Start Up No.873: Dotcom nears extradition, Twitter’s non-uprising, the smart TVs watching you, Pruitt gone, and more


Turns out this solves gerrymandering. Photo by Marco Verch on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Kim Dotcom, Megaupload founder, can face US extradition – NZ court • Reuters

Charlotte Greenfield:

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Internet entrepreneur and Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom can be extradited to the United States to face racketeering and criminal copyright charges, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal ruled on Thursday.

It upheld a lower court ruling in 2017 that the extradition could take place, and set the stage for Dotcom’s final appeal to the Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

The six-year legal saga is widely seen as a test for how far the United States can reach globally to apply American firms’ intellectual property rights.

“My legal team are confident that the Supreme Court will hear the appeal given there are such significant legal issues at stake,” Dotcom said in a statement.

U.S. authorities say Dotcom and three co-accused Megaupload executives cost film studios and record companies more than $500m and generated more than $175m in revenue by encouraging paying users to store and share copyrighted material.

The Court of Appeal said the United States had disclosed “a clear prima facie case that the appellants conspired to, and did, breach copyright wilfully and on a large scale, for their commercial gain.”

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Think that one might be quite easy to stand up in a court.
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Employee uprisings sweep many tech companies. Not Twitter • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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As BuzzFeed News declared last month, “Twitter is making an unexpected, somewhat miraculous comeback.”

Perhaps. But at what cost to the world?

“You have a platform that’s damaging people on a regular basis, and it’s being used to target groups of people on a regular basis,” said Leslie Miley, an engineer who left Twitter in 2015 after he said he became disillusioned with what he saw as the company’s weak efforts to hire a more diverse work force. “At some point you have to ask yourself if you’re doing more harm than good.”

Last week, I reached out to Twitter’s employees to ask just that. Insiders were reluctant to talk on the record, but a few said that even if there’s little public evidence of organized resistance, some employees are constantly debating the role the service plays in public discourse. Mr. Trump’s tweets, in particular, arouse internal conflict, they said. And Mr. Dorsey’s decision — earlier reported by The Washington Post — to meet with conservative pundits who have accused the platform of liberal bias did not sit well with many workers.

Twitter declined to make Mr. Dorsey available for an interview. The company did put me on the phone with Vijaya Gadde, its head of legal, policy, trust and safety, who echoed the idea that there is robust debate within Twitter about its impact on the world.

“A lot of our employees are here because they’re tied to the mission that we’re serving and to our purpose in the world,” Ms. Gadde said. She defined that mission as providing “a healthy public conversation,” but acknowledged the company has had trouble defining exactly what such a healthy conversation might look like.

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link to this extract


“I-cut-you-choose” cake-cutting protocol inspires solution to gerrymandering • Carnegie Mellon University

Byron Spice:

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Getting two political parties to equitably draw congressional district boundaries can seem hopeless, but Carnegie Mellon University researchers say the process can be improved by using an approach children use to share a piece of cake.

Just as having one child cut the cake and giving the second child first choice of the pieces avoids either feeling envious, having two political parties sequentially divide up a state in an “I-Cut-You-Freeze” protocol would minimize the practice of gerrymandering, where a dominant political party draws districts to maximize its electoral advantage.

The CMU protocol, developed by Ariel Procaccia, associate professor of computer science, and Wesley Pegden, associate professor of mathematical sciences, is the first to allow a fair division of a state into political districts without independent agents.

It calls for one political party to divide a map of a state into the allotted number of districts, each with equal numbers of voters. Then the second party would choose one district to “freeze,” so no further changes could be made to it, and re-map the remaining districts as it likes.

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Obvious, and so effective when you think about it. This should be encoded into law.
link to this extract


How Smart TVs in millions of US homes track more than what’s on tonight • The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari:

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Samba TV is one of the bigger companies that track viewer information to make personalized show recommendations. The company said it collected viewing data from 13.5m smart TVs in the United States, and it has raised $40m in venture funding from investors including Time Warner , the cable operator Liberty Global and the billionaire Mark Cuban.

