Start Up No.1,037: handset makers’ hard choices, China’s India app insurgency, solving the videogame meltdown, Ebola v fake news, and more


A child watches YouTube: is it in the hands of responsible adults? CC-licensed photo by Steve Schroeder on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Hacking your attention. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube executives ignored warnings, let toxic videos run rampant • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen:

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YouTube doesn’t give an exact recipe for virality. But in the race to one billion hours, a formula emerged: Outrage equals attention. It’s one that people on the political fringes have easily exploited, said Brittan Heller, a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center. “They don’t know how the algorithm works,” she said. “But they do know that the more outrageous the content is, the more views.”

People inside YouTube knew about this dynamic. Over the years, there were many tortured debates about what to do with troublesome videos—those that don’t violate its content policies and so remain on the site. Some software engineers have nicknamed the problem “bad virality.” 

Yonatan Zunger, a privacy engineer at Google, recalled a suggestion he made to YouTube staff before he left the company in 2016. He proposed a third tier: Videos that were allowed to stay on YouTube, but, because they were “close to the line” of the takedown policy, would be removed from recommendations. “Bad actors quickly get very good at understanding where the bright lines are and skating as close to those lines as possible,” Zunger said.

His proposal, which went to the head of YouTube policy, was turned down. “I can say with a lot of confidence that they were deeply wrong,” he said. 

Rather than revamp its recommendation engine, YouTube doubled down.

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Stunning piece of work by Bergen. There have been plenty of disaffected ex-YouTube staffers visible on Twitter, but he has pulled together the story of how money was allowed to trump safety.
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The Chinese takeover of Indian app ecosystem • FactorDaily

Shadma Shaikh:

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2018 is likely to be remembered as the year when the Chinese took over Indian smartphones. In December 2017, the top 10 mobile apps on Google Playstore looked a lot different than what they look from a year later. The Playstore rankings for India in 2018 have China written all over it. Five out of the top 10 mobile apps in India are Chinese — versus two at the end of 2017.

That’s not all. As of December 2017, there were 18 Chinese apps among the top 100 across various categories on Google Playstore. These included popular ones such as UCBrowser, SHAREit, and NewsDog. Fast forward to the end of 2018. The number of Chinese apps in the top 100 Playstore apps has reached 44. Beyond the top 100, there are others like Rozbuzz, a social entertainment content platform, and YouStar, a video chat room platform, that enjoy a more than one million downloads in India – a threshold that evokes grudging respect in this app community.

The growth of many of these global apps has a new hotspot: India. The message is clear for the Chinese — if you want growth, conquer India.

Several Chinese apps have become significantly popular over the last year in India: social content platforms such as Helo and SHAREit; entertainment and engagement apps such as TikTok, LIKE, and Kwai; video and live streaming ones such as LiveMe, Bigo Live, and Vigo Video; utility apps such as BeautyPlus, Xender and Cam Scanner; gaming leaders such as PUBG, Clash of Kings, and Mobile Legends; not to forget popular e-commerce apps including ClubFactory, SHEIN, and ROMWE.

A starking similarity not missed by observers of this industry is the target group of most of these platforms is the new internet users in India, specifically those from smaller cities and towns. To be fair, this market was first recognised by Bengaluru-based ShareChat that was founded back in 2015.

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Wonder how long it will take India to wrest this back with home-grown apps. You’d think they would have a cultural advantage. But many elements of successful apps – WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram – are cross-cultural. (Thanks Stormyparis for the link.)
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Pipdig update: dishonest denials, erased evidence, and ongoing offenses • Wordfence

Mikey Veenstra:

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In last week’s post, we reported on some concerning code identified in the Pipdig Power Pack (P3) plugin. The plugin, which is installed alongside WordPress themes sold by Pipdig, was found to contain a number of suspicious or malicious features. Among these features were a remote “killswitch” Pipdig could use to destroy sites, an obfuscated function used to change users’ passwords, and code which generated hourly requests with the apparent intent of DDoSing a competitor’s site.

In the days since we published that report, Pipdig has taken a series of increasingly questionable steps in their attempts to mitigate the fallout of their actions. Their team has issued baseless accusations that facts have been fabricated, collusion between their competitors had taken place, and that no wrongdoing of any sort had occurred.

These assertions stand in direct conflict with their actions. They’ve pulled down incriminating files from their sites, pushed undocumented updates to their plugins to remove additional malicious code, and have attempted to rewrite history by modifying dates of changelog entries. Then, perhaps most egregiously, Pipdig took down the Bitbucket repository containing a great deal of evidence of these actions. All of this had been done while an entire community of WordPress developers watched.

