Start Up No.1248: Google shifts UK data out of Europe, how the Saudis infiltrated Twitter, Facebook’s minimalist fact check team, and more


An endangered species? That’s the warning from campaigners. CC-licensed photo by Rob Jewitt on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Google users in UK to lose EU data protection – sources • Reuters

Joseph Menn:

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Google is planning to move its British users’ accounts out of the control of European Union privacy regulators, placing them under US jurisdiction instead, sources said.

The shift, prompted by Britain’s exit from the EU, will leave the sensitive personal information of tens of millions with less protection and within easier reach of British law enforcement.

The change was described to Reuters by three people familiar with its plans. Google intends to require its British users to acknowledge new terms of service including the new jurisdiction.

Ireland, where Google and other US tech companies have their European headquarters, is staying in the EU, which has one of the world’s most aggressive data protection rules, the General Data Protection Regulation.

Google has decided to move its British users out of Irish jurisdiction because it is unclear whether Britain will follow GDPR or adopt other rules that could affect the handling of user data, the people said.

If British Google users have their data kept in Ireland, it would be more difficult for British authorities to recover it in criminal investigations.

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That it’s Joseph Menn reporting it suggests that (a) it’s true (b) the source is probably in the US rather than the EU. It’s not great news.
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Big tech to face more requirements in Europe on data sharing, AI • WSJ

Valentina Pop:

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American tech companies will soon need to meet new requirements in the European Union regarding artificial intelligence and sharing data with smaller rivals, as the bloc seeks to assert its “technological sovereignty” from the US and China.

EU regulators unveiled plans Wednesday aimed at placing more restrictions on machine learning-enabled technologies in fields ranging from public surveillance cameras to cancer scans and self-driving cars.

The legislation, to be drafted by the end of 2020, is also likely to home in on what the EU has learned from antitrust cases against Alphabet’s Google and ongoing probes into Amazon.com and Facebook: how these platforms allegedly use data to quash smaller rivals. These technology giants—which some US politicians such as Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren want to regulate as public utilities—are in the firing line of the coming EU legislation.

One remedy under consideration is to oblige platforms to share data with smaller rivals, especially when it comes to consumer behavior regarding the products sold by those competitors.

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Facebook pays third parties to fact check its posts. Here’s how many there are in Australia • Buzzfeed News

Cameron Wilson:

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Some of the biggest news stories in 2020 — Australia’s bushfires, Trump’s impeachment trial, the spread of the coronavirus — have been in part defined by the viral hoaxes, rumours and fake news spread widely on Facebook’s platforms.

The social media giant, which recently boasted of having 2.5 billion monthly active users worldwide who post a billion pieces of content a day, is locked in a constant battle against its users over misinformation. And it acknowledges it has a problem.

One of the company’s major tools in this fight is its third-party fact checking program.

Facebook doesn’t fact check anything itself. Instead, it uses independent companies to review claims made on its platforms. In a program launched in late 2016, the company has 55 partners certified by the International Fact-Checking Network. Facebook does pay companies for the fact checks, although some companies have refused the money.

When a post is found to contain false information by a fact checker, the company labels the post as false, prompts users if they go to share it and claims that it limits the posts’ reach by more than 80%.

Considering nearly a third of Australians get their news from Facebook, these fact checkers play an outsized role in determining what gets seen, and in what context, for the country’s 17 million users.

So just how many people are working on figuring out what’s real or not on Facebook in Australia? Seven.

Between them, they’ve completed 220 fact checks since April 2019 — about one check every one and a half days on average.

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Seven for a continent? It has more than 600 for Germany alone – because Germany passed laws about fake news. Making Facebook act responsibly can be done, but it takes political will.
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How Saudi Arabia Infiltrated Twitter • Buzzfeed News

Alex Kantrowitz, building on the US government filing about last year’s case:

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Abouammo’s seduction by the Saudi government began innocuously: with a verification request. In April 2014, according to the FBI complaint, a public relations firm representing the Saudi Embassy asked Abouammo to verify an account belonging to a Saudi news personality, whom the FBI complaint did not name. This request for a blue checkmark opened the door to a working relationship with the country’s government.

“All evil begins with a verification request,” one of Abouammo’s former colleagues at Twitter joked. After the initial exchange, a representative from a US Saudi Arabian business council in Virginia asked Abouammo to set up a tour at Twitter headquarters. The tour, supposedly for entrepreneurs, reportedly included Bader al-Asaker, an official working for Crown Prince Mohammed, who was then in the middle of a fast ascent to power.

Abouammo and al-Asaker met in London a few months later, according to the complaint. At the meeting, al-Asaker gave Abouammo a Hublot Unico Big Bang King Gold ceramic watch. The watch was expensive. In January 2015, Abouammo tried to sell it on Craigslist, claiming it was worth $35,000, but that he’d take $20,000.

