Start Up No.1,081: YouTube’s paedophile tendency, Laffer is back (we regret), Facebook v antitrust, WWDC in brief, Huawei accused, and more

Apple iPadOS Slide Over 060319
Apple is forking its mobile OS: iPad gets its own, with more file support and a different multitasking interface, coming later this year. Photo © Apple.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google Chrome, the perfect antitrust villain? •

Alex Danco wrote this on Thursday, before the WSJ story that the DOJ was looking at Google on antitrust grounds:


Chrome’s market dominance in recent years is a great example of how Google has used its scale and influence to draw the back-end plumbing of the internet more tightly under its control, all under the banner of “it’s all open source; how could we be bad guys?” It’s not like we haven’t seen this playbook before: an Android phone may be running open source Linux (cool!), but without Google Services and the Google Play Store, it’s a brick. They’ve mastered separation of the strategic openness of Android with the accompanying strategic closed-ness of everything that runs on it and makes it actually worth something.

The biggest fight here recently is over standardizing the rules around DRM: the Digital Rights Management framework of laws and restrictions that came into being through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and govern the rules around digital access and permission. (The free software community, as you might guess, absolutely hates DRM. I’ll probably write another Snippets issue soon about this.)

Google has done something sneaky here: by successfully lobbying for DRM standards in web browsers across the whole internet, Google has made it so that anyone can build or modify their own Chrome-based browser as they want to, just like before. But in order for it to be able to play video (a pretty big prerequisite of the modern internet), they have to license a proprietary DRM plugin from Google called Widevine.

This isn’t the first time Google has used this tactic, and it’s a good one: “Oh, nice open source project you’ve got there! You’re free to do anything you want with it, which obviously makes us the progressive good guys of the Free Internet. However, if you want it to actually work in any real-world conditions, then you’ll need to license our proprietary stuff and play by our very particular rules.”


Certainly a better argument than many on this.
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On YouTube’s digital playground, an open gate for paedophiles • New York Times

Max Fisher and Amanda Taub:


YouTube never set out to serve users with sexual interests in children — but in the end, Mr. Kaiser said, its automated system managed to keep them watching with recommendations that he called “disturbingly on point.”

Users do not need to look for videos of children to end up watching them. The platform can lead them there through a progression of recommendations.

So a user who watches erotic videos might be recommended videos of women who become conspicuously younger, and then women who pose provocatively in children’s clothes. Eventually, some users might be presented with videos of girls as young as five or six wearing bathing suits, or getting dressed or doing a split.

On its own, each video might be perfectly innocent, a home movie, say, made by a child. Any revealing frames are fleeting and appear accidental. But, grouped together, their shared features become unmistakable.

“I’m really scared of it,” said Christiane [mother of a 10-year-old girl whose innocent swimming video came to attention]. “Scared of the fact that a video like this fell into such a category.” The New York Times is withholding the family’s surname to protect its privacy…

…Jennifer O’Connor, YouTube’s product director for trust and safety, said the company was committed to eradicating the exploitation of children on its platform and had worked nonstop since February on improving enforcement. “Protecting kids is at the top of our list,” she said.

But YouTube has not put in place the one change that researchers say would prevent this from happening again: turning off its recommendation system on videos of children, though the platform can identify such videos automatically.


It feels like we get at least one story like this per week, and YouTube never ever makes the obvious fix.
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The abominable Laffer Curve • Coppola Comment

Frances Coppola:


The Laffer curve is back. [Touted by Tory leadership contender Sajid Javid, who said cutting tax rates “could bring in billions of extra revenue”.]

Not that it has been absent for long, really. Seven years ago, to much applause, George Osborne cut the top rate of tax from 50% to 45%. When the cut took effect there was a large increase in tax take. At the time, Conservative pundits crowed that this proved not only that the Laffer curve was real, but that we now know where its peak is.

This is the cut that Javid refers to in the video clip. But sadly he is wrong. The tax cut didn’t raise “billions”. We don’t actually know if it raised anything at all.

The tax cut was advertised a year in advance, giving rich people plenty of opportunity to reorganise their finances so as to avoid the 50% rate and take advantage of the tax cut (this is known as “reverse forestalling”). Predictably, there was a large fall in tax revenue from the rich prior to the cut taking effect, and a large increase afterwards. The 50% rate itself had also been advertised a year in advance, so there was also large increase in tax take from the rich before it took effect and a fall afterwards. Thus, throughout its short existence, tax take from the 50% rate was distorted by forestalling and reverse forestalling effects. We will never know how much tax it would have raised once the forestalling effect had worn off, and we therefore don’t know whether Osborne’s tax cut increased or reduced tax take. Consequently, we are none the wiser about the Laffer curve peak.

