with Aaron Schaffer

Downloads of Robinhood and other brokerage apps spiked last week amid the GameStop stock craze. 

Robinhood, a Silicon Valley start-up promising to democratize investing, is at the center of the frenzy and struggling to keep up with a viral surge in demand. New data from SensorTower shows 2.1 million people downloaded the app during the week of Jan. 25. That’s a nearly 400 percent increase in downloads from just a week earlier. 

Robinhoodi is in crisis mode as it scrambles to address a rise in collateral requirements related to the trading boom. The company has raised $3.4 billion just since Thursday and the latest infusion of funding is expected to allow the brokerage to lift some of the restrictions it placed on investors that angered the public and sparked a frenzy, as the Wall Street Journal reported. The clearinghouse that processes and settles Robinhood’s trades had asked the company for more cash to cover potential losses on the transactions due to the wild seesawing of stocks such as GameStop.

Robinhood wasn’t the only trading app that saw a big increase in demand, per SensorTower’s data:

Webull was downloaded 1.2 million times last week, a 751 percent increase week over week. 

Fidelity’s app was downloaded 668,000 times, a 887 percent week-over-week gain. 

TD Ameritrade was downloaded 507,000 times, a 576 percent increase. 

Congress is set to more closely scrutinize fintech’s apps role in the stock market chaos. 

The download boom comes as Washington lawmakers and regulators are preparing to examine the role technology has played in democratizing finance — and how it can negatively affect and expose more people to risky financial moves. The scrutiny could have major implications for the future of trading apps in Silicon Valley. 

The recent frenzy around GameStop and stocks of other struggling companies has raised questions about whether Washington has paid enough attention to how the Internet is transforming U.S. investing. And as the controversy drives more retail investors to trading apps, the stakes are only growing. 

The House Financial Services Committee announced that it will host a Feb. 18 hearing called “Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide. The committee has not publicly announced the list of witnesses yet, but Politico reports that Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev is set to testify. 

Lawmakers from both parties are raising concerns about the restrictions that Robinhood placed on trading last week, as The Technology 202 previously reported.

Tenev is on the defensive about the company's moves – from business networks to chats with Elon Musk. 

His recent interviews could preview the public grilling. Tenev expressed regret for how the company handled the abrupt halt in trading of stocks such as Gamestop, AMC and others in an impromptu interview with Musk on the new social app Clubhouse, my colleagues reported. “We knew this was a bad outcome for customers,” Tenev said. “People get really pissed off if they’re holding stock and they want to sell it and can’t.”

Tenev explained Robinhood had received a rare request early Thursday for a $3 billion deposit from the company’s clearing agency, which works to fulfill transactions. That was a major problem for the company, which had only raised about $2 billion in funding at the time. Tenev said it was “an order of magnitude over” the typical request amount and he later called for more transparency over the formulas used by financial institutions to calculate these requirements.

Our top tabs

Amazon is fighting the biggest labor battle in its history in the United States – and the stakes couldn't be higher. 

The National Labor Relations Board will soon mail ballots to 5,805 Alabama warehouse workers, who will then have seven weeks to decide whether they want the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union to represent them, my colleague Jay Greene reports. If they vote yes, they'll be the first Amazon warehouse in the United States to organize and could potentially inspire a wave of other facilities across the country to follow suit. 

“Amazon workers all over the country will see there is a path to have a voice on the job,” said Rebecca Givan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University. “Collective action is contagious.”

Amazon has been aggressively campaigning against the efforts to unionize, even posting fliers on bathroom stall doors and sending text messages discouraging employees from voting in favor of the efforts. Unionization could escalate battles for higher wages and improved working conditions, and it would force the company to negotiate expansion plans – potentially slowing the company's rapid growth. It would likely increase the company's costs and even hurt efficiency. 

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 

Facebook and Apple are preparing for a battle of push notifications. 

The two companies are bringing their messages about privacy and security to consumers, Reed Albergotti reports. It’s the latest salvo in a brewing battle between the two companies. 

