China’s video game market is the world’s biggest. International developers want in on it – but its rules on what is acceptable are growing increasingly harsh. Is it worth the compromise?
Last modified on Fri 16 Jul 2021 11.11 EDT
In the years after it was founded in 1999, the Swedish video game company Paradox Interactive quietly built a reputation for developing some of the best, and most hardcore, strategy games on the market. “Deep, endless, complex, unyielding games,” is how Shams Jorjani, the company’s chief business development officer, describes Paradox’s offerings. Most of its biggest hits, such as the middle ages-themed Crusader Kings, or Sengoku, in which you play as a 16th-century Japanese noble, were loosely based on history.
But in 2016, Paradox decided to try something a little different. Its new game, Stellaris, was a work of sprawling science fiction, set 200 years in the future. In this virtual universe, players could explore richly detailed galaxies, command their own fusion-powered starship fleets and fight with extraterrestrials to expand their space empires. Gamers could choose to play as the human race, or one of many alien species. (My personal favourite dresses in a lavish golden cape and has a head like an otter’s, with soft reddish-brown fur, dark eyes and a black snout. Another type of alien is a sentient crystal that eats rocks.)
The game was an instant hit, selling more than 200,000 copies in its first 24 hours. Later that year, Paradox decided to take Stellaris to China. This would mean navigating the country’s notoriously tricky censorship rules, but given that China was, at the time, home to an estimated 560 million gamers, the commercial appeal was irresistible.
Paradox had been burned in China before. In 2004, the ministry of culture had banned another one of its releases, Hearts of Iron, confiscating CD-Roms and shutting down websites that sold the game. It wasn’t hard to see why. Hearts of Iron was set during the second world war and touched on numerous sensitive issues – not least by portraying Tibet as a sovereign country. The Chinese ministry of culture accused the game of “distorting history and damaging China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. (China argues that Tibet has been an inextricable part of its territory for centuries.)
The company was not concerned about a repeat of 2004. Unlike Hearts of Iron, Stellaris was a game set in the distant future, involving intergalactic travel and aliens. Still, to help navigate the Chinese market, the developer partnered with the Chinese megacorp Tencent, the biggest game publisher in the world. As part of the deal, Tencent bought 5% of its shares. Paradox was so confident of success that in December 2016, it took the unusual step of announcing that it would launch in China even before a licence had been granted.
“From our perspective, it should have been largely problem-free because it doesn’t deal with any nations, Chinese or otherwise,” said Jorjani. It did not pan out that way. “Working through the ministry of culture, the censorship is not a super-clear process,” said Jorjani. “It’s a bit of a black box.” Five years after its big announcement, Stellaris has never officially launched in China.
China is the world’s largest market for the world’s largest entertainment industry. Today, the number of Chinese gamers, about 740 million, is bigger than the entire populations of the US, Japan, Germany, France and the UK combined. Its domestic market is worth more than $45bn a year. Yet, for decades, China has had a stop-start relationship with the entire industry.
Video game consoles started to arrive in China in the late 80s – some legally imported from Japan, others smuggled in to avoid high customs taxes – and arcades popped up around the country throughout the 90s. Like many governments around the world, the Chinese authorities were wary of this emerging interactive entertainment, and worried about its impact on young people. Around the turn of the century, Chinese officials and the media started to describe games as “digital opium” or “electronic heroin”. In 2000, the Communist party banned gaming consoles and arcade machines outright. But the ban did not include personal computers, and pirated copies of video games became widely available on the black market.
Today, Allison Yang Jing is an established game developer in Hong Kong, but at the turn of the millennium she was a 13-year-old living in western China. “Families would buy their children a home computer because they believed it was a way to boost grades at school,” she told me. “But most of the parents would complain later that ‘This is not a study machine, it’s just a console.’”
At the time, home internet was slow, so children started going to internet cafes to play PC games. Yang Jing remembers playing strategy games such as Age of Empires and Starcraft. There was a constant battle with parents and schools, who wanted to clamp down on gaming. “Teachers would go to cafes to catch students,” she said. Over the next decade, millions more would flood into internet cafes, as PC gaming flourished, creating an increasingly attractive market for international developers.
Any foreign gaming companies looking to operate in China are legally obliged to have a local partner. For Chinese firms such as Tencent and NetEase, this was a goldmine. These tech giants, the Chinese equivalents of Facebook or Google, have regularly part-acquired foreign video game firms and then helped them access the lucrative Chinese gaming market. One of the first and biggest deals came in 2011 when Tencent made an agreement with the American developer Riot Games. Riot went all in, selling a 93% stake to Tencent for a reported $400m. Four years later, it sold the remaining equity and become a wholly owned subsidiary of Tencent.
Shortly after the 2011 deal, a game designer at Riot’s headquarters in Los Angeles was called in for a meeting. After Tencent’s takeover, office life at Riot had been filled with the usual paranoia that comes with a new owner. “You know how it is with acquisitions. They say: ‘Oh, everything is going to be the same.’ But it eventually changes,” said the designer, who asked to remain anonymous.
They had been working on League of Legends, a fantasy-inspired online battle game. Today, League of Legends is one of the most popular games in the world, with tens of millions of people playing every day. But back in 2011, it was still on the rise, and breaking into China was key. At the meeting, some designers discussed plans to create an altered version for the Chinese market. This process, known as “localisation”, usually involves translating the text and dialogue of a game, setting up new servers to allow the game to run smoothly online, and ensuring the content complies with the publishing rules of the country.
According to the designer, Riot managers had provided a PowerPoint presentation that she assumed Tencent had made for them, although she didn’t know for sure. The slides explained some of the hurdles they would need to overcome. First, Chinese regulators are notoriously squeamish about gambling, strong violence and nudity – not only in games, but in TV and film, too. This is partly because the country does not have an age-rating system. Daniel Camilo, a Shenzhen-based specialist in publishing games in China, has said the government’s mindset is that “if something isn’t fit for one person, it isn’t fit for anyone”.
The Chinese body responsible for censorship, the National Press and Publication Administration, has some very clear rules – no copyright infringement, for instance, and no sharing state secrets – but most of its guidelines are less precise. Works that “endanger social morality or national cultural traditions” are banned; as is media that “promote cults and feudal superstitions”. This vagueness gives the censors almost unlimited power and flexibility when it comes to deciding what is and isn’t allowed. Many of the rules come down to the “moral paternalism” of Beijing’s leadership, says Lokman Tsui, an expert on Chinese censorship. “They really see themselves as moral authorities – not just the authority on the truth, but also the authority on morality.”
In 2011, the designer at Riot learned of an unwritten rule that no video game can show characters emerging from the ground, as if rising from the dead. There were other rules of thumb, too. “There can’t be exposed bones or ribs hanging out,” she told me. If a game features skeletons, developers reworking it for China will simply add on flesh. Nor can games feature realistic-looking blood. “There was a vampire character, and instead of red, [the blood] had to be black,” she said.
The team at Riot was also asked to consider the Chinese market’s assumed preferences when designing characters. Some of the advice struck the designer as sensible. One slide focused on the importance of not mixing styles of dress from across Asia, which can be confusing, offensive or simply ridiculous to a Chinese audience – the equivalent of a British character in a French beret.
Other recommendations were almost comical. “They said things like, ‘they [Chinese gamers] don’t really love grotesque monsters, goblins and ogres,” the designer recalled. “They like the pretty, young, more anime style.’” She remembers a long discussion about “butts” and the subtle differences between drawing them for east and west. Another time, they talked about mermaids. “A mermaid is great because she has a female torso and fish bottom,” she was told. “Here’s what’s not great: a fish head and sexy legs.”
It is hard to distinguish what Chinese gamers truly want, and what the industry, or the Chinese Communist party, has decided for them. Yang Jing, the Hong Kong-based developer, believes the assumption that the Chinese market prefers “beautified” games is a misconception. She said the industry has stumbled in its attempts to cater to children and women, who make up a large proportion of Chinese gamers. “There are games that are supposedly catering to the female market, but most female players find them very shallow and sexist.”