But  there is an even bigger problem. The Laffer curve plots total tax take versus top tax rates, not tax take from the rich versus their tax rates. It thus relies for its shape on multiplier effects from tax changes.


Coppola is an economist, and she eviscerates the very concept of the Laffer curve (sketched, in myth, on a napkin on the Reagan years.)
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FTC gets jurisdiction for possible Facebook antitrust probe • WSJ

Brent Kendall and John D. McKinnon:


The Justice Department and FTC now have established that each is responsible for antitrust issues for two of the Big Four tech companies: the Justice Department has authority over Google and Apple, while the FTC has oversight of Facebook and Amazon.

It was unclear whether the allocations of Apple and Amazon were related to the same agreement that divided Google and Facebook between the agencies. But Google and Facebook appear to be closest to being in the agencies’ investigative crosshairs.

The FTC and Justice Department share authority in enforcing US antitrust law and at times must work out turf arrangements regarding which agency will handle what issues.

The FTC already has spent more than a year investigating Facebook on privacy issues related to how it handles users’ data. That probe, however, doesn’t focus on antitrust questions of whether Facebook is stifling competition in the digital realm. The fact that the commission formally secured jurisdiction on those issues suggests it is considering even more rigorous scrutiny of the social media giant.


As with Google, it’s a bit difficult to know on what grounds the FTC would go ahead. Where’s the consumer harm? Sure, Facebook’s takeover of Instagram and WhatsApp cornered the market in social media. But it’s pretty difficult to see a persuasive case emerging.
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Best of iOS 13: The 15 most exciting new features coming to your iPhone and iPad – BGR

Faster, darker, swipier, mappier (with its own version of Street View – 12 years after Street View was launched), and more. Plus you can bump phones to share audio; I remember a few years ago Craig Federighi introducing AirDrop and saying “you won’t have to bump your phones together”, mocking a then-popular Android app, Bump (bought by Google) for sharing content.
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iPadOS, coming “this fall”: thumb drives, more gestures, “desktop-class” browsing • Ars Technica

Sam Machkovech:


iPadOS does put a welcome, Apple-like spin on multi-window support: supported apps will allow users to grab and drop content between windows. Federighi showed this off by using a “tap-and-drag” feature to move attachments and links from one Mail window to another on the same screen. He pointed out that third-party apps like Microsoft Word will also support the feature. But he said nothing about such multi-window support working with multiple apps on the same screen—such as dragging-and-dropping Safari content into a Microsoft Word window.

An update to iPad’s native file-browsing interface looks decidedly more like MacOS, with a column-view option that enables file preview tabs and quick-action menus. iPadOS will support a suite of new file sharing options, including iCloud folder sharing and file servers.

Arguably the biggest file-system win, at least for owners of recent USB Type-C iPads, is native file-browsing support for thumb drives, SD cards, and directly connected cameras. (We’ll have to wait to see how many older iPads will support the same thing via legacy adapter devices, but this at least directly answers a major criticism Ars leveled at the most recent iPad model.)

iPadOS’ version of Safari will no longer render mobile-browser versions of sites by default. Instead, it will deliver “desktop-class browsing.” Apple promises to render sites on iPadOS as built for the desktop version of Safari, only with Apple layering its own iPad-specific tweaks on top via software (mostly for the sake of “touch input”). Whether this will ultimately require website designers to juggle another spec for browsers remains to be seen, in spite of Apple’s promises. (“Sites like Google Docs… work great in Safari now,” Federighi said, at least.)


We’ll see what Google has to say about that. It likes pushing its Docs, Sheets and similar apps; perhaps it can see more going on in them. Also: now has mouse support. That’s nice.
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Apple expands tvOS gaming with PS4, Xbox One S controller support • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:


At the 2019 WWDC keynote today, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that the company is expanding Apple TV controller support to include “two of the best and most popular game controllers available, Xbox One S and PlayStation DualShock 4” with the next tvOS update. Note that this expansion does not include original Xbox One control pads that shipped with the 2013 version of the system—only the Bluetooth-equipped controller update that premiered alongside Microsoft’s One S update in 2016 will work with Apple TV.

