Start Up No.987: WhatsApp tamps virality, could porn fund Trump’s wall? (no), hacking Nest cams, India’s Google alternative, and more


Want a mining job? The Moon might soon be open. CC-licensed photo by Stuart Rankin on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Free of hard borders. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

A mission to mine the Moon could be underway as early as 2025 • BGR

Mike Wehner:

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How do you mine for resources in a place where humans haven’t set foot for over four decades? That’s a question the European Space Agency will have to answer if they want to achieve the lofty goal of extracting usable lunar material by 2025.

Rocket maker ArianeGroup announced on Monday that it had landed a one-year contract with the ESA to develop a gameplan for mining lunar regolith. Regolith, which is the material covering the surface of the Moon, could be a rich source of both water and oxygen, and being able to mine it would potentially allow for a sustainable lunar settlement at some point in the not-so-distant future.

«

2001+24. (Well, the moon base monolith discovery is 18 months before the 2001 part of the title voyage, and they have to build the moon base first… perhaps a few years more.)

Notice how we’re starting to look outwards from the Earth again for human space travel after almost 50 years.
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WhatsApp restricts message forwarding to 5 times for all users after testing in India – The Washington Post

Hamza Shaban:

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In an attempt to combat the viral spread of false information, WhatsApp is limiting the number of times a user can forward a message, to five. The new global limit comes after the company tested a cap on forwarded messages in July, restricting users in India to five message forwards and all other users to 20 forwards. India is home to the highest number of forwarded messages, photos and videos, exceeding every other country’s, WhatsApp says. The previous limit set in the country came after a surge in mob violence fueled by rumors on the app.

In an updated blog post Monday, WhatsApp said it evaluated the test restrictions over the past six months and found that the cap “significantly reduced forwarded messages around the world.”

“Starting today, all users on the latest versions of WhatsApp can now forward to only five chats at once, which will help keep WhatsApp focused on private messaging with close contacts,” the company said. “We’ll continue to listen to user feedback about their experience, and over time, look for new ways of addressing viral content.”

The change in policy is the latest effort by tech giants to curb the spread of misinformation. But it also highlights the challenges particular to WhatsApp, whose messaging system is designed to be obscured from public view.

«

I wonder how many different variations they tried, and how “infectious” a five-friend forwarding limit is. It would be fascinating to see how it looks modelled by an epidemiologist. Messaging groups could contain (still can? It’s unclear) up to 256 people, which must be like Ebola compared to the rhinovirus.
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Pay for Trump’s border wall with $20 online porn fee, Ariz. lawmaker says • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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An Arizona state lawmaker has proposed a $20 fee on people who want to view online pornography in order to raise money for building a border wall between Arizona and Mexico.

Arizona House Bill 2444, proposed last week by State Rep. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford), would require makers and distributors of Internet-connected devices to ship such devices with blocking software “that renders a website that displays obscene material inaccessible by default.” Under the bill, any Internet user who wants to deactivate the blocking software would have to pay “a onetime deactivation fee of at least $20 to the Arizona Commerce Authority.”

The money would be used to establish what the bill calls the “John McCain Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Prevention Fund.” That fund would “provide grants to government agencies and private entities that work to uphold community standards of decency for the purpose of strengthening families and developing, expanding or strengthening programs for victims of sex offenses.”

To accomplish that goal, the bill provides a list of 10 types of projects that could be funded by the porn fee. First on the list is “build a border wall between Mexico and this state or fund border security.” The proposal comes as President Trump continues his push for a border wall.

«

Why would you propose something that you know is not ever going to be passed or implemented? It’s a weird form of signalling. Perhaps it looks good on the election literature: “tried to stamp out internet porn and build a wall”. Why not build the wall in front of the computer?
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Dutch surgeon wins landmark ‘right to be forgotten’ case • The Guardian

Daniel Boffey:

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A Dutch surgeon formally disciplined for her medical negligence has won a legal action to remove Google search results about her case in a landmark “right to be forgotten” ruling.

The doctor’s registration on the register of healthcare professionals was initially suspended by a disciplinary panel because of her postoperative care of a patient. After an appeal, this was changed to a conditional suspension under which she was allowed to continue to practise.

But the first results after entering the doctor’s name in Google continued to be links to a website containing an unofficial blacklist, which it was claimed amounted to “digital pillory”. It was heard that potential patients had found the blacklist on Google and discussed the case on a web forum.

Google and the Dutch data privacy watchdog, Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, initially rejected attempts to have the links removed on the basis that the doctor was still on probation and the information remained relevant.

However, in what is said to be the first right to be forgotten case involving medical negligence by a doctor, the district court of Amsterdam subsequently ruled the surgeon had “an interest in not indicating that every time someone enters their full name in Google’s search engine, (almost) immediately the mention of her name appears on the ‘blacklist of doctors’, and this importance adds more weight than the public’s interest in finding this information in this way”…

…The surgeon’s lawyer, Willem van Lynden, from the Amsterdam firm MediaMaze, said the ruling was groundbreaking in ensuring doctors would no longer be judged by Google on their fitness to practise.