In recent weeks, the two tech giants have stepped up their war of words, with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Apple CEO Tim Cook exchanging barbs as Facebook plans to bring an antitrust lawsuit against Apple. At the center of the dispute is Apple’s move to ask consumers whether they’d like to be tracked on the Web. Facebook has said that the move will harm small businesses — and its own bottom line. 

Now, the social network is testing notifications that minimize the ad targeting’s effects. The notifications say that the targeting can help consumers “get ads that are more personalized” and “support businesses that rely on ads to reach customers.”

Twitter blocks Indian farmers, then reverses course.

The suspensions came after the farmers criticized the country’s ruling party amid widespread protests in the country, Time’s Billy Perrigo reports. The suspensions are raising concerns of censorship in the country, where farmers have protested new agricultural laws for months. One prominent account that was banned, @Tractor2twitr, weighed in:

India’s government sent Twitter a list of 250 accounts and tweets that used the hashtag “ModiPlanningFarmerGenocide,” accusing them of “making fake, intimidatory and provocative tweets” while noting that “incitement to genocide is a grave threat to public order.” 

The bans were lifted 12 hours later, TechCrunch’s Manish Singh reports. In a statement, the company reiterated its obligations to comply with local requests to “withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time,” BuzzFeed News reporter Pranav Dixit says:

Inside the industry

Facebook banned a Myanmar military television network page after Monday’s coup.

The page for the television network has since at least early 2020 shared posts that publicize efforts of the nation’s military, gaining likes from more than 33,000 people, the Wall Street Journal's Newly Purnell reports. It's Facebook's latest move latest move in a country where its platform has been connected for years to physical violence.

Facebook removed the page after the Journal inquired about it. The company had previously pulled it down in 2018 as part of a crackdown on accounts that broke its rules, but it later reappeared. 

Google and Ford announce partnership.

The two companies are entering a six-year agreement that will position Google as the transportation company’s cloud vendor of choice and put Google apps and services on Ford vehicles, Protocol’s Mike Murphy reports. The move highlights tech giants' broader efforts to court a transportation industry transitioning quickly to autonomous and electric vehicles.

Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian told Bloomberg News’s Nico Grant that the Ford partnership is the “first-of-a-kind in terms of an across-Alphabet partnership,” referring to Google’s parent company. “It’s a really strategic one because it links all the elements: The experience people have in the cars while they’re driving, the experience they have in the front office, the transformation of manufacturing and supply chain, and the modernization of the IT system.”

It comes just weeks after Google competitor Microsoft announced a similar agreement with General Motors, which has committed to selling only zero-emissions vehicles by 2035.

Risk of all-civilian space mission “not zero,” SpaceX’s Musk says.

The comments to NBC News came as the company announced the first all-civilian mission to space, which is expected to take place by the end of the year. The private space race heated up in recent years, with a cast of companies competing to solidify their dominance in the space. But Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, said that “any mission where there’s a crew onboard makes me nervous.”

Coronavirus fallout

Mentions

  • Jim Kolb, a voting member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, has registered to lobby for Uber via Summit Strategies Government Affairs. He is expected to monitor issues including infrastructure legislation.

Daybook

  • Google parent Alphabet and Amazon hold investor calls on their earnings today at 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., respectively.
  • The two-day virtual Masters of Digital conference begins on Wednesday, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set to speak on Thursday at 11 a.m.
  • The Electronic Frontier Foundation holds an event on online free speech issues on Wednesday at 11 a.m. The discussion will focus on conservative social media company Parler and social media platforms’ removals of former president Donald Trump.
  • The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee considers the nomination of Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, President Biden’s pick for commerce secretary, on Wednesday at 10 a.m.
  • John Samples, a member of Facebook’s oversight board, speaks at a virtual R Street Institute event on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. The discussion will center on the board’s upcoming decision on Donald Trump’s fate on the social media network.
  • Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) delivers a keynote address on the first day of the three-day virtual INCOMPAS communications and technology policy summit.

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