Abouammo was eager to please and had a taste for money, a counterpart at a rival company who knew him told BuzzFeed News. “I think it was an extremely cash-based relationship,” he said.

A week after returning to Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters, Abouammo logged into the system he used to verify users, according to the complaint. That system, sources who’ve accessed it told BuzzFeed News, stores information including email addresses, telephone numbers, and last log-in time — sufficient personal data to track down a user in real life.

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Twitter is real life • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

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the notion that Twitter isn’t real life is untrue. There’s the obvious literal sense. Twitter is a real-world platform and is used by very real humans. Then there’s the notion of tangible impact. Donald Trump’s use of the platform for campaigning and governing and acting as assignment editor to the media is the sterling example, but it goes well beyond that. Ask a journalist who has been fired for an old, dredged-up tweet or a woman or person of color who has been doxxed, swatted or harassed and driven from his or her home if Twitter is real life. They’ll say yes.
Editors’ Picks

There’s also something ineffable about Twitter’s influence, especially as it pertains to politics, around movement building and fandoms. Honest, sustained social media momentum behind candidates does seem to translate into something, even if it’s not clear how much to trust it. Take Andrew Yang. Though his campaign sputtered out last week, he outlasted multiple high-profile governors and senators. His staying power was linked in part to a movement he built across platforms like Twitter. Establishment pundits and politicos shocked by his longevity might have felt different had they engaged with or even observed #YangGang faithful on Twitter.

A better example might be Senator Bernie Sanders, arguably now the Democratic front-runner. The Sanders movement has been criticized for its intensity on Twitter, which infrequently but occasionally veers into toxic territory. And while analysts dissect the particulars of the Sanders online movement, what’s unquestionable is that it exists and is a stand-in for something very real: enthusiasm.

As we’ve seen so far in the Democratic primary, enthusiasm matters.

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This might be the first Charlie Warzel piece that I disagree with. Doing politics on Twitter requires zero effort; it’s a use of cognitive surplus. Getting involved in politics on the ground involves actually getting physically involved.
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A long and windy road • Makani Blog

Fort Felker:

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Makani was founded in 2006 by a group of kitesurfers who were curious about the potential for kites to unlock wind energy in more places around the globe. We started by asking questions: could we make wind energy cheaper and more accessible?

…Makani spent the past seven years at Alphabet, during which time our technology advanced from a 20kW demonstrator kite, to a utility-scale kite capable of generating 600kW. Last year, after leaving X to become an independent business, our focus shifted to becoming commercially viable and with the support of Shell, we were able to demonstrate the first flights of a utility-scale energy kite system from a floating platform off the coast of Norway.

Creating an entirely new kind of wind energy technology means facing business challenges as well as engineering challenges. Despite strong technical progress, the road to commercialization is longer and riskier than hoped, so from today Makani’s time at Alphabet is coming to an end. This doesn’t mean the end of the road for the technology Makani developed, but it does mean that Makani will no longer be an Alphabet company. Shell is exploring options to continue developing Makani’s technology.

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So Google’s out, though the idea seems promising. Feels like they’re running out of moonshots to fire.
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UK cash economy close to collapse, campaigners tell chancellor • The Guardian

Kalyeena Makortoff:

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Authors of the Access to Cash Review are calling for extra safeguards to support the UK’s cash infrastructure, which has come under severe strain in the 12 months since the original report was published last March.

The review warned then that more than 8 million UK adults would struggle to cope in a cashless society, with a significant number still relying on cash for day-to-day transactions.

The group, which is led by the former Financial Ombudsman Service boss Natalie Ceeney, wants parliament to hand extra powers to regulators and introduce rules forcing banks to provide suitable access to cash for customers.

“The UK is fast becoming a cashless society – without knowing what this really means for consumers or for the UK economy,” Ceeney said. “Many people may want a completely digital future, but we need to make sure that this shift doesn’t leave millions behind or put our economy at risk.”

In the past year, 13% of all free-to-use ATMs in the UK have closed and the number of charging ATMs has jumped from 7% to 25%, costing consumers £29m more in fees.

More and more shops are going cashless, as bank branch closures make it harder for retailers to deposit their cash. Major retailers such as Tesco are piloting stores that only accept cards and digital payments, while British Gas announced last year that customers would no longer be able to pay their bills in cash at PayPoint terminals in shops.

“This is already starting to exclude people,” the Access to Cash panel said.

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Quite weird to consider that cash might be vanishing in some places.
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Tesla’s screen saga shows why automotive grade matters • The Drive

Edward Niedermeyer:

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One of the most dramatic illustrations of both the benefits and downsides of Tesla’s approach to automaking comes from its decision to use 17-inch touch screens in its Model S and X. No automaker had ever used a screen even close to as large as the model Tesla used, and it instantly became a symbol of its entire approach to building cars like mobile devices. In the brutally competitive premium car market, the gigantic display became a rare example of a feature that totally differentiates Tesla’s product from even its far newer competitors.