Looking back on the 2011 meeting, the designer didn’t feel there was any censorship of ideas or politics – it was purely a question of aesthetics. At that point, she said, there were no “Chinese overlords” directing the American company on what it could or could not put into its games.
A decade later, the situation looks very different. Since Xi Jinping took power in 2013, China’s government has become increasingly repressive at home, and increasingly resentful of international criticism of its handling of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in the western province of Xinjiang. According to an industry insider who helps foreign developers enter the Chinese market, those developers haven’t yet realised how restrictive the situation has become: “All these developers I talk to think everything is fine and dandy, whereas everything is on fire, and we should be panicking.”
By now, China’s growing influence on Hollywood is well known. In 2018, for instance, Paramount Pictures partnered with Tencent Pictures to produce an upcoming sequel to Top Gun. In a trailer, Tom Cruise’s iconic bomber jacket had a key difference to the one from the original 1986 film – a stitched-on Taiwanese flag had been removed. (Beijing regards Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy, as a breakaway province of China.) In 2020, the US arm of Pen International, an association of writers that seeks to protect free expression, published an explosive report on how decisions in Hollywood, including the content, casting, plot, dialogue and settings of films were increasingly “based on an effort to avoid antagonising Chinese officials”. It wrote that during the past decade or more, “domestic patterns of censorship and control have extended beyond China’s borders”.
Something similar is happening in the world of video games. In 2019, the US developer Blizzard, creator of massively popular games such as World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, expelled a top professional gamer from an international esports tournament and took back his winnings after he expressed support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Chung Ng Wai, a player from Hong Kong known by the name Blitzchung, had given a live interview in which he said in Mandarin, “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. After a backlash against Blizzard’s decision, the company’s president, J Allen Brack, apologised and admitted it had “moved too quickly”. The prize money was returned, and Bitzchung’s one-year ban was reduced to six months. Later, when asked in an interview if Blizzard’s partners in China, NetEase, had an influence on the decision, Brack replied: “Was NetEase in conversation around this issue? They were, certainly.”
In the wake of the Blitzchung affair, the US developer Riot Games backed the ban on political speech, saying official broadcasts of its tournaments were not a place for “personal views on sensitive issues (political, religious, or otherwise)”. Blizzard and Riot have interests in China. But more recently, paranoia about upsetting Beijing has spread deeper into the industry. In December 2020, a major European game publisher, GOG, pulled the release of a game that was mocking of President Xi, even though it has no Chinese investors and had not planned to sell the game in China. The horror title had featured subtle artwork comparing Xi to Winnie-the-Pooh, a common insult against the leader whose appearance has been likened to the cuddly bear.
If re-editing a movie for release in China can be tricky, changing a video game often involves a whole different level of difficulty. Whereas a film is essentially a linear series of shots, many video games are mazes of interwoven systems. Imagine that a European developer wants to release a game in China, but there is a level in which a player assassinates a Chinese general. In a game, killing that general may lead to the player stealing his pistol, which will then affect how difficult the game becomes dozens of hours later on. The gun could be referenced in vast reams of branching dialogue. Feature film scripts average about 100 pages, whereas some games have hundreds of different potential endings that unfold according to how you play. I once reviewed a video game that had a 4,000-page script. All this can make it incredibly hard to amend games to satisfy the censors – if one part of the game is removed, the rest can collapse.
Facing the prospect of such expensive and time-consuming reworks, developers might simply decide it’s not worth the trouble. Battlefield 4, a Swedish-made and US-published game in which you fight the Chinese military after a coup and can blow up buildings in Shanghai, was never going to make it past the censors.
Other developers, enticed by the promise of hundreds of millions of players, go back to the drawing board. One of the highest-grossing video games of all time, the Korean-developed PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), was not officially released in China because it was deemed too violent, with players killing each other until the lone survivor is declared a winner. In 2017, Tencent partnered with the Korean developer, promising to ensure that the game accords “with socialist core values, Chinese traditional culture and moral rules”. Getting past the regulators required creating a completely new game. Peacekeeper Elite, as the modified version was called, had no blood and no death – when a player was eliminated, they simply kneeled and waved goodbye before vanishing.
China’s government runs a gargantuan system of direct censorship – in 2013, it was estimated to be employing 2 million people to monitor and censor internet content – but perhaps even more important is the way it enforces a climate of self-censorship. The scholar Perry Link once described the threat posed by Chinese censors as being less like “a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon” than “a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier”. He continued: “Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is: ‘You yourself decide.’”
In the video game industry, as in many sectors, most censorship is not about top-down directives. Because the official guidelines are so vague, foreign developers tend to abide by a fuzzy, speculative and ever-changing set of unwritten “rules”, many of which are gleaned from trial and error. Time travel, for example, is considered best avoided. “I’m not 100% sure why,” said the industry insider I spoke to. “But from what I heard it’s because the government doesn’t want the people to think there is a possibility of going back in time and changing the party regime.” Lokman Tsui, the Chinese censorship expert, suggested this may be true, pointing out that history and science fiction have sometimes been used to surreptitiously criticise the government. “For a while, history was a loophole for discussing political stuff,” he said. “You would tell tales to make political commentary. I don’t know if that is similar for time travel, but I can imagine there is some similar logic going on there.”
In recent years, the industry insider, who works to help western developers in China, has found his job increasingly difficult. Growing restrictions on the internet meant he could no longer access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, which he needed to promote his client’s games, or online game publishing platforms, which he used to sell the games. Even previously reliable VPNs had stopped working. To get around this, he would regularly travel to Taiwan, where the internet is not tightly controlled.
Then, in 2018, the government announced it was halting the release of any new games, Chinese or international. The ban lasted nine months. No official reason was ever provided. Chenyu Cui, a Shanghai-based analyst at the video game consultancy firm Omdia, said it was partly a response to complaints from parents that their children were addicted to gaming. Other explanations include an internal power battle by regulators, or a panicked attempt by authorities to rein in companies such as NetEase and Tencent, which had grown immensely rich and powerful in a very short time. “It was kind of a slap on the wrist to Tencent, to say, ‘Yes, you are a multibillion conglomerate, but you still have to obey the Chinese government,” said the insider. This slap on the wrist caused Tencent stocks to plunge by 40% in just a few months, wiping $200bn off its value – a hit it took a long time to recover from.
During the freeze, authorities introduced even stricter regulations on video games, such as an outright ban on blood, no matter the colour. Games that fail three times to pass the byzantine review process – which includes submitting videos, screenshots and often tens of thousands of words explaining what the game is – may be permanently blocked. Meanwhile, an online game ethics committee was established to “implement the spirit of the National Propaganda”. The Communist party-backed Global Times reported that the body would block games that “violate family ethics” by portraying “homosexuality or pregnancy before marriage”.
Although the market reopened in 2019, the ban has left behind a fear that Beijing could pull the plug at any time. Before the shutdown, Tencent usually had a hands-off approach when working with developers, said the insider. Now, he said, they are under far more pressure to control the content of their games. After the government expressed frenzied alarm around gaming minors, Tencent added an “anti-addiction system” to its mobile games, announcing that it would check players’ identities and ages, and limit children aged 12 and under to one hour of play daily. (Since then, Tencent has implemented face-recognition technology to verify the age of users.) The company has also unveiled new titles that promote patriotic themes. In autumn 2019, Tencent collaborated with the state newspaper People’s Daily to produce Homeland Dream, in which players can make “Chinese” cities or provinces – including Hong Kong and Taiwan – more prosperous with real-life policies implemented by Beijing.
Some international developers I have spoken to say they can tailor games for China without changing their operations elsewhere. They play down the censorship, pointing to the fact that China tolerates a grey market in which players can buy foreign games that haven’t been approved for domestic consumption by using Steam, the largest online distribution platform for PC games. But even that is changing. This year, an “official” Chinese version of Steam was launched, with just a few dozen games. If China were to restrict access to the global version, it would drive many more developers into the censorship process, or else risk losing millions in sales.