The announcement, which drew large and sustained applause in the presentation hall, comes nearly four years after Apple’s second-generation Apple TV became the company’s first foray into TV-based gaming since the ill-fated Pippin. At launch, Apple TV games were required to support the hardware’s touchpad-focused, tilt-sensitive remote, and those games could optionally support any number of MFi controllers already designed for mobile iOS hardware. While Apple reversed that decision in mid-2016 to allow for MFi-exclusive games, Apple TV game developers continue to complain about the fragmented control landscape on Apple’s set-top box.


Long overdue (as is the addition of multi-user); the WWDC keynote felt like being in a bus station, waiting for them all to arrive after noodling around for ages.
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Apple launches ‘Sign in with Apple’ button for apps, ‘no tracking’ login • 9to5 Mac

Benjamin Mayo:


Apple announced a new Sign in with Apple button as part of its iOS 13 announcements. The button offers Apple ID single-sign on functionality similar to sign-in buttons from Twitter, Facebook or Google.

Apple is marketing this as a privacy-secure sign-in option. Apple will mask user email addresses and other personal information, whilst still allowing the apps to contact users indirectly.

Users select what information to share with the destination app. You can share your real email address with the third-party app, or use the ‘hide my email’ option to forward email onwards. In the latter case, the app would only see a random anonymous email address.

Of course, apps must update to integrate the ‘Sign in with Apple’ button. A lot of apps may not want to add the Apple ID login because they cannot access customer data they want.


Logical expectation is that Apple will push it on its devices, so apps and sites may feel they need to support it. But with the tech landscape as it is, there might be some reluctance to not gather data when you can slurp it up via Google or Facebook. Those sites and apps aren’t on your side. They’re on their own side.
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China accused of ‘rigging’ 5G tests to favour Huawei • Daily Telegraph

Anna Isaac, Christopher Williams and Hannah Boland:


More than 100 computer security experts are conducting a security test of 5G equipment, from makers including Huawei and Western rivals Nokia and Ericsson, in which hacking techniques are used to check for weak spots. The ostensibly legitimate exercise is part of planning for 5G and its leap forward in speed and data capacity in the world’s biggest mobile market.

However, British officials and industry sources tracking the tests allege they are being rigged to defend Huawei. It is believed that vulnerabilities discovered by China’s secret state hackers have been passed to the 5G testers to ensure Nokia and Ericsson’s equipment is found to be unsecure.

Officials and Western telecoms executives held crisis meetings about the campaign last week.

Although knowledge of the effort is patchy, it is expected that testing will end around June 10, in time for Beijing to use the results to attempt to influence a crucial EU review of 5G security this summer. Two sources suggested China particularly intends to undermine cautionary advice on Huawei provided by British intelligence. Beijing’s hacking attack comes after a series of steps to turn China into what one corporate source has called a “hostile environment for non-Chinese telecoms firms”.


The discomfort of western intelligence agencies at this is very clear. It would be astonishing if China’s leaders didn’t long ago decide that telecoms is a critical infrastructure for the future, and that if they happen to be the ones supplying to the rest of the world, all the better.
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Lenovo’s Smart Clock is small, simple, and limited • The Verge

Dan Seifert:


The Smart Clock’s greatest asset is its size: if you have a very limited amount of space where you plan to use a smart alarm clock, the Smart Clock’s footprint is much smaller than a Nest Hub or other smart display. It’s similar in size to Amazon’s Echo Spot, but with a rectangular wedge shape instead of the softball-like design of the Spot. It has a couple of volume buttons on top, a mute switch for the microphones on the back, and a clever USB-A port that can be used to charge your phone.

Even with the small size, the Smart Clock’s screen is easy to see and read from across the room, thanks to the large-sized fonts it employs in most of the software. It also does an excellent job of automatically adjusting the brightness of the screen for the available light in the room, so it doesn’t become blinding or distractingly bright in the middle of the night when you’re trying to sleep. It doesn’t have a camera to worry about, which is a nice thing for something that’s designed to live in your bedroom. (I put a googly eye on the Echo Spot’s camera specifically to block it in my bedroom.)

But reading the time is about all you’ll do with the screen because, unlike the Nest Hub and every other smart display, the Smart Clock cannot play video content, whether it’s on YouTube or cast from an app on your phone. It also cannot display images from Google Photos, which is one of my favorite features of the Nest Hub. The only video you can watch on the Smart Clock is feeds from Nest cameras (though Lenovo says support for other home security cameras will be available “soon”).

The Smart Clock does offer some limited weather and calendar information on its screen as well as basic controls for music and smart home gadgets. But you can’t browse anything through the touchscreen, nor does it have a dashboard of smart home controls like on other smart displays.


