Start Up No.1233: Facebook pivots off video, the dogs of Trump’s campaign, the trouble with the Fold, who hacked the UN?, and more


The US DoJ is trying to stop these guys calling by suing US VOIP services CC-licensed photo by Jeremy Brooks on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Plenty more where that came from. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook cuts back on original programming for Watch Video • The Information

Tom Dotan and Jessica Toonkel:

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Facebook is refining the programming strategy for its Facebook Watch video service, pulling back on expensive original shows and sports rights.

Facebook continues to increase its programming budget for Watch—it will rise to around $1.4bn this year, from the company’s initial $1bn budget in 2017, according to a person familiar with the matter. But within that amount, it is spending less on costly originals and more on talk shows and licensing clips from TV networks and sports leagues. Meantime, it has pulled back from bidding for rights to stream major live sports, the person said, at least for the moment.

That strategy sharpens the contrast between Facebook and big-spending subscription video-streaming services like Netflix, Disney and Apple. Netflix, one of the biggest spenders, laid out more than $13bn on programming last year, while Disney and Apple are reportedly spending several billion dollars a year on their new streaming services.

Clearly Facebook is looking to compete against YouTube, which offers lots of mostly short content for free, supported by ads. More broadly, Facebook sees Watch as a way to improve engagement in the flagship app, giving people more to do on the app, and to try to lure in TV advertising dollars. 

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Not even Facebook can manage a pivot to video. It’s going to get killed by YouTube. And it could really improve so much else about its network by spending a billion dollars on things other than video.
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One year inside Trump’s monumental Facebook campaign • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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Over the course of 2019, the Trump campaign spent nearly $20m on more than 218,000 different Facebook ads, a new Guardian analysis shows. Among the ads were some of the images and videos that made front-page news for their xenophobic, fear-mongering, vitriolic and outright false rhetoric.

But the campaign also ran a decidedly mundane social media campaign featuring classic marketing ploys designed to harvest user data. Considering the fact that the campaign has run these ads – which are largely substance-free and appear designed to maximize engagement with simple requests – over and over again, they were probably very effective.

Trump’s prowess on Facebook has struck fear in the hearts of Democrats. The architect of his 2016 digital campaign, Brad Parscale, boasted of the sophistication of his Facebook operation, and was promoted to campaign manager for 2020. “The campaign is all about data collection,” Parscale told the Guardian. “If we touch you digitally, we want to know who you are and how you think and get you into our databases so that we can model off it and relearn and understand what’s happening.”

In order to understand how Trump is communicating with Americans on Facebook in the 2020 election cycle, the Guardian built a database of all 218,100 campaign ads launched by the Trump campaign in 2019, using the Facebook political ad archive application programming interface, or API. The analysis is the most comprehensive of the Trump re-election campaign’s Facebook advertising to date.

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Sad puppies and bizarre polls figure heavily. But it’s mostly about harvesting phone numbers and emails. That’s sophistication? But it’s a terrific piece of work.
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US files lawsuits against handful of robocalling companies for targeting the ‘elderly and vulnerable’ • Android Piolice

Taylor Kerns:

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The US Justice Department has filed lawsuits against a handful of companies and individuals, accusing them of facilitating hundreds of millions of fraudulent robocalls. The suits accuse the companies of causing “elderly and vulnerable victims” serious financial harm.

According to the suits, most of the calls originated in India and were placed using VoIP systems. The calls use threats of disruptions to social security benefits or arrest for supposed tax fraud, among other tactics, to extort money from victims. The Justice Department wants to crack down on what it calls “US-based enablers” of these scams, and says it’s warned those enablers repeatedly about carrying such calls on their networks. One company, TollFreeDeals.com, is alleged to have carried 720 million calls in one 23-day period, most of which ended in under a second — a clear sign of spam calls. The government is seeking temporary restraining orders on the companies against which it has filed suit to prevent robocalls.

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So, another attempt to shut down the spammers. Going after the VOIP companies makes a lot of sense: they’re within reach of the DoJ, and it can fine them out of existence, while also terrifying all of the others into refusing such business. Perhaps the UK government could take a hint and do the same.
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Samsung Galaxy Fold review: the future is an ugly disappointment • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo is a long, long way from gruntled:

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that brings us to today—the Ars review. This one is going to be a little different, since I don’t think the Galaxy Fold has any viability as a serious device anyone should consider purchasing. Should you buy a Galaxy Fold? NO! God no. Are you crazy? The sky-high price, durability issues, nascent form factor, and new screen technology should rule the phone out for just about everyone. (Save your bendy tech dreams for Westworld season three.) Rather than a viable product, right now the Fold feels more like a publicly available prototype device that demonstrates an experimental new form factor.

