Facebook is a powerful phone book, but it long ago opted against building a phone. There were good reasons not to build a phone. One, the risk of failure was high — at the time, Windows Phone was sputtering, and the iOS/Android duopoly looked increasingly impenetrable. Two, it would have put Facebook in direct competition with Google and Apple, risking an ugly conflict with the two biggest platforms on which the company depends.
But in search of new growth, Facebook ultimately came back around to the idea of building its own hardware — and, in a way, back to the phone. First came the Oculus acquisition, which turned Facebook into a manufacturer of virtual-reality gear. And today comes Portal, a video phone that runs on Facebook Messenger. Here’s my colleague Jake Kastrenakes with the gist:
The Portal is designed to simplify video chatting by having a wide-angle camera capable of identifying your body, then tracking you as you move around the room. It makes for more comfortable chatting than holding a phone up to your face for extended periods of time. Facebook says the Portal is designed to create the sense that you’re sharing one big room with the people you’re talking to, and considers the chats you have on the device an augmented reality experience.
With the Portal, you don’t have to hold, aim, or direct anything. Once a chat starts up, the device’s camera will automatically find people in the room and keep them in frame. If multiple people are in a room, the camera will use a wide angle to fit them all. If there’s only one person, the camera will zoom in to focus on their face. Facebook says this feature makes video chatting more natural, since you can just talk without worrying about camera angles.
I played around with Portal last week during a meeting with the Facebook team behind the device. As a thought experiment, I tried to imagine how I would feel about the device if I didn’t know who made it. The design struck me as goofy but functional: similar to the Echo Show, in its smaller version, and in the larger version, like a Square point-of-sale device. As a video phone, it worked as advertised. The marquee feature is a kind of dynamic cropping that constantly adjusts the angle depending on how many people are in the frame and where they’re moving. The company says this is a step toward VR-style “presence,” which feels like an oversell. But it seems useful.
The other striking thing about Portal is how little it does. Aside from making video calls, it can play music through Spotify or Pandora, play videos through Facebook Watch, or cycle through photos in an album of your choosing. Amazon’s Alexa is integrated into the hardware, and so it can do Alexa things. And that’s about it.
Single-purpose tools can be powerful in their simplicity — hammers, say, portable Bluetooth speakers. But if you’ve ever walked through Sur La Table and marveled at the strawberry corers and avocado slicers, you know they can also be a little ridiculous. If you can afford a $200 or $350 Portal, you probably already have a phone, a tablet, and laptop — and maybe an Echo or two — all of which can do everything the Portal does, and more.
The reason to buy one is because you make video calls so much that you’re willing to invest in dedicated hardware, and give it a permanent spot in your home. I have no idea how many people feel that way, but as a device that serves that particular thesis, the Portal seems worthy enough. As version 1.0 hardware from a company with little manufacturing experience, it’s a solid effort. The question is whether it’s a hammer or an avocado slicer — and at launch, it looks more like the latter to me.
Anyway, that’s how I’d review the Portal if I didn’t know who made it. But we do know who made it, and rarely in the history of gadget reviewing have I seen so many independent journalists come to identical conclusions about a device. The issue, of course, is trust. And the press corps doesn’t trust Facebook to put an always-on microphone and camera in their home. Even if it comes with a plastic camera cover and an off-switch for the microphone.
Here’s a sampling of the day’s zingers:
- “The Portal is a sleek new video camera and screen that makes chats with family and friends look great. It has just one problem: It was made by Mark Zuckerberg.” — Geoffrey Fowler, Washington Post.
- “‘Hell, no!’ That’s the blunt response I got from a colleague moments after I started to tell her about Facebook’s Portal and Portal+, the new voice-controlled, video-calling devices with Amazon’s Alexa that Facebook starts taking pre-orders for on Monday.” — Ed Baig, USA Today.
- “Facebook has proven to be a net negative for humanity. But if you’re one of the many people who doesn’t give a shit about anything, the Portal might be for you.” — Matt Novak, Gizmodo.
There are a lot more like that.
Perhaps demand will be stronger than reporters are predicting. Still, the fact remains that this is a device whose launch was delayed in the midst of one privacy scandal (Cambridge Analytica) only to arrive in the midst of another one. I’m not sure what a good time to launch Portal would have been this year. But there haven’t been many worse ones.
