. This apparently wasn’t good enough, because Capitalism, so after promising just 3 months ago that they would never change their license, they did, in order to try to claw back more money they might be missing out on. They gave anyone bundling their open-source product a giant middle finger to try to spite Amazon, and Amazon gave them the finger right back.

The resources to continue to develop Elasticsearch, post license change, is a rounding error on Amazon’s balance sheet, and you can bet your sweet bippie that anyone actually affected by Elastic’s spiteful license change will simply use Amazon’s version, and avoid the Elastic “tax” on their efforts. In open source, it’s always been about having the largest benefactor on your side, and knowing that keeping Elasticsearch truly open source is in Amazon’s self-interest will swing the choice between versions away from elastic.co. It seems to me that Elastic just misfired the foot-gun.

Best comment of the HN thread on the subject:

Unless it’s not clear yet, the biggest benefactors of OSS have become the 3 largest cloud vendors owned by 3 of the largest tech mega corps, namely:

  • AWS
  • Azure
  • GCP

The multi-billion dollar infrastructure and network lock-in cloud vendors enjoy ensures there will only be these 3 cloud platforms (in the western world) that will enjoy most of the value derived from OSS, who are collecting rents on the backs of ISV’s who developed the OSS products, because of which they’re also going to be most invested in keeping the OSS status quo where they’re able to repackage the resources & efforts others have invested into developing their OSS products and reap a majority of the profits by offering it as a managed hosted service on their platform, since relatively no customer using the cloud is going to want to use an external service if there’s also the same managed service being offered by the cloud vendor.

 

The fantasy that OSS allows equal competition is no longer a reality, ISV’s cannot compete with a cloud vendor who uses their own investments against them in addition to their anti-competitive monopoly lock-in of already having Customers running on their cloud platform.

 

Elastic’s move to SSPL is effectively “OSS + free for everyone with the exception of exploitation by a major cloud vendor”, since without it we’re heading towards a mono culture future where all hosted OSS software is going to be funded and resourced by the billions major cloud vendors have reaped in collecting all the rent for hosting others OSS investments, that AWS gives nothing back in exchange for.

 

SSPL is effectively being used a tool to force AWS to do the ethical thing and reach an agreement with Elastic to distribute a portion of their profits from using their trademarks and hosting their Software they’ve invested a decade in building. AWS has instead chosen the path to maintain their own fork to avoid sharing any profits with Elastic as they’re obviously currently making so much from hosting Elastic’s products that it’s in their financial best interest to start hiring dev resources to maintain their own fork then sharing profits with Elastic to fund its continued development.

 

Will be interesting to see how this strategy turns out, AWS may have already become to big to compete against who will be able to out resource, out fund & take over any ISV’s OSS product, but it’s clear the longer Elastic waits, the harder it would be to protect their own investments being used against them.

This all factors into ideas knocking about in my head about de facto monopolies and what modern society should do about them, which I’m still trying to be able to elucidate succinctly.

 

Playstation 5: At Last

I finally got a Playstation 5, thanks to Best Buy and Twitter. The new hardware can apparently do 4K at 120Hz over HDMI 2.1. I have a monitor that I use at 4K@60Hz over DisplayPort for my Mac, but it can only do 4K@30Hz over HDMI. So I went looking for a new monitor. The problem is that what I want doesn’t seem to exist. I can’t find a single model in the 30-inch range that can do 4K@120Hz. There are a lot that do 1080, and many that can do 1440, but if there are any that can do the full 2160, I can’t find them. What I don’t understand is that there seem to be a lot of big screen TV’s that can do 4K at 120Hz. Why aren’t they making them in desktop monitor sizes? I guess I’ll have to wait and hope that the new-gen gaming consoles push the market to make them.

UPDATE: I’ve been able to find a few select models that will do 4K@60Hz in a 32″ size, but, so far, none of the them support HDMI 2.1. Only 2.0. I’m not buying until I can find a unit that satisfies all the display features of the PS5.

UPDATE: Aha! My prediction about the next-gen consoles pushing the market was spot on. Asus — from whom I’ve bought all of my monitors for years, now — has just announced a new model, the ROG Swift PG32UQ, and it was covered just 3 days ago. It supports HDMI 2.1 and HDR and 4K@120Hz.

At the time of this writing, Amazon has listings for the 25″, the 43″, and a 34″ models. The 43″ is listed at $1,100, but I don’t want to go bigger than about 34″, and that one is being listed by some 3rd-party scalper at $1,600. (Good job, buddy.)

B&H lists them as a new item, “coming soon,” for $800, and that seems correct, but then I notice that it’s a ROG Swift PG32Q (not “UQ”), and the specs say it only supports HDMI 2.0, and I’m right back where I started. Why is this so hard? Researching further, this article says that the UQ version will be available starting at the end of the first quarter. Sigh.

Note bene: This means that all three listings on Amazon for the “UQ” model are fraudulent. They can’t possibly be that model yet. Nice, Amazon. Really keeping up your reputation here.

Anyway, I guess that will give me time to recoup from the PS5 itself, and get my tax return…

Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees to Get More Work

A strange phenomenon has emerged near Amazon.com Inc. delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders, according to people familiar with the matter.

Source: Amazon Drivers Are Hanging Smartphones in Trees to Get More Work

Our country has allowed companies like Amazon to extract and outsource an integral part of their product to individual contractors who are fighting over slivers of scraps. They have the money to hire real people, full-time, with benefits and everything — and pay for the fleet of vehicles — to deliver the products they sell from Whole Foods.

These delivery gig workers, in a lot of cases, aren’t even making enough to cover the mileage on their personal vehicles. Meanwhile, Amazon sits on $71.3B in cash, paid $0 in corporate taxes for the previous 2 years, paid just 1.2% this past year, and execs all laugh their way to the next exercised stock option worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As they say, “It’s good work if you can get it.”

People in Portland continue to protest, loot, and burn the place down, and the media wants us all to think this all about the Presidential race. In my opinion, this sort of inequality that’s really driving the rage behind these “protests.” Large companies in America have broken the implied social contract that a corporate charter implies. Amazon is just one of the handful of extreme examples. There are many others. It think it’s time to get serious about reforming unfettered capitalism, and limiting the size and scope of a company, based on how well they share their success with their employees.