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Quartz Weekend Brief—Comcast’s defeat, Bangladesh’s curse, chlorine in Syria, Spamerica

Ever so rarely, something comes along to challenge the narrative that the US government is beholden to the corporate interests that fund political campaigns.

This week Comcast, the nation’s biggest cable company, reluctantly walked away from its $45 billion bid for the second-biggest, Time Warner Cable. Comcast spends more money than just about any other US corporation on political donations and lobbying. And yet, despite pressure from lawmakers whose campaigns it had funded, and mountains of filings from its army of lawyers, the company couldn’t convince regulators to sanction the takeover, which has been deeply unpopular among consumers from the outset.

One of the loudest and earliest critics of the deal was Netflix and its CEO Reed Hastings. The streaming video service spends comparatively little on lobbying and political donations, but Hastings adroitly fanned the flames of discontent toward Comcast. Cable providers consistently rank among the most despised companies in the US due to rising bills and generally shoddy customer service, which helps explain Netflix’s startling rise in popularity.

Admittedly, this was something of a perfect storm. Few issues rile Americans up like television. Few publics are as easy to organize as an angry swarm of internet users. Few corporations are as hated as Comcast. And, unlike most issues in US politics, this wasn’t a partisan one.

Moreover, the collapse of the merger won’t fix the structural problems with internet service in the US, where providers enjoy near-monopoly status in much of the country. Consolidation in cable and broadband will probably continue, albeit in other configurations.

Nonetheless, the failure of this particular attempt at consolidation shows that, when the conditions are right, it’s possible to influence the political process without lavish campaign contributions. As the US presidential campaign begins to gather steam, that’s something worth remembering.—John McDuling

Five things on Quartz we especially liked

The perils of crowdfunding. Shelly Banjo explores the ballooning industry of alternative finance, with all of its risks and pitfalls. What started out as a direct avenue between consumers who wanted to invest and small projects looking to expand has become a massive and murky hybrid of commerce, finance and investment.

The curse of Bangladesh’s success. On the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse that killed 1,130 people, Marc Bain and Jenni Avins look at how little has changed in the Bangladeshi garment industry and why its competitive advantage—its cheapness—is also what makes it deadly.

Welcome to Spamerica! Loved by as many as it is reviled, Spam is a staple of American cuisine. Deena Shanker dives deep into the history of of the gelatinous pork product, just as the company spreads to the unavoidable market of hipster food trucks and fashionable restaurants.

The woman to take on Google and Gazprom. Leo Mirani profiles Margrethe Vestager, Europe’s top anti-trust official and a canny mix of bureaucrat and politician, whose recent bold moves against the world’s biggest internet company and biggest gas producer will have global ripple effects.

Elon Musk should still sell Tesla to Google. After revelations of a failed 2013 deal between the two companies, Steve LeVine explains why, despite Tesla’s subsequent rebound, the future of the electric car is uncertain, and joining Google would both increase its chances of success and cut the downside risk of failure.

Five things elsewhere that made us smarter

Will bots take over trading? On April 6 someone made $2.4 million trading on options in Altera, company that makes digital circuits. Some suspect the trade was actually done by an automated bot that reads tweets. Seth Stevenson at Slate explains how that could happen.

The people’s boats. The Chinese are an irresistible market for cruise operators, but they’re still trying to figure out what appeals to them. On a six-day cruise out of Shanghai, Bloomberg’s Christopher Beam found an awkward burlesque show, conspicuous consumption at sea, and surprising insight into China’s middle class.

Islamic State: The Saddam connection. Christoph Reuter of the German magazine Der Spiegel gained exclusive access to secret documents that reveal the structure of ISIL. The papers show just how much former members of Saddam Hussein’s regime were involved in setting up the terrorist group.

Syria’s tortured relationship with chlorine. As Annie Sparrow explains in the New York Review of Books, Bashar al-Assad’s regime has both withheld chlorine as a disinfectant, encouraging the spread of disease, and used it as a horrific chemical weapon. And now, in an attempt to keep it out of ISIL’s hands, aid agencies are similarly preventing chlorine from getting to where it’s needed.

Inside Starbucks’ plan to fix America. The US’s famed upward mobility has faltered as college costs have risen. Last year Starbucks launched an ambitious—and much-derided—experiment in changing that by helping its baristas finish their studies. Amanda Ripley followed some of them for the Atlantic, and found a program that, while still in its infancy, does have some promise of helping.

Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, Spam recipes, and trading algorithms to hi@qz.com. You can follow us on Twitter here for updates throughout the day.

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