Big tech & Parler

What is the purpose of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, of platforms/ app stores like Apple and Google, and of services powering the web like Amazon (AWS)?

The purposes are many and wide-ranging, but taking on the role of the judiciary, is definitely not one of them. As is not, deciding what content deserves to be distributed, or being an arbiter of lawful vs. unlawful speech. There is little grey here – the United States is a democracy with institutions like the Congress, the judiciary, and our elected representatives, responsible for upholding the law and acting against unconstitutional behaviour. If, hypothetically, these institutions or representatives are not doing their job well, does that mean other powerful forces can seek power that’s not theirs, and take on the role of the judiciary?

If, the above is given and accepted, what must follow, is shock and discomfort with Facebook’s and Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, and Apple’s, Google’s, and Amazon’s decision to ban Parler, the social media app that is said to have been used to coordinate the US Capitol riots, and is generally used by Trump supporters and right-wing conservationists. Firstly, to clarify, I identify as a libertarian. However, this issue has little to do with anyone’s political and social beliefs, and more to do with the separation of powers between the state and big technology firms.

It has everything to do with the question – who decides what is, and is not, acceptable speech?

The ground for all these bans has been unanimous – to prevent Trump’s account or the Parler app from inciting further violence, and to protect the country’s safety. But, since when did big tech get to decide what is acceptable speech? The point is not whether the Capitol riots were actually coordinated on Parler and if it should exist; rather, the point is, who is making that decision? Big tech doesn’t get to decide others’ guilt and punish them – we have democratic institutions for that. Disagreement or generally accepted public opinion, is not grounds for a ban.

This is similar to Trial by media – i.e. the media assuming the role of the judiciary and pronouncing judgements before the actual verdict. This is a dangerous place to be in, for a democracy.

As long as the content is not unlawful (as governed by US law), it has to stay. As Ben Thompson argued last year, the job of social media platforms is not to decide what content gets published, but to distribute the content that’s published. Limiting the spread of information that is legally disputed, seems like a reasonable thing to do. Deleting or banning it outrightly, does not.

There is a thin line between the accuracy of a statement, and deleting it because you disagree or you ‘think’ that it is not acceptable. You are not the law – that is the whole point.

The other problem is competition. Today, blocking the app that helped plan the Capitol riots, seems like a reasonable and safe thing to do. But the thing with such power is, it doesn’t stop there. It becomes the norm rather than the exception. Yuval Noah Harari said the same of state surveillance last year – it’s impossible to go back. Tomorrow, this power could mean banning other operating systems on privacy grounds, cryptocurrency on safety grounds, and any competition on any reasonable-sounding ground. Competition is dead.

But, here is the devil’s advocate argument. Trump not accepting the election results, or his supporters storming the US Capitol is unconstitutional itself; it violates the principles of liberalism and democracy itself. Therefore, given that the President and his supporters have taken matters into their own hands, which has also resulted in loss of life, it makes sense to stem such unconstitutional activities from the root. ‘You are entitled to your political beliefs but not at the cost of anyone else’s safety or life’, is the argument from all tech firms. It sounds right – your beliefs or actions cannot endanger or harm others. That IS correct by all means, the problem is that tech firms cannot be deciding this. It is akin to taking the law in your own hands. If someone steals from you, you do not harm them yourself – you believe in the judiciary to give you justice.

Impeachment exists for presidents, trials exist for rioters. These systems may not be perfect, but they are what we have. And we cannot independently make parallel systems because we don’t like the existing ones.

Of course, there are parts of this that are not black and white – they are grey. Inciting violence, the loss of lives, a breach of safety at the highest levels of the Government – not everyday occurrences. If we know the platforms or people responsible for them, banning them seems like the right thing to do, in the short term. However, it breaks down in the long-term, when this precedence is applied to everything else, at the whims of powerful executives. Ben Thompson has beautifully argued that upholding liberalism is more important than upholding democracy because liberalism is the foundation of democracy. He says liberalism also includes the freedom of tech companies to act for themselves, especially when they feel nobody else will act, particularly to preserve democracy. However, this is a rare occasion where I will have to disagree with him. The absence of the state’s or judiciary’s or Congress’ actions on unconstitutional activities, does not give any company the power to assume that role. We have the next elections or an impeachment to change who we want this power to rest with. Our institutions may not be doing what they should, but that does not mean a handful of individuals do what they should.