My interview with the insider was in late 2019, and at the time he was happy to speak on the record. “We’re always vocal about China,” he told me. “It’s really good that somebody big is doing a story on this, so we can get the word out.” But when I went back to him recently, ahead of publication, he had become nervous and requested anonymity. He said he believes his Chinese staff’s phones are being monitored, and he is worried. “It’s really turning into a dystopia.”
To their strongest critics, Tencent and NetEase effectively play the role of a private arm of the government’s censorship operation. There is no doubt that Tencent’s founder, Ma Huateng, and Netease’s CEO, Ding Lei, have capitalised on the country’s move towards a more open economy in the past two decades, while always trying to keep on the right side of the authorities. But many international video game companies see Tencent and Netease as helpful allies in working around censorship, rather than more sinister enforcers of the government line. Tencent itself says it wants the companies it invests in to “operate independently”.
In April 2021, Ma became China’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of $63bn. Min Tang, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Washington Bothell, wrote a dissertation on how capitalism and power structures shaped Tencent, but even she found it hard to understand how close Ma was to Beijing. “Not much documentation reveals Tencent’s government relations,” she wrote, “except for the known fact” that, after rising to prominence in business, Ma became a deputy in parliament.
Even less has been written about NetEase’s Ding Lei. He founded the company in 1997 and offered one of China’s first internet services. Ding became the country’s first internet and gaming billionaire in 2003, and today Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index puts his net worth at $34.7bn. Despite this, NetEase’s English-language presence on the internet is minimal – its official Twitter account has only about 5,000 followers.
Still, no Chinese company could rise to such power without a close relationship with the authorities, and the influence of these two companies goes far beyond video games. Tencent owns the messaging app WeChat, which has one billion users, and has been accused of using it to surveil people, even outside China. (The company denies this, saying all “all content shared among international users” is private.) In China, the firm regularly shuts down WeChat accounts at the request of the government, including critical voices. Meanwhile, NetEase has a massive internet presence and has branched out into other seemingly unrelated industries, including, surprisingly, pig farming.
When I spoke to video game industry workers inside Tencent and NetEase – none of whom were willing to provide their names – they framed China’s strict censorship rules as just one element of a global market in which all governments restrict culture. In Russia, for instance, portraying LGBT characters can lead to a ban. In some Muslim-majority countries, smoking or alcohol consumption has to be removed. Some localisation experts refer to “geopolitical imaginations” – an assumed shared view of the world from country to country.
“It’s a tricky issue,” said a staffer at NetEase. “I think a lot of western observers assume that the things that end up being censored in games are things that only people in the government care about. In reality, they are sensitive to a lot of Chinese people, too.” But given the Communist party’s increasingly harsh restrictions on free speech, it is impossible to know to what extent the Chinese censors really reflect public opinion. Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, says she believes that a fair proportion of Chinese people actually are “very critical of the government, but the manipulation of the online environment has meant those voices are drowned out, creating this mirage that Chinese people are very nationalistic, which tells only part of the story”.
Ostensibly liberal governments also censor. Australia has a particularly paternalistic attitude to video games, restricting them much more than TV or film. In Europe, German regulators have banned scores of mainstream games for gratuitous violence. For this reason, some Chinese industry figures argue that singling out China is unfair. “The direction this conversation usually goes is people say are bowing their heads, or ‘kowtowing’. They use some shitty, racist, veiled language to say how people are trying to make money,” said one person at NetEase. He pointed out that age ratings of films, TV shows and video games are also a form of censorship that dictates artistic choices. Hollywood producers will make sure films are edited to get a PG-13 rather than an adult rating, because that means they can pack the cinemas with teenagers. “In the same sense, you can say that is censoring to try to make money,” said the NetEase staffer.
Frustration with the focus on China is motivated partly by a sense of double standards. Much of the global games industry, like the film industry, has long been shaped by a jingoistic American outlook. Just as action movies during the cold war often had Russian villains, video games since 9/11 have stereotyped Arabs and Muslims as henchmen to be gunned down. One upcoming game, called Six Days in Fallujah, portrays the events of a bloody 2004 Iraq war attack from the perspective of American soldiers. One gaming news website, Kotaku, mockingly referred to it as “war crime simulator”. Indeed, the part of the industry that makes shooting games is deeply entwined with the US military. Games have been created specifically in order to recruit soldiers, and developers regularly collaborate with the US military – and gun makers – to create their games.
As China becomes more dominant in the market, developers will probably start censoring themselves from the outset, altogether avoiding themes that might offend Beijing. “It’s cheaper to make these adjustments during development than once the game is out,” said an employee at Tencent.
Asked if global game developers will now broadly self-censor their games to appease China, the NetEase source was combative, but said: “So if this is the soundbite you want, I will say, it will definitely happen. But the context that you frame that within is that this would happen with any market that was this large. Any opportunity that any producer has to make a ton of money by releasing their media within a certain market, they are definitely going to try their best to localise that content for that market. And that’s the whole point, that’s what we do, that’s how I’ve made my money for years.”
The impact of all this is unpredictable. But what is clear is that an entire generation is learning about the world through video games, and China now has significant influence over what is in them. People unfamiliar with video games often underestimate their cultural impact. So many children are learning history by playing the Assassin’s Creed franchise – in which each game is set in a different time period, from the medieval Middle East to Medici-era Italy – that the game’s developer, Ubisoft, implemented an educational mode in which players are given guided tours of games set in ancient Egypt and Greece. Would Ubisoft – which is 5% owned by Tencent and has an established presence in China – release a similar version set in China (or Tibet and Taiwan) and risk upsetting Beijing and blocking access to the market for its other games? If the game were to cover sensitive historical topics, it would be a gamble. A few years ago, Ubisoft made a much smaller spinoff game based on Chinese history called Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China, but it was not released in the country.
It’s not just creative freedom that’s at risk, but freedom of expression, too. Unlike other art forms, video games allow users, and not just makers, to express their creativity. In April 2020, Hong Kong activists used the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons to spread pro-democracy messages. The popular island-life simulation game allows users to decorate their game environment with their own designs, and famed activist Joshua Wong shared a screenshot on Twitter of his own in-game island with a banner reading “Free Hong Kong, revolution now”. Shortly after, the game was removed from China’s eBay-equivalent, Taobao.
In retrospect, perhaps it was naive to assume that just because Stellaris was set in the distant future, it wouldn’t attract much attention from the censors. Paradox’s Shams Jorjani thinks the biggest problem was that the game gives players the power to choose how to govern their galactic empire. And “choose” is the critical word. Players might opt to run a religious death cult, a criminal enterprise, or, if they want, a democracy.
Paradox is not willing to compromise. “As a company, we’re very clear what our values are. We are pro-democracy,” Jorjani said. A handful of other big names in the industry have taken a similar stance. After the Blizzard controversy, Epic Games, the maker of Fortnite, said it would never prevent someone from expressing their political views. This was particularly striking, as Tencent owns 40% of Epic. Still, the company’s founder, Tim Sweeney, is in the rare position of being a controlling shareholder, which allows him to take a clear ideological stance. After the Blizzard ban, Sweeney said on Twitter: “That will never happen on my watch.” Another studio, Czech developer Bohemia Interactive, which sold an undisclosed minority stake to Tencent in February, has also committed to freedom of expression.
These developers are the exceptions. In a sign of just how anxious companies are about discussing China, most firms contacted with requests for interviews for this article refused, including Tencent, NetEase, Riot Games, Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft (“the topic is quite sensitive”), GOG (“kindly decline to make any further comments on the topic”) and Krafton. Even companies that have, as recently as 2019, pledged to uphold free speech, such as Wizards of the Coast and Immutable, did not respond to requests for comment. Nor did the the Chinese government and regulator.
Jorjani understands that companies with big stakes in China, such as Blizzard, are walking a tightrope. “Let’s put it this way, China is not our primary market,” he said. He acknowledged that if Paradox had to deal with lots of censorship in their own key markets, such as western Europe and the US, they might have to “rethink” their approach.
Still, he is clear there are no “edicts” on whether his game designer teams should avoid making political statements. “The main driving factor is interesting gameplay,” said Jorjani, “not so much anything else.”