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Quite the detective story. Transparency in code, especially through repositories, has changed things a lot in the past decade. (Thanks Richard for the link.)
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This is why we can’t have nice things • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg:

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A decade ago, we spoke with a small handset maker in Shenzhen who sold into China’s domestic market and a half dozen random emerging markets (Ukraine, El Salvador, Uruguay, etc.). His business was always cutthroat, shipping largely $25 feature phones and $100 smartphones. Unfortunately, he did not have enough resources to be able to build his own brand. (He tried; over the years we brought him a dozen marketing text books.) At one point, he tried offering his own software service – messaging, contacts, etc. But he knew that the only path to revenue for these was through selling customer data to ad brokers and others. He told us that his customers would not mind because many of them lived in markets where the government already intruded on users’ privacy in many ways. To his credit, he was very uncomfortable with this business model and did not pursue it. He went out of business five years ago.

Some companies have managed to thrive despite this. For instance, Xiaomi makes decent margins on their phones and is overall profitable (and to their credit still breaks out their unit shipments). Xiamoi had the funds to build their own brand, and to branch out into an ecosystem of related products (home networking, fitness bands, etc.). We do not know if Xiaomi sells its users’ data, but they do install a lot of their own software on phones, trying to build an Apple-like software ecosystem lock-in.

Another way to profit in this business is to bundle phone sales with other products. For example, they can sell base stations and networking products with phones thrown in as an adder, as in “would you like fries phones with that?”. That being said, we do not know if Huawei’s handset business is actually profitable. We are not convinced that Huawei itself knows the answer to this question. Our point is just that there are someways to stay in the business.

However, for the majority of the industry, the hard, cold reality is that handset profits are non-existent. And the only way for these companies to remain viable is to sell out their users.

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The only exception, he notes, is Apple, which of course collects all the profits.
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Abigail Disney has more money than she’ll ever spend. What’s that like? • The Cut

Sarah McVeigh:

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Q: In what ways did your dad change [as Disney’s stock took off], other than having a jet?
AD: Actually, having a jet is a really big deal. If I were queen of the world, I would pass a law against private jets, because they enable you to get around a certain reality. You don’t have to go through an airport terminal, you don’t have to interact, you don’t have to be patient, you don’t have to be uncomfortable. These are the things that remind us we’re human.

My dad’s plane was a 737, and it was insane to have a 737 as a private airplane. It had a queen-sized bed with one big long seatbelt across it, and a shower, and it was ridiculous. We would use the plane occasionally because I have four kids, so it was much easier, obviously, to ride on my dad’s plane with them. Then, at a certain point, I just said, “No, I think this is really bad for everybody.”

How did the jet change your dad?
It wasn’t just the plane, but it’s not a small thing when you don’t have to be patient or be around other people. It creates this notion that you’re a little bit better than they are. And for the past 40 years, everything in American culture has been reinforcing that belief. We say, “Job creators, entrepreneurs, these are the people who make America great.” So there are people walking around with substantial wealth who think that they have it because they’re better. It’s fundamental to remember that you’re just a member of the human race, like everybody else, and there’s nothing about your money that makes you better than anyone else. If you don’t know that and you have money, it’s the road to hell, no matter how much stuff you have around you.

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Fascinating interview; she sounds like a really nice person.
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Google’s new external AI ethics council apparently already falling apart • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen, Jeremy Khan and Gerrit de Vynck:

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In less than a week, the council is already falling apart, a development that may jeopardize Google’s chance of winning more military cloud-computing contracts.

On Saturday, Alessandro Acquisti, a behavioral economist and privacy researcher, said he won’t be serving on the council. “While I’m devoted to research grappling with key ethical issues of fairness, rights and inclusion in AI, I don’t believe this is the right forum for me to engage in this important work,” Acquisti said on Twitter. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On Monday, a group of employees started a petition asking the company to remove another member: Kay Cole James, president of a conservative think tank who has fought against equal-rights laws for gay and transgender people. In less than two hours after it went live, more than 300 staff signed the petition anonymously…

…Some AI experts and activists have also called on Google to remove from the board Dyan Gibbens, the CEO of Trumbull Unmanned, a drone technology company. Gibbens and her co-founders at Trumbull previously worked on U.S. military drones. Using AI for military uses is a major point of contention for some Google employees.

Joanna Bryson, a professor of computer science at the University of Bath, in England, who was appointed to the Google ethics council, said she also had reservations about some of her fellow council members. “Believe it or not, I know worse about one of the other people,” she said on Twitter in response to a post questioning James’ appointment. “I know I have pushed (Google) before on some of their associations and they say they need diversity in order to be convincing to society broadly, e.g. the GOP.”

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Couldn’t they have had “board splinters” in the headline?
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Why videogames trigger the nightly meltdown—and how to help your child cope • WSJ

Julie Jargon:

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Children and adolescents don’t yet have the capability to stop doing a rewarding activity and move on to something less fun, neurologists say. That doesn’t mean a child is addicted to videogames. Although experts say children with depression and anxiety are more prone to immerse themselves in games as a coping mechanism, it’s just generally hard for most kids to stop. There are ways for parents to hack this problem, but first they have to understand their kids’ minds.