So while you shouldn’t buy the Galaxy Fold, that still doesn’t answer the question, “Is this form factor a good idea?” Let’s put aside the sky-high price—which will, of course, come down over time—and the durability issues—which will hopefully be fixed in the future with the wild concept of “flexible glass” that Corning is hard at work on. Is Samsung’s current vision of a foldable phone a useful improvement? Unfortunately, the answer here is also a firm “no.” During the initial announcement of the phone, Samsung said the device would be “a powerful smartphone and a revolutionary tablet,” and the Fold is remarkably terrible at being either of those things. Samsung may have delayed the phone to put Band-Aids on the show-stopping design problems, but the overall product still shows a lack of thought and consideration for how actual people will want to use a device like this.

The launch of the Galaxy Fold was a disaster, and while Samsung fought through and got to market, that doesn’t mean the disaster is over. I’m still enthusiastic about the idea of a phone that converts into a tablet, but the Galaxy Fold puts on a master class of how not to do it.

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He justifies all his points. And he has many.
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Exclusive: controversial Nike Vaporflys to escape ban but running shoe rules will tighten • The Guardian

Sean Ingle:

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the shoes, which were introduced in 2016, have deeply divided the athletics community, with some supporting the technological arms race as part of an inevitable evolution of the sport – and others warning that it is deeply unfair to athletes who are not sponsored by Nike.

Kipchoge has denied that, saying: “They are fair. I trained hard. Technology is growing and we can’t deny it – we must go with technology.” But the small number of studies conducted on the Vaporflys suggest that, depending on the model and athlete, they can typically improve a person’s running economy by 4-5% – which translates to at least a minute- to 90-second advantage for an elite male runner over 26.2 miles and even more in an average club athlete.

Where that leaves the Nike AlphaFly, the next generation prototype shoes worn by Eliud Kipchoge when he ran the first sub-two hour marathon in October in an unofficial event is unclear. It is understood that these shoes – which are said to contain three carbon plates and improve running economy by 8% – have not yet been submitted to World Athletics experts for inspection.

Even if the AlphaFlys are banned at elite level there will be no restrictions on ordinary athletes buying and wearing them in races when they are released in the shops by Nike.

However the World Athletics working group is understood be stressing there needs to be far more detailed research into the performance benefits of the new wave of shoes – versions of which have also been recently introduced by New Balance, Hoka and Saucony. In particular it wants to establish how the height of the foam stack, the make of foam used, and the angle of the carbon plates can change speed and performance.

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About 25 years ago, javelin aerodynamics were altered to restrict their flight – the best throws were endangering competitors on the far side of the track. Not sure shoes are quite the same.
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Microsoft’s Surface Pro X is the world’s most extravagant Chromebook • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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I’ve been revisiting the Microsoft Surface Pro X ever since the Chromium version of Edge became official — though what I’ve been using is the still-in-Beta version of the browser that runs natively on the Pro X’s ARM chip. My opinion hasn’t changed since November’s review: it’s still an overpriced machine that is nice to look at but frustrating to use because there aren’t enough apps that run natively on its chip.

I just want to make that very clear at the top — that this is not a machine I recommend — before going any further. That’s because what I’m about to say could be misconstrued into buying advice. It is not. Here goes.

The Surface Pro X is the best, most extravagant Chromebook I’ve ever used — except for the pesky facts that it doesn’t run Chrome OS, and I’m not using Chrome on it; I’m using Edge.

What I mean is that I’ve been using the Surface Pro X like I use a Chromebook. I’ve been using web apps for the vast majority of my computing tasks, but every now and then, I’m using a Windows app when I need it. That’s how I use Chrome OS: web for nearly everything, Android in a pinch.

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As long as he doesn’t run the emulator (for x86 apps), things are rosy and it chugs along for hours. But costs $1,700. We’re all sure Apple will shift to ARM; the key metric will be how quickly third-party apps are natively in ARM. (Is that an Xcode/App Store thing?)
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Why The Guardian will no longer accept fossil fuel advertising • The Guardian

Anna Bateson and Hamish Nicklin:

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We have decided that we will no longer accept advertising from fossil fuel extractive companies on any of the Guardian’s websites and apps, nor in the Guardian, Observer and Guardian Weekly in print. Our decision is based on the decades-long efforts by many in that industry to prevent meaningful climate action by governments around the world.

Of course we know some readers would like us to go further, banning ads for any product with a significant carbon footprint, such as cars or holidays. Stopping those ads would be a severe financial blow, and might force us to make significant cuts to Guardian and Observer journalism around the world.

