Start Up No.1,140: US states go after Google and Facebook, MIT Media Lab disgraced, Apple v Google on Uyghurs, Twitter’s algorithm boon, and more


Not broken or melted; it’s the Huawei Mate X, now getting some brief hands-on testing. CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. We begin again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook, Google face off against a formidable new foe: state attorneys general • The Washington Post

Tony Romm:

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The nation’s state attorneys general have tangled with mortgage lenders, tobacco giants and the makers of addictive drugs. Now, they’re setting their sights on another target: Big Tech.

Following years of federal inaction, the state watchdogs are initiating sweeping antitrust investigations against Silicon Valley’s largest companies, probing whether they undermine rivals and harm consumers. Their latest salvo arrives Monday, when more than 40 attorneys general are expected to announce their plan to investigate Google, delivering a rare rebuke of the search-and-advertising giant — and its efforts to maintain that dominance — from the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The states seek to probe allegations that the tech industry stifles start-ups, delivers pricier or worse service for Web users and siphons too much personal information, enriching their record-breaking revenue at the cost of consumer privacy.

“The growth of these [tech] companies has outpaced our ability to regulate them in a way that enhances competition,” said Keith Ellison, a Democratic attorney general from Minnesota who is signing on to the effort to probe Google.

“They need to be regulated,” he continued, “and my view is, it’s the state AGs job to do it, particularly when the federal government is not necessarily a reliable partner in the area.”

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Going to be fun seeing how they do it, though. How do you split up Google? Which bits do you break off, which do you allow to remain together? Easier to regular individual pieces (such as Google Shopping) than the whole, but even then you run into problems around what is corporate “speech” and thus, in effect, protected.
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The Epstein scandal at MIT shows the moral bankruptcy of techno-elites • The Guardian

Evgeny Morozov:

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There was no better original exponent of the “third culture” than Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab and a new kind of applied intellectual, full of big ideas on technical subjects. The lab was ahead of its time in understanding that the industry and the government alike needed cooler, more interactive technology that was not provided by the traditional cold war contractors.

Everything else followed suit. Thus, Negroponte became a speaker at the very first Technology, Entertainment, Design conference (the famous Ted Talks) in 1984, which, a few decades later, emerged as the pre-eminent promoter of the “third culture”: no politics, no conflict, no ideology – just science, technology, and pragmatic problem-solving. Ideas as a service, neatly packaged in 18-minute intellectual snacks.

“Third culture” was a perfect shield for pursuing entrepreneurial activities under the banner of intellectualism. Infinite networking with billionaires but also models and Hollywood stars; instant funding by philanthropists and venture capitalists moving in the same circles; bestselling books tied to soaring speaking fees used as promotional materials for the author’s more substantial commercial activities, often run out of academia.

That someone like Jeffrey Epstein would take advantage of these networks to whitewash his crimes was almost inevitable. In a world where books function as brand extensions and are never actually read, it’s quite easy for a rich and glamorous charlatan of Epstein’s stature to fit in.

One of Brockman’s persistent laments was that all the billionaire techies in his circle barely read any of the books published by his clients. Not surprisingly, his famed literary dinners – held during the Ted Conference, they allowed Epstein (who kept Brockman’s Edge Foundation on a retainer) to mingle with scientists and fellow billionaires – were mostly empty of serious content.

As Brockman himself put it after one such dinner in 2004, “last year we tried ‘The Science Dinner’. Everyone yawned. So this year, it’s back to the money-sex-power thing with ‘The Billionaires’ Dinner’.”

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All is ruination. This isn’t quite a comeuppance for Negroponte, but it further devalues his legacy.
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Apple takes flak for disputing iOS security bombshell dropped by Google • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Apple seems to be saying that evidence suggests that the sites that Google found indiscriminately exploiting the iOS vulnerabilities were operational for only two months. Additionally, as reported by ZDNet, a researcher from security firm RiskIQ claims to have uncovered evidence that the websites didn’t attack iOS users indiscriminately, but rather only visitors from certain countries and communities.