Doug MacMillan and Robert McMillan have a blockbuster today about how Google identified a significant data vulnerability in Google+, didn’t tell anyone about it, and are now shutting down the consumer-facing parts of its ersatz social network for good. It certainly all looks very bad, although there’s no evidence that anyone exploited the vulnerability. (The counterpoint, and it’s an important one, is that Google regularly purges the relevant logs, and so it can’t say for sure.)
A software glitch in the social site gave outside developers potential access to private Google+ profile data between 2015 and March 2018, when internal investigators discovered and fixed the issue, according to the documents and people briefed on the incident. A memo reviewed by the Journal prepared by Google’s legal and policy staff and shared with senior executives warned that disclosing the incident would likely trigger “immediate regulatory interest” and invite comparisons to Facebook’s leak of user information to data firm Cambridge Analytica.
Chief Executive Sundar Pichai was briefed on the plan not to notify users after an internal committee had reached that decision, the people said.
In August, I wrote about the growing threat of a wide-scale employee revolt inside Google over Project Dragonfly. Kate Conger and Cade Metz have some fresh interviews with employees who quit over the issue. Among the good points they raise is that there’s seemingly no way of working at Google without working on Dragonfly, at least indirectly:
“You can think you’re building technology for one purpose, and then you find out it’s really twisted,” said Laura Nolan, 38, a senior software engineer who resigned from Google in June over the company’s involvement in Project Maven, an effort to build artificial intelligence for the Department of Defense that could be used to target drone strikes.
Here’s an unsettling report from Jessica Schneider:
Trump administration lawyers are demanding the private account information of potentially thousands of Facebook users in three separate search warrants served on the social media giant, according to court documents obtained by CNN.
The new North American trade deal extends Section 230 protections to Canada, limiting the liability of the big platforms in our neighbor to the north.
Nitasha Tiku has a timely look at how Facebook’s ambitions in Africa have not been dimmed by its experiences in other developing nations:
Facebook would not disclose how many Express Wi-Fi hot spots there are or how the program has grown, but it is clearly part of Facebook’s larger push into Africa. Three of the five countries where Express Wi-Fi has launched are in Africa. In March, Facebook launched an Express Wi-Fi app in the Google Play store in Kenya and Indonesia. Facebook’s ISP partner in Kenya, Surf, says it has 1,100 Express Wi-Fi hot spots in the country, up from 100 in February 2017. In September, Facebook announced a partnership with The Internet Society, an American nonprofit, to improve internet connections throughout Africa.
Digital rights advocates in Africa say Facebook has evolved its approach after the problems in Myanmar. Facebook is working more closely with civil society groups, sending more delegations, recruiting native language speakers, planning for contentious elections, and hosting digital literacy efforts.
Contrary to an item I had here last week, Sarah Frier says Joel Kaplan did not apologize for supporting Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. I tend to believe Sarah here, since Kaplan hosted a party for the judge this weekend after he was confirmed.
Molly McKew calls Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich and other popular social-media stars “an operational unit of information terrorists helping to transform the way Americans consume news in the age of Trump.” In a long piece, she traces the development of these tactics from Gamergate through the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings:
Once information architecture is in place, it’s like pipes. You just inject new material into the system, and it gets where it needs to go faster and faster as people get used to receiving narratives and themes in a certain context from certain sources. On the far-right, in particular, there has been a concerted effort to recruit people to participate in this process. They act as human amplifiers, both organic and automated, within these narrative structures. (I outlined an example of this here; it irritated this network so much, there are two “Q cards” that reference that piece).
This process of unleashing conspiracies is not just an online activity. This is about behavioral change. And often, in the case of the far-right, about different forms of radicalization.
Facebook is setting up some sort of task force to monitor attempts at election interference in India, Pranav Dixit reports. Details are still vague:
“The team will have security specialists and content specialists, among others, who will try to understand all the possible forms of election-related abuse in India,“ Richard Allan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy solutions, told reporters at a convention organized by an Indian media house on Saturday, according to a report by the Indian newswire service IANS. Allan said that the task force will also work with India’s political parties and will try to understand all the ways bad actors can manipulate the platform in India. Members of the task force will be based in India, but it is unclear at this point how many there will be.