I see we’re at the “just try redoing any domestic object but add a screen and voice control and sometimes camera to it” stage of desperate tech late capitalism. Someone at Lenovo greenlit this, after all.
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We found the guy behind the viral ‘drunk Pelosi’ video • Daily Beast

Kevin Poulsen:


[Shawn] Brooks, a 34-year-old day laborer currently on probation after pleading guilty to domestic battery, claims that his “drunk” commentary on an unaltered Pelosi video had no connection to the now-infamous fake clip that premiered less than 15 minutes later. “I wasn’t the individual who created that Pelosi video,” he insisted in a telephone interview.

It’s conceivable that someone else actually edited the clip. But a Facebook official, confirming a Daily Beast investigation, said the video was first posted on Politics WatchDog directly from Brooks’ personal Facebook account.

Brooks acknowledged that he’s involved in the management of both Politics WatchDog and AllNews 24/7, the Facebook pages that sent the bogus video on it’s viral tear. To the outside observer, the two pages are unconnected, but after a tell-tale link on one of the pages led The Daily Beast to Brooks, he admitted that the ad revenue for both outlets goes directly into his personal PayPal account.

In the first hint at a possible motive for the Pelosi smear, Brooks volunteered that the video brought in nearly $1,000 in shared ad revenue.

That number would have been higher, he said, except that Facebook cut off any future earnings when the company’s fact-check partners ruled the clip a hoax about 36 hours after its Politics WatchDog debut. “It makes money for Facebook too,” he groused. “I’m sure that’s their motive for not taking it down.”

In a statement, Facebook disputed that, saying, “We have zero interest in making money from fake news and our policy is to not allow people to make money from content that has been rated false by a fact-checker.”


..but it is a policy to leave it up so people spend more time on Facebook. There’s controversy though because Facebook provided Poulsen with the data about Brooks, but only after seeing that Brooks was using fake accounts to amplify and control his “news” sites. But Poulsen had done a lot of the identification work first, right down to Brooks’s personal account. Facebook tends not to help if you ring up and ask “hey, who first posted that video?”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,081: YouTube’s paedophile tendency, Laffer is back (we regret), Facebook v antitrust, WWDC in brief, Huawei accused, and more

  1. re “Connect with Apple”: Apple is on its own side too (why do we have to hammer such evident truths again and again and again ?) . What happens to all the logins if you leave the Apple ecosystem ? At least Google and FB are cross-platform. ConnectApple isn’t.

    Also, apparently, Apple is making ConnectApple support mandatory for iOS devs who support any 3rd-party (goog, FB…) login. Remember the ruckus a few weeks back when Goog got aggressive about login people into Chrome ? Wanna bet we’ll get none of that about Apple doing similar ?

  2. re. WWDC. I’m surprised by 2 things:

    1- the fragmentation of iOS. Apart from the different features supported or not depending on device age, there’s now a different iOS version for phones, tablets, watches, TVs… I don’t think anyone would mention it, so I thought I should. All those features are fragmented along OS variants (widgets only on iPads, gamepads only on TVs…). I can’t hold in my brain the map of which variant of iOS supports what feature… Gamepads on TV but not iPad ? For all its supposed fragmentation, Android supports all the features on all HW formats, and pretty much on all OS versions too.

    2- The utter silence about almost all the new features being Android-inspired, while at the same time that Samsung laptop is being characterized everywhere as an MacBook rip-off. It’s good that iOS is adding very sensible features (mouse support, standard gamepad support, homescreen widgets, dark mode, USB stick support, Google Maps equivalency, multitasking the same app, swipe keyboard, scrunched-up keyboard, one-time app permissions, …) it’s weird that nobody is acknowledging these are Android rip-offs, but with added layers of limitations (mouse but not trackpad, USB filesystem but not internal filesystem…) and fragmentation (not everything on all HW formats).

    We’re getting closer to iOS and its apps being able to run on a laptop or desktop. That’s a Good Thing, I’m still hoping for vindication on that topic too. Fuchsia+Flutter seem to be heading that way too.

  3. re 5G tests: Isn’t that how public tests are supposed to work ? Anyone with info on a vulnerability is doing a Good Thing by sharing it. Of course there are different agendas, there always are. The tests’ raison d’être is that all agendas get a chance to contribute their own list of discovered vulns.

    I agree that Chinese infrastructure is a risk. US infrastructure too, and it has already been proven to be delivered to the customer with a preinstalled Trojan. Stuff should be audited continuously (so, probably Open Source) and infractions punished. On all sides. I’m not sure there’s no more Evil Empire (maybe a new one ?), but I’m fairly sure the Good Empire is rotten.

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