“Now they will have to bring down thousands of pages: that is what will happen, in my view. There is a medical disciplinary panel but Google have been the judge until now. They have decided whether to take a page down – and why do they have that position?” he said.

«

Why indeed.
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A neural network can learn to organize the world it sees into concepts—just like we do • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

»

GANs, or generative adversarial networks, are the social-media starlet of AI algorithms. They are responsible for creating the first AI painting ever sold at an art auction and for superimposing celebrity faces on the bodies of porn stars. They work by pitting two neural networks against each other to create realistic outputs based on what they are fed. Feed one lots of dog photos, and it can create completely new dogs; feed it lots of faces, and it can create new faces. 

As good as they are at causing mischief, researchers from the MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab realized GANs are also a powerful tool: because they paint what they’re “thinking,” they could give humans insight into how neural networks learn and reason. This has been something the broader research community has sought for a long time—and it’s become more important with our increasing reliance on algorithms.

“There’s a chance for us to learn what a network knows from trying to re-create the visual world,” says David Bau, an MIT PhD student who worked on the project.

So the researchers began probing a GAN’s learning mechanics by feeding it various photos of scenery—trees, grass, buildings, and sky. They wanted to see whether it would learn to organize the pixels into sensible groups without being explicitly told how.

Stunningly, over time, it did. By turning “on” and “off” various “neurons” and asking the GAN to paint what it thought, the researchers found distinct neuron clusters that had learned to represent a tree, for example. Other clusters represented grass, while still others represented walls or doors. In other words, it had managed to group tree pixels with tree pixels and door pixels with door pixels regardless of how these objects changed color from photo to photo in the training set. “These GANs are learning concepts very closely reminiscent of concepts that humans have given words to,” says Bau.

«

OK, so it can group them as concepts. Is that the same as having a concept of them, though?
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Nest hack: North Korea missile attack hoax targets family • Mercury News

Matthias Gafni:

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Laura Lyons was preparing food in her kitchen Sunday when the lazy afternoon took a turn for the absurd. A loud squawking – similar to the beginning of an emergency broadcast alert – blasted from the living room, the Orinda mother said, followed by a detailed warning of three North Korean intercontinental ballistic missiles headed to Los Angeles, Chicago and Ohio.

“It warned that the United States had retaliated against Pyongyang and that people in the affected areas had three hours to evacuate,” Lyons said Monday. “It sounded completely legit, and it was loud and got our attention right off the bat… It was five minutes of sheer terror and another 30 minutes trying to figure out what was going on.”

Lyons and her husband stood slack-jawed in the living room, terrified but also confused because the television continued airing the NFC Championship football game. As their scared eight-year-old son crawled underneath the rug, the couple realized the apocalyptic warning came from their Nest security camera atop their living room television.

After many panicked minutes and phone calls to 911 and to Nest, the couple learned they likely were the victims of a hacker. And that panic turned to anger when they found out that Nest knew that there had been a number of such incidents – none involving nuclear strike scenarios – but failed to alert customers. Lyons said a Nest supervisor told them Sunday they likely were the victims of a “third party hack” that gained access to their camera and its speakers.

A Google spokesperson – the search engine owns Nest – said Nest was not breached in this incident.

“These recent reports are based on customers using compromised passwords (exposed through breaches on other websites). In nearly all cases, two-factor verification eliminates this type of the security risk,” the company said in an email statement. “We take security in the home extremely seriously, and we’re actively introducing features that will reject comprised passwords, allow customers to monitor access to their accounts and track external entities that abuse credentials.”

The Lyons are not alone. Reports from across the country indicate a growing problem of hackers accessing the Wi-Fi-enabled cameras from Nest and other similar companies.

«

They didn’t think to turn the TV to a news channel? Perhaps in an emergency one doesn’t act rationally. Bet the hacker has some fun footage that will be shared in forums. (Thanks to Paul Guinnessy for the link.)
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FTC considers record-setting fine against Facebook for privacy violations • The Washington Post

Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin:

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US regulators have met to discuss imposing a record-setting fine against Facebook for violating a legally binding agreement with the government to protect the privacy of its users’ personal data, according to three people familiar with the deliberations but not authorised to speak on the record.

The fine under consideration at the Federal Trade Commission, a privacy and security watchdog that began probing Facebook last year, would mark the first major punishment levied against Facebook in the United States since reports emerged in March that Cambridge Analytica, a political consultancy, accessed personal information on about 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge.

The penalty is expected to be much larger than the $22.5m fine the agency imposed on Google in 2012. That fine set a record for the greatest penalty for violating an agreement with the FTC to improve its privacy practices.

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It would have to be really big to make Facebook pay attention, but it’s pretty clear that what happened with Cambridge Analytica and others violated the terms of Facebook’s 2011 deal with the FTC. It’s hard to see how they could come to any other conclusion.
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Indians are so crazy about mobile video, they use Youtube like Google • WSJ

Eric Bellman:

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Indian smartphone users now download an average of about 8.5 gigabytes of data a month—or potentially more than 40 hours of video—off mobile networks without using Wi-Fi, according to research by Analysys Mason. That is more than what users in the U.S., China or Japan download.