If either of those points are true then it’s worth taking note, since virtually all media reports (including the one from Ars) have said sites indiscriminately did so for at least two years. Apple had an opportunity to clarify this point and say precisely what it knows about active use of the five iPhone exploit chains Project Zero found. But Friday’s statement [from Apple about the hacks] said nothing about any of this, and Apple representatives didn’t respond to a request to comment for this post. A Google spokesman said he didn’t know precisely how long the small collection of websites identified in the report were operational. He said he’d try to find out, but didn’t respond further.

In a statement, Google officials wrote: “Project Zero posts technical research that is designed to advance the understanding of security vulnerabilities, which leads to better defensive strategies. We stand by our in-depth research which was written to focus on the technical aspects of these vulnerabilities. We will continue to work with Apple and other leading companies to help keep people safe online.”

Former NSA hacker and founder of the firm Rendition Infosec Jake Williams told Ars that ultimately, the time the exploit sites were active is immaterial. “I don’t know that these other 22 months matter,” he explained. “It feels like their statement is more of a straw man to deflect away from the human rights abuses.”

Also missing from Apple’s statement is any response to the blistering criticism the Project Zero report made of Apple’s development process, which the report alleges missed vulnerabilities that in many cases should have been easy to catch with standard quality-assurance processes.

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Also worth reading: Volexity’s report on how Android devices were targeted, and OAuth for Google Applications and Gmail, along with “doppelganger domains” that look like Google, the Turkistan Times and the Uyghur Academy.
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How Twitter solved one of its oldest problems • OneZero

Will Oremus:

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The average user with Twitter’s algorithmic timeline — now the default — follows 10% to 15% more people than those who have reverted to the old reverse-chronological timeline, the company told OneZero this week in response to an inquiry. In other words, not only are users following more people now than they used to, but it also seems clear that the algorithm is at least partly the cause.

To understand the significance of that data point requires a trip down social media memory lane, to an era when tweets were 140 characters [and peopel worried that following more people would overwhelm their timeline]…

…While it’s hard to pinpoint the effects of over-following on Twitter’s business, the era in which it was a major concern coincided with a low point in the company’s history. After going public in 2013 to expectations of fantastic growth, the platform instead began to stagnate. New users found it confusing, and old ones felt it growing stale, perhaps in part because they were hesitant to follow new people. In 2014, the Atlantic even published a eulogy for Twitter.

Then came the algorithmic timeline, which Twitter officially called “show me the best tweets first.” Contrary to the predictions of outraged users, who responded to the news with the hashtag #RIPTwitter, the shift didn’t immediately destroy the service. It changed it in ways that seemed relatively straightforward at first, though in retrospect, it’s hard to assess their full impact. Twitter has disclosed relatively little data on the algorithm’s effects, leaving users and critics to speculate on how it has altered dynamics such as virality, filter bubbles, dunking, and outrage cycles. One thing we know for sure is that the company has credited the algorithm with spurring user growth and engagement, and Twitter’s stock has nearly tripled from its mid-2016 nadir.

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Turns out algorithms are good, until you get the unintended consequences of excess engagement.
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The vaping lung illness epidemic has now broken out in 33 states • Buzzfeed News

Dan Vergano:

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A nationwide epidemic of severe lung injuries tied to vaping now encompasses 450 reported cases, and at least five deaths in 33 states, health officials reported Friday.

“While this investigation is ongoing, people should consider not using e-cigarettes,” said CDC’s Dana Meaney-Delman during a briefing on the outbreak, in which agency officials discussed three deaths. A “chemical agent” in vaping liquids is seen as the most likely culprit in the cases, she suggested, responsible for causing the lung injuries.

State health agencies reported more deaths in the multi-state outbreak on Friday, bringing the total to five. Minnesota announced the death of a THC-vaping 65-year-old patient, a fourth case, soon after the CDC briefing, and Los Angeles County reported investigation of a fifth such death later on Friday afternoon.