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Facebook Antitrust Suit Dismissal Will Be Appealed, States Say
More than 40 state attorneys general on Wednesday said they planned to appeal the dismissal of their antitrust lawsuit against Facebook, setting up a protracted legal fight to rein in the power of the Silicon Valley giant.
The states would be pushing back on a decision made last month by a federal judge who eviscerated their arguments that Facebook had obtained a monopoly through its acquisitions of Instagram in 2012 and WhatsApp in 2014 and had harmed competition. The judge said that the regulators’ attempts to break up the social media company came too many years after the mergers were approved.
“The court is aware of no case, and plaintiffs provide none, where such a long delay in seeking such a consequential remedy has been countenanced in a case brought by a plaintiff other than the federal government,” the judge, James E. Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, said.
Mr. Boasberg also dismissed a similar complaint brought by the Federal Trade Commission, criticizing the agency’s claims of monopolization, but he directed the agency to rewrite its lawsuit. The F.T.C. is expected to resubmit its lawsuit to the court by Aug. 19. The states’ notice of plan to appeal did not include new antitrust arguments and was filed to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
“We filed this notice of appeal because we disagree with the court’s decision and must hold Facebook accountable for stifling competition, reducing innovation, and cutting privacy protections,” said Letitia James, New York’s attorney general. “We can no longer allow Facebook to profit off of exploiting consumer data.”
Facebook has vociferously refuted the state and federal regulators’ lawsuits, saying most the evidence used against the company now were presented to the F.T.C. when that agency approved the mergers years earlier. The company argues it does not have a monopoly, pointing to competition from Snap, Twitter and messaging applications.
BuzzFeed Is Going Public. Now What for Vox Media, Group Nine and Vice?
The digital media companies that once seemed to have a lock on the future are making plans to get bigger and pay back their investors.
Edmund Lee and
Not so long ago, when newspapers and magazines were going out of business all across the country, BuzzFeed and a few other fast-growing web publications seemed like the future of the news business.
Investors poured billions into Vox Media, Vice Media, Group Nine and other upstart companies that employed writers fully at ease with the new digital culture and the increased velocity of online journalism. Valuations shot skyward, and the companies’ founders did victory laps with each round of funding.
The exuberance was based on what seemed like a surefire business model: Give readers web-native content free of charge and watch the money roll in from advertisers eager to connect with a young audience.
Now things have turned upside down.
The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have flourished, thanks to an emphasis on digital journalism and a strategy of charging readers for online access. A number of leading web journalists have decamped for these century-old institutions, while investors are demanding returns on the money they plowed into the digital companies when they were all the rage.
In an effort to regain their stature and compete against the much larger Facebook and Google, which take huge chunks of online ad revenue, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Vice Media and Group Nine have gotten bigger in recent years through mergers and acquisitions.
Vox Media bought New York Media, the parent company of New York magazine and its clutch of websites. Vice Media bought Refinery29. Group Nine added PopSugar to a stable that included The Dodo and Thrillist and created a special purpose acquisition company (or SPAC) with the aim of going public. BuzzFeed bought HuffPost and said it would acquire another publisher, Complex, as part of its plan to go public through a SPAC transaction of its own.
Those deals were just the start.
Vice Media, previously on the hook for big payments to one of its investors, the private equity giant TPG, is circling a plan to go public, according to three people with knowledge of Vice Media. Vox Media is considering several offers that would take it public through a SPAC, two people familiar with the business said. And Axios, a news site based in Washington that started in 2017, has had talks with the German publishing giant Axel Springer about a possible merger, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations.
All eight people spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters.
The wheeling and dealing has come as media investors have lost some of their enthusiasm for ad-supported sites filled with free content. Substack, a digital newsletter platform that relies on subscriptions, is now in vogue. Puck, a newsletter founded by a former Vanity Fair editor, recently started up with millions of dollars in funding. News sites with strict paywalls, including The Information and Insider, are growing.
The media industry has turned into a barbell. On one end, there are The Post (3.2 million print and digital news subscribers), The Journal (3.4 million) and The Times (six million) — large news operations that rely on their prestige, breadth and experience to attract subscribers. At the other end are The Information, Insider, Axios and others that provide hyper-focused reporting on subjects of special interest to smaller but intensely loyal audiences.
It gets murky between the two extremes. BuzzFeed, Vice, Vox and Group Nine find themselves in a difficult competition with the legacy publications for general readers and with Facebook and Google for ad dollars.
“You either need huge scale, or niche or specific market dominance,” Jim VandeHei, the chief executive of Axios, said in an email. “The middle has always been the resting place for roadkill.”
Axios, which brings in most of its revenue through sponsorship deals, had an 80 percent jump in ad sales during the first half of this year, according to two people familiar with the company; they estimated that 2021 revenue could top $85 million.
Mr. VandeHei credits the company’s laser focus on what its audience wants, as opposed to an editorial strategy of trying to be all things to all readers.
“The silly companies and ideas washed away, and rightly so,” he said in the email, without referring to any specific businesses, “and it’s now clear the advertising and subscription markets are there AND growing if you deliver a quality product for a specific, identifiable audience.”
Axios has fielded a takeover offer from Axel Springer in a deal that could top $400 million, the two people with knowledge of the company said. Mr. VandeHei and Axel Springer declined to comment on the matter. (The Information reported on the talks.)
SPACs are at the center of many digital companies’ plans to reposition themselves. Also known as “blank check” firms, these are shell corporations that list on a stock exchange with the goal of buying a private business and taking it public without the regulatory hassles that go with an initial public offering.
Digital publishers see this once-arcane Wall Street maneuver as a way to raise money at valuations that could match funding rounds in more buoyant conditions. In the 38-page prospectus published when it announced its SPAC plan, BuzzFeed projected a revenue surge, from $521 million in 2021 to over $1 billion by 2024. BuzzFeed also agreed to cut a quarter of its valuation for the transaction, setting a bad precedent for rivals now seeking to go public.
Blank check deals have become harder to pull off. In April, the Securities and Exchange Commission said it planned to inspect SPAC mergers more closely and could issue new rules, holding these transactions to the same standards of a traditional I.P.O.
Although the S.E.C.’s statement has slowed the financing market for SPACs, Vice Media is working with the blank check firm 7GC, according to the three people with knowledge of the company. Vice and 7GC recently completed the due diligence stage of the deal, the people said, and Vice is reaching out to investors to raise money to complete the transaction.
The deal could come at a huge cost. Like BuzzFeed, Vice might lower its valuation, the people said, adding that it could fall below $3 billion from $5.7 billion.
Vice had been staring down big cash payments to TPG as part of a $450 million investment that the private equity firm made a few years ago. Vice has since renegotiated those terms to principally include stock, two of the people said. A SPAC merger could clean up its ownership structure. Vice declined to comment.
Of all the digital publishers currently pursued by Wall Street, Vox Media could reverse the trend of reducing a company’s value to go public. It anticipates around $400 million in revenue this year, growing at a rate of more than 25 percent, two people with knowledge of the company said.
Perhaps more noteworthy: This year, Vox Media is likely to hit a financial metric known as cash flow positive, the people said. That means the company’s operations have more cash coming in than going out, which makes it easier to expand or even pay dividends to its investors. It also makes going public less urgent.
“For us, it’s a question of ambition and opportunity, and we are ambitious,” said Jim Bankoff, Vox Media’s chief executive. “We are going to evaluate our options, but we’re going to do it from a position of strength.” He would not comment on financial details or any potential deals.
Group Nine had talks with major publishers, including Vox Media, about a possible merger for its own SPAC listing, but so far none have materialized, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. Ben Lerer, the head of Group Nine, said in an interview that the company was “in an enviable position” given its recent sales growth.
“The SPAC obviously allows us to be even more ambitious,” he said.
An option for Group Nine would be a deal with one of its largest backers: Discovery Inc. The media giant recently orchestrated a daring takeover of WarnerMedia in an effort to better compete in streaming. Group Nine’s properties have helped drive hundreds of thousands of new customers to Discovery’s streaming platform through content partnerships, making it an attractive takeover target.