“What’s happening in our brains is that there are systems that evolved to sustain our interest. It will lead you to seek food for days until you find it, and that’s followed by satiety,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, who has studied similarities between the effects of gaming and substance abuse.

Pulling the plug in the middle of a videogame—before a child has had the chance to feel satisfied by completing a level or mission—is a bit like yanking a half-eaten donut out of someone’s hand.

The anticipation of playing videogames results in a roughly 75% boost to baseline dopamine levels in the brain, according to Chris Ferguson, a psychology professor at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., who has analyzed studies on gaming. That’s far less than the boost associated with doing hard drugs, according to data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, but it’s not much higher than the boost that comes from that donut.

Eating the donut is a finite act, however. Videogame makers build in a stream of intermittent rewards to keep people playing. In some games, there’s no real end or it can take hours to achieve.

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Have rules on time spent, stick to them, that’s about it.
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Facebook, Twitter sucked into India-Pakistan information war • Reuters

Drazen Jorgic and Alasdair Pal:

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[Pakistan social media campaigner Hanzala] Tayyab, 24, spends his days on Facebook and encrypted WhatsApp chatrooms organizing members of his Pakistan Cyber Force group to promote anti-India content and make it go viral, including on Twitter where he has more than 50,000 followers.

That ranges from highlighting alleged Indian human rights abuses to lionizing insurgents battling Indian security forces in Kashmir, a disputed Himalayan region at the heart of historic tensions between Pakistan and India.

Tayyab’s job became harder on Monday when the Pakistan Cyber Force’s Facebook account was taken down, one of 103 Pakistani accounts the social media giant said it had deleted because of “inauthentic behavior” and spamming. Some Indian nationalist accounts have also been suspended in recent weeks.

Portraying himself as an online combatant defending Pakistan from India’s attempts to destabilize his country, Tayyab plans to continue playing his role in the broader information war being fought between the nuclear-armed foes.

“We are countering the Indian narrative through social media, we are countering the enemies of Pakistan,” Tayyab told Reuters in the capital Islamabad.

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Lovely, delightful social media. Connecting the world.
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Fighting Ebola is hard. In Congo, fake news makes it harder • AAAS

Laura Spinney:

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The Ebola epidemic in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is providing a natural experiment in fighting fake news. Occurring in a conflict zone, amid a controversial presidential election, the epidemic has proved to be fertile ground for conspiracy theories and political manipulation, which can hamper efforts to treat patients and fight the virus’s spread. Public health workers have mounted an unprecedented effort to counter misinformation, saying the success or failure of the Ebola response may pivot on who controls the narrative.

Tensions are expected to rise again in the wake of the 10 January declaration by the DRC’s election commission that opposition leader Felix Tshisekedi won the election, held on 30 December 2018. Foreign observers and the Roman Catholic Church’s monitors say Martin Fayulu, another opposition figure, garnered more votes, and his supporters are alleging fraud. Health workers know rumors thrive amid uncertainty.

“I usually tell my teams that we fight two outbreaks, Ebola and fear,” says Carlos Navarro Colorado of the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in New York City. “It is all about information.”

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Now that would be a truly scary thing to have to deal with.
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Google’s constant product shutdowns are damaging its brand • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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It’s only April, and 2019 has already been an absolutely brutal year for Google’s product portfolio. The Chromecast Audio was discontinued January 11. YouTube annotations were removed and deleted January 15. Google Fiber packed up and left a Fiber city on February 8. Android Things dropped IoT support on February 13. Google’s laptop and tablet division was reportedly slashed on March 12. Google Allo shut down on March 13. The “Spotlight Stories” VR studio closed its doors on March 14. The goo.gl URL shortener was cut off from new users on March 30. Gmail’s IFTTT support stopped working March 31.

And today, April 2, we’re having a Google Funeral double-header: both Google+ (for consumers) and Google Inbox are being laid to rest. Later this year, Google Hangouts “Classic” will start to wind down, and somehow also scheduled for 2019 is Google Music’s “migration” to YouTube Music, with the Google service being put on death row sometime afterward.

We are 91 days into the year, and so far, Google is racking up an unprecedented body count. If we just take the official shutdown dates that have already occurred in 2019, a Google-branded product, feature, or service has died, on average, about every nine days.

Some of these product shutdowns have transition plans, and some of them (like Google+) represent Google completely abandoning a user base. The specifics aren’t crucial, though. What matters is that every single one of these actions has a negative consequence for Google’s brand, and the near-constant stream of shutdown announcements makes Google seem more unstable and untrustworthy than it has ever been.

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Wellll.. as someone who once tried to catalogue all the Google products and services that had opened, closed and/or survived (the mean lifespan was 1459 days, ie just under four years), I can’t say that many of these closures have harmed my opinion of the Google brand. Though I did think then that it would harm developers’ view of Google services’ reliability. Perhaps this is a trope. But is it true?
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