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THC seems to be a key factor. In The Observer:

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Martin Dockrell, head of Tobacco Control at Public Health England, drew a distinction between vaping in the US and the UK. He said reports suggested that most cases in the US had been linked to people using illicit vaping fluid, bought on the streets or homemade, some containing cannabis products, like THC, or synthetic cannabinoids, like spice.

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The real Donald Trump is a character on TV • The New York Times

James Poniewozik is the chief TV critic of the NYT, and this is the best take I’ve ever read on that guy:

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if you actually want a glimpse into the mind of Donald J. Trump, don’t look for a White House tell-all or some secret childhood heartbreak. Go to the streaming service Tubi, where his 14 seasons of “The Apprentice” recently became accessible to the public.

You can fast-forward past the team challenges and the stagey visits to Trump-branded properties. They’re useful in their own way, as a picture of how Mr. Burnett buttressed the future president’s Potemkin-zillionaire image. But the unadulterated, 200-proof Donald Trump is found in the boardroom segments, at the end of each episode, in which he “fires” one contestant.

In theory, the boardroom is where the best performers in the week’s challenges are rewarded and the screw-ups punished. In reality, the boardroom is a new game, the real game, a free-for-all in which contestants compete to throw one another under the bus and beg Mr. Trump for mercy.

There is no morality in the boardroom. There is no fair and unfair in the boardroom. There is only the individual, trying to impress Mr. Trump, to flatter Mr. Trump, to commune with his mind and anticipate his whims and fits of pique. Candidates are fired for giving up advantages (stupid), for being too nice to their adversaries (weak), for giving credit to their teammates, for interrupting him. The host’s decisions were often so mercurial, producers have said, that they would have to go back and edit the episodes to impose some appearance of logic on them.

What saves you in the boardroom? Fighting. Boardroom Trump loves to see people fight each other. He perks up at it like a cat hearing a can opener. He loves to watch people scrap for his favor (as they eventually would in his White House). He loves asking contestants to rat out their teammates and watching them squirm with conflict. The unity of the team gives way to disunity, which in the Trumpian worldview is the most productive state of being.

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Just perfect; and explains why those hoping for him to “become presidential” are hoping in vain. He never will; he doesn’t understand the concept. (As if you’d still expect it now anyway.)
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Apple iPhone 11 event 2019: what to expect • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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It’s almost iPhone time (or, as other people call it, “the beginning of September”), and Apple is set to take the stage on September 10th to announce the new iPhone 11 lineup.

Of course, Apple doesn’t just make iPhones, so we also expect news on the Apple Watch, Apple TV, all the new software Apple announced earlier this year, and maybe even a MacBook Pro-shaped surprise or two.

The Verge will be live on the scene to bring you all of the latest news from Apple Park as soon as it happens. Until then, here’s what to expect…

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You can probably guess all this. I think there will be a bigger emphasis on services; as Marco Arment said in the latest Accidental Tech Podcast, “services segments are going to be the new game demos in keynotes, the time when everyone takes a bathroom break”.

I’ll be writing something about it for OneZero on Medium.
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Huawei Mate X initial review: foldable champ • Pocket Lint

Cam Bunton:

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Folded up, from the front the Mate X has the appearance of a large regular smartphone, and that’s arguably the Huawei method’s biggest advantage over the Galaxy Fold. It’s still very much usable as a smartphone even when it’s closed, that full screen on the front doesn’t pose the limitations that Samsung’s outer screen might. 

Of course, this poses an issue when it comes to durability. Since there’s no flexible glass on the market yet, current foldable smartphones rely on a transparent polymer covered by a protective film, similar to a screen protector. And that means that when it’s shut, there’s potential for that folded edge to be exposed to the elements, and that includes any rough impurities in your pocket, inevitably leading to scuffing; which is why Huawei is supplying the Mate X with a gorgeous leather case. 