Additional reading:

Ed-tech is hot, but 85% of India’s children are feeling the heat of no education

Meet Gudiya. She’s an eighth grade student in a public school in Hisar, a small town in
Haryana, India. The state of her school is dismal (absent or unqualified teachers, no
accountability, no infrastructure), but it’s her best and only choice. Since the
pandemic, her school has been shut. There are no classes – none offline and none
online. The teachers didn’t have the infrastructure to prepare and deliver instruction
online. Independent online education is impractical because Gudiya’s family has no
laptop or desktop and her father is the only one with a smartphone, which her two
elder sisters share for studying. Her education is at a standstill, and she’s being left
behind every single day.

Ed-tech’s 2020 promise has evaded her. Venture money has not put a tablet or phone in
her hand, there are no regular Zoom classes to attend, and personalized, gamified
learning is a wishful dream of the distant future. She does not lack ambition, a desire
to learn or hustle; she lacks access.

Gudiya’s story is one of over 225 million students in India who attend public schools
and low-fee private schools
. Not only has ed-tech not improved education outcomes
for them, it has widened the gap between them and the 25 million others, fortunate to
have access to virtual education. Ed-tech startups are catering to the small population
of middle to high income students only (i.e. 10% of India’s school-going children), and
with good reason. Gudiya’s family does not have INR 25,000 (US $350) to spare every
year. They don’t even have INR 2,500 (US $35).

THIS is the dichotomy facing India’s ed-tech. It’s sobering to imagine >85% of India’s
students being left behind with no virtual (or offline) education today. However, to
merely lament on how poor the situation is, would be a dis-service. Institutional,
structural change of the public system is long and hard, but in the meantime, there IS
something we can do.

Bring ed-tech innovation to the public school system, i.e. the Government could give
grants to startups, for them to provide their infrastructure and solution to public
school students (~40% of India’s 250 million students). Imagine every such student
having a Byju’s or a Vedantu subscription and infrastructure. It would cost
approximately INR 100,000 Crore (US $13.5 billion) to provide every public school
student a Byju’s or Vedantu subscription for a year. This represents 16% of the yearly
education spend by the Indian Government.

Startups will have to customize their content and pedagogy to suit the context and
learning levels of public school students, and the Government’s funding will help spur
this innovation. The public system gains by enabling access to cutting-edge content for
its students, and startups gain because they now count millions and millions of new
students as customers, customers they could have never been able to acquire
otherwise. This further strengthens their product through more and wide-ranging data,
and improves efficiency and outcomes of the entire system.

It all sounds fairly straightforward and logical, but let’s go one level deeper and think
through the challenges.

  1. The first fairly obvious one would be – why can’t the Government system develop
    its own content and infrastructure to educate its students? The answer lies in the
    public system’s DNA. It’s not built to innovate and ship rapidly, and every day counts. Developing content, training teachers, procuring and distributing infrastructure, and instituting accountability is all possible – but not in the time frame we’re thinking about. It’s long term change, often affected across decades. Further, for every state Government to initiate its own such process will be overwhelming and time-consuming (since education is a concurrent subject i.e. one governed by both the Central and State governments).
  1. Second, where will the Government get these funds from? An outlay of INR
    100,000 Crore (US$ 13.5 billion) represents 16% of India’s yearly education
    budget. Even though there are some operating expense savings as schools are shut,
    nearly 80% of the Government’s budget actually goes towards teacher salaries,
    which are still being paid. There are two funding ideas here: i) Leverage and
    incentivize the private sector’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) spend and
    private foundations’ existing spend on education, towards this large-scale
    initiative, or ii) Increase the Government’s education budget for this year. It
    sounds like a tough sell, but here are some fun facts. India’s national education
    spend is a dismal 3% of the GDP, and has, in fact reduced as a percentage of the
    GDP in the last few years. Compare this with a global average of 4.7%. In fact, India
    ranks 144 among 191 countries in education spend as a percentage of GDP. India’s
    National Education Commission recommended a spend of 6%, which has never
    been achieved. If the Government did in fact increase budget to accommodate this
    proposed solution, education spend would increase by 0.5% of GDP, to 3.5% of the
    GDP, still well below targets.