Delhi student Ritik Taank says he misses playing cricket with friends. But these days, he says, everyone is at home watching and sharing funny video clips on their smartphones. The 18-year-old spends hours each day flipping through music videos, comedy skits, gaming clips and his favorite fashion and entertainment vlogs. He also uses YouTube to watch math and science explainer videos while riding the bus to school. Often, he reaches his one-gigabyte-a-day limit by sunset and has to switch to his mother’s phone.

“She scolds me,” he said. “But I explain it would be a waste if her data doesn’t get used.”

The video explosion is transforming the Indian media landscape, creating new stars in Bollywood, forcing new investment in servers and cellular sites, and launching new genres of online content. Video has surged in popularity elsewhere, of course; it has taken off in a new direction in China, where short-video platforms offering seconds-long clips have made companies like Beijing Bytedance Technology Co. among the world’s most highly-valued startups…

In India, it is creating new opportunities for YouTube—owned by Alphabet Inc.’s Google—and other platforms to learn new lessons about video use. The South Asian nation’s surfers, many of them coming online for the first time, are exploring the web through video rather than static websites. They are driven more by swiping, speaking and viewing, and less by typing, searching and reading—prompting companies to adapt their apps.

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Maybe it’s a glimpse of the 5G world?
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Google considering pulling news service from Europe • Bloomberg

Natalia Drozdiak:

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The European Union is working towards finalizing a controversial new copyright law. The rules give publishers rights to demand money from the Alphabet unit [Google], Facebook and other web platforms, when small fragments of their articles show up in news search results, or are shared by users.

That prospect has led Google to consider pulling Google News from the continent as a response to the new law, according to Jennifer Bernal, Google public policy manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The internet giant has various options on the table and will analyze the final text before making any decisions, she said, adding that Google would withdraw its service reluctantly.

The EU was planning to finalize the rules early this week but that’s been postponed due to disagreement among member states about some items of the package. The delay further drags out the legislative process, which kicked off when the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, first proposed the rules in 2016.

“The proposal for the Copyright Directive is very complex,” said a representative from Romania, the current head of the European Council of the bloc’s 28 member states. “The Council needs more time to reflect in order to reach a solid position.”

Google has said it doesn’t make money from its news service so withdrawing it is unlikely to lead to a financial hit. But news results keep mobile users coming back to its search engine, where they often type in other queries that generate lucrative ad revenue. Google also competes against rival mobile news aggregation services from Apple and Facebook.

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I’ll make a prediction: if Google withdraws Google News from Europe, there will be a short-term reduction in the number of hits to publishers’ sites. And then in a few months or so it will all reset itself, because people are infovores: the ones who go to Google News want their fix. The total number of hits will remain the same, though they may be redistributed.
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Foxconn looks beyond China to India for iPhone assembly • WSJ

Yang Jie, Yoko Kubota, Newley Purnell and Rajesh Roy:

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Apple’s largest iPhone assembler, Foxconn Technology Group, is considering producing the devices in India, people familiar with the matter said, a move that could reduce Apple’s dependence on China for manufacturing and potentially for sales.

Executives at Foxconn, a contract manufacturer that assembles a large portion of the world’s iPhones in China, are studying whether to include an India project in budget plans, one of the people said. Senior executives, possibly including Chairman Terry Gou, plan to visit India after next month’s Lunar New Year to discuss plans, the people familiar said.

Foxconn’s look at India comes as sustained friction between Washington and Beijing over trade and technology is pushing many companies to consider diversifying their supply chains away from China, a global center of assembly for smartphones, computers and other electronics.

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OK, but this isn’t going to be sorted out by Christmas. For Foxconn to build a plant able to assemble iPhones in any volume is a 10-year project at least: find land, build plant, calibrate, test, full production. As a long-term shift, this is something Apple may be thankful for in the future, but it’s not going to sort out its position between the rock and hard place of the US-China trade wars in a hurry.
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5 thoughts on “Start Up No.987: WhatsApp tamps virality, could porn fund Trump’s wall? (no), hacking Nest cams, India’s Google alternative, and more

  1. Couldn’t Google just link news from non-EU sites ?Quebec news aren’t that bad, better than nothing. Plus I’m sure that could create a Canadian cottage industry of French regional news for export. Nordic countries are bilingual, Spanish is widely spoken… German would need to be especially-made though.

    There’s probably a way to fund second-rate, second-and news (ie, 90% of consumed news), If Google wanted to flew its muscle destructively ?

  2. I wait for your newsletter, it arrives in the early evening here in New South Wales. But it’s agony when you post a brilliant-sounding article — that is paywalled!! Aaargh. WSJ, FT — paywalled.

    • Yes, I recognise that that can be a problem. I try to excerpt as much as is fair, while also recognising that those publications put up paywalls because that’s their business model. (It’s the same for the Washington Post and NYT, but their paywall only comes in after a while.)
      Sometimes you can find that articles have been republished elsewhere; try putting the headline into your favourite search engine. Other than that, I’m afraid that’s simply how things are. Content doesn’t create itself, and that’s how those news orgs have chosen to fund it.

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