The digital ad market thrived during the pandemic, as people started spending more online; BuzzFeed, Vox Media and Group Nine all benefited. Still, their gains were nothing compared with the amounts brought in by the digital giants.
“Facebook, Google and Amazon’s crumbs are Vox, Group Nine and Buzzfeed’s cake,” said Brian Wieser, the lead analyst at GroupM, the media investing arm of the ad company WPP.
That disparity underlines the need of the ad-driven publishers to keep getting bigger.
BuzzFeed’s entry into the public markets is likely to give it an advantage. In addition to cash, it will be able to use its stock as currency to make another deal along the lines of its HuffPost purchase.
“We’ll have opportunities to pursue more acquisitions, and there are more exciting companies out there that we want to pursue,” Jonah Peretti, a BuzzFeed co-founder and the chief executive, said last month.
When asked if BuzzFeed would consider entering the subscription business, he said in a recent interview: “Sure, we’d consider it. Why not?”
Instagram Introduces Changes to Protect Teenagers on Its Platform
Facebook on Tuesday unveiled changes to Instagram’s advertising and privacy policies that it said would protect teenagers, following years of criticism that the photo-sharing site has not done enough to prevent underage users from sexual predators and bullying.
The social network, which owns Instagram, said it would change its advertising policy to reduce hyper-targeted ads to teens. Advertisers on both Instagram and Facebook, which previously used people’s interests and activity across other websites to target their ads, will now only be able to use age, gender and location to show ads to users under 18.
New Instagram accounts created by those under 16 will also be private by default, meaning the account’s posts can only be viewed by approved followers, the company said. Facebook said its research indicated that 80 percent of young users would remain in the default private setting.
Facebook also said it was also developing technology to stop accounts with “potentially suspicious behavior” from seeing or interacting with people under 18 on Instagram.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have called for more online protections for children. A proposed bill with bipartisan support, the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, would ban targeted advertising aimed at children and require user consent to collect information from users younger than 15.
Even so, Facebook continues to move ahead with plans to create an Instagram for children under the age of 13, an expansion that has been opposed by attorneys general for 44 states and jurisdictions as well as an international coalition of 35 children and consumers’ groups. Facebook’s critics cited research showing that social media use has led to an increase in mental distress, body image concerns and suicidal thoughts.
In a blog post on Tuesday, Pavni Diwanji, Facebook’s vice president of youth products, said the company was using artificial intelligence to try to verify users’ ages. Birthday messages directed at a user, for example, can be used to detect their age, in addition to the age someone entered in Instagram and across other Facebook apps.
“This technology isn’t perfect, and we’re always working to improve it, but that’s why it’s important we use it alongside many other signals to understand people’s ages,” Ms. Diwanji wrote.
Jeanette Winterson: ‘The male push is to discard the planet: all the boys are going off into space’
The writer’s new essay collection covers 200 years of women and science, from Mary Shelley to AI. She discusses burning books and the ensuing Twitter storm, the end of her marriage, and why a move into politics could be next
There’s a disconcerting silence outside Jeanette Winterson’s London pied-a-terre. It’s the morning after the night before, when she travelled across London after dinner with her publisher to scenes of football fans setting the city alight with their cup final fervour. “It was uproar,” she says, “We saw cars on fire.” Her flat is in the East End district of Spitalfields in a Georgian house, which she bought 25 years ago, complete with a little shop that she ran for years as an organic grocer and tea room until the rates got too high, and she let it out to an upmarket chocolatier.
It’s as if a scene from Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop has been dropped into a satire about prosperity Britain: the quaint old shopfront is still intact, while outside it a lifesize sculpture of a rowing boat full of people sits surreally in the middle of the street, and a little further along, a herd of large bronze elephants frolics. These public artworks only arrived a few weeks ago, Winterson explains, as part of a grand plan to pedestrianise the area, and make it more buzzy, just at the moment that the sort of well-heeled office workers who bought upmarket chocolates are abandoning it owing to the Covid pandemic.
We’re at a transitional moment in so many ways, she says – a perfect moment to launch a book that reassesses the past while staring the future in the face. 12 Bytes is sub-titled: How We Got Here. Where We Might Go Next. It’s a series of essays that places women at the centre of the tumultuous 200-year history that stretches back to a wet summer in Italy, when a teenage Mary Shelley conjured the myth of Frankenstein from the embryonic science of electricity. Briskly and breezily, it joins the dots in a neglected narrative of female scientists, visionaries and code-breakers who gave us modernity and could, she insists, deliver a viable future to us if only we’d get better at listening to them.
The book is the result of a pandemic hunkered down alone at her main home in the Cotswolds, reading dispatches from the frontiers of science and economics online and in every publication she could lay her hands on. Her author picture shows her with a robotic eyeplate. Two of the more startling provocations of 12 Bytes are that “transhumanism [a hybrid of human and machine] will be the new mixed-race” – and that, when this future arrives, in questions of “them and us”, Homo sapiens will be the “them”. But all is not lost, she writes. “Our encounter with AI – our self-created nemesis and, I suspect, our last chance – may ensure that human exceptionalism will give way to humility.”
“Look, you know me, I’m an optimist,” she says, when I ask her to unpack these assertions. “So on the one hand, I think this could forcibly shatter so many preconceptions, which have worryingly surged at the moment, like nationalism, faith wars, and conflict over skin colour and gender binaries. All of these things have become raw and hot, so we have to look at them, and I don’t think it need go badly. Because if we do start recognising that we can create, and there are other life forms, that really is going to force us to accept that, as Homo sapiens, we need to band together, because what’s coming is likely to be more powerful, more intelligent, more capable than we are. I see it as a revaluation, and that does make me optimistic. But if we get it wrong – if we stay in our silly old mindset – then it’s likely that the dystopias that we fear will come to pass.”
At 61, Winterson is, as ever, a disarming mix of warm homeliness, dizzying flights of intellectual fancy and simmering belligerence. The homeliness is to the forefront today: we drink Yorkshire tea from a china pot on a table lovingly crafted from a sycamore tree felled in her Cotswolds wood; within seconds of a locksmith arriving to fix the door downstairs, she’s on first name terms with him. Yet a few weeks earlier she caused a social media storm by burning reissues of her own novels on a bonfire because she took exception to their cover blurbs, for turning them into “wimmin’s fiction of the worst kind”. She is quite aware of the dangerous symbolism of book-burning, pointing out that her adoptive mother burned her debut novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, in which she outed herself as gay. “I wouldn’t even burn a book by Jordan Peterson, though I think the man is repellent, because I respect books, whatever is in them. But if it’s your own, you know, you own them.”
The blurbs were the work of the same publisher that is now working hard to promote her new book. “I did feel embarrassed about ruining their Sunday,” she says. “But there’s a part of me still that can put something up on Twitter and think nothing big will happen. It’s like when I shot and skinned that rabbit.” She’s referring to a previous hullabaloo after she posted pictures of herself preparing a rabbit for the pot beneath the caption “Rabbit ate my parsley. I am eating the rabbit”. Why does she keep on hurling herself into such very public frays? “Because I’m an analogue human,” she replies. “Afterwards, my godchildren said: ‘What is the matter with you? Why didn’t you ring us before you did that?’”
The new book is dedicated to her three godchildren, with whom she remains so close that, two days earlier, she was able to call on one of them to flat-sit at a few hours’ notice after discovering that the lock had been compromised, while she was stuck in the country. The trio are her family now. For more than a decade she was in a relationship with the therapist Susie Orbach, whom she married in 2015, but it ended two years ago, unbeknownst to the wider world.
“I was saying to [my publisher] last night that we have to manage this. We’re very pleased because we’ve kept it quiet. But if we hadn’t parted two years ago, we would have parted during lockdown, which has been interesting to both of us. We looked at each other and said ‘We’d never have got through this’, because Susie is a New York Jew who belongs in the city and I need to be in the country. I need those long spaces, I need the quiet. I need to look out of the window and actually see a tree. We tried so hard to somehow find a way that it would work. And in the end, we were just spending less and less time together.”