In appearance, it doesn’t look too dissimilar to the type of soft leather case you might get for your sunglasses. In fact, it’s just about the right size for sunglasses too (we were curious, so we tried it). It’s soft, and slim, feels great in the hand and has a large magnetic portion inside the flap, to keep it securely fastened when shut, while also making it easy to open and get to your phone than if it had a clasp or fastener of some kind. 

What we liked about the Huawei Mate X is that with the phone unfolded and opened up in its larger form factor, using the full square screen, the hinge feels surprisingly sturdy and solid, like it locks into place and stays relatively rigid, and needs a little force to fold it back up again. That means you don’t have to worry about the phone wobbling or feeling fragile when you’re using it this way. 

The resistance offered by the hinge also means that it does need a little catch to hold it in place when folded, coupled with a release button which – when pressed – releases the display. Once released, the screen springs out part of the way, and then needs unfolding manually into its open, flat position. In use, it’s addictively clicky when pressed. So much so, we found ourselves repeatedly releasing, clicking the screen back in place and releasing it, over and over again (sorry Huawei). Let’s just hope it’s built to last. 

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Let’s just hope! Price of hope: €2,299. (About the same in £.) So it looks great but then you have to cover it with a case and then you have to take the case off because it’s in the way.
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Global headphone revenue growth exceeds 40% in Q2 2019 • Futuresource Consulting

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Premium headphones continue to capture the imagination of consumers, with global revenues in Q2 2019 growing nearly four times faster than shipments, at 44% year-on-year. That’s according to the latest quarterly tracker report from Futuresource Consulting.

“True wireless now accounts for almost one in every five shipments and has established itself as the driving force behind the unshakeable growth in headphones,” says Adriana Blanco, Senior Market Analyst at Futuresource Consulting. “Apple remains ahead in true wireless, though its lead is being eroded by an ever-growing raft of rivals, all vying for market share. Xiaomi and Huawei are making a significant impact in China and beyond, while Samsung continues to put in a strong global performance.”

Beyond true wireless, all other form factors continue to experience a year-on-year slump in shipments. The in-ear, excluding true wireless, segment has taken the biggest hit, with most damage sustained in the mid-price bracket, though some geographies have been less badly affected. After five consecutive quarters of price growth, the over-ear segment returned a flat result in Q2. This was primarily due to special offers on some premium models, which may be nearing their next refresh cycle.

Conversely, the wireless headphones segment, which includes true wireless, grew 40% year-on-year, accounting for 60% of total shipments and 87% of total revenue.

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Wish I knew what non-true wireless is. Bluetooth headphones linked by a wire to each other?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,140: US states go after Google and Facebook, MIT Media Lab disgraced, Apple v Google on Uyghurs, Twitter’s algorithm boon, and more

  1. Yep, true wireless are the 2 small fully independent thingies each for one ear (I’d like to name the first released, but I can’t remember their names. Motorola really need to up their PR game, I can’t even google the info).

    So non-true wireless are the one with a wire between the two earbuds, though no wire to the phone. Not sure if neckband earbuds area subcategory of that, or on their own.

  2. PS amusingly, when Apple launched their true wireless earbuds, I back-of-the-envelope’d that the bar for those to rake in more margin than the whole Mac business was not that high (IIRC, 70% margin, 30% attach rate).
    Oh, all hail planned obsolescence, Apple wants $70 to swap batteries out of warranty which must be around 95% margin (10 minutes’ work, $2 battery ?). That’s more than for an iPhone’s battery, I guess they never got any PR pushback about that price…

  3. For those of us who can pick a browser on their mobile, Vivaldi, one of the best Desktop browsers and the spiritual (and technical, and HR) successor to Opera-in-its-golden-days, has launched its Android incarnation. No addons (yet ?) though, so stick with Firefox for now.

    Apparently there are minor Chromium-based Android browsers that do support Chrome addons on Mobile as Vivaldi does on Desktop. I’d rather use something major though.

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