But rarely is the question asked: why haven’t other automakers kept up with Tesla’s competition and installed a similarly massive screen in their cars? After all, if Tesla can buy such a screen from a supplier why can’t Mercedes or Lexus?

…Tesla’s decision to use a large display that wasn’t tested to higher automotive grade standards had fairly predictable results. First the Model S and X screens were plagued by a bizarre problem that was clearly caused by thermal issues: bubbles would form on the sides of the displays and eventually leak a gooey adhesive material into the car’s interior. Tesla appeared to mostly fix this problem with its “cabin overheat protection” feature (which it sold as being to protect dogs and children, despite the fact that it held the temperature at +40C which is about the temperature where a child’s organs will start shutting down) as well as revisions to the Innolux panel. Intriguingly, a blog post at Mentor Graphics suggests that Innolux was struggling with thermal management on a screen for an unspecified “high end automobile,” ultimately concluding that “defining the boundary conditions for Innolux’s system is the responsibility of their customer, not Innolux.”

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This is from May 2019, but still relevant.
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Flywheel will shut down its virtual classes after admitting it illegally copied Peloton • The Verge

Ashley Carman:

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Peloton sued Flywheel in September 2018 over claims that Flywheel copied its tech-infused exercise bike and the concept of at-home streamed classes. Peloton specifically took issue with the way workout metrics were displayed on Flywheel bikes and the fact that live riders could compete against one another, like on Peloton’s platform.

Peloton also claimed a Flywheel investor misrepresented himself to Peloton CEO John Foley at a private conference by posing as a potential investor who was curious about the company’s business plans. Three months after that meeting, Flywheel launched its Fly Anywhere bike. At the time, Flywheel denied the accusation, claiming it had been working on a leaderboard-style competitive class structure years before Peloton’s signature exercise bike launched. However, Flywheel later admitted to infringing on Peloton’s patents. We don’t know the details of the settlement.

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Peloton has patents?
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Donald Trump ‘offered Julian Assange a pardon if he denied Russia link to hack’ • The Guardian

Owen Bowcott:

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Donald Trump offered Julian Assange a pardon if he would say Russia was not involved in leaking Democratic party emails, a court in London has been told.

The extraordinary claim was made at Westminster magistrates court before the opening next week of Assange’s legal battle to block attempts to extradite him to the US.

Assange’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, referred to evidence alleging that the former US Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher had been to see Assange, now 48, while he was still in the Ecuadorian embassy in August 2017.

Assange appeared in court on Wednesday by videolink from Belmarsh prison, wearing dark tracksuit bottoms and a brown jumper over a white shirt.

A statement from Assange’s lawyer Jennifer Robinson shows “Mr Rohrabacher going to see Mr Assange and saying, on instructions from the president, he was offering a pardon or some other way out, if Mr Assange … said Russia had nothing to do with the DNC [Democratic National Committee] leaks”, Fitzgerald told Westminster magistrates court.

District Judge Vanessa Baraitser, who is hearing the case at Westminster, said the evidence is admissible.

White House spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, told reporters: “The president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he’s an ex-congressman. He’s never spoken to him on this subject or almost any subject.”

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Of course dozens of tweets and meetings between Trump and Rohrabacher were then provided as evidence by the internet. Completely believable that Trump would do that. Assange would be an idiot to accept it, though.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1248: Google shifts UK data out of Europe, how the Saudis infiltrated Twitter, Facebook’s minimalist fact check team, and more

  1. I think this is the more informative part of the alleged Assange pardon story:

    “However, when speaking with Julian Assange, I told him that if he could provide me information and evidence about who actually gave him the DNC emails, I would then call on President Trump to pardon him,” Rohrabacher added.”

    Rohrabacher and Assange both know Trump can’t be held to anything. Suppose Assange does what Trump wants, and Trump simply says Rohrabacher was talking out of turn. It’s not like Assange can sue Trump for breach of contract. Per above, Rohrabacher can say Assange misinterpreted him too. And even suppose Rohrabacher did indeed “call on” Trump, then Trump can say no, then what? Heck, Trump could flat-out renege on a direct personal offer if he felt like it, what’s anyone going to do? Moreover, if Trump did pardon Assange, that’s a giant red flag there was a favor done for Trump.

    At best I can believe Rohrabacher dangled a pardon in front of Assange just to see if he’d bite. Maybe even Trump said something about it as a tactic. But I can’t believe any of these people ever thought there was a serious offer in play.

    • Yes, I agree that that’s almost certainly what happened here – and Assange would have been an idiot to go with it. He’s surely had enough offers like that dangled in front of him to know none is trustworthy.

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