Samba TV has struck deals with roughly a dozen TV brands — including Sony, Sharp, TCL and Philips — to place its software on certain sets. When people set up their TVs, a screen urges them to enable a service called Samba Interactive TV, saying it recommends shows and provides special offers “by cleverly recognizing onscreen content.” But the screen, which contains the enable button, does not detail how much information Samba TV collects to make those recommendations.

Samba TV declined to provide recent statistics, but one of its executives said at the end of 2016 that more than 90% of people opted in.

Once enabled, Samba TV can track nearly everything that appears on the TV on a second-by-second basis, essentially reading pixels to identify network shows and ads, as well as programs on Netflix and HBO and even video games played on the TV. Samba TV has even offered advertisers the ability to base their targeting on whether people watch conservative or liberal media outlets and which party’s presidential debate they watched.

The big draw for advertisers — which have included Citi and JetBlue in the past, and now Expedia — is that Samba TV can also identify other devices in the home that share the TV’s internet connection.

Samba TV, which says it has adhered to privacy guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission, does not directly sell its data. Instead, advertisers can pay the company to direct ads to other gadgets in a home after their TV commercials play, or one from a rival airs. Advertisers can also add to their websites a tag from Samba TV that allows them to determine if people visit after watching one of their commercials.

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“More than 90% of people opted in”. Yeah, sure. They clicked “I agree” to make it go away.
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Apple registers several new Mac and iPad models in Eurasia • Mac Rumors

Tim Hardwick:

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Apple has registered new tablets and Macs with the Eurasian Economic Commission (EEC) this week, indicating that refreshes could be on the horizon. The filings, uncovered by French website Consomac, are legally required for any devices with encryption sold in Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia.

The five Mac model numbers are A1931, A1932, A1988, A1989 and A1990, indicating two distinct ranges. The last three numbers may relate to expected refreshes for the 13in MacBook Pro (with and without Touch Bar) and the 15in MacBook Pro, while the first two could reference a refreshed 12in MacBook and a potential replacement for the aging MacBook Air, which Apple has been gradually phasing out.

Apple is rumored to be planning to introduce the new entry-level 13in MacBook in the second half of 2018, which would serve as a replacement for the MacBook Air. Details have been scant about the rumored machine, but it could turn out to belong to the 12in MacBook family, and the model numbers A1931 and A1932 potentially reflect this.

It’s not known what the rumored 13in MacBook would be priced at, but the MacBook Air sells for $999, a price point Apple has thus far been unable to match with the 12in MacBook and the MacBook Pro.

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Expected before September, or at least before the Mojave release. The keyboard teardown on those new models will be something to see.

link to this extract


The US Air Force learned to code—and saved the Pentagon millions • Fast Company

Mark Wallace:

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At the Air Operations Center (AOC) at Qatar’s Al Udeid Air Base, [then chair of Google Eric] Schmidt saw up close the way that today’s US Air Force met its enormous challenges: with magnets and colored plastic cards. The Air Force was then engaged in an offensive against the so-called Islamic State forces in Mosul, Iraq. But when Schmidt asked an AOC commander what his biggest concern was, he got a surprising answer. As Schmidt told me, “He said, ‘Well, frankly, it’s something different: I don’t want them to erase my whiteboard.’”

The AOC at Al Udeid is where AFCENT, the U.S. Air Forces Central Command, oversees air force operations for over 20 countries from Egypt to Kazakhstan. An enormous amount of data is pushed through the center every day, through a system of 43 software applications that help with everything from assessing targets to planning attacks, getting information to pilots, monitoring operations, analyzing damage done, and more.

Not all the functions of the AOC are carried out on a computer, however. The whiteboard, as Schmidt and other DIB members soon discovered, was where daily planning took place for AFCENT’s aerial refueling operations. “We got the missions for the day, figured out what targets needed to be hit, and how much fuel was needed, who needed the fuel, and when they needed it,” explains U.S. Colonel Mike Drowley, AFCENT chief of staff. “It was an eight- or nine-hour process [for three or more people] to try and figure all the ins and outs. It was like a Tetris game of blocks and pucks.”