More importantly, fossil fuel extractors are qualitatively different. The intent – and extent – of their lobbying efforts has explicitly harmed the environmental cause over the course of many years – as our own reporting has shown and environmental campaigners have powerfully argued. Many environmental experts have called out the difference between fossil fuel extractors and their foundational role in the carbon economy, and other sectors with high emissions.

Advertising has always been a vital part of how we support Guardian journalism – it made up roughly 40% of our revenues last year – and we hope to continue working with advertisers to keep our journalism open to all.

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Love to know how much advertising that is. Anyhow: your move, Facebook, Google, Microsoft (on Bing), etc.
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Exclusive: the cyber attack the UN tried to keep under wraps • The New Humanitarian

Ben Parker:

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Dozens of UN servers – including systems at its human rights offices, as well as its human resources department – were compromised and some administrator accounts breached, according to a confidential UN report obtained by The New Humanitarian. The breach is one of the largest ever known to have affected the world body.

The cyber attack – unreported until TNH’s investigation – started mid-July, according to the report. Dated 20 September, the report flags vulnerabilities, describes containment efforts, and includes a section titled: “Still counting our casualties”.

The incident amounted to a “major meltdown”, according to a senior UN IT official familiar with the fallout, who spoke to TNH on condition of anonymity. This official provided TNH with the August 2019 alert above and several other alerts related to the breach.

In response to questions from TNH, the UN confirmed it had kept the breach quiet.

“The attack resulted in a compromise of core infrastructure components,” said UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric, who classified it as “serious”. “As the exact nature and scope of the incident could not be determined, [the UN offices in Geneva and Vienna] decided not to publicly disclose the breach.”

Staff were asked to change their passwords, but were not told of the large breach or that some of their personal data may have been compromised. The “core infrastructure” affected included systems for user and password management, system controls, and security firewalls.

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China first in the queue for suspicion. Russia next, I guess. Who’s particularly concerned about the UN’s offices?
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Ring doorbell app packed with third-party trackers • Electronic Frontier Foundation

Bill Budington:

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An investigation by EFF of the Ring doorbell app for Android found it to be packed with third-party trackers sending out a plethora of customers’ personally identifiable information (PII). Four main analytics and marketing companies were discovered to be receiving information such as the names, private IP addresses, mobile network carriers, persistent identifiers, and sensor data on the devices of paying customers.

The danger in sending even small bits of information is that analytics and tracking companies are able to combine these bits together to form a unique picture of the user’s device…

…Ring has exhibited a pattern of behavior that attempts to mitigate exposure to criticism and scrutiny while benefiting from the wide array of customer data available to them…

…Our testing, using Ring for Android version 3.21.1, revealed PII delivery to branch.io, mixpanel.com, appsflyer.com and facebook.com. Facebook, via its Graph API, is alerted when the app is opened and upon device actions such as app deactivation after screen lock due to inactivity. Information delivered to Facebook (even if you don’t have a Facebook account) includes time zone, device model, language preferences, screen resolution, and a unique identifier (anon_id), which persists even when you reset the OS-level advertiser ID.

Branch, which describes itself as a “deep linking” platform, receives a number of unique identifiers (device_fingerprint_id, hardware_id, identity_id) as well as your device’s local IP address, model, screen resolution, and DPI…

…Ring gives MixPanel the most information by far. Users’ full names, email addresses, device information such as OS version and model, whether bluetooth is enabled, and app settings such as the number of locations a user has Ring devices installed in, are all collected and reported to MixPanel.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1233: Facebook pivots off video, the dogs of Trump’s campaign, the trouble with the Fold, who hacked the UN?, and more

  1. The word “sophistication” for the Facebook campaign is likely puffery. But Trump’s media and data-analysis people do have an argument that they’re effective and deliver good value for the money they charge. That’s not a given anywhere, and especially in an area like politics which is rife with grifters and scammers. I’ve heard an argument that it’s not due to any particular acumen on the part of Trump. Rather, it’s that the Republican Party establishment hates him, so all the standard political consultants don’t want to work with him. And these people are in fact highly cost-ineffective, much less so than similar services one could buy “off the shelf”. They only stay in business because of the “nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” effect (i.e. if you have a bunch of money to spend on a campaign, hiring the consultants who worked on the last Party campaigns and are personally well-regarded, is a very safe action). Thus it’s claimed being essentially forced not to hire them is a great advantage!

    I have no idea if this is just a story. But it would be pretty amusing/ironic if it were true.

    • I think it’s going back to what’s really effective for facebook: hardening perspectives that are already there. It’s the same tactic with Fox News. Trump doesn’t need independents to win (he thinks), he just needs to bring out the base instead.

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