Start up: Wikipedia’s blackmail ban, Ashley Madison redux, Google OnHub meta-reviewed, and more


“Adblocking? Yeah, I heard about it on the radio.” Photo by Skyco on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. Contains nothing about logo changes, so keep moving along. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Hundreds of Wikipedia editors got banned for secretly promoting brands » Motherboard

Jordan Pearson:

Wikipedia has 381 fewer editors today, after hundreds of accounts were banned for taking undisclosed pay to create and edit “promotional articles.”

According to a post on Wikipedia’s administrator board, Wikipedia’s CheckUser team investigated for months to uncover the accounts clogging the site with bogus articles for cash. The 381 banned accounts were active between April and August, but the “nature and quality” of the edits suggests that the scam had been carrying on for some time, the post states.

The “sock puppet” accounts, as they’re called, were essentially extorting their customers. First, they would create a draft article and populate it with promotional links. Next, they contacted their victim, often posing as more established Wikipedians, and requested a fee to publish the article. To keep the page from being edited or taken down, the accounts charged their victims $30 per month, in some cases.

This story is the front-page lead (“splash”) in Wednesday’s Independent newspaper in the UK, where it is branded an “exclusive”. Clearly a new use of the word.
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Mobile-friendly web pages using app banners » Official Google Webmaster Central Blog

Daniel Bathgate, Google Search software engineer:

sometimes a user may tap on a search result on a mobile device and see an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content and prompts the user to install an app. Our analysis shows that it is not a good search experience and can be frustrating for users because they are expecting to see the content of the web page.

Starting today, we’ll be updating the Mobile-Friendly Test to indicate that sites should avoid showing app install interstitials that hide a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page. The Mobile Usability report in Search Console will show webmasters the number of pages across their site that have this issue.

After November 1, mobile web pages that show an app install interstitial that hides a significant amount of content on the transition from the search result page will no longer be considered mobile-friendly.

Note what Google is actually saying here. It isn’t saying it will penalise all interstitials; only those which are a call to install an app and which cover a lot of the page. So page-covering interstitials that aren’t for app installs are OK. Remember that it’s bad for Google if people install apps: they then tend not to use Google search so much on mobile. This is exactly what Yelp’s CEO Jeremy Stoppelman predicted only last week after that slightly flakey Google study about app install interstitials. Now the other shoe drops.

One thing I wonder about: how will Google detect these? Won’t sites just hide those app interstitials from the Googlebot, and then use them for normal users? It’s what I would do.
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Encryption, lock mechanism vulnerabilities plague lock app AppLock » Threatpost

Chris Brook:

A researcher is claiming that the app, which is supposed to securely store photos, videos and other apps, doesn’t really use encryption to do so, it simply hides the files elsewhere on the phone, where an attacker could theoretically read them.

The app also suffers from what Noam Rathaus, a researcher who blogs about vulnerabilities for the portal SecuriTeam, dubs a weak PIN reset mechanism and a weak lock mechanism. Rathaus, who is also the Chief Technology Officer for Beyond Security, published technical details on the vulnerabilities, along with step by step methods to exploit them on Monday.

Rathaus claims that when users save files on AppLock, they’re actually stored in the read/write partition of the filesystem and not in the one assigned to the application. This means that an attacker would only have to install a file manager application and guide themselves to a certain SQLite database, then a PATH, to find the images.

100 million users can’t be wrong.. can they?
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Alliance for Open Media Established to Deliver Next-Generation Open Media Formats

Seven leading Internet companies today announced formation of the Alliance for Open Media – an open-source project that will develop next-generation media formats, codecs and technologies in the public interest. The Alliance’s founding members are Amazon, Cisco, Google, Intel Corporation, Microsoft, Mozilla and Netflix.

John Paczkowski’s tweet-headline for this is absolutely perfect: “Microsoft, Google, and Amazon Partner On Next Failed Open-Video Format”.

Don’t believe me/him? The press release tacitly acknowledges that Google’s WebM project has run into the sand:

“Google launched the WebM Project in 2010 in the belief that web video innovation was too slow and too closed, and that broad collaboration — in the open — would fix both problems. The Alliance for Open Media is a big leap forward for these core philosophies, and we’re gratified that our AOMedia partners share this vision. Our combined strength, resources and expertise will drive the next generation of web media experiences much further and faster than WebM can do alone,” said Matt Frost, Head of Strategy and Partnerships, Chrome Media.

Let’s circle back and reach out in a couple of years, eh?
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Fluid Coupling » Asymco

Horace Dediu on the question of “when exactly did enterprises become late adopters of technology” – given that they were (relatively) early ones for high-priced products such as the first computers:

companies have procedures for accepting technologies (capital expenditures) which require high degrees of interaction and decision making. In order to step though these procedures, the vendors need to have sales people who need to invest lots of their time and therefore need to be compensated with large commissions. If those commissions are a percent of sale then the total sales price needs to be large enough “to make it worth while to all parties”. As a result, paradoxically, an enterprise technology must be sufficiently slow and expensive to be adopted.