An Indian carrier named Reliance Jio us trying to educate the public about responsible WhatsApp usage. The medium is street theater:
Starting October 9, WhatsApp and Jio would visit 10 cities in different states including Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan for street plays and engage users to guide them on meaningful and positive ways of WhatsApp use.
“Jio has an important role in driving India’s digital revolution by empowering millions of Indians. We are excited to… help organise a campaign that educates people on how to communicate in a simple and safe way,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement.
The rise of far-right politician Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil may sound familiar to Americans:
Mr. Bolsonaro’s first-round victory was all the more remarkable because he lacked the backing of a major party and campaigned on a shoestring budget, relying mainly on social media to build a base. As of mid-September, the Bolsonaro campaign reported having spent about $235,000, a small fraction of the $6.3 million the Haddad campaign disclosed having spent.
Mark Scott looks at the landscape of fake-news regulations and finds that, as usual, the technologists are ahead of the politicians:
The fake news merchants are a step ahead, thanks to techniques that allow them to mask their location, masquerade as local activists and purchase political ads in countries’ local currencies to dodge rules against foreign influence.
The new tricks, which also include a shift to photo-based disinformation and use of internet messaging services like WhatsApp, are designed to defeat our outdated definition of what constitutes fake news — foreign-bought, easily identifiable and blatantly false.
Last month, a video of a woman allegedly dumping water mixed with bleach into the laps of manspreaders went viral, Megan Farokhmanesh. But it was a hoax:
According to a St. Petersburg-based publication, one of the men featured in the video said the whole thing was staged and the men were paid actors. “They poured water on us,” he wrote on a Facebook post sharing the video in his now-deleted profile. “That feeling when you come to the shooting with two spare pants and leave with a salary.” The publication also suggests that the video was shot by My Duck’s Vision, a studio with Kremlin ties that specializes in viral videos. My Duck’s Vision has denied involvement.
Facebook as a LinkedIn competitor is interesting to me, because the less people use Facebook to post about their personal lives, the more it feels like LinkedIn anyway. Josh Constine reports it just picked up two people from a recruiting startup to work on its Jobs product.
It’s worth reading our entire piece about Portal, which gets into the nitty-gritty of what it can do and adds good context around the launch. (I edited it. See if you can find my fingerprints!)
“Facebook Messenger could soon let you use your voice to dictate and send messages, initiate voice calls and create reminders,” Josh Constine reports, based on a tweet from Jane Manchun Wong.
Facebook has a new name for its camera effects platform. Personally, I found Camera Effects Platform more descriptive!
Shira Ovide has a great piece on how the recent Facebook and Google breaches have an important similarity: “consumers still can’t make informed choices about safeguarding their digital information.”
More than a decade into the era of prevalent social networks and smartphones, people still have no way to make informed choices about how to safely conduct their lives online.
People may not know all the gory details, but when they choose to use Facebook, Google+, Twitter, WeChat, iPhones and other technology products or services, they generally understand that the companies might collect dossiers on what they read, who they chat with and where they go. But people absolutely do not agree to whatever arrangements those companies make with outside parties to pass along personal information or data. Period.
I bet you can guess what the New York Times editorial board thinks just by reading the headline out loud in your most exasperated voice:
While the Cambridge Analytica scandal engulfed Facebook in a firestorm of controversy, this time the company effectively got a free pass from a nation fixated on Brett Kavanaugh and his turbulent Supreme Court confirmation. Still, with consequential midterms less than a month away, this latest string of Facebook privacy failures is a discouraging reminder of how much potential there is for things to go terribly wrong — again — during those elections. It’s not just about user privacy, it’s a sign of how well Facebook is poised to handle sophisticated foreign disinformation campaigns, and where its priorities lie.
And finally …
For the first time with this issue, I put together The Interface during lunchtime on a reporting trip to LA. I want to thank El Torito for the guest Wi-Fi and the grilled mahi mahi tacos. Both were great.
Talk to me
Send me tips, comments, questions, and the number of Portals you will be buying for friends and family this holiday season. firstname.lastname@example.org.