In the context of her 2011 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, their break-up seems particularly poignant. The memoir tracked Winterson’s life from a miserable childhood with the rigid “Mrs Winterson” in the Lancashire town of Accrington, through the liberation of Oxford University and early literary success in London, to the breakdown that brought her to the point of making peace with her own history, as a child who was given up for adoption at just six weeks old by her 17-year-old birth mother. It was Orbach who helped her to track down her mother, who wrestled with the bureaucracy of the adoption register, who suggested to her that, though she knew how to love, she didn’t know how to be loved, and who reassured her that “if we have to part, you will know you were in a good relationship”.
The memoir ended with a cliffhanger: would she or would she not become part of the family into which she was born? “Happy endings are only a pause,” she wrote. “There are three kinds of big endings: revenge, tragedy, forgiveness. Revenge and tragedy often happen together. Forgiveness redeems the past, forgiveness unblocks the future.” So did she or didn’t she? “Love doesn’t just happen and I think the family was very cross, because I just couldn’t pretend that it had,” she says now.
“I think a lot of adopted children feel that they have the moment and it doesn’t work. And you have to accept it and say: ‘I’m glad I went on with this story. I’m glad I found you. I hope you’re glad you found me because, hey, I’m all right. But whatever we’re doing now isn’t love.’ It might be recognition, it might be resolution. It might be all sorts of bits of the story that we needed. And I believe I did need it. But no, it wasn’t love.”
It is our failure to face up to the realities of love that have led us to the parlous state in which we now find ourselves, she suggests in 12 Bytes, and which prevent us from becoming our best selves. “It’s easy to do sex, but it’s not easy to do love in whatever form, she says. “And if you can’t love, you can’t live, no matter how smart you are: things end up being jangly, hollow, and ultimately worthless. The idea that you just go through life, leaving behind wives and mistresses and abandoned children, and doing great art – for me, that can’t be a way to live. Social responsibility starts with the people who are around you, and you can’t endlessly be discarding things.” At the moment, she’s particularly exercised about the Musks and Bransons of this world. “The male push is to actually just discard the planet: all the boys are going off into space. But you know, love is also about cleaning up your mess, staying where you are, working through the issues; it’s not simply romantic love at all.”
Her interest in the potential of a world without the binaries, in a space opened out by new technology, is not new. Her 2000 novel, The Powerbook, posited the romantic and imaginative freedoms of cyberspace against the limitations of “meatspace”; 2007’s The Stone Gods suggested that robot lovers might be part of a future accommodation with a post-apocalyptic world, while 2019’s Frankissstein tells the story of transgender doctor Ry Shelley and Victor Stein, a professor specialising in “accelerated evolution”, who believes that Shelley’s “hybridity” has unlocked the future. “You aligned your physical reality with your mental impression of yourself,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be a good thing if we could all do that?”
But there is a dark side to all this. In Frankissstein, Stein teams up with a sexbot entrepreneur, who hawks lifelike “girls” with vibrating vaginas, “top-grade silicone nipples” and an “extra-wide splayed leg position”. 12 Bytes also includes a chapter on the sexbot problem, which touches on one of the book’s most insistent, and nerdiest, themes: that a benign Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) will not come to pass until we have divested the patriarchy of its control over the datasets on which all artificial intelligence is based. This means writing women back into history as active contributors to the modern world, capable of imagining the future, breaking codes and solving the knottiest scientific problems.
“It’s disappointing. It’s so crude, and it’s the place where the investment is going,” says Winterson of the global sexbot industry. “On the one hand, I talk about why an AI companion is a lovely idea, whether it’s a robo pet or just a voice that talks to you. That’s the positive side. But it’s always the same with humans, isn’t it? Then, we have sexbots, which are based on 1950 stereotypes about how a woman should behave: acquiescent, willing, always ready and patient in the home. How can that combo of 50s behaviour and porn-star looks be good for us as Homo sapiens?”
Winterson has her own AI companion – a Peloton exercise bike that accompanied her through the weeks locked down with her dog and two cats in her country cottage. “That was what made me start thinking about 2D relationships. I will never personally know any of those people who I feel I know really well through my Peloton screen every day. I have my favourite trainer, depending on my mood, and I know it’s a relationship even though it isn’t. It’s not even that we’ve been conned or fooled, because you are having a relationship. So yes. I’m deeply there with my Peloton family, as they call it.”
There has always been a proselytising zeal to Winterson’s enthusiasms. Aged 19 she voted for Margaret Thatcher “because she made sense to me. I believe I thought no, you just get out, get educated, and you don’t look back. My dad was part of that war generation who did go cycling around for work, you couldn’t defeat them, they would aways put food on the table somehow.” Today she says, she is “more socialist and much more compassionate than I was as a young person, because not everybody should be self-employed. Not everybody should have to hustle every day.” But she remains a believer in capitalism, because of its “Darwinian flexibility”. If you impose too much on people, they get restive and angry, she says. “I don’t think people want to be passive within a system. But the window has got narrower, and we will have to change that.”
Might this “we” extend to one day venturing into politics herself? “I’d love to – you know, I’m a gospel tent girl. The big tent is my home. I’m happy to get up there and take the questions and the flak, as I have for most of my life,” she says, but she’s at a loss for a party she could believe in. “I just don’t know where to do it, unless it involved some sort of coalition. The whole of the binary system – them/us, head/heart, black/white, male/female – it’s not helping any more. I’ve talked to some of my friends who are all political. And the despair I feel is, how can I mediate? How can I change things?” At the moment, she concludes, “all I can think of doing is what I’ve always done, which is writing my books, at least to start conversations. But would I like to go into politics? Yes, if there was a politics for me.”
12 Bytes by Jeanette Winterson is published by Jonathan Cape on 29 July (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
China’s Tencent agrees to buy UK video games firm Sumo for more than £900m
Move expands Chinese tech company’s presence in the global video games market
First published on Mon 19 Jul 2021 04.13 EDT
China’s Tencent has agreed to buy the British video games developer Sumo Group at a valuation of more than £900m, further expanding the tech company’s presence in the global video games market.
Sumo’s board has agreed to Tencent’s offer of 513p a share, valuing the London-listed company at £919m, it announced on Monday.
The price represented a premium of about 43% on Sheffield-based Sumo’s closing share price of 358p on Friday, before the deal was announced, and was also much higher than its all-time high of 407p. Shares soared by 40% on Monday, to 499p.
Tencent said it had received pledges to back the takeover from the holders of 27% of Sumo’s shares, plus its own holding of almost 9%.
Tencent is one of the biggest companies in the world, thanks to its control of the Weixin/WeChat social media app, which is used across China for chat and mobile payments, as well as gaming.
It also controls large video game and esports interests, in a market that is expected to grow rapidly after a hiatus in 2021 caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That includes ownership of Riot Games, the developer of the wildly popular League of Legends franchise, plus stakes in other games developers including Epic Games, the maker of the Fortnite series, and Finland’s Supercell, the maker of the mobile game Clash of Clans.
Tencent has already completed another 10 investments in video game companies during 2021 so far, according to analysts led by Katie Cousins at Shore Capital. In a note they said the UK government was unlikely to intervene in the takeover, despite previous concerns with regard to Chinese acquisitions of British businesses such as the semiconductor manufacturer Newport Wafer Fab on national security grounds.
The global market for video games is expected to falter during 2021 after bumper growth in 2020, when locked-down consumers turned to games. Demand was boosted further last year by the release of Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X/S. Forecasts by Newzoo, a games data company, in May suggested that global games revenues will dip by 1.1% in 2021 to $176bn (£128bn). However, they expect the market to resume its otherwise unbroken annual growth to reach $200bn in sales by 2023.
Sumo was set up in 2003 as a developer for hire, working on parts of other companies’ games. Eventually it took control of developing entire games, with past titles including Sonic the Hedgehog games for Sega, LittleBigPlanet for Sony, and Hitman in collaboration with IO Interactive.