Mobility was disruptive to enterprise because the new computing paradigm was both too fast and too cheap to be implementable.

This implies that the problem with enterprises is not the stupidity of its buyers. They are no less smart than the average person – in fact, they are as smart with their personal choices for computing as anybody. The problem is that enterprises have a capital use and allocation model which is obsolete. This capital decision process assumes that capital goods are expensive, needing depreciation, and therefore should be regulated, governed and carefully chosen. The processes built for capital goods are extended to ephemera like devices, software and networking.

It does not help that these new capital goods are used to manage what became the most important asset of the company: information. We thus have a perfect storm of increasingly inappropriate allocation of resources to resolving firms’ increasingly important processes. The result is loss of productivity, increasingly bizarre regulation and prohibition of the most desirable tools.

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Ashley Madison code shows more women, and more bots » Gizmodo

Annalee Newitz, who must feel like it’s Christmas every single day as she wades through the data and code dumps:

Once the man struck up a conversation, the bot would say things like this:

Hmmmm, when I was younger I used to sleep with my friend’s boyfriends. I guess old habits die hard although I could never sleep with their husbands.

I’m sexy, discreet, and always up for kinky chat. Would also meet up in person if we get to know each other and think there might be a good connection. Does this sound intriguing?”

It’s unclear what else the engager would say—either the bots really are this simple, or further chat phrases weren’t in the code. Most likely, based on what I saw from other bot code, the bot would urge the man to pay credits to talk further.

Mr. Falcon pointed out that there’s actually a special bot service, called “RunChatBotXmppGuarentee.service.php,” apparently designed just for interactions with customers who paid the premium $250 for a “guaranteed affair.” When I checked the code, I found Mr. Falcon was right. It appears that this bot would chat up the man, urge him to pay credits, and then pass him along to what’s called an “affiliate.” Likely the affiliate is a third party that provides a real person for the man to chat with. It might also be connecting him to an escort service…

…Ashley Madison aspired to be a global network of people breaking the bonds of monogamy in the name of YOLO. Instead, it was mostly a collection straight men talking to extremely busy bots who bombarded them with messages asking for money.

Plus: it was popular with (real) women who were looking for women for a fling. The data don’t lie.

I do hope Newitz will collect all this into a book. This deserves to be a huge story that’s read and re-read. And it puts every other dating site under just that little extra bit of suspicion.

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Amazon curtails development of consumer devices » WSJ

Greg Bensinger:

Fallout from the Fire phone flop has hurt morale at Lab126, according to current and former employees, and raises questions about Amazon’s ability to develop compelling consumer devices. The $180 Echo virtual assistant, a voice-activated speaker, has developed something of a cult following, if not yet mass appeal.

Some workers say Lab126’s shifting and, at times, enigmatic priorities, including a planned high-end computer for the kitchen, have contributed to a frenetic workplace and ill-defined roles. That has led a number of workers to take jobs at other tech firms, the people said.

Amazon established Lab126—the 1 and 26 stand for the letters A and Z—in 2004 under former Palm Computing Vice President Gregg Zehr to develop what became the popular Kindle e-reader in 2007. Located in Sunnyvale, Calif., some 800 miles from Seattle, the division has since rolled out more than a dozen products, including several versions of the Kindle and the generally well-received Fire tablet.

Last year, Lab126 released a flurry of 10 devices, including a television set-top box, the Echo and a wand for scanning bar codes at home.

“What Amazon makes are devices that are not too flashy, but they are inexpensive and they are simple to use,” said Tom Mainelli, an IDC analyst. “Mostly they are another way to serve up content that Amazon can sell you.”

I’m not sure that it’s really “consumer devices” that Amazon is curtailing, but consumer devices that don’t fit into that latter description from Mainelli. The Fire Phone was a bad idea; the Kindle a great one. The Dash button (press it and it orders [item] from Amazon) is a really smart idea; the Echo, unproven.
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Quick Thoughts: Google’s OnHub router » Beyond Devices

Jan Dawson has the meta-analysis:

To my mind, the OnHub router is also a symbol of Google’s disjointed approach to so many of its projects, and I worry that the Alphabet reorg will only make things worse. Google already has a home automation business, Nest, which not only makes its own products but has been the vehicle for both making further home automation acquisitions (Dropcam) and for acting as a hub for other home automation gear (the Works with Nest strategy). And yet, this product isn’t branded Nest, nor does it apparently sit under Tony Fadell’s hardware group, which also includes Google Glass.

