Fake it until you make the news
I wrote last week about Hoan Ton-That, the founder of a facial-recognition startup with troubling implications for our privacy — and a troubling track record in tech. There have been a few developments: Twitter has sent his company, Clearview AI, a cease-and-desist letter ordering it to stop scraping tweets for images. And BuzzFeed News reported that many of Clearview’s claims about its work with public-safety agencies aren’t real.
Twitter has taken more action against Ton-That than it has revealed. In addition to the cease-and-desist, it has suspended @_hoan_, an account that old tweets and the Internet Archive clearly show took the place of Ton-That’s original account, @hoan. (Exchanges between Ton-That and his then-wife, Chantelle Tibbs, with whom he also performed in a band, still appear in Twitter’s archive.) A Twitter spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the suspension, nor did a spokeswoman for Ton-That.
So what is Clearview? A clear and present danger to our privacy with billions of images scraped from the web, or a startup with unproven technology and a customer list made up of exaggerations and prevarications?
Heck, maybe it’s both.
The strategy of imagining a future and then creating it — and hoping no one notices the messy gaps in between — is as old as Silicon Valley. A microprocessor, a website, a smartphone: These things all seemed impossible until someone built them.
Grubhub started out partnering with restaurants. Under pressure from less scrupulous competitors, it started listing restaurants without their permission.Photo: Mark Lennihan / Associated Press 2014
The problem comes when you decide to drag other people into your future. Like Pim Techamuanvivit of Kin Khao, the high-end Thai restaurant in downtown San Francisco. She doesn’t do delivery or takeout orders, so she was surprised to see her restaurant listed on DoorDash and Grubhub. We’re still untangling the web of blunders and deceit that may have led to this result — apparently parking lots, machine learning and SoftBank are somehow involved — but the economic motivation is clear.
Grubhub, a Chicago company which is publicly traded and hence answerable to investors, used to be the biggest player in online food delivery, and it only worked with restaurants it had vetted and signed deals with. Then Softbank invested $535 million in San Francisco’s DoorDash in 2018, and the smaller rival started pulling ahead in market share.
DoorDash engineers work on the delivery service’s Android app in 2016.Photo: Liz Hafalia / The Chronicle 2016
One key differentiator DoorDash had was that it would list any restaurant, whether or not it had a revenue-splitting deal or even the restaurant’s permission. That meant that consumers saw more choices when they popped open DoorDash’s app or did a web search. The downside is that DoorDash would sometimes send a courier to a restaurant when it wasn’t even open, or with an order for items it didn’t serve — and bear all the costs, since the restaurant wasn’t paying a commission. In-N-Out Burger sued DoorDash in 2015 over unauthorized deliveries (the lawsuit was later dismissed).
Despite all these drawbacks, Grubhub decided to mimic the startup. In a startling frank October letter to shareholders, Grubhub’s top executives wrote:
“For restaurant inventory, we will rapidly expand our recent pilots of putting non-partnered restaurants on the platform. For reasons we’ve discussed many times, we believe non-partnered options are the wrong long-term answer for diners, restaurants and shareholders. It is expensive for everyone, a suboptimal diner experience and rife with operational challenges.”
Grubhub’s app and websites showed a well-known San Francisco restaurant which doesn’t even do delivery.Photo: Dreamstime / TNS
“Suboptimal” is putting it mildly. Techamuanvivit’s complaint drew widespread attention, with other restaurateurs saying they found themselves subject to Grubhub’s new, “non-partnered” approach to business.
It’s one thing to say you’re coming out with an app next year, even if you know the delivery date might slip. It’s quite another to make the world your unwilling beta testers — grabbing social media photos or restaurant menus and doing with them whatever seems convenient at the time.