After two private equity-backed buyouts in 2014 and 2016, Sumo listed on the London Stock Exchange’s Alternative Investment Market in 2017. It employs more than 1,200 people across 14 locations in the UK, Poland, Canada, India and the US. Tencent first bought shares in Sumo in November 2019.
Carl Cavers, Sumo’s chief executive and co-founder, said: “The opportunity to work with Tencent is one we just couldn’t miss. It would bring another dimension to Sumo, presenting opportunities for us to truly stamp our mark on this amazing industry, in ways which have previously been out of reach.”
Cavers and two other co-founders, Paul Porter and Darren Mills, will continue to work in the business if the deal goes through.
The Sumo deal would be the second acquisition worth more than £900m of a British games developer after the US company Electronic Arts bought Codemasters for £945m in February.
50 Years Ago, NASA Put a Car on the Moon
The Great Read
The lunar rovers of Apollo 15, 16 and 17 parked American automotive culture on the lunar surface, and expanded the scientific range of the missions’ astronaut explorers.
Jim Irwin with the lunar roving vehicle on the moon on July 31, 1971. The Apollo 15 astronauts spent 18 and a half hours on the moon’s surface and traveled a distance of about 17 miles using the lunar rover.Credit…NASA
Dave Scott was not about to pass by an interesting rock without stopping. It was July 31, 1971, and he and Jim Irwin, his fellow Apollo 15 astronaut, were the first people to drive on the moon. After a 6-hour inaugural jaunt in the new lunar rover, the two were heading back to their lander, the Falcon, when Mr. Scott made an unscheduled pit stop.
West of a crater called Rhysling, Mr. Scott scrambled out of the rover and quickly picked up a black lava rock, full of holes formed by escaping gas. Mr. Scott and Mr. Irwin had been trained in geology and knew the specimen, a vesicular rock, would be valuable to scientists on Earth. They also knew that if they asked for permission to stop and get it, clock-watching mission managers would say no. So Mr. Scott made up a story that they stopped the rover because he was fidgeting with his seatbelt. The sample was discovered when the astronauts returned to Earth, Mr. Scott described what he’d done, and “Seatbelt Rock” became one of the most prized geologic finds from Apollo 15.
Like many lunar samples returned to Earth by the final Apollo missions, Seatbelt Rock never would have been collected if the astronauts had not brought a car with them. Apollo 11 and Apollo 13 are the NASA lunar missions that tend to be remembered most vividly. But at the 50th anniversary of Apollo 15, which launched on July 26, 1971, some space enthusiasts, historians and authors are giving the lunar rover its due as one of the most enduring symbols of the American moon exploration program.
Foldable, durable, battery-powered and built by Boeing and General Motors, the vehicle is seen by some as making the last three missions into the crowning achievement of the Apollo era.
“Every mission in the crewed space program, dating back to Alan Shepherd’s first flight, had been laying the groundwork for the last three Apollo missions,” said Earl Swift, author of a new book about the lunar rover, “Across the Airless Wilds: The Lunar Rover and the Triumph of the Final Moon Landings.”
“You see NASA take all of that collected wisdom, gleaned over the previous decade in space, and apply it,” Mr. Swift said. “It’s a much more swashbuckling kind of science.”
Once Neil Armstrong’s small step satisfied Project Apollo’s geopolitical goals, NASA emphasized science, said Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator of the Apollo collections at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. While the first moon-walkers retrieved samples near their landing sites, scientists had long hoped for a lunar road trip that promised rare rocks. Plans for a lunar rover were finally given the green light just two months before Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans on the moon.
Though moon buggies had been imagined for years, driving a car on the moon is more complicated than it sounds. Throughout the 1960s, engineers studied a variety of concepts: tank-like tracked vehicles, flying cars, even a rotund monstrosity shaped, as Mr. Swift describes it, “like an overgrown Tootsie Pop, with its spherical cabin up top of a single long leg, which in turn was mounted on a caterpillar-tread foot.” Ultimately, a carlike buggy came out on top.
“There were other outlandish ideas, like a pogo stick, or a motorcycle — things that I am glad they didn’t pursue,” Ms. Muir-Harmony said. “The lunar rover is, in some ways, relatively practical.”
The moon car was also quintessentially American. The rover’s exposed chassis, umbrella-like antenna and wire wheels meant it looked like no car on Earth, yet its connection to the American auto industry and the nation’s love affair with the automobile captivated public attention like nothing since Apollo 11, Ms. Muir-Harmony said.
Starting with Project Mercury in the 1960s, a Florida car dealer allowed astronauts to lease Chevrolet cars for $1, which were later sold to the public. The Apollo 15 crew chose red, white and blue Corvettes. A photo spread in Life magazine showed the astronauts posing with their iconic American muscle cars alongside the moon buggy, making the lunar rover look cool by association, Ms. Muir-Harmony said. “There’s a lot to unpack in that picture,” she added.
Mr. Irwin and Mr. Scott helped drum up excitement once they and the rover reached the moon. During the mission’s second day, the astronauts drove to a crater named Spur, where they found a large white crystalline rock, a type of mineral on geologists’ wish lists because it might provide clues about the moon’s origins.
The astronauts could barely contain their glee: “Oh, boy!” Mr. Scott shouted. “Look at the glint!” Mr. Irwin said. “Guess what we just found?” Mr. Scott radioed to Earth, as Mr. Irwin laughed with joy. “Guess what we just found! I think we found what we came for.”
The white rock was later named Genesis Rock, because scientists initially thought it dated to the moon’s formation.
The astronauts’ excitement, and their car, brought the Apollo missions back down to Earth, Ms. Muir-Harmony said. “It provided a point of access, even as the exploration of the moon was becoming increasingly complex and complicated to follow.”
Mr. Swift notes that some news reports at the time considered the rover an “inevitable, almost comic product of the most automotive people on Earth,” although there was nothing inevitable about this extraterrestrial horseless carriage.
To travel along with the astronauts instead of using a separate rocket, the rover had to weigh less than 500 pounds, but bear twice that in human and geological cargo. On the moon, it had to operate in temperature swings of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit between sunlight and shade; withstand abrasive lunar dust and micro-meteoroids traveling faster than bullets; and cover a sharp, rugged surface that contained mountains, craters, loose gravel and powder. GM and Boeing engineers scrambled to finish their design in time for the final Apollo missions under threats that NASA would cancel the rover program before it ever left the ground.
“If it hadn’t been for a couple of engineers at General Motors, there wouldn’t have been a rover at all,” Mr. Swift said in an interview.
His book also explains that immigrant engineers, including Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker, raised in Poland, and Ferenc Pavlics, who was born in Hungary, persevered despite large budget overruns, blown deadlines and technical challenges. Though astronauts tend to claim more of the spotlight, engineers played seminal roles in the space program, Mr. Swift said, and some like Mr. Bekker and Mr. Pavlics highlighted the impact that immigrants had on American innovation.
“America’s race to reach the moon, both within NASA and at the aerospace companies that built the hardware, relied on the minds and talents of immigrants — on Americans who happened to start their lives elsewhere,” he wrote.
Once the rover arrived and astronauts unfolded it on the moon, the experience of driving was also unexpectedly odd. Astronauts compared it to other Earthly conveyances: Mr. Irwin said the car rose and fell like “a bucking bronco,” and Mr. Scott said it fishtailed like a speedboat when he tried to turn at the breakneck speed of 6 miles per hour.
Mission managers planned for the rover to travel only as far as the astronauts could walk, in case anything happened and they had to hoof it back to their spacecraft. But Apollo crews covered greater distances with every mission as NASA’s confidence grew. When the astronauts left the moon, the rovers were left at the landing sites, where they remain, gathering dust and cosmic rays. Spacecraft orbiting the moon occasionally take their pictures, and in some images, rover tracks are visible.
Astronauts found more interesting rocks, enabling scientists to ask different types of questions, said Barbara Cohen, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., who studies the samples. The rover also allowed astronauts to focus on science more than worrying about running out of oxygen or other consumable resources, she said.
