Start Up: how democracy ends, call an ambUberlance!, the porn ad spawn fraud, Amazon blinks, and more


The US FCC killed net neutrality, sorta kinda. What next? Photo by silver marquis on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. On time, unlike yesterday’s. (You’ll get two today.) I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How democracy ends • Talking Politics

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Worst-case scenarios for democracy – especially since Trump’s victory – hark back to how democracy has failed in the past. So do we really risk a return to the 1930s? This week David argues no: if democracy is going to fail in the 21st century, it will be in ways that are new and surprising. A talk based on his new book coming out next year. Recorded at Churchill College as part of the CSAR lecture series.

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This is an hour-long talk by David Runciman, professor of politics at the University of Cambridge. It’s a remarkable outlining of the blind spots that we aren’t aware of, the traps in our thinking that make us think history repeats – rather than rhymes.

Countries to think about in terms of “democracy”: Turkey, Venezuela, Brazil. (He doesn’t mention any of them, but they’re worth considering.) If you need a technology fix, he does talk about Facebook – and whether robots can make up for Japan’s falling fertility rate. Click through to the page for the player link, or find the podcast “Talking Politics” on iTunes/Acast/Stitcher. (This is episode 71.)

(David is a friend, via my time spent at the Technology & Democracy project at Cambridge. I’d certainly be recommending this even if he weren’t.)
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E pur si muove • Sam Altman

Altman thinks that it’s harder to talk about radical ideas in San Francisco than China:

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Restricting speech leads to restricting ideas and therefore restricted innovation—the most successful societies have generally been the most open ones. Usually mainstream ideas are right and heterodox ideas are wrong, but the true and unpopular ideas are what drive the world forward. Also, smart people tend to have an allergic reaction to the restriction of ideas, and I’m now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere.

It is bad for all of us when people can’t say that the world is a sphere, that evolution is real, or that the sun is at the center of the solar system.

More recently, I’ve seen credible people working on ideas like pharmaceuticals for intelligence augmentation, genetic engineering, and radical life extension leave San Francisco because they found the reaction to their work to be so toxic. “If people live a lot longer it will be disastrous for the environment, so people working on this must be really unethical” was a memorable quote I heard this year.

To get the really good ideas, we need to tolerate really bad and wacky ideas too.

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This seems a fundamental confusion of two things. Talking about radical ideas is one thing; they’re not unethical in themselves. If they’re bad you refute them. But genetic manipulation could have dramatic, far-reaching physical effects that you can’t reverse – it’s not like changing a law on same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, Anil Dash eviscerates Altman’s suggestions in a Twitter thread which deals much more directly with the “speech” (rather than “doing stuff”) idea.
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Uber reduces ambulance usage across the country, study says • Mercury News

Tracy Seipel:

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In what is believed to be the first study to measure the impact of Uber and other ride-booking services on the U.S. ambulance business, two researchers have concluded that ambulance usage is dropping across the country.

A research paper released Wednesday examined ambulance usage rates in 766 U.S. cities in 43 states as Uber entered their markets from 2013 to 2015.

Co-authors David Slusky, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Kansas, and Dr. Leon Moskatel, an internist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego, said they believe their study is the first to explain a trend that until now has only been discussed anecdotally.

Comparing ambulance volumes before and after Uber became available in each city, the two men found that the ambulance usage rate dipped significantly.

Slusky said after using different methodologies to obtain the “most conservative” decline in ambulance usage, the researchers calculated the drop to be “at least” 7%.

“My guess is it will go up a little bit and stabilize at 10% to 15% as Uber continues to expand as an alternative for people,’’ Moskatel said.

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Here’s the kicker for Britons saying “huh? Ambulances are free though”:

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Slusky added, with health care taking a big chunk out of most people’s budgets, many consumers these days have to weigh a few factors before calling an ambulance. “They have to think about their health — and what it’s going to cost me,” he said. “And for many of us with high-deductible plans, an ambulance ride would cost thousands of dollars.”

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link to this extract


This is how visiting a porn site can make you a pawn in an ad fraud scheme • Buzzfeed

Craig Silverman:

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The technique used by DingIt, as well as a growing number of mainstream sites, is outlined in a presentation published this week by [ad fraud researcher Augustine] Fou. He has for weeks been documenting what he calls “Bot-Free Traffic Origination Redirect Networks.”

Fou told BuzzFeed News these networks can “originate traffic out of thin air” and direct it to a specific site thanks to code that instructs them when to load a specific webpage, and how long to keep it open before automatically loading the next website in the chain. No human action is required to load webpages or redirect to the next site — it’s a perpetual-motion machine for web traffic and ad impressions.

Ad fraud detection company Pixalate documented this activity in a recent investigation and dubbed the web properties using it “zombie sites” due to their ability to automatically generate traffic without human activity.

This form of ad fraud was also detailed in two recent BuzzFeed News investigations, which serve to highlight how the technique is growing in popularity and is now being used on more mainstream sites.

In one case, Myspace and roughly 150 local newspaper websites owned by GateHouse Media said they were unwittingly part of redirect networks that racked up millions of fraudulent video ad impressions. Both companies told BuzzFeed News the offending subdomains on their sites were managed by third parties, and that Myspace and GateHouse received no revenue from any fraudulent impressions. The pages have since been shut down.

“How were [these subdomains] getting all those video views? Well, they just originated it. A user is not doing anything, but the page is just redirecting by itself,” Fou said…

…On porn sites, as well as on many illegal streaming and file-sharing sites, it starts with a visitor clicking anywhere on the page. Regardless of what they meant to click, the site clickjacks the action and uses it to open a pop-under window behind the user’s main browser tab.

As the user watches porn or other content in the main window, unscrupulous ad networks use the hidden window to load different websites at timed intervals, racking up views and ad impressions. A user often has no idea this is happening in the background, and in some cases porn sites load the pop-under as an invisible window that can’t be seen. (That window will load websites and ad impressions until the entire browser is closed, or until the computer loses its internet connection.)

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Switching views on consoles • Bloomberg Gadfly

Tim Culpan:

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Apparently the games console isn’t dead. Yet.

Despite numerous distractions for consumers – from smartphone games to Netflix – Nintendo Co.’s Switch has a chance of becoming the Japanese company’s best-selling gaming machine in a decade.

With the 10 million mark recently surpassed and Christmas ahead, it’s possible Switch may beat the 17 million mark set by the Nintendo 3DS in the 2011/12 fiscal year. Selling another 7 million units in the next four months will be a stretch, but even even if it comes within a few million, Nintendo will be able to celebrate.

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The Switch is a strange beast: it’s a very portable console, but also works as a stationary one. And it’s got a hell of a battery. No wonder it’s selling so well. Yet without the Nintendo content – hello, Mario – it would be nowhere.
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You can log out, but you can’t hide • Axios

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A new study from Ghostery, an anti-tracking tool, shows that an overwhelming majority (79%) of websites globally are tracking visitors’ data — with 10% of these sites actually sending user data to 10 companies or more.

• Tracking scripts from Google and Facebook are by far the most pervasive. Together, those two companies collect more data than most other companies combined.

• The US, Russia and UK have more trackers per page load than the global average, while Germany, France and India have fewer. (Germany and many European countries are known for their culture of strong data privacy.)

• The advertising supply chain represents the vast majority of tracking companies.

New regulatory efforts to protect consumer privacy will significantly hinder these companies’ ability to collect data via tracking scripts. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which goes into effect next year in Europe, will require companies to get explicit permission from consumers to collect their data.

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Android Oreo review: conclusion • BirchTree

Matt Birchler:

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Honestly, if I could run all of my iOS apps on the Android operating system I think I’d feel a lot better about Android. It’s a lack of consistent quality software on the platform that really drives me away. The vast difference in quality software from non-Google companies is just depressing for someone coming from the iOS world. Websites like MacStories exist almost completely to talk about third party apps on iOS, and there is enough new and exciting software coming out on a regular basis that they can make a business of it. You simply don’t have that on the Android side, as Android-centric sites instead focus mostly on hardware, sales, and what updates Google themselves are making. In the past 2 months with the Pixel 2, the only “exciting” app releases have been AR Stickers for the Pixel 2 camera app and a new file management app made by Google.

As I return to iOS full time, I do intend to keep carrying the Pixel 2 with me for a while. I’ll carry it mostly for the camera, which is indeed quite excellent, but there will also be a few Android features I’ll miss. I’ll miss the superior notification management. I’ll miss the far superior do-not-disturb options. I’ll miss having Google Assistant as my main digital assistant. And I’ll miss picture-in-picture on my phone. I will miss these things, but as I think is very clear by now, I’ll miss those things less than I missed all the goodies iOS brings me.

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Nails it about Android news sites. There’s really very little to chew on there. (Still waiting for David Ruddock’s article about what he doesn’t like about iOS after using Android for 10 years. Perhaps it’ll land next week.)
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Ajit Pai thinks you’re stupid enough to buy this crap [Update: one of the 7 things is dancing with a Pizzagater] • Gizmodo

Tom McKay:

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The [net neutrality] plan is immensely unpopular, even with Republicans. This type of situation would typically call for a charm offensive, though Pai has apparently decided to resort to his time-honored tactic of being incredibly condescending instead. In a video with the conservative site Daily Caller’s Benny Johnson—the dude who got fired from BuzzFeed for plagiarizing Yahoo Answers—Pai urged the country to understand that even if he succeeds in his plan to let ISPs strangle the rest of the internet to death, they’ll let us continue to take selfies and other stupid bullshit.

“There’s been quite a bit of conversation about my plan to restore Internet freedom,” Pai says in the cringe-inducing clip. “Here are just a few of the things you will still be able to do on the Internet after these Obama-era regulations are repealed.”

Pai then pantomimed things users will supposedly still be able to do, like being able to “gram your food,” “post photos of cute animals, like puppies,” “shop for all your Christmas presents online,” “binge watch your favorite shows,” and “stay part of your favorite fan community.”

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Pai’s backstory is interesting: he’s a lawyer who was appointed to the FCC by Obama at the urging of Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell. He’s no slouch, and he has had a consistent position on this.

The GIF stuff is stupid; he’s badly advised.
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Facebook will launch pre-roll video ads in 2018 • Recode

Peter Kafka:

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For years, Facebook executives have said they don’t want to run “pre-roll” ads — ads that run before you get to watch the video you want to play — because users don’t like them.

Now, Facebook is going to start running pre-roll ads.

Important: That doesn’t mean your News Feed is going to be full of video ads you didn’t ask to see. The pre-rolls, which will run for up to six seconds, will only appear on videos in Facebook’s “Watch” hub, where it is hoping you will go and hang out because you want to watch Facebook videos.

Facebook says it will start formally testing the format next year. (Ad Age first reported the change.)

Facebook launched its Watch hub earlier this year, using “mid-roll” ads (another ad format Facebook tried to avoid for a long time). The fact that they have added pre-rolls — the format used around the web and the one advertisers are most comfortable with — should be read as an admission that the mid-roll ads aren’t generating significant revenue for Facebook or the publishers putting video into Watch.

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I wonder – just an idea here – whether it could just be that video isn’t actually the saviour of everyone’s business model?
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The FCC just killed net neutrality. Now what? • WIRED

Klint Finley:

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Most immediately, the activity will move to the courts, where the advocacy group Free Press, and probably others, will challenge the FCC’s decision. The most likely argument: that the commission’s decision violates federal laws barring agencies from crafting “arbitrary and capricious” regulations. After all, the FCC’s net neutrality rules were just passed in 2015. Activists and many members of Congress, including at least six Republicans, pushed for a delay in the vote, but apart from a brief delay due to a security issue, the vote occurred as planned.

But as capricious as the current FCC’s about-face may seem, legal experts say the challenges won’t be a slam-dunk case. Federal agencies are allowed to change their minds about previous regulations, so long as they adequately explain their reasoning. “It’s not carte blanche,” says Marc Martin, chair of law firm Perkins Coie’s communications practice. “You can’t make it obvious that it’s just based on politics.” Martin says the burden of proof will be on net neutrality advocates challenging the agency.

The FCC’s main argument for revoking the 2015 rules is that the regulations hurt investment in broadband infrastructure. But, as WIRED recently detailed, many broadband providers actually increased their investments, while those that cut back on spending told shareholders that the net neutrality rules didn’t affect their plans.

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That the US has more competition in wireless than wired broadband say to me that the wired market has reached an end state. Not a good one, either. The FCC’s tinkering here isn’t going to make a difference. The US needs proper local loop unbundling so that ISPs and telcos can compete at the local level; in that case it doesn’t matter whether you impose net neutrality because someone will offer it.

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Amazon to start selling Apple TV and Google Chromecast • CNET

Ben Fox Rubin:

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Amazon said Thursday that it will again be selling Apple TV and Google Chromecast devices, two video-streaming gadgets the e-commerce giant removed from its site two years ago and that compete with its own Fire TV products.

“I can confirm that we are assorting Apple TV and Chromecast,” an Amazon spokeswoman told CNET on Thursday, referring to the company’s plans to stock up on the devices. She offered no further statements.

Amazon added product listing pages for the Apple TV and two versions of the Apple TV 4K, as well as the Google Chromecast and Chromecast Ultra. The gadgets aren’t available for sale yet, but customers should expect they will be shortly.

Apple and Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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Background: Amazon hasn’t been selling these for ages; then Google pulled YouTube from Amazon hardware (Fire Stick, Echo Show); then Amazon tried to reinstate them; then Google really blocked them.

And now Amazon seems to have blinked. Expect the next move to be YouTube being reinstated on Amazon devices.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified. You didn’t even complain about my posting yesterday’s post 8hr late.

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