  2. Third, securing buy-in from the public school teachers and staff i.e. will their jobs be obsolete? Change in public education systems has been held back traditionally due to unaligned incentives within the system – teachers often don’t have an incentive to support change, and have traditionally viewed technology as an enemy seeking to replace them. Teacher pay, retention or promotions are not linked to outcomes or even performance, and they’ve usually shown the highest resistance to change. This resistance has also usually politicized any large-scale overhaul of the teacher recruitment process. Under the proposed model, Government school teachers could still: a) Focus on the long-term roadmap of developing infrastructure, resource and content capability within the public system; b) Partner with startups to develop contextualized content and assessments for their students’ learning needs; c) Some teachers could also teach on live-class platforms like Vedantu, thereby helping these startups scale their capacity; d) Enable and support their students to adopt and understand this new way of learning, example via assessments and extra classes.
  1. Fourth, a working capital challenge for startups. Indian startups have always
    struggled to receive revenue from the Government on time, resulting in a risky
    working capital situation, even resulting in a few startups being shut down. This
    problem is, however, relatively easier to mitigate and will require accountability
    measures at every level of the Government’s payment machinery, along with
    creative structuring of contracts for upfront payment to cover the startups’ content
    development costs (capital expenses).

Make no mistake, these challenges and potential mitigants are also theoretical in
nature, and the biggest issue at the heart of this debate, is the Government’s incentive
and willingness to change, and startups’ willingness to build for real India’s ed-tech.
Traditionally, education has been the one sector where public system change has been
the slowest and most difficult. This is because any changes in QUALITY (not access) of
education take a significant time to reap results, and most Governments in power have
to focus on quick wins and optimize for the next elections. This is why India has nearly
achieved universal primary education for several years now, because access is easier to
improve and measure in a short time period. Quality, however, is not. If investments
are made in grades VI through VIII today, you have to wait for at least 7 years when a
VI grader takes her grade XII exams (school passing-out exams), to measure any real
progress. Private-public partnerships have moved education outcomes further in the
last several years, but a more concerted effort is required, particularly during the
pandemic.

While 2020 was the year of ed-tech for both entrepreneurs and investors, it wasn’t the
year of education for an overwhelming majority of children in India, who were left
behind, more than ever before. We must constantly think how we can flatten the
pyramid further – we don’t need to start a social enterprise or a non-profit or an impact
investing fund. Arguably, Google (and YouTube) did more to democratize education
than any ed-tech startup or social enterprise or non-profit. It’s clear that massive
commercial upside awaits those who can flatten the education inequality pyramid –
and as entrepreneurs, operators and investors in ed-tech, while we celebrate our recent
wins and covid tailwinds, we must constantly remind ourselves of this.

In upcoming pieces, I will cover:

  • A thesis on Indian ed-tech: from Byju’s to Studyroom, and everything in between
  • How ed-tech in India and China fundamentally differs from that in the US, and
    why
  • My favourite ed-tech startups globally, and recommended reading

Favourite books, articles, podcasts, and movies of 2020

Books:

  1. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah’s story of growing up in South Africa. This book lives up to all its hype, and then some – it’s difficult to write about racism without victimization and pity, and Trevor did exactly that. Recommend very, very highly
  2. An American Marriage – I laughed, cried, and smiled with the characters – real race issues in America and what prison does to innocent people. Incredibly beautiful
  3. Zero to One – Needs no introduction. This book changed my world view on creating large-scale impact and what it means to really change the world
  4. The Three Body Problem – Was one of my first scientific fiction books, and I got through it slowly, but surely – it’s mind-opening. Set against the backdrop of China’s cultural revolution makes it even more interesting
  5. 1984 (re-read) – My favourites: ‘if both the past and the external world exist only in the mind, and if the mind itself is controllable – what then?’ and ‘freedom is the freedom to say two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.’ 1984 is a book for the ages

Articles:

  1. The categories were made for man, not man for the categories – Slate Star Codex. My all time favourite article ever. Period.
  2. Questions – Patrick Collison. Incredibly thought provoking questions about the past, present, and future of the world we live in
  3. The future of America’s contest with China – New Yorker. Long read but worth it. I enjoyed understanding Chinese students’ perspectives of the US, and the experience of the author in China
  4. Content, cars and comparisons in the streaming wars – Matthew Ball. Deep dive on the OTT space – how streaming and television have evolved, and the current landscape (Netflix, HBO, Disney)
  5. Masa Madness: an analysis of Softbank – Not Boring by Packy. Very well researched, genuinely not boring, and insightful deep dive on Softbank
  6. Legal systems very different from ours, because I just made them up – Slate Star Codex. Yes, SSC is my favourite blog. Another mind-opening read of what different (theoretical) legal systems could look like
  7. This is water – David Foster Wallace. This speech deserves to be widely read. How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life, dead and unconscious – highly recommend
  8. Targeting meritocracy – Slate Star Codex. SSC is my favourite – even though I don’t fully agree with all the arguments in this piece, it’s a logical and non-polarized opinion on meritocratic systems
  9. New erotica for feminists (an excerpt from the book) – Short and fun read on what a feminist’s fantasies look like
  10. How to build curation businesses – Erik Torenberg. Harvard, Stanford and YC are essentially curation businesses, where it comes down to brand and signal value
  11. Stop trying to try and try – Minding our way. I’m not a self-help/ inspirational reading type of person. But this is very legit advice that I often think of. We need to stop telling ourselves we need to try our best, and actually try
  12. The three sides of risk – Collaborative Fund. What really matters and we don’t think enough about, is, the tail-end outcome of any decision or situation. I often think about this now, while taking risky decisions
  13. Twitter, responsibility & accountability – Stratechery. Brilliant arguments on whether Twitter and Facebook are accountable for everything that’s published on their platforms or are they only distributors of content. I don’t fully agree with everything, but this is my favourite read on this topic
  14. Social cooling – This is not a piece but a new concept. Scary. I re-read 1984 recently, and there were eery similarities with this concept. What happens when all our data is being recorded and we are being watched all the time?
  15. The case against kids – New Yorker. Good piece on why having kids is not actually a selfless decision
  16. Why Figma wins – Timeless piece on what makes Figma tick: growth loops and how Figma has made design not only a designer’s thing, but everyone’s thing
  17. If I ruled the Tweets – Not Boring by Packy. Fun piece that resonated a lot of my thinking about Twitter
  18. How the Kremlin uses and abuses history – Carnegie Moscow Centre. Intrigued, but not surprised to read how the Kremlin has used and abused history to its benefit (another 1984 reference!)

Podcasts:

  1. McDonald’s broke my heart – Revisionist History. My favorite podcast episode ever. The McDonald’s fry we all know today is not the OG fry, and for an utterly unbelievable reason. Highly recommend
  2. Ben Thompson on platforms and aggregators – Invest like the best. Even though Ben Thompson pioneered this topic, but this podcast revisited it with newer perspectives and examples, making it more interesting than ever before
  3. Negative oil – Planet money. Good explanation of what really happened when the oil futures went negative. I love Planet Money for fun explanations of seemingly complex topics
  4. Spanx: Sara Blakely – How I built this. Usually not a fan of listening to entrepreneurial stories, but this one’s an exception. Sara Blakely didn’t know what a venture exit was, sold her product to Neiman Marcus in the ladies’ room, and more
  5. Shishir Malhotra on bundling – Invest like the best. Great mental model of how bundling works (and should work) in the real world

Movies:

  1. Hamilton – I think this movie will go on to have a deep and rich legacy. This is an experience and made me feel so many different emotions – definitely my top 3 movies of all time
  2. The Trial of the Chicago 7 – An absolute gem. I didn’t want this to end. Great court room drama about a civilian protest in Chicago against the Vietnam War
  3. The Post (rewatched) – Yes, I love movies based on historical events AND I love journalism. This covers how the NYT and The Washington Post finally broke the reality behind US’ involvement in the Vietnam War
  4. Icarus – It is mind-boggling to imagine doping at the Olympics. Icarus tells the story of consistent state-sponsored doping. Bone chilling

All these movies are true stories and the first three based on historical events.