She recalled participating in a NASA analogue mission several years ago, where scientists would don spacesuits and carry out experiments in a desert field station as though they were on the moon or Mars. She remembered participants getting ready to collect a sample and being interrupted by mission controllers who wanted to check their vitals.
“We were like, ‘Come on,’” she recalled. “That drove home to me that the geology is not solely in charge. That’s one thing the rover does for you; it enables different science questions to be posed that can be more answerable at specific sites.”
Genesis Rock, a mineral dating to the moon’s earliest days, exemplifies Dr. Cohen’s point. Scientists are still debating — heatedly — how the moon came to be and what conditions were like there, and by extension, here on Earth, for the first billion years.
Dr. Cohen is among several scientists preparing to open untouched samples that have been sealed since they were returned home during the Apollo 17 mission. She will study noble gases in the samples to understand how solar radiation affects moon dust.
Katherine Burgess, a geologist at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., will study the pristine samples to measure how radiation from the solar wind affects hydrogen and helium levels inside moon dust. Spacecraft can detect helium on the moon from orbit, but scientists still don’t know how it varies across lunar terrain. “Without those samples to confirm it, it’s still just an open question,” she said.
Future missions might use lunar helium, especially a variant called helium-3, as a fuel source for nuclear reactors. That means a future generation of lunar rovers may be powered by a material the first generation identified the presence of a half-century ago.
Even as scientists study those original samples, many are hoping for a fresh batch, sent home with a new generation of astronauts or collected by rovers descended from the original version. In May, General Motors announced a partnership with Lockheed Martin to build a new rover for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return American astronauts to the Moon this decade.
Although they were built decades apart and by different teams, the lunar rover program informed the first generation of Mars rovers, too, especially Sojourner, the first vehicle on another planet. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where NASA Mars rovers are built, designed six-wheeled, flexible-framed rovers in a similar vein as early GM designs, Mr. Swift said. “I do think you find an inspirational lineage in that early GM work,” he said.
Science drives today’s NASA more than geopolitics, but the space agency still promotes and carries out human space travel for reasons that go beyond rock prospecting. Ms. Muir-Harmony said the lunar rovers of Apollo, and its modern successors, represent that sense of adventure.
“Science is such an important outcome of Apollo, but it is important to recognize what the public is engaged with. The appeal of the lunar rover is connected to the appeal of human spaceflight, which is being able to witness their joy and a sense of vicarious participation,” she said.
Plus, the adventure of driving across the moon, the greatest road trip of all time, is hard to resist.
Then and now, “samples and material from the moon are not getting the focus of public attention,” she said. “The rover is.”
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2021 iPhone photography awards – in pictures
The 14th annual iPhone photography awards offer glimpses of beauty, hope and the endurance of the human spirit. Out of thousands of submissions, photojournalist Istvan Kerekes of Hungary was named the grand prize winner for his image Transylvanian Shepherds. In it, two rugged shepherds traverse an equally rugged industrial landscape, bearing a pair of lambs in their arms.
Tu celular te espía, ¿seguirás permitiéndolo?
La dimisión de un jerarca católico muestra las consecuencias en el mundo real de las prácticas de las industrias estadounidenses en materia de recolección de datos.
La “privacidad de datos” es uno de esos términos que parecen desprovistos de toda emoción. Es como un refresco sin gas. Al menos hasta que los fracasos de Estados Unidos en la creación de protecciones de privacidad de datos, incluso básicas, tienen repercusiones de carne y hueso.
La semana pasada, un alto jerarca de la Iglesia católica en Estados Unidos dimitió después de que un sitio de noticias reveló que tenía datos de su teléfono móvil que parecían mostrar que el administrador utilizaba la aplicación de citas LGBTQ Grindr y acudía regularmente a bares gay. Los periodistas tuvieron acceso a los datos de los movimientos y huellas digitales de su celular durante parte de tres años y pudieron rastrear los lugares a los que acudía.
Sé que los lectores tendrán sentimientos encontrados al respecto. Algunos creerán que es aceptable utilizar cualquier medio necesario para determinar si un personaje público incumple sus promesas, aunque se trate de un sacerdote que pudo haber roto su voto de celibato.
Sin embargo, para mí, la noticia no se trata de un solo hombre. Se trata de una falla estructural que permite que existan datos en tiempo real sobre los movimientos de los estadounidenses y que se usen sin nuestro conocimiento o verdadero consentimiento. Este caso muestra las consecuencias tangibles de las prácticas de las grandes industrias de recolección de datos que, en gran medida, no están reguladas en Estados Unidos.
La realidad es que en Estados Unidos hay pocas restricciones legales o de otro tipo que impidan a las empresas recopilar las ubicaciones precisas de los lugares por los que pasamos y vender esa información a cualquiera. Esos datos están en manos de empresas con las que tratamos a diario, como Facebook y Google, y también de intermediarios de información por encargo con los que nunca interactuamos de manera directa.
Estos datos suelen estar empaquetados en masa y son anónimos en teoría, pero a menudo pueden ser rastreados hasta los individuos, como lo muestra la historia del jerarca católico. La existencia de esos datos en un volumen tan grande sobre prácticamente todo el mundo genera las condiciones para un uso indebido que puede afectar tanto a los malos como a los buenos.
El Servicio de Impuestos Internos ha comprado los datos de ubicación disponibles comercialmente de los celulares de la gente para cazar (al parecer ineficazmente) a los delincuentes financieros. Los contratistas de defensa y las agencias militares estadounidenses han obtenido datos de localización de aplicaciones que la gente utiliza para rezar o colocar sus repisas. Los acosadores han encontrado a sus víctimas obteniendo información sobre la ubicación de las personas a través de las empresas de telefonía móvil. Cuando los estadounidenses acuden a concentraciones o manifestaciones, las campañas políticas compran información sobre los asistentes para luego enviarles mensajes.
Me exaspera que todavía no existan leyes federales que restrinjan la recolección o el uso de datos de localización. Si hiciera una lista de tareas tecnológicas para el Congreso, esas restricciones estarían en lo más alto de mi agenda. (Me animan algunas de las propuestas del Congreso y la legislación estatal pendiente para restringir aspectos de la recopilación o el uso de datos de localización personal).
La mayoría de los estadounidenses ya saben que los teléfonos rastrean nuestros movimientos, aunque no conozcamos necesariamente todos los detalles escabrosos. Y sé lo fácil que puede ser sentirse resignado y enfadado o simplemente pensar: “¿Y qué?”. Quiero resistirme a ambas reacciones.
La desesperanza no ayuda a nadie, aunque yo también me sienta así con frecuencia. Perder el control de nuestros datos no era inevitable. Fue una elección, o más bien un fracaso, durante años de los individuos, los gobiernos y las corporaciones para pensar en las consecuencias de la era digital. Ahora podemos elegir un camino diferente.
Incluso si crees que tú y tu familia no tienen nada que ocultar, sospecho que muchas personas se sentirían desconcertadas si alguien siguiera a su hijo adolescente o a su pareja a todas partes. Es probable que lo que tenemos ahora sea peor. Posiblemente miles de veces al día, nuestros celulares informan sobre nuestra ubicación y realmente no podemos detenerlos. (Aun así, hay medidas que podemos tomar para atenuar el infierno).
El Comité Editorial de The New York Times escribió en 2019 que, si el gobierno de Estados Unidos hubiera ordenado a los estadounidenses proporcionar información constante sobre sus ubicaciones, el público y los miembros del Congreso probablemente se rebelarían. Sin embargo, poco a poco a lo largo del tiempo, hemos acordado colectiva y tácitamente entregar esos datos de forma voluntaria.
Obtenemos beneficios de ese sistema de localización, como las aplicaciones de tráfico en tiempo real y las tiendas cercanas que nos envían cupones. Pero no deberíamos aceptar a cambio la vigilancia perpetua y cada vez más invasiva de nuestros movimientos.
Shira Ovide escribe el boletín On Tech, una guía sobre el modo en el que la tecnología está remodelando nuestras vidas y el mundo. @ShiraOvide
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