In fact, Mark Bergen of Recode and Amir Efrati of The Information have both suggested that this product actually came out of the Google Fiber team. I’ve written previously about how disconnected from the rest of Google the Fiber project has seemed, and it’s ironic to now see Google proper appropriate this technology just as Fiber is being hived off into a separate Alphabet company. The good thing about Google is that people throughout the organization feel free to experiment with various things, some of which eventually become products. The bad thing is that this means you could have several separate teams working on similar things in isolation, and in some cases you end up with several products apparently chasing the same use case (e.g. the Nexus Q, Chromecast, and Google TV/Android TV).

Meanwhile, on the performance, Glenn Fleishman’s review of the reviews is the one to read.
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Howard Stern just sent adblocking mainstream » Medium

Howard Stern (for non-US readers: he’s a widely-listened to broadcaster in the US) discovered on-air that he can install an “ad blocker”, with a predictably vociferous reaction. Ian Schafer picks up on the likely fallout:

as Richard Blakely suggested on Twitter, we’ll all probably be installing ad blocking extensions on our parents’ browsers this Thanksgiving.

As more consumers learn to (and are able to) pay for ad-free versions of their favorite content, they are beginning to prefer media choices that give them that option. “Premium” versions of ad-supported media are becoming the norm.

So why would people want to see ads (hint: they don’t)? And what does that spell for the future of ad-supported media?

If you’re a brand, you should be dedicating efforts to figuring out how to get your message in front of consumers without running “ad units”. This could be in the form of “content”, “utility”, or anything else that provides some sort of value. But you should be allocating resources to figuring this out now so you can have a competitive advantage.

If you’re a creative agency, you need to figure out what you’re going to be making or doing in a world where consumers are ad avoidant. Core advertising services are destined to change, and innovation should be happening as much on the business and operations end as it is on the creative and technology side of the business.

If you’re a media agency, you should be figuring out what side of history you want to be on, and whether you want to evolve beyond the current state of affairs, or go down with the ship.

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Content blockers on iOS 9 will be 64-bit device only » Twitter

Benjamin Poulain (of Apple’s Safari team) tweeted thus:

Content Blockers do work on 32 bits, but the App Store policies restrict them to 64 bits devices as @reneritchie said.

The extensions already work on 32-bit devices (I’m testing three on an iPhone 5C), but Poulain then says the reason for the limitation is because of the performance of the compiler on the largest extensions. (The blockers are compiled on the fly, as I understand it.)

Cynics will say this is Apple trying to get people to upgrade from 32-bit devices to 64-bit ones. (And other extensions do work on 32-bit..) Depends how compelling you think content blocking is, of course.
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Encounter with the Google car today… » Cycling Forums

“Oxtox”:

a Google self-driving Lexus has been in my neighborhood for the last couple of weeks doing some road testing.

Near the end of my ride today, we both stopped at an intersection with 4-way stop signs.

The car got to the stop line a fraction of a second before I did, so it had the ROW. I did a track-stand and waited for it to continue on through.

It apparently detected my presence (it’s covered in Go-Pros) and stayed stationary for several seconds. it finally began to proceed, but as it did, I rolled forward an inch while still standing. the car immediately stopped…

I continued to stand, it continued to stay stopped. then as it began to move again, I had to rock the bike to maintain balance. it stopped abruptly.

We repeated this little dance for about 2 full minutes and the car never made it past the middle of the intersection. the two guys inside were laughing and punching stuff into a laptop, I guess trying to modify some code to ‘teach’ the car something about how to deal with the situation.

Lots of little situations like this will make the difference between self-driving cars other road users like and which they really don’t. (Can an SDC be “rude”?)
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Google’s driverless cars run into problem: cars with drivers » The New York Times

Matt Richtel and Conor Dougherty:

Google’s fleet of autonomous test cars is programmed to follow the letter of the law. But it can be tough to get around if you are a stickler for the rules. One Google car, in a test in 2009, couldn’t get through a four-way stop because its sensors kept waiting for other (human) drivers to stop completely and let it go. The human drivers kept inching forward, looking for the advantage — paralyzing Google’s robot.

It is not just a Google issue. Researchers in the fledgling field of autonomous vehicles say that one of the biggest challenges facing automated cars is blending them into a world in which humans don’t behave by the book.

“The real problem is that the car is too safe,” said Donald Norman, director of the Design Lab at the University of California, San Diego, who studies autonomous vehicles. “They have to learn to be aggressive in the right amount, and the right amount depends on the culture.”

If it’s about the culture, might be a while before we see them in France or (especially) Italy. Or [insert country where you gaped at the driving].
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One thought on “Start up: Wikipedia’s blackmail ban, Ashley Madison redux, Google OnHub meta-reviewed, and more

  1. Pingback: Five things on Friday #140 | whatleydude

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