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Last week I went to CES, the tech industry’s annual conference where they show off cool new products, prototypes, and ideas of what’s next in tech. (I also presented on a panel, “Should Big Tech Be Broken Up?,” which you can watch here.) I approached vendors with a policy advocate eye, and did a lot of Instagramming. Here are some displays I’m still thinking about now that I’m back in DC.

When we think about how to make AI or biometric identifiers like facial recognition safer for people, one of the safety/privacy features we think of is keeping the data on your device. Of course, it’s still possible to have a privacy concern if the data stays on your device, but it at least protects the user from some potential data misuse. I also use my fingerprint to unlock my smartphone — does it stay on the phone or get sent back to Google, Apple, or some third party? If you use your face to unlock your smartphone, that data might stay on your phone and only be used to train your phone to be better at recognizing your face, or that data might go back to the phone manufacturer to help train its general facial recognition algorithm. That would help its algorithm get better at recognizing your face, but also the faces of people who look something like you. If the data stays on the phone, that’s not as likely a concern.

I was so excited about this product and I kept telling everyone at CES about it. The most common response I got from attendees was, “Wow, I hope Amazon buys them.” This is really troubling to me! A great company should be able to survive without having to be bought by one of the big tech platforms. A company can simply *contract* with multiple different buyers and sell their product to them, without having to be owned by its customers. It’s really concerning that we’ve become so accustomed to acquisition being the only exit strategy for start-ups that no one can even envision a normal relationship between a small supplier and it’s customers.

Mirri is a smart mirror for retailers to communicate with customers in the store. Later in the show I found another “smart mirror” with a different purpose. It’s sold to consumers and the idea is that it takes a photo of your face and tells you what your skin problems are, then recommends skincare products to address them, and measures how your skin improves over time as you’re using the new products. This sounds pretty useful, but the privacy implications immediately became clear. I was sort of reluctant to test it out on my own face, but I did. Then I realized the mirrors they were offering for CES attendees to try out were keeping all our face pictures on the device! I discovered this because I clicked a random button and suddenly a slideshow of a bunch of people’s faces was scrolling through my mirror, with my face at the end. I figured out a way to delete my face from the slideshow before I left, but it was a good lesson in privacy!

This was a “kitchen of the future” from GE, but I saw a lot of smart home and smart kitchen systems at CES. Samsung actually really impressed me with their SmartThings ecosystem for internet of things. It struck me as very open for companies that have a smart home device they want to connect to Samsung’s SmartThings ecosystem.

The key question to ask of any platform (or “ecosystem”) is whether companies need to have a business relationship with the ecosystem or platform owner in order to participate, or if it is open to anyone. Of course, companies can and should have some minimum requirements (safety, cybersecurity, privacy, etc.), but the system should be open to any company that meets those requirements, and those requirements should be clearly laid out. Many platforms require that in order to have your product work with the system, you have to negotiate a contract with the platform. This has the potential for real competitive problems, because the platform has a much stronger bargaining position than a new entrant just trying to bring a new smart kitchen device to market. That’s what we mean when we say open systems. It’s clearly not black and white, because a platform might have a standard contract that requires data sharing, or a high fee, etc., and only the biggest most powerful companies can negotiate themselves a reprieve from those things, but I find it’s a useful framework for thinking about open systems.

You can check out all my posts from last week on Public Knowledge’s Instagram page. You can also learn more about all of this at Public Knowledge’s annual Emerging Tech DC conference this spring. Submit your email address below to receive more information about that event once it is finalized.

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About Charlotte Slaiman

Charlotte is Senior Policy Counsel for competition policy at Public Knowledge. Prior to joining Public Knowledge, Charlotte worked in the Anticompetitive Practices Division of the Federal Trade Commission, investigating and litigating antitrust conduct violations, including the 2017 case against 1-800 Contacts for manipulating Google search ad auctions. She previously worked as a Legislative Aide to Senator Al Franken, focusing on Judiciary Committee issues including competition, media, and consumer privacy. Charlotte received her J.D. from New York University School of Law and graduated with distinction with a degree in Government from the University of Virginia. Charlotte grew up in the D.C. area and lives in Park View. She loves indie comic books, urbanism, and Maryland blue crabs.