December 4, 2023

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Small satellites could help give more citizens in the world access to the internet. That’s cool.

Do you know what’s uncool? Rich guys argue over whose space toys are better.

Let me tell you about the satellite spit between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, the technology they’re working on, and the risk of relying too much on technology to solve complex problems.

Let’s go: Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, Amazon, and other wealthy companies are working on networks of relatively small satellites that beam Internet access to the ground. These networks orbit at lower levels than traditional satellites and are cheaper to build and run.

Proponents say these networks can extend Internet service to ships at sea and other hard-to-reach locations, especially in remote areas. Similar small satellites are used for other projects like forest fire monitoring. There are downsides, but we should appreciate the possibilities.

This week’s tiff started because SpaceX wanted the US government to give some of its satellites to lower orbits. Amazon said that would interfere with its satellites. Musk got angry. Amazon said SpaceX was trying to “stifle competition in the cradle”. (Side note: America’s dominant online retailer probably shouldn’t blame others for stifling competition.)

I usually love to watch rich people argue. The Kardashians! But this time … ugh.

I understand why SpaceX and Amazon want to convince a US agency. However, I hope that talking about the trash doesn’t distract them from important questions: Is this satellite technology the best approach to getting billions of people online? Or is this another potentially misguided effort to throw complicated technology on a complex human problem?

To put it simply, is this a good idea?

We should be excited about ambitious technology, but not blinded by it. When compared to even thousands of satellites, the best Internet pipes in existence can carry far more web traffic. Satellite internet typically still requires special on-site equipment that is not easy to build or pay for. These emerging internet projects could be a very helpful addition rather than a replacement for an established internet infrastructure. It is a reality.

The other reality is that if you want technology to change the lives of billions of people, you have to think about it too … what kind of word is that? Ah yes: people.

Even in a rich country like the United States, people don’t lack internet access just because the technology isn’t up to snuff. There are also misguided government policies, structural inequalities, the need for many to spend money on more immediate things, and much more.

That means more people in the US can get online – not to mention the rest of the world – which technology can’t do alone. We also need to think holistically about the barriers to internet access between individuals and society.

Look, billionaires can attack each other, become obsessed with missile protocols, and think about government policies and human motivations. But billionaires also need to set priorities. If you and the rest of us are fixated on winning a “space race,” you risk not putting people first. (Or they are motivated to make money instead of bringing the world online. You can do both I think.)

The back and forth of the satellite made me ponder this interview with Tracy Chou, who was developing software to filter out harassing online posts. She said some companies want to believe that smarter technology can solve everything. It can’t.

I’m sure Bezos, Musk, and everyone else involved in satellite internet projects know this. You just have to act like that.

Everyone from representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to right-wing figure Ben Shapiro declared the stock trading app Robinhood the bad guy on Thursday. Robinhood likes to say that it enables anyone to enter closed financial markets. Its critics said the company took on the free markets to crush the little guy.

But this week’s story may have been simpler: A bumblebee company was badly off the money.

What happened: Hordes inspired by a Reddit group helped drive the share prices of GameStop and other companies soaring. Robinhood and several other stockbrokers that week then restricted customers’ transactions in the spinning stocks. People got angry saying Robinhood was trying to protect wealthy investors from losses against minnow online traders.

But maybe Robinhood had no money? Stock brokers like Robinhood are required by law to have enough cash to pay clients, cover losses, and have a cushion if something goes wrong. This week seemed to be draining Robinhood’s ability to do so, and my colleagues reported that the trading platform had to raise $ 1 billion in emergency money.

What’s the lesson here? My colleague Andrew Ross Sorkin asked an important question: Is there something wrong with Robinhood, that it didn’t have enough money, without emergency funding or customer shutdown? My DealBook colleagues asked: Is Robinhood’s business model broken?

Maybe everyone should tweet less and ask financial regulators more questions.

Watch How Robinhood Makes Money: It is a good time to read my colleague Nathaniel Popper’s article about the people hurt by fast stock trading and how Robinhood is embroiling young Americans in risky financial transactions.

And these free stock trading apps may be less democratic than you think. Robinhood and its competitors are paid by Wall Street firms that do the actual stock business and try to squeeze pennies out of the transactions that Robinhood clients pay for. This is a longstanding industry practice and is not inherently bad. But getting paid by Wall Street giants doesn’t fit Robinhood’s image of empowering the masses to beat the rich.

  • The Twitter mob for a corporate agenda: My colleague Adam Satariano explores how one company used social media manipulation techniques typically used by authoritarian governments to advance their political ends.

  • The secret of Google’s deleted paragraph: A human rights group criticized Google for opening data centers in Saudi Arabia. The company then changed a blog post about its Saudi project. Protocol explained what happened.

  • Warm weather, a bitcoin-friendly mayor and (by chance) lower taxes: Please enjoy when my colleague Nellie Bowles writes about the kitesurf clubs and other cultural changes as titans from the tech decamp to Miami. A moving company calls it “Mass Techxodus”.

This week, for the first time in more than a century, a beautiful snowy owl was spotted in New York’s Central Park. Check out this owl staring at crows! (Unfortunately the owl appears to have left the park.)

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