Start Up No.867: Twitter aims at bots, Apple/Samsung settle!, unstoppable IPv4, peak screen?, and more

You think you’re going to win that car in the shopping centre sweepstake? Afraid not. Photo by Conny Sandland on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Count them and report back. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Twitter ramps up fight against abuse and malicious bots • Bloomberg

Selina Wang:


For the first time, Twitter is going to require confirmation of an email address or phone number to sign up for an account. The company, which promotes itself as a place for public conversation over news and events, has long been criticized for making it too easy for malicious actors to create multiple spam accounts. Twitter said it would work with experts to make sure the changes don’t harm users in high-risk environments where anonymity is important.

Since the revelations that Russian troll accounts sowed discord on social-media platforms during the 2016 US presidential election, Twitter has released a series of updates to clamp down on suspicious activity. Earlier this year, Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey acknowledged the San Francisco-based company inadvertently helped spread misinformation, harassment and manipulation via bots, or automated accounts. Last week, Twitter acquired security startup Smyte to help fight online spam, abuse and fraud.

“These issues are felt around the world, from elections to emergency events and high-profile public conversations,” Twitter said Tuesday in a blog post. “As we have stated in recent announcements, the public health of the conversation on Twitter is a critical metric by which we will measure our success in these areas.”

The company is also developing machine learning algorithms that proactively find problematic accounts, rather than waiting until someone flags the bad behavior.


It hasn’t previously insisted on confirmation? That’s crazy. Will it apply this retrospectively too?
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Apple and Samsung settle seven-year-old iPhone patent dispute • WSJ

Maria Armental:


Terms of the agreement weren’t disclosed, but the companies filed a notice in California federal court on Wednesday saying that they had reached an resolution and agreed to drop the legal case with prejudice, meaning another complaint can’t be filed on the same claims.

Apple declined to comment, referring instead to its comment last month after a federal jury decided the South Korean electronics giant violated patents related to Apple’s iPhone design. Samsung was ordered to pay $539m.

“We believe deeply in the value of design,” the company said at the time. “This case has always been about more than money. Apple ignited the smartphone revolution with iPhone, and it is a fact that Samsung blatantly copied our design.”


Can we say finally?
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Another ten years later • The ISP Column

Geoff Huston reflects on the changes – and non-changes – of internet infrastructure over the past ten years:


The most notable aspect of the network that appears to stubbornly resist all forms of pressure over the last decade, including some harsh realities of acute scarcity, is the observation that we are still running what is essentially an IPv4 Internet.

Over this past decade we have exhausted our pools of remaining IPv4 addresses, and in most parts of the world the IPv4 Internet is running on some form of empty. We had never suspected that the Internet would confront the exhaustion of one its most fundamental pillars, the basic function of uniquely addressing connected devices, and apparently shrug it off and continue on blithely. But, unexpectedly, that’s exactly what’s happened.

Today we estimate that some 3.4 billion people are regular users of the Internet, and there are some 20 billion devices connected to it. We have achieved this using some 3 billion unique IPv4 addresses. Nobody thought that we could achieve this astonishing feat, yet it has happened with almost no fanfare.

Back in the 1900’s we had thought that the prospect of address exhaustion would propel the Internet to use IPv6. This was the successor IP protocol that comes with a four-fold increase in the bit width of IP addresses. By increasing the IP address pool to some esoterically large number of unique addresses (340 undecillion addresses, or 3.4 x 1038) we would never have to confront network address exhaustion again. But this was not going to be an easy transition. There is no backward compatibility in this protocol transition, so everything has to change. Every device, every router and even every application needs to change to support IPv6. Rather than perform comprehensive protocol surgery on the Internet and change every part of the infrastructure to support IPv6, we changed the basic architecture of the Internet instead. Oddly enough, it looks like this was the cheaper option!


Yeah, one tends to forget this. “IPv4 exhaustion” stories were all over the place a couple of years back. Now? Nothing.
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We have reached peak screen. Now revolution is in the air • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo reckons we’ve had enough of screens:


There are two ways we may break our fevered addiction to screens.

First, we will need to try to use our phones more mindfully, which requires a combination of willpower and technology.

Help is on the way. For the last week, I’ve been using Screen Time, one of the new features in Apple’s next version of its mobile operating system. The software gives you valuable information about how much you are using your phone, and it can even block you from using apps that you deem unhealthy. I found Screen Time very well designed, and I suspect it will profoundly change how we use our phones.

But in addition to helping us resist phones, the tech industry will need to come up with other, less immersive ways to interact with digital world. Three technologies may help with this: voice assistants, of which Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant are the best, and Apple’s two innovations, AirPods and the Apple Watch.

All of these technologies share a common idea. Without big screens, they are far less immersive than a phone, allowing for quick digital hits: You can buy a movie ticket, add a task to a to-do list, glance at a text message or ask about the weather without going anywhere near your Irresistible Screen of Splendors.

These are all works in progress. Voice assistants still cannot do everything for you, though Google and Amazon have thousands of engineers working to improve them. AirPods are fantastic — they have fewer connection issues than any other wireless headphones — and after years of refinement, the Apple Watch shows you just enough stuff from your phone to make it useful without becoming overbearing.


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Feds ran a bitcoin-laundering sting for over a year • The Verge

Russell Brandom:


More than 40 alleged dark-web drug dealers have been arrested as part of a sweeping federal effort described by the Department of Justice as “the first nationwide undercover operation targeting dark net vendors.” The core of the operation was an online money-laundering business seized by agents from Homeland Security Investigations and operated as a sting for over a year. By offering cash for bitcoin, HSI agents were able to identify specific drug dealers, ultimately tracing more than $20 million in drug-linked cryptocurrency transactions.

“For the past year, undercover agents have been providing money-laundering services to these dark net vendors, specifically those involved in narcotics trafficking,” said HSI Special Agent in Charge Angel Melendez, in a press conference earlier today. Melendez led the operation from New York.

The hijacked money-laundering service was offered across a number of different marketplaces, with agents claiming at least some presence on AlphaBay, Dream Market, Wall Street, and others. In the past, law enforcement efforts have focused on taking down marketplaces in full, most notably Silk Road, Silk Road 2.0, and AlphaBay. But Melendez says his office has shifted focus to the individual dealers, who often operate independent of any single site.


And now look at the sorts of drugs they were targeting:


the same raids seized large quantities of Schedule IV pharmaceuticals — including 100,000 tramadol pills and over 24 kilograms of Xanax — as is typical of trade on dark net markets. Agents also recovered more than 300 models of liquid synthetic opioids and roughly 100 grams of fentanyl.


They haven’t specified how they matched the wallets to the drug buys. Which would have been useful.
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North Korea is rapidly upgrading nuclear site despite summit vow • WSJ

Jonathan Cheng:


North Korea is upgrading its nuclear research center at a rapid pace, new satellite imagery analysis suggests, despite Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization at a summit with the US this month.

The analysis from 38 North, a North Korea-focused website published by the Stimson Center in Washington, found that Pyongyang, in recent weeks, appears to have modified the cooling system of its plutonium-production reactor and erected a new building near the cooling tower. New construction could also be observed at the site’s experimental light-water reactor, the report said.

The satellite pictures, captured on June 21, nine days after the Singapore summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, showed no immediate effort to begin denuclearization at North Korea’s key nuclear research site.


Oh well, we tried. Still, at least they’ve given up that nuclear site that collapsed. Um.
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Samsung will shut down Bixby feature that bribed you to use it • The Verge

Ashley Carman:


Samsung’s Bixby assistant had a rough time of it. Not only did no one want to use the assistant, but Samsung even recognized that it’d have to bribe users to do so. The company announced this week that it’s shutting down those gamification efforts — called My Bixby Level — on August 10th. The feature rewarded users for playing with and learning how to use Bixby. They received new background color options and Samsung Pay points that could be cashed in for discounts or toward contest entries to win Samsung products. The background colors will still be available to use and might be made available to everyone; it’s unclear from Samsung’s messaging.


Sooo.. is Bixby continuing? Guess so. But as it says, not clear whether this is a good or bad sign.
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Google and Facebook accused of manipulating users in privacy settings • Fortune

David Meyer:


In a report called “Deceived By Design,” the Norwegian Consumer Council accused Facebook and Google—as well as Microsoft with Windows 10, to a lesser extent—of employing “design, symbols and working that nudge users away from the privacy friendly choices.”

Facebook and Google come under particular criticism for threatening users “with loss of functionality or deletion of the user account if the user does not choose the privacy intrusive option.”

“These companies manipulate us into sharing information about ourselves,” said Finn Myrstad, the watchdog’s director of digital services. “This shows a lack of respect for their users, and [the companies] are circumventing the notion of giving consumers control of their personal data.”

Is this all illegal, though? The consumer authorities argue it is, because the new EU privacy regime says people have to genuinely consent to having their personal data processed by tech companies. “However, the practices deployed by companies raise questions as to whether consent in this case can be considered informed and freely given,” reads the Norwegian Consumer Council’s letter to that country’s data protection authority.

The letter also says users aren’t “given the full picture” about how their information will be used, and the privacy settings “make it difficult for individuals to protect their personal data.” Both of these may also violate the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)—a law that threatens companies with fines of up to 4% of global annual revenues for serious violations.


The NCC report is in English, and well worth reading.
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Why nobody ever wins that car giveaway at the mall • The Hustle

Zachary Crockett dug into what’s really going on:


The car is a loaner from local dealer, Acura of Fremont — and despite what the sweepstakes’ marketing may suggest, it’s not up for grabs. (We called the dealer and they confirmed that the vehicle on display isn’t part of the giveaway at all.)