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Ineffectual non-work by an outside contractor was replaced by an in-house tiger team. That worked. Same story in the UK government between departments: a Cabinet Office tiger team dug Universal Credit out of a deep hole and got it working where its owner department, Work and Pensions, couldn’t.
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Apple passes over Intel in search for 5G chips for the iPhone • CTech

Yoav Stoler:

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Intel will not provide 5G modems for Apple’s 2020 mobile devices, according to internal company communications reviewed by Calcalist, and people familiar with the matter. Apple has notified Intel it would not use a mobile modem developed by the chipmaker in its next-generation mobile device, Intel executives said in the communications. Further development of the modem component internally called “Sunny Peak” has been halted and the Intel team that’s working on the product will be redirected to other efforts, the executives said.

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Hard to know the track record for this publication, but this is a couple of years off. Of course Apple would be thinking about this; if Intel isn’t in 5G, it’s really a bit screwed in terms of growth.
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Clash of the titans: Chinese and US tech giants go at it in emerging markets • The Economist

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According to CBInsights – a data firm – Tencent, Alibaba and its Ant Financial affiliate have backed 43% of all Asian “unicorns”, meaning startups worth more than $1bn. Alibaba’s investment in Lazada, South-East Asia’s largest e-commerce platform, has soaked up $4bn. Jack Ma, Alibaba’s founder and boss, has pledged $8bn to India alone.

Their different approaches reflect the way the Western and Chinese firms make money. Google and Facebook earn the bulk of their revenue from advertising against services their users flock to. This requires little localisation, bar a bit of website translation to attract native users.

Chinese firms’ competitive advantage, by contrast, has historically come from being able to process payments and organise distribution of goods in a country where doing such things had previously been tricky. A business based on solving such nuts-and-bolts problems is hard to export. “For that sort of thing, it is difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach for different countries,” says Tan Yinglan of Insignia Ventures Partners, a tech-investment firm. Being a distribution expert in Singapore (whose former postal monopoly is now 14% owned by Alibaba) brings little insight into distributing packages throughout Indonesia’s 17,500 islands, say. Nor does the ability to process payments in Vietnam smooth transactions in Brazil or in Nigeria, with their vastly different banking and regulatory systems. Such intricacies, in other words, might be better delivered by local entrepreneurs who can be bought out once they have cracked them.

How are these differing strategies panning out on the ground? The most intense Sino-American rivalry thus far is focused on India and South-East Asia. The scale of investment reflects the stakes: Indian start-ups received $5.2bn in Chinese tech money last year, according to Tracxn, a data provider, up from $930m in 2016. Forrester, a market-research group, says that Chinese tech giants (including Didi and JD.com) spent $6bn on acquisitions in South-East Asia in 2017.

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Quite a clash where these two strategies come together.
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Scott Pruitt out at EPA • NPR

Rebecca Hersher on the departure (fired or resigned?) of the ridiculously corrupt, absurdly ill-suited party dweeb:

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While Pruitt’s environmental policies were controversial, it was his spending and attempts to use the position for personal gain that resulted in more than a dozen investigations.

Several patterns were quickly established, including unusually high spending on his office and travel and continually mixing his personal and professional lives.

The EPA spent about $43,000 on a soundproof phone booth for the administrator’s office, and The Washington Post reported that Pruitt spent thousands of dollars on first-class plane tickets. The New York Times reported Pruitt’s chief of security proposed that Pruitt spend $70,000 on two desks, one of them bulletproof. The desks were not purchased.

Pruitt cited security threats as one reason for the first-class travel, and he spent tens of thousands of dollars on a publicly-funded, 24-hour security detail, which his office said was necessary to protect him from threats. Pruitt’s security detail reportedly accompanied him on personal trips, including a family vacation to Disneyland. In August 2017, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General began investigating Pruitt’s travel and security expenses and has widened the investigation multiple times.

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Whatever was coming out of the EPA OIG must have been colossal to make Pruitt resign. That is, assuming he wasn’t called in by John Kelly (WH chief of staff) and told to write his resignation letter. The OIG will still have to report. Does it get to censure and fine Pruitt?

And will his bad decisions at the EPA be reversed? Because that’s the big question.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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