What you’re really signing up for is the opportunity to win an opportunity to possibly win a small amount of taxable cash.

Here’s what actually happens: 1) You enter the sweepstakes; 2) You have to attend a 90-minute timeshare presentation; 3) You get a scratch-off lotto ticket; 4) If you’re a “grand prize winner,” you get to play a game for a chance to win $100k.

The “game” is that the finalist gets to open 4 “mystery envelopes” with random amounts of cash. Last year’s two “big winners” walked away with checks for $575 and $700 — about enough to buy one side view mirror for your Acura..

That’s the absolute best-case scenario of entering one of these contests. Other aren’t so lucky.

Days after entering to win the car, Maggie Nicholson received a call informing her that her name was drawn. After sitting through a 2-hour timeshare presentation with Boiler Room-like sales tactics, she was told there was no car — but she was eligible for a vacation package.


And then there’s the way all your details get sold on, and sold on, and sold on… and you give up your do not call rights.
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Talking to Google Duplex: Google’s human-like phone AI feels revolutionary • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo got invited to a restaurant to be the head waiter (for phone calls):


this was much more than I was expecting: Google PR, Google engineers, restaurant staff, and several other journalists were intently watching and listening to me take this call over the speaker. I was nervous. I’ve never taken a restaurant reservation in my life, let alone one with an audience and an engineering crew monitoring every utterance. And you know what? I sucked at taking this reservation. And Duplex was fine with it.

Duplex patiently waited for me to awkwardly stumble through my first ever table reservation while I sloppily wrote down the time and fumbled through a basic back and forth about Google’s reservation for four people at 7pm on Thursday. Today’s Google Assistant requires authoritative, direct, perfect speech in order to process a command. But Duplex handled my clumsy, distracted communication with the casual disinterest of a real person. It waited for me to write down its reservation requirements, and when I asked Duplex to repeat things I didn’t catch the first time (“A reservation at what time?”), it did so without incident. When I told this robocaller the initial time it wanted wasn’t available, it started negotiating times; it offered an acceptable time range and asked for a reservation somewhere in that time slot. I offered seven o’clock and Google accepted.

From the human end, Duplex’s voice is absolutely stunning over the phone. It sounds real most of the time, nailing most of the prosodic features of human speech during normal talking. The bot “ums” and “uhs” when it has to recall something a human might have to think about for a minute. It gives affirmative “mmhmms” if you tell it to hold on a minute. Everything flows together smoothly, making it sound like something a generation better than the current Google Assistant voice.

One of the strangest (and most impressive) parts of Duplex is that there isn’t a single “Duplex voice.” For every call, Duplex would put on a new, distinct personality. Sometimes Duplex come across as male; sometimes female. Some voices were higher and younger sounding; some were nasally, and some even sounded cute.


The people who took part were all very impressed. But Google says it will have humans to act as backup, just in case.
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Facebook scraps plans to build drone to deliver internet access • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The drone, named Aquila by the company, was initially created by British aerospace engineer Andrew Cox, whose company Ascenta was acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $20m (£15m). It was folded into Facebook’s project, which had a stated goal of “connecting the whole world”, and was intended to be used to fly at a higher altitude than commercial planes, relaying laser-based internet signals down to base-stations on the ground.

Now, however, Facebook says it will no longer design and construct its own aircraft. Yael Maguire, the company’s director of engineering, said that the decision was prompted by the growing interest in the field from aerospace companies, which left Facebook’s own efforts superfluous.

“Going forward, we’ll continue to work with partners like Airbus on Haps [high altitude platform station] connectivity generally, and on the other technologies needed to make this system work, like flight control computers and high-density batteries,” Maguire wrote in a blogpost announcing the closure of the Bridgwater facility, where Aquila was built.

The announcement comes a day after a report from Business Insider revealing that Cox had left Facebook in May.

Aquila’s history at Facebook was mixed. Maguire touts successes including “two successful full-scale test flights”, and “setting new records using millimeter-wave (MMW) technology in air-to-ground and point-to-point communication,” but the drone project also resulted in criticism for the company, which was accused of covering up a crash at the end of a test flight which the company had previously told reporters was successful.


One by one, the lights are going out all over Silicon Valley’s big dreamland. Anyone checked in on Google’s Loon project recently?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yes, I’ve started numbering them. Turns out it’s quite a lot already.

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.867: Twitter aims at bots, Apple/Samsung settle!, unstoppable IPv4, peak screen?, and more

  1. I’m surprised the Google Duplex demos are all about robot customers calling human businesses. I’d assume the market to be the other way around, and businesses being much more willing to spend money on a robot phone presence. All the restaurants around me have someone dedicated to that, doctors are paying 3rd party secretary services and/or forcing us through semi-dreadful web sites…
    Not sure if I’m missing something, if Google is being cautious and starting with lower stakes activities, or hypocritical and showing off stuff that might resonate with the general public when the real goal is to sell upgrades to the dreaded “